Silent Fish, Sweetheart
“Imagine,” my mother says, “that you can’t really tell other people what you’re thinking, because you don’t speak their language. You can follow the sound of their language but you can’t tell when one word ends and another begins. You come to a strange land and you can’t understand anything. And because you don’t want to stand out, because standing out becomes more and more dangerous for you, you fall silent.”
My mother straightened her back, looked up from the table and looked me in the face. “Your Russian grandmother, Mima, was like that. She refused to learn the language of the land she was forced to flee to. She would only speak Russian and if that didn’t work she would start throwing things or say nothing at all.”
“It’s possible,” I say to Sander, “that I’m falling in love with you.” He looks at me impassively. “I don’t understand you,” I say and take his hand. “Don’t you want to be loved even just a little bit?”
He’s the kind of person who wears a different face every day and yet doesn’t seem to change. Who for some strange reason doesn’t smell of anything.
“It’s just possible,” I say to him, and give him little butterfly kisses, brushing his cheeks and his neck, “that you’re the one I’ve always been waiting for.”
“Imagine,” my mother says, “having to move to another country at a moment’s notice. Circumstances give you no choice. You have to leave all your possessions in an apartment that you might never set foot in again. You shut the door one last time, turn the key in the lock, put it in your bag – although you might never need it again— and go.
“That’s how Mima came to Germany, because she had to follow her German husband there. Your grandfather, my Papulya, her tall and handsome husband who always wore a hat in winter and soft leather gloves, was waiting at the station to pick her up. He had gone on ahead to find a new apartment, one which still contained dead pieces of furniture that used to belong to other people. He picked Mima up from the station and brought her to this apartment. Her eyes were swollen and she couldn’t see much, but what she could see was more than enough for her. She screamed loudly, yanked her shoes from her feet and hurled them away down the dark hallway. When I asked Papulya about it once, he said that it was apparently the furniture that had made Mima’s life in the apartment so difficult. The pieces stood around like strangers, telling stories about what Mima, too, had also left behind. ‘Too bad to live, too good to die,’ Mima had said to him, as if these were the coordinates of her life in a foreign land.
“Papulya kept trying to keep her mind off things. He walked through the city with her, went shopping with her. Once he sent Mima on ahead: ‘You go into the department store,’ he said, ‘I’ll study the newspapers at the kiosk here.’ Mima disappeared through the entrance. A short while later Papulya followed. Before he had even pushed open the door he was greeted by a loud argument—he could hear Mima’s voice. She was standing opposite two men in uniform. The shorter of the two was holding Mima by the arm. When she saw Papulya coming she yelled in Russian, ‘They won’t let me in!’ Papulya released the man’s grip from Mima’s arm and asked what was going on here. “We can’t let anyone else in now,” the smaller of the two said and shrugged. ‘We’re closing.’ Papulya laughed, and Mima looked at him sternly.
“Things like that happened on a regular basis after Mima first came to Germany. She used to lose her way because she couldn’t read the street names. Papulya would have to find her and bring her back home. She would get lost, sometimes deliberately, because she seemed to like having people look for her.
“But Mima kept begging Papulya to return to Russia with her. Papulya refused her demands; he was convinced that they had a better life in Germany now than they had done back in Russia.
“And then they couldn’t go back to Moscow,” my mother says, “because people were saying that there was going to be another war.”
“How are you supposed to know,” Sander asks me, “that you love someone?”
“Yes, how?” I ask in return, and can’t help thinking of the woman I met recently. She said she could tell me things about myself, particularly which star sign is the only match for mine. I ask Sander, and he says he’s Pisces, and a proper fish at that, and laughs briefly. I try not to let my astonishment show and in that moment I decide to pledge my troth to him.
“As you’ll imagine,” my mother says, “being in a foreign country and the fact that she couldn’t leave made Mima grow very old, very quickly. But she carried on, not least because we, the twins, came into the world. Together with us children, they both kept their heads down as much as possible and got through the war, with Mima doggedly refusing to learn the language of the country she had to live in.
“Papulya and Mima spoke Russian to each other, my father spoke German to us, and we spoke German on the street and outside in the yard. We didn’t want to give ourselves away as the children of a Russian mother.
“Then, toward the end of the war, Papulya was finally drafted and we twins were left behind with Mima in the damp, dark apartment. During this time she suddenly started speaking to us again, as if she wanted to take advantage of Papulya’s absence to gain some territory for her language. We understood her, but answered in German. She raised her hand and said we shouldn’t talk to her like that.
“Once Olga was whispering something to me in the kitchen. Suddenly, Mima was standing behind us. She yelled, “There will be no whispering in my house, and most certainly not in German!” Olga cupped her hands round her mouth and then to my ear, I couldn’t help laughing because her breath tickled. Mima grabbed a handful of flour from the heap lying on the table in front of her, and threw it over Olga and me. The flour slowly drifted down onto us, turning Olga’s hair and my face white. Olga stopped whispering. We stared at Mima. She stood there, hands white with flour, fists clenched. She snatched at the flour again and threw a cloud at us, like frozen breath, white. Olga brushed the flour from her head. I tasted it on my lips and licked it off until my tongue stuck to my gums in my dry mouth.
“After that Olga and I barely spoke in Mima’s presence any more. We nodded, shook our heads, shut out the curt Russian orders that she gave us. Back then, talking became some sort of treasure that I had to protect,” my mother says, “by staying silent.”
“A promise is something that ceases to be valid the second it’s made,” Sander says, and pulls his hand away from mine. I look into his big eyes, which are very far apart. He closes his eyelids; the top and bottom lids meet in the middle of his eyes, and he says, “When you promise yourself to someone you withdraw from them. What is love if not a promise.”
“Imagine,” my mother says, “what it would be like to sit at home the whole time, waiting for your husband to return. You don’t know where he is; you haven’t heard from him for a long time. Then one day he comes back, stands there in the doorway and says, ‘It’s over.’ At that point Mima started to scream as if she’d gone mad. Her screams frightened us children even more than the sight of our father did.
“He slept for a few days and we went outside and roamed the streets. The other children said we should be happy that our father was back home again. Olga said quietly to me, ‘He’s not our father, not our Papulya.’
“He had grown thinner, which made him look even taller. When he and Mima used to walk out together on the street and Mima didn’t understand something and asked him to repeat it, he would bend down to her, his mouth close to her ear. When the other children in the street saw that, they would say to us, ‘Your parents really love each other, don’t they.’ Olga used to reply, ‘No, they just don’t understand each other.’ ‘Liar!’ the children would shout back. ‘People who whisper are in love.’
“Since Papulya had come back, Mima retreated more and more into her silence. We learned to interpret her gestures, to read all her orders on her face. I don’t know why, but it always puts me in mind of a pair of socks which you have to turn inside out to put one inside the other. That’s what Mima was like—she turned to face the outside but hid inside.
“On very rare occasions, we heard Mima singing softly. She sang children’s songs; she seemed to wrap herself in her beautiful voice—as if in a long cloak—which transformed the Russian into a dark, meandering river.
“Through a stroke of luck Papulya got a job working for a newspaper. In addition to news items, he also had to write the horoscopes. ‘In times like these,’ he said, ‘the news is no different from horoscopes. People want them both to be true.’ He got hold of the horoscopes from old Russian newspapers and translated them. He used to mix Cancer with Virgo, or swap the predictions for Capricorn with Libra. He laughed about it, and in the news items he also wrote things that hadn’t happened exactly the way he put it.
“In the evening, when he talked about his work, Mima would sit silently next to us at the table but we barely noticed she was there.
“One time, as she sat between us silently as usual, she brushed the palm of her hand over the table, stiffly, as if she was gathering crumbs. But she brushed her hand right into a splinter of wood that was sticking up from the edge of the table. She held her hand up which showed us. The splinter was stuck in the soft skin, still visible but so deep that it couldn’t be squeezed out again. Papulya wanted to pull it out with tweezers, but in doing so he wouldn’t have been able to avoid damaging the surrounding skin. He shook his head and said, ‘We’ll just leave it in there then. It will work its way out eventually.’ It stayed in there until she died,” my mother says.
Sander lies on top of me and looks at me, unblinking, for a long time. He asks, “Would you wait for me if I disappeared? Would you look for me?”
I rest my hands on his back. Although I’m only touching him, it’s as if I’m besieging him. I say, “I’ll only know when the time comes,” and purse my lips as if I’m giving myself a kiss.
“Maybe you don’t need anyone at all,” he says slowly, emphasising every word.
“Maybe you don’t need anyone either,” I say quickly, and take my hands off his back.
“Imagine,” my mother says. “Sometimes Papulya would take us fishing. He treated us like boys when we came along with him. We were allowed to stand in the mud, climb trees and scramble around in the bushes. We were allowed to watch him hitting the fish on the head with an old spike. We watched him slitting their stomachs, and reaching in to pull everything out. He explained the innards to us, and Olga threw up. I watched attentively; I was fascinated that there were so many human-like parts in this scaly body.
“After that, Olga stayed at home and Papulya bought me a shrimping net so I wouldn’t get bored while he was fishing. The two of us used to head off to the river. I occasionally caught sticklebacks and other small fish in my net, but mostly it was just seaweed or rotten brown leaves. Papulya used to say, “I’ll catch dinner; you catch the salad.” I watched him fish, and he explained the rules of the game: if a fish has fallen for the bait, it still has a good chance of surviving. A clever fish will swim towards the hook with its gills open, and that way it can often get away again. Other fish get caught; those ones are whacked quickly. But some are taken out, carefully removed from the hook and, if it hasn’t damaged them, they are thrown back in the water. ‘Weighed in the balances and found wanting!’ Papulya used to shout after these fish.
“One evening Papulya and I came home from fishing. I carried the dead fish into the apartment in my net and Papulya had a little tin in which were swimming two sticklebacks, a male and a female. I showed Mima the tin. She looked aghast and shook her head. Papulya picked up a jam jar and poured the contents of the tin into the glass and topped up the water. And so the jar stood on the table in the kitchen and the two sticklebacks swam in circles inside, clearly irritated at not being able to breach the invisible boundary of the glass.
“Mima fried the fish that Papulya had caught. I didn’t eat much. I was busy watching the sticklebacks. They stuck their mouths up against the glass as if they were kissing it. After dinner, when no-one was watching, I sprinkled a little bit of salt in the water, and Olga said I should crumble some bread in.
“At that precise moment Mima came into the kitchen and saw what we were doing. She screamed in Russian, ‘These fish aren’t to get anything to eat!’
“I was so surprised I stood stock still. But Mima snatched the jar and, with a swift movement, fished one of the sticklebacks out of the water and threw it across the kitchen. The fish’s little body smacked against the wall, leaving a mark, fell to the ground and stopped moving. Olga and I stared at the fish, and then I started screaming. In the meantime Mima had reached into the jar again and caught the other stickleback and thrown it across the kitchen too. Papulya stood in the doorway and said nothing. Olga was crying and held her hands over her ears. I was shouting in German and Russian, all jumbled up. Mima grabbed me under the arms and shoved me out the door. I stumbled a bit and bumped into my father.
“Papulya said in his deep voice, ‘It was no piece of cake catching those.’
“Mima yelled back, ‘I don’t want any fish in jars in this house!’ Her voice came tumbling out. I positioned myself behind my father, put my arms round his legs from behind and screwed up my eyes. At that age I still used to hope that if I could only shut my eyes tightly enough I would become invisible. And so would everything else,” says my mother.
Sander disappeared a few days ago. He didn’t leave behind a letter or a note. I think he wants to show me how much I’ll pine for him. But his voice, the few words he has left me, are fading in my ears. I want to wipe his skin, the moistness of his hands, off my trousers. My lover, the stranger that I call mine, has disappeared under the surface.
I scream at the wall, “Don’t ever come back, you fish! Go under, drown, choke on your panting breath.”
All of a sudden he is here again. I open the door and he is leaning one hand against the door frame; her asks if he can come in.
“Why?” I ask.
He replies, “I just want to hear whether I’m the one that you love.”
“Yes,” I say, “I just want to hear that too.”
“You’ll be waiting your whole life long to hear it,” he says, “if you can’t say it yourself.”
“I want, I want,” I say again, and then I can’t speak any more.
“As you can imagine,” my mother says, “everything just kept getting more and more difficult. The older Papulya got, the more frequently we heard him talking to himself. None of us thought badly of him for it. Mima retreated to her room; we used to hear her singing softly. Just recently, one of the songs that Mima sang came back to me. It’s a Russian children’s song, about a sailor who tells another sailor that he has lost his ship. Both of them are lamenting their ships when an old captain comes along. He follows their conversation. Then in the chorus you hear the captain saying, ‘Many a sailor has lost his ship, but I—I have lost my sea.’ Papulya always went quiet and listened when he heard Mima singing,” my mother says. She shakes her head as she tells me that, as if she wants to shake off the memory. Then she says in Russian, “But little Mima, I did understand you. I just never said anything.”
Larissa Boehning, born in 1971, grew up in Schleswig-Holstein. She studied cultural studies, philosophy and art history in Berlin and worked as a designer after her studies. From 2004 to 2007, she lived and worked in Spain. Since 2003 she has taught creative and literary writing at universities in Germany and abroad. She was Writer-in-Residence at the Universities of Liverpool and Lancaster, in Iran, and at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou. In 2015 she taught creative writing at various universities in China. Her debut novel, Light Fabrics, won the Kulturpreis der Stadt Pinneberg and Mara Cassens Prize for the best novel in 2008. She has also published a collection of short stories and three more novels. Her latest novel, None of It’s Right, But It’s All True was nominated for the Ingeborg-Bachmann-Prize in 2013.
“Silent Fish, Sweetheart” was published in short story collection Swallow Summer, Comma Press, 2016, translated by Lyn Marven, which has been named a finalist for the 20167 Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.