by Günther Kaip
Translated by Hillary Keel
Take The Feather from The Ox
Take the feather from the ox to stroke the crescent moon in your lap. Try not to tickle it as things are imaginably bad : rocks break off from the mountains and fill up the valleys, trees die off and the rivers drown in the seas. Do you hear that subtle grinding? It’s the sand grating the air until it’s sore. Then there’s the taunting howl of the winds—the choir should sing of your ending.
The pea underneath your skin is no longer useful. The crow’s nest in your lung offers no protection and the abused confession in your spleen is blessed by a dung beetle in search of its shoes. Here! Catch the house flying by as its inhabitants lie awake in their beds and refuse to fill the night with their dreams. They don’t care and many hope they will no longer wake up, they’ve become so numb.
Let the flies out of your breast, let them span threads in the air and climb up them higher and higher and shake up the clouds floating by. Wave to the crescent moon, assure it you will return and that it will always have a place in your lap. Wave to the crying rooster standing all alone on the dung pile, wave until your arm hurts. Then glide down the flies’ threads, lay the crescent moon back in your lap, take the shadow from your arm and spread it flat on the floor in order to throw him over any passers-by, to warm or cool it according to the weather, and from the crescent moon you will pull an umbrella embellished with shells and bright corals. Don’t be shocked if this includes dead fish.
And harken preferably to the trousers laughing, flapping like flags on the legs of the passers-by. And don’t be disappointed about the pair of trousers wrapping itself around the crescent moon and taking it along. Rejoice in the river, flowing quietly by, sometimes mumbling a word, a syllable, that laps onto the shore. Then the time has come for you to think over carefully whether you rub your winter boots at home with garlic, wrap them in parchment paper and carry them into the cellar, or what is more important—whether you want to nurture the frying pan in the kitchen, where—like a cracked open egg—the new year is already sizzling.
I carry my shadow
I carry my shadow in my armpit so it doesn’t get wet and freeze. The sun, rain showers and wind alternate incessantly, cooling down the landscape. Our path leads along a river without a bend—a straight line between the hills, shimmering silver when the sun shines, becoming a grey ribbon when rain and snow showers chase across it and when the wind roughens its surface. According to my compass we are in the south, it should actually be hot with sweat flowing in streams and my shadow walking beside me or rushing up ahead or visiting a city we come across—I allow it total liberties, as long as it comes back from its excursions and lays itself in bed with me for the night to warm me. Now it’s me, who keeps it warm. I folded it gently as it trembles all over from the cold and shoved it in my right armpit.
It’s the first time I am carrying it, since I otherwise lie in its arms like a child and I am held, carried. I can sleep and dream best this way, counting off my lives and building heaven, gliding across the glowing sun, but also producing complete blackness and finally its light, illuminating everything. We’ve been on the road for a day now, or has it been more? Icicles hang from trees into the frozen river where children ice-skate. How the ice sprays, when they make their curves or suddenly halt. I call to them, but they don’t notice me, even if I dare to get between them on the ice—it’s too thin and breaks under my weight. If I reach out my hand to say hello, the children don’t see me, they would let me drown. But I always reach the shore without my shadow waking up or without being sprayed by cold water. It still sleeps in my armpit, deep and tight.
Now I walk more quickly, and the prospect that it will awake at the end of the path, helps me forget my exhaustion, and then we’ll switch roles, I will again be the child in its arms, sleeping, dreaming …
The Body at the River
He lies on his back—the back of his head in the river. He doesn’t answer questions, speaks only with his naked body stuck in papery skin. Delicate tears extend and branch out over his skin on the underarms and legs. Taking a more careful look, you recognize regular signs, like letters, most of them practically faded—allusions, which seem to balance on the tears and remind of a text, covering the body entirely, its history, undecipherable to us. A spiral on the belly is etched deeply into the skin, a solar plexus, the navel lies in its middle in a small hole. The throat and facial skin only display vertical lines, which lead around the eye sockets to unite into a point on the forehead.
His shoes and socks and shirt and trousers lie back in the bushes, including the picnic basket with the song book full of children’s songs among broken plates and glasses. Forest berries get moldy at the bottom of the basket. With eyes wide open, the body observes the sky, scattered clouds chasing across it. Birds draw lines, ellipses, and amplitudes in the air, which cools off in the evening.
He’s been lying this ways for days without changing position. Sometimes we have the impression he is listening, waiting for a certain tone or sound, which allows him to get up and walk. On our daily walks we take our rest with him, observe him, eat and drink, study the texture of his skin and let ourselves fall in the stillness exuding from him. We sit that way for hours, but at the end we are disappointed that his breast doesn’t rise and fall. Though he is alive in our dreams—he runs, jumps, walks, speaks with a voice we carry around with us all day long. Something else we do, he is with us—we sense that and it feels strange. We still shy away from his cold leathery skin.
Today we tickle the soles of his feet, which are filthy. We wash his feet with water from the river and lay them to dry in the sun. The texture in the soles of the feet emerges as if it had just been etched into the skin, and then we realize that those are marks from our washing, our scratches from removing a persistent stain, the pressure points from our fingers from grasping the feet as we washed.
From the legs a bit of blood comes, forms drops, which dry quickly in the sun, and the tulip, growing from his belly blooms in white, moves, sways to the side, left, right, as if a strong wind were blowing. All is peaceful here—only the flowing of the river. The carnation reminds of a blossomed phallus, and one of us, the strongest, tries to pull it out, we help him take hold of the pelvis and pull on it. But although we make quite an effort, the tulip remains tightly implanted in the belly. When we hand each other tissues for wiping off our sweat, the body lets out a sigh, gargling, rattling, we don’t know what to do, for a moment we believe our treatment has driven him to this, we already want to congratulate ourselves that we have conjured up this reaction in him, and—the dried drops of blood sparkle briefly in the sun, become dull, and fade in the skin.
The body pays no attention to us. We hold a compact mirror in front of his mouth, nothing happens, someone tickles the soles of his feet, no reaction. Suddenly one of us grabs the feet, twists them, lifts them up and lets them fall on the ground. He wants to kick them, looks for a stick on the river bank to beat them. We hold him back, go with him to the edge of the forest, set him on moss—he cries, his body trembles, we wrap our arms around him, stroke his hair but he will not be soothed.
In the meantime, some others dedicate themselves to the body at the river. They try to cross his arms across his chest by applying all their strength in lifting them up, bending them, and placing them on the breast. Whenever they let go of the arms, the arms rush back to their previous position. They try this three or four times, then they leave them alone and walk to the crying one at the edge of the forest, who is lying on his back with overflowing eyes. With eyes overflowing.
At the bank we illuminate the body’s eyes with a flashlight. They don’t blink, but stay wide open. Thousands of little blood vessels in them have burst, covering both eyes in a murky fluid, and sealing them, as it were. We are convinced the body has fallen asleep and is dreaming its endless dream, revisiting his distant past. Children float across the river on a raft they made themselves. They wave, call, laugh—we wave back and get ready to leave, clearing away our garbage. Will the body still be here tomorrow?
My Country’s Horizon
After I have carefully folded the country, in which I have lived since my birth, and packed it in the paper bag, I let water run in my bathtub and take a bath, wash the spaces between my toes thoroughly, two or three times, scrub my belly with a brush and smear cream on my skin so it stays supple. Then I take out my left eye, let it roll in the palm of my hand, smoothen it with fine sandpaper I got in the city yesterday, and press the eye back into my socket. The result is extraordinary—I can now discern the rusty water pipes and electric cables in the walls. The sight of this depresses me. Through the closed bathroom door I see my paper bag on the kitchen sideboard, where my country is trying to unfold. The paper bag wavers, trembles, menacingly tilts forward, threatening to fall from the sideboard to the tiled floor. The impact on the contents of the bag would be unimaginable, on my country, which I want to take around in my garden for half an hour, so it sees, smells, tastes something different once and for all, not just itself. I’ll take my country carefully out of the paper bag and lay it in the moss in front of the apple tree. The sun’s already shining, its rays will warm my country and I’ll stand in front of it, to give it shade if necessary.
Then it occurs to me: my country’s horizon, its delicate fabric, how should I spread it out without tearing it, and a country without a horizon, that’s no good. I jump out of the bathtub to rescue what can still be rescued, slip on my bathrobe, run to the kitchen sideboard and reach for the paper bag. Right after my first step I notice I have to hold it at a certain angle, otherwise my country might run out.
I carefully put down the paper bag, jump to the wardrobe, take out my bathing trunks and put them on. I don’t need any more than this as I’ll just be in my garden surrounded by high cypress perennials. As I reach to lift up the paper bag, it is no longer there, just a moist spot on the floor, and I consider whether to jump into it, after all I am wearing my bathing trunks. It’s the least I can do for my country.
These “miniatures” appeared in the original German in Im Rhythmus der Räume, © Klever Verlag, Wien, 2012, and in Unbraiding the Short Story, anthology of the 14th International Conference on the Short Story in English, Vienna, 2014.
Günther Kaip was born in Linz in 1960 and moved to Vienna in 1980 where he writes full time. His work has been published in anthologies, literary journals and magazines and includes poetry, short stories, novels, children’s books, word pictures and sound objects. Kaip also works for Austrian National Radio ORF and NDR. He has been awarded several prizes and scholarships for his work which has been translated into English, Russian, Polish, Spanish and Turkish. He is a member of GAV, Austria’s largest writers’ association.
Hillary Keel lives at a remote location in New York State where she teaches German & The German Fairy Tale at Hunter College in Manhattan. She also writes poetry, works as a hypnotherapist, and loves to translate. She has poetry and translations published in Europe and the USA. http://hillarykeel.com