It is half twelve and I am labouring over the word Stillen.
My laptop is open on the coffee table, pushed up against baby wipes and a row of empties. Biere d’Or, €7.99 for twenty. I am knelt on the floor amid wooden blocks and the debris of a day without childcare. On the side, I have my scrappy photocopy of Heidegger’s Gedachtes. But whichever way I look at the poem, I can’t get the words right. It starts like this:
Hirt, du Stiller,
selber still aus Wende,
still die Gegenstände
erst zu Dingen,
Most of it is easy. Hirt means shepherd, Wende is twist, Gegenstände is objects. But the word still bugs me. As an adjective, still means silent. Settled, maybe. But Stiller, in the first line, is a male noun – the man who stills. And whatever dictionary I look at – stillen as a verb means to breastfeed.
The male breastfeeder. The he-wet-nurse. The breasted man.
Now, maybe I have breastfeeding on my mind, with the daily ritual of bottle-feeds and broken nights with the suckling kid. Maybe it’s my own cultural blinkers – having heard Stillen first at Christmas fairs sipping glühwein, envisioning the Christ babe on Mary’s sacred boob while Stille Nacht tinkles out of faux-wood speakers. And it would be the easiest thing for me to translate the word so it gets past my editors: ‘Shepherd, quietener / quiet since the turn / now settle your concerns / first for things’ – something of the sort. But the word catches me; Der Stiller, a man engaged, if we take the word in its common use, in breastfeeding.
I sploosh beer over my photocopy. Not the first time. There are muslins for kid-spills everywhere, and they soak beer easily.
I know she is probably asleep, but I creep over the stair gate, past the ironing and poke into the darkness of our bedroom, where Sabine, lo, is feeding the kid again.
Tip-tip-tap on her brain trainer, headphones in.
I creak down on the bed beside her, rubbing her flank.
She gestures, as if I can’t see the kid latched to her pale breast in the moonlight through the skylight.
‘I know,’ I whisper, ‘but just one thing. Say you were just a stranger – say you didn’t know me – and I asked you what Stillen was in English. What would you say?’
Her eyes are dark.
‘Breastfeeding,’ she whispers, shifting her weight to talk to me, but as she does so, the kid breaks his latch, small jaw pulling off the boob. He is not an easy latcher, and he has a virus in his mouth at the minute. He is an easy crier though, and now he opens his lungs and starts giving it some.
‘Fuck’s sake, Jer,’ says Sabine, turning round. And the kid is doing that nasty raspy cry, a weird scratching of your lizard brain to find, fetch, feed; anything to stop that noise. Sabine holds herself, tries to latch him again; I watch from the doorway for a moment, then head back down the stairs to my workspace on the coffee table.
Tuesdays is Baby Aerobics, when Sabine and Nuala head off in their leggings with the kids in tow, and I am supposed to go to the pub. Since we moved down here, the only guy I know is Heiko. I don’t get out much, so I don’t mess around. Heiko doesn’t have kids, so he takes one beer to my beer-and-chaser, but it honestly takes me that to stick him. He’s still flying high from the reception of his translation of Lakshmi’s Dry Pond, Fish two years ago. I happen to know he doesn’t speak a word of Tamil – or at least didn’t before they flew him to the PEN Awards – and he relied on Google Translate for the whole bridge text. Anyhow, he speaks German too – he’s the last guy we keep in touch with from our road trip years in Heidelberg – so I decide I can hassle him about it.
‘That’s balls,’ he says. ‘Stillen comes first. I mean silence. Any German would read it as the silencer.’
His English is flawless, but at times he misses nuance.
‘What – like a gun?’
‘Well, maybe not silencer.’ He passes me his fags, knows I can’t smoke any more at home. ‘But quietener, then. Settler – no – that’s too wild west. But quietener. Nurturer. Fuck, nurse even. The Male Nurse.’
I tilt my head and light up. ‘But it’s the context – the poem is about settling things. In the world. And the title is stark; a man. Der Stiller. It’s like –’
He laughs. ‘But that’s the point. He’s a man. There is no way any German is going to read Der Stiller and see a pair of – moobs, the word? – a big pair of floppy moobs hanging on top of a beer gut into the mouth of a child. Context is key – you know that. There is no sense in which Der Stiller is a man breastfeeding. It doesn’t fit.’
I am not prepared to give it up. He leans in.
‘Look – sometimes one word comes first, yeah? The original meaning of stillen was to silence – to bring things to quietness. Then, later, at some point in history, comes the breast; the child was made silent by breastfeeding. The meaning flows in one direction. Silence first. Breastfeeding is just one way to make things silent.’
At times like this, when he talks to me like an undergrad, I find myself staring at his mouth. His lips have no flecks of dry skin; the beard is auburn with no grey. I wonder if he breastfed as a child.
‘I am not sure language can flow in one way,’ I say. ‘And Heidegger always says we should be listening to language –’
‘To language, yes, but not the language of the street,’ says Heiko, stubbing out his cigarette. ‘Well, good luck getting it past your editor.’
And that is that, the conversation is over. We turn to chatting about Breaking Bad (which I haven’t seen yet), about the rugby (which I know nothing of) and then a series of limp questions about the well-being of the kid. I tell him about the sores in his mouth, the funny rash on the bum, but he is only half-listening. And although I am only half-cut, it is a relief when Sabine starts tooting the horn out front.
Her sports bag and the kid’s clutter fill the front seat, so I climb in the back.
‘You smell of smoke,’ she says as I squeeze past.
I grunt. The kid is mewling, so I lean over to give him my thumb to suck on. Perhaps he doesn’t like the taste of tobacco, but he arches away, and is howling by the time we are home.
Wednesdays I have the kid all day again. Sabine gets up at six, doing the morning feed with her right boob while she milks her left with the expresser, filling me up a bottle for the mid-morning feed. Then she drives off, and I can usually lie in until about eight or so before the kid wakes again, mewling, and it’s straight to the sofa. Normally I can get him interested in the glitz and lights of Hi-5 or Peppa Pig, then I feed him with one arm when he starts bawling, leaving me the other to scour my various inboxes.
Today, though, he has no interest. He is crying and crying, but for the life of me he won’t take the bottle; keeps pulling away, crying harder. I taste the milk myself to make sure it hasn’t denatured – it’s like powdery cream, a touch soapy, but normal enough. So I warm the bottle for another five minutes. When that still doesn’t work, I get a clean ice cube out of the freezer, to rub against his gums. When I peel back his lips, that’s when I see it – there aren’t just a couple of sores any more: his mouth is a wet spitty mess of phlegm, laced with blood.
My fingers come away red.
I feel his chest, and fuck, he is fairly hot. I stick the beeper in his ear. 39 degrees. The book says that’s pretty bad.
I walk him up and down the stairs for two minutes, wondering what to do; then I phone the wife.
I get through the second time.
‘Sabine, listen to him.’ I hold the phone to his mouth, his crying is dry – the noise exhausting him. ‘His sores have got far worse – his whole mouth is fucked. There’s blood all over his tongue.’
There is a pause on the other end of the line.
‘How are his nappies?’
They were bad. I check again.
‘Red raw. And he’s 39 degrees. And he’s not taking anything. He’s just not.’
‘The doctor said this would happen. Use the spray if you have to. Just keep him in fluids.’ But the spray stings him, sets him off every time.
‘Listen,’ I say, ‘I might take him to the doctor’s again.’
‘That’s another €50.’
There is a longer pause.
‘What will they tell you different than last time?’
In the background, I hear furniture sliding, and someone laughing.
‘Look – I can’t bunk again – not today,’ she says. ‘Just do your best to keep him in fluids, I’ll be back at six.’ I don’t want to give her the clear conscience of a sign-off, so I hang up in silence.
It doesn’t stop. Normally, if I stand by the door to our flat and let the air blow over his face, that distracts him, but the way he is screeching, a couple of young mothers eye me weirdly from across the road. Then the one at 81 starts peeking through her curtains, and I close the world on us.
I try another milk from the freezer, all the time with him looped over my forearm, as every time I put him down he hits the hard single notes. First I try the milk cold, then warm it up a little. Then I pour the hot kettle into our biggest pan to let it cool, and after half an hour, decant that in a bottle. To give him some water at least. None of it works.
Thing is, the nappies keep coming – they’re soaked through. Somehow there is water in him, but the amount coming out of him cannot be good. There are two shits in the morning – both wet – the bum on him is pure red; even when I dab on the Sudocrem, he wrings himself like a cloth.
39.7 degrees. And he is sweating.
Babies don’t sweat. I mean – not really. But his vest is wet, under his pits.
Eventually, near lunchtime, the cries simmer down. I think he’s just exhausted. I’ve got him on my belly, my legs up on the coffee table, his face turned towards the telly, and his shrieks soften to a whimper, and he dozes off. I’ve got my laptop balanced on my knees, and I leave Der Stiller behind, to have a go at another poem.
Der Aufblitz einer höchsten Blüte,
die, ins Gedeihen
daß freyend sie die Blitze hüte
And it’s all grand for the most part; lightning and flowers and love – for Heidegger this is deceptively easy. But then I come to another bastard word. Freyen. It is an archaic form of freien, which, in most of Heidegger’s verse, is fairly easily translated as ‘to liberate’ or ‘to make free’. However, there is another meaning commonly understood: to marry.
To free or to marry. One or the other.
Perhaps there was some common ground at some point. The Dictionary of the Brothers Grimm hints at a man freeing his beloved from the yoke of her father’s stewardship through the sacrament of marriage. Maybe that is how it was, a liberation, though I doubt it. But in English, the two meanings diverge to infinity. To bind two people together in economic subroutines which are in themselves a proliferation of systems of power. Or to break bindings – to set them free. I can’t see how to reconcile both.
As I weigh my options, the laptop slips, and clunks its hard edge into the kid’s back. The skin isn’t broken – some redness but no scratch – but he starts his noise again. And this time it’s harder, like a dog or a goose’s bark, but ratchety. I curse and try to give him the bottles again – the water, the cooled milk – but I may as well jam them in his eye. And he’s loud, and he’s gargly.
So it’s off, into the buggy we go. I drag his onesie out of the washing, scrape off baby porridge and chuck him into it, and we are out the door in less than five minutes, we’re pushing through the streets in a middling drizzle, him wailing like a siren. I’ve forgotten my coat, and the wife has the car, but at least the rain keeps folk off the streets so none of the mammies see me piling down to the health centre. It closes at one out here, and I should have phoned ahead, but I can’t get anything into him, and he’s that hot and tired but won’t stop the sore crying, and fuck the €50 anyway, sure fuck the pub, and then I’m there. But it turns out I reckoned wrong, and the car park is empty, and on Wednesdays they close at twelve.
He screams the whole way home. Wee pinched face on him, sometimes lulling into the sad wails, sometimes screaming himself awake for single notes. The rain starts to fall with gusto, and gets in at him, but I walk slower for it. Maybe it will cool him.
The one at 81 is at her curtains.
I am soaked through to my pants by the time I get in.
In the house, I strip and lie on the sofa, him on my chest. Then I get up, get a clean sheet, strip him bare too and lie down again, pulling the sheet over the both of us. He is so hot, and wheezing, with dabs of blood on his lips. I hold him on my chest and try to pace my own breath slow against his lungs, so his breathing falls into rhythm with mine, so he can sleep.
In the dream, I go surfing with Heidegger.
We are somewhere in Donegal – Malin Head, I think – and strip in the dunes and tug into wetsuits. He is fatter than me, but not by much. In the dream, he has some kind of tattoo on his forearm.
He winks at me, as if to say, say nothing.
Then we are out onto the waves and the cold of the water is like a hard thump in the head. In real life, I never get past kneeling, but here the waves are manageable, and I manage to stand briefly on the board. I concentrate, finding the line between the rising wave and the resting sea, pressing the board into it, getting carried parallel to the beach. I wipe out, but each time climb back on the board, waiting for the next breaker. I laugh.
Heidegger is clumsier than me. He keeps slipping, or standing too far back so the board shoots from under him, but he is resolute. Soon he is kneeling up, brine pouring through his moustache and over his small male breasts in the wetsuit. He raises his arms to the sky as he rides a small wave, triumphant, and then wipes out. He struggles pulling himself on-board, so I paddle over, and we sit for a minute, looking at my car up the beach. Sabine is in there, feeding the kid. I wave to them.
‘Der Trick ist, Jer,’ he tells me, ‘du musst die Sprache hören. Aber auch die Wellen.’ And so I do – I listen to the waves. The white noise, a swell, that makes its own silence. And now Heidegger says something else and laughs, but I can’t hear him, just the sea, pushing and pulling us up and down.
I find myself looking under his grey moustache, and I wonder if he was breastfed – crawling up to unfold his mother from her dirndl and latch on. I wonder if he stared at Elfride breastfeeding his sons in the dark. Or even Hermann, not his biological son, whom he raised as his own. I wonder if he was there as they were born in some ward in Freiburg, if he took a moment, with his top off, holding the child on his bare skin. Like I did. Like I did.
But then I look at the car, unsure if Sabine and the kid can see me – and I wonder if they are in there at all. It could be some other woman, one of the mammies from the park, feeding her child in my front seat. Or it could be one of the thousands of mothers on her way to Birkenau, settling the child at her teat in the dark, as both of their names were erased from the annals by the white noise of Heidegger’s silence over Auschwitz. I paddle inland. Out of the white pages of history, the white margins of the map, I have no clue who is feeding what child in the front seat of my car.
By now I have dumped the surfboard, and I run up the beach to yank the door open. Of course it is empty. And when I turn around, Heidegger is missing from the waves. I am alone on the beach, watching wisps of dry sand blow in the white noise of the sea.
By the time Sabine gets back, the kid is sucking an ice cube from my fingers. Spit and water drip up my wrist, but he has got the knack of it, wincing as it nudges his bloody gums, sticking his short tongue out to meet it. But he bucks when she comes, quick, and in moments, he is under her shirt, quiet, tugging sweet ropes of protein out of her.
We have pasta with bacon and cream. It’s alright.
While we eat, she asks me about the day. I list bowel movements, failed bottles, the progression of temperatures. I want to be angry, but the quiet of the house is stunning. So instead, I rush my dinner, and say I have to get to work. I crack open my laptop in the bedroom, then shift to the living room when she starts to settle him.
I potter and fuss over umlauts and commas and line breaks, but if I am honest, the work is half-hearted. This despite four small Biere d’Or and a fag out the back around midnight when I am sure she’s asleep.
Around one I creak into bed beside them, him in the middle, me by the wall. I have ruined my sleep pattern with the doze in the afternoon. I try not to touch him, of course, but he is at rest, his breath stirring slightly as I lie a palm’s width away
Sleep doesn’t come, so I lie listening. There is the odd siren, flashes of conversation from midweek drinkers. But the traffic is the main sound, fading into a tide of white noise.
I read somewhere that white noise is a remnant of the Big Bang. That right at the start of the universe, the crash was so colossal that the echo resounds even now, seen in the cosmic snow on television and listened to by astronomers with their giant sonic telescopes. White noise is supposed to help you sleep, as the slushing hum settles brainwaves into regular patterns, so I think of this with my eyes closed, focusing on the muted wash of traffic all over the town, listening to hear the universe vibrate from the after-tremors of its own genesis. A noise so prevalent it becomes the absence of noise.
At some point, the kid nyerks, reaching out to grab at his mother, mooing softly in the dark. I watch his thoughtless fists hit out, his face flailing gently, and without opening her eyes, my wife lifts her T-shirt and bares her soft boob to his mouth. He finds it quickly, either through hunger or finally getting it, and after a couple of latching sucks, she is lying there, half-bared, as he pulls the milk through her body into his. I roll on my side and watch them a while.
The silence is broken faintly with the mash of his jaws, the occasional pucker of his lips and the heave of his breath. Almost not sounds at all.
Photograph © nik gaffney