The Taste of Apple Seeds
Great-aunt Anna died from pneumonia when she was sixteen. They couldn't cure it because her heart was broken and penicillin hadn't yet been invented. It happened late one July afternoon. Anna's younger sister, Bertha, ran howling into the garden and saw that with Anna's rattling, dying breath all the red currants in the garden had turned white. It was a large garden; the scores of old currant bushes groaned under the heavy weight of the fruit. They should have been picked long before, but when Anna fell ill nobody gave a thought to the berries. My grandmother often told me this story, because it was she who had discovered the currants in mourning. Since that time there had only ever been black currants and white currants in my grandmother's garden, and every attempt to plant a red bush had failedonly white berries would grow on the stems. But nobody minded: the white ones tasted almost as sweet as the red, when you juiced them they didn't ruin your apron, and the jelly they made had a mysteriously pale translucent shimmer. "Preserved tears," my grandmother called it. The shelves in her cellar still housed jars of all sizes with the currant jelly from 1981, a summer particularly rich in tears, Rosmarie's final one. Once when my mother was looking for some pickled cucumbers she came across a jar from 1945: the first postwar tears. She donated it to the windmill association, and when I asked her why on earth she was giving away Granny's wonderful jelly to a local museum she said that those tears were too bitter.
My grandmother Bertha Lünschen, née Deelwater, died long after Great-Aunt Anna, but for many years she hadn't known who her sister was, what her own name was, or whether it was winter or summer. She had forgotten what shoes, wool, or spoons were for. Over a decade she cast off her memories with the same fidgety ease with which she plucked at the short white locks of hair at the nape of her neck or swept invisible crumbs from the table. I had a clearer recollection of the noise the hard, dry skin of her hand made on the wooden kitchen table than of the features of her face. Also of the way her ringed fingers always closed tightly around the invisible crumbs, as if trying to catch the shadows of her spirit drifting by; but maybe Bertha just wanted to cover the floor with crumbs, or feed the sparrows that in early summer loved taking dust baths in the garden and were forever uprooting the radishes. The table she later had in the care home was plastic, and her hand fell silent.
Before her memory went completely, Bertha remembered us in her will. My mother, Christa, inherited the land, Aunt Inga the stocks and shares, Aunt Harriet the money. I, the final descendant, inherited the house. The jewelry and furniture, the linen and the silver were to be divided up between my mother and aunts. Bertha's will was as clear as springwaterand just as sobering. The stocks and shares were not particularly valuable, nobody except cows wanted to live on the pasture of the north German lowlands, there wasn't much money left, and the house was old.
Bertha must have remembered how much I used to love the house. But we didn't find out about her will until after the funeral. I went on my own; it was a long, circuitous trip involving a number of trains. I set off from Freiburg and had to travel the entire length of the country until finally, right up in the village of Bootshaven at the stop opposite my grandmother's house, I got off a bus. From a ghostly smalltown station it had taken me around all the local villages until it was practically empty. I was worn down by the journey, the grieving, and the feelings of guilt you always have when someone dies whom you loved but didn't know very well.
Aunt Harriet had come, too. She wasn't called Harriet anymore; now her name was Mohani. But she wasn't wearing orange robes, nor was she bald. Only the wooden-bead necklace with a picture of her guru indicated her new state of enlightenment. And yet, with her short henna-red hair and Reebok trainers, she looked different from the other black-clad figures who were gathering in small groups outside the chapel. I was pleased to see Aunt Harriet again, although I felt uneasy and nervous when I realized that the last time I had seen her was thirteen years earlier. That was when we had had to bury Rosmarie, Harriet's daughter. The unease was a feeling I was very familiar with, because each time I looked at my face in a mirror I thought of Rosmarie. Her funeral had been unbearable; maybe it's always unbearable when fifteen-year-old girls are buried. As they told me afterward, I had fainted into a deep unconsciousness. All I could recall was that the white lilies on the coffin gave off a warm, damp, and sweet smell that stuck in my nostrils and fizzed in my throat. I couldn't breathe. Then I spun into a white hole. I'd woken later, in the hospital. When I fell I had hit my head on a stone and the wound needed stitches. It left a scar above the bridge of my nose, a pale mark. That was the first time I had ever fainted, but since then I have fainted plenty of times. Fainting is a family trait.
Excerpted from The Taste of Apple Seeds by Katharina Hagena. Copyright © 2014 by Katharina Hagena. Excerpted by permission of William Morrow Paperbacks. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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