One day it's just there. Silently in the night, when no one was looking, it arrived. And now it's as if it's always been there, the most normal thing in the world. I open the net curtains in the living room, like I do every morning. And there it is, a simple fact.
We'd never seen real snow before. Snow was something we'd only come across in children's books, or in the German TV programs our grandparents would tape on VHS and send to us in big parcels along with lebkuchen at Christmas and chocolate bunnies at Easter. And we'd seen it in pictures. Photos of my mother, Barbara, as a child, muffled up in a red ski suit, her brother pulling her along on a wooden sled across paths and fields, white blankets.
And now it's here on our balcony, in the flower boxes with the pruned roses and on the plastic chairs that haven't been used in months.
Barefoot in my pajamas, I stand and stare, the curtain cord still in my hand, and I can't believe what I see. The sky is hidden behind dense grey, and the clouds are so low I'm afraid they might get caught on the bright windmill Layla stuck in one of the flower boxes back in the summer. A blackbird perched on the edge of a box pecks around in the snow-covered rose bush.
Behind me I hear Layla padding into the room. She stops right beside me, barefoot in her nightie, one hand clutching her stuffed bunny. At the age of seven she's too old for it really, but she's been taking it to bed with her again for the last few months. Her other hand reaches for mine and holds on tightly. She looks up at me, seeking reassurance.
I let go of the curtain cord and open the balcony door. The two of us step out onto the coating of snow. The air is cold and smells of rain and exhaust fumes. We tread carefully, our feet pressing into the thin layer and making little holes in the white blanket. The wet cold beneath my feet makes me flinch, and I bend down to feel the fine powder with my hand to see if it really does melt under our touch. Layla's arms and legs are covered in goosebumps and she's shivering. The snow instantly yields to the soft pressure of my palms. I spread all ten fingers and draw them back together two or three times, then I push the little mounds of snow aside and smooth them out again until all that's left is a puddle.
I stand up, shake the water off my fingers and put my arm around Layla's shoulder. With her bunny safely laid down on the living room floor, she's absorbed in rubbing a handful of snow between her palms. Eventually she too is left with water, and she wipes her little hands in relief on her pink nightie.
Beneath our balcony, someone is sweeping the pavement, and in the supermarket car park, a woman is clearing her windscreen with a piece of cardboard.
"Can you eat it?" whispers Layla, almost to herself. "That's what they do in Ronia, the Robber's Daughter. Basil, let's taste the snow." She looks at me with her big black eyes. Her uncombed curls make her look a bit like a robber's daughter herself.
I pick up some snow from the back of the plastic chair and put half of it in Layla's hand. We take a few cautious licks before stuffing the scoops in our mouths, ready to gulp them down like tablets or cough syrup. Layla screws her nose up a little; I chew slowly, listening to the snow crunch between my teeth. It doesn't taste of anything, and from the look on Layla's face I can tell that she too is a bit disappointed, though neither of us knows exactly what we were expecting.
Behind us in the flat, I hear the bathroom door close. A moment later the shower goes on. I shove Layla back into the living room and shut the balcony door behind us.
Later that week our grandparents take us to the park. The pond is frozen over, Grandma tells us, so we can go ice skating with the other children from school. Grandpa has already packed two pairs of skates for us, and Grandma has made sandwiches and a flask of hot chocolate. Grandpa parks his red car behind all the others lined up on the street. Parents and grandparents stream into the park, the children laughing and throwing snowballs, their skates tied together and slung over one shoulder.
Layla tugs at her red woolly hat, which keeps falling off because it's too small for her thick mop of curls. Grandma takes the hat off her, twists her curls into a knot and pulls the hat down to just above her eyes. My sister gives me a questioning look. I shrug. I'm wearing the hat and turquoise fleece Grandma brought home a few days ago. Stitched onto the hat is the crest of a football club I've never heard of.
I get out of the car, a skate in each hand, and watch the other kids pass by. It's been snowing all morning. By the entrance to the park, a group of little girls is making a snowman. I recognize two boys from my class, Stefan and Patrick, beside the lake. They too have skates—shiny black ones—and hockey sticks. They step onto the ice and skate right off, gliding, chasing each other, curving sharply around a couple of girls from another class, and using their hockey sticks to hurl snowballs across the glittering surface of the lake. They glance in my direction, and I look down at the ground, pushing the snow into little heaps with the tips of my boots.
"Off you go then, you two, don't you want to join in?" Grandma asks. She kneels down and helps Layla into her skates. Grandma never wears trousers. She wears dresses, floral or striped ones usually. Even today she's wearing one under her brown woolen coat. Her beige-colored tights soak up the slush, and wet patches appear on her knees. The water forms little streams that run like veins down her legs into the fur tops of her boots.
"But I can't skate," Layla says in a small voice, slowly withdrawing her right foot.
"There's nothing to it," Grandma says. "Just skate! Even the infant-school kids can do it. You'll get the hang of it. Look how much fun they're having." Reluctantly, Layla holds out her foot again and Grandma laces up the white skates.
My skates are too tight across the top, and every step on the snow hurts.
"There you are, now you look just like the other children. Go on, Basil, take your sister with you. We'll be right here, don't worry. Off you go!"
Layla buries her hand in my mitten and together we teeter onto the ice. She slips immediately, pulling me down with her. Her skate gets caught in my anorak. I grab on to a tree trunk, cautiously haul myself upright, and help Layla stand up, my knees trembling with cold and fear. With her arms outstretched and a miserable expression on her face, Layla takes three tiny, shaky steps on the ice. Snowballs whizz past us, and a little red sausage dog trots by so close that I narrowly avoid kicking him. He looks back at me reproachfully, a stick hanging out of his mouth. Layla stands motionless and watches me as I slowly make my way toward her. The ice cracks beneath my feet, and the blades of my skates keep getting caught in holes and grooves. The dog, which has been observing me too, comes over and slowly walks beside me. "Come on, you can do it," he seems to be saying. "Look at me—I can do it, and I'm carrying a stick in my mouth."
I take a deep breath. The air is cold and burns my lungs. Pressing my lips together, I try to imitate the other kids' gliding motions. Chest forward, arms slightly out to the sides. The dog is now standing beside Layla, and the two of them look at me expectantly.
"For goodness sake, children, don't make such a song and dance," I hear Grandpa calling from behind. "Come on, Grandma, let's show 'em how the pros do it."
Grandma has no chance to protest. Grandpa grabs her hand, pulls her onto the ice, puts his right arm around her waist and sweeps her off into a dance step.
"Knock it off, Grandpa, stop being so silly," Grandma says, laughing. It's not often that she laughs. The two of them dance farther and farther out on the ice. They're not wearing skates, just their winter boots, as my Grandpa sways and bounces and sings "Roll out the barrel, we'll have a barrel of fun. Roll out the barrel, we've got the blues on the run."
A small crowd has started to gather. They clap along, laughing, as Grandpa skates faster and faster, spinning Grandma along with him, spinning and spinning, sliding effortlessly, one more verse. Sensing the excitement, the sausage dog with the stick has left his lookout post beside Layla and is now bounding around my dancing grandparents. Grandma throws back her head, her dark perm bobbing along in time with the song. You can still see the water stains on her knees.
Layla puts her hand in mine and laughs. With her other hand, she takes off her hat and throws it on the ice. She shakes out her curls, just like our dancing grandmother, and bobs her head as she hums along with the melody. She seems to have forgotten all about the treacherous skates on her feet.
Later, as we make our way back to the car, it starts to snow. The foggy grey light is fading fast, and the buzzing lanterns in the park illuminate the snowflakes with a sandy yellow glow. Stefan and Patrick spot me and come running over to us. "Hey, next time you'll have to play hockey with us! My dad has a spare stick in the garage." I nod and mutter goodbye, my skates in my hand.
Layla is hand-in-hand with Grandma a few meters ahead. Grandpa is still singing the chorus of "Roll Out the Barrel" as he unlocks the car door. Layla looks up at the sky, opens her mouth and tries to catch a few snowflakes on her tongue. I run my hand through her dark hair, now speckled white and soaked through.
"Come on, hop in before you catch a cold," I say, and she scrambles into the back seat.
On the drive back she puts her damp head on my shoulder.
"Basil, do you think we can go home soon?"
Excerpt of the first chapter of Khayat's novel, Weil Wir Längst Woanders Sind [For We Are Elsewhere Now], which was translated from German by Sinéad Crowe and originally published by DuMont Verlag