Mrs. Baier came to me when she wanted to call attention to the branches of the tree. You’re the only one I ever see, she said. My father has to work, I explained. Mrs. Baier nodded. I don’t really want to say anything, she said. And she said nothing. She just mentioned that it was unacceptable how the branches of our tree were growing across the boundary between the yards. Even running wild. The dog sniffed at my legs. Mrs. Baier braced herself to ask the next question: Did we have help now. She was all alone, she said. So where’s she from, she asked, the woman you have, someone from Poland. Not from Poland, I said, and ran away from the dog. He wanted to run after me. The leash was too short. He had gotten my legs wet.
It was a pear tree. You could not eat its pears. They were small and hard. Only one of its branches was thick enough to hang a swing on. The thick branch reached out over our yard from the fence. I learned to swing before I could really run, and it was a long time before I stopped. Every spring, my father climbed a ladder, adjusted the length of the swing’s ropes, and tightened the knots. My mother and I watched. It was the only work my father ever did in the yard. Otherwise, my parents agreed that nature should be allowed to grow freely there. One summer, my mother had a vegetable garden at the end of the lawn. The tomatoes she harvested were small, and never as red as those in the supermarket. Things like that take time, my father said, and patience. It takes a different climate, said my mother, a different climate and different surroundings. Where the vegetable garden had been, a giant green weed was now growing. Nature was running its course.
It made my father happy to stand behind a window and contemplate the unspoiled wilderness of the yard. That’s the pear tree, he said to Amalia, pointing through the glass. She stood in front of him and held the tray with the coffee. Pear tree, she repeated. My father held the words out to her like biscuits for a little dog. She had a hard time swallowing them. There’s a poem about a pear tree, my father went on. He’d learned the poem in school; he still knew it by heart. He looked at me and said, I was younger than you when I learned that poem by heart, and probably that’s the very thing that makes it impossible to get rid of it now. For a long time, he’d considered such learning-by-heart a completely outdated method, but in fact it was still the only way to hang on to things. Whatever’s in your memory can never be taken away, at least. Coffee, said Amalia. Here you are.
My father doesn’t have time, I explained at the front door. It was for the best, said Mrs. Baier’s son, that he call attention to the overgrown yard. It’s only overgrown, said Mrs. Baier’s son, on this side. It’s like it’s been building up, he added, for years now. They’d turned a blind eye to it until now. He himself could be very patient. It was really none of his business what grew in our yard. Live and let live, he assured me, was normally his philosophy, too. And if someone wants to plant baobabs in his yard, I say fine, he said. To each his own. I’m tolerant about things like that.
But now the situation’s entirely different, he continued. While he’d been sprucing up his mother’s lawn, he’d had to pick up a few branches and fruit that had fallen from our yard. He’d tried to pick up something soft and sticky. That made him look more closely at the matter, which led him to a startling discovery. The entire span of the trunk of the pear tree, from the root up, was covered with a kind of white layer. It wasn’t immediately visible to the naked eye. Only with the help of a magnifying glass had he discovered the ultrafine web. It was half-hidden under the bark, right on the inner skin of the tree. The son wanted to know precisely what it was. He wanted to get to the bottom of things. It wasn’t the symptoms that had to be treated. The number of pests grew steadily, for, of all living creatures, pests were the ones that evolved most quickly and adapted most completely to changes in external conditions. That made it so hard to get them under control. Parasites had a natural tendency to spread, to expand their territory; they weren’t above finding new hosts. My father, I said, really can’t interrupt his work right now. It’s not a good time.
Amalia had on a shiny sweater and her cleaning-lady slippers, she was carrying plastic bags full of garbage to the front door. Excuse me, she said to the neighbor’s son. My father, I repeated, doesn’t have time. The neighbor’s son made room for Amalia and watched her walk away. I see, he said, visitors, and asked me to tell my father that he would like to talk with him, at a more favorable time, about the matter, that it was for the best, then he plunged his hands into his pants pockets and slowly walked past the garbage cans to the gate.
I went to stand at the window and compared the yards. The grass on our side was a meadow. The grass on Mrs. Baier’s side was a lawn. Now Mrs. Baier’s son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren were standing on the lawn. The Baier family looked at the tree, discussing something. The yard had meant the world to Mr. Baier. His passion, as Mrs. Baier was in the habit of saying. His little garden, she said. Only there was he fully human. The son moved his hands while speaking. He stood with his legs apart; his shoulders had become much less inviting and his belly heavier. That made him, in my eyes, even more trustworthy. My father came up next to me and looked at him. Now’s the season, I said, for cutting. People aren’t hard to understand, he said, in theory they’re comprehensible, in practice they’re unbearable.
I’m not a man of many words, were the neighbor’s son’s words the next day. The existence of certain facts wasn’t something for endlessly discussing, but for energetically driving out of the world. The well-grounded suspicion of a case of disease must put an end to the arbitrariness that allows everyone to think and believe whatever he considers well and good. We need a sense of proportion and a standard, binding for all members of a community. Naturally, he conceded, communication’s an essential component of profitable action. Communication, cooperation, and readiness for dialogue were what the son listed. Three pillars. But when one side refuses to communicate, all the others have their hands tied; the system’s paralyzed; the channels are blocked. But he was still interested in knowing the causes. He could understand the fear of the pain of a profound break with the status quo. But after a clean break, a healing process always begins.
An example, he said to me, running his tongue over his lips. Amalia tottered behind me down the hall, carrying a tray into my father’s room. The neighbor’s son kept talking without flinching. Following a specialist’s recommendations, he’d gone through a detox cure, at first reluctantly, then with growing enthusiasm. For a week he’d consumed only herbal tea, water, vegetable broth, and unsweetened juices. After three days his stomach was completely empty. His body excreted poisons it had stored for years. You could positively feel how everything flowed out of you. You felt no hunger anymore. All wants were extin-guished. Completely emptied, the son rapturously repeated. This complete emptying began a radical upheaval. This was the only way, he was by now convinced, it was only by not curtailing anything or compromising, that the purification process could start.
I described the son’s observations for my father and said he seemed to be an expert. My father nodded to himself: how nice to be an expert. Why can’t he just keep his expertise to himself? Why do people always have to inflict their expertise on everything within reach. This pressure. To cut. To cut off. To eliminate. Purify. Clean. That’s the symptom, said my father, the real disease, and it must be confronted.
The next day, the neighbor’s son offered me a cardboard box with a pink pattern. It matched his shirt. To go with coffee, he said cheerfully. I took the box from him. May I, he asked, slipping past me into the hallway. He moved his heavy body smoothly, like a ballet dancer. I followed him, full of admiration. In the living room, he came to a stop, turned a half pirouette, and uttered an admiring exclamation about the quantity of old books. Good heavens! Does your father have them all. My father, I explained slowly, straining to figure out where I could put down the pink box as discreetly as possible, my father won’t have time for a cup of coffee. The son conjured a further surprise from behind his back. He showed me a bottle with plums on the label and let me sniff at its open neck.
In my father’s room, Amalia and he were kneeling over paper piles of varying heights. They raised their faces to me, gazing at me as if they were creatures in a deep pit. The floor was completely covered. I scratched bits of paint from the door frame. He’s back, I said. For a cup of coffee. My father’s shoulders sank. In the living room, the son had made himself comfortable, his legs crossed on our sofa while he admired the view of our yard. In front of him, he had laid out the cake box, the bottle of plum brandy, and four glasses.
My father sat down astride a wooden chair. Amalia brought the tray with the coffee. Cream or sugar, she asked the son. He raised his hand in thanks. Food combining, he said. But that shouldn’t keep us from enjoying what we eat and drink. He opened the cardboard box with an inviting gesture. Help yourselves. Don’t be shy. You can afford it. The open maw of the box gawked at me. Inside were pieces of cake as large as the palm of my hand, in three color-coordinated rows. Their tops shone moistly. Except for me, nobody took any. My father supported himself with outstretched arms on the front edge of the chair, following the son’s gestures with a furrowed brow. If you’re going to scorn these little treats, then you should at least be sure to drink enough liquids with your coffee, the neighbor’s son warned with a cunning smile. Coffee dehydrates you. Drink enough liquids, and you’re on the right track. I always preach that to my mother. Only it gets more and more difficult for old people to change their habits. You know how it is. He stretched his elastic upper body forward, picked up the bottle, and filled four glasses. I always say, learn in good time, in the right surroundings!
Have you come because of the pear tree, my father blurted, emptying his glass in one go and putting it down in front of him. The son lifted a hand to placate him. It was pink, corpulent but gentle, as hairless as a lady’s. He did not mention his unlovely observations at all. He thought it was best, he emphasized, if a solution satisfactory to all those involved could be found. Surely nobody could be interested in continuing the struggle of going back and forth in this condition of absolute uncertainty. Sometimes, though, a sustainable solution meant a radical solution. Sooner or later, you had to put your money where your mouth was. At this, my father leapt off his chair without warning and left the room. The son had come to a point in his torrent of words that brooked no interruption. Amalia sat upright opposite him and gave him her undivided attention. I reached into the cake box at regular intervals and worked my way through the rows. The son apologized for his pessimism. He hadn’t wanted to stoke exaggerated fears. Panic was of course the least favorable possible reaction in such a case. In his experience, fear was always something paralyzing. If you were going to be able to handle a danger, you had to learn to assess it. If you stayed too long in your paralyzing panic. Then it was often difficult, or even impossible, to deal with the damage. Then you came up against the limits of what could be realized financially and what people could be expected to tolerate. But, he went on consolingly, it’s not yet clear we have already reached such a stage here. And the most important thing was finally the following motto: Quickly recognize the pest / If you would put your fears to rest, he proclaimed, raising his glass. He buoyed himself and us up in the difficult situation. He repeated himself. He began to talk about fear again. You had to keep a cool head and discuss things with the enemy on a rational basis. Knowledge of the enemy gave you the tools to handle things prudently. The more you knew about the enemy, the more calm you could be while awaiting confrontation. So, in a free moment, he’d taken a look at the literature on garden pests. He summarized his findings: American blight establishes its colonies under the top layer of bark and in the hollow parts of the tree. The typically waxy film makes it largely resistant to spraying. But the nests, at least in the early stages, can easily be removed by scraping them off with a solid wire brush. A clean break’s the most effective means, said the neighbor’s son, of preventing further infestation. So it’s not only unnecessary but even futile and ineffective to go straight for chemical bombs. The simplest household remedy may well have the greatest effect. What was crucial was a carefully conceived plan and the will to eliminate the evil at the root.
Outside, night was falling. I turned on the light. The glass door to the terrace reflected our heated faces. The plants in the yard were no longer visible. The neighbor’s son was in high spirits now. He began to refill the glasses. In front of Amalia, he stopped for a moment. You’re not drinking anything, he cried, upset. I assumed that – I was convinced that was a custom in your – here he hesitated – homeland. That was a word Amalia reacted to. I come from Nidden, she said, Nidden on the Baltic. In the son’s face, a tension disappeared. Ah, he sighed. He listened to the sound of the name in the air. I have to tell you, I. And my mother, she. We thought you were from Poland. Hahaha. That’s how you can mislead yourself. Something was knocked over in my father’s room. In any case, the son continued, still somewhat discombobulated. Not Poland, Nidden. He apologized to Amalia for the embarrassing mistake. Amalia held her head up. She did not seem especially embarrassed. The son explained.
It’s not that his mother was unbalanced. She watched television and paid attention to world events. She took the dog out for walks and prepared her own little hot dinners. Only sometimes things were too much for her. She came to a conclusion in her own mind and that was reality for her. She could no longer distinguish between reality and the world, or – he corrected himself – her reality and the real world. Rather, she lived in a world of her own. On the other hand, though, it was completely excusable and understandable. If you considered the real world out there. The growing complexity. War and misery. Hunger and globalization. With all that, it was completely understandable to want to withdraw into a manageable space. So for him it was quite urgent to at least preserve this space for her. Unexpectedly, he returned to the exasperating occasion for his visit. He put a paper napkin to his mouth and shot Amalia a pleading look. Perhaps you could, he began. A few diplomatic words. More coffee, she asked. He nodded, distracted. It’s an existential situation. Perhaps you understand this. I’m sure, he said to Amalia, you understand. He passed his tongue over his lips. He’d come to show he was prepared to discuss the issue. Nothing more was in his power. I took the last piece of chocolate cake from the box. First I scraped off the topmost layer and made a little brown pile of it on my plate. It immediately lost its shape. The chocolate had gotten too soft because of how warm the room was.
Do you really like it, asked the son, with a high-pitched laugh and a quick, jerky glance in my direction. I wiped the corners of my mouth with my fingers and licked them. Hastily, he turned away and reached out his hand toward the cake box. It was almost empty. In his face, a horrified grimace appeared for a brief moment, but he quickly caught himself. That just tastes too good, doesn’t it, he laughed then, full of understanding, pulling his sleeves up a bit and reaching with pointy fingers for a little kiwi tart. I had left the kiwi. Fruit made me sick to my stomach. The neighbor’s son tenderly considered the green slices on the round tart. It vanished without resistance between his full lips. A little sin, he said, dabbing scraps of gelatin from the corner of his mouth; I can resist anything except temptation, he joked, then quickly became serious again. Actually, he wasn’t supposed to eat such things at all. Swear, he said, I implore you, imploringly he looked in our eyes, first Amalia, then me, then Amalia again, you have to be as silent as a grave. You can’t imagine. You see, he said, cleaning his lips with his tongue, I’m the faith healer in the house. The moral authority, so to speak. If I lose my credibility. Then the whole system will collapse like a house of cards. Everything he’d started. Nothing would last. He stared into the open box. His jaw muscles tensed. His hair was sticking to his temples, darkly wet. His eyes were focused ahead, toward something far away. What’s disconcerting, he said now, more to himself, is that sometimes he himself was beginning to doubt the goals of the supposedly American team of scientists whose knowledge was behind his family doctor’s nutrition regimen. This scientific team might turn out to be a bunch of charlatans. Or even a fiction. A successful power play. Everything would then disgust him. As if he’d put his hand into something. Without warning, in one single moment, the utter meaningless of the whole enterprise would abruptly become clear to him. It forced itself on him like a smell. Without any external occasion. And without reason. If he told anyone what went through his head then. He laughed madly. He’d be institutionalized. He never talked about these ideas; he’d prefer never to have them. Now they came out of him in bursts. He’d be institutionalized. If he uttered even a fragment of his inkling. Called things as they are. The senselessness of our actions. Eternal recurrence. The struggle for existence. Nothing else, an eternal recurrence, he emphasized, of the same, without deeper meaning, but he kept himself, he did, from talking out loud about that, from unsettling the dull satisfaction of others, everything still had to keep going on in the end, and who could understood that better than he did, he carefully kept to himself, he knew nobody wanted to hear these things.
I was completely soft and sticky myself. I could hardly move my body, and my thoughts could not move at all. But, for the first time, I had the feeling that I not only understood the neighbor’s son’s every word but also grasped what he meant. It did not sound well-rounded and elegantly expressed. It no longer sounded at all beautiful. I may not have known just what it had to do with the tree. But something in his words had something to do with me; I felt they were aimed right at me, that they had to do directly with me. Nothing like that ever happened. I was just about to realize something great. The doorbell distracted me. The little girl was standing there. I gestured towards the living room. Go in there and get your father, I ordered her. She was wearing red patent-leather shoes and a hair circlet in the same color. In the middle of the living room, she stopped to take a good look at everything. Her mouth opened. The used paper napkins were lying around on the acorn table that once belonged to my grandfather. They looked indecent on the dark wood. The son took the box in his hands and crushed it until it was flat. Then he poured himself a last glass and held it up close to his eyes. The sweat on his temples had dried. Papa, said the girl, after quickly catching her breath. It’s already after six o’clock. First we waited for you. Then we ate supper. We told ourselves we no longer had to wait. She raised her wrist to her eyes and paused. It’s fourteen minutes after six, she said after a moment of effort. Papa, are you coming. He followed the child.
Amalia held me by the sleeve. Why had he been here. What had he wanted.
I had to think hard to remember how everything had even first begun.
The next day, the rain began. My father left his room at noon. It had not yet got properly light. Outside, everything looked unclean. Decontamination, I said to my father. The neighbor’s son’s ideas came out of my mouth, disordered and deformed. They lost all meaning. Only complete emptying guarantees complete purification, I babbled, you have to get to the bottom of the strategies and the system. My father gazed through the wet windowpane. In the yard, the son crossed the lawn in boots. A black poncho completely concealed his body. The wind blew the plastic from his sides. He looked like a vampire. In one hand, he held a large canister and sprayed brown liquid on the flower beds. Afterwards, he covered the soil with plastic tarps.