We’re thrilled to publish an original story from Joy Castro this month. Here’s how she describes this story’s origin: “A couple of years ago, it was my pleasure to view the 1966 short film Ein Haus am Meer (A House by the Sea) privately at the film archive in Oberhausen, Germany with Marco Abel, a noted scholar of German cinema. Unavailable to the public, this nine-minute black-and-white film was an early creation of director Klaus Lemke, an enfant terrible of contemporary German cinema and a key filmmaker in the New Munich Group, a movement that peaked in the 1960s and early 70s.”
Although it’s unlikely that many readers will have seen the film, the story’s pacing, mood, and questioning achieve the aim of great ekphrasis: to capture transitory, elusive beauty and communicate its vital energy. Like the film that inspired it, this story moves swiftly from light to dark abyss.
Castro would like to dedicate this story to the filmmaker Klaus Lemke.
My dark skirt. The hot day. The wind pushes my white blouse against me.
Exhausted, I slump down the hill while the bus drives off, screen right.
By the side of the road, I crouch, pulling something from my bag. Okay. Stand by the curb. Pose. Hope.
The white car pulls over, backs up. I lean like a professional into his open window. I climb into his backseat with my bag.
We careen around curves, hugging the cliffs. Below us lies the sepia sea. It’s 1966.
In the backseat, I strip off my stockings, my skirt. More. He glances back, his shocked eyes wide and hungry. I slide my swimming briefs on. If I drape my stockings around my neck while changing, it’s just to have a place to put them. It’s not a provocation, an invitation.
We’re nearing the house, high on its cliff above the sea.
He parks across the road. I’m out and crossing, leaving him behind.
Down the hill I go, down the stone stairs, my quick steps imbued with a new, jaunty bounce that’s almost coy. Faux girlish, gamine, clad only in my white blouse and bikini bottoms. As if I know this house by heart, this house by the sea, these stone steps, this drill: as if I know I’m being watched, as if I have eaten the mandate to perform lightheartedness.
I swim out, cutting through the sea, the screen, diagonally, up and rightward. My white blouse stays curled on the rocks behind me. I am lost from view.
There is only the distant coastline, the white horizon. There is only the rise and fall of the waves. I lose myself, loving my lostness.
But there I am again, slicing downscreen. Climbing onto the rocks, where he stands, holding my blouse. I turn my back to him and put it on.
Going first, I climb the rocks, the steps. He grabs my hips, my waist, but it’s boring, rough. He kisses my neck, too suddenly. I pull away, eluding him.
I’m laughing. It’s a game. He takes my hand and leads me toward the house.
On the stone landing, outside the door, we are only waists and hips and legs, mine bare and damply salted, shining, his clad in black trousers. His legs, parting mine: just shapes, dark and light. I pull away. He pushes me backward into the house.
Against the wall where I drew myself in May, or someone else drew me, I stand, glancing at him through my dark, sea-tangled hair. A signature: LE 5/5. Fait evous… The quick rough charcoal lines: me, nude, in my own hand, or in someone’s, on the stucco wall, precisely as large as life. Or a touch larger. My real lips echoing behind me. My round breasts, nippled.
I bend to break his chokehold and run. He follows: down the hall, down the stairs. On the landing, he shoves me against the wall again. To kiss me. To choke me. I break and run again, but upstairs this time.
Is there an exit from upstairs? Do I know this house, know what I’m doing? How many times have I been here? Twice he tried to choke me. Would there be a third-time charm?
Had I known—in the car, all along—where we were heading? Is the charcoal portrait one I drew or one that some man (this man?), besotted, drew of me, back in May, a cartoon that captured me accurately but in only one dimension, as this film captures me only in two? This film only scholars can watch, stored in this dark archive. Fragile, threaded through a special machine by a technician.
Or—despite the likeness—is the woman on the wall even me at all, but some other young, pretty, slender woman whose pattern I fit, who stumbled unluckily into this house on the 5th of May? Were her initials LE? Are mine? Are his? Who held the charcoal? the camera? the pen? The man: is he predatory, calculating? Or just afraid and hungry, yearning but fearing?
It’s the last you’ll see of me, there, inside the house.
Unless—that flash of white? The woman running toward screen left, glimpsed from the window of a rushing car: is she me? Did I escape?
Or is she just some other woman, running from some other man—some desperate woman in the corner of the frame, like Bruegel’s Icarus, drowning? Always some desperate woman in the corner of the frame, like Bruegel’s Icarus, drowning.
Glancing around, he throws my bag into his car. He drives away.
The workmen see him but do nothing.
They never do.