I came from the Dokkumer market, had fetched fish, took the basket from the bicycle and put it down. The merchant had wrapped it in odor-proof wax paper with herbs for the sauce on top. In anticipation for a fried plaice I was singing out loud on the way, sucking Wilhelmina Peppermints. They were the best. It was Saturday, and we had already spent two days in the cottage on the sea, were exuberant and the three of us so happy that it almost seemed too much to me. This weekend was supposed to be the best. I deserved it. Once in a lifetime, Mother surprised us with a great idea, albeit triggered by her new friend, Karl. Who wasn’t bad. To give us his cottage for a few days. Anyway, he couldn’t have flattered me any nicer.
I liked the Dokkumer market and had, therefore, declared myself responsible for grocery shopping. Just with the ulterior motive that biking hard on my weight depletes me. Being together with Constantine had already drained me. I was well on my way to becoming as graceful and elegant as Astrid. At least get close to it.
The window was leaned, behind it. I heard Konstantin and Astrid. I pressed against the brick wall. If only I hadn’t been so curious. I was curious, thought they were planning a surprise for our evening trip. Her words I perceived only incoherently. My brain went on strike. Then I had a whiff. I had Konstantin’s sweat in my nose, I knew him well, and I smelled Astrid. Why’s that? It was not unusually warm today, and because of the massive brick walls, it was always cold in the house.
I wanted to make myself noticed, knock on the window and shout, I’m back! I just opened my mouth and closed it again. What did Konstantin say to my sister? What’s that? I must have misheard. In my ears was a thin beep and a nasty hiss.
I felt like I was being dragged into the ground. It’s like I’m in concrete. I couldn’t move. I didn’t believe it.
The way they looked at each other… Astrid was sitting on the only table in the house. Konstantin stood so close to her and looked at her. Like he had a lot of time. Like I won’t be back for another hour or two. Or not at all. Or like he didn’t care if I was already back. Hadn’t they heard the squeaking of the wheel brakes?
I was wearing the dress he had given me. It seemed like years ago. Konstantin took Astrid’s face in his hands. “I love you. Unlike Lila and a lot more.” In the middle of the following tender embrace, in the middle of her damn deep kiss, I was able to move again. I pushed open the window. “Plaice is here!”
They separated from each other as if in slow motion, turned to me and shone for a moment the sun, moon, and stars. I looked at the picture with the seagulls, so I didn’t have to look at my sister. Konstantin sluggishly came to the window like a full predator, opened the second wing, bent forward, and said: “Well, you hot peppermint? So fast you’re back?” Did he suspect that I had heard and seen?
I became angry, afraid to lose him, and Astrid was still sitting on the table with a distant expression on her face and an attitude as if she was indifferent to my reactions.
My thoughts were like a swarm of evil seagulls. I took the basket from the grass floor and pressed it into Konstantin’s hand, swung myself onto the windowsill and jumped into the room with the sunlight spots on the walls. “Who prepares the fish?” I asked and put my groceries in the kitchen with the hand-painted tiles. “I’m not doing it, I’m taking a shower.”
I went up to the stairs and pushed the two roof hatches open as far as they would go. I didn’t look at the bed that I shared with Konstantin. I didn’t want to look in my sister’s room either. I didn’t want to know. And knew too much.
We ate the plaice together. Konstantin had prepared it, and the salad with it. So I could eat something!
“I’m sorry,” he started. I thought this would be an attempt to apologize. Astrid still smiled enraptured.
“Sorry about what?” I smiled contemptuously. “That the fish is gone?”
“I’m going back.”
I just paid attention to the sound of his voice. To nuances. Waiting for every more word he left with me. Astrid dismissed him with a vague gesture of his hand and a look that passed through him. She had a hint of a smile on her face that I could have punched in.
“Well then. I’ll see you at home.” Said Astrid.
“What is this now?” I asked. “You’re not going back in Astrid’s VW, are you?”
“I’ll take the bus and go on by train. No problem.”
I heard him open the closet upstairs. Shouldered with the travel bag, he came down, and I already looked at him like a picture from the past. The pain would still occur, but now we had to keep our composure. I wasn’t the one who cried and begged. I went to him and hugged him, wanted to take in his smell again. I felt his body stiffen and he withdrew from my presence.
I stood embarrassingly frozen.
Constantine walked with a smile that cut like a knife, sharp-edged and pointed. He was already on his way to the bus stop, turned around and waved briefly. I still didn’t believe any of this.
I leaned against the house wall, it had to stabilize myself. Standing in the shade, I was protected by two oaks.
Astrid danced across the street.
Later she dawdled through the rooms, humming a silly song that was just in fashion. Damn it. Damn it. I was young and beautiful, only four kilos overweight left. My pounds loved Konstantin. That’s what he said. I looked after Astrid and felt fat again after long weeks. Fat. Fat like butter or oil.
Early Sunday morning, I packed my things. We wanted to go back a day later. Astrid had taken leave for this. She should have it. I, too, believed that this way everything could remain in the balance, change, Konstantin would come back. What’s that? That’s as far as my imagination went. Further, it did not want to reach, all thoughts beyond it hurt hellishly. I was waiting for Astrid to say it was just fun, a little flirt, don’t get upset.
She didn’t say anything.
We’re going to Dokkum,” I urged. Astrid disappeared in the bathroom. I could hear vomit noises. An evil hunch gripped me. She came out pale. I dosed compassion into my voice. “The plaice were fresh! You all right? Come on, we’ll go to the eel smokehouse, have a rest in the café at the canal, and then we’ll comfortably go back to the water …”
“There and back? It’s too exhausting for me,” Astrid said.
The question suited me very well. I locked the house and the back door and put the key in my pocket. Saw Astrid make a move to say something. I looked the other way.
“I think I’m pregnant.”
My sister Astrid. Well, well. Konstantin? I don’t ask, I don’t want to ask, I don’t want to know …
“Do you want to have an abortion?” I showed myself to be sober and cool. “You can have it done in Groningen.”
“I don’t know exactly yet.”
“My question was only if…” My sister and Konstantin. I was expecting too much. I saw from the side how Astrid started to speak. Nothing came. She couldn’t tell me anything. My pain roared in the silence. Didn’t she hear that? Still, I wish she wouldn’t look at my anger. The bitterness, the anger. My wound.
Abortion?” she finally asked. “I told you…”
“How long has this been going on?” I asked snappishly.
“How long, how long,” Astrid mimicked me. “Face it, Konstantin is not a man for you. You’re not up to it.”
“What you know.”
She stroked her belly with her hands. I wish I’d stepped in there.
A child by Constantine? My soliloquies became angry. Very.
Astrid’s hair was blowing.
“You wait here because you can’t make it all the way by bike.” I was dripping with irony. “I’ll drive the car this way to the middle of the track and park it there. I put my bike in the trunk and come back fast. And until then, you’ll feel better.”
She nodded. “Bye, see you soon!”
We passed the windmill, the water, the houseboats, pushed our bikes through the beautiful old streets, and came to the famous Bonifacius fountain. Legend has it that it was discovered and blessed by St. Boniface and is said to have a healing effect.
“Come inside and wish you all your disagreements away. And your lost feelings,” I said.
“You’re looking so funny,” Astrid noticed and walked away from the edge of the well. ” Are you on drama? Lila, don’t. It doesn’t suit you.”
Kids were doing gymnastics. Laughing and screaming.
“Do you love him?”
“The word is too big. I’m a little in love.”
The sky was blue-violet like litmus paper. I got on my bike. “Are you coming?” Astrid came. She looked impartial. We cycle over bridges out of town, passing meadows with brown spotted cows. On the left, we were accompanied by the canal and many aquatic plants. I should have enjoyed it, far country, far sky.
The wind came up. A gust tugged at the wheels. Us. Mantled seagulls tripped. In me arose questions, I swallowed them. I smiled, smiled at my sister when she looked around at me, I laughed until I got a cramp. I would have loved to know which bed he shared were with Astrid. “Break!” I shouted in Astrid’s back. “Isn’t this a great place? Your car’s near here.”
“Why here? The whole way is nice, but all right… I don’t want to cycle all the way back.”
In front of us lay the dam, which led steeply down to the water. Dense reeds, aquatic plants, lilies, and bushes. We put the wheels down at the top. No one would steal it. I slid down to the canal, got stuck, pushed branches aside, took off my shoes, rolled up my jeans and put my feet in the water. “Come down. It’s not cold!”
“I’d rather not. I don’t like it that way. That must be muddy down there.”
“Come on, it’s no fun alone.” I waited. She was standing up there. I climbed up the slope. “Tomorrow we’ll have no river, no canal, just town.”
“I don’t want to.”
I grabbed Astrid. Started fiddling, like we did when we were kids. “Let go of me!” But I didn’t. There she bit me in hand. In sudden pain, I took her, pulled her down the slope, we slipped and landed in the water. Bags up to my chest in mud, plants lay around my legs like tentacles. I pedaled, got free, grabbed Astrid by the shoulder and pressed her under water. She struggled like possessed, I let her come up, she spat, gargled, I pushed her once more deep into the water. I had strength. My weight had to be good for something. Then I let go. I didn’t look around, didn’t understand what she was shouting, I raced, thorns carved into legs and arms, on all fours I crawled to the path, to the place where our bikes were lying.
Cars drove by. A bus that was going to the surrounding villages.
Reeds rustling. Lapwings complained kiju-vit.
I didn’t turn around now. I drove to the spot where I parked the car. It was just a short piece. There was no need for anyone to see me with the second wheel. I got lucky. At least now.
Clouds pushed together and hung so deep over the meadows that I could have touched them. They were hanging as low as if they wanted to get Astrid and bring her back.
She didn’t come. I waited. Cycled back for hours to where we’d been. Everything looked so alike, meadows, cows, water plants, the canal. And nowhere, Astrid. I was thinking. I bet she had money in her backpack. Just no key for the holiday home – I had it in my pocket. And no bike. No car. She was supposed to come crawling up and explain to me that I had made up a great cinema.
I couldn’t find my sister. The way to the house was quite clear, I drove it two, probably even three times with the VW Bulli. That night, I was looking.
The fun was over. The rage, the flaming hatred, both just a little fire. I got tired, exhausted and didn’t know what to do. I think that’s why I cried. So I waited the hours and fell asleep towards morning.
Monday. I had to go back. Nowhere was there a phone. Was Astrid hitchhiked back and already in her apartment? One of them. I took mine and her things and sat down in the VW.
She wasn’t in her apartment. Anyway, I figured I rang the bell and rang the bell. He drove to his mother and thanked Karl for returning the key. Asked if Astrid had checked in. She didn’t. My mother looked at me and took me aside. “Where’s Konstantin?”
I didn’t have the strength to create a good lie. So I told them what I had heard and seen between them. I didn’t say anything about the possible pregnancy. That was my sister’s business. And what happened on the canal, I didn’t tell either. And then I lied, it came out of me, how long prepared.
“We were in Dokkum and on our way back. Astrid wasn’t feeling well. I wanted to stay at the canal, but Astrid was cycling ahead. When I followed her in the van, I thought she was already in bed. But it wasn’t. I waited, sat down again in the car and drove the track a few times, no Astrid. It was just weird her bike was standing by the back door. So she must have been there after all.”
My mother seemed to lose the floor under her feet, she swayed, held on to a chair back, a cup of coffee fell out of her hand, she stared at the broken pieces, the puddle, gazed with a frozen face until she could cry. “What really happened?” I repeated I got muddled.
“Astrid may have gotten lost, but she doesn’t know the area at all. Someone could have taken them and not delivered them to the cottage. Hadn’t I said before, people like this Bartsch, no, I can’t imagine it … I’m going there immediately with Karl, and you stay here if she comes. You wanted to punish Astrid, my God, what did you do?”
“Astrid’s practicing drama, nothing else.”
“Elisabeth, you will learn that love can be painful. Passing. Always. And no matter what you do, no tears, no pain will bring a lover back to you when he no longer wants.”
They drove and left me behind.
When they were on their way to Dokkum, I called Konstantin from mother’s apartment. He wouldn’t let me get any more words. “Lila, listen. Let’s meet each other again as it was before our relationship. I fell in love with Astrid. I’ll be in Münster by the end of the week. If we run into each other, we’ll have a cup of coffee, but…”
I hastily threw in, “Your address, please, because of Astrid.”
He gave it to me. “She’ll be back!” He hung up on me.
At least I knew where he’d live. And my mother would know that I had taken care of.
Karl and mother came back, were upset, disappointed and told me: “But you could have at least cleaned up the house. No, not a trace of Astrid.”
Then Mother called Konstantin He didn’t think she had been kidnapped. “A vengeance of women…”
He wasn’t all wrong.
On the third day, mother and Karl filed a missing person’s report. It was accepted, but we were also told that Astrid was an adult woman who could come and go as she pleased. And some of them had left after strong arguments. “There are cases where missing persons reappear even after years.”
It was searched. We pushed. Kept calling the investigator in charge. Deep down, I couldn’t imagine her evil had happened. And I didn’t believe her reference to the pregnancy either. She had said “possible,” it seemed to me to be rather a hint to make me especially jealous. I decided to ask Constantine. We had to make our statements at the police station. And I, who had seen Astrid last, was questioned again and again. I said more or less the same thing about the trip, our short bath in the canal, reported about a conversation about Constantine, claimed that Astrid wanted to come a little later because she wanted to be alone. “She had the bike, and she must have come back, it was behind the cottage.” I kept the fact that I had taken it with me to myself at this point. The German police cooperated with the Gemeentepolitie, and the latter demanded me. I had to come. I was to show them the exact location where Astrid and I had been to last. And the straight path, the canal, and the plants on the embankment still looked similar. Sometimes, out of embarrassment, I’d point to a spot. Then they searched, but it had been a few days, no grass had been trampled down.
Last but not least – I had to stay on the way, the Dutch found half a role Wilhelmina of Peppermint, and I shouted relieved, really enthusiastic: “These are mine! So peppermint saved me from getting into investigation machinery. I was able to go home. A further search was unsuccessful. My mother was told there was no evidence of a crime.
Nowadays, modern computer methods would make it easier to find a missing person. I’ve heard that you can, for example, fuse a photo of Astrid with old pictures of my mother digitally, to be able to approximate such a current appearance. But all that didn’t exist in 1968.
Mother suffered. Every time we saw each other, she asked me. I didn’t want to know anything more about it, I forgot this argument, I tried to forget Konstantin, and because of the pregnancy, I didn’t ask him anymore. Two, three times I tried to reach him. Every young woman who was narrow and had her hair open, it twitched through me. Then I hurried after her, trying to see her face. She never was.
None of us ever saw Astrid again. It was summer. He had begun light-heartedly and brightly. It could have been a summer I would later remember with melancholy.