Young Animals

By Saskia Trebing

Translation Helen MacCormac

You tell Benny to go and find a stone. A big, sharp stone. One he can carry without needing both hands.

That will give him something to do. Benny needs things to do. Benny is the kind of child who likes to be praised. Benny wants to be a good boy. But not right now. Right now Benny is on his knees crying. He is bent over the mess beside the road, wailing as if he’d been knocked down instead of the heap of fur in front of him. “Mummy,” he wails in his raise-the-dead voice, snorting a pint of snot up his tiny nose. He knows you hate him doing that, but he has no idea how much you hate the ‘Mummy’ word. It’s always Mummy all the time. As if she can fix anything astride her new boyfriend down in Kreuzberg.

“Hey, Benny,” you say softly. “It’s for the best, don’t you see? Let’s look for a stone together.” But that just makes things worse. “No,” Benny screams and clutches your leg. “Don’t make it die. Don’t!” He digs his nails into your leg right through your jeans. You shake him off. “Ouch,” you say in the loud, assertive voice the horn-rimmed glasses lady has told you to use. “That hurts.”

Benny lets go and carries on sobbing. He plumps down in the dewy grass on the verge of the road. It’s no use. The fox is done for; there is nothing they can do. Its hind legs are glued to the tarmac as if they’ve been ironed on. Slimy purple guts spill out of the gash in its belly. The worst thing is that it is still breathing. Flat, panicky gasps of air while a thin trickle of blood runs down its pointy nose. Every few seconds a shudder jerks its crushed body. The fox doesn’t seem very big. Not a cub, but not yet fully grown. This could go on for hours if they don’t find a stone.
You are so far into the woods that there is no one there. Just the car pinging away to remind you that you’ve left the key in the ignition. The car that can do everything. Except swerve to miss a fox coming out of nowhere. It can’t do that. Or save a child from seeing it all.

Sounds of the Eighties drift over from the radio. “Listen, Benny, it’s your favourite song.” But Benny’s being a woebegone in the ditch by the road. You sit down beside him. “I know you’re sad,” you say. The horn-rimmed glasses lady told him to say this, too. He lets you touch his shoulder. “But he’s not going to make it.” You almost laugh as you say the words and your son wipes his snotty nose on your polo shirt.

That’s what they said about Benny, too. When he was just a bloody bundle with a needle stuck in his arm. His head the size of a tennis ball. Nicole was so weak they wouldn’t let her see him. A blotch of red in a white landscape. Everything was too quiet, just the miniature heartbeat on the screen. Everything was too big except the doll-sized nappy. The doctors called him a miracle.

Nicole says it’s a miracle Benny even wants to see you. But Benny doesn’t harbour grudges. She wouldn’t understand that. It’s just between the two of you.

He was all excited about going swimming today. In the lake in the woods. It’s just a pond really. But you found it together. That was last summer before you had to start asking to see him.

Nicole, standing in the doorway, handing over the child and his swimming bag, reluctantly.

A peck on the cheek wouldn’t be too much to ask, but she won’t take her eyes off Benny. “Don’t do anything stupid,” she says only half-jokingly. It’s not your fault the fucking fox decided to leap out in front of the car.

The crying is beginning to get on your nerves. You get up and start walking in circles. Benny is a child who likes to be told he’s being ‘sensible’ and ‘brave,’ but he does get carried away. No idea where all this whinging comes from. You’re not like that and Nicole isn’t either. They always said you would have to be patient. That these children may take longer to develop. “Grow up,” you say. This has nothing to do with being patient.

His body tenses. He’s sitting craning his neck over what is left of the fox. He wipes away the tears with his jumper sleeve. “Look,” he says in a different voice. “I can see its heart.” You don’t want to look at the panting body, then you do. At first it’s just muck and slime. But Benny is right. There is something pulsating in the middle. The hole in its belly reveals a nut-sized heart. A racing, bloody core that hasn’t given up yet. You feel sick. “That’s good, isn’t it?” he asks. You want to know how he knows this. “The heart beats to keep the blood moving.” Every time you see him, he’s learnt something new. He’s not disgusted . His eyes are full of compassion and a young scientific interest. Suddenly all you want is for this young animal to survive. You can see yourself scratching its legs off the road, carrying its organs wrapped up in your jumper. One by one if necessary. They can transplant heads and hearts nowadays. There are dogs on TV with wheels instead of legs: “Yes,” you say, “he’s a tough little guy.” Benny pats you on the leg. “Can we nurse him better?” The scar on his forearm is taking forever to heal. A bulging livid streak between two dotted lines exactly where they nailed the small bone back together.
They called him a brave little man. They plastered his arm and coddled him. They didn’t trust you. All you got was a coffee from the machine and please wait over there. Of course it was a mistake. Of course you’d never hurt him deliberately. You know that, so does he. You might grab him if he tries to run away. But you never want to hurt him. These children’s bones are too soft.

Since the hospital, Benny wants to be a doctor. “We could take it home,” he says. He touches the fox’s nose with a finger. Its breath gets more raspy; its eyes narrow to slits. You don’t want to know what he means when he says home.

“No, Benny,” you say, “we can’t do that.” You both look at your fox silently for a moment. Benny leans his head against your chest.

Birdsong, panting breath, the pinging car. “OK,” he says. At last. He lets go of your arms and leans over the fox’s snout. Breathes a tiny almost-kiss on its oddly intact head. You think rabies but don’t say anything. There’s a huge lump in your throat so big you can’t speak. Benny looks at you and all you can do is gape like a fool. He looks worried. Then he turns away and disappears from view. “Don’t go far,” you say quietly. You came home earlier yesterday for Benny’s sake. But maybe it wasn‘t early enough. All you want to do is lie down next to the fox.

You stay where you are and close your eyes. Sounds of a car engine in between the birds and the wind. Then a car shoots round the corner and races past far too fast. The rush of air almost sends you flying. Startled, you look round for Benny and can’t see him. You leap up and panic surges through you but then he nudges you from the side. He’s holding up a stone. Large, but not too large, sharp and smooth. “Here,” he says, “is this good?” You let out a long breath. You take the stone from him. “Yes,” you say. “It’s a good stone.” The fox’s breath is slowing down, more peaceful somehow though that can’t be right. “Get in the car,” you say. Benny shakes his head. “I want to stay with him.”

“Wait in the car,” you say. Getting louder, but Benny sits back down beside the fox. “Right now,” you say. Benny just sits there. “I want to stay.”

“No.”

“I want to stay with you.”

“No.”

The last ‘no’ is shouted. Benny flinches. You grab his arm. Drag him to his feet. You pull him towards the car. He yelps. Are you mad? That’s his broken arm. You put your big writhing baby on the back seat. Slam the door shut. Benny screams and pounds against the car window. “Mummy,” he howls inside. You’re in front of the car and your heart’s beating so hard it hurts. A wave of anger and shame is rolling towards you. You know it’s coming. All you can do is wait; you can’t move. You stare at each other. You on the outside and him inside. A moment of silence between one ‘Mummy’ and the next. Two seconds, maybe, or two hundred. Then you grab your mobile and call Nicole.

She never takes more than ten minutes. She picks up her tear-stained child and ignores you. You try to stop her so that she’ll look at you. “It leapt out in front of the car,” you say. “We are going home now,” Nicole talks into Benny’s hair. Benny waves.

Her car disappears around the corner. You’ve still got the stone in your hand. You kneel beside the fox which has all but stopped breathing. You lift the stone and press it against your temple. It is cool and damp and smells of earth.

“I’m sorry,” you whisper. And strike.

 

From “Jungtier (Mama).” Sachen mit Wörtern, January 2016.