My sister disappears on a slightly overcast afternoon in June. I imagine how it happens. I see Elly wheeling her bike out of the garage. Her outline is clear and sharp, the background out of focus. She fixes her sports bag to the luggage rack. In it is her judo suit with the green belt. My sister is younger than me. I am thirteen at the time, she is just eleven. We live in a small town. Elly’s club meets in a sports hall in the nearest big town. She cycles there on her own across the fields. The wind sweeps through the wheat. From above, it looks like waves on water. Elly stands on the motorway bridge and looks down at the field. The wind ruffles her dark, almost black hair.
I wasn’t there. But that’s what it must have been like. We always used to stop for a minute up on the top there. We would wave to the long-distance lorry drivers on the motorway, look over at the fields, to the blue peaks of the Taunus mountain range on the horizon. Sometimes we would see a kestrel or a buzzard circling above the fields. Often the cars would come to a standstill under the bridge, a long queue with countless glowing red eyes. A lorry driver would beep his horn: a deep rutting sound. Elly and I used to laugh. We would quickly start pedalling, standing up as we sped off with our bums high in the air, down the cycle path on the other side of the bridge.
The sports hall is in a suburb of Rüsselsheim known as the Grove. I like the name. It sounds so adventurous. The Grove is the area where the workers from the car factory live. In the past, a number of people threw themselves off the top of the high-rise blocks. These days, anyone who wants to kill themselves here drinks themselves to death, or takes an overdose. No one makes a show of suffering any more. These days, the buildings are freshly painted, caretakers tend to the green spaces, keep the hallways clean, remove graffiti. The Grove is flourishing, while the rest of the town declines. Time is running out for cars. Soon, people will be catapulted from town to town by a kind of solar-powered pneumatic tube system. Their souls are left behind though. I read about it in the newspaper.
Our mother went to school in the Grove too, just like us. But it was a different school back then. Her teachers warned her that if she didn’t study hard enough she would end up working on the car assembly line. That was the highest form of punishment when she was young. These days my parents wish they earned as much as the workers on the assembly line. Hamid and Judith both went to university. They never mention it explicitly, but when they talk to each other it’s a competition to see who knows better or at least can sound cleverer. My father is an architect, specialising in escalators; my mother writes sustainability reports for large companies. Before my sister and I were born, she worked in an agency. My parents both pore over their computers for hours, their backs hunched. If anyone asks me, I say my parents are freelance. Generally people don’t have anything more to say then. Freelance professionals, free from all restrictions and pressures. I think it sounds intimidating. I say it as if it is. I don’t like questions. I think of Elly.
Before she disappears on that June afternoon, my sister crosses at the traffic lights on the edge of the Grove. On the opposite side of the junction is the police station. Elly doesn’t pay any attention to it. The only sighting of her is at the next set of lights, just before the sports hall. A female witness later recalls seeing my sister, the small, dishevelled girl, with almost black hair, on her red bike. The sports bag falls off Elly’s luggage rack right in the middle of the road. Elly flings her bike down at the side of the road and runs back to her bag. My sister is still well and alive when the witness drives on. She quickly loses sight of the girl in her rear-view mirror. She is focused on singing along to a well-known old pop song, very loudly and out of tune. She remembers the song: ‘The Eye of the Tiger’. That’s the last I hear of my sister. Her trail goes cold here.
The caretaker at the sports hall says he didn’t see my sister. The other girls stroll past him. He runs an eye over them. These giggling, long-haired child-women. Hair like whips, silver chains on their teeth, shiny pink nail varnish, denim shorts which barely cover their bums and ripped black tights underneath with holes as big as your head. The caretaker tries not to notice them. The girls whisper among themselves, laugh out loud. They run into the changing room. They leave the door open. They clamber into their judo trousers, tighten the drawstring. My sister would normally be among them. But she is missing. The other girls slip into their stiff jackets with the lapels their opponent has to grab during the fight. They tie their different coloured belts. One by one, the girls enter the dojo with the grey mats on the floor and the mirror on the wall. They form a long line and turn their faces to the instructor. On his command, they all bend first their left knee, then their right. They extend their feet, placing their insteps and big toes one on top of the other. Their knees gape, one fist-width apart, their hands rest on their upper thighs. Their arms hang loosely by the sides of their bodies.
The instructor scans the long line. On the left at the end kneels the girl who has the brown belt already. The other girls have lined up to her right according to the colour of their belts. There are lots of girls with white, yellow, or orange belts. My sister would sit roughly in the middle. But she isn’t there. My sister is one of the best in her age group in the club. Her favourite throw is the shoulder throw, seoi-nage. My parents believe the sport will help if anyone attacks her. They chose judo rather than karate because they believe judo to be the more gentle, intelligent sport. Judoka use their opponents’ strength against them. They don’t attack, they defend themselves. That’s what my parents believe. The instructor is in his mid-twenties. He has an angular Viking face. All the girls have a crush on him. They try to fight against him as often as possible. They want him to sweep them to the floor. My sister thinks that’s pathetic. She would never submit willingly. The instructor wears a black belt. He studies the girls. Deep in his throat he forms the words. Mukuso, he calls. They all close their eyes. They collect themselves, chase away their thoughts, just for a few seconds. The instructor calls: Rei. He and the girls bow to each other. They pause briefly with their foreheads on the ground. They breathe in the plastic smell of the mats.
Maybe at that moment my sister is already dead. Maybe she is crawling, injured or raped, through some bushes, the branches scratching her cheeks. Tears burn in her eyes, but she is too afraid to make a noise. The attacker’s semen drips from her. She is half naked. He is still there, somewhere behind her in the bushes. He is lying in wait. Panic constricts her throat. She knows she can’t get away. She is shaking. Her sobs stick in her throat. Something howls. She jumps when she realises it is her. She hurries on, crawling on hands and knees. Then a hand closes round her ankle. My sister kicks out. She defends herself. But the hand slowly pulls her back into the thicket. Maybe it’s a gang of youths who surround her in that moment. Maybe it’s not one man on his own. Maybe it’s several men, or a couple. A woman who lures my sister under a pretext and a man who then drags her onto the back seat of a car. There are so many images, so many stories. It’s always a young girl, the main perpetrators are always men. That seems to be the rule. Or maybe nothing actually happened to my sister at all. Maybe she just turned off on her way to the sports hall. Maybe she cycled back or along to the next motorway exit. Her bike is never found either. It disappears like her, without a trace. She hadn’t packed anything more than her sports kit. Nothing is missing from her bedroom. No trousers, no skirt, no toothbrush. There is no goodbye letter. We don’t get any contact later either. She doesn’t call. She doesn’t email. It’s like my sister is swallowed up by the ground. No one sees her, no one demands a ransom.
My parents and I search for signs of a plan. We want Elly to have simply run away. We want her to be alive somewhere. We cling to that. We often talk about the days prior to her disappearance. The police officers keep asking us about them too. They compare our versions. They question the neighbours. In the majority of cases like this, perpetrators come from the victim’s close social circle. First the police suspect my father of having a mistress, then they accuse my mother of having a lover. The investigators speculate that my sister had discovered the new relationship. They insinuate that Elly was disposed of. She probably caught them at it. My parents can hardly speak for rage. They are furious. How could the police suspect them of committing a crime? My mother wants to pour her heart out to a journalist friend. My father urges my mother to keep a clear head. Instead they discuss engaging a private detective and withdraw a sum of money from Elly’s savings account, which our grandparents keep topping up. It was meant to be for her education. Even before Elly’s disappearance we very rarely received visitors to our house, though more than a dozen of our relatives live in the same small town. When we met them, they would greet us, but Elly and I didn’t even nod. We don’t know them. Our mother never introduced us. Sometimes my sister and I would go to our school friends’ houses for a visit. We never invited them into our playroom. I don’t know why. It wasn’t as if it was forbidden.
Now my parents and I glide wordlessly past one another. We don’t touch, not even in the narrow hallway or in the doorways. My parents don’t cry in front of me. Only once do I hear my mother sobbing, behind her closed door. She won’t allow herself to cry, because my sister Elly is still alive. That’s our rallying cry. We hold fast to it. We know that the likelihood is violence and death. The police search the area with sniffer dogs after a worker at the sewage treatment plant claims to have seen my sister. Later the man is treated for psychosis.
Secretly I picture my sister lifting her bike under the tarpaulins of a truck and getting in the front. This vehicle takes her to France without harm. Travelling like this, Elly reaches the sea. The waves rage, the wind drives the flecks of foam from the spray onto the wet beach. My sister’s hair blows in her face. In a shopping centre in the small seaside town on the Atlantic coast she comes across a group of vagrant youths. She follows them obstinately. One boy pelts her with empty cans. But she doesn’t give up. When the police come, she flees with the gang. After their getaway together, she belongs to them. During the day she begs with the others, at night she snuggles up to her girlfriend, a French girl, in their army sleeping bag. I hope this girlfriend has her wits about her, is smart enough to know how to break in without getting caught and how to get false papers. This girlfriend looks after Elly, I’m sure of it. My sister’s skin has a touch of caramel, summer and winter alike. I am envious of her. Along with her light eyes, the dark soft waves of her hair. When she laughs, her whole body heaves. Laughter bursts out of her. It rocks her. I keep calling to mind the details of her body. But whenever I try to describe Elly in my thoughts, she slips away from me. I can’t force her voice into my ear any more. Her face is changing more and more into the one in the photo albums, the unreal face of the prints inside, copied and filed away, slowly fading. Only at night, when I’m asleep, can I see my sister as she is and feel her vitality. In the morning when I wake there are a few precious moments when I don’t yet know she has disappeared. Then the memory hits me like a blow.