Listen to It’s Cold and It’s Getting So Dark, produced by Play for Voices.
(Musical sounds are heard. As if someone were practicing the trumpet. Then a long pause. And the narration begins.)
SPEAKER 1: She wore a gentleman’s hat and with a trumpet in her hand directed a music that was audible only to her. At last you arrived on time. For once in my lifetime. Then she resumed singing, listening attentively to her inner music. She sang without words, syllables whose meanings only she could understand. Her eyes yearned for that which could not be seen.
Until a shimmer of color returned to her skin. Of the color of the earth. Of the wilted fields in winter. Her brow was damp. And beads of sweat streamed from her skin. They rushed down her face. Her voice was like the trace of a knife. Scratchy and thin, it slipped into my ears.
She didn’t want chocolate. She wanted beer instead. Flensburger, she said. Bring me a Flensburger. I didn’t know how important this Flensburger was to her. I went through a lot of trouble to find it. I don’t know anything about beer. I put everything off to the last minute. I didn’t buy it until shortly before I got there. She told me: Be on time. I still have a lot of things to take care of. My life is not terribly varied. But still, I do have to plan it properly.
I didn’t know if I could manage both. To get the Flensburger and to be on time. It seemed as though I had to choose one of the two. But then I got lucky. As if by accident, I managed both.
She set the trumpet down and looked at the clock and laughed as I came in. For once in my life. For once in my life, she said, you made it. You are too punctual!
I had no idea what time it really was. My perception of time had left me in the lurch. On the way to her place, I began to hurry and was out of breath. And if there’s anything I’m really incapable of it’s hurrying.
For once in my life. In my life, she said. I had thought I was late and I became furious. Furious at her, because she had demanded something that put a great deal of strain on me. To be punctual. I was furious at myself. And unhappy at the fact that I interpreted her wish as a demand. To be punctual goes against my subconscious.
I brought you chocolate. Your favorite chocolate, I said. But she made a gesture. Raised her hand, rested it on her breast and pushed it away. She pushed thought away from her. And I watched the tiny chocolates, filled with sweet alcohol and cherries, fade away. Disappear from the view. From her view.
Flensburger, she said to me. I had already unpacked it and was looking for a glass.
The air on the table stood still. It had the consistency of plastic. The air was colored gray. Or was it the table itself that had this wretched color?
The legs of the table upheld an empty surface. As if the sole purpose of a table were to support this emptiness. All of the stains, the breadcrumbs, the food remains were forgotten. A table without a memory. A table that had forgotten its purpose for being. And now she had to sit at such a table.
I can’t sit up any more, she said. I can only lie in bed. Suddenly she seemed to be exhausted. And with her eyes she pointed at this slightly raised surface close to her bed. First she fixed her gaze on the gray table. As soon as I followed the gaze, it slid over the room onto a small lackluster curve by the night table, and then it grew blurry. Lost. Like a piece of ice in a lake. And deep inside it one saw:
SPEAKER 2: He had gotten me the shoes. These shoes that I wished for. Back then I wished for stiletto heels. He had gotten them from his mother’s closet. You can have them, he said. Anyway, she won’t even notice they’re missing. She has too many of them. And when I one day earn money myself, I’ll buy you much nicer ones. I didn’t kiss him as he had hoped. His name was Franz, the same name my father had. And he already went to school. And I thought: one day when I’m old enough, he’ll be the one to get my kiss. It will be for always and forever. I hid the shoes in the barn.
Mother had discovered the shoes and we both got a beating. These shoes only brought bad luck.
SPEAKER 1: A glass of water reflected the pattern of the reddish brown saucer on the night table. And the pane of glass on the night table mirrored a timeless figure. I looked into this mirror. And saw the filtered view of a being that could only be Deborah. Deborah, the way she had always been. And the way she would remain. She grabbed hold of her walking stick and directed its silver tip, shaped like the head of a duck, toward a bottle. Pour me a little, please. The bottle stood next to the water glass and was filled with a reddish juice. A vitamin bomb, she said. They bombard me with visible and invisible ones. With atomic particles and vitamins. Between all of this stuff I’m taking, who knows if one thing can make up for what the other destroys?
Pour me a little. Not from the red bottle. No, from the dark bottle. That one over there, over to the right, over there, to the right. Slow down, not so much. Stop.
She wanted to have the glass next to the red bottle. And she wanted to have the red bottle next to the dark one. Not to the left. Not any closer. No. Also not any farther. And she wanted the pills right next to those. And the slice of crisp bread. For when the acids in her stomach would start to sting. She also wanted to have the beer close by. The Flensburger. Everything within reach.
SPEAKER 2: I still can’t stand beer. Father always smells like beer when I think of him. The memory smells like beer. I sit here in bed and smell father. And I’m repulsed by it.
Thirsty, father said. I am thirsty. Bring me a beer. Bring me a beer from the cellar. I can’t stand this smell. The sweat fermented in his skin and streamed out of his pores, stale and salty. I don’t bring him beer. I bring him water. Before I fill the bottle, I cup my hands under the water like a bowl. Fill the bowl. Fill it with fluid crystals. I sniff this freshness. I slurp it up. New water flows into the bowl. It sprays the stone basin full. It runs over. My feet are wet and so are my shoes. My dress sticks to my legs. I fill the bottles with water and take a drink from it from time to time.
The water shrouds my tongue. It fills my mouth with my own taste. Only when one drinks water can one discover what one tastes like, said Franz, who had the same name as my father. The man I would marry.
Water tastes like happiness. Father does not know this and drinks beer. Nothing in the world has a taste like it. Nothing can top the taste of water. Father does not know this and will never find it out. Because he’s never lived in the city and has never craved fresh water. He always had this well in the cellar and he’d had his fill of water. But one can never drink enough water to be sated. One only learns this when one no longer lives near the well.
I don’t bring him beer. I bring him water. Do you want me to rot, my father shouted at me. Do you want me to drown? Father shouts and throws the bottle against the wall. And he raises his hand and gets like a dragon. A Flensburger is what you have to bring me. That’s what I told you. But we don’t have Flensburger in our Saxon village. That’s right, a Flensburger! Our new gentlemen, our new comrades don’t like its taste!
Water from the well. From the well in our cellar. Our cellar. Our water. Our house. Our country. Sometimes the people from the village would be allowed into our cellar. To drink to their satisfaction. To fill their pitchers. But only when father was not around. Soon you’ll want to have the well that my grandfather discovered. You’ll want to steal his hard work. Soon you’ll want our family well. As national property. You’ll get nothing, you pack of scoundrels. You with your communes.
Mother says, Franz, let the people drink. Let them quench their thirsts. Let them drink to their hearts’ content. Let them have their part. Let’s share with them. Sharing increases the well. And father says, shut your trap, woman. This thirst can’t be quenched with water. And I don’t think much of sharing, anyway. You women always want to share.
I didn’t try a Flensberger until I got to the West. After the fall of the wall. Father was no longer with us. A Flensburger is what you should bring me. He smells like beer. Father. Whenever I remember him.
SPEAKER 1: On her night table lay a broken beer bottle and the smell wafted through the room. Deborah said, I’m not drinking any beer. I’m only smelling it. I’m not smoking any more pipes and no more cigars, either.
But you should smoke one for me. So that I can remember what it felt like.
Deborah wanted to remember everything. This had already started last winter. In the early summer she’d still wanted to travel with me.
SPEAKER 2: I still have to show you my hometown. The well. I want to sit with you on a step in the cellar and wait until the smell of the stew reaches us from the kitchen. To find the place in the cellar where mother keeps the cream. I want to stir the clay pot and spread a layer of cream two fingers thick on warm bread. I want to drink fresh milk. I want to go up the granite steps to follow the smell of the stew and find Mother in the kitchen. Mother, saying to me: you can’t fool me. I know the little kitty that dips into the cream. You have a white moustache.
SPEAKER 1: Everything is still there. The smell of mangel-wurzel is there. The smell of old potatoes. The stink of cows and pig dung, said Deborah. I’ve found it again, said Deborah. I wanted to show you Grandfather’s workshop and the barn, where I let Franz fit the shoe onto my foot and where I danced with him. Franz in his play shorts. With his blond curls.
I wanted to show you the pattern on the door handle. The first door I can remember. The first opening. Doors were always important to me, she said. Her voice was like a shaky veil. Sadness came over her face. Then her mood changed. She suddenly gazed at me with a mischievous look on her face and said: Now you must discover all of this on your own. This is your task. You are not the only one I assign tasks.
Up until the early summer, she had wanted to take me with her on her trip. I had canceled on short notice. I had stood her up. I didn’t know at the time that I would never have the chance again to take a trip with her.
All of a sudden she couldn’t stand the smell of the broken beer bottle on her night table. Pour it out she said. I’ve had enough of it.
SPEAKER 2: The first time I drank a Flensburger was with her. With my love. On the night that changed everything. The night with the wall. I called her right away. She lay in bed. She had sprained her foot and could barely walk. I’ll grab a taxi, she said. But there were no more taxis. Everybody hurried to the gate as fast as they could. Wait for me, my dearest. This time, it will be I who come to you. That way we won’t miss each other. I’m with you, my dearest, I told her, as we embraced each other. And no one will ever be able to keep us apart. I had a hard time believing it, to be allowed to drive through this opening with my Trabi. And no one who would want to shoot at me right after. And the border security just stood around clumsily and didn’t dare to stop us. Everybody hugged, cried and laughed and was ecstatic. And no one knew how the next day would be. And if there would be some terrible awakening.
She packed a couple of Flensburgers with her. It was her favorite beer. I couldn’t stand Flensburgers. But everything was different on this night with her.
She left me. Left me. She said it would strain her to see me every day. With my missing breast. It would strain her to hear my wheezing breath every day. She would feel guilty. My voice. The tumor in my throat. On my vocal chords. And this sound that I make every time I swallow. It unleashed a fear in her. And she couldn’t live with this fear. With this voice that would remind her of death every single day. Of my death. That would remind her of the fact that all of us are mortal. She didn’t want to be reminded of her own death on a daily basis, she wrote when she left me. She didn’t want to be reminded of the grieving she would one day have to experience. When it would get to that point with me.
I got her farewell letter in the hospital. After that I never saw her again. I waited for her the whole time. Waited and waited. My whole life through I waited. For father. For him to return from the war. For him to take me up on his lap. For him to stop drinking beer. I waited for him, who had the same name as father, to bring me back the shoe. And I waited for us to be happy with one another again in spite of everything. For the fall of the wall. For God to help me. To pull me out of the hole. And he did. I couldn’t announce the news on the radio anymore.
I had to strain my vocal chords excessively in order to get through it and to announce to the people the news from all around the world every day. In our country. The news. I felt as though I had a lump of lead in my throat, out of which sticky tentacles grew and numbed my vocal chords. I prayed to I don’t know whom. That he would help me to not have to announce the news anymore. That a miracle would happen. I waited for salvation. My body had liberated me from that. The lump grew wild. It flooded my voice with mold. With a poison. And I could no longer speak. I was relieved. But then came the fall of the wall. And I wanted to live. To conquer the world. To start everything from scratch. The world was born anew and I believed that it would happen to me too.
I wanted to conquer the world with her. With her, the love of my life. I had waited so long for her. And now I am only left waiting for eternity.
SPEAKER 1: Deborah sat in bed, propped up by a pile of pillows. Her skin had gotten translucent. So much so that one could see her cheekbones and her teeth right through it. The skin on her hand had shriveled up. The bones of her fingers were bulging out. Her veins were like hardened strands of blue. Everything about her had gotten small. Only her eye sockets were big. Her eyes were bursting out of them. Alert, oversized marbles. The head itself seemed to have gotten smaller. And on her head she wore this gentleman’s hat. She was small and her head was big. With time the hats got ever smaller and the cigarettes became cigars. Now her body had shrunk like laundry.
From hospital stay to hospital stay she grew smaller and smaller.
Her eyes were getting lighter and lighter. Bigger, brighter. They sucked in the world. As if she wanted to take everything with her. As if she wanted to store everything in her retinas. They were oversized marbles. Bigger. Wider. It looked as though only her eyes wanted to remain. Alert, oversized marbles. Underneath the covers, her legs were impatient.
Her impatience reminded me of my mother. Her intemperate way when I didn’t immediately pick up on what she wanted from me.
That ended with a slap on my face.
I know, I am unbearable, said Deborah.
You are not unbearable. You are only tired.
She was tired from the daily swallowing. And elimination. And from the daily stepping on the same place. From walking and never getting anywhere. One must live in harmony with one’s body. I grasped this too late, she said. My body. I always treated it as my rebellious subordinate. My body and I, we were enemies. I fight with my body on a daily basis. I still believed this up until the summer. I want what it wants. And it wants for me to want no more. One day we must come to an understanding.
She started to get restless. The trumpet. Give me the trumpet. I want to play the trumpet one more time.
Today I had myself rubbed with ointment, she said to me. She let the trumpet fall onto the bed. It didn’t emit any sound. Only a croak. A grind. A scratch of a wound in her own skin.
One day we will have to come to an understanding. My body and I. We’ve agreed on a couple of more days still. One day the time will come when one has to give up. Simply stop. And accept everything. She said. I would like to be a tree. A tree in the wind. That only falls over when it is felled. Now I’m like a crawling bush. A dry juniper.
Are you afraid, I asked her.
The crutches leaned on the bed next to her walking stick. She wanted to have that too. Because it was beautiful. And the crutches, she thought, were so unaesthetic. On the wall hang the other walking sticks. She wanted to look at them all. She wanted to bid them farewell.
I grabbed hold of the crutches. I wanted to help her. My hands were shaking and I dropped them. Just accept it, Deborah said. No one can help me. I have to die on my own.
Are you afraid?
The room was full of books. All of this I won’t read anymore. One doesn’t need to read everything in order to grasp what it’s about. One reads only until one manages to grasp it. Once that has happened, one looks out the window and stares into space.
It took forever for her to grab hold of her crutches. I can still do this myself, she said. And tapped me on the hand whenever I tried to help her. Getting to the bathroom felt like a trip around the world.
I stayed alone in the room with my fear and shuttled back and forth from the chair to the bathroom door. And back to the chair. And sometimes I’d sit back down and swing one leg over the other. Make yourself comfortable, she said from the bathroom. It’s going to take a while. I was afraid. And I asked myself what this fear was about. And if it was that I was afraid that she could die. At this very instant. In the bathroom. And I couldn’t catch her. She could slide right into death. And she would disappear. Completely disappear. And no one would be with her.
Don’t be so tense, she whispered to me. It was a loud whisper, a scream filtered through the layers of tiles. As if it had been sieved of the unessential. Of the unimportant. And as if only the essence of the scream had remained. Its force could not be measured by its volume but by its pain and the exertion that one surmised was behind it.
I was alone and listened attentively. It was dark in the room. She whispered once more from the bathroom: Open the closet, that way you won’t get bored. I have something for you! She didn’t let me turn on the light. You don’t need any light. There’s enough light there. Look inside.
(Music: Valse triste by Sybelius)
SPEAKER 2: The ballroom was overcrowded when I came in. It was my first ball since the Wall came down. It was the first ball in my life. Life no longer seemed to rush past me. I was immersed in its flow and I flowed with it. I had no time to stand still. We were invited by the president of the Federal Republic. And try to imagine somebody who was just as wide as she was tall. And round. That was me. The fall of the wall found me this way. And since I had no wish to hear any more advice on how to lose weight, I designed this dress.
Imagine somebody who was as tall as she was wide. And who rolled into the ballroom on the arm of a very young prince. It was a real prince that I chose for myself. It was a real ball. On the following day it read in the tabloids:
Edmund Prince of T. and T. accompanied the journalist D. to the presidential ball. She wore a red silken Rococo gown. A dress that bore a string of lights. The president of the Federal Republic greeted her among his guests. The prince and the journalist bowed before the president and she pressed a hidden button and her whole dress lit up. She did this every time she was introduced to someone. They were both in very good spirits and danced until the wee hours of the night. And the dress lit up countless times. It seemed as though the journalist had spare batteries on her. Or was it possible that she wore a dynamo underneath the dress? It shone brighter and brighter as she danced.
Even the president of the Federal Republic asked the journalist to dance a waltz with him and the photographers snapped pictures.
(Music escalates from a waltz to something quicker. And ceases. Or it slows down until it becomes quiet.)
SPEAKER 1: She came out of the bathroom with the hat on her head. A man’s hat. She seemed to discover me all over again and removed her hat to greet me. Her wilted hair clung to her head. She set the hat on her night table.
SPEAKER 2: What else can I do for you, my lady? Don’t look at me that way. It isn’t such a bad thing to go through the gate.
I’ve been in front of the garden gate so many times before. In front of the hedges. I stuck my finger and felt the thorn. Pull it out for me, I told my mother back then. But Mother was blind. Mother was deaf. Mother was not there. Pull it out for me, I yelled at the young Franz. But he’d already been long gone. He’d disappeared. He took the shoe back and gave it to somebody else. Never mind that one should never take back a gift. And that it didn’t even fit the other girl’s foot. Her big toe was too long. One toe-length too long. It lay in a package one day in my mailbox. I wasn’t happy about it. And I threw away the toe. Threw it to the cat.
Her foot didn’t fit the shoe. And in the end everyone sang: Oh yay, oh yay. The queen has no toe. O yay. Hurrah!
SPEAKER 1: Come. Why the long face? I’m doing my best to try and get you to laugh. I want to make it easier for you, she told me.
Today I’m going to get up for the last time, she said. From now on, I’m only going to sit. Until everybody is here and I will have taken leave from them. I’ve planned everything. Down to the last detail. I don’t have much time left.
Therefore, everybody must arrive on time. And no one may show up unannounced.
Tell me something about the children. She said. About your son. He’s probably a full-fledged man by now. Does he help out enough? Tell him, otherwise I’ll come to him as a ghost and lay him one on the ears.
Are you afraid, I asked her. What should I be afraid of? She said. I have made a truce with my body. And since then, I’m not afraid anymore.
It’s cold here and it’s getting so dark.
They told me, it’s supposed to be fun up there. Soon it’ll be Christmas. And whoever dies at Christmas, she said, goes straight to heaven. And white lilies bloom up there and it rains roses and jasmines. The ground is full of moss. I’m going to sit on the bench and play the trumpet. The cat will rub against my leg and lie in the grass. I’m going to sit on the bench and breathe in the air. And have time. And think of everything and everybody. And think about how I’m going to do things when I start fresh. I will play the trumpet and never wait for anything again. Because everything will have already happened. And everybody will already be with me. I know what awaits me. Just a couple of more days. But I still have a lot more to do until then. I still have to take care of so many things. Father smells like Flensburger. But I’m not mad at him for that anymore. And to the one who has the same name as father, I’ll gladly leave the shoe.
She should be able to get up a couple of more days still. Up until the end she should still be able to do that. I’m adamant about that she said. At least to be able to sit up. Then she fell asleep. With her mouth slightly open she snored lightly. I took her hand. She was like a breath. The weight of the world had vanished from her. Like a swan feather, she lay in my hand. I laid her on the bed. Everything felt so light. The fear was dispersed. A light flowed out of her, it flowed through the room. It lay over my fear. And painted it gold.
Shortly thereafter she woke up and smiled at me. Go, she said to me. There’s nothing left to say.
On the threshold of the door, I turned around one last time. I was on time. She saved an hour of strength for each one of us. For each one of us, a gift. A memory that we should take with us. I’m laden with my memories. I’ve already been to the garden gate many a time. In front of the hedges. Now I have no more fear. Now, everything is white and flowy. Go. There is nothing more to say.
Before I leave the room, at the threshold I turn around to look at her again. She laughs at me and says. Go now. Then she signals me with her hand and goes into the garden. The door is open. She has a trumpet in her hand. And she waves at me with the others. Then she disappears through an arch of roses.
(Wild waltz music playing in a frenzied crescendo. Then the music ceases to be heard and sudden bursts of freewheeling bands are heard. Valse Triste by Jean Sibelius.)
For production credits, an interview with the author, and more information about Play for Voices, visit the Play for Voices website.