Authors: Antonia Michaelis
She knew that her mother was home only because she heard the key being turned in the lock, very gently. Linda was a gentle person, a quiet person; you could easily overlook her, and she was often overlooked. She was an assistant professor at the university, where she taught literature. She was neither very popular with her students nor very unpopular; they hardly noticed her. They went to her lectures and later only remembered her words, not who had
spoken them. Maybe that was the best and purest kind of a lecture. Or the worst.
Linda walked up behind Anna without a sound. But Anna felt her silent, unobtrusive presence. She thought of Abel’s words: “If you have known someone your whole life, you can see them in the dark.” She smiled involuntarily.
“You’re thinking about something,” Linda said.
Anna nodded. “I’m always thinking about something.”
For a while, they just stood there looking out into the small world of the garden, where a robin was hopping around under the rosebush and pecking at the seeds Anna’s father put there for the birds. Magnus loved the birds. Maybe as much as he loved his daughter and his gentle, quiet wife. It was easier for him, Anna thought, to talk to the birds, though. They didn’t think about things too much or try to be invisible … He would stay in the garden all day if he could. Just to watch the birds.
“Lately I seem to be thinking about everything at the same time,” Anna said. “Just now, I thought about Papa and his robins. And about you … and me … it sounds silly, but it isn’t. We … we live in a world in which only we exist and … other people live in a different world … but ours … it’s so … I don’t know … pretty? Maybe too pretty.”
“Too … pretty,” Linda repeated, confused.
“Do you realize that the light inside this house is always blue?” Anna asked. “It’s as if there’s a filter—maybe the garden—and when the light passes through the filter, it turns soft and blue before it gets into the house. Or maybe the filter is you … or Papa …” She turned and looked at her mother and saw that Linda didn’t understand. “Have you ever been to the elementary school in the
Seaside District, behind the pasture, near the Netto market? Next to all those concrete tower blocks?”
Linda shook her head. “No, never. Why? I know which school you’re talking about, though. I’ve seen it many times; I’ve driven past it on Wolgaster Street …”
“Exactly.” Anna nodded. “That’s what I mean. You drive past it. You look at it and think: my, what an ugly block; it should be torn down, like all these blocks should, and then you drive on and forget all about it because in our pretty blue world with the robins and the rosebush that school doesn’t exist. But it does. All the concrete blocks do, as do the people living in them and …” She fell silent. She couldn’t find the right words. Abel had more words in his head, better words—how astonishing that it was Abel Tannatek who had the right words.
“When you got to know Papa,” she said, “what was the first thing you thought? The very first thing?”
Linda thought about it for a moment. “It was at a dance for the medical students,” she said. “At the end of college. You know the story. Someone had dragged me along; I had even bought a new dress. The dance was horrible. It was noisy; it was full of cigarette smoke—those were the days when you were allowed to smoke just about everywhere … you couldn’t see anything, really, because of all the smoke. The first thing I thought about your father was that he noticed me. Even with all those people and all that smoke, even though nobody ever notices me … he came toward me, a big, slightly too-broad-shouldered man whom I had never seen before … and he said he didn’t know how to dance and asked if I would like to ‘not dance’ with him.” Her gaze slipped into the past, her gray eyes sliding behind a golden veil, and Anna nodded. But inside, she
shook her head. All of this was of little use. A new dress. A dance for the medical students. Linda and Magnus had been living in the same world from the very start.
All weekend long, Anna’s thoughts circled back to the blood-red sea and the ship with black sails. The frost on the trees outside looked like a gown made from the feathers of the birds that talked to little girls about the mainland, and the shadows of the bushes in the evening resembled the waves of an endless sea. To distract herself, Anna practiced her flute more than usual, but the flute had a strange new sound to it. She couldn’t say if she liked it or if it made her afraid.
On Monday morning, she suffered through two long hours of history class in a suffocating, lightless room in the school’s basement, in which Abel Tannatek should have been sitting, too, at the very back of the room, where he would have been asleep … had he been there. But he wasn’t there. Anna wondered if something was wrong with Micha. She whispered an invented story to Gitta about a student she had met in the dining hall, and Gitta seemed to believe her. “There’s just one thing,” she said, “that I don’t quite get. Why were you at the dining hall all by yourself?”
Anna nearly lied. “I was waiting for you.” But then she put her fingers to her lips and gestured toward their indignant history teacher, who treated her students like little kids who would not get cookies at break if they kept whispering.
Abel turned up later, during lit class, looking like he hadn’t slept much the night before. He put his head on his arms and fell asleep instantly; Mr. Knaake noticed but didn’t say anything. In fact, he never said anything to Abel, as if they had an unspoken agreement
not to disturb each other. They hadn’t exchanged a word for a year and a half. Anna wondered why Abel showed up for this class just to sleep, but maybe he craved the words, maybe the readings and discussion found their way into his head while he slept … Only toward the end of class did it occur to her that he was safe here, without anyone to bother him or anyone to look after. When the bell rang, Abel woke. He didn’t once look at Anna.
He stayed back after class, as if waiting for something. Anna took her time in the hallway outside the room, pretending to look for something in her backpack and then untangling a jacket sleeve that hadn’t been tangled in the first place. But Abel didn’t come out. Then she heard his voice inside the classroom, talking to Knaake. So did their mutually agreed silence apply only in class?
“No,” Abel said. “No way.”
“You could pay me back later,” the deeper voice of Knaake said.
“I don’t wanna be like that,” Abel replied. “My mother did … does things like that, and I’m not going to. Do you understand? I just want your help, not your money. If you could help me find a job … anything. You know people … people at the university … maybe … I can do something there … in the evenings … anything that starts after seven.”
“After seven?” Knaake asked. “What’s that about?”
“That’s my business,” Abel answered, and Anna thought, at seven little girls go to bed.
“You’re working nights already,” Knaake said. “That’s why you’re sleeping in class. It’s okay with me; you can go ahead and sleep. It’s fine. But it won’t work with the other teachers. And somehow, you’ve got to get the grades you need in your other classes. You can’t make up for everything by doing well in literature.”
“I know,” Abel replied. “That’s why I want to stop working nights and in the evenings instead. At the university … aren’t there assistant jobs a student can do? Like … paperwork … copying things … you can do that in the evening …”
“For those kinds of job, you have to be enrolled.”
“I do have a student ID.”
“I didn’t hear that,” Knaake said. “All right, I’ll ask around. I promise. But I can’t do more than ask. You need to be more flexible. It would be a lot easier to find something in the afternoons.” The voices were moving toward the door now, so Anna bent over her backpack again. “I know,” she heard Abel say. “If it was possible to work afternoons, I’d have …” He fell silent.
“Anna!” Knaake stroked his graying beard in surprise. He looked a bit like an aging walrus in a knitted sweater. “What are you still doing here?”
“I wanted to … to discuss the reading list with you,” Anna lied. “I …” She talked about the reading list for almost fifteen minutes, about which books she might not need to read for the final exams and those she absolutely had to read. As she spoke, she didn’t even listen to herself; she didn’t care which books she’d read or not before the final exams. There was only one story that really interested her. And it was a fairy tale.
And it wasn’t on any list.
During lunch break, it began to snow. It snowed in soft, heavy flakes that fell for a while before anybody noticed them. The sky was full of white snow clouds that pushed cold air down onto the city. Anna sat on the radiator in the student lounge, her hands wrapped around a paper cup full of coffee, trying to warm up. Behind her,
the majority of the French class was desperately cramming for a test at two thirty—one of the last before the end of the semester, and before final exams. An oppressive silence filled the room.
Life seemed to consist of collecting points, points that were tallied into your final grade, like dollar bills in a strange game of Monopoly. Anna imagined the points, like snowflakes, falling gently, slowly—yet still so hard to catch.
Out the window, she caught sight of someone padding through the new snow, someone in a military parka and a black knit cap. It was Abel walking over to his bike. Abel took French, just like Gitta. Anna took music instead.. She glanced at her watch. It was two minutes past two. Abel unlocked his bicycle. She put the paper cup down, grabbed her backpack, and slid into her jacket. In seconds she was outside. The snow was slippery under her feet. Nevertheless, she started running.
When she reached him, he was already sitting on his bike and shaking the earplugs of his old Walkman out to untangle the wires—she wanted to snatch those damn earplugs out of his hands. “Where …” She had to catch her breath after running. “Where … are you planning to go?”
Abel looked at her. “That’s my business.”
“Sure, right,” Anna said, angry. “Everything is your business. But you’re supposed to be taking a French test in fifteen minutes.” She narrowed her eyes. “Are you running away? From the test?”
“Crap,” he said, putting the earplugs into his ears, laying his hands on the handlebars of his bike.
“If you don’t take this test, you’ll get a zero, and you know it.”
“Have you ever thought that maybe there are more important things in life than a checkmark next to your name?”
“Yes,” Anna said. “A smiley face. But …”
He grinned, though she saw he didn’t mean to. “A smiley face, huh.”
“What’s the matter?”
He took his hands from the handlebars. “I’m not running away from the test. I’ll be back. I’ll be late, but I’ll come back. I’ll take half of it.”
“What’s the matter?”
“Micha,” Abel said. “She forgot her key. I just realized it. I found it in my backpack. She put it in there or it just found its way in somehow. She usually walks home from school by herself. I don’t want her to wait outside all afternoon … people have seen her father around lately, and I don’t want … do you understand? And now just forget about it. Tell that friend of yours that I’m sick.”
Anna put out her hand. “I’m not telling ‘that friend of mine’ anything. Give me the key.”
“Give me the key. I’ll go. I’ll only miss a regular music class. No test.”
He laughed, shaking his head. “Anna Leemann, do you really think I would give you the key to our place?”
“I believe,” she said, “that you’ve got seven minutes before the French test starts. And that you need all the time you can get to pass it. I don’t eat little children. Or at least, not often. Give me the key.”
It wouldn’t work. He’d just tell her that she was completely crazy. Of course, he would. She knew it. He said, “You’re completely crazy.” Then he got off his bike.
“Six minutes until the test,” Anna said. “Run.”
Abel gave her the ring with the key. She closed her fingers around it.
“Take my bike. Do you know the Aldi supermarket in the Seaside District? We live on Amundsen Street. It’s just behind it. Number 18. The entrance is in a huge backyard; you have to walk between the concrete blocks, behind the parking lot.”
“I think I can manage to read the numbers on the doors.” Anna smiled. “Which school does she go to?” she asked slyly. “I mean … what if she realized she hasn’t got the key and is waiting at school, because she thinks maybe you’ll come get her or …”
He frowned. “Maybe you’re right. You know that school near the old stadium? Behind the Netto market? You have to make the turn across from the gas station on Wolgaster Street. She’ll be somewhere between her school and number 18 Amundsen Street. Just give her the key; she’ll manage the rest by herself.”
“Hurry up,” Anna said. She saw him walk across the white layer of snow that had fallen on the schoolyard. When she was already perched on the too-high seat of his bike, he turned. He shouted something she didn’t understand. Maybe it was “Thank you.”
Neither Anna nor Abel saw Bertil. He was standing at the window of the student lounge, watching them.
Anna went to Micha’s school first. She wondered how she’d explain her absence from music class. Magnus would write something for her. I mean, he was a doctor, wasn’t he? But how would she explain to Magnus why she had to miss class?
The supermarket parking lot and the elementary school looked different in the snow—cleaner, friendlier, and more peaceful somehow. A lot of small children were running around in the
schoolyard, throwing snowballs at each other. Nobody was in a hurry to go home. Anna looked around, searching for a pink down jacket with an artificial fur collar, but she didn’t see one. She spotted a young woman with curly blond hair, who looked as if she might be a teacher, and made her way toward her, through the screaming, laughing, snowball-throwing children in their bright-colored winter clothes.
“Excuse me,” she began. “I’m looking for Micha … Micha Tannatek. Her brother sent me to pick her up. She forgot her key.”
“Oh, Micha,” the young woman said. “Yeah, Micha’s in my class. Does she have to walk home alone?”