Woman of the Dead


Eight years earlier

You can see it all from above. The sea, the sailing boat, her skin. A naked woman is on deck, the sun is shining and all is well. She simply lies there, looking up, her eyes are open, there’s just her and the sky, the clouds. This is the best place in the world: the boat that her parents bought twenty years ago, a marvel, a pearl beyond price, at home in Trieste harbor. Life on the water under the open sky where there’s no one else in sight. Only water far and wide, music in her ears, sweat gathering in her navel. Nothing else.

They have been sailing from Trieste to the Kornati Islands, they’re in no hurry, there is nothing to do. She has gone on holiday with her parents for so many years now. They’ll soon be seventy, tanned by wind and weather, passionately enthusiastic sailors both. They’ve always gone on sailing holidays, ever since she was small. As a child she wore bathing trunks, then a bikini, she was never naked before.

She undressed two hours ago, and lay down without bothering to apply sunscreen. She wants the sun to burn her, she wants her skin to scream out loud when she is found. She wants to be naked at last. Now, there is no one to tell her off. No father. No mother. She is alone on the boat with her breasts, her hips, her legs, her arms. There’s a smile on her lips as she nods in time to the music. At this moment, there’s nowhere on earth she would rather be.

She’ll lie there for another three hours, stretching out in the sun, soaking up the summer. Another three hours, or four. Until they finally sink. Until they stop calling out. Until they stop flailing at the water, splashing it into the air. Until they fall silent, forever.

It is midday off the Croatian island of Dugi Otok. She doesn’t move. She’s going to say that she fell asleep, she didn’t hear a thing, the music was too loud, the sun made her drowsy. She will answer all the questions she is asked, she will give a full explanation, and she will shed tears. When the time comes, she’ll do everything it takes. But for now there is only the sky above her and she traces circles on it, writing in the blue space. She paints her future in the sky, imagining her new life. Now the Institute is hers. She will change everything, modernize it, make it a successful business again. She’ll be in charge of everything. She will take the boat back to Trieste and begin all over again.

There’s sweat everywhere. How she enjoys being naked. You are not going to undress, Brünhilde. Not on our boat. Our rules hold good as long as we live, Brünhilde. But there are no rules now, nothing is forbidden. She has undressed, she is lying on deck stretching out her body. Everything that makes her what she is waves in the wind like a banner, she blossoms in the sun, she is happy. Happier with every minute she spends alone.

Brünhilde Blum is twenty-four years old, the daughter of Hagen and Herta Blum. Adopted daughter. They took her from the children’s home when she was three, they trained her like a domestic pet, she was brought up to succeed them. She was Hagen’s last hope for the family firm. Even if they could only adopt a girl. A girl or nothing, they were told. The waiting lists were long, and Hagen was desperate. So desperate that he began to contemplate leaving his business in the hands of a woman. She was to carry on the firm that was sacred to him, she was to preserve what he had created, she was to be a substitute man for Hagen’s sake. She did everything he demanded, everything required by the profession. The firm of Blum, Funeral Directors, meant the world to him—it mattered more than anything.

It was a traditional business: her prison, her nursery. Founded shortly after the war in 1949, at a time when there was a good trade in death, the Blums took over the things the neighbors used to do. The neighbors would help out when someone died, would see to the washing, dressing, and laying out of bodies. Now they were superseded by the undertaker’s firm. Old customs that had seemed natural were now taboo. Touching the dead, bidding them farewell before they disappeared into their caskets. People were glad that now someone else would dispose of everything as quickly as possible, take the body away and stow it underground. A clean, matter-of-fact business.

The Blums were prominent figures in Innsbruck. They made a good living from the dead. First Hagen’s father, then Hagen, now Blum. Just Blum, because she hated her first name, she’d never been able to bear it. Brünhilde, leave the dead bodies in peace. Brünhilde, stop playing with them. Brünhilde, stop sticking your fingers up their noses. Brünhilde. A name that had nothing to do with her, a name they had given her because Hagen’s name was more German than people liked these days, and because he wanted his daughter to fit into his world. A name that she had banished from her life. Only Blum now. No Brünhilde. Not since she was sixteen, not since she stopped being Hagen’s little soldier, no longer did absolutely everything he told her to. Only Blum. She insisted on it. Never mind if he punished her for that.

She looks at the sky. She turns up the volume of the music, the boat rocks back and forth, there isn’t a soul to be seen far and wide. No one to help them, no one to hear their screams. No one but her. She lies there naked, almost like a dead body in the preparation room. Bodies lying on the slab, cold and lifeless, for as long as she can remember. She didn’t have any friends, the profession scared the other children off. They couldn’t cope with the fact that her father’s business was with the dead, and so was hers. Blum was a freak, and the other children laughed at her, excluded her from their games, mocked her and ganged up on her. She suffered all through her childhood and her teenage years. She longed for a friend, whether a boy or a girl, someone to share her life with, someone she could talk and laugh with. But she was all on her own, she had no one but her parents. Unloving parents. A silent mother who never hugged or kissed her, and a father who made her do things no child should ever have to do.

She’d been made to lay out the dead since she was seven. There’s no time to be lost, Brünhilde, the early bird catches the worm. Don’t make such a fuss, Brünhilde, they’re not going to bite you. Don’t be so girly, Brünhilde, grit your teeth and stop crying. If you don’t stop that noise this minute and do as I tell you, I’m going to put you in the casket, do you hear me, Brünhilde? Blum shampooed the dead people’s hair, she shaved them, she washed blood from their bodies and helped to dress them. She was ten years old when she first stitched up a mouth. Whenever she refused to perform a task, she was shut up in the casket. Countless times, for hours on end, a small, frightened child alone in the dark. She resisted, but Hagen broke her will every time. She was forced to lie in the casket while he screwed the lid down. You leave me no alternative, Brünhilde. When are you going to stop fighting me? I really have no other option, Brünhilde. And then the lid closed. A child in a wooden box. She held out as long as she could, she wished she could have been stronger, but she was only a child. She was helpless, she had to bear it, no one helped her, no one cared about her tears, her pleading. I don’t want to do it. I can’t. Please don’t make me do it. That was just before she brought the needle up through the chin from below and into the mouth cavity, pulling the thread through dead flesh. She did everything, but it wasn’t enough. Never mind how much she longed for a loving touch, to see her parents beam proudly. She was never good enough, however hard she tried. She was only a girl, defenseless and helpless, little Blum. Please let me out, Papa. Please don’t shut me up in there. Not in the casket again, Papa. Please don’t.

It was punishment and torment. Later on it was all in a day’s work, but at first it was hell. She wiped out eyes and mouths a thousand times, cleaned blood and maggots away from wounds, touched cold, dead skin. There were disfigured corpses, severed body parts. It was no sort of childhood, she had no birthday cake, no candles, no dolls to dress and undress, only the dead. Big dolls, heavy dolls, hairy arms and legs, heads so heavy that she could hardly hold them, motionless mouths. Not a smile, not a kind word, nothing. Only her father driving her on. Through countless bodies, faces, genitals, and shit. A girl of ten wearing plastic gloves. Her mother would call her in for supper as if she had been playing with other little girls in the garden. Supper’s ready. Wash your hands. Don’t keep Papa’s favorite dinner waiting. A nice roast for Papa, an accident victim for Blum. Hagen would put his loaded fork to his mouth. Blum would think of dead flesh, of old men with sores and papery skin, of the urine and blood in the room next door that she would have to mop up after supper. This tastes delicious, Herta, a real poem of a dish, as always. And Blum would push her plate away.

For as long as she can remember, there have been dead people around. They came in hearses, in ambulances, from autopsy tables; they came straight from their beds, where they had fallen asleep forever; they came with heart attacks, stabbed, or murdered; they simply came into Blum’s life, invading her little world. No one asked her whether that was what she wanted. Whether she could cope with it. They were simply there, dead people sprawled on the aluminum table. It was terrifying at first, but after a while quiet and peaceful. Blum reconciled herself with her world, began to accept the fact that she had no choice, that there was nowhere else she could go. That it was the living she must fear, not the dead. That realization did her good. So did being alone with them. Whenever she could, she went into the preparation room. And in the end she made friends with the dead, she talked to them. Blum was stronger than they were. She could decide what happened to them. None of them could hurt her, never mind how big and heavy they were; they didn’t move anymore. They didn’t breathe, their arms and legs simply lay there. They were like dolls, big, cold dolls. She confided in them, she told them everything, and apart from that she kept quiet, not a word to her parents, she just did as she was told and then withdrew. Until now.

How the sun burns. The boat was always a respite from reality: a dream. From Trieste to Yugoslavia, to Greece, to Turkey, to Spain. Weeks on end on the boat, for weeks on end life was good. She looked forward to the time when the anchor was raised and the wind caught in the sails. When Hagen showed her the importance of the way you steered, and how to survive in a storm. Blum remembers all that she has learned and what she still has to learn, remembers the islands, the wind, and how her parents could even be induced to smile because they were on holiday. Their faces, usually so closed, opened up. Sometimes Blum even felt that she saw love in them, only briefly, a little flicker of love. For twenty years she has been looking for that, waiting for it, longing to be a normal girl, a daughter, a young woman capable of more than laying out bodies. She wants to live at last.

She is not going to move, never mind what happens, she isn’t going to stir. There is nothing but Blum and the sun on her skin. She ignores the cries and the knocking on the hull.

Two desperate bodies, swimming. They can be seen from above. They try to get a handhold, their fingernails keep scraping along the side of the boat. The good old boat, the ladder that can be folded up, the ladder that isn’t there when they shout for it. Hagen has insisted on keeping everything in its original condition, no renovations, no concessions to emergencies. Don’t get into a funk, only idiots forget the ladder up there, if that should ever happen to me you can leave me to drown. How self-confident he was; how pitiful and helpless now. Big Hagen and his Herta. There’s no way back for those two, they had simply jumped into the sea without thinking, two loveless old people. Two people with weak hearts, breathless, panicking. They’ve been screaming, they’ve been swallowing water for two hours now. They want to get back on board, they want to scale the side of the boat, they are trying everything, treading water, swimming beside the boat, weeping, screaming, drumming their fists on the wood, they call her name. Brünhilde. Again and again, Brünhilde. But Brünhilde doesn’t hear them. Never mind how loud they scream, how badly their fingers are bleeding. She knows they will die. They know it too. They know that Blum can hear them, they know she’s lying up here and doing nothing. Just listening to her music as the boat gently rocks. She smiles, knowing that soon it will be over. They’ll stop screaming, and everything will finally be all right. Everything will be warm and almost happy. Only she and the sun, nothing else. She will come to life at last.

After three hours in the blazing sun, her skin is burning in silence. She can’t hear a thing now, no more knocking on the side of the boat. Hagen and Herta silenced forever. Nothing is left, no past to which she must return. Blum will steer the boat now, bring it back to Trieste, she will renovate the house, build a new chapel of rest, a new preparation room, she will redevelop the whole place to the last nook and cranny. She’ll throw away everything that reminds her of those two, take it to the trash dump. She is twenty-four years old. Now she’ll stand up, get dressed, and radio the coast guard station, send a desperate message: her parents have disappeared without trace, just like that, while she was asleep. She will take a gulp of liquor from Hagen’s flask and wait for help. She’ll repeat her horror over the radio, she will scream and cry.

Forty minutes pass. Blum scans the sea for them while she waits. There is not a trace of Hagen. Or Herta. They simply disappeared in a tragic accident, two bodies with water in their lungs, washed ashore or fished out of the sea.

Blum stands on deck, waving. Shouting for help when she sees the boat. A small yacht, sailed by a tourist and not the coast guard, is the first to respond to her desperate cries. Blum, trembling, tells him what has happened. The stranger comes aboard to help her, looks after her, searches the boat and scrutinizes the sea around it. His voice does her good, consoles her, so do his arms as he puts them around her. Just like that, with sudden affection. His hands, the sunburn, her skin. I went to sleep. It’s my fault, we have to find them. Where are they, for God’s sake, where can they be? What have I done? We must go back and search for them, they’re not there anymore. They’ve gone, they’ve simply disappeared. What if they’re dead? She screams this out loud, tears herself away from him, strikes her own face again and again, blaming herself. It’s my fault, she cries. When he tries to hold her she strikes him too, she weeps, she tries tearing herself away. She must do everything exactly right. Everything she says and does now must convince him, there must not be a moment’s doubt in his mind. This attractive man. She lets him hold her, she is very close to him, her face on his chest, he holds her, she is breathing fast, she can smell him, she hears him. She hears his voice, whispering. My name is Mark, he says. I’m a police officer. Everything will be all right.


Bernhard Aichner

Bernhard Aichner is an award-winning author and photographer living in Innsbruck, Austria. His books have been translated into twelve languages. Woman of the Dead is his first book to be translated into English. To research the story, he spent six months working in a funeral home.

Anthea Bell

Anthea Bell has won numerous awards for her translations, including the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz, the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation  Prize, and the Society of Authors' Schlegel-Tieck Prize on several occasions. Best known for her translation of the Asterix series, Bell was awarded an OBE in 2010 for services to literature. She lives and works in Cambridge, England.

Copyright (c) Bernhard Aichner, 2015. English translation copyright (c) Anthea Bell, 2015. Published by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Originally published in 2014 in Germany by Verlagsgruppe Random House. Reprinted with permission.