Sustenance: A Triptych

Amy Holwerda



Beyond the cross on the streets of Kreutzberg, Turkish men stand on corners rubbing fingers over grease-splattered aprons outside their kebab stands. Meat hangs in the windows as lines of customers watch butchers shave slivers of lamb from the joint with an electric knife.

When I walk past their shops or see them smoking thin cigars on the street corner, the men whistle, purring like tigers with fresh fish, and I cannot remember the words verpiss dich, piss off. They offer me crispy pita slathered with garlic yogurt and purple cabbage. When I do not refuse, they lean in close across the counter, breathing stale smoke into my mouth, their stares consuming me. They trace greasy fingers down the length of my arm, testing me, knowing I am too stubborn to look away.


I am healthy until the day my lips turn blue and the breath threads thin as fish bone from my lungs. When I wake, the doctor presses cold metal against my skin. He asks me questions I don’t understand until later, when my sister translates the German. I want to say the pain is sharp, like a sword in the side. Like lungs collapsing under weight. Words are difficult. Like breath. Like the promise of death.

On our way home from the emergency room we buy half a rotisserie chicken from the stand around the corner. The man behind the counter plucks a toasted bird from the spit and separates one leg, one wing, and half the breast with one quick chop of his cleaver. He slides it all into a brown paper bag with napkins but no cutlery. I pull strings of juicy meat from the bones with my fingers, still shaking from the medicine that restarted my breathing.


A man’s body is crumpled on the side of the road, near the flashing street sign that orders us to gehen, gehen. Walk. A mass of shouting people rifle through his wallet, flip him over, press their lips onto his, but it is clear that he is far past saving. I fight the urge to run through the crowd and place my fingers on his skin, to trace them down the length of his white neck and over his arms, to rest in the centers of his limp palms.

Across the street, we order what has been hailed the best sushi in the city. We order without thinking, whatever they have, because we cannot swallow our shaking voices or the sake that threatens to roll back up our throats. It was once salmon, eel, octopus, but is now bodies flayed open: dead, raw, cold. When it arrives at our table someone notes that when sushi is really good, the flesh leaves no lingering flavor on your tongue.