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Editorial : Issue 4

Table of Contentsfor Issue 4

Adaptation of Gustav Adolf Hennig, Reading Girl

Cover illustration: Adaptation of Gustav Adolf Hennig, Reading Girl / photo art Leif Harmsen

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. And the mined and barbed-wired no man’s land became everyone’s: a long, green open space in the middle of the city, a place for biking, walking dogs, for impromptu concerts, illegal campfires and beer from the bottle. Thankfully, as the rest of the city has changed almost past recognition, this space has remained, tamed perhaps, but still green, still open, still there for everyone.

Purely by chance, this issue of no man’s land features two stories that trace the arc of this Wende, or “turn”: Julia Schoch’s evocation of the GDR in the little-girl brutality of summer camp, and Emma Braslavsky’s shifting “Amplitudes” of pre- and post-Wende friendship. Purely by chance, and fittingly so; despite the frenzy of commemoration, Berlin, and Germany, defines itself less and less by the rigid borders of its past and more and more by the fluid present, less by collective experiences and more by a multitude of personal and cultural imaginations. In Sudabeh Mohafez’s story “Sediment”, Berlin’s history-laden heart dissolves, a palimpsest through which the mountain Damavand shimmers. Claudius Hagemeister’s farcical Grim Reaper escorts us unceremoniously from post-Wall to posthumous reality. While in Keto von Waberer’s tender “Stella”, life after death is “an intermediate kingdom where animals ruled”.

This issue’s poetry also encompasses a range of approaches. In excerpts from Nicolai Kobus’ “imaging procedures”, poems “image” works of art. Hendrik Jackson’s work can be said to “image” poetry itself, referencing the modernism of Mandelstam. Carl-Christian Elze plays with the drive of language itself, while Harald Weinrich looks at language’s historical scripts and shibboleths. And Adrian Kasnitz, Birgit Kreipe and Christoph Wenzel offer highly individual snapshots of land- and cityscapes that seem to slip into the surreal – like the old no man’s land itself.

Isabel Fargo Cole, Katy Derbyshire, Clemens Kuhnert, Alistair Noon, Liesel Tarquini: Editors, no man’s land

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS


Editorial : Issue 4


it is


sitting
imaging process
self-similarity



Picture Postcad to O.M.
no sicily, a clothesline in berlin …
Brownish-red and beige walls …
All the eternal chitchat …



usedom
january miniature



German Ocean
View Across the City



SPRING’S a time like …


Say Shibboleth
The Marketplace in Machu Picchu



Sediment


Capturing in Passing


Amplitudes


1, 2 and 3


STELLA

it is

Author: Carl-Christian Elze
Translator: Steph Morris

maybe this is it: a third twist, a third force
resting amongst the body’s many bulges, the lobes of lungs,
a third cataract, the blood curled tighter; blood
flows faster here, falls further there, where things are good

the stillest lakes are found far flung
and not all animals look as they look in the books
and the banks can be green, can be steep, your axe meets
something soft, you find redness-deadness when you dive.

it’s not said it’s so; it’s simply said;
it’s certainly said, it is, it’s hazarded
it is; it’s hazarded, finally said and finally final!

stop it now! who said that? who’s grating?
stand up straight, who said that? who’s aggravating?
so, good, it’s the blood, is it? is it me, me finally?

 

Original © Carl-Christian Elze
Translation © Steph Morris

sitting
imaging process
self-similarity

Author: Nicolai Kobus
Translator: Tom Morrison

sitting

i can’t keep sitting so long
i’ll leave you a polaroid
do with it what you will

i’m off now. keeping my legs
crossed so long blocks the flow
of blood it all stops up

in the groin that’s why the mug
up there’s so pale i need to move
already out of focus, right-hand tremor

but the stroke still right precise the left
in my coat (note sewn into seam)
i hate cloakrooms everything

thwarted flight if i had to see myself
sitting like that i’d most definitely
hack away at my face until

my nasal bone could be seen
sideways and snot-like impasto
ran plastically from the sinuses

down my lapels and trouser legs
my own shadow gasping for breath
like a munch viewed from behind

i need to get away from black shafts
from violet squares away from
formal experiments for nothing

and nothing more than twisted
flesh and dreary discipline your
patience will be the death of me

i’ll leave you a polaroid
do with it what you will
i can’t keep sitting so long

Francis Bacon
Self-portrait, 1972
Oil on canvas – 198 x 147.5 cm

 

imaging process

so easily seen through
the nose
ghosted out (just gristle really)
the chain
round the neck                                  spinning
in fairytale fashion
fetters
on spectres
in their prime                              (please

remove
all jewellery
prior to
photography)
morieris
and some joy
in ornaments                                             the rings
on the fingers
and ears are déclarations
deep
black circles and traits d’union
in the skeletal
syntax
a material girl in order
to be not
so dreadfully
naked

Meret Oppenheim
Self-portrait: Skull and Ornament, 1964
(original X-ray)

 

self-similarity

i remember how between candles i sat
in my collar of mink and mane of dyed locks
with the soft dark midnight at my back

triangular from the front my self-creation:
aequalitas large as life, ecce homo wholly in line
with golden sections of perfect proportion

at some point towards dawn a jeeeesus christ
no, i thought, you’re not so bad at all
a panel so life-like even my cur takes a bite

Albrecht Dürer
Self-portrait, 1500
Oil on panel – 67 x 49 cm

 

Originals © Nicolai Kobus
The three poems translated are the opening sequence
of the series “bildgebende verfahren”
and first appeared in the anthology

Versschmuggel: portugiesisch- und deutschsprachige Gedichte
(Heidelberg: Wunderhorn Verlag, 2009)
All rights reserved

Picture Postcad to O.M.
no sicily, a clothesline in berlin …
Brownish-red and beige walls …
All the eternal chitchat …

Author: Hendrik Jackson
Translator: Rosmarie Waldrop

Picture Postcard To O.M.

I live in a crumbling ruin rough-hewn as if from the middle ages.
On the clotheslines hang bits of slavic cloth,
no hellenism to warm me, here the stoves are fed
with sulfuric coal, no horseshoe, I suppose,
above the threshold, applause brings a grunt
in heathen riot-tones. In compensation there’s no
Eldorado either, no disembodied hum of a thousand
lights, no quotationmarked cramming with notes
on this and that irreplaceable lotophage tincture.
Just a hairy-calved laugh at the screen
opposite or the unending chirp of the tram above the
firewall, the sleepy dozing off toward the unmanufactured.
but now come the romans and drink various
cocktails, and at my hi there give me a nod and the time of day.
though not yours, batjuschka, in your warm fur.

 

 

no sicily, a clothesline in berlin …

no sicily, a clothesline in berlin, with a plastic bag on it, as
if thrown down from the upper floor, except that the line is
carefully drawn through the handles. on the right a red light falls
on the fire wall, a young woman tastes her soup, bright interior
wide courtyards outside, above the wall the ghost of a soldier’s
helmet, tilted perspectives and steep blocks, falling facades
all around and a longish woodshed with sloping roof, freshly
dug-up ground, in the windows, like cockroaches, shadows –
people moving, bare winter trees outlined japanese style on the
screens next to the shrapnel holes and the rattling here and
there the order scattered over the night is full of resonance
we watch each other, hardly ever let each other out of reach.

 

 

Brownish-red and beige walls …

Brownish-red and beige walls, chimneys, resting in
opaque half-past-seven-late-summer-sheen;
Underneath, the steady stream-of-distant-noise, as so
lightly ends the day, a broad
Bridge pylon, pitted, the abdomen of a decayed insect
swept aside by a gust of wind.
Outside, the deck of the ramshackle boat, I think,
so under the black flag, the constant
Gliding off, proud dark, and rows of waves lapping
at the quiet Mainz bank, but blindly
Now gulls nearing and veering off, their flash
above the layers and sediments.

 

 

All the eternal chitchat …

All the eternal chitchat (skutschnie pesni zemli), night a trembling light in the room,
the casual friends, so indulgent, so much (yakking, fussing) tossing of balls balls, the mouths.
buff. your (invisible) part seems larger now than mine, which I put aside in a thought
by the window crack, in mutual command enthroning slumbering pride.

For all that we quietly left it as it was, the room, with freedom of eyes, fetters of death,
a process, hesitant, trickling through ignorance, of widening winds. until we
start talking of dayafterday, put on clothes and again practice a few gestures and moves.
and look sideways where it returns, unconscious as the warm swarming of bees from the hive.

 

From Einflüsterungen von seitlich by Hendrik Jackson
© Morpheo Verlag, 2001
All rights reserved
Translations © Rosmarie Waldrop

usedom
january miniature

Author: Birgit Kreipe
Translator: Catherine Hales

i hung over the sea on a blue thorn,
the sky that is, waiting for a moment
of beauty, of sense, the absolute poem
would please you. my shadows gobbled
fishes. elements raged, i saw grey rows
of teeth made out hotels. the rage of the waves
failed on the shore. the land pulled its collar
tighter. saw sou’westers, tons of freshly-oiled
flesh wobbling on wavecrests, from far off
the horizon, where ships were stuck on, across
the sea made out this: the last fish would have slices
of lemon in its mouth. the dunes would eat
the last humans the last poem would be
on the menu the last girls, incorruptible and legitimised
by beauty, would lie in ruins for ever, teeth
chattering in the wind and shine through centuries.
the thorn would grow larger the last poem would
have the form of waves then everything would start
from the beginning again and in the next world
this here would be a bathing resort again

 

 

january miniature

sky lense, light of the dead
in the ancient green of pine shadows
grave goods reigning
glittering, empty bottles loyal as gold
bronze crosses, a few pine needles

stones, hunchbacked, schlepping themselves
from grave to grave

the white freezing of birches
the formula is tender, almost light,

the dead lilies of january
snow witches, do not wilt

 

Originals © Birgit Kreipe
Translations © Catherine Hales

German Ocean
View Across the City

Author: Adrian Kasnitz
Translator: Catherine Hales

German Ocean

Old maritime maps on the walls and spiders’ webs so fine.
You touch the house all over.
The holidays, laugh the children and demand ice cream
until our ears hurt, now it doesn’t matter
as much as on days in the city.
In the evening we listen. The wind is in charge here.

 

 

View Across the City

There are the clouds, acid-green
and cursed. An aircraft
with unidentifiable destination, a vapour trail
and horror, if you think about it.
Then
the points, towers and turrets
the languid flight path of a falcon.
Pigeons and blind people are more
than the city fathers care for.
A little further on concrete
steel and glass attracting smears. The whole
realm of unconnected ideas
as though it were a rage against reality.
Sometimes
everything is smaller than ants, teeming.
The dust of our wishes is hidden
under the bed and we draw back from
any effort to bring it out.

 

Originals © Adrian Kasnitz
Translations © Catherine Hales

SPRING’S a time like …

Author: Christoph Wenzel
Translator: Richard Martin

                                           for Malte

SPRING’S a time like an accusation
last year’s bad conscience

carried over from then: an overdrawn winter
account and unsolved equations

not yet fully grown: the year breaking out
flexes itself with weak thunderstorms

a spaciousness outside a disturbance
of the air: grass pollen wetness and a gulping

beneath the loosened scarves: tinged with
unsaturated remains of swath and aftermath

the forecast’s current patterns
promise fluid transitions

climate and change in contrast
the tertian fever of short summers

and a last frost in april
is of quite a different nature

 

Original © Christoph Wenzel,
from
Jahrbuch der Lyrik
(S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2007),
to appear in Wenzel’s forthcoming collection
(Yedermann Verlag, 2009)
All rights reserved
Translation © Richard Martin

Say Shibboleth
The Marketplace in Machu Picchu

Author: Harald Weinrich
Translator: Steven Rendall

Say Shibboleth

Stumble stutter stammer slur
twist the tongue in knots and
become incapable of speaking
no
today is another day
a day to snap my fingers
when everything so easily
slips smoothly from my tongue
I felt it first thing this morning
when my tongue fresh and free
with a healthy red color
and no trace of white coating
awoke amid my tired teeth
and immediately slithered
through all the articulation points
effortlessly reaching just to test
even the hard interdental ones
(usually I can do them only late in the day
and sometimes not at all)
oh what pleasure to articulate today
even the difficult diphthongs and triphthongs
Words with heaps of consonants like
Shortribs Sheepshank Muttoncalf
or maybe Rumpelstiltskin
and then the lovely words with l
no need to fear a lapsus linguae
not today, certainly not today
I have my tongue I tell you
how good to have it today
especially today
since yesterday the Gileadites
seized the fords over Jordan
and cut off our escape
they won’t catch me today
even if their phonetically-trained guards
make me say Shibboleth Shibboleth
and again Shibboleth
whether as a single word or
in a harmless context
I know they won’t catch me that way
today I’ve got my tongue
I shall certainly
not misspeak
I shall certainly
pass over Jordan
I shall be saved
In fact I am
already saved

The Marketplace in Machu Picchu

For Friedhelm Kemp
the writer

Here I stand now on the ruins of Machu Picchu
and my shadow is a collar round my feet
So here Machu Picchu was founded
Here it crept long ago from its enormous egg
Here the she-wolf suckled the twins
From here the last Incan king was driven out and then
only the word ruled over the Forum
Americanum
From that outcropping the Inca Cicero probably uttered
his famous Quousque
Somewhat farther up died the great Inca Caesar
struck down by the Inca sons Brutus and Cassius
but avenged by Octavian the noblest Inca
and reborn in the schoolbooks of very young
Inca pupils all over the world
because his writing is so perfectly clear and marvelously simple
a model of style for me still today on the
marketplace of Machu Picchu

When I lie about your classical art of writing
You men and women of Machu Picchu
quid ergo vos?
Hasn’t any of you ever had an itchy hand?
The right hand I mean that leads the llama and that
you hold out to a friend
the hand that is made for writing
about the gods over the Forum Romanum and about
the good and even the evil gods
Why haven’t you written anything down?
Why have you kept to yourselves everything that
moved your hearts?
All Inca thoughts locked up in the miserly breast
graves made out of your mouths
ex oribus ossa

Stones yes stones that’s how you understood yourselves
Stones you broke smoothed and marvelously laid up
without mortar
You had stones in your hands and stones in your minds
and you put stones in our ears
marvelously without joints
So our ears are now deaf to your long-since
silent lips
to simple everyday words on the marketplace
of Machu Picchu
and the hushed balm of the nightwords

Were you on the whole satisfied with your world?
Did the gods benevolently accept your sacrifices?
Even the white gods who came up from the sea
on your unprotected flanks?
You had just founded the empire the Inca empire
more powerful than any other
and strategic roads linked all parts of the empire
roads as straight as the mountain ranges or
watercourses allowed
roads like the ones the hands of Roman pioneers built
who does not see that
you had a sense for order like your
Roman brothers
a sense for order and a sense for empire

Oh we gaze intently at the hands we moderns
at your diligent hands or rather those of your
diligent slaves
for the Inca empire arose hand in hand
and none of these hands in Machu Picchu in Cuzco or
elsewhere in the empire
from Chimborazo to the saltpeter desert in the south
no victorious hand no vanquished hand
reached for the graver stylus quill or other
writing instrument
among thousands and thousands of Inca hands
no writing hand
only hunting hands weaving hands flaying hands warring hands
and probably loving hands
Then why no writing hands?
The hands of love are also writing hands they
inscribe love on the flesh
Haven’t you noticed how transitory flesh is?
Paper lasts longer parchment endures almost
indefinitely
Writers of the Incas where are you?
Ignoti quasi non nati

Or was it all quite different?
Were you more literate than is good for writing?
Were you already tired of writing before you began to write?
Did you write yourselves on the wind?
On the indifferent Pacific wind that sweeps
over the Andes to die in the interior?
Ventis verba ut vela dedistis

 
From Sag Schibboleth by Harald Weinrich
© Officin Albis, Garching 1997
All rights reserved
Translations © Steven Rendall

Sediment

Author: Sudabeh Mohafez
Translator: Kate Roy

He’s there again. In all his glory: luminous, shimmering, irresistible. He’s there again and has taken me by surprise, as always. He always arrives unannounced. He comes and goes as he pleases. Today he caught up with me on the Weidendamm Bridge. Behind me, the evening rush-hour traffic speeds along Friedrichstraße. Next to me, my bicycle leans against the wrought-iron railings. Between the Tränenpalast and the old Brecht Theatre I look into the setting sun, mirrored in the Spree, glittering and dazzling. There, on the water, he stands, huge, silent and invincible. Damāvand. The mountain. The crown of Tehran. He stands on the water, grows out of it to his height of almost six thousand metres, spreads himself out to the left and to the right over the banks of the Spree, rests on streets and houses, and his white-covered head shines brighter than the Berlin evening sun.
My throat is raw. I’ve had this before. First comes the shortness of breath, then the lump in the throat. I know that it goes away if I stay calm and don’t question what I see. I’ve tried everything. Simple things like turning around or running away, more costly ones, like taking all manner of drugs. But it’s no use. If he appears all of a sudden, Damāvand, then he has his reasons. Then he won’t let himself be driven away; then he stays where he is and for as long as he wants. In any case, it would be foolish to wish for that. To drive away a mountain, to scare off, chase off the mountain of mountains, how childish.
So I breathe out fully, wait a fraction of a second, breathe in again and gaze at the vast, rocky massif that has turned up so unexpectedly in my little fissured Berlin. The calm of Damāvand can be felt even down here, and the browny-blue shimmer of his creased, cracked and jagged sides rests right over the Centre of Berlin, my old new home. The ochre-coloured village at his feet dozes in the evening sun, though I know that in reality it no longer exists. The city has consumed it. Maybe it’s become the old quarter at the heart of a new district, though more likely it’s been razed to the ground and disappeared. But not its residents, who are poor and dispensable. Yes, it’s most likely ended up like that. The village will have made way for new multi-storied apartment blocks made of cheap concrete, which will be rented out until the concrete’s fully dry, like the Wilhelminian-style houses in Berlin before the turn of the century. Rented out until the concrete’s fully dry to the people who used to live there before in mud houses and small homes nestled into the rock face, made of clay bricks they’d fired themselves.
The horn concerto of the Tehran traffic floods my ears like music. The Schiffbauerdamm is all draped with coloured lights, it must be a holiday, and my mouth waters when I spot the men crouching by the roadside next to their small kerosene ovens selling labu, beetroot cooked in salty water.
At the base of Damāvand’s slopes in North Tehran the Spree flows under my feet, and one of the punks who’ve set up camp outside the Tränenpalast wants to scrounge cigarettes. I tell her that I can’t give her any because I’ve given up. She doesn’t believe me and demands at least one. I ask if she can see the mountain. All she can see is a dumb bitch, and right where I’m standing, she replies. She whistles for her dog and leaves.
I turn back to the highest of the high. Smoking wouldn’t be a bad idea at all. I’d inhale deeply and send a long, silvery grey streak into the air. Into the air in front of me, in front of my face. A smokescreen that would cloud my vision and shroud me from view, shroud me from the mountain. Only for a second of course, for a fraction of a second. In any case, it would be foolish to wish for that. To hide myself from the mountain, from the mountain of mountains, to make myself go away, to evade him, to escape.
I absent-mindedly feel around in my jacket pocket for a forgotten packet of cigarettes, but it’s been too long since I stopped smoking. I still remember the moment well. We were sitting on the steps of a small shop which stood empty, like most of the apartments in the old, run-down building. We, that was Mira and me. She smoked filterless cigarettes that smelt like pipe smoke, and brought stories along with her. I was responsible for a six-pack of cheap beer and a pile of old newspapers to keep out the cold from underneath us. By then I had already switched to light cigarettes, which meant I had to put up with Mira mocking me every evening. From the end of March to the beginning of October we sat on the steps till way past midnight, had three beers each and lost ourselves in Mira’s stories. They were dreams for the future or tales from the past. But one thing was constant: they always played out in Berlin, in Mira’s Berlin, a city I didn’t know, and whose streets were lined with prisons, asylums and shelters. They were mainly inhabited by poor prostitutes, rich prostitutes, children and dogs. They were brimming with politics, politics galore. Politics from below. Mira swore by that.
We didn’t talk about my Berlin. Mira wasn’t interested in it, and I could understand that because my Berlin was a blurry one. One you couldn’t see clearly, that constantly eluded you, and stayed somehow shadowy. It was like me: an oddball, a bit lost, unattractive, contradictory and scarred.
On one of these evenings we found ourselves in the Söthstraße prison where women with bent backs were making wooden clothes-pegs. Mira was narrating the tale of a passionate love affair that played out here, only to end, a few years later, as dramatically as it had begun, in Italy of all places. Completely immersed in her story, I was repeatedly stubbing out my thirty-seventh cigarette of the evening on the ground, and when I finally dropped the butt I suddenly couldn’t breathe any more. I was gasping and making squeaky, groaning noises. Panic-stricken, I thought that life can’t end out of the blue like that, so unexpectedly and in such a mean way, and, over the noise building up in my ears, I heard a voice. It shouted again and again, “Breathe out! You have to breathe out!” It was Mira. She repeated this command over and over as she yanked my arms up high over my head – a cigarette in the corner of her mouth. I haven’t smoked again since.
I told Mira about Damāvand once. He was standing right there in our courtyard. I thought about it for a bit, summed up the courage, and asked her if she could see him.
“Who?” she wanted to know.
“The mountain,” I said quietly, “there, in front of us.”
We were sitting on the windowsill of our hole of an apartment on the fourth floor of an old building and looking down. It was late summer or early autumn, the golden glow of the sun’s last rays hung over the courtyard, a couple of cobwebs were spun out, attached somewhere by invisible threads, seemingly suspended in the nothingness in front of us, and there was a smell of earth in defiance of the city all around us. Damāvand was standing right in front of us. I had to tilt my head right back to see his snow-capped peak. I was glad he was near me, and thought of my father and how he’d taught me about geological formations on a trip to the mountains. He talked about animals that had lived here hundreds of thousands of years ago. That had lived underwater, since we were walking on sedimentary rock. On an ancient ocean floor that had been pushed to the earth’s surface by titanic forces; ammonites, trilobites, animals from prehistoric times with Latin names, buried deep in the rock.
“Nah, can’t see yer moun’in,” said Mira, after a glance at the courtyard.
I told her about him then. How he appeared first on the plane, and I was afraid that the plane wouldn’t be able to carry the weight. We passengers, the stewardesses, the seats and the small oval windows were shimmering in Damāvand, just as the ivy and the front of the building across the courtyard were now, while under us, silently, unheeded, my Tehran was fading away. I told Mira too how the mountain next turned up at my school in Berlin. In P.E. with Mr. Katzing, and while I was cleaning Mrs. Malikowski’s apartment. Anywhere really. Over and over again.
“And, well, now he’s here in the courtyard. He’s been here for a while this time. Nearly two weeks, I think.”
Mira was silent. After a moment she swung her legs over the windowsill, got herself a can of beer from our latest acquisition, the fridge, which was our pride and joy because it hadn’t cost anything and guaranteed a chilled Pilsner anytime, and sat back down next to me. A hiss flitted through the kitchen as she lifted the ring pull with a practised flick. Like every other beer, Mira drank this one slowly, with full appreciation. When she was finished, she surveyed the courtyard for a while, thoughtfully.
“Still can’t see ‘im, yer moun’in,” she said, swinging her legs.
I nodded and we fell silent again for a while. Then Mira pointed to the silhouette of Mr. Börne which was visible in the frosted glass panel in his kitchen opposite us. He’d fitted it there because he knew that when we weren’t sitting downstairs on the steps, Mira and I hung out up here and looked into his kitchen. But the kitchen had recently been furnished with a shower cabinet. Clearly the new views which that would afford were going too far for Mr. Börne, and so, with the help of the frosted panel, he’d narrowed our field of view to something more acceptable. Mira gestured with her can at Mr. Börne’s shadow on the glass and said that it reminded her of Max, and with that she began a new story.
Mr. Börne’s shadow there in front of me, I give up the search for cigarettes and take my hand out of my pocket. Something paws the pavement near me. A donkey is standing next to my bicycle. The mountain has never gone this far before. I focus on breathing, in, out, in, and find to my relief that the little boy sitting on the animal is blond, and, what’s more, is accompanied by a colourfully clothed, well-fed man, whose head is adorned with a jester’s hat crowned with little bells. He’s rattling a small can with some coins in it. The trio are collecting donations for a circus that’s performing in Schöneberg. I need my money myself, shake my head and think that the child should really be in bed. This thought earns the stranger a reproachful look, which he doesn’t understand. The small grey donkey gives a muted snort and I could swear that he’s grinning at me when he looks up at me. In my mind I tell him that I should really be heading home too. The donkey nods, content. I reach for my bicycle and turn around to wave at Damāvand.
But he’s vanished, like he has so many times before. And the old Spree, she’s lapping and rippling as if nothing has happened, nothing at all.

 

From Wüstenhimmel Sternenland by Sudabeh Mohafez
© Arche Verlag, Zurich/Hamburg, 2004
All rights reserved
Translation © Kate Roy

Capturing in Passing

Author: Julia Schoch
Translator: Zaia Alexander
Opinions were divided in the camp. Some said it was sea water that had transformed the cat’s body into a pig; others claimed they’d seen the animal between the barracks the night before with a swollen abdomen: that it retched and writhed as it crawled down to the water on shaking legs. Rat poison, somebody said, turns cats’ bellies into enormous balloons. It ended up like a buoy drifting with the tide and washing back ashore.
The camp custodian shoveled the cat’s body off the beach and onto the platform of the pick-up. That’s how it returned to the camp. When they saw him driving by, some of the smaller kids ran behind the pick-up and hung onto the rear where the bloated animal lay. They examined it, distorting their faces, and later they couldn’t stop talking about it in gory detail.
A week later, the soldier was found belly-down on the beach. His lips were blue and his abnormally round face was turned sideways. This time the camp custodian wasn’t able to lift the body with his shovel. A committee was appointed. In the morning, as always, the camp had marched in a long column down to the beach; it was there the dead person was found, wrapped in what was left of his uniform. We stayed back; only the group leaders approached the dark bundle. One of the women held both hands to her mouth; another grabbed a stick and poked at the wet body. We waited at a distance, quietly. The storm ball hung at half-mast, which meant we could go swimming. Yet nobody went into the water that day. Nor the following days. The beach remained off-limits until we left. We stayed in the camp, or were sent on excursions around the area. We visited a dockyard, two fish factories and, yes, we even saw a sea-bunker from a war that had happened before our time.
The committee chief interviewed us very briefly, yet long enough to grab each one of us under the chin and make us look him in the eye. Everybody told the same story. I could have said more, but didn’t. I said what everybody had seen every day at the center of the camp: a game, a quiet soldier, the camp director. They demanded we sign a blank piece of paper attesting that we’d forget the beach and the body. Nobody would be interested in hearing such stories when we returned home. They placed an index finger to their lips: now we were the bearers of a state secret. If it ever came out, we’d put the country and the camp in danger. We nodded and kept quiet, acted as if we’d forgotten about the beach and the body. During the inquiry they treated me like everybody else; nobody suspected there was a connection between the soldier and me.
I tried as best I could not to watch the camp director’s game. She usually left headquarters around noon and headed over to the chess court at the center of the camp. We walked towards her in the opposite direction. In orderly rows, we marched past her to the dining hall where they served the food. Since I was in charge of the group, I walked in front. She almost always stopped for us, very briefly, to acknowledge our presence. She nodded, smiled, and this made us lift our knees even higher on the next step. When we returned from the dining hall, in the same ordered rows, she still was seated at the game. The large black and white stone slabs of the field stayed cool even in the noon sun. The camp director tied a scarf around her head. The soldier who was with her wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. He didn’t need to wear his helmet now, but there were no trees or shrubs on the field to shade him as he pushed the chess pieces. The gravel surface surrounding the field glowed red. Only the area in front of the barracks had some shrubs stuck in narrow strips of sand. They were the only plants on the path surrounding the chess court. The camp cat was lying under the bench and jumped out when we approached. It was so close to the ground, the dust must have penetrated all its orifices. I didn’t look at the two of them. They played wordlessly, except when the director called out the next position. The other girls laughed briefly, because they were used to laughing whenever they caught a glimpse of the soldier, who from day one was called the loser. The laughter always had to be provoked anew to get it started again. And every troop that passed kept it going.
My brother was smaller than the others, and I noticed him as soon as I arrived. He was leaving with some other soldiers for a change of guard just as we drove into camp. They checked off our names at the long tables by the entry and we were divided into groups. I saw him following commands on the other side of the fence. He moved his arms and legs as if he were having trouble getting everything into synch. Even though he’d lived in the area for a year now, his body still seemed all tangled up. The weapon was a long clumsy stick that somebody had attached to his back against his will. He walked up and down the fence always keeping the same distance from the others. Even from afar I saw the sweat running from under his steel helmet and into his eyes, and it seemed to me he was the only one it happened to. He wiped his face with the palm of his hand. His uncoordinated limbs flopped all over the place as if it weren’t an honor to be doing his duty here. The group leader called out our names over the dusty square. He turned around when he heard mine. I saw him look at me from behind the wire fence; he looked at me from through the mesh as if I should protect him, and not the other way around. The gate was wide-open, the fence wasn’t insurmountable; and yet he kept looking at me as if we’d never meet again. Maybe he could tell what I was thinking. I decided not to greet him because one of the girls suddenly started laughing. Her outstretched finger pointed at my brother; his nose was dripping blood all over the metal struts of the fence. Before he could take a handkerchief from his pocket, the others also got up the courage to laugh at his disorder. They formed a huge communal finger pointing across the fence at a soldier who was bobbing up and down in an unsoldierly manner. I saw him try to force his bodily fluid back into the orifice. The others kept walking. He walked too, holding the handkerchief pressed to his nose. I laughed briefly, and then walked away with the others.
I had expected to see my brother; I knew he was doing duty here. But I didn’t understand why he wasn’t making any effort – no effort at all for his country. That’s why it horrified me when I ran into my brother in the camp, and why I looked away in embarrassment. The bloody nose suited him. I imagined the others soaring over meter-high walls in a single bound, while my brother could barely pull himself up to the ledge with his weak arms; how during crawl maneuvers, he’d just lie there in the dust behind the others, and by the time he returned to the tent, his face sticky with mud, the others were already getting their second wind. Everybody fought for the chance to do these duties in the camp; he was the only one who acted as if it were a punishment to walk up and down the fence surrounding us.
We slept peacefully because somebody was keeping guard down by the fence. Nobody would climb over the wire mesh, along the rain gutter, and into our room. Nobody would walk around the five bunk beds, deciding which of the checkered covers to toss back. No hand would wrap around a child’s throat and squeeze; we didn’t have to wake up choking and waving our arms to alert everyone to the fatal situation. Our feet didn’t have to kick against the metal frame for the others to wake up. Nor did we have to jump out of bed because the camp was being attacked by a convoy of vehicles loaded with men armed to the teeth, men who put the camp’s security in danger. And we didn’t have to go down to the basement of the barracks in our bare feet, the heavy iron doors sealed shut until the attack was over. The cotton-filled stocking mask that was supposed to protect us from dust and radiation wouldn’t be utilized, nor would the provisional toilet-a yellow plastic bucket meant for emergencies. We slept peacefully.
I must have silently asked to be put in charge of the group. At least, I didn’t say anything when I was appointed to the position a few days after we arrived. Maybe I’d inadvertently stepped forward, or made a mere movement of the hand, like when you chase away a fly; maybe that’s what made the group leader think I was suited for the job. She looked at me, nodded, and pointed her finger at me. The group pretended they were looking at some amazing landscape just below the window, suddenly crowding into the back of the room near the empty flowerbox. They moved even further into the background to increase the space between us, and then, one after another, they opened their lockers. Their heads disappeared behind opened doors made of imitation wood. I stuck a duty sheet onto the naked wall; the room was silent, except for the rummaging and banging of hands in the cabinets.
Every morning, the girls open the doors to their rooms; the leader sticks her head inside and inspects them. Sweeping and dusting duty, bed duty, laundry duty, picture coloring duty at the table in the center of the room. I give them points for their duties in a book. All counted, they add up to an excursion to a canning factory at the end of the stay. I stand next to the director as she runs her finger along the upper edge of the cabinets and holds it up to the light.
The horrific encounters with my brother seemed never-ending. On one of the first days, after the noon roll-call, we scattered to the center of the camp. Somebody brought bows and arrows, toy grenades and tires for us to do something with. After the soldier placed everything on the dusty ground, he just stood there staring at us defiantly. When the first person stooped to pick up the equipment, he opened his eyes wide, spittle covering his mouth, and blurted what he’d heard the others saying about him. The loser, he said, has done it again. As he spoke I saw how he basked in our gaze.
People in the camp talked about how the soldier had broken into a sweat on the way to a drill tour. He suddenly couldn’t take the sickeningly cramped space inside the halted bus, water started flowing from his forehead and armpits; he had to take off his cap and loosen his collar as he sat there. He jumped up before the bus had even reached the gate, squeezed between the crowded rows, climbed over several bundles of combat gear to the front and then jumped outside through the folding door. He leaned against the hot bus. He didn’t even straighten up when the others in the bus rolled down their windows and started laughing over his head. A little later, the director came out of the camp headquarters and hit the bus once with her fist. The heads withdrew inside. She waited a few seconds before she took away the man glued to the metal.
From that day onward, he moved the chess pieces for her. He still wore his uniform; he was still officially a soldier.
The director kept the soldier for herself. In the morning, he swept the squares of the game board, tore tufts of grass at the edge, or chopped off single stems from the cracks. We exercised and jogged in place, following orders over the loudspeakers; the soldier hacked around the field with the hoe. He always kept his jacket on, even though these kinds of duties could be executed with a bare torso. The custodian only wore a yellow undershirt over his uniform trousers, sometimes nothing at all; green spots gleamed on his arms from the bushes on the beach.
When the director felt like playing, she’d sit on the bench in front of the field; the soldier would immediately put aside his tools. Or, if he was seated already, he’d stand up very quickly. He always remained standing even though there was another bench cemented to the ground across the way. The director began; the soldier took his place behind the indicated piece, grabbed it with both arms under the wooden bulges, secured his footing, and dragged it across the court to the desired square as though he were carrying an unconscious body.
He took less time for his own moves. He often started by shoving the knight between the pawns. They teetered and swayed. If one of the pieces tipped over onto the stone slabs with a dull thud, the director looked away until the soldier picked it back up. The bishops made things difficult. They didn’t have bulges like the other pieces, nor did they have a collar that he could have grabbed onto beneath the smooth ball. The smooth head sat on a narrow neck that widened at the bottom into a thick trunk. The soldier tipped it and rolled it across the surface to the appropriate square. If the director lost, she’d look at her watch and go back to headquarters. If she won, she’d watch him carry the pieces back to their places. After supper, she said, and then walked away. The soldier nodded to the camp director’s back. Only once did my brother fail to set the piece down immediately. I was walking past the edge of the playing field with a message for House 5 under my arm. He put the rook back down and looked at me. I kept walking without looking back. I didn’t greet the director either.
I have to look at him longer during the biweekly maneuvers. At how he runs between the pieces, lifts them, sets them down, and then waits for the camp director’s orders. She smiles at him nicely and with a slight hand movement makes her rook move vertically to capture his knight. He gestures with his hand in surprise, but takes the knight away immediately. He puts the captured pieces at the edge of the playing field sorted according to size. They stand there like a wooden legion while the field clears. The camp director fans herself with a folded newspaper. If one of us comes close to them, she nods at us encouragingly.
The maneuver field at the center of the camp lies between the barracks by the chess court. We estimate distances according to self-drawn maps, walk once around the square with a compass and register values in tables. We squat behind invisible barriers, throw ourselves in ditches from which we toss metal balls into a circle marked by flags. Sometimes we transport the wounded on our backs, or we take them by the arms and legs and put them onto a mat which serves as the hospital ward.
Every maneuver ends with a game that has each team wearing colorful bands on their arms which have to be captured by their opponents. We run across the field and edge along the walls of the barracks as best we can. Nobody is allowed inside the houses. Some of the children run to the camp director: she doesn’t jump up and scream when they disturb her. She lets the refugees come to her, but doesn’t look at them. They quickly realize they aren’t allowed to break rules in her presence either. The camp director orders a pawn to move one field square ahead before glancing briefly to the side. Who’s winning? she asks, and turns around again. I tear the plastic band from somebody’s arm. Bravo, she calls, and shakes her fist in the air.
Now that the loser was released from guard duty, I went to the window with the others again. It had been unbearable for me to see him wandering like a restless animal around the strip between the fence and the barracks. While the other two soldiers waved or made other signs, he looked at me through the wire fence and said nothing. The older girls shouted at him, threw crumpled paper or zwieback at him. He looked up and the girls saw that the paper and zwieback only hit his outer shell.
The other two placed their feet on hooks near the concrete fence posts and smiled up at them. The girls above were squirming on the window sills. They’d often whistle when they saw the relief squad coming from behind the house. My brother was as scared as the other two, though he had no reason. He wore his uniform according to the rules and he kept his weapon shouldered from the first minute of duty. We watched three commandos walk past each other in opposite directions. They marched in step from the narrow strip between the house and fence. After a few minutes, the new guards took off their metal helmets and let them be drawn into the girls’ room on clotheslines. They carried letters in them; entire books, or simply locks of soldier hair.
In any case, it was easy to hide my relationship to him. He bore a mark on his temple like a stamp; a red ornament on his skin. By contrast, my body was spotless, clear. Even if somebody had tried to draw a connection between us, my hair and eyes were dark, but he looked like the color had been drained out of him. His transparent limbs stuck out of his uniform. That’s how he walked through the camp. When I saw his milky shape approach our house, I stared into the barrack’s ledger. He stood in front of the window of my guard room, tapped on it with a fingernail as if he had to first make himself noticeable. I knew he wanted to fetch the equipment stowed away in the basement of our barracks. The equipment? I asked, and he nodded. I shoved the ledger through the narrow crack between the glass and the table for his signature. He held the pen so tightly, his fingers turned even whiter. Instead of writing, he waited, holding the tip of the pen over the sheet as though he had to remember his name. When I looked up, I saw he had only been hoping for this look. I slid my jaw back and forth, a demand. He signed the ledger with a circle and line; I gave him the key to the room. He stood in front of my window holding a metal hook with the key fastened to it. I turned on the radio on the empty table in front of me. The opened ledger lay next to it.
In front of my window, I saw the girls sneaking up on him. When he stood alone on the chess field, they clapped their hands or screamed at him from behind. It took a few seconds until he opened his eyes again and turned around. He jabbed at the air a couple of times with his arm as if fighting the shrubs with a sword. The girls jumped to the side, laughed.
The sand we’re sitting on is churned up from the day before. We’ve been waiting an hour for the loudspeakers to give the all-clear to go swimming. We watch the others hobble with bowed feet across the stony seashore; only three groups are allowed in the water at once. They throw themselves into the waves between the boundary markers. Their bathing caps glow in the group colors like enemy signals. I dig a hole in the sand big enough for my fist as my brother takes a step towards me from behind. Some girls near the water stick their fingers into the algae-covered silt looking for amber. Every so often, they lift their arms in the air and then lower them again, disappointed at finding only shards from dark beer bottles. Concentrating, they work up and down the portion of beach that reaches the fence. Behind the fence the beach is empty. They built the fence into the water so nobody could get to us. It disappears beneath the surface, far beyond the designated swimming area. None of us are interested in finding out precisely where it ends. My brother and the custodian come out from behind the bushes while we’re waiting for the order to swim. I turn around briefly and immediately gaze in the opposite direction. My brother carries a bundle of twigs under his arm; the custodian, a large pair of hedge shears. They walk, one behind the other, to the pick-up on the road by the beach. Without turning my head, I can see the camp custodian moving through the grainy sand with his heavy shoes. Once they’ve passed me, my brother suddenly drops the twigs. He bends over for them, and I notice him glancing at me. The custodian just scratches his upper arm at the sight of the fallen twigs, and keeps walking. My brother is still busy collecting them when I hastily reach behind me and place two or three twigs on the heap. I look at him wordlessly. He takes this look as an invitation and says he’s going on leave in October. I don’t answer, and he says: maybe. I shrug my shoulders. He keeps looking at me, demanding a reaction to the news. I throw a clump of sand at a girl sitting a few meters ahead of me. She screams and knocks the sand away from her hip. No: first she knocks the sand from her hip, and then she begins to scream. The director looks in our direction, and my brother finally gathers the wood in a bundle and stands up. He follows the custodian who is hitting the shears against a tree trunk up the road. He doesn’t hurry, nor does he purposely go slowly. He lays the deadwood onto the bed of the small truck like a sick infant, carefully pulling his arms out from under the pile. He looks at me. I jump up; the loudspeaker is shouting out our number over the beach. From the water, I look back. He’s still standing there. Beside him the custodian kicks the tires of the vehicle to loosen the sand from the soles of his shoes. I push the head of a fidgety girl under water. On the beach, the director gestures toward me with her head. When I don’t react, she points warningly to my towel. She puts her hands on her hips and nods. I swim to the permitted buoy. Alone.
I had walked past him the night before they found him on the beach. He was sweeping the chessboard. Next to him was a pail with a rag hanging over the edge. It was the first time he didn’t notice me, and I stood still. I opened the barracks ledger in the middle of the path and looked over the pages at him. The floodlights in front of the barracks were turned on. He looked up for a few seconds and with steady movements began to wipe the heads of the individual pieces. He held them by their throats with one hand, and ran the other over the smoothly polished curves and edges. I saw him clean each protuberance of the king’s crown. When he finished, he doused it with water. When we marched by in the morning, the wood pieces were dry again.
Most recovered quickly from the horror in the final days. The bigger girls started imitating how the dead man used to move. They waved their arms in the air, walked back and forth in front of each other with half-closed lids, or stood with tortured faces between the chess pieces that nobody touched anymore. Another girl shoved the corner of a handkerchief in her nose, bent her head all the way back, and then hobbled clumsily across the field with the white flag hanging in front of her face. The others laughed, but I broke away from them, ran up to her, and ripped away the handkerchief. I hit her in the temple with my forearm. The girl immediately grabbed me with both hands and dragged me by the hair back to the group; the girls had jumped up and formed a circle around us. They tore me in every direction; they speculated that I wasn’t indifferent to the dead man. They were so surprised by their discovery that they didn’t want to let me go anymore. For a while we formed a clutching sticky mass. Through the tumult of arms and heads, I saw the camp director exiting headquarters from the far end of the field. I realized immediately that she was looking for me, all the way across the court, the gravel paths, the playing field. Surely somebody had informed her of the connection between us, the ties and bonds that appeared if you looked at a dead man closely. A look in the files would have sufficed. A telephone call. As she walked towards us, her eyes never left me. She walked quickly, bent forward. The girls pushed me from all sides. The biggest one still clawed at my hair. Beneath the pain, I thought I really should do something for the loser. But then I realized how ridiculous it was to treat a dead man as if he were alive.

 

Original © Julia Schoch, from Beste deutsche Erzähler,
Deutscher Verlagsanstalt, 2002.
All rights reserved
German original
Schlagen im Vorübergehen at www.juliaschoch.de (under “Texte”)
Translation © Zaia Alexander.