Dienstag, 17. November 2015

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?

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