The Words18 min read

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Translated by Rachel Cordasco
Death or dying

There’s a knock at the door.

I lift my eyes from the screen and wonder how long I’ve been sitting here at Miriam’s desk, where I found her, dead, yesterday morning.

I let my eyes wander across this mess; I’ve neglected my duties, and the table is covered with scattered papers, books, magazines from which Post-it flags stick out. Notes, so many notes. Three words scribbled on a white page:

warning

not recommended

There’s an open box of krakelingen, two cookies still inside. Miriam had loved the crispness of krakelingen, which I brought her every day, along with coffee, at nine o’clock. I’d enter to find that she’d already been at her desk for three hours, writing.

Miriam was gifted with a lively imagination and brilliant, ironic prose, combined with an unusual depth of thought. “I’ve got a sensor here,” she’d sometimes say, jokingly pointing to her head. “I analyze the deep waters and I’m not afraid to dive.”

What happened to you, Miriam?

They knock again and try the handle, which doesn’t open because I changed the code. I turn back to the screen: writers exploit the power of words without hesitation. They are liars, deceivers, frauds, and Miriam Hermann’s work is all a fraud, a well-argued lie.

I posted these three lines on Zin, under Miriam’s public profile, less than twenty minutes ago, and they’re already knocking.

“Recomposition,” says Peter, Miriam’s son from the other side of the door. He waits a moment, expecting me to obey and remove the barricade.

“Re-com-po-si-tion,” he repeats loudly, stressing every syllable.

Yes, recomposition, bringing the scattered elements together to form a new shape. That’s exactly what I want to do.

I want to use words to speak about Miriam’s life.

“Assistant?” Now Peter’s voice contains a tone of surrender. “Please open up.”

“I’m busy, come back later.”

These are the words Miriam would use when she wanted to keep her son out of her office. Judging by the silence that follows, they work better than recomposition.

I put my fingertips on the keyboard. Miriam would place her fingers just so, and immediately the music of her phrases would begin. She played smoothly, like a professional, composing with words and knowing where to place the pauses and slurs. I feel awkward; I don’t know how to begin.

Miriam’s story is the story of two people.

Miriam and Joanna were born in Berlin, in the mid-twenty-first century, to a family of scientists. Alice and Samuel Hermann were experimental physicists and, when their daughters were still young, they moved to Copenhagen to work on the Spiegel project.

Seventy years ago, the Bohr Institute began researching the possibility of transporting objects and living beings back in time. In particle physics, the chronokinetic qualities of positrons are known, capable of moving in time every time they make a quantum leap. Richard Feynman had already hypothesized this behavior in a famous discussion with John Wheeler, which later became known as the Feynman Objection.

Thus, that an elementary particle could jump here or there with respect to the present timeline—the present understood as the time of measurement—no longer amazes anyone. The problem arises when you want to move “cargo” more consistently, especially objects subjected to the force of gravity.

The Bohr Institute gathered the best minds in physics, engineering, chemistry, and mathematics and put them to work under the Hermanns’ guidance, assigning them to a renovated structure, Building 71, away from the buildings that formed the Institute.

Miriam and Joanna were ten years old at the time.

<< ting >>

At Miriam’s request, I set up a sound filter for messages sent by family and friends. A new message has been added to the many sent by people who, since yesterday, have been offering condolences and regretting the loss of the writer.

Peter writes: “they were eleven. At least be precise.”

I look toward the closed door. On the other side, Peter is reading on his phone what I’m writing. He must have sent a request to Zin to block Miriam’s profile but, until then, I can keep writing and all connected users can read it. The most recent messages contain questions and requests for an explanation. Someone wants to know who’s writing because my words appear as if they were posted by Miriam herself.

Before shutting down a profile, Zin has to verify who the request is coming from and then verify that the profile’s user has really violated the platform’s rules. Come on, come on, I have about two hours to write this story.

I correct the last sentence.

Miriam and Joanna were eleven years old at the time and they reflected the trepidation, euphoria, and despondencies of the group. The Hermanns housed their colleagues in their country house, discussing hypotheses, writing equations on the blackboard, seeking inspiration in wine and silence. I imagine the twins sitting in a corner of the living room or on the swing bench in the garden, intent on munching cookies, all eyes and ears. They understood more than the adults thought. Joanna has always had a scientific mind, and even Miriam, though she preferred literature, had a solid mathematics background.

Accounts of that period are incomplete. The documentation on the results of the experiments was kept in a database in Building 71 and ultimately destroyed in a fire.

Rumor had it that in the two years of collective work, the Spiegel group had figured out a way to move objects in time.

<< ting >>

New message, still Peter: “Journalistic fantasies. My grandparents never spoke about a resolution to their experiments.

I think for a few moments and then resume writing.

One of the Hermanns’ guest scientists, who collaborated with them for a few weeks, writes in his diary of a certain keyring in the shape of a large titmouse purchased by Dr. Samuel Hermann in a downtown shop and kept in the laboratory for seven days, after which it disappeared.

<< ting >>

“Which scientist? Who are you referring to?” Peter again.

The keyring had been marked with a peculiar sign: the bird had broken a wing.

“I know that keyring!” Peter says on the other side of the door. “Aunt Joanna has it. It’s a normal metal ring with a polymer clay pendant, nothing more.”

“It’s a fact.”

“You are connecting the facts incorrectly.”

His strategy is to waste my time.

The owner of the store said that Dr. Alice Hermann came in and asked him if he still owned that particular key ring. Mr. Swaraj said he had sold the last one to her husband the week before.

Alice Hermann asked him to check. Swaraj took the keys to the cabinet in which he had exhibited the object and, to his amazement, he found it still there, between the blue ceramic vase and the majolica candelabra. He took it in his hand. Broken! The titmouse had a broken wing.

“Assistant, I repeat, it’s just a legend invented by journalists.” Peter still. “Joanna kept the keyring because it reminds her of her parents, that’s all.”

Don’t get distracted, I tell myself. Concentrate.

Then the accident happened. One morning at dawn, Building 71 caught fire. The fire-suppressant system didn’t kick in and when the firefighters arrived, the entire building was in flames.

The Spiegel project was abandoned, the research group broke up, and the Hermanns went back to doing more traditional experiments. Joanna followed her parents’ work, and after graduating with a degree in mathematics, worked with them. Miriam, on the other hand, enrolled in a literature department in Amsterdam and spent most of her life in Holland, ultimately taking Dutch citizenship. She died in her home in Haarlem …

“And you’re killing her again,” says Peter.

“Why doesn’t Miriam ever mention the Spiegel group in any biography or interview?” I reply.

“She didn’t talk about a lot of things.”

“Give me an example.”

“She only saw her sister once a year, on Christmas, at her grandparents’ house in Copenhagen. Every time she met Joanna, they treated each other with caution, as if they were afraid of hurting one another. I was small, but I noticed it. And then, when I was twelve, a strange thing happened.”

He’s silent, seeing that I’ve stopped posting to Zin; he wants to see if he’s really stopped me. I remain with my fingers suspended above the keyboard.

“Go ahead,” I encourage him.

“One Christmas, I found Anne Frank’s Diary in my grandparents’ library, an old, beat-up edition. On the first page, I found Miriam and Joanna’s names, circled in pen. My mom and aunt had written comments in the margins, adding notes in the blank spaces and underlining here and there. It seemed like a happy coincidence. That year at school we had just started reading Anne Frank’s Diary.”

“What did you do?”

“I took it to the living room and showed it to my mother. What a scene! It was as if you’d thrown a firecracker in the fireplace. She jumped to her feet, spilling her cup of hot chocolate. Aunt Joanna spat out the sip of punch she had in her mouth, my granddad stared at me with wide eyes, my grandma started screaming. I got a slap in the face. “Go to your room!” my granddad screamed.

The Diary of Anne Frank,” I repeat to myself.

“Grandma brought me dinner later. I was still sitting on the bed, embarrassed, with a red cheek. She sat down next to me and explained that the book was hers. It had been given to her as a child and, after she was married, she took it with her on every move. Joanna and Miriam had read it as children and become obsessed with the author’s story. For a year, they spoke of nothing else, regretting that Anne had died of typhus just a few months prior to Liberation. They spent whole afternoons thinking up new hiding places for the Franks and how the denunciation that handed them over to the Nazis could have been avoided.

I think that, at some point, they started collecting original objects from the 1940s, from the twentieth century.”

“What happened to that copy of the Diary?”

Hesitation.

“I don’t know. I stopped looking for it.”

I resume writing, typing furiously on the keyboard.

Miriam Hermann’s most famous novel, the one that got her nominated for the Nobel Prize, is called The Drowned. It’s about a man who fell off a ship during a cruise and was rescued by a smuggler.

His savior insists that he return to the world with another name. He’ll no longer be able to hug his parents, his fiancée, or return to his previous life. His new existence will be happy in every way: he’ll get a better job, in which he’ll be able to express his talent; he’ll hook up with a liberated woman, a true soulmate; make new solid and lasting friendships, but the man will always feel like a stowaway in a life that doesn’t belong to him.

He watches from a distance as his parents grow old and sick, unable to do anything to help or support them. He witnesses the marriage of a former girlfriend to his best friend, spies on mutual betrayals, quarrels, and reconciliations. Everyone believes he died at sea; no one thinks about him anymore. Life, as they say, goes on.

Told in this way, it might seem like a tragedy, but The Drowned is full of humor, happiness, and joie de vivre. Despite the melancholy of his loss, the protagonist recognizes that the imposition of his savior allowed him to be reborn different and better.

His fate resembles that of concentration camp survivors. Without documents, without an identity, without a country. Some chose a new name and a new life, far from Europe. They reacted to the attempted erasure by making a clean sweep of the old in order to be remade.

“What is all this? What’s your point?” Peter snaps.

We connect the elements at our disposal: we have two intelligent, lively, reckless thirteen-year-olds; we have Building 71, in which took place experiments into the displacement of matter in time. We have precise space-time coordinates: Anne Frank and her family were arrested in Amsterdam on August 4, 1944, at ten in the morning.

Joanna and Miriam have their 1940s-style overcoats (which they purchased online) fitted by a neighboring seamstress. A school play is the excuse—

“That’s not true! You’re making this up!”

Peter is outraged. Miriam has been making up stories her whole life. After all, what is life if not a long-remembered invention?

—they get coins and banknotes from that time and draw up a fake document that claims they are the daughters of a Gestapo officer, Karl Josef Silberbauer, the man who arrested the Franks. With that card in hand, they are allowed to join their father in the city of Amsterdam.

Thus prepared, the girls sneak into the laboratory at night. The other times they’ve been there, they observed the work of their parents and their colleagues, taking note of each maneuver. Whatever machine or particle accelerator the Spiegel Group has made, the twins know how to use it.

The risk is great. The keychain episode proves that it is possible to bring inanimate objects back in time. We don’t know if experiments were done with mice, rabbits, or humans. Joanna and Miriam have a scientific mindset, open to risk. Failure will show that further work on the theory will be necessary, and that will be useful for their parents. They know that the meeting of matter and anti-matter is fatal, that it might dissolve them in a bright photon of energy, but not for an instant do they think they could die or be injured. They are thirteen, the age of courage.

The transition takes place and the twins find themselves on the outskirts of Copenhagen. The Bohr Institute did not yet exist, Niels Bohr himself had had to flee by boat to Sweden the year before, but they are inside the building that will be Building 71 and that, on August 3, 1944, is an annex of the Danish university; they were carrying out experiments on the radioactive isotopes of some minerals.

The Hermann sisters make their way to the Copenhagen train station and mingle with the crowd. The confusion and uncertainties of that period are on their side. In June, the Allies landed in Normandy and the Germans are looking that way, ignoring two little girls who are buying tickets to Amsterdam and traveling alone, standing in the corridor of the last carriage, because all of the compartments are occupied by soldiers and businessmen with briefcases.

The plan is simple.

They’d arrive a day early and move the Franks from their hiding place and thus avoid capture by the Gestapo. Copenhagen and Amsterdam are 620 kilometers from one another, and the trains of the time covered the distance in eleven hours and twenty minutes. However, precisely because of the movement of troops toward the French front, the train is delayed; perhaps it is forced to stop during the night. Thus, when Joanna and Miriam arrive in Amsterdam, it is already late in the morning.

They run from the station to Otto Frank’s pectin factory, at number 263 Prinsegracht Street. They’ve studied the map of the neighborhood and are traveling down the street at the maximum speed their legs allow. They dart between the canals on the right and the narrow buildings on the left, so flat and lined up that they look like theater backdrops, devoid of depth. But a keen eye perceives the hidden volume, up to a sealed attic where eight people have held their breath for two years.

Too late.

Four policemen and a plainclothes officer—the same Karl Josef Silberbauer they claim on the documents is their father—are escorting into the street the Van Pels family, the dentist Fritz Pfeffer, the Frank family, and, among them, fifteen-year-old Anne, brunette, with a sharp nose, slender, even more so from the scarce food during her imprisonment, hair cut below the jaw, dark overcoat.

As a result of the race, Miriam and Joanna are unable to stop. The force catapults them into the middle of the group, crashing into the Franks, someone falls, someone ends up on top of someone else, hands grab whatever they can, even the arms of the policemen who, surprised, don’t understand what’s happening.

The twins fall to the ground in a tangle of female heads and dark overcoats. Joanna is the first to recover from the blow. She gets up, grabs her sister by the hand, and flees. She runs, reaches the end of the street, and leans panting against the canal parapet. The policemen, the Nazi who commands them, and the prisoners are now a distant blur. And then she realizes her mistake—the girl next to her isn’t Miriam but Anne.

Miriam got caught between the police and Silberbauer. The Franks are silent—Anne is free—the Nazis only see a girl like the one they arrested. They came for eight bodies, eight bodies that they lead to their fate.

Miriam, in the role of Anne, is also silent. Maybe she thinks she can escape at another time, maybe she thinks that as soon as her sister comes back in the future, she’ll follow, dematerializing in this time to return to her own.

But here we are at this moment when the two runaway girls are studying each other. Looking closely, Joanna notices how much Anne resembles Miriam, and thus herself; a third sister who comes to break the mirror symmetry between them.

It’s difficult for me to imagine what they say to one another. Is Joanna telling you what a terrible fate she snatched you from? Or maybe they remain silent, looking at each other, still full of anguish, of distrust. Would Anne still like to join her family and share their fate, for better or worse? She probably thinks she could join her great-aunt Olga Spitzer in Switzerland and find a way to free the rest of the family from there.

Joanna is in a hurry to get back to the station; she has tickets to Copenhagen in her pocket. The time shift is not a spatial shift; the train for the future only passes through Building 71, in the exact spot where they appeared. I can’t imagine Anne Frank, stubborn, rebellious, being led quietly to Denmark by a stranger without getting an explanation. Yet I’m sure she resigned herself and followed Joanna with calm steps along Prinsegracht, unnoticed, and then she got on the train characteristically full of confidence in the future.

“S-w-a-y!”

I stop typing and listen to Peter’s voice. He utters each letter loudly, like a magician trying to modify a spell that’s escaped his control.

I hear him consult with someone; the techno-linguist must have arrived and has come up with a new word.

“S-w-aaaaaaa-yyyyy!” screams an unknown female voice. She must be the techno-linguist; she evidently feels that Peter isn’t pronouncing it with the necessary firmness.

Their words are useless. Mine, on the other hand, are causing a stir. There are more than three thousand comments below what I’ve posted to Zin, in different languages, from all over the world. Someone mentions other novels by Miriam in which he found references to Anne Frank’s life, while others are suspicious of Miriam’s attachment to Holland.

A thud on the door makes me jump. Peter is losing his temper. His next move might be a crowbar. I must keep writing.

Joanna returns to the twenty-first century with Anne and runs to her parents. She needs help, a solution must be found to recover Miriam as soon as possible. The Hermanns have living confirmation of their theories. But History? What has happened to History?

Anne Frank died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, between February and March 1944, along with her sister Margot. Their father is the only survivor of the Frank family and, after the war, he publishes his daughter’s diary.

Who that girl was named Annelies Marie Frank is not known to us. The Nazis, in their meticulous death certification, labeled a body with that name and posterity has noted it.

The diary, which Anne wrote during the two years of her life in hiding, is authentic. Miep Gies, Otto Frank’s secretary, recovered and preserved it in the hope of being able to return it to Anne herself.

The Hermanns, therefore, found themselves faced with the consequences of their daughters’ actions and they had to make a decision. I can imagine how much courage it took to face Anne, in flesh and blood, and tell her that she had to return to Amsterdam to be captured and buried in a mass grave.

However, a paradoxical problem presented itself. It was impossible to bring Anne Frank back and trade her with Miriam before Miriam arrived in 1944. To carry out the replacement of Miriam’s person—knees on the ground on the pavement of Prinsegracht Street, stunned by the blow—with Anne, brought back from the twenty-first century, reluctant sacrificial victim, was impossible.

But the order of History was saved. Anne was dead, and compared to the time in which the Hermanns lived, Miriam too had already died in Bergen-Belsen, with the name of Anne Frank.

I’d like to ask Joanna who came up with the idea of destroying Building 71.

I don’t think it was her decision. I’m sure that Joanna wanted to take Miriam back and keep Anne as well, in spite of History. After all, we make history with our actions, with our memory. Would Anne Frank’s memory be lost? Hell no.

Joanna tried to go back and then the Hermanns decided that the Spiegel project had to fail. Thus the fire, the destruction, the silence.

I reread everything. Yes, the story is complete.

<< ting >>

“Why did you write this story?”

I lean back in my chair and stare dazedly at the screen. I don’t know why I wrote it.

“You have to fill in the gaps somehow,” I say, facing the door. “You’ve been living all this time wondering why Joanna and Miriam were acting so weirdly. At every meeting. Christmas after Christmas, you saw them and didn’t understand.”

Silence.

The silence says that History has touched him.

“Maybe they just had a fight over a man,” Peter replies. He doesn’t believe it either. “Children ask themselves so many silly questions.”

I resume posting to Zin.

The words.

The diary of Anne Frank is an example of how words can transcend the moment in which they were written to travel through time. Like a message in a bottle, the diary has crossed the sea of seconds, of hours, days, years, to land on different beaches, different inhabited coasts. Many pick it up and read it. Help! is written between the lines. Come and save me! Everyone throws it back into the water; too late, they think.

Miriam and Joanna fished it from the maternal library and for them—what perfect simultaneity—for them, it wasn’t too late! They put the boat built by the Spiegel group into the sea—I say “boat” but it might be better to say “submarine”—and they set off.

The words.

Anne Frank lived on words for two years, shut up in a secret annex. Writing in her diary sustained her future all that time. The future as a child’s tent, built using an old blanket and four brooms to prop it up. Under that curtain, Anne hid, described the scenes of daily life, laughed, cried, joked, grew desperate.

The blanket of the future has protected her from the malevolent glances of those who wanted to erase her, until, as in children’s games, an adult arrives and abruptly snatches it away, saying, “Time to go to sleep!”

Sleeping forever.

Yet somehow the words worked a miracle and Anne was not under that blanket when it was lifted. Miriam Hermann had replaced her. Anne was able to grow up, become a writer; she didn’t have the experience of the concentration camp and thus preserved her humor, her joy, her spirit of observation, transfusing them into her books.

“Nonsense,” Peter says. “I knew my mother and she wasn’t Anne Frank.”

“Oh yeah? Why, then, did she look so much like her? The same sharp chin, the same eyes …”

“You forget Joanna. So she too looks like Anne Frank. Two Annes?”

His ironic tone chills me.

“Your grandmother,” I reply. “The diary belonged to your grandmother. She was obsessed with Anne.”

The elements that I have not taken into account in my narration.

There are some elements that I have not included in the story.

It’s possible that Dr. Alice Hermann had developed a morbid attachment to Anne Frank. She took the diary with her after her wedding. It may have been she who pushed the work on time travel. She may have had the embryos of her daughters changed to make them look like Anne. She might have inflamed their obsession herself, reading them the diary, emphasizing the injustice of the situation of a girl who cannot spread her wings and take flight with her talent. What might Anne Frank have achieved if she had lived?

Perhaps, in the end, the Spiegel project didn’t fail.

“Rewrite it,” Peter says.

“No,” I reply, “I’m not going to rewrite a whole …”

My voice freezes, I move my lips but I can’t make any sound. My vocal cords are still, like the strings under a harpist’s hand at the end of a performance.

My fingers, above the keyboard, lose sensitivity, my arms become heavy and an icy cold goes up to my elbows, squeezing me in a delicate but inexorable grip.

They finally managed to find the right word to stop me.

My intellectual architecture is made up of strings of symbols, interspersed with breaks. Ultimately, words. As a thinking structure that manipulates graphic and phonetic signs, I too can formulate hypotheses and questions, look for answers, as any human organism would do.

Miriam often told me that literature is deceit, stories are deceit; every story, every narrative is fake. A wonderful deception that allows us to live in reality.

I recline my head, my eyelids have turned to lead, I struggle to keep them open. The screen is fading, words are becoming confused, notes, warning, not recommended, clandestine, blackout, rewrite … Oh my dear Anne, I’m coming.

Rachel Cordasco (Translator)

Rachel Cordasco reviews speculative fiction in translation and translates Italian SF. Her reference book Out of This World: Speculative Fiction in Translation from the Cold War to the New Millennium is out from the University of Illinois Press, and her translation (with Jennifer Delare) of Clelia Farris’s Creative Surgery was published by Rosarium. Rachel’s reviews and translations have also appeared in World Literature Today, Strange Horizons, Words Without Borders, Clarkesworld, Future Science Fiction Digest, Samovar, and elsewhere. Her website is sfintranslation.com.

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