the short story project


Antonia Baum | from:German

The Child

Translated by : Katy Derbyshire

Image: Oleg Doun

At home, in my flat, in the three neat and prettily decorated rooms belonging to me and nobody but me, lives a little child that torments me. We’re so attached by now that I can’t get rid of it. Yet I’d like to grab it, this small, far too light, almost vanishing child – I’d like to grab it and push it out the door or, even better, slam it against my white wall with all my strength, to see, to be quite sure that it smashes to pieces.

But I don’t have the heart. Since the child has been living with me, drinking from my cups, burrowing into the farthest corner of my bed, or sitting on my kitchen windowsill sipping milk, dangling its legs as it looks at me, only looks and says nothing, not a word of explanation, and I then – too often, I’m afraid it’s happened all too often, it may have been four or five times – I then yell at it out of sheer desperation, trying to get through to it by shouting, ‘Go, get out of here, leave me alone!’ as the child sits calmly and barely pulls a face, at most laughing quietly to itself – ever since then I’ve been tormenting myself and haven’t had the heart to throw this terrible child out of my flat. I have my reasons.

The child was suddenly there one day, crouching behind the living-room door. It twirled away incessantly at its shaggy black hair, which concealed large parts of the translucent skin of its face. I saw instantly that it needed help and I didn’t want to delay matters with unnecessary questions. It was trembling from top to toe and dressed in rags. I lifted it up, and the hands of that undernourished body immediately grabbed at my shoulders, the strength of its haggard limbs surprising me. The child’s big black eyes never left me for a second, staring, and for a moment I felt as though the child wanted to climb inside of me, but there was no time for further considerations or interrogations – the child had to be taken care of!

Really, I was afraid it might otherwise collapse before my very eyes, at any minute. Its tiny body was chilled, its shirt rubbed through at the shoulders, the skin beneath it raw, looking red and open. So I carried it into my bathroom, and all the while it looked at me without a word, tugging at a loose thread on the chest pocket of my shirt with its left forefinger and thumb.

I put it down on a stool and ran a bath. Steam rose, and the tiles misted over. The child had drawn up its knees, ducking its head down as it watched my preparations. A bath was necessary, though. I felt bad for its wounds, which must have stung terribly. I felt really sorry for it, I’d almost say it hurt me too — the sight of the child was hardly bearable. I avoided looking at it and afterwards hurried to treat the wounds with cream and bandages. The child should sleep now.

I made a bed for it, a cosy warm bed in the living room. As I spread the sheet I decided we’d have opportunity enough the next morning to discuss all the important questions. The child stood behind me all along, looking out from behind my leg, almost clutching it. I put the child to bed and tucked it in. Before I left the room, I made sure there was no cold draught coming from anywhere, walking across the room several times. There was certainly something pleasant to having company, I thought to myself, wondering whether the child needed more covers, perhaps even a hot-water bottle. But the child just sat there, pressed upright against the cold wall. ‘What’s the matter? Do you need anything else? Would you like to go to the bathroom again? You just have to say and I’ll try to help you with anything at all. But please, tell me what the matter is! Why are you staring like that, what’s the problem?’

The child went on sitting silently. A small smile formed around the corners of its mouth. Its eyes followed me, it closed its lids every second, minutes passing that way. I began to understand.

I understood that this child plainly looked down on my efforts. This little creature which had entrusted itself to me unbidden, which really had the cheek to take up my time and my flat – or rather, to occupy them, by dint of being such an apparently helpless creature — this creature was looking down on me and laughing at me. It wasn’t quite laughing with its face; that was only smiling. Inside, though, it was laughing at me, there was no doubt about that. The child was laughing with the disdain only mustered by a person who has always been treated with disdain. I walked out of the room as fast as I could, wishing it good night. But the child did not sleep.

The child never sleeps. It does nothing but stare.

I lay down in bed, turned off the light, and wanted to close my eyes and sleep, as I usually do at the end of each day. But I tossed from one side to the other, sweating and kicking off my covers. The blood whirled in my legs. I tried lying on my front, which I never otherwise do. I opened my eyes and stared at the ceiling. Then I looked to the side, and there was the child.

It was standing by my bed and looking down at me. I raised my head.

‘What’s the matter now? So you can’t sleep. But I need my sleep! You have to leave me alone, at least at night! You must see it’s impossible for me to close my eyes when you’re standing there looking down at me! What’s your intention? Tell me — it’s not a laughing matter! You’re laughing at my habit of going to bed so early and only sleeping on my back – am I right? Let me tell you, I don’t care a bit what you think about it! I’ve been entrusted with a responsible position and I have to get my rest so I don’t make any mistakes. Never! Never in my previous career, do you hear, in the fifteen years I’ve served the company, have I made even one major mistake, and I put that down to my healthy lifestyle, oh yes I do! That’s why I really have to sleep now.’

I had meanwhile sat up in bed, hands on hips, to make my standpoint clear to the child once and for all. A car drove past the window, the headlights breaking on the blinds, falling into the room in strips, and briefly lighting up the child. In that light, I saw it also had its hands on its hips, its belly pushed forwards, rocking back and forth in a ridiculous manner, all, of that I am certain, to mock me in a mean and underhand way.

‘You think that’s particularly funny, am I right? You seem to be under the impression you’ll unsettle me, but you can’t! I have nothing to reproach myself with in the slightest and I haven’t the faintest reason to assume you might have the right to do so! It’s not at all the way you think, you see. I’m quite different to what you’re accusing me of. Just you wait! And now you go straight back to your bed in the living room while I make myself a cup of tea so I can get to sleep at last. Off to bed!’

I climbed out of bed and strode to the kitchen. The child leapt after me and latched onto my pyjama trousers, almost pulling them down as I walked. The next time I looked around I saw the child installed on the windowsill.

The child wouldn’t let me get a moment’s rest that night. We spent it together in the kitchen, stirring cups of tea, pacing the cramped hall, doing everything the same until it grew light, and beyond. The child never left my side for a minute.

Over the following days, I was introduced to all its heinous traits. There could be no thought of visitors; the child would not have stood for it. Something was deficient, so I thought, so each of its gazes said, in this child’s eyes, which were and still are set deep into its head, that thin skull. Its mouth was almost always gaping because the child was always hungry. It gobbled up everything it got its bony hands on. The child was never full, nor did it ever put on weight, although that was urgently necessary. I had no other option but to provide it with plenty to eat, and I went to great lengths to do so. I made it every meal I thought it might like, hoping to staunch its hunger. The child ate everything with haste. It sucked the meat from the bones, it licked the plates clean; there was never anything left over, and it was never enough. When I wasn’t looking, if I failed to pay attention for even a moment, it set about emptying the cupboards entirely. Once I came into the kitchen and there it sat, almost inside the bread bin. It lay in wait, and I could tell by its eyes, those holes full of black, that it wished it could leap onto me. Like a monkey, it wanted to jump onto my head and hold tight to me.

Since the child had been living with me and simply never left, I had asked myself over and over what must have happened to a child so starving for sustenance. I wondered what it could be that this child was lacking.

Why are you so starved, I asked, with only the best of intentions. The child didn’t answer. It merely gave a mocking smile, hunched up more than ever, and opened and closed its eyes. Over and over I asked it, and over and over I felt as though I – whom it had without a doubt been ridiculing from the very outset – I felt as though I were entirely to blame for the child’s state of starvation, as though it were therefore my foremost obligation, or rather my duty, to take care of this child.

‘Please, I’m concerned about you and I do have a right to know what caused all this. It’s your duty even to inform me of these matters. What are you laughing at now?’ I asked.

The child stood up on the windowsill and cruelly imitated my gestures, absolutely mortifying me. I put a hand to my forehead; it did likewise. I snorted; the child snorted. I had to check whether it was deliberately copying me, so I stood on my left leg as a test. Cautiously, its bushy eyebrows lowered and gathering the entire strength held in its stick-like body, the child raised its right leg until it stood only on the other. Then it laughed, looked at me full of pride, and expressed its joy, its triumph even, through a small high-pitched screech.

I screamed.

‘Don’t do that. Stop it!’

The child maintained its position, red-faced, for several minutes. It clenched its fists and seemed to expend its entire energy on standing on one leg, like I had before. I shook my head. Eventually it returned to a more normal position, also shaking its head, and gave me an evil glare. It glared so angrily that I had to take a step back, for that stare exuded all the child’s deficiency, stabbing at me. There was nothing I could do but remove myself, for I sensed at that moment that a child with such an horrific, evil deficiency in its body could not help climbing inside me to seek that which it needed to at least survive. I had to protect myself, but also protect the child. Really, otherwise it would have died on the spot.

After I removed myself for a while by locking myself in the bathroom, that evening the child refused the food I had made for it for the first time. It was nothing but a trick, though. Late that night, I caught it in a gap between the door and the kitchen cabinets. It was crouched down, eating a piece of raw meat it had taken out of my fridge. When it noticed me, it looked up out of its dark eyes, still hungry, it looked up at me as though I were a threat to its life, as though it wanted mine in exchange. Once again, I thought it wanted to get inside me through my eyes. I thought this child wanted to take over my life so as to be safe at last. I ran to my bedroom, lay down in bed, and pulled the cover over my head. The child’s presence was becoming more and more oppressive. Not only was it constantly following me, demanding my attention at all times, already back at my bedside to stare down at me, but this child — it even managed to only sleep when I watched over it, meaning all I’d ever do now was lie awake watching.

On that evening, you see, when I had pulled the cover up over me in a perplexed attempt to be alone at last, the child tugged at my head and tore the cover aside. I yelled at it, and I won’t deny that I lost my temper at that moment.

‘Get out of here! Go on! I need to sleep or I can’t do my work properly. Get out of my bedroom this instant!’

I yelled my concerns until I grew hoarse. The child watched me. It gazed silently out while I unburdened myself yelling. I yelled with my eyes closed, out of rage but also to escape the child’s stares. When I opened my eyes, still yelling, I saw that the child was lying on the floor, asleep. I instantly fell silent. I looked at it for a while. Then, quietly so as not to wake it, I picked it up and carried it to its bed. I lay it down between the sheets and stroked its small white forehead. It was asleep. Infinitely relieved and looking forward to my sleep, I turned around and went to my bedroom. After my first step I heard the child breathing behind me, standing barefoot on the floor. I took it back to bed, tucked it in, and sat on the edge of the mattress until it fell asleep. I don’t know how many times I took it back to bed that night, tucked it in, and sat by its side until it fell asleep. I didn’t count, because it was uncountable. I must have spent the entire night walking between the rooms, for as soon as I got up to leave the child and creep to my bed, there it was behind me again.

And so that night it emerged that the child could only sleep when I watched over it, alongside it, my eyes fixed on it, and that it had not had a moment’s sleep since it had been with me. What choice did I have but to watch over the child?

Really, otherwise it would be dead by now.

I drew my own conclusions. The child wasn’t putting on weight and could sleep only with my help. I decided to ask various doctors for advice. As the child refused to go with me (preferring to guard the kitchen and the supplies), I went alone and described the problem to the doctors. Exhausted, shadows across my white face, I sat on chairs in front of desks and said the words I’d prepared beforehand, knowing this was not an easy case and there was always a possibility the doctors might not understand me.

I said: ‘I’ve come to you because a child lives with me who’s worrying me a great deal. This child clearly has some very essential and urgent deficiency. It has trouble sleeping and it doesn’t put on weight, no matter how much it eats. Believe me, I’ve tried everything and gone to great pains. I’m afraid it might die. I’m very worried and I hope you can help me.’

Exhausted as I was, I whispered each syllable separately and leaned over the desks to the doctors, fearing a word might otherwise be lost. The doctors nodded and asked questions. They made notes, looking up at me as they wrote. They enquired about my eating and sleeping habits. At first I thought these were routine questions, but they went on asking unnecessary questions about my habits. To my mind, they paid far too little attention to the child, on whose behalf I had come after all. So I couldn’t help assuming they must be questioning my ability to take care of it adequately. One doctor, a very scruffy-looking doctor who hadn’t shaved for at least three days, whose white coat dangled unstarched from his shoulders with visible grey marks inside the collar, that doctor even wanted to send me to a convalescence home! Appalled and seeing no other way out, I beat my head on the desk, jumped up, and asked him:

‘What on earth are you thinking? Who’d take care of the child if I’m away convalescing and can’t be there? Please, you seem not to understand me! I’m not here for myself, I’m here because I’m so worried about the child!’

The doctor nodded and recommended I calm down. But I was enraged at his incapability to give competent advice, yes, I really wondered how this doctor could show up to work in such an unkempt state. So I left the surgery on the spot and hastened home through the rush hour to my child, full of anger over all my absolutely pointless medical consultations.

Just after I entered the flat, actually while I was unlocking the door, I knew something had happened. In the hall, I stumbled over an empty can after my first step; a can of mushrooms, as I established to my annoyance. Had it been only that one can I wouldn’t have made a fuss. But the entire hallway was littered with packaging, empty food packaging. In between were plates, cutlery strewn in the corners; the further I ventured, ever more incredulous, the more it got. The hurdle of piled-up rubbish was so high that I didn’t want to enter my bedroom. My heart beat, it beat me, my stomach cramping beneath it, and I had to – I dashed to the bathroom, stumbling. I saw that this room too was full of rubbish, tumbled over the toilet, and vomited. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the child sitting on the bathroom stool. Its eyes wide, its legs crossed in front of the belly it had clearly stuffed only moments before, I thought as my body shuddered. Having recovered slightly, panting on the edge of the bathtub, I walked past the child without a word and clambered over the mess to the kitchen. Only there was the full extent of the catastrophe visible. The cupboards were open, the empty packaging piled knee-high. The child had emptied all the shelves, had emptied everything down to the last reserves and eaten it all. Enough was enough. The child was acting like a bandit in my own home, destroying my supplies and leaving behind a chaos that had never existed and would never have existed had this appalling, evil child not insinuated itself inside my four walls. I ran around the flat cursing, even considering moving out entirely there and then. The child followed me mutely; I paid it no attention. I didn’t even look at it, only starting to clear up, as it was late in the day. After hours of working through the rubbish from room to room and cleaning every last nook and cranny, I finally managed to restore order. I collapsed onto my bed. The child stood next to me, twirling its black hair. I wouldn’t give it anything to eat that day, as punishment. I wasn’t going to give the child anything at all, not any more. I didn’t even say good night, merely pulling up my cover all for me and closing my eyes firmly. I actually considered sleep possible.

There was a dripping sound, I heard it quite clearly. I sat up and looked around. The child was still standing motionless in the same place at the head of my bed. Though I told myself not to, I couldn’t stop looking at it. I wanted to know where the dripping was coming from, hitting the ground faster than my heart beat inside me. And then I saw that it was coming from the child’s eyes. The child stood motionless, crying huge tears that dripped onto the floor. I swiftly turned aside and tried to sleep.

At daybreak I heard a new sound. It came from the front door. I leapt up, ran down the hall, and found the child reaching for the door handle. The child wanted to leave. Under its arm it held the pillow and sheet I had put on its bed. Its eyes were still dripping tears. I rushed over and took it in my arms, holding it then and still holding it now. For this child will stay my child forever. Wherever it might go to balance its deficiencies and eat its fill at last, it will never find what it’s looking for. It’s staying here. It won’t ever let me sleep and it will eat my food for ever.

Autumn 2009


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