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As you approach it from the southwest, at a height of about five hundred meters, Freiburg looks like a bright, worn patch in the folds of the Black Forest. It lies there as if it had fallen from the heavens one day, right at the feet of the mountains.The peaks of Belchen, Schauinsland, and Feldberg stand in a ring around it. Freiburg has existed for mere minutes in relation to these mountains, yet the town behaves as if it has always been there, next to the river Dreisam.
If Schauinsland were to ripple its slopes in a shrug of indifference, hundreds of people cycling, riding in cable cars, or looking for butterflies would die; if Feldberg were to turn away in boredom, that would be the end of the entire district. But themountains don't do that. Instead, they turn their somber faces to the goings-on in the streets of Freiburg, where people set out to entertain. Every day, mountains and forests send a swarm of birds into the city to gather the latest news and report back.
The Middle Ages live on in the ochre yellows and dusty pinks of the narrow lanes where thick shadows gather. The roofs are dotted with dormer windows, ideal landing spots unless they are adorned with bird spikes. A passing cloud sweeps the brightness fromthe facades. A girl with pigtails is buying an ice cream on Leopoldring. Her part is straight as an arrow.
A few beats of the wings, and here is Sophie-de-la-Roche-Strasse, so leafy and green that it seems to have its own microclimate. There is always a light breeze blowing here, making the leaves at the top of the chestnut trees rustle. The trees have outlivedby a century the town planner who planted them, and they have grown larger than he had envisaged. Their long-fingered branches brush the balconies, and their roots bulge beneath the pavement and dig their way under the walls of the canal that flows by the buildings'foundations. Bonnie and Clyde--one head of brown and one of green--paddle along against the current, quacking away, always turning at the same spot, and allowing themselves to be carried downstream. On their conveyer belt they travel faster than the peoplewalking on the canal path, at whom they look up, begging for bread.
Sophie-de-la-Roche-Strasse radiates such a feeling of well-being that an objective observer might think its residents are all at peace with the world. Because the canal makes the walls damp, the front doors are wide open so that the walkways over the waterlook like tongues hanging out of gaping jaws. Number 7--in tasteful white stucco--is without doubt the most beautiful building on the street. Wisteria cascades down from it, sparrows chirp in the swathes of ivy on the walls, and an old-fashioned lantern dozesin the porch, waiting to be lit at night. In an hour or so a taxi will come around the corner and stop at this building. The passenger in the backseat will raise his sunglasses in order to count change into the driver's hand. He will get out of the car, tiphis head back, and look up at the windows on the second floor. A couple of doves are already picking their way across one of the window ledges, nodding and bending, fluttering upward occasionally to look into the apartment. These winged observers watch Sebastian,Maike, and Liam closely on the first Friday evening of every month.
Behind one of the windows, Sebastian is sitting cross-legged on the floor of his study, head bent over something. He is surrounded by scissors and bits of paper, as if he were making Christmas decorations. Crouching next to him is Liam--blond and palelike his father, a mini-Sebastian down to his posture. He is looking at a sheet of red card on which the laser printer has marked a zigzag curve, like an outline of the Alps. As Sebastian puts the scissors to the card, Liam raises a warning finger.
"Wait! Your hands are shaking!"
"That's because I'm trying hard to hold still, clever clogs," Sebastian snaps. Liam's eyes widen in surprise and Sebastian regrets his tone.
Sebastian is on edge, as he is on the first Friday evening of every month. As usual, he puts it down to having had a bad day. Little things can spoil his mood on the first Friday of every month. Today it was an encounter on the bank of the Dreisam, wherehe takes a break from his lectures at lunchtime. He passed a group of people who were standing around a mound of earth a little way off the main path for no apparent reason. In the earth was a pathetic-looking seedling held upright only by a construction ofwooden sticks and rubber bands. Three gardeners were leaning on spades nearby, and a lanky man in a dark suit, with a little girl hanging on to his leg, stepped up to the mound of earth and made a small celebratory speech. The tree of the year. Black appletree. Love for home and hearth, for nature, for Creation. Elderly ladies stood around silently in a semicircle. Then came the thrust of the spade and a pathetic shovelful of earth, and the little girl poured water from a tin can. Applause. Sebastian couldn'thelp thinking about what Oskar would have said if he had seen them. "Look, a herd of forked beings celebrating their own helplessness!" And Sebastian would have laughed and refrained from saying that he felt very much like the tree of the year, actually. Likea seedling dwarfed by its scaffolding.
"Do you know about the tree of the year?" he asks his son, who shakes his head and stares at the scissors that have fallen still in his father's hand. "It's nonsense," he adds. "The worst rubbish imaginable."
"Oskar's coming today, isn't he?"
"Of course." Sebastian starts cutting. "Why?"
"You always talk about strange things when Oskar's coming. And," Liam continues, pointing at the card, "you bring work back home."
"I thought you liked measuring curves!" Sebastian replies indignantly.
At ten, Liam is already clever enough to know not to reply to this. Of course he loves helping his father with physics experiments. He knows that the zigzag line marks the result of a radiometric measurement, even though he can't explain the meaning of"radiometric." The integral under the curve can be measured by cutting out the surface area and weighing the card. But Liam also knows that there are computers at the university that will give you the answer without cutting and weighing. This could definitelyhave waited till Monday. Sebastian has brought it home for Liam to have fun with and because he finds this activity calming late on a Friday afternoon. Even though the chopping board and the sharp knife that they need to cut out the tiny jagged bits are withMaike in the kitchen.
When Maike is cooking for Oskar, the kitchen utensils are hers and hers alone. Every time Maike tells Sebastian about the new dish she is trying out that evening, he wonders why Oskar's visits are so important to her. He would have thought that Liam'shero worship of the big-shot physicist from Geneva would put her off Oskar, not to mention the heavily ironic tone of voice in which Oskar invariably addresses her. Yet it was Maike herself who had started the tradition of dinners with him ten years ago, andshe is the one who has insisted on them to this very day. Sebastian suspects that, consciously or unconsciously, she is trying to steer something in a controlled manner. Something that should be playing out before her very eyes, rather than developing uncheckedin hidden corners. They have never spoken about what this certain something might be. Deep down, Sebastian admires his wife's calm persistence. "He's coming on Friday, isn't he?" she asks, and Sebastian nods. That is all.
The curve is easier to cut out in the middle, and it becomes more complicated again toward the end. Liam holds on to the card with both hands, cheering when the scissors have negotiated the final jagged cliffs and the zigzag cutting falls to the ground.He picks up the masterpiece carefully by the edges, and runs off to see if the kitchen scales are free.
Maike is standing at the kitchen counter chopping some unruly-looking salad leaves. She is wearing a white dress that makes her look as though she is about to be married for the second time. Her feet are bare, and she is absentmindedly scratching a mosquitobite on her left calf with her right foot. The window is open. Summer air is wafting in with the smell of hot asphalt, flowing water, and a wind that is juggling with the swallows high in the heavens. In the golden evening light, Maike looks more than everlike the kind of woman a man would like to ride up to on horseback and carry off into the sunset. She is unique, and not just at first glance. Her skin is even paler than Sebastian's and her mouth is very slightly lopsided, which makes her look a little pensivewhen she laughs. The small contemporary art gallery in Freiburg where Maike works has her to thank for a great deal of its success, for she is not only the artists' agent, but also their occasional model. Maike's aesthetic feeling has almost the fervor of religionabout it. Surroundings furnished without care depress her and she is the sort of person who checks every glass against the light before placing it on the table.
When Sebastian approaches her from behind, she stretches her damp hands out in front of her, showing her shaved underarms. His fingers climb the staircase of her vertebrae, from her bottom to her neck.
"Are you cold?" she asks. "Your hands are trembling."
"Can't you and Liam think about anything other than my clapped-out nervous system?" Sebastian asks.
"Yes," Maike replies. "Red wine."
Sebastian kisses the back of her head. They both know that Oskar will have read the article in Der Spiegel magazine. Maike has no particular desire to understand the intricacies of the long-standing scientific disagreement between Oskar and Sebastian.But she knows what will happen. Oskar's voice will be threateningly quiet when he launches his attack. And Sebastian will blink more rapidly than usual while he is defending himself, and his arms will dangle limply by his side.
"I bought a Brunello," she said. "He'll like it."
As Sebastian reaches for the carafe of wine, a red point of light sweeps over Maike's breasts, as if a drunken marksman were aiming through the window. Fruit, oak, earth. Sebastian resists the temptation to pour himself a glass and turns to Liam, who iswaiting by the kitchen scales. Cheek to cheek, they read the digital display.
"Excellent work, little professor." Sebastian presses his son against his side. "What conclusion can we draw?"
"Nature behaves in accordance with our calculations," Liam says, glancing sideways at his mother. Her knife taps a solid rhythm on the wooden chopping board. She doesn't like him to show off with sentences learned by heart.
Sebastian lingers at the kitchen door before bringing his graph back into the study. Maike will want to say that she will keep Liam off his back later. Off his back. She likes that expression. It reminds her of the battle of her everyday life, which shewins every evening. But Maike is not really the fighting kind. Before she met Sebastian, she was very much a dreamer. She used to walk through the streets at night, dreaming her way into every illuminated window. In her mind, she was watering strangers' pottedplants, laying their tables for dinner, and patting their children's heads. Every man was a potential lover, and, depending on the color of his eyes and his build, she dreamed of living a wild or conventional or artistic or political life by his side. Maike'svagabond imagination had inhabited people and places as she encountered them. Until she met Sebastian. The moment she walked into his arms on the Kaiser-Joseph-Strasse in Freiburg ("On the Mnsterplatz!" Sebastian would say, for there were two versions of theirfirst meeting--one for him and one for her), her hazy reality became solid. It was love at first sight, precluding alternatives, reducing an endless variety of possibilities to a here and a now. Sebastian's appearance in Maike's life was--as he would expressit--a wave function collapse. From that moment on, Maike had had someone whose back she could protect. She does so at every opportunity, and gladly, too.
"You two can talk in peace later," she says, brushing a strand of hair off her brow with her forearm. "I'll keep . . ."
"I know," Sebastian says. "Thank you."
She laughs, showing a glimpse of chewing gum between her molars. This does nothing to diminish her irresistible charm--all fair hair and childlike eyes.
"When is Oskar coming?" Liam pesters.
As his parents look at each other, he expresses his impatience by decorating the kitchen table with chunks of onion and cloves of garlic. Maike lets him get away with it because there is a seed of creativity in his cheekiness. From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from In Free Fall by Juli Zeh. Copyright © 2010 by Juli Zeh. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.