The Hottest Summer
The hottest summer on record is also my quietest. I sit on the wooden bench next to the back gate and wait. The cuts on my lips are healing slowly. The back gate opens onto a lawn with a weeping willow, a copper beech, and a few pine trees, then the underbrush begins and at some distance away, the forest. On the right, there’s a ditch and beyond it are fields and a range of hills behind which the sun sets. The mouse appeared for the first time on the second day and soon realized I’m no threat. Its hole is just a step away from my feet. This hole is different from the others, running diagonally underground across a kind of forecourt. Sometimes I can follow the mouse’s movements like a light breeze blowing here and there in the grass. At one point the mouse leaps unexpectedly high into the air, spins around, lands, and disappears. I hear my laughter in the same moment that I taste blood. My lip has torn open at the sutures. Unavoidable, the doctor said. If I sit motionless long enough on the bench by the back gate, my lips slightly parted, I sometimes forget. Until I move my tongue to moisten my dry lips and feel the stitches. As soon as I close my mouth, I feel the bulges again. I rarely touch the scabs unintentionally with my hand. I quickly developed new reflexes. Keeping from laughing. The taxi driver who drove me from the hospital to my apartment said: bad man? It wasn’t a question. I was unsociable. Only the following day did I realize that I can’t smile. I don’t have much to do with other people here. In the local shop they’ve gotten used to my face and even treat me kindly. No doubt there are rumors going around that elicit their pity. You rarely see anyone walking the street. People drive their cars with the windows closed for the air conditioning. Briefly raising my hand, I greet the farmers driving over the fields, high up on the tractors. On the radio, warnings against physical exertion outdoors are broadcast hourly along with reminders to stay hydrated, to offer assistance to anyone obviously ailing. I don’t meet any other walkers. On the paths between the fields, little brownish gray bodies scurry back and forth before my feet. The seemingly countless field mice run faster than I can look; I’m constantly afraid I’ll step on one. In the midday heat, I come across places without a hint of a breeze, mostly in the copses on the north-facing hillsides or in the hollows. Then I take off my wide-brimmed straw hat. The doctor said I should avoid the sun because of scarring. In the evening, I sit by the back gate. The mosquitos dance under the trees in the fading light. There’s a sound in the air, so high and thin that I can’t tell where it’s coming from or if it’s actually even there. Maybe it’s coming from deep in the earth, where there are nests filled with naked little worms. Before going to bed, I dab rust-brown tincture over the sutures on my lips. In the morning, I’ll gnaw at the dark pieces of skin, very gently so as not to tear any stitches open again. The bedroom with its old stone walls is cool. It has its own climate and a different air than outside. Stone walls breathe. I match my breath to theirs. After a few hours of sleep, I wake to the room again. I hear them over my head, outside along the wall. I can see the horde from which one has separated itself, but I don’t move. I’m too weak from sleep to crook a finger. It’s always a bump that wakes me, this time against the lower left bedpost. My arms are heavy, curled around my head; my flanks are unprotected. One of them stands at my bed. I try to tense my muscles. I pull my left foot back under the blanket, it’s cold. I’m shivering. I’m alone in my room. I can’t see what’s going on outside by the wall. The sound of stamping penetrates the wall. The community is celebrating the sugar beet festival. The stone wall relays the bass as tremors. Someone could easily hide in the darkness of my room. I would have to slip out of bed without a sound and glide across the floor to the kitchen, open the cabinet with the knives, and grab one without hesitating or cutting myself on the blade. But before that I’d have to plan how to get upright and my back to the wall, to prevent a surprise attack from behind. Both hands raised next to my head, barely able to move, I jerk upright. The room is filled with light. I’d had to fight to the death to defend myself when I couldn’t even make a fist. The morning sun is shining straight into the room. I’m going to open the windows and doors so the room won’t drown in the light or burst from brightness. Talking to myself, I can speak quietly, if not inaudibly. I don’t have to bother articulating clearly. Mouse, I repeat, a mouse. I hear Silvius’ laughter through the phone at my ear. Today, the mouse seems to be using only the hole at my feet, which I take to be its main entrance. It must have been frightened last night. For the small bodies in their burrows, the bass beats are like earthquakes. Candy Baby, I say to Silvius. It’s the name of the sugar beet festival. They don’t have much to celebrate this time, he says. Seventy percent crop shortfall. Newspapers are writing about a hundred-year plague of field mice. Field mice can be recognized most clearly by the paths that run between their holes and their system of burrows. The farmers are saying the fields are nothing but holes, your feet sink with every step. They’re plowing deeply to destroy the nests and kill as many rodents as possible. The mouse sits in front of its hole. It makes do with what it can find in the meadow. Do you feed it? he asks. I showed it where the maize kernels and nuts are stored in the cellar. Once I laid a trail to the narrow opening between two stones in the doorway masonry. So the mouse would know, just in case. In the last few days, I’ve seen a remarkably large number of dead field mice on the paths. The fur on the corpses is dark, the little bodies look like they’re soaking wet, lying on the dusty field paths and bone-dry asphalt. In front of the warehouse on the edge of the village a man is fiddling with a tractor. Sugar beets are piled in a heap next to him. I point at them. Field mice? All spoiled. How can you stop them? We can only use one kind of poison, he says. Did it kill all the dead mice lying around everywhere? He looks at me and quickly averts his eyes from my lips with stitches, sweeping his eyes over my shorts, down to my sandals. Are you an animal rights activist? I’m just interested, I say. He assumes the mice are dying in their burrows, but he hasn’t really thought about it. I move slowly, trying not to breathe more quickly. I match my breath to the heat as I’d matched it to the stone wall. Layers accumulate over the course of the day. With each hour of the day, a new layer of sweat on your skin and you feel ever drowsier and smaller. Bearing the accumulated drowsiness of many hours, I walk through the softer light of late afternoon. Feeling very small, I sit on the bench by the back gate. I greet the mouse with a throaty sound. When the sun is low, when I lower my gaze, and when I don’t expect it, something suddenly appears on the horizon. It crystallizes from the previous night; it had only faded in the light of day. Figures, landscapes, a hill ridge in the haze of a sunset like the distant line of the ocean. Haze is a mixture of oxygen and water molecules, scattered light. Under the surface of the water, algae grow thick and deep red. The sun dies away over the vineyards. That is the afterglow. But some of those whose parades I stumble into along the stone wall at night carry fishing nets with bloody pelts of the same red hung on the handles; these could be strips of the algae carpet. Before it gets too dark for me to see, the mouse reappears. Field mice don’t differentiate night and day like we do. They’re active for three or four hours and then sleep just as long. Are you getting any sleep? No, Silvius says. Well, yes, a little, mostly after five o’clock. The fire doesn’t sleep either. You can hear the fire. A very high whistling. You can hear it sucking the air toward it. Like you when you use your spray? Maybe. Silvius doesn’t know how his breath sounds in my ears. Where is it burning now? Silvius thinks before answering. The large plain in Siberia. Sometimes he answers according to the spread of the fires, sometimes according to the latitudes, the world regions, or the kind of fire. Via Canada he gets to Brazil. The rainforest is burning in Indonesia too. Greece, Spain, not to mention Gran Canaria, Portugal. All of Southern Europe, actually. Germany. A tiny area, by comparison, Silvius says. The largest fire in Germany’s postwar history. In the morning, I walk into the fields and look for a viewpoint from which I can overlook the entire region. When I get back, a woman is standing in front of the gate onto the street. Her smile serves no purpose, since I don’t smile. Hello. She looks at my patched-up lips. May we go in? she asks. I’m just the guest, I say and remain standing. The woman is from the local farmers’ association. It’s about the field mouse infestation. The farmers have to shoulder the cost of fighting them alone. So we’re collecting donations to finance measures against them. The woman holds up a clipboard. It’s all transparent, contributions, expenses, budgetary items. Poison? I ask. You know that we’re only allowed to use Ratron, the woman answers. It has to be inserted very deep. I nod. She smiles again. We’re planning an unprecedentedly extensive application. Our president has connections, the woman says. In other countries they use bait with various agents. About three hundred harvest workers will be brought in, mostly from Romania. They don’t ask questions, they’re happy to have work. A hundred tons of poison within a week for all the farmland in the entire district. She holds the clipboard out to me. Put your name and the amount here, and I’ll give you a receipt. Unless you’d rather remain anonymous. Some of the large donors prefer that. Our president? The woman jerks her head. I’d rather not, I say. Of course, the woman says, you’re not from here. She looks me in the face. Are you alone? No, I reply, my husband is arriving today. She smiles. I smile back. Still, the pain is a relief because it eases the tension. The woman watches the blood drip from my newly torn lower lip and down my chin. Only when it drips onto my chest, is she able to tear her gaze from it. I look her in the eye, I smile. Soon the cut will be healed enough that it won’t bleed anymore. The swelling has already subsided. And how long will you be here in our community? she asks. I’ll probably have to leave soon. The woman nods. I wait until she is out of sight before I open the gate. There’s a shrill noise in the apartment. I finally realize that my cellphone, which I usually keep silenced, is ringing. I find it on the floor near the bed. What’s going on? I ask. It’s burning here, Silvius whispers. I go outside, cross the inner courtyard, Silvius’ feverish voice in my ear. I push open the back gate. I look over the meadow to the horizon. In the province with the lowest number of forest fires. No one believed the bogland could ever get this dry, but I knew it would, Silvius whispers. Ground fires are Silvius’ favorite fires. They spread through the humus and often remain undetected. Ground fires are the hardest to put out. They can smolder underground and emerge again months later. Will the fire spread all the way here? Not as a ground fire, there’s a river between us. What it needs to become a surface fire is wind, tree stock, and a spark. It’s being monitored. The hole in the ground at my feet looks abandoned. I’m going there today, Silvius says, are you coming with me? I’m staying with the mice. Come visit me after, I say, and tell me about it. The field mouse does not appear before it gets too dark for me to see it. You can forget wildfires if there’s no wind, Silvius says. Late in the evenings, the sky is still blue and the trees are dark silhouettes in front of it. Completely motionless. Not a breath. If I look too long, vertigo sets in. The outlines of the trees are the backdrop, cut out of the sky, openings onto jet-black outer space. Beyond benign illusions of celestial spheres. Ground fires connect the upper world and the lower world. They burn what belongs to the earth and breathe the atmosphere’s oxygen. As I fall asleep, I wonder if a fire starts when you’re sleeping, do you wake from the heat, the smell, or the noise? Sometimes I have to listen very carefully to be sure that it’s Silvius’ breathing I hear when we’re silent. Maybe there’s a primordial instinct that warns us. Silvius has had trouble sleeping for years. I imagine myself sinking from sleep into unconsciousness because of the smoke. I’d like to know if the pain would revive me when my flesh starts to burn. With time, oxygen deficiency leads deeper, to brain death. I picture the wooden door giving way and the fire entering. The flames are deceptively calm underground. As if you could ask them to move aside. Which they do, only to stand before you again at night, but now doubled, dancing will-o’-the-wisps. I shouldn’t have climbed into this shaft. I have to keep descending to keep my legs from being trapped. The earth is already enveloping my calves, then both knees. So I push my feet hard against the foot end of the bed and am finally jolted from sleep. I can’t give into the heaviness, not even for a second: I’m already sinking back, the little flames are flickering gently before my eyes. I’m sorry, the woman in the shop says, and I know that her husband, who is at the till, is listening. I’m sorry, but we’re completely out. Loaves of bread are stacked on the wooden rack behind her. Haven’t you heard about the food shortages? Are you not aware that the wheat harvest was practically nonexistent? I point at the loaves. All pre-ordered. In the display case, there is a basket of baked goods. A roll, I say. As I said, all pre-ordered, she replies. We look at each other. A shadow of pity crosses her face. Toasting bread, she suggests. I buy a package of sliced white bread wrapped in plastic. By the time I get to the apartment, the plastic is damp with condensation. Silvius has brought champagne. You really do look as if you’d been punched in the face, he says. If a man had been with me in the hospital, they would have arrested him on the spot, I reply. I can laugh softly if I don’t open my mouth too wide. When evening comes, I show Silvius the bench by the gate. We put the champagne bottle on the ground next to a plate with a few pieces of bread I’ve dried out in the oven. Usually it’s very quiet here, I say. Most of the harvest workers are put up in the village, in the fire station, or the elementary school. There’s a lot of activity. The noise of the preparations carries all the way to us. The horizon has turned orange and red. It’s back behind there, Silvius says. Tell me about it. It’s beautiful, he says, imagine a marshland with just a few clumps of low trees and bushes here and there. Far from any settlement. The security perimeter is a few kilometers wide. The streets are blocked. There’s no one around aside from the firefighters standing on four corners, too far apart to talk to each other. They’re not allowed to smoke. They’ve set their helmets on the ground at their feet, along with their heavy protective jackets. The underground fire is heating up the August day, 115 degrees was topped long ago. Imagine the silence. The site of the fire has become a sacred grove and the firefighters its guardians. They endure the heat in silence and without moving. Imagine that you’re with them, watching the broad expanse, the hot air a mirror over the ground. Just when you’re ready to dismiss it all as an illusion, a flame shoots from the ground somewhere, translucent but definitely yellow and red and blue. And they don’t do anything, they just let the fire stay in the ground? They monitor the spread, Silvius says, they’ve dug ditches. Look, I say, but as a tractor nearby starts with a roar, the shadow disappears. Maybe I was mistaken. I haven’t seen the field mouse for several days and assume it has already hidden in the cellar. They expect the poison delivery any hour now, I say. After midnight, when the area has quieted down, we set out. The large warehouse is the headquarters. The poison will be distributed from there. A few figures sit on benches in the glow of an outside light, smoking and drinking beer. As we approach, they stop talking. Two men stand up and walk toward us, hands behind their backs. Good evening, Silvius says. Among those who stayed seated, I recognize a woman, the one who was soliciting contributions. Hello, I say, we’ve met. I put my hand on Silvius’ shoulder. You see, my husband. You’re brave to do the night watch, Silvius says. We’re just sitting together, one of the men says. They haven’t brought their hands out from behind their backs. Have a good evening, I say. Silvius takes my hand as we walk off. Your husband, he says. Well, I was afraid, I reply. There’s no one on the streets. The harvest workers were forbidden from leaving their accommodations after eleven. Everything will start at sunrise tomorrow. Over the last few days, most of the field mice have moved on to the vineyards and vegetable gardens. They already carry the virus that will soon reduce their numbers to a minimum as always happens when the population reaches its cyclical peak. It’s still dark when Silvius and I leave the village. We’re crossing the river when dawn breaks. Look, Silvius says. What I had thought was morning mist is actually smoke. The smoldering ground fire has passed by the guards. It crossed the ditches where they had not been dug deep enough and has reached the river at the same time as we have. When Silvius gets out of the car, small flames flicker from the ground at his feet. I recognize the will-o’-the-wisps. I look down at my legs. The ground is too dry to give way. The will-o’-the-wisps know and flicker, calm and restrained, over the surface where they emerge. In the trunk of the car there is a shovel and a terracotta pot. On the other side of the river, Silvius dug a small trench to the proper depth. We place the ember we brought from the ground fire on the other bank in the hole and the dry humus begins to smolder. The smell makes us pause. Autumn, Silvius says, remember? He breathes in deeply. I press both hands to my chest. A sharp pain, an ache. It’s the smoke, I say, it gets into your lungs. The little flames stretch toward the dry vegetation, the grasses bending over the edge of the ditch. We need to hurry and pile dirt on the ember, but we move slowly. Strain your muscles. Don’t give in to the exhaustion. The will-o’-the-wisps flicker. The smoke is making our eyes water. I straighten. That’ll do. The ditch is covered. The ground fire advances persistently and inconspicuously and takes ten days to reach the village. It encounters the poison still in the ground. Violent explosions bring the fire to the surface. The ground fire turns into a wildfire that finds so much fuel after the driest summer on record, that it creates its own wind from various directions. The nerve poison released by the combustion spreads as a gas. Those who inhale it show symptoms of asphyxiation. Some can survive low doses if given immediate treatment but suffer kidney, liver, and heart damage. Toxic pulmonary edema is another possible result. The fire climbs the trees and spreads from crown to crown and spreads in the treetops faster than on the ground. The raging fire is soon spreading at such speed that it cannot be contained. The firefighters restrict themselves to evacuation measures. No one can distinguish the explosions that come from every direction. Only when it is all over, will they perhaps ascertain that many mines and grenades from the last world war exploded in heavily forested areas. It will take more than three weeks for the fire to move on. The region will be almost completely devastated. Only a few lucky houses will remain unscathed by chance. In the cellars, the field mice have survived.
[Translated from the German by Tess Lewis]