Author: Sarah Kirsch
Translator: Angela Hirons
I usually rise so early that the radio station I listen to is still silent. Outside in winter I see tiered cowshed lights, and always on cue, a bead of light in the lower right corner of the right window, which slowly and searchingly moves into the middle-left square of the left window, as if on-screen, before suddenly disappearing. In summer I have a view of cows and sheep in the various paddocks and on the dyke, unless they’re concealed by fog. Later, after the coffee machine has done its work, I listen with one ear to the shipping forecast. A worthwhile activity for coastal inhabitants because we know first-hand what it means to bear the brunt of hail, storms, the lashing whip of the sun – plus, we can pinpoint most of the places where the final readings are made at 3 am. Towards the end of the information on wind, temperature and air pressure, the film reel in my mind is invariably set in motion: I hear Mariehamn, west four, fog, one degree, one thousand and nine hectopascals. It’s here I came ashore for three days – Mariehamn is the capital of the Åland Islands, on the border between the Gulf of Bothnia and the Baltic Sea. Arriving and leaving in summer fog, the strange enchantment of a place like that makes you wonder whether you were ever there, and if it’s somewhere you might ever find again. Back then I walked along the Nørre Esplanadgaten, a sixfold Lindenallee, when I saw a big Old English sheepdog with a tiny, old grey lady on a lead that could extend and retract. The pale grey fog blotted her out, blossom-like, which is probably why she appeared here this morning, bound to the place name of her abode. It began harmlessly enough – after my trip, which incidentally took me further afield and to some spectacular cities, I happened to catch the shipping forecast as usual, and close to the end, the place name Mariehamn, at which point the speaker always struggles to articulate the last two consonants – then came the ensuing drama: the entrance of the dog and the old lady. One thousand and nine hectopascals. The sheepdog lies in the hall and awaits the start of a new day. His mistress, if you will, has risen and already brewed herself a Koffie, much like me. The sheepdog gets a dog biscuit as she steps over him there in front of the kitchen door, his head already over the threshold – no, his mistress, if that’s what she is, tosses half a teaspoon of cocoa into her coffee pot. She’s a sophisticated one. Oh, and she adds a pinch of salt in there too. Just today? Or does she always do it? We still don’t know each other that well. A dusting of fog surely hangs outside her windows, and hooded crows descend, cloak-like, as they did when I saw them there. The old lady sits in the kitchen with her Koffie and reads from the newspaper that’s bundled up on the floor ready for the rubbish. She reads the paper upside down. Including a sentence about the GDR. Where’s that then? Far south. A Nazi land. She knows Göthe, of course. The little birds in the wood. She knows them better still. Wrens in the blackberry vines. Swarms of snowfinches in the city park at this time of year. The peacocks I saw in summer have been rounded up. By the park wardens. They’re housed in a tall aviary through the winter. The sheepdog, who goes by the name Lasse, gets up now. It’s time to fetch milk. Come on old boy, let’s go! But what you need to know is that our spinster is aware of more than she lets on. For instance, she read Arno Schmidt in the original a few years ago. You wouldn’t guess it offhand. It begs the question from whence the language knows her. Islanders are at home with languages. Learned during the war. Earlier on. Before there were any distractions. A book was always a challenge or an adventure. Someone lightened the load of their suitcase in ‘44. What books did I get passed on to me? Strangely enough, Palisade’s Island and Jeremias Gotthelf’s The Black Spider. And yes, Krambambuli by Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, in an army postal service edition. The books helped during a dangerous winter. Dangerous in a personal sense. But come on now, Lasse, it’s all such a long time ago and doesn’t mean much anymore. People, pah! I’m not bitter. I’m going for a walk. That’s how my old lady started out life in my notebook. Mornings came and went; the shipping forecast brought her back to me. There was always something happening there, a bit like here behind the dyke. In February I jotted down, pen flying: my humans are still asleep, apart from the cats. The shipping forecast. Let’s see what’s going on in Mariehamn. South three, rain, three degrees, one thousand and two hectopascals. I could really picture it too. One thousand and two hectopascals where the old lady is – that’s a bit much, and just when the decorating’s underway, as it is here. Everything’s on hold because the weekend has disrupted her workman’s plans. She went to school with him sixty years ago. He still has two days’ work to do, then he wants to prime and paint her boat. A nice friendly black on the outside this time. And waxed on the inside. The sheepdog looks a touch grey from the workman’s dust. He shakes himself, wants to go for a walk. It’s high time now, just before seven. But it’s raining heavily. My old lady sets her reading glasses to one side, drinks her Koffie. Gösta, she says to the dog, since that’s his name, not Lasse – I misheard. So she says: Gösta, only half an hour mind, and not on the cliffs. Come on then! Oh no, a button’s come off. I’ll put it here on the dresser; will you remind me? Now they go, and the door slams shut. The stripped lime trees hang full of crystals, a phantastic image, the rain fine and the wind barely a whisper. They turn a corner and I lose them from sight, from sense. Because I’m watching the peacocks and wondering if they’re coping with the climate here. But winter will soon be over. True – in T. I need to check whether the tortoise is still sleeping. Think on it when the days get lighter. We both have things to do. This one later finds in her notes: 1st March. Every morning I look to see if the trees are still there. The dead ones too. Shipping forecast. Storm front, intensifying over Jutland. I want to hear about Mariehamn and be able to imagine it. North one, minus three, nine hundred and seventy-three. Very interesting. The sheepdog goes skidding down the garden steps with our old lady. Gösta, watch where you’re going! she says, and him: you need to cut my eyes free again! We’ll do it as soon as we get back. But use the curved nail scissors, I prefer those. You can keep your eyes shut. I’ll be careful. You just need to trust me and stay still, no twitching. Easier said than done, grumbles the sheepdog. But the sky they’re walking under looks black, and two unsettling, white weather trees are unfurling in it. Sky theatre. The old lady’s tormenting me. I only have to hear the name Mariehamn in the shipping forecast and she’s standing there, or Gösta is. I’ve had enough. I turn the dial again quickly when the shipping forecast is announced. I want to be free again! She needs to disappear, along with her mangy dog that doesn’t even have a proper tail, that’s what it’s come to…. What’s complicated about the whole thing is that because I’ve seen her in person – the little grey dear, my old lady – I keep thinking she exists by my design, and that’s why she can’t be killed off like any old made-up character you might find in a popular novel. And damn it, love plays a part too! I’ve vowed to let her die and to give her the best send-off. I know the cemetery, and the Saltvik-Kirka with the pale blue benches. But what will I do about Gösta? He’ll lie on the grave and howl for evermore.
From Sarah Kirsch, Schwingrasen, DVA/ Penguin Random House, 1991.