Translated from Italian by Gini Alhadeff
Hannelore, a girl without a fixed residence, is the only witness to a fire in the apartment of Fraulein von Oelix. A modest, gray afternoon. Vitreous. The fraulein is a kind woman, wilted and very lonely. And solitude had made her even kinder, she practically apologized. Lonely people are often afraid to let their solitude show. Some are ashamed. Families are so strong. They have all of advertising on their side. But a person alone is nothing but a shipwreck. First they cast it adrift, then they let it sink. Fraulein von Oelix lives in a lovely apartment. The fraulein eats little, is strictly vegetarian. Hannelore has just returned from shopping. She is ten years old. She follows the fraulein’s orders with precision and good cheer. She is happy to be of service. She is attached to her. That afternoon, the air was becoming stifling. “I am about to faint,” said Fraulein von Oelix. It was a lucky thing that the girl was there. So calm, tranquil, not gripped by panic. She would call the firefighters. Flames are swift. Around the fraulein the flames were spinning, as though playing. Hannelore put a wool turban on her head. Her hands are covered in rags, as though they were boxing gloves. She is playing, too. She ducked the flames nimbly, she was using a wool blanket as a shield. The adorable little warrior. The apartment is semi-destroyed. The girl did not call the firefighters. The portraits fall. The fire, Hannelore thinks, shows its vocation to annihilate. The word vocation, she said to the flames in a knowing tone, regards you, fire, because everything has a primordial force that triggers our actions. Fire is not the criminal. It is God who sends the flames into the apartment with its Biedermeier furniture. There are images with a heart in the shape of a flame. It was He who started the fire. Souls are dangerous. Often enflamed. The girl felt like preaching, but breathing was labored. The flames excited her. She runs from room to room, drunk with danger. Who is she to impede a destructive destiny? Only God can. God ordered the total destruction of the house. She knows that. There is something larger above us all, in hidden places that command the flames to take possession of every life pulse. She is indigent, the daughter of unknown parents, without prospects. She cannot beseech. She has nothing. How can she pray for grace? Those who have nothing, nothing at all, don’t ask. She doesn’t even have a past. Or a birthday. She sprang from trash and to trash will return. She sprang from the swamps of the dead. And to the swamps she will return. That is why the fraulein took her in. Why then put out flames willed by supreme design? And then she was having fun. For the first time, in her miserable existence. For us, creatures of the streets, instinct is our dwelling. And a total disregard for the good. And often, when it feels like it, evil is the best form that the highest good can take.
The dear Fraulein von Oelix treated the girl like a daughter. She hadn’t been able to adopt her because she was unmarried, but she had signed her estate over to her. And one day she had told the girl, who was already wearing a lot of make-up. Especially the eyelids, a coppery henna. She was attractive. Like many girls dressed and made up like women. Which the fraulein had noticed. She watched her while she dressed. And Hannelore did so slowly, almost like a professional. To please the fraulein. “Hanne, you will be my heir,” she had told her. The fraulein was sitting at her blond wood desk. A pale light, also Biedermeier, monotonous, on the pale blue sheet of paper and her initials in lower case. She’d wanted to imitate Djuna Barnes’s letter paper, which had actually been white. It seems that Djuna had a willfulness all her own in the way she hid, at a certain point in her life. When, in her room on Patchin Place, she was surrounded by innumerable prescription bottles and wore a light blue dressing gown. And she seemed taller than she was, an imperious air. Her name, then, was embossed white on white. And so, Fraulein von Oelix, with her small, orderly, and affected handwriting, wrote a few lines. Manifesting her wishes. Her state of mind was exhilaration. The exhilaration of being in a position to leave everything to that destitute girl. Not, as she had thought, to a random name in the telephone directory. Besides, that had already been done in a film. Or to the turtle. She had read about a gentleman who spent the entire day in his room on the first floor watching the turtle in the garden below from his window. And the turtle returned his gaze. For years they had kept each other company. The turtle became his heir. The sum was considerable. The fraulein did not meet the turtle, but the girl. Everything might have been going to a crook. Fraulein von Oelix was by no means foolish. She knew what she was up against. She knew what it meant to take in a presumed orphan, perhaps a criminal. And she knows that to act out of good intentions sometimes leads to misfortune. But the object of the alleged good intentions is a very graceful and amusing specimen of female adolescent. Hannelore was full of good will. She helped the fraulein, laughed and sang. And, when the fraulein called her Baby, she rubbed up against her, let herself be petted, and she purred. The girl had a will. Enormous will and determination. She wanted the destruction of that woman who was good to her. To destroy for the blasted glory of it. She doesn’t want money. But to destroy. Should she have to answer to a ridiculous why? Because everyone believes there is a why, in human gestures and impulses. A reason. But any pretext is inviting. Without reason. Fury, sanctity, boredom. The girl saw her thoughts on the window panes like insects swollen with blood on the walls of a room. Her thoughts distant, detached, as though someone else’s. To destroy the universe. Nothing matters. What does thinking matter? Thinking is iniquitous. It is not pleasing to God. Creation is a form of destruction. And she sang the Stabat Mater, that the fraulein had taught her. “Are you warm, Madam?” Hannelore asked. The gaze triumphant and mean. The flames were roasting the fraulein like a sacrificial animal. She was not unlike one on a spit. The fraulein felt no pain. While the flames enveloped her she felt a terrible longing. For what she didn’t have. For what she’d never had. She did not fear death. The longing—or perhaps the despair over all the nothing—was so acute as to make death seem mild to her. Her hands, like the claws of a crustacean, clutched a little mound of dust.
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Fleur Jaeggy (“The Heir”) was born in Zurich, Switzerland and lives in Milano, Italy. In addition to her own work, which includes the acclaimed Sweet Days of Discipline, she has translated the works of Marcel Schwob and Thomas de Quincey into Italian, and has written texts on them and on Keats. Two new translations of her work, I Am the Brother of XX and These Possible Lives are out now from New Directions.
The author of The Sun at Midday and Diary of a Djinn, Gini Alhadeff (translation, “The Heir”) has translated Patrizia Cavalli’s My Poems Won’t Change the World, in addition to Fleur Jaeggy’s new story collection, I Am the Brother of XX.
“The Heir” runs in our current issue, Uncle (Winter/Spring 2017)