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Ulrike Draesner
translation by Helen Rutley

 

Rosa Beetle

When Rosa Maregg awoke in the morning after a night of fitful dreams, she was lying on her back, nestled in her low-set futon bed, and found herself in a comfortable enough position to be able to rock gently from side to side. She closed her eyes, like a child in its carrycot. It was only when the wake-up tone on her mobile phone failed to go off at the usual time that she opened her eyes once again. The rocking ended abruptly. She raised her head and saw a curved, brown belly. She didn’t normally have a belly. Only a corner of the sheet was left covering the grotesque curve. Rosa wanted to laugh. What had she eaten last night? She shut her eyes tightly. Laughing was out of the question. Instead, the rocking sensation returned. Now, becoming more aware of her situation, she only blinked. Her legs, numerous and pitifully thin in proportion to her abdominal girth, flickered before her eyes. She had always wished for thin, or at least thinner legs. The thought of it made her cry.

The display on the video recorder showed just after 8 o’clock. The lines then sprang together, rearranging themselves into a new set of numbers. Rosa should have logged on an hour ago. She slept with “a clear view of all the openings”. Just recently she and her mother had rearranged the room in accordance with feng shui. In front of Rosa was the door to the living room, to her right the door to her brother’s room. To her left were the computer, the window and the pods. Her clothes were on the swivel chair and there were a few dumbbells under the desk.

Somehow she had to climb onto the chair and hang the telephone system round her neck. Luckily, her absence had so far gone unnoticed. Then she remembered the test rounds. Each login was monitored by head office; her internet connection, one small red dot, swam in the sea of inquiries from all over the world.

She took a deep breath, the eiderdown slid off her belly. Broad, round, Rosa. Her liberated little legs waved uncontrollably in the air, as if mimicking propellers. She attempted to draw one in, only for it to be the first to extend outwards; when she succeeded in getting the leg to perform what she had intended, the others around it moved in a frenzy. The twitching was reminiscent of grotesquely magnified sex.

Rosa had to chuckle. A woman with her abdominal circumference could only be unhappy, or pregnant, or both. She was doing comparably well. Life had taught her not to see everything as a tragedy. Being the victim wasn’t cool. She wrenched open her eyes with resolve. The glass in the window looked murky as if it was raining. Despite her long night’s sleep, Rosa felt ridiculously tired.

Nevertheless, she tipped back and forth, rocking over and over onto her back. She tried nearly a hundred times to manoeuvre onto her left side so that she could get out of bed properly, closed her eyes so she couldn’t see her flailing legs, and then, feeling an unfamiliar, vaguely dull pain in her side, gave up.

The screensaver started up – Rosa’s efforts must have roused it, albeit late. Exhausted, Rosa stared at the photograph of a young man that the randomiser software had plucked from the web. He was wearing an old-fashioned overcoat and hat, and cast a slightly skewed shadow over the surrounding cobblestones. The contours of the house behind him were old-fashioned too, a strikingly black shoe with a high arch glinted at the bottom of the shot while the subject’s other foot jutted completely out of the picture.

Rosa made short work of it and threw herself off the futon. The futon was so low that she landed on her side but managed to roll onto her legs with the momentum of the fall. She immediately ran over to the chair –neither the telephone system nor the computer interested her any longer, she was only thinking about how to reach the drawers in her desk where she kept cereal bars, chocolate and sweets, anything she could inconspicuously munch on between calls. Such a blessing, this foresight! Resembling an antiquated door-knocker, the drawer handle hung down as two rigid joints; the desk was one of the family’s heirlooms, and she had to pull on it with all her might. It made quite a racket. Just as the drawer was about to give way, there was a knock on the door that connected Rosa to the living room.

What was she doing in there? It was late, Reiner was already heading off.

Rosa bit her lip. So she still had lips. Her brother, a childish 14-year-old creature, had to go to school. She worked, paid her debts off that way. Needless to say, it was Claudia that had called.

The knocks now came in quick succession. Rosa wasn’t given a moment to herself as usual!
She even shouted this out loud, but because she was annoyed with herself she tacked on a conciliatory “coming in a minute!”

What a rasping sound she had emitted! Rosa had never really liked her own voice, it sounded worst when she sang, and even Reiner, whose voice was breaking, effortlessly outdid her. The first few words had come out loud and clear, the rest however got stuck, gurgling somewhere around the roof of her mouth.

She wanted to make a beeline for Claudia. Turning on the spot required a knack for coordination, which kicked in of its own accord when Rosa stopped thinking about guiding her new limbs. Her thin legs carried her body with ease, she didn’t feel her muscles strain one bit, but then she froze, discovering that her feckless brother had surreptitiously opened the door. Wasn’t anything going to go to plan today? Reiner was normally at school, or at the computer with his chunky headphones on. What’s more, he only moved when forced to play school sports, after which he enjoyed rushing up to Rosa in her bedroom and trying to pinch her mid-phone call, or snatching one of her appliances. Even now, he ran inside, pinched the smallest computer without even thinking and reached for the power cable. All she had to do was call his name, and not even sternly at that. Reiner turned around, opened his mouth, leaving it gaping wide, shut it, dumbfounded, opened it again, gasped “Rosa is a beetle”, and left, along with the computer.

Beetle!

Reiner was useless at anything that didn’t involve computers – nature, for example. His mother constantly wanted to dissuade him from this inclination, but he was a daddy’s boy, in fact he was Claudia’s favourite too. However, on account of symmetry – each parent claimed a child for themselves – Rosa would still be needed, no matter what, that was obvious to her, and for a moment, she felt calm, even moved.

Moved, too, because Claudia was standing in the doorway of the living room, completely speechless. Reiner, who had calmed down a little by now, shouted from his room: “Bring the mains adaptor with you, if you can manage!” while Rosa thought about the things, pink and soft yellow in colour, that her mother had bought her when she was a girl. But now the only soft red thing was Claudia’s tongue, which hung out from between her teeth, as though she had lost the strength or courage to hold it in.

It didn’t help that the mother wore her hair rolled up in a Gaelic snail-like plait to the left. With a delayed reaction, Claudia drew her hands to her mouth, took a few steps back, fell to her knees, all the while mute, and muttered something Rosa didn’t understand, something which sounded vaguely like “Vishnu has blinked”.

Now!

Vishnu was Claudia’s favourite God. Full speed ahead, fully clad in her shell, its u-shaped reinforcing ribs encircling her belly, a mocha-brown, shiny speedboat, Rosa sped formidably towards the door. Her vision was acute, even more so now she was on the floor. She wanted to reach her mother, but there, directly in front of her, in the way, were Thorsten’s toes – fat, white, and hairy.

The father didn’t deal with new things well. His fits of rage were feared by the family, and it was hard work to make it up with him afterwards. He was already screaming: What’s going on? It isn’t April Fool’s Day. Good money! For a stupid disguise like that!

“But look!” The mother had to wrest these words from herself. To Rosa’s surprise, Thorsten stalled at these feeble words. She had crawled backwards from his toes to the threshold of her bedroom. Shifting her body slightly upwards from the horizontal position, she raised her head and could make out Thorsten searching in the chest pocket of his pyjamas for his glasses. Like every morning lately he was only wearing his nightwear. Since his heart disease and speculating away all his money, he passed the days at his leisure. He’d put on weight; he read the paper for hours on end, except for the business section. While he opened his glasses, Rosa thought how they had both become the sedentary ones in the family, even if for different reasons. Setting all her hopes on her father now, she almost forgot to breathe.

The toes disappeared.

Rosa stayed on the threshold. Only after a while, when nothing happened, did she dare to raise her eyes. Thorsten was sat at the dining table, propped up on his elbows, his face buried in his hands. His mighty chest heaved; he looked like he might be crying. But in fact he was just shaking his head in silence. Rosa found herself unable to tell what was going on.

“Father,” she whispered. She could sense what was going on inside him. Now he had a deformed daughter. He had already dealt with this when she was going through puberty, and she felt ashamed that it was happening again. She failed to make her usual eye contact with Thorsten, although he raised his head once or twice, looking in her direction, but she got the impression that he didn’t entirely recognise her eyes, and at the same time, she too could not stand his glances towards her body.

“All of this,” she whispered, “is for you”. He had also used this sentence many a time before. “Think about your debts,” slipped from her mouth. “I’m going to plug myself in in just a moment, I just needed a short break, you know, I overslept. For some reason I can’t work out why the phone didn’t ring, these things still work when you switch them off, but when they’re on, they don’t, do they?”

Her voice had acquired an indescribable chirp. It sounded like a tangled cassette. Rosa would have laughed – how passé! – were she not painfully conscious of how much Thorsten, whose youth had been governed by an erratic tape recorder, hated tangled cassettes. Her father, though seemingly exhausted, jumped up, both arms reaching out stiffly towards Rosa, and stared at her. As agile as a young girl, on the other hand, Claudia, who had pulled herself together, leaned her head slightly forwards and took two steps towards her daughter, only to flee senselessly backwards to Thorsten. She must have forgotten that the table, which she had laid herself, was in the way – approaching the table, she flung herself onto it and didn’t seem to notice the coffee spilling onto the carpet next to her from the pot that had been knocked over.

“Oh!” shouted Reiner.

With an infallible instinct for the prospect of a parental farce, he shot out of his room. Elegantly avoiding the pool of coffee, he took up position next to Thorsten. He even imitated Thorsten’s stance (arms by his side, heaving chest). The last drops of coffee dripped out of the pot and quiet reigned for a second or two. Rosa lifted her head.

“Wow!” Reiner said.

There she was, squatting near the furthest wall beside the head of the futon, eyes fixed on all the doors: the living room door had slammed shut just a whisker away from her mouth and it was only by chance that not one feeler or leg had been crushed. She drew in all of her twiching parts tightly – not out of humility, but rather because as a – she faltered – because in this life form, when protection was required, this was standard procedure. Nevertheless, one thing was clear: her family needed time to adjust to the new circumstances. She understood that – what was she even supposed to make of it all!

With an air of melancholy she noticed how, without contact to the others, the air in her room had got better by the minute - meanwhile her little legs had started spinning round happily and before she knew it, she once again found herself back on the office chair. It was certainly rather uncomfortable, and yet without remembering her intention to open the drawers, she fastened herself to the cushion with her hind pair of legs and was able to sit like a human being.

She needed help. A doctor. Her family, yet again didn’t seem capable of doing anything. Not a sound came from the living room. Rosa heaved herself up onto the keyboard. But even two legs together were too weak to press a key; using three legs, she only caught a letter at random. She had to launch her body too powerfully in one direction or the other to do this, and now had a slight but rigid incision at chest height. She rubbed her head furiously against the symbols; five or more keys sprang out from their retainers. The man with the beetle shoe vanished and the password entry screen appeared.

 

Excerpt from 'Rosakäfer' by Ulrike Draesner in Richtig liegen: Geschichten in Paaren (© Luchterhand Literaturverlag, Munich, 2011). Translation © Helen Rutley.

 

Ulrike Draesner was born in Munich in 1962, studied in Munich and Oxford and now lives in Berlin. She has received numerous awards for her essays, volumes of poetry, translations and novels, including Schöne Frauen lesen (2007), berührte orte (2008), Hot Dogs (2004) and Vorliebe (2010), amongst others.

Helen Rutley studied French and German at the University of Liverpool, before interning as an editorial assistant for the Autumn 2012 and Spring 2013 issues of German-language literature magazine New Books in German. She moved to Berlin in August 2012, where she worked as an editorial assistant for the Transfiction/Mad Hat Review collaboration cut.ting edge: austrian, german and swiss Literature in translation, which features her translation of an excerpt from Ulrike Draesner's 'Rosakäfer'.

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MadHat, Issue 14, Spring 2013