The Light in the West


by Nina George

Translated by Heidi Holzer

First published in World Literature Today, Volume 85, Issue 3 (May/June 2011), pp. 18–21.


The last time you stood this close to me, Marlene, the sky glowed red. Then it turned purple and finally deepened to navy blue, and as the horizon dipped into the sea the machine guns fired.

Under the red sky, your hair looked like dark brown algae, plastered to your pale, round head.

With dark patches under your closed lids and your shaky breaths, you moaned as though you were asleep and only dreaming of being on the run. I can still hear the sound of your breathing, louder than the waves of the Baltic Sea. Louder than the voices of the men who pulled us out of the water just short of the twelve-mile zone.

Whenever Raddeck tightened his grip on your arm, you whimpered in pain, a child trapped in a cold, watery nightmare. A nightmare that had been of my making. Would you have left without me? Would you have entered the water and headed for the light in the West?

As you lay there, overcome by fear, the captive of the 6th Border Brigade, you were the part of me I left behind when Raddeck forced me back into the sea. “Swim,” he said. “Go on! What are you waiting for? Swim to freedom.”

I was twenty.

You were sixteen.

The cranes flew over the land.

Under the purple sky, I swam across Lübeck Bay toward the light. It had always been that light from the Dahme lighthouse that had tugged at me. The light of freedom.

Freedom. It was word that always hid in dark corners and only rarely ventured onto the tongue. It feared the men in uniforms and the betrayal of those who smiled.

We could see the light near Dahme when we gazed across the bay from Boltenhagen and Redewisch, from the westernmost of the beaches accessible to us and from the cliffs behind Steinbeck. Whenever I stood on the sea cliffs by Großklützhöved, I wanted to reach this light in the West, in the Federal Republic of Germany, land of the capitalists.

Just as we are doing today.

Do you see it, Marlene? Do you see that light?

We called this cliff-lined coast the end of the world because we were not allowed to go past the white, rocky precipices. Beyond them, no-man’s land stretched all the way to Pötenitz and Priwall. No one surfed. There were no swimmers. No boats. No pilgrims. Only enormous watch towers, searchlights scanning the sand, patrols and lookouts staring out from buckthorn thickets. I wanted to take you with me past the end of the world and far beyond.

I knew precisely when one should never attempt the trip. Never on the weekend. Never in the middle of summer. Never near campgrounds. The guards formed a tight network; after all, there were plenty of volunteers to assist the border brigade, the transit police, the snitches who kept a close eye on anyone walking through the village with a paddle in hand. The spies who pawed through the mail and other people’s bags.

One should also not attempt it directly from Wismar Bay. Many had tried this at dawn in an attempt to reach the ferries plying their routes out past the twelve-mile zone. Raddeck told me all about it.

I believed him.

Who else should I have believed if not him?

He wanted to help us flee.

The two of us set out on a Wednesday in the spring of ’72, riding a raft. The air was scented with sea grass, and when they found us three hours later, we dove into the water and swam toward the light near Dahme.

Until they captured us.

They didn’t shoot. Raddeck had forbidden it. That treacherous navy man who liked to play a hand of skat and drink Oldesloer schnapps, and who could name all the colors of the sea.

I was the only one they returned to the sea, to the royal blue waters.

As I dove, the morning sky around the light changed color, first purple, then blue. Then the bullets struck foam from the waves. Had the gunmen missed at Raddeck’s orders? Could they no longer see me in the searchlight from the Russian helicopter that scanned the sea for me, searching for my head, which they could burst with a single shot? Or did it amuse them to see you handcuffed and lying on the bare deck?

No one knows except the sea, and the sea bears no witness.

I loved you so much. I love you still, Marlene. My feelings never went away.

I didn’t make it to Dahme’s light. A Danish lightship pulled me out of the water before I reached it, just as I’d decided to return to you, Marlene. I would have swum back. They had to lock me in the boiler room to thaw me out—and to prevent me from rejoining you. Where we’d have grown old together in prison’s hell. But we’d have been in one country, in the same jail, with the same walls surrounding us both.

And so I left you on your own. Like a child on a doorstep. They punished your family. Your brother was expelled from engineering school in Magdeburg. No stylist in the village would cut your mother’s hair. Your father first ate sand and then tried to hang himself. And he nearly succeeded. Stasi Intelligence started a file on your relatives.

Raddeck must have told you that I’d died. He did, didn’t he?

It was better that way. Better for everyone.

But it wasn’t true, Marlene.

Did you sense that the story was a lie, or did you find it easier to believe, to forget everything we could have had together beyond the end of the world?

Why did I wait so long to contact you, Marlene? Why now and not twenty years ago when the East-West divide vanished overnight? When we became one country without a Wall and without a Death Strip?

I was there, Marlene.

I saw you. And Raddeck. The children you bore him, Marlene. I followed you along the beaches that were now open to everyone. While the children were still small, you enjoyed trips to the Wohlenberger Wiek seashore, where the water was shallow and warm. But you never went in over your ankles.

You often took the family out for apple cake at the outdoor café behind Redewisch, by the rapeseed field near the edge of the cliffs along Großklützhöved. Did you remember that first autumn we spent together when we shared our first kiss on the sandy path leading to the rocky beach? It was the day we found two pieces of amber, petrified tears of the sea god’s daughter. Tears that the early northeasterly storms had cast up onto the shore. When you were still a little girl—nearly ten, and I thirteen—I offered you a kiss, but you refused it. “Never,” you said. I promised that you would still get the kiss someday. And less than five years later, you wanted it.

We swallowed our lumps of amber before venturing into the watery wasteland on our raft. Later, I found mine in a toilet bowl after they took me into custody in Lübeck.

No one believed I was who I claimed to be, for the news of my death had come over the border patrol’s radio. I’d been shot within the three-mile zone during my assault on the GDR’s maritime border. That’s what they called it: an assault. “Escape” was a word they found too embarrassing.

No one spoke of a woman. Officially, you never existed. Who knows what Raddeck did to make sure that you were never mentioned in the official documents? And your loyalty to him, that respectable, treacherous navy man, that upstanding man of Redewisch, was more that he could ever have hoped for.

Did he have to coerce you very much?

Do you still have your piece of amber?

I was a dead man when I reached freedom. I had become another person, with new papers and a new me. The part of me that remained alive was you, Marlene; you were the light near Dahme, except that now you stood on the opposite side of the divide. And I didn’t exist anymore.

While I was swimming toward the light, Raddeck revived you, and he said that I had deserted you. That I had sacrificed your life for my own.

“Swim,” he’d told me. “Go on. What are you waiting for? Swim to freedom.“

“No,” I said.

“Swim. She will remain here.”

Then Raddeck placed his service pistol against your temple.

“Dive in and swim, little brother. Otherwise she dies. And if you come back, I’ll…” He pressed the gun more firmly against your head, and your skin turned even whiter at the point of contact.

Did my brother ever tell you that he would have killed you, had I refused to give you up?

You are silent, Marlene. Silence never lies.


You celebrated your 20th anniversary in Heiligendamm. You wore a red dress, as red as our sky. At the brand new Kempinski hotel, you found the chairs too soft. You prefer harder seats, you told Raddeck. You need resistance in order to feel your own body.

Heiligendamm is a place full of angles. All straight lines and squares. White. As white as fake limestone cliffs. You, on the other hand, always liked circles, without beginnings and without ends. Nothing above and nothing below.

That’s the kind of world you always wanted, Marlene.

Nothing above. Nothing below. Not a life sorted into tidy compartments, Marlene.

Raddeck likes to play golf. In Hohen Wieschendorf, the first place to attract new money after the Wall came down. Where people were drawn to the wind that blusters around this spear of coast. Drawn to this vista point. Everything was new. It even smelled new: glass, steel, raked sand patches, pruned gorse bushes.

You preferred your farm cottage on the outskirts of Redewisch. Your rhododendrons. Your rose bushes. The village’s crooked cobblestone streets that looked like washed-out fjords. The dark, bending alder trees, bowing in the wind like servants. Bothmer Castle Park, where you used to picnic until your girls decided they had grown too old to sit on a checked blanket spread over the grass, watching their father drink schnapps.

The yellow glow of the rapeseed fields. Beyond them, the blue sea. Yellow embraced by the light green of the beech trees. The scent of thyme and cotton grass—that was your world. Did you ever dream of being anywhere other than here, on the other side, in Klützer Winkel?

Where you had been a child, a lover, a rescued woman, a mother and a wife?

Is it possible that your eldest girl is my daughter?

Is she, Marlene?

Look me in the eye.

I did the math. It happened the night before my escape.

Yes, I’ve been with other women, and I had memories of you.

One memory leads to another. Just as one opportunity leads to another, one year to another, one death to another. I tried to come back, Marlene. They wouldn’t let me. I thought about abducting you to take you away from him. But I didn’t want to abandon your children to him. You would have died without your children. Just as I died without you.

What have I been doing all these years?

Waiting, Marlene.

Waiting for this moment.

To hold you in my arms.

To love you.

If we take good care of ourselves, we may have twenty, thirty years together. Maybe forty. We can make up for lost time. You need to forgive him, Marlene. I’ve forgiven Raddeck as well, even though he was my brother. And even though he betrayed me and lied to you and wanted to kill you.

Marlene. My darling.

He was good to you. When you woke up from the nightmare I had caused with our escape plan, there in his arms on the ship, that was when Raddeck’s dream began.

He played music for you on his accordion. He taught your children to swim. Never in your life did you want to go swimming again. Never again.

See how blue the sea looks from up here? How calm it appears? As though it had never been a border, the deadliest border of all. The deepest grave. What did Raddeck call this blue? Eternal blue.

This color doesn’t exist anywhere else, Marlene.

Maybe he would not have shot you, had I remained behind. Maybe Raddeck would have let you swim away with me, after all. Or maybe he would have told his men not to hold their fire any longer. Then they would have offered us up to the sea, and the water would have barely turned red with our blood. Blood blue is almost the same as eternal blue.

You’re right, Marlene. There are too many maybes.

Don’t take any of this the wrong way.

Marlene, my brother fell in love with you even before I did.

I can’t hold it against him for loving you. What man in his right mind would not give you his heart and everything that he was?

Yes, he loved you.

Raddeck felt that way once, Marlene.

Don’t cry. You had a good life with him. Before the Wall came down, I often stood below the Dahme lighthouse and looked over at the line of cliffs along Klützer Winkel. I whispered your name into the wind so that it would carry my words across to you.

I sent word that I would come to fetch you. And that Raddeck would pay for taking you away from me. He forced my freedom upon me, and he held you hostage.

He paid for it, Marlene. For the fact that he tore us apart.

The sea will not give him back. The Baltic never returns anything that belongs to it. And didn’t Raddeck always love the eternally blue sea more than anything?

Do you want to come with me, Marlene, and see what lies beyond the end of the world? Would you like to do that? There are still so many other colors that you don’t know, my darling. I will show you them all.

Will you come with me, Marlene?

No, Marlene.


Don’t say that. Don’t say it! Do not speak of him as though he were your dearest!


Is that his gun? The one he placed against your head?

You knew about that? YOU KNEW?

The two of you…?


You’re lying.

You planned it together?


You were in love?

But I did it for us, Marlene!

He didn’t resist. He only said, “forgive me.” I forgave him, as he wished, and…

You planned it together…you were in love, my brother and you?

But what about me? What was I…

“Swim,” he’d said. “Go on! What are you waiting for? Swim to freedom.”

That was the plan?

Please! Do yourself a favor. Tell me it’s not…




…and now, Marlene, once again the sky is as red as it was the last time you stood this close to me.

When we fall, the sky will lie below us and the sea above. Everything will be turned around…