Translation Zaia Alexander
Jäckel felt a rumble. It was still at a safe distance, like a summer storm that signals its arrival with lightning and warning shots at the horizon, but it could break any moment. Jäckel gazed across the seminar room and counted three students fast asleep, two valiantly battling Morpheus’ embrace, while five more stared out the window and counted sheep. At least silence reigned: cell phones were set to vibrate and iPod-wires so cleverly hidden in jackets, scarves and hair that they couldn’t be seen. Contrary to popular belief, today’s students weren’t so dumb after all. But neither was Jäckel, or “Dr. Jay,” as his students liked to call him. And today his senses were sharper than ever.
Through closed double windows Jäckel heard the Ammer flowing five floors below, more than a hundred meters behind the seminar building. He smelled blood from the slaughterhouse across the creek, even though the business had closed years ago, and the name “Slaughterhouse” now referred to a bar and club admired by first-year students for its existentialist, minimalist décor – white tiled walls, a metal slaughtering block for the counter, light bulbs hanging on meat hooks. And he could have told the “out-the-window-gazers”: 42. That’s how many sheep were grazing on the Österberg. At least, that’s how many had been there that morning when Jäckel went jogging. How did he arrive at that number? Jäckel couldn’t have said how, he hadn’t counted the sheep. He simply knew it. On the other hand, he didn’t know whether that had anything to do with the bite. A movement tore Jäckel from his thoughts, a twitch in the front row: the seminar’s great last hope, off to the realm of dreams. Again, Jäckel heard the rumble; it came from his chest.
He could understand falling asleep while reading a Faulkner novel: even he had spent some of his best naps in his office sprawled across a worn-out, saliva-stained edition of As I Lay Dying – a novel he’d secretly christened As I Lay Sleeping. And should he be unable to fall asleep at night, he kept a copy of Absalom, Absalom! on the night table, along with a small bottle of Codeine that his friend, a medicine professor, had gotten him without prescription. Jäckel liked to pontificate to his colleagues that great writers were like surgeons dissecting their era – but Faulkner was an anesthetist. That someone could fall asleep reading Faulkner, sure, who wouldn’t? But to fall asleep during his seminar on Faulkner, that was absolutely unacceptable. Particularly while he was lecturing on a topic to which he’d dedicated seven years of his academic career; seven grueling, Codeine-impregnated years, which had borne a more than thousand-page study entitled: “I am Whatever You Say I Am: Identity and Mimicry in the US-American Novel of the 19th and 20th Century” – nearly two years later, it was still waiting to be published.
The topic of Jäckel’s lecture was “passing” – a phenomenon described in countless novels of the early 20th century and on pages 560 to 789 of his dissertation: the attempt by light-skinned African-Americans to pass themselves off as white, in order to survive within racist American society. Passing in the sense of: “pretending to be somebody else”, explained Jäckel: But also in the sense of “to pass away” – this idiom was perhaps familiar to the students. Right? Yes, please, in the back. An idiom? Well, that’s what we call…
That’s how, for nearly an hour and a half, Jäckel spoke to his pleasantly passing-out audience; and when he finally got to the point that especially interested him – in fact, the very reason he’d even dealt with Faulkner at all – his voice was nothing more than a hoarse bark. A most impressive example of passing, he explained hoarsely while pacing between the seminar room’s front window and door, could be found in Faulkner’s 1932 novel Light in August. Was the protagonist of the book – the restless wanderer, spirits distiller and murderer named Joe Christmas – black or white? Joe’s mother died giving birth to him; his father was murdered right after he had gotten her pregnant – nobody knew him, maybe he was an African-American, maybe a Mexican, maybe he was a white man with a dark tan. Who or what his son, the orphaned Joe, was, nobody knew for sure, not even Joe himself – but that, said Jäckel, didn’t really matter. What mattered was what he was taken for: he was born a blank page, he found work in a saw-mill as a white man, a lover as a black man, and he was ultimately lynched as a man without ethnicity.
Like an animal! barked Jäckel and pounded the desk with his right hand, a drum beat, a roll of thunder, no, an attempt to regain his audience’s attention – and, indeed, it worked! Jäckel paused a moment and joyously scanned the room: the desks arranged in horseshoe form, the students behind them; most of them would never make it to the exam, but for that moment they were all there, straining to attention, furtively jabbing each other with a foot or elbow, cell phone keys that had been operated below the desk now quickly stashed away, ear phones swiftly plucked from the ear with a tug of the cable like a bathtub plug, any moment, thought Jäckel, the whole room is going to run out.
He wanted to laugh, but a growl erupted from his throat, dark, deep. He smelled blood, warm, very close. He took a step back and leaned against the chalkboard, 24 pairs of eyes watching him – or, to be more exact, his right hand. Jäckel checked it with his left hand and caught the end of the loosened bandage. He felt the burning again – the pulse beat in his palm as though his heart were making its way outside. He felt his sleeve sticking to his skin, felt the warm stream running down his arm from palm to elbow, then trickling onto the ground. Like a summer rain, thought Jäckel. The rumble in him had proved right after all. The thunderstorm broke.
And yet the day had begun with unfailing monotony. As usual, the sound of the alarm-clock woke Jäckel at seven thirty – an exact replica of the English Parliament announcing the day with the strokes of Big Ben and lending him a certain feeling of lofty nobility. Every morning, as usual, he kissed his wife just a hair’s length to the side of her mouth, and thought of Shakespeare: Get you gone, you dwarf; you minimus, of hindering knot-grass made; you bead, you acorn. It wasn’t meant personally, it was just an association, perfectly normal for academics in literature. Then he forced himself into a pair of jogging pants and sports-shoes to rinse the previous night from his pores. The aromas of sleep were deeply repugnant to him, the way that night in general had something indecent about it, dirty, to be gotten rid of without delay, so he could start the day with a clean slate. He left the house at seven forty. Ten minutes later, he saw the sheep.
They must have just been brought to pasture; anyhow, Jäckel could not remember having seen them on the previous day’s round. No shepherd far and wide. Strange. Jäckel stopped in his tracks. Not that he understood anything about sheep farming; animals, particularly those in the fields and meadows, didn’t mean a thing to him, they were nothing but accessories to the landscape – not annoying, but not necessary either, like children, tie-pins, or the adverbs that he always crossed out on his students’ essays. Why Jäckel interrupted his morning routine to watch this conglomeration of senseless wool was a mystery at this moment, even to him. That the sight of bobbing lamb-tails brought tears of emotion to his eyes – he first tried to pass them off as drops of sweat, but he’d only just gotten started running – seemed downright reprehensible to him. That, on top of it all, he even squatted to pet the herding-dog, this was totally and completely inexplicable – especially since he wasn’t even sure if he was the herding-dog at all, he had appeared out of nowhere and run full-speed towards Jäckel. Maybe he reminded him of his first and only pet: Heino, a dwarf rabbit, which owed his name to the color of his skin and his eyes. Maybe it was the rabbit’s fault that, as a rule, Jäckel considered albinos harmless. That the pink-red eyes of the dog seemed familiar and trustworthy; that he had tried to pet him, and thus was now running with a bloody hand down the stairway of the Modern Philology Department, past students who greeted him shyly, the right hand pressed to his body under the jacket – he had disposed of the bloody bandage in the next best toilet.
Jäckel left the building through the back door. As soon as he closed the door to the concrete block behind him, he started to calm down. With thankful, greedy gasps, he smelled the warm weight of the evening air; only occasionally did gusts of wind graze the treetops. A blanket of clouds, like a wolf’s skin, evenly covered a sky that had been blue a moment ago. Jäckel walked doggedly towards the bridge.
Three of his colleagues, happy as clams, were heading towards the outdoor Greek restaurant from the parking lot. Jäckel had caught their scent even before he could see them; they were just about to turn around the corner of the building. Purposefully he climbed over the railing that separated the footpath from the creek, ran down the bank and took a running leap over the Ammer. When he landed, he had to support himself with his injured hand, and a blade of grass cut deep into his flesh. Jäckel sucked in air through clenched teeth. He heard three pairs of legs and ducked under the shade of the bridge. The echo of words, incomprehensible, then laughter and a thunderclap. Again, silence; the steps faded in the distance.
Jäckel crept up to the edge of the creek. He desperately needed to wash out the wound, rinse off the dirt; he bent over the water. Just then, he saw the dog again. He stared at him impatiently, panting, with drooling flews and lolling tongue, as if it had been waiting all day for Jäckel at the bottom of the creek. Despite the twilight, there could be no doubt: Jäckel recognized the eyes, like pennies on the eyelids of the dead; they shone in the water’s black mirror. He extended his hand to pet the dog on its damp muzzle – this time the dog didn’t bite, instead, it disappeared into a procession of small waves. The coolness did Jäckel good; he hummed contentedly as he dipped his throbbing hand into the water. Only a clap of thunder reminded him again of his task.
The first drops of rain were sprinkling the asphalt as Jäckel rushed past the slaughterhouse and turned left into a path through the heath. The path rose, got steeper, again Jäckel felt his hand pulsating, like clockwork growing faster, as if all that propelled him were the wound. The sweetish smell it emitted was overwhelming; Jäckel had to dip his nose into the open flesh. He sniffed, breathed in the blood, the liquid oozed viscous down his palate. Jäckel coughed, swallowed, licked his lips, then he greedily covered the wound with his mouth.
When he reached the open field a little later, he was drenched. He stopped, shook his head and torso and looked around: aside from him, there was nobody around; the city lay on the other side of the valley as if plasticized, the wet bricks on the rooftops lit matt with each flash of lightning. He turned again towards the Österberg. Just a few hundred meters from him, in the downwind of a hollow, something white was moving.
Jäckel emitted a hoarse cry and ran towards the herd. When he got near, he was able to make out the individual animals: A lamb pressed against its mother; a yearling bleated at him and began to flee uphill; three older sheep eyed him with distrust, but without any sign of fear. Instinctively, Jäckel circled the herd, once, twice, in ever narrower loops, until all of the animals stood together and he was sure that none of them was missing. Once satisfied, he stopped a few feet from the herd. He raised his nose in the air, scanned the area, then dropped slowly to his knees. He turned twice in a circle and lay down on his belly, stretched lengthwise, his head resting on his folded hands.
The next morning, on their way to class, three students found him in this posture. He was lying there in the meadow, like a dead man, they said to anyone who’d listen that night in the Slaughterhouse, covered in blood and motionless, like, it was just totally wrong. He looked like a gypsy, the two policemen added to the protocol after they had taken Jäckel to the station, fingerprinted and photographed him; like a dirty bum, said his wife, and what will the neighbors say? And the local newspaper? How embarrassing. But Jäckel didn’t care what people thought of him. They could say whatever they wanted. He knew who he was.