f i c t i o n 



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 absence.

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 was sad.

“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 came.

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 paradise?



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 house.



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 apartment.

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 light.

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 garden.

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 that.



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 the upswing.

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 give in.

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 Berlin.



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