Judith and Leonie

It had always been women, not men, who were in short supply in Judith’s life. She finds most women trying and wearisome. As rivals they’d been irritating, now as mothers, members of this underprivileged and idealistic caste, they’re tolerable only in small doses.

From Shorter Days

Image by Arjun Mohan via Flickr
Image by Arjun Mohan via Flickr

Anna Katharina Hahn’s novel Shorter Days, published by Suhrkamp Verlag as Kürzere Tage, is out in English this month from Frisch & Co. –Eds.

“Mama, my bucket is full!”

“Mine too!”

Ulrich and Kilian run over to Judith and dump the foliage they’ve raked into their metal pails onto the mountain of leaves in the middle of the lawn. She looks at her boys and is pleased by what she sees. They wear colorful knit caps, felt jackets with wooden buttons, and sturdy leather boots. Their eyes shine and their faces are still tan, enhanced with the redness of excitement, movement, and fresh air.

The garden isn’t large, perhaps 2,000 square feet, situated between the back of the building where Judith and Klaus and the children live and the next row of houses on busy Olgastraße. This garden is the only green place in the gap between the buildings—the rest is concrete courtyards with parking places and trashcans. Judith feels protected down here, like in the courtyard of a castle. The walls keep her gaze from wandering. She can see only one small section of sky, with clouds, birds, and airplanes. A sky that spreads over everything and betrays nothing. It could just as easily hang over another city, another country. Sometimes Klaus makes fun of the “prison yard.” Judith laughs with him and doesn’t let on that a grand plot of land, bordered only by horizon, could never match the sense of security she feels in this city garden enclosed by old five-story buildings. She indulges in the fantasy that used to comfort her—of being a mummy, stiff and motionless in the surrounding darkness, wrapped up tight in resin-soaked bands, a bunch of dried herbs in her mouth, with her racing, tormented heart billeted in a hieroglyphic-encrusted alabaster jug in the innermost chamber of an underground dwelling. Though Klaus has learned much about Judith since she let herself into his apartment while he was at work, stowed her toothbrush next to his, and never left, she’s never told him about the mummy fantasy. She’d disguised her withdrawal from her anxiety meds as a circulatory collapse and let Klaus bring her water, chamomile tea, and crispbreads in the bed with the shiny green blanket, only to emerge pregnant and on a lower dose of Ativan. She keeps the pills in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom with the homeopathic capsules, seawater nose drops, and Band-Aids. She takes some every night—sometimes more, sometimes less. The bottle is labeled BIOTIN: FOR HAIR, SKIN AND NAILS.

The weak sunbeams warm Judith’s face. The boys play in the garden even when it’s cold and drizzly, hacking up the thin sheets of ice that form on the rain barrel after the first frost, stirring mud soup in old pans with wooden spoons, or digging caves in the sandbox. They could never do such things at the park around the corner. The grounds are nice, but Judith is suspicious of the clientele. This garden, on the other hand, is practically an extension of their apartment. Here Kilian and Uli can watch crocuses, snowdrops, and tulip leaves emerge from the earth, pointy as witches’ hats; they can watch the leathery knobs unfold into sticky green leaves on trees and bushes; they can wait for the starlings to return.

“Mama, can we have sweets now please?” Kilian asks, cocking his head. His right foot scuffs at the ground. Uli stands a few feet behind him, grinning. Judith knows he put his younger brother up to it. She marvels at the two of them—she hopes that her own genes have mostly been eradicated from the chiseled, finely turned strands of their DNA, which she imagines as glowing purple and black rods, like the lighting in a club. “You can have them when Mattis comes, as I told you. Look and make sure that there’s nothing missing in the playhouse. Is there a cup and saucer for everyone?” The brothers run to the hut to check the table settings, since Mattis and his mother Hanna are supposed to arrive in a quarter of an hour.

Hanna and Mattis live next door in a four-story, smooth-plastered, utilitarian building from the ’50s with small windows—the kind of building that was so often constructed to fill bombed-out spaces. It fits the rest of the street like a rotten tooth in a healthy mouth. Judith has known Hanna and her lively son for a while now. Mattis goes to the Catholic kindergarten on Sonnenbergstraße, but he’s nonetheless a regular guest in the little garden; he’s even allowed to wreak havoc on the Ostheimer toy farm in the playroom, to the surprise and delight of Judith’s sons: “Come on, we’ll shoot the oxen, that one’s dead. Now a bomb falls through the roof and explodes on the pigs, and the farmer keels over—and then the pigs and the cow . . .”

Hanna is obviously grateful and in need of the help. Whenever Judith sees Hanna and her pale son rushing frantically down the street, or heaving the weekly groceries from the trunk of the Renault with the help of Hanna’s mother, she’s reminded of how cozy and secure her own life is. The fact that this woman has to do everything herself, that she can call on no one to share the burden of responsibility, fills Judith with fear and awe. She knows very well that she would never be able to raise the children, or even feed them, without Klaus; she knows that their lifestyle—sole wage earner and housewife—is on the verge of extinction. When she allows Mattis and Hanna into her world for an hour or two, she feels as if she’s making a sacrifice to angry gods. And it really is a sacrifice to hear TV-inflected battle cries coming from the otherwise peaceful playroom, and to hear her boys joining in as if it were the most natural thing in the world. It’s a sacrifice to Hanna, who sits at Judith’s table letting her tea get cold, for Judith to let herself be dragged so deep into the life of a broken family. Judith slides the plate of cake toward Hanna, hoping she’ll take some, that she’ll stuff her mouth with homemade cake and that the shredded carrots, hazelnuts, and cinnamon will form a bulwark that will halt the flow of news from Hanna’s dreary world. Of course, it doesn’t work. Hanna talks of lactose-free yogurt and soy milk, of torrents of vomit and watery stools. Judith nods and murmurs, then inserts some praise, since she doesn’t know what else to say. Hanna’s pale face reddens slightly, she smiles—a rare look for her: “Yes, that’s what everyone says, that we mothers work the hardest.” Perhaps she should jump in and draw Hanna out. Perhaps Hanna wants to pour out her heart. But then Mattis emerges from the playroom with a giant gun he’s hammered together from a Matador building set, his cheeks red and the hair on his neck dark with sweat. He sets his handiwork in his mother’s lap: “Look what Uli and I made!” Judith is horrified by the precision of the weapon her son has constructed with the old-fashioned building kit, which he usually turns into animals and all manner of buildings. She’s horrified by the trigger and magazine that Mattis is so expertly illustrating, so horrified that she barely registers the way Hanna turns from her son and begins to eat her cake and drink her tea without any comment aside from a single “Hm,” her whole body facing away from Mattis, until Kilian and Uli come to drag their guest back to the playroom.

Judith looks at her watch. It’s already half past four. The walls turn dark yellow, then reddish. Soon it will be dark. Five is cleanup time in the garden. Klaus will come home and they’ll have dinner. She allows the boys another handful of cookies and thinks. Hanna must have been held up at work. Mattis’s kindergarten is open until five. The boys will be disappointed. Just as she’s considering starting a ballgame with Uli and Killian, she hears excited voices—high chirping sounds that could only belong to little girls.

And then they’re there, running around the corner of the building, rushing across the lawn to the sandbox. They’re wearing identical jean skirts with embroidered flowers, patent leather boots with pink fur lining, and glowing down jackets. A multitude of pompons dance from their hats and scarves. The outfits would be more appropriate for 16-year-olds. The skirts end far above their knees and display legs in pink cotton tights. The girls immediately set about opening a restaurant. Thrilled, they pluck spoons, pans, and sieves from the wooden play box while the older girl provides commentary: “That’s the blender! And this is the fryer—we can make french fries!” They holler from the house to the astonished Ulrich, who hesitates at first but then grins and joins in, dragging his brother by the hand.

The neighbor woman’s red hair glows against the backdrop of the ivy-covered wall. She’s wearing a suit, a light-colored tweed coat, and high-heeled boots. A leather briefcase swings from her shoulder. She walks quickly through the grass toward Judith. Judith is curious to see if she’ll sink into the wet ground, but she treads so skillfully that she reaches the bench and sits down beside Judith without the slightest mishap. “I always wanted to call you up, but somehow it never happened. And so I thought we’d just look in and see if you were here. The garden is beautiful—you’d never expect something like this back here. It’s fantastic—right in the middle of the city! And you even have a sandbox!”

Judith examines the woman’s face—Leonie is her name, she remembers—her lipstick, her bright makeup, and the delicate pink freckles on her neck. She can tell that her neighbor doesn’t feel quite as comfortable as she pretends. Unlike her children, she doesn’t take it for granted that she can just burst in. I purposely didn’t invite them, but they showed up anyway. Judith takes a deep breath. She hates surprises. Mattis and Hanna still aren’t here. She looks surreptitiously at her watch. It’s too late now—they’re not coming. There’s great hustle and bustle between the sandbox and the hut. Uli and Leonie’s eldest have taken the reins, and they’re sending the two younger children back and forth, as both waiters and customers. Rose hips, mud pies, and stones are on the menu. Uli makes ivy and grass dumplings filled with mud, and Lisa does her best to imitate him. Judith is proud to see how sweetly Kilian treats the younger Felicia. “We were expecting visitors, actually—a neighbor’s son,” Judith says, purposely not mentioning any names, “but it seems they’ve been held up. Would you care for some tea?” Opening the wicker basket at her feet, pulling out the thermos, saucers, spoons, paper napkins, and the can with cubes of barley malt, and setting it all on the table restores Judith’s sense of security—the more so as she can sense Leonie’s admiration for her ability to spontaneously conjure up the makings of a tea party.

Felicia and Kilian have gotten into an altercation in the sandbox. Both are howling. Judith can’t tell what the trouble is. Leonie stands up immediately. “Feli, what’s wrong?” She translates her daughter’s wails. Kilian stands sullenly at her side. “You don’t want to be the customer? What do you want to be? The chef? And Kilian?” He mumbles something. “You want to be the chef too?” Leonie squats down with them, heedless of boots or coat. “You know what? I’ll be the customer. I’m super hungry. You guys cook me something! What do you serve here?” Kilian is already laughing again. “Dumplings and spätzle and bread pudding!” Felicia chimes in: “And cuthtard!” She doesn’t let go of her mother’s hand. The two older children join in. “I want to cook something too!” Uli cries. “Me too!” Lisa adds. Leonie takes the bucket that Uli is holding out to her. She fills the molds with the big wooden spoon. Her nose shines, she laughs. Uli chatters away eagerly, showing her the sand toys. It’s a new experience for Judith’s children, having a grown-up take part in a game, acting with them and following their directions. They like it—they laugh and talk excitedly. At the same time, they look wary, as if the situation could turn at any moment, as if the visitor might suddenly transform into a shadowy creature. At home Judith does crafts with the boys. They press flowers, braid, and weave. She lets them help her with the housework too, when they want to, but she doesn’t play with them. The world of childhood, where a fantasy land made from a few pillows and sticks can provide a whole day’s entertainment, is sacred. It shouldn’t be disturbed by a grown-up’s influence. At the Waldorf kindergarten, too, the teachers serve only as models to be imitated, working like 19th-century mothers in the house and garden with flour mills, mixing bowls, and washboards. The children are allowed to participate when they feel like it.

Judith knows this unwanted visit will upset things. Lisa and Felicia have temporary glitter tattoos on the backs of their hands and chewing gum in their cheeks. Now and then they fish long red gummy worms from the pockets of their jackets and share them with the boys. They chew delightedly, exuding the smell of artificial strawberry. Kilian tugs on Leonie’s bracelet: silver and multi-colored Ernie, Bert, Cookie Monster, and Grover charms jingle from Leonie’s freckled wrist. “Who are they?” With support from her girls, Leonie tells them about Sesame Street. They’re stunned when Uli exclaims: “We don’t have a television!” Tonight there will be questions: between bites of bread, called from behind the bathroom door, and whispered from under the blankets. Questions that will take energy to answer and that will bring uncertainty and confusion, maybe even awaken doubts about the fact that Judith wants to keep certain things from her children for as long as possible. Judith tosses back the now-cold fruit tea. It’s sour and makes her mouth water. She wishes she could spit it out. She’s annoyed at Hanna. Why couldn’t the stupid cow get here on time? Then she could have gotten rid of Leonie gracefully. “I’m sorry, we have visitors—maybe some other time.” Instead, this redhead is sitting here letting the children ogle her, totally oblivious. Uli touches her shimmering pantyhose tentatively: “How come you’re so pretty?” She’s upset everything—she doesn’t even ask whether the children are allowed to eat sweets.

Judith stands and goes over to the sandbox. “Uli, Kilian, get the apples and the sweets. You can eat with Lisa and Felicia in the playhouse.” The prospect of cookies ends the game. Leonie is impressed: “You even baked! I can’t bake at all. Sometimes I buy those muffin mixes. I let the girls decorate them with Smarties and sprinkles.” Leonie laughs and cleans her dirty fingers with a perfumed towelette. “We think carefully about what we eat in our household,” Judith says quietly. She tries to draw a line. It would be easier to be alone again—sun on her face, walled in, just her and the children, Klaus perhaps when he comes home, briefcase under his arm, eyes shining, his joy mirrored in the children’s faces and shining back on her as well.

Meanwhile, Leonie has sensed something; she twists her towelette into a sausage and stuffs it into her coat pocket, takes two steps back, her body tilted toward the playhouse, listening: “They’re playing so nicely in there—so peacefully.”

Judith just nods and puts the tea dishes back in the basket. Leonie takes the empty thermos to the faucet in the wall. How did she find it so easily? She’s smart—she washes the thermos and hands it back to Judith. She’s the kind of woman who would be easy to get close to: they could test lipstick, buy shoes, maybe even a second charm bracelet for Judith. It had always been women, not men, who were in short supply in Judith’s life. She finds most women trying and wearisome. As rivals they’d been irritating, now as mothers, members of this underprivileged and idealistic caste, they’re tolerable only in small doses. Klaus has a large circle of friends: colleagues from university, guys from his band, even old school friends he’s kept in touch with. Judith is happy to cook for company, but when they put out feelers or extend invitations—“How about a barbecue next weekend at the Bärenschlößle . . .?”—she pulls back.

Leonie has turned away; her drooping shoulders convey her sense of helplessness. One more peep from the house and she’ll call the girls and leave. Judith feels bad. She doesn’t want to be a bitch. And the children really did play so nicely together. A window opens above. She touches Leonie’s arm. “Look, Klaus is home. Maybe he’ll make us coffee.” The other woman’s face brightens, and her smile returns, wide and exuberant. Sören, Judith’s ex, wouldn’t have liked her: narrow sporty figure, red hair, too-small tits, a strong chin. She’d never have wasted years on an unreliable lover, popped pills, spread her legs on command. She’s normal. There’s no Ativan fog behind her smooth brow. This working girl with her bag and elegant office clothes contributes a not-insignificant amount to the household income. She hires a cleaning lady, of course. When she looks in the mirror, she doesn’t see a loser staring back at her. All that education, all the slaving away in grad school, just to cook spelt dumplings and sew patches on torn pants? Leonie doesn’t have the slightest clue about the foul swill that sloshes around inside your skull. Give her a hot, caffeinated drink and let her go in peace. She won’t discover your horrifying secrets, and you can go your merry way.

Judith calls up: “Klaus!” The boys rush out of the playhouse and stand next to her, screaming “Papa!” at the top of their lungs. The looks on the girls’ faces—a father who comes home while it’s still light out! She can act the part for Leonie. Up there, that guy—a dream guy: broad shouldered, fair haired, a professor, by the way—who just popped out of the window like a cuckoo from a clock, that’s my husband. My husband who feeds me, even though I’m sick and crazy. I’m good in bed and I’m a supermom. He doesn’t know the first part, and of course he likes the second part. I give him regular blow jobs and suck his cock at night, I get on top and moan and then make veggie-spread sandwiches in the morning—why would he ever look in the medicine cabinet? Biotin for hair and nails, to make you even prettier.

Klaus smiles and waves and the boys bounce with excitement: “Come down, Papa, come!” Your husband gets home late, am I right? He’s not part of your daily life, he works, just like you do, to pay for your Italian boots, your two cars, and the strangers who care for your children every day. But mine—he’s here. In a minute he’ll bring me a coffee with steamed milk. Because he loves me—dotes on me. And if I squint my eyes a bit in this melting blue twilight I can imagine it’s Sören who’s waving—waving down at his beautiful blond son that we made together. But Sören wouldn’t laugh and wave, he’d vomit on the whole idyll: garden, kids, housewife with teacups, the obscene lemming-happiness of the bourgeoisie, who smile vapidly while they rub up against each other and multiply. Your horizon is no higher than the rim of a muesli bowl, you’re blind to the world’s perversions. Child soldiers disembowel women in Namibia while you worry your child might have hammertoes. And the Chinese are making SUVs and precision mechanisms for a tenth of what they cost here, while the sea level and health care costs just keep rising.

Judith forms a cup with her hand and mimes drinking. Klaus grins and calls: “It’s on its way!” Judith smiles at Leonie. She talks of Klaus’s work at the university. Leonie smiles and pulls her tweed coat tighter. “And you? Are you a professor too?” Judith shakes her head. She’s been waiting for this question to come out of the lipsticked career-mouth. You’re nothing: a housewife and a mother. No one cares about you. The only people who stick up for you are old-fashioned Bavarian lederhosen-wearers and mentally deficient news anchors. Judith answers quickly. She’s said it a hundred times. The words tumble out of her mouth like the golden eggs from the hen’s rear. Leonie will snatch them up greedily. First career, then children, as it should be. The neighbor will never know that Judith didn’t finish her dissertation, that all she ever did in her months at the Dr. Fenchel Gallery was make coffee and take bubble wrap off of paintings. Leonie nods, impressed.

Klaus enters the garden. He’s carrying a painted wooden tray from Chiavenna with two coffee cups. “For you, mesdames. Cheers.” Klaus presses Judith to him. His grip is strong, as if to assure himself that she’ll really stay and not disappear through a knothole, like some enchanted princess in a fairy tale. She smells his aftershave and the familiar Klaus-smell—clean and harmless. Judith closes her eyes for a moment and leans against him. His heart beats slowly and evenly under his scratchy sweater. She wants to crawl into him and live as a tiny animal in his armpit. Klaus shakes Leonie’s hand, and they chat a bit. Uli and Kilian come and hang on his legs briefly, only to disappear back into the playhouse with the girls. “I’ll go back up and set the table. Grilled cheese was the plan for dinner, right?” Judith nods slowly. “And there’s a beet salad in the refrigerator, top left—don’t forget to taste it first.” Judith gulps down her coffee and watches him leave. No butt in his pants. A baggy nothing where there should be a nice swelling. Not too plump, but just right—like Dürer’s Adam, like Michelangelo’s David, like Sören. Judith shakes herself. She hates the stubborn physical presence of those memories. It’s as if her body remembers things her intellect has long since repressed. Regardless, Klaus’s pants don’t fit. What could Leonie be thinking, as she gazes after Judith’s husband and wipes milk foam from her thin upper lip? Women like Klaus: department secretaries, mommies at the Waldorf kindergarten, even elderly neighbors. He’s big and solid, and his hands are always warm.

“He’s fun, your Klaus. You’ve known each other a long time, haven’t you? And he’s still head-over-heels in love with you,” Leonie says, closing her eyes briefly, like in some sappy movie. Judith just nods—she doesn’t want to spit out more golden eggs. The sunlight will expose her, someone will betray her, eventually. It would be worth telling, the story of Judith and Klaus: the nice boy and the beast, the lunatic in the good man’s bed. A sleeping beauty who needed not to be kissed awake but rather to be shaken, to be pulled with clouded eyes from her heavy, drug-induced slumber and yelled at: “You just walk all over me. Now, when things aren’t going so well for you, you come crying to me? I have Annett, I’m trying to forget you, and now you pull this shit? How did you even get in?”

Judith’s silence doesn’t bother Leonie. She goes on, as if she’s just been waiting for an opportunity to talk about herself. “You know, I’m jealous that your husband comes home so early. Lately Simon’s been coming home later and later. I feel like a single mother. And it makes the girls sad, too. And bratty. Do you have any idea when we last did something together, just the two of us?” Judith shrugs.

The children have started playing horsey with a homemade bridle they’ve found in the garden shed. It will be the last game of the day—the little brass bells glint in the twilight. “Your boys have so much imagination. Lisa and Feli love that, of course. So many children just don’t know how to play.” Judith nods and tells her about the toys they have at the kindergarten: faceless dolls, simple wooden blocks, which have surely helped strengthen Uli and Kilian’s imagination. But Leonie doesn’t have much to say on this subject, which would have been a comfortable one for Judith. “My best friend is having a birthday party tonight. She lives in Tübingen, it’s really not that far. And we have a babysitter—our cleaning lady. I so want to go with Simon, without the kids, like a real couple. Sometimes I feel like all we are anymore is parents.” Judith clears the dishes, stacking the empty cups. She thinks about her evenings sitting in the living room with Klaus after the boys have gone to bed. They listen to music, plan their weekend, talk about the kindergarten, what groceries they need, Klaus’s students and his projects. When they make love, it’s slow and peaceful. Each time is the same, like swimming on a warm summer day—pleasant, unthrilling ripples.

—Translated from the German by Anne Posten.

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