Incoming Tide

Author: Astrid Dehe, Achim Engstler
Translator: Helen MacCormac

About the book: It’s Christmas Eve 1866.  Tjark Evers, a young sailor and navigation student is stranded on an offshore sandbar in the middle of the sea. The tide is rising and there is little chance of help. Caught between water and sand, between dreams and reality, the young man seeks refuge in words and sentences…. Recognizing the power of the sea, he challenges his fate and starts to write.

No trace of the boatmen. Not a sound. As if there had never been a boat, or oars, or shouts of warning when the vessel started to broach; no man from Langeroog lost in the litany of his children’s names.

The swirling fog envelops him in way that doesn’t feel real. It is too soft and vague, all of a sudden. The temperature of the air must be about one degree Celsius, the water maybe a few degrees more; but these are just numbers, they have no substance. He wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. His brows and lashes will be wet but he can’t feel a thing. He looks down at his boots caught in water that wasn’t there before. How long has he been standing like this? It seems like hours. Is this a dream, and he’ll wake up in a moment, back in the room he shares with two other lads in Timmel?

Tjark pulls himself together, stamps his feet hard causing the thin film of water to spray across the sand, and hunches his kitbag firmly to his shoulder. This isn’t a dream. He is here, standing on the east edge of the island, even if he can’t actually see it.
“Navigation is the science or art of directing the course of vessels as they sail from one part of the world to another. Bearing this in mind, the two fundamental problems of navigation are: 1) what is the ship’s position at a given moment? And 2) what is the most advantageous course to be steered in order to reach a given point? It is the responsibility of a practical navigator to solve these questions with certainty.” This is what it says in his textbook on navigation, and these were the words their teacher Johann August Funk had used yesterday to dismiss his class and send his students off home for Christmas.
Tjark was the only one to cross the water. He’d needed determination to reach his destination, not nautical instruments. He’d even managed without a compass – quite a feat.

The fog has grown thicker if anything, emulating the first-ever dawn before land and water were parted. Tjark needs to get going. He’ll cross the island somehow, forging his own path if he has to. It’s an hour to Westdorf village.

The sands of Osterhook rise, becoming finer, sieved by beach grass on the edge of the dunes. You can feel the change underfoot. Tjark closes his eyes as he walks, sucking in air soaked with moisture that hasn’t come from the sea and does not taste as salty. The sand starts to slope downwards, instead of rising. The tide he had not noticed before tugs at his legs, the water gets deeper, slops into his boots.

Suddenly the fog all around him starts screeching, and spits out a seagull which is gone at once. Then everything is deathly still, as if the world has lost all sound now, as well as colour.  Tjark turns around and wades in the other direction. Seconds later he is surrounded by the swell of the sea on all sides. When he finally finds solid footing on higher ground where the water is still shallow, he turns clockwise, acting as his own compass. You stood dreaming too long, Evers. You’re disorientated because of the fog. You went south-west instead of straight west.

This time he counts his steps. Twenty, twenty-one. The water stays level, feels right. When he reaches forty-five it starts getting deeper, but he won’t believe it. 1845 is the year he was born, after all. Forty-eight steps and it starts running into his boots again. The water ahead is crossed with bars of black and he realises he is looking at underwater channels – five more steps and the current will tear you off your feet. Get back!
He has no idea where he started from now, and he forgot to count his steps. He makes a half turn and puts one foot in front of the other.

A couple of sharp cries sound out like tiny hammers hitting pearls: oyster catchers. He can’t see the birds, but he knows you can eat them, poach three in a jar. That used to be his grandfather’s favourite meal; he was named after Tjark Ulrichs, his mother’s father: island sheriff and a legend in his time after he prevented the village from being destroyed by the French. He has been dead and buried for four years now. Grandmother Hiemke is still alive, it’s as if death has forgotten about her, but she’s blind, and her days are dark. For a moment the fog lifts like a sail billowing in a storm and allows Tjark to see what lies ahead on this side of the island: more water. Maybe it has been conjured up just for him, maybe he drove it out of the sand and something keeps throwing it back at his feet, some demon sent to test and try him.

Back, where to? He has no idea which directions he has already gone, even the flattest parts are covered in water now; there are no footprints left. He will walk a circle as wide as he can. His feet are stiff with cold; he can’t feel his toes.  He can’t tell if they move when he wants them to. But he can walk.

The circle turns into an ellipse, less than one hundred paces round. Another gull appears from nowhere and is chased by something that turns on him: Tjark thrashes out wildly, stumbles, can only just keep himself from falling. His left leg is soaked to the thigh, but the nightmare is gone, thrashed away, shouted away. Gasping, he pulls his kitbag back up onto his shoulder. Where did that come from? What does it mean?

What does this mean? Luther’s question. Years ago at Sunday school they had learnt the Small Catechism off by heart. Tjark had felt restless during those hours. Sometimes he had headed off towards Ostdorf, where people weren’t quite as particular about what children did or didn’t do, instead of going to the island church. The Ten Commandments, The Creed, The Lord’s Prayer. Each commandment, article or petition was followed by the same question: “What does this mean?” He had given the answers as long as he had to, and then put them aside. He was sure they applied, but let them be. What had stuck was the consciousness that we are all sinners, descended from Adam and therefore doomed to die, who must trust in God to soften his judgment and show mercy like a stern father and comforting mother. Tjark never could equate the angry, jealous God of Luther’s catechism – who would persecute all who disobey His commandments, and punish unto the seventh generation – with the God of grace and consolation. He believed that if he lived humbly, things would work out in the end. For him, wrath was one of the great powers of the earth, there to set limits and defend boundaries, a thing of storms, and ice, and above all: of the sea.

Tjark knows the law of the sea better than anything. Water covers three quarters of the planet. If it releases land that it has taken thousands of years to create, it’s for a limited time only. Baltrum and the other East Frisian Islands are no exception. Men may have gained the right to use those islands, but not to own them. The land has always been dominated by the sea, which has taken its toll year after year; dunes seized and torn away, grazing areas washed out and buried under sand, human lives taken like a sacrifice to heathen Gods. There were times when the sea went unbounded, destroying nearly all the houses of Baltrum, lifting ships from anchor, and cutting up the island as if it had grown too large. But during his lifetime the sea has been moderate. The last storm tide hit Baltrum in February 1825.
Tjark has only ever heard stories about it.

This place, this sand he is standing on, is not an island. It was never intended for men. But it’s still a kingdom, a place where the rules of the sea apply. Did he defy its law? Should he fear its wrath? The wrath of the sea, what does this mean? What about the dark horror released from the depths just moments ago? What about the ruthless never-ending tide? Or the confounded confusion that stopped him finding his way through the fog?

Find a way. He is a navigator; he won’t give up. He trudges on as best he can, and his ellipse gets smaller and smaller, until he is zigzagging this way and that, while his feet leave marks that fill up with water and disappear immediately. He’d write whole sentences in the sand, if he could, to delay the truth; he’s ready to wield every physical possibility, all the what-ifs and dreams people continue to dream when reality has become inevitable.


He’s going to drown. There’s not much time left. Perhaps just enough to sort his affairs. Tjark lifts the kitbag that has fallen from his shoulder out of the water and tries to untie the strings. This is difficult; his fingers are stiff and blue with cold. But then he manages to dig his hands into the bag and grabs hold of the Christmas presents at the top. He blinks away tears that keep welling up. A box of cigars for Father, a piece of good soap for Mother. Bought yesterday in Aurich, when the coach dropped him off. They’re worth nothing now. He is looking for something right at the bottom, packed away under his shirt and other clothes. At last his fingers touch the spine of his exercise book. Thick card lined with blue paper. He pulls it out. The pencil is stuck between the pages where he’d calculated spherical triangles, determined angles, and specified sine and cosine functions. A lot of work, but there are a still a few pages left for examples.

What now? You write a farewell letter. You put the book in the cigar box and commit it to the sea. It can do this much, can it not? Wash the box up onto a nearby shore where someone might find it and pass it on.

He is so alone. Nobody has missed him, no one is expecting him. His fellow students and the boatmen think he’s on the island, his parents and brothers and sisters are sure he’s in Timmel. But he is out here on a sandbar. They will be thinking of him, he belongs to them, he’s part of their lives, but they’ll have the wrong pictures in mind. None of their thoughts can find him here; no one can touch his fate. He won’t be with them until after he’s dead, until they start searching for him at the end of the Christmas holiday.

The water stands three hands high above the sand and is starting to feel heavy, like some awful dense matter used to getting its own way. The sea will have him. That is its law, its price for overstepping the mark.
Very well, he will pay for the moment when joy and impatience and a small sense of victory made him blind. He will pay the earthly God his dues and be done. He can do nothing more for his body.
Which leaves his soul. Guilty from Adam’s line, he still hopes for mercy. There is another God, one in Heaven. Not a tangible force, just a small piece of hope, but based on more than Luther’s catechism and vouched for by his father and his fathers before him, and by his mother who prays to this God for her children. He will abide by this. He can say goodbye with hope.

Tjark clamps the kitbag under his arm, opens the book and starts to write. He fills three pages with loops of beautiful writing, writing that should be set in stone:

Dearest Parents
brothers and sisters
I am here on a sandbar
and will drown I shan’t
ever see you again
nor you me

God have mercy upon
me and comfort you
I will put this book in a
cigar box. God grant that
you receive these lines
from my hand. I send you
my love for the last time

God forgive me my sins and
take me to him in Heaven
Skipper HE Evers
TUH Evers

From Auflaufend Wasser by Astrid Dehe and Achim Engstler, © Steidl Verlag
Translation © Helen MacCormac

Krystyna: And What about Love? I asked Her

Author: Liane Dirks
Translator: Laura Radosh

The beginning was easy.
I came out of a tunnel and saw her sitting in the distance. On a low wall, like a young woman, her legs crossed, her left foot swinging. She wore a pleated skirt in sand and gray tones. Her hair was chin length, full and heavy. Standing next to her was a man, she was flirting with him.
The light was translucent that day, as if I had brought it back with me from my travels; and warm air still embraced my body, which was gaunt, and my soul, which knew that something was starting.
May I introduce you? the man asked.
She smiled: I’ve already heard about you.
That surprised me, I hadn‘t yet done much for anyone to hear about.
We gave a reading together at a school.
She read a text about an unemployed man who applied to an agency for a job as a pig. I read from something I remember as being rather melodramatic about a woman who wanted to go away forever. Which is a contradiction in terms, “forever” and “away,” because you can’t always be away, at most and at best always there. Later I ripped that story into pieces.
They asked her how she could write something so funny, and me, why something so serious. We talked for a bit, were given sandwiches, and drank tea in the teachers’ lounge.
Afterwards, we walked a short way together to the train station. She said that I had talent and that my text reminded her of another text she’d once read, by a Frenchwoman she thought it was, something similar, a little bit different, but it reminded her.
She wanted to know what I was working on, what I did, and my telephone number. She wished me success and then stepped somewhat laboriously into the number 9 tram and I, into my narrow life.


I don’t remember much about the two years that passed before she called.
Things happened of course, I moved, didn’t travel so much anymore, got rid of my absent boyfriend, bought myself a single mattress, and exposed myself somewhat more boldly to the winds of loneliness.
When the time was up, I was given my task.
She passed it to me in the form of a book. On the balcony of her apartment with a view of the city’s gardens; after we’d exchanged some pleasantries, I’d drunk Nescafé from an oversized mug, and the broken webbing of the cane chair had jabbed me in my backside and my legs – she always got the one with the blanket.
She asked me about love. She was the first of us to do so. In answer, I shrugged my shoulders.
Then it came.
Read this! she said. The way a doctor says: Take this. It will do you good. A prescription.
It was a translation. Two hundred ninety-one pages. Ragged margins. Blurry printing. The cover was made of shiny cardboard with a charcoal drawing of trees, with crowns like black smoke forming a lattice of sorts. Inside there was an opaque photo of her in which she cocked her head and laid her forefinger on her cheekbone, a pose she never assumed.
The original title was Przezylam Ošwiecim.
I Survived Auschwitz.
She dedicated the book for me and I read it in one night.
Later she called me and asked if I had finished it.
I said yes.
And? she asked.
I cried.
You see! she said.
But to this day I don’t know whether I see. My eyes however were certainly opened.


In retrospect, I can’t say anymore why I did it. The decision came suddenly and I was the one who made it.
One evening I called her and said she should tell me everything, the rest, her secret.
Had I remembered – the agitated movement of her age-spotted hands, the sudden tension in her body, the disquiet – or was it the story itself, which lay fallow, arable land for everything? At any rate it was naive. But it’s often naiveté which is inescapable.
In my hand I held the receiver of my old telephone, which was gray and for some reason always a little bit sticky, as if the plastic were already disintegrating. I stood upright, looked out the window over the roofs onto which evening had already fallen, ready to spread out. Trains rolled in the distance.
It was a long time before she spoke.
What for? she asked me.
It’s important, I said.
She was silent.
Could she have some time to think it over?
Yes, but only until tomorrow, I said.
I think I was almost offended.


She met him in the winter of ‘56/’57. Change was in the air in Poland; people were listening to Radio Free Europe, privatizing, founding jazz clubs and poetry circles – workers’ councils took over the factories. And because all of that was unusual, the winter wasn’t called winter, but “October.” The “Polish October.” It lasted about a year. Those who tended towards pessimism added “for how long” to the spirit of change; the very pessimistic added “who knows what will come next.”
Parliamentary elections took place, maybe they’d already just taken place. Gomulka had his power affirmed and proceeded to use it.
At any rate it was night and it was late, and since the moon wasn’t shining and the light of the streetlamps was yellow and diffuse, the mood on the street was somewhat nebulous, the snow looked grimy. The showy apartment building was inhabited by those who had made it; it belonged to the KGB. In retrospect I’m surprised she never mentioned the political situation in the country at the time, the country she loved so much.
But you don’t think, say, or remember: “when I first met him, Soviet tanks were rolling into Hungary.” Or: “we met during the Cuba Crisis.” You think, say, and remember: “when I first met him I was wearing a bathrobe;” or: “I had just bitten into an apple.”
She was wearing a bathrobe. She sat wrapped in it at her desk in front of the window on the third floor of the big house, pondering over lyrics for a pop song. The heavy velvet curtains were closed. Crimson and closed. The radiator pipes banged. Polish winters are cold. Under the bathrobe she was wearing a floral patterned nightgown, its ribbon ties peeking out of the collar. Her bare feet were plunged into fluffy pink slippers. Her blond hair lay brushed and curly down to her neck; there were traces of powder on her cheeks. She never went anywhere without powdering her face, not even to bed. Her nail polish was beginning to flake off.
It was quiet in the neighboring rooms. Her two sons were sleeping, her mother at the end of the hall too. The man who lived in the rooms across from her and to whom she was married wasn’t there. Why, that will have to be clarified later, or there is no clarifying it really, because the husband of the woman who sat at her desk humming was a bearer of secrets, it’s difficult to describe that kind of life, because by its very nature we hardly know anything about it.
She pursed her lips, her eyes wandered up and down the folds of the curtains – the melody was a real earworm. On the table in front of her was a graph paper notebook. In the niche beside her stood her bed, the thick down blanket already turned back.
She took a ballpoint pen from a dish full of pens, put it to paper, pushed it back and forth; it was empty. She threw it back into the dish, took another one, then wrote:

Hey young man across the street,
c’mon over, we should meet.
You’re so young, you’re so fine,
shouldn’t you be mine?

The young man was German and was sitting at that moment in Warsaw’s small satiric theater where she was literary director; waiting impatiently with a bright open face for the end of the show.
On stage was a kind of revue, one of those blends of cheeky, frivolous sketches and song that were so popular at the time and whose scripts are almost impossible to find today.
The ensemble included a Frenchwoman who – because she did not speak Polish, nor did she want to be recognized – had been given the role of a silent Moor. But because her costume was so tight and her figure so good and her big blue eyes so startling in the black shoe polish, it was exactly this woman who got the biggest applause.
Her name was Jasmine and the young man already knew that she could lead him to the woman he had to meet, no matter what. Which is why, right after the show, he stormed into her dressing room, talking to her forcefully in rapid Parisian French, and threw her blue wool coat over her shoulders. She slipped hastily into her narrow loafers, where were her boots, no boots in this snow.
He didn’t even leave her time to really get her make-up off, which is why the remaining color encircled her dainty features like a kind of mourning band.
Jasmine was used to this kind of ambush. In France she’d had politically unpopular friends who’d supported the guerrillas in Cuba. She’d had to leave the country and had sought refuge in Poland. Except until now it had always been her audacious lovers who had been torn from her, and not she herself who was wrested away.
With small steps she walked fearfully and obediently alongside the man through nighttime Warsaw and the snow, while he tried to calm her down; they weren’t going to Siberia, just to a doorbell. And he didn’t want to arrest her either, he was only asking in this wild way for her to put in a word for him with the woman he wanted to talk to, had to talk to, now, this very night. His motives were noble and sincere; he hammered this message into the Frenchwoman.
Frozen through and through and completely soaked they arrived at the apartment building. In front of the doorbell Jasmine hesitated again:
Can’t it wait until tomorrow? They’re influential people.
No. Now.
Then she rang. She rang the bell at least five times; it buzzed on the third floor of the house in which only one light was burning.
If you’re going to do it, do it right, the Frenchwoman said to herself.
Shortly afterwards the two of them faced each other for the first time. The light from a never-cleaned hallway lamp fell on him. She’d pulled her bathrobe tighter around herself. Jasmine, with her framed face, gaped like a lemur at the two of them.
There was a trail of muddy slush behind him. Dewdrops sparkled in his curls, his hair the color of malt beer.
Behind her was the long apartment hallway, which lay in darkness. Jackets and overcoats spilled black from the wall, shoes were piled on the floor.
The door was open.

She pulled his letters from behind the wooden radiator cover. Later I realized that they were contraband smuggled by the crying blind man; even later I had an inkling of why, only to reject the idea once more; in the end they were just regular letters again. Thin, folded, unsorted letters. They were in an old plastic envelope that had also been folded and that was smeared with an oily film of dust. It left traces on the wall as she pulled it out, she tugged harder, the envelope got stuck between wood and marble top, she yanked once again, a film of dust flew off and she had a coughing fit. We had to open the window of her bedroom, the room she never slept in. Her bed was in the living room and wasn’t a bed, but a daybed, surrounded by medication, water bottles, a telephone, and books.
She’d forgotten that, she said. That she was allergic to dust. That was a problem. She wouldn’t be able to read the letters and I wouldn’t understand them, that was the much bigger problem, that I wouldn’t understand anything, you needed to know so much, the whole background, the mise-en-scène.
A new word: mise-en-scène.
She would hound me with it yet.
You’ll manage, I retorted. And tried to clean the thick, folded envelope with a damp rag.
The next time I can open the packages and blow off the letters beforehand.
I was surprised we didn’t laugh, in that dust-filled room.
We spread out the contents of the package on the grey couch table in the living room. Her son had said he would use that table top later for her coffin. That she’d laughed at, the girls just always have the weightier questions.
Then we took out the papers, one by one.
A postcard of a golden carriage. A poem with a coffee stain. A telegram with stripes from the glue, the exact time, place. “Coming one day later, Zilp.” A few tiny pages from a loose-leaf notebook. A letter with oversized writing, typed notes, white notes, brown, weathered envelopes, empty envelopes, a photo, airmail,  “Italcable,” “I’m sitting, my head aches, the climate makes me ill,” “Your 81/4 Harry ,” “lalunia,” “at Kozlowska’s round table,” “I long for you,” “Your Highness, I would not dare,” “Dearest, it didn’t just recently become difficult to talk to you,” “M. has no chance of getting anything out of the courts anymore,” “definitely to kill that book,” “sell the Moskvitch,” “where will that country be,” “good that you have such a savvy approach,” “the rats.”
Return address: Schiller Inn, return address Moscow, return address Crimea, return address Ljubljana, return address Milan, return address Rome, return address Berlin, Par Avion, blue with red stripes, “where will that country be.”
“Puma case closed! You Chinawoman! What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Say hi to Witold and the children,” “Wish list: K2R stain remover,” “Dear Comrade Secretary,” “Darling, I send ten thousand kisses,” “where will that country be,” “you Chinawoman.”

It was dark in her room. Only the cones of light from bedside lamp and desk lamp marked out two circles. The colors near them gleamed, the crimson of the curtains, the sofa and the pillow.
The German and the Frenchwoman sat on the edge of the sofa, the Polish woman stood in her bathrobe.
First he said his name. He said it in French, moi, je suis…
His name was his story.
Then the Moor began to speak, her braid bouncing, her face contorted, a mix of her mother tongue and strange broken Polish. That she was embarrassed, she repeated again and again, that they’d barged in so late and unannounced, that she didn’t want to, but the young man just took her with him. But it’s for a good cause. Apparently he – he’s German by the way – only means the best. And he’s just a little over-enthusiastic, it’s about something very important. He wants to write a play. About the uprising in the ghetto. And he needs eyewitnesses. And then he heard that she’s an eyewitness, you are, n’est-ce pas? And that she could bring him to her, since they happened to be friends. And then just now– it gave her quite a shock – he just broke into her dressing room right after the show, took her arm, talking insistently the whole time, threw her coat over her shoulders…
She went on and on.
But something else had been going on in the room for quite some time.
“You’re so pure” was the second thing he said. He said it in German.
“Well,” she answered, now standing right in front of him, raising her eyebrows and looking at him sharply, “I just washed.”
“I’m a poet,” he countered.
She pushed a strand of hair out of her face.
The Frenchwoman’s feet squeaked in her wet shoes.
“It’s important that I write this play! People should know that the Jews fought back. The whole world believes they went to the slaughterhouse like lambs. Someone has to do something about it. It has to be a big, strong piece, an inflammatory pamphlet. For human rights, against indifference.”
She went to her bookshelf and pulled out – between the rows of wedged-in, piled-up, squeezed-in books – a slim brown volume whose pages looked like packing paper.
“Read this,” she said and put the book into his hand. “It contains everything I know. I wasn’t there for the uprising, I was already in the camp.”
The young man stood up, and with him the now-shivering Frenchwoman, excusez-moi, he thanked her, bowed and held the book out to her.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked him, irritated.
“I don’t want it.”
“You don’t want it?”
“Not now.”
He placed the book on the arm of the sofa.
“Why not?” she inquired, indignant.
He beamed at her.
“I need a reason, for tomorrow.”


His name was Thomas Harlan.
He had a broad, open face, stretched in an inimitable manner that made him look as if he were fleeing, made his eyes move to the side as though to look or maybe steal away instead .
His eyes were violet. A human eye color associated with nothing, neither character traits nor particular beauty. It was only rare and therefore strange.
In summer his hair was blond, in winter brown.
He was lean, of average height, with well-defined muscles. He liked to sail, he could ice skate, ski, dive, race cars, speak four foreign languages fluently. He was charming, had had many girls, women, boys and men. And he was young.
He had good manners, which he cared nothing about, and he had once worked on a Kibbutz in Israel for a while, which was still quite unusual at the time. Because he’d misbehaved, he’d been kicked out.
His father was a Nazi.
That’s not the whole story, but that’s how it was.
His father was not a Nazi.
Now one assertion stands against the other.
The quintessence of both assertions was his son.

By the next morning, this essence had already created a fait accompli. He was sitting in the kitchen before she got up. A large kitchen with simple furnishings and many pots and pans, knives and ladles on the walls, and more traces of intensive use. A kitchen whose walls definitely could have used a fresh coat of paint. In its middle stood a round table; on it, open jams in every available variety, also coffee, cold cuts, cheese, milk, eggs, honey, bread – the entire contents of a Polish pantry.
Baba had set the table. He’d already won her over. She swung her hips, her rosy cheeks glowed, would you like another egg?
The boys were touching his pants.
Jeans! Real jeans!
Yes, he would like another egg.
Did he have any Elvis records?
The little one blew a bubble with his gum, it popped. He was just telling us he bathes with his pants on!
They all spoke German, that strange guttural language that he sang more than spoke. Then she came in, slowly, tired, gray, she went to the stove, almost shuffling.
It seems I’m always in my bathrobe when I meet you, she said in the direction of the fat-speckled tiles. Her tea was there.
I don’t mind, he answered. But do you know how absolutely wonderful your mother is? Sit down, darling, this same mother murmured and pushed the chair in, I was just leaving.

I drove home with her packet of letters. On the streets of the city tanned girls displayed their long legs. Men let their overcoats blow open, their inside pockets weighted with money. The lights drew stripes, the air was hot. The city a dream on wet earth. Of marble and gold, beauty and steel, of future, money, wind and long hair.
Urban grids, cobblestones, arterial roads, the change to the countryside is abrupt. Black fields with mistreated flowers in piled-up boxes, the Flehe Bridge, interchanges near factories and printing plants, a last floodlit parking lot, then the stars came and the night was free.

Her name was Krystyna. And it’s not accidental that I haven’t said her name until now.
It was her name for her second life.
In the first one she was called Sophie.
Sophie Landau. “Landauerka” he’d once called her.
Sometimes she was called Sonya or Zosia.
“If someone came and suddenly called me Tamara you wouldn’t be surprised, would you?”
She had three different birthdays.
It took me years before I was sure which was the right one. September 1, a historic date. The beginning of the war. The year is uncertain. She was older than she said.
Her second birthday was January 18. The day she managed to flee the evacuation march from Auschwitz; the year is certain: 1945. It was evening, around 7:00, the sky was black and the snow was white, they’d been marching since 2:30 p.m.
“…adieu, horrible Auschwitz, and you abominable Birkenau. Only the wind will blow sadly through your empty barracks…”
As she stepped through the gate, she looked back; the watchmen’s “swallow’s nests” were empty and everywhere SS men were running around burning mountains of paper, files, documents; evidence.
“There will come a time when grass will grow here” her friend said. It was still easy for them to walk through the town of Auschwitz, they’d seen the families of the SS packing and fleeing. But soon walking became agony. They dropped their first bags.
The guards beat them, the SS screamed; they walked alongside every third row of five with dogs that growled and bared their teeth.
At seven, the first prisoners sank exhausted to the snow to freeze or be beaten to death.
How much further? she asked one of the guards.
Three hundred kilometers, he muttered.
They’d gone seven.
The rows of five had broken up. “Quick! Stand up! Faster! … Faster! Swine!”
She’d sworn to herself the moment she left the camp: she would not go to another jail, or another camp.
She saw a haystack on the side of the road.
“Now, Basia, now! You too” she whispered to her friend and let herself fall. And her friend reacted immediately, quickly covered her feet with hay and went on, while Krystyna lay there, half unconscious, with hay in her mouth, in her eyes, in her ears.
Once a guard sat on her head, now it’s over, she thought, a dog sniffed at her, but didn’t bark, and a shot fell that hit someone else.
She was not found.
Between two groups of prisoners she was able to scrabble out of the hay and step into the meter-high snow over corpses and discarded clothing on the way to a far-away free place. She tore the number off her prisoner’s coat, on the horizon the next group approached, a gray mass of humans, accompanied by shots, barking, and the ringing of sleds.

Every year, her friends gave her a bundle of hay on that day.

Her third birthday was in May. She received a telegram of congratulations and a huge bouquet of flowers. The Municipal Department of Culture congratulated her on her seventieth birthday. Neither was she turning seventy, she had been seventy for quite some time, nor was it her birthday. She gave the bouquet to me.

From Krystyna. Und die Liebe, frag ich sie by Liane Dirks.
© 1998, Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH & Co. KG, Cologne
Translation © Laura Radosh

The Duel

Author: Franz Fühmann
Translator: Claire van den Broek

Back in the days when he was still toiling away on his Causal Sciences degree, an insight came to Pavlo, as it sometimes does, that the Laws of Causality should also be manifest in the history of humanity. So he decided, which was still possible at the time, to audit a few History seminars in addition to his mandatory courses in Disciplines of Philosophy and Foundations of Civic Fitness. He chose a series of lectures about the development of the legal system in the Late Middle Ages, because he had high expectations of an era in which such eminently causal thinking as that of the Romans began to unfold in an environment structured altogether differently from Roman law.
Initially he found the course deeply disappointing: the lecturer lost himself in the details of local customs and traditions that had been passed down over time, his lecture was dry, the material even more so, and instead of exposing causal chains, he uncovered only confusion. Pavlo had already resigned himself to dropping out when the lecturer announced that, during the next session, he would be performing an ocular demonstration of history with the use of a Chronoview Cabinet. The device was still undergoing trials at the time, both technically and politically. The Supreme Council on Comradeship (SuCoC) of Uniterr had decided to allow the university to use the device, to study the effects of such demonstrations on a limited audience. A few of the committee members even envisioned deploying the Cabinet as part of Uniterr’s edutainment program someday. That the committee would later distance itself from every public Chronoview display can probably be attributed, as we know now, to the outcome of this very experiment in that History seminar.
Technically, the device relied on the primitive method, but the only one available at that time, of catching up with light that had been beamed into space from past ages, through the use of an ultrafast gravitational wave which would mirror the image back towards Earth at an accelerated rate. As a result, the reflection of times gone by, slowed down again to the speed of light, would revisualize inside a projection space in the present, somewhat like a movie scene, three dimensional, in color, but still silent. A technique that could filter out every sound wave belonging to each light stream, untangling it and making it audible, was only discovered later, as was an analog technique to rediscover scents. Nevertheless, during Pavlo’s student days, each Chronoview image, however incomplete, still stirred such a sensation that tickets were scalped for almost as much money as for the boxing championships.
Since the announcement of the ocular demonstration, the auditorium had been besieged by curious scholars and students from every department, while the university was overrun by crowds of laymen. The campus police only admitted regular attendees; they first had to check with the higher-ups about Pavlo. Thanks to impeccable character references attesting to his loyalty, and his exemplary academic performance, the apprehensive Ministry decided to grant him permission.
For the demonstration they had chosen the famous episode of the duel between the Duke of Normandy, Henri VII of Traulec, and his bastard son Toul, who, sired with a maid, was considered to be of lesser birth. Little was known about the duel in question, which happened in May of 1409, except that the outcome had been exceptionally gruesome. The duel had come about after Duke Henri, appointing himself the judge of his son’s fate, had relegated him to a life as a lowly swineherd in his father’s pigpens, against all objections. Jeanne Viole du Mars, personal favorite of the royal commissary, took the Duke’s entirely ordinary judgment as justification for spreading the rumor that Toul had, in accordance with his birthright as a half-blood, decided to challenge the Duke to a duel, which the latter had refused out of cowardice. When whispers of the story reached Toul, already surrounded by his father’s pigs, he decided on the spot to turn rumor into reality; he sent two seconds, who happened to be swineherds like him, to deliver a challenge to his sire, who now had little choice but to consent to the duel, albeit under the stipulation that, as the prevailing law demanded, the conditions for the duelists would accord with their birth. The lowborn man was to be buried up to his hips in a hole in the ground, armed only with a spear and a club, while the highborn man would be given his sharp sword, and the freedom to move without restriction.
There was no wiggle room within the stipulation; whether Jeanne Viole had known about the clause, or indeed why she started the rumor in the first place, has, as we know, been the subject of entire libraries of clever hypotheses. We do know that she was a mortal enemy of Duke Henri, and supposedly she had been smitten with the profound ugliness of the bastard (he was hunchbacked, lame, leather-skinned, his face permanently marred by a grimace). There is no doubt that the duel took place. Aside from that, no other facts have survived the ravages of time, not even the fate of the protagonists during the domestic chaos under Charles le Fou, the mad king Charles the Sixth of France.
The most significant sources describing the duel are the valuable fragments of the “Luciferian Calendar” by Estienne Nouvielles, as well as the much later and unfortunately highly fragmented annals of the “Unknown Chronicler of the Duchy”. In addition there remain a few letters from Jeanne Viole and the royal commissary, a couple of references in other letters, and a handful of diary scraps. During those days, the world was under the spell of the Council of Pisa with its three popes, the reverberations of the murder of the Duke of Orleans in Paris, and the sermons of Jan Hus in Bohemia. Furthermore, the English were about to invade France once again, so who cared about the local intrigues of a third rate mistress? The Duel became famous solely because its outcome was described as “exceptionally gruesome”, a cryptic statement that inflamed historians. One hypothesis, drawing analogies to the court of Charles the Mad, envisioned a fire in which both combatants died; another theory that was particularly in vogue posited a riot among the local citizens of Traulec. The doctrine in Uniterr has always been that the swineherd defeated the Duke, although the hack writers of the ruling caste hushed up the truth, a prime example of the intellectual servitude that dominated the past and that was only overcome in Uniterr, which was so certain of this doctrine that it showed up in every schoolbook as though it were fact.
This shift from fiction to fact is part of the philosophy of history in Uniterr, but before we say any more about that, and before we finally tell you about that demonstration, the outcome of which was indeed gruesome, we should say something about the technical aspect of the process: The projection field was almost invisible, though still clearly observable as a shimmering cube no higher than 6 feet, and only 10 feet long and wide. Thus, at a scale of fifty to one, a historical scene of about 500 feet long and wide, and 300 feet into the sky, could be captured. As a result, the actors only measured an inch, a society the size of ants. A system of magnifying lenses made it possible for viewers to choose any section of the panorama and view it in detail as if through a microscope, and a camera would of course record every scene on a real-life scale. – It goes without saying that the projection process could no more be controlled by the audience than they could manipulate the image of the stars in the sky in the lens of their eyes.
So Pavlo was given permission to participate, and since admission had opened up several hours before the start of the demonstration, he missed nothing, despite the inquiry. – The oscillators purred softly; the slowing down of the super speed of the mirrored light happened far away along an avenue of satellites. Had an uninitiated person entered the lecture hall, he would have noticed nothing but a grey platform on the demonstration table, with three cables each as thick as an arm, and above it a barely visible angular shimmering. – Yet soon he would notice the pervasive tension of curiosity, that irredeemable human right. This curiosity was, above all, a desire for raw sensation; that feeling you experience before a boxing match, knowing you have come there to see something unbridled and rough, ending in broken noses and the booming sound of a man crashing to the floor as he is knocked out. These were the expectations that brought men and women together; for Pavlo – well, perhaps we should save that for later. The purring of the oscillators grows stronger, the shimmering of the helium wires, fading into the break of day, becomes the quivering aura of the tidings that the two-thousand year old light is about to return home to its planet. As flashes disperse from the edges with silent humility, Pavlo is seized by an ineffable feeling that all that is to come is already present.
Pavlo felt a sense of expectation, more gripping than any he had ever known, and somehow entirely different in nature from the feeling that word usually evokes. This was not the anticipation of the familiar (the way a child waits for his fairytale), but that of an entirely new sensation, which, grotesquely, is also a past sensation. So an unknown one, not unknown in the sense that the brain has not yet narrowed down the feeling from a supply of familiar sensations, no, this was something absolutely unknown, or, to be precise at last: the possibility of the unknown. It did not enter the conscious mind as a concept: within those confines of necessity, which presented itself as a necessary lack of alternative, the mind could not conceive of this possibility at all, and yet it made Pavlo tremble. – Only him? – We’ll assume so; if not, let him serve as a case in point for his flock of peers. Though it seems that it did actually happen to him alone.
The purring of the oscillators ceased, or rather: the sound transformed into a reverberation which, wavering on the verge of the audible, was not quite perceptible as noise, nor did it turn into hollow silence. As we said earlier, the Chronoview technology was still in the early stages of its development, unable to reproduce the original sound; the reverberation, despite being inaudible, created a soundscape before which the oppressively uncanny muteness of history began to unfold its secret. That reverberation, perceptible as silence, was a positive rather than a negative nothingness; and with the start of the reverberation, the shimmering was no longer visible either, or, to be precise again: it was no longer noticeable now that the past had materialized above the grey platform, unimaginably abrupt, and began to unfold: A crowd of thousands lined the block of North Sea air, carrying the weight of a steel sky.  So the distant past settled on the desk, while the spectators turned and twisted their macroscopes to focus on the details they wanted to see, while outside the operators of the Time Stream cameras were struggling to find the perfect angle for a wide shot. To get a good view of the duelists, who were concealed by the masses, the cameramen kept changing positions; the crowd shifted, giving the cameras a direct view – We’ll now tell you the story as Pavlo saw it.
For a moment he surveyed the scene: How tremendous the sky is! A towering mass of clouds, wind, and shades of blue. Below, at its hem, the human throng as a colorful maelstrom that withstands the dragging weight of the sky and thus reveals its power: eternity persisting in change, a bastion of constancy over the fleeting life of man. The cameras panned out, Pavlo saw colors and mass inside the cube; finally he too began to twist his macroscope and as the image grew and turned, the Lady appeared before his eyes.
She stood before him, and Pavlo’s breath caught. He saw her, nearly close enough to feel her breathe; she came closer, turned slightly sideways, in sea-green brocade hemmed with burnt umber; her head and neck rose up from her rounded cleavage like the isles of the Sirens. Her scarlet cap pointed towards the sky, and the night rested in her eyes. She approached her observer; Pavlo could almost feel her milky skin. He saw her in the flesh, as though he needed no lens; then she slid across his face. Behind her in the dust a dwarf ran crying after her mistress. The wet flesh of her tongue loomed massively; Pavlo wrested his macroscope away; a donkey’s hoof.
Now the cameras locked on the opponents: There was the back of the Duke, who pranced around with his legs spread apart, wearing the fashion reserved for the nobility of the age, the renowned mi-parti: a doublet divided into four solid panels, alternating two colors on the front and on the back, green and black in this case, with one sleeve puffed and the other tapering towards the wrist. Similarly divided into panels were his tight hose and the curly-toed poulaines with their ear-sized green-and-black tassels. Even the feathers on his red cap were green and black, the colors of the banner of Traulec. – His sword, tied low, skipped through the dust. – To the left, behind him, lay the pit in which Toul stood, up to his waist in crumbling dirt, which was as brown as his wart-covered face with that monstrous nose, its flesh spilling over like a mockery of God’s power of creation. His weapons were nowhere to be seen; he raised his bare hands and laughed, as Pavlo spotted, across the bustling crowd, the scarlet cone of the Lady’s cap. Only now did he notice that she was on horseback. She rode sidesaddle on a palfrey; the tread of the horse made her seem like a giant, in the colors of the sea, striding through the crowd. Pavlo felt dazed like never before. Anxiously twisting and turning the knob, he tried to bring the lady close to him again, but when the crowd parted he saw no more than a trace of her robe, which at once disappeared again between steel and silk. Pavlo caught only objects this way: a row of jasper buttons, a spur, a sable purse, but not the Lady, nor the Duke, nor Toul, nor the commissary, whom Pavlo had briefly spotted in front of the sea of blue around the Fleur de Lis of France, on a stand behind the arena.
So he let the optic tube of the macroscope slide, revealing the bottom layer of the Chronoview Cabinet, thin as fine lace. The people at the front were just barely recognizable as individuals. Nonetheless he was bursting with excitement, a sensation that was inflicted less by the presence of Jeanne Viole, whose scarlet bobbed further towards the sky, than by – and we cannot say this often enough – the potential for any possible outcome, a potential as boundless as yearning could be, were it not crippled in its growth. – Within the structure of the only concrete reality lay the possibility of possibilities, as a possibility of the other: For the first time in his life, Pavlo experienced a sense of being struck by something intangible which, eluding all words, dawned on him with all the horror and pleasure of a premonition. This ancient history could and might turn out to be different from Uniterr’s account of history, from what everyone expected.
But what had Pavlo expected to see?
He could not have articulated it, yet at the same time he knew it twice over, and therein lies the difficulty.
Like his fellow students, Pavlo believed, obviously, the semiofficial hypothesis that was part of Uniterr’s doctrine, namely that of Toul’s victory, which had been covered up by medieval chroniclers. There was this on the one hand. On the other hand, to accept the victory of an inferior man over his superior stood in direct contradiction to the official doctrine of history in Uniterr, which held that, before the creation of the Truly Liberated Society, all historical events served to benefit the upper classes; they predetermined the outcome of all events. This had led to numerous repressed uprisings by an increasingly angry population, who established – so far, unfortunately, only on one part of the planet – a Truly Liberated Society in which social inequality had ceased to exist. The formula of its doctrine (“The Truly Truthful Teachings of History”) was so widely accepted that people were no longer conscious of the wording, even as it shaped their consciousness. The official doctrine offered the only acceptable model for historical thinking, and in most cases it did so at the expense of any kind of demonstrability. As a result, Pavlo and his fellow students, lacking introspection, were certain that the outcome of a duel like this, between a superior and his inferior, must have been predetermined in favor of the superior. And in the event that the fight’s natural course went in the wrong direction, that is, if the Duke were not the fitter competitor, then marshals, his seconds, and the jury would secure the victory of the superior through deceptive manipulation. (No doubt they had planned out a thousand strategies to distract or obstruct the Bastard.) The unofficial assumption of Toul’s victory and the official doctrine about the rigging of events in favor of the upper classes were incompatible; so what was Pavlo expecting? If we don’t consider the word ‘expectation’ in the sense of a concrete, demonstrable imagining (which was entirely unknown in Uniterr), but rather in the sense of a predetermined certainty that what must happen will happen – we could also call it a ‘lack of expectation’ – then he may have expected both outcomes at once. Only in an abstract sense though, not concrete, and since he was not guided by the notion of demonstrability, he did not notice any inherent contradiction either. That may sound hard to believe, yet it was true, or rather: that is how it will be. After all, we are telling you what will have happened in the future.
The abstract certainty of knowing without expectation was disrupted by the unexpected, which, to say it a third time, was the possibility of any and all possibilities as a reality of the other. The concrete, by virtue of being concrete, is already other to the abstract, just as the verifiable is other to the unverifiable.  Where history presents itself as other, its appearance reveals what it is at its core: The existence of alternatives. The slightest detail gains meaning, which can only be understood by those who have experienced it. That it was possible to wear a scarlet headdress that scores the sky – not that it would be illegal in Uniterr, it just wouldn’t spontaneously occur to anyone to make such an unbidden fashion choice. – That it was possible to ride a palfrey; that it was possible to appear in a costume that bisects the body into two colors, one sleeve of which was tailored while the other billowed; that it was possible to drink wine from a clay jug; that it was possible to drag a sword through the dust; that it was possible to wield a sword; that it was possible to drive a donkey; that it was possible to be stuck in a hole in the ground and bare your teeth at the authorities –
that it was possible not to be Uniterr.

From Franz Fühmann, Säiens-Fikschen
© Hinstorff Verlag GmbH, Rostock
Translation © Claire van den Broek

The Drift

Author: Margarita Iov
Translator: David Burnett

The November sky outside was glisteningly bright, virtually white. I know that I fell into a kind of slumber. Those days I didn’t read, didn’t watch TV or write a single word. I didn’t meet or see anyone but my brother, and my brother didn’t see or meet anyone but me and in no way seemed to suffer from it. It was as if I were enough for him, as if he and I were enough to inhabit his world. Our quiet life went out of kilter back then, for no apparent reason, but I had the feeling that our conditions were in some way linked, that something was happening in parallel inside us which didn’t make any sense back then. I heard it in the tone of his voice, in which a suppressed agitation always seemed to resonate, and I felt it in my own movements, which were much more hurried and stiff than usual, and in this inexplicable nervousness. I called in sick and lied to my friends that I had a lot to do, when actually I couldn’t have explained to anyone how I spent my days. I looked for a reason for the state I was in, for something that might have triggered it, but there was nothing. Just the usual fog in my head, and beneath it my old, aimless anger at the world, the same old fear of it, the same hungry animals. They came over me and stripped the ground bare. They grazed away the landscape that had taken so long to grow inside me. They destroyed the crops and trampled the flowers, they drank the rivers dry and then disappeared, I don’t know where to. What remained was a fallow landscape, no more. I slept for entire days, or stole through the house on my tiptoes, caressing again and again the rough texture of the couch, the smooth edges of the tables and shelves. I took things in my hands and felt their weight, felt that they had mass and substance. It was just that everything happening to me seemed to be happening to someone else. And sometimes, somewhere, I found myself again about to put the dishes away, to feed the squirrels, and asked myself what on earth I was doing.
The phone calls started that November. Someone at the other end said nothing, and I usually said something like “Hello, may I ask who’s calling?” into the silence, but they didn’t seem to hear me, or they acted like they didn’t hear me (of course that’s what they did). Because little by little I thought I could detect different qualities in this silence, so that soon I was pretty sure I was dealing with more than one person. But I didn’t have time to follow up on this hunch, because each time my brother would suddenly be standing right next to me. He yanked the receiver out of my hand and began dictating numbers, sometimes for hours; the numbers came straight from his bottomless memory. I sat down next door in the living room and listened, even though I knew he disliked my doing so, and secretly waited for him to falter or correct himself, which didn’t happen. He spoke with a wholly new and unshakable certainty. I asked no questions, but I asked myself, of course, what was so special about these numbers. I tried as best I could back then to hold our days together, even though everything seemed to slip away from me more and more, or it was me who slowly slipped away from things.
The calls were more frequent now, usually in the dead of night or the early hours of morning. My brother simply stopped eating, and barely left his room anymore. He spent his days and nights studying the hundreds of star maps and charts that covered the walls and ceiling of his room, energetically typed away at his computer, recalculated, then wrote the full results in the piles of graph-paper notebooks I bought for him. He stopped bathing and shaving. He neglected himself completely, and I was very scared at the time that he’d go crazy or actually make some discovery; he seemed, at any rate, on the verge of something big. But even this fear wasn’t mine; it was some other, someone else’s fear.
Once, in the middle of the night, he crept up to my bed and startled me. He was all worked up and talked to me insistently, explaining everything with such vehemence as if his very life depended on it. He sat on the edge of my bed, dressed in his dirty pajama pants, with his spare, naked torso and his disheveled red hair, and spoke about the origin of time. He told me that the Big Bang wasn’t over yet, but was a process that was still going on. He spoke about the continuous expansion of the universe, and the fact that every distance becomes a chasm. He raved about extinguishing stars and imploding planets. About comets that are on the way to their final state of total darkness. He spoke of black holes that devour everything, even light. Of space actually being bent, like a river which runs into a waterfall and flows relentlessly toward these black holes. Of the drift of space through time. Of someone sucking away at our universe, as though through a straw. Of the great coldness of the universe, a great and dreadful coldness.
I put my hand on his burning forehead. I looked at him and saw that he suffered. I reached for his arm and pulled him into the bed with me, under my covers, as though he were a child again and was having some kind of nightmare. He stank but still I pressed him to me and whispered to him that he was mistaken. That there might be something there at the foot of the waterfall which even he didn’t begin to understand. I whispered to him that my hand on his skin would be his anchor in time of dire need, when the current threatened to sweep him away. I promised him I would stop the drift, as well as the coldness and fear.
We lay there in the blue gloom of the coming day, and I listened to his panting, his pounding heart, and then I heard him mumble something, so quietly I barely caught it. He said: “No you can‘t.” And I answered: “Yes I can.” But he contradicted: “No.” And his voice was thin as paper, but it wasn’t the voice of a child. I wanted to say something else, but he’d already fallen asleep by that point. And I lay there awake for ages, and thought about the black holes that were out there somewhere, swallowing everything, even the light.

I woke up to the sensation of suddenly emerging from deep waters. The light that fell through the blinds was still the same November light, but this time I was blinded. I didn’t know how long I’d slept, tried to remember what had happened last, what I had done or not done. My body felt numb, my limbs stiff and shaky. I went into the bathroom, the kitchen, the living room. I looked out all the windows and in every cupboard and closet. I ate a piece of bread and drank a glass of water, and it seemed to me more delicious than anything I’d ever tasted before. I stole through the house a while longer, till finally I couldn’t stand it anymore and I went to my brother to tell him everything, that he definitely had to eat something and open the windows for once, that he should go out with me and take a walk, down to the beach or into town. I carefully placed an ear to the wood of the door and waited for the familiar clacking of the keyboard, for the rustling of paper, for footsteps angrily approaching me to ask what the hell I was thinking, what I was doing here—but heard nothing of the sort. I pressed down the handle and peered inside. The bed was unmade, the papers and books were gone, along with the maps and computer. But most of all my brother was missing. I missed him like half of my lung. Yet all of a sudden I was sure he’d just been here, as if he’d just said something and his words still hung in the air. As if I had turned away for just a moment. I wondered if I was still dreaming, but at the same time felt wide awake and furious like never before. And I knew, I simply knew, that it wasn’t me who’d gone crazy but the world that was losing its mind.
At first I was hopeful still that I’d find him around the house, maybe in the attic or out on the hillside, taciturn and bad-tempered as always. But he wasn’t there nor anywhere else. I was strangely relieved that our parents weren’t back yet from hiking in the mountains, sparing me at least their endless interrogations and worries. I looked for him everywhere. I sat there and thought for an awfully long time, waited, then finally went out. I’d left my shoes on the deck and descended the wooden stairs to the beach. Far above, in the same gray sky that never seemed to change here, the gulls made slow, wide circles. The sea rolled in heavy waves across the narrow strips of sand, as always dark-gray and opaque. I remember how I froze; the wind wasn’t strong but icy, and I wrapped my wool coat around my shoulders more tightly. I stood there like that for ages, lost in contemplation of the wavering landscape. A light fog hung over the water on this particular morning, and faint shadows soon appeared on the horizon. I watched them come closer, and only then did I realize they were people, ten or eleven—maybe more. In a matter of minutes they were within shouting distance; I knew the wind would carry my voice, but was suddenly paralyzed and just stood there silently staring. Then, one after the other, they rose from the water—the sea here was shallow for a long way out before dropping off into the depths, abruptly and without any warning. And I couldn’t help thinking that the cliffs at my back must have been under water at some point too, a very long time ago, and I imagined how the earth had opened here once, and how over millions of years the land masses had piled up and shifted, how the water in the oceans had become less over time, while mountains and abysses grew into the sky and the depths. I thought about continental drift, about the gorges and valleys of the Pyrenees our parents were hiking through, about the hoarsely uttered words of my brother; about the fact that every distance becomes a chasm. And I thought about how he must have stood here when we were children, how he looked out at the water, this peculiar boy. And for the first time I understood that what was happening there was happening to me, that a process was taking place that directly affected me. Meanwhile the sea people strode toward me with infinite slowness, and I realized then that they were perfectly naked and very old. They were very close now. I saw their tall, sinewy bodies emerge one after the other from the water. I saw their dark, weathered skin and the thin white hair sticking moistly to their skulls. Their aged eyes looked past me, to where no one could follow them. And they climbed ashore with a strength and beauty I had never seen before. For a fleeting moment I thought I could see my brother among them. His red hair gleamed in their midst for an instant, then disappeared again. I looked from one to the other, straining my eyes to find him, but he didn’t reappear. They walked past me like a sudden dizzy spell. I stood there, the child I still was at bottom, too terrified to move.
By the time I recovered they were long since gone, but their tracks were still in the sand. I could still see their faces before me, and imagined them climbing the wooden stairs, walking soundlessly down the streets of the development; imagined them forcing their way into buildings, the very first ones they came across, strangling with their cold, wet hands the occupants in their sleep, stealing their clothes and mixing with us humans. And then I imagined encountering them later. On the street. There’d be no way to tell them apart from us. I froze and felt afraid, and again the animals were there, their hooves churning up the barren soil, bodies twitching, and their eyes rolling madly behind their lids.

Original © Margarita Iov
Translation © David Burnett

How Hunter Mayhem Traveled to Uruguay

Author: Francis Nenik
Translator: Bradley Schmidt

Hunter Mayhem was Uruguay.
He stood like the shadow of an arc lamp in his kitchen, looked out of the window and let his words pour from the pane onto the windowsill.
“Good Lord, Hunter,” said Hunter Mayhem to himself, “you can’t travel to Uruguay. You don’t even go out to get the mail from the mailbox.”
The mailbox, twelve feet below the puddle of words at his feet, overflowing. A big pile of paper on the street. People were digging through it or jumping in, children ripped up what they could get their hands on. The mailwoman gave them fodder, day after day.
“Uruguay,” said Hunter Mayhem, “river of painted birds, of snails, of the Uruland, the food-bringers.”
It was 7:12. In the Republic to the East of the Uruguay it was just becoming light. But here the sun above the roof was already at its zenith, paving the street with its beams and papering light paths above the ruffled skulls.
“Well then,” said Hunter Mayhem, taking a deep breath and exhaling a little less deeply, “the river is ready to be waded through.” And took a step forward, and there was the wall.
His shin turned blue under the radiator.
“I remember the splendid fouls during the World Cup ’86 against the kickers from Scotland,” said Hunter Mayhem, “Batista, football god, grim reaper, red card after fifty-six seconds.”
The shin flourished like the turf in the Nezahualcóyotl stadium.
“All of Montevideo must be full of dangerous sliding tackles,” thought Hunter Mayhem and cast a yearning glance down at the street.
The mailwoman brought new letters.
“Hips like a Uruguayan cow,” judged Hunter Mayhem and the statistics hung next to his head.

3.8 cattle per person
59.9 % of land area used for cattle farming
82.4 % including dairy farming

Hunter Mayhem drank coffee.
It was hot and everything sweated and was crooked. The statistics. The clocks. José Batista on the wall. Hunter Mayhem behind the windowpane.
But he had started it. This morning when he awoke in his kitchen. Accordingly it was up to him to put an end to the situation.
But what actually was the situation? And what was it outside his kitchen, outside his mailbox? And where did the door behind him actually lead? Uruguay?
“I could turn around and take a look,” said Hunter Mayhem, “but I’m afraid that it’s not Uruguay behind the door. Perhaps it’s Columbia. Or Panama.”
“Why don’t you just look through the keyhole?” said José Batista. “Gordon Strachan was also a red-head when I fouled him.”
“There’s a key in the keyhole,” said Hunter Mayhem, “I could gouge out an eye. Or two.”
“Take it out!” commanded José Batista.
“I don’t know,” said Hunter Mayhem, “all sorts of things could come sloshing through a keyhole like that. I mean, if it’s not Uruguay.”
“What does that mean?” asked José Batista.
“The key to success is simultaneously the key against the catastrophe,” said Hunter Mayhem, “and by now Gordon Strachan has ash-blond hair.”
José Batista shook his head and his hair fell down into the dirty dishes. Now he was completely bald.
Hunter Mayhem scratched himself. He was still standing crooked in the kitchen and sweating, while beneath him the people scrapped for his bills.
“They don’t know anything about Uruguay,” he said to the windowpane. “For them Uruguay is just a word. If it is one at all.”
“And what is it for you?” asked the windowpane.
“For me it is the be-all and the end-all,” said Hunter Mayhem, “and the in-between even more so.”
“I’m the in-between,” said the windowpane.
“Oh,” said Hunter Mayhem, “then you’re the one who reminds me of my mother.”
“I didn’t know you had a mother,” said the windowpane.
“And what a mother I have,” said Hunter Mayhem, “she always said: why aren’t you like Joseph, who loves his homeland? Or like Eudipius, who worships his mother? Why Uruguay, Hunter, why?”
“And what did you answer?” asked the windowpane.
“I don’t know,” said Hunter Mayhem, “I don’t have any memory.”
“Glass,” said the windowpane, “glass is memory. Why don’t you reflect yourself in me?”
“I don’t know,” said Hunter, “maybe you’re right, maybe I don’t have a mother at all.”
“Reflect!” cried the windowpane.
“I could have said it myself,” said Hunter Mayhem, “then Uruguay would be my homeland. And my mother as well.”
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, Batista’s hair’s not there at all?”
“No, it’s in the sink,” said Hunter Mayhem, “the statistics don’t lie.”
“And why are you wearing papal vestments?” asked the windowpane.
“He was there,” said Hunter Mayhem, “from March 31 to April 1, ’87, no joke.”
“I know,” said the windowpane, “but you’re sweating.”
“Second visit,” said Hunter Mayhem, “all of Montevideo was full of warm words.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” asked the windowpane.
“If Uruguay is my homeland and also my mother, then the question why wasn’t a complaint,” said Hunter Mayhem, “then it was a secret token of love, a great desire of the Uruguayan soul, the call to finally come to her and crawl into the body from which I was to be born.”
“But the statistics…!” cried the windowpane.
But it was already too late.
Hunter Mayhem had put his head through the glass.
The people on the street stopped.
Hunter Mayhem stepped through the window, jangled onto the sill.
The words stuck to the bottoms of his shoes.
He bent forward, and pushed off of the windowsill just before falling.
Women screamed, children laughed, men scratched their bald heads.
Hunter Mayhem made a sliding tackle through the air, down to the mailbox, smashing it with outstretched legs.
No card.
In the west the sun drowned itself in the Uruguay River.

Original © Francis Nenik
Translation © Bradley Schmidt

The First Years of Eternity: The Gravedigger of Hallstatt

Author: Christoph Ransmayr
Translator: Seiriol Dafydd

How slowly the gravedigger climbs up the escarpment. Deliberately and rhythmically, his eyes steadfast on the path, he heaves up his bodyweight only to let it drop into the next step. Bent slightly forward, steadily, and in silence, that’s how you walk in the mountains. The rainwater streams in tangled veins down his shoulders, down the black gabardine coat. Winter is over. But on the northern slopes above the tree line the snow still lies deep.
On the edge of a steeply sloped clearing in the forest the gravedigger turns towards me, points towards rock ledges and mountain ridges and recites their names. Like flaking chalk, shreds of fog slip down the stoneheaps. Far below us, in the calming patter of the rain lies the coldest, most southerly lake of the Upper Austrian Salzkammergut Mountains and on its shore, small and evanescent, Hallstatt; the salt-mine town.
The houses lie piled upon each other down below as if someone had emptied a toy box over the hillsides: only a few dainty roofs have wedged themselves into the wooded gullies, most have rolled down to the shore. The valley, which opens toward the south of the village and seems to lead far into the mountains, becomes narrower behind the last houses and finally turns into a gaping fissure that ends between vertical walls of rock. No way through. The mountains rise overwhelmingly from the water. No space. No level, tranquil surface to be seen.
‘The Protestants’ church.’ The gravedigger points into the depths. We have come to a standstill. His church, the Catholic one with the graveyard, lies too close to the hillside to be visible from here high above. The graveyard, he says, is the most beautiful spot in Hallstatt; so protected beneath the rocks of the Salzberg and beautiful above the roofs and the lake. We turn back towards the steep path.
The graveyard. In Hallstatt, where there is hardly room enough for the living, all that is left for the dead is a walled terrace, a stony loam-filled nest in the shadow of the Catholic parish church. That is where we set off from. We’ve been walking for an hour. Down below, between the graves, fenced in by wrought iron and wooden crosses, is Friedrich Valentin Idam’s house. The gravedigger’s house. Idam lives in the graveyard as if in a hanging garden. Crosses and graves outside his kitchen window. Crosses outside the windows of his workshop, and only a few steps from his front door, the barred archway of a tunnel vault in which innumerable shin, hip and arm bones and one thousand three hundred skulls lie cleaned and piled – the ossuary. The charnel house. For almost four centuries it has been the custom in Hallstatt to paint skulls destined for the ossuary: oak leaves and ivy on the brows of the men, flowering branches and garlands on the brows of the women – spring gentians, ragged robins and globe flowers, just as they grow above, on the Dammwiese in Salzberg Valley. And in amongst these decorative flowerbeds, the names of the dead set in gothic, ivory-black lettering. For example: Here lies the high-born Frau Maria Ramsauer, Wife to the Master of the Mine.
So ornately do they honour their dead here, for perhaps the souls’ grief over the exhumation of their mortal remains also evaporates over these delicate compositions in Veronese green, cobalt blue, vermillion and Terra di Sienna. There is hardly a single tourist, the gravedigger had said as he opened the iron-barred gate before me, who lets the sight of these skull rows go by unseen – death in decoration. 250,000 tourists each year, and to think that Hallstatt is a town of hardly three hundred residents. Some of the garlands, he said, had turned completely pale under the frequent flashing of cameras.
On the shores of Lake Hallstatt eternal peace lasts ten years, sometimes fourteen, rarely longer. No-one is allowed to remain in the ground for the whole of eternity. The churchyard is too small. And so it is not sufficient that the gravedigger lays the corpse of a resident of Hallstatt in the earth so that what was made of dust, returns to dust. No, after the established period of buried slumber has lapsed he must also bring those entrusted to his care back to the light of day – after ten years, or if people are actually dying off and there’s a lack of burial places, even sooner – and he has to clean their bones at the well of the cemetery and lastly stack them in the ossuary. That’s how space is made for future generations. And it is still sometimes the case today that the next of kin of those being transferred ask the gravedigger to paint the skull of their loved ones.
Askew above the front door of the gravedigger’s house hangs a plank nailed to the protruding roof. A skull will sit there for weeks. In the sunlight. In the moonlight. As long as it takes until all the shadows and horrors of decay have bleached to a mild ivory. Then Idam places the skull on the workbench before him and, using a fine sable-hair brush and the iron oxide and clay earth pigments he mixes using casein and slaked lime, he paints the stipulated flowers and lettering on the brow.

How cold it is here above. We climb through a gorge known in Hallstatt as Hell. Beneath a wooden footbridge a stream shoots into the depths. The gravedigger indicates for me to continue. Little talking is done on such a walk. We have talked enough in the depths down below. We sat in the kitchen of the gravedigger’s house, a slow morning, and Idam told me about his work. Ten, even fifteen graves, each year, he said. There are some, of course, who prefer to be cremated in Salzburg than be buried by him – as well as those not belonging to any denomination. It takes him eight hours of work to dig a grave with a spade and a mattock and he receives between two and three thousand Schillings in return. In addition, seventeen cubic meters of wood which he’s allowed to fell in the high forest, the use of the gravedigger’s house for free, and the grazing rights for goats and sheep between the graves. Naturally he does not take any money for the graves of the poor. Nor for painting the skulls. That work, he says, is an honour.
As Idam talked, visitors to the churchyard sometimes appeared outside his windows. They removed coagulated wax from the borders of graves, arranged flowers in cone vases and then simply stood there. Their lip movements were prayers, no doubt. We sat by the kitchen stove, drank tea from Darjeeling, and old-fashioned pop music crackled and hissed from a cassette recorder on the window sill. Friedrich Valentin Idam is not yet twenty-five years old.
He’s young, too young, some of Hallstatt’s residents thought when he applied for this arduous office. He was nineteen at the time. But ever since the old gravedigger passed away himself, and Fischheindl, alias Heinrich Kirschschlager, who later painted the skulls, was also long since buried, the salt-mining town had often had difficulties with internments. So it was at this time of need that young Idam wanted to become gravedigger. Very well: they assign him a grave, a test-grave, and leave him to it. Digging a final resting place must be done alone. Beneath each cross in the Hallstatt graveyard lie two corpses which must be moved before the weight of the earth can be lifted for another. Idam begins to dig, determined and fiercely to begin with, then ever more hesitantly, until he comes to the old coffin. Now he has to wait. He squats in the grave; the sky above him is only a strip and he, between these walls of earth, completely alone. He then opens the coffin with a pickaroon. He’ll never forget the snow-white hair and the face of the corpse. It is not disgust he feels, it is … no, he will not really be able to describe the feeling later either. He batters the rotten casket, throws the debris out of the grave to be burned, lays the corpse bare, as it is, one level deeper and covers it with a thin layer of earth – the base of the new grave. He carries the bones of the second corpse, which had lain beneath the old coffin, into the ossuary. That is the unchanging work of the Hallstatt gravedigger. The task has become neither easier nor harder for him.
In any case, after this test the new gravedigger was called Idam. Just Idam.  And by now there is no longer any doubt in the parish that he knows how to paint a skull and that the graves he shovels in this used and saturated earth are good and deep. Deep! That is how they want to be buried in Hallstatt. Even if it’s not for long. Some, however, find it remarkable, others unseemly, that Idam attends not only to the dead. It is all well and good that he paints pictures, carves sculptures or casts them in bronze, and has books. But writing letters to the province governor, calling for public meetings, and protesting against the use of glass and concrete in building work between the dark wooden houses, is hardly the gravedigger’s concern. Emperor, king, nobleman, burgher, farmer, beggar, linen-weaver, gravedigger, that’s the due order, they say. But a lot has changed in such matters too.
Certainly, Idam said as we made our way up here to the cemetery fields of the Hallstatt period in the Salzberg Valley, certainly, it hadn’t been necessary for him to come here as a gravedigger. He could just as well have taken over his father’s carpentry business back home in Braunau am Inn. He finished secondary school in Braunau and then went to Hallstatt to learn the woodcarving trade. But life here and the wonderful, stark landscape around the lake, everything here had become so familiar to him that he didn’t want to leave. After completing his training he began to look for a flat, and for work. He hadn’t wanted to go to the salt mine. The gravedigger’s house was standing empty. The post was vacant. That’s how it all started. But yes, he had always been somewhat infatuated with the absurd, the bizarre and with the past; and, in addition, the fascination of death. But, he said, it is one thing to give a task a try and another to continue with it. Since he’d been living at the graveyard, he’d changed and no longer had dark inclinations. He now carried out his work with a feeling that he is providing people with a special service. How many others can claim that of their work? What is there, ultimately, that’s more helpless and vulnerable than a corpse?
The gravedigger’s house is crammed with sculptures – reliefs, weldings, woodcuts. A large oil painting in Idam’s workshop shows a slender, seated woman. A beautiful picture. His best, perhaps, Idam said. So what is he? A painter? A sculptor with a side-line? When I called the Hallstatt presbytery and asked for the undertaker, because other names appeared crude to me, a voice in the dialect of the Inn region which I cannot reproduce here, said: “Speaking. That’s me. The gravedigger.”

There is nothing to be seen of the lake, which was only a minute ago lying between the mountains like a fjord. We’ve reached the Salzberg Valley, a gently rising high mountain valley in comparison to the gradient of the path that lay behind us. During summer a cable car lugs the tourists up here by their thousands. But now we appear to be the only ones in the mountains. The mountain station, and the miners’ settlement at the upper end of the valley, are as if abandoned. Everything appears as if it had always been so: uninhabited, quiet and partly hidden by cloud. Very quiet. Of those now at work in the tunnels, in the innards of the salt mountain, we can hear and feel nothing. Hundreds of meters underground, they blast chambers into the rock, direct water into the cavities, thereby leaching the salt from the stone, and pump the brine to the extraction houses. There are still around a hundred miners. But the miners’ houses of the Salzberg Valley all stand empty. Ever since a lift deep in the mountain was built leading all the way up here from Hallstatt through all the horizons of the mine, no-one has had to live in this narrow valley where the summers are short and cool and the winters are never-ending. But one, says the gravedigger, one single miner still lives up here. We don’t come across him.
The ancient cemetery field, an Alpine meadow across which we now walk up towards the tunnel entrances, has put Hallstatt, literally the ‘salt town’, in the history books. In the sparse topsoil of this meadow, Celtic miners buried their dead along with the signs of a culture tied up with salt-mining, a culture whose beginnings are lost in the mists of the Stone Age. Neolithic hunters had already climbed up into this inhospitableness because of the salt springs, the acidic water and the rock salt and they left axes and fragments, undecorated traces behind them. But between the ninth and the fourth centuries BCE, the salt miners had brought their culture to such a wonderful flourish that modern-day researchers and excavators named a whole era, the age of transition from the European Bronze Age to the Iron Age, after this valley, the site of their abundant discoveries: the Hallstatt Period.

The archaeologists opened more than two and a half thousand graves on this meadow before closing them again. They tested the skeletons, formulated hypotheses regarding burial and cremations, and filled whole museums with burial objects taken from the earth – there were amber necklaces, bronze vessels, brooches with artful runic inscriptions, swords and daggers complete with ivory inlays, and golden jingles that were supposed to adorn dead women for all eternity… In exchange for all these treasures, academia only left behind a few information boards on this meadow and a window to the Ice Age – a model grave in which skeletons made of plastic lay beneath glass.
It is unthinkable in his graveyard, says the gravedigger, to remove even a single silver livery button from an opened grave. Only the skeletons were to be taken to the charnel house, everything else, the rosaries and jewellery, stayed under the earth forever. It had, of course, come to pass before he transferred remains that a relative requested him to look for a medal, a gold tooth or a ring that must still be down there somewhere. He could understand that. There weren’t many rich people in Hallstatt. But a grave is a grave.
We’ve entered one of the few unsealed tunnels on the hillside. Pit lamps glow at regular intervals on the tunnel walls, a meagre procession of light leading into the mountain. Here too no-one but ourselves. Seepage water trickles down the walls of the shaft in slow tears. It is so quiet here that we hear nothing but ringing in our heads. That’s how it is below ground.
Over the course of centuries tremendous ground pressure has closed the tunnels and the burial chambers of the Hallstatt period once again. Only sometimes, when a landslide shifted the rocks, or when tunnelling a new shaft, would prehistoric chambers and niches be suddenly revealed. Then climbing trees blossoming with salt crystals, kindling and bronze pickaxes would be found. In April of 1734, the undecayed corpse of a miner was discovered under such circumstances – the dried Man in Salt. They knocked him out of the rock and carried him down to Hallstatt. But where to bury him? How long had he been lying in the mountain? Perhaps the dried man had not even been redeemed by the cross but had rather been a heathen. So they buried him in God’s name in the recess of the Hallstatt cemetery apportioned for suicides and the unredeemed. This event is recorded in the beautiful flourish of a quill pen in the Latin death register, a parchment chronicle of decease stored in the presbytery which has continued in consecutive numbering over the centuries since.
The tunnel in which we went further into the salt mountain is hardly wider than a door. At this time of day trolley trains often drive out. In that case there would only be room for us in one of the tunnel’s niches. We have to go out and, in any case, return down to Hallstatt, says the gravedigger. He has promised the priest that he’ll ring the bells in parting for a deceased without denomination who is being taken to the Salzburg crematorium today. Denomination or not – the deceased miner had been a Hallstat resident after all.
Our path leads us into the Echtern Valley. No-one has described the splendour of this valley, indeed these mountains as a whole, like Adalbert Stifter, says the gravedigger. The deserted miners’ settlement falls back behind us. The Salzberg Valley folds shut like a book. He can read Stifter over and over, can never get too much of him. And Hauff, Tieck, Novalis, Brentano … other things too, certainly, but the German Romantics most of all. Idam knows many passages from his chosen reading matter by heart and slips, as he narrates, into quotation, into recitation. Then he changes mid-sentence to High German; his voice becomes solemn. He is suddenly inside a novel, a poem. He is declaiming. Is he just acting? Is someone here putting on a performance – the portrait of a young man as gravedigger? How wonderfully everything fits together – the mountain cemetery, the gravedigger’s house, the Romantic, the Grimm Reaper and the Angel of Death, the black gabardine coat… Idam even writes his letters in dated Gothic handwriting and types poems on his typewriter, a custom-build, in Fraktur! No, Friedrich Valentin Idam counters, this is no act. Only once has he ever played the gravedigger. In a TV movie. A minor role. The institution gravedigger at a mental hospital.
We’ve reached the edge of the Echernwand rock face, which drops down vertically for more than three hundred metres, before overhanging again in rocky cascades. This is where we have to go down. The path hewn from the rock, the Gangsteig, is hardly more than a serpentine scratch serrated into the stone. The gravedigger leads the way. No more words now until we reach the valley. And then back to Hallstatt on the Echern Valley road, passing waterfalls which appear to flutter down rather than fall from the misty height. We’ve been walking for four hours. A brass band is setting up outside the chapel of rest. The gates stand open for the last journey: in the semi-darkness of the hall a catafalque, a coffin; a tear-stained face.
We climb the covered staircase to the church. Only these stairs and a path hewn into the hillside lead to the cemetery, no road. Then we’re standing in front of the ossuary. The gravedigger leaves me here and goes to ring the death bell for the miner. The bars of the ossuary are closed. The skull rows behind them a dull silver. The bones of a still unbleached skeleton lie in a fruit crate by the bars like firewood. The earthy skull on top. The archway looks to the east. In the mornings there is nowhere brighter in Hallstatt than this vault. The charnel house, as the priest of Hallstatt had explained to me, was the true grave of the parish. Out there in the graveyard the Protestants still lay separate from the Catholics. But in the ossuary no distinctions were made – no sign of denomination or social status, no graves of splendour, no pomp. In the ossuary, everything was as it was supposed to be.
At the first chimes of the bell the brass band also begins to play. A gusty wind leaps coldly from the lanes and rasps rapidly slithering blue-black shadows onto the surface of the lake. This is not a death wind. With southerly wind, the gravedigger had said, there are many deaths. In the cold, the sick and the elderly would once more muster up all their strength in the hope for milder days ahead. But it is exactly then, in the requiescence of the southerly wind, with a gasp of relief and decreasing diligence, that death comes.

Die ersten Jahre der Ewigkeit, from Der Weg nach Surabaya by Christoph Ransmayr,
© 1997 S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main

Translation © Seiriol Dafydd

The Stars Below

Author: Ralf Rothmann
Translator: Alexandra Roesch

When he returned to the mortuary, a new bed was already waiting outside the door, one with side rails from the children’s ward. Beneath the sheet lay a blonde girl aged around seven, heart surgery it seemed; the upper body was still stained brown from the disinfectant. Darker shadows under the eyes than the adult dead, even her eyelids shimmered greyish blue but that was common in children. The pallor of her face, however, seemed to extend mysteriously beyond the facial contours and Oswald, who was looking at it calmly and intensely, saw no trace of a struggle or final agony. Two vertical creases, barely visible above the bridge of her nose bestowed an expression of incomprehension or disapproval, yet this was softened by her mouth’s vague smile. The girl’s chest wound had been stapled together with metal clips similar to those used in offices and when he picked her up, her long hair fell over his lower arm with a cool touch.
Now, for a moment, he closed his eyes. Somewhere a bell sounded, a melodiously tone, and a shadow flew across the tiles. “What’s the matter with her?” asked Vincent, who suddenly appeared in the open courtyard door. A fox was printed on his white t-shirt and behind him in the car park lay a sturdy bike, the wheels still turning. “Has she fainted?”
Oswald shook his head. So that he would see as little as possible of the dead girl, Oswald turned his back on the boy and said quietly over his shoulder: “Oh, there you are! I’ve been waiting for you…no, she’s sleeping, needs to rest. Go out onto the terrace will you? I’ll just quickly put her to bed.”
But Vincent stayed put, both hands in the pockets of his cargo pants. He leaned forward and looked down the corridor, wrinkling his nose. “It smells strange,” he whispered. “Like when our cat yawns. It has really bad breath, at least after tinned food. Is it true there are dead bodies lying around here everywhere?”
“Rubbish!” replied Oswald and pushed down the handle of the door to the refrigerated storage with his elbow, while still keeping it closed. “Who told you that? It’s a normal ward. This girl here, for example, is being picked up tomorrow. She’s cured. And dead people can’t be discharged, can they? Off you go and I’ll see you in the garden. I’ve got a surprise for you.”
Vincent opened his mouth, but said nothing. With his eyes on the girl’s toes, on the labelled tag, he slowly walked to his bike, its front wheel was still spinning. The spokes gleamed like something fluid in the evening sun and Oswald waited until he had left the car park.
Only then did he pull the door open just a crack and squeeze his way into the room with the girl, putting her body down on a tray. You could see the whites of her eyes between the lids and after he had carefully pressed them closed, he disinfected his hands and went out onto the terrace.
Vincent sat on one of the plastic chairs with both arms hugging his bent knees and looked over the dusky meadow. Lights were on inside the villa and the men in blue overalls, almost all with V-shaped sweat marks on their backs, were just in the process of heaving an enormous concert grand wrapped in grey felt into the lorry.
“We’re leaving early,” the boy mumbled when Oswald sat down next to him. “Mother’s had a row with your opera. Breach of contract. Father always says when she gets going the diva in her comes out. Ten more tour days in Germany and then it’s boarding the 747. Qantas – with movies and everything. But I don’t want to leave.”
Oswald shooed away a wasp that was approaching Vincent’s colourful t-shirt. “Hey, be happy,” he said and dug around for his cigarettes. “Other kids would love to swan around the world as much as you. Australia! Isn’t that great?”
Vincent slowly shook his head. “No, it’s sad. We weren’t even here two months and in Milan it was only six. You just make new friends and then you have to leave again. That gives me real tummy aches you know, with a temperature and everything. And then mother says I shouldn’t be such a fusspot; travelling is good for my artistic development. But I don’t need any. I’d much rather stay in the house over there with our books.” Grinning, he looked up. “And with you my giant. They think your name is really funny and father likes you too. He says you have such long arms that you can scratch your knees standing up.” He smiled widely and lent forward. “Is that true? Can you really? Let me see, please?”
Swallows were swooping in the sky, their wing-beats were audible and Oswald flicked his lighter and remained silent. But the child, eyes wide, jumped up from his chair and clapped his hands. “Oh please, please! Show me!” The man shook his head once briefly. The lorries were full, the packers closed the doors and he looked into the violet-red sky above the trees, exhaled the smoke through his nose and murmured: “Leave it Vincent. I am not your performing monkey.”
The boy’s smile faded, his face paled and for a heartbeat or two he stood immobilized; only his fingers moved a little and his nostrils twitched. “But why… I just thought… I did not want to hurt your feelings Uncle Gabi! You’re my best friend,” he said and stepped closer to the seated man, nervously twiddling the buttons of Oswald’s white coat. “You are, aren’t you? I always talk rubbish, you can ask anyone. But I don’t mean any harm, cross my heart!”
He swallowed several times and his eyes grew moist. Oswald raised a hand, but did not dare touch the child. “Well yes, it’s not that bad. It’s all right Vincent. We’re made of sterner stuff,” he answered, rubbing the nape of his neck and looking towards the house. “Come and sit down. I’m your friend, obviously. Your blood brother if you want. But please sit down on the chair again, alright? Otherwise they might think… I mean…”
He dropped his cigarette, reached into his breast pocket and held up a piece of paper. “Look here, I brought you something. Our poem is finished!“
The boy however, tears dripping from his chin, did not look at it. He sighed shakily and wiped his eyes with the palms of his hands. Then he went around the chair, carefully stepped on the glowing butt and pocketed it. “Which poem?“
Oswald turned a dial next to the office door and an insect-encrusted lamp, veiled with spiders’ webs, flickered on. “I’ve called it ‘Mouse Blues’ for starters,“ he said. “You can change the title later.”
Arms folded in front of his chest, the child looked at him expectantly and he unfolded the piece of paper, sat up straight and read in a feigned deep voice:
“Where did you lose your tail Mouse?” Only to answer in a voice as high-pitched as he could muster: “I must have lost it at the dance house.” And once again deeply, with theatrically arched brows: “Mouse, what have you done with your claws? Oh, I lost them out-of-doors. And your ears, where are they? They also seem to have gone away. And your nose? In the grass by the garden hose. And your sight so bright? Gone, out like a light. Mouse, surely teeth you once had many? Well, now I ain’t got any. And who has your coat so grey? Age quickly took it away.”
The child stepped closer, wanted to say something, but Oswald raised a hand and closed mournfully: “You feel a paw, just like that, swallowed up and you become a cat!”
The boy stared for a moment, his mouth agape, his gaze dreamy; he seemed to be struggling to detach himself from the images in his head. In the house the windows were being closed, a furniture van rolled out of the driveway and he ignored his mother’s calls and moved his lips as if he were repeating the poem silently. Then he clapped his hands, raised both fists up high and Oswald handed him the piece of paper with a sigh of relief.
“Boy, that was really hard work!” He put out the light on the terrace and tapped out a new cigarette from the packet. “The rhymes are do-able, they’re easy. But it’s got to make sense and sound good, right? I always had one word too many or too few. Sometimes just a syllable. That was trickier than a crossword puzzle!”
The second van drove off. Vincent folded the piece of paper and put it in his pocket. “It is great!” he said and went over to his bike. “We are a really good team. I will show it to my parents, maybe they can have it printed. You will of course get half the fees and we’ll have to talk about author’s rights.” He polished the bicycle bell with a corner of his shirt. “But you know what? I didn’t quite understand the ending … the mouse is already dead; she got swiped by the paw, right? So why does it become a cat?
Oswald put the cigarette behind his ear and helped him lift the bike over the fence. “Well, you can do that in a poem… it just gets digested. I mean, when you eat a chop or some chicken then it transforms too. It gives you strength and lets you grow. It becomes Vincent.”
“Really? Cool,” he said and looked round; his father had let out a two-fingered whistle. “But we’re vegetarians. I’m not allowed to eat things like that.” Then he bent down, slipped through to the other side and quickly – so he would not bang his head on the fence pole – Oswald held a hand over his head.
The lights went out in the villa, the west-facing windows reflected the last traces of red evening sky and behind him he heard the sound that always occurred when another bed, rolling down the sloping corridor, banged against the steel door – a blunt ‘clonk’. Something flew above the treetops through the dusk and you could not tell whether it was still the swallows or already bats. The boy got on his bike. “So, take care. I’ve got to go to Australia.”
With his lower lip protruding, he raised a fist and Oswald tapped his own against it. “Okay, gangster, take care of yourself”, he said hoarsely. “The sun down there is a force to be reckoned with. That’s what I read somewhere anyhow. They have trousers with sun protection. And write me a love poem sometime.”
Laughing, the boy started pedalling. The reflectors in the wheel spikes glinted and the gears cracked as he struggled up the slope, bent low over the handlebars. He groaned exaggeratedly. But suddenly he stopped, dug his skinny legs into the grass and turned from the hip. “Hey, Uncle Gabi. What I wanted to ask you: do you know why bees hum?” And without waiting for an answer he cupped his hands around his mouth and whispered loudly: “Because they forgot the words!”
Oswald grinned, waved and sat down again on the chair. He lit the cigarette and glanced through the drifting smoke to the villa, where the woman was just locking the door and the man was stowing something in the boot of the jeep. When the interior light went on, he once again saw Vincent’s thatch of hair through the windscreen, his pale face.
The big car’s engine sounded quieter than the grating of the gravel under the wheels, the headlights grazed Oswald in his hospital uniform and then the driveway was suddenly empty.

Sterne Tief Unten, from Shakespeares Hühner by Ralf Rothmann, © Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin 2013
Translation © Alexandra Roesch