The day of mourning

6 November 2014 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Katedraali (‘The cathedral’, Teos, 2014). Introduction by Mervi Kantokorpi

I am here now, at this funeral; I’m sitting on a puffy rococo chair which stands in the corner of this large living room – hall – on a Berber rug, one of a series of four pieces of furniture. The fourth is a curly-legged table, painted matt white. I wriggle like anything, trying to rid myself of my too-tight shoes. Fish thrash their tails in the same way. The lady in the dry cleaner’s told me she hates fish. She said that clothes that smell of fish and are brought into her shop make her shake with loathing but also bring her satisfaction because she can wash the awful stench away.

My shoes are impossibly small. They pinch my feet worse every moment. My back aches, too, despite the painkillers. You can’t swallow pills forever, so I just try to find a better position and put up with it. Finally my shoes leave my feet. I kick them underneath the table so that they can’t be seen. I can breathe again. In my shoes I felt as if I were sinking under the ground.

My father once showed me the Stephansdom catacombs. Thousands of people were buried here, before that, too, was forbidden by someone, he said.

Dad’s second greatest passion was the cathedral in the centre of Vienna, its history and legends. Dad took us there whenever he could, no argument. He knew countless details about the church, its forty master builders, the stone it was built of, the roof’s fire and renovation and significance. You can ask me whatever you want about the history of the Stephansdom, I will definitely get full marks.

Despite the coffee, I am very sleepy, and I must stay awake. Painkillers have that effect – as soon as the pain goes out through the door, sleep comes in through the windows. The doctor laughed, good morning! Good cheerful morning to you too, the doctor laughed, because my blood pressure was so low. And said, at least that’s not a problem. Your blood pressure is not a problem. Better low than high, good morning to you! You should drink water. You have to drink a lot of water and take up endurance training, any movement at all, walking, going to the shops, walking up stairs, tending flowers, even house cleaning, but every day. Good morning!

I take a gulp of water.

I have learned: I must drink a lot, little sips throughout the day, because I don’t absorb water. It bypasses my cells and my veins, rinses my bones lightly without actually washing them, leaving my skin dry, like a downpour on stony loam. The water runs through the soil rinsing even the roots on to the plate and over the edge of the plate, the water runs in streams along the side of the cabinet and on to the floor, drips off the edge of the cabinet into the cracks in the floor, as a result of which the floor may begin to swell, mould may appear, an expensive catastrophe. Keep water inside yourself, lie in bed on your back with your mouth shut and do not move. I have read: 80 per cent of people is made up of water. Water is made up of oxygen and hydrogen. In addition, people contain minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, and trace elements, such as iron, zinc, copper and iodine. There are also poisons, such as lead and mercury.

Yesterday I had thought: the funeral is tomorrow. Tomorrow they are burying Kerstin, and it is wrong. Most of the things in the world are wrong, most things are this kind of struggle.

When I was twenty-four I stopped off on a whim on the way home at a toy shop, because there was a noticed taped to its window about a teddy-bear maker’s apprenticeship. I thought, why not, why shouldn’t I do some useful work. The toy shop was full of toys carved from wood and teddy bears of different sizes, dressed in various ways. I was immediately drawn to a bear standing there in a yellow rain suit, with a yellow rain-hat. Its black nose gleamed. I touched the bear’s paw and said hello to it. The toy-shop owner was a grey-haired woman who said Good afternoon from behind the counter in a tired voice. I was the only customer in the shop and the woman was naturally sad because her clearly winning and pedagogically valuable products did not attract the demand that she believed should have been theirs. She did not know how to market her products more effectively. How to get people to want her gifts. She was not certain of the toy shop’s future. I said I had read the notice in the window and asked whether it was still current. The toy-shop women only listened to half of what I had to say. I had thought I would bring her happiness by responding to her notice, but it turned out that the opposite was the case. The woman asked my age and said I was much too old.

I thanked her for the information and left the shop in astonishment. For the first time in my life I realised what it means for someone to really say ‘no’. What it means for something to be too late. And I had the uncomfortable feeling that this should not have been news to me, but something I should have realized a log time ago. It was awful. That inflexible no. It gave me the creeps. I said thank you, yes of course, stepped out of the toy-shop door and walked along the familiar road home at the same pace as I had walked from my work to the toy shop. No slower or faster, but at exactly the same pace, as if I were not ashamed at all, as if nothing had happened.

The living room smells of sandwiches left out at room temperature, of continually flowing coffee, of black, damp clothes, of restrained sweat and the salt of tears. Just then I feel like some cucumber. I take a big pile of it on to my plate, and cheese, and withdraw into a corner with them. It’s out of the question that I should buy anything as terribly expensive as cucumber and cheese myself.

But then I can’t eat them after all. The sheer quantity suddenly makes me feel sick. I don’t know anyone here. I try to put the cucumber and the cheese back on the serving platters so that they still look new and untouched. They are new and untouched. I don’t want any food to be thrown away just because of me. I don’t put anything back that I’ve touched with my hand, just the ones that I’ve moved with a clean fork.

You can’t eat standing up. You just can’t. I try to sit down, but I fall between two chairs, luckily I don’t fall down on to the floor. Someone comes up again. Says something. My condolences. I’m not sure whether he means this embarrassing slip or Kerstin, presumably both. He helps me on to a chair. I say thank you, but nothing else. The person goes on standing there for some time. I don’t know who he is, either. I’d like to know. I’d like him to tell me a story, it could have animals in it, animals and children, I’d like him to ask me any questions at all, I’d like him to ask me to tell stories, stories in which I remember Kerstin. I would tell him how I often went to the zoo with Kerstin and sometimes on a boat.

Any old boat was good enough, as long as it was in the water. Kerstin liked it, she liked water. Love is knowing what the other person likes and what she wants and hopes for, isn’t it? Love is listening. And taking seriously. I’d like to talk about it. But the person doesn’t say anything. He stands there for another moment. Then he says he’ll take this glass away. I don’t say anything. I think: just as well.

I’ve always done all the organising in this household simply to please others. And ever since I was a child I’ve been told: don’t try to please others. Dad said: it’s not worth being a stereotype, otherwise you will never think of anything of your own and your life will not go forward. Ilse said: you don’t have to please other people all the time. And all that same that’s exactly how things had to be. Kaspar Hauser became an animal when he was with the animals. Nothing in a human being comes from himself or herself, without other people you dry up like a prune, talk like a chicken, eat like a horse.

I begin to collect the plates. I’m so feeble that I can only carry two cups at a time. I notice that people are giving me pitying looks. I raise my hand as a sign, no, this saying no works perfectly well, I see, if someone is about to rise and ask me to sit down. I don’t want to sit down or to be helped, I want to walk, I want to walk from one room to the next, to try Bea’s method. I’ve decided to buy new tweezers, just like Mark said. I have decided to throw the old ones away, if ever they condescend to turn up.

Now that people are talking about remorse, I begin to think that in a way I could say that Kerstin was also more of a child than a sister to me. Bea and Leo, they are my siblings, but Kerstin was more like a child, everyone’s child. That’s exactly what Kerstin was: everybody’s child. Whenever necessary. If someone needed some creature that they could look after or educate or perhaps even discipline a little, whom they could use to put pressure on other members of the family or officials, Kerstin was always available. And Ilse? What about Ilse? Was Ilse my mother? Did the fact that I have spent nine months inside that person make her my mother? Yes, of course it did. And nevertheless I would say no. No, Ilse was my aunt. The kind of aunt you address formally. Ilse addresses me formally. That’s how she keeps her distance. Denies me. Ilse is a ball and chain. Ilse is a storm, a lurking danger, a good educational method, the kind that was used to keep gladiators alive, just the same thing: if their concentration wavered for even a second, they could lose their head.

Bea, too, comes into this guest room, now a storeroom. She says: Is this where you are, among the boxes? You’re always disappearing, where is it that you go, you were just the same as a child, ants in your pants. I’ve put a new cake on the table, you haven’t eaten anything today, or have you. Bea stands next to me, she’s standing there now, fingering the things in one of the boxes. She’s standing so close to me that I can smell her skin and her hair. She says: I’m gradually clearing and sorting Kerstin’s things, I’ve put the ones that can be thrown away on the left, so I suppose that’s the ‘rubbish’. I’ve put the things we want to keep on the right. For example most of the summer clothes, since summer’s coming. It’s quite difficult to work out what belongs with what, but on the other hand it can’t do a lot of harm. Most of it’s old and ragged.

For me, ‘these rags’ are the loveliest of treasures. Toys, tent-like dresses, tights, ankle-socks, gloves, t-shirts, sleeveless tops, scarves and belts. I pause for a moment in my examination of the things, because I’m trying to remember the words to that Easter hymn, how annoying, since of course I’ve known them. Then happily I get the words in the right places, just by singing, the same segments many times once after another, and I try not to think pointlessly, first one word at a time and then in little rushes, sentences, the lines I once learned by heart begin to come back in the right order. I haven’t found any tweezers or any hats, but I can still find these words. My head is so full of the same thoughts, always the same thoughts. I have read: Each of us thinks thousands of thoughts a day, of which more than half are old, familiar repetitions. Have they became a mad spider’s web? Almost nothing I look for can be found. Not people’s names, not years, not place-names, not foreign words. But now I did find the words of this song. Christmas, Easter. Johann Sebastian. Vom Himmel hoch. O sacred head sore wounded.

Who can say whether bronze is more expensive than copper, on what basis it’s better to receive a golden gift than a silver one?

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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