When the Time Comes
A TRANSLATION OF Wenn es soweit ist BY ADRIAN WEST
The bone stock, said the ninety-year-old man with the grey- flecked moustache and the trimmed eyebrows, was brewed in the village by a little man who lived in miserable circumstances. He used to gather up the bones from the slaughter and lay them in a clay vessel, which he placed in a hole in the ground over glowing coals and covered up with dirt and clumps of grass. He would let the bones simmer down to a greasy, viscous brew, called “Pandapigl” in the dialect of Carinthia. The bone cooker would wrap the small smoking furnace, made of boards, in barbed wire, and had it guarded by a dog that crouched there day and night. From time to time, as a child, the now ninety-year-old man would take an empty beer bottle to the bone cooker and have him fill it with the bone stock and pay him a few cents, or in kind, with a bit of meat, sausage, bread or milk. Amid the heat of summer, the farm people would take a crow’s feather and smear the dense, black liquid on the horse that pulled the hay cart, around the eyes and in the outer ears, and on the nostrils and the belly, because the putrid-smelling stock warded off the insects that used to pester the cart horses, above all on the hot summer days, so vexing them at times that they would take off through the fields, kicking and jerking their heads, and crash with their carriages on the shores of the Drava.
“Let us note in passing that the Christian’s attitude in prayer, head and eyes lowered, is unfavorable to meditation. It is a posture conducive to a closed and submissive intellectual disposition, and it discourages spiritual audacity. If you choose this position, God may come, swoop down on the nape of your neck, and leave his mark there, where it may linger a long time. In order to meditate, you must find an open attitude—not defiant—but not prostrate before God. You must proceed cautiously. A bit too much submission and God will bestow his grace upon you: then you’re fucked.”
In the very bottom of the clay vessel in which the putrid smelling bone stock was rendered, from the bones of slaughtered animals, to be brushed on the horses with a crow’s feather around the eyes, on the ears and nostrils, and on their bellies, to protect them from the flies, the horseflies, and mosquitoes, lie the arm bones of a man, torn from his body in a trench on the battlefield, who dragged a life-sized statue of Jesus through the forest before the Second World War and threw it over a waterfall. Even after days of searching, they couldn’t find Jesus’ arms, broken off from his body in the fall—the pastor, Balthasar Kranabeter, wandered for nights on end through the forest, with a flashlight and a prayer card hanging around his neck, praying loudly Holy God, we praise thy name, Lord of all, we bow before thee—but in retribution, according to the priest, the blasphemer lost his own arms in Hitler’s war, spent the rest of his days with a wooden prosthesis to which iron hooks were affixed, and had to be fed by his wife and children. Before meals, he would make the sign of the cross over his forehead, lips, and breast with the iron hooks affixed to his prosthesis, and pray, Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and bless what thou hast bestowed. Since then, the prayer card-painting village priest used to say, lifting his index finger menacingly before the wide eyes of the children of the landowners and peasants seated before him for their religion lessons, that town built in the form of a cross, which had already been burned to the ground at the turn of the century, is encaged in an image framed left to right, top to bottom, by fire, and the profaner of Christ lies within it, his hands aloft among the red and yellow flames darting upward from the floor of Hell, his naked torso bound by a green serpent as thick as a man’s arm. Red-winged Lucifer leans over the sinner and spills a cup of gall into his mouth. Ô toi, le plus savant et le plus beau des Anges, / Dieu trahi par le sort et privé de louanges, / Ô Satan, prends pitié de ma longue misère!
With the statue of Saint George, patron saint of horses, which was brushed in the early morning, while the dewdrops still glistened on the periwinkles growing along the church’s outer wall, with the black bone stock, smelling of decay, around the eyes, nose, mouth, and halo, the townspeople, among them Maximilian’s then eight-year-old father, would walk the four kilometers from Pulsnitz to Großbotenfeld at seven in the morning, led by the sacristan carrying a cross. With the life-sized statue borne by four men, the faithful would take the outstretched right arm of the village rebuilt in the form of a cross—fifteen years before, some children playing with fire had reduced it to ashes—and slip between the cramped fingers of the crucified right hand, praying their Hail Marys and Our Fathers until they had passed over the palm pierced by the nail and then falling quiet as they arrived at the dank Ponta forest, where to this day thousands of snowdrops still blossom in the springtime. The Ponta forest was also called Galgenbichl, where the criminals were hanged, Maximilian’s ninety-year-old father said, and as a child, when he would go on foot to Kindelbrücken to take a message to his grandfather or bring him his mail, he used to pass by there as quickly as possible, in dread. The murmuring of the procession only rose again when the pilgrims had turned toward the neighboring township of Nußbach, likewise built in the form of a cross, and had left the Galgenbichl behind. After a mass held in a clover field in Großbotenfeld, paid for year after year by Maximilian’s grandfather, Florian Kirchheimer, a horse-breeder esteemed far and wide, the Saint George procession would disband. The pilgrims visited their friends and family, the taste of the host still in their mouths, or went to the inn, or sauntered home on the field and forest paths. The statue was lifted onto a calash and pulled back to Pulsnitz, where it took up its place in the church, by two horses accompanied by the priest and Maximilian’s grandfather, and running girls would follow behind them, daisy wreaths woven with horsehair into their hair. Let the smoke of this sacrifice rise up to thee Lord. We offer not slain calves, but the blood of Christ—Let our words not be ignored.
In the clay vessel in which the pandapigl was rendered, to be brushed on the horses with a crow’s feather around the eyes nostrils, and belly in order to protect them from mosquitoes and horseflies, Maximilian, the bone collector, lays atop the arm bones of the blasphemer, who threw a life-sized statue of Jesus over a waterfall before the Second World War and lost his own arms on the battlefield. That was a punishment from God! the priest would scream over and over from the pulpit—the bones of his great-grandmother, Paula Rosenfelder, who lost a son in the First World War and took her own life, it was said, because she feared her pregnant daughter, who lay in bed with an infection, would fall ill with the Spanish flu and succumb to death, as so many other young women in the village built in the form of a cross had done. Her husband, August Rosenfelder, Maximilian’s great-grandfather, came back home from the cattle market, looked for his wife in the kitchen and stable, went into his pregnant daughter’s bedroom and asked after her mother. Throwing the quilt back from over her head, his flu-sick daughter whispered hoarsely: She’s gone back up to the attic! The bone collector’s great-grandfather climbed the steep attic staircase and saw, before he had reached the last step, his wife’s head hanging modestly over her breast. He approached the corpse, strangled with a calf halter, and cried: But mama! But mama! It seems Maximilian’s grandmother, Leopoldine Felsberger, pregnant with Maximilian’s uncle, Kajetan Felsberger, at the time of her mother’s suicide, kept the incident long concealed, and only spoke of it during the Second World War, after hearing that her son Michael—the third to have done so—had fallen in Russia, in the vicinity of Nevel. She fainted in the garden and was carried into the house by her husband, his legs quivering. When she came to, she lit a candle and prayed more than an hour for the souls of her three fallen sons, and then, in tears, she told of her mother’s suicide for the first time.
August Rosenfelder, Maximilian’s alcoholic great-grandfather, was often mocked and jeered at by the fourteen-year-old Rupert, a schoolmate of the now ninety-year-old man with the grey-flecked moustache and the trimmed eyebrows. When the young man had once again aped his bandy-legged gait, the drunk struck him in the face with a switch of hazelnut. The fourteen-year-old stood crying with a broken nose and blood-smeared face before the shouting old man brandishing his switch. His daughter-in-law, who wanted to limit his alcohol intake, filled his empty schnapps bottle with bleach. The bleach corroded his throat and pharynx so badly that he could hardly nourish himself and only ate and drank with unbearable pain. In his eighty-first year, soon after this grievous injury, he tied a black rosary around his wrist, went into the stable, unfastened the hemp cord from one of the calves crouched at the feeding trough, wound the rope around his neck and hanged himself from the doorframe of the stable.
In the clay vessel in which the putrid-smelling bone stock was rendered, from the bones of slaughtered animals, to be painted on the horses with a crow’s feather in the summer heat, around the eyes, nostrils, and belly, to protect them from the pricking and bloodsucking horseflies and mosquitoes, lies the skeleton of the hanged August Rosenfelder over the skeleton of his wife Paula, who took her life up in the attic. A thick black braid covered her right eye and the tip of her tongue, which stuck out from between her lips. When the stable doors were forced open, his hobnailed shoes clacked against the wooden floor, and the rosary swung back and forth between the blue tips of his contracted fingers, and the young woman, who had been looking for her father-in-law, and who had burned out his esophagus with bleach, felt the burst of the stall air and saw her father-in-law dangling in the dung-splattered doorway, his tongue protruding from his mouth. I hear a call ring out: Brother! Wake from thy slumber, the Lord is come to us, night is far, the day is nigh! Eschew all deeds borne of the night! Henceforth may all men bear the arms of light!
The fifteen-year-old Ludmilla Felfernig, Maximilian’s mother said, had to work on the Schaflechner farm with peasants and menials who mocked and jeered at her incessantly. Once, the boys were stacking straw bales on the threshing floor of the barn when the girl, to use his mother’s words, became unwell. As she bent over the straw bales, the boys made fun of the blood that had seeped through her underwear. In tears, the girl let the straw bale fall and ran down the gangway of the hayloft and down the village street to the calvary, where she knelt, folding her hands in prayer, under the flames leaping up from the floor of Hell. While the menstrual blood ran over her thighs, she sobbed out, with a pounding heart: Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom His love entrusts me here, ever this day be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide. Wedging her hand between her thighs, she smeared blood on her face, on the whitewashed wall of the calvary, and on the devil’s horned head, and ran, red-masked, with blood-drenched hands and thighs, past the graveyard, where the crosses stood erect as life-sized toy soldiers, stretching their thorn-crowned heads, past the church, over the slope of the pond, down through fields fenced in with rusted barbed wire hung with tufts of grey and brown hair from the grazing cattle, through the narrow, tangled woodlands by the river, and threw herself into the rapids of the Drava. After days of pointless searching, her corpse was pulled out of the river in Villach. Milla got snagged up in the grating on the Drava bridge! Thus Maximilian’s mother, the wife of the ninety-year-old man with the grey-flecked moustache and the trimmed eyebrows.
In the clay vessel in which the pandapigl was rendered, from the bones of slaughtered animals, to be painted on the horses with a crow’s feather, around the eyes, nostrils, and belly to protect them from the pestering mosquitoes and horseflies, the bone collector lays the skeleton of the fifteen-year-old girl, found caught up among the driftwood in the grating and pulled up out of the river, over the skeleton of August Rosenfelder, whose dung-splattered corpse was cut down from the stable door before the cow tails swinging back and forth. Opposite the schoolhouse, in the center of the town built in the form of a cross, in front of the calvary where the blasphemer, who threw the life-sized Jesus over a cliff, lies among the flames of Hell, holding his hands aloft while Lucifer, red wings unfurled, bends over his victim to spill a cup of gall in his open mouth while he cries out in misery, the funeral train halted, with the black-clothed priest, the acolytes in black and white, the peasants and menials bearing lit candles and murmuring prayers. With holy water and incense, the priest blessed the bloody handprints the young suicide had left on the walls of the calvary and on the image of Hell that he himself had painted, and said: Ô Prince de l’exil, à qui l’on a fait tort / Et qui, vaincu, toujours te redresses plus fort, / Ô Satan, prends pitié de ma longue misère!
In the depths of winter, at twenty degrees below zero, when Maximilian’s grandfather Florian Kirchheimer used to drive the horse-sleigh laden with milk cans twenty kilometers among the snowdrifts from Pulsnitz to the dairy in Villach, he would put on an ankle-length leather coat with a tufted black lamb’s wool liner. For the townspeople, who sent their milk over to the dairy, he was given raw sugar and oil in exchange; wrapped to his ankles in his leather coat, his sleigh hung with icicles, he would pass them out to the townspeople on his return in the same place where he’d picked up the milk. He would draw the oil up out of a jerry can and pour it into glass bottles carried by the townspeople who stood there waiting for him.
Maximilian’s father, the ninety-year-old man with the grey-flecked moustache and the trimmed eyebrows, said that as a child of five, afflicted with a severe inflammation of the middle ear, he had sat one winter day in the horse-sleigh beside his father in his ankle-length leather coat with the tufted black sheep’s wool liner, a wool scarf wrapped around his head to protect his aching ears, while they carted logs held together by heavy iron chains from Römerhof to Frankenhausen by way of Pulsnitz. While his father was handing over the logs at the sawmill in Frankenhausen—from afar you could hear the blows of the pickaxes against the tree trunks, round, moist, and slippery, crashing against one other as they were dragged from the horse-sleigh—the five-year-old child, suffering from an inflammation of the middle ear, was treated in the office of Doctor Lamprecht.
For a sick call, the bone collector’s father said, you had to seek out the country doctor, in winter with the horse-sleigh and in summer in a calash. Only later did the doctor buy himself a horse and ride out to see the sick and dying. Before harnessing the nag in the summer heat and mounting its shimmering flanks with his brown leather doctor’s bag, he would brush the black bone stock, smelling of decay, around the horse’s eyes and nostrils, on its outer ears and on its belly, with a crow’s feather, to drive away the insects.
On the way back to Pulsnitz from Frankenhausen, the child of five with his head bound up sat again in the horse-sleigh beside his father, who grasped the cracking leather reigns, clothed in an ankle-length leather coat lined in tufted black sheep’s wool; moaning low to stifle the pain in his ears, he watched the two horses trotting along the spruce forest’s edge, the silvery glimmer of their hooves in the sun. The reigns still hang today, the leather dark grey, worn thin by the horses’ hindquarters and now cracked and peeling, along with the rusty harness, in the attic of Maximilian’s parents’ house, under wasps’ nests the size of soccer balls.
As a twelve-year-old child, Maximilian’s father shoved a hay bale into the chaff cutter in the hayloft. Before the boy could pull his hand back, his brother Eduard spun the wheel of the machine in a circle and cut off one of the child’s fingers with the rotary blade. The two brothers ran screaming down the gangway, the younger one holding his right hand in the air, its little finger hanging by a flap of skin, and into their parents’ house. The village midwife, lingering in the kitchen and chatting with Maximilian’s great-grandmother about the floral decorations for the high altar on the coming Corpus Christi, cut the flap of skin with a pair of scissors and threw the child’s finger on the dung heap, where it landed among the roosters and hens, which jerked their heads, cackling in fright, and scratched at the ground. After the midwife had disinfected the child’s stump, she smeared a black and bitter-smelling ointment on it, tied a piece of cloth over the wound with a white thread, and washed the blood from his forearm. The mother assembled her six children around the table and lit a candle. The children folded their hands—coarse, chapped, and filthy, the nails chewed away—and prayed to their guardian angel, staring fixedly at the candle’s wavering yellow flame.
For two whole summers, when he was five and six, Maximilian’s father had lived with his asthmatic grandmother, who was sent to recuperate in a little roadside cabin overlooking a brook in the mountains in Innerkrems, where thousands of sheep, cows, and horses grazed in the pastures. His grandmother would buy polenta and milk from the neighboring farm people and make breakfast and dinner for herself and her grandson at the open hearth. From time to time, his father Florian rode a horse—a bottle of the black bone stock lay near to hand in his saddlebag—the forty kilometers to Innerkrems and brought his son home-baked bread, speck, sausage and potatoes. As classes had already begun in his hometown of Pulsnitz, the six-year-old went to school in Innerkrems for a time. Between his teeth you could still see the yellow grains of polenta, as the ninety- year-old man with the grey-flecked moustache and trimmed eyebrows grinned, bright-eyed, and told of how the teacher in Innerkrems, from whom he had learned his first letters, used to ride to school on a white horse, trailed by shouting children.
Among the green grasshoppers leaping left and right, forward and backward like sparklers over his shoes, the boy used to go often in the midday summer heat, through the meadows smelling of herbs and fresh-cut grass, or in the fall through the misted-over fields of stubble, when the black, mildew-scented leaves from the bushes growing on the forest’s edge clung to the bottoms of his hobnailed shoes, but also in the knee-deep new snow or the iced-over fields—the deer would sink down in the snow, their long slender legs breaking through the crust that glimmered in the sunlight—to Kindelbrücken, where his grandfather Ferdinand Kirchheimer lived in the Buggelsheim Inn, to bring him a message or his mail. The grandfather would give the child a slice of Reinling with cinnamon-coated raisins baked in, spreading yellow butter and his hand-harvested honey on the pastry. Eat, boy! Eat! He would say as the honey dripped off the bread and ran between the boy’s fingers. The boy would lick the honey from his fingers, eating one slice of Reinling after another at his grandfather’s side while the latter opened letters and sipped coffee. He observed the old man’s grey beard hair by hair. I can still remember his coffee cup very well, it was white, had blue dots, and a dark blue lip. The enamel was chipped in several places: thus Maximilian’s ninety-year-old father. When his grandfather died—his skeleton lies in the clay vessel in which the bone stock was rendered, from the bones of slaughtered animals, to be brushed on the horses with a crow’s feather, around the eyes and nostrils, and on the belly, to protect them from the bloodsucking mosquitoes and horseflies, over the skeleton of the fifteen year-old Ludmilla Felfernig, whose swollen body, mouth agape, hair soaked and clogged with sand, was pulled out of the Drava by firemen—the twelve-year-old boy, who used to visit the old man year in, year out, bringing him letters and messages—the old man told Maximilian the story with misty eyes, his dentures clacking—had cried terribly. One hot summer day, when the brown horses painted with black bone stock stood already harnessed in front of the stable, their heads buried in a trough of oats, before the coffin was brought from the mourning house to the cemetery, the face of his grandfather’s corpse, which had been left exposed though it had already begun to rot, swelled so fat that the hairs of his beard poked out like the spines of a hedgehog. The dead man, reeking of decay, oozed a cadaverous fluid that dripped out from the cracks in the black wooden box, down the catafalque draped in black crepe paper, and onto the floor of the mortuary chapel. While the coffin containing the swollen body was carried out the door and heaved onto the hay cart, where the two brown horses smeared with bone stock were harnessed, shuddering, shaking their heads and stomping to drive away the flies, Ingo Kirchheimer, one of the dead man’s sons, stood at the wide open window on the second floor of the mourning house and let out a cackle over the surrounding mourners, who raised their heads, and over the black-dressed priest, who was lifting his damp grey aspergil for the final blessing. The corpse fluid had dripped onto the brown Carinthian suit of one of the pallbearers, and he vomited beside a funeral wreath propped up against a garden fence. On its black ribbon, in golden letters, was written A Last Goodbye. Let us vault into Heaven, thrice holy God, from earth we sing thy praise! May thy glory bring sight to the blind, that they eschew their heathen ways.
From time to time—the ninety-year-old man with the grey-flecked moustache and the trimmed eyebrows used this turn of phrase repeatedly when speaking of his childhood and youth—his uncle Ingo Kirchheimer, who stood cackling at the second floor window of the mourning house while his father’s body was carried out the door for its final blessing, so that the black-dressed priest, lifting his gaze, let the damp aspergil drop back into the dented copper vessel, would go on foot from Kindelbrücken to Pulsnitz and bang a stone against the iron rail in front of the Kirchheimer estate, presided over by his brother, until a few heads poked out over the crossbars of the parlor window. Then he would vanish without entering the house. After suffering a bullet wound in the First World War, Ingo Kirchheimer, the great-uncle of the bone collector Maximilian, was admitted to the insane asylum in Klagenfurt, and appears only to have left, save for a few minor excursions with his relatives, three decades later, in a coffin. His brother Florian used to visit him now and then in the psychiatric hospital and bring him a package of speck, sausage, and homemade bread, the scent of which lingered long in his nostrils. He would inhale deeply before unwrapping the crackling wax paper and withdrawing his snack. Sometimes he extended a hand in greeting to his visitors, other times no, it always depended on what his schedule was like, those were the old man’s exact words. In a photo of his grave, long-neglected, in the Annabichler cemetery in Klagenfurt, a white marble plaque is visible—but no cross—set in an iron base engraved with his name and his birth and death dates. On All Saints’ Day, before pressing the button on his camera, the photographer lit a candle on the grave, atop which stood a pot of bushy white chrysanthemums.
Maximilian’s great uncle, who went insane in a trench in Yugoslavia, died in the asylum in Klagenfurt in the same year that Hildegard Zitterer, in a mortuary chapel hung in black, lifted the then three-year-old Maximilian over a coffin decorated with periwinkles and showed the child the ash-grey countenance of his deceased maternal grandmother, and the same year as well in which the painter and priest Balthasar Kranabeter had a calvary that he himself had painted, erected in the center of town, across from the schoolhouse. The sinner lies among the leaping flames of Hell, his hands aloft, crying out in pain. A thick green serpent winds around his naked torso, slithering up to his head. Lucifer bends over the blasphemer, his red wings like bat wings fluttering in the heat—you can count their veins—and spills a cup full of gall into his mouth. Toi qui sais tout, grand roi des choses souterraines, / Guérisseur familier des angoisses humaines, / Ô Satan, prends pitié de ma longue misère! During the consecration of the calvary, the pastor, pointing out the features of the afflicted, recollected to the faithful, holding their candles, the man who threw a statue of Jesus as large as a grown man down over a stone in a stream bed and, in recompense for his blasphemy, was crippled in the Second World War. A hand grenade tore both his arms from his body in a trench. Balthasar Kranabeter recalled that he had salvaged the life-sized Jesus with the broken arms from the stream bed with his own two hands, and had carried it though cliff and valley, over meadows and forest paths, into the village, this our village, built in the form of a cross! In the clay vessel in which the pandapigl was rendered, from the bones of slaughtered animals, to mask the horse’s skulls and protect them from the horseflies and mosquitoes, lies the skeleton of Ingo Kirchheimer, who was laid in his coffin in the asylum by two men in green coats with moustaches, crosswise over the bones of his father, dead in the hot summer, his corpse swollen and secreting fluid.
Also the putrid-smelling corpse of the obese Christian Lichtegger—his skeleton lies in the clay vessel in which the putrid-smelling stock was rendered, from the bones of slaughtered animals, to be brushed on the horses with a crow’s feather, around the eyes and nostrils, and on the belly, to protect them from the mosquitoes and horseflies, over the skeleton of Ingo Kirchheimer, who went crazy and died in an insane asylum—swelled up with gases as he lay exposed in his home in the summer heat. The wood of the narrow coffin began to creak and pop as the frightened mourners, clicking their rosaries, seated around the open coffin for nocturnes, cried out in sorrow and prayed their rosaries.
At the Röthmeyer’s, the ninety-year-old man with the grey-flecked moustache and the trimmed eyebrows recollected, there lived a Miss Dörflinger, an alleged sorceress who stayed in a room bare of furniture with the exception of four or five beds. Whenever the ten-year-old boy would visit his schoolmates, the children would crack the bedroom door and slam it back shut, and the insane woman, whom it was impossible to speak to, would be crouched, her hands tied, in one of the beds. When she was almost ninety and—as the ninety-year-old man said—just wouldn’t die, she spent weeks lamenting, and shouted in pain, and it was only when she was taken from the house that her plaints came to an end and she died in the open air, in accordance with her wishes. Especially in my final need, when others have abandoned me, when death startles and Hell threatens, let the cross protect me!
The skeleton of Miss Dörflinger, who died in the open air without a word of complaint under the rain and hail, pelted by hailstones that lodged in the folds of her grave clothes and in her hair, lies in the clay vessel in which the bone stock was rendered, from the bones of animals, to be brushed on the horses with a crow’s feather around the eyes and nostrils, and on the belly, to protect them from the mosquitoes and horseflies, over the skeleton of Christian Lichtegger, whose obese cadaver, reeking of decay, swelled so dreadfully that the praying mourners, who were given a few packets of coffee and sugar for their amicable services, paused in horror, holding handkerchiefs to their noses, when they heard the coffin creak.
The ninety-year-old man with the grey-flecked moustache and the trimmed eyebrows, his hands chapped, cracked and swollen, spoke again of his childhood, leafing through a photo album, and said that, when he was not yet twelve years old, he fell four meters with a straw bale in his hands from the hayloft to the threshing floor and was knocked unconscious. My God, the boy! His father cried and dragged him unconscious from the barn into the farmhouse, where they sprinkled spring well water on his neck, and he was awakened by his parents’ loud praying. Two hours later, said the old man, smiling, I was back in the hayloft with a bale of straw in my hands. Luckily my head landed in the straw pile, otherwise I would have broken my neck on the hard floor.
On the outskirts of town lived Georg Fuhrmann, who used to relieve himself in the town square in Spittal-on-the-Drava. After slaughtering the pigs on his farm, he would piss into the sausage meat, and, instead of marinating it in garlic stock, he and his wife would knead the urine soaked pork and stuff it in the pale grey, flushed and cleaned intestines. At that time, when I was twelve, the old storyteller recalled, Fuhrmann tried to shove me face-first into his excrement. While I clung to his pants legs screaming, he forced my head down, pressing on my neck, a few centimeters over the still fuming pile. But when my father bumped into my tormentor a few days later, Fuhrmann shouted from a distance: Please, Kirchheimer, don’t kill me!
In late spring, from his fourteenth year on, he and his older brother Lazarus would drive their more than thirty sheep from his parents’ farm in Pulsnitz to the alpine pastures of Rosanie in Innerkrems, some forty kilometers away, where he had lived with his asthmatic grandmother for two summers when he was five and six in a small cabin built overlooking a brook; he used to hear the murmur of the water day and night, the chirping of crickets throughout the day, and in the evening, the croaking of frogs. Not seldom, he said, a frog or toad would hop under the dining table and land on his naked toes. Once or twice each summer the young man would take his bicycle to Innerkrems, go up to Rosanie, and count the sheep, bringing them grain and a few kilos of pink salt. On the way back, to protect his rims and brake pads going downhill, he would cut down a bushy spruce from the forest’s edge and tie it to the basket with the branches facing outward, so that, when he coasted downhill, they would open up and slow him down. Arriving in the valley, he would throw the dusty remains of the spruce with its broken twigs into the stream, and continue down the narrow street through the valley, following the banks of the Lieser to his home.
Four months later, in September, usually a few days before the Pulsnitz town fair, he would go on foot to Innerkrems with his older brother Lazarus, the one with the thick ear- lobes, accompanied by a dog, and the next morning, as soon as it was light out, they would look for the sheep. Among the thousands of sheep that grazed throughout the summer on the plain, which many farm people came from afar to use, the brothers searched out their own.
Staring out from the kitchen window, his eyelids narrowed, the red and yellow autumn leaves falling from a maple tree, Maximilian’s father remembered, smiling proudly: I recognized the sheep by their faces! Most of the time we made it back to Pulsnitz with the flock for the evening prayers. One time, he said, when we were already surely twenty-five, Schaflechner and I stole two sheep from another farmer as we were leaving the meadow and we sold them on our way back. That’s how we made our money for the fair!
During the First World War, when the bakery in Kindelbrücken closed down, the bone collector’s grandfather, Florian Kirchheimer, bought the baker’s van with its row of small windows down the side and its double-wing door in the rear.He went from farmhouse to farmhouse in the van to load up the full milk cans and drive them to the station in Kindelbrücken. The milk cans were lifted onto a train car, unloaded in Villach, and delivered to the dairy. He used to tie a half-blind nag to the van—a veteran from Russia, they called it—it kicked so violently that when he went to the stable to brush it, he would bend one leg back and slide a steel hoop over it to keep from getting struck. After brushing him, the horse-breeder, Maximilian’s grandfather, would piss into his hand and shine the animal’s head and flanks with his urine.
As a fourteen-year-old, Maximilian’s father, now a ninety- year-old man with a grey-flecked moustache and trimmed eyebrows, would go day after day, in summer and in winter, from farm to farm in the surrounding villages, collecting the full milk cans and bringing them to the station. In the wintertime, sitting in the baker’s van, he would wrap his lower body in a wool blanket. When it was especially cold, he would run, the reins in his hand, alongside the car with the one-eyed nag. One day, when he had missed the early train and had to wait with the milk cans for the next one, the village barber, who used to always wear a shirt with a tall, rigid white collar—a firebreak, people called it—showed up late as well. Holding his top hat fast to his head, the barber ran alongside the departing train, beckoning it to stop, but in those days, starting the train was what used up the most energy, it was said to cost twenty schillings. Once the baker’s van and the black, one-eyed nag tied to it were chased through the town by a pack of bellowing dogs led by a big white one, which the fourteen-year-old used to rile up every day when he passed it, kicking his feet against the floorboard of the van, until the townspeople, the barber, the butcher, the tanner and the tailor burst out of their shop doors, their tools in their hands.
Another time, when he had already hauled the full milk cans onto the train car and come back with the one-eyed nag, its face black with the bone stock that warded off the stinging and blood-sucking horseflies and mosquitoes, the boy, then seventeen, was told by his aunt, who had stopped the van, that his uncle Leopold Höfferer had died of tuberculosis and was lying exposed in his house in Kindelbrücken. The young man jumped from the baker’s van, tied the reins of the one-eyed nag to an iron ring beside the linden tree, and crossed the street to the house of mourning. In the dead man’s room, he stood before his uncle, who still lay in bed, though already in a black suit, his hands folded over his breast, and his aunt whispered: Boy, make the sign of the cross on your forehead! And, with his right thumb still reeking of milk, he traced a cross over his forehead, lips, and breast, prayed an Our Father, took the spruce twig from the coffee mug filled with holy water and flung the drops that clung to the needles over the deceased. The drops sat a long time on the yellow skin of the dead man’s face, but they soaked immediately into the cotton of his black suit.
In the summertime, after delivering the milk cans to the station, he would loosen the one-eyed nag from the baker’s van, hitch it to a single-bladed plough, and help his uncle plow his fields. His four cousins, his uncle’s daughters, in white arm-length gloves, would plant potatoes in the fur- rows, chanting hymns and traditional songs, the old man of ninety with the grey-flecked moustache and the trimmed eyebrows said.
Just after the Great War, Florian Kirchheimer commissioned at his own expense the first—completely unprofitable—power plant in Pulsnitz, with money which, as his now ninety-year-old son still complains, could have paid for all the lowlands in Pulsnitz, or else for a farmhouse with fields and woods. When the first electric light was installed in the church, which was previously lit with wax candles, a worker on his lunch break left a scrap of speck in the mouth of a statue of Saint Peter. Around the head of the Virgin Mary, standing in the middle of the altar, was placed a crown of light bulbs, lit up for the first time on All Saints’ Day in 1918, for the blessing of the tombs. The townspeople paid for their electricity according to the quantity of bulbs, but almost none of them had money when I went into town to collect from them, Maximilian’s father said. The parish house got a bulb free, because a part of the retaining wall for the power plant had to be built on church property. We also gave power to the church. Nischelwitzer got six free bulbs as well, because we built a tool shed on his land. There were two electric engines in the village in those days, and the farmers used to lend them to one another to hook up the feed cutter and the grain miller. The days each person could plug in an electric motor were strictly determined, because the power would give out if both were running in the village at the same time. It was strictly forbidden for the townspeople to plug in an electric iron, one iron used up so much power that the lights in the other houses would start to flicker. When the lights began again to blink and go dim, I knew who had plugged in the iron. I went to the Schaflechners’, opened the kitchen door, pointed at the woman with her wrinkled clothes, and said: Mrs. Lenhart, who gave you permission to plug in that iron? If you plug the iron in again, I’ll shut off your power!
In wintertime, when little water flowed through the village stream, I used to go at ten at night along the frozen banks with an oil lamp, through the gulley into the pitch-black forest, to close off the drain to the reservoir, which measured thirty meters long and six meters wide, and let it replenish. It would fill up to a depth of four meters. If I had slipped on the ice with that oil lamp and fallen in, I would surely have lost my life, to this day I can’t swim. At five in the morning, when it was still dark, I would go with the oil lamp over the stream banks, often in thigh-deep snow, climb up the black gully, moss-covered and hung all over with icicles, into the forest, to let the dammed-up water flow into the pipes so the power plant could start up. Then the light bulbs would begin again to glow, in the church, the houses, and the stables.
Once, Maximilian’s father said, the water conduit froze up. It was eighty meters in length, and ran from the reservoir to the shack where the turbine, the diameter of which—he pointed to the clock on the kitchen wall—was as big as a clock face, was hooked up to a motor. The pipes of the water conduit were full of ice. They were all Mannesmann pipes, 150’s, he emphasized. Me, my father Florian, and the farmhand hung a cauldron full of hot coals from the pipe and heated it up until the ice inside began to melt, we slid it, bit by bit, down the pipe, until we’d made it to the reservoir, and the ice had melted and the power plant was back to work. It took three days to heat up the pipe, there was an eighty meter long bar of ice inside, as thick as a man’s thigh. We burned through almost a whole shed full of wood!
During advent, when the kitchen smelled of fresh-baked gingerbread, and his sister would brush egg whites onto the gingerbread dough, cut into hearts, stars, and half-moons, before putting the next tray into the oven, the bone collector asked his ninety-year-old father whether his parents had given him presents, and if so, what kind, in his childhood. The ninety-year-old wrinkled his forehead, arched his trimmed eyebrows, laid his worn, heavy hands one atop the other, their nails trimmed irregularly and chipped in places, and said that on his twentieth birthday—he was born on Christmas Eve—there lay a pair of leather gaiters under the Christmas tree. In wintertime, before he went out in the loaded horse-sleigh to spread manure over the fields with a pitchfork, he would tie them around his calves to keep out the snow. At twilight, when he was done manuring the fields and had come home in the horse sleigh and led the sweating horse to the watering trough, the gaiters would be frozen stiff, with ice around the edges. From his laces, glazed with ice, sharp little icicles hung down over his leather shoes, snapping off when he’d take the restless horse from the trough through the door of the stable. The horse would chomp at its bit, leaking cold well water and foamy spit which dripped down into the snow.
When he was twenty—he recalled in laughter, breaking open a still-warm gingerbread star—he had taken a scrap of speck without asking permission from a cupboard that still stands in the attic, its door-flaps inset with two porous metal plates the size of kitchen clocks, and gone with it into the servants’ quarters. Afraid of his father Florian, he had hidden under the bed with a knife, a slice of bread, and the speck, and begun to eat. Shortly afterward the farmer entered the room, looking for his son, saw the hobnailed Goiserer shoes sticking out from under the bed, the grey wool socks folded over their uppers, and shouted: Boy, what are you doing under the bed? Embarrassed, the twenty-year-old crawled out from under the pallet stuffed with cornhusks and said, red-faced, with his mouth full: Father! I took a piece of speck without asking. –That’s no reason for you to hide. Eat when you like! In those days, said the ninety-year- old man, chewing warm gingerbread, I was so hungry, I’d gladly have eaten the devil’s ears.
A few decades later, on a cold and windy spring day, his ninety-year-old father Florian, who suffered from cancer of the gall bladder and who also wore a grey-flecked moustache, was in the woodshed helping him sharpen the stakes they used to fence off their fields. He caught a cold, stayed sick throughout the summer, and even in early autumn had not gotten better. One September morning, before his fifty-seven-year-old son, then a father five times over and heritor of the estate, had hitched the black horse to the cart loaded with grain to take it to the Fox Meadow to sow the winter rye, he visited his father, who moreover was suffering from gout, to ask him how he was. The ninety-year-old, lying in bed, whispered falteringly: Don’t skimp on the harvesting, there’s always more and more people eating bread! At night, after working in the stable, when he went back into his parents’ room and his mother, seated on the green divan whispering her rosary, glanced up into the old mirror that hung on the wall between the two windows, bearing a warped reflection of her husband’s white-haired head staring out over the sheets, the dying man asked after his youngest grandson: Where is Reinhard? But the six-year-old was already asleep and would not be roused. Moments later Maximilian’s grandfather, his eyes wide open, began to gasp and rattle violently. With a handkerchief, his son cleaned the mucus that dripped in ever-greater quantities from his moustache and chin. After a few minutes’ death struggle—he kept striking the coverlet with his right hand—his head sank to one side. His son made the sign of the cross over his forehead with his right thumb and closed his eyes. The next morning, the children were given used wax candles, their wicks already black, which were lit out in the corridor. They walked single-file into the mourning chamber, lined up before the deathbed, and recited in tears Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come. The fingers of the dead man who lay on the bed, already dressed in his best suit, were wound with a rosary, and a small silver crucifix had been wedged between the palms of his hands. Elisabeth, the fat, toothless grandmother, lay praying and whimpering in her marital bed, clutching a black rosary at the dead man’s side. Three or four wax candles, flickering restlessly and softly crackling in the wind, were warped in the gold-framed mirror.
Three days and three nights Maximilian’s grandfather lay exposed in the farmhouse, which was draped in black. On the first, or perhaps it was the second day, Maximilian’s oldest brother saw that the dead man’s mouth had opened slightly. He went to his mother in the kitchen and told her what he had seen, hoping his grandfather, in a few minutes or hours, would stand up and emerge from his coffin: Mama, Grandpa opened his mouth! Yeah, sure! replied his mother, dressed in black, indifferently, splitting onions and preparing a big pot of goulash. From the village and outskirts people came with coffee and sugar, offered their condolences to the slack-jawed, toothless woman, sitting black-clothed and fat in her grey felt slippers before the coffin, then took a seat and prayed for a while until they were called into the kitchen by the dead man’s hunchbacked daughter Hildegard and served a plate of goulash and a roll. One person drank a beer, the rest spring water, rosehip tea was brewed, and a bottle of homemade schnapps stood on the table.
The blue and white packets of Linde coffee, the black and yellow tins of Melanda coffee, and the brown packs of rock sugar were placed by Maximilian, eight years old at the time, in a chest that also contained a well-handled book on human health. Leafing through this book when he knew his mother was away—she was often to be found, above all on the hot summer days, in the cemetery, watering the graves of her mother and her three brothers fallen in the war—he would consider the sex organs of the men and women, stare at the colored viscera and the skeleton, and trace the red blood vessels with his index finger. At the next village fair, he bought a small white plastic skeleton, which lay for months under the lamp on his night table, next to his Karl May books, and sometimes his mother or sister, cleaning the child’s room, would take it aside and wipe the dust from it. No one dared to throw the plastic skeleton with the red eyes in the trash or on the cemetery waste heap. A few hours before the burial, Maximilian’s father went with the five children to the garden and cut down the large, varicolored gladiolas. Kids! Take a few more flowers to grandpa! One of them lifted the pall and the others laid gladiolas over the legs of the dead man, who was covered all over with flowers from the garden. Beside his sunken cheeks lay the blossoms of two rust-red gladiolas.
It was a beautiful fall day when Florian Kirchheimer, the patriarch, was laid in his grave, no rain, no thunder, no hail- stones beat down on the open black umbrellas or drummed against the coffin’s black lid with its nailed-on crucifix, nor did they lodge in the cuffs on the men’s trousers. The wife of the deceased, Maximilian’s decrepit grandmother, fat and toothless in her black mourning clothes, did not accompany her husband to his final resting place. She stayed seated in the mourning house, squeezing the black cartilage of the rosary and praying in an arm chair in the empty mortuary chapel, while the funeral director Sonnberger and a young assistant disassembled the catafalque, took the black shrouds printed with silver crosses off of their wood frames, and placed the four long electric candlesticks in the black hearse with the milk glass windows. Peeking through the broad, transparent beams of the crosses etched into the milk glass windowpanes, one might see the funerary utensils in the carriage’s interior, or even a coffin overlaid with flowers. The toothless widow, dressed in black, who had stayed in the empty death chamber, could not see the peacock, just beside the calvary, its wheel of feathers unfurled, as the funeral train approached the open gates of the graveyard, led by the sacristan carrying a cross, the black-clothed priest, and the acolytes with the censer and aspergil. Nor the peahen, rooting for grain behind the calvary, which took flight with a cry that echoed through the village after the coffin had been carried past the howling sinner reclining among the towering flames on the floor of hell, a serpent wound around his naked torso while red-winged Lucifer bent over him, before lighting on the ridge of a roof where the two birds often passed the night, huddled down after the call for prayers; but the fat, black-clothed widow, praying her rosary in the empty death chamber, had heard the bird’s cry, off in the distance but rather clear, and it disturbed the rhythm of her prayers for a moment, so that she went back to the beginning of the phrase she had just begun. In the cleared-out mortuary chapel, nothing remained on the night table but the coffee cup, now nearly empty of holy water, with the spruce twig still inside. Beneath the window, and scattered through the room, were trampled rosebuds, carnations, and gladiolas. Candlewax, spilled out or overflowing, had hardened into star-shapes and clung to the wood floor. Tomorrow morning or the day after, they will scrape it off with a kitchen knife and sweep it up with the leftover flowers strewn about, then there will be no more traces of a dead man in the house, the mourning house will smell no more of rotten flowers, burnt spruce twigs, and wax candles.
In the clay vessel in which the pandapigl was rendered from the bones of animals, to be brushed on the horses with a crow’s feather around the eyes and nostrils, and on the belly, to protect from the mosquitoes and horseflies, Florian Kirchheimer’s skeleton lies over the bones of Leopold Höfferer, dead from tuberculosis. They wiped away the blood-smeared bits of straw that clung to his face and hair before they carried his corpse from the stables to the house. Worship, for to be here is our highest reward. Give us not only thy blessing, O Lord, but thy flesh and blood divine; all that we have, in recompense, our hearts, our souls, are thine.
With red eyelids and tear-glazed eyes, the farmer with the grey-flecked moustache and the trimmed eyebrows walked in through the kitchen door, threw his arms open in horror and cried: Aunt Waltraud is dead! She collapsed behind the counter of the pastry shop. A heart attack! The fat Aunt Waltraud, master baker and proprietress of the Rabitsch pastry shop in the Lindwurmplatz in Klagenfurt, renowned throughout the land, died two days before Christmas Eve, a few days after she had sent the sweets for the Christmas tree to her nieces and nephews in the village sixty kilometers away. While the children decorated the Christmas tree, pulling angel’s hair, tinsel strips, chocolate horseshoes, chocolate half-moons, chocolate pinecones filled with walnut cream, chocolate butterflies, candles, and frogs, and jam-filled bonbons wrapped in colored crepe paper from the bed of wood shavings on the bottom of the Rabitsch pastry shop box, hanging them on the Christmas tree with copper hooks and setting the colored candles in their little holders, their grandmother Elisabeth, fat and toothless, moaned and wheezed, praying her rosary in bed, lifting her head now and then to stare at the shimmering angel’s head framed in a golden star crowning the freshly cut spruce tree, groaning and clicking her rosary. The noise of the Christmas ornaments being hung up and arranged, the clack of the scissors dropped back on the table, and the noise of the bobbin falling to the floor and rolling under the grandmother’s bed, mixed with the whining of the children, each ashamed before the others, crying softly for their departed aunt. Numerous times, the eleven-year-old Maximilian turned his back to his siblings and walked to the window to dry the tears from his eyes with the dirty sleeve of his shirt. While they were decorating the tree, his sister told her brothers that she had gone out to the woodshed to call their farmhand, who was chopping wood, in to eat. What is there to eat? he asked. Whatever’s on the table is what there is to eat! she answered. And then the enraged servant threw his hatchet after the fleeing girl with her long braids. The hatchet slid several meters in the snow and landed near her feet.
Before the presents, Maximilian and his brother Reinhard would bathe together in the smoke kitchen in a wood tub held together by iron rings. Cursing when one of them had peed in the bathwater, they would lather themselves with a bar of turpentine soap with a stag stamped on its surface, dry their lean white bodies, the genitals still hairless, with a coarse towel beside the glowing red griddle of the wood- burning stove, and put on clean underwear, ironed shirts, and grey wool socks. While they waited on their siblings, who were taking their own bath in the smoke kitchen, where the milking machine parts were washed out and hung on hooks and the where they kept the slop buckets for the hogs, they spit, out of boredom, onto the hot griddle. The drops of spittle turned spherical in the heat, dancing, hissing, brown around the edges, drawing together as they spun into the abyss, then dropped, hissing, into the grooves of the hot griddle and evaporated among the embers. In the kitchen, it smelled of children’s burnt saliva.
After a fight one summer day, under the branches of the pear tree, when Maximilian tried to spit in his cousin Egon’s face, and his cousin jumped to the side at the last minute and Maximilian spit into the thin air, Egon cried: Now you’ve spit on the Lord God! You’ll die soon, because you’ve spit on the Lord God! Wasps hummed around. It smelled of the reddish yellow pears that lay spongy and rotting around the tree trunk. Maximilian picked up a soft pear with the wasps clinging to its surface, sucking the sweet fruit’s juice, and threw it at his cousin, who ran away, and cried: I didn’t spit on our Lord God! I didn’t spit on him at all! I won’t die as soon as you think! Only a few months before, after the thaw, rummaging around in the cemetery waste heap behind the church, they had taken pink and yellow plastic roses and carnations from the rotten funeral wreaths and pinned them to their clothes. They used to stand on the roadside a few meters apart holding bouquets of snowdrops, waving down the cars with German license plates. The drivers would stop and buy the snowdrops. They would jump from one clump of grass to the other, picking the snowdrops in the damp forest. They never returned to the roadside after one driver stopped, took the snowdrops from their hands, and went on his way without paying.
After the siblings, the maid, the farmhand, and their parents had bathed themselves with turpentine soap in the wooden tub, washing off the odor of the stable—the stag stamped in the top of the shrunken soap had vanished entirely, his antlers and his skeleton floated off in the filthy bathwater—they walked, one after the other, from the warm kitchen through the frigid corridor of the stone house, past the smoke kitchen, up the sixteen steps of the staircase into their grandparents’ bedroom, where their dead grandfather Florian had recently been carried off and where their grandmother Elisabeth, her toothless mouth open, laid out in bed gasping desperately, lifted her head, covered in sparse white hair, from the hollow in her pillow, which smelled of unwashed scalp, sebum, and dried spit, on seeing her grandchildren enter. Maximilian’s sister, holding in her lap her five month-old brother, who stared at the glittering tinsel of the Christmas tree, had taken her grandmother’s customary seat, between her father and mother, on the sunken-in divan, which reeked of urine. Maximilian and his brother stood just beside the Christmas tree, the deaf maid and the stuttering farmhand behind them. After lighting the colored Christmas tree candles and the sparklers that hung in every corner the tree, throwing sparks over the branches and down onto the presents and deepening the pervading scent of spruce, they began to pray for their dead grandfather, and for their mother’s three brothers who had fallen in the war, and tears drained from their eyes and snot from their noses, until their father, who led the prayers, began an Our Father and a Hail Mary for Aunt Waltraud, who had died two days before, still lay exposed in the Annabichler funeral home in Klagenfurt, and would not be buried until after Christmas. While the father, a little shortsighted, raised his trimmed eyebrows and wrinkled his forehead to read the nametags and pass out the presents, the children continued mourning Aunt Waltraud—she had come to visit one summer day, when their grandfather was still alive, and had brought the children their first ice creams, lemon and vanilla, in an insulated box from her pastry shop. Their tears, tickling their cheeks and dripping down onto the boxes, softened the wrapping paper covering a flannel shirt, a pair of wool socks, or long underwear. Each one of them could take some sweets down from the Christmas tree; they also gave the maid and the farmhand chocolate pinecones and varicolored gelatin stars coated in sugar. Maximilian’s sister did not neglect to give the farmhand a chocolate half-moon and a pair of chocolate pliers. With their fingers, the children smoothed out the colored wrappings, printed with pinecones, chimney-sweeps, lucky clovers, rocking horses, frogs, and butterflies, and slid them as bookmarks into their storybooks and Karl May novels.
The Rail is proudly running this fantastic translation of When the Time Comes through the winter and into the spring of 2013.
JOSEF WINKLER (b. 1953, Austria) is the author of more than a dozen books, among them When the Time Comes and Natura Morta. His major themes are suicide, homosexuality, and the corrosive influence of Catholicism and Nazism in Austrian country life. Winner of the 2008 Buchner prize and current president of the Austrian Art Senate, he lives in Klagenfurt with his wife and two children.