Outside Marie Luise Kaschnitz’s Frankfurt house, Number Eight Wiesenau, stands an old weeping willow. When the wind blows, it leans against the front windows and whispers stories of the house’s famous resident into the ear of whoever wants to hear. Whenever I pass this willow I think of Kaschnitz’s sad and tender short story, "The Fat Girl". For some reason, you see, I believe the weeping willow has something to do with the ‘fat girl’ of the title, that strange creature with ‘eyes as light as water’ who stays in bed when there’s a thunderstorm and never dares jump headfirst – who is despised by everybody, the focus of everyone’s dislike, and who one winter’s day plunges into the icy cold lake, full of defiance. In the moment of death, this fat girl suddenly loses all fear, finds freedom and sets off to discover ‘all the glowing life in the world’. When I pass the house on Wiesenau, I imagine Kaschnitz standing at the open window before sitting down to write, whispering her story into the leaves of the weeping willow. I imagine the old willow nodding at her, showing her that it knows exactly who this ‘fat girl’ is – knows that the story is a self-portrait, a self-denunciation. And I see an elated Kaschnitz close the window, straighten the typewriter and begin to write…
It was the end of January, not long after the Christmas holidays, when the fat girl came to me. That winter I had started lending books to the children from the neighbourhood, who were supposed to collect and return them on a particular day of the week. Of course I knew most of them, but sometimes children who didn’t live in our street would come as well. And although the majority only stayed for as long as it took to exchange their books, there were a few who would sit down and start to read right there on the spot. Then I would sit at my desk and work, and the children sat at the little table by the bookshelves, and their presence was enjoyable and didn’t disturb me. The fat girl came on a Friday or Saturday, not on the lending day in any case. I was planning to go out, and was just taking a snack I had made myself into the room. I had had a visitor a little earlier, who must have forgotten to shut the front door. And so the fat girl appeared quite suddenly, just as I had set the tray down on my desk and turned round to fetch something from the kitchen. She was about twelve years old, wearing an old-fashioned loden coat and black knitted gaiters, and carrying a pair of ice skates on a strap. She looked familiar, though not very familiar, and because she had come in so quietly she had given me a fright.
‘Do I know you?’ I asked in surprise.
The fat girl said nothing. She just stood there and folded her hands over her round stomach and looked at me with eyes as light as water.
‘Would you like a book?’ I asked.
Again, the fat girl didn’t reply. But I wasn’t too surprised by that. I was used to the children being shy and having to help them. So I took out a few books and placed them in front of this unknown girl. Then I started filling out one of the cards on which I recorded the books I had lent out.
‘So, what’s your name?’ I asked.
‘They call me Fatty’, said the girl.
‘Shall I call you that as well?’ I asked.
‘I don’t care’, said the girl. She didn’t return my smile, and now I seem to remember that at that moment her face twisted in pain. But I took no notice.
‘When were you born?’ I went on.
‘In Aquarius’, the girl said calmly.
The response amused me and, half in fun, I wrote it down on the card. Then I turned back to the books.
‘Is there something specific you would like?’ I asked.
But then I saw that the strange girl’s eyes were not on the books at all, they were resting on the tray that held my tea and my sandwiches.
‘Perhaps you’d like something to eat’, I said quickly.
The girl nodded, and her look seemed rather hurt and surprised that this thought had only just occurred to me. She got to work, devouring one sandwich after another and doing so in a particular way that I only managed to describe to myself later. Then she sat still again and let her cold, languid eyes roam around the room, and there was something about her that filled me with resentment and loathing. Yes, it’s true: I had hated this child from the start. Everything about her had repelled me: her lethargic limbs, her fat pretty face, her way of speaking, which was at once somnolent and presumptuous. And although I had decided to forgo my walk for her sake, I was not at all kind to her, but cruel and cold.
Or could it be deemed a kindness that I then sat down at my desk, took up my work and said over my shoulder, ‘Read now’, although I knew very well that this unknown girl had no desire to read? And I sat there and wanted to write and got nothing done, because I had a strange, tormented feeling, like when you are supposed to guess something and have not guessed it, and as long as you have not guessed it, nothing can ever be the same. And I held out for a while, but not for very long, and then I turned round and began a conversation, and I could come up with only the most foolish of questions.
‘Do you have any brothers or sisters?’ I asked.
‘Yes’, said the girl.
‘Do you like going to school?’ I asked.
‘Yes’, said the girl.
‘So what do you like most?’
‘Sorry?’ said the girl.
‘What subject?’ I asked, desperately.
‘I don’t know’, said the girl.
‘German, maybe?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know’, said the girl.
I twirled my pencil between my fingers, and something began to grow inside me, a dread that was out of all proportion with the girl’s arrival.
‘Do you have friends?’ I asked, trembling.
‘Oh yes’, said the girl.
‘And I’m sure you have a best friend, don’t you?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know’, said the girl, and sitting there in her hairy loden coat she looked like a fat caterpillar; she had eaten like a caterpillar, too, and like a caterpillar she now started sniffing around again.
You’re not getting anything else, I thought, filled with a strange vindictiveness. But then I went out all the same and fetched some bread and slices of sausage, and the girl stared at it with her dull face and then she started eating, like a caterpillar eats, slow and steady, as if driven by an inner compulsion, and I looked on, hostile and mute. For by now everything about the girl had begun to upset and anger me. What a silly white dress, what a ridiculous stand-up collar, I thought, when the girl had finished eating and unbuttoned her coat. I sat down to my work again, but then I heard the girl smacking her lips behind me, and this sound was like the slow lapping of a black pond somewhere in the forest, it made me conscious of everything dull and watery, everything heavy and brackish in human nature, and it angered me. What do you want from me? I thought. Go away, go away. And I wanted to push the child out of the room with my own hands, as you might drive away an annoying animal. But then I didn’t push her out of the room; I spoke to her again, and in the same cruel manner.
‘Are you going out on the ice now?’ I asked.
‘Yes’, said the fat girl.
‘Are you good at ice skating?’ I asked, gesturing to the skates that were still hanging over the girl’s arm.
‘My sister’s good’, said the girl, and once more an expression of pain and sadness appeared on her face, and once more I took no notice.
‘What does your sister look like?’ I asked. ‘Is she like you?’
‘Oh, no’, said the fat girl. ‘My sister is very thin and has black, curly hair. In summer, when we’re in the countryside, she gets up at night when a storm comes and sits on the edge of the upstairs balcony and sings.’
‘And you?’ I asked.
‘I stay in bed’, said the girl. ‘I’m afraid.’
‘Your sister’s not afraid, is she?’ I said.
‘No’, said the girl. ‘She’s never afraid. She jumps off the highest diving board, too. She dives in head-first, and then she swims a long way out…’
‘And what does your sister sing?’ I asked, curious.
‘She sings whatever she wants’, the fat girl said, sadly. ‘She makes up poems.’
‘And you?’ I asked.
‘I don’t do anything’, said the girl. And then she got up and said: ‘I have to go now.’ I held out my hand, and she put her fat fingers into it, and I don’t know exactly what I felt – something like an invitation to follow her, an inaudible, urgent call. ‘Do come again’, I said, but I didn’t mean it, and the girl said nothing and looked at me with her cool eyes. And then she was gone, and really I should have felt relieved. But the apartment door had hardly clicked shut when I was dashing out into the corridor too and putting on my coat. I hurried down the stairs and reached the street just as the girl disappeared round the next corner.
I have to see how this caterpillar ice skates, I thought. I have to see how this lump of lard moves on the ice. And I quickened my pace so as not to lose sight of her.
It had been early afternoon when the fat girl came into my room, and now dusk was falling. Although I had spent a few years in this town as a child, I didn’t really know my way around any more, and I was so intent on following the girl that soon I didn’t know where we were, and the streets and squares that appeared before me were entirely unfamiliar. I also noticed a sudden change in the air. It had been very cold, but now a thaw had definitely set in with such a force that the snow was already dripping from the roofs and large Föhn clouds were moving across the sky. We came to the outskirts of town, where the houses are surrounded by large gardens, and then there were no more houses, and then suddenly the girl disappeared, diving down an embankment. And where I had expected to see a skating rink, bright stalls and arc lamps and a glittering surface alive with screams and music, I was now confronted with a very different sight. Below me lay the lake whose banks I thought had all been built upon: it was quite solitary, surrounded by black woods, and it looked just as it had in my childhood.
I was so stirred by this unexpected scene that I almost lost sight of the girl. But then I saw her again, perching on the bank. She was trying to cross one leg over the other, holding the skate onto her foot with one hand while the other turned the key. She dropped the key a few times, and then the fat girl fell onto all fours and slid about on the ice, searching for it, looking like an outlandish toad. Moreover, it was getting darker and darker; the steamer jetty, stretching out across the ice just a few metres away from the girl, was a deep black above the huge surface of the lake. The ice had a silvery sheen, but not all over: here and there it was a little darker, and in these cloudy spots the thaw was setting in. Hurry up, I called out impatiently, and Fatty did actually start to hurry, but not at my urging; out there, beyond the end of the long steamer jetty, someone was waving and shouting, ‘Come on, Fatty’, someone who was skating in circles out there, a light, bright figure. It occurred to me that this must be the sister, the dancer, the storm singer, the girl after my own heart, and I was soon convinced that I had been drawn here purely by a desire to see this graceful creature. But at the same time I became aware of the danger the children were in. For now, all at once, there came this peculiar groan, this deep sigh that the lake seems to give before its skin of ice breaks. The sigh ran through the depths like an eerie lament, and I heard it, and the children did not.
No, of course they didn’t hear it. Otherwise Fatty, that fearful little thing, would not have started out, she would not have ventured further and further, sliding her feet scratchily, clumsily forward, and her sister out there would not have laughed and waved and spun like a ballerina on the tip of her skate, and then returned to her elegant figures of eight, and Fatty would have avoided the black patch from which she briefly shied away, only to then cross it after all, and her sister would not suddenly have stood up tall and skated off, away, away to one of the secluded little inlets.
I could see all this very well, since I had begun to walk out along the steamer jetty, further and further, putting one foot in front of the other. Although the planks were icy, I made better progress than the fat girl down below, and when I turned I could see her face, the expression at once dull and yearning. I could also see the cracks that were now appearing everywhere and from which, like froth from the lips of a person in a towering rage, a little foaming water spilled. And then of course I also saw the ice break beneath the fat girl. It broke in the spot where her sister had been dancing, just a few arms’ lengths from the end of the jetty.
I hasten to add that this crack was not a life-threatening one. The lake freezes in several layers, and the second was only a meter below the first and still entirely solid. All that happened was that Fatty was left standing in a metre of water – icy water, admittedly, and surrounded by crumbling sheets of ice – and if she only waded a few paces she would be able to reach the jetty and pull herself up, and I could help her. But at the same time I thought, she won’t manage that, and it did seem as though she wouldn’t, from the way she was standing there, scared to death, splashing clumsily about, with the water streaming around her and the ice shattering beneath her hands. Aquarius, I thought, now the water bearer is dragging her down, and I felt nothing at all, not even the slightest pity, and I did not stir.
But then Fatty suddenly lifted her head, and because night had really fallen now and the moon had appeared from behind the clouds I could see clearly that something in her face had changed. The features were the same and yet different, they had been torn open by passion and determination, as if now, in the face of death, they were drinking in all of life, all the glowing life in the world. Yes, I’m sure I believed that: that death was at hand and this was the end, and I leaned over the railings and looked into that white countenance below me, and like a mirror image it looked back out of the black flood. But then the fat girl made it to the wooden stilt. She reached out and began to haul herself up, cleverly grasping the nails and hooks that stuck out of the wood. Her body was too heavy, and her fingers bled, and she fell back, only to begin all over again. And it was a long battle, a terrible struggle for release and transformation, like I was watching the cracking of a shell or a cocoon, and at that point I might certainly have helped the girl, but by then I knew I no longer needed to help her – I had recognised her…
I don’t remember how I got home that evening. I only know that on our staircase I told a neighbour that one part of the lakeshore was still covered with meadows and black woods, and she told me, no, it wasn’t. And that I then found the papers on my desk all mixed up, and somewhere amongst them an old photograph of myself, in a white woollen dress with a stand-up collar, with light, watery eyes, and very fat.
*This story is taken from: Marie Luise Kaschnitz, Gesammelte Werke in sieben Bänden. Vierter Band. Die Erzählungen. © Insel Verlag Frankfurt am Main 1983.
*The translation of this story was supported by the Goethe-Institute.