Iplayed My mother is poorly with a friend. We did so using toothpicks that we’d snapped in half. I jammed half a toothpick between my top and bottom rows of teeth so that my lips wouldn’t close.
–y –other is –orly.
What’s wrong with her?
– ohns –ease.
My friend giggled.
I took the toothpick-half out of my mouth and said loudly: Crohn’s disease.
If I could, I’d have ten children, said my mother. The sigh from her mouth went on and on. She couldn’t because of her belly. Instead, she invited ten children round to our house: cousins, the children of friends and acquaintances. Neighborhood kids.
We played hide-and-seek, I locked myself in the loo, crouched on the bowl and tucked up my legs so that nobody would be able to see their shadow through the crack between the floor and the wall. Outside someone rattled at the door. Then I heard: The door’s stuck.
No matter, replied my mother’s voice, no one would hide on the loo anyway.
A spider came crawling out from one of the holes in the wall and stared at me with its eight eyes.
The sugar from the sweets made my lips stick together. I was sitting next to Mother on the settee in her friend’s flat, her friend sat opposite us in an armchair. She had given me a doll and a bag of sweets as a present. It was my first plastic doll, Mother had always sewn dolls for me up until then. She had a flowery dress on and closed her eyes when I laid her down on my lap.
Mother and the friend laughed and talked about things I didn’t understand. The friend looked just like the doll, only with hair. She was wearing a watch round her wrist and kept turning her eyes to the watch and the watch to her eyes. As the hands moved towards four o’clock, she brushed a stray hair from her forehead, looked at me and said: All right, you two had better get going.
Mother did as we were told, outside she bent down to me, winked at me and said: She must be expecting a visitor.
To get back, we would need to make six turns; after three Mother suddenly stood still and said: I’ve forgotten my medication, we need to go back.
Mother searched for the light switch in the stairwell. She went up the stairs ahead of me, on the final step before the door to the flat she suddenly stood still.
I heard her mutter, No, that can’t be right.
She turned round towards me and said: You stay here.
At first she pounded on the door with both of her fists, then she opened it, as if it were her own. Now I could see Father’s shoes standing next to the doormat. The light in the corridor went out with a click, only Mother’s friend’s flat remained bright. Mother stood in the corridor with her back to me, behind her I saw Father coming out of the room where Mother and I had been sitting earlier. He made a face like a donkey and moved towards her, she moved backwards away from him before turning round. She rushed at me and grabbed me by the hand. I couldn’t turn round anymore towards Father, not even just a tiny bit, Mother dragged me down the stairs. The brightness outside blinded me, Mother wouldn’t let go of my hand, and I ran to keep up with her all the way home.
At home she slammed the door shut, crouched down and pulled at her hair with both hands.
Go to your room, she whimpered.
When I didn’t move, she screamed: Get in your room!
I ran up the stairs as fast as I could.
Mother threw plates and cups on the floor. I stayed in my room. From upstairs I heard Father coming home. Shortly after him Mother’s friend arrived. I heard even more plates shattering on the floor. Then I heard the siren of an ambulance, I went over to the window, it stopped in front of our house. Two paramedics were propping Mother up, she had wrapped a tea towel around her wrist. They took Mother to Märzhofen although Mother was shouting for them to let her go. Lunatics and people who wanted to kill themselves got sent to Märzhofen. Father came to get me from my room and I saw drops of blood on the floor among the shards. He bent down to me and said: Your plate’s fine.
The next day Father drove to my uncle’s farm, taking me and my brother with him. I went to the manure heap with my cousin every day. There we stuck our arms in right up to the shoulder to see who could bear it for the longest. Father caught us. He shoved me inside the house and to the sink there, lathered up his hands and washed me all the way from my fingertips to my shoulder. I stood there with my belly pressed against the sink and would have almost closed my eyes because his hands were so soft. I didn’t want to show him that I found it nice, and stared straight in front of me until he was finished.
On the fourth evening at my uncle’s house, Father spoke to Mother on the phone. My brother and I sat next to him on the stairs and could hear Mother’s voice muffled through the receiver. Father turned the receiver upwards, as if his mouth was hovering above his head. He said loudly: Hello? Hello? Somehow the connection’s really bad at the moment. Hello?
Then he put the phone down and said to us: Tomorrow we’re going to go back home.
Mother got a taxi home from Märzhofen. When the taxi driver stopped in front of the green house and asked for his money Mother leaned forwards and stuck her tongue down his throat. The driver switched off the engine and let her have her way.
She sent the taxi bill to her best friend, who wasn’t her best friend anymore.
Father helped an old woman to clear her house because her husband had died. He took us with him when he went. The house was big, fifteen people could have lived there. My brother and I sat with the old woman on the kitchen bench and waited for Father. Every now and again I went up to the attic and he was always crouching in the dust with some thing or other in his hands. At lunchtime the woman made us fried potatoes. She burnt them. The burnt bits looked like the liver spots on the woman’s face. My brother flicked the slices of potato over the edge of his plate with his index finger. They flew at the wooden table, the red tiles, the pale green seat cushions and stuck to everything. My brother and I giggled with our mouths full. Father’s eyebrows collided with the bridge of his nose, he hissed: Behave yourselves, right this instant.
We swallowed the chewed-up potatoes and our laughter.
Three days later I got chicken pox. Mother said that I’d caught it amongst all of those old things. She said that the old woman was a witch.
Mother cut a rectangle from a white bedsheet, hemmed the border, and painted us on it with a few brush strokes and some bright paint: Father is tall and has a beard, Mother is standing next to him, she’s smaller and has short hair, my brother is standing in front of Father, Father’s hand is on his shoulder, I’m standing next to my brother and in front of Mother, her hand is on my shoulder. We all have blue eyes and rosy red cheeks.
The doctors emptied Mother’s belly. This time they didn’t cut out a piece of her guts like they usually did, they took a second life out of her lower belly. To do so they didn’t have to open up her belly like a book, they were able to reach inside her from below and take out the second life. They didn’t leave a scar. Because Mother already had so many scars on her belly, she wouldn’t have been able to carry the second life to full term, they said.
I already have two healthy children, said Mother. I knocked on the white bed cover, on Mother’s belly beneath it, it didn’t sound empty. What would the second life have been called? I asked.
Lukas, she said.
We were a foursome on the family flag, although actually there would have been four and a half of us. It had been attached to a hazel branch with staples and stood in a basket together with rolls of wrapping paper. The sheet was closely wound around the branch, you couldn’t see us, you might think the flag was white. Whenever I wanted to wrap a present, I briefly got out the flag and waved it. Then I wound the sheet tightly around the branch again, put it back and took some wrapping paper instead.
Mother went around with crescents of black paint underneath her fingernails. Now all she painted was Mother and a Child, Mother and a Child, Mother and a Child. With a big paintbrush she scrubbed out Mother and Child with black. Then she scraped the paint away again with a palette knife. Mother and Child behind a black curtain, Mother and Child behind a black curtain, Mother and Child behind a black curtain.
Mother bought herself Mumm in a blue bottle. Mother behind a blue curtain.
Originally published in German under the title Dass wir uns haben © Wallstein Verlag, Göttingen 2017.
Luise Maier was born in 1991 in Schardenberg, grew up in Bavaria, and now lives in Biel / Bienne. She studied at the Swiss Literature Institute. Her debut novel Dass wir uns haben (Having One Another) was published by Wallstein Verlag in the spring of 2017.
Frances Jackson is originally from the UK, but now lives in Munich, where she is currently working on a PhD in Czech poetry. Her translations have appeared in The Missing Slate and No Man’s Land.