I could hear Sergeant Arnold wheeze. He was very close. I tried to open my eyes, but I couldn't at first. I could hear him again. Again, I tried to open my eyes, one eye opened, and it stung, and my head was hurting.
Sergeant Arnold tripped and swore. I opened my eyes, both now. Something sticky was running down my face. I was on Sergeant Arnold's back, my cheek close to his neck, sweat running from his face. I saw the steep path before him. We crossed an open field, entered the forest.
Every once in a while when I came to I saw Sergeant Arnold carrying me piggyback, his green army shirt wet with sweat, my head wet. He was holding my arms with one of his hands. He tripped again. I was hovering behind. Not far behind, a couple of metres maybe, but at some height.
Then I am at his neck again. I can feel the heat on my back. The taste of blood in my mouth.
When I woke up again, I didn't know where I was. I could hear voices around me, but I couldn't tell what they said. I couldn't see. I tried to pull myself up, but I couldn't. Then I fell asleep again.
When I woke up again my head hurt, and my left eye was partially covered with something. A little brown dog with a white stripe running up his face sat in front of me. He didn't move, just looked at me. His little red tongue sticking out of his little mouth. I smiled, it hurt.
When I woke up again it was the afternoon of my fourth day, and I was no longer in intensive care. My bed stood near the window, and the sun shone in my face, which was probably what woke me. The dog was still there on the bedside table. Only now did I realize that it was a plush animal. Only now did I realize that I was in the hospital. I asked the nurse whose dog it was, and she smiled. I named him Fiffi.
According to Sergeant Arnold I had fallen forty metres, but I am sure that is an exaggeration. If it were true, I would be dead.
I had three long sutures on my head, halfway between the top of my ear and the top of my head. The two on the right looked like one long suture running from the front to the back, they kept the skin stretched over my skull. The one on the left was shorter.
I also had a broken forehead, which would leave a small indentation on the left side for the rest of my life. There was also a deep scratch next to my right eye, and two scratches on the left cheek, none requiring stitches. Oh, yes, I almost forgot the massive concussion. But it is not so bad when you are eight.
Other than that, I was fine. No broken neck, or arms, or legs. No cuts either. I had been lucky, I had tumbled forty metres down a steep slope, and it seems that with every flip, I had landed on my head.
After Sergeant Arnold had checked me into the hospital, he called my mother. Then he reported himself to the police for negligence of supervision of a minor. My mother was under the impression that I had a minor laceration and took her time to come to the hospital. When she finally arrived, she asked for an injured boy she wanted to pick up, but they only had one patient that was a boy, and he was in intensive care. That took it out of her.
I had been to the hospital once before. Not this hospital, another one, and a couple of years earlier. I was four then and had a bad cough and fever. Our house doctor diagnosed me with pneumonia and ordered my immediate admission to the hospital. It didn't feel like a hospital. It was more like a monkey house where there were four cages to a tiny room. Little children occupying tiny cages. I cried a lot. We all did. I still can see the red face of one of the monkeys that occupied the cage between me and the door. Parents weren't allowed to stay beyond visiting hours, which were set for the afternoon from two to five. My grandmother came every day, my mother had to work. My grandmother cried with me. When my mother came late and briefly, she blamed my grandmother for my crying. At least that's what my grandmother told me later.
This was then. Now there were six beds in my room, real beds, not cages. Herr Mahmud Mahmudi lay in the bed across from me. He had children my age, he told me, but they lived in Turkey. He always made sure that I was taken care of by the nurses, and he always was nice to me. Other foreign workers came through our room as well, but only for minor injuries they had suffered at unsafe construction sites. But Herr Mahmudi had two broken legs, and he and I were in for the long haul.
My mother notified my father who by then lived in northern Germany. I hadn't seen him in five years, and he had remarried. He didn't come to visit me. Instead, he sent me a parcel with presents, which was fine by me. A wooden board game, an electric toy car, another board game, a slider puzzle, a red leisure suit. The red leisure suit angered my mother to no end. The suit was for a five-year-old. I was eight-and-a-half.
Manfred visited me often. As a weapon against boredom he brought me a brand-new comic book. The next time he came I told him how much I enjoyed POPETE. POPETE? We laughed so hard that my head started to hurt again. I had mistaken the letter Y for a T.
It was the third or fourth week when Manfred came to visit me again. He carried his satchel, which was odd. He sat down on the chair next to my bed and eyed the other patients suspiciously. We all had visitors.
"I have to show you something," he whispered.
"What is it?" I whispered back.
"But you must promise not to tell anybody."
"I am serious."
"I said, I promise. What is it?"
"Ever. Now, what is it?" I said impatiently.
Manfred opened his satchel and pulled out the Yellow Book. The Yellow Book was a picture lexicon and we called it the Yellow Book because it had a yellow cloth cover. All the children at the Yellow House considered the Yellow Book a great treasure, and Manfred did not lend the book out to anyone, not even to me.
"Manfred," my mother shouted from the door. "How good of you to visit Michael."
The Yellow Book disappeared in Manfred's satchel again. He got up from the chair to shake my mother's hand and to offer her his seat.
My mother kissed me gently on my bandaged head and sat down. All these times in my life she didn't show up. And now that Manfred wanted to tell me a secret she had to walk in.
"I saw your father down in the cafeteria. Why didn't he come up?"
"He said that he would have a coffee and come up later."
"That's curious," she said.
Nobody said anything for a while.
"Oh, has Michael shown you what his father sent him? Have you shown Manfred?"
"No," I said. "It's just a box of stupid games." I didn't know why I said stupid, I didn't think the games he had sent me were stupid.
"Did you tell him about the leisure suit?"
"Tell Manfred about the leisure suit."
"I don't want to tell him about the leisure suit."
I could see that Manfred felt uncomfortable. My mother turned to him.
"His father sent him a red leisure suit. For a five-year-old." She laughed but not in a funny way, because she didn't find it funny. "Can you imagine? For a five-year-old."
"My head hurts," I lied. I rubbed the gauze on my left forehead.
"Don't rub your wound. You know you are not to rub it. Do you want me to get the doctor?"
"No, I am just tired." I was hoping that my mother would leave me and Manfred alone.
"Oh that's too bad," my mother said. "Manfred came all the way here to visit you. I am sorry, Manfred."
"That's all right," he said.
Manfred didn't visit again, and I never found out what the secret was. A week later I was released from the hospital. I was to rest for another week before going back to school. I hated school so that was not a problem.
What was a problem was that when I finally got back to school I had to wear a hairnet. The purpose of the hairnet was to hold four large gauze patches in place that had been placed over my wounds. The wounds were healing know, but they released a watery discharge and the dressing had to be changed daily.
Fifteen years later, I married a girl named Nani that went to the same elementary school. She didn't know me then, but she did remember some strange boy with a medical hairnet. Another twenty years later I divorced that girl, and I never talked to her again.
(Remember the last time I suffered my mother's drunken volatility? When I walked out without saying a word? That evening I not only left my mother behind at that table at the wine tavern in Vienna, I also left Nani behind, which I admit must have been an awkward situation that I created.)
As for Sergeant Arnold, of course we didn't sue him. The fall was my own fault, and I should have paid better attention. What happened was an accident. It could have happened to anyone, and it could have happened anywhere, on Cross Mountain for example, on one of our Yellow House expeditions. Still, Sergeant Arnold felt an eternal guilt over my accident, a guilt that would be exploited by my grandmother for the next thirty-two years.