Read Angel of Oblivion Online

Authors: Maja Haderlap

Angel of Oblivion

Copyright © 2012 Wallstein Verlag, Göttingen 2011
English language translation © Tess Lewis 2016

First Archipelago Books Edition, 2016

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without the prior written permission of the publisher.

First published as
Engel des Vergessens
, 2012 Wallstein Verlag

Archipelago Books
232 Third Street # A111
Brooklyn, NY 11215

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Haderlap, Maja, 1961- author. | Lewis, Tess, translator.
Angel of oblivion / Maja Haderlap; translated by Tess Lewis.
Other titles: Engel des Vergessens. English
First Archipelago Books edition. | Brooklyn, NY : Archipelago, 2016.
LCCN 2016017961 (print) | LCCN 2016019684 (ebook) |
ISBN 9780914671466 (paperback) | ISBN 9780914671473 (E-book)

eBook ISBN: 978-0-914671-47-3

Distributed by Penguin Random House

Cover art:
The Angel Troubling the Pool
by Joseph Mallord William Turner

Archipelago Books is grateful for the generous support of the Lannan Foundation, the Austrian Cultural Forum New York, the Austrian Federal Ministry for the Arts and Culture, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency.


RANDMOTHER signals with her hand, she wants me to follow.

We pass through the smoke kitchen into the larder. Old smoke clings to the vaulted ceiling like dark, greasy resin. It smells of smoked meat and freshly baked bread. An acrid vapor hovers over the feed tub, in which we collect scraps of food for the pigs. The mud floor shines as if polished in the most heavily trafficked areas.

In the larder, Grandmother scoops pork schmaltz from a jar and spreads it around the roasting pan, then with a spoon she scrapes a thin layer of whitish mold off the apple jam and flings it onto the scraps.
is written on the labels she has glued onto the jars with a paste made of flour, milk, and spit.

She places a handful of eggs in my skirt, which I hold out for her. Flakes of soot loosened by the draft through the smoke kitchen settle onto the loaves of bread stored on their sides on wooden shelves. Under the mouth of the oven near the entrance, ashes have been swept into a small pile.

Grandmother works in the kitchen. The dishes she prepares all taste like the smoke kitchen, like the dark, badly lit grotto we pass through several times each day. It seems to me that everything we eat absorbs the color and smell of the smoke kitchen. The ham and the buckwheat flour, the lard and the jam, even the eggs smell like earth, smoke, and yeasty air.

When she cooks, Grandmother assigns the food specific characteristics. Her dishes have secret powers, they can connect the here and now with the hereafter, heal visible and invisible wounds, they can make you ill.

I drink barley coffee from the bottle she keeps hidden for me on the bottom shelf of the sideboard. You’re too big for a bottle, she says, but as long as you want one, I’ll make one for you. I stretch out on the kitchen bench to keep out of sight and suck down the coffee substitute. Much too big, Grandmother repeats. If anyone comes in, put the bottle on the floor immediately.

Grandmother says my mother doesn’t know enough to work in the kitchen. She has no idea how to cook and whatever those nuns taught her in school has no place in our house. She also has no idea that there’s food for the living and food for the dead and that you can heal people or destroy them with specially prepared dishes. But she simply refuses to believe Grandmother.

I, on the other hand, believe every word Grandmother says and enthusiastically turn the crank when she roasts barley for the coffee. I listen as she recounts how many people she used to cook for, back when
there were farmhands and farm-maids and lots and lots of children. She tells me she also stole food for herself and the others, she kept an eye out for every single potato peel, for anything that looked edible, back then, when she washed the cauldrons, it was great luck, she says, that she ended up in the kitchen, in the camp. I know.

After washing up she sets the small enamel bowls and pots to dry on the windowsill. She empties the metal tub of dishwater outside, her long reddened fingers purple from the water. They look like the claws of some bird of prey. Now and then she raps me on the head with them. With a poker, she lifts a cast iron lid the size of a plate off the top of the wood stove and spreads the embers so they will cool faster.

As soon as she starts moving, I follow her. She is my queen bee and I am her drone. The scent of her clothes reaches my nose, they smell of milk and smoke with a hint of the bitter herbs hung from her apron. She performs the waggle dance and I prance after her, matching my short steps to her trudging pace. I buzz a gentle melody of questions and she plays the bass.

We go to the sitting room to check on the milk centrifuge behind the door. We spin it a few times a week to separate the cream from the milk. We open the windows in the small adjacent room and air the beds we sleep in, loosen the straw mattresses filled with corn leaves, check and turn the herbs drying on the windowsill or hung on hooks, climb the stairs to the attic, which I find eerie, and look in the garret where ghosts
took refuge years ago and chased away all who had slept there, according to Grandmother.

Grandmother continues her dance out the door and binds the yellow kerria to the plum tree in front of the barn. She talks to the elder bush next to the manure pile so it will bloom more quickly. Then she comes back to get me. We cross the courtyard for fodder in the lower basement and the storehouse. She opens flour sacks, chests, and wooden tubs and fills her apron pockets with fresh or dried fruit. She scatters grains of wheat and corn for the chickens. Her forehead is as wrinkled as the shingled roof of the grain silo. She hurries on ahead of me, wants to check the drying kiln near the stream and the frames on which we dry plums and pears in the fall.

Twice a week, she inspects the hen roosts in the tool shed and the barn. If, at the end of the week, there are no eggs in a particular nest, she will look for the bird she suspects is dallying instead of laying. When that hen strays within reach, she pounces on the screeching fowl and sticks her index and middle finger in its behind. If there’s a flash of white between her fingers, she says, the egg will come tomorrow or the day after, the shell is still soft.

Once, to my delight, she pulls an egg out of the chicken and it dissolves in her hands. I have to laugh. Egg-girl, Grandmother calls me. Grandfather gave me the name, she tells me, when he was lying sick on the bench by the stove and had to watch over me. I was a toddler, not much more than a year old, and had discovered the eggs in the
bottom drawer of the sideboard. I let them roll one after another across the wooden floor, and as each yolk burst from the shell, I cried,
sonči gre
, the little sun has come out! Grandfather watched me and was so charmed he let me take all the bowls off the shelves and wouldn’t let Grandmother scold me. As she wiped the scrambled eggs off the floor, he told her she should take pity on me and on him. He died soon after, even though I had kept him entertained.

Only when it comes to kneading does Grandmother appreciate Mother’s help. Then she watches Mother as she stirs the flour. The dough squeaks and squelches in the kneading-trough. Beads of sweat form on Mother’s forehead and drop into the nascent bread. She stands up and wipes the sweat from her face with her upper arm. Her cheeks are flushed, the sleeves of her blouse rolled up, and I can see her undershirt beneath her neckline. She asks about the proportion of rye to wheat flour and of sourdough to water, she’d like to know how many kilos of flour to use. Grandmother says, when the flour covers this notch in the side of the trough, it’s good. Then Mother bends over the dough again. When it begins to loosen from her fingers and no longer squeaks, her work is done. Grandmother cuts a cross into the dough, covers it, and leaves it to rise.

Two hours after Grandmother has fed the two light gray, floury paunches into the oven’s maw, the oven returns the bread. She pulls the piping hot loaves from the oven, wipes them with a cloth, makes the sign of the cross over them, and places them in my apron. I carry the bread into the sitting room to cool and slide it onto the table or the wide bench.
The smell of freshly baked bread wafts through the house. Grandmother paces through all the rooms as if to make sure that the plumes of sourdough have reached every corner.

We only had this much bread to eat in the camp, that’s it, Grandmother separates her thumb and index finger slightly to show how thin the pieces of bread allotted to the prisoners were. It had to last for a day, sometimes two. Later, we didn’t even get that much, she says, and so we had to imagine the bread. I look at her. She says, as she always does,
je bilo čudno
. It was strange, she says although she means it was terrible, but the word
doesn’t occur to her.

She stores crumbs and old crusts of bread in her apron pockets. When she crosses the courtyard and goes into the barn, she divides the bread among the animals. She scatters the crumbs in a wide arc for the chickens and stuffs the crusts right in the cows’ and pigs’ mouths. When you’ve got bread you have to remember the animals, Grandmother says, because the bread you share comes back to you.

On All Souls’ Day, she places a loaf of bread and a pitcher of milk on the table for the dead. So they’ll have something to eat when they come at night and will leave us in peace, she says.

I picture the dead eating with invisible hands, but the next morning, nothing seems to have been touched. The knife lies next to the loaf of bread, the milk is still on the table as if undisturbed by even the faintest breeze. Did they come? I ask. Yes, Grandmother answers. She must know, I think, she’s on close terms with Death. After all, she saw him back when he appeared every day and every hour.

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