Yasha Hein woke up while it was still dark – long before the alarm clock rang – because of a strange quietness that was filling him up from within.
During the evening of the previous day he had already felt a little unwell: a sort of pre-flu state. All of his joints and muscles had ached, he had had a headache, he had kept coming over dreadfully weak. The thermometer had showed 37.2 – not exactly a high temperature, of course, but subfebrile, which is even worse. At bedtime Yasha had taken two effervescent soluble aspirins, put some nasal drops in his nose to be on the safe side, even though it wasn’t blocked for the time being, and asked his wife to draw iodine grids on his chest and back – so that he didn’t develop a cough, because there was no way he could rest up in bed the next day, he had to get to work without fail, no matter what.
And so now Yasha was sitting in bed, wrapped up in a blanket, feeling appalling. It was as if his chest and stomach – but not just his chest and stomach, his whole body – were filled with congealed, sticky cotton wool. Or cold apple jelly. But the main thing was – this quietness… This strange quietness. Something inside him was clearly out of order, and out of order in a serious way. Now Yasha had to find the broken cogwheel that was preventing the whole complicated mechanism of his thirty-five-year-old body, faulty at times, but nonetheless relatively orderly, from working normally – find and eliminate the fault. By medicinal means. Perhaps even with antibiotics – he had to get to work at all costs.
Yasha stretched out on the bed and lay motionless for five minutes or so, listening closely to himself, feeling himself over, as it were, from within, carefully studying every organ to see if it was healthy.
His throat wasn’t sore. There was no cough or blocked nose, and his eyes weren’t hurting at all. Even the headache of the previous day had completely gone – in short, it wasn’t like a cold at all, not like flu really either. More likely there was something wrong with his blood pressure – ups or downs of some kind… Yasha’s health was dependent on the weather. Or his heart – he had had tachycardia since he was a child, after all.
Yasha reached out for his watch. He waited until the second hand was on the twelve, and took his left wrist in his right hand to check his pulse. Then he put his hand to the artery on his neck. Then to his chest.
Then he touched the bony shoulder of his wife, who was breathing heavily beside him, and said quietly:
‘Ira, I think I’m ill.’
‘A-hm,’ came a mumble of suffering in reply, and she rolled over onto her other side.
‘I’m ill,’ he said more loudly.
‘You’re always ill. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Let me sleep,’ but she did open her eyes. ‘What is it this time?’
‘There’s something wrong with my…’ Yasha said haltingly, and licked his cold lips with the tip of his tongue. ‘My heart doesn’t seem to be beating.’
‘Good Lord, what sort of nonsense is that?’ with an effort Ira forced the words out through a heavy yawn, and closed her eyes once more.
* * *
Yasha got up and went into the kitchen. He pressed his hand to his chest once again. Quietness, absolute quietness from within. He switched on the electric kettle – it began hissing malevolently, demanding water. Yasha filled it and switched it on again. And it was then that he was seized by genuine panic. ‘If my heart really has stopped,’ thought Yasha, ‘that means I’m about to die. In a second. Well, in two seconds. I won’t have time to drink my tea. I probably won’t even have time to take the cup off the shelf.’
Yasha pattered across to the kitchen cupboard and grabbed a cup. Well then, I did have time. But what does that tell you? Absolutely nothing. It could happen any time all the same, at any moment. If the heart isn’t beating, that means the blood isn’t moving through the veins, and that means… what? Some problem with oxygen. A shortage of oxygen must develop, and so a man can no longer breathe and soon dies. Yes, a man stops breathing… Yasha held his breath. And suddenly realised that he didn’t actually have to breathe at all. That is, he was capable of breathing, but solely out of habit, and if he wanted, he could even manage quite happily without doing so – as long as he liked.
‘An ambulance! Call an ambulance!’ He ran back into the bedroom where his wife was asleep.
‘What are you yelling for?’ She finally woke up fully and looked weary and bad-tempered.
‘I need an ambulance! I’m not breathing!’
‘You need to go to the madhouse, Yasha. What’s all this nonsense you’re talking? Don’t addle my brains.’
Yasha leant against the chest of drawers and covered his face with his hands. She climbed out from under the blanket, stuck her bony feet into slippers with plush pompons and gave him a look that was almost sympathetic.
‘If you really need one, call it yourself. Ring them and say exactly that: “Hello, I want to call an ambulance, because I’ve stopped breathing, and my heart’s not beating either.” Maybe someone will come, too. They may even give you sick leave, on account of your disability. When you’re sick in the head, that’s serious too, after all. How can a man like that work? A man like that…’
At this point Yasha switched off as usual, stopped listening. The loud, steady drone, moving around with his wife (back and forth across the bedroom, then into the bathroom, the kitchen, and back again into the bedroom), sounded almost reassuring – meaningless words like husks, devoid of any sense, devoid of any core.
Coming up for fifteen years before, Yasha had married this woman, not really for love exactly, but for something of the sort. Or maybe not for love, but simply because of being young. Or being stupid. Or because that was the way everything was heading, and she was ten years older than him, and her mother was thirty years older than him, and both of them knew very well how to deal with a twenty-year-old, long-nosed boy. In short, the motives by which Yasha had then been guided weren’t very clear to him now. However, if he had wanted to clear the question up, he would, of course, have done so with no difficulty – and if he still hadn’t done so, it was solely because he didn’t feel any such need. And whatever there had been there, at the beginning, there was now a lot that bound them – the years they had lived together, the things they had bought together, the rows during which they had sucked one another dry – day and night, like demented vampires – their shared tiresomeness, shared irritation, and very much more besides.
Just a year after the wedding, swiftly and inexorably – the way Cinderella loses her expensive accessories at midnight, the way a werewolf grows a coat of hair at full moon – she had turned into her mother. And her mother was a highly strung and touchy individual, and unbelievably garrulous.
Take flight? Yes, in his time Yasha had cherished a dream of liberation. Yet not one real attempt at escape had he actually undertaken. Instead, he had developed a simple means of psychological defence, a sort of know-how; whenever she spoke for longer than a few seconds, he would press an invisible little button in his head that was responsible for the perception of human speech. The sound of her voice remained – but in such a form that it meant no more than, say, the noise of surf or the squeal of car tyres when someone put the brakes on sharply.
Upon mature consideration, Yasha decided not to call an ambulance after all: by the time they’d arrived, by the time this and that had been done… he could be late for work. Apart from that, who said competent doctors worked in ambulances? Those gloomy fellows, tired and short of sleep after the night shift? The best thing now, thought Yasha, is to calm down a bit, have some tea and go to work. And then in the evening go to a private health centre and see a good specialist.
The indignant buzzing that filled the entire room and was insistently trying to filter through to him, finally swept away all the obstacles in its path and at last invaded the zone of Yasha’s perception: ‘… what, can’t you hear… as if… cook some eggs… can’t you hear… like a statue… some eggs… as I’ve got up anyway… get cold… as I’ve had to anyway… go…’
* * *
The magazine called Fun Magazine would first open, then close, then open, then close, like a faulty lift stuck between floors. And this had been going on for about three years.
Nonetheless, people continued to work on FM. The instability of the situation got on the staff’s nerves only to begin with – they gradually got used to it and settled down. ‘Do you know, has he already found it?’ colleagues would ask one another quietly. ‘Apparently, yes.’
Their financial director was something of a magician. At least, he certainly possessed one magical quality: he always found finance.
Yasha arrived in good time for the emergency meeting. To do so, he ran all the way from the Metro, and then ran down the long, boring corridor of the editorial offices too. In actual fact, it wasn’t so much punctuality that made him resolve upon this heroic race, as the secret hope that such a warm-up might have a stimulating effect on his heart, but… In his chest there was still that same cotton-wool quietness.
The editor-in-chief, Vladimir Vladimirovich Stayomov, conducted the meeting very briskly, finishing in five minutes. It was only a couple of weeks before that FM had enjoyed its latest resurrection, for which reason Stayomov (or, to friends, simply Stay-home) was clearly in a good mood: his shiny button-eyes looked at his subordinates in a friendly way, and with what a dashing movement did he toss back onto the crown of his head the unruly forelocks which dangled down to the left in long, black strands, reluctant to cover the moist editorial bald patch.
After the meeting, a lot of people headed for the canteen, as usual, for a bite to eat. Yasha dragged along after them at first, but changed his mind halfway there. The memory of his recent breakfast was still too fresh… the tea pours into his throat in a warm, unbroken stream, washing down the last slippery bits of fried egg… it doesn’t have to be swallowed at all… the liquid flows freely down the oesophagus… with a slight gurgling sound – like a spring stream through the bars of a drain-hole…
Yasha stood there for a while, then moved off slowly down the empty, yellow-walled corridor. Clambered clumsily into the little plywood box of his workspace. Turned on the computer. Something inside the case gave a painful bleep, and then a disenchanted squeak, and the room was filled with a loud, oppressive buzzing. Yasha opened Word. Stared miserably at the flickering screen, lay his hands on the grey, beslobbered keyboard with repugnance. Felt with his index fingers in the customary way for the little ridges on the ‘f’ and ‘j’ keys – the celebrated ‘touch’ method. Today he had to write a big to-order exposé (commissioned, actually, by FM’s new investor). It would run under the rubric ‘Topic of the Week’. And then he would be given a bonus.
‘The main thing is not to think about your breathing,’ Yasha said to himself, ‘not to think about your heart. Think about taxes. And about corruption. I’m writing about taxes, using the ten-finger method, writing ever so quickly, writing – and not breathing… but it’s all right, I’m simply over-excited. I’m writing very quickly – and not… writing quickly, and going to see a doctor straight away.’
The white screen chirped irritably and was plunged into darkness. Jolly green seaweed appeared against a black background. Little yellow fish swam up from out of a distant, otherworldly ocean and stared at Yasha senselessly from the monitor.
* * *
The working day was already almost over, but Dr Zuckerbaum was in a bad mood. His impending liberation from the cramped white office where he had been conducting his surgery promised nothing pleasant: frozen vegetables or ravioli for dinner, an empty evening, an empty home, an empty bed. Dr Zuckerbaum had recently lost his wife.
Dr Zuckerbaum may not have been the best cardiologist. But on the other hand he did have a big heart. By virtue of this latter fact, he often married his patients, weary Balzacian ladies with heart defects. And by virtue of the former, he often lost them, and was greatly upset every time. However, it is worth noting that the unfortunate former fact was a hindrance to the doctor only in his personal life, and told on his work not one bit. His attitude to his work was a serious one. Zuckerbaum sympathised sincerely with all his patients, and the utterly human warmth of his manner compensated in full for his professional incompetence in some matters. The patients liked him, and in the commercial medical centre ‘Heartmed’ he was considered the top specialist.
Yasha Hein liked and respected Dr Zuckerbaum too, and, although Zuckerbaum’s consultations weren’t cheap, he went to see him from time to time about his tachycardia.
Tachycardia would have seemed a pleasure to him now – better a hundred and fifty beats a minute than none.
In the registry, Yasha was informed that Zuckerbaum had already finished his surgery.
‘Mine is a very very serious case Miss a question of life and death,’ Yasha began jabbering in alarm, ‘Miss you don’t understand Miss I really do very much need…’
The withered, fifty-year-old Miss raised her wise eyes to Yasha, examined his distrustfully and said:
‘Wait, I’ll just give it a try – if he’s still in the office… Hello! Lev Samuilovich? It’s the registry here… There’s a patient here bursting to see you… And I’ve already told him it’s finished… He says it’s very urgent – although, to be honest, it seems to me… Just a minute… What’s the name? His name’s Hein. What? Very well, he’ll be up right away…’
Yasha grabbed the ticket from her hands and rushed to the office.
Dr Zuckerbaum was a responsive man, and that day he had no desire whatsoever to go home either, so he had decided to stay a little late. Particularly as Yasha’s was such a simple case – banal sinusoidal tachycardia. Listening to the complaints, taking the pulse, prescribing Isoptin and walks in the fresh air – it would all take about ten minutes, no more.
But Dr Zuckerbaum was mistaken.
An hour later he tried for the last time to take Yasha’s cardio-gram – on a different, newer machine; without any particular hope of success he fingered Yasha’s wrist, then decisively detached the sticky suckers from his legs and chest. He stared sadly at Yasha and said:
‘I’m very sorry, young man…’
‘What’s the matter with me?’
‘Yakov Markovich! You and I are grown-ups, are we not?’
‘What’s the matter with me?’
‘Unfortunately, it comes to all of us sooner or later…’
‘But what’s the matter with me, Doctor?’ Yasha asked again, and for some reason giggled.
‘I’m very sorry. I’ve done all that I could.’
* * *
‘What is there to think about? First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office,’ Klavdia Mikhailovna declared, plunging Yasha into a state of agonising déjà vu.
The last time his mother-in-law had pronounced those same words was fifteen years before. She hadn’t very much liked the youthful, useless Yasha with the traces of recent adolescent zits on his forehead. More than that, she hadn’t liked him at all, and had even found him repellent – like all the rest of Irina’s admirers who had ever had the misfortune to drop in for half an hour to have some tea, and to squeeze into the narrow space between the table, the fridge, the windowsill and the wall.
However, it was the very time when Yasha had been invited to tea that maternal instinct and common sense had unexpectedly united in Klavdia Mikhailovna in the most unhappy way for Yasha, and won certain victory over her personal sympathies and antipathies. In other words, Klavdia Mikhailovna had finally come to the conclusion that it was high time her daughter set herself up with, firstly, a family, and secondly, an apartment.
Yasha had an apartment.
Squashed into the stuffy corner of the five and a bit square metres of his beloved’s kitchen, Yasha had felt like a luckless little insect, stuck fast in the middle of a small, but sound and very professionally spun spider’s web. The wall of the kitchen beside which the guest had been made to sit was furnished with a gigantic radiator (a peculiar bonus for the residents of five-storey apartment blocks of the Khrushchev era), and the heat rising from his back to his head had deadened his consciousness and plunged Yasha into a state close to fainting. The spider-mother had looked into his eyes with a fixed and angry stare. Under the table, through a hole in his slipper, the spider-daughter had been stroking the big toe of his right foot with her elegant, hairy little one. He hadn’t had the strength to resist.
‘…First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office,’ Klavdia Mikhailovna had said then.
‘Very well,’ Yasha had submitted.
Over the following fifteen years, her attitude to her son-in-law hadn’t undergone any particular changes – as before, she didn’t like him. Maternal concern and common sense had remained with her too, and so at the family conference, urgently convened by Ira in connection with ‘the unpleasantness Yasha was having’, Klavdia Mikhailovna declared:
‘…First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office. And draw up a death certificate – so that you can register your entitlement to inherit the apartment.’
‘What, go with him?’ wondered Ira.
‘You can do…’ Klavdia Mikhailovna began, with doubt in her voice. Yet after some reflection she added, ‘But actually you’d do better to go by yourself. After all, the case isn’t very… sort of… typical. And all they ever want to do is find fault. And in general, what use is he? He’s an intellectual, isn’t he, can’t even stake a place in a queue: he’s too shy to ask whose turn it is before him,’ his mother-in-law glanced quickly at Yasha, who was sitting in an armchair and pretending to watch the game show The Weakest Link, ‘that is, he used to be too shy, I meant…’
Yasha coughed nervously.
‘Well, all right, you mustn’t speak ill of the dead,’ again she gave her son-in-law a sidelong glance, ‘may he rest in peace… although… that’s not clear either…’ Klavdia Mikhailovna fell into an embarrassed silence. But, as ever, not for long. ‘Incidentally, about rest. Do forgive me, Yasha, for indelicacy, but we ought to give some thought to the funeral too. Because this isn’t the way these things are normally done somehow.’
‘But how can you give him a funeral?’ exclaimed Ira in annoyance. ‘I mean, he’s sort of… it’s not as if he’s actually deceased.’
‘What, want to bury me alive, do you?’ Yasha interjected. Klavdia Mikhailovna ignored her son-in-law’s comment. She gave her plump mouth a scornful twist. Then she started jabbering in a falsetto, mimicking her daughter:
‘Oh dear, really, how can we, it’s not as if he’s, I mean, he’s sort of… What is he then, in your opinion?’ she asked, in a normal voice now.
‘I don’t know.’
‘“I don’t know” what?’ Klavdia Mikhailovna grew angry.
‘It’s a moot point.’
‘Aha, a moot point…’
‘Why do you keep on repeating things after me, Mama?’ Ira grew angry in her turn.
‘Who’s dragging the whole team down?’ the television presenter enquired.
‘Because I’m lost for words, that’s why I’m repeating them,’ the mother-in-law snapped. ‘And so what are you going to do with him?’
‘Well… let him live here for the time being. And later on maybe everything will sort itself out… well, later on, that is, we’ll see.’
‘Well, thank you,’ Yasha butted in once more, ‘I’ll never forget it.’
‘Who gets frightened by elementary questions? Who’ll have to leave with nothing?’
‘Why are you acting the goat?’ his wife pulled him up. ‘Now why are you acting the goat? This is no joke, you know! It really is a serious problem! It really isn’t clear what’s to be done with you! What do you yourself suggest?’
The telephone rang in the kitchen.
‘Well, what are you standing there like a statue for? Go and pick it up,’ his wife commanded.
Yasha left the room.
‘Statistically, the weakest link in that round was Mikhail,’ a pleasant male voice filled the silence that had arisen, ‘he answered only one question. The strongest link was Arkady. He gave the greatest number of correct answers and banked money. However, we shall see…’
‘He has no business being here,’ whispered Klavdia Mikhailovna, nodding in the direction of the kitchen, ‘this isn’t the way these things are done at all – letting the deceased stay at home.’
‘Olga, why do you think it’s Mikhail that ought to go?’
‘Well, I don’t know, Mama…’
‘Well, Mikhail seems kind of overtired to me. I don’t kind of sense any potential in him somehow. With some of his answers to some of the questions he’s kind of bringing the good name of the team into disrepute, and he’s got no sense of its spirit…’
Yasha returned to the room, his face grey with worry.
‘Who was it?’ inquired his wife.
‘You are the weakest link. Goodbye!’
‘Turn that bitch off!’ said his mother-in-law in exasperation.
‘From work,’ Yasha replied quietly.
‘… but all the same, Olga really upset me, because I don’t know why she had to get personal and be so rude about me bringing the team’s name into disrepute and…’
Ira turned the volume down.
‘In any event, it’s no use our thinking about a funeral for at least a month now,’ said Yasha, not without malicious glee.
‘And why’s that?’ his mother-in-law narrowed her eyes.
‘Because I’ve been…
* * *
That ill-starred day when Yasha was hurrying to the doctor’s, he had submitted his article without reading it through. And so he had failed to notice a dreadful blunder he had committed in his haste. The section editor had failed to notice it as well; perhaps he had been late getting away somewhere too, or had been thinking of some matter of his own, or, most likely, had simply trusted Yasha and read his text inattentively. The publishing editor had failed to notice it too, because he trusted the section editor implicitly. To be fair, it should be added that Yasha’s blunder was noticed by the proofreader, yet he considered quite reasonably that it was nothing to do with him, because his business was spelling and punctuation marks. And Yasha had put all the punctuation marks in correctly. In short, the article went out quite happily in its original form. And the name of the investor (Spichkin was his name – but does that really matter very much?) who had recently undertaken to fund the magazine, and who had actually commissioned this very article, accidentally migrated from a list of oligarchs who meticulously paid their taxes into a list of inveterate tax-dodgers.
The denial that was published a day later looked pathetic and unconvincing.
Spichkin was upset. He called the financial director an idiot, the editor-in-chief a two-faced bastard, and Yasha a bloody Yid, and he left for Tibet to take his mind off it. But for some reason he became even more upset in Tibet, got depressed, came back a day later and stopped his funding. Fun Magazine closed down.
Not entirely, however. Once again the financial director briskly set about searching. At an emergency meeting of the editorial board it was decided to continue publishing FM for the time being in a heavily cut-down electronic version.
And after the meeting, Stay-home rang Yasha Hein at home and inquired irritably why he wasn’t at work. Yasha briefly explained the situation, apologised, and promised to bring his death certificate in to the personnel department in the very near future. Stay-home’s bewilderment was palpable. He paused for a while, breathing hard into the receiver, and was already on the point of saying goodbye, but then changed his mind and decided to say what he had phoned for after all. Clearing his throat well, he informed Yasha that, because of ‘the business with Spichkin’, he, Yasha, was, firstly, dismissed at his own request, and secondly, before leaving, had to work out a month’s notice in the office in accordance with his contractual obligations.
Yasha was silent. Stay-home waited, breathing hard, for a little longer, then sighed heavily and finally forced out of himself, half-questioningly:
‘But… in the light of your circumstances… your sad circumstances… you probably won’t be able…’
‘No, no, everything’s in order. I’ll work out my notice. Of course.’
Yasha was a responsible person and considered the fulfilment of contractual obligations to be his sacred duty.
‘Well then,’ Stay-home became perceptibly more animated, ‘if you really can?…’
‘Yes, I really can…’
‘All right. See you soon, then… er, er, er… and… please accept my condolences.’
* * *
The gaze is intelligent and stern. And a little tired as well – because of the dark rings under the eyes. The long, uncut, wavy hair is in some disorder, but the hairstyle doesn’t spoil the face at all, on the contrary, it lends it a certain charm, a sort of mysterious quality, perhaps. Or maybe it’s just that black-and-white photographs are always a little mysterious. It’s a good photograph. Big, glossy. But the wreath, on the other hand, is a cheap little one. Some revolting plastic daisies and bluebells…
Yasha was standing in the vestibule of the editorial offices and examining his own photograph, framed in black, with sorrow and pride. This must be the way an elderly father feasts his eyes on the photo of a son who has recently left for the front.
Since the previous day, an astonishing calm had set in in Yasha’s soul. Yes, in the evening, after his mother-in-law had gone home, after that awful discussion of the impending funeral, he had had another panic attack: and what if this isn’t a dream after all? But the attack was shorter than the previous ones, and this time Yasha didn’t even think of pinching his nose, biting his fingers, and banging his head against the wall in order to wake up. Instead he took some valerian drops, walked to and fro around the apartment, sat in front of the television and fell asleep.
Yasha was received well at work and he was very touched. Firstly, a fine obituary was put on the Fun Magazine website. Secondly, his colleagues greeted him cordially, despite the fact that, thanks to him, they found themselves once more ‘in a state of suspension’. They all expressed their sympathy – regarding both his dismissal and his sudden demise. The men shook Yasha’s cold hand warily, and with particular solicitude somehow, while the women offered him some handmade chocolates. Then everybody went off to the canteen (for some reason he wasn’t invited), and Yasha remained alone in the room. He turned the air-conditioning off. He used his mouse to prod at a small black rectangle with the inscription: ‘A special correspondent of the magazine dies [read more].’ He read it through once again.
Then he opened the news feed: it had been decided not to give him any more responsible tasks, and his duties in the coming month included the regular posting of fresh news on the FM website.
* * *
‘In Kamchatka the All-Russian Alpine Skiing competition “The Volcanoes of Kamchatka” is starting…’
‘In the Koryak Autonomous Area fifteen reindeer-herders are missing. The search for them goes on for a sixth day…’
‘In the capital of Indonesia an international forum on questions of infrastructure opens…’
‘In France a coach carrying Belgians has crashed…’
‘Federal benefit receivers want to receive benefits…’
‘In Novgorod the Great a memorial athletics meeting has taken place in memory of Marshal Meretskov…’
‘In Saransk the Russian Greco-Roman wrestling championships have come to an end…’
‘Madonna and Roger Waters have sung for victims of the tsunami…’
‘In Hong Kong there have been races for solar-powered cars…’
‘The corpses of the fighters in the ruined building may have been destroyed by fire…’
It had been for two weeks now that Yasha had been obediently appearing day after day in the offices of the closed Fun Magazine, delving into the news feeds, posting things on the website – but utterly mechanically, without any pleasure, ‘without zest’, as the editor-in-chief would sometimes say.
The news of this transient world no longer engaged him.
Over the past two weeks, an invisible slender crack between him and all other people had grown menacingly, it had turned into an insurmountable obstacle. Yasha had become absent-minded, and, coming in to work, he had forgotten to ask colleagues how things were, then had stopped offering his hand, and then completely stopped greeting people at all. His colleagues, in their turn, had been looking at him strangely somehow. Yasha remembered how, a year before, everyone had looked in exactly the same way at the secretary Olya, whose time had come to take maternity leave, but who had just kept on coming in with her huge belly, and it had already looked even indecent somehow… And every day, when meeting her, the staff had been more and more surprised, and had enquired ever more persistently after her health, and had looked almost censorious. She had been an irritation. You couldn’t smoke when she was there, she mustn’t be upset, but the main thing was, her time had come.
People stopped smoking in Yasha’s presence too, although he didn’t ask them to at all. And they spoke in muffled voices. And looked at him as if… as if his time had come too. His time had come.
Everything had changed at home as well. Without waiting for the conclusion of the red tape over the inheritance, his wife had organised refurbishment of the apartment so as, in her expression, ‘to freshen everything up’. There were newspapers spread out on the floor now, soiled with lime, glue, and God knows what else, there was the stench of dust and paint, and standing proudly in the middle of the living room was a battered stepladder. There too, next to the stepladder, stood the folding bed on which Yasha, banished from the conjugal bedroom, now slept. (‘You can go to prison in Russia for necrophilia, you know,’ Ira explained calmly, putting an old, striped mattress that bulged in places on the folding bed, ‘and apart from that, you’ve been snoring too loudly of late. At least I’ll get a good night’s sleep this way.’)
Running into one another in the kitchen in the mornings, Yasha and his widow experienced a certain awkwardness – and every time it seemed to Yasha that he was something along the lines of a house-sprite.
Then the gloomy, hung-over hulks of the decorating team would arrive. They felt no awkwardness, and simply paid Yasha no attention. They unceremoniously caught him with their elbows in passing. They drank vodka in front of him without embarrassment (when his wife was out, of course), and gloomily stole salami from the fridge. And didn’t speak to him as a matter of principle. With the exception of the one instance when the red-faced foreman Lyokha, breaking into a disarmingly genial smile – from which, in the course of the previous night, the two front teeth had disappeared – asked Yasha for ‘a loan’ of twenty roubles. But Lyokha the foreman had been in such a drunken state at that moment that he could quite easily have addressed the same request to a cupboard or, say, a light fitting.
‘They probably reckon my time’s come as well,’ Yasha thought in anguish, and didn’t give him the twenty roubles.
* * *
There was an interesting programme made by the BBC on the ‘Culture’ channel – American astronauts were talking about how they felt in a vacuum – and Yasha settled down to watch, although really it was time to go to work.
‘For the first two days you feel awful nauseous,’ a round, ruddy physiognomy, seemingly specially destined to be put into a spacesuit, reported joyfully, ‘because all the fluid in your organism is freed from the effects of the law of gravity and comes up; so we always have bags with us… But sometimes they don’t help,’ the physiognomy gave a vile smirk, ‘and then everything flies all over the place. And then it floats around the ship until the end of the flight, and you get to feel real awkward, well, you understand…’
‘An exercise room’s essential on the ship,’ declared a shaven-headed beanpole with unnaturally thin lips, ‘it’s real important in space to maintain your physical shape. Doing sport in conditions of weightlessness is much easier than on earth. There’s only one problem – sweat. Water behaves completely differently in space. It doesn’t flow down, but turns into these little balls, you know? And you’re sitting there, pedalling away on the exercise bike, and these little balls are crawling over your back, and at every abrupt movement they fly off in different directions…’
‘The closet.’ The first physiognomy occupied the entire screen once again. ‘I’d say the main problem for any astronaut is specifically the closet. In conditions of weightlessness it’s real hard…’
Yasha switched off the television, went into the corridor, put on his boots and started to cry.
Something had suddenly torn inside him. The continual hassle, the stress, the humiliation, the craziness of recent weeks, this awful inescapable dream (or was it a dream? – yes, of course it was), this refurbishment – up until now he had somehow endured it, with difficulty, and yet he had, but space… Beautiful, radiant space, without beginning or end, which had attracted him since childhood and was his most beautiful dream… Now he had been deprived of it. It’s nice rocking about in weightlessness with a book in your hand, floating here and there in the ship’s cabin and, finally, clinging to a porthole and spending a long time gazing at the distant Earth, at the fiery tails of comets rushing by… But no, of course not! Gripping a smelly paper bag in a trembling hand, dodging the little balls of sweat flying past, nausea, headache, a toilet with straps and a ventilator – that’s what there was there, in infinity!
It wasn’t that Yasha was intending to go into space – it’s obvious that he wasn’t intending to go there at all. Nevertheless, until now space had seemed to him something like a final opportunity, like an emergency exit in the very last resort. When there was nowhere else to go.
‘What a life,’ Yasha thought out loud, and went into the living room with his boots still on. He leant his head against the steamed-up window. ‘It’s time to go to work… What a life… What a stupid dream… But I suppose I can probably do the same as the one in that film, Groundhog Day, now,’ Yasha opened the window and clambered up onto the ledge, ‘what’s his name… it starts with an M…’
Yasha closed his eyes and jumped from the eleventh floor.
The morning street greeted him with its customary, deafening, grating sound. How many days was it now that there had been some mysterious work going on around the apartment block, either building work or repairs, and the whole building proved to be surrounded by a deep, man-made ditch, across which, here and there, rotten little wooden bridges had been thrown. A short distance away, the lightly frozen autumnal earth was bulging with formless brown heaps.
Yasha got to his feet and brushed off the yellow leaves that had stuck to his trousers. Balancing with his arms and looking straight ahead, he carefully crossed over a bridge. And only when he found himself on the other side did he look down squeamishly. In the bottom of the pit, some little Tadzhiks in orange uniforms were swarming about. In a cloud of steam and dazzling sparks, one was drilling into some rusty pipes that poked out of the ground like a fragment of the charred skeleton of some gigantic prehistoric animal. The others were unhurriedly digging.
Digging, digging the earth.
When he was already at the entrance to the Metro, Yasha suddenly decided that he wouldn’t go to work. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.
He stood for a while.
Two frozen girls were frenziedly thrusting some bits of yellow paper into the hands of passers-by. A fat woman in a green beret was cheerfully selling sausage rolls. But for some reason there was the smell of rotten fish and seaweed, like after a storm at sea – even though there was no sea anywhere near the Metro. Perhaps it was from the upturned autumnal earth, from the holey sewage pipes that this distant smell came…
‘It’s time I went,’ Yasha thought, and drew the air in through his nose, ‘to the sea somewhere… travelling.’
* * *
And for long years he wandered over the earth. He lived in various countries and various cities, and hundreds of women shared their beds with him. With some he remained for a long time, and they aged and died beside him; while from others he parted, leaving it to them to age and die in solitude.
And different peoples gave him different names. Many, very many names did he change. And for so long did he wander that he could remember no more who he had been first, and who he had been afterwards, or whether he was alive or dead, or what held him so firmly on this tedious earth.
And so long did he wander that all the peoples aged and vanished from the face of the earth, and the cities turned into sand and stones. He saw the earth settled by astonishing new animals. And he himself remained the only human amongst them.
*This story is taken from: An Awkward Age by Anna Starobinets, Hesperus Press Limited, 2010. First published in Russian as Perekhodnyj vozrast © Limbus Press, St. Petersburg (Russia), 2005.
My grandmother lived in Podlasie. The house wasn’t in the village itself. The neighborhood was known as “the colony”—scattered farms separated by stands of aspen and avenues of age-old, slender poplars. The cottage stood amid an orchard. In the summer, even at high noon it was cool out there. The apple trees were ancient and had grown rank. Their crowns joined overhead; it was a realm of eternal shade.
This forest of fruit trees on one side bordered a meadow. But I never heard the usual word for meadow, łąka. People said smug, the cows would grazing “on the smug.” Somewhere in the middle of it was a green strip with a well for watering the cattle. The well was old, and in place of a regular wall there was just a framework of planks. The bucket was pulled up using a long pole with a hook on the end. The pole was known as a kluczka.
The “u” has the softest, most gentle sound of all the vowels.
Whenever I think of my grandmother I remember those two words: kluczka, smug. And also a third one: duch—ghost.
Grandmother believed in ghosts.
In the sixties they had no electricity there. Grandfather would climb up on a small wooden stool and light a kerosene lamp that hung from the ceiling. In the fall it would be lit quite early, at six, maybe even five. In the fall my father and I would come for apples, we’d load whole cratefuls of them onto the Lublin truck of my uncle, a bona fide truck driver of early and middle communism.
So anyway, grandmother believed in ghosts. And it wasn’t the sort of fearful or reasoned belief that’s acquired from contacts with the beyond on special occasions, or from dreams or visions—nothing of the kind.
She would sit in the corner, on the woolen bedspread; behind her was a green and blue landscape with two stags at a watering hole, the delicate yellow light of the lamp bringing out only the silvery white of the water; and she would tell stories. They were long ones. They concerned banal happenings, work, visits, trips to the next village, family get-togethers. A measured narrative replete with facts, names of things and of people. The topography of their village and others nearby, a chronology that ran from Christmas to the Assumption to All Souls’.
In this humdrum subject matter, from time to time cracks would appear, the threads of warp and weft would pull apart, and the gap would reveal the other world—supernatural, in any case Other.
For example one summer evening, coming back from a visit to one of her many female cousins, grandmother saw a white figure among the hayricks. Half-human, half-animal, it was running along a field boundary, now on two legs, now on four, clearly visible in the moonlight, yet entirely immaterial.
Another time, after the death of a close relative she saw the deceased come into the kitchen. The door creaked, the visitor opened all the drawers and cupboards in the dresser then left without taking anything with him. It was at dawn. Grandmother had just been getting up. She saw the visit from where she sat on the bed, the same place from which she told her stories.
I don’t remember them all, of course, I can only recall snippets. But the atmosphere of those tales has stayed with me—it was utterly ordinary, devoid of surprise or exclamation.
This tearing of the fabric of existence mostly took place in my own imagination, I was the one who saw the holes. Grandmother ignored them. In general, for her there seemed to be only one indivisible order of events, all equally real and equally valid. It may have been that she was aware of certain distinctions, that she tacked and patched those doubtful, worn places, but in her stories there were no traces of the repair.
When a miniature whirlwind would appear over the fields on a still, windless afternoon, snatching up a line of hay cones, grandmother would simply cross herself, watch the phenomenon move away, and return to whatever she had been doing. After all, it had only been Evil manifesting its presence in one of its many forms. There was no excitation of the kind associated with table-turning or the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. If anything she was more like Svidrigailov and his banal excursions to the other side of existence. I’ve come to realize that her relative rummaging in the dresser was just as real and powerful as the phantom of Filka the servant entering Arkady Ivanovich’s room with a very ordinary hole in the elbow of his coat.
Why did she never tell stories about the saints? About the supernatural beings whose existence is confirmed by the teachings of the Church? Why did she never see Peter and Paul, or Saint Lucy? Them, she used only to measure time. Exactly as if they’d been lifeless objects, along the lines of ideal weights or measures. Their stillness was the stillness of the figures she saw at Sunday Mass. The little wooden church stood among trees in a shade as profound as that surrounding her own house. Once a week the squeaking brown-and-gilt interior offered her an image of eternity, of light, of a distant pledge and an even more distant reward.
Whereas ghosts, accursed sin-burdened souls, death—these accompanied her day to day. The truth that humans beings are closer to death, damnation, and chance than to salvation, found its embodiment in her life.
Nor was she an isolated case. The many aunts and great aunts that I’d meet in her home would take part in these stories, supplying all kinds of additional details, till my grandfather would lose patience and burst out: “Give it a rest, all of you”—though whether he was prompted by rationalism or dread I’ll never know. At such moments they’d fall silent for a while, then start up again like perverse Fates spinning the thread of that other, hidden human life which never for a moment forgets it is made up in equal parts of loss and dying.
The story about the mother who in broad daylight saw an unknown old woman in a gray dress out in the fields, and the same day the mother’s child fell ill, and subsequently died.
The story about how grandmother went into the cattle shed one evening and something almost knocked her over as it ran out the door, and no cow had milk to give that day.
Stories. . . stories. . . stories. . .
Grandmother died in the fall. I was too small to be able to remember the exact date. The wind was blowing at the time, and my father and I were there because the doctors had calculated not just the day but even the exact hour, it seemed. She lay on a board that was covered with black cloth, all dressed in black herself, thin and serene. Before they put her in the casket—such was the custom—all her relatives kissed her on the forehead. Maybe I was too young to comprehend the notion of death. Led by habit and affection I kissed her on the mouth, the way I would always greet her when I arrived at the start of the summer vacation. I was surprised that she was so hard and still, and that there were none of the usual warm, familiar aromas about her.
The fear came later. At the moment when I saw the black church banner with the silver cross hanging outside the house. Someone had fastened it to the wall in such a way that it was flapping noisily against the pale blue sky and the leafless branches.
That was my first ever lesson in the ascendancy of symbol over reality.
What am I driving at in this memoir-cum-story?
Before long the last grandmothers who looked upon the world of ghosts with their own eyes will be dead. They looked with faith and equanimity, though of course also with trepidation. A vivid, existing supernatural reality will disappear along with them. Aside from the rare mystical experiences of the chosen few, we’ll be reduced to a hard, exhausting trust in the existence of the unknown. The polished surface of the everyday will obligingly show us our own shallow reflection as if those were the depths.
My grandmother sat on the edge of her bed and told stories. She did it disinterestedly, without any particular goal. The ordinariness of these extraordinary happenings lent them credence.
When you left the house to go outside you passed through a large dark space known as the granary. Old horse tack hung there, clean winnowed grain lay behind wooden partitions. The pungent odor of leather impregnated with horse sweat mingled with the grain’s dry smell. Light entered through a small square opening in the wall. On sunny afternoons the darkness of the granary was pierced from end to end by a narrow beam of light filled with spinning motes. I’d run through the blackness, break the rays of light for a moment and rush outside. Each time I did, I was accompanied by the same fear. It was only once I was in the sunlight of the yard that my breathing returned to normal.
Through the window I could see the indistinct figure of my grandmother bustling about between stove and table, preparing dinner. She was all alone in the empty house; the brown-painted floorboards would creak at every step, while in the most ordinary way in the world she would be at the haunted dresser, taking out the condiments, plates, spoons and forks that the dead man had scorned.
Later, after she passed away, I often imagined death. The instinctive picture I saw was always the same: an old woman with a kind, mildly quizzical face, the face of my grandmother.
Night has descended on the military headquarters. Darkness veiling the barracks like a dewy tarpaulin. A man’s shadow stretches from the top floor of the Ministry of Defense’s office like a large bird, then vanishes, leaving Yair alone in its calm decampment. ‘Like a killer around the corner,’ Psoriasis had said, while putting on his full pack in the dark. Yair knew how to hide his feelings, and would have given a lot for these moments to last for he loved his new army buddies, his comrades from all sorts of places across the country, all sorts of medical conditions. Among them was even an epileptic guy, as well as three asthmatics, four with ulcers, and two suffering from depression. All had been enlisted for one reason or another, and guarded for one reason or other the state’s most sensitive mastermind – not counting the U.S Embassy, which was guarded by Marine soldiers. Yair enjoyed sitting with them in their rooms, while they got ready for the night watch, and could have even forgiven his father, who forced this enlistment on him, for maybe this was what his father had had in mind, that he would go out a while into the world and make new friends. After all you can’t be caged up at home like a nocturnal reptile not even knowing the names of the kids in class (he knew, he knew, he knew very well, he only told his father that he didn’t know), and yet he will never forgive his father. After all, the joy flooding through him now has nothing to do with his enmity towards that shadow falling from the window, that transient fear like an invisible gust of wind, not fear, but a clear knowledge that he is doomed, and that he must not fear, for nothing will alter the verdict. Not murder, nor madness, nor suicide. Dad sits and watches over him here as well. He is here because of Dad, and Dad is here because of him. And no, not suicide. He would never commit suicide, he is of sensitive skin, and his life is not worth the drama.
He loved his friends from the unit, particularly because they made fun of themselves, called themselves by the names of their medical conditions – even though he was the only man in the platoon who was known by his real name, that is the one given to him by his parents. He too had wanted, hardly dared, but had almost asked to be known by his, but something prevented them from doing so. How very much he longed to be nicknamed like them with contemptuous names, only that his father did not allow him to mock himself, did not sanction this kind of humour, believed that with this kind of humour his son would never get well, that this kind of humour was too Jewish, not Israeli enough. So supposed Yair, for he had never told his father a thing of his friends’ customs and certainly didn’t dare confess that here too he was an alien, an outsider, and yet, on the other hand, here he loved them, a great love he loved them, and was capable of standing up and hugging everyone.
During the day, when they would see an officer marching their way, even if they were walking in a group, they would immediately disperse, and switch to walking in a long line, so that each of them could salute the same officer separately, and keep him saluted in earnest for a long time, with a muscular arm, and back stretched, for, as it’s written in the General Staff Order, an officer must return a salute to every saluting soldier. They did so because they were individualists par excellence, and yet also cultivated a platoon’s pride, a culture of collective memory, in addition to a sense of humour. They called themselves ‘The Swiss Guard, with no colours’. Psoriasis was the cadet on duty, and his roommate’s name was Gastritis. In the neighbouring room lived Bronchitis, and with him also lived Psychosis and Sclerosis. Those who knew nothing about diseases thought that the group in question was a bunch of modern Greek poetry aficionados, and those who knew nothing about modern Greek poetry, thought it had something to do with classical Greek poetry – classical Greek poetry being a heritage that belonged to us all, although Hitler too prided himself on it.
Today is the anniversary of Bronstein’s death and in front of the guard barracks flickers a memorial candle. The soldiers are sitting out in the open by the picture, and saying things about him, some things they had already heard and some completely new. They are stern. In the ‘commemoration corner’ of the Guard Room hangs an enlarged photograph of Bronstein, who was nicknamed ‘Meningitis’. Below the photograph flickers a memorial candle. Above the photograph inscribed in big letters are the dates of his birth and death; at hardly twenty years of age Bronstein-Meningitis had died in the line of service, from Meningitis officially (and in truth from suicide by hanging, once he found out that he was originally not enlisted only because he wasn’t Jewish). The commemoration corner for Private Bronstein was vigorously cared for, only during free time of course, and their own commander, Sergeant Nisim – no official disease, but in secrecy they called him ‘Borderline’ – was extremely proud of the red geranium garden and the nasturtium flowers which, according to him, he nurtured almost single-handedly. Beneath the photograph also lay a large book of commemoration. Once in a while the guards wrote in it in memory of Bronstein, and even urged officers passing through – some of whom were of considerable importance, their contribution to the state’s security invaluable, some even having won the Israel Security Award, or reached such grave heights as the Israel Prize for Literature, or for Social Work, only more confidential – to sign, as a sort of a yearly petition in memory of Bronstein. Many senior officers had written words of praise to the obstinate soldier.
Major General Zalman Zal – whose ass was kissed every two weeks in his own office by Israel’s writers and poets – signed as well, before dashing off to watch the new video for the ‘Ezekiel 4’ tank, which he had only just developed, much to the dismay of those who extolled the next armoured war. ‘Parachuting is dispensable too,’ ruled Major General Zalman, ‘and yet you don’t abdicate parachuting, so what’s it to you if more and more tanks are getting built? Yes, more and more and more.’ And since Zalman Zal did not know how to operate the VCR, and never learned, at his disposal stood one of the soldiers – not Yair, he did not want to go up there, and his friends understood, it not being so bad having to scrounge cookies with cheap chocolate filling, and see all the important people from the bureau telling each other military secrets. Besides, the soldier on duty’s task was simply to freeze, using the remote control, the picture on the screen at precisely the moment when ‘Ezekiel’s’ belly rose up over a deep-water obstacle.
Night after night Major General Zal would watch the video, as well as during lunch breaks. Every viewing he’d roar with pleasure, ‘Now, now,’ just as the tank stopped, rose, and revealed its undercarriage like the belly of a giant crocodile, hungry for pray after a long winter, or however those writers who kissed Zalman’s ass described it, because Zal had studied Philosophy just as they had. Each year a new movie about ‘Ezekiel’ came out. From what’s been said up till now, it should be understood that Israel’s writers also sat and watched the tank lifting its belly like the white marble horses of Piazza Venezia. And as mentioned, the task of pressing pause and serving cookies to the writers and painters was always given to one of the soldiers. When Zal screamed: ‘Where’s the dork?’ the soldier, who’d be waiting in the hall behind the door, would immediately come in, and say: ‘Here, Sir!’
‘Who’s here? What’s here?’
‘The dork’s here, Sir.’
When Yair’s father came to visit, Zalman Zal remembers… a gentle man, very complex, at nights he invented tanks, and in the mornings urged his office manager, Lieutenant Vered, to recite for his friends lines from the greatest poet ever to rise to military commission, Natan Alterman. And Vered would indeed recite: ‘And the land will grow still/ crimson skies dimming, misting/ slowly paling again/ over smoking frontiers,’ and sometimes she’d get the rhymes wrong intentionally (Vered Tsela may have been a big coward, but she loved to provoke danger, danger to be honest aroused her, and instead of ‘dimming’ she’d sometimes say ‘brimming’, or ‘slimming’, but it made no difference, because what mattered was the rhyme and the metre)… Well, only when Yair’s father came for a visit, did Major General Zal remember not to joke like that, because Yair too served under the Chief of Staff Guard, which was the highest up he was allowed, and that too only with Dad’s intervention with the Major General and the Major General’s intervention with another Major General and the intervention of that other Major General with a Colonel and downwards to Sergeant Borderline. Yair’s limited service pained his father. Not that he would have liked to see his son fall in the line of duty. On the other hand, most fighters didn’t fall in the line of duty and why must one always think the worst?
Evening. Yair sat on a prickly mattress covered by a wool blanket (emitting an odour of flee repellent and damp wool), watching the others, as they got ready for their watch. In the neighbouring room someone had forgot to put on his long johns, and everyone burst out laughing at how he’s have to take everything off again, in the dark, the full pack too, only to put on his long johns. Without complaint, they would agree to leave the lights off each night, before going out to their watch, making all their preparations in the dark, even checking the magazines, and Yair loved them for this sacrifice, for him. He was loved in turn, not only because he had brought so much candy from his leave (his father had wanted so very much for him to have friends, and so had, himself, baked abundant cookies and even bought a large quantity of chocolates). It’s possible that Yair’s friends noticed his efforts to endear himself to them, gently, without imposing himself. He would laugh at the drop of a hat. Any talk of theirs provoked his laughter, as if he had never come across unserious people, and now any unserious expression seemed hilarious. He himself did not know how to be funny. Yair was extremely handsome, and any laughter would tear him up like a child awoken from sleep. And if they went into a huddle, he did not squeeze in to listen, nor was he hurt, but assumed it of matters beyond his capacity. Perhaps he did not dare to be angry at them since he was in their debt. After all it was because of him that they were constantly being watched from up there.
Bewilderment would spread across Yair’s face every time he was asked too blunt a question. He never raised his voice. Sometimes he would picture himself with his head tattered, or hung, or both, veins slashed. Ah yes, why did they do it all in the dark? Because of the father’s observations from the window above.
After a four hour patrol around the fences, they would approach parked vehicles and peep, by command, into them, later they’d return to wake the next shift, take off their uniforms, put on civilian clothes, and through their connections in the next shift, would go out, without permission, from the base, into the city whose electric rashes were as colourful as an eczema. They would sit together in a bar – Yair would not come with them, afraid to run into his father with some woman, literature or film lecturer – speaking quietly, like a national minority, mocking themselves in the ear of the waitress. That’s how they would pass their nights and their days, patrolling, sleeping, taking walks in the city and sleeping again and again patrolling.
Yair did not partake in guard duty. He was exempt, a red written note which said he was prohibited from guarding, because of the night and the fog and the smog. Instead his duties included a weekly roll-call and a talk with the commander. Were his friends hurt by the fact that he did not guard? Not in the least. (Again, for this, he loved them). In their platoon they had plenty of guard soldiers, after all so many parents tried to enlist their sickly sons, and each of them got here thanks to some connection. Perhaps they were not angry with him because he was such a beautiful boy, pale and soft spoken. His gentleness he got thanks to his two older sisters who spoiled him – Yair had grown up without a mother, a son to his father’s old age.
The father’s heart would sink, almost give in to his son’s refusal to enlist, when he heard the boy’s screams at night. ‘I am not Erlking,’ he said to himself in horror, not knowing if his own dream was provoking those screams, or the child’s, and yet, at breakfast, from within the stillness, the boy’s plea fell on deaf ears, because the father knew he was doing this for his son’s sake, or at least he told himself as much, and told his son, and the two girls who wouldn’t dare argue, and Zalman Zal, yes, he said so too to Major General Zalman Zal. One can sympathize with the father. All his life he had wanted to escort a son to the Enlistment Office, and later escort him to the Absorption and Classification Base. All his life he had wanted to attend the Basic Training graduation ceremony, and had wanted to attend the section commander’s course graduation, and the officer’s training course graduation. Very gradually, when the child’s health did not improve, the father let go these dreams. But of an unglamorous military service, a grey service, he did not let go, could not have let go.
At first he would say these things to Yair with a smile, as if the son’s declaration of not going to the army was a sort of a joke. Of course it had nothing to do with the fact that the father was a national figure. All fathers are national figures, perhaps the other way around, all national figures are fathers, never mind. For he never said a word to him of the nation and its needs, because in any case Yair did not demand of him what the nation needs, paratrooper officers, for instance, rather it was all about, son – he called him son, his sad smile did not waver – he had a sad smile, the father, and his son hated that sad, photogenic smile – it’s all about, son, the duty bestowed upon you to overcome your ailments and to be like everyone else, after all one day I will not be in the world, and who will take care of you then? The son wanted to say: ‘When you won’t be in the world, I’ll take care of myself just fine,’ but checked himself (was terrified of his father; his father will never know this, because fathers are doomed not to know): ‘Arabs also don’t go to the army’. His father nodded in comprehension and did not reply. He had a deep comprehension of his son’s need to rebel against him. He did not comprehend anything that was not from within himself, as the son’s father, and comprehended the son only as the father’s son.
When Yair had persisted in his refusal to enlist, the father took him to Major General Zal’s office for a conclusive discussion. It was a difficult moment for the father. Up until that day Zalman Zal knew just a small portion of the father’s agony over the son. After all the father had never spoken of the son, always just of the girls. The Major General knew of the older daughter’s marriage and of the other’s doctorate, but even of them they had spoken very little and preferred to engage in nominating laureates for the Israel Prize, the Hebrew Literature, Science of Judaism, Social Work and of course the prestigious National Security Award. Yair, on his part, was not aware that the beautiful walk through the city, and along its beaches, would end in an office overlooking the guard barracks, in which he would be serving in two months time. It was truly a fun day. Dad had never had so much time for him. They went to the movies, later sat in a café, and even though many people approached Dad, Dad was not nice to them at all and insisted on sitting with Yair alone. Later they went to clothes stores, shopped for fragrant oranges at the market, and went to the port. They even tried to sneak onto one of the boats anchoring there, and in short, Yair tried to get his dad to do things that the dad was embarrassed to do, and dad went everywhere Yair led him to, because he was a good father. They stopped by a fishing boat, which had brought up in its net many revolting octopi, and since octopi are not only revolting, but unkosher, they had no buyers. Except for Yair who wanted an octopus. His father bought him one, under the condition that he would not ask him to carry the small bag after fifteen minutes, as had happened with the dog they bought him: Dad had to take him out every night so that he would poop outside and not in the living room, in front of the guests. So, Yair promised and picked the biggest octopus, and off the two walked down the streets, the son carrying a huge octopus in a small plastic bag, the father walking a little ahead, perhaps out of embarrassment, even though the town’s dogs were chasing both of them. A fight between two of the dogs shortly broke out – guessing that soon Yair would throw the octopus, and only one of them would win it – and went on and on, they almost bit one another. And people trailed behind the dogs. Maybe they were the dog owners, maybe they were passers-by who thought this was some sort of street theatre, Holbein or something. A few of the dance macabre participants knew the father, and followed him being dragged by his son holding a stinky octopus and ten dogs, two biting each other, through the city streets, and since Yair had now thrown the octopus to the dogs, the fight between the two big ones stopped, because a small dog, carrying away the small bag in his mouth, had escaped. Dad said something about Manfred Herbst, whose legs had carried him without him knowing where to. ‘Do you know who Manfred Herbst is?’
‘You’ve already told me this so many times and in relation to practically any subject… Is there any other book you know?’
Yair was tired and suspected his father of trying to improve his physical fitness. And it was as if by chance that they arrived at Major General Zalman Zal’s office. At the gate they let the father through without checking his documents, he was a regular bore there and the soldiers did not read anything of his whatsoever; what did they care? Zal was sitting, of course, in front of his VCR. As they arrived he was calling Vered, asking her to turn it off, and return the cassette to the video library, where all had been marked ‘Ezekiel 1’, ‘Ezekiel 2’, ‘Ezekiel 3’, etc.
The father didn’t know how to begin the meeting, after all they had gotten there by chance, as it were, perhaps embarrassed by the thought that the octopus odour had stuck to them. Zal did not stall, saying that he himself had ordered his granddaughter to enlist in the army, despite her being mad, as everyone knew, mad as a hatter, a drug addict and even more so a man-addict (worse than drugs, believe me, I know men), and that to be on the safe side he had ordered Vered to help his granddaughter in all sorts of matters which she could not manage herself, like renewing her driver’s licence, or managing her bank account, or paying her electric bill, because here we are all one big family. Yair too, of course, would be a part of this family, and Zalman Zal launched into stories of his clerks’ devotion, especially Vered Tsela’s, whom he loved like his own granddaughters, which is why she recited rhymes and metres for him, and she of course saw her service here as a great honour. Major General Zalman Zal, let’s be perfectly clear, did not screw any of his clerks. On the contrary. He took care that they would not be harassed by all kinds of males, and took care to make sure the girls kept secret all kinds of love affairs they had, with all kinds of officers, because crazy is the girl who’ll pass up the opportunity to fuck a little in the army, and here everyone is one family, said the Major General. Indeed all the clerks ranking all the way up to Lieutenant-Colonel had to listen to every phone conversation the Major General had, on the amplifier, and on the extensions – a part of their culture being an expansion of the Major General. On this rested their pride, or pleasure, or both.
Yair’s father had thought that his old and admired friend would have a few more convincing arguments, but all Zal’s explications came down to the importance of serving in the army, for the people and for the son of the people. For the people, why? Because the people need an army. For the son of the people, why? Because the son of the people must be a soldier for at least some time during his life, if not throughout his life. Well, Yair already knew all these arguments, and yet, Major General Zalman Zal was not finished. For a long time now he’d been suspecting: the instant coffee that you drank here, gave him gas, therefore he farted. He had no problem with farting. He who sits in a tank all his life, learns not to be shy. All you need to do is lift one side of your behind and let it out. Yair was stunned. He searched for his father’s eyes, but Dad pretended, as if he too farted whenever the need arose, and perhaps he did fart. At home – he didn’t.
‘You probably believe that the paratroopers are the force of the future. Am I right?’
The Major General spoke in a loud voice, looking over at Lieutenant Vered Tsela, whose eyes washed over beautiful Yair in jet streams of light. Ah, how Vered loved boys like Yair. Yair too. And the Major General, with the bitterness of a veteran of the Armoured Corps, spoke, and the son looked at his father, and the father was flooded with admiration for the Major General, or perhaps was flooded with bewilderment, in any case, his dismal and famous smile did not leave his face. ‘Nonsense, nonsense,’ cried the Major General, and waited for Vered to reiterate – she was an outstanding memoriser, but that said, as much as she was taller than Yair, and even older, she could not take her eyes off of him.
‘Nonsense, the next war will be armour vs. armour war. Anyone can see that. Tanks will pound along the deserts from here to Kuwait, and our soldiers of the Armoured Corps will gallop like the Formula Uno drivers, especially in the new tank, ‘Ezekiel 4’, watch the screen. Where’s the dork?’
The smile did not leave the father’s face, like a Chinese diplomat, and the dork came in, froze the screen, grabbed a cookie and left quietly, so all watched the rising tank, like a giant turtle, threatening never to land, ‘Ezekiel 4’, or ‘3’ froze.
‘Why would you volunteer for the Parachute Corps? For the parachuting? This parachuting business doesn’t impress me. I refused to take a parachuting course. I just didn’t want to. Not afraid, no. Because of the hassle. You see?’
Yair nodded. Zal went on, as befits a military leader, noting the slow penetration of his forces into the boy’s mind: ‘What do they do in those famous commandos of theirs? Sit and wait and wait and wait. What are they waiting for? For the day when they will be able to attack missiles bases in Caucasus’ mountains?’ Now he turned to the father, who was trying to say something, but Zal continued: ‘And in the meantime, I ask, in the meantime what do they do? In the meantime they kill people up close, with knives, or guns, in Tunisia, in Beirut. And to keep an entire army for this? Just because one day there will be a commando war?’
When they left – Vered had not dare say a word to them – Yair told himself that everything, this entire wonderful day, was just to get him to this talk with the commander. He’d been deceived all day. His great love for his father had swallowed a fruit, and in it a large pit, bitter, asphyxiating, stinging. He hated his father. They did not speak all the way home. In the cab he was suffocated by the desire to cry. The father was offended. It is unclear to us why, but every so often the father would get offended and would not talk about it – a nightmare for his kids – for hours, and all that they could do was guess what had offended Dad. Go deal with your father’s childhood memories!
Later the son surrendered. What had he gone through from his desire to cry in the cab to this surrender? A great deal. But in the end, he’d been promised that he would serve down there, beneath the office, and ever since his father has come everyday to spy on him from the high window. Every once in a while the father would walk over to the window, and the Major General say to him: ‘Sit, sit, he’ll see you watching him. It’s not good. Let him be a man already.’ And the father, his eyes shrinking involuntarily, as if he carefully selecting his words, would say without turning around: ‘He doesn’t know I am here’. The father knew of course that the son knew. After all the son had asked him during one of his leaves: ‘Why do you even go there so often? To spy on me?’ Yair had wanted to say so much more, wanted to say every night, wanted, since that walk in the city, to say something that swelled and swelled, and turned into something violent, contemptuous, offensive, like ‘I wish you had loved Mom the way you love this fat Major General, I wish you had loved us like you love him, I wish you had loved me like you love yourself, but you are not even in love with him for being him, you are in love with him because he is a Major General, and when you find another Major General, woosh, you will ride off to the other Major General. Why do you love Major Generals so much? You probably want me to become a Major General, that’s why I’m so sick, because you’ve always wanted me to become a Major General.’ He did not say all this balderdash, but once he dreamt that his father was pissing through him, holding him like in an opened-jawed stone fountain, and urinating through his mouth. Sometimes he thought of hanging himself in the guard barracks, in the light, so that his father would see him from up there convulsing, and would rush down to save him, but would be too late, and would only manage to get him down from the ceiling, a corpse. One day Dad will lose it, one day I will wipe that constipated smile off of his face.
Well, today, as mentioned, is the anniversary of Bronstein’s death, may he rest in peace. Everyone respects this anniversary, and as of last year, thanks to the petition, it has become a General Staff event, meaning an event of this base, ours. After a prolonged informatory effort, he is now mentioned, in the basic daily order, which Sergeant Borderline pins up on the cork boards, while two guard soldiers stand to attention by the candle. A soldier on duty asks the passers-by to lay a flower, or put down a few words in the commemoration book for the soldier who fought such a long battle just so the army would enlist him, in spite of his poor health. And here comes a Major General, Moti the moron. Conversing loudly, because that’s how he talks, with a girl soldier, an admirer, who also talks in big voice so that everyone can hear her talking with Moti the moron. Yesterday her father reprimanded her, when she told him how careful she was not to be alone in a room with Major General Moti. He was extremely insulted by this remark, her father. ‘I don’t like your delusions. I never liked your delusions. For as long as I remember you, everyone hits on you. One day you will say the same about me. It’s the fashion now, isn’t it? But Moti is a Major General in the IDF. You can behave like a human being and refrain from implying dirty insinuations.’
And since the guard soldiers had been preaching all day to the passers-by in their barracks to act appropriately, one of them now steps up to Moti as well. To the Major General’s credit, let it be said, he apologises right away, attempts to stretch his sloppy shirt, stands at attention for a moment, and suddenly salutes, sticking out his chest and forcefully stretching his palm to his temple. The soldier with him, being very moved by Moti’s invitation to escort him again to his office, she too salutes, and a button, exactly between her two squished breasts under a pointy bra, snaps. Gastritis, for his part, wants Major General Moti to end his salute, and approaches him cautiously, saluting, taking two measured steps backwards, standing to attention, saluting again – there is probably some kind of order, thinks Major General Moti but he is not familiar with the procedure. It does not cross his mind that he is being mocked here, who would conceive of it? – Later Gastritis says quietly: ‘Major General your honour, asking permission to speak’.
‘Make it short, I’m busy.’
‘Major General, I’ll make it short: we need help.’
The Major General hates requests for help, but Gastritis tells him, that the guard is trying hard to establish an award on behalf of the army in their friend’s name, Bronstein may he rest in peace. The Major General is impatient, although the soldier with him waits. He has already envisioned her in his mind’s eye pacing back and forth in his room, naked, with only the black army shoes and white socks to her feet. ‘Who is this Bronstein?’
‘I’ll make it short. He wasn’t enlisted on account of health problems, insisted on enlisting, and ran a public campaign. His parents turned to the army authorities, and participated in the public campaign for his enlistment, along with his high school friends. The press were also involved in the campaign. We have a bellicose press, like any democracy, and ardent editorial articles spoke of the struggle against this refusal to enter the Israeli army, which should begin with the positive, not the negative. In the end the army surrendered and despite the sensitivity he had been inflicted with as a child, he served in the guard platoon. He died in his uniform, while guarding. Recently we turned to the Base Commander asking him to establish an award for the sick soldier for distinctive service in Bronstein’s name. Our appeals have been to no avail.’
‘But why should someone who could have evaded the army and didn’t take advantage of that be given an award?’
‘Because otherwise life is not the same.’
The Major General looks into the soldier’s sad eyes, and promises to help.
Everything might have gone as planned with the committed soldiers, if it weren’t for the fact that the Major General tended to forget the promises he made, and perhaps his soldier’s naked parade made him forget this one. Luckily for us it was so. In that respect, a Major General’s flawed memory is a source of hope for the entire nation. May there be many such forgetful leaders and commanders. And anyway, it would have been a great embarrassment to us all, if the truth about Bronstein’s life and death were to come out. He did not have a memorial day, because he did not die, because he was not born, because there never was any Bronstein. Because he was the heart of our platoon’s service: we made him up in order to sanctify him and to mock the entire world through him.
When Yair was let in on this comical secret, that was of no interest to anyone, and gave us a strange satisfaction, he’d been explicitly asked not to reveal the secret to his father. He was not offended by the request. On the contrary. He felt very proud to have been given a chance to betray Dad. The idea of betraying Dad, and with this beautiful story of a soldier that never existed to boot, excited him, and he volunteered to tell the life story of the deceased. Yair wrote beautifully. If it wasn’t for his father, he would have really accomplished something through this, but his father did not like his writing, was afraid that he would only be praised because he is his son. ‘Bronstein’s Memoirs’ by Yair was the most touching chapter in the book, because it was written out of rage. No one could believe that the boy made the story up. We will never know what is real with people that do not hesitate to use their tongue.
Evening descended. Lights rose from the guard barracks. The father walked over to the window, but Yair was no longer there. He’d tricked his father again, taken off under the protection of the darkness, and instead of feeling gratification, felt a great sadness, once again seeing himself hung, his veins slashed, as he walked towards the gate. At times he thought of going on watch with his friends, but feared his father would take it as his triumph.
Outside the gate a Major General, Moti the moron, picked him up in his car, and asked: ‘Where are you headed, soldier?’ Yair shrugged and said in his typical impudence in places we have yet to encounter him: ‘Are you checking if I have a pass, or what?’ The Major General said: ‘No, no, I’m just driving to the north of town and thought you wanted a ride’. Yair went with him, and suddenly, just as he was about to get out, not far from the beach, he said: ‘Tell me something, this army really doesn’t bore you?’ The Major looked at him and said: ‘You know what? Now that you ask, I think so, yes. But they need us, don’t they?’ Yair said: ‘No, I don’t think so’. The Major thought a moment, then assumed Yair was joking. Yair looked at the grand night and the lights, and imagined seeing a huge bird flying and taking up with her the entire city.
David Lugasi, I think, never knew how much he really loved the Western Wall until he saw it completely dismantled, stone by stone by stone, and piled onto the three trucks of his hauling and renovations company, A.A. America Hauling and Renovations. Until that moment, the Western Wall had been a place. Just a place. But the Rabin assassination changed everything.
Lugasi is one of those rare types: people born to pray. No wonder he felt at home at the Wall. He wasn’t “religious” to the extent that he could marry the grandchild of a learned rabbi – any learned rabbi – but there are people who, when they pray, are happy. On Friday nights, for example, he’d go to synagogue with his father, return to his parents’ house for kiddush and a festive meal, and then get into his car and drive to a party. In the Lugasi home, that was considered an excellent Sabbath eve.
And that’s why he loved the Western Wall and hated Jerusalem: because the minute you pass Sha’ar Hagai on the road leading to the city, you have to choose. Right wing or left, religious or secular, orthodox or ultra-orthodox – like in a poor neighborhood in Hollywood movies, you have to choose a gang, or else you’ll be alone in a violent and sour city. Lugasi, who hated choosing and loved praying, would come back more and more upset from those visits to his beloved Wall. Until the last time, when he cracked. One night, a week after the assassination, he called me. It was one in the morning.
“You have to come,” he said. “Take a taxi and come to Jerusalem. I need your advice urgently.”
“Advice about what?”
“Where to put it, brother. The Western Wall. I finish loading in an hour. Come, I have no time to talk. The battery in my Nokia is conking out.”
* * *
Half a kilometer away from the square in front of the Western Wall, I came to a barrier put up by the Border Police. A Druze policeman stopped me and said, “No entrance, sir. The Wall is being renovated.”
“Renovated. They’re cleaning it. For Rabin’s shivah, a special operation.”
The policeman waited. I scratched my head.
“Listen,” I said, “I have to go in. I’m on the advisory team.”
“What’s your name?” the policeman asked and pulled a wrinkled piece of paper out of his pants pocket.
“You’re the famous Uzi Weill?”
“Famous?” I said. “Famous for what?”
“Why didn’t you say so right away,” the policeman said and tapped me on the shoulder. “The contractor told us to let you in. I want you to know that I’m with you a hundred percent. My people and yours are blood brothers.”
“I see,” I said cautiously.
He shouted for his colleague standing next to the barrier to move it, and added, “That’s why, even if I am Druze – I’m for your father.”
“My father?” I said, puzzled.
“A great man,” said the policeman. “Too bad there aren’t more like him. May he rest in peace.”
“My father’s not dead.”
He froze. “Really? Not dead? Begin?”
I didn’t know what to say. I smiled at him politely.
“You don’t say,” the policeman continued, shaking his head in growing amazement. “You don’t say. Begin’s not dead, ah? So – he’s hiding out?”
I shrugged cautiously.
“Good for him,” the policeman said, “he got really good at hiding out when he was in the underground. When’s he coming back?”
I said, “Another year or two.”
“Tell him we’re waiting,” the policeman said. “Even though I’m a Druze, I’m waiting. You know why?”
“Because my people and yours are blood brothers?” I tried.
He looked at me with new respect. “Good for you!” he said. “I see your father taught you well. Good for you! You’re a good family.”
“True,” I said. “Benny turned out a little…”
“Too serious,” the policeman said.
“Oh well…” I shrugged.
“Never mind. A Begin is a Begin. You’re all a good family.”
“I’ll tell my father,” I promised.
He lowered his hand from my car window and I drove in.
The square in front of the Wall was brightly lit, and dozens of workers were dismantling the stones. All that remained of the Wall itself were the two bottom rows of stones. Two workers worked on each stone, and after detaching it, carried it to the huge truck parked at the edge of entrance area. The other twenty-nine trucks were already waiting in line, full of stones, on the street leading away from the Wall.
On the roof of the last truck, which was in the process of being filled, sat David Lugasi. Next to him sat the driver, and they were drinking coffee from a large thermos. I stood rooted in place, stunned. Lugasi saw me.
“Brother!” he called to me and stood up. “Come on up and have something to drink with us.”
I climbed onto the door of the truck, the driver gave me a hand, and I found myself looking down at the workers who had begun destroying the last row. It was a shocking sight. The Western Wall looked like a stone path. I sat in silence.
A few minutes later, Lugasi said, “It’s really something, huh?”
“Tell me…” I began, but couldn’t go on.
“I’ll explain it to you in a minute,” Lugasi said and moved his head very very slightly in the direction of the driver. He didn’t want to share his plan with too many people.
“Good coffee, huh?” asked the driver.
“Terrific. Listen, if you wouldn’t mind, we have a few professional matters to discuss.”
The driver looked at me suspiciously. Then he spilled out the remains of his coffee, stood up and jumped to the ground.
Lugasi watched him move away. “What do you say?” he asked when we were alone.
“What can I say?” I extended my arm. “It’s…”
“Yes,” I nodded, “you could say it was great. You could definitely say that. But why?”
“Those Jerusalemites don’t deserve it. They don’t deserve to have the Wall.”
“Aahh.” I looked around. The workers had started taking apart the last row.
“You tell me,” Lugasi put his hand on his heart. “Tell me if I’m not right: last week, two days after they killed Rabin, may he rest in peace, I went to the Wall to pray. For Rabin, and for the country, and for… I don’t know. My heart, from so much sorrow, became… especially after his funeral. Did you see how his granddaughter cried?”
“Then, do you understand? It was tough. On the way to the Wall, I put on my father’s kipa, may he rest in peace, and there I was, with my beard and all, you know – at least five people grabbed me, told me how good it is that Rabin’s dead.”
I nodded. Lugasi took a deep breath, and shook his head incredulously.
“Then I finished praying,” he went on, “took off the kipa – and on the way back, three other people jumped on me, told me to come to an anti-religious happening, they’re all murderers. So I decided – I, David Lugasi, am moving the Western Wall.
I didn’t know what to say. Under us, the workers were finishing their job. They worked diligently. Another twenty stones, and the Wall might never have been there.
“Some operation, ah?” Lugasi smiled proudly. “A hundred and twenty workers.”
“And where will you put it in Tel Aviv?”
“That’s what you’re here for. Advise me where the best place is. A pretty place, no arguments, no politics, where people will come to pray with goodness in their hearts. A laid back kind of place?”
“The beach?” I suggested. Lugasi smiled.
And that’s how it was.
* * *
Half an hour later, the convoy of trucks began leaving the place that once was the Western Wall, and was now a naked hill. Lugasi and I, in the Peugeot, passed the canvas-covered trucks and the bus carrying the workers, and reached the Border Police post. Lugasi got out and tapped the policeman on the shoulder.
“Finished for the day?” the policeman asked.
“Yes,” said Lugasi. “You can move the barriers. Do you have the permit from the City?”
“Right here,” the policeman said, patting his shirt pocket. “ Do you need it?”
“Keep it,” said Lugasi, “in case they ask any questions.”
He got in and closed the door. “An original permit,” he said, “from the City. From the time I fixed the sewer in the Convention Center. It says: please follow the contractor’s instructions.”
The policeman knocked on the window and waited for me to look at him. He pretended to be locking his lips with a key. I gave him a thumbs-up as a gesture of thanks.
The convoy began to move.
“Tell me,” I said to Lugasi, “aren’t I little young to be Begin’s son?”
He shrugged. “Policemen,” he said.
And so, smiling and serene, Lugasi continued leading his convoy of trucks along the deserted Ayalon Freeway. At three in the morning, we reached Sheraton Beach. We got out to survey the territory. The workers waited in the bus.
“What do you say?” he asked, looking around, hands on hips. “Maybe between Sheraton and the marina?”
I tried to imagine it. “I don’t think so,” I said, “the strip of beach is too narrow. You need enough room for the prayers and for the sunbathers too.”
“You’re right,” Lugasi said. “And it has to be far from the water. So the waves won’t erode the stones in winter.”
We looked around, and all at once, our gaze fell upon the slope leading down from the Hilton, under Atzmaut Park. We shook hands, and Lugasi went to the workers’ bus.
“Ya’allah, let’s go, everybody out,” he told them.
They started whispering to each other in Romanian. One of them got up and acted as interpreter.
“Mister Lugasi, we’re all very tired,” said the chosen leader. “All night work, work,” he said in English.
“Tell them everyone gets another two hundred dollars,” said Lugasi. “They work till morning.”
In a flash, they were all outside, unloading the stones. Some of them began setting up scaffolding on the slope under Atzmaut Park. They worked with astonishing speed, unloading the stones in the exact order they’d been put on the trucks, but despite their diligence, they’d only managed to put up a third of the Wall when the sun rose. Lugasi, who saw in advance what the problem would be, sent them to sleep. At six in the morning, the second shift arrived.
This time, they were Arabs, and Lugasi managed without an interpreter. At seven, we collapsed in the Peugeot. Lugasi turned on the radio. We listened to four news broadcasts, switching from one to the other: none of them mentioned the fact that during the night, someone had stolen the Western Wall.
“Maybe they’re keeping a lid on the investigation,” I said. “Censoring it.”
“They’re censoring the Voice of Cairo too? And the BBC?”
I shrugged. “It doesn’t matter,” I told Lugasi. “My father, may he rest in peace, always used to say: a man needs to have faith and never to worry, except when he hears the hoo-oh of a police car approaching. Now, let’s go to sleep.”
We nodded off on each other’s shoulder for three hours of fitful sleep. At ten-thirty in the morning, a knock on the window woke us. It was a City inspector. Lugasi lowered the window.
“Are you the contractor?” the inspector scratched his head.
“What is that thing?”
“The wall of peace,” said Lugasi, “in memory of Itzhak Rabin.”
“Ah,” said the inspector. “It looks familiar, that wall.”
“There’s one like it in Jerusalem.”
“Ah,” said the inspector. “My wife’s from Jerusalem. Maybe that’s why.”
Lugasi called to one of the workers and asked for coffee. The inspector sat and drank with us, and told us how much he earned working for the City. When he left, we turned on the radio again: still, not a word about the Western Wall disappearing.
Lugasi got out and stretched. Then he said, “Strange, isn’t it?”
“Let’s go,” I said.
He looked at the laboring workers and said, “Wait, we’ll wash our faces and then take off.”
* * *
We reached Jerusalem at noon. We parked not far from what was once the Western Wall, and approached cautiously. Twenty different scenarios passed through our minds, but none of them even came near what we actually saw: everything was going on as usual.
The prayers prayed. Men on the left, women on the right.
Policemen, as usual, guarded the square.
Tourists, as usual, had their pictures taken wearing cardboard kipot on their heads. The only thing different was that the Wall wasn’t there. We walked towards the square. A policeman stood there in his regular place and handed us black kipot.
“Tell me,” – Lugasi asked the policeman – “where’s the Wall?”
“Being renovated,” said the policeman.
“Renovated where? Where are they renovating it?”
The policeman shrugged. “Ask the Rabbi of the Wall, that’s what he said. Are you going in or not?”
We went in. A large group of chassidim was praying very intently, but their attempts to push notes into the dry hill failed utterly. They occasionally looked around in puzzlement, but in general, it seemed that the explanation given by the Rabbi of the Wall satisfied them. We left the square and went to eat at a small place Lugasi knew, not far from there.
Lugasi ate hummus and pita, and drank tea. He looked preoccupied. When he finished, he took out his cell phone.
“Hello,” he said when someone answered him, “is this the office of the Rabbi of the Wall? I wanted to ask something. I was at the Wall just now, and it wasn’t there.”
“That’s impossible,” the clerk replied, “the Rabbi has been here since the morning.”
“Not the Rabbi,” said Lugasi, “not him, it. The Wall. The Wall wasn’t there.”
“Ah,” replied the clerk. “It’s being renovated.”
“You don’t say,” said Lugasi. “Who’s renovating it?”
“The City,” she said. “I don’t know exactly. This morning, the Rabbi spoke to the Border Police, they took the stones away for the renovation. It’s a special operation.”
“The Border Police? Who’s that, the Druze guy at the barrier, you talked to him?”
“Yes, yes,” replied the clerk. She was starting to lose her patience. “It’s from the City, a special operation. In honor of Jerusalem’s three thousandth anniversary.”
“Thank you,” Lugasi replied and hung up. We looked at each other.
He said, “We pulled it off. I think next week, I’ll move the vault from the Leumi Bank.”
* * *
We worked like crazy that whole day and night along with the workers, and the next day – right before sunrise, at the end of the Romanian’s second shift – it was all finished. We stood in the water, the waves lapping at the edges of our rolled-up pants, and looked at the new Western Wall. It looked great.
“The Jewish people’s holiest site,” said Lugasi. There were tears in his eyes.
“Don’t be cute.”
He paid the workers and they got on the bus and disappeared. We remained standing there, looking at the fruit of our labors. A few minutes later, I started feeling hungry, and remembered that we hadn’t eaten since that humus in Jerusalem. We went up to the Café Regatta, took a table near the window, sat down silently and looked at the beach.
“The Temple Mount is ours,” said Lugasi, like a general after a successful battle.
* * *
At first, everything went smoothly. The beach-goers did show a certain puzzlement, but the wall had yet to be born that would keep them from getting a tan. The tourists, on the other hand, were very enthusiastic. A rich American from Chicago named Joe Rivlin, Chairman and owner of Rivlin & Rivlin Buttons and Zippers, outdid himself, and sent the mayor a letter of congratulations from Milan, enclosing a check in the amount of one hundred thousand dollars.
“A brilliant way to bring tourism to Tel Aviv and to Israel in general, period,” he wrote, “if only the American government had your courage, we wouldn’t have to travel to Beijing Grand Canyon to see the Beijing Grand Canyon, period.”
The religious public in Tel Aviv received the new Western Wall with mixed feelings, but quickly got used to the idea. First of all, no one said in so many words that it was that Western Wall – The Rabbi of the Wall still insisted that the original was being renovated – and secondly, even if it was that one, what was so terrible if it stayed in Tel Aviv for a few years? Pilgrims came from the four corners of the country and proclaimed that the new location was not only more convenient, it was also a lot safer – considering the security problems Jerusalem’s Old City had been having for years.
Amazingly enough, even the sacred status quo was not damaged, despite the dangerous proximity of the prayers and the sunbathers. The former faced the Wall, the latter faced the sea, and they all met on the number five bus, of which there were now another fifty. Even the homosexuals in Atzmaut Park finally got used to the idea. Many of them, so the city council representative of Meretz, the leftist liberal party, discovered, came from a traditional background, and the proximity of the Western Wall surprisingly improved their sex lives.
The problem began when the mayor realized what he had. After the shock of the first week, when all he did was throw one fax after the other into the waste basket and fire any person who dared suggest that the Western Wall be moved to his jurisdiction, he finally decided to go down to the beach and see what was happening there. When he realized that the people – again, dammit – were right, the trouble started.
First, he declared that the Western Wall was now to be called “The Kings of Israel Wall” – compensation for the Kings of Israel Square, a name which, after the assassination, was taken from them and changed to Rabin Square. The next thing he did was commission Yaacov Agam to paint the Wall in shifting iridescent colors. “Yaacov Agam,” he said at a press conference broadcast live from the seashore – “is an international artist who combines kinetics and Judaism, and he will put the Wall on the map of the next millennium!”
And then a special sound system arrived and was installed next to the Wall. It broadcast commercials from the Municipality and Israeli music twenty-four hours a day.
Before a day had passed, Channel Two announced that it would broadcast live a series of summer performances to be called “Rock ‘n Wall”, direct from the new, revolving, pneumatic stage purchased expressly for that purpose in Germany and flown to the Wall. Dudu Topaz, the TV entertainer, would be the emcee, Dudu Dotan, the comedian, would tell jokes, and Dudu Shmulevitz – head of the city’s electrician’s union – declared that if the City didn’t reach an agreement with the union before the program, the beach would be blacked out.
At that point, Lugasi stopped returning my calls. But he too could take no more when the army championship games were held there, and hundreds of infantry fighters hang-glided down from the Wall. On that day, at four in the afternoon, he called me.
“Did you hear?” he asked in a defeated voice.
“That’s nothing,” I said. “The local newspaper is organizing a squash league on the beach. Guess what they’re using for a wall?”
“One hour, at the Hilton,” he said and hung up. I guessed that he would bring a rotten mood with him, but I never imagined how rotten. When I got there, I saw him from a distance, standing stooped over next to a kiosk on the beach, a cigarette in his hand. That was the first time we had dared approach the Wall since we moved it from Jerusalem, and it did not look good.
On the top of it, along the uppermost row of stones, an electronic sign was flickering: “The Western Wall brought to you by Yediot Aharanot newspapers and Isracard.” And David Lugasi didn’t look any better than his Wall.
“What are we going to do?” he asked. His eyes were red. He dragged hard on his cigarette.
“Maybe people will calm down. Give them time. It’s still new.”
He nodded. We moved closer to the police barricade separating the swimmers from the prayers. At one end of it was a small booth. We took kipot from an old worker wearing an orange uniform with a drawing of the Wall facing the sea on it. The kipa was also orange and had the same drawing, along with the words: “Sunset at the Wall – An Experience!”
We passed the barrier and went inside.
“Wait, wait a minute!” the old man called after us in a Russian accent.
“What?” I turned to him.
“Fifty shekels to go in, please,” said the old man in the orange uniform.
I looked at Lugasi. He returned the look.
“Ten tonight,” he said. “Be ready. I’ll pick you up.”
* * *
That same night, we returned the Wall to Jerusalem. We finished the whole job in eight hours of strenuous labor. The two crews, Romanians and Arabs, worked together and when the sun rose, the Wall was back where it belonged.
Lugasi stood and looked at his Wall. He wiped tears from the corners of his eyes. “We tried,” he said.
The workers were already on the bus, ready to go. The empty trucks left the parking lot one after the other. We were standing quietly when suddenly, from behind us came the sound of the bashful clearing of a throat. It was the Rabbi of the Wall.
He said, “Ah… the renovations are finished, sir?”
We turned to him. His eyes were red, his hair slightly disheveled, and he looked as if he’d aged a hundred years in a single week.
“Finished,” Lugasi said gently. He looked at the old man, and he was filled with great, inexplicable sorrow.
“And… everything’s okay?”
“Everything’s shiny and shipshape, Rabbi. We added screws to strengthen it, poured cement, it’s like new. A cinch to last another three thousand years.”
“Thank God. Thank God!” the Rabbi heaved a huge sigh and was silent. Then he said, “More power to you, young fellow. Just tell them at City Hall that next time, I’d like to know in advance when they do something like this, fahrshteist?”
“There won’t be a next time,” said Lugasi. “If I take it away again – you better believe I won’t bring it back.”
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
We Weren’t actually at starvation’s door, although even that depends on how you look at it – the house was in ruins, windows missing, the living-room armchair shot to pieces, a crack in the wall, the kitchen a shambles, cupboards falling apart, furniture which had given up the ghost a long time ago – but I could smell it coming.
Apart from which my husband told me: “You’re a wreck.” This being the case, first thing in the morning I phoned and asked to speak to the editor-in-chief in charge of all the editors and chiefs and mentioned my full name – which is so long that it’s ridiculous.
I told him about myself and said that I had an unprecedented offer for which I wanted a four-figure sum, monthly.
I made an appointment with him in an air-conditioned cafe and pushed my way though crowds of people I didn’t know and who for some reason embarrassed me greatly. When the coffee arrived I explained my proposal to him.
“Listen to me,” I said to him, “and then say whatever you’ve got to say, I’m not listening anyway. I’ll just take in your tone, my feelers will grope for the gist of your reply – yes or no, and afterwards, sir, we’ll say goodbye, either forever or not.”
“I’m all ears,” he said.
“Let me have a car, let me have money, neither a little nor a lot – budget me – let me travel round and about the country. Yes, we’ll begin with round and about the country. Let me see what’s going on. Believe me, I haven’t left the house in years, I’m in urgent need of contact with the outside world. And I’ll pay it back, the outside world, by describing it with amazing accuracy, with flashes of brilliance. Let me travel, let me wander, and I’ll bring you a story a week, a thousand shekels a story.”
“Yes?” his eyebrows rose like two hills.
“Could you concentrate, please?”
“That’s my side of the bargain, and what do I get in return?”
“A story a week, weren’t you listening to me?”
“Certainly I was listening, that’s why I’m asking you what you’re giving me in return.”
“I don’t understand you.”
“That story’s for you – release, therapy, autotherapy, what do you want of me?”
“What kind of talk is that?”
“Sorry,” he said. “We don’t need a weekly story. Every day there are hundreds of stories and parts of stories in the newspapers. I’ve got reporters poking into the pockets of every Minister in the government, I don’t need a literary angle on plain reality.”
I called another newspaper and repeated my offer over the phone. I expanded it. After all, it wasn’t asking much and the rejection stung me. I said: “Let me travel round the world, with my daughter and my husband. I’m Orly, I’m a wreck. But I’ve got eyes, sir. A thousand shekels a story. And not a penny less. That’s my last word.”
He said: “Let’s see an example. Go to the refineries on your own account and bring me an example. Or not. Go wherever you like. Go to the Jordan valley, to Masada, to Arad, to the Dead Sea. Wherever you like.”
“Tell me, what is this? I’m not prepared for you to give me tests. Either you take me now as I am, or I’ll go to Avigdor from the rival paper, or somewhere else. Either sign me up on a blank contract with no strings attached or else,” and I took out a hammer and a rolling pin and banged on the table.
“Okay, okay,” he sighed,” let’s meet.”
We arranged to meet at a cafe on the promenade, next to the sea. I repeated my offer and the waiter came and removed the melon rinds and the remains of the salad.
The man sitting opposite me lit a cigarette and thought. In the meantime a few thoughts crossed my mind which I thought were quick-off-the-mark, but today I know they did me no good.
“Listen,” I said, “all I want is a page in your newspaper and a thousand shekels a story. Come on, give.”
He went on looking at the sea in silence. My wrinkles deepened. Five o’clock in the afternoon, the sun was directly opposite my face. I dried my sweat with a paper napkin.
“Well,” I said.
He shrugged his shoulders.
“What do I know.”
My worst fears were realized. I had made the man miserable. I had depressed him. The whole idea from beginning to end suddenly seemed futile to me, I asked him to forget the conversation had ever taken place. But he said that actually he liked my offer, and we should talk about it again in a couple of days time.
I walked up the steps to Hayarkon Street, and began going down all the streets perpendicular to the sea in the direction of Ibn Gvirol, the desolate street where the bus s.t.o.p. is situated. I stood at the bus stop and waited for a bus. When I got home I saw my husband watching a five by five video movie.
“Where is our daughter?” I asked.
“Sleeping,” he replied, and demanded a full account of the conversation.
I falsified everything on purpose, because I’d already forgotten what had happened, and immersed myself in the television set. My husband filled me in with regard to the plot and I asked questions and he answered them.
A few days passed and the man didn’t call. I personally wasn’t waiting for a call, but the economic situation was.
The bank clerk came for coffee at six o’clock on Wednesday evening and asked when we intended covering the overdraft.
“Never,” said my husband and stroked his cheek.
“Why don’t you shave?” she asked.
“I don’t like it.”
“You know,” she said to him, “you make awfully good coffee.”
He looked at me, because actually it was me who had made the coffee.
“She made it,” he said.
“So what?” she said.
“What?” I said.
“If there’s anything you want here,” said my husband with a smile, “take it – don’t be shy.”
“Really?” said the bank clerk.
“Take whatever you want.”
“Have you got a few crates?” she asked.
“Maybe the neighbours have,” I said.
“Why don’t you put your salary in the bank every month like everybody else?” she asked.
“I’ll tell you,” my husband began telling her, and hinted to me that I should make myself scarce. I took my daughter and went down to the woods. From there I went on with her to a cafe, and from there to the pub. The drink warmed my heart and I stopped wishing I was dead. My distress faded, I calmed down and hugged and kissed her and explained a few things to her from an objective point of view. She looked at me and I kept saying to myself that there was no other way, what other way could there be? My heart was like the skin of a camel, flat as a rug.
When we went home I saw the bank clerk’s ‘86 Fiat Uno driving off in the direction of the main road.
“Salamaat,” I said to her.
“Salaamtek,” I said to her again.
“Tislam, peace be with you, lady.”
I went inside, and I saw my husband standing there with his three brothers, all playing snooker.
“I got an extension of eight years,” said my husband. “In the meantime the interest will rocket, but who cares. In eight years time we’ll leave the country.”
His brothers looked daggers at me. They accused me of hypocrisy, of self-righteousness, of bad literature, of perversity.
I told them I agreed with every word they said, and I made tehina with lots of parsley. They all ate well, they finished the lot, they polished their plates clean, I didn’t even have to wash the dishes, I put them straight into the cupboard, and to hell with them.
It was a long night. I looked at the stars scattered over the sky like salt on my wounds. I prayed for redemption, for the Messiah to come. What’s going on here – I wondered. I’m not a woman, my husband’s not a man. Soon I’ll die, I’ll turn into a picture. Everyone will forget me and I’ll forget them.
I’ll go away, I’ll disappear, I’ll vamoose, I’ll evaporate. I’ll die. That’s it. Au revoir and goodbye. No more. When. Finito la comedia. Twenty years from now. I’ll die. I won’t exist. I love moments of fellowship between people, they move me to tears. But open moments, like my sitting here on the balcony, send me way off. I love these open moments, when the dome of the heavens really functions like a dome, they’re terrific.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
She was the lady in your neighborhood. You saw her at the supermarket, you saw her in line at the post office. She was like Monday, the day she brought her kid to school, Tuesday, the day she swam laps, Wednesday when she picked the kid up, Thursday when she did the shopping, Friday when she came out of the bakery with pieces of cake wrapped in paper. Neighborhood ladies crossing paths with the ladies in their neighborhood, as if pulled on strings: it could have gone on like that forever. But then everything took a different turn when the painter Uta Päffgen said at the Cindy Sherman opening, “If you’re looking for ghosts, talk to Anne. That woman can conjure spirits, she has this amazing rapport with them.” So you arranged to meet with this unknown Anne, she opened the door and you were standing in front of none other than the neighborhood lady. The long auburn hair, the savagely bemused gaze, the big heart in a broad chest and the scent of afternoon coffee rising behind her. This story is a gift from Anne, the red wine witch, the Lady of Goseck Castle, the Magdeburger medium. Thank you.
A woman with a supernatural bent noticed her abilities early in life and played with them. One day things went far enough that she got a terrible scare and resolved never to mess with that stuff again. But she ended up summoning spirits again and again, she just couldn’t let go of it.
Anne was born in Magdeburg in 1966. When she was 22 and bored to death of everything, she decided to flee East Germany. Of course she didn’t know that the GDR’s days were numbered, since she’d asked the spirits next to nothing about her own future – that was too touchy a subject. Some of her friends had also considered fleeing. Others had already applied for exit visas and were waiting in fear of bad news. Plus, you always had to assume there were spies around. Imagine a spirit announcing to the whole crowd at a séance that Anne H. was going to successfully escape the GDR next week. You just couldn’t do a thing like that, so it didn’t work to hazard a glance into your own future. What the spirits did tell Anne and her friends were wondrous, sophisticated stories that captivated them. Once a spirit who had known Bertolt Brecht turned up, and another time there was a child who always sat on the right knee of the Good Lord. It was fun and entertaining, whereas the reality and near future of young East Germans were neither fun nor entertaining. This is how it came to pass that Anne didn’t ask the spirits about her own fate; had she done so, she would have spared herself the fleeing, the arrest, the stint in a GDR prison.
In those days in Magdeburg Anne didn’t have a job, but she did have friends. The friends had red wine and the red wine had a candle and the candle had a glass. They formed a circle, turned the glass upside down and set it on a table in the middle of the circle. Then they spread lots of slips of paper around the glass into a makeshift Ouija board: the words YES and NO and all the letters of the alphabet, and the numbers from one to a hundred, all arranged in intervals of ten. Each of them gingerly laid a finger on the glass and then they started. And how gloriously the glass tingled and jogged and jiggled as soon as Anne had summoned the spirits. It really danced.
One time they got someone right away. SOS, he said, SOS, SOS.
“Who’s sending an SOS?”
They got a number, then another one, over and over again the same two numbers. Someone fetched an atlas and checked the numbers against the axes of longitude and latitude. It was a point in the South Atlantic. Magdeburg’s red wine-swilling Ouija-boarders of the terminal phase of the GDR heard on the news the next day that a ship had sunk off the coast of the Falkland islands. Everyone aboard had drowned.
Once they summoned a spirit and nothing happened. Then came a knock at the door. One of them stood up and opened it; there was nobody to be seen, but someone stepped inside. They were all sitting cross-legged in a circle on crooked, wafer-thin old floorboards, and they felt how the boards rose and fell beneath the steps of the invisible but weighty guest, they heard the wood creaking. The guest circled the Magdeburgers a few times, scared the hell out of them, then he left. They all knew Anne was the one with the power to provoke such an audacious spirit. It never worked without Anne, and with her it was always wonderful and terrible. But after this experience Anne vowed to give it all up. Having spirits visit your own home was too much, she said, you never knew who’d turn up or what they’d be bringing with them. She said she’d finally understood that she could only attract them, not control them. So it was settled: no more spirit conjuring, never again.
But then came the story with the strange lady who sold clothes at the flea market like Anne did, the one who threw herself at Anne. The way the lady invited Anne and her friends over to her place was way too friendly, so fake, so hugely suspicious. Anne couldn’t say no: she was hell-bent on showing off, so she gathered up her friends and a bottle of wine and showed up unannounced at the strange lady’s place. The strange lady acted like it was such a pleasant surprise to see them. Then someone interrupted her chatter and said: clear off your table, we need it now. They turned a glass upside down in the middle, spread out the letters and the numbers – they’d brought everything along. Each of them gingerly put a finger on the glass. The strange lady didn’t want to join in, she was really creeped out, but they said come on, don’t be such a drag. Anne summoned the spirits, and right away they had one, a ghost in the glass. At first they went around the circle just making small talk with him.
“Great spirit, would you like to talk to us?”
“Are you a good spirit?”
“Is it nice in the place where you are?”
“What’s your name?”
“When did you die?”
“How old were you when you died?”
“What was your job when you were alive?”
As soon as the strange lady started giggling, Anne came straight to her real question.
“Does anyone in this room work for the Stasi?”
“Is this room bugged?”
“Can you show me where?”
“Say yes when I get to the place where the bug is.”
Anne stood up and walked around the room. When she got to the corner with the cabinet, the spirit piped up again: “Yes.”
There was a radio on top of the cabinet. Anne reached for the radio and shook it.
Anne sat back down at the table. The strange lady was as white as a sheet. “Get out!” she yelled. “Now!”
But they didn’t leave, they kept going.
“Do you know the phone number of the people who are listening to us right now?”
“Can you give it to me?”
The spirit gave them a five-digit number that started with a three. In Magdeburg the numbers starting with three were the Stasi numbers. This was such a triumph for Anne. She had abilities the GDR wasn’t prepared for! She was jubilant. And so she thought, although death was still on her mind, that she would succeed in escaping. Another life was waiting for her, a life without shackles. She just had to make her move.
Anne took two journeys before her attempt to flee. The first was to Prague to visit Franz Kafka’s grave; the second to Goseck Castle in Thuringia to get together with her friends one last time. They wanted to drink and laugh and go hiking. She’d been saying her goodbyes for years, in an excruciatingly slow, gloomy process, never able to tell anyone she was doing so. The farewell in Goseck was supposed to be something different, something fortifying. Today Goseck is a renovated castle. Visitor restrooms have been installed in a historically sensitive manner; there are tango workshops in spring, there are concerts and archaeological excavations. But back then, in the East German 1980s, it was half-rotted, abandoned to the ravages of time. Most of the castle was boarded up and coated in dust, lying there as if cursed to sleep a hundred years. There was a small youth hostel in one of the side wings, where Anne and her friends stayed. Anne said she remembers the bleak look of the place. Carpeting, cheap furniture, wipeable plastic surfaces, all of it utterly devoid of any feeling of being in a castle.
Once they snuck into the closed-off part of the castle and had a look around. Most of the rooms were locked, but they fiddled the doors open with a lock pick. Anne made a game out of it. Before she opened a door, she would stand in front of the locked door and rattle off a list: fireplace on the left, the fire poker is lying on the mantel and the knob is chipped, the window is green, there’s a column in the middle of the room. Or: A long, dark room with a tiny window on the right at the far end, in the middle a cast-iron candelabra hanging low over a big table. And each time Anne’s descriptions proved right. As if she knew them intimately, these dead rooms with their tattered curtains and dirty door fittings, with their putrid furniture and faded wallpaper. On one of these forays they found a bottle of red wine without a label amidst some debris. The bottle was covered in a thick layer of dust; the cork and the glass appeared to be forged of ancient materials. The bottle might have been sixty, maybe a hundred years old. Anne’s friends opened it, but none of them dared to take a swig. Finally Anne tried it. The wine tasted so good that she drank the whole bottle. Then she lay down in her bed in the youth hostel. That night she dreamed she was walking through Goseck Castle. She was supposed to go to the castle chapel, that was the order she’d been given. On the way there she was able to walk through walls. She could stick parts of her body through the thick walls – her head, an arm, a leg. It was fun. Then she couldn’t get any further. The dream ended. The next day Anne found out that during the night an old woman had died at Goseck Castle. The woman had held a right of lifelong abode there. The crotchety old lady had been a noblewoman, people said, a countess whose family had lived in the castle for a long time.
The end of this story didn’t come until six months later, in May 1989, when Anne was in Hohenschönhausen Prison, having failed in her attempt to flee. There in her prison cell, the dream suddenly picked up where it had left off. She was back in the spot in the castle en route to the chapel where she hadn’t been able to get any further. Now she could also see the landscape, and a St. Bernard, and herself in a white dress with a little boy of about five at her side. She knew immediately that this woman and child were killed by the woman’s husband. He’d been away for years at the crusades and she’d been unfaithful. The child was killed for the shame he brought and was buried in front of the altar; the woman was bricked into a wall alive. “But what does that have to do with the old countess?” she asked in the dream, and an answer came: “The old woman at Goseck Castle was the last of her family line and couldn’t die until you arrived.” That was me, Anne thought when she woke up in her cell in Hohenschönhausen – that was my past life. My life now has nothing to do with it anymore.
When she got out of jail and the GDR’s hermetic seal was broken, she drove to the Mediterranean and picked up a stone there. Then she took it to Franz Kafka’s grave, back to Prague. She laid the stone on the grave and apologized profusely to him for having stolen a small rock there the year before. The stone had been lying at the very top of the grave, she explained, and she’d wanted to take it as a good luck charm for her escape and for all the dangers she’d face. She said she’d wanted to possess a part of him, she revered him so much, but she hadn’t taken into consideration that the stone had been an offering to him from someone else. Since then she’d had nothing but bad luck, a whole year of punishment and misfortune. She would still be sitting tight behind bars if the GDR hadn’t collapsed. And so, she told him, she was bringing the stone back. It wasn’t exactly the same one – that one had gotten lost in the turmoil of the past year – but it was a pretty stone from the Mediterranean, and would he be so kind as to accept it with her apology and forgive her?
Anne moved to Berlin, studied art history, got a job sorting mail, and was for a while something along the lines of honorary chairwoman at the Kommandatur Bar in Prenzlauer Berg. She heard about Goseck Castle once more. In 1991, two years after her dream, she met a guy from Weißenfels, a town near Goseck. Anne’s friends told him about the eerie things that had happened at the castle, about Anne’s dream where the woman and the child appeared, and the night the old countess died. They told him how Anne had since sworn that a child was buried in front of the altar in the Goseck Castle chapel. The young man turned ghostly pale and said that a child’s skeleton had been found beneath a marble slab in the castle chapel.
“That was my child,” Anne said. “In the time of the crusades. I led him by the hand.”
In Berlin she mostly stopped using the Ouija board and encountering spirits, which is odd given that Berlin is full of ghosts, and that they have no reason to avoid Anne. Now and then a spirit would sidle up to her, but she didn’t even always notice. Once she mistook a ghost for a roommate dressed in dark clothes. He entered the room softly and looked over her shoulder, read along with interest as she wrote at her desk. She chatted with him – a one-sided conversation, as he never answered. When she turned around, nobody was there. As if the man had never even been there.
For a few years in the late 90s, Anne lived in a dilapidated building at Invalidenstraße 104, kitty-corner from the Natural History Museum. The building’s owner would later pay her a lot of money to move out so he could renovate the place and raise the rents. The building was part of a horseshoe-shaped housing complex right next to the Charité hospital and various military facilities, built during the Gründerzeit, the late-19th-century period of rapid industrial expansion in Germany. Theodor Fontane’s novella Stine is set at this time, around 1890, on exactly this stretch of the two-mile-long Invalidenstraße. It was no coincidence that Fontane chose this particular street for Stine. The panoply of buildings and institutions there showed the Gründerzeit at its most frenetic. Invalidenstraße was blood and sweat, dreck and speed: three major train stations, the Lehrter, Stettiner, and Hamburger Bahnhöfe; engineering works; parade grounds; barracks; the veterans home; and beyond it all a prison and the Charité hospital, and then the countless apartment buildings and graveyards. Fontane depicted the precarious social circumstances of Ernestine Rehbein and Pauline Pittelkow, two sisters who lived at Invalidenstraße 98e, torn between flirtations and marriage proposals, between hoping for love and striving for upward mobility. All their dreams are dashed against the rigidity of a narrow-minded society, and only death triumphs in the end.
Stine looked at her sister.
“Yes, you’re looking at me, child. You likely think, oh glory, it’s a reassurance when you say ‘It’s not a fling.’ Stine, darling, that doesn’t comfort me one bit; on the contrary. A fling, a fling. God, a fling isn’t the worst of it by a mile. It’s here today, gone tomorrow, and he goes this way, she goes that way, and by the third day they’re both singing again. Off you go, I have my part. Oh Stine, a fling! Believe me, no one ever died of a fling, not even when it gets rough. No, Stine, no, a fling’s not much, it’s nothing at all really. But when it gets to you here (she pointed to her heart), then it’s really something, that’s when it turns ugly.”
When Anne was living at number 104 she started up again with the Ouija board. It was late at night, there were five of them there, and they’d planned it all ahead. One of her friends brought along a really big bottle of wine, the rarest and most subtle vintage Anne had ever sipped, she even wrote a short story about the wine later. The séance started the same way it always did: “Great spirit, we summon you.” A woman who’d died of tuberculosis when she was just 23 came into the glass. She answered their questions about where she was – “I’m in the yard” – and where she came from: “I’m buried in the yard behind the house.” Anne had heard talk among the neighbors about a pauper’s graveyard behind the horseshoe-shaped buildings, a place where the Charité used to bury dead patients without much ado, plague and Hepatitis C victims. The rumors and conversations mostly concerned the rats that came over from the old Charité campus to invade the building’s cellar and root through the garbage bins. After their pillaging, they would run back through their own tunnel to the hospital park. Was that where this spirit came from? The young woman’s ghost answered the question “What’s up with you?” with “hatred” and “rage”. She answered the next question with the word “oficier,” written just that way, one f and an i after the c. The story came together over the course of the séance: the spirit in the glass was the servant girl of an oficier who had once lived with his wife in Anne’s apartment. The girl slept in the tiny room at the back. The officer was also her lover, and she really fell for him. But when she fell ill with tuberculosis, the man couldn’t have cared less. She was buried in the pauper’s graveyard of the Charité, not far from their building. The man carried on with his life unperturbed; she alone had been robbed of all the nice things in life. Hence her rage. When Anne’s friends heard the story, they resolved to do something about it. Naturally they felt terribly sorry for the girl, one of the friends was so moved by the story she sobbed. But what Anne wanted most was to get the unbridled rage out of her apartment. She opened another bottle of the extraordinary red wine and gave the ghost a speech. She spoke of the brief life that was granted to the poor, the girl’s grave and unforgettable experience with the callous man. They held a moment of silence to commemorate her bitter end, and they wished her and her broken heart nothing less than eternal peace. Then the glass was still. This, too, is a woman’s stirring fate from Invalidenstraße. Not from Fontane, but nonetheless from the realm of spirits.
Your Ghost Reporter could not, of course, leave it at that, and had a look at old city maps from the turn of the century. The old Charité graveyard really did run right behind Invalidenstraße 104. It stretched along Hessische Straße to the hospital washhouse. Very little information about the cemetery survives – even Frau Beer, who leads historical tours of the Charité grounds and specializes in fielding such questions, knows nothing about it. “I’d have to dig way down,” she says. “I’d have to dig way down.” The cemetery existed from 1726 onward. The new glass-walled North Campus Cafeteria and the Center for Advanced Training in Rural Development have now been built over it. The weathered walls and wild ivy beds shooting up dark hundred-yard vines look like reliable signs of a graveyard. But nothing at the site wants to recall a burial ground for the poor and the invalid – we only have maps, servant girl apparitions, and rumors among the rat-plagued neighbors to do that. And as for the oficier – a member of the military did indeed live at number 104; this fact appears in Berlin address registers, specifically in the “Directory of All Domiciles in Berlin with Specification of Their Owners and Tenants”. From 1893 onward, a certain Müller lived there, who in the address directories is alternately listed as a sergeant and a lieutenant, and beginning in 1904 as “retd. Lieutenant”; then he stops turning up at all. “Sergeant lieutenants” were considered commissioned officers or subordinate officers in the Second Reich army, and were entitled to use the associated insignia and titles. Whether this Sergeant Müller was the aforementioned rake, and whether he was dashing, and whether the story of the consumptive servant girl is true at all – this the Berlin address directory cannot divulge. The episode shall remain uncanny.
Before we draw this to an end, permit me to add a general reflection on the gift that has followed Anne through her life: the spirits that revealed themselves to her were far more numerous during her youth in the GDR. She had energy to devote to them, she was interested in their stories. This interest waned as she got older. It’s the same way with red wine and your own vigor: there comes a time when you have to pace yourself. Especially when you have a kid to take care of, a husband to love, a job to do. The path of wisdom is too hard a route if it leads through wine. In Berlin Anne was no longer the medium she’d been in Magdeburg. Terrorizing the Stasi, conquering wiretaps across time and space: that wasn’t her anymore. What did happen in Berlin was that she noticed the ghosts and spirits had plenty of people to tend to them. Anne is constantly encountering people with ghost stories to tell. People like her neighbor, the painter. When she visited him she got the feeling that someone else was there with them in his apartment; maybe, she thought, it was just noises. She looked around.
“So you heard something too?” the painter said. “I have a sort of housemate, but then again, who knows, maybe it’s just a dream.”
“Come on, tell me,” Anne insisted.
The painter was skeptical. “It was probably just a dream.” Then he said, “I was lying on the sofa falling asleep. A woman appeared. She wore a dress with an apron and her hair was in long braids. We looked at each other in astonishment. I felt awkward, I didn’t know what to say to her. Then I suddenly thought: I’m just sleeping! I closed my eyes, and then I woke up.”
He showed Anne a picture he’d drawn right after he woke up. The woman was wearing high-heeled lace-up boots. She looked short and serious and overworked. Like a woman from a century ago. His housemate.
*This story is taken from: Die Gespenster von Berlin – Wahre Geschichten by Sarah Khanl. © Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin 2013.
When I think of Ireland, John-Paul Finnegan said as we stood on the deck of the ferry while it pulled out of Holyhead, I think of a limitless ignorance. And not just an ignorance, but a wallowing in ignorance, akin to the wallowing in filth of a pig or a naked, demented savage. Ireland and the people of Ireland wallow in ignorance much in the way that a child or a lunatic wallows in its own filth, smearing the walls with it, grinning and cooing loudly, smearing the walls and itself with its own filth, its own stinking self-made filth. This is definitely how the Irish people are, he said. This is their primary characteristic. Absolutely. Elsewhere in the world you can find qualities in people, both individuals and groups, which correspond to words such as spirit, life-force, vitality, passion and curiosity, but in Ireland you will find no such qualities. No such qualities at all. This is what John-Paul Finnegan, author of Nevah Trust a Christian, told me as the ferry, the Ulysses, began to move out of the harbour at Holyhead, propelling itself away from the British coast, towards Dublin.
Consider the name of this very ship, said John-Paul Finnegan. In fact, don’t even get me started on the name of this ship, he said. But it was too late, because he had already got himself started on the name of the ship, which was Ulysses. Not a single fucking dickhead in all of Ireland has actually read Ulysses, said John-Paul Finnegan. Except me, of course, the biggest dickhead of them all. Yet everyone in Ireland pretends to have read Ulysses, or acts like they’ve read it, but none of them have. The last person in Ireland to read Ulysses was James Joyce, and even he only read half of it, said John-Paul Finnegan. Come to think of it, there were a few professors who came after Joyce who also read Ulysses, or rather, they didn’t read it, they killed it, they killed Ulysses by James Joyce, just like they have killed almost every other book that was once worth reading. And not only did they kill Ulysses, but first they mutilated it, subjecting it to the most mental forms of torture. And how did they kill it? he asked. I will tell you, he said. They killed Ulysses by rendering it a desiccated literary relic; they wrote a slew of murderously dull articles about Ulysses, and thereby killed it. They killed Ulysses by making it seem to anyone unfortunate or depraved enough to read one of their hateful papers that Ulysses is the most boring and flaccid book in the world, when of course it is anything but the most boring and flaccid book in the world, it is in fact deeply subversive, scatological, irreverent, perverse, and above all, diabolically deviant. That is, the form and the content of the book are deviant: they deviate from good taste, from literary classicism, from the boredoms of morality and plot, and from sentimentality — in other words, from all the shit of literature, said John-Paul Finnegan, the typical and all-too-prevalent shit of literature. Like any decent author, said John-Paul Finnegan, Joyce ignored the shit, he sidestepped it, the hideous shit of literature, because he couldn’t be bothered and he wanted to write a new kind of book, which is the only thing worth doing if you call yourself a writer of any description. Yet if you read one of the papers, any of the papers by those unconscionable fucking dickheads who write about Ulysses, you will soon if not immediately come to the conclusion that this book, this Ulysses, is not worth reading precisely because, judging by how these academic fucks, these sick, life-hating, evil, mental, and spiritually crippled fucks write about it, Ulysses must be the least interesting of all books, said John-Paul Finnegan as the ship, the Ulysses, finally pulled out of the harbour and commenced upon open water.
I sighed. John-Paul Finnegan was right, I thought. But then again, maybe he wasn’t right. Maybe he was entirely wrong, as he had so often been entirely wrong before, about so many things, nearly everything in fact. After all, I had read Ulysses, so he wasn’t entirely right. Likelier he was entirely wrong. After all, I was Irish, and I had read Ulysses. What about me? I said to John-Paul Finnegan, suddenly indignant that he would so casually disparage the entirety of the Irish race, myself included, on the basis of such a truly sweeping generalisation. What about me? I said again. To which John-Paul Finnegan looked at me, clasping his hands as the ship cut across the waves. What about you? he said warily. I read Ulysses, I said. That’s right, he said, I’d forgotten that. He seemed to be having a moment of self-doubt. So there’s you and then there’s me and then there’s James Joyce, he said finally. We three have all read Ulysses. But no one else in Ireland has ever read Ulysses, he added. This I know. I know this simply because I know it, he said, his confidence returning. In other words it is what the philosophers call a priori knowledge, the kind of knowledge which we can possess prior to, indeed independently of, empirical verification. I simply know, as you know, as everybody knows, that everyone in Ireland, everyone except you and me, is too fucking dim-witted, too altogether stupid and moronic, and above all too terrified by the very word literature, to have bothered to read Ulysses. That’s how I know. You think I’m fucking joking, he said, jabbing a finger in my chest. I am not fucking joking, he said. I am not even exaggerating, let alone joking. Irishmen are terrified of the word literature. I can guarantee you that if I were to suddenly turn around, on this deck, with these couples and old drunken builders and traveller families and whatnot, and if I were then to roar the word literature at the top of my lungs, the vast majority of these people would run to the sides of the ship and hurl themselves over the edge to be drowned. They would sooner drown than confront a man roaring literature. And the rest of them, John-Paul Finnegan added, would simply collapse on the spot, they would die of the sheer horror that the word literature provoked in them, the boundless sense of nausea, terror and repulsion it provoked in their Irish hearts, that is to say their pig-hearts, their flaccid dickhead hearts. Some of them would have heart attacks, others aneurysms. Others would simply keel, causes unknown. For they know nothing of literature, of Joyce, and they care for less, these Irishmen, said John-Paul Finnegan, glowering at me now with a ferocity and yes, a hatred which I had done nothing to deserve, or so I felt. I may as well roar Allahu akbar, added John-Paul Finnegan, as roar literature. I may as well wrap a towel around my head and roar Allahu akbar while ripping off my shirt to reveal a suicide vest, as to roar literature, for the effect it would have on these Irishmen, in other words these cretins, these fuckheads, these unconscionable morons and idiots, these fucking heartless and mindless pricks, these pigs and sheep and rodents that call themselves Irishmen, when in truth they should call themselves sheep and pigs and rodents, if not total fucking spanners, said John-Paul Finnegan, who now had flecks of foam collecting at the corners of his mouth, and whose eyes had not left mine. But it seemed to me that the boundless hate had drained from John-Paul Finnegan’s eyes, and what remained was a childlike fear, a pleading, a remorse even. I imagined that John-Paul Finnegan was flailing out in the sea, not the Irish Sea which our ship, the Ulysses, was cutting across at a decent speed, but the metaphorical sea, the Black Sea or the Dead Sea, the sea of loneliness, self-hate and dread that is the fate not of all men, but certainly of all thinking men, as John-Paul Finnegan had himself told me, in one of his more vulnerable moments, when we had lived together in London, in a crowded and unsanitary house near Finsbury Park.
These pricks! he shouted. These unconscionable mental pricks! How I fucking loathe them, he muttered, shaking his head violently, too violently I thought, he might do himself damage. He drew sharply from his hip-flask, neglecting to pass it to me. How low can you go? he asked. How fucking low? I will tell you how low: all the way to Ireland. That’s how low you can fucking go. I let it pass, that inane comment, and fell to thinking about our lives in London, the lives we were leaving behind, standing as we were on the deck of this ship, this Ulysses that was cutting across the Irish Sea, the coast of Britain fading behind us. It was in the house near Finsbury Park that John-Paul Finnegan had written the last three volumes of Nevah Trust a Christian, his novel in eleven volumes, as he always called it, with bottomless perversity, the fact being that there were no fewer than thirteen volumes in his novel, if it even was a novel. I had moved into the house when John-Paul Finnegan was nearing the end of volume twelve, which he had titled Who’s Ya Daddy? I write eight thousand words per day, he had told me on the night we first went out for drinks in the Twelve Pins pub on Seven Sisters Road. I replied that eight thousand words seemed like a lot, in fact it seemed like far too many words to write in a single day. Absolutely fucking correct, it is too many, it’s far too many words even for the most deadline-haunted hack, let alone for a writer of literature, such as myself, John-Paul Finnegan said, pouring a shot of whiskey into his Guinness, as was his wont, a concoction which he called Guinnskey. It was then that John-Paul Finnegan had explained to me his notion of paltry realism, the genre in which he claimed to write, and which he also claimed to have invented. Paltry realism means writing shit, he said. What I mean to say is, what is art, only a howl against death. Are we agreed on this, Rob? he demanded. I nodded my head. Good, he said. Then we are agreed that art is a howl against death and nothing more. Yet why is it, he said, that so much art tries to do the opposite, to ignore, even to deny death? Have you thought about this? he asked. Art, and especially literature, has a thousand clever ways of denying or ignoring death. One of these ways is literariness itself, that is, literary imposture, said John-Paul Finnegan. By which I mean the ceaseless attempt by practitioners of literature to achieve beauty and perfection, to write well, in short to craft perfect and elegant sentences. This is infinite bollocks, said John-Paul Finnegan. If you write slowly, carefully, then what are you doing if not indulging in vanity — the vanity of writing well. It’s no different from wearing a nice coat or a frock or a shiny pair of shoes to a bourgeois dinner party — and I will tell you now, he added, I am not nor have I ever been the kind of man to attend dinner parties, bourgeois or otherwise. And death is no fucking dinner party. The point is, though, said John-Paul Finnegan, trying to write well is vanity and nothing other than vanity, and when I say vanity I essentially mean the fear of death expressed in self-framing, as you will have guessed. That is where the technique of paltry realism makes its stance. Paltry realism means writing rapidly, and yes, even writing badly, in fact only writing badly, and not seeking to impress anyone with your writing, with either its style or its content. Paltry realism means writing eight thousand words per day, he said. Eight thousand words — far too many for any decent or tasteful writer, but perfect for the practitioner of paltry realism, a school which, for the time being, consists solely of me, said John-Paul Finnegan, fixing another Guinnskey. I was intrigued by his theory of paltry realism and urged him to say more, though I needn’t have bothered, as he was already talking over me, caught up in the swell of his own oratory, aflame with the zeal I was to observe in him many times over the course of our friendship, which began that night in the Twelve Pins and continued to the afternoon when we stood together on the deck of the Ulysses, which was now at full steam as it tore across the Irish Sea, the British coastline having faded completely to the stern. Another indicator of the vanity and ultimately the self-delusion of literature, even in its so-called avant-garde, modernist or experimental guises, is that its practitioners invariably display a craving, a very unseemly craving, to have their work published, John-Paul Finnegan had said that night in the pub, him downing Guinnskeys and me downing Guinnesses. All of them, the brazen slags, all they want is to be published, he said. They want an adoring or a scandalised public to read their works, thereby granting them a kind of immortality, or so they would like to think. This goes for Céline, Kafka, Pessoa, Joyce, Marinetti, Musil, Markson, Handke, Hamsun, Stein, Sebald, Bernhard, Ballard, Beckett, Blanchot, Burroughs, Bolaño, Cioran, Duras, Gombrowicz, Pound, Eliot, and any other dickhead of the so-called avant-garde that you might care to mention, as much as it goes for McEwan, Self, Banville, Tóibín, Auster, Atwood, Ellis, Amis, Thirlwell, Hollinghurst, Smith, Doyle, Dyer, Franzen, and any other arsehole active in mainstream literature today, said John-Paul Finnegan. To them, the value of a work of literature is dependent on its being published. If it is not published, it has no value. There is an ontological question at work here, he added: if a book is unread by anyone except its author, can it be said to exist? More pertinently, can it be said to be any good? My response, and paltry realism’s response, is simply to bypass the whole squalid agenda. What is the point in sending my writing out to publishers, said John-Paul Finnegan, so that they might accept or reject it? What is the use in that? I will tell you now: I reject the publishers, every last one of them, even the ones I admire, the ones I revere, the good and the best of them, because I am a paltry realist, and publication, Rob, is not among my aims, not among my aims at all, it is not among my aims, I am simply not fucking interested in being published, he said, slamming his Guinnskey on the table. I write for other reasons, he added, though he neglected to say what they were. On several occasions, while we were living together in the house near Finsbury Park, John-Paul Finnegan had permitted me to read sections of Nevah Trust a Christian, his gargantuan work allegedly in the paltry realist mode. True enough, the writing was very bad, and obviously written in great haste (handwritten, that is — John-Paul Finnegan hated typing on a laptop). The prose was utterly devoid of literary flair and displayed not the slightest effort to seduce or entertain the reader. Not that the writing was hostile to the reader, as can be the case among the severest of modernists; rather, the writing seemed indifferent to the reader, perhaps even unaware of the reader’s existence. There were few paragraph breaks and no chapter breaks. There was no discernible story and no characters. The word fuck, or one of its variants, appeared at least once on every line, more often twice or three times, or more. The word cunt was almost as frequent; the words bastard, dickhead, rodent and moron riddled the text. Several pages consisted solely of fuck-derived words repeated hundreds of times, punctuated by bastard, mongrel, cunthawk or dickhead. Others offered perfunctory descriptions of dusty towns and hurtling trams, giant mounds of waste and crumbling ridges, or glibly vicious references to contemporary events. I had the sense of an inner monologue; not exactly a stream of consciousness, more like a machinegun of consciousness, or a self-bludgeoning of consciousness, or just an interminable, pointless spewing of language, a kind of insane vomiting of language, page after page of it, a dozen volumes stacked on the floor beside John-Paul Finnegan’s desk, which was a backstage dressing-table salvaged from a closed-down strip club.
But this is not even the worst of it, John-Paul Finnegan said suddenly as we stood together on the deck of the Ulysses as it bounced over the waves, away from Britain. This ship, this Ulysses, is not even the worst of it, he repeated. The worst of it is Bloomsday. Have you ever seen Bloomsday? he asked. What I’m talking about, he said, is the national day of celebration in tribute to a book that no one in Ireland has even fucking read! That is what I refer to, said John-Paul Finnegan. Until a decade or so ago, Bloomsday was merely a kind of minor national stain, a silly and moronic venture that no one really bothered with, and which you could safely ignore. But then the government, that gang of dribbling pricks, that moron collective, as I have so often labelled them, saw in Bloomsday a serious marketing opportunity, one which they, in their infinite hatefulness, decided was far too lucrative to ignore. There was more money to be squeezed out of Joyce, they decided, as if Joyce were a sponge or a testicle, and even though not one of them — this I know — not one of them had ever read Ulysses, or even Dubliners, or any of Joyce’s books at all, said John-Paul Finnegan. In fact, these morons that I’m referring to, these are the kind of people who, if you suggested to them that they might read Ulysses or Dubliners, would laugh out loud. And I’m not talking about an embarrassed or a social form of laughter, he said, but a bellowing, hearty and spontaneous laughter, from the guts, a laughter of delight at what they would consider the mad and uproarious idea of reading Ulysses or Dubliners, said John-Paul Finnegan. He drew again from his hip-flask, then passed it to me. I drank. These morons, these dickheads, these unconscionable fucking arseholes decided to commercialise this so-called Bloomsday, said John-Paul Finnegan, the day when the fictional Leopold Bloom fictionally wandered around Dublin city, drinking, ruminating, chatting and so on. In other words, the sixteenth of June, he said. It would bring in the tourists, they reckoned. It would bring in the Yanks and Japs, the French and the Germans, the Swedes and the Slavs, the vulgarian Bulgarians and the roaming Romanians, and all those grinning tourists would spend their money admiring the Irish people and their literary heritage, even though the people of Ireland no longer read, are too stupid to read, let alone to read Ulysses, the book that this whole moronic fiasco of Bloomsday purports to celebrate. You don’t need me, said John-Paul Finnegan, to point out that the two Irish writers widely considered the greatest of the twentieth century, even by people who have never read and never intend to read either of them, namely Beckett and Joyce, had nothing but hatred and disgust for Ireland, and for the Irish. These two writers spent a huge amount of energy actively disparaging the Irish and Ireland, said John-Paul Finnegan, in their letters and conversation, and frequently in their published work too. Yet here we have a situation, this so-called Bloomsday, wherein all the fat waddling morons on the island gather in the streets to celebrate a book by Joyce which they never bothered to read! Pink pudgy dickheads. Mindless flabby wankers, trailing their moron progeny. Useless bastards one and all. They celebrate Ulysses in the most nauseatingly self-conscious of ways, prancing about for the snapping tourists, dancing like twats, like true dickheads for these snapping tourists, who gaze on in a euphoria of mindlessness, clicking their cameras, their smartphone cameras, their video cameras, recording the Irish, this literary nation, making absolute fools of themselves by aping the characters in a book they have never read, a book they never intend to read, for they hate books, they hate all books regardless of provenance, the only exceptions being Harry Potter and football biographies, said John-Paul Finnegan. Bloomsday, he said, shaking his head in disgust. Bloomsday. Fucking Bloomsday. Blooms-fucking-day. Bloom-fuckings-day. Fuck off, he said. Fuck right off. I mean it, fuck all the world. Listen to this, John-Paul Finnegan said. A few years ago I was back in Dublin, don’t ask me why, I was back in Dublin at the time of Bloomsday. I went into town, not to partake in the celebrations of course, but for unrelated reasons. And while I was in there I walked up O’Connell Street and listen to this, it will sound like the stuff of broad satire or lunatic fantasy but it is neither, Rob, I assure you. I walked on to O’Connell Street and what did I see, along the pedestrian island running up the middle of Dublin’s great thoroughfare, but hundreds of fat grinning idiots, together with their chortling wives and their chubby, shrieking children, all sitting in rows along either side of an immensely long dining table, said John-Paul Finnegan. I am not kidding you. And listen to this. Over their heads was a massive dangling banner, a dangling banner that read Denny Sausages Celebrate James Joyce’s Bloomsday. Yes! Denny fucking Sausages! As if the sausages themselves were bursting in ecstasy. This because somewhere in the scatological sprawl of Ulysses, between its intimate depictions of flatulence, defecation, masturbation, blasphemy, and unbridled male and female lust, there is brief mention made of Denny fucking Sausages, said John-Paul Finnegan. So here they were, hundreds of these fat chortling twats, crowded around a long dining table replete with white tablecloth, being served plate upon plate of sausages, each of them cramming their faces with sausage, a veritable orgy of sausage-gorging in honour of James Joyce, high-modernist and high-mocker of Ireland. Here is your legacy, James Joyce, John-Paul Finnegan roared over the waves, here is your legacy — two hundred chortling fucks eating sausages! You have really left your fucking mark, James Joyce. Oh yes you have! You are the KING OF MODERNISM! Presently John-Paul Finnegan produced his hip-flask, swigged on it, and passed it to me. I drank self-consciously, for despite the roar of the turbines and the waves crashing against the prow, many of the other travellers on deck had heard John-Paul Finnegan’s outburst and were looking warily in our direction. John-Paul Finnegan was oblivious to their gazes, or just indifferent. Fat waddling pricks, he muttered, more subdued now. How they waddle. Like fat, mental penguins. Fat chortling penguins, grinning like lunatics. Penguins of depravity, penguins of hate. Will I tell you what I did? he said, turning to me sharply. I will tell you what I did. I made it my business to at least attempt to fathom this unprecedented display of public idiocy, this linking of high-modernism to pork consumption. I walked along the rows of chortling, sausage-cramming Dubliners, through the gauntlet of snapping Japs, the lens-faced legions. Then I stopped and asked one woman who was sitting with a pile of sausages on a plate in front of her, whether she had actually read Ulysses, said John-Paul Finnegan. She stared at me for a long time, her expression conveying sheerest bewilderment and horror. Her child began to cry. Eventually the woman came out of her trance, and she said to me, very slowly, Ulysses. Just the word Ulysses, nothing more. I never saw a woman so afraid. Her little boy had his head in his hands now, weeping through his fingers, wailing. That was when the father turned around. He looked me in the eye, a long and disdainful look it was. Then he said, I think you’d better leave. What the fuck, said John-Paul Finnegan, recollecting the incident. What the fuck? All I had done was ask her if she had read Ulysses. They ran me out of there, he said. They’d have lynched me, that sausage-mob, if I had not made off with myself. A black day for Ireland, and a black day for me, said John-Paul Finnegan. And yet here I am, here we are, on a ferry, on the fucking Ulysses no less, gliding across the sea not away from, but in the direction of the accursed land, the steaming hole, the potato field, the literary and intellectual silence of Ireland. Would that it would crumble into the sea, he added. Would that the entire stinking mass, the whole abominable island would groan, keel and tumble into the sea. Dissolve in the sea. Dissolve like a man who is made of salt, a man who fell into the sea, he said. He was silent for a time, looking out at the waves. I thought about London, about Dublin, about our position now, suspended between the two cities. We must be the only two Irishmen returning to Ireland rather than fleeing from it, I reflected, not for the first time. I thought about Irish pubs, the many of them back in London I had drunk in with John-Paul Finnegan, and it seemed to me now that they weren’t pubs at all, but cages, or bear-traps. I began to fantasize about climbing the rail and flinging myself to the sea, vanishing in the foam with a truncated yell.
The journey was nearing its end. John-Paul Finnegan was muttering away by my side, as if in tense dialogue with the waves, or the treacherous forms that squirmed inside his head. I sensed that the closer we got to Dublin, the less sure of himself he became. Very soon we would be at Dublin port. I could already make out the Poolbeg towers hazed on the horizon. I thought of all the time we had spent away, John-Paul Finnegan and I, and the hatred he bore within him, the hatred that is purer than any other, the hatred for where one comes from. And now John-Paul Finnegan turned to me, gripping the rail. I could feel his gaze on me. I turned to face him. What the fuck did they do to me? he said quietly, referring to what, I did not know. What the fuck did they do to me, Rob? The words had to them a tone of revelation. The coastline was expanding across the horizon, sinister and domineering. John-Paul Finnegan shook his head. What the fuck did they do to me? What the fuck was going on, Rob? What the fuck was going on?
I turned away, facing the coast. Neither of us spoke for a time. John-Paul Finnegan went to speak again but hesitated. I did not look at him. Finally he said, I hate what I’ve written. I hate every word of it. That moronic and sickening fucking book. That so-called novel which I hate more than anything. He seemed calmer now, even as the coast grew closer, firmer, filling our vision to the prow of the Ulysses. Paltry realism is nothing, means nothing, he said. I wrote what I wrote because I thought it would heal me, but there is no healing, you just learn to live with your wounds and your mutilations, and you stagger onwards, crippled and bedraggled, towards your death. One day your energy fails you and you keel over, and that’s that. You have not been healed. In a way you died from your wounds. Every hurt and every humiliation lasts for ever. There is no healing. Writing changes nothing, it’s an infliction. You inflict yourself on the page, and then on the reader, and on the world. Better to have no readers, better not to write at all. There was no worth to what I wrote, nor to anything I have ever done. Nothing in my life has had any worth. Writing has no worth. Nothing has any worth. Nothing. We were both silent as the ferry sailed into the mouth of the port, the twin red and white towers looming like sentries. Now John-Paul Finnegan seemed truly calm, self-possessed once more, neither raging nor afraid. I will not forgive, he said. Fuck it all. I have decided. I will not forgive them, not forgive any of them for what they have done, for what they have done to me. I will not forgive them, he said. I will not. No. Fuck it, he said.
*This story is taken from: This Is the Ritual By Rob Doyle (Bloomsbury, 2016).
When Markus Kellmer got home from work, he found a naked woman on his living-room carpet. Her dishevelled hair reminded him of the way he had drawn crows’ nests and tree tops as a child; her skin shone as if it were varnished, and when Markus turned her carefully onto her back to talk to her and maybe find out who she was and what she was doing in his flat, he realised she was dead.
He went straight to the window and drew the curtains. It was really far too early for that; outside it was still light. Spring had come a few days ago and the sun wouldn’t set for another hour, at about six. Not that many weeks ago it had vanished at about four, but since then the days had learnt to hold their brightness for longer and longer, and soon they would give way to the summer heat that was already ripening within them.
On these mild spring days, the rays of afternoon sun were always the first to greet Markus when he walked through the door of his flat. Shutting them out gave him a headache; it felt as if the room had a migraine. But he could hardly do otherwise: there was, after all, a dead woman lying on the floor of his flat. Around her mouth and nostrils, the skin looked as if someone had tried to strike matches against it. Markus lifted the corpse and set it in an armchair, but it fell straight out; its joints were like jelly, its body like a balloon filled with liquid. He tried once more, but again it didn’t stay in the chair; it tipped forward, like someone who suddenly has to vomit – and crashed head first onto the parquet. The crash brought Markus back to reality. He went straight to the stereo and switched it on. Music helped him think.
He couldn’t simply leave the corpse lying on the floor. Corpses changed; their surface was not as stable as that of living people. All they were really interested in was their own disintegration, and in order to disappear as completely as possible, they needed a base that was favourable to exchange, such as a forest floor or a swamp – something with which they could gradually become one. Here, of course, there was nothing of that nature, so he’d have to come up with something. He grabbed the remote control and turned up the volume.
It occurred to him that he had recently concealed a large model aeroplane behind his radiator. That had been when his parents were visiting the previous week, and he hadn’t wanted them to see the model. There was a lot of room behind the radiator, but was it enough to accommodate a grown woman? Markus fetched a tape measure and measured the corpse. Hard to say – he’d have to give it a try.
He struggled for over half an hour, but in the end the head and half the torso were still sticking out. Even so, it was a partial success. For a while, Markus just sat there, leaning against the doorframe and staring into space. What, he wondered, could the woman have died of? He had discovered no strangle marks or bruises. Whatever the cause of death, it seemed to have left her body unscathed. Perhaps she had been poisoned. Or died of natural causes. But she was still pretty young; Markus guessed that she was between twenty-five and thirty.
He got up and stretched. No, it wouldn’t do at all. The model plane had been safe behind the radiator, but the corpse would be spotted by anyone entering the room. He’d have to come up with some other hiding place.
Making a mental search of the various nooks and crannies of his flat, Markus dragged the corpse out from behind the radiator. Because she was naked, his impatient pulling and tugging left her damaged in places. The columns of the radiator cut into the pale skin as if it were butter. Only a little blood was spilled, though, because the heart had stopped beating; the blood vessels were no longer under pressure. Even so, a few ugly marks were left on the floor and radiator. Markus went in the bathroom and fetched a wet cloth to clean the columns. It was spring; if he left the bodily fluids to dry, the radiator would smell to high heaven when he turned the heating on again next winter.
Grabbing the corpse by the arms, he dragged it back into the front room. Again, it left some marks behind – long reddish trails this time. Shaking his head, he went back to the bathroom, fetched another cloth and set to scrubbing the floor. He really could be slow sometimes, positively dull-witted. To make sure nothing of the sort happened again, he wrapped the corpse in big towels from head to toe. That also made it much easier to pull across the parquet.
The music from the stereo fell silent, and a voice announced the Christian names of the double bass, percussion, and flute.
Markus left the swaddled corpse in the bath overnight. The next day he almost overslept because while dreaming he mistook the buzz of his alarm clock for the sad farewell croak of a frog aboard a small rocket that was being launched into a geostationary orbit around Earth. He had only just enough time for a light breakfast before catching the bus to work. In the late afternoon he returned home.
He noticed the smell as soon he walked in at the door. It wasn’t very strong, but it was there. He went in the bathroom. The corpse lay there like yesterday evening, except that on the towel covering its face, a stain had spread, vaguely reminiscent of a maple leaf.
It had been a tiring day at the office and usually Markus would have yielded to his urge for a hot bath, stretched out in the warm water, wiggled his toes, and drowned all the worries whirring around his head in the mountains of softly popping bubbles. Today he might just manage to go without his daily cleansing ritual, but there was no way this state of affairs could be accepted as a permanent solution. In fact, he was already beginning to feel nervous. He pulled the corpse out of the bath, rolled it into the next room, and rinsed out the tub with the shower. It wasn’t until he’d used up almost the entire bottle of bathroom cleaner that he felt he could face getting into the tub naked without feeling too disgusted.
But before having a bath, he set about putting the corpse in the half-empty wardrobe in his study. Odd that he hadn’t thought of it earlier. He had, after all, once stowed an entire set of rolled-up roller blinds in there – the white strings sticking out at the top had made them look like rods of dynamite. The corpse fitted nicely in the wardrobe, but every time Markus tried to close the door, it tipped out again, head first, and he had to catch it as she fell about his neck like a long-lost acquaintance. In the end he fixed her wrists to the inside with sticky tape. He also taped up the air vent at the bottom of the wardrobe thoroughly enough to leave him feeling that the whole thing could be left for at least a few days.
He had only been in the bathroom three minutes and was fiddling with the showerhead when he heard the bang. He turned off the water and listened. All was quiet, but it was no good pretending – he knew what had happened. Half naked, he left the bathroom and went back to his study.
The sight of the hideously contorted woman lying half in, half out of the wardrobe was so ridiculous that Markus let out a kind of roaring sneeze, triggered not by an overstimulated mucous membrane, but by an overstimulated imagination.
Before he could lift her up, he had to unfold her – yes, that’s right, unfold her, because she was – my God, not even a contortionist would have wanted to get into such a position. But it was a corpse, he told himself, nothing living. It wasn’t fair to apply the same standards.
Perhaps it would be better if he left the corpse as it was – a tangled muddle of arms and legs, and a body already bursting at the seams in several places. It was certainly easier to transport, but of course she took up more room than in her unfolded state.
The carpet in Markus’s living room was of the antique variety. It had been trodden by many generations, felt the patter of tiny feet give way to the heavy tread of age and responsibility, welcomed newlyweds and mourners. Its pattern had preoccupied twenty or more geometrically minded people. It had survived world wars and times of euphoria and inspired chaos. In short, it was not the kind of carpet you could simply shove a corpse under.
Markus knew that. He knew all that – and yet he could come up with no other solution. He had tried everything: the wardrobe, the radiator, the bath. Short of grabbing the corpse and flinging it legs over head over heels out of the window, he didn’t have a lot of alternatives. Besides, time was pressing.
He picked up the heavy carpet with both hands and used his feet to shove and kick the corpse onto the slightly paler floorboards underneath. Untouched by light and untrodden by people, these boards were without a doubt the most vulnerable and intimate part of the flat. It took him a while, but at last he had pushed the corpse into place and could spread the carpet over it. The thick, heavy weave smelled of shoe leather and the past. As it came down over the incongruous form, almost spiriting it away, Markus was suffused by a feeling of immense relief. He nearly clapped his hands.
The new carpeted mound looked a little like a three-dimensional model of a topographic map. By chance, the elevations of the corpse’s contours corresponded precisely with the concentric pattern in the carpet, so that the darkest areas were situated at the highest geographical point (one shoulder always stuck up slightly when the corpse was lying on its back). It was almost as if the whole thing had been arranged deliberately to help you get your bearings.
This solution was without a doubt the best so far. The only problem was navigating the steep sides of the corpse, because it was hard not to lose your footing on the raised carpet. So Markus fetched his big desk, which was never put to any meaningful use anyway, manoeuvring it from the study to the living room until it stood right over the carpeted mountain range. That would stop him from tripping at least. And although the desk wasn’t ideally positioned, here in the middle of the room, perhaps now he would sit at it more often and write more of those little literary efforts of his which flowed so steadily from his pen, but were – in view of their evident futility – an equally steady source of grief to him.
It didn’t look at all bad. A small mound in the middle of the room – and over it, a desk. If he didn’t manage to inundate the desk with pages of writing, he would simply spread a large cloth over it – one that reached to the floor.
So that’s that, thought Markus and went into the kitchen. His successful negotiation of the last two days’ ordeals definitely called for celebration. After staring distractedly at labels for a while, he decided on a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, its contents a dark red.
It wasn’t until he was back in the living room – where the desk, now the indisputable centrepiece, lent the room a whole new emotional focus – that he realised he was carrying two wine glasses. With every step he took, they clinked softly in his fingers, which he held loosely clasped about their thin glass necks.
*This story is taken from: Die Liebe zur Zeit des Mahlstädter Kindes by Clemens J. Setz. © Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin 2011.
The last item on the shopping list was bread. Two o’clock in the afternoon. August. And the insistence to walk all the way to the bread shop. Specification is the sign of affluence and civilization; that which accommodates variety. I direct my steps toward the comforting scholasticism of bread, options of grain, types of pastry – and the choice made earlier, in a past time, at home – the thrill of finding the shape of a will. Despite the heat, this is what I need to pull myself together, the ritual of the hostess preparing for guests. The extended negotiation and the giving preceded by strategy. If I give as I wish, I could find rest in the giving. I take my place in line. An elderly couple: they too know in advance what they want, but somehow they lack the joy of simulated choice; pointing in itself is a sign of lost chances, of losing one’s hold on life. Having inquired what half-loaves are left and sampled some morsels, they decide in a whispered consultation to chose the sunflower bread once again. Though a bit pricy, it’s the best, they tell the saleswoman. The woman in front of me, dressed in red with large black-framed glasses, is hiding behind a big woman laden with shopping bags whose turn is coming up. The woman in red is ceaselessly groping the boxes of cookies stacked on our right, the ones you’re meant to take on your own. She takes one and puts into a plastic bag. Out of the
corner of my eye, only half seeing the motion of the theft, I am so stunned to see a thief in action, that immediately my face shows too great an interest, spoiling all her secrecy. Not looking at me she fiddles with the box of cookies, rattling it slightly, as though masking the secret by this delicate noise. By letting something slip by she leaves room for doubt. But I do not doubt. She backs away toward the door, giving me her place in the line. I know you, I tell her voicelessly. So shut up, her face retorts. We’ll see, I don’t know, I reply. I’ll kill you. You can’t – we’re surrounded by people. Profusion will protect me. You don’t say, she mocks – profusion whirls you in the wind till you rot in motion. Once a day I deserve something nobody knows of. Today it’s sesame cookies. And what about the young saleswoman and stocktaking and the boss’s accusations – who will pay for your desires. God
will pay. Oh, God, I pant. The only one who doesn’t surprise
himself, which is why we can no longer find refuge from the daily shock of loss. I feel her staring at my back. I’ve taken her place in line and she has withdrawn to its end. Other people press into the store. I see her turning to the shelves, taking the box out of her bag, replacing it among the cookie boxes. I feel somewhat disappointed. After all, who am I to know what she needs, and can one prevent matter from overflowing beyond its bounds – her obsession infects me, I’m already nearly drunk with some dark invisible substance that binds us together like love. No, not like love – we are each other’s riddle and we’re seeking an outlet for the wonder – how is it possible to recognize that which is sealed
inside its own nature – and the code, we already know, has been completely destroyed. I glance at her again. Once more she places the cookies in the bag and once more our gazes cross from behind. I am the victim of a crime. I want to tell the saleswoman politely, this woman is a thief, please. But my night is already lying there in mid-day, and my sins revealed to her – naturally, only sinners recognize their kind. I am familiar with all the motions of theft, the distractions, and the small noises of innocence. But she frightens me. The risks you take. The poorness of the truth. And the panic, the terrible panic that we shall never receive as much as we give, this
panic in its turn protects us from the disappointing feebleness of our generosity. The two of us, dreaming of robbery and revenge, standing in line for bread. She must have cookies, I must leave home. She wanted to have it for free and I’ve already made her pay with the anguish and rage of discovery; I want to betray effortlessly, with a kiss, but keep paying the price. Take it, take the goddamned cookies, I say, while asking for poppy-seed cake and three kinds of rolls – and I am overtaken by black vertigo.
No banister. No alliance. No word of accord. Only seeing. And sedimented seeing. While I pay she gets back in line with the concealed cookies to continue the game – stay away from me or I’ll kill you, I signal to her as I step out of the store. Don’t worry, she replies – your kind I can recognize anywhere.
It was the first Michael had heard of the girl. His housekeeper was telling him about her: she claimed— Mandy did—that there was no father. She lived in the neighboring village of W. The housekeeper laughed, Michael sighed. As if it wasn’t enough that church attendance was way down, that the old people sent him away when he tried to visit them in their home, and the children cheeked him in Sunday school. It was all Communism, he said, or the aftereffects of it. Ach, nonsense, said the housekeeper, it was never any different. Did he know the large sugar-beet field on the road to W.? There was a sort of island in the middle of it. A clump of trees had been left standing by the farmer. Since forever, she said. And that’s where he has assignations with a woman. What woman? asked Michael. What farmer? The one who’s there, and his father before him, and his grandfather before that. All of them. Since forever. We’re only human, after all, them and me. Each of us has his needs.
Michael sighed. He had been the minister here since spring, but he hadn’t got any closer to his flock. He came from the mountains, where everything was different: the people, the landscape, and the sky, which here was so infinitely wide and remote.
She claims she’s never been with a man, said the housekeeper, the baby must be a gift from God. That Mandy girl, she said, was the daughter of Gregor who works for the bus company. The little fat driver. He gave her a good spanking, she was black and blue all over. And now the whole village is scratching its head over who the father might be. There aren’t a lot of men living there who are candidates. Maybe it was Marco the landlord. Ora passing tramp. She’s no oil painting, you know. But you take what you can get. That Mandy, she’s not the brightest either, said the housekeeper: maybe she didn’t realize. Up on the ladder picking cherries. All right, all right, said Michael.
Mandy came to the vicarage while Michael was eating lunch. The housekeeper brought her in, and he asked her to sit down and talk to him. She just sat there with downcast eyes and didn’t speak. She smelled of soap. Michael ate, and kept sneaking looks at the young woman. She wasn’t pretty, but she wasn’t ugly either. Perhaps she would turn to fat later. Now she was plump. She’s blooming, thought Michael. And he sneaked a look at her belly and her big breasts, very prominent under the rather garish sweater. He didn’t know if it was pregnancy or food. Then the young woman looked at him and immediately lowered her eyes, and he pushed away his half-eaten lunch and stood up. Let’s go out in the garden.
The year was far along. The leaves were turning on the trees. The morning had been misty, now the sun was trying to break through. Michael and Mandy walked together in the garden. Your Reverence, she said, and he, No, please just call me Michael, and I’ll call you Mandy. So she didn’t know who the father was? There was no father, said Mandy, I never . . . She stopped. Michael sighed. Sixteen, eighteen, he thought, no older than that. My dear child, he said, it’s a sin, but God will forgive you. Thus saith the Lord God of Israel: Every bottle shall be filled with wine!
Mandy tore a leaf off the old linden tree where they had come to a stop, and Michael said, Do you know how it is when a man lies with a woman? You mean, with the peter, said Mandy, and she blushed and looked down. Perhaps it was in her sleep, thought Michael, apparently such things happen. They had studied it in school, Mandy added, and quickly: Erection, coitus, and rhythm method. All right, all right, said Michael, school. That was the upshot of having so many Communists still sitting on school boards.
Holy mother of God, said Mandy, I’ve never… All right, all right, said Michael, and then, with sudden vehemence, Well, where do you think the baby’s come from then? Do you think it’s a gift from God? Yes, said Mandy. He sent her home.
On Sunday, Michael saw Mandy among the few who were at the service. If he remembered correctly, she had never been before. She was wearing a simple dress in dark green, and now he could see her condition plainly. She should be ashamed of herself, said the housekeeper.
Mandy was all at sea. Michael could see her craning around. When the others sang, she didn’t. And when she came forward at the end to receive Communion, he had to tell her, Open your mouth.
Michael spoke about steadiness in adversity. Frau Schmidt, who was always there, read the lesson with a quiet but firm voice. See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth: be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
Michael had kept his eyes closed during the reading, and he felt he could almost see the angel who came to visit men, an angel that had Mandy’s face, and whose belly in its white robes bulged like Mandy’s in her dress. Suddenly it got very quiet in the church. Michael opened his eyes and saw that everyone was looking at him expectantly. Then he said: We can speak with confidence. The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me.
After the service was over, Michael hurried over to the door to see out his old biddies. He had shut the door behind the last of them when he saw that Mandy was kneeling at the altar. He went up to her and laid his hand on her head. She looked at him, and he saw she had tears running down her cheeks. Come, he said, and he led her out of the church and across the road to the cemetery. Look at all these people, he said, they were all sinners: but God took them to Himself, and He will forgive you your sins as well. I am full of sin, said Mandy, but I have never been with a man. All right, all right, said Michael, and he touched Mandy’s shoulder with his hand.
But when he touched Mandy, it was as though his heart and his whole body were filling with a joy he had never felt in his life, and he shrank back, as though he had burned himself. And if it’s true? he thought.
And if it’s true? he thought that afternoon, as he walked down the road to the next village. The sun was shining and the sky was wide and cloudless. Michael felt tired after lunch, but his heart was still filled with the joy that had flowed from Mandy’s body into his own: and if it’s true?
He often walked to one of the other villages on a Sunday afternoon, striding quickly down the tree-lined roads in rain or shine. But on that day he had an objective. He had called the doctor who lived there, a man by the name of Klaus, and asked if he might talk to him: no, he couldn’t tell him what about.
Dr. Klaus was a local man, the son and grandson of farmers. He knew everyone and everything, and the word was that in an emergency, he would treat sick animals as well. He lived alone in a big house in W., following the death of his wife. He said if Michael promised to keep God out of it, he was welcome and might come. He was an atheist, said the doctor, no, not even an atheist, he believed in nothing, not even that there was no God. He was a man of science, not faith. A Communist, thought Michael, and he said, All right, all right, and suppressed a yawn.
The doctor served schnapps, and because Michael had a question, he drank the schnapps, drank it in one swallow, and then another glass that Dr. Klaus poured him. Mandy, said Michael, whether… and… He was sweating. She claimed her baby wasn’t the outcome of union with a man, that she had never, no, that no man had known… My God: you know what I’m trying to say. The doctor emptied his glass and asked whether Michael meant the Lord had a hand in the business, or maybe a peter. Michael stared at him with an empty, despairing expression. He drank the schnapps the doctor had poured him, and stood up. The hymen, he said quietly, almost inaudibly, the hymen. That would be a miracle, said the doctor, and here in our midst. He laughed. Michael excused himself. I am a man of science, said the doctor, you are a man of faith. Let’s not mix things up. I know what I know; you believe whatever you like.
On his way back, Michael was sweating still more pro- fusely. He grew dizzy. Blood pressure, he thought. He sat down on the grassy edge of a large beet field. The beets had already been harvested and were lying in long heaps along the road. In the distance he could see a strip of woodland, and in the middle of the enormous field was the little island that his housekeeper had spoken of, a few trees sprouting from the dark earth.
Michael stood up and took a step into the field, and then another one. He walked toward the island. The damp soil clung to his boots in great clumps, and he stumbled, reeled, walking was difficult. Be of good heart, he thought, howbeit we must be cast upon a certain island. He walked on.
Once he heard a car drive past on the road. He didn’t look around. He crossed the field, step by step, and finally the trees came nearer and he was there, and it really was like an island: the furrows of plowed land had divided and opened, as if an island had erupted from the land, and torn the soil aside like a curtain. This island was maybe half a yard in elevation. At its edge grew some grass, beyond was shrubbery. Michael broke a twig off one of the bushes and scraped some of the earth off his soles. Then he walked around the island on the narrow strip of grass. In one place there was a gap in the vegetation, and he climbed through it and got to a small clearing under the trees. The tall grass was trampled down, and there were a couple of empty bottles.
Michael looked up: between the tops of the trees he could see the sky, it seemed not so high as over the field. It was very quiet. The air was warm, even though the sun was far gone to the west. Michael took off his jacket and dropped it on the grass. Then, without really knowing what he was doing, he unbuttoned his shirt and took it off, and then his undershirt, his shoes, his pants, his shorts, and last of all his socks. He took off his wrist-watch and dropped it on the pile of clothes, and then his glasses and the ring his mother had given him for protection. And stood there the way God had made him: as naked as a sign.
Michael looked up at the sky. He had never felt more connected to it. He lifted his arms aloft, then he felt the dizziness of a moment before, and he toppled forward onto his knees, and knelt there, naked with upraised arms. He began singing, softly and with a cracked voice, but it wasn’t enough. And so he screamed, screamed as loudly as he could, because he knew that out here only God could hear him, and that God heard him and was looking down at him.
As he walked back home across the field, he thought about Mandy, and she was very near to him, as though she was in him. So he thought, without knowing it, I have given shelter to an angel.
Back in the vicarage, Michael went straight to the old sideboard, and got out a bottle of schnapps that a farmer had given him after the burial of his wife, and poured himself a little glassful and then a second. Then he lay down, and only woke when the housekeeper called him down to supper. He had a headache.
And what if it’s true? he said as the housekeeper brought in supper. What if what’s true? Mandy. If she’s conceived. By whom? Is not this land also a desert? said Michael. How do we know that He doesn’t direct His gaze here, and that this child has found favor in His eyes, this Mandy? The housekeeper shook her head angrily: Her father’s a bus driver. Well wasn’t Joseph a carpenter? But that was a long time ago. Didn’t she believe that God was still alive and in our midst? And that Jesus will return? Sure. But not here. What’s special about Mandy? She’s nothing. She works in the restaurant in W., she helps out.
With God nothing shall be impossible, said Michael, and verily, I say unto you, that the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. The housekeeper made a face and disappeared into the kitchen. Michael had never managed to persuade her to eat with him: she had always said she didn’t want there to be talk in the village. Talk about what? We’re only human, she
said then, we all have our needs.
After supper Michael went out again. He walked down the street, and the dogs in the yards barked like crazy, and Michael thought, You would do better to trust in God than in your dogs. That was the Communists’ doing: he should have talked them around, but he hadn’t done it. There were no more people in the church now than in the spring, and you could hear of immorality and drunkenness every day.
Michael went into the retirement home and asked for Frau Schmidt, who read the lesson every week. If she’s still awake, said Ulla, the nurse, unwillingly, and disappeared. A Communist, thought Michael, bound to be. He could tell, he knew what they thought when they saw him. And then, when someone passed away, they called him anyway. So that he gets a decent funeral, Ulla had said once, when he was required to bury a man who hadn’t been inside a church in his life.
Frau Schmidt was still awake. She was sitting in her comfy chair watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Michael shook her hand, Good evening, Frau Schmidt. He pulled up a chair and sat down beside her. She had read nicely, he said, and he wanted to thank her for it again. Frau Schmidt nodded from the waist. Michael took a small leather-bound Bible from his pocket. Today I’d like to read you something, he said. And while the TV quiz host asked which city was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 79 A.D., Troy, Sodom, Pompeii, or Babylon, Michael read aloud, and steadily more loudly. There shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, and saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as from the beginning of the creation. But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.
And he read, the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, and the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.
All the while Michael read, the old woman nodded: she rocked back and forth, as if her whole body were one great yes. Then finally she spoke, and said, It’s not Sodom, and it’s not Babylon. Is it Troy?
The day is perhaps closer than we imagine, said Michael. But no one will know. I don’t know, said Frau Schmidt. He will come like a thief in the night, said Michael, standing up. Troy, said Frau Schmidt. He shook her hand. She didn’t say anything, and didn’t look when he left the room. Pompeii, said the quiz host. Pompeii, said Frau Schmidt.
No one will know it, thought Michael as he went home. The dogs of the Communists were barking, and once he bent down to pick up a stone and hurled it against a wooden gate. That made the dog behind bark still more loudly, and Michael hurried on, so that no one would spot him. He didn’t go back to the rectory, though, he walked out of the village.
It was half an hour to W. A single car passed him. He saw the beam of the headlights a long way ahead, and hid behind one of the trees lining the road until it was safely past. The island was nothing but a dark stain in the gray field, and it seemed to be closer than during the day. The stars were glittering: it had turned cold.
There was no one on the streets in W. The lights were on in the houses, and there was a single streetlamp at a crossroads. Michael knew where Mandy lived. He stopped at the garden gate and looked at the small single-story house. He saw shadows moving in the kitchen. It looked like someone was doing the dishes. Michael felt his heart grow warmer. He leaned against the gate. Then he heard breathing very close by, and suddenly a loud, yelping bark. He jumped back and ran off. He wasn’t a hundred yards away when the door of the house opened, and the beam of a flashlight showed in the darkness, and a man’s voice shouted, Shut yer noise!
On one of the following days, Michael went to the restaurant in W., where his housekeeper had said Mandy was helping out. And so it proved.
The dining room was high-ceilinged. The walls were yellowed with cigarette smoke, the windows were blind, the furniture aged, and nothing went with anything else. There was no one there but Mandy, standing behind the bar as if she belonged there, with her hands on the counter. She smiled and lowered her gaze, and Michael had the sense of her face glowing in the gloomy room. He sat down at a table near the entrance. Mandy went over to him, he ordered tea, she disappeared. Please no one come, he thought to himself. Then Mandy came back with his tea. Michael added sugar and stirred. Mandy was still standing beside the table. An angel at my side, thought Michael. He took a hurried sip and burned his mouth. And then, not looking at Mandy, nor she looking at him, he spoke.
But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only. But as the days of Noah were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.
Only now did Michael look at Mandy, and he saw that she was crying. Fear not, he said. Then he stood up and laid his hand on Mandy’s head, and then he hesitated, and placed his other hand on her belly. Will it be called Jesus? Mandy asked softly. Michael was taken aback. He hadn’t considered that. The wind bloweth where it listeth, he said, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth.
Then he gave Mandy the little manual for young women and expectant mothers that the church provides, and from which he drew all his understanding, and he said Mandy should come to instruction, and to service, that was the most important thing, she had plenty to catch up on.
Months passed. Autumn gave way to winter, the first snows fell and covered everything, the villages, the forest, and the fields. Winter stretched out over the land, and the acrid smell of woodsmoke hung heavy over the streets.
Michael went on long walks over the countryside, he went from village to village, and he went again across the large sugar-beet field, that was now frozen, to the island. Once again he stood there and raised his arms aloft. But the trees had lost their leaves, and the sky was distant. Michael waited for a sign. None came: there was no new star in the sky, no angel on the field to talk to him, no king and no shepherd and no sheep. Then he felt ashamed and thought, I am not chosen. She, Mandy, will receive the signal, it is to her the angel will appear.
Mandy was now coming in from W. on her moped every Wednesday to class, and every Sunday to church. Her belly was growing, but her face was growing thinner and pale. After service she stayed behind in church until everyone was gone, and then she sat with Michael in one of the pews, speaking quietly. Her baby was due in February, she said. If only it had been Christmas, thought Michael, if only it had been Easter. But Christ- mas was soon, while Easter was the end of March: they would see.
Then the housekeeper put her head through the door, and asked if the minister proposed to eat his lunch today. All the trouble she went to, she said, and not a word of praise, nothing, and then he left half of it. Michael said Mandy should stay for lunch, there was enough for two. For three, he added, and both smiled shyly. Why don’t we just open a restaurant, said the housekeeper, laying a second setting. She banged the plates down on the table and stalked off without a word, and certainly without wishing them Bon appétit.
Mandy said her father was tormenting her, he in- sisted on knowing who the father was, and he went into a rage when she said it was Almighty God. No, he didn’t beat her. Only slaps, she said, her mother as well. She wanted to leave home. They both ate in silence. Michael very little, Mandy twice helping herself to more. Do you like it? he asked. She nodded and blushed. Then he said, why didn’t she live here in the rectory, there was room enough. Mandy looked at him timidly.
You can’t do that, said the housekeeper. Michael said nothing. If you do that, I’m out of here, said the housekeeper. Still Michael said nothing. He crossed his arms. He thought of Bethlehem. Not this time, he thought. And the thought gave him strength. I’m moving out, said the housekeeper, and Michael nodded slowly. So much the better, he thought: he had already concluded that this housekeeper had been a Communist, and who knows what besides. Because she always said she was only human, and because her name was Carola, which was a heathen name. He had heard the stories about her and his predecessor, a married man. In the sacristy, they said, among other things. That woman had nothing to say to him. She least of all. And she wasn’t even a good cook.
The housekeeper disappeared into the kitchen, and then she left the house, because it wasn’t right and it wasn’t proper. And Mandy moved in: she was the new housekeeper, that was the agreement worked out with her parents. She was even paid. But Mandy was already in her fifth month, and her belly was so big that she snorted like a cow when she went up the stairs, and Michael was afraid something might happen to the baby one day when she lugged the heavy carpets out to beat them.
Michael was just returning from one of his walks when he saw Mandy beating the carpets in front of the vicarage. He said she ought to take it easy, and carried the carpets back into the house himself, even if it was almost more than he could do: his body wasn’t very strong. Everything has to be clean by Christmas, said Mandy. That pleased Michael, and seemed to him to be a good sign. Other than that he hadn’t found much evidence of faith, even if she liked to swear Holy Mother of God, and was firmly convinced that her baby was a baby Jesus, as she put it. She did say she was Protestant. But not so very much. Michael was in doubt. He felt ashamed of his doubts, but there they were, poisoning his love and his belief.
From now on, Michael did all the housework himself. Mandy cooked for him, and they ate together in the dark dining room, without speaking much. Michael worked far into the evenings. He read his Bible, and when he heard Mandy come out of the bathroom, he waited for five minutes, he was no longer able to work, that’s how excited he was. Then he knocked on the door of Mandy’s room, and she called, Come in, come in. There she was, already in bed, with her hand on her brow, or else on the blanket, over her belly.
On one occasion he asked her about her dreams: after all, he was waiting for a sign. But Mandy didn’t dream. She slept deeply and solidly, she said. So he asked her if she really hadn’t ever had a boyfriend or anything, and if she’d ever found blood on her sheets. Not during your period, he said, and he felt very peculiar, talking to her like that. If she is the new mother of God, then what sort of figure will I cut, he thought. Mandy didn’t reply. She cried, and said, didn’t he believe her? He laid his hand on the blanket and his eyes got moist. We should be called the children of God, he said, therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew Him not. What Him? asked Mandy.
Once she pushed the blankets back and lay before him in her thin nightie. Michael had had his hand on the blanket, and then he raised it up, and now it was hovering in the air over Mandy’s belly. It’s moving, said Mandy, and she took his hand with both of hers and pulled it down so that it pressed against herbelly, and Michaelcouldn’t raise his hand, it lay there for a long time, heavy and sinful.
Christmas came and went. On Christmas Eve, Mandy went to her parents, but the next day she was back again. There were not many people in church. In the village there was talk about Michael and Mandy, letters had been written to the bishop, and letters were written back from the bishop. A call had gone out, and a representative of the bishop had traveled to the village on a Sunday, and had sat with Michael and spoken with him. On that day, Mandy had eaten in the kitchen. She was very excited, but when the visitor left, Michael said everything was fine: the bishop knew there was a lot of bad blood in the district, and that some old Communists were still fighting against the church, and sowing division.
With the passing of time, the baby grew, and Mandy’s belly got ever bigger, long after Michael thought it couldn’t possibly. As if it wasn’t part of her body. And so Michael laid his hand on the growing baby, and felt happiness.
The terrible thing happened when Michael went off on one of his afternoon walks. He realized he had left his book at home. He turned back, and half an hour later had returned. He quietly let himself into the house and tiptoed up the stairs. Mandy often slept in the daytime now, and if that was the case now, he didn’t want to wake her. But when he stepped into his room, Mandy was standing there naked: she was standing in front of the large mirror in the door of the wardrobe. And she was looking at herself from the side, and so confronted Michael, who could see everything. Mandy had heard him coming and had turned to face him, and they looked at each other, just exactly as they were.
What are you doing in my room? asked Michael. And he hoped Mandy would cover her nakedness with her hands, but she did not. Her hands hung at her sides like the leaves of a tree, barely stirring. She said she had no mirror in her room, and she had wanted to see this belly she had grown. Michael approached Mandy, so as not to have to look at her anymore. Then his hands touched her hands, and then he thought about nothing at all, because he was with Mandy, and she was with him. And so it was that Michael’s hand lay there, as if it had been newly brought forth: an animal from out of that wound.
Then Michael did sleep, and when he awakened, he thought, my God, what have I done. He lay there curled in bed, and with his hand covered his sin, which was great. Mandy’s blood was her witness and his proof, and he was surprised that the elements did not melt with fervent heat, or the heavens pass away with a great noise: to slay him and punish him with lightning or some other event. But this did not transpire.
Nor did the heavens open when Michael hurried along the street on the way to W. He was on his way to the island in the field, and he walked rapidly and with stumbling steps across the frozen furrows. Mandy had been asleep when he left the house, Mandy, whom he had taken in and to whom he had offered the hospitality of his house.
He reached the island and sat down in the snow. He could not stand any longer, so tired was he and so sad and lost. He would stay there and never leave. Let them find him, the farmer and the woman when they came here in spring to commit adultery.
It was cold and getting dark. Then it was night. Michael was still sitting on his island in the snow. The damp soaked through his coat, and he shivered and felt chilled to the bone. Let us not love one another with words, he thought, nor with speech. But with deeds. So God had led him to Mandy, and Mandy to him: that they might love one another. For she was not a child, she was eighteen or nineteen. And was it not written that no one should know? Was it not written that the day would come like a thief? So Michael thought: I cannot know. And if it was God’s will that she conceive His child, then it was also His will that she had received him: for was he not God’s work and creature?
Through the trees Michael could see only a few scattered stars. But when he left their cover and stepped out onto the field, he saw all the stars that can be seen on a cold night, and for the first time since he had come here, he was not afraid of this sky. And he was glad that the sky was so distant, and that he himself was so small on this endless field. So distant that even God had to take a second look to see him.
Soon he was back in the village. The dogs barked, and Michael threw stones at the gates and barked himself, and aped the dogs, their stupid yapping and howling, and he laughed when the dogs were beside themselves with rage and fury: and he was beside himself just as much.
In the vicarage the lights were on, and as soon as Michael stepped inside, he could smell the dinner that Mandy had cooked. And as he took off his sodden boots and his heavy coat, she stepped out into the kitchen doorway and looked anxiously at him. It had gotten cold, he said, and she said dinner was ready. Then Michael stepped up to Mandy, and he kissed her on the mouth, as she smiled up at him. Over supper they discussed one possible name for the baby, and then another one. And when it was bedtime they squeezed each other’s hands, and each went to their own room.
As it got colder and colder in January, and it was almost impossible to heat the old vicarage, Mandy moved one evening from the guest bedroom into the warmer room of the master of the house. She carried her blanket in front of her, and lay down beside Michael as he moved aside, without a word. And that night, and in all the nights to come, they lay in one bed, and so learned to know and to love one another better. And Michael saw everything, and Mandy was not ashamed.
But was it a sin? Who could know. And hadn’t Mandy’s own blood affirmed that it was a child of God that was growing, a child of purity? Could there be anything impure about purity?
Even if Michael hadn’t thought it possible, his word reached the people and the Communists of the village. They were touched by the wonder that had occurred, and one couldn’t say how: for such people came to the door and knocked. They came without many words, and brought what they had. A neighbor brought a cake. She had been baking, she said, and it was no more trouble to bake two than one. And was Mandy doing all right?
On another day, Marco the publican came around and asked how far along they were. Michael invited him in, and called Mandy, and made tea in the kitchen. Then the three of them sat at the table and were silent, because they didn’t know what to say. Marco had brought along a bottle of cognac, and set it down in front of them. He knew full well, he said, that it wasn’t the right thing for a small baby, but maybe if it had a colic. Then he asked to have it explained to him, and when Michael did so, Marco looked at Mandy and her belly with disbelief. Was that certain? he asked, and Michael said no one knew, and no one could know. Because it was pretty unlikely, Marco said. He had picked up the cognac again, and was looking at the bottle. He seemed to hesitate, but then he put it back on the table, and said, three stars, that’s the best you can get hereabouts. Not the one I serve my customers. And he was a little confused, and he stood up and scratched his head. Back in the summer you rode pillion on my bike, he said, and he laughed, think of it. They’d gone bathing, the whole lot of them, in the lake outside F. Who’d have thought it.
When Marco left, Frau Schmidt was standing in the garden, with something she had knitted for the baby. With her was Nurse Ulla from the retirement home, whom Michael had suspected of being a Communist. But she was bringing something herself, a soft toy, and she wanted Mandy to touch her as well.
It was one after another. The table in the front room was covered with presents, and the cupboard housed a dozen or more bottles of schnapps. The children brought drawings of Mandy and the baby, and sometimes Michael was in the pictures too, and perhaps an ass or an ox as well.
Before long the people were coming from W. and the other villages, wanting to see the expectant mother, to ask her advice on this or that matter. And Mandy gave them advice and comfort, and sometimes she would lay her hand on the arm or the head of the people, without saying anything. She had become so earnest and still that even Michael seemed to see her anew. And did all that needed to be done. In the village, various quarrels were settled during these days, and even the dogs seemed to be less ferocious when Michael walked down the street, and on some houses the straw stars and Christmas wreaths were back up on the doors again, and in the windows, because the whole village was rejoicing, as though Christmas was yet to come. Everyone knew it, but no one said it.
One time, Dr. Klaus came to see that all was well. But when he knocked on the door, Michael did not welcome him in. He sat upstairs with Mandy, and they were quiet as two children, and peeked out of the window until they saw the doctor leaving.
The next day, Michael went to W. to see the doctor. He poured schnapps, and asked how things stood with Mandy. Michael didn’t touch the schnapps. He merely said everything was fine, and they didn’t need a doctor. And these stories that were making the rounds? He that is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth, said Michael. Be that as it may, said the doctor, the baby will be born on earth, and not in heaven. And if you need help, then call me, and I’ll come. Then they shook hands, and nothing more was said. Michael, though, went back to the retirement home in the village and spoke to Nurse Ulla. She had four children herself, and knew the ropes. And she promised him she would assist when the time came.
Then in February, the time came: the baby was born. Mandy was assisted by Michael, and by Nurse Ulla, whom he had called in. As word spread of the impending event, people gathered on the village streets to wait in silence. It was already dark when the baby was born, and Ulla stepped up to the window and held it aloft, that all might see it. And it was a girl.
Michael sat at Mandy’s bedside, holding her hand and looking at the baby. She’s no beauty, said Mandy, but that was more of a question. And Nurse Ulla asked the new mother where she meant to go with her baby, as she would no longer be able to run the minister’s household anymore. Then Michael said: He that hath the bride is the bridegroom. And he kissed Mandy in full view of the nurse. And she later told everyone of it: that he had given his word.
Because the child could not be called Jesus, they called it Sandra. And as the people in the village believed it had been born for them, they didn’t mind that it was a girl. And all were contented and rejoiced.
The following Sunday attendance at church was greater than it had been for a long time. Mandy and the babe sat in the front pew. The organ was playing, and after it had played, Michael climbed up to the pulpit and spoke as follows: Whether this is a child that has long been awaited in the world, we do not know, and may not know. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness. For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. But let us, who are of the day, be sober.
That which is born of the flesh is flesh, said Michael, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. But we, be- loved, should be called the children of God.
*This story is taken from: Wir fliegen by Peter Stamm. © S. Fischer Verlag Frankfurt am Main 2008.
*Translation copyright©2012 by Michael Hofmann. Reprinted by permission by Other Press. All rights reserved.
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