Told with great sensitivity and authenticity, Kaiser-Mühlecker unfolds a powerful story about rural life, its archaic and precarious violence, about the meaning of family, and a tender chance for love.
As soon as Jacob stepped into the clear, ice-cold, amber-coloured water, which was barely ankle-high at this point, he spotted the bitch a stone’s throw away, standing with her forelegs splayed out in front of a deep spot, seemingly staring into the water, which was taking on a grey colour similar to that of the silt lying under the topsoil in the wetlands here. Jacob could see the muscles twitching above her withers. Although the sound of the stream was not very loud, more like a gurgle, it was loud enough for her not to hear him. Step by step he made his way through the water darting away beneath him. The stones, polished and covered with algae or moss, felt soft and slippery, and only occasionally did he step on something sharp; he did not always recognise what it was, as the sun’s rays penetrating the canopy or rather the undergrowth made the surface of the water gleam, blinding him and causing him to step more carefully. Landa was only a short distance away. A few metres. He had almost reached her. Two, three breaths. Jacob untied the knot he had made in the lead and took one last step and reached for the bitch, but before he could grab her, something sharp penetrated the sole of his foot with such force that he groaned, and although the pain did not make him stop, the brief delay was enough to allow the bitch jump away to the side. She shook herself as if she knew she had the time, that he was too slow or could not move any faster because his foot hurt and the water was getting deeper, and so she ran on as if nothing had happened, as if he had not just ordered her to come to him with a sharp command.
‘Damned bitch,’ Jacob hissed and pulled his foot up and looked at the sole; bright red blood, thin, thin as the water with which it was merging, was oozing from the ball of his foot right under the big toe. ‘You stupid bloody bitch. I’ll kill you.’
He knotted the lead in front of his belly and ran up the creek with hardly a thought for his feet, which were growing more and more numb from the coldness of the water. He ran and ran. Shouted her name again and again. It was a hunt that he had lost from the outset, a hunt in which the hunter never once got to see the hunted, a hunt that he did not give up, could not give up. It took him a long time to admit to himself that it was pointless to keep running, to keep limping along, because he would not catch up with her or track her down, and then he gave up. He was hoarse and bruised, bruised and hoarse. There was no sign of the bitch. Jacob climbed out of the stream and took the road back. He walked as if he had logs tied to his feet. As if he had no toes. He walked like a penguin. Every now and again someone came towards him, someone overtook him, a few times a car tooted at him; each time he just raised his chin a little or, with those coming from behind, his hand, not even paying any attention to who it was.
When he arrived home, his boxers were still wet and stuck to him. His feet and legs ached and were numb at the same time: likewise his cock – all he could feel was a dull pulsing inside it. The front door stood open as before, just as he had left it. His mother and father were sitting in the kitchen having breakfast; piano music was playing on the radio, clinking tinnily like everything that came out of that box, and two mosquitoes were sitting on the plastic crucifix on the wall.
He went into the boiler room, put the mug – the John Deere mug, his favourite – with the lukewarm, too weak coffee on the stepladder, took off his boxers and hung them on the clothes rack. He pulled his knees up a few times and felt a little better afterwards. He took dry underwear and a pair of trousers from the rack and got dressed. His socks were hanging over his wellies; he took them, plucked off a few bits of straw and slipped them over his still numb feet. His toes were white, as if dead; when he touched them, he felt nothing. Then he stepped into his boots and reached for the dust mask. He took the ear defenders with the built-in radio from the hook, turned one of the two small dials and put the defenders on. The seven o’clock news was on; he turned it down a little; there was still no mention of anything else but the plague. He reached for the mug and left the boiler room; taking a sip every few steps, he went into the stable. For a moment he had even forgotten about Landa, but when he put down the empty black mug with its image of a yellow, leaping deer in a green field, just anywhere, as always, he remembered that the bitch was not in her place at his side and, in the next few hours, while he finally began to feel his feet again, he kept looking out for her. It wasn’t until eleven that she suddenly returned, and if she had appeared sooner, Jacob would have been furious and would have roared at her and maybe even given her a belting; but after all those hours, he had passed that point, and so he pressed his lips together and said nothing, only beckoned her towards him and stroked her, the suddenly obedient creature, on her head.
‘Yes, Landa. Yes.’
Landa looked at him, narrowed her eyes and, when he stopped stroking her, moved away from him and stretched out in the shade, no longer lifting her head. Jacob followed her, crouched down beside her and stroked her some more. He saw dried blood on her front paws and thought of his own foot: a deep cut across the ball of his foot that didn’t hurt.
‘Did you hurt yourself too, Landa?’
But even before he saw that she had blood on her flank, he knew that it wasn’t hers.[…]
The nights were long, still. They gained what seemed to be excess length from the empty days that seemed squeezed out, that brought hardly any light, only a few hours of twilight. At night, it froze, during the day it thawed again; earth, dirt, dead grass, decaying leaves and small and large stones that stuck to your boots. In the mornings, wisps of mist often hovered motionless over the pools that had formed on the trampled pasture; never anything with any substance; always just wisps. Apples still hung on some of the trees, red-black and shrivelled. Where it hadn’t been mowed again in autumn, the grass lay pale yellow, as if it had fallen over itself, on the dark, wet ground.
Night. No moon. No stars. It had to be about half past one. The hour of the ox. That was the name of that time of night in Japan. That’s what they said. Yes, it was all connected. The young cow that had suddenly started limping had been standing next to the ox. Yes. And his breath, too, in the glow of the headlamp that had been fading for days, was thick and heavy like the steam that rose from the damp muzzle of an ox. Or like the smoke from his grandfather’s pipe. The motorway roared louder than ever, and you could even hear the whirring of electricity in the high-voltage line. Jacob thought about how he had never consciously been aware of these sounds before he had been in the army, and how they had almost driven him mad when he returned.
He had often thought he would go mad because it just never got quiet. Each lorry was followed by the next, announcing itself long before the roar of the bridge with a hum of an unbearable frequency, almost a screech. Then there had been phases when the noise had bothered him less. Lately, however, he had been wearing his ear defenders more often. When the radio was on, it was harder to concentrate at work, but for some activities it didn’t matter and he liked listening to those pleasant voices and at the same time not listening, to understand and at the same time not understand; his thoughts, his perceptions and these voices merged together and became a kind of music, or a kind of language that only he understood in which everything could be said, in which everything was said, a world that existed nowhere else and to which only he had access and which had become more and more of a refuge to him over the years. It was a bit like a dream, because you couldn’t really speak about that either; if you did, the dream disappeared, or what constituted it: the feeling you had experienced. Certain similarities, somehow, and yet it was completely different. A few times he had tried to tell Katja about it, but she had never said anything about it, but had looked at him a little strangely instead; that was when he had understood that he couldn’t make anyone understand these feelings – and that he wasn’t allowed to, either, if he wanted to keep them.
Jacob’s senses were hyper-acute, even more acute than normal, but on the other hand he felt numb. He glanced over his shoulder. No light could be seen in the house. Even Luisa was asleep at half past one. And Marlon always slept through the night anyway. A great boy. Jacob’s pride and joy, who meant everything to him and for whom he would have given his life without thinking about it. At the same time, he didn’t think about him often; he often forgot him; sometimes he didn’t even notice him when he was next to him. Carefully, so as not to make a noise, he opened the gate to the workshop,
‘It’s me,’ he said unnecessarily; he said it in a hushed voice.
As usual, Axel only briefly raised his head. Jacob stepped over to him, squatted down and stroked him. Somehow, he wanted to say something to him, but nothing came; he patted him a few times. How thick his fur had become.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘yes, Axel.’
Then he straightened up and went to the back. The sky-blue tow rope with the galvanised carabiner hung from the hook from which the chains for the woodwork and also a few thinner ones that were still there from the cowshed were also hanging. He took it down and threw it over his shoulder, grabbed the stepladder and walked with it into the middle of the workshop. He unfolded the ladder and adjusted it. It was a good ladder. Sturdy. And it was high. Suddenly, from somewhere, the sound of a moped. Who was that so late? He recognised some by the sound, but it wasn’t one of the ones he knew. He climbed the ladder and put the rope over the pulley hanging from the ceiling and tried to see if the wheel would move freely. Yes, it did. It did not squeak. He climbed down and folded the ladder. The tinny clang. He carried it back to its place. Leaned it against the wall. Then he took off his jacket and laid it on the workbench. Rolling up his sleeves, he walked over to Axel, untied him and stepped back underneath the pulley.
‘Come, Axel,’ he said quietly.
The dog raised its head, then it quickly got up, shook and stretched itself and came. The lead dragged across the ground like a snake.
Jacob crouched down and stroked him, hugged him; the dog stood still.
‘Axel,’ he said. ‘Axel.’
Without stopping his stroking, he took the end of the dog’s lead, slowly stood up, reached for the carabiner dangling above him and hooked the lead in it; then he reached for the other end of the rope and pulled on it, putting one hand in front of the other, and it almost felt like when he used to milk the cows by hand. He did it slowly so as not to frighten the dog, but the moment the rope tightened and began to pull on him, Axel resisted and braced himself. Even though it was harder now, Jacob continued to pull relentlessly. Axel jerked his head back and forth, trying to free himself from the noose the collar had become. As if he understood what was happening here, that someone who looked and smelled and sounded like his master but could not be his master was about to strangle him, he jumped at Jacob and snatched at his arm, but did not get hold of it; Jacob had pulled back in time. But somehow the dog had caught him after all; there were bite marks, scratches that immediately began to bleed. Still, Jacob felt nothing but a brief burning in the tense muscles of his forearm; quickly he pulled up the animal, which shook the rope so much that Jacob feared it might jump out of the guide. He stopped pulling and tied the rope to the vice. The dog, which had been almost silent until then, now howled and, without thinking, Jacob grabbed it by the hind legs and pulled on it, hanging on to it with all his weight. Almost immediately, the yelp died down. Jacob, his hands in front of his face, eyes closed, knees just barely above the ground, almost like a supplicant. The trembling of the animal’s body shook him, and there was a choking in his throat as if the noose was tightening around his neck too. Again he thought he heard a moped, and again it was gone a moment later. Like before. Exactly the same sound as before. Where was it coming from? Could it just be in his head? And it was also the same hour as before. This has nothing to do with then, he told himself. It is different. It has nothing to do with then. You can’t walk through water without getting your feet wet. Wasn’t that exactly what they had said on the radio today, weren’t those exactly the words he had been looking for and hadn’t found for himself, words that helped him and guided him and, it seemed to him, in a way also absolved him? You can’t walk through water … no, you can’t. The old life has to end, and this was the last thing left to do. At last the twitching grew less; it finally stopped altogether. Jacob let go of the limp hind legs. Sank to his knees. Took some deep breaths. Then he got up and walked over to Axel’s place, picked up the blanket the dog had been lying on, pulled it over to the carcass and spread it out. You could still see the reddish-brown spots from the lice that Landa had once struggled with. He released the rope from the vice and lowered the carcass. He untied the rope from the lead and loosened the collar with a jerk as if he didn’t want the dog to be strangled any further. A final, horrible sound came from the carcass: the air escaping the body; then it was as silent as before.
From Reinhard Kaiser-Mühlacker, Wilderer. © 2022 by S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Hedderichstr. 114, D-60596 Frankfurt am Main