The Summer House, Later
My great-grandfather, though, was travelling all over the country building furnaces for the Russian people. He built shaft furnaces and roasting kilns and self-dumping reverberatory furnaces and Livermore furnaces. He stayed away for a long time. He wrote letters to my great-grandmother, and whenever one of these letters arrived my great-grandmother would open the heavy red drapes a little and read by the narrow chink of daylight:
I would like to explain to you that the Hasenclever furnace we are building here consists of muffles that are connected to each other by vertical channels and are heated by the flames of a grate-firing furnace – you remember, don’t you, the retort furnace I built in the Blome Wildnis in Holstein, which you liked so much at the time? Well, in the Hasenclever furnace the ore is also loaded through an opening in the top muffle and …
Reading these letters made my great-grandmother very weary. She could no longer remember the retort furnace in the Blome Wildnis but she could remember the Blome Wildnis, the pastures and the flat countryside, the hay bales in the fields and the taste of cold, sweet apple cider in the summer. She let the room subside once more into its twilight and lay down wearily on one of the sofas, repeating, ‘Blome Wildnis, Blome Wildnis.’ It sounded like a children’s song, like a lullaby, it sounded nice.
In those years, in addition to foreign businessmen and their families, many Russian artists and scholars lived on Vasilevsky Ostrov. It was inevitable that they would hear of the German woman, the beautiful pale one with the fair hair who was said to live up on Maly Prospekt, almost always by herself and in rooms as dark, soft and cool as the sea. The artists and scholars went to see her. My great-grandmother gestured with her small weary hand, asking them to come in. She spoke little, she scarcely understood anything they said, slowly and dreamily she gazed at them from under heavy eyelids. The artists and scholars sat down on the deep, soft sofas and chairs, sinking into the heavy, dark materials; the maids brought black cinnamoned tea with huckleberry and blackberry jam. My great-grandmother warmed her cold hands on the samovar and felt much too tired to ask the artists and scholars to leave. And so they stayed. And they looked at my great-grandmother, and in the dusk my great-grandmother merged into something melancholy, beautiful and foreign. And since melancholy and beauty and foreignness are essential traits of the Russian soul, the artists and scholars fell in love with my great-grandmother, and my great-grandmother let herself be loved by them.
My great-grandfather stayed away for a long time. And so my great-grandmother let herself be loved for a long time – she did it carefully and circumspectly, and she made hardly any mistakes. Warming her cold hands on the samovar and her chilled soul on the ardent hearts of her lovers, she learned to distinguish – in that strange, soft language of theirs – the words: ‘You are the most tender of all birches.’ She read the letters about the smelting furnaces, the Deville furnaces and the tube furnaces in the narrow chink of daylight and burned them all in the fireplace. She allowed herself to be loved; in the evening before falling asleep she sang the song about the Blome Wildnis, sang it to herself, and when her lovers looked at her inquiringly, she smiled and said nothing.
My great-grandfather promised to come back soon, to take her back to Germany soon. But he did not come.
The first, the second, and then the third St Petersburg winter passed, and still my great-grandfather was busy building furnaces in the Russian vastness, and still my great-grandmother was waiting for the day when she could return home to Germany. She wrote to him in the taiga. He replied that he would come back soon but that he would have to leave again one more time, just one last time – but then, but then, he promised, then they could leave.
The evening of his arrival my great-grandmother was sitting in front of the mirror in her bedroom, combing her fair hair. The gifts from her lovers lay in a little jewellery box before the mirror: the brooch from Grigori, the ring from Nikita, the pearls and velvet ribbons from Alexei, the locks of hair from Jemelyan, the medallions, amulets and silver bracelets from Mikhail and Ilya. The little jewellery box also held the red coral bracelet from Nikolai Sergeyevich. Its six hundred and seventy-five little coral beads were strung onto a silken thread, and they glowed as red as rage. My great-grandmother put the hairbrush down in her lap, and closed her eyes for a long time. Then she opened her eyes again, took the red coral bracelet from the little box and fastened it around her left wrist. Her skin was very white.
That evening, for the first time in three years, she shared a meal with my great-grandfather. My great-grandfather spoke Russian and smiled at my great-grandmother. My great-grandmother folded her hands in her lap and smiled back at him. My great-grandfather talked about the steppes, about the wilderness, about the Russian ‘White Nights’, he talked about the furnaces and called them by their German names, and my great-grandmother nodded as though she understood. My great-grandfather told her in Russian that he had to go once more to Vladivostok, eating pelmeni with his fingers as he said it; he wiped the grease from his lips with his hands. He said that Vladivostok was his last stop, then it would be time to return to Germany. Or would she like to stay longer?
My great-grandmother did not understand what he said, but she recognized the word Vladivostok. She placed her hands on the table, and on her white left wrist the coral bracelet glowed red as rage.
My great-grandfather stared at the coral bracelet. He put what was left of his pelmeni back on his plate, wiped his hands on the linen napkin, and gestured to the maid to leave the room. In German, he said, ‘What’s that?’
My great-grandmother said, ‘A bracelet.’
My great-grandfather said, ‘And where did you get it, if I may ask?’
Very softly and gently my great-grandmother said, ‘You may. I wish you had asked me all along. It’s a present from Nikolai Sergeyevich.’
My great-grandfather called the maid back and sent her to get his friend Isaak Baruw. Isaak Baruw arrived; he was hunchbacked and stooped, and he looked sleepy and confused, it was already late at night and he kept running his fingers through his uncombed hair, embarrassed. My great-grandfather and Isaak Baruw walked around the room, agitated and arguing; in vain Isaak Baruw spoke calming words, words that reminded my great-grandmother of her lovers. Exhausted, my great-grandmother sank into one of the soft easy chairs and put her cold hands on the samovar.
My great-grandfather and Isaak Baruw were speaking Russian, and my great-grandmother didn’t understand much more than the words ‘second’ and ‘Petrovsky Park’. The maid was handed a letter and sent out into the dark. At dawn my great-grandfather and Isaak Baruw left the house. My great-grandmother had fallen asleep in the soft easy chair, her small hand and wrist with the red coral bracelet hanging limply from the arm of the chair. It was as dark and still in the room as the bottom of the sea.
Towards noon Isaak Baruw came back and, amidst much bowing and scraping and many condolences, informed my great-grandmother that my great-grandfather had died at eight o’clock that morning. On the hill in Petrovsky Park, Nikolai Sergeyevich had shot him straight through the heart.
My great-grandmother waited seven months. Then, on 20 January in the year 1905, during the first days of the revolution, she gave birth to my grandmother, packed her suitcases, and returned to Germany. The train to Berlin turned out to be the last one to leave St Petersburg before the railroad workers went on strike and all traffic between Russia and the outside world was halted. As the doors of the train closed and the locomotive blew white steam into the winter air there appeared at the far end of the platform the crooked, hunchbacked figure of Isaak Baruw. My great-grandmother saw him coming and ordered the conductor to wait, so at the last second Isaak Baruw climbed aboard. He accompanied my great-grandmother on the long journey to Berlin, carrying her suitcases and hatboxes and handbags, and he did not miss a chance to assure her repeatedly of his lifelong gratitude. My great-grandmother smiled at him comfortingly but did not speak. She was wearing the red coral bracelet on her left wrist, and even then my tiny grandmother in the willow basket already bore more of a resemblance to Nikolai Sergeyevich than to my great-grandfather.
My first and only visit to a therapist cost me the red coral bracelet and my lover.
My lover was ten years older than I, and he looked like a fish. He had fish-grey eyes and fish-grey skin, and, like a dead fish, lay on his bed all day long, cold and silent; he was in a very bad way, lying around on his bed, and when he said anything at all said only a single sentence: ‘I am not interested in myself.’ Is that the story I want to tell?
I don’t know. I don’t know really—
My lover was Isaak Baruw’s great-grandson, and in his thin veins ran Russian-German blood. Isaak Baruw had remained true to my great-grandmother all his life, but it was her Pomeranian chambermaid that he married. He fathered seven children with her, and these seven children presented him with seven grandchildren, and one of these grandchildren presented him with his only great-grandson – my lover. My lover’s parents drowned in a lake during a summer storm, and my great-grandmother ordered me to go to the funeral – the last witnesses of her St Petersburg past were being lowered into the soil of Brandenburg and with them went the stories she herself no longer wanted to tell. And so I went to the funeral of Isaak Baruw’s grandson and his wife, and my lover stood at their grave and wept three grey tears. I took his cold hand in mine, and when he went home I went with him; I thought I could console him with the St Petersburg stories; I thought that he could then tell them to me as though they were new.
But my lover did not speak. And he didn’t want to listen to anything, and he knew nothing of the winter morning in the year 1905 when my great-grandmother kept the train from leaving so that his great-grandfather could escape at the very last moment. My lover just lay on his bed and, when he said anything at all, spoke just this one sentence: ‘I am not interested in myself.’ His room was cold and dusty and faced the cemetery, where the death bells rang constantly. If I stood on tiptoe and looked out of the window, I could see the freshly dug graves, the bouquets of carnations and the mourners. I would often sit on the floor in a corner of the room, knees drawn up to my chest, gently blowing the dust balls through the room. I thought it strange for someone not to be interested in himself. I was interested exclusively in myself. I looked at my lover, and my lover looked at his body as if it were already dead; sometimes we would make love like enemies, and I would bite his salty mouth. I felt slender and skinny, even though I wasn’t; I could act as though I were not myself. The light coming through the trees outside the window was green, a watery light, a light one sees near lakes, and fluffs of dust floated through the room like algae and seaweed.
My lover was sad. Sympathetically I asked him whether I should tell him a short Russian story and my lover replied enigmatically that the stories were over, he didn’t want to hear them, and anyway I wasn’t to confuse my own story with other stories. I asked him, ‘And do you have a story of your own?’ and my lover said, no he had none. But twice a week he went to a doctor, a therapist. He forbade me to go with him; he refused to tell me anything about the therapist, and said, ‘I talk about myself. That’s all.’ And when I asked him whether he talked about the fact that he wasn’t interested in himself he looked at me with contempt and said nothing.
So my lover was either silent or he repeated his single sentence. I was silent, too, and I began to think about the therapist, my face always as dusty as the soles of my bare feet. I imagined myself sitting in the therapist’s office, talking about myself. I had no idea what I should talk about. I hadn’t really talked for a long time; for as long as I had been with my lover I hardly spoke with him, and he practically never talked with me, saying only this one sentence. There were times when I thought the language consisted solely and exclusively of six words: ‘I am not interested in myself.’
I began to think a lot about the therapist. I thought only of talking to him in an unfamiliar room, and that was pleasant. I was twenty years old, and I had nothing to do, and on my left wrist I wore the red coral bracelet. I knew the story of my great-grandmother; in my mind I could walk through the dark, twilight apartment on Maly Prospekt, and I had seen Nikolai Sergeyevich in my grandmother’s eyes. The past was so tightly intertwined within me that it sometimes seemed like my own life. The story of my great-grandmother was my own story. But where was my story without my great-grandmother? I didn’t know.
The days were silent, as though under water. I sat in my lover’s room, and the dust wove itself around my ankles. I sat, knees drawn up to my chest, my head on my knees, and with my index finger I would draw symbols on the grey floor; I was lost in thought about I don’t know what. It seemed years passed this way; I was just drifting along. Could I talk about it? From time to time my great-grandmother came by and with a bony hand knocked on the apartment door, calling for me to come out and go home with her, her voice sounding as if it came from a great distance through the dust that had spun about the door. I made no move and did not answer her, my lover also just lay on his bed without moving and stared at the ceiling with dead eyes. My great-grandmother called to me, luring me with pet names from my childhood – dear heart, little nut tree, precious heart – insistently and doggedly she tapped with her bony hand on the door. Only when I called out triumphantly, ‘You sent me to him, now you have to wait until it’s over!’ did she finally go.
I heard her footsteps on the stairs getting softer and softer; at the door, the dust balls disturbed by her knocking settled and gathered into a thick mass of fluff. I looked at my lover and said, ‘Are you sure you wouldn’t like to hear the story about the red coral bracelet?’
Lying on the bed my lover turned toward me with a tortured face. He stretched out his fish-grey hands and slowly spread his fingers, his fish-grey eyes protruding slightly from their sockets. The silence of the room quivered like the surface of a lake into which one has thrown a stone. I showed my lover my arm and the red coral beads on my wrist, and my lover said, ‘Those are members of the family Coralliidae. They form a little stem that can grow to be three feet tall, and they have a red, horny skeleton of calcium. Calcium.’
My lover spoke with a lisp, awkwardly and slurring his words as though he were drunk. ‘They grow off the coast of Sardinia and Sicily, Tripoli, Tunis, and Algeria. There, where die sea is as blue as turquoise, very deep, one can swim and dive, and the water is warm …’ He turned away from me again and sighed deeply; he kicked the wall twice then he lay still.
I said, ‘Listen, I want to tell you the stories! The St Petersburg stories, the old stories. I want to tell them so I can leave them all behind and move on.’
My lover said, ‘I don’t want to hear them.’
I said, ‘Then I’ll tell them to your therapist,’ and my lover sat up, taking a deep breath so that several fluffs of dust disappeared in a small stream into his gaping mouth, and said, ‘You’re not going to tell my therapist anything, you can go to anyone else, but not to my therapist.’ He coughed and thumped his naked grey chest, and I had to laugh because my lover had never before talked so much at one stretch. He said, ‘You’re not going to talk about me with someone to whom I talk about myself, that’s impossible,’ and I replied, ‘I don’t want to talk about you, I want to tell the story; and my story is your story too.’ We were really fighting with each other. My lover threatened to leave me; he grabbed me and pulled my hair, he bit my hand and scratched me, a wind blew through the room, the windows flew open, the death bells in the cemetery rang like crazy, and the dust balls drifted out like soap bubbles. I pushed my lover away and ripped the door open; I really felt thin and skinny. As I was leaving I could hear the dust balls sinking softly to the floor, my lover with his fish-grey eyes and his fish-grey skin standing silent next to his bed.
The therapist, whose fault it was that I lost my red coral bracelet and my lover, was sitting in a large room behind a desk. The room was really very large, almost empty except for this desk, the therapist behind it, and a little chair in front of it. A soft, sea blue, deep blue carpet covered the floor. As I entered the therapist looked at me solemnly, looked me straight in the eye. I walked towards him. I had the feeling of having to walk for a very long time before I finally reached the chair in front of his desk. I thought about the fact that my lover usually sat on this chair and spoke about himself – about what? – and felt a tiny sadness. I sat down. The therapist nodded at me. I nodded too and stared at him, waiting for it to begin, for the conversation to start, for his first question. The therapist stared back at me until I lowered my eyes, but he said nothing. He was silent. His silence reminded me of something. It was very quiet. Somewhere a clock I couldn’t see was ticking: the wind blew around the tall house. I looked at the sea blue, deep blue carpet beneath my feet and pulled nervously and diffidently at the silk thread of the red coral bracelet. The therapist sighed. I raised my head, and he tapped the gleaming desktop with the needle-sharp point of his pencil. I smiled in embarrassment, and he said, ‘What is it that’s worrying you?’
I took a breath, raised my hands, and let them drop again. I wanted to say that I wasn’t interested in myself, but I thought, That’s a lie, I’m interested only in myself, and is that it? That actually there is nothing? Only the weariness and the empty, silent days, a life like that of fish under water and laughter without reason? I wanted to say that I had too many stories inside me, they put a burden on my life; I thought, I could just as well have stayed with my lover; I took a breath, and the therapist opened his mouth and his eyes wide, and I tugged at the silken thread of the red coral bracelet and the silk thread broke and the six hundred and seventy-five red-as-rage little coral beads burst in glittering splendour from my thin, slender wrist.
Distraught, I stared at my wrist; it was white and naked. I stared at the therapist, who was leaning back in his chair, the pencil now in front of him, parallel to the edge of the desk, his hands folded in his lap. I covered my face with my hands. I slipped off the chair onto the sea blue, deep blue carpet; the six hundred and seventy-five coral beads were scattered all over the room. They gleamed, more rage-red than ever before, and I crawled around on the floor and gathered them up. They were lying under the desk, under the therapist’s toes, and he drew his foot back a tiny bit as I touched it. It was dark under the desk, but the red coral beads glowed.
I thought of Nikolai Sergeyevich; I thought, if he hadn’t given my great-grandmother the red coral beads, if he hadn’t shot my great-grandfather in the heart. I thought of the hunchbacked, stooped Isaak Baruw; I thought, if he hadn’t left Russia, if my great-grandmother hadn’t stopped the train for him. I thought of my lover, the fish; I thought, if he hadn’t been silent all the time I wouldn’t now have to crawl around under a therapist’s desk. I saw the therapist’s trouser legs, his folded hands, I could smell him. I bumped my head on the desktop. Once I had collected all the red coral beads under the desk, I crawled back into the light and across the room, picking up the coral beads with my right hand and holding them in my left. I began to cry. I was kneeling on the soft, sea blue, deep blue carpet, looking at the therapist, the therapist looking at me from his chair with his hands folded. My left hand was full of coral beads, but there were more still glowing and blinking all around me. I thought it would take me all my life to pick up all these coral beads, I thought I would never get it done, not during a whole lifetime. I stood up. The therapist leaned forward, picked the pencil up off his desk, and said, ‘The session is over for today.’
I poured the red coral beads from my left hand into my right. They made a lovely, tender sound, almost like gentle laughter. I raised my right hand and flung the red coral beads at the therapist. The therapist ducked. The red coral beads rained down onto his desk, and with them all of St Petersburg, the Greater and the Lesser Neva, my great-grandmother, Isaak Baruw and Nikolai Sergeyevich, my grandmother in the willow basket and my lover the fish, the Volga, the Luga, the Narva, the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea and the Aegean Sea, the Gulf of Finland, the Atlantic Ocean.
The waters of the earth’s oceans surged in a huge green wave over the therapist’s desk and ripped him out of his chair. The water rose rapidly and lifted the desk up with it. Once more the therapist’s face emerged from the billows, and then it disappeared. The water roared, broke and sang, swelling and flushing away the stories, the silence and the coral beads, flushing them back into the seaweed forests, into the shell beds, to the bottom of the sea. I took a deep breath.
I went back one last time to see how my lover was doing. He was drifting – I knew he would be – on his watery bed, his pale belly turned to the ceiling. The light was as grey as the light at the bottom of a lake; dust balls were caught in his hair, trembling softly. I said, ‘You know that coral turns black when it lies too long at the bottom of the sea.’ I said, ‘Was that the story I wanted to tell?’ But my lover could no longer hear me.
(Something Farewell) (#ulink_d290f8a1-394a-5d7a-ade9-0fcb844c3a1e)
The game is called ‘Imagining a Life Like That’. You can play it evenings when you’re sitting at Brenton’s Place on the Island, smoking cigarettes and drinking rum and Coke. It helps to have a little sleeping island child whose hair smells of sand in your lap. The sky should be clear, preferably filled with stars, and it should be very hot, perhaps even humid. The game is called ‘Imagining a Life Like That’; it has no rules.
‘Just imagine it,’ Nora says. ‘Just imagine.’
On the radio they’re broadcasting hurricane reports four times a day. Kaspar says it doesn’t get critical until the hurricane reports come every hour. Then the islanders would be asked to go to special safety zones. German citizens could ask their embassy to arrange for them to be flown to the United States. Kaspar is quite determined, saying, ‘I won’t leave the Island.’ He is going to stay, and he expects all of Stony Hill and Snow Hill will seek shelter at his place. The Island is in the low-pressure region of the tropical depression. Nora and Christine are sitting on the sun-dry wooden boards of the porch, raptly repeating to themselves, ‘Tropical depression, tropical …’
It is unbearably hot. Thick white clouds motionless above the Blue Mountains. The hurricane, named ‘Bertha’ by die meteorologists, is building up far away over the Caribbean; it isn’t moving but seems to be gathering strength for Cuba, Costa Rica, the Island.
Cat beats Lovey, Nora later writes to Christine, who is already back home in the city, Cat beats Lovey, and Lovey beats Cat, oh Christine my dear, it’s not really your fault. Kaspar talks too much: I like you, I like you; he carves wooden birds, and I only wish he’d leave me alone once in a while; dearest Christine, I miss you … Christine is reading this at the kitchen table, her legs drawn up to her chest. Sand trickles from the pages of the letter. She marvels at how things always have their effect, feels far removed from the Island, feels tired, too.
Kaspar knows that Christine kissed Cat – on her last evening on the Island. They had driven down to Stony Hill in the Jeep. ‘Let’s drive to Brenton’s Place, okay?’ Christine had begged, wide-eyed. Kaspar let himself be persuaded. He liked Christine’s phrase ‘Brenton’s Place’ to designate Brenton’s store, a wooden shack in the village, in the shade of a breadfruit tree; you could drink dark rum there and buy Craven ‘A’ cigarettes by the piece while old men play dominoes with grim concentration, and a long drawn-out high-pitched whistle comes out of Brenton’s radio. They had driven down to Stony Hill in the Jeep, and the clouds had parted to permit a view of the high, star-spangled sky.
Brenton had a new refrigerator. Christine duly admired it, but she was restless and kept staring hard into the darkness towards Cat’s bench at the edge of the clearing – ‘Is he sitting there or isn’t he?’
Kaspar knew very well that Cat was sitting there. Cat always sat there; all the same Kaspar said, ‘No idea,’ gloating over Christine’s anxious indecision. Christine, nervous, quickly drank her dark rum, tugged at Nora’s dress, then ran out and was swallowed up by the darkness. After some time her white legs were seen dangling down from the bamboo bench.