A seagull stood on the windowsill, uttering its cry, as if
the Baltic itself were in its throat, high as the foaming
crests of the waves, keen, sky-coloured, its call died away
over Königsplatz where all was quiet, where the theatre now lay
in ruins. Peter blinked, he hoped the gull would take fright at
the mere flutter of his eyelids and fly away. Ever since the end
of the war Peter had enjoyed these quiet mornings. A few days
ago his mother had made up a bed for him on the kitchen floor.
He was a big boy now, she said, he couldnt sleep in her bed any
more. A ray of sunlight fell on him; he pulled the sheet over his
face and listened to Frau Kozinskas soft voice. It came up from
the apartment below through the cracks between the stone flags
on the floor. Their neighbour was singing: My dearest love, if you
could swim, youd swim the wide water to me. Peter loved that melody,
the melancholy of her voice, the yearning and the sadness. These
emotions were so much larger than he was, and he wanted to
grow, there was nothing he wanted more. The sun warmed the
sheet over Peters face until he heard his mothers footsteps,
approaching as if from a great distance. Suddenly the sheet was
pulled back. Come on, come on, time to get up, his mother told
him sternly. The teachers waiting, she claimed. But it was a long
time since Herr Fuchs the teacher had minded whether individual
children were present or absent. Few of them could still
attend school regularly. For days now his mother and he had
been going to the station every afternoon with their little suitcase,
trying to get a place on a train bound for Berlin. If one did
come in, it was crammed so full that they couldnt climb aboard.
Now Peter got up and washed. Sighing, his mother took off her
shoes. Out of the corner of his eye, Peter saw her untie her apron
and put it to soak. Every day, her white apron was stained with
soot and blood and sweat; it had to be soaked for hours before
she could take the washboard and rub the fabric on it until her
hands were red and the veins on her arms swollen. Peters mother
raised both hands to her head, took off her nurses cap, pulled
the hairpins out of her hair and let it tumble softly over her
shoulders. She didnt like him to watch her doing that. Glancing
at him out of the corner of her eye, she told him: And that too.
It seemed to him that she meant his little willy and with some
repugnance was telling him to wash it. Then she turned her back
to him and passed a brush through her thick hair. It shone golden
in the sun and Peter thought he had the most beautiful mother
in the world.
Even after the Russians had taken Stettin in the spring some of the soldiers had been sleeping in Frau Kozinskas apartment ever since their neighbour could be heard singing early in the morning. Once last week his mother had sat down at the table to mend one of her aprons while Peter read aloud, because Herr Fuchs the teacher had told him to practise that.Peter hated reading aloud and he had sometimes noticed how little attention his mother paid when he did. Presumably she didnt like to have the silence broken. She was usually so deep in thought that she didnt seem to notice at all if, in mid-sentence,Peter suddenly read on to himself instead of aloud. Hed been listening to Frau Kozinska at the same time as he was reading to himself. I wish someone would wring her neck, he heard his mother say abruptly. Startled, Peter looked at her, but she just smiled and put her needle through the linen.
The fires last August had completely destroyed the school and since then the children had met Herr Fuchs the teacher in his sisters dairy, where there was hardly ever anything for sale now. Fräulein Fuchs stood behind the empty counter with her arms crossed, waiting. Although she had gone deaf, she often put her hands over her ears. The big shop window had been broken out of its frame, the children sat on the windowsill, and Herr Fuchs the teacher showed them numbers on the board: three times ten, five times three.The children asked him to show them the places where Germany had lost battles, but he didnt want to. Were not going to belong to Germany any more, he said, adding that he was glad of it. Where, then, asked the children, where will we belong? Herr Fuchs the teacher shrugged his shoulders.Today Peter planned to ask him why he was glad of it.
The Blindness of the Heart © 2007 by S. Fischer Verlag GmbH; English translation © 2009 by Anthea Bell, reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Atlantic, Inc.
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No Man's Land
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