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The Fox Was Ever the Hunter, Page 2

Herta Müller

  The client who threw out the cat will come here seven or eight more times, he said. That’s why I didn’t say anything, even though the cat hasn’t eaten a thing since. I don’t want to send a longtime client into the unknown with some other barber for his last haircuts. A wrinkle curled up from his mouth and sliced into his cheek.

  * * *

  Clara sits up on the blanket to put on her summer blouse. The thimble on her forefinger burns in the sun. Her legs are bony, in one motion she pulls them close to her chest and rocks forward as she puts on the blouse. It’s the movement of a bony bird who doesn’t need to do anything except gaze into the summer and be beautiful. The nearby poplar knife watches. The stubble growing back inside her shaved armpits has already turned into the chin of the man she’s talking about. A man with style, she says, is someone I’ve never met. But I wish.

  Clara laughs and straightens out her legs. Her wish is stoked by the sun and dizzied by the roof. Her head knows nothing of the green knives of the poplars, the edge of the roof, the clouds, the city. And that this roof in the sun is full of ants carrying dead flies. And that this roof in the sun is nothing more than a cliff in the sky.

  * * *

  The summer dress with the falling trees and the zipper made Adina forever wary of clothes. She often went to the seamstress’s workshop, where she would measure the lives of the women by the weight of the fabric scraps. She would sit and watch, determined to size up each client. She knew which woman’s scraps would soon fill a stamped-down sack that weighed as much as the woman. And she knew that after four more dresses, the woman from the slaughterhouse would die.

  * * *

  Clara takes a small, red-flecked summer apple out of her bag and holds it under Adina’s chin. The thimble glows, its sharp edge barely missing the apple skin. A small apple with a long, woody stem that takes up too much of what should have been flesh. Adina takes a deep bite. Spit it out, says Clara, there’s a worm. The fruit is burrowed with a brown, crumbly thread. Adina swallows what she’s bitten off, worm and all. It’s just an apple worm, she says, it grows inside the apple, it’s made of apple flesh. It doesn’t grow inside the apple, says Clara, it crawls inside, eats its way through and then crawls back out. That is its way.

  Adina eats, the bite crunches in her ear, what’s it supposed to do outside, she says, it’s nothing but apple, it’s white and eats white flesh and shits a brown path, once it eats its way through the apple it dies. That is its way.

  Clara’s eyes are small and without any makeup. The sky is empty and the poplar knives stand upright and green. Clara says nothing, she lies down on the blanket, her pupils roll down straight toward her mouth and her eyes close.

  A cloud hangs over the apartment block, white and churning. Old folk who die in summer float for a while above the city, lingering between bed and grave.

  Clara and the summer old folk are lying in the same sleep. Adina feels the way of the apple worm in her stomach. It runs through her pubic hair down the inside of her thighs and into the hollows of her knees.

  The man inside his own hand

  A shadow follows a woman, the woman is small and crooked, the shadow keeps its distance. The woman walks across the grass and sits on a bench outside the apartment block.

  The woman sits, the shadow stops. The shadow doesn’t belong to the woman, just as the shadow of the wall doesn’t belong to the wall. The shadows have abandoned the things they belong to. They belong only to the late afternoon, which is now past.

  Dahlias have been planted below the lowest row of windows in the apartment block. The flowers are wide open, the hot air has turned their edges to paper. The dahlias peer into kitchens and into rooms, into bowls and into beds.

  Smoke reeking of burned onions flies out of one of the kitchen windows and onto the street. A tapestry over the oven inside shows a stag in a forest glade. The stag is the same brown as the colander on the table. A woman licks a wooden spoon, a child stands on a chair, crying. The child has a bib around his neck. The woman uses it to wipe the tears from his face.

  The child is too big to be standing on the chair, too big to be wearing a bib. The woman has a blue mark on her elbow. A man’s voice shouts, those onions stink and you look like a cow bending over the pot like that, I’m getting the hell out of here, and as far as I can go, too. The woman looks inside the pot, blows into the smoke. In a quiet, stern voice she says, go ahead, pack your shitty things in a suitcase and crawl right back inside your mother. The man jerks the woman by the hair and slaps her in the face. Then the woman stands crying next to the child, while the boy quietly stares at the window.

  You were on the roof, says the child, and I saw your butt. The man spits out the window right past the dahlias. He’s naked from the waist up, his chest has several blue marks. What’s there to see, he says, watch and I’ll spit right between your eyes. His spit lands on the sidewalk, together with the shell of a sunflower seed. There’s a lot more to see looking out of my ass than at it, says the man. The child laughs, the woman lifts the child from the chair and holds him close. You’re laughing, you’re growing, she says, you’re getting bigger and bigger, and he’s going to beat me to death. The man laughs quietly, then loudly. You took him up on the roof didn’t you, says the woman.

  Every step of the sidewalk is spattered with spit and sprinkled with cigarette butts and sunflower seed husks. And now and then a squashed dahlia. On the curb is a page torn from a school notebook with the sentence, the speed of the blue tractor is six times greater than the speed of the red tractor.

  * * *

  School-day handwriting, the letters in one word falling on their back and in another on their face. And warts on the children’s fingers, dirt on the warts, clusters of warts like gray berries, fingers like turkey necks.

  Warts can also spread through contact with objects, said Paul, they can migrate onto any skin. Every day Adina touches the children’s notebooks and hands. The chalk scrapes against the blackboard, every word she writes could turn into a wart. The eyes in the faces are tired, they are not listening. Then the bell rings, and Adina goes to the teachers’ bathroom and looks in the mirror. She studies her face and neck, searching for a wart. The chalk eats away at her fingers.

  The wart clusters on the children are full of all the grabbing, all the pushing and kicking, squeezing and shoving, and full of all the bullying and bruising. They contain eager crushes and cruel snubs, the cunning calculation of mothers and fathers, relatives and neighbors and strangers. And if eyes well up or a tooth breaks or an ear bleeds there is simply a shrug of the shoulders.

  * * *

  A trolleybus passes by, windows lit, two sections connected by a wrinkled rubber-coated sleeve, an accordion. The horns glide along the wire overhead, the accordion opens and closes, dust billows from the bellows. The dust is gray, with fine hairs, and is warmer than the evening air. If the trolley is moving the city has electricity. The horns spray sparks into the trees, leaves drop onto the sidewalk from branches that lie too low. The poplars tower over all the streets, in the twilight they are darker than other trees.

  A man walks in front of Adina, carrying a flashlight. The city is often without power, flashlights are an extension of the hand. On pitch-black streets the night is all of one piece, and a person on foot is nothing but a sound. The man holds his flashlight with the bulb pointed backward. Evening pulls the last white thread through the end of the street. White tureens and stainless spoons shimmer in the display window. The man has yet to turn his flashlight on, he’s waiting until the end of one little street falls into the next. The minute he turns on the flashlight, he disappears. He becomes a man inside his own hand.

  The electricity isn’t switched off until it’s completely dark. Then the shoe factory no longer hums, and a candle burns at the gatehouse, where a man’s sleeve can be seen beside the candle. In front of the gatehouse is a dog that’s completely invisible except for a pair of glowing eyes. But his bark can be heard, and his paws on the asp

  The poplars advance onto every street. The houses crowd together. Candles are lit behind curtains. Parents hold their children up to the light because they want to look at their cheeks one more time before the next morning.

  Where the shrubbery is dense, night lurks poised between the foliage and assault. If the city is without power and dark, the night comes from below. First it cuts off the legs. The shoulders are still draped with a gray light, just enough for shaking heads or shutting eyes. But not enough to see by.

  Only occasionally do the puddles glow, but not for long, because the ground is thirsty and the summer is dry, after weeks and weeks of dust. A shrub grazes Adina’s shoulder. It has restless white flowers with a heavy, insistent fragrance. Adina switches on her flashlight, a circle falls into the dark, an egg. Inside the circle is a head with a beak. The light is not enough to see by, merely enough to make sure the night can’t devour all of Adina’s back, only half.

  The roses outside the apartment block weave a covering full of holes, a colander of dirty leaves and dirty stars. The night pushes the roses out of the city.

  The forelock

  The newspaper feels rough to the touch, but the dictator’s forelock stands out smooth and glossy, slick and shiny with pomade. The big flattened curl pushes all the smaller curls to the back of the head, where they get swallowed by the paper. On the rough newsprint are the words: The beloved son of the people.

  Everything that shines also sees.

  The forelock shines. It peers into the country every day, and it sees. Every day the dictator’s framed image takes up half the table. And the face below the curl takes up both hands when Adina rests them side by side. She looks straight into the void, and swallows her own breath.

  The black inside the dictator’s eye mirrors the shape and size of Adina’s thumbnails, if she crooks her thumbs just slightly. The black inside the eye stares out of the newspaper every day, peering into the country.

  * * *

  The optic nerve runs deep into the land. Towns and villages are squeezed together in one place, torn apart in another. Roads lose themselves in the fields, stopping at graves or by bridges or in front of trees. And trees strangle one another where they were never planted. Dogs stray, and where there are no houses they have long forgotten how to bark. They lose their winter coats, then their summer coats, they’re alternately shy and then savage when least expected. They are afraid and their paws smack their foreheads while they run, before they bite.

  And wherever the light from the black inside the eye falls, people feel the place where they are standing, the ground beneath their feet, they feel it rising steeply up their throat and sloping sharply down their back.

  * * *

  The light from the black inside the eye falls on the café, too, and on the park, and on the iron tables and chairs that are wrought into leaves and stems, as thin and white as twine. Except they’re heavier than they seem when a person tries to lift or slide them, because eyes are focused on the water and fingers are not expecting iron.

  The path next to the café runs along the river, the river runs along the path. Fishermen stand on the riverbank and all of a sudden there it is, in the water—the black inside the eye. Shining.

  Everything that shines also sees.

  Poplars cast their shadows down the stairs along the riverbank, the shadows break up on the steps and do not enter the water. When the streetcar crosses the bridge, new shadows push the smaller ones out into the current, just like the dictator’s forelock pushes his smaller curls to the back of his head.

  Poplar light mixes with poplar shade until the whole city is covered in stripes. Stone slabs, walls, clumps of grass, river and banks.

  No one is walking by the water, even though it’s a summer day, a summer practically made for strolling aimlessly along the river.

  The fishermen don’t trust the striped summer. They know the poplar shadows on the ground are the same thing as the poplars in the sky, knives.

  Fish won’t come anywhere near that, say the fishermen. When a dark stripe from the poplars falls on the fishing rods, the men move to sunnier grass and cast their lines into a brighter patch of water.

  A woman walks along the river, carrying a pillow tied up with string. She carries it in front of her, cradling it in both arms, the wind is beating from behind. Perhaps there’s a child inside, a sleeping infant with two heads, one on each end, where the strings have more slack. The woman’s arms are brown, but her calves are as white as the pillow. One of the fishermen eyes her calves. Her buttocks sway as she walks. The fisherman’s gaze falls into the water, wearied and shriveled by the poplars’ headstand. His eyes detect the slightest hint of evening. In the middle of the day it sneaks down the ridge of his nose. His fingers pull a cigarette from his pocket and hold it to his lips. The fire flares at one corner of his mouth, his hand grows big and covers the flame, the wind is picking up.

  The fishermen cast their lines into the river and pull out drowned grass, decaying socks and waterlogged underpants. And once a day, when the rods are bent and the lines drunk from imbibing the river bottom, an oily fish. Or maybe a dead cat.

  Even the tiniest touch of evening felt on the ridge of their noses steals everything. And what it can’t steal, it forbids. Including happiness, say the fishermen. The striped summer takes all the joy out of fishing.

  The poplars are full of pods that are neither fruit nor seed but galls, misshapen thimbles for flies and aphids. The bugs drop out of the poplars surrounding the café and crawl across the newspaper. Adina’s fingertips shove them into the dictator’s forelock, the flies crawl along his ear hairs, the aphids feel the bright glossy shine and play dead.

  The waitress lowers the tray, sees the face on the table, her cheekbones twitch, her ears burn. She averts her eyes so quickly that a blue vein of fear snaps across her temples as she sets the glass right on top of the dictator’s forehead. The lemonade is thinly streaked with yellow swirls, the forelock appears inside the glass. Adina clinks her spoon, the spoon shines, the lemonade shines, everything that shines also sees. A hot needle of light flashes across her forehead, the streetcar passes over the bridge, setting off waves in the river. Adina leaves her spoon in her drink, she doesn’t touch the glass and lets her hand rest just like the spoon. Adina is waiting for Clara and Paul. She turns her head away.

  Beyond the flat roof of the café is the park, beyond the park the rooftops are pointed. Here are the streets of the directors and inspectors, the mayors, secret police and army officers. The quiet streets of power, where even the wind is afraid when it starts to blow. And when it does blow it is afraid to eddy. And when it blusters it would rather break its own ribs than a branch. Dry leaves scratch across the walkways, quickly covering all tracks. If someone sets foot on these streets who does not live on one of them, who does not belong, it is for these streets as though nothing was there.

  The quiet streets of power abide in the breeze that forks the branches in the park and festoons them with leaves and picks up their rustling, the breeze that carries the clatter of footsteps along the river path, the breeze that causes people on both banks to lift their feet when they walk across the grass, even if it’s mowed, and raise their knees into their throats. Those who come here on foot prefer to pass unnoticed, with high, slow steps. Meanwhile inside their throats they are running, rushing. Once they reach the bridge, the city cloaks them in mindless noise, and they can breathe more easily, as the streetcar whooshes by, tugging their heads out of the silence.

  The masters of the quiet streets are never seen in their houses or gardens. Behind the fir trees, servants come and go up and down the stone steps. When they walk on the lawn, they draw their insides into their throats for fear of squashing the grass. When they cut the grass, a mirror appears in the whites of their eyes, where sickles and rakes gleam like scissors and combs. The servants don’t trust their own skins, because whenever they reach for something their hands cast a shadow. Their heads know t
hat they were born with dirty hands in dirty streets, and that their hands will never grow clean here in the silence. Only old. The clock ticks on the wall, the curtains billow, and when the servants open their masters’ refrigerators and look inside, a square of light falls on their feet, their eyes are startled, and their cheeks shiver at the thoughts that pass through their minds. The meat is packed in cellophane, the cellophane is coated with frost, the frost is white like stone, like the marble in the garden.

  In the gardens of the quiet streets there are no gnomes with caps. Nothing but sad, barefoot stones. Naked lions, white as snow-covered dogs, and naked wingless angels, like snow-covered children. Yet even here, when the winter proceeds along its orbit around the sun, the snow crusts yellow and breaks without melting.

  The servants live in the cellars underneath the houses, more likely to brush against pill bugs and mice than if they lived on the floorboards overhead. The servants’ husbands are all lying in the earth, the servants’ children have all left home. The servants are widows.

  * * *

  One of the servants has a daughter who teaches at the same school as Adina. And one day when they were walking by the river the daughter said, my mother works in the yellow house behind the round garden. And she raised her hand over her head and pointed out a house on the other side. Her eyes were dull, or perhaps her gaze was simply frozen, because the day was so cold and the water so close. She giggled as they crossed the bridge, then a streetcar passed and quashed the giggling. In the evening, said the servant’s daughter, when it’s already dark, the master of the house comes back from the Military Casino at Freedom Square, he’s an officer and spends his days there drinking. In the evening he doesn’t so much find his way back home as it finds him. Before he leaves, the waitresses put his officer’s cap on his head backward. So he teeters through the streets with the visor sticking out in back, until the way finds him. And every evening when he gets home, said the servant’s daughter, he and his wife go through the same ritual: DANUBE DELTA. The cathedral bell interrupted the servant’s daughter, she looked up and burst into laughter, the bell’s chiming clung to her lips. From the reflection in the display windows Adina once again sensed how close they were to the water. The servant’s daughter bent over to check her shoes, Adina could see the soles mirrored in her eyes. I don’t like these heels, the servant’s daughter said. She made a face and said DANUBE DELTA, and resumed her story.