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For my mother
When they found her, she was standing on the street with an empty bucket in one hand, on a street lined with shops, and didn't say a word. When she was brought to the police station, all the official questions were put to her: What her name was, where she lived, her parents, her age. The girl replied that she was fourteen years old, but she couldn't tell them her name, nor where her home was. At first, the policemen had called the girl "miss," but now they stopped. They said: How can you not know where you came from, where you were before you stood on the street here with your empty bucket? The girl simply could not remember, she couldn't remember the beginning. She was an orphan through and through, and all she had, all she knew was the empty bucket she held in one hand and continued to hold as the policemen questioned her. One of the men tried to insult the girl, saying: Scraping the bottom of the bucket, eh? But the girl didn't even notice that his words were meant to give offense, she replied simply: Yes.
The official inquiries produced no further information. The girl was indisputably present in all her height and bulk, but as for her origins and history, she was sosurrounded by nothingness that there seemed, from the beginning, to be something implausible about her very existence. So they relieved her of her bucket, took her by her fleshy hand, and brought her to the Home for Children.
The girl has a wide, blotchy face that looks like a moon with shadows on it, she has broad shoulders like a swimmer's, and from the shoulders downward she appears to have been hewn from a single block of wood, there is neither a swelling where the breasts should be, nor an indentation at the waist. The legs are sturdy, the hands as well, and nonetheless the girl does not make a convincing impression, perhaps because of her hair. This hair is neither long nor short, it forms a fringe at the nape of the neck and is neither brown nor genuinely black-it is at most as black as the cloth of a flag that has been hanging too long in the sun and is bleached out, there are moments when it appears nearly gray. The girl moves slowly, and if she should happen not to move slowly, little beads of sweat appear on the bridge of her nose. The girl knows she is bigger than she should be, and so she hunches her shoulders and keeps her head down. She hunches as though sire were obliged to do so, to hold back a great force that is raging inside her.
The home where the police have deposited the girl is the largest in this city. It is located in the city's most outlying district, the district that borders the woods, and is comprised of several buildings distributed across the extensive, meandering grounds. There are living quarters, a nursery school, a school for the louver and one for the upper classes, as well as a kitchen building, a gymnasium, an assembly hall, a quadrangle paved in concrete, a soccer field, and outbuildings in which various workshops are housed-here the pupils are to learn to work hard, just as Life will one day require of them. Surrounding all this there is a fence, a fence with a single gate at which a guard is posted, one has to speak with him to enter the Home or leave it. Through this gate, the down-at-heels or prosperous parents come to visit on weekends, weeping parents and parents who do not weep, but for some of the children, neither down-at-heels, nor prosperous, nor weeping, nor any other sort of parents pass through this gate. The gate also admits strangers who wish to become parents, they come here to have a look at the children, but for some children even strangers do not come. There are children that are so unclean, so massive or coarse that they need not even be rejected: no one looks at them to begin with, they cannot pass through the screen that has been woven to aid in these selections. They are here, but no one sees them. The girl will doubtless be one of these. And yet her invisibility appears to be something even more fundamental: the entire figure of the girl is so askew-even her way of walking is askew-that if you wanted to take her by the hand it would be like thrusting your hand into emptiness.
On this still-warm day in autumn, then, the girl can walk across the thin grass of the sports field without the least agitation, despite all the parents, or those who wish to become parents, seated on the wooden rails that frame the field. For while these parents and would-be parents keep their eyes fixed on the field, observing their children, or the children who will one day be theirs, engaged in various activities, they do not take note of the girl, it is as if she were impervious to their glances. None of these down-at-heels and weeping and other sorts of parents, nor any of the strangers who wish to become parents will see her walking across the field. That's just the way she's planned it. Just as others strive to break out of fenced-in enclosures, to escape from prison, the workhouse, the insane asylum or barracks, the girl has achieved quite the opposite: she has broken into such an enclosure, the Home for Children to be precise, and it is highly unlikely that anyone would think of taking her back out through the gate, thrusting her back into the world.
And so she walks across the field with utter calm, gnawing as she goes upon her fingernail. And when on her very first day one of the littlest boys bumps into her as she is walking across the field with her nail between her lips, bumps her so that she almost falls down and has to catch herself with one band, she begins to sob for one brief moment, but this she finds not unpleasurable. For the circumstance that a little boy has bumped her to make her fall in the mud, indeed has bumped her so hard she has to sob, awakens in the girl the hope that she will be permitted to occupy one of the lower rungs in the school's hierarchy, perhaps even the lowermost one, and the lowermost place is always the safest, it is the one whose requirements she will most definitely be able to live up to. And so she doesn't even wipe the mud from her hand, but instead continues to walk, still sobbing just a little, and then goes back to gnawing her fingernail, which now is dirty.
When they first brought her to her room, which is above all a room for sleeping, to be shared with three other girls, it was one of the happiest moments of her life. This room was free of disorder of any sort, it contained four beds, each placed against one of the four walls, and all four of them neatly made up, and beside each one a chair and a metal locker. The locker is meant to hold the week's bundle of clothes, as well as the books for school and notebooks, and the few personal items a child might collect or, if it has saved enough, buy with its pocket money. To be sure, the economical child is as likely as not to find these items stolen. As a matter of principle, the lockers have no locks. A communal spirit is to be fostered. All the items a child brings with it when it enters the Home are confiscated and then discarded, for its arrival here constitutes a New Beginning.
At this time of day, none of the other girls are in the room, because it is not yet bedtime and entering the room before bedtime is not permitted. It isn't a room for daytime activities. The instructress speaks, the girl listens and nods, she is allowed to peer briefly into her locker, in which everything is already arranged just as will be expected from now on. For a moment she thinks of her bucket, which always made a sound like someone sighing when it swung back and forth. Then she is told to take off everything she is wearing. She sits down on the edge of the bed and begins to pull off her trousers, then the stockings she is wearing beneath them, of good quality but full of holes, and she crosses her arms above her head to free herself from her matted woolen sweater, which is much too tight. Just imagine, she crosses her arms above her head for this, like a woman. The girl undresses down to a grayish camisole and grayish panties, then she gets up and trots after the instructress, who has gestured for her to follow. The instructress walks across the linoleum of the windowless hallway to the washroom, the girl behind her. In the washroom she then surrenders her camisole and steps out of her panties, balancing on one leg at a time, ducking her head and glancing up at the instructress who is standing beside her, observing this obligatory transformation. The instructress has placed the girl's other things over her arm, and to these she now adds the camisole and panties. Now that she is naked, the girl looks very much like a block of wood. She gets up and steps into the shower. She begins to wash herself. Finally she is able to wash off the dirt covering her entire body, dirt such as collects on a body over time.
After the girl has washed, the instructress gives her the packet of clothes for the week. This clothing is issued by the laundry staff, all of the things are second, third and fourth hand, but they have been washed and are the right size for the recipient of the package. The girl slips into this clothing that has been assigned to her. While a number will be sewn into the sweaters, pants and skirts indicating that they will now belong to the girl until she outgrows them, the underpants and undershirts as well as the nightgowns count as "linens," which means that once a week each child receives one pair of underpants, one undershirt and one nightgown as part of the general laundry distribution, the underwear is, as it were, intended to clothe a single collective body, and anyone who is unhappy with this arrangement will be addressed as madame, and her protest will bear no fruit. But there is no need to address the girl as madame, she finds nothing to object to in this procedure and is moreover familiar with the charming admonition "No false delicacy!" of which this laundry arrangement reminds her. In any case, the collective underpants restore to order something that had been threatened by disorder, that's what it feels like to the girl.
When she has then attained this condition, clad in the same standard-issue clothes as all the others here, and clean to precisely the same extent as all the others, she goes looking for a mirror. She wants to see what she looks like in this new life of hers, wants to see whether her face has changed with the advent of this New Life, but as she discovers, her new room has no mirror. She will wander about and notice that neither in the bathrooms nor in any of the halls, nor anywhere else in the Home has a mirror been provided. Finally she will ask, already anticipating the first twinges of a guilty conscience, and therefore as casually as possible, whether there is a mirror, and she will learn that vanity is one of the seven deadly sins, madame. And while the reproach contained in this answer demonstrates that the instructress is utterly blind to the nature of the causes that lead the girl to look for a mirror and, indeed, to eventually ask for one, her response illumines the principle that governs this fenced-in institution, and the girl knows no happier state than what she experiences when gazing upon the architecture of a principle. She knows no brighter, more beautiful sight. The girl remembers the time of mirrors, when she noticed, at first with unease, then with interest and finally with satisfaction, indeed even a sort of pride, that her face had looked utterly unchanged for quite a long time, as if its round, fleshy form were repelling age. The girl had then begun to experiment with this unchangingness. For example, when an occasion for weeping presented itself, she would take advantage of this occasion to weep profusely and when she was done weeping would quickly go look at herself in the mirror. And behold, neither had her cheeks gone hollow with the exertion of her weeping, nor had her skin become porous, nor had shadows come to encircle her eyes. So she could weep as much as she liked and nonetheless be quite certain that this weeping would leave no traces behind on her large face. Another time, she lied to someone and checked in a mirror to see whether her face had been transformed into the face of a liar, but either her face had been from the beginning a liar's face or it simply had not changed as a result of the lie, though before tire lie it hadn't been a liar's face and afterward, while it remained the same, it was the face of a liar. Even the time someone had unexpectedly given her a very beautiful leather wallet stamped with the Leaning Tower of Pisa, she looked in the mirror, but the pleasure could not be distinguished in her features.
Observing the constancy of her face, which is what made the girl acquire the habit of frequently looking in the mirror, hardly counts as vanity, but now the view that vanity was one of the seven deadly sins had been invoked to justify why it was not possible to view one's own reflection anywhere in the Home, and the girl noted with gratitude that to her, as to all the others, one and the same set of reasons was being applied for encouraging one thing and discouraging another. Liberated from the task of monitoring her face, indeed forgetting it outright, the girl steps into the bright architecture of the principle upon which she has briefly been permitted to gaze.
When she came into the classroom and all the others were standing beside their desks and she herself was standing beside the teacher in front of them, she felt like Gulliver among the Lilliputians. She looked around her and saw that she could look down at all the other heads. That's when she realized she was too tall. She hunched her shoulders and waited for the teacher to assign her a seat. The teacher placed her in the one unoccupied seat, next to a boy with a rough-hewn face. That way the contrast wasn't so great, and the others were able to recover from their alarm and begin to believe that this was the new girl. The girls saw at a glance that the new girl was not a beauty who might disrupt their fine-spun hierarchy-for the moment such ponderous creatures sit down, they at once sink, a leaden sediment, to the depths of every hierarchy-and the boys knew they had landed a fine catch, sustenance for many a good laugh had just strolled right into their mouths, and this filled them with glee. From the smiling silence on the part of her classmates after she's been assigned her seat, the girl ventures to conclude that her awkwardness apparently suffices to secure her a place in this eighth-grade class, perhaps even the lowermost one, and at this she is relieved. At just this moment, a door can be heard shutting faintly somewhere, and it seems to the girl as if her old life has now departed from her.
The lesson proceeds, but the girl sits in silence, and the leaden script imprinted on her brain now tumbles into the blue sky outside the classroom windows, she surrenders each of her words and each of her thoughts until in the end she is left sitting there in a state of perfect emptiness, and one might well be moved to say of her: She is a blank slate.
This overgrown child begins to follow lessons, for example an eighth-grade lesson in mathematics: If x equals y, the straight line rises at a forty-five-degree angle. The girl listens to what is being said and to what is being thought, she listens to everything that is said and thought during an eighth-grade mathematics lesson. Somewhere she has already made the acquaintance of the is straight line rising at its angle of forty-five degrees, and nonetheless she is astonished to meet it again on this side of the diagram. Something or other must be reversed, like a mirror image, or must once have been so. It seems to the girl as if she must have switched sides at some point, but when this was she cannot say. Headfirst through the looking glass.
The girl picks up her pen and awaits the arrival of the text. She doesn't have to wait long. The letters bend mutely to the left as if encountering some invisible resistance, the ns rehoist their flattened hillocks, the double underlines, executed with the aid of a ruler, present themselves contentedly for inspection. A lost age makes its entrance on a carpet of blue ink. The teacher picks up the notebook by the ears and says: Now you've got it.
Excerpted from THE OLD CHILD & OTHER STORIES by Jenny Erpenbeck Copyright © 2005 by Susan Bernofsky. Excerpted by permission.
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