Even though they had planned to leave the music festival earlier in the afternoon, it’s already seven when Noora and Michael finally climb in Michael’s old VW Golf. The festival location was a farmhouse near the Polish border, and like most visitors, they had camped out on the muddy grounds. It had rained throughout the night, and they offer Christina, who is more than fed up with the mud and the “jazz Nazis,” a ride back to the city. Like many of the farms that used to be operated by agriculture cooperatives, this one had been abandoned after German reunification. A group of musicians and artists had bought it for next to nothing in 1994 from the Treuhand trust agency — a legal construct that effectively took over all formerly state-owned properties of the no-longer-existing country in 1990. It’s a traditional three-winged building, the former stables and barns extending like the outstretched arms of a panhandler from the central two-story farmhouse. It’s closed off from the street by an overgrown brick wall with a large wooden front gate. The new owners had turned the run-down compound into a low-budget cultural center. Every year, the sonic avant-garde from all over northeast Germany and adjacent Poland gathers there for the experimental electronic music festival on Pentecost weekend.
They have to take a narrow and badly maintained rural road for about twenty miles before getting onto the federal highway. The friends are still giddy and excited and are discussing where exactly drone and classic Krautrock overlap — and what the hell is classic Krautrock anyway? — when they hear a loud thud. Michael hits the brakes; the car swerves and then comes to a halt in the middle of the road. With the engine still running, they all get out and find that they have hit a full-grown sheep, its head and forelegs smashed and covered in blood. The sheep is breathing heavily and retreats as they approach it.
“Oh no, no, no,” Noora whines.
“Shit.” Michael checks the car for visible damage. One of the front lights is pushed in but still working. There is no cell phone reception and the next village is miles away. The sun is just about to set and casts a golden glow over the gentle hills of Märkisch-Oderland, their interrupted faces, and the wounded animal.
Finally, Michael speaks: “We can’t save it. It’s too badly wounded. Let’s move it to the roadside and call the police as soon as we’re out of this dead spot.”
Nobody wants to touch the bloody animal, so they take one of the blankets from the trunk and twist it into a thick rope. Michael and Christina each take one end of the rope and sling it around the body. They pull it slowly toward the curb, leaving a puddle of blood behind, until the body comes to rest in the tall grass alongside the road. Christina picks tufts of it and covers the body, a gesture that strikes Noora as premature. Noora finds a long branch, then searches for a piece of light-colored fabric in the car. She finally sacrifices one of her dirty white T-shirts, wraps it around the top of the branch, and drives it into the muddy ground next to the body. To make it easier for the police to find it, she explains. She empties a huge plastic bag with the leftovers of their supplies and stuffs the bloody blanket inside. She throws the plastic bag in the trunk. They all get back into the car and drive on.
After maybe twenty minutes, Noora breaks the silence. “Let’s go back and check if it’s really dead.”
Flashing Noora an inquiring glance, Michael makes a U-turn on the empty country road. Christina rolls her eyes but says nothing. The drawn-out dusk of a northern summer night slowly creeps up, translucent, Prussian blue. Thanks to Noora’s marker, they easily find the spot. Michael pulls over, and in the headlight beams they can see the animal. It seems to have sunk into the ground; the lower half of the body is covered in mud. If anything, it looks much more alive than when they left it. Its bloody forelegs are moving as if to pull itself out of the mud. Over and over again, the sheep gathers all its strength and pulls its upper body forward, then sinks back.
“Oh my god. Oh my god,” whispers Christina. “We have to do something. We have to kill it.” The animal suddenly stops trying to pull itself up. The body slowly falls to the side and the eyeballs roll inward.
The breathing is getting weaker, a faint echo of its now extinguished life force.Tweet
“It is dying. I’m sure it’s dying now,” says Michael.
Noora is unable to feel anything. She scans her repertoire for an appropriate emotion — sympathy, horror, sadness — but there’s nothing there. She climbs back into the car. After a while, Michael and Christina follow her. Michael makes another U-turn and they drive back toward the highway. He turns the radio on and Noora turns it off again. They drive past the point where Noora had stopped them last time; after another one and a half miles they reach a village. Toward the end of the village they spot a pub, which appears to be open.
Michael pulls into the parking lot. zum deutschen krug is written across the entire front, and a huge German flag wafts gently in the night breeze. They hesitate. Then Michael offers to talk to the bartender; surely the local folks would know what to do in such a situation and could send someone to put the animal down. After all, it was an accident, it wasn’t their fault. The mental image of blood-thirsty neo-Nazis digging into the not-yet-dead body in a kind of feeding frenzy enters Noora’s mind and won’t go away.
“Perhaps the meat can still be butchered?” Michael wants to appear tough.
“That’s fucking illegal, man,” Christina objects.
Michael and Christina climb out on the driver’s side while Noora, in the passenger seat, doesn’t make any effort to get out of the car. Christina and Michael walk across the small parking lot toward the entrance, which is lit by a beer advertisement. With sudden determination, Noora moves over to the driver’s side. She shouts at Michael, asking him for the car keys. Her voice disrupts the silence and makes Christina and Michael wince, as their presence at this place at this hour is now made known.
“I’m going to go back and wait for whoever shows up to take care of the situation.”
Michael and Christina, she adds, should wait at the pub and have a few beers. She, Noora, will drive them safely back to Berlin later. Michael hurls the car keys in her general direction, annoyed by Noora’s erratic decision-making, which will doubtless delay their return to Berlin. But he’s not in the mood to get into a fight, not with Christina around and not right here in this parking lot. Noora gets out of the car and picks up the keys while Michael and Christina enter the pub. Then she pulls out of the parking lot and disappears into the blue-black night.
When she arrives at the site of the accident for the third time, the body has sunken even deeper into the mud. The lower half is hardly visible, as if stuck in a parallel dimension. The animal is still alive, breathing flatly. Shivers flash through its body at irregular intervals.
Noora crouches next to its head.
From up close she can see that it is bleeding from both eyes — two thin red lines of blood trickling down and merging with the bloody nose and the smashed lower jaw. Very gently, Noora lifts the head and puts it down on her lap.
The animal doesn’t resist anymore. She strokes the head between the long, soft ears. The breathing is getting weaker, a faint echo of its now extinguished life force.
Then the breathing stops.
Noora sends a text message to her ex. It’s code between the two of them for when things get really bad. Now Noora conjures up the lost intimacy and makes herself bird-size, because she knows she will soon need Michael’s help and because she also knows that he is still mad at her. She is really scared of what is about to happen next.
Everything in the hospital waiting area is of a pale-blue color, as is her old Nokia cell phone. As soon as Noora becomes aware of this, the phone stops being her ally and becomes part of the object world of the hospital. She puts it into her pocket and looks out the window, into the bleak December sky and down at the busy street below.
Chirp, chirp. Michael texts back.
The plexiglass holders on the wall are filled with information brochures published by the German Cancer Society. On the covers: stock images of middle-aged couples with rolled-up pants and bare feet, strolling down a wintry beach. A family gathering, surrounded by autumn leaves. She’s still typing her response when the doctor asks her into the office.
Over the past couple of months, Noora had marched with great determination from one low point to the next. Not unlike the figures in one of those popular M. C. Escher prints, she kept stomping up stairs while in fact she was walking down, or perhaps she was stomping on the underside of the staircase, depending on the viewer’s perspective.
Eight months earlier she had broken up with Michael, her boyfriend of ten years. They had met in art school. The breakup felt urgent and necessary then, but now she can’t remember why exactly she had to leave. Michael is a good guy, all things considered. The fact that he, under the premise of helping her move into her new studio, had stealthily transformed it into a shed for his impressive collection of tools seems a fairly ridiculous reason now, at this very moment, in the waiting area on the fifth floor of the hospital Charité in Berlin Mitte.
But the first few weeks were incredible. She was on a constant high, intoxicated by her own crazy courage to trade a comfortable relationship for a room of her own, and the whiff of freedom and possibility that came with it. The warm evenings of early summer in Berlin. She had thought it fair to move out of their shared apartment, and found a small place in Charlottenburg, far enough from her old Kreuzberg neighborhood to make her feel as if she had moved to a different city altogether.
See, that’s what the female body is capable of. We are machines to give pleasure, to give speed.Tweet
How she enjoyed the nightly bike rides through Tiergarten. The long stretch of Strasse des 17 Juni: a straight line that calls for maximum speed, and how her whole body responded ecstatically to the challenge and gave in to it. Every night, she would return from some gallery opening, some party, some drinks with her girlfriends in Mitte, racing past the prostitutes who emerged, spaced out evenly, from the shadows between Landwehrkanal and Ernst-Reuter-Platz. Every night she would be stunned by their physical performance, their determination to defy the limitations of the body to become pure fantasy. She would feel the hardening muscles of her thighs, pushing the pedals; she would feel, in extension, their steely legs walking the streets in seven-inch heels, their waists corseted to absurd proportions.
A wave of solidarity, of recognition would wash over her: See, that’s what the female body is capable of. We are machines to give pleasure, to give speed.
She’s still young, the doctor thinks as she opens her office door and finds Noora in the waiting room. She registers the panicky look in Noora’s eyes, and also Noora’s resistance to it. She’s one of those, she tells herself. Those who are freaked out by the prospect of losing control, as opposed to those who are happily giving in to the medical regime, handing over all responsibility to their doctors. She feels relieved, because she doesn’t expect Noora to break out in tears, or to act overtly anxious. She couldn’t handle that first thing on a Monday morning. In fact, she couldn’t handle it very well at any time. She had chosen her profession because as a young girl she had fallen in love with the clean confidence of medical science, its profound mysteries that are always not quite solved yet, and, later, the numbers game of statistics. She knows what Noora does not know yet: that cancer is complex, and that there is not one course of treatment that fits all. That at every turn, the traveler in Cancerland must decide what route to take, which path to follow.
There are maps, yes.
But they’re written in the vernacular of the territory, and the outcome of the journey depends on the traveler’s ability to soak it up, and fast. Noora’s challenging handshake tells the doctor that Noora has a pretty good chance of getting out of this alive.
The doctor is roughly Noora’s age and wears her blond hair in soft waves around her clean face, like a defa film star. She looks like Elke, it occurs to Noora.
Elke — the heroine of a young adult book series published in the 1940s that Noora had inherited from her mother. She hadn’t thought of Elke for a long time, but now the doctor’s blond waves conjure up the cover illustration of the last volume of the series in Noora’s memory. Elke and her best friend, Katje, a brunette, sit outside a log cabin, immersed in intimate conversation. Elke is looking at her friend, smiling, while Katje’s melancholic gaze is lost somewhere outside the frame. In the years up to this moment, Elke had married a doctor, given birth to a baby girl, and moved from Hamburg to Switzerland, following her husband, who had opened a children’s respiratory hospital in the Alps. German children from Duisburg and Essen, Bochum and Wuppertal, were sent here to take deep breaths of clean and ideologically uncontaminated Swiss air before returning to their hometowns, where at that very moment the Nazi war machine was picking up speed.
Katje’s life hadn’t turned out so well. Although a gifted musician, her melancholic disposition and humble upbringing — she had been raised by a single, hardworking mother and she had never met her father — had prevented her from becoming a successful solo pianist. She remains unmarried and childless. At the end of this coming-of-age saga, she retreats to the log cabin on the campus of the children’s hospital, to live in the shadow of Elke’s happy and productive life.
Even at the age of 11, Noora understood that artistic ambition comes at a cost.
The young doctor who looks like Elke is now asking Noora to take off her thick sweater, her T-shirt, and her bra. She examines her breasts, first the left and then the right, the one in question.
“How long ago did you start noticing the lump?” she asks. “It’s quite pronounced.”
Noora says nothing.
She could say that the only reason she noticed the lump is that her last lover bit her breast, and it hurt, and she screamed at him in the middle of the night, and the next day, when she examined her sore breast in front of the bathroom mirror, there it was.
On the examination table, the doctor is now gently directing Noora to lie on her left side, and to take a deep breath, and to hold it while the thick needle shoots into the soft flesh of Noora’s right breast, reemerging with just enough tissue to determine whether the lump is, in fact, cancerous. To distract herself from the painful procedure, Noora desperately tries to focus on something else, like the name of the hospital — Charité — and its 19th-century resonances of French doctors in white lab coats, rushing down long and dark corridors, dim winter light hardly reaching down to the tiled floors. Grave-looking nurses push human wrecks in wooden wheelchairs from one infirmary to the next: disfigured war veterans and their female counterparts, the hysterics and catatonics. Finally, Noora arrives at the first line of her favorite Leonard Cohen song: All the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone.
Mercy will be granted, Noora understands, but not right away.
Elke says that she will call Noora with the test results in the first week of January and wishes her happy holidays. Upset from the unexpected pain inflicted upon her, Noora takes the elevator down and exits the building. She unlocks her bike and takes a right on Invalidenstrasse, then onward to Veteranenstrasse. Out of nowhere, a car pulls up and almost runs her over. Noora swings her bike around and the front wheel crashes into the curb. She struggles to keep her balance. As the car drives by, she sees the license plate: b-nn-2601.
Her initials and her birthday.
Elke calls her at nine in the morning of the first business day in January. She asks Noora to come into her office at eleven o’clock to discuss the biopsy results. Since she refuses to give any further information over the phone, Noora knows what to expect.
Over the holidays the temperature had dropped. A sharp white winter sunlight floods the streets, suiting this city of gold (the New Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse) and gray (everything else) so very well. At this early hour the sidewalks are covered with a thin layer of crisp snow that will be gone by noon. To gain some time before receiving her verdict, Noora decides to walk.
She stops at Starbucks. The new girl behind the counter fills her paper cup to the brim and Noora has to pour away some of the coffee. The company’s disrespect for their own product confounds her each and every time. She has to actively overcome her inhibition — her backwardness — then she adds milk and leaves the store. She checks her cell phone: she’s still too early. She takes a detour past the Volksbühne theater on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz. She habitually looks up to check the banner stretched across the top of the facade.
Notti senza cuore — Life Is the New Hard!
The Volksbühne banners either advertise the current plays or broadcast some provocative slogan, chosen for the general public by the artistic director. Often set in Gothic typeface, they connect Berlin’s historical unconscious with the inner city’s cosmopolitan inhabitants, going about their bohemian lives in the shadow of the dark fortress at the center of it.
Life is the new hard, Noora repeats to herself, and then stops at the window of a lingerie shop on Linienstrasse. She enters and leaves fifteen minutes later, wearing an expensive black-lace bra underneath her many layers of clothes.