Authors: Herta Müller
Tags: #Fiction, #General
ALSO BY HERTA MÜLLER
The Land of Green Plums
T H E
a n o v e l
E R T A
Ü L L E R
Translated by Michael Hulse and Philip Boehm
E T R O P O L I T A N
O O K S
Henry Holt and Company New York
Henry Holt and Company, LLC
Publishers since 1866
115 West 18th Street
New York, New York 10011
Metropolitan Books™ is a registered trademark of
Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
Copyright © 1997 by Rowohlt Verlag GMBH
Translation copyright © 2001 by Metropolitan Books
All rights reserved.
Distributed in Canada by H. B. Fenn and Company Ltd.
Originally published in Germany in 1997 under the
Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet
by Rowohlt Verlag, Reinbek bei Hamburg.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data
[Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet. English]
The appointment : a novel/Herta Müller ; translated by
Michael Hulse and Philip Boehm.— 1st American ed.
ISBN 0-8050-6012-X (hc.)
I. Hulse, Michael, 1955– II. Boehm, Philip. III. Title.
PT2673.U29234 H4813 2001
Henry Holt books are available for special
promotions and premiums. For details contact:
Director, Special Markets.
First American Edition 2001
Designed by Paula Russell Szafranski
Printed in the United States of America
1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
T H E
I’ve been summoned
. Thursday, at ten sharp.
Lately I’m being summoned more and more often: ten sharp on Tuesday, ten sharp on Saturday, on Wednesday, Monday. As if years were a week, I’m amazed that winter comes so close on the heels of late summer.
On my way to the tram stop, I again pass the shrubs with the white berries dangling through the fences. Like buttons made of mother-of-pearl and sewn from underneath, or stitched right down into the earth, or else like bread pellets. They remind me of a flock of little white-tufted birds turning away their beaks, but they’re really far too small for birds. It’s enough to make you giddy. I’d rather think of snow sprinkled on the grass, but that leaves you feeling lost, and the thought of chalk makes you sleepy.
The tram doesn’t run on a fixed schedule.
It does seem to rustle, at least to my ear, unless those are the stiff leaves of the poplars I’m hearing. Here it is, already pulling up to the stop: today it seems in a hurry to take me away. I’ve decided to let the old man in the straw hat get on ahead of me. He was already waiting when I arrived—who knows how long he’d been there. You couldn’t exactly call him frail, but he’s hunchbacked and weary, and as skinny as his own shadow. His backside is so slight it doesn’t even fill the seat of his pants, he has no hips, and the only bulges in his trousers are the bags around his knees. But if he’s going to go and spit, right now, just as the door is folding open, I’ll get on before he does, regardless. The car is practically empty; he gives the vacant seats a quick scan and decides to stand. It’s amazing how old people like him don’t get tired, that they don’t save their standing for places where they can’t sit. Now and then you hear old people say: There’ll be plenty of time for lying down once I’m in my coffin. But death is the last thing on their minds, and they’re quite right. Death never has followed any particular pattern. Young people die too. I always sit if I have a choice. Riding in a seat is like walking while you’re sitting down. The old man is looking me over; I can sense it right away inside the empty car. I’m not in the mood to talk, though, or else I’d ask him what he’s gaping at. He couldn’t care less that his staring annoys me. Meanwhile half the city is going by outside the window, trees alternating with buildings. They say old people like him can sense things better than young people. Old people might even sense that today I’m carrying a small towel, a toothbrush, and some toothpaste in my handbag. And no handkerchief, since I’m determined not to cry. Paul didn’t realize how terrified I was that today Albu might take me down to the cell below his office. I didn’t bring it up. If that happens, he’ll find out soon enough. The tram is moving slowly. The band on the
old man’s straw hat is stained, probably with sweat, or else the rain. As always, Albu will slobber a kiss on my hand by way of greeting.
Major Albu lifts
my hand by the fingertips, squeezing my nails so hard I could scream. He presses one wet lip to my fingers, so he can keep the other free to speak. He always kisses my hand the exact same way, but what he says is always different:
Well well, your eyes look awfully red today.
I think you’ve got a mustache coming. A little young for that, aren’t you.
My, but your little hand is cold as ice today—hope there’s nothing wrong with your circulation.
Uh-oh, your gums are receding. You’re beginning to look like your own grandmother.
My grandmother didn’t live to grow old, I say. She never had time to lose her teeth. Albu knows all about my grandmother’s teeth, which is why he’s bringing them up.
As a woman, I know how I look on any given day. I also know that a kiss on the hand shouldn’t hurt, that it shouldn’t feel wet, that it should be delivered to the back of the hand. The art of hand kissing is something men know even better than women—and Albu is hardly an exception. His entire head reeks of Avril, a French eau de toilette that my father-in-law, the Perfumed Commissar, used to wear too. Nobody else I know would buy it. A bottle on the black market costs more than a suit in a store. Maybe it’s called Septembre, I’m not sure, but there’s no mistaking that acrid, smoky smell of burning leaves.
Once I’m sitting at the small table, Albu notices me rubbing my fingers on my skirt, not only to get the feeling back
into them but also to wipe the saliva off. He fiddles with his signet ring and smirks. Let him: it’s easy enough to wipe off somebody’s spit; it isn’t poisonous, and it dries up all by itself. It’s something everybody has. Some people spit on the pavement, then rub it in with their shoe since it’s not polite to spit, not even on the pavement. Certainly Albu isn’t one to spit on the pavement—not in town, anyway, where no one knows who he is and where he acts the refined gentleman. My nails hurt, but he’s never squeezed them so hard my fingers turned blue. Eventually they’ll thaw out, the way they do when it’s freezing cold and you come into the warm. The worst thing is this feeling that my brain is slipping down into my face. It’s humiliating, there’s no other word for it, when your whole body feels like it’s barefoot. But what if there aren’t any words at all, what if even the best word isn’t enough.
I’ve been listening
to the alarm clock since three in the morning ticking ten sharp, ten sharp, ten sharp. Whenever Paul is asleep, he kicks his leg from one side of the bed to the other and then recoils so fast he startles himself, although he doesn’t wake up. It’s become a habit with him. No more sleep for me. I lie there awake, and I know I need to close my eyes if I’m going back to sleep, but I don’t close them. I’ve frequently forgotten how to sleep, and have had to relearn each time. It’s either extremely easy or utterly impossible. In the early hours just before dawn, every creature on earth is asleep: even dogs and cats only use half the night for prowling around the dumpsters. If you’re sure you can’t sleep anyway, it’s easier to think of something bright inside the darkness than to simply shut your eyes in vain. Snow, whitewashed tree trunks, white-walled rooms, vast expanses of sand—that’s what I’ve thought of to
pass the time, more often than I would have liked, until it grew light. This morning I could have thought about sunflowers, and I did, but they weren’t enough to dislodge the summons. And with the alarm clock ticking ten sharp, ten sharp, ten sharp, my thoughts raced to Major Albu even before they shifted to me and Paul. Today I was already awake when Paul started thrashing in his sleep. By the time the window started turning gray, I had already seen Albu’s mouth looming on the ceiling, gigantic, the pink tip of his tongue tucked behind his lower teeth, and I had heard his sneering voice:
Don’t tell me you’re losing your nerve already—we’re just warming up.
Paul’s kicking wakes me only when I haven’t been summoned for two or three weeks. Then I feel happy, since it means I’ve learned how to sleep again.
Whenever I’ve relearned how to sleep, and I ask Paul in the morning what he was dreaming, he can’t remember anything. I show him how he tosses about and splays his toes, and then how he jerks his legs back and crooks his toes. Moving a chair from the table to the middle of the kitchen, I sit down, stick my legs in the air, and demonstrate the whole procedure. It makes Paul laugh, and I say:
You’re laughing at yourself.
Who knows, maybe I dreamed I was taking you for a ride on my motorcycle.
His thrashing is like a forward charge disrupted by an immediate call to retreat. I presume it comes from drinking. Not that I say this to him. Nor do I explain that it’s the night drawing the shakes out of his legs. That’s what it must be—the night, seizing him by the knees and tugging at the shakes, pulling them down through his toes into the pitch-black room, and finally tossing them out into the blackness of the street
below, in the early hours just before daybreak, when the whole city is slumbering away. Otherwise Paul wouldn’t be able to stand up straight when he woke. But if night wrenches the shakes out of every drunk in the city, it must be tanked up to high heaven come morning, given the number of drinkers.
Just after four, the trucks begin delivering goods to the row of shops down below. They completely shatter the silence, making a huge racket for the little they deliver: a few crates of bread, milk, and vegetables, and large quantities of plum brandy. Whenever the food runs out, the women and children manage to cope: the lines disperse, and all roads lead home. But when the brandy runs out, the men curse their lot and pull out their knives. The salespeople say things to calm them down, but that only works while the customers are still inside the store. The moment they’re out the door they continue prowling the city on their quest. The first fights break out because they can’t find any brandy, and later because they’re stone drunk.
The brandy comes from the hilly region between the Carpathians and the arid plains. The plum trees there are so dense you can barely make out the tiny villages hiding in their branches. Whole forests of plum trees, drenched with blue in late summer, the branches sagging with the weight of the fruit. The brandy is named after the region, but nobody calls it by its proper name. It doesn’t really even need a name, since there’s only one brand in the whole country. People just call it Two Plums, from the picture on the label. Those two plums leaning cheek to cheek are as familiar to the men as the Madonna and Child are to the women. People say the plums represent the love between bottle and drinker. The way I see it, those cheek-to-cheek plums look more like a wedding picture than a Madonna and Child. None of the pictures in church shows the Child’s head level with his mother’s. The Child’s forehead is
always resting against the Virgin’s cheek, with his own cheek at her neck, and his chin on her breast. Moreover, the relationship between drinkers and bottles is more like the one between the couples in wedding pictures: they bring each other to ruin, and still they won’t let go.
In our wedding picture, I’m not carrying flowers and I’m not wearing a veil. The love in my eyes is gleaming new, but the truth is, it was my second wedding. The picture shows Paul and me standing cheek to cheek like two plums. Ever since he started drinking so much, our wedding picture has proven prophetic. Whenever Paul’s out on the town, barhopping late into the night, I’m afraid he’ll never come home again, and I stare at our wedding picture until it starts to change shape. When that happens our two faces start to swim, and our cheeks shift around so that a little bit of space opens up between them. Mostly it is Paul’s cheek that swims away from mine, as if he were planning to come home late. But he does come home. He always has, even after the accident.
Occasionally a shipment of buffalo-grass vodka comes in from Poland—yellowish and bittersweet. That gets sold first. Each bottle contains a long, sodden stem that quivers as you pour the vodka but never buckles or slips out of the bottle. Drinkers say: