The Long Breath (excerpt)

Author: Nina Jäckle
Translator: Mandy Wight

Those who were laughing or silent.

It was the eleventh of March and the sea breathed out, right over the land it breathed out and then it breathed in again, deeply. The sea sucked up those who were sitting, those who were playing, those who were sleeping, those who were laughing or silent, those who were still young or already old, lively, lonely or in an embrace. The sea left a border behind. A border that from now on forever marks the place where luck was alive on that eleventh of March at two forty-six in the afternoon and the place where, at that moment, luck had deserted.
The sea’s breath is long, says my wife, you too will have to show how long your breath can be, that you can endure.

The constant scratching of pencil tips on paper.

I have a new filing cabinet where I keep the photos of the tsunami victims who have not yet been identified. There are many photos, there are photos which it’s better not to see. I’m the only person who looks into the filing cabinet; not even my boss wants to look at them.
It’s too much to ask of anyone to look at those photos, it’s too much to ask of those left behind to point to one of those photos and to say yes, yes that’s her, yes that’s him.
At first the numbering and the filing of the photos, that keeping order, that administration of the disfigured dead was unbearable. With time it has become routine. I am an identikit artist. People used to praise my identikit sketches, now they praise the sketches I make of tsunami victims. I reconstruct the faces of those who have been found, I sketch the faces without their horrific injuries, to make it easier for those left behind to identify their relatives. In this way it is not too much, in this way they can point to my sketches, to the intact faces I have sketched, yes, they can then say, yes, that’s her, yes that’s him.
I think of them as individual anatomical cases. I avoid thinking about all the drawers of my filing cabinet at once; my gaze focuses on the one photo coming next, which serves as a template for the one sketch coming next, but despite this the serial numbering of the photos is an undeniable reminder of how many people remain to be identified, of how few of the faces I have sketched and how many remain.
From that day on, one or other of the TV channels has shown over and over again the snow-white ribbon, the broad trim of white foam moving towards the coast. Relentlessly, the wave moves over the sea, relentlessly towards the coast. We have always known how to make a deal with nature, how to tame its destructive strength, we have always lived with the dangerous powers of nature, we have no other choice. Molten rock, unstable ground, the sea all around, we know how to ask protection from spirits and gods, but on that day our experience was that this doesn’t always work. We were trained for evacuation, we were trained not to wait for an alarm, we were trained to help others, but on that day our experience was that this doesn’t always work either. On that day we experienced how important it is that the worst thing that could happen doesn’t happen, and equally we experienced that the worst thing that could happen can really happen. We experienced what relentlessness means; now we are experiencing what it means to let life return in spite of everything, what it’s like to open shops again, to send children back to school, to go fishing again, in spite of everything to trust and to eat the fish, the rice and the algae.
They’re sure to be writing songs soon about the butterflies with their deformed wings, too small for their bodies, and their strange eyes. We haven’t seen the last of those butterflies, says my wife.
When my wife turns the light off at bedtime, I usually lie awake for a long time in the peace and quiet and I have the feeling that my face is glowing in the dark, as if my skin is still reflecting the light from the illuminated layout table, which I bend over day after day for many hours. And in my head I hear the noise of the pencil, the constant scratching of pencil tips on paper. And in front of me the faces appear, the eyes, the nose, the lines of the cheekbones. Again and again I ask myself whether I can sketch the hint of a smile into the faces, whether it is permissible to think of a smile, of laughter lines, to presume an expression of happiness in the faces I am reproducing, the faces of nameless tsunami victims.
We saw a boy on television. Our family, he said, was my mother and my father and my brother and me. Now, it’s my brother and the dog they’ve let us keep, that’s my family. The dog was found in the disaster area like us, he was dirty and lonely, one of his legs was broken. He’s trying not to be sad, he’s a good dog, he’s trying his hardest, he’s brave, said the boy on the television, as if talking about himself.
All day long, as I’m sketching the faces, I hold an eraser in my hand. I get to know the faces as they emerge stroke by stroke. Anatomy helps me to understand logically how they ought to look; I know without hesitation which ill judged pencil stroke to remove right away with my eraser. I always draw the eyes last. I feel nervous about sketching the eyes, as they convey most intensely the assumptions I am making: it is the eyes, the gaze, that give the faces their humour or their severity, their boldness, their disappointment or even their secretiveness. Once I have sketched the eyes, and therefore the gaze, into the faces, then the faces are ready to be identified by those left behind, by those whom the Pacific did not take because they were in the place where luck was alive, by those who escaped the long breath of the sea. My sketches of faces will stay on public display for as long as it takes for someone to point to them, for someone to look them in the eye and pronounce a name and say yes, that’s her, yes that’s him.
Our ideal mountain, says my wife, our most beautiful volcano, for so long such a favourite with artists, isn’t perfect. Over the years more and more ugly little hummocks have appeared on its slopes, but no one ever draws those hummocks. You should draw them, says my wife reproachfully, to represent the truth. I think she doesn’t like it that I draw the faces without injuries, because my drawings don’t represent the truth.
Every evening I sweep up the black eraser rubbings on my desk. I keep this evidence in a tea caddy: evidence of my misrepresentations, of my aesthetic assumptions, which the numbered faces with the logic of their anatomy managed to resist. I can’t bring myself to get rid of the eraser rubbings, they are part of the process of recreation, even if all they are documenting is my botched pencil strokes and shadings, my inadequacies.
When the sea is lying calm and gentle before me, when there are no single waves to be seen, so that the sea is one harmless, swaying whole, then I feel as if I am being taken in, as if the monster is purring like a domesticated cat, before it yanks open its jaws and shows its true colours. Since that day I haven’t often been down to the sea. We all mean the same when we say ‘since that day’.
What am I to think about, asks my wife sometimes, before going to sleep.
Since that day I’ve often thought of the big aquarium. My wife and I spent a whole day there. We stood in a large tunnel made of glass. We were surrounded by the current, the movements of fish, of plants; everything belonged together, we were the only ones in the glass tunnel, left out in the cold.
The blue and green and shimmering sea is black or brown or grey on land. Several cars floated in a car park turned swimming pool, cars banged against a house wall, a voice calling from a loudspeaker was inaudible, a family house with a sea view collapsed, people were standing on high ground, their hands clamped to their mouths. White cloths dangled out of upper storey windows to signal survivors.
I think often of our neighbours, who are no longer our neighbours, of Aoko, of the little girl Aoko.

Bottles of water like ghost catchers.

I turn anonymous unknown people back into human beings, with a family, with a past they can talk about, I tell my wife as soon as I see that she’s worrying about me. Once I brought one of the sketches home for her; she had asked me to do so. I had also brought one of the photos which went with it. I talked about human anatomy, about there being no ambiguity with bones, about them providing clear guidelines which help to reproduce faces with almost complete accuracy. I’m mostly working from faces which have been destroyed, but they become more and more familiar to me as I draw, like the faces of acquaintances or neighbours, I told my wife. The one I had with me was number 32; the next day I was going to hang it up alongside the other finished sketches. So that the dead can be identified, so that they can have back their names, so that they can be buried, so that all can find peace, I told my wife. On the photo that I’d brought home, there was no longer a face to recognise, the tsunami victim on the photo no longer had a past, it was only through my sketch that his past would perhaps be restored to him, his family too. I hoped that the drawing would comfort my wife, would relieve the distress caused by the photo. My wife said nothing.
When you see something under the water, it’s not actually in the place you think you are seeing it. That’s true too when you’re looking out of the water into the air beyond. As a boy I was fascinated by this reaching out for something and missing it, or the fact that my foot under water was not where I saw it. Recently I dreamed that I was trying over and over again to pull something out of the water, but was again and again reaching out into nothingness. The water was light green and clear, the rocks and coral had sharp edges, my blood could hardly be seen in the waves. I think often about looking out of the water into the air beyond, and I also think of Aoko – for her nothing up here is where it should be when she sees it from down there. I think too of reaching out and missing, of no one holding on to Aoko.
First bones, then muscles, then skin. With skin comes shading. Once the eyes are sketched, the face soon becomes more than just a number, I told my wife. She nodded quietly. Since she saw the photo and the sketch I made from it, she has asked hardly any more questions. I think she doesn’t like what I do, sketching the faces.
Before, I sketched pictures for forensic purposes, of criminals and crime scenes. At home after work, I would sketch landscapes, birds and plants. Since I’ve been sketching the tsunami victims I’ve no longer touched my pencils or sketch block at home. It wouldn’t seem right to draw landscapes or birds or plants. The scratching of pencil tips on paper is now the sound of faces.
The sea women have always worn white suits and white headscarves; the white protects them from sharks and from bad luck, they say. I’m not sure if they’ve been allowed back, since that day, near the coast and on the sea bed, gathering snails, mussels, sea urchins, algae, especially ormer. Their protective suits probably don’t protect enough since that day. There are only a few of the white sea women left. Yesterday, in my lunch break, I drew Aoko in a white suit, with a white headscarf. That’ll help against the sharks and a little against bad luck, I whispered, then I threw the drawing into the waste paper basket.
Brown algae is harvested on the sea bed, sea urchins are found in coral reefs, eels, carp and pike-perch are fish which live on the ocean floor. Normally there is no caesium in the body, not even on the sea bed. You always used to see cleaned octopus hanging up on washing lines to dry, whole villages had cleaned octopus hanging up to dry in the garden behind the house. Octopus is found near the coast and since that day the usual method of cleaning has not been good enough – everything coming from the sea bed has taken on a different meaning. Inedible fish is thrown back in the sea and the fishermen receive compensation based on the weight of their catch. Children learn new words, they learn fast. The words iodine, caesium and plutonium will probably make up their counting rhymes in future. Mothers are lining up water bottles like ghost catchers. It’s supposed to help against radioactive particles, says my wife. Two-litre plastic water bottles bordering children’s playgrounds, I’ve seen it on a photo, it looks like they’re playing Defenders, she says.
When my wife is asked what I do, she says that I sketch portraits. That was a good portrait, she said to me recently. She was probably thinking of sketch number 32 and I guess she was trying to forget the photo on which this 32nd sketch was based. My wife may well have been thinking about the hint of a smile sketched into the face, and was then able to call it a portrait.
What I absolutely must forget, says my wife, is the sight of a lampshade in the dirt, the sight of an iron between rocks, the sight of splintered planks of wood next to a toy bear, the sight of a shattered bowl, of a broken picture frame containing a torn photo, the sight of a bicycle with no seat, of a child’s shoe in the mud, a door handle, a dirty cushion, I absolutely must forget the sight of plastic sheeting between the rubble, human sized plastic sheeting it was and soldiers everywhere.
Since that day you can no longer gaze over the water admiringly, you can no longer look at the horizon, observe the waves or the mirror images of clouds or the reflections of sunlight or of moonshine. You can’t imagine that this sea could ever again appear on a postcard. When you look out over the ocean, you see before you the children, the fathers and mothers, the houses, passports, school reports, fences, dogs, cattle, chicken, cats, desks, radios, saucepans. There are postcards of the sea, written and sent off before that day, which are meaningless now; the Pacific these postcards show no longer exists for us. Everyone here knows what it means when we use the phrase ‘since that day’. It means life and everything to do with life and also everything which used to be to do with life, it means everything we don’t talk about and also everything which is yet to come. It also means the postcards which are meaningless, which were sent from here to the city, which people now no longer want to read or look at, it means the many urns which are yet to be filled, it means our memories of whole families, of factories, of farms, of whole neighbourhoods, of whole woodlands, of playgrounds.
Draw me some spiders, Aoko had called out, a sheet of paper in her hand. Two spiders and a lovely wooden box to go with it, with flowers on it, and then draw me a spiders’ web so that we can have a story about them, just us two, said Aoko.
There are children who will be born into the cramped world of the containers, the too-small temporary accommodation. They will be told that people haven’t always lived crammed in side by side like this, that people will not always live like this crammed in side by side, that there will be bigger rooms and more of them, one day. They will be told that there was a wave, shortly before they were born, a wave which managed to sweep away a whole village in less than a minute. Despite the levee, despite the flood barriers, people will add. The children born into containers will be told that water can flatten cars, that the rubble from one thousand six hundred houses can fit into a baseball stadium.

Not from the memory held in the bones.

Everything else depends on the favour of the moment, depends on being looked on favourably in one single moment. Since that day this favour resides in none of the earth’s plates having moved. In the evening when we go to bed and my wife turns the light out, another day has gone by with no serious earth tremor, another day when the sea has not come to fetch us.
Because they don’t know what to do, says my wife, they tell us things aren’t too bad. Difficult, but not hopeless, they call the situation. This is no comfort to people, who are getting restless. Many people are talking, some are quarrelling, some just sit there saying nothing, others want to get away and just sit there saying nothing, many people spend all day wanting to get away and just sitting there, says my wife.
A few weeks ago I was working on a sketch and only when I was working on the mouth did I recognise the face. It was the face of my aunt. I had drawn a portrait of my mother’s sister. I had messed up the nose; I rubbed it out, I drew the nose again, now from my memory, not from the memory held in the bones. I didn’t sweep the eraser rubbings into the tea caddy with the other eraser rubbings. I left them on the desk – I didn’t know what to do with them. My aunt had been a tiny old woman; it wouldn’t have taken much to carry her off. There were quite a few photos of my aunt at the seaside. My aunt loved the Pacific, her father, my grandfather, had been a fisherman. In the summer he caught octopus and eel, in the autumn, salmon and in winter, cod. My grandmother was always scared that my grandfather wouldn’t come back, that he would go missing with his fishing boat and the other fishermen. My grandmother feared the Pacific but my aunt loved it. I wrote my aunt’s name after the number she’d been allocated.
People say that the fishermen returned from sea one day and found the harbour completely devastated. They had felt no hint of the gigantic wave, nor had they seen anything when out at sea. The fishermen called the wave tsu-nami, the wave in the harbour.
I heard a boy telling stories. They’re all doing fine down there. You see, they’ve got what they need down there, he said. Their houses, their cars and motorbikes, their bikes and dogs, loads of toys, trees to climb, a lot of space, even shade and mountains and valleys, they’ve got it all down there, said the boy and no one contradicted him. Down there, that’s what the boy called it – that phrase still rings in my ears. Down there. When he uttered the phrase it sounded like the name of some fantastical place, our very own Atlantis, you might think. The boy picked up his unicycle and rode off, his arms outstretched, pleased with his story.
And again and again on one or other of the TV channels, the snow-white ribbon, the broad trim of white foam moves towards the coast.
They say that the earth has been turning a little more quickly since that day, the earthquake lowered the moment of inertia and in this way the fatal blow dealt to us shortened the length of a day on this earth by almost two microseconds. I told my wife this and I know she was thinking about all those people for whom the earth no longer turns at all. You never cry, she says.

From Nina Jäckle, Der lange Atem © Klöpfer & Meyer Verlag Tübingen 2014
Translated by Mandy Wight