Online Exclusive

Nothing is Really What it Is

The world makes little sense, which is to say that it constantly exceeds understanding. Günter Zeitz is two, sitting on his bedroom floor, pushing his red and yellow wooden horse across the rug. A woman steps through the door. She is his mother—although her hair is pulled back so tightly from her face it looks as if it hurts. Also, there is a ball, dark brown like her hair, stuck to the top of her head. So maybe she is not his mother. Maybe he has made a mistake. His mother’s hair is loose and soft and it flows down on either side of her face, brushing her cheeks, hiding her ears. He likes to slip his fingers into it and feel its silkiness. His mother is happy when he does that, and he is happy too. Sometimes he is so happy he falls asleep. So maybe this is a woman who looks like his mother, but isn’t. He can’t stop thinking about the pain. His mother would never want to hurt herself by pulling her hair so tight. And so there is a long moment during which this woman is simultaneously his mother and some other woman, and Günter is overcome by the feeling that something very bad is happening and there is nothing he can do to stop it. Now he is three, looking out the window at his snow-covered garden. The sky is gray and the mountains on the far side of the valley are also snow-covered, but hard to see because they are behind a grayness that is like a thin layer of ice, only very smooth, smoother than a windowpane. The snow on top of the picnic table and benches is as thick as a man’s top hat is tall. Something is wrong. At first Günter doesn’t know what the wrong thing is, then he does. Nothing is moving. Not the trees. Not the clouds. Not the blond grass tufts sticking out of the snow. This morning, the wind was blowing and the snow swirled as it fell, sometimes swirling right back up into the sky. But now everything is so still it could be a photograph of itself. Günter didn’t know that the world could be possessed by such stillness, and he is frightened by the possibility that he too might go still. He should run. But he can’t run. He can’t even move his arms. Maybe the stillness has already settled over him and he will stay exactly as he is forever. But then a bit of black breaks away from a tree down the mountainside. It is a bird moving across the sky like a drifting twist of black fluff. The bird has set Günter free. He can lift his hands and turn his head. He can walk away from the window. Sometimes, however, it is words that make no sense, not the world. Sometimes it is a single word he has never heard before that is suddenly coming out of everybody’s mouth. Other times, it is what happens when words are put together. He might know all of the words by themselves, but when they come one after the other they lose their meaning. Günter is four and he asks his mother what “I can’t go on” means. They are in the kitchen. His mother is having coffee at the table. Nelly is standing behind an ironing board by the fire, periodically switching a cooled down iron for the newly hot one resting on the hob. “Well,” his mother says, “sometimes you want something to happen. You work very, very hard to make it happen, for a very long time. It is the only thing you can think about. Then, one day, you realize it’s not going to happen. There’s nothing you or anyone can do about it. So you say, ‘I can’t go on.’ Which means you stop trying. You stop trying even if you still want that thing very, very much. ‘I can't go on,’ you say.” This explanation brings a terrible fear into Günter’s life. He thinks his mother is saying that when you “can’t go on,” you have decided to die, and something in her tone of voice makes him think she herself has decided to die, that she has given up on life, and someday soon will abandon him absolutely and forever. He lives with this fear for many years. And now he has just come into the kitchen from the backyard. He is five years old. His father is sitting at a table beside the window, reading a newspaper. His father asks what he has been doing. “I was outside,” he says. “I know,” says his father, “because you  have just come through the door.” Then his father asks again, “What were you doing?” Günter can’t answer. The words just won’t come. “Are you deaf?” his father asks. “No,” he says. “Were you doing anything you are not supposed to do?” his father asks. “I was pretending to be a red Indian.” “Come here.” His father pats his own thigh.  When Günter doesn’t come, his father says, “I want to show you something.” Then he says, “I’m not going to hurt you.” Günter walks over and his father pulls him into his lap. Through the window, Günter can see the shed on the far side of the vegetable garden, its door wide open. There are shovels inside, and rakes. But also a hedge clipper. “You know you are forbidden to touch the hedge clipper?” his father tells him. Günter nods, then keeps his head down. “And you know the hedge clipper is dangerous?” Günter can’t answer. Or even glance his father’s way. “Then why were you playing with it?” Günter starts to cry. His father takes his hand. “The hedge clipper could cut these little fingers off in an instant,” his father says. “But that’s not so bad, because you would only be hurting your body. But when you tell a lie, you are killing your soul.” Günter has no idea what a soul is, except that, from the way his father speaks the word, it is very important. But he wonders how words—sounds that come out of his mouth—can kill anything. That does not seem possible. Günter is six. It is his birthday, and his mother has taken him with her to Kempten to celebrate. They go straight to a bakery, where she tells him he can have any pastry he wants. He chooses a Berliner. The baker puts a candle in the middle of the sugar-powdered mound, and lights it with a long oven match. Günter blows the tiny flame out immediately, then discovers that candle wax has dripped into the pastry, making it taste like something else. A fish, he thinks. When he spits out the little nub of wax, his mother slaps his hand, telling him he is behaving like a gypsy. She promises that, as a birthday treat, she will take him to the Basilica St. Lorenz, which has beautiful paintings on its ceiling and walls, and is much bigger than any other building he has ever seen. As they walk along narrow streets, Günter is thrilled that human beings can construct enormous buildings. It makes him feel powerful. But his mother insists that first they must go to the market square behind the basilica. Günter hears the clamor of the basilica’s bells even before he and his mother reach the square, and once they are in the midst of the tented stalls, he can see one of the basilica’s onion-domed towers—although the bells have stopped. His mother has a long argument with a woman selling lace. Then she wanders up and down the square twice before she finds the man who sells his father’s favorite pipe tobacco. She has another argument. Next, they go to a sausage seller, who is wearing a long black coat with brass buttons and has a peg leg. This transaction is fast and friendly. When the sausage seller smiles, he has only two teeth in his mouth. (How does he eat his sausages?) Now it is time to go to the basilica. “No,” says Günter’s mother. “We have one more stop. Your father has given me a list of ointments and pills. It won’t take a minute.” The walk to the pharmacy is long enough for Günter to get tired and bored. When he tugs at his mother’s dress and says he wants to go to the basilica, she slaps his hand again and tells him that if he doesn’t behave, he won’t see St. Lorenz at all. “It won’t take a minute,” she tells him again. “Your father will never forgive me if I don’t get his medicines.” When they finally reach the pharmacy—a grand looking shop, taking up one whole side of a tiny square—the pharmacist greets Günter’s mother as if she is a long lost relative. He asks about her journey, her health, her parents. Without a word of prompting, he calls out, “And this must be Herr Günter!” He gives a curt semi-bow, shakes Günter’s hand, and says, “I’m so happy to meet you! Your mother has been telling me all about you!” Handing his assistant the list of medicines Günter’s mother has brought, the pharmacist says, “Come with me! I have something in the back that will fascinate the young master!” The pharmacist looks at Günter over his shoulder as he strides the length of the store. “You’re a little scientist, I hear! Are you going to be a physician like your father?” “I want to be an explorer,” says Günter. The pharmacist replies, “Oh, really! Then you’re going to love what I have to show you!” The pharmacy is deeper than it is wide. They walk between two long glass display cases and walls consisting of hundreds of tiny, labeled drawers to a doorway behind a red velvet curtain. The pharmacist is broad-shouldered and tall, like Günter’s father, so blocks all of the light ahead of them once they enter the short passage behind the door. He leads them into a dusty office, crammed with books and papers. Green-gray light spills through two tall windows that look out onto a neglected garden between the backs of three apartment houses. The pharmacist goes over to a shelf containing a row of very large books—each tall enough, were it stood on the floor, to reach Günter’s breastbone. The pharmacist places one of the books on top of his paper-covered desk. “Look at this!” he tells Günter. “It’s an encyclopedia of medicinal herbs from around the world!” He opens to an etching of a jungle that takes up two whole pages, with naked dark-skinned people wearing feathers on their heads posing under trees and amid fields of weeds and flowers. “Isn’t that beautiful? I think the man who drew it is a true artist! And look here!” He flips over the page and shows Günter the four pages that follow, all entirely filled with detailed, painted etchings of leaves, flowers, nuts and roots, each labeled in a print so tiny it seems to have been composed of hairs. “Every one of the plants in the landscape is reproduced in detail on these pages. Isn’t that amazing! A young scientist could learn a lot from a book like this! Or an explorer!” The pharmacist pats Günter on the head, then backs away so the boy might look at the book himself. “Feel free to turn the pages!” says the pharmacist. The last thing on earth that might interest Günter is a bunch of leaves and flowers—though he does feel an urge to look again at the naked people with the feathers in their hair. He glances furtively at his mother as this thought comes to mind. His cheeks go hot and his pulse pounds in his head. He turns a couple of pages hoping to quell his embarrassment. “Oh, Frau Zeitz!” the pharmacist cries. “I’ve just remembered. My carpenter is doing some work upstairs, and I would love to hear your opinion of it.” His mother replies, “Gladly!” sounding more as if she is laughing than speaking—though Günter can’t imagine what might be so funny. “Günter,” says the pharmacist, “could I possibly borrow your mutti for a second?” Günter does not want to be left alone in this strange office, but knows he has no choice, so doesn’t say anything. “We won’t be a minute,” says his mother, still seeming to laugh more than talk. She and the pharmacist hurry up the back steps. Günter flips through a few pages depicting flowers and plants, then turns back to the naked people. After that, he flips through the whole book, looking at the two-page spreads of each of the climatic zones on the world’s seven continents, from which he learns that everybody on earth goes around naked, except for Europeans, Arabs and Chinese. Don’t these people get cold in the winter? he wonders. And how do they keep from cutting their feet? He also wonders how he would feel if everybody on the street could see his penis and bottom. He flips through the book twice, then closes it and goes to the window to look out into the garden, which is filled with broken barrels, old boards and heaps of paper. Then he returns to the book and looks at the naked people one more time. When he finally hears his mother and the pharmacist descending the steps, all of her words still seem more like laughter than speech. She loves the carpenter’s work, she says. She thinks he’s a master. Then she notices the clock on the desk and cries out that they are about to miss the train. The assistant gives her the packet of pills and ointments for Günter’s father. The pharmacist bids Günter and his mother goodbye and says to give his respects to Doctor Zeitz. Outside the door, Günter asks, “Aren’t we going to the basilica?” “No, my little mouse. We must run or we‘ll miss the train and have to sleep on the platform.” She gives him the bundle of lace to carry, and they do indeed run the whole way, arriving at the station just as the conductors are making their final call. Years afterward, Günter’s memory of this day will be permeated by a sense of loss, but he will only remember three things clearly: the pharmacist’s giant book filled with naked people; the gray cloud of engine smoke that sometimes obscured the landscape outside the windows and filtered into their cabin, stinging his eyes; and his mother and he trading bites in the rattling car from one of the sausages they bought from the man with the peg leg. And now Günter is eight, old enough that almost all of the facts of his daily life pass without attracting particular attention. He is having dinner in the kitchen with his parents, and it is a dinner like any other. Blood sausage, his father’s favorite. And cabbage. And potatoes. The light in the kitchen is greenish, because it comes from two kerosene lamps on the sideboard. There is an electric lamp hanging from the ceiling directly over the table, but his mother says electric light makes everybody look like “the risen dead.” She hates it. Blood sausage feels like pudding in his mouth, but it tastes like rust and salt. He mashes it into his potatoes to make it easier to eat. His parents are talking in that way that makes him wonder why they bother. Nothing they say is interesting and they say everything in exactly the same voice, as if the words are just burbling up out of their bodies and have no meaning. Then his father says, “Am I to presume that Klein’s still hasn’t gotten my wader boots?” and his mother’s fork drops to her plate with a clatter. She is staring fiercely into his father’s eyes and his father has the expression of someone who has just made a joke he thinks no one else smart enough to understand. His mother sweeps her arm across the table and her entire setting crashes to the floor. The crockery is in triangular shards. Arcs of glittering glass stick up out of lumped-up shreds of purple-black, yellow and green. Her knife, rammed point-down into the floor, vibrates. Günter has no idea why his father’s words have had such an effect on his mother, nor why they each look into the other’s eyes the way a fox looks into the eyes of a wolf. But there is something in their faces that he does understand. And cannot bear. He sits there silently, trying so hard not to know what he knows. When Günter is eleven there are many things in life he cannot bear. The sound of steel on glass. The taste of Brussels sprouts. The noises that come through the door to his father’s surgery. Günter’s father saves lives and brings babies into the world—so he is a good man; Günter is absolutely certain of this fact. But such terrible noises come through that door: Shrieks. Sobs. Moans. Günter hates them, especially at night. When a patient arrives after dark, he buries his head under his pillow, puts his fingers in his ears and sings to himself so that he can’t hear anything. His parents tell him not to pay attention. The noises only mean people are getting better. But that makes no sense to Günter. And it isn’t just the noises. It’s the bowls of bloody water. The smells of urine, alcohol, mercurochrome, shit. To Günter, his father’s surgery is a torture chamber. He refuses to enter it. But then one day, a woodman gashes his leg with his own axe. Günter sees two huge men carrying the woodman up the walkway, his trouser leg soaked with blood, red drops dribbling off his boot heel. Günter doesn’t want to see the man when he comes inside, so runs up to his room, shuts the door and tries to lose himself in the final volume of Karl May’s Winnetou trilogy. After a while, Günter thinks maybe there wasn’t anything to worry about. Maybe, in fact, the woodman has already gone home and it is safe to go back downstairs. But then a huge bellow shakes the house, followed by shouts, curses, bangs, crashes, as if the three woodmen are having a frenzied brawl. Eventually, things go quiet. A little later there are footsteps on the stairs outside his door. His father is calling. Günter goes out into the hall, to find his father standing half-way up the stairs, so much blood on his gown that Günter worries one of the woodmen has slashed him with a scalpel. “I need your help,” his father says. Normally Günter’s mother and Nelly help in the surgery, but they have gone into Kempten to buy material for curtains and won’t be back until after dark. His father explains that he has run out of chloroform, so gave the woodman half a bottle of schnapps to numb the pain. That seemed to work at first. The woodman allowed his leg to be strapped down so that it could be cleaned and sutured. But he was exceedingly drunk. The instant Günter’s father touched his wound, he cried out and began ripping off his straps. His friends tried to stop him, but he was much bigger than them. Also, crazed with fear. Günter’s father pauses, then says, “It was not a pretty picture.” The plan now is that the two friends will each grip one of the woodman’s arms and lean all of their weight against his near shoulder, while Günter helps hold him down by sitting on his chest. To Günter this is an insane idea. The woodman is a huge, hairy man, with floppy lips and broken yellow teeth, who resembles nothing so much as a minotaur. The notion of being anywhere near him when he starts bellowing, punching and kicking is a nightmare. With tears in his eyes, Günter pleads with his father to get somebody else. His father slaps him across the cheek and says, “You will do what I tell you!” The woodman is lying on the table in the surgery, clearly exhausted, but maybe also shamed into submission. He doesn’t move or say one word as Günter clambers onto his chest. The room is dense with the sour-peppery stench of the woodman’s fear. Also the metallic mustiness of his blood. Not wanting to see the wound, Günter turns his back to his father—which means he looks straight down into the woodman’s face, and the woodman looks straight up into his. It is like the two of them are feeling exactly the same thing, each silently pleading with the other. The woodman’s friends grab his arms, lean their shoulders against his, and Günter’s father gets started. It is awful. Worse than anything Günter imagined. The woodman is, in fact, immobilized from the neck down, but he can still scream, curse, groan. He bites his tongue. Blood bubbles out of his mouth and spills down his cheek. He thrashes his head, his face twisting into the most grotesque expressions, like nothing Günter has ever seen on a real person’s face, though exactly like the expressions of sinners and demons in church paintings—the ones meant to scare people into virtue and obedience. The woodman is repulsive. Günter hates him for that. And for being so stupid as to gash his own leg. And he hates his father, too. For the pain he is inflicting. For doing nothing to spare Günter the horror. Günter knows his father doesn’t have a choice. If he does nothing there will be infection. Gangrene. The woodman will die. But none of that matters, because Günter’s hatred is making him strong. Any other emotion would have left him vulnerable, weak. But hatred enables him to meet the huge cruelty of the world with the fury of his entire being. When the operation is over, he walks out of the surgery without a word to anyone, then straight down the hall and out the front door. He is surprised to discover that it is still day. The sun, in fact, is still high in a vast blue sky through which brilliant white clouds drift like airborne mountains above the snow-mottled granite peaks that entirely surround Wetzenbach. As he walks, the images inside his head feel like a poison permeating his whole body. He is still gripped by hatred of his father. And fury. He doesn’t know why. His father is a doctor and sometimes a doctor must cause his patients pain. That is unfortunate, but not wrong. And yet Günter hates his father in exactly the way the woodman did, when his eyes were rolling and his lips spasming with snarls, lewd leers, and grimaces of abject misery and fear. At first, by sheer force of habit, Günter walks downhill, along the route he normally takes to school—although it is high summer now—but then turns toward the Grauerfluss, crossing it by a wooden footbridge, from which he looks down at tumultuous water shooting so rapidly beneath his feet that it is a pale gray blur. On the far shore, he follows a path along the river, amid shoulder-high grasses and weeds, made fragrant by the sun’s heat, although his nostrils are still filled with the stench of the woodman’s fear. Eventually, he comes to a stony delta, where the clear waters of the Schneebach flow into the silty Grauerfluss. He walks along the much smaller river until he reaches the flat grassy field between a low cliff and the rushing current where he and his parents sometimes come for picnics. Without bothering to take off his clothes or shoes, he clambers over the low stone wall separating the field from the river and flings himself into the frigid, surging water. In order to make it to the far shore, he has to swim as hard as he can. But there is a moment when he lets himself shoot weightlessly downriver, and wonders whether it wouldn’t be best simply to drift all the way to the Grauerfluss, in which he would surely drown. As that possibility jolts through his entire body, the thought that comes with it is that he can no longer bear to live in a world so rife with cruelty and pain. But then he starts to kick and to claw at the water, and soon he is lying flat on his back on hot stones, gasping, looking up at the sky. Years pass, year upon year, ever more rapidly, and now it is July 1932, and Günter and his wife, Josine, are having dinner with her brother, Josef and his wife Herta. “But he’s a laughable anachronism!” says Günter, a silver fork in one hand, a knife in the other, and a half-chewed bite of potato lodged in his cheek. “Not so laughable,” says Herta. “And not so anachronistic,” says Josef. Günter tongues the potato into the center of his mouth, chews, takes a sip of his wine. Josef says: “They’ve just gotten forty percent of the vote, and he’s the most important politician in country now. Hindenburg’s the anachronism! A ghost!” Josef is the millionaire son of a millionaire, who spends his days managing the American arm of his father’s shipping empire, and yet has a bookshelf in his study entirely devoted to the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. Photos of all four men are interspersed amid the photos of his parents and grandparents on the wall behind his desk. Günter likes Josef. He is passionate, informed and funny, and has an intelligence equal to his sister’s, though without her neuroses. But still, he is an absurd human being, not someone to be taken entirely seriously. “He’s a troglodyte!” says Günter. “His entire program is based upon lies, so it is guaranteed to fail. Just because his rhetoric appeals to the more credulous members of the Protestant petit bourgeoisie, doesn’t mean he knows how to get factory workers jobs or help farmers produce enough to feed the nation. And if he ever follows through on these anti-Semitic proclamations of his, the nation will be engulfed in chaos. There’ll be rioting in the streets. A stock market crash worse than anything we have already seen. People won’t stand for it!” Josine is being strangely silent. When she notices Günter glance at her, she gives him a quick, nauseated smile, then reaches across the table for the wine and refills her glass. “What worries me,” says Herta, “are the Brownshirts.” “They’re a gang of thugs!” says Günter “They may be thugs,” says Herta, “but they could well be the beginning of a revolutionary army.” “But that’s just what I’m talking about,” says Günter. “If the only way the Nazi Party can stay in power is through brutality, that completely undermines its legitimacy. People won’t stand for such treatment.” “Perhaps they won’t have a choice,” says Josine. “Right,” says her brother. Josine holds her glass crookedly in front of her mouth with the fingertips of both hands, and so loosely it looks as if it will drop. Her eyes, turned toward Günter, are somber, tired, unfocused. “You’re assuming that the people will have the freedom of will,” she says. “Or freedom, I mean. That people will have the power to—you know: that they’ll actually be able to do something. Which, I mean, I’m not sure you can say that.” Her expression grows increasingly pained as she talks. Finally, she looks at her glass. Puts it down on the table, then picks it up again, takes a sip and puts it back down. “What I think Josine means,” says Josef, “is that for the Nazis, this is a revolution, and revolutionaries make a point of crushing their opposition. Crushing it absolutely.” “Yes,” says Josine. Josef continues: “And if you are dead, in jail, or just terrified, there’s not much that you can actually do to oppose whomever wields the power.” Günter is tempted to chide his brother-in-law for his support of Communist brutality in the U.S.S.R., but he decides not to. Yet again he feels the blend of irritation and anxiety that contaminates large parts of almost every day now, the one emotion stemming from his desire to crush Hitler, the other from his fear that the Führer is unstoppable. “Well, we’re just going to have to hope that doesn’t happen,” he says. “And do all we can to be sure it doesn’t.” Josef looks uncertainly at his brother-in-law for a long moment, before saying in a low voice, “Well, yes.”

*         *         *

STEPHEN O’CONNOR is the author of six books, including Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, a novel, Here Comes Another Lesson, short stories, and Quasimode, his forthcoming poetry collection. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Best American Short Stories, and many other places. "Nothing Is Really What it Is" is the prologue to his novel-in-progress, We Want So Much to Be Ourselves.