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The Wide Skirt
GRANTED: I’M AN INMATE in a mental institution; my keeper watches me, scarcely lets me out of sight, for there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can’t see through blue-eyed types like me.
So my keeper can’t possibly be my enemy. I’ve grown fond of this man peeping through the door, and the moment he enters my room I tell him incidents from my life so he can get to know me in spite of the peephole between us. The good fellow seems to appreciate my stories, for the moment I’ve finished some tall tale he expresses his gratitude by showing me one of his latest knotworks. Whether he’s an artist remains to be seen. But an exhibition of his works would be well received by the press, and would entice a few buyers too. He gathers ordinary pieces of string from his patients’ rooms after visiting hours, disentangles them, knots them into multilayered, cartilaginous specters, dips them in plaster, lets them harden, and impales them on knitting needles mounted on little wooden pedestals.
He often plays with the notion of coloring his creations. I advise him not to, point toward my white metal bed and ask him to imagine this most perfect of all beds painted in multiple hues. Horrified, he claps his keeper’s hands to his head, struggles to arrange his somewhat inflexible features into an expression of manifold shock, and drops his polychrome plans.
My white-enameled metal hospital bed thus sets a standard. To me it is more; my bed is a goal I’ve finally reached, it is my consolation, and could easily become my faith if the administration would allow me to make a few changes: I’d like to have the bed rails raised even higher to keep anyone from coming too close.
Once a week Visitors Day disrupts the silence I’ve woven between my white metal bars. It signals the arrival of those who wish to save me, who find pleasure in loving me, who seek to value, respect, and know themselves through me. How blind, nervous, and ill-mannered they are. Scratching away at my white bed rails with their nail scissors, scribbling obscene, elongated stick figures on the enamel with ballpoint pens and blue pencils. My lawyer, having blasted the room with his hello, routinely claps his nylon hat over the left-hand bedpost at the foot of my bed. This act of violence robs me of my inner balance and good cheer for as long as his visit lasts—and lawyers always have plenty to say.
Once my visitors have placed their gifts on the little white oilcloth-covered table that stands beneath a watercolor of anemones, once they’ve laid out some future plan to save me, or one already under way, once they’ve managed to convince me, by their tireless attempts to rescue me, of the high quality of their brotherly love, they find renewed joy in their own existence and depart. Then my keeper arrives to air out the room and gather up the string from the gift wrappings. Often after airing he finds time, sitting by my bed and disentangling the string, to spread a silence so prolonged that in the end I call the silence Bruno, and Bruno silence.
Bruno Münsterberg—I’m talking about my keeper now, I’m done playing with words—bought five hundred sheets of writing paper on my behalf. Should this supply prove insufficient, Bruno, who is unmarried, childless, and hails from the Sauerland, will revisit the little stationery shop, which also sells toys, and provide me with whatever additional unlined space I need for my recollections, which I hope will be accurate. I could never have requested this favor of my visitors, my lawyer, or Klepp, say. The solicitous love prescribed for me would surely have prevented my friends from anything so dangerous as bringing me blank paper and allowing my incessantly syllable-excreting mind free use of it.
When I said to Bruno, “Oh, Bruno, would you buy me a ream of virgin paper?” he looked up at the ceiling, sent his finger pointing in that same direction to underline the comparison, and replied, “You mean white paper, Herr Oskar.”
I stuck with the word virgin and told Bruno to ask for it that way at the shop. When he returned later that afternoon with the package, he seemed a Bruno lost in thought. He stared long and hard a few times at the ceiling, that source of all his bright ideas, and then announced, “That word you recommended was right. I asked for virgin paper and the salesgirl blushed bright red before she gave me what I wanted.”
Fearing a long conversation about salesgirls in stationery shops, I regretted having emphasized the paper’s innocence by calling it virgin, and said nothing, waited till Bruno had left the room. Only then did I open the package with the five hundred sheets of paper.
I lifted the resilient stack for a moment and tested its weight. Then I counted off ten sheets and stored the rest in my bedside table. I found the fountain pen by my photo album in the drawer: it’s full, it won’t fail for lack of ink; how shall I begin?
You can start a story in the middle, then strike out boldly backward and forward to create confusion. You can be modern, delete all reference to time and distance, and then proclaim or let someone else proclaim that at the eleventh hour you’ve finally solved the space-time problem. Or you can start by declaring that novels can no longer be written, and then, behind your own back as it were, produce a mighty blockbuster that establishes you as the last of the great novelists. I’ve also been told it makes a good impression to begin modestly by asserting that novels no longer have heroes because individuals have ceased to exist, that individualism is a thing of the past, that all human beings are lonely, all equally lonely, with no claim to individual loneliness, that they all form some nameless mass devoid of heroes. All that may be true. But as far as I and my keeper Bruno are concerned, I beg to state that we are both heroes, quite different heroes, he behind his peephole, I in front of it; and that when he opens the door, the two of us, for all our friendship and loneliness, are still far from being some nameless mass devoid of heroes.
I’ll begin long before me, for no one should describe his life who lacks the patience to commemorate at least half of his grandparents’ existence before detailing his own. To all of you forced to live confusing lives beyond the confines of my mental institution, to all you friends and weekly visitors who have no inkling of my store of paper, I introduce Oskar’s maternal grandmother.
My grandmother Anna Bronski sat in her skirts late one October afternoon at the edge of a potato field. You could have seen how expertly my grandmother raked the limp potato tops into tidy piles that morning, ate a hunk of bread at noon smeared with dripping and sweetened with syrup, dug through the field one last time, and sat at last in her skirts between two nearly full baskets. Before the upturned and inwardly tilted soles of her boots, flaring up asthmatically from time to time and sending a flat layer of troubled smoke across the slightly tilted crust of the soil, smoldered a potato-top fire. The year was eighteen ninety-nine, she sat in the heart of Kashubia, near Bissau, nearer still to the brickworks, this side of Ramkau she sat, beyond Viereck, facing the road to Brentau, between Dirschau and Karthaus, with her back toward the black forest of Goldkrug she sat, shoving potatoes under the hot ashes with the charred tip of a hazel stick.
If I’ve singled out my grandmother’s skirt for special mention, making it clear, I hope, that she was sitting in her skirts—even calling the chapter “The Wide Skirt”—it’s because I know how much I owe to that article of clothing. My grandmother didn’t wear just one skirt, she wore four, one atop the other. Nor did she wear one top skirt and three underskirts; she wore four so-called top skirts, each skirt wore another, but she wore all four, according to a system of daily rotation. The skirt on top the day before descended one layer on the next, her second skirt became the third. The skirt that yesterday was third now nestled right against her skin. Yesterday’s inmost skirt now clearly showed its pattern, which was none at all: my grandmother Anna Bronski’s skirts all preferred the same standard potato color. It must have suited her.
Aside from their color my grandmother’s skirts were distinguished by a lavish expanse of material. They formed broad arcs, billowed when the wind rose, fell slack when it had had enough, rattled as it passed, and all four flew out ahead of her when the wind was in her stern. When she sat down, my grandmother gathered her skirts about her.
In addition to the four skirts that permanently billowed, drooped, draped, or stood stiff and empty by her bed, my grandmother possessed a fifth. This skirt differed in no way from the four other potato-colored ones. And this fifth skirt was not always the same fifth skirt. Like its brothers—for skirts are masculine by nature—it too was subject to rotation, was one of the four skirts she wore, and like them, when its time had come each fifth Friday, it descended into the washtub, hung Saturday on the clothesline at the kitchen window, and lay when dry on the ironing board.
When, after one of these housecleaning-baking-washing-and--ironing Saturdays, having milked and fed the cow, my grandmother climbed into the tub, tendered something to the suds, let the tub water sink once more, then sat in her grandly flowered towel on the edge of the bed, there were four skirts and the freshly washed one lying spread out before her on the floor. She propped up the lower lid of her right eye with her right forefinger, consulted no one, not even her brother Vinzent, and thus reached a speedy conclusion. Barefoot she stood and pushed aside with her toe the skirt whose potato sheen had lost the most luster. The clean one then took its place.
The following Sunday, to the greater glory of Jesus, about whom she had firm ideas, she would consecrate the new order of skirts by attending church in Ramkau. Where did my grandmother wear the freshly laundered skirt? Not only a clean woman but also somewhat vain, she wore the best one on top, and if the weather was good, in bright sunshine.
Now it was a Monday afternoon and my grandmother was sitting by the potato fire. Her Sunday skirt had moved one closer to her Monday, while the one skin-warmed on Sunday flowed atop her hips that Monday Monday dull. She whistled, with no particular tune in mind, and scraped the first baked potato from the ashes with her hazel stick. She shoved the spud far enough from the smoldering mound of tops for the breeze to caress and cool it. A sharpened stick then speared the split, charred, and crusty tuber and held it to her mouth, which no longer whistled but instead, through cracked and wind-dried lips, blew ashes and earth from the skin.
As she blew, my grandmother closed her eyes. When she thought she had blown long enough, she opened her eyes, one after the other, bit down with her peep-through but otherwise perfect front teeth, quickly released them, held the still too hot potato half, mealy and steaming, in her open mouth, and inhaling smoke and October air, stared with rounded eyes over her flaring nostrils across the field to the nearby horizon with its grid of telegraph poles and the top third of the brickworks chimney.
Something was moving between the telegraph poles. My grandmother closed her mouth, sucked in her lips, narrowed her eyes, and munched on the potato. Something was moving between the telegraph poles. Something was leaping. Three men were leaping between the poles, three made for the chimney, then round in front, when one of them doubled back, took a new running start, seemed short and stout, made it over the chimney, over the brickworks, the other two, more tall and thin, made it over the brickworks too, if only just, between the poles again, but short and stout doubled back, and short and stout was in a greater hurry than tall and thin, the other leapers, who had to head back toward the chimney because the other man was already tumbling over it, while the two, still hot on his heels, made a running start and were suddenly gone, had lost heart it seemed, and the short one too fell in midleap from the chimney and disappeared below the horizon.
And there they stayed, it was intermission, or they were changing costumes, or coating bricks and getting paid for it.
When my grandmother tried to take advantage of the intermission to spear a second potato, she missed it. For the one who seemed short and stout now climbed, in the same costume, over the horizon as if it were a picket fence, as if he’d left the two leapers who were chasing him behind the fence, among the bricks, or on the pike to Brentau, yet was still in a great hurry, trying to outrace the telegraph poles, taking long, slow leaps across the field, mud leaping from his soles as he leapt from the mud, but no matter how far he leapt, he merely crept, he crawled across the muddy earth. At times he seemed stuck to the ground, then hung suspended in air so long that short and stout he still had time to wipe his brow in midleap before planting his leg again in the freshly plowed field that
furrowed toward the sunken lane by her five-acre field of potatoes.
And he made it to the sunken lane, had barely vanished short and stout into the sunken lane, when tall and thin the other two, who may have toured the brickworks meanwhile, climbed likewise over the horizon and stomped their way tall and thin but by no means slim across the field, so that my grandmother failed once more to spear her potato; because that’s a sight you don’t see every day, three grown men, albeit grown in quite different ways, hopping among telegraph poles, practically breaking off the brickworks chimney, then, at intervals, first short and stout, then thin and tall, but all three struggling hard, ever more mud clinging to their freshly polished boots, leaping through the field that Vinzent had plowed just two days before, and disappearing into the sunken lane.
Now all three were gone, and my grandmother dared spear a nearly cold potato. Hastily she blew earth and ashes from the skin, put the whole thing in her mouth at once, thinking, if she was thinking, that they must be from the brickworks, and was still chewing with a circular motion when one of them leapt out of the sunken lane, glanced about wildly over his black mustache, took two final leaps to the fire, stood on this, that, and the other side of the fire all at once, fled here, was scared there, didn’t know where to head, couldn’t go back, since tall and thin were coming up the sunken lane behind him, clapped his hands, slapped his knees, his eyes popping from his head, sweat leaping from his brow. And panting, mustache trembling, he ventured nearer, crept right up to the soles of her boots; crept right up to my grandmother, looked at my grandmother like some short, stout animal, at which she heaved a great sigh, stopped chewing her potato, tilted apart the soles of her boots, abandoned all thought of brickworks, bricks, brick makers and brick coaters, and instead lifted her skirt, no, lifted all four of them, all up at once, so that this man who was not from the brickworks could crawl short but stout beneath them, and then he was gone with his mustache, gone with his animal look, came neither from Ramkau nor Viereck, was under her skirts with his fear, his knee-slapping ended, not stout or short, yet still taking up space, panting and trembling and hands on knees now forgotten: all was as still as on the first day of Creation or the last, a slight breeze gossiped in the potato fire, the telegraph poles counted themselves in silence, the brickworks chimney stood firm, and she, my grandmother, she smoothed her top skirt over the second skirt, smooth and proper, scarcely felt him under the fourth skirt, had not yet caught on with her third to something new and amazing against her skin. And because it was amazing, though on top all was calm, and both second and third had yet to catch on, she scraped two or three potatoes from the ashes, took four raw ones from the basket by her right elbow, shoved the raw spuds into the hot ashes one by one, covered them with more ashes, and poked about until the thick smoke billowed up once more—what else could she have done?
My grandmother’s skirts had barely settled down, the thick flow of smoke from the potato fire, which had lost its way during all the desperate knee-slapping, place-changing, and poking about, had barely returned to creep yellow windward across the field to the southwest, when the tall and thin pair chasing the short but stout fellow now living under her skirts spurted forth from the lane and turned out to be tall and thin and wearing the official uniform of the rural constabulary.
They almost shot past my grandmother. Didn’t one of them even leap over the fire? But suddenly they had heels, and brains in their heels, dug them in, turned, stomped back, stood booted and uniformed in the thick smoke, withdrew coughing in their uniforms, pulling smoke along, and were still coughing as they addressed my grandmother, wanting to know if she’d seen Koljaiczek, she must have seen him, she was sitting by the lane and he, Koljaiczek, had escaped along the lane.
My grandmother hadn’t seen any Koljaiczek, because she didn’t know any Koljaiczek. Was he from the brickworks, she asked, because the only ones she knew were from the brickworks. But this Koljaiczek the uniforms described had nothing to do with bricks, he was more on the short and stout side. My grandmother thought back, recalled having seen someone like that run past, and pointed, with reference to where he was heading, with a steaming potato spitted on a sharpened stick in the direction of Bissau, which, to judge by the potato, must lie between the sixth and seventh telegraph poles, counting to the right from the chimney of the brickworks. But my grandmother had no idea if the man running was Koljaiczek, blamed her lack of knowledge on the fire at the soles of her boots; it gave her enough to do, it was burning poorly, she didn’t have time to worry about people running past or standing in the smoke, in general she didn’t worry about people she didn’t know, the only ones she knew were from Bissau, Ramkau, -Viereck, and the brickworks—and that was plenty for her.
Having said this, my grandmother heaved a gentle sigh, but loud enough that the uniforms asked why she was sighing. She nodded toward the fire to indicate that she was sighing because the little fire was burning poorly, and because of all the people standing right in the smoke, then she bit off half the potato with her widely spaced front teeth, lost herself entirely in chewing, and rolled her eyeballs up and to the left.
The men in the uniform of the rural constabulary could draw no encouragement from the distant gaze of my grandmother, nor were they sure if they should head off beyond the telegraph poles toward Bissau, so in the meantime they poked around with their bayonets in the nearby piles of potato tops not yet burning. Moved by a sudden inspiration, they simultaneously overturned both nearly full potato baskets at my grandmother’s elbows, and couldn’t understand why only potatoes rolled out of the woven baskets at their boots, and not Koljaiczek. Suspiciously they crept around the potato pile, as if Koljaiczek might somehow have had time to pile into it, gave it several well-aimed jabs, and were sorry when no one screamed. Their suspicions were aroused by every bush, however scraggly, every mouse hole, a colony of molehills, and time and again by my grandmother, who sat there as if rooted, emitting sighs, rolling her eyes behind her lids so that the whites showed, reciting the Kashubian names of all the saints—all of which expressed and emphasized the sorrows of a poorly burning little fire and two overturned potato baskets.
The uniforms stayed a good half-hour. They stood at varying distances from the fire, took bearings on the brickworks chimney, intending to occupy Bissau as well, postponed the attack, and held their reddish blue hands over the fire till my grandmother, without ever interrupting her sighs, gave each of them a split potato on a stick. But in the midst of their chewing, the uniforms remembered their uniforms, leapt a stone’s throw into the field along the broom at the edge of the lane, and startled a hare that did not, however, turn out to be Koljaiczek. Back at the fire they recovered their mealy, hotly aromatic spuds, and pacified as well as somewhat war-weary, decided to gather up the raw spuds and return them to the baskets they had overturned earlier in the line of duty.
Only when evening began to squeeze a fine, slanting rain and an inky twilight from the October sky did they attack, briefly and listlessly, a distant, darkening boulder, but once that was taken care of they decided to call it a day. A bit more foot-stamping and hands held out in blessing over the rain-spattered little fire, its thick smoke spreading, more coughing in the green smoke, eyes tearing up in the yellow smoke, then a coughing, teary-eyed stomping toward Bissau. If Koljaiczek wasn’t here, then Koljaiczek must be in Bissau. The rural constabulary never sees more than two possibilities.
The smoke from the slowly dying fire enveloped my grandmother like a fifth skirt, so roomy that she too, in her four skirts, with her sighs and names of saints, like Koljaiczek, found herself beneath a skirt. Only when nothing remained of the uniforms but wavering dots slowly drowning in dusk between the telegraph poles did my grandmother rise as laboriously as if she had struck root and was now interrupting that incipient growth, pulling forth tendrils and earth.
Suddenly finding himself lying short and stout in the rain without a hood, Koljaiczek grew cold. Quickly he buttoned the trousers that fear and an overwhelming need for refuge had bidden him open under her skirts. He fiddled quickly with the buttons, fearing an all too rapid cooling of his rod, for the weather carried the threat of autumnal chills.
It was my grandmother who found four more hot potatoes under the ashes. She gave three to Koljaiczek, kept one for herself, then asked before taking a bite if he came from the brickworks, though she must have known that Koljaiczek had nothing to do with the bricks. And paying no heed to his answer, she loaded the lighter basket onto him, bent beneath the heavier one herself, kept one hand free for the garden rake and hoe, and with basket, potatoes, rake, and hoe, billowed away in her four skirts toward Bissau-Abbau.
Bissau-Abbau was not Bissau proper. It lay more in the direction of Ramkau. Leaving the brickworks to their left, they headed for the black forest, where Goldkrug lay, and beyond it Brentau. But in a hollow before the forest lay Bissau-Abbau. And following my grandmother toward it short and stout came Joseph Koljaiczek, who could no longer free himself from her skirts.