In the seventies, I went to Würzburg, Germany, to perform with the ballet. A stony castle loomed over the city, the grape harvest had ended, the hills outside town were dark with broken earth. Those first days of deep river mists and strange language woke in me an urgency. I needed to see. Understand. But only the edge of a building or the name of a single fruit emerged. The world was oblique.
In the studio, we spoke the language of movement, but outside I was battered by sound. Jetzt, richtig, Lebensmittelgeschäft. I needed those words — now, right, grocery — but they fell from my mouth like tangled wire. I clutched the talisman of easy words like please and thank you—bitte, danke—and counted the steps from the hotel to my new job.
The hotel where I was staying unnerved me. My clothes hung lost in a huge wardrobe, gradually taking on an unfamiliar smell and swaying as if mounted on scarecrows in a field. Hidden under the bed, waiting for me to settle, was a small box of treasures from home, including a plaque of Colorado aspen leaves and a small metal griffin. Some nights, after stretching, I’d open the suitcase for comfort and imagine the griffin clanking down the hall, tongue flicking at cobwebs, spitting light like fire.
I needed an apartment of my own. Clinging to my dictionary, I braved the rental agencies, slick plush rooms frantic with ringing phones. I learned to say refrigerator, private bath, heater. But agents pretended not to understand, shaking their heads and shrugging. When I wasn’t at the theater, I’d decipher ads in the newspaper, coughing as I struggled with the hoarse consonants. Finding nothing, I’d count my shrinking Deutsche Marks, those heavy embossed coins and bills engraved with hollow-eyed men in medieval hats.
Eventually, I discovered a dimly lit agency with a counter of grey linoleum, two desks, and a mimeographed sheet of apartments tacked to a cork board. The owner was a bald man whose mouth twitched as if he might smile. He spoke slower when I didn’t understand and seemed to welcome a dancer who asked about rooms with not noise but kitchen spaces and hot waters. Cheap.
Yes, there was an apartment. His wife knew my language. They would take me to see it tomorrow. Outside on the sidewalk, grave men touched their hats, children bowed, matrons shook hands — a dry and formal culture — but suddenly the air was rich with bells. I exhaled and almost skipped.
The wife understood if I spoke slower. We rode in their tidy grey car through a flat drizzle, crossing a bridge, up a hill, and past a small park to a dusty pink building, a mirage among the grey. Schiestlstraße. How would I ever pronounce that? Inside, we climbed 110 dark stairs.
The apartment was a miracle.
I knew it belonged to me when I walked in the door. Old, high-ceilinged, overgrown with stillness and light. Boxes belonging to the moving tenants cluttered the two rooms, but oh, the spacious windows, the air. It overlooked a park and red-tiled roofs, a muted view where autumn-brown trees huddled. Rain was erasing sidewalk hopscotch, but inside, the white rooms shone, and as I checked the bath and kitchen appliances, a peace settled into the back of my head. In a corner behind the kitchen door, the light quivered, as if caught and held and growing on itself. The agent showed me how the hot water heater worked. We all shook hands, and went back down the stairs, which I tried to count in German. It was only much later I learned of my responsibility to clean — putzen — those stairs every fifth week.
Before I could claim the apartment and hang my print of a gypsy sleeping under a dusty moon, I met the owners over coffee and dry pastry. They approved me, and then I signed many papers. It rained every day and I prodded myself not to forget my umbrella as I went from the theater to the AusländerAmt — the office for foreigners — to the courthouse, the post office, and finally the police station to register my new address. The back of my dictionary cracked. At night, under the hotel’s stiff, ironed sheets, I hoped the moon would peer into my apartment windows.
When it was mine, I decorated with plants and wooden bowls, a lavender vase, and my grandmother’s quilt. I’m not sure when I actually said to myself that the house contained more than simple light, that the air drew together into a shape. No ghost or sound. Only a presence like the edge of a dream when you waken. A pressure on the side of your eye. Children recognize these places and are afraid, perhaps because adults never mention such things. I, too, was a little frightened, but alone in the evenings after rehearsal, the flick of its passing was company. Always in the same corner, behind the kitchen door. I put a pot of blue straw flowers there, partly to hold the door open and partly to appease the spirit.
The calm of the apartment contrasted with the struggle of my days: the blisters, the disdain of older dancers, the horror of missing a rehearsal because I didn’t understand eighteen hours meant six o’clock. Away from the theater, there were books from home, thin blue paper for letters, and if I had no friends yet, the comfort of the vibrant air. Outside my window, in occasional sun, children played a strange version of hide and seek; I could hear them calling and singing off-key as I sat with my dictionary and children’s picture books — stories of dragons and magic balloons, Drachen and Luftballons.
Autumn was trailing away when I saw a poster about the animal shelter. A kitten free for the cost of vaccinations, something truly alive in my home, not just me and my imagination. In a phone booth outside the theater, I managed my first call and a man slowly explained that they were open from fourteen to eighteen hours.
By then, most of the leaves were down. The sky drooped grey, as did the crowd on the bus. The driver shuffled words about my stop like a deck of cards and I was pushed down the aisle, crushed by faces, damp woolen elbows, corduroy, sweaters. The streets were invisible. I asked for help from a man whose heavy glasses violently enlarged his eyes; he blinked, then said, next stop, walk right. He never smiled.
The day was lagging as I climbed a hill to the shelter. The caretaker limped past the many dogs to the cats’ cage; they poured toward us, crying. Rain-spotted plush kittens, tom cats with fringed ears, calicos, tigers with indistinct stripes. In the middle, an orange kitten looked at me and trembled. Her blue eyes, the color of straw flowers, dreamed of my lap. Her fur shimmered. She was mine, the same as the apartment. I wasn’t given a carrier or cat food, but the keeper pantomimed the need for shots and I put her in my coat. Warm but scared, she tried to crawl into my hair.
Two men at the bus stop huddled under an umbrella, listening to a radio. They laughed at the kitten and spoke, building little webs with their words, bumping my umbrella with theirs. The bus came, releasing me before they realized that I couldn’t answer. A few riders stared at the kitten and kindness slipped through their silent fences. It was past rush hour.
The kitten played all evening, darting through the rooms, stalking a walnut from the fruit bowl, attacking pages of my dictionary. She threw up once. Was she upset by the move home? I began to worry, but then she drank some milk, dripping it from her whiskers. I thought to name her Drachenmädchen, little dragon girl, from my book, but decided to wait. A name would find her. When I went to bed, she was asleep in a pile of leotards on the floor, but later I woke to her crying and brought her in with me. She slept tangled in my hair.
The next day was Saturday, market day. Sturdy ladies in dark dresses reached gnarled hands into baskets of beets, celery root, apples, pears, cabbage. As they wrapped my produce into newspaper cones, I remembered that, unlike in the States, customers were not allowed to touch the tomatoes. As a reward, they gave me correct change for the first time. I couldn’t find cans of cat food, and evidently couldn’t pronounce Katzenfutter — the women laughed at my question and turned away — so I bought a very small fish for a very small cat. When the market, along with every store in the city, shut at one o’clock, I strolled over cobblestones, past the ancient church, black from pollution, and down a tiny alleyway, where I found the white enameled sign I was looking for: “Tierarzt” in blue. The veterinarian was open on Monday; we’d go then for her shot.
The kitten cried and wouldn’t eat the fish. I had only fruit, vegetables. She didn’t want milk, but she shadowed me as I put the food away and hung up tights in the tiny bathroom, constantly crying, keen and persistent. Only when I held her was she quiet, so we sat together while I read: a splash of orange in my lap. I searched for the exact place her fur became eyelashes. I softly flicked her ear. Once I thought of the fleet place behind the door and looked up, but there was nothing. I tickled her nose with her tail, she patted at my finger, then huddled deeper into my lap. I wanted her to feel rescued and safe. The uneaten fish was drying in the bowl when we went to bed. I might have dreamed of the griffin or of dragons, I no longer remember, but I’m sure she slept in my hair.
When I woke, the kitten had moved away and was crouched at the head of the bed, quiet, but not asleep. The fish had turned orange, the milk I poured went untouched. She seemed thinner; I could see her sides going in and out as she breathed. When I stroked her, she flattened away from my hand, but followed me to the kitchen and sat just out of reach while I ate, then lay on the bathmat as I bathed. Not curious, just dozing. After I dressed, she didn’t want to be held, so I tucked my long skirt over my feet and tried to read. For the first time in daylight, the presence behind the door trembled, light stretched thinly over the shape of the air. I was breathing with the tiny waves of orange fur.
She needed help. I had to find someone.
Sundays in Würzburg – in the entire country as far as I knew – everything was tightly closed. Clouds lidded the town. Older women in dark felt hats and heavy heeled shoes marched along paved paths in the woods, young people peered into shop windows, families devoured crumbly cake in the gloom of unlit cafés, the owners saving electricity. At a phone box, I rang the veterinarian; no answer. I had an emergency number from work, but the woman said, “No katzen. Nur Menschen. People only, verstehen Sie?” There was no one else to call.
I thought of the kitten, her tiny paws and blue eyes, then of the place by the straw flowers. My stomach fluttered and I rushed home, hair whipping in a cold wind.
She didn’t get up. I could hear her breathing and when she walked away from my touch, she wobbled. Oh, please don’t die tonight. Tomorrow the doctor is open; he can save you.
Unwilling to be seen — I wasn’t part of her struggle — she hunched behind the door where the air seemed easier to breathe. I sat vigil, but around midnight I lay down under the comforter, arms crossed over my chest. I could see the tremble of her fur behind the pot of blue flowers. The light was on; no one should die in the dark. I passionately want to be in the light with someone to hold my hand. She was dying, I would die, and then whatever made us alive would be gone, poured like an offering of incense through a crack in time, so natural, but too, so strange.
Her breath came harsher and harsher and although I slept a little, that pulsating thread flung around my dream and when I woke, she had crawled completely behind the door, but I could still hear her. Then the breathing stopped. I gathered myself into a tight knot and, suddenly, she cried out. A cry so fierce, so lost. Knowing she was gone, I rolled on my side to face the wall.
Soon I got up — wanting to touch her while she was still warm — and wrapped her in an old towel. She had left her fur and her form deep in the corner. I covered her carefully, tucking in the edges, and turned out the light. Oh kitty, at least you didn’t die in the dark. Or in the cage of the animal shelter.
In the winter, that cry was sometimes in the trees. I couldn’t bring myself to tell the kitten’s story at the theater; a space for darkness didn’t exist amid our leaping, turning bodies.
By spring, I could read books with more words than pictures and the language began to settle in my mouth. Sometimes, I went with ballet friends to a bierstube and drank wine and when I said I polished my potatoes or the shoelace has a bone in it, they laughed but with kindness. One night, I said I had a cat but she was sick. She died because the doctor for animals was closed. I was sad. I looked at the dancers across the roughness of my sorrow. One of them asked her name.
Before becoming a writer, Terri Lewis had a career as a ballet dancer in Colorado and Germany. She attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and has worked with Jill McCorkle, Rebecca Makkai, and Laura Van Den Berg. A finalist for The Missouri Review Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize (nonfiction), her stories have appeared in The Ekphrastic Review, and Embark. Her reviews for The Washington Independent Review of Books have been excerpted in LitHub. She recently moved from D.C. to Denver with her husband and two dogs and is finishing a novel about life in the theater. Find her at her website.
AUTHOR IMAGE CREDIT: Ayesha Ahmad
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Melissa Wiese/Flickr Creative Commons
A beautifully rendered experience. I love this sentence: “Outside on the sidewalk, grave men touched their hats, children bowed, matrons shook hands — a dry and formal culture — but suddenly the air was rich with bells. I exhaled and almost skipped.” The parallels between the kitten and ballet dancer/narrator were mesmerizing.
Thank you Alex! I’m pleased you got the parallels.
I love how real you were able to make the balance of wonder and worry feel to me as I was reading this beautiful “Foreign” story. And how your struggle is highlighted by the kittens failure.
I also love your sentences such as “kindness slipped through their silent faces”, and “I wasn’t part of her struggle” that seem unexpectedly and almost painfully honest and reveal so much.
A small unforgettable story that sinks deep.
Thank you Denise. That means a whole lot to me.
The isolation and loneliness of this story has really stuck with me.
The feeling of being surrounded by people, yet having no one to talk to
The novelty of Sundays in those cultures where everything closes to facilitate time to spend with friends and family is less rosy for the outsiders that have not yet created either
The despair of hoping and failing to make it through the night when there could be help with the new dawn
The last line shows how things have changed with time.
Thanks Kat. Yes, those Sundays were weird. I didn’t realize at first and planned to buy stuff for a picnic on a Sunday. To my shock, NOTHING was open. I was in Germany a couple years ago visiting friends and it has changed. There were places at the train station to buy more things than when I lived there.
You capture so well the anxiety of being a stranger who does not speak the language. I felt like I was right there with you. And the image of the kitten dying has stayed with me for days–powerful!
Thank you Kathy. I keep thinking of the many currently forced into new countries, new languages. I had a job and intended to go. But yes, the kitty broke my heart.
What a beautifully immersive piece, Terri! There are so many incredible sensory details that evoke a sense of disorientation and loneliness and also beauty. Thank you for sharing this.
Thank you, Monica. Your comment makes me happy!
What a touching and memorable story. I loved the descriptions of the light, a new culture, the language. And I was so sad for the little kitten and for you. I found it heartbreaking no one would help…Beautiful writing. Bravo.
Thank you, Ann. I think the fact that no one took the time to help encouraged me to learn the language. I suppose its a human thing: I don’t understand you so if I ignore you, you’ll go away…
So tender, vulnerable, lost. I won’t forget this piece.
I just subscribed to your blog.
Hey Roz, Thank you so much. I just commented on your blog post about a memoir in essays and will subscribe. Sorry, I got the email with your comment here AFTER I sent the email.
Such tragic and beautiful poetry. So many vidid and memorable descriptions:
“fell from my mouth like tangled wire.”
“rain was erasing sidewalk hopscotch.”
“asleep in a pile of leotards.”
Your story perfectly captures your bravery, loneliness, compassion, and sensitivity.
It is a quiet and moving marvel.
Lotus, Thank you so much. You already know I admired your piece. In fact I’ve recommended it to writing friends…
A lovely, poignant story. Well done, Terri!
Thank you, Richard. Love the word “poignant”…
Thank you Vicki!
So many beautiful descriptions. My favorite: Re tGerman words “fell from my mouth like tangled wire.”
Thanks, Jacalyn! And yes, German can leave you with a sore throat, but I love the language now. Its rules are so different…
A wonderful story. So vividly observed. It felt like Germany in the, what, 70s? And the kitten. Of course you never forgot her. I also loved the way you described how words behaved in your mouth. Well done!
Thank you, Anne. Yes, late 70’s. Because I couldn’t talk, I spent a lot of time looking and writing. If you learned to speak German after you were out of school, you understand what I wrote about the language. Jetzt (now) – an early tongue tripper!
Such a beautiful, heart-rending story. Thank you for sharing, Terri.
Thank you, Carrie!
A beautiful and touching elegy. My cat slept at my feet last night; I take it for granted but it’s a miracle to have these connections with our pets.
Thank you Brian. It was a dog sleeping at my feet last night – I’m non-parochial when it comes to pets!
Sweet story. You were so brave!
Thank’ Robin. I was more clueless than brave. And with a passion to dance.
The sadness and bravery, the confusion and discovery is truly the saga of a person trying to get their footing in a strange and unfamiliar country. Beautifully written, Terri Lewis.
Thank you Nancy. Sometimes I think about how much easier it was for me than for many who leave home now for awful reasons. I wanted to be there, had a job, and still it was hard…