For the longest time I could only seem to remember one night from my Berlin years. Even then I could only recall some details. That it was quiet outside and winter. Our strange shadows were extended along the Wall and I could hear the paint bouncing in the bag around my shoul- der. We were trudging through some Platz, J-Boy was dickering with a stolen cigarette, I had an arm around Silke, and, as usual, we did not know why we were going where we were going.
By that time all three of us were famous, though they all thought we were one man. They had tried to dissolve our murals with some kind of splish-splash orange juice concoction, believing an authority who told them, yes, this acid will strike out graffiti, yes, the Wall will be blank again, the authors will be known.
But they never saw or knew us, never found us out. And when they fall to sleep now all these years later, gathering dust like so many Communist uniforms of sad burgundy and Brandenburg winters, when they lie down they will not know that we existed in their world, or why some American man decided to play around in that East Berlin under- ground.
The tremors in that night, though. The soul-splintering lights from the Wall’s unseen death-strip, how they cast J-Boy’s shadow into jigsaw fractures as he dashed ahead. The sense that if the officers didn’t catch us in the very act, red-handed from a certain canister, the night itself would, swooping down and indiscriminate, gathering aging Yankees and Red Russos alike.
Until that night I had never felt so precarious. Before then I had never shied inwardly from the vandal joy of an art job on the Wall: Silke on my shoulders and J-Boy somewhere right, Silke working on giant Goethe’s cornea, me spraying his empty nostril, the kid on background perspective. He would tell us to run if he sensed someone coming, a guard or a night loner, and we always would, and so we would always remain anonymous.
I remember the first time J-Boy told me to run. It was, I think, the night I met him, one of my first alien days in the strange city, some months before we ran across Silke. I had first seen him, I don’t know where, someplace dank and lit, probably a U-Bahn platform in Mitte. He spoke English almost well for a kid still growing. He had told me that he was born here, in Mitte, to an unknown mother in a paint-strewn cel- lar. He was passed around, nomadic, unsettled. At age nine and a half, about the time the Wall went up and trapped him in, he found a canister lying in a wet alley, shook it up, and splashed an aerosol rainbow on the brick above the puddles. What it was that intrigued me about that, I’ve never known. I figure it was the same for him. I called him J-Boy because that was the nickname of one of my lost childhood friends.
I asked J-Boy to take me along with him for a run that first night. He said fine. We met up with some scrubby boys from Kruezberg, one of whom had a small black duffel bag full of Fuchsia and Alazar- ian Crimson paints. The idea tonight, they told us, was to hang from the rafters of the underground tunnel between Bernauer Strasse and Voltastrasse stations, to hold there quietly, waiting until a subway train throttled through, when we would discharge a unique splatter design on its speeding roof. Apparently one of the other guys had become so nimble at this sport that he was almost able to tag his entire name on the roof, that with a few more tries he would do it, velocity below be damned.
Bernauer Strasse was a ghost station, one of those few under- ground stops of the Western line that prodded haplessly into Eastern territory, just beyond the border. Nobody used them; they were just leftovers from the old open days. The West Berliners passing through could look out the window and see these quiet ghost stations filing softly by, a cleared gray empty for echoes, no one around, no sound lasting. They had been closed down and lit dimly, with gunned guards posted in case some fleer wanted to make use of that absence and the shadowy tunnels that led out to the West. I learned later that these sta- tions were not even named on the maps.
We got down there easily enough. The others had brought some rope to sling over the tunnel pipes as a hoisting tool, a way to climb up to where we could squeeze our bodies between the pipes and the roof. When I got situated on the pipes, lying perpendicular to the tunnel, I craned my neck and saw the bright and milling lights of the Western Voltastrasse to my right, a bursting island of light that rested at the end of an impossible reach of underworld-darkness. To my left, the quiet Bernauer, barely there.
“Ready,” J-Boy said from beside me.
“What is it?”
“Coming. Be ready.”
I saw the train’s headlights stammer to a halt at Voltastrasse. it squeal and, by looking closely, I made out the almost im-
I heard material figures of those on the other side exiting the train. Directly above us, above the ground, the sinuous and arbitrary curve of the Wall pressed down invisible upon us. Our two partners, who were sprawled about ten feet to the West, readied themselves and motioned to J-Boy and me that one of them would take this. I nodded.
The train left Voltastrasse. I saw one of the guys stretch out a canister-clad hand below the pipes, his body softly balanced, trying to get as close as possible to the speeding train without losing hold of his perch. It came to us, and it happened fast, the click of the canister but- ton, the paint’s hiss, and I saw this guy’s wrist whirl over the passing metal, the hiss there and gone, consumed by the thump and grind of the wheels against the earth.
When the sound passed out his voice could be heard fading in, shouting in German.
“He got it all down,” J-Boy yelled to me. “He says the whole
I looked out at the train fading now in the opposite direction, almost gone, sighing through the ghost station, and by the gray light I could faintly see what the kid had left, an explosion of color on the roof that apparently spelled his name. How his name disappeared with the train curving around the bend, now there, now unseen.
I heard shouting. Two bodies in uniform were running toward us from Bernauer, guns unslung, shouting at us. J-Boy put a hand over my bowed head and whispered for us to be quiet, but the other two as- sholes had been hanging whooping from the pipes like chimps in cel- ebration and now the guards had seen them, and these Kreutzberg kids knew they had been seen. They swore, dangled. They looked around, as if they were half-hoping for some saving subway angel to swoop in on an underground wind-breath. Realizing that nobody would come, they dropped onto the rails. The guards were there, ready to grab, handcuff, and march them back wearily to Bernauer and prison. J-Boy and I saw the kids’ silhouettes flitting out of view. The guards were holding them by the wrists. They never saw us.
When you leave yourself untended in a wind like this, the next day always becomes something you can never quite imagine. You feel your- self filing regularly into Mitte nights and Marzahn shadows with Ivory Black cradled in your left hand and Sky Blue slung in the sack about your shoulder. You work until the dawn gives your colors too much light. It seems ridiculous, but it makes sense; the night gives you your name. When you are asked for it, you keep it in yourself and say you are just someone else, as I was Anselm one day, Ziska the next. It is never the American dodging through East Berlin and leaping over chain-link fences into long fields of char-tar and broken bottles, the quiet slabs of wordless buildings pressing upon you at the field edge, J-Boy finishing up the design you had thought out the night before for the wall of this unused, squat station house lined with weeds and dust-cloaked glass deposited God knows when. The design on the wall remains audience- less and beautiful. J-Boy remains cheerful when you’ve told him your fill of childhood stories but refuse to tell him your name. He shakes his head and smiles. And you move on to teaching him more English until the night comes on and you two get to work on some giant alley mural of caricatures or graffiti pointillism. When you fall asleep, maybe in the alley, maybe in a room, always, always as the night recedes, lis- tening to the S-Bahn rumble and the dull unvandalized morning, you are aware that your dreaming may be interrupted by a guard’s gloved hand. You may have to say your name. When you live like that, even for a few months, coming across something like a woman under a cedar by the Spree, lying there unexplained, as if the river had simply begun to accumulate a woman’s body with each quiet wave crash on the bank, fashioning long fine hair and a graceful face, when you stumble upon something like that you can’t help but feel for its strangeness.
She was lying softly with slightly bent knees, with one arm trailing out into the mud palm-up. J-Boy laughed a little when he saw her, then bounded over. She had ragged clothes, but not ragged enough to be the victim of a fight or anything. When I got there I crouched down next to her body and checked to see if she was dead or injured. She seemed ok, like she was sleeping really, and when I nudged her she woke easily.
“Who are you?” I asked her as she drew her eyes on me. They were strange and deep, like twin vanishing points. “Can’t you hear me?” I asked when she didn’t respond. J-Boy squatted next to me with a beaming smile.
“Not English,” he said. “She will understand me.”
“Ask if she’s ok.” He did. She didn’t answer. He said something different but her face didn’t change.
“Goddamn it, kid,” I said. “What are you saying to her?”
“No, I am just asking what her name is. I don’t know.”
She turned her face quietly from one of us to the other, then pointed her eyes upwards towards the cedar with something like a smirk on her face.
“I think she’s deaf,” J-Boy said. “Or mute or something.”
“What do you want to do?” I asked. “You want to take her in- side somewhere? She can’t stay here, she’s got mud smeared up to her eyes.”
“Yeah, I don’t know what she’s doing that for. She’s got mud in her eyes.”
The three of us squatted or lay silently there for another minute or so. Along with the sound of the river we could hear wavering singing from a nearby opera house. I looked her over again. Had she been in the river? Only the cuffs of her taupe pants were damp from where the Spree ebbed up onto the bank and under her resting feet. Nothing else seemed wet or wrong. Everything seemed to point to the fact that she had come from nowhere at all.
I helped her to stand up, which she did well enough, only stum- bling a little. J-Boy and I debated where to take her, finally settling on a usually empty warehouse not far from Ostbahnhof, a large gray place that had been ignored and abandoned soon after they built the Wall. We sometimes used it for sleeping. We climbed in through a shattered win- dow and led her to a sink in the back corner. She washed the mud off her eyes and face as J-Boy returned outside to search for clean clothes in street dumpsters. When he came back with some she was spraying nonsense designs on the wall with one of his canisters. “Did you let her?” he said to me.
“Relax, Junge,” I said. “She’s fine.”
“She talks yet?”
J-Boy bristled and said something about saving paint.
“I think,” I told him, “we should have her work with us tonight, huh?”
“Weather says we don’t work tonight.”
“Yeah, well,” I said. I was leaning back in a chair and watch- ing her spray something in lavender. It looked like lines of German verse, although the letters, or whatever they were, quickly dripped and blended into each other. She seemed tall as she worked, and the long hair that fell down her back from her quiet face seemed to flutter in an unfelt wind.
“We’ll go out into the rain,” I told him. “Can you do that? We’ll bring jackets and go out into the rain to find a dry spot.”
“Lightning comes tonight.”
“Well, we’ll go out into that too.”
The storm came as dusk fell, the fiercest I’ve ever seen. It brought constant lightning and blown grass up from Dresden, and thunder that would thwack and blend into the night air with incredible force, creating echoes indistinguishable from their direct sounds. The rain that fell that night would keep itself on the ground in lazy puddles for weeks afterwards.
On our way out we decided to just name her Silke, the name of one of J-Boy’s lost aunts.
We went over to the other side of Ostbahnhof, to a wide and quiet alley over which two buildings were connected by a glass walk- way, leaving only a slim but workable dry space for us. As soon as we got there Silke quickly wandered back out into the shadowy storm. I hardly noticed her leaving. When she returned she seemed to come from the lightning flaring behind her, illuminating the gaunt outlines of the Alexanderplatz buildings and leaving her bare silhouette against the rain.
She had brought back a cracked bucket filled with water. When she came under the walkway she went directly to the canister-filled duffel bag and picked out various shades of blue. J-Boy began to pro- test, but I stopped him and told him we stand by and let her. She took a canister, knelt down, looked up as if she were studying the bottom of the walkway, and began to spray in a style we had never seen before, holding the can far off the ground and flicking water from the bucket into the path of the paint as it made its way earthward. It built up on that dry strip in wave-like sediments, blue and lively, and we began to make out the almost formless outlines of three figures from the paint, each seeming to extend downward under the ground, rising up faceless to meet their origin Silke. She seemed rapt and furiously awake, and never took a break for the next few hours. J-Boy and I just watched her. By the time we left she had completely filled the dry space.
Next gray morning, the storm’s last remains turning silently overhead and around in floating mist tendrils, we walked by the alley and saw that a small crowd had drifted around the three blue figures looking back at them. There was a man with a camera. Guards were attempting to break up the crowd. We turned and quickly whisked our- selves away, J-Boy cursing under his breath. A few days later I found a newspaper with a picture of the thing and my heart stumbled, and sank again when J-Boy told me that the article quoted a Western artist who thought Silke’s work a masterpiece. As with everything else she made in Berlin, the painting remained where it was long after I had left the city. Nothing could dissolve it, not even the rain.
I came across another article from the West the next month. A wind had blown it over the Wall and I found it caught in the rings of a chain-link fence. J-Boy translated again:
October 14, 1973
by Klaus Mühlbach
East Berlin Police investigated an enormous graffiti painting on the wall of 54 Ebertstrasse last night, measuring nearly 10 meters across and 6 meters in height. None of the questioned tenants of the building reported hearing the noise of vandals.
“We all just slept through this,” one resident said, wishing to remain anonymous.
The Ebertstrasse painting is the latest in a string of giant mu- rals, all executed in East Berlin. They are believed to be the work of one vandal, and have generated much excitement in the West, where crowds have gathered to protest the police investigations.
“We need to stop this.”
“Relax, kid. The odds of them finding us?”
“They will capture us in the night.”
It began then, the coverage of us, or who they thought was us, calling us names like Schatten and Nebel and others that faded and re-birthed in different forms for different months, names all ghosted and undefined. Whoever they thought we were was famous for both his daring and his effortless skill. They knew it was the same person; they came to know the style. It made J-Boy and me nervous, but Silke, who never spoke, seemed not to hear of it at all. She wordlessly per- suaded us to spill out silently into the shadows each evening, following the scent of blank walls and unsung billboards. Any surface would do, brick or plaster or layered rock, unshuttered windows, the flanks of black cars and the black-topped roofs of buildings, from which you could see the entire city tumbling away in shadowy uneven rectangles, fading away into the dawn fog.
I’m not sure when she began to make it a point to paint the Wall. It must have been a couple of months after the Three Blue Fig- ures, when attention was mounting but not at fever pitch. There had been a gust coming through whatever building we were staying in that day and it had flipped up and blown a torn magazine page towards us. It had landed in her lap. A picture of a portrait of old Goethe, whom Silke seemed to know nothing about, and yet there he was, eyes tipped up and weary, and we had to go tonight to the Wall and get him up there. She drew a sketch of the Wall with her design on a blank sheet so that we both understood where we all needed to go. J-Boy and I had to relent. We went there, right up to the empty surface of the thing, and the canister hiss was quiet enough for the unseen guards to believe there was no one there below. The old poet’s face fit nicely on the cement. J-Boy sprayed to my right, creating a background with the same shade of electric blue that Silke used for the eyes, those old deep orbs looking back at her as she painted them from her perch upon my shoulders. I barely felt her weight. We remained there for a long time, working in the darkness between two splashed orbs of lamplight.
When they found their Wall colored over the following morning, the police and guards went beserk. Reports began to filter in about a special force being organized to collect night vandals. We knew it was for us. When we began to hear rumors of a growing number in the West asking for our release, who were saying that the skill of our nightly art was too great for imprisonment or anonymity, we tried to ignore it. And as our unknown names grew, J-Boy and I wondered, always wondered, about the mystery of Silke, how she managed to remain so unconcerned in the pressure of preydom. She could become so easily lost. The shad- ows of the night could simply and so quickly gather her forever, and we would never hear from her again. But having her nearby gave us a hope of her permanence. She would sometimes stop working and look at one of us, just watching, and we could never look away.
I can never forget this one dream I had about her on one of those days as we all slept on the floor of another warehouse. She was in many of my dreams, but I can only remember this one. We were standing in the blue glow of a deserted station, she somehow above me in a gray greatcoat, the light rendering her delicately on the gray skyline behind her, me standing on some fragile iron framework. That world wavered and dissolved into another. Now we were walking to- gether through the subway tunnels, the trains done for the night, the red bulbs of the underground scattered and lighting her unevenly be- tween the pools of darkness. She seemed to be talking to me. I don’t recall ever responding to her. We found ourselves at the end of a tunnel and saw the Wall before us. J-Boy was already there and we joined him, all three of us silently painting the huge monolith. We were about to complete its last unpainted strip.
When I woke that night Silke’s body was unexplainably pressed against mine, J-Boy having rolled a comfortable distance away. Her sleep never broke, lying there, paint-splotched arms and hands folded under her, closed eyes I’ve never stopped loving, face scanting into the warehouse shadows, away.
It had been snowing for days by the time we made it to our last night. I remember looking down with Silke’s eyes at the enormous mounds of snow that had been plowed or chucked or innocently cast up against the Wall all along its tangling curves. J-Boy, pinching his sto- len cigarette, kept scrambling up to where the snow-pile met the Wall, dashing through the lucid streaks of light cast by the hidden lamps behind. We could hardly see or hear him for a while. Then we were re-acquainted at some light pool further down the Wall. He was sitting with his back against the thing, cig cooled out, studying the instants when falling flakes would meet their growing and short-lived shadows on the bed of fallen snow. I looked at him.
“Sun’ll be up soon,” I said. He got up.
It was going to be a routine job, as far as I can remember. We were off to paint some rainbowed landscape on the Wall. We were walk- ing toward our intended destination, I’ve made myself forget where. A nice neighborhood, probably. Nice windows staring blankly out at us as we trudged past, children sleeping in the beds behind, unseen lives drifting by with the windows. My arm was around Silke but she seemed unresponsive.
We saw a bearded old man ahead dressed in tatters riding a rusty bike towards us through the strange light between the Wall and the row of buildings. The bike was slipping a little on the ice and snow, but he managed to keep his balance. As he swept by he looked at us with his freeze-tanned face and deep eyes. He slowed to a semi-halt, opened his mouth as if to speak to us, then decided against it and went off again into the snow, his image fading softly as we turned around to look.
“Relax, kid,” I said. He was fidgeting already. The snow had let up a little and daylight seemed not far off. Silke was walking very slowly, as if she might at any moment crumple into my arms in sleep.
We reached the place after a while, a section of the Wall that began a curve outwards to ensnare some other territory. There was a large and desolate opera house across the street. J-Boy dashed around to make sure everything was clear.
I still don’t know how it happened. Silke had clambered up onto my shoulders, which wasn’t unusual. She always wanted to paint the highest sections of the murals anyway. But this time, almost im- mediately, she grabbed two of the cans out of my open bag and, with an agility I had never known in her before, stood on top of me and leapt onto the top of the Wall. It seemed impossibly high but she did it, seemed impossible even though the snow bank had given us some added height, but still, now she was up there, balancing herself like a tightrope queen, and J-Boy was scrambling around pantomiming, screaming mutely trying to get her off, and I had backed away in chilled paralysis, knowing that behind the Wall, in a place we couldn’t see, guards with guns were posted in towers stretching across that death strip before the West. And that death runway, as opposed to everything else, was lit loudly.
I looked at her and didn’t know what to do. I could only see the artificial luminescence framing her, arms out and palms up, as if she were in supplication to the ceasing snow, keeping balance in a strange limbo. She could have slipped at any moment. At some point she stopped, crouched down, and began spraying something on the other side of the Wall. We heard voices behind it.
“She can’t,” J-Boy was stammering next to me. “Get her down, we’ve got to.”
And then the voices grew louder and started shouting, blend- ing into other voices coming from behind us.
“They’ll get us, kid,” I said. “We need to go.”
“They know her face.”
“Get her. We need to get her down and run.”
That’s when, I think, she fell. I still don’t know what made her fall. I remember hearing a man’s sharp cry and then looking up to watch her look back at us. She was smiling a little with her canister raised against the night, as if to say she had done it, whatever it was, and I looked down, and when I looked up again she was gone.
The kid was shouting at me now to run.
“Where’d she go?” I asked.
“They’re coming behind us. You hear them? We need to run.” A snow-mist had come on us and that was cover enough. But
when we turned into an alley I heard them coming from the right and he, I guess, heard them coming from the left, and we didn’t have time to stop and ask each other. I remember having all the time in the world the night before, when I told Silke my name, when she was still sleeping, J-Boy somewhere right, her eyes still closed as I whispered my name to her. But now I saw his sharp and darkened face, I saw her fall again, I saw him turn to me one last time before disappearing into the mist, as she had looked down at us before falling like an aria’s lowering note into the place behind the Wall, the canister still in her hand, the chase still in his eyes, gone.