There’s a child in the yard, its shoes flash every time it takes a step.
It carefully places one foot in front of the other until it comes to a stop in front of me. It looks up, nose streaming, and says: Last night I dreamt that I insulted everyone.
I turn off onto the gravel path without looking back and the kid crows a barrage of abuse after me.
A bird is sitting on the washing line chirping and rolling a hempseed in its beak. The springtime sun shines straight in my face.
The door to the building is open.
My room is just as I’d left it. Rumpled bedclothes on the mattress, crooked piles of books, empty clothes hangers in the open wardrobe. It smells funny, I open the window. A draught whirls tiny feathers out of the birdcage onto the table, over the cast iron teapot and my father’s typewriter. I run my finger through the dust on the keys, press, the little foot jumps up to the ribbon and back down again. I pull the typewriter to the edge of the table, my fingertips rest expectantly on the keys; I’ve already thought it all through on my way here.
I’m getting hot. I impatiently shake my coat from my shoulders, stand up, and hang it on the hook. What did I want to do? I wander restlessly around the room, go from the window to the door, from the door to the bed, from the bed to the table. I pick up things: a chewed pencil, a tarnished silver spoon, a crumpled pack of cigarettes, a matchbox with a picture of a half-naked roller-skating sailoress on it. I push the table over to the window, fumble a cigarette out of the pack, straighten it out and light up; the smoke goes straight in my eyes. Down in the street I see the kid with the flashing shoes. It’s tugging stubbornly on a blooming gorse bush. A branch breaks off, the kid tentatively hits it against its leg, then whips the bush; the blossom sprays, the kid shrieks wildly.
The sun has crawled behind the smokestack, a crow is sitting on it cracking a nut. I feed a new sheet of paper into the typewriter and start pecking at the keys: My father was a man on land and a whale in the water.
I stay there until I get hungry, then I get up and go into the kitchen. The refrigerator is empty, there’s only a pack of deep frozen spinach in the freezer compartment. I slam the refrigerator door shut and let out a scream. The kid with the flashing shoes is standing in the doorway.
What are you doing in my home?, I shout.
The kid stares at me wide-eyed. Then it turns on its heel and runs down the hallway into the living room; I see it slam the door behind it.
Now wait a minute!, I say. If there’s one thing I despise, it’s ill-behaved children.
I stand in front of the closed door, consider what devastating thing I’m going to say, then pull down the handle.
The room is filled with smoke. Swathes of it drift like shaken out bed sheets, a dozen children’s heads jut up out of it. They’re brooding around the living room table. The cloying stench of unwashed hair and fermented milk hangs in the air. I wrench open the window. The cloud of smoke gently peels away from the children and skims over the windowsill on its way out. Now I can see them properly, their unwholesome little figures: burnt brows, smears of ash on their cheeks, limp locks, patchy fluff on their top lip, bent backs and drooping necks. Fish eyes in pale faces run fitfully over the table, over tarnished compact mirrors, fag ends in congealed candlewax, overflowing ashtrays, burn holes; they focus on a thread of smoke rising from the pipe of the only boy sitting upright. He’s enthroned in a huge leather armchair and smokes with the air of a king. He opens his eyes, purses, then smacks his lips. The little sulphur-yellow clouds rising from his jaws transform into curls. He watches them, how they distend and decay, puts his pipe down, and looks me in the face.
Are you hungry?
He’s balancing my spotted breakfast bowl in one hand, the colour has already chipped off around the edge. He’s shovelling muesli into his mouth with a soup spoon. He munches and laughs, white milk runs down his dumb chin. His round jug ears are pricked, and the three blonde hairs sprouting from his Adam’s apple eyeball me jeeringly. He has a pretty face, just like I do.
You must be hungry, my brother says with his mouth full, they don’t seem to feed people like you properly in that place.
My scalp itches, and I quickly scratch it.
Lice too?, he sneers. Watch out chums, they jump!
A couple of the children laugh. My heart pulses in my throat.
He holds out the bowl of muesli, runs his free hand through his hair, shrugs his shoulders and places the bowl on the table. He clicks his fingers, and from all around quick little hands appear, flitting over the table, dabbing at residual powder and particles of tobacco and nimbly rolling them in little papers. A small boy is concentrating hard on a peculiar model, his tongue sticking out between his lips; my brother takes the thing out his hands and holds it right under my nose. In a childish voice he mews: Look at the nice thing I made! An aeroplane.
Actually, it’s quite refined: a cigarette fuselage with cigarette wings. My brother smirks in my face. Curses swell up and sink in my mind, I breathe in and out deeply.
Bravo, I say dryly and clap my hands, magnificent. You’ve really come far. But now the party’s over, I’m back, I reign here!
I fall silent, I hear my voice reverberating – how ridiculous it sounds.
He snorts and smiles at me pityingly: You’ve never had a clue, have you. Did you bring any cash?
I throw myself at him and beat my fists against his chest. He laughs, coughing. A girl stirs half asleep at his feet. She opens her eyes and sits up arduously, my brother strokes her hair. She lays her head in his lap and in a dark voice talks of apples and a party where everyone had made themselves up so beautifully, with shawls and fine clothes, and how she simply died there.
I lock the door of my room behind me and lay down on the bed. I cross my hands behind my head, the sun shines in through the window straight into my face. The humiliation churns hotly inside me. How disgusting my brother is! And those sickly brats, what makes them think they can laugh at me?
I lie there stiffly and cook up punishments. I’ll make them sausages and mashed potato and slug poison, and they’ll gobble it down and writhe around on the floor whimpering. And then, when they’ve finally recovered and are taking their first shaky steps outside, I’ll run them over with a field roller.
I roll over towards the wall and pull the covers up over my head. I close my eyes and breathe loudly into the cavity. A carousel races around behind my forehead, right beneath my eyelids. Blurred lights streak by, and beyond them miniscule flies’ legs perform a Russian dance in fast forward.
A scorching flat iron presses down on my chest, I spring up and throw it out of the window. There’s a dull thud. I look down below. There’s the iron. And there’s the kid with the flashing shoes. I look around my room for something to throw out after it. My heart is thumping.
Despicable brats. Dare to play tricks on me! I lean out of the window – the kid isn’t moving. I leave my room, press my ear against the living room door. Not a sound.
The kid is lying on its stomach. The iron has dug a decent hole out the back of its head. I poke the kid with my foot and look around acting bewildered, as if I’d just come across it by chance. I pace up and down, look left and right inconspicuously, and turn the kid onto its back. I give it a slap in the face and hold its nose. Its shoes are still flashing. I shudder. Why did it have to be standing under my window of all places! I grab the kid by the wrists and haul it through the gravel.
I take the kid to my room and lean it against the wall. I close the door behind me, fall onto the bed. The kid slides onto the floor and across the parquet.
Bah, I say loudly, and rub away the goose flesh on my arms.
The kid gawps up at the ceiling, its milk teeth twinkling in its open mouth. Fluff has got caught in its curls. I touch its hand. It’s cold. I hang the kid over the radiator and sit on the bed. I smoke two cigarettes, one after the other. Then I feel sick. I crossly smell my fingers and look at the kid. It’s still hanging over the radiator. I close my eyes.
I can already hear them sneaking about in the hallway. Their sluggish feet drag along the floor, they whisper to one another, they can smell it through the wall. They want to bundle me up in a sheet and light my hair, inhale deeply, draw me into their small, grey organs and blow me back out until I’m nothing but ash.
I get up and leave the house. I hear a jingling and jangling; I see a hillock dotted with white sheep. An old farmer wearing a flat cap is hobbling after them. He throws himself onto the slowest one. He binds its legs together and strokes its head. I see his cracked teeth when he says: Yes, yes, I like the sheep very much, but when they’re old no one wants to eat them anymore.
The sheep bucks with its bound legs. The children stand around me in a circle and stamp their flashing shoes on the ground. They chant: Feed, feed, feed us!
The sheep won’t be enough, the farmer says, and blows on his whistle. A white cow strolls over, beautifully speckled with black spots. It takes a look around with its big eyes, and the farmer draws out a gun. I start to cry. I put on a variety of hats and perform a Russian dance for the farmer, but it’s no use. He pulls the trigger.
I wake with a start. The kid’s gone. I thump the wall, elated and relieved. I listen at the wall to the living room: nothing. How nice not to have a kid’s corpse with a runny head to worry about. The peculiar things we dream up! How long was I asleep for? I get up and see the kid’s hand poking out from under the radiator. It’s stuck headfirst and awkwardly twisted between the wall and the radiator, and its pale little legs with their filthy striped socks are sticking up out of the ends of its ridden-up trousers. I pull the kid out, it’s soft and warm and creased. Its dented face is even more vacant than it was before – disgusting, I cry out, this is disgusting. I rub my hands down my trousers. Now I feel very hungry. I feel it so severely that I can no longer move, everything has become so numb all of a sudden. I stagger into the kitchen, search the cupboards and the refrigerator, and find the frozen spinach. I take the packet into my bedroom and put it on the radiator.
I suck on a clot of spinach in bed. It tastes vile. I chuck it at the kid’s damaged head. Then I drag down my father’s old leather suitcase from the top of the wardrobe and unsnap the clasps. I shake crumpled shirts, moth balls and yellowed books out onto the floor and heave the kid into the suitcase. I fold its legs up over its head, cross its arms over them, close the lid, sit on top of it, tuck in a couple of stubborn fingers, and click both golden clasps shut.
Back out in the street there are three crows. They hop out of my way and ogle me, their little heads tilted to one side. I swing the suitcase, they fly off.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Michelle Steinbeckwas born in Lenzburg, Switzerland in 1990. She writes prose, poetry and drama; reportage and columns. She works as editor-in-chief at Fabrikzeitung and is the organiser of Babelsprech, a forum for young international poetry. This piece is an extract from her first novel, My Father was a Man on Land and a Whale in the Water, which will be published in 2018 by Darf Publishing. It was shortlisted for the Swiss Book Prize 2016 and longlisted for the German Book Prize 2016. Steinbeck lives in Basel.
Jen Calleja is the author of I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For (Prototype), Goblins (Rough Trade Books), Hamburger in the Archive (if a leaf falls) and Serious Justice (Test Centre). Her writing has appeared in Best British Short Stories 2021 (Salt), Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry (Ignota), The London Magazine, 3:AM, Somesuch Stories, Another Gaze, Ambit, Inque, and regularly in the Brixton Review of Books. She was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2019 for her translation of Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands and was the inaugural Translator in Residence at the British Library. Alongside Kat Storace, Jen is co-publisher at Praspar Press, which publishes contemporary Maltese literature in English and English translation. She lives in Hastings, UK.