Window in Flames

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*********************************************For Rolf Bossert

*

She’d shot up high and had a ponytail that reached her waist.
Were she to loosen it, the flames would set the room ablaze.
Whenever she’d start to tell stories, she’d lift her hands up. Gather her hair with her hands. Cradle it. But her hair would catch on fire.

She had small hands. Her hair engulfed them on the spot.

They called her La ventana en llamas. As though she were a painting by Dali.
She, however, La ventana en llamas, had been the last person to speak with him. With the Albatross Wanja. That’s how the legend has it. This is what she says, whenever her hair scorches her hands. Whenever she grabs her temples, and says ay-ay.

Ay-ay, her dream-white temples.
Crossed with tiny blue veins.
Tiny blue veins.
In which the nightmare flinches and squirms.

From the blanket hung a golden wire. From which a crystal disk swung.
A plate through which the window would be brought to a blaze at sunset. A gift for the evenings in autumn. That’s what La ventana en llamas called it, when she delivered it. Hermina’s house, in its immovable intimacy, received the vibrations of this uneasy gift.

One day La ventana en llamas suddenly appeared.
Dispatched from the wind. From the blind powers of intuition. Or from a cold hand, decisive and vindictive. She came with the gift under her arm, had immediately set it on the blanket. Hermina lay in bed, had closed her eyes. Heavily weighed the world on her eyelids. La ventana en llamas looked through the crystal disk, at how the sun hurt the window. Then she looked at Hermina. She grabbed a chair, placed it at the foot of the bed, sat down and turned her face toward the sun. She took hold of her heavy braid in her hand. Cradled it in her hand-plate. Loosened the knots. Threw it over her shoulders. Hermina lay on top of the pale pillows in between two enflamed windows. Her reflection swayed with the crystal disks. A breeze. A breath. A thought upset the golden wire. And with it the disk. Simultaneously it spoiled the picture of the room. Depending on the angle from which one looked at it. The perspective, which one opted for.

Hermina. That she was trapped in her own image, one could easily maintain. Locked in a trap of toxic dreams. In a vacillation without contours. Life–a borderless trap. A side stream. Influential. Painful alluvium and bleeding burden–she tells herself. And her words as though drowned in the fog: the trap, set by the red and black foxes for the albatross. With its wings, bound together and knotted up on its back. Sirens. From that day forward sirens have been blaring on the streets. They twitch–a scalpel suddenly slides out of the flesh. Trembling in the air. The universe pounded with the pain, which it had set out to follow. The pain, which it tremulously induced to multiply itself. This is its portrait. This is Wanja. The albatross in a trench coat. A scalpel made of words, written in chalk in the wounds of a poem. A siren in the night.

Hermina closed her eyes. On her retina a glowing spot remained. It scorched her lid. The world split like a peach. Vacillated and rounded itself again. A Vacillation that repeated itself. A frightening perspective. Wherein the seed of life and the purpose of the world–shiny, polished–are definitively lost. To Hermina, the world itself looked as though it were concealed within the inner sanctum of a house, which had lost its center. Its axis.

The meridians and latitudes have become confused. Everything has collapsed. The halves touch one another. Warp one another. The meridians and latitudes bend. The world is a single cramp. They eyelid is heavy. At the horizon of the sea and the mountains. And the endless world. Window in flames–danger and rescue. The eyelid is heavy, and the world stretches only to the end of the bed. Hermina floats in the fog. Or she says: the fog floats within me. The years have passed, have been lived out under the sign of the albatross. In its chalk circle. In the invulnerability of poetry. A shackle of air. From which the albatross has liberated itself by tying its wings. How much room does one have to seek the absolute. Very aware, I asked this foolish question.  Very aware. Because there’s no answer, Hermina said. To be obsessed. To crawl on all fours. The gaze barely reaching the height of the ankles. To walk in the fog. While life takes place above it. Above the ankles. Above the eyelids. Above the fog. And in your head, the world divides itself into equal halves. Every kernel falls out. Loses its purpose.

One day La ventana en llamas appeared. Dispatched from the wind? Placed the chair in the direction of the window. Hermina on the pale pillows. Between two burning windows. Fire and blood. That’s how he’d taught me. Let’s call him Orestes. Let’s call him my father. With fire and blood one purifies the place. One burns it down. When necessary, one kills.

Hermina’s fingers are cold. Her hands are slippery. Her forehead is damp. A shudder ripples through her. Down her shoulders. Along her spine. Then a hot shudder. And in her throat throbs a knot. Like a heart. And from time to time the connection escapes Hermina.

Who had told her that she’d like to come, she thinks. Who had told her, that she’d like to bring me this mirror eaten away by flames?

Then the world begins to oscillate again. A red threat divides it all. The waves cradle it. La ventana en llamas desperately seeks the places from which she can touch it. This closed world, in which Hermina cradles herself. A place from which. In which. Hermina had been forgotten. Forgiven. Everything would have started over.

I’m not saying all of this to you in order to find an excuse, Hermina. Life is so. Can you hear me? Where are you? Orestes always said…. But I’ve stopped believing Orestes long ago. He said, for the large masses life flows in a narrow muddy river bed. But when Wanja appears. The albatross. It disturbs its predetermined course. I’m the one, who tears it down, he said. I’m the one, who defends it. I…. And here La ventana en llamas began to cry. Her mute cry. Mere tears. And her hands in the fire of hair. Desperate. Moving aimlessly. While her temples blared. She had come expressly for Hermina. Hermina though. The sleeves of her bathrobe opened widely. On both sides of the bed. Looking inside herself.

I’m telling you all of this, not in order to defend myself. I was just a child. As long as mother was alive, she’d hit me for no reason. For nothing. That’s how I felt. For nothing. But her plan did not succeed. I won’t live long, she said, whenever someone asked her. Why not, Irina? Why do you hit this child? So that she’ll forget me. Hate me.

Sometimes I looked at her in the evening. I was barely six. In the meantime, it seems as though scarcely any time has gone by since then. More and more frequently, I remember her. She always wore dark glasses. And in the evening, when she read, she’d hide her face. When I used to go to kiss her good night, she’d push me away from her, smiling. Then she’d slice me. You still haven’t gone to bed? To punish you, I’m not going to tell you any more stories. She’d lightly push me away from her. And I’d be happy for the physical contact. I’d lie down and stroke the spot, which she’d touched. That’s how I’d fall asleep and dream, that the next evening. She’d hide every evening. But I wouldn’t be able to find her anywhere. Ever.

Even he didn’t have it much better. Orestes. Good, he’d say. Good, but you’re my wife. That much, I’d be able to hear from time to time. And afterwards, occasionally, a snap. Occasionally an outburst of laughter. And once I heard: to your students. Why don’t you go?

With me, Orestes spoke of her as though she were a stranger, as though she were someone who’d only stopped by for a short trip. Sometimes he’d be good to me. And when I’d feel nostalgic, he’d take me into his arms. Another time, he’d said, you resemble your mother. As though about to hit me. His look was full of hate. He said: look at yourself. You look like nothing. At least she was beautiful. I shrank. I could have plunged into the crevices of the parquet floor. Could have crawled under the carpet. And precisely when I threatened to go under, he’d reached out his hand to me. You too are a creature of God.  Still today, I don’t know what to make of that.

Are you longing for her? He said. Nonsense. She wasn’t even your real mother. That one died even sooner. I’d known that she wouldn’t be with us much longer. Someone from far away had sent her to us.

Sometimes, I’d furtively look into the mirror. I had her face in my memory. Orestes had hidden all of the photos. Who knows for what reason. The single exception was tiny and splotched, and I kept it in a book.

Oh, you can’t fool me, Orestes, I’d say to myself. Look at this hair. Not everyone has it. Red. And since then, I’ve no longer cut it.

In Oreste’s stories about mother there was love and hate. That much I could infer. And that’s really how it’d been. I believe, he’d hated her then. Perhaps we’d hated her conjointly.  It couldn’t have been otherwise. And from that day on, I called him Kinyros. For myself.

Whether he’s my father? Even that I don’t know. Whenever he wanted to hurt me, he’d look me in the face. Aha, he’d say. You sleep with your father. And he’d slap me with the back of his hand. Shoved me. Would kick me with his feet. In the beginning I used to cry. With sobs. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, he’d say. And I thought the same. That it was like that. He lifted me off the floor and carried me to bed. I believe I wasn’t yet fourteen.

Another time he took me over to the side. Stroked my hair. Said, you need not fear. Everything is ok. I am however, not your father. I sensed that my nerves were shot. Thrown into the world. To feed the wolves.

Yes, Irina had deceived us, wherever she could. Me too. And you. You see that she’s gone.

Out of everything that I could piecemeal make sense of. From the little that Irina had told me. From the little that Orestes would allow me to guess. From that which he tried to hammer into me. From the whispers of the students. The subordinates. The elbow shoves among the relatives. Out of all of that, I’d pieced together their story a bit at a time.

And Oreste’s story?  Yes. But everything had first come into being with her. With her arrival into a country in which no one had been expecting her. Perhaps he’d been expecting her. Orestes. The one whose name was Kinyros for me.

His real name no one knows anymore. Some called him Comrade Major. Others, Comrade Superintendent. And still some others simply comrade. But they all were afraid of him. For years I wanted to be blind. To not trust my ears. To not ask, what the gun in his desk drawer was doing there. No one had the right to enter his studio. Not even the service woman entered the room without him. The service woman, like he’d say. Don’t let the service woman into my studio! And he always wanted to know the designated day for cleaning.

I wanted to be deaf. Even at school. When they’d call me “spy” to my face. I’d plug my ears. Would scream. Scream at them, they should leave me in peace. Screamed so as to overpower their voices. So as not to hear, what they said to me. And to not blush at the things they said to me. And when I’d get called on, when I’d have to go to the blackboard. During history lessons I’d constantly hear: Yes. There was only a handful of Communists in Romania after the war. And in the break they’d shove me. A handful of Communists. And one of them was Comrade Superintendent. Bessarabia. They’d say. Well all right, Bessarabia. “The news of the liberation of Bessarabia from the yoke of the Boyars had unleashed joy. It offers the right to immigrate to Bessarabia. Signed: Central Committee of the RCP on the 6th of June, 1940,” they’d say.

Even in geography. Bessarabia. They’d say. And the geography teacher. Would stare at me with her icy look. And during the break, there’d always be someone who’d mention Bessarabia? The Communists had sold it to the Russians!

I couldn’t beat them. They were too many. Couldn’t get near them. You with your hair. Red. And they’d still whisper other things to themselves. Wrote notes to themselves. What I’d be able to glimpse was: All Jews became Communists. Then they brought us all down a notch. The notes multiplied. Would go from one hand to the other. Look at yourself. And your father. Doesn’t he need to arch his back pretty badly with all of those stars decorating his shoulders? During the break the notes became a handful of shreds. Scraps. Thousands upon thousands of scraps of paper. Not one single letter remained whole. So that no one could prove anything. They’d throw them in my face in the hallway, when I’d walk down it alone. Without witnesses. Everyone was afraid. Everyone feared everyone. But they did so courageously. They spit it out to me through their teeth.

Other Jews were also in the class. Yet, I was the only one singled out. They’d given me the nickname of fox with a little bell. But in my files there was no trace that revealed this. We even had Germans. And Hungarians were in the class too. Russians too. Whom didn’t we have? You could have declared a world war.

But I erred around on my own during the break. Couldn’t go near anyone, crib off of no one. So that I had to study. Show them what I was capable of. That I was better than them. And Orestes? He bellowed: Slut. I’m going to mop the floor with you. Damn your mad fox hair!

It was an inescapable circus. Until someone said to him: this can’t go on. You need to find a wife. At least for the eyes of the world.

Before Marusia came to us, he gave me an explanation. I’d latched onto him, and screamed: I want you to tell me the truth. I can’t take it anymore. The whispers. Do you understand! I will jump out of the window! And you’ll get in big trouble if you bring me to it. I don’t see anything good for your dossier, Orestes.

You’ve learned to bite. How did you say they baptize you at school? I have no objection to it. If you’re not my daughter, you’re at least that of your mother. It’s not my fault. Even your hair comes from her. And it was she who forced this story on me. I was young and wanted to have a career. My folks had died young, thank God. Just in case someone clever should come around to rummage through the files. And study my dossier?  There was someone. It was she. Or whoever had sent her from there. From the country from which she came.

Never did I know her real name. Not even on her deathbed did she tell me. And I can tell you that I never succeeded in making her happy one single day. Constantly she humiliated me with her coldness. With her distance, which she brought between us. Even during the time I believed I was in love with her, she never allowed me to hope. Not for one moment did she liberate me from the burden of work. Yes, you will achieve your goal, she’d always say. You’ll be successful in everything you wish. You’ll have a bright career. But I’ll do my duty. That’s what they’d trained her to do. They’d taken her out of the camp. And placed her in the orphanage. They raised her. And at an appropriate age she received a name. Clean. A baptismal certificate. A passport. And a mandate with the destination of Romania.

She never even forgave herself. Knew no sunny day in her life. I can swear to that. Even you she couldn’t really love. Or. Perhaps it wasn’t quite so. Perhaps she loved you unspeakably. Unspeakably she loved you. Perhaps that’s the reason she didn’t want to live. Didn’t want to see you grow up. Didn’t want to hear your questions. She loved you unspeakably. You should know that. That’s why she wanted to die. She wouldn’t have borne it, telling you her name. Nor whence she came. It wasn’t her fault. That’s how they raised her. And she felt in their debt. Once she realized this, there was no way back anymore. At night she cried in her sleep. I would have gladly helped her. Sometimes. Perhaps I would have been able to. Yet we never came close enough. In her sleep she uttered muddled words. She saw herself in between wire fences. Barbed wire and batons. An ingenious order. I would have been able to wake her up. Would have been able to tell her, we should flee. To start anew. Anywhere in South America. There were moments in which I would have even gone to Antarctica. I didn’t have the strength to tell her that. Didn’t have the strength to do it. Then the impulse passed. The fear took hold of me. Even thoughts can be heard. I know that one can also hear thoughts. I’m the one, who knows that one can also hear thoughts. From the heartbeat. From the throbbing of the temples. From the trembling of the hands, when one signs the “interview.”

I didn’t have the strength to do it. Now I know that she’d always been waiting. But she never let me know it. We were so far apart from one another. Only seldom did something flash. Sizzle like a spark. On her own, she had no strength. Perhaps we could have started everything over from scratch. Perhaps we could have been happy. They’d driven her into a corner early on. I myself was no better off. I wrote books in order to forget. Collected experiences. Slept with anyone who’d cross my path. I believe I loved her. Until the end of my days I’ll be asking myself this. And perhaps I’ll never learn the answer. Never.

This was the only time that Orestes spoke to me humanely. It was like a Christmas movie projected on the wall of a brothel cellar. Then the lights went out. And in our house, Marusia surfaced. I still continue to say “our house,” but as she appeared the house became a triangle of rejections.

In the beginning she didn’t act crazy. She knew her place and her purpose. Little by little though she started to work on me. Lying about me to Orestes. Making up stories that she’d tell him in bed. Dreadful stories. About men and orgies. This girl knows nothing sacred! She wouldn’t calm down until Orestes looked for his belt. Until I had streaks on my legs and my whole body. Then one would hear their bedroom door. A little later the bathroom door.

Do you want me to liberate you from this hell, one of his friends asked me. No, Orestes had no friends. The first time I still acted strong. It’s none of your business, I said. What the fuck do you care? I’d just finished gymnasium. I didn’t know what to do with myself. For Orestes, there was no discussion. You’re going to study law. Stefan Gheorghiu, the party law institute. Or medicine. I looked to the right–to the left. There was no place for me. Everyone dropped their heads whenever I surfaced in their proximity.

And, have you thought it over? The question would come again. Oreste’s friend pulled a blank passport out of his pocket. Here we could insert your name. I shrieked. Began to tremble. Extended my hand out toward it. Just a moment, baby. For a small service. Nothing special. We want an interview. We want the albatross, Wanja. He acts all too cleanly. Revolting! These poets. They all think they’re Jesus. You have long legs. And hair that reaches down to, oh well. What do I know what you do with him. Your business. Strangle him with your hair. Crush him with your legs. Get an interview out of him. The guy should tell you everything he’s soaked up in his life. And from whom. Come with the interview directly to the airport. Don’t worry about your things. You’ll get them another time.  You’ll buy new ones in the West. I only want to help you.

I said yes. Everyone saves themselves however they can. Don’t want to find any excuses. Was still so young. Was a child. Had started writing poems. That I’d read out loud to Wanja. He looked at my wavy hair and said, keep reading, read. I’m listening, darling. I’m listening. And then I received him between my thighs. For a question. And another question. I crucified him in bed. Tied his wings. Possessed him. Crushed him. Robbed him of his senses.

He answered. My name is Wanja. Not one step further. Only: my name is Wanja. I started from the beginning, I told myself, this is about life and death. My plane was going to leave in two hours. And your friends? I asked. Also my friends will not. They too will never ever, he answered. That’s how I am. My friends are also this way. And my son. Go foxy, or I’ll kill you. This will never end. Nowhere.

As I got out of bed, the window was open. Wanja was away. I scarcely managed to pull on some clothes and disappear. At the airport a passport and travel money awaited me. Here’s your bundle. From now on, you’re flying alone. We’ll surely find you, when we need you. It was not too bad for a beginner!

The roaring of the engine exhausted me. Or was it Wanja’s voice. All the time, I heard it. Never will it end. Nowhere. And he’d still told me something. Whispered it. As though he didn’t want me to hear it. Even your mother couldn’t have done it better.

Hermina listens to the words. Words that begin to vacillate. They begin to gain meaning. Now and again the earth stops vacillating. She raises her head. Tries to look around. Moves her lonely wolf skull: who told her that she should come? Then she drops her head to the side. Down in the whirlpool of her thoughts. In the confused drone. Wanja’s voice. In the chalk circle. In the invulnerability of poetry, says his voice. There. I’m untouchable. There you’ll find me anytime. Have no fear. These were the last words he said to her. The last, which she remembered. And now this being that set the room on fire. Says. With hands in hair. With throbbing temples. With the voice, time and history challenges: I think of my people. Now I know that I belong to them. What else does it take, Lord. Who else needs to atone. How much do they still need to sin for their right to forgiveness to be recognized. Hundreds of years. History up and down. I belong on the side of this destiny. Identify with it. Want to escape Irina’s fear. They thrashed her with barbed wire. Irina. How I long. If I could only see your face. If only you’d told me those stories in the evening. Why didn’t you tell me? I would have understood. I alone would have understood. We would have fled. Would have lived happily. And you would have loved me unspeakably. Unspeakably. But Irina refused her liberation. In me she hadn’t seen the fruit of her body. Instead the mirror of the deadly sin. No one could have rescued her. And in spite of that someone had attempted to do so. No. I alone could have rescued her. No, Orestes.

I think about my people. About the murdered children. About the fallen albatrosses. That’s why I’ve come to you. Tell me stories. Awaken. Don’t let yourself be cradled by death. Life. Here. Among us. It pours out like a spring. Look at this mirror. My crystal gift. I brought it to you for the autumn evenings. I brought you the mirror, which reflects the burning window. Don’t let yourself be disappointed. Two fires rise simultaneously. Don’t leave me alone. I’ve come to help you extend your hand to me. Lift up your eyes and look at me. I’m your daughter. Everything is just as you imagined it to be. I exist. I am here. Without fear. Encircle me with love. With forgiveness. So that we can start a new life. Tell me the evening stories. It was not I who killed the albatross, Wanja. It wasn’t my merit. There’s no escape, he said: the telephones. The cars. The microphones. The children’s way to school. The wife, her secret abortion, third month. The interview. The interview was too much. I’m going to lose my mind. I’m going to sign it. And then I’m going to jump out the window. No. Even better. I’ll throw myself out of it. And won’t sign it at all, won’t sign it at all. He said it calmly. As though he’d drunk a glass of water.

I’m not telling you this, in order to find an excuse, Hermina heard La ventana en llamas saying. When Marusia came to our house, Orestes would have most preferred to lock me up. To admit me to one of his infirmaries. You are crazy. Mad. And Marusia nodded to everything. Yes, yes. No vaccine will help her anymore. Listen to me, Hermina. Orestes hospitalized even your son. Wanja’s son can’t fly freely. He’s the particle that broke off of his father. One does not infect society with exaltation and enthusiasts.

Hermina tries to open her eyes. To look at Oreste’s daughter: you and your kind. And in all eternity, it would go through her head. She glanced at the armchair there, where La ventana en llamas had crouched like a lost child, a frost curled leaf.

Bios

Carmen-Francesca Banciu

Carmen-Francesca Banciu is the author of five novels, several short story collections, critical essays, and a radio play. Born in Lipova, Romania, she studied religious painting and foreign trade in Bucharest, and began publishing short stories in the 1980s. In 1985, she was awarded the International Short Story Award of the City of Arnsberg for the story “Das strahlende Ghetto” (“The Beaming Ghetto”). Immediately following this award, Banciu was banned from publishing her work in Romania. In 1991, she accepted an invitation extended by the DAAD Berlin Artists-in-Residence program and went to Germany. Since her debut in German, Banciu has established herself as a Berlin-based writer, adopting German as her primary literary language. Banciu first debuted in the German language in 1996, with her memoiristic novel Vaterflucht [Flight from Father]. Banciu was Writer-in-Residence at Rutgers University from 2004-2005 and the University of Bath in 2009. In 2016, Banciu made Loren Kleinmann’s “Most Badass Female Protagonists” list in Huffington Post. Banciu currently lives in Berlin and works as a freelance author and co-editor/deputy director of the transnational, interdisciplinary, and multilingual e-magazine Levure Littéraire.

Elena Mancini

Elena Mancini is a German-English and Italian-English literary translator. Her published translations span the genres and include three novels as well as numerous articles of social and political commentary. Mancini holds a Ph.D. in Germanic Languages and Literatures and is a language, literature, and film professor at Queens College in New York City. Mancini’s English translation of Carmen-Francesca Banciu’s radio play It’s Cold and It’s Getting So Dark was one of three winners in the 2016 contest held by the Play for Voices podcast and Words without Borders.

Fenster in Flammen. Copyright (c) Carmen-Francesca Banciu, 1992. English translation copyright (c) Elena Mancini, 2017.