The Hunger Angel - By Herta Muller

On packing suitcases

All that I have I carry on me.

Or: All that is mine I carry with me.

I carried all I had, but it wasn’t mine. Everything either came from someone else or wasn’t what it was supposed to be. A gramophone box served as a pigskin suitcase. The light overcoat came from my father. The fancy coat with the velvet collar from my grandfather. The knickers from Uncle Edwin. The leather gaiters came from our neighbor Herr Carp, the green woolen gloves from Aunt Fini. Only the burgundy silk scarf and the toilet kit belonged to me, presents from the previous Christmas.

The war was still on in January 1945. In their dismay at my being shipped off in the dead of winter to who knows where in Russia, everyone wanted to give me something that might be of use, even if it couldn’t help. Because nothing in the world could possibly help: I was on the Russians’ list, and that was that. So everyone gave me something, and kept their thoughts to themselves. And I took what they gave. I was seventeen years old, and in my mind this going away couldn’t have come at a better time. Not that I needed the Russians’ list, but if things didn’t turn out too badly, I thought, this leaving might even be a good thing. I wanted to get out of our thimble of a town, where every stone had eyes. Instead of fear I felt a secret impatience. And I had a bad conscience about it, because the same list that caused my relatives such despair was fine with me. They were afraid something might happen to me in a foreign country. I simply wanted to go to a place that didn’t know who I was.

Something had just happened to me. Something forbidden. Something strange, filthy, shameless, and beautiful. It happened in the Alder Park, far in the back, on the other side of the short-grass mounds. Afterward, on my way home, I went to the pavilion in the middle of the park where the bands played on holidays. I sat there a while. Sunlight came stabbing through the finely carved wood. I stared at the empty circles, squares, and trapezoids, held together by white tendrils with claws, and I saw their fear. This was the pattern of my aberration, of the horror on my mother’s face. In the pavilion I vowed: I’m never coming back to this park.

But the more I tried to stop myself, the faster I went back—after two days. For a rendezvous, as it was known in the park.

That next rendezvous was with the same first man. He was called THE SWALLOW. The second man was new, his name was THE FIR. The third was THE EAR. Then came THE THREAD. Then ORIOLE and CAP. Later HARE, CAT, GULL. Then THE PEARL. Only we knew which name belonged to whom. The park was a wild animal crossing, I let myself be passed from one man to the next. And it was summer with white skin on birch trees and shrubs of elderberry and mock orange leafing out to form an impenetrable wall of green.

Love has its seasons. Autumn brought an end to the park. The trees grew naked, and we moved our rendezvous to the Neptune Baths. An oval sign with a swan hung next to the iron gate. Every week I met up with a married man twice my age. He was Romanian. I won’t say what name he used or what name I used. We staggered our arrivals, so that no one and nothing could have any idea that we’d arranged to meet: not the cashier ensconced in the leaded-glass windows of her booth, nor the shiny stone floor, nor the rounded middle column, nor the water-lily tiles on the wall, nor the carved wooden stairs. We swam in the pool with all the others and didn’t come together until we were both in the sauna.

Back then, before my time in the camp as well as after I returned, and all the way up to 1968 when I left the country, every rendezvous could have landed me in prison. Minimum five years, if I’d been caught. Some were. They went straight from the park or the baths to a brutal interrogation and then to jail. And from there to the penal colony on the canal. Today I know that almost nobody came back from there. The ones who did were walking corpses—old before their time