For three hundred years, more or less, the Dietrichsteins lived in an estate of considerable size, somewhere north of Döbling, Austria.
A life of affluence and negligence drove my father, Adam Dietrichstein, to perform all types of obscenities. After all, he was the third born out of four brothers and often overlooked in his abundance. What’s more, he was considerably round and lazy, with a horrible temper. A silent frustration coursed through his every limb.
The Dietrichsteins had a certain reputation to uphold. Their lineage, composed of both royalty and nobility, forced them under public scrutiny. And, to the outside world, the family presented themselves as respectable people. As far as the eye lent true, they did what they could for the community, they organised charity events, three out of four sons studied at the best universities in Europe, and each, besides one, held a steady job.
Yet, like in nature, perfection did not exist amongst the Dietrichsteins. Under the smoothest surfaces, expanses of quicksand lay hidden. At the age of twenty-nine, Adam and his father, Felix, argued more than they spoke. And for all Felix cared, they could’ve continued on in a similar vein for the rest of his days, as long as their fighting was restrained to the boundaries of their excessive home, where the walls were thick and the neighbours could not hear.
They fought in this secretive manner for years, until one day Adam took things too far. Suddenly the threads of their dispute became too tangled to untwine, even for their standards. The words they used were terrible and unfortunately cannot be recounted here. Each syllable poured out of Adam’s small fish mouth like a garden hose. He foamed at the lips, and little bits of saliva darted through the air like a water sprinkler. He was truly enraged and yelled like a fat pig dragged to the slaughter.
He called for his mother, whose default stance was invariably against her husband. Though not at all beautiful, she was a dignified woman, who had inherited an unreasonable amount of money in her early twenties. She never had to work a day in her life, yet she tended to busy herself with one thing or another, and walked around with the air of someone who wanted to investigate a rumour or confirm a suspicion.
“Mama!” he screamed again and again, senselessly, like an echo in an empty cave. She was taking a bath.
Afraid, Adam was determined to take their argument outside, knowing his father would be more considerate before an audience. So, while Felix dragged him towards the stairs, Adam pushed him towards the veranda.
The latter, large as he was, won that particular leg of the fight without much exertion. He grabbed his father by the buttons of his shirt, opened the veranda door with his spare hand, pushed him into the garden, turned around in one swooping motion, took the key from inside the door, and locked it from the outside.
For several moments Felix kept his composure. He treated his son with the benevolence often shown to a guest who is welcomed but mustn’t stick his nose in their business. But his son was one of those annoyingly observant types who knew how to get to people. Within minutes they were heard yelling at each other like enraged but articulate bulls.
That evening the matter was settled in a more controlled manner, with Adam’s mother as mediator. Upon seeing her husband’s distorted, angry countenance, she determined, for her own sanity, that for this once it would be best to side with him.
In several harsh, but direct, phrases it was decided that Adam, at the ripe age of twenty-nine, almost thirty, was to be temporarily placed in a small apartment in the heart of Vienna, until he learned how to behave.
In the accommodation Felix had bought for a mistress several years earlier, though no one knew that particular detail but the man himself.
The apartment was situated in the less-than-fashionable Spitalgasse, one-hundred meters from the Medical University of Vienna. The small abode housed two beige plush sofas, a thick red carpet which took up most of the floor, and a large leather armchair, with a depression on the seat and a dark oval sweat stain on the head rest.
Adam called it a hole, not a home. For the first few weeks he did not step foot outside, afraid he’d run into a friend, or anyone for that matter, familiar as he was with the power of the spoken word and how it spread like wildfire, especially in Vienna. Throughout his life he had instigated many of those verbal circulations, and now, in an unpleasant turn of events, he felt its unwarranted finger pointed at him. In a remarkably short time he lost contact with everyone.
Loneliness seized him immediately, to no one’s surprise. After all, he was in bad company, he only had himself. And, come to think of it, his nanny, an old prune of a woman who had taken care of him since birth. But he rarely thought of her at all, only when she brought his breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And his coffees, teas, and snacks, which he ate greedily. She arrived every morning at precisely eight o’clock, and left at precisely eight o’clock in the evening.
A whole month passed before he stepped outside. With unsteady breath he took in the cold Austrian air. Painful tears dampened his cheeks, chilling him further.
As the days progressed he, again, took things too far. He was never taught how to ration. To compensate for his apartment, he dressed lavishly. He planned, were he to see anyone he knew, or someone he did not know for that matter, he’d say he had taken some time off, to reflect. He would pretend his decision to leave Döbling had been his own. Who could ridicule someone with such morale? Such courage and initiative? Like the Buddha, he would say, he too had stripped himself of everything.
He spoke with great fervour and pretension to anyone and everyone, both worthy of his interest, and unworthy, the latter being just about everybody. According to him. He took to smoking a cigar, stuffed his pockets with toilet paper, making the front of his thighs look like his backside. He then plucked a purple, one-thousand schilling bill on top, so it showed ever so slightly. To further play his part, he let his beard grow out, in both a pathetic attempt to conceal himself, and to portray his newfound image.
Pathetic, an excellent word to describe Adam. He was a passionless, meek, weak man. And though he had quite a handsome face, in a round, boyish sort of way, his eyes stared out at you like two dull electric signs, without life.
It was around this time that Luisa met him on her way to university, and promptly fell in love because he had given her some attention.
“I’ve never felt this strongly about anyone, the pit of my stomach is inflamed, warming my whole body,” she told my mother.
Luisa was my mother’s best friend, though she had never once called her Luisa. To her she was Pana, short for Panacea, the goddess of universal remedy. She studied Pharmaceutical Sciences.
“When can I meet him?” my mother asked.
“This weekend. He’ll be at Flanagan’s. I want you to come with me.”
“A thirty-year-old man at Flanagan’s?”
“Yes, he has a young soul.”
“You know I hate dancing.”
“Come on, do it for me, think of it as paying rent. And anyway, you should have some fun every now and then.”
“Fine.” It was the least she could do. Pana not only provided her with a bed in her attic, but food, warmth, the daily comforts of a friend. And anyway, she was right, she should have some fun. By the time she was ten, she already knew her life wouldn’t get much better. The way things looked, her father wouldn’t come home, and had it not been for her mother’s so-called soothing lies, she never would have thought of him at all. If he was anything like her own mother, she never wanted to meet him either.
The relationship she shared with her mother, Beatrice, was unusual. Their perception of reality differed to such an extent, one wondered whether they peopled the same planet. One of the few things they, however, did agree on was my mother’s objective beauty. She had evolved from a pretty infant to an unusually attractive child, and even now managed to avoid the common awkwardness of adolescence. She never had spots or greasy hair, her breasts were small but not too small, her waist was thin with a slight curve to her lower back. Bea, who considered herself an authority on the topic of aesthetics, realised early on that she would become an enchantress. In slow processions, all the hope she had for her own security through a man, was now extended onto her child, who was far easier to manipulate.
Proof of her daughter’s beauty laid sprawled on the streets. It could be seen through the eyes of both men and women alike. In restaurants the waiters gave them all sorts of small presents: an extra dessert, another glass of wine for the mother. Bea knew her daughter could have whoever she wanted, though if she could have it her way—which she could, she was her mother—she preferred a fat cat, who knew the facts of life and wouldn’t mind providing for his poor mother-in-law.
My mother, on the other hand, did not care or think much about her looks. She secretly despised Bea for putting so much unwanted attention on her appearance. The only value she saw was in her academics, and that she got the grades to match her friends, so she could go to university with a scholarship.
A secret plan had manifested in her mind from infancy onwards. She lived, after all, in the same city as Freud. Like him she wanted to create a distinctive causa-sui project, her own personal stepping stone towards immortality. She wanted to create something that could give meaning beyond her own life, and transcend her human limitations. Throughout her adolescence she lived the infantile dream of controlling death, of living through her work forever. In her mind she planned the future: she would go to medical school to appease her mother, learn what she could, be the best, then alter the facts to appeal to her own, change them, write books about them. She had always been praised for things which were fleeting. Her features, her youth. Perhaps that was why she feared death as much as she did. Each day her body showed marks of its approach.
Contrarily, Bea preferred to spend her time in the here and now. Her only worry was money. She taught my mother how to preserve herself in ways that cost close to nothing, and at times nothing at all. She was to take a cold shower every morning, pinch her cheeks to add some colour, brush her eyelashes every night with almond oil, clean her pores above a pan of boiling water, and scrub her skin with honey and sugar.
When my mother was fifteen, Bea taught her how to cook, and, like most things, she learned quickly. She was dexterous and handled the kitchen knives like a juggler. She could skin thirty potatoes in ten minutes, and slice them into paper-thin slivers if she so pleased. Her palate was precise, and she could detect every ingredients in any dish.
With the kitchen to herself, she spent long hours after school, experimenting with dishes of her own. Hundreds of ideas floating through her head, and hardly a day went by wherein she did not come up with a new creation.
Bea watched with amusement. On several occasions she caught herself sitting impatiently in the living room around dinner time, licking her lips, sniffing the aromas which came wafting towards her. It was a happy period, for both my mother and Bea. The food brought them closer. That is, until my mother’s slender body began swelling like pizza dough, and Bea forced her on a stringent diet, making her lose all the weight, and more.
All that unwanted attention on her appearance moulded my mother into an insecure woman. Had she been lathered with affection from the moment she was born, she may have found some truth in her mother’s words. But Bea’s favour only came later in life, when her brain had already been shaped, hardened in her mother’s light with little hope for change.
Throughout it all, my mother’s only companions were the characters found in books, and only late at night while her mother slept in the room next door. For hours, flashlight in hand, she read over the pages which during the day were used as balancing material, propped on top of her head so she could learn to walk with grace. During those solitary hours she lived in her own form of mythical eschatology, in which the world order had to be defended against chaos. In the room next door Bea lived in its historical counterpart, wherein life was linear, structured with progress, and experiences were never universal.
When she was not reading, she worked on her secret project: a piece of science-fiction. She slept with it clutched between her arms like a teddy-bear, then hid it in a box underneath her bed before school.
Unlike my mother, Pana did not spend any time on her looks. She never wore makeup, and had the face of, as someone had once said in class, a toad. It was true, she did resemble a toad, but she cared so little about how she looked that, like an optical illusion, she became, in a way, attractive.
In all other respects Pana was anything but casual. She had a conniving, mean side that my mother felt rather than saw, with her gut and not her eyes. But what proof did she have? She let her sleep in the attic without paying a cent, and she cared more about her wellbeing than her own mother ever did.
The two of them spoke about that man, my father, for hours on end, and with increasing vigour. So much so that when my mother finally met him at Flanagan’s, he could have done whatever he pleased, she already thought she knew him entirely. His reputation had preceded him, and since he was charming, with his golden hair and green eyes which shone even in the dark light of the club, she too fell in love.
It wasn’t entirely her fault. The alcohol, the loud music, the mysterious merging of so many people who otherwise wouldn’t have met, the mystic union of joy; everything intoxicated her. Throughout the night she possessed the half-crazed absorption of someone whose head had been unscrewed, then screwed on again, slightly tilted with enthusiasm. She became one with the music like salt in boiling water.
My mother and Adam spoke all evening and well into the night. Within the frenzy of her emotions, she forgot entirely why she was at Flanagan’s in the first place.
Pana, on the other hand, had not forgotten. She felt betrayed, abandoned to fate, she could not control her resentment. Without instigation, she spoke bitterly about my mother to two classmates who stood smoking next to her. They did not approve of her resentment, they shook their heads and, rather than defend my mother, assigned to her a sort of inviolability, the privilege to do as she pleased with a man Pana hardly knew.
At around one in the morning, the two returned home. Pana assumed a stoic air, but she was shut up in her head, roaring like a beast. Roaring on the inside, on the outside she was quiet.
In steady increments the alcohol loosened its grip on my mother’s perception and, with painful clarity, she realised what she had done. But because Pana wouldn’t admit to her true feelings and pretended a nonchalance that refused to meet her eyes, my mother acted at her ignorance, and they did not mention my father again.
Meanwhile, my mother saw more and more of him. She felt as though she was enveloped in a white cloud of steam that made her invisible. They did everything together. Not once did she think of her studies, her writing, her reading.
Every night bore another opportunity to go out. Adam always dressed in a half unbuttoned blouse so everyone could catch a glimpse of the trappings underneath, humouring my mother. He reminded her of an aging peacock with only half its feathers left. But she loved him despite, or maybe because of, his eccentricities and his knack towards the lavish. The way he held the door for her, bought her flowers whenever they passed a florist, complimented her voice.
Whether Adam admitted it or not, he enjoyed those pleasant little rituals shared between two people who lived together. The touching of hands, the kisses, the pressure of their bodies intertwined as they laid in bed together.
They lived together for ten months, more or less. A cloud in which the gods hid them so they couldn’t be disturbed. Her only routine was walking the few steps from his apartment to university, and back again.
Then my being distorted her thin frame. She kept me a secret until I was no longer concealable. Her face flattened and became translucent, the whites of her eyes yellowed. Her body felt like a bloody liquid suspended in a mushy sediment within a polyp. A rotting matter without soul.
Rationally, she knew that keeping me meant sacrificing the very life she had spent so much energy cultivating. She would lose her scholarship at the university, she would have no time to write, read, work towards her own self-preservation. Still, she could not tolerate the thought of parting with me.
Around the second month her outer world turned to dust, yet life had suddenly become beautiful. Incubated below her heart, I grew. She wanted to do everything right. While first the pregnancy felt like a swelling, a long illness that would change her forever, now she carried her softly inflated stomach with pleasure, she enjoyed the remaining six months, she scrutinised the process, as if she was still in medical school. She was vigilant, she read whatever she could on the topic of motherhood.
On the other hand, Adam was worried. One could have mistakenly assumed he was the one giving birth, not she. What would his parents say? His friends? This wasn’t part of the plan. In the trajectory of his miserable life she was supposed to be a stepping-stone, a fake ornament to the bachelor life he planned on living. He would be exiled from his family home forever, perhaps his father would even disown him. And his mother? Was this the clincher? What could he do?
Several days later he handed my mother a note with an almost violent gesture. Via-via he had found a doctor who could abort the foetus.
“No,” she said.
“Don’t be ridiculous, think about university, think about your life, you aren’t even nineteen!”
Nineteen. Occasionally I forget just how young she was. At times I think she also forgot. She felt at least ten, twenty years older, and as if time was running out. She heard the ticking of clocks everywhere, the minutes stalked her as they slipped away.
Despite my mother’s efforts, I stayed within the boundaries of my first home for an extra thirteen days before making an appearance. I cried very little, they thought I would die.
I lived, but my complexion led to several complexities. I was yellow and my hair black. And considering my father was Austrian, as was my mother, and neither had black hair or yellow skin, Adam thought there was no other explanation than that my mother had cheated on him with the Indian husband of the nanny who lived next door. Which meant, thank the Lord, the child was not his.
They named me Nani, or rather, my mother called me Nani. An Indian name, which, phonetically, sounded like nanny. Despite the frightening position she found herself in, I can imagine the slight satisfaction she must have felt at choosing that name.
In reality, my bilirubin levels were too high. As if my liver, so accustomed to being managed by my mother in the womb, could not function without her. Gradually, my skin did transition to a pale rosy colour and my hair went from black to white blonde, but that did not stop their strife. Yellow or pink, my father was weary. Surely he couldn’t be asked to pay for a child who he did not even want, and that he certainly had not asked for?
“I saw you!” he insisted. “I saw you going in and out of that apartment, she looks nothing like me! It’s not mine.”
“You are an idiot,” she retaliated, “she looks more like you than me. And, anyway, she has blue eyes.”
“And? So do you!”
“You’re an idiot.”
My mother argued for the sake of arguing, she knew that, even if my father returned to his senses, nothing would go back to what it had been. She’d come to know a side of him that did not inspire devotion, but rejection, even hatred. The face which had once been the personification of freedom, shelter, security, companionship, now made her stomach turn. A man, she thought, besides the crazed moment when he says he loves you and enters you, will always stay outside.
A week or so after my birth, my mother left the hospital, packed her few belongings in Spitalgasse while Adam was out, and returned to Pana’s attic. For some time neither mentioned my father, they pretended I had materialised from her head like Athena. Yet Pana could not stand my wailing, nor my mother’s constant presence. Her frustration festered into an unspoken resentment that lasted decades, in the masked countenance of friendship and compassion.
During the first weeks, my mother, too, looked at me in horror. In many ways, her life ended when mine began. Or, at least, the life she had always known ended the moment mine came into existence.
The attic, which was already small when she lived there alone, became even smaller. In the midst of winter, it was unbearably hot. Without a window, she had to choose between opening the door for fresh air, and waking Pana with my screaming cries, or keeping it closed and suffocating. At times she contemplated the latter.
For hours she balanced me on her bare chest, her arms spread wide. Naked, pale with purple undertones, my mouth contorted in high-pitched screams, my eyes swollen and closed in frustration. She stayed home all day, ready to stick a nipple into my mouth at any moment. She thought it would never stop, she thought my screaming would becoming the echoing background music of her life.
First it clings to you in the womb, she thought, then when it materialises, it takes you as a prisoner, it keeps you on a leash, shackles you down. The stomach may no longer be swollen, you may no longer feel the beating of a heart different to your own, but it stays a part, not apart, of you forever.
Fortunately, as the weeks progressed, so did my silence. She caught herself thinking: what a beautiful child, the yellowed skin now entirely pink, the thin limbs now round. Such large eyes, such a small nose, small lips, plump rosy cheeks. All these compliments were whispered right into my ear during my first year of life. An uncontrollable flame made her stomach feel like a furnace, her senses became more acute, as if she, through me, began to see the world for the first time. She brought me to her breast, and felt a flood of odours, sounds, warmth, as if all my vital energy rushed joyfully into her.
She observed me, jotted what she saw down in her notebook, determined not to miss anything. She wanted to protect me from everyone, keep me in that innocent state forever. People to people are like apples to apples, she thought. If one is rotten, they all rot.
It was a turbulent trial period towards a satisfactory existence. On the one hand she enthusiastically played the part of mother, she no longer went to school, she took care of my every need. On the other hand, she was scared, she felt her days in the attic were numbered. She could not bear the thought of going back to Adam, and anyway, it was no longer an option. A steady silence had expanded between them that spoke volumes.
My mother spent hours pondering her predicament. Her choices seemed limited to her mother. After her two-year respite she heard Bea’s voice everywhere, beckoning her home. When my mother told Pana about her plan, she reacted with neither regret nor disappointment. If anything, she encouraged her to go.
We left the following morning. She walked all the way to her childhood home, with me under her left arm, her heavy suitcase in her right hand. At the door she was welcomed not by Bea, but a man she did not recognise. He had a rather wide, round face, wet with perspiration. Small beads of a glistening liquid clung to his moustache like dew. He introduced himself as Tobias, Beatrice’s boyfriend.
Bea stood a few paces behind him. The animated face which once symbolised my mother’s youth had been replaced by a strange hardness. The lips, which she remembered being round and long, were tight and thin. The eyes were much the same, pale and piercing, but wrinkles now lined the lower lashes, and her voice, when she spoke, carried a note of genuine malice.
“What’s that?” she demanded, one long, thin finger pointed at me.
“This is Nani,” my mother answered.
They walked silently to the living room. Bea’s devotion had always been to nineteenth century French design and wanted every room in their small apartment to look like The Grand Salon in Château de Valençay. In two years nothing had moved or changed.
Bea listened with half an ear as my mother spoke. She bit her bottom lip as a pained grimace painted her forehead, implying that, for one, unlike her daughter, she suffered her torments in silence, and, two, to open conversation about what else she might be suffering alone.
My mother explained her situation in terms she knew Bea would understand. Adam’s father came from a well-to-do family, they owned many acres of land, he was thirty-one years old. Bea recognised the name and, after consulting Tobias, who sat in their leather armchair like a giant loaf of bread, they came to the conclusion that the Dietrichsteins were indeed very well off.
“I will go to Döbling,” Bea said, masking her excitement by forcing the edges of her mouth downwards into an unnatural looking frown, “I will go there and request compensation.”
“Don’t you dare,” my mother warned, “I don’t want anything to do with that family.”
“Do you expect me to pay all your bills until the day I die?”
“So, I will work.”
“You? Work? With what degree? You left home and immediately managed to ruin yourself. I warned you. I did, didn’t I?”
Though externally it seemed like a time machine had plucked my mother from her own mother’s childhood, their interior changed their exterior to such an extent that one could only draw such a conclusion based on photographs. They were like two polar twins battling for recognition.
“I don’t know what you are talking about. Nani is the best thing that has happened to me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You say that now, but wait until she is eighteen. Trust me, you’ll wish you never had her.”
Sometime in late May, when I was a few months old, my grandmother took the train to Döbling anyway. From the station she followed her map to a white castle straight from a Hans Christian Andersen story. It stood in the middle of a splash of green vegetation, glaring painfully against the piercing grey sky. Everything was in perfect order, Bea noted with delight as she rang the bell.
A butler welcomed her at the door. He was a man of small structure, with a thick black moustache, and asked whether he could be of any help. She told him, with the air of the Viennese bourgeoisie, though she was quite nervous, that she was looking for Felix Dietrichstein.
“There’s a matter concerning his son,” she added.
Felix joined them almost immediately, wearing a sweater Bea thought to be too ridiculous for words. Of course there had been a time when she thought those woollen jumpers — with close-fitting collar that fold over and covered the neck — were stylish. But that was ten years ago. And anyway, you needed a specific sort of face, and Felix did not have it. His was a long, bony countenance with a long, narrow nose which gave him a birdlike expression.
“How may I help you?” Felix asked.
“There’s a matter concerning one of your sons,” she repeated.
“Ah,” was all he said. His flushed skin turned rather pale, and took on a pinched and desperate look.
He ushered her right to the, what appeared to be, most luxurious room of the house, their living room. The floor was of scarlet marble. On her left was a wide archway leading to an immense library, and as they had made their way to the nearest table, she received a fleeting impression of warm green hallways, expensive paintings, and remarkable Louis XV furniture.
“Let us get right to it,” Felix said as they sat down, clapping his thin, wrinkled, blue and green hands together, “you said it had to do with my son. Which son are we talking about? I assume Adam, everything considered.”
“It does, yes. He and my daughter, who is nineteen, a medical student at the University of Medicine, very intelligent, and, more importantly, very beautiful, here look,” she took a photo from her wallet. Felix studied it with trembling lips.
“They now have a baby together,” she continued, “of course, they aren’t married, and as far as I can tell, won’t be getting married. However, some reimbursement for the child is in order, I’m sure you agree. Until now I have been paying for everything, but—”
“The child… it’s definitely Adam’s?”
“Oh, there’s no doubt. The baby is living proof, she looks just like her father.”
Felix stared at her in obvious disbelief. Not so much at the news of being the grandfather to a bastard child, he expected nothing less from his middle child. No, what he could not believe was how his wife could have birthed such an idiot in the first place.
“Would you like to see her?”
“Oh, no, no,” Felix said, definitively.
“Now, I’m sure you understand that we can either settle this in a casual manner without any repercussions, or I can make this very difficult on you and your entire family,” Bea struggled to pull the corners of her mouth down. She was very proud of herself.
Felix gave her another one of his pinched looks, then smiled. He and Adam weren’t so different after all. They both had an affinity for beautiful women, he was just better at hiding it. The thought made him thaw somewhat, he even felt tender towards the son he had thrown out without teaching him the ways of life. The ways men of his standing functioned in society. Yes, this short, elderly, yet rather pretty woman was right. It would be better to settle this without any upheaval, without getting his wife involved.
Bea, on the other hand, despite his home, disliked Felix. For one, he acted bumptious while at the same time calling her ma’am, which made Bea feel very old, even though she was several years his junior. Second, he had made it a habit to touch her leg with his right hand whenever he spoke, and as the conversation wore on, the further his blue-veined, translucent hand travelled up her thigh. Third, after thorough inspection, she found that the table at which they sat was somewhat filthy. Several crumbs decorated the polished wood and she spotted the slight circular discolouration of invisible cups.
Lastly, he evidently wanted to get her drunk. And though Bea loved to drink, she liked to decide on both the quantity and the timing. Fortunately, a few martinis could only raise her confidence and in the end they had come to a consensus, superior to anything she had hoped for upon arrival. She could not wait to tell her daughter.
“I went to Döbling today.”
“Because I’m tired of you moping around all day, this house is too small for three adults and a baby.”
“What did you do in Döbling?” A painful knot swelled and got stuck in her throat, like a fat pinkie in a Chinese finger trap.
“Oh, not much. Have you seen their house? You’d love it. A castle, more or less, with an immense vineyard. He wouldn’t let me leave without taking two bottles of their wine.”
“Of course not. Felix. He’ll pay for child support and the extras, and generously gave you his apartment in Gstaad.”
“The grandfather of your child.”
“How?” She felt a violent urge to scream.
“What do you mean how? What does how have to do with it. You should be asking when.”
She stared at Bea. She was a decorative and rather dramatic looking middle-aged woman, yet in a short time she had become not only shapeless, but chronically dull. Only her face, within the rippled pool of fine lines, retained some of its autocratic and arresting appearance. The fine, blonde eyebrows, the large forehead within which rested her brain which could do nothing, but knew how everything was to be done. Her thinning hair which she wore in a bun.
“Fine, when?” my mother asked.
“For how long?”
“Why Gstaad and not Vienna?”
“Well,” she swayed from left to right in her chair to get comfortable, she evidently could not wait to recount the tale, “some years ago he had a mistress who he loved more than his own wife. Bought a small apartment for her and everything, so they could spend long weekends together without being found out. The mistress ended up finding another, but as sentimental values go, he couldn’t get himself to sell the apartment. Full circle, it’s beautiful, isn’t it? First it was home to the mistress of the father, now of the son.”
She ignored Bea with clenched jaws.
“What about money?”
“We came to a very good agreement on that too.”
“You’ll come, won’t you?”
“Me? Absolutely not. I have a life here, the church, what about Tobias? No.”
“Please,” my mother begged. Just two years earlier she had left at her own accord. Without once consulting her mother she had planned her escape to Pana’s attic in order to start her studies. This, of course, was different. She felt suddenly small, like a button which fell from a jacket, lost on the carpet somewhere.
“Absolutely not,” she said again.
All sorts of absurdities were uttered in order to convince the other. But it was impossible, in that moment my mother felt all the disappointment she had caused Bea. And, anyway, the more she begged, the further she felt her mother drift. In a short time she had ruined herself, she had disappointed her in so many ways that it would take a miracle to put everything back together.
“You have wasted God’s gifts,” Bea mumbled.
In a fit of anguish my mother did what later in life would become a recurring theme: she packed her bags, bundled me in a blanket, and organised herself. Perhaps, she thought, this was her daimon making space for her passions. In Gstaad she would have all the time she needed to cultivate herself. Read as much as she pleased, write, without a single worry about money or her mother. She could isolate me, protect me, preserve the paradise I was still a part of, the island of innocence, one without repressions and dark forces, where everything was beautiful and nothing could hurt me.
“You’ve come from nothing,” she whispered in my ear, “I gave you a name and suddenly you materialised. Soon you’ll realise you are not me, but you. A conscious being who’s capable of feeling, who’ll go through life like a grain of sand. Laugh, cry, feel both pain and happiness. And yet,” she said, pausing, weighing her next words, “and yet, you’ll still be destined to die.”
The following morning she got hold of Felix’s number, called, planned in private. Two days later she vanished without a single goodbye.
For thirteen years we lived somewhere on a slope between Gstaad and Lauenen. Throughout the cold winter months I learned how to ski, churn butter, dig up potatoes in the vegetable garden, and collect eggs from the chickens. During the summer I put chalk on the concrete in front of our home and searched for wild herbs. The windows of our chalet were lined with thin panes and garnished by embroidered curtains. Across the front of the house, along the railings and up the eaves, were elaborate engravings — fruits, foliage, arabesques, its name, Müller, after the couple who lived on the floor above us. Where the morning sun reached our kitchen, the vines had taken over, and made the house look as if it was one with the mountain itself.
The Müllers owned several acres of pasture, a plot for growing fruits and vegetables, four cows, fifteen hens, and a cockerel. But despite everything, my favourite element of the chalet was our brown welcome mat which lined the foot of our door. Whenever I left it welcomed me out into the world, and whenever I returned it welcomed me back home.
Our apartment was big when I was small, and small when I got bigger. As if under a magic spell, the furniture shrunk and the floorboards neared the ceiling, until finally it would either crush us flat, or spit us out.
Some memories of my childhood come back more naturally than others. I was young, and still in that unwary state wherein life consisted of a multitude of singular, unrelated experiences. Our garden, for example, comes back to me with perfect clarity. It was encircled almost entirely by thick bushes, separating what was ours with what was communal — the road and the neighbouring chalets. Or perhaps I remember it with such clarity because it was precisely there that I had my first encounter with death.
“This plant is called Valerian,” my mother said one afternoon, “it’s good for sleeping.”
I wrote everything in my notebook, as I saw her do. Mine was small and worn, with flowers on its cover. Nicholas Müller had gotten it for me, as well as two pens, a pencil, an eraser, and a sharpener, all for my birthday a year earlier. My handwriting was small, but because I used the booklet for everything, it was almost full.
“But if you eat this plant,” she said, pointing to the Dieffenbachia, “your airways will swell shut, you won’t be able to make a sound, your trachea will clench, you’ll panic but nobody will hear. You’ll turn blue, your brain will stop working, you’ll collapse, your body will disintegrate back into the very ground from which you took the plant.”
My mother had a way with words. The following days were hellish, the thought of choking scared me to such an extent, and to such an improbable degree, that sleep only came during the day. At night I woke in a cold sweat, dreaming up all sorts of nightmares, mostly pertaining to choking, swelling like a balloon, then popping.
Unable to communicate these fears with my mother—in my mind I had a reputation to keep up, I was certain she thought of me as very brave, she had told me that once—I confided in Nicholas Müller. I walked up the seven steps to his door and let myself in. He sat, legs crossed, at his kitchen table, reading the newspaper, a cup of steaming tea settled next to him. At that point I had known him for ten odd years, but like a tree he did not age. To me he had always been very old. His face was covered with grey hair, a long pointed nose and sad brown eyes.
“Where do we go when we die?” I asked, forgetting our usual formalities, the kiss on the cheek, the hug. Once death became a part of your vocabulary, such trivialities no longer seemed to matter.
Flustered, he cleared his throat, then hummed nervously like a swarm of bees.
“What do you mean, die? You?”
“Yes, me, you, mama. Where do we go?”
“You can’t die, you’re too young.”
“What if I eat a Dieffenbachia?”
“Well, you shouldn’t…”
“What happens if I do?”
“Well,” he said. He cleared his throat again, “you can’t know where you go when you die, because when the time comes, it won’t matter anymore.”
“So, it happens, we really do die?” I asked.
Nicholas, a man of very little words, weighed his thoughts in his mouth individually, before settling on: “it does, but not for another one-hundred years. Then you will go up there.” He pointed his rough, brown finger to the ceiling.
“Up where?” I asked. The ceiling? In the sky, amongst the clouds? I saw airplanes in the sky, and no one ever came back with stories of the deceased. At the very least a bird, a vulture, must have come back to earth with an eye, a hand, some hair. But I was afraid, and that notion was better than the one I feared most: being swallowed by the darkness while I slept. So, as anyone confronted with the inevitable, I was willing to believe anything.
I calmed, and in turn Nicholas became proud of his little speech, and continued with more profundity than I thought him capable: just like a book is bound by its covers, with a beginning and an end, so too are our lives cast between birth and death. And though a book is limited in scope, its characters know of no such thing as limits, horizons and boundaries. They only know of the self, and the moments which made up their story, even when the book lays closed on a bookshelf, or in some distance library, gathering dust and forgotten. These characters know no fear for the last page, they don’t try to bargain, or take it slow.
I wrapped my arms around his thick neck and kissed his cheek. He smelled like grass, the sweet scent of cows and hay. We stayed seated like that for several minutes, him gently patting my back. Then I heard Simone Müller rummaging in the kitchen and I ran out.
The garden no longer filled me with dread, if anything my fears had fostered a deeper appreciation towards it.
My mother and I would go upstairs every now and then, to visit Nicholas. They had a strange relationship. His translucent skin reddened whenever he saw her. He’d grab my nose and pretend to pull it right off, then hold it imprisoned between his index and middle finger. I cried with worry and excitement as I watched my nose, much bigger and rougher than I had imagined, struggle to free itself and make its way back to my face.
Contrary to Nicholas, Simone was never roused by our presence. Instead, her lower lip would bulge out in the middle like an old-fashioned purse, and I was sure that, were she to open it any wider, handfuls of Swiss francs would fall into my ready palms. She had a stomach the shape of an apple, and her legs were both short and thin. What more, her wardrobe seemed to consist entirely of greens and reds, so that even during the warmer summer months she looked like a walking Christmas tree.
Whenever Simone was home, their door became a gateway guarded by the goddess Hora, and my mother refused to enter. There was an unspoken rule shielding their apartment: when Simone Müller was there, my mother was not, and when my mother was there, Simone was out at work. In short, the absence of one, meant the appearance of the other.
Nicholas and my mother would spend many long minutes in the hallway, discussing all sorts of topics that left no lasting impression on me. To recount any of it would mean to fabricate everything entirely. The only things I did understand were those words left unspoken. Nicholas liked my mother more than he liked Simone. I could tell by the way he ignored his wife when she called for him, how he did not stir when she told him to close the door, that she was cold and he was letting the air in. Instead he would draw his eyebrows together and quietly mimic her, his thick fingers moving with exact precision, like a ventriloquist without a dummy.
Nicholas rarely spoke, though when he did it was always to say something clever. My mother, on the other hand, always had something on her mind that needed out, and could make even the most bland occurrences interesting and engaging. His affection towards her excited me, it further justified the natural order of things. My mother was beautiful, Simone was not. My mother was intelligent, had a soothing voice, knew everything about plants, medicine, she read anything and often, wrote, solved equations, read the clock. Simone worked in a bakery in Saanen, and, worse still, spoke like a farmer and acted like one too. That was what my mother said anyway.
Until the age of about ten or eleven I not only looked at Nicholas as my father, he was my father. Whenever I saw him, he was with my mother, and whenever I did not see him, he temporarily seized to exist. His presence made me feel safe. Without him every creaking of the floorboards, every rustling of the wind on our glass windows, was a harpy sent to kill us.