the short story project


Ralf Rothmann | from:German


Translated by : Shaun Whiteside

Introduction by Karsten Kredel

This story is a marvel, and I really can’t say much more about it than that it’s unsettling, very beautiful, of perfect clarity and yet as mysterious as life itself – or as mysterious as we perceive it to be in the best books we encounter. As Ralf Rothmann himself once put it: 'Literature, then, happens when the unsaid remains present in what is said, when it resonates in a way that seems dreamlike despite its distinctiveness and relieves us of feeling divided. It is for this reason that the state of reading is often so blissful; we effortlessly accomplish the impossible, uniting the so-called subject with the so-called object: we are completely focused, right there, and yet somewhere else.'

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…and found her sleeping with sadness. The first words in the morning, the underlined phrase in the book with a ribbon marker, a present from Marie, and the sun rises behind the chestnut trees of the Fontanepromenade, where there is not a soul to be seen yet, not a dog, only a magpie hopping along the sandy path, ahead of its long shadow. The clock in the shoe beside the bed, the little alarm clock from Peru, has stopped; judging by the light, it would have rung in an hour.

Crows, huge flocks in changing formations, fly over the house to the park, to Hasenheide, every morning. The rooms bright, the water almost warm, and the toothpaste, menthol-free, falls from her mouth after a brief movement with the brush – a moment when you can close your eyes, take a deep breath and resume the day you thought you’d already survived once yesterday.

And found her sleeping. A sip of tea at the kitchen table, the radio, two minutes of news, it’s supposed to be getting hotter in this, the hottest summer on record; the lime trees on Blücherstrasse look dusty, the artificial pitch at the sports ground is warping, and the moisture it gives off in the day’s heat, who knows. Never an animal on it, not a bird, not one of the many rats tumbling about in the bushes.

Polishing his shoes, packing the little rucksack, briefcase, keys. No awkwardness, despite his few hours of sleep, no superfluous hand gestures; everything, even buttoning up the blue shirt, still fresh from Marie’s ironing, is primed with a seriousness that he has never before known in himself. He shuts the door, crosses the corridor, and opens her apartment, two rooms overlooking the courtyard to the rear. It’s smaller than his, less cluttered, entirely in the shade of a birch tree, and Raul goes into the bedroom and takes the icon from the wall, Saint Anna, barely bigger than a credit card. Even the white handkerchief in which he wraps it is ironed.

It’s eight minutes to the Prinzenbad swimming pool; hardly any traffic at this time of day, few bicycles against the wall, the ticket desk still closed. About a dozen men and women are waiting outside the gate, the fat retired couple at the front. Equipped with insulated cool bags, newspapers, and a little radio, the two of them always stay on the terrace of the cafeteria until eight in the evening when the pool closes, eating and drinking uninterruptedly, solving one crossword puzzle after another, and never going into the water, not even when it’s extremely hot. The others are flicking through diaries, wiry people, the same almost every day, who swim their lengths from seven o’clock until just before eight and then dash away on bikes with more than twenty gears and electronic locks.

When the gate swings aside, they all take out their monthly passes; some men are already unbuttoning their shirts as they go to the cabins, and Raul also throws his rucksack ahead of him into the open locker, number fifty-three, as always. Trunks, goggles, armband with key, and after a quick shower, cold, the first disappointment. The sports pool is closed for cleaning. The others continue grumpily on to the second pool under the acacia trees, heated and seething with people during the day, shrieks you can hear from far away. The water here is notorious; hair, chewing gun, rotten leaves, and sticking plasters with dark red stains bob on the surface. The swimmers call it stew.

He stops. The workman in the grey overalls who is pulling the chromed instrument connected to a pump across the bottom of the sports pool frowns briefly but doesn’t look up. He advances one tile row after a time, has only three left to clean, and Raul sits down on the edge of the sun deck, does breathing exercises, and stares at the glittering surface, the image of the poplar trees in the quivering blue.

To reconcile the day and all the opportunities for destruction that it contains with a dive into that mirror is the only right thing to do now. Behind it lies the end of fear: a glass door, a long corridor, twittering in the park full of women in new dressing gowns, young women taking small, shuffling steps in their compression stockings and holding their bellies. It’s enough. Behind it lie the last tears, a brief pain, after which everything will be better, believe us, why didn’t you come sooner. But Marie, with a thick needle in her arm, autotransfusion, threat of infection, Marie laughs her bright laugh, almost twelve years younger than he is, and shows him the present from her neighbour, who was released the previous day, a total hysterectomy, and who had come back through the big park of the hospital to bring her the clover, four-leafed, that she had found by the gate.

The body’s defences, antibodies, two thousand metres every day. And who are you? An assistant who is always there for every examination, every ultrasound recording, who wipes the contact liquid from her belly and even takes her blood pressure. The doctors get more careful and less sloppy, the nurses smile a little longer, and the anaesthetist sits down again when he hears the words spinal paralysis. Are you a colleague?

White clouds outside the window, a few butterflies, and he lays the fountain pen on the bed and points to the dotted lines. But Marie no longer wants to know what she’s signing, Marie is tired, she eats her soup, swallows the tablet, looks at the roses. Until tomorrow, my darling. Will you come early? The nurses wave at him from behind their glass partition, and he waves back with the forms, takes the lift, and puts it in the folder, including the one in which the patient declares her consent to the dissection of her body in the event of her death. Which he didn’t give her to sign.

The man in overalls pulls the chromed instrument out of the pool, steps aside, and starts cleaning the next row of tiles. Hardly ever ill, never an operation in her life, and Raul with all his useless knowledge, the raw material of his anxiety, he has seen people die from much more straightforward interventions – a tiny anomaly, a weakness of the tissue, the tube scraping the carotid artery, and suddenly there’s blood, in a high arc, and none of the many doctors can bring him back, the sporty schoolboy who had only had a simple appendix operation and whose gaping throat is now emitting one long, last, almost furious sound…

Who will tell the boss? And how many wards has he been in that were like this one, bright, friendly, Nolde’s ‘Poppy’, how many shower caps has he handed the patients: Hi, now we’d like to, do you need to go to the toilet? And then it takes Marie a long time, a desperately long time, it seems to him; the ward sister looks at her watch, the schoolgirl yawns and stares dreamily out of the window, rustling leaves, and he takes the patient’s chart and reads the blood-pressure values, which he has long known by heart. In the end she comes along, pulls the door shut behind her, and looks at her hand, the punctures in the back of it. Opens the door again, reaches into the room, and turns out the light. Have I shown you where I’ve been shaved? Really punk. And the schoolgirl laughs and helps her into bed.

Raul takes the shower cap from the nurse, he does that himself too, pushes the red curls under the rubber rim and frees, with one kick, the wheel lock. You look very smart. But Marie feels that what he really wants to do is burst into tears, of course she feels that and strokes his arm. It’ll be fine, believe me, they did an endoscopy yesterday, even the professor was there. All within acceptable limits. Will you be there when I wake up? Will you be there?

The rattling of the wheels in the doorway of the lift, and then from the steel shaft there comes a waving and winking without any anxiety, apparently the effect of the tablets. Then the door quickly shuts, and like her he leans his head to one side, one last look. Adieu.

Teeth clenched, fists clenched, he steps into the waiting room, picks a few magazines from the table at random, and staggers across the mat to the balcony. On the house opposite a child’s drawing, birds without beaks, a helicopter on the roof, and he pulls a handful of flowers out of the box, geraniums, and slings them over the parapet.

The wind, a warm breeze, blows them back. I am here. Without eating or drinking, this is a resolution which he can’t explain, and which is still, he feels, correct. Not eating, not drinking, not leaning against anything, either the chair or the doorframe or the balcony’s parapet, while she is being operated on. Two hours, three. And two more hours that she will spend in the recovery room, and the friendly nurse, Polish, puts a tray down beside the cold television, sandwiches and tea. Raul thanks her and doesn’t touch anything.

Waiting. And again and again the horror when lift doors open and a patient who has just been operated on is pushed into the ward, awake or sleeping in the deep pillows and often recognisable only after the second glance; the shadows of the plants fall on the tinted glass wall that separates the room from the corridor, he mistakes them for Marie’s silhouette, and briefly closes his eyes when the woman asks him: What about you? How long do you want to sit here?

Over twenty years. He had dozed off in the pub near the university hospital where he had got drunk after deciding to hang up his stethoscope for ever. No more misery and death and the lies of hope, no more of that white-coated rat-race, no more doctors walking over corpses to become consultants… He wanted to rest, perhaps research, he wanted to live, travel – and he wanted another drink from this waitress. It was so dark in the bar that they couldn’t find his change, but her hair flamed in all the mirrors. She brought him a coffee.

So it’s you, she whispered the first time they kissed, only a day later, behind the pub in the early morning, and even then her face, her mouth, the arches of her eyebrows and the line of her forehead had seemed to him like a text, a suddenly growing sacred text containing the words that would redeem him for ever.

Twenty years. A bat of an eyelid. He lifts the barrier, the red and white tape, he sits down on the starting block, and the workman raises a finger in friendly admonition as he cleans the final row. And then it is evening, when the door slides open and the bed is pushed out of the lift; when his heart suddenly thumps in his throat, and in two or three steps he is standing at the end of the bed, and the nurse smiles as she whispers, Slowly! Marie, who is awake and looking at him, astonished and struggling for her bearings, her whole face mutely saying, You? What was that? Marie is paler than ever before, her lips barely distinguishable from her skin, and her hand, which he takes and which does not return his pressure, of course it doesn’t, the hand with the cannula on its back is cold.

He helps the nurses to set up the bed in the room, hangs the drips on their stands, fastens the drainage tube on her nightdress and the half-full bag to the edge of the mattress with a pin. Then he unpacks the bottles of glucose and saline solution, twelve of each, and corrects the drop counter. The nurses thank him and leave him alone with Marie.

She is asleep. In the folder with her medical notes and the results there is no report on the operation, and he feels for her pulse, which is racing, but her blood pressure is normal. He carefully lifts the blanket, her belly is brown from the disinfection solution, the incision is only covered with gauze; it is just above the edge of her pubic hair, it reaches from one ridge of her pelvis to the other, and Marie, without opening her eyes, asks quietly: What does it look like?

Wonderful, he says, startled, of course he says that, you won’t need a new swimming costume. They cut horizontally and only sewed up the lower layers of skin; the upper layer is glued. No stitches. The scar will be almost invisible.

She clears her throat and swallows; she isn’t allowed to drink anything yet. Her lips are raw. And you know, she murmurs, you know what they said to me before the endoscopy? What they discovered?

He says nothing and waits, but she has already fallen asleep again: the painkiller, two ampoules of which still lie on the table. The rinsing fluid drips bright red from the tube in a hole beside the stitch, hydrogen and blood, not much, an inky effect. But the values are ok, even if he can’t read the time of the last extraction, the stamp is blurred, and he sits on the chair beside the bed and takes her hand.

The first roses are drooping, and it is quiet even though the window is open; hardly any people in the park so far, only the quiet clatter of plates and cutlery from the children’s clinic opposite, and a cat stalks slowly across the meadow through the thick clover.

Raul studies the sleeping woman, her pale brow, the freckles below the reddish gold line of her hair. The upper part of her nose is slightly arched, a bicycle accident when she was a child, the swell of her lips has always looked Florentine to him, and he thinks of the time when he too had immersed himself in that face, which is considerably younger than he is – but so much more experienced in love. A love whose unswerving, natural certainty has always startled and often shamed him; which accepted almost everything, every act of self-sacrifice, all of his moods, his injustices and brutalities; a love that was always wiser than both of them and survived even the hardest trials. When, after a separation of almost eight months during which they had neither spoken nor corresponded, he called her, sheepish and not quite sober – he was in a hotel bar in Swansea, and the pharmaceutical company whose exhibition stand he was supposed to be setting up had fired him – she only said: About time too! I couldn’t have stood it for much longer.

And now the pain, the dry swallowing, the lines around her mouth deepen, and he cuts open the ampoule, injects the medication into the drip tube. Somewhere behind the building the sun goes down, the windows opposite reflect the light, there is a glint of it on Marie’s cheekbone, the dip between her collarbones, and here and there some fine hairs glisten, a delicate spiral beside her ear. Her breath is calm, almost silent, and after a long look into her face, which she somehow feels as always because her eyelids twitch, Raul kisses her brow, no longer that cold, hangs a new drip on the stand, and gently closes the door,

There is no one in the partitioned area, and he steps into the office beyond it and asks the nurse, who is smoking as she flicks through papers, for the report on the operation. She nods but doesn’t look up. You’re neither her husband nor a relative, is that correct? Then I’m afraid there’s not much I can tell you. Everything’s fine so far. A procedure that went exactly according to plan. Except perhaps… She puts the file on the shelf, and he takes a step towards her. Except what!

The cigarette smells of menthol. Well, light-skinned redheads always bleed very heavily during operations, hence the extraction beforehand. But in your friend’s case it was different. There was hardly anything to tap, to be honest. It must have something to do with the time of the month… And I’ll let her tell you the rest herself, she adds with a harsh chuckle, and only now does he see the sign on her coat and know that the woman he addressed as nurse is the ward doctor, on night shift.

He takes the bus back to Kreuzberg, to Bergmannstrasse, where he has a bite to eat at Milagro and drinks two glasses of red wine. Even though it’s prettier, he doesn’t take the shorter walk home, the one that leads past the graveyards. He lies on Marie’s bed and watches television. But then he gets tired, all his limbs ache, and walks down the corridor to his apartment, brushes his teeth, and turns out the light. It’s got cooler, and the old floorboards creak. The gilt edges of the pages of his book have a dull sheen. Can’t you keep watch with me for an hour?

And just before midnight the ringing phone, a woman whom, in his half-sleep he mistakes for Marie. He knocks over the reading lamp and gets tangled in the wire. Marie? Then he recognises the voice of the Polish nurse: I thought I’d just give you a quick call. An update. No cause for concern, not even urgent, but an update. Nine o’clock, the first patient. What can I tell her? Will you be there?

He looks at the clock above the entry pavilion and climbs onto the starting block. If he just crawls for a good thousand metres and then takes a taxi he’ll just make it. The man in overalls pulls on the wire-reinforced hose and wraps it around the motor, and he puts his goggles on. The surface of the water lies completely smooth and untouched, still enough that it seems almost convex, so that for a moment Raul, already leaning into his dive, doesn’t know whether the sky with its constantly reappearing flocks of birds is above or below. And as soon as he sees the vacuum cleaner, the gleam of its chrome cover, he pushes himself off the starting block and, at the end of his long shadow, dives into the water, which is not cold and not warm, not clear and not cloudy, which is not water at all at that moment, but something glittering, just as the cry on the other side is nothing but the silence within the heart, a sidereal space in which a faint voice is fading away.

The sudden recognition of an extraordinary woman. The bright formulation of one’s own obscurities, and the startling harmony in things with which you’d thought you would have to remain alone for a lifetime. The strength and warmth of being near someone who was always dependable and ready for happiness, and the beautiful grief beneath his smile…

When Raul gets to the ward at about half past eight, the door to Marie’s room is open. The bed is empty, and a man in overalls is cleaning the window and nods to him. Strips of plaster are stuck to the edge of the mattress, a few rubber gloves and the plastic bag containing the rinsing fluid lie in the bath. On the soap a single red hair, on the bedside table the patient’s notes and the form that he didn’t give her to sign, a question mark behind the dotted line and for a moment – the man tips the window, passers-by are reflected in the window – he thinks he recognises her outline on the dented pillow, the hint of a contour.

*This story is taken from: Ralf Rothmann, Rehe am Meer. Erzählungen. © Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main 2006.

*The translation of this story was supported by the Goethe-Institute.

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