Tiny Tales of Love (Pt. 3)


Silently the rain falls. Mist seeps through the under brush, leaves filtering the twilight. The forest is dense and dark. Heavy drops roll off the leaves, bark grooves on naked branches, fall into the moss. The girl trudges through the leafy ground. The soles peel from her shoes. The hem of her dress collects moisture and small burrs from the bushes, a thorn branch has hooked its fingers into the fabric. The girl pulls her coat tightly around her chest. 
A shadow brushes the tops of the trees, the girl raises her head, but there’s nothing but rain. 
The rain turns into snow, pale flakes drift through the air. Slowly the forest thins out, as the ground tilts into a valley, and the tree trunks fade in front of a distant horizon. 
A handful of barren stone houses crouch on the hillside, as if thrown between roots and boulders. Grey light covers the village. Nothing moves, only the flakes are falling and sinking down on gables and eaves. The girl follows the path of cracked pavement down into the village. Inside the houses nothing stirs. A window shutter hangs loosely in its frame and slams to the wall as the wind pushes against it. Blurry traces of rain dim the window glass. 
The girl knocks on the first door. The wood yields to the pressure of her fingers, and a narrow ribbon of brightness falls on the threshold. A knocked over table, two chairs with broken limbs. The house is empty. So is the second. And the third. From house to house the girl walks through the streets, her footsteps leaving dark spots behind on the snowy road. Not a soul in sight, only rubble and dust. Roof skeletons, a wall torn away, and behind that chairs and tables ready laid with breakfast. The pale sheen of a curtain billows out and through the hole of a once existing window. 
In one of the house wrecks the girl picks up the leg of a torn chair. She goes on. Leaves line puddles where the snow has settled to a frosty crust. She squats down to scoop some water into her hand and suck it in hastily. There’s a clatter. 
Sheet meeting sheet. 
The girl lowers her hand. The house opposite to her is half hidden behind the overhanging branches of a pine tree. She glances at the chimney, cold snow fluttering against her face. There is no trace of smoke, but the clanking was that of pots and pans, a piece of steak turned over, meat firm or tender as it sizzles on the stove, golden with butter and dripping with juice. The girl digs her fingers into the pockets of her coat. 
Inside the house it’s quiet now. She keeps the chair leg held out in front of her and takes a step toward the house. The door pushes open, and a dog comes running to the road. He is tall and bony, he stops. The girl stands still. Her father’s coat hangs heavily from her shoulders. The dog raises his flews, his breath bulges out his rib cage. He holds a damp, ragged bundle between his teeth. Blood trickles down his chest fur and into the thin coat of snow. 
Then the beast lowers its head and trots across the road. The girl follows it with her eyes. A ribbon of dark paw traces left behind on the cobblestones. 
The door to the house hangs tilted on its hinges. Shelves have broken from their brackets on the walls, jugs and plates lie shattered between cups and pots. And above all lies dust. 

Roten crouches on the steps in front of the hut, where the back of his parka touches the walls with each movement. His hands are rough from the cold. He rubs them against his trouser legs, lifts them to his mouth, rubs them against each other quickly, breathes on them before he slips his left hand under the parka and pulls out a crumpled paper bag. His fingers tremble as he tears apart the paper. The skin is swollen to rosy bumps where his fingernails come out of the flesh. He pauses. Was there a clatter? Perhaps the wind playing with the rubble. He unwraps a block of cheese, lifts it to his nose, closing his eyes to savour the odour for a moment. 
»What are you doing?« 
The girl stares at him. The men's coat around her shoulders reaches down to her ankles. Roten lowers the cheese, »go away«, he says. On his knees lies a piece of bread. He spreads a thin layer of butter and folds the butter cubes back in their wrapping. The girl stands in the snow. Roten examines the chair leg that she carries with her: »Who do you wanna kill with that, eh?« His knife slides through the cheese, he peels off the cheese slice from the blade and places it on the bread. The girl stands. He puts the knife down and looks at her. 
The girl looks at her shoes, the curb has carved a deep scratch into the leather. 
»Are you hungry?« he asks. She twitches her lips, crosses her hands at the back, rocking up and down with the edges of her shoes. Two thick blond braids sprinkled with icy flakes stick out of her hat. 
»Here.« Roten hands her the bread. »Take it.« 
With cold hands, she reaches for it. »Eat it«, Roten says. The girl looks at him. Her fingers embrace the bread and press into the waxy cheese. The man gets up and holds the door open for her. »Come in. You’ll freeze to death out here.« 
She follows him into the house. The inside is sheltered, bare bricks pave the walls. Roten opens the shutters, and daylight seeps onto the wooden floor. 
»What’s your name?« 
»Malka«, the girl says. 
»Malka.« He pulls out a chair from under the table. »Sit down. Eat.« 
Malka holds the bread in her hands. Her eyes scan the walls. Iron pans, ladles, empty photo frames with shattered glass. Paint chips off in flakes from the walls and trickles onto the kitchen floor. 
»Do you live here?« the girl asks. She approaches the chair and pulls the hat off her hair. 
»It’s not my home«, Roten replies and steps to the kitchen sink. Cobwebs draw from the sink to the cabinet. He turns on the tap. The pipe rustles, breaks off, then water gushes out in a pale brown jet. As it clears he holds a tea-kettle under the tap.
»You can stay the night if you want«, says Roten. »There’s a storm coming tonight.« 
He takes two floral-patterned mugs from the cabinet and places them on the kitchen table. He puts the kettle onto the stove and turns on the gas. He strikes a match, holding it to the hotplate. Blue flames burst out of the holes and flicker around the bottom of the kettle. Roten pulls a stool to the table and sits down opposite Malka. 
»Don’t chew so fast«, he says. »You’ll get stomach aches.« 
The girl swallows and pushes the last piece of bread into her mouth. 

»How long have you been walking?« He takes her right shoe off. 
»I don’t know. A while«, Malka says. She examines Roten's fingers tugging at her laces. Bulgy scars run through the backs of his hands. 
»Was that the dog?« Malka asks. 
He doesn’t look up. »There are no dogs around here«, he says. 
Up close, he looks older. 
The skin is rough where stubble darkens his cheeks. 
He takes off her left shoe, wiggles it back and forth, until it loosens and peels off Malka's heel. »Does that hurt?« 
Malka presses together her lips. Her toes are yellow and stiff. »I cannot feel them«, she says. Her fingers clenching the edge of her chair, as she tries to move her toes. Roten puts his hands around her foot. His fingers knead away the cold, gently bending her toes. »Your turn«, he says. »You have to keep them moving.« 
Malka contracts her feet until it hurts. »There was a dog«, she says, and curls and stretches her toes. 
»A dog.« Roten puts down her shoes in front of the fireplace to dry and stacks fresh logs onto the fire. Crackling the flames eat into the wood. 
»There are no dogs around here«, he repeats. »Nothing lives here.« 
»Why are you here then?« Malka asks. 
The fire casts a soft shadow onto his face. 

On the kitchen table dinner is set. A wrinkly little apple and two cups of coffee. The light fades, and Roten lights some candles. With the knife he cuts the apple into four equal pieces and hands three of them to Malka. He pulls the comb through her hair and untangles the strands. Malka puts an apple slice into her mouth. 
She chews on the last slice, her legs dangling from the table while Roten takes off his shirt. His naked chest moves under his breath. Scars criss-cross his skin as pale lines. »How did that happen?« The girl slips from the table. She reaches out her hand until it touches the warmth of his chest. The skin stretches smoothly across his ribs. He holds her back, a crooked smile twists his mouth. »Get some sleep, alright?«, he says. 
The girl withdraws her hand and nods. In the night she wakes up as the wind dashes against the window shutters. Rain pounds against the glass. The girl lies awake and listens to the storm. She turns her head to the side and looks at Roten's face. His warm hand resting on her hip. When she places her hand on his, she can feel his scars. Malka reaches out her fingers and touches his cheek. In the pale shimmer of night he looks young. He turns around in his sleep and detaches from her hip. A breeze of cool air brushed her naked skin. From outside the dark pressed against the window. The girl lies. She reaches between her thighs, it is moist and a little bit red. 

Silently the rain falls. A fine layer of fog has spread over the valley, the morning light shines on red brick tiles as the sun crawls out from behind the roofs and paints crooked shadows onto the lanes. Puddles lick their snowy edges. Heavy drops of rain roll off the gutters and fall onto cobblestones. The front door swings open and a girl steps out onto the street. On the steps in front of the hut crouches a man, his back leaning against the house wall. The girl stands still. 
»What are you doing?« 
She touches his shoulder, tugs at Roten's arm resting on his thigh. Slowly his hand slips from his leg, his fingers open and a knife slides into the snow. 
»Are you hungry?« she asks. He doesn’t look up. Amidst layers of clouds the sun stretches out her rays and touches his face. His heavy-lidded eyes are closed. The girl nestles under the man’s parka and wraps it tightly around her shoulders. A shadow brushes the gable, the girl raises her head, but only gets rain in the eyes. She presses her face against Roten's shirt. Inside the houses nothing stirs. In the undergrowth, only the rustling of paws.