by Iris Leister
Translated from the German by Mary Tannert
It was the doorbell that woke me. Except I was really already awake from the crunching of the tires on the gravel and the sound of the engine. It was a BMW. Besides, I’d been waiting for them. Hoping they’d come.
Dad asked them inside. There were two of them, a man and a lady. Mom just stood there in her nightgown, her hair all messy and her eyes red and swollen. Dad hadn’t shaved, and there were lines in his face and black rings under his eyes.
The two police officers talked to Mom and Dad, but their voices were soft after Dad put one finger across his lips and then pointed at the ceiling. I couldn’t understand anything they said, but I was glad anyway. Finally, I thought. Finally. ’Cause things have happened in the village, but nobody would listen to me. Until now.
At the beginning, the kids searched with the other adults. We looked everywhere in the village—the farmyards, the sheds, the garages, the Regen River. It wasn’t the first time I helped Dad look for Matti, ’cause he was gone too. After a while, Andi Angermeier came by with Floris, his retriever. She’s really well trained. She won’t take anything from your hand, not even the best sausage, unless he tells her she can eat it.
They sent us kids home when it got dark. They said it was too dangerous for us with some crazy person sneaking around the village. I had to bite my tongue. I’m not saying anything this time, I thought. If they want to do it the hard way . . .
So all of us sat around at home, just waiting. First I watched TV. Galileo was on. I like that show, but today I couldn’t concentrate. Usually I’m interested in science and technology, especially forensics, but they could have shown anything that day and I wouldn’t have remembered it. At some point I just sat at the window upstairs, looking out. It was dark, and it looked like all the buildings were hunched over together. The farms, the pub, the houses, the church, the fairgrounds, quiet after closing, with the bumper cars and the stands. They all looked like people who stand around in little groups after a funeral.
You could see the flare of the flashlights in the woods, like tiny fireflies. And I could hear them calling to each other, and Floris barking. The noise floated toward me from far away, like it wasn’t real. The wind had a sticky feel to it and smelled like cotton candy and candied almonds, like Leonie’s breath last time I saw her. I could hardly breathe anymore myself, and even if I don’t pray, I prayed then that it would all be over. That they would come and get him. Matti. My brother. He ruins everything.
When Mom was pregnant, I was happy. I thought I’d have a buddy, all for me. Really! I swear! But then they came home with him, and even if I was still little myself, I could see right away that he’d never amount to anything. Matti was a lot of work for Mom, and by the time he was two, it was clear there was something wrong with him. He didn’t talk, and he was slow at everything.
But from then on, Dad was always really strict with me, and I could never do anything right: Mickey, behave. You’re older now. Do this, do that, don’t do this, be nice to Matti.
They should be glad they have me! I’m healthy. Mom liked Matti better than she liked me too, even when things started happening.
I don’t remember when Matti started wandering around, but sometime or other, he did. He’d be gone for hours, and afterward, something was always dead. I told Dad about it, more than once. Now just stop that, Mickey. That wasn’t Matti, he wouldn’t hurt anyone, he’s harmless. You know that, Mickey, you know that. And he looked at me, that serious look.
Dad always took Matti’s side. Even when he killed the kitten that belonged to Jonas Brandl. I called it Red because it had a big reddish spot on both its ears. Red liked to play with Jonas and me. And one day Mr. Brandl said I could take Red home with me, and I came into the kitchen holding Red, he was so soft and small, and Mom was cooking dinner, and she got mad at me: I couldn’t just bring animals home. She had enough work looking after Matti. And Matti just smiled that smile he has, and before I could take Red back to the Brandls next day, he was dead. Drowned. His fur was so wet that his red ears looked almost black. But nobody believed me that it was Matti. Now just stop that, Mickey. Just stop.
Just like always. Mom and Dad looked at all the scratches on my arms, but I had them from before when Jonas and I were in the blackberry hedge in the woods.
I just don’t know what to do with you, Mickey, I really don’t know anymore, said Dad in this weary voice, the one that always made me feel worse than anything.
It was so unfair I cried. It was all Matti’s fault, but I had to be the bad one. And I was so sorry for the kitten, because it had to suffer. I kept imagining how it was afraid and its heart beat faster and faster, and how it struggled until it was all over. And I ran to my room and prayed that God would come and take Matti so that nothing else would happen. But praying didn’t help.
A little while after that, I asked the priest what I should do, and he told me the story of the prodigal son and another story about the birds that are God’s creatures too, but those stories didn’t help me.
And Dad said the same evening that he never thought he’d hear that I couldn’t even feel for my own little brother. What a Judas that priest turned out to be. I wanted to slit his tires.
I didn’t do it, but I did stop being an altar boy. I used to like being an altar boy. It was nice in the church, so festive, Maria smiling at the baby Jesus and the people all sitting there in the pews, so quiet. When you walk down the aisle with the incense, all of them watch you. But I haven’t gone there anymore since that priest told Dad what I said. I don’t pray anymore either.
Mom and Dad didn’t shout at me that day, but they kept looking at each other and at me, and that’s when I knew I was all alone.
It’s just too bad they let it go so long, but they didn’t deserve any better. But now it’s all obvious, because of the skewer. It was from Uncle Wolfgang and Dad and the fish stand they always set up at the fair for the volunteer fire department. They sell the fish and give the money to a charity for disabled people.
Wolfgang is Dad’s older brother, and they always let us help set up the stand. So I helped them, and Matti just stood there and stared the way he always stands and stares when he’s not roaming around. First, Uncle Wolfgang and Dad set up the grill. It’s a big wood-fired grill, and you can grill a hundred fish an hour. I polish that grill until it shines, and then we stack the beechwood. Uncle Wolfgang cuts it himself. But before that, first thing in the morning, Uncle Wolfgang and I marinate the fish. There are mackerel as long as my arm, and freshwater fish too—red-bellied char and even trout. And I get to line them up on the skewers. They aren’t metal skewers, they’re wood. Uncle Wolfgang swears by wood because the fish tastes better, he says. But you still have to be careful: The points are so sharp you could hurt yourself.
At the beginning it’s hard to spear the fish, but when you know how to do it, it’s like pushing them along on rails. They stare at you stupidly with their glassy little eyes, but you get used to that.
And when that’s all done, I get to open up the big blue-and-white umbrella. It’s a special feeling, even better than putting the angel on the top of the Christmas tree.
It was just like that this time too. Except that Matti was there. The whole time he kept touching the points of the skewers with his fingers, so lightly that it just left little dimples in the skin. And smiling.
Something was going on in his mind, I could see that. And I should have known it would be horrible. But even if I had, that wouldn’t have changed anything.
So we got to eat the first fish, and then Uncle Wolfgang said we could go. I wanted to look at the new bumper cars Jonas told me about, and Dad gave me twenty euros. That’s for Matti too, he said—as if I didn’t know that. Matti made a fuss because he wanted to take one of the skewers, and Dad let him have it even though they’re so sharp.
On the way, we saw Mom and Leonie’s mom, Anni, and Matti started pulling my arm like he does when he wants to go somewhere. He’s really big and strong for his age, and he can pull hard, so I let him go. I was glad, because when he’s with Mom, I can go off by myself.
I wanted some candied almonds. That’s where I saw Leonie, at the almond stand. She’s only four, and she’s little and skinny, but she has glasses like the bottom of a Coke bottle. And if you tell her you’ll give her some candy, she’ll go anywhere with you. So I was surprised that Anni wasn’t there with her, but like I said, she was over talking to Mom. And our fair’s pretty small, not like the big one in Straubing.
Mom and Anni were swaying to the music of the band, so I went over to the almond stand and Matti started threading his way toward Mom with that stupid skewer in one hand. That was the last I saw of him until he turned up a day later with his T-shirt all torn up and blood everywhere, his string wrapped around his hand so tightly it cut into the skin.
The police thought Matti had been taken by a crazy person. They thought that about Leonie too. They hadn’t found her yet either.
Mom and Dad wandered around the house like ghosts, and I just kept quiet. They never wanted to listen to me anyway. The last time I said anything, Dad whipped me. That was back when the shed behind Mr. Schlegl’s pub burned. He kept old stuff in it. As long as you didn’t let him see you, you could play in there for hours. Once, when I was poking around in there, Matti turned up. I made him leave: It was my shed. And he screamed as if he’d been tortured. The shed burned down later that night, and the next day, I found something in the ashes that belonged to Matti—Dad’s trick cigaret lighter, the one Matti won’t let go of once he’s got it, because when you turn it upside down, the beer mug on top empties as if someone’s sitting inside and drinking everything up.
I gave it to Uncle Wolfgang since he’s head of the volunteer fire department, and I tried to talk to Dad about it. I said that Matti’d be better off somewhere else. That’s when he whipped me. He didn’t say a word, just whipped me. I had bruises after that.
Later on, I found the lighter again, in the old cupboard where Mom and Dad keep things, in the back in the suitcases where they usually hide our Christmas presents.
Copyright © 2017. Matti by Iris Leister