Translated by Susan Bernofsky
Artwork by Ye Qin Zhu
The Kiss of Death
The reason Pankov was so desperate for a new idea was that he’d just received nine polar bears as a gift from the Soviet Union.
Never before had our circus received so generous a present. Everyone was secretly wondering what had prompted this superpower to give a gift to its insignificant German neighbor. Perhaps the giver of the gift was afraid of being abandoned by its recipient in favor of her former partner, West Germany. Or else the Soviet Union was trying to compete with an Asiatic neighbor who kept expanding his circle of friends by handing out panda bears left and right. In any case, the commodity in question (the polar bears) was immediately forced on our circus.
If someone gives you a cake, you should eat it as soon as possible. If the gift is a painting, you should hang it on the wall. This is how the recipient of a gift displays good manners. The nine polar bears weren’t knickknacks to be placed on a shelf, they were professionally trained dancers. According to the letter that accompanied them, these polar bears had graduated from the Academy of Arts in Leningrad with excellent marks and thus were qualified to appear on stage starting immediately. The government bureau responsible for overseeing the gift was applying pressure: Pankov was to put together an unforgettable show before the next state visit from the Kremlin, with the nine polar bears as the highlight of the evening. As with earthquakes or storms, it was impossible to predict exactly when the next visit from the Kremlin would come. Pankov was in a panic, he had to get the new show up and running as soon as possible.
When I heard the word “polar bear,” I thought of a bear I’d seen in a theater production for children. She was an actress, and if I wasn’t mistaken, her name was Tosca. Probably I’d been given a ticket by a professional connection and went to the show to pass the time. I’d never heard of Tosca, but when I took my seat in the theater I heard a couple next to me talking about her.
Tosca had graduated from ballet school with top honors, but hadn’t been able to land a role in a single production, not even in Swan Lake, which everyone had expected. At the time she was regularly performing for children. Her mother had been a celebrity who immigrated from Canada to Socialist East Germany and had written an autobiography. The book was long since out of print, and no one had ever read it, so it was really more a legend. I was sitting in the first row and caught my breath when the gigantic white, soft body appeared onstage. I’d never seen anything like it: a soft, feather-light living being that made me feel its weightiness, its warm flesh.
In this play for children, Tosca had no spoken lines, but sometimes her jaws moved. I stared at her mouth and soon found it difficult to breathe as it became clear to me that she was trying to speak. I couldn’t understand her. The stage lighting was no doubt avant-garde for that period: The curtains simulated the Northern Lights, constantly dispatching mysterious waves of light in our direction. The color of Tosca’s fur changed along with the light, shifting from ivory to hues of marble and hoarfrost. During the performance, our eyes met a total of four times.
To our surprise, the nine polar bears formed a union only a week after their arrival. The demands they presented to Pankov were anything but demure, and when he ignored them, they began a tumultuous strike.
These polar bears could deliver political speeches in fluent German. From their mouths I learned new terminology that no doubt had its origins in the labor movement. None of their demands seemed exactly typical for a bear. The overtime pay; the monthly paid leave for women; a cafeteria serving fresh meat and seaweed from the Baltic; shower facilities with ice-cold water; air-conditioning and a library for the use of all circus employees. Even though we humans could have used showers and a cafeteria, we’d never have had the courage to confront Pankov with such a demand. Our days and nights were filled with such frantic labor that we had long forgotten the very terms of our contracts.
Pankov was red-faced with fury when the union representative read out the list of demands. “Shower facilities? A cafeteria? Are you nuts? You can go wash outside somewhere, and eat as much of that weird seaweed as you like, I don’t care. But none of that has anything to do with me. How dare you even think of organizing a strike here! Our country is the Land of the Workers. That’s why we don’t have strikes here. Get it?”
Deep inside, Pankov was a man of the Middle Ages; he didn’t think bears possessed human rights any more than slaves. But remnants of a weakness for the life of the mind could still be discerned in him: He rejected all the bears’ demands, but promised to build a small library. These bears had come from a great nation and weren’t accustomed to making compromises with small countries like ours. The form of approach most familiar to them was military invasion. They had no intention whatever of ending the strike and thanking Pankov for the library.
When I knocked on Pankov’s door to give him a bottle of illegal vodka, he’d already been living under siege for ten days. He looked like a wilted houseplant. When he saw the vodka in my hand, he gave a feeble smile. Then he pulled out two glasses that looked like they were meant for holding a toothbrush, and poured out the vodka. We raised our glasses, and I pretended to drink, while Pankov really did toss back the spirits. He temporarily recovered his strength, and I took advantage of this interlude to tell him about Tosca. Hearing the word “polar bear” immediately made him sober again, so he poured himself another dram and swallowed it. I waited a few seconds and then suggested that we invite Tosca to join us and put together a show with her. “If I can conjure up a beautiful number with Tosca, the skepticism of our visitors from the Kremlin will instantly melt away, even if the strike proves as eternal as Siberian frost. Don’t worry, the Russian politicians will never notice that Tosca is from Canada and not the Soviet Union.”
For polar bears, national identity has always been a foreign concept. It’s common for them to get pregnant in Greenland, give birth in Canada, then raise the children in the Soviet Union. They possess no nationality, no passport. They never go into exile and cross national borders without a visa.
Pankov clung to my words like a drunkard clutching at a straw as he drowns in a vodka sea. He instructed his secretary to call the children’s theater, then fell snoringly asleep on the sofa before hearing the results. The secretary made all the necessary arrangements by telephone to invite Tosca to be an artist in residence. She didn’t have a role at the moment and was bored. The artistic director at the children’s theater immediately authorized her to work in our circus.
Later I learned this information had been altered if not falsified outright. It wasn’t true that there hadn’t been any suitable roles for Tosca. She could have had a role, but she didn’t like it. She’d protested, and a dispute with the theater had ensued. An East German playwright had crowbared Heinrich Heine’s epic poem Atta Troll into a children’s play in which Tosca was to play the role of Atta Troll’s wife, the black bear Mumma. Tosca said she had nothing against playing Mumma. She’d even consider it an honor to paint her body black, allow a bear tamer to place her in chains, and perform an obscene dance in the marketplace. But she was unwilling to accept the plot in its current form. Her husband (and dancing partner) longed for freedom and liberated himself from the bear tamer’s chains. Tosca was offended by the assumption that Mumma was less noble-minded because she didn’t strive for freedom. Was it subservience to present one’s art on the street—art created using one’s own body—and demand payment for this? Was a Hanseatic merchant more respectable than a street artist, even though he too worked for money? And what about the prima donna of the Soviet ballet in Leningrad who exposed large portions of her naked skin for her audience?
There was something else too that troubled Tosca: Mumma was raising her child on her own, as had always been the norm among bears. But a mother bear biting off and eating one of her youngest son’s ears out of love was something that could never happen in nature. Tosca felt that the playwright should revise this passage. She was also put off by the mocking tone in which the narrator spoke of the success Mumma enjoyed in the capitalist city Paris and the white bear she took as a lover. What do you have against Paris? What do you have against polar bears?
The director and dramaturge both found it inappropriate, if not unforgivably impertinent, for an actor to criticize the content of a classic work. The dramaturge felt this to be an affront to his dignity, and the director burst into tears and complained to the theater’s administration. The artistic director was equally outraged when he heard about Tosca’s audacity, but worker protection laws prevented him from firing her. Just as he was stamping in rage, the query from the circus arrived asking about Tosca’s availability for a residency.
Tosca accepted the invitation at once, overflowing with joy. But when she arrived at the circus, the first disappointment soon awaited her. She was transported in a splendidly ornate cage with large wheels. When this vehicle passed the quarters of the nine polar bears, they immediately began to heckle her: “Strike-breaker! Traitor!”
When Tosca set eyes on me, a flash of recognition lit up her face. She tried to rise to her feet, but the ceiling of the cage was too low. I walked over to her, she gazed at me and sniffed my breath. I thought I saw a sort of affection in her eyes.
That night I couldn’t fall asleep for a long time, just like when I got my first puppy as a child. At five in the morning I woke for the last time from a shallow sleep and couldn’t stay in bed any longer. I pushed the cage wagon into the rehearsal space and sat down on the floor in front of Tosca. She regarded me with curiosity and pressed her paws against the bars as if she wanted to join me. Time stood still, I didn’t move. When I was certain that Tosca was completely calm, I opened the cage. She slowly stepped outside, sniffing at my body here and there, licked the palm of my hand when I showed it to her, and finally rose up effortlessly on her hind legs. She was at least twice my height. At that moment I realized how small the brown bears were. I placed a sugar cube on my hand, and Tosca returned her front legs to the earth to sweep the sweetness from my palm with one swipe of her tongue.
“She has no difficulty at all standing on two legs. This ability is probably rooted in her genes.” I heard the voice of my husband, apparently he’d been watching us the whole time through the crack of the door.
“What are you doing up so early, Markus?”
“Tosca inherited her abilities from her mother. Her mother was a circus star.”
“I don’t think you can inherit things like that,” I replied absent-mindedly.
With a gesture that swept my opinion to one side, my husband went on: “Why not? It took so-and-so-many thousands of years before humankind could walk on two legs. But it only takes us a year to learn this. In other words, the results of the training have been inscribed in the genetic code and passed on.”
In the course of the afternoon, an arch-shaped bridge was delivered, constructed of massive iron rods. We had it assembled and placed in the rehearsal room. Tosca put one paw on the bridge and carefully, one step at a time, climbed up it, stopping when she reached its peak. Then she sniffed the air all around her, extending her neck as far as she could and swaying her snout slowly back and forth. It might have been a scene in a theatrical performance. “This scene here is already a work of art fit for the stage!” my husband said, nodding in satisfaction, and suddenly Pankov was standing beside him with a proud expression on his face. “Sooner or later the nine polar bears will give up their ridiculous strike and come back to work as nicely as you please. Then we’ll have all of them stand in a row on this bridge. It’ll look fantastic! I had this fake bridge built to withstand at least 10,000 pounds. I even have a name for it: The Bridge to the Future. Pretty swell, right? When it’s a hit, please don’t forget that the name was my idea.”
In the afternoon, Markus brought a blue rubber ball he used to train seals with. Tosca sniffed at the ball, then gave it a shove with her snout, and when it started rolling, she ran after it light-footedly. As a reward for this, she received a couple of sugar cubes from me and then repeated the game.
It was too easy—and for this reason almost frustrating—to rehearse a new scene with Tosca. I didn’t have to teach her anything. I only had to get her to repeat the things she’d done out of curiosity, and then combine them into sequences. All I had to do was figure out how to make certain that Tosca really would repeat certain things during the performance. This would guarantee enough of a show to make our audience happy.
Markus and Pankov seemed relieved, they went and got a crate of beer to celebrate, but I wasn’t satisfied with us yet. Pushing a ball around with her snout wasn’t really in keeping with the divine aura of Polar Bear Tosca. Any second-rate actor could ascend the Bridge to the Future and gaze longingly into the distance. No, there would be no embarrassing overacting with Tosca. Wasn’t there a refreshing idea that would shake the audience awake? I smiled self-ironically, because my ambition had suddenly returned.
At the time, the first tentative signs of a depression were making their appearance, much as they had shortly after my first wedding. Back then, no one in our country spoke about depression. I secretly called it “my tristesse.” My first tristesse arrived when I had given birth to my daughter and was spending most of my time, like any other mammal, nursing my baby and changing her diaper. On the side, I had to help my first husband with his paperwork, do his laundry, and iron his costumes. I gave up my career as a wild animal trainer and for a while was just the housewife of the circus. The vacuum I felt inside me was not without weight. On the contrary. Every time I briefly stopped moving my hands, pausing in my work for a few seconds, the vacuum in my chest swelled up, stifling me. During the night I would turn over in bed every five minutes because the vacuum would settle on my chest and impede my breath. I wanted to stand on stage again beneath a shower of spotlights, my eardrums split in two by the crowd’s applause. Above all, I wanted to work with animals again. It seemed to me the world would soon forget all about me if I kept playing housewife. Moved by this worry, I immediately said yes to the risky offer to take on a mixed group of predators and entrusted my little daughter to my mother’s care.
After I married my second husband, Markus, the old tristesse returned. Only performing on stage could punch a hole in the dismal sky, surprising the audience with a bright, sunny blue.
Markus, concerned, asked what was wrong—it had been quite a while since I’d last uttered a word. “The sky is so triste,” I said.
“Your Anna has been with your mother all this time, you never see her. Is that really all right for you?”
I was surprised to learn my husband had been thinking about my daughter.
“Why don’t you go visit her?”
“I don’t have time. You know the bus is on a ridiculous schedule. I can’t let myself think about her. That won’t help anything.”
After German reunification, people might have criticized my parenting style, but at the time there were many mothers who had no choice but to leave their children in the hands of official caregivers and visit them only on weekends.
There were even professions that forced women to go for months on end without seeing their children. No one held this against them. We were unfamiliar with maternal love—it wasn’t even a myth. The churches in which Maria held her child exemplarily in her arms had been shuttered. When the suppression of religion came to an end, the myth of maternal love rose like a fata morgana from the horizon of the border. It pained me that Tosca was so harshly criticized after 1989 for having rejected her son Knut. Some said that Tosca had relinquished her son to strangers because she was from the GDR. Others wrote in their newspapers that Tosca had lost her maternal instinct while working in a circus known for its animal abuses, under typical Socialist stress levels. Invoking “stress” in this context struck me as misguided. There was no stress before 1989, only suffering. Equally malapropos was the notion “maternal instinct.” With animals, childrearing is a matter not of instinct but art. It can’t be much different for humans or they wouldn’t keep adopting children of different species.
Maybe it was my fear of the next installment of tristesse that so inflamed my ambition. “I’m not satisfied with just presenting some ordinary act with Tosca on the bridge or with the ball. We have to offer the audience something completely new, something that has never before existed in the circus world!” I slammed my intention down on the table without concealing my ambition. Pankov stopped pouring the beer down his gullet and remarked that perhaps we could find some new ideas in ethnology or mythology books. People in the circus generally tried to avoid giving too intellectual an impression, otherwise they risked attracting too much attention from the secret police. Besides, they were afraid of spoiling their audience’s appetite with displays of intellectualism. With his ill-tempered vulgarity, Pankov was trying to make everyone forget he held a PhD in Anthropology.
My husband and I got the day off to do research. Pankov wrote us a letter of introduction and sent us off to a public library since our own new library didn’t exist yet. We immediately found several reference books about the North Pole and immersed ourselves in them, forgetting both our objective and ourselves.
For a long time, polar bears had no contact with human beings and had no way of knowing how dangerous these small two-legged creatures were. It was reported that one polar bear’s curiosity had driven him to approach a small airplane that had landed in his territory. The amateur hunter got out of the airplane, unhurriedly took aim, and shot the bear dead. It would have taken a miracle for the bullet to miss its mark. Polar bear hunting became a popular sport, as it required neither technical skills nor the willingness to take risks. To be sure, a person who wished to derive actual profit from bears was obliged to capture them alive, and this did require some skill. Despite all efforts to the contrary, some bears died of the anesthesia, and others during transport. In 1956 the Soviet Union outlawed polar bear hunting, but the U.S., Canada, and Norway refused to stop. In 1960 alone, more than 300 polar bears were killed by amateur hunters.
I gasped with animalistic fury. My husband was probably hoping to calm and relax me when he said: “What if you dress up as a cowboy and pretend to shoot at Tosca? A sound effect, Tosca falls to the ground and plays dead.”
“I’m afraid it might just look silly. But then what?”
“Suddenly Tosca gets up again and devours you. In other words, the victim of human violence rises from the grave and in the end conquers the evildoer.”
“That won’t work. A circus audience isn’t looking for Socialist moral realism. Let’s try to find a mythological plot instead.”
“So let’s read some books about Eskimos!”
We read that the Eskimos—which is what we used to call the Inuit people in those days—possessed a great deal of knowledge about polar bears, but that scientists generally refused to recognize it. The most frequent justification for this refusal was the absence of scientific proof.
“We aren’t scientists, it’s OK for us to believe what the Eskimos say.”
“Agreed. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a zoologist. Now I’ve finally found a good reason to be glad it didn’t happen.”
This same book said that Eskimos believed that polar bears plugged their anuses with corks when it was time to hibernate.
“How about having Tosca put a cork in her butthole on stage and then shoot it into the air with a fart?”
“Hmm, tasteful. Why don’t you perform that one yourself?”
A few Eskimos report having seeing polar bears pushing ice floes around with their snouts while swimming in the sea. This was presumably a clever hunting strategy, allowing them to approach their quarry undetected. I thought of Tosca and the way she immediately started pushing the ball around with her snout when I placed it in front of her.
“What if you get into a baby carriage and let Tosca push you around with her snout?” This idea struck me as not half bad.
“But is this the division of roles the audience expects of us? With me as the baby and Tosca as the mother? Should I really let her mother me?”
“The founders of the Roman Empire drank the milk of a she-wolf. A great personage who is capable of an earth-shattering heroic deed has to have been adopted and nursed by an animal.”
“How about a musical? At the beginning we’ll show my childhood, with me drinking bear’s milk, and in the end I’ll be the Empress.”
“Excellent idea. But maybe you’ve forgotten: We’ve come to the library to look for an idea that can quickly be put on stage. I don’t think we can write, compose, and sing a musical in a matter of days.”
We went on reading. Several Eskimos report that polar bears press snow into their wounds to stop the bleeding. This was a beautiful image, but not really suitable for the stage.
Many Eskimos believe—the book claimed—that polar bears are left-handed. It could be interesting if Tosca were to go into a classroom set up on stage and write words on the blackboard with her left hand. The most important audience members from Pankov’s point of view were the Russians, so Tosca would have to write using the Cyrillic alphabet. I had a feeling that Cyrillic script might be too much for the left hand of a polar bear. My husband replied: “But Chinese ideograms are much more complicated than Cyrillic script, and in China the panda bears are capable of writing ideograms—or at least the simplified characters mandated by Communist reformers.”
When I told Pankov about the literate panda bears, he gnashed his teeth in envy and said it was just propaganda: pro-panda propaganda disseminated by the Chinese government in an effort to justify their writing reform. I asked him what made it propaganda. Did it mean that even bears can write if there are fewer brushstrokes in the characters?
“What was his answer?”
“He kept insisting that panda bears can’t write. Regardless how simplified the writing system, written characters are written characters, and panda bears are panda bears. But I asked myself what we would do if the pandas did in fact turn out to be naturally more intelligent than we were. Probably all we could do would be to conceal this fact from our Kremlin guests.”
“You can’t compare the intelligence of different sorts of animals. Besides, the circus stage isn’t the place to demonstrate one’s intelligence. And feeling envious of the pandas and their brains won’t do us any good.”
“Every species of bear has its own strengths. It isn’t the point of the circus to demonstrate the national IQ. By the way, do you remember the children’s book The Three Bears?”
As always, I was surprised by his sudden change of topic. “It could look sweet and interesting if the bear on stage were to do banal things such as humans perform every day: sit down at a table, place a napkin on her lap, open a jar of jam and spread the strawberry jam on a slice of bread, drink cocoa from a mug, and so on.”
My husband remained in a good mood for quite some time, even the insolent tone adopted by the librarian who shooed us out of the building before closing time didn’t bother him.
“Who’d have thought it? I like spending time at the library. Doing research and collecting ideas for choreography are activities far better suited to me than ordering about dangerous animals on stage.”
His cheeks looked sunken, his eyes were encircled by shadow. His hair had already taken on the whiteness of hoarfrost, while his eyebrows had grown too long. He no longer had to grapple with live bears: This thought filled him with relief, opened the floodgates within him, and the years that had been dammed up inside him all this time now flowed back out into his life, causing him to age drastically in the space of a few days.
The next morning we got an early start practicing scenarios with Tosca that were borrowed from everyday life.
She could effortlessly open a jar of jam, but smearing the jam on the bread proved impossible for her. It wasn’t that she lacked dexterity, it’s just that she preferred to take all the jam out of the jar at once, using her tongue. I couldn’t think of any trick that might get her to do what I wanted. She couldn’t be talked into it either, since we lacked a common language.
“I’m out of ideas. Back in a minute, I’m going for a smoke,” my husband said and left me alone with Tosca. He’d been smoking more and more, and taking ever more frequent sips of vodka. I looked wistfully at Tosca. She lay on her back like a baby, like my daughter Anna when she was small. My thoughts drifted to Anna, I wondered how she was, whether she’d made any friends at school.
The next day Markus returned to the library, this time alone. Even though we didn’t know yet what our show was going to look like, I could still get started rehearsing Tosca’s entrance and exit with her, elements whose importance is underestimated by laypersons. I strode into a corner of the rehearsal room, taking care never to turn my back to her. On the ground were balls, a bucket, and stuffed animals. Tosca hurried over to me and sniffed at various of my body parts, paying particular attention to my rear end, but also to my mouth and hands. I thought I’d have to suppress a laugh, but found it was far more than laughter I was having to suppress. My husband hadn’t yet returned for lunch, and my stomach was growling. I asked Tosca to go into her cage and wait for me there. At that very moment, Pankov’s secretary came into the room, bringing a piece of equipment, apparently some sort of weird tricycle.
“I thought you might be interested in this tricycle for small bears. We just got it as a gift from a Russian circus. It’s a hand-me-down and not in perfect condition, but it still works,” she said. The tricycle was solidly built, I sat down on it but couldn’t make the pedals move. Tosca was watching me enviously from her cage. The tricycle was obviously too small for Tosca. I’d have to ask Pankov to have a tricycle specially built for her and then listen to a lecture about being in the red. With my knees bent up to my ears, I sat on the tricycle, thinking back on the days when I used to deliver telegrams by bicycle. My current wages were certainly not high, but my memory of this time bore the heading “Poverty.” Later on, all the financial reports in the GDR were black and gleaming. Being in the red, someone told me, was an attribute of capitalism and not relevant to our way of life.
Every day, as I rode between the Telegraph Office and my clients’ doors, I’d practice bicycle tricks. When I increased my speed and cut a sharp curve without stepping on the brakes, my ankles just grazed the earth racing past beneath me. Centrifugal force held an erotic attraction for me. Sometimes, wanting to rise up into the air, I would pull the handlebars to my chest until the front wheel left the ground. There I would be, riding along on just my back wheel, filled with euphoria, even pride. Or I would lift my buttocks from the seat, slowly shifting my weight onto my wrists and raising my hips up high until eventually I felt that I could take both feet off the pedals simultaneously to execute a headstand on the moving bike. I was spontaneous, courageous, fearless. Acrobatics was my dream, I wanted to jump over a rainbow and ride a cloud.
I saw the black flame in Tosca’s pupils flicker. Everything around me was filled with light, so bright it blinded me and made the line dividing the wall from the ceiling disappear. I still felt no fear of Tosca, but there was something frightening in the atmosphere surrounding her. I’d entered a realm where it was forbidden to set foot. There, in darkness, the grammars of many languages lost their color, they melted and combined, then froze solid again, they drifted in the ocean and joined the drifting floes of ice. I sat on the same ice floe as Tosca and understood every word she said to me. Beside us floated a second floe with an Inuk and a snow hare sitting on it, immersed in conversation.
“I want to know everything about you.” It was Tosca who said this to me, and I could understand every one of her words. “What were you afraid of when you were little?” Her question surprised me—no one else ever asked me about my fears. I was a famous trainer of wild animals, afraid of nothing. But in fact there was something that frightened me.
As a child, I sometimes felt the presence of insects behind my back. One late-summer dusk I was playing alone in the front hall of my apartment building when I sensed that someone was standing behind me. I turned around and saw an old beetle, its feelers rolled halfway up. Its legs were so thin as to be almost invisible, it was all they could do to drag the unwieldy carapace along with them. I was no longer sure whether the legs were the main part of the insect and its back only a sort of luggage, or whether the hard shield also had blood flowing through it, assuming insects had blood at all. I just wasn’t sure. The knapsack with school books on my back was a carapace shielding me from attackers. I’d kept it on so long it was growing into my flesh. Like plants sending out their roots beneath the earth, my veins grew out of my back and into my knapsack without my noticing. If I were to take it off now, my skin would come off too and bleed.
“Are you there?” my mother asked. “I have to go take care of something. You can have dinner alone.”
“Where are you going?”
“To the doctor.”
“To the dentist?”
“No, the gynecologist.”
I ran outside when I heard the word “gynecologist.” I still hadn’t had a chance to take off my school bag. I ran in the direction of green surface, the familiar landscape around our house was no longer visible, there was a smell of dark green. The color green smelled green. Everything red smelled red, it smelled of blood and red roses. The color white smelled of snow, but winter still loitered at a distance, the snow would remain out of my reach for a long time yet. I stopped, unable to go on running, breathing like a pump, both my hands propped on my knees. On the crown of my head, a tiny aviator with silk-thin wings alighted. I brushed it away, and it flew off but then came back again at once, returning to land on exactly the same spot. I reached out my hand, blindly grasping for my prey. Before my eyes, I slowly opened my fist, in which the powdery-dry remnants of wings glimmered in the cold light. The insect’s belly was no longer there. Had it been flying without its torso when I caught it? Or had its belly disappeared into thin air when I squeezed too tightly? Who knows, perhaps even the hairs on my head were nothing more than insects. Each hair was a thin, long animal that had clamped its teeth into my scalp to suck the blood from my head. I began to hate my hair and plucked out strand after strand of it.
On the back of my left heel, I discovered a birthmark I’d never seen before. I touched it cautiously, and it turned into an ant. I was all eyes, trying to read the face of the ant. Beneath my focused gaze, the tar-black mask expanded: It had neither eyes nor mouth. My bladder was suddenly full, I stood up and opened my legs wide. The exit path for the urine grew warm, but nothing came. I stared at the ground with its ant-body punctuation. Ants everywhere! Nothing but ants! When I finally understood this, something hot passed through my urethra, bubbling and running down the inside of my thigh. The ants were getting a shower, but this only seemed to strengthen their life force, they began to climb up my legs, following the path of the urine. Help! Help!
I laid my head in Tosca’s lap and sobbed. Finally, at my age, I’d found a friend in whose lap I could weep over a terrifying memory. The tears tasted like sugarcane, it would have been a shame to stop crying too quickly, so I raised my voice and recommenced bawling at the top of my lungs. “What’s wrong with you?” asked a voice that had a completely different wavelength than Tosca’s. The night-table lamp came on, and I saw my husband’s plaid pajamas. Presumably I was just dreaming.
“Did you have a nightmare?”
The situation was more embarrassing to me than anything else, I quickly wiped my tears away with my fingers. “As I child, I was afraid of insects. I just dreamed about that.”
“Insects? You mean like ants?”
My husband laughed using his entire upper body, even his pajamas crinkled with laughter.
“You aren’t afraid of lions and bears, but you’re scared of ants?”
“Do worms scare you too?”
“They really do. But spiders are the worst.” I was alert now and knew I wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep quickly, so I told him about the horrific spiders.
At the time, I knew a boy from my neighborhood named Horst. Unlike other boys, he smelled refined—though I couldn’t say exactly what he smelled of. “There’s an orchard behind the train station. Let’s go steal some fruit.”
I didn’t care whether he was lying or not, I found the idea exciting and followed him. There really was a hidden orchard in which numerous apples were ripening blood-red. Their branches formed a ceiling that was low enough for our robber hands to reach. When I stood on tiptoe and tried to pluck a large, gleaming-red apple, a spider suddenly descended right in front of me on its thread elevator. A grimace—or, no, it was the pattern on its back, but it looked like a face, and it was screaming so loudly it hurt my eardrums, I thought, but no, it was my own voice! The owner of the orchard heard my screams, hurried over and found a girl lying unconscious on the ground. He tended to me. When I recovered my senses, he brought me home without a scolding. A few days later, Horst suggested another prank. This time he wanted us to steal sweets from the warehouse of an emporium. The main impediment was a watchdog kept chained to the warehouse door. The dog pulled back his upper lip and gave a warning growl. His language was unambiguous. I said to Horst, “He’ll bite if we try to pass. Let’s go home!”
“Are you saying you’re afraid of this little dog?” Horst spit in disgust and began to advance.
“He’ll bite!” By the time I got the words out, the dog had already sunk his teeth into the boy’s calf and was shaking his head without letting go. Horst’s screams were engraved on my eardrums for the rest of my life.
Later Horst and I happened to walk past the warehouse one day. On this day, the dog was in a good mood and wagged his tail at us. His eyes invited me to stroke his head. Without hesitation, I walked up to him and patted him between the ears. Horst stared at me, aghast.
The thoughts of animals were written clearly in their faces as if spelled out with an alphabet. I found it difficult to understand that this language was not just illegible to other people but in fact completely invisible. Some people even claimed that animals didn’t have faces at all, just snouts. I didn’t put much store in what’s known as courage. I just ran away when an animal hated me, that’s all, and conversely, I could easily tell when an animal loved me. Mammals were easy to understand. They neither put on makeup nor engaged in playacting. An insect, on the other hand, frightened me because I couldn’t get a sense of its heart.
My husband listened to me attentively this entire time. When I’d finished speaking and fell silent, he said melancholically: “I no longer understand the feelings of animals. It used to be I could sense them precisely, like an object I was holding in my hand. Do you think I can ever regain this ability again?”
“Of course you can! You’re just spinning your wheels right now, but sooner or later you’ll be as fit as ever.” I turned off my bedside lamp, as if to extinguish my bad conscience.
The next day, Tosca and I once more practiced coming on stage, exiting, and bowing.
From time to time Tosca looked deep into my eyes and seemed to be alluding to something. Apparently it wasn’t just in my imagination that we’d spoken. We really were entering a sphere situated halfway between the animal and human worlds.
Around ten in the morning, Pankov showed up. His beard was still smeared with yolk from the soft-boiled egg he’d eaten at breakfast. He asked how our rehearsals were going.
“The jam didn’t work,” I said, “so now we’re trying it with honey.”
“Aha. And what’s this honey number supposed to look like?”
“We’re going to attach wings to Tosca’s back so she’ll look like a bee. She transports the nectar from the flowers to the bees’ nest and produces honey. In the next scene she’ll turn into a bear and gobble the honey up.”
A dark cloud covered Pankov’s face. “Can’t you just put together a straight acrobatic number? Dance on a ball, jump rope, or play badminton! Do you know what’s wrong with productions that are difficult to interpret? People can accuse us of secretly engaging in social criticism.”
To calm Pankov down, I asked him to order a ball for Tosca. A tricycle would have been too expensive, but maybe a ball wasn’t too much for him. Besides, for badminton we would have needed not just the shuttlecock but two rackets as well. It could have proved difficult to get a racket custom made for a bear. And jumping rope? I found a rope, but fortunately Tosca was incapable of jumping over it. I was against the idea from the start, anyhow: Tosca’s hind legs were too delicate in relation to her weight. Jumping rope might have injured her knees. I knew that the Russian circus employed several poodles that could jump rope. “If we start imitating the Russians, we’ll never have a future of our own!” My voice involuntarily rose, and my husband pressed his index finger crosswise to his lips and whispered: “The ears of the secret police are in every wall.” We knew for a fact that bugging devices had been installed somewhere in the circus.
My husband and I slept and ate in our circus trailers, and our office was in a trailer, too. For rehearsals, we used a large room in an auxiliary building. There were colleagues who liked to rent a small room in town and didn’t sleep at the circus. My husband and I were true circus people: We lived entirely on the grounds of our circus as if unwilling to be parted from it even for a second. In all honesty, I was afraid—a fear I concealed—that this husband I knew so well might suddenly seem like a stranger to me if I saw him outside the circus. It was the bears who brought us together with such intensity, more so than the physical intimacy we shared.
Yet another day passed without our making any progress. Secretly I was just waiting for sundown all day. I quickly ate a piece of stone-hard dark bread with cheese, gulped down a mug of black tea and brushed my teeth at breakneck speed. “Are you going to bed already?” My husband was staring at me with astonishment. In his right hand, he held the box with the Go board in it, and between the fingers of his left, he’d skillfully wedged both a bottle of vodka and a pack of cigarettes.
“My brain is full of knots today, probably it’s a rope we can’t jump.” I didn’t want to spend the evening with him, since I neither drank vodka nor played Go. For this, he had Pankov’s secretary.
A snowfield extended between me and the jagged horizon. I spread a piece of hide on the hard, snowy ground and sat down. Tosca followed, placing her chin in my lap and closing her eyes. She had no voice. The ice goddess had lost her voice after going several thousand years without speaking. I could read her thoughts, they were as clear as if they’d been written in soft pencil on drawing paper.
“It was pitch black. I was an infant, I was freezing cold and pressed against my mother. She was tired, ate nothing. Until we came out of the hole one day, I saw nothing, heard nothing. Later I asked my mother if I’d been born premature. She answered that it was perfectly normal for a baby bear to be born early. What sort of woman was your mother?”
Her question surprised me and brought me back to the present; I’d been feeling like a bear child. Now it was my turn to talk—the turn of the human being. For as far back as I can remember, I lived alone with my mother. She told me my father was living by himself in Berlin. I didn’t know Berlin, but still couldn’t get the city out of my mind. I can remember the pattern of the wallpaper in our apartment quite well, but not the face of my father.
Once I saw my parents’ wedding photo. Or at least it seems to me I can remember the white gloves and the hem that melancholically adorned the lower edge of my mother’s gown. In my father’s breast pocket, a rose hung its head. It’s possible my father lived with us at the beginning of my life. This is only a vague inkling, not a solid memory. I don’t know when and why my father quarreled with my mother and left us.
My mother worked in a textile factory in Dresden. One day she was transferred to another factory in the Neustadt district and wanted to move with me to a new apartment on the edge of town that was just as far away from her new workplace as the old apartment had been. From the new place, she would have a direct bus connection to work, she explained, but I instantly sensed there was another reason for the move. Perhaps the move had something to do with the neighbor my mother sometimes conversed with in whispered tones. In any case, I was against the move and protested. I didn’t want to be separated from a mouse that lived in the basement. My mother said: “Moving often brings good luck. New places, new animals!” She only said that to placate me, but by chance it turned out that she was right. The famous “Circus Sarrasani” had set up camp less than a kilometer from our new apartment.
I awoke from my dream and saw my husband’s back in front of me. Soon the sun would rise. He turned around and asked what I’d think about dancing with Tosca on stage.
“Did you go on thinking about this all night long?”
“No, it just occurred to me as I was waking up.”
“Dancing isn’t my forte, but maybe it’s worth a try.”
During the day I couldn’t speak with Tosca about our dreams because we lacked a common language. But now and then something in her eyes or gestures showed she’d just remembered our conversation from the night before.
When I stood facing her and took her paws, I thought how odd we must look as a dancing couple, considering that she was twice my height. The record player Pankov had provided for the rehearsal was of even worse quality than I’d feared. I stumbled while attempting to fish the melody of “La Cumparsita” from its crackling background and stepped right on Tosca’s foot. Fortunately I was light as a feather to her, so it didn’t hurt. She bent down and licked my cheek, which possibly tasted of breakfast jam. The music abruptly stopped, and I heard my husband messing around with the record player, muttering: “That’s odd. Could it be any more kaput?” Cautiously I touched Tosca’s belly. There was a firm, thick layer of fur, and beneath it, a soft layer of short, fine hair. Touching her brought back the memory of my first tango lesson. A female voice hummed a tango melody inside me while giving instructions: “Back, back, cross the legs, step to the side!” What was the owner of the voice called? “Now make a turn and one step back.” I obeyed the voice and danced. Tosca looked at me, faintly puzzled, but when I tugged at her arms, she took a step forward without hesitating. When I pushed against her, she took a step back. “Cross the legs, step to the side, then one step forward.” It was an aerial acrobat who had taught me the tango. Her mother was from Cuba. We danced, I fell down, and our lips met.
Pankov sat in a corner of the rehearsal room, watching us. I hadn’t noticed him come in. “The two of you are no good at dancing, but the way you stand face to face is artistic, like a painting. Hahaha. If the tango is too hard for you, maybe you should play cards instead.”