Everything

Ingeborg Bachmann; Translated by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser

   Whenever, like two people turned to stone, we sit down to a meal together or meet at the door at night because each of us has just remembered about locking up, I feel our sadness is an arch, a great bow extending from one end of the world to the other -which is: from Hanna to me-and in the drawn bow an arrow aimed straight at the heart of the unmoving sky. When we go back through the hall, she is two paces ahead of me, she goes into the bedroom without saying goodnight, ad I take refuge in my own room, at my desk, where I sit staring at nothing, seeing always her bowed head and hearing always her silence. Has she gone to bed and is she trying to sleep, or is she still awake, waiting? What for? - Since she isn’t waiting for me!

   When I married Hanna it was less for her sake than because she was expecting the child. I had no choice, did not need to make any decision. I was stirred because there was something on the way that was new and which emanated from us, and because the world seemed to be waxing-like the moon, which one is supposed to bow to three times when it first appears again, exquisite, wan as a puff of breath, there at the beginning of its cycle. There were moments of distraction such as I hadn’t known before. Even at the office-although I had more than enough to do-or during a conference I would suddenly drift off into this state in which I was concentrated solely on the child, unknown, spectral being that it sill was, sending all my thoughts towards where it lay captive in the warm lightless womb.

   The child that we were expecting changed us. We scarcely went out any more, and neglected our friends; we looked for a larger apartment and settled down more comfortably, with a certain finality. But because of the child that I was waiting for everything began to change for me; I stumbled upon thoughts, unexpectedly, as though walking on mined ground - thoughts of such explosive power that I might well have recoiled, and yet I went on, reckless of the danger.

   Hanna did not understand. Not being able to decide whether the pram should have big wheels or small ones made me appear indifferent. (I really don’t know. Just as you like. Oh yes, I’m listening.) When I stood in shops while she was choosing bonnets, little jackets, and nappies, hesitating between pink and blue, woolen mixture and pure wool, she reproached me with not taking an interest. But I was-if anything, too much.

   How on earth am I to explain what was going on in me? It was like being a savage who is suddenly made to realize that the world in which he moves about between his campfire and his bed, between sunrise and sunset, between hunting and eating, is the same world that is millions of years old which will pass away, which occupies a trivial place in one among many solar systems, and which revolves at great speed on its axis and also around the sun. All at once I saw myself in other contexts, myself and the child that, at a definite point in time, at the beginning or middle of November, would have its turn, starting its own life, exactly as I once did, exactly as everyone did before me.

   Just try to imagine it-all those generations? It’s like the black and white sheep you count before going to sleep (one black, one white, one black, one white, and so on), a device that now makes one all dull and drowsy, now leaves one desperately wide awake. I never could go to sleep by means of this prescription, although Hanna, who got it from her mother, swears it’s more soothing than any sedative. Perhaps many people find it soothing to think of this chain: And Shem begat Arphaxad. And Arphaxad lived five and thirty years, and begat Salah. And Salah began Eber. And Eber begat Peleg. And Peleg lived thirty years, and begat Reu, and Reu Serug, and Serug Nahor, and each of them thereafter many sons and daughters besides, and the sons all begat sons in their turn, namely Nahor begat Terah, and Terah Abram, Nahor, and Haran. I tried, a few times, to run through this list in my mind, not only forwards but also backwards, right back to Adam and Eve, from whom we are doubtless not descended, or back to the hominids, from whom we may originate, but in either case there is an obscurity in which this chain is lost from sight, and so it really doesn’t matter whether one clings to Adam and Eve or to some other couple. Only if one doesn’t wish to cling, but prefers to ask what each of them, in his time, had his turn for, one can’t make anything of the chain and has no use for all these begettings, for either the first or the last of those lives. For each gets only one turn in the game that he finds going on and is required to understand-procreation and education, economics and politics-and in which he is allowed to concern himself with money and emotions, with work and inventions and justifying the rules of the game, which are called “thought.”

   But since, as it turns out, we do go on increasing with such confidence, I suppose one must resign oneself to it. The game needs the players (Or is it the players that need the game?) I was myself brought into the world with the same confidence, and now I was bringing a child into the world.

   I was beginning to tremble at the very thought.

   I began to look at everything in relation to the child. My hands, for instance, which would some day touch and hold it, our third-floor apartment, the Kandlgasse, the VII District, the ways that one could take criss-cross through the town right down to the Prater Meadows, and finally the whole world, with all that’s in it, which I would explain to the child. It was from me that it should learn the names: table and bed, nose and foot. And also such words as: spirit and God and soul, useless words in my opinion, but ones that could not be kept from it, and, later on, words as complicated as: resonance, diapositive, chiliasm, and astronautics. I would have to see to it that my child learnt what everything meant and how everything was to be used, a door-handle and a bicycle, a gargle and a printed form. My head whirled.

   When the child came, there was naturally no chance to put the great educational scheme into operation. There he was, jaundiced, crumpled, pitiful, and the one thing I was not prepared for was that I must give him a name. Hanna and I hastily came to an agreement and had three names entered in the register: my father's, her father's, and my grandfather's. None of these three names was ever used. By the end of the first week the child was called Fipps. I don't know how it came about. Perhaps indeed it was partly my fault, for, like Hanna, who had an inexhaustible gift for inventing and juggling with nonsensical monosyllables, I tried to call him by pet names because the real names were so entirely unsuitable for the tiny naked creature. Out of the flux of geniality there arose this name that came to exasperate me more and more in the course of the years. Sometimes I even blamed the child himself for it, as though he could have protested, as though it hadn't all been mere chance. Fipps! I shall have to go on calling him that, shall have to go on making him seem ridiculous even beyond the grave, and us as well.

   When Fipps was lying in his blue-and-white cot, awake or asleep, and I was of no use except to wipe away some dribbles or some regurgitated milk from round his mouth or to pick him up when he cried, in the hope of making him easier, it struck me for the first time that he might have some plan of his own affecting me, but that he was giving me plenty of time to discover what it was, indeed was determined to give me plenty of time, like a ghost appearing to one and vanishing into the darkness, and appearing again, always with the same impenetrable gaze. I would often sit beside his cot, looking down into that face in which there was so little change of expression, and those unfocussed eyes, studying his features as if they were some ancient script that could not be deciphered because there was no clue how to begin. I was glad to observe that Hanna imperturbably confined her attentions to his immediate needs, feeding him, putting him to sleep, waking his, turning him over, changing him, and so on, according to the rules. She cleaned his nostrils with little plugs of cotton-wool and dusted between his chubby thighs with whole clouds of powder, as though conferring a permanent benefit on him and on herself.

   After a few weeks she tried to inveigle him into producing his first smile. But when he did at last surprise us with it, for me it was a grimace at once enigmatic and irrelevant. And then when he began to turn his eyes to us always more often and more directly, or stretched out his little arms, I suspected that it did not mean anything, that only we were beginning to supply him with reasons that he would later accept. Hanna was not the person-and perhaps there could not have been a person-to understand what was going on in me, but it was at this period that I began to be uneasy. I am afraid it was then that I began to drift apart from Hanna, excluding her more and more, shutting her off from my real thoughts. I discovered a weakness in myself-it was the child that brought about the discovery-and the feeling that I was approaching some defeat. I was thirty, like Hanna. She looked delicate and young as never before, but the child had not renewed my youth. In proportion as he extended his scope, I reduced mine. I was being driven to the wall-by every smile, every cry of delight, every yell. I lacked the strength to smother this smiling, this chirruping, and these cries, right from the start. For that is what I ought to have done!

   Well, what? Previously I had thought I would have to teach him about the world. Since my mute dialogues with him I had begun to doubt that, and finally realized it was not so. Was it, for instance, not in my power to conceal from his what things were called and not to teach him the use of things? He was the first human being. Everything had its beginning with him, and there was no saying that everything might not also become quite different because of him. Should I not leave the world to him, immaculate and without meaning? After all, I didn't have to initiate him into functions and aims, into what was real and what only seemed to be so. Why should I educate him into my own likeness, causing him to know and to believe, to rejoice and to suffer! From here, from where we stand, this is the worst of all possible worlds and nobody has understood it down to this day; but from where he stood nothing was decided. Not yet. How long was there still to go?

   And suddenly I realized: it's all a question of language, and not merely of this particular language of ours, which was created with all the other language at the Tower of Babel in order to bring confusion into the world. For under them all there's another language smoldering away, a language that extends into gestures and glances, into the evolving of thoughts and the ebb and flow of emotions, and it's here that all our grieves begin. It was all a question whether I could save the child from our language until he had founded a new one and could so begin a new era.

   I would often go out alone with Fipps, and whenever I recognized in him what Hanna had done to him, the caresses, little vanities, playfulness that she taught him, it horrified me-no, after people in general. Yet there were moments when he was a sovereign law unto himself, and then I would observe him very closely indeed. All ways were the same to him. All living creatures the same. Hanna and I were undoubtedly of more importance to him solely because we were always busying ourselves about him in some way. It was all the same to him. How long would it still be so?

   He would be afraid. But not yet of an avalanche or of some infamy, but of a leaf stirring on a tree. Of a butterfly. Flies would throw him into a panic. And I would think: How will he be able to live when some day a whole tree sways in the wind, if I heave him in this ignorance!

   He encountered a neighbor’s child on the steps; he reached out clumsily, right into the other child’s face, and stepped back, perhaps not knowing that this other was a child like himself. Previously he had yelled whenever he felt uncomfortable, but now when he yelled it meant something more. It would often happen at bedtime, or when one picked him up to bring him to the table for a meal, or if one took away a toy from him. There was a great rage in him. He would sometimes lie down on the floor, clawing at the carpet and bellowing till he was blue in the face and foaming at the mouth. He would scream in his sleep as if a vampire were at his throat. These screams confirmed my belief that he still dared to scream and his screams had the desired result.

            Oh, some day!

            Hanna’s way was to resort to tender reproaches, telling him that he was naughty. She would hug him to her, kissing him or gazing at him gravely, teaching him not to make his mother sad. She was a wonderful temptress. She would stand ceaselessly bending over the nameless river, trying to draw him across, walking up and down on our shore of it, coaxing him with chocolate and oranges, spinning-tops and teddy-bears.

            And when the trees cast shadows, I seemed to hear a voice saying: Teach him the shadow-language! The world is an experiment, and it’s enough that this experiment has always been repeated in the same way and with the same result. Try another experiment! Let him go to shadows! The result hitherto has been a life of guilt, love and desperation. (I had begun to think everything in generalization; then such words would occur to me.) But I could save him the guilt, the love, and every sort of doom, making him free for another life.

            Yes, on Sundays I would take him for walks in the Vienna woods, and when we came to a pool, something within me would say. Teach him the water-language! The path would become stony. Then full of roots. Teach him the stone-language! Root him anew! The leaves were falling, for it was autumn again. Teach him the language of leaves!

            But since I knew no word of such languages, nor could discover any, having only my own language and being unable to get beyond the limits of it, I would carry him up and down the paths in silence, and home again, where he learnt to form sentences and went into the trap. He was already expressing wishes, asking for things, giving orders, or talking for the sake of talking. On later Sunday walks he would tear off blades of grass, pick up worms, catch beetles. Now they were no longer all the same to him; he would examine them, and would kill them if I was not quick enough to take them from him. At home he pulled books to pieces, and boxes, and his golliwog. He snatched at everything, tried his teeth on it, wanted to get his hands on everything, and threw it away or took it to himself. Oh, some day! Some day he would know his way about.

            At this period, when Hanna was still communicative, she would often draw my attention to things that Fipps said; she was enchanted by his innocent glances, his innocent talk and behavior. But I couldn’t discover any innocence in the child now that he was no longer defenseless and dumb as in the first weeks of his life. And at that time he was doubtless not innocent either, but merely incapable of expressing himself, a bundle of delicate flesh and sinew, with faint breath, and with a huge dull head that served, like a lightning-conductor, to deaden the world’s piercing messages.

            When he was a little older Fipps was sometimes allowed to play with other children in a blind alley beside the house. Once, on my way home at lunchtime, I saw him there with three other little boys, scooping up water from the gutter in an old tin can. Then they stood in a circle, talking. It looked like a conference. (It was the way engineers conferred about where they would begin the borings, where the first well should be sunk.) They squatted down on the pavement, and Fipps, who was holding the tin, was on the point of emptying it when they got up again and went three paving stones further. But this place also seemed to turn out unsuitable for the undertaking. They got up once again. There was tension in the atmosphere. What masculine tension! Something must be done! And then, a yard away, they found the place. They squatted down again, becoming silent, and Fipps tilted at the tin. The dirty water flowed over the cobbles. They stared at it, silently, solemnly. The thing had been done, it was finished. Perhaps it was a success. It must surely have been a success. The world could rely on these small men; they would keep it going all right. I was now quite certain that they would keep it going. I went into the house, up to the apartment, and threw myself on the bed in our room. The world had been kept going, the place had been found whence some more progress could be made, and it had been done, a move in the same old direction. And once, a long time ago, I had even feared that he might not find his way about at all. Fool that I was, I had feared he would not find the direction!

            I got up and flung a few handfuls of water, cold from the tap, into my face. I wanted no more of this child. I hated him because he understood things too well, because I could already see him following in all the footsteps there were.

            I went about extending my hatred to everything that emanated from human beings, to the tram-routes, the number-plates on houses, titles, clocks, and calendars, all that ingenious tangled mess that is called order-I hated the collecting of garbage, programs of series of lectures, registrar’s offices, all these wretched institutions that it’s now futile to attack and which indeed nobody ever dreams of attacking, all these altars at which I too had sacrificed but at which I had no mind to see my child sacrificed. What had my child to do with it? He had not set the world up the way it was, he had not caused the damage done to it. Why should he set himself up in it just the same way! I screamed at eh census office and the schools and the barracks: Give him a chance! Give my child just one single chance before he goes to the dogs! I raged against myself because I had forced my son into the world and had done nothing to set him free. I owed it to him, I had to act, I must go away with him, go off to some island with him. But where is there an island from which a new man can found a new world? I was trapped together with the child, condemned from the very beginning to keep on keeping on with the old world. That was why I dropped the child. I dropped him out of my love. For this child was capable of everything, only not of stepping out of the ranks, breaking through the satanic circle.

            Fipps played his way through the years until it was time to begin school. He played them away. I was glad that he should play, but not these games, which were showing him the way to later games. Hide and seek, counting-out games, cops and robbers... I wanted quite different games for him, pure play, and fairy-tales different from those already known. But nothing occurred to me, and he was bent entirely on imitation. One wouldn’t think it possible, but there it is: there’s no way out for the like of us. Again and again everything divides into above and below, good and evil, light and dark, into quantity and quality, friend and foe, and in the fairy-tales, whenever other beings or animals appear, before you know where you are they have taken on human form again.

            No longer knowing how or for what I should form his mind, I gave it up. Hanna noticed that I was no longer bothering about him. Once we tried to talk about it, and she stared at me as though I were a monster. I couldn’t produce all my arguments, because she got up, cut me short, and went into the nursery. It was evening, and from that evening on she began to do something that she would earlier no more of thought of than I: she began teaching the child to say prayers. Now I lay me down to rest... Dear God, make me a good boy. And so forth. I didn’t bother about that either, but I dare say they gradually built up a considerable repertoire. I think she hoped it would somehow protect him. Anything would have done, so far as she was concerned: a cross or some little mascot, a spell, anything. Fundamentally she was right, since Fipps would soon fall among the wolves and would soon be howling with the wolves. “God bless” was perhaps the last chance. We were both delivering him up each in our own way.

            When Fipps came home from school with bad marks, I didn’t scold him at all, but I didn’t comfort him either. Hanna secretly agonized. After lunch she always sat down and helped him with his homework, “heard” what he had to memorize. She did it all as well as anyone could. But I didn’t believe in the thing at all. It was all the same to me whether Fipps later went to a grammar school or not, whether he turned out well or not. A laborer wants his son to be a doctor; a doctor wants his to be at least a doctor. I don’t understand that. I didn’t want to think of Fipps being either cleverer or better than ourselves. Nor did I want him to be fond of me; he didn’t have to obey me, didn’t ever have to do as I wished. No, what I wanted...All I wanted was that he should start all over again from the beginning, show me in a single gesture that he didn’t have to reproduce our gestures. I never saw anything of the sort. I was born anew, but he was not! It was I-I was the first human being, I had played everything away, squandering everything, done nothing!

            There was nothing I wished for Fipps, absolutely nothing at all. I merely went on watching him. I don’t know whether it’s right for a man to watch his own child like that. Like a research-worker observing at a “case.” I was observing this hopeless case, the human being-this child that I could not love as I loved Hanna, whom after all I never quite dropped because she couldn’t disappoint me. She already belonged to the species “human being,” like me, when I first met her, a fine specimen, experienced, slightly individual and yet not particularly so, a woman and then the woman I married. I was all the time building up a case against this child and myself-against him because he cancelled out a tremendous expectation, against myself because I could not prepare the ground for him. I had expected that this child, because of being a child-yes, I had expected that he would redeem the world. It sounds monstrous. And I really did behave monstrously towards the child; but there was nothing monstrous about what I hoped for. It was merely that I had not been prepared for the child, like everyone before me. I had thought nothing of it when I embraced Hanna, when I was at peace in the dark womb - I couldn’t think. It was good to marry Hanna, not only on the child’s account, but I was never again happy with her, only intent on seeing that she did not have another child. She wished it-I have grounds for assuming that, although she never speaks of it now and makes no move of that kind. One might think that now, more than ever, Hanna would think of having a child; but she is as though turned to stone. She doesn’t go away from me and she doesn’t come to me. She bears me a grudge in a way that nobody should bear a grudge against another, since he is not lord of such incomprehensible things as death and life. In those days she would have like to raise a whole brood, and I frustrated that. She was prepared to accept all conditions, I-none. Once when we were having an argument she explained to me everything that she wanted to do and to have for Fipps. Everything: a sunnier room, more vitamins, a sailor-suit, more live, all love, she wanted to lay in whole stores of love, enough to last a lifetime, because of the world outside, because of people...a good school, foreign languages, developing his particular gifts...she wept, she was hurt because I laughed at her. I don’t think she considered for a moment that Fipps would be just one of the people “out in the world,” that he would be capable of causing pain and humiliation, of getting the better of others, of killing, like them, even that he would be capable of a single mean action; and I had every reason to suppose it. For evil, as we call it, was there in the child like a focus of infection. I don’t even need to recall the affair of the knife by way of example. It began much earlier, when he was about three or four. I came in as he was going around, crying with rage: a tower he had built of toy bricks had fallen down. Suddenly he stopped howling and said quietly and emphatically: “I’ll burn the house down. I’ll smash everything. I’ll show you.” I took him on my knee, petted him and promised to build the tower up again for him. He repeated his threats against us both. Hanna, who came in at that point, was for the first time at a loss. She admonished him and asked him who taught him to say such things. He answered firmly: “Nobody.”

            Then there was the little girl who lived in the same building-he pushed her down the stairs, was then, I think, very frightened by what he had done, promised never to do it again, and then did do it again. For a time he was always hitting out at Hanna. That too passed off.

            I admit I’m forgetting to mention how many quaint things he said, how affectionate he could be, how rosy and glowing he was when he woke in the mornings. I noticed all that too and I was often temped to grab hold of him and kiss him, as Hanna did, but I didn’t want to be lulled and deluded by such things. I was on my guard. For what I was hoping for was nothing monstrous. It was not that I had grandiose plans for my child, but I did wish for that little thing, that slight deviation. Of course, if a child is called Fipps …  Did he have to live up to his name like that? Going about bearing the name of a lap dog. Eleven years spent on learning trick after trick. (Hold your spoon nicely. Don’t walk in the gutter. Did you say, “Thank you”? Don’t talk with your mouth full.)

            From the time he began to school, I took to being out more often than I was at home. I would be at the café, playing chess, or, claiming that I had work to do, I would shut myself up in my room and read. I got to know Betty, a girl from a shop in the Maria-Hilferstrasse, and brought her stockings, cinema-tickets, or something to eat, until she became quite used to me. She was brusque, undemanding, subservient, and the best one could say about the lack of pleasure she took in her evenings off was that she enjoyed eating. For a whole year I went to see her fairly often, would lie down beside her on the bed in her furnished room, where she would read an illustrated weekly while I drank a glass of wine; then she would fall in with my wishes without more ado. It was a time of immense bewilderment, on the child’s account. I never slept with Betty; on the contrary, I was in search of self-gratification, of that furtive, forbidden liberation from woman and sex. So as not to be trapped, so as to remain independent. I did not want to lie with Hanna again, because I should only have yielded to her.

            Although I made no effort to palliate the fact that I spent the evenings out during such a long period, my impression was that Hanna suspected nothing. One day I discovered that it was not so; she had once already seen me with Betty at the Café Elshof, where we often met after the shops closed, and again only two days later when I was queuing up, together with Betty, outside the Cosmos Cinema. She behaved in a way that was quite unlike her, looking right through me as though she didn’t know me, so that I didn’t know what to do. I gave her a slight benumbed nod and, feeling Betty’s hand in mine, moved on towards the ticket-office; and, incredible as it seems to me now, I actually went into the cinema. After the show, during which I was preparing myself for reproaches and working out my defense, I took a taxi home, although it was only a short distance, as though in such a way I could still put something right and stop something from going wrong. Since Hanna said nothing, I plunged into my carefully rehearsed speech. She remained doggedly silent, as though I were talking to her about things that didn’t concern her. When at last she did speak, it was to ask me, timidly, to think of the child. “For Fipps’ sake…” That was what she actually said! I was stricken, because she was so embarrassed, begged her forgiveness, went down on my knees, promised her “never again,” and indeed I never saw Betty again. I don’t know why I nevertheless wrote her two letters, which I’m sure she didn’t value in the least. There was no answer, nor did I look for any. As though trying to send those letters to myself or to Hanna, I had revealed myself in them as never before to any human being. Sometimes I was afraid of being blackmailed by Betty. Blackmailed-in what way? I sent her money. In what way could she blackmail me, since Hanna knew about her?

            This bewilderment. This bleakness.

            As a man I felt extinguished, impotent. I wished to remain so. If there was any reckoning-up, it would come out in my favor. To resign from sex, form generation, to get to the end, to some end-that was all I still wanted!

            But everything that happened wasn’t simply a matter of me or Hanna or Fipps, it was a matter of father and son, of a responsibility and a death.

            There’s a saying I once read in some book: “It is not Heaven’s way to raise Its head.” It would be a good thing if everyone knew that Heaven. Oh, truly it is not Heaven’s way to gaze down, giving signs to the bewildered creatures below. At least not where such a somber drama is taking place, in which It too-that imaginary “above”- has a part to play. Father and son. A son-what is incomprehensible is that there should be such a thing at all. Such words as “incomprehensible” come to my mind now because there is no clear word for this dark matter; even thinking about it is enough to make one lose one’s reason. A dark matter: for there was my seed, indefinable, uncanny even to me, and then Hanna’s blood, in which the child had been nourished and which flowed at this birth, all of it together a dark matter. And it had ended with blood, with his blazingly bright childish blood, flowing from the wound in his head.

            He couldn’t say anything, as he lay there on the rock-ledge in the ravine. Only to the schoolfellow who was the first to reach him he said: “You-.” He tried to raise his hand, to point out something or to clutch at him. But the hand wouldn’t move any more. And then at last, a few moments later when the master bent over him, he whispered:

            “Want to go home.”

            I shall take good care not to interpret this sentence as meaning that he explicitly wanted Hanna and me. The fact is, people want to go home when they feel they are dying, and that was what he felt. He was a child, he had no great last messages to utter. For Fipps was just a perfectly ordinary child, and there was nothing special that could have disturbed his last thoughts. The other boys and the master had then collected branches, made a stretcher of them, and carried him down to the village. On the way, almost as soon as they had begun to move, he died. Passed away? Departed? In the obituary notice we said: “…only child of … as the result of an accident.” The man at the printer’s who took the order for the mourning cards asked if we didn’t want to say “our dearly loved child,” but Hanna, who was at the telephone, said no, it went without saying that he had been loved and dearly loved, and it didn’t make any difference now. I was foolish enough to try to embrace her for those words: to such a pass had my feelings for her come. She pushed me away. Does she even notice that I’m there? What in all the world is she reproaching me with?

            Hanna, who for a long time had been the only one to look after him, goes about, unrecognizable, as if the spotlight that used to illumine her, when she held the center of the stage with Fipps and by virtue of Fipps, had been turned off. There is nothing more to be said about her, as though she had neither qualities nor peculiarities. Once she was cheerful and vivacious, anxious, gentle and severe, always prepared to guide the child, to let him go his way, and again to draw him close to her. After the incident of the knife, for instance, she went through her finest time, glowing with magnanimity and understanding; it was her opportunity to stand by the child and his faults, to go bail for everything, everywhere. It was in his third year at school. Fipps had gone for another little boy with a picket-knife. He meant to stab him in the chest, but the knife slipped and struck the child in the arm. We were summoned to the school, and I had depressing discussions with the headmaster and his teachers and the parents of the injured child - depressing because I didn’t doubt that Fipps was quite capable of such and even far worse things, but couldn’t very well say so – despressing because the points of view that I was forced to adopt were not of the slightest interest to me. Nobody was clear about what we should do with Fipps. He sobbed, now defiantly, now desperately, and I suppose one might say he was sorry he had done it. All the same, we couldn’t get him to go and apologize to the other child. Finally we made him do it; and the three of us went to the hospital together. But I believe that Fipps, who had had nothing against the child when the attacked him, began to hate him from the moment when he had to say his piece. It was no childish anger he felt, but a very controlled, very subtle, very adult hatred. He had succeeded in having a complicated emotion that he kept hidden from everyone; he had earned his spurs as a human being.

            When I think of the school outing that brought about the end of everything. I remember the knife incident too, as though they were somehow connected, because of the shock that reminded me of my child’s existence. For apart from that those few school years are blank in my memory, because I paid no attention to the fact that he was developing, his mind growing more active and his feelings more complex. I suppose he was like all children at that age: wild and affectionate, noisy and secretive – in Hanna’s eyes quite special, in Hanna’s eyes unique.

            The headmaster rang me up at the office. This had never happened before; even when the incident of the knife occurred they had telephoned home, and it was Hanna who had let me know. I met the man downstairs in the hall of the office building half an hour later. We went to the café across the street. He began by trying to say what he had to tell me in the hall, and then in the street, but in the café too he obviously felt that the place still wasn’t right. Perhaps there isn’t any right place for the news that a child is dead.

            The master was not to blame, he said.

            I nodded. It was all the same to me.

            The path had been quite safe, but Fipps had slipped away from the rest of the class, perhaps for fun or in a spirit of adventure, or perhaps just looking for a stick.

            The headmaster began to stammer.

            He had slipped on a rock and had fallen to the rock below.

            His head injury had been a minor one, but the doctor had found the explanation of his sudden death in a cyst . . . I probably knew . . .

            I nodded. Cyst? I didn’t even know what a cyst was.

            The whole school was deeply shocked and grieved, the headmaster said. An enquiry would be held. The police had been informed . . .

            I wasn’t thinking of Fipps, but of the master, for whom I felt sorry, and I made it clear that no trouble need be expected from my side.

            Nobody was to blame. Nobody.

            I got up before we had had time to order anything and left a coin on the table. We took leave of each other. I went back to the office and left again immediately, went back to the café, to have a cup of coffee after all, although I would rather have had a brandy or a whisky. I didn’t dare to drink brandy. It was lunchtime, I had to go home now and tell Hanna. I don’t know how I managed it or what I said. As we were moving away from the door of the apartment, through the hall, she must have realized. It all went very quickly. I had to put her to bed and call the doctor. She was out of her mind, and she went on screaming until she lost consciousness. She screamed as horribly as at his birth, and I was in terror for her just as I had been then. All I wanted was that nothing should happen to Hanna. What I kept on thinking was: Hanna! Never of the child.

            In the days that followed I saw to everything on my own. At the cemetery – I had kept it from Hanna when the funeral was to take place – the headmaster made a speech. It was a fine day, with a faint breeze, and the ribbons on the wreaths fluttered like decorations at a party. The headmaster kept on talking. For the first time I saw the whole class assembled, and among them, I knew, there was one whom Fipps had tried to kill. There is an inward chill that makes what is nearest and what is farthest equally remote. The grave, the mourners, and the wreaths – all of it receded. I saw the whole City Cemetery drifting far away to the skyline, to the East, and even while my hand was being shaken all I felt was grip after grip and saw the faces far away, saw them clearly and as if from close at hand, yet very remote, infinitely remote.

            Go and learn the shadow-language! Learn it yourself! But now that everything is over and Hanna no longer spends hours sitting in his room, but has allowed me to lock the door through which he ran so often, I sometimes talk to him in the language that I can’t believe to be good.

            My little savage. My heart.

            I am ready to carry him on my back, and I promise him a blue balloon, promise him we’ll go in a boat on the old Danube, promise him stamps. When he’s scratched his knee, I kiss the place better. I help him to do his sums.

            Even if I can’t bring him back to life this way, still, it isn’t too late to think: I have accepted this son of mine. I could not be nice to him because I went too far with him.

            Don’t go too far. First learn how to go on. Learn it yourself!

            But first one would have to tear down the arch of sadness that spans the distance from a man to a woman. This distance, measurable in terms of silence – how is it ever to diminish? For to the end of our time what is mined ground for me will always be a garden for Hanna.

            I have stopped thinking. I should like to get up, cross the dark passage and, without having to say a word, reach Hanna. I do not look at anything in this relation, neither my hands, which should hold her, nor my mouth, with which I should close hers. It doesn’t matter in what tone each word is uttered when I come to her, with what warmth I give each sign of affection. It is not to have her back again that I would go, but in order to keep her in the world and so that she may keep me in the world. By virtue of union, mild and dark. If there are children after that embrace, very well, let them come, let them be there, let them grow up and become like all the rest. I shall devour them like Kronos, beat them like a huge terrible father, spoil them, sacred animals that they are, and let myself be cheated even as Lear was. I shall bring them up as the times demand, half for the wolfish reality of things and half according to the principles of morality – and I shall give them no vade mecum. As it befits a man of my time: no worldly goods, no good advice.

            But I don’t know if Hanna is still awake.

            I have stopped thinking. The flesh is strong, and dark, burying a true feeling under the huge laughter of night.

            I don’t know if Hanna is still awake.

 

End

From Herbert Kohl’s The Age of Complexity pp.142-59. Copyright Ó 1962 by Ingeborg Bachmann. Translated by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser. Joan Daves and Andre Deutsch, Ltd.

Literature

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