Room 10

Zimmer 10
translated by Amanda DeMarco

The doctors don’t know which disease Niza has. Limp-handed, they lay their needles to her numb limbs.

You can see the outlines of my underwear through my uniform. The anesthetic cabinet is open, and I slowly read the labels on the vials. My shift began two hours ago and I’ve already taken two breaks. During the first one I drank instant coffee, and during the second one I counted my freckles in the public bathroom. In room 8 there’s a UN official who had a stroke in Gaza. His pupils are different sizes and his one eyelid hangs down as if his eyeball had crawled up into its socket. He’s watching Netflix, encircled by med school students.

I say it a thousand times those first days: Look, Niza! Are you able to…? Niza doesn’t look and isn’t able and I smoke three quick overpriced cigarettes out of embarrassment with the transfusion patients in the glassy shadows of the hospital towers.

The man in room 5 won’t wake up anymore. He’s just about brain dead, but sadly not all the way. I sit on one of those ergonomic chairs with my back hyperextended and try to look productive, and his wife stumbles around in the hallway struggling to maintain composure and crying into her phone. The students are beside themselves. Number 5’s relatives show home videos and photos to his breathing remains and try to make him, the person they knew, happy.

Niza, I say, come on, we’re going to eat a scrambled egg. But I don’t eat anything at all. Niza has skin like soft leather and thick silver hair and long nails. Your hair is so nice, I say. And, what do you do for a living? Niza is an Arabic teacher at the high school. Niza has always lived here. Niza has a family who visits her, and Niza and I have the same shampoo. It’s tough, says Niza. And, Ow, ow. I sing, “You are a sea, a vast sea, full of feelings, and of dreams,” and stroke her resinous shin.

When Niza calls for help, I’m allowed to sit next to her and say: They’re busy but they haven’t forgotten you, Niza. Or, when push comes to shove, I walk to the door and claim I’m looking out and they’ve seen me and my imploring face and will come at any moment.

So basically my only option is to keep talking.

The question is whether we are enough for ourselves, or if my presence itself is too much. The only thing that’s scarce is a kindly word, so scarce that I carry a piece of paper in my wallet that says THIS IS A KINDLY WORD, just in case. I’ll bring one for you too tomorrow, Niza.

I feed Niza protein-rich pudding, and when I get too close to her face it makes me gag. Ochre-colored traces of food are caught between her teeth like krill. After eight days, all that’s left of her hair is a wretched halo and her eyelashes are so full of crud that they glow like they’re coated in gold dust.

I sing Niza songs in three languages. I tell stories about a bear whose ice cream melts while he waits for his working bear-mother to get home. It was the sun, Niza! Can you believe that! Picture this, yesterday after work it was so windy, and I ran down the promenade along the beach singing, imagine it, I sent my beloved salt air, he’s sitting in Berlin with a cold right now you know, Niza.

I say that all to her, and when she eats yogurt I want to look away, but instead I stroke her sightless face. Why don’t you look? They’re cutting your brain out piece for piece in search of they-don’t-know-what. Don’t worry, I’ll remember for you, Niza. But I have to admit, at the Wailing Wall, I didn’t say a prayer for you, Niza. I only thought of it the next morning while I was cutting my hair with a nail scissors. Now you can see my freckles better.

You are a sea, a vast sea, full of feelings, and of dreams. The love of sight has rooted you in me, my Niza. A tomcat washed its face, and when my grandmother saw that, she said it would rain. Dear cat, dear cat, why is the cabinet shaking so? Is it the mouse, the mi-ma-mouse, that nibbles at every plate in the house, until there’s not enough for a louse!

Niza, how do you like my songs? I know another one: Hoch stand der Sanddorn am Strand von Hiddensee. Hiddensee is an island in the Baltic, I’ve never been there either, Niza, but you should go. You’d stand out nut-brown agains the chalk cliffs and the amber would feel good in your hands and sea buckthorn berries are awfully healthy.

The water line along the beach changes by the hour during storms, only Niza’s face remains colored chalk — brittle, abiding, careworn.

Time and again, promptly every quarter hour she emits the muffled, wordless sound that is her hardly urgent cry for help. No one says, “Woe is me!” anymore, and Niza knows that, maybe, because she just says “Ow, ow,” with the insistence of a clarion call but without its enthusiasm. Things that screech: car tires, un-oiled door hinges, possibly hyenas, and little toothless boys. Niza doesn’t screech.

She breathes evenly, even as she stares eyes wide open into her darkness in the neon-illuminated intensive care unit, waiting.

The thing that makes me feel sorriest for her is how bored she must be. No one pats her on the kneecap or the forehead, no one holds cinnamon or ammonia salts under her nose, and it’s been a long time since anyone stroked her skin with their bare hand.

“Depart from this building peacefully as you are able, we’ve done what we could,” should be inscribed in five languages on the inside of the automatic sliding doors, for even health professionals have expectations and handle disappointment poorly. And: “Recognize that you alone belong to you. Every birth is an eviction, every birth is an evacuation, every birth is a task. Embrace life with both arms, at least in the figurative sense.”

Niza has a tube now. I think about it at home in the bathtub, and I want to apologize but to who. She didn’t want to eat anymore. The nutritionist, who looked a bit hungry herself, shook her head sadly and said it wouldn’t work anymore without a tube. Niza was no longer consuming the necessary quantities of the necessary nutrients, and I asked myself, necessary for what? What’s left except Niza’s raw voice when she says, “It’s tough”?

Nurse Tali shows up, out of uniform. I look away so I don’t look at her. She’s beautiful.

Niza, I’ve been watching: swallows nest in the Wailing Wall. They won’t let me in the Dome of the Rock because I don’t know any prayers. The dead call out oaths to each other across the valley. They live in white cities, stone cities, we can’t read their names. The irrigation systems run dry at the border. The clocktower has managed to disappoint everyone, most of us on the hour. I’m fearful when you cough, Niza. Around the Dome is a garden. I’ve seen its front corner through the gate and a one-eyed cat, nothing more.

“Tautomers are two constitutional isomers with the same molecular formula that are in equilibrium, though through proton migration and the simultaneous switch of a double bond, they may transform into one another.”

I think that that’s the most beautiful image in the world. I give it to you, Niza. We’ll meet at my rock by the promenade, where you can see the city lit up with ambition, where the wild dogs dwell, where bare-breasted men walk along the promenade and school groups full of girls with braided scarves.

It’s lunchtime, Niza. I know. It’s lunchtime. No. Just have a spoonful. Aren’t you starving yet? There must be something left over of you, so that some pallbearer goes and pulls himself a muscle, or gets a tear, because our Niza, the queen, weighs as much even in death as a thousand white cities. Come on, we’re teasing, Niza, we don’t want to make it easy for them. No, I don’t want to.

Nurse Tali doesn’t speak any Russian and neither do I, but the woman we’re supposed to wash does. She clutches at the sheet. Nurse Tali takes it away from her and washes her anyway, and she turns red and gets angry and can’t defend herself, and I turn red and turn away. I take a break to forget your pale veins, which brand themselves on my memory the more often I speak of them.

For the past month I’ve been drinking a small cappuccino, please. The man at the juice bar and at the bistro both also know my order already, and at the cafe in my neighborhood, I’m already hated for sitting too long while I tell my friends about you on the phone, Niza. Hold on, I’ll wipe your face. Your skin is so soft. I know.

Adi gets a pension as a disabled veteran. His vertebrae are broken. They didn’t compensate us for them, he says, and he means his dead comrades.

He says I have wonderful earlobes. If I were his girl, he’d say to me: My salt.

Has anyone ever successfully offered you anything, Niza? Your eyes are getting shallower. Are you still listening? We’re going to wash you and I’ll keep talking to you, ok? Ok.

Adi used to give airbrush tattoos. Now he restores furniture and people mistake him for a homeless person. He used to have wife, she’s a lawyer and she lives with his son in Berlin. She used to be my salt, said Adi, and her name rolled off my tongue, until things fell apart.

Niza squirms. The water scatters frothy islands across her ribcage. At first it looked like she was missing a rib, but it turns out I miscounted. Don’t worry, Niza, you’re whole.


I’ll leave if somebody calls or if you want me to. Do you? Stay.

Good, should I just talk to you about something?


Well I could tell you about this burn I got, you can’t see it but it’s big. It happened yesterday. We were sitting on my favorite rock by the promenade and Nadja and Konstantin saw this building. We climbed up the scaffolding. Heard steps. We were beyond scared. A man showed up, and more men. They were guarding the unrolled tarpaper, the concrete pipes, and the sand. We smoked a cigarette with them on the roof, it was loud even though it was nighttime. They offered us a coffee. We were swaying a bit, on account of the Perfect Vodka with lemonade.


Harun can speak Swedish. He’d been to Munich, Ingolstadt, Nuremberg, Gera, Göttingen, Bremen, Schwerin, Kiel and the Kiel Federal Border Guard’s offices. He liked the Baltic and the trains. Nadja and Konstantin looked solemn and sad. Just Harun and I were laughing.

If you ever come to my city, you can always call me. And don’t forget to visit the Nativity Church, he said, beautiful, he said. I really never intended to go there, do you see, Niza. But I said, of course I won’t forget, and Nadja passed me the coffee, and we didn’t worry about questions of blame, we just screamed “Shit!” and my arm glowed like the Star of Bethlehem and her knee did too. Konstantin was at a loss and the nice men giggled in concern and we left and all of the bars had already closed, so we drove around in a taxi, limbs blazing, and bought on-sale chocolate bars and the sea still made me smile.

Yes, Niza, I’m afraid that now we have to see the Church of the Nativity. Even if Nadja is an atheist, though Adi’s tried to talk her out of it.

Niza is sleeping every time I see her now. She could be Sleeping Beauty or The Childlike Empress from The Neverending Story. Her room smells sweet, like baby puke and roasted apples. My burned skin is becoming reptile scales, cats’ tongues and the undersides of sage leaves. A transformation like her own.

What do you pine for, Niza? What do you long for? Each hour I change the pillows under the crook of your knees so that you don’t turn to windfall fruit. I would like to kiss you quietly on the forehead, but I’m sure that wouldn’t be polite.

Once again a woman stands in the hall with wet, exhausted eyes, her gaze directed upward so that nothing spills over

Tali’s right eye is bloodshot. She’s entering blood-sugar levels and joking around with me. You have another wound, Niza, and neither of us know where it came from. Were you ever in the desert? Sorry, I’ve asked that already. Nadja and I drove out there. At sundown we leaned our backs against one another and looked into the crater. Every time I lit a cigarette, it looked like the sky was exploding pink for just a second and then: the ember wrestles with the morning star, which is also called “Coming-of-Day.”

Later, in the midday heat, we draped towels over our heads like idiots and scaled the highest cliffs over the highway, and I tanned in the cancerous sun at the edge of the crater. We smoldered and the drivers stared covetously at us from their cars.

How deep down have you ever looked, Niza? What did you see there? This is paraffin ointment, it’s going to be a little cold, sorry about that. It’s still hard for me to grasp that you don’t react. I ask myself what you would say about my lipstick today. I look good, even with the uniform.

Niza, how are you?


“Room 10” first appeared in Edit Vol. 67, Summer 2015, Leipzig.


A Monologue Delivered by Duchess Sophie von Chotek, Assassinated in 1914 with Husband Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Translated from the Serbian by Cory Tamler and Željko Maksimović.

The Knife Thrower

“Le Lanceur des couteaux”; from La piqûre d’amour et autres textes; translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman

Love (“Amor”)

From The Complete Stories; Translated by Katrina Dodson