They could hear them in the night. From the communal garden came a rasping, booming sound like an electric coffee maker empty of water.
“What the hell?” Martha said.
“It’s the hedgehogs,” Klaus answered.
“How do you know?”
“I know.” He muttered as he turned on his side.
She got up and opened the door to the balcony to hear better.
“Have you any idea what I do for a living?” Klaus shouted from under the covers.
Martha sighed and returned to bed. She lay down on the very edge, trying not to touch him. When he spoke to her like that, angrily and loudly in German, she punished him by increasing the distance between them. At times, in the middle of the night she’d ask herself: Are we really sharing the same bed? Are we really Martha and Klaus? She’d reach out with her hand, touch his knee to double-check and then immediately pull her hand away. The closeness they’d shared at one time now seemed unfathomable.
In the morning, Klaus left for his studio without speaking to her. He didn’t kiss her. Even the ritual good-bye morning kiss had been left behind. She opened her eyes at a little after nine and jumped up from bed, panicked. It was the hedgehogs again: huff-huff, squeal-squeal. Out of professional curiosity, she tried to mimic the sounds she was hearing with her tongue, her lips: impossible. How many hours, how many days, had these hedgehogs been going at it? Was this part of their winter hibernation? Was this their chance to get down and dirty once and for all? She knew nothing of flora and fauna, about nature’s reproductive rites.
All she knew of the outdoors, she’d learned in the early days with him, after that fateful meeting during a film shooting in Provence: the Greek actress and the German sound man. He’d promised her that he’d introduce her to the German directors with whom he was on a first-name basis. He’d push her gently back onto the grass. Up close, the blades of grass looked sharp, a vivid green. Or else she’d wrap her arms around a tree trunk, and Klaus would come up behind her. Martha would breathe in the wood; become one with it. When we look at a tree from far away, it looks like a solid mass, she’d think. From up close it’s all peeling bark and bugs. That’s the beauty of it.
In the kitchen, Martha drank water out of her cupped hands, something that Klaus loathed. This type of thing, he’d told her, had destroyed the erotic charge between them: the bathroom door left open; the cuticle picking; the way she gobbled her food or drank water. She put a filter in the coffeemaker. The hedgehog sounds were not at all like those of the coffeemaker, Klaus would have said reprovingly. Why can’t you appreciate the difference in the quality of sound? She couldn’t. For her it was as if the coffeemaker was asking a question and, from outside, the hedgehogs were answering it. With a cup in hand, she returned to the bedroom. She opened the door to the balcony. The sound seemed to be coming from behind the stepladder in the garden. She couldn’t see the hedgehogs. The grass was too tall.
They never used the lawnmower that Martha had bought when she moved in with Klaus. The garden was his pride and joy: he called it a “paradise of incoherence.” From the turn in the road, you might say “what a lovely little jungle,” but as you got closer to the apartment building you were made aware of what the word jungle truly means. The flowers that had been planted in bursts of cultivation had shriveled. Ivy had spread out with renewed rapaciousness. All the greenery that was in evidence was due chiefly to the nettles. Martha had planned many times to pull out the weeds, but at the eleventh hour she always changed her mind. She didn’t know where to begin.
How do hedgehogs do it? She imagined them upright, then lying down, going at it all aquiver, jabbing each other with their spines. Klaus had found them there when he rented the apartment. The previous tenant’s children had made a mountain out of fallen leaves and broken branches, under which, so they said, the hedgehogs slept in winter. Klaus thought the children were making it up, until the night he saw them in the garden. It was the beginning of spring, a little before he met Martha. The hedgehogs were wobbling one next to the other like an old couple, Klaus had told her. Maybe they are, she had answered, thinking then how romantic it was to grow old with someone without being scared of his spines. They zigzagged as if they were drunk, Klaus had said. Maybe they were, Martha repeated. She liked the idea of drunken hedgehogs.
She kept popping in and out of the garden until the afternoon, craning her neck: nothing. The noise was driving her crazy. She put on her rain boots and left the house. It was drizzling. Spring in Berlin was gloomy. She had nothing in particular to do. With the exception of Susanne, who lived in the building, she had no friends, no work. Her days passed in waiting for Klaus, who had plenty of work. Serials for German television brought in enough money for the two of them. Occasionally he’d line up a part for her in an advertisement. He was well connected. Once, at the Schaubühne modernist theatre, she’d played the part of a young deaf-mute. She liked to think that her terrible German accent was at the root of it all, either that or Klaus. He’d taken her away from her homeland, her language, far from all opportunity. If she were in Greece now, she’d be leading lady at the National Theatre. She’d be acting at Epidaurus. She’d be Hecuba or Electra: one of those ancient Greek women who tore at their clothes.
Instead she tore at her skin. She picked at her cuticles continually, ripping them off. She had made reefs and shoals around her nails, which were red and swollen. At night, she’d repent and wear gloves. But as she slept she’d take them off and start shredding her skin again. Klaus’s eyes would fill with aversion.
On the sidewalk in front of their building she almost walked into a couple that was kissing, a very young couple that was standing smack in the middle of the road; the girl around twenty, the guy older. They were so terribly exposed, their mouths, their lips, their fingers fumbling under their coats. They didn’t even notice the rain. Martha recognized the feeling of urgency, the giddiness: what it’s like not to be able to contain yourself, to have to hold on to that other person in order to remain standing, to touch and feel as if you’re falling completely into each other. As soon as she passed them, her eyes filled with tears. She let them fall: Oh, the drama! How she enjoyed feeling something, crying for something!
Lack of sex had made her as querulous as a child. She had come to the conclusion that children thrash around on the ground in temper tantrums because they don’t have sex. Then during adolescence, everything changes: the body finally comes into its own.
She walked quickly, with her coat collar turned up, counting in her head past lovers. It was a way of consoling herself after the hedgehogs and the young couple. She put them all in order: there was Fotis and his best friend Sarandis; Elias; Emilio and his velvet robe; then there was Evi; little Yanni and big Yanni, who wanted to share her; the time of the strip poker at Aliki’s house; the unbroken monogamy of her time with Klaus. And then the sexlessness. I could be an angel, she thought, yes, an angel, who once lived a life of sin and now had been cleansed of the body. A year without sex, if you thought about it, wasn’t such a big deal; in any case, she’d tried everything there was to try; she’d done enough to fill two lifetimes. Now she was pure and innocent — she could look at it that way. She was pure and innocent and suffering for lost love, for the end of love. Theirs had been a great love, and great loves don’t go out with a whimper, they go out with a bang. A curse had fallen upon one of them, and now the other was being punished with silence.
Susanne had told her that Germans were like that: they’d punish a woman by denying her sex. But then she too must have some German in her. On the few occasions when she’d felt his hand reaching for her under the covers, she’d turned her back to him and pretended to be asleep. In the middle of the night, she’d wake up, switch on the bedside lamp and watch him sleep, submerged in those big German pillows, those heavy German comforters. Nothing moved in his pale face. He looked dead.
She went into the drug store and bought a new hand cream she’d read worked miracles. As the pharmacist dashed off the price on the register, Martha imagined his fingers tapping in her vagina. His nails were clean and cut short. She hid hers in her coat pockets. She stopped at the bakery: the cashier’s fingers were quite sexy, not like the pharmacist’s but really very nice, and she imagined them too working away in her vagina, wrapping up a small parcel. Next came the florist. He snipped the peonies with his shears and explained how she ought to cut the stalks at an angle so that the water might fully penetrate the stem. Martha nodded spellbound, yes, yes: she pictured the water saturating the roots, the leaves shiny with contentment. On the way back home, she realized how thirsty she was. She dashed up the stairs two by two, dumped the shopping bags in the hallway, staggered into the kitchen, and gulped water straight out of her cupped hands. Outside, the hedgehogs were going crazy. Only then did she see Klaus by the light of the moon. He was standing in the dark, leaning against the balcony railing outside the kitchen. He was smoking and looking straight at her.
Translated from the Greek by Patricia Felisa Barbeito
Amanda Michalopoulou has published novels, short story collections and children books. She has received the Diavazo Award for her novel Wishbone Memories (1996) and the Academy of Athens Prize for her collection of stories Bright Day (2013). The American translation of her book I’d Like (Dalkey Archive, 2008) won the International Literature Prize by National Endowment for the Arts. This book was also awarded the Liberis Liber Prize of the Independent Catalan publishers. Her most recent book in English is the novel Why I Killed My Best Friend (Open Letter, 2014), translated by Karen Emmerich, and long-listed for the National Translation Prize in the US. Her most recent novel in Greek is The Wife of God (2014).
Patricia Felisa Barbeito is Professor of American Literatures at the Rhode Island School of Design and a translator of Greek fiction and poetry. She is co-translator (with Vangelis Calotychos) of Menis Koumandareas’s Their Smell Makes Me Want to Cry (Birmingham Modern Greek Translations, 2004); and translator of Elias Maglinis’s The Interrogation (Birmingham Modern Greek Translations, 2013) for which she received the 2013 Modern Greek Studies Association’s Constantinides Memorial Translation Prize and was short-listed for the 2014 Greek National Translation Award. Her translations of Greek poems and short fiction have appeared in Words Without Borders, InTranslation, the Asymptote blog, and eXchanges. She is currently working on a book about the African-American author Chester Himes.
Read more from the Greek:
- A selection of Yiannis Efthymiades’ poetry from 9/11 or Falling Man
- Two poems by Constantine P. Cavafy
- Giorgos Neophytou’s drama, DNA