Translation Ingrid G. Lansford
After Luise died, Albert couldn’t stand having anyone near him. His two sisters, whispering in the little kitchen while making coffee and arranging pieces of cake on plates for the funeral guests, seemed like intruders to him. He’d left the kitchen and sat down at the table with friends and neighbors without a word or a glance for anyone. Everyone excused him because he had just been widowed. There he sat among them like the child he had been when his parents entertained guests on Sundays and he had to stay home. He said to himself again and again, Let them go away, let it soon be over. He didn’t hear what they told him with their goodbyes, but patiently endured their touch, their hands on his shoulders, on his head, or under his chin. This will be over soon, he told himself. They mean to comfort you, so you mustn’t shake them off. Luise would never have wanted him to do that. Luise, who was so careful not to hurt anyone. She had treated even the wasps she caught in a dust cloth with consideration, freeing them outdoors.
Once, when their love was just beginning, in the dirty little room above the Greek restaurant, she wouldn’t let him stomp on the large cockroach that had crawled out from under their mattress. “I wouldn’t have wanted to sleep with you afterward,” she said as though he’d almost committed murder. It would have been murder to her. In the bus to San Cristóbal he had merely averted his eyes when the Indio with the pair of ugly spined lizards had struggled past them. He carried the lizards by their linked tails, and they struck against each other in the jam, hissing and twitching. Her face distorted, Luise bent forward for a better look at the animals. Assuming that she was utterly revolted by them, he had asked her if they should get off the bus. But Luise hadn’t even listened to him. She’d wedged herself by him, and he had observed her shouting and gesticulating among the people looking for seats and stowing their bags and bundles. She came back red in the face and gasping.
“What’s the matter?” he’d asked, ready to defend her. Luise squeezed past him and sat down. She hung her head.
“I wanted to buy them from him.”
“For heavens sakes, what for?”
“He won’t give them up.” Luise wept and leaned her face against the window, trying to hide her tears. Later, in the hotel room, on the bed under the listlessly rotating ceiling fan, they lay next to each other like two strangers forced to share a room.
Louise suddenly screamed, “He broke their legs and hooked their claws into their own bodies. Just to carry them around – you get it?” She sat up and studied him with red, reproachful eyes. Why did she have to keep saying such things?
They’d intended to take many trips over the following years. Luise wanted to visit India, but Albert planned to take Luise to Lisbon, where he’d worked in a sardine processing plant as a young man. He’d wanted to do all kinds of things, for instance, create a rock garden in front of the house, to demonstrate to Luise how pretty a rock garden could be when designed by an expert like himself. Albert was not an artist, though he wished he might have been one. He’d worked for a shipping company transporting art: huge canvasses and statues carefully packed in crates made to order. As a young man he’d been restless and adventurous. He had carved ice sculptures for elegant table decorations and sold hats his then girlfriend made from felt. That was before Luise. Thinking back, he always saw himself in a swarm of people. Hands reached out to him and bodies collided with him, he smelled the breath of strangers and felt their body heat and movement like blotches on his skin.
Remembering this commotion now gave him a touch of nausea. He was sitting in the garden behind his house, in a piteously creaking wicker chair he’d once forgotten to carry under the porch when it rained and just left out from then on. He simply sat there doing nothing. The green of the garden meant nothing to him. Though the sky with its clouds existed, it held no message for him. He observed the flowers, pillows of color swaying and flickering in the breeze; they, too, conveyed nothing. Even his hand, a pale, freckled hand, holding a glass and set aside on the arm of the wicker chair next to him, seemed mysterious. A tuber? A freshwater lobster?
Luise had always wanted a dog, but he didn’t care for dogs. As a child he’d watched his neighbor beat on a sack with something moving and whimpering inside before tossing it over the embankment into the river. Albert could guess what the sack contained, but he’d shied away from picturing it clearly. He’d held back the spotted dog by its collar, because the neighbor had asked him to. The dog knew precisely what was in the sack and went wild. In the end it got loose from Albert and jumped in the water. By then it was too late, and Albert had knelt and vomited among the daisies beside the path. No, he couldn’t stand having dogs around him. He simply didn’t like them. Still, for a few seconds he noticed a movement in the greenery and thought he saw a black and white dog running around in his garden. As if the greenery were a playing field on a computer screen, and a virtual dog from some game were scampering there, a dog you could move back and forth or click away.
Since Luise’s death Albert had done his grocery shopping at the supermarket, because he didn’t feel like conversing with Mr. Busse at the neighborhood store. He only rode his bicycle now, even for long distances like the cemetery, because he couldn’t stand the people on the subway. He didn’t answer the telephone, and didn’t open up when someone rang the doorbell. The mere thought of going to the barber gave him the jitters, so he shaved his head with the little razor Luise had sometimes used for trimming the curly hair at the back of his neck.
Luise sitting in the wicker chair beneath a red umbrella that must still be somewhere. Luise leaning back and saying, “Oh, how well off we are.” And he, Albert, would hand her a plate with sliced tomatoes he’d sprinkled with sea salt and with basil leaves from the herb garden. By this time he no longer knew just where the herb garden was. The plants seemed engaged in a growing match now that Louise was gone, and you could no longer tell friend from foe.
Albert’s sisters refused to give up. If he didn’t open the door, they walked around the house and through the garden without letting his grumpiness bother them. He couldn’t eat any of the food they brought and warmed up for him in the kitchen. They joined him in the garden beneath the red umbrella, which they had found and set up. Wasps flew around the plates and glasses on the round table, settling on the wieners and potato salad. He killed the wasps by taking off a shoe. You had to stun them with a side cut first, and then, when they reeled, you could squash them. It seemed like a garden family picnic, but everything was wrong. The garden backdrop, the table and food all seemed picked and arranged by stage managers. Everything was just pretend, and he played the role of Albert: Albert relaxing and chatting with his sisters, sipping from his glass and softly belching. He couldn’t go through with that.
He was having a particularly awful day and couldn’t stand for his sisters to watch him. Gilla, the younger one, forced a hug on him as they parted. “Bertie, Sweetheart, I can’t take it any more, please tell me what to do.” Then she wept, and he had to muster all his self-control to keep from screaming, because her assault had made him so angry. It was easier to arm himself against Karoline’s words. Calm and clever as she was, she had pulled Gilla up short. “Bertie, we actually do understand you, but don’t you think you ought to seek help, at least from an uninvolved professional. I’m leaving a business card on the mantel. No one is pushing you.” He’d forgotten about the card, of course. It rained the next afternoon, and he walked the streets until he was ready to go to bed.
Time was passing quickly and imperceptibly. He could tell by the condition of the garden, the length of his hair, by having to buy tea, and by his increasing rage at Luise. Why had she done this to him? She had allowed death to come and pick her up like a new lover. She’d gone away with death and left Albert behind. This was cruel. He had relied on her for all those years.
The bad thing about his rising rage was that it expelled him from his sole paradise, his memories of Luise and of their love. No longer did he nurture loving thoughts of the past; he found not a single vision, no comforting, affectionate moments between them, though he yearned to recapture their closeness in his thoughts, if only for a few minutes.
He no longer slept. At night he paced the floor trembling with rage. Plates broke in his hands; he stumbled and stubbed his toes on the open door. His skin felt dry and too tight.
One morning, still before dawn, he went out in the garden. The sky stretched over the house like an airy dome, iris-blue and delicate. There was total silence. He heard himself breathe as he stood on the terrace naked and angry with clenched fists. He cursed as he looked for the rusty scythe and at last found it in the shed, along with the grindstone, which he moistened on the grass before sharpening the blade.
The grass stood knee-high, flowers and weeds grew rampant, and the saplings were wet with dew. It was intolerable how nature was pushing out its greenery, how everything was blooming, growing fruit, releasing seeds – disgusting. Enough of that. He stood in the dewy grass, scythe held aloft. Beginning in the center, he mowed down all growing things. There was a rich sound as the scythe sliced through the stalks; wood whistled as he struck it, stones shrieked, and he tossed them up into the darkness.
He sweated and heard himself panting. He relaxed his shoulders, breathed deeply, stood with his legs apart and found a rhythm. His movements became more fluid and elegant, he felt his knees giving a bit, his swings widening, his nose filling with the aroma of cut plants. Grass sap and clover leaves stuck to his calves.
Later he stretched out on the moist grass in the center of the garden, out of breath, his arms and legs stretched away from his body. He watched the morning star above his house grow pale. The sky took on a melon hue, and a pearlescent gleam announced the coming of daylight.
He lay very still and watched. And then he heard the blackbird and knew right away that it was a blackbird. Once, he had been outraged when Luise awakened him very early to show him the blackbird on the balcony railing in front of their bedroom. A black, tousled ball of feathers, perched there, trembling, and singing at the top of his voice as if this balcony and house belonged to him. Luise had kissed Albert and told him, “He’s singing, ‘Here am I, here am I, sweet, sweet, sweet.’ And he lay close to Luise and Luise close to him, and very gently and slowly he had penetrated her to the song of the strange voice, the voice of an animal that didn’t care what went on between the people indoors.
Albert lay in the grass with his eyes shut, listening to the blackbird and feeling its song wash over him. It was like being touched by a gentle silver tongue familiar with hidden places inside him he’d long believed gone and forgotten.
He lay in the moist grass, simply of a piece with the garden, belonging without needing to give it a thought. And as though the blackbird had been a messenger helping him from the old world into a new one through its song, he was not surprised to feel soft breaths along his cheek, and neither was he frightened when, opening his eyes, he looked into a radiant white face bent over him. It was the white cat from the neighboring garden, a huge animal he’d frequently chased off with stones when it disrupted the dark-green dusk of his arbor vitae hedge like a fat, white cloud. Now eye to eye with Albert, it no longer remembered his stones, but nudged him with its nose just once, with a little impatient mew that made him smile, a smile that turned into soft laughter when the cat traipsed over him, its rough, warm paws weighing down his bare skin for just a brief moment.
He had died – he knew that now. He lay dead in his garden and was in some kind of intermediate world where animals ruled, where he’d only been able to enter because he was on his way to the realm of shadows and Luise.
In his bed the next morning, he was surprised at still being alive, but not unhappy. The way he had fondly thought of dying embarrassed him, and he was ashamed when he remembered what he had done to the garden. He couldn’t bring himself to look outside and closed the blinds.
He packed a small bag for traveling to the seacoast. He became aware of his vulnerability when on the train, through a door that opened and closed again, he thought he saw Luise in the next compartment and realized that he had never really pondered the fact that he would never see her again.
His face grew numb and his eyes burned. He thought the two women across from him could tell just by looking how helpless he felt. They might ask what was bothering him and why he was crying, or something of that nature. They would speak to him as to a child alone on the train and lost. Because that’s how he felt. But the women paid no attention to him; only the black and white shaggy dog sitting on the floor between them, observing every bite they took from their lunchmeat sandwiches – this dog alone suddenly turned to look at him. There was no doubt that the dog looked him in the eye, and it closed its mouth as though to stress the earnestness of its gaze. The animal looked Albert in the eye as no one had in months. Albert couldn’t avoid this gaze, but had to endure it. Worse yet, he understood what the dog’s gaze said:
“You are suffering.”
The train slowed down. Albert got up, roughly pushed the dog aside with his knees, pulled his bag from the luggage rack and got out. He didn’t know the city, but that was fine with him. The station looked like all railroad stations – vending machines, news stands, train schedules, fast food stands, and a circular flower bed. He walked out to the street, crossed it and rented a room at the hotel opposite the station that had a red carpet rolled out to the curb under a plastic canopy as if to welcome him.
As he read in the lobby, there was a zoo in town, and he wanted to go there immediately without first unpacking. He hadn’t visited a zoo since childhood. He thought it was awful to keep animals caged up, as he had pointed out to Luise when she tried to drag him off to a zoo time and again. She had sometimes gone without him then, a bit unhappy because, as she said, she couldn’t understand him. There had been many things about him that she didn’t understand, and he’d enjoyed that. “He is secretive and has been since childhood,” his sisters told Luise, but that wasn’t true.
A seal broke the surface before him and gazed toward him with beautiful eyes which reminded him of Luise without making his heart ache. The air in the elephant house was pungent, and there were glistening, deep-brown dung piles dropped by the bull as he lifted his tail, with all kinds of birds soon pecking at them. The large ape showed his red behind while fanning himself with a branch. He, too, smelled acrid and wonderful. Albert had forgotten these odors, and to his surprise, now liked them as much as when he walked hand in hand with his grandmother, who had covered her nose with a lavender-scented handkerchief.
The porcupines in the ditch of the hippo enclosure crowded trembling around a tiny pink porcupine baby likely just born. Blood stuck to its silky hairs. Albert found this scene so moving, he had to sit down on a bench. Maybe he was getting sick; something seemed to be wrong with him. He felt vulnerable, yet wistfully glad. He reluctantly left.
He liked the empty dining room and enjoyed the small lamps with pink shades on every table and the waiter pouring his wine and boning his fish; he liked the aroma of the raspberry parfait. Only men were sitting at the counter of the bar he passed, all staring at their glasses without a word. He would have liked a drink, but was afraid of losing the serenity that had come over him during the meal. He congratulated himself on his impulsive trip and the hotel that had met his eyes as though waiting for him as he stepped out of the unfamiliar railroad station.
Luise had died on a bus one early evening; it had been raining. The bus had left the road and tumbled down an embankment. Albert had seen the bus on television, if only for seconds, as it lay among the fir trees with its roof smashed in, a toy fallen from a table. That picture dissolved, horrific lights blinked, people crawled up and down the slope: a dense row of firemen in black capes glistening from the rain, policemen, and ambulance crews. People were being hauled away on stretchers. Those were no toys. He sat looking on. His mind was blank, for he knew by then that Luise was dead. Someone had called him.
His sisters couldn’t believe that they were supposed to go to the bridge without him to deposit flowers, flowers for Luise. Louise’s choir wanted to sing for the dead there. They had been traveling together in the rain that night. “To a choral competition,” Luise had said. He didn’t remember the city. “Why does this remind me of The Singing Match of the Heathland Hares?” he’d asked with a grin, and she’d dropped on his lap and answered, “Because you think rabbits are ridiculous and you think we’re ridiculous too.” “I like rabbits,” he said. “Roasted!” Luise had shouted. “Though you look like a rabbit yourself!” and she’d kissed his ears, saying they were too large for his narrow head.
The bus had rolled down the embankment. Albert was in the dark hotel bed holding the remote control, blind in front of the bluish picture. He saw the bus topple over and saw the people inside being pushed over and into each other in absolute chaos. He had never permitted himself to wonder where Luise had been when the bus left the road. He hadn’t wanted to know, but now couldn’t stop it though he shut his eyes, and there was a roar in his ears as if he’d pass out any minute. He saw Luise seated there, he saw her face, gigantic – the glaring, frightened face he knew, the blazing, tortured face he knew – unable to avert his eyes, he watched it dissolve, saw her body being knocked back and forth, flung up, pressed down, hemmed in, mutilated and squashed. He heard her whimpering. It went on and on. Other bodies covered her up, striking the windows with a thud. Metal burst and glass.
He must have got up, because he discovered himself in front of the toilet bowl, kneeling and retching in the dark bathroom, the remote still in his hand.
He told his sisters that he had dreamed of Luise, and that she had given him the order to buy a dog, a dog for her, because she had neither turned loose from Albert nor from their house and garden yet, and this would, she’d said, still take a while.
He could tell by the looks passing between the sisters that they were worried. The older one studied him with her pharmacist’s eyes, probably wondering if he’d lost his mind with grief. The younger one hugged him, saying something about “finally turning loose, letting go of Luise,” but Albert wasn’t listening.
He was sitting in the garden, which was just beginning to recover. He saw a dog – it stood in the midst of the greenery, watching him with its head cocked. A spotted black and white shaggy guy with pointed ears that tipped over slightly whenever it shook its head and beat the air with its nervous, wooly tail. For the first time Albert understood that to him, a dog had always looked just like that. He had never pictured a different dog in his mind – what was it, a pointer? He had no idea. What had the dog looked like in the Memory game he’d enjoyed so much as a child? Albert sat in the center of the garden with his eyes closed, sorting through the picture cards, remembering exactly how they felt. Had the dog, his archetypal dog in the Memory card, also had black and white spots? He had no idea. He didn’t find that dog, but he found Stella. The Stella of long ago, leaping to meet him and toppling over the little boy in her happiness to see him again, with her tongue in his face, her clear bark in his ears. His Stella; for though she belonged to the neighbors, she had really, for as long as he knew, been his Stella. He sat in the garden as memory flooded through him. He was the child again whom Stella took to her corner of the shed. Stella, who showed him where the puppies were hidden, and for several seconds he again felt the sweet heaviness of the little fat-bellied dogs, black and white too and still blind, with their little pink noses and hot, acrid smell, a puppy smell that filled the whole shed. And there was Stella curled around her babies in a nest of potato sacks, studying him attentively, quite serious suddenly and gaunt, allowing him to touch only her paws. Then he’d wished for nothing so much as for one of Stella’s puppies, but his folks didn’t want a dog.
He got on his bike and looked up toward Luise’s window. He almost shouted her name. But there was no need. He knew what she wanted.
From Keto von Waberer: Umarmungen © 1997 Berlin Verlag GmbH, Berlin.
All rights reserved
Translation © Ingrid Lansford