A lonely shore; she stands looking at waves, wondering where he has gone. Morning sun cuts a shimmering path over the Königssee’s aqua-blue-green surface, and for a moment Saga Zimmer is blinded by violent white light. Sunlight takes just over eight minutes to reach the Earth. If the Sun mysteriously and instantaneously disappeared, we on Earth wouldn’t know that it was gone for just over eight minutes after it had actually happened. At that moment, eight minutes later we would be plunged forever into darkness. Saga remembered Michael explaining this to her as a child. Michael liked facts.
These are facts. Michael was four years older than Saga. He was closest to their mother. He disliked their father. Their mother died when Saga was twelve. Two years later Michael left home. Now Saga is twenty-one. She has always looked up to Michael. Yesterday she received a letter from him.
The letter had seemed strange, a little disjointed and out of character. He had spoken of their trip to Italy in the summer, but without much of his usual depth or colour. She wondered if there was something wrong, yet how could there be? Michael was the most successful, extroverted, happy member of their family. Without Michael, where would she be? Love was not a feeling she bandied around. Was it love she felt for her brother? She thought about it and supposed so. These are not facts. These are
Everyone was afraid the winter their mother lay dying of cancer in the upstairs bedroom, the house washed in a bleak tide of silence. They tiptoed around, sock feet over creaking floorboards, as she slipped from being their mother to a small aged being clinging desperately to life. Why cling?
A television plays a Loriot movie and Michael and Saga are laughing as in the hall, the doctor and their father tread solemnly down the winding staircase. The front door breathes and exhales. After a few moments she registers their father standing in the doorway of the dark room, a flicking kaleidoscope projected across his blank face.
“How is mum?” Michael asks without looking up from the television.
Silence for a moment, then their father erupts, wrenching Michael violently from his chair by the shirt, shaking him like a dog with a toy. “How is your mother? She is dying. That’s how she is – while you kids sit here laughing at Loriot. She is dying. Two weeks.”
Releasing Michael he strides away to the dining room sinking into the cocoon of Mozart’s Requiem. It’s not spoken of again.
Days pass. Entering the kitchen in stripped slippers, Saga begins preparing the evening meal. When her father comes home from work, she tells him dinner will be ready soon. He nods and makes his way upstairs. Saga listens as the door opens. It is silent for a long time and her father doesn’t come downstairs. The potatoes have begun to boil on the stove. Dinner will be ruined.
Michael calls her from Vienna and asks her if she would like to take a trip to Italy in the summer. She says yes. That would be good.
At breakfast her father notices the letter from Michael on the table. He motions vaguely to it and asks how he is? Saga tells him to read it, but her father shrugs, returning to his newspaper. His new girlfriend is coming over later. They will eat alone in the dining room, a dark cathedral filled with cold symphonies. Michael is good, she explains. He is doing well. Everything is fine.
The autumn leaves are turning rust-brown at the lake. Soon the trees will be stripped naked. Why did she come here? She remembers warm summers warmly. There are many tourists here today and she feels comforted. She wants to feel water on her feet again, to be in water, to be close to water, yet she knows this time of year, the crystal streams flowing down from the Alps are freezing.
Ice-coldness. Her feet are in the water. Knee deep now, startling cold, knife bone splinters. The sheer sweep of the rocky cliffs rise up before her and the dark, unfathomable deep stretches out ahead. A face ripples back at her, long dark chocolate brown hair, green eyes, perfect lips and high cheekbones; a perfect mixture of her father’s Teutonic and her mother’s Swedish heritage.
Water lapping, her dress is wet now, a jellyfish dancing macabre with the tide. People are staring. A man calls out to her from the shore and she turns, but the sun is in her eyes and she can’t make out who he is. “I am ok”, she explains. “Don’t worry. Everything is fine.”
It is raining in the Austrian Alps where the train stops and Michael steps aboard. Saga smiles as he embraces her. “I have missed you,” he speaks softly. He seems shorter to her or she seems taller. Saga moves a hand to his back and skims his jacket. On the train Michael begins to drink. Is it still a problem? Annoyed she stops talking.
Several hours wait in Verona; Saga and Michael brave the pin-cushion umbrella crowded streets and squares of sleety rain to visit the Museo Civico di Castelvecchio. Heels clicking on polished floors, she strides ahead of him through empty old rooms. Windows of the past line the white walls, beautiful oil time capsules of immortality. To him this is all death, to her it is life. The room is suddenly empty. Alone now, she feels a sense of panic that she has lost Michael. It’s only a momentary stab of fear, yet it’s pervasive and she feels transfixed by a wave of sharp heat through her body. Was he angry at her reaction to his drinking? Did he get bored with being dragged to one of these places again? Rushing through the maze of rooms, she is both relieved and upset to find him chatting up a tourist under the watchful eye of Bellini’s ‘Madonna with Child.’ A barefoot, tanned girl with an Antipodean accent, Saga hurries her along with a icy white stare.
In the train to the coast Michael is back to his old self, telling her of the beauty of physics and his work on quantum theory; fractal dimensions and Mandelbrot’s mathematical simplicity fly above her head. As a teenager he dreamed of being a physicist. Saga dreamed merely of new dresses. Dreams come true.
Michael asks her if she has anyone in her life, and Saga replies quickly no. There are people who come and go, but there is no one.
“You never wanted to be in love?” he asks sipping his beer. Given up chastising her older brother, she too is drinking, chilled white wine and a more relaxed, more honest mood.
“No, I’m not capable of it.”
The silence he leaves compels her to fill it. “I don’t like being touched. I dislike the pretence of emotional intimacy.”
“Why don’t you work? Or at least finish your degree?”
“I’m too beautiful to work,” her lips curve at edges.
“You need to get out of that house, and stop relying on Dad giving you money. He changed after Mum died. It engulfed him and he was never the same. I saw him as a weak individual and I wanted to be strong like our mother.”
“I know. Did you know he beat me up once?” Saga asks. “Not long after you’d left I’d been out with a boy till late. He attacked me and hit me when I returned home. He didn’t say anything and I didn’t say anything. I can’t be mad at him forever. Why should I? If I hate him for everything he did to us I would be miserable. There are other ways I can hurt myself.”
The train arrives at Vernazza as the last of the beer laps against sheer polished walls in Michael’s glass.
The next morning Saga waits in the hotel lobby while Michael, having forgotten his wallet, returns to their room. Doors open and shut at the entrance, movement and voices; it’s the accent which makes her look up first: the dropped vowels of the barefoot girl from Verona. Walking to the reception desk, the girl struggles to remove a large grey hiking pack from her back. Has she followed them here? Did Michael tell her to come? But no – the door opens again and there’s another man behind her. He touches her lower back. So she found someone after all. The girl glances in Saga’s direction but fails to recognize her. In that second, the man stares at Saga and his eyes cut right through her. He is blond, dressed well in casual jeans and a white jacket, of subtle Eastern European origin, Russian, Ukraine? Saga feels an instant of vulnerability. His eyes follow her long legs and she turns to flee, but Michael is suddenly behind her and she is momentarily glad. Yet Michael smells of alcohol. When they return she will check the mini-bar.
Michael hires a small boat and they row out to a secluded island, more rock. It is a startling contrast from the pancake stacked tourist beaches.
“Ah solitude,” Michael remarks and dives into the sea.
Saga sits on a rock, her feet circling in the warm Mediterranean. “It’s so quiet – it seems sad. I’m used to people around.”
“It’s the water that’s sad, listen to the sound.”
A gentle harmonic pull. She listens and realizes he is right. The ocean sounds sad. Letting herself slip from the rock into the deep water, she soon goes under. When she surfaces, Michael is a boy again beside her, head bobbing in the icy blue of a Bavarian Lake. Their mother is there, watching protectively from the shore. Sun reflects across water and she closes her eyes.
When Saga opens her eyes, everything is quiet; the steady slow lap of the waves on shore, bring her from that world, into this one. Skin covered in sand, she sits up. Now she is sunburned; did she fall asleep? A lonely shore; she stands looking at waves, wondering where he has gone. A voice begins calling, calling his name steadily. Soon she will be screaming but no sound comes back. The boat is empty. The world folds in on itself.
The row back to shore in the boat is a long and painful one. Her hands are blistered. When did the sunburn stop hurting? Saga returns and pays for the boat, and makes her way back to the hotel. Upstairs the room is empty, and so too is the mini-bar. She showers. Things. She must do things. She rubs moisturiser on her burned skin, and covers her palms in intricate band-aid patterns, changes into fresh clothes and makes her way downstairs.
The bar is near empty. Only the Russian. What is that accent? She is trying to make it out. Oh, she was wrong – it’s Swedish. His girlfriend in bare feet is nowhere to be seen. Perhaps she went to buy shoes? A tiny smile forms. The newly identified Swede passes her a glance, supposing it was for him. Saga turns away and orders a drink. Then another.
Sometime later he is groping her on the floor of her bedroom. There’s a loud television screaming. She wishes she could switch the channel. He is taking off her clothes. She doesn’t see him and he doesn’t see her.
Shopping bags straddle cafe table legs in Augsburg’s Rathausplatz; Saga and her friends slip into their chairs and order food and wine. They are among her oldest friends from school and the first thing they want to know about is Italy. She shows them a photo – it’s of Michael at a cafe in Verona and they immediately want to know about Michael?
“Michael is fine,” she tells them. “But he has gone away for a while. It’s his work. It has taken him to the Antipodes.”
Michael is doing so amazingly well for himself. He is the successful, together one. Michael will always be a success. She will always look up to him. Sometimes she knows she will miss him, but she has always missed him, since he left home and left her alone. What does it mean anyway – to have someone you care about in your life? Isn’t it just a bit dangerous? Aren’t you really just asking for trouble? What happens if they decide to suddenly go away, to drift away to the Antipodes? Where does that leave you? No, she is happier being the way she is. Her father gives her money to buy things. Anything she asks for. Earlier she made the decision to move to the flat her father owns in Munich. Michael would be proud. Of course he will have to repaint and refurnish it first. Just the last month she began seeing a man regularly. He is a lawyer from her father’s firm, and takes her out to dinner often. He brought her the most expensive silver necklace and she wears it almost every day. He talks to her about things she has no interest in, and she knows she talks about nothing to him, yet she is beginning to imagine married life with him. Life is changing for her, and it is getting better. Michael is happy for her too. He has told her so in his letters from far away. Of course sometimes it troubles her that he doesn’t quite sound himself, but perhaps it’s just that he is missing Europe. His handwriting too – it has always been a little like her own. It’s a fact she keeps reminding herself of. It’s like Michael would say. Her future stretches ahead, pregnant with possibility. Everything is good. It’s really going to be fine. She will be fine too.
On tourist boats on the Königssee the tour guides play a shiny brass instrument called a flugelhorn – which can echo back from the sheet rock walls up to seven times. Saga Zimmer listens now to its first sounding, and waits for subsequent echoes.