I saw this only
once, one single time that rain-heavy
summer I spent in the Berlin apartment, and though it was nothing out of
the ordinary, and surely nothing supernatural, it seized me like an
apparition. In the paling evening sky over the trees of the park, in the
gray pink broken only by a withered acacia’s rearing crown, birds
wheeled. It was not a flock gathering for the autumn migration; the
birds darted in all directions across the piece of sky, myriad solitary
dark arcs. Are those swallows? I wondered, leaning my forehead against
the pane, but even in the rose-gold glow it was too dark to make out the
birds. Only their high wheeling flight was still visible and – perhaps
because of the appalling silence all around – palpable.
It was a restless rising and sinking, black on
vanishing bright, soundless. I watched it, I followed the teeming random
motion, it drew me, I circled with it, leaning my face against the
pane. That is me. I thought and did not think it; I thought next to
nothing, only rose and fell, wheeling, mute, with a glassy sense of
The last time: I did not really think this either,
I saw it in the sky. I used to think it sometimes, at partings, on
trips; it had been a dramatic, even melodramatic thought. Now everything
was simply as it was.
The trees grew darker, the piece of sky was still
bright, the black flitter rose and fell, on into the night. The oaks,
acacias and lindens merged to a softly-swaying black mass. I turned
away, back to the room which had once belonged to me, but the same
twilight muteness awaited me there, only gentler, homelier, more
familiar, even with the emptied bookcases.
Among the books I had set aside for myself before the
used book dealer came was one I had read many years ago. It had always
been like a friendly affirmation when I saw the black binding and the
title in the red field, a reassuring pledge, a memory of her library
from those distant shared years when the two of them, curious, not
without irony, had dabbled in the currents of the life, death and nature
philosophies. Now the book was packed away in a carton, the gold title
on the red field out of sight: DEATH AS A FRIEND.
But really, I knew, this circling, some birds’ black
soaring, was not sad and not comfortless. For I did find comfort,
especially on evenings like this, even if it was not enough to satisfy
my thirst for it. Even this circling, now swallowed by the darkness as I
turned away, was comfort. It really was, I said to myself, nothing could
be better than this soundlessness. This up and down soaring in unending
unrest, this migration by unalterable decree. Not the image, not this
vanished sky, so like the pale and mute sky of that other day, only I
“Memory is the only paradise from which we cannot be
expelled.” Who had said that? Someone had written it in a book of
mine, a long time ago, perhaps K., with his weakness for quotations. It
sounded good and it was – suddenly I laughed – nonsense. In the age
of expulsions there was no paradise, however fictitious, from which you
were not expelled. Paradises, if any still remained, were the actual
ultimate goal of all expulsions, resettlements, devastations, they were
there for people to be driven out of them. And: why call memory a
paradise? Another lie. Back then the quotation had delighted me; K. had
the gift of delivering quotations at just the right moment and making
them a kind of present, which had only made me more in love with him.
My memories wheeled. Up and down, rising and falling,
aimless, directionless. I followed them, aimless too, directionless, in
search of something which might have been comfort and might have been
pain; I rested my forehead against the pane again, but it was dark
outside now. I saw the circling inside in my eyes when I looked back
into the room, at the empty shelves.
In a distant summer, on the Baltic, we had sung the
song of the migrating birds and drawn it over and over with
colored pencils: When summer’s end is nigh/The little birds will
fly... the two of us sang it for the landlord and landlady, for the
Ahrenshoop barber Saatmann and his pale wife with the trembling hand,
who loved us, we stared at the trembling hand, the summer drew to an
end, was it a paradise-summer? At least it recalled other lost summers
in the blaze of white beaches, we sat in the big clean kitchen in
the basement of the Saatmanns’ house, watched lovingly by the pale
woman, the migrating flocks passed over the wide salt marshes, we
painted them on paper, with the beautiful lines of the electric
wires over the flat green landscape which began just past our veranda.
We knew that our summer’s end was also nigh and we could not stay,
that this beach and this sea did not belong to us as the beach and the
sea had then, but at the same time the success of our singing and our
painting delighted us; later, after the endless trek to the garden at
the edge of town, the feeling of parchedness and suffocation
Now, in a rainy Berlin summer, I sat in a room which
would grow barer and barer, a room I would leave for the last time. I
thought this with a dull sadness, like someone hearing a long-awaited
verdict; I had always known, sometimes thought it, sometimes rehearsed
it inwardly, for years. For fifteen years: since I had moved out and yet
remained, because she remained with all the rooms and her and my books,
shelves, memories. For fifteen years I had asked myself – not often,
though – what it would be like, this last moving-out, and stopped
thinking about it before I could answer.
No tragedy, no expulsion, no exodus like the one now
sweeping Europe, it was only the course of things, the course of time.
It was a quiet, natural cessation, and into it the past crept, evenings
in the deserted apartment, bringing expulsion, flight, war, from
letters, diaries and photos; the past and not past: memory – a
On one of those evenings my friend Elke picked me up
and we spent two hours in our old pub in Grünau, she with a pint and I
with black beer, we talked about our husbands and our sons, about
friends, books, and finally about her approaching fiftieth birthday, and
as we came out of the warm miasma of the pub into the drizzle and
got into her new car (we still said: westcar), she said, as if to
sum up our conversation: “At our age the crucial part is behind us.
We’ve already experienced the most important things.”
She started the motor, turned, and swung out smartly
onto the wet street. I understood that this statement was not part of
the litany of the fifty-year-olds. Elke was not one of the losers – if
one disregarded her chronic loss of glasses and keys, which was more a
sign of her phenomenal activity – but rather one of those capable few
who were still willing to help. I stared into the rain as it
whipped down with increasing force. No, the crucial part had not yet
happened, it had yet to come, it would take place – I could be wrong,
but the important thing was that I was expecting it.
As Elke steered around the puddles between the
streetcar tracks, I thought of a remark I had encountered on the
page of a letter on one of my solitary evenings, a casual remark which
sounded casual and was a parting, the final one after so many others,
“I can’t drive in the dark anymore.” On this same street, in the
last year of his life, he had driven onto a construction site in his
Wartburg Coupé and had gotten stuck on the tracks over a missing
stretch of street, it must have been this stretch of Grünauer Strasse,
in his eightieth year, twenty years ago. The street gleamed and dazzled.
I didn’t want to contradict Elke; for one thing she wouldn’t
tolerate it, despite our friendship, in her present state of westjob-overload.
But I thought: I am still waiting for it, for the crucial part. And
hadn’t it been an omen that on the very evening of my fiftieth
birthday my sister had sat up with me in the kitchen after all the
others had gone to bed, and we had begun to talk about her?
Suddenly both of us had wept, we had embraced
and reconciled ourselves with her, the eighty-year-old sleeping in the
next room. She’s old, after all, I said sobbing into the sobs of my
sister. Only on this fiftieth birthday was that possible, not only
because of my sister’s first officially-sanctioned westtrip to visit
me, above all because of my fifty years.
Elke hugged me when she dropped me off at the lonely
house in the park. Now the crucial part was this: the mute evenings in
the emptying apartment.
I stood at the window in the light of the still-bright
piece of sky. I leafed through his last letters to her from that winter
twenty years ago, when he was forbidden to drive in the dark after the
accident on Grünauer Strasse, and at the end of which he died.
They weren’t really letters, only brief messages
which he enclosed with his remittances, sometimes only a greeting. In
another portfolio I found children’s drawings, one in which I
recognized the salt marshes behind the veranda of the Saatmann house in
Ahrenshoop; more drawings were pasted in an album, my name and the year 1946
stood on the first page, in his handwriting. Later she had put our
children’s drawings alongside ours. Everything was saved. So that I
would see it now one more time? I found drawings and watercolors of hers
as well. The childhoods mingled, she must have been the same age as we,
as our children, six or seven; her pictures were charming and very
funny; she had never showed them to us.
That last summer too I slept in the little room in the
middle of the apartment, where the windows faced the back of the garden
with the rotten arbor, the mugwort shooting up in the rain, the rampant
maple saplings. The room fit only a bed and closet, a tiny table and a
small bookshelf, now emptied like the others; the big two-piece closet
custom-made in the sixties by the Schumann company (purveyor to
the apparatchiks), birch on the outside and reddish tropical wood on the
inside, was empty, in a few days my nephew would come to pick it up.
Once, not long before, I had lain there staring at the
closet, this once so precious piece of furniture, which had held all my
bedclothes, table-linen and underwear; I was not really looking at the
closet, but at a Picasso print which had ended up on one of the doors,
showing part of a piano, a grand piano. Suddenly I thought of all the
pianos we had had in this apartment, the closets which had stood in this
room, the beds, and I decided to take stock of everything, all
this furniture, this stuff, this junk, these bought, rescued, inherited
clothes – dust and life clung to them, and they in turn would cling to
us or we to them, until one day we left this rotten ark which she now
navigated alone. It would be a stocktaking of all the shuffling about we
had done in these five rooms in the course of forty years; on top of
that the occupation of the apartment by Aunt Suse’s furniture, the
inheritance which had descended upon us with its musty smell and could
not be let go to waste; and all the moving out, separations,
divorces; and all the burst pipes, cesspool stoppages, burglaries; nor
could I forget the garden, the big trees which merged into the
tree-nursery in the back and the gentle slope of the park in the front,
how the vegetable garden was fenced off and built up with the shacks of
the house management, how garages of tar-board and corrugated iron
sprouted on all sides like mushrooms, looking shabby before they
were finished, and her roses, her phlox, the long-vanished blue clouds
of the larkspur and the tall evening primroses which last surrounded the
The small room faced the front door; you could see in
from the vestibule when the doors were open, and someone was always
saying: Shut the door! The bed consisted of a wooden frame with four
short legs, a box spring and a mattress; over it lay a handwoven blanket
with a geometric irregular pattern in brown and light shades, which they
had brought with them from East Prussia. This was his bedroom. She slept
in the larger room next door, where the rectangular dining table stood
with four chairs, on an improvised couch whose back was made of pillows
of gray-pink sackcloth with sawdust filling; over it lay the second East
Prussian blanket. But I can’t remember whether he really slept in the
small room. One scene lingered: he came home, drunk, I knew; she
had hidden with me, in the third, back room, then the children’s room.
He shouldn’t go, he couldn’t go: I had to tell him that, if I said
it, she repeated, he wouldn’t be able to. But in this scene he only
kept calling for her, staggering and enraged.
She moved into the small room. His charcoal drawing
was left hanging over the bed, the portrait of a child with pale curls.
He took very few of his drawings and paintings with him.
Usually guests stayed in the small room. Nori
from Halle, the painter Birnbaum from Dresden, the grandmother from
Radebeul. Once a man rang the doorbell – she was not at home –
familiar and cheerful and already standing in the living room. He came
from Halle, he said, an old friend.
We sneaked into the guest room, where the stranger had
already unceremoniously hung his coat inside the door; something hairy,
which we thought was a wig, peeked out of the coat pocket. She came home
from Grohmann’s Picasso lecture in West Berlin, laughed, and ushered
him out; Nori’s friend took the fur gloves from his coat pocket and
bowed. The room was often in use, they liked to come, made the crossing,
smoked herring, chocolate, coffee, movies.
And one came because of her. He seemed tall and
imperiously handsome to me, his dark eyes in the sharp face were bright,
piercing. Come to me for a little, he said, but she did not go over to
the guest room; she laughed (that last year she told me this for the
first time). Defensively.
I, the daughter, went naked through the apartment,
from the bath into the children’s room, as I always did – to be seen
by him. He loved straight legs like mine. His sculptor’s gaze did
me good: I walked in it, walked from the bath through
mother’s-bed-living-and-dining room into the children’s room.
After 1961 we rarely had guests.
I came home late from the movies, I let myself be kissed in front of the
house, unlocked the door quietly. Light burned in the small room, she
always left her door open a crack.
I moved into the small room so that K., who had
compiled a collection of quotes for me from antiquity to the classical
period, and whom I loved, could have my former small front room, far
away from her. She had taken the old children’s room. Now I was in the
middle, and bore the brunt of her war against us.
He found room for a chest of drawers. I changed the
baby on top of the chest of drawers; the wicker cradle stood next to my
bed; I listened in astonishment to the nightly breathing, the energetic
sucking. I unlock the door of the apartment, drop my valise, reach the
room in two strides, fling the door open: the child is sitting in his
little bed, with puffy cheeks, a face which no longer believes in my
return. He looks at me, strange and sad. Once more I promise him never
to go away again.
The child’s bed (plastic, pressboard, foam rubber
mattress) no longer fit in the little room. With cars and trains, with
crates, hammers and nails, the child migrated into the far-away room
where K. had lived.
My visitor crossed Europe. I could only wait for him,
read his officially-opened letters. The visitor brought an ashwood frame
on the roof of his car; he came in the winter, over the Alps, through
snow and rain, and built a bed for the two of us in the small room.
It was supposed to stay my room when I moved away,
with him and with the boy. Bed, closet, books stayed behind. But
gradually she repossessed it, her clothes hung in the closet. When I
cleaned the room to rent it out, a final wrong-headed, well-meant and
underhanded campaign to keep her from being so lonely in all those
rooms, there was another fight. We ran screaming through the apartment.
The room was left as she wanted it; she slept there when she was alone
because she was less afraid in the small room in the middle of the
When I came to visit, I was a guest in my old room.
She made my bed the last time too, in the spring holidays, despite her
swollen legs, despite the weakness. In the evening when she came to my
bed, still wide-awake from our conversations and agitated by all the
stirred-up memories, she asked me whether I wanted to take my father’s
drawing, the portrait of the child with pale curls which still hung over
the head of the bed.
No, I said, no.
“You looked like an angel.”
A wind from the Alps, the sky bright, the Isar
spring-blue. They stayed the night at her sister’s in Bogenhausen, a
pause on their trip to the Allgäu, a beautiful day. The painter goes
sketching. Buy some pretzels, says the sister. She holds the child’s
hand on the beautiful broad street. Jubilant sun. The child takes little
steps, the little curls bob, white little curls, a white-blonde
corkscrew mop, glistening in the light. Holding the child’s hand,
little words, little steps, and suddenly she sees men coming toward her,
a tight-girded group, epaulettes, glass eyes, stone eyes,
quickquickquick come the steps – slamming, leather and steel, now the
leather and steel faces are close, now in front of her, straps belts
guns, the child hops, the little hand in her hand, no side street,
he’s bending down already, as he always does, nose-dive, bombing
squadron, swoops down upon his prey, a blonde German child, is anyone
watching? She clutches the little hand, he leans forward, leathern and
jangling, the throaty shoutvoice chuckles and rolls, such a darling,
rasps forth from a too-narrow overstrained overwrought throat, a
darling, the white-blonde curls hop in the breath of the dead mask, the
iron lock slips, he laughs, grins, straightens up, the moment seized,
they march away, they clatter, clomp, click their heels, the boots
trample the pavement, the child says a little word, the woman wakes up,
her knees buckle, her icy hands slip, she clings tight to the little
hand, it leads her back, Ludwigstrasse, we’re just passing through,
the headquarters back there, not to the baker, get back as fast as
possible, the trembling spreads, rises up the arms to the neck, over the
chest, the nape, it leaves behind a coldness, an itching shiver on the
skin. What’s wrong, asks her sister, but she runs past, the words
can’t come out yet, she stumbles into the room, we saw him, she says
and throws herself onto the couch, face down. Up close, he was standing
right in front of us, he wanted to put his hands on, he wanted to touch
the child, she shudders, she is freezing and drenched in sweat,
blistering spots appear on her arms. She pulls the blanket over her
head. I saw him, up close, he stood in front of me, with that bloody
earthy voice, the dead man’s eyes, draw the curtains, turn out the
The child stays in the room with her, holds its
stuffed animal in its arms, dances a mute dance in front of the couch,
then in a quiet voice it starts to sing, a good-night song in the bright
afternoon. Mama is sick, it sings, and dances up to the painter
as he comes in with his sketchpad, Mama is sick – Mama is sick, it
dances and sings its singsong and rocks the stuffed animal to sleep.
White: Tears on frosty skin, crunching white,
you slid and ran, wool socks over your shoes, trudged uphill to the
hollow, the hull of blankets on the skis, into the roughwoolly
browncheckered warmth, threadbare timeworn and still warming, you
were sheltered by fence and house and trees, birds fluttered around the
birdhouse on its high leg. To be was: to inscribe your own steps in the
white – alongside the bird tracks, the ski tracks, white in white. The
voices bright, ice flower songs on the windows.
White and light.
Why? Don’t remember. Remember why?
What is memory, what is remembered story?
The snow painted in 1943 was
gray and heavy by contrast, lying like plump pillows on paths and
bushes, around the entrance to the cellar, hanging cottony in the trees
which hemmed in the gaze and guided it into the garden, in whose midst
Elfriede chopped wood in her red jacket. A white with the look of
thaw, painted lightly but precisely, in almost naive manner, so it
seemed to me as I studied the picture in the hall of the Berlin
apartment with sudden curiosity, as if I might detect something.
What could it tell me, except that it was a touch academic but still
painterly, with that carefree or careless naivete in the rendering of
the snow? What did the date say, this 1943?
The impenetrable gray behind the backdrop of winter-bare trees which
surrounded the garden, what could it say about the painter, about me?
The other, the summerwhite, was higher, horizonwide.
It flew with the gulls, frothed, surged over the beach, over the
breakwaters, into the minute endlessness. My being, not yet an I, was
naked, in white brightness. It ran, hopped, knelt in the sand, it built:
room upon room of kelp and pieces of bark, it built houses, enclosures
with small shadows in the blinding light. Wavetongues licked shells out
of the sand, and stones. Two children ran along the beach, gathered in
the white sand white, smooth, oval stones. Two children, naked in their
sunskins, sought forms which meant to them what they knew but we no
longer know. They counted before they could count. I more than you. You
as much as I.
Stones, white egg-forms. White the beach, the sand,
felt by feet, white the foam, the day was bright and long, it never
ended. The small voices mingled with the roar. Suddenly it was evening.
But the roar remained, inside and outside, day and night. Christian went
home to his grandparents behind the garden fence. The white-haired
grandparents were called Seliger, blissful. Tomorrow was distant and
blissfully certain: a new, bright endlessness.
“When you finally got hair...” she laughed. She
had often told me the story. Their friends made fun of the newborn’s
round, naked skull: Like her father! Like the fifty-year-old,
practically bald father! When your hair finally grew, it was blonde, a
silvery fluff. Angelhair. White. Foam. That’s how your father sketched
you. The foam of the sea, down there, below the house – a path led out
of the garden down the bluffs – bushes, nettles, steps – don’t
remember how – to endless games. Remember only this.
White: Bitter on the tongue. Juice, furred with a
layer of white, heavenfar, Christmassy, harsh, a taste you never found
again in life, a bitterness, bloomy, a sharp skin of dreamed aromas,
studded with yellow-red drops. The dry white was the essence, it was the
exquisite, never-again-tasted. First single orange, war ration
for children, in the bitter-sweet white: the edge, the border between
inside and outside, Christmas present.
No, not a special ration, she said. The fruit woman
gave it to me on the sly because I had given her a massage. On the sly,
already wrapped in a bag.
Voices. Someone said: those are children, talking and
singing. Someone said: the voices come on wires, through the air. Wires
swung outside in the wind, from the street to the house, birds landed
flapping. You knew: those were birds. They sang in a language
which you did not understand, because the words flew up from the wires
stretched from the street to the house.
You sang. Your song sprang from a book which lay in
front of you...
You sang of black berries, white lambs. On your lips
you had the taste of the berries which lay in the chip basket on the
page of the book in front of you, black and bright, you tasted the heat
of the sun and the sweetness of the songwords in the soft speech. No one
spoke it but she with invisible friends, letter speech, dream speech, vita
lam, har du nogon öll, white white lamb, white soft wool, for
Mother and Father, mor och far.
We sat across from each other in her former living-,
dining- and bedroom, now commanded by Aunt Suse’s Biedermeier sofa,
she in her chair, I on the sofa. One question was enough. She was filled
with memories, her life was waiting for my questions, it lived and
unfolded, her long life, as soon as she spoke the first words. She took
me with her, dragged me into the current, into the maelstrom which
snatched and jumbled and swept up everything: her memories, and mine,
and others’ memories which came to mind, until her thin face flushed.
She forgot her aching legs, we wandered through the garden of those
days, we were home, in our true eternal home, among all the good and
loved ones who returned to us from the void. Then the birches stood by
the fence again, the currant bushes, the blue-glimmering larkspur
swayed, the evening primroses strove upward in front of the veranda,
guests came; she went through the garden and scattered sand, white sand
which the guests carried up from the beach. They had many guests –
even in the dark years – who came to swim, and drank tea on the
terrace below the veranda; all of them had to bring a bucket of sand up
the steep seaside path, gradually loosening the heavy loamy soil in the
I remembered the white sand, and the white snow...
The snow is damp, the gray shadows show how heavy and
wet it is, and the sky is gray as well. Around the snowy garden and the
woodcutter, trees stand woven against the impenetrable gray of the sky.
The woodcutter is the house-maid Elfriede. Big,
strong. She swings the axe high above the chopping block. Yellow billets
lie in the snow. Elfriede is wearing a red jacket, a cheerful spot in
the center of the picture, the only one, bright as fresh blood. On one
side of the picture the ground rises under the snow: the cellar, built
when the summer house became a home. In the end it was an illusory
shelter, when the English bombers on their way back from Königsberg
dropped their remaining bombs over the sea and made the bluffs quake and
with them the wooden house, the cellar, the garden, the trees, the
rabbit-hutches, the hen-house. But I don’t remember that, neither the
trembling of the earth nor her trembling as she stooped with us two
children in the cellar. The picture is still, white-gray, ringed by
birches and willows, in the middle the raised arm, the falling billet,
the bright red fleck. I never really looked at it, never examined it
closely and searchingly, I never saw it the way you see a picture. It
was always there, for forty years it hung in the hall of the Berlin
apartment when I came from school, from the university, from work, and
later, when I came to visit, in the slowly decaying house which she
never wanted to move away from. He had left it her when he left her.
Her picture was surely a different one than mine: a
piece of her garden, one day in her East Prussian winter, but more than
that the picture was him: the painter in front of the silent
scene. She watched him sketch, disappear with the drawings into the
studio, which was nothing but the converted garage (the car had long
since been requisitioned for the war), and load the palette with colors.
She loved the picture, she liked it better than their friend
Partikel’s work; he painted one Flora after the other – in times
like these! – lying, standing Flora-women with flowers or
fruits in their arms and a rounded line to the shoulders to make the
figure solid and plastic and a touch Germanic. She loved the snow
picture, which was signed: “H.H. 1943”.
In my pictures, which are not painted, only a
drifting, a glittering, the snow was white, so burning white that the
tears came, even in memory, and you cried out for Mother, the mothers.
On the flight home from spending the spring holidays
with her, I found a brief article in the Berlin morning papers: “At
Tegel Airport yesterday Aeroflot inaugurated the first regular route
from Germany to Königsberg (Kaliningrad), flight-time one hour.
According to the director of the airline office, potential customers are
mostly Germans wishing to revisit their East Prussian heimat.”
I flew home in the opposite direction, to Milan; the
Alps came into view below us. I was not flying to East Prussia – but
once, years before, on a flight to Leningrad, I had suddenly seen a
black silhouette in the white-silver Baltic below me, a land formation
with two narrow tongues projecting into the sea, and thought their no
longer existing names: Samland, Fresh Spit, Curonian Spit. Names from
the past. In June, 1993, I was coming from my
mother, from her – and my – Berlin apartment which was still a home
to me. Every evening, sitting across from each other, she on her chair,
I on Aunt Suse’s sofa, we had spoken of Königsberg, of Cranz, Nidden,
Rauschen, Pillau, the places from Nevermore.
Did I want to see Königsberg again? Could Aeroflot
take me there, an hour’s flight? Could I find my place by the sea
again in the endless beating of the waves, the shore, the house, the
garden, the beach, where a child built rooms with pieces of bark and
scraps of kelp and sprigs of a small plant with pointy leaves which
clung to the sand, rooms which are its true home?
I don’t want to go to Königsberg (Kaliningrad), I
thought. There’s nothing I want to see again. The annihilated
city, the empty place on the bluffs where a wooden house once stood, a
painter’s studio, a garden, a cellar. The house burned. I want to
leave it standing in memory. I have nothing to visit, nothing to
recognize, no paths to retrace. Only within us should these places
appear if they still can. If we still know how to call them.
Inside was brightness and darkness. The big room
bright where they sat in their wicker chairs, holding the newspaper in
front of them with outstretched arms and making the words rustle. But
you fetched the berry-basket and the flowers, the butterflies and the
meadow dwarves, all you had to do was turn to them, they lay in the
brown bookcase in the corner:
Bä, bä, vita lam
har du nagon ull
Ja, ja, lilla barn
jag har sacken full...
The white lamb’s promise delighted you, for you were
the child in the meadow, the child who set out into the sky-blue world,
mors lille Olle, that was you. You didn’t know why the white lamb
promised Father a Sunday coat and Mother a holiday dress, you waited for
the most beautiful line, the announcement which filled you with longing
and tenderness and which you wanted to hear again and again; you saw
them clearly, the tiny white socks for the little little brother, they
hung over the song on a clothesline
och tva par strumpor
at lille lille bror.
The big room enveloped you with ocher hues, green was
the airy veranda, yellow the tiled stove stood in solitary splendor in
the middle with its encircling bench.
Further inside the house was dark. Once you fled, but
they stood in front of you, you crouched at the height of their arms,
you edged into the furthest corner, but you knew that in a moment they
would grab you and tear the bandages from your legs, they would hurt you
again; they coaxed you, you did not believe them and yet you had to inch
forward, toward their hands. Who left the bucket of boiling water
standing around for the child to stumble into?
It wore booties with soles of smooth kid which I found
again in that long summer when I was emptying out the drawers; they lay
small and gray at the bottom. I did not realize what they were until I
had thrown them away.
Black was the night outside, black was the flat man
with the big hat who slunk around the house. They left a light on in the
corridor to keep away the coal thieves. Then the little flowers on the
curtains around the bed came to life, they opened their mouths wide,
flashed claws, goggling eyes. The ugly faces danced, they whirled white
on red, they gave you no peace, and then, all at once, they vanished.
They lurked in the folds – and there: the game was afoot again, but
now the other way around, now it was red faces which peered out of the
white, small and wicked with their round eyes and short tails, and
carried on the twitching dance.
Later the red and white curtains hung in our
nurseries, in Halle, in Berlin. The pattern had dwindled, nothing more
could be seen of the wicked tormenting games, but at the sight of this
fabric I sensed a residual antipathy, a memory of the tireless monsters
which had now melted away into the cheerful pattern.
They stood behind the house, face to face, separated
by chicken wire, the rabbit cloudy, its nose pink, a trembling and
muttering and soft hair combed daily. The child answered the mutter.
I can read now, said the child, it held a piece of
newspaper in front of its face and moved its lips. The paper rustled,
the child mumbled, now it could do what the two of them demonstrated, he
and she, when they sat in the room in their wicker chairs, the newspaper
in their outspread arms.
The child waited for the dandelion leaf to grow
shorter under the pink triangle. It stood behind the house, where the
cellar and the wood-yard in the thawing snow were painted forever, it
laid its hands against the little doors, the silvery chicken wire behind
which the other face pink-white looked straight ahead.
“All that combing!” she said.
She had told me the story of the angora rabbit so many
times, the hutch which the painting architect built, the hair she combed
from the rabbit day after day, which she gathered and had spun, the
white angora sweater she knitted for the child, of old Augstein who came
to butcher the rabbit, and how the child would not touch meat, she had
told all these things so often, to the child and me, that the memory of
the white-pink face has almost faded away.
Who was old Augstein?
He used to be a cotter.
And he did butchering too?
He did everything, she said impatiently; we both knew
old Augstein well, I only knew him from her stories. You didn’t touch
a thing. For a long time you wouldn’t eat meat. Then, one day you had
forgotten it, your rabbit.
We sat together in the evenings, facing each other; I
had to take the Biedermeier sofa which was so hard to get up from. Every
day I read microfilms in the library. I read the year 1944
in the Völkischer Beobachter, the perpetual reports of strategic
withdrawals on the front page and the profusion of minutiae, miscellany
and fatuousness inside, announcements of rations, animal fats for
cooking oil, cheap tips, mushrooms as a source of protein, edification,
abundance of children in all ranks of the Volk, waiter executed
for collaboration with the enemy, that too in miscellany. Rabbit pelts
essential to the war effort! Private use of private production
prohibited After stripping, the pelt must be stretched and dried slowly
in the shade Anyone can build a pelt-stretcher following the
instructions in the pamphlet “Every Pelt Counts” published by the
Reich Section for Rabbit Breeding Three weeks after stripping the pelts
may be handed in at the nearest collection point.
With her in the evening, on the sofa. Did you hand in
the rabbit pelt?
She laughed, scornfully.
She had told me what they had to hand over: the car,
later the skis. Then they lay around in big piles somewhere.
They had hidden the books.
Old Augstein took the pelt with him, and that was
They stood on the high bluffs, the storm tore at the
trees, a squalling whistle filled the air, mingled with the rolling of
the surf; behind them, stretched out flat under the wind, lay the
garden, the house, once their summerhouse and now their home.
They had abandoned the attic apartment on the castle
pond, they had abandoned the famous city on the Pregel with its castle,
its warehouse district, its modern buildings. It was a city which had
seemed open even as the horizon narrowed over the center of the land.
Where the architect H.H.
embraced the New Objectivity: “The most sober, the most mathematical,
in a certain sense the most inartistic solution will be the most
truthful, the most expedient, the most satisfactory, and a new canon
will gradually emerge from an aggregation of such solutions.” Where he
could build great things: the exhibition hall, the school, the hotel.
Where a young physiotherapist found work. Back then: when life was on
A year later they drove away from the city on the sea,
not to go bathing, not to garden or to paint. It was better not to be at
home. The young woman and the successful architect went on a strange
honeymoon. They were on the move, a night here, a night there; the scare
would soon be over, said the intellectual circles. They had laughed at
the Blood and Soil style, never would they submit to them, not in art,
not in life, never lick blood and kiss the ground before their kind,
everyone had said that. But already it was time to hide, blood was
already flowing, in cellars people were already being beaten to the
bloody ground. Already someone was no longer speaking to someone. They
slept at friends’, they left the city, the great, famous city
which hailed the savior man at his triumphant entrance. They were left
with the little wooden house, they installed an oven and double windows,
built the cellar.
They stood on the bluff behind the garden. The storm
churned the clouds, the water. At the edge of the wood a tree tilted,
fell slowly, slid part of the way down the slope, the roots stared up,
the crown struck the beach.
A man passed them, a man who loved the sea. They knew
him, he was a good swimmer, they saw him pile his clothes on the dry
strip of the foam-washed beach. He ran into the surf, toward the waves,
arms like wings, through the breaking autumn fury. The sea was white,
white with frenzy. They had warned him, had told him that the sea would
drag him out. He knew the sea, he said. The woman had clutched at his
jacket for a moment, a short pleading gesture. The swimmer, laughing: In
the fall it’s at its best.
He had crossed the sand, passed the rim of foam.
He swam. They watched him, watched him go. Watched him
turn, fling up his arms – toward them. They stood, bent against the
storm, not a soul, no boat anywhere, no one. They stood, and out there
the swimmer swam, torn away, out into the gray. The storm screamed.
He was found two days later.
They talked about it over and over. Over and over they
retold it to each other. They counted the words of their conversation,
the minutes. They repeated their words, his laugh. The woman repeated
her gesture. How can you hold on to someone who storms out confident and
unwitting? I know the sea. Seconds, minutes. How he turned, far
out, barely visible, certainly no longer audible in the roaring of the
air and the water. The flung-up arms. Not a soul far and wide. The
rumble and thunder of the breaking waves, the white lightness of the
welling streak of foam.
We had to stand by and watch... she had said, back
then; she repeated it, sitting across from me.
The wide landscape of the
beaches. Sandland where we built rooms. Walls of bark and black kelp,
rooms where we lived in spirit. Carpets of white sand, gardens of white
sand, green lyme-grass grew there, and the creeping twigs of the
sandwort. The sun hung over our dwellings, these houses were much
smaller than we, we were giants, we lived at the edge of endlessness.
The days were long, we were double and naked, we found egg-stones, they
sprang white from the white sand, bared themselves under our feet,
I’ll give you mine, and you keep mine, we’ll lay them under our
pillows, we’ll feel them, smooth, eternal.
The grown-ups sat in the garden, the neighbors, the
old Seligers, white-haired, at the tea-table with the colorful cups, the
sun flickered warm in the trees, the beds overflowed with flowers, in
the shadows stood the baby-carriage with the new, tiny child, covered
with a veil. Wonderful summer, summer full of wounds. Their friend
Partikel had lost his son, eighteen-year-old Adrian. What a July. The
last. Irises, the last; evening primroses, mallow, the last; we will not
stay for the asters. They sat in the sun, they drank tea, it’s time to
pack, we can’t believe it.
Christian, we’re going home.
The game did not end, the game did not divide into I
and you, it mingled us, we went on playing, the great roar waited for us
till morning, there was only the path through the garden, the bushes,
the nettles, then down the bluffs... and once again we were in eternity.
Christian was gone.
He left with his grandmother, the bright opposite, my
other, equal in play. He had left a present, a brightly-painted tin,
decorated all over with palaces, palms, garlands, Made in Bombay,
said the label, which I deciphered much later and did not understand.
In that rainy summer the evening primroses had shot up
tall and exuberant; I saw them as I stood at the window and looked out
into the green-rampant garden, and at the same time I heard myself cry
out. “I hate this apartment!” I was so angry that I nearly screamed
it. We were not sitting in the big room with the book cases, but in her
room, where she had seated me on the Biedermeier sofa so that I would
stay put and not keep running into the kitchen and interrupting her
storytelling. Once again I had described to her all the disadvantages of
the apartment in the run-down house, all the aggravation, the trouble,
and now, in these new times, the costs as well, the rent, the thousands
she burned for fuel without getting the five rooms warm, the seeping
rain-water, the damp walls, the rotting-away shutters and all the
difficulties with the new house management, which had remained its old
self... All the things she knew perfectly well herself. I had gotten
angry and almost believed myself: “I hate this apartment!” I
announced in a shrill voice, the one I always got when I wanted to
discuss something with her and knew from the start that she would never
I kept finding new, highly plausible reasons why she
should finally move into a small, comfortable apartment, where she
wouldn’t have to go down the cellar stairs anymore to start the fuming
central heating oven, where she wouldn’t have to carry the ashes
upstairs, gather kindling and chop wood. Yes, yes, she said, and as my
voice reached the climax of shrillness and I explained to her that she
wouldn’t be able to stand the horrendous loneliness any longer and the
nightly fear, the voices, that she got no pleasure out of her garden
anymore, and that it was much too big for her all by herself, she said
quietly, “You may be right.”
She said it so gently, so wearily, that all my zeal
was extinguished, my concern and my good advice fell silent. On every
one of my visits we had talked this subject through to the point of
exhaustion, she had told me again and again that she could not move now,
that she had to hold out. I’ve moved too many times, now I have to
stay. From the hymnal verses, which came to her effortlessly, she had
quoted the line, “abide, my soul,” with the ironic sing-song which
she liked to use for hymns, “abide, my soul...”
For a moment I thought my self-righteous talk had
convinced her, but that thought was done with before it was finished.
Her surprising gentleness expressed something she did not find necessary
to explain to me. A kind of pity, toleration of my blindness. She had
given up disputing with me; she was tired of my good intentions, my good
egotistic intentions, she no longer resented them as bitterly as in the
past, but she did not want to defend herself before them anymore. You
may be right, she said, got up from her chair across from me at the
narrow table with a certain effort, and sat in her armchair in front of
the switched-off television, as if to distance herself from me, to
withdraw from my arguments, which, when we had fought earlier, she had
called stupid and super-smart.
As I leaned against the window, looking out into the
green-rampant garden and listening to our voices, the evening primroses
caught my eye. They towered in front of the window and around the entire
vacant house, they encircled it like a hedge, they even sprouted from
the cracks between the crumbling bricks of the flat base which went
around the entire building. The lower star-shaped basal leaves formed a
dense silver-green fringe out of which the stems rose, set with buds,
several blossoms blazing out bright yellow even in the rain. The wet
summer had spurred their growth, the plants forced their way out of the
barren sand with thick leaves and unusually strong, tall stalks, like
candles in this mute garden which was a garden no longer. I saw her as I
stood at the window, letting the last daylight shine on the photos as I
put them away in a box.
I saw the dimming yellow glow of the flowers. I
remembered arriving last winter in the dark and taking alarm at a row of
withered forms swaying in the fog; they were the withered remains of the
evening primroses, as I saw the next day, and I was not allowed to touch
them. I secretly pulled up a few of them and threw them into the bushes,
to free at least the entrance from these smog-blackened plant cadavers,
these ghostly sentinels. She regarded my stupid orderliness with scorn;
she thought of the seed of the abiding plants, of the future blossoms,
their grateful opening day after day, this modest, vigorous growth, this
honey-yellow above the silver-green, as she had always loved it, as it
rose before her out of her memories, so alive that it became one with
the yellow of the present.
In the drawers where she had kept the painter’s
watercolors, I found a portfolio containing his large watercolor of
evening primroses, from Cranz, which I had only forgotten, along with it
several sketches which always showed the same group, the bright blooming
stalk rising triumphant in the middle.
As I was putting away photos in the evening light, at
the window of the big room with her last evening primroses blooming
outside, all at once I saw the climbing syringia on the pergola she had
spoken of; in the yellowed black and white I saw the blue of the
blooming larkspur and the overwhelming luster of the evening primroses
in her long-deluged garden.
©Translation Isabel Cole. From DIE
ZIMMER DER ERINNERUNG. ROMAN EINER AUFLÕSING,
published by Das Arsenal, Verlag für Kultur und Politik GmbH, 10589