Bridge to Global Literature

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Miwepa— Eva Taylor

Jul 29, 2022 | Fiction | 0 comments

Translated from the Italian by Olivia E. Sears

The place where I was born has no name. Everybody simply called it Miwepa, which stood for Mitteldeutsche Wellpappenfabrik, and means something like ‘The Central German Corrugated Cardboard Factory.’ The factory, which today is called SCA Packaging Mivepa Gmbh, was located on one side of the main road and was surrounded by a fence, above which you could see the chimneys and the roofs of the factory buildings. On the other side of the road, there were a handful of houses but they were always enveloped in smoke and fumes so that the windows were barely visible, and any human beings were lost to view. From time to time, the factory gate would open and disgorge a handful of vans. In the evening, a bus would emerge full of workers on their way home. This was followed by a wave of people on mopeds and bikes. 

The house I grew up in was part of that small group of six buildings. Some of them were old farmhouses, others more recent constructions that had been built with ‘bricks saved from the mouth’.

“Every one of those bricks meant a slice of bread less for us, that’s how we managed to build the house,” said my grandmother. “Your grandfather bought those bricks and the gap they left in his wallet meant hunger for us.” 

Every time I heard her say this, I felt the bricks of the house groan under the weight of the hunger, as if they themselves were suffering from an empty stomach. 

Myself, I was never hungry. They had to force me to sit down and eat, sometimes actually spooning the soup into my mouth. Soup every second day, either lentil or barley, while on Sundays, it was a clear broth with homemade noodles floating around in it. Whichever it was, it was always fatty. Big bubbles of fat stared up at me out of the bowl like huge eyes and fumed threateningly– they reminded me of the eyes of some monster. I didn’t quite know whether it was the monster of hunger or the monster of satiety. But what I did know was that there was no way I was going to eat them. I was simply horrified at the idea of those fuming fatty eyes inside me, sliding their way down my throat and inspecting my insides. 

“One day, you will miss all that good fat,” my grandmother used to say, with a mild tone of rebuke, as my mother removed the soup that I hadn’t touched and gave me a slice of bread instead. “One day, you will be sorry for all these things that you have left.”

In reality, I didn’t even want the bread; all I wanted was to be outside in the courtyard with my dog Senta. I liked to hide away in her kennel, the Hundehütte. Of course, I was not supposed to do this, but sometimes I did so nevertheless. I would sit inside, while Senta stood guard at the entrance, protecting me from the house– a vast stomach was how I saw it– and the voices that emerged from it. The voices that stood out were those of my mother and grandmother. They were calling me but I stayed put in the Hundehütte, and did not breathe a word while they ran backward and forward between the house and the garden, anxiously looking for me. Those voices seemed to be telling me a story, like the voices that emerged from the rugs on the floor of my bedroom— voices of the fairy tale characters depicted there, or of others that I had simply imagined. No other room in the house had rugs with human figures. No other room spoke to me like this. 

There were eight rooms: four on the ground floor, the kitchen, the dining room, the sitting room, and my parent’s bedroom. The other four were on the first floor: my grandmother’s room, my room, and two smaller bedrooms where my cousins slept when they came to visit my grandmother. And then there was the cellar— a large cellar with a huge, dark room that had a strange echo effect, which meant that you could hear what was going on when someone was down there stowing away newly dug-up potatoes or hanging up the salamis the day after the pig was slaughtered. Autumn days and winter days. Days without much light, days that seemed to fade away only too willingly into the inviting darkness of the cellar, where they could wait for someone to come down, switch on the light, and finally illuminate them. 

None of the women of the house were very happy about going down to the cellar. It was cold down there, even in summer, and always very dark. But my grandmother used to go down, and this was because she was old enough to remember the ditch that had been there before the cellar was built. 

“I am going down to my youth,” was how she used to announce her intention of going down there. And she stayed there a long time, much longer than my father ever did. On one occasion, everyone was worried that something might have happened to her, and they sent me down to get her. When I got to the bottom of the stairs, I saw my grandmother sitting on a barrel that had been laid on its side. She was talking, I had no idea to whom. I waited for a little while at the bottom of the stairs and then went back up on tiptoe. I stopped before I got to the kitchen door and waited until she came up. She took me by the hand and led me into the kitchen. My father turned around and said, “What happened? Did you meet someone down there?”

In the house next-door, lived my grandmother’s sister, Auntie Anna. She sat the whole time in front of her house, and her hands were never idle. She would make repairs to clothes, knit, or peel vegetables. If there was no work like this to do, she would have a rosary in her hands. Her lips moved as she passed the beads between her fingers. In that place, time only really seemed to pass by if it could be felt to pass through one’s fingers. 

Our house and Auntie Anna’s were at the foot of a hill. The village was at the top of the hill, and one got there by taking a turn off the main road. Just after this turning, facing our house, lived a friend of my father, Paul Klingebiel. 

Paul Klingebiel worked at the Miwepa. He was not directly involved in the production of cardboard, but he always had a lot of it lying around and used it to make models. At weekends, he and his son built cars and ships out of cardboard. There were two particular models of car and two ships that they were particularly good at producing. The best examples of these were made out of light brown cardboard. The majority of them, however, was grey, a grey that seemed to suggest years and years of wear. But I hardly even noticed this.  

Road to Warth

The road that went from the Miwepa up to the village was steep, and it also had two quite sharp bends. The first was called ‘the devil’s knee’; the second didn’t have a name of its own, and most people spoke of it as ‘the one above the devil’s knee’, or more simply as ‘the one above the knee’. Up in the village, there were continual disputes about these names: some insisted that it was the knee not of the devil himself but rather of his sister, meaning that the other bend should have been called ‘the one above the knee of the devil’s sister’. On one occasion, in the inn of the village, a heated discussion on this very subject was interrupted brusquely by a woman’s voice.

“Give it a rest, can’t you,” she said as she arrived with a tray of beers and set it down on the table where the men were sitting. 

“Where the hell did you get this idea about the devil’s sister? Tell me where it says anything about this. Words are dangerous, you know, they can kill.”

“Come on! We were only joking,” replied the men sitting around the table, their voices already betraying their annoyance at being called to order. For a few minutes, they continued to repeat defensively that they had meant no harm. But from that time on, nobody dared to raise the subject, at least not when that woman— who among themselves they began to refer to as ‘the devil’s sister’— was serving.   

That woman was the mother of my mother. She wasn’t originally from the village, which meant that she was not fully accepted by the others. She had met her husband in the city, where she had gone in search of a job. During the war, they decided to take refuge in the village he came from. Things were easier like that: there was no danger of air raids there, and one could always grow a bit of food in the fields. Half of the village were relatives: his parents, his two brothers, two sisters, and then a variety of aunts, uncles, first cousins, and second cousins. Practically, walking around the village for them was like taking a tour of their family tree. 

We went up to the village reasonably often, either to visit grandma or to do some shopping or for Sunday mass. The family house of my grandfather was one of the first in the village as you entered it coming up from the Miwepa. It was a timbered house, a Fachwerkhaus, with a good-sized courtyard, big enough for the hay carts and the carriage that the Linke family used for their trips to other villages such as Rustenfelde or Schachtebich, Hohengandern, or Birkenfeld. Villages I never went to but whose names I remember well, just as I remember the courtyard of the house originally built by my great grandfather. Villages whose names evoke a landscape, complete with its streams, its fields, and its hills. 

The village of Warth has a coat of arms: it shows a red hill with a white castle on top, and above a blue sky. Strong direct colors. And indeed these colors were everywhere: in the fields full of poppies and sunflowers, but also the deep red I saw when the harvest was being brought in, like the red of the beetroot lying on the table.

The courtyard of my great grandfather’s house was where all the family marriage celebrations had taken place. In my mother’s family album, which she had begun to put together when she was sixteen, and which she continued for another ten years, there are pictures of at least ten marriages. The last took place in the spring of 1961. The faces change over the years but the basic arrangement of the photograph is always the same: the participants are organized into four rows. The young children are at the front, sitting on the ground; behind them, on chairs, sit the bride and groom, together with their respective parents, the best man, and the chief bridesmaid. Then comes the third row with the various brothers and sisters, all standing. And last of all, the fourth row with more distant relatives, standing precariously on old benches. 

One of the photos showed the wedding of Bernadette, a cousin of my mother’s who was considered to be a particularly saintly sort of person. Her father had badly wanted to see her married, and so the wedding was an unusually impressive affair. The photo shows six rows of people instead of the usual four. In the end, the courtyard was probably big enough to accommodate the whole village, which, if truth be told, wasn’t much more than a handful of houses clustered around a small medieval castle, the Rusteberg. The castle, the church, the inn, and the general store… these were the main features of Warth, a village that stood right at the geographical center of Germany, almost equidistant from its four cardinal points. 

Proceeding along the road, Dorfstrasse as it was called, just past grandmother’s house on the left-hand side of the road, you came to the inn, which my grandparents had taken over during the war. At the time, there were practically no men in the village, and my grandfather was hard of hearing, the result of a wound he had sustained in the First World War. It was this that had saved him from being called up a second time. In fact, he was half-deaf and couldn’t even work as a waiter in the inn. So, his place was the kitchen: there he passed his time preparing country dishes, sandwiches, pickled onions, sauerkraut, and the like. He heard what he wanted to hear, and he talked to himself. 

At the end of Dorfstrasse was the castle, and on the other side of the road, the church with its cemetery. There the village came to an abrupt end, at what was also the highest point. A little further and the hill began to fall away sharply as if opening into an abyss. For centuries this had been the strategic point. From there, you had a view over the whole plain stretching out below, and on clear days, you had the impression of seeing almost without limit, beyond every border. 

Also Read:

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Sparrow’s Flesh – Pratibha Sarkar

Eva Taylor is born in Germany and lives in Italy, writes poems and prose in German and Italian. With her collection of poems, Lezioni di casa (2019), she was awarded the 2020 Prize Ponte di Legno. In 2015, she published the novel Carta da Zucchero, which was awarded the 2014 InediTo-Prize for unpublished novels. Her texts have been translated into English, French, and Spanish. She also translates herself from Italian into German (poems by Elisa Biagini and Anna Maria Carpi) and from German into Italian (prose by Unica Zürn, poems by Uljana Wolf, Yüksel Pazarkaya, Zehra Çırakund, and Hasan Özdemir).

Olivia E. Sears is the founder of the Center for the Art of Translation, and the journal Two Lines, and she serves on the editorial board of Two Lines Press. Her most recent translations of Italian women poets have appeared in A Public Space and Chicago Quarterly Review. She is a graduate of Yale University with a doctorate in Italian literature from Stanford University.


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