My father’s mother once dragged her adversary out of the house by the hair. By the hair she grabbed hold of her, says my father, and whirled her around in the hall once or twice before throwing her out. His father, my grandfather, didn’t have a chance. And his father’s mistress wasn’t half so impressive as the woman he had married. Tremendous, says my father, is what his mother was. Just think, he says: She survived Siberia. Siberia! Survived all those things nearly all the others died of: four weeks in a boxcar, drinking water out of puddles, sleeping on top of corpses, raped thirteen times, the cold, the work and not enough to eat, two bouts of typhus, she’d had to bite into rotten herring for the salt to save her life, and then the trip back to Germany under the name of a dead person, smuggled among the wounded on a medical transport, head shaved and scabrous, traveling homeward in the place of one who’d already died. Out of the question, my father says, that someone like his mother would have wasted her breath discussing the woman she found in her place when she returned home. By the hair she’d grabbed hold of her, her husband’s mistress, screaming: you parasite, you vermin, so you thought you’d make your nest here? and then whirled her around by the hair, whirled her twice around the hall and slammed her against the wall so that the Jesus hanging there was knocked crooked.
And after all that, my father says, after all of it: Not a single bad thing to say about the Russians. Just think. Not one bad thing about the Russians. The prisoners had been fed, not much and only soup, watery soup, but all the same there was food, she always said—while the families of the victors themselves had nothing to eat in their own country. Her guards’ children had died, but she survived, those were his mother’s words, my father says.
Her grand entrance, he says, you can’t imagine such a thing. Like a barbarian warrior she came late one night perched high atop a tank truck: his mother, high up in the air, straddling a milk tank, one leg on either side, and her face covered in welts from the trees lining the Brandenburg roads. She’d slid down from this milk truck straight into his life, and still he didn’t recognize her, my father says, hadn’t even known he was missing a mother, since he’d gotten by for three years without one. But all the same it was impressive, he’d stood there in the courtyard overwhelmed by how impressive she was. She was like a vision, he says. My mother: a vision. She’d called him by his name, she knew his name and knew that it was him, and then she slid down from the tank to the ground, landing on both feet, squatted down on the sand in front of him, and said his name over and over. But he didn’t know who the woman was, didn’t know she was his mother. And so he didn’t say a word, but then she took him in her arms, clasped her powerful arms around him, and she smelled of vanilla, filthy as she was, vanilla. Then she got up, he says, and ran quickly the few steps into the house, into the hallway, and from the hallway to the kitchen door. In the kitchen she found the two of them sitting there. Nothing out of the ordinary, my father says, they were just eating, after all it was noon.
Although she’d been through so much, she’d returned home bursting with strength. Probably she’d needed this strength, my father says, to push the war away from her. Perhaps the difficulty was that things simply went on, that she knew what she might have lost, but it wasn’t lost, it was still there. I think now, my father says, that her strength was just a measure of how hard she’d had to struggle. Clearly, he says, it must have been a struggle for his mother to value life just because she’d been sent to Siberia three years before. That’s no doubt why she was always so tempestuous, because she herself didn’t know if she could hold back the earthquake that had shaken her life.
A fury, she was, his mother, a force of nature. I’ll never forget, he says, the way she grabbed the other woman by the shoulders without a word, her eyes like daggers, and shook her hard, because her rage was so balled up behind her teeth that she couldn’t get out a single word. And how the words then burst out of her and she slapped the woman, screaming: You whore, you spineless whore, what are you doing in my house, grabbed the woman by her hair and dragged her out of the kitchen into the hall, whirled her around, addressing her as a parasite and vermin, and finally threw her out the door and down the steps—those couple of steps, my father says, whose banister is now so rusted it’s all about to fall off altogether. The woman clutched at that banister, trying to catch herself, she says, but she couldn’t, because of the force with which his mother had hurled her. The contrast was striking, my father says, on the one hand this voice, this tremendous voice, and on the other just the sounds of their struggle. She didn’t dare utter a single word, the other woman, he says.
She was an unprepossessing woman, his father’s mistress, certainly no beauty, and she never said much, not even during the time she lived with them, before his mother’s return from Siberia. She didn’t dare speak to him, the son, he says, she just cooked and straightened the house, always in silence. Your shrinking violet, his mother always called her later, talking to his father, but his father never protested. My mother was beautiful, always, my father says. You can see that in the pictures. Before she was interned, her face was smooth and round as an apple, shiny somehow, with lots of healthy flesh beneath the skin, round and firm. But during her captivity, her skin became transparent, as you can see in the later photographs, and when he compares the pictures he finds this even more beautiful. Suddenly you could look right into her, the flesh beneath her skin melted away, but what was inside her blossomed out. If you can imagine what I mean. She looked, my father says, as if everything she’d experienced had made her skin thinner, rubbed away at her surface and brought to light what lay beneath it. He can still remember, he says, how when he was a child and she and she told him stories, he would always imagine he could look through her skin and see everything she had experienced. Siberia is a beautiful place, she would say again and again, and then he would look through her and see Siberia with perfect clarity: a cold, marvelous expanse, forests opening out behind his mother’s cheeks and stretching on and on, endless reaches of desolate wilderness, was bodies of water. In spring it always took a long time for the ground to thaw, but it was good earth, fertile, she often said, and lots of room, plenty of space everywhere. If she hadn’t had to come back to her family, she would have liked to stay there, she sometimes said.
If she hadn’t had us to come back to, she wouldn’t have come back at all, my father says. We were her objective, and so it was obvious that when she’d reached her objective she had to be at home. Physically she was far weaker than my father’s mistress, but she hadn’t had any other choice but to take control of her life again. If you haven’t seen it with your own eyes, my father says, it isn’t possible to believe how much strength a person can summon in order to pull something out of the past into the present. She’d slapped the other woman in the kitchen as if this were a way to revive her past, which had drowned. Wake it up with a few powerful slaps and call it back to life. That was something he was never able to forget, my father says: the simplicity and clarity of my mother’s response. Quite simply she had used her own body to eject that other body, replaced one flesh with another, asserted her physicality in the space where another had been. Later, he often thought of how, when the other woman was gone, she took the food the woman had prepared for her husband off the table and tipped it into the ashcan. She’d taken the onions and potatoes and fat and begun to cook. His father hadn’t said a word.
After his father’s wife came home from Siberia, my father says, he had scarcely any chance to see his mistress and therefore began to write her letters. I followed him, saw how he hid the letters in a crack in a stone wall, where she later fished them out. His shrinking violet, my father says. Fishing letters out of dark crevices suited her character, it seemed to be enough for her. Nothing like his mother’s greatness. A coward is what she was, not once did she dare come to the house, just laid down her arms without a fight. His father knew what he was doing when he wrote his letters shorthand, because if they had been legible, he, the son, would surely have to read them and reported their contents to his mother. To this day, my father says, he doesn’t know and can’t imagine what his father could have had to say to this woman that was so urgent—this woman who wasn’t even willing to fight for him. All it had taken was being thrown down the stairs to make her give up. Certain things cannot be attained without a physical struggle, and love is foremost among them, that is what his mother taught him. He believes, he says, that in the end his father realized how much more impressive his wife was than his mistress. Otherwise, he would have taken some sort of action, my father says. In the end his father was glad his wife had returned home. Otherwise, even with his one leg, it would have been easy for him to defend the mistress, wouldn’t it have been? Even with just the one leg, he was still much stronger than his wife. But he didn’t want to fight, that’s all, my father says. Because he didn’t want to fight, that’s all, my father says. Because he didn’t think it was worth it. That’s why. The one unfortunate thing the two of them had in common was their cowardice. It was a mystery to him, the son, even then, what his father was unable to discuss with his mother. He himself was constantly asking his mother for advice. Life experience, he says, his mother had more of it than anyone. Naturally, he says, after all that time.
His father never talked to him in those days, says my father, but recently, as if he had a perfect right to do so, he’s been showing up in his dreams. Just last night, he says, his father took him by the hand and went out with him in a boat on a lake. But the lake kept getting larger and larger as his father towed, until finally the shoreline vanished and it turned into a sea. And there, in the middle of the sea, his father attempted to talk to him. But he, the son, had been unable to hear anything because a strong wind kept sweeping his father’s words from his lips and spraying them across the water in all directions. He saw his father’s words flying into strangers’ windows and out of strangers’ doors, chasing clouds of dust through the streets and stripping the trees to their skeletons, saw them being inhaled and filling strangers’ lungs, resting upon tongues of water and then flying on, a journey without end. At last his father fell silent, and then the wind died down, leaving only the sound of the water knocking softly against the boat, and finally there was perfect silence, a silence white as a sheet of paper, and upon this sheet of paper he could still read the sentence his father had spoken into the silence of a dream: The truth, his father said, is made of different stuff than a joint of pork. At that moment, he, the son, realized that the boat was frozen fast in the water, and he and his father had to get out and cross the ice on foot to return home. Since morning, he hasn’t been able to escape the notion that truth is a wind that is rocking that boat on some sea somewhere for all eternity, now that it’s gotten warmer and the boat has been released from the ice and is drifting away. His dreams have become inhospitable ever since his father began to visit him in his sleep, my father says.
My mother was clever, my father says. Siberia is a beautiful place, she often said, and so to this day he thinks of Siberia as beautiful. The land is fertile, good soil for wheat, so good you don’t even have to fertilize. Twice a year they can bring in the harvest, there in Siberia, if they aren’t too lazy. The soil has that much to give. His mother, my father says, always had an eye for beauty, a capacity he’s always envied her for. It simply didn’t interest her whether or not his father continued his relations with his sweetheart. Once she had dragged the woman out of the kitchen, thrown her out of the house and down the stairs, the matter ceased to interest her. She’d torn the woman’s claims off her body like a stolen dress, pulled her desires up over her head like a skin and then given her a kick—but with that, my father says, she considered the matter settled. She wasn’t at all the sort to hold a grudge, my father says, and had no need to. She cast a bright light on all things just and unjust, that was her nature, her intelligence quite simply radiated a dazzling light—and of course, though she never wasted so much as a thought on the matter, it caused the objects of her scrutiny to stand out in sharp relief. His mother was clever, my father says. Surely she realized that everything this light had touched was left blind.
He, the son, had been unable to stop himself from spying on his father. After his mother’s return, his father seemed to him like someone who’d been shot at but not killed. The comparison isn’t good, my father says, because in the end it was just the reverse: his mother had returned from her internment with an enormous will to live, but his father had no longer been able to take pleasure in life. After his leg was gone and he’d been released from military service, he hadn’t spoken much in any case, but after his wife’s return he became nearly dumb. Like a ghost his father seemed to him, my father says, as if you could have put your right hand through him like air. Without touching flesh, without touching anything at all that might have offered resistance. It was uncanny, my father said. He remembers quite clearly how he was practically obsessed with spying on his father, trying to find out something; at the time he didn’t know quite what, and he still doesn’t know. A real mania for surveillance took hold of him. Mania, he says, is no doubt the right word for what became his principal occupation. The war had taught them a contempt for waste. And what a waste it was, he says, that his mother had returned to this man—returned from Siberia to this man. All his mother’s qualities that pleased him so much were swallowed up by his father, his father who appeared to be nothing but a big, deep, silent hole, a garbage depot. And this he found infuriating, the son: to watch how this man, through his silence, turned all his wife’s gifts into garbage.
Often he spied on his father as he sat in the shed, sat utterly immobile between the stacks of firewood, holding a letter in his hand and reading. Of course she replied to his letters, the shrinking violet, my father says. But beyond that, nothing. She didn’t fight for him. Just wrote letters. Utterly immobile he sat there, his father, reading her response and drinking. He would wedge the bottle of schnapps between the pieces of wood and set the glass beside him on the chopping block. The little glass with the pale blue stripe. He always filled the glass to the stripe, never above it, and he always drank while he was reading, but the glass was never filled above the pale blue stripe. In the end, my father says, this mistress was responsible for my father’s premature death. Reading her letters out in the woodshed is how he began to drink, never more than one little glass at a time, but still drinking. It wasn’t the leg, my father says. When you have a wife like my mother, he says, you don’t have to worry about going through life on a single leg. Not, it wasn’t the leg at all, my father says. It was those damn letters.
Then things got bad, he says. One evening his father got so drunk he fell into the mirror, the big mirror that used to hang in the hallway across from the Jesus. He cut his face and arm, and everything was full of blood. He and his mother put his father on a sled and pulled him behind them all night long until they reached the town where the hospital was. His mother always did what was needed, but never discussed this. She was a strong woman, he says. My mother, he says, always smelled nice even when she was dirty I could touch her, and when she got angry she would start screaming. A passionate woman, he says, whereas his father always avoided anything that might prove difficult. After the war, at least. He has no memory, he says, of what his father had been like before the war. He doesn’t want to do him an injustice, but after the war, in any case, his father was simply tired all the time and nothing more. In the end, the best thing that could have happened to him was for his wife to come home and take charge of their son’s upbringing. Even that had been too much for his father: to take his own child in hand, my father, who was still quite small at the time. It was too much for him, let alone for his mistress. One day, for example, my father wanting to exert his childish will, started screaming at the top of his lungs and broke a glass, then picked up the shards and threatened to swallow them. His father had merely glanced up at him briefly and said only a single sentence, and after this sentence had gone back to working on the plumbing. The war is over, he’d said, and then calmly back to work, allowed his child to go on standing there beside him with the shards in his hand while he paid no more attention to what was happening. A far cry from his mother’s greatness. In this first moment, when he saw this woman seize his father’s mistress, saw her unhesitatingly take hold of what displeased her, whirl it from wall to wall and throw it out, in this moment he was able to recognize his own make-up, my father says. Without knowing this woman was his mother, he nonetheless recognized her. She was in my bones, my mother, he says.
His mother had had to go through a great deal because of the war, but she loved life, perhaps even more so because of the war. All the dead bodies she’d seen had made her enamored of life. His father, however, he’s since come to believe, was one of the ones who, because of the war, switched over to the side of death, despite having survived. When he returned from the war, it was as if he’d been infected with death, as if his kin no longer contained living matter, as is usually the case, but on the contrary helped shield him from the living. He can still remember, he says, the way his father pushed his mother’s hand away when she wanted to touch him. He spent the rest of his life retreating, as though that were his special illness. With his last breath, he was still pushing away his mother’s hand.
But the day he became bedridden, the other woman began coming to stand on the opposite side of the street. Apparently she knew his father was dying, but she never came any closer. He can remember how, himself just a child at the time, he watched her through the curtains of the sickroom. She stood there in a bright print dress, looking over at our house. His father was by this time no longer clear in the head. He kept moving his finger across the bedclothes as though searching for a spot on a map, and kept saying he wanted to go back there some day. With his father’s voice behind him and the woman in the print dress before him, these two impressions joined forces within him, the son, to make it seem as if his father’s illness was a journey whose itinerary was printed on the dress of the woman standing outside. Repeat might not be the right word after all, my father says.
My father and I are sitting in the hall, beneath the Jesus, and everything that used to be in the cupboards is lying spread around us on the floor. We are sitting among linens and clothes, boxes and folders, books, vases, and old chinaware. We turn pages, open, lay to one side, pick up, unfold, and lay to one side. Everything is full of dust. The rubber bands my grandmother used to bundle her photographs together are so dry they disintegrate when we take the pictures in our hands. Boxes have collapsed under their own weight, trunks are missing their keys, coats have been eaten by moths, suitcases smell bad when we open them, the bed linens are all ironed. It’s strange, my father says, that after the death of his father his mother continued to run the household just as she had done when he was alive. His life was frozen inside hers. And now it’s all rotting, all of it together.
Turn pages and open, lay to one side, pick up, unfold, lay to one side, hold out, crumple, tear up, lay to one side.
I’m afraid, my father says, that I might find the letters.