THE MAN INSIDE HIS OWN HEAD
A shadow follows a woman, the woman is small and crooked, the shadow keeps its distance. The woman walks across the grass and sits on a bench outside the apartment block.
The woman sits, the shadow stops. The shadow doesn’t belong to the woman, just as the shadow of the wall doesn’t belong to the wall. The shadows have abandoned the things they belong to. They belong only to the late afternoon, which is now past.
Dahlias have been planted below the lowest row of windows in the apartment block. The flowers are wide open, the hot air has turned their edges to paper. The dahlias peer into kitchens and into rooms, into bowls and into beds.
Smoke reeking of burned onions flies out of one of the kitchen windows and onto the street. A tapestry over the oven inside shows a stag in a forest glade. The stag is the same brown as the colander on the table. A woman licks a wooden spoon, a child stands on a chair, crying. The child has a bib around his neck. The woman uses it to wipe the tears from his face.
The child is too big to be standing on the chair, too big to be wearing a bib. The woman has a blue mark on her elbow. A man’s voice shouts, those onions stink and you look like a cow bending over the pot like that, I’m getting the hell out of here, and as far as I can go, too. The woman looks inside the pot, blows into the smoke. In a quiet, stern voice she says, go ahead, pack your shitty things in a suitcase and crawl right back inside your mother. The man jerks the woman by the hair and slaps her in the face. Then the woman stands crying next to the child, while the boy quietly stares at the window.
You were on the roof, says the child, and I saw your butt. The man spits out the window right past the dahlias. He’s naked from the waist up, his chest has several blue marks. What’s there to see, he says, watch and I’ll spit right between your eyes. His spit lands on the sidewalk, together with the shell of a sunflower seed. There’s a lot more to see looking out of my ass than at it, says the man. The child laughs, the woman lifts the child from the chair and holds him close. You’re laughing, you’re growing, she says, you’re getting bigger and bigger, and he’s going to beat me to death. The man laughs quietly, then loudly. You took him up on the roof didn’t you, says the woman.
Every step of the sidewalk is spattered with spit and sprinkled with cigarette butts and sunflower seed husks. And now and then a squashed dahlia. On the curb is a page torn from a school notebook with the sentence, the speed of the blue tractor is six times greater than the speed of the red tractor.
School-day handwriting, the letters in one word falling on their back and in another on their face. And warts on the children’s fingers, dirt on the warts, clusters of warts like gray berries, fingers like turkey necks.
Warts can also spread through contact with objects, said Paul, they can migrate onto any skin. Every day Adina touches the children’s notebooks and hands. The chalk scrapes against the blackboard, every word she writes could turn into a wart. The eyes in the faces are tired, they are not listening. Then the bell rings, and Adina goes to the teachers’ bathroom and looks in the mirror. She studies her face and neck, searching for a wart. The chalk eats away at her fingers.
The wart clusters on the children are full of all the grabbing, all the pushing and kicking, squeezing and shoving, and full of all the bullying and bruising. They contain eager crushes and cruel snubs, the cunning calculation of mothers and fathers, relatives and neighbors and strangers. And if eyes well up or a tooth breaks or an ear bleeds there is simply a shrug of the shoulders.
A trolleybus passes by, windows lit, two sections connected by a wrinkled rubber-coated sleeve, an accordion. The horns glide along the wire overhead, the accordion opens and closes, dust billows from the bellows. The dust is gray, with fine hairs, and is warmer than the evening air. If the trolley is moving the city has electricity. The horns spray sparks into the trees, leaves drop onto the sidewalk from branches that lie too low. The poplars tower over all the streets, in the twilight they are darker than other trees.
A man walks in front of Adina, carrying a flashlight. The city is often without power, flashlights are an extension of the hand. On pitch-black streets the night is all of one piece, and a person on foot is nothing but a sound. The man holds his flashlight with the bulb pointed backward. Evening pulls the last white thread through the end of the street. White tureens and stainless spoons shimmer in the display window. The man has yet to turn his flashlight on, he’s waiting until the end of one little street falls into the next. The minute he turns on the flashlight, he disappears. He becomes a man inside his own hand.
The electricity isn’t switched off until it’s completely dark. Then the shoe factory no longer hums, and a candle burns at the gatehouse, where a man’s sleeve can be seen beside the candle. In front of the gatehouse is a dog that’s completely invisible except for a pair of glowing eyes. But his bark can be heard, and his paws on the asphalt.
The poplars advance onto every street. The houses crowd together. Candles are lit behind curtains. Parents hold their children up to the light because they want to look at their cheeks one more time before the next morning.
Where the shrubbery is dense, night lurks poised between the foliage and assault. If the city is without power and dark, the night comes from below. First it cuts off the legs. The shoulders are still draped with a gray light, just enough for shaking heads or shutting eyes. But not enough to see by.
Only occasionally do the puddles glow, but not for long, because the ground is thirsty and the summer is dry, after weeks and weeks of dust. A shrub grazes Adina’s shoulder. It has restless white flowers with a heavy, insistent fragrance. Adina switches on her flashlight, a circle falls into the dark, an egg. Inside the circle is a head with a beak. The light is not enough to see by, merely enough to make sure the night can’t devour all of Adina’s back, only half.
The roses outside the apartment block weave a covering full of holes, a colander of dirty leaves and dirty stars. The night pushes the roses out of the city.
By Herta Müller
Translated by Philip Boehm
Extract from THE FOX WAS EVER THE HUNTER
by Herta Müller
Translated by Philip Boehm
Published by Portobello Books/Granta (2016)
Reproduced with the kind permission of Portobello Books/Granta. The Fox Was Ever the Hunter, Herta Müller, trns. Philp Boehm (c) 2016.
Read The Romanian Riveter in its entirety here.
Herta Müller is from the German-speaking minority in the Banat region of Romania. After refusing to work for the Romanian secret service, the Securitate, she lost her job as a translator in a machine factory. Nadirs, her first book, was heavily censored when it was published, but the manuscript was smuggled to Germany and published there in 1984. In 1987, she emigrated to Germany and has lived in Berlin ever since. She has a string of literary prizes to her name, including the Nobel Prize for Literature (2009).
Philip Boehm is a playwright and translator. He has translated numerous works from German and Polish by authors including Herta Müller, Franz Kafka, and Stefan Chwin. He has received awards from, among others, the American Translators Association, the UK Society of Authors, the National Endowment for the Arts and PEN America.