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FRANK WITZEL

‘MOMENTS AFTER & BEFORE’

[TRANS. AMANDA DeMARCO]




I do not find / The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
   
T. S. ELIOT

Common parlance says: now. The physicist says: it’s over.
   
  C.A. VAN PEURSEN






Of course, there was a garden. A garden we weren’t allowed to set foot in. Not far from the city. A half hour by bike. Along a dusty path. Past telegraph poles. Some with wires, but mostly without. Backlit you could make it out: there’s one still hanging. We pedaled hard and held our heads low. But it was just a smock someone had left behind. Tattered. We stopped and squinted into the sun. We imagined what it would be like to dangle up there. The stream gurgled. The body swayed back and forth. Back and forth. The wind blew into our nostrils. The blood throbbed in our ears. It was the distant voices of the girls practicing the Lacrimosa in the auditorium. It was the shale flaking off in thin scales that drifted downward from the cliffs behind Nahrthalerfeld. Before you die, the body grows hot once more. Then cold. Then hot again. You think you see a face hovering very close to your own. With red eyes wide open. Then comes death.

We’d forgotten how to count. We just couldn’t spit the numbers out. We kept thinking: one and one and one. We didn’t get any further than that. We recognized some of the residents. Others not. Much was strange to us. Customs changed imperceptibly. And so nothing came easy anymore. In spite of ourselves, there was even some hesitation at the holy water font. Did the sign of the cross really begin at the forehead?

A girl stood unmoving in the nave. Thin are the threads that the Lord spans between His wounds and our still-unscathed limbs, by which He leads us through life. Our grandfathers had lived it. Our fathers had seen it. We knew it only from hearsay. The girl in the nave wore a white, freshly starched dress. For the first time, we saw something immaculately pure before us. We hesitated. Pondered how to genuflect and then did it. We arranged ourselves where the pews used to be. Positioned our hands like we used to. Looked forward like we used to look forward. We thought we saw light fall through the black holes onto the shattered tiles as if through a glass window, marking the place where we once received the body of Christ. One and one and one. The Trinity had fragmented into its component parts within us. A smeared name was written on a strip of bandage around our left wrists. Of course, this name had a meaning. There were meanings and things, that much we knew. But they were separated from each other. We couldn’t seem to correlate them. That’s one reason why we were so easily frightened. Everywhere we sought a connection. “You’re scared of your own shadows,” said the adults with a laugh. They themselves didn’t have any teeth and often fewer than ten fingers; their mouths twitched and they dragged one leg behind them. But they weren’t easily frightened. The girl with the immaculate dress turned around to face us. Only then did we see the red spot. Only then did we see the smeared lipstick. The dark eye sockets. Two old women mumbled the beginning of the Recordare. Why had they survived? Them of all people? Age doesn’t matter to death. On the contrary, it’s out for youth. The younger the better. The girl walked past us toward the exit. Were our faces the last ones she saw?

The forest was dense. The path shadowed. We learned the laws of nature with little wooden figurines. We learned to pray with little waxen figurines. We learned the laws of creation with little clay figurines. We learned secret codes and gave ourselves new names and decorated ourselves with homemade medals of honor. Behind the shack stood men who still took it seriously. You couldn’t walk away from them. Before they could say a word to you, you had to punch them in the face. That was the only way you had a chance.

The director of the institution leaned against the window and looked down into the courtyard. A siren wailed. It was just a test. “From now on, they’re just tests,” he said and poured himself some homemade schnapps. The inmates had thrown themselves to the ground. “You don’t throw yourselves to the ground anymore, you line up in two rows. You don’t run into the cellar anymore, you walk out into the open. You don’t sit holding your knees to your chest in the corner with a stomach ache, you lay flat on the cot.”

In the evenings we came home too late. A man stood next to the sink drinking from a canteen. The cradle had been put away. The mirror shrouded. The standing water poured out. Mother made an imperceptible motion of the head: don’t ask now. We didn’t know what we shouldn’t ask, so just to be safe we didn’t ask anything at all.

The city seemed liberated from itself. That which, day for day, was forced into it, and which flowed incessantly back out of it (into the countryside, into the unknown, into the blue—which people still said, though it was olive green and only beset here and there with phosphorescent mold) was no longer subject to any comprehensible order, only to a mechanized process.

The ruptured streets passed over the debris like the pasted-on lanes of a toy village, which also included paths, houses, gardens, office buildings, and a train station. The city was a meaningless likeness of itself. Precisely because it hadn’t been completely leveled to the ground—in that sense it resembled the bygone order—but because every aspect existed nearly as it always had. But only nearly. And this “nearly” was easy to miss.

Father, who continued to call himself that and whom we also continued to call that, although we generally avoided addressing him directly, walked in front of the apartment building. This building didn’t just have cracks, a half-collapsed roof truss, and an impassible cellar filled with rubble; its function—for him, Father, and for us, his family—was doubtful. You ran into people you didn’t know in the hallway, people who then failed to introduce themselves when you greeted them and named your own name, people who, who nonetheless tried to curry favor. Yes, this expression came back into frequent use, reminding us that our era wasn’t something new and unknown, but rather should be judged using the tools provided by historical possibility. In this case, those provided by the middle ages.

Were other eras really so distant? Such connections are difficult to distinguish in retrospect, since we can only judge our conceptions of an era—the darkness of the Middle Ages cut off from the insights of antiquity—against our conceptions of a present—dark in a different way and divorced from its history.

Father held a letter in his hand. The letter was addressed to the student Ralph Fählmann. “Who’s that?” we wanted to know. And: “Did he used to live here,” since our address was written under his name. Father didn’t answer. He looked past us. We ran up into the apartment. “Ralph Fählmann! Ralph Fählmann! Ralph Fählmann!” we cried, flopping onto the rickety bed we shared at night. One of us took a piece of scratch paper, folded it in half and stood stony faced before the rest of us. At first we didn’t dare laugh because he was imitating Father. Then we screamed: “Answer us! Or has the cat got your tongue? Who is Ralph Fählmann?” We tried to get hold of the paper, reading an invented love letter aloud. “My dearest Ralph,” the letter began, “I’m lying in wait for you behind the elderberry bush. I’ve strung up a rope that I’ll pull tight when you come. You’ll fall and split open your knee and I’ll care for you. We’ll live in a cellar and have children who never know the light of day. Leave your supper, and leave your sleep,

Come with a whoop out into the street. Walk between the devil and the deep blue sea. Avoid crossroads. Walk backwards over the bridge on Karmelitersteg. Fold this letter into a swallow, not a paper plane. Throw it out of the hatch in the roof at night. Don’t go looking for it the next morning. Don’t go looking for it the morning after that. Don’t look for it.”

While we were under the bed, drawing Ralph Fählmann’s sad face on the back side of the scratch paper in indelible pencil, before the house Father stuck the letter in his pants pocket and glanced around. The motion he made in doing so—Father was young, just in his mid-thirties, though he looked older—reminded him of a time when the building was freshly plastered and he knew every tenant, and even every visitor whom those tenants received from time to time. This brief, physically triggered disquiet must have provoked a feeling of fear in him, which nonetheless went unfelt. Instead he shook his head about a few boys loitering around the dumping ground, which he could see because of the building’s slightly elevated position. The boys shared half a cigarette, maybe it was just a butt, then out of boredom they rubbed their faces black with a splinter of coal. When everything everywhere is in ruins, it is difficult to live out one’s rage for destruction.

Was there not an indescribable rage? And instead of placing stone upon stone again, wouldn’t we rather have driven everything deeper into the earth, quite consciously and with our own hands? Smash the first cautiously placed windowpanes, give the shaky huts a good kick? Wasn’t it an affront to be instructed to work together on a new order, since order had become synonymous with annihilation, hubris, despotism, and chaos? Didn’t you have to wallow in the mud for a year or two and refuse all social cooperation? Just sit there in the sludge and let the planet wheel on its orbit and look down at yourself and begin to surmise what it is, this body, which came into being through coincidence and survived through further coincidence.

When was the last time we’d flown a kite? “Never,” said the youngest. “Ages ago,” said the oldest. When had we made something that wasn’t then collected in big baskets and distributed to the needy? Who were these needy people? We threw a sheet over our heads and hid in the pantry. In the end, we got scared of ourselves, hastily tore off the sheet, and ran back into the living room. Maybe Ralph Fählmann was the boy who sat in the little basement apartment next to the timber business and was never allowed to come out. Maybe it was the boy who had laid in bed with his dead twin brother for a week. Or the boy whose one eye sometimes slipped forward out of its socket. Or the one who stuttered and got a lot of nosebleeds. We would wait until everyone was asleep and then steal the letter from the pants Father had draped over a chair and then read it.

Father went back into the building and climbed the creaking steps to the apartment on the third floor. He didn’t touch the wobbly banisters, though he kept catching himself wanting to reach his hand toward them. The short climb to the apartment didn’t give him time to perceive his own steps as heavy nor his body as tired. Evening penetrated the stairwell window, shuddering lightly in its frame, and fell across the sign that read “Caution, freshly waxed,” whose lettering had faded almost completely in the past years since he had had no time to tend to it. There hadn’t been any floor wax for a long time. But the idea of waxing steps had probably been lost before then.

The apartment door didn’t have a lock. Father forged a path across the landing strewn with abandoned objects whose value could only be ascertained by whoever had brought them here. Or maybe there wasn’t any value anymore? Were things taken, at a whim, because they were laying around and didn’t seem to belong to anyone? Another question that could hardly be answered. Value, a concept just as hazy as order. Strange that the banal material concept of value was ennobled in the plural, while order, on the contrary, seemed threatened by its plural. In any case, weren’t both of them concepts that never crossed most people’s minds their whole lives long, unless they were forced to express their loyalty to a certain order or to certain values? And then what were they supposed to have to say? They would understand that they couldn’t be honest and speak about the things that leapt to mind, the weather for example, or the unpaved road they walked each day, a letter that couldn’t be delivered, or how a tin of candy drops could hypnotize them. Because what did a tin of drops have to do with order and values? And since they didn’t dare make this connection, something essential went unsaid.

Even the word drops. A word that resisted the rules of our language and whose monosyllabic nature transcended into pure sound. It wasn’t a German word, and you didn’t know where it came from. Foreign and yet familiar. You looked at the tin, said the word, opened the lid with half a twist against the lower portion of the container, and set it aside. The pleated paper was exposed. Folded around like a candlestick’s drip catcher, with a hole in the middle. Thumb and forefinger dove in from above, pulling apart the paper rosette. The matte-finished drops, some dusted with white powder, came into view. A drop was taken, one per day at most, and placed in the mouth. After the brief, unpleasant friction of the powdered sugar on the gums, the drop was easy and ever easier to suck, until it turned on the tongue of its own accord, emitting a flavor with each turn, now brightly sour, now darkly sweet. This flavor was the triumph of dissolution, the aura of vanishing. This candy drop was promise and fulfillment in one and came from a completely different world than the child’s shrill candy or the lozenge prescribed to the haggard old man.

We stood reverently around the table when Mother sat down, dried her hands on her apron, took the round tin, twisted it open, set the lid aside, regarded the contents, then removed one drop and put it in her mouth. We ourselves had never been allowed to touch one, to say nothing of putting it in our mouths. And already we couldn’t remember how the drops had come to us, and which previous evening ritual they had replaced. The peeling of apples, the naming of the three names, the arranging of hair needles, the folding of linens, listening at the wall, the examining of fingers, the comparing of stitches, giftless giving, or heedless taking? The youngest prodded the powdered sugar cautiously with his outstretched index finger. It was different than normal powdered sugar, more floury, bitter in flavor, like the baking powder that would soon once again lay in little baggies on the uppermost shelf in the kitchen cabinet.

The day drew to a close. The light grew mellow, veiling the dust-cloaked poverty of the eat-in kitchen. We heard only our own breath and felt only our hot cheeks and clenched fists. Mother sat down, even that was unusual because she was otherwise always in motion, walking back and forth between the stove and table even at mealtimes. Father, still distracted by his moment of solitude in the stairwell, entered the room, saw his wife lost in reverie and us in rapt silence, and stopped in his tracks because he sensed that he would never come closer to his wife than if he left her to herself at this moment. And he understood, just as wordlessly, but differently than on Sundays or holidays on his knees in church, that something like virgin birth must really exist. The drops were the Trinity, whose divinity was abstracted into the Holy Ghost in certain elect oral cavities. The tin of the tabernacle. The eat-in kitchen of the sanctuary. And, only because we were unaccustomed to encountering the numinous in everyday life, Father cleared his throat, delivering his wife from that unbearable moment, after which something had to follow, though nothing possibly could. And maybe that was his function: to interrupt the unbearable again and again, in order to preserve it as a possibility by means of his interruption.

But we hated that moment because we had to decide again, and we considered who was more frightening and who we cared about less and how much longer this joint imprisonment would last. Father smiled because he believed we were sunk in reverence, while we waited for the moment when Mother would swallow a drop and choke to death on it. We anticipated and feared this moment in equal measure because we would then have to live together with an inept man who would try to keep us in check with empty threats. But we could only imagine our own freedom through the death of our mother. Wouldn’t it be a nice death, we thought, half as excuse, half as consolation, to pass away with a brightly colored drop in your throat? Father would shake her and we would scream just as we’d learned and practiced again and again. We would stay awake until early in the morning, pacing back and forth like the possessed, only to sit unexpectedly, totally still and expressionless. We would laugh and cry at the same time and a neighbor would heat up some milk for us and say “You’re all exhausted.” But we wouldn’t be exhausted. We would be looking for a way out. A way out that the adults had blocked.

They were simpleminded, believed everything anyone spun out for them, and didn’t even blink when they were commanded to shut their eyes. Eyes closed, mouth open. They had lived according to this maxim, swallowing everything and seeing nothing of the world. They didn’t care where they lived. If the electric light didn’t work, they went to bed earlier and slept with their mouths gaping until their throats were dry. Their horizon extended only to a colorful candy, and they mistook their feelings toward this candy for fervor and religion. Their world was always drafty. A drawer was always jammed. There was always a door that wouldn’t shut right. Everything that could have pointed them toward something different, they didn’t understand. If it was foisted on them, in the form of a letter to an unknown student for example, they felt no curiosity, just one of the many varieties of indifference. They spoke of postal secrecy without suspecting for a moment what a secret was. When they were young they’d once bought themselves a notebook and wrote “Dear diary,” on the first page, but after that they only noted down their pocket expenses.

Even death and history hurtling past couldn’t frighten them. Not because they were fearless, but because they didn’t notice any of it. The world turned like a whirlwind around their small overstuffed house, but when they stepped outside in the morning, once again they remained untouched. They tipped their hat and greeted the neighbor: “Well we got out of that one with a slap on the wrist.” But even that slap on the wrist existed only in their imagination, where it joined baptism, marriage, and the other stages on the path of life for which one always has an appropriate phrase at the ready.

Since they never really overcame anything, everything persisted in a state of semi-consciousness, from which it could burst forth as the eternally-same at any time: a thickly varnished family portrait, with or without Volksempfängerradio depending on the era, with or without smile depending on the mood, with or without pearl necklace depending on the financial situation. Outdoors the blistering countryside, inside the cozy gloom. Outside earth, inside wood. And at some point the three became one: the body in a wooden box in the soil. Buried hastily.

An era that had long since dawned was proclaimed some years later, officially surrendering it to general forgetting. Father and Mother sat with half-open mouths opposite each other at the dinner table. The children were all grown up. The building had been replastered. From now on, misfortune was a private matter. The memory hadn’t even grown hazy. It was gone.








Frank Witzel, born 1955, lives and works in Offenbach. He received the Robert Gernhardt Prize and the German Book Prize for his novel Die Erfindung der Roten Armee Fraktion durch einen manisch-depressiven Teenager im Sommer 1969, as well as the German Radio Play Prize for a radio play of the same name. Together with Philipp Felsch, he published the book of conversations BRD Noir. His novel Direkt danach und kurz davor was nominated for the Wilhelm Raabe Literary Prize 2017.




‘Moments After & Before’ is an excerpt from Witzel’s novel of that name, published by Matthes and Seitz, September 2017. Set in Germany directly after the Second World War, Witzel’s Moments After and Before depicts the violent chaos known as peace. Amid the attempts at so-called reeducation, planes crash and orphanages burn; children found their own religions and are smothered under avalanches. In this eerie novel, Witzel relentlessly pursues the reality of that lawless time, working to recapture history in all of its lucidity and complexity. Witzel uses a child’s innocence to give an unjaded depiction of society at the nadir of its debasement and destruction. A surefooted storyteller, he has an unerring eye for historical detail and the truths of life. And so the reader steps deeper and deeper with him into the abyss of history, accompanying the author on this uncanny foray into the past.




Amanda DeMarco is a translator living in Berlin.



2017.