Daan Heerma van Voss
A Christmas Tale
To his surprise she tasted of buttermilk. Not of ordinary milk, not low-fat French cream cheese or Greek yogurt, but of buttermilk. He brushes his hand between the curtains, and makes a small peephole so he can see the woman unlocking her bike, while a meter away from her two fat seagulls fight over a crust of Christmas cake. Last night, he asked her many barroom questions, hoping she would mistake his eagerness for curiosity, which in the end she did. The three answers he still remembered were: 1. “Vodka with ice,” 2. “Theater Studies,” 3. “This tattoo? A swallow, surely you can see that? My mother says I am like a swallow, I fall and fly, fall and fly.” He didn’t ask whether she belonged in the sky or on the ground. He didn’t ask, because he knew the answer.
She swings her legs ungracefully over the saddle and cycles off, lurching out of his street. He goes on looking, at the vomit, at the birds, at a neighbor carrying a Christmas tree. And then, finally, at the flat opposite, where he has not seen anybody for years, the flat to which no one but he pays any attention. His aging process echoes that of the apartment, with no one keeping track of all the minuscule changes that one day will add up to a grim transformation, with no one or nothing left to blame. The boredom that he has started to associate with life itself is only interrupted when he looks out of the window, at that very apartment.
But it’s not that bad, is it? He is only forty years old. He still has a nice head of hair, he still wakes up with an erection every morning. Is that how he defines youth these days?
He turns away from the window. The view of the opposite apartment burns a hole in his back. He already knows what the day has in store for him. He will make tea that he eventually will forget about. He will clean the stove, which is not dirty to begin with. He will walk back and forth along his street, assuring himself that taking strolls is a form of exercise. And just before going to bed, he will promise himself never to forget the way she tasted.
Thirteen years ago was the last time anyone had lived in the flat. For a while there had been To Let signs on the front of the building. One day the signs disappeared. He hadn’t seen anyone take them down.
The man who moved in kept nocturnal hours. He scarcely ever showed himself, and the curtains were always closed so tightly that there was no way of peeping between them. The blue glow of the television flickered constantly, even on the days when not a single shadow moved through the house. The man received post at strange hours, and what was that noise that sounded in the middle of the night, halfway between hammering and groaning?
When his own life began to lose color, he found himself more and more riveted to the window frame, staring, fantasizing. After his neighbor opposite had disappeared one day, the signs were not hung back up. It was as if the apartment had been given up. But not by him.
Fifteen years ago, at a time when he was always looking for material that usually issued forth novels, he would have gratefully received fantasies about other people living other lives in other houses. After making his debut at the age of twenty-three, for a while he had a fixed place in the lists of those young writers who seemed to populate more and more magazines, television programs and one-off publications. There was something hysterical about that list-mania, he thought at the time. Now he thinks: at least there were lists.
Today things are more difficult. He hasn’t changed, his language hasn’t changed much, and yet the final result is never the same as in those early years. There is consensus in the literary world, although no one has been able to describe the downward process, that his publications have become increasingly impoverished. At any rate the media pay little attention to the pioneering role he has played in the field of career decline.
Slowly he disappeared from the lists, the great novel has failed to materialize (he doesn’t even know what a great novel looks like, apart from being thick, of course), he has lost out to others, has become older and more contrarian (in his eyes: more principled). He wrote the first three books at a tempo that made other writers both jealous and suspicious, brought in enough royalties to be able get by for a while. At present he writes exclusively for the one or two magazines that have not yet noticed his decline in market value, magazines he secretly despises for that very reason. But at least he still has the energy to despise.
Christmas Eve. Across the street— narrow, full of workers’ houses with low ceilings—Christmas lanterns have been hung, a luminous chain. In the distance he hears tram cables tautening and bike chains rattling. Around midnight he starts: as in dreams he knows what he must do, as in dreams it doesn’t matter why. All doubts fade away. When he leaves his house he has a length of rope with a wide loop in it in one hand. In the other hand he holds a crowbar that he hopefully won’t be needing. The street is eerily quiet. It is ready.
To reach the door of the flat he must first go up a hidden flight of steps. He can tell by his heartbeat that his breathing is irregular. Of course there is no nameplate to be seen, and it can’t be called burglary if there’s no owner. He pushes his hand and wrist through the letterbox and throws the loop in the direction of the door handle. After ten minutes of throwing and swearing, just as he is considering using the crowbar, he hears a click.
There is furniture in the flat, covered in a layer of dust that cannot be wiped away with one passing finger. He smells his fingertip: so this is what the life of the nocturnal man smelled like, stale, slightly off, moldy. The electricity turns out not to have been cut off, the gas rings are still working. He opens a window and looks straight into his own flat on the other side of the street.
Only when he turns on the light in the living room does he see the photos on the wall. There are scores of them, hung with unparalleled precision. He sees the lives of four people schematically, caught in about a hundred stills. Apart from that there are maps and schedules, whose connection is not clear. It is as if he were looking at different strands of the same code, but without the key to crack it.
Much to his disappointment he doesn’t find any sign of the night man anywhere in the house. What his occupation was, where he has got to, who has gone on paying the gas, water, and electric bills—nothing. He passes his finger over the photos as if he were dissecting them. In the corner of the room there is an old stretcher; the mattress has damp patches in it, but no holes. He turns at the window and stares at his house across the street. But he remains where he is. Eventually, he lies down and falls asleep.
The next day it happens, just like that, as he is crossing the street. A black van drives straight at him, stops at his feet, the back doors sweep open, two men get out and throw him inside. He scrambles to his feet, too surprised to say anything.
“Good to have you back,” says a man who looks like a Rottweiler.
He doesn’t answer.
“It’s been a while. I won’t tell you how disappointed we were. But we’re prepared to put it behind us. You’re back, that’s the main thing. And you can get straight to work. As you well know, there’s an assignment that’s been waiting for you ever since you left. Our assignments never expire.”
“An assignment?” he says. “Surely I am not the person you’re looking for.” He has never been more certain of anything in his life.
“Of course you are,” says the Rottweiler. “The light in your house was on. That’s the sign we all agreed on. It’s a surprise it has taken you this long.”
He tries to push his way between them, but can’t.
“Listen, prick,” says the Rottweiler. “You can’t just get out. Surely I don’t have to tell you what will happen if you refuse?”
Indeed, there’s no need: in the dog’s eyes he sees a world without compassion or mercy. Although his heart is racing, he keeps his composure. He hears his mouth formulate syllables, words, sentences. His voice is remarkably rational, detached even. “What would you have me do? Theoretically speaking.”
“What you should have done before,” says the second man. “Get rid of someone, freak tart. And there’s nothing theoretical about that.”
All his fears and fantasies seem to assume solid form, angular and heavy. They come to a halt in the middle of his throat.
“And don’t you dare start talking about your salary,” says the Rottweiler. “We’ve paid thirteen years’ worth of bills for you. Show a little decency. And before I forget, it has to happen before the end of the year.”
“Why so fast?” Why this question, why is he concerned with the logistics of this bizarre tale? He doesn’t have a clue, but his voice seems to know what it’s doing. Maybe he should just listen to the voice.
“That’s not your problem,” says the second man. “But it’s better from a tax point of view if the operation takes place before the end of the year.”
The Rottweiler nods in agreement.
“And who do I have to get rid of?” he asks coolly.
“Who?” The Rottweiler looks surprised. “The target is the same as thirteen years ago.” The second man hands over a dossier.
He opens the dossier and feels all the blood drain from his face, when, in the first photo he comes across, he sees himself.
In the evening he walks to the only nearby copy shop that is still open. On the internet he looks for images of the target and prints off about five sheets full of photos. In the bathroom of what was once the flat of his neighbor opposite, he presses the photos onto the mirror with a piece of sticking plaster. So the nocturnal guy was a hit man. Knowing this, going home is impossible. He is undoubtedly being watched. He can’t call the police as he doesn’t even know what he would begin to tell them. He tries to get the voice to guide him as it did earlier today, but there is only silence.
Maybe it’s better if he just follows their demands for a while. They have told him to observe the house he once called his home, is that so hard? But they called it “part of the preparation.” Preparation for what exactly? He didn’t ask, they didn’t tell. He looks at the photo and notes that he has grown older. He is thinner, his skin has faded somewhat. But even so, why did the men in the van not recognize him? Hadn’t they read the dossier properly themselves? Or do they know very well who he is and the exchange of identity is part of some sort of joke?
No, whoever these people are, they don’t joke. That certainty sends shivers down his spine. They know infinitely more than he does. He simply has to comply.
He sits down at the window, stares into his own flat and sees a light in the living room. In the bedroom there is a clothes horse with socks and underpants on it, but he cannot smell the characteristic, consoling odor of his own washing from here. Maybe it has vanished.
He looks at the front door. Three hours pass. No one drops by, not even a postman. By the day after tomorrow his preparations will have to be completed. At least he would have to create the impression that he has done something. So he gets a notepad, makes a schedule and notes nothing down. The day after tomorrow he will get the rifle with which he will have to do the deed, the men told him. He once practiced, on ranges in Texas, and even showed a talent for it.
They are not the kind of people you can just say no to. In order to return to his ordinary life he has to carry out the assignment, there is no other way. But why, of all the people he can think of, is he the one who must disappear?
No one comes to the door the following morning either. He spends his time on abdominal exercises and boxing movements, knowing that he must get into as good a shape as possible. After all these years, he has something to get into shape for again.
December 29. They pick him up in plain sight, as though he were simply one of them. The van drives at walking speed over the canals, all to allow the Rottweiler, the second man, and himself enough time to have their conversation. Christmas is over, the shops are open again, on the pavements conifers stand next to rubbish bags.
The Rottweiler: “What are your findings?”
“I won’t lie to you,” he says. “The target leads a lonely existence.”
“Yes, he’s a sad case,” the second man intervenes. “A freak tart.”
“Well, sad, I’m not sure,” he begins. “And what’s a fr…”
“Simply sad,” says the Rottweiler. “Pathetic.”
“That maybe so,” he says, “but I still have no idea why he has to disappear. Shouldn’t I know?”
The Rottweiler looks at the second man in surprise, as if he had never heard anything so odd.
The second man: “You’re supposed to give us a thorough analysis of the target, not the other way around. Let’s hear it!” He turns to the Rottweiler: “So I say to him: ‘You’re supposed to give us a thorough analysis of the target. Let’s hear it!’”
A confused silence ensues. “Okay,” he says in a questioning tone. “The target is said to lead a lonely existence. No one drops in to see him, I didn’t see him leave his house in two days.” He falters for a moment, is alarmed by the fact that he intuitively feels that it is the truth, and eggs himself on further. “He’s a loser. His life has no glow at all. He cuts his toenails with a pair of kitchen scissors. He watches The Mole. He has eczema on his finger joints and puts ointment on them when he goes to bed. Sometimes he puts a live CD on, to at least hear the sound of other people. The last girl he was with tasted of buttermilk. He’s a loser.” Exhausted, he stops talking, a sadness he doesn’t recognize in himself sets in. Perhaps this is how a freak tart always feels.
The Rottweiler turns to the second man. “At last, some reassurance. I was beginning to think he had completely lost his touch. But hearing this, I feel confident he knows his target better than the target knows himself. That’s the way it is done, my friend.”
The second man: “Remember, it must happen by New Year’s Eve at the latest. So you’ve got two days left.”
“I know, the tax advantage.”
The men nod simultaneously.
The Rottweiler pats him on the shoulder. “He will never know what hit him.”
“No,” he replies. “He won’t. It’s as if he’s been waiting motionless for years for someone to point a rifle at him.”
Two days left. It must be done the day after tomorrow. The rifle has a good feel in the hand, and the weight suits him. On the side it says: Blaser Germany / DE. Germans, he thinks to himself, who else? Calibre: 0.243. The sight has already been screwed on, he didn’t need to do anything. The Rottweiler was proud when he handed it over, and said, supposedly casually, that he had not forgotten his working method.
What his method consisted of, he dared not ask. At this stage it might be wise to keep his mouth shut, rely on his instincts and hope for the best.
Once the operation has been carried out successfully, he must find a way of disposing of the weapon. To do that he must be able to take it apart quickly. He practices it for the rest of the day and becomes quite proficient. The sights can be easily clicked off, he quickly turns the silencer on and off, and he manages to fold up the rifle very efficiently and place it in the accompanying case, which strikes him as slightly effeminate, certainly for a hit man.
There he sits, in the corner of the flat that once seemed so attractive to him. The butt is resting on his shoulder. He jerks his neck in order to keep his muscles loose. With the barrel he follows cracks in the plaster, damp patches, uneven spots, imagining that it’s the trail of an animal. He places his index finger on the trigger, presses it gently, hears a soft click.
In the evening, to spoil himself, he buys an apple fritter from the twenty-four-hour local stall, as it is that time of year after all. Walking back to his headquarters he scarcely looks at the flat that was once his, but now belongs to his target.
At night he awakes with a start. He can’t believe how harshly he has judged his life. All the Rottweiler had to do was ask him a simple question, no further encouragement was needed. It was as if a spell that had lasted for thirteen years was suddenly broken. Maybe he had done something wrong after all. Maybe he lived too casually, maybe he put too much trust in the natural course of life, the course that had elevated him once.
A few feet from him lies the rifle case. He can hardly breathe. It’s so strange that the man ordered to kill him had moved into the apartment just across the street. Wait. Of course the guy moved here because he had to kill him. He lies down on the moldy mattress. But why did the hit man, the nocturnal man, leave without finishing his mission?
Maybe it’s because the hit man found out his target was innocent. Could it be? A brief but feeble hope, a lump in his throat.
But maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe his crimes are so appalling that only he himself is allowed to pass the sentence. Whatever the reason of his predecessor’s disappearance, tomorrow he will walk in his shoes.
December 30. In the hit man’s closet he finds a sweatsuit. At noon he decides to have a run. The outside air is chilling, his lungs hurt with every breath. He passes the supermarket where the target gets his groceries, decides to go in. He buys two dozen eggs and returns to HQ. There he prepares his soldier’s meal: two gigantic omelettes. He imagines his muscles growing, he knows he’s getting fitter and stronger. For the first time in thirteen years, the concept of improvement feels real and tangible.
He takes the dossier picture from the bathroom to the living room. He hangs it next to the other photos. He is looking at five worthless lives, only one of which is still in need of an ending. He walks to the window, takes the rifle, points at the target’s apartment. He zooms in, aims for a photo frame on a book shelf. He squeezes the trigger. A gentle click. Tomorrow he will use live ammunition.
If a life is defined by the number of people at someone’s doorstep, the life of the target can be considered non-existent. In that case, can one still speak of murder?
The last day of the year. Today is the day. But first he must see the two men again. Before he pulls the trigger, he needs to know what the target has done to deserve all this. Also, he is very curious about the meaning of the term “freak tart.” But he guesses that the two won’t easily indulge him, especially when there are no tax benefits involved. He needs to cause an alarm. He grabs a red towel, goes outside, and ties it around his doorpost. And then he waits. He knows they will come for him.
Something has changed to his advantage, he knows it. He can feel it. They need him to finish the mission. It is only now that he realizes that this makes him the man in charge.
“Okay,” says the Rottweiler. “The red flag. Should we be concerned?”
“You should,” he says. “The life of the target seems peaceful to me. I need to know what he has done wrong. I need to know what I’m dealing with. I am a professional, after all.”
“That’s it?” asks the Rottweiler.
“Okay,” says the Rottweiler. The silence vibrates around them. “The target has not been sincere.”
“Is that all?”
“Insincerity is a capital sin now,” the second man seconds.
“I don’t understand,” he says. “What does it even mean, to be insincere?”
“It means he cheated.”
“What do you mean?”
“Insincerity is the worst possible offense,” the Rottweiler explains reluctantly. “So many people are struggling, fighting for their survival. And then there are people like him who feel entitled to their comfortable little lives and who are still able to lead those lives with a certain disregard, even with an air of sarcasm. Sarcasm undermines everything we are trying to build here. People used to believe in him. Their hope was genuine. By not doing anything, he has let them down. He must go.”
He wants to disagree, but he can’t. Everything the man said is true. “Oh,” he says. “Before I forget. What is a freak tart?”
The Rottweiler rolls his eyes. “Simple. It means something like dick splash, or wazzock.”
He nods. There is nothing left to ask.
Evening sets in, firecrackers rattle. Time and again he dismantles the rifle, then reassembles it. Again, again. He doesn’t even have to look at the rifle anymore when doing it. He looks at the photos on the wall. At one photo in particular.
The Rottweiler is right. The target has not been sincere. His writing was permeated by this hideous irony, this shield of wit. And in his real life he always kept his distance. Even when he touched things—or people—he didn’t feel them. The only things he cared about were the things he could see. Breasts, books, commas.
The target should have been taken out thirteen years ago. And what did he do with the extra years that were granted him, with the life that he could have led after escaping death?
He leaned on others. He needed constant praise and love, without ever feeling the need to give some himself. He is a freak tart, a dick splash, a wazzock. He does need to go.
He loads his rifle. The time has come.
It’s ten to twelve. He watches the apartment closely, the rifle on his shoulder, the sight serving as a peephole. At midnight the target will have to come out to see the fireworks. He tries to steady himself, focuses on his breath. The target’s neighbors prematurely light the first flares of the evening, but he doesn’t look up. Then, finally, someone comes up to the door. It’s not the target though. It’s a visitor, a girl. On her right hand she carries a tattoo of a swallow.
His eyes are burning. He has only to pull the trigger and her head would explode like a melon. Should he? Does he want to? The girl takes her phone and playfully looks up to the target’s window. Maybe she can vouch for the target’s sincerity. She looks at her screen and calls him again. Then she shrugs and picks up her bike. Just like that, she has forgotten all about him. She will not take a stand and plead for his life. There is no final defense, no closing argument. She doesn’t care. At that moment he knows his mission is just. Maybe it’s only fitting that a girl who tastes like buttermilk casts the verdict.
The voice has returned. The voice says: “I’m gonna shoot this fucker.”
As soon as she leaves, he walks up to the target’s apartment. He enters. There is something familiar about this place, but still, he doesn’t feel at ease. He walks to the bedroom, looks across the street and finds himself in shooting range. The target is locked, just in time.
He runs back to HQ and takes the rifle. But much to his amazement, the target has disappeared. He runs back to the target’s apartment, then back to HQ. He keeps running, to and fro, his head filling up with the sounds of exploding fireworks and New Year’s resolutions, to and fro, toward the end he deserves.
—Translated by Paul Vincent and Daan Heerma van Voss
Daan Heerma van Voss is a novelist and historian. He has often been hailed as one of the front-runners of his generation. He has written essays and articles for several national and international publications, such as Haaretz (Israel), Svenska Dagbladet, PEN International, Vogue US and the New York Times. His work has been nominated for several literary prizes. He was also awarded De Tegel for extraordinary journalistic achievements. His work has been translated in various languages.