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Julya Rabinowich
translation by Tess Lewis

 

The Elementary Portion

 

1

I knew next to nothing about Father: a large, warm chest on which I had rested my head and a pipe that smelled of old tobacco with a black stem and a mouthpiece of yellowed ivory. This pipe was one piece of evidence Mother introduced whenever the subject of his disappearance came up. He would never have left his favorite pipe behind if he didn’t intend to come back.

If not for his children, at least for his pipe.

When I turned seventeen, I bought my first pack of cigarettes and secretly threw up in the rear courtyard. Our house, in the center of the village, now belonged to my mother. It was built of stone and was larger and more beautiful than the crooked little brick houses that surrounded it. We had money then. Still. My father was a well-read man, whom the neighbors avoided out of respect. They gossiped that he even had a library, an entire room wasted on nothing but books. As children, my sister and I liked to play in this room because, completely empty except for the floor to ceiling shelves lining the walls, it had the most space for our wildest games. We could even roller skate there in the winter. The books had a peculiar smell, as did the room. They were old and for the most part bound in cloth or leather, some were published in strange languages, in a script we couldn’t decipher. Sometimes, I would pull out a book, open it, and annoy my sister by pretending I could read it. She believed me for a long time, even though she was older and should have been able to see through my trick. Even back then, the spoken word carried more weight for my sister than the written word and she hardly ever questioned the truth of a pronouncement. You could consider her stupid, but I know that, in fact, she was simply too loyal not to believe me and accept my apparent superiority just because I spoke with emphasis.

“How come you can do it, and I can’t?” she’d howl.

“Because Daddy taught me in secret,” I countered.

“Why didn’t he teach me anything!”

She would burst into tears and usually ran to my mother, who would slap my face once for having taken Father’s books off the shelf, and then a second time for lying.

Even on ice-cold days, Mother washed our doorstep with her bare hands. Her skin was chapped and cracked, small red lines against the darker brown, her fingernails as red as her fingers. She washed the doorstep every day to keep it clean and fresh so that, when Father returned, he would come back to a cozy home, a home that had waited for him through all the years. Indomitable.

It was clear that someone had to replace Father, but Father had to be replaced in such a way that he would still seem irreplaceable and, furthermore, that his replacement would seem unnecessary.

2

When I left, Mother washed the doorstep as soon as I’d crossed it, her expression did not soften in the slightest. She’s waiting. I’m not. Every day I find Father and I lose him again every day at dawn. I recognize him in different aspects of the men I meet as fervently as a worshipper who sees her Redeemer in all icons, in each icon the same divinity. In each man, I find the father and yet I seek the child. If my sister and my mother had cared for my son with just a fraction of the devotion with which they’d waited for my father, we would all have been happy. But someone who is present is much less fascinating than someone who has disappeared.

“When are you coming back, Mama?” my son howled until snot ran down his face, his fists wiping the tears all over his cheeks and his lower lip sticking out sullenly.

“Soon, my little one,” I answered.

A thick mustache had grown on his upper lip. He hadn’t shaved all week because he was in a bad way again. He threw himself at me and pressed his damp face into my neck. He stood there, bending down towards me and trembling from his crying fit. I hugged him and held him tightly, as tightly as I could. And then a bit tighter still, because I was afraid he otherwise wouldn’t even notice my embrace. My mother planted herself in the doorway across from us and stared at me bitterly.

Despite her age, she stood as straight as she had in her youth, tall and gaunt, her long hair combed back tightly into the bun she pinned up onto the back of her head each morning. For all the reproaches I’d had to put up with over the past few weeks, I knew that I could rely on her word, as always. She would see to all his affairs, his medication, and the nurse who came by every three days.

“I’ll be back soon,” I told him once more persuasively.

As a child, I played Truth or Dare with my sister. But this is no dare, it’s all obligation. He calms down slightly and lets go of me. There’s a big, slimy mucus stain on the front of my dress. He yawns. The medication I mixed into his food is apparently beginning to work.

His movements slow down noticeably.

“Soon,” he murmurs and even smiles slightly. “Sooooonnn.”

He is thin, almost too thin, but is starting to get a little belly. He’s pale. Mother hardly ever lets him go out any more. I start to back away from him slowly, retreating down the hall to the door behind me, my child at the other end. The wide floor boards creak under my boots, his eyelids flutter. His head of dark curls hangs lower and lower on his chest. He waves at me sleepily, loses interest, sinks onto the wooden chair that stands in our foyer, and leans his head onto the chair back. My mother appears behind him, wearing black in the darkness, barely discernible except for her pale face, and drapes a knitted mohair shawl around his shoulders. He leans on her with his entire weight and she leads him, staggering, to his room.

They hold onto to each other tightly and stumble forward together. They look like two drinking buddies at dawn, like two badly trained clowns. They should have one of those green and yellow striped party horns that make a horrible noise. I brought him one as a souvenir from my first trip. The only sound I hear is the door closing behind me.

3

I turn to face the village street and start to leave. Before I reach the bus stop, I hear steps behind me. I know, without looking, who’s following me. I slow down but don’t take off my backpack or turn around. She catches up to me and walks alongside me for a while. She’s wearing shoes I brought her from Germany.

“Is this really necessary?”

I don’t answer and I pick up my pace again. She tries to keep step with me, but she’s not been as fit as I for a long time and has trouble keeping up. I can hear her breathing faster and faster. It hangs like fog between us. I smile. Walking quickly takes no effort for me, I’m a wanderer, while she’s remained a squatter.

“Is this really necessary?” she asks again, but this time a bit louder and more clipped since she has to pant for breath.

“Do you have a better suggestion?” I answer coolly.

We’ve had this conversation over and over, each time I take off, and whenever I come back, she’s there waiting for her compensation.

“You know how hard it is,” she says.

I stop.

This is new.

“What is it this time?” I ask. “What more do you want from me, on top of what you usually get, to make you start in on me like this?”

She looks away. A blush spreads over her cheeks, all the way up her hairline. I look at her burning face and begin to wonder.

“You’re staying away longer and longer,” she stutters, her words becoming softer and less distinct, “longer each time. . .”

“That was always an advantage for you until now,” I say. “Who paid for the extension on the house? For the heating. The winters have been freezing.”

She’s fighting something stuck in her throat, she’s choking. I’m getting downright curious, she’s never put on this act before. She suddenly stops. Just as unexpectedly, she starts screaming. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard screaming like this. I’m not used to it any more. Her voice breaks and is suddenly raw and brittle.

“We didn’t need the damned heating!” she yells. “We only built the extension because of him! If you want to screw up your life, then fine, go ahead! But leave me out of it.”

“You’d have frozen just the same if there were only the two of you.”

In contrast to hers, my voice gets proportionally quieter and smoother.

“Pjotr would have let us live with him,” she blurts out, “he has enough room for both of us, for Mother and me, and we could have sold that enormous, useless old house. We can barely even heat it, since it’s stone and dark and old!”

I have to grin. My dear sister is harboring bridal dreams, pushing forty, with her angular face and huge, clumsy hands.

“You make our lives hell,” she splutters.

“You’re living pretty well off my hell,” I say.

“Stay here,” she says quickly in a soft, hoarse voice. “Stay here, with that son of yours. Keep the house. But let me leave.” I bring my face close to hers until her eyes fuse together into one frightened, blinking Cyclops eye. She tries to back away, but I hold her head tightly. With these hands I’ve already beaten men unconscious and single-handedly shoved props and sets around backstage when I stayed overnight in the theater to allow new images to run through my head.

“That, my dear sister,” I whisper in her ear, “is something you should tell Mother.”
She tries to free herself from my monkey-grip. I let her go. A few strands of long, colorless hair remain caught on my gloves.

“You made your bed,” she hisses at me. I look at my watch. The bus will come any minute. I turn away. She stands there and watches me go.

“I’ll send the money next week,” I call to her as the bus pulls away.

4

I walk to the border town on a country road. It takes hours.

Oat and other grasses undulate in enormous fields to my left and right. Dark green, light green, gold. It smells of manure and flowers, of chemicals and, when a car passes now and then, of gasoline. Gravel and dirt under the tires. Sometimes people offer me a lift, sometimes I won’t get in their car. The sun is high overhead. There is hardly a cloud in sight. A light wind cools the air slightly. I sit on the edge of the road whenever my feet grow numb. I’m in no hurry. Trying to cross the border in daylight would not just be foolish, it would be downright dangerous. If the soldiers catch me, they won’t bring me back here, but will take me much further, and if I’m especially unlucky, I’ll get caught early on by nearby residents who get paid by the border patrols for good tip-offs. Their rewards are funded by the possessions of those who get caught. The ones who are still naïve enough to believe it are told it’s a “bribe”, even though nothing will happen. For the others, the ones who are already familiar faces on the street, faces you come across again and again, it’s a warning. Despair can’t be measured in sums of money or in words, and further encounters with the usual suspects are unavoidable. I know the procedure like I know these dusty roads, down to the smallest detail. I’ve made the crossing countless times without getting caught and I’ll do it again. I take a drink from my plastic bottle. The water in it is warm and stale. A little further on there’s a well where I’ll refresh my supplies. I drink in big gulps. Water runs down my sweat-drenched neck, under my cotton bodice, and between my breasts.

I splash a handful on my face and empty the rest onto the grass. I lay back and try to sense exactly how the earth supports me at this moment, whether it keeps on rotating, powerful and pitiless with no regard for me. But I’ve made it, I’m still here. Back to back with the earth. Safe and secure once again.

They call this region the breadbasket. The farmers are proud that they harvest grain for the people, everything the people need to stay healthy and strong. Admittedly, the grain will be sold abroad at dumping prices and here we are, back at the border, to follow the grain.

The most fertile region of all is Western Europe. It feeds everyone. There’s grain there, and work. We all want just a spoonful of the honey and a little cup of the milk that flow in Europe.

Just one small portion, an elementary portion to survive.

The people have long gotten used to surviving without bread and to surviving, whether in the South or the Far North, on coasts littered with rusting shells of nuclear submarines, enormous black outlines of stone-age monsters that radiate secretly in the night, permeating and altering the water and soil. The plants grow peculiarly there, thick and tall like in the cursed forests of old fairy tales.

Throughout this land, they raise bread and rockets. The bread goes to the West and, for a while, the rockets will be aimed threateningly at the sky from launching pits. There is often no time left for toilet paper.

Hygienic necessities drove even my mother out of the house. Armed with large bags and knapsacks she took the bus to the next village.

She never liked to leave the sheltering walls of our house. When she ventured out, her movements were rushed and vague, things often fell out of her hands and she was always in a hurry. She was probably afraid of missing Father.

Outings were rare and exciting events and the neighboring village seemed half a world away. We took the bus that frequently drove past our home and sometimes brought strangers though more often neighbors back from the city with wild tales and rare delicacies in their luggage.

Noses pressed to the dusty windows, we argued about who could spot more hares in the fields as the bus bumped along the country road’s uneven surface and raised whirls of sand behind us. The fields were still bare of vegetation and were mostly covered with rows of churned up dirt, like hair braided into cornrows. My mother stood behind me, her lips pressed tight and arms extended on either side of us to shield us from the other travelers who might be carrying infectious germs.

Her tension eases only slightly when a distant relative, whom we’d only ever seen once or twice before, meets us at the bus stop. I look around greedily: it smells differently here and everything looks different. The dilapidated houses on the main square are painted strange colors and have strange faces at their windows. An old woman with a colorful dress and dark blue bloated legs sits on a stool in the street selling crocheted doilies. She smiles at me. Gold earrings and gold teeth. Next to her, a bottle of wine and a pitcher of water.

“Get in,” the almost entirely unknown uncle hurries me and pushes me into his rusting automobile with a hand that smells masculine, so different from how I remember my father’s hand. My sister is already sitting in the car, next to the window, well-behaved, her hands in her lap, while I need to touch everything around me, try it out, break it, understand how it works. After two hours of travel, my nails are already black with dirt.

The car stinks of gasoline. I want to roll down the window, but my mother forbids it, for fear we might catch our death. After half an hour of driving, I feel sick.

I want to stop, but that’s not possible. We have to hurry. We still don’t know exactly where we’re going and for a while curiosity keeps the nausea at bay. My mother is anxiously quiet and answers her distant cousin’s questions with monosyllables. He gives up after several attempts at conversation and drives on in silence, as forests slide by us, interrupted by fields and small settlements, so small that none of them have ten houses. Miserable little fences contradict the Communist idea just as our parents’ stone house does. Chickens run around in front of the car. Goats watch us reproachfully.

“Where are we driving, Mama?” I ask.

“Shopping,” the uncle answers, happy to break the silence when my mother takes too long.

“For what?” I keep at them.

“You’ll see,” my mother says.

“I have to go to the toilet,” I add.

“First the paper,” she says.

My uncle looks at my mother, but decides not to say anything, just as she didn’t earlier. I have to hold it in for an unknown period of time and my lower body begins to cramp. I press my lips together and push my rear end into the worn seat. After a while, I can’t feel my lower abdomen any more.

“When will we get there?”

“Soon.”

‘Soon’ turns out to be another half an hour of meadows and fields. The long, dark outline of a housing complex appears on the horizon. Chimneys a yard wide tower into the sky. Thick clouds of smoke hang over them. This is exactly how I picture my father’s pipe: floating above me, enormous, trailing long lines of dark smoke instead of clouds. Rather than steer towards the huge buildings, we turn off onto another country lane and just as it’s becoming clear to me that I can no longer hold anything in, we come onto a broad, paved road.

We stop and I lurch into the bushes before my mother can grab me. She clasps her hands together and rolls her eyes. When I stand up again and try to walk on my numbed feet, I see a strange panorama.

Tents line the sides of the road, screens hang on wooden poles. These plastic wigwams stretch along the entire length of the road that leads dead straight to the factory we drove past and then they disappear into the distance. There are dozens of these tents to the left and the right of the roadway, some white, some draped in blue. I take a few more steps towards them: they all look exactly the same. Even the contents of each tent is identical to its neighbor’s: much coveted virgin-white toilet paper. Mountains of toilet paper, rolls piled into pyramids that proudly stand almost six feet high. They fill the tents almost to bursting, neatly stacked, and next to them solicitous merchants try to lure us into their realms with gestures straight out of a bazaar: Step right up! Buy my wares!

No one seems to mind that their neighbors to the right and left, every tent in the entire area, is selling exactly the same product. People meander through the stands trying out the wares, hoping to score the very best specimen or the cheapest price.

The toilet paper spreads out to the horizon and is there for all. The Communist dictum is joined to the law of Capitalism, in other words, the circle is squared.

The factory workers, unpaid for months now, have taken matters into their own hands and requisitioned the rolls as compensation for their missing pay. Delivery of these goods had, in any case, not worked properly for months, leaving a yawning emptiness on store shelves. As a result, thousands of the hygienically needy were lured here: not everyone has a lot of money or a big apartment, but everyone has a toilet. Some merchants accept payment in kind and I see them bartering with people who have brought backpacks laden with mushrooms, pelts, or wine bottles. A medieval market.

My mother shakes off our uncle and goes up to the first stand, while I would rather run the whole length of the market, down the road to the horizon. She calls me back curtly and quietly after I’ve gone a few yards. I turn and rejoin her. There’s a note of suffering in her voice. She rummages through her velvet bag, hands trembling. Then she turns to the merchant in such a way that no one besides my sister and me can see what she’s doing, and in her very clean hand, she holds out towards him a glittering, teardrop-shaped object. I recognize one of her earrings. The merchant grabs it carelessly from her hand and gives us a big plastic bag. We pounce on our rolls and cram them first into the bags, then into the automobile, while our uncle watches us from the side of the road, drinking from his bottle and laughing at us. Soon, we’ll head home. In front of the house, my mother will unpack the snow-white magnificence particularly slowly, so that all the neighbors catch a glimpse. We are cleaner than clean.

5

I’m sitting on the edge of the field, bathed in sweat, on a small ridge of earth that stretches all the way to the road and I think of the pumpkin patches that are waiting for me on the other side of the world. Perfectly striped spheres, large and small, glowing deep orange amongst curved stalks and the barbed, gaudily colored leaves. The prickles are hard to get out of your skin. You can carefully pick and eat the flowers if you’re very hungry. They taste slightly bitter and are as soft as a butterfly’s wings against your gums. Far behind me begins the first of the cornfields, which I’ll have to cross when the sun is even higher.

I stand for a moment, shoulder my backpack and look around me.

The sides of the pumpkins facing away from the sun are still dark green. They throw long shadows next to the shadows from my legs.

The sun rises and red floods out from the horizon over the ground, the pumpkins and me. I squint and see the earth, covered with tendrils, spreading out before me, and fields worn flat by the rain, furrows parched like riverbeds on Mars. Each step I take presses into a perfectly enclosed world and creates a new landscape.

 

From Die Erdfressserin (The Earth Eater), © Hanser Verlag, 2012 by Julya Rabinowich. Translation © Tess Lewis.

 

Julya Rabinowich was born in what used to be Leningrad (Saint Petersburg), but has lived in Vienna, since 1977. A writer of fiction, plays, and a weekly column in the Austrian newspaper Der Standard, she also works as a simultaneous interpreter for refugees. Her debut novel Spaltkopf (first published in 2008 and translated into English by Tess Lewis as Splithead in 2011, published by Portobello Books) won the Rauriser Literaturpreis 2009. Her second novel, Herznovelle was published in 2011. This excerpt is taken from her third novel, Die Erdfresserin, which was published last year.

Tess Lewis’s translations from French and German include works by Peter Handke, Lukas Bärfuss, Alois Hotschnig, Julya Rabinowich, Philippe Jaccottet, Jean-Luc Benoziglio, and Pascale Brückner. She has been awarded a PEN Translation Fund grant and an NEA Translation Fellowship. She also serves as an Advisory Editor for The Hudson Review and writes essays on European Literature for numerous journals and newspapers including The Wall Street Journal, The New Criterion, The Hudson Review, World Literature Today, The American Scholar, and Bookforum.

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MadHat, Issue 14, Spring 2013