Death of a Swan

Later it wasn't easy for Michael to believe that they had really been capable of it. It must have been because it was Christmas Eve, one of the last of the century, because of the solemn air of withdrawal around them, which made the streets appear abandoned. The holiday isolated the four friends, who had been thrown together, more than any ordinary day.

The evening was not excessively cold. There was a thin covering of snow on the streets. The overcast sky was pale gray and hung low over the buildings. The facades, decorated with strings of lights, had something raw, stony about them between the lights and the expanse of sky.

They were following Rahman who, with a blanket folded under his arm, was walking as fast as if he had an appointment. Once again Michael couldn't get rid of the feeling that he had been allocated his place. Dmitri beside him was holding his buttonless leather parka closed with both hands and trudged along, his shoulders hunched. He never thought more deeply about what he was doing. And Thomas, very erect, with a diadem of snowflakes gleaming in his long hair under the streetlights, was full of anticipation, as if he was preparing himself for something only he knew about. The "unsettled" character of their situation, as Rahman had once described it, was also apparent in that they had been forced to found a substitute family on Christmas Eve, to establish, without women, a somewhat loutish homely sociability. But the way it is with substitute families: From time to time each recognized in the other his own loneliness.

They walked a long way, and their regular hard breathing accompanied them. The unwavering Rahman always in front, they turned down deserted side streets, passed dimly lit bars, in which likewise pitiful substitute families had gathered. Finally they reached the park, where the trees stretched somberly up to the sky, each one at this time of the year a gallows. Rahman went right up to the edge of the half-frozen lake and at last came to a halt. He took his hands out of his pockets and rubbed them together. They drew up beside him and looked across the ice-gray surface.

"What now?" asked Michael with a glance at the desolate surroundings.

"Wait a minute," replied Rahman and continued staring intently across the lake.

Seconds later he found what he was looking for. He set off again.

Michael was no longer enjoying this walk. "Can you at least say, where you want to go to?" He looked at the blanket Rahman was carrying. "You don't want to have a picnic, do you?"

"Come on. We're almost there."

They walked round the lake, until they came to a gray-black strip of shore on which three swans had gathered. Two huddled on land; one was plashing over the ice even before it could have noticed them. This time when they came to a stop, it dawned on them why they were here, and Michael immediately shook his head. Rahman paid no attention to him.

"No ducks," he said morosely. "Where are they, when you need them?"

No one answered. They all looked uneasily at the birds glowing dully in the gray evening.

Dmitri stirred himself. He wanted to say something, and the other three were so tense that they involuntarily formed a semicircle; in seconds three pairs of ears grouped around him had created an auditorium. He moved his lips.

"What do you think?" asked Rahman encouragingly.

"It's not allowed." The words came out in a rush.

"You see," Michael broke in, "even he says so, and that should be a warning to you." He turned away and made as if to go back.

"I thought you're with us," called Rahman.

"No, it's theft."

"Why?"

"They belong to everyone."

Rahman glanced across the lake again. "Who's that then," he muttered.

"It's not allowed," Dmitri repeated, so surprisingly that Michael paused.

Dmitri looked at the ground. "We could be punished. If we carry it, we'll be seen."

Michael was dismayed that Dmitri was already thinking so far ahead; the crime was already half committed. Rahman moved off in the direction of the birds.

"That's why I've got the blanket with me," he said casually.

The others stood irresolutely. Thomas coughed and then said almost apologetically: "It's cold. Before we freeze here, we should go and help him."

They were drawn along, slowly at first, then more and more powerfully, simply because one of them was making straight for his goal. Rahman was already stalking. One arm was stretched out behind him. Against the gray sky, covered by a delicate rosy veil, he no longer appeared unsettled to Michael, but like someone obsessed who really only belonged here, in this park, at this moment. Dmitri was already following him uncertainly, and the hand behind Rahman's back was signaling to keep quiet. Dmitri crept on, accompanying each of his steps with a nod, as if that would make them inaudible.

There was something like hunting fever in the air. Finally Michael followed Thomas. He was one of Rahman's workmates, although employed three building sites further on. Thin and wiry, he at times displayed such an unhesitating determination that Michael once asked Rahman, when the two of them were alone, whether he thought a woman could stand it. "Oh, you know," Rahman replied, "if he ever actually finds one, then he'll be quite tame, believe me."

Cautiously they came up alongside Rahman, who was no longer very far from the swans on the shore. With his hand he motioned to the others to spread out. Thomas remained level with Rahman, Michael went a bit further along-and Dmitri was left with the lake. It didn't seem a coincidence that it was he who had to go out onto the unsafe ice, which he did with the same stoical calm as he did everything else.

The swans rose and stomped uncertainly around, turned, as if they were looking for a position from which they could fly off. But Rahman was prepared. He took a piece of bread out of his trouser pocket, broke it up in one hand, and threw the pieces to them. That made Michael wonder when he had actually hatched his murderous plan.

Just then Dmitri went through the ice. It cracked and he sank eighteen inches deeper, first at an angle and then standing straight up. His arms thrashed about as he tried to keep his balance, then he fell backward, landing with his bottom on the ice, broke through again, and ended up sitting in the water. At first, the swans, lured by the bread, really had come closer. The cracking, however, was so loud that they turned to flee. At this moment with a single skilful movement Rahman unfolded the blanket and threw it over the swan closest to him. He must have practiced the throw, Michael was certain of that. Only someone who had thoroughly prepared himself could make the flat spread-out piece of cloth float so elegantly through the air.

The blanket enveloped the swan, which tried even more vigorously to get away, and with three long steps Rahman was on it. The bird's neck was already free as he grabbed it and shouted for the others.

It took a few seconds before Thomas and Michael were beside him. Dmitri had meanwhile got up and was moving towards the shore. Rahman lay across the wriggling bird. One large white wing had pushed out under him and the blanket.

"Lie down on it with me," panted Rahman.

But Michael couldn't do it. He saw the bird's neck and how Rahman was clutching it. Thomas pushed him aside and dropped onto the blanket. Rahman got into a better position and immediately twisted the swan's neck with the tremendous certainty bestowed by killing. Even after the vertebrae had cracked the wriggling wouldn't stop, and this pale and so easily escaping life, which Rahman was forcing out of the bird's body, made Michael feel weak, as if part of him were disappearing with it.

By the time the swan was at last lying still, Dmitri had come up to them. He looked at Rahman and Thomas, who also appeared to have been overcome by the deathly quiet, until they finally struggled to their feet. They stood there, breathing heavily, but with the feeling of having accomplished something.

Rahman was the first to move. He squatted down and began to wrap the carcass in the blanket.

"The neck will be a problem when we're carrying it," he said. "We have to put it round the body and make sure it stays there."

"Do we really need it?" said Thomas. "I've got a knife. Then it would be lighter too."

Michael was now convinced of their complicity.

"No, no," said Rahman and shook his head. "It mustn't bleed, that would be too conspicuous. Give me a hand!"

The two of them wound the blanket around the bird, after they had pressed the wing and the neck firmly against the body.

Taking turns, they lugged the swan up to Rahman's flat on the fourth floor of a reasonably well-maintained tenement. Dmitri was shivering terribly. His teeth were chattering; but the blanket was reserved for the kill. They could already see the brightly colored lights in many of the windows from a long way off. They carried their Christmas roast up through a silent, indeed festively numbed house.

Once upstairs, they put down the heavy bundle in the middle of the wooden floor in the living room. First of all Rahman collected together knives and old newspapers.

"Ever plucked a chicken?" he asked cheerfully and looked round at them.

What offended Michael at the time was the way he had planned the undertaking and then made use of them all to carry it out. That's what he accused him of as Rahman searched for ever-larger cutting tools, in order to behead the swan.

Michael said: "You simply take pleasure in acts of cruelty, you need things like that."

When Rahman had finally managed to sever the neck, he placed a block of wood under the body, so that the blood could flow down into a basin. Michael added: "You didn't have to do that. We could have plucked it the way it was."

Briefly angered, Rahman looked at him. "Man, I'm doing it so that it reminds me more of a chicken than of a swan."

They were standing around the big bleeding body, which suddenly, for the last time, stretched out its wings; they fell sideways to the floor. The neck lay on a thick layer of newspaper like an unwrapped eel.

Dmitri was still wearing his wet trousers. He was an information science student and lived nearby, younger than Michael, but just as much gone to seed. Actually he was always sitting in front of his computer, but in the evening he often turned up at Rahman's, always taciturn, yet observant.

Michael's revulsion at what they had done together needed an outlet, so he asked him whether he didn't want to put on some of Rahman's clothes. Dmitri raised his hands appeasingly, smiled and, as if to please Michael, went and stood beside the radiator. There was a smell of blood in the room.

The plucking was a miserable job, but also one that created a bond. In order to make it easier for them, Rahman brought out his vodka and poured it into cleaned-out mustard jars.

As the fat body of the swan lay rosy-gray in front of them, they were drunk. They swayed over a carpet of feathers, white flakes still seemed to be stuck to Thomas's hair, and Dmitri, who, after the work was done, had leaned against the radiator again, seemed about to fall asleep. Rahman started to cut up the bird; he did it calmly and with a goal in mind. He opened the stomach.

"Make sure you get the gall bladder!" called Michael, after the intestines had been pulled out.

Rahman nodded and carefully drew out his hand. He was holding liver and heart.

Thomas looked at the stomach and the remaining organs. "Amazing," he exclaimed, "take a look at this."

He had exposed something with his finger, which looked like a stick with frog eggs wrapped round it.

"That's an ovary," said Rahman.

They gazed solemnly at it; even Dmitri came up to get a look.

Feathers flew up as Rahman tried to lift up the torso. He accidentally stood on the intestines, and left two red shoe prints on the white surface.

"Hey, Rahman, do you realize this is going to be quite a gigantic roast and that your room looks like a slaughterhouse?" Michael asked him.

"It's Christmas," he grumbled. "We've still got a lot to do. The quills up there mainly. Here, take the knife. Just on the one side. The animal is so big that I'll only get half the breast into the oven."

Michael set to work. At some point Rahman said: "That's enough. And now all of us. But not you, Dima."

Michael helped him. They carried the pieces of meat to the gas stove. Rahman ignited a flame.

When they held the meat over it, he explained: "We have to burn off the very small feathers." A smell of singed hair rose. "Do you smell that?" said Rahman. "Dima isn't allowed to help with this sort of thing. He would catch fire; he just doesn't have the talent for it."

"Yes, I can see it now, flames leaping from him as he manages to reach the room-and then slips on the liver."

"The eggs," Thomas called into the kitchen, "get bigger toward the bottom. And they have the consistency of-well-soft kiwi fruit."

Out of pure curiosity Michael asked: "Why didn't you right away just cut it into pieces that can be fried?"

Rahman shook his head and thought for a moment. "I've got an exact picture in my mind of how it's to be done," he said then, "but not of any other way of doing it."

Everything else happened as he had imagined it. They fetched the legs and held them over the flame too. Then he cut off part of the breast.

Finally it was all in the oven and they went back into the room.

Thomas had completed his investigations, and Dmitri had fallen asleep beside the radiator. They wanted to clean up, but were overcome by inertia.

After a while the roast developed a curiously pungent smell, which overwhelmed even the stink of blood in the room. Outside the windows snow fell slowly and festively.

"The smell," said Thomas, "is because the swan was a wild bird. So it flew and its glands functioned normally-not like these odorless factory-farmed birds."

Rahman and Michael sat cross-legged in front of him and nodded. The vodka was telling on them. Thomas was the only one it seemed to liven up. He was in a mood to tell stories, and as often before he went back into the past. Thomas was one of the few East Germans whom Michael had got to know so far. He couldn't find his way in the new order; he was searching, and in doing so again and again ended up talking about remote events. And in these his grandparents played an important part: in their stories there was by now for Thomas something incontestable, which no political transformation could call into question any more.

"That reminds me of a story," he went on, "which my grandfather on my mother's side told me. He was in Norway or Finland, you know, with the German army. Well, it was easy enough to overrun and occupy the place, and then they froze. It was winter, and he and four others were quartered in a wooden hut out in the country. It was unbelievably cold, and the boys had hardly anything decent to eat. One day my granddad went to the door and saw a big raven in the snow. It was so black on the white surface, that my granddad got a fright, as he told me several times. He fetched his rifle and shot the raven. The others took a look, and since they were hungry they plucked the raven and threw it in a pot. When it was cooked, my granddad tasted it very cautiously-and even decades later he was still going on about it: They all thought that, even if there wasn't much of it, they had never eaten anything better."

They nodded.

"And?" asked Michael.

"They stayed in Norway or Finland and continued to be hungry. A little later another soldier saw a raven in a tree. He shot it down, and the lads were looking forward to the meal. Only, this time the meat was completely inedible, tough and bitter. One couldn't even drink the soup."

The others looked gloomily at Thomas.

"Well, yes," he said, "a raven can live for something like eighty years. The first one happened to be young."

"Oh man, what a story. I could weep," said Michael and was really close to tears. "Just imagine it: eighty years. This raven maybe came crawling out of the egg at the time of the Franco-Prussian War. And then to be shot by the German army. In Finland."

Thomas became fidgety. "It's really got nothing to do with the German army. Anybody who was hungry would have shot the raven."

Rahman nudged Michael. "The weeping is because of the vodka," he said cheerfully.

The pungent smell had grown even stronger. Rahman stood up and went into the kitchen to dribble liquid on the roast. Dmitri snored quietly. Michael's moist eyes wandered over the feathers and the swan's neck.

"It doesn't smell good," he said, when Rahman returned. "It makes me feel sick."

"I tell you something," he replied. "That was, as Thomas said, a wild bird. Not one of these factory-farmed beasts. A bird like that has a distinctive smell. I once bought a young duck at a big market. I wanted to raise it myself and do something to make the son of a friend-he was still little-happy. And do you know what happened?" He paused, they shook their heads. "We had one of these inflatable paddling pools, and the duck absolutely wanted to get into the water. I placed it in the pool-and it drowned. The duck drowned! And the boy cried and cried, I can tell you."

When the roast was ready, they had to open a window. They woke up Dmitri and all sat down at the kitchen table. Rahman had even found a candle and placed it in the middle of the table. Briefly the mood brightened, perhaps because in comparison to the room the kitchen appeared clean.

"Enjoy it," said Rahman. "You deserve it."

Michael and Thomas nodded in agreement and nevertheless allowed a moment to pass, which allowed Dmitri to be the first to bite into his leg and, with a sigh, to pull back with a jerk. The hungry anticipation of the other three disappeared at the sight of the fairly large, yellowish front tooth, sticking in the top of the hump of meat. They waited and said nothing.

Dmitri sat back in his chair. His posture was anxious and tense, but the expression on his face was neutral. He kept his mouth closed and pressed his index finger against his upper lip, to feel the gap. Michael was certain that at this moment he had already resigned himself to a life without this front tooth.

"You know, Dima," he began, so as to say something comforting to him, "What I admire in you is your ability to accept..." Drunk as he was he couldn't get any further.

Dmitri's pale eyes appeared startled as he looked at him.

"Drink a mouthful," said Rahman. "That cleans the wound."

Dmitri would probably have done anything he was told. He drank a mouthful, gave a howl of pain, and ran into the room.

"It's cleansing," repeated Rahman, but doubt was written across his face.

As if at a secret command they followed Dmitri. He was lying in the middle of the feathers next to the swan's neck and whimpering. They lifted him up, all three overcome by a feeling of sympathy.

"Singing," said Rahman, "singing helps. Come on, Dima, we're going to sing now."

They asked themselves what song all of them knew. It had to be a song that one had to hear only once to remember it forever. They agreed on "Katyusha." Rahman started off, the others joined in. Dima sang it in Russian, Michael, more quietly, in German.

They sang all the verses very loudly, until they at last heard the shouts of "Quiet!" from the open window. They nevertheless let themselves be carried away for one more verse, finally fell silent and sat down on the floor.

A little later there was loud knocking on the door of the apartment. Quick as a flash Rahman was on his feet and stretched out his arms to impose silence. They waited. But the banging came again, this time even more loudly.

Rahman reacted, gathered up pieces of meat and the swan's neck and carried everything into the bathroom. Then he threw the pile of innards into the bloody basin and instructed Thomas to go into the bathroom with it and stay there. Michael and Rahman set about picking up the bloody feathers and stuffing them into a plastic bag. At the third knock they had done it.

Before he opened up, Rahman did something that convinced Michael of just what a hard case he was: Out of a cupboard in the hall he brought a little plastic Christmas tree and placed it in the middle of the white carpet of feathers.

When the two policemen asked if they could come in, Michael was in the kitchen. He pulled the tooth out of the swan leg and kept it in his fist. The officers had already been able to see the feathers in the room from the door. Now they stepped closer and looked round as they reported the neighbors' complaints.

"Well," said one of them, "you've made it very cozy, haven't you? Very seasonal. It just doesn't smell very good here."

It wasn't hard for the singers to appear drunkenly friendly. Even Dima gave a crooked smile.

"Okay," said the policeman, "please just keep the noise down, otherwise there'll be trouble in the house."

When they had gone, Rahman gave a sigh of relief and opened the bathroom door. Thomas, surrounded by bits of carcass, had been sick in the washbasin. He sat on the toilet seat and looked sadly at them.

"I think that's quite admirable, too," babbled Michael, paused, but no one asked him what, "that you can be sick without making a sound."

Thomas nodded tiredly. "There wasn't much to come up."

This Christmas Eve ended for Michael the next day in his own empty flat, where he lay down on the floor so that he could stretch out and his ears could become accustomed to the silence. The hangover was already beginning to take effect.

From Onkelchen (Salzburg: Jung und Jung, 2004). Copyright © 2004 by Jung und Jung. Translation copyright © 2006 by Martin Chalmers. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.