Archives

Family Portraits

Author: Karen Köhler
Translator: Sian Edwards

 

#1

The handles of the plastic shopping bags cut into the insides of my hands all the way from the bus stop to the block of flats. My fingertips are crinkled when I put the bags down in front of the entrance. It’s raining a fine North German drizzle. I zero in on one of the 40 doorbells and press it three times in succession. I want him to come downstairs and help me with the bags. I want him to be shaved, showered, and in clean clothes. I wait. Wait for the summer. Wait for a word. For the open sesame of this council castle. Ring again and fumble my mobile out of my jacket pocket. Dial his number. He doesn’t answer, doesn’t open up. I’d really like to just turn around and go back to work. But red and yellow bags full of food for more than a week sit there and reproach me. Shit. My lunch break is already half over.

I get my keyring, with his keys on it, too, out of my rucksack. I unlock the door, heave the bags of food inside and to the lift, ride up to the fifth floor, haul myself down the corridor to the second-to-last door, ring twice for the sake of form but know that nothing will come of it, open up and call a loud ‘hello’ into the stink. He must be in.

‘I’ve been shopping for you’, I say in the direction of the two main rooms, and fight my way into the kitchen. One of the shopping bags knocks over some beer bottles that have accumulated on the floor in the hallway. A rank stench greets me in the kitchen, too. ‘Chicken breast was on special offer. And I got your tobacco. Eggs, bread, sausage, pizza. I’ll put it in the fridge.’ Dirty dishes are piled up in the sink, empty packets everywhere, empty bottles everywhere. The lino is sticky. I don’t want to know what with. I say: ‘I got UHT milk’, thinking: Then you can leave it out when you’re pissed. I say: ‘And shaving foam’, thinking: So you don’t look like an absolute tramp. I say: ‘You could let some air in’, thinking: It stinks of puke, crap, stale smoke, rubbish, old man, and piss. I say: ‘Hey, are you awake yet?’, thinking: You’re probably sitting on the sofa staring out of the filthy fucking window, again. I say: ‘Dad?’, thinking: Pathetic piece of shit. No answer. Maybe he’s out after all. I go over into the living room, and even from the doorway I can see his yellow feet on the sofa. Then I stand in front of him and have to fight my gag reflex. He’s lying there half on his stomach, in his puke. Lying with his face in it, his mouth open. He’s pissed himself, I can tell by the dark tide marks on the legs of his jeans. On the coffee table in front of the sofa there are rows of empty cans, bottles, fag ends, and ash. A bottle of schnapps is lying on the floor. It’s nearly empty. It’s a picture I recognise, framed in my fear. Is he still alive? is my first thought. I daren’t touch him.

‘Dad?’

I stare at his ribcage to check for movement but see nothing. No rising, no falling. What if he is suddenly, actually dead? What if he’s done it this time? Everything is on fire inside me, and I say his name quietly, whisper it almost, and remember how Mum used to say it, before she left him for someone else, whom she also left.

What if I have to ring her and tell her he’s dead? Drunk himself to death because of her. Finally done it.

The stink claws at my stomach. I hold one hand over my mouth and nose and use the other one to feel his neck for a pulse, a heartbeat, some sign of life. And just as I’m sure that he’s done it this time, a snore erupts from the depths of his coma, and he closes his mouth with a smack.

I should be relieved but I’m not. I stand up, open the window. Clear the bottles and cans into the kitchen, wash up. Empty the ashtrays. I take my rucksack and the binbags and whisper ‘Bye, Dad.’

In the lift I try to think up an excuse to tell my boss.

 

#2

Scoop and slurp. And again. Scoop and slurp. Scoop. And slurp. Their backs hunched. Their eyes fixed on pea soup. I scrape in time with them. The kitchen clock is our metronome. Flowers appear on their pea soup sea floors. I’ve known every inch of the Sunday plates since childhood. White porcelain with a green flower pattern. Today is Friday. But it’s Christmas Eve. So sort of Sunday. Which explains the plates. It is 12:15 pm. Which explains the pea soup. It basically doesn’t matter whether I sit here or not, it makes absolutely no difference. They sit here in silence like this in any case. Just with different plates.

‘And’, I say, ‘how are you both?’

Mother looks at me. Her eyes briefly break through the veil of routine. Father keeps scooping. She misses a beat. Then steps back into the pea soup march.

‘Good’, she says, and Father nods.

Scoop and slurp. Tick. Tick. Tick.

‘How’s your hip?’ I ask Mother.

‘Fine’, she says, this time without looking up and losing the beat.

I look at Mother, and she suddenly seems very old to me. Worn out. I search in vain for a trace of a wish or desire in her face. I find duty and obedience. Father’s plate is empty, and Mother refills it for him. His massive presence spreads out into everything. Like the way his paw engulfs his spoon. The noises he makes. How he smells. I don’t seem to interest him, he doesn’t even look at me. My being here doesn’t change his life one millimetre. I frame Mother and Father in the kitchen picture, which has always been the same, all the objects unchanged, the ticktickticking constant, only they wither away from Christmas to Christmas towards death.

I know this kitchen picture by heart. I know the corner bench, the embroidered motto, the small radio on the shelf above it, the decorative plate on the wall. Their silence. The kitchen clock. The ticking. The whole kitchen, the dining and living rooms, the bedroom and the children’s room, the house, the yard, the village. The skeletons in the closet and out of it. Scoop and slurp. Tick. Tick. Tick.

‘Not hungry then, lad?’ says Mother, nodding at my plate, which is still almost completely full.

I hurry to scoop along to her beat. I’m in the pea soup passing lane. I won’t catch up with the master of the house. He’s tilting the plate by its edge and scraping up the last of the soup.

Between two spoons of soup I say it. Quickly.

‘I’m gay.’

Now Mother’s scraping.

‘What’s for dinner tonight?’ asks Father.

‘Goose’, says Mother. Like every year.

‘Right’, says Father, stands up and leaves the kitchen.

 

#3

She’s having a good day today. I can tell straight away. I close the door behind me and sit in the wheelchair next to her bed. She’s sleeping, a smile on her fallen-in lips. The bottom of the bed is raised. Her thin body looks child-like under the blanket. Legs the same thickness as my arms. Her wrinkly hands lie lost on her torso, which rises and falls with a rattle. She looks like a withered chick. They’ve put her jumper on the wrong way round, the seams on the sleeves are visible, and the sewn-in name tag with her surname shows at her throat. An embroidered picture hangs on the wall above her bed. A Spitzweg. It shows a sick man lying in bed.

I stand up to get a vase. Outside spring is a long way off, but I have brought yellow tulips. They were her favourite flowers, before. I open the sliding door of the cupboard. The room is small, she couldn’t bring much with her. The cupboard, the living room table, an armchair, and a lamp. A couple of pictures for the walls and some bits and pieces. The sliding door reveals three crystal vases, six crystal glasses and a crystal ashtray. She only brought the good things. Although she used them much less. They were for special occasions. And of course she doesn’t use the crystal here either. The special occasions are over. Only sippy cups now.

I push the ashtray to the side to get at a vase and try to imagine her secretly having a smoke. She used to do that sometimes. Ernte 23 was her brand. Even after she got ill. Then we used to stand together on the balcony sometimes. Allies in the war against the 50 yoghurts in her fridge. Against mislaid keys, purses, and three brand-new irons in the wardrobe. But that was just the start. Back then, she still used to cry. Back then, she still wanted to die. Back then, she sometimes got so enraged that she banged her head against the wall.

I fill the vase with water in the vestibule, and when I come back into the room, she has opened her eyes. They flit agitatedly along the blanket.

‘Hi, Mum. Did you have a nice sleep?’ I ask.

‘Well, it’s about time, you nitwit’, she says, toothlessly.

‘Time for the flowers to go in the water’, I say, put the vase on the table and the flowers in the vase.

‘Get a move on, you dopey mare, you …’ she says, blinks furiously at me, loses herself for a moment and rattles on: ‘Get out of my flat or I’ll call the constable!’

Actually, she’s not having a good day, I think.

 

#4

First new message. Today, 03:17: Anna, it’s me. I know it’s late… I can’t sleep. It’s, well, I think it’s just after three, and… dammit, Anna…

The key slides easily into the lock. Click clack. I hesitate a moment, then push the door open, and her perfume welcomes me like a passionate embrace. I put the key on the shelf next to the front door. Floorboards creak under my feet, the flat lies in wait. I don’t know where to go at first and decide on the direction in which I guess the kitchen would be in an old building like this.

Second new message. Today, 03:19: Anna. Wow, you’re having a good sleep, aren’t you? … I just wanted to … That noise is my teeth chattering. I’m outside … fucking freezing, isn’t it? … and summer’s not what it used to be.

It’s completely absurd: First, I do the washing up. Put everything in the sink. Teapot. Cereal bowl and spoon. Cups. Glasses. Bits of leftover muesli have dried on. I put the bowl in to soak. The teapot has gone mouldy. There’s a fruit bowl on the kitchen table. Well, fruit. Fruit flies scatter as I go to throw out the brown ex-bananas. I open the fridge. It contains forlorn-looking low-fat milk, low-fat yoghurt, low-fat cheese slices, crispbread. I feel queasy.

… Remember those summers when we used to go to the outdoor pool at night? … Sneaking over the fence … Ah, sis, those were real summers, when we couldn’t sleep for the heat…

I’ve never seen anything like it: Every inch of the living room wall is covered with scraps of paper from different notebooks, in different shades of yellow, with notes in her handwriting. I’m not a nebbish, says one. What is the innermost layer of an onion? says another. I take a note down and see that a date is written on the back: 23.05.2002. But she only moved in here recently.

Third new message. Today, 03:31: Shit, Anna, I could really use your voice to hang on to right now. Remember how I always used to put my raisins in your muesli? I’m sorry. I wanted to say so all along.

I flee into the bedroom. Throw myself onto her unslept-in bed. After a while I stand up and go to the fitted wardrobe. Wrench it open. Designer clothes. All fancy stuff. Silk and that. All hanging tidily on hangers. Underwear lying meticulously folded in drawers. Half a wardrobe of shoes. The heels all at least four inches. Who is this woman, with a wardrobe like this? Not my sister in any case. I get back into her bed.

Fourth new message. Today, 03:42: I’d love to know what you’re dreaming about.

I was always the one who made allowances for her. For her moods. Her rollercoaster highs and lows. I always cleared up after her. Even when I was a kid. Ate the raisins she didn’t like. I didn’t like them either, but I ate them for her. And now I’m lying here in her flat, and my grief is swallowed up by a tsunami of rage. Why didn’t she call the land line?


Fifth new message. Today, 03:56: Well. Anna. Sis. Don’t worry. OK? Sleep well, sweetheart.

Don’t worry. She filmed the bridge with her mobile. She filmed herself beforehand. Filmed the fantastic view. The sunrise. And seemed completely calm. Relaxed. The mobile was in some sort of protective carbon case. It survived the fall, she didn’t. An older woman out early walking her dog found her and rang the police. And then the police told me, when I rang her mobile after I had listened to her messages. That was over a month ago. What’s a nebbish?

 

#5

What kind of girl are you, who doesn’t wear a bra or shave her armpits? Who eats cheese without bread and lies in bed after eight and idles the day away? What kind of girl are you, who doesn’t have a man and a ring on her finger? At your age. Still! Who doesn’t clean the windows, doesn’t iron, doesn’t put shades on the bare lightbulbs. What kind of girl are you, who runs barefoot through fields as if she doesn’t have any shoes. Who drinks wine out of the bottle and sleeps in strange beds. What kind of girl are you? Who can’t follow a recipe without changing something, and immediately throws away the assembly instructions for Kinder Surprise Eggs? Who prefers to wear trousers and fights with the boys in the playground. Who drives a thousand kilometres in foreign lands, all alone, and chooses the unknown over the known. Who refuses meat and has no god. Who swims naked in the sea, makes her bed under trees, and knows how to start a fire. What kind of girl are you, who can stare into the sky for hours and see imaginary creatures in the clouds while life passes her by. Who wastes opportunities and wallows in the past. Tell me, what kind of girl are you, who sings and yells and snorts like an animal. Who smokes and twists her mouth with scorn at the corners, instead of answering my question, of what kind of girl she is.

hi mom, the train arrives thurs at 18:44. i’ll walk from the station and get to your house about 19:15. hugs m

Of course it’s raining when I arrive. I will have arrived wet. I will have brought the damp into the house. It’s hard to get out again once it’s got into the cupboards. I will have been interrogated about why I didn’t take a taxi. I will have been met with incomprehension.

I walk along the stream that patiently bore my attempts to dam it in other times. The road curves away, the stream has offended it, it distances itself. But I stay true to the stream, it will take me to the back of my parents’ house. The straps of my rucksack squeak. My eyebrows make sense and divert raindrops past my eyes. The landscape lies there featureless. Spreads out casually under the rainy sky because it’s at home here. Dredges up memories of Sunday boredom, endless days of rain, but also summer. Fields of burnt-off corn stubble. Evenings by the railway tracks with beer. Coins on the rails. The American radio shows, the window to the world.

The village gathers around the stream to nibble at it, the first houses are starting to bite. As always when I come here, the corset tightens around me: here I am the daughter, here neighbours gossip maliciously behind hedges, here the goutweed proliferates only along the road verge, never in the sifted earth of gardens.

Mrs. Wichert, a neighbour, is coming towards me with an umbrella and a bad mood. She’s walking a sausage with legs. A beagle, I think the breed is called. White and brown with drooping ears and Geoffrey Palmer eyes. I don’t know much about dogs.

Of course Mrs. Wichert recognises me even from a long way off, she ducks behind her umbrella. Today she’ll tell her husband over supper that the Claytons’ daughter is here to visit. The daughter of the pig farmer’s daughter and the American soldier from the occupation zone.

Nothing about my parents’ house is inviting. The fence has spikes, the trees needles, the hedges thorns. The blinds are down, the doors closed, the locks secured with locks. Half of the lawn at the front is gone, instead there is an asphalt drive with a parked a car that hasn’t been moved for a long time. Mother doesn’t have a driver’s licence, and Father can’t drive since his stroke. He can only lie there and wait for death. To open the garden gate, you have to reach over the spiky fence and press down the latch from inside. I open and close the gate, walk up to the front door, and know that they have already heard me. The kitchen, the dining room, and the living room are on the ground floor. Upstairs, my father lies in the master bedroom, the ironing in my old bedroom. Behind the house there could have been a garden if my parents hadn’t sold the plot. A garden is work. I ring the doorbell, hear Mother’s shuffling steps, hear her bundle of keys. Rustling. Unlocking the lock on the lock and unlocking the lock.

‘But you’re absolutely soaked through.’

 

#6

You sit opposite me in silence. You’ve been silent for a few minutes now. Me too. Because I don’t know what’s left to say either. We’re both exhausted and just sit stirring our drinks, you with your spoon in your coffee, me with my straw among the ice cubes. You put your sunglasses on. Slide them from your head down to your face. Your hair keeps its shape. Smoothed into shape, like everything about you. I’d like to say something, anything, but I’m blank, nothing comes into my head, nothing that wouldn’t be trivial. The time thickens and I hunch under its weight. With every moment that passes, the silence between us gets bigger, and the possibility of overcoming it shrinks to a negligible crumb. A speck of dust on your jacket sleeve. I can see myself in the lenses of your sunglasses. I can see the riverbank behind me. The river. The sky. I remember walks with you. Barefoot, our shoes in our hands. I look into your mirrored surfaces, a boat is sliding through your eyes. A future perfect is sliding through me. I will have been brave. I know that my past is longer than my future.

‘Did you know that we live in the past?’ I ask.

‘You mean in memories?’

‘No, I mean the past.’

‘Oh’, you say and don’t ask.

It’s a fraction of a second. That’s how long it takes our brains to evaluate and process all the collected information and to create an expected image of reality. We hobble after a constructed illusion of things. That’s what I think. While I’m sitting opposite you. The fraction of a second after it has actually happened, my brain has constructed for my consciousness this expected image of you.

You keep playing around with your smartphone. Taking photos of me. Trying out different angles and filters. Seeking favourable perspectives.

‘Do you want anything else?’ You launch your hand into the air. A waitress looks up.

‘No thanks.’

The perspiring student waiting on the side comes to our table, clamps an empty tray under her arm, takes out her notepad and asks what it’ll be. You push your glasses back up into your hair, give me a look signalling that something noteworthy is about to happen, then turn to the waitress with an appraising glance at her tightly packaged breasts.

‘Have you got any snacks?’

‘Of course. We have light meals and then the evening menu after 5:30. Would you like to take a look at the menu?’

‘No thanks. I’ll have a sandwich. Have you got anything like that? A sandwich?’

‘Yes. Cheese, salami or ham?’

‘Ah, you know what. I think I fancy something sweet.’

‘We could do you a waffle? Or a crêpe?’

‘How about cake?’

‘We’ve got apple streusel, cherry, cheesecake, and Linzertorte.’

‘I don’t know. Maybe I’d rather have something savoury.’

‘Shall I bring you the menu?’

‘No, that’s not necessary. I’ll have a bockwurst. Have you got something like that?’

‘I’m afraid not. I’ll bring you the menu.’

‘I’ll have a salad.’

‘A salad?’

‘Yes, you’ll have that, won’t you?’

‘Yes, we’ve got salads. Which one would you like? Summer salad, country salad, Caesar salad?’

‘I’ll have the summer salad.’

‘What dressing? Balsamic, French, yoghurt?’

‘French dressing, please.’

‘French.’

‘Ah, wait, no. I’ll have balsamic dressing.’

‘A summer salad with balsamic dressing. Coming right up. And for you?’

I shake my head. ‘Nothing for me, thank you.’ The waitress gives us a strained smile and disappears between the tables. I know that everything has a cost. Life has a cost. This dialogue, with which you want to prove to me that one always has a choice, is wasting what time I have left. I have no choice.

Time only flows in one direction. Only forwards. Only into the future. Time relentlessly converts things from high-energy order to the least charged state possible. Time can’t go in another direction. Can’t go backwards. Only ever forwards, destroying order as it goes. Until sometime, one day, even the last star explodes, then goes out, and the universe comes to rest, inert and dead. That is a cosmic law. It’s the same with us. While you try to cling on to your life, with your arms crossed and your provoking expression, time has already carried me to a low-energy state. I feel bad for the waitress and can only smile tiredly at you. I exploded ages ago.

You flash me a look of disdain that tells me that you can’t believe I’m supposed to be made of your genetic material, that you deserve a better daughter than this sick, hunched lump sipping a cola in front of you.

When the first clump came out in the brush, I didn’t hang about. Now it’s just stubble. The ends would have had to come off at some point anyway.

‘If you want to be successful…’

‘Dad, stop.’

‘If you want to be successful…’

‘DAD.’

‘… you have to bend the world to your will. You need sharp elbows. Jab here. And jab there. You see. Otherwise no one’ll listen to you…’

‘Not today, Dad, seriously.’

‘The way you’re sitting there. You’ve got nice breasts. Stick them out. Show who you are. You won’t beat it otherwise, this cancer.’

Arsehole, I think.

‘You’ve got to fight. You understand? Don’t let it get you down.’

‘But I am.’

I am fighting. Against my tears and to a large extent against a butterfly. It’s growing over my corpus callosum. Butterfly glioma is the monster’s name. How can something so shit have such a beautiful name. I imagine butterflies flying with proliferating tumour wings over a meadow of wildflowers. Flutter, flutter, flutter. It’s a grade IV tumour, which is always terminal. Mean survival time 7.5 months. You know where you are with it. I’ve got 5 left, on average. I would like to know exactly how long. I’ve got so many things to do.

‘Head up, chest out, yeah? It’ll be alright, kid.’

I smile so that you finally leave off with all this drivel, because we both know, actually, that nothing will be alright. Your phone rings and you answer. ‘It’s important,’ you say quietly to me. Oh.

Things I still wanted to experience: hiking the Alpine trail from Munich to Venice. Having children. My children’s first day at school. My children’s wedding. Becoming a grandma. Going to Rome, Venice, Florence, and Dubrovnik. To Peru, Japan, India. Things I still want to experience: every season once more. Snow. Reading War and Peace. Against the World. Before the Feast.

‘Sooo. The summer salad for sir.’ The waitress deftly turns and places the salad in front of you.

‘Thanks,’ I say.

You glance at her, smile, and a moment later finish your telephone call.

‘Here. Eat. I hate salad,’ you say, and push the plate towards me.

 

Karen Köhler, “Familienportraits” in Wir haben Raketen geangelt.  Hanser, 2014.

 

Maramba

Author: Paula Köhlmeier
Translator: Maria Fink

 

She is sitting by the window. He is walking around the room.

She says, “Tell me the truth!”

“Which truth?” he says and with a pencil starts drawing in his sketchbook. He draws a train. A long, red train with heavy, sooty wheels. A train for travels far away.

She glances at the drawing. “Do you want to leave?” she asks.

“Why?”

“Because of that train.”

He draws a track for the train. She throws her hands up in the air.

They have been together three years. They met in a record store. They talked about Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Sometimes they laughed; sometimes about themselves.

As a young woman, she once told a friend, “When it comes to a husband, you always know where he is. When someone asks, ‘Where is he?’ you can always answer immediately, without being afraid you might be wrong.”

The friend laughed. The friend had pretty lips and a pleasant voice. The friend ate buttered slices of bread for breakfast, two of them. She spread the butter evenly onto her slices. The friend kept both feet firmly on the ground. And the ground was carefully researched and free from adventure.

She first meets him in a record store. Both buy the same record. A coincidence that leads to a conversation. The salesman has already sold the record nineteen times this week. To him it’s no coincidence. Lovers are arrogant, though. And lonely. Lovers only see love, and everything is a message for that one love.

She clung to this first encounter for a long time. The name of the record was forgotten. The music was no longer trendy. They moved in together. No one needs two of the same record. She gave away her record and later he gave his away too, because, he thought, she still had hers.

She clings to this first encounter for a long time. At their first good-bye he said, “Maramba.” He said, “Maramba is a feeling.” “No word can describe it,” he said. A feeling you couldn’t explain and that only he had. He claimed.

She walks home. She skips across a sidewalk. Her head asks whether “Maramba” means something good.

At home, she looks for the word in a dictionary. The word doesn’t exist, and the word turns into magic.

They meet more regularly, and sometimes he says “Maramba” when they part. When he doesn’t say it, she gets worried.

Maramba turns into a whole city for her. A city full of lights, cool air, and with its own language and a wide overpass above the train platform. People step on each other’s feet when they are angry, but that rarely happens because everyone in Maramba has small, pretty feet. Men are sitting on steel pipes, drinking beer. She writes a story about the city. With a needle, she pins the story to his door, hoping he’ll write back. He reads the story early in the morning. The story scares him. It wants to know something he doesn’t have an answer for.

He doesn’t write back. He no longer says the word.

Now she says, “A husband is someone I don’t worry about when I don’t know where he is.”

The friend has gotten fat. Her lips are like two sausages stacked on top of one another. Her voice is still pleasant, but it no longer fits with her body. The friend is up to her neck in concrete. Her head is clear, but her feet are no longer moving. The ground she stands on is overgrown. But she doesn’t care.

He packs his bags and says he’ll be gone for two weeks. He says it in passing. So much in passing that she has to ask where he is going. He doesn’t answer. Says she shouldn’t ask so many questions. He wants to be alone for a while. She doesn’t know where he is and that feeling scares her.

“Everything was wrong,” she tells her friend. “I don’t know what a good husband is.”

Every night she dresses up, powders her face, sits in her kitchen, checks the time, and waits for him. He doesn’t show up. She takes her make-up off and goes to bed.

She feels like she has to be there when he returns. When she leaves the house in the evening, she writes him a note and hides the key for him. By Christmas, twenty-five notes are stuck to the front door. Twenty-five nights away, plus eighty nights at home, equals one hundred five days. That’s how long he’s been gone.

That’s how long he’s been gone, she thinks, and combs her hair in front of the mirror. The mirror is brown and heavy. The mirror doesn’t have a sense of humor. His parents bought the mirror. An inquisitive couple with a penchant for bad music and weird food. She puts the mirror on the curb. Five minutes later, it’s gone. She stands at the window and wonders who could possibly want a mirror like that. She imagines the new owner until late into the night. I should have put a note with it, she thinks while brushing her teeth. She doesn’t know what she would have said in the note.

He sends her a postcard. The postcard is from Paris. On the postcard, you can see the Eiffel Tower at night.

On the postcard it says, “Maramba means, I don’t know.”

She looks at the postcard again and again. She closes her eyes, puts the postcard aside and later reads it once more. As if the text could have changed. After two days, she puts the postcard in the freezer.

Years later, a publisher reads her stories about Maramba. The publisher drinks his coffee black. The publisher says, “A good start. I know this is going to be a success.” She smiles and lights a cigarette.

The stories turn into a book. The book needs a cover. She finds the drawing with the long, red train. She peels an orange. She throws the peel out the window. A man curses at the peel falling from the sky. In his hands, he’s holding the brown mirror. She puts the drawing in the freezer.

Her name is Ella. His name is Kurt. Ella gets on her bicycle and rides off. Kurt, far away from Ella, is drawing a truck in a sketchbook. A woman with short hair is standing behind him.

“Tell me the truth,” says the woman.

“Which truth do you mean?” Kurt says.

 

From:   Paula Köhlmeier, Maramba. Erzählungen. © 2005 Paul Zsolnay Verlag Ges.m.b.H., Wien

The Fluid Land

Author: Raphaela Edelbauer
Translator: Alexandra Roesch

 

In the early hours of September 21st, 2007, I spilt around 200ml of coffee over my intrusively ringing mobile. It had demanded to be answered so suddenly and I had been so taken aback by the withheld number that I hadn’t had time to put down my mug. Irritated that my work had been interrupted, it took me a few seconds to realise who I was speaking to. On the line was a police officer, who, without beating about the bush, told me that my parents had died in a car accident the night before. ‘Died?’ I asked, although I had understood immediately. While I continued to stare at my article about vector spaces and saw the complex scalar products dance before my eyes, the police officer told me what had happened: the red Audi, whose registration plates had been used to identify my parents, must have veered off the road last night and surged like a mud slide across a gravel track to come down near the Syhrntal. The strange thing was, the officer said, that neither of them had any wounds or bruising. Although part of the car was damaged as a result of hitting the crash barrier, there was a lot to indicate that this hadn’t been the cause of death.

After the impact, the vehicle must have slid towards the slope infinitely slowly, rolling lazily into a supine position like a dying insect, eventually gliding, gently grating, across the ridge into the darkness below. The slide, hidden from the other drivers on the Semmering Pass by thick fog, had met its presumably silent end in an oak tree, said the police officer.

I was sitting in bed in my pyjama bottoms and bra, laptop open on my knees with the script of my inaugural address, and suddenly found myself in the middle of a painting with all the wrong perspectives. The alcoves of my flat, the parks outside my window, every chair, every shelf started to move, creaking, wedging themselves against one another. The man on the phone continued unperturbed, bringing his message to an end: it was, therefore, clear that it was not the impact that had led to their death, nor did (he emphasized this bit) the roadworks explain this tragic accident. The pathology report in a few days would give complete certainty as to the cause of death, the man said, and I could tell from his tone, which fluctuated between that of a traffic officer and that of a detective, that he too faced a situation like this for the first time. But by this point we had both mechanically said goodbye to each other and hung up.

I remained in my nightwear for an endless morning, shifting from my side to my back to my front, then back again. From my bed, I watched the signal phases of the traffic light, like a metronome, until I increasingly lost any hope that something would fundamentally change inside me. Instead I was overtaken by a notion which gradually became conviction: I had clearly long been part of a plan, a ceremony that had been determined before my birth, which would now unfold. A cosmic barrel organ had started up. All the parts had been assigned, the cogwheels meshed together, all the cylinders in the mechanics waited to be summoned for grief duty: obviously, I would arrange a funeral.

No sooner had I had this thought than I was able to take action. I got dressed: the new tights gleamed silkily when I removed them from the packet. I made coffee and opened an Excel document. Over the next hours I listed things that needed to be done, assembled people who would have to be informed in a mailing list, gathered the addresses of undertakers and selected allegories for the condolence cards. I got things moving and postponed my professional obligations. This meant first cancelling my lecture and deferring a meeting with my postdoctoral thesis supervisor.

‘No problem, Ruth, I will send out the confirmation of your compassionate leave straight away,’ the secretary at the institute said gently. ‘We’ll let the students know that your lecture will be a week later.’

Meanwhile it was twelve o’clock and, because it was Friday, the students from the Neue Institutsgebäude opposite rushed out and goose-stepped their way to the trams, suitcases with dirty laundry ready to be dumped for their Upper Austrian or Styrian mothers to put in the washing machine a few hours later. I on the other hand felt confined, as if my silent flat had constricted around me. I forced my breath into a rhythm, closed my eyes for a few minutes and waited until my pulse stabilised. And yet, pressure was released: I cried, loudly but briefly, thought of my parents, of my father’s tight hugs, my mother’s perfume, sitting together at the table all those years,  singing carols at Christmas time, of the disagreements – a thousand little moments poured over me completely randomly while I propped myself up on the bed. This all lasted for just a moment. As if my body was not able to hold the pain just yet, it disappeared as quickly as it had come, and emptiness took its place. Once again complete silence, except for the ticking of the gas heater.

It became imperative to do something about this feeling of being unwell. I took two Xanax from the mirrored cabinet in the bathroom, lay down on the sofa and wrapped myself up in a blanket. I was so exhausted from the last few hours that I finally drifted off: the sofa seeped blurrily into the living room wall and into the cloudy grey mood of the early afternoon.

When I came to, I could feel something pressing down on my back and moving. Hands went up and down my shoulders and attested to the fact that I’d had a shock. Indeed, I recalled: I’d opened the door to my aunt and two of my cousins, who had received the news shortly after me. Each of them had fastened their hair tightly in a bun at the back of their head and was dressed in black, so that all three of them looked completely identical. My aunt had placed her arm around me and put some food on the table that she’d brought with her, probably assuming that I hadn’t eaten all day.

‘Ruth, you know we can help you with the household and everything else. It’s the least we can do.’ My aunt was facing me, and yet it was as though there was a delay in her speech. We were soon engrossed in an earnest conversation about the funeral arrangements, when I dropped a glass that someone had filled with orange juice during my mental absence. I watched the liquid run unchecked beneath my sofa and couldn’t do anything to oppose it. The table slid away beneath my hands, I did not recognise the furniture, although it was mine. The tissues my cousins had pulled out, the constantly vibrating mobile phones, the solar disc wandering across the sky, the rhythmically falling tears from my and others’ tear ducts set the tempo, the bellows of my lungs activated into the empty room. The sequences had been broken from their logical proportions, I thought. You’ve had a shock, one of the cousins repeated pointlessly and stroked my hair going the wrong way – into my line of vision, instead of out.

Between trumpet blasts from her nose, full to bursting, my aunt explained that it had been my parents’ constant and indisputable will to be buried in Groß-Einland. ‘Groß-Einland,’ I repeated several times so as to recall this name that had slipped my mind for the longest time: ‘Groß-Einland, Groß-Einland, Groß-Einland.’ ‘Groß-Einland,’ the aunt declaimed as a final Amen, and then I jumped to my feet.

(Groß-Einland: I had last heard this name twenty-five years ago and rediscovered it that evening in a tingling déjà-vu that set my nerves racing. Like many people who have worked their way up from modest beginnings, my parents had spent their life trying to hide their rural background. Of course in their case this went much further than with most other people: as far as I could remember, we had never visited my parents’ home town – and as my aunt, my mother’s half-sister, had grown up in Graz and my father’s relatives had broken off all contact from the start, I didn’t know a single person who had ever been to Groß-Einland.)

I explained that I needed to set off straight away and that I would deal with everything else in Groß-Einland. I would go alone, immediately, and it was not up for discussion, I told my aunt. I wanted to find out if it would be possible to obtain a grave in the graveyard they had specified, otherwise it wouldn’t even be possible for their bodies to be transported. A restaurant needed to be organised, a level-access guesthouse for the older generation, doubtlessly also a small brass band and marble cherubs, I concluded and determinedly pushed the two cousins towards the door. I felt the urgent need to be alone. I was held by my shoulders, but I wriggled out of their grasp and uttered reassurances that immediately fizzled out.

‘Please call us tomorrow morning, otherwise we’ll worry about you,’ was the last thing I heard and then my aunt and her entourage disappeared down the staircase. I immediately started packing for my trip and ignored my incessantly ringing mobile. Lots of relatives wanting to express their condolences or extract information about the circumstances of the death, until, after about the fifth call, I decided to switch it off. Night, already approaching, was blurring the contours of the parquet floorboards on which I was piling my clothes. My luggage consisted of the following: five shirts, two blouses, two dresses, four pairs of trousers (one pair of shorts), a coat, seven pairs of socks, five pairs of knickers, four bras, two towels, sneakers, running shoes, high heels and knee-high boots, a laptop, Xanax, phenobarbital, modafinil, oxycodone, an MP3 player, ten books (Wittgenstein, Serner, Max Brod, Tristan Tzara, six textbooks) as well as a bag of toiletries. This was everything I would have with me for the next three years. At that moment, I wanted to cast off my flat like a pair of old shoes. I took several steps at once, hurried from the fifth to the ground floor and got in my car. This was how it had to be, I thought feverishly as I switched on the engine, it was my duty to arrange a dignified funeral right away.

As I left Vienna, I was seized by an incredible feeling of relief: a dull pressure had lifted from my chest. The fact that a large valley opened up before me near Alland seemed to be a coincidence, and I spiralled ever deeper into the blackened scenery. I briefly considered whether I should tell one of my friends about the events, but the notion was abhorrent. The streets were empty, and by 2 a.m. the motorway was nestling into the landscape which, given the surrounding darkness, I could of course only guess at. It was only when the mighty stone wall of the Semmering massif rose up before me that a shift took place. Like diving under a blanket: an ethereal, unfathomably green smell of conifers enveloped my brain. I had wound down all the windows and felt my car swell with the autumn air. It smelt so good and clean that the vanilla aroma of the air freshener suddenly bothered me – I tugged it off the mirror and threw it outside.

I took a haphazard left turn: I had no idea where I was actually headed. But yes, I did know: Groß-Einland, except I’d driven off without the faintest idea where Groß-Einland actually was. For support, I turned up the radio with Janet Jackson blaring out, but she was soon drowned out by the noise of the airflow that surged into the car. The air, saturated with moisture, whistled through the window; in the blackness that had descended, I was vaguely able to discern that the treetops were bending over. I had never been the best of drivers and now struggled to control the ancient Ford. I must have accidentally driven onto a logging road, as, from time to time, my wheels slipped as if I were travelling across bare earth, but there was not enough space to turn around. And then I did get back onto a tarmac road and I briefly thought I could see a signpost, but on closer inspection it turned out to be a large branch, and then I was heading down a gentle incline again. I felt hot, chased by the masses of land which displaced each other in an undulating movement. Then the road twisted up a hill. For the first time the whole truth hit home: both dead, both at the same time, on some bloody road to nowhere.

The more alpine the surroundings, the more detailed the waves moved through the craggy rocks, the steeper paths, the forests, even coarser now. I could see little wave ridges appear all over the fields, break, and then disappear again. The wind seemed to push the forest, the forest pushed against the fog, and the fog against the grasslands, which built up towards the clouds, putting them under pressure. And I was no less gripped by this than nature herself was: something that had kept me in this world up to now had been turned upside down. The entire land rose up beneath me; I was driving across the wave train of a liquid mass. My hands shook as they gripped the steering wheel, and the contractions of my tense body made the car lurch dangerously from side to side. I had to escape the grasp of the land, and the fact that I saw a sign for a lay-by at that moment was a stroke of fate.

As soon as I drove onto the paved area, the bizarre impressions stopped. This public convenience – the most banal of all places – led me back to reality. Behind the still almost opaque wall of rain, I made out a fixed table and benches, covered in used tissues and plastic cutlery. This man-made structure, although disgusting (half-eaten sausages, well-thumbed porn magazines and tampons had been thrown away on the pathways trodden through the hedges to answer calls of nature), saved me in this moment. The world had stopped swaying.

The engine had only been off for a minute before I started shivering, and because I assumed that the toilet block was heated, I grabbed my sleeping bag and waded through the soggy field to the little building. No feeling of disgust, disturbance or displacement. All that remained for me to do was to wedge myself on to the toilet seat and drift off to sleep.

When I sat up the following morning, only a moment seemed to have passed, but someone was kicking the door so hard that the entire place was shaking. It took a few minutes before I could feel my legs again, a few more to remobilise my seized-up spine, and a few more to venture towards the door, beyond which several voices were ranting. Finally, I unlocked the door. A burly man dressed in blue dungarees pushed his way into the cubicle so forcefully that I was quite simply thrown off track and immediately left the building. There was a massive queue; what’s more, I’d spent the night in the gents. I made my way to the car amid whistles and shouts – my neck was stiff, last night now only a strange memory in my head.

Even so, the air was mild, and while I wondered about this sudden surge of warmth, which mingled with the smell of freshly watered fields, I realised that I was in the forest. Surrounding the toilet block where I’d spent the night, in the midst of an otherwise heathery landscape, there were small groups of trees that merged on the horizon to form an ocean. The Wechsel mountains, I suddenly realised; and indeed, when I finally retraced last night’s odyssey on the map, I discovered that I must have landed in a gorge near Feistritz. The car had taken a bit of a battering – the exhaust and bumper were visibly damaged and were now held only inches above the ground by two narrow wires. I dug out the road atlas from the side door to find out where I needed to go. Groß-Einland was not listed in the index, and it seemed I was already too high up to have an Internet connection. I carefully went through each of the detailed maps that contained the Wechsel region once again, but this was no good either. So, a phone call: the operator gave me the number of the Lower Austrian state government, who then gave me the number of the local council. ‘Hello,’ I said, ‘I’m looking for a district called Groß-Einland in the Wechsel region.’

‘Groß-Einland?’ the lady said and forcefully typed the letters into her device. ‘No, there is no district under that name in Lower Austria.’

‘That can’t be right.’

‘But the Wechsel region borders on Styria – maybe the district is in their state. I’ll give you their number,’ the lady suggested. So this time I phoned the Austrian federal administration to pose the same question, but no, this town was not listed in her directory the lady there told me.

‘A consolidation, an incorporation perhaps?’ I asked hopefully. Pause. ‘No, the town of Groß-Einland never existed in Austria.’

I hung up without replying and sat silently on the car bonnet for a while. It was only now, when I needed to find it for the funeral, that I realized how little I actually knew about Groß-Einland. I only knew that it had to be somewhere in the Wechsel region, that much I had heard my parents tell others when they asked. But I hadn’t actually spoken to them about it for many years. Not because it would have been awkward for me, or off-limits: the past simply didn’t seem relevant to us. Holidays were the opportunity to dash off, ideally to flee the continent in an aeroplane with one’s eyes closed – but never to go back to one’s roots or to go skiing like everyone else, whom we secretly despised for it.

It was what was shared between the lines that dawned on me most clearly: I remembered how my mother had told me that you could climb down a ladder underground in Groß-Einland. ‘In a damp cave, at least ten or fifteen metres high, there were old aeroplane parts, which we made into dens as children. Metal doors, bulletproof glass, and in between wing panels that you could bounce up and down on,’ she had said.

And a no less magical story told by my father: when I was in primary school, we huddled together in front of the shadowy crackling fire in the woodstove in our living room and he talked about a man called Lumberjack Hans, who had bought a shed next to his parents’ house. It was winter, and whenever he raised the cup to his lips, my father dribbled a bit of his tea into his beard, which dripped onto my legs like from a stalactite.

Lumberjack Hans locked himself into his shed each night at ten o’clock sharp. My father had whispered into my ear that he collected the hearts of all kinds of mammals there – all lined up one next to the other in formaldehyde jars and among them a human heart – no one knew where it had come from. ‘And when we were boys,’ he said, ‘we threw stones at the window, silently dreading but also really excited at the idea that Hans would appear there with one of his preserving jars in his hand.’

It was the first of the rare moments that I would hear him talking about his own childhood, but what does a horror story like that actually reveal? I was completely lost.

 

Excerpted from Raphaela Edelbauer,  Das flüssige Land (Klett-Cotta, 2019).

 

 

 

Forever the Alps

Author: Benjamin Quaderer
Translator: Jozef van der Voort

 

Translator’s Preface
Für immer die Alpen is a picaresque, fictionalized autobiography centering on Johann Kaiser, a native of Liechtenstein who triggers an international scandal by stealing customer data from a bank and selling it to the German government. Kaiser is loosely modelled on the real-life figure of Heinrich Kieber, the whistleblower who triggered the 2008 Liechtenstein tax affair; however, the book has a broad sweep, taking in Kaiser’s troubled childhood in Liechtenstein; his admission to an exclusive private school in Spain; his international travels, involvement in criminal ventures, and abduction and torture at the hands of his erstwhile friends; and the theft of the data and the subsequent game of cat and mouse played with the Prince of Liechtenstein—all told through the eyes of an enjoyably unreliable, self-aggrandising narrator.

Quaderer tells the story with plenty of dry, deadpan humour and an absurdist sensibility reminiscent of David Foster Wallace, and Für immer die Alpen has some claim to be called the great Liechtensteinian novel.

This extract is taken from the beginning of the book and describes how Kaiser’s parents met, along with his earliest childhood memories.

 


        

               0.

In September 1962, Alfred Kaiser, a young amateur photographer from the Principality of Liechtenstein, went on a beach holiday. In Badalona, a suburb of Barcelona, he bought a few cans of beer, sat down on a wall by the seafront, and gazed out over the endless, nebulous blue. Above him, seagulls wheeled and called; in front of him, neon swimwear glowed against the sand. Accustomed as he was to being surrounded by mountains, which sharply contour the landscape and mark out precisely where one thing starts and another ends, he came to the realization that the sight of the sea frightened him. He drained his beer and took refuge in the darkness of a café, drawn in by its deep-blue awning. It smelled of stale smoke and chip fat, and a handful of Spanish men played pool while Alfred drank shot after shot of schnapps.

When he woke up the following morning, his head was pounding as if someone was digging up a road in there. Alfred found himself in a room containing nothing more than the mattress he was lying on. It was horribly draughty. First, he registered the unrendered walls; next, the lack of glass in the windows; and finally, the breathtaking view. What floor was he on? Alfred took a photo, but judging by the noise from his camera, he must have finished an entire roll of film the previous night. After finding his way down from the building site and eating a little lunch, he set off in search of somewhere to develop his pictures. Then he wandered the streets, eating the odd ice cream, and spent his evenings watching TV in his hotel room.

A few days later, Alfred found himself holding the best photos he had ever taken. The first two were of young men laying into each other with broken pool cues. After that came a smashed electric fan lying on a tiled floor; a bartop covered with patches of light; men in straw hats playing cards; several lobsters in an aquarium; a flashlit dog sleeping against an upturned pedalo; and his own name written in sand. The remaining photos were of a black-haired woman whose age Alfred found difficult to guess. She might have been fifteen, or nineteen, or maybe even twenty-five. She had delicate features and a slim, almost fragile body, but there was a hardness in her eyes. In what Alfred considered his best photo, she was standing under a street lamp and lifting her salmon-coloured top—which contrasted magnificently with her tanned skin—over her bellybutton. Alfred drew two conclusions from these photographs. First, he needed to turn his hobby into a career and become a professional photographer. And second, he needed to find this woman.

It wasn’t until the penultimate day of his holiday that he managed to track her down. The owner of an ice-cream shop recognized the photogenic woman as an employee in a market hall outside Badalona. Alfred caught a bus that took him to the edge of the city, then continued on foot until he reached a hall, where he saw people coming and going through a gateway. He wandered among the stalls, keeping his eyes peeled. Was that her? Cautiously, he approached and inspected the apricots on the stand, weighing one of them in his palm. Only when an angry voice barked at him in Spanish did he realize his hand was sticky. He hastily fumbled in his pocket for change to pay for the squashed fruit, but before he could find his wallet, a hand gripped him by the shoulder and spun him around. It was her! From the way she was talking to him, it seemed like she remembered him. Alfred smiled. The woman slapped him in the face. Her hand was very warm.

Neither of them said a word on the way to Badalona. Once they arrived at the bus station, the woman pointed at a bar at the other end of the car park. They sat down at a table in the corner, a man brought them two beers, and as soon as a glass was empty, he placed another full one beside it. Why isn’t the waiter taking the empty glasses away, Alfred tried to ask his companion, but his Spanish wasn’t up to the job. Silence fell. Four empty glasses, two full ones. The woman put her hand on her chest and said, ‘Soledad’. ‘Alfred,’ said Alfred. Six empty glasses, then eight, suddenly ten. Soledad stood up and said, ‘Tú.’ Alfred looked at her quizzically. ‘Pagar,’ she said, and Alfred paid. They didn’t go their separate ways that night. Alfred was standing bashfully beneath a streetlamp when Soledad dragged him into a doorway. He followed her up a dilapidated stairwell and into a bedsit apartment, where she pointed at a daybed by the wall.

Everyone thought Alfred had changed after his return to Liechtenstein. There was considerable surprise when word got around that this normally so apathetic man had applied for a position as a photographer with one of the country’s two daily newspapers, which was nothing to the surprise when the good-for-nothing actually got the job. The postman spoke of letters with Spanish stamps that he had recently started delivering to Alfred, whom no one had ever written to before, and regulars at the Café Matt muttered to each other that the heathen must have found God in Spain, as there could be no other explanation for why he had started dropping in on the priest since his return. Yet the real reason for Alfred’s visits was more profane. The priest, who had spent several years as a missionary in Guatemala, spoke Spanish. He translated Soledad’s letters for him, and he also replied in Alfred’s name. When Soledad wrote, ‘I’m pregnant,’ the priest translated it as ‘I can’t wait until we see each other again, my darling,’ and Alfred’s ‘I long for your thighs’ became, in the priest’s words, ‘I invite you to join me in Mauren.’ The fact that she didn’t intend to keep the child and wanted Alfred to send her money, the priest glossed as ‘I can’t afford to come to Liechtenstein,’ and Alfred’s ‘I want you’ was rephrased as ‘I’ll take good care of you and the baby.’ Alfred signed his name at the bottom, enclosed a train ticket, and took the envelope to the post office.

Soledad and Alfred spoke little until their wedding in May 1963. A month after Father Ritter had joined their hands in matrimony, Soledad gave birth to two children. The twins, Luise and Lotte, looked so similar that Alfred had trouble telling them apart. While he criss-crossed the country taking photos at various events, Soledad took care of the house and the kids. She learned German quickly, though once she could hold a conversation with her husband, she realized it would be better to continue their non-verbal communication instead. Their relationship was shaped by a special kind of magnetism: the mutual attraction between their bodies turned into repulsion the moment either of those bodies used its voice. As a result of the former, on the night of 31 March 1965 at 02.33 a.m., a tall baby boy came into the world at the hospital in Vaduz. That boy was me.

 

1.

How cold the world was. How forbidding and bleak. The maternity ward was shrouded in half-light. Raindrops beat against the windows. Alfred was sitting on the bed and rubbing his leg, having kicked the coffee machine on the hospital corridor in a fit of rage because it had swallowed his coin without giving him anything in return. In an attempt to make me laugh, he leaned over me and pulled a silly face, and in sheer horror at the prospect of having to spend the rest of my life with this man, I emitted a shriek that made the windows rattle in their frames. The shriek reverberated from the hospital building and thrummed around the belfry of the church, wresting twelve strokes from the bell inside. It forced its way under the door of the government building (the nice thing about Vaduz is how compact it is, everything so close together), swept through the parliamentary assembly hall, and barged into the office of Prime Minister Dr Gerard Batliner, who was fast asleep with his head on the desk. Several folders fell from the shelf, and Dr Batliner awoke with no idea who he was. The shriek roared on out into the capital, shattering the windows of the Huber jewellery store and racing up the slope to the castle atop its rocky bluff. It penetrated the heavy walls, wailing through the cellar that housed the treasures of the family von und zu Liechtenstein—the Picassos and Rembrandts, the Cranachs and Botticellis—and pressed on to the upper apartments, where it found the royal couple sleeping peacefully in their four-poster bed. Prince Franz Josef II cuddled up to Princess Gina in his sleep (he was the little spoon, she was the big one) and the shriek swept onwards, past the slumbering young princes and princesses and into the bedroom of the eldest son and heir to the throne, Hans Adam II, who snapped awake, aquiver with fear, the shriek still ringing in his ears, and pulled his blankets up over his nose. Then it slipped out into the night and soared up to the highest point in Liechtenstein—the summit of the Grauspitz, at 2,599 metres above sea level—where it exploded into a peal of thunder. Long afterwards, its echo could still be heard rumbling through the valleys: the data thief, the data thief is born.

‘Typical Aries,’ said the midwife with a smile. Alfred had moved to the window in a huff. The clouds parted, revealing a crescent moon that bathed the ward in silvery light.

‘That’s interesting,’ said the midwife, pointing at the sky. ‘Look, Herr Kaiser. There are several planets in the second house—the house of Taurus.’

‘Oh really,’ said Alfred.

‘You should know that the second house represents the world of material objects. The moon, Venus, Saturn, and the minor planet of Chiron are all here tonight.’

Alfred nodded listlessly.

‘The moon,’ explained the midwife, ‘stands for possessions and perseverance. Venus hints at an enterprising nature, as well as sensuality, while Saturn is a symbol of frugality, and Chiron stands for ambition and a need for security.’

‘You don’t say,’ said Alfred.

‘If we can believe what the stars are telling us, little Johann will go to great lengths to acquire wealth.’

Alfred pricked up his ears.

‘Johann will be a frugal person,’ the midwife went on, ‘who will become very rich through hard work.’

Alfred fumbled for my hand, and the midwife smiled knowingly. She never found out how accurate her prediction was: three years after my birth, she died in a skiing accident in the Swiss Alps.

The room I occupied for the first few years of my life had light-blue walls, though you could still faintly make out the previous pink paintwork. In the middle of the room stood a bed lined with wooden bars that seemed to reach up to the ceiling. I would lie in it and watch the shadows of the branches as they waved back and forth over the drawn curtains. It was like in Plato’s allegory of the cave.1 While the real world outside my bedroom was blooming in every imaginable colour, I—trapped in a cot—had no choice but to content myself with projections of reality. With sad, colourless shadows.

By day, it was light, and at night, it grew dark. Although I had become an expert in darkness over the previous few months, this darkness was different from any I had experienced before. This darkness had eyes. It had spines. When I turned to face the movement, the darkness began to coalesce into a body. Hands. The darkness had hundreds of hands, and even while it was pricking me from one side, it stuck a finger in my ear from the other. It tweaked my nose, pulled my toe, and when I opened my mouth to ask what this was all about, it whispered, ‘Stop screaming, you miserable traitor,’ and held yet another hand over my mouth. When the light returned, Mamá came, each hand gripping a pair of pigtails that were attached to two identical faces. Both of them had bushy eyebrows, full lips, and freckles over their cheeks, which were wet with tears. The missing front tooth in the mouth of the face on the left was the only way to tell it apart from the one on the right.

‘These are Luise and Lotte,’ said Mamá. ‘Your sisters.’

Only when she pulled the sisters’ pigtails did one of them speak. ‘Hello.’ The other added, ‘So nice of you to join us.’ ‘I’m Johann,’ I wanted to say, but I didn’t say anything, I just screamed. ‘You must be hungry,’ said Mamá, unbuttoning her blouse, and while I sucked on her nipple out of politeness, I saw the girls standing in the doorway. The one with the missing tooth slowly drew her outstretched index finger across her throat.

It was strange, having a ‘family’. Everyone apart from me had something to do. The twins worked in the ‘kindergarten’, Alfred worked as a ‘photographer’, and Mamá worked on me. She had pitch-black hair and the strange ability to bring things into existence via the simplest means. For example, she would say ‘chest’ and ‘drawers’, and something would turn into ‘wood’. When she said ‘change’ and ‘nappy’, an unpleasant smell would waft into my nostrils. Then she would say ‘talc’, and the smell would vanish. ‘Curtains’ meant light would come into the room. ‘Johann’ meant she was going to kiss me. But the best word of all was ‘door’, because it would open and leave me awestruck.

‘Lounge’, ‘kitchen’, ‘garage’. It was fascinating what you could find in a ‘house’. There were ‘carpets’, ‘cushions’, and ‘sofas’, ‘lights’ and ‘net curtains’, and just as ‘net curtains’ covered the ‘windows’, ‘outside’ covered the house. ‘Outside’ was called ‘Mauren’, and in Mauren, there were ‘trees’. There was a ‘sky’, and the white patches in it were ‘clouds’, and when the ‘neighbours’ wore ‘hoods’ over their ‘heads’, that meant water was going to fall out of the clouds. That was ‘rain’. Only ‘idiots’ went out in the rain. Like ‘Alfred’, for example. Alfred went out every day.

The strangest object in this house, with its near endless succession of strange objects, was the one kept in a room that Mamá called ‘my bedroom’. She opened the bedroom door, pointed at the wardrobe in the corner, and said, ‘Look’. A rectangular window was cut into the wood, and through it, you could look into the wardrobe. There were two people living inside it: a woman and a baby. How remarkably beautiful the woman was. And the baby too—what a remarkably beautiful baby. The woman seemed to think so, too. When she began to stroke the baby’s head, I felt something touch my hair. ‘That’s you,’ said Mamá, and the woman in the wardrobe pointed at me. ‘That’s me,’ she said, and the woman pointed at her. The baby looked confused. It reached out and pinched the woman’s cheek. Mamá’s skin was very warm. ‘My love,’ said Mamá. ‘When you’re big enough,’ she said, pointing at a photograph glued to the wood above the wardrobe window, ‘we’re going to move there.’ The picture showed a sun rising over a set of rooftops. ‘Spain,’ said Mamá. ‘Alfred promised.’ Was the woman in the mirror crying? ‘Do you understand?’ I gurgled. She kissed me on the forehead and said, ‘Genius.’ The baby gave me an imperceptible nod.

On days when the Liechtensteiner Volksblatt came out—Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays—Alfred would come to visit me. He would walk into the room with the paper tucked under his arm and shake my hand in greeting. Then he’d show me the photos he’d taken and read me articles he thought were particularly well written. ‘It’s important to watch out for communists,’ he told me one Tuesday when he brought up the subject of the Soviet satellite that had begun orbiting far above our heads a few days previously. ‘The Soviets are everywhere.’

One night, I noticed a red light blinking in my room and I clenched my hands into fists. ‘Stay where you are,’ I yelled at the Soviet satellite, which must have come to take me away. I climbed out of my cot and followed the glow until I reached a room where Alfred was asleep on a sofa. The satellite was whirring around his head. I cautiously approached until I was just a few inches away from it. I could feel its warmth, could feel it throbbing, but when I tried to catch it and smash it, the room transformed back into my bedroom. The darkness had vanished. It was daylight and I was back in my cot.

When I tried to tell Mamá about the satellite, she interpreted my nonsensical babble as a sign of hunger and stuck a nipple in my mouth. With the break of day, all the things I’d been able to do effortlessly the night before—walking on two legs, speaking actual words—had regressed to the usual immobility and meaningless noise.  Maybe the Soviets weren’t so bad after all, I thought, and folded my hands like Alfred did whenever he wanted something.

Places seemed to differ in their nature. The places I visited with Mamá were the unremarkable ones. Those were the places of light. They seemed to confine me in a straitjacket, while the places that came into existence with the fall of darkness offered me complete freedom of movement. I would run through cornfields; fly over forests on the backs of birds, or under my own power; explore the depths of the sea; and call my name from the tops of mountains. There was nothing I couldn’t do in the dark. Over time, I realized that darkness was a condition I could bring about myself by closing my eyes. Only I didn’t always manage to fall asleep. The more I tried, the more restless I became, and when I grew restless, I started start to scream, and because Mamá couldn’t stand my screaming, she said, ‘Let me show you a trick.’ I looked at her in anticipation. ‘One,’ she said, and paused. Then she said, ‘Two.’ What kind of trick was this? ‘Three.’ Because she, ‘Four,’ ignored my puzzled look, I decided at ‘Five’ to play along with her game. ‘Six.’ What did I have to lose? ‘Seven.’ ‘Eight.’ ‘Nine.’ Her voice, ‘Ten,’ grew quieter with each word she spoke, ‘Eleven,’ and my initial irritation, ‘Twelve,’ gradually gave way, ‘Thirteen,’ to repose. ‘Fourteen.’ ‘Fifteen.’ ‘Sixteen.’ In a way, it was even nice, ‘Seventeen,’ to have someone sitting next to me, ‘Eighteen,’ doing nothing, ‘Nineteen,’ but speak words, ‘Twenty,’ that I didn’t understand. ‘Twenty-one.’ My eyes closed. ‘Twenty-two.’ The distance between Mamá and me expanded. ‘Twenty-three.’ It wasn’t unpleasant, ‘Twenty-four,’ because I knew, ‘Twenty-five,’ that she was there. ‘Twenty-six.’ Always there. ‘Twenty-seven’ came from a distance, while ‘Twenty-eight’ I heard only very faintly. ‘Twenty-nine.’ How tired I was. ‘Thir—’.

I only came back into the light of the world to eat. Summer had arrived, and I’d just finished conjugating the irregular verbs when my ravenous hunger compelled me to leave my rehearsal space. The twins’ faces loomed above me like two suns.

‘Mamá isn’t here,’ said Lotte.

‘So we’re going to feed you,’ added Luise.

While Luise fetched the light-blue pillow with the fish printed on it, Lotte lifted me out of the cot and laid me on the floor. Then they tossed the pillow back and forth over my head and I tried to catch it, squealing with glee.

‘Do you want the pillow?’ asked Lotte.

I laughed.

‘Here you go,’ said Luise, and put it over my face.

‘Do you know who this room belonged to before you?’ I heard one of the twins ask. My perfectly articulated ‘No’ was muffled by the pillow, which pressed down more firmly. It was getting harder to breathe, and the darkness no longer brought me any joy. I tried to lift the pillow from my head, but I wasn’t strong enough yet. Suddenly, all was bright. I gasped for air and vomited. Alfred was standing in front of me with a pair of pigtails in each hand, dragging the screaming twins away from me like rabid dogs. I closed my eyes and counted to thirty. There was nothing to keep me here, in this world.

 

Excerpted from Benjamin Quaderer, Für immer die Alpen.  Luchterhand Literaturverlag, 2020.

 

37,112 FEET ABOVE THE SOUTH PACIFIC OCEAN. APRIL 1992.

Author: Lennardt Loß
Translator: Helen MacCormac

 

Shortly before dental technician Hannes Sohr survived the worst catastrophe of his catastrophic life, he cut his index finger on the penultimate page of an in-flight shopping catalogue advertising a pencil made of Californian cedar wood for $179.99, duty-free. Sohr tore out the page and used it to bandage his finger.

The rear emergency exit was situated six rows behind Sohr’s seat. He’d counted the headrests one by one as he boarded the plane and had written down the number on the back of his hand. He was following the advice of a pilot he’d received years ago, pilots being among the few people in uniform Sohr was prepared to listen to.

“If there’s a fire on board,” the pilot had said, “the air-conditioning sucks in the smoke and distributes it evenly throughout the aircraft. The emergency lighting in the aisle is no longer visible. Anyone who knows the number of rows to the next emergency exit has a higher chance of survival.” Sohr remembered commenting that for the most part, planes are in the air. And that at 35,000 feet certain death would be waiting on the other side of any emergency exit regardless of the survival rate. The pilot had paused. Then he’d said, “Better than suffocating, eh?” Sohr had counted the rows of seats ever since.

After eight rows he came to a halt. He was holding his bleeding index finger wrapped in the catalogue page out in front of him like a gun and obviously unsettled the young woman standing outside the toilet. She took a step back, opening her mouth as she did so. Her central incisors were longer than those on either side.

“Do you want to go first?”

“Excuse me?” Sohr was thirty-nine years old and deaf in his left ear.

“Would you like to go first?”

“Me?”

The woman pointed to the toilet and to the catalogue page that was turning red. Sohr nodded, quietly adding, “Yes, please.” As he locked the door and the red “occupied” sign showed up, flight LH510 should have started its descent on Buenos Aires.

Sohr held his finger under the tap. He popped a painkiller in his mouth. He had planned on taking three during the flight. This was number four.

His left arm and back had suffered second degree burns at some point. The skin was scarred and numb. A .25 ACP cartridge from a Walther PPK had been lodged between his stomach and spleen for the past seventeen years. The entry wound had healed years ago, but the projectile continued to inch its way towards his lungs. He had six months left.

Four hours before Sohr jumped the toilet queue, flight LH 510 reached the Brazilian coast. Shortly afterwards, the contact to the tower in Recife cut out. The Airbus A340 disappeared from the radar as the flight attendants started serving Butter Cake.

There was a veterinary surgeon living in the north of Buenos Aires who specialised in gunshot wounds. Sohr had spoken to him on the phone and had managed to beat him down to a fee of 4,500 $ for the operation. Back home, he would probably have been arrested as soon as the surgeon had finished sewing him up. There were no records of a Hannes Sohr living in Germany with a .25 ACP cartridge fired from a police weapon lodged in his gut. But there was someone called Carl Fuchsler, who had been wanted for the past seventeen years. The charges were printed on the warrant in capital letters: “PIPE BOMBS” and “RED ARMY FACTION TERRORIST”.

Sohr looked up. The continuous drone of the engines had ceased. It was so silent in the cabin, he could hear his heart beating. B’dum. Pause. B’dum. Then he hit the ceiling.

At 23:32 hours, flight LH 510 crashed into the Pacific. Nine passengers survived the impact. Seven were able to free themselves from the sinking wreck and swim to the surface. One of them was Hannes Sohr.

The tail-end of the plane stuck vertically out of the sea, kerosene burned on the water. Sohr would have drowned before long, if it hadn’t been for a coincidence that saved his life. The impact had torn business class window seat 9A off its rails, and a wave washed it towards him. Sohr grabbed hold of it and clung on for dear life.

Her voice was louder than the other survivors.

“HELP!”

Pause.

“HELP!”

He squinted, listening to the dark sea. Nothing. Sohr had done some yelling in his time. When the first pipe bomb he’d built exploded for example. When the hearse heading towards Stammheim Prison drove past. But now he yelled louder than he’d ever done before: “HERE!”

Suddenly, she was swimming beside him: the woman who’d let him jump the queue for the toilet. She grabbed hold of his lower arm, he grabbed hers. As seat 9A drifted away from the wreckage, the cries of the other survivors slowly died away.

After the Airbus had lost radio contact to the tower in Recife, it had flown across Peru and out over the Pacific Ocean. There was enough kerosene for four hundred miles in the tanks.

Sohr spent the first short night on the Pacific in a strange state of semi-consciousness. Not awake. Not fully aware. He’d hooked his arm around the arm of the seat as if he were trying to strangle it. His belly and legs dangled into the sea. He wasn’t cold. The water temperature seldom dropped below twenty-seven degrees Celsius in this part of the ocean and would increase during the day.

He looked down at himself. He’d lost one of his Derby shoes. That annoyed him for a moment. Left and right there was nothing but water. It was just blue in fact. There was no dividing line on the horizon. The blue sea merged imperceptibly with the blue sky.

Opposite him, close to the other armrest, the young woman looked up. Her eyes: bloodshot red, inflamed from of the salt water. Her nose dented, possibly broken. She was missing an incisor. At a loss for words, Sohr said the first thing that came to mind. The contrast to the horrors of the past few hours could hardly be starker. “Hello.”

“Hi.”

“I’d get that replaced as soon as possible if I were you.”

“What?”

“Number twelve.” Sohr tapped his right lateral incisor with his fingernail.

“Are you a dentist?”

“Sort of.”

“Dental assistant then?”

“Dental technician.”

On the first day of his apprenticeship, in the autumn of 1969 at the tender age of sixteen, Sohr had fallen in love: with the rattling grinding machines in the laboratory, with the plastic strips and thick layers of plaster dust that covered the linoleum floor, with everything to do with this loud, dirty, wonderful occupation. Then he got to meet the lab leader, Frank Graupner.

“Do you think they’ll find us here?” the young woman asked.

“They’ll have sent out search parties ages ago.”

“The water’s as warm as pee.”

“So?”

“We were flying across the Atlantic.”

“And?”

“The Atlantic isn’t warm.”

“Keep an eye out for a plane,” Sohr said.

“Can they even see us?”

“I expect so.”

“What height do planes fly at?”

“No idea.”

“Too high?”

“For what?”

“To see us, of course.”

“No.”

“You sure?”

“No.”

Frank Graupner, head of the laboratory, had shaken Sohr’s hand and sent him straight to the next dentist: “Fetch the dental casts,” he’d said. Sohr, who was still called Karl Fuchsler in those days, went at once without waiting to hear how he was supposed to carry the casts. He’d been so surprised that a man with skinny arms and yellow eyes could have such a firm handshake, he’d forgotten to ask.

Years later, when cirrhosis of the liver was listed as an underlying cause of death on his death certificate, Graupner was found to have caught hepatitis B from the casts. Until the seventies, it was common practice to carry them back to the lab, still covered in saliva, blood and bits of food, without wearing protective gloves.

At the end of his first apprenticeship year, Frank Graupner had called Karl into his office and asked him if he wanted to take over the lab as soon as he’d finished his training. Sohr, who had no desire to do so, started calling his boss “SS-Graupner” behind his back, much to the delight of the other trainees. Of course, no one in the laboratory knew how apt that nick name was. Graupner had a quarter-inch-sized tattoo on the inner side of his left upper arm, identifying him as a member of the SS-Totenkopfverbände, also known as the Death’s-Head Units. “AB”. That blood-group tattoo was the reason he ended up dying from hepatitis B. He hadn’t seen a doctor since the eighth of May, 1945, for fear of being discovered.

“Are you?” Sohr started to say and then fell silent.

“Am I what?”

“Were you on your own? On the plane?”

“Yes,” she said. “And you?”

“Me, too.”

It had taken Graupner another year to give up on him, after he’d coined the nickname. It was the last day of his apprenticeship exams. Sohr had spent a week moulding crowns and bridges, milling dentures, and casting metal bases. Graupner had been expecting him to pass with distinction, but he’d only achieved a merit.

“What’s wrong with you?” Graupner had hissed before smashing one of the plaster models on his desk. Sohr was offended. There was a good reason why he’d not done as well as expected.

The day before, on the fourth of April,1972, three bombs had exploded in Frankfurt. One in a department store, one in front of the 6th Police Department, and a final one outside the American Consulate General. Several persons were injured and one killed: Klaus Brandau, aged thirty-nine, a taxi driver who had been waiting for a customer outside the police station. Sohr requested a meeting with his contact person at once to find out which of the bombs was his. The Red Army Faction (RAF) refused to say, but he knew without being told. A week after Graupner smashed his plaster model, Sohr attended the funeral service for Klaus Brandau. Butter Cake was served at the reception.

“What’s your name, by the way?”

“Hannes.”

“I wouldn’t want to presume?”

“It’s fine.”

“Hannes, then. I’m Marina.”

It was mad, Sohr thought, not to tell Marina his real name and to keep on lying, now that he had unexpectedly survived a plane crash and was floating about in the sea. Then he thought again. It was mad not to lie. His paranoia had saved him from Stammheim Prison. And from East Germany, which would have been worse.

“Can I ask you something?” Marina said.

“Of course.”

“Do you need the loo?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Need to urinate?”

“No, I mean yes, not too bad.”

“I just did.”

“That’s okay.”

“I know that,”

“No need to feel ashamed.”

“I’m not.”

“Well then?”

“I’m wondering if it was a mistake.”

It was all Erich Honecker’s fault. He was the reason Sohr had had to book a flight to Argentina. If Honecker had run his country properly, Sohr thought, the Wall would still be standing. And if the Wall were still standing, the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) would never have discovered ten RAF terrorists hiding out in East Germany. But Honecker was a loser. And so the BKA had hunted down the GDR dropouts over the years and arrested them one by one. They’d all talked. About Jürgen Ponto and Hans Martin Schleyer, about automatic rifles and maybe also about pipe bombs. Sohr had decided to have the bullet removed in Argentina. As far away from Europe, the RAF, and his past as possible.

Marina carried on talking. “It might have been a mistake. Look up. What can you see?”

“Nothing but blue.”

“See?”

“What?”

“What happens if there isn’t a plane?”

“There will be.”

“I’m thirsty already.”

“Marina.”

“I’m just saying.”

About an hour later they spotted a black dot in the sky. It grew larger, more distinct. They could make out the fuselage, wings, and engines. The plane was directly overhead. They yelled at it. It continued on its way. A minute passed and then another one and one more. The vapour trail in the sky began to dissolve.

“We’re going to die.” Marina said.

He was hit by the bullet in March 1975. The attack that had probably turned him into a murderer had happened more than three years ago. In the meantime Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader had been locked up in Stammheim Prison. Sohr had had no further contact to the RAF after Klaus Brandau’s funeral. He’d moved to Wiesbaden, where he had worked his way up to becoming the deputy director of a dental laboratory. He’d only been back to Frankfurt once. To visit Klaus Brandau’s grave.

On the return journey, someone had approached him wearing dark sunglasses and an army green parka. He looked so obviously like a member of the RAF that nobody would ever suspect him of being a terrorist. His name was Bernhard Bachhuber, he spoke with a slight Southern Bavarian accent and said something about a “tremendous act of liberation.” And “responsibility and accountability.” And “overt aggression.” Sohr listened carefully before he said, “Three bombs for three thousand. Deutschmarks.” Bachhuber called him an “imperialist swine” and said the handover would take place at Oberursel station in the Taunus Mountains.

The sun was vertical in the sky above the Pacific, and Sohr’s face, shoulders, and arms were already badly burnt, when Marina’s teeth started to chatter.  Her lips had turned blue.

“Oh shit!” Sohr said.

Ages nine to fifteen, Sohr had attended the boys’ school which was part of the ‘Krügerhof’ correction centre in Rengershausen, North Hesse, where he grew up. He knew almost the whole of the Gospel according to St. John by heart, but he had no idea why Maria was suffering from exposure.

He grabbed hold of her left arm with both his hands and gradually pulled her up onto the seat. He gasped for air, the seat wobbled precariously, sinking further into the sea, but at last he had Marina lying on 9A.

“Can you hear me?”

She groaned.

“We are starting to cool down. I’m bigger than you. Heavier. So I can last longer.” As he spoke, he undid his belt with one hand and fastened it to the armrest. “The seat can only carry one of us at a time. We need to take it in turns. One of us in the water, the other one on the seat. Whoever’s in the water straps themselves to the seat with my belt.”

They’d caught him in Oberursel. As he’d handed the sports bag with the pipe bombs to Bachhuber, three undercover cops at the end of the platform had pulled their guns. Even before Sohr realised what was happening, Bachhuber had opened fire. Sohr yelled, “Bombs!” as he was hit by the bullet. Bachhuber yelled, “Bombs!”, too. He pressed the sports bag against Sohr’s chest and pointed his gun at it. The undercover cops lowered their weapons, and Bachhuber dragged Sohr over to the car park. The police followed them at a safe distance. Without firing a shot. But when Bachhuber opened the door of his Opel GT and heaved Sohr onto the passenger seat, bullets shattered the rear window. They still managed to get away. The investigators had been following Sohr, not Bachhuber, who’d travelled to the meeting point on the tram. Their police car was still standing in Wiesbaden.

For the next three months Sohr stayed at number “104,” a safe house in a block of high rise flats in Erfstadt, North Rhine-Westphalia, which the Faction used as a field hospital. Most of the time, he played monopoly with Bachhuber. Foggy with painkillers and antibiotics, Sohr always lost. During one game, six members of their group stormed the West German Embassy in Stockholm. They took twelve hostages and murdered two of them. Then their pipe bombs went off by accident. Two terrorists died. Sohr never knew if it was one of his bombs. After three months in “104” he was given a new identity and never heard from the RAF again.

The sky above 9A was turning crimson. Marina appeared to be asleep. And, all of a sudden, Sohr was overcome with a feeling he hadn’t experienced for weeks. Joy. The cut, his aching wrists, his sunburned neck, and his parched throat didn’t bother him any more.

Before the flight, he had lain awake for nights on end, bathed in a pool of sweat, his heart racing for no apparent reason. Here in the Pacific, he finally understood: it was the bullet. The operation. The imminent extraction. That bullet was the only thing that still connected him to Carl Fuchsler. Hannes Sohr had always despised Hannes Sohr, his pointless life, the paranoia, and all the lies. Almost delirious now, he swore to keep the bullet inside him and die as Carl Fuchsler.

When Sohr woke up again, he was lying on seat 9A. His lungs were burning. Marina must have swapped places with him. He glanced at her. She was strapped to the armrest humming a tune Sohr thought he knew. A nursery rhyme that the older children at the Krügerhof used to sing.

“You’ve got a temperature,” Marina said.

Sohr touched his lips with his index finger.

“Want me to be quiet?”

He shook his head. The slightest movement exhausted him.

“Thirsty?”

Marina undid the belt and carefully pushed herself away from seat 9A. She swam to the other side, pulled off one of his socks and tossed it onto his belly.

“We’ll wait until it’s dried.”

Sohr didn’t understand.

“Then you piss on it. And wring it out in your mouth.”

He understood that.

The urine dampened the pain in his throat, and in his chest and collar bone. It did nothing to quench his thirst.

Sohr’s first ever attempted escape was in 1962. He climbed through an open window into the correction centre kitchen, filled a saucepan with water, and set it on the stove. The break-in was the first part of a carefully constructed plan. The second part succeeded several minutes later. His left arm and his back were covered in second- and third-degree burns. Part three failed. He had assumed a serious injury would mean he got transferred to hospital and would be able to escape from there. Instead, he was taken to the correction centre’s own sick bay.

“Do you think there’ll be a plane today?” Maria asked.

“Who gives a damn?”

“What?”

“Who gives a damn?”

“So we are going to die?”

“What does it matter?”

“I was on my way to visit my father,” Marina said. “The papers call him the ‘Car Park King of Brandenburg’.”

“Argentina, you mean?”

“Nope. Brandenburg. He’s expanding.”

“That’s nice.”

“He’s called Ferdinand Palm.”

Sohr was ashamed of himself for being so obnoxious, pessimistic, for howling.

“Though Ferdinand Palm’s not his real name.”

“What?”

“Marcel. His real name is Marcel.”

“It’s terrible.”

“That’s why he changed it. ‘Ferdinand’ sounds richer somehow, he said. Once he’d built his third multi-storey car park.”

Sohr didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. One of them talked, and the other one listened.

“Marina, the East Germans, the ‘Ossis’, are going to start buying cars now, and they’ll want to park them somewhere nice and safe. He’s always saying things like that. He’s a poor bastard, really.”

Then it was Sohr’s turn. He told her about the youth correction centre. And the day a group of students had gathered outside the gates. A young man who looked South American had grabbed a megaphone and had delivered a speech, mumbling every word. Sohr had never heard the vocabulary he used before, but he sounded nothing like the Sisters at the correction centre. The next day, twenty boys ran away. One of them was Hannes Sohr. In Frankfurt, he met the young man again, who introduced himself as Andreas Baader and found Sohr a place to stay with a friend. Directly above Frank Graupner’s laboratory. On the first evening, Sohr asked what time he was allowed to use the shower. “Any time you like,” Baader’s friend replied. Sohr thought he was joking.

Marina noticed the fish first. There were thousands of them, swimming beneath 9A.

“Fucking hell!” She said.

Sohr let himself drop backwards into the sea. The fish brushed his body. All he had to do was hold out his hands, and he was able to catch one. He and Marina clubbed the fish to death on the armrest and threw them onto the seat. In less than a minute the seat cushion was stained red with blood. In less than three, the shoal was gone. They held on to the armrests and counted their catch. Nine fish.

“I’m covered in scratches,” Marina said.

Sohr looked at his arms. The fish scales had lacerated his skin, too.

Marina squeezed her fingers down the gills and ripped the fish open. She pulled out its intestines and handed it to Sohr. The meat was cold and mealy. After a few bites, he wasn’t thirsty anymore.

That’s when he said it. So fast, he mumbled:

“I used to make bombs. Pipe bombs. For the RAF.”

“Who?”

“The RAF.”

“The what?”

“The Red Army Faction.”

Marina stared at him for a second. For two. Three. Four.

“Forget it.” Sohr said and helped himself to another fish.

The storm came out of nowhere. Lightning was followed immediately by a clash of thunder. The current grew stronger, soon raindrops like bullets were pelting down on 9A. Sohr stuck out his tongue. Another flash of lightning. A crash. Saltwater towering over him. The wave engulfed their seat. The sheer force of it combined with his own mortal fear slammed his jaws shut. He bit off part of his tongue. Saltwater mixed with blood in his throat and shot down his windpipe.

Marina screamed.

They were back on the surface. He threw up a piece of tongue. The second pounding wave struck 9A even harder and dragged them further under water. Sohr realised then that he and Marina were causing the seat to sink. They were too heavy. 9A could only carry one of them.

His mouth flew open. He let go of 9A.

And then the world stopped. Sohr could see his own motionless face. His arms, his hands. 9A up above. The surface of the water. Lightning. Rain. And the storm clouds and the sun.

He swam towards the surface. After a couple of strokes, he bumped his head on her foot. He grabbed hold of it. Held on. He dug his fingernails into her flesh. Then the first kick. She kicked him with all her might. Again and again. Kicked his head, his shoulders, and his nose. His lungs filled with saltwater. And then suddenly, close by, suspended between the last rising bubbles, he saw a pencil made of Californian cedar wood for $179.99, duty-free.

 

Lennardt Loß,  “11,312 KILOMETER ÜBER DEM SUDPAZIFIK. APRIL 1992.”  in Und andere Formen menschlichen Versagens (Other Forms of Human Failure).  Weissbooks w. 2019, Unionsverlag Taschenbuch, 2020.

Across Time in my Room

Author: Alfred Goubran
Translators: Thomas Ahrens and Edward Larkin

 

Snow is the blood of spirits.
Graffiti, anonymous

February. Winter’s autumn. The days grow longer, but he hardly notices.

He is used to the darkness, the nights, the shadows, the pale light between sunrise and sunset, and to the lead-colored sky in the morning when he returns to his room just beyond the city limits. Center City ends at the tracks. That’s where he always decided whether to take the underpass or, if he still had enough money, to follow the tracks to the train station to have breakfast in the cafeteria there. Whenever I follow him on this path, I see the sun rise over the tracks. A mango-colored haze mixes with the fumes of the city. Below, the rail cars. Covered, pontoon-shaped platforms. The clocks. The shouts in the haze. The brakemen, the switchmen, and those who walk the tracks. I know all of them. I lived there one summer. The workers didn’t bother us. But at daybreak we had to leave the station. So we rolled up our sleeping bags and went down to the river to eat breakfast at Miros’s place. Miros was a gypsy – at least he said he was – who repaired old cars, refrigerators, and radios. Sometimes he found work in the city – painting, helping people move, odd jobs. If you didn’t have much money or couldn’t afford a professional, you called Miros. He rented a house from Jacky, who continued to live on the property in what had once been a tool shed. Jacky was a cripple, an alcoholic, and a psychopath; his legs consisted of two stumps, roughly ten centimeters each. It was said that he had thrown himself in front of a train, but no one knew for sure, and no one wanted to ask him. If you knew Jacky, you made sure to stay out of his reach, no matter how innocuous the conversation seemed to be. The story of the two Jehovah’s Witnesses who had inadvertently erred onto his property was absolutely believable: Jacky pounced on them from his wheelchair, beat them to a pulp, and choked one of them until he lost consciousness. Even Miros’ children kept their distance. The smallest gesture of pity toward him was extremely dangerous. The only person that Jacky allowed to get near him was Miros’ wife. She visited him in the shed, cleaned it up, and looked after him. “He is in pain,” she said. Some mornings she found him lying on the ground in front of the shed. He had been “dancing” again. Sometimes, when he got drunk, he lifted himself out of his wheelchair, walked on his hands, rolled and hopped around, cursing and swearing all the while, and attacked anyone who approached him. And when it got bad, he would climb onto the flat roof of the shed and scream and howl until he lost his voice, or until he fell asleep, exhausted. If he still refused to come down from the roof the next day, Miros’ wife had to send up what he needed. But this never lasted more than two days.

Jacky was so unpredictable that the hospital didn’t want to treat him anymore. Even the police left him alone. As far as I know, Miros and his wife no longer live there. I have no idea who is looking after him now. Maybe no one. But places like this – and they can be found everywhere – are attracting more and more people, people in transition, people who live on the margins of society, beyond the safety net. I have seen whole communities come into being this way. In the south, during the summer months, vagrants randomly descend on some obscure cove. They arrive with their sleeping bags and converted trucks. Some of them sleep in their cars, others in tents; cooking areas, toilets, and the water station are all improvised. By the time the authorities come to disperse them, they have already scattered and disappeared. These places are time zones that have come into existence on the margins of the civilized world. They are home to those who have not quite fully fallen out of society. – There are other places reserved for the ones who are truly broken, disillusioned, or have been otherwise discarded. We always sought to avoid these people, as well as the public soup kitchens, the homeless shelters, the free clothing programs, the job centers, and the welfare agencies. It is certainly possible that we may need to make use of their services one day. Regardless of one’s situation, anyone can  “hit rock bottom.”

But not that other thing.

***

At that time I thought I could let him go. The dropout, the good-for-nothing. Or I could take him some place where he couldn’t find his way back on his own. It didn’t have to be a horrible place; it might even be a place where life would be better for him. Somewhere in the south. I suggested Morocco. And he seemed to like the idea. He hadn’t seen much of the world. He’d never been out of this small town. Had spent his childhood in a house that had a back yard. His parents were always too busy for him. He was often left to his own devices. School bored him. He hardly took notice of the teachers. Adults, parents, grandparents, the priest, the nursery schoolteacher – they were all just extras in his childhood. He liked to read, explore the surrounding areas on his bike, and, during school vacations, he loved to watch afternoon movies on TV. He would close the curtains and sit alone in the cool, dark room. When he was twelve, he began going to the movies on weekends, but he didn’t tell his parents. He was always able to find money somewhere in the house. The friends he spent time with were as unreal as the adults; they were miniature colleagues, who shared a similar fate, who sat next to him in school, who went swimming with him or played soccer. He never took them to the movies. Or on his excursions. When something was forbidden, he did it alone. That only changed later, when he met other like-minded people. The first adult who was really able to reach him was his math teacher, his homeroom teacher, who confronted him in the hallway about some difficulties he was having. To be precise, he only uttered one sentence, a question that pierced him; his response was to immediately stop coming to school. For six months he had been living in a small room that his father had once purchased, “as an investment.” By and large, his parents were not troubled by the fact that he had quit school. They listened calmly to his explanation, which was nothing more than an excuse, and nodded when he mentioned his plans to them; “all things considered,” they found it quite reasonable that he wanted to become independent.

“I can’t learn anything more at school,” he had said. The sentence stuck with him, resurfacing in his memory from time to time. It was one of those adult sentences that sounded better when it was said aloud before other people. He had no idea what he was going to do with his life. If someone asked him about his plans, he would just ramble on. Or he’d make something up on the spot. Just as he did on tests at school when he had not studied for them. Only now, it didn’t matter. What he said had no consequences.  It meant nothing as long as he didn’t want something from someone else. And as long as somebody else didn’t want something from him. Basically, no one, he thought to himself, wants to know anything about anyone else. That’s just the way it is. Every man lives for himself . . .

For him, this entailed a life without obligation, without rules, without strong social ties, a life that amounted to nothing more than chance encounters, a life that alienated him from the average people with their routines and soulless business dealings. For how were their lives any different from business deals? And the currency for these deals was their own short lives. There was no other currency. There may be no original sin, but you can certainly inherit a debt: the life that you forgo, the unfulfilled life, the life not lived, the life that you have saved up for some other purpose. But, in any case, it was a life that remained within your comfort zone and that someone else, coming after you, could redeem. Someone who is dumb enough to take on this burden and then cancel the debt with his own life. For life: a fate congealed into hard cash; every euro, a promissory note. How much, Schatzi? Everyone has their price, and everyone is in debt to others. Without being asked. That is what social means. Other people’s burdens. But what was his burden? His promissory note? – He did not know. Every day his life led him deeper into the night, to discotheques and late-night bars, to brothels, beer halls, and obscure lounges. He became friendly with the owners, the bouncers, and the cocktail waitresses; he got to know the whores and their pimps, the thugs, the dealers, the gamblers, the insomniacs, the drunkards, and the losers. And even there he sensed the world of working people. There were the seasonal laborers and construction workers who had exhausted themselves on some construction site during the week and then worked on their single-family homes on the weekend. There was great solidarity among them; everyone helped each other. And when they went out drinking, seven or eight of them together, there was always a brawl. The people of the night gathered in just a few places in this small town. Conflict was inevitable. The “normal people” could be seen in the discotheques on the weekend; only during the ball season did they inadvertently stray into the late-night bars with any regularity. Girls in fairy-tale ballroom dresses, high school students in their first suits drinking schnapps for the first time and, more crazy than drunk, trying to act like men in front of their dates – at the wrong place. They often laughed at the eccentrics they saw there. Strange characters. They laughed at him too. He was by himself. At first, he was bothered by the giggling and whispering of the girls, who were not much younger than he was. The longer it lasted, the more unsure of himself he felt. He was ashamed but didn’t know what he should be ashamed of, or why. He felt defenseless, powerless, and was about to leave when Maggie sat down at his table. She had been a hooker but had worked her way up to manager. She placed two glasses of cognac on the table and offered him a cigarette. When Maggie glanced at the hyenas at the nearby table, they were suddenly transformed into little girls, little doves whose beaks sipped awkwardly from their Prosecco glasses while the boys with sweaty faces stared at the tabletop. Children dressed up. A birthday party for kids at an inappropriate place. At an inappropriate time. Nothing more . . .

“You okay?”

He nodded. They toasted. Maggie downed her drink, and, holding a lit cigarette in her hand, returned to her station behind the bar. That’s when he realized that he belonged there. It would be an overstatement to say that he felt accepted, but the people there liked him and had grown accustomed to him. His parents did not know the people and the places in this world, the world in which he gradually began to establish himself. Where else would he find the debt, the burden, and the unlived lives into which he had been born, if not in a world that did not seem to exist for them…

Excerpted from Alfred Goubran, Durch die Zeit in meinem Zimmer, Braumüller Verlag, Vienna, 2014.

Antigone’s Sister

Author: Lea Wintterlin
Translator: Cristina Burack

 

Translator’s Preface:
The cursed Labdacid family is at the heart of ancient Greek writer Sophocles’ Theban plays: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone. In the first play, Oedipus unknowingly fulfills a prophecy by murdering his father and marrying his mother. His four offspring bear the shame of this crime as the family is subsequently roiled by power struggles for control over Thebes. Sisters Antigone and Ismene, born of the incestuous liaison, contrast starkly with one another in the final tragedy, Antigone. Their uncle and ruler of Thebes, Creon, has decreed that the body of the sisters’ dead brother Polynices shall not receive a proper burial. Antigone, who is betrothed to Creon’s son Haemon, defiantly decides to bury her brother, while Ismene refuses to contradict the law by helping. When Antigone’s action is discovered, Ismene lies, claiming she abetted her sister, but Antigone will have none of it. Lea Wintterlin’s short story, “Antigone’s Sister,” places us in the modern-day mind of Ismene.

 

There, straight ahead, there she goes. Between the bushes, with her buzz cut. Men don’t like that kind of thing on women, but she can pull it off, she has such a feminine face. Even if she were to wear an eyepatch, she would still look good. An eyepatch would totally wreck my appearance. I simply couldn’t wear one. Everybody would look at me and think: What happened to her?

Is she drunk?  Why isn’t she going through the front entrance? It’s not like we all don’t know that she slips out every night, why the hide-and-seek? Maybe it’s part of the ritual – climbing over the fence. And it comes with some scratches. I also have a few, from our fat cat. Stravinsky, come here, I want to feel a living, breathing being.

These nights always seem very long to me. I have such a throbbing feeling in my nose as I watch the narrow stripes of light moving over the ceiling. As if we hadn’t learned ever since we were little that you shouldn’t get into a strange man’s car. Our mother talked about this so often that you would think there were no other dangers in this world except for cars and men. She was an anxious mother. She always kept an eye on us, nothing escaped her. Not the half-empty pack of cigarettes way in the back of Antigone’s desk drawer, nor the black, lacy push-up bra I hid from her in four bags, each one tucked inside the other. She claimed she wasn’t looking for anything, she just found such things. I think she was constantly on the alert, always prepared to stumble across a secret. Uncle, on the other hand, just let us do our thing. He’s trying to raise us to be independent. He’s probably afraid that we would drop out of school and still be living with him when we hit our thirties. I can understand his worries, but I unfortunately can’t do anything to dispel them. During these wide-awake nights, it becomes painfully clear to me that I am not the one making the decisions here.

The night has barely begun. Antigone won’t return before dawn. If only I could stop listening. But I can’t help it. I’ve always just listened. For her. For her steps. For the noises that came from her room now and then. Sometimes I’d hear the irregular clacking of the typewriter, an Olympus that she had inherited from our father, and I would picture her in front of me, working on a novel of the century, a cigarette in the corner of her mouth. Or I heard a whisper, her gravelly laugh bursting forth every now and then. Sounds turn into wolves if you can’t see what’s making them. Like in a tent. I spent all my teenage years eavesdropping on this other, bigger life, and I forgot my own in the process. Lying awake and waiting, that’s all I can do. I hate the stillness of this room. Nothing happens here – ever. Just the cat purring. Just something inside me seething with boredom and unease.

Yesterday she came back after only an hour, with dirt under her fingernails, and when I looked at her arms she quickly rolled down the sleeves of her blouse. She could barely stand; don’t fall over, I said, and she came up with some kind of wordplay: All interesting things involve falling. I can’t remember all her examples. Falling in love. Falling foul of the law, falling from grace. It sounds so beautiful when she talks like that, with her smeared mascara. Swaying on her feet and still rhapsodizing: that really looks like life. I know the tricks. Only they wouldn’t work for me. It took more than a fair bit of effort to get her into bed, she kept wanting to get out. Raved to herself, it was our duty to act. But when I asked her what she meant by that, she couldn’t give me a straight answer. We have to throw ourselves away, she said over and over. And other things – things I don’t want to repeat. She was no longer in her right mind. I tried to explain to her that she should be reasonable, but she cut me off. Understand, understand, I don’t want to understand any more, she said.

That hit me hard.

I stood next to her bed and as she fell asleep, I had to fight the impulse to put her room in order. But I couldn’t touch anything, even if I had wanted to. It wouldn’t have been right. Me and my order, there was nothing for us in that room. I simply stood there and looked around. I used to sneak in there frequently, when she wasn’t there, and carefully walk around between the papers, the underwear, and the teacups she used as ashtrays. For a long time there was a picture hanging on the wall next to the window, showing her and her ex-boyfriend standing on the shore at night, naked and entwined. It was taken with flash, making it look as if light were emanating from their bodies, as if their skin were illuminating the sand and part of the surf. You could only see Antigone from behind, she’d laid one arm around the man’s neck, the other reached under his armpit. Her head was hidden behind his, and he’d slung a leg around her hip. A one-headed, three-legged creature. A friend who’s a photographer took the picture. There are more nude photos of Antigone, but I’ve never seen them.

Antigone always laughed at me for being such a shamefaced person, such a shamefaced woman. I even used to be ashamed of my shamefacedness, but I’ve come to terms with it since. It gives me something to think about when I’m lying awake.

In my room there’s a picture of my parents. They’re standing in front of a road where a rockslide has fallen in and blocked the way. My father is posing as if he were going to move the boulders aside, his face scrunched up in pretend exertion, and my mother is standing next to the car and laughing somewhat sheepishly, as if she has just slipped out of the character my father assigned her to play. Antigone rolls her eyes whenever she comes into my room and sees the picture. Maybe I should take it down.

Stravinsky, come join me at the window. We can’t sleep anyway. There’s a nice view of the trees from here. You can smell it already: The buds are about to burst open. But there is also a little bit of smoke in the air. Virgins are sacrificed in spring. I’m pleased with myself in my solitude. I’m also making myself into a picture: Woman with a Cat at the Window. Otherwise I absolutely couldn’t bear any of this.

Haemon is coming through the garden, I recognize him immediately by the spring in his step. It’s amazing that he’s been able to keep going this long, he definitely doesn’t have it easy with my sister. I hope he didn’t see my light. It’s so humiliating to lie in bed fully dressed with my heart pounding. But it’d be even more humiliating to cross paths with him while on the lookout. To be found by someone who is searching for something else entirely. If I’m already out of the picture, then I don’t even want to make an appearance. If only I could sleep. As soon as he realizes Antigone’s not there, he’ll surely leave right away.

(I admit, at the beginning I thought he might be interested in me. I pay a lot of attention to my looks. I use a night cream before I go to bed, to stop wrinkles, you can’t start early enough. But no one talks about me. Antigone has a type of beauty that is talked about. It’s something totally different. My beauty is obvious. It’s nothing special, it’s expected, demanded. The circles under her eyes tell stories. I also have circles under my eyes. But there’s no reason for them to be there, that’s why I treat them with a roll-on caffeine serum and concealer).

He’s gone now. Even though they all try to move about noiselessly, I hear them anyway. I could have stopped him. Walked into the hall in a thin nightgown and sleepily rubbed my eyes. Maybe he would have been struck by some similarity. Maybe I could have seduced him, if my voice had still been husky with sleep. Or I should have left the door open a crack. That’s how my parents got together. Their encounter resulted from a moment of carelessness, an oversight. My father had forgotten to close the door. No one knows better than me how something like that starts – me, who’s never careless. And that’s why I will remain alone. A dead end in the Labdacid family tree, a withered branch. Apart and unattached, helpless, nobody knows what will become of me. When it comes to love, no one in my family has any luck. But my misfortune is not spectacular. I simply remain alone. Despite everything, I think I know what love is, even if I’ve never experienced it. I just know.

Not you, too, Stravinsky, leave the wood alone, Uncle had the doors sanded not that long ago. You’re not imprisoned here; you know I installed a cat door. Just follow your instinct. Just catch your mice. My basic instincts have left me. Everybody has left me. It’s true, Uncle is asleep three doors down. But sleeping people don’t count. I’m not blaming him. He’s always tired, he works hard. (I’m probably doing him an injustice, and he’s probably staring wide-eyed at the ceiling, too. I really don’t mean to downplay the burden of politics. Whenever he comes home, he runs his hands over his wrinkled, sunken face. We are burdened by a curse, he hasn’t been spared, he knows this. We just try to deal with it, each in their own way).

It’s odd: There’s spit in your mouth all day long, but if you were to collect it in a glass that you then had to drink, it would make your stomach turn. (That’s the taboo of disgust: reabsorbing part of you that has become foreign).

The birds are starting to sing. Now comes the part of the night when it stops being fun. I’m going to sob without being able to cry, and only my shoulders will shake, my face distorted. It’d be more entertaining to follow Stravinsky on his hunt. I once signed him up for a TV show: What Does Your Cat Do When You’re Not Looking? He got a harness buckled around his neck, he didn’t even put up the smallest fight, like the producer had feared he would; sometimes I don’t know if he’s good-natured or plain dumb. He just looked at us with his small, crooked catface, and the harness almost disappeared under his mountain of fur. Then he trotted away with his extra eye. The image was really blurry. All we saw were blurry gray blades of grass framed by Stravinsky’s whiskers. Sometimes he stopped and looked at something. For whatever reason. Weird cathead. Didn’t even catch a single mouse. (I take it all back: Even nature is totally ambiguous). At some point he was standing in front of my door again, and the producer was disappointed. I found it interesting.

A text message from Antigone. It’s surely been four days since my cell phone last vibrated. It was to be expected: She’s in trouble and wants me to come running to her rescue. This time she’s really gone too far. I don’t want anything to do with this. I share neither the ideals driving her to stir up this mad frenzy, nor the means she resorts to. This blindness for everything around her. I can’t do that, I am trained to see, to keep a lookout in every direction. This makes me slow. By the time I’m there, it will be far too late for anything. (Though I’m honored that she calls me for help, as if she believes I could do even the slightest thing in this situation). She would help me, no matter how hopeless things looked. She would die for me, her sister. Hemming and hawing and trying to escape one’s fate – that also didn’t help our father. Better to race toward your ruin with eyes wide open.

Maybe it’s time to jump into action. Our mother had a work colleague who had regular psychotic episodes. He wanted to get the whole department to take over the government. He planned everything down to the last detail. My mother belonged to the group that would storm the radio stations. And how do you storm a radio station? he asked the doubtful faces around him. You storm in!

When I was a child, when our parents were still alive, Antigone always wrote an extensive Christmas list on a long piece of paper that you could unroll like a piece of papyrus. We didn’t believe in Santa Claus, our father never told us any fairy tales. Not those. He loved facts. When I was 14, I desperately wished for a jean jacket. I didn’t tell a soul. That was dumb, of course.

I can’t, Stravinsky, it’s not possible. My courage is failing me. You’re right, I don’t trust myself. There’s a threshold that I never cross. I, too, am a daughter of Oedipus – I want to understand. But I lack his self-destructive decisiveness, I always stop just before the moment of complete clarity. I’ve had orgasms before. That at least. As a little girl, I was already rubbing myself against the gurgling hot water bottle. But sometimes, just before the outward explosion of air, I forget how to sneeze. Something cuts me off. While I’m drinking, I suddenly no longer know how to swallow. I should wake Uncle.

I have to do it. Even though Antigone doesn’t want to be rescued, she will never forgive me for this. She wants me to join her in her fight: that would be nice, us sisters. But I can’t fight. I’m there to spoil the fun. This isn’t self-pity, I’m even a little proud of it, I think. Proud of my – I almost said ‘rebellion.’

At the same time, I already know it. The door will be open. The bed made. The man is already seeing to things. He always gets his information a little sooner than others. And he has a fast car. Maybe he even gets to the crime scene before the police. It was always like that up till now. I feel sorry for the old man, that he has us to deal with. We only cause him trouble. And he already has enough on his plate without us. But Antigone doesn’t care one bit about this. She doesn’t care one bit about anything.

It’s useless. My room to maneuver is limited to these four walls. Leaving them is not that easy. Maybe Uncle also locked me in as a preventive measure, to keep me from following my sister to disaster. I haven’t even tried yet. I prefer to remain at the window. From this spot I’ll eventually watch how Antigone is brought around by a police escort. And maybe this will grip me for a moment. I’ll lean out of my window and yell to the police that I incited her to everything. But Antigone will have only a scornful look left for me – if she even glances up at me at all. The police officer’s gaze will also flash derision in my direction, and then I’ll return to my senses. Antigone will be taken away, in handcuffs maybe, and then I will finally be able to sleep.

 

Lea Wintterlin, “Antigones Schwester,” poetin nr. 27 literary magazine (Andreas Heidtmann, 2019).

 

 

Krakatoa’s Cry

Authors: Katja Brunner and Carla Imbrogno
Translator: Tess Lewis

Krakatoa Krakatoa Krakatoa Krakatoa Krakatoa Krakatoa

* this work was inspired by and/or includes fragments from: Emily Dickinson, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Flurin Camathias, Zupfgeigenhansel, The Kybalion, Plato, The Hippocratic Corpus, Achille Mbembe, media reports on the pandemic, voices critical of the system, medical recordings, Anna O., Anna Göldi, and the screams of other Annas.
** with thanks to Svenja Becker for her attentive reading.

The Mutation

Author: Francis Kirps
Translator: Rachel Farmer

 

When biology student Leon Sumsa awoke one morning from a bout of dreamless sleep paralysis, he found himself transformed into a monstrous vertebrate. Instead of hanging upside down from the ceiling, as befitted a respectable housefly, he was lying on his belly surrounded by a rumpled landscape of blankets and pillows. Where his body had been, polished to a shine and protected by a sturdy exoskeleton, there was now a gelatinous form in its place, from which unsightly bristles sprouted in patches. The blue-black, iridescent armour had gone, and Leon instead found himself encased in a stretchy, porous, pig-pink membrane, riddled with glands, fat deposits, and bulges.

He rolled onto his back, raised his head a little and examined himself from top to bottom: Where before there had been three finely articulated pairs of legs, segmented in an orderly fashion and replete with tiny, sensitive hairs, he saw four clumsy extremities protruding, seemingly at random, from a whale-like torso, each attached to five unevenly sized stumps at the end. No suckers, no claws, no hooks, no pincers.

His sensory range had evidently shrunk by at least 90 percent. He could hardly feel anything at all, and what’s more, his antennae had completely vanished. And, as he felt over his elephantine body, he couldn’t tell whether he had a sophisticated sense of taste. His head, a pumpkin-sized lump wobbling on top of a fleshy stalk, was largely covered with a kind of fur. They certainly weren’t the tactile hairs found on any normal insect, simply a dull, furry coating that didn’t transmit any stimuli when touched.

And what had happened to his lovely big eyes, his compound eyes, which had always enabled him to charm the lady gnats and female dragonfly workers from the factory? Compound eyes, the pinnacle of sensory organs, oculi compositi, eyes that consisted of thousands upon thousands of eyes, that had been his gateway to a world filled with colours and wonders. They were gone, simply no longer there, stolen by the blind, brainless god that had turned him into this albino creature. Where his eyes had once been now sat two slimy, light-sensitive balls in deep, bony hollows, over which a type of curtain drew down at the slightest touch.

“What has happened to me?” thought Leon Sumsa. Okay, they had gone a little wild last night. Kleinhans, a fellow student, had been celebrating passing his Masters in Comparative Anthropocentrism, so they and the whole gang from the department had buzzed on over to that hip new cowpat, the one with the delicious little mushrooms growing on it. Even Leon’s doctorate supervisor, the stern Professor Mayakovsky, had tagged along, and Dean Kothurnus had made a speech that was as sentimental as it was drunken.

When Professor Mayakovsky had taken his leave, not without cautioning Leon—only half in jest—not to show up late to the seminar tomorrow (that is, today), the young folk had moved on to the spot under the woodlouse stone which was open all night. The burly woodlouse bikers who hung out there weren’t especially fond of students, but for them, mingling with the lower forms of life had its own particular appeal. And the snail bimbos there weren’t so stand-offish and prim as the female flies at the university. But the snail pimps didn’t like it one bit when snotty little fly guys started putting the moves on their girls. Had it come to blows again? Had the hornet militia had to step in again, like last time? Leon couldn’t remember anything like that. As far as he could recall, they had ended the night with one last nightcap at their classmate Schmeißmeier’s digs, which were in the left kidney of the squashed rat in the road. And then he had probably buzzed on home sometime in the small hours.

Schmeißmeier, the eternal student. Leon couldn’t help smiling. No one knew exactly how long Schmeißmeier had been studying at the university, but there was a rumour he had started out at the same time as Dean Kothurnus. He had it good—he lived for the moment and didn’t bother about lectures.

Leon looked around the room in which he found himself. Nothing in it had changed. It was still the same room he used as a bedroom and living room, which he shared with a family of cockroaches, three mosquitos, half a dozen of his own species and their host animal, a hominid of indeterminate age with a pleasant habit of sweating profusely.

Yes, it was definitely still the same room and yet it seemed somehow. . . different. The world around him seemed strangely flat in general. And then it came to him, as if the scales had fallen from his eyes: the room was no longer curved! The non-Euclidean geometry was gone. These stunted sensory organs only allowed him to perceive a grotesquely reduced, simplified version of the world, clunky and coarse. Instead of the usual eleven primary colours, he could now only make out three. There was no mistaking it—he was seeing the world through the eyes of a primitive mammal.

“This is the worst hangover of my life,” thought Leon Sumsa, and decided to go back to sleep. Surely things would look a lot better when he woke up again.

He didn’t doze for long, as an uncomfortable thought awoke him rudely from his half-sleep. To his horror, he suddenly remembered the seminar. There was no way he could miss Professor Mayakovsky’s seminar. An eminent bark beetle from Princeton had been invited to speak as a guest lecturer. Leon could not afford to miss it—it would severely hamper his academic career.
He sat up in bed with a jerk and looked down at himself. No, it hadn’t gone away. He still looked like a monstrous mammal. But he would have to worry about that later. All that mattered right now was making it to the university’s Alexander von Humboldt lecture theatre, in the big anthill, on time.

Leon’s head buzzed. He felt oddly naked without his exoskeleton, and he felt as though the liquid insides of his body would soon be splattered all over the floor. But the bag of skin held everything together; at least he seemed to be somewhat sturdy despite his porousness. The grotesque sacks dangling between his nether extremities, which bore a vague resemblance to root vegetables, were obviously supposed to be some sort of sex organ. It’s a miracle these creatures manage to reproduce at all, thought Leon. He supposed beauty was in the eye of the beholder. What would his classmates say about his getup? Leon couldn’t worry about that just now. He needed to leave right away, or he’d miss the beginning of the lecture, and if he stumbled in late, he would get even more funny looks.

He took aim at the open window and took flight.

He didn’t fly very far. In fact, he didn’t fly at all. He only made a little hop forward and landed on the ground in front of his bed. It hurt quite a lot: At least he was definitely still sensitive to pain, the scientist in him noted. And then the realisation hit him like a slap in the face: He couldn’t fly anymore. He no longer had wings!

He tried one more time, flapping his upper extremities helplessly, but it didn’t work. He, Leon Sumsa, a freeborn housefly, majestic master of multidimensional space, had been reduced to crawling on the carpet—how embarrassing. Where had his wings gone? Had he fallen into the clutches of some hominid on the way home, so drunk that he hadn’t even noticed? Hominid calves were particularly notorious for ripping the wings off flies. Nobody knew why. They didn’t eat them in any case. And they couldn’t fly with them either.

Because nobody had ever managed to keep a hominid in captivity, very little was known about these primitive giants. This reminded Leon of an interesting article by neuropterologists Glöckner, Zettel, et al. in the journal “Buzz of Science”, in which they issued the hypothesis that this oft-observed phenomenon was a case of wing envy. In other words, the ungainly hominids begrudged flies their ability to fly. However, coprophilologists Kerbholz, Lamprey, & van Bog had vehemently opposed this view in the journal “Fly Today”. According to them, Glöckner and his colleagues were basing their views on the hypothesis, not grounded in any hard scientific evidence whatsoever, that hominids possessed something resembling consciousness and were capable of purposeful, reasoned actions, even complex emotions like envy. An extremely fascinating debate, Leon thought, which had caused a great stir among scientific circles and was nowhere near being resolved. Other new research also indicated that the great apes may not be as stupid as previously assumed: American scientists had recently discovered that hominids could even open screw caps, an ability previously only demonstrated by their distant relative, the octopus. The host animal on which Leon had spent the last couple of days, so almost half his life, did not show any signs of possessing a higher consciousness. When it wasn’t sleeping, it was eating and drinking, usually while staring at a flickering cube, swearing at it occasionally.

Leon felt like swearing, too, as he crept across the room on all fours. He was heading for the other, smaller room, where the host animal performed its weekly ablutions, and which contained the large, shiny surface in which one could look at oneself. After that, he had to go to the lecture. He didn’t have a clue how he was supposed to make it to the university on time in this state, but he had to at least try.

Suddenly, he stopped. Was he even breathing? Feverishly, he ran his hands along the sides of his body—no, no openings were to be found, no spiracles to draw air into his body. Had he somehow become an anaerobic lifeform? Or was he on the brink of suffocation? Panic bubbled up in Leon, and for a few long moments he really couldn’t breathe. He tried to remember his Introduction to Zoology course. How did vertebrates breathe again? And then it hit him: through their mouths. Yes, that’s right, through their mouths and olfactory organs.

How they had laughed back at maggot school. Breathing and eating through the same hole? What an unappetising aberration of nature.

Leon tried it, and it worked: Great bulky masses pumped air through his nose and mouth and back out again. He tried to vary the rhythm and had a coughing fit. He still had a lot to learn about his new hominid body. Maybe he should start a scientific blog to write about his experiences and observations; then at least one good thing would come of this ordeal.

Then, he heard a noise—a kind of buzzing, whirring noise. It was his flatmates, Martenstein and Schirrmacher, flying around him.

“Hello, lads,” he cried, and his voice boomed far too loudly in his ears. Martenstein and Schirrmacher flew away—they didn’t appear to recognise him.

“Hey, guys,” shouted Leon, “it’s only me, your old friend Sumsa.” But they both buzzed off. He knew Martenstein and Schirrmacher would be exchanging pheromone messages that very moment, he just couldn’t decipher them. His underdeveloped sensory organs meant that sophisticated communication with other insects had become impossible. The only way he had left of making himself understood was this primitive booming noise: “Hey, Martenstein,” he yelled. “Hello, Schirrmacher,” and rose unsteadily on his nether extremities. “Don’t go! I’ve got a little problem we should really discuss in a flatmate meeting.” They couldn’t understand him. Schirrmacher flew out of the window, while Martenstein fled towards the corner of the room. Leon followed him, his new giant’s legs growing more and more obedient.

He would have to catch Martenstein so they could talk, Leon thought. If he were very careful about it, he would surely be able to manage it without hurting him. He reached out his right hand. Martenstein darted out of reach.

Maybe he should stun him, really gently, just enough to allow him to be caught. Plus, that panicky buzzing was gradually starting to get on his nerves. Couldn’t the guy sit still for one second?

What was it the host animal always did? Oh yes, the newspaper, that was it. Leon wondered for a moment how he knew the thing was called a newspaper, then he lunged. But Martenstein got away again. Leon needed to be quicker, no mean feat considering the rudimentary nervous system of the colossal creature he had become. There! Now Martenstein was sitting in his favourite spot by the patch of mould. He would be sure to sit there a little while. Leon crept up on him, slowly, very gingerly, and then: Smack!

Oh dear, he’d probably been a bit heavy-handed there: What was left of Martenstein was stuck to the wall, surrounded by his last meal. Strawberry jam—and yesterday they’d told him there was no more strawberry jam left. You couldn’t trust flatmates, thought Leon and flopped, exhausted, into a chair.

“It’s your own fault,” he said to what had once been Martenstein, “I only wanted to talk to you.”
Then, it slowly dawned on him what he had done: murder—he had murdered his flatmate. Okay, he hadn’t done it deliberately. A regular ant jury would probably just convict him of manslaughter, but even that would mean a life sentence milking aphids. He could forget about his academic career.

“But what’s done is done,” thought Leon and stood up. Time to hit the road. The lecture must have started by now. Something crunched under his feet. Oops. Chanelle, the youngest daughter of the cockroach family. He would have to learn to rein in his newfound strength.

If this was all just one of Schmeißmeier’s crude pranks, then that guy would get what was coming to him. He already had two lives on his conscience. What would their other flatmates say?

Suddenly, Leon no longer had any desire to go to the lecture. He wouldn’t be able to get in without his student ID anyway. And the student ID was a cocktail of pheromones the ant porter used to identify him as an ant. If he didn’t have it on him, he would be classed as edible and fed to the larvae by the security guards.

Where could his ID be? Leon didn’t know. His old body had had that handy pheromone pocket, but his new body didn’t have anything like that. Just pointless openings all over it.

But now he was overcome by hunger, quite an astonishing hunger. He could see a tempting dog turd on the pavement. Leon suppressed the urge to fly and climbed out of the window.

The hominids on the pavement went into a frenzy when they saw him, pointing at him with their fingers and making angry noises. Was it because he wasn’t wearing any cloth armour? Leon grasped his genitals and made encouraging noises—that always made a good impression on grasshoppers. But these creatures shrank away from him and wouldn’t stop making angry noises. Never mind, he was hungry. But as he approached the dog turd, he was struck with a sudden nausea. Yuck! It stank. His senses were obviously even more impaired than he’d thought. Perhaps he had caught some gastrointestinal virus. Hominids were known to be walking cesspits of disease, after all.

The commotion still hadn’t subsided. A whole flock of gabbling hominids had gathered round him, and he decided to clamber back into the flat.

Something crunched under his feet again: Phoenix, the oldest son of the cockroach family—but somehow, he didn’t care. They would just have to make another one. Cockroaches bred like rabbits in any case. Some primeval instinct drove Leon into the kitchen, to the fridge, where he knew there would be sausage and cheese. And beer. He didn’t know how he knew; he just knew. Beer—yes, please! A fly followed him into the kitchen. Schirrmacher? Whatever. He swatted him away. Hasta la vista, Schirrmacher. Never again would he have to share his food with a parasite.

He opened the fridge, put sausage and cheese on a tray, took out a beer and went back into the living room, where he sank into a chair and switched on the flickering box. He took a gulp of beer and belched loudly. Thank God it’s Friday.

 

From Francis Kirps,  Die Mutation, Hydre Editions, 2019.

Torches

Author: Manja Präkels
Translator: Tyler Langendorfer

 

Translator’s Preface
Präkels’ novel primarily takes place during the final decade of the German Democratic Republic and the early years following Die Wende. In this excerpt, her young adult narrator Mimi describes her participation in a torchlight parade held to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the GDR, and hints at the discrepancy between government propaganda and her own experiences.

 

On the TV, Omi watched the latest developments in world politics with enthusiasm. She adored Mikhail Gorbachev, whom she affectionately referred to as Gorbi. Omi was convinced that world peace was just around the corner. I myself could have cared less. Sometimes she succeeded in coaxing me to dance with her for a short while in her tiny living room. The boards would creak in time to Herbert Roth’s Thuringian Forest anthems as she pushed me with folksy enthusiasm from one corner to the other. As Omi led, she whistled into my ear. It wasn’t a real sort of whistling, more like fff-ffeee sounds. Afterwards, I would lie on my bed in the neighboring room and despair over the meaning of life.

Every so often I would dream of Oliver.

Our paths seemed to have separated once and for all into different parallel universes within the community. I felt myself drawn to those existences on the periphery, could understand the sadness of the old boatmen who carried it in front of themselves all night, staggering home along the Havel from their drinking holes. As if in remembrance of something that was no more. Like the vagabond life of the spooky old widow, who walked fully upright, almost rigidly, and always wore black, a baker’s boy cap on her head and a walking stick in her hand. It was said that she once traveled all the large inland rivers with her husband who died long ago. Often, when she sat by the river, we would secretly watch her as she puffed away on her pipe, and laughed at her for such behavior. Now I greeted her every time I saw her, as if to make amends. When, at night, in the loneliness of the small town, she walked toward me with the clickety-clack of her stick, I understood why the neighborhood kids called her “witch.” It was the same unsettling feeling I got at the sight of the old brickmakers out at the clay pit, toothless men who wore clothes you could no longer find in stores. Scrawny wretches with cigar butts, all slouched over from brickmaking. Stone after stone had passed through their hands for a hundred years. Children are afraid of ghosts. But I wasn’t really a child anymore.

It was only years later that I understood that we belonged to a dying world. Just as it was for my great-grandfather, on that Christmas Eve long ago. There must have also been something ghost-like in my own appearance when I quoted Marx, as if reciting a folk saying: “Workers of the world, unite!” Workers of the world. The Soviet people had defeated fascism once and for all. And with it all the Nazis, except for a few who would soon die. Over there, in the West. I believed it. Still. I was like the last Pioneer. Timur, but without his squad. But in another sense, I was no longer a Pioneer.

In the meantime, Adolar had gotten big enough to amuse himself on the soccer field, and the cat Willi, too restless to constantly keep our sick father company. Because he felt lonely during the day, Pappi had decided to get himself a new dog. “That varmint is not sleeping in this house!”, Mutsch declared. And so it happened that Brutus von der Havelbucht, a shaggy schnauzer, had to spend his first night in the kennel. Its pedigree was of no use to Pappi, but its incessant whimpering still reached his ears. In the middle of the night he stood shaking in front of my door and handed me the puppy: “We should call him Biermann!”

The capital had been spruced up for the occasion. Once again, I was among the appointed. Just like Ulli, Michael, and the silent Andreas Walther, who skillfully pushed me away from Ulli’s side in the fight over seats. They had chosen us for the delegation to represent Karl Marx High School in the big torchlight parade. The Republic was celebrating its 40th birthday, and the parade in the capital was supposed to be the highlight, the icing on the cake. The bus drove over fields, across pine forests and one-street villages. The journey ended in Hellersdorf, a settlement that had been built overnight. The concrete blocks lined up close together did not look any different from each other, and there, where green spaces and playgrounds were to later make the residential surroundings nicer to look at, gaped deep craters for cables and sewers. Streets and public buildings had no names, only numbers. A stopgap.

“Karl Marx High School?”

“Here!”

“School 10, corner of 18th street.”

The travel buses arrived from all four corners of the earth.  Helter and Skelter ran into us at the accommodation. Aggressive as always, they chased a curly-headed boy across tables and benches. Everywhere, disoriented small-town Freie Deutsche Jugenders were stamping their feet and yelling in different dialects. Nothing here reminded me of the Berlin I knew from our trips to the zoo or the news we got from Aktuelle Kamera.

At a tram stop, I thought I recognized Oliver, but was it him? Instead, someone fell on my neck, but it was only Dörte Beckers. “Mimiiiiiiie!” Her delegation belonged to the same block, and now we were stuck in traffic. Looking over other people’s heads, I tried to get my bearings in the streets of East Berlin. Banners, flags, and slogans hung from windows and balconies. New instructions from the loudspeakers called first for movement, then for us to halt again. Our parade rolled like a lazy caterpillar inside an apple. Helter and Skelter started to flail their provision bags, emptied of food, on the head of a boy marching in front of us. Michael Müller wound up between them and got a bloody nose. Dörte had disappeared again. Ulli clung to my shoulder so much that it hurt. We were pushed away and came to the side of the street, where spectators stood with objects for waving and stared at us flabbergasted. “I’m sick,” said Ulli, before she threw up in a high arc into the ranks of the Young Pioneers. Right next to us, stewards with red armbands pulled Helter and Skelter from the throng.

Hours passed in this way. I was simply a part of this fat caterpillar that finally got moving. Others were saying “the grandstand is over there!” and “we’ve almost arrived!” at the place where all our dreams awaited us. It then evolved into chants: “Gorbi! Gorbi!” We roared along, glad that something was happening. I thought of Omi and about how maybe she had been right. A wave of euphoria seized me and my friends. We raised our fists and shouted “Gorbi! Gorbi!” I secretly vowed to listen to my Omi far more often and never again forget to fetch the coal for her. Just a few steps later we received the command to stop again and were redirected to a side street a hundred yards from the grandstand. Our parade had done its job. Others with torches had been chosen to light the way for our state guests, the way into the future.

The bottle – who knows where it came from – made the rounds, and drowned our conversations. Scorched blue shirts were lying on the floor, stinking of plastic. Drunk, we ended up in a discotheque. Dörte was still nowhere to be seen, the same with Helter and Skelter. Ulli and Andreas were standing in the corridor to the toilets, making out, while I hung out and drank with Michael at the edge of the dance floor. We were invisible, and in the disco fog the dancers looked like soldiers marching against a wall. Back and forth. At some point, Ulli was standing next to us again. “I want to go home.”

The East Berlin air was cloudy with torch smoke. With our arms linked, we tottered through scenes of people getting beaten and heated arguments. Schnapps and beer had made us deaf to their protagonists and all forms of danger. That we woke up the next morning at the Hellersdorf school seemed like a miracle.

The next day, instead of going to school, I went into the district town. They were already waiting for me in the editorial rooms of the Märkische Volksstimme. As representative of our delegation, I was to report on the torchlight parade. Thick swaths of cigarette smoke filled the open-plan office. A dirty-blonde secretary shoved a cup of tea in my face. “’N editorial conference goin’ on. Here, while ya wait.”

The rest of the cubicles were deserted, just like the ashtrays. Apparently, the conference was happening behind a small door at the end of the tube-like room. Soft voices could be heard coming from it. I was sitting by the window looking out on the courtyard, where there was a white Trabant with the newspaper emblem.

“That hasn’t been out on the road in a long time. It’s the car for our editorial team.”

The blonde sized me up.

“And you’re gonna write the article? OK, then. So how did it go in Berlin?”

“We stood around most of the time. And then we didn’t even get to the grandstand. Just turned away before…”

She laughed with her mouth wide open so that her straight, small teeth could be seen. At this moment the back door flew open, and a gargantuan female approached with trudging steps. Her breasts swung toward me, and she quickly held out her hand: “Schablowski, I’m the boss here. And you’ll write us somethin’ about the torchlight parade?”

Bewildered, I jumped up, knocking over the stool.

Without going into it further, the head honcho turned around, and I watched as her huge backside teetered back to the meeting. “Well, come along then!” she called gruffly, and with a wink the blonde gave me a push, while at the same time skillfully putting my chair back down and picking up the receiver: “Märkische Volksstimme, this is the secretary’s office …”

The ominous conference room turned out to be just a small tea kitchen. Here, too, there was smoke coming from every corner, a jug of freshly-brewed black coffee had been placed on the windowsill, and the journalist colleagues briefly greeted me by raising their cognac glasses. Then they just kept on talking.

“I’ll give you thirty lines. You can sit at my spot, right up front. You know the drill. When, what, who, how, and why. Got it?”

I didn’t dare to contradict her and nodded. She then pushed me out of the kitchen and closed the door with a loud bang. The blonde laughed.

“The last bus leaves at quarter to seven.”

I wrote the article. A round-faced colleague appeared, skimmed the lines, glanced briefly over the edge of his nickel glasses, laughed silently – which was evident from the bobbing up and down of his potbelly – and walked back to the kitchen shaking his head. “That was Kasimir,” explained the blonde. “He’s OK.” Outside, my bus turned into the stop.

It was very moving when I opened the paper the next day. There it was. My name. But the euphoria evaporated as quickly as it had arrived. Apart from one sentence, Sabine Schablowski, the head of the Service, had deleted everything and replaced my words with hers. Fortunately, no one would ever read that. The paper was something you used for burning. Omi would sometimes wrap fish in it. Still, I resolved to avenge myself. Someday.

In the schoolyards they had come up with their own version of the torchlight parade. There was talk of Africans who had supposedly pulled out their dicks and harassed several girls. Helter  was said to be the main witness, while others confirmed the stories.

“Those shitty lumps of coal. We’ll sock’em in the face at the next Havelfest.”

“They should just stay in the bushes where they belong.”

We had brought a renewed rage to the schoolyard. Straight from Berlin, capital of the GDR.

In the afternoon, they took our father to the hospital with flashing blue lights. Acute kidney failure. At the same time, Omi lay feverish on her plush couch with biliary colic. While Mother ran back and forth between hospital and work in the following days, I took care of Omi and Adolar by turns. We lived like this for a week. Then the colic finally subsided, and our father stabilized again. On the evening of his discharge, he ended up at the club house and got drunk. The late-night quarrel that followed must have been heard all the way up at the housing development.

That same night, Oliver appeared at my door. It seemed like he needed help. I didn’t let him in the room. We stood nervously in the hallway and smoked. He wore a crew cut and was shifting his weight from one leg to the other. “Are you alone?” he gasped.

“Yes, why?”

“My mother. She’s having attacks…”

“What sort of attacks?”

“If you see something, give me a sign, OK? I’m worried…”

“What sort of a sign?”

“Forget it.”

He abruptly turned away and fled into the darkness he had emerged from. His curses lingered in the air for a while. Biermann growled after the late visitor.

Now our father was dependent on dialysis. The doctors gave him “five years at most” and he began to say goodbye. As a result, we drove more and more often to the neighboring district town. Legend has it that at the turn of the century, the town’s councilors, with lots of money and excellent connections, made sure that all the main traffic arteries ran through their city and not ours. Though most Havel townspeople managed to forget this, they did not forgive them. Over the years we had only visited Aunt Ingeborg at the insistence of our father. In the early days he was proud and loaded up with all kinds of barter goods as he marched through the front gate of his parents’ house, as if his parents’ spirits were supposed to see what a successful businessman he had become.  But now his load shrank as the disease progressed. Our mother had always hated visits to the loud-mouthed uncle. This mutual dislike and their party memberships were the only thing that united them. They had long since abandoned all formalities and avoided looking each other in the eye.

Mutsch sat in front of the dark brown wall of the add-on room as if her seat was an electric chair. Since she would have to drive us home, she stayed sober while the others got drunk on Goldkrone beer. Wilhelm enjoyed supreme rule in his house, the same one my grandparents had once lived in. Though their ghosts seemed as little alive to him as they did to me, my father and his sister shared a mysterious bond that had something to do with the house and the forest behind it, the small farming town and its silty lake.  They would clink together their large cognac glasses without a word, and meaningfully look each other in the eyes.

On one of those days my father had gotten into a fight with Wilhelm, and Arndt, my younger cousin’s new boyfriend, had decided to loudly butt in. He attended the officer academy and had just returned from Leipzig. “I stood by when the protestors got my friend with an axe. On the head! Do you understand? The axe hit his head!”

Tears of rage trickled down into in his red mustache, where they formed pearls and shot out into the room with every new word: “Peaceful my ass! They wanted to kill us. The situation was completely out of control…”

Our parents sent us out of the room. My aunt stood in the hallway with tear-stained eyes and was unable to utter a “my God”. Wilhelm continued hollering inside. Arndt had fallen silent. We got into our car without saying goodbye. True to his nature, my drunken father was still incensed. Halfway home, he suggested stopping at the next local restaurant. Mutsch knew that it was all about getting some schnapps, about washing down the anger. At least there would also be schnitzel with fried potatoes, she wouldn’t have to cook anything, and he would sleep peacefully later on.

The place was overcrowded, but we were lucky. A table near the door had just become available. The waitress sullenly made her way through the crowd to us. With our heads lowered, we stared at the tablecloth and remained silent while Father ordered food, schnapps, and beer. After he started drinking, he became relaxed and sentimental, and with his hand he tousled Adolar’s hair. Mutsch tried to make eye contact with me. Once the fried potatoes were on the table, all the trouble disappeared and we cleaned our plates. Adolar had just persuaded his babbling Pappi to order another round of ice cream when the men and women in the room fell silent. Their attention was held by the television near the regulars’ table.

“That poor Erich Honecker!” Adolar was still too little to react cynically like everyone else to the change in tone of the Chairman of the State Council’s voice. He felt sorry for the TV grandpa, because it was obvious he had problems. Then the newscaster announced Honecker’s resignation. As if it was no big deal. Just like some soccer score. Father burst out laughing. Others joined in.

When they started to pass around glasses, Mutsch sat at the table looking pale. The men cheered. Toasting with the farmers, Father drank to brotherhood.

In my memory the Steinmann siblings are standing next to him. They are joined by Helter and Skelter, Mario Möllemann along with his terrifying sheepdog, and Oliver. Boozed up, they hug each other, grab my little brother, and wrap him up in a German flag. They lift up their screaming work of art like a trophy cup.

 

Excerpted from Manja Präkels,  Als ich mit Hitler Schnapskirschen aß (When I ate Schnapps Cherries with Hitler). Verbrecher Verlag, 2019.