The sky assumes an equal portion with the buildings, perhaps a finger more, making the window half empty of sky. At this moment it is a blue – no surprise – that recedes sunwards into striated white gold. The sun is warm, edgeless, but appears more as its own reflection seen in frosted ice. I’ve watched it crest its hill and now it slow-rolls its bend down the other side towards the rooftops, behind which it will sneak, as if too bashful to snuff in full view.
There’s a balloon on Wihelm Strasse, where the Nazi ministries stood. It takes tourists up for a view of the city and I can see it, a straight line from here to there, in the middle of the window. Once, the sun and the balloon, both descending at once, became hemispheres together on the same rooftop, a double sunset. It reads: Die Welt.
The rooftops sprout chimneys, little turrets and glass pyramids and domes. There was a man up there, with three children, roving from rooftop to rooftop as if it was an initiation or there was some creature to be hunted.
The buildings are high with wide, windowless walls of crumbled, Babylonian brick. You could project a film onto them. There are narrow fissures, like arrow slits or indications that another, less durable building was once attached with shallow struts. Birds nest in these slits. I see them quarrelling in and out. The neighbouring wall is covered in flattened globules of plaster, as if a carapace had been ripped away. They’ve suffered wounds that haven’t healed well. One of these wide screens is pure white, another is of dark, grey-red brick until near the top where all the bricks change to a new colour and I imagine the day they ran out and had to find some more, or when the top fell off and a new one hastily-assembled, the foreman complaining, ‘but they won’t match’. The reply, I’m sure: ‘It’s Kreuzberg. No one cares.’ The magpies dive from the top and fall like black raindrops; they fall until you think they’ll smash and then hook upwards into flight. They do it every time, as if playing at what it would be like to be flightless. As if daring one another.
The head of a horse chestnut tree nods into view, close to the glass. Its leaves glow lime with sunlight. It sways and dips and gives a rustling, rush of voice with every stroke of wind. I just noticed a small, new-budded conker. This anchors the summer, predicts a fall. There’s only concrete below. It’ll never grow.
The swallows are beginning. They flit to the present from the gables of my grandmother’s house, where you could watch them dip from the air and squirrel into their tiny nests; they skim here via evenings on Lake Trasimeno, where they clouded above the water, tracing halos and loops. Their elegance was a put on. I imagined them rending and chewing their way through the plankton-thick haze of mosquitoes, just hatched, soon dead, that boiled above the water. Swallows are hunters, ever-feeding black lines, spiralling parentheses, and they’re collecting now, ripping insects from the air, leaping between narrow thermals like plate-spinners from pole to pole, climbing and arcing with such certainty that I think if you traced the lines they scribe on the air and read them back you’d learn something so joyful it would punch you to the floor.
The crows, too. The first animal I saw from the window of the train from the airport was a crow. It wore a grey jacket and I assumed it had some irregularity of pigmentation, but they’re all like that here. And they are numerous; grey-jacketed with clerk-strut and slow wingbeat. Like a livery worn only here, pride of the city watch.
Last night, when it was dark, I saw two bushes, growing from the bi-chrome roof, outlined against the nicotine sky. They dipped towards one another and seemed to be kissing, reeling back, then kissing again. Dancing, perhaps. Or lovers recoiling from an embrace but magnetised once more, over and over. Now I see that these aren’t bushes but the twinned tips of a single tree, five storeys. They taper together to the trunk then to the roots. I want to say it’s a poplar, to hide my ignorance, but I know it isn’t.
When I see a painting, not even a good one, from another time and place, a singly-observed, unoccupied moment in history, I sometimes feel a kind of grieving thrill; at time’s audacity, that I could never, never, see that place as it was seen; that I can never watch the artist’s hand moving from palette to board. And what’s strange is this: watching the swallows, the lime in the horse chestnut leaves switching to deep red-wine-bottle hues, I feel that ache again. Even though these are my hands moving over the keypad and I’ve missed nothing. But the scene is already departing, as will I. It’s glorious, that sensation, and appalling.
Soon it’ll be dark and the apartments will light up their little advent calendar windows and I can watch, blurred and from a distance, the humdrum miracle of human life as it cooks its meals, strolls from room to room or stares out, perhaps at me. Each action will be unrepeatable and instantly lost. It’s the saddest, most awe-inspiring thing.