Authors: Katharina Hagena
La mémoire ne nous servirait à rien
si elle fût rigoureusement fidèle.
Memory would be of no use to us
if it were strictly truthful.
GREAT-AUNT ANNA DIED FROM PNEUMONIA
when she was sixteen. They couldn’t cure it because her heart was broken and penicillin hadn’t yet been invented. It happened late one July afternoon. Anna’s younger sister, Bertha, ran howling into the garden and saw that with Anna’s rattling, dying breath all the red currants in the garden had turned white. It was a large garden; the scores of old currant bushes groaned under the heavy weight of the fruit. They should have been picked long before, but when Anna fell ill nobody gave a thought to the berries. My grandmother often told me this story, because it was she who had discovered the currants in mourning. Since that time there had only ever been black currants and white currants in my grandmother’s garden, and every attempt to plant a red bush had failed—only white berries would grow on the stems. But nobody minded: the white ones tasted almost as sweet as the red, when you juiced them they didn’t ruin your apron, and the jelly they made had a mysteriously pale translucent shimmer. “Preserved tears,” my grandmother called it. The shelves in her cellar still housed jars of all sizes with the currant jelly from 1981, a summer particularly rich in tears, Rosmarie’s final one. Once when my mother was looking for some pickled cucumbers she came across a jar from 1945: the first postwar tears. She donated it to the windmill association, and when I asked her why on earth she was giving away Granny’s wonderful jelly to a local museum she said that those tears were too bitter.
My grandmother Bertha Lünschen, née Deelwater, died long after Great-Aunt Anna, but for many years she hadn’t known who her sister was, what her own name was, or whether it was winter or summer. She had forgotten what shoes, wool, or spoons were for. Over a decade she cast off her memories with the same fidgety ease with which she plucked at the short white locks of hair at the nape of her neck or swept invisible crumbs from the table. I had a clearer recollection of the noise the hard, dry skin of her hand made on the wooden kitchen table than of the features of her face. Also of the way her ringed fingers always closed tightly around the invisible crumbs, as if trying to catch the shadows of her spirit drifting by; but maybe Bertha just wanted to cover the floor with crumbs, or feed the sparrows that in early summer loved taking dust baths in the garden and were forever uprooting the radishes. The table she later had in the care home was plastic, and her hand fell silent.
Before her memory went completely, Bertha remembered us in her will. My mother, Christa, inherited the land, Aunt Inga the stocks and shares, Aunt Harriet the money. I, the final descendant, inherited the house. The jewelry and furniture, the linen and the silver were to be divided up between my mother and aunts. Bertha’s will was as clear as springwater—and just as sobering. The stocks and shares were not particularly valuable, nobody except cows wanted to live on the pasture of the north German lowlands, there wasn’t much money left, and the house was old.
Bertha must have remembered how much I used to love the house. But we didn’t find out about her will until after the funeral. I went on my own; it was a long, circuitous trip involving a number of trains. I set off from Freiburg and had to travel the entire length of the country until finally, right up in the village of Bootshaven at the stop opposite my grandmother’s house, I got off a bus. From a ghostly small-town station it had taken me around all the local villages until it was practically empty. I was worn down by the journey, the grieving, and the feelings of guilt you always have when someone dies whom you loved but didn’t know very well.
Aunt Harriet had come, too. She wasn’t called Harriet anymore; now her name was Mohani. But she wasn’t wearing orange robes, nor was she bald. Only the wooden-bead necklace with a picture of her guru indicated her new state of enlightenment. And yet, with her short henna-red hair and Reebok trainers, she looked different from the other black-clad figures who were gathering in small groups outside the chapel. I was pleased to see Aunt Harriet again, although I felt uneasy and nervous when I realized that the last time I had seen her was thirteen years earlier. That was when we had had to bury Rosmarie, Harriet’s daughter. The unease was a feeling I was very familiar with, because each time I looked at my face in a mirror I thought of Rosmarie. Her funeral had been unbearable; maybe it’s always unbearable when fifteen-year-old girls are buried. As they told me afterward, I had fainted into a deep unconsciousness. All I could recall was that the white lilies on the coffin gave off a warm, damp, and sweet smell that stuck in my nostrils and fizzed in my throat. I couldn’t breathe. Then I spun into a white hole.
I’d woken later, in the hospital. When I fell I had hit my head on a stone and the wound needed stitches. It left a scar above the bridge of my nose, a pale mark. That was the first time I had ever fainted, but since then I have fainted plenty of times. Fainting is a family trait.
After her daughter died, Aunt Harriet turned her back on her faith. She went to the Bhagwan—poor thing, her friends said. To the sect. Although they uttered the word “sect” in hushed tones, as if they feared that it was lying in wait, ready to pounce, shave their heads, and leave them to stagger through the streets of the world, clanging cymbals with childish delight, a clutch of abandoned lunatics like those from
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
. But Aunt Harriet didn’t look as if she was planning to get out her cymbals at Bertha’s funeral. When she saw me she gave me a hug and planted a kiss on my forehead. More precisely, without saying a word she kissed the scar on my forehead and then nudged me on to my mother, who was standing beside her.
My mother looked as if she had been crying for the past few days. When I saw her my heart tightened into a crinkled lump. How dreadful to have to bury your own mother, I thought as I put my arms around mine. My father was standing next to my mother, supporting her; he seemed much smaller than the last time I’d seen him and there were lines on his face I had never seen before. Aunt Inga stood to one side; she had come on her own. In spite of her red eyes she looked breathtaking. Her beautiful mouth arched downward, which on her face gave an impression of pride rather than sadness. And although her dress was modest and high-necked, it looked more like a little black number than a garment of mourning. She grasped both my hands, and I winced briefly when I got a small electric shock from her left hand. She was wearing her amber bracelet on her right wrist. Her hands felt warm, hard, and dry.
It was a sunny June afternoon. I looked around at the other people; there were flocks of white-haired women with thick-lensed glasses and black handbags. The ladies from Bertha’s social circle. The former mayor had also turned up, and then of course there was Carsten Lexow—my mother’s old teacher—as well as a few school friends, some distant cousins of my aunts and mother, and three tall men who stood beside one another seriously and awkwardly. They were immediately recognizable as former admirers of Aunt Inga’s because they hardly dared look her in the eye but never let her out of their sight. The Koops—the neighbors—had come, and a few people I couldn’t place, maybe from the care home, maybe from the funeral director’s, maybe from Granddad’s old law firm.
Afterward, everyone went to the café beside the cemetery to eat buttercake and drink coffee. As always happens after funerals, the mourners all started talking at once, first in a murmur, then gradually more loudly. The three admirers were now standing around Aunt Inga, their legs wide apart and their backs very straight. It seemed as if Aunt Inga had been expecting them to pay homage, but at the same time she accepted it with gentle irony.
The women from the social circle sat together and held a social. Grains of sugar and slivers of almonds stuck to their lips. They ate in the same way that they spoke: slowly, loudly, and constantly. My father and Herr Lexow helped the two waitresses, bringing silver platters heaped with square slices of buttercake from the kitchen and placing one coffee pot after another on the tables. The women from the social circle joked a little with these two attentive young gentlemen and tried to get them to join their group. While my father respectfully flirted back, Herr Lexow smiled anxiously and fled to the neighboring tables. He had to live here, after all.
When we left the café it was still warm. Herr Lexow fastened metal clips around the bottoms of his trouser legs and climbed onto a black bicycle that was leaning unlocked against a wall. He raised his hand briefly and rode off toward the cemetery. My parents and aunts stayed by the entrance to the café, squinting in the evening sun.
My father cleared his throat. “Those gentlemen from the law firm—you saw them. Bertha left a will.”
the lawyers. My father wasn’t finished; he opened his mouth to speak again, but paused. The three sisters continued to look at the red sun and said nothing.
“They’re waiting at the house.”
It was summer when Rosmarie died, too, although in the evenings the scent of autumn had started to creep in from the meadows. You could cool down quickly by lying on the ground. I thought of my grandmother buried underground, of the damp black hole where she now lay. Peaty soil, black and rich, but beneath it, sand. The earth that had been shoveled into a heap beside her grave was drying out in the sun, and a constant trickle of sand was running off it, like an egg timer, into small moraines.
“That’s me,” Bertha had once groaned. “That’s my head.”
She nodded at the egg timer on the table and rose smartly from her chair. Her hip swiped the egg timer off the table. The thin wooden frame broke and the glass shattered, spattered. I was a child then and her illness had not yet reached the stage where it was particularly noticeable. I got down on my knees and spread the pale sand across the black-and-white stone floor with my index finger. The sand was very fine and twinkled in the light of the kitchen lamp. My grandmother stood beside me, sighing, and asked how I could have broken the lovely hourglass. When I said it was she who had done it she shook her head, over and over again. Then she swept up the grains of sand and the glass shards and tipped them into the dustbin.
Aunt Harriet took my arm, and I gave a start.
“Shall we go?” she asked.
I tried to free myself from her gentle grip; she let go straightaway. I could sense her giving me sideways glances.
We walked to the house; Bootshaven is a very small village. People nodded solemnly as we passed. Occasionally an old woman would stand in our way and offer her hand in condolence, although not to my father. I didn’t know any of them, but they all seemed to know me and said softly—out of respect for our grief and yet with a barely suppressed triumph—that somebody had noticed I looked like the Christel lass. It took me a while to realize that the “lass” was my mother.
You could see the house from a fair distance. The façade was overrun with Virginia creeper, and the upstairs windows were nothing but rectangular recesses in the dark green undergrowth. The two old lime trees on the drive had grown as high as the roof. When I placed my hand on the wall of the house, the rough red stones felt warm. A gust of wind blew through the creeper, the limes nodded, the house gave a short sigh.
The lawyers were standing at the bottom of the steps that led up to the front door. One flicked away his cigarette when he saw us coming. Then he bent down swiftly to retrieve the butt. As we climbed the broad steps his head was bowed. He knew that we had seen him: the back of his neck had flushed red and he was rummaging around intently in his briefcase. The two other men were gazing at Aunt Inga; both of them were younger than her but they immediately started fawning over her. One of them took a key from his case and gave us an inquiring look. My mother took the key and slid it into the lock. When the brass bell by the topmost hinge of the door clanged noisily, the same half-smile appeared on the faces of all three sisters.