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Stöckel, Reinhard (Sample Translation)

Der Lavagänger (The Lava Walker)

Abstand
Aufbau Verlag, February 2009, 379 pp.
ISBN: 978-3-351-03244-9
 
 
Chapter II
 
[...]
When Helder entered the lawyer’s office nobody else from the family was there. Nobody will be coming, a smiling young woman told him. Nobody, the lawyer immediately chimed in, you are the sole heir.
 
With great ceremony the lawyer opened a sealed package, just as Helder’s grandmother had done. And the lawyer said: I did look inside once, for security reasons, if you know what I mean – but I assure you there’s nothing to fear. With those words he took out of the box an old pair of men’s shoes with slightly scorched soles.
 
Helder’s eyes darted from the lawyer to the shoes and back again to the lawyer. Believe me, the lawyer said with a grin, I’ve seen more shocked expressions than yours.
 
Is that it?
 
That’s it.
 
Not even a letter?
 
No, there’s no letter.
 
Later on, Helder sat on the bed in a small seedy hotel and took a closer look at his grandfather’s shoes. The leather was crude and yellowish, and looked as if over the years sweat, water and heat had cured it a second time; there were scrapes, perhaps from sharp stones, but the leather was solidly sewn to the sole. There were dark patches everywhere, singes, Helder assumed. There were no fastenings, and a strange embossed pattern at the ankle on both sides.
 
What am I supposed to do with these old shoes? he asked himself. What was my grandfather thinking? I never even set eyes on him – how did he know I even existed, since he left our parts over fifty years ago? After his disappearance nobody in the family even hinted that there had been any contact with him.
 
Hawaii. Helder thought of the rowdy German drinking song that called it an island without a drop of beer. He thought of Hemingway. Or had Cuba been more his scene? Anyway, Helder thought of men in bright shirts hanging around in bars, falling ice cubes clinking into glasses, and instead of beer: whiskey and rum. Also a touch of Pacific Islands romance, dark-skinned beauties swaying their hips and holding out garlands.
 
A pearl-white, smiling paradise. In Helder’s dreams there were no volcanoes, but his old school atlas told him their names: Mauna Kea, Kilauea ...
 
At night flames sprang from the soles of the old shoes, and a shadow with fiery edges flitted through his dream.
 
The following morning the shoes stood untouched next to his bed. He left them there, packed his bags, and checked out of the hotel with the soothing thought that he was leaving behind something quite unpleasant.
 
[…]
 
 
Chapter III
 
Helder got home two days later. His grandfather’s shoes were lying in front of his door. Instead of getting rid of them, the hotel had forwarded them.
 
For a week they lay in his front hall, making the place look messy. Susanne would have put them in the closet or thrown them out, but she had already left for Brussels. Helder resolved to consign them to the trashcan, but for reasons he could not explain he kept putting it off.
 
When he came back from the office and put on his slippers, he felt as if an unknown guest had left his shoes in the hall and was now waiting for him in the living room. He was almost disappointed to find the couch and chair empty.
 
But there were times when he kicked the old shoes out of the way like a bothersome memory. It must have been on such a day that he picked up these useless heirlooms, carried them outside, and threw them in the trashcan.
 
When Helder left the house the following morning, he almost tripped over the shoes. Somebody had written on a torn-off piece of cardboard: “These belong in a thrift shop!”
 
Helder muttered a curse. Doubtless some leftwing academic among the garbage men was acting out his romantic ideals. He’d lodge a complaint with the city.
 
Again the shoes lay around in the hall for days. One evening he couldn’t resist the temptation: he overcame his horror of athlete’s foot, and slipped on the shoes. A perfect fit.
 
[…]
 
 
Chapter IV
 
[...]
The cobbler turned the shoes this way and that, eyed them carefully with the help of his work lamp, tapped here, pressed there. Nothing. He even sniffed them.
 
The only possibility, he said, is to cut open the inside padding so we can see if maybe something ... but then again you could at best fit a postage stamp in there. It would be a pity, too. There’s some good workmanship here. Really. And top-grade leather. And the stitching, all done by hand. This is the only place, here – he held the left shoe up to Helder – where the padding is stitched to the leather, that a different thread has been used. Well, after all, these shoes aren’t locally made. See? He pointed at the embossed pattern.
 
I know, Helder said, they’re from Hawaii.
 
Hawaii? Nonsense, that’s Arabic writing. No doubt about it. I was at El Alamein back then under Rommel. You wouldn’t believe what we pulled off down there! We really gave it to the English. Let me tell you, having Rommel as general and then ...
 
Helder was out of the store before he had to listen to how Germany could have won World War II.
 
So it wasn’t a Pacific Island design, but Arabic. Had Hans Kaspar Brügg been in the desert too? A Nazi fanatic, who at forty had signed up for duty as a volunteer? Was that why he had abandoned wife and children? Was he perhaps involved in some war crime? Was that why everyone was so pointedly silent about him? Was he the black sheep of the family, and consequently banished for good reason?
 
Helder drove to the retirement home, Senior Apartments Abendfrieden – Evening Calm – where he found Erdmuthe engrossed in a board game, surrounded by numbing Muzak.
 
Johannes, you’re cheating! she accused her partner.
 
He smiled softly, and said: Ah, trivial pursuits.
 
They’re all a bunch of cheats here, all of them. My sister Henrietta was right – all men are a bunch of cheats. She began to sing in a trembling voice: Men are such criminals ...
 
Hans Kaspar too?
 
No, not him. Not him.
 
Tell me, Aunt Erdmuthe, was grandpa in the War? In North Africa per haps?
 
Down there? When do you mean? Under the Kaiser?
 
No, Auntie. Under Hitler.
 
So, in 1914?
 
Helder sighed. Was she mixing up the wars, or was she trying to avoid talking about the Nazi in the family.
 
Yes, there was a man, Erdmuthe said, lost in thought. A railroad man, his name was Brügg. He must have taken him along.
 
[...]
 
 
Chapter XII
 
A train is rolling through open landscape, away from the cities of the coast into the arid Australian interior. It’s September, and the powerful springtime sun is burning down on the tin roofs of the railroad cars: Fourth class, compared to the German Reich Railways. Wooden benches, both ends of the car opening into the next car. The rushing air brings barely any coolness, just the smoke from the locomotive. That’s how it must have been. A steam locomotive, yes, not diesel, we maintain, even though Mo didn’t speak of it. In the crowded car the smell of a coal-fired boiler blends with the musty odor of stale sweat hanging in the clothes of the convicts, together with remnants of sea air.
 
After fifty-seven days at sea, the Dunera had docked in Sydney Harbor on September 6th. The convicts were escorted to the train station by reservists and Australian army veterans of the First World War, and transported to various camps.
 
A soldier stands guard at either end of the car in which we presume Mo and Hans Kaspar were transported. The elder of the two soldiers has a sunburnt farmer’s face and rolls a cigarette with rough fingers, dexterously balancing the jerky motion of the train. He signals to his unwilling fellow passengers that they are allowed to smoke too. But only a few men riffle through their pockets for cigarettes, from which the last shreds of tobacco are about to fall. They sniff hungrily at the blue wisps of smoke, or eye their neighbor’s glowing cigarette butt that is already singeing their fingers. One of the Australians takes pity on them and freely hands out papers and tobacco from a leather pouch.
 
That is how eyewitnesses, among them Mo, described the train ride through the desert-like open terrain, past lone farms whose windmills pump sparse water out of the earth. There are a few trees here and there, robbed by famers of wide strips of bark so they would dry out and not suck up the rainwater needed for the cattle and their pastures.
 
Then on the horizon a whole forest appears, made blue by the distance and the oil in the air. “Eucalyptus!” a man in the train car calls out. A memory of the cool taste of lozenges might have touched Hans Kaspar’s smoke-stained tongue, bringing with it another memory: of Sister Carla, who had kept such rare treats in a tin box painted with Moors, camels, and other insignia of a fairytale Orient. And while the Berlin communists, Orthodox Viennese Jews, and Munich homosexuals rush to the car windows to see their first kangaroos in the wild, which were racing the train in herds for minutes at a time, we see a nondenominational and apolitical heterosexual railroad man of questionable origin sitting on the hard wooden bench musing about lozenges. Perhaps, like Helder and us, musing about what had driven him from home.
 
Hans Kaspar might have been remembering how his three-year-old daughter Rosa awkwardly tugged one of the green eucalyptus drops from the sticky mass in the tin, popping it expectantly into her mouth only to spit it out a few seconds later with an expression of horror and let it fall onto the worn linoleum of the kitchen floor.
 
Henrietta had sat at the table scraping carrots, laughing over the harmless incident. But Hans angrily threw the tin onto the table, picked the lozenge up from the floor, rinsed it over the clean chipped enamel of the sink, and slipped it into his mouth. Sucking at it, he lectured his family about how nothing was to be thrown away, especially in these hard times. Then came the accusation which the couple so often aimed at one another, that he or she wasn’t strict enough with the child.
 
When do I have time? Henrietta had said. If only you’d started working at the Stickenbacher office the way mother’s been insisting all along, I wouldn’t have to be sewing other men’s pants. Then I’d have more time for Rosa. But you, you only love the trains!
 
Haha! Other men’s pants, Hans Kaspar replied. You’re making it sound as if I were sending you out whoring. As it is, I’m not sure I like the idea of you measuring men’s inside legs.
 
I only had to do that once, Henrietta said, but I could hardly send Mendel away just because I only sew for ladies. After all he’s your boss.
 
So that’s why you danced with him so often last Sunday, because he’s my boss? I don’t give a damn if he is my boss, and you shouldn’t either!
 
The exchange grew louder, and moved from how to bring up Rosa to fidelity and love. Henrietta again aired her jealousy of her sister Erdmuthe.
 
It was you yourself, Hans Kaspar said scornfully, who pushed Erdmuthe into our bed. Are you aware of that?
 
Yes I am.
 
Did she tell you herself?
 
Erdmuthe? No. But do you think I’m blind?
 
Suddenly Henrietta and Hans Kaspar saw the child with three or four bitter green lozenges in her tiny hand, popping them into her mouth, thinking this might reconcile her arguing parents.
 
Touched by the child’s self-sacrifice, Hans Kaspar and Henrietta hugged and kissed, tugged at each other’s clothes, pulling one another onto the tabletop that was scarred by knife cuts and hot pans. His pants fell to the floor, and her panties soon hung on a hook between ladles and forks. Little Rosa clapped her hands as the woman, in the child’s eyes still her mother, sat straddling her father on the kitchen table. But then the child became frightened—her parents moaning in pain as if they were dying—and she ran out of the apartment in tears.
 
Sometime later the woman next door, finding the child in the stairwell, brought her back, by which time the couple was already dressed and straightening their clothes. Hans Kaspar held his face under the tap, and Henrietta reached for another carrot to peel. Her panties were still hanging abandoned on the soup ladle, and the neighbor put two and two together. She muttered something about poor little children and the lack of morals these days, turned on her heel, and marched off in her slippers.
 
The woman next door might have recalled the incident again some nine months later when the cries of a newborn infant came from the Brüggs’ apartment. For little Rosa, who couldn’t make the connection between the two events, her parents’ escapade became one of the many mysteries of grown-up life, where joy and pain, love and hate, good and evil kept getting mixed up.
 
Henrietta, now blessed with a child of her own, no longer considered herself trumped by her sister, and began looking forward to Erdmuthe’s frequent visits. Hans Kaspar promised the sisters that he would try to get an apartment big enough for the two children and the two mothers. But for the time being there was a lack of money as well as a lack of space. Hans Kaspar had been rehired by the German Reich Railways, but now just as a grade-crossing keeper. There was enough food on the table, but what about the things in life that brought comfort and pleasure? A phonograph, for instance, which Henrietta longed for passionately, one just like the one Herr Mendel owned.
 
In Krahnsdorf-Brandt the railroad tracks leading from Dresden to Berlin crossed those going from Bremen over Magdeburg to Breslau, and those going from Cottbus over Leipzig to Frankfurt. Mendel, who was now the stationmaster, would say: The whole world passes through our station.
 
Whoever travels from Lisbon to Moscow will ride past you, Mendel would say to his underlings whenever a uniform button was undone, or if he had to point to a dusty shoe. But Mendel could depend on Hans Kaspar—and not only when it came to adhering to the dress code. Hans Kaspar seemed intent on proving to Mendel at every turn that Mendel had unfairly stripped him of his former position during the upheavals in the railway system after 1918. The instant a train was announced, Hans Kaspar put on his cap and lowered the barriers; then he would take his signal horn, which was polished to perfection, and stand at attention by the barriers.
 
[...]
 
At times Hans Kaspar was greeted with a raised workers’ fist, at times with a flat Nazi hand, but he always kept his hand saluting at the side of his cap, as the regulations required. Then came the day when all greetings were a raised flat hand. It was during this new era that one Monday morning his former coworker, Eugen Karwenzel, attempted a revolution in Krahnsdorf-Brandt.
 
Karwenzel had lost his job as a grade-crossing keeper in the mid nineteentwenties because, as he always maintained, the British and the French exacted a yearly sum of a million gold marks as reparations from the Reich Railways. As early as 1929, Karwenzel, for lack of anything better to do, had joined Hitler’s brown-shirt storm troopers and worked his way up to squad leader.
 
In the dew-sparkling morning of February 13, 1933, Hans Kaspar saw Eugen Karwenzel marching in britches and freshly-polished boots, blowing steam like a locomotive. He was heading to the station to relieve Mendel of his position. Two storm troopers joined him at the corner of Leipziger and Tannenberg streets, as had been agreed upon the evening before in the station bar. Karwenzel had insisted that Hans Kaspar be present too, as he wanted the backing of a man in a uniform of the Reich Railways.
 
Didn’t Mendel, that left-wing traitor, kick you out of the switch tower back in ’18? Did he or didn’t he? Well, he did! So what are you waiting for?
 
Eugen, this is against all regulations! Damn the regulations!
 
From tomorrow I’ll be the one making the regulations. Decide where you stand!
 
[…]
 
Karwenzel had put together a little speech that he intended to proclaim when he entered Mendel’s office, but Mendel wasn’t at his desk when the three brown-shirted representatives of the New Order came storming through the door at eight in the morning. Disappointed, Karwenzel seated himself at Mendel’s desk, while his henchmen leaned against the warm stove. He waited, eying Mendel’s little collection of model trains, and was probably drifting off into daydreams, because suddenly Mendel was standing before him. He had been on his morning rounds, and now demanded to know what the hell Karwenzel was up to. Karwenzel was too startled to make his speech about the New Germany. All he said was: It’s our turn now, Mendel!
 
Mendel replied that he intended to stay at his post until he received official notification of his dismissal, and Karwenzel began shouting about Jews like Mendel and their Bolshevik plot. He ordered his henchmen to detain Mendel in the baggage room until further notice.
 
For half an hour Eugen Karwenzel was the happiest man in all of Krahnsdorf- Brandt. There was a good fire burning in the stove, and he sat at the desk with a cup of freshly brewed coffee, pushing Mendel’s toy locomotives this way and that. But as he sat there, trying to suck coffee grounds from between his teeth, the signal tower reported a malfunctioning railroad switch. Then the phone rang, announcing that a special car with Nazi Storm Troop leaders had to be unhitched quickly and smoothly from the 10:17 from Kassel and hitched onto the 10:31 to Berlin. The assistant stationmaster drew Karwenzel’s attention to an executive meeting in Halle that Karwenzel, as the new station master, had to attend, and a ticket clerk complained about a malfunctioning heater. Karwenzel had the meeting canceled due to necessities of state—if he was to be in Halle on time, he would already have had to be on his way.
 
By nine Karwenzel had already sent for Mendel’s advice, by eleven Mendel was sitting as advisor on a stool next to the desk, and shortly after twelve there was a call from Halle. Missing Mendel, the director of the Reich Railways was, to his great amazement, informed that the local Nazi party had taken it upon itself to replace the Krahnsdorf-Brandt stationmaster. In Berlin that very day, Executive Director Dorpmüller of the Reich Railways and Adolf Hitler happened to be in conference about personnel issues. Consequently, Karwenzel was blessed with his one and only, unforgettable talk with Hitler. A call from Dorpmüller came in just before three in the afternoon. He demanded to speak to Mendel, ignoring Karwenzel’s newly-acquired status. After a brief discussion on the phone, Mendel handed back the receiver, and to his astonishment Karwenzel heard the thundering voice of his Führer informing him that in future he was to await orders before taking action: Storm Trooper Shlomenzel, you are ordered home to await further instructions!
 
In a trance, Karwenzel put the receiver down, and without looking back wandered out of the room, through the station, and down Leipziger Strasse to his house, where his wife had been keeping the cabbage soup warm for him since lunchtime.
 
I’m not sure about this revolution of yours, Eugen, she muttered. If there isn’t even enough time to sit down to a decent meal ...
 
Karwenzel, still stunned by the acoustic apparition, dipped his spoon into the tepid broth and whispered: HE, he himself has taken the matter into his own hands.
 
Who has?
 
The Führer, Karwenzel rasped, a thick drop of soup running unchecked down his chin.
 
A few weeks later, at the insistence of the Nazi Reich Railways department, Eugen Karwenzel was rewarded for his services with the position of grade- crossing keeper, replacing Hans Kaspar, who was transferred to the station’s signal tower. There, within a few months, Hans Kaspar was once again in charge of the tower, the previous supervisor having been promoted to stationmaster. Mendel was granted early retirement, everything done by the book. Hans Kaspar noted that even under its new rulers, the German Railways kept to its motto of order, dependability, precision and discipline.
 
In 1942 – by then Hans Kaspar had already traveled through the Australian outback – Josef Mendel, as a retired railroad man, was given a free ticket for Ausschwitz, a place still little known at the time. Unlike his fellow passengers, Mendel did not have to pay the required four pfennigs for transportation to the camp.
 
A few days later, during the auctioning off of Mendel’s household, Karwenzel managed to obtain a number of model locomotives and train cars, which he gave to his stepson Bertram one at a time over the next few years for his birthdays.
 
It was at that auction too that Henrietta Brügg finally obtained her longed- for phonograph, along with a few records, among them Richard Tauber’s noble tenor voice.
 
But the song My heart belongs to you resounded only once through the new house the Brüggs had bought with their inheritance from the fabric factory. Erdmuthe, who by then had moved in with them, did not share her sister’s motto of “seize the day.” She brought Tauber’s singing to a scratchy halt when she found out where the phonograph had come from.
 
The whole thing was a terrible injustice, she maintained.
 
The two sisters quarreled.
 
He promised it to me, Henrietta suddenly let slip.
 
Who?
 
Mendel.
 
Promised it to you?
 
Yes, to me, Henrietta snapped.
 
I see, Erdmuthe replied hesitantly, but didn’t pursue the matter. She did, however, insist that the phonograph be put away in the attic.
 
But one night the turntable began to turn, and the metallic funnel emitted a tinny voice that echoed through the dark house. My heart belongs to you, forever beloved and true.
 
Erdmuthe probably thought that the machine, after absorbing the energy of Mendel’s aura, was now releasing it, setting the turntable in motion. But why? What could be the reason?
 
Perhaps because Fritz Löhner, who had written the song, had believed that Hitler’s love for music would be greater than his hatred for the Jews, and so had not emigrated as the singer of the song, Richard Tauber, had managed to do. Fritz Löhner was arrested the day after the Germans’ march into Austria on March 13, 1938, and two weeks later was transported on the first train carrying Vienna’s Jewish Who’s Who to Dachau.
 
Or perhaps because Franz Lehar, the composer of the melody, who directed the operetta Land of Smiles in which the song appears, had not taken it upon himself to mention his interned librettist, who by then had been moved to Buchenwald, at his seventieth birthday gala at the Vienna Opera before his admirer Adolf Hitler. (It could have been the absent-mindedness of old age, or perhaps he did not want to ruin the moment.)
 
Or perhaps because on December 4, 1942, five directors of I. G. Farben, on an inspection of their facility in Auschwitz, noticed that the librettist Fritz Löhner was not demonstrating the expected energy in his work – That Jew there could work a little faster – an admonishment that the SS-commander accompanying them turned that very evening into a death sentence.
 
Perhaps. In any case it was Josef Mendel who had to load the slaughtered man onto a wheelbarrow and cart him to the ovens. Thick white snowflakes filled the night air. The light of the camp lanterns, the softened paths, the barracks and watchtowers – everything sank in the whirling snow. The whole world was snow, a wheelbarrow with a dead man, and a man wheeling the dead man through the snowy silence. Mendel held tight to the shafts, and struggled through the flakes swirling up and down. They seemed like gentle ballerinas, or wild dancers pressing cold kisses onto his eyes, cheeks, and lips; settling, as if to rest, on the dead man, unaware who he was. Mendel, too, was unaware. At the center of this silent dance Mendel began to sing: My heart belongs to you, forever beloved and true.
 
The words he sang were barely audible, but his heart was filled with them, filled with the unknown “you”, as if the “you” were a god. But this god remained silent and distant, perhaps so as not to shout out in despair. But perhaps the God was not sure if the “you” in the song wasn’t a certain Henrietta.
 
This was the night in which the phonograph had begun to play of its own accord. It then played night after night.
 
Henrietta refused to tell Erdmuthe whether she and Mendel had had a relationship of any kind, even though from time to time Erdmuthe pressed her for answers. And yet in those days another relationship was in the making – that between Henri Helder’s future parents.
 
Bertram Helder, the illegitimate son of Lore Helder, who was now married to Karwenzel, was seventeen at the time. He hated cabbage soup and his stepfather. He was passionately in love with Rosa, and hoping to catch a glimpse of her would sit with Karwenzel’s field glasses by the attic window, from where part of the Brüggs’ house could be seen.
 
Occasionally he was even invited to visit the Brüggs.
 
He liked being there: of course because of Rosa, but also because none of the Brüggs ever dropped so much as a hint about his being illegitimate.
 
At home he often sat at the table, his head hanging, having to listen to his mother (particularly when Karwenzel was away at one of his countless gatherings) going on about how ashamed she’d been walking around with her big belly just because that damn bastard had drunk himself into the grave before he could marry her. And now, she complained, Karwenzel was spending more time in the beer hall than at home. It’s a disgrace, a disgrace.
 
And there at the table Disgrace sat, grinning and pointing her gnarled finger at Bertram. It’s you we’re talking about, my boy, you and nobody else!
 
As a result, Bertram was always a little ashamed of being in this world: a bump that had to be evened out, planed down – one just had to be quick, hard, and dogged. Not like Karwenzel, who put on a big show with nothing behind it.
 
One day, when Rosa’s parents and aunt were out, she pointed to the attic door and said to Bertram: Every night, Mendel’s ghost walks the attic. If you love me, go up there.
 
Bertram eagerly obliged. His heart beating wildly, he crept up the creaking staircase and over the dusty floorboards, with Rosa’s brother Willy in tow. The phonograph, covered with spider webs, stood there silently, and did not resist being disassembled and carried out into the garden, where the boys buried it in the pumpkin patch. As a reward, Bertram got a kiss and the last piece of the Sunday almond cake, which he had to share with Willy.
 
One fine autumn day Erdmuthe came running in utter disarray from the garden, insisting that she had heard – definitely heard – one of the pumpkins singing.
 
Some days later, in April of 1945, Willy led two Soviet Red Army soldiers away from the terrified women and took them down the garden path; soon after, the two soldiers were sitting on the stairs with their caps off, busily reassembling and polishing Mendel’s phonograph.
 
In the meantime Bertram was lying behind a bazooka, plucking at a dandelion blossom. To shoot, or not to shoot? Luckily, dandelions have many petals, and before he had plucked the last one a scratchy sound came wafting over the railroad embankment: My heart belongs to you, forever beloved and true. Bertram peered over the embankment and saw the two Red Army men jump onto the back of a passing military truck with their loot. For a while on this unusually mild day before the end of the war, their voices came through the dust and the rumbling of engines: My kheart belonks to yuu.
 
Willy, I believe you saved your sister’s honor, Henrietta said later.
 
As for our honor, Erdmuthe added, there wasn’t all that much to save.
 
We were keeping the phonograph for Mendel, Henrietta replied, knowing what her sister was implying.
 
But Mendel never came to inquire about the phonograph.
 
[...]
 
After Mendel had been pensioned off (and Hans Kaspar might well have believed that Mendel had been retired in the normal way), Hans Kaspar threw the switches for trainloads of ammonia and coal, wooden toys and iron ore, letters and draft orders, day-trippers and children in uniforms, military transports and work brigades, prisoners of war and forced laborers. We must assume, that he would also have thrown the switches – reliably, precisely, punctually – for the trains transporting people to Buchenwald and Treblinka, had not a stroke of luck (if we may call it that) kept him from doing so. It was, we assume, the luck of an old love affair, and also the stroke of luck that one spring evening in 1940 an overworked post-office official neglected to place the card with Arabic lettering in the box with all the correspondence that was to be inspected by the secret police.
 
As Henriette Brügg hurried to meet the mailman in her unfailing hope that fate might send something good, she was instead given the postcard that would bring an end to what she later called – at least among her friends – those happy years in our house by the tracks. Years in which Rosa and Willy had grown up and done well in school where they had learned to read and write, but also to classify people into races, the way the farmer next door classified his poultry: Saxony and Brabant hens, Appenzellers and Augsburgers. While Henrietta devotedly ironed the pants of Willy’s little uniform, Erdmuthe was trying to talk her daughter into an asthmatic attack: Look at you! You’re coughing up a storm!
 
Officially, and as far as the children were concerned, Erdmuthe was still only Rosa’s aunt, but she pleaded with Hans Kaspar not to allow Rosa to attend youth camp any more. You know how careless they are in those camps – the other day she came back all bruised. But Erdmuthe was worried that the youth camp with its military ways might do more than just give Rosa bruises. Henrietta only shook her curly head, not because she was against white lies, but because she felt that this lie was not to the child’s advantage.
 
And yet sisterly disputes of this kind remained an exception, and the two women running Hans Kaspar’s household gave it more than just the sparkle of cleanliness.
The sisters were sitting at the kitchen table discussing the postcard, less interested in its picture of a train rolling over a viaduct than they were in the text written in mysterious characters on the other side. They could only make out the address and signature, which were in Roman letters.
 
Si... ya... kuu, that’s a woman’s name.
 
A woman’s name?
 
Yes, Henrietta, it sounds like one.
 
You know how secretive he always is. Remember when we went for that walk in the Schwanenweiden, and he told us about his Baghdad railways.
 
That’s true – I always suspected that he had a woman down there.
 
Had is nice and fine, but what if it’s has? I wonder what she’s writing him.
 
Give it to me – I’ll throw it in the fire!
 
No, Henrietta, then we’ll never find out what it says!
 
We’ll have him read it to us. That’s what we’ll do. Then we’ll know where we stand.
 
When Hans Kaspar came home, he saw the postcard right away, looked carefully at both sides, and then slipped it into his pocket without a word.
 
I didn’t know you knew Arabic.
 
It’s Turkish.
 
Well?
 
Well, what? I told you it’s Turkish, written in Arabic script. It used to be written that way.
 
Won’t you read the card?
 
Later.
 
When?
 
Later.
 
Later Hans Kaspar sat alone, reading the postcard outside on the stoop. He read for a long time – a very long time, the two sisters thought. Then, as the sisters watched him from the attic window, he did what he otherwise never did: climbed over the railway embankment, and walked for a good hour through the fields among the blossoming rapeseed and young corn.
 
When he came back, he took the old shoes out from under the bed – the shoes Helder was to wear many years later. Sitting on the steps, he polished them carefully to a mild honey-yellow shine. Erdmuthe and Henrietta kept coming out to check on him, pretending that they had to go down to the garden or the shed. Hans Kaspar was unsettling them.
 
You ought to have thrown those damn shoes out with the garbage, Erdmuthe told Henrietta.
 
Oh? Why didn’t you get rid of them? Anyway, it’s not as if the shoes are the problem.
 
What are we going to do if he wants to go away?
 
Where to?
 
They sent Willy to see what his father intended to do. Willy sat down next to him, and eyed the shoes. He ran his fingers gently over the Arabic lettering on the sides.
 
That’s a nice design ...
 
It’s not a design, Hans Kaspar grumbled angrily, but then thought better of it. I once had a friend, back in Anatolia. And this friend had a tiger.
 
A tiger? A real one? Willy couldn’t believe his ears. Suddenly his father, a strict and dull disciplinarian, was turning into a hero before his eyes.
 
Yes, a real tiger. My friend was poor, but he played the violin beautifully. There was a horse-head carving on the neck of the violin, and whenever he played you felt like you were riding wild and free over the steppes. He was a dervish, and as he wandered through the villages with his tiger people would say: here comes a holy man. The tiger was tame and obeyed his every word, though that proved fatal in the end. One day Ahmad, that was my friend’s name, sat down with his tiger in front of a train. He wanted to keep the train from leaving, because it was full of people the soldiers had driven out of their houses because they were Armenians. These people had been packed into the train like cattle, and among them was one person whom both the dervish and I loved very much. That was why he sat there with his tiger, singing, yes, singing his holy songs. The soldiers didn’t dare approach him because of the tiger. They even threw pieces of meat next to the rails, hoping to coax the animal away from him. But the tiger lay in front of the train, yawning wearily.
 
That went on for some time. The locomotive whistled, the soldiers yelled and waved sticks. But the dervish continued singing, while his tiger dozed. Finally one of the officers lost patience, drew his revolver, and shot the tiger dead. The soldiers dragged the dervish away and the train moved on. That’s what happened.
 
What about your friend?
 
They beat him black and blue and locked him up for two days. When they released him, they gave him a bloody package. They’d cut off the tiger’s paws before burying the animal. When I saw the dervish again, his left side was lame. He would never again be able to play his horse-head violin. But he still could sing, and while he sang, a cobbler used the leather from the tiger’s paws to make these shoes. My friend gave them to me as a present a few days before he died.
 
Hans Kaspar picked up one of the shoes, and taking hold of his son’s hand ran the boy’s fingers over the Arabic writing.
 
If you wish for a pearl
Do not seek it in a pond.
He who seeks pearls
Must dive to the bottom of the sea.
 
Father and son sat in silence. After a while Willy asked him: Are you going away?
 
Hans Kaspar raised his shoulders and said in a tone as if the question were tearing him apart: I don’t know.
 
Willy leaned back, slipped his hand into his pants pocket, and pulled out a lozenge in a sticky wrapper. It’s eucalyptus, he said, holding it out to his father in his open palm.
 
 
 
Translated by Peter Constantine
 
 
 
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