An excerpt from Reykjavik: A Novel (a memory of Berlin, 1961)
And then it’s all starting to come back to me, memories of childhood, when I spot some workers at a construction site. Big men in white uniforms, hovering around a ditch by the Wall, laying down a pipe. They’re playing loud music, really loud music on a boombox. And as I come closer, moving toward them, I stumble on a cobblestone, stubbing my toe, almost falling flat on my face, and incredibly, I’m hearing the song I know by heart from Pink Floyd. And it’s hitting me hard, the flickering of memories never to be forgotten. . . .
Another brick in the wall . . .
Mother, an actress, is opposed. Strongly. At first.
She and my father argue in the kitchen. Angry voices, shouts and screams at each other. Give up what little we have? Are you crazy? I am hearing her say. Life better in the West? Yes! Of course it is! retorts my father, his voice snapping back at her, baring his teeth. How can you think otherwise? I can and I will, she answers him defiantly.
And then a few days pass, days when they stop talking to each other. Silence falls. The air thick with resentment, reprisal. Then all of a sudden I’m seeing her coming around, her eyes opening to the sights and sounds of construction of the Wall outside our bedroom window across the street. Right in front of us!
Time’s short, insists my father, pleading.
My father, poor man, a doctor in poor health. He whispers, Don’t you understand? There’s the risk, a big risk of capture and arrest, followed by punishment—severe punishment. And it grows by the hour.
Together, they huddle around a wooden table in the kitchen and hatch a plan. Pick our spots and move quickly before the first light of dawn, he is telling my mother..
And then it happens in the middle of the night when they pull me out of bed and tell me to grab my things. Quickly, child. I’m only a small child, too fearful, too shy to ask questions. Father’s health is getting worse by the hour, coughing, wheezing, spitting up splatters of blood and phlegm into a wet handkerchief, which he cups around his fingertips and draws to his tongue and cheeks.
Ivan, you know, Ivan has us by the throat, he says with a sigh, and the bastard is choking us to death. To death, he repeats, and without mercy. Don’t you see? The word mercy is not known to me, as it is now. Father hurries to pack our belongings into a small suitcase and draws a leather strap around it, holding it in place. Some items of clothing, I’m seeing, a prized book or two, papers he has written for a medical journal, his instruments, such as they are in communist East Germany where supplies are forever low and hard to find when treating his patients. He waves his hand, giving the word, whispering in my ear, We must go now, my child. Mother is by his side, her arm locked with his.
Outside on the cobbled street in front of our apartment block in East Berlin, close to where the Wall will soon be completed, ravens are flocking together, in pairs, black as midnight, croaking, shrieking loudly over scraps of food. I hate these birds, I cry to my father, as my body trembles when we scurry down the steps and onto the street. I’m scared.
They scare me too, Nathalie. Be brave, my child. Yes, the ravens are clever, devious creatures. Ha! Just like the police! They know our habits, yes, perhaps even our dreams, our secret wishes and desires, and I fear, too, the warm scent of our bodies. Be careful!
One of them is flapping its wings, pointing its angry beak at us. They’ll peck us to death, all of them, I hear my mother’s voice telling me. I start running and my father and mother run after me.
I want to be free, to get away from all the birds of prey, all the birds of prey in the world. . . .