Author: Iris Hanika
Translator: Abigail Wender
WHEN ROXANA GOT HOME, she heard voices in the kitchen, and when she hung her keys by the door and carried her shopping into the room, she saw a new face — and the world’s hammer struck destiny’s gong or the opposite, destiny’s hammer struck the world’s gong. Either way, at that moment everything changed. One could say it was as if she’d sustained an electric shock that brought her body to the limit of its electrical capacity; or as if the planet had suddenly changed direction, which made her head spin. One could also say that the earth broke open and hellfire blazed up her legs, or the heavens opened and divine rays of light blinded her. A comet struck earth; the ice cracked wide under her feet; she had been hurled into a new universe; Albert Speer’s Schwerbelastungskörper had fallen on her head —
something of that sort. Put simply, in the instant she saw the new face, a guillotine was released, its knife making a precise cut that marked an epoch of her life. From then on there was a before and after, and she would always know the exact moment in which her life had been radically altered: when I came home after shopping, he sat in the kitchen, and from then on everything was different.
“Hello, here you are,” was what greeted her. “Roxana, this is Josh.” He stood up immediately (“Josh, this is Roxana”), beamed at her and held out his hand to pull her from the before into the after. But it was not so easy to grasp that hand — nothing was normal now and even the smallest action required careful thought and planning before it could be undertaken.
First she needed to put down her groceries. And for that she had to turn away from this new person, and that took some time because she wanted nothing more from life than to look at that face forever. With effort, she spun around to put her bag on the counter between the stove and refrigerator. At last her hands were free, and she turned and took his hand, which pulled her safely and definitively into the hereafter — which quickly changed into the never-ending present.
“Hello,” he said, “I’m Josh.”
“Hello,” she said, “Roxana. My pleasure.” She didn’t let go of his hand immediately in order to completely absorb the face that everything now would depend on. And yet she couldn’t see the face clearly as it was a bit too near for her age-related, weak eyesight. So she let go of his hand and put her glasses on to study it exactly. She saw all his pores, lines, hair, and bumpy skin very distinctly. But that didn’t help a bit, it was just a face. Except it tunneled through her to a place that she hadn’t known was still there. She took the glasses off and Josh’s face changed back into a young prince’s.
“Have a seat,” said Sophonisbe and stood because the other two were standing. Now they were all standing. “Would you like coffee?” she asked, already taking a cup from the cabinet and putting it quickly onto the table just as Roxana warily sat down. After Roxana, Josh sat once again. “And a glass of water,” said Sophonisbe like a good spirit in the background; she took a glass, filled it at the tap, and put it in front of Roxana; and then she poured coffee in Roxana’s cup and sat back down, wondering why the atmosphere was so peculiar. On the outside there was nothing to see, nothing had happened, and so she was surprised and thought perhaps she was mistaken.
Josh and Roxana were opposite each other. He was as hopefully expectant as always, but when no one said a word, and Roxana looked deep in thought, his puppy dog exuberance dampened and he furrowed his brow just like she had; now she was deep inside herself and began to understand why his face distressed her. If I were thirty years younger, she thought, I’d fall insanely in love and pursue him maniacally, that is until we had sex, which wouldn’t continue for long because I would hang on him like a lump of clay, and, as a result, he’d leave me after two weeks max, whereupon I’d drown in an ocean of despair.
Men like him have always initiated a collapse into deep depression. The collapse was always preceded by a phase of intense mania. Men like him could be relied upon to drive her insane and make her as miserable as possible.
He’s exactly the type, she thought, exactly the type who would make me crazy if I were thirty years younger.
She hadn’t expected to meet someone like him ever again.
She hadn’t thought she’d ever be reminded, and so concretely, of her screwed-up adolescence and those unhappy flights into madness. They’d happened so long ago.
Surely it was no longer true.
She had gone off the rails.
And yet here they sat.
For Sophonisbe the quiet rolling out like a gentle fog from the middle of the kitchen table wasn’t unpleasant. However, Josh was confused; he looked frowningly between both women, seeking an answer from Sophonisbe, but she gave none; instead, with a touch of a smile on her lips, she relaxed and leaned back, her hands folded in her lap to savor the unprecedented event happening at that table. Roxana was so astonished that she hardly noticed the silence. For her it was more than just right — she had to concentrate. In reality, though, she wasn’t thinking about anything. What had happened just now? The question whirled like a carousel in her head. What would, could or should happen later she didn’t weigh — that was in the future, and it would be gruesome, she already knew. But what had begun here was the past, and it was hell. Why, why was the past taking place now? (To be hurled into a completely new state of mind at the sight of a new face, to be catapulted out of oneself and suddenly land in the kingdom of madness, no longer concerned with yourself but only with this other person. To see a new face and suddenly think, “this man, he’s it, he’s exactly it, he’s the one.”)
As Sophonisbe would have put it:
Like this I have not thought in so long; already more than ten years since I think like this. That’s why, really, I forgot that someone like this can think. That someone can a new face see and that from now always they will always be with this person, and every day this face see. Even if one knows absolutely nothing about what’s inside the head of that face, one thinks one will see that face now for always.
Roxana had been wrenched in this cruel way into the relentless present. There was no gentle fog spreading slowly in her head, actually her mind had become a hurricane-grade vortex; and it was not the face that had broken the dam, but the maelstrom’s return that shook her; she had imagined the whirlwind was long past dead. She was shocked that the door to madness wasn’t barricaded behind her where she’d left it thirty years ago, locked for eternity—shocked that the door could simply unlock as if that were an easy task. She had met a new person and the gate to hell had opened again.
THE SILENCE WAS PATIENT, but thick as cotton batting. At last Sophonisbe realized that it fell in her jurisdiction to further the conversation, after all she’d dragged the young man back with her. She was responsible for ending the silence and for the wellbeing of her landlady.
“I met Josh last winter in New York.”
“Frau Roxana,” Josh said formally, “I bring to you greetings from Alf.”
“From Alf? You mustn’t call me ‘Frau’! Bedolf. How’d that happen? Use the informal ‘you.’ And what next?”
These weren’t questions that Josh or Sophonisbe could answer. Josh couldn’t really understand what was being asked, Sophonisbe not what was really being said, and Roxana not how she’d arrived at those questions. Josh looked helplessly at Sophonisbe to continue on, but even if she could have helped him, she wouldn’t have because she was watching enthusiastically as the delusion of love erupted in someone else for once. Until now she’d only known the experience from the inside. She was glad to see what it looked like on the outside and she was excited by what was yet to come. Roxana looked again at Josh, or rather away from him and then back at him again and again away and again back and again away and again back. Suddenly she stood up and left the kitchen.
“I’m still wearing my jacket,” she said as she went.
Although it was summer, one nevertheless wore a light coat. They were in the season the the fashion industry called “the transition period” — a time of change.
She didn’t just hang her coat in the closet but also made a detour to the storeroom, so it took a little longer than expected for her to return. In the meantime, Sophonisbe smiled at Josh who looked as if he were multiplying four-digit numbers in his head.
Roxana used the storeroom’s mirror less to smarten up than to make sure that she was still the same person she’d been that morning, to see that she hadn’t changed on the outside and that she was intact and extant, at least outwardly. The glance in the mirror gave her a reference point—it let her know who the person was, who she really was, whose whole being walked every day through the neighborhood — a resting place, a moment’s peace. While she considered herself in the mirror, reality appeared to be in existence, with the familiar present and the steady flow of her orderly, pleasant life. She applied her lipstick and saw that outwardly she looked the way she always had when she left the house and went face-to-face with the world: admittedly, it was strange not to inhabit the world any longer.
That did the trick; with titanic force she thrust herself back, and held firm as she sat down once more to the full coffee cup and water glass. She touched neither. And she sat very straight on the chair. One can’t truly hear or see when worlds break apart. Of course it depends, too, on the worlds.
Sophonisbe thought of several ways to revive the conversation but none seemed suitable. She didn’t want to say anything, particularly about Alf, which would mean talking about Deborah — though she’d been the one interested in the Ukraine, and so Josh had been invited to dinner several times, which was how they ultimately had the idea to travel together to visit Odessa. She didn’t want to talk about Josh—he was sitting at the table with them and could speak for himself. The same went for Roxana. It wasn’t in Sophonisbe’s nature to praise people who were in her company, and she also didn’t like to speak about herself. At the start she’d already told Josh about her overwhelming experience at the Schlesische Tor station, that sufficed; and Roxana knew nothing about the man Sophonisbe had wished would die and then had died. And really, at the moment, she didn’t want to tell anyone about the accident; actually she wanted to write about this incredible incident, which was the reason she had lured Josh to the apartment: so that the path to her writing desk would be as short as possible.
“‘For our wishes oft hide from ourselves the very object we wish for’” she said finally, “‘Gifts / come down from above in the shapes appointed by heaven.’”
That livened up the room. Josh beamed at her and now Roxana directed her stare at Sophonisbe.
“What?” Roxana asked.
“Goethe,” answered Sophonisbe.
“Did you know that Czar Nicholas II died with that word on his lips? They read him his death sentence in that dungeon in Yekaterinburg, but he didn’t understand and asked twice, ‘shto? shto?’ and then they shot him, and he was dead.”
“And did you know that Nicholas II was such an incompetent czar that he put the stamps on his own letters? But I had in mind the shapes, of course. Goethe. What kinds of shapes?”
“‘Gifts come down from above in the shapes appointed by heaven.’”
“Repetition won’t clarify it. What kinds of gifts?”
“Just the gifts. Whatever we haven’t wished for because we hide our desires; I’ve already said that.”
“Yes, you should explain the wishers and the wish-fulfilled,” said Josh, joining the conversation. “Do you mean that people are gifts? I mean, the shapes—are they people, and the people—what they what we wish for?”
“Something like that, only not so concrete,” said Sophonisbe. “A gift could be in the shape of a person, and a person could be the fulfillment of desire — if one had wished for a person. But that is, as I said, too concrete. I think Goethe had something more abstract in mind. Although, for details look at “Hermann und Dorothea,” which is all about wish fulfillment in the shape of a human being.”
“A person is no wish fulfillment,” said Roxana, “a person is ‘the beginning of terror’.”
“No, you’re mixing it up, Rilke meant something else. His line is, ‘But beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror.’”
“Well, that’s what I mean!” Roxana was so agitated that she slammed her hand down flat on the table.
“Where did Rilke write about terrorist beginnings?” asked Josh, already pulling out his phone to type a note.
We can go no further like this.
Once again we can go no further because there are three people having three different conversations and each one of them has needs that each would like to have known and met. As long as the reason for conversation isn’t clear, and the goal itself left unspoken, they talk against each other, not with each other. Also a kind of incommunicado.
When Sophonisbe realized that they weren’t getting anywhere, she took hold of the reins, saying to Josh: “Not ‘terrorist beginnings’ but ‘the beginning of terror.’ The first of the Duino Elegies.” And to Roxana: “Josh is getting his doctorate degree in East European history. I met him with Alf and Deborah, because Deborah’s ancestors were from the Ukraine and Josh is researching the Ukraine. That’s why they saw each other a few times after I left, and will be going to Odessa all together. Alf and Deborah are coming to Berlin soon.”
“But this isn’t the Ukraine.”
“No, this isn’t the Ukraine. Josh goes to Lviv in five weeks and from there they’ll travel to Odessa.”
“Five weeks? You’re only here for five weeks?”
That was bad news. She had only five weeks to be done with this madness.
“I am in Berlin for a vacation and for to learn German. In Lviv I work in the archive.”
“Oh, okay, and that’s why you need to speak German—so you can read Nazi documents?”
“No, my research isn’t about the Nazi era. I work on the Ukrainian national movement in the nineteenth century.”
Once again the conversation hit a dead end. Sophonisbe considered if now was the time, perhaps, to sing Roxana’s praises, to give a jolt to the talk, but luckily it moved ahead of its own accord.
“I know so very little about the Ukraine.”
Josh picked this up gratefully for now he could say what he said every time he spoke about his doctoral thesis.
“Yes, this is a problem. The people know only the Maidan Revolution, but know nothing of the early history. But there is the early history. This is the reason I write my dissertation on this. This is why I chose it. There is not much literature. It is a – how does one say it?” He finished in English, “It’s a rewarding field of research.”
“And so you need the archive.”
“In Lviv. I had no idea there was anything still there.”
“Many think that.” Josh smiled.
“Yes, we can hardly believe that east of Poland anything at all remains,” said Sophonisbe, “of course, I knew Lviv from history, as Lemberg, from Joseph Roth, so Galicia, Eastern Jews.”
Oh, that was the wrong direction — she saw immediately. When it came to the Ukraine and history, talk often went along one — even if rusty — track, and it would have ground along happily had she not reflexively turned once more in the direction of the Nazi business. As luck would have it, Josh wasn’t the least bit interested in that and steered the conversation off elsewhere.
“Alf told me a lot about you,” he said, beaming now at Roxana. “I would like to know everything about the self-care business!”
At least Roxana could laugh a little at that.
“The self-care business,” she said. “Ah, well, that was a long time ago.”
“And what business are you in now?”
“Now?” Now she could think of nothing. “Let’s see, what do I do now?”
“You are working on a book about communication.” Sophonisbe rushed in to help.
“Oh, right. Yes, I’m working on a book about communication. But only halfheartedly.”
“Why only halfheartedly?”
“Hmm, why only halfheartedly?” Roxana now asked herself. People always had to ask the hardest questions first!
“Yes,” said Sophonisbe, who thought that now she had done enough social work. “So I’ll just leave the two of you alone to communicate, which is to say I really must to get to my desk,” and disappeared, leaving behind a small bubble of silence, which Roxana, as luck had it, burst quickly.
“Would you like more coffee? I bought cookies.”
“I love cookies!” the young prince called out in English, and leaned backwards, aglow with anticipation.
Like a young hound, thought Roxana. Oh, how sweet!
How unbearably sweet.
And then she thought: the beginning of terror, and stood petrified, the cookie package in her hand and gaped at Josh. He looked back at her in alarm. He was frightened, she frightened him, she saw it. Best to leave the room, she thought, but no reason came to mind so she stayed.
Yes, something was sideways, crooked, not right. “Who, if I cried out” and so on, and why was Rilke holding forth, of all people—also strange. The kitchen was actually quite well furnished, full of machines that made the lives of harried cooks and housekeepers easier. In this kitchen no one would cry out, there was nothing to cry for, this kitchen was a very peaceful place.
Roxana came to her own rescue.
You are no angel, she thought, you are just a darling boy, nothing more. Very normal. But such a boy.
“Cookies,” she said, “Kekse,” and tore the package open, putting them on a plate and sat down again, smiling kindly at him the way one smiled at such a darling honey-boy.
“These words are similar,” said Josh.
“They taste the same, no matter what word one chooses.”
Then they each took a cookie and ate it in their own awkward style. Josh gobbled his in one gulp as if it were a nutritional supplement he’d been lacking and craved, and immediately stuffed a second in his mouth; whereas Roxana nibbled hers in many tiny bites, scrupulously fulfilling her duty to enjoy it. That was just as idiotic, but lasted longer. Josh watched, casting his princely smile on her. For now, so far so good.
Excerpted from Iris Hanika, Echos Kammern (Echo’s Chambers), Droschl 2020.