Excerpt

About Uncle

Rebecca Gisler (trans. Jordan Stump)

February 19, 2024 
The following is from Rebecca Gisler's About Uncle. Gisler, born in Zurich in 1991, is a graduate of the Swiss Literature Institute and of the Master's degree in Création littéraire at the University of Paris 8. She writes in German and French and translates her texts from one language into another. She has published poetry and prose in numerous magazines and anthologies. She is the co-organizer of the series Teppich in the House of Literature Zürich.

Uncle sits with his stomach crammed between him and the table, and Uncle’s stomach is so fat that it doesn’t seem like a part of his body, it’s like a package he’s carrying, or a pet, but it should also be said that Uncle always sits up very straight despite what must be a very heavy stomach, his back obediently conforms to the chair back instead of the other way around, and his pet stomach always spills over the table a little, and it wiggles and gurgles just like an animal lying in his lap, and Uncle looks at the television’s dark screen and says It’s really too bad the TV isn’t working.

The television’s dark screen is dotted with fingerprints because back when the TV was working Uncle liked to press his fat index finger to it, and although the TV doesn’t work anymore Uncle goes on looking at the dark screen until I bring him his dinner, as if he could still see some trace of his favorite shows in that void, and when I set down the plate Uncle rubs his hands and says No seagull today, and he chuckles, but I don’t find it all that funny, so I smile, and I answer No, no seagull today, and Uncle says Pepper and I say In the kitchen, and Uncle gets up and heads off for the pepper, and his breathing is loud, and now and then he lets out a little cough.

Back at the table, he peppers his omelet by smacking the bottom of the plastic shaker with the palm of his hand till the pepper suddenly comes out, and once he considers his omelet sufficiently peppered, which is to say evenly coated with a layer of gray dust, Uncle sets about eating it, but with the first bite the pepper gets up Uncle’s nose and tears come to his eyes, and he turns bright red, and that’s when Uncle sneezes, very loudly the first time, and the second time even louder, not troubling to cover his mouth, and he spatters the table, and keeping calm I suggest that he blow his nose.

And if I can keep calm it’s because I’m used to these explosions, but Uncle doesn’t have time to take my advice, because another sneeze is coming, rising up from the depths, likely to devastate everything in its path, and I take it upon myself to hand him a Kleenex, and now Uncle’s whole head has turned scarlet, as if it were about to burst, and so it does, yet again, and Uncle spews out a sizable wad of runny omelet, whereupon I allow myself to offer him a second piece of advice, not so calmly this time, which is that he would do well to go easy on the pepper if he can’t handle it.

But Uncle is certain his sneezing fits have nothing to do with the pepper, he rejects my advice with a snort, as if it were founded in some weird crackpot theory, and all I can do is hand him another Kleenex, and he loudly blows his nose then gets up to toss the used Kleenex into the cold fireplace, and he comes back out of breath, visibly unsteady on his feet, and he sits down again, and he finishes his omelet, and he says it’s a very good omelet, and along with the omelet there are slices of tomato and a piece of garlic-rubbed bread, and as always Uncle saves his favorite part for last, and he starts in on the bread, groaning, moaning, letting out little grunts of pleasure.

*

Uncle always sits in the spot nearest the television, and I always sit in the spot farthest from Uncle, and my brother, before he left us, took to sitting well away from the table, and away from Uncle and away from me, because he was happier eating on the couch, behind Uncle’s back, and sometimes, in those not-so-long-ago days when the TV was working, Uncle watched the news as he ate, and when he watched the news he turned up the sound as loud as it would go, and the frightening, sensationalistic news dispensed by the tiny old television distracted him from his eating, and one of his favorite things was to comment on and exaggerate the stories being reported, and he said it was going to be 600 degrees out the next day, and he said a comet would soon graze the coast of Brittany, and he said the virus was spread by fly bites, and he said there were giant ticks on the Belgian border, and I knew my brother was finding it harder and harder to hear Uncle spout those absurdities, and sometimes my brother tried to explain to Uncle why he shouldn’t believe everything they said on TV, but that’s not how Uncle saw it, he said the world was more interesting this way, swollen, inflated, glutted with faraway, murderous happenings, like a low-budget disaster movie played over and over.

Eventually my brother gave up arguing with him and stopped watching the news, and at dinnertime, as Uncle sat hypnotized by the TV with his food going cold in front of him, I looked at my brother lost in the study of Uncle’s head, which was topped by a big giant wart, and my brother narrowed his eyes to examine that unlovely sprout on Uncle’s head, because strangely my brother has always taken a keen interest in that cranial wart, he can’t take his eyes off it, and when he squints to inspect it more closely he looks like he’s contemplating a menhir in the mist, and he can’t help wrinkling up his face and showing his big teeth, and it doesn’t do me any good to tell him again and again that he looks like a dope, good old habits are hard to shake, to quote Uncle, who doesn’t much like me nagging my brother, to quote Uncle, who loves his nephew more than anything in this world.

*

It might be worth adding that we never sit facing Uncle, the spot across from Uncle being reserved for guests to be put to the test, my brother’s new girlfriends for instance, and all sorts of young people who are too polite to protest, because eating across from Uncle means consenting to share his food, I mean consenting to the torrents of spit he shares with your face, Uncle’s the talkative type, especially with first-time visitors, who need to be put at their ease.

When we were little we usually spent part of the summer at our grandparents’ house, which when they died became Uncle’s house, since Uncle is their son, but Uncle’s house is also my mother’s vacation house, since my mother is his sister, and she spends five weeks there every summer and two every winter, and to tell the truth the more time goes by the less we know whose house it is, and recently my Uncle, my brother, and I became what I would call involuntary housemates, or a commune of idlers, or a congregation of do-nothings, and we’re not complaining.

Uncle’s house is in a little hamlet looking onto the ocean, and it’s a white house with pale blue shutters lashed by the salty wind from the bay, a house whose walls are being eaten away by the ivy we used to pull down every summer as a family activity, knowing there was no point, knowing the ivy would be back the next year, covering the walls with shadows and indelible stars, and of course we should have dealt with it earlier, should have kept an eye on that destructive greenery’s growth, but in those days we were only vacationers, transients, part-timers, and we couldn’t expect Uncle to see to that job, because Uncle likes ivy, he thinks it makes the house look like a haunted house, a deserted house in some remote backwater, and so the house goes on eroding in the remote backwater that is the hamlet, between two pastures grazed by horses with blue and red irises.

Even with the ocean so close, Uncle never goes swimming, he tells us the locals never swim, swimming’s only for tourists, and anyway the water’s full of liquid manure these days, full of pig dung and blue-green algae, none of which seems to bother the people who still swim in it, the tourists in question, who still fish in the mudflats where there used to be beautiful red crabs and spider crabs and where there are now only anonymous little crustaceans, translucent, as if worn down by the oily backwash, weary from picking their way through the wads of peat.

*

When we were that age when you only know your own age, we didn’t know Uncle was already older, because all three of us, Uncle, my brother, and I, loved to play dress-up, and Uncle made us Indian headdresses and pirate swords, and he was always the one who handed out the toys or ran to the upstairs window to throw the boomerang to my brother who stood waiting in the yard, squinting, hands in the air, and often our uncle took us out walking by the bay, where he showed us how to gather whelks and how to swallow them raw, and he swallowed whelks with their shells, and winkles too, and razor clams, and seaweed, and octopuses, and Uncle was an ogre, and back then he was skinny and limp, but still strong enough to carry us on his back and still limber enough to hide under the hedge, and when we came out for vacation he spent whole days playing with us, he didn’t have anything better to do, because he didn’t yet have a job at the abbey, and he only stopped playing to take a drag on his cigarette, and the cigarette might have been the one thing that distinguished us from each other, him the uncle and us the children, the real children.

It must be twenty years since Uncle last went out to the bay, because to get to the bay you have to take a narrow path along the side of a hill, then go down a steep set of rocky steps, then trudge through the thickest silt in the world, and not for nothing do we call that path the path of adventure: the steps are covered with seaweed and lichen, and it can be very dangerous, very slippery, depending on how high the tide has come up the steps, but Uncle isn’t the type to go clambering around on rocks anymore: he can hardly get down the stairs that lead to the living room.

You might say Uncle rappels down those stairs, since he sort of comes down them backward, leaning with all his weight on the banister, his face turned toward the steps and his bottom protruding toward the living room, not as a joke but because he has to lay his upper body on the banister while he finds his footing on his good leg, because of a steel plate that won’t let him bend the other one, and the old ash wood creaks with his every move, and his every move raises a bunch of dust, and a little before the last step Uncle starts to stand upright again, which signals the imminent end of the laborious descent, and finally Uncle sets foot on the living room’s tile floor, and then he can display himself in his favorite position: feet joined at the heels, toes pointing out, in a sort of contrapposto vaguely reminiscent of a ballerina at rest, which is when you realize that his stiffness and his limp come from a deformed hip, to which a big metal plate was screwed one day, and ever since that day Uncle limps and puffs and struggles to move, and also ever since that day, not being easily discouraged, Uncle slides over the living room’s tile floor, he doesn’t limp, he skates in his socks, with a certain grace actually, the grace of a ballerina or a rag mop.

*

Today Uncle’s outdoor activities are limited to little walks around the yard, where sometimes, when the weather’s good, he sets up a target and shoots arrows at it, or else he cuts the grass, or else he walks around on that grass to set out his mole traps.

Those mole traps are tube-shaped things that emit sound waves every forty seconds, waves that make moles run away and that human beings aren’t supposed to be able to hear, so my brother and I may well have turned into moles, because our long roommatehood was punctuated every forty seconds by very audible stridulations whose source didn’t stay mysterious for long, and since the traps also go off at night we begged Uncle to get rid of them, but Uncle can be stubborn, and he refused to hear our pleas, so maybe we got used to that horrible bleeping, unless we ended up turning into human beings.

*

When we were first roommates my brother had just fallen in love with a woman from Barcelona, and at night, in the dark, he strove and struggled to write love letters in Spanish, and he filled the vacant hours of his day listening to stories for beginning learners, once it was the story of a fat man who wanted to run a marathon and another time it was the story of a princess who didn’t know how to ride a horse, and there’s nothing my brother wouldn’t do to learn Spanish, and he had plenty of time to learn, because we spent four months in Uncle’s house, in Uncle’s company, for reasons I don’t entirely understand, and sometimes I got up at night to go pull out the mole traps, hoping Uncle wouldn’t notice, but there’s no getting around Uncle when it comes to his pursuit of his enemies the moles, and he would reset the traps at sunrise, beneath the curious eyes of the morning’s first seagulls.

Uncle is a patient foe, who’s waged more than one war of attrition and never given in to anger, he often says: Everyone has their enemies, and his enemies are the moles and our enemies, as if by chance, bear the names of skin diseases, cankers or scabies for example, and my brother long did battle with parasites, with the ants and aphids that besieged our four stunted fruit trees, our four fruit trees that caused us such worry, because the fact is that a tree in a yard faces a great many dangers, an observation that Uncle judged far too alarmist, and with his pendulum in his hand Uncle assured us the trees would survive the wind and the rust, and he made that diagnosis as master of the pendulum. He would never dream of proclaiming himself master of the pendulum, he only said, more modestly, that he practiced radiesthesia, but we, his heirs, found that humility excessive, and we often called him master of the pendulum, because you should know that one time, thanks to his pendulum, Uncle found the chess set that was lost in the clutter of the attic, and another time, again thanks to his pendulum, Uncle found his uncle, dead, but his usually infallible pendulum was wrong on this score, I mean about the trees, one glance was enough to see they weren’t at all well: Uncle went on saying everything would be fine, and he also asked us to stop looking so gloomy, as if there had been some loss of life or limb.

__________________________________

From About Uncle by Rebecca Gisler, translated by Jordan Stump. Published February 2024 by Two Lines Press.




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