The Place of Storms
from the collection The Sleep of the Righteous
out now from Two Lines Press
We could claim but a small part of the street: our street, as we called it, stretched townward to the point where the pavement began—uneven and jolting, made of square granite cobbles—and out the other way to the railroad crossing, where the town, at least its inhabited part, really had already ended. The sedate, brassy clanging when the red and white gates were cranked down—a sour note made by a tiny hammer striking the inside wall of a shallow, bowl-like mold—was, in a way, the town’s death knell, for past the railroad crossing, at least on the right side, lay vast fields of rubble with looming black beams and ruined walls: the remains of munitions factories where concentration camp inmates had labored in wartime.
Our part of the street had not been paved yet, except for the narrow sidewalks outside the two rows of apartment blocks. Between the sidewalks was but a straight track of sand, perhaps once light, now since times unknown blackgray, as though in proof that a mix of many colors ultimately yields darkness. Coal dust and ash had blackened it to the pith, and then had come the reddish mass of crushed brick, the rubble from bombed-out houses that was used to even the surface. After each rain you gazed into a bed of murky, viscous mud; in the dry spells of summer the street was an endless reservoir of dust that advanced all the way into the stairwells and seemed to glow in the midday sun; it covered barefoot boys’ skin up to the thighs with the black bloom of inviolability.
We little kids, bored in the long days of summer, sat on the curb, our feet in the dust of the gutter, puffing on cigarettes, their smoke barely visible in the sun’s glare between the façades. And we sat on the steps outside front doors that were always shut against the dust; from a distance we seemed a visibly degenerate mob unlikely to lift its siege of the sidewalk without a fight. Passers-by crossed the street when they saw us, or turned onto a side street beforehand, seeking the shelter of the large trees, the chestnuts or the lindens; our street lacked trees and saw hardly a shadow.
At that time there was a dearth of men in town; most of the children were fatherless, and many remained so forever. Time refused to pass, bearing down on them like a weight that stunted their growth. And the sole liberation from boredom lay in growth, in the adulthood that all the others had achieved some incalculable time ago and no longer wasted a word on. And the books we read, the stories we made up and told, as a rule featured only adults, and for the most part only men. — The mere thought that you were still small made you sick, you sickened with boredom . . . There were no fathers to take pride in your growing up after them. Or they were mayors, policemen, pharmacists, teachers . . . or miners, waiting for their pensions, so tired in the evenings that they never spoke a word. — For the mothers, it seemed, you always stayed a child, they seemed to forget you had a name, all your life you were the child for them, eternally neuter . . . and I heard my mother calling me, in the rooms, in the hallway, across the yard, through all the floors her clear voice rang . . . Child, she called, where are you? Where’ve you been all this time? — And when we crossed the railroad tracks to reach the strip mines, or entered the woods that began beyond the expanse of ruins, when we vanished all day from our street, out of reach of the town and adults, in the evening she cried: Just look what the child’s been up to again, just look at the child, what a sight! — She cried these words even though I’d returned intact, almost entirely unscathed, giving no cause for concern whatsoever . . .
It was an affront: for a time whose end seemed out of sight you were condemned to the life of little kids for whom the months, the years passed only in arid theory, in the form of a convention the adults were set upon; any actual passage of time would occur only in the intangible future. It was a stuffy, stubbornly opaque doom that hung over the whole town, but over our street with special vividness: there were no fathers there to make still littler children.
Little kids was our collective name, rarely heard without a touch of scorn, which seemed to vanish only when the big kids on our street wanted something from us. They’d say, for instance, “here, have a smoke”; we ignored the condescension, put on finicky expressions, and helped ourselves. Pensively we’d roll the cigarette between thumb and forefingers until someone offered us a light. We’d have loved to strike a match on our boot heel, something we’d never seen done. But we’d eavesdropped on grown-ups who’d seen it in movies in the American zone of Berlin, for us an utterly unreachable continent. We’d never been to the movies, not even to one of the town’s two movie theaters; besides, we lacked the boots for the purpose. The big kids struck matches on the glass of shop windows; we’d seen that and tried it ourselves when we could get our hands on a matchbox—in kindergarten and later at school the possession of matches was seen almost as an act of sabotage—but our matches wouldn’t light, or rarely lit, on the glass panes, and usually the indignant shopkeepers chased us off.
Once we’d lit the cigarettes, the big kids came out with what they wanted: it would seem to be some risky matter. When they had a ticklish task for us, they avoided the word kid. But since such jobs required someone who looked particularly harmless, an indirect disparagement remained. — Apparently I never really looked harmless, and so the jobs regularly went to those who were even smaller, or a half to a full year younger than me, with my eccentric birth date. — We’d off-handedly promise to look into the matter; in reality we rarely did a thing, and had to spend a while on the run from the big kids. But they swiftly forgot what they’d needed, or it would prove superfluous; after a time we sat on the curb once again, bored and unmolested, awaiting our maturity.
And this waiting was contradictory: on the one hand our goal was to grow older, to rise at last from the state of useless, unfinished, in-between beings; on the other hand, perhaps still worse than the alternative, that would thwart any permanent alliance with the power of the summer in our street. — For we saw how the adults suffered from the heat; we nodded understandingly, even chimed in with their laments, we cursed along with them when a yearned-for storm refused to come and the thunder bogged down above the woods in the east. In reality, though, we took in the incandescent air as though every trickle of sentimentality had to be parched from our innards. We breathed the smoke that rose from the furrows and faults in the street dust, we took in the afternoons’ paralyzing stillness like the golden-yellow vapors of alchemistic smelters, which made us younger, yet lent our faces the ancient grins of African demon masks. — If it ever did rain at night or in the morning, the midday sun leeched all the moisture from the furrows of the road, from that one lane of deep ruts that led across the railroad tracks and all the way out to the strip mines . . . and after a thunderstorm had indeed come, when the sky was white-blue again, the ruts were transformed into two channels of water that reached to the calves, and on the surface floated a fine film of reddish ash.
In winter the street was frozen rock-solid, with the menacing glitter of frost in the petrified mud’s recesses. Every day now, with torturous slowness, the cumbersome ash carts passed, so broad that on our stretch of the street there was room for just one at a time. They were welded together from strong, rusty steel plate, and the remnants of paint not yet burned away were rust-red as well. With bodies that tapered toward the bottom to ease the dumping of the ash, they resembled armored battleships; swaying slightly, grinding and groaning, they crept out of town in a cloud of exhaust; the fat, black, rubber tires clearly found little traction in the sometimes iced-over ruts of the street. The ash carts left a lingering wave of salty fumes between the buildings; you tasted it, felt its sting in your throat and your lungs, and long after the carts had passed the air seemed roiled by invisible, burnt-smelling waves. The trapezoidal monsters hauled the fuel waste from all the households and the rebuilt industrial plants out of town and dumped it in the first of the mine pits . . . the first mine pit had once been the largest, though only the deepest half contained water; in the meantime it had been filled by ash, rubble, and rubbish to become the smallest of the so-called “final voids.” — The wagons were drawn by prodigious brewery horses, just as rust-red as the ash carts, steaming and grinding away just like them. High on a wooden bench sat a driver swathed in black and dusted with brown ash, clicking his tongue constantly and puffing on a charred, crooked pipe. With their shoes slipping on the frozen mud crests, now and then the utterly phlegmatic beasts would stop; the coachman’s long, arcing whip, tip flicked out, sank from the white sky onto the horses’ huge rumps, darting there artfully until the mighty animals, making reluctant fluttery sounds with their nostrils, resumed their trot once more; fine wisps of ash rose from their coats as the man on the wooden seat administered those tiny, well-aimed rapier jabs that sometimes cracked like distant gunshots.
One day, two of the poor beasts had fallen into the ash just as the wagon was unloading, and dragged the entire vehicle along with them. — We were told this by the railroad gateman; he hardly spoke a word otherwise, but the accident had horrified him too deeply to pass over it in silence. The pit’s crumbling rim—only the frost, he said, had lent it a deceptive stability—had given way beneath the weight of the wagon and team; the driver was standing alongside, and only a quick-witted backward leap saved his life. But the horses, snarled in their harnesses’ tangle, slid with the wagon down the steep slope to the bottom of the mine, where they sank into the subterranean embers covered only by thin layers of cooled ash. The beasts’ bellowing whinnies . . . no, their shrieks, said the signalman, must have been heard all the way to town; the whole area was filled by the rank smell of burned hair and flesh. — My grandfather, said to love horses more than people, had come running to the ash pit from his nearby allotment garden, clutching a shotgun, but before he could reach the site of the accident the horses had already fallen silent; death had seized them. All the same, the men shot from above to make the heaps of flesh stop twitching, but it was no use. And in the end, the weeping driver hurled his tobacco pipe down into the depths of the mine pit!
Much later, I recalled reading of a similar scene in a long book I’d never finished: a captain by the name of Ahab had likewise flung his pipe, his last remaining pleasure, over the bulwarks into the ocean’s rolling waves, disconsolate at his failure to chase down a huge white whale he’d been hunting for nameless ages across the seas.
In any case, the accident spelled immediate ruin for the horses’ owner, Bodling the carter, a friend of my grandfather’s. It seems he then took to delivering beer, driving the beer and soda crates to the shops and picking up the empties with a rickety little three-wheeler. As the town’s other carter was unable to cope with all the ash by himself, the town government eventually drummed up a new motorized garbage truck, but it took the rest of the winter and nearly all the next year. In the meantime, people carted their ash out of town themselves in wheelbarrows; after dark they emptied the bins right into the ruins beyond the railroad crossing . . . to the gateman’s chagrin, but he said nothing, he kept his silence. And when things got really bad, people began to fill the ruts in the middle of our stretch of street with ash, which transformed it altogether into a hilly, barely negotiable waste, in the spring thaws emitting a medley of noisome smells that burned off and vanished only in summer.
My grandfather’s gun had become a kind of legend in town, at least in the part of town within our ken and control. It suddenly made me an object of interest for the bigger boys on the street who had consciously experienced the war. For them the war had been decidedly more exciting than the peace, the post-war period that increasingly metamorphosed into a regimented existence full of inevitable demands that could not be escaped, with time gradually divided into fixed units that had to be faced, the main thing being punctuality and reliability. Peace, this much seemed clear, was governed by the clocks, time by the clock had taken power, and quite quickly one realized there was no more escape from the power of the ordered time blocks. It was no coincidence that everyone told how the Russian soldiers who had chased away the war and brought the peace—it seemed, unfortunately, that they’d chased war away for good—were especially keen on the watches the vanquished Germans wore. When the Americans were still in town, no one had cared about German watches, nor had the Americans cared about time and order. They had left that to the Russians who replaced them soon after the peace began—and you could tell from the Americans’ grinning faces, it was said, how little credit they gave the Russians with regard to order and time management. They were mistaken; the Russians installed town administrators who were downright obsessed with cleaning up. Cleaning up and rebuilding...order and cleanliness; these, one sensed, were especially tenacious German virtues, and the Russians were well aware of it. But the Germans—at least some of them, even adults—weren’t so keen to play along, and went on dumping their ash and their rubbish in the ruts of our street by night; only those, of course, who didn’t live on our street themselves. Thus, peace meant for a time that the street was fouled by the acrid smell of sodden ash, mingled with the vapors from rotten vegetable scraps and fallen, liquescing fruit; unprecedented populations of bluebottles and wasps appeared out of nowhere to take over the street; and more and more run-over rats were left lying in the space between the sidewalks and had to be disposed of. The scourge ended only when policemen began to patrol the street by twos in dark blue uniforms, one member of each pair armed with a revolver.
The rubbish disappeared, but the police patrols remained, pacing the street not just by night; soon they were seen in the daytime as well, and if the bluebottles and the vinegar stink of the trash hadn’t already driven us from the street, the gaze of those policemen did. They eyed us suspiciously, and it was impossible to smoke in front of them. We decamped past the city limits to the strip mines, suddenly finding ourselves in the big kids’ midst, though we were far from belonging there. This incurred the disapproval of my mother, who regarded the whole area past the railroad crossing as one great danger zone. Child, she said to me, you’re not big enough to go to the strip mines by yourself. You don’t know your way around there, and you can’t swim yet! — By the way, she never neglected to mention, when I was your age I’d been swimming for ages. — Go to the swimming pool instead, she said. I’d know you’re in good hands there. — And she gave me the twenty pfennigs to pay the cashier. There was a wading pool for small children where no one could possibly sink; I was decidedly not a small child anymore, but you were inevitably shooed away by a pool attendant if you came anywhere near
the big pool with its diving platform. I saved up the admission fees for other purposes: by day
I was out of reach for my mother, who worked in the cooperative store at the other end of our street, and along with the others, as unsupervised as I, I kept on going to the strip mines. — There we found ourselves amid the groups of big kids, where girls and boys already mingled, and all at once talk turned back to my grandfather’s gun. They approached us—we were lying, still dressed, in a grassy area apart from the noisy bathers—and I noticed, not without gratification, that I was the chief focus of their attention...my mother wouldn’t have liked that either.
Suddenly they’d lend me their dog-eared books—this had sometimes happened before, one being the story of Ahab the one-legged whale hunter, missing a good many pages, which was why, apart from the book’s heft, I quickly lost interest in it; those thin, cheap paperbacks printed in double columns, all from West Berlin, were much more enthralling. They generally related the adventures . . . or rather the ceaseless shoot-outs of a recurring, invincible character whose name was emblazoned on the lurid covers: Buffalo Bill or Tom Brack the Border Rider or Coyote, Rider of the Black Mask . . . I devoured the books by the kilo, and I needed to read quickly, as they always had to be returned a day or two later or passed on to someone else who was desperately awaiting them. My mother watched with extreme disapproval, believing this reading material would forever corrupt me to the core. — Suddenly the big kids bestowed their cigarettes on me alone and left the others out . . . after all, I was the oldest of the little kids, and, I sensed, was gradually growing to catch up with the big kids.
But all they cared about, more and more disappointingly, was the mysterious gun, which Grandfather refused to let me see. — When we hunkered in the grass cross-legged like Indians, the shadows of the bigger boys would loom behind us—at once I felt the suspicious gazes of the adults, a few of whom always mingled with the beach crowd—and, darkening the sun, they leaned over and whispered: Is it a carbine? A hunting rifle, double or single? Or is it a small-caliber gun? We’d have the ammunition for it . . .
At the center of attention, I would have loved to say: it’s a Winchester! — That was the kind of rifle the pulp novels were always talking about.
Some time when we came, couldn’t we bring the gun along...? Only then we’d have to go over to the marsh to bathe, where we wouldn’t be disturbed. Or we’d have to fix a meeting place in the forest and bring the gun there!
I never thought of denying the gun’s existence; I had doubted it myself until I heard the gateman’s story, but it brought me incredible prestige. However, I could think of no good excuse for its remaining beyond my reach. So I half agreed and half refused . . . This constant talk about the gun would attract way too much attention, I said.
Do you think we’d rat on you? they asked indignantly.
Not that, but it’s awfully risky if too many people know about it, I replied. And day by day I went on stalling; on the one hand the big kids got on my nerves with their constant interrogations, on the other hand I feared losing their attention; that would have meant foregoing the bounty of new pulp novels, whose contents floated in my head, nearly monopolizing my thoughts. Should the supply of books break off, I knew, I would have to make up stories like that myself...
The mine pit beaches were not always peaceful places: the big kids took great pleasure in mounting so-called mud fights . . . and not just them, also the female contingent of the beach crowd, who retreated into the background, cheering and applauding from a safe distance—depending on which group of combatants they’d sided with—when a shot hit home with a smack. — Using your hands, or shovel-like objects, you’d dig up fat, sticky chunks of clay and loam at the edge of the water and shape fist-sized balls you’d pile up around you, and once each group had sought out a spot with enough cover, behind hillocks, behind the reeds, or behind the low, leaning trees that sometimes loomed in the reeds . . . spots close to the water, so new balls of clay could be fetched as quickly as possible . . . when all were at their posts, battle was joined with a great roar. When the foe broke cover and ventured an attack, the command came: “Barrage!” and a volley of projectiles flew through the air until the attackers had retreated again—only strategically, of course, for the attack had drastically decimated the other side’s supply of mud balls. Someone charged with bringing a fresh supply of clay would have to break cover, coming under a bombardment that would nearly fell him if he failed to seek shelter in deep water...and maneuvers like these were celebrated twice as loudly. The whole thing could go on for hours, and ended as a rule with one of the parties capitulating, usually by announcing they’d run out of ammunition. They were ordered to come out with their hands up, and when they did the last of the balls were fired at them, though only up to their thighs; anything else would have been dastardly. — Given the nasty consequences when someone was struck in the face by one of the smartly thrown, heavy, compact clay balls—especially when the ball had previously been rolled in loose gravel to compound its effect—what, I asked myself, would happen if one of the fronts...and sometimes there were three fronts, of which the third, weakest one regularly confederated with the one that had the best prospects of victory. . . if one such front had suddenly had my grandfather’s gun on hand...
I need bathing trunks, I said to my mother one day; at the swimming pool you can’t go into the water without bathing trunks. — It was a lie, if only because I virtually never went to the swimming pool. — I used to go there myself as a child, mother said, and as I recall, children always got to use the wading pool without bathing suits. But all right, I’ll knit you some bathing trunks.
And mother knitted me bathing trunks of a size... some day I’d go on growing, after all . . . that was generously assessed. She had just enough elastic band for the legs, so the trunks were held up by suspenders knitted from the same dark-blue yarn. They were attached with large buttons; on my back they formed the letter X, and in front, on my chest, they described a broad H. I knew at once that I couldn’t go to the big mine pit in these bathing trunks; who knew what epithet these suspenders would have earned me. Perhaps the name Hix, which sounded like the rickets or the hiccups . . . or like that one-legged hopping game played by very small girls amid an enigmatic configuration of squares drawn on the ground with a stick or with chalk; I could picture nothing duller than that game. So I went back to the marsh, to the ever-shrinking mine pit where I had first gone bathing. It was the pit closest to town; a hole just a few hundred yards across had remained, and as more and more ash was dumped into it, one day it would vanish utterly, a melancholy thought.
The bottom of the strip mine, as well as a flat dry expanse on the other side, past what was known, with great exaggeration, as its “beach,” consisted of a layer of peat-like lignite that had not been worth mining. This layer had quickly been ignited by the glowing cinders; across its full breadth the coal seam was being eaten away by the blaze and gradually turned to ash. From the edge of the pit you could see how far the blaze had advanced: along an irregular line the nearly black ground was displaced by the pale gray, nearly white fields of ash that crawled further and further forward. Bit by bit the ground was pulverized . . . but beneath the thin crust of cooled ash, broad swaths of embers glowed on; neither beginning nor end of this deep-reaching hellfire could be explored without risk to life and limb. Nothing could extinguish the fire, creeping inexorably toward the water; I pictured how one day, not long from now, the strip mine’s shallow water would explode into a filthy white cloud of steam. Slender tongues of water were already asimmer; even now the little lake was so anomalously warm that one might suppose it was being heated from below. And when thundershowers poured down into the hollow, the entire surroundings were filled at once by towering fountains of steam that in certain winds fogged my grandfather’s glasses in his allotment garden and made him shut himself up in his summerhouse until the fog, which rendered the garden’s narrow paths invisible, had passed, dripping as a burnt-smelling dew from the leaves of the fruit trees. — Even on sunny days the atmosphere above and around the mine pit seemed seized by a feverish unrest, distorting every image that caught the eye.The air above the whole terrain had a bluish tinge, and it was as though each glance toward the other side had to penetrate an irregular wall of glass behind which everything was warped, doubled, and refracted.The woods that began on the hills beyond were shrouded and seemed set in constant motion, a ghost forest flickering without end and wavering to and fro, and from the edge of the small lake that was the pit’s lower depth, blue tongues of water shot across the narrow beach and up into the forest undergrowth, which looked like a layer of gray-blue rot in which all life was stifled, leaving nothing but hectic spectral unreality. Blue lightning bombarded the gravel face of a broken-off escarpment, wearing it further and further down and making it burrow ever deeper beneath the roots of the woods. And amid the mirages created by the nearly invisible smoke, at their lowest depths, lay the little lake, its water dark brown like coal, nearly black when seen from above, and the blinding abstractions of reflected sunlight flared over its motionless surface: from a distance it was like a puddle of viscous syrup, gleaming golden in the center.
Unreality and semblance held sway over all the area. And I knew that I, as the passage of time willed it, would soon have to grow up...so it was willed by the watches, which—the stories never ceased—were valued so highly by the Russian occupying power, because power needed watches to control the fate of the land . . . but I knew that even then I’d be unable, long unable, to believe in reality’s truths.
No, when I woke in the morning in the far-too-large bed, in the bed that had once been my father’s—also a relatively unreal figure for me: in the entire flat there was one single photo of my father, a brownish portrait photo in which he wore a steel helmet . . . and, as they put it, he hadn’t come back from the war, a war of which I knew almost nothing . . . he had, it seemed, preferred the war to the unreality of the peace I lived in—when I opened my eyes in the morning, I immediately recognized, in the play of dapples and shadows on the ceiling, the simulated character of the time in which I lived, this mere composite of chimerical perceptions . . . assuming I really did live in this time. I recognized myself in the large dressing mirror on the far side of the room: I saw that I was not my father, that I barely resembled him . . . though people were constantly claiming I did . . . I had nothing to do with my father; I saw that I lay in the wrong bed. And yet I believed I could just as well be living in an utterly different time . . . like my unreal father, lingering on in an unreal war, a war vanished forever from a world lost in the wasteland of a half-baked peace. My father, I believed, had given himself or been forced to give himself to an utterly different world, the world of the ice fields outside the city of Stalingrad, and from there he had not returned . . . perhaps one day I could enter this world, if I wrote about it, if I made notes, written expositions which summoned the image of that time into reality once more, as though in this way the present time might become more real. — For the moment, however, I balked at reading my father’s letters from the front, of which there were entire stacks: they were written in a strange, spiky old German script that I read with great difficulty; inevitably I would have to have my mother translate the letters. That would be embarrassing; my mother might start crying. Father had such affectionate words for me in his letters, treating me like some quite tender, fragile creature, which was the last thing I wanted to be. At least he called me by my name...
But perhaps I could describe quite different times: times in which a solitary rider galloped across the prairie’s endless swells, the broad-brimmed hat on his head as black as the horse beneath his saddle. He thunders up a hill, spying from the ridge a group of men instantly recognizable as bandits . . . he reaches for the gun that hangs in a leather holster on his saddle. Without drawing their Colts, the desperados wheel their horses around and flee pell-mell. A slight, barely noticeable smile appears beneath the man’s thin black moustache. He knows that the ruffians have only feigned their flight; once out of sight, they’ll return to lure him into an ambush. The man smiles; he’ll never fall for their tricks . . . Mother, no doubt, would have called such a story impossible, untrue, and utterly unrealistic. But weren’t these madeup stories just as true as ones invented from so-called reality? There was the story of my grandfather’s gun, for instance: it no longer existed, I had known that for some time; I’d heard it once again from the lips of the gateman, and he was credible, if only because he rarely said a word. But in the older boys’ minds the gun was still there; they wouldn’t stop asking me about it. — The untenable bathing trunks my mother had knitted . . . the most untenable of all conceivable bathing trunks forced me to swim in the so-called marsh, the smallest of the mine pits, where the ash heaps encroached upon the water. The water was only a few hundred yards wide, and you could walk from one side to the other; at the deepest spot it barely reached the shoulders . . . you could hardly learn to swim in this puddle. Besides, the brown water smelled so unmistakably of coal, a smell, which clung on late into the evening, that Mother realized at once I’d been to the strip mines, where I wasn’t supposed to go. — Why do I give you money for the swimming pool, she said, when you’re just going to the mine pits, and when you can’t even swim, at that. If only you’d at least learn first at the swimming pool, they’ve
got life preservers there . . . This caused problems for me, as my friends were also
quite reluctant to follow me to the marsh . . . when you came out of the marsh water, your bathing trunks were lined with a layer of wet coal residue that collected there like coffee grounds; one day, when I discovered a drowned insect in these grounds, I got rid of the bathing trunks my mother had made and claimed they’d been stolen. — Stolen! Bathing trunks like those? Even Mother could hardly stifle a laugh at this excuse. Why didn’t you just say you didn’t want to wear them? — I had chosen an opportune moment; my aunt from Jena was visiting, my mother’s older sister who worked as an attendant at a Jena swimming pool. — I can’t believe you’d unleash a boy on humanity in such a ridiculous bathing suit, my aunt said. — But the suspenders would’ve been good for pulling him out of the water—he still can’t swim! — If he’s going to learn to swim, he needs proper bathing trunks, said my aunt, an authority in the field.
She went back home, and a few days later a small package arrived from Jena containing three pairs of bathing trunks that fit me perfectly: unclaimed items from the lost and found at my aunt’s swimming pool. — I picked out a navy-blue pair with a miniature white anchor appliqued to the left side . . . and with them I could return to the largest of the mine pits, between the marsh and another smaller pit. — One day, caught in the crossfire between two warring bands, I retreated into the water and suddenly fell into a gaping hole, for the bottom fell away in treacherous, unpredictable tiers, depending on how the ground had been excavated: I found myself with my head under water, my feet couldn’t reach bottom; flailing my arms, I struggled to the surface; with my head back above water I saw the lake’s wide, calm expanse before me, one hundred, two hundred yards; the beach lay behind. Instead of yelling for help, I began to paddle my arms—much as dogs do to move through the water—and I paddled, I swam, a sorry sight perhaps, but the water bore me up; I moved slowly, then more quickly, toward the middle of the lake . . . once I turned around and saw them watching me from the shore, silent and intent . . . now I had no choice, I had to reach the far shore. I felt more and more confident in my dog paddle, and soon I tried, as I’d seen the big kids do, to swing my arms from my hips up over my head, plunge them in again in front of me, and scoop the water down along my body with my palms, attempting my first crawl strokes . . . I managed, but it tired me, and soon I fell back into my dog paddle. A few yards from shore I felt a sense of exhilaration; from now on no one, not my mother nor anyone else, could claim I couldn’t swim.
When I reached the other side and crawled onto the bank, exhausted, but with an expression as though nothing special had happened, I saw little Will in front of me, stretched out on a plaid blanket in the grass; next to him, almost leaning on his shoulder, sat a female in a bathing suit, one of her hands on little Will’s stomach; she removed it as soon as she saw me. Little Will was the brother of big Will, and they were the biggest, strongest boys on our street, both equally big and strong, only the little one was a good year younger than the bigger; both were redheads, and regarded as invincible. It was rare to see them apart, and when they weren’t at loggerheads themselves, they put everyone else to flight. Just one by himself was intimidating, and when they made common cause there was no one, even an adult, who could stop them.
So what’s the story with the old man’s gun, little Will asked me, where is it, when are you finally going to bring it? — I’ll bring it, I said, I’ll bring it as soon as I can. — On my way back to the beach, circling the mine pit on foot, I knew I’d stumbled into a trap that could have dire consequences for me.
In the gateman’s lodge we were safe. The gateman, or one of them, the silent, one-armed man, always let us in when he had the day shift. Sometimes, when we got caught in a thunderstorm on the way to the mine pits, he practically urged us to come inside.
You needn’t be afraid of the Wills, he said to us, I’ve got them over a barrel. I know they go out at night stealing coal from the coal trains, I could report them any time I like. Can you picture the hell that’ll break loose when the Russian officers find out they’re getting coal stolen from their trains? Off to Siberia, they’ll say, off to Vorkuta, they’ve got coal there too!
As Grandfather sat in front of his summerhouse one afternoon with his gun across his knees, motionless, pipe in his mouth, staring ahead with the corners of his mouth turned down resolutely—he was waiting for a marten that had been threatening the chickens in their shed by the house . . . and the chickens were huddled together in a dense mass in the corner, their anxious behavior showing that the marten still lurked somewhere in the tangle of the garden—the police came and took him away. They confiscated the gun . . . it was just an ordinary air rifle, a so-called break barrel, but all the same a pre-war model with considerable punch; grandfather cast the pellets for it himself. He was reprimanded for “possessing an illegal firearm”. . . an air rifle! — In the evening, after his release, he sat in the kitchen with the same devil-may-care expression . . . as though still waiting for the marten . . . unresponsive, he expelled huge clouds of smoke from his spark-spitting pipe. His ancient Polish hatred of the “Russians,” easily awoken—he often told us how he’d known Russian occupation troops as a child in southeast Poland—had erupted once again; what had happened to him, he never tired of repeating, was possible only in a “Russki-run state.” — Occupying a foreign country always spelled the next war! Stalin himself had said that, he added . . .
One afternoon I was turned back on my way out to the mine pits: the road was blocked. A crowd of people had gathered outside the house where the Will brothers lived, but, as I saw at once, they kept a respectful distance from what was taking place.The two brothers stood in the blazing heat with their faces to the wall, behind them a Russian soldier with a machine gun, pacing up and down; another, evidently a sergeant, sat on a chair smoking cigarette after cigarette. On an empty chair on the sidewalk I saw two glittering objects: clock detonators, as the gateman later told me, time fuses for explosives; the two Wills had stolen them, no one knew quite where, and half the street was feverishly hunting for a third clock detonator whose hiding place the Wills had not clearly specified. The Russians were drinking, water or maybe vodka, while the Wills got not a drop to drink; hours later the third detonator cropped up, and the crowd dispersed.
That evening I sat alone on the curb, the town transformed in my eyes into one gigantic explosive device. What quantities of munitions might still lie in the ruins past the railroad crossing, in the bombed-out factories where they’d once been produced...and couldn’t they blow up at any moment in this heat? — The summer brooded red above the roofs; in the east, where the mine pits lay, it was already growing dark, too soon, it seemed to me. The air that wafted from there through the street bore the leaden smell of smoking ash and smoldering rags. The heat was trapped between the houses, and the vapors seemed to cook. Inaudible tension built up at the street corners; from the side street I thought I heard the crackle of the chestnuts’ big leaves drying. Thunderclouds massed over the woods beyond the mine pits, and soon the first lightning lit the sky, followed a moment later by a ricocheting rumble, splitting into intervals of thunder, like mighty metal vats being tossed down from the heights. — But the storms over there, I knew from experience, would never reach the town; they passed the town by when they came from the east . . . and I believed I knew it was the women who suffered most when the rain failed to pass over town.
Mother forbade me to swim in a thunderstorm, saying that the water attracted the lightning; she was afraid even to go near the kitchen faucet in a storm. — But I had no desire to go to the strip mines by myself anyway; all my friends had been summoned to the police station and aggressively interrogated: Did they know who on our street possessed found ordnance, and where it was hidden?... Strangely enough, I had been left alone. And now they were home, listening to their parents’ accusations, and wouldn’t be let outside for several days. — Shortly after the incident with the clock detonators the two Wills vanished from town. But they hadn’t been sent to Siberia; the gateman told me they’d defected to West Berlin.
As every year, a week before the summer break ended Mother bought me five or six new exercise books, ten pfennigs apiece, which I’d need when school started. This time, though, I filled the notebooks before the start of the new school year, my fifth. Now I was faced with the problem of buying new notebooks myself, which I could only do if I pocketed small amounts of the change I got when sent on errands, or I would have to drum up deposit bottles to redeem at the grocery on the corner; or I could often find a few coins beneath the layer of tobacco crumbs in my grandfather’s jacket pockets. The last week before school began was routinely the dullest week of the whole year; I was all alone on the street, my friends busy, kept home by the obligation to prepare themselves for school; the water of the marsh had nearly dried up, only the beaches of the large mine pit were still bustling. I hung about in the gateman’s lodge and had him tell me stories; strictly speaking he was the most taciturn person in town, but in my presence he turned talkative. — He let me crank down the gates when a train approached, I just had to make sure the crank wasn’t wrenched from my hands . . . I went outside and sounded the death knell that severed our street from the outside world. After that, as the prodigiously long coal trains passed, drawn by two locomotives yet moving no faster than a crawl, I sat at his table again, drinking grain coffee and listening to his voice, soft and hesitant as though he needed a long time to mull each sentence. He was a slim man missing his left arm; the empty sleeve was tucked into the pocket of his uniform jacket as neatly as though ironed to his body. He had lost his arm in the war to an exploding grenade, he said, and mark his words, he’d cheated death by a hair’s breadth. And those sorts, he pointed at the ruins past the railroad crossing, that lot that kept rummaging in the cellars for munitions and the like, they’d meet the same fate one day if he didn’t report them all. — What do you suppose it’s like out there? he said, though I hadn’t asked. Steppe, nothing but steppe, a hundred miles of steppe before you set eyes on a house or a village, out there in Russia. And all dried up in the heat. And then they set the steppe on fire, and the wind drives the flames toward you, you don’t know which way to run . . .
For me, the Russian steppe merged with the prairie I’d read of, and the heat that hung over them was more or less the same. — And forests, I’m telling you, forests . . . blunder into one, and you’ll never find your way out again. No comparison with that little copse back there! And he pointed across the strip mines, where the thunder of stagnant storms went on and on. — Everything will wither up on us if we don’t get a storm soon . . .
Alone in the flat in the afternoons, I tried to write about what I’d heard . . . all I managed were images with a prodigious heat looming over them.The flicker and blaze,each new daily circuit of fire through a terrain I’d dreamed up, this was almost my only subject, and I couldn’t find my way out of it. — Writing resembled swimming in this sense: once you’d gotten your head above water, once you’d started to swim, it was impossible to stop until at last you felt the sand of the far shore. In similar fashion you swam off with your words, born up by the blood-warm written words as over the surface of a mine pit smelling of coal and rot . . . only that there seemed to be no far shore for these words, with the words you had to swim on and on, until the words ended by themselves, until the words themselves went under. But swimming in the words was safe, you couldn’t drown in them, you could start over with them the next day. . . each afternoon, alone while the heat loomed on the street outside, while the heat on the street burned off each last little shadow, when the narrow sidewalks turned hot as stove plates for bare feet.
Men, I thought, without knowing why, could take the heat, they swam through its thoughts as through the shimmers in the air, while the women had spent half the summer lamenting the absence of storms. They were right; this August, oh, ever since mid-July, all the storms had breathed their death rattles over the woods. But women needed the rain, it seemed, only the rain, torrential showers, cloudbursts could fill them with new life. — When I lay in bed at night, sweating even beneath the single sheet, I saw them pass before me, lamenting and wringing their hands on the streets, whole processions of women with their imploring eyes turned skywards, where not the tiniest little cloud showed in the flawless blue. And only over the woods in the east did the dry thunder resound, refusing to approach the town. Before falling asleep I saw it was suddenly they who dominated the street, women no longer young, growing older and older, in their purple or black petticoats: with sunburned shoulders and upper arms they sat on the stoops and waited . . . Cigarettes glowed between their fingers, and smoke rose from them, it rose in the heat that abated not even at night. I heard them murmur, sleepless beneath my window, a sleepless singsong, a sound of long-forgotten heathen incantations sent up to the sky, where the full moon hung, turning a deaf ear, white-red and immobile.
On the first of September I had to go back to school; the heavens seemed to have heard the women’s prayers, for rain clouds hung over the town. It was all the same to me; until late in afternoon I was forced to listen to my teachers’ baffling garrulity: history, chemistry, physics . . . in that last subject there was something about the origins of storms: it interested me not in the slightest.
Wolfgang Hilbig (1941?2007) was one of the major German writers to emerge in the postwar era. Though raised in East Germany, he proved so troublesome to the authorities that in 1985 he was granted permission to emigrate to the West. The author of over 20 books, he received virtually all of Germany’s major literary prizes, capped by the 2002 Georg Büchner Prize, Germany’s highest literary honor.Isabel Fargo Cole
Isabel Fargo Cole is a U.S.-born, Berlin-based writer and translator. Her translations include Boys and Murderers by Hermann Ungar (Twisted Spoon Press, 2006), All the Roads Are Open by Annemarie Schwarzenbach (Seagull Books, 2011) and The Jew Car by Franz Fühmann (Seagull Books, 2013). The recipient of a prestigious PEN/Heim Translation Grant in 2013, she is the initiator and co-editor of No-mans-land.org, an online magazine for new German literature in English.