Where the Dragons Live | Clemens Meyer| Granta

Where the Dragons Live

Clemens Meyer

Translated by Katy Derbyshire

Sometimes I miss the dragons.

Then I ask Valon, the boy with the funny name. He’s got a moped and he drives me to the village where I come from, where the dragons live.

The others mustn’t find out I get lifts from Valon on his moped, ’cause they don’t like him.

When we go to see the dragons I hold on tight to Valon, sitting behind him. I can feel his muscles. Valon is strong ’cause he works on building sites, even though he’s only seventeen. I tell him he’s stronger than anyone else I know, even though some of the others have big brothers who lift weights and do sport and look like warriors from the films. Valon laughs and calls me ‘little sister’ and the others mustn’t find out I’ve got a crush on him. I’m not in love, I’m too young for that.

Sometimes I think he likes me and I . . . and us getting on so well is ’cause we’re both not from here. His village is further away than mine, somewhere in the south or the south-east . . . ‘Used to be called Yugoslavia,’ my dad says, ‘socialist brothers, long time ago.’ Both villages have vanished now, or almost, and now we’re here.

On the weekends we hang out at the station, me and the others – I mean, the others and me.

Valon’s at work on his building site, he earns more on Saturdays, and on Sundays he has to rest or spend time with his family. ‘They have a lot of tradition,’ he says. But he only meets me when the others aren’t around anyway.

The station’s on the edge of town. We don’t live near the station, none of us do. We meet up by the river, behind the tower blocks. When there’s a lot of us we’ll march from the river right through the town centre, right down the shopping streets, past the fountain, past the town hall, past the dark warriors’ church, when there’s lots of us we’re loud, we yell and scream, and when we see kids from the villages on our way to the station we yell even louder, spit and yell and scream.

We sit in the station, the big hall in the station, on steps and benches, we stand around in the dark corners watching the travellers, the people coming, the people going, we roam around the station shop, flick through comics and sex mags in the newsagent’s, search the men’s toilets; sometimes drunks have a rest in the cubicles and we nick their beer cans and hand them in at the shop, twenty-five cents deposit per can, and sometimes we take a couple of euros out of their pockets, they never have much, and we run down the tunnel to the platforms, when there’s lots of us we shout out loud in there, it booms back off the walls and the words come from all over, like echoes. ‘Germany!’ the others shout, and then in rhythm, ‘East Ger-ma-ny, East Ger-ma-ny!’ Sometimes I join in, and the words come from all over, freight trains pass over our heads and our shouts disappear in the rattle of the wheels, the tunnel seems to quake and tremble, we stand on one of the platforms and count the freight-train wagons, we’re almost children still, and when there’s only a few of us, ’cause some of the others get to hang out on the weekends with their brothers in the park and have a barbecue and drink beer, we sit outside the station and wait for the tourists.

My favourite place to sit is on the stairs in the big station hall, the ones going up to the old Mitropa restaurant that’s been closed for years now, and I sit between the two men.

One of them’s wearing a helmet with a miner’s lamp, the other one holds an abacus in his hands. I like touching them ’cause they feel cool and smooth. They’re facing the big door with the station forecourt outside it, they look like they’re thinking hard, their foreheads all wrinkled up, sometimes they even look a bit sad, their dark bronze eyes, but I think they’re only sad when I am too.

I’m sitting between the two men kneeling on pedestals on either side of the stairs, I’m resting my elbows on my thighs, my head on my hands, my palms on my cheeks. I can feel myself pouting and I wish Valon was here to see me pouting.

The others are sitting around outside the station waiting for the tourists; the trains from the big cities will be arriving soon. But I want to be on my own. I always want to be alone.

I look over at the station shop. Right next to the big door, Valon and me are standing at a table eating currywurst, he’s got a beer on the table, I’ve got a Coke, we’re leaning against the wall, we’ve moved the table into the niche between the wall and the pillar, the woman in the shop gave us a funny look but Valon paid and gave her a good tip, and now we’re standing in the niche and eating and drinking.

‘I bet you want to go and see the dragons again, huh, little sister?’ He drinks from his beer and then leans over the cardboard plate of currywurst.

‘If you’ll drive me.’ I look up and I can feel the curry-ketchup moustache on my upper lip before he laughs.

‘Grubby little sister!’ He wipes my mouth with a paper serviette, then his, and I get goosebumps.

‘I’m not your sister.’

‘No, you’re not, little sister.’

‘I can just hitchhike!’

‘You shouldn’t.’

‘I’m not a kid any more.’

‘Maybe, little sister, but it’s better if I drive you.’

And then we drive. I lean against his back, feel his muscles and his breathing. Most of the time I close my eyes and don’t see whether he takes the fast road or the country road through all the villages; I feel safe against his back.

‘You’re such a grubby little sister!’ He wipes my currywurst moustache with a tissue. A bang. The station hall booms. Another bang. The others are in the tunnel, lighting fireworks, New Year’s Eve rockets bought in Poland or from the Czech Republic. Neither are far away. We squeeze back into the niche, watching the travellers glancing around in shock at every bang. Valon flinches next to me too, I can see his hands gripping the tabletop for a moment and the muscles on his arms hardening, and I put my hand on his, carefully.

‘Tell me about your village, Valon.’ Freight trains rattle along the tracks and make our voices small.

‘Can’t hardly remember. You tell me about yours.’

He drinks his beer and looks tired. I can see the dust from the building site in his hair, it shines grey even though he’s only seventeen.

‘If you need a pee, it’s better if you go to the ladies,’ I tell Valon, and he laughs at that.

When we’re sad, the two men with their dark bronze eyes stare outside as well, towards the town. One of them grips an abacus, the other wears a miner’s helmet.

When we’re sad, we stand in the niche next to the station shop, lean against the wall and watch the travellers criss-crossing the hall.

‘We’ve got tourists, let’s go!’

The others call and wave from outside. There’s not many of us this Saturday, the tables outside the shop are empty, Valon’s on his building site, and I walk over to the exit, over to the big door.

We take a little tourist party to the building that blew up a few years ago, a long time before I moved here with my parents. They left the outside walls standing for a while, the others say, but then they pulled it down.

There was a lot of stuff on TV about the building and the woman who lived there with her two men, how they travelled up and down the country with their weapons, travelled to other towns, far away, taking death with them, but they always came back to our town and the building that’s vanished now. I didn’t pick up on much of it, I was still little and the dragons were perched in the pit outside our village and coming closer and closer. Villages vanishing, buildings vanishing. Dust coming up out of the pits, dust settling on us when we played by the pits, thick dust with the dragons crawling behind it, inching closer, dust on houses, on the roofs where we sat to watch the dragons. ‘If you need a pee you can use the chimney!’ I laughed and coughed. ‘Is that you, Valon, next to me . . . ?’

A lot of tourists think the building where the woman lived with the two men is still there, but we just take them to the gap between the houses, and sometimes they’re disappointed and we have to tell them stories so they’ll give us money anyway. It’s usually me who tells the stories, even though I’m new in town, but I’m good at telling stories and the others know it’s better if they don’t say anything, ’cause otherwise the tourists go away again and we don’t get anything at all.

The others think heroes lived in the vanished building. ‘Like Bonnie and Clyde,’ one of the others says, a boy only a bit older than me. None of us knows what that means, no one knows who Bonnie and Clyde are. And when we ask he starts stuttering and says something about gangsters and films and resistance and ‘against the system’, ’cause the people in the vanished building were against the system as well, but for Germany.

I don’t tell the tourists that.

I tell them about the paths the woman used to walk, about the shops she used to go to, and how friendly she was to everyone, and how she used to go to see the sheep on the riverbank when the two men were on their travels, and how she might not have known what they . . . And how she fell in love with a shepherd and even spent a while with the shepherd by the riverbank, on a bed of wool, ’cause the two men used to go away for a long time, sometimes with their weapons, and the woman used to get lonely . . . no, the shepherd’s moved on now, long gone now, when he found out the woman and the two men . . . and that they had weapons and they robbed banks as well and they . . . well, it just broke his . . .

And the tourists nod and sway their heads and stroke their chins and look at the gap. We take them to the river as well, criss-cross the park with them. ‘She used to sit here, on this park bench, she even carved something . . .’ and there really is a heart and two letters and an arrow piercing the heart.

The others roll their eyes, pretend they’re doing the Hitler salute behind the tourists’ backs, but they don’t say anything ’cause they know my stories make money.

But when I go too over the top they get mad at me, even though we always share the money the tourists give me, and then they chase me up against a wall, stand so close that I can’t get away, and I wish Valon was here to help me.

Then they ask me if I love Germany, if I’d show my pussy to dirty Turks and Yugos, all that kind of stuff. It hurts.

There were Americans here not that long ago. I didn’t tell them anything about the sheep, didn’t tell them about the woman from the vanished building falling in love with the shepherd. I went to the park at night and carved the heart into the bench. The V’s too big, and the two lines carry on past where they meet at the bottom, so it looks almost like an X. I’m too young to fall in love.

Sometimes, when Valon drives me to my vanished village and we lie on one of the roofs in the next-door village, where no one lives any more ’cause it will be vanishing soon too, and we look at the pit where the dragons are grubbing in the earth and inching closer and closer, I tell him about the woman and the two men. Valon didn’t live in the town back then either. I tell him the story like a fairy tale, as if the three of them were cursed. ‘And every night they set off with their weapons and wrought misery over the world.’

‘And the woman was with them too?’ Valon asks. ‘With a weapon?’ And I want to tell him about love and redemption and a coffin made of glass, but he’s stopped listening. He’s somewhere else and looking at the dragons with big dark eyes as they crawl through the dust, as they stir up the dust. There are so many different kinds of dust, the really fine white kind and black dust from coal, some taste bitter, others kinda sweet. When I was really little I knew them all, where they come from in the layers of earth which our house has vanished into, where the dragons dig their burrows.

‘Why do you miss them if they’ve eaten up your village?’ Valon asks, and I move a bit closer to him so he can feel me shrugging.

‘Don’t know.’

I can’t tell the Americans romantic fairy tales. ‘Americans want action,’ the others whisper to me.

So that’s why I lead the Americans past the vacant lots by the station. ‘Look at our battlefields.’ Take them to the empty old hotel.

I’m pretty good at English and the others stand listening in amazement as I tell the Americans my stories. I don’t want the others to push me up against a wall again.

There was a fire at the hotel. Just now, and before that as well.

And I embroider on before that, so much so that the Americans can’t keep their mouths shut.

The hotel was already empty and burnt when I moved to town with my parents. Some kind of insurance scam, my dad suspected, but I don’t tell the Amis that. ‘They fight here, like Bonnie and Clyde!’ And the Amis are amazed and nod, ’cause they know who Bonnie and Clyde are, and I tell them more stories, wilder and wilder.

The woman up on the roof with a machine gun and the two men, ‘the two boys shoot their way free’ from ‘so many police’ while the woman, ‘the lady’, covers for them.

‘But they died in a camper?’ the Amis ask, and I tell them about the two men escaping from the burning hotel and fighting their way through to their caravan, the woman still on the roof with her machine gun. The Amis are amazed and nod and shake their heads. ‘Crazy Nazis!’ I’m glad there aren’t any black Amis here, or the others would make their jokes and say their chimney-sweep stuff, roll down their lower lips and make a thick upper lip with their tongues, and we wouldn’t get any money and then they’d blame me again. The boys and the lady.

‘What did the Amis say, and what did you say, and why were they so shocked?’

The others are wound up like clockwork and leaping around, and now we’re inside the hotel, where the lobby used to be. It smells burnt, broken glass everywhere, we want to go up on the roof that’s nothing but singed beams now, the others say something about a dare but I know they want to see the town and the river and the mountains from up there, throw paper planes at the station, close their eyes and look into the sun.

We creep slowly out of the lobby up to the first floor, ’cause we heard noises there. I’m still proud ’cause the Amis believed everything I told them, once upon a time, and I keep putting my hand on the coins in my pocket. The walls are covered in swastikas and scribbles. I’m going to draw a heart and a V on the ragged wallpaper when the others aren’t watching.

‘Yugos’ whore.’ Hands on my back, fists, and my head bangs against one of the doors as we run along the corridor. Number 18.

‘Leave me alone!’ I don’t know why they’re pushing and shoving me ’cause I’ve done everything right, with the Americans and everything else.

I’m running along the corridor, glass crunching beneath my feet, I see a big bed in one room, the mattresses ripped up and foam spilling out. ‘Why do you like the dragons?’ and then I stumble over a man lying on the floor in front of me. He’s in a dirty sleeping bag, his hair long and grey and greasy. We smell right away that he’s drunk.

He’s sicked up on the wall as well, and we push the sleeping bag over to the wall with our feet to the puke, push his face into it. He slurs some words, his eyes still closed.

Two boys plant themselves in front of him and pee on his sleeping bag, we girls giggle and look away.

The man tries to crawl out of his sleeping bag but the boys keep kicking him in the side, so he rolls up against the wall with a groan. When I’m with Valon visiting the dragons I show him the place where our house used to be. He can hardly remember his village, he was very little when his parents came here with him. The rest of his family stayed, vanished along with the village, and sometimes he talks about them, stories he got from his parents, but Valon says it feels like he knew them all, uncles and aunties and grandparents. Then his eyes go dark and we’re two bronze shapes and we stare into the distance, unmoving.

‘Let’s go somewhere else,’ I say, and jangle the coins in my pocket, ‘we’ve got money, we can go to the cinema or . . .’ My voice sounds strange in the corridor, you can hardly hear it, it vanishes behind the open doors, into the empty rooms where the windows are boarded shut. ‘We can go to the station, buy comics . . .’ But no one hears me. I want to run away, but I stay close, near the others.

They pour Korn on the man, who’s still rolled up against the wall in his sleeping bag. He holds both hands over his head for protection and groans quietly.

When I’m visiting the dragons with Valon, I tell him about my grandad who didn’t want to leave. We’d already moved to town then and we went to see him at the weekends, and my dad kept trying to persuade him to move, said the flat next door was free, there were even sheep grazing on the banks of the river! But Grandad sat on the bench outside his house, looked over at the oak tree by the bus stop where the old weather-beaten memorial stood, where we kids used to trace the letters and names and years, barely visible by then, with our fingertips. When I was really little, I thought the dead were lying right underneath the oak tree and the stone, but they’d died somewhere completely different, fallen, we read, and when I was really little I thought people had just fallen over there, stumbled and then got up again. Grandad’s here in town in a graveyard now and I bet he’s not happy. He was just sitting dead on his bench one day when we came to visit, his head on his chest. Valon thinks the dead live on. I don’t, really.

And he says memories are in our blood. That’s why he flinches when the others light fireworks, and that’s why his eyes sometimes go all dark and he’s somewhere else and far away, when we’re lying on one of the roofs in the next village and staring at the big, never-ending pit.

I ask him if we can drive his moped to his village one day, even if it is far away, since it’s the school holidays soon and he’s got enough money from the building site, and he laughs at that and comes back, and we watch the dust drifting through the pit, flickering in sunlight fractured by jets of water, the dust that settles and then rises back up again and swathes the giant diggers.

The sleeping bag with the man in it catches fire, and the others run away and I’m the only one who stays and watches the flames go out on their own and the man coughing and crawling out into one of the other rooms.

I put the money from the Yanks down in the doorway and back off towards the stairs.

The others will be back at the station. I know what building site Valon’s working on. I’ll go and hide there and watch him. When he sees me, he’ll wave and call out ‘Little sister’. I’m not in love, I’m too young for that.

Valon gets on his moped and I sit behind him. We drive somewhere, we just drive around to nowhere in particular, and when I turn around I see our town, where the dragons live.


translator’s note: In November 2011, a flat in Zwickau occupied by the three known members of the neo-Nazi terrorist group, National Socialist Underground, was set on fire, causing an explosion. Beate Zschäpe survived but her co-conspirators Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt died that day. Fearing discovery, they set their motorhome on fire and shot themselves. The far-right group murdered at least ten people, committed three bombings and robbed fifteen banks. Zschäpe was arrested and eventually received a life sentence for nine murders, an attack on police leading to a further murder, arson leading to two attempted murders and membership of  terrorist organisation. Four accessories to the crimes were also imprisoned.


Photograph © Bertram Kober, Gremminer See, 1998
Copyright by Faber & Faber Verlag GmbH, Leipzig 2021.

Clemens Meyer

Clemens Meyer was born 1977 in Halle and lives in Leipzig. After high school he jobbed as a watchman, building worker and removal man. He studied creative writing at the German Literary Institute, Leipzig and was granted a scholarship by the Saxon Ministry of Science and Arts in 2002. His first novel, Als wir träumten, was a huge success and for his second book, Die Nacht, die Lichter, a collection of short stories, he was awarded the Leipzig Book Fair Prize 2008. Bricks and Mortar, his latest novel, was shortlisted for the German Book Prize and was awarded the Bremer Literaturpreis 2014.

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Translated by Katy Derbyshire

Katy Derbyshire, originally from London, has lived in Berlin for over twenty years. She translates contemporary German writers including Inka Parei, Heike Geissler, Olga Grjasnowa, Annett Gröschner and Christa Wolf. Her translation of Clemens Meyer’s Bricks and Mortar was the winner of the 2018 Straelener Übersetzerpreis (Straelen Prize for Translation). She occasionally teaches translation and also co-hosts a monthly translation lab and the bi-monthly Dead Ladies Show.

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