The Way of the Apple Worm | Herta Müller | Granta Magazine

The Way of the Apple Worm

Herta Müller

‘The mother of the needle is the place that bleeds.’

Translated from the German by Philip Boehm

 

The ant is carrying a dead fly three times its size. The ant can’t see the way ahead, it flips the fly around and crawls back. Adina doesn’t want to block the ant’s path so she pulls in her elbow. A clump of tar next to her knee glistens as it seethes in the sun. Adina dabs at the tar with her finger, raising a thin thread that stiffens in the air before it snaps.

The ant has the head of a pin, the sun can’t find any place to burn. The sun stings. The ant loses its way. It crawls but is not alive, the human eye does not consider it an animal. The spike-heads of the grasses on the outskirts of town crawl the same way. The fly is alive because it’s three times the size of the ant and because it’s being carried, the human eye does consider the fly an animal.

Clara is blinded by the blazing pumpkin of the sun and doesn’t see the fly. She sits with her legs apart and rests her hands between her knees. Pubic hair shows where her swimsuit cuts into her thighs. Below her pubic hair is a pair of scissors, a spool of white thread, sunglasses and a thimble. Clara is sewing a summer blouse for herself. The needle dives, the thread advances, the needle pricks her finger and Clara licks the blood and spits out a shorthand curse involving ice and thread: your mother on the ice. A curse implying unspeakable things done to the mother of the needle. When Clara curses, everything has a mother.

The mother of the needle is the place that bleeds. The mother of the needle is the oldest needle in the world, the one that gave birth to all needles. The mother of the needle watches out for all her children, she is always looking for a finger to stab on every sewing hand in the world. The world contained in the curse is tiny, tucked under a cluster of needles and a clot of blood. And the mother of all thread is there too, lurking inside the curse, a massive tangle looming over the world.

All this heat and you’re going on about ice, says Adina, as Clara’s jawbones grind away while her tongue beats inside her mouth. Whenever she curses, Clara’s face wrinkles up, because every word is a well-aimed bullet fired from her lips and every word hits its mark. As well as the mother of its mark.

Clara lies down on the blanket next to Adina. Adina is naked, Clara is wearing her swimsuit bottoms and nothing else.

 

Curses are cold. They have no need of dahlias or bread or apples or summer. Curses are not for smelling and not for eating. Only for churning up and laying down flat, for an instant of rage and a long time keeping still. Curses lower the throbbing of the temples into the wrist and hoist the dull heartbeat into the ear. Curses swell and choke on themselves.

Once a curse is lifted, it never existed.

 

The blanket is spread out on the roof of the apartment block, which is surrounded by poplars. The poplars rise higher than all the city roofs and are draped with green, they don’t show individual leaves, only a wash of foliage. They don’t swish, they whoosh. The foliage rises straight up on the poplars just like the branches, the wood cannot be seen. And where nothing else can reach, the poplars carve the hot air. The poplars are green knives.

 

When Adina stares at the poplars too long, they dig their knives inside her throat and twist them from side to side. Then her throat gets dizzy. And her forehead senses that no afternoon is capable of holding even a single poplar for the time the light takes to sink behind the factory into the evening. The evening ought to hurry, the night might succeed in holding the poplars, because then they can’t be seen.

 

The day is shattered by the beating of rugs between apartment blocks, the blows echo up to the roof and collapse one onto the other, the way Clara’s words do when she curses.

The beating of rugs cannot hoist the dull heartbeat into the ear.

 

Clara is tired after her curse, and the sky is so empty she closes her eyes, which are blinded by the light, while Adina opens her eyes wide and gazes far too long into the emptiness. From high overhead, beyond the reach even of the green knives, a taut thread of hot air stretches straight down to her eyes. And from this thread hangs the weight of the city.

 

That morning at school a child said to Adina, the sky looks so different today. A boy who’s always very still when he’s with the others. His eyes are set far apart, which makes his temples look narrow. My mother woke me up at four o’clock this morning, he said, and gave me the key because she had to go to the train station. I walked out to the gate with her. When we were going through the courtyard the sky was so close I could feel it on my shoulder. I could have leaned back against it, but I didn’t want to scare my mother. When I went back by myself I could see right through all the stones. So I hurried as fast as I could. The door to our building looked different, the wood was empty. I could have slept another three hours, the child said, but I never fell back asleep. And even though I hadn’t slept I still woke up scared. Only maybe I really did sleep, because my eyes felt all pinched up. I had this dream that I was lying in the sun next to the water and I had this blister on my stomach. I pulled the skin off the blister but it didn’t hurt. Because under my skin was stone. Then the wind blew and lifted the water into the air, but it wasn’t water at all, just a wrinkled cloth. And there weren’t any stones underneath either, only flesh.

 

The boy laughed into that last sentence, and into the silence that followed. His teeth were like gravel, the blackened half-teeth and the smooth white ones. The age in his face couldn’t stand his childish voice. The boy’s face smelled like stale fruit.

It was the smell of old women who put on so much powder it starts to wilt just like their skin. Women whose hands quiver in front of the mirror, who smudge lipstick on their teeth and then a little while later inspect their fingers against the mirror. Whose nails are buffed and ringed with white.

When the boy stood in the schoolyard together with the other children, the blotch on his cheek was the clamp of loneliness. And the spot grew, because slanting light was falling over the poplars.

 

Clara has dozed off in the sun, her sleep carries her far away and leaves Adina alone. The beating of rugs shatters the summer into shells of green. And the whoosh of the poplars contains the green shells of all the summers left behind. All the years when you’re still a child and growing and nevertheless sense that each single day goes tumbling off some cliff whenever evening comes. Days of childhood, with square-cut hair and dried mud in the outskirts of town, dust behind the streetcar, and on the sidewalk the footsteps of tall, emaciated men earning money to buy bread.

 

The outskirts were attached to the town with wires and pipes and a bridge that had no river. The outskirts were open at both ends, just like the walls, the roads and the lines of trees. The city streetcars went whooshing into the town at one of the ends, where the factories blew smoke into the sky above the bridge that had no river. At times the whooshing and the smoke were all the same thing. At the other end, farmland gnawed away at the outskirts, and the fields of leafy beets stretched far into the countryside. Further away still was a village, the white walls gleaming in the distance looked no bigger than a hand. Suspended between the village and the bridge that had no river were sheep. The sheep didn’t eat the beet leaves, only the grass that grew along the way, before the summer was out they had devoured the entire lane. Then they gathered at the edge of town and licked the walls of the factory.

The factory was large, with buildings on both sides of the bridge without water. From behind the walls came the screaming of cows and pigs. At night their horns and hooves were burned, the acrid stench wafted into the outskirts. The factory was a slaughterhouse.

In the morning, while it was still dark, roosters crowed. They walked through the gray inner courtyards the same way the emaciated men walked on the street. And they had the same look.

The men rode the streetcar to the last stop and then crossed the bridge. On the bridge the sky hung low, and when it was red, the men had red cockscombs in their hair. The local barber told Adina’s father that there was nothing more beautiful than a cockscomb for the heroes of labor.

Adina had asked the barber about the red combs because he knew every scalp and every whorl. He said whorls are for hair what wings are for roosters. So even though no one could say exactly when, Adina knew that each of the emaciated men would at some point go flying over the bridge.

Because sometimes the roosters did go flying over the fences. Before taking off they would drink water out of empty food cans in the courtyards. At night the roosters slept in shoeboxes. When the trees turned cold at night, cats crawled into the boxes as well.

It was exactly seventy steps from the last stop to the bridge that had no river – Adina had counted them. The last stop on one side of the street was the first on the other. At the last stop the men climbed out slowly, and at the first the women climbed in quickly. Early in the morning they ran to catch the streetcar with matted hair and flying purses and sweat stains under their arms. The stains were often dried out and rimmed with white. Their nail polish was eaten away by machine oil and rust. And even as they rushed to catch the streetcar their faces already carried the weariness from the wire factory.

At the sound of the first streetcars Adina woke up. She felt cold
in her summer dress. The dress had a pattern of trees, but the tops were upside down. The seamstress had stitched the material the wrong way.

The seamstress lived in two small rooms, the floor was full of angles and the walls had bellied out from the damp. The windows opened onto the courtyard. One window had a sign propped up that said cooperative of progress.

The seamstress called the rooms the workshop. Every surface – table, bed, chairs, chest and even the floor – was covered with snippets and scraps. And each piece of fabric had a piece of paper with a name. A wooden crate behind the bed held a sack full of scraps. On the crate was a label no longer of use.

The seamstress kept her clients’ measurements in a small notebook. Anyone who’d been coming for years was considered a longtimer. Whoever came rarely, by chance, or only once was a short-termer. If a longtimer brought some material, the seamstress didn’t need to take more measurements, except for one woman who went into the slaughterhouse every day and was as emaciated as the men – for her the seamstress had to take new measurements every time. She held the tape in her mouth and said, really, you’d be better off going to the vet and having him outfit you with a dress instead of me. Every summer you get thinner and thinner. Pretty soon my notebook will get filled up with just your bones.

Several times a year the woman brought the seamstress a new notebook. On the cover it said brigade notebook and above the columns on each page it said live weight and slaughter weight.

Adina was never allowed to go barefoot in the workshop, the scraps and snippets littering the floor were full of pins. Only the seamstress knew how to move without getting pricked. Once a week she crawled through the rooms with a magnet and all the pins and needles jumped into her hand.

When Adina tried on the dress, her mother said to the seamstress, can’t you see that the trees are growing the wrong way, you turned the fabric upside down. The seamstress could still have turned it right side up, the fabric was only basted with white thread. But with two pins in her mouth she said, what’s important is front and back, and that the zipper’s on the left. Besides, when I look from here, the bottom is the top. She lowered her face to the floor. That’s how the chickens see it, she said. And the dwarves, said Adina. Her mother looked out the window at the courtyard.

On the side of the courtyard that faced the street was a display window with crosses, stovepipes and watering cans made of tin. They were propped up with old newspapers, and in front of the display was an embroidered blanket with a tin sign on top that said cooperative of progress.

The crosses, stovepipes and watering cans shuddered whenever the streetcar passed by. But they didn’t tip over.

Behind the display window was a table with scissors, pliers and screws, behind the table sat a man. He was a tinsmith. He wore a leather apron. His wedding ring hung on a string around his neck, because both hands were missing the ring finger.

Some people said that his first wife had been dead a long time, and that he never found a second because he kept his wedding ring around his neck. The barber claimed that the tinsmith had never had a wife at all, that he’d used the same ring four times to get engaged but never married. If there were enough crosses, stovepipes and watering cans to fill the display window, he could turn to repairing old pots and pans.

When the streetcar passed, the faces in the tram hovered in the display window between the stovepipes and crosses. On the watering cans the faces were wavy from the movement and from the sheen of the tin. Once the streetcar moved on, the only thing left on the watering cans was the gleam of trampled snow.

For several summers Adina wore her dress with the falling trees. Every summer Adina grew, and the dress got shorter. And every summer the trees hung upside down and they felt as heavy as ever. Underneath the rising trees that lined the sidewalk, the girl from the outskirts of town had a shy face. The shade never covered it entirely. Her shaded cheek stayed cool, and Adina had the feeling she could zip it open or shut, like her dress. Her cheek in the sunlight turned hot and soft.

After a summer rain that failed to cool off the paving stones, black chains of ants crawled inside the cracks in the courtyard. Adina took a tube from a circular knitting needle and poured sugar water into the transparent plastic and set the tube in one of the cracks. The ants crawled inside and lined up: head, abdomen, head, abdomen. Adina lit a match, sealed the ends of the tube and hung it around her neck. Stepping to the mirror she saw that the necklace was alive, even though the ants were dead, stuck to the sugar, each in the place where it had suffocated.

Only when the ants were in the tube did the human eye consider them animals.

Adina went to the barber every week, because her hair grew quickly and she wasn’t allowed to let it cover her ears. On the way she passed the display window with the crosses, stovepipes and watering cans. The tinsmith waved and she went inside. He handed her a cone rolled from newspaper. The cone had cherries in May, apricots as early as June, and grapes just a little later, even though no ripe ones could be found in any of the gardens. At the time Adina was convinced that the newspaper caused the change of fruit.

When he handed her the cone the tinsmith said, eat the fruit now or else it’ll go bad. And she started to eat very quickly, fearing it might go bad even while he was talking. Then the tinsmith said, eat slowly so you can savor every bite for a long time.

She chewed and swallowed and watched as the flame flickered from the soldering iron, covering and filling the pits in the bottom of the pot. The filled holes gleamed like the stovepipes, watering cans and crosses in the window. When fire stops chewing your pot, death will bite you in the ass, said the tinsmith.

One afternoon Adina went to get her hair cut wearing her necklace of ants. She sat in front of the big mirror and let her legs dangle off the chair. The barber combed down her hair and when he reached her neck he stopped, shielded his eyes with the comb, and said, that’s it, either the ants go this minute or else you do.

A man was sleeping in the corner. The barber’s cat was sprawled across his thighs, also sleeping. The man was emaciated and had a cockscomb every morning when he crossed the bridge on his way to the slaughterhouse. He woke with a start and flung the cat out the door. I’ve got enough dead animals in the slaughterhouse, he shouted, then spat on the floor.

The floor was matted with hair clippings from emaciated men who all knew one another. The hair was brittle, dark gray, light gray and white and made the floor seem like a giant scalp. Cockroaches crawled among the strands. The hair moved up and down. The hair was alive because it was being carried by the cockroaches. But it was not alive on the heads of the men.

The barber dropped his scissors into the open drawer, I can’t cut your hair like this, he said, I can feel the ants crawling inside my clothes. He jerked his shirt out of his pants and scratched himself. His fingers left red marks on his stomach. Mother of ants, he cursed. Mother of corpses, said the man from the slaughterhouse. Suddenly the mirror moved and Adina saw herself cut off by the drawer, her feet looked like they were hanging from a roof. She ran out the door and past the cat, who gazed after her with more than its own two eyes.

A week later the barber gave Adina some sweets. The candy had hair sticking to it that scratched her tongue. Adina tried to spit out the hair, but the barber told her it was good for cleaning the throat.

The candy scratched inside her mouth and Adina asked when the man who had flung the cat outside was going to die. The barber crammed a handful of candy into his mouth and said, when a man’s had enough hair cut to fill a stamped-down sack, and the sack weighs the same as the man, the man dies. I put all the men’s hair into a sack and stamp it down and wait until it’s full, said the barber. I don’t weigh the hair on the scale, I weigh it with my eyes. I know how much hair I’ve cut off every person over the years. My eyes can feel the weight. And I’m never mistaken. He blew on the back of Adina’s neck.

The client who threw out the cat will come here seven or eight more times, he said. That’s why I didn’t say anything, even though the cat hasn’t eaten a thing since. I don’t want to send a longtime client into the unknown with some other barber for his last haircuts. A wrinkle curled up from his mouth and sliced into his cheek.

 

Clara sits up on the blanket to put on her summer blouse. The thimble on her forefinger burns in the sun. Her legs are bony, in one motion she pulls them close to her chest and rocks forward as she puts on the blouse. It’s the movement of a bony bird who doesn’t need to do anything except gaze into the summer and be beautiful. The nearby poplar knife watches. The stubble growing back inside her shaved armpits has already turned into the chin of the man she’s talking about. A man with style, she says, is someone I’ve never met. But I wish.

Clara laughs and straightens out her legs. Her wish is stoked by the sun and dizzied by the roof. Her head knows nothing of the green knives of the poplars, the edge of the roof, the clouds, the city. And that this roof in the sun is full of ants carrying dead flies. And that this roof in the sun is nothing more than a cliff in the sky.

 

The summer dress with the falling trees and the zipper made Adina forever wary of clothes. She often went to the seamstress’s workshop, where she would measure the lives of the women by the weight of the fabric scraps. She would sit and watch, determined to size up each client. She knew which woman’s scraps would soon fill a stamped-down sack that weighed as much as the woman. And that after four more dresses, the woman from the slaughterhouse would die.

 

Clara takes a small, red-flecked summer apple out of her bag and holds it under Adina’s chin. The thimble glows, its sharp edge barely missing the apple skin. A small apple with a long, woody stem that takes up too much of what should have been flesh. Adina takes a deep bite. Spit it out, says Clara, there’s a worm. The fruit is burrowed with a brown, crumbly thread. Adina swallows what she’s bitten off, worm and all. It’s just an apple worm, she says, it grows inside the apple, it’s made of apple flesh. It doesn’t grow inside the apple, says Clara, it crawls inside, eats its way through and then crawls back out. That is its way.

Adina eats, the bite crunches in her ear, what’s it supposed to do outside, she says, it’s nothing but apple, it’s white and eats white flesh and shits a brown path, once it eats its way through the apple it dies. That is its way.

Clara’s eyes are small and without any makeup. The sky is empty and the poplar knives stand upright and green. Clara says nothing, she lies down on the blanket, her pupils roll down straight toward her mouth and her eyes close.

A cloud hangs over the apartment block, white and churning. Old folk who die in summer float for a while above the city, lingering between bed and grave.

Clara and the summer old folk are lying in the same sleep. Adina feels the way of the apple worm in her stomach. It runs through her pubic hair down the inside of her thighs and into the hollows of her knees.

 Photograph © Sam Lanyou Jones / Millennium Images 

Herta Müller

Herta Müller is the winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature. Her books include The Hunger Angel, The Appointment and The Land of Green Plums. Born in Romania in 1953, Müller emigrated to Berlin in 1987, where she now lives. ‘The Way of the Apple Worm’ is taken from The Fox Was Ever the Hunter, forthcoming from Metropolitan Books and Portobello Books in 2016.

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Translated by Philip Boehm

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