Translated by Rachel Hildebrandt
I had never wanted to go back to my home town, and yet here I am, standing at the foot of the Frauenkirche. It towers into the sky on the same site where I used to poke around in the rubble with a stick. As I gaze up at the massive sandstone dome, I can hardly believe a church is once again standing on this location, the same way I can barely accept that I am actually back here after all this time. I was gone for over twenty years, after running away on the worst day of my life.
The people on the street do not pay me the slightest attention, brushing past me with empty faces. I gaze into their eyes, but nobody returns my glance. No one recognizes me.
How would they? It has been a long time, over twenty years. Few people actually like to think back that far. It is as if Reunification caused a curtain to fall. For many, the socialist period is distant history, like the world wars or Siegmund Jähn’s flight into outer space. Do you remember back then, people ask today, as they chuckle over anecdotes from the GDR years. Yet no one who demonstrated for a unified Germany years ago ever thought that, after twenty years, the unemployment rates in the new states would be much higher than those on the other side. I was one of them.
I slowly cross the Neumarkt, as the first of the cafes open their doors. I would like a cup of coffee, but my stomach protests. The Academy of Visual Arts soars above the Cosel Palace. My gaze lingers a moment on the academy’s glass dome. Because of its domed, pointed shape, it is affectionately known as the Lemon Press. I have yearned deeply for my city, for my loved ones whom I left behind years ago. They never knew why I had to go and where I have been all these years. I occasionally call them at Christmas, but I always hang up as soon as someone answers. I know how cowardly that is.
I find myself drawn toward the Elbe, and I stare in disbelief at a futuristic building that resembles a twisted die. The new Jewish synagogue. Modern architecture bursts through all the historical Baroque buildings into the cityscape of today. And where are all the pennants, flags and facade streamers that were trotted out to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the GDR, shortly before my flight? Back then, black ribbons would have been more suitable decorations. A few days after its anniversary, the German Democratic Republic was history, and I was one of the first to cross the open border, leaving his old life behind. I might have turned myself in, if the path to the West had not opened up so quickly.
At the edge of the Elbe, the silhouette of the old city shrouded in the morning mist causes me to pause. I inhale the fresh air. I should have come back much sooner. I had buried myself abroad for twenty years, sacrificing my best years to strenuous work on an array of oil rigs. I had made a lot of money, but what had it brought me except loneliness?
I walk down to the Elbe meadows, as images assail me. Memories of happy days with her, of a light-heartedness that I never experienced again. I was so young, a hothead and a daredevil, who longed for freedom above anything else. I always made sure I was way up at the front during the Monday demonstrations in Leipzig. We are the people! I chanted in chorus with my fellow protesters. Luckily, I was able to elude the attacks spearheaded by the security teams. Not a single person or thing seemed capable of stopping me, not even the heavily guarded border. Our plan to finally flee the GDR was set for October. They called it Republikflucht – Desertion of the Republic. A betrayal of the socialist fatherland. Yet on the evening of our flight, she whispered in my ear that she was pregnant. She wept and screamed that she could not bear it if something happened to the father of her child. That changed everything for me.
Her brother left anyway, angrily accusing me of being a traitor and a coward. But here I was, suddenly responsible for something. All at once, I felt the unspeakable fear that they might shoot me or stick me in prison for years. That I would miss my child growing up. My stomach hurts whenever I think about this.
The path winds its way desolately through the Elbe meadows. It is not far now. It must have been about here, behind the curve. My memories are so clear, as if she were once again standing before me.
How could you let him go on his own? She screams in her anguish. It’s your fault they shot him! She is delirious in her grief, searching for someone to blame for his death. I plead with her to stop, explaining that the only reason I stayed behind was her and our child. That I had tried to talk her brother out of going on alone. But she just keeps screaming, totally out of control, as she hysterically drums my chest with her fists. All I want is peace, for her to stop screaming, for her to not make me feel guiltier than I already do. I suddenly wrap my fingers around her neck and squeeze. She eventually falls silent and sinks limply to the ground. I shake her. In vain.
I am now standing once again on the spot where it happened, where in my despair, I dumped her lifeless body into the river. For a single moment, the sun emerges from behind the clouds, causing the Elbe’s water to glimmer softly.
I can finally say goodbye to her and our child. I can finally mourn them both. I press my hand to my stomach until the pain fades.
Before I ring the doorbell, I pull her letter out of my jacket pocket. It had sat for months in my mailbox until I returned from Norway. My stomach problems had caused me to come back earlier than expected. I had been able to hide my nausea and heartburn from my coworkers for a couple of weeks, but once I began to throw up dark blood, they sent me straight home.
I gently stroke the lines my sister had written. A detective had finally found me. I never intended to write her back, but instead wanted to return to Norway as quickly as possible. The right pills and done, I thought. It never occurred to me that it could be cancer. It was caught too late, the doctor said. I translated his words: No hope. The diagnosis threw me completely off track.
My sister flings her arms around my neck. She had been a half-grown child when I left. Now there are fine wrinkles etched across her slender face. We hug each other silently, and she notices immediately that something is off with me. I tell her it’s all the excitement. She will learn soon enough that my time is limited. Her husband shakes my hand without saying a word, before leaving us alone.
We gaze at each other in silence, failing to find the words to make up for the past twenty years. I examine the photos of her children, a boy and a girl. They are already almost grown, and I have never seen them.
Like long ago, my sister drapes her arms across my shoulders. I tell her how sorry I am, and that there are no words to describe my shame. You family waited on you for twenty years, she replies. But now you’re here. Finally, you’re here!
When her husband comes back, he is not alone. He tentatively pushes a woman into the room. She holds her purse pressed tightly against her body, as if she needs something to hold onto. I recognize her eyes instantly. Even if she is twenty years older, she is still beautiful. Practically as beautiful as back then, when I pushed her lifeless body into the river.
A young man walks in and stops behind her. And I know without anyone saying a word that he has more than just my facial features.
More stories by Romy Foelck – including “Elbe Glimmers” – are included in the ebook, Snow Flurries & Other Stories
Image: By Wohage (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons