Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

English translation: Helen Cafferty

It was a time of great stillness in East Germany during the spring of 89, as if nothing were moving and nothing ever would. Storms washed the Pomeranian beaches, cleansing and renewing against all odds; the sand was whisked away and carried along to other fleeting resting places. The yearly visits of migratory birds—wild swans, Swedish gray geese, cranes on their travels—were anticipated: Would the stork return to its yearly nest? But no other hopes or expectations enlivened the workers’ and peasants’ state as the summer approached. Politics were stuck and would not be unstuck. “The Wall will last a hundred years,” Honecker would say. The chief patriarch felt completely secure at the helm of the German Democratic Republic. Nothing stirred that spring—certainly not in the Baltic north and not at all in the small provincial town of Turnstedt.
Turnstedt did not look like the medieval towns in Grimms' fairy tales with turrets, towers, and winding streets. The old town center had long ago given way to the market square of a Hansa City: flat-facaded burghers' houses with shapes up top like ascending steps and graduated gables. Turnstedt's burghers had harbored modest aspirations, as could still be seen in the lace-work filigree of the brick-gothic city hall, its windows emblazoned with the coats of arms of other Hanseatic powers: Hamburg, Bremen, Lübeck, Greifswald, Wolgast, Rostock, Stralsund, Wismar. Still, the city had lost most of its Hanseatic character as well.
Far different images of their town greeted the Turnstedters that April. The areas under demolition and the eternal construction trenches made the old part of town dirty and ugly. Station Street, Stalin Street until the early sixties, and Hitler Street before that, was fringed by a dense growth of nettles, shave grass and chickweed; the project to widen it was begun more than once but never really got underway. Like so many things half-started and interrupted, it remained in a special East German kind of suspended animation. Still, there was a freshly refurbished roof of copper plate on the cathedral’s tower to contrast with the market square's slowly deteriorating Hansa facades. Visible in between on the narrow side of City Hall was a faded banner with the slogan: EVERY FIVE-YEAR PLAN, A STEP ON THE WAY TO PROSPERITY AND HAPPINESS. The ancient university was still there of course, and - a product of more recent history - the nuclear power plant twenty minutes east of Turnstedt on the coast.
There were people in Turnstedt who said: Burn and bury it all, kit and cabuddle, there's no longer any point to it. There appeared over the town's name on the yellow signs at the edge of the city two short words scratched in by an unknown hand: Here was Turnstedt. And what about the nuclear plant on the forested bank of the bay? The nuclear plant and the Turnstedt cathedral were the only construction sites in the district where anything was going on. The cathedral was being renovated from the ground up with government funds in conjunction with contributions from the West; the project managers of the nuclear plant were the engineers of the Chernobyl reactors. The rest of the city was in a state of conspicuous decay. Turnstedt, it must be emphasized, was virtually untouched by the war. The last Nazi commander had given a lot of orders, but in the end he avoided battle. He handed the city over to the advancing Russians-- with all those refugees in its schools and provisional lodgings, with the wounded soldiers in clinics and university hospitals, with the old cathedral and all the other churches. And with all its inhabitants, bludgeoned by the vagaries of war and the Nazi legacy, all those Turnstedters with their damaged souls.
The scars defacing buildings in the old city since the war, the collapsing of what is now called "infrastructure," could no longer be overlooked. The damaged souls were not yet whole when new wounds followed. There was talk in lowered voices behind cupped hands that Turnstedt was being destroyed without a battle just by sheer neglect. The widow of that deserving army commander, Colonel Petershagen, still lived in the town, a lady in dark clothes, She took a cane whenever she left her house, although she still adopted an uncompromising upright posture.
Rumor had it that Frau Petershagen had written to Berlin because of the way Turnstedt's buildings had been treated, although no one knew for sure. Once, as some told it, the state's top patriarch himself had turned up unexpectedly in Turnstedt on the way to his summer residence on the Island of Rügen. And what seemed incredible, he informed himself about the situation, took a glance at the town under circumstances of complete secrecy, and actually gave Turnstedt’s District Party leadership a hearty dressing down. Others claimed to know that her letter had never received an answer.
One interpretation does not necessarily exclude the other, but the fact remains that the crumbling of the old city went on unchanged even after the district no longer had to commit its construction workers to Berlin's 750th anniversary facelift. The physicists at the nuclear plant and those at the university had long since determined respective half-lives for the disappearance of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque; they compared their intricately calculated figures at Mardi gras balls.

During the loud and bumpy bus ride home, after the first children had already gotten out, Iris Braun met an old friend from her hometown Dresden. What are you doing here, Britta, my God! Suddenly it seemed as if all the intervening years had slid away. Iris had moved to the North with Peter when he got the offer for a position with a branch of his firm here but as far as she knew, Britta had stayed in Dresden.
The women chattered excitedly, while standing in the aisle. When the children were ready to get off the bus, Iris made sure that one by one they held on carefully, and when the bus stop came, she waved each one goodbye. Cassi joined in.
What are you doing here, my God! You look fantastic.
And what about you, Iris. Are you still typing away?
Iris nodded. Secretary and typist. And a grandmother for a long time now. She stroked Cassi’s hair.
No, Iris! That means that Jens must already be. . .
Yes, Jens is twenty-seven. He's been divorced for three years. Cassi is here often.
And you? Are you still with Peter? Iris nodded. The unexpected meeting awakened so many memories. Before, on the beach, as Cassi’s arm had gone to sleep, she had thought: it's my heart that's gone to sleep; it doesn't even prickle any longer. Only Cassi’s being with her regularly had given her a hold on things. I'm just going to take Marga back to the home, she said and nodded with her head toward the seat in the back of the bus where two questioning eyes looked over helplessly. After that we can talk, at our house. Or yours--I don't even know how long you're going to be here. Where are you staying?
The bus driver picked up speed in his attempt to pass a truck. The ride became a lot rougher and the noise reached a crescendo. Iris cast a worried glance at the last two children, who were hanging on with all their might. Britta shook her head. I'll tell you everything, just not today, she shouted. Today I've got plans.
Still the old Britta, Iris shouted back and laughed.
Wrong--the older Britta.
Is he blond or dark?
Gray, what else. I'm going to stay in Turnstedt, believe it or not. We have all the time in the world, Iris, nothing will get away from us.
Iris felt how Cassi was thrown against her leg and was clinging to her cardigan. She placed her free hand on her granddaughter's shoulder and looked at Britta. Britta Kramer. It did her good, to feel how happy the two of them were about running into each other. It was like a miracle. The face across from her was really almost unchanged; it was friendly and open, young and yes, even optimistic. Britta used make-up like she always had, perhaps it was even a bit more restrained now. Never brassy, it accentuated more than concealed: the strongly arched eyebrows, the full lips in subdued color. The long, Titian-red hair--how often Iris had combed it, at work when the boss was out of the room, at Britta's, at home before Peter got back--. It fell loosely over the narrow shoulders of her trench coat. Some people know how, Iris thought. Or they simply have it. She could not have said what she meant by it.
Suddenly the rumbling became tolerable again and Cassi stood on her own with only one hand on Iris's knitted jacket. The driver had let the bus fall back and drove slowly behind the truck. At the next stop, Britta pulled herself toward the exit. Call me, Iris, she said.
There you have it, the old Britta. Not here for a week and she's already got a phone. In a town with a telephone waiting list too long to count...
Iris had raised her voice again and was laughing with her whole being. The bus braked for the stop. Through the door, which closed with a hissing sound, Britta shouted her four-digit telephone number and waved. Iris waved back.
Who was that? Cassi asked. Iris couldn't understand her and leaned down over the little girl. Who was that? Cassi roared. Was it your friend? Iris nodded: From before. Suddenly, she was startled by her answer, but not because it came out so loudly. She had nodded in assent to all of Britta's questions: whether she was still in an office, still with Peter. That startled her.
What hopes she had had for a changed life, as they came to Turnstedt eight years ago. And that's all it had amounted to. She was simply the old Iris grown older. She could count on the fingers of one hand what she had really changed. She worked out regularly now, had stopped smoking, didn't color her hair any longer, and read regularly. But that was it; she didn't even need her whole hand. Everything else had stayed just the same as in Dresden.
Now was just like before. When would she ever finally . . .?
She didn't come to the end of this thought. Cassi was pulling on her cardigan and pointing with her other hand toward the front of the bus. The bus driver, a young man with dark hair and broad shoulders, the uniform of his jacket hanging open, was standing in the middle of the empty aisle. In his hands he held his open lunch box; the smell of a liverwurst sandwich reached her.
This is the end of the line, ma’am, he said politely. The way he said it made it sound like "Grandma."
Iris went back to Marga. I thought you had forgotten me, the old woman said softly. Iris gave her an arm: Forget?–Now what does that mean, Marga? and forced a smile. Cassi, you take Auntie Marga's other hand.
Stopping by the old age home took five minutes. Iris was still occupied with her thoughts when they got back to the street. She held Cassi’s little hand tightly. She had never really been at home here; she felt it intensely now. What was it, anyway? Suddenly everything bothered her: The monotonous, run-down housing projects and their pathetic facades with peeling layers of colored plaster, the overflowing waste cans, every other one lying overturned on the ground, even though they were made out of heavy concrete, the broken panes in the first floor windows by the entrance to her stairwell --that's where the clubroom of the housing association used to be--My God, they had lived in the same kind of post-war housing project in Dresden, it couldn't be that. The five-floor apartment houses were practically interchangeable, the type of apartments--hall with kitchen and bath on one side, a child-size bedroom, and then on the other side, living-room and regular bedroom--the standard apartment for a mid-size family-- and their housing project in Dresden had been in the same lousy condition. But she had felt lucky to avoid the hopeless disrepair of older prewar buildings and the even greater monotony of the higher twelve-story projects that came later. So what was it that was getting her down and why now? She had not wasted a moment during the last years on thinking about how nothing had changed after their move, despite the great distance from Dresden, despite the different people up here with their abrupt, hard-to-understand dialect, if they ever did get their mouths open and that was seldom enough.
Perhaps it was this drifting thoughtlessness for all those years that suddenly oppressed her. No. Her thoughts stumbled, but then it came back to her with sudden clarity: she -- she had remained the same, that was the important thing.
The light was on in the hall. Cassi stormed ahead, peeked mischievously around the door to the living room and called: Hello, Grandfather!
So, there's our birthday girl, Iris heard Peter's voice. Go ahead into your room, there's still some cake, she told Cassi. We can light the candles one more time, if we're careful.
But first go to the bathroom, off you go. Then she stood in the hall before the mirror. You can't imagine who I just met in the bus, she said softly, as if to herself. But of course the question was also meant for Peter; from the living room came a short mumble as an answer. All right, if that's the way you want it, Iris thought. There had been times when she would have asked: Bad day at work again? But even that was over now. Or would you ask him? She silently asked the woman who looked out at her from the mirror. That woman shook her head slowly; Iris suppressed a giggle. All at once she saw the wrinkles, the messy graying hair, the puffiness under her eyes. She raised her hands and pushed the short hair away from both sides of her forehead.
It may be that his mumbled answers are no worse than my not being able to ask, she thought. All that may be. They might even be better against stomach ulcers and heart attacks. Granted. That may be. She spread her narrow lips into a grimace. Her arms were hanging again at her sides. But is there no end to the chalking up of points and this eternal I'm better/You're better? She lifted her shoulders forcefully and then let them drop again immediately. Suddenly, she didn't just see her image in the mirror but recognized all the questions that had assailed her on the street and the answer to them. She had stayed the same, the same, the same: she had not changed and she hadn't even cared, she was so used to sameness. But no more.
Something, she whispered to herself, has to happen immediately. Otherwise you'll go crazy. Panic began to rise. You know well enough that traps are everywhere. You don't need to stumble into them. And you don't have to float like a dead piece of wood. But if you don't do anything and just keep swimming like you have been to this point, if you keep letting yourself be driven along, if you keep going along with the current, if you offer no resistance, you will go under.
Then Iris felt a great calm. She was surprised that it had come so suddenly, but she was also glad. Quietly, she laid her hands along both sides of the mirror's polished frame. It has always been hanging in the same place, something spoke very softly inside her, always here in the same place in the hall, even in the Dresden apartment. It was like an echo of her thoughts and feelings; it came from somewhere deep within. She closed her fingers tighter and lifted the mirror until she could sense that the frame had separated from the bolts anchoring it. With a last glance at the image of her face straining with effort, she turned toward the kitchen door and let the mirror go with all her strength; she hurled her image there, the things oppressing her, her helplessness, her fears, as far away as possible.

Otto Emersleben