Residual Warmth

By Kerstin Preiwuß

Translation Bradley Schmidt

He only feels sorry for them in summer. Made for soft soil, their paws scrape on the wire, their fur, thick and oily for life in a damp habitat, cinches ever tighter and dries them out till they suffocate. Then they drop like flies, and when he goes along the cages he can reach in and gather them up, one after the other. There they lie, paws protruding as far through the mesh as their webbing allows, no longer trembling. Then it really gets to father, so many of them all at once, it moves him, no one is immune, the fur can’t even be used. They’d have to be kept moist, three baths daily, but that would take too much time and water and energy, after all there’ll be more to come. He mates the survivors together in the next rut, and then the females whelp and give birth to new mink, and everything starts anew, for seven, eight months, till the pelts have formed, then he grabs them by the neck with forceps and places them on a table, pulls them apart, inserts an iron rod into the rectum, forces a metal ring into the snout and holds them down till the current courses through. They immediately stretch out and are dead within about a minute.

But it’s inefficient, just one at a time, and watching them die starts to get to you. It’s better to do it with gas, put twenty or more into a box and pipe in exhaust fumes so the fur isn’t damaged. No bullet holes or knife wounds, just gas. Gas silently entering the nostrils and after about fifteen minutes making the bodies suddenly go limp, so he can get them out with a shovel later, so many in one fell swoop. Then the bodies lie there on the duckboard as if mowed down, and there are droppings on the ground. Then they are only pelts that are pulled from the warm bodies, till every mink looks like a naked mole rat. The skin is white under the fur and the faces are blind since ears, eyelids and noses come off with the pelt. There’s hardly anything left in the end. The pelt is stretched on a board, paws and tail stuffed with paper, and placed in a well-ventilated room to dry. Then they are sent off and processed into something greater. No more outlines to be seen, their bodies disappear into the folds of a coat, and some woman will soon run her hands over it. Her fine leather gloves are so thin that any mink could mangle her fingers, but she only feels the warming fur, light as a feather, its tips trembling.

So it continues for months and years on end, and no one lays eyes on the pelts, the fur immediately delivered to the furrier and then off to the trade fair in Leipzig, where it is sold abroad. Father once saw a brochure advertising mink pelts, finest quality made in GDR.

It affects father, it afflicts him, he can’t get rid of the smell hanging over the farm like a pall, death lurking in every smell of wild animal, and sometimes the trembling of the mink transfers to his hands and he wishes he had a different job. But he ended up here and can be grateful for it. After the war he helped dig graves in the cemetery, so many of them, big and small, for the men and women and children who had hanged themselves, walked into the lake, or died of tuberculosis. That and the ashes given to the roads department were too much for him, there had been enough of that in the years before. So he trained as an agricultural inspector, where you only had to test the grain for pest infestation. But that was right on the border and he was never at home, and you have to watch out, your manners deteriorate when you’re so far away from your wife and children. You bunk together in a bungalow, four to a room, and sometimes the empty bottles roll over the floor in the evening, what with the memories, they all had their crosses to bear. I could tell you stories that would open your eyes and make your jaw drop. When we advanced through the Pontic steppe on our way to the Crimea we spotted horses, camels, and antelopes in the distance. In the middle of the steppe the road took us past a Garden of Eden with a zoo and a botanical garden. It had been the brainchild of a German prince. Now, everything had been abandoned and all the Germans were gone, save for a cross for an old lady, the mother of the prince most likely, whom people said the Soviets had shot in her own home. As we marched on we encountered German houses with pointed roofs and white Ukrainian huts thatched with straw. We burned the huts to the ground. Beforehand we watched movies of naked-legged dancing girls.

But it’s better to sit together and drink and say nothing at all, there’s enough solidarity, that also warms you up, and look at this, a bullet made that hole, I was never so good with my left hand, but it was worth it, I got away from the front.

The images he goes to bed with pack a punch. That’s why father sometimes has to get up at night. Then he’s drawn to the shed where the seed is stored in sacks. He’s not quite himself anymore, but strong as an ox, and the juices boil up inside him, and from his belly the rage floods his veins and climbs up the ladder of his nerves till it transforms his head into a seething cauldron. And if ever he’s a man, then now, and it’s war, whether these sacks know it or not, and he takes what he needs. Then his arteries suddenly contract, causing the blood to halt briefly before spurting again, and all the brown sap runs backwards from his brain through his veins, till everything that finds a way in also finds a way out, like the people chased into the house; and the human torches are red, they lick the windows from the inside, and when a torch escapes the house he chases it back in, the rooster crowing from the roof is red, the faces of his buddies forming a semicircle around the house are red, the flames that suddenly resemble women’s faces are red and want to entice him inside with their high voices, till all at once the women’s voices become a shrill note and he presses his hands against his temples so that it all stops, as if eels had crept inside his head and bitten each other, electric eels with their current now surging, and the blood flowing out of everyone’s body flows red, and the color of love is red, just like rage, and in the end only death is black, night becomes black after the fire dies down, the charred bodies the next day are black, but the teeth stay white, and what gushes out of him during the fire is white, in the end the hand he holds in front of his body and then cleanly pierces with a bullet is white, a wound that can be considered a war injury. And finally the pressure subsides, and he sees that he’s leaning against one of the sacks in the shed he’d thrust against, and how you can lose control of yourself. Then the shame comes and won’t let him go. The shame always comes afterwards, and stays. It stokes his rage till it boils over and the eels bite their way through his brain and his entire body trembles, and it’s a formula that applies to his entire life. While his brain is being shredded, lust and rage begin to mix inextricably, so that he doesn’t know why he senses lust when he is furious, and always has to slip into a rage to feel lust, and this secret feeling of himself as a man bleeds into everything else, and from then on rage and lust and shame form a calamitous chain reaction.

The only thing that helps him deal with the tremors is drinking. It does something to his blood, makes it thinner, circulating through his head and lungs and back through his body, making it easier for him to breath despite the pressure falling over him like blight, the worst thing that could possibly afflict a plant. When there’s blight on plants, everything has to be gassed, the entire harvest. And due to his skill at gassing things, father was able to get a different job and has worked on the farm since then. But he can’t get rid of the blight, and he also brought the tremors back with him, and that’s why he often comes late to supper, stopping here and there for a drink, schnapps or brandy, till it starts to boil over, till the mink come back from the dead and bite into their own fur, sporting whiskers electrically charged with booze. Then the purple cloud runs riot through his brain, then he’s filled with rage, and maybe his wife has started something while he works hard all day for the meager pay, maybe she’ll saddle him with a mailman’s child.

She still acts as if she had no idea that it already shows, but he sure can see it. Supper is waiting in the kitchen, the children are already in bed. He knows that she secretly despises him. How he would love to just bring her a couple pelts so she could see what he does, but it’s all earmarked for production, it all goes abroad, regardless of whether to fellow socialist or capitalist countries, and then she must consider him a weakling who can’t even bring his wife something home from work like everyone else does, sausage or wood or screws from the factory, and that is why he’s not a man in her eyes. So he’ll slap her around, putting her in her place before mounting her, and only later does he come to his senses and see his wife beneath him, staring at the ceiling. It doesn’t get any lonelier than this, but he doesn’t tell her that, just rolls to the side and gives her the covers. It’s important she knows he stands his ground like a man.

From Restwärme © Berlin Verlag, 2014