A TRANSLATION OF Wenn es soweit ist BY ADRIAN WEST
During Advent—the open black umbrella was white with snowflakes—Maximilian sought out the ninety-three-year-old Miss Glantschnig, who had, until recently, been able to go shopping every day and cook her own lunch, but who had lately been cared for by her daughter-in-law, Marlies, in exchange for a monthly fee. When the old woman’s son was taken to the hospital in Villach for the fourth time in one month, for a lung inflammation, it was not he, but her daughter-in-law who brought lunch to her in her house, mounting the creaking steps with a plate up to the old woman’s apartment. One day Marlies walked slowly up to the old woman with a full plate, and when she credulously reached her hands out for the food, Marlies pushed the plate into the frightened woman’s breast and shoved her backward with its hard enameled lip, until she stumbled, retreating, and fell to the floor. The daughter-in-law rested the plate on the dining table, knelt before the old woman, and slapped her several times in the face. More than a decade before, Marlies’s face had been disfigured in a terrible traffic accident. The surgeons could just barely patch it up. In the hospital, she was specially cared for by her mother Sofia, a midwife who had delivered babies in Maximilian’s parents’ bedroom. After the burial of the old Mrs. Glantschnig, who lived on the second floor, they began renovations on the house for the young family. Beside this house, a ten-year-old on a bike, his legs stretched upward, rode down the hill onto a highway concealed by a wall. The gamble cost the child his life. In the clay vessel in which the putrid-smelling bone stock was rendered from the bones of slaughtered animals, his skeleton lies over the skeleton of Lukas, who carelessly crossed the street, his gaze fixed on a white-clad figure moving behind the window of the butcher’s shop. The child was buried in the Pulsnitz cemetery just behind the gravestone of Maximilian’s grandparents. A few days after the funeral of the unfortunate, the astonished townspeople, looking through their kitchen windows, saw two uniformed priests, flanked by two acolytes holding long burning candles, carrying the armless, life-sized Jesus who had once been cast by a blasphemer over a waterfall, out of the chilly, domed entryway of the parish house, on their shoulders and down the village street, passing by the calvary and entering the church vestibule, which had been converted into a mortuary chapel. Burnt, still slightly smoking, the angels’ wings fixed at the four corners of the child’s coffin, made of bound-together goose feathers, lay under the leaping red flames of hell, in a pile of white-grey ash.
A few days before Christmas, while it snowed outside, Maximilian and his father sat snacking on speck together, drinking hot rose hip tea and homemade schnapps, and the old storyteller recounted that up there—he signaled a hill with his index finger—where you see desolate bits of wall overgrown with shrubs, stood the home of the bone burner, who would go through the snow-covered forest and over the frosted fields from house to house, filling his satchel up with bones, especially in winter, when the farmers slaughtered their pigs and cows. All winter he kept the bones hidden from his dog in a niche in his goat pen. In spring, with the first thaw, before the draught horses were driven over the fields hitched to ploughs, the bone burner would rebuild his bone furnace. He would place the clay vessel, full of bones, in a hole in the ground atop glowing coals, cover the clay vessel with dirt and grass, and let the bones simmer until they secreted the viscous pandapigl. Often, as a child, the ninety-year-old man said, he would go to the bone burner in summer, and have him fill up a beer bottle with the thick liquid with its reek of decay. His father would lift him up to brush it on their nag while it fed on oats, inside its ears, around its eyes, on its nostrils and on its belly, with a crow’s feather.
When the farmers were able buy a chemical compound that repelled the insects from the draught horses but did not smell of putrefaction, and the bone burner had left his furnace behind, the fourteen-year-old cobbler’s apprentice Walter Spätauf set fire to the bone burner’s property. The bone burner could not save his goats from the blazing building, and they were burned alive along with his blind and deaf old dog, rheumatic and reduced to a skeleton. Burning beams like black ribs, charred to cinders, fell crackling over the collapsed bone furnace. Hot ashes swirled, thousands of sparks leapt hissing and popping into the air. The bone burner, grown frail and haggard, lit up by the brilliant flames of his burning domicile and goat pen, sat on the forest’s edge, with his bundle of salvaged clothes, on the slope of the hill opposite the fire, under the wind-wracked spruce branches, shouting down into the village, You pig! You pig of a neighbor! The glowing ash pile smelled of burnt goat flesh the following day. With the belongings he’d saved and the half-burnt remains of his dead goats’ bones, the bone burner retreated into the forest and was never seen again. The desolate bits of wall from the bone collector’s house are grown over today with tall peppermint bushes, redolent in summer. The fourteen-year-old cobbler’s apprentice Walter Spätauf succeeded in smuggling a box of Sirius matches into jail, and was suffocated by the smoke and fumes from his horsehair mattress, which he had set on fire in his cramped, windowless cell. Scarcely a year afterward, on All Saints’ Day, before the wagging tails of the mooing cows, his mother and sister had to take down the distraught father of the fourteen-year-old pyromaniac from the dung-spattered stall door. Throughout the region, on All Saints’ Day, the faithful in the churches donated long altar candles, piling them up over one another in boxes the size of a child’s coffin.
Not only the cobbler’s apprentice and his father, Jonathan and Leopold, Roman and his father and Leopold’s brother, but also the schoolteacher Florian Leibetseder, who lived with his family on the second floor of the schoolhouse, across from the calvary, and his twenty-five-year-old son took their own lives, one in Vienna, the other in Berlin. One Christmas Eve, the teacher threw open the windows of his living room and shouted Fire! Fire! out over the calvary into the night. His wife knocked frantically at the front door of Matthias Felsberger, Maximilian’s grandfather, and interrupted his two hour-long rosary. A lit candle stood on the table, in front of the photos of his three sons fallen in the war. The brilliance of her Christmas tree, burning at that late hour, fell onto the calvary and lit up the naked torso of the tormented, lying among the flickering flames of Hell, as well as Satan’s outspread wings and horned skull. The fresh snow on the calvary roof glittered pink, the blooming Saint Barbara branches, freshly picked, shone pink under the image of Hell. The neighbors showed up with water buckets and baskets full of sawdust and put out the blaze. A candle had fallen from a branch of the Christmas tree unobserved and had inflamed a half-full box of Sirius matches lying on the table. A few burn-spots on the wood floor remained, and traces of soot on the whitewashed ceiling. All that was damaged were the chocolate spruces, which dripped down from the Christmas tree, the chocolate chimney sweep, dripping chocolate from his eyes and mouth, the waning chocolate half-moon and a chocolate four-leaf-clover, stripped of its leaves. The black soot was cleaned from the gold and silver tinsel by the teacher’s wife with a benzene solution. And on Christmas day, the schoolchildren filed before the wood cottage, admiring the charred Christmas tree. The following year, the polished tinsel hung again on the Christmas tree, lit by the first strand of electric Christmas lights that had appeared in the village.
In his retirement, Florian Leibetseder, who had taught Maximilian in his first two years of grammar school, traveled from continent to continent, and would set up slide shows for his former students and his friends and acquaintances, which often turned into tests of their memory of geography. When he discovered he was ill with malignant cancer and had only a few months to live, he wrote to a friend that the time had come to undertake his final voyage, and he swallowed an overdose of sleeping pills. His son, who had fled from the narrowness of the Drava Valley in Carinthia into the big city in hopes of starting his life afresh, came to nothing in the foreign land and put an end to his life a few years before his father, in Berlin, with a pistol. The transfer of the body was entrusted to the funeral director Sonnberger, from the neighboring village, with his black Mercedes. Over the broken star of Mercedes, the undertaker had had soldered a miniature replica of the calvary with its representation of Hell.
After the schoolteacher Florian Leibetseder had left the village and taught in a high school in Villach until his retirement, the teacher Timo Wigotschnig from lower Carinthia moved into his apartment and set up house there across from the calvary with its image of Hell. His twelve-year-old son died in an accident not even ten years later. When he was taking leave of a schoolmate at the bus stop, a van struck and killed him on the roadside. His father Timo Wigotschnig, who had taught Maximilian more than five years in grammar school, died ten years after the accident, of osteoporosis. His bones had literally disintegrated.
Spider webs, dusted with flour, could be seen in all corners of the little grain mill in the farmhouse. Big, fat spiders waited for hours in their white lairs. Maximilian often entered the mill, knelt down before the receptacle, and smelled the fresh milled flour that ran between his fingers. It was in the mill—he was ten years old at the time—that Maximilian asked his father, for the first time in his life, whether he could go to the cinema. Winnetou I is playing! The teacher is going with us, he wants to see the movie too, both his sons are going too. Winnetou I is playing, Father. Karl May, get it! Over and over, for an hour, he asked if he could go to the movies. Between his entreaties, Maximilian would walk out of the mill, go into the kitchen, look in the mirror, bare his hips in the outhouse, go back into the mill. Father! Winnetou I is playing, the teacher…. Only after an hour—not even once had he looked his son in the eyes—did he murmur Yes! softly to the receptacle, in which aromatic flour, warm and freshly milled, piled up in the shape of a pyramid. To lead off, a short film was shown of slowly overturning cars. The teacher Timo Wigotschnig, whose bone-crumbs the tale-teller and bone-collector sprinkles in the full clay vessel over the skeleton of his predecessor, Florian Leibetseder, leaned into his neighbor and whispered to him: Maximilian, this is slow-motion!
The ninety-year-old man with the grey-flecked moustache and the trimmed eyebrows told of his younger brother Friedhelm, in the meantime grown eighty-five years old, who served in the SS in the Second World War and even today is proud of having done so, that, as a five month old child, he caught pneumonia with a high fever, and the family doctor could do nothing else to help him and so recommended that his parents, as a last resort, break the ice in the village stream with a hatchet, soak a blanket in the ice cold water, and wrap the child up in the wet blanket. Either the child will live or he’ll die in any case! the doctor said. Maximilian’s grandmother Elisabeth followed the doctor’s orders in desperation, sank a big blanket in the ice-clogged village creek and wrapped the five month old child in the wrung-out, cold, damp blanket. A while later, she took him back out. She noted that the fever had soon dropped, the child had survived the grave and beaten the normally deadly pneumonia—there was still no penicillin in those days.
Two decades later, the child saved by the ice-cold water became a fighter in the Second World War, a fact of which he is still proud—not a lowly soldier in the Wehrmacht, but an SS man. Immediately after the end of the Second World War, out of fear of the allies, his father took a knife and scraped the lightning bolt buttons from his coat collar and the shining death’s head with the two crossed bones on the peak of his cap from the photos his son had sent him during the war, which show him in his office in Nuremburg and on furlough in Carinthia. In one of the photos, his SS-insignia are only half-covered by the naked arm of his three-year-old daughter, who embraces him. He wasn’t a war criminal, he always stresses: I did nothing, I was in an office in Nuremburg, I spent the whole war seated at a desk. In two other photos, in which the soldier, in a long cape, sits beneath a linden with a circle of friends, they forgot to rub out the crossed bones, the death’s head, and the lightning bolt insignia. Maximilian found a photo of his parents’ house from which the flag with the swastika that hung from the attic window had likewise been scratched out. Maximilian’s father always had this photo of his parents’ house with the swastika flag with him, with a little prayer book that his mother Elisabeth had given him during the war. While the others played cards, I read in the prayer book. Without the Lord God, I should not have survived the war. Sometimes it was a matter of millimeters, and I would have been done for, the ninety-year-old man with the trimmed eyebrows recollected.
His brother Friedhelm goes to Pulsnitz every year for All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day with his black American car, dozens of years old, but looking ever fresh and polished to a glow, to pray at the graves of his parents, now three decades dead, and to take part in the blessing of the tombs. The two brothers, after sinking a pheasant’s feather in the bucket that sits below the blazing flames of hell, full of the bone stock rendered up in a bone furnace from the bones of the dead in the town built in the form of a cross, spread the black, viscous mass, smelling of rot, around their eyes, and after having fed themselves on the devil’s ears, they go with their equally senior brother-in-law Klaus, as on every All Saints’ Day after the blessing of the tombs, when the priest, flanked by his acolytes, has gone from tomb to tomb with a copper aspersorium and has sprinkled holy water on the yellow and white All Saints’ Day flowers and the burning wax candles with the damp, grey bristled twig, and take the vertical beam of the town built in the form of a cross to the village fountain, where, decades ago, as children, sons, and farmhands, day after day, morning and night, standing between the heads of the horses, they used to hold onto the bridles while the restless horses sank their snouts in the full water trough and, snorting and slurping, sucked water into their mouths. The young farmhand, standing between the horses’ heads, would breathe in the two animals’ foul smelling breath. The horses would shake their heads, so that their slaver, trailing in long threads from their black snouts, mixed with the fresh, cool spring water, landed on the child’s face like cobwebs, until the pungent, sweating horses, guided by the boys holding the bridles, turned heavily around and stomped back to the stalls in the knee-high snow.
The three old men, who survived two world wars and are ready for a third—Get ready, you’ll see, it’s already getting started. Look at Yugoslavia over yonder. One world war already sparked off there—go, after the blessing of the tombs, their eyelids blackened with the stock rendered from the bones of their dead neighbors, and the hairy rinds of the devil’s ears in their mouths—In those days, when I was twenty, I was so hungry, I would gladly have eaten the Devil’s ears—to the Kirchheimer estate, take off their coats in the kitchen, hang their hats on the red porcelain knob of the coat tree, seat themselves at the kitchen table and, within a few minutes—as every year on All Saints’ Day, after the blessing of the tombs, for decades—begin to talk about the war, while the two mentally infirm women, mother and daughter, start the preparations for lunch. Under the holy corner next to a burning wax candle, a memorial to the family dead, stand four freshly plucked chrysanthemums, yellow and bushy, in a jar, blessed with holy water and incense by the pastor and his acolytes. One of the three old men at the table begins leafing through the day’s open newspaper and commenting on his reading.
the first old man: Lord, have mercy upon us! Christ, have mercy upon us! Lord, have mercy upon us! Jesus, hear us! Jesus, heed our prayers! Take a look at our parliament, a bunch of nobodies and do-nothings, sitting around, cashing checks, they can hardly be bothered to lift a paw.
the second old man: God, our Father in Heaven, have mercy upon us! Son of God, savior of the world, have mercy upon us! Blessed Holy Ghost, have mercy upon us! That parliament should be eradicated. The best thing would be a robust dictatorship, not a weak one, we need a healthy dictatorship.
the third old man: O God, ever disposed to mercy and to forgiveness, accept our most humble prayer, that thy noble benevolence may redeem us and all thy servants bound by the chain of sin! The Turks and the Yugos should be cleared out. We should close off the borders so that rabble with their twisty moustaches can’t keep sneaking in. We used to have the Italians, now we have the Russian and Rumanian mafia here too.
the second old man: Eternal God, all-powerful, who rules over the living and the dead, showing mercy to all who, by their faith and their good works, thou seest to be thy servants, we humbly beg thee, on behalf of those still dwelling in the world in mortal flesh and those who, freed from this life, have been already received into the other world, that, through the intercession of the saints, they receive thy benevolent forgiveness for all their sins. We have work enough here. Austria can feed herself. If the citizens won’t take the jobs they are offered, let them go out in the streets and beg, maybe some foreigner will walk by and share his welfare money. There are plenty of our countrymen that could use it.
the third old man: Most merciful Christ, my soul’s sweet savior, who has loved me throughout eternity, who from love became flesh and spilled thy precious blood, open for me the gates of Heaven. The thirties were tough. We had high unemployment. When Hitler came, everyone had a job, and they opened back up the factory on the other bank of the Drava.
the third old man: On the way of the cross, which my savior and redeemer paved with his bloody footsteps, I shall hasten to my Fatherland, Heaven. Who gave Adam the Third the new roof for his hay barn? Hitler! Hitler and no one else!
the first old man: O most holy Jesus, thy lifeless body, which thou gavest over to blows and humiliation, could only find worthy repose in thy pure mother’s lap. Have I not often asked thee, with thy exalted body, to come into my heart, full of sin and impurity? O, make a new heart in me, that I may be worthy to receive thy body in the blessed sacrament at the altar. Nowadays the mailman delivers the money to those vagrants and the do-nothings in their homes, so they can keep lying back on the couch counting the bills. The layabouts have lost the will to find a job.
the second old man: O Jesus, who will give water to my head and torrents of tears to my eyes, so that, day and night, I may cry away my sins? I pray thee that through thy bitter, bloody tears, thou concedest me the grace of penitence and my heart so repents, that abundant tears may flow from my eyes, and throughout my life I may cry away thy suffering and even more so, my sinfulness, which gave rise to it. What was it like in our day? Seven kilometers I had to walk to school, in summer and in winter. After school, when I was ten or twelve, I herded the sheep out in the fields for the farmers, and picked blackberries by the kilo along the way. I sold the blackberries, that was my pocket money. At fifteen I had to work with the lumberjacks in the forest from four in the morning on.
the third old man: O, with what great pain was the skin ripped off with the garments, which dried in the wounds and on the blood. The garments were torn from Jesus, that he would die poor and naked. How serenely would I die as well, if stripping off man’s clothes I might strip away as well his wicked inclinations. How nice it used to be before, at the autumn fair in Kindelbrücken, where we bought wool coats, Goiserer shoes, leather gaiters, and wide suspenders. We brought the children home cream horns and Turkish honey. And now? Every three or four stalls there’s a nigger selling plastic tractors and black dolls, pistols and gingerbread hearts.
the second old man: Empty me from myself and fill me with thy endless good. Live in me, O crucified Jesus, and remain inside me, so that I may boast the world no longer possesses me. They should run the profiteers out on a rail. Under Hitler there was no such thing. Butter and bread, the basics, cost the same everywhere.
the first old man: O worthy Jesus, who will make it that I too may die from love for thee! Let me at least be dead to the world! It’s the filthy Jews’ fault. Nowadays the Jews run the world from America.
the second old man: Thou art the head, we the body, through the wonderful appointment and worthy acceptance of this holy mystery. Thou hast led us into glory, wherein we, thy body, must follow thee. My friend, Hitler knew what to do with lawbreakers! For the hard criminals, we should bring back the death penalty. The electric chair’s the only thing that will sort them out properly.
the third old man: Burn, O Lord, our kidneys and our heart with the fire of the Holy Spirit, that we may serve thee with chaste body and please thee with pure heart. A shot in the ass would do the trick too.
the first old man: O God, from whom proceed holy judgments and good works, give thy servants that serenity, that the world cannot give, so that our hearts may live out thy commandments and, free from fear of the enemy, live on tranquilly under thy protection. Just imagine, in the war we had a pastor who told us to kill as many enemies as possible. A pastor said that! One of my comrades told the priest he was a Christian and was sworn to keep the Ten Commandments. Do you know what the fifth commandment is? my comrade asked the priest. Thou shalt not kill! Since that time, I don’t have any respect for do-gooders. In the end, the comrade took a bullet in the head. They shot out both his eyes. In the military hospital he cried out: I want to see my family again!
the second old man: Veronica offers to Jesus, as devotion and mercy, the veil over her head as a kerchief, so that he may dry his death-pale face, covered in spit and blood, and he leaves impressed in the veil the image of his most holy countenance. A small service, and a very great reward. The murderers and hardened criminals should be lined up along a wall and shot. That will teach them.
the third old man: Would that I could be a friend to Christ, though I am an enemy of the cross! O dear beloved cross, I accept thee with joy from the hand of God. Far be it from me, hereforth to esteem myself happy in whatever lies outside the cross. Through this I want the world to be crucified, that I, Jesus, may be thine. Why should the state put up with this riffraff for decades? Who pays for them? Us with our taxes, and no one else.
the first old man: Be constant in good and do not stray from the cross. Who perseveres to the end, shall be rewarded. We need a little Hitler to bring back peace and quiet to the country. Someone needs to crack down.
the third old man: O Jesus, merciful lamb! I must repent of my weakness and impatience. I curse them. Take up my flesh and crucify it with thy zeal. Cut me, burn me, torment me in this life, if thou willst, only spare me for eternity. Hitler wasn’t so bad, it’s the little Hitlers that fouled everything up, that’s why we lost the war.
the first old man: Therefore I renounce the devil, the world, and the flesh and detest all infernal temptations, all the vanities of the world and sinful lusts, for now and for ever. If Hitler hadn’t gone after the Jews, we would have won the war, we would have pushed on through Stalingrad. There was no relying on Mussolini.
the third old man: With thy holy grace, I promise thee henceforth to keep free from sin, not from fear of Hell, not from the promise of eternal glory, but from love for thee, because thou art my God, of infinite love worthy. You can still see it today. The farmers get less and less from the Italians for their meat and wood. The Italian is almost like another Jew.
the second old man: O Jesus, he is not worthy of thee who will not take up his cross and follow thee. I will help thee bear thy cross. I will be thy friend and companion in thy via crucis. I will step in thy bloody footprints and follow thee. Hitler should have exterminated twice as many Jews.
the first old man: Whoever, in this life, had no place to rest his head, has not a grave of his own in this world, because he was not of this world. You, who cling to this world, eschew it, so that you do not meet your end with it. Take a look at all the money the chancellor has shipped off to Israel. Now the state has to care for the Jewish cemetery too.
the second old man: Ay, sinless Jesus, I have sinned. Yet thou acceptest the judgment of death so that I may live. How am I to live, then, but for thee alone? So long as I try to please men, I cannot be thy servant. Then I will displease men and the world, so that I may please thee alone, O Jesus. They closed down Mauthausen much too early.
Even before the water drops on their coats had dried into the green loden and the seeped-in smell of the smoking grave candles, the aroma of the yellow and white chrysanthemums on their clothes and the rotting smell of the bone stock around their eyes had mixed with the aroma of the kitchen, the scent of frying omelets and chopped onions growing stronger—as every year on All Saints’ Day after the blessing of the tombs—the body of a soldier, cut in half, was picked up under the armpits by his comrades after an air raid, among the howls of those surrounding him, and placed once again on top of a waste heap, where it remained more than an hour, amid the laughter, praying, and singing of his comrades, until it tipped forward and his face, blood-smeared and streaked with soot, already blue with rigor mortis, landed in the mass of rotting food scraps. Beside the bisected corpse, lying with his face in the waste heap—as it had been for decades on All Saints’ Day, after the blessing of the tombs—a soldier again had his head shaved for having stolen from his comrades, was stripped naked, and tied to a stake for twelve hours under the pouring rain beside the waste heap, near where the soldier lay with his body ripped in half. Around his neck hung a placard that read: I robbed my fellow soldiers! The mentally infirm daughter of the ninety-year-old man with trimmed eyebrows, his eyes surrounded by black bone stock, licking his red and hairy devil’s ear, laid the countless bloody pork chops that had been thawed out the night before All Saints’ Day on a cutting board and beat them with a wooden mallet, its striking face covered by a serrated iron plate. The mute, mentally infirm wife of the ninety-year-old man—who had lost three brothers, cut down in the full flower of youth, in the Second World War—was slicing thin strips of frittata as long as plates on a cutting board, and heard in the background, intermitted by the blows of her daughter’s mallet against the pork chops—as every year on All Saints’ Day, after the blessing of the tombs—coming from the mouth framed by the grey moustache, in a familiar voice, that during the buildup to the war—Just try and imagine it!—a Panzer rolled over a hole in the ground where a man was huddling; the Panzer rolled left and right several times over the hole in the ground, but the narrator, whose head and shoulders were covered with dirt, stretched his head out and was able to crawl from the tomb alive. From the holy corner, decorated with All Saints’ Day flowers, where the three old men sat, gnawing and slurping on the hairy rinds of the Devil’s ears, staring attentively at each other’s faces, their eyes ringed in black, the mute woman, seventy years old, heard in the background, while she cut the thin, plate-length strips of frittata on the wood cutting board—every year on All Saints’ Day, after the blessing of the tombs, the same lunch was prepared—intermitted again and again by her daughter’s mallet blows against the pork chops, that over another hole in the ground, inside which a soldier huddled, a Panzer skidded likewise back and forth, so that the earth crumbled over the head and shoulders of the soldier; but this time the supple earth gave way and the tank dropped down in the hole and crushed the soldier. While the seventy-year-old farmwife cut the next frittata, as long as a plate, into thin strips, her daughter laid the next bloody piece of pork on the wood cutting board and struck it with short, precise blows, so that the blood drained from the crushed meat into the grain of the wood, and the war correspondent shouted louder, gazing alternately at the white aprons of the two women preparing the midday meal and the faces of the two other old men gnawing on the hairy red devil’s ears amid the ever-louder hammering of the mallet: He was squashed like a mouse, like a mouse, imagine, and that was just in the buildup to the war and not in the war itself, like a mouse…. The drops of holy water had in the meantime soaked into the coats of the gentlemen war correspondents and the drops of wax on the green loden, hardened by the cold of the graveyard, slowly softened in the warm, humid kitchen, smelling of bone-stock and candle wax, of All Saints’ Day flowers and simmering cow’s bones. The daughter of the ninety-year-old man of the house cracked an egg against the hard edge of a white enamel bowl, spilled the white from the two halves of the eggshell, brown and serrated, in the first enamel bowl and the yokes in another. She laid the pounded pork in the bowl with the yellow egg yolks, which she had beaten with a fork, and breaded the meat in a third enamel bowl filled with bread crumbs. The breaded schnitzel was laid in the loudly crackling lard, already heating in the pan, and its scent mixed with that of the bone stock, which the three gentlemen smeared around their eyes in front of the calvary on All Saints’ Day, immediately after the blessing of the tombs, in the middle of town, with the words, Beloved Jesus, in thy travails, I wait to anoint and succor thee. After the seventy-year-old farmwife had cut all the frittata, she opened the oven door and placed one knotty spruce branch after another on the fire, while in the background, in front of the kitchen windows already steamed over by the boiling stock of cow bones, the three bald-headed old men, telling war stories, were pulling their chairs closer and closer together, leaning their heads in, as if each wanted to suck the trench dirt and the blood of comrades from the damp, grey-flecked moustache of the other, or lick from his companions’ eyes the black bone stock, smelling of rot, which was rendered from the bones of the town’s dead, or as if they wanted, like fighting dogs, to tear a morsel from the others’ mouths, to suck, chew, or savor an especially succulent bite of the hairy red devil’s ear—….I was so hungry, I would gladly have eaten the devil’s ears. One of the bald-headed war correspondents told his two attentive listeners that, in a work camp in Siberia, his long-dead brother-in-law, Willibald Zitterer, and his comrades had to drag the bodies of prisoners, worked to death, from a coal mine, but they couldn’t bury them because it was deep winter and the ground was frozen through—it was forty degrees below zero—and they had to stack the frozen dead like firewood, one on top of another, in an outbuilding, so that in spring, when the temperature rose, they could bury them in a mass grave. Not far from the labor camp stood an outbuilding, in which more than a hundred dead, frozen stiff—like firewood! the old man repeated, pulling the slimy devil’s ear from his mouth—lay side by side and piled up. The old man, who used for a third time the word firewood to describe the frozen corpses of the prisoners stacked up one over the other, all the while striking the hairy pink devil’s ear against the table in indignation, pulled his chair aside as his wife opened the drawer and dropped the knives, spoons, and forks on the table with a clang, in such a way that the tines of the forks became entangled and one of the old men—the long hairs of the devil’s ear hung over his lower lip like sloppily extracted sutures—in a higher voice, because of the noise of the clanging silverware, informed his old listeners, their mouths half-open and their heads pressed together, that not far from their position, a pastor cowered in a church tower, giving up information to the English, who flew over their position and firebombed it. It must have been the Dutch who made them aware of the treacherous priest. It was nighttime, according to the old farmer with the wide-open eyes circled with black bone stock, when we aimed the barrel of the cannon at the church tower, two kilometers away. First we launched a flare to get it in our sights, and then we fired on it. The tower fell over like a blade of straw, and the priest was done for, he didn’t even have time to say an Our Father, so the grinning old man told his two listeners gnawing on their devil’s ears. He took a ladle of frittata soup from the steaming enamel bowl, stirred the hot soup, swimming with grease bubbles from the boiled cow bones, with a spoon, and, arching his eyebrows, told his two listeners, who kept dipping their spoons in the frittata soup and lifting them to their lips—the appetizers, pink and hairy, lay sucked dry on the table in front of their plates—that he had once taken a train home and seen the burning cathedral in Cologne, after it had been hit with incendiary bombs. From the train, he had seen people trying to flee in the streets, but they had gotten stuck in the searing hot asphalt not far from the cathedral and had been slowly burned alive. The mute, seventy-year-old wife of the ninety-year-old man with the grey-flecked moustache and the trimmed eyebrows collected the spent pink devil’s ears of the three gourmand war correspondents with her bare hands, turned away from the holy corner and the All Saints’ Day flowers and walked over to the stove. She opened the chromed oven door and threw the devil’s ears, gnawed and sucked clean, into the leaping flames. The two mentally infirm women—mother and daughter—arranging the chairs and sitting down at the lunch table with the three old men spooning their frittata soup and nodding with wide-open eyes, began slowly to slice and eat the devils’ tongue, almost raw beneath its crust of breading. On the blade of the knife and on the white enamel bowl, thin as a thread, stretched the blood trail of the devil incarnate. Père adoptif de ceux qu’en sa noire colère / Du paradis terrestre a chassés Dieu le Père, / O Satan, prends pitié de ma longue misère!
On Christmas Eve, before midnight mass, the ninety-year-old man planted a small spruce tree that his daughter had decorated with tinsel and red wax candles in the snow hill on his parents’ grave, and after services, where he had sung Oh Come Little Children, Come One and All, and Silent Night, Holy Night with the Pulsnitz choir, he stood before the little Christmas tree decorated with tinsel and burning candles on his parents’ grave, praying an Our Father and leering at Hubert Steinhart, who was visiting the grave of his son Jonathan, who had hanged himself, and on whose snow-covered grave mound there also stood a little Christmas tree, likewise decorated with tinsel and burning candles. After the ninety-year-old man, interrupting his prayers—…blessed art thou, among all other women, and blessed is Jesus, the fruit of thy womb…—cursed, between the lines of the prayer, the Steinhart clan, with whom he hadn’t exchanged a word for decades, he blew out, one after the other, the red candles on the little spruce tree, breathing in the ever more acrid fumes. The white-grey candle smoke wound upward through the branches of the little Christmas tree hung in silver tinsel, grazed the engraved and gilded names of his parents on the gravestone, and dispersed among the meter-high iron crosses in the graveyard. The shy Hubert Steinhart, who avoided all the people in the village and was last to enter the church and first to leave, before the mass had even ended, with the spit-damp host still between his tongue and palate, so as not to bump into anyone, crouched before the grave of his son Jonathan, pulled a tangle of white angel’s hair from a branch, unknotted it, and distributed the white strands, which clung to his fingers, among the various branches of the glowing little spruce tree. When the farmer Steinhart, with tinsel still sticking between his fingers, stood up from his son’s grave, you could hear the soft cracking of his bones. After the ninety-year-old man, glancing around in irritation at the noise, took leave of his progenitor, who had lain now thirty years beneath the earth, whispering Bye, Pop!—with the dust of his mother’s bones he spoke not a single word—and had left the creaking cemetery gate behind him, he walked, as the organ notes of Silent Night, Holy Night rang out in his ears, down the village street, past the Saint Barbara branches blossoming before the flames of Hell, so that the Devil, undecided as to whether to choke himself to death or finish himself off with his razor-sharp fingernails, paused a moment and took his place again with a cup of gall over the profaner of Christ laid out on the floor of Hell; he tramped by the village fountain, full of meter-long icicles, which hung over the ice-covered stream running quietly below—the sheet of ice dampened the sloshing of the stream—and the racket of war mixed with the ringing of the organ and the crunch of his hobnailed boots pressing down on the cotton-soft snow. Walking forward, he saw before him, as he looked down at the tips of his snow-covered boots, the eighteen-year-old stretcher-bearer from the trenches, who tried to staunch a graze wound in his neck and told him to get down, that for God’s sakes he wouldn’t attend to him on foot, but who, before he could implore him a second time, Get down! tumbled, struck by a muffled bullet from a silencer. The bullet penetrated under the steel helmet wrapped with a Red Cross bandage, through his neck and into his head. The young stretcher-bearer fell dead, his head spurting blood, into his arms. Streams of blood ran down the dead man’s face. Get down! Get down! the ninety-year-old man with the grey-flecked moustache and the trimmed eyebrows murmured softly, with the organ playing the Christmas carol A Spotless Rose is Growing, From a Tender Root…. still in his ears, as he passed by the village fountain overhung with icicles, stamping through the deep snow to his ancestral home, where he scattered a few grains of aromatic incense on the griddle; they immediately began smoking, and he rubbed together his thick, chapped fingers, frozen from the cold, over the range, then turned his head and looked into the faces of his family members, one after the other, as they entered the warm kitchen, returning from midnight mass. Gloire et louange à toi, Satan, dans les hauteurs / Du Ciel, où tu régnas, et dans les profondeurs / De l’Enfer, où, vaincu, tu rêves en silence! / Fais que mon âme un jour, sous l’Arbre de Science, / Près de toi se repose, à l’heure où sur ton front / Comme un Temple nouveau ses rameaux s’épandront!
His lord and master with the grey-flecked moustache and the trimmed eyebrows, who only shows his face in church a few times a year, on the high holy days, was pressed upon to by his family members and by the pastor Rudolf Lamisch to take part in the Sunday services when the newly built mortuary chapel was to be consecrated. You have to go to the blessing of the mortuary chapel! You’re the oldest man in the village! After the services, while the priest, flanked by his acolytes, carting the silver censer and the copper vessel with the aspergil, walked with his flock from the church into the mortuary chapel and began the ceremony of the benediction, splashing holy water on the floor, on the walls, and on the armless Jesus, who had been moved from the entryway to the parish house and hung on the wall of the new mortuary chapel and who had once been thrown by a blasphemer over a waterfall, to be rescued from the stream bed by the pastor and painter of prayer cards, who immortalized the sinner in his painting of Hell, the ninety-year-old man, along with the other attendees, filed into the newly built funeral hall. But I was in the very back, behind everyone else, the ninety-year-old man told his son Maximilian with a dry grin. I don’t have to be the first everywhere and in everything. More than fifteen years ago he said to Maximilian: Let me just live ten more years, then hell will be all full and I’ll go up to heaven!
Decades ago—Maximilian at that time used to fold his child’s hands in prayer on the steps of the altar, as an acolyte—the ninety-year-old man had expressed to the painter and pastor Balthasar Kranabeter the wish that the big, unused vestibule of the church be converted into a mortuary chapel, so that the dead would need not be taken to neighboring Großbotenfeld, but could lie exposed in their native village. It long fell on deaf ears, and then another priest who was well-disposed to the idea met with official resistance, because the proper sanitary facilities could not be installed; but the people can go to the toilet at home, the old man said, the houses in the village aren’t far from the church nor from the graveyard. At night, he declared, the mortuary chapel should be closed, because only a couple of years back in Carinthia, just a few days before Christmas, a dead man and his coffin were stolen by a group of men and thrown into the river. The floating coffin with the dead man was five kilometers downstream before it got trapped in among the ice floes near the shores of the Drava and had to be salvaged from the frozen river.
The people of the village want a woodwright to restore the handicapped Christ hanging in the new mortuary chapel, who was once rescued, soaking wet, from a stream bed; to have arms glued to his torso, so that, when the time comes, he can grab hold of the deceased and drag him off over the sea of flames, over the devil’s sharp horns and his outstretched wings, billowed by the hot winds of hell, and speed him on to his heavenly fatherland. Our sacrifice is done, great God our father dear, we thank thee, that thou hast bestowed thy grace on thy flock gathered here.
“To access the cells of the hermits [of Mount Athos], one must sometimes skirt abysses and climb staircases carved in rock; the sky and the emptiness, that is all there is. There may have been monks who took a wrong step and disappeared forever in the blue depths of the sea, a hundred feet below. When an anchorite dies—after a rather long time not coming to retrieve the food that is left for him—another monk replaces him; he enters into solitude, and pushes the bones of his predecessor into a corner of the hovel he will live in.”
When the Time Comes will be published by Contra Mundum Press in the fall 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.