The brother
Andrea Grill


He wished children simply grew on trees, he said.  That would be the best, both for the children and for the parents.  Then nobody would be bothered by them.  And when they grew up, they’d simply drop to the ground like ripe pears, and proceed from there.  Since parents wouldn’t know which tree their children would fall from, they’d look after all the trees, water them, occasionally manure them, and pluck out the surrounding weeds.  The children, not knowing who their parents were, would not feel obliged, their whole lives long, to call them, to visit them, to eat their cakes, to drink their soups, to eat their cooked meats, to pick up the phone when mother calls, to let father in when he knocks on the door, even though they intruded more than any stranger whose face had nothing to do with theirs.

If he were a fruit from a tree he would feel better, he said.  It would suit him just fine; in any case, most of the time he felt like a piece of broccoli, or better, like a spinach leaf: a limp, green thing that simply hung around and did nothing.  Nothing, that is, that made any sense; at least nothing that was new, or that was very different, or that would change the world.  When he woke up, he decided immediately not to get up, otherwise he’d have to face an even more protracted, long, empty day unduly lengthened by the morning hours.  Around midday, he would then get up and contemplate what he might do next.  He could write something, he could draw something, he could read, he could do some calculations and analyse his data on the micro-structure of snail-shells – since he was a scientist, a natural scientist to be precise.

And everything struck him as equally meaningless.  He couldn’t decide whether one thing was more important than the other, and so concluded that everything must be equally unimportant.  Whether he did something or did nothing, it all amounted to the same in the end.  It seemed to him that any goal whatsoever was devoid of importance.  When he pondered the matter at length, he would soon find the goal behind him, even before embarking on the work required to reach it.  He would arrive at the aftermath of the desired goal before the beginning, and again find that nothing had changed, so that the goal couldn’t have been worth striving for. 

Since his thinking seemed to me entirely logical and persuasive, I advised him simply to do nothing and thus become famous as the world’s only inactive person.  He said he would gladly follow that course if there weren’t always and everywhere so many people asking him what he intended to do, what his plans were and how he saw his future.  Questions like that constantly threw him off balance, daily disrupting afresh his quest to do nothing; particularly when asked by his mother since she, he couldn’t escape.

“If I had grown on a tree, I’d simply be able to install another telephone and never give her the number,” he said.  “My mother is my biggest problem,” he said; though at the same time he knew, as I did, that he himself was his biggest problem.  Just as we are all our very own biggest problem.

As always, when we sat together in a café – where he always managed to pick out the sunniest spot – his mobile would ring repeatedly, and he wouldn’t answer it.  It was his mother.  It was always his mother.  She treated him as though they lived in the same home, he explained, as though he was simply somewhere else in the house.  And whenever she had the tiniest of problems, or whenever she had no problem at all and simply wanted to say “hello”, she’d call him, letting the mobile ring ten times, even twenty times; and if he didn’t answer, she’d ring again, and again, and again.  He found it unbearable.  I had to laugh, and felt I would really like to meet his mother.

After our talk, we stood by the river for a while and gazed at its boggy bank and its protruding bare reeds.  He promised me that we’d meet a few hours later in the main square.  He promised me to pick up his bicycle, or rather, to get there by tram.  It was his birthday, after all.  We could eat some crêpes, he said, and then he walked away.  He walked on the bicycle path towards the centre of town along the river, which became gradually greyer with every step he took.  With his back towards me and disappearing slowly into the distance, he looked like the only person on earth.  His steps moved as though they’d prefer to be wandering into the river, to test whether the water would, after all, bear the wanderer and thus provide a proof that there could be a goal, even after the start.

I arrived in town long before he did, and had already been queuing in front of the crêpes stand for a while, when he sent me a text message telling me he wouldn’t be coming after all.  He wrote that the people there were too much for him, and that he would let me know if he were to marry a wonderful man, ha, ha, ha.  Well, I didn’t find this funny at all, and bought a crêpe with apple and sugar and cinnamon, from the baker with the dark curls.  He rolled it all together and placed it on a styrofoam rectangle, which had to be my plate.  I sat down on a concrete wall by the entrance to the garage of a famous museum, and worried.  “My birthday is certainly no occasion for celebration,” he had said.  And I had thought I’d be able to convince him that everything could be an occasion for celebration.

The next day I sent him a bunch of white roses.  I had them write on the card: “He who doesn’t age doesn’t live”.  White roses, I thought (I hoped), would please him: they would remind him of the beauty of meaninglessness.  “The meaninglessness of beauty,” would be his answer, were I to pronounce my words to his face.  I was sure of this.  Sometimes I felt I knew him better than he did himself.  That was complete nonsense, and I knew it too. 

What I would advise him to do would be to go tell the water his troubles.  For want of a rustling brook, with rock-skipping frolicking waters, he could deliver his mother to the drips of a tap, before she disappeared down the drain.  I’d suggest that he bend over the sink in the bathroom and place his mouth right next to the water flow – so close that he could almost drink from it – and then gently, harmonizing with the water, whisper what weighed in his heart.  It would certainly help.  He would just have to do it regularly, or also irregularly; in any event, he could always abandon himself to the water.

He wrote to me a few days later.  He was absolutely delighted with the roses; they made him feel like a film star.  I was also delighted.  Later he sent another letter.  He thought that the problem begins when we realize that there is more to life.  Then we get down to looking for this “more”, and by the time we finally find it, we have lost the ability of actually experiencing it.  There must be a magic balance between this desire for the ultimate and the disappointment at never really being able to reach it.  Those innumerable unfulfilled expectations, lurking in every corner, have to be compensated by any attained “more”, which most fail to see, since they sleep with their eyes wide open and thus don’t see the nightly demons, for instance, which steal upon him, nor the enchanting dreams, which more than make up for the dragons of darkness.  He wrote at length and profusely.  His words were clear and simple; and everything he wrote was right.

He sent me blue roses for my birthday.  I didn’t even know such flowers existed.  He hasn’t married yet.  Not a man, nor a woman.

(Translated by Jim Adams)