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«Excerpt from Wer ist Martha? By Marjana Gaponenko Translated by Arabella Spencer I Love is cold. Love is cold. But in the grave we burn and melt to ...»

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Excerpt from Wer ist Martha?

By Marjana Gaponenko

Translated by Arabella Spencer


Love is cold. Love is cold. But in the grave we burn and melt to gold …

Levadski waited for the tears. The tears didn’t come. In spite of this he

wiped his face. Disgusting!

With a fixed stare he had just put the receiver on its cradle. What else, if

not impatience, had he sensed in the breathing of his family doctor?

Impatience and the buzzing of thoughts that had nothing to do with him, Levadski: Mustn’t forget the baking powder … moth repellent, furniture polish, what else? … He could smell his own tiresomeness through the receiver. Breathe in, breathe out. Hang up, old man, hang up … Levadski went into the bathroom and threw up. He was overcome by tears. Whimpering, Levadski vomited for the first time in ages. The last time it had happened to him, he had still been wearing knickers. What had the girl’s name been? Maria? Sophia? The young girl had allowed her hand to be kissed by a man with a moustache. In front of her a slice of cake. Jealousy had grabbed the schoolboy Levadski by the throat. He had stopped in front of the window of the café, taken a bow and spilled the contents of his stomach onto the pavement. Touching his chest, he’d slowly assumed an upright position again. The girl had looked straight through him, her dilated eyes filled with a delight not intended for him or the man with the moustache, solely for the slice of chocolate cake.

What made me touch my chest back then? In the mirror, Levadski was clinging on to a glass of water. Had my heart dropped to the pavement when I was throwing up, had my arms and legs failed me, I would have noticed that something was missing!

Levadski rinsed out his mouth, took the showerhead and aimed it at the dentures he spit out into the bath while throwing up and which now reminded him of a boat capsized in the sick. The jet of water jerkily inched the outrageously expensive and highly impractical ball-retained dentures in the direction of the plughole. He leant forward and skeptically picked them up – a dead creature, from which a final prank was to be expected.

No, he did not want to encounter this girl again. If she were still alive she   2   would either be blind or demented or confined to a wheelchair. What was her name again? Maria? Aida? Tamara?

After Levadski’s performance in front of the window, had she finished her cake? It didn’t matter.

A tablet dropped into the glass of water. After a brief deliberation, it started to fizz and circle: a drunken bee. Carefully Levadski let the dentures fall in after. Plop … Since he had acquired artificial teeth he found this sound soothing, perhaps connected to the fact that it invariably accompanied the arrival of the Sandman. This must have been where its magical sweetness came from. Plop … and Levadski’s eyes would already be falling closed. Plop … and he was already whirring into the sunset on the scintillating wings of a rose beetle. What is sweeter than your chocolate cake, girl? Only sleep. And what is sweeter than sleep?

Only death.

On the short and laborious way to the living room, Levadski was annoyed to see his telephone glowing as if nothing had happened, as if he, Luka Levadski, Professor Emeritus of Zoology, hadn’t just had a death sentence pronounced down the receiver. “We need to talk about your results – at the hospital, right away.” Levadski had understood. There was nothing left to discuss. Talk about what? If the results were okay then you didn’t call on a Sunday around lunchtime when old patients were possibly enjoying their deepest sleep. You also didn’t call if the results were bad. If you had any manners, as a doctor, you knocked on the door personally in order to convey the news of someone’s death. The blood was still pounding in his temples. Come in! he said to the doctor at the other end of the line. Or had he merely thought it? More and more often Levadski caught himself barely able to distinguish between thought, speech and silence, and it was becoming less and less important to him.

In two shuffling steps he reached the middle of the living room. Levadski’s books sat stiffly on the branches and twigs of an impressive library. In the dusty sunlight they seemed to be awaiting a small show; the books held their breath, word-for-word. Not today, Levadski thought. A rainbowcolored drop glistened at the tip of his nose before exploding on the parquet floor. Another shuffle and Levadski was already sitting in his rocking chair by the window.

–  –  –

sitting there with the beam of sunlight on his chest. Or perhaps the beam wasn’t a beam, but a spear driving through an old dragon’s body? He smiled. If someone had observed his face at this moment they might have believed that a wafer-thin slice of lemon had dissolved beneath the old man’s tongue. But there was nobody who could have seen Levadski’s face. Since he had started aging, he had always been alone.

He started to age as a small boy. He aged when a robin redbreast hopped onto his shoulder while he was mowing the lawn. Like the red sky in the morning. Like a freshly baked soft rosy loaf of bread, it perched on Levadski with its thin legs. The robin redbreast decorated him more than any medal. It made him a human being. An old man! Levadski’s watch started to tick, growing louder and louder with every movement of the bird.

He aged when from the window of the school building he observed a jay hiding its booty. The way it let two acorns, one after the other, roll out of its throat, buried them in the ground and marked the spot with colorful leaves. The jay. The blue on the hem of its robe and its jet black sapphire eyes, nodding its head mischievously: Levadski, Levadski, I know that you know! Levadski aged when he gnawed at almost cold chicken drumsticks at weddings or funerals. He aged when with a spoon he dealt a breakfast egg a shattering blow. He aged when in the spa town of Yalta a blackheaded gull snatched a piece of cake from his hand. “You have robbed me of the pleasure!” Levadski shouted after it, stamping his foot, and yet immediately knowing: Nothing and nobody can take pleasure away from you. Pleasure is not a piece of cake. He aged especially on an autumn day when he stopped in front of an advertising column covered in film posters, threw back his head to read and was hit in the eye by pigeon droppings.

Levadski was stabbed in the heart, in the middle of his aging heart. With every explosion of pigeon wings Levadski aged, with every daub of color that flew by, recognizable as a golden plover, blackbird or starling. He aged when he kissed a girl for the first time and suddenly in the dusk saw a shadow flit past. “Devil take it! A pygmy owl!” he shouted into the frightened astonished eyes of the girl, and he aged, turning a little more into the Levadski he was later to become.

–  –  –

he squinted up at it more dwarfed than a dwarf. This is how Levadski wandered through life. His hunch grew like his awe for music and birds.

Yet neither the music nor the birds thought about condemning Levadski.

Done, damn it! Levadski feebly tapped his scrawny thigh. So, the suspicion that he had carcinoma of the lung was confirmed! The patient and pseudo-respectful whispering of his doctor at the other end of the line said as much. The news hit Levadski harder than it would have if the diagnosis had been roared down the receiver.

He would have liked to say a prayer, something sublime, but everything venerable seemed either unspeakable or defiled by mortal fear and selfpity. Impure, simply impure. Ultimately everything in this world referred to man, to man alone. Even in the purportedly altruistic stirring of the soul yapped a little I! I! I!, and a tiny actor stood whistling in the wings of the most deceptively genuine feelings. Disgusting, thought Levadski, you can’t even face a stroke of fate candidly. He thought this and knew that another Levadski, as if to confirm his thought, hovered the height of a hat above him, amusing himself at this sight: an old man with lung cancer sitting in a rocking chair, with a pretentious strip of sunlight on his pigeon chest and how strange, all the particles of dust, how they danced in the ray of light making it visible in the first place.

Levadski pursed his lips and, in his mind, spit on the carpet. What was he still supposed to think, when what he knew of human beings filled him with disgust? This scrap of knowledge ruined his pleasure in the unknown, in the mysteries of nature that were yet to be revealed. That he would no longer come to discover them made him livid. May youth divine the secrets of creation; the thought triggered a dull pain. It was not that he begrudged the others, those left behind, the revelation, no. Levadski just thought that mankind, if anything, had a simulated reverence for the simple and the great. It was the simple and the great that he felt sorry for, because it was pure curiosity that led man to pursue the wonders of nature, every solemn gesture was pure hypocrisy; every action, even if it was a self-experiment with a deadly outcome or involved years of sacrifice in the name of science, was nothing but egotistical defiance, nothing but pure self-assertion.

–  –  –

that all effort was in vain – the mystery of life would just grow further out of reach, for as long as this world still existed.

I have tramped around on this globe for long enough, Levadski thought.

He opened the balcony door and sat back down in the rocking chair. The dusty curtain enveloped the figure of its guest for a moment, the street air.

The road itself entered Levadski’s library, filled it with the bothersome yet welcome signs of life, the honking of car horns, the shouting of children and the perpetual hurry of women’s heels. He could also hear snatches of a conversation between ravens: “I love you,” “I love you too,” “Feed me!” “Antonida! Put your trousers on! Now!” a mother’s voice ordered.

Levadski raised an eyebrow; when he was Antonida’s age, names like hers didn’t exist, and girls still wore skirts.

“Oh dear,” Levadski sighed. Why the intimation of his imminent demise hadn’t allowed him to die on the spot, but had instead stirred up a lot of dust was an enigma. His chin dropped to his chest like an empty drawer onto a table; there is nothing to be had here, thieves, leave me alone. He opened his mouth. The ray of sunlight now rummaged in his mouth.

Levadski stuck out his tongue and rolled it back in. Birds are better than we are, he thought, not least because they are able to open their beaks properly, unlike human beings, whose mouths only open by dropping their bottom jaw; birds simultaneously raise their upper beak slightly!

Slowly Levadski shut his mouth again. He remembered that many decades ago he had observed a common redstart through a pair of binoculars with a fat tick close to its eye. The bird didn’t seem bothered by the tick. On a sun-drenched wall, it gently quivered with its orangecolored tail in front of its bride. At the time, Levadski could have sworn that the female was smiling at the male while it trembled in courtship. He had always suspected that birds smiled. Now, sitting in his rocking chair, he suddenly realized how this worked: The female bird smiled at her sweetheart just by looking at him. In spite of the ugly tick close to its eye.

By being near him, she was smiling at him.

The thought that his body was at the mercy of a parasite, that his lung had been thrown to a sea creature as food, made Levadski peevishly swing back and forth a couple of times in his rocking chair. I am at the mercy not only of that bloodsucker but also of a cocktail of chemicals if I let myself in for chemotherapy, thought Levadski, and clenched his fists.

He noticed that following the telephone conversation he far too frequently   6   used inappropriate language, words that he had always avoided in his life, “bloodsucker” or “damn it.” That he had even been sick was outrageous and a certain sign of his decay. Who cares, Levadski thought, if I kick the bucket soon. His eyes widened. There you have it, kick the bucket, that’s the kind of language I hear myself using! I should just die! Die and rot!

Levadski gestured dismissively, rose from the rocking chair with a groan and shuffled to the shelf with the medical books.

Cyclophosphamide, sounds like a criminal offense … checks the multiplication of rapidly dividing cells. Side effects: nausea, vomiting, hair loss. May damage the nerves and kidneys and lead to loss of hearing, as well as an irreparable loss of motor function; suppresses bone marrow, can cause anemia and blindness. Well, Bon appétit. Levadski would have liked to have called the doctor and chirped down the line.

Tjue-tjue Ku-Kue-Kue—Ke-tschik-Ke-tschik!



If the doctor had asked him what this was supposed to be, Levadski would have stuck with the truth: A female pygmy owl attracting its mate, you idiot! And hung up. He felt like a real rascal. At the age of ninety-six Levadski was game for playing a prank. The dusty lace curtain stretched towards him, slowly as if submerged in water, behind it the spruce that lay in front of his house, with a little gold in its green beard and birds, birds, birds that hopped, as voices, as light and shadow plays, from branch to branch, from tree to tree, from cloud to cloud, from day to day, angels, always among people.

Levadski suddenly had the feeling he needed a walking stick. He leaned against his bookshelf, amazed he had been able to live without a walking stick up until now, shook his head and put this oversight down to being a scatterbrain.

–  –  –

The only thing that really seems to belong to man is the genuine. And the only genuine thing about man, Levadski thought, breathing on his magnifying glass, is his pride! He was proud of the bookshelves that filled the walls. Though this trait belonged to the department of deadly sins, how could it be bad and depraved if it was purer, more sincere and unselfish, than the love that man imagined himself capable of? It was only pride that had no foundation and needed no admirers to sustain itself.

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