Jenny Erpenbeck: Visitation
The Childhood Friend
Sometimes he climbs up a ladder to straighten the tarp with which he covered the thatch roof of the bathing house the previous fall. Perhaps he would use a similar gesture to draw up the covers at night to tuck in his friend if she were now his wife and lying in bed beside him as had been agreed on so many years ago. On the side facing the lake, the roof has begun to rot. There isn’t much sense to what he’s doing, it’s possible the roof will even rot faster under the tarp, but he still can’t bring himself to just abandon the roof to the wind. Under the tarp it will still hold together for a little while longer and look like a roof.
If his father hadn’t sent him to run home from the construction site that day to get some beer, he wouldn’t have come down the path just as she was picking raspberries with her father on the slope across from their house. Her father had waved him over and asked whether he wouldn’t like to have some raspberries too, and he’d said yes. From then on, the first time he plucked raspberries with her, until today, when he climbs up on the ladder to straighten the tarp on the roof of the bathing house, life has taken its course. Sometimes he asks himself whether, if their two fathers had not acted as if in cahoots that day to make them playmates, his life would still have become his life. But life would no doubt have filled up with various other sorts of would-haves and probably been just as much his life as this one. At the time, when he was five years old and she had just turned four, their fathers or who knows who had made a decision once and for all about the gestures with which he now, in his mid-fifties already and perched atop a ladder, is tugging straight a tarp that’s gotten rumpled in the wind.
I dare you to crawl out farther on this branch, let’s go for a swing, did you know you can smoke cattails, let’s use the tiles to build a house in the water, I found a bullet casing, me too, let’s go for a swing, if you put a board over the tire you’ll have a raft, you have to use elderberry stalks to make a blowpipe, they’re hollow on the inside, the gardener said so, let’s go to Liedtke Park, it’s all wild and there are apples growing that don’t belong to anyone, let’s go for a swing, c’mere, I’ll give you a boost, how far down can you dive, my ship has a rudder made of metal, let’s say the bedroom is from the pillow there to the blanket, let’s go for a swing, can you ride no-hands, did you know that little boy Daniel got up on the windowsill and peed out the window, oh no, my oar just fell in the water, give me a kiss.
Over there between the roots of the big oak tree that he can see perfectly well from up on the ladder is where they’d buried the little chest that contained, as treasure, the aluminum pennies from his sister’s wedding, and when they dug the hole they found the pewter pitchers that someone else had put in the ground at exactly that spot. When he stands on the ladder now, he isn’t looking at the roots of the oak tree, but presumably the little chest is still there in the ground, or, if it’s rotted since then, at least the pennies are still there. Did you know that Daniel is dead? Did you know he died even before his father tried to shoot his mother dead? Do you remember how he used to go diving with us, among the pikes in the reeds, and how cold the pikes were when they bumped our legs with their fish mouths? Not long after the border was opened, he went diving in the Caribbean and drowned. No, really. As if opening the border just gave him more possible ways to die. The trip was his would-have. Now he’ll be a little boy forever. After the night when Daniel’s father, who had cancer and was on his deathbed, shot at Daniel’s mother, she too lay on her deathbed. No, really. As if dying in such a family just eats its way through everything. Did you read the newspapers when for days the front page showed the bungalow where Daniel peed out the window that time? Now the window is dark and empty, the whole bungalow has been dark since the shooting. They say the argument was about the bungalow itself. Daniel’s father shot at Daniel’s mother from the bed. It was about the inheritance for Daniel’s younger half-brother. The one from the West. No, really. So opening the borders apparently also gave Daniel’s parents more possible ways to die.
In order to stretch the tarp over the roof last fall, he had set foot on the property of his childhood friend for the first time since helping her pack up and empty out the house years before. He hopped over the little wall made of fieldstone and worked his way through the bushes because the gate he’d always entered as a child was locked now. He had sat with her on the bricked pillars to either side of the gate so they could stick their tongues out at passers-by. When he now thinks back to that weekend when she emptied out and left the house, or even to his visit in Berlin when he was fourteen years old, or, even further back, to that afternoon in the woodshed when she and he had seen something it would have been better for them not to see, it strikes him as strange that, independent of what is happening, one day is always followed by another, and to this day he doesn’t know what it actually is that is continuing. Perhaps eternal life already exists during a human lifetime, but since it looks different from what we’re hoping for — something that transcends everything that’s ever happened — since it looks instead like the old life we already knew, no one recognizes it. The house too is still standing there, and he doesn’t know what it is that is still standing. And he himself. And no doubt she as well, somewhere in the world.
At our house we have gooseberries and currants and apples in the garden, but the gooseberries and currants are already done for the year, he’d said, and her father had given him permission to show her his garden that afternoon. At our house there are just roses, she’d said when she stood there in his garden, then she bit into an unripe apple. That is when what he now, in retrospect, would call his childhood first began, from vacation to vacation it would begin when she arrived and end when she departed. On the day when his sister stepped out onto the road in her wedding dress to walk to the church to be married, and a pot of pennies was dumped out over her for luck, and afterward he and his friend picked all the lightweight coins from the sand, aluminum money that weighed almost nothing — on that day, while the wedding party was already drawing farther away and they were still dragging their hands through the pale sand, she and he had spoken for the first time of marriage.
You can break open hazelnuts with a heavy stone, they’re still white on the inside, let’s go for a swing, can ride around the puddle to the left with my front wheel and to the right with the back one, let’s make up a secret language, kissing should be called twittering, no really, let’s go for a swing, you can’t talk while you’re fishing, squeeze the lilac leaf all the way fl at between your hands, that’s how it makes the best whistle, the gardener said so, let’s go for a swing, c’mere, we’ll bury the mole under the tree right here, you can eat the little hearts on the shepherd’s purse, let’s go hide under the fi r bush, give me a — I want to twitter, me too.
His parents always left the house early, at six in the morning, at eight his friend had breakfast, at eight-thirty he was allowed to come over. On cool mornings, the handle of the gate with the pillars to the right and left of it still had dew on it when he pressed it down. As he walked past the kitchen window, he would knock on the greenish panes so that the cook would unlock the door for him, then he would go inside and wait in the living room next to the long table at which his friend and her family and the friends of her family were sitting, he would stand there, leaning up against the cold stove, waiting until she fi nished eating. Afterward they would play in her garden or his, go swimming from his or her dock, hide in the secret closet in her room under the coats and dresses or go to his house, where the television would be on even during the day, and watch the black and white cowboys galloping across a black and white plain and eventually their black and white falling down and dying.
He’d read once that embryos in the womb go through all the stages of evolution, that they begin as fish and amphibians, and later get fur, then for a while have the spinal columns of pigs and only afterward are born as human beings. Perhaps, he thinks, a second primeval era begins after birth, this time the speeded up history of mankind but now going under the name of childhood, as if the time of the hunter-gatherers had to be shared by everyone once more, as the basis from which the various sorts of adults could develop. After all, fi sh and amphibians gave rise, in the course of evolution, to a large variety of creatures, some had developed into land animals which in the end became monkeys and cats, and others chose to spend their lives in the water and later became dolphins or whales. If this is how things were, then he had made her acquaintance in the Stone Age and shared his life with her until approximately the late Middle Ages, and after all this was a period lasting two and a half million years.
Perhaps — at least this is how it looks to him today — such a primeval era that two people spend together is a more indissoluble bond than a promise would be. The eyes with which he and she saw something that day in the woodshed that it would have been better for them not to see, are still right there in their heads after all, even though these heads are meanwhile, seen in purely spatial terms, far removed from one another. The seeing from that day still persists. In the woodshed, he and she had made themselves a hiding place up on top of all the wood, in the one meter of space remaining between the stacked logs and the roof of the shed. They had used logs to divide the space up there into rooms, lined the rooms with leftover bits of carpet, here and there nailed scraps of cloth to the wood, and hung up a flashlight to provide illumination — and so, crawling around, they had a whole apartment to keep house in. From his ladder, he can see the roof of the woodshed, which meanwhile is entirely covered with the leaves and dry branches that have fallen. My cousin, Nicole, is here for a visit, she always wants to go swimming naked, and she even lets me kiss her when she’s naked. René, the nephew of the director of the State Combine for Automobile Tires, was a bit older than they were, the child of vacationers, and whenever he was there, he would always come looking for them in the shed and crawl up to sit with his head ducked down in their hiding place, full of suggestions of things they should try. My cousin, Nicole, is here for a visit, she always wants to go swimming naked, and she even lets me kiss her when she’s naked, she’s only twelve like you, but I’m sure she’d sleep with me too. Every electrical outlet has three cables, a blue one, a red one and a yellow one. The blue and red ones are necessary for the electricity to fl ow, and the yellow one, even though it’s never connected anywhere, is there too, and it’s called the ground. My cousin, Nicole, she always wants to go swimming naked, and she even lets me kiss her when she’s naked, she’s only twelve like you, but I’m sure she’d sleep with me too. If you hide behind the wood, you can watch, do you want to?
By this time they’d long since learned what it looks like when blood flows out of a cut, they had even sliced open their own arms with a pocket knife so they would be blood brothers, and they also knew what it looks like when a person shits and the sausage first starts coming very slowly out of the hole and then quickly pops out and falls, under the willow tree beside the water first he, then she had squatted down so that the other could watch. And since seeing had always only been seeing, neither touching nor smelling nor tasting nor even hearing — for hearing, your hand would still vibrate when you held it to the cloth cover of the radio’s loudspeaker — since seeing itself could never be filled with even the tiniest bit of reality, the storerooms behind their eyes had, at the time, seemed infinitely large to both of them, and that was no doubt why both she and he immediately responded to their neighbor’s suggestion by saying yes.
Of course they could have given a nudge to the pile of logs separating them from the bedroom of their hiding place when René asked his cousin Nicole if she knew how children were made. Even somewhat later, as René was explaining this to his cousin Nicole, who didn’t yet know about it, they might still have burst suddenly out of hiding and declared it all one big joke. But when René, who was already somewhat older, asked Nicole whether she wouldn’t like to try out what he had just been explaining to her and she said no, and then kept saying no again and again while he held her down and used his body to press her legs apart, and both of them were still naked from swimming, and when Nicole, who was only twelve and weaker than René, who was already going to be starting an apprenticeship after this summer, started crying, and he held her mouth shut and then began to jerk back and forth on top of her, he and she were still watching through the tiny slit that allowed them enough space between the logs to see everything that was happening. First it had been too soon to burst out of hiding, and then it was too late, and the dividing line between too early and too late was so sharp that it couldn’t even have been called a no man’s land. Behind the wooden wall where René had walled in the two seers, it was dark and cramped, and if they had so much as shifted position, everything would have collapsed.
They saw. They saw so long and so much that all the storerooms behind their eyes were filled with what it would have been better not to have seen. He has no memory of how he and his friend later crawled out of their hiding place, how they climbed down the variously tall piles of wood and escaped to freedom. If you had to go by what a person remembers, he would consider it possible that they never did get back outside again but were still squatting to this day beneath the roof of the shed, which meanwhile is entirely covered with the leaves and dry branches that have fallen. That one can be more thoroughly tied to a place through shared cupidity and shame than by shared happiness is something he wishes he’d never had to learn.
There was only one thing that he couldn’t understand at the time: that his friend only ever spent her vacations in the place where he lived. He lives there still, even though his hands are starting to turn into the hands of an old man. Only after his coming-of-age ceremony when he visited her in Berlin, on that one special weekend not long after his Jugendweihe, the one single time when the direction was reversed, when he was the one making the journey and she the one who lived there, had he understood, but by then it was too late. You sunshine of my heart, one of her schoolmates had written to her, always the same form of address: You sunshine of my heart, and then all sorts of other things on little scraps of paper that she kept in her pencil case. She laughed at him when he found the notes by accident one day and asked who else besides him was allowed to call her the sunshine of his heart. That was just someone kidding around, she said, just a joke, but when he didn’t let up and wasn’t prepared to start laughing, she became annoyed and for the fi rst time ever she said aloud something that apparently had already been self-evident to her even then but to him was not at all self-evident, even now: that when she was in Berlin, which was where she lived, she could do whatever she liked.
From that point on it was never again possible for him — neither during her next vacation stay nor any of those that followed — to wait for her beside the long table while she sat eating breakfast with her family, suddenly he saw himself as a servant standing there, like someone serving himself up on a platter from head to foot with parsley in his mouth and a baked apple stuff ed between his toes. Would you care to eat me, madam? From then on the amphibian he had been up till then had chosen a life on land, and the amphibian that she was chose a life in the water, or the other way around, in any case the result of her late-Medieval evolution was that at some point or other, without her ever having to explain anything more to him, she showed up at his door with a male friend, a friend she wanted to introduce to him, her childhood friend, as she now described him. He, her childhood friend, had stood there in the doorway of his house with a plug made of a torn-off bit of tissue sticking out of his nose, because just before she had knocked on the door he had suddenly gotten a nosebleed and had doctored himself provisionally in this way. The knock she had used on his door was still the same secret knock they had used as children. He had opened the door and seen his friend standing there with her companion. Good day, would you like to come in. The friend from Berlin had looked at the bloody snippet of paper sticking out of the nose of his girlfriend’s childhood friend. I don’t want to disturb you. Later she didn’t knock on his door so often when she walked by his house in the company of one or the other boyfriend she’d brought out to the country with her, but when she saw his legs sticking out from under a car in the workshop he had set up next to his house, she would always shout out a greeting to him. When eventually she had married one of these boyfriends, it gradually, over the years, became self-evident that he would help her husband drag the rowboat out of the water in winter and turn it upside-down, hang the paddleboat on the rear wall of the woodshed, and in springtime help the subtenants put up the dock, and occasionally, when she and her husband had no time to come out to the country, he would even clip the hedge, rake the leaves and take care of all the other tasks for which the gardener was now much too old. The hourly wage they paid him was far higher than what was customary in the region.
Can you grab that box of books, sure, but I still have my left hand free, here are the shoes, OK, the coffee grinder is staying here, sure, makes sense, it’s all rusted anyhow, I laid out the clothing and coats from the closet on the bed, they won’t fit in any of the suitcases, they’ll have to be hung up, no problem, have you got the bed linens, yes, then just leave the key for the wall cabinets in the lock, who knows if someone else will ever need it, what does it matter, did you go down to the cellar to turn off the electricity and water, no, we’d better not, in case the gardener ever turns up again after all, and close the shutters in the bathing house, OK I’ll run down there, but leave the paddleboat where it is, I told the tenants they can take it if they want. The towels, what should I do with them, give them away if you don’t need them, can you give me a hand with this lamp, that’s all that will fit, you’re probably right.
When she moved out, the house still belonged to her and her father since they weren’t allowed to sell it as long as the question of its ownership was still up in the air. It belonged to her and to her father, and the telephone still worked. The electricity and water had been turned off when the speculator whom her father had engaged to invest the property for him interrupted the renovation work and left the house to its own devices — but if she had returned, she would have been able to start everything back up again with just a few simple adjustments. Only much later did this speculator call him again to ask him to dig up the soil of the road beside the house and cut through the electrical cable, and to dismantle the water line as well so that her father wouldn’t be responsible for the costs that might arise if someone were to decide to install himself in the empty house. Only the telephone line was left undisturbed, since the subtenants had, with her father’s permission, run an extension cable down to the workshop.
By doing work of this sort on the properties all around the lake, he’d sometimes made some extra income on the side in recent years. It used to be people had looked down on clandestine employment — “shoddy” was the word automatically assigned to such labor: additions to buildings made without permits and so forth — but now the shoddy work to be done was generally a matter of closing things up and tearing things down. Before this he had, at the request of Daniel’s half-brother, dug up the sandy road in front of Daniel’s bungalow to cut the electrical cable and disconnect the water supply. After the Schmeling house burned down, he helped with the clean-up operation, and the property suddenly became very cheap after the fire, but still not cheap enough for him, and at his age it wouldn’t have been worth it, in any case, to buy an undeveloped property, and he didn’t have anyone to leave it to. The next storm will rip the tarp back off the roof again, because it just isn’t possible to drive nails into straw — what he is tying to the roof of the bathing house with string is as shoddy as it gets, he thinks as he pulls the strings taut. When a decision has been made about his own house — for here too someone has filed a claim for the restitution of the property — he will find himself a small apartment in the district capital, something with central heating, convenient to shopping and not too expensive.
Erpenbeck, Jenny: Visitation - New York: New Directions, 2010
- 192 pages
translated by Susan Bernofsky with kind permission of the publisher