The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2013

All Issues
APR 2013 Issue

When the Time Comes


In the clay vessel in which the putrid-smelling bone stock was rendered, from the skeletons of slaughtered animals, to be brushed on the horses with a crow’s feather around the eyes, nostrils, and belly to protect them from the flies and horseflies that pestered them and sucked their blood, lies the skeleton of the pastor Balthasar Kranabeter, the painter of prayer cards and images of Hell, who lay exposed for days in the church in Pulsnitz, over the skeleton of the five-year-old child, dead from a tractor accident. His head was said to be so dreadfully disfigured that his mother, who identified him, had it covered with flowers when they laid him in the coffin. They took down the papier-mâché wings that had been painted with gold lacquer and threw them over the white coffin, with wreaths and bouquets of flowers. One of the angels’ wings stayed hanging from the right side, and the other from the left of the white coffin. The attendants threw clods of earth over the papier-mâché wings and the white coffin with a small pointed shovel and splashed holy water into the grave with a bristly twig. The angels carried the dead child to heaven and left him in the Mother of God’s lap, as the pastor said in his sermon before the open grave, in the Catholic cemetery of Tragail, long before his own death.

The light brown wood coffin in which the Most Reverend Father Balthasar Kranabeter reposed, unadorned on a catafalque in the middle of the church, had a peephole at which the acolytes and children from the village would stand on tiptoe, to once again observe his yellowed face, angular in death. Maximilian still remembers the dead man’s sunken cheeks and his remarkably crooked nose.  Between the lid of the coffin and its underside, a white death shroud poked out. There was a bouquet of white carnations atop it, tied with white nylon ribbons. In front of the coffin, surrounded by four lit candles, were two wreaths. The ribbon of one of them, which read A Last Goodbye, The Mayor of Kindelbrücken, bore the colors of the Carinthian flag, and the other, stating A Last Goodbye, From Your Parishioners, employing the formal mode of address with the cadaver, was purple. Candles burned on the altar as well. The tabernacle was closed. On the lace-trimmed altar cloth on which a gilded chalice stood covered by a purple cloth, Man! Here is your savior! was embroidered in gothic letters with red thread. Balthasar Kranabeter served more than twenty-nine years as a zealous shepherd of souls in the parish of Pulsnitz, as his obituary stated. His mortal remains were taken to Upper Austria and buried in the cemetery of his birthplace, alongside his parents and brother. Maximilian’s father and others among the townspeople took the train from Carinthia to Upper Austria and carried the deceased on their shoulders to his final resting place. The savior has baptized us, we share his grave. Strange to us now are the world and its ways. Let us ever remember Adam’s birthright, that led Christ to come to us, bearing his light.

The pastor had his paintings of the saints printed as prayer cards, and he would place them in the stiff, yellow hands, blue-fingertipped and cold, of the dead children and dead adults, between the rosary and the crucifix, when he gave them their final blessings with holy water and frankincense. Sometimes the prayer cards, which mostly showed the Mother of God with the child Jesus or the child Jesus by himself, bearing resemblance to some child from the village, were left, after confession, on the grave mound of someone who had died a few weeks before, among the freshly picked carnations, until the moist, oily cemetery dirt had eaten the image away and only the eyes and forehead of the Christ child remained, then just the starred blue sky in the background, and finally nothing more than a few scraps of damp paper, stained with cemetery dirt. The prayer cards depicting Hell, as on the calvary in the center of the village, were given out at Easter, after confession, to those who had sinned gravely, and only to adults, never children; and the former, after repenting of their sins, handed back the little creased and frayed picture in the sacristy and received another one to keep in return, with the image of the Christ child and the mother of God. Toi qui fais au proscrit ce regard calme et haut / Qui damne tout un peuple autour d’un échafaud. / Ô Satan, prends pitié de ma longue misère! This picture of Hell, shouted Balthasar Kranabeter from the pulpit during a sermon, has passed through practically every hand in this godless village! Woe unto you all! No more masks in God’s house, no more makeup on the faces of God-fearing women, join not hands with painted nails in prayer, no more blond hair styled and rolled up in magazines, not in God’s house, no! Pretty on the outside, rotten within! Woe unto you! The tainted soul would be cleansed of sin if the believer, kneeling before the altar with the prayer card in his hands, prayed ten Our Fathers and three Hail Marys, gazing penitently at the high flames among which the profaner of Christ lay in torment, with a fat green serpent wrapped around his naked torso, praying to Father Abraham, while the crab-red devil, wings unfurled, thick horns sprouting from his head, spilled gall into his mouth. Abraham can be seen standing at the door of Heaven with his long beard, the similarly long-bearded Lazarus kneels before him and raises his pleading hands to Abraham’s breast. Father Abraham! the sinner cried, laid out on the floor of Hell. Father Abraham, take pity on me, send me to Lazarus! Let him dip his fingertips in water and freshen my tongue, for I am in great torment among these flames. Abraham answered him: Yours was a happy life and Lazarus’ a hard one; now Lazarus is solaced and you are in anguish, because you broke the Son of Man to pieces. A deep chasm divides us. None of us can go to you and none of you can come to us. This was written in Gothic script in the calvary and in Roman letters under the towering flames on the prayer card. Not one of his sacred paintings, of Saint Christopher or the angel with the sword, did the pastor hang in the church, nor in the sacristy nor in the church vestibule. A few he gave to his friends or to his family doctor or to a young baker. Maximilian’s grandfather, Matthias Felsberger, also received a framed picture, of a child’s head with blond locks, two golden wings painted just below his neck. The rest of them could be found in the various rooms of the parish house: in the kitchen, the living room, the workroom, in the cook’s bedroom, and in the entranceway, beside the whitish-grey armless Jesus on the wall, his arms broken off from when he tumbled over a waterfall.  The blasphemer who cast down the Son of Man will never leave Hell, according to the priest, he is damned and lost forever! God be with him. And with his soul. Amen.

Once during a Saturday religion lesson in the schoolhouse, the pastor slowly dictated a passage of the Gospel to Maximilian and had him write it out in chalk on the blackboard. Maximilian’s classmates were supposed to copy the phrase on the chalkboard in their religion notebooks, which were adorned with eyes of God, flames of purgatory, shining advent wreaths and colored crucifixes. After Maximilian had written a number of sentences on the blackboard, the priest interrupted his dictation, scrutinized the hieroglyph, and said: You can read a person’s character in his script! With a raised index finger, brown from cigarette smoke, he stressed the word character several times. Draw a cross after the last line! Maximilian pressed the long white chalk into the black surface of the board and traced the vertical of the cross. When he began to draw the horizontal, starting from the left, the chalk broke where the two beams should have met. A chunk of chalk dropped to the freshly mopped wood floor, dark and redolent of turpentine; little bits crumbled and fell over his black shoes. The reverend looked over the heads of the children, buried in their religion notebooks, through the classroom window, to the calvary outside, in front of which stood a mason jar with plastic pink and yellow roses that the children had pulled from the rotting wreaths in the cemetery’s trash heap and left below the head of the afflicted—who cried out and raised his hands to heaven—lying among the flames of Hell. When Maximilian tried to erase the cross with a damp sponge, Balthasar Kranabeter snatched it from his hand and said: Lick your pathetic cross off the chalkboard! Legs spread and knees quivering, Maximilian leaned slightly forward, stuck out his tongue, and licked the white chalk cross from the board. Blushing, his teeth chattering softly, and the taste of chalk on his tongue and palate, he walked weak-kneed back to his bench, following the pastor’s orders, and gripped the worn-down green seat in his damp hands. Balthasar Kranabeter raised his right hand silently and, with his finger stained brown from cigarette smoke, its nail bent, pointed out the window. The children turned their close-cropped heads. His eyes foggy, heart pounding, and head on fire—at that moment he was running a fever of thirty-nine or forty degrees—Maximilian stared a long time at the blurred flames of Hell and the green snake that wound around the naked torso and choked its victim. Thy word shines through the dark, Heaven lights the way. Lord, sear thy words in my heart, that I may come to thee, I pray.

With a piece of pork still warm from the recent slaughter—the bone burner had gathered up the loose bones for the bone stock—Maximilian went out in the middle of a blizzard, after dark had already fallen, up the sawdust-covered path to the parish house and the frozen steps that led to the entrance, and pressed the glowing red doorbell. The parish cook walked past Christ’s wooden torso, cracked and armless on the corridor wall, and opened the door. Mom sent this! Maximilian said, passing the cook the fresh pork. Wait here a minute! the parish cook said. Maximilian stayed at the threshold until the cook returned from the kitchen, passed by armless Jesus—catkins hung on the wall behind Jesus’ bowed head—and gave him a bag of homemade cookies. Sometimes, when they had slaughtered chickens or a cow, and Maximilian’s father was feuding with the pastor and refused to send him a pair of chicken legs or a cut of beef, Maximilian, as head acolyte, fearing for his special position in the church, would beg his mother when his father was away, until she wrapped a piece of meat in wax paper and sent him off with it. A little meat for the pastor and his maid, Mama, it doesn’t have to be a big piece! At times, in winter, when the hill of the parish house was especially icy, Maximilian would get a basket of sawdust from his parents’ hayloft and scatter it over the path, because the priest always complained in the religion class of his fear that, when he went down the icy hill of the parish house to conduct the six AM mass, and it was still pitch-black in the village, he might one day fall down and break his leg.

One Sunday morning, when Balthasar Kranabeter was walking down the hill of the parish house to mass—purple and lilac-colored crocuses and white carnations bloomed on the mossy slope—he ran into Maximilian’s father, who was holding a whip and waiting on the bridge for the thirsty cows, their noses sunk in the trough, before driving them out to pasture. So you mind your cows instead of going to church! Balthasar Kranabeter reproached him. You take the whip, Father, and I’ll go to church and you can drive the cows out to pasture! Maximilian’s father said, and took his cows down the village street, passing alongside the calvary—to the left and right of the image of Hell blossomed meter-high yellow laburnum, surrounded by buzzing bees—over the slope of the pond, to the fertile green. A child with peacock feathers in his headband angled his bicycle around the hot and smoking mounds of fallen dung.

One time, at eight in the morning, when Maximilian’s mother went to mass, entering the church through the broad black back door, over the threshold out of which they carried the coffins, the married couples stepped, and the little brides of Christ in white dresses walked into the house of God to take their first communion, the pastor, seated on the acolytes’ narrow black bench at the entrance of the sacristy, turned his head toward the woman. He interrupted his silent prayer, stood up, went into the sacristy, and had the bald, toothless sacristan, who had already lit the candles on the altar, dress him for mass. He thundered from the pulpit during the sermon: You need not give the priest an extra drop of milk! When she heard these words, Maximilian’s mother said, she wanted to stand up in the middle of mass and walk out. Every day she had poured milk into the milk jug for the parish cook well over the liter line and she had only charged them for a liter a day.

In the woodshed of the affiliate church in Paulinenhorst, where he ministered once a month, Balthasar Kranabeter singlehandedly hacked to pieces an altar which had been changed out for another one, valuable both as a work of art and as an antique—This is kitsch!—and left it as firewood. How could he just hack up an altar! At that point I took fright of the priest and I’ve kept away from him since! the sacristan’s wife lamented, when Maximilian knocked recently at the door of her house to ask her to lend him the church keys. After decades, he wanted again to see the altar and the sacristy where he had put on his acolyte’s dress, several times a year, when he used to ride with the priest and his cook in a white Volkswagen.

When the reverend saw the tomb of Maximilian’s grandfather, Florian Kirchheimer, which they had just finished constructing, he stood shaking his head behind the creaking gate, and yelled Kitsch! Kitsch! Kitsch! Shaking his head and muttering to himself, he walked along the paved path between the graves toward the sacristy and had himself dressed for mass by his toothless, wheezing, bandy-legged servant Oswin, who had already pulled the bell rope to call the town to mass. When the sacristan Gottfried Steinhart was ill, Oswin not only pulled the rope, but also lit the candles on the altar and helped the priest put on and take off his vestments.

After saying mass, Balthasar Kranabeter walked back over the paved path between the graves with the church key, from which a wooden cross dangled, through the creaking gate of the cemetery and slowly down the village street in the direction of the parish house. Before the reflections in the schoolhouse windows, he paused a moment at the calvary. In a vase were six or seven peacock feathers, some short, others long. The blue eyes of three feathers grazed the red flames and hid the head of the afflicted, who twisted amid the fires of Hell, wrestling with the devil and with the green serpent that was as thick as a man’s arm. Toi qui sais en quels coins des terres envieuses / Le Dieu jaloux cacha les pierres précieuses, / Ô Satan, prends pitié de ma longue misère! The wooden cross on the church keys rubbed against the right seam of the servant of God’s pants leg as he passed by a humming beehive redolent of honeycomb. The peacocks’ cries, strident and metallic, broke the town’s silence, reverberating down into the marrow. Scarcely ten minutes later, the parish cook, with the dusty purple curtain of the confessional draped over her naked right forearm, walked down the village street, crossing herself as she passed the calvary on her way to the parish house.

In late summer, Maximilian often went with the parish cook into the forest, where he would learn to distinguish among the edible, the savory, the unpalatable, and the poisonous mushrooms, because in his parents’ farmhouse they were so afraid of being poisoned that they hadn’t eaten any mushrooms for decades. That’s a devil’s mushroom, she said, pay attention, it looks like an angel’s mushroom. The devil’s mushroom is deadly! If you squeeze a devil’s mushroom, it turns blue. If you squeeze an angel’s mushroom, it won’t change color. That’s how you tell a devil’s mushroom from an angel’s. Angel’s mushrooms are the ones the priest likes the most, she said. In late afternoon they arrived with a basket of chanterelles, porcini and parasols, a bundle of herbs, strawberries, blackberries and even cranberries at the cool parish house. Balthasar Kranabeter was seated with a paintbrush in his hand at an easel in the shadows of the back yard, painting a new religious piece. The cook left the basket, with the angel’s mushrooms’ brown spongy caps and the delicious-smelling parasols poking out over its braided edge, under the already crumbling fresco the priest had painted on the parish house wall. Jesus be praised! said the pastor, dipping his paintbrush in the red-stained water. For ever and ever, amen! his acolyte responded.

Klaus Hafner, of the Catholic faith, was married in the Protestant church. When his Catholic father died, he wished to have him buried in the Catholic cemetery in Pulsnitz, but as the son of the deceased had married in the Protestant church, the religious painter and pastor refused to give the final blessings to his Catholic parents in the Catholic cemetery in Pulsnitz. A Protestant minister accompanied them to their final resting place. Later, Klaus Hafner, who poisoned himself on the banks of the Drava in Pulsnitz with the gas from the exhaust pipe of his car, would be buried alongside his parents in the Protestant cemetery, in the tomb of his sixteen-year-old son Roman. His son preceded him, hanging himself some years before in Pulsnitz, in the hayloft of his rachitic uncle, Otmar Hafner, with a calf-halter, it is thought.

When Ms. Lakonig went on her bicycle through the outstretched right arm of the village built in the form of a cross, to the Steinharts’—Jonathan, that family’s seventeen-year-old son, had hanged himself with his friend Leopold, of the same age, a few years before—to pick up fresh milk, still warm from the cow, she was struck by a truck that swerved onto the shoulder of the road. She flew with her bicycle past an elderberry, its black umbels hanging low, down the hill into a poppy-covered wheat field. When a retired bricklayer told her husband, Wilfried Lakonig, that his wife lay dead in a furrow in a wheat field, the man screamed into the handpiece: Fuck off! Pack her up and get her to the morgue! The retiree who shared the bad news had lost a son himself a few years before, in Egypt, also in a traffic accident. Two jeeps had collided on a desert road…

The black hearse with the silver cross in the milk glass of the windows, belonging to Sonnberger from Großbotenfeld, was called to the scene of the accident by the police, and arrived at the same time as the coroner.  Two men in grey coats, one young and one old, stepped out from a Mercedes and heaved the woman’s corpse, bloody and disfigured, into a grey metal coffin at the edge of the wheat field. When the funeral procession, led by the sacristan with a crucifix, neared the center of the village and the schoolhouse, the peacock standing at the calvary, the fan of its outstretched tail feathers covering the flames and naked torso of the screaming blasphemer who lay on the floor of Hell, took flight, whipping its tail feathers a few centimeters above the asphalted street. Only Lucifer’s horned scalp had been visible over the eyes of its feathers, his unfurled red wings and his claws spilling gall into the sinner’s mouth. The dusty undersides of a few haggard feathers, eyeless, brushed the ground when the peacock, startled by the black coil of the procession, took off over the village street, hiding under the gangway of the Felsbergers’ barn and settling into the hot, dusty earth. There was no bouquet of delicate posies, quickly expiring under the violently flickering flames, only the shards of a shattered vase lay there. No red bouquets of poppies were tied to the coffin, not even a bundle of green poppy seed pods when they lowered the casket with a creaking rope into the deep earth. A large bouquet of red carnations hid the small wooden cross, light brown, with its plastic Jesus nailed into the coffin lid. Instead of taking the aspergillum from the copper dish of holy water, Katharina, the mother of the young suicide Jonathan—she was a friend, the deceased had perished on the way to her house to pick up milk—splashed the coffin, already in the grave, with milk from a medicine bottle, and was led to her farmhouse just after the burial by two men, one young and one old, a father and a son, who walked at her right and left, holding her up by her arms.

In 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, nostrils, and belly to protect them from the mosquitoes and horseflies, the skeleton of the deceased lies over the skeleton of the pastor and religious painter who, as he had preceded her in death, was unable to give her his final blessing; the mortal remains of the shepherd of souls were driven in a black Mercedes from Carinthia to Upper Austria by the same people who took the woman’s corpse, found in a wheat field with countless broken bones, from Pulsnitz to the morgue in Großbotenfeld. A few weeks later, the combine, painted green like an iron insect, was in the valley shoving ears of grain into its maws and leaving one tract of stubble after another in its wake. Not far away, a few meters from where the cadaver had lain with the bicycle and the empty milk can, the half-naked farm children wearing ski goggles, a film of grey dust over their tan bodies, were tying up the full grain bags in the hot, dry afternoon, and throwing them from the combine onto the stubble field. Mary, Queen of Heaven, Queen of angels, we salute thee! Rejoice, Queen of earth, we reverence thee with glee! Commend us to thy merciful son, that he may set us free.

After visiting the deathbed, the man with the grey-flecked moustache and trimmed brows, seventy years old at the time, entered the kitchen with reddened eyes, hung his hat on the red porcelain knob of the coat tree, which also held a switch of a hazel, and told his family, in a plaintive tone, that his best friend in the village, the diminutive, rachitic farmer Hafner, had died at seventy in the hospital in Villach. A few years before his death, the sacristan had left a pile of dung on his doorstep over a page from the weekly Carinthian Farm Journal. That night Otmar Hafner, suspecting none other than the sacristan Gottfried Steinhart, with whom he had an ongoing feud, picked up the copy of the Carinthian Farm Journal with its load of human feces, crossed the street of the village, walked through the neighbor’s yard and left it at the door of the presumed offender. Since then, the dwarfish, rachitic farmer said, he runs away from me, he hides in his house or in the stable whenever we cross paths. Maybe the next morning, when he got up to go to the church and ring the bell, he stepped in his own shit, he mused with a toothless grin. It wasn’t until his sixth year, Maximilian’s father said, that the rachitic Otmar began to walk, before that he used to drag himself along the floor of his parents’ house. All the sudden one day, said the ninety-year-old man with the grey-flecked moustache and the trimmed brows, the boy got up and walked.

The Rail is proudly running this fantastic translation of When the Time Comes through the winter and into the spring of 2013.


Josef Winkler

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.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2013

All Issues