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Madame Exupéry

Author: Sophie Villard
Translator: Anne Stokes

 

Translator’s Preface:  Following on from Villard’s debut novel about the famous art collector Peggy Guggenheim, this new work focuses on another inspiring female figure: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s wife and muse Consuelo, to whom we owe the story The Little Prince.

When the recently widowed young painter Consuelo meets Antoine de Saint-Exupéry at a party during a visit to Buenos Aires, it’s love at first sight. The spirited Central American, who has made her home in Paris, becomes the muse of the enigmatic pilot, who would, in fact, much rather write and draw. The result of his undying love for her is The Little Prince, in which Consuelo is the beloved rose, whom the prince would like to protect with a glass globe and who is constantly on his mind on whichever alien planet he travels to. The book makes Antoine world renowned, but the reality of being at his side is far from easy. Consuelo has to contend with his infidelity and, as an artist, she struggles to step out of the shadow of her famous husband – until Antoine leaves on a fateful reconnaissance mission over the Mediterranean in 1944 …

Chapter 2 describes their first meeting, which took place shortly after Consuelo arrived in Buenos Aires to sort out her financial affairs.

 

Chapter 2
Buenos Aires, two days later

 

The car had picked her up on time and was now pulling in on the wide boulevard in front of the sandstone building that housed the oldest luxury hotel in the city. This was where the reception was being held in honor of the French delegation Benjamin belonged to. It was really like a piece of Paris in the center of Argentina, Consuelo thought, looking up at the hotel whose Haussmann façade would not have been out of place in the Champs-Élysées. In fact, Buenos Aries with its noble department stores, expensive cars and ladies and gentlemen rushing along the sidewalks in the latest fashion, in hats, capes and skirt suits, seemed just like Paris. Only the gigantic palms, which provided greenery in the parks and squares, betrayed the fact that Place de la Concorde lay far from here. As did the tango music streaming from the passing convertibles and the open windows of apartments and restaurants.

You could surely lead an exciting bohemian life in the small cafes here, Consuelo thought, and in the countless theaters for which the city was so renowned, and, of course, in the tango bars. Although that was considered disreputable, and, as a socialite, one naturally wouldn’t dance, but would at best look on. What a shame.

But this evening, and in the mood she was in at the moment, she didn’t feel like dancing. Yesterday she had honored her appointments in the city. President Don El Peludo had even received her to express his condolences on the death of her husband, to personally facilitate the settlement of her pension, and to ensure the best possible provision for the so-much-younger widow who had been left behind. Consuelo had once again been astonished at how popular Enrique had been here in Argentina – almost something of a national hero, it seemed, although he had in fact been born in Guatemala and only assumed Argentinian nationality later in life. His books had been extremely popular here for decades. He was regarded as someone who had moved to Europe and made it.

His funeral in Paris had already been unusual enough. After the ceremony in the Église de la Madeleine, Consuelo had walked behind the adorned carriage containing the coffin alongside Enrique’s friend, the poet and Nobel Prize-winning writer, Maurice Maeterlinck, to  Père-Lachaise cemetery – followed by more than a thousand friends, companions, politicians and cultural functionaries from all over Europe, every one of them dressed in black. She shook her head as she recalled the scene, which she had walked through as though asleep, as if in some absurd dream. Enrique had quite simply been her Enrique, nothing more. The fact that his departure had called forth such a furor was still incomprehensible to her.

The meeting with the Argentinian president yesterday had also taken a peculiar turn .when an attaché came up to him and whispered news of the impending student rebellion in his ear. This had already been rumored on board the Massilia, and Consuelo could hear everything the attaché said, because the president didn’t hear very well and the attaché had consequently had to whisper very loudly. The uprising was scheduled to take place the following Wednesday, she had heard, and she wondered how that could be pinpointed so precisely. She had sipped her glass of good Argentinian red wine while the president was whispering to the attaché, and reflected on the fact that she was intending to leave in two days’ time in any event, to visit her family in El Salvador, and that the possible unrest would consequently not affect her.

She forced herself to focus instead on this evening as the driver of the car opened the rear door and she stepped out onto the wide sidewalk in front of the hotel. She thanked him, the limousine drove off, and her initial impulse was simply to walk past the entrance and take a long evening stroll through the lit-up city rather than torture herself with the reception. From a side street, she could hear snatches of salsa music. The air was balmy and filled with the smells from restaurants and bodegas. But she remembered that she was doing Benjamin a favor by turning up; only for his sake would she make it through this evening with composure and grace.

 

From the corner with wood paneling, red and gold baroque wallpaper and ceiling-high mirror a string quartet had been boring her for half an hour now with their good old pieces by dead European composers. Why hadn’t they at least invited a tango band to play? Consuelo held her champagne flute tightly and let the story of the man opposite rush past her. He was a French academic who was living here in order to analyze the drastic increase in traffic in the Argentinian capital in recent years. Benjamin had greeted her briefly when she arrived, and had then been swallowed up by the crowd, since he was one of the guests of honor, after all, and had to chat with all of the country’s dignitaries. Consuelo noticed that some of the guests were looking at them and whispering – “So, that’s Carrillo’s widow? She’s very young!” – but she tried to ignore them. Her glass was almost empty. She would stay another few minutes out of decency and then return to her hotel to have another final farewell drink with a few acquaintances she had gotten to know and come to treasure during the crossing. For those thrown together on the steamship would now naturally be scattered to the four winds. She herself needed to recover from the exertions of recent days in the city – all the appointments and the frenzied buzz of Spanish all around her, to which she was no longer accustomed – and prepare for her onward journey. For when she visited her family, she would have to appear strong and confident. She was returning from Europe, after all, and people in her hometown would want to receive her as a heroine, not a lost daughter with no idea of what she was going to do with the rest of her life.

She drained her champagne and looked over at Benjamin, who was still deep in conversation. If need be, she would leave without saying goodbye to him.

She had just wished the academic good luck with his study and collected her coat from the cloakroom when a very tall man – two heads taller than her – with thick eyebrows, slicked-back hair, an unshaven face, and expansive gestures, stormed into the hotel lobby. He was wearing a lightweight suit and a scarf was billowing around his neck, but he had no coat. He pulled to a halt upon seeing Consuelo. “I didn’t know there’d be beautiful women here!” he boomed across the lobby, so everyone could hear.

Consuelo stood still for a moment, taken aback by the fervor and spontaneous frankness with which he had spoken – and at the incredible energy he exuded. But then she changed her mind, raised her eyebrows and continued putting on her coat. She didn’t have a lot of time for boorish folks. Although this one here with his exuberance and almost childlike directness had an extremely mysterious charisma, she had to admit. “You must forgive me, I’m just about to leave,” she said somewhat awkwardly before attempting to get around him, since he had placed himself directly in her way.

“Oh, no. Absolutely not.” He reached for her coat, twirled her elegantly out of it again, and threw it on the cloakroom counter. “You can’t abandon me before I’ve gotten to know you. That’s totally out of the question!” He offered her his arm. “Please, be so kind as to join me for a drink.” His eyes beseeched her.

Consuelo didn’t take his arm. “How can I? When you haven’t even introduced yourself.”

“I’m very sorry.” He bowed. “I am …”

“That’s Antoine de Saint-Exupéry,” Benjamin interrupted. He had just hurried into the lobby from the main room in order to greet his friend. “The writer-pilot I told you about.”

Saint-Exupéry smiled. “So, I’m a writer-pilot, am I?” He embraced his friend. “If that’s the case, I’d much rather be designated pilot-writer. But a nice introduction, my good man. Indeed, I’ve just returned from a weeklong mission that took me all the way to the end of Patagonia, where I saw multicolored birds and little monkeys as small as your hand.” He took Consuelo’s right hand. “As delightfully small as this doll’s hand of yours.” He looked into her eyes. “May this writing pilot now take you over to that group of armchairs at the front there for a drink?” He pointed at the leather club chairs with the smokers’ tables in the corner of the lobby, and gave her a charming smile.

“I was just about to …,” Consuelo began again faintly, hastily withdrawing her hand, and still thinking about the perplexing little monkeys and brightly colored birds. The sound of the ceaseless string quartet coming from the main room was completely at odds with such scenes.

However, she couldn’t dwell on these sensations for long, because it was now two against one. Benjamin linked arms with her and literally dragged her over to the armchairs. “You were just about to chat a little with both of us.” He bent down close to her ear, so his friend couldn’t hear. “Believe me, you won’t regret getting to know my friend Saint-Ex. It’s never boring in his company.”

Oh well, she could stay a few more minutes, she supposed. She would then spend a little less time with her acquaintances than planned, and catch up on her beauty sleep in the morning.

She let Benjamin lead her over to a club chair, sat down, and then this Antoine fellow immediately pressed a gin into her hand. “But now you must tell me what your doll’s hands do when they’re not holding a glass of gin or a cigarette.” He gave her a light and then lit his own cigarette. Benjamin sat beside them, grinning.

“They guide a paintbrush or work with a hammer and chisel,” Consuela retorted. Those who asked directly got direct answers. Doll’s hand. Pha!

“An artist! I sensed that the minute I saw you! Would you paint something for me sometime? Perhaps the clouds I fly through every day, or the summits of the Andes. I could take you to Patagonia, and you could immortalize the brightly colored birds. And the seals in Tierra del Fuego, too. There are lots of seals there, you know. I once brought one back in the hold. He’s in the zoo now, mind you. My bathtub wasn’t big enough for him.” He drew his hand over his cheeks. “Oh, please excuse my unshaven appearance.” He jumped up. “Just give me a couple of minutes. I’ll run over to the hotel barber.” With that, he scurried down the corridor, and disappeared into the hair salon.

“What in heaven’s name … what kind of a man is that, Benjamin?” Consuelo sat bolt upright in her armchair. She had never met anyone like him in all her life. “I don’t know what I …”

Benjamin laughed. “Say nothing, do nothing, just wait. It’ll be worth it. Quite definitely.” He winked at her as Antoine entered the lobby, freshly shaven and reeking of Eau de Cologne. He knelt down on the marble floor directly in front of Consuelo’s chair, while the people in the lobby looked on in amazement. “I would like to show you the stars. Will you come with me?”

“But …” Consuelo looked over at Benjamin, who just smiled.

“I’d like to show you the stars. I will fly you very close to them.” Good Lord, Dios mío!

“But I don’t fly. I’ve never flown. In fact, just running very fast is already too much for me.”

Saint-Exupéry laughed, took her hands in his, and turned her palms upward. “I can read your hands, d’you know that? I’m good at it.” He looked at the lines on her palm. “And here I can see quite clearly that any moment now, this very evening, in fact, you will board my plane with me and come very close to the moon.”

Benjamin sensed she was speechless, and came to her rescue. “That’s not possible, unfortunately, Antoine. She’s meeting up with good acquaintances of ours shortly. She has to go.”

Consuelo nodded lamely, and put her gin down on the little smokers’ table.

Antoine sprang to his feet. “But that’s not a problem. How many of you are there?”

“Eight,” said Benjamin. “And …”

“And you’re also coming along, my friend, aren’t you? Nine plus the two of us.” Antoine smiled at Consuelo. “We’ll all fit comfortably in my plane.” He slapped Benjamin on the back. “Come on, old friend!” He looked at him with puppy eyes.

Benjamin laughed and stood up. “Alright then. I’ll just say goodbye to my hosts.”

Antoine was already helping Consuelo into her coat. “Which star is your favorite? Venus? I bet it’s Venus. I’ll show you all of them. I will!” He lit another cigarette. “We’ll be at the airfield in half an hour – and then your journey with me into the sparkling firmament will begin.” He smiled at her, and she didn’t know if the strange feeling in her stomach came on simply because she was thinking of the airplane taking off.

 

Excerpted from Sophie Villard, Madame Exupéry und die Sterne im Himmel  (Madame Exupéry and the Stars in Heaven),  Penguin 2021.

Really, German

Author: Feridun Zaimoglu
Translator: Tom Cheesman

 

The very first time I read from my work to an audience, a well-dressed woman in the front row had a nosebleed, the blood was dripping onto her knees and splashing over the toes of her shoes, I jumped up, reached into my pocket and passed her a pack of Bordeaux-coloured paper tissues. She angrily left the room. I couldn’t understand. I’d done nothing wrong. I’d got the paper tissues from a street musician by way of thanks for a handful of change. After the reading the lady asked me to sign two books, then she explained that the indecency of my spoken language had made her feel unwell. My provocations, she said, would get me nowhere. A genuine writer would take no pride in making people bleed. A genuine writer writes stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. She appealed to me from the bottom of her heart to please give up writing. I stood by the book table, my head bowed in shame, silently watching the bubbles of carbon dioxide shoot up from the bottom of the bottle and burst.

I often found myself getting embroiled in unpleasantness. That woman would not be the last to accuse me of huge depravity. In the 1990s I set off on a reading tour with Kanak Sprak, a whole book I’d written in the underclass jargon of youngsters of Turkish origin, translating their Kanak lingo into my own artificial language. What was I trying to achieve? I was trying to set down hard edges, an outline with a toxic glow. Back then I used to look like a junkie with a silver set of works, performing in suits I’d bought in a shop in Kiel that sells used clothes by weight. Strangers would come up to me, whispering, on railway station platforms, at urinals, in beer halls and at grilled chicken kiosks. They thought I was a dealer, they insisted I should unzip my wheelie suitcase and reveal my wares. Quite a few times I had to run for it, because they wouldn’t believe I was just a writer.

I became the hero of German provincial towns. Most writers want to perform in big cities. A triumph in a provincial town requires hard struggle. I liked that. Sadly, lots of people didn’t like what I read to them. They asked why I was making such a fuss. They asked why they should care about young Turks in poverty-stricken tenements, ‘Kanaks’ kicking off. I talked about a phenomenon of the German language. They wanted to know why the sugar syrup poured over puff pastry vol-au-vents filled with crushed pistachios forms a thin film that sticks to the roof of your mouth. I frequently shut the book and talked with the audience about baking.

I started to think that most good people in Germany live in the small towns. It was unusual for a woman to get a nosebleed during a reading. I was seen as a poet from the provinces, as an entertainer specialising in extreme silliness. In those early years, as I travelled the land, I encountered critics who sat right at the end of the second to last row and asked the first question of the evening. They asked: “How authentic are you, Mr. Z?” They declared: “You can sit there wriggling and jiggling all you like, all that violent ghetto jive, we just don’t buy the idea that you’re some heavy from the mean backstreets.” Not that I’d ever made any such claim. But still they insisted that in my case, the character in the narrative must be viewed as an identical double of the narrator. I demurred, and they dismissed that as a swindler’s lie.

My origin was nothing to be proud of. The young men I’d portrayed in Kanak Sprak didn’t identify themselves in terms of their ethnic belonging. My audiences didn’t want to hear about that. I would spend the whole evening talking about my German life, but at the end of the day they asked me what I had to say, as a young Turk, about what was going on in my homeland. My refusal to change my subject was interpreted as cowardice. Wouldn’t it be more cowardly to let reality be stolen? What did I mean by that? Just because one’s Turkish parents had migrated, as guest workers, did that confer sufficient knowledge of whatever is going on in Turkey?
Most young people of the second and third generation from Turkish and Kurdish origins were living in their own parallel world. They knew nothing about the reality of authentic Turks and Kurds, though of course they wouldn’t admit this. The typical Turkish male in Berlin’s working-class districts was swathing himself in clunky gold, pumping iron for massive, compact arms, propping his forearm on the open window of his car, and tugging his upper lip with his index and middle fingers – why was he doing that? Because that’s what the rebels were doing in the Turkish soap operas. The experts were talking about the essential culture of foreign residents of Berlin. I was talking about the boastful posing of new Germanites who, in their German urban settings, were missing out on urbanisation.

An outraged student denounced me as a nasty piece of work because her words had failed to move me. To illustrate the warm-hearted Mediterranean mentality, she had described how the men greet one another by shaking hands while pressing the back of the other’s hand with their free hand. That led an authentic German in the audience to relate how the Anatolian peasant will chop off the head of his last chicken whenever he catches sight of a tourist. I couldn’t help giggling, so the student called me a heartless pig, she got a huge wave of applause, the organisers refused to go out to eat with me.

I often had to break off a reading because people in the audience were shouting at me. I was the hoodlum of the season. One time a long-haired dachshund actually bit through my shoe, the man whistled him off, my toes were throbbing all night. In a small town in southern Bavaria, somebody called out that I deserved a resounding thumping, while his terrier in a knitted coat tugged at my trouser leg. Another time, a man suddenly stood up in the middle of my reading. His voluminous red checkered handkerchief, folded two corners up, spilled from his breast pocket. He said that he holidayed twice a year in a distant country; that on one expedition there, he’d seen small vultures in the fields; that with my manner and my attitude, I reminded him of the aforementioned vultures.

I often requested restraint. I requested accuracy. I was accused of cultural appropriation: as a Turk with a school certificate, did I have the right to write about Turks with no school certificate? The left-wing intellectuals were propagating round-the-clock linguistic cleansing. Anyone who used words other than ‘Migrant’ and ‘fellow citizen’ was a Nazi. ‘Migrant’ sounded like migraine, and when I said this at a public event I was called a German nationalist multiculturalist. I wasn’t this and I wasn’t that. I talked about career Kanaks, about women and men without qualities, about mediocre individuals very proud of their origins. At one adult education college, a half-full can of lager came flying out of the second to last row and hit me on the forehead. The wound soon healed. A few weeks later, a full thermos jug fell eight meters onto the top of my skull. I had a deep cut in my scalp, an ambulance was called to the Frankfurt Book Fair to take me to hospital. The doctor glued the skin of my scalp together, the police started an investigation, person or persons unknown, and later closed it.

Strangely, critics were now pressing me to admit, finally, that I’d arrived. Arrived where? In the world of publishing and reviewing, I wasn’t regarded as a literary writer, I was a social reporter who was glorifying chancers and sharks. But my subject was the healthy mental world of the mongrels. Nobody, after all, was so deeply and firmly rooted in one life-world that they couldn’t uproot themselves. I could go by many names, I could fake myself over and over, till nothing was left of my supposed authenticity. Tribe and custom were by no means more important than life.

These sorts of resounding phrases were met with suspicion, rightly. One Turkish woman said to me after a reading: ‘I don’t want to wash my colours out and get myself dyed different.’ Another woman in another town hacked furiously with her fork at her overcooked boiled potatoes and said: ‘I’m German, and you’ll always be Turkish, you can say all you like.’ I thought: the world stays foreign, no matter how sharply your eyes focus it. I was urged to try writing about normal love between normal people for a change. I said: ‘I don’t want to. I’d feel like spit in someone else’s mouth.’ [‘Someone else’s’ and ‘foreign’ are the same word in German: fremd. Tr.]

What was I writing about? I was writing about the twitching arms of wet shirts on the washing line of a lonely terrace. About summer clothes in the cupboard that suddenly fell off their hangers. About the first light of the day when you can tell a white thread from a black one. But I was also writing about melancholy rubber pimples on the back of a tailor’s glass cutting board. I was writing love letters for hot and bothered men with dark five o’clock shadow who’d developed a crush on the woman in the local bakery shop or a single mother from the run-down estate. I took five marks a page with a promised bonus of fifteen marks in case of success. But not once was a woman’s passionate love sparked by the letters. Word quickly got round, and this source of income dried up. Instead I was offered good money to concoct amusements for television, ‘Kanak comedy’ was on the rise, gag writers were desperately sought. I declined, not feeling this brand of clownery was for me. I was asked what I thought I might try next, as if it was like picking up the menu and choosing a dish costing slightly more than nothing.

Those who were posing the question of origin wanted solid forms. You might shatter into many fragments, you should just bear this disintegration. Why should you? Didn’t deformation threaten to end in degeneration? What was so bad about the longing for social stability? I was fleeing stinking certainty. For a moment, before everything curdled into identity, it was all a game, in the undefined first years of the century everything was beautifully unruly, people weren’t anxiously fixated on their holdings. Much was possible in cinema, music, literature, theatre.

The director Luc Perceval asked me to rewrite Shakespeare’s Othello, which I did with my good friend Günter Senkel, with whom I would go on to write many other plays besides. The gala premiere, launching the 2003 season at the Munich Kammerspiele after a prolonged closure of the theatre, turned into a huge scandal. The socialites, celebrities and beauties in the audience screamed themselves hoarse with revulsion, one fat man in the front row actually did have a nosebleed. What had so incensed them all? Caustic language, cutting words, stinging curses. The refined citizens of Venice turned up their noses at Othello, not because he presumed to live among whites as a dark-skinned man. He was a commander with a distinguished service record, the victor in numerous hard-fought battles. What was felt to be disgusting and offensive was that he loved a young girl half his age. She accepted this love gladly enough, but she fell to pieces under the influence of wicked whispering Iago. A drama of jealousy, a wild, obscene spectacle, murder and mayhem. I and my co-author had no intention of wheeling blathering monologue machines on stage. The conventional blacking up of white Othello was unnecessary, because the spectacle wasn’t the colour of his skin, the spectacle was the great age difference between the lovers. Shakespeare was cleverer than postmodernists, it would have been gross distortion to misunderstand the love story as a proxy for race war. Foreignness was the mother earth, was the fertile soil, was the layer which had to be carted off in order to get to the usable mineral deposit.

I spoke of the new souls and of the new German wilderness, I was seen as overwrought, overheated, as uncouth and moth-eaten. I knew: I’m not styled and tempered, my heart rejoiced when I thought that with a little quick wit one can get further and further. I met people who were stranger than me. One man, after a reading in the eastern outskirts of Berlin, showed me the underside of a gingerbread cookie. He had scratched into the wafer a cross with wobbly hooks on its four ends: a swastika. Another time, a pub landlady fell in love with me for a brief hour, she fell back out of love as soon as I explained that she was confusing me with a writer of cat-based fiction she idolised. Organisers booked me because they hoped to gain legitimacy by attracting a new audience, people with little or no education, foreigners in the land of culture. Indeed, there were dramatic scenes, not always, but more often than cultural event organisers were used to. A lovelorn gaming arcade owner stabbed himself in the chest. The woman he was whimpering at in pain wished he’d drop dead and left the room. I was judged responsible for the man’s overwrought state, I’d been reading from my novel about love, which one woman in the audience had said was really a novel about hate.

But what was happening in contemporary literature? Very little was happening, because it was failing to include the present. There was unrest in the cities of the west, there were uprisings in the outskirts, there were fanatics demonstrating nasty enthusiasms. In German books, on the other hand, little of the world was to be found, around the turn of the millennium the writers were writing primers full of bland fables, the word of the hour was inwardness. They all told their small, well-formed stories, all took pride in their uniqueness, whether west German, east German, or migrant, they found themselves and their own lives unbelievably interesting. But I had no wish to suffocate under the shroud of identity. I was in love with the imprecise world. I hated self-scrutiny. What I was seeing: the misery of the poor.

To the critics I was always in the wrong. When I wrote the family epic of the Seven Towers neighbourhood in Istanbul, they said I shouldn’t be nailing my heart to the land of my fathers. When I wrote a novel about Luther in powerfully hammering German, I was said to be angling for a prize for best integrated fellow citizen. When I wrote a novel about a Rhineland citizen on the skids, they said I’d set out to write a completely foreigner-free book. But it was always about German and Germany, it was about German nosebleeds, about the blood that shot out of noses because the violence of the words made bodies quake. And it was always about the incomprehensible, about the enigmatic, about the dense fog we got lost in. That was a legacy of German Romanticism, I was glad to inherit that gloom and that unreason. In a small town in the west of Germany, a professor shouted at me: ‘Genius, or genitalia, one or the other, not both. It’s clear enough that you’re all lower body!’ He denounced me as an enemy of the Enlightenment because I’d cited the Modernist poets Georg Trakl, Stefan George and Gottfried Benn. He thought I was wearing a mask, like all the Moslems. There it came again. I talked about literature. They talked about my supposed essential nature. I said: Right here, right now! They shouted: Baklava and cevapcici! I said: Festival of colours. They said: Folklore. I said: We have to urbanise ourselves in the cities. They talked about my self-hatred, and how I’d over-stretched myself in over-assimilating. But I’d torn no muscles.

I read in a library in Berlin’s bourgeois-bohemian quarter, Kreuzberg, and afterwards furious activists attacked me over a swinish passage in the book. Strangely, what really riled them was that I didn’t roll my Rs. I reminded them that the Friesians in far north Germany had stopped rolling their Rs in order not to attract unwanted attention. But I also reminded them that the Franconians of northern Bavaria flutter their tongues almost like Russians. The activists felt I was ribbing them. I looked around for the organiser, hoping for back-up. He was hiding behind the tattered, filthy, heavy woollen curtain hanging from a metal pole over the door. If I’d highlighted my original uniqueness, if I‘d identified myself by speaking in sentimental aphorisms, they’d have proclaimed me their pal and a man of honour.

Should I speak of a disability, my inability to believe in the purifying power of a cultural community? Minoritarian pride was repulsive to me. The individualism that expresses a loner’s cold intelligence was repulsive to me. I read in two bookstores and a cultural workshop centre in Berlin, to polite applause, I travelled on to a small town in the east. On the train a woman recognised me, she introduced herself as the Persian daughter of a Persian mother and a Persian father. Good, I thought, she knows where she belongs. I didn’t grin maliciously, I didn’t mock, I stayed serious, but she still got in a rage, she said loudly: ‘The Jews had it coming because they thought they were German. You’ve got it coming. You stir up a lot of wind with words. Look in the mirror. The face that looks out at you doesn’t lie. I’m staying true to my country.’ There it came again, the impermissible comparison. Indeed, I’ve often heard that the Turks, Kurds, Arabs and other population groups in Germany are the Jews of today, threatened with extermination if they allow their natural, in-born power of resistance to be broken down.

Who could fail to understand the anger against the state? The underclass Aryans go hunting foreign tribals, and the defenders of the constitution shred incriminating files. Until the swamp of sympathisers in the intelligence agencies, in the police, in the army is drained, no one will believe a word the state says. There’s this on the one hand, there’s that on the other. One could despair – one mustn’t.

Of course, in every sector there is a splendid blossoming. Residents whose parents came from abroad are writing and scripting, they’re counting and planning, they’re healing and repairing. They want nothing to do with the useless customs of the peasantry. They aren’t receptive to effusive bombast. These are sober workers in their chosen professions. They aren’t satisfied with the materials they found to hand. They are no friends of the collective which almost always sees improvement measures as treason. But neither do they believe in adopting the plumage of the local middle class so as to come over as especially well integrated. I call that misassimilation.

This country has its Turkish Turk-haters, I call them poster Kanaks, they need professional help. Every new season, the usual immigrant enemies of immigrants let themselves be harnessed up to do service for a bit of money and fame, till everyone tires of them. The real question is: what do the foreigners mean in their own country? What do they mean in the country where they’ve made themselves at home? They can’t let themselves be judged by the older residents. They can’t be so daft as to lose it when someone asks out of curiosity where they come from. If the blood rushes to your head when someone mispronounces your tricky surname, you should vent your vapours someplace else. In the culture sectors and the multicultural bureaux, one comes across all too many humourless would-be educators of the human race. I flee them, for they’re on a mission, they’ve a calling as missionaries to the majority. They also don’t want to think about another important question: how come the diaspora is mostly right-wing? What’s behind the bizarre bond between somebody of the third generation and their parents’ or grandparents’ country of origin? What should one make of the exorbitant attachment to cultural heritage from the traditional homeland? Are they suffering because of the scattering, are they wasting away because they live beyond the bounds of the ancient sacred clod? This sentimentality lines the pockets of autocrats in many imagined homelands, alas. Currency billions flow because millions dream of the idyll in their particular Promised Land.

I won’t eat baklava, for the same reason I won’t eat cheesecake: it’s addictive, it makes you fat and greasy. After one reading which went fairly well, the polite organisers invited me out for a meal. I ordered aubergines stuffed with mincemeat, the dish was comically called ‘Slit Belly’. I bit into bitter fibres and almost raw meat, I stared at the watery sauce swimming with many fatty globules staring at me. After the fourth mouthful I admitted defeat. The young waitress asked why, I apologised and said that unfortunately the food was inedible. Two minutes later a small, powerfully built Turk with the air of a boxer was standing at the table wanting to know why I’d insulted his fiancée. A misunderstanding. No misunderstanding, he insisted. His future bride’s mother was in the kitchen, she was a damn good cook, as he knew from personal experience, and if I was going to diss the aubergines, my belly was going to be slit open, an Alsatian dog stuffed inside, and sewed up again. The boxer Turk was dragged away by his dim-witted fiancée. Everyone round the table was quiet. The many fatty globules had at least doubled in number.

I’d have liked to throttle the boxer Turk with the waitress’s pinny. The polite organisers requested a situation report. I didn’t understand, they’d seen and heard the whole thing. They demanded a culturalist interpretation, the organiser felt his feelings had been hurt, there had to be a reason. I said, ‘Nah, the guy’s got an arse for a head.’ An embarrassed silence ensued. The waitress made a point of leaving my plate when she cleared the table. I didn’t order dessert, and then I was the only one who didn’t get a complimentary digestif at the end. I refused to engage in a staring contest with the boxer Turk, who was sitting at the side table by the door. What had happened? The organisers and a couple of people who’d been in the audience insisted on continuing the conversation in the hotel bar. Wasn’t I over-simplifying? After all, Turkish women and Turkish men belonged to the same culture as me. I said: ‘Nah, idiocy is international.’ It was all to no avail, after a short while I left them to it.

Constant dismissal has been my teacher. It’s not like I’m trying to be everyone’s darling. What dismays me? It’s that the fluffiness and banality, the wee-wishy-washiness and nappy-whiteness of the way life is imagined, inside many bubbles in our culture here, isn’t the way life is, not outside the bubbles, not in the world. Of course, what I’m saying could be dismissed as a privileged hooligan’s bitching. A story on paper is a story on paper. In real reality I ask myself: where are we headed? There will be ruptures and fights. Some will choose unconditional self-preservation, others self-deception. Many a sick-minded wretch will dream of smiting his designated foe. One must shield oneself more and more from the false influences and from the friendly whisperers, it’s best to rely on one’s wits. More experiments in culture would be nice. Experimental ways of living, not just among people of foreign origin, would be nice. If actual factual reality could be seen as just a special form of true reality, that would be nice. Here in our country much more remains possible.

 

Translated from the transcript of an address by Feridun Zaimoglu to the Kulturfestival Merhaba Heimat, a Turkish-German cultural festival held in Dortmund on 4 November 2021.

 

Stonemasonswife
Sorrow Islands, The North End of Outer Hope
Swimming
Carpet

Author: Kinga Tóth
Translator: Annie Rutherford

 

Stonemasonswife

an angel flew past over our heads
stonemasonswife breaks through the wall
in the café on the terrace between brightly coloured chairs
they fly away her mouth is red her wings covered in flowers
they scold or curse with lovely
words seven generations of all your father’s all your mother’s blood
each of their descendants
for every knocked down brick a man’s heart suffers
they knuckle down to work let it
rain on the town there are no stonemasons left
no one who digs ditches not a single one to be left
between bricks above the park
fly the vengeful stonemasonswives
the wind whips their clothes beads clatter in their hair
in their braids orphangirlhair orphanwomanhair
the silence of the left-behind children
the left-behind children don’t cry don’t make
a noise their limbs become pale as they
are beaten they creep into the backrooms
learn to nestle into doormats
between the fabric braids no one can reach them
their legs stretched out they lie on the threshold
the doormat is their blanket their shroud
when their back cracks from lying or from a shoe
when they don’t dare to sigh anymore
when fathersshoe crashes against their spine
dirt from fathersshoe falls into their mouth onto their face
father works father is hardworking the dust from the street
onto the floor onto the skin onto the
question which ricochets off the ground
if it’s like this if father’s quite deaf
and if there’s a crash he has gone properly deaf
then blood and only a sigh can be heard
a single constant voice
when the last sound of the doormatchildren is to be heard
mother is already fluttering round the rooftop
around the wooden house like a destroying angel
like a warning leave the shoes outside
watch where you tread
my weight is lighter than the smallest brick
his weight is lighter than the smallest rags
two kicks and the voice disappears
two kicks and you take the oven’s heat from the house
like cement sloshing onto brick the cowardshair
drips onto the mat and impurity onto the child’s face
their shoes had to be cleaned before the door
that kind of thing isn’t allowed into the flat only when it’s him
who works who makes the things who makes the something
the flat of whose hand is calloused the flat of whose hand
is industrious the flat of whose hand is broken
because his work sticks fast to it
monstrous-monstrous toil and strife
stone must be mastered iron must be bent
fire must be smothered blade must be sharpened
tools must be cleaned with leather with knife
the knife must be put in its case and sharpened
the house must be built and she who asks questions
must be walled in and silenced and then the house
must be cleaned and the antennae mounted on the roof these thirsty
veins still hang there like
the bloodthirsty buzzingthreatening quietflying stonemasonswives
their last dresses are still there the wedding dresses hang from them
which they wore twice both times too soon
and they easily fitted into them for there had been no time
to put on weight there was no time for buttons to burst off
and the coward didn’t have time to dirty
his trousers at the knee either not even time to fall or
to test the trousers in the rain before the early winter frost
and these antennae these electrical jungles
winding round each other catch the ankles
the hem of the dress the hem of the slip
which was lifted so carefully to keep it good
even before when they didn’t yet want to receive it
she didn’t want to crawl into her dress just yet
into her skin tear out her heart her liver
her gut and hold them tight and see how she
goes slack and her hair grows full of heaven flowers
like these many many stonemasonswives circling there
they called her saltprincess or saltangel
because behind the walls she shed so many tears
because her fluids wreck the mortar like
enamel because where they flow the paint the protective paint
beads off they wish in vain to cover her up
in vain they paint over her anew for easter
on monday a new figure of a woman always appears
always a silhouette a conical amphora
a raised index finger
and the salt pinched the stonemasonsfaces and
there was nothing more to be done because they became
translucent forever because the wall swallowed her up
her hair tangled up with the straps of her dress
and the women still hanging from the antennae were
like the maypoles there on the wooden houses’ roofs
maybe they didn’t have any hands any legs anymore
the whirlwinds are whirled they’re whirled
the translucent sunflower posies the kites
the faded exclamation marks


[Translator’s Notes: Kőműves Kelemen (Clement Mason) is a Hungarian folktale about the building of the fortress of Deva. The castle keeps falling down while being built, so that Kőműves Kelemen, a stone mason, is forced to sacrifice his wife and mix her remains into the mortar to make the castle steadfast.]

In 2020 the Hungarian government rejected the Istanbul Convention. One woman dies every week in Hungary due to domestic violence and 15,000 children are injured each year.

 

 

Sorrow Islands, The North End of Outer Hope

replacing with bones, welding with tape
we knead gold by the breach where it was dredged
what fell out where you thought when you didn’t dare to ask
had only seen the valley
the darkgloom stones scatter as you climb
lower are the water plants dried out the sand
is cold on the ground another crack the hot metal
into it and sand it quickly in case it flies
out of the body too glue it quickly the sand becomes salty
the gold stream salty smear the ground with the thighs
the upper arms heap hills
roll our rumps up it lie our rumps on it
our chests hollow half-circles to new
layers here the algae the coral also become salty
leaving the veins the mortar is slippery crying with salt
making gold pouring out mountains not every layer
is topped with cheerfulness but the gold is warm
and the water is warm on your face
in the armpits

 

 

Swimming

 

in case the water lifts your legs
I hold you by your stomach at first
then you’re to let go for me
just throw yourself up from the palms of my hands
you will float like a frog you believe you
wriggle you kick them into foam
your suffocation bursts into bubbles
the water lifts your legs (it isn’t my hand that holds you)
your stomach leads me your stomach tells
the water in which direction to strike or leave you
these 2cm beyond which you don’t want to see
above my hands because of which you want me here

 

 

Carpet

in my ribcage the lion
the peacocks bring feathers for my arm
I give feathers from my arm to the peacock
I let my hair become a wave in the water
covered by my dress in case the earth burns
I lift myself into the water, weed
the earth and exhale air
twice a day in case it hides
dirt and gas and smoke we all know that
this is the three-steps-mechanism my skin
I give to the leaves I make oxygen from
parchment I fray the carpet the old one
stray onto the new one we go the
carpet rises with my soles if you
can believe that our skin turns blue
slippery fine porous you can come with us can
go can step onto this fabric which we
wove a stray bit of your hair is one of the strands
became matted with the hair of mine which you cut off
but we can remove the strands you can
have your own means your dreams are your own
you are the dream’s I fly

 

 

badamm badamm
don’t come closer i’m freezing
if your house burns
“and as for hope, i learned that deep in the forest”
30
april, the tail-end

Author: Juliane Liebert
Translator: Gwendoline Choi

 

badamm badamm

this year, our parents started dying. they put down their scrubs, keyboards and steering wheels and marched off to the hospital as if they had made an appointment. we were far from adults ourselves. my mother went first. we took her straight from work to the hospital. she was yellow as straw and declared the whole thing a routine check-up, asking for the daily paper and chocolate and liquorice kitties to be brought to her bedside. the next two weeks, i watched her swell up. the more her mind went, the more she loved me. i sat at her bedside and watched her fade away. the doctors asked me to sign for the procedures needed to maintain the complicated system that was her body. signatures for infusions and colonoscopies and punctures. i went to doctors, caretakers and even more doctors, i sterilized my hands before and after i left her room. i prayed, even though i didn’t really pray. she kept swelling, her feet couldn’t hold the water, her arms and legs kept swelling more and more, her skin chafed ‘til sore. i bought her toiletries, a red lipstick so that she could make herself look pretty as soon as she was better. she died for 23 minutes, was revived, lay there in a bed of warm air, her heart beating, badamm badamm, the doctors wanted signatures, badamm, i stroked her hair, i had to wear respiratory masks when i was with her. they called me the morning of easter sunday, she was clinically dead, they had kept her body alive so i could say goodbye. i walked down the corridor, holding my little grandma by the hand. she lay in the middle of all these machines like a queen, 300 cubic metres of machine for a bed where nobody was left. her heart was still beating but her internal organs had deteriorated, or so i was told. we went, she went. i was left alone with her full flat and her half-full refrigerator, while outside, spring began.

 

 

don’t come closer now i’m freezing

don’t come closer now i’m freezing
as if i had a thousand bodies one
per revolution one per pulse one
young one old one in a petrol station
in lapland one with bangs that don’t suit me
and my mother who’s still crying
while i’m already eating onions and feel you
through all the skins: your fingers
burning animals upstarts
people roaming

we’ll be rich in the shelter
of our arching ribs we’ll start a circus
we’ll be the belly-less lady
the clown with the iron lungs we’ll be
the high wire the bengal tigers the dwarfs
with the ceramic feet shapeless vessels
now don’t hold still i’ll make us
two children one from wood
one from air one hard and
one soft and you
suckling in their place

 

 

if your house burns

if your house burns, what d’you do?
fetch water, sand
shut the burning room
save the kids, the dog
call for help, warn the neighbours

pour oil
into the fire so that it’s finally torched
and you’re rid of it
this damn house

 

 

 

“and as for hope, i learned that deep in the forest”

the trees stood as if freshly gathered (or as if they were standing in line:
for a loaf of bread) the sky digested planes
the brickyards hired themselves out: as reading rooms, as inflatable castles, as lawns
a self-protection facility by every blackberry hedge

only we slept peacefully. on the radio
songs lied, and it wasn’t just
the two of us lying in the grass, now friends
but also hedgehogs and flies loyal to home
an occasional deer. a trampoline
at a set table in an apple orchard

 

 

30

i’ve no father
i’ve no mother
i was born at 30
from a top ramen cup
and a dream

 

 

april, the tail-end

it’s been summer for two months now
another plague: the sky
unfazed indiscriminately blue
day after day

(have you noticed
that you can’t hear any planes nor see
any jet trails)

even the trees do their daily jobs
you don’t begrudge each their longevity, you say

but you’re only interested in those
who were born from deficiencies: ease
always carries pain in its luggage

a quiet wind machine
a quantum cautiousness

sound is to be understood as agitated air

 

From Juliane Liebert, lieder an das große nichts, (songs to the great void),  Suhrkamp 2021.

a mere house cat
is it going to snow again?
the germans with their distance fetish
in love lurks a desolate dungeon
kissing well is when things turn liquid
foreign

Author: Elisa Aseva
Translator: Priscilla Layne and May Mergenthaler

 

 

[a mere house cat]

a mere house cat I will probably never be able to keep. I have gotten to know these animals while wandering around, have admired them for exactly that.
on the farms there have always been countless numbers of them: they hung out in front of the barn or in the back at the widows’ settlement, they rested in the parlor, stared lying in wait for the fish in the meadow creek.
the farmers somehow lived together with the animals, against the animals, off the animals. time and again you stood in the blood, faced with lacerated animal bodies, men in rubber suits, guts. so I stuck with the cats that were threatened only by tractors + trucks on the freeway.
yet unfortunately affection comes in shades: the striped cats I liked well enough, but my true love was for the monochrome grey, white + black ones. the latter, by the way, were called mohrle[1] by the widows, when they liked me, they called me the same.

the blackness of the cats appeared extraterrestrial to me, as if they could drown everything in it. like a silhouette that has been brought to life, an omission from the universe. + and yes, of course I wanted to be black like a cat. to absorb every light.
not to cast shadows, but to be one

 

——-
[1] “Mohrle” or “Morle” used to be a common name for black cats in Germany. The name comes from the word “Mohr,” which was used to denote people with dark skin color. Adding “le” serves a diminutive function, implying “little black one.” The word Mohr is from the Middle Ages and consists of two words: The Greek word moros which means dumb and godless. The Latin word maurus which means black, dark and African. In contemporary Germany, Black Germans and anti-racist activist consider the word to be racist and efforts are underway to rename streets, pharmacies, and other locations that contain “Mohr” in their name.

 

 

[is it going to snow again?]

is it going to snow again?
in berlin that always wears me out, the unavoidable mud, the dirty arduousness. both are plentifully available in the city anyway, after snowfall things fall apart. well, there is that one exciting weekend when kids packed up like insulated bundles pour into the parks. their sleds leave tracks behind, in them there are remnants of new years’ fireworks. here this color of old blood, there on the tree trunk speckles of sulfur. on the exterior wall posters arch down – piss that band that they like now played again. urine would’ve been a better name. stuff like that agitates me sometimes, when it is so obvious. no it doesn’t agitate me. it’s just a half-baked indifferent idea.
soon it will drip. snow pains me, when it falls everything else stops.

we’re standing at the window, looking through the glass fogged up by your breath. changing traffic lights.
i want to count down the world, up to your skin up to every word that is no longer needed. stay.

the cars start, they follow the blown over brake paths. gravel, eyeliner.
i put on some coffee, turn on the radio. nothing will remain, danger of slipping on ice.
maybe it just won’t snow anymore, not really. just one less vulnerable spot.

 

[the germans with their distance fetish]

the germans with their distance fetish. even in an intimate circle of friends there are
quite clear notions, this or that is PRIVATE, that is actually transgressive + whoever reveals too much
of themselves is at the very least, pitiful.

perhaps national socialism has left behind a hidden and at the same time physical
disgust.
to germans, anyhow, it appears that feelings taste as good as sour milk.
+ closeness is when you take over the toilet stall from someone just to stand in the middle of their fumes

 

[in love lurks a desolate dungeon]

in love lurks a desolate dungeon – the possibility of loss, of abandonment.

Two people catch a hat + bump into each other recognize +
talk talk talk. about themselves of themselves
the wind carries them like merry leaves –
in the morning they tell each other fragments of dreams, laboriously.
eventually they release the parachutes
wheeze their fears into a scarf, throw their worst and silliest at
the Earth’s surface hurtling towards them.
the color of corn + rivers cast in lead.[2]
tentatively, first nips. stained by wine they remember their
childhood childhood cannothearaboutitanymorechildhood
eventually they place shimmering moths at their ears
+ and sprout blossoms while kissing

yes come shut the door lay the hand there pull up the covers.

in this color of this time
landing.

land but dive into the ground
more kissing down to the end
not the hand
don’t find
mouth agape
plunging through plankton
+
everything

in the end 1 leaves the other in order to keep her as the one who never leaves. the one who’s left behind swallows the keys.
all’s dead that ends well

 

——-
[2] A German New Year’s Eve tradition, banned in 2018, consisted of tossing molten lead into cold water and guessing one’s fortune from the resulting figure (molybdomancy).

 

 

[kissing well is when things turn liquid]

kissing well is when things turn liquid.
no, not just spit, I mean deeper,
in the muscles + other indurations.

kissing well is when I reach you,
making you partially firm + and partially soft,
without you turning into mud

kissing well is gums.
kissing well is falling but without fear.
down up over + away.

kissing well is an opportunity:
tossing into the waves
+ and sinking all the way to the ground.

the skill consists of not thinking about suffocating.
we breathe air for generations.
kissing well washes off fear from the anxious, faith from believers
worries from mothers.
we send floods.
algae waft + and jellyfish are rising from the bridges.

come here, coral. your reef sets me free.

 

foreign

foreigner – nowadays this term is
frowned upon but i like it.
if someone asks me whether i’m german, i
say:
god no, i’m a foreigner.
when they keep asking then: african.
that i like because it often really bothers people.
(“really africa? one can’t tell by looking at
you. thought
you were from brazil/cuba/phillipines”). + nowadays it’s
only partially true, in
ethiopia i am also still
foreign.

a free vast word.
i want to live where the foreigners
are, eat with the foreigners,
love foreign, think + importantly:
grieve – they just don’t do that
here.
thus i dream that whenever
i die everyone will have become
foreigners, each in their own way.

in all people there is a foreign place. + who
knows.
maybe we will someday border on each other

 

From Elisa Aseva, Über Stunden Posts   (c) Weissbooks Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, Berlin 2021 www.weissbooks.de

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Darling

Author: Lydia Mischkulnig
Translator: Caroline Summers

 

Translator’s Preface:  This story is taken from a 2009 collection entitled Macht euch keine Sorgen: Neun Heimsuchungen, which brings together nine stories:  humorous and thought-provoking narratives in which the absurd and the morbid disrupt the everyday.  In this story, the narrator is shocked to find her elderly room-mate on a hospital ward has died in the night, seemingly without giving any indication that she was about to do so. She is unsettled by the way in which the woman sharing her room seemed to somehow become younger as she approached death. The story invites us to reflect on our assumptions about others and their bodies, and on the ways in which we perform and interact with illness.

 

The folding screen obscures the bed. All I can see is the nurses. They’ve brought a fresh bedsheet: holding it at the corners, they flick it sharply upwards and it flies into the air. The white fabric billows out from their tight grip, stretching above the bed like a baldacchino. Then they let the sheet fall. Behind the screen is the old lady. The nurses glance kindly towards me. They push the screen to one side as they need space to manoeuvre the bed out of the room. Only the very ends of her dark hair peek out from under the sheet. Sunlight falls on the dead woman: the tips of her hair cast a short shadow, like eyelashes. The dead woman is wheeled away from the harsh light and over to the lockers. The nurses open the double doors. The doctor speaks to me, but I have no explanation for the old woman’s death. I didn’t notice her dying; the first I knew of it was when I was woken by the commotion.

I was satisfied with my roommate. As soon as she arrived, the old woman had insisted that I not be too polite to wake her if she snored. And I pricked up my ears like a bobcat, but I didn’t hear a peep from her.

[…]

I try to stay calm. Death is not something that frightens me. It’s part of my daily life, so for me it has substance. It’s intangible, but I spend my time handling it. I create fresh prisons for its vanitas. I free it from rust. I restore coffins. I fight off tin disease. My workshop is next to the Kaisergruft. I had to stop work for my operation. The chemicals I use to remove rust are harsh and contain poisons that attack the body’s lymphatic system. I’d like to see the dead woman, but I daren’t ask the nurse to pull back the bedsheet. I’m not a family member, and would probably come across as a voyeur. Death has crept into my neighbour’s body and taken her away, secretly and from within. I thought death was more familiar to me, like an old acquaintance wandering around at large in the world. But death has no fixed form, it can’t be warded off, it can find a home in any of us.

The old lady had been admitted to hospital for some infusions. She asked me if I lived alone. I said no, and out of pure politeness returned the question.

She wasn’t alone either. She had a dog at home. A sweet little animal, apart from one thing: the dog wouldn’t set foot in a lift.

You have to force him, she said. Since the dog was no bigger than her handbag over there on the nightstand, it was easy enough to simply grab him and stuff him inside it.

The same handbag is now on the bed with the dead woman, being wheeled out of the room.
The old woman flipped open her small suitcase and took out a few pieces of clothing. Before opening the locker, she asked which half was mine.

She’d tried it, the trick with the handbag. But there was no calming the dog once they were in the lift. She could hardly keep him in the bag. Another time, she had pulled a hat over his head. She showed me the hat, since she had brought it to hospital as a keepsake. It’s her son’s old bobble hat, and belonged to each of her two daughters before him. She’d pulled this forty-something-year-old bobble hat down over the dog’s head, covering up his face and muzzle, even his ears, so that he couldn’t see or hear anything, or smell anything unfamiliar. But nothing escapes a dog’s sense of smell, she said, and no sooner were they in the lift than his whole body began to tremble, the pitiful thing.

And so now, twice a day, she had to walk down the stairs and back up again. Four floors, or five including the mezzanine. And all that even though there was a new lift in the building, only installed two years ago. But never mind, she was used to climbing stairs. In the course of family life she’d hauled three children and countless bags of groceries up them, and bags of rubbish back down them. She’d always wanted a lift. Now the luxury was there but she couldn’t take advantage of it. But it was a sacrifice worth making for the dog.
[…] That’s just life, she said, and looked over at me from inside the washroom, asking whether I used the right-hand sink or the left.

The old lady was friendly, considerate and discreet. She didn’t overstep any boundaries. She didn’t undress in front of me. She performed her personal toilette out of my line of vision. And wherever I might look – at her checked suitcase, for example, or at the bobble hat – I had no idea that she would simply lie down and die, and probably neither did she.

She returned from the washroom with her dressing-gown over her arm. She was wearing a white hospital gown, even though she’d brought her own nightdresses and unpacked them into the locker. She folded her clothes into a pile, tidying them onto the shelf. She placed her shoes under her gabardine overcoat. Only minutes previously, wearing those shoes, she had crossed the room briskly and with a spring in her step; now, in slippers, she shuffled towards the bed. Her hair had been nicely arranged when she arrived: it was still dark, with streaks of grey like the fine, faint cracks that form in painted enamel when it cools too quickly. In the washroom she had combed her hair back, slicked it down and covered it with a net. She was preparing herself. She was transforming into an invalid.

She sat on the bed and kicked off her slippers.

Well, and as long as I’m able, I’ll just keep taking him down those stairs, she said, looking at her feet.

He’s a doddery old thing, after all, she said, and lay down with a sigh, lifting her legs to tuck them under the covers. For a while she lay on her back, staring at the ceiling. Then she told me I really must say if I found her chatter irritating.

I didn’t find her chatter irritating. It was just that I couldn’t really join in, having just had my tonsils removed. I asked where the little dog was now.

He’s being looked after, said the woman.

At an animal shelter?

At the kennels, just for a few days, I’d no other option. But they’ll look after him, she said. There’s a yard with enclosures and they give them a run-around a few times a day. And of course there’s no lift there. Otherwise she’d have left him the hat. It’s in a sort of yard, and each dog has its own kennel. Of course, her dog was used to being talked to. But that just meant he’d appreciate her own conversation even more when they were reunited.

The woman was receiving vitamins directly through a drip, and was taking pain relief for her rheumatism. I started to nod off while she was talking. Her descriptions were clear and detailed enough for me to imagine the dog and the kennels. Her voice was controlled and steady – after all, she wasn’t telling me anything upsetting. I found her presence relaxing. She was warming into her role as a patient, and she was enjoying bed-rest as much as I was.

She has a son-in-law who works here in the hospital, as a medical negligence solicitor. When he comes to visit me, I’ll introduce you, she said.

I felt well looked-after and safe. My operation had been successful, with no complications. I was no longer at risk.

I’m sure it doesn’t do any harm to have a medical negligence solicitor in the family, I said.

The old lady stared at the ceiling and didn’t reply.

Later on, she had several phone calls from various people. She told each one that she was set up in a lovely room and so far the doctors seemed to be prodding her in all the right places. That her dog was being looked after, at the kennels, with a space to run around and his own enclosure and so on, and that he would be looking forward to enjoying her conversation again. She told the story almost exactly the same way each time.

I noticed that she called her daughters ‘dear darling’. Once or twice she addressed a caller as ‘old girl’. Of course, she was far too old to have many friends more senior than herself, but there were her sisters, and the two of them phoned to ask after her.

[…]

One of the daughters phoned again. Old Babs, dear darling, and Old Christa, dear darling, they’re going to share a taxi. When she told the dog story, she added that her friend, Roswitha von something-or-other (the name sounded somehow familiar) was to check on the dog.

The old lady’s first visitors arrived before lunch. They were women of advanced years, with false nails: neighbours who were watering her flowers and collecting her post. They’d brought her bills along, so she could have them straight away. They didn’t live far away. They stood at the window, looking for their building. They tapped their fingernails against the glass, disagreed about which direction to look in. The neighbours noted that the old lady was well accommodated here and that she would never rest enough at home, so she had been right to come to hospital. And especially to a private clinic like this.

[…]

At lunchtime she was uncoupled from her drip tube to enable her to manhandle a knife and fork more effectively. I was served crackerbread. Dry, crumbly foods are best, to avoid clogging up the large wound at the back of my throat where my tonsils used to be. Before we had finished our lunch, the medical negligence solicitor appeared, and to my surprise he asked only whether the food was alright. The old lady had enjoyed the food and said she must have someone find out from Roswitha whether the dog was being fed what she had left for him at the kennels. She didn’t introduce us. She had forgotten, was thinking only of her dog.

He’ll be fine, said the medical negligence solicitor, promising to come back later.

She said, oh, but only if you have time, dear darling.

Not long after that, the first of the daughters appeared. I was a little shocked to see that she looked like an old woman herself. Her husband came too: a short, stout man with rather dirty hands. He hardly spoke, and when he did, it was only about his garage business. The daughter looked exhausted, and I thought I saw her crying when she turned to look out of the window. The old woman had been reconnected to her drip and was talking about Roswitha and the dog, and asked if the daughter might be able to get in touch with Roswitha.

The daughter said, don’t worry about that. Has Peter been yet?

Peter? He’s so busy.

Has he been?

Maybe Peter could phone Roswitha for me.

I’ll see to it.

My loves, I feel as if I’m in a luxury hotel.

That afternoon she had a phone call from her other dear darling. The other daughter is a solicitor, but not for hospital patients, for normal people, she said. Then she had calls from the old girls.

At five o’clock, in came her son: an alarmingly tall man who had to duck to avoid banging his head on the doorframe. No sooner had he entered the room than the dimensions of his surroundings seemed to shift. The furniture looked as though it belonged in a dolls’ house. He, too, was really quite old when you considered how vivid the old lady’s memory was of him as a frail child. She had always wrapped her son up warm to prevent his throat and delicate ears from catching infections: he was a dear darling, who hadn’t really grown until the age of fourteen but by then was already studying singing. Now he was hoping for a position in the chorus at the Staatsoper. I had imagined a chubby, pompous tenor, nothing like the leptosome giant who now stood between our beds, making efforts to soften his bass baritone and yet still thundering ‘Grüß Gott’ as though his ribs housed the acoustic space of a church dome instead of a normal chest cavity. I looked at the floor, in order to avoid staring at him. He strode on long, spidery legs across the criss-crossing lines of the parquet floor and pulled up a chair next to the old woman’s bed. Bending, his knees strained against the creases of his trousers. He had almost reached a crouching position before his flat backside touched the chair. Then he stretched out his legs and crossed his ankles. He was wearing custom-made shoes. I recognised the signs of splayed feet: heels worn down on the outside, just like my own favourite shoes.

He’s too tall for the chorus, I thought, he needn’t get his hopes up. He’d destroy the uniformity of the group, standing head and shoulders above the rest. He’ll never get a job at the Staatsoper.

The old lady behaved like a young child, as if her son were the parent. She began talking about the dog, and he cut her off: think about your own needs. She talked about Roswitha, her best friend in the world, and he interrupted her: I know, mother, I know, you’ve already told me a thousand times.

I thought his tone too sharp, considering his mother’s age and dignified manner. A touch ungrateful. After all, she had nurtured and encouraged him, not just raised him. The daughter had perhaps let herself go a little, I’d say, didn’t look after herself, but was considerably more affectionate towards her mother. […]

Do you need anything to eat?

No, thanks, he said.

She still had her afternoon cake on the tray in front of her, if he wanted it? No. I never eat anything, you know that, he said. But surely his height meant he had to eat like a horse just to keep himself upright.

Has Peter been? he asked.

He has so much to do.

Has he been?

Why are you so cross?

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him run a hand irritably through his hair. I imagined him rolling his eyes. He gesticulated with one large hand, but by the time he let it drop his bad temper had passed. He had an attractive face, when it was untroubled. Naturally wide eyes, almost dreamy. The old woman fell silent and watched him. They sat across from one another like this for a few seconds, and then he suddenly glanced over at me.

I lay unobtrusively in my bed and looked at my book about the Habsburgs, casually turning the page.

Roswitha, said the old woman.

And the dog, he said.

Why are you… ? she hissed, quietly.

As he left, he stooped. It made him look a little shorter, but his shoulder blades hunched together to form hump that his jacket did nothing to hide. Nonetheless, he managed to exit the room without bending any further, passing neatly through the doorframe with only a slight incline of the head.

The old woman telephoned her sisters. They were not due to visit until the following day, in other words today, and would bring her a little hamper and some sparkling Sekt.

I’m watching my figure, you know, said the old woman. She laughed and held the receiver away from her face, pointing towards me. I could hear the outraged shrieks of the sisters.

Once she had hung up, the old lady sat back in bed and smiled to herself. Suddenly, with her eyes fixed on the white ceiling, she said, those old girls are such witches.

I nodded along, feigning confusion and looking abruptly up at her from my book as though my concentration had been broken. Her gaze was fixed on the triangular hanger for her drip. She gave it a prod and hummed a march in time to the swinging.

In the evening, there was another visit from Peter, the medical negligence solicitor. I greeted him like an old friend, and he wished me a good night’s sleep.

[…] The old lady got out of bed and headed for the washroom, but chose the wrong door. A nurse brought her straight back and said, here’s your washroom, right here in the room.

The nurse stayed to help her, then brought her back to bed, leaving the room with the old lady’s thermometer as well as my own.

I swallowed my painkillers.

The old woman got out of bed again and stood in the middle of the room, looking aimless and confused.

I asked what she needed, whether I could help her. I was beginning to form a picture of her illness: a nebulous cloud of memory loss and disorientation, maybe due to a stroke, a metabolic disorder, maybe the beginnings of Alzheimer’s. […] It didn’t frighten me. I was moved by the old woman, but I wanted to be neither moved nor affected, I wanted to recover in peace and leave the hospital today.

She answered me, firm and determined, no, no, please don’t trouble yourself, I can manage.

She marched into the washroom, and I pricked up my ears to see if she would stay there. I turned my thoughts to practical things, away from her and her life story. At that moment, my only concern was that she might attempt to brush her teeth again and might mistakenly use my toothbrush. I didn’t hear any running water. I heard brushing, the crackling of hair, the scraping of a comb, electrostatic discharge. Silence. Rummaging. Who knows where.

Do you have a hand mirror? she asked me.

I reminded her that there was a mirror on the wall.

Undeterred, she rummaged on.

Ok then, I said, there’s a hand mirror in my washbag.

She seemed to have found it already. I heard a satisfied AHA! and AHA! and AHA!. Then a long hissing sound. The tacky smell of hairspray began to pollute the room. Feeling increasingly irritated by her nonsense, I consoled myself with the thought that I could open the window once she was asleep.

As she exited the washroom, her fragile frame shimmered through the light blue nightdress she was now wearing. The old lady had changed and prepared herself for bed. Her hair was backcombed and piled up high, sparkling with the last dusting of spray. She seemed confused: she stood and winked at me expectantly, as though I were her knight in shining armour. The artificial light flattered her white face, smoothing the complexion of her aged skin. I began to observe details of this woman’s appearance, becoming conscious of changes that I would rather have left unnoticed. A few hours before her death, she seemed to lose years off her age. As though she had simply rubbed away her wrinkles. Had her daughter been standing next to her, they could have been mistaken for sisters. Or me. My hair is dark, but it’s dyed – my natural colour would probably be even greyer than the old woman’s hair. She smiled at me with warm, pale eyes. Wished me a lovely night in this lovely room. Her voice was as solemn as if she were opening a ball. Her nightdress was magical and childlike. Unbelievable to think that this frail person had given birth to a giant. The old woman was younger and slimmer than Bette Davis in Baby Jane. She pirouetted and swayed in her billowing dress. That made her dizzy, of course, and she lay down, her hair still resplendently styled. I wanted to tell her that her hair would be damaged if she went to sleep with it sprayed so stiff and then rubbed it to and fro on the pillow. I resisted the urge. It was none of my business what she did with her hair. It was her hair, not mine.

The old woman fell asleep immediately and lay there like a doll. Her stillness made me look over to her again and again, watching her chest rise and fall. Her silence did not unnerve me. I welcomed it. I simply wanted to take a good look at the sleeping figure in the ballgown. She had not pulled up the covers. The room was warm enough. I did not open the window. Maybe she had not wanted to crease her nightdress and that was why she was lying so stiffly, like one of the life-size figures on the majestic sarcophagi in the Kaisergruft.

I turned on the television, used my headphones to watch the news and Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence. Around halfway through the film, I became aware of a gentle rasping coming through my headphones. I looked across. The old woman was asleep. I concentrated on The Silence. The rasping in my ears continued. It must have gone on for around a quarter of an hour. I tried to ignore the sound. Then I changed channels, but the rasping did not stop. I cleared my throat and coughed and moved noisily around in my bed. I turned up the volume, the rasping increased. I took off my headphones, the sound was now really stuck in my head. It seemed to fill the room. The old woman slept on, undisturbed. I wanted to wake her. The rasping did not go away. I wanted to ask her if she could hear it too. I waited. Considered whether or not to wake her up. Since I like to avoid physical contact with anything unfamiliar, I tried to shout her awake, cawing like a raven. I strained my poor scratched-out throat. I propped myself up and turned towards her, calling as loud as I could. I did not even know her name. Still don’t. Several times, I shouted MRS. Had she woken up, I would have said she was snoring and then asked her about the rasping in the room. She didn’t make a sound, didn’t move a muscle, maybe she was already dead. Maybe the doctor was right. The rasping still did not stop. I tried DEAR DARLING. Saying dear darling to a stranger is odd. I was making a fool of myself. She didn’t react. I practised the word in my head, bellowed it against the rasping in my ears. I probably managed no more than a hiss at death, a drop of defiance, and if death is an ocean then I know why I began to flounder.

Neither a sigh nor a moan, I tell the doctor, I didn’t hear anything. I keep the rasping to myself. There are people who lie down and die without needing to gasp for air or undergo any kind of struggle.

Enviable, says the doctor, when you think about how violent death can be.

The dead don’t frighten me. I have looked dead Kaisers in the face, although it’s not often I open a tin coffin. A coffin has to be quite badly corroded, threatening to fall apart, before it’s worth going through the rigmarole of reburial. Even the sight of a decomposed face doesn’t frighten me, as long as I’m prepared for it. But a quiet, pleasant death upsets my composure. The panic that begins to rise up in me feeds on the heat of my own body. I slept badly, but I am determined. I ask for help with my packing. I want to get back to my life quickly, don’t want to stay and watch them clearing away the old lady’s things. The nurse understands, she helps me and asks carefully which half of the locker is mine.

 

 

Excerpted from Lydia Mischkulnig,  Macht euch keine Sorgen. Neun Heimsuchungen, Haymon Verlag, Wien, 2009.

Traces

Author: Hannes Köhler
Translator: Don Henderson

 

Translator’s Preface:    How well do we know the people closest to us?

One night in Berlin some “bar philosophers” are drinking and smoking in a neighborhood bar. Jakob’s best friend, Felix, goes out for cigarettes and never comes back. It’s a classic set-up for a joke, but in Hannes Köhler’s psychologically complex novel, Traces, it takes a darker turn. Jakob begins an increasingly desperate search for any trace of his childhood friend. He enlists the help of Felix’s tough ex-girlfriend, Manja, goes to Felix’s apartment, and soon finds himself immersed in his friend’s diary and emails. He spends more and more time with his friend’s ex and less time with his girlfriend. Gradually Jakob discovers disturbing truths about identity, friendship, and obsession. The boundaries between his own existence and his friend’s begin to dissolve as he slowly takes on Felix’s identity and sheds his own like a kind of Talented Mr. Ripley. Felix has disappeared. What would happen if he returned?

This extract is from the opening pages of the novel.

 

 

“And other people just grab a rope and hang themselves,” Felix says and raises his left arm up over his head, his fist closing over the end of an invisible noose. “Think about that for a minute.” The room is full of smoke. “The fog of war,” Felix says; he always has to be the center of attention, holding his cigarette wedged between his knuckles. That grating laugh of his.

“Hey, take it easy!”

He stands up, a little unsteady on his feet. And slurring a little: “I’m going out for cigarettes.”

Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. Basti says, “Hey, I think he fell into the john.”

We laugh. I say, “I’ll go look for him.”

In the bathroom, a pungent ammonia smell. A corner of the mirror is broken off; there’s a
long crack in the sink from the rim to the drain. In front of it, a puddle is pooling in the grooves
between the tiles. The walls are covered with magic marker and stickers. Für immer und ewig:
Eisern Union. Next Sunday: Soul Explosion. The dark wood of the stalls is gaping with holes,
either punched in or kicked in. I open the doors, see fragments of words scratched in the wood
and stickers everywhere. There is no trace of Felix, no one else either. On the way out, I bump
into the overflowing trash can. Right on top is his t-shirt. Gray cotton with white lettering:
Elbkind. Dark sweat stains under the arms. I pick it up, hold it out by the shoulders, pinching it
between my fingers. It feels damp.

I try to imagine him leaving the bar shirtless, stumbling into the street, his hairy chest, his
little beer belly sticking out. I have to shake my head. Not possible, not even for Felix. He must
have had a spare shirt, maybe a bag that I overlooked. The owner didn’t notice anything. One of the regulars at the bar says, “Yeah, he left.”

When I ask if he was barechested, the guy just shakes his head and stares into his beer.

The others are at the table waiting, producing a cloud of silence under the lamp.

“Well?”

Basti is drumming his fingers.

“Gone,” I say and toss the t-shirt on the table.

“What do you mean, gone?”

“Poof! Disappeared.”

“What now?”

“Wait, I guess. He’ll come back.”

“Call him!”

I call his number. An electronic voice answers. The person you are trying to reach is
unavailable.

“He’s going to freak out,” Manja says. “You don’t know what he’s like when he freaks out.”

She gropes for the light switch. A quick click. Light floods the entryway, illuminating the
yellow walls that are darkened as if covered with ash. To the right, some graffiti in black: Resist. The floor tiles form a chessboard, sagging in the middle. Rotten ceiling beams in the basement,
I know this from Felix. Supposed to have been repaired months ago. All it took was the neighbor’s new washing machine.

Felix said that he was standing on the stairs when the hand truck with the washer was rolled
into the hallway. When the men got to the middle of the floor you could hear a loud crunch like
gigantic grinding teeth. The floor gave way in slow motion. Felix described all the shouting, the
shock, and the thundering sound when they let go of the machine and it fell over backwards.
The floor was still holding, Felix had told me, but the question was, for how much longer. It was a strange feeling to be standing on those tiles now.

Manja walks ahead without paying any attention to the floor. Her broad behind stretching her
tight jeans. My comfy cushion, Felix had called it. She stops in front of the apartment door, pulls out the key.

“He wanted this back a long time ago,” she said. “You’re never coming in here again.”

She stares into the distance. To hear his words coming out of her mouth makes me wonder
how long he’d been saying things like that. We ring the bell. No answer.

“Well, go ahead.”

She looks at me.

“It’s my responsibility,” I say.

She takes a breath.

It’s quiet in his apartment. There’s a weak light coming from a naked lightbulb. Manja steps
into the hallway, hesitates. The floor creaks with every step she takes. The wardrobe on the wall
to the left catches her eye. Empty hooks, waiting to snare jackets, stick up in the air. At the
bottom, a heap of old shoes, a pile of rags, torn shoelaces. Next to the wardrobe, the door to the bathroom. She turns around, pushes down the door handle and looks into the darkness.

My own body is frozen on the threshold. Only when Manja gestures to me, do my legs know
what to do. I’m a thief, breaking in, feeling my way forward. Manja whispers

“Felix?”

I wait and imagine that I hear his voice, that I’ll see him walking through the door at the end
of the hall, his surprise, his anger maybe. I listen. But there isn’t a sound. I lean against the
apartment door, and I’m startled when it bangs shut behind me.

Wallpaper is peeling off in places on the high walls of the living room. Pieces of plaster lie in
the corners. The floorboards are wide wooden planks in dark red, tinged with brown.

“Synthetic ox-blood, looks like what’s left behind after a slaughter,” he said. “Why did they do that back then?”

He shook his head, no interest in sanding away the paint.

“I mean, come on! How long will I be staying here anyway?”

He put three fingers to his temple as if the thought gave him a headache. He hung on for four
years. Those floorboards never changed. During those four years, I moved twice. Felix stayed put.

Manja and I walk into the room, his den in the Wrangelkiez neighborhood. The heavy sofa
bed dominates the middle of the room. In front of it, on the wall to our left, there’s a table with
some plants and a small TV; next to that a turntable along with an amplifier. To the right is his
desk in front of the window which looks out on the courtyard. On the back wall is his wardrobe
and next to that, the entrance to the kitchen. Across from us are all his books. The long wall is
one big bookcase with shelves that he made himself, with the books sorted by size and color. Underneath, on the floor, runs a row of storage cubes. That’s where he keeps all the random records that he bought so many of. Radio plays for kids: Hui Buh, the Castle Ghost, Asterix in Britain.

“I say, could I just request a spot of milk in my hot water?”

He would imitate that accent and laugh at it over and over again. He had mixed every style of
music, classical concert records next to rock, electro next to hip-hop. In between, oldies like Peter Alexander and Hannes Wader appear out of nowhere.

“Post-Parental Stress Syndrome,” he once said. “You can never get away from it.”

A cacophony of music. In contrast, his reading is well organized. I discover Thomas Mann,
the complete works. The gray spines of the paperbacks line his bookshelf. He read chronologically, an hour or more every day. He researched when each of them was published.
More than once in the last few years, I have run into him on the U-Bahn, reading. He seemed
completely immersed, the book in his lap, his head bowed. For me his books would always be
foreign, would always be long lists of words, like his sentences. When he talked about them, I had the feeling that I had to resist with my entire body, that I had to push away each and every letter.

On a small table next to the sofa, I find a copy of War and Peace, an old edition with a gray
binding. On the cover there are two curved letters printed in gold: LT. The pages are bristling
with sticky notes, short keywords are scribbled in the margins, often with exclamation marks.

Yes! Look this up! Terrible!

I leaf through the book, find a sentence that he has circled, but I can’t figure out why.

A locomotive is moving. Someone asks: ‘What moves it?’ A peasant says the devil moves it.
Another man says the locomotive moves because its wheels go round. A third asserts that the
cause of its movement is the smoke which the wind carries away.

Manja is leaning against his desk supporting herself with her hands on the workspace. The
muscles in her arms flex. Her glance takes in the sofa, the bookcase, and the spines of the
books. She’s inspecting, comparing, looking for anything that has changed, for things that are out of place.

To me the room seems lifeless. Or abandoned. The leaves of a few of the plants on the
windowsill are already turning brown. There’s no trace of any clothes. Manja pushes away from the table and goes into the kitchen. I hear cabinet doors squeak, water running from the faucet. A loud crack when she flips the switch on the hot water kettle.

There are things hanging in his closet that I’ve never seen before. Suits, dress shirts, sports
coats. The Felix I know wears old tennis shoes and jeans that are so loose they hang down past
his butt. And those t-shirts with weird things printed on them.

I push the hangers in the closet from left to right. Some of the things are still wrapped in the dry cleaner’s plastic bags and crackle when I touch them. There’s a rattle of porcelain behind me. It’s Manja. She comes up next to me, a steaming cup in her hands. I stare into the closet.

“Did you know. . .about all this stuff?”

She leaned against the doorframe, nodded slowly as if she had to concentrate to pluck
things out of her memory.

“For a couple of weeks now. What are you really looking for anyway?”

I shrug my shoulders.

“Some trace of him.”

“Why would he run away? All he did was take off from the bar.”

I turn around. At first glance the apartment is empty of any clues, even his desk is cleared
off. I remember it as a chaos of notes, pens, teapots, and books. But I just shrug.

“He hasn’t been here since. I would say that—” I hesitate. “No one has been here.”

She breathes in. Her nostrils flare. My first thought is that she is going to start laughing, but
then she nods with a worried look.

“When did he disappear?”

“Five days ago.”

“Maybe there’s something in his emails?”

The next surprise: a new black laptop that she pulls out of the desk drawer. She powers it on. The whir of the fan is the second sign of life in the apartment after the bubbling of the hot water kettle. Manja enters his password.

I’ve lost touch. I’ve lost the connection. I think of the photo that I saw on my last visit to
Hamburg on his mother’s kitchen cupboard. Two blond boys laughing into the camera. The one
with a head of wild curls and big, blue eyes, a delicate nose; the other with a bowl cut and little
green eyes shining out from it. The kid with the polo shirt next to the kid with the checkered shirt tucked in under the suspenders of his overalls. We’ve thrown our arms around each other’s shoulders.

The computer background shows a photo of a gray lake in the mountains. The shore is
divided into two parts: the green carpet of a pine forest abutting burned out stumps. Manja
catches my eye and nods. “Canada.”

It was two summers ago when he completely surprised me by boldly traveling alone to North
America.

“I have to get out of here. Just get out,” he’d said.

When he came back, his face had some color, and he would laugh a lot. He started studying,
writing articles for newspapers. Soon we were together again in clubs and bars. And he was
sitting there smoking and gesturing as often as ever.

I open his email program. There’s a new message:

hi felix,
thanks for your email. i’m in france until the end of june.
if i’m around, you can stay with me any time. just let me know.
yours,
hanna

I ask Manja who Hanna is. She comes over, stands behind me. Her breath caresses the
back of my neck. I can smell her, a cheap floral scent almost masking the sharp smell of sweat
and onions. She’s silent for a moment, breathes softly through her nose.

“I’ve lost track.” She laughs. “None of my business anymore, is what he told me.”

I go through his contacts. Hanna Bechtel, with her email address. I try to recall the name, but
can’t. When I click on reply, Manja puts her hand on my shoulder.

“So now you’re going to write to all the women in his life?”

I type a few letters, then delete them immediately. Manja’s presence is a heavy weight on
me.  I want to find him. Manja acts like she could care less. This angry girlfriend bothers me,
confuses me. Her presence is a continuous commentary running in my head: What you’re doing
is nonsense. He’s coming back.

I close out his emails and shut his laptop.

“Had enough already?”

She grins, puts her cup on the desk and heads toward the bathroom. Quickly I open the
computer again, go to his emails and put Hanna’s address in my cell phone.

I hear the toilet flush. My eyes wander for a second, then rest on something behind the desk
at the windowsill. In the corner under the handle, I spy a thick black leather-bound book.
Nothing printed on it. A notebook maybe. I reach for it, put it on the desk in front of me. It’s
bulging with scraps of paper, some of them sticking out from the sides.

“Diary snooper!”

I pull back my hands. Manja comes close to me, picks up the books and flips through a few
pages.

“Must be exciting for you. But not today. I have to go.”

She holds the book in her hand, thumps it shut. Her look tells me to leave, pushes me out of
the apartment. We’re like two magnets, I think, repelling each other. Or something else. I stand
up. She puts the book down on the desk and follows me into the hall.

Back home again, I see my own apartment with new eyes. But before that: the trip home
over the Spree on my bike, the long incline of Warschauer Strasse, to the right the brick
archways of the U-Bahn viaduct, with iron bars in front of smudged windows and wooden
shutters, advertisements for concerts, meditation classes. Above me, the trains roar. It was a
struggle, I pedaled until I was out of breath. Carrying my bike, I ran up the steps to the fourth
floor, my back soaked with sweat. I knew I would be alone when the key turned twice in the lock.

In the long hallway my body can expand, the pressure that covered me like a second skin, is
released. In the kitchen there is still the smell of food from the night before; it’s coming from a
pan with bits of dried pasta stuck to it. I stick my finger into wizened mushrooms covered with a
beige glue that used to be cream. For the first time in a few hours, I think of Sarah, who is on
the road, as always. I think of her endlessly chasing leads that will turn into stories. I try to
remember what her appointment was today, could have been a press conference, maybe an
interview.

In the living room toward the front of the huge sofa, there is a stack of newspapers. She calls
it research. I call it the inability to part with old papers. I go to the shelves at the front of the
room, turn on the radio. I hear voices talking fast, summoning the listener to call in. It’s time for
Questions for Parliament, that talk-show nonsense. On the dining room table in the middle of
the room, my laptop is hiding under a pile of her books.

Hi, Hanna,
My name is Jakob, and I’m a friend of Felix’s. Unfortunately, he has been on the road for a few
days without telling anyone where he went. I saw in one of his emails, that he asked you for a
place to stay. Have you heard from him? It would be great if you could let me know if he
contacts you or shows up at your place.

Sincerely,
Jakob

I start it three times. A friend of Felix’s. Felix’s best friend. A friend of Felix’s. A best friend
would know where he’s disappeared to. For a best friend, the “why” wouldn’t be a blank to be
filled in. Maybe there’s a friend somewhere that he has told all this to. Maybe I can find that
friend.

 

Excerpted from Hannes Köhler, In Spuren, mairisch Verlag, Hamburg, 2011

Kloppitz/Kłopot nad Odrą
And tended snow in my warm hands

Author: Marion Poschmann
Translator: Margaret May

 

Kloppitz/Kłopot nad Odrą

Bodies, depositories of history, one replacing
another, all alike, ordinary
in the light of day, leaving
trees at the roadside, a type of tangibility,
bodies, bloated, gaunt and
drawn daily deeper
into goulash and noodles, into pea
soup, the pungent smells of noonday,
of recognisability, tables,
canteens, repeating each day’s
weakness, soothing, benches
at evening next to the houses, bodies
soak up the warmth of the walls
to ward off winter, the return
of the repressed, a west wind swirls smoke
over from (what once was) Stalinstadt,

believable, nearby smells, deposited in layers,
calling up what came before, images of diesel engines,
remembered lignite, fields, all ploughed,
‘storks breed in this place’,
‘built upon sand’, soft
bodies in which this occurs,
bodies, yielding, it’s everywhere
so very much the same

The terrible has many forms,
but none more terrible than man.
Sophocles, Antigone

And tended snow in my warm hands

you were only dreaming of a long-haul flight.
Only yesterday I stayed in deep-snowed
mountains. Now they are levelled,
dissolved, as simply as you would
defrost a fridge. I saw water flowing,
saw ice break in blocks from the rock face,
it all fell into the valley, turning
liquid, turning to valley, turning to nothing.

Only yesterday I worshipped mountains.
I bought picture postcards, sent them
to myself at home, to remind me of
the work of destruction I was doing here,
I thawed out Greenland just by gazing at it,
I melted the glaciers while flying over them
in deep devotion. Nothing we wish for is

impossible, as the saying goes, and where there’s a will
there’s a way to render the thin air still
serviceable, to conquer the terrible,
the most terrible of all,
quite simply, as if, asleep in your armchair,
you were only dreaming of a long-haul flight.

 

“Kloppitz/Kłopot nad Odrą” from Grund zu Schafen (Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt 2004)
“And tended snow in my warm hands” from Nimbus (Suhrkamp 2020)

The Missing

Author: Eva Schmidt
Translator: Eleanor Updegraff

 

They’d been walking for two hours now. Before that, they’d taken the train a short way, then caught a local bus to the last village in the valley.

Where are we going? asked the boy. It was the first time he’d posed the question. His face was pale; he hadn’t seen enough sunlight this year.

You’ll see, said the man.

The boy nodded. He didn’t speak much. No one had taught him the things it’s possible to talk about.

Shall I take your rucksack? asked the man.

The boy shrugged.

I can carry it myself, if it’s not much further.

All right, said the man.

The path led to an alpine pasture that wasn’t yet in use for the season. The cattle wouldn’t be brought here until May, to the higher meadows even later. The man was counting on this. He panted as he walked, spitting occasionally.

Shall we stop for a bit? asked the boy.

No need, replied the man. We’re nearly there.

The winter had left its mark. At one point the path crossed the bed of a small stream, but an avalanche or sudden torrent had swept away the wooden bridge that had stood there. The splintered remnants were caught in the trees lining the gravel streambed. Now, the flow was a mere trickle.

Not long till the meltwater, said the man. He was gazing up at the mountain peak visible above the broad swathe the stream had cut through the forest. The boy had stopped too.

What’s meltwater? he wanted to know, and the man explained it to him.

They crossed the streambed, the man holding the boy’s hand. Whenever they came to running water, they jumped. The distances weren’t great; it was the stones that were more dangerous, rolling easily out from under their feet. The sun beat down on their heads, but as it wasn’t much further it made little sense to stop and fish their caps out of the rucksack. The man had remembered to bring them; he’d even bought one for the boy.

We’re nearly there, he said. The boy looked up sceptically. Perhaps he was wondering what awaited them there.

It was a steep climb out of the streambed. The boy slipped a couple of times, but the man’s grip on him was firm. The small hand in his felt cool and dry, while he kept having to wipe the sweat away from his own forehead and neck.

Is it much further? asked the boy, once they’d clambered back up and re-joined the path that soon led back into the trees.

I can carry you for a bit if you’re tired, the man suggested. He studied the boy with an expression of mild concern, perhaps, though not with anxiety. But the boy shook his head; he didn’t want to be carried. And as soon as they were in the woods, he found the going easier again.

Look, whispered the boy. He’d stopped and was pointing at a lizard sunning itself on top of a rock. The man had stopped as well, and stood silently beside the boy. The lizard didn’t move. It looked as though it was staring at them, too. But it was impossible to tell.

Quietly, the man told the boy what kind of creature it was.

Does it bite? asked the boy, but as he was speaking the lizard darted away and vanished behind the rock.

Every time they heard a noise (usually birdsong, or a rustling in the undergrowth) the boy wanted to know what it was, and the man would explain to him what type of bird had just called or what kinds of animals lived in the forest.

Have you never been to a zoo? he asked. Or seen stuffed animals in a museum? The boy shook his head. Then they walked on in silence.

 

As they emerged from the forest, they saw the huts. They stopped and stood there for a while. All the shutters were closed and there was no sign of either animals or people. That’s good, thought the man.

The grass at the base of the pasture was shot through with stones and the flowers known as cow’s footsteps, and a fence separated it from the woods. They came to a five-bar gate that was chained shut. Next to it was a narrow opening with a turnstile, which squeaked as they passed through it. The boy laughed and spun around in it a couple of times. It was the first time he’d laughed since they’d set off.

Then they were at the huts: three smaller ones with lean-to cowsheds, the upper floors of which were haylofts, and a larger wooden house with a stone terrace that served as a restaurant in summer. A gravel track leading up from the other side of the valley ended in front of it. There was electricity, too – the power lines went all the way up to the house. And a cable car for goods, which was used to transport milk, cheese and butter down to the valley in summer, leftover hay in the winter.

Is that a hotel? asked the boy.

Something like that, replied the man, easing his heavy rucksack down beside the terrace. The boy followed suit. Then he ran to the front door and rattled it.

No one’s here.

I know, said the man.

Does that mean we have to go back? asked the boy.

No, I have a key.

Is it your house, then?

It belongs to a friend who said I can stay here.

Does he know I’m with you? asked the boy.

Yes, the man replied, but this was a lie. He had worked here for a couple of summers, but then had a falling-out with the owner. At the time, he’d had the key copied, and every now and again he spent the night when he was out on one of his longer hikes.

Have you been before?

The man nodded. But it was a long time ago, now.

 

They ate ham and fried eggs for supper, sitting at one of the few tables in the restaurant. The man had brought the food with him. The larder was stocked with various tins, jars of preserved fruit, crates of drinks. The fridge was turned off, but the man had plugged it in again and filled it with the groceries he’d brought. He’d opened a bottle of beer to go with the meal; the boy drank lemonade.

Taste good? asked the man.

Mmm, said the boy, chewing. He ate hungrily and quickly, then wiped his mouth and asked if he was allowed to watch TV.

There’s no television here, said the man.

The boy: Then what are we going to do?

We could talk, or play cards.

The boy frowned. I can’t play cards. And what should we talk about?

It wasn’t particularly late, but darkness had already fallen when they went back outside. After supper they had washed up together, and then the man had got a pack of cards out of a drawer and explained the rules. The boy had caught on quickly and ended up winning more hands than he did. Now they were looking at the mountains and the sky. The man had lit himself a pipe and told the boy what the peaks were called. The boy listened and repeated the names, pointing to each one.

He’d sat down on the bench beside the man. He’d been cold, so the man had fetched a blanket from inside the house and draped it over his shoulders. It was completely silent. Not a sound drifted up from the valley. Only occasionally did they hear the screech of an owl.

Does she know where we are? The boy spoke into the silence.

Who?

Valerie.

Yes, lied the man. I rang her.

The boy referred to his mother by her first name, but when the man had asked him why, he hadn’t been able to explain. They sat there for a while longer. The boy swung his legs, his feet not yet touching the ground.

You can call me Charly, said the man.

I thought you were called Karl.

My friends call me Charly.

Am I your friend?

Yes.

And you?

I’m looking after you.

It got even colder, so they went inside. The man locked the door, gave the boy a toothbrush, toothpaste and soap, and told him to have a wash.

The water’s far too cold, complained the boy.

You’ll sleep well afterwards, replied Karl.

Hello, he’d said, I’m Karl. I live in the building opposite. We can walk home together, if you like. It had only been a couple of weeks ago, but that was how they’d got to know one another. The boy hadn’t said much, had followed him without hesitation.

Erik, he’d said, when Karl asked him his name. After that, they’d walked together occasionally at first, but eventually every day. Karl had initially made their encounters look like a coincidence. In the mornings he’d be standing near the entrance to the building, just leaving the courtyard or waiting at the traffic lights further down the road. Cars, cyclists, mopeds and buses hurtled past. It was a through road, and there were two crossings to negotiate on the way to the after-school care centre. In the afternoons, Karl had waited for Erik in the vicinity of the care centre and told him he’d just been to the library near by.

Do you go to the library every day? Erik had asked when Karl had been waiting for him on the following days as well.

Yes, most days, he’d answered, and the boy hadn’t asked any further questions. At first Karl had been anxious about accompanying him. Someone could ask who I am and what I’m doing with him, maybe imply I have certain intentions, he’d thought. But no one in the neighbourhood, not even the people living in the same block of flats, seemed to know Erik. Perhaps they think I’m his grandfather, thought Karl. Or they don’t think anything of it at all.

Erik hadn’t said much. When Karl asked him a question, he mostly answered with yes or no.

His mother worked in a shop, he’d said. But Karl knew that wasn’t true. Erik’s mother spent all day at home; she slept until midday, sometimes even until the boy came back.

Karl didn’t think much of Erik’s mother. She drank and took drugs, just like the men who came to visit her and took turns staying overnight. Karl had made a habit of watching the flat where she and the boy lived. Every morning he saw Erik come into the kitchen and make himself breakfast, which consisted of a bowl of milk and something he shook out of a packet. He was already dressed by that time and had probably had a wash, too. Nothing about him looked unkempt. His hair was neatly combed, and his clothes appropriate for the weather. He even made himself a sandwich, which he put in a plastic box and tucked away in the little satchel he always carried. He appeared in the kitchen at the same time every morning; Karl could have set his alarm by him. Which in fact he had done – since retiring, he’d been sleeping in now and again.

Erik’s mother still wasn’t up when the boy left the flat. She slept on the sofa in the living room, next to whichever of her night-time visitors was there. Once, Karl had watched as Erik opened the door to the living room after breakfast and surveyed the scene dispassionately, then closed it again almost immediately.

Outside, another tawny owl hooted. Hoohoo-hoohoo. Karl closed his eyes. Erik was breathing noisily through his mouth, a gurgling sound. What if he was ill? He could have caught a chill in the cold evening air.

What will we do tomorrow? thought Karl, but before an answer could come to him, he’d drifted off to sleep.

 

Excerpted from Eva Schmidt, Die Welt Gegenüber (Opposite the World), Jung und Jung 2021.

 

 

 

 

6

 

LUX AETERNA. A Play.

Author: Tanja Dückers
Translator: Marilya Reese

 

Playwright’s Summary:  The events take place in a senior living facility in Münster. A female resident, Frau Sieben, meets the gallant and eccentric Herr Hazatérés, a native Hungarian with a colorful past who gives an unvarnished account to Frau Sieben regarding the two loves of his life: a woman and a man. Having unburdened his heart, he continues to meet with Frau Sieben in the facility’s café, Café Melodie, where he continues his monologue. Herr Hazatérés knows that Frau Sieben will recall nothing of it all due to her dementia, and will be unable to use it against him in the facility–where no one knows that his roommate is also his lover. Frau Sieben reacts to Herr Hazatérés’ liveliness and passion with manifest torpor, but does not reject him either. In reality, Frau Sieben’s dementia permits him a form of expression that he has been longing for. With his flowery, poetic voice, Herr Hazatérés also simultaneously possesses aspects of a figure in a dream —a transformation or a distorted reminder of Frau Sieben’s first love, Konrad.

CAST
Female pensioner in senior living facility:
Frau Sieben

Male pensioner in senior living facility:
Herr Hazatérés

Facility Staff Members

 

Setting:  A Senior Living Facility in Münster

Sign:
‘ Today: ‘Summer Fashions for Seniors’

 

Frau Sieben (looking upward, as if at a model):
Boring. It’s all boring. We used to call it square. Not showing any leg or nothin’. Konrad….always bought me v-e-r-r-r-y racy dresses. Wine red or gentian blue and a décolleté down to there! I never left the house without my feather boa…
When I was young, I had a dreamboat at my side, a real dreamboat…! My Konrad…
He didn’t want to marry me. But no one else got him either! He only went to sea…he loved the ocean…and the sailors…them especially…

An old man with the appearance of an elegant gangster/charming dandy, hands her a glass.

Herr H:
May I offer you a beverage? It’s elderberry juice.

Frau Sieben:
Oh that’s so nice of you. What is it?

Herr H.
Elderberry juice. What’s your name, if I may ask?

Frau Sieben:
Schildberg…um…no that’s not right anymore. ‘S my maiden name. Scuse me….

Herr H (formally):
Not a problem, Frau…uh…..pleased to make your acquaintance!

Frau Sieben:
Sieben is what my name is, right, Frau Sieben!  I remember anything from long ago.

Herr H:
Pleased to meet you, Frau Sieben. Hazatérés is my name. It’s a hard one. It’s Hungarian. Ha-za-té-rés. It translates as “Coming Home”. Isn’t that lovely?

Frau Sieben:
I’ll just remember it as “Coming Home”.

Herr H:
As the lady wishes.
Aren’t we having the most awful weather? Nothing but rain.

Frau Sieben (looks upward):
Just as Our Lord wishes.

Herr H bows:
I do not want to appear presumptuous, but…may I perhaps ask you to tea at “Café Melodie?”

Frau Sieben:
With pleasure. Nobody really asks me to tea. My granddaughter comes to visit then spends the whole day reading comics.

Herr H:
Comics!?

They sit down at a table with a nosegay of plastic roses.

Frau Sieben:
This is a nice spot, Herr…..Home!

Herr H.:
Isn’t it though! Let’s take a seat.
(He pulls out the chair for Frau Sieben)

Herr H:
Ah, Frau Sieben…I would like to make you my confidante. Would you care to listen to my story for a bit? I would be very grateful to you if you would. Where do I start?
52 years ago, I was 24, I met Vera. For three months and three weeks I called her up, took her out to cafés, invited her to the opera. Do you know the Budapest Opera? You need not reply, I too am watching the rain.

Vera had long red hair that she wore loose, and read Expressionist poetry. She was different than most women of her time, and I too was different. I wrote letters to Max Ernst which he unfortunately never answered, and gave the whores more money than they demanded, because I admired them. But when I met Vera I knew that I could never desire anyone else. In the end, my persistence impressed her, my pride and my unpredictability, because I never undertook the steps she expected me to do next. You should take redhaired women by surprise! I didn’t buy her any roses, but instead a parrot, I didn’t take her out for wine but instead to go swimming—you know, Frau Sieben, the Hungarian thermal baths that submerge everything in fog and steam so that you can’t see the other person, only sense them—they have an effect that far surpasses that of alcohol…!

Frau Sieben:
Ja…thermal baths…’s so nice.

Herr H:
Vera was … how should I put it…a very modern woman, she had no truck with it only being the man, you, Frau Sieben I can tell you everything….it rained without ceasing today, didn’t it? …
Vera rejected the idea that only the man would be the one satisfied. When they started talking about these things in the Sixties, I had to laugh, I had heard it all before: Vera in a tattered uniform sitting astraddle me, Vera, her long red hair wrapped around my, well, you know, wrapped, and then singing softly, Vera in her winter coat on the staircase slowly pressing my hand beneath her skirt and wishing that we could just, right then and there…

Frau Sieben:
Winter coat, what has become of my winter coat…? Ah, Sewing Class…

Herr H continues:
Vera’s friends became my friends: there was Vladimir, a displaced Russian who told us many things about astrology and palmistry, then Elena, an opera singer whom we admired on stage whenever she was not on a binge, and in the end after we’d emigrated to Germany, Miriam and Josef. Ja, our emigration, that is a chapter unto itself…we had skeletons in the closet as they say and were no longer welcome in Budapest, nor in Debrecen, in Komló, in Halimba, or Bábocsa. Nowhere. And so we went to the other side, not just of the Donau, but of the world. …But I do not wish to speak of the world now. The rain simply won’t quit today, Frau Sieben, do you love the rain? You need not answer me. It is late…I must excuse myself, must leave for choir practice. Where may I escort you?

Frau Sieben:
What do I have today? Ah ja, Pool Gymnastics!

They don’t give you a minute’s peace here. I thought I would feel lonely in my old age…not a bit of it…water color painting, basket weaving, pool gymnastics, we take each other’s hands and then…will that make my mem’ry better do you think?…Thank you thank you Herr Home, I’m fine, I’m fine (allows herself to be led by him)

Staff member:
Ah there you are Frau Sieben. This way to Limber Up Your Back Class!

Herr H. and Frau Sieben exit, accompanied by Staff Member.

 

Herr H. and Frau Sieben return to the stage (dressed differently, new day)

Herr Hazatérés:
Good morning, Frau Sieben!

Frau Sieben:
G’m’rning, Herr Here!

Herr Hazatérés:
Where are you off to in such a hurry?

Frau Sieben:
I don’ exactly r’member right now…

Herr Hazatérés:
If you have a moment’s time, we could go to what has become our regular little spot.

They sit down at the table with the nosegay of plastic roses

Herr Hazatérés:
Now where did I leave off the last time?

Frau Sieben cannot recall.

Herr H.:
Frau Sieben, do you see the busy patterns that the raindrops create as they run down the windowpane? That’s how my life seems to me…those sudden obstacles—without us comprehending why, the drop rolls two centimeters to the right and horizontally instead of downward. Sometimes it seems to simply not obey gravity, but rather some other power. What one could that be?

Surprisingly, Frau Sieben replies:
Well, it’s love!

Herr H. nods:
In the beginning I believed that our friends Josef and Miriam—he was an archaeologist and she, the editor of an art journal—were horribly reserved. But then I soon noticed that they were simply very discreet and that the sign language of their love was rich. They were the only couple I knew who—at this point they had long been living in the same apartment—wrote each other letters regularly. The address of the sender and the recipient were always identical. At some point, when Miriam and Josef came to visit us again, Miriam suggested a ‘chat just among the ladies”. As we found out later, it was not about us men at all, though we first amusedly assumed it was. At any rate, an unplanned boys’ night ensued. Frau Sieben, are you dozing? The rain is so monotonous, and my words, have they woven a curtain over your senses? Even if you no longer remember a thing half an hour after I’ve said it, I am still glad for the moment, the brief moment, in which my thoughts are allowed to filter through your soul, in which you permit my words access before they are swallowed up like slowly falling rain by something grand and dark. So yes, by gravity. The corners of your mouth are drooping so much today, are you sad that your granddaughter had to leave again today? She will return, believe me, she is still young and has get out and move around.

Frau Sieben:
Miriam and Josef. Miriam an’ Josef. An’ Baby Jesus. Something’s wrong, though. Miriam an’ Josef..? Hm.

Herr H.
At any rate, that evening in Budapest, Josef and I went ahead and cooked something splendid. I don’t remember what, I’m getting old too, but I remember our rolled-up sleeves. After the rich meal and the intense conversation I was tired and showed Josef to the guest room. Vera had called up by then that she would be staying the night at Miriam’s. I retired to the bedroom, planning to read a bit, but must have dozed off, because I was startled to see Josef standing in the doorway. He made a mild gesture of apology. He was tall, lanky, not so much anymore nowadays, and actually always quite punctilious.

Frau Sieben:
Very lanky, ja, Albert was v-e-r-r-y lanky. If you turned him sideways, that husban’ o’ mine.

Herr H:
As he sat down on the edge of the bed, he spoke these words: Don’t be alarmed, but one question plagues me: how do you deal with the fear of death? His eyes slowly raised to meet mine. Only then did I grasp the delicacy of the situation. Suddenly I felt a wave of liking for this serious and erudite man, who never viewed the world cynically but always with a quiet warmth.
It was the merest and a thoroughly unconscious motion that caused my coverlet to slide off. Josef appeared to struggle with something, he lowered his head, then he stretched his hand out across the blanket. All at once the fingertips of the man who had just been preoccupied with the question of death touched my arm.

Frau Sieben (harshly)
With a man? You must be crazy. We must both be. Fine kettle of fish!

Herr H:
(chiding) Now, now. (coquettishly) Life has various sides…allow me to continue.
Josef. –Here in the facility, everyone thinks we are old friends who moved in together after the death of their wives, but we share more than just just ketchup and newspapers. –Don’t give me that astonished look, Frau Sieben, you should listen, not judge! That is why I have given you my trust: because for me your soul has the color of rain, transparent, supple and transient. My wife was loud and domineering, red looked fantastic on her, she could dig the heels of her boots into my feet whenever she felt misunderstood, and could pour her dark wine quite accidentally over the pages in my typewriter…my Vera. Back then I was of the opinion that even men could service one another, a pecadillo so to speak but I never dreamed of boys, or found myself desiring them, never. But Josef was different. He never approached me as like to like as did the fellows where a certain kind of—forgive my directness—mutual masturbation took place. Josef embraced me from the heart, and I was speechless.

The grandfather clock strikes.

Frau Sieben:
Ja, those fellows. Aren’t they something! My Albert also did that a lot.

Herr H:
(ignoring her remark)
Frau Sieben,—you have to go to Memory Care Training now and I am off to Spanish Class. Many thanks to you for your ears, do not overexert yourself, your head does n-o-t have to be a museum any longer, think only of the fact that there are supposed to be thunderstorms this evening…!

Herr H. bows.

Staff Member approaches:
Frau Sieben, you haven’t already forgotten your training?

Frau Sieben (harshly):
They don’t give you a minute’s peace here. All I want is….to sit on my sofa and stare into space. Big, big space. The space in life is what’s nicest…!
You’re not allowed to want nothing…!

Frau Sieben and Herr H exit.

 

Both return to the stage (new day).

The grandfather clock strikes again.

Herr H:
How lovely that you’re so punctual, you’re quite the Prussian lady, did you know that? Don’t shake your head, I can see that the caregiver brought you right here but by birth you are the daughter of an officer and you used to be always ‘at your service’. Forgive me. How was your Memory Care Training? Where do you have to be later? At Yeti-Yoga or Nordic Walking?

Frau Sieben:
No, no….I have to…where do I have to go? I don’t have to go anywhere else today!

Herr H:
I am genuinely glad for you.

I will spend a moment here in the presence of faded photographs of bygone castles and these dulled watercolors illustrating my stories for you, only to have them fade more than those items.

The name of Josef will mean nothing more than something Biblical to you, which is fine. Soon our good old couples’ friendship reestablished itself. When Vera and I went over to the West, the two of them took great care of us, for there were many more adjustment difficulties than one could have imagined beforehand. They took us to a language school where we improved our German and later learned English, helped us orient ourselves in our daily lives. I felt rather inferior to Josef, because I had to rely on him for help, but he never treated me that way. The years passed. Never did we speak of our experience. It remained a secret.

At some point Miriam was diagnosed with breast cancer. On the day of her operation I stopped by to see Josef. I cooked Hungarian food for us and tried to cheer him up. At midnight, I got up to go—well, I stayed.

Miriam got out of the hospital, and our friendship took its established course once more. But I recall moments of confusion: Josef’s hand on my thigh when we were watching Klaus Mann’s ‘Mephisto’, Josef’s expression when I passionately kissed Vera on New Year’s Eve and spilled champagne on his shoulder in doing so. Ten years passed, so much time that I no longer expected any recurrence of a night of love. But when Vera was visiting a friend in Vienna once, Josef came over again. Vera and I were still living quite happily together, the passion of our initial years had remained in a milder form.

After this third night, Josef asked me if I could imagine living with him when our wives were no longer around. I countered that women usually lived longer than men and the likelihood was greater that Vera would end up living with Miriam than he with me!

Miriam died two years later of lymphoma, and Vera died tragically in a private plane belonging to friends.

The sudden solitude, the deficit in physicalness took its toll on me. I aged more rapidly within a few months than in the years prior. I was in my early 70s. Josef came by more and more frequently and I allowed myself to be loved by him. Sometimes I envisioned a woman’s body in my mind but I was no longer capable of making any new conquests. So Josef stayed with me, and I cannot say to this day if it all is not a huge misunderstanding. When he developed a kidney disorder and I became incontinent, we decided to go into a facility. Here we are now, we watch TV together and study the list of classes available.

Frau Sieben has dozed off.

Herr H. (amicably)
Frau Sieben, please listen to me. You with the golden ears. Those purely decorative ears. Those l’art pour l’art ears, you … there’ll be time enough for sleeping, my aimless words need your harbor, your gate. Your pathway to nowhere. Having a destination means everything. Wanting nothing means might as well being dead.

Frau Sieben awakens once more.

Herr H:
Frau Sieben, now you have a golden aura once more. You are as aglow as a lamp, without realizing it.

Frau Sieben;
I am not a lamp…

Herr H:
Here we sit in “Café Melodie”— how nice that we didn’t meet fifty years ago, for we might have never spoken a word to each other, Frau Officer’s Daughter. But now nothing matters, we are sitting here and can tell one other our greatest of mistakes, our most unsettling stories, perhaps your husband killed my relatives in Hungary, perhaps the lover of Elena, that opera singer so devoted to alcohol, was a spy in your country—all of that is now immaterial and of interest to no one any longer…it just keeps raining all day today again.

Frau Sieben (tiredly)
This rain reminds me of the rain recently..when I went to school and was slapped because the ink in my copybook was all smeary.

Herr H. kneels before Frau Sieben, laying his hands gently on her knee. Mozart’s Requiem (last movement= Lux Aeterna) is audible.

Herr H.:
Frau Sieben, in your eyes I dissolve like back then in the foggy mists of the thermal bath, I am able to release everything I want to recount, everything oppressing me. I become lightweight and you do not become heavy, but remain light!

Do you hear the music of Frau Terz over there? Do you hear this divine music?
Do you know what the last part of Mozart’s Requiem is called?

Frau Sieben (lost in thought, but turned toward Herr H.):
Konrad, let’s get a li’l glass of somethin’ during intermission.

Herr H. (shakes his head):
There are words, sharp-edged like crystal and suspended like lights in a fog—dark like the opposite of fire and bright like the eye of eternity…

Frau Sieben (brusquely):
Herr Here, that’s enough. “Lux Aeterna” is name of the piece, period.
And where I do have to go now?

Music grows louder.

 

THE END

 

© Tanja Dückers