Ballad of Aunt Else’s Refugees

It's cold in Schlossberg. The stoves are full
of our nails and hairs. The lift with coal and matches
remained stuck in the middle of the hairdresser's by the City Gate.
We had our forelocks trimmed for free there
and now we look at each other as if in a mirror, pH neutral.
When Aunt Else adds knitting to our slippers
we play darts: she aiming her blue knitting needle
at our hearts, we our red at hers. Gruss gott.
The elastoplast stops the blood in the wound,
and accelerates the asylum procedure.
And love. It's going to be all right, Aunt Else says.
The first to tell us: "Come on, Europe doesn't eat people,"
encouraging us in a muffled voice, her breasts rising like a wet nurse's,
leaning against the wire netting on the mountain when breathless
we plunged our foreheads into the magic cubes of air
not knowing whether the flight had ended or just begun.
"There," she said, "the netting's broken here, and from here on
everything's going to be all right,
these are not handcuffs, these are only wristbands I have knitted myself."
Handmade, red seal of quality.
Wristband after wristband in their grip we became hers and she ours.
The border was no more than a varicose vein that could be hopped.
Like a skipping-rope, like a hopscotch square . . .
The carpet in Schlossberg has seven squares,
a stone for each continent and one for Aunt Else.
Life is a rehearsal for another life
that will not knock on weak students' doors.
So that no students fail the grade
Aunt Else kisses us on the forehead before we go to sleep,
and at night takes our arms out from under the covers
to place them as in the illustrations in a children's magazine.
Around the glasses of B complex
B3 and B6 tie our intestines into a Gordian knot.
In the morning, Aunt Else no longer has dandruff,
nor we flat feet. We eat apple strudel.
That's how it has always been: to keep in shape it is necessary
to deceive time tossed into the sports bag behind the door.
We wave through the chimney at the children filing in
To classes in life experience.
These, children, are refugees, the teacher says.
And what do they take refuge from, teacher?
From gravestone photographs.
Aunt Else carries a Smena camera round her neck.
In worn-out clothes we spread three drops of oil
or some sugar on slices of stale bread for the children (all paid for by the school).
The children eat and throw up and then suck squashed strawberry sweets
that all of us have hoarded in our sweatsuit pockets.
Thus modern children acquire memories,
and we do not forget about our origins.
Aunt Else takes their measurements too for wristbands.
In the teachers' black handbag with Pink Bag written on it
ground eggshells stay for forty days
then she mixes them up with mayonnaise and ketchup
to use in calming the pupils giggling in the back row:
"The tram door nearly sliced Mum's head off yesterday,
so today she rode to work on the back of the Spanish mastiff."
Our mothers used to go to work wearing socks over their boots
that's why we've come such a long way.
The city hangs above us like a shelf giving way under heavy dictionaries,
we take them one by one and put them on our heads
running between Herrengasse and Mura, refugees in praesentia.
Instead of watches we wear blood pressure gauges over our wristbands,
the tongue is a lift between love systoles and diastoles.
Already in childhood our feet have touched the bottom, and some
even the border. Sorrow is an orthopedic error, Aunt Else says.
And there, the city swimming pool calls us to therapy:
"Swim forty days as Jesus swam
in the eye of the Father, be fit and healthy,
water is the best massage for a refugee, that's how Jesus survived Golgotha,
spend your Christmas fast in a bathing suit,
relax, Jesus relaxed too when he walked on the water."
We look questioningly at Aunt Else, and she turns the hourglass.
It's time for the bellybutton to draw in, for the tongue to stick out,
for each of us to fill the union's New Year's gift bag
with washing powder and some ash.
Applications are ineptly written, washing machines are full,
but those who look will see and those who wash—will dangle on the clothesline.
All the days when we do not appear
in the newborns' dreams are holidays.
Then we call the street below the castle by a pet name
in honor of the people's hero's anniversary.
Aunt Else is glad. You're just mine now, but
little by little you'll become theirs too. And how many heroes
are there on the other side of the river? For each refugee a toe and a finger.
We visited the city maternity home. The big screen in the hall
shows an ad featuring a child crying and banging its head on the floor
for chocolate, and the father blushes with shame.
I told you, use a condom.
Two rows of concrete mixers—bellies twisting in a dance,
mothers-to-be ripening with their sons in incubators
and girls are born with a maiden name.
And we are refugees not only because we flee but to flee too,
from the echo of the embryo in the hallway, from the heart's zigzag,
from the oxygen in the radiators. Aunt Else is giving wristbands
to the fathers stretched out on the delivery beds.
.It feels nice when you cross your hands to make a seat.
We sit on them and wait for a reply.
The authorities are sending e-mails with red exclamation marks.
They want us to remain refugees, a vulnerable category that can be squeezed
through the eye of a needle, a new brand of microchip.
The journalists report we may, so we do, wear size XS
but our files are clinical cases, fat XXXL.
We'll solve the file problem. We'll send Aunt Else
to the church printing house, they'll thin our files out
printing them on bible weight paper. It takes an instant and life is holy.
This wait hasn't been so long after all.
And on Fridays Aunt Else gives her dentures a rest
and they sit alone in a plastic pot in the bathroom,
all the windows and doors are shut, a vacuum, she says,
makes both people and gadgets last longer,
we drink runny broth and tomato juice,
a spring cleaning of God's dust in us,
then sprawled on the floor we giggle quietly
because Aunt Else never leaves the house
for fear she might meet death
that every Friday slips through the Kunsthalle back entrance
and might easily sneak into our file.
Love is measured in square meters.
We are refugees, we know how to flee death,
but Aunt Else has no experience with cheating fate.


And we all use the papers in the files to make her trendy paper-chains of figures
in black-and-white designs, with a blue seal in the middle and a signature.
Like covering textbooks with pages from some old calendar,
twelve subjects—twelve months, and notebooks
with the cellophane left over from jars of winter preserves.
All the refugees in this world have both gender and memories.
We shall mate, we shall multiply, we shall divide.
Everyone has to be alone in a passport, even an unborn baby,
and only we are a list folded in Aunt Else's passport.
If you flee, when abroad you don't speak to strangers
about sex or politics, the aunts on our mother's side advised us.
For the first you'll be arrested, and killed for the second.
So nobody talks. And silence itself is both sex and politics.
Aunt Else spreads her arms like Medea
and won't give us up. "We are shut in
because I don't wear my dentures on Fridays,
but when you're shut in with equals, there's nobody to kill you."
Wise and sweet is Aunt Else, as sweet boiled wheat.
You could live with her in exile as though in
a mountain lodge. The floor creaks when we are out,
the hearth gasps, the mountain turns into a plain.
On Fridays our very self gets sterilized.
But look, a wasp has just come through the broken glass
of the spy-hole in the door, buzzed dazzled around our heads,
astounded by our Lego identities
and disconcerted by the temperature differences between indoors and out
stung Aunt Else on the neck, just above her bioenergetic necklace.
We had an attitude to death, but did not know what dying was
in a country where dying is a registered packet, and death
an electronic message, while it's an unsealed telegram where we come from.
And here is Aunt Else prostrate on our paper-chains and dying,
and we pair mended socks and cry, seeing the beads of the necklace
as pupils of eyes and magnifying glasses,
the blind regain their sight, but Aunt Else is not resurrected,
once a refugee always a refugee.
In the chapel the priests stretch their arms to God,
one-two-three-three, two-two-three-three,
morning exercise for firm muscles,
not even in prayer will spirit and body separate,
but we have to separate from Aunt Else.
"Was she meat-eating or vegetarian?" we were asked in the office,
but we could not remember. When she was the one she was not the other
and vice versa. You are orphans now, the hostess said.
And closed the furnace with her little finger. The door caught our fingers.
We sucked them in our mouths.
The seals on our wristbands turned blue.
The crematorium is an eco and veggie system.
As if from a potter's wheel an urn of ashes emerges from it.
Who needs a coffin with a corpse in their bedroom?
Graves are meat-eating. In our countries the biggest of all.
Like a dog that's attached itself to the butcher's. Or to the city slaughter-house.
It is only through inertia that the dead are packed in boxes, rather than
in paper or in a plastic bag. And the grave eats them, chews them, grinds them.
greedily, insatiably, clothes not buttoned. Throws odd bones
behind the chapel for luck. And then falls asleep, until the next supper.
And there are dead in this world and in that.
Aunt Else's body has warmed the stove in Schlossberg.
We shall burn her knitting wool in it on the last night.
The fire will crackle announcing visitors no one will welcome.
Tomorrow the authorities will resettle us across the asylum centers of Europe.
A refugee once is without escape forever.
And let us now eat rolls with salami and cheese,
like at the good old funerals in our native countries
(fathers we still have, but not fatherlands)
when boxes traveled on the local buses
those holiday gifts for the dead's beloved.
Aunt Else must've sent some too. Without her our pain
spatters in the eyes of the priests like a pimple.
And never again will Aunt Else say:
"Let's start the week with a clean lavatory bowl.
With a clean mirror on which a breath is God's message.
These rolls are tasty, a compass in our fate.
To our left the cemetery of the meat-eaters, to the right that of the veggie dead,
you can easily slip through the middle and disappear,
but where can you go, what sea can you enter bearded
and come out with a smooth skin? How can you become
a banana seller on a beach and what is more, how can you shout
"Vitamins for Sex Machine!" Sex and politics are things you don't
talk about in foreign countries. History is karaoke:
it repeats what life has learned from a book.
After the funeral everybody goes to the sale in a big store,
To change out of their mourning black,
only we shall slip naked into the big Thule trunk
on Aunt Else's minibus, we shall close the lid on ourselves,
grasp each other's wristbands and like paper-chain figures
in a breeze by the open window we too shall fly
not up but down, through the telescope of our own blood,
of our shared freedom. Aunt Else, Aunt Else,
everyone else can flee, but not a refugee.


By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2008 by Ljubica Arsovska and Peggy Reid. All rights reserved.