There they sit, at the table in the cowshed, Walter and Eva Spienkos. My bookcase contains not only his old school books and a box of papers, but also the love letters that Eva wrote to him in 1957 but they don’t know that yet.
Around fifteen years ago, Walter’s mother lived here at Blankow. Are you hungry? Those were invariably her first words when Walter visited her. She always shared out food to everyone. Their flight from East Prussia had ensured that she retained her concern with food.
I put the box with papers on the table and pick up the enrolment form for the engineer’s college in Meißen. It was primarily due to this form that the Spienkos family entered my life. They were the first residents of Blankow who acquired shape.
Walter glances at the form and says: Oh yes, that’s the only thing I really regret: I innocently filled in that my father had a hundred acres of land but I should have filled in that he was a farm labourer. They could never have checked that in those days, Friedrichshof was far away in Poland. As the son of a gentleman-farmer I was perpetually disadvantaged, in education, jobs, everywhere, I often regretted it. My father may have once had a hundred acres but in Mecklenburg he was more of a colonist and only had fifteen. Too little to live on and too much to die. But the present didn’t count, only the past. At the time, I still lived with the illusion that communists were honest.
Walter was admitted to Meißen in 1957, but to do so he had to abandon everything else. He raced back and forth on his motorbike, and even bribed a soldier from his military education with a bottle of schnapps. He says: You had two ways of achieving something in life: either you became a member of the Party or you became a specialist. I became a specialist in carbon-brush machines. And Eva narrates: When the neighbour heard that I was getting married, she said: What? Eva going to marry an Umsiedler, a newcomer who has nothing?
Displaced people did not exist then in the Soviet occupation zone or in the GDR, nor did refugees. There were only Umsiedler, people who had ‘moved home’ to the new Germany from the areas to the east of the Oder and other territories of the Third Reich. After all, it was impossible that the peoples of the Soviet Union and Poland had ousted their German brothers or had made them so anxious that they had to flee. No, that couldn’t be true, it wasn’t true. That is why they were called Umsiedler, relocated people. Telling me rather resignedly about her flight, Jana Huffel suddenly exploded on hearing that word. What kind of ‘moving home’ was it when you arrive somewhere destitute, starving, and raped?
But the defeated people adapted and soon learned the new speak. The Party had control of the mass media and it was not so difficult to place events in the appropriate ideological light. Anxiety for the foe was great and conspiracy theories ran rampant. After all, it was the Cold War.
We could only listen to Ostradio, never to other broadcasts, recounts Walter Spienkos, who was in the army in the fifties. We learned that the imperialists tried to infect us with venereal diseases, that they aimed chiefly at army personnel, that they tried to poison livestock in the fields.
The fascists lived in the Federal Republic, the anti-fascists lived in the GDR, the world was partitioned in an orderly fashion into good and evil – Germany in particular.
Walter gazes past Eva into the distance, he is elsewhere, has drained out of the conversation. Then he starts up and says: I can’t take my eyes off that sofa, it stood in my parents’ living room, my mother always lay on it.
The good old sofa. Now it stood in the cowshed, covered in swallows’ droppings. I had never known who had owned it. It had remained at Blankow due to its size and weight. Empty walnut shells still occasionally fall out of it, as if it had been used by someone for hoarding. His father’s sister had had the sofa made after their flight from East Prussia, Walter recalls, and she left it with his parents in Blankow when she departed for the West.
The piece of furniture is genuine craftsmanship. The fabric has faded but I have never had such a good sofa. For an instant I felt caught that the sofa on which Anna Spienkos always lay is now in my house. I live amid old objects that are not my own, I languish in their maturity.
I pick up the collection of love letters. It has to happen sometime. Eva examines it fleetingly, shakes her head and says to Walter: It’s unbelievable, you just left them lying around. I saved all your letters.
Walter leafs through a school notebook and mutters: Well, it’s all in the past now.
Eva picks up an envelope and reads aloud the address she had once written: Herrn Offiziersschüler. What nonsense! Walter bursts out laughing from what he’s read in the notebook: Look, Joseph Großkopf, that was our teacher of Latin and grammar, an old-style disciplinarian. He always said: Bei mir wird geseufzt. And after almost sixty years he quotes his old teacher: Seufzen means learning words until a state of unconsciousness is reached after which one puts one’s head under the cold tap and once a normal state has again been reached, the blocking begins again.
Eva mumbles to herself: Everybody keeps that kind of thing, everyone except him.
He defends himself: he had no fixed address at the time, he kept everything at his parents’. Eva ponders this for a moment and gives in. Their home in Berlin is still full of items belonging to their son in his mid-forties. Still, she can’t get over it: Those letters contain everything I felt, to the bottom of my heart.
What difference does it make, replies Walter, we still have one another, you can tell me what you are feeling.
Yes, says Eva, but not what I felt then, not how I experienced things then. And the fact that they’ve fallen into a stranger’s hands!
She means me, but hastens to add that she is not cross with me. I was looking for Blankow’s past. This is the time I find it distressing, meeting the people behind the letters and sitting together at the table with them. But it is not only painful, it is also a bizarre concurrence of time and coincidence. Two people in their early seventies in the cowshed of a Dutch woman who hands over the letters that the woman as a young lover wrote to her man in 1957 at the start of their future together, which is now largely behind them. Time and age tumble over one another.
To Walter, the letters are memories of the young Walter and Eva, whom they no longer are. Almost fifty years separate them. He regards it at most as interesting, to leaf through the old papers, the letters, jotters, books. To Eva, they are still the Walter and Eva of bygone days, they are her feelings and thoughts, even if almost half a century old. She feels the distance in time less than Walter does.
She’d like to have the letters back. No, not the copies I made, it’s the originals that are important to her. She might burn them, she says.
Walter thinks it’s nonsense; after all, they are fine here, all bundled up together.
But Eva wrote the letters and even if they are just lying about like old rubbish waiting to be discarded, she has the most right to the words they contain. I give her the folder.
I speak to her shortly afterwards. It has sunk in, she says, they have discussed the matter again, she has phoned her children. Her letters are, of course, a period document and they have lain at Blankow for almost half a century, she has become reconciled to my having free use of the copies: they belong to the stories of Blankow that I am collecting.
At the end of the afternoon, I sit on the oak beam against the wall of the shed. Large rain clouds drift over. The first heavy drops fall wet and cool on my bare arms. I shiver, go inside and gaze from the dog’s lair out to where the water is falling on the warm fields. The dog sits down next to me, erect in his eminent statue posture. There we sit, side by side, both clad in black, staring unthinkingly outward. Two mammals, with eyes, ears, nose and skin, with a heart, lungs and liver, with a tongue, throat, and anus. Unfortunately I don’t have a tail above it a waving plume, a signpost of moods. I do not know what it is like to have a tail, although I sometimes have the idea that my coccyx has vague recollections of tail movements. If only I had such a good nose as the dog, I reflect, if only I could smell better, I would be able to discover the source of the sickly sweet odour that is becoming more penetrating by the day. It is almost unbearable now in the hayloft, and I occasionally wake up at night due to the smell although the outside door is always open. The dog might be able to find the source but I don’t know how to get him up the ladder, he won’t let himself be lifted, and if I try he snaps crossly at my hands. So I just have to be patient, maybe the smell will disappear of its own accord.
When the heavens clear, I go outside. The dust has been washed from the air, the green is greener. The earth is steaming. Everything seems to have become more luscious in that half hour. Even more green. It is a moment that always returns, even if I can’t imagine it in early spring, autumn or winter: this abundant greenery, this exuberant growth. My attention is distracted for a moment and suddenly everything is covered with catchweed, nettles, thistles, cow parsley, goutweed, couch grass, dead nettle, tormentil, wild horseradish, hogweed, elderberry. They are the exploiters of churned soil, of earth saturated with compost and slurry. The only thing that helps is to tear them up by the roots, to mow and keep mowing. Starve them. All that life, that primeval urge, that unrelenting expansion under and above ground, those plants that compete with one another for life and death. And it’s always the same ones which come out on top, suppressing the others, making their lives impossible. Only when the profiteers and bloodsuckers have gone do the others get an opportunity.
I see myself, a passer-by, tackling this demoralizing larceny. Half-heartedly, randomly, I have little faith in my actions. Ultimately, I shall lose the struggle with all that flora. I shall fail, that’s certain. I only have to turn my back for an instant and it retakes the ground. It belongs here, it will remain. I shan’t. I shiver. The future always becomes the past, until I myself shall have gone.
I throw the clean dry washing on the sofa and clutch at socks in the pile. Brr. A maggot. I pick up the pale wriggly creature between my thumb and forefinger and quickly toss it into the wood box next to the stove. I hope it’s not a moth larva, I don’t want them eating everything. I crushed one of those a few days ago and it turned to dust at the first touch.
I continue folding the washing and suddenly see maggots everywhere, swarming over the pale flowers of the sofa, wriggling on the carpet on the ground. I grab my head, it itches. Jesus! I jump up, hold my head upside down, shake it back and forth, and draw my fingers through my hair. Maggots fall out. I seize up, scream in horror. The dog runs in, snuffles over the ground, and moves to a safe distance to watch the spectacle with his tail between his legs.
I look up at the ceiling; the gaps between the planks are seething with maggots, they’re raining down. I push and pull at the sofa, I’ve got to shift it from there. Then I change my mind, speed outside with the clean washing and throw it on the grass. I grab the vacuum cleaner from the winter garden and begin vacuuming up all the maggots like one possessed. I place the chair on the low table and climb up so that I can reach the ceiling. Wait! I grab the straw hat from the nail and put it on. Without looking imagine how it would be with all those maggots raining down on my face I thrust the vacuum cleaner brush back and forth across the ceiling. When most of the maggots have disappeared into the cleaner, I review the ceiling from a safe distance. The smell, the sickly sweet aroma the smell of death in the loft but also here below, plus the maggots. There must be a dead creature between the two layers of planks. Not a mouse, it must be bigger than that.
The marten! It’s been a while since I heard it rustling around. When I moved my bed upstairs a couple of weeks ago, I cleaned up its droppings with the first cherry stones of the year, and haven’t found any more since. Now that I sleep upstairs, he must have retreated to the old part of the hayloft, I thought.
A couple of days later the maggots have all finally disappeared and I nail up the floor again. The marten is still lying on the stone in the field, but no scavenger seems interested. His coat has largely blown off and he’s become tiny and skinny. His skin is tanned beige. I lay him on a piece of cardboard so that I can move him easily in case it starts to rain. Only later do I see what’s written on the edge of the cardboard: Chunky formula prepared with fresh meat packaging for dog food. The marten only smells a bit now, it won’t be long before he is allocated pride of place in the glass showcase. He was here when I first arrived, he belonged to the familiar sounds, I held him responsible for many inexplicable phenomena. He belonged here more than I do. And now he’s dead, and he made sure I knew.
In the evening I make a grand tour of the grounds, behind the ruins of the granary, across the path, between the farmstead and Anna Spienkos’s shed, into the garden. When Anna arrived here, she was only a few years older than I am now, I suddenly realize, and when she left she was a widow more than eighty years old. For years she went up and down this path to the vegetable garden with her watering can and hoe, with the vegetables she had cultivated. Every day she brought her kitchen refuse to her chickens, geese, ducks, goats. She collected eggs, milked the animals, butchered them. Her head was full of worries about her husband and his nostalgia, her thoughts reached out to her sons and their families. And increasingly she rested her fatigued body on the showpiece in her house, her sister in law’s sofa. I enjoy reflecting on Anna Spienkos, the picture I cherish of her has a contagious effect, it makes me mild and calm.
I meander through the orchard; everywhere I look there are narratives waiting to be harvested. The trees are old and knotted. Hermann Grensling was the last farmer to plant trees here, in 1941. He thought of the future, of his children who would take over the farm. Before him and after him, everyone has been here temporarily, or hoped to be, or didn’t own the land beyond. Why plant new fruit trees then? For the people who might come to live here? For strangers? So that they can pluck the fruit? No, that is not the way a farmer thinks.
I saunter down the lane with apple and pear trees. There is a gap in the row. That is where Jakob Huffel felled a pear tree, a Williams Christ at that, which bears large juicy pears. It was on the day that he returned from the funeral of his brother who lived in the West. The tree had to go. Only Jakob Huffel knew exactly why, when he thudded his axe into the trunk. A fragile young pear tree has stood there for the past two years, making the scar in the row even more visible. It is a memorial: this is where Jakob Huffel hacked his sorrow into splinters. What do I know of Jakob Huffel? Fragments that surface now and again. That he was ridiculed because he continued to buy ground and property in a country that had permanently discarded the idea of private ownership. The laughter has now stilled. Huffel’s youngest son Frank owes his hotel on the Mürzin lake to his father. He could claim the old resort because his father had bought it at the beginning of the fifties and had later been forced to sell it to the state. People no longer speak of the farmer who did not understand the spirit of the times, nowadays they refer to Huffel the acute businessman. Ninety-nine years old, he was even around to experience the opening of the hotel. He died one day later.
On my grand tour, I arrive at the east point of the grounds from where I have a view of the frog pond. A swan glides past and thousands of frogs croak out their mating urge. The people here call the pond the ‘bell pond’. The story is that church bells were once concealed here. Bells or frogs, it is certainly a sound-laden pond.
I consider all the narratives, all the residents, each with his or her own Blankow. The old men who were still boys immediately after the war delight in telling mischievous stories, how they escaped from the yoke of the adults, of how ruthlessly they were punished. The women recall how difficult life was, how their mothers in particular suffered, how they worked themselves to the bone.
When I rest in the bed in the trough in the timbered-off house at the bottom, staring at the whitewashed beams of the ceiling, I often think of Jana Huffel. How she entered here, saw my winter bed, and was dismayed that I lay peacefully asleep. Exactly at the place where Lita the cow had lashed out at her so forcefully that she was knocked against the wall. That was when she wanted to milk the cow for the first time after it had calved. Jana shook her head. To her, this was the place of shock and sore bones, anger and resentment.
After primary school, almost all the children had to start work when they turned fourteen. At most, they followed an agricultural course in Falkenhof, where they were not even awarded a diploma. Their talents were scarcely used in the nation of workers and farmers. For twenty years Jana Huffel sewed jeans incessantly for West Germany, at seventy-eight pfennig per pair, so that Erich Honecker could drink coffee in the West, she said sarcastically. Like many of her contemporaries, she was given early retirement after the fall of the Wall.
The children of gentleman-farmer Grensling also had few opportunities. If Grandmother had cooperated, they would have escaped from Blankow to the West in 1945, that would have been better for everyone, recounted Renate, the eldest daughter, bitterly. Then they, the children, would have had at least some kind of education. That little school in Dornhain was hopeless, most people from Dornhain could hardly read or write. At the end of the forties, her mother had taken in a young student from the West for a short time to help educate her children, but the poor girl suffered so much from homesickness that her mother soon sent her back. In the sixties, Renate married a farmer widower in the vicinity of Bremen and has recently herself been widowed. She still earns something on the side as a cleaner in the local village restaurant. Life means work, she doesn’t know any better.
The stories of Blankow don’t always match up? That surprises Renate Grensling. What she told me was a hundred per cent true, she assures me. I’d like to believe her. Then there would be one truth, a complete story, there would be a beginning and an end, cause and effect. Then life would be orderly, there would be a reality that we could know, all would be the same. But that is not the case. We are subordinate to our own memories and pictures, everyone for themselves. Alone.
Nowadays the residents of Blankow can hardly remember what their life used to be like Hitler, Stalin, Ulbricht, Honecker, Kohl and his successors, it is almost incomprehensible that this all fits into one life. Times have changed so drastically.
It wasn’t as bad in the GDR as people now say it used to be, claim the old people who were young after the war, went out dancing, did not suffer from hunger or worries. They looked to the future, the world was at their feet. But their voices are weak, they know they can no longer convince people, they cannot help it that the absurdity of the GDR also made their lives absurd. They are scarcely heard. Or they are immediately shoved into the group of nostalgia sufferers.
They often just keep silent. That’s better, it’s what they’re accustomed to. Make sure you aren’t noticed and you can’t be arrested for what you say.
In my mind’s eye I see the mouth of Helga Ribitzki. Sometimes no words issued from it, but her lips moved as if she were speaking. As if someone had turned off the sound when the topic became controversial. I see how Heinrich Thomas purses his lips when he thinks he has said enough. He holds an imaginary forefinger on his pursed lips. I see how Hermann Grensling jr. stiffens into a tailor’s dummy and waits until the question dies away. I see the gentle shaking of heads: we know what it’s all about, please stop now. I see the suspicious looks: why is she concerned with those old stories, our lives? How does she know all that? Why is she spying around? I occasionally see myself through their eyes and understand their misgivings: with all my questioning I resemble a Stasi spy. I feel their resistance, the reluctance. Openness never did anyone any good in these parts. Convictions always had to be swept under the carpet again after a while. I hear the words of Ursula Hornwath: Best leave it, Martha, we all shouted Heil Hitler.
Everyone lives with their own Blankow, which only partially overlaps the others. Mine consists of the collected memories of others, my own life here, and that of the dog. The dog, too, has his own Blankow. Even if he was away for years, on his return he would run his old route across the grounds scattering the cats, sniff furiously at the wood pile, lie in the willow pool and lap the water, and would know that the jetty of the Erlen lake lies at the end of the field between the row of poplars. The dog doesn’t forget that kind of thing, it is stored somewhere in his body. But it is only accessed when he is here. A dog doesn’t suffer from nostalgia I think. I listen to the news on the radio, Wissen was die Welt bewegt. There are people dying every day in the Middle East, victory was short-lived, the conflict rages on. Prisoners are tortured and killed, there is plunder and rape, people walk around with bombs strapped to their bodies. The solution seems further away than ever. The war is going on every day, not only far away but also among us. Every day people become marked, disfigured and they pass that on to their children and grandchildren. Everyone pushes his stone up the hill.
I am tired, the day draws to a close but it is not yet dark. I climb the aluminium ladder to the hayloft. A vague whiff of the marten floats by. I undress and get into the old bed between the sheets. The heat of the day still lingers between the beams. The cool evening air streams through the opening in the façade. I gaze out across the rapeseed field that has now finished flowering. The colours withdraw from the day. The desolate cry of a tawny owl pierces the air. I lie on my side and gaze out. I lie and look. It is as if I have never lain so still. The bats flash past above me, flying in and out. I lie there and have almost vanished.