Hier können Sie einen Auszug in englischer Sprache aus Erxlebens Roman "Die Haut der Platane" lesen. Der Roman ist bereits in deutscher Sprache im Wiesenburg Verlag Schweinfurt erschienen und kann im Shop bestellt werden.
Die literarisch professionelle Übersetzung der Einleitung in die englische Sprache regt vielleicht einen deutschen oder ausländischen Verlag zur Herausgabe des Romans in dieser Sprache an. Der Stoff eignet sich auch zur Verfilmung.
Peeling of the Plane Tree
A man is sitting on the bank of the river Elbe, smoking an expensive Montecristo. He is a publisher and a successful Berlin-based author and he’s doing fine because he had timely realised the way the wind was blowing on the book market. But now he has different things on his mind. He is pleased to see that there are lovely sandy beaches by this river, that the stork is still at home here and that the beaver still builds its inexplicable castles, as if the river was entirely its own. “But maybe it is”, he thinks. His gaze strays away to the black poplars still carrying the secrets of the end of the last ice age in their genes, their leaves rustling in the wind, still bearing memory of the wild cries of the river birds extinct long ago.
Relaxed, he inhales the fresh smell of nature. He is waiting for his old friend from university, Bernhard Behrend, who will bring him his girlfriend’s autobiography. The publisher is not really interested in it, actually. Publishing houses are flooded by stories of this kind. But for the sake of his friend, who recently gave him as a present one of his paintings of mystifying beauty, he has agreed to take a look at the manuscript. For this purpose he has taken a detour while travelling on business to Hanover and stopped for a break at this small village where a ferry connects the two banks of the Elbe.
He is waiting for the ferry on the sandy beach. A couple of yards away from the river a young woman is lying on a blanket and dreaming away with the passing clouds. From the river bank a young man is throwing flat stones onto the water surface so that they bounce off several times before they sink to the river bed in silence, as if the hands of time had stood still. A young boy standing next to the man is watching him in admiration. A paragon of idyll. Increasingly relaxed, in tune with the rhythms of nature, the publisher is watching the ferry arrive. It’s a masterpiece of an ancient technique. The ferry is fixed to the steel wire cable in such a way that it moves almost without any noise, driven by the natural power of the river alone. The ferry quietly slides onto the landing ramp and the two men greet each other as old friends do. One hour later Bernhard Behrend boards the ferry to cross the river on his way back. The publisher, lost in his thoughts, the manuscript under his arm, walks in the shade of trees through the meadows back to the small village inn. He sits down at a table outside, under an oak tree that has been overlooking the Elbe for centuries. He orders a cappuccino and starts reading the manuscript. It’s a mild, early afternoon and he forgets everything around him and dives into the world of the manuscript, into the truth and the pain of somebody else’s life.
It’s a cold night in February 1990 and I’m writing. Time and time again these nights, in which the past creeps around the house under cover of darkness of the night. If I go out there, the darkness turns into something that touches me and yet remains intangible for me.
But on nights like these nobody goes out. Sometimes, however, the darkness creeps into my room, peeps at my bookshelves, its image is reflected in the picture on the wall, it briefly touches my heart with its night-blue hand, making me feel alive and shiver at the thought that my heart is a clock that can be wound up once only.
It is one of these nights as I’m writing these lines. I’m completely absorbed by the past and my thoughts travel back into the past along my lifeline as they immerge into sadness. Perhaps they can free me of it.
Haystacks on the edge of a field, like those in the summer of 1944 in Pomerania, hardly exist nowadays. Lie down in one of them and you will feel the warmth of the sun in the straw and everything smells of the field, mice and cornflowers. It’s almost an intoxicating experience.
When we lay down into one of those, we were out of breath and the chaff stuck onto our sweaty skin, scratching and itching it, intensifying its sensitivity and responding to the touch of our hands.
He picked the chaff off my belly and with each touch one part of my body was reborn. I felt that I had a brow, a neck… breasts, and I felt the length of my body all the way down to my legs, my knees and then, as he massaged my toes and touched me with his lips, I felt my whole body.
It was the summer I had been longing for. A feeling that had built up during my last few years as a girl was evoked by his hands and his mouth in one second. There aren’t many moments like these in our life, but back then I thought the time stood still. We were one with the straw, with the field and the skies above.
Later there was one more similar, precious moment. We were looking into the old well on our small farm, watching our reflections in the water. I told him to take off his thick Wehrmacht uniform jacket. He then took off his vest as well, pulling it over his head with his strong, tanned arms. He looked at me with his tanned face and told me that my dress was superfluous beside the reflection of his naked body. I took it off, veneering the reflection of his strong manly torso and my girly breasts, letting him undress me completely. He looked at our reflection in the water from behind, over my shoulders and I watched him caress my breasts. I felt like in a trance and our reflection was distorted by tiny waves on the surface of the water.
Everybody else was out in the field and we fell asleep next to the well.
That was the last day of his leave.
The railway station was some five miles away. He was wearing his heavy Wehrmacht uniform and I was walking next to him in my light summer dress, feeling the wind against my sad body.
After three miles he told me that I should go back, otherwise the way back would be too long for me. It was a narrow country lane covered in reddish sand dust. Once again I felt the touch of his hands through my thin summer dress.
Then he went on and I went back, in the opposite direction. When we were 60 yards apart he shouted my name and I answered by shouting his. We kept waving at each other and calling each other’s name until he disappeared behind the horizon and I had a foreboding hat he would die. I kept calling his name without him being able to hear or answer me. This image followed me for the rest of my life.
This is what I’m thinking of in this February night when time creeps around the house under cover of darkness, but I cannot change past events.
By the time our son was born, Karl had already fallen on the Eastern Front.
It is still difficult for me to put this to paper.
I simply cannot understand how I could give away my son as I did.
The area his foster parents lived in became part of East Germany. I left Pomerania and settled down in a village near Wolfsburg in West Germany.
But now the Iron Curtain had been lifted and the Berlin Wall was pulled down. The German-German border was opened three months ago.
And this night is so dark. I simply feel that I must write and tell my story until I fall asleep.
Whether I will be brave enough to reveal these lines to somebody else – this only time will tell.
I wake up after an uneasy sleep, listen to the familiar scratching noise of my neighbours’ snowpushers and look out of the rear window to the snow-covered fields in February 1990. A quiet, snowy morning like this makes me feel as if my soul was also snowed in. I know this feeling from my walks in the cemetery. The snow-covered tombs evoke such a feeling of finality. You could stop and become a tomb stone and even the time would forget to keep turning its grand wheel and stand still.
In front of my window twenty ravens nearly nosedive into the snow. This black and white fascinates me and I’m impressed by this surreal play. But the black birds are probably only searching for apples left behind from last year, now covered by snow. Still, I’m impressed by this natural spectacle. On a morning like this we humans like to look into our own hearts and try to give form and meaning to everything as if verifying that we are still alive.
I think back to the time of my pregnancy. I received a letter full of hope from my lover saying he had enjoyed our day at the well and that we would see each other soon.
I wrote back saying I was pregnant and then came his answer.
He was glad about the news and comforted me, telling me not to fear people’s judgements because we would get married after the war and then everything would be fine.
On another morning – we had already received the news of his death by then – I told my mother that I was pregnant.
My old mother, a good and pious farmer’s daughter herself, was startled. She put the big iron pot she was holding on the oven, left the kitchen without a word and cried. I believe she had different plans concerning my future.
Then everything happened quickly. I was sent to the so-called “Mothers’ House” run by the charitable organisation Lebensborn. I gave birth to my child, and my mother’s acquaintances, a childless couple, adopted the boy.
And I have suppressed memories of all those awful times.
Only sometimes, in my dreams, I see my mother terrified, hovering over me in my bed with a large black pot in her hand, the same one which she put on the oven when she heard that I was pregnant. In my painful dreams she’s wearing the typical, large farmer’s apron smelling of kitchen and stable. The eyes under her thin hair do not look at me and I’m afraid that her hands cannot hold the pot and that the hot stew will spill all over my bed. But this image doesn’t haunt me as frequently as it used to.
Back then I religiously obeyed her strict orders and never visited the foster parents who were only fugitive acquaintances to me anyway. The fact that I knew them at all was due to my relative who was professionally involved with Lebensborn, adoption and all that and who had broken his professional code of conduct for our sake.
Then the snow of oblivion covered the first seventeen years of my life and my youth. When it melted, the war was over. New life was thriving everywhere, a new beginning, and sometimes I would forget our well at the farm and nearly forget my child. Only sometimes I dreamt of us shouting each other’s names on that cruel last walk on a dusty country lane and then I cried in my bed. I preferred this sad dream to the one with my mother hovering over me with the iron pot.
I had lived an entire life. But much has happened since that November and the fall of the Berlin Wall and the heavy and cold curtain which had been concealing my memories for decades was now lifted, giving free view to new horizons.
I haven’t written in my manuscript for months now. I’ve simply lived and gathered new experience. Then I became high-spirited and in June of 1990 like a silly, nosy goose, I set off to search for my past, maybe to find myself in the process. All this brought a radical change to my life, or to put it differently, I was offered the opportunity to live again, a second, imaginary life. Only now did I realise that a single decision can determine an entire long journey. Like boarding a train which then speeds ahead. You can change your position in the carriage, but if you want to change your destination, you have to get off. However, the train you’re in doesn’t stop at every station. Once I dreamt that I was in a western film, jumping from one wagon to the one in front and then I managed to persuade the train driver to drive according to my instructions.
I cannot digest the past events on my own, deep inside me. I simply must tell my story by writing down what I experienced during my search for my son in East Germany. I have plenty of time, after all.
My husband worked as a foreman at the Volkswagen factory for more than thirty years. When he died he left me a small house here in the “Volkswagen village” of Erlenhorst. A village with no farmers, but instead Volkswagen employees, pensioners and a couple of widows like me who were bored and carefully peeped for the remains of life from behind the curtains. But I was no longer bored. So I set off to a small town just behind the border in East Germany. I told my son Wolfgang nothing of my secret journey to Lindenhagen. He was born four years after the war. My husband helped him buy a hotel in the Black Forest. Wolfgang takes after his father. He is awfully pedantic, drinks one or two more than he should and his house is full of stuffed, exotic birds. He seldom pays me a visit, but when he does, he treats me like a child and lectures me just as my late husband often did. Wolfgang keeps explaining the world to me the way he sees it. Maybe he means well. But then he adopts such a parental attitude that I feel uncomfortable with him around. Sometimes I feel as if he is visiting me on behalf of my dead mother or my late husband. He is probably not responsible for those unpleasant feelings that are aroused deep inside me on such an occasion. He knew nothing of my past and the events dating back to more than forty years ago, when I gave away what was part of me.
I was seventeen, for God’s sake.
Now I was more than four decades older and I finally wanted to know how he had lived. He, who I allowed to be taken away from me. I don’t know whether it is moral or not to wallow in the past. The answer is irrelevant. I simply must do it. There are calls of the heart which we are allowed to follow. And I did what my heart ordered me to do.
When I took a train across the border for the first time I felt a bit anxious. I didn’t wonder about the dreary, decrepit railway stations, narrow streets, crumbling facades and strange looking cars, but about the people because they were not different from us and yet completely different at the same time.
But before I could meet my son, I had a different kind of encounter. When I stepped out of the small railway station in Lindenhagen I had a very special experience. I met somebody I hadn’t been looking for but who I had known for a long time. So, I stepped out onto the little square in front of the station, giving view at a decrepit, badly plastered wall in front of me which still displayed some old slogans alongside some more humorous and metaphoric multi-coloured ones from the velvet revolution. Startled, I tried to imagine what kind of slogans could stem from my son, who I had come to search for in Lindenhagen. Once again I started having second thoughts. Is it all right to intrude on somebody else’s life just like that, considering the fact that I had given up sharing my life with my son a long time ago? All I knew was his name and, due to the help of that relative with connections to Lebensborn, who his foster parents were. In my mind’s eye memories reappeared of how my parents took me to the “Mothers’ House” in a night-and-dagger operation. Nobody in our village was supposed to know that I was expecting a baby. I was to remain the inconspicuous, pure little girl so that later, when my parents deemed it timely, I could marry well. Back then I was in an emotional chaos. On the one hand I felt deeply attached to the child when I held it in my arms. At the same time there was this strange feeling of alienation since I wanted to give away this screaming little thing as quickly as possible, so that I could become my mother’s good and pure little girl again. But later, for a couple of seconds and as unreal as it may be, I sometimes felt the same sensation as when I was allowed to hold that still wet baby tight against my body for a while. I would not have been able to live on if I had not suppressed this bleeding scar on my soul for decades. Times had changed, however, and I felt strong enough to remove the bandage which felt like a bark around me, to expose the wound to the fresh air and allow the real healing process to begin.
Somehow, I thought that I would be standing in front of my unknown son’s house within minutes. I intended to stand there in contemplation and take a good look at everything. I wanted to breathe the same air as my son, look at that street he went along day by day and look into the faces of the people who possibly knew him. I wanted to share a fraction of his life and get back what something mysterious, deep in my soul longed for. That deep inside me there was a scar which still needed to heal, I felt after those of my dreams in which my mother with the iron pot filled with steaming hot stew stood hovering over me in her apron smelling homey and repulsively of kitchen and stable.
When I directed my steps towards the town to find the street in which, according to my intelligence, my given-away-son lived, I did not meet my son but somebody I could have bumped into in Wolfsburg just the same. It was Harre Müller, a friend of my Black-Forest-hotel-son Wolfgang. I remembered that he was actually supposed to be called Harry, but since his father mumbled at the birth registrar’s office, being slightly drunk, the name was spelled as “Harre”. He gave me a big hug, somewhat uncalled for, and invited me to the “City Café”.
When the landlady realised that we were from West Germany, she joined us at our table, offered us a drink on the house and started talking enthusiastically of the bright new future. She assured us that she had always been against the communist regime, that finally the days of freedom had come and that from then on private property would be respected and more intelligent and better people would sit on the government benches. I smiled at her faintly and her torrent of words tailed off. She then set off to fetch us what we ordered, rather inelegantly, due to her not negligible body mass index. She brought us two quite opulent pieces of typical north German gateau, which resembled in their rich appearance only those we used to have in Pomerania.
Harre proudly told me that he had already rented a room in a nearby village. “One must act quickly nowadays”, he told me chewing his cake. “First come, first served – that’s the rule if you want a share of the big cake here in the East” he added and went on to say that “finally property is being returned to its rightful owner”. This was to happen in Waldstedt as well, he announced almost with a pastoral tone of voice. He explained that in the village of Waldstedt there was a farm the communists had nationalised and confiscated from his father and that he would show the local communists who the new master now was. According to Harre, here in the East they were all as thick as thieves and had all made profit from his father’s farm, but now he would clean up the whole mess. The president of the “LPG” in that village, whose father had also owned a big farm until the communists expropriated him, was his first neighbour. The two farms were next to each other right at the entrance to the village and he and his neighbour would sort things out together, Harre said. He explained to me jokingly that “LPG” was the communist name for agricultural cooperatives in East Germany and that he and his neighbour would re-establish the “real order”. He was emotionally bound to his father’s land and a successor in a long line of a traditional farming family after all, he added.
I looked at him puzzled. My son’s friend had never spoken like that in recent years when he came for a visit together with my son. Quite the contrary: he was an epitome of the easy-going, urban lifestyle.
I couldn’t really believe he was serious. I knew his father, after all. As far as I know he had married into a family who owned a small farm and managed their affairs poorly. The poor man never really found any fulfilment in agricultural chores. He then ruined the farm completely and, trying to overcome his own frustration and disappointment, treated his wife quite badly, like a despot. In 1956 he divorced her, left East Germany for Wolfsburg in West Germany and made a living by selling jewellery. He organised his sales events in hotels, drank a lot and was a resentful man marked by a dissipated lifestyle. I saw and spoke to him once and felt that I disliked and pitied him at the same time. His wife, by the by, also left East Germany and came to the Black Forest with Harre, shortly before the Berlin Wall was erected and the German-German border sealed, and married a wealthy goldsmith. It was there, at the university in the Black Forest, that my son met Harre. Later, Harre’s family gladly came to Wolfgang’s hotel to spend a cheap holiday. For some reason I didn’t like them. But why should I mind their business anyway? I’m looking for my own son, my “first-born”, as we used to say in Pomerania. At least I knew his name was Gottfried.
Still lost in my thoughts I looked at Harre, as if it was only now that I saw his true colours. He was completely white. Completely white hair, smooth skin and eyes of such a blue which gets paler as years go by. Like an albino.
When he spoke of his father’s farm there was shining in his eyes and I feared for the poor people who lived there.
I knew Harre all right.
Actually, he had wanted to study law. It was back then, at the university, that he met my son Wolfgang. I never really liked this friendship. I wished for a better influence for my son since this friendship brought into his life something that I disliked. They usually talked of making money and they drank too much. By the way, Harre failed to complete his degree course. In the end he qualified as a judicial assistant and led a life similar to his father. From my life experience I knew one thing – that fathers’ biographies often hover over their sons’ CV’s like a sombre index.
Then my attention again got caught by Harre’s waffling. He was getting carried away and adopted a posture of a Grande as he spoke of his village.
Waldstedt, he called it. Only then did the name ring a bell.
Suddenly I was alert. It dawned on me that this was the village where the foster parents of my lost son Gottfried lived. This was what my neighbour from Erlenhorst and I had found out during our research. We also knew that the foster father had died a couple of years ago.
I enquired about directions to Waldstedt, without raising any suspicion. Perhaps I would get a chance to go there as well during the next couple of days. But for the time being I was primarily interested in the small town of Lindenhagen, the district’s administrative centre, where we sat in the “City Café” and where my son Gottfried lived. I even knew his address. My neighbour in Erlenhorst had managed to track it down after the fall of the Berlin Wall after some meticulous detective work and inquiries at numerous authorities.
But I also wanted to see that village in any case. Maybe there still were traces of my son’s childhood and I could follow them like a hunting dog. Once again I was having second thoughts as to whether this was all right. But I simply had to do it. Something deep inside me urged me to find the missing part of my life’s puzzle and follow up on what is part of me.
This was going through my head while Harre kept talking. To get a break from his waffling I went to the ladies’. It reminded me very much of my early childhood at our farm in Pomerania. Everything was slightly shabby. I inhaled the pungent smell of urine and then I felt the urge to sneak out through the back door into the backyard of the café. I stood in front of the door for about five minutes watching the passers-by, trying to discern who the political change had made happy and in whose eyes there was worry or even shame. But I couldn’t tell. Again I asked myself how my son might be doing. How is he going to cope with all this political and emotional turmoil? When I returned to the café Harre was still sitting in the same place, in the same way. He bade me farewell with exaggerated gestures and his usual ostensibly genteel lines and left the café. He forgot to ask for the bill, of course. In my absence he had had two more glasses of schnapps.
I paid and then wanted to look for a small hotel to spend the night and continue my investigation the following day.
But in this different country, this was no easy matter.
I couldn’t find any.
It’s a strange feeling to be wandering around in an unfamiliar town at night. A couple of young people were whistling in the car park. In a small house on a narrow street an elderly unshaved man in a gym shirt was putting down the blinds, stopped for a second, looked at me with his glassy, empty eyes and let the blinds rattle all the way down. I wouldn’t like to share my life with a man like him in a forgotten town like this in a neglected, old, derelict half-timbered house. It must be awful to watch your days go by sitting next to him on a sofa teeming with mites.
But how on earth did I come up with such superfluous and spiteful thoughts? The man in his gym shirt behind the window was probably a decent person wondering who that woman curiously peeping through his windows was. My legs started to hurt. There was that strange pain in my toes again. And I found it pointless to wander around in this unfamiliar town.
Was all this necessary?
It’s a pity that I came here without Bernhard, my neighbour. Now I felt a bit lost and lonely. But had it not been for his influence and encouragement, I would never have set off on this journey. Meanwhile it started to rain, making things even worse. But somehow I have liked this drizzling rain ever since my childhood. When I was twelve, while taking a walk with my friend during a warm summer rain, we got soaked to our skin. The fabric of our blouses stuck to our budding breasts and for the first time ever we were able to feel them in that strange new way. We touched our breasts with our fingertips and that was the first time I had that arousing feeling in my body which ran from my breasts all the way down to my toes. We kept caressing our newly discovered spots for a while and laughed. Suddenly, we looked at each other, terrified. We immediately stopped touching each other and felt that from that moment on, our lives would change.
Now, the rain was soaking through my clothes again and I felt my breasts as I had back then, when I was a young girl in Pomerania. I love this female body feeling and I enjoyed the sensation of the warmth of my body resisting the coldness of the wet fabric. In my mind’s eye I pictured a mountain hut with the fire crackling in the hearth and a dark-haired man taking off my clothes. He puts them to dry and his naked muscular body lies down next to me onto a bear skin next to the fireplace. And outside there are hungry wolfs howling…
Will you stop that! Still fantasising like a young girl! I realised that I was actually freezing and made an effort to find my way back to the main street. That was not difficult. The main street also looked rather dark and deserted. This place was not brightly lit like back home. But maybe that wasn’t necessary. Why shouldn’t nights be dark and days be bright. A young couple came walking towards me, arm in arm, deep in serious conversation, it seemed. On the opposite side of the road an elderly gentleman in a dark suit and a tie was closing green shutters on a small house. This is what retired schoolmasters looked like back home. Here in East Germany everything had this sturdy, serious, stereotypically German slant to it, just like West Germany used to be during the fifties. I still felt abandoned in this lonely street and I urgently needed somewhere to spend the night.
“Rooms” was written on a nice but weather-beaten and dreary gate.