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Mist

Author: Leszek Stalewski
Translator: Jonathan Blower

 

It isn’t raining. They say there’s a mist coming down. I’m tempted to say things are hidden behind a gauze. It’s as though someone has lowered a veil of threads. They glisten in the headlamps of the passing cars and coalesce as a mist in the distance. Behind this screen of threads, things could go on forever in much the same way as they do in the hundred or so metres around me: an endless metropolis.

            I gaze up the glass facade of a building. I wonder what it must be like to look down into the city from up there. I imagine it. In this daydream I’m a woman. I’m holding the handset of a cordless telephone. No-one’s talking. I’m wearing a bathrobe. My feet feel the warmth of a soft, sand-coloured rug. Holding the telephone in one hand I walk over to the window and place the other on the glass. It’s damp. The room’s dark. Everything else is black and gleaming. The mist is luminous. Swathes of it swirl around, neither communicative nor silent. They sing to me.

            “Now I know what it is,” I say to my wife.

            “What what is?” she asks.

            “What it is,” I say.

            “What are you talking about?” she asks, visibly perplexed.

            “You know; what it is that’s so different here,” I say, and it’s only then I realise that I’m picking up on a conversation we were having before we fell asleep last night. We’d landed at JFK a few hours earlier and got to the hotel with remarkably little hassle. It was late. I popped out to get cheese, tea, and crackers for twenty dollars. The crackers crunched in our mouths and the cheese stuck to the crumbs. The steaming tea filled the hotel room with the scent of chamomile. Paula turned out the lights. We were tired and buzzing with excitement about the trip, about our hotel between Greenwich and the East Village, and we talked about what it was that made it feel so special to be here in spite of everything.

            “Oh, right! Now I know what you mean,” said Paula. “So what is it?”

“It’s the constant echoing, like you’re in a forest or a cave,” I said.

            She reflected on this for a moment or two.

            “And you don’t think it’d be just the same in Shanghai or Tokyo?”

            “Perhaps. I don’t know,” I said. “But that sound; that’s different. I’ve only just become aware of it. But perhaps I’m just being stupid.”

            “Perhaps,” she said. “But perhaps just a bit stupid.”

 

We walk a few blocks. I want to visit the Strand Book Store, a huge second-hand bookstore with three stories full of books. It smells like New Year’s Eve as we approach. Fire engines are parked in front of the lowered shutters of the store and a police line flutters in the wind. Smoke rises from the manhole covers. There’s a crowd of people standing behind a line of red-and-white tape. I walk over and ask what’s happened. A portly guy holding a laptop case turns to me. He’s wearing tinted glasses and a well-tended moustache. There’s been a gas leak and an explosion on a building site. Some damage to the basement of the bookstore. “Oh no, that’s where I was going,” I think, and thank him.

            “Now I can’t get anything to read,” I say.

            “Well, we can get you a newspaper instead,” says Paula.

            We’re on our way to the Russian and Turkish baths now. Paula buys some water and a newspaper from the nearest bodega. I wait outside, looking up at the sky, observing the blanket of mist.

            The baths are half a block away. We go up the ten steps. The smell of birch wood washes over us. The main door opens onto wainscotted walls, plastic chairs, and a linoleum floor with a larch motif. There’s a printed menu in the national colours of the Ukraine: blini, borscht and pelmeni. Fox News is playing on the flat-screen television. There’s a counter to the right, behind it a woman wearing too much makeup and a guy I suppose is her partner. A red-faced older man, he shows no sign of saying anything, even when we look straight at him. He smiles, but mischievously, pointing to the signs that tell us what we need to do: we’re to put our valuables in the metal boxes, which the woman hands over to us, then we’re given keys for the lockers and clean but worn-out towels. The man says nothing. He starts moving his shoulders to the rhythm of a song that’s coming from the little radio on the counter. Then he points to another sign behind us: “Baths downstairs.” Almost in passing, but with a sincere enough smile, the woman tells us to pay later.

            A few minutes later Paula and I step into a continuous feed sauna. The steam hisses out of a nozzle the whole time. Dark slats of oak, tiles unchanged for decades, a brownish grey utility light. We can’t handle the third tier and sit on the second level instead. My fingernails are burning. I immerse them in my towel. A woman stretches athletically on the next level. Stress yoga, jokes Paula. We want to talk, but we wait until we’re outside. Impossible to concentrate. It’s as though all my misgivings are being boiled out of my body. After a couple of minutes I get used to it. Even so, I don’t last long and soon have to get out. Cold shower, plunge pool, the smell of chlorine. Then relief on the terrace.

            “What time is it?” I ask Paula.

            “Four,” she says.

            “When do we need to be there?” I ask.

            “Seven,” she says.

            We do two more rounds before going back to the hotel. My mind is empty.

 

Paula gets changed. I lie on the bed in our hotel room. Everything here is old. From the way it looks, Paula and I might have just arrived from Denver with fifty dollars, a guitar and a typewriter.

            Paula makes a round mouth and applies her lipstick while I leaf through the newspaper and read an article. “Mr. Piaguaje, the radio journalist, said there were so many bodies that there was no one to bury them all: When someone finds a cadaver, they take them to the cemetery and just leave them there.

            “Shall we take a taxi?” asks Paula.

            I look up how much it would cost on my phone. Sixteen dollars plus tip.

            “Nineteen all in,” I say.

            “Okay. We’ll take the subway,” she says.

            A short time later we’re swiping our MetroCards through the machines. We walk slowly, almost circumspectly.

            The subway rattles as though it might give up the ghost at any moment, the lights go off and on again. At every station the train recites the words: “Stay away from the closing doors.” I look at the people in the carriage. The tired, the sick, tourists, white-collar workers. An old man sits hunched over next to a younger man. They both have the same little ears, sullen lips and curly hair. The older man’s hair is limp and grey, the younger man wears glasses. But he’s hardly young really. He’s about ten years older than me, in his mid-forties, I guess. The older man has a pleasant voice, but it’s intrusive, like he wants to be heard. “I feel as if we’re losing the ability to concentrate. Everyone seems to suffer from a sense that they’re getting dim in their memories.”

            Father and son on their way to Prospect Park. The younger man’s delayed response: “I think we’re all suffering from inf-”

            Paula gives me a shake.

            “We need to get off.” And the rest of the sentence is gone.

            We jump out through the closing doors at Delancey Street and stroll on towards our destination. We walk one block and turn into Orchard Street. There are a couple of people standing around in the road. They’re holding little plastic cups of white wine.

 

I watch a film on a monitor in portrait format. It shows a slender upper arm. A hand in a latex glove comes into view with a tattooing needle. Little by little it inscribes words into the skin: denial, guilt, shame, recognition, reparation. After a few strokes the tattooist washes the blood from the wound. The rattling of the needle is mesmeric. The letters overwrite the veins.

            Later on Paula and I spend some time in a bar with a large group of people. Everyone’s talking. Banalities and other things.

            “Fukuyama meant entropy. He thought the pressure was decreasing, that we’d entered a phase of tranquillity that he called peace. The next step of civilization. But now it’s disquiet and we pretend to know why, so we load everything into a container, because it seems obvious.”

            An oppressive mood darkens an otherwise light-hearted evening. I smoke a cigarette outside and look up at the night sky, but there’s nothing to see. Above the buildings it’s just black. I can’t even see any particulate in the air. I’m surrounded by three groups of people. From behind me I hear someone say: “Look how black the night’s become,” then a “Wow.” I draw on my cigarette and blow the smoke up as hard as I can. Others look up at the sky. Conversations stop. A woman on the other side of the street takes two steps forward as if she’s seen something and hurries back into the bar. I watch a glowing butt fly out of her hand, half smoked. The three groups of people disperse too. I’m alone. I look up again and go back in. It’s quiet in the bar. Quite a few people are looking down at their devices with strained faces. Conversation has subsided at our table too. There’s one woman drinking through a straw, her eyebrows oddly raised. Paula’s looking the other way. I give her a nudge. She looks surprised but glad, and says: “Come on, let’s go. It’s late.”

            “Everything alright?” I ask, but the question gets lost because she stands up straight away and reaches for her coat, hanging over the back of the chair. I suppose it is one o’clock already. We want to say good-night to everyone, but they just look up with troubled faces and half-hearted smiles.

            “Let’s take a taxi,” says Paula. As luck would have it, there’s one right outside the door. It’s distinctly chilly. We get in the cab.

            “The sky’s matt black,” I say.

            “And cold,” she says, resting her head on my shoulder.

            “Has something happened?” I ask.

            “I don’t know,” she says, “I was dreaming.”

 

We arrive at the hotel. Paula’s falling asleep on her feet. I get her upstairs quickly.

            “I’m just going out for a smoke,” I say. “Alright?”

            “No!” she says with a start.

            “What do you mean ‘no’?” I ask.

            “Don’t go. Please. Come to bed. Let’s go to sleep.” She’s still a bit startled, but her eyes are closing.

            “I get the feeling there’s something going on outside—” I say.

            “—Please stay with me,” she says.

            “Why?” I ask.

            “Because I’m asking you to,” she says.

            “Is something wrong?” I ask as I walk over to the bed.

            “Yes,” she says.

            “What?” I ask.

            “I don’t know. Please stay here with me.” She hugs me so tightly that it unsettles me.

            I stand next to the bed, taken aback, but somehow I feel I have to get out into this strange night. I look past Paula, through the window and into the back yard. Everything’s black.

            “Okay,” I say, “I’ll stay.”

            “Thanks!” she says.

            She jumps up, puts on her pyjamas and walks out to the toilet in the corridor. I push the window up a little. There’s a droning noise outside, as though there’s some kind of force to be overcome. But not a single siren. I push the window further up and lean my upper body out. It’s dreadfully cold. The sky’s so black you could almost touch it. I stretch out my hand. Just air. I look through a gap onto Sixth Avenue. A few metres of empty asphalt. A billow of smoke wafts past. I’m looking straight down now. There’s a dumpster under a streetlight. It looks like it’s full of soil. I close my eyes and listen. Suddenly I’m electrified and an explosion pierces the night like a hammer blow. My pulse rate shoots up. I hear the echo in the streets. Paula comes back into the room. I’m quite shaken.

            “What’s wrong?” she asks.

            “Something just exploded,” I say.

            “Maybe gas again,” she says, getting into bed.

            I go to the toilet, taking my telephone with me, but there’s no mention of it on the news or the networks. I come back and take another look through the window. No change. But I think I can still hear the echo. I lie down in bed next to Paula. She snuggles up to me and listens to my racing heart.

            “Let go,” she says. And I fall asleep.

 

It’s raining hard. I’m half asleep now. Drops of water crash down onto the asphalt and the masonry. My eyes are sealed shut. I try to look out the window. It’s as though we’re submerged, as though everything that needed to had fallen from the sky or welled up through the manhole covers. I look through my glass of water and a page of a book seems to float past. Paula scratches my chest.

            “Let go.”

 

From Bäume (unpublished story collection).

Chicken Christl

Author: Martin Amanshauser
Translator: Maria Fink

1 The Scent of Fresh Bread

Before I was kidnapped by a bunch of lunatics who wanted to make me their god, I went through a lengthy crisis. I knew Xenia was going to leave me, but I didn’t know when or how. I found the air around me too thin. Everyone was breathing in and out as if nothing was wrong –  only around me was there a lack of oxygen.

            Xenia was the first person to treat me like a normal guy. She didn’t care if I was the grandson of the President or of the Emperor of China. It didn’t make any difference to her whether I had five fingers or six. Though I would have certainly preferred to be the Emperor’s grandson or have five fingers like everyone else.

            My sixth fingers – I was born with twelve in total, which meant I was two fingers ahead of my fellow man – looked just like the other ones. I didn’t have a deformity like a hare lip, or a club foot. The sixth fingers were perfectly formed and fully functional. Nonetheless, everyone counted my twelve clean nails. People knew about my anomaly from pictures in the tabloids. I had inherited it from my grandfather, Major Koegl, and he had, after all, been President of the United States.

            Xenia’s beautiful five-fingered hands fit perfectly into mine. Sometimes I counted her fingers before falling asleep. The result, the basis of the decimal system, calmed me down.

            “If you want to stay with me, we have to move to another city,” she had demanded four years ago. She knew I would have moved to a different continent for her.

            “What’s wrong with Wilmington?”

            “This place is a dump. It doesn’t even have a good art house cinema.”

            It suddenly seemed ridiculous that I’d spent half my life in Wilmington, Delaware, a metropolis of 70,000 people at the southwestern tip of greater Philadelphia, in the second-smallest U.S. state.

 

We decided on Tacoma. It was on the other side of the continent, on the west coast, close to Seattle, and it had ten playhouses and twenty movie theaters. I hated both plays and movies, but it was good to know there were thirty different venues to choose from. We moved into the top floor of a building with a bakery. Early each morning, the scent of fresh bread filled the air.

            Our front window faced Mount Rainier. In the winter, it was covered in clouds. The last time this stratovolcano was active was two thousand years ago. Mount Rainier was named after a European officer who never set foot in the country. Everyone called it Mount Tacoma.

            Frequently, hang gliders drifted above the foothills of the Cascades. From where we were, they looked like flies circling the peak in slow motion. I would count the raindrops as they fell on the window while Xenia played her boring ambient music CDs. I always gave up at one hundred and twenty raindrops. A hundred and twenty raindrops were my personal limit. As soon as that limit was exceeded it meant that it was raining in Tacoma.

 

2 I Wish I Had my Problems

Sometimes I stare at my hands. They’ve never killed. They are immaculate. Nevertheless, they make me different from everyone else out there.

            The problem starts after my thumb and index finger: What are you supposed to call the next one, the third finger counting from the inside? Definitely not the middle finger, because it’s not in the middle. The ring finger would be next. You could just as easily call this one the middle finger. I don’t wear a ring. First of all, I don’t want to draw attention to my anomaly. Secondly, I’ve never understood why people decorate themselves with metal objects anyway. Next up would be the pinky. Mine is the size of a middle finger. My actual smallest finger is located next to it, the outermost finger, so to speak.

            I’m puzzled by the perfection of my twelve fingers. There are good reasons for each one of them. It’s utterly impossible to detect which of them is the intruder. The medical term is polydactylism; in my specific case, it’s called hexadactylism – a congenital anomaly from the standard pentadactylism.

            My parents and doctors didn’t consider amputation an option. Major Koegl made it all the way to being president with twelve fingers, so there was no need for his grandson to reject this special feature.

            “There’s no reason for unnecessary bloodshed, young man,” Dr. Petrosian told me on my fourteenth birthday. “You should be honored to take after a grandfather like yours.”

            Whoever it was I was taking after, Major Koegl was the strangest member of this misfit-ridden family. Despite our shared hexadactylism, he and I rarely spoke to each other. He generally didn’t listen when people talked to him, and he never made an effort to establish a relationship with me. At least his wife Christl held me on her lap and sang songs to me. She smelled like apple blossoms. The others said she was a nonsense-spouting nut, but I thought she was the only reasonable person around me.

            To this day, even though I have no evidence, I think it’s likely Christl was murdered. Whenever I have doubts about how she died, I write letters to her. They are addressed to a woman who married a man with twelve fingers, and they have one advantage: They don’t need to be mailed. The recipient is dead.

             “When you grow up, you’ll be a great president,” my parents would say.

            “I wish I had your problems,” my old girlfriends would say anytime I cursed my hexadactylism. “I wish I had your grandpa, too.”

            At the age of nine, I stuck my right hand into the meat grinder in the cafeteria at the Novgor Institute, but someone saved it. I was sent to a farm in Delaware. The psychologist they made me see explained that a bit of fresh air would cure my anxiety. A rail line crossed the farmland. I told the psychologist that I dreamed about putting my hands on the rails. I wanted the train to cut off two fingers, and I called my plan “The Koegl Sacrifice.” I was sent back to Wilmington. 

 

Xenia was the first person to understand my sadness. She called me her “little monster” and invented names for each of my twelve fingers. At night in bed, as we watched clouds and colorful hang gliders, she gave me her hands to play with. I admired their perfection.

            “Some people don’t get enough, you got too much,” she said comfortingly.

            “I wish I had my problems,” I replied, then we laughed, and I felt like crying.

            At the Seattle University library, Xenia and I dug up everything about the most famous monsters of literary history. Cyclops, Quasimodo, Dr. Frankenstein’s creation. I read medical treatises about primary structural effects and knew more malformations than names of U.S. states.

            I busied myself with the duodecimal system in the reading room. Some radicals were suggesting a worldwide switch to the power of twelve. It was much easier to calculate with the number twelve because it was divisible by multiple numbers. Did my problem have to do with numbers? I was overcome by a strong dislike for the number six and its multiples. As long as five fingers were the norm, we’d never make any progress towards the duodecimal system.

            I was infuriated by my dexterity when leafing through the books. My fingers worked with the swiftness of a cripple, while anyone with a library card was entitled to stare at them. Just my luck. Aside from faces, hands are the only part of the human body that are always exposed indoors.

 

3 Marilyn Monroe’s Legendary Six Toes

When I wasn’t counting raindrops, I sat in front of InDesign and Photoshop creating imaginary marketing campaigns for Hewlett Packard or Häagen Dazs. But I was just messing around.

            “You should try freelancing,” Xenia suggested. “As long as you talk about your work seriously, you can mess around as much as you want.”

            Before my thirtieth birthday, my life was in chaos. I could have lived on my grandfather’s savings for decades, but I wanted to see if I could be like everyone else. I had a job interview with Public Crazy Wardrobe and got my first contract.

            My name, my face, and my fingers attracted attention. Some coworkers would stare at my hands to see if the presidential grandson was using all twelve fingers to type. I devised a campaign for a hazelnut yogurt. I developed a logo for a coal transportation business. Even though we basically agreed, I argued with a young coworker about the holy war between those who used QuarkXPress and partisans of InDesign.

            It was in Tacoma that I considered surgery for the first time. It would be difficult, however, to find a doctor who understood and had compassion for my weak heart. For sensitive patients, getting the right dosage for the anesthetic was a tightrope walk. I was afraid the anesthesiologist would either let me suffocate during intubation or apply insufficient anesthesia.

            Xenia thought what she called my “slightly hysterical disposition” was an ideal protection against surgeons seeking to make a name for themselves by treating the presidential grandson. Like all reckless people, she lacked all empathy for heart phobias. She laughed when I brought up my irregular heartbeat. Nonetheless, with the help of our general practitioner Dr. Tabor, she got me an appointment at the university hospital in Seattle.

            Dr. Oberkofler of the department of plastic surgery, a wiry man with an unusually high-pitched voice, knew immediately which finger was the superfluous one.

            “We’ll amputate the sixth ray of each surplus formation,” Dr. Oberkofler suggested. “After a week, you’ll leave the clinic with ten fingers.”

            The wound would heal fast, but two “convex bumps” would remain visible on the outside of my hands.

            “Your hexadactylism will still be noticeable,” Dr. Oberkofler pointed out as he took a sip of his latté, “but hardly anyone will ever detect it.”

            I wasn’t so sure. Certainly, the best-known plastic surgeon in Seattle only wanted to take a stab at Major Koegl’s grandson to impress the hand surgeons on the east coast. On top of that, nobody could tell me if I’d be able to cope with ten fingers.

            Previously, Xenia had been skeptical about the idea of surgery. She said I should decide for myself whether I wanted to embrace my ancestry, or deny it. The nearer the moment of our break-up drew, the more pragmatic her arguments became.

            “If you aren’t comfortable in your own skin, have the operation.”

            That sounded nothing like the days when we compiled examples of successful hexadactylic forms of existence – Marilyn Monroe’s legendary six toes and the polydactylic breed of Maine Coon cats. We had long stopped speculating about autosomal dominant inheritance with variable expression, which is to say, about the reason why Major Koegl had passed on his twelve fingers to me.

            We had led the life of many couples before they have children and accidentally get entangled in a different life. I would have taken the risk, but when Xenia was fourteen, she had had chronic tubal inflammation.

            “The oviduct, that’s what you call the tube, you know, the connection between ovary and cervix, got clogged.” That’s how she explained it. “Ever since then I don’t have a place where the egg and sperm can meet.”

            I sometimes wondered if she really needed to tell this story to everyone.

            My only friend in Tacoma was Lagonikakis, my karate coach. He ran a Greek diner at the edge of town. His specialty was Japanese philosophy, maybe because he made cheeseburgers. He liked the thought of training a karateka with twelve fingers. I appreciated Lagonikakis’ lack of interest in my family. We had discussions about karate and the interpretation of the seven dojo oaths, and I helped him design the new menus for Lagonikakis’ Diner.

            I never went out with coworkers. I despised those art directors in their Helmut Lang suits. My life consisted of Public Crazy Wardrobe, karate and Xenia, who, unlike me, met new people.

            “You were awfully quiet tonight,” Xenia said one evening after her so-called friends had come over.

            Donna, Jane, and Joan, who all worked in the same film production company as her, drooled over guys in suits just like the ones my art directors wore.

            “Conversations like that bore me.”

            “Conversations are only as boring as the people having them. Why don’t you come up with something else to talk about?”

            According to Xenia, in public I acted more like a dictator’s grandson than a democratic president’s. She and her friends started meeting at a Cantonese restaurant. One night I had a dream that she wasn’t spending her evenings with Donna, Jane, and Joan, but with one of the art directors at Public Crazy Wardrobe. When I walked into the restaurant in my dream, they were kissing each other under the table.

            Xenia was going to leave me: at first, it was just an idea. I asked her about it. She denied it. A muscle on her cheek twitched. Xenia was as good as gone. She was simply pondering how she was going to do it.  

 

4 Money is Like an Algae Outbreak

“The name my father gave me, by itself, was supposed to lead to great things,” Major Koegl, my grandfather, told his biographer Mr. Heckenwallner. “To be honest, I’m relieved he didn’t name me ‘Professor’.”

            Major Koegl was born in 1900 in Philadelphia into a second-generation Austrian immigrant family, who thought his twelve fingers were a sign. When I was born sixty-seven years later, my family had already gotten used to this kind of deformity.

            Unlike my grandfather, I was never interested in my roots. Unlike Major Koegl, I would have never gone back to Europe as a young man to support my ancestors.

            At the beginning of the 1920s, Major married Christine Nittnaus, the youngest daughter of a big farmer in Podersdorf, a small town in Burgenland, Austria’s poorest province.

            “The open-top Stoewer Gigant convertible glided across the promenade,” a witness reported to Heckenwallner the Biographer at Saint Urban restaurant, “and everybody thought an American film star was in town. But it was just young Koegl.”

            My hands get in my way a lot. Yet whatever my grandfather’s hands touched turned to gold. In Podersdorf, Major Koegl started the biggest broiler hatchery in all of Burgenland. He got the nickname “the Yankee,” and they never called Christine Koegl (neé Nittnaus) anything but “Chicken Christl.”

            In 1934, the Yankee and Chicken Christl sold the hatchery and started their first chicken farm in Wilmington. Soon they owned twenty-four farms in two states. The Democratic Party of Delaware beat the Pennsylvania Democrats to the punch, and Major Koegl gladly joined their party.  

            “I now knew the difference between the continents as well as those between the individual states,” he explained to his biographer. “Money multiplies everywhere in a similar way. Money is like an algae outbreak: If you don’t stop its growth, it’ll cover everything!”

            At Saint Urban restaurant in Podersdorf, people continued talking about Chicken Christl’s beauty and her skills in avoiding the local bachelors. Later, more and more men would come forward claiming they’d had affairs with my grandmother.

            When under tragic circumstances Christl Koegl became First Lady at the beginning of the 1970s, the number of her purported lovers had climbed into the hundreds.

 

In 1943, my mother Margarete was born in Philadelphia. My grandparents made sure that she came into contact with chickens as little as possible. They themselves had ceased all physical contact with the animals and handed over the day-to-day business to their employees.

            “I love chickens,” Major Koegl told Heckenwallner the Biographer. “We process them, we make money off them. They give us so much. In return, we can offer nothing but our unconditional admiration.”

            My grandfather was fond of sweeping gestures. Whenever he picked me up in the bathroom, he would smile at himself in the mirror.

            “One can prove entrepreneurially,” he explained to his biographer, “that with a good system in place, maximum profit equals maximum chicken happiness.”

            Heckenwallner’s biography contains a lot more information about the technical and philosophical details of chicken breeding than the president’s hexadactylism. His fingers were just a folk tale; they weren’t part of his image.

            “Hard work, from dawn to dusk,” Koegl told Heckenwallner. “What others couldn’t grab with ten fingers, I sure could with twelve.”

            After 1945, Major Koegl became assistant chairman of the Burgenland-Society. At the end of the 50s, he was the Wilmington Democrats’ second man. He didn’t neglect his business, but he did gradually begin to delegate. In 1959, he met a scientist, Teddy Novgor, thirty-two years his junior, at the dog show in Selbyville, a small city at the southern end of Delaware.

            “It was just like with Watson and Crick before their discovery of the double helix,” Major Koegl told his biographer, to show that he was well-versed in the history of science. “Teddy and I went to the Selbyville Piano Bar, ordered two ciders and decided to get a project going.”

            In 1961, Margarete finished school and Major Koegl, with the help of his advisor Novgor, became Vice Governor of Delaware. In 1962, Watson and Crick were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine. The same year, a lifelong dream came true for university employee Teddy Novgor: He opened the Novgor Institute in Wilmington.

            Without their encounter, the history of this country, science, and chicken farms would have taken a different path, and, as it happens, so would have my story. I’ve always considered the Selbyville dog show an unnecessary event.

From Chicken Christl.  Deuticke Verlag, Vienna, 2004.

The Pope’s Left Hand

Author: Friedrich Christian Delius
Translator: Robert A. Cantrick

The hand, I thought, on the first Sunday in March of 2011 ‒ what is it about the hand? Open, slightly curved, relaxed, hanging from the black sleeve, the fingers loosely beside each other, white and soft, what does the pope’s hand do when it’s doing nothing? We spectators hear much about this man, whether we want to or not. His faces, his robes, the windows that serve as his stages are shown constantly; every Sunday you can hear him sing, speak, and give his blessing, every day thousands want to be filmed or photographed with him; he is quoted everywhere, his violet smile is sold on postcards, his power implored, sought, doubted; his role is loved, valued, or despised—but his hands, we know nothing about his hands, what is it about the hands?

No, I was not surprised to see him so near, a few meters to my right, almost beside me, in the last row of the sanctuary, the elderly gentleman who by general agreement is called the pope. He was dressed so as not to attract attention, not in the regalia that proclaims his authority, no gold shone, no lilac, no purple, his head, known the world over, was neither adorned with an imposing miter nor covered with a cap, he looked like a simple parson or bishop in civilian attire, with a black suit and starched white collar. To his right and left sat two priests ‒ whom you might have seen near him on TV ‒ in similarly neutral, plain attire. Gestures, looks, posture, everything studied. The only thing that   bothered me was that the three black-clad men were doing nothing and did not move forward, into the center, where they would have been more broadly visible.

Sitting in the same row with them, the aisle between us, my perspective was not the best. Since I did not want to make a spectacle of myself by gawking and tried to turn my head to the right as little as possible, I could peer over only discreetly, and I glimpsed the familiar face only fleetingly, in profile, between the faces of his escorts, six or seven meters away. That is why my eyes turned more toward his hands, the left one mainly, the one closer to me ‒ on his thigh, on his knee, on the backrest, supporting his head; the right one was completely visible only when the old gentleman moved that arm and reached forward a bit. The hands drew my gaze, and it was the presumed tiredness of the old yet still-powerful hands that I began to contemplate. And the inactivity, to which they were perhaps not accustomed ‒ for once not being used for one of the centuries-old rituals of his office and exalted position, not raised in greeting or to bless, not pressing other hands, inking signatures, turning pages, praying, holding wafers or liturgical vessels. The resting hands, the pausing hands, the hands of a so-called infallible, unemployed for these few minutes, they invited me, they provoked me to reflect, they enticed me to discover the secret, if in fact there was a secret, that made them hang so noticeably soft and limp from a stiff body. They asked me riddles.

They seduced me into palm reading from a distance, you would be right to reproach me for that. But what else is a respectable heretic to do if he is afflicted with neither the blindness of those who kneel nor the arrogance of the church hater? What else is there for an archeologist in early retirement, who occasionally hires himself out as a tour guide, if, by whatever convoluted combination of coincidences, he has the opportunity to observe a pope at close range? To savor the anecdotal moment quietly, not knowing whether the encounter will last half a minute, half an hour, or longer?

marker

How are hands like that supposed to find the right pressure and proper grip in the cruder outside world, I sometimes thought when a weak handshake made me shudder or when I thought I saw others giving one ‒ as I did a year ago, when the man now staying in the background extended his hand to the Lutheran minister and the parish councils, perhaps giving them a small surge of pontifical pride that they can brag about to the ends of their lives in a more or less pleased tone of voice: I once shook hands with the pope!

I once shook hands with the pope, my uncle Helmut used to say. When he was a soldier, not twenty years old, in the middle of the war, he had the chance to see Pius XII. He wanted to become a doctor and did become one later on. In 1942, when he was a sergeant in the air force medical corps in Como in charge of caring for wounded soldiers, he was  sent to Rome on official business. Before his appointment at headquarters, he was  walking around the center of town, in uniform, of course, and entered Vatican City, St. Peter’s Square: a foreign country that was off limits for soldiers, but there were no barriers so he didn’t know this.  He got into a conversation with a German chaplain who asked if he’d like to be in an audience with the pope. They went into an office, the chaplain got him a document for admission that said ‒ though he was only a sergeant ‒Ufficiale.

Which was why they put him in the front row. About thirty people were present, they all fell down on their knees before the pope and kissed his ring Helmut, as a Protestant, got  up, clicked his heels, and saluted. Pius asked him his name, rank, where he was from; he knew the area in the north of Hesse where Helmut was from, talked about a hospital in Kassel that he visited often as nuncio. Then the great pope said to the little sergeant, “You’re fortunate to have such a leader,” shook his hand, and asked if he’d like to have a gift. So he got flustered, the young man; what could he, a Protestant, a German, a soldier, want to have from the pope personally? “A picture, maybe?” he asked. “Yes, a picture of you would be really nice,” Helmut said(of course, he didn’t really mean it, he admitted when he told me about it), and at the end of the audience he was handed a postcard with a photo of Pius XII.

What brings the supreme leader of a church to say to a nineteen-year-old German sergeant who just happens by that the biggest criminal of the twentieth century is a “fortunate” thing? A man regarded by the whole world in 1942 ‒ except in the German Reich ‒ as a dictator, anti-Semite, warmonger, and murderer? I’ve often asked myself that, and my uncle ‒ who said that even back then he avoided the Nazis as much as possible ‒ asked it many times as well. Because it looked as though the so-called führer might put an end to Bolshevism? But to praise him willingly, unreservedly, and half publicly, that was going a bit far. It bothered my uncle, and it has bothered me ever since I saw that photo and heard the story, but as I learned from Flavia, it accords well with what historians independent of the Vatican have discovered about the forties. Sometimes I think maybe that’s why I was drawn to Italy and to my profession, maybe that’s why I became a history sleuth, a surface scratcher, a potsherd prospector ‒ because so important a pope made this comment to my favorite uncle, the good-natured doctor; because I wanted to find out how something like that was possible beneath the innocent blue sky of Rome. (But those are personal speculations and out of place in this report.)

To get back to facts: Now, on the church pew, I did not want to think yet again about that dreadful statement about the führer but about the handshake, what might the handshake of Pius have been like? That’s something I never asked my uncle, and now it was too late, now I could only guess. The Pius handshake, I speculated, might well have been firmer than that of his successor sitting here. Guesses, conjectures, preconceived ideas, I know, but they kept flying through my head, faster than shooting stars, no sooner thought than gone, and though I could hear the voice of the psalm reader, I was unable to spare any attention for his words and sentences. Because the left papal hand made an unmistakable movement for the first time: the fingers stretched and then curled into a fist several times in succession and finally relaxed, as though the emphatic movement had gotten rid of a cramp or relieved an unpleasant stiffness in the joints, some minor discomfort.

Peering to my right, well into the lively rhythm of my brain cells as they alternated between my uncle’s hand and that of Pius, I sensed that I had less control than ever over the blizzard of my thoughts, that they were drifting away, into the darker side of history. I tried to slow them down, but in fractions of a second they veered toward war, occupation, Wehrmacht, SS, raids, the deportation of Roman Jews; they swept past the murder of hostages, past well-known and less well-known crimes, headed straight for the reports of terror, toward those gruesome images, both photographic and vividly described in words, that, once you’ve seen them, are not so easy to get out of your mind.

At the next-to-last moment, too late, that is, I tried to focus on the psalm reader’s voice, but from his words “Pull me out of the net that they laid privily for me” I could not quickly create imagery powerful enough to slow the eighteen wheeler bearing down on me. At the very last moment, too late, that is, I tried to mobilize the women, to summon the beautiful women from the Galleria Borghese to block out the Nazi filth, the German terror buried deep in the rubble of Roman memory, as if Apollo’s hand restraining the fleeing Daphne, an alluringly lascivious Danaë, or any one of the Venuses could drive from my mind the awful images of the men in their trucks standing before the Vatican.

When is a person ever master of his racing thoughts? I was not, in these tenths of a second, and neither the psalms nor the women had the power to stop the men storming into my mind as I watched from the safe distance of a daydream. At the edge of St. Peter’s Square, where the broad oval of columns opens onto the Avenue of Conciliation—of reconciliation, of the Lateran Accords—there they stand on a rainy October day in 1943, four or five trucks with grey-green or black tarpaulins in front of a low iron fence marking the international border; they stand there, hoods and front wheels toward the church and the dome, exhausts toward the Tiber, toward the Mausoleum of Hadrian, not drawn up in military formation at regulation intervals and right angles but irregularly. At the steering wheels, in the front seats, young men in SS uniforms, youths playing the tough guy, boneheads able to play at being the elite, well-educated accessories to terror and murder. There they sit, behind the windshields, and look at the fountain with the obelisk, at the facade, at the world-famous dome, the colonnades, they let the motors idle, a one-cigarette break, they marvel, they stare, they smoke.

That’s how eyewitnesses reported it, eyewitnesses who knew what freight was behind these young men in the backs of their trucks: people, packed together, wedged in standing, ordered from their beds, their homes by shouting, armed Germans, fifteen minutes’ time, throw a few articles of clothing, something to eat into a suitcase, onto the cargo bed in pouring rain, herded in, ever more tightly packed, women, men, infants, children, old people, many in nightshirts, a coat thrown over, shivering, dumb with fear, screaming in fear, sobbing, moaning, shut up in darkness under the heavy black canvas. That is how they were driven through the city, this way and that, standing, swaying, with no apparent destination, into the unknown, and finally, a stop.

A stop, we gather from reports and documents, because the young men in black uniforms wanted to relax for a moment after carrying out the first part of their orders: search houses, drive out occupants, load onto trucks, let none escape. That’s called a raid, they rehearsed it, they executed it as directed, no incidents to report. All they have left to do is deliver their freight to the barracks, up the Tiber a way, but that part of the orders can wait. They don’t know their way around Rome, so you make detours and can say you got lost because there are so many bends in the Tiber, because of the narrow streets. Driving is fun when you’re lord of the land and have carried out your mission, the hardest part of the mission, and can allow yourself a few detours, a little tour of the city, past the gigantic, imposing, white marble monument. On the Via dei Fori Imperiali you play the victorious commander and wave to the Forum, to Caesar, Augustus, to the triumphal arches. You have to say you drove around the Colosseum and saw the Mausoleum of Hadrian and St. Peter’s up close.

The men behind the windshields are stationed north of here and arrived only yesterday for this mission, they have never before been to the city that people call eternal, and may never return. For six weeks the Wehrmacht has occupied Rome, the Greater German Reich has been waging war on the Italians, whom they regard as traitors because they are not as stupidly obedient as the Germans. No one knows how it will end, the Americans are already in Naples, so you have to make good use of every minute in bella Italia, in eternal Rome. They’re on duty but also want to be tourists, at least for five minutes or three, for one cigarette, in front of the greatest church in the world and the most beautiful dome in the world, a symbol, the center, a landmark, even for SS men passing through. They don’t have cameras with them, or maybe they do, they store the sight in their memories so that at home they have something to tell their brides, their mothers, their buddies, and maybe even the priest, something real heroes can brag about: I saw St. Peter’s dome, and I almost saw the pope, too.

On the hard bench in the church, in a completely different epoch, I realized again that I could not simply block out this scene, which takes many thousands of times longer to describe, feeling my way, than it took to glide through the nerve tissue of my harried brain. A secret that I dragged around with me, a piece of the puzzle from the great puzzle of Rome that I do not want to force upon the foreigners I guide. A tour guide with a dark vision will lose first his customers, then any prospect of getting the permit from the Comune di Roma, promised a year ago, still not issued.

I have to accept the fact that I cannot get this snapshot on the fringe of St. Peter’s Square out of my mind, even when masses of tourists and pilgrims are milling about there, and not just because of the young men but because of their prisoners. On that October morning they quickly saw where they were. There would have been rips or small holes in the canvas, a tiny opening is enough, a Roman doesn’t need a dome to know where he is: St. Peter’s Square. That’s a hope, almost a rescue, and so the tightly wedged people call out for the pope, they cry for help, summon all the strength of their combined voices. At least one of the priests who usually walks by here, or church people hurrying by in small groups, by ones and twos, someone will alert the pope ‒ they hope.

Penned up and persecuted by Christians for centuries, that doesn’t matter now, now only he can become their savior, their neighbor, their shield, as they have believed ever since Mussolini, since Hitler. They are among the oldest Romans, their ancestors settled here, right on the Tiber, even before the first Christians. They cry for help, they have been betrayed, three weeks ago they were required to pool all their gold, fifty kilograms, to be safe from deportation, that’s what the Germans, Kappler, the top SS man, promised. They scream, but their cries can barely be heard above the idling engines, they do not make it even to the middle of the square, let alone up to the pope’s study, not even if the window is open. Even if by chance he is standing right there, at best he will see the trucks close to his border, not an unusual sight in occupied Rome, might shake his head at the disrespectful Germans, and turn back to his work.

Here the apparition broke off, the short St. Peter’s Square sequence that has haunted me so often, among other things because of the dull cynicism or naïveté of the young accessories to murder. (Maybe, I think as I write this report, I can’t rid myself of these young men because I see them as unusually perverse tourists—warriors as ur-tourists). I confess I did not like the fact that the point on the square, approximately where the trucks must have stood, where the Avenue of Conciliation comes in, has since been given the name Pius XII. Anyway ‒ I tried to persuade myself ‒ these images, stronger than my power to switch them off, had nothing to do with the man on the marble bench. But that was not true. Maybe my defenses were so weak precisely on his account, because the hands whose pressure I was contemplating at that moment, were on the verge of rewarding that predecessor ‒ the one who referred to Hitler as “good fortune”‒ with beatification. These German hands, of all things, were trying to offset the contested story of that pope’s “silence” and his uncontested assistance to Nazi criminals by appealing to the aid he incontestably gave to victims of Nazi persecution. The impending beatification bothered me for the additional reason that the television despot’s network, in preparation for this sacred act, had made the life of Pius into a kitschy drama at the expense of the murdered Jews. And because, once again, only the Jewish community protested, again to St. Peter’s Square, again completely alone, and again unheard.

The question was already lurking: Why had the insane idea of Augustine, a father of the church, that all Jews are responsible forever for the death of Jesus, continued to have an influence through the centuries, establishing for them a kind of original sin with the penalty of eternal oppression? By that logic, Flavia once said to me in her impish way, he should have demonized all Romans and condemned them to eternal persecution on account of Pontius Pilate. I mean, he was the one responsible for it. As I studied the intelligent German in the plain suit on my right, the next question surged forward: how does an intelligent German manage to venerate a saint who, like no bishop before him, by justifying pogroms and hatred toward people of other faiths ultimately may very well have set the example for Hitler, Himmler, Kappler, and Co.? Or should one not construct such mental bridges from one mass of sin to the next, from Augustine to his disciple Luther, to the Wannsee Conference, to orders and the cruelty of obeying orders, to mindless functioning, to the Jew-hatred inculcated in young men in black uniforms?

I tried with all my might to wipe from my mind the Nazi story, which always causes those of us who were born later to run the risk of beating the little drum of time-worn accusations. Mind you, normally I’m for taking every opportunity to address this question. Time and again I stand before my customers and say, You cannot understand Italy if you do not know about the wounds inflicted here in just the twenty months between 1943 and 1945: one hundred sixty-five murders a day, not counting partisans, soldiers, and forced laborers killed. You cannot comprehend Rome if you do not feel the orders, the shots from our uniformed fathers, uncles, and grandfathers that remain lodged in the psyches ‒ even of conciliatory Italians. That is why it always bristles, this history reflex, when German-speaking people ‒ on the beach, having a cappuccino in a café, posing for cameras ‒ do not behave themselves, when they imperiously flaunt their blondness, become patronizing. Even if they cautiously and considerately address uncomfortable issues or venture to criticize some evil that Italians themselves criticize, then it breaks out, this reflex, sometimes silently, sometimes quietly, sometimes more loudly: You and your Hitler! Shut up!

The two taunting syllables of this name cannot be erased from the memories of the peoples of the world. This curse is the price we have to pay for the hatred and obedience of our fathers and grandfathers—that has become clear to me in my twenty-seven years in Italy and twenty-four years with Flavia—a comparatively small price to pay for so much hatred and obedience. It is precisely in Rome that this cannot be forgotten, where one of those murderers, a smiling old man, is still running around in the spring of 2011, as I explain to my listeners when we’re standing on the appropriate spot. The second-highest SS man in Rome ‒ a torture specialist who was involved in the deportation of the Jews and later in the revenge killing of three hundred thirty-five Romans and then was able to hide in Argentina with the aid of the Vatican ‒ he takes a walk with a police escort almost every day around the Villa Doria Pamphili, to the supermarket, to church, a retiree almost a hundred years old, under house arrest, and is applauded by the Italian fascists, who hail him on their Internet sites and almost succeeded in obtaining his services as a judge for the “Miss Destra” contest. The man himself is unimportant, I always point out, even though so much history is concentrated in his hands. You just ought to know that a few ghosts are still running around, very much alive under this paradise-blue sky, and that more people’s minds than we may realize are still under occupation by uniformed ghosts.

From Die Linke Hand des Papstes.  Rowohlt, 2013.

What This Home Is

Author: Anna Weidenholzer
Translator: Elisabeth Lauffer

            Novak turns away, Richter goes into the living room and forgets about the bathroom light. There’s too little movement over there, I say, and step closer to the window, only the flickering of TVs and the on-and-off of lights, it’s an unexciting game. Sunday, December thirteenth, eight forty-three P.M. I want to see the lights on. Novak’s husband has been sitting motionless for half an hour now. Just turn, I whisper, there you go. He lifts his arm and lowers it slowly back down, his head toward the kitchen. Is he speaking to her? I don’t see it, the pink jacket she wears on Sunday evenings as if other colors didn’t exist ‒ she must be wearing it again today. Novak doesn’t know a thing about colors and she doesn’t know a thing about windows, not once has she ever looked over here, even though it wouldn’t take much. Lift your head for a moment or better yet, first take a step toward the windowsill, lightly place your hands on it, you can feel the warmth of the radiator immediately. It got cold in late November. Despite the warm temperatures, the wind brings in the chill. Novak will have turned up the heat, she’ll say: Heinz, close the window, I’m so cold. Like the first time we went over there for a visit, the air was filled with smoke, but she said: Leave the window shut, I’m fine with your smoke. Your smoke, Karla said, although she herself had done nothing else the entire time. 

            Novak, for God’s sake, move. As if he were staring at the wall all evening, I know they’ve mounted the TV there, I know the apartment looks different now. On that first evening together, it had still been a box TV, and it ran quietly in the background. At regular intervals, Karla went out onto the balcony to fetch the plastic bottles of premixed cola and red wine. Why she mixed the drinks beforehand, I couldn’t say. That evening, she answered my question as follows: when I come home from shopping, I’d rather get it over with right away, I don’t have the energy later in the evening. And I laughed, because Peter laughed and so did Heinz, the energy to mix red wine and cola, he repeated, but Karla simply gazed at the television, where an ad for televisions was running. I like wine without cola, too, I said, but Heinz had already gone out onto the balcony, and Peter was staring at the television on television with Karla, until she said: I don’t believe that.

            We stayed for a long time that evening, we drank a lot, our lips all turned purple. I said: at least we don’t have far to get home. Karla let the chinchilla out, and we talked about what this home was, where we were still so new and where the first tenants to move in three years earlier now counted as longtime residents. I would never move back into an apartment someone had lived in before, Heinz said. You never know what might have happened there. It’s only been three years with your apartment, he added, and I interrupted him: I don’t want to hear it. Don’t worry, in your apartment, he began. I don’t want to hear it, I said and went out onto the balcony.

I had to lift my head to see over to our place. Peter had left the light on in the bedroom, it shone brightly. We all have our reasons for choosing an apartment, I said when I came back into the room. We like the view of the tracks. You do, Princess, you do, Peter murmured. The chinchilla, Heinz exclaimed, and I still remember that at that moment, Karla began scratching at the label on the plastic bottle. She rolled up tiny wads of the paper, she began to chew on one. Karla, Heinz said. We chose this apartment, he added after a while, because there’s no way anyone’s ever died here. You get used to the sound of the trains, I replied, I like having activity outside my window, just a view of a landscape wouldn’t be enough for me, I need the noise of the city. And Karla laughed, she laughed out loud and began to cough as one of the paper wads lodged in her throat. I’ll grab another bottle, Heinz said, you don’t have far to go. 

            Novak stretches, it’s not late yet, it’s far too early to be tired. He had talked about it back then, after all: fatigue shows in the eyes and not the mouth, I can see your eyes fine, you’re not tired, Peter, you’ll stay a little while longer.

            We didn’t choose the apartment just because of the train tracks, I said that evening, after it had gotten late and our eyelids had grown heavy. My shin, I said, and then: we like that the houses are different colors here. Green, blue, ochre, yellow. We don’t live in seven, we live in the “green” one ‒ pretty good, right? We live in the brown one, Heinz said, and I don’t think much of your color theory. Anyway, said Peter, we’re happy to be here now, we used to live on the first floor. Peter, my shin, I repeated. From the first floor up to the twelfth, Heinz said and clicked his tongue, although with a bit of difficulty. Karla was wearing a blue sweater and white jeans that day, I still remember that because really, it was already too warm for a sweater like that, but she’s always cold. Luckily you don’t live in Sweden, I said to her on some days, winter there would kill you. They have heating there, too, you know, she would say, or: you’ve never even been there. 

            I’d like to see more action. Novak is sitting motionless again. Here comes Richter, Richter gets off the couch, that’s good, she goes into the bathroom, turns off the light, where is she now? There she is, in the living room, she’s small and at this distance, it’s easy to miss her. Over all those years, I never once spoke to Richter ‒ only about her. Richter is a loud woman, Karla said time and again: she slams doors. But she’s so little and old, I responded, does she still have the strength? Karla nodded: the way she slams doors, we hear whenever she comes home or leaves a room. Retiree, Karla said, whenever she wasn’t talking about Richter’s doors. Socialist, February Uprising, she was in the paper, wearing pink lipstick. I just nodded, I hadn’t read the article, although it was much more about seeing it, like Karla said, the photo, the lips, I’ve lived next door to her from the very start and not once has she invited me over. I’m sure she had her reasons, I thought and stared at the picture on the wall. 

            Richter draws the curtains, no, wait, it’s too early to go to bed. Richter draws the curtains. The grandkids visit on Sundays, they stay for a long time, till it gets dark, they sit at the table and go back and forth to the kitchen. That’s right, there was one time I spoke to Richter, when she said: I’ve gotten myself into an awkward situation, I forgot my key in my apartment. She was carrying her cat in a shopping bag, she had been at the vet, the cat was old and wasn’t moving. It was a cloth bag, and the locksmith came quickly. I know what you do, Richter said as we waited for him. Karla didn’t come out, although she must have been at the door, listening from behind the colorful Novak nameplate: green, yellow, red, yellow, blue. I know, Richter repeated: you get up late and then stay up late, that way you see more. It doesn’t bother me, she added after a pause. You have a nice cat, I replied. 

            Now here comes Novak, Novak’s in pink, without glancing up she goes into the living room, as if there were no window here, look up at me. Look at how I’ve done up my lips, take in the view. Between us are the playgrounds which the first of the children have grown out of, the kids who now spend their free time lying under cars and dreaming of more speed. Between us are the playgrounds, the one with a basketball hoop for the big kids and the one for the little kids with the elephant swing, a fence around each. The playgrounds have been between us, the trains behind us, for how many weeks now? Do you hear that, I say, there are hardly any freight trains anymore, that’s a bad sign. What are you talking about, she said, I don’t hear anything, you watch the trains too much, concentrate on the other side. 

            And suddenly, Novak, she comes to the window quickly from the left and stops, her gaze upward. Hello, Novak. I place my hands on the radiator, I stand here. I live here and I’m staying here, I said that afternoon and she shook her head: we don’t need your sort. Karla, I said. Novak, she said, from now on just Novak, that’s enough. Novak’s husband moves closer to the television, maybe he can’t read the text anymore, he doesn’t notice her, the way she’s standing at the window. Richter’s curtains remain drawn. Novak waits, I don’t move. I don’t think much of a fence concept, I repeat and open the window, I don’t like fences in Europe, I shout, I don’t want that.

 

First published in Literatur und Kritik, May 2016.

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

Author: Arne Rautenberg
Translator: Ken Cockburn

becoming an ape made easy

flounder in water
swim on land
jump into mud
get arms and legs
go into greenery
grow some fur
clamber right
to the top
of a tree
an ape from every
burden free

[affe werden leicht gemacht]

 

 

drunk in the dark

a light bulb
sky
a light bulb
oho
a light bulb in an attempt
a ridiculous attempt
to attain composure

me
sky
me
oho
me me me in an attempt
a ridiculous attempt
to climb a ladder

the light
sky
the light
oho
the light in an attempt
a ridiculous attempt
to illuminate something

the meaning
sky
the meaning
oho
the meaning in an attempt
a ridiculous attempt
to mean something

[betrunken im dunklen]

 

 

leaving the house

opening your eyes
leaving the house
and on leaving the house
getting out of bed

changing your clothes
leaving the house
and on leaving the house
closing the door behind you

getting on the train
leaving the house
and on leaving the house
coming out of the station

entering a skyscraper
leaving the house
and on leaving the house
going up in the lift

falling down at your desk
leaving the house
and on leaving the house
not shutting your eyes

[das haus verlassen]

 

 

daily dramas

morning

the plane
in blue
white its line

noon

cooling on
porcelain
an animal

afternoon

dr gachet’s
abiding slumber
before van gogh’s paintings

evening

leaps
from an open book
a flame

night

a ladybird
reveals
its machinegun

[tagesdramen]

 

 

excavating a writing desk

excavating a writing desk
finding worms lots of worms
(they writhe in the light)

excavating a writing desk
finding helmets lots of helmets
(some with holes and some intact)

excavating a writing desk
breechblocks gasmasks
(some with skulls and some without)

excavating a writing desk
finding bones lots of bones
(which even death can’t split)

excavating a writing desk
standing in the middle of it as oneself
(in the fog or granted sight)

[einen schreibtisch umgraben]

 

 

the shifting wind

the chances it’ll turn out right
increase the longer
it’s all going wrong

should one set
achievable goals?

the chances it’ll turn out wrong
decrease the longer
it’s all going right

should one set

unachievable goals?

 

From mundfauler staub (Horlemann, 2012) and seltene erde (Horlemann, 2014).

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

Author: Farhad Showghi
Translator: Harry Roddy

If magic is obvious in the first place, then it’s elsewhere, this advantage being easily confused with hall lighting and immediately lost from sheer air. It’s possible we look to all sides, whereby we start outside all over again. Up to the right we see a wisp of cloud, like us here, in the situation that’s arisen. We move tea and fruit and what goes with it: Our visibility and gladly pomegranate seeds, questions about flowers and leafy green perhaps. And then sugar. Sugar as the only word in the middle of the garden. The bright gleam now comes from the sun up to the left. And finds the child that has my hands and for a while also a broadened range. Just then something darts by. A That there! further toward the front. Up to the passing time. In this situation that’s arisen.

 

 

A place of shadows. And once more the undersides of leaves, the distance from voice, a walk in that direction. Unweakened with cloud movement and father and son. And hair on the back of the hand: to have to bring forth with the lips what’s been eavesdropped close to the eye. Just now time wants yet to move from the feeling of fingers into tying the shoes, in order to pass. Speechlessness follows. Tarried under open skies. A biting-and-rustling should belong to it. A handful of cones, blue allium, lily leek. Piled up corn, still piston-like. We see that we can see the park. The damage to the tiled fountain. And further left: the unfamiliar with fruit, with tea in the niches and child’s play. The place of shadows. Still wants an audible sound. The point in time over the knuckle tips. Sounds like sun here so near the greenery. The thumbnail can easily change to tongue and back. Saliva glimmers. Looking becomes air of cypresses.

 

 

Melting on the short-grass patches, silence and a division of time are just called: Drenchedness with slaughtered hen. Like the surrounding village is already called, but hardly to be heard from the street. The long drive is an easy liaison with a stone wall, with looking and sitting. To which we’ve already deboarded. A lot of ground under the feet affirms the sun up to the knees. Passing clouds too, their remains at the back: The context with outer air, with gleaming and slaughtered hen. We now make a next movement. We have the waiting car. And certainly a shoulder. Instead of wilderness of rocks fringes and a temple-region.

 

From In verbrachter Zeit.  kookbooks, 2014.

 

 

Emil: A Quiet Beetle on the Road

Author: Julia Weber
Translator: Helen MacCormac

 

Us standing around his bed, and beside the bed a silver tray, a tray with metal legs, with four metal legs on wheels and a beaker of water on top, a beaker of water and a cotton bud, the cotton bud my mother used to wet his mouth on the outside and inside. She wiped it slowly across his lips to make them glisten; she put it in one side of his mouth, pressing it gently against his cheek, and then in the other side, her face stock-still. Soft marches came out of the radio and outside there was a fleeting sky. People walked down the corridor on soft-soled shoes, brushing the dusted plants with their gowns.
We formed a half circle around his bed: my mother, sitting wetting his lips, my father standing beside her, touching her shoulder with four fingers, my aunt trembling slightly. The beads on her red jumper made a soft sound, the sound of tiny clapping hands. I stood between my aunt, feeling too small for this big situation, and my uncle, who looked too old. He was wearing a crumpled shirt and his beery smell went straight up my nose. His ears seemed to be smaller than usual, so did his eyes, and the bags under his eyes looked huge.
When it started to rain, raindrops pelted against the window and the sheet beneath my brother grew dark. When it started to rain, I shouted, ‘He can hear the rain!’ and clapped my hands. Something struck my face and made it burn. My father’s hand drew away. We both jumped and a dog whined outside.  My brother had closed his eyes sometime before then; my brother had closed his eyes long before then. ‘Too long ago,’ said my aunt. They might have grown shut, I thought.
My mother whined like the dog and a nurse came in. She changed the sheets and my brother’s shirt, and everyone turned away, except for my mother who still tried to wet his mouth, inside and out. The nurse left the room on her soft-soled shoes and as the rain beat harder against the windowpane, another dark patch spread out under my brother.
The uncle hummed a song, the song of a hunter in the city. My father closed his eyes for a moment; he rested his hands on his head. My mother dipped the cotton bud into the water, guided it towards Emil’s mouth.

Outside a fine-threaded sheet of rain.
Outside the pale sky.
Outside yellow light breaking through grey clouds.
My brother inside in his bed.
My brother in his bed, almost see-through in his bed.
His hands palms down beside his body.
His body all still and flat, his skin papery thin.
Something shivered beneath his eyelids and something shivered in me. My mother’s hand rested calmly on Emil’s chest.
I started to cry. ‘I’ve got a pain in my tummy, a very sore pain,’ I said.
‘Quiet!’ my father cried. My aunt’s silence grew more and more impatient, my father cried more and more loudly, pacing up and down in a small space. The uncle had fallen asleep with his big hairy hands on his belly. Outside grey pigeons landed on the windowsill, they shook their wings, and walked up and down, knocking their beaks against the glass.
‘Be quiet, won’t you!’ my father shouted. ‘Emil needs to rest!’ he shouted. He sat down on the floor and shrank. I’d stopped crying by now. Emil had stopped breathing. My mother kept on as if nothing had happened. Wetting Emil’s mouth inside and out.
No one moved.
Then I was taken out of the room.

At home I sorted my coloured pencils, putting them down on my desk one by one: black, navy blue, turquoise, sea blue, sky blue, arctic blue, lilac, purple, wine red, crimson, rose, yellow, lemon yellow, lime green, green, forest green, charcoal grey, grey, white.
I pushed the pencil tips into a row with a ruler.

My uncle pushed me upstairs into our room, telling me to do whatever I did every night. But I knew this wasn’t like every night, and I couldn’t do what I do every night, so I hid under the blankets for a long time without anyone coming to find me and I sat in the corner with my face turned to the wall and I sat in the cupboard and peered through the keyhole. Without anything happening.
I couldn’t do what I do every night. I needed my mother for that or my brother at least. But my brother had turned see-through and my mother wasn’t there.

I heard her coming home in the middle of the night. I’d been waiting, making shadows on the wall with my fingers until I put on my tiger suit and turned into a tiger. And my father was with her. I heard them coming up the stairs and opening the door. I pretended to be asleep because it is far nicer to be woken up when you are already awake or hugged when your parents think you’re asleep. You notice everything then and they are so gentle and it’s your secret.
She went over to Emil’s bed; she fell to her knees on the carpet. My father was big again. He held her shoulders and whispered something. I turned over, as if I was turning in my sleep, I could see her legs. I made some sounds. They didn’t answer. My mother stayed where she was on her knees, resting her head on Emil’s pillow.
‘I’m here,’ I whispered. My father turned around to me. ‘Go to sleep.’ he said. I couldn’t see his face in the dark.
‘I’ve got a pain in my tummy,‘ I said.
My mother stood up then and left the room. My father followed her out.

In the morning no one was there. When I woke up in the morning, no one was there.
There were no parents in my parent’s bedroom. The bed was made and the windows tilted open.
I heard a lawnmower mowing the lawn outside and I dug my bare feet into the soft grey carpet. White and red flowers outside the kitchen window, not moving. A beery smell in the kitchen and living room and down the hall. All the pictures of me and Emil in the hall and all the pictures drawn by Emil and me.
‘Mummy?’ I called. ‘Daddy?’ I called.

I went out of the house and closed the door behind me.
I was a tiger.
I was big.
I wasn’t frightened of the old man who pointed his stick at me and spoke to the sky.
I saw a one-legged bird.
I said hello to an old lady with long white hair who was sitting in her front garden.
I ran my hands along the length of a hedge and the hedge scored fine lines on the palms of my hands.

I was late and the lady at the playgroup looked paler than usual. She was waiting for me beside the door, standing on one leg. Like the one-legged bird, I thought. She kept her balance without moving until I reached her and then she swapped legs. Her glasses were crooked and her eyes behind the glasses were huge. She was thin and long. And she looked a bit see-through like Emil.

I said I was sorry. She drew a breath. I looked at all the flowers on her dress. She drew another breath. I stared at the ground. She knelt down beside me; she hugged me and started to cry. It sounded like a big fat bumble bee. Or a bee next to your ear. She cried and I cried a bit, too.
She saw my hands and asked where the red lines came from.
‘Emil,’ I said; she didn’t say anything and she swallowed.

I was allowed to drink lots of lemonade. I was allowed to eat two pieces of cake. I was allowed to choose what game to play and I was allowed to get up first after our midday nap. And I pulled Marie’s hair without the lady’s voice getting loud. She talked to Marie and Marie stopped telling me off and stopped crying. Marie’s eyes opened wide. She came over and held my hand. She gave me her jelly frog. She asked if I knew where Emil was now.
I wasn’t sure, but I told her he’s see-through. ‘He’s still there but you can’t see him anymore,’ I said. ‘That’s good because it means he can play all the time and never has to go to bed.’
Marie was glad and asked me to give back her sweetie. I saw why, so I gave it to her.

When I went home the sky was pale.
When I went home, the old lady was still in her garden, the man sitting beside her seemed to have lost something.
When I went home I didn’t want to go home.
When I went home there was a beetle quietly walking across the road.
I sat down beside it and tried to stroke it.
When I went home, I saw a pale-skinned woman with a patchy face. She looked right through me, I was hungry.
When I went home I saw an old man with a loaf of bread under his arm. The man was very thin and his clothes hung off him, or clung on, as if the whole world were clinging on.
When I went home, the one-legged bird was lying on the road not moving.
I picked up the bird by its wings. I shook it.
I held the bird up high and waited. It was soft and its eyes were made of glass. When I went home something changed.
I thought about my mother and knew she was sad.
I thought about Emil and didn’t believe he was see-through.

At home, the uncle was sitting in a chair. At home everything smelt beery; the uncle wobbled his head and swore under his breath.
None of my mother’s smells. No  smell of my mother’s coffee. No smell of my father’s pipe. No mother. No father. Just the uncle and footsteps upstairs which didn’t sound like my mother or my father.
No Emil.
The uncle said ‘Hello boy,’ and changed the channel. His grey hair was sticking out all over the place.
‘Your mother and father will be back later.’ He held on to his belly with his hands.
‘It’s boring,’ I said.
It’s interesting,’ the uncle said.
‘Boring, boring, boring,’ I said.
‘Interesting, interesting, interesting,’ the uncle said.
‘You smell,’ I said.
‘Children smell,’ said the uncle.
My aunt flitted about upstairs.

My aunt gave me soggy noodles in cold sauce. She gave me orange juice in a glass too big for my hands. I put the glass on the table and dipped my head. I lapped like an animal.
‘Like an animal,’ my aunt said.
‘Tiger,’ I said.
‘Silly boy,’ my aunt said. And the beads on her jumper made another noise. She hugged me and pressed me against her soft bosom. She stroked my hair backwards. Then she went away.

I sorted my coloured pencils, putting them down on the desk one by one: black, navy blue, turquoise, sea blue, sky blue, arctic blue, lilac, purple, wine red, crimson, rose, yellow, lemon yellow, lime green, green, forest green, charcoal grey, grey, white.
I pushed the pencil tips into a row with a ruler.

My mother and father came home later. When I had sorted the pencils seven times and lined them up with the ruler again and again, my mother and father came home.
My mother’s arms were very long. They hung down by her sides as if they didn’t belong to her. My father put his shoes beside each other and he took off my mother’s shoes and set them next to his. He bent down to her hip and lifted her foot and pulled off the shoe. My mother turned her face away and held on to my father’s shoulder while he lifted her other foot and pulled that shoe off, too. And he looked at me standing where I was standing in the doorway, standing between the kitchen and the front door looking up at him.
I said, ‘You put your shoes in a nice row.’ He smiled and said, ‘You did, too.’

I was pleased and he was pleased with me. My mother stayed standing in the hall, leaning her head on the coats. A red sock hung off her foot and my mother hung between the coats.
I called her name. She didn’t answer. ‘Mummy,’ I said, ‘the playgroup lady wasn’t even cross, she cried and stood on one leg and her glasses were crooked.’
She didn’t answer. ‘I found a bird. I wanted it to fly.’ She didn’t answer. ‘I buried it in the ground. It was soft and its eyes were made of glass.’

I think she might have stroked my hair when she walked past.
I think she might have looked at me once she’d gone by.
I think my father said that would do.
I think branches and little animals moved outside.
I think I stuffed my whole fist in my mouth and it very nearly wouldn’t come out.
I think someone laughed on the telly.
I think I dreamed in the night.

I tried to talk to Emil when it was quiet in the night.
I listened first, to hear him move, to hear the moving air.
When I still couldn’t hear him or see him, I called Emil.
‘Emil where are you?’ I called.
I called quietly at first and then more and more loudly.
I shouted his name and he didn’t come.
Eventually the door opened and my mother stood there.
She stood there for what seemed like ages and didn’t move. My mother kept silent and so did I.
Then I shouted, ‘Where is Emil?’
She stood there all white, her nighty was white, her face was white, her feet, arms and hands all were white. She stood there and I tucked the blankets up under my arms and I was stunned and shut my eyes and opened them again.
‘Where is Emil?’ I yelled.
She leapt over to my bed like an animal. She grabbed my shoulders and stared into my face. She could see right through me.
‘Emil is dead!’ my mother shouted. ‘Emil is dead. Emil is dead. Emil is dead!’ she screamed.
She shook me and my body went limp, she shook me like a piece of clothing. The telly was still on downstairs, I heard clapping and I was afraid, afraid for me and afraid for my mother.
Her face was wild, her face was hard and white, and her hair was everywhere like the uncle’s hair.
All of a sudden, I saw my father’s head behind her head, I saw Emil’s anorak hanging on the door next to my father’s head.
My father took my mother away from me.
I cried and my mother cried and my father cried, too.
‘Everything’s changed. We’ve put Emil in a coffin and the coffin is going to be burned and Emil…’ Her voice sounded like a voice coming out of the station speakers.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said before my father took her out of the room.

He came back after a while. I sat up in bed waiting. I hid behind my fingers, but kept my eyes open. ‘You’re not a tiger,’ my father said. I lifted one hand off one eye. ‘You`re a human being and human beings all have to die someday.’ I took the other hand off the other eye. ‘Just like Emil but usually not as soon.’
I slept with my tiger suit on. I said I wanted to be a tiger one more time.
I tossed around and started to sweat and smell bad.
Outside I saw the fat moon in the sky and the branches of a tree.
Outside the air was dark blue and the sky had patches of light.
Inside, I saw the half-empty room.
Inside, there was me and strips of moonlight on the wall.
Once in the night my mother came to my bed. I didn’t say anything.
Once in the night my father came to my bed. I didn’t say anything.
Once in the night Emil came to my bed. I woke up. My face and my pillow were wet.
The next morning I put the tiger suit outside my door. I knew now I was going to die someday, so I put my pencils out there, too.

 

From EMIL oder DER LEISE KÄFER AUF DEM ASPHALT  (unpublished)