By Beth Ann Fennelly
Remembrance of things past
Say your husband gets invited to work in a chateau on a lake on the outskirts of Berlin. Say you’re invited to accompany him: yes, four months have been granted you to work with your words.
Say it’s autumn, 2016, season of the European Migrant Crisis, a crisis you knew little of before you came to Europe alongside—but in quite different circumstances than—1.3 million refugees fleeing their wars. Say you learn that many of them wind up in Germany because other countries don’t want them, won’t help them. Say Germany is chaos, but say Germany, at least, is trying. Say Berlin sets up a refugee camp in the most unlikely of places, a place from an absurdist fable or a dystopian novel: an airport, abandoned eight years prior, marooned on the far side of the city, now housing 7,000 asylum seekers. Say you hear volunteers are needed to hand out donations. Say it’s an 80-minute bus ride from the chateau where you have four months to work with words, so what do you do—keep working and hate yourself a little, or stop working and hate yourself a little?
Say you ride the bus a long time through parts of the city you’ve never seen before and arrive at a chain link fence beyond which squats in the distance—unlikely as a space station on Mars—an airport the Nazis built in the 30s. Say on the cracked and forsaken runways hundreds of children in winter coats are playing chase or flying kites.
Say you walk a long way across the tarmac and a long way through the airport (hallways lined with bunk beds, bedsheets serving as walls, many legs you step over, mostly men, mostly young, some extended families) and find the volunteer center and are given many rules by a very German woman regarding how you will and will not clothe the refugees who line up behind the counter. Say each refugee will hand you a ticket. Say each ticket is good for one piece of clothing. Say you are taught to work without words, simply because there are no common words—some refugees are Syrians, some Somalis, some Afghans, Nigerians, Pakistanis and Ukrainians, Iraqis and Kosovars.
Say each refugee will hand you a ticket. Say each ticket is good for one piece of clothing. Say you are taught to work without words, simply because there are no common words.
Say you are taught to talk though laminated cards. Say it goes like this: the refugee hands you a ticket, and you hand him a card with images of clothing. When he points to a coat, you show a card with pictures of small, medium, and large coats. Say he taps “large,” so next you show the color card, on which he taps “black.” Say this means you are to go into the storage room and choose two large black coats; he gets to select one. When you ask the very German woman what to do if he wants to keep both, she says, “That won’t be a problem.” Say, to be fair, that she looks exhausted.
Say you do what you are told: take the ticket, show the card, the card, the card, come back with two of a thing, return the reject, take the next ticket.
Say you get used to doing all of this without words, so after a few shifts you shed words on the inside, too, because at some point you stop imagining their stories, stop picturing what tragedy finned after them as they rowed across the Aegean in a leaky boat, what terror snapped at their heels as they trudged over the Balkans in worn boots that you exchange for less-worn boots at a ticket counter at Flughafen Tempelhof, yes the very same airport that hosted the Berlin Airlift of 1948, when American and British planes broke the Soviet blockade by dropping supplies—coal and milk and flour and medicine, even chocolate bars tied to handkerchief parachutes as gifts for the children and termed called “Operation Little Vittles”—the airlift that saved West Berlin.
Say by the shift’s end you aren’t thinking about saving anyone but yourself because your back hurts, you stomp your feet in the snow as you wait for the 10:00 pm express bus, you don’t remember falling asleep but you wake when your forehead knocks the greasy window, the airport funk clinging to your hair; say you don’t feel particularly noble; it’s important to say this, you don’t feel particularly noble, but you return, you keep returning, keep standing behind the counter, keep taking the tickets, showing the card, the card, the card, and, in a way you’re ashamed of, you hope this weekly labor buys you six guiltless days in the charming chateau where you have come to use your words.
Say you’re scheduled to leave the country and on your last shift, which is almost over—the counter closes at 9:30 pm and it’s 9:30 pm, at last—the line ends with a mother and her child. Say the mother is young, pretty, despite too much makeup in the harsh airport light and a half-grown-out platinum dye job. Say the daughter is pretty or say she is beyond pretty or say nothing at all because words are a valueless currency in a flightless airport. Say her black ringlets cascade down her narrow shoulders and her eyes are large and blue and clear from being scrubbed by wars, by all she has seen in her—what—six years?
Say she points to a picture of a coat. Say you bring two coats. Say she hardly studies them before she shakes her head, her curls tossing. Say you look down at the coats and are surprised to find you agree, they will not do. Say you return to the storage and choose two more, an action likely verboten by the very German volunteer coordinator. Say you select these two with care, when you slide them across the counter you are almost proud. Say she huffs and shakes her head again. Say you glance at the mother, who glances away; this girl and her caprices are your problem now, yours.
Say you return a third time to storage and walk to the rack you’ve been told to ignore, the problem rack. Say you feel it before you see it: fur, maybe rabbit; it’s a zip-up rabbit jacket tailored for a six year old, okay sure a little bald at the seams, but basically a miracle, a miracle jacket, and you bear it in your arms and slide it under her gaze, her long eyelashes throwing shadows on her cheeks as she works the teeth of the zipper, checks the pocket linings, and finally tries it on—something no other client has done—unsmilingly zips it to her chin and turns, an ice princess on top of a sled speeding away from here, speeding through the woods tugged by horses running fast, horses racing the snowflakes that land gently on the tips of her rabbit fur and sparkle in the moonlight.
Say your bus is leaving, the express that, if missed, delays your arrival at the chateau by thirty minutes. Say that just when you know she’ll accept the jacket and you’ll jog for your bus—just then your princess produces another ticket. Say she taps “pants,” taps “blue,” and rejects the jeans you bring because, like all donated German jeans, they are eighties jeans or nineties jeans, they are wide-leg jeans and she doesn’t want wide-leg jeans, she wants skinny jeans, it’s 2016 and she wants 2016 jeans, which means skinny jeans, don’t you get it, skinny—she tells you this without words and you satisfy her without words while the mother wanders off with a pack of cigarettes.
Say she taps “pants,” taps “blue,” and rejects the jeans you bring because, like all donated German jeans, they are eighties jeans or nineties jeans, they are wide-leg jeans and she doesn’t want wide-leg jeans, she wants skinny jeans, it’s 2016 and she wants 2016 jeans, which means skinny jeans.
Say the girl, still wearing the fur jacket, skinny jeans flipped over her arm, produces one last ticket and points to the accessories card, first to a backpack and next to a stuffed animal. Say you reenter the storage, scanning for the pink glittery backpack you spotted weeks ago, but it could be anywhere now, pink glittery backpacks don’t linger at the repurposed airport’s repurposed lost luggage, but your task on earth is to find it, your express bus has expressed itself away and you will satisfy her if you have to walk back to the chateau, if you have to crawl on your knees, yes you will present her with the backpack that will earn a smile.
Say you find the miracle backpack and then jackpot upon a two-eyed teddy bear in this land of one-eyed teddy bears. Say you slide them over the counter and she examines both and then, without smiling, pulls the backpack close. Say you reach for the bear, already turning away, already girding yourself for the slushy trudge to the bus stop when the bear is snatched clean out of your grasp. Say you’re startled, and later you will wonder if it’s being so startled that makes your training kick in. You whirl to face her, with your finger you tap her single ticket on the counter and then raise your finger in the air to remind her she must choose one. Say that she, without unzipping her blue gaze from your gaze, unzips the backpack, stuffs the bear inside, then zips it up and thrusts her finger at your face: one.
Say she does smile then, but in contempt.
One her finger thrusts again, and then she threads her arms through the straps of the glittery backpack, settles it over her balding rabbit jacket, and saunters away down the terminal.
Say her contempt is the blessing, the boon of your Ich bin ein Berliner phase, say her contempt is the reason she alone of the crowd, the host of 7,000, is lodged in the abandoned airport of your memory, say this is because, you imagine, it’s her contempt that has offered her asylum; it’s her contempt that has warmed her with fur and armed her with teeth, her contempt that she has cuddled on a strange cot at night and her contempt that has returned her cuddles, her contempt that she has threaded her arms through and toted with her everywhere. Say she is alive—say it, with words—alive you imagine her, yes you imagine her, alive because she nurtures such an exquisite contempt for death, and her contempt has catapulted her out into the moonlit snow where even now she is whipping the horses to make them run faster, whipping the horses unnecessarily, whipping the horses simply because she can.
Beth Ann Fennelly is a poet and prose writer and was the Poet Laureate of Mississippi from 2016 to 2021. She is married to the writer Tom Franklin, the Academy’s fall 2016 Mary Ellen von der Heyden Fellow in Fiction.