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Replete Heart’s Counsel
As a Teethager I went
Through Gazing at a Hand

Author: Mariça Bodrožić
Translator: Deirdre McMahon

 

REPLETE HEART’S COUNSEL,Angels of the clouds
mystical, woven as one.
Curator of all in the office of creation
my greatest kin. In the harbour
no ships of light but
among these wonders, fresh impetus.
The warriors have gone elsewhere,
called from exile, into a new era.
Tell me, rose, are they entering the light?
The wind-house whirl is still, questions
find their way home. I smile myself whole.
The knowing rose has a different form.
I am me, and not yet myself.

 

AS A TEETHAGER I WENT through time,
winter clenched its jaw
with a tent, with a totem
with a visible rip in the ear.
It moved into whiteness.
Perhaps I have a timeless being
I thought, as I moved
over a lime-treed square
and the roofs blazed out
as in a proper human space.
Sundays were for dreaming,
for travelling avenues
just air beneath my feet.
Only stark Orion’s light,
starbellies to bathe in.
I took my place in the central star.
At first I didn’t see
The temple standing there,
saw only the light.
A line of pillars led there.
Fire blazed out from its centre.
I went inside, barefoot,
big toe and suitcase first.
My case burned bright,
heavy baggage bursting in flames,
my feet unscathed
though I stayed in the fire,
utterly at home.
Returning the same way,
I rode from Orion to Berlin
on a ray of light discovered by Einstein
for his science. In the capital
I noticed first the solid state
of my teeth. I grew wise
at the U-Bahn. Even before
the ticket-machine I knew
I’m a teethager, with bright balloons
with my soles armoured,
with all I need,
with true protectors,
the valley-dwellers of memory.

 

THROUGH GAZING AT A HAND,
skin planes reveal their colours.
A Sunday among words
settles down in us.
Both of us, our mouths opened,
dodging sleep.
Our milky way, a street of seams and livery,
rooms to dress up in, laughing too
as if lanterns were hung
over the path for light-starved children.
Bodies coloured in silence,
rolled up in miracles
of mathematical precision.
Equations of longing,
dissolved with a brush,
with a love of painting.
The sound of his eyes,
the springtime of his ears,
the origins of our skin –
as if there were only you
my love. This new land,
entrusted just to us.
Let us carry it,
let us know it,
let us be true to our origins.
We want to look at ourselves complete,
want to see how things go
when we do nothing.
And loneliness, like a shelled nut,
packs its bags and leaves,
with hands hanging,
touching no-one in passing.

From Ein Kolibri kam unverwandelt.  Otto Müller Verlag, Salzburg/Vienna, 2007.

my bauble, my boat, my drawstring bag
in the east, lisa rothe

Author: Lutz Seiler
Translator: Sophie Duvernoy

 

my bauble, my boat, my drawstring bag

kindly enough they never
avoided me. no, to the contrary
they said ‘can we smoke’ and
i said ‘but of course,’ one
can eat, drink, sleep, one must
while the time away, the nights
grow long, one takes
one’s punch at home or elsewhere, one
can be glad to own
a boat, after all
there’s also an ashtray here and
a shaver there. yes, they smoke
but kindly enough
theirs is no less
within their grasp
than mine for me:
always spilled slightly at the table, shameful,
vanished in the coat’s
lining, just
carelessly misplaced, lost or
swiftly forgotten right
before the start of a long trip. i’m hardly
under way and think

how beautiful are the sheep
and precious
i’ve hardly
turned homeward when
someone calls out from behind hello, sir

something’s lying here and
if i weren’t so weak and small
i’d have liked, just once, to ask in return:
is it my bauble?
my boat?
my drawstring bag?

Dedicated to Hans Henny Jahnn

 

 

in the east, lisa rothe

there were people, who,
when coughing, entirely
covered their faces & vanished: lisa rothe, what
we found in her nightstand sufficed
for the insect-black of her feet
sustenance for the foot-lamps
in snow, oil and refuse, so that was where

she kept the light, the piecesof mirror, we heaved, we found
the imprint of a sleeping head &
her excrement, water and quiet

remarks about ourselves, the ticking
of potatoes in the pantries, the inner enclosure, so
had she shrunk beneath the sounds
of a street, a stream, a

wismut stadium, so
had she gone out
in the beam of her task-lamp, slipped away
like soft food,
hard food, until you slept, soft food, hard
… we

had thrown the bedding
far back ourselves cheekbones
washed in snow, mistleblood … but
we endured the odor, the personal

infections, a
dance instructor from the eastern suburbs
slower than mandrake, bore … no,
one hears nothing more, now

one can truly
hear nothing more, mute
the potted meat flanks
her crude standing &

well-combed sleep, it is
september, the
animals are crowding
into the house, nothing’s amiss

 

From pech & blende.  Edition Suhrkamp, 2000.

Issue 12

Table of Contentsfor Issue 12

Issue 12 - Winter 2017

TABLE OF CONTENTS


Chicken Christl


becoming an ape made easy
drunk in the dark
leaving the house
daily dramas
excavating a writing desk
the shifting wind



African sailfin flyingfish
splitfin flashlightfish



if magic
a place of shadows
melting on the short grass patches



My First Murderer


Mist


Emil: A Quiet Beetle on the Road


Serdar


The Raft of the Medusa


What This Home Is


Tortoise Soldier


in London. in Bad Aussee.


Replete Heart’s Counsel
As a Teethager I went
Through Gazing at a Hand



my bauble, my boat, my drawstring bag
in the east, lisa rothe



Issue 12


The Pope’s Left Hand


hunting song
open your eyes
my friends
denuded trees
geese
the open sea


My First Murderer

Author: Vladimir Vertlib
Translator: Cornelius Partsch

Translator’s Note
     Mein erster Mörder contains three “life stories;” this excerpt is from the first, titular story.  44-year-old Leopold Ableitinger, who as a 24-year-old murdered a man who treated him disrespectfully and aggressively, speaks to a journalist about events that occurred in Vienna in 1957, when Leopold was 14 years old. The narrative is arranged to let the reader understand why Leopold committed the crime.
     Chapter Two relates events of Leopold’s childhood. Leopold, his parents, and a great aunt have been displaced by World War II and are currently living in cramped social housing in Vienna. In the translated passage, young Leopold first learns of a dark secret in his tyrannical father’s past, something related to Hungarian prisoners of war. Later, Leopold’s curiosity leads him to piece together how his father might have been involved in a war crime, for which he was never held accountable.

 

TWO

My father enjoyed giving me long lectures about the art of hanging up towels to dry. I listened and did not interrupt him. This warm day in April was no exception. The rest of the laundry did not matter to him. He was terribly meticulous, but only with towels. Not just that they all had to hang at the same height and evenly spaced on the line! A stranger might have thought the towels had been thrown out of an airplane and dropped on our balcony by chance. But there was a system behind it. The third towel from the left had to be folded three times, on the fifth towel the clothespin had to be placed at the top right-hand corner. Most importantly, the blue stripes should not line up to form continuous lines under any circumstances. “Your father is off his rocker,” said my great aunt Elfriede. “My old radio from before the Anschluss works better than his brain. I wonder how many tubes have burned out in there?” In any case, I soon knew the towel rules better than my father himself and corrected him when he made an error. I was fourteen. At that time, my parents and I lived in Vienna. I moved to Salzburg later, as an adult.

            We had a nice apartment in a house that had been damaged during the war. In retrospect, it was a bit of good luck for us that the Germans and the Russians had been locked in an artillery battle near the Donaukanal in April of 1945. That’s how we got our balcony. A shell had blown away the façade, as well as a room, the attic, and the roof structure at the upper right corner of the building. After some makeshift repairs, the apartment was rented out again. Two rooms, a kitchen, and a roof deck in place of the third room. A sizeable “outdoor area.” Even with hardwood floors. From there we had a view of the Donaukanal, the city railway, and the Friedensbrücke stop. When it was clear, you could see the hills of the Wienerwald in the distance. A few years prior, the Donaukanal had served as a border between occupation zones. On our side, some claimed, Siberia ended. On the other side, America began. When I was much younger people had to show their identification cards on the Friedensbrücke in order to get to the West. That was exciting. Crossing from one world into another. Now it was all the same, but Austria was free.

            Unfortunately, our house was to be demolished soon to make room for a new building. Cracks had started to appear in the walls, so wide that a rat could hide in them. Rats actually did come out of the walls. They made our kitchen unsafe and nibbled on Aunt Elfriede’s diary, which contained a record of my father’s many lunatic moments. In addition, the more intelligent rats (which was most of them) had learned to fetch the cheese bits out of the trap without triggering the fatal snapping mechanism.

            My father ranted: “Just when one kind of vermin is gone, another shows up. First the Russians, then the Rat-sians.”

            My parents had applied for public housing. We were scheduled to move to Brünner Straße in six months’ time. To Floridsdorf. Back home. That’s where my parents were both born and where they grew up. There, they had found work in a factory. My mother worked on the assembly line. My father paced through the hall and made sure that the women working the line did not work too fast or too slow. The lazy ones were fired, just like the overly enthusiastic ones. Mother adhered to the mandated speed. She never distinguished herself at anything in her life, not in either direction.

            My parents had married in Floridsdorf and started a family there. They would have never left that place had they not been forced away by bombing raids in the winter of ‘45. They were out of their element on this side of the Danube.

 

 THREE

 Those people down there are shameless, said Aunt Elfriede. She was eyeing the sidewalk in front of our front door.

            It had been painful for her to walk around my desk, open the window, arch her torso, and lean out the window. Some time ago, when she was still able to make it out onto the balcony, not even cats sitting under parked cars were safe from the clutch of her gaze. She entered every tiny detail into her diary. Including date and time.

            She was appalled: “That slut from downstairs just pulled her dress up to the hips. You can see her knee and part of her thighs, and she is not wearing stockings, either, that slut. The redneck who is with her has three buttons on his shirt open, showing his chest hair. That would have been impossible in the good old days.”

            Father grumbled: “Stop it with the Führer and the good old days.”

            “Who’s talking about the yokel from Braunau? I meant the good old days when his majesty the emperor was still residing in the Hofburg. Even the dwarf who opened fire on the workers back in ‘34 had his good side. All that so-called ‘greatest commander of all times’ from Upper Austria ever did was to bring the Russians into our country. He should rot in hell.”

            Father laughed and pointed his finger at his forehead. Our dear aunt has been saying strange things of late, he noted. Was this still the same woman who had got him through the difficult years of his youth?

            After the death of my great uncle she became bedridden, and we moved her to our place. Father declared that he owed her that much. Now I had to share my room with her. She slept in my bed, and I on a mattress between my desk and my wardrobe. When I awoke in the bright moonshine, I saw the shadow of her pointy nose on the shade of the floor lamp. Her snoring did not bother me, but I could not stand having to look at her bird face on my lamp. It haunted me in my dreams. But Mother refused to buy thicker curtains. We could not afford such a luxury, she said. It was bad enough that she did the laundry for Aunt Elfriede, that she brought her medication and food to the bedside whenever walking to the kitchen was just too exhausting for the old woman. And of course, she also took care of the business with the chamber pot and – during the days when my aunt’s health was even worse – with the diapers. But what to do? You couldn’t just let her croak.  “Everyone’s time comes,” said Mother, “every woman’s, I mean. You men have it much easier.”

            We were sitting in the living room, a room that also served as my parents’ bedroom. My great aunt’s gut wobbled while she spoke, and a rattling sound emanated from her mouth. Her face and her hair seemed to match the red and white squares on the couch. The hair – a dusty white; the face – a pale red. My great aunt had striking features, disregarding the pointy nose of course. Mother came in from the kitchen with a basket of clean laundry. Father was enjoying a beer. He had already hung up the towels. The rest was of no concern to him.

            “I haven’t slept for three nights”, said my great aunt. That was not true. Like always, she had been snoring.

            “Should I go downstairs?” Father clenched a fist. “I’ll show them!”

            Mother replied: “Stop bragging!”

            Father poured himself another glass. He held the bottle in his left hand although he was right-handed. For good luck, he claimed. Many years ago, he had poured a beer with his left hand because he had injured his right one at work. He was unable to operate machinery in the factory for a month, yet not only was he not fired, he was even promoted to foreman. Since that time, he believed in the power of rituals. All in all, my great aunt had counted twenty-seven lunatic episodes, better yet twenty-eight if she counted the biggest of them all, by which she meant his “general state of mind.”

            “Now this is starting up again! Not even on Sundays can you have some peace and quiet.” Father emptied his glass of beer in one gulp and wiped away the foam from this mouth with the back of his hand.

            The noise came just like the rats out of the cracks in the wall. It came from the apartment below us, where the slut and her redneck husband lived with their young children, both of them girls. They had moved into the building two months ago, even though demolition had already been scheduled. But evidently they needed a place to stay and could not afford anything better. There were problems from the outset. They did not greet you properly when you ran into them. They left the radio on until midnight and made rude remarks when you complained.  The janitor could not do anything about them and even Herr Pohl, the former Block Warden, did not succeed in making an impression on them. The police left them in peace, probably because the radio always fell silent when a police officer entered the building. Or maybe because they had other concerns besides disputes between neighbors who would only be living in the same building for a few more months.

            The situation had escalated in the last few days. The neighbors had visitors. That meant noisy chatter until deep into the night. The rats’ passageways ensured that we heard every last detail.

            Father said: “There is only one language these people understand. A chokehold, a punch to the stomach. In the good old days, it would have been enough to …”

            “Just shut up! Are you stupid or something?” Mother glanced over at me.

            “I’ll do it, I swear. The 1-kilo weight from the scale in one hand, a knife in the other…”

            “You said the same thing yesterday, and three weeks ago.”

            “Do you want to argue with me?”

            I remained calm. When Father hit Mother there was something else going on. Even my great aunt could not manage to restrain him in those moments.

            “I am going downstairs to talk to them. They will listen to me. I have never argued with them before.” The adults were flabbergasted. Mother shook her head. Father put down his beer, and after a long silence my great aunt agreed: “Actually, why not? From the mouth of a child even bad tidings sound gentle.”

            “Don’t you sound like a poet today,” my father mumbled.

            “That’s out of the question,” said Mother. But I had already prepared myself for the task, rolled up my sleeves and went into the kitchen to wet my comb. It didn’t help. I didn’t look like James Dean, and it wasn’t just because of the hair. Mother thought that I had inherited the looks of my Upper Austrian grandfather. Everyone who came from his neck of the woods had the same hamster face.

            “Tell them that I’ve been lenient so far,” Father yelled after me, “due to my good nature, but my patience will run out soon.”

            While I was putting on father’s sunglasses, I heard my great aunt’s voice: “And don’t talk with that slut for too long.”

            As I walked down the stairs, I became dizzy with excitement. I had to hold on to the rope. There used to be a handrail there but it hadn’t made it through the war.

 

 FOUR

 The floor tiles in front of their door were loose and clacked when I stepped on them. Paint was peeling off the door. This apartment had been vacant for a few years. It was a miracle that it was inhabitable at all. Natsch. A strange surname. The name was written on a piece of cardboard tacked to the door just under the spyhole. The old metal doorbell was rusted solid. I knocked. A woman whom I had met only once previously opened. She was wearing a worn-out nightgown and mousy felt slippers. She seemed old to me, in her mid-thirties, maybe forty. She was probably in her late twenties. Herr and Frau Natsch are not home, she explained. She was just here visiting for a few days with her husband. That’s just the problem, I stammered, and I thought to myself that neither the sunglasses nor the greased-back hair made me look grown up and strong at all. My damn grandfather from Upper Austria! Had I inherited his squeaky voice, too? It’s like this, I stated weakly. My parents are complaining about the noise level in the evenings, and since Herr and Frau Natsch have had visitors in the apartment, it has even gotten much worse… I looked down at my shoes and sensed how I was blushing. Goddamn grandfather!

            “We are leaving the day after tomorrow.”

            A male figure had appeared behind the woman.

            “Is there a problem?”

            “No, go back to bed.”

            It was ten in the morning and they were still in bed! If I tell them upstairs, there will be more bad blood. I noticed that the man had the same accent as the Natsch woman. Our neighbors were Germans from western Hungary or, as people liked to say of late, Old Austrians. They had fled from their homeland after the failed uprising last fall.

            “We will try to make less noise,” the woman explained to me. “Please tell your parents.” I thanked her and went on my way when I heard the tiles clacking behind me.

            “What do you want from us?” At first glance, Herr Natsch was a slight figure. He had a long upper body, but fairly short and muscular arms and legs, and he was wide around the hips, like a woman. Somehow nothing on his body seemed to fit together. Maybe that was one of the reasons why he attracted the resentment of his fellow human beings. Some referred to him openly as a cripple. By contrast, his wife was a beauty. Slim, dark-haired, sensuous. When I jerked off, I fantasized more often about her than about Trudl from home economics class.

            “It’s because of the radio,” I muttered and took off the sunglasses. “At night. And because of the loud talking.”

            “Really? Are they now sending children to bother me?” he screamed. “Am I supposed to act like I live in a tomb, like all the others here?”

            “But the house rules …”

            “The house rules? Do you mean that piece of paper downstairs? I could use that to wipe my ass. There isn’t going to be a house here in a few months anyway.”

            “Oswald! Think about what you are saying!” Frau Natsch’s dress was very short indeed. I could see her knees and thighs. And how she swayed her hips. It was unbearable.

            The woman in the doorway said something in Hungarian. It sounded soothing, almost ironic. Herr Natsch responded in a provocative tone. Then they quarreled. A short dialogue. The woman turned around and went back inside.

            “I don’t argue with children. Tell that to your father.” Herr Natsch’s voice was now calmer. Frau Natsch smiled at me.

            Suddenly I stopped being afraid. I was angry. I thought, I am going to turn fifteen in a few months, and these people treat me like a baby.

            “You know, Herr Natsch,” I countered, trying to sound threatening, “my father said that he would come down to see you. With a 1-kilo weight from our scale in one hand and a knife in the other, if you keep acting like a monkey.” I was mighty proud of the monkey-idea.

            “Let him come down! We will see who slices up who! And now go back to your toys.” The door slammed. “Well, I guess I put him in his place,” I whispered, held back the tears and put the sunglasses back on. “I showed him!”

 

 FIVE 

On this day, my father hit my mother again, and I was to blame, because I had screwed up everything. I riled him up when I told him about my conversation with the Natsches. I said what happened and added some embellishments. For example, that our neighbor had blustered on about slicing him open and called my father a pussy. “Pussy!” I liked that word.

            I enjoyed Father’s rage. I agreed with him completely. We were of one opinion. I was starting to feel like a real man. Then mother intervened. She was tired of listening to all of this. It was a beautiful Sunday. Instead of going for a stroll by the Danube or in the Prater, we were sitting around in the apartment and talking about the Natsches. Father slapped her twice. When I tried to stop him Mother said: “Don’t get in the middle of this.” And my great aunt told me to go to my room. She would deal with the situation.

            I remember that I tried to do my homework that afternoon. In order to get to the desk I had to squeeze by the bed and the mattress. The chair creaked unhappily. But I found the right technique for making it work. The edge cut into my behind, my left leg became numb, but I was in a seated position. My parents had promised that everything would be different in the new apartment in Floridsdorf.

            I took the Latin text I had to translate out of the desk drawer. In Latin, as in most of the other subjects, I was best in class. If I should ever sink into mediocrity my parents would immediately take me out of school. I had to thank my great aunt Elfriede for being in high school at all. If father had had his way I would have completed primary school, up till the 8th grade, vocational school in the best case, and then done an apprenticeship with a plumber or a carpenter. My primary schoolteacher’s powers of persuasion could not sway Father, all her talk of my “extraordinary talents” and of the many opportunities available to someone with a high school diploma. Father wouldn’t hear it, until my great aunt put her foot down: “Be happy that he isn’t a half-wit like you. Having a brainiac in the family is the best retirement plan.”

            Father always did what my great aunt demanded. She did not tolerate dissent. He had never even raised his voice with her. Until today. That confused me so much that I could not make sense of the Latin words. I simply could not make heads or tails out of the day’s events. Just before Father let loose on Mother I had recounted yet again how the neighbors spoke Hungarian and even imitated the sound of this language in a way that seemed accurate and funny to me. “A dirty little Volk, these Hungarians,” he opined.

            Mother countered: “The Natsches are Germans.”

            I corrected her: “Old Austrians.”

            “It’s all the same, the race does not matter,” said father. “They are a dirty people, these Hungarians.”

            “You should know best,” my great aunt said with derision in her voice. “After everything you saw when you…” She did not finish the sentence. Father was already by her side. He had never moved across the room this quickly. “Are you crazy?!” he howled. “Shut your mouth, or else…!”

            The adults suddenly fell silent and looked at me. The silence lasted for a long time, it seemed to me, maybe thirty seconds or longer. I had never seen my parents so terrified before. Not even the gnawing sound emanating from the kitchen – the rats were dining again – caused them to leap into action.

            Vita omnis in venationibus atque in studiis rei militaris consistit.

            “Their whole life consists of …”, I muttered. What on earth does “venationibus” mean? I flicked through the dictionary absent-mindedly and missed the letter V. How was my father connected to Hungary? As far as I knew he had never traveled beyond the borders of Lower Austria. Not during the war, either. “Their whole life…” He was born in 1902. He was too young to fight during World War I, and too old during World War II. At some point, he had a physical, but he was not drafted because he was a skilled worker. He had to join the home guard, but not until March of ’45. The mission took him to the outskirts of Vienna, and he was able to defect just before everything fell apart. “… of military exercises …” Whereas both of my older brothers were at the front, one in Russia and the other in Norway. I was a late arrival. The product of faulty contraception.

            Father did not have anything to do with the Hungarian refugees, either, the ones who showed up in Austria last year. And so what if he’d had contact with them? Why the terror on their faces earlier? Foreign workers were employed in my father’s factory during the war. They  were all from the Ukraine and “were treated very well,” father had said. So again, no Hungarians.

            Venationibus. Their whole life consisted of hunting and military exercises. Caesar wrote that about the Germanic tribes. Hungarians did not exist back then.

            Ita est profecto: multis fortuna parcit in poenam. What nonsense. That could be describing me, but not the Germanic tribes. I opened the window and peered out. Down below a Vespa rattled by. A few teenage rebels were hanging out in front of the corner pub – cool posture, cigarettes dangling from their mouths, jackets open, their shoes black and polished. How I would have loved to be one of them. But I had to do my homework if I did not want to spend my life doing factory work like the rest of my family. Radio tunes wafted up through the rat holes. At least it was quiet in the living room. No more slapping sounds. Later tonight, when we are alone, I will ask my great aunt what she meant with her comment about father and the Hungarians.

 

From My First Murderer (Mein Erster Mörder).  Deuticke im Paul Zsolnay Verlag, Vienna, 2006.

 

 

Serdar

Author: Johannes Ehrmann

Translator: Catherine Venner

 

Two standing boards decorated with ivy leaves.

White plastic furniture on a green carpet.

A cup of hot tea under the chestnut tree.

What more could you possibly want?

Serdar is sitting at a table outside the Anayurt cafe with his legs stretched out. So this is where he has wound up. Here of all places! Within spitting distance of the corner shop, at the Turkish cafe on Bellermannplatz, after all that wandering around. And now Serdar hasn’t got a clue how or why. What is he supposed to do here anyway among all the old men with shapeless caps and heavy moustaches, drinking chai tea from tiny glasses, chain smoking and playing cards or backgammon?

But fine, he’s here now.

And when it comes down to it, here is just as good as anywhere else.

His tea arrives. After the first drink, he realises he hasn’t eaten since the morning. He takes small sips, notices the two small green beans swimming on the surface and feels the hot sweet liquid in his stomach.

Serdar leans back and shuts his eyes.

He sees her in front of him.

The child’s large, shining eyes.

The eyes of the little girl who he’d seen at the traffic lights remind him of something. But he can’t quite put his finger on it. He just can’t.

Serdar thinks about the girl and about everything else. He feels the tea in his empty stomach and hears the old men murmuring and rattling their counters in the wooden boxes. They’ve already done it, thinks Serdar. They’re seeing out the end of their days.

For a while, Serdar listens to the sounds; the quiet voices and the rustling of the leaves in the tree. For the first time in this insane week, his head is empty and Serdar can feel the sweetened tea in his stomach. He feels as if he and his plastic chair have been elevated a couple of centimetres off the ground and are hovering just above the green carpet. His eyes are closed and everything sounds fuzzy. And then he becomes aware of another sound. It’s slowing penetrating his thoughts: an unclear and slightly brittle voice, the croaky voice of a man, and it’s saying something in Turkish. A cough, and then it says the same thing again.

Serdar opens his eyes.

A old man is standing next to the table.

A small, old man with deep lines on his face, a grey stubbly beard and in his hand a well-worn leather suitcase, from which a shirt tail is poking out.

Merhaba, Torun,” the old man asks, “taken?”

He points at the plastic chair opposite Serdar.

“Taken?” the old man asks again and looks searchingly at Serdar. Serdar nods while the old man pulls the chair from under the table and suppresses a sigh as he sits on it. He puts the suitcase on the floor, takes his cap off his head and wipes the sweat from his forehead with a grey handkerchief. White hairs cling to his temples and the back of his head.

My God, Serdar thinks, what kind of trip is he coming down from?

The old man sit motionless in his chair with his arms lying limply on the rests. When the waiter comes, he orders some tea and couple of sesame rings.

“Hot day,” say the old man, “just like back then.”

Serdar looks at him baffled.

Serdar doesn’t speak Turkish, just a couple of phrases. Anyway how could he, when the guy who gave him his Turkish name could only hold out a few months with him and his mother? He knows a couple of numbers, one or two expressions and all manner of swear words that you pick up anyway if you grow up in this district of Berlin, no matter whether your name is Martin Müller, Ivo Andric or Serdar Schröder.

“Hot day,” the old man repeats and folds up his wet handkerchief. “Just as hot as back then. Oh Torun, I still remember it well.”

And it’s strange that the old man is speaking a weird gobbledygook, mainly Turkish but mixed up with some broken German, yet Serdar understands everything he says right from the very first word. And he has no idea how, but maybe the language doesn’t matter if the story is right for you.

“Very, very hot” says the old man, “just as hot as on that last day.”

Serdar sips his tea and waits.

“It was very, very hot, the day that our pride and joy left us,” says the old man. “He took the bus, down the village street. You know Torun, people always run away on hot days, who knows why?”

The old man wipes his forehead with his palm.

“I don’t know either,” the old man continues. “Maybe they’re afraid. Afraid that their brains will melt if they don’t cool them down in the headwind. Or worse, they’ve already melted. I really don’t know.”

Serdar looks around. The other men are engrossed in their games. Nobody is taking any notice of them.

“His arm,” says the old man, “the last thing that we saw of him was his arm in the bus window, and he waved. I can still see it, he’d pushed his sleeves up, in his best shirt. And we watched, me too, and off he went, our son. He took our hopes and our joy with him. And he must have lost it, somewhere along the way it fell out of the bus or it just flew through the open windows, who knows, who knows.”

The old man gets his tea and sesame rings. He nods in thanks to the waiter and pours sugar into his glass. He slowly stirs it and shakes his head very slightly.

“I tried everything, Torun, everything, believe me. What do you want over there? What? I asked him. What is waiting for you there, when your life, your family and your joy are here? But he didn’t want to hear it, not at all. He didn’t listen to me at all, do you understand Torun? He had just one word in his head, Almanya, Almanya, only that. That is what he always said to us. The future is there, Baba, he said, my future is there, yours too, all of ours. That’s how he spoke, he didn’t want to hear anything else. I might as well have just gone behind the house and talked to the goats.”

The old man breaks off a piece of a sesame ring, dunks it into his tea and chews hurriedly.

Almanya, Almanya. The future. All very well, but what do you want with tomorrow when you already have a today?”

Serdar watches the old man eat. He takes a drink of his tea and waits until the old man has devoured his next mouthful.

“A couple of notes,” says the only man and washes some tea down, “a couple of crisp banknotes every month. Do you think that’s all that a family needs? Well?”

The old man shakes his head.

“A couple of notes, a couple of banknotes and every month a letter saying, I’m fine, thanks, thinking of you. That was it. And it was us who looked after them – his family, his wife and two children, a son and then a daughter who was born when he was already gone. Far, far away in grey, cold, bloody Almanya, and who knows what he was doing on the day she was born. I don’t, Torun. I don’t know, I can’t tell you.”

The old man chews his soggy simit and looks around out of his small dark eyes. A few sesame seeds float in his tea.

“Two years,” says the old man, “two years is a long time. And we saw everything. WE were the ones who were there. When the little one stopped drinking milk, we saw how she stood up and took her first steps. We heard her first words. And do you know what her first word was? Dede. Grandad.”

The old man laughs bitterly.

“No, no,” he says, “two summers, two full summers and two winters on top of that. And every couple of weeks a few lines, thanks, work is going well, the people are nice here, I’ve bought myself a warm coat.”

Serdar looks at the old man. He asks himself where this story is going. Why is he telling him all this? Has he got him mixed up with someone else? With some Torun or other? Or why is he calling him that all the time?

But the old man is already speaking again.

“That’s what happened, Torun, month after month. And the third summer had almost begun and his son was almost ready to start school, when he came back for the first time. I’m coming to visit at the start of August, he wrote. To visit, as if he was already a stranger, do you understand? And at first, we didn’t even recognise him, his pale face and long hair down to his shoulders. Oh, what have they done to you? I asked him, when he got off the bus, and what have you become, a woman with long hair? And he just shook his head and said, no, that is the fashion in Almanya now. Can you believe it?”

The old man finishes his tea and motions to the waiter. He orders another tea.

“On the second day,” he says, “Yes, on the second or the third day, it must have been.”

Serdar looks at the old man. He sees his wrinkles. How many are there? Hundreds, thousands? He see the black eyes of the old man and it seems to him that they just turned a little darker.

“Everything was almost as before,” says the old man. “His children were happy to have their father back, and he also looked happy. Just that he was quieter than before and smoked all the time. He must have started that over there. It was a nice day. I was home alone with him, the women had gone to the market and he said, Baba, I have to talk to you. And I said, ok, then sit down and we’ll talk. But he said, no, not here, let’s go out, the sun is shining and we can walk up the hill. And so we went.”

The old man looks away from Serdar. He looks down at his plate and stares at the sesame seeds as if he could read something in them. Serdar feels his own impatience, the old man isn’t speaking quickly enough for him. He takes lengthy pauses to think or remember before he finally continues speaking in his strange slow singsong.

“On the way to the top,” says the old man and looks at Serdar with his dark, dewy eyes, “that’s where he told me.”

“It just happened, Baba, he said, just like that. I was lonely and it happened, and now it’s nearly time, just a couple of weeks left and I don’t know what to do, tell me. How am I supposed to live with two families, one here and one there? How will that work? Tell me and I’ll submit to your advice.”

“And I remember, how I stopped still, oh Torun, I remember it exactly. I couldn’t take another step, not another step with him. And I felt the anger, the anger inside me and the fevered shaking. We hadn’t got far when I stood still. We were hardly halfway up the hill, as I seized him and yelled at him, right in the face.”

“Who are you? I yelled at him. Who do you think you are to bring this shame on us? I yelled, how dare you disgrace our family? I gripped him firmly and looked into his eyes. I saw his tears and I heard him say, Baba, I am so sorry, please forgive me, please. But I only felt the shame in me, nothing else, his shame and ours. And it left no place for anything else.”

The old man is now sitting crumpled in his chair with his hands in his lap. It looks as if he is shaking. He stares at the table in front of him.

“How often, Torun, how often have I thought about these minutes since then? Have I thought of my words, my yelling and his eyes? But that is how it is. What happened was meant to happen, and that is how I pushed him away from me, spat in the dust in front of me and said, go, you are no longer my son, you have to go away, today, go away and don’t come back, and I wish you had never been born.”

The old man jerks his head up and looks at him. Serdar sees the wrinkles in the old man’s face, he sees the white hair and the deep, sad eyes and he looks away. He can’t bear to look at him.

“And I saw him,” says the old man, “I watched him as he staggered down the slope, down to the house and I stayed where I was, half-way up the hill. I sat on a stone and stayed there until it was dark and they came looking for me. And I didn’t tell them anything, not a word and I still haven’t. Not even, when two days later we got the news and everybody cried and my heart wanted to break. But it didn’t break and I kept my mouth shut.”

Serdar looks at the old man, who is now sitting there in silence and gripping his glass of tea. The old man slowly moves his jaw as if he were chewing something but his plate is clean with the exception of a few sesame seeds.

“It was his bus,” says the old man, “it was the bus he was travelling on. Without a doubt, they knew it was him because they’d found his passport. They gave it to me and I looked at it. The edges were black and his photo was half melted. He was barely recognisable.”

“And that was the end” the old man continues. “The result. Two women without a husband, three children without a father, and believe me, Torun, there isn’t a day in which I do not feel the guilt. It is like a stone, a stone hanging around my neck and I carry it from one day to the next, from year to year. And it’s too late, now it’s too late. But what the heck, I’m here, and I don’t even know why. Maybe I’m still looking for him.”

Serdar hears the old man’s words and he looks over at the old wooden partition wall that hides the corner shop two blocks down the road. He stares at the weathered slats and the ivy leaves, and his head is no longer empty as before, now his head is full, fuller than it has ever been. After the old man’s story, it feels as if his head will burst at any moment. The old man’s words echo in his ears. This strange story that seems to come from another world and has jolted his head to life, just like a direct hit in the ring, and he has no idea why.

Serdar looks at the ivy wall for a while longer, and when he finally turns his head back, the old man is no longer there.

Just a plate and an empty tea glass with a couple of sesame seeds remain on the plastic table, and Serdar isn’t in the least surprised.

Serdar stays seated for a while longer and then he gets the bill. He pays and stands up ready to leave, when he turns back to the waiter.

“You’re Turkish, aren’t you?”

“Yes, of course,” says the waiter, “why?”

Torun,” asks Serdar, “Well, I mean the name, Torun, does that have some kind of meaning?”

Torun,” answers the waiter and starts to wipe the table, “Torun means grandson in Turkish, why?”

 

From Großer Bruder Zorn.  Eichborn Verlag, 2016.

African sailfin flyingfish
splitfin flashlightfish

Author: Dana Ranga
Translator: Monika Cassel

 

Identify the principles and pull on the guide rope, map out my face. Be my best friend, volans, come back into the world, just today. 

Take a breath, once, twice, spread your wings. Beauty-speech, lip-dance. The stone is always true but the cherry lies, 

let us laugh on the count of three. Mockery burns the tongue, sound waves, thousands, thundering, what burns in the cells if not sound? 

Speech-mothering with father-syllables, they lured you into strange ships and tore out your wings. White fingertips, wide hands

                                                                                                    parexocoetus mento
                                                                                           (African sailfin flyingfish)

We could we wait we flirtle we would like we fearle we stumble we don’t hear we huddle we doubtle we dig we gulp down we

thinkle we scream we hit we vent we get muddled we change noticeably we count we would but we livele after all or well 

                                                                                             anamalops katoptron
                                                                                             (splitfin flashlightfish) 

 

 

From Wasserbuch (Waterbook), Suhrkamp, 2011.

 

in London. in Bad Aussee.

Author: Margit Mössmer
Translator: Rebecca DeWald

 

in London

 

Gerda had always despised the West End. This hypocritical neighbourhood that pretended to be London in a way it never had existed, and never would. These posh Notting Hill houses with their red, blue and turquoise doors, inviting nothing but meaninglessness. That’s why Gerda had remained in the East End of town all those years. Authenticity, she told herself, it was all about authenticity. With the change of the seasons, she paid Anoop Akhtar a visit, the tailor. Anoop wasn’t the best tailor in Whitechapel, but he had the prettiest fabrics. Gerda loved their smell and textures: velvet, lace, broderie anglaise, softly draped cotton or linen.

Anoop’s shop was at the far end of Brick Lane in a little red brick house that had no windows facing the street, but a door with brightly tinted glass panes. He let the measuring tape drop from Gerda’s shoulders below her hips and wrapped it around her waist.

“You’ve lost weight”, he said.

“Lost?”, Gerda was surprised.

He went to the storeroom to fetch the new fabrics that had only just arrived from Bangladesh. Gerda had a browse while he was gone. What a dusty place. Properly filthy. Anoop’s iguana was hogging a corner under a dressmaker’s dummy. He looked much larger than usual. And why could she hear it? Why could she hear the snapping noise he was making, was he devouring a worm?

Finished garments populated the clothes rail between door and counter, ready for collection. Gerda paced the rail, brushing along suits, dresses and blouses. “Mrs. D’Antal”, “Mr. Ryosuke Ho”, Mrs. Brown” … Anoop had carefully labelled each garment with a note. She quickly withdrew her hand from Miss Deedle’s linen trousers: her fingers were covered in slime. The substance poured down to her elbow, faster than water. She looked at the open door to the storehouse because she had heard the noise of a machine. Clackclackclackclackclack. Too loud for a sewing machine. She grabbed a red velvet dress with her left hand. There was no name tag. It was a classic shift dress, trimmed with navy cotton along the neckline.

As if it had a life of its own, the fabric clung to Gerda’s skin, the dress slipped over her head, and enveloped her body. As she looked down herself, the seam along the neckline seemed to open. A strong but pleasant power pulled her in – first her face, then her head and finally her whole body, until she vanished in the seam. Everything around her was suddenly pitch-black. The only thing she could make out in a corner – maybe on the floor – were withered whining Lipizzaner horses. The animals stood close together, their beaming white bodies covered in blood and egg yolks. She fed one of these disgusting creatures with a sugar cube. The animal first devoured her hand and finally Gerda whole.

Gerda heard muffled voices and rattling of tableware. And then she saw light again. The horse had spat her out. On the Michaelerplatz in Vienna, in the beer garden of Cafe Griensteidl. “Would you like anything else, madam?”, the waiter asked. Gerda nodded. She liked the look of herself in her new blouse and poured a latte over it.

 

 

in Bad Aussee

 

Every other year in November, Gerda drove to Bad Aussee to visit her school friend Edith’s grave. Twelve years ago, Edith had suffocated on a gingerbread crumb ingested in Café Zandler in Altaussee. The baker was renowned for his Styrian walnut cake with cream, but Edith had ordered a dry piece of gingerbread on that fateful day in spring. When she was young, she had fallen in love with a forester from Altaussee during a school trip to the Salzkammergut. He was a man with a moustache and a narrow face. He would only wear the traditional costume, even the hat, and recalled a further thirteen years of memories in comparison with Edith.  Shortly after their wedding, Fritz Rauhnagel had been killed in an accident in the woods: A strong west wind had uprooted a spruce up on the mountain, which thundered down towards the valley. The tree had hit the lime rock, dislodging a boulder, which in turn kept crashing into the mountain on its way downhill. Eventually, upon arrival at the foot of the mountain, reduced to nothing but a pebble, it had hit Hubert Rauhnagel, Fritz’s brother, on the head, startling him to such an extent that he lashed out, forgetting the axe in his hand. Fritz had been standing right next to him. “Fratricide on the Seewiese” people would whisper to each other in the aftermath.

Gerda loved the Seewiese, this beautiful meadow on the shore of Lake Altaussee. Because everything about this “geographical centre of Austria” looked like Canada. And Gerda loved Canada. She wanted to walk around the lake and, for this purpose, she had bought new boots from a small traditional costume shop in Bad Aussee. The boots soon revealed both their practical and stylish qualities, judging by Gerda’s own impression and that of others: After only half an hour’s walk, she saw a female figure in a pale blue cloak emerge from the water, surrounded by a halo of light, spreading her arms in a kind and benign manner. “Give me your shoes”, she said. As she spoke, salt crystals fell off her lips and ruffled the calm waters. The salt crust on her face was so thick that her eyes and nose disappeared under it. “Your shoes!”, the apparition repeated, salt crumbling from her face.

The path took Gerda along to the scarcely lit Seehotel – which, amidst groans, was pressing balconies out of its façade –, by abandoned fishing huts in desperate need of a lick of paint, past the restaurant by the lake, long closed for the season, leaving the hatchery behind, and all the way to the hunting lodge on the Seewiese, which offered an awe-inspiring view across the lake to Mt. Loser (1838 m). She stopped for a break on the lodge porch, huddling around the heaters with the small number of guests. The other hikers were people of few words, spoken in a dialect Gerda struggled to understand. They spoke about leaves the sudden onset of winter had caused to freeze on the trees, before they had had the chance to fall to the ground. To die without a fulfilled life. The proprietor spoke about animals sensing something or other. Maybe fresh snow, or something else. In any case, they apparently knew more than “aw uff us”. Gerda focused on every single sound: the proprietor’s words, the snow sliding off the roof, the creaking of the wooden bench, the humming of the heater. Trivial noises became amplified. If this was a film, she thought, something grand would happen at this point in the script. She put her teacup down, wished the other guests a nice rest of the day, and set off to complete her tour without her boots. Half way along the way, a forester offered to take her into town in his jeep. But Gerda knew already then that idleness is the root of all psychology, and kept on walking.

 

From Die Sprachlosigkeit der Fische.  Edition Atelier, Vienna, 2015.

 

 

Tortoise Soldier

Author: Melinda Nadj Abonji
Translator: Alyson Coombes

 

1 

He stood there next to the chicken coop, he might have just drunk an egg or something that has nothing to do with eggs or water or milk at all. Zoli must have drunk the cloudless sky, with its endless blue. His eyes were alert, wide open in his broad, pale face. The snot stuck to his nose – he made no move to wipe it away. He liked chickens, cats, pigs. He avoided dogs, except one called Tango. Every morning an egg for his Tango. Zoltán stood there next to the chicken coop, holding the egg that was still warm from the chicken. I have a warm, fresh egg for you. I have something wonderful for you, Tango!

 Zoli, wipe that snot away! Stop talking to the dog! his mother called from the garden.

 Tango, I’ll give you a whole world to eat! and Zoli did not move. His snot glistened in the sun. Tango whirled around like a dervish, barking as he went. His high-pitched yapping roused even the washing line that was suspended across the yard. And Zoli held out his hand with the egg on it – an egg as white as his skin, as the washing that hung on the line. They put on this show every day. A dog spinning round as if demented, a nine-year-old boy delaying with impossible calm the moment when the egg is snatched, the dog’s shaggy black legs, the boy, grimy and majestic. The sun, around which the dog ran, anticlockwise, clockwise.

 Give him the egg, just get on with it, what are you waiting for?

 Zoli stood there, he didn’t even blink, didn’t react at all, not in the slightest. Only a small smile played at his lips, and the corncobs had eyes, the chickens applauded, the dust whirled up in excitement. Zoli waited. Until a small, fiery demon bit his calf and he threw the egg into the air at last, up into the blue sky, and Tango the dog stopped his circles immediately, in one leap he snatched at the egg – the world, which exploded a moment later on the paving slabs with a harsh, sharp sound. Next time you’ll do it, next time you’ll definitely catch it in the air, said Zoli, as the dog eagerly licked the egg from the ground.

Isn’t that right, Hanna? He’ll get it next time? Zoli looked at me, and I was so surprised to hear him talking to me that I couldn’t answer, and he came over to me with his wide eyes. He stood right next to me. I felt dizzy as he said: I know exactly what it feels like for my dog when his tongue licks the egg off the ground, I know just what that’s like.

 Zoltán. My aunt Zorka’s son.

 The last time I saw you was years ago, or was it yesterday, when you appeared to me again during the night. No, it wasn’t a dream. Dreams can be cast aside, written off as ‘only a dream’. I talk to you, but you don’t answer. I know – where you are, people are usually silent. Or am I deluding myself? Maybe I can’t hear you? Is it possible to train the ears to hear what can’t be heard? To detect sound waves that are reserved for bats, and above all just for moths, whose ears are in their chests, two cavities that are covered with membranes and are so delicate they can detect the highest frequencies with no trouble – the quietest noises, which could be magnified ten times and we humans still wouldn’t be able to hear them.

I am not a bat, nor a moth, but I see you, you appear to me. Appear, what a word. You look at me with the same expression you used to wear when you looked at me, when we were children. But perhaps you were never a child. Although I was older, I was always slightly afraid of you, and yet I still allowed your lips, sticky with sugar, to touch mine, that spring day when we were sitting on your bed eating palacsinta. We’re getting married, you said, although marriage between two cousins is the highest sin according to the church. Why don’t you close your eyes when you kiss, I asked you. Do you know, Hanna, it’s definitely true that I sleep with my eyes open too. And there it was again, my slight fear of you, my desire to kiss you again.

We didn’t kiss again, ever, not even on the cheek. We often stared at each other, silently, and I was always the first to give in. I should use another word, as ‘give in’ implies a fight, but we never fought with our gazes, or at least you didn’t. I looked away, and you talked. You told me, for example, that school was an obstacle made up of numbers and letters. And it definitely wasn’t useful to know that two and two equals four; after all, no one could ever say that two chairs are the same as two nuts. Whenever Zoli asked a question in class everyone just laughed, and the teacher said that Zoli should keep his incessant questions in his head, so from then on Zoli only asked anything when he did so without noticing, when his mouth seemed to start speaking of its own accord.

But Hanna, you know what I’m talking about, don’t you?

I knew and I didn’t know.

 We sat on Zoli’s bed, a sofa bed. Funny creatures live in their bellies, said Zoli, and plumped up the cushions before offering me a padded seat, one summer’s day when I dropped round unannounced. Every time I knocked on the shabby door, when Zorka’s loud voice invited me to come in, every time I opened the door that was left ajar, took off my shoes and cautiously lifted the mosquito net, not just on that particular summer’s day, I felt the need to let the stained and patched-up fabric fall down again, to put my shoes back on and to disappear.

As if I sensed even then that this house smelled not only of cigarettes, coffee, sweat and iron, but of fate – however grand and terrifying that sounds – fate, irreversible, huge, acts of providence sent by God; and how dishonest to pin everything on a power that guides human life, which has nothing to do with individual responsibility, with our own small lives, and to hide behind the Almighty whenever we are required to give human answers to human questions. I know now that we often talk about fate when what we really ought to do is stop talking. Or to tell stories. No, at that time I never thought about fate. I was just afraid of what awaited me behind that curtain, and I probably sensed that poverty always had consequences.

  

P-L-U-M-D-U-M-P-L-I-N-G-D-A-Y

 I fell off the motorbike that day like a sack of potatoes, my father rode on without me, took him ages to notice there was no one behind him, I was lying in the road, fresh bread in my satchel

vrrrrrrrrm

my father came riding back, I heard him clearly even though I was unconscious, as they all said later, my father came back into my world, which was orange, red, turquoise and purple, there were flowers in every corner and along every border of my world, and these flowers smelled like bread, like the white bread that lay next to me in the dust, and I heard my father calling my name, and I heard his voice, it sputtered over the flowers, shook me by the shoulder, Zoli, Zoli! and I sent my papa a plague of locusts, whistling mice that would make his knees knock, I called the neighbour’s dog to come and lick his calves – he hates that so much – there’s nothing I didn’t wish on him to make him leave me in peace

why would he do that? well I’ll tell you, if you’re patient, and of course you are, Papa tugged on my earlobes, son, get up, it’s plum dumpling day today, remember? and there was another voice as well as Papa’s, and this voice hissed, sent my flowers spinning, your boy is bleeding, look, here, his head! quick, we need to call a doctor!

I must say I knew then where my flowers came from, when the whispering voice said I was bleeding I knew straight away that my flowers were growing out of the blood, yes, out of the bleeding hole in my head, and I swear on my life I’ve never seen such beautiful flowers, they weren’t carnations or roses, nor irises or gerberas, tulips or even begonias, they weren’t flowers at all, they were birds’ heads, oh no, I’m not making this up, I’d have to say they were bunting heads, shaped like flowers, but they weren’t brown, weren’t bland or banal like buntings are, instead, behind my eyelids the buntings gleamed a colour red that exists only in our imaginations, in the shape of flowers

but they dragged me from my paradise garden, a garlic-doctor pumped me up with his air, patted me, took my wrist, he lifted my eyelids as though he could see something there in my eyeballs, yes, yes, the warped world, and then they heaved me into a vehicle, he’s heavier than he looks, they said, all these hands around me, all this sweating from the exertion, just let me be, why can no one hear me? so much fuss, they all kept talking at me, leave me alone, I screamed, but no one, no one heard me, and my flower-birds grew smaller and smaller, thinner, and once the red was all washed out again they flew away, because of the raised, crazed voices, they left me behind, and that, that is the reason I cried as I opened my eyes, look, he’s crying, said the doctor, the nurse, and my father’s face appeared above me, son, you’re bawling like a baby, and us? we’re sick with worry, and my father smacked a kiss on my skin, where’s my bread?

they all gawped at me, he’s asking for his bread, listen to him, he wants to know where his bread is

and at that moment, that’s when I jumped up, grabbed the doctor by his coat collar, puked my words on his white righteousness, disturbed his perfectly parted hair with my rage, and I screamed, told them why I’d cried, that because of them, my flowers…the birds…and my colours…and I was lying in the gold dust…and the doctor’s help, which stinks of money, which he spirits away in his coat pocket…

and my papa gapes at me, Zoli, is that you, it can’t be you, you’ve never talked like that before, Zoli, what is this devil inside you…

the Zoli-devil!

the dust-devil!

the gypsy-devil!

 -P-L-U-M-D-U-M-P-L-I-N-G-D-A-Y- oh yes, the day we get to eat plum dumplings, usually on a Friday, I love to free the plums from their doughy potato coats, to take the plums, still hot, almost too hot, and make them vanish into my mouth, and I can easily eat seven to ten dumplings, every time.

 

B-A-S-T-A-R-D-B-L-O-O-D

 That’s when it all started, I found out later, too much blood bubbled out of my head, blood doesn’t bubble, I said to Papa, but you didn’t see it, how it all came out, your blood, a proper fountain shot out of your head, I tell you, and Papa grabs the garden hose, sprays me between the legs, you see, like that!

and I don’t bother telling him that he just said ‘the blood shot out of your head’, shot or bubbled, Papa doesn’t care at all, he just wants to tell me again how I fell off the motorbike like a sack of potatoes – although he didn’t even notice that I was no longer sitting behind him, so how does he know I fell off the bike ‘like a sack of potatoes’? – Father wants to tell me again that this day was the beginning of the end, and I have to take the hose from him, because he has no idea how much drinking water my flowers need, on that day I became as thick as a pistol, he says

-P-I-S-T-O-L-

and he sits down on the bench with a sigh, aims a gob of spit at a ripe blackberry, stop that, I tell him, they don’t like it, your spit, but he starts to moan, pulls at his bristle, you could have been something, Zoli, damn goat shit, damn pig manure, damn iron taste in your mouth, you could have saved yourself from this shit, instead you let yourself fall off the motorbike, lying in the dust like a dead person, and when you finally wake up you grab the doctor by the collar as though he’s ruined your life, Zoli…and my Papa burps carbon dioxide in my face

Fatherly love, damnit!

and Papa hands me the bottle, I bring it to my lips, the fluffy clouds high above me, oh, this weather, it robs my garden of all its water, and I turn away, towards my trees and bushes and flowers, and my father starts to howl, rams his railways shoes into my calf, I slump over, the hose falls from my hand, aims its jet into the blackberry hedge, but the bottle’s belly remains unscathed in my right hand, behind me Papa, who can no longer hold back his loud wailing, you could have saved me, me and my heart, Papa sobs, making my head shrink into my neck, his walnut fists, hard as a volley of hail between my shoulder blades, my gaze boring into the blackberries lying in the dust, oh the blackberries, formed of tiny individual berries, this purple that sparkles after a light drizzle, the ugly holes left behind by the bugs that eat the berries

the beginning of the end, says Papa, he pulls the bottle from my fingers, gurgles the beer in his throat, cries into my back, and do you know what he means by that? My tremor started when I fell off the motorbike, Papa says, that was the beginning of the end, since then my heart hasn’t been beating quite right, I’ve become as jumpy as a little girl, a young lad who flinches during a thunderstorm, has there ever been anything like it? a towering lad who shits himself for no reason – overnight, Papa says, I turned into a crazy lad who no longer listens to anyone…

it happens, and whenever it happens I tremble all over, I get this fluttering feeling, my thoughts push against the wall of my mind and I am me without Zoli, you want to know what that means? I don’t know, even if you’re really patient I won’t be able to explain it to you exactly, but I can tell you that my father never wanted to know what that meant, he became wild and angry and started sweating whenever I told him I am me without Zoli, that’s it, this miserable nonsense in your head! and Papa always started again with his beginning of the end, that when the blood bubbled out it left only nonsense in my head, of course the boss had to move me to a different role! a puny labourer and a garden fool, that’s what I’ve become, with a flower between my legs instead of a cock, the fresh bread, the beautiful money, where has it gone?

he, who gave his child his own name, and back then everyone congratulated him on the birth of his son, he was as proud as a peacock of this hairless being, of this nothing that could have been something, after all, people always need bread, a baker with his own business, where others could sit on pleasant, sunny evenings, that could have been you, sobs Papa, and his free hand strokes my back – a snuffling animal waiting for food

-B-A-C-K-

and Papa starts to babble, I baptise you Zoltán, Kertész Zoltán! he douses himself, and me too, from behind, and the beer makes my hair wet, a few drops trickle out, forming clumps in the dust in front of me, a memorial for Papa’s heartache

-O-H-

it’s true, I could have saved my father, I could have dusted everything with fresh white flour, I could have made his one and only lousy life rise in a light bread dough

beautiful -B-R-E-A-D- good -B-R-E-A-D- daily -B-R-E-A-D-

I could have worn a stiff baker’s hat, a baker’s apron, and the whole village would have bought, would definitely have bought their bread from me, every season would have started and ended with me, from Easter cakes to plaited Christmas loaves, the cycle of a year, a book that is opened and shut again, I would always have smelled of fresh yeast, but of course I would have, my father would have washed out his gypsy blood on my white profession, every day, we would no longer have been the tracks, the forest, the dirt, cattle, entrails and chicken feet, the roots, stolen wood for the fire, coffee grounds and odds and ends

we would have been the oven, the warmth, oh yes, we would have been the paved roads, junctions, traffic lights, healthy teeth, pets, houses with English toilets, the benevolent look, a chinwag in the market square, we would have been the village bakery, the angels people dream of, not sons of bitches, bastard blood! we would have chased away the mangy cats without beating them with a broomstick, and the village would have been proud of us

Papa, why do you call me a bastard? -B-A-S-T-A-R-D- I am your son, after all…

whose is this empty bottle? whose is this useless bottle, which insults my hand with its useless weight? have I become the father of a stuttering idiot?

and my papa has no more strength left, his heart, a limp, tortured piece of meat, and the bottle has no belly any more, no throat, the shards lie in the dust, next to the blackberries

Zoli…

Papa’s voice right next to my ear, his sobs, the blood, Zoli, it bubbled out of your head

think of the goats when they rush out through the gates

think of a black cloud as it breaks

think of your mother when she starts to curse

that’s what it was like, just like that, said Papa, when the blood bubbled out of your head, the beginning of the end

yes, I will never be able to save Papa

 Blood, there’s dried crusty blood or fresh blood that tastes like iron, blood that drips, thick and heavy and pitiful, and the blood under the skin, it’s nothing more than warmth and cold, but Papa, he really doesn’t want to know that.

  

S-M-O-C-K-K-I-N-G

I watch as my father flies, he flies flies and flies high above, I think to myself that he’s going to visit heaven on this humid evening, wants to tickle heaven with his calloused fingers, my father says himself that he has calloused fingers -CA-L-L-O-U-S-E-D- how high he flies – my father, who still works on the tracks, with the trains, who shunts, bends over, gets his hands dirty, who wheezes and coughs, sweats his beer out of his forehead –

he flies flies flies and flies in his work smock, which smells of oil, it’s grubby even when it’s just been washed, but who is responsible for this rocket drive motor in his backside now, this firework energy glowing in his eyes? Papaaaaa! I call to him, and I stand in the garden by the rosebush, and from my fingers shoots a trail of light that definitely has five colours in it, I’ve just given the roses their daily drinking water, Papaaaaa! and my colourful five-coloured light flows to his smock, and it looks so beautiful, so real, it definitely looks more beautiful than any I’ve ever seen before, my father is now sitting – and if you don’t believe me, I feel truly sorry for you – on a glowing throne, no, I must say on a splendidly glittering glowing throne, which has grown and shot out of my fingers, he sits there, a blue Smock King, he no longer looks like the man I know, he isn’t sweating, he isn’t coughing, he sits there with his arms hanging down, he nods and smiles, it must be because he is tickling heaven with his bristle -P-I-G-B-R-I-S-T-L-E- says my papa

my Papaaaaa King! I call to him – the fact that he can sit there and glow like that, smile like that and be so content, that his smock is no longer a smock, but rather a cornflower-blue robe in the dirty yellow sky, that this firework energy in his eyes shines down as far as me, to the rose garden, and my tea roses are probably spraying out an almost outrageous magic scent because of this – the fact that everything is how it is, that I know this, is all down to me, his son…

Papa, you are the Smock King, and the yellow heaven, soon it will open and reveal all its wonders…

 I propped myself up in bed and looked over at Papa, he was sitting alone in the kitchen, his bare legs stretched out in front of him, in my direction, do you hear, Smock King?

but Papa babbled, in his eyes the autumn turned, and the winter, the starless nights, a grimy moon, on his tongue Mother danced with an oily red mouth and a new hairdo, goodbye both of you, take care, I’ll be back soon…

-O-H-

  

2

 If only I could say something about his eyes, something more than ‘his eyes were blue’, the blue of the sky on perfect, cloudless summer days, when the flowers, bushes and grasses have not yet withered; if only I could find a suitable comparison, blue like – and the comparison must be unique.

Adults regarded his persistent stare or his refusal to look away as a triumphant and therefore impressive strength – and then suddenly as a bold insolence that didn’t suit a filthy little boy. 

Zoltán was standing there at the bus stop wearing baggy trousers and a faded, misshapen t-shirt when my bus pulled up, an hour late. He was standing under the shade of a gnarled tree, and we were already nearly grown up on this June afternoon with its cloudless sky, its sublime blue. I went over to Zoli, to his wide eyes. And suddenly it was there, this undeniable feeling that I had missed something in that gaze – not just any old thing, but something fundamental, and whatever it was I had missed was the result of more than just my habit of paying so much attention to the brilliance of his bold appearance that everything else faded into insignificance.

Zoli gave me a small wave, I waved back, and the closer I got the more clearly I saw the undercoat in his eyes – the beguiling blue that glazed everything was simply the top coat. I saw what I would only be able to formulate much later, that everything flowed into Zoli’s eyes, unhindered, unfiltered. He absorbed everything that was there, including that which was hidden, and which should remain hidden. His gaze knew something that the rest of us didn’t. And then the words spoken by Zorka or Lajos: look at these eyes, that’s the gaze of a god or a devil! And the timid objection that no one had ever seen the gaze of a god or a devil made no difference at all.

 We greeted each other with a long hug. Zoli’s warm shoulders, his pleasantly smelling sweat. You’ve been away for far too long, a whole lifetime, you and your curly hair that I can always nestle into, said Zoli quietly. His fingertips stroked my hair casually, tenderly, he threw my bag over his shoulder and we set off, walking on the pavement that was warped in places from the summer heat. Moles! Zoli bent down, ran his hand over the asphalt hills, laughing, and I saw that he was missing a tooth on one side. No, not a beating, just the cheapest method of getting rid of an aching tooth.

Ah, you know we should say hello to my little house first, said Zoli as we reached his garden gate; Zoli’s house – that was his barn. There you both are at last, called Zorka, waving her cigarette out of the kitchen window, come here, that green hell can wait, Lajos and I are impatient to see you! Zoli looked at me and I knew what his look meant. We would have time later to disappear into the garden. When Zorka and Lajos lost themselves in their dreams, we would be free to go out to Zoli’s barn and look at the treasures he had collected since the last time we saw each other. Hanna, you’ll definitely be amazed, said Zoli, as we went over to the house, the Kertész family’s railway house, which had been further afflicted by ‘time’ or ‘circumstances’, with the ever-more visible wound to the right of the front door, the cracks and the crumbling plaster, through which the tarnished bricks could just be seen.

 Were you dallying? Were you trying to torment us, were you having fun without us? Well, then, sit down!

 I sat down next to Zoli at the kitchen table, I was afraid, as always, of the torrent of words that poured out of Lajos and Zorka, wondered at the naturalness with which they both talked at me at the same time, while I sipped my too-sweet coffee and tried to get in some answers to their questions as best I could. Zoli was bent over his crossword puzzle book, occasionally getting up, unasked, to fetch more drinks from the fridge. Lajos and Zorka hurried to free the beer bottles from their cumbersome caps. They held the Jelen Pivo to their lips uninterrupted, and I politely refused when they offered me one. I’ll cook for us later, when we’re warmed up a bit, said Zorka, and then Zoli had to read their cards, we want to consult our luck, said Zorka. Screw luck, the future, all this women’s twaddle, scoffed Lajos.  But still he squinted at the cards as Zoli laid them out on the table with deft fingers. When the Ace of Cups appeared, Zorka cried out, kissed Zoli on the forehead, and Lajos lost it and lifted up the table so that the cards and a few empty bottles slid down it and fell onto the floor, the soft thump of the ashtray filled to the brim with butts. As if on command, Lajos and Zorka started berating each other shamelessly. Zoli bent down, scrambled across the floor, and I hurried to help him, but kneeling down beside him provided no escape from the hateful words; while Zoli collected the butts and shards of glass on the palm of his hand, he whispered his parents’ insults almost reverently.

What’s going on, what are you doing, I asked Zoli quietly, and he looked at me with those unforgettable eyes. After a while he said, almost inaudibly, Hanna, but these bad words – we definitely have to clear them away too. 

And after that, everything was quiet. The tap dripped onto the dirty dishes, a few flies buzzed through the smoky air. They were sleeping now, snoring. Zoli’s father on the sofa, mouth open, shaggy hair. Look how shaggy it is, said Zoli. The bottom button on his mother’s housecoat lay on the floor like a face with no mouth, and the chair bobbed in time with her. She was a child too once, I thought. Zoli sat back down at the kitchen table, chewed his pencil, wrote:

male descendent

-S-O-N-

capital city of Italy

-R-O-M-E-

personal pronoun

-M-Y-

 But now we have to go, Hanna! My treasures are expecting us.

  

3

 I often saw how those coarse, strong hands caught hold of you, how your mother clipped you round the ear in her dressing gown, almost in passing, as though it were just a part of the day.

Adults make me nervous, you told me, but when I’m an adult I’ll be an apple tree, an acacia or a spotted birch! And you showed me a piece of bark that you found in the next village. That’s not possible, no one can be a tree, I answered, a person is just a person – and you looked at me disbelievingly. But Hanna, I can still become a tree, or if it’s easier for you to understand then I can be like a tree, and you must understand the desire if you’ve ever stroked a linden leaf in the spring, even once, this velvety leaf-dress is the most beautiful thing you have ever touched in your entire life, believe me. And I suddenly felt very hot, because I didn’t understand you, because I understood you. And I was disgusted by the snot that was always on your face, disgusted by your dirty feet.

 You always called me ‘Hanna’, you said that the ‘H’ was the best way to sit down, to relax. I never asked what that meant because I liked that you called me ‘Hanna’.

Why can I no longer hear the way your voice sounds when you say ‘Hanna’? It’s not possible that I’ve forgotten the sound of your voice, but can still remember every word you said.

 Kertész Zoltán. Maybe I just need to keep saying your name out loud until I hear your voice again. Your name is there on the wooden cross, part of a sentence. Here lies Kertész Zoltán. A false sentence on a cheap wooden cross. Due to a lack of space, probably. We hope that Kertész Zoltán lies here. They could have written that at least, it wouldn’t have taken up much more space, and I scrape the tip of my shoe across the dry ground. I don’t even know if I liked your voice or not. But I can still see your gaze clearly in my mind.

Why do people stand at graves, why am I standing here and trying to imagine how they buried you, how the living carried you to your grave? I don’t know if you can hear me, but I’m talking to you. I’d like to know when you started to die, that’s why I’m here. I don’t want to pity you, rather to understand, and to put an end to all speculation. And there’s something I’d like to free myself from at an exaggerated volume, to scream into this false silence, always and everywhere, this excessive suffering, martyrdom in all its variations – my body, that is given for you –, and if I don’t want it, this body? The martyred son? Can you imagine a more terrible martyr than the crucified Jesus, who was not allowed even the slightest bit of free will?

You cannot know that the stations of the cross lead directly past your grave, coarse wood carvings with Roman numerals that are only tolerable because they are exposed to the elements and are suitably weather-beaten. You don’t know that the third station of the cross is right behind your grave. And it seems wrong to me to feel any kind of tenderness now – every cross reminds me that the salvation of the human race is based on something terrible; Christ’s hands and feet that were driven through with nails, his head that hung down, with blood on his brow and his temples and on his side – how often have I seen this image? And after the shame had passed, the shame that came from looking at the suffering, humiliated Christ, who was almost naked as he hung from the cross, I was always overcome with a crazy desire to live. To bite into a creamy dessert, to feel warm water on my fingertips and on my face, to close my eyes, to think that there are old, bad dreams that at some point cease to exist.

 

 G-O-O-D-M-O-O-D

 My mother is chopping garlic, she’s standing at the kitchen table in her apron, I’m sitting down, she chops and smokes, she’s curled her hair around her silvery holey rollers, when she curls her hair she sings, she’s in a good mood, ‘lalalalalalali, there’s no judge when it comes to love, lalalalalalali’ -R-O-L-L-E-R-L-O-V-E- I write in my notebook -L-A-L-A-L-A-L-A-L-A-L-A-L-I- she throws me a clove of garlic, Zoli, why don’t you help instead of just scribbling, and I take a knife from the drawer and a chopping board, peeling the clove is a piece of cake, when I start chopping I slip, blood drips onto the board, bloodboard, I think, I pick up my pencil to write it down, Mother’s ash falls onto the table, glimmers, eats a hole in the plastic tablecloth, ‘there’s no judge when it comes to love,’ Mother sings and carries on chopping

the blood soaks into the board, turns the clove red, my hands, they start to shake and there it is again, the moment when things start to shift, to shuffle together – Mother’s happiness, it’s warm, it flows and flows from her rollers, and her face lights up with happiness, her face is as happy as mine is when I’m standing out in the summer rain, bathing without having to swim

through the kitchen window I can definitely see a celebratory, ceremonious sunset-red, happy-red, I think, and I want to write it down -H-A-P-P-Y-R-E-D- but my hands are trees, shaking off their autumn leaves, the branches of the acacia tree visible through the kitchen window, already almost bare, and my hand shakes blue-red, blueberry, blackberry, black cherry – I am the king of all crossword puzzles – and I try to get up, to lean on the table, Mother pushes me back down onto the chair -B-U-T-T-E-R-F-I-N-G-E-R-S- do I really need to get another plaster? I don’t have time to patch you up, okay? I’ve got to go out again! be more careful, okay?

stay here, I tell Mother as she dabs, sticks the plaster over my wound, you’re in the middle of cooking!

yeah sure, cooking, I’ve forgotten something, okay? I’ll be back in a bit, get some more carrots from the garden, my mother raises her head to the mirror, plucks the rollers from her hair as quickly as she feeds the chickens, pumps the water from the well, and be a good boy, put my rollers away, okay?

okay, Mother

Mother, who smears oily red on her lips, ‘I’m painting me a mouth! lalalalalalali,’ she sings – when will you be back? and Mother looks at me, with laughter-eyes, loop-hair, lips-red, when I’m done, says Mother and she’s gone, she slams the door shut behind her and presses the pedals down quickly, as quickly as if she were trying to outrun herself, and I, I go to the garden and grapple with the greenery, pull a handful of carrots from their deep sleep, put on the soup, at Zoli-slow-coach-speed!

when Papa got home he collapsed into Mother’s chair, he slept until the soup was ready, and we bent over our plates, Papa and I, Papa’s bristly hair in the steam, on the table the plates the spoons the bread, no, Father didn’t ask where Mother is, he’s definitely almost never asked where Mother is, he sharpened his teeth on the beer cap, he let his Adam’s apple hop until he fell asleep in the chair, and I sat on my throne, the yellow kitchen light above me was my crown, oh yes, I put the letters into the white squares, solemnly painted the letters into the gaps in my notebook

sacred story

-L-E-G-E-N-D-

adult male

-M-A-N-

frequently

-O-F-T-E-N-

wild

-F-R-A-N-T-I-C-

and shortly after midnight I had to get changed, my work clothes hang on pegs in the kitchen, like always I patted Father’s cheeks, he muttered something, slung his arm around me, we tottered through the kitchen to the bedroom, he whimpered as I pulled off his socks, tucked him in, I have to go to work!

Papa’s bristly hair on the pillow

Papa’s beer belly under the blanket

everything will be different tomorrow, I said to Papa, okay? everything will definitely be better tomorrow, and you know you need to pick me up, I’ll be waiting for you, like always, okay?

 yes, and the life dripped out of Father’s open mouth, I saw it with my own eyes, and I wished that he could live the life of a stone, but of course, each little stone is washed and warmed and everything that can be warmed is precious, you know that better than I do, right?

and I told my papa to be happy, because happiness -H-A-P-P-I-N-E-S-S- is a hatch out of which we poke our heads on a warm day, right?

 

From Schildkrötensoldat.  Suhrkamp 2017.

The Raft of the Medusa

Author: Franzobel
Translator: Daniel Bowles

Although he’d never been at sea—yet nobody asked whether he had—and also suffered from aquaphobia, he was hired on as a caboose scullion. Back then there were no labor requirements set down in law, no safety regulations, no union … When asked how old he was, he said seventeen, and yet he was twenty, too old to be a caboose scullion! He hailed from a solidly middle-class background, his father having been a judge, a vocation intended for Viktor as well. But one day he didn’t want to bother with Pythagoras, Plato, and the Punic Wars anymore, he grew fed up with gerunds and geometry, with ablative and algebra, vocative and vocabulary, he’d run away because he wanted to see something of the world that wasn’t in books. Viktor wanted to go on adventures—and not go to seed in the monotonous procession of predictable events. He no longer wanted to stick his nose in books to satisfy some old impotent professors who were supposed to prepare him for university with private instruction so that he might later pass judgment on those who had no money. For him, bourgeois society was a depraved product of sanctimony, nepotism, and corruption. People without ideals, only interested in raising their progeny so that they might one day inherit their parents’ sinecures. Ridiculous. Viktor dreamed of grandiose freedom, of authentic feelings—and of course of what girls had between their legs. A fantasist! A dreamer! Now he was on the Medusa, this wooden broad, standing beside Hosea Thomas, astonished by the superstition of these sea folk.

            – You’ll see, the sailor muttered. Davy’ll take us all.

            – Take us all, squawked the parrot.

            – Davy? Who’s Davy? A singer in a night club?

            – You’ll see when the time comes, Hosea laughed, singing: Davy Jones’ ass has got a hole under his slit, and though you think that gold comes out, it’s really only sh…i…pping pitch. Yeah, Davy Jones’ ass has got a hole under his slit … It’s yer first cruise, isn’t it? Hosea took a drag from his pipe and regarded the boy, whom he kind of liked because he was something better, because he came from a stratum of society to which even he’d have liked to belong. Hosea took Viktor’s hands, which felt as limp as wilted leaves of lettuce, squeezed, and laughed. Then he gave him a slap on the back so hard that the boy almost went overboard.

            – There’s a first time for everyone, Viktor said, not letting show the pain caused by the handshake and the slap.

            – Avoid crossed knives ‘cause they spell strife, never leave a loaf o’ bread lyin’ upside down, else there’ll be an accident at sea, and never, under any circumstances, toss salt overboard. Never! Never board a rechristened ship and mind that you’re not baptized.

            – Why? I’ve long been …

            – Haha, the sailor gave the youth another slap on the back—again so hard that it almost knocked him over. Y’know how young fry are baptized? You don’t? They’re made to climb out on the lowermost yard, they are, out to the yardarm, and from there to jump into the water.

            – What? And if you refuse?

            – There’s no refusin’. But don’t worry, they don’t drown.  They’re   pulled out again by the rope tied around their belly, they are. Once, the rope slipped up and strangled the man, but most get off with scrapes.

            – That can’t be healthy. Viktor gazed into that water he feared, thinking, your dick’ll freeze right off in that. Was this supposed to be that grand time? Or was this sailor kidding him? He’d indeed heard about ship boys being sent below decks to feed the keel hogs. Or they had to fetch a key to wind up the compass … But no, this seaman seemed serious.

            – Were you also baptized?

            – I’d’ve liked to see somebody try, I would’ve. Hosea raised his arm and flexed his biceps. That was some brawn!

            Viktor’s eyes grew large. Was this the freedom he’d dreamt of? Just what had he gotten himself into?

– Quit oglin’ that gov’nor’s daughter all the time, or d’you wanna eat her, she’s not for ye, Hosea said, jabbing him in the ribs.

            – Wanna eat her? the parrot repeated.

– Leave me be, said Viktor.  Until just moments ago today had been the best day of his life, first joining the crew of the Medusa and then the sight of this beauty who, or so he’d imagined, was observing him, too. Not persistently, but whenever he looked her way, she averted her eyes. If only there weren’t this baptism, which simply wouldn’t accord with the image in his dream. He gazed up at the lowermost yard, this spar surely twenty meters in length, at a height of eight or ten meters. The very thought of scrambling out to the yardarm up there caused him to break out in sweats. The sailors in the rigging simply looked like frisky little monkeys scampering about, but Viktor knew he’d lose his footing on the crosstree, the little platform at the end of the lower mast. He was afraid of heights.

            Since his escape from home he’d experienced a great deal. But a baptism? Right at the outset all his savings had been stolen by a barkeeper. When he went to the police the following day, it turned out that the publican had already reported him as a bill-dodger. Naturally he could have proven his identity, but then a message would have been sent to his parents, and they’d have brought him, the jurist’s boy, back. Back to the country home of his parents with its thick walls of stone, back to his teachers with their Pythagoras, back to that valet who disposed of litters of kittens, back to a life predetermined. The deceitful barkeeper, in whom Viktor had garrulously confided, knew this. And so he instead acquiesced to the twenty lashes with the cane and the two hours in the pillory. Whoever thinks manners and soft hands offer protection has another thing coming. The judge deemed him a fraud to be punished especially harshly on account of his youth, while the thieving publican was commended. After that, Viktor, torn brutally from his dream world, tagged along with linen weavers, but whenever they found accommodations in their guild houses, he had to seek out a barn. In Nantes he fell into the clutches of recruiters, who got him drunk. He evaded the military with toil and trouble. In La Rochelle he met a sailor who raved to him about the glories of Africa. There, apparently, growing on trees, were nuts as big as one’s head, with sweet milk inside. There were longish yellow fruits that tasted like strawberries, sweet fritters growing on trees, and you could scoop fish from the water as you could chestnuts from the ground elsewhere. On top of this, crayfish, crabs as large as a dinner plate, as many as you could want. Fruits from the monkey-bread tree, however they tasted, turtles with white flesh as creamy as yogurt. Endless beaches, palm trees, sunsets, more impressive than any opera. And not to mention the girls, bare-breasted, skin as dark as blackberries and clothed only in leaves, who wished for nothing more fervently than to serve a young white lad. Black pussies! Africa was a paradise. No one had to work there, the sailor had gushed, no one suffered from hunger or cold, they lay in the sun all day long, had natives bring them roasted fish, glazed chickens, and fruits … He himself would head there immediately if only he could get a ship, he said, making Viktor’s mouth water. And with each glass of wine he treated the sailor to, the fruits grew larger and the girls more licentious.

            And so the decision germinated in Viktor, in spite of his phobia, to board a ship in Brest that was off to Africa.

            – If you wanna go to Africa, you gotta go to Rochefort, the sailor managed to slur before collapsing, drunk.

            Now, only three days later, Viktor Aisen was standing on the forward deck beside Hosea Thomas, sweeping over the iron rings on the foremast and the belaying pins in the fife rail. He saw gulls, their wings splayed broadly, that resembled small flying seals. Impelled solely by the wind, they gained altitude only to plummet down a moment later, boring into the water to dive for fish. Then they’d swim for a while before uttering sharp childlike shrieks and ascending into the air once more. One of these gulls, with dark wingtips, a black spot on its head, and coal-colored eyes with a yellow edge, perched on the bulwark. It looked at Viktor curiously, but was soon shooed away. A sailor sliding down the foremast had nearly struck it.

            Viktor watched as it flew off. Then he observed the passengers on the Medusa. Well-dressed gentlemen with tall hats. Officials determined to administer Senegal at a profit. Fine ladies. Craftsmen, officers, lieutenants, a priest named Mayweather on his way to minister to the savages.

            – That’s unlucky, Hosea Thomas said, baring his teeth. Think o’ Jonas. Churchmen belong on land. Viktor smiled, not at this nonsense though, but because he sensed a kind of fellowship, realizing that Hosea may see in him a rich little sop, but also had respect for his education.

            – Yer well read, know somethin’ about music and art, the sailor said almost shyly. Couldya recommend me some books, couldya? ‘Cause, y’know, when I’m cap’n, I’ll get invited to dinner, and then I don’t wanna stand there like a fool, I don’t.

            – Start with Don Quixote, Viktor said. Then Tristram Shandy, you’ll make an impression with those.

            – Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, Hosea repeated. And what about Linnaeus’ Expedition to Lapland? I started that but didn’t get it. I also started The Maid by Voltaire …

            Viktor had meanwhile begun observing Picard’s daughter, who was playing with her young siblings. Then he saw someone fiddling with a peculiar device.

            – Adolphe Fummer, a researcher, who hopes to discover new bugs. Hosea had followed Viktor’s gaze. I know that sort, back in Jakarta there were several of those blokes on board. You’ll see: in Senegal they measure darkies, catch bats, and collect mushrooms they then name after themselves.

            – After themselves, the parrot repeated. Clew up the fore- and mainsail.

            – William Shakespeare! Hush! The bird got a smack on the beak, then shook its head, and stuck out its small gray tongue.

            – William Shakespeare?

            – Why not? This bird might already be a hundred years old.

            – Viktor saw the unfortified mouth of the river widening and carrying the ship out into the open sea. That is, the sea wasn’t actually so very open; before them lay the Île-d’Aix, behind them the Île d’Oléron, and beyond them the Île de Ré. The water was green, and the little wavelets continually slapped the ship’s side. Along the shore were children who saluted like soldiers at the sight of the ships. They had little burlap sacks to hold the crabs they’d caught.

            – Brace up the main masthead, shouted the first officer. Veer main topmast staysail.

            – Sailors climbed up the shrouds and began fumbling around with the rigging. There was an incredible mess of taut ropes, and yet everything seemed to have its place, as though several spiders had spun interlocking webs. The words “fore topgallant,” “gaff,” “foresail,” and “main yard” could be heard. “Boom sheet,” “bowsprit,” “mizzen mast,” “jib,” and many other terms, too, which Viktor could hardly make heads or tails of.

            – Veer out, someone shouted. Brace. Reeve. Tack about. Let go the main sheet.

            The sails were still by no means all clapped on, the ship resembling a person half-dressed, when it was turned about off the little Île-d’Aix so that the pilots could leave the Medusa and board their dinghy. Like Newcastle or Hamburg, the Rochefort arsenal was strategically located in the interior where it was protected as much from the tides as from enemies. What’s more, the little bay on the eastward side of the Île-d’Aix, which is pronounced like ex eel, offered shelter from storms, which often blew up suddenly in the Bay of Biscay.

            Viktor gazed after the pilots, lost in thought, watching the oar strokes with which they slowly approached the island. For a moment he envied them. Then he turned about and looked out onto the open Atlantic. The water was an endless, flowing mass, perennially undulating back and forth, though revealing not a hint of the ferocity of which it was capable. Nothing could be sensed of the merciless violence dwelling in this spirited, glittering expanse. He saw the remnants of a wall in the middle of the sea. What was that? A sunken city? A church of Neptune? No, attempts had been made to erect a fortification, Fort Boyard, on a sand bank between La Rochelle and Île-d’Aix, but the foundations had kept collapsing such that now only paltry remains attested to that absurd endeavor.

            In the meantime almost all sails were set, and the ship gathered speed. It was sailing well by the wind and glided over the water like a trained skater over the ice. The coast receded more and more, shrinking to a thin line; the pilot boat was soon only a tiny dot, almost imperceptible. Viktor felt there was no going back now; his home, France, Europe, and everything his world had been forever sank into memory. Now his dreams became reality. He thought of his parents and sisters, of apple cake and warm milk. Suddenly a great desire for them welled up in him. Tartly sweet apple cake with shortcrust. A tinge of nostalgia seized him. He would spend the next three or four weeks on this ship, and become involved with these people later in Senegal. Theirs were jaded faces, the soldiers’ in particular evincing that they only conceived of life as a series of commands. They had surrendered their wishes and dreams at the barrack gate and exchanged them for meaningless orders, hours-long marches, and mortal boredom. There was this gigantic Asian named Cha-Cha, a tree of a man with thick bulging lips, a broad nose, and a hair style resembling a beet stalk—his whole face looked pushed in. Aside from him, Pampanini, the fat little bug-eyed Genovese with kinky hair who was unable to utter a single sentence without appending Italian curses followed mostly by saints. “Stronzo. Puta. By Saint Ambrosius, may all bees sting him on the ass.” An artilleryman named Tournade inspected the cannons by sticking his arms into them up to the elbow. Before stoppering the muzzles again, he checked the ropes lashing up the mounts, caressed the barrels, and gave his darlings nicknames like “Virgin Skewer,” “Black Sparrow,” or “Old Bitch.” The Jew, Kimmelblatt, wore a red fez and told jokes: “The greenhorn comes to the Rabbi and says, Rabbi, vat should I do, my vife cheats on me with my business manager ….” In addition, “Negroes” with blue-black faces, one with a wife even, a voluptuous creature sheathed in colorful fabric and wearing a uniform jacket that identified her as a sutler.

            Even the sailors—they were recognizable not only from their white linen shirts, but also by their wide-legged gait—were coarse boys with few teeth and tanned faces who lived only for that one moment of the day when the rum was dispensed. All of them had chewing tobacco in their mouths and incessantly spat brown goop. A horrid notion rose in Viktor’s mind, the thought of having gotten mixed up with a savage barbarian lot, of having voluntarily repaired to a floating prison. Sweating, cursing people everywhere. One was constantly jostled, pushed aside by someone else. And all around nothing but water, that uncanny element he feared the most.

            – So I sold the couch, Kimmelblatt said, and a few people laughed.

            Viktor had already seen quite a bit, people who did anything to survive, who sold their children or prostituted themselves for a warm meal. He knew the eyes of those young kittens when they were handed over to the valet. A ritual repeated twice a year. And he also knew the look of that valet when he took receipt of the kittens as though they were old shoes simply to be discarded. The sailors were lacking the jadedness of that servant, but they also lacked the pathos of the kittens. In their eyes was something furtive, something predatory. They were wolves from various packs, jammed into a cage, knowing full well that the ensuing battles for hierarchy would determine their social rank forever (or at least for the eternity of the next few weeks).

            The deck swayed to the cadence of the waves, it smelled like the flesh of mussels, and the gulls emitted sharp cries. Then Viktor’s gaze once more fell upon Arétée, the fascinating governor’s daughter—the sight of her nearly blasted away the top of his skull. The girl had drooping eyelids and a bedroom look. Since she’d been aboard, she hadn’t opened her lips a single time except to let out chortling giggles. Now she was standing at the balustrade, stroking her hand over the gold ornamentation. On her face was a trace of sadness—inherited from her father? Viktor didn’t notice it. For him this girl was a bringer of good luck, something that completely incapacitated the synapses of his brain. As long as a creature like this was aboard, the enterprise was under a lucky star. Truly, today was a red-letter day. Today, on the 17th of June, 1816, he had seen this improbable creature for the first time. His eyes were like a fishing line that had gotten snagged in a sweater and kept tugging at it. This she likely sensed, and fled, stepping behind the mighty mizzen mast encircled by iron hoops. Then Viktor’s attention fell upon the disheveled, graying hair of that researcher with funny eyes who was apparently talking to himself. Beside him was someone else, too, a meaty face with alert eyes. Yellow uniform coat, three-cornered hat. Who was that? An officer’s cadet? The man paced the length of the crew, pinching this one’s cheeks, looking in the next one’s mouth, examining a third man’s eyes, patting a fourth on the temple, requesting a fifth stick out his tongue.

            – Savigny, the ship’s assistant surgeon, Hosea Thomas grumbled. You’d better keep out o’ his sight, lest you lie under the knife.

            – Lie under the knife, William Shakespeare repeated.

            – They’ve got to hang a bell around that man like a leper so no one bumps into him, they do.

            Indeed, now that nothing more could be seen of the roadstead or Josephine, Savigny had since proceeded to inspect the crew. He asked the sailors about elevated temperatures, ordered everyone to report immediately at the first sign of venereal disease, and pointed out the glass case hanging by the ladderway, posted in which was a list of doctors in the most varied harbor towns who would treat syphilis for free. What’s more, no one should omit the ration of lemon juice intended for him; thanks to the English they had knowledge of its good effect in the battle against scurvy. The “lime-juicers” had always polished their brass with lemon juice and had stumbled upon its healthful influence rather coincidentally.

            – And if it should occur to any of you layabouts to drink an elixir of tobacco to be admitted to sick bay with stomach cramps, then may God have mercy on you.

            Savigny had a pudgy face, full lips, and red cheeks. He resembled more a barkeeper or a vintner than a doctor. And yet an aura emanated, the radiance of an idealist, while his assistant, a bald-headed man with a protruding belly and lusterless eyes, came off as completely disinterested.

            – The doctor looks friendly, Viktor adjudged.

            – That’s deceivin’, Hector. That’s deceivin’.

            – Viktor! My name is Viktor.

            – Surgeons make no distinction in treatin’ animals or people, Hosea said, neglecting to react to him. If he thinks it right, Hector, he’ll tie ye up and cut off yer leg. Why else d’you think there are so many wooden legs? I’s there when they sliced open that scarface’s head—he pointed to the ugly, shorn person covered in pock marks (meaning: the man whose belly Picard had already seen)—to surgically remove a bullet. They lifted off the plate o’ his skull; the stuff underneath looked like cold cassoulet.

            – Cassoulet, William Shakespeare affirmed. Like bean goulash.

            – Maybe what we consider thinkin’ is nothin’ more than overcooked onions with beans. When you slice open a skull …

            – The captain would never allow something like that, said Viktor, who had grown pale and had no desire to hear about the interior life of someone’s head.  Wasn’t it enough that they wanted to baptize him? Did they also have to cut open his skull? Where was the commandant anyway?

            – Didn’t deign to show up. Hosea laughed. Probably diarrhea, sittin’  in his officer’s privy, shittin’  his soul onto his silk stockings. A pretty captain. Have y’seen him, this Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys? Hosea dwelt on the individual syllables of that long name, which he uttered with a hint of contempt. A fool in disguise with a ribbon ‘round his neck, puffy sleeves, and red ears, which is a sure sign of indigestion. It’s said he hasn’t captained a ship in twenty years, this Hugo. In Rochefort there were rumors he was a royal sympathizer, one o’ them who fled to England in exile when the Revolution broke out. A schemer who waited twenty-seven years for the royalists to return to power. And now, since the Revolution and Napoleon have sorted themselves out, since France is ruled by a Bourbon again, he bombarded the king’s officials with petitions and letters of request ‘til they transferred command of this fleet to him. Not a good sign. He won’t prevail, he won’t. Y’know why? ‘Cause he don’t have any balls. Such a one as he can admire himself in the mirror for hours, but he can’t command a ship, he can’t. He can stew about strategies, write letters, and spin intrigues, but responsibility? That one’s vain and soft as boiled fruit, he is.

            – But there are officers who can safely command a ship?

            – Did y’see them? Did ye? Jacobins! Steeled in naval battles! They’ve had glowin’ cannonballs hurtle past their heads. From a tollkeeper who’s not learned since childhood to do anything but pose in front of the mirror, powder himself, and straighten his wig … they’ll not take orders from such a mollycoddle. You’ll see, that’ll cause trouble, it will. Davy’s already rubbin’ his hands.

 

From Das Floß der Medusa.  Roman nach einer wahren Begebenheit.  Paul Zsolnay Verlag, Wien, 2017.

hunting song
open your eyes
my friends
denuded trees
geese
the open sea

Author: Ulrike Almut Sandig
Translator: Karen Leeder

here are the creatures, here the stalls, here
you have straw. where there’s no one
reciting, and no one recording, where
language is a horse that foams at the
mouth, where the reins have been sold off,
where your own crazy mare, just like a new
born, stands on the pavement, scraping its
hooves and always passes through just as
our eyelids flicker in concert and someone
else is rolling his eyes, where it passes
through, alongside the road-markings, and
gets smaller towards the edge of the
picture, and then disappears, to the place
with the lights on where the others all live.
and there you will find those bright ringing
horses. there are their stalls and inside the
straw. my sleep, my ears, my hunting
song
– be still! there we were perfect.
that’s where the stalls were and inside the
straw.

 

 

give me the cut fields under the film of air.

give me the pine trees. they tug at the motionless light.

give me the fish pond in the corner, the duckweed on top.

give me the verdigris that darkens so quickly on this house
of mine that stands alone. the clouds roll on past. open
your eyes
. already the morning is spreading in every direction.

 

 

once I lost a friend to whom I had done wrong.
once I lost another whom I’d simply forgotten:

for no reason. once I lost that plastic ring,
green as grass, that belonged to my friend and
not long after, the friend herself. just why I
lost her has slipped my mind too, and also for
no reason. not to worry! it stands to reason:
my friends are in the kampfzone of the forest,
where even the trees disappear. they are
stooped beneath the wind. one of them wears
a plastic ring on her finger, green as grass. I
saw it somewhere else once before.

 

 

when I left the afternoon was already over. straggling
children tidied themselves from the playground into the
houses. the first rockets hissed invisibly, still almost inaudible
the throb of the bass. the roadside for quite some distance
was overcast with the haze of denuded trees, they smelled of

cuckoo flowers in the woods, and dozing above them the real
clouds in the wind hole, polar light, biting ice. once a chunk
of milk glass fell to the ground in front of me. before I could
tread on it, it melted away. that’s when I finally left. after that
I forgot everything here.                    I was back by new year.

 

 

no. they never fly south
in the south one is always alone.
I heard them flying by night, at the start
still the flurry of wings, lonely cries
as they soared up high and higher to reach
the moon and land on the darkest side
turned away from the earth, and stand
for a long, long time. wing to wing
pressed close together: geese, geese
on the airless, the flying moon.

 

 

record it, my sailor, record what
is still standing and then read
it aloud. maybe someone can
find a use for it all: for your bed
and my T-shirt, for the flowers
in the vase, the coffee in the pot
and the strange shaggy-maned
mutt that has slipped, dripping wet
into the sheets with us. for here it is dry
dry and good. and we three will
lie here as long as permitted.
the sky-blue, the open sea that
will draw us in, the three of us
(the creature a little ahead of us
perhaps), record it all my sailor:

what the … it can come, the open sea,

it can come for us even tomorrow.

 

 

 

From Dickicht.  Schöffling & Co., 2011).