"What You Read" is a short story I am releasing in ten parts in this blog. Please see the postings for 4, 11 and 18 February 2018 for the previously released parts. Once a week a new part is released. It is inspired by the work I did for my upcoming book, the expanded version of "The Pendulum.
You were as secretive an adolescent as I was. We both had our reasons. You chose to escape from under the pall of indignity that was draped over your nation’s soul to the bright window in the attic of your parents’ farmhouse, where you sat and devoured forbidden novels. The adults around you knew that you were bookish and said it was unbecoming of a young girl to read so much. It would needlessly trouble the mind and detract from household chores.
I carved out my own corner in whatever country my family was living in, burying myself in letters to friends left behind, that were like a cry for stability. A flustered parent, indignant at the damning history you and her father had left to her, stood outside my door. One of her mechanisms for coping was to call me overly-sensitive, among other things, and to insist that I must toughen up.
When first you mentioned Fontane’s novel, Effi Briest, to me, you shook your head. “Dreadful story – a poor girl married off at the age of seventeen by her parents to her mother’s former lover, a baron old enough to be her father, and stashed away in a North Sea outpost where he served as District Counsellor to the Prussian administration. Now tell me, what could be expected of her?” you asked.
Effi’d had a risky affair with a dashing, womanizing major and was never again permitted to see her daughter, expelled from the same intransigent Wilhelmine German society as the one you had been born into. Eventually, she was accepted back into her parents’ home and there died young of heartbreak.
“I read it when I was a girl without my parents knowing,” you added, and blushed as you mischievously looked askance over the edge of your coffee cup.
Suddenly, you seemed very modern to me. While others of your generation said that Effi got what she deserved for her infidelity and, above all, for challenging the status quo of laws and social codes, you saw her as a victim. You believed in her natural rights to long and not to be abused. You were a deeply sexual being, even as an old woman. I saw you in your laced silk chemise and stockings attached to a garter belt as you dressed. Into your nineties, you were a picture of sensual beauty.
Your war had taken place in the bedroom, and as you scratched at the pressed cream damask on your dining table, without looking at me you said: “It wasn’t pleasant – our life together. He would come at me angry and drunk, and once he was done returned to his Polish girls.” You scratched faster, as though it could dull the hurt. “Five children – one after the other - it was expected in those times. The pains were appalling!” I hadn’t borne any children yet, but vicariously felt your pain in my abdomen.
“He found another side-fling in Brazil – a mulata – and then I left. In the mortuary, after he’d died, they put shoes on him that were too big for his small feet.” Your nostrils flared with resentment, and perhaps some mild satisfaction that in the end you had seen him emasculated.
"What You Read" is a short story I am releasing in ten parts in this blog. Please see the postings for 4 February 2018 and 11 February 2018 for the previously released parts. Once a week on Sunday a new part is released. It is inspired by the work I did for my upcoming book, the expanded version of "The Pendulum.
In later years, I often visited you in your bubble of healing, a one-person apartment perched above a quiet, cobble-stoned road in a valley below the Black Forest. That was over four decades after the end of the Second World War when marigold salve would once again soothe men’s stumps. The finely bound series about plants you had given me was forgotten in a trunk in my student’s quarters, but no sooner had I stepped into your apartment with the noise-absorbing green wall-to-wall carpet than your desperation for silent healing was all around us. Sometimes when we spoke for too long, your eyelids began to flutter uncontrollably because your nerves were frayed by what had come to pass. You mourned “all that was lost” by our family in Germany, Poland and Brazil, my birthplace. The story grabbed my attention and I couldn’t let go of it. I wanted to know what was in that nothingness that you stared into when you told these stories that wore you out.
You were not the only one in need of restoration. We’d both lived convulsive lives of different sorts, and I sensed that my healing was in knowing your past because it had formed me in ways I still didn’t know. Could my needs only be fulfilled at the expense of yours? I hoped that this zero-sum game would not apply to us, and sometimes stood with you in your tiny kitchen without asking any more questions, as you measured the dried herbs that you placed with excruciating slowness into a tea pot. Then we’d sit down on the stools that screeched against the kitchen floor like mischievous children, and silently, without awkwardness, wait as the hot water drew the goodness out of the tea leaves. It was in those moments, rather than in the ones when I pressed you for your memories, that a very large door between us swung open next to the other closed doors.
As the years passed, I began to notice that sometimes you spoke of nature in ways that alienated me. When the church bells outside your apartment chimed, you snapped angrily that “the Pope should be shot,” and that only nature decided. According to you, its one immutable rule was that the strong had the right, and, in some instances it was merciful to put the weak out of their misery. I tried to find some indication in your face that you didn’t really mean it, but there was none. All of the doors between us slammed shut in the storm your words produced inside of me. It was as though we didn’t know one another at all.
Now the fine weave has lost its power to bind the pages of my medicinal plant books. The delicate paintings of herbs, flowers and their roots lie in a pile detached from their covers. Were they the strong or the weak? I haven’t had the heart to bind the pages back together again, as I continue to struggle with reconciling the different sides of you. To me, the robust marigold and the lithe-stemmed pansy had been our sanctuary, but to you they were other things too. If I bind them together again, perhaps the series can simply be mine. Outside, the plants in the collection have come to life, and as I become an old woman, having grown roots in a place similar to where yours were, I cannot deny that you prepared me to recognize them.
Finally they built it. They did.
It was a long, wide slab of metal that didn't keep much of anything out, except for those that didn't like monuments that screamed injustice; those last diehards of fake freedom, afraid they wouldn't survive admitting they were wrong.
Thousands of names were engraved into the metal slab that was made of melted down semi-automatics. Each name boasted that it would soon turn eighteen, but never did. A few were older, their teachers and attendants, tucked in between all of those youths frozen in time, yearning to look after them and teach them, but now that was all over. They had been silenced by the silencers, and instead their power lay in memory and below ground, where an impenetrable vault held the nation's remaining semi-automatics, except for whatever the military kept to fight foreign wars; but even soldiers cried when they looked at those weapons these days. The people had submitted them one by one in a solemn procession that had gone on for weeks, as the stoic broken parents of those thousands of names waited and watched.
When that wound of the nation was closed and the Wall was erected over it, the people finally knew what to call the scourge they had endured. It was state-sponsored terrorism. Dirty money that sacrificed twenty-four children every day. Evil becomes weak when exposed, and so it was that these monolithic forces washed away in a flood of tears.
That Wall became a beautiful thing, glistening in the dim sun there on the White House lawn.
In memory of the twenty-four who will die today.
"What You Read" is a short story I am releasing in ten parts in this blog. Once a week on Sunday a new part will be released. It is inspired by the work I did for my upcoming book, the expanded version of "The Pendulum."
Their spines were bound firmly in green and red fabric, and from the time that you gave them to me, stroking that fine weave became my secret addiction. The truth was that the robust orange marigold and the lithe-stalked blue pansies on the hard cover of the second in the two-part series about medicinal plants, burst my nine-year-old heart each time that I looked at them. They reminded me of you: of your broad, durable shoulders - from farming stock, you said - juxtaposed with your long, elegant fingers when they poured morning coffee, your addiction, into a gold-rimmed porcelain cup perched on a matching saucer. All of my longing aspired to reproduce something equally as beautiful with my sketching pencils and paint brushes, but equal always falls short in art. It was just as impossible as to believe that I could ever know you; a Sisyphean task that I knew I would never give up to the end of my days.
“Our healing plants are of very special beauty,” declared the German introduction on the first page. It satisfied me that the plants in this collection were ours – yours and mine – despite the fact that we came from different worlds that intersected because I was your granddaughter. At the tender age of nine, my plant kingdom was a jumble of palms, pines, orchids and roses that whizzed past me like a slide show in the quick succession of countries and continents I had lived in with my family. It was an ephemeral experience without a lasting sensual imprint, so that when I came to those illustrations where the stringy roots of the plants had been drawn in detail, I saw myself dangling above the ground, uprooted on the page.
This was a clear contrast to you and your plant kingdom which was the same as in this series, not because you hadn’t experienced anything else, but because you were deeply, inextricably rooted in it. In 1918, your parents, farming gentry from Lower Saxony who were devoted to the abdicated Kaiser, sent you to the German rather than the Latin school in the small town near their estate. It was one of the last morsels of pride for them to pass onto you in a nation humiliated in the aftermath of the Great War. These medicinal plants would heal not only because of the miraculous powers of nature in general, but also because they were German and therefore possessed strength and quality. Pride masked the more practical explanations, including that when the antiseptic for tending to the stumps of veterans had run out, there was still the marigold salve. One could never yield to the betrayers of the nation.
Despite or because of the distance of time and place between us, I turned the pages avidly and checked in pencil those plants I thought I had seen. Each check was an affirmation of our common interest and our affection for one another that I hoped could bridge any difference. To make the point, I noted in my best child’s print under Monarda didyma or bergamot that, “I have this flower in a flower pot.” Whether I did or didn’t wasn’t the point. It meant that we had shared experiences, and therefore I could open another of the closed doors between us.
I thirsted for your affection. The books that you gave to me since childhood seemed a sign that my longing would be fulfilled. Yet, from the beginning, the great distance in years between us gave rise to desperation, like the turbulent seas between continents. Could I know these books in the same way that you had known them, and would I know you then?
As a child, I wanted you to be one person, but as I became an adult, I noticed that you had several faces, although I couldn’t clearly make out any of them. My unease grew, and after your death I mourned you by reading and re-reading all of those books. They were your own favorites, which you had read at different times in a life spanning over a century. I thought that by reading them I could put my unease to rest. Instead, they took me down a hundred bewildering paths, leaving me with more questions than answers. Eventually, each path led full circle back to me and the potential consequences of my own contradictions; all in a time when dictators had begun to shout across the air waves once again.
This is the prologue to a short story I will be sharing with you in parts during the coming weeks. It revolves around the question of what the books we read say about us.