Oppressive Tango

A short story by
Herta Müller
Motherís suspender belt cuts deep into her hips, pushes her stomach over her laced corset. Motherís suspender is a light-blue damask with pale tulips, has two rubber studs and two rustproof fasteners.
Mother lays her black silk stockings on the table. The stockings have fat see-through legs. Black glass, they are. The stockings have opaque round heels and opaque pointed toes. Black stone, they are.
Mother pulls the silk stockings up over her legs. The pale tulips float from her hips over her tummy. The white studs turn black, the fasteners close.
Mother slips her stone toes, presses her stone heels, into the black shoes. Her ankles are two black stone necks.
The bell sounds a single word, hard and dull. The bell sounds from the graveyard. The bell tolls.
Mother is carrying the dark wreath of fir and white chrysanthemums. Grandmother is carrying the wreath that rattles, with its little white stones, the round picture of Mary, smiling, and Szüz MŠria Köszönöm in the faded script of the old monarchy. The wreath shakes between Grandmotherís forefinger and her thin wrist that is rubbed-raw.
I am carrying a bundle of the untidy delicate fern and a handful of candles as white and cold as my fingers.
Motherís dress falls in black folds. Motherís shoes take short clattering steps. Motherís tulips float round Motherís tummy.
The bell tolls, and in its toll is one word. There is an echo before it, and after it, that never fades. With her glass legs and stone ankles, Mother toddles into the echo of the word, into the toll. Ahead of the steps Mother takes, walks little Sepp with a wreath of evergreen and white chrysanthemums.
I walk between the dark wreath of fir and the wreath of rattling stones. I walk behind the untidy fern.
I walk through the graveyard gate, the bell before my eyes. I can feel the toll of the bell beneath my hair. I can feel its toll in the pulse next to my eyes, and in my wrists, weary beneath the fern. I can feel the knot at the end of the swinging bell-rope in my throat.
Grandmotherís forefinger is bruised at the bottom of her nail. Grandmotherís forefinger is dead. She hangs the rattling wreath with the little white stones over Fatherís face on the gravestone. Where Fatherís deep eyes are, is now the smiling Mary and her exposed-red heart. Where Fatherís firm lips are, is now the Hungarian script of the old monarchy.
Mother stands, bowed over the dark wreath of fir. Her stomach presses over her tummy. The white chrysanthemums roll onto Motherís cheeks. Motherís black dress billows in the wind blowing round the graves. Motherís black glass foot has a slight white crack running up her leg to the stud, to where the tulips float on her tummy.
Grandmother plucks at the untidy fern round the edge of the grave with her dead finger. I place the white candles between the fernís fine fibres, bore my cold fingers into the earth.
The match flickers blue in Motherís hand. Motherís fingers tremble, and the flame trembles. The earth devours my finger-joints. Mother carries the flame round the grave. Donít bore into the grave, she says, itís just not done. Grandmother sticks out her dead finger, points to the smiling Mary, her exposedred heart.
The priest is standing on the chapel steps. Black folds lie over his shoes. The folds crawl up over his stomach to beneath his chin. Behind his head swings the bell-rope, its thick knot. The priest says: Let us pray for the living and the dead souls, and joins his bony hands across his stomach.
The fir bends its needles; the fern, its crumpled fibres. There is the smell of snow from the chrysanthemums, the smell of ice from the candles. The air above the graves turns black and hums a prayer: and Thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host, deliver us from exile. Above the chapel tower, the night is as black as Motherís glass feet.
The candles ooze a tangle of trickling roots from their fingers. The trickles hit the air, turn as stiff as my ribs. The charred wicks have crumbled and wonít light. A clod of earth falls beneath the fern between the spent candles.
The chrysanthemums are now on Motherís forehead. Donít sit on the grave, she says, itís just not done. Grandmother extends her dead finger. The crack on Motherís glass leg is the breadth of Grandmotherís finger.
The priest says: Today, my dear faithful, is All Saintsí Day, today our dearly departed, our dead souls, rejoice. Today is their feast day.
Little Sepp stands with his hands joined over the wreath of evergreen at the next grave: Deliver us, Lord, from this exile. In the quivering light his grey hair quivers.
On his red accordion, little Sepp accompanies the white brides who waft through the village; accompanies the paired-off wedding guests, with their bows of white wax, round the altar to below the smiling Mary, her exposed-red heart; accompanies the cake, a Vanille Torte with two wax doves on top, to before the bride. On his red accordion, he plays the oppressive tango for the arms and legs of the men and women.
Little Sepp has short fingers and tiny shoes. He spreads his short fingers to press the keys. The broad keys are snow, the narrow keys earth. He seldom presses the narrow keys. When he does, the music is cold.
Fatherís thighs press against Motherís tummy, where the pale tulips are floating.
The bride who wafts past is our neighbour. She beckons me with her forefinger. She cuts me a rib of cake and, with a weak smile, places the doves in my hand.
I close my hand. The doves warm against my skin, begin to sweat. I poke the wax doves into a meat dumpling and into the bread I then bite from. I swallow bread and hear the oppressive tango.
Mother dances past the end of the table with the floating tulips and Uncleís thighs. The chrysanthemums are round her mouth now. Donít play with your food, she says, itís just not done.
The priest raises his bony hands in the name of the Lord: Deliver us from exile. From his hands, a shifting tangle Ė smoke, this time Ė rises and floats around the knot in the bell-rope, then climbs into the tower.
The grave has sunk, Mother says. It needs two loads of clay and a load of fresh manure if the flowers are to grow. Motherís black shoe crunches the sand. Your uncle can do that for his dead brother, Mother says.
Grandmother hooks the wreath with the small white stones on her dead finger.
Fatherís deep eyes look at Motherís black glass foot with the white crack. Motherís black shoes walk over the molehills between the graves of strangers.
We go through the graveyard gate. The village turns in on itself, smells of fir and fern, chrysanthemums and trickling tangles.
Ahead of the steps I take, walks little Sepp.
The village is black. The clouds are black damask.
Grandmother rattles the wreath with the small white stones. Mother crushes my fingers in her hand.
Father is our dead soul. Today is Fatherís feast day and so he dances past the village.
Motherís suspender belt cuts deep into her hips. In the oppressive tango, Father presses his thighs against a cloud of black damask.
Translated by Donal McLaughlin
By kind permission of Carl Hanser Verlag
Donal has retained the title by which this story has become known in English (see Nadirs, translated by Sieglinde Lug, University of Nebraska Press 1999)
See signandsight.com or wordswithoutborders.org for the first extract from Müllerís latest novel, Atemschaukel, to appear in English (in Donalís translation).
Donalís own short stories Ė an allergic reaction to national anthems & other stories Ė appeared in September 2009. donalmclaughlin.wordpress.com