:: Article

Heads or Tails

By Felicitas Hoppe, translated by Katy Derbyshire.

(picture: Search For The Holy Grail by Tahnee Lonsdale)

Head’s too heavy, hands too big, legs too short, said my father, and he put me in a cage and gave me a friendly wave through the bars as I watched him gluing matchboxes at the kitchen table, because he had one leg too few and his left arm dangled beside his body like a dead branch in the wind. While we waited for men hale and hearty enough to carry the matchboxes out of the house in large crates, he told me stories of circuses and fairs and threw balls of bread over the bars, which I caught mid-air in my lips. He made me dance on my hind legs and dangled glossy carrots above my nose, for which I was to jump, and I realized he wanted to make a dancing bear out of me, strap a backpack to my back and drive me ahead of him all around the world. Oh, you’ll soon see how much people like it, cried my father, and spun on his leg like a top, his left arm fluttering like the weather vane on the roof, which I only know from his stories. On a good day, he accompanied his dancing with singing. He had a voice beautiful and strong, and I listened with my tongue hanging out in joy and savoured every word from his lips, like a slice of marzipan.

Soon my nose protruded from between the bars, and my father taught me new songs full of wanderings up hills and down dales, along rivers flowing through villages with trees lining the streets and wells greeting the wanderer in the square. The only thing we won’t sing of is girls, as we walk through the world, whether the girls like it or not. I stretched towards my father to read his lips the better, and joined in his song, my voice croaking with excitement.

Here you see me and there is my father. He’s leading me through the world on the chain of his one-legged adventures. It smells of wind and of weather, the sun is high in the sky, and the backpack on my back is as light as a pack of cotton wool, only my head on my broad round collar is as heavy as a rock about to roll down the hill at any moment. On that rock we have eaten and shared fair and square what men and bears share: the fruits of the forest and field and all we can put in our pockets as we pass people’s gardens. Nowhere have we stayed too long, not in the forests and not in people’s barns. My father spun on his leg like a top and dangled carrots above my nose, for which I jumped until the sweat ran down my collar. I caught balls of bread like flies in mid-flight, I danced on my hind legs to my father’s songs and held my head tight between my hands so it wouldn’t jump off and roll to an unexpecting spectator’s feet.

When we came to an end the people in the squares stood puzzled, as if not knowing we deserved a reward. Some took us along to the taverns but the meals were paltry and taciturn, for my father didn’t drink and wouldn’t join in with the songs about girls standing in wait behind farmhouse gates with eyes all ashine and skirts all awaft.

Those who seek us will find us, where one finds men and bears, in caves under leaves, buried in dreams for which every night is too short. My father wakes me before sunrise, rubs the sleep from my eyes and splashes cold water into them. The day is long, the road is hard, he cries and straps the backpack to my back. I take my head in my hands and run off. Here run I and there runs my father, his impatience hot on our heels, while his pace slows from day to day and his breath shortens.

At night I lie next to him under the blanket. I’d like to wait until his breath gets so short that it disappears altogether, but my sleep is shorter still. And yet I do know that I one day won’t hold my head between my hands any more. It has grown so large that my ears now protrude far over my collar. My eyes stick out and my nose drips incessantly into the town, where people stand expectantly in the square and clap as soon as my father begins to spin on his leg.

And here am I, with short legs and a dripping nose and a painful look as I jump for carrots and bread, and because all of a sudden I felt as if someone had thrown a spanner in my works, and I used my hands to grab for the carrot. My head rolled off my shoulders and the stone rolled off my heart, directly to the feet of the girls standing close behind my father. Greedily, they pounced upon it and began to argue, until the girl with the largest hands carried it away in her apron, her own head held high. I threw my arms in the air and stumbled forwards with my tongue dangling and my collar fluttering and cast not one glance back, not at the crowd, which was slowly dispersing, and not at my father, who stood still in the middle of the square like the slim pedestal of a local monument.

When the men come to pack the matchboxes in crates and take them away, I shan’t be squatting in the kitchen cupboard between the pots and pans next time, to watch them through the half-open door as they enter the kitchen on two legs and lift the crates with two arms and carry them out, as if they were air filled with glass wool. They come back with new empty crates, which they balance like waiters above their heads and set down with a flourish next to the table. They don’t sweat and they don’t smell of work, only of wind and of weather. Before they press a bundle of banknotes into my father’s hand, they stand for a moment in the middle of the kitchen, defiantly, as if they deserved a reward. Greedily, my father will breathe in their scent and wish they would stay. But he drinks neither with one-legged nor with two-legged men and he’ll have no long winter’s sleep.

Felicitas Hoppe was born in the pied piper’s town of Hamlyn and began writing as a child, always finishing every story. Her first collection, Picknick der Friseure, from which this piece is taken, was published in 1996. She went on a round-the-world trip on a freight ship in 1997 and continues to travel a great deal. She has taught in Germany, Austria and the USA, and published some twenty books for children and adults, including the fake autobiography Hoppe and the German translation of Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. In 2012 she won the prestigious Georg Büchner Prize. Readux Books has brought out a tiny English collection of stories taken from her debut, Picnic of the Virtues. Felicitas Hoppe lives in Berlin.

Katy Derbyshire translates contemporary German writers including Helene Hegemann, Inka Parei, Dorothee Elmiger, Christa Wolf and Clemens Meyer. She co-edits the magazine no man’s land  showcasing contemporary German literature in translation, and until recently wrote a newspaper column on Going Dutch with German Writers. She lives in Berlin.

Tahnee Lonsdale, born 1982, lives and works in north west London. ‘Search For The Holy Grail’ is from her last collection, Waiting For Entry Into That Holy Place, a profound yet humorous study into our expectations of faith. Colour is intrinsic to Tahnee’s work, creating the illusion of frivolity while underneath lies a macabre and cynical view on life and what comes next. Tahnee’s next show Your Epoche will be showing with Roberta Moore Contemporary at Imitate Modern. She also has a painting hanging at Somerset House (September-October 2014) as part of the National Open Art Competition. More of her work can be seen here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, September 12th, 2014.