When the Time Comes
A TRANSLATION OF Wenn es soweit ist BY ADRIAN WEST
A few months after the double suicide of the seventeen-year-old boys—those two idiots who did away with themselves together! is still heard in the village today—Leopold’s brother hanged himself in a forest near Falkenau, and a few years later his other brother was taken down lifeless from a bridge in Villach. Not long after the burial, Maximilian, under the cover of night, suspended a white-ribboned funeral wreath from a hemp rope on the Drava bridge, twenty meters above the water. By early morning the following day, it had vanished. Someone seemed to have cut it down; it had fallen, ribbons flaring, into the water, and was dragged a few hundred meters downstream, where it washed ashore and rotted on the Drava’s left bank. In the clay vessel in which the pandapigl was rendered, from the bones of slaughtered animals, to be painted on the horses with a black crow’s feather around the eyes, nostrils, and belly to protect them from the mosquitoes and horseflies, lie the skeletons of the three Hasslacher brothers, piled together over the skeleton of Jonathan. The father of the Hasslachers, a wrinkled and toothless little man, prematurely aged, always stinking of beer and cigarettes, and now with three sons to mourn, has taken up in the interim the profession of funeral director in Spittal-on-the-Drava.
She saw Jesus tied fast and pierced with a thousand arrows for the iniquity of man. She saw the son she had once nourished disgraced and abandoned, pale and thirsting on the cross. 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 black crow’s feather around the eyes, nostrils, and belly to protect them from the mosquitoes and horseflies, the bone collector lays the skeleton of Katherina, Jonathan’s mother, over the skeletons of the four suicides, among them that of Jonathan, whom she outlived by more than fifteen years. In the coffin, her hands were folded in prayer over her scarred torso, the breasts amputated by a surgeon. Her husband interlaced her fingers with a pink rosary from her pilgrimage to Lourdes, which she took up daily from the night table for more than fifteen years, almost always in the afternoon, staring out the second-floor window of her farmhouse and praying, gazing expectantly over the nearby wall of the cemetery at her child’s grave, lit up by a flickering wax candle, which seemed to float and waver with the undulating flame. At times she stayed there until the wee hours of the morning, until the candle had burnt out and a pillar of smoke, ever thinner, rose up from the grave. Then Katharina would close the window and go back to her husband, already asleep for hours.
The tomb rose up and floated over the other graves, with the earth-clotted roots of red clover, went from plot to plot, looking down on the blue, yellow, and violet eyes of the pansies, and staring at the yellow and red petals of the snapdragons. She winced when her son’s tomb scraped against the cross on a gravesite, rolled back and forth in bed, and awoke with a pounding heart as it bumped against the cemetery wall, spilling clods of earth onto the ground, and the Crucified, nailed to the lid of the blue coffin, vomited up cemetery dirt. Then Katherina threw off the cover, stood up, went to the window, lifted her binoculars to eye-height, and looked out into the cemetery. The candle on the grave-mound had given out some time ago. The sky quiet and star-dotted. The grain fields pitch-black. The cemetery breathed in silently. Even the rustle of the birch-leaves, threaded together with spider-webs, was inaudible. The river looped soundlessly by. Mangy cats curled up in the holy corners of the farmhouses and the dogs slept, paws covering their muzzles. Not even a mole’s eye glimmered, nor were there fireflies to be seen. The bell rope, which hung wavering in the sacristy, turned into a serpent, slithered up the steeple, and beat its head against the belfry until its cold snake’s blood ran slowly down the bell rope and dripped on the sacristy floor. Atop the steeple, bats thrashed in silence, stretched their wings, opened their maws, and folded the thin, nearly transparent skin of their wings anew over their black bodies. The host with the image of Hell impressed on it shattered the body of Christ. A drop of blood danced in the candle in the sanctuary. The baptismal font, where the newly born were commended unto Christ, teemed with green tree frogs nailed to miniature hobbyhorses. He always liked to take them in his hand, those little grass-green beasts that hop out of your palm. Sometimes he would step on them and wipe their innards off his shoes in the grass. He had also liked to feed breadcrumbs to the raven whose wings we clipped—he used to give it water, and he tore out its silver-shining eyes. How many times had he gone to the calvary to cut at the leaping flames of Hell until the scissors, soot-blackened, were burning, and he threw them into the yellow bush of blossoming laburnum? Who has come and gone, who has gathered up the periwinkles and piled them up in secret behind the calvary? Is the bulb still burning in front of the house? Forever and ever I shall take care that a milk glass bulb, and only milk glass, is screwed into the socket, so the shadows of the insects are visible around it, wriggling and dying with their long, thin legs. Don’t leave fingerprints on the iron latch of the cemetery gate because, who knows, maybe the Adversary will steal them in the night and hide them in his calvary behind the spider-webs. Who knows whether the screaming blasphemer, laid out on the floor of Hell, who once threw a statue of Christ over a cliff into a riverbed, holds the sooty periwinkles in the fists of his raised arms, and if the white cat hopping in the snow has licked up the blood drops from the torn angels’ wings? The fog lifts and falls, it haunts us, it comes from the shores of the Drava, the hair of the girls is damp as they pass up the village street, carrying freshly picked lilies of the valley, and pass nervously by the calvary. If only the wind would stop rustling the pages of the prayer book night after night, closing them and rustling through them and closing them again, slamming them shut! Then I could sleep better, but I keep hearing a rustle, a rifling, a crackle, a gust, and I do not know, is it the riverbed, is it paper burning into ash, is it the East Wind bearing a storm, or the flames of Hell drawn on a sheet of blotting paper. At least the boys splashed each other with holy water in the sacristy and took a host from the tabernacle—even if it wasn’t yet blessed—with the image of the calvary and its depiction of Hell pressed into it, and assimilated Christ’s body, splitting it in half, one carrying the profaner of Christ in his stomach, the other the devil, before they walked past their parents’ house, past the calvary, past everywhere, past, past, going nimbly up to the place of their death. Katherina closed her eyes, set the binoculars soundlessly on the windowsill, breathed in the scent of the grain fields, and opened up her eyes. She shut the window, stared wide-eyed at the contours of her pitch-black shadow in the windowpane, turned, walking over the softly creaking wooden floor, and lay in bed beside her sleeping husband. Mother, may this prayer be granted, that Christ’s love may be planted in the depths of my poor soul. At the cross, thy sorrow sharing, all thy grief and torment bearing, let me stand and mourn with thee.
For more than fifteen years, his mother Katharina would go to the cemetery at the call for prayers and place a candle in a red grave lantern painted with sacred hearts pierced by arrows, striking a match against the box labeled Sirius. Every day for more than fifteen years she hoped her seventeen-year-old son would throw back the turf of the graveyard like a bedcover, stand up, wipe the clumped, sticky soil, smelling of the countless dead, from his blue suit, and pin on a slightly withered plastic carnation before approaching, through the darkness, the eternally burning porch light of his parents’ home, which would serve to guide him in case, confused from lying so long beneath the earth, he no longer recognized the house where he was born. She hoped he would knock one day, not on the door of the stable, but on his parents’ door, asking permission to enter, and wet his finger in the bowl of holy water held at eye-level by a porcelain angel. Father, thy children have entered thy house, to humbly confess their sins. In thy name, we shall live again. Have mercy, do not cast us out. He will return. He will kneel down, he will bow his head. He will cross himself and fold his hands in prayer, and he will recite the guardian angel prayer with me. Ever this day be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide.
It was all for nothing, he is not risen, although year after year, on Corpus Christi, and not only in dreams, I have tied a crawfish to a red candle. The long, thin feelers of the crawfish, its protuberant eyes and its claws, were overrun with the hot wax draining from the candle, until its frantic claws and feelers moved ever slower and the dying crustacean, embalmed in red wax, fell still inside his tomb. I caught a thousand crawfish in a fishing net and put them alive into a pond. I wanted to take a live one every day to Jonathan’s grave and tie it to a lit candle, but my dead son, in God’s name, emptied out the pond and pulled the nails from my fingers while I was sleeping, while my hands lay over the bedcover tangled up in my rosary. With my fingers still bloody and oozing, I undid the knots in the fishing net and set all the crawfish free. In the morning, when I awoke, the pink Lourdes rosary lay blood-smeared on the floor beside the night table. Who knows who closed the prayer book, bound in black fabric, impressed with a golden cross, then opened it back up, then closed it again. Perhaps he came for me and stole away with the four-leaf clover bookmark. It was cold out. Fog lay over the graves. The riverside forest hid itself away. The bent black candlewick was stiff—I saw it through the binoculars—it had frozen through. Three or four times already, the peacocks had opened their beaks and noiselessly swallowed their cries. The weathervane on the church tower spun in the air, swirling up the dust of God. The poplars bowed, their leaves swishing and rustling. Smoking chimneys spewed out small, almost invisible particles of soot. It smelled of burnt beechwood. The farm people had retired to their bedrooms, beside the tiled stoves, to stare at the flickering images on the blue TV screen. Around the grey felt slippers, cats purred. Inside the felt slippers, swastikas were embroidered with black thread. A skeleton, a Thanksgiving crown on his head, marched along a rainbow and introduced the next film. The roaring lion from Metro Goldwyn Mayer burst into the village, and swallowed the armless Christ in the entranceway to the parish house whole. In the black eye sockets of the dead, and over the thousands of molehills spread throughout the plains, the snow fell noiselessly. Only the bandy-legged wolf, wandering over my footprints among the crosses on the graves, did not leap over the cemetery walls, on this long night. Virgin, ornament of virgins, in thy majesty, I plead, share thy pain with thy servant, to thy anguish I concede. My savior’s bitter parting, his agonies in death, let them find their harbor in the depths of my humble breast.
Katharina was afraid that Jonathan—his suit smeared with grave dirt—would burrow about screaming in the cemetery waste heap and pick out the wilted roses and carnations to offer to passing cars, or else carry them to the Drava’s banks and scatter them on the gravel of the piers, and venture too close to the water. On the first anniversary of his death, she recounted, and not only to her nearest kin, she had seen a boy with a long burning candle sitting down in front of Hell. On the backside of the calvary, two blood-spattered white angels’ wings dangled from a coat hanger. When I got up and dressed myself, and went up the village street with an empty coat hanger, the angels’ wings had disappeared, nor were they hanging over the devil’s red wings; they had vanished, and there wasn’t a single feather to be found. It was a blond angel who used to lead him often over the bridge, his hair was parted to one side. He had one green eye and one blue. His wings were pink. On his feet he wore brown leather sandals, tied with a golden hair taken from the head of the devil in the calvary. Like quills dripping black ink, spruces stand on the shore of the murmuring stream. Lead me with your hand… Later, the blond boy with the pink wings spotted other children and led them off to their heavenly fatherland. Let me lament with thee truly, and accompany thee into death. I want to mount the cross in thy praise, until my final breath.
Katharina was afraid that her son would walk past his parents’ house after the resurrection, kneel before the calvary, and join his hands, with their twenty-centimeter-long, spiraling fingernails, which had continued growing under the earth, and would call, not to his mother, nor to his earthly father and siblings, but to the Godless one, the Fallen Angel, and he would free him from Hell on Saint Nicholas’ day. She was afraid that afterward, he would return to the scene of the disaster in his suit smeared with grave dirt, a plastic rose in his buttonhole, climb back onto the beam and jump; though maybe he would hesitate, waiting for Leopold, who was buried in the Protestant cemetery four kilometers from the Catholic one, and might still be ambling down the highway, or in the damp Ponta forest jumping from one clump of grass to another, picking a bouquet of snowdrops for friends and foes and offering them to the cars with German license plates that passed by, until at last, a half-hour late, he would arrive with the flowers to the scene of the disaster, in the barn of the parish house, and they would smoke one more cigarette and roll naked in the hay until, one behind the other, with the three meter rope in their hands, grasping the rungs of the ladder, they would climb up to the crossbeam and embrace, pressing their naked bodies together, biting each other’s lips until they bled and finally climbing down the ladder and making love until dawn, when the two peacocks’ morning cries would rouse the village. But Jonathan might wander with a funeral lantern through the riverside forest and paint crosses in chalk on the trunks of the alders, which the farm people cut down shortly before Corpus Christi and stand along the village road for the pastor to walk between, his monstrance raised high, with the cervical vertebra of the Catholic suicide in its lunette, as he crosses the village from altar to altar. Early in the morning, on Corpus Christi, the housewives raise altars in front of their homes or at the crossroads, with the religious paintings that hang over their beds, beneath which their children were conceived, decorating them with flowers from their gardens, bobbin lace cloths, and lit candles. Or perhaps he will set fire to his tomb, so that it blazes through the night, fed by the fires of purgatory or the sanctuary lamp in the church, and will stand before it—with a cut-glass Easter lamb holding the flag of the resurrection in his hands—just as he stood before the Easter bonfire, in his red acolyte’s tunic, and he and Leopold stirred the ashes with a stick, and the sparks flew and the fire crackled. A parish barn was his death chamber, the hay his deathbed. The traces were quickly wiped away. The wind that blew between the cracks in the boards dried their tears, their urine, and their sperm. They were inseparable, the townspeople used to say, before their death. In death they were separable. One was laid to rest in the Catholic cemetery, the other in the Protestant, at different hours, so the parents wouldn’t have to attend their sons’ funerals alone, though neither family was to be seen at the gravesite of the other. The sculptor of death masks pressed Leopold’s fragile porcelain mask onto Jonathan’s face before the coffin lid was screwed to the underside, and Leopold was buried in Jonathan’s death mask.
My duty is to take the cross, rejoicing in his wounds. These flames of love shall not be dimmed when they take me to my tomb. His blood is my ransom, his cross my salvation. When my hour has come to die and go to my heavenly home, I beg of thee, mother, stand by my side, do not leave me alone. Until the lenses of the binoculars were sooty and went black before her eyes, his mother Katharina stayed, gasping for air, at the open window. The birch leaves crackled softly. Two or three ravens, posted on power lines, cawed and shook their wet wings. She heard the flick of horses’ reigns as they passed the forest’s edge. The playing of an organ grew ever dimmer. The interior of his coffin had been inlaid with a birch veneer. Not above the clouds, mingling over the village, but in the soot-black vault of the calvary, she heard a fierce storm, and saw lightning bolts crisscrossing over the profaner of Christ, who wrestled with the fallen angel on the floor, and heard the growl of thunder and the lash of rain against the hissing flames. But I held onto his gallstones in the Sirius matchbox! The wet skeletons of two young hedgehogs still lay on the floor of Hell. The hands of the blond angel, wading pink-winged through a running stream, were bound together by the rope with which the two boys found their release. Savior of the world! Heed the word of thy humble servant. Come into the shell of my flesh… Satan, stretching his head from the calvary, tried repeatedly to snatch the mourning veil from the face of a widow trailing a coffin, but only grasped at air.
Her son’s tomb, floating and trembling over the other graves, looked again for its abandoned hole in the earth. Jonathan bowed his head and brought his hands together, their nails grown into spirals, in prayer. Katharina closed the window, wiped her fingerprints from the lenses of the binoculars, stumbled toward the religious painting under which, years before, her now dead son had been conceived, and lay in bed beside her sleeping husband. The mouth of her husband, the father of her son, was half-open, his breast heaved and sank. His breathing was regular. His hands, with their badly trimmed nails, lay over the white sheet embroidered with lily of the valley. A dried drop of blood clung to his left inner ear. A few grey hairs emerged from his nostrils, trembling with his breaths. On his neck, to the right of his Adam’s apple, a mole sprouted curly hairs. Never in his life had he dared to cut the hairs on that mole. A gust of wind rattled the casement; the quivering spider webs awoke their captive insects, which went back to struggling for a moment before falling still. The shepherd, framed in gold leaf, herding his sheep, shattered his crook and tore open his stomach over the sleeping couple, spilling grey, bloody entrails from his wound onto the double bed, in which the screaming Katharina, with eyes wide open and curly hairs on end, peered at the dark cross in the windowpane. She touched the scars on her flat torso, her damp armpits, and saw with her closed eyes—shrouded but still clear, floating back and forth on the inner side of her eyelids–her breasts, which the surgeons had disposed of in a sterile bag years before. Pointing at the scars that had healed over my chest, they asked me if I wanted to see a plastic surgeon, and I said it wasn’t worth it. I still have my own teeth anyway, minus two or three, and my eyes are as good as ever. Katharina felt for the glass of holy water—a few drops fell on the pink rosary from Lourdes—let her head sink in the pillow, pulled herself deeper into the bedspread, and breathed in the scent of her own body. The restless casement had in the meantime grown still, and the rustling of the green birch leaves was softer. Between the cracks in the stone cemetery walls slept the brown and green lizards that ran up and down the ancient sparse ivy tendrils growing on the ossuary walls. Hidden behind the elder bushes, the children used to point their slingshots at the lizards’ heads. How often he would bring lizards’ tails back to the house. Get out, I would say to him, throw it away! A column of smoke, thinner and ever thinner, rose from the tomb and dissipated. Over the blackened, curved wick of the candle she saw a shimmering rainbow. The crooked crucifixes, rusty and broken, righted themselves over the grave mounds and threw holy water on one another. The falling hosts, white and spinning on their axes in the air, imprinted with the verso of a sheet of blotting paper on which a tomb floating over a graveyard is drawn, land in the snow beneath a grey angel’s wing still hovering in the air. Held tight by two young boys, two accordions, slashing their lungs, fall over the high wall of the cemetery, swinging back and forth against its cold surface.
While Jonathan lay on his deathbed in his parents’ house—his bluish red rope burns and strangulation bruises covered with a fresh garland of aromatic purple carnations, from the garden, his corpse turned wax-yellow and his fingernails blue—his mother, in a black dress, kept vigil through the night, near the two candles that lit up his face to the left and right of the sofa, never once closing her eyes. Over and over she begged him to open his eyes, to rise up and to leave her forever, to go off with his guitar to St. Pauli on the sea if he wanted, but to live, to live, to be alive again. At three in the morning, as the pendulum clock struck, she beat the dead boy’s chest, crying and screaming, with her ringed hand—a golden relic of her matrimony—and cried: Jonathan, stand up, I’m telling you, stand up! From the two thick funeral candles, burning to the left and right of the sofa, she gathered the streaming wax, molded it into two small crosses, and sewed the small, pliant crucifixes into the seams of his blue funeral suit. Early in the morning, the undertakers came and pulled the corpse from her quivering, tear-dampened hands, wax-flecked, and redolent of wax. Her husband, who wished to be spared the spectacle, stood in the stable between two brown and white spotted cows, wailing aloud—Boy, why did you do this to us!—his hand grasping one of their horns, and rested his forehead on the swollen ribcage of a pregnant cow. The older sister and younger brother of the deceased were curled up in a fetal position—the little one pressed his kneecaps into the knee-hollows of his sister—in the bed of the deceased. The crucifix in the kitchen descended from the holy corner and hid behind the slowly but steadily shrinking funeral candles, before falling, like a high-jumper, onto its back atop the coffin, where it was nailed down. Weak-kneed, ironing out the wrinkles in the coverlet with her hand, his mother bent down over the empty sofa. Her grey hair was disheveled, her lower lip exposed a few teeth, her sunken cheeks had a bluish sheen, and her heart beat louder than the striking of the woodpecker against the bark of the tree trunk not far from the window. In the furrows in her forehead, grown deeper in the course of the night, her racked and tattered soul was interred, swathed in its grave clothes and embalmed by the young soul of Jonathan, which departed his body after a hemp rope had broken his neck, under the beam and over the wood floor. The corpse-lackeys grabbed his lifeless body by the shoulders and legs—in the end, his mother was present—laid him gingerly in the coffin, and covered him up with a piece of wood, painted black, with the crucifix from the kitchen nailed to its lid. She wanted her son to lie exposed in the house of his birth, but the sanitary code in Carinthia dictates that the dead may not lie exposed for viewing for three days in the houses, that they must instead be brought to a public morgue prior to the burial. In special cases certificates of exemption are granted, but while one waits to receive notice from the authorities through official channels, be it good or bad… In the end, the two blue coffins of the young suicides stood beside each other in the mortuary in Großbotenfeld on two catafalques resting on rubber wheels. No troublemaker switched the death notices or left a plastic fire truck near the glass of holy water holding a spruce twig. No, nothing was changed, everything was bitterly serious, and many of the condolences were dry as bone. With flecks of dry wax on their shined shoes, this person or that walked out of the chapel, crossing themselves or pressing a handkerchief into their nose, eyes, or mouth. After her death—Jonathan’s mother Katharina died of cancer of the breast—she was laid in her son’s tomb. The gravestone that had marked Jonathan’s tomb for more than fifteen years was changed, and in its place was put a larger stone engraved with the names of the boy and his mother. This his cross is my salvation, this his blood abides in me. Jesus died on the cross for me, I am his heir in eternity. Mother, when my time comes to die, I beg thee, stay by me.
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.