Kurt Beals is the recipient of a 2014 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for his translation of Regina Ullmann’s collection of short stories The Country Road. With this translation, Beals introduces English-language readers to a sui generis early twentieth-century Swiss writer. Regina Ullmann was an outsider artist greatly admired by Musil, Mann, and Hesse, and especially championed by Rilke. Her sad and haunted voice is like no other—harsh and delicate; acrid and violet-scented. Beals’ ventriloquism is astonishing in these eerie bucolic tales of loneliness, love, death, and loss. Read Beals’ essay on translating The Country Road here.
And the same thing returns again and again, as if there were only one life in great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, in grandfather, father, and children.
Oh how bright it would be in us if one day we could work this off, if we could begin…
When the strawberries ripen in the woods and gardens and spread their many-colored fragrance along the currents of the air, when we feel childhood and the morning of a mother, of the many working people all around us in the world, the city with its greening gardens surging like waves around its walls, when we feel how even all the voiceless things are owners and bearers of life when the time is right, then we grow more confident, more comforting, and not for nothing. We are young ourselves, and we share in the beauty of a June day, we are deep within it like a blackbird’s song. But because we can have all this without sharing in the effort of existence, because we are not prepared to fall from the air like birds, because we need a shelter all the same, and cannot merely view the earth from above like a relief, there is danger even in such beauty. Suddenly we are no longer there as people for the people around us, the path of our fate has vanished like a dead man’s… We live outside of our being, and one day we are found like a plant, slowly rotting into the earth.
Then clarity must help us, if it comes at the right time, that clarity that many call love, the evergreen landscape of our own hearts.
The strawberries were ripening under their dark-haired leaves; it brought to mind an old picture in our house, with its view from the palace and the palace garden of the chaste Susanna at her bath…
There were hands that grew lecherous at the sight, like those two old men. They were prepared to risk dishonor in the eyes of the whole world: and yet they did it…
But when the one who is defiled is a garden, then only the deep blue June sky is the judge, and only the seemingly silent road is the world, the gardens with their grey stone enclosures, with their silver-green shrubbery, with the arabesques of shadows on the grey faces of the houses.
A narrow garden wrapped around the house; the type of garden little people keep, only there to be looked at. But not just by those passing in the street outside; inside, too, bright blossoms bore ripening pears, though it was hard to say for whom.
First of all, there was the man who owned the house and garden, but he didn’t live in the house or in the garden, he lived up on the mountain, and no one had ever seen him harvesting his fruit. And when he was working there during the day—for the house in which we lived was just his factory building—when he looked down from his window, everything jumped: his tenants’ children and the butterflies and the butterflies’ shadows and a bird that swooped down with a chirp to catch a small caterpillar. And the pears and red currants were not yet ripe. And between the bright days there was always a night, and no one knew if it was the birds or the unguarded minds of children that so quickly caught sight of the yellow and red colors and shapes amidst the green foliage, and saw the garden only in its berries. Or was it a thief who came in the night; an outright thief, which is just what he wished to be called, for what would have become of him if someone had recognized him and called him by his proper name? No, no one wanted to catch a man like that. They would much rather strew a bit of salt on the little birds’ tails during the day.
Those were the thoughts of the factory owner and boss as he looked out the window at the garden before the harvest, and his thoughts were so mild that he was content with them.
Yet it’s easy to be benevolent on a whim like that. Such a whim won’t take you at your word. You can go home from work to a cozy table feeling pleased with yourself for being a just man. Indeed, it seems that such a good deed of omission, lying out in the sun like an ostrich egg, has a way of inspiring particular confidence. You laugh in silence. The whole world turns to gold when you touch it.
But outside the scent is drifting on the air. It wafts through the rooms, across the empty platters arranged on the credenzas, it hides in a bouquet of flowers. But perhaps it finds a little bunch of strawberries in a glass jar and collects around them, growing into a large, invisible, aromatic bouquet.
Oh, if there were angels that lived from fruit alone, their arms folded over their breasts, they would eat the ripe fruits from the stalk where they hung and waited, angels whose incense would be the fragrance of flowers and fruits.
But nowhere is this the case, this kiss must remain in the realm of the unfulfilled.
In the northward-facing rooms, the day ascended only gradually to its peak. The shadow of the foliage still fell heavily into the sitting room, colliding with it. The lightest things were the real sounds, the canary hopping up and down, up to its perch and then down to the sand and then up to its perch again. And the clock, always the clock; but the clock again, with its numbered hours that only mattered in the morning and around midday, pounded like the pulse in a mother’s freshly washed hand, resting for a moment in her lap. When such a room has been aired out and freshly made up by a mother, it is as if a child were lying there in a cradle. Everything hums at this early hour.
The curtains, though, hang motionless in their bluish folds. The narcissus is reflected in the window pane. The loving look that the mother cast back on the room before she dutifully left, returning its greeting, hangs in the air.
And the shouts that filter in from the street have no place here: nor does the wagon that inscribes the road outside with its slow roll. That is a script of its own. These fully written tablets are always held up for the room to see. But the room does not see them. The day inside has its own currency.
Then, I can’t remember, drummers and pipers passed by, suddenly all the windows were open, and someone who was already making his way again down the steps and through the corridors called out, recollecting his happiness: “Oh, strawberries!”
Yes, their scent was there, and the silence, too, it was precious…
We children came home. We were small and still unfamiliar in that street. Only the nearest neighbors knew what clothes we wore, what we ate from day to day, how our mother was … Those who lived further down the road only knew our name, they tried it out on each of us, the way people call young animals to them, which then go on their way once they see that this is not their master.
So we, more knowing even than older people and yet less real than anything, gradually made our way home that day. We had brought the garden with us, so to speak. There was space for it in this big, wide parlor. And the room had been alone long enough. The sun-circled strawberries were firmly in our minds. It was as if someone had held them before our eyes. Not scattered about, as we see them today and tomorrow, but the way that only the birds surely see them, with their berry-round eyes.
But we weren’t just thinking about the fenced-in garden with the little rose bushes, with the wreaths of strawberries, with the fragrance of chestnut blossoms. The street itself was on our minds. We played there with our hands even while they lay waiting on the tables, as children’s hands will before lunch. We didn’t speak. The gold of the midday sun called for silence. But our mother came. The narcissus flowers were ruffled by the sudden draft, the curtains floated up in their white house dress. Now we could speak and eat. Perhaps it was nothing but hunger and weariness… To be sure, we were hungry and weary, but still we had no desire to speak and eat. It was a true witching hour around midday. Even mother’s face didn’t seem to be there. It was still over the stove.
Not a single sweet word was to be found there, and it could have been just an everyday word—we felt no need at all to please each other, we simply loved each other—but even those daily words could not be found.
It’s a strange thing about human thoughts. If I told someone this story, he would probably have trouble saying at this point what it was about, since nothing had been thought yet, nothing had been done. It had only been felt: just down the street, where the houses ended, was the small strawberry garden, pierced through by thousands of the sun’s trembling arrows. And its ripe blood seemed to be measured in hours. And its leaves offered drowsy cover. The fragrance was flowing. We knew: one minute we would smell the chestnut flowers with bees humming around them, the next a round bed of narcissus, the next the gentle scent of pansies. But when the strawberries floated over to us again, this meal seemed bleak and burdensome, far from inviting; we wanted to stand up and go.
On workdays there was no dessert for us. And so our proper, homely meal was no match for this June day. We stood as if caught in a small cage of spring and summer.
And our mother, young and grown at once, had firmly closed her heart to all those fenced-in gardens. Her face offered no intercession. Particularly where the narrow garden around our own white house was concerned, she thought that it fell outside the realm of her experience, and so she advised us to play in the streets and gardens further along. After all, the small garden door might suddenly give way. Who knew the magic of its summer pleasure…
Perhaps you will argue that the three of us had never learned to go without. But what does it mean to go without—assuming that we really couldn’t do it—if not to take pleasure in looking at things. We returned from our trips to market feeling sated, and often we hadn’t bought a single bouquet, a single basket of early cherries. And the treasure chest of our minds was wide open. But the little mirror inside that chest had only to reflect the ground; it showed the stand piled high with fruit and vegetables. But we felt how that world, like jewelry and old music, was transformed and passed over into us.
But the strawberry garden did not want to be transformed. It was the garden of all gardens; no one’s sweat and toil, no one’s property, and yet closed off, seemingly given over to itself. It was basically only a small front garden that looked down onto a round plaza and the broad street below, but it emerged powerfully from the earth: it had already conquered our hearts. From that moment on, all the other things no longer worked for us.
But what that can mean for a child, to be without a world…
Meanwhile we still played in the sand in the park, as mother had told us to do. Our small wooden wagon was loaded with stones. There were stones everywhere. Stones in colors and forms more varied than thoughts. There seemed to be a stone for every stroke of fancy, for every grasp. But they were hard nonetheless, stones through and through. In the end that drove us away from that place. This human language of renunciation and utter solitude was strange and almost eerie for us children.
We rose and went up the street, our hands resting gently on the wagon’s steering rod. We went in a hurry. It seemed that no one saw us. We went around the village fountain beneath the lindens, we went around each tree. Finally we sang a little May song, but quietly, as if no one should hear it, in the blindness of the sun. We were alone; we were small, and that offered us cover, made us almost invisible. We stood mutely before the iron bars of the front garden, while time after time went by. We saw nothing. The leaves were rough and jagged, but then a strawberry caught our eye, as if unexpectedly. But then a hand was already on the latch of the small gate. And the wagon followed. And we sat at the edge of the bushes and looked under the leaves and reached under the leaves. And the fruit was sweet, at the height of its sweetness. The berries fell into our hands as soon as we touched those clusters. And so many… We looked down at our hands: we held four of our hands together, small hands, and their lines, like the lines of our faces, had barely begun to form.
Then we looked at the little wagon. And we found that gravel belonged with gravel, so we emptied it out.
And then, with effusive eagerness, we covered the empty bottom of the wagon with leaves. And there was one strawberry and then another and soon it was red upon red. And when we were tired and squatting like little hares, unable to continue, late afternoon had already come to the world outside. The evening street was clear upon clear. Every door was a mouth, every window a face, and all at once we felt that all the gardens were open to us. Suddenly we were afraid. We were still alone. Then we rose, and the little wagon followed, what else could it have done… We guarded it carefully against tipping over. I can still remember the way that someone looked down at us from a closed window, astonished and curious. But it was unthinkable that the strawberries did not belong to us, if we were pulling them home so openly in our wagon. We could see that in the person’s face. But we were like thieves in the night, our appearance betrayed nothing. Even if someone had suddenly asked us: “Who are you, and what have you done here,” it could not have startled us out of our dream-sure wakefulness. We had truly forgotten ourselves, were no longer real. Our knowledge was no knowledge at all. So we returned home.
We were happy to find that there was no one in the rooms, and we could fill the empty platters on the credenzas. The evening sun was shining. The bird was ruffling itself in the water. The clock began to chime. It passed. We didn’t count its strokes. We, too, had left the room. I don’t remember anymore if we stood with the maid in her freshly pressed apron as she dangerously waved the clothes iron, if we slid down the banister, or joined one of the animated evening games that the children played in the alley outside. But in the end we forgot, and became like the others.
And we returned home so untroubled and refreshed that it must have been a joy.
Not a breath reminded us of what had happened. Everything was just as usual, and we sat in our usual places.
But what shock, what silent shock: no soup was served, no vegetables, not even a piece of bread for each of us, but only three plates full of strawberries. We knew them, we knew them well. And each of us ate, bent over, doing our solemn duty. We didn’t look at each other’s hands, nor at each other’s faces. Even our mother spoke not a word, but simply ate her portion along with us. No accusation, no sharp “You’d better be full now!” which we had truly earned, no “If and but…”
The room now smelled as if it truly held a garden … Our hands were red, since there were no spoons on the table, and none of us had been bold enough to fetch them.
But there was also no judgment, hidden and waiting somewhere. With this meal, everything seemed to be atoned for. The night was there, like a large, soft field of pansies. We went to sleep there, tired and without a thought.
And mother was mother and children remained children, mercifully spared.
The Country Road by Regina Ullmann is available from New Directions.
This piece is part of PEN’s 2014 translation series, which features excerpts and essays from the recipients of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants.