She and I smoke from a pale pink box. She evens up a blue pack of matches. Within my Dubonnet floats a centipede. Her manicure taps the glass—it wakes. We eat alongside the Charité Hospital, and the discomfort of such proximity demands distracting pleasures: the soft pillow on the chair, the candle between us, crisp black charms of a pepper shaker, the restaurant strung with café lights, katydids in the river reeds that soften the concrete, flat-bottomed boats pass by: laughter, beer, children.
“The legs that are currently attached to my body are not the ones with which I am familiar, and certainly have not been mine since birth.”
All across the continent of summer, asparagus and potatoes pulled from the soil. Cows induced for the release of cream. To the south along the mountain’s toes, salt dragged scraping from its holes. Surprised by transport. And now my salad arrives, prostrate on its plate, exhausted.
Beside the Spree, a pair of pale eyes in the delicate face of a beauty. She hands me a cigarette, and I smoke three.
The legs that are currently attached to my body are not the ones with which I am familiar, and certainly have not been mine since birth. These new ones surprised me in this evening’s bath—an old, cracked porcelain affair. The water drained out past my ankles: mild, yellow, thin. These are some stony and nerveless things, poured into a mold, or else cast. Prosthetic, but unsubtle. Unlike the others: bony and serviceable and flushed and swelled and pumping with blood.
She wears a yellow dress. Between the Charité and the Spree, my glass of Dubonnet. Within it floats a centipede, underbelly turned up to the sky. Clouds in Berlin unlike any others: huge, swollen, white. Where are the stringy pale ones, the vulnerable whisk of egg ones, the broken-feather ones of grey haze.
clara von hinklen.
In recent days, my old legs must have uncoupled from my hips, with a click of grease and a muscled wheeze. Separated at some station along my route. My arms and torso bound for investigation of atrocities–yet the embrittled remnant, allied in refusal, detaches on the platform in Leipzig. The tablecloth falls over my lap to hide the seam.
She is five foot ten. She agrees to a second glass of Dubonnet. She is kind, and uncomfortable. Had hoped for some happier kind of evening.
She has a faint blonde fur on the tops of her fingers, and it suspends a blur of dust in the candlelight. It is sweet. She is useless with euphemism. Like the others, she asks if my grandmother survived the experiments. Like the others, she has forgotten that her death would have made my birth improbable. Yes, I say with practice. And then, no.
There is nothing to be accomplished by summoning a waiter and exchanging the glass of Dubonnet, by requesting a cleaner drink: in other glasses, other insects. Within this one a thousand legs spread open, doomed.
Below the table, my underwear disguises a sharp bend of hips that now seem to snap instead of fold. There are feelings I used to have down there that I want to recognize again. Her eyelids bear blue paint. A luminous glaze, near incandescent in the haze of my smoke. Despite the readiness of her cosmetics, there is no dancing tonight at the Ballhaus in Mitte, with its varnish-crazed floors dehydrated by feet from last century. My former legs would have taken me away from this place. But these have rooted themselves, and refuse to move. She checks the tint of her lips in the hand mirror, opens them to flash light on bright teeth—a rasp of pink tongue across their white.
She says hers was an easy birth. She arrived right after everything had begun to get better again: there were vegetables sprouting in the Tiergarten, different uniforms to be sewn with new patches and badges. And buildings were going up, with lipstick-red geraniums and hydraulic elevators. Babies were raw and welcome. Her mother was frightened and pleased. Dr. Aquilin Ullrich delivered her in what was widely recognized as a very easy birth.
At some distance, I feel my legs twitch in Leipzig, in an imagined sanatorium for the mutinous legs of Jews who have returned for questioning. For the appendages that have refused to walk any farther through the mysterious anguish of ancestry. There is a strained gruel of sunshine and my rebel legs are blanketed in soft blue linens, tucked up on a chaise lounge. Pain and numbness, an unsavory combination alleviated by violins, chipped ice, and violets.
She is patient with my questions, although her hair falls in her eyes when she lowers her face. When she looks up, it’s with a gift for statements of extrapolated fact. She believes Dr. Ullrich died without regrets. Before he re-invented himself, her mother’s eventual obstetrician hid from arrest and trial in the mines of the Saar. The killings of four thousand five hundred schizophrenics were easy deaths. The rocks in the shafts were difficult to pick apart, and he cared about his fingertips. After all that, attending births is no big deal. He was lighthearted with escape.
hans heinrich lammers.
Here I am, unraveling. Her navel, tied off with a killer’s string.
Stretched out beside my legs in the Leipzig sanitarium—the thick-muscled, hairy legs of a man I met on a bus: his uncle the driver of a Hadamar gas van, his grandfather had been the boy who delivered the euthanized ashes of epileptics to their surviving parents. The seats on our bus were dark green plastic. I sat on my hands to still them. His grandfather had been a responsible boy, with soft hands known to be reliable, clasping the tiny urn on his bicycle as he shot across the cobblestones with a wobble. Accurate readings of street numbers meant a polite knock at the family’s door. The man’s nose blunted, a half-day growth of stubble at the base of his neck, a fresh tie and no freckles. At the stop, we didn’t transfer as neither of us wished to go farther.
Beside the Spree, dinner arrives with fresh glasses and cloth napkins. She believes Dr. Ullrich died taking pride in his accomplishments. Across the street at the Charité Hospital are offices that once welcomed the gynecologists’ experiment: how best to prevent the imperfect from multiplying. Four hundred thousand proved the point: it is absolutely possible to eradicate hereditary diseases. Because depressed patients did not exhibit a will to live, Dr. Ullrich did not consider it murder. Everything salted to taste, then peppered. Seasonal asparagus with butter stains on the seam of my lap. He had no regrets. The children consigned to Chelm or to Brandenburg were then gassed. The first two hundred thousand were practice perfected. Tonight, she would have preferred to go dancing.