When the Time Comes
A TRANSLATION OF Wenn es soweit ist BY ADRIAN WEST
In the clay vessel in which the pandapigl 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 Hildegard Zitterer lies atop that of her husband, Willibald Zitterer. In a family photo, taken on Maximilian’s paternal grandparents’ golden anniversary, two cakes rest on a table laid with a white tablecloth, and Hildegard wears a blouse from the tailor in Kindelbrücken who made Maximilian’s suits, of the same cloth as was worn by her mother Elisabeth, the toothless, white-haired celebrant. The cakes in the photos—one was baked by Hildegard, Aunt Waltraud had brought the other from her pastry shop in Klagenfurt—were not yet cut. The room smelled of fresh-picked mayflowers, which were standing in a vase between the cakes, and of almonds—the roses and other ornaments on the cakes were made of marzipan—, of spilled red wine, and of a glowing cigar, smoked with relish by the already tipsy owner of the old Rabitsch pastry shop and chauffeur of the Bishop of Gurk.
Father, you’ve still got a parcel of forest and a few heads of cattle unaccounted for, you need to write a will! the fifty-seven-year-old farmer advised his father Florian, who was already suffering from cancer of the gall bladder, when they sat beside each other on the bench between the stable and the house after their work was done. Each will get his part, and the rest stays here with the house! the ninety-year-old man replied. You can say that to me, but my brothers and sisters don’t have to believe me! To his two daughters, brown-haired Helene and humpbacked Hildegard, the old man had sworn as well: What I leave behind, stays with the house! He never wrote a will. After his death, estate proceedings were held in Kindelbrücken. In the courtroom, fat-lobed Lazarus turned to his sister: We’ve got something coming to us too, our father left behind cattle and woods! After a minute’s silence, during which the siblings examined one another with curiosity, each waiting for a word from the other, the farm-owner and father of five pressed his sisters: Don’t just sit there, you could get something out of this too. His brother Eduard, who owned the Rabitsch pastry shop in Klagenfurt with his wife, proposed that they let the six cows, the two horses, and the remaining woodlands be signed over to their mother Elisabeth, upon which fat-lobed Lazarus, the oldest among them, objected: Then it will all go to whoever Mother likes best! At that point, the judge turned on Lazarus: Go visit your mother every day and tickle her ribs, then maybe it will be you who comes away with everything, the woods and the livestock! The six cows, the two horses, and the woodlands were transferred to the eighty-year-old Elisabeth Kirchheimer in keeping with the court’s decision. The next day, the fat-lobed Lazarus went to Pulsnitz in his Mercedes, climbed the sixteen steps of the staircase, cracked the bedroom door and called to his bedridden mother in a deep, scratchy voice before crossing over the threshold: Mother, we’ve taken care of everything for you! That’s good! That’s good of you! the bedridden old woman thanked him. The fat-lobed Lazarus was not to be seen for the next two years in his mother’s house, although he lived only a few kilometers’ walk away.
There lived for a time in Pulsnitz a German priest, a National Socialist, who had impregnated a woman in his parish in Liesing. The woman gave birth to twins, and the priest was transferred from the Liesing parish to the Pulsnitz one, as a punishment, by the bishop. Pastor Wohlfahrt, as he was called, disappeared not long after the outbreak of the Second World War to his brother’s in America, after which it occurred to him that he should have carried his cross into the front, and when the war was over, he returned to Europe from time to time, as a visitor. One of his brothers, a conscientious objector, was murdered by the Nazis. After Maximilian’s paternal grandfather died, Pastor Wohlfahrt crossed the ocean once again and stopped in to see the fat, bedridden grandma Kirchheimer. The bedbound old woman begged him: Bring me Lazarus! After holding mass in Pulsnitz, he brought her son Lazarus back from his two-year absence. Fat-lobed Lazarus appeared in his mother’s room, with his retinue and with Pastor Wohlfahrt, and sat for an hour at the sick woman’s bed. But he left his parents’ house without entering the kitchen or saluting his younger brother, heir to the estate, now a ninety-year-old man with a grey-flecked moustache and trimmed eyebrows.
When Aunt Hildegard saw the thirteen-year-old Maximilian come in, she raised her head and squeezed a damp cloth with her left hand. Water dripped from the cloth onto the naked corpse of his grandmother Elisabeth, who lay in bed with her legs bent and spread apart. Beside the deathbed in the Biedermeyer style, a white lacquered washbasin, half-full of filthy water, sat atop a chair. From behind the curtain of grey, undulating hair falling over her face, Hildegard saw him beseeching her through eyes clouded with tears, and she lifted her chin and tilted her head toward the door. With his face turning red, he shut the door quietly while his aunt prayed aloud, washing the corpse with a damp rag; ten years before, when he was three, she had taken his hand and walked with him through the still-unpaved village street, past the calvary, and had grasped him under the arms in the family farmhouse and lifted him up over the coffin covered in periwinkles, pulling the translucent black shroud to one side to let him see the grey, shrunken face of his maternal grandmother, Leopoldine Felsberger, who was killed, it is still rumored, decades after the fact, by an injection to the heart. She took the boy’s hand and walked back up the street toward the calvary with its image of Hell. Beneath the red flames stabbing the air, near the head of the serpent wound around the sinner’s naked torso, was a vase of white and purple lilies, lush and fragrant, picked from the same garden where the daughter of the deceased had, from an old, knotted bush, broken off the sprigs of periwinkle they had hung on the death shroud with safety pins, poking holes through the curving green leaves. A black rooster with a blood-red comb pecked at the yellow grains of corn scattered on the floor of Hell by Oswin, the toothless, humpbacked laborer who helped the sacristan at mass. O toi qui de la Mort, ta vieille et forte amante, / Engendras l’Espérance, — une folle charmante! / O Satan, prends pitié de ma longue misère!
The body of his grandmother Elisabeth, which her daughter Hildegard had dressed after washing it, was carried off in a blanket by the funeral director Sonnberger and the then sixty-two-year-old man with the grey-flecked moustache and the trimmed eyebrows, to the bedroom where the farmhand slept, already decorated with black cloth by the funeral director. For the three days that the body lay exposed in the servant’s quarters, the farmhand slept in the barn. Her son Oswald and the funeral director set the shrouded body on the floor at the threshold of the room, threw open the four corners of the blanket, grabbed the cumbersome corpse beneath the armpits and legs and laid it in the coffin, which afterward—with the help of Oswald’s brother Friedhelm—they heaved onto the catafalque. The funeral director unfolded the nylon shroud with its rose petal border and draped it over the deceased. The finger bones of her folded hands, the point of her nose, her forehead, and the tips of her black-stockinged toes grazed the translucent black shroud, which hung down from the lower half of the coffin. On the black tapestry hung behind the head of the deceased, a large silver cross was printed. To the left and right of the coffin, at the head and foot, the funeral director, smoking a cigarette, his eyes half-closed, had placed four tall electric candles, lit and crackling.
After picking up the death notices from the printer and bringing them home, the heir to the estate, who had inherited his dead father’s glasses five years before, sat at the kitchen table and began addressing them to family and acquaintances, when a white Mercedes came down the gravel driveway to the farmhouse. Without entering the kitchen—the door was cracked open—the fat-lobed Lazarus, his older brother, followed by his wife and children, walked down the narrow hallway of his parents’ house to the mortuary chapel and took a seat from among the row of chairs, beside the mourning women. Oswald left the pen and the glasses he had inherited from his father over the pile of black-trimmed death notices, walked from the kitchen to where his older brother sat, in front of the coffin in the mortuary chapel, and offered him his hand, but the embittered Lazarus, who had hoped to take over his father’s agricultural affairs and had, after his father had decided in his younger brother’s favor, taken to calling the latter an “estate-robber,” avoiding all contact with him after their father’s death five years back, refused his hand at first, in front of their mother, who lay exposed in the middle of the room. The younger brother aimed his index finger at the dead woman and said: So this is what we’ve come to! Well if you won’t take my hand, so be it! Short, plump Lazarus, also with a grey-flecked moustache, stood and extended his brother his right hand. One after the other, his family followed his lead, first his wife, then his older son, and finally the youngest. Maximilian’s father left the mortuary chapel and walked back to the kitchen, which smelled of burnt onion and Hungarian paprika—a Szeged goulash was being prepared—and continued addressing the obituaries. Hardly half an hour had passed when, after taking the spruce twig from the foot of the coffin, lifting it forcefully over the black-stockinged feet of the deceased, and sprinkling his dead mother with holy water, Lazarus departed from the death chamber with his retinue, walked down the narrow hallway, looking neither left nor right, went without a word of greeting past the kitchen door, and sat down in the driver’s seat of his white Mercedes. Each time the children visited the property while their grandfather was still alive, Lazarus’ son, who had survived a grave accident as a child, would go straight into the barn, before even greeting his relatives, to scatter fodder with a pitchfork into a wooden box through a gap in the boards, and the horse, having drunk from the trough, would bury its head in the box before being led back to the stable. For three decades after his mother’s death, fat-lobed Lazarus did not set foot in his parents’ house nor visit his younger brother, to whom their father, after a fight with Lazarus, turned over his agricultural estate.
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 their eyes, nostrils, and bellies to protect them from the mosquitoes and horseflies, Maximilian, the bone collector, rearranges the skeletons of Willibald and Hildegard Zitterer, laying the skeleton of Hildegard over the bones of her mother, Elisabeth Kirchheimer, who, after long and painful suffering, a few days after she’d asked the thirteen-year-old Maximilian, who sat on the sunken-in, urine-scented sofa flipping through his Karl May book, whether he had heard the Tschufitl, the death-bird, cry out, died in the farmhouse under the eyes of her son and the family doctor. On the branch of some spruce tree that rose up at the forest’s edge, a screeching jaybird opened its wings and groomed its feathers with its beak.
The corpse of her husband, the farmer and patriarch Florian Kirchheimer, had lain exposed in the farmhouse six years before. The corpse of his wife Elisa, who had a Slavic maiden name, was laid out in the servant’s quarters half a decade later. The patriarch wore black leather shoes as he lay in the open coffin. The legs of his wife (also in an open coffin), who had cried out from fear of death at night for her son Oswald—the father of Maximilian, who spent the night, during her final days, in the same bedroom where she eventually perished—were only covered in black leggings—no shoes were put on her feet. At the deathbed of her husband, the farmer and horse-breeder, two doctors stood among the relatives, who had all been called to attend. At his wife’s deathbed stood only her son Oswald and the fat, white-haired family doctor. In the wife’s case, the outlay for flowers was limited as well. Maximilian’s father did not order his children to go to the garden, as they had for their grandfather, to cut gladiolas, pansies, and snapdragons, and lay them over the coffin for the deceased. Pale Maximilian, with his prescription for iron pills, knew her death-throes had ended when his father and the doctor, with tears in their eyes, took leave of one another in the hallway. Mama! It’s over! he said to his mother, who was standing at the stove, long tired from caring for the aggrieved. When Maximilian’s brother returned home at night from his locksmith’s apprenticeship, they both nodded their heads wordlessly to one another. The black-clothed pastor, painter of prayer cards and images of Hell, went weeping from the house, carrying the chrism he had used in the anointing of the deceased. Maximilian’s mother would often say she had felt deeply wounded when her mother-in-law purportedly said to her, a few years after the death of her own mother, who had lost three sons, in the full flower of their youth, in the Second World War: It’s five years now since you’re mother’s dropped off! She could have avoided the phrase dropped off, Maximilian’s mother said, there were other ways she could have put it. When Hitler invaded Austria and the jeeps passed a few meters from the farmhouse over the highway running along the forest edge through the Drava valley, Elisabeth, her future mother-in-law, ran out through the door with her hands held high, crossed the yard toward the passing motorcade and cried out zealously: Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler! Just after the wedding, when Maximilian’s mother left her parents’, the Felsbergers’, house, and moved onto the Kirchheimer estate, there wasn’t even lunch on the table. She was made to kill a chicken for the family of her in-laws. Maybe, she said later, my mother-in-law Elisabeth and her jealous daughters, Hildegard and Helene, who still lived on the farm, wanted to know if I could slaughter a chicken, in any case, they watched with curiosity while I killed the animal. All three women, my mother-in-law and her two daughters, stood around me while I bent back its neck, brought the knife close, and held the wriggling, bleeding bird over the drain while it flapped its wings. I never had the feeling of being welcome in the Kirchheimer house, Maximilian’s mother said. You will remember that Hildegard approached her husband’s coffin, laid her arthritis-wracked fingers over her husband’s cold hands, joined in prayer and woven through with a rosary, shouted Willi! Willi! disconsolately, and shook his corpse. Maximilian stood on the threshold of the mortuary chapel—the door had been taken off its hinges—when his aunt Hildegard, her face contorted from sorrow, approached her mother Elisabeth, put her arthritic hands, interlaced with a rosary, over the cold hands of her mother, likewise crooked from arthritis, cried Mama! Mama! and shook her corpse. Maximilian took a step back, afraid that the black-clad body would slip from the coffin and slump down onto the floor.
It was a warm September day when the funeral train moved through the town, accompanying Elisabeth Kirchheimer, in her eighty-sixth year, on her final journey to the cemetery. Maximilian, who was not allowed to serve as acolyte that day and instead formed part of the funeral train—two others wore the acolytes’ black uniform—, carried a funeral wreath with his brothers, with a wide black ribbon bearing the words, in gold letters, From Your Grandchildren. Topping the hill of the calvary—a few days before, the pastor, Balthasar Kranabeter, had stood on a stool with a paintbrush and paint bucket, retouching the flames of Hell—the sacristan, Gottfried Steinhart, carrying a cross, brought the procession to a stop. Behind the crooked purple lupines, more than a meter high, that stood in a glass vase below the floor of Hell, there was a swastika painted in pig’s blood on the wall of the calvary. Take this corpse from the trunk, and pull him to thy breast. Say these are the wounds I caused to him who man has blessed. Wail in sorrow for thy sins, and penitence profess. Say that thou hast crucified him, and beg now to confess.
In the clay vessel in which the putrid-smelling bone stock was rendered, from the bones of slaughtered animals, to be painted on the cart horses around the eyes, nostrils, and belly to ward off the mosquitoes and horseflies, the bone collector leaves, before it rots to nothing in the cemetery soil, the skeleton of a child killed in a tractor accident over the skeleton of Hildegard Zitterer, who died in the hospital in Villach. Did they—as is customary in the hospital—lay a stillborn infant in the coffin of Hildegard, who remained childless throughout her life, did they bury it with her, and were there two corpses in the coffin that was already sealed shut at the hospital, two in the room where her husband Willibald had previously lain exposed, an old woman and a dead infant? Not far from the overturned tractor that had crushed the child, driven by his ten-year-old brother, a horse, its iron bit covered in green saliva, shook its head, its nostrils twitching, to fend off the horseflies and mosquitoes that sucked at its oozing eyelids and damp nostrils. For a moment, the insects fled, but soon they returned to its eye sockets and nestled in its ears. Foamy green saliva dripped from the iron bit and from the horse’s chin onto the grass below. The boy’s corpse was carried up the steep hill to his father’s farmhouse by his mother, a walking pietà, weeping and shouting her plaints into the cloudless sky. Maximilian’s maternal grandfather, Matthias Felsberger, whose wife Leopoldine had already died some years before of a broken heart, because her children, aged 18, 20, and 22 fell in the war, walked back and forth for more than an hour down the village street with his bamboo cane when he heard of the news of the child killed by the tractor, trailed by the two peacocks, unapproachably lost in thought, not even once glancing over at the freshly picked snowdrops left in a mason jar at the entranceway to Hell. Maximilian walked a while at his side, tried to ask him a question—Grandpa! Grandpa!—but his grandfather would look neither left nor right and gave no answer, he just kept walking back and forth down the village street, passing by the devil with his glowing horns who bent over the sinner, relishing in his suffering, amid the crackling flames of Hell. Maximilian stayed standing beneath the red flames that shot up from Hell, smelling the freshly picked snowdrops with their scent of swamp water and molten snow. Matthias Felsberger, the agronomist, had received the two peacocks, as well as a television, in recognition of his years of service in the directorship of the Upper Carinthian dairy—it was the second television in the village, and his relatives would crowd around it once a week. This was around the time when Cassius Clay knocked out Sonny Liston. The Americans shot their rocket into space. In Dallas, John F. Kennedy’s torso fell back, then slumped forward in a convertible. Before the National Socialists took over, Matthias Felsberger had been mayor of the municipality of Kindelbrücken. He had already handed in his notice when the men in brown shirts stood at the door to inform him of his dismissal. I beat you to it, I’ve already resigned, he said to the Nazis.
The first television in the village was bought by the poorest family with the most children. Even the estate owners used to knock at their door at night, after working in the stables, to ask the fat Anita Felfernig, who would show up at the threshold, if they could watch Löwinger-Bühne or Aktenzeichen XY. Anita Felfernig was the sister-in-law of the suicide Ludmilla, who smeared her menstrual blood on the painting of Hell before hurling herself into the rapids of the Drava. In the tiny kitchen, which reeked of polenta and burnt potatoes, the television was overlaid with a brown cloth. Surrounded by six or seven pale children with deep circles under the eyes, who rarely left their house and were not allowed off the property without their parents—when they came home from working in the fields, they all sat one beside the other, as if sewn together, on the rackety hay cart—Maximilian first saw the puppet plays from Vienna’s Urania theater, the stories of Kaspar and the Crocodile. Children! Caspar called, Are you there? But the children of the fat Anita, who later would die from breast cancer, said not a word throughout the night; they sat at the table gawking at the visitors and staring at the flickering blue-and-white box. When the two eldest, a boy and a girl, started primary school, and their mother took them to the schoolhouse across from the calvary with its painting of Hell, they screamed in the hallway, stomped their feet on the black wood floor, redolent of oil, tried to run out the back door, and cried so loud they could be heard from afar. Their mother and the teacher had to drag them into the classroom by force. The sons of Anita and her husband, a factory hand—he had met his wife through a classified ad in the Carinthian Farm Journal—turned out, with the exception of the oldest, to be smokers and drunks, and their daughters married smokers and drunks. Their oldest son, who shunned alcohol and nicotine, built a machine that would project a stamp-sized image onto the wall as big as a door. From time to time, he would bring his magic box to Maximilian’s parents’ and project pictures from Karl May stories onto the wall next to the pendulum clock, in the empty Biedermeyer bedroom where Maximilian’s grandparents had died—the children took the pictures, along with a piece of colored chewing gum, from a little bag they had bought at the bakery in Großbotenfeld. In the darkness of the grandparents’ room, they stared at Winnetou with his silver rifle, Old Shatterhand with the bear-hunter, N-tscho-tschi, Intschu-tschuna, Kleki- Petra, and the rest of the Indians, at Sander and Rollins, the good guys and the bad.
The dead child’s brothers carried heavy funeral wreaths on their shoulders with white paper ribbons bearing the gold inscription: A Last Goodbye! Your Brothers and Sisters. Thou cryest, O Jesus! Be greeted, noble tears. O drops from the sea, with kisses I revere! For mine and for my neighbors’ sins, they flood, my savior’s tears and sacred blood. It warms the Christian’s heart to see his redeemer feels no pain. The grandmother of the unfortunate, who lived to nearly a hundred, gathered together the scattered flowers in the mortuary chapel at the foot of the sealed wooden coffin, small and white, its four corners decorated with lacquered gold angels’ wings, and used them as bookmarks in her prayer book, which was held together by a thick red rubber ring like the gaskets in the lids of canning jars, so the forget-me-nots and snapdragons and prayer cards and penitence cards collected over the course of a century wouldn’t slip out from the grimy, musty devotional. This devotional was placed, along with decades’ worth of four-leaf clovers, pressed flat, desiccated, and browned from time, yellowed prayer cards, and penitence cards, in the hundred-year-old woman’s coffin, and buried a few meters from her grandchild, who was killed in an accident, in the Catholic cemetery in Traigal, with the better part of the population in attendance.