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Authors: Sasa Stanisic

Before the Feast

BOOK: Before the Feast
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For Katja

For billions of years since the outset of time

Every single one of your ancestors has survived

Every single person on your mum and dad's side

Successfully looked after and passed on to you life.

What are the chances of that like?

The Streets,

“On the Edge of a Cliff”

I

WE ARE SAD. WE DON'T HAVE A FERRYMAN ANY
more. The ferryman is dead. Two lakes, no ferryman. You can't get to the islands now unless you have a boat. Or unless you are a boat. You could swim. But just try swimming when the chunks of ice are clinking in the waves like a set of wind chimes with a thousand little cylinders.

In theory, you can walk round the lake on foot, keeping to the bank. However, we've neglected the path. The ground is marshy and the landing stages are crumbling and in poor shape; the bushes have spread, they stand in your way, chest-high.

Nature takes back its own. Or that's what they'd say in other places. We don't say so, because it's nonsense. Nature is not logical. You can't rely on Nature. And if you can't rely on something you'd better not build fine phrases out of it.

Someone has dumped half his household goods on the bank below the ruins of what was once Schielke's farmhouse, where the lake laps lovingly against the road. There's a fridge stuck in the muddy ground, with a can of tuna still in it. The ferryman told us that, and said how angry he had been. Not because of the rubbish in general but because of the tuna in particular.

Now the ferryman is dead, and we don't know who's going to tell us what the banks of the lake are getting up to. Who
but a ferryman says things like, “Where the lake laps lovingly against the road,” and “It was tuna from the distant seas of Norway” so beautifully? Only ferrymen say such things.

We haven't thought up any more good turns of phrase since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The ferryman was good at telling stories.

But don't think that at this moment of our weakness we ask the Deep Lake, which is even deeper now, without the ferryman, how it's doing. Or ask the Great Lake, the one that drowned the ferryman, what its reasons were.

No one saw the ferryman drown. It's better that way. Why would you want to see a person drowning? It's not a pretty sight. He must have gone out in the evening when there was mist over the water. In the dim light of dawn a boat was drifting on the lake, empty and useless, like saying goodbye when there's no one to say it to.

Divers came. Frau Schwermuth made coffee for them, they drank the coffee and looked at the lake, then they climbed down into the lake and fished out the ferryman. Tall men, fair-haired and taciturn, using verbs only in the imperative, brought the ferryman up. Standing on the bank in their close-fitting diving suits, black and upright as exclamation marks. Eating vegetarian bread rolls with water dripping off them.

The ferryman was buried, and the bell-ringer missed his big moment; the bell rang an hour and a half later, when everyone was already eating funeral cake in the Platform One café. The bell-ringer can hardly climb the stairs without help.
At a quarter past twelve the other day he rang the bell eighteen times, dislocating his shoulder in the process. We do have an automated bell-ringing system and Johann the apprentice, but the bell-ringer doesn't particularly like either of them.

More people die than are born. We hear the old folk as they grow lonely and the young as they fail to make any plans. Or make plans to go away. In spring we lost the Number 419 bus. People say, give it another generation or so, and things won't last here any longer. We believe they will. Somehow or other they always have. We've survived pestilence and war, epidemics and famine, life and death. Somehow or other things will go on.

Only now the ferryman is dead. Who will the drinkers turn to when Ulli has sent them away at closing time? Who's going to fix paperchase treasure hunts for visitors from the Greater Berlin area, in fact fix them so well that no treasure is ever found, and the kids cry quietly on the ferry afterward and their mothers complain politely to the ferryman, while the fathers are left wondering, days later, where they went wrong? Those are mainly fathers from the new Federal German provinces, feeling that their virility has been questioned, and once on land again they eat an apple, ride toward the Baltic Sea on their disillusioned bicycles and never come back. Who's going to do all that?

The ferryman is dead, and the other dead people are surprised: what's a ferryman doing underground? He ought to have stayed in the lake as a ferryman should.

No one says: I'm the new ferryman. The few who understand that we really, really need a new ferryman don't know how to ferry a boat. Or how to console the waters of the lakes. Or they're too old. Others act as if we never had a ferryman at all. A third kind say: the ferryman is dead, long live the boat-hire business.

The ferryman is dead, and no one knows why.

We are sad. We don't have a ferryman any more. And the lakes are wild and dark again, watching, and observing what goes on.

THE FUEL STATION HAS CLOSED, SO YOU HAVE TO
go to Woldegk to fill up. Since then, on average, people have been driving round the village in circles less and straight ahead to Woldegk more, reciting Theodor Fontane if they happen to know his works by heart. On average it's the young, not the old, who miss the fuel station. And not just because of filling up. Because of KitKats, and beer to take away, and
Unforgiving
,
Orange Inferno
flavor, the energy drink
that takes East German fuel stations by storm
, with 32 mg of caffeine per 100 ml.

Lada, who is known as Lada because at the age of thirteen he drove his grandfather's Lada to Denmark, has parked his Golf in the Deep Lake for the third time in three months. Is that to do with the absence of a fuel station? No, it's to do with Lada. And it's to do with the track along the bank, which in theory is highly suitable for a speed of 200 km/h here.

The lake gurgled. At first Johann and silent Suzi, up on the bank, thought it was funny, then they thought it wasn't so funny after all. A minute passed. Johann took off his headband and plunged in, and he's the worst swimmer of the three of them. The youngest, too. A boy among men. All for nothing; Lada came up of his own accord, with his cigarette still between his lips. Then he had to lend a hand with rescuing Johann.

Fürstenfelde. Population: somewhere in the odd numbers. Our seasons: spring, summer, autumn, winter. Summer is clearly in the lead. The weather of our summers will bear comparison with the Mediterranean. Instead of the Mediterranean we have the lakes. Spring is not a good time for allergy sufferers or for Frau Schwermuth of the Homeland House, who gets depressed in spring. Autumn is divided into early autumn and late autumn. Autumn here is a season for tourists who like agricultural machinery. Fathers from the city bring their sons to gawp at the machinery by night. The enthusiastic sons are shocked rigid by the sight of those gigantic wheels and reflectors, and the racket the agricultural machinery kicks up. The story of winter in a village with two lakes is always a story that begins when the lakes freeze and ends when the ice melts.

“What are you going to do about your old banger?” Johann asked Lada, and Lada, who is no novice at the art of fishing cars out of the lake and getting them back into running order, said, “I'll fetch it one of these days.”

Silent Suzi cast out his fishing line again. He had barely paused for Lada's mishap. Suzi loves angling. If you're born mute, you're kind of predestined to be an angler. Although what does it mean, mute? Saying his larynx doesn't work would be politically correct.

Johann gently tapped out a rhythm on his thigh. He has his bell-ringing exam tomorrow, and he's going to play a little melody of his own composed specially for the Feast. It's to be
performed by striking the bells instead of making them swing. Lada and Suzi don't know anything about it. It's better that way or they'll make fun of him.

They stripped to their underpants, Johann and Lada, so that their clothes could dry, Suzi out of solidarity. Lada's flawlessly muscular build, Suzi's flawlessly muscular build, Johann's skinny ribs. Suzi combs his hair back, he always has a comb with him, a custom now verging on extinction. A dragon's tail on his forehead, the mighty dragon's body round the back of Suzi's neck, the dragon's head on his shoulder-blade, breathing fire. Suzi is as handsome as the stars of Italian films in the 1950s. Suzi's mother is always watching those films and shedding tears.

Grasshoppers. Swallows. Wasps. Tired, all of them, very tired.

Autumn is on the way.

Today was the last hot day of the year. The last day when you could comfortably lie on the grass in your underpants, with beetles climbing all over you as if you were a natural obstacle in the terminal moraine landscape, which in a way you are. If you come from here, you know that sort of thing: it's the last hot day. Not because of the swallows or the weather app. You know it because you've stripped to your underwear and you're lying down, and if you are a girl you've burrowed your toes into the sand, if you're not a girl you haven't done anything with your toes, you're just lying down. And, lying like that, you looked up at the sky, and it was perfectly clear.
Today—the last hot day. If by some miracle there should be another one after all, it wouldn't mean anything. Today was the last.

Lada and Johann watched Suzi and gave him tips, because he wasn't catching anything. Try under the ash tree, it's too hot for the fish here, that kind of thing. Suzi put the rod between his legs and gestured wildly. Lada understands Suzi's language quite well, or rather, he doesn't know it all that well but he has known silent Suzi for ever.

“We have all the time in the world,” he translated for Johann's benefit. Johann looked at him enquiringly. Lada shrugged his shoulders and spat into the lake. Anna came along the lakeside path on her bike. Wearing a dress with what they call spaghetti straps or something like that. Johann spontaneously waved. He's a boy, after all. Anna looked straight ahead.

“What are you waving for?” Lada punched Johann's shoulder. “Let me show you how it's done.” An excursion boat was chugging over the lake. Lada whistled shrilly. The tourists on board were moving under the shelter of their roof. Lada waved, the tourists waved back. The tourists took photos. Then Lada showed them his middle finger.

“That doesn't count, they're tourists waving. They'll wave no matter what,” said Johann.

Lada punched him again. There's a wolf baring its teeth on Lada's shoulder. The wording on Lada's back says
The Legend
. The lettering is almost the same as in the ad for the energy drink.

“What are you staring at?”

“I'm going to get a tattoo as well.”

“Hear that, Suzi? This wanker's going to get a tattoo. Fabulous.”

One thing Johann has learned from knowing Lada is not to lose his nerve. To stick to his point. Letting people provoke you shows weakness. “Does that mean anything?” he asked. Suzi has a wolf on his calf as well.

Lada looked him in the eye. Spat sideways. “The wolves are coming back.” He spoke very slowly. “Germany will be wolf country again. Wolves from Poland and Russia, they can cover thousands of kilometers. Wonderful animals. Hunters. Say: wolf-pack.”

“Wolf-pack.”

“Wicked, right? Such power in that one word! Suzi and I support the wolf.” Lada grabbed Johann by the back of the neck. “This is just between ourselves, okay? We've brought wolves. From Lusatia. Because once there were wolves here too. Ask your mother. In the Zerveliner Heide, near the rocket base? We set them free.”

Stay cool. Ask more questions. Sometimes Lada just goes rabbiting on like that to scare Johann. Suzi has turned round, listening intently. Johann cleared his throat.

“How many?”

“Very funny. I thought you'd ask
how
. Four. Two young wolves, two adults. Listen, you: it's no joke. Keep your mouth shut, understand?”

BOOK: Before the Feast
3.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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