What We Inherit
Excerpt from Angelika Reitzer, Wir Erben [ Novel, 2014 ]
Translated by Geoffrey C. Howes
They had all been surprised to get the visa for the vacation in Hungary without any trouble, and they left the first week of August. They brought along less clothing and other astuff than on the previous vacations they had taken to Czechslovakia, Hungary, and the Baltic. They had no plans to swim in Lake Balaton, but each of them had packed a swimsuit, just one. A couple of sweaters, short skirts, pants. A basket of food, bottled water. Each of them had a small travel bag or a suitcase (Hedwig). In Prague they talked with a young couple who were going to try to get across the border alone. The situation in the city was scary, with helmeted policemen everywhere. That had been on the eve of the twenty-first anniversary of the day the Prague Spring was put down. A very warm day. They didn’t have the nerve to go to the embassy, and they drove to the border without talking to anyone about it. They had left their house behind as if they would be returning to it in a week: windows closed, flowers and plants amply watered, the beds made. Hedwig’s rubber boots stood by the front door as usual, in addition to a pair of clogs that everybody wore and which were always outside the door. The only person who knew about their departure (had seen them) was their neighbor Martina, who marched past their car just as they were getting in. She had been at the lake and the canals (Little Venice); sometimes she dropped in on the spur of the moment and drank tea with them. Wilhelm said, “We’re just going to Usedom for a couple of days to visit a friend of Hedwig’s,” and he didn’t know where he should be directing his gaze. Looking their friend and neighbor in the eye didn’t work. Martina smiled ambiguously and had her hands in her pants pockets. She either hadn’t noticed or was ignoring Wilhelm’s reflex of wanting to give her a hug and really say goodbye. What answer had Martina given? Probably wished them a nice trip; Wilhelm couldn’t remember now. At first, after he had gotten into the car, she took off, only to stop again when the car drove past her. At the last moment, Siri cast one more glance at the street in front of her house, at the wooden fence, at a bucket of ashes on the neighbor’s property. Martina brushed a strand of hair out of her face and then let her hand disappear again into her pants pocket and slowly walked on. The suggestion of a wave or a natural gesture. Martina was a musician. Her husband had not returned home from a trip to the West and after that she had considered applying for a permanent exit visa and continuing to live with him, but that had been over ten years ago. Eventually her children were able to get their Abitur, and had moved out some time ago. No doubt she had also seen the reports on western television about the GDR citizens in the West German embassy in Prague. During the trip they did not mention Martina. Gina thought about her: Can such a tired woman really be a friend of ours? And if she isn’t our friend, will she inform on us? If they had talked about Martina, Gina would have been able to ask a question like that and both parents, in slightly varying versions, would have answered at length, talking about friendship, about loyalty, about trust and being unfamiliar with the neighbors, and about how you should be able to rely on yourself in any case. Hedwig did not yell at Wilhelm or scold him, in fact, she didn’t even ask him why he had lied, without any need to do so, or whether it had been intentional or a slip-up. This depressed their mood until they were over the Czechoslovakian border.
When Hedwig, Gina, Wilhelm, and Siri got into the water they had only the clothes on their backs, ID cards, and a few deutschmarks. They swam and waded across the border without knowing whether this was actually where the border was. The river meandered along, but they could neither see it clearly nor get a general orientation. It was dark, and they were standing on the riverbank. Hedwig saw the spotlights and the floodlight, and she could see something moving in the guard tower, but it was dark, and the water was not as cold as they had expected, and they made quick progress, and Hedwig never let go of Gina’s hand, and Wilhelm and Siri held each other tight, and nobody said anything. The breathing of the others was audible, and one’s own breathing was too (how a ribcage can go up and down!) as they swam and waded through the water, actually more slogging than swimming. When they climbed out of the water and stopped after a few yards in a cornfield, where there was a crackling like electricity, and when the smell of dried grass and damp wood suddenly mixed with the smell of wet leather, it was dark and quiet all around them, quiet even now. Gina wasn’t wearing shoes because she had been afraid that they would pull her under. Her parents didn’t notice this until she stamped her feet and stifled a cry because the cornstalks and leaves were stabbing her bare heels. The water was dripping off them, Hedwig was crouching on the ground, no one said a word. Siri was the first one to step back out of the cornfield and was amazed, perhaps, that no one was shooting or yelling. Perhaps she was simply amazed by the stillness itself. By the side of the cornfield, muskmelons were growing in rank and file. Wilhelm asked in a whisper whether they might still be in Hungary, because the river made a bend here and they didn’t know exactly where they were. All that was weighing on Siri and Gina was the feeling of freedom on their chests that had spread out when they had climbed out of the water. It was still there. Inconceivable that freedom could be something so heavy. Maybe it was fear as well, but the girls did not want to feel fear. They couldn’t do that to their parents, not on top of everything else. Then a car drove past, close by them, but the driver probably couldn’t see them at all, and only when they set out in the direction of the road did they find out that it was several hundred yards away. On this path they walked farther toward the west, what else? They walked over a field and there was dew on the meadow even though it had been a hot day. The day had begun in the GDR, no, that was another day, that was yesterday. This day had started after just a few hours of sleep in their Wartburg car, in Hungary, a country that in their perception was so much closer to the GDR than it was to Austria, where supposedly they now were. Still, they only saw the silhouettes of trees, felt the high grass, then the damp soil of the forest trail, everything in a no man’s land, and after a while they weren’t even sure anymore whether a car had driven by here or not. The forest trail led to an asphalt path that was just as narrow. After a few minutes a car came toward them. It slowed down, as if the driver was trying to make sure that they were the ones who had asked for the pickup service. The car stopped, and a man first opened the front passenger door and then got out. He looked at the four of them and asked them to get in the car right away. The man spoke a hard dialect that they could hardly understand, and when Wilhelm pointed out that they would get the seats wet, he just waved it off. He took them to the next inn, where someone called the police for them, and where they were served something to eat (soups that they were not familiar with and could hardly get down) and offered beer, coffee, and tea (in that order), and then someone came to pick them up. “I had no idea that pumpkins could smell like that,” Hedwig marvelled, in the boarding house in Vienna, but Siri and Gina were convinced that they had been muskmelons. Which their parents laughed about, only to be amazed later on. None of them had ever seen a muskmelon or a honeydew. Melons in Austria, who would have thought it?
Sonnenschirme, Prose from: Angelika Reitzer, Frauen in Vasen/ Women in Vases [ Prosa 2008 ] Translated by Catherine Kerkhoff-Saxon
well : I drink a lot; I write a lot : I’m trying to get the research on this film done and tomorrow I’m meeting someone who wants me as an assistant for some project/or maybe doesn’t. It won’t make any difference money-wise. But he is a fairly well-known director, or at least well-known to insiders, if I ever apply for a real job he’ll certainly put in a good word for me. I meet G. but am not exactly sure if I actually want anything from him. I happen to meet Hans, he played Baby Bester in S.’s last film, and together we did a script reading and ever since I’ve been asking myself : what can be that can be; I’m jobless and there’s no justification for my existence/unfortunately; and in my special case, I can’t even claim potential genius. At the same time I’m annoyed with my lack of radicalism and my friendliness, but the way things are may be good, too. But what is it that keeps you breathing : besides your body/which is hard to get away from. What is it that gets you out of breath : besides your head, which is a very inadequate part, too. I see the summer light and believe in something again. That things will go on. And so on. (So what is this then. Delirium. A fata morgana, because I haven’t slept since the day before yesterday, because I’m crying and laughing at the same time, I haven’t slept, yes, but I can keep the deadline, the story is not as good as it could be, because I can’t give my best under such pressure/which we all feel, come on; once more : I’m trying, I’m going to get it done. I should put on a little rouge, I’m so pale around the hips.) I feel the light, it’s gentle and hurts at the same time. Again I believe things may be fine. I haven’t slept with a man for months. You know : at some point you don’t miss it so much anymore. I see the people around me beginning to break/breaking apart/not so much breaking away or departing. If you remember something that might help me along/get me out of here : tell me. Or tell me now. I’m still dreaming of my own departure. But to where? Back then I had no goal/just one big square to start from. Like in a game, where the entire board is the starting square/your life, and you know. You have to go. Which then means : you roll the dice; you probably don’t even notice the number of eyes and you move, don’t you. We’ve still a long way to go till the finish line. You. You just went. Though the situation here with these people does me good like nothing has in a long time, so in the middle of things, everyone’s doing something, and outside. That’s where life’s lived, and even if it’s only a tram that stops and starts up again. Well, my parents contribute to the rent, there’s support from the job centre, they call it assistance for start-ups, which is what we all are. Start-ups, one two three. Jürgen brought that stylish office furniture with him from his old office after the bankruptcy, and now, when we have official meetings, we no longer go to a café, of course; but impress people in the midst of our designer furniture. Sometimes people come in directly off the street. Though no orders have come in yet, as far as I know. But then again. In the building out the back, you’re most likely to be absorbed by birds’ chirping, which is rather nice and, of course, in a broad sense, has to do with life/according to the motto : birds’ twittering is what life is; though you are always a bit cut off from all that’s not happening outside. And right now, this is where I spend most of my time, with a basic haughtiness and exaggerated opinion of myself, I simply go about writing my Marrakech story, the topic is important now, time is probably pressing, as far as the zeitgeist is concerned, hmm. But now I just act as if
I can hold out for another half a year and move at least towards this goal, and eventually get there, too. I can always do some job for S., his business is doing very well, the rent is paid, really shouldn’t talk about it, it’s all so ludicrous, but then again. Just like you said. Life is what it is. I would just like it for once that you would, for me, that you would take me seriously, that I could feel this a bit, too. A little while ago, before you appeared in this odd light, tears were rolling down both my cheeks, as if there was something for us to celebrate here. And I took off an hour ago, because they kept wanting to go on. Sure. The application has to go out before midnight. We’ve done all we could for it. At some point you can’t revise it any more. Why me, I fell asleep over the keyboard, while wanting to add up a few items. Over and over again. Know what I mean. You believe these numbers are trapping you in some kind of purgatory. Having to file this stupid application for all eternity. But you never make it through. Every time, just before the end, when you’re finally ready to add up the last numbers, you slump over. The hellhounds whimpering at the back of your skull, it’s hot and you know, that it will never get any cooler, and you won’t be able to read the figures in the right order. That’s how things are. In any case, I got out of there. They can stick it. Never mind if they don’t pay me my wages for the entire job. I mean. It’s a job. Imagine. And then I meet. I only wanted to drink some coffee and to think about what might happen next. So I’m sitting here, and this guy comes by. From the performance. What is he? A journalist or philosopher, or what. He acts like I’m a poet, as if there might be something to it. No idea what he’s talking about. My first thought, he turned my laptop around and my poems : he wolfed down the poems I sometimes write when I’m depressed/but only sometimes. And he can’t remember where he knows my writing from, and he says, it has something to do with Cage, which in any event makes me suspicious; it gives me a jolt when he says/I understand, yes, I understand it! He’s going to pick up his three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, play with her a little, make dinner, put her to bed and the computer in the kitchen, and tomorrow take her to kindergarten again etcetera. He probably went on and on talking like this, though he just sat down briefly at my table and said something like : at least I know why. Life is what it is, that’s an observation, though it’s only meaningful to the mind, I can’t just accept everything, anything, nothing; naturally, I ask myself, if not acceptance : then what? This inadequacy to be happy or unhappy – but what peaceful/exciting afternoons those were with Gustl and Gusti and the others, weren’t they. First at the Volkspark, then quickly back home with Gusti or through the rain and later everyone together for coffee again, almost always we drank something. Someone usually stayed on and others turned up. And do you still remember that tender bit of momentary intimacy/(as) if someone unexpectedly and with no need for anything to follow, caresses your cheek, in all probability that’s something that makes you breath, at least for the next not entirely nice moments. To live like this means : piecing everything together all the time, and maybe that’s all that’s in it for me. You have to get going. Yeah, sure. You too. You’re sure to do a super job. If I need your help. I’m on to several stories. I’ll get back to you.
the lime trees in the courtyard have exhausted themselves, as the season requires, the trees have stopped flowering, they are old and thin but can still carry a few scattered leaves, nothing else. Beneath one of the trees is a sandbox with toys in it, which are used regularly and stay outside overnight. Bicycles lean on the walls of the building, at the back there is a pile of rusty spokes, twisted tyres, peeling cycle frames. Plastic and metal tractors and trucks park on the grassless ground, and chairs on thin legs. Garbage containers stand lined up and in front of them one drum has fallen over. For a few months it will be possible to see the bullet holes in the walls of the side wing and the holes – mouths – left in many parts of the crumbling plaster.
the light-beam takes its time, shining so brightly between the trunks. As if it were in no hurry and: as if not a single cloud would hinder it in its path and the sun would never go down again; as if the sun would shine purely alone and of itself and again and again (without waiting for anything). The light spread out widely, touching the trees at the edge of the woods with fire. The shadows of tree-trunks will fall across the fields. Long and thin, the shadows will lie across the narrow path on the fields, the shadows of the trees much longer than their height. Individual branches are sketched on the fields in a narrow script with regular ascenders and descenders, as if with a gigantic pencil. The light draws the shadows with sharp edges. But much faster than the approach of the light a cloud will force itself between sun and trees, stealing the light from the trees and the shadows from me. Slowly the big sheep named Cloud C wanders about the sky, breaks into small groups and comes together again. I try not to miss the moment when the many become one. And suddenly the light is gone again. Before all the light has gone, before the light turns off with clouds, lime-trees, sun-switch, before everything wafts away, I go myself. Take a run-up and fly somewhere.