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The Blindness Of The Heart
By Julia Franck
Copyright © 2007 S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main
All right reserved.
Prologue 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 couldn't sleep in her bed any more. A ray of sunlight fell on him; he pulled the sheet over his face and listened to Frau Kozinska's 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, you'd 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 Peter's face until he heard his mother's 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 teacher's 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 couldn't 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. Peter's mother raised both hands to her head, took off her nurse's cap, pulled the hairpins out of her hair and let it tumble softly over her shoulders. She didn't 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 Kozinska's 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 didn't like to have the silence broken. She was usually so deep in thought that she didn't seem to notice at all if, in mid-sentence, Peter suddenly read on to himself instead of aloud. He'd 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 sister's 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 didn't want to. We're 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.
Peter stood at the washbasin and dried himself with the towel: his shoulders, his stomach, his willy, his feet. If he did it in a different order, and he hadn't done that for a long time, his mother lost patience. She had put out a clean pair of trousers and his best shirt for him. Peter went to the window, tapped the pane and the seagull flew up. Now that the row of houses opposite was gone, along with the backs of the buildings and the next row of houses too, he had a clear view of Königsplatz, where the ruins of the theatre stood.
Don't be too late home, said his mother, as he was about to leave the apartment. Last night, she said, a nurse at the hospital had told her there were going to be special trains laid on today and tomorrow. We're leaving. Peter nodded, he had been looking forward for weeks to travelling by train at last. He had only ever been on a train once, two years ago, when he was starting school and his father had visited them. His father and he had gone by train to visit a colleague of his father's in Velten. Now the war had been over for eight weeks and his father still didn't come home. Peter wished he could have asked his mother why she wasn't waiting for his father any longer, he'd have liked her to confide in him.
Last summer, on the night between the sixteenth and seventeenth of August, Peter had been alone in the apartment. His mother often worked two shifts back to back during those months, and she had stayed on at the hospital after the late shift to work the night shift as well. When she wasn't there Peter felt afraid of the hand that would come out from under the bed in the dark, reaching up through the gap between the wall and the sheet. He felt the metal of his clasp knife against his leg, he kept thinking how fast he would have to whip it out when the hand appeared. That night Peter had lain face down on his mother's bed and listened, as he did every night. It was better to lie in the very middle of the bed; that way there was plenty of room on both sides for him to see the hand appear in good time. He'd have to thrust the knife in fast and firmly. Peter sweated when he imagined the hand coming up; he saw himself so paralysed by fear that he wouldn't be able to raise the clasp knife to strike it.
He remembered exactly how he had taken the velvet of the heavy bedspread in both hands, one of those hands also clutching the knife, and rubbed his cheek against it. Faintly, almost gently, the first siren sounded, then it howled, rising high to a long, penetrating screech. Peter shut his eyes. The sound stung his ears. Peter didn't like the cellar. He kept thinking up new ways of avoiding going down to the shelter there. The siren sounded again. His heart was beating fast, his throat felt tight. Everything about him was stiff, rigid. He had to breathe deeply. Goose down - Peter pressed his nose into his mother's pillow and drew in the smell of her as if it could satisfy his hunger. Then all was still. Terribly still. Peter raised his head and heard his teeth chattering; he tried to keep his jaws together, he clenched his teeth with all his might, lowered his head again and pressed his face into the goose down. As he rubbed his face against the pillow, which meant that he had to move his head back and forth, something underneath it crackled. Carefully, he put his hand under the pillow and his fingertips touched paper. At the same moment a sinister roaring sound filled his ears, the sound of the first bombs dropping. Peter's breath came faster, there was crashing and splintering, glass couldn't withstand the pressure and the windowpanes broke, the bed where he was lying shook and Peter suddenly felt that everything around him was more alive than he was. Silence followed. In defiance of the events outside, he drew out a letter with his free hand. Peter recognized the writing. He laughed wildly, he couldn't help it, oh, his father had entirely slipped his mind although he would always protect him. That was his writing, look, his M for My, A for Alice. The letters stood firmly side by side, nothing could touch them, no siren, no bomb, no fire. Peter smiled lovingly at them. His eyes stung and the writing threatened to blur. His father was sorry about something. Peter had to read the letter from his protector, he had to read what it said, as long as he was reading nothing would harm him. Fate was putting all Germany severely to the test. The sheet of paper trembled in Peter's hands; that must be the shaking of the bed. As for Germany, Peter's father was doing his best. She asks if he couldn't work in one of the shipyards. Shipyards, of course, sirens were howling but not ships' sirens, the other kind. Peter's eyes streamed. Civil engineers like him, said the letter, were urgently needed. There was a hissing very close, as if it were right outside the window, a crash, a second and even louder crash. They were finishing work on the Reich Autobahn, there wasn't much to do in the east. Not much to do? Once again Peter heard the roaring, the smell of burning tickled his nose at first, then it became acrid and sharp, but Peter was still smiling, he felt as if nothing bad could happen to him with his father's letter in his hands. Alice. Peter's mother. She reproached him, said the letter, for writing so seldom. There was smoke in the air but it didn't smell of smoke; was that a fire crackling? It had nothing to do with her origins. It, what was it? And what origins, what was his father writing about? A remittance? Did that say remittance? Things were happening, wrote his father, that changed matters between them.
It had been such hard work, deciphering that letter. If only he'd been able to read better, as well as he could now almost a year later, at the age of nearly eight, perhaps he could have believed in the power of the letter to protect him, but the letter had failed, Peter hadn't been able to finish reading it.
When he set off for the dairy and Herr Fuchs the teacher that morning, everything was all right and he didn't need a letter from any father to help him through the night now, not ever. The war was over and today they were leaving, Peter and his mother. Peter saw a tin can in the gutter and kicked it. It made a wonderful clattering sound as it scudded along. The horror would be over, it would be left behind, not a single dream would ever remind them of it. Peter remembered the first air raids in winter, and once again he felt his friend Robert's hand as they scrambled over the low, white-painted fence at the roadside. They were about to cross the street near the Berlin Gate and jump down into the ditch by the newspaper stand. Their shoes had slipped on the ice, they had skidded. Something must have hit his friend, severing his hand from his body. But Peter had run on alone over the distance they had yet to go, as if he had been speeded up when his friend was torn away from him. He had felt the firm, warm hand, and it was a long time before he let go of it. When he realized, later, that he was still holding Robert's hand he couldn't just drop it in the ditch, he had taken it home with him. His mother had opened the door to him. She had made him sit on a chair and encouraged him to unclench his fingers. Then she crouched down on the floor in front of him, holding one of the white fabric napkins with her initials on it, and waited; she had stroked and kneaded his hands until he let go.
To this day Peter wondered what she had done with it. He gave the tin can a hefty kick, sending it rolling over to the other side of the street, almost all the way to the dairy. It still felt as if he were holding Robert's hand - then, next moment, as if the hand were holding him, and as if his father referred solely to that incident in the letter. Yet he hadn't seen his father for two years; he had never had a chance to tell him about the hand.
Last summer, that August night when the bombs dropped, when Peter had read his father's letter, he'd been able to decipher only every third or fourth sentence. The letter had been no help. His hands had been shaking. His father wanted to do what was right by the mother of his son, he wrote, he would be frank, he had met another woman. There were steps to be heard on the staircase and another little sound so close that, for the fraction of a second, it stopped your ears; then came a crash and screaming. Hastily, Peter skimmed the remaining lines. They were to be brave, he was sure the war would soon be won. He, Peter's father, would probably not be able to come and see them any more, a man's life called for decisive action, but he would soon send more money. Peter had heard a noise at the door of the apartment, hard to say if it was a shell howling, or a siren, or a human being. He had folded up the letter and put it back under the pillow. He was trembling. The smoke stung his eyes, making them stream, and waves of heat from the burning city were coming closer.
Someone took hold of him and carried him downstairs to the cellar on his shoulders. When he and the others crawled out into the open air, hours later, it was light outside. The stairs up to their apartment were still there, only the banisters had come away and were lying on the steps. There was smoke in the air. Peter climbed the stairs on all fours, had to clamber over something black, then he pushed open the door of the apartment and sat down at the kitchen table. The sun was shining right on the table, shining so brightly that he had to close his eyes. He was thirsty. For some time he felt too weak to stand up and go over to the sink. When he did turn on the tap he heard only a gurgling and no water came out. It could be hours before his mother was home. Peter waited. He fell asleep with his head on the table. His mother woke him. She took his head in both hands and pressed it against her, and only when he put his arms round her did she let go. The door of the apartment was open. Peter saw the black thing in the stairwell. He thought of the screaming last night. His mother opened a cupboard, threw sheets and towels over her shoulder, took candles out of a drawer and said she had to go straight out again. She told Peter to help her carry things; they needed bandages and alcohol for use as a disinfectant. They climbed over the charred body outside the door of their apartment. It was the shoes more than anything that told Peter this had been a human being, the body was so shrivelled, and he saw a large gold pocket watch. Something that was almost a feeling of happiness flooded through him that morning, for the watch couldn't possibly have belonged to Frau Kozinska.
The photograph of the handsome man in the fine suit, leaning on the shiny black bodywork of the car with one arm elegantly crooked and glancing up at the sky, clear-eyed, as if he were looking at the future or at least at birds in the air, still stood in its frame on the glass-fronted kitchen cabinet. Peter's mother said that now the war was over his father would come and take them to Frankfurt, where he was building a big bridge over the river Main. Then Peter would be able to go to a proper school, said his mother, and it made him uncomfortable to hear her telling these lies. Why doesn't he write, asked Peter in a moment of rebellion. The post isn't working any more, replied his mother, not since the Russians came. Peter looked down, feeling ashamed of himself for his question. From now on he waited, with his mother, day after day. After all, it was possible that his father might change his mind.
One evening, when Peter's mother was at work in the hospital, he had looked under her pillow. He wanted to make sure. The letter had disappeared. Peter had opened his mother's desk with a sharp knife, but he found only paper and envelopes and a few Reichsmarks that she kept in a small box. He had searched his mother's wardrobe, he had lifted her ironed, neatly folded aprons and her underwear. There were two letters from her sister Elsa there, sent from Bautzen. Elsa's handwriting was such a scrawl that Peter could read only the opening words: Dear little Alice. He hadn't found any more of his father's letters, not a single one.
Excerpted from The Blindness Of The Heart by Julia Franck Copyright © 2007 by S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main. Excerpted by permission.
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