—Translated by the author
Ana remembers how it felt to see the statue looking down on them so sternly, behind it the country, the land that came closer by the minute. They landed on the shore of New York, the skyscrapers so close that it seemed like you could reach out and touch them if you wanted to. Ana stood on deck, she saw how the posh people went ashore directly. All the others had not yet arrived in America, she knew that. It just seemed as if. The few steps they had taken on this ground had not been real ones. They were taken to another, smaller ship that would take them to the island. In the faces of all the others Ana saw that they all knew that there was the possibility—that they might never arrive in America. Ana saw how much it hurt some of them. She felt the pressure, the tension in their movements, their fear. She herself would not have minded. Maybe she would have liked better to be sent back straight away, secretly—instead of being checked like an animal before slaughter, like a sick horse, here, in this strange, concrete-made land.
The boat took off. With a stoic look on its face the statue rammed the torch into the sky. It looked as if it was trying to set the clouds on fire. Ana looked at it while the ship passed by furtively, at a greater distance than before, as if it was trying to duck from her presence. The statue didn’t look at them, its eyes were without expression. Ana did not see anything inviting in its face, only this suppressed anger, the steely flame in its metal hand.
The ship landed, in front of them a gigantic brick building in red and white. It looked like military barracks without soldiers, but with way too many civilians. As if there were a battlefield somewhere and everyone who survived had been taken here. They had to be put in order. Officials waved them into the building, they were screaming things to each other in English, calls that might even have been meant for them. The officials looked exhausted, in a rush, as if they had been made cattle herders which they did not want to be. Ana touched Katica’s arm, softly; she tried to catch her eyes. Katica was weak and pale. It must be the child that drained her like that, Ana thought. On the ship she had fallen unconscious twice, for no apparent reason and without Ana having seen it coming. Ana nursed her back on her feet each time. As they ascended the stairs a young man in a doctor’s coat drew some signs on her sister’s coat, Pg, in white chalk. Katica didn’t even notice. Pg, Ana thought, Poglej, Look, and that the doctor for sure did not know any Croatian. “Only a couple more steps”, Ana said, “Hodi, sestra.” Ana was sweating, she carried her sister’s weight and her sister carried that of her child. Just another couple of steps—then Ana lifted her eyes.
Everything fell silent inside her, all of a sudden. The hall was big and wide as the sky and full of people from end to end. Never before had she seen a room as big as this. A single room that big—it was loud and stuffy, people were surging against the sisters like a tired wave that did not cease pushing forward. Still Ana had the feeling she was standing in a church. It was a big, American church, this is what she understood at this very moment. Important and holy things were happening here, a strange consecration, they dipped all of them into a great soup of important documents and figures, so that they would finally turn into Americans or at least into people who are present, people who have immigrated rather than immigrants, into wine instead of water. Where there was the crucified Christ hanging in the church of her village, there was a great, big flag taking up almost all of the wall in front of them. The stars and stripes on it were properly cropped, like soldiers they were lying next to each other, somebody had attached them to this gigantic piece of fabric as if they had been catalogued and registered and arrayed and sorted. Those were American stripes and American stars, each of them had a number and a proper place, the borders between them were drawn sharply, in red, white, blue material. Ana regarded them—everything amounted to the great procedure that was America, its sanctuary lay in a tremendous column of human numbers, and the Mass that was being said were they themselves. This was when Ana first saw America. This America overshadowed everything that was happening to her in this place, the good and the bad. It shone down at her for the first time from this superhuman flag, from this orderly, stalwart flag, so big and irrefutable that it left her speechless for a quiet, lonely moment in this vast crowd of people.
They were examined multiple times, the same examinations as in Ballinstadt. She had to undress, and again they put this horrible piece of metal to her eye. They took away Katica to a different room. There was a fear in her eyes that Ana had not seen there before. Half an hour later they let her out again. “It was because of the child”, Katica said. Ana did not inquire further.
Ana did not know how long all of that had taken. Her recollections crumbled into their individual stations, one ordeal after the other, a way of the cross consisting of questions and forms and strange instruments and then, at long last, salvation. Suddenly Ana found herself standing in front of a desk. She heard the same questions as in Ballinstadt. The official spoke German to her. Asking what her name was, where she was from, whether she had somebody here who would pay for her, where she had a contract for work, whether she had ever been in a mental institution, whether she was an anarchist—Ana had learned all the answers by heart. She was so tired that she did not worry, not about the documents, not about her answers, not about what she had yet to face. She just talked. And then it was over.
The ship that had taken them to the island carried them away again. They had walked through the great machine and emerged at the other end, categorized into stars and stripes, into red and white and blue. They emerged in America, even though there was just water around them. The world dissolved in front of Ana’s eyes, something had changed, something small, but essential. The water on which they returned was not the same as the one they had come on. Like the ground on the mainland was fake and unreal at first, now they would for sure have been able to walk on that water if they had wanted to, it would have been hard as stone, American, certainly she would have smashed her skull on those waves if she had jumped—
The skyscrapers of New York now stood in a dense, gray fog. They looked dirty, and even if she could have reached out to touch them, Ana would not have wanted to. She did not understand what had happened to them. What had happened to the world that had fallen apart into rectangular, loud, nameless forms on this journey. Into dirt and noise. She helped Katica out of the boat. There was Feri, there was their chest, everything was here, she had brought everything here safely. Ana felt the ground beneath her feet, it felt real and solid. She did not trust it. She sat down, put her face into her hands; she carefully felt for familiarity, touched it to see if it was still hers. For one moment she paused. Then she started crying in big, quivering sobs until her throat hurt from the hard American air.
Theodora Bauer, born 1990 in Vienna, lives in the Province of Burgenland (Austria) and in the Austrian capital. She studied media studies and philosophy in Vienna. Her first novel, Das Fell der Tante Meri, was published in 2014 by the Picus Verlag. Her latest novel is Chikago. www.theodorabauer.at