Another premiere on NTM: two excerpts from the novel Mother’s Day – Song of a Sad Mother by Carmen-Francesca Banciu, translated from the German by Elena Mancini. This is the first time we’ve published translations of contemporary German prose. Banciu’s writing is poignant and poetic; we hope you enjoy the featured fragments. And remember: in February and beyond, read, write, and share your favorite translations.
—Claudia Serea & Loren Kleinman
I waited the whole day. Said Maria-Maria.
Father will appear around midnight. In the right corner of his mouth he conceals a half smile. I wasn’t supposed to see it. Father is relaxed, and as I’ve never seen him before. He doesn’t look at me. He looks away and into space. Into a place in which he sees something that remains hidden to me. He has a large bag, which I’d never seen on him before. From the bag he draws a pillow and a small bag. From the bag slips a comb. Hairs hang from the comb. The hairs shine in the light from the ceiling fixtures. Father places the comb on the table and says: I need to straighten up the room. You can throw it away. She wanted me to comb her hair shortly before it happened. Your mother. I should weep now. That’s what he expects from me. I think about his smile and don’t weep.
Father goes into the bathroom with his bag, and draws a pair of pajamas and throws it in the laundry. It’s mother’s pajamas. I ask myself why he still wants to have it washed. I crawl into my room.
The whole day long I waited. I didn’t eat a thing. I didn’t drink anything. I sat on the couch. Next to the telephone. And knitted.
I hate knitting. But at that moment it did me well. One knits and watches something grow. And knows not what will become of it. And for what it will serve. It’s good for the nerves.
I hate knitting.
One time I tried to teach myself how to knit.
Two stiches to the right. Two to the left. Her hand was watching over me. I sat there cramped under her hand, knowing that I would not be allowed to make any mistakes. I had to quickly engrain it in my mind. Mother’s hand twitched. For this reason I wasn’t able to absorb anything. What was left? What was right? Why don’t you get it? Mother flashed her eyes at me. And her hand. And as nothing else seemed to help, she said: let it be. This is nothing for you. You’ll never get it. Go back to your books.
I was knitting something out of red wool. It could have become a scarf. If I’d made the effort. I didn’t want to make any effort. I wanted to catch my thoughts. So that they wouldn’t get tangled up in my head like a knot of snakes.
I waited the whole day. She told me that she’d call for me if she needed me. She didn’t have me called. The whole day I sat by the phone. Not a single time did it ring.
I sat by my bed in my room. My childhood bedroom. My young girl room, I’d call it, if only it didn’t sound so maudlin. And yet, I have to say it. I can’t remember being a kid. I was always a young girl.
I listened for mother’s voice, which would reach me through the telephone receiver. I listened the way I used to listen to mother’s outbursts, when she used to come home. Devastated from her headaches. Exhausted from the day. From carrying the gigantic bags.
Now mother doesn’t have the strength to yell at me. Mother has no voice left. She can only whisper. She points to her legs. It won’t be much longer, she said. My legs are swollen. I can no longer recognize mother’s beautiful legs. Her legs were full of water, mother said.
The water had flooded her lungs. She says nothing about that. Because no one can see her lungs. Mother’s lungs don’t admit any air. They let in water.
And the doctors pump the water out. But no one has any use for it. This water can’t serve for anything. With each passing day, mother gets thinner. Her lungs are always getting fuller. Mother is in danger of suffocating from being overstuffed.
Father doesn’t weep. Because father was always a real man. And who expects men to weep?
I was supposed to weep.
I am the child. I don’t weep. I was always an orphan. Used to pain.
Father doesn’t weep. I can only see his blue eyes. His bright gaze. A gaze, with which, I’m unfamiliar.
I also don’t know mother. Mother’s gaze no longer exists. Does mother still exist?
Father spooks about the apartment, straightening up. In the kitchen I hear him clanking the dishes. Since mother had gotten sick, father had learned to buy bread. To warm his milk. To wash his underwear. He’d also learned to value other things besides his briefcase.
Every day he brought mother food. But mother hardly wanted to eat. That’d been so for weeks. He’d bring her this and that. Even though it wasn’t so easy to procure those things. But he knew on which doors to knock, in order to get stuff. Sometimes mother wanted meat. And father would get her a slab. And mother wouldn’t be able to eat it. I had to make an effort, father said. But father’s efforts were no longer worth anything to mother.
He should have made an effort sooner. No, mother didn’t say that. Perhaps father thought that. Or he didn’t think that at all. And was just angry that he had to ask a party leader for a favor. He, who never wanted to ask for favors. It’s for my wife. She’s in the hospital and craves a slab of liver. Liver contains iron. The doctor says that it’d be good for her. The next day, mother didn’t want liver anymore. Mother’s cravings had a very short lifespan. She’d express a craving, and as soon as she’d say it, it’d already be gone. And father’s efforts would land in the waste bin. Father couldn’t eat the liver himself. No, there’s no way he’d do that. He couldn’t eat in the hospital. There, his stomach would turn upside down. At the mere thought of it. Father was repelled by the door handles in the hospital. By the toilets. By the edge of the hospital bed, which he’d sometimes have to touch.
I don’t know by what else he was repelled.
Death, father said. I don’t understand it. When mother died, I was still a child.
Father did not fear death. Because father is still young and healthy, and believes that death cannot have anything him. Your mother, he said, she was always sickly, ever since I knew her.
I don’t know why father speaks in the past tense. Because he still knows mother. And mother is lying there. Not at all far away, on a table. A coffin, as people like to say. She lays there stretched out and relaxed. As she’d never been before. And her legs are beautiful again. Stiff, but beautiful. Father speaks of mother in the past tense. As though having a mother is not forever. As though having a father is not forever. Having a child.
Mother needed no one. Mother only wanted to be needed. Mother was indispensable.
We travel to our vacation. Father carries the heavy suitcases two steps into the room. It was like a rehearsal for a trip. Like a test, that he’ll never pass.
He lifts the suitcases with care. Makes sure that they’re heavy enough so that he can touch his chest afterwards. My heart, he’ll say. My heart. Mother hurries over to him, pushes him aside, and lifts the suitcase in an upswing, and carries the suitcase on the way to vacation. She’ll carry them on the way home too.
Mother always carries something. Something heavy. Even mother’s heart had something to say. But mother never paid attention to her heart. One day her heart paid no attention to mother, and it shut down.
Father was repelled by death. And by its proximity. By the stiff legs of mother. Who was his wife. She’s his wife forever. For all of eternity. So father says. Even if father has many other women. But no other, who’s really his wife. That will never come about again. Only one woman is assigned to a man, he says. Only one is given. No one knows who gave father a woman. Father only believes in himself. And the party.
Father listened to the party his whole life. The party doesn’t say that a man is only given one woman. But father says he’s had a one-of-a-kind type of wife. For that reason, no one could replace her. Mother had never known that she was one of a kind. Father had never said that to her. So that she would not pride herself on that. Or. Because he’d only now discovered it. As mother’s heart has nothing more to say.
Mother has nothing more to say.
During my last visit, mother said: pray for me.
On that early morning the alarm clock had torn me out of a dream. Mother had been in my dream. She was completely relaxed and was singing a song. I had never heard mother sing before. She sat on a table and had a ribbon in her hair. Mother showed the ribbon to a teeny-tiny woman, who was hopping on her table and had the head of my grandmother. Mother’s song grew increasingly louder and shriller. The tiny woman pulled on her ribbon and threatened her with her finger. Mother began to laugh and drew many colorful ribbons, which she tied in her hair, from a bread basket. She took a spoon and looked at her reflection in the mirror. She started to sing again. Mother’s song bore into my heart. The alarm clock bore into my ear and shook me awake.
I had no desire to wash myself. I had no desire to comb my hair. My stomach behaved like a boxer trapped in a sack. Then and again, it felt as though the boxer wanted to flee from my stomach. Jump out of it. Tear itself out of it.
The day before I’d learned that it was important for me to visit my mother. In the hospital.
I purchased the last airline ticket. For the first flight on that morning.
Mother was brimmed with rage. She frothed over with it, and the froth was not allowed to go to waste. I was supposed to get it. Because physical punishment had a purpose. Education.
Mother’s Sundays were full, strenuous workdays. During the week she’d have little time for housework. Society and the party and the women’s organization. Perhaps sometimes father too. Demanded all of mother’s time. And I had to get some of it too, if I wasn’t in the boarding school.
If mother would have some extra time on Sundays, she’d stand for me as my life drawing model. Mother sacrificed herself for me. I wanted to become a painter.
Mother stood for me as a model. And for herself.
She wanted to get pictures of her body through my drawings.
She wanted to follow the degradation. To
She wanted to hurt herself through my gaze.
I don’t know whether I’d hurt mother.
Whether I’d hurt mother enough.
Mother stood in my room. I held the pencil to the height of my eyes. With the breadth of my arms. I closed one eye and measured mother’s breasts with the pencil.
Mother’s breasts were heavy and pear-shaped. Her skin was taut. Her nipples were pronounced.
My memory hadn’t saved any remembrances of the time when I lay in mothers arms to be nursed.
Once mother said, she’d regretted that she’d been successful at breastfeeding me. She’d known how important was for the health of a child. In every respect, mother had said.
She hadn’t said whether nursing had been important to her. For the health of a mother. Her health in every respect.
Mother’s body had resisted against nursing.
Against the closeness to a child.
Against betraying father.
Or had mother simply not been able to bear the tension of bringing a child to the world against father’s will.
After my birth, mother was not well. Mother’s breasts were petrified. Her glands were clogged and her nipples were hot. Mother’s milk faltered. The pain was unbearable to her.
No, she had to feed the child artificially.
The child was weaned before it could get spoiled.
I drew mother’s breasts with kohl. I drew them in pencil. In ink. I painted them in water colors and in oil colors.
I tried to discover mother.
I sought mother, the one who gave life.
Mother, the loving one.
Mother, the nurturing one.
Mother, the source of all life.
Mother persisted in her posture. Sometimes in an uncomfortable space.
But which one of mother’s positions in life until then had been comfortable for her?
Mother would endure it for long. She was in good shape.
Mother didn’t do any fitness training. Outside of her routine of carting the bags filled with fruits and vegetables.
Mother stood for me as a life-drawing model. Sometimes she’d lay on the divan. I would look at her, like a still life. And tried to capture her proportions.
To render her external features.
To catch her interior.
I would observe mother as though she were a still life.
But mother was no still life. And I saw it. And realized it.
I realized that underneath mother’s skin. I realized the fermentation underneath mother’s supposed stillness.
Something brewed inside of mother. I was never really able to capture this brewing with my drawings. To capture and take a part. To deconstruct it. In order to understand it and put it back together. And in order to get a view of the whole. Of that which was going on with mother.
I stretched out my arm holding the pencil and squinted my eyes. I checked where the light and shadows fell on mother.
I observed mother as though she were a still life. In order to better see where the shadows fell. In order to understand the different shadings of mother’s body.
So that I wouldn’t need to worry about mother’s shadow.
Mother was no still life.
Back then I didn’t know that even a still life had an inner life. That they’re alive.
I didn’t know that all life starts with the gaze of the beholder. And with that which the beholder is able to render.
The young woman recounted without interruption. Now she suddenly pauses. Looks past me and says:
Is it really that way? What do you think?
But in truth she doesn’t want to hear my opinion. She’s talking to herself.
There are new guests in the caf»’.
It’s as though Maria-Maria were hypnotized. She can’t take her eyes off of the three women who were last to walk into the caf»’.
The women are of different ages. They aren’t among the tourists, who want to freshen up after visiting the museum and have just been overwhelmed by the history at Checkpoint Charlie.
The caf»’ is a meeting point. They sit down at the table across from her.
It’s not a still-life. It’s a composition with a definite theme.
Maria-Maria interrupted her account.
She’s spellbound by the sight of the composition. Her eyes are directed toward the picture. She rummages into her purse and pulls out a sketch book and a pencil. First she sketches a triangle. Then she places the three figures inside of it.
After a little while, she says: Look at this scene.
Is it also alive because we’re looking at it?
It’s alive as we see it, only because because we’re looking at it.
And each one of us sees it differently.
The three women are related to one another. It can be seen are their pronounced noses. Mother and daughters. The mother’s nose has established itself through the daughters. They are flat-chested. The daughters are thin. Androgynous. The mother masculine of late.
They are happy to see each other again.
Both daughters are way past thirty. They are devoted to their mother and eager for her attention. As in childhood. One of them still defies her mother by being a chain smoker. She tests her mother’s love.
Maria-Maria sketches a picture on paper.
Maria-Maria sketches a picture in her head. She transposes herself into the scene. She sees herself as belonging to it. As though she were the older daughter craving love and recognition. And she lights herself a cigarette.
How much will the mother put up with? How far can she take it? Where lays the limit of her love? Her whole childhood, she’d asked herself that question. Ever since she had a sister. This little one was always more important to mother. Everything revolved around her. And she always got special attention.
Mother doesn’t like smoking. For health reasons. Mother doesn’t like to be contradicted.
The daughter keeps smoking. Contradicts her.
She wants to know whether mother will love her in spite of that.
Her mother had always said: I love you, my child.
To the little one, however, the mother had always said: I love you without bounds. I love you above all else. My treasure. Mother had never said that to her.
The little one lights herself a cigarette too. Not because she’s a smoker. No. It’s a mood. The mother knows it. She smokes only like that. Just because she feels like it. That’s why mother doesn’t get excited. She’s not at risk. She has it under control. Just like the mother.
The mother has everything under control. At least it seems that way.
Mother doesn’t have everything under control. For example the older daughter. She won’t be tamed. Not even through her mother’s love.
The mother is an environmental activist. A former ‘68’er.
The daughters followed in their mother’s footsteps. One of them as a social worker. The other as an art teacher.
The art teacher is dressed in black. She has blood red lips and red fingernails. She wears an extravagant jacket. Her hair is cut short. It’s a bold haircut.
The mother also has short hair. It’s gray. All natural. A natural look. The smoker has long hair.
They’re different. And yet the similar. And have blue eyes. All three of them.
The daughters look at their mother.
The daughters admire their mother, who did things in the service of society.
She contributed to her daughters’ liberation. From the yoke of fathers. From the yoke of men. To the liberation of women from the yoke of tradition. She’d contributed to the abolition of Article 218.
And to the education about the fathers’ guilt in the war.
The mother’s beaming. Because she sees her daughters. Both of them together. With one another. She beams. Because it all seems to have gone well. Unexpectedly well.
Whenever a daughter gets up to go to the ladies room, the mother is entirely focused on the one stays behind. Finally this one receives her full attention. Until the other one comes back from the toilet. Then the advantage is over. Then the feeling of being the favorite is over. Then the fight begins again.
Another cigarette, says the smoker. Even more cigarettes. Many cigarettes. Maybe then the mother will chide her. Even though she’s long grown up. And mother has no longer a right to say anything. Because everyone is responsible for themselves. Everyone has the right to do and to abandon what they wish. As long as it doesn’t impinge upon the freedom of another. That’s what mother had taught them.
The art teacher looks at her mother while moving closer to her. The sister with the long hair, the social worker, thinks to herself: everything has stayed the same. Just like when we were kids.
And now more than anything she’d like to bend over the table and push the little one way. Away from mother. So that mother could only see her.
The mother with the prominent nose has a farmer look. Unisex hairstyle. The shoes. The jacket. Everything is purposeful. The color of the jacket is gray-green. The shoes. The Jeans. The checkered shirt. Only on her right wrist she has a gold bracelet and an expensive ring around her finger. The ring is small and it catches the eye. It doesn’t go with the rest of this mother. The right hand of this mother is foreign.
The ring was a present from her husband.
It was given to her by her daughers?
No the daughters gave her a brand new leather back pack. So that she no longer goes around with that dreadful thing. So that the weight of her bag is distributed on both shoulders. And she doesn’t have to get her back straightened out again.
Afte r a class of sparkling wine, the mother goes to the ladies room too. And suddenly the daughters talk to one another.
And the social worker drinks the sparkling wine. She drinks sparkling wine with her mother.
The little one drinks caf» au lait.
The mother likes sparkling wine. The daughters don’t. But now she drinks sparkling wine like her mother. So for a moment so she could be like her mother for a moment. And the little one has opted to stay alone with her caf» au lait.
They talk about the mother’s ring. That the mother no longer finds it important. Or rather that it’s important in a different way. She’s overcome the need to give herself presents. And now she’s also able to accept gifts. And she no longer feels incapacitated or debased by it.
The mother had bought the ring for herself. Back then she still wished for things like that. Little vanities.
But this wasn’t about vanities. The mother had wished for a diamond and had bought one for herself.
Because she wanted to have one.
Because she earned her own money.
Because she didn’t expect a diamond from anyone.
Or rather didn’t demand this gift from anyone.
Because she didn’t want to wait any longer for someone to fulfill her wishes.
Because she wanted to decide for herself what she needed.
The mother came back. In the meantime everything had been already paid. She looked at the clock and said. It’s going to start soon. Come on kids. We need to go.
Maria-Maria followed the three women to the door with her eyes.
Then she turned to me again. She closed her sketch book and put it in her bag. I held on to it. This scene. It continues to exist. From the perspective of the beholder. It’ll exist as long as I exist.
As long as I exist, mother will exist.
I have made countless drawings of her. Through the years.
They’re in my room, my old home. At father’s.
I haven’t looked at them anymore.
I carry them in my memory.
I know mother’s body.
I don’t know mother.
Carmen-Francesca Banciu is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher of creative writing. She is the author of eight books (four novels and four collections of short stories) and the recipient of numerous literary distinctions and awards. A native of Romania, Banciu lives in Berlin where she emigrated in 1990. She started writing in German in 1996. Her work draws from the experience of writing under Communist dictatorship, from geographic, psychic and linguistic migrations, and cross-cultural conflicts and exchanges between East and West. Banciu’s books are published by: Rotbuch Verlag, Berlin, Volk und Welt Verlag, Berlin, Ullstein Verlag, Berlin, Cartea Romaneasca Verlag, Bucharest, Editura Fundatia Culturalä, Bucharest, and others. Her new books Leichter Wind im Paradies and Mother´s Day – Song of a Sad Mother are forthcoming in spring 2015 from PalmArtPress. Since 2013, Banciu is the deputy director of the multilingual e-magazine Levure Litteraire.
A New York City native, Elena Mancini grew up speaking Italian and English. She holds a Ph.D. in Germanic Languages and Literatures from Rutgers University, and is passionate about the intimate literary dimension that she experiences translating fiction. She has published numerous literary translations and works of social commentary online and in print. In addition to translating, Mancini teaches German literature and film at Queens College in NYC and works in the field of international higher education administration.