CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
Last Year at Schlangenbad
Joan Harvey





     These trips that begin on airplanes and end on airplanes.


     She cannot speak the language.


     Something that may have already ended.


     With him again at last in this small room. Things hanging on the walls. Rusted sawblades and machinery.


     They bump their heads making love in the high loft. Have bad dreams. She goes to Crocodile Island, he tries to hit his kids.


     At night groundwater comes up and in the morning they have to mop the floor. The couch is mildewed. She eats brown bread with plum jam for breakfast every day. A lot of chocolates.


     Water rising from the earth each night. They see the Ganges spread out in rivulets in the dirt.


     On his rough wood table his children have drawn a colorful checkerboard snake. He can see them only rarely. His great unhappiness.


     A map of Venice on his wall.


     These moods and then peace and sunshine. They call his place the bunker.


     In cafés and restaurants they’re always searching for knoedl.


     She has brought some work with her. A fountain she is designing.


     He tells her that in a restaurant in Hungary some people at another table began discussing him. They didn’t realize he was Hungarian and could understand them. “He has a brutal face,” the man had said. The woman said, “No, only very masculine.”


     Later she asks him if he thinks he is brutal. He turns from her sharply and she sees that she has hit a nerve.


     Days in silence, walks through the thick German woods. The forests dark and thick and relentless. Someone could hunt her here.


     A rheumatism resort.


     Dark bread.


     Orange slugs and mushrooms come out after the rain. And a little sun. She wanders, she takes the Bug Trail, and the Deer Trail and Trail 9 and Trail 3. An odd snake sign marks the way. A tree filled with spiderwebs.


     A man by the fountain, not like the ones she designs, but the old fashioned kind, a basin, some ornate roccoco work. The man’s mouth in his tan and bloated face turns down in a sad unpleasant way. He smokes cigarette after cigarette. He sees them watching him. When he gets up to go, she sees his vulnerability.


     Carefully tended flower boxes as one would expect.


     She’d like to lie down under the dripping willow, but not here in proper Germany.


     A girl in Germany. Trying to learn to love.


     Everywhere little houses in the trees, the evidence of hunting.


     There in the bunker, the flowers have too much water, everything has too much water, her love for him is too wet, it seeps up from underground, it lingers in the smell of the water and the water dripping in the buckets.


     His one-legged stepfather survived the war and married a Jewish girl he rescued. It was an unhappy marriage.


     Days alone wandering the woods. He is at work building a house. Rain pours down, but the trees are so thick that underneath stays dry. There is almost no undergrowth.


     Grass stains on her knees, holes in her pockets, she sprawls, young American woman, but not that young, inappropriate. She hasn’t the rigidity to keep herself vertical. Floating above her is a house with shiny black windows, one-way glass, so she can imagine someone watching her or not, as she wishes. Because if no one sees her does she exist? The old question.


     Singing birds and falling night. She goes off into the woods to leave him alone. She allows the dark to follow her.


     A small one room apartment—a window that lets in sun, some freshly stolen lilacs.


      “You can’t behave like this,” the old neighbor tells them, “this is Germany.” They must move the truck which is an eyesore. Move the bicycles. Move the chairs. Sort the garbage. Lock the locks. Each day the neighbor checks for faults. When the garbage isn’t properly sorted he carries it back and puts it in front of their door.


     When it’s not raining it’s peace and sunshine and flowers, the idea of order made manifest. Bells bang away every quarter hour, a regular cacaphony at morning noon and night.


     On a bench, afternoon, eating ice cream, next to another woman, also eating, companionable. The birds sing all day here, she speaks no German, what is the word for bird?


     She dreams of Josepf Beuys—an art opening—Beuys is not friendly.
      “Did he have his hat on?” he asks. “This is the key question—because he always wore a hat.” Beuys had a metal plate in his head—useful for frying eggs on they agree.


     One of her feet now moves oddly when she walks. He says she’s not connected to the ground.


     When she looks at his face all she can see is primal geometry.


     She dreams of going to Venice, but the road is in disrepair.


     Laughter from him in the tub.


     A letter from home, Deanna has crashed her motorcycle again, something she does when her relationships go wrong.


     The fountain. A low one to fit the space. Will she be able to sell a fountain that sputters?


     Her fear waking up that she has done something which will kill him or lose him.


     A German terrorist and his mother on TV. How does she cope with having a terrorist for a son? the mother is asked. The terrorist gets upset because at one point they refer to him as an ex-terrorist.


     Visiting friends. A bird that won’t fly. Elaborate still lifes arranged beneath paintings of meat. The curved roof. Tea from the good water.


     He says she cultivates her vulnerability. That she can afford to be unreasonable.


     He holds back, she plunges on. She can see it. Doesn’t know how to stop it.


     He stares often out to space.


     One can say anything about anything.


     Next day. Shattered and weeping.


     She walks for miles on forest trails. At one point a drunken man, fiftyish, sinister, in green loden hat and gear says to her: Halte. He doesn’t want her to go the way she does. She persists, and he gives in. Later on a big, stupid-looking boy stares at her from his bicycle. A nasty barking dog comes along and she walks right by it, while the boy remains frozen in place.


     This site of death which is Germany has been talked about so much one can no longer say anything and one cannot not say anything either.


     His wife calls and hangs up without speaking.


     The dark forests, the glistening webs, the big cars gliding through the German forests, the last traces of scent of him in her hair leaving behind evidence, her hairs in the sink, in the bath, the word niedergeschlagen.


     This special organ for sensing pain.


     He sleeps like a log he says, and what do logs dream—of being trees once more and sprouting leaves, growing heavenward? Or of the bare smooth planks they will become?


     Cold twisting away.


     She wanders. She has conversations with him in her head.


     She speaks no German, a little German, she doesn’t eat sauerbraten.


     She piles on the blankets even though she’s already sweating.


     They both talk of suicide not of love.


     Back in a room, in what used to be pleasure, she flays away smothered in some wound. He wounds his head.


     She goes out and sits on the stoop in the sun. There’s no category she fits right now, though if she weren’t American she couldn’t sprawl in this particular way. She’d be neater, daintier somehow. Though she’s not rough exactly—it’s just a different way of filling space.


     Last year they will sit by this same fountain where the old people waltz at 4 p.m. each Tuesday and Thursday.


     The world springs alert, leaves bristle, she sees smoke coming out of the elderly heads eating kuchen in the bakery. They are near a singer with a sonorous voice. She hates voices that resonant.


     The first day in court toward his divorce. She goes for a walk in the woods on trail 12.


     On the little balcony across the street a girl sits, her hair in those braided round loafs that look like giant earmuffs. They have taken to calling her Ingeborg.


     Church bells every quarter hour.


     Intermittent birdsong through the day.


     The man with the funny mustache.


     An art opening—friendly people, weak work. Heavy beer and meat. People in leather pants.


     The old man checks the garbage, the lock on the door, the position of the chair, whether the car is an eyesore or not. In this country, she is told, everyone has trouble with his neighbors.


     The Turks at the picnic ground are dark-haired strangers like her. Their presence makes her feel more at ease.


     After a disturbing argument they both go out separately and buy groceries—he buys olive oil and pepper and lemons; she gets strawberries and sweets and cheese.


     Evidence of his invisible children.


     The old people here are industrious, they hike, they waltz, they keep things tidy.


     The misty air which after a while she doesn’t notice, then the evening and the slow stretching torch songs.


     He tells her she’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. She seems shy and meek, but really she’s domineering and elitist.


     She’s done what she swore she would never do. Cross an ocean for a man.


     Joseph Beuys looks cool in that hat, no wonder she dreams of him. A man wrapped in fat and felt when his plane goes down, a man who makes disaster a sensuous experience. Who joined Hitler’s youth against his family’s wishes.


     By the swan pond a man sits on the bench masturbating, defiantly. That is, he seems to look at her defiantly as she walks by, trying to stay cool.


     There are masturbators in America too.


     He comes in all cold. And hurting her.


     On a long walk in the woods she begins to let him go. Her consciousness making a leap back into itself. A hurdle crossed, or is it just the idea of crossing a hurdle. A letting go and an immediate springing up of hope.


     She spends much of the day in the loft bed reading. A cold day. Gray. Sometimes she goes down to the wooden table and works on sketches for the fountain. He is due to return soon which makes her more covert in her thinking.


     His old history, the photos of the rooms in the heavy house, the wife, his children trying to hang on.


     Finding her way among the long trees, tall, dark in the evening, picking up a single feather. Carrying home water bottles like a milkmaid in the dusky light.


     This sweet, this black, this twist, this brutal in her.


     The feather is soft dark brown and white striped, a magic feather. She will tell him if he runs it over his forehead it will make his thoughts free.


     Long languages of desire and repeat history.


     The only thing I can give you is insecurity.


     A precipice of hope.


     They have congruent dreams. He dreams of water, a place of pilgrimage, but he doesn’t like all those people. She dreams of a high hot springs overlooking more water. The water spilling.


     The fountain chaotically spouting, errupting in all directions, drooling and spitting.


     She wants to make a fountain that will say nothing. A dry fountain.


     She can find here only sadness, the aftermath. What does that mean, aftermath?


     For a while she lived in Germany.


     Combine the extraction of kerosene with lumps of butter into a burning fat stew, ignite it, let turmoil flame. She could be a fool. Not the first fool.


     Her last day. They go together to the woods, the trees in the park gnarled, twisted, arching. For a while they clown, trying to get the people driving by to smile. Usually no one does. Occasionally an old lady lets escape a grin.


     The heavy body in its sluggish state going underground, the snake coiled. Listening, waiting. Trying to pick up new signals.


     Snakebath.


     The plane takes forever to cross the ocean, she has a dead black dome covering her heart, she thinks of wet furniture.


     Inside, last night’s semen and the stuff to kill it with.


     A clear view of the tip of Greenland just beneath the wing.



Joan Harvey’s poetry, fiction, and translations have appeared in dozens of literary journals, including Painted Bride Quarterly, Another Chicago Magazine, Bomb, Danse Macabre, Otoliths, Smokelong Quarterly, most recently in Caper Literary Journal, and forthcoming in the summer issue of Drunken Boat.