Seen from behind, the women’s hairdos were sitting cats. Why do I have to say sitting cats to describe hair?

Everything always became something else. At first unobtrusively something else, if you just happened to look at it. But then demonstrably something else when you had to find the right words to describe it. If you want to be precise in your description, you have to find something completely different within the sentence to allow you to be precise.

Every woman in the village had a long, thick plait. The plait was folded back on itself and directed vertically upwards, and a rounded horn comb kept it standing proud above the middle of the head. The teeth of the horn comb vanished into the hair, and only the corners of its curved edge peeked out like small, pointed ears. With those ears and the thick plait, the back of the women’s heads looked like a cat sitting bolt upright.

These vagabond qualities that turned one object into another were unpredictable. They distorted one’s perception in the blink of an eye, made of it what they wished. Every thin branch swimming in the water resembled a water snake. Because of my constant fear of snakes I have been afraid of water. Not out of fear of drowning, but out of fear of snake wood, I never learned to swim for fear of scrawny, swimming branches. The imagined snakes had a more powerful effect than real ones could have, they were in my thoughts whenever I saw the river.

And whenever funerals approached the cemetery the bell was sounded. One long tug on the rope followed by the small bell with its rapid, urgent ringing – for me that was the cemetery snake that lured people towards death with its saccharine tongue, and the dead towards the caress of the grave. And those caresses soothed the dead, you could sense it from the breath of wind in the cemetery. What soothed the dead revolted me. The more it revolted me, the more I had to think about it. For there was always a breeze, always some cool or warm and dry wind. I was distressed by it. But instead of hurrying, only my breath came in a rush, and I carried the water slowly, watered the flowers slowly, lingered. Those imagined objects in my head with their vagabond qualities may have been an addiction. I was constantly looking for them, so they came looking for me. They ran after me like a mob, as if my fear could feed them. But they probably fed me, gave an image to my fear. And images, above all threatening ones, don’t have to console, and therefore they don’t have to disappoint, and therefore they never shatter. You can conjure up the same image again and again in your head. Thoroughly familiar, it becomes a support. The repetition made it new every time, and took care of me.

When my best friend came to say goodbye the day before I emigrated, as we embraced thinking we would never see each other again, because I would not be allowed back into the country and she would never be allowed out – as my friend was saying goodbye, we couldn’t tear ourselves apart. She went to the door three times and each time she came back. Only after the third time did she leave, walking in a steady rhythm the length of the road. It was a straight road, so I could see her bright jacket getting smaller and smaller, and strangely enough becoming more garish as she went into the distance. I don’t know, did the winter sun shine, it was February, did my eyes shine with tears, or did the material of her jacket gleam – one thing I do know: my eyes followed my friend and, as she walked away, her back shimmered like a silver spoon. So I was able to sum up our separation intuitively in two words. I called it silver spoon. And that was the simplest, most precise way to describe the whole event.

I don’t trust language. At best I know from my own experience that, to be precise, it must always take something that doesn’t belong to it. I have no idea why verbal images are so light-fingered, why the most valid comparison steals qualities it’s not entitled to. The surprise comes about only through invention, and time and again it proves true that one gets close to the truth only with the invented surprise in the sentence. Only when one perception steals from another, one object seizes and uses the substance of another – only when that which is impossible in real life has become plausible in the sentence can the sentence hold its own before reality.

My mother believed that in our family fate always intervened during winter. When she emigrated with me from Romania it was winter, February. Twenty years ago.

A couple of days before departure, one was allowed to send seventy kilos of luggage per person in advance from the customs post near the border. The luggage had to be packed in a large wooden crate with prescribed measurements. The village carpenter built it out of pale acacia wood.

I had completely forgotten this emigration crate. I hadn’t given it a thought since 1987, since I got to Berlin. But then there came a time when I had to think about it for days on end, for it played an important role in world events. Our emigration crate made history, it was at the centre of world events, it had become a celebrity, was on television for days on end. What with one thing and another, when objects become independent, when in your head they slide for no reason whatsoever into other things, ever more into other things, the better your head knows that they have absolutely nothing to do with these other things: so I kept seeing our emigration crate on television because the Pope had died. His coffin looked just like the emigration crate. Then the whole emigration resurfaced.

At four in the morning my mother and I left on a lorry with the emigration crate. The journey to the customs post was five or six hours. We sat on the floor of the trailer and sheltered behind the crate. The night was ice cold, the moon was rocking up and down, your eyeballs felt too bulky, like frozen fruit in your forehead. Blinking was painful, as if a dusting of frost were in your eyes. At first the rocking of the moon was mild and gently curved, then it got colder, it began to sting, had been sharpened to a point. The night was not dark, but transparent, the snow seemed like a reflection of daylight. It was too cold to talk on this journey. You don’t want to keep opening your mouth if your gums are freezing. I wasn’t about to breathe a word. And then I had to speak, because my mother, perhaps intending only to mutter to herself, said out loud:

‘It’s always the same snow.’

She was referring to January 1945 and her deportation to the Soviet Union for forced labour. There were sixteen-year-olds on the Russians’ lists. Many people hid. My mother spent four days in a hole in the ground in the neighbour’s garden, behind the barn. Then the snow came. They couldn’t bring her food in secret any more, every step between house, barn and hole in the ground became visible. Throughout the village, the way to every hiding place could be seen in all that snow. Footsteps could be read in the garden. People were denounced by the snow. Not just my mother, many people had to abandon their hiding places voluntarily, forced out voluntarily by the snow. And that meant five years in the work camp. My mother never forgave the snow.


All I Know About Gertrude Stein
From the editor’s desk