Fearless Girl

Philippe Patra
 
Fearless Girl
Robert Harms stood in front of the last traffic light not far from his office tower on a dark November morning. He rocked briefly from his toes to his heels, which immediately embarrassed him as he realized he was doing it. It seemed to him like a kind of nakedness that he exposed of himself in front of the other people waiting next to him - men like him with polished shoes on solid ground, standing upright in suits that fit well and dark coats. Before he ran the risk of rocking a second time, he started to walk - and did not walk.

Directly across the street stood a little girl, maybe seven years old. Unlike the uniformed crowd on his side, she stood there alone. At this time of day, the stream of people was going in the opposite direction, towards the Westend. She was coming towards him from a remarkably wrong direction. Behind her were only office buildings and the exhibition grounds. She wore a pink down jacket, the hood turned up with a fur collar; over the jacket a neon yellow high-visibility vest and on her back a knapsack; her legs were in white leggings and her feet in light-coloured moonboots. The parental care had wrapped her up all too well. However, the abundance of layers of clothing meant that her arms were more protruding than hanging. Like an astronaut who had strayed too far from her mothership and now drifted through space as a small bright spot on her own; her eyes superfluously fixed on him.
When he saw her gaze, it made him wonder for a moment. Suddenly there were all of his routines and there was he himself and each were two different things. All of a sudden he was left to himself in an unusual way. A passing delivery van slapped the damp morning in Harms' face with its air stream. “Far out,” went through his head. “You're far out.” There he stood in a quarter without a face, in front of him rushed sheet-metal armoured car bodies, behind him screeched the metal wheels of the tram; the wet asphalt, and not far below the wet asphalt were buried fibre optic cables through which gushed a colourful stream of derivatives, bonds, certificates and futures. Down there ran the big wheel on which he would soon be turning. At this very moment, goods of all kinds from the Far East were whizzing under his feet; Tokyo would soon close. Within an hour, the European prices began to move and in the afternoon New York joined in. The traffic light turned green.

In retrospect, he could not really say why it happened. He blamed it on the emotion that the child, with her strange way of being lost, had caused in him. He suddenly felt the need to warn her, of whatever. When the little astronaut and he were about to pass one another, he had bent down towards the girl out of that reflex with which a Big One has sympathy for a Little One. Still in motion, it dawned on him that he was about to leave the protective shell of his routine. But once started, the gesture had to be finished somehow. “Be careful,” he heard himself say. What he actually meant was “Take care, it's dark and the city is not a playground.” From the fur hood two eyes looked at him suspiciously, then followed a painful kick from the moonboots against his shin and the little one ran away without a word. He rubbed his leg and gazed at the bobbing bundle in amazement. The unicorn on the back of her knapsack nodded as if it served him right. At the spot where she had kicked him, a large stain now adorned his trousers - mud brown on Italian blue. The honking of an off-road limousine startled him and scared him off the road. His pulse thudded through his head in a muffled murmur. Still perplexed, he took refuge a little off the road in a square in front of one of the exhibition halls.
What was he doing in this city, in this tower, yes, in this suit? His life had been one big misunderstanding for years. The bank where he had worked since leaving Wilmersheim was nothing more than a gigantic betting shop where he cheerfully printed tickets and handed them over the counter. He took what he found – raw materials, currencies, earth, air and water – stuck labels on them and sent everything on its way. Time did the rest. His yield was guaranteed hopes for favour, or devastations of fate.
A carpet suddenly came to his mind. It must have been because of a carpet that one day he was to find himself a stockbroker. That branch of the Sparkasse had been the only store in Wilmersheim at that time that had had a flattering floor covering. Every time he went into the branch with his mother, he found the cool room, the subdued tone of the conversations and even walking on the textile pile pleasantly reassuring. It was as if a realization was hidden in these whispers, which the adults tried to appreciate in discreet earnest. Here he must have had the idea that it would be desirable to be accommodated in such an environment later on. That is what he got from it. Now he worked in a small, inadequately soundproofed booth in an open-plan office and had a tongue stuck out at him by a motley unicorn.

Harms was still standing in the square. Although he had been standing there without any movement for several minutes now, nobody noticed him. His motionless gaze merged with his background and lay like washed up flotsam on the banks of a great stream, when suddenly the first snowflakes fell. Isolated at first, the silent falling quickly increased in density. Soon a white fuzz covered the square and muffled the sounds of the city. At that moment a mild confidence rose in him. It was one of those rare moments when the sum of the parts came together in a sudden harmony of inside and outside. Harms smiled. He had his carpet back. His place in the office would remain empty for this day and all the days to come.

In the afternoon of that day, a girl on her way home from school hopped through the untouched fresh snow in front of the exhibition halls. She stamped the white, immaculate surface with the profile of her moonboots in large sentences, as if she were taking her first steps on a foreign planet. For a brief moment she wondered about footprints that seemed to start there as if from nowhere, only to lose herself in the direction of the main road. But then it occurred to her what must have happened. Mary Poppins, the girl thought, must have sailed down by her umbrella and landed in the middle of the square.

Translation by Shan Wardell
 
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