Birgit Unterholzner
The woman with the bird mask

Else lies naked and stares into darkness. The window is open. She counts the cars passing by. It’s hard to breathe, the sheet under her back is damp. The heat is unbearable. Not even at night does the temperature drop.
The idea of putting a sheet into the freezer comes to her mind. It would offer relief. Later, beneath her skin.
Else prays for a current of air.
Shortly afterwards she jumps out of bed, grabs the sheet from the cupboard and dashes into the kitchen. Water, she thinks, I must drink some water. Else gulps down one glass and then another. Liquid runs down her neck, between her breasts, the last drops seep away in her deep navel.
She staggers back into the bedroom and tries to read. It will take some time for the sheet to cool down. She has wedged it between the ice cream and the fillet of sole; she doesn’t want to think about the smell. From her belly she rolls over onto her side, from her side onto her back, from her back onto her other side; she turns the page and puts the book aside. In such a night, when the air is oppressive and weighs down on the body, no one is able to read.
Images flare up, fleeting and bright, only to vanish immediately into nothingness. From far away Else hears voices and laughter. A thought, scarcely grasped, a second one, unfinished, a few smithereens, they come, cluster and dissolve.
Else prays for the throbbing in her head to stop.
No way will she go there.
Else tosses and turns. Wriggles around on the pillow.
Maybe she’d be able to sleep during the day. But she knows she’s deceiving herself. Hopes?
Else pulls up her legs and pushes herself around in a circle on the queen-size bed. Armies of men on wooden stilts are marching over her head, thousands rushing forward in lock-step, she senses their thuds and a drum. Lead balls are hurtling towards her, Else lifts her arms, flails around, wanting to ward them off. The sun is merciful, lead melts and drops into a green iris. Future images and a metallic band on the horizon.
Sleeping with open eyes. That would be the way to do it. If only she could manage that. Nothing could ever throw her off track again. But the hours awake leave shadows and creases on her face. An imperceptible shiver in the body.
Of course, she won’t go there.
Just says, see you tomorrow. As if he could make decisions. She didn’t give him the slightest reason to make him think she’d come back.
Else squirms and twists until she hauls herself up from the mattress. Two more hours, then she’ll have to get up. She sees the indentations on the bed, the traces of her restlessness, she wrenches the sheet out; What is it you really want, Else? Sometimes she talks to herself, she has been living on her own for a long time.
Dirty laundry bulges out of a fabric bag, fresh sheets every day, she keeps having to change her clothes. She cannot stand the smell. She climbs into the bathtub, cold water beats down on her forehead, her shoulders, she raises her face into the jet of water. Else remains strict with herself. Discipline and reason are her weapons. Else watches herself in the mirror, her hand casually brushing her thighs, belly, breasts. She isn’t twenty anymore, but happy with her figure.
While rubbing herself down with a towel, she lets yesterday’s events pass through her mind.
Else wanted to stretch her legs. She waited for the evening. Sometimes, at this time of day, a brisk breeze blows across the town and makes the heat-stricken citizens sigh with relief. She was lucky yesterday, the wind from the valley didn’t let her down. Else felt the relief on her neck, under her arms, and how the air rushed into her shirt. She strolled down to the river, the banks parched and dusty. Grasses and leaves and trees, the landscape was coated in brown. No rain for months. Not a single drop.
At the point where she had usually turned back she kept on walking yesterday, she drifted along with the crowd of people who had crawled out of their dwellings. Past the museum and hi-fi shop-windows, aimless and without any idea of what to do with these evening hours. She almost enjoyed not wanting anything, for Else always has an aim and she always wants something.
Else brushes, she massages the oil into her skin in circling movements, from her feet towards her heart. Our bodies talk to us, Else knows that and takes care of hers. The nights are too warm; without the benefit of sleep, without this drifting off, they sap her strength. The brushing has stimulated the circulation. Now she feels ready for the challenge again.
She won’t go there.
Probably, it’s this summer that is wearing her down, taking away her willpower. News agencies are reporting forest fires in the vicinity, the houses are crooked, gables are groaning beneath the roofs, doors and window shutters are warping, pigeons are falling from the sky, perishing in the softened tarmac and, if you listen closely, you can hear the town emitting a high-pitched desperate hum.
Voices wafted over from the town square. Laughter. Else saw a circle of spectators, she came closer, stood on tiptoe, A group of performers!, she had read about it.
A feathered girl was standing, motionless, on a cube. She was covered in gold from head to toe, the whites of her eyes the only sign of life. She rewarded those who threw her coins with a quarter or half turn. A man was tottering on stilts through the crowd, juggling with balls or abruptly bending his knees, people scattering in all directions. He pulled a face. Else wondered whether pulling faces was healthy.
A red-haired woman stepped out of the tent, a python dangling from her neck, her body wrapped in a yellow-white overall. She was older than the other performers, the painted eyes seemed tired. Snake and woman, together they resembled an ugly multi-tentacled jellyfish. Else remembered the fact that the reticulated python lays up to a hundred eggs. It’s the only snake that hatches them itself. The man on stilts made the balls disappear, he grabbed a piece of wire and teased the python. It moved, the red-haired woman staggered under the wavelike movement. When he pursed his lips, the serpent shot out into his face. The audience screamed, the man jumped down from the stilts and bowed. When he straightened up, Else caught his gaze. He looked her in the eye. For minutes, it seemed. As if he wanted to form a judgment.
Unexpectedly, he thrust the heel of his leather boot into the asphalt, turned around and, while passing, bit the jellyfish in the shoulder. The red-haired woman gave him a worn-out smile. Else discerned scars under the running make-up. The pair of them disappeared hand in hand under the tarpaulin.
Else was about to start her way back home when the people whistled. The man jumped forward, he had a belt around his belly. Without hesitation, he homed in on Else, pulled her from the back row into the middle and asked her to check what he had with him. No, Else warded him off, she didn’t care for knives. The man grasped her arm so hard that it hurt. He kept staring at her. Else had to avert her gaze.
At that he carelessly let go of her arm and began to sharpen the blades.
Else thought all this was silly.
A cardboard partition on wheels appeared and walking behind it a graceful figure, she was wearing a beaked mask, dark red silk was flowing down her body. Probably the jellyfish woman, Else could only assume so, as the hair was hidden under the hood.
Give me your hand!
As Else didn’t move, the man took her hand, turned the palm upside, pulled her sleeve back and softly stroked down her arm.
Else’s shoulders relaxed. Her throat was dry.
His face gave nothing away.
Suddenly she heard a snapping sound. The man pushed something hard-edged against the place he had touched and kept his eye on Else. She felt the pain. Her heart was beating hard. Suddenly, she wished the stranger were pulling silver through her flesh.
The man smiled, for a moment she saw his tongue, the ring. He let go of her and said, see you tomorrow. As if it were a foregone conclusion.
Else pushed through the crowd, using her elbows and hips. She ran upstream, got out of breath, swallowed dust and dried clover.
At home she threw herself onto the bed. Desperately longing for sleep. But the night robbed it from her and felt like an animal in gestation.
Meanwhile, Else has dressed. She puts the oil and the brush into the wire basket, does things she can’t remember later. Else shops, Else drinks tea and listens to the news, Else makes phone calls, writes the article for next week’s issue of The Ritalin Society, Else cooks, eats, browses through newspapers, Else lies down with open eyes, feeds the neighbours’ cats, they always need to go off somewhere, Kilimanjaro, Mount Everest, Else takes a shower, slices bread, cuts chives…
Eventually, silence falls. A silence that seeps from the walls, from the furniture, from the dishes standing around. What do you want from him, Else speaks against the silence, nothing. Or something after all. Less loneliness. For a short while. A new body. Someone who isn’t sparing with his life. A little danger. Memories. The hope of a later autumn. Don’t make a fool of yourself. Your autumn is coming anyway. Their situations are too different. A man on stilts. A knife-thrower. What have you got to lose? Your market value is falling, you’re not getting any younger and prettier. You should ask yourself whether you’re happy. Your sister claims that your laugh has a bitter undertone. Why this detachment? Can’t you forget yourself for once, Else? Let yourself go. What are you afraid of? Else hears her echo. The rooms are sparsely furnished. She hates lavishness.
She wants to conjure up his picture, the bald head, the bristling brows, the mouth, movements which suggest casualness or arrogance.
The air in the apartment is stifling.
Else dabs at her upper lip with a kitchen towel. She pulls the drawer out, takes the kitchen knife, lays metal onto her forehead. The coolness is pleasant. She looks at her watch, maybe, if she hurried, she tries on half a dozen different outfits, discarding them all, too formal, too nondescript, too provocative, too baggy, until she goes for the simple alternative, a top and Bermuda shorts.
Else hears her own steps, as if they had nothing to do with herself, she takes the shortest way from her door to the square. While running, she pulls off her sandals, carries them by their straps. Passers-by look at her with curiousity, who might be hurrying like that after office hours and barefoot at that. Else doesn’t care.
The tent is there. But nothing else. No show. People strolling about and children playing. Else slips into her sandals, she is relieved that the tarpaulin is still there. For a moment Else is undecided. What now?
Swiftly she slips into the tent.
The man is sitting with his back towards the entrance. He’s straddling a wooden bench, his head bowed. He seems to be feeding someone. Else’s trying to control her rapid heartbeat, to be quiet, but he has already noticed her.
I have been expecting you.
Else blushes. The colour washes from her face to her neckline.
You liked it, didn’t you? He casually turns his torso and leg over the wooden bench in a wide circle. Else hopes that her embarrassment remains invisible in the twilight. She looks at her toes, at the mats on the floor, not at him, she doubts whether she’d be able to avert her gaze.
What are you doing? Else asks.
The man reaches behind his back and puts a hairy bundle onto his six-pack. One leg bent, the other stretched out, he supports himself with one arm. A mouse opossum, he says. Else notices the bat-like ears, the naked tail and the pink mouth. His fingers dig into the fur, the creature lets out a piercing cry. Else thinks, it’s laughing at me.
An insatiable one. Devours vermin without chewing. It hunts after nightfall. At these words, he’s staring at Else again.
The python!, where’s the python, it could be slithering around right here, in a single bound and with a muted scream, Else leaps onto the bench.
As quick as a flash the man embraces her knees. He lifts his scruffy chin and smirks, what is it that frightens the unapproachable woman?
Else is at a loss. Why unapproachable? What does he know of her life? She wants to get down to the floor, but he keeps hugging her legs. Behind the wild brows, behind the stubble and the coarse features she suddenly discovers his softer traits. The man lifts Else up, plants her on the floor in front of a glass case.
The python’s forked tongue is shooting back and forth. Under its yellow gaze a bunch of spider lilies is dying.
He’s now holding a lighter, touches his palms with the flame, passes his fingers through it, lights the stump of a candle. He gets tobacco and cigarette paper out of his shirt pocket. He’s sure to take deep pulls, Else thinks. The man inhales deeply and slowly. Then he puts a blindfold around his head, tying the ends together, he murmurs, I can eat fire, do you want me to show you?
Else can no longer refrain from saying: Why are you being such a show-off?
Why are you here? He smiles as if he were enjoying himself.
Yes, why? What was this supposed to be?
Else wants to get out. Away from the fuss. She turns to leave, when suddenly he’s holding her in his arms.
You shall never fear anything again, while he’s whispering, he gently slips a strand of hair behind her ear.
What does he mean by that? That is. That would also be. An aim, if you wanted to see it that way. That would be… What if she slips off? Breaks off? Loses the picture?
Else prays for the throbbing in her head to stop.
Meanwhile, the man has fetched some silk from a box, he puts the mask on her head, the beak pointing skywards, Else thinks, only a tent roof separates me from the sky and I am the woman with the bird mask.
The robe has no shoulders, the sleeves are bell-shaped, he lets the dark red ocean flow down over Else’s skin, her back, Else smells both bodies, as they struggle to breathe against the heat, the man whispers words into her ear.
He takes a plastic box, begins to apply make-up, he strives for perfection, maybe he is more like her than she has assumed, he spreads the porcelain white, forehead, nose, neck, kneeling he dabs at her bare feet.
All of a sudden, he grabs Else, pushes her back, her spine hits something hard. The resistance yields, Else staggers, the man kicks at wheels, at pedals. The partition stands firm. He fumbles for her arms, forces them up, rubs them raw, fastens her joints with strings. Here, there, don’t you move!
Else hangs from the hooks, she lets it all happen.
The man gazes at her with eyes wide open. A knife snaps open, the steel presses against her sternum, Else twitches to the side, at the same time his mouth is coming closer, the ring hits the teeth.
Let me throw knives, chase the fear out of your body.
Else swallows, a fatherly voice drifts up from her childhood, Do not play with knives, you could get hurt.
The circus man caresses Else, he takes his time, one of his hands glides down between her legs, he fixes her with his gaze. Else remembers the scarred half-face, a fleeting picture. She feels the burning, the excitement and his body, as it’s pressing against hers. There’s no story, no beginning, no ending, only outlines, a dazzling white light, the here and now. The man caresses and moistens his fingers, the fingertips, he has probably released one hand, she thinks, weightlessness is overcoming Else, red waves are washing her away, she can’t see the shore anymore... until she realises that the man is pulling silver through her fingertips.
Else screams.
The man unties her immediately. You wanted it! It fascinated you.
Else screams.
Well, forget it then, the man steps back, his soles touching the rush mats. He swings his arm back, takes possession of the space, hurls the flick-knife at the partition, where it vibrates, dies away. He pulls his hands up with playful resignation.
Too bad, he says, you’ll never know.
What...? Her voice is choking.
The singing of the knives, he murmurs.
Else’s lower lip is trembling. The man leaves the tent.
Enraged, she snatches the mask off her face, pulls the robe off her body, it would have been her finale, walking away had always been her speciality, he won’t grant her the smallest triumph.
Everything around her starts to flicker, she runs blindly through strips of cloth, outside she trips over a child on roller skates. Else mutters, sorry. The sky is pitch black and windless. She feels her make-up running. The child and Else get up, move in the same direction. Towards the closest source of light. Else thinks, what is a child doing here at this time of night, until she hears someone calling, Kati, come here!
Kati, well-behaved, turns back, Kati listens to her father.
Else looks at the floor, sees something curved, feathery and torn. A pigeon is stuck to the surface of the tar, bloodied.
Else closes her eyes, tilts back her head.
She can clearly hear the high-pitched, desperate hum, which has been driving the town crazy for days, for weeks.