Cheese and Socks
Recently I bought some cheese, a particularly expensive piece of cheese, and standing in front of the refrigerator I cut off a slice, which was delicious. The evening of this same day, that piece of cheese was no longer in the refrigerator, nor was it in any of the cupboards, on the table, in the freezer, or even in the tool chest, in the washing machine, among the linens or on the balcony. It wasn’t in the oven either. It had actually disappeared–disappeared so completely that there wasn’t even the hint of a smell in the days and weeks that followed, coming from some corner I might have overlooked while searching for my piece of cheese. I ask my mother, who knows her way around my household quite well: Have you seen that cheese, by any chance? She says no. I say: Might you have thrown it away? My mother says no.
The very same thing happened to my son with the little book that was always kept in the bathroom for reading aloud during his longer sessions: Surviving in Situations You Will Probably Never Encounter. Included here are instructions for fending off crocodiles, sharks, and pumas, how to climb from a motorcycle into a car at top speed, tips on how to proceed when your parachute fails, etc. We used to spend a lot of time studying this little book, so much time in fact that I was already starting to feel bored whenever the page with the shark came up, and preferred rolling down the windows while driving across a frozen lake so the water pressure would even out if the car sank–after which it would be child’s play to exit the car at the bottom of the lake. But all at once this book disappeared. It is not to be found anywhere on the shelf or in the recycling bin, it didn’t slip behind the radiator, nor into the basket of dirty laundry. I ask my mother: Have you seen our little yellow book, by any chance? She says no.
The third thing to disappear–but this is nothing out of the ordinary–is the one sock from my favorite pair. I’ve heard that in probability theory there is a law known as the Law of Disappearing Socks, devised to address this very phenomenon–phenomenon being the Greek word for “appearance.” Which now brings me to my hope: What I hope is that when things disappear in one place, this necessarily implies their appearance someplace else, in other words, I hope that a world exists in which my sock, stuffed with the expensive piece of cheese, plummets from an extremely high bridge and survives the fall. On my way to visit Maria, who goes by Mietzel, I have to drive through the hollow, down into the deepest, coldest part of the road, a sharp curve where it’s easy to lose traction in the wintertime, and then back up the other side of the hollow, turning right at the Cross Inn and then continuing along the edge of the woods Mietzel helped plant thirty years ago, and on the meadow that borders the edge of these woods, deer can often be seen after dark, standing there blinded by my headlights as if turned to stone. Today, in the sunshine, two figures are walking toward me: a portly mother with her grown daughter, who displays equal girth, the two of them holding hands.
The way to Mietzel’s house became a very long one when I moved back to Berlin. Bent over in the shape of a half-moon, her silhouette would approach the frosted glass panels of the big entryway when I came to visit. Then Maria, who goes by Mietzel, would unlock the door to let me in. In the time I’ve known her, she has become thinner and more frail. But her hair is gray in only a few spots. On top of her skirt she wears an apron, and on her feet slippers, because of her corns–“Pain,” she says and smiles, “always the pain!”; she smiles and shakes her head as if in astonishment, her feet are bony, as is the rest of her body, and in places where she bumps into things, her skin immediately turns blue from all the veins that lie just beneath it.
In the castle where she worked as a maid all her life, Mietzel lives on the ground floor, right beside the entryway. Only a few years ago she was still carrying suitcases up to the third floor. She cleaned and cooked for her employers, and tended the garden. She unlocks the big door for guests, workmen, the chimney sweep, the mailman. In her kitchen the mason and the gardener break for lunch. Mietzel drinks raspberry syrup with water from the tap, she cooks her food on an old iron stove, and anything left over in her household that isn’t suitable for compost winds up in the fire hole. Mietzel has never flown in an airplane. Back when she wasn’t yet getting so dizzy, she would always walk the three kilometers down to the village. She never learned to ride a bicycle, and has never used an escalator. When her employers are away, she looks after the castle, with only the dormouse, the Aesculapian snake, and the red salamander to keep her company. The house where she was born lies at the foot of the castle hill. Mietzel can see it from her window.
Of the two rooms she has inhabited for thirty years, one is the sitting room. In the cool shade of this room she stores fruit and cake; the baskets and baking pans occupy a huge black table with turned legs that once upon a time belonged to some person who lived here before her. The other room is where Mietzel sleeps, her dresses and aprons hanging in a shallow armoire, and this is also where the television stands, along with an armchair whose slipcover is already polished smooth in the spots where Mietzel lays her hands on the armrests. She brings in the coffee pot, and I can see that a pot of coffee weighs something.
In earlier years, when I was still her neighbor, she would never come to visit me without something in her hands: a head of lettuce, two or three apples, a few mushrooms or a plate of cake. “A couple of dumplings,” she would say. Whatever she brought had been planted, cooked, baked, or found in the woods by her. Later, when she was no longer able to go to the woods and also could no longer work in the garden or even cook or bake, she would make open-face sandwiches for me. White bread with cheese or salami, and on top of that slices of egg or little sour gherkins cut in half. With her bony hands she would arrange the egg slices on the sandwiches just so, and if I didn’t manage to eat them all, she would make me take home what was left, wrapped in silver paper–for tonight, for tomorrow–and also a package of butter cookies for my son.
When I ring her bell this evening, a long time passes before the door opens. The nurse must not yet have figured out all the keys. High up in the sky, far above the big cherry tree, a buzzard is circling. Inside, in her shade-filled kitchen, Mietzel is sitting at the table, the nurse positioned her there, pushing the chair all the way in so she can hold herself upright. Mietzel sits there, but she is so weak that she can’t even manage to open her eyes. I look out her window. Through the bare trees I can see all the way to the house where her mother was a maid and her father a groom. Mietzel sits without moving. And for this reason, when I get up to leave I can only hug her from the side.
In the rear courtyards of the approximately two buildings to survive from the Warsaw Ghetto, the Catholic residents have installed glass boxes for the Holy Mother of God Maria. All around the Virgin, windows send forth a stench of cooking, beer and fabric softener, with crumbling bits of wall contributing the odors of urination and cat, while open cellar doors exhale a cold, mildewy breath. The Virgin cannot wipe away the dust that screens her from my gaze. A child comes galloping diagonally across the courtyard, disappearing up a worn staircase into the darkness of a side building, a woman in heels emerges from the entry hall, a television can be heard. The approximately two buildings to survive from the Warsaw Ghetto have been propped up with iron bars extending right across the courtyard, with netting and boards strung below to catch falling masonry, and floorless balconies stick out from the wall whose plaster is long gone. For more than sixty years, these approximately two buildings have stood here with their bare bricks exposed, sooner or later they will no doubt collapse.
In the place that sixty years ago was the smaller part of the Ghetto, I am staying in a nine-story hotel. Right in front of my window, three glass elevators move up and down in a glass tube. In the place where Aryans dug Aryan cobblestones out of the street in order to throw them over the three-meter-high wall at the Jews, the holes have been filled with asphalt, and all that is left today of the Aryan streetcar that traveled back and forth beneath the Jewish bridge are a few remnants of track. Many of the new buildings constructed after the war on the grounds of the Ghetto stand upon the rubble and foundations of the old buildings the Germans burnt to the ground, for which reason there is often a little slope to the right and left of the sidewalk covered with grass and bushes, and the buildings themselves are slightly raised. At the address Milastrasse 18, where the last fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising took their own lives, geraniums are growing on a balcony, curtains have been bleached white, and birds are twittering in a quince tree. In the place where the historian Emanuel Ringelblum climbed out of the sewers to go into hiding on the Aryan side, a beautiful park is filled with large chestnut trees. Large trees can be found in Warsaw only in places where the Ghetto was not. And in the Jewish cemetery. There a woman is pushing a baby carriage, and when I try to catch a glimpse of her child as I walk past, all I see lying there is a wadded-up white woolen blanket.
I can’t raise my arms so well anymore, she says, gazing down at herself as if at a foreign body. She looks the same as ever, a bit older perhaps than thirty years ago, but certainly not like an old woman. After all, I’ll be seventy next week, she says, speaking in a voice that sounds just like her voice thirty years ago. Next week, though, I’m going to the Baltic coast, to a spa, she says. That will be lovely, I’m sure. She says “the Baltic coast” no differently than she would have spoken these words thirty years ago–to a lover, perhaps.
Really, where does the time go, I once read in letters written by a girl who was forced to live apart from her parents for two years in Fascist Germany. One year later, she was dead, murdered by the Nazis. Where does the time go?
The illnesses that start to befall us fill us with astonishment, they cause our bodies to move in a different way than we intend, they accelerate and delay, they spoil the meter. They astonish us. The years spatter our skin–which just a moment ago was the skin of a child–with the brown spots of age, they make the small print flicker before our eyes, they astonish us, and since all of this occurs so gradually, we don’t even understand where the point of transition occurred. Gradually, one hair at a time, the years make off with the youth of men, they imperceptibly crease the skin of women, gently laying it in folds, and there we are, encased in this skin, gazing with eyes before which the small print has already blurred to the point of illegibility, it is only our thoughts that do not appear to us to age, and for this reason we are astonished to find that the years have settled around our shoulders, and we think that actually, if we wanted to, we could shrug them off again, and for this reason when we look at our own arms, we see something that–the older it becomes–appears to us less and less recognizable and becomes more and more removed from us the more it tries to force us by means of pain and shortcomings to acknowledge its closeness, and this is why we are astonished when our own exhaustion renders us defenseless; and when we realize that death is coming closer to us one friend at a time, we would like best not even to know any longer that our lives often outlast our own ability to age.