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Short Stories

Adelheid Duvanel

Inner Tumult (1978)

Through the open balcony door I can see a yellow plastic lounge chair next to the banister. Wotanek, seated at the table nearby, is using the little finger of his left hand to massage his broken incisor with such fervor that you would think he anticipates some effect from this massage. I’ve known Wotanek for a long time; his hunched-over posture is typical for him. When he was a little kid no one wanted to play with him, because he always dropped the ball. Later, he acquired the name “Dopey Motion” from his wife Helga, a true ice princess. On their wedding day she kissed him on the tip of his nose, and it immediately froze. I’ve known Helga only a short time, so I don’t know anything about her earlier life. She is a tall woman with hairy legs and always wears white gym shoes.

As a child Wotanek rebelled with a persistence that was astonishing. His rejection of the playing rules of our world was so effective that even his facial muscles gave up. In time he lived walled up, unrecognized, entirely in concealment. I suspect that this type of existence developed from an extraordinary sensitivity. He was an orphan and had never known his father, an apothecary, a man who, in his free time, filled lengthy strips of paper with attempts to solve a mathematical problem. Finally, taking the failure of his efforts to heart, he committed suicide. The mother had died some time before out of sorrow over this man. Because Wotanek was not able to mourn the death of his parents he secretly grieved when he saw bare branches that the wind swung about in front of the sky like pieces of a torn-up net unable to catch anything. Was there any prey besides the little Wotanek? Even the everlasting melancholy of the orphanage cat upset him, and there was no one with whom he would share his spiritual pain.

The boy’s seemingly stony composure irritated his teachers. He understood their non-comprehension but regarded them blissfully as his enemies and secretly hated them. Sometimes, however, this single joy abandoned him; then he believed he was a wart that would have to be cauterized.

When Helga, the young teacher, came to the orphanage, Wotanek had already created a dear little internal tumult that bit him to death, dug a hole for his corpse, and out of despair over his death blasted the nights with its howling. Wotanek was ripe for love, almost happy, and he stayed that way when Helga married him on the day he came of age. Of course, she lost her position as teacher, but since she was industrious she worked in various professions to the satisfaction of her supervisors. She spoiled and humbled Wotanek, who became sickly now and in a few years was nothing more than a beautiful skeleton that scrunched down in an armchair reading. Whenever Helga strode through the apartment after work she hummed, “Up, you young hiker,” which did not seem to irritate Wotanek. Now he lived, so to speak, behind two walls: the wall of his face and the covers of his books. And he had even concealed himself from himself, with the result that he did not confess to himself that his wife—whom he had, with youthful exaltation, mistaken for the tumult — was a disappointment. He became mute, did not even hold conversations with himself.

Walking quietly, I move closer to Wotanek in the room at the spa where he is spending the last days of his life with the messenger of death after an operation. He is dealing patiently with the pain. On the other side of the balcony I see meadows on which tumors of snow rise like the remains of a sickness, and above a precipice—its base overgrown with holly—a coniferous tree stretches to touch the uncommunicative sky. As the lake far down below breathes, its scaly skin moves. I bend over Wotanek’s short, lead-colored hair and whisper: “Wotanek, it is I, your tumult…” Slowly he turns his stiff face with the nose minus its tip toward me. His gaze prepared only for the written word, he spells me with some effort; then his eyes open wide. I place my hands on his ears, bend low over him and bite into his throat. Now I will dig a grave and scream.


“Inner Tumult” (1978) by Adelheid Duvanel. Translated by Patricia H. Stanley and published in The Writer in Her Writing: The Selected Short Stories of Adelheid Duvanel, published by University Press of America. Appears by permission of Patricia H. Stanley and University Press of America. All rights reserved. Please contact the publisher for permission to copy, distribute or reprint.