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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.

Babushka

Author: Schutti McMahon
Translator: Deirdre McMahon

 

Just begin, Maja said, so many first sentences.

 

She’s not called Babushka; she’s Matryoshka, said my great aunt, my father’s only aunt, although she didn’t know any Russian. She was right, but I simply did not believe her. I had always called mine Babushka, shaken her carefully, taken her apart, and put her together again. I would examine the smallest one very carefully to see if I could open her like the others, searching for a hidden mechanism, and I simply could not believe I had reached the last one.

I would often lie awake and let my eyes wander around the room, and I would tell the biggest Babushka what the house looked like from the outside: about the garden, sprawling outwards, and the shade that lay over most of the houses for more than half the year. I would tell her about the valley with its wooded hillsides, about the night sky stretching tightly over it. It frightened me that no one could tell me what lay behind it. But perhaps you just needed to ask the right questions to get an answer. The Babushka would look at me with her big eyes and I would open her up, take the smallest doll out, lay her tenderly in my hand, rocking her to and fro, amazed at how grown up she looked.

My Babushka had gone missing, or so they led me to believe, but that was impossible. I had never taken her outside. Perhaps my aunt decided that I was too big for dolls and hid her in the attic or threw her away. Maybe she had found the nightly murmuring from my room disturbing. I never asked.

I told Marek about the Babushka and he stroked the hair behind my ears and kissed me on the forehead.

Moje kochanie, he whispered, and I knew what that meant even though I knew no Polish and had lost the Belarussian of my first years, along with Babushka.

Marek had a little wooden house with an unkempt garden. He offered old Walter money for gardening, but Walter did little more than get rid of a few branches. He said mowing was impossible because there were too many scrubby bushes along the fence and around the house. He left the bushes standing and bought himself schnapps.

Marek didn’t drink schnapps; he never drank. Nevertheless, his eyes were sometimes red when he sat at the window looking out.

They hadn’t died one after the other, as local gossip suggested. Marek once told me that his uncle went first, then his grandmother. Then Micha, his favourite nephew, died. He hung himself from a tree, from the tree that his grandfather had planted for the uncle. He didn’t speak about his mother and father. Everyone knew what had happened, but nobody could explain why Marek had moved to this particular village as a young man and why he hadn’t returned home after the war.

Forget all that again, Marek had said, wiping his eyes, forget it. However, I never forgot, and I asked my aunt if she could tell me anything about Marek. The shadow side is bad, she answered, going on to ask me why that was any of my business. I asked why there were houses here anyway, when the shadow side is so bad, but I got no answer.

The snow arrived early and stayed a long time. Even in high summer you needed a woollen jacket by four in the afternoon if you wanted to play outside. Only mint and chamomile, dill and garlic, grew in the garden. When you ran barefoot on the grass it stabbed the soles of your feet. I just could not imagine soft grass, or not anymore. As a small child I must have run over soft grass, at least once. Years later my aunt gave me a photo showing my mother and myself in a park. I was wearing a short little white dress embroidered with flowers, with a hand-crocheted border on the collar. My mother was holding my hand, laughing at the camera, not staying still for the photo; her arm and face were out of focus. We were standing barefoot on the grass and I looked uncertain. My eyes were wide open, my lips an open slit.

My aunt didn’t want me to visit Marek. She thought I’d be better off playing with other children. I often acted as if I had spent the whole afternoon playing tag and French skipping. I would kneel in the meadow on the way home and stroke the palm of my hand over damp earth. Sometimes, if I had enough time, I would lie down in the grass and look up at the clouds as they took on a rosy red tinge and, when the light was fading, I could observe countless tiny insects populating the skies and turning the air restless.

It was not that I wanted to turn myself into an insect and flee from there; I had not thought that far ahead. And I didn’t want to be an animal either, though having a favourite animal and knowing everything about it came with the territory back then. After school Fini asked me what kind of animal I would like to be, continuing in the same breath to say that I didn’t need to answer as she already knew – definitely a bird – or an angel  –  so that I could follow my mother to heaven. I didn’t want to fly to my mother because it was cramped and cold beneath the earth –  or so my aunt had told me – and I believed her.

There are various Babushkas. Some resemble each other down to the finest details and some have different pictures on their fronts. A different picture on every front and you know immediately which story belongs to it. And the big Babushka holds all the stories together like the cover of a book of fairy-tales. The smallest picture needs to be examined particularly carefully because, if you are lucky, even this tiny expanse has a background showing a forest or a stream or flowers. I was lucky. My Babushka had been particularly beautiful. I can remember every picture and I still know the stories that went with the pictures; they translated themselves without me noticing.

Marek often asked me to tell him these stories. I thought that maybe they reminded him of the stories of his childhood because they were similar, but perhaps he only wanted to prevent them dropping from my memory.

Marek would give me presents of sweets or colourful stones which I would store under a loose board in my room. Whenever I was out with my aunt and we met him by chance, he would just give us a curt hello, hardly looking at me, as if he were indifferent to me. But in the afternoons when I went to him, he would stroke my cheeks and sit down opposite me at the heavy wooden table, drinking black tea with milk and sugar from a glass printed with flowers. Because of me, he always had a choice of drinks in his larder that I never got otherwise. I loved the sparkling yellow or red drinks. I would sit on Marek’s lap letting him read books aloud or tell me stories, hanging on his every word. There was an unevenness about his voice that only I could hear, or so I thought back then, something in his tone that reminded me of something from the past, from way back in my early days.

When I got big enough to take the bus into the next town my aunt would send me shopping once a week. She gave me two cloth bags, and for weeks she would make me recite the bus stops and the departure times before I left the house. I never forgot anything and occasionally I was permitted to buy some little thing for myself. As time went on, I knew all the shops and got much quicker at completing my errands, so that I had time to wander the streets and look at the shop windows. That was when I began to think about my mother more often. I would stand in front of the shop windows trying to superimpose my reflection onto the clothes on display. Sometimes it worked but in other shops the clothes were hanging just too high. I would imagine what it would be like if my mother’s face were reflected beside mine, how beside her  I could smile in at the displays and we would hold each other’s hands.

Sometimes I asked myself what it would be like to hold a young man’s hand, to go with him, as Fini called it. I tried to walk tall as I wandered up and down the street. According to Fini, pulling in my tummy was really important, like wiggling my hips so that it looked like I was wearing high heels. I used to imagine how it would be if a young man called me from the sunny side of the street. He would ask my mother if she would allow him to take away her beloved only daughter  –  yes, that was just what he would say  –  and my mother would smile and nod, catch me by the shoulder and nudge me towards the young man, folding her hands across her chest, waiting until he had given me a kiss and taken me in his arms. And then she would wave until we had vanished around a corner.

Fini sometimes took me by the hand when we were wandering through the woods. If it got dark on the way home, she would clutch me so tightly that the prints of her fingers were visible on my hands for a long time afterwards. I never told her that she was hurting me. On long summer afternoons when we had had enough of each other’s company and I wasn’t with Marek, we would sit down at the stream, dangling our feet in the water until they turned red. Then we would lie down on the flat sun-warmed banks and pull up our shirts to tan our stomachs. Fini told me stories, not fairy tales. She would tell me what she knew about the other girls and their families, about her older brothers and their friends and girlfriends and plenty about what she had observed through keyholes. She explained what it would be like in a couple of years when we became young women, and the men would be interested in our brown legs and stomachs. I loved listening to her; her sentences flowed on like the stream, almost a calming murmur, and although there were no ogres like Baba Jaga and bewitched kings’ daughters, I hung on her every word. Her family would become mine for an afternoon. I used to take Fini’s stories home with me, feeling that I had escaped out of the shadows and undergone an experience. One evening I wrote a sentence, a phrase that had struck me on the way home, “if a person could keep all these stories like a shield over their body, wrapping strange sentences around the body like a camouflage coat”. I read the sentence aloud to Fini the next time we met but she just looked down on me and began to laugh. I crumpled up the paper, put it away and threw it in the stream on the way home, knowing that it would soon become a tiny scrap, that it would dissolve completely in the cold water. I never again composed such a sentence and would never again write anything like that. But I remember this one.

You always just have to start over again, said my aunt when I gathered my courage and asked her about before, although I felt that she wouldn’t answer this time either, and would make me feel that she was irked by my question. The past I had experienced with my mother pushed against the past I had with my aunt; I had no idea of the fault line, no memory of how I had come out of the city to the village.

I still know that I didn’t understand my aunt. She talked at me in an unfamiliar language. I was supposed to say Papa to the strange man who had collected me. First, I saw him only at weekends and then less and less because he took my aunt’s advice to heart and made a new beginning. I was allowed to stay with my aunt; she was glad of company in the big house.

Your mother was too good for us here, said my aunt, and when I was just a few weeks old she left the village and my father behind; but she didn’t want a divorce, and to this day, I don’t know why.

And now that you are here, be satisfied. I knew I had to be satisfied.

When Marek died, I no longer lived in the village. The photo on his death notice shows him as a fifty-year-old; I know this for certain because that had been his nicest birthday. That photo stood on a narrow shelf beside the house door, his best birthday as he used to say back then. Fifty-fifty, someone had written on the lower edge in white touch-up pen. His life had not lasted a hundred years, but who can say how much life a person gets. My aunt died before him. She reached the age of eighty-three; nobody needs to worry about her grave. She had ordered and paid for a stone tablet years before her death, and anyone who wants to can place a candle on it or lay a bunch of flowers to be dried by the sun and blown off the gravestone by the wind. She knew I would never come back.

I did not come back; I couldn’t. I got a Matryoshka that looks so like my old one, my hidden or thrown-away Matryoshka. I took it apart and set all the dolls out in a row. There are scenes from fairy-tales on the dolls’ fronts, but they make me sad now, when I remember them. I lost my language along with my mother: the falling-asleep phrases, the comfort phrases, this cradle-rocking of words, our language island where there was just room enough for the two of us, on which we wandered through the city to the playground or the bakery. Latrine, shovel, and bread roll – I can’t remember what German words I had when I came to my aunt’s.  And now: encouraging phrases out of the dictionary, encouraging sentences spoken on tape but the lullaby does not want to reappear; those sentences remain forgotten. 

Moj bednyj anjol, my mother must have said, moj bednyi anjol.

I turn the dolls around and let them look out the window. From behind, they all look the same  –  light blue flowers on a red background. Where have my first sentences gone, I ask myself –  I only ask now that I have flourished in a complete language for a few years and withered on the shadow side again. Those phrases haven’t even remained in memory, at least not in mine.

 

Excerpted from Carolina Schutti, einmal muss ich über weiches Gras gelaufen sein.  Otto Müller Verlag, Salzburg-Wien, 2015.

Dark Green Almost Black

Author: Mareike Fallwickl
Translator: Lottie Fyfe

 

2017

Raffael enters the flat as though he lives there. He doesn’t look around inquisitively, make comments or ask questions. Instead, he slips out of his shoes and jacket, puts his suitcase down. Moritz stands there, unmoving. With a gentle smile Raffael takes the door handle from Moritz’s hand, closes the door quietly as though he knows the old lady next door is a light sleeper, then embraces him. The smell of rain. Raffael’s designer stubble scratches Moritz’s cheek.

Raffael claps him on the shoulder. ‘It’s so good to see you.’

Before Moritz can reply, Kristin appears in the living room doorway, yawns with her mouth wide open and plants a hand over it, startled, when she sees the stranger. Raffael smiles at her. ‘I knew she was beautiful, Motz,’ he says, ‘but so beautiful?’

Moritz looks at Kristin and is taken aback: her colour hasn’t shone like this in a long time. Perhaps when they first met, or perhaps not ever. Most of the time, her aura is a lightish red, a faint lustre. Now an intense fuchsia is radiating from her, a birthday-balloon pink, telling him she’s unsettled and off-kilter.

He hasn’t mentioned her to Raffael. Apart from liking a few photos on Facebook, a standard happy birthday over Messenger (and even then not every year), they haven’t had any contact these last years. There have been no letters, no conversations and certainly no meet-ups in person. Raffael had disappeared from his life like a key that falls down a drain and you stare helplessly after because you know you’ll never get it out again. Where did Raffael get this address? Who told him where Moritz was living?

‘Motz?’ Kristin asks, puzzled. She’s never heard his nickname, can’t have done. She clears her throat as she realises how hoarse her voice is, unties her ponytail, pulls her long, blonde hair back and ties it up again. She’s wearing black joggers and a washed-out Joy Division t-shirt of Moritz’s that sits unflatteringly over her bump. It’s probably not the outfit she’d want to be seen in. Certainly not by someone like Raffael, who gives the impression that the rain hasn’t so much soaked him through as simply refreshed him.

He takes Kristin’s hand in both of his and holds it as he kisses the air to the left and right of her face. Moritz sees the pink darken, circles appearing in it.

Raffael puts his hands on Kristin’s stomach.

‘May I?’ he asks, and his smile is also directed at Moritz, includes him. This breaks Mortiz’s trance and he grabs Raffael by the shoulder, pulls at him, pulls him away from the bump. Straight away Raffael succeeds in making the gesture look less abrasive by submitting to it, turning it into a kind of three-way hug, as though they’re standing in a circle like friends reunited after a farewell. Except there had never been a farewell.

‘Forgive me,’ Raffael says into the intimate space, ‘for just turning up in the middle of the night without warning. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to. I’d actually planned to visit tomorrow or the day after, and obviously I’d have phoned ahead.’

He smiles at each of them in turn – first Kristin, then Moritz.

‘But?’ Moritz asks brusquely, which only makes Raffael smile even wider.

‘But the hotel went and lost my booking, and there were no rooms in the other two I tried, so I thought, surely you guys wouldn’t leave me out in the rain.’

He runs his fingers through his hair, proffers a damp hand and shrugs his shoulders apologetically.

‘If you had space for me to crash for a night I’d be extremely grateful.’

He looks at Moritz. His eyes are sea blue as always, a deep lake on a stormy day, and they transfix Moritz even now. They carry a hint of desperation, but not too much, just the right amount. He offers his plea in a tone that brooks no refusal. Moritz holds his gaze. Raffael’s eyes bore into him. They skim over places no one has seen for so long. This; Moritz never wanted to feel this again. He’s missed this.

‘Of course you can stay,’ says Kristin, ‘You can sleep on the sofa. Any friend of Moritz is always welcome.’

‘Thanks,’ Raffael replies simply.

‘Even if he’s never mentioned them,’ she adds with a dig at Moritz, who knows without looking at her that her eyebrows are raised in reproach. He’ll have questions to answer tonight, questions he’d rather not be asked.

‘Of course,’ he says too, now. ‘We can pull out the sofabed.’

‘Please don’t go to any trouble,’ Raffael counters. ‘I can even sleep on the floor, I’m totally exhausted. I won’t disturb you, I swear.’

Kristin goes into the designated nursery to get clean sheets.

‘She’s great, Motz,’ whispers Raffael, and the old nickname feels like a cold hand on Moritz’s skin, growing warm and familiar only after a moment of contact. Raffael follows him into the living room and clicks his tongue in approval.

‘All right,’ Moritz parries. ‘I’m sure it’s not the luxury you’re used to.’

‘Bullshit,’ says Raffael, ‘your flat’s awesome. Very cosy. So… individual.’

He gestures to the gallery wall next to the TV, where a hodge-podge of snapshots and memorabilia hangs. Moritz and Kristin on a sailboat, Moritz and Kristin in a burger joint in Amsterdam, Sophia at thirteen, Kristin’s parents’ wedding photo, the post-it Kristin wrote her number on for Moritz, back then, on the last night of the Business English course. Moritz feels uneasy that Raffael can see it all, that everyone who means something to him is so exposed, defenceless. He takes two steps towards the wall and puts himself in Raffael’s field of vision.

The flat is spacious, around a hundred square metres, divided between four rooms in an old, dilapidated building typical of Hallein, with the kind of thick walls that people still went to the effort to build in the seventeenth century. As you stepped inside you were hit by the smell of catacombs, and cold – the cold of many centuries, preserved behind heavy doors, that no shaft of sunlight would ever drive out. By contrast the flat is modern, renovated before Moritz and Kristin moved in three years before. The delicate plasterwork, sloping marble window ledges and a low, squat wooden door have been retained, as signs of character. The building has been around since before Moritz’s time and will still be around when he is long gone; it pays him no heed. He, who builds new houses, but is drawn to older edifices. The kind in which the bricks talk, and secrets shimmer through the air. It’s the same reason he goes into churches – although the religious affinity escapes him – sits on the hard pews, and breathes in the sighs.

Kristen throws a blanket and cushion on the sofa and makes them both up with airy, pale-yellow bedlinen. There is curiosity in the glances she steals at Raffael. She doesn’t ask questions, not even about the oddly flimsy story he’d given them about the unreliable hotel. She wants to come across as relaxed and cool, like someone who hosts unfamiliar guests every week, maybe even offers up their couch on the internet. The tip of her tongue peeps through her lips as she concentrates on her practised hand movements. In moments like this, she looks like a little girl, and Moritz has some inkling of what their daughter will be like – absent-minded, cheeky, freckle-faced.

‘Thanks so much,’ says Raffael. ‘I don’t want to keep you up – you probably want to hit the hay.’
Moritz hesitates.

‘I’m sure I can call in sick tomorrow,’ he says, then. ‘Not much happens on a Friday in construction anyway.’

‘That would be great,’ says Raffael. ‘We can do something together. Cruise about a bit. Like old times.’

‘Yes, good idea,’ Kristin agrees, and suppresses a yawn. ‘You should do that.’

In the silence, an awkwardness spreads.

‘The bathroom is through there, second on the left,’ says Kristin, ‘use whatever you need. I’m off to bed, sorry. Goodnight.’

‘Goodnight,’ replies Raffael and smiles. Moritz watches him, sidelong. He has accumulated lines around his eyes and on his forehead, but the boy Moritz knew is still there. His face has grown more angular, sharper – not narrower, but more clearly defined. Every one of his movements, his stride, his entire demeanour, reflect his self-assurance, and even the arrogance in his look of restrained amusement is attractive. He looks like someone who wears life lightly because it means him well. You got the feeling the lightness could rub off, if only you stood close enough.

Moritz and Raffael are alone, and this would be the moment to quietly ask what’s going on, what Raffael is thinking turning up like this, as though they’d never stopped being friends. As though this were somewhere he could just come anytime.

‘Let’s go to sleep – we’ll talk tomorrow,’ says Raffael.

He doesn’t look tired. He lays a hand briefly on Moritz’s, touching the little scar on his thumb, surely not by accident. Remember, the gesture says silently, we swore. Moritz hesitates for a long moment, then nods and goes to the bathroom.

He closes the door, turns on the tap and drinks from it. He looks in the mirror, drops falling from his chin. What does Raffael see in his face? Does he see what has changed? Moritz stares at himself until his outline blurs. He looks for the boy that he used to be. Does Raffael recognise him beneath the layers of the last sixteen years, does he see anything familiar? And who has he even become in all that time? Moritz’s vision focuses again, colliding with the cold surface of the mirror. His dark brown curls are too long, his eyes brown – gloomy-brown and earthy, with long, thick eyelashes. He looks frightened and helpless.

He brushes his teeth, pees, and listens. It’s quiet. He pads barefoot into the bedroom, slips into bed and is relieved to find Kristin already asleep. He lies awake for a long while, and thinks of Raffael over in the other room. Sleep evades him like a tenacious child. He only dozes, and every time he’s about to slip into dreamlessness, his body pulls him back with an involuntary jerk. All of a sudden, he’s wide awake – the clock says 3:14 am. Had he only imagined Raffael in his wet jacket at his door, had he dreamt it? His heart’s racing and he’s thirsty; he gets up. Silently, he crosses the narrow hallway; it’s dark and quiet. The living room door is ajar – he pushes it open carefully and sticks his head inside. And now, without the light on, he can see clearly what he suspected earlier: the green is darker, much darker, deep and solid, almost black. It fills the room, glaring right up to the ceiling. Once, Raffael was bud green, caterpillar green, like freshly shelled sugarsnaps, some days lime-bright. Now the green has black spots, like mould. Moritz stands there and looks but can’t understand what he’s seeing. Something has happened. He knows Raffael isn’t asleep. He can tell by the gleaming flashes that shoot through the green.

Neither of them says a word.

*

1991

Going into the forest was a test of courage every time. But Motz didn’t want Raf to notice he was scared, and because he didn’t want that, going in was easier. Just two steps and they were in. The forest wasn’t dark, just brown – a warm, muddy, friendly brown, like the lighter layer in the Ildefonso nougat he sometimes got from Nanna Gitti. Mum wasn’t supposed to know, she didn’t let him have chocolate, so Motz always popped the little cube straight in his mouth and let it melt, though he’d rather have taken a good look at it first.

On some days, the brown of the forest became green, on others grey, but he hadn’t yet found out how the forest felt then. The frightening thing about the brown was not the colour, but that it was alive. It was pulsing and sticky; it sucked him in and caressed him. The forest never meant him any harm, it didn’t hurt him in any way, but it was unpredictable and huge. The forest seemed to know everything, even things you didn’t want anyone else to know about. Surrounded by its embrace, a mass that had no beginning and no end when he stood in the midst of it, Motz stayed close to Raf so he could find his way out again later. It was hard going into the forest alone. It was hard going into a strange room alone as well, but thankfully he didn’t have to do that much anymore because by now he knew most rooms – the ones in his house and at Raf’s; at school and the Keltencafé; Maria’s village shop; Nanna Gitti’s flat. If he found himself on a new threshold for the first time, the objects in the room lit up and rang out so loudly that he had to shut his eyes tight and cover his ears. Everything was bright and sparked silver, blue, yellow and pink, sputtering and flashing. Then he would taste berries or bugs, burnt sugar or moss. Mostly it got better if he stood really still for a really long time. Then things calmed down until it was okay and he could go in. Mum didn’t know anything about all of this, nobody did. Before she had often dragged him in, scolding and impatient, and then he couldn’t help but scream, huddled on the floor, arms flung about his head, because too much. Just too much. At some point he realised that the others didn’t experience the world the way he did. He didn’t understand why. But now he could forgive them a little.

The brown of the forest closed behind him; bracken grazed his legs. Motz sniffed loudly, his heart thumped. Just then Raf took his hand, Raf, who could always tell when the fear was setting in. With Raf’s hand in his, everything would be okay; confidence flowed from Raf into Motz. Confidence was bright yellow, like the glow of a light bulb, and it never wavered.
‘Let’s see if any spiders have fallen in our secret slime,’ said Raf, and pulled him towards the tree house.

The tree house had been there forever, and no-one could remember who had built it. It belonged on and off to one gang or another, and by rights everybody. Everyone brought along what they could find – new boards for the outside wall, Mickey Mouse notebooks, various cushions and rusty knives. There was a small chest which usually had something to eat in it, and whoever took from it filled it up again whenever they were able to sneak unnoticed into their kitchen cupboards, or had a bit of pocket money to buy something at Maria’s. Motz always left the bananas he got from his mum to take to school in there – he didn’t like them, couldn’t force down the soft, disgusting mush. Sometimes he carried the bananas around with him for so long that they went brown, and then they made slime out of them. A few days ago, they’d mixed one of these old bananas with water, earth, little stones and torn-up leaves, because, Raf had said, spiders loved it. They wanted to chop up the lured-in spiders and stir them into the slime to use as a fearsome weapon in the next battle against fat Manuel’s gang.

‘We’ll pour the spider potion on their heads from the tree house when they try and climb up,’ Raf explained. ‘That’s what the knights used to do in their forts.’

‘And then?’ Motz asked with wide eyes.

The thought of it gave him the creeps so much that he got goose bumps, although it was August, and warm.

‘Then they’ll be branded forever,’ Raf said decisively, and although Motz didn’t know what that was supposed to mean, he nodded, satisfied.

‘Damn,’ Raf muttered as they got up to the tree house.

The bucket of spider-bait was empty. When Raf got annoyed, his green became fibrous and resembled individual stalks, like the shards of cress shoots on Motz’s mum’s kitchen windowsill. Motz got nervous when this happened. An angry Raf was a Raf to watch out for. All the kids knew it.

‘Who’s done that?’ asked Motz.

‘Dunno,’ Raf mumbled. ‘Got another banana?’

‘Not today, mum cut me up an apple and I’ve eaten it,’ Motz said apologetically.

‘We should have hidden the bucket better, it’s our own fault.’

They sat on the ladder that led up to the tree house and let their legs dangle in the air. The boredom of the summer days draped itself over everything like a film, and made it hard to move. But at least it wasn’t as hot in the forest as out in the fields – the treetops formed a protective cover, a living parasol.

‘What are you getting for your birthday?’ asked Raf.

‘Crayons and Knickerbocker Gang books, what about you?’

‘Hm,’ said Raf, ‘I already got a remote-controlled racing car. And three cassettes. And five hundred Schillings.’

‘But your birthday’s not for another five days,’ said Motz, surprised, feeling a stab of jealousy in the nape of his neck at the mention of so much money.

‘So what? Dad won’t be there anyway, and I’m not inviting anyone,’ said Raf, and then: ‘We’ve almost got the same birthday.’

‘You say that every year.’

‘Because it’s true every year, idiot.’

Motz shrugged his shoulders. Soon they’d be eight years old. They were only three days apart – three days he was secretly proud of. It was the only thing he had on Raf.

‘Have you got any money?’ asked Raf. ‘We could get some green jelly snakes. No one’s here today anyway.’

Motz shook his head, said nothing. Raf was normally the one who always had money on him. And anyway, he’d just got given five hundred Schillings.

‘Let’s find the others then, maybe they’re at the Pit Stop. We’ll be able to get something off somebody.’

‘Or we could go to the curling lane,’ Moritz said quickly, motioning with his head in the direction of the tarmacked lane in the forest. He didn’t like it when Raf pinched the other kids’ pocket money.

‘Have a look and see if there’s anything to eat in the chest first.’

Motz clambered up the last three rungs to the top and scooted on his knees into the tree house. He set about unfastening the lock on the chest. It was small and wooden, with no key, but it did have a thin iron hook that slipped into a latch. As he fiddled with it, his fingers slipped and he cut his thumb open, right under the nail. ‘Shit,’ he swore into the sharp pain.

In the chest was only a shiny, empty wrapper from an ice-cream wafer. He climbed down again.

‘Nothing there,’ he said. ‘Look.’

He held up his bloody thumb for Raf to see. Raf pulled his penknife out of his trouser pocket. He unfolded the blade and cut himself, without flinching, on the palm of his hand. Then he took Motz’s thumb and pressed the cuts together. Motz gasped, but didn’t pull away.

He watched as their blood mixed together, his and Raf’s. It burned, and hurt. Raf looked him in the eye.

‘Blood brothers,’ he said, without smiling.

‘What does that mean?’ asked Motz.

‘That we’re more than friends now. Like family,’ said Raf, still holding his gaze. ‘That you belong to me.’

‘That we belong together,’ corrected Motz.

‘Yes,’ said Raf, but Motz knew he hadn’t meant it like that.

 

Excerpted from Mareike Fallwickl, “Dunkelgrün fast schwarz” © Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt GmbH, Frankfurt am Main 2018.

The Woman from the East

Author: Katja Oskamp
Translator: Jo Heinrich

 

She does what she feels she has to, she is in charge of her own fate and she never plays the victim. The most powerful thing the GDR brought to the table was its feminine side. A portrait.

21:30, Fulda Station, platform 3: shift begins. Sabrina stands at the deserted platform edge, on her back a rucksack with the company logo. She chews some gum while she waits. A stocky woman with wavy blonde hair, she is forty years old; she wears sturdy trainers, three-quarter length jeans and a t-shirt with the bold inscription in English ‘Total Life Forever’. The train draws in and comes to a halt. Sabrina grabs the bars by the door with both hands, and quickly climbs up the three steps into the train’s cab, as if she were emerging from a swimming pool to dry off. In the cab with its smell of heat and metal, she turns to slam the iron door shut behind her. She throws off her rucksack and swings up into her seat behind the enormous control panel. This is the Taurus, a bull amongst engines, and Sabrina’s favourite. When it starts up it makes a little ascending tune, a scale in C-major: surprisingly dainty for this booming, quivering beast. Sabrina hums along. ‘Goes like hell,’ she says to herself, enthroned in her executive seat with its headrest and its fancy suspension, which sways and rocks her body. Her gold earrings flash as they catch the light.

Sabrina is a train driver, and today she needs to take an empty train to Regensburg. She’s alone for the journey. She zigzags across Germany for ten days in a row, every day a different engine, every night a different hotel, or vice versa, depending on her shift. She presides over nearly 10,000 horsepower and a 641-metre train, gliding out into the greenish-blue summer evening.

Sabrina was born in the Weissensee area of Berlin. She is the product of a mishap between an ageing cook and a seventeen-year-old unskilled cook’s assistant. The cook had family elsewhere, and soon disappeared from the scene. Her mother beat, bullied, and neglected her unwanted child. Her grandfather threatened to go to court and demanded custody. From then on, Sabrina grew up with her grandparents. It was, in fact, her granddad who had chosen her name and written her a poem when she was born. He took his granddaughter to swim training, and celebrated her victories. When Sabrina was nine, he sent her to advanced Russian classes. He worked as an engineer in a tyre factory, and when he came home late, Sabrina would be waiting for him so that he could wish her a good night. When she was twelve, her granddad died. She could see the ambulance in front of the house when she came home from school. After that, Sabrina was alone with her overburdened grandma and she began to look after herself. To this day, she’s never visited her granddad’s grave, and she’s no longer in contact with her mother.

At fourteen, Sabrina started at a residential school for prospective Russian teachers. Out of 150 students, 140 were girls, brought together from all over the GDR. The days at the elite school were severely regimented: up at six, ‘political information’ three times a week in Russian, supervised homework, countless obligatory sessions and strictly regulated results. Sabrina’s grades were very good, and it was only for conduct that she was consistently getting average marks. Her hair was dyed red at that point, and looked like a broom. When the head instructed her to kindly get a proper haircut, she turned up the next morning with a shaved head, and was expelled from the school. That was at the end of the tenth year. She got on a train and went back to Berlin. When she got there, her old friend Mirco was at the station.

In the summer holidays, Sabrina went to the careers advice centre. The woman working there said she’d come much too late: all the apprenticeships had been allocated long before. Sabrina didn’t give up: ‘I’ll do anything but cooking,’ she said. That September, she started an apprenticeship with Deutsche Reichsbahn, on the railways. 500 trainees, one girl. In the summer of 1988, she finished the apprenticeship and began shunting. In the spring of 1989, she became pregnant by Mirco. In the autumn of 1989, the Wall came down.

23:15, 119 kilometres, approaching Ochsenfurt. It’s dark now. Sabrina isn’t using a computer, nor does she need full beam. She could almost drive this stretch blindfolded. It’s as dark in the cab as it is outside. Only the drone of the engine cuts through the silence. Familiarity with the track is crucial in her line of work, she says. It takes time, and you can lose it over time, too. In the distance, flashes of lightning are twitching, snatching desolate cloudy visions out of the darkness for split seconds. There’s no thunder to be heard. Fat drops of rain burst noiselessly on the windscreen. Mute midsummer storms.

With the water on the tracks, the train begins to lurch. Sabrina imitates the faltering noise and drops sand onto the rails to maintain the traction between wheels and track. Then she gets her food out of the fridge. Mirco made her sandwiches for her. Mirco is a trained chef, just like the father Sabrina never got to know.

Although tiredness encroaches after midnight, Sabrina doesn’t drink coffee; in fact, she drinks very little during her shift, to avoid needing to go to the loo – there isn’t one. There are eighty train drivers working for Sabrina’s company, but only three are women. Sabrina operates in a man’s world, but she seems not to notice. It goes without saying, to her mind. The men can pee in a paper cup or out of the door while the train’s moving; she’d have to radio the signaller to ask if she could stop. But for Sabrina, every stop is a small setback. She wants to keep moving and clock off on time, if she can.

After she’s eaten, she lights a cigarette: a Marlboro Light, the long variety. It glows in her fingers. The Taurus has an ashtray on the wall with a hinged lid. The rain has eased off. A goods train comes towards her and turns up its headlights, like a three-eyed creature. Sabrina flashes her lights and raises a hand. When people working through the night see each other, they always give a friendly wave. It’s something the masses of people asleep right now have no idea about. Then once again, trees with empty nests sweep past, bleak stations, signals, lights.

Soon after the Wall came down, Sabrina gave birth to her son. She was twenty years old. After a year with the baby, when she wanted to go back to work, Deutsche Reichsbahn was about to merge with Deutsche Bundesbahn. She was offered a security job in Hanover, but she didn’t want to be a security guard, and she didn’t want to go to Hanover. She took severance pay and started training as a bilingual secretary, a career that the job centre suggested.

In their free time, Sabrina and Mirco trained in a gym that belonged to a Russian. Sabrina got just as obsessive about it as she had with her swim training as a child. Mirco became self-employed and set up a small haulage company. He took out a loan. Sabrina signed the agreement as guarantor. Work did not materialise, and Mirco was left without a job, but with plenty of debt. Instead of looking for work, Mirco lay around on the sofa all day. Sabrina had no idea how she could feed three people. She took her son and moved out, but then found she couldn’t bear the thought of breaking up her family, and she went back to Mirco. She sent him to see the Russian, who owned a nightclub as well as a gym. Mirco started working as a bouncer there. A door opened into a different world.

At some point, Mirco came home and suggested that Sabrina should go on the game. She agreed. Mirco didn’t force her into it: the fact that it was her decision is close to her heart. They had debts to pay and something had to be done. Sabrina abandoned her bilingual secretary training and took her ID and AIDS test results to the police station. She paid 150 marks in ‘lamppost rent’ every shift to the pimp she nicknamed ‘Ponce’. On the first night she didn’t earn a single penny.

More experienced colleagues taught her how to hustle, and how to pretend to give a blowjob while actually using a hand and a cheek. She secretly tried it out on Mirco. The extra-thick condom helped, and the long-haired wig hid Sabrina’s face. Mirco didn’t suspect a thing.

After that, the couple started their shifts once their son had gone to sleep. Sabrina would stand under the streetlight dressed as a Barbie doll, in high-heeled white boots, nude leggings, a wide belt done up tight, her face hidden under the wig of fake blonde hair. On a good day, she’d get fifteen customers in a shift. She went after her punters in their cars. Professional honour entailed driving her prices higher, and every little extra had its fee. Stripping off in a campervan: fifty marks for each item of clothing. Intimate shaving: a thousand marks. When a punter drove up with his car full of balloons for Sabrina to burst one by one with her stiletto heels, that was a month’s pay. On Mondays and Thursdays her regulars brought her something from McDonald’s. Mirco and his pals would sit in a car with binoculars and a notebook, writing down registration numbers and keeping an eye on the clock.

04:00, Regensburg Station. Her shift should have finished at 3:30. Sabrina waits for the green light, or a message over the radio, she clears up her things, pulls out a packet of wipes and cleans the control panel. ‘Hookers aren’t victims. They know exactly what they’re doing. It’s the punters who are the fools.’ It doesn’t even occur to Sabrina to regard herself as a victim, although it would be easy to, with everything that’s happened. She quickly learned to take her fate in her own hands instead, and never to let go of it again.

She drives the empty train into the siding, heaves the door open, climbs down the steps and uncouples it. She takes the engine to the marshalling yard, goes to the cab at the other end and parks the Taurus behind another engine. She sorts out the logbooks in their compartment and checks if the sand levels are OK, then turns off the electronic display. Sabrina puts her rucksack on her shoulder. She locks the engine up with a large key and, dawn breaking, she walks over gravel and timbers to the station, and then on towards her hotel.

On the day when all the debts had been paid, Sabrina stopped working on the streets. Mirco, now used to so much money, wanted her to carry on but Sabrina refused and got an admin job with the local authority, in the maintenance payments department. Every day she’d sort out papers, label them, and file them for a full eight hours. Mirco was back on the sofa again, but she never gave him a penny, not even for cigarettes. After a year he pulled himself together, registered at the benefits office and eventually started working behind the bar at a restaurant. In 1999, Sabrina got pregnant for a second time. She stayed at home for three years with her daughter. In 2003 she completed further training to become a train driver. She was nostalgic for her first job, which she’d loved and had never been able to do for long. Six years ago she started working for the company she’s still with: a rail transport business dealing exclusively with freight.

13:30, Regensburg Station, Burger King. After a sleep, Sabrina has a late breakfast of a Whopper meal. She’s feeling good. Her shift starts at 14:30. Sabrina puts on her hi-vis vest, heaves her rucksack over her broad shoulders and trudges to the marshalling yard under the hot midday sun. She unlocks the twenty-metre-long engine, this time a 189, which has a narrow corridor. The steel floor panels clatter with every step she takes. She gets a dustpan and brush to clear out the gravel walked in by the drivers before her. The train is loaded with cars: 23 wagons, 1090 tonnes. Sabrina uses the wagon list to fill out the brake data sheet, calculate the brake weight and the braked weight percentage, and she inputs all the data into the computer. She reports that the train is ready to leave. 16:54 departure, on schedule. As soon as the train leaves the depot Sabrina can let rip, back to Fulda again. She ensconces herself in her seat, her gold earrings flashing in the light, pirate-style. You would never believe that this strapping train driver once stood under a lamppost in a Barbie outfit. She’s just done what she felt she had to. Keeping afloat comes naturally to her.

Sometimes she’s asked if she’s ashamed of her past as a sex worker. But she’s not. ‘If I hadn’t done it, we’d probably still be in debt now. We made a fortune! For me, it’s also part of being an adult: you look in the mirror and think to yourself, “This is me, that’s it.” I always wanted a normal family. And I wanted it with Mirco. For one thing, I really fancy him, and then he’s also my best friend. And the father of my children. And my housewife.’

When she gets to Würzburg, she rings Mirco, who’s had a dentist’s appointment today. After that, she helps her daughter with her homework as she operates the vigilance system and the driver’s brake valve. Fragments of Bavarian and northern German voices waft through the cab from the radio, and there’s a croaking sound whenever the last wagon leaves a tunnel. ‘Sifa! Sifa!’ a recorded woman’s voice pipes out at regular intervals, which means Sabrina has to step on the driver safety switch pedal under her controls to let the system know that she is still conscious, or else the engine will automatically come to an emergency stop. It might have been nice if there had been someone in Sabrina’s life to ask if she was coping every now and then, to keep the plates spinning for her if necessary. But there wasn’t.

21:15, arriving into ‘fucking Fulda’, as railway workers affectionately call the junction. She clears up; her replacement is already standing on the platform. In the evening sun, Sabrina climbs down out of the engine backwards as if she were getting into a swimming pool.

Her granddad, in his time, made sure she was able to swim. These days she can even dive. She did a diving course with her family on her last holiday in Egypt. Only her son stayed at home – he’s twenty-one, and lives with his girlfriend in a flat of their own. The girlfriend is pregnant. Sabrina will be a grandma by Christmas.

 

Originally published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 25 September 2010, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of German reunification.

The Green Frontier: A Fantasy

Author: Isabel Fargo Cole
Translator: Isabel Fargo Cole


The future stands bright before us; the past remains uncertain.
Soviet-era joke


1998

At college I majored in history. It was just after we won the Cold War. Isn’t history over? a friend asked, and I said, That would be boring.

This is how it looks when history is over.

The Harz Mountains, nothing but high hills. A backwater – a wilderness once. Goethe and Heine passed through on foot to find fairytales from Germany’s geographical heart. Much later came the strangest fairytale: this heart severed for decades by a nearly impenetrable border (technology indistinguishable from magic) that one day dissolved into thin air. Leaving the town of Sorge, just east of it, stretched out in the valley like a train stopped at a crossing.

Sorge: sorrow, trouble, care. Toward the west the northern slope turns steep, crags looming in the woods over the embankment left from the long-distance railroad; the narrow-gauge line, still in use, curves from a side valley to cross the river, the Warme Bode, its bridge like a natural end to the Bode Valley. Beyond the bridge, to the west, the wooded slopes draw together, the green of the river meadows turns impenetrable as the paint of a picture; only a child asks what lies behind a painting. Where exactly was the border? When I look for it, I see it everywhere, in each break in the forest. And yet I see nothing. No sign of the legendary Cold War.

“Over there, where the river bends, that’s where our section of the border started,” said Wolfgang, my primary source for that war’s losing side. “We were stationed in Elend.”

The next town north, Elend: misery, hardship. The stream, a mere trickle, is that the river that forms the frontier? It flows toward town, but no one asks where it comes from. Every river has its source, but who goes searching for it?

The narrow-gauge line continues east on the south slope, past farmhouses and vacation rentals, then bends off into the woods. Across the river on the highway cars barrel on into the west as though this route had never been blocked off. Tucked between the river and the rail line are several half-timbered houses with the look of abandoned vacation rentals, the old sawmill, a neglected fish pond, a grove of trees. Then fields open up on both slopes, pushing the forest edge back to the horizon.

On the north slope, auf der Lindewarte – with a view of the Brocken peak, where Goethe’s witches danced – the forest ends, a clean cut down to the village. Where the path emerges to cross the fields, two firs step forward from the dense block of trees. Next to them a house, ten years vacant. Unclarified to this day – who owns it now, what happened back then.

All this: from above. All that a passerby can see and know. The village reveals little. Nothing that I can detect. At the end of a long hike, with the last bus about to leave below, I’d need to stave off haste and weariness and take one real look. From up above: as though through clear water. From the surface I immerse my gaze.

 

Part I
Chapter 1
1973

On the first morning, May 8, waking up with aching muscles. Finding yourself in a strange place. Or: in your own space, once again. First a forgotten place, later on in the wardrobe, under your foster-father’s desk, in a bunk in the children’s home, in the barracks, finally an abandoned apartment you claimed. Where you sensed for the first time, falling asleep, how room is joined to room, building to building, street to street, you to the city. The city of Berlin, there for the taking, if you join the conquerors whose steps echo on the pavement. At first, that too forgotten, the bombs’ footfall shook the streets, where only they could walk. Later men’s feet, foreign march music. Running out onto the street to see. The city lying in heaps like building blocks. It builds itself up – you help build. In the hope of achieving something of your own. In the hope of a reward: possessing something of your own. Something to which you have no claim whatsoever: another person, say. The desire is so strong, you’re afraid of doing damage. As if you could pass down the streets like an air raid.  Laughable conceit – you’re the one who bears the damage.

But now all that was left out of the picture. That was the crucial thing about his own space: now, at this moment, Thomas knew nothing. Now, at this moment, nothing had happened.

It was his birthday, that was all he knew. Music drifted up, festive sounds. He was lying on a mattress amid boxes and unfamiliar furniture. Carefully he got up and went to the window. So here he was. In the hills. The march music so lost in the landscape. Like an elfin procession, tiny figures, flags, trumpets to hunt for in the picture’s grey-green depths. Springtime, childhood feelings: running onto the street when the ordeal is over. Liberation Day.

A smell of coffee. Editha sat in the kitchen, sunlight on her blond braid, one hand on her belly, as though she were trying to remember as well: Where was she and what was all this? But she had only been waiting for him; when he sat down next to her, she jumped up, kissed him on the top of the head, poured him coffee and made for the moving boxes, tugging and rummaging.

“As if it were your birthday!” he called after her.

“I feel as if it were!”

She came into the kitchen, a box propped on her belly.

“Not so fast,” he said, taking the box and setting it on the table. “First let’s have our breakfast in peace and quiet. Then you bake my cake, if you don’t mind, and I’ll tidy up.”

He meant to sound teasing, not peevish. But teasing was her territory. “That’s just how I thought you’d act on your birthday! As if we had a national holiday just for you!”

In fact he’d hardly ever celebrated his birthday. Once or twice perhaps. Last year he’d still been on his own. Now he had a craving for cake. He took a deep breath, felt a twinge in his ribs. The unfailing pain, more frequent the past few weeks, when he’d had to run so many errands in the city.

“I must have strained a muscle yesterday,” he said.

She sat where she was, as he’d asked her to, and gazed at him. “You’ve got phantom pains. You’re pregnant too.”

He laughed. “I have something to tell you,” but he didn’t know what. She looked at him in alarm, but why, when suddenly he felt so light? “This is my first pregnancy.”

“Mine too!”

“And I have no idea –”

“Yes?”

“What actually –”

“Yes?”

“How –”

“Oh, I haven’t the faintest idea either. About family and all that. You’ve met my mother. I might as well be an orphan too. I practically raised myself!”

“Then you know the score, that’s good.”

“Oh, we’ll do it all wrong, whatever we do.” She got up.

He felt a rush of confidence.

“First, the cake!” she said, sent him to fetch the boxes of groceries and got to work.

Taking a deep breath, Thomas looked around: the former dining room with the picture window would be Editha’s sculpture studio. They’d put most of the furniture here last night, where it would remain while he fixed up the other rooms. What a day that had been. Editha had organized the moving van and a driver with a smoker’s cough, almost too feeble to steer. He’d have to carry all the furniture with this scrawny fellow’s help, Thomas fretted for much of the hundred and fifty miles, astounded by Editha’s sangfroid as she sat squeezed in the middle, navigating, chatting with the driver and even cadging a smoke to mark the occasion.

And so Thomas felt nothing as they left the city behind; floating in a numbing cloud, he finally fell asleep. He woke up when they stopped at the first checkpoint. It was already dark. Glaring lights, officials searching the jumble of wedged-together furniture that suddenly seemed unfamiliar and suspicious. At last they were waved on, escorted by two soldiers on motorcycles. The headlights lit up crooked streets, sagging timbers, cracks in wall plaster, ancient straw protruding, grass by the roadside, tree trunks, two tall firs, a lonely house. When Editha hauled herself out of the cab belly first, the soldiers immediately began to help unload – as she’d clearly anticipated. Gangly kids serving their compulsory two years, bitterly-earned muscles, incongruous baby faces, undisciplined skin rife with stubble and pimples. He felt sorry for them, so gawky and eager to please. Like him, once. He forgot to ask their names.

All these things set in motion by an unintended child. There were just two months left.

He’d lain awake that night, his cramped body chafing at the edges of this unfamiliar room. In dreams he later forgot, he performed one movement over and over, turning in circles. The cramp had dissolved when the music called him to the window. Now he faced this furniture, half of it his, and recognized none of it. A jumble like a junk shop. A week ago it had stood in his Berlin apartment in arrangements now dissolved, even in his memory. He indulged himself in a pleasant game: he was back at the junk shop, picking it out all over again.

A whole convoy of cars passed down in the valley. He forced himself not to look. He arranged and rearranged the furniture until it looked like a place where life could play out.

“Nice job!” said Editha, lowering herself slowly, sweating, into an armchair. “You don’t need to go to all that trouble though, it’s only temporary.”

“But it all fits.”

“We have the whole house!”

She’d told him all about the old family inn, restored at last to her mother Margarethe. But he’d never seen the house. They’d come to the Harz Mountains just once, to Elend, in March, to visit Margarethe (Elend, misery, hardship, mother-in-law – the jokes he had to put up with from his friends …). That weekend everything was cordoned off for some reason, evidently no unusual occurrence in the 5-km-wide Restricted Zone along the border. At any rate, it was impossible to go the few miles to Sorge to see the house, and Margarethe claimed not to have a single photo of it. He’d been ready and willing to admire it. But as no one seemed bothered he’d shrugged his shoulders too and wasn’t bothered either and just had to be polite and not admire anything.

“I guess I can’t believe my luck.”

March music again, again it drew him to the window. But the exhaustion remained.

Editha joined him. “Do you see anything?” He shook his head. “We could go down and look.”

“True, I suppose we ought to show our faces.”

“Oh – we both have good excuses. And it’s your birthday. But if you want… the cake has to cool off anyway.”

“Let’s go look, then.”

They took the shortcut, straight down the hillside along the forest edge. The official path down through the fields zigzagged first to the next village, Tanne, barely half a mile east, but already outside the Restricted Zone; a checkpoint intervened. And the forest path took too long for Editha. Free of the city, the lowlands, she took the breakneck downhill plunge. Slipped in the wet grass, caught herself, laughed; Thomas, trying to catch her, slipped and fell. When they reached the crossing, it began to pour, and they ducked under the eaves of the hotel Sorgenfrei. Sans souci, thought Thomas, not that he spoke French. No sign of a parade, the music was gone. The village seemed abandoned. Everyone had gone where the music was playing, the wreaths were laid down. Wherever that was. They looked at each other and shrugged; when the rain let up, they went back. Editha lit candles on the kitchen table, arranged the flowers, picked that morning, still wet, poured brandy in Thomas’ coffee. A sense of relief, but not celebration. The people down there might well feel the same. An ordeal has passed, the music promised: May is come and winter gone. No one would dare deny it. But liberation was too big a word. Waiting and seeing.

He pulled her onto his lap. “I’m much too big and heavy for you!” she laughed, but he liked it that way.

Again he couldn’t sleep. It alarmed him: that he’d woken up remembering his birthday, not the baby. That the very first thing was his old story. Whenever he asked himself where the baby actually was, he found himself back in that space. Alone. Now, in this moment, nothing had happened. Was it going to start? Start over from the beginning?

Half asleep, he was thrown back on himself, back to Berlin. He was still hurrying through the streets. With so much to take care of before the move to the Harz, all unfinished business seemed unbearably urgent. After each shopping trip, each bureaucratic appointment, he took the long way back through the city center’s old, tangled streets. Slow but still harried, breathing shallowly, scalp tense, heart racing, he peered into identical-seeming entryways, unable to read the faded pre-war lettering, a foreign alphabet? What felt familiar was the maze of the streets, secret paths, hiding places… Might he find the place after all? But this wasn’t about him. This was all about his child. It couldn’t start until this here was taken care of. Couldn’t start all over until… The place was nowhere to be found. It was meant that way. Meant for heavy boots, panting dogs to pass by.

Those who have gone, all that has vanished has merely moved, living on in an unknown street. Those who leave East Berlin find themselves in West Berlin. All that vanishes is the warmth of touch: what is left are trajectories, paths, streets intersecting at infinity. No Wall can hold back these memories, these encounters that are none because the life has fled from them, why is there no such wall?

Now, in his dream, though he hadn’t gone far, he came up against some resistance, no visible obstacle, but suddenly there was no going further. Here he stopped, almost relieved.

Outside the wind rose, a long intake of breath dissolved the tightness in his chest. He inhaled and exhaled and waited for the woods to exhale too. A long, wide span of silence. By the time the wind came again, he was calm. Opening his eyes, he saw with relief the arrangement of the furniture. Clouds glowed in the window bay. Editha slept nude, belly and breasts, shoulders, hips, hair, all her heavy curves suspended, a voluptuous figure sketched in charcoal, swift and sure. To think that this woman existed. He breathed deep. That she slept so calmly. That nothing seemed to touch her. But a shadow flitted across her belly: a hand grazed her from within. She too was sleepless. Waiting.

What had Editha said? I might as well be an orphan! So cheerful. Once, in passing, she’d said her father had died on the front, her grandfather in the last-ditch defense of the town. For her that seemed to be all there was to it. Children like to play orphans. They have their reasons.

The next morning Thomas thought he heard music from a different direction, the Russians celebrating their own holiday: Victory Day.

“But there aren’t any Russians around. The last of them were stationed in here. Now there’s just the base in Aschersleben,” said Editha.

“What do you mean, in here?”

“In ’45 they used the house for their headquarters. Only until ’49, though. After that our men moved in.”

“And what were they doing here?”

“Drinking coffee. How should I know! The main thing is, they’re all gone now. It was probably too drafty for them.”

Editha had dreaded finding old junk lying around. Even an old button in a corner would have… revolted her. A quirk of hers she’d first discovered in Berlin, when the Spartan dorm room delivered her from Margarethe’s book-filled lair. The sense of liberation was so keen that a single grubby coin on the windowsill brought her painfully down to earth – as though she’d found something rotting there. But this big room was cool, bare, bright, a studio already, smelling of elemental substances. Great canvasses waiting for colors and forms. If only it weren’t for the blotchy wallpaper. Put up by Grandpa? By the Russians? By our men?
She wasn’t sure she wanted to know.

The house wasn’t that big after all. A few small rooms clustered around the old dining room. The kitchen had just space enough for a table next to the prewar stove and the postwar refrigerator. But there was hot running water. A narrow flight of stairs, three little rooms under the roof, dust, pigeon feathers, spiders drifting down, trapped heat, the smell of wood and must. “Where do you want to have your study?”

Study: it all came back to him, the high ceiling with its moldings, the Berlin courtyard outside the window, elder bushes… He stepped into the room on the west side, feeling, slight as he was, as though he had to stoop. At the gable end the forest loomed outside the window, a tiny window on the left wall overlooked the valley, a puddle on the buckling brown flooring beneath it. But he felt at home in this thicket of light and shadow. All right, then: the bedroom would go next door, and the nursery on the eastern end. Thomas was silent, incredulous. An entire house. In its very emptiness it seemed still – already? – to belong to other people.

“You mean, they might make us share the place? I’d like to see them try! Housing shortage or not, I’m a sculptor, and I have a right to a studio! It was a struggle, though, I have to say. It’s a good thing we have the mayor on our side. With his cultural ambitions. He has big plans for us, we’ll have to go along. You have no idea how important the mayors are here in the Restricted Zone, constantly negotiating, getting special deals from the powers that be to keep their townspeople happy. Not an easy job. As far as I’m concerned, the townspeople can come here and I’ll give art lessons, then they’ll get something out of it. They’ll be glad in the end! That we’re crazy enough to live in this dump! The roof leaks and it’s probably haunted.”

He could tell she felt at home here, clattering about, voice echoing. Nothing was left. No trace of the old furnishings, not a sagging chair, not a picture: The Brocken by Moonlight. Nothing of our men, nothing of the Russians, no whiff of bootblack or Palekh-ware. But the
emptiness smelled of what had vanished. Neither he nor she knew what that was.

“Well, I’m going shopping. And I’m sure you have things to do!”

“Oh,” he said, “I was just feeling so…”

So comfortable. He didn’t want to move from the spot. Once Editha had left, he got up and stretched his back to buy time. Time he didn’t have. On Monday he started work at the House of Books. One more time he walked through all the rooms. Outside the windows the valley, the village. It awed him the way the city awes a villager; he couldn’t simply stroll out of the house. His house, he thought. His. Whoever had lived here, whoever was to come, innkeepers, dinner guests, entire armies, it was his for now. And if he wanted, he could paint the walls black. Drum solo – Charlie Watts! A mad rush down the stairs. Margarethe hadn’t managed once to come over from Elend, but she’d organized the necessities, plaster, mortar, paint, he’d have to make do with white. A trowel, brushes, he’d brought a paint roller. All he needed was a ladder.

Find a ladder: that was his first task. And there it all began.

He took the shortcut, just what he needed, that stumbling downhill momentum. Down to the road, then a few hundred yards to the west. On the left, below the road, the big farmhouses along the Warme Bode nestled in the fold of the valley. A hiking group approached, cheerful hellos, curious looks, the vacationers took him for a native and wondered what one wonders: What’s it like to live here? By the time he reached the crossing – the road went on westward, but there was nothing down that way, you turned left across the bridge into the village – everything seemed deserted. Most people worked in the factories in Königshütte or Benneckenstein, a bus picked them up before each shift.

It all gleamed in the sun, in the lush greenery, freshly painted, great ancient half-timbered houses and ones with wood cladding, striped red and white, the clear-cut crisscross of the planks and beams, the brick-red and slate gleam of the lofty roofs. The heart of the village, across from the hotel Sorgenfrei, yesterday hidden by rain; he entered it as though he’d never set foot in a village before. All he knew were the towns outside Berlin, stretched long and low and grey along the roads. This here was a picture from a picture book, turn of the century, opulent yet clear in its lines.

The one old story: someone sets out from home to arrive in the bustling city. And the other: a weary wanderer heads down into a village.

He knocked here and there; at last, in an outbuilding, he heard steps. A diminutive woman peered up at him, hair short and smooth and slate-grey, eyes blinking, a sleepy bird. “Hello, my name is Thomas Grünberg, my wife and I just moved into the house on the hill. I was wondering if I could borrow a ladder.”

The brown eyes turned suspicious, still sleepy, a sleepiness that seemed to perturb her.

“We’d like to keep it a while, if possible,” he went on, unnerved, “we have to renovate, paint…”

“Hold it right there, young man.” Now with demonstrative vigor. “Not so fast. Can I see your papers?”

He rummaged through his pockets, was it the wrong jacket, that eternal pang of fear… He held out his ID with the stamp for the Restricted Zone.

“Well, well. Let’s see what we can do for you. Frau Barthel.” She gave him her hand. “We’d better sort it out with the policeman.”

Who was just coming around the corner. Thomas had to tell the whole story again, and yet again when two members of the Voluntary Auxiliary of the Border Troops joined them. The sun shone too hot on Thomas’ head. All three withdrew to confer. Frau Barthel asked them in and put the kettle on, but no one made himself comfortable. The policeman went to make a phone call, one Member of the Auxiliary followed Frau Barthel into the shed, and the other waited in the kitchen, keeping an eye on Thomas and the kettle. A burly man with short sand-blond hair. The water came to a boil, and he poured it over the grounds.

“Coffee?”

“No, thanks.”

“Heckmann.”

“Grünberg.”

“Welcome to Sorge.” He stared at Thomas to see if his mouth would twitch at the name. “Whereabouts are you from again?”

“Berlin.”

“Ah.”

Did that seal his fate? But Frau Barthel came into the kitchen and said: “There, you see, we’ve got it all sorted out.”

The policeman took his leave; the Members of the Auxiliary lifted the ladder onto their shoulders and motioned Thomas to go in front, as though he knew the way better than they. Frau Barthel flitted along after them. On the slope – he took the shortcut on purpose – Thomas heard the men gasp for breath behind him. He could hardly breathe himself. For fury. How humiliating, this Procession to Calvary. Editha, at the window, covered her face with her hands; her shoulders shook. When their eyes met, he nearly burst out laughing himself.

“I was about to call the police,” she said at the door, “but there was no need for that, I see.”

She had already divided the leftover birthday cake among five plates. But the visitors lingered in the corridor, looking around with such blatant curiosity that Editha offered a tour of the construction site. On the top floor Heckmann could barely stand upright; hunched over, he seemed to peer the more sharply into the corners.

“It’s not as big as it looks from outside,” he said at last with satisfaction.

“When I was little, it seemed like a fairy-tale castle!” The guests’ surliness enlivened Editha, inspired her to strike up the opposite tone. “I come from Elend, but I used to walk over here sometimes just to see the house. It really does look bigger from down there. But I think it’s wonderful. And it’s wonderful to be back here in the Harz!”

The others smiled tentatively, not equal to such artlessness. In the end Editha’s belly mollified them. Frau Barthel stared at her in dreamy consternation, inevitable effect of mothers-to-be on older ladies? When Editha smiled at her, she averted her eyes. After eating her cake she fixed Thomas with a different, grim gaze.

“I have to go now. I have to go to the library. They let me go. They don’t let me work full time anymore. You’ve come to replace me.”

“Oh, you’re the librarian?”

She got to her feet. “I’ll see you on Monday.”

The Members of the Auxiliary got up hastily, having neglected their duties long enough. Herr Heckmann warned Thomas not to leave the ladder outside, to lock it up at night or secure it with a chain.

Thomas fled upstairs. They’d known who he was all along. The whole village knew. He began tearing down the wallpaper. The perfect task for an angry man unsure what he was angry at.

“Say, what was that all about?” he asked at dinner. He told the whole story from the beginning.

“That’s how people are here. When a newcomer shows up, they have to look him over first, sound him out, maybe take him for a ride. They don’t mean any harm. I don’t think they mean any harm.”

“But all that fuss about a ladder?”

“Well, what on earth were you thinking? You can’t just go running around with a ladder! You might climb over the Wall!”

He laughed until his scalp hurt.

“Yes, you could die laughing around here,” she said.

Her mood did seem somewhat dampened.

That night in bed he couldn’t lie still.

“Why do you keep jiggling your foot?”

“I can’t get the Rolling Stones out of my head.”

The next day the mayor came to welcome them to the village. He’d been busy with the Liberation Day festivities, he excused himself with an earnestness that was hardly reassuring. As though, left on their own, they might have gotten into all kinds of trouble. Tall, gaunt, greybearded, he should have radiated dignity, not this peculiar tension. It filled his sonorous voice as he expressed his delight that a man of books had chosen to settle here in Sorge and start work in the House of Books. He looked forward to the first literary soiree he’d have the privilege of organizing with him. Thomas froze: he began to grasp the role that was prepared
for him.

In parting the mayor handed Thomas a brochure explaining the special regulations in the Restricted Zone.

“They have signs up everywhere anyway,” said Editha.

But there was no sign pointing to Sorge. Coming from the east, you passed through the checkpoint just outside Tanne, where vacationers had to leave their car. Once in Sorge, all roads led back east. You could hike to the reservoir in Mandelholz and have a coffee at the restaurant there. Or take the short stroll south to Benneckenstein, a popular destination in June for the Finch Singing Competition. There was no direct path to Elend, the next village north in the Restricted Zone, only the detour via Tanne. Which was no problem at all, you simply showed the special stamp in your papers.

Neither Elend nor Sorge showed up on the maps you could buy in the store. But most people knew their names, at least from a certain subgenre of jokes. The Berliners had been in stitches. Here’s a new one: Did you know socialism’s true home is in the Harz? Between Trouble and Misery.

Margarethe would have set them straight, just as she’d set Thomas straight when he sat in her parlor for the first time that March. She lectured him on linguistic corruption and folk etymology. Explained that Sorge meant “border” and Elend “abroad”. Sorge: from Middle High German Zarge, border, Elend: from Old High German eli lenti, a strange land.

She looked at him as sharply as though that were some delicate innuendo, so he said, “Fascinating.”

“What’s fascinating about it? There was a Benedictine monastery in Ilsenburg, the Cistercians were in Walkenried. The border between the two holdings was here in the middle. The monks from Ilsenburg would spend the night here, their first night ‘in a strange land’ – a day’s walk from Ilsenburg. Just over seven miles. That’s how narrow people’s horizons were.”

“There is a certain historical irony.”

“What irony? Old borders are kept up, between monastery holdings, between princedoms. Ninety percent of ‘historical ironies’ are simply historical laws.”

“What you’re saying is actually quite interesting,” Thomas persisted with the charming twinkle in his eyes that concealed many things, anger, or the actual spark of an important idea. “Then it’s like old paths. Once they’re made, they’re used over and over. Indian trails.”

“The Ottonian Roads,” said Editha.

“Ah, yes, Editha told me you’d written about those medieval roads, hollowed out into the ground…”

“‘Shrouded in mystery,’ as they say in the tourist brochures. What’s so mysterious about erosion? Yes, people want to go where everyone has always gone. Rationally speaking that’s utterly banal. And what radically different realms did those old borders separate? Two fiefdoms, a kingdom and a duchy, one Reichsgau and another Reichsgau. This here was Hanover. Tanne was Brunswick. Sorge used to be the Prussians. It only gets interesting today: for the first time the border separates two profoundly different social systems. NATO’s sphere of influence and the community of socialist states. That’s something a thinking person can find a deeper meaning in. Until socialism triumphs over there as well. Until then you can go on being fascinated by the border!”

Thomas choked down the dry cake like an unraised objection. Margarethe had no time to bake herself; she bought her cake every Wednesday when she gave her lectures at the Museum of Feudalism in Wernigerode. He stuffed more in his mouth, just to keep his objections down. But Editha looked at him so expectantly.

He formed his supple smile. “Tell us a Harz legend.”

Margarethe nearly barked in protest. “Look one up yourself! I’ve written papers on various aspects – I don’t go retelling the legends.” She shook her head and coughed. Or was it a gruff laugh?

“Mutti used to read this to me.” Editha had taken a book from the shelf: “The Development of Early Capitalism as Reflected in Harz Folklore. I had to think up the fairytales to go along with it. You hid all the fairy books.”

“Nonsense! You never asked for any. I thought you didn’t want to read the same old fairytales as the other kids. That’s my daughter for you! You might as well know now! You can never tell what she’s thinking!”

Thomas excused himself to use the toilet.

“Hm, one of those modern intellectuals,” he heard Margarethe say. “Where on earth did you come up with him?”

“Oh, that’s a long story!” Editha mimicked her Berlin girlfriends’ confessional coquetry – knowing her mother had no stomach for anything that sounded like gossip. Neither did Editha. It wasn’t like her, that was why Margarethe now lapsed into alienated silence. Which made Editha take pity on her after all. “We met at an exhibition opening, you know, at the buffet, over a glass of Crimean champagne…”

Margarethe had to nod as though she knew. Yet she’d never come to Editha’s exhibitions, hadn’t visited a single time all the years Editha had lived in Berlin. People from the Harz, Editha was constantly having to explain, are real mountain folk. Everyone hunkered in their own little valley.

Thomas stepped outside. Darkness was falling. The village lay in a shallow basin; the crests of the hills, low as they were, still hid the nearby Brocken. And so you felt you could not go much further. You were almost at the top, albeit on a small scale. After all, the village green boasted the smallest wooden church in Germany. Thomas felt stuck in the middle of a railroad set. The only person conscious that the entire village was stuck on a tabletop. Resentfully he fingered the special pass in his coat pocket: a pass for the back of beyond. The cake turned acid in his stomach. What a woman. So unlike Editha, so small and fidgety, so voluble, as though she constantly had to prove someone wrong. Who, him? She didn’t even know him. And hadn’t asked any of the questions he’d been prepared for, about his work (you write books?!) or his family, hadn’t even offered coffee and cake, Editha had gone to the kitchen to fetch it as Margarethe launched on her harangue. He’d nearly lost his temper. But this fragile little person seemed unable to help herself.

Editha, behind him, said: “She likes you.”

“How so?”

“Maybe she likes green eyes too.”

He smiled, nastily or nicely, he didn’t know himself.

“I think she was looking forward to showing us the house.”

“That’s not exactly the impression I got.”

“She’s so – funny sometimes.”

“Anyway, it’s too bad. I would have loved to see it.”

It was a polite phrase, no more. In the train he’d felt a sudden wave of anticipation; now he felt cheated of something. But that wasn’t it.

He didn’t know until the next day, when they took a walk through the forested hills above the village. The trees lay every which way: in November a hurricane had struck. Thomas had seen it even from the train: the forest he’d imagined had been brutally cleared. It shocked him like the sight of the rubble fields when, nine years old, he’d first come to Berlin. A moment of horror, then childish cynicism – never again would he picture the future, because destruction would have intervened – then awe at this destruction, then horror at his own response.

Now, as the path crossed a ravaged slope, he suddenly saw for miles. In the distance an endless white swath wound through the forest. The blinding snow dissolved contours, heights and depths; the longer he looked, the less he could make out, everything extinguished by glimmering light. Picture a figure approaching that swath, and it would flicker out, black in white, against the light you could feel from here, an electrical field. Inconceivable, that such things happened. That someone could cross that field.

He saw the border for the first time. Berlin was too flat. The only observation decks were on the other side. He’d never been on top of the Television Tower. What a privilege to stand here. To spend the rest of his life here. They let you in?! Not long before, he and his Berlin friends had celebrated the approval of his application to move to the Restricted Zone. Celebrated was an exaggeration. They’d drunk to it. His friends were at a loss, while he felt… hollow. He’d been x-rayed and nothing had been found. Results negative. He could count himself lucky.

Now he felt how lucky. To have come as far as you could possible go. Before you the clean break. You faced this view as though from a Caspar David Friedrich cliff. And you could hurl yourself off, or not. That was the brilliance of this clearly drawn line. You had to decide. You decided of your own free will: I want to live. Live a perfectly normal life.

And once you’d made that decision, once you’d looked long enough, the sight was almost  soothing. That line was so very complete. It seemed to stretch into infinity.

 

Excerpted from Isabel Fargo Cole, Die Grüne Grenze, Edition Nautilus, Hamburg, 2017.

So Much Life

Author: Andreas Neeser
Translator: Frances Jackson

 

Honegger folded up the map, stowed it in his small rucksack and turned down the narrow cobbled street in the town’s old quarter. His steps became shorter as he drew close to the antiquarian bookshop, his shallow, energy-saving gait breezier. Honegger bobbed and bounced, as if some spot of impending good fortune needed to be stalled for a few moments.

Since the death of his mother, he had not made a single journey without investing at least a day in lonely visits to antiquarian booksellers. And he always had his mother’s book in his luggage, a lavishly illustrated, leather-bound Bible from the year 1736 that sat nicely in the hand and had been found while the house was being cleared out.

Over the years, his wife – more in silent protest than out of any real inclination – had acquired a taste for exploring new places independently, gradually turning the unwished-for gift of freedom into an unfettered pleasure. Even the idea that she had her departed mother-in-law to thank for this particular good fortune had become less disconcerting as time went by.

For years, Ida had nursed his mother, transforming the spare bedroom into a fully-equipped sickroom. The cancer would not and could not be held in check. Sometimes it seemed to Ida that her mother-in-law was taking her own sweet time, too, enjoying the attention of her nurse in an overbearing and frankly unseemly manner. She felt as though old Mrs. Honegger were savouring the monopolising presence that she had assumed in her son’s life as a tacit triumph over his timid attempts to live his own life. Well, she’s got him back now, thought Ida sometimes, and fancied that she could detect a slight improvement in the general condition of the bed-ridden patient. The knowledge that this terminally-ill woman, who had never let her son out of her clutches, also held sway over Ida herself was what hurt most of all and some days made it almost impossible to provide her with reasonably tender care.

To Ida, the mother-in-law’s death felt like the potent fulfilment of a repeatedly deferred and ultimately forgotten promise, a defiant capitulation, the perfidiousness of which lay in its unannounced, noiseless secrecy. She wanted to turn the end, for which she had not always been waiting patiently, but at least with the appropriate degree of respect, into a beginning. For both herself and for her husband she wanted a life that they might call their own, something to fill the void. But his sudden passion for old books nipped all her efforts in the bud, afforded no freedom apart from exploring tourist destinations alone. However beseechingly she asked – what it was that he was looking for or hoped to find, what he’d lost in the first place – she never learned anything that would have helped her to understand. The growing conviction that he himself didn’t understand either had reassured her and at any rate made the failure bearable.

Even at a distance it had seemed strange to Honegger that there was no window display indicating a shop where the antiquarian bookseller’s was supposed to be, according to the guidebook. Now, standing in front of the shop window and the dim, shabby entrance, it was obvious: Hutmacher’s Antique Books was closed. The black letters in their archaic Gothic script were affixed in an arc that spanned the shop window. Honegger placed a hand on the windowpane, went up so close with his head that his reflection disappeared and the room within became visible. The bookshop seemed to consist entirely of sets of wooden shelves, arranged in rows and interrupted only by a small cash desk in the middle of the room. The shelves had been emptied of everything but paperbacks; in a crate under the desk there was a stack of oversized leather-bound volumes that had evidently been discarded because they were damaged.

Honegger did not read any of the countless books that he acquired in antiquarian bookshops, nor did he select them for their content. Rather he asked to be shown the oldest books and examined them, every single one. Time and again he would open page after page, apparently at random, stare fixatedly for a few moments, head right up close, moving back and forth over the paper. In the join, it was the smells that were particularly distinctive, whereas at the edges the many different forms of discolouration became apparent. Whenever his wife asked him why he had bought a book, he said: The smell, Ida. The colours, the colouring, whatever. It’s chemistry, that’s what it is, so much life.

At first Ida had made an effort to overcome her inward resistance and show some interest in his fixation. She tried to recognise the different methods for tanning leather, estimate the age of the paper according to the grey tones or the patina. For the sake of her marriage, for the sake of her husband, who had always been a good husband to her, earned honest money as an attendant at the local public swimming baths, regularly went cycling with her, and not just over short distances. Neither of them had wanted children.

Honegger sensed her attempts at a rapprochement, but did not respond to them. If something couldn’t sustain a rapprochement, then it needed to be protected against infringement. With all due respect, Ida, he’d once said.

He took two steps back onto the pavement, looked around the street at a loss, consulted his watch and turned back to the bookshop – incredulous, reproachful. The doorframe was warped and out of shape, the dark green emulsion faded. Leaves of paint in all shapes and sizes curled up en masse beneath the letterbox. Dried-out, crumbly putty held the window pane in its frame, the brass coating of the handle lustreless and dull. At chest level, there was a piece of paper affixed to the pane with a bit of tape. It dangled against the glass, its edges curving away from the surface. Honegger bent down, tried in vain to decipher the three-line inscription with its exclamation mark and date. Looping letters, written by hand, and, it appeared, in some haste:

sed in
may!
001

Honegger leant to one side, looking for the beginning of the writing in the left-hand bulge of the paper, and followed it, letter by letter, to the right-hand margin, which had curled up away from the glass in the window. Honegger read as if from the Torah. He read it again, still not lifting his gaze from the paper. Stooped, buckled, he stood there and read, as if he were receiving covert instruction, a directive that he would have to follow.

Closed in
dismay!
11.09.2001

Although the paper was badly yellowed, the black letters now just a brownish grey, Honegger felt a short, sharp pain on his retinas. Then he lost focus. The dismay was written on the forehead of his reflection.

Honegger turned around as if he were looking for someone, something, somewhere in the little street of that unfamiliar town. He stood like that for quite some time and then he headed back down along the pavement. His gait was tentative, groping, as if he were walking on precarious terrain. He carefully placed one foot in front of the other, inconspicuously using his arms to keep his balance. Something had given way within him, collapsed, and he walked like someone taking their very first steps.

Honegger paused by the bar on the corner, trying to find his bearings. Diagonally across from where he was standing he could see a park, severely pruned hedges, colourful flowerbeds, a pond with pondweed, ducks, swans. Honegger crossed the road and found an empty bench right at the entrance to the park. He wasn’t due to meet Ida until six and the square where she’d told him to be was only two rows of houses away. He had a good hour left. There was no way to fill time.

Honegger had put his elbows on his knees and was staring at the ground in front of him. He breathed in deeply at regular intervals, held his breath – and breathed out audibly, although it required some effort to move his heavy head back and forth at chest-level. On the manicured green, a couple of children were throwing a huge inflatable ball between themselves. They shrieked in unison whenever one of them stumbled while trying to catch the airy orb, when the neon yellow avalanche rolled towards Honegger and came to a stop in front of his shoes.

Shortly before six, Honegger got to his feet.

Rose Lane led to the market square from round the back. His stride became more assured with every metre; he could feel an elastic tension in his back, a pleasant, sinewy looseness in his ankles that he thought he had lost forever.

Ida was sitting at one of the street cafés. She was poring over the municipal art guide that she had bought while on a tour of the museum. With a startling twist from his shoulder, Honegger shed the rucksack and sat down at her table.

Well? she said.

And you?

Ida reached for the slim macchiato glass, took a sip, while he seemed to be looking for something in the rucksack. During their previous holiday, travelling from Hanseatic city to Hanseatic city as part of a guided tour group, they had stopped telling each other about their individual explorations. Both had accepted that there was no point wanting to share something that in truth could not be shared. They had never spoken about it. It hadn’t been necessary.

Next year we’ll have a holiday at Hans and Berta’s, said Honegger.

At their high summer pastures?

You’ve always wanted to do that. Not a museum or church in sight. Just nature. Cows, grassland, mountains. Hay for a bed.

If only.

Ida tried to read Honegger’s expression. He had turned away and was delving into the rucksack with both hands. One by one, he put everything onto the adjacent empty chair.

And the books, Alois?, said Ida. What about your books?

He sat up straight and looked at how neatly everything had been unpacked and arranged on the chair. Map and umbrella, tissues, an open pack of nuts, a can of cola.

Honegger reached into the bag again and extracted his mother’s Bible from one of the inside pockets. He opened it up at the flyleaf, where at the time he’d made a note of the date of her death.

My books? he said. Without looking up, he pulled a pen out of his jacket pocket, checked as ever whether it was in working order and crossed out 11th September 2001. Twice, three times, the ink of the thick pen making the numbers illegible. Then he wrote the current date underneath. For a moment his hand hovered indecisively over the paper.

Honegger grabbed the book and stood up. He surveyed the tables of the busy street café, tentatively, vaguely, while putting the book under his arm. At the little table furthest from the café, an elderly lady had just got to her feet and was about to make a move. Honegger headed as inconspicuously as possible towards the newly available table. He stood in front of it for a moment, then put down the book, turned on his heel with surprising ease and went back to Ida. By the time he sat down beside her, a waitress was clearing the old lady’s table. She briefly raised her head, put the book on the tray along with the dirty dishes and disappeared into the kitchen.

Alois, said Ida. Her voice sounded higher than usual.

Honegger took her hand.

Fancy another macchiato, Ida?

 

From Andreas Neeser, Unsicherer Grund (Haymon Verlag 2010).

Ricardo

Author: Hannes Hüttner
Translator: Ruth Krawczyk

 

Ricardo woke abruptly that night, perhaps because of the scraps of noise coming through the barely-open window – music, drunken singing, the stirring voices of the television announcers – they all seemed to come from the depths of the rear courtyard.  Perhaps, too, because he felt that something was suddenly different, unknown, unreal. In the dark, he reached out for the light switch on his night stand.

This had been a requirement when his mother gave him the room: Yes, he would sleep alone, but he needed a light to save him from the ghosts and terrible faces that plagued him in his dreams; a push of his finger would make them all fade away.

He had been shooed away a number of times already from the room he had shared with Karla, his mother. He had slept for one or two nights on the couch with Mr. Knippel, his teddy bear, in his arms. Mr. Knippel had kept watch over him, kept him safe.

This time Karla had planned further ahead; he was finally to have his own room. She transformed the second room of the apartment with a love seat, a colorful sofa which was an improvement on the other furniture in the living room.

 

Ricky crawled out of the big bed to go to the toilet. “Whenever you wake up,” Karla had told him, “go straight to the potty, and then you won’t wet yourself!”

He left the door open a crack so that he wouldn’t have to turn on the hallway light and disturb his mother.

He turned the key, sat up on the toilet and realized that other people in the building must still be awake. The old pipes were making a lot of noise, like they did on Monday nights when the feature film on TV was over. There weren’t more than eight parties living in the wing at the back of the courtyard, such that he could even tell who was flushing at that particular moment. But something else had suddenly occurred to him: Streaks of flashing blue light came from behind the glass pane of the living room door . . .  Were Mommy and her new friend Semmy still watching TV?

As he tiptoed back through the hall, he carefully turned the door handle to the living room. The television was on, but he didn’t see anybody; the love seat that converts to a double bed hadn’t even been made yet. He opened the door still further and peered into the room. He saw a slipper, a foot belonging to the slipper, a leg …

 

Semmy was sound asleep on the corner sofa. A thin string of saliva ran down the corner of his mouth into his goatee; the tall man was scrunched up like a rag doll, his lips open and he was whistling – that was one of the peculiarities Karla liked to tease him about: “You can’t even snore properly, you whistle!” she’d say.

Karla was a person who didn’t let anyone walk over her; whoever slept with her would be vetted and his weaknesses revealed so he wouldn’t get too boastful.  Ricky looked at the TV screen, but it was boring, not a detective story, not even a fairy tale; just people running through the streets. But where was Mommy?  Perhaps she had gone to the neighbor’s to get a bottle of beer for Semmy?

Ricardo climbed back into the big bed, yawned and then laid Mr. Knippel beside him on the pillow and instructed him, “You keep a good watch!” The teddy bear looked at him reproachfully.

Ricardo fell asleep and dreamt he was alone in a submarine as it floated  through the depths of the sea. Saw-toothed fish glided past the porthole. Suddenly an octopus appeared, which oddly enough had two tusks, like an elephant, and Ricky noticed that it had attached itself to the boat and was trying to shatter the window with one of its tusks. The porthole splintered, Ricky cried out, woke up, looked around in terror, felt for the light switch . . .

Yes, he was safe. He was back on dry land. Outside people were yelling and for a second time Ricky heard something crash and break; somebody was throwing bottles out a window. Most likely it was the mute man on the fourth floor in his apartment getting drunk; he had been gone for so long, but had been back now for a week since the amnesty for political prisoners.

 

Ricky was awake, so he went to the toilet again; he wouldn’t pee in his pants tonight! He couldn’t take constant scolding anymore: “Come on, you’ll be going to school next year, how long do you intend to keep wetting your bed?”

With some difficulty he climbed up on the toilet seat, got himself situated and let loose the piss water.

The television picture was still streaking chalk-white and bluish behind the living room door. This time Ricardo didn’t have to open the door, it was standing open. The room was empty. He was alone.

Ricky went into the darkened kitchen, reached up and turned on the light there, too. Nobody! He put the chair in front of the window sill, climbed up, and looked out into the night. There were still five or six windows lit up in the front of the building and the side wing, one was wide open; he could hear singing, the voices seemed to be supporting each other: “Such a day, a beautiful day like today  … ”

Maybe Karla and Semmy were there?

Ricardo was clever, but he was also easily frightened. Had they all left him?  Would he have to live alone in the future? His mother sometimes cried out angrily, “I’m fed up with both of you, up to here!” And she held her flat hand above her head and declared, “One day I’m getting out of here. I want to live!”

He began to cry. Still in his sky-blue pajamas, he crouched in front of the toilet door and cried and cried because nobody was there.

But wait!

 

Somebody was speaking.

Ricky wiped his nose with his sleeve and looked into the living room. Somebody was speaking on the television, words which Ricky did not understand. Ricky sat down on the sofa. The image changed and showed something that he recognized.

That was the Wall. He had already been there with the oldest group from the kindergarten. And that was the Brandenburg Gate. Strangely, the Wall was standing in front of the gate, not behind it. He knew the Gate only from one side.

Ricky had never seen the Wall close up. It was painted all different colors! Were they allowed to do that? The craziest thing of all, though, was that there were people all over it. The people sat on the top of the Wall, drinking, laughing, and singing. Ricardo sat in front of the television and, with his mouth wide open, stared motionlessly at the gathering.

Then all of a sudden, he saw his mother.

Karla was a beautiful mother. The men stared after her when she picked Ricardo up from kindergarten, and walked down the street with her hips swinging, a cigarette between the middle and ring fingers of her left hand, Ricky on her right.

She colored her permed hair blond with black and grey tips: It flowed like a lion’s mane from her head. She wore her black leather jacket, which was wide at the shoulders and narrow at the hips. The jacket emphasized her narrow waist and small round backside, which was just barely covered by her short jeans skirt.

 

Long legs in high heels, she walked beside him along the streets and let Ricardo tell her about his day, yawned and said, “Do you know what can save us, Ricky? Only a damned millionaire can save us. He stops in his big car and says, ‘Miss Karla? Master Ricky? Would you like to go with me to Hollywood?’ Instead of that we’re living here in Honniwood. Honniwood is shit, but Hollywood is super, Ricky!”

Ricky was proud of his clever mother.

On the TV screen he saw her standing proudly next to a tall young man who looked just like Don Johnson. He was drinking from a champagne bottle. Now he was offering Karla the flask; she tilted her head back and took a swallow – you could see her Adam’s apple bobbing. Then she suddenly discovered the camera directed at her and waved.

Ricardo understood that she was waving at him. Instantly he was comforted. Karla was still around and thinking about him.

He glanced at the empty love seat and thought, Semmi is there too, I’m sure!  He returned to his room, laid his teddy bear in position for a second time and instructed him, “You’ll be sorry if you don’t keep a good watch!”

He climbed up onto the bed. But he didn’t lie down. Why shouldn’t he visit his mother now, there, at the Wall?

 

He found his socks under the bed and pulled them on with difficulty. And without taking off his pajamas, he climbed into his suspendered pants and pulled his sweater over his ears.

His ski jacket was hanging in the hall on the coat rack. Ricky knew how to do things for himself. He took the broom from behind the kitchen door. He could get the jacket down with its help. He slipped into it. The only thing he couldn’t do was zip it up. Either his mother or Aunt Gerda from the kindergarten usually zipped him up. So instead of that he found a long scarf on the chair and wrapped it around his middle. He already knew how to tie his shoes, so he tied the scarf the same way, with a bow. And then he opened the door, turned abruptly around again and went into his bedroom.

“Wake up, you sleepyhead!” he said to Mr. Knippel. It would be nicer if they went together. He took his teddy bear in his arm and left the apartment. He pulled the door shut, locking it, and climbed down the steep steps, holding on securely to the railing. The only place the railing was missing was on the ground floor, so with his feet together he jumped down the five steps, step by step.

 

The main door was standing wide open as usual; the pane of glass was broken. It wasn’t even cold outside. He ran down the street that led to the kindergarten, to the corner of Prenzlauer Avenue. And from there, Ricardo knew, he had only to walk straight down the street, on and on. It was a long way. On the way he met many people, but they didn’t speak to him or ask where he was headed. He crossed Moll Street, walked alongside the stores which his mother called “New Delhi,” past the Market Hall, to the Palace Hotel, and on to the cathedral. He could already see it, the Brandenburg Gate. It was clearly recognizable against the dark sky, and Ricardo wasn’t sure if his mother would be happy to see him, but as for himself he would cling to her and press his head against her stomach, and then he would no longer be alone.

The number of people was increasing, most of them walking in his direction. An older couple looked down at him amused. The woman asked, “Where are you going then, little one?”

He answered, “My mother is there!” and pointed toward the wall, and the woman zipped up his coat and wrapped the scarf properly around him and said, “Tell her HI for us!” and waved.

He went on.

The barriers at the Brandenburg Gate were torn down, and the people were streaming through its pillared portals, and they were sitting by the dozens on the Wall, and now he could even hear them laughing and cheering and shouting.

He hesitated and stood a while in the swirling mass of people. Where was his mother? He would surely find her, he thought, if he could only get up on top.

But that wasn’t easy. When he stood in front of the Wall, he realized that it was very high, much higher than he could reach, and he already wanted to give up.

 

But down the way he suddenly noticed somebody who was leaning a ladder against the concrete, and he ran to him and climbed up after him, and when the young man was up on top and wanted to pull up his ladder, there stood Ricky and said, “I want to get to my mommy!”

The man laughed and pulled him up and Ricky saw with amazement how wide the wall was up here.

At that moment Karla, the beautiful Karla, was standing with that tall young Don Johnson lookalike who had offered her the champagne, by a tree in the Tiergarten. She was overjoyed that now, if she only wanted to, she could travel to Hollywood and to Singapore or Thailand, or wherever else the sun shone for sixteen hours a day. When she thought of the gas flames which would be waiting for her at the NARVA plant in a few hours to melt the light-bulb globes, she thought, you can kiss my ass. The only thing I’ve got planned for tomorrow is to take Ricky to kindergarten and then I’m going to crash. I’ll throw Semmy out, he’s probably still sitting in front of the television. Right now, I’m going to lay this guy right here, maybe we’ll have a thing, he says he’s from Siemensstadt, an engineer, better an engineer than a damn millionaire or that stupid Semmy. How did I ever wind up with him?

She kissed the stranger and devoured his tongue, pressing herself up against him. She felt as light as a feather; she shoved her hands into his pants and dug her finger nails into his rear-end and felt how excited he was and how the air was being forced from his lungs.

 

Ricardo was still looking for his mother. He climbed over people who were lying in each other’s arms, squeezed between those who were drinking, cheering or who simply remained silent. He came to a point where the floodlights no longer could reach and turned around again.

He had to get by a gang of skinheads who were passing around a bottle and howling at the same time. As he took a step, standing on the edge of the wall, one of the drunkards was winding up the bottle to throw it away. One of the others, sitting across from him, cried out. The last thing Ricky felt were his legs being knocked out from under him and falling.

Ricardo had an unlucky fall. He hit his head on the extended base of the wall. The cause of death was a broken fifth vertebra.

He was found on the morning of the 10th of November 1989. Next to him lay Mr. Knippel, who stared reproachfully into the sky. And that is the story of Ricardo Schneider, formerly of Winstrasse 127, Berlin 1055.

 

 

From the anthology WAHNSINN! Geschichten vom Umbruch in der DDR.  Ed. Abraham/Gorschenek. ©    Ravensburger Buchverlag Otto Maier GmbH, 1990.

 

The Good Days

Author: Marko Dinić
Translator: Claire Storey

 

Translator’s Preface
The Good Days is a timely addition to the dialogue surrounding events that took place in the Balkans during the 1990s, discussing the aftermath and effects of those events on a whole generation. The novel offers the perspective of a young Serbian growing up with the consequences of his forebears’ actions.  In this extract, we join the nameless narrator aboard the daily “Guest Worker Express” bus as he travels back to Belgrade for his grandmother’s funeral with a ring that he has to return.

 

My last conversation with my mother before my journey to Belgrade sprang to mind. She’d said my father had flipped out several times, had kept roaring at her, telling her to call me and demand I return his mother’s wedding ring, the ring she’d given me more than ten years ago. As far as I could recall, she’d given it to me on a school day, but I could barely remember the conversation I’d had with Grandmother back then.

Six days had passed since Grandmother’s death and my mother was starting to get frightened. Not so much frightened of my father, rather frightened for him, from what I could tell. I just didn’t get it. She downright begged me to bring the ring to Belgrade in the hope my father would get better, so she said. I wasn’t having any of it. I’m not superstitious by any means, but I really didn’t like the idea of taking the ring off the finger I’d worn it on for ten years. And I certainly wasn’t going to do so for my father, which I made clear to my mother. I didn’t hate my father; I was simply indifferent to him.

Eventually, I agreed to bring the ring to Grandmother’s funeral, on condition that it would be buried with her. By lunchtime tomorrow it would all be over; the ring would’ve been returned to its rightful owner and I could head straight back to Vienna. This made my mother sad, but she did manage to wring this compromise from me. Considering how many years I hadn’t returned to Belgrade, it was a small triumph for my mother. I’d resisted the reunion with my father for so long that I’d unwittingly condemned my mother to my absence as well. She’d long since resigned herself to only seeing her son via webcam. It made her happy to think we’d finally be face to face again after all these years. I can’t remember the last time I saw her so overexcited – perhaps I never had!

But still, I wasn’t happy about it. I could tolerate my mother; over the years she’d become quieter and more sensitive. It was almost as if she had developed a sixth sense and had finally understood what she had let herself in for when she married my father. The subtle aggressions which she had suffered and would then take out on me, had now disappeared. In my eyes at least. But I couldn’t stand my father’s officious, porcupine face. The disappointment in him that had grown within me when I was younger had spiralled into something more akin to pity. It had distorted my thoughts and come to a natural conclusion: disgust. Bringing the ring home was my own personal compromise; moreover, it was a condition dictated by me that left no room for protest. My father seethed with anger but he had to agree. There was no way I was going to give him the ring that belonged to me and my grandmother alone.

Originally it had been my grandfather’s wedding ring. When he’d died twenty-four years ago, Grandmother took the ring as her own and wore it on the thumb of her left hand, right up until that June day. A shiny gold ring just a few millimetres wide with no engraving, embossing, or any other marking. It used to be much wider, my grandmother had once told me.

Long before I was born, my grandfather had piled on the weight. Apparently so much so, that when he died, they had to cut the ring off his fat finger. The severed ring was taken to the goldsmith, melted down, and recast, wider in diameter but thinner. As a result, it had lost its round shape and become oval and angular.

I looked down at my hand and listened to my neighbour’s wheezing, feeling the calming effect it had on me. I barely noticed the ring anymore; it’d been on my finger for too long. I knew it was going to be hard to give it away.

Grandmother had always been something of a role model for me, although I had difficulty remembering her face or her voice. When I called my mother using the computer, she never wanted to come out of her room to see me; she’d started to turn away from us too much. According to my mother, when I moved out Grandmother’s behaviour only intensified. At the beginning, we spoke occasionally on the phone without saying much. I always found it particularly painful. We’d grown distant, even though she assured me time and time again she was happy I’d left for Vienna. She’d always wanted a better life for me, and in Serbia at that time, that could only mean fleeing the country.

In my journal I tried to record as much of her story as possible, or at least what I knew of it. She didn’t know when she had been born, so we never celebrated her birthday. She had to leave school when she was ten because her father had died suddenly of a lung infection. That was still during the war. At eighteen, she married a neighbourhood lad two years younger than her: my grandfather. Then she bore four boys, each one more degenerate than the last. My father was the third. Finally, once the last of the children was weaned, her function in the strict family hierarchy was completed. She spent the next forty years mostly silent and joyless in the shadow of her husband, a resolutely Communist customs officer on the Serbian-Romanian border, who brought the children up according to his beliefs.

I always felt the inner workings of my paternal family were reflected in the village my father came from: at that time a community of some three hundred houses, farmers, and customs officers, with a small shop where you could buy bread and lard. An asphalt road cut straight through the village. At the end of the road stood a Communist memorial to an unknown soldier. If you were to go to my father’s village today, you would find a wasteland plagued by a rural exodus. Only the memorial, I imagine, would be left standing, like a prehistoric monolith against a backdrop of desolation.

Grandmother had always been something of a role model for me, although those few years had hardly been enough to get to know her. That I can no longer ask her about the stories of her youth, her fears, her desires, or her disappointments: this remains my own personal failure and one I’ll never be able to make up for.

Only the ring now remained. When something is melted down, a barely noticeable part of it evaporates and volatilizes, never to return. In my imagination, this lost part of the wedding ring represented our parents’ failures. The total disenfranchisement of my generation had been just a small part of the great moral defeat following the wars of the nineties. And, like a bad joke, the former butchers remained among us, like the monster under the bed that wouldn’t give up its power over our fear, even to save its own life.

The ring’s condition had changed: now that it was returning to its true owner, it had lost its shine. Now that it belonged to a corpse. She’d never wanted it anyway, not back then and surely not now in death, I thought to myself as I watched the flat landscape flash past the bus window in the dusky light.

“You know what? My father’s a bastard!” I said suddenly to my neighbour, who turned towards me as though he’d been awake the whole time, lying in wait.

“Tell me something new. Do you think that’s anything unusual?” he replied indifferently. Something about him had changed: his gestures were coarser and less friendly than before. The harsh lighting had just been turned on and now even his facial features appeared more severe. His whole appearance was downright repulsive.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Don’t you worry about me,” he said, raising his eyebrows, “just make sure you survive this journey. Otherwise they’ll all think you fell on your head.” He can go to hell, I thought. He seemed to be waging a war against everybody and nobody – whatever game he was playing, I wanted nothing to do with it. Inwardly, I was infuriated by him but I didn’t owe him anything.

“So?” he asked abruptly, “your father’s a bastard. Anything else?”

Vienna was now far behind us and Belgrade still lay some hours ahead. There was nothing to do but kill time. I was thrown into a quandary. The lady across the aisle eyed us distrustfully again. Somewhere behind us a child began to protest loudly; a man’s voice was trying to silence him with threats of violence. I looked over the seat but couldn’t see where the combatants were battling it out. Suddenly, a shrill voice rose over the seats. Unimpressed by the threats, the child was yelling at the top of his voice. When I finally caught a glimpse of him, the stocky man was raining forceful punches down on his head. Before he could begin to cry, the child received an extra blow to the mouth which finally shut him up. Only a soft, slobbery whimper could be heard, silent tears running down the child’s cheeks. At that, an older lady turned to him and explained with the underhanded kindness of an aunt that these things happen to naughty boys who don’t listen to their parents.

“Your father’s a bastard, then?” I heard the voice next to me. “You can see for yourself, this bus is full of bastards. The whole country’s full of them. It’s a complete bloody mess, don’t you think?”

“Maybe you’re right,” I replied cautiously, “but my father’s different.”

“How different can he be?”

“How can I explain it? He’s an aggressive person through and through, but not like that arsehole back there. He did hit me and my mother, but it was different: somehow, he down ground everyone around him. His blows were harmless by comparison. He’s an official, you know?”

“Yes, I know,” he shot back. I looked at him disbelievingly. And then I let out a laugh, “How d’you know that?”

“Please,” he replied, “right from the moment I clapped eyes on you, your whole being has been screaming ‘son of an official’. You really don’t see it? The way you’ve been going on about Vienna, all these insecurities, this dreadful indecisiveness you give off as a whole. Everything about you is about running away. Running away from Serbia, running away from your parents, running away from the fact that some things are unnegotiable. Don’t tell me you’re running away from responsibility, it’s yourself you’re running away from. Are you a coward?” I stared at him like a donkey; he just grinned in a self-satisfied way.

“I don’t buy that you’re an electrician. You’re a writer!”

“Please! Don’t let’s get started on me,” he answered, serious again now.

“Alright,” I said. “So my father’s an official. During the nineties, he was involved in a whole heap of shit. My mother once told me that as well as working for the interior ministry, he also worked for the army. I found out later that he passed supply lists, machine parts, food, and so on to one of his brothers on the Bosnian front. Among them were also lists of names. You can just imagine the films that played out in my head! And all that nationalistic crap he brought home with him from work. He and his brothers destroyed the whole family, they poisoned everything that was somehow worthwhile in our family history. My mother and I would parrot back everything he said to us – he had us trained in. Even my parents’ wedding was a joke: my father, the great Communist, the great atheist, didn’t want to swear an oath in a church, so he got married in the little train station in his village. Today he’s a committed Orthodox and crosses himself in front of every fucking church he sees, without really understanding what he’s doing – it was exactly the same with his Communism. He’s a devoted dog who’s spent the last forty years blind to what’s happening in his own fucking country. At some point he switched his brain off and surrendered to the system.”

“Get to the point!”

“The point is” – I was really starting to get worked up – “I left Serbia because I finally realised my father was a criminal! No, not was: is. Still. It’s the same for my friends, they just didn’t have the balls to leave their families and then eventually, they became nationalists too… or alcoholics. He didn’t just support the big state crimes, he committed them within his own family; he was cold, loveless, brutal. He never hugged me, not once, not even as a small child!”

“Oh the wretched hero!” He began to snigger and soon had to cover his mouth with his hand as if to berate himself. I suddenly felt really angry. “You know what? I don’t need this from you! You ask me questions, I give you answers, and then you make fun of me.”

“Young man, you are absolutely right! But you always give me the wrong answers. What do I or anybody else care about your aches and pains? Don’t go thinking that just because we’ve taken a liking to each other I’m suddenly your best mate. I can see the same thing you’re telling me on every face in this bus, man or woman, young or old. Ask your father if anyone ever hugged him. And his father, your grandfather, the same. And don’t look at me so pitifully – whole generations in this country haven’t been hugged! It’s obvious it’s damaged the whole herd, even the leaders. I’ll tell you this: it’s verging on a miracle that nobody’s reached for the explosives belt yet. You’ve seen enough proof that our generation and our fathers’ generation could easily have been terrorists, the way they butchered half the country with their mafia” – off he went again, all the while staring at the seatbacks in front as if having a heated conversation with himself – “but that’s just the consequence of the coldness we war children were brought up with. It’s a heavy legacy to carry but one we ought to wear as armour. In my book, there’s nothing else for it but to brutally face up to the past, that’s what we should be doing; have I already mentioned that? Yet, despite it all – I’m not telling anyone else this so keep it to yourself – sometimes I catch myself thinking about how much I miss those days, I mourn their passing. But at least we learnt to detest our fathers. I count that as a virtue!” He was in full flow again, pausing only briefly to take a gulp of air and collect his thoughts before continuing with his monologue. “People back then were simpler creatures. Today they’re just confused! That’s why I’m headed to Belgrade, to do some research. I watch people very carefully. Today people stand in front of the shelves that are full to bursting, faced with fifteen different types of chocolate, they stand at the petrol station choosing between four different types of lead-free petrol and are simply overwhelmed, both in body and mind. Back then, there was no chocolate or petrol. You took what you could get, even if it said chocolate on the outside of the packet while the contents were just a big joke, and even if the kindly ice-cream vendor sold petrol on the sly, eventually destroying your engine in the process. At least I was lucky enough to grow up in Vienna, able to choose between school or proper training. Someone like you wasn’t born to make decisions. Just because you chose to run away doesn’t mean decision-making is one of your strong points. At the end of the day, it’s inevitable that we’re all victims of this war, no exceptions. Even those who believe they’re only on the periphery of the war, they’re in it too! Whether you’ve stood there with a gun in your hand during one of the countless slaughterfests or you have blind faith in some administration or other, it’s all the same: no exceptions. We all were and are indoctrinated. Up to my eighteenth birthday I was taught to hate Muslims, Albanians, Croats, and God knows who else – that’s a crime nobody’s going to be held accountable for! We can’t even fight back; we shut our mouths and swallow it all, wave little flags and swear allegiance to some idiot whose name we couldn’t even pronounce as kids. My dear boy, we were cultivated for impotence! But still – don’t go thinking I’ve surrendered, never! My guts are entwined with this fucking country, and I can’t run away from that. And neither can you. You’d be bound to end up developing some sort of personality disorder if you even tried!”

 

Excerpted from Marko Dinić, Die Guten Tage (The Good Days© 2019 Paul Zsolnay Verlag Ges.m.b.H., Wien.

 

 

 

 

The Box from Cologne

Author: Katharina Gericke
Translator: Jennifer Walter

 

Last night we found a small box on Färberstraße. It lay in the trash, ready to be taken away to the landfill. It contained an entire half of Trudi’s life. There are gaps in time between the hand-written letters and black-and-white photographs that I cannot fill.

Trudi had a habit of writing on half sheets of lined, letter-sized paper that she ripped from a notepad. She always ripped out three sheets, even when she only filled two. She stuffed a blank page in with the letter each time.

The story from Trudi’s box begins in the year 1948. Trudi was 30 years old. She had placed a lonely-hearts ad in the Kölner Rundschau because she wanted to find someone to marry. He should be respectable, Roman-Catholic, and want children. She could offer everything that would make a home welcoming and cozy.

“I even have my own apartment on Florastraße. I still live with my mother, but she is moving to Bad Bentheim soon to live with relatives.”

Back then, a woman was considered an old maid at 30. What Trudi did, who belonged to her family, and where she came from could not be deduced.

The war is a black hole in Trudi’s life.

She was a secretary and searching for a position in an office. She had two offers: one that paid well, and one that didn’t.

By the time she met Jupp, she had just taken the better-paying position.

Jupp responded to her ad in the paper, and a meeting had taken place in a small park.

When Trudi wrote to Jupp about her apartment on Florastraße and her job, they had decided after the first meeting that it just wasn’t a good fit, and that the matter was settled.

“Dear Jupp: If we both must admit that we are not compatible enough, I would like to ask for one more meeting to put my heart at ease. Because I have so many worries. Although I am embarrassed to ask… Yours, Trudi.”

They met again on an agreed-upon date, and Trudi complained to Jupp that the better-paying job was too demanding. She was under so much pressure that she didn’t know which way was up. Together they tried to figure out whether Trudi should give up the better job in favor of the worse job; although the pay wasn’t as good, it was less demanding. And that’s exactly what she did.

In addition, Trudi complained to Jupp that a stray dog had wandered up to her, but her mother did not want it because it was too much work. But Trudi said that her mother should not worry about it, because she – Trudi – would care for the dog by herself as much as possible. But she absolutely could not manage by herself with her terrible office job, which made her frazzled and fed up. It was all so difficult! Alas, the dog had already become part of the family.

Somehow Jupp stole a kiss from the overwhelmed Trudi.

Jupp, then a young man, looked good in the picture. Later photos showed that he was still attractive as he aged. But in every photo, he came across as wistful and looked as though he felt somewhat lost.

Meanwhile, Trudi had been a tough little tank her whole life.

Jupp lost his brother and brother-in-law in the war. The death certificates, which were delivered in the final months of the war from an office on the front, could still be found in Trudi’s box. Then, right after the war ended, Jupp’s sister died, and his mother did not have enough money for the grave or the flowers. Then she received 175 Reichsmarks from a relief agency, with explicit permission to pay for the flowers they wanted as well. That was before the currency changed over. The exchange receipt is still in the slim, wooden box, which was originally used to present two tiny bottles of “Henkell Dry” sparkling wine.

Jupp’s mother: that was Maria. Her husband died in the 1960s.

They raised three grandchildren, who were all they had left from their daughter.

One of the grandchildren was named Kathi.

In the early 1980s, Trudi received a letter in delicate, light blue handwriting, in which Kathi expressed regrets that she could not attend Maria’s funeral. But she had ordered a bouquet through Fleurop that was very expensive.

She wrote that to Trudi asking if she could be so kind as to follow up with the cemetery management to confirm, personally, that the bouquet looked as expensive as it was. That is, she feared that she would be cheated by Fleurop or the cemetery management.

The letter came from East Germany.

How Kathi got there, who the other two grandchildren were, and what became of them, I don’t know enough to say. The trail ended there.

As mentioned, Jupp had stolen a kiss from Trudi that day in the park.

A few days later he visited her at her home. Her mother was also there at the apartment on Florastraße.

Jupp had only wanted to say that things with him and Trudi just weren’t right. And the kiss in the park had been a mistake. And now he would like to say goodbye for good, in person.

Trudi wore a proud pout. And she said coolly that everything was fine. But her mother made a hot-tempered ruckus, called Jupp a womanizer, and threw him out of the apartment.

He shouldn’t have been allowed to kiss her if he didn’t want anything from her, seriously! That’s how it must have been.

The next day Trudi wrote Jupp another letter, although she didn’t really want to have any contact with him. And she accepted that things couldn’t be right with the two of them because they just weren’t compatible. She didn’t need something like that. And Jupp could take her at her word! But she simply had to write again, because the dog had been missing since he left the apartment.

And now he was gone!

“Dear Mr. Jupp: Could it be that he ran after you? And that you have him now? Just in case, I am asking you sincerely to bring him back to me, because I have become very attached to him, even though he is a lot of work.”

She had just realized how much work the dog was, now that she didn’t have to care for him anymore.

Trudi wrote sentences that spiraled like a chair swing at its fastest speed. She had already asked all her neighbors on Florastraße if they had seen the dog. But no one had.

Jupp didn’t have him, either.

So the dog remained missing.

But as a result, Jupp and Trudi met again. At the fountain, in the park, on an agreed-upon date, and at a determined time.

That must have been a pleasant evening. After that, they had a proper relationship.

How do I know?

Specifically, because Trudi’s mother sent a letter to Jupp’s parents, saying that their son was in a relationship with her daughter. She was well aware of it, even if Trudi denied it. She found it unfathomable that they, as parents, had not been informed. And it was not proper for an unmarried young woman to have such a relationship with a man.

The parents must have gotten a Catholic shock, although they had completely other concerns at the time, which stemmed from the war.

Trudi’s mother received a letter that was written on a typewriter.

They wrote that they were in more modern times than in their parents’ youth. But Trudi and Jupp should make it legal nonetheless, because it was not proper for folks who were Roman Catholic “to do these things (you already know what I mean, dear Ms. B) with anybody unless you are married!”

And they were going to give that scoundrel a stern talking-to!

That’s just what the family did.

And soon after, there was an announcement of their engagement.

For Trudi, things fell quiet in the time after the wedding.

But evidently her dear Jupp wrote a letter shortly before the wedding to a close female friend who worked at the employment agency. She wrote him back a typewritten answer from her business address.

Is it possible that this woman was married?

He must have written to his friend about his doubts. I don’t know the exact reason.

In the reply it said: “What should I say about this? Marry her — or gather your things and run away. You want guaranteed happiness, but there is no such thing. You should always plant four-leaf clovers on the green field between yourself and the city. Whether it will grow and bring you joy, or lead to happiness, who can say?”

The friend added a handwritten postscript to the letter with details about a good position at an automobile insurance company that Jupp should apply for right away, because she could only hold the position open for nine days.

Jupp’s first job was as a plaster worker. After the war and his time as a prisoner, he studied under a milliner. But he understood quite well that the time for hats and plaster would soon pass.

He got the job at the insurance company and worked there until he retired. Trudi stayed at the worse office job. They got married and lived on Florastraße. Trudi’s mother moved shortly after to Bad Bentheim. They had no children.

Many joyful photos from the box show them celebrating holidays, traveling to the mountains or having a picnic in the area. With friends, relatives, her coffee pals, and his bowling buddies.

I selected a photo of Jupp out of the case in which he is an older man, sitting on a bench in a park. He is intently watching a squirrel that jumped on his arm, nibbling a nut that he had given him. A bag with more nuts can be seen next to Jupp.

I took out a photo of Trudi showing her at a coffee table, surrounded by many people, with cakes, pastries, and such. They are looking at Trudi and toasting her, all of them are sitting while she is standing, her arm swung into a position that appears to be making a toast. Maria is also there. It makes me happy that I can recognize her in this picture, after I had visited Trudi’s history like I was visiting this city. Since then, I have returned home. I placed the box in a chapel next to the freeway and lit a candle for Trudi.

I took out a third artifact, as well: a small calendar book from ‘66, that (except for a few small payment notes for the bank book) was as good as empty. But in the small book lay a four-leaf clover.

On a blank sheet (the kind that Trudi always put in the envelope with her finished letters) I want to add:

“Last night: a dream. I am walking through a street, which was probably Färberstraße. I cannot find a way out because a giant heap of rubble is sitting on the horizon. I go back, but then I am suddenly thrown to the ground because pieces of a house are flying through the air again … ”

It was a mild day the next morning. White like milk, it felt young to my eyes.

What still felt old from the dream was the nose that could smell the ruins of the war – blood and dust.

Balder & Sons

Author: Kathrin Schmidt
Translator: Sue Vickerman

 

Last spring the Fizz Gallery offered me the opportunity to exhibit some of my pictures. The gallery is in G, the town I grew up in, in Germany’s east, which in my childhood was still the German Democratic Republic. I set off, full of excitement because I hadn’t set foot there for twenty years, having spent the last two decades over in West Germany finishing my schooling and then doing my degree. Would it feel familiar? 

It hardly did at all. In fact, I found the town to be greatly changed. The Renaissance-era town hall had been beautifully restored and the entire town centre had been pedestrianised. The quaint little buildings now housed bookshop and clothing chains, as well as a few medium-sized concerns, and even one of those Vietnamese-run household stores, full of the kind of unbelievable junk that middle-aged provincial housewives find so irresistible.  However, those buildings taken over by large retail chains had managed, miraculously, to expand their premises to the rear, whereas the Vietnamese store was only as big – or to be precise, as small – as Balder & Sons, Stationers. I was amazed that Balder & Sons still existed, considering that twenty years ago Herr Balder the elder had been over eighty and his sons well over fifty.  

On entering the shop I recognised the two of them straight away, perched there behind the old-fashioned counter, reading.  Ortwin sprang up to attend to my needs – though ‘sprang’ is taking it a bit too far. More accurately, his eyes responded with sprightliness, whereas  his body slowly and laboriously heaved itself out of his narrow armchair. His brother Erhard’s hair was still combed forward into a fringe that was trimmed in a dead straight line across his forehead – the Bertolt Brecht look. He remained seated, not even looking up. I smiled, and at first didn’t speak; just waited expectantly. Because of the silence, Erhard at last tore his eyes away from his book and looked in my direction. He recognised me, of course, since as a teenager I’d been in that shop every single day. I would go to play chess with old Herr Balder, who at the same time kept an eye on his sons from his lookout behind the counter, even when they were approaching pensionable age themselves, as though he couldn’t trust them not to ruin the business. My own hair with its centre parting was no longer blond but carroty – an accident with henna last week – but it hung to just below my shoulders, exactly the same as back then, and proved to be the thing he recognised. After Erhard had come and said hello he wound a strand round his fingers. It took Ortwin longer, and he needed his brother’s prompting before it dawned on him who I was. Before my mother and I emigrated in the mid-eighties, we had lived in this building, in the top floor flat under the roof with its one tiny main room and its even tinier side-room. I was born and raised there, on the floor above the – also tiny – three-room flat where the three Balder gentlemen lived, which, in turn, was directly above the little shop on the ground floor. The house belonged to old Herr Balder. My mother had told me, way back, that his wife had died in the early ‘fifties and that since then no other lady had ever crossed the Balders’ threshold. It was odd how Ortwin and Erhard had not only accepted their father’s hermit-like existence but actually joined in it. From their three-person hermitage they had skippered the little shop through the waters of time, but time had not been good to them. Indeed, the waters they were navigating today were no less choppy than twenty or forty years ago, when private ownership had been a matter of disgrace. While private ownership was nowadays far from a matter of disgrace, private ownership Balder-style was, as it had always been, modest, comprising no more than a draught-ridden little house with a small antiquated shop that could only continue to exist because there was no rent to pay, and which no doubt had folk queueing up to buy out the two resolute elderly gentlemen and pack them off to a luxury retirement complex. I was imagining with satisfaction all the unsuccessful overtures from potential buyers, then suddenly wondered how I could have got so lost in my thoughts when I realised that Ortwin had brought me a cup of tea, and Erhard had been asking questions and was now looking to me expectantly for answers. 

I didn’t want to let on I’d been imagining all this, and feeling such schadenfreude over the rejected buyers. Pardon? I said, casually as I could. 

He still often comes out with your name, said Erhard. 

I was immediately taken aback. Was old Herr Balder still alive? At over a hundred years old? 

Where have you accommodated him?  I asked, delicately, since they too were actually of an age when single gentlemen ought to be thinking about moving to a residence offering care facilities. 

They looked at me uncomprehendingly, then at each other.  

In the flat, of course, said Ortwin. 

What ours? I asked uncertainly. 

No, no – Erhard piped up: Where you used to live was taken by a young man after you left, though we hardly ever saw him.  He did pay his rent on time but of course that’s not saying much, seeing as it was only fifteen marks back then anyway! Then after Reunification he left and we started using the flat as an attic. Father had so much old clutter, but we couldn’t throw it out,  so we stored it up there. 

Aha. So they’d gained some space. Because a person as old as that needs a special bed; a commode… Was he still compos mentis enough to want to see me? I definitely wanted to see him, and so inquired as to whether he was receiving visitors. 

They laughed, but their obvious embarrassment unsettled me. Erhard coughed. Ortwin said they’d have to clear up a bit beforehand, and the fact was, they hadn’t had a visitor for so long it wasn’t true, and they didn’t even know if  they’d be able to offer a drink or refreshments.  They themselves always went across to the guest-house, the Pension Schubert, where that nice Frau Schmidt made them their breakfast, lunch, and supper.  

And… what about him?  I asked in the same uncertain tone. 

Oh, the little he eats, I can stock up in the supermarket and it lasts him easily three months, explained Ortwin. 

Wordlessly I imagined a grizzled, emaciated geriatric whose existence was perhaps known to no one;   a man who, like a piece of wizened Christmas cake dropped long ago behind the bookcase, had passed from the memories of those who used to live round here in former times, while people who’d moved here more recently had never known him, and thus had not noticed his disappearance. 

My uneasiness was growing. 

I asked them how soon they might finish the tidying. 

They both went red. 

Not… not… not before tomorrow night, stammered Erhard. 

We could just bring him downstairs though, don’t you think? Ortwin’s suggestion served to release the iron grip that for the last minute or so had been tightening round Erhard’s heart. And with all the businesslike efficiency they still had at their disposal, the duo headed upstairs, having asked me to keep any potential customers talking. 

I looked round. The hidden contents of the many drawers were revealed on the cards inserted into the little slots on their fronts. I read off Lead. Coloured. Ink. And  A4, A5, A6.  Though there were brand names too:  Geha, Rotring, and Pelikan. The two tall shelving units against the wall were filled with boxes stacked in piles, neat and tidy, each bearing a label. Calendars, fountain pens, blotting paper, erasers, brown paper, compasses, glue. Just how it had been back then, under the old regime. Presumably the reason they kept this archaic system was that their father was still alive. 

Unsurprisingly, no one did come into the stationery shop.  

What I was more interested in was how they were going to get the old man down the stairs. 

Might he still be good on his feet? 

I heard the door close upstairs. There were no falling noises, no pushing or heavy breathing. They were coming down the stairs as quickly (or should I say slowly) as they had gone up. 

I could hardly bear the tension. 

They opened the door to the shop. 

When I instantly burst out laughing, they were clearly startled. There, sitting on Ortwin’s shoulder, was Coco! I’d completely forgotten Coco’s existence. When I was little the only Amazon I knew about was a tanned, buxom woman who was good with a bow and arrow. Until Coco taught me better. It seemed male creatures, too, could be Amazons. Coco was an Amazon with a yellow beak. His life in an exclusively male household had made him suspicious of all females, hence my name had only ever come out as a screech of fury. He still often comes out with your name, so Erhard had said. Would things be any different now? 

I couldn’t stop laughing. Ortwin and Erhard looked at each other, perplexed. 

Coco screeched my name, sounding furious indeed. When I’d at last calmed down, I saw him for what he’d always been: a green terrorist with misogynistic tendencies. An old feeling long since deleted from my emotional inventory now overwhelmed me: my sheer love for that parrot. What else could it be, this coach and horses galloping through my heart,  making me choke up? With all due deference, I stepped back. 

I didn’t tell Ortwin and Erhard about the misunderstanding. Anyway they’d gone on to telling me in detail, and with ever greater animation and pleasure, about Coco’s quirky habits: his love of television, but how watching TV would make him fall asleep while perched on one or other of their shoulders; how both his laughing and crying were so insistent that once he started up, you were forced to join in. However, his liking for a specifically human diet had been thwarted after they started having all their meals over at the guesthouse. He’d only taken to dry food very slowly; for the last decade, however, since the death of their father who’d always cooked their meals, he’d had no other option. 

Old Herr Balder had lived to be over ninety, and the way he’d looked after his sons had been more like a mother… I didn’t want to think about the limited life of this man who, despite his own unmet needs, had nonetheless amply provided for the happy and fulfilled life that this Amazonian parrot had enjoyed. 

At the end of that afternoon in Balder & Sons the Stationers, I bought some paints. Acrylics, in small white tubes. Nowadays I have a picture of Coco hanging above my desk. If I stare at it for long enough, the three Balder men pay me a fleeting visit. They stand before me, guests in my here-and-now, waving. Then, in the blink of an eye, they become The Past.  

 

Kathrin Schmidt, “Balder & Söhne” in  Finito. Schwamm drüber. Erzählungen. Kiepenheuer & Witsch Verlag, Köln, 2011.