University of Nebraska PressCopyright © 1988 Rotbuch Verlag, Berlin
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-0-8032-8254-4
Chapter One THE FUNERAL SERMON
At the railway station, relatives were running alongside the puffing train. With every step they moved their raised arms and waved.
A young man was standing behind a window of the train. The glass reached up to his armpits. He was clutching a bunch of tattered white flowers to his chest. His face was rigid.
A young woman was carrying a bland child out of the railway station. The woman was a hunchback.
The train was leaving for the war.
I turned off the television.
Father was lying in a coffin in the middle of the room. The walls were covered with so many pictures that you couldn't see the wall.
In one picture, Father was half as tall as the chair he was holding onto.
He was wearing a dress and his bowed legs were all rolls of fat. His head was pear-shaped and bald.
In another picture Father was the bridegroom. You could see only half of his chest. The other half was a bunch of tattered white flowers in Mother's hands. Their heads were so close together that their earlobes were touching.
In a different picture Father was standing bolt upright in front of a fence. There was snow under his boots. The snow was so white that Father was surrounded by emptiness. His hand was raised above his head in a salute. There were runes on his collar.
In the picture next to it, Father had a hoe resting on his shoulder. Behind him there was a cornstalk sticking up into the sky. Father was wearing a hat on his head. His hat cast a wide shadow and hid his face.
In the next picture, Father was sitting behind the steering wheel of a truck. The truck was full of cows. Every week Father would drive the cows to the slaughterhouse in the city. Father's face was thin and had hard edges.
In all the pictures, Father was frozen in the middle of a gesture. In all the pictures, Father looked as though he didn't know what to do. But Father always knew what to do. That's why all these pictures were wrong. All those false pictures, all those false faces chilled the room. I wanted to get up from my chair, but my dress was frozen to the wood. My dress was transparent and black. It crackled whenever I moved. I rose and touched Father's face. It was colder than the objects in the room. It was summer outside. Flies were dropping their maggots in flight. The village stretched along the wide sandy road. The road was hot and brown, and burned out your eyes with its glare.
The cemetery was made of rocks. There were boulders on the graves.
When I looked down on the ground I noticed that the soles of my shoes were turned up. All that time, I had been walking on my shoelaces. Long and heavy, they were lying behind me, their ends curled up.
Two staggering little men were lifting the coffin from the hearse and lowering it into the grave with two tattered ropes. The coffin was swinging. Their arms and their ropes got longer and longer. The grave was filled with water despite the drought.
Your father killed a lot of people, one of the drunk little men said.
I said: he was in the war. For every twenty-five killed he got a medal. He brought home several medals.
He raped a woman in a turnip field, the little man said. Together with four other soldiers. Your father stuck a turnip between her legs. When we left she was bleeding. She was Russian. For weeks afterwards, we would call all weapons turnips.
It was late fall, the little man said. The turnip leaves were black and folded over by frost. Then the little man put a big rock on the coffin.
The other drunk little man continued:
For the New Year, we went to the opera in a small German town. The singer's voice was as piercing as the Russian woman's screams. One after the other, we left the theater. Your father stayed till the end. For weeks afterwards, he called all songs turnips and all women turnips.
The little man was drinking schnapps. His stomach was gurgling. There is as much schnapps in my belly as there is ground water in the graves, the little man said.
Then the little man put a big rock on the coffin.
The man giving the funeral sermon was standing next to a white marble crucifix. He came toward me. He had his two hands buried in his coat pockets.
The man giving the funeral sermon had a rose the size of a hand in his button hole. It was velvety. When he was right next to me he pulled one hand out of his pocket. It was a fist. He wanted to straighten out his fingers but wasn't able to. The pain made his eyes bulge. He began crying quietly to himself.
In the war, you can't get along with your countrymen, he said. You can't order them around.
Then the man giving the funeral sermon put a big rock on the coffin.
Now a fat man came and stood next to me. His head was like a tube without a face.
Your father slept with my wife for years, he said. He blackmailed me when I was drunk and stole my money.
He sat down on a rock.
Then a scrawny wrinkled woman came toward me, spat on the ground, and cursed me.
The funeral congregation was standing at the opposite end of the grave. I looked down at myself and was startled because they could see my breasts. I felt cold.
Everybody's eyes were on me. They looked empty. Their pupils were stabbing from under their lids. The men carried guns over their shoulders, and the women were rattling their rosaries.
The man giving the funeral sermon was plucking at his rose. He tore off a blood-red petal and ate it.
He signaled me with his hand. I knew that now I had to give a speech. Everybody was looking at me.
I couldn't think of a single word. My eyes were rising to my head through my throat. I put my hand to my mouth and gnawed at my fingers. You could see my teethmarks on the backs of my hands. My teeth were hot. Blood was running from the corners of my mouth onto my shoulders.
The wind had torn a sleeve off my dress. It was hovering black and billowing in the air.
A man was leaning his cane against a big rock. He aimed his rifle and shot down the sleeve. When it sank to the ground in front of me it was covered with blood. The funeral congregation applauded.
My arm was naked. I felt it petrify in the air.
The speaker gave a signal. The applause stopped.
We are proud of our community. Our achievements save us from decline. We will not let ourselves be insulted, he said. We will not let ourselves be slandered. In the name of our German community you are condemned to death.
They all pointed their guns at me. There was a deafening bang in my head.
I fell over and didn't reach the ground. I lay suspended in the air across their heads. Quietly I pushed open the doors.
My mother had cleared all the rooms.
Now there was a long table in the room where the body had been laid out. It was a butcher's table. There was an empty white plate and a vase with a bunch of tattered white flowers on it.
Mother was wearing a transparent black dress. She was holding a big knife in her hand. Mother stood in front of the mirror and cut off her heavy gray braid with the big knife. She carried the braid to the table with both hands. She put one end on the plate.
I will wear black for the rest of my life, she said.
She set fire to one end of the braid. It reached from one end of the table to the other. The braid burned like a fuse. The fire was licking and devouring.
In Russia they shaved off my hair. That was the least punishment, she said. I staggered with hunger. At night I crawled into a turnip field. The guard had a gun. If he had seen me he would have killed me. The field didn't rustle. It was late fall and the turnip leaves were black and folded over by frost.
I didn't see Mother any more. The braid kept burning. The room was filled with smoke.
They killed you, my mother said.
We couldn't see each other any more, there was so much smoke in the room.
I heard her footsteps close to me. I was groping for her with outstretched arms.
Suddenly she hooked her bony hand into my hair. She shook my head. I screamed.
I suddenly opened my eyes. The room was spinning around. I was lying in a ball of tattered white flowers and was locked in.
Then I had the feeling that the apartment building was tipping over and emptying itself into the ground.
The alarm clock rang. It was Saturday morning, five-thirty.