a journal of modern society & culture

Pollen and Diamonds

Elizy, dear. I can’t carry you any longer. You’ve gotten too heavy. Come, be a good girl and take a few steps on your own.

Maria-Maria heard this one day as she stared at the screen of her lap top, regained control of the cursor and clicked on the earth and steered her way to a big city.

Where am I? She asked herself. This is so strange!

Maria-Maria approached this city with great speed. Fist she saw the silhouettes of the houses. Then everything grew foggy. She couldn’t recognize anything. Where am I? A subtle feeling of discomfort came over her. No, I’m not afraid. Why should I be afraid? Maria-Maria had already done the sight-seeing tour. Visited theGrand Canyon,Niagara Fallsand the Colorado River. The Imperial Palace  inTokyo. She had already been to Bucharest, in the largest building in the world after the Pentagon. She’d been on the roof of Dracula’s castle. She had visited the castle in the Carpathians, that Jules Verne had described. And she had already looked at the Cafes in Paris, in which Hemingway had written some of his stories. She’s climbed the Eiffel Tower and admired the glass pyramid at the Louvre. She still wanted to see the Berlin Reichstag from above and New Delhi as well. And much more. Where have I landed? Am I even on earth? And why doesn’t Google show me the name of this city?

Elizy, dear, pull up your socks. Don’t be a slob…and pick up your feet when you walk. Good Lord, child, don’t be that way, and stop crying. We’ll be there in no time! –she heard again.

She wanted to come up again with the help of her cursor. But something unusual happened as she navigated. It was as if someone was steering against her. All of a sudden, the view became clearer. She saw a pair of mud-splattered children’s shoes. The laces of the left shoe drooped into the plaster and soaked up the water in a small puddle. Large drops dripped into the puddle and poured dirt onto the child’s snow-white socks.

The shoes belonged to a chubby little girl, still unable to get a balanced  stance on her feet. Oh, that must be Elizy, Maria-Maria surmised.

Elizy pointing to her socks, cries heartrendingly. And the woman who stood next to her loses her patience.

A newspaper page flies by and lands on the ground. The little girl steps on it and won’t budge from  it. As though she were drawn to the piece of paper. As though she felt safer on this piece of paper. Come, Elizy, dear. Come, move away from there. Let’s go, quickly. Otherwise, we’ll get soaking wet. I want to read what’s on there, Mama. Come on, my little one, don’t talk any nonsense. You don’t even know how to read yet! Tell me, Mama, what does it say on there? Katalyn tears the kid away and distances herself from the paper. The rain beats down on the page with great force. The paper was soaked and the it was torn by a gush of water. Katlyn can still make out a few words on it. The Wiener Allgemeine. The page is stuck to the sewer manhole (Was she looking for a headline?)

Katalyn carries the suitcases hurrying and dragging Elizy with her. Elizy’s holding on to Katalyn’s skirt.

The storm has scared the people away. There is no one to be seen on the streets. Elizy and Katalyn have suddenly disappeared. Maria-Maria hears a crack, as if thunder had struck somewhere near her. And in the distance she hears the knell of a bell. Ding-dong. Ding-dong!

Maria-Maria hears the bells and looks toward the church.

At once she realized, that someone was ringing the doorbell to her apartment.

I’m coming Roswitha! Just be patient, yelled Maria-Maria somewhat agitated. I’ll be right there!

Roswitha lives in the same house as Maria-Maria and is unemployed. Whenever she goes grocery shopping, she shops for Maria-Maria as well. Today she’d planned on having fish with vegetables. She’s planning on sharing some of the fish with her tomcat. What about fruit? Yes fruit too. A large wedge of watermelon and a couple of bananas. Maria-Maria stood up somewhat hastily, switched her computer on stand-by and  looked for her crutch. Carefully, she hopped toward the door. Appalled, she wanted to slam it. I’m not buying anything, she yelled. I have enough insurance policies. I don’t need a vacuum cleaner. And I donate elsewhere! The man would not give up: But Maria-Maria, we have plans! I have important news for you. Didn’t you get my letter?

 

The fog broke up slowly and the view cleared up. It wasn’t fog. It was smoke that was ascending from a table in the corner. Elizy was nowhere to be seen. Instead there was a group of men engaging in a boisterous discussion. One man banged his fist on the table and shouted: that’s how art gets driven into its grave. That’s the way to demolish literature, my dear gentlemen! He was agitated and his gestures did not fit his appearance, which was somewhat severe. And his colorless face. We have to respond, Peter. I will found a journal. A fervid reaction against this nonsense. The man called Peter seemed to listen with divided attention. He seemed to be thinking about something much  more important, looking over the shoulder of his conversation partner into the distance. The buzz of voices in the café was mixed with sounds, the sounded like rain. The rain that prattled against the window panes. Damn it Peter, you are incorrigible. Could you listen to me for 5 minutes!

Sh…sh…shhhh. Don’t shout. Do you see the little girl over there? The one with her mother. She has the Beethoven- look.

I have to photograph her. She belongs in my collection. Good Evening, Herr Loos, was heard in the background. Do you still miss Griensteidl? Or have you begun to like it here in our parts. This too is a good place for literati. There was mail for you today. The man called Loos joined the other two men that were seated there. Will it be the usual? Asked the waiter. White coffee, as always. The newspaper. And please don’t forget my mail. Karl, are you still hoping to change Peter? That’s no longer possible in this lifetime. Gentlemen, have you heard the latest joke about….

Loos took his handkerchief and wiped the dampness off of his face.

It’s raining  buckets and I couldn’t get a cab. Sometimes Vienna can really get to one.

The waiter came with the tray. Next to the coffee and a glass of water lay two missives. Addressed to Herr Loos – Café Central –Herrengasse. On the table awaited him also the Freie Wiener newspaper. This is yesterday’s paper, waiter. Today is the 25th. The 25th of March, 1905. On this special day, gentlemen…as he clasped  his white coffee.

(There was an inspection of the letters about details of how they talked to one another and how they behaved. A description of the three, Peter Altenberg, Karl Kraus and Adolf Loos. Next to Peter and the wan, tempermental young man with the spectacles appeared a tall…)

 

A small child was rocking on unsteady legs at the table in the corner. Elizy! Elizy, my darling, come back here immediately. The rain has stopped. We can keep going. The waiter brought her the two large suitcases and an umbrella. Madame, I can call you a cab.

The lady disappeared. At once, the screen turned into a drippy window pane.

During dinner, the computer had been left on stand-by. After dinner Maria-Maria had wanted to finish going through her mail. Now she stood there without knowing how she would put everything in order. She had been to Vienna—at least if she were to believe everything she’d heard, that is to say, what she was allowed to witness, since she was in Vienna on the 25th of March, 1905. At the same time while being in Leipziger Strasse. In her kitchen. In her apartment on the 13th floor on March 25th, 2005. I’ve only broken  my leg, she thought to herself. My head should be in good shape.

The day was very eventful. She did not leave her apartment, but the world had come home to her. The last remains of the fish that Roswitha had  brought her still lay in the cat’s dish. The business card that Herr Siementhal-Grotwski had left behind lay on the table. Does this bank even exist, Maria-Maria asked  herself. Or am I dreaming in a dream that one has in a dream?

Maria-Maria noticed the cigarette smoke in the kitchen. The lap top lay on the kitchen table. She dared not go near it. She sensed the tobacco smoke in the kitchen. Her guest had had a cigar. But he hadn’t smoked it. The smoke seemed to become more intense. As though it were wafting out of the computer screen. A shudder moved up her spine. She did not want to admit to herself that it smelled like mocha as well. Like fresh brewed mocha. Coffee. Café Central?

Central. Of course she still remembers! That’s the café’ in Vienna, where you can see a  paper-mâché figure sitting up on a chair. What was it called again? This peculiar writer, who lived in the hotel. And had upholstered  his room with photos of women and girls. He wrote short sentences. Telegraphic sentences, as they were referred to at the time. He was a friend of Karl Kraus and Feliz Salten. And Adolf Loos.

She asked herself whether living alone could have such consequences. Whether she was hallucinating. Whether it was time to call for her friends? To ask Roswitha to come upstairs? Or to consign herself to her doctor? Where are my crutches?

They stood in the same place. The tomcat slithered by her healthy leg. Just don’t trip! She stood up and went to the bathroom.

When she came back, she heard the child crying. Mama, asked the child. When are we finally going to arrive. Mama. I’m hungry! Maria-Maria hurried as fast as she could to the computer and pulled the plug out of the socket. Her heart was thumping and she went to bed without brushing her teeth. She didn’t even undress. Tensed up, she lay herself down. She began to shake. Then pulled the covers over her head and tried to fall asleep.

 

A few days went by until Maria-Maria mustered up enough courage to turn on her computer. It was in the afternoon. After her visit to the physical therapist. She was burning with curiosity and at the same time she was fearful too. I have to finish sifting through the mail. Then I’ll decide. Katalyn is there again. This thought swirled around in her head. And she asked herself, whether she would also be able to later find out, where Katalyn would be. And as she turned on the computer, and clicked on Google (Time), a woman, whom she did not yet know, appeared on the screen.

The woman stood in the kitchen in front of a long, smooth wooden table and was cutting something into small pieces on a wooden cutting board. She spoke, upon  being clearly  summoned, to someone that was not visible. Maria-Maria could have sworn that she had already seen a kitchen similar to that.

Must you only bring disgrace to our family! Why do you want to work in Vienna? Among strangers. And if it’s only about work for you, then  you’ve got plenty of that here. In your own house. With your own children. Or in father’s shop. And why in God’s name do you want to leave here to go to Vienna. To study! Your head is full of nonsense!

Even father doesn’t know which end is up with you! Yesterday I had to really pity him. I gave her everything, he said to me in despair. I tolerated everything. And I gave her everything. Because you  had no mother.

Everything you wanted, you got. Even Franzerl. Now it’s time for you to be reasonable and marry a bright and decent man. One who can provide for you and your daughters. Be reasonable for once and marry the university lecturer, Goldmann. You have three children, you’re no longer a young girl and it’s your duty to take care of them.

The woman at the table did not get a reply and became more agitated. Now it’s no longer about you. Father is not strict enough with you. You wrap him around your finger and he allows you to do whatever you want with him. I always had to obey. But you, he loves you above all else. And you make a fool of him. Now you want to stick him with two children. Has father not provided for us long enough?  Your mother. Yes, my mother too, she deserted you. And left him with the entire burden.

And the woman that was spoken to, and had not yet shown herself on the screen, appeared now next to the woman on the screen and asked: Anna, would you have said the same about father, if he had died? Must you always be different? Damn it Katalyn, you really think you’re better than everyone else. I won’t be able to leave father alone with the children. You know that. You leave me no choice. Now I have to also take care of your children. Have I not done enough for you? I’ve been like a mother to you. I had no time to be young. And in love. Like you. I married the first best suitor, who wanted to marry me. So that I would not be a burden to father.

You decided that for yourself, Katalyn told her. Father never complained that it was too much for him. He was happy with us and didn’t want you  to leave. You imagined that all yourself.

Anna was chopping onions. With the knife in her hand. And in her rage, she threw the knife on the kitchen table. The knife was high up and fell into a plate. The plate broke. Terrified, Katalyn went to grab it. She grasped the shards.

Wait, I didn’t mean it like that. Please, Katalyn! I’m sorry. Katalyn’s eyes were filled with tears. Give me your hand. Anna quickly looked for a clean kitchen towel and wrapped it around her hand. The cotton fibers were gorged with red.

I love you my little sister. My child. Then she became filled with anger again. Somehow you always manage to do that. To always give me a bad conscious.

Again and again, Anna said. Again and again I have a bad conscious, when I finally say, what I’m thinking. When I refuse to do, what one expects of me. And in the end, I do it anyway. You, on the other hand, you only do what you want. You never do what one expects of you. You are like mother. You never sacrifice yourself for anyone. Not even for your daughters. That’s why Franzerl left you. You can’t make a fool out of me. He left you. He’s not dead. Father knows it too. Everyone knows it. Except no one will say it. Father doesn’t say anything either. Because he knows, it has no purpose. You only do, what goes through your head. Father says nothing to you. That worries me. It causes me to worry about your daughters. What will come of them, with such a mother!

Katalyn’s face hardened for an instant, then she said: Anna, my dear. You don’t understand me. And I don’t understand you either. It’s as if we weren’t sisters. How can you speak of mother so. I love you Anna, but don’t speak about mother like that again. You didn’t understand her either.

Then everything disappeared from the screen and nothing but a black surface could be seen. Maria-Maria was left a feeling of discontentment. But Katalyn was gone. And that remained so for the rest of the day.

 

It had already been a few days since Katalyn had been in Vienna with Elizy and she still could not believe it. She had some money and happiness too. The small apartment on the top floor in the Herrengasse, not far from Café Central, had just been vacated and she moved in immediately. Elizy was healthy and  Katalyn was able to look around and plan  her next steps. She wanted  to study with Professor Schauta. You want to become a gynecologist, he’d told her on the same day. We’ll have to see if you have what it takes. It’s a hard profession. Until now, I’ve only met men who have the endurance for it. Why is it not enough for you to become a midwife? Why don’t you want to become a pediatrician? Or a throat, nose and ear specialist? Why don’t you simply marry a doctor?

Should  I answer all of your questions at once. Or only the most important one?, Katalyn replied. Only the most important one. And it will be the one on which I shall soon test you .

My good God, I’m inVienna, Katalyn said to herself. And I’m determined to realize my dream. But today, she’d had a long day. And besides, her heart was heavy today. She noticed how a dark cloud had spread out over her and threatened to swallow her. She could barely breathe. With every deep breath, she grew ever more sad and a feeling of loss crept over her.

Elizy played with her horse in the room next door. She’d seen the horse the day before in a showcase and had yearned to have it. A horse, my dear goodness, no doll, but a horse. It was ornamented, like a Hungarian Hussar horse and Katalyn thought about Franzerl. She remembered the first day she’d met him. On the day, that he appeared on a white horse, in his embroidered Hussar uniform. And she lay in the grass and opened her eyes. And bent over her head was the one she’d later call, Franzerl-my heart. Franz-Ferdinand Fikar, a Hussar in the volunteer Husar regiment Number 13.The man that she’d chosen for the rest of her life.

I could have been grateful to Franzerl. Perhaps he wouldn’t have left and I wouldn’t have been in Vienna now. And what would I have done if I had never known Franzerl? Then there would have been no Marischka, no Aurora-Amalia. She looked at Elizy. And I probably would have had it a bit easier in Vienna now without Elizy, she thought.

Without Elizy? A life without Elizy. I can’t even imagine that. Dear God, please don’t punish me for my thoughts. Then my thoughts have no end: What would have become of me if my mother had not died at the time of my birth? If Anna had  not married? If father had remarried? If I had been born in another family? In another country? Would I have ever met Franzerl?

Katalyn looked at Elizy. She felt something. A feeling. As though her heart were creating more room. As though this room  were becoming filled with waves of warmth. With flutters and trembling. And swinging. With infinity. With hurt and nostalgia. And happiness. Something that was so vast, manifold and luminous, that she couldn’t capture in words. Except for those of others.

A life without Franzerl.

Perhaps she would have been better off if she’d stayed with father? Or if she’d married Aurel after all? So many questions spun around in her head.

Would she have been able to stay with Franzerl her whole life through? Happily? Or unhappily? Would she have been able to follow him to the place where he wanted to start a new life? Would she have gone with him to New York, if he’d asked her from the onset? Would she have really gone? Would she have trusted Franzerl enough, in order to put her life in his hands? To rely on him completely? And would Franzerl had even left her, if she’d trusted him that much?

Katalyn was not the type of woman that wanted to depend on anyone. Today she was sure of that. Perhaps it was for the best. Otherwise I would be like my sister, who waits for others to decide her due. She waits to see what’s left for her. I don’t want mere crumbs. I want the whole cake. I want the Sachertorte. And I want to get it myself.

Elizy was tired and cranky. She wanted to sleep with the horse. That won’t be, Katalyn  told her. Let it sleep in the corner with the dolls. And I’ll tell you a fairy tale. A real story. All of a sudden, Elizy’s eyes shone bright. Katalyn pointed to the book on her night table. Would you like me to tell you about how an Englishman went around the world with his servants in 80 days? And the man who wrote it just died. The Englishman’s name was Phileas Fogg. A strange man with neither wishes nor dreams. And one day, out of the blue, he wanted to travel around the world and prove that the earth has gotten smaller. Because one can  travel around it faster nowadays.  Katalyn doesn’t get very far with the story. Phileas Fogg had barely boarded the train toDoverto start his trip, when Elizy fell asleep. Her little fist loosened her grip around Katalyns hand and she started to suck on her thumb.

Katalyn extinguished the light. She would have preferred to remain in bed next to her. To hold her tight and to fall asleep with her. But she still had a great deal to do. For her the day is just beginning. For reading and above all for studying. In order to give Professor H the right answers. And to be admitted at university. She wants to be like Dora Teleki. There aren’t many women that dare to enter the world of men. There aren’t that many women who believe that it is not only their right, but that they also have the strength and the abilities to be in that world. She wants to establish herself as a gynecologist in her hometown. She wants to open a clinic. She wants to specialize in women with difficult deliveries. She wants to cure them of their illnesses. So that no child will be motherless. And no woman will die at childbirth.

Is that too much to ask? Is that even attainable for her? To become a midwife would be enough. Don’t exaggerate, Katalyn, Aurel had said to her, as he came back from Berlin for semester break. It isn’t necessary for you to be like a man. You could become my assistant one day. That way we could always be together.

But Katalyn doesn’t always want to be with someone. Sometimes she just wants to be. For herself. And since Aurel said that, she’d never regretted not marrying him.

 

This is an excerpt from Carmen Francesca Banciu’s forthcoming novel, Pollen and Diamonds and is translated from the German by Elena Mancini.

 

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