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The Appointment

Herta Müller


  The Land of Green Plums

  T H E


  T H E


  a n o v e l

  H E R T A M Ü L L E R

  Translated by Michael Hulse and Philip Boehm

  M E T R O P O L I T A N B O O K S

  Henry Holt and Company New York

  Metropolitan Books

  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

  title Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet

  by Rowohlt Verlag, Reinbek bei Hamburg.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data

  Müller, Herta.

  [Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet. English]

  The appointment : a novel/Herta Müller ; translated by

  Michael Hulse and Philip Boehm.— 1st American ed.

  p. cm.

  ISBN 0-8050-6012-X (hc.)

  I. Hulse, Michael, 1955– II. Boehm, Philip. III. Title.

  PT2673.U29234 H4813 2001

  833'.914—dc21 2001031246

  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 you
r 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:

  That stem sticks in its bottle just like your soul sticks in your body, that’s how the grass protects your soul.

  Their belief goes together with the burning taste in your mouth and the roaring drunk inside your head. The drinkers open the bottle, the liquid glugs into their glasses, and the first swallow slides down their throats. The soul begins to feel protected; it quivers but never buckles and never slips out of the body. Paul keeps his soul protected too; there’s never a day where he feels like giving up and packing it all in. Maybe things would be fine if it weren’t for me, but we like being together. The drink takes his day, and the night takes his drunkenness. When I worked the early morning shift at the clothing factory, I heard the workers say: With a sewing machine, you oil the cogs, with a human machine, you oil the throat.

  Back then Paul and I used to take his motorcycle to work every morning at five on the dot. We’d see the drivers with their delivery trucks parked outside the stores, the porters carrying crates, the vendors, and the moon. Now all I hear is the noise; I don’t go to the window, and I don’t look at the moon. I remember that it looks like a goose egg, and that it leaves the city on one side of the sky while the sun comes up at the other. Nothing’s changed there; that’s how it was even before I knew Paul, when I used to walk to the tram stop on foot. On the way I thought: How bizarre that something so beautiful could be up in the sky, with no law down here on earth forbidding people to look at it. Evidently it was permissible to wangle something out of the day before it was ruined in the factory. I would start to freeze, not because I was underdressed, but simply because I couldn’t get enough of the moon. At that hour the moon is almost entirely eaten away; it doesn’t know where to go after reaching the city. The sky has to loosen its grip on the earth as day begins to break. The streets run steeply up and down, and the streetcars travel back and forth like rooms ablaze with light.

  I know the trams from the inside too. The people getting on at this early hour wear short sleeves, carry worn leather bags, and have goose pimples on both arms. Each newcomer is measured and judged with a casual glance. This is a strictly working-class affair. Better people take their cars to work. But here, among your own, you make comparisons: that person’s better off than me, that one looks worse. No one’s ever in the exact same boat as you—that would be impossible. There’s not much time, we’re almost at the factories, and now all the people who’ve been sized up leave the tram, one after the other. Shoes polished or dusty, heels new and straight or worn down to an angle, collars freshly ironed or crumpled, hair parted or not, fingernails, watchstraps, belt buckles: every single detail provokes envy or contempt. Nothing escapes this sleepy scrutiny, even in the pushing crowd. The working class ferrets out the differences: in the cold light of morning there is no equality. The sun is in the streetcar, along for the ride, and outside as well, pulling back the white and red clouds in anticipation of the scorching midday heat. No one is wearing a jacket: the freezing cold in the morning counts as fresh air, because with noon will come the clogging dust and infernal heat.

  If I haven’t been summoned, we can sleep in for several hours. Daytime sleep is not deep black; it’s shallow and yellow. Our sleep is restless, the sunlight fa
lls on our pillows. But it does make the day a little shorter. We’ll be under observation soon enough; the day’s not going to run away. They can always accuse us of something, even if we sleep till nearly noon. As it is, we’re always being accused of something we can no longer do anything about. You can sleep all you want, but the day’s still out there waiting, and a bed is not another country. They won’t let us rest till we’re lying next to Lilli.

  Of course Paul also has to sleep off his drunk. It takes him until about noon to get his head square on his shoulders and relocate his mouth so he can actually speak and not just slur his words in a voice thick with drink. His breath still smells, though, and when he steps into the kitchen I feel as if I were passing the open door of the bar downstairs. Since spring, drinking hours have been regulated, and consumption of liquor is prohibited before eleven. But the bar still opens at six—brandy is served in coffee cups before eleven; after that they bring out the glasses.

  Paul drinks and is no longer himself, then he sleeps it off and is back to being himself. Around noon it looks as if everything could turn out all right, but once again it turns out ruined. Paul goes on protecting his soul until the buffalo grass is high and dry, while I brood over who he and I really are until I can no longer think straight. At lunchtime we’re sitting at the kitchen table, and any mention of his having been drunk yesterday is the wrong thing to say. Even so, I occasionally toss out a word or two:

  Drink won’t change a thing.

  Why are you making my life so difficult.

  You could paint this entire kitchen with what you put away yesterday.

  True, the flat is small, and I don’t want to avoid Paul; but when we stay at home, we spend too much of the day sitting in the kitchen. By mid-afternoon he’s already drunk, and in the evening it gets worse. I put off talking because it makes him grumpy. I keep waiting through the night, until he’s sober again and sitting in the kitchen with eyes like onions. But then whatever I say goes right past him. I’d like for Paul to admit I’m right, just for once. But drinkers never admit anything, not even silently to themselves—and they’re not about to let anyone else squeeze it out of them, especially somebody who’s waiting to hear the admission. The minute Paul wakes up, his thoughts turn to drinking, though he denies it. That’s why there’s never any truth. If he’s not sitting silently at the table, letting my words go right past him, he says something like this, meant to last the entire day: