Table of Contents
Also by Jutta Richter
The Cat, Or, How I Lost Eternity
The Summer of the Pike
Sometimes we just gotta get away.
Anywhere it's summer.
To the south . . . maybe.
To the sea . . . maybe.
Off we go and it smells like sun and wind.
Off we go and it smells like fish and tar and brine.
Off we go and the swallows are seagulls.
We turn the corner.
There's the station.
And beyond the station,
We know for sure,
Beyond the station lies the sea.
THERE ARE GOOD DAYS, too.
The days of the farmers' market, where the sellers give away their goods at the end for free. A container of overripe strawberries. Or the bananas with the brown spots. And the last of the cold sausages from the grill, along with the stale bread.
On the good days, Cosmos and Niner sit by the river in the evenings. They sit on the sandy beach, where the little fires are burning. The driftwood fires. The others sit a little farther down. Bald Pete and Harmonica Johnny, Red Elsa and Buddy Sloop with his glass eye. But Cosmos won't have anything to do with that bunch. Those are the bums, the drunkards, the beach pirates, the bridge sleepers.
“We don't belong here, Niner. Not us!” Cosmos says.
The container of overripe strawberries stands between them. And two plastic bags, bursting with everything Cosmos owns. Cosmos guards those bags like the apple of his eye. No one is allowed to look inside, not even Niner.
“You keep your paws off, sonny!” says Cosmos. “That's my personal property!”
And Niner admires Cosmos because he's all grown up
and wears a baseball cap. And because he always pulls through, one way or another.
Cosmos is strong.
Cosmos knows his way around.
You can depend on Cosmos, though you can't tell by looking at him, 'cause he turned out a bit too scrawny.
His eyes didn't. They're big and black and wise, a little like a crow's, and when he's angry those eyes shoot sparks. Then no one dares to touch him. Not even Bald Pete.
Cosmos has been out on the streets since forever. Or at least that's what he says.
And actually Niner can't imagine it any other way.
Cosmos knows everything.
Niner is a different story. Niner is only nine.
Niner has cold feet most of the time.
Niner ducks away.
The only thing Niner does well is balance; balance and climb. Niner climbs up house walls.
He used to practice climbing. Until just a week ago.
Mama had always left the window open, secretly. She left the window open all night. So Niner could climb in while everyone was sleeping.
“You've got to stay out of his way,” she had said. “The best thing is not to come till nighttime. At night he's sleeping,
and he can't hurt you. I'll leave the window open,” Mama said. “I'll leave your dinner on the kitchen table. But you must be really quiet, understand? Just make yourself invisible, and nothing will happen to you.”
But then something happened to Mama, and they took her away in an ambulance with blue lights.
Now the window's closed and Niner can't get in. And there's no dinner on the table. Not for eight days now.
THAT WAS THE FIRST time Niner was left all alone. Alone on the street, alone in the city, eight days and nights. And if he hadn't met Cosmos, he wouldn't have had a chance.
“You look like you ran away from home, and you walk like you want to be found.”
“And how would you know?”
“Because you jumped when I called out to you instead of turning around slowly. Now leave me alone!”
And Cosmos walked on. But after he'd taken a few steps, Niner ran after him.
“Wait up! Wait for me! Where're you going?”
Cosmos pretended not to hear.
“I wanna go to the sea!”
Cosmos still pretended not to hear.
“It's warm by the sea!” Niner yelled. “By the sea, it's
summer. By the sea, there are houses standing empty. We could go to the sea together.”
Suddenly, Cosmos stood still and looked like someone who knew exactly how to get to the sea.
“To the sea together?”
“Yeah. Together, you and me. I'm Niner,” he said, bowing and holding his hand out to Cosmos.
Cosmos shook it and said, “Cosmos. I'm Cosmos.”
ON THE GOOD DAYS, Cosmos and Niner sit by the river in the evenings. Behind them is the embankment, and behind that, a high retaining wall. Above are the gardens with the koi ponds. And among the gardens are white villas with alarm systems and columns, and the broad terraces that always seem so empty and deserted, 'cause there's never anyone there in the evenings. Not even in the summer.
On the good days, Cosmos and Niner sit by the river in the evenings, and sometimes a ship goes by, because the river here is pretty wide and there's a channel down the middle.
They talk about the sea and their trip, and when they're setting out.
“You've gotta plan it all out exactly,” Cosmos says. “What's planned well turns out well.”
“What d'you think the sea's like? Is it blue or is it green?” Niner asks.
“Blue, of course. Very blue. After all, it reflects the sky.”
“What d'you think the sea tastes like? Salty or sweet?” Niner asks.
“Salty, of course. It tastes very salty. After all, fish don't swim in sugar water.”
“And what d'you think the sea smells like?” Niner asks.
“Like fish, of course. And tar and seaweed.”
Then they look out at the river and daydream about the sea, and when Niner closes his eyes, he can see it. He sees big waves crashing on the beach with white foam crests. He can even hear the gulls screeching.
AND THEN SUDDENLY, NINER remembers the story of Little Hobbin. Mama used to tell it to him when he was very little. She used to tell it whenever he had a sore throat. In the evenings, when Niner had trouble falling asleep.
Little Hobbin had wanted to go away too. And his bed had wheels on it. One night, he made his sheet into a sail and puffed his cheeks out. He blew and blew, and off he went.
The cat was meowing, the moon was bright, the stars were twinkling, and Little Hobbin sailed up into the sky, right over the patient old moon's nose, all night long.
“Mama, when will you put wheels on my bed?” Niner had asked.
“When you're all better, Little Hobbin!” Mama answered. “When you're all better!” and she laughed.
Early in the mornings, first thing, Mama always went off to work. To earn money at Fisher and Frost, in the factory. There was a horn there, and it blew morning, noon, and night. It sounded just like the horn on the big ships.
Niner would lay in his bed, the one without wheels, and out the window he would watch the light creep up into the sky. Then the horn blew, the big ship's horn at Fisher and Frost. It blew Niner right out to sea on a great big steamer bound for Australia. Then it blew again, and soon after Mama was hugging Niner in her arms, so happy to be with her Little Hobbin again.
Mama had always smelled a little like fish. Like fish and salt water. And she always said it came from earning money.
“MONEY,” COSMOS SAYS SUDDENLY. “We need money, Niner! You can't get to the sea without money. You'll be in this city forever if you've got no money. Eating rotten bananas and rummaging around in garbage cans the rest of your life.”
“Oh, man, I wanna go to the sea!” Niner says. “I'll do anything to get there.”
“Even walk on your hands?”
“Even walk on my hands!”
“You're a nutjob!” says Cosmos, laughing to himself. “I once knew a dog just like you, black and little, and he was always waggin' his tail.”
For a little while, it's quiet again. Only the river murmuring as it flows by, and the factory horn at Fisher and Frost blowing faintly in the distance.
“What was it actually like when you were little?” Niner asks.
“Dunno,” says Cosmos. “Can't remember. I was never little.”
“But everyone was little once,” says Niner.
Cosmos thinks it over.
“Maybe you're right. But I don't know much no more.”
“So tell me . . .”
Cosmos wrinkles his forehead and squints his eyes, as if he were trying to make out something far away, on the other side of the river. Then he pushes his red baseball cap back toward his neck and says:
“There was a high hedge, when I was little . . . it was real thick, so thick you couldn't see through it. I would walk along it on my way to old Sadie's. Sadie owned the stand on the corner. She always had a white smock on, and she always
had time. She was at least a hundred years old, and she looked like a shriveled old turtle. But she had the best raspberry suckers I've ever tasted. And I got my name from her too. She always called me Cosmos, 'cause supposedly I was like a seaman she'd once known. He'd sailed around the world and was called Cap'n Cosmos. âYou're his spittin' image, Cosmos! Here, have a sucker. But just suck it, no biting!' old Sadie would say.”
Niner watches Cosmos as he talks, and he sees a smile starting to spread over Cosmos's face. The kind of smile that starts in the eyes and creeps down over the nose to the lips, until suddenly, Cosmos is beaming like the sun.
Now he's Cosmos of the sunny face.
And Niner says, “Go on, Cosmos, tell me more. Tell me what was behind the high hedge!”
“What was behind the hedge?”
Cosmos hesitates, thinking it over. He bites his lower lip, and for a moment Niner is afraid that Cosmos won't tell him anymore. But then Cosmos takes a deep breath and says:
“You want to know what was behind the high hedge? I warn you, that ain't for sissies! That's where the forbidden park was, see,” says Cosmos. “That's where the Fisher and Frost people lived in a mansion. The mansion was as big as a
castle, and it had at least thirty rooms, a swimming pool, a sauna, and a marble terrace. And in the evenings the forbidden park was patrolled by two dogs, huge as calves they were, foaming at the mouth, and always the pair of them together. Old Sadie remembered how one time the dogs had torn a child right to pieces. First they bit 'im to death, and then tore him up. âDon't ever go in there, Cosmos!' old Sadie always said. âPromise me that! Don't ever go in there!'
“The forbidden park was so forbidden that the others shook in their boots just thinking about it. But I was Cosmos, I had the name of a seaman, and I wasn't afraid of nothin' or nobody. Especially not some stupid forbidden park belonging to Fisher and Frost,” says Cosmos.
“There!” And he rolls his sleeve up to show Niner an ugly wide scar.
“I conquered the dogs,” whispers Cosmos. “They were foaming at the mouth, and there were two of them, huge as calves! One bit me right there. The other came from behind.”
“But . . . but, how'd you do it?” asks Niner.
“Hypnosis!” says Cosmos. “Simple hypnosis. 'Course, you gotta know how! You have to pin them. You have to look 'em right in the eye, without blinking. You can't show fear. You keep that in mind, Niner. The most important
thing is, you can't show fear! If you show no fear, the dogs will start wimpering, and then they'll tuck in their tails and let go. It's true!”
“And then?” asks Niner.