When I was fifteen, I got hepatitis. It started in the fall and lasted until spring. As the old year darkened and turned colder, I got weaker and weaker. Things didn't start to improve until the new year. January was warm, and my mother moved my bed out onto the balcony. I saw sky, sun, clouds, and heard the voices of children playing in the courtyard. As dusk came one evening in February, there was the sound of a blackbird singing.
The first time I ventured outside, it was to go from Blumenstrasse, where we lived on the second floor of a massive turn-of-the-century building, to Bahnhofstrasse. That's where I'd thrown up on the way home from school one day the previous October. I'd been feeling weak for days, in a way that was completely new to me. Every step was an effort. When I was faced with stairs either at home or at school, my legs would hardly carry me. I had no appetite. Even if I sat down at the table hungry, I soon felt queasy. I woke up every morning with a dry mouth and the sensation that my insides were in the wrong place and too heavy for my body. I was ashamed of being so weak. I was even more ashamed when I threw up. That was another thing that had never happened to me before. My mouth was suddenly full, I tried to swallow everything down again, and clenched my teeth with my hand in front of my mouth, but it all burst out of my mouth anyway straight through my fingers. I leaned against the wall of the building, looked down at the vomit around my feet, and retched something clear and sticky.
When rescue came, it was almost an assault. The woman seized my arm and pulled me through the dark entryway into the courtyard. Up above there were lines strung from window to window, loaded with laundry. Wood was stacked in the courtyard; in an open workshop a saw screamed and shavings flew. The woman turned on the tap, washed my hand first, and then cupped both of hers and threw water in my face. I dried myself with a handkerchief.
"Get that one!" There were two pails standing by the faucet; she grabbed one and filled it. I took the other one, filled it, and followed her through the entryway. She swung her arm, the water sluiced down across the walk and washed the vomit into the gutter. Then she took my pail and sent a second wave of water across the walk.
When she straightened up, she saw I was crying. "Hey, kid," she said, startled, "hey, kid"--and took me in her arms. I wasn't much taller than she was, I could feel her breasts against my chest. I smelled the sourness of my own breath and felt her fresh sweat as she held me, and didn't know where to look. I stopped crying.
She asked me where I lived, put the pails down in the entryway, and took me home, walking beside me holding my schoolbag in one hand and my arm in the other. It's no great distance from Bahnhofstrasse to Blumenstrasse. She walked quickly, and her decisiveness helped me to keep pace with her. She said goodbye in front of our building.
That same day my mother called in the doctor, who diagnosed hepatitis. At some point I told my mother about the woman. If it hadn't been for that, I don't think I would have gone to see her. But my mother simply assumed that as soon as I was better, I would use my pocket money to buy some flowers, go introduce myself, and say thank you, which was why at the end of February I found myself heading for Bahnhofstrasse.
The building on Bahnhofstrasse is no longer there. I don't know when or why it was torn down. I was away from my hometown for many years. The new building, which must have been put up in the seventies or eighties, has five floors plus finished space under the roof, is devoid of balconies or arched windows, and its smooth facade is an expanse of pale plaster. A plethora of doorbells indicates a plethora of tiny apartments, with tenants moving in and out as casually as you would pick up and return a rented car. There's a computer store on the ground floor where once there were a pharmacy, a supermarket, and a video store.
Excerpted from The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. Translation copyright 1997 by Carol Brown Janeway. Copyright 1995 by Diogenes Verlag AG, Zurich. Excerpted by permission of Vintage International, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
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