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The Crackling

by Karin S. Heigl

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3
original: “Das Knistern

part 2

Thus began my life as a healer’s assistant. He was a travelling apothecary and provided landlords and farmers with healing and medicines. This lasted for months, a year, maybe two, I don’t know exactly. With his horse cart we travelled the lands that had once been my home, before it was taken from me, before I forgot its name.

One day we came into a township, I believe its name was Gnadenthau at the time, I remember that the name seemed quite unusual to me, even in those days. And because the man had shown me so much mercy and dignity there — one moment, please... I have to pull myself together — what happened there... what had happened before that I only remembered many years later. I will come to that.

All the drugs and potions he brought with him. His cart was made of crackling wood, and his horse smelled the way only horses can smell. I was comfortable there. Those were good months. I also met a boy; we were fond of each other. His name I have forgotten.

Then the war returned to us. It had always been brimming around us, humming above our heads, but now it chewed its way through the thin cover I had so dearly managed to gather and injected its coldness underneath my skin. Again, uniformed men came, they came to Teemu and beat and threatened him, but he said nothing.

As they beat him, he was very calm and it was terrible, for I saw my brother once again before me, and I wanted to scream, to run over there and beat the soldiers, to protect him, to give myself away, but I heard by the resonance of their beating and the tone of their voices, even though I still did not understand a word, that they were unsatisfied, possibly because he said nothing but also because they were satisfied, possibly because he was docile, and that gave them a cruel joy.

No matter what I did... if they discovered me, it would end badly for him.

I stood behind the cart while the shadows grew longer. I shuddered and pulled the shawl tighter around myself. The woollen gloves were itching. And as the last sun ray hit me and made me see the red behind my eyelids, I made the decision.

In fact I had made it long before, it had found its way out of the deep cracks and crevasses only now. The air was crisp and I let it flow into my lungs. I felt heavy and very old. Much older than I am now. Never again have I felt as old as at that moment. Already my limbs were starting to grow heavy, now that I think of it... I have not gotten rid of it.

It was time.

I crept away. I felt weak and cowardly. On the other hand, it was the best thing I could do for him. They would find nothing. As I slid in between the birch trees I heard the soldiers rummaging in the cart, throw out and scattering everything on the ground.

They would find nothing.

I turned around. Cold wind streamed up the slope. It brushed alongside my body, a half-tamed being in search of something. Meanwhile a grim joy rose within me, a being too, but willful... strong... purposeful. I was amazed.

That very instant I felt the boundaries between me and the world as clearly as I have never before and never after. Outside it was cold. Inside it blazed. Both were strong powers, but they did not understand each other. I did not understand them. I took a long time to understand them.

The evening wind soon lost interest in me, brushed past the birch trees into the woods and meadows, vanished into the veils of mist rising out of the silent streams.

I turned away. As long as I was gone, they would find nothing. The malicious glee led me away in between the birch trunks and through light groves, along hedges and river banks. It carried me safely and powerfully to his house, to the boy I thought I loved. At the time, I knew in my heart I could count on him.

* * *

He opened quickly and took me with him up to his lodging. He packed silently and did not look at me. His movements were calm and determined. No hesitation, no doubt in them. In that instant he assured me.

We left the house, walked very quickly. I only had the clothes I wore and the bundle I had always carried with me for such occasions. I had carried it for a long time, without really noticing.

We hid. Where, I don’t know anymore, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Teemu found us once again.

He came, battered and bruised, but he came, and his wrinkles laughed when he saw me. I felt endlessly heavy. I walked over to him, reached up, took his face into my hands. He stood akwardly, as if a rib had been broken. He smiled a crooked smile. He laid his hands, his big, dry, beloved hands on mine and looked silently into my eyes; my throat was thick and did not let a word escape.

I put all my love, my thanks, all warmth left to me into my eyes and hands as I pressed myself to his chest. It was not much, but it was enough. I was allowed to say goodbye to him once again. I felt his heart beat against my temples, and a vast and light warmth spread through my chest. It, too, has never again left me even though I took long, so unspeakably long, to recognize it. He had shown me kindness. He had shown me love. He had saved me.

I knew I would not see him again.

He looked down to me, took my head in between his hands and squeezed a kiss onto my forehead that glows there until today. Then he let me go, to an unknown fate, and the boy and I left the hideout.

We started to walk. I looked back as often as I could. Teemu looked shrunken and furrowed, but, to me, he radiated all the warmth of this world, and I loved him. But still other things happened.

As we had left the fruit trees behind and were walking up the gentle slope, everything had become very small. I knew he was standing down there and watching us walk away.

Between the birch trees I could not go on any longer. Everything that had become jammed within me cracked open with raw force, threw me to my knees, ripped me apart from the inside and thrashed me to the ground in tatters. The sound as I tore was terrible and never have I forgotten it. So much have I forgotten, so much, but this has remained. Even though it is vague, hazy, more a feeling than a sound. But it has remained.

The sun must have been shining, for everything blurred to a light, chaotic image, blue sky, birch trunks, leaves. The boy held me and did not let me walk any farther. He waited until the ripping within me died away and fell silent. To this day I don’t know why he did it, but I think it will have haunted him for a long time.

He pulled me up and we walked off the paths. The boy knew every trail and secret track. Far behind us a little dog, which had been following us for some time now, had emerged again. He was wretched. He was missing one carnassial tooth.

We heard gunshots, sometimes distant, sometimes closer. Sometimes screams. I did not like that. It made me feel scared. Most of the time I stared at my feet. That kept my thoughts together.

Then it got dark.

* * *

We halted at a thick maple tree. Of the following events I only have vague memories but I will try to depict them as well as I can even though it’s hard for me. You’re the first person I am telling about this, so please forgive the chaos in my thoughts. Perhaps it will help me to sort them out. That’s why I’m here. But my throat’s swelling. I have to take a sip. And this booming in the ears. Please give me a minute.

Now, I became very anxious. Something touched me below my threshold of perception, that much has become clear to me now, but I did not pay attention to it. Much to my sorrow.

But I was tired.

So tired.

The boy said he had to check to see if the coast was clear. The vague feeling within me stirred more powerfully now. Thrashed with the legs, moved the wings. But I could not get hold of it. It cried out for me and withdrew at the same time. Thus I let it be. What should I have done anyway?

I only nodded, too weak to defy the boy or to obey my doubt.

He left.

My uneasiness grew.

But I was tired. I sat down on my bundle and leaned against the tree.

The rustling of his feet died away in the twilight. This was the moment where the vague feeling turned into desperation. It crept up darkly, darker even than the evening, which, in fact, must have been lovely.

Run, something within me said. Run and never come back.

But the boy, another voice whispered. The boy?

What comes now is infinitely difficult for me to tell. I beg you for some understanding and patience with me if I falter, please give me time.

* * *

After that I heard... nothing. For a long time, as it seemed to me, only a rustling in the underbrush every now and then. Supposedly a hedgehog or this tattered little dog that always sneaked around me.

I must have dozed off, for suddenly I was startled. Something was wrong, and now I knew what it was. The smell of felt. That was it. Now I knew. But it was too late.

Feet were approaching, a manifold rustling of death. He had betrayed me, I knew it the instant I heard them.

They were coming.

It was too late.

Behind them I heard his light footfall on the leaves.

There she is, he whispered, so far away, so distant that I thought, hoped, to have misheard.

It was dark and, at first, I did not know exactly where I was, and if it was me, if I really existed or if this was one of my dark dreams; but as I jumped up and the world went black for an instant, I saw the truth glow like a dim light at the entrance to the path of pains.

Before me, shadows melted out of the gloom, darker still than the darkness surrounding them. I narrowed my eyes and watched them through the slits of my lids; I saw them in a sharp clearness that gave me strength.

But the more I saw, the hats, the cloaks, the hands resting on weapons, the boots, the flashes, the more my stomach turned. I felt my senses go keener, whilst they were being washed over by this domineering nausea that tore everything away and washed my internal organs ashore on the coasts of my conscience.

Somewhere within me, beneath the layers and layers of gloomy ocean, it glowed like a seashell on the bottom: the knowledge of what was coming. I reached for it. Then the next wave washed me away before I could get hold of it.

One of the soldiers barked something. Hoarsely, low like a hedgehog at nightfall. I understood nothing. Did not want to understand, wanted to run, but my feet had grown fast into the ground like a maple tree’s roots, digging, entangling themselves, and the sick alertness within me broke against rocky shores.

I felt terrible, as if breaking midway through, in the depth; and then one came closer and kicked my feet away from underneath my body, it was as if he had broken my legs right above the ankles, like the ones of a Greek statue being felled; for my feet did not give away the ground, remained grown fast into the ground, dug, sucked themselves even more desperately into the maple’s roots the more they grasped they were not part of me anymore.

I did not make a sound as the ground came towards me, as I crashed down on my face, as moss and soil soaked into my mouth and I retched.

Hot waves washed over me, through me, out of me. Steam hovered in the air. Around me there was a smell of decay, of soil and leaves. Out of them, like out of a permeable, brown carpet steamed a sharp smell. My innards lay scattered all around me, there my stomach, here my lungs, the shadow over there has to be my heart. I don’t exist anymore.

The dark figures looked down on me. They had come closer, too close, cloaks already opened, hands at the belts. Now, faced with my raw innards, they backed away. A pale whisper came out of their circle.

Later, much later did I realize it was they that had saved me: the terrible waves, the ocean of darkness within me on which my innards floated outside.

I was cold.

So cold.

Fog rose and enshrouded me, who lay scattered around myself.

For one moment they hesitated.

And as the shadows slid apart in disgust, they made way for a much more terrible sight. There the boy stood, his face pale, the moon of my annihilation, the face of my obliteration. He looked at me. His body was stiff. The tips of his fingers twitched.

Then the curtain of shadows closed again as they bent down and picked me up gingerly. By the collar, the thinnest piece of cloth they could get hold of, they pulled me away.

The boy slunk along with them; each time I bumped over a root on the forest floor, his face bobbed wildly above me, and I felt nauseated, and I wanted to throw up, but I was empty, for I had spit myself out and that was irreversible, and so I tolerated the sight of him, but he not the sight of me, for he avoided my gaze. He let his head hang down; absurdly, like being loose, it bobbed up and down in front of his body.

I almost laughed out loud against my will, but then he made a noise; a shattered harrumphing sound perhaps, a crumbled cough. Then he swallowed and he swallowed hard. He swallowed all the shatters of my life, of his betrayal, all that we had been.

I saw the chunks jiggle down his gullet, saw how they got stuck, and I hoped they would rip him apart. But then he quickened his pace, and caught up with the shapes leading us so that he staggered out of my sight, and then it was night once again.

The moon of my destruction had set.

From then on only the forest floor bobbed above and beneath me, and every root I bumped over broke my spine a little more.

But I felt good.

With each breaking I became softer, and the softer I became, the less it hurt. I became a sponge, a fish, a coral. A seashell. I became lithe, sleek, impossible to grasp. From the outside I looked solid, hard, invulnerable. You slid off, everything slid off of me. You could not get hold of me.

Yes, there it was that I became a seashell.

Only, there was no pearl.

Within me there was nothing but sickening softness. Nothing but my absurdly bendy backbone that became bendier and ever bendier and eventually it became mussel flesh that closed around nothing but itself.

* * *

Proceed to part 3...

Copyright © 2016 by Karin S. Heigl

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