The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

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MAY 2013 Issue

When the Time Comes


Hafner’s nephew, the sixteen-year-old Roman, whose bones lie below the skeleton of his rachitic uncle in the clay vessel in which the pandapigl was rendered, from the bones of slaughtered animals, to be brushed on the horses around the eyes, nostrils, and belly to protect them from mosquitoes and horseflies, began the cycle of suicides in the village of Maximilian’s birth. In front of the barn, standing near the head of the horse harnessed to the hay cart, Roman would grab hold of the reins. Foamy green spit mixed with fresh-chewed grass dripped from the grooved iron bit and onto the back of the boy’s hand. With a hazel switch in his other hand, he would flog the horse’s shimmering black legs, where horseflies had landed and were feeding. The horse would draw back its bulging, blue-black upper lip, showing its long yellow teeth, and, with its eyes bulging out, ringed with the black bone stock, its ears stiff and pointed, the veins in its legs swelling with the effort, it would pull the hay cart up the creaking gangway and into the dark barn smelling of freshly reaped hay, while the young man ran at its side gripping the reins. The sixteen-year-old Roman, who would one day have taken charge of his uncle’s small holdings, used to go down the village street to his uncle’s farm after work; he’d get out of his boss’s company car where the two beams of the cross-shaped town met. He never said a timid prayer in front of the Calvary, nor would he leave forget-me-nots or catkins before the sea of flames, nor did he go to the pastor’s religion classes; he was a Protestant, a Lutheran, according to the townspeople. They ought to turn Hell upside down, he used to say, particularly when people would ask him why they never saw him in the Catholic church, among the images of saints who roasted men’s souls in Hell. He didn’t go to the Catholic festivals either, he met other children and teenagers only when they kicked a soccer ball around among the cows that grazed on his uncle’s land. At fourteen, he could already be found out at the bars, sitting with a Villach beer and smoking a cigarette. His father and his older brother also drank and smoked. After clearing the manure from the stables, watering the cows and calves, and giving the cat a little milk—scraps of straw bobbed in the cat’s dung-splattered bowl—he used to go, when he wasn’t sleeping at his uncle’s, to his parents’ house on the edge of the village, a good kilometer away, carrying in his leather satchel the balled-up paper full of bread crumbs that had held his lunch as well as a jug of fresh milk, still warm from the cow. Roman’s nephew said that once, after he was done with work and had dropped off the fresh milk, he asked his sister-in-law, who also lived at his parents’, to make him a ham and cheese sandwich; but there was no bread left in the house, and she couldn’t make him anything to eat. That night, Roman left his parents’ house forever. When he’d been gone for two days, and his brothers and parents had sought him out in vain, his dwarfish and rachitic uncle Otmar opened the barn door, saw the boy dangling from a rope tied to a beam, and cried: There he hangs!

Over the skeleton of the rachitic farmer Hafner and the skeleton of his nephew Roman lie the bones of Roman’s father, Klaus Hafner, in the clay vessel in which the pandapigl was rendered from the bones of slaughtered animals, to be brushed on the horses around the eyes, nostrils, and belly to protect them from the mosquitoes and horseflies. A few years after the young man’s suicide, his father also took his own life. In the weeks before his corpse was discovered in the backseat of a Volkswagen parked along the banks of the Drava, full of exhaust fumes that had been piped into the car with a garden hose, a passerby, thinking it strange that a parked car was running, had saved his life. The car was locked and fogged over inside. The passerby broke out the window and the acrid exhaust fumes streamed out. He opened the door, grabbed the arm of the man, who was strapped in unconscious behind the steering wheel, and tried to pull him out. Then he ran around the car, flung open the other door, and unfastened the seatbelt.

The second suicide attempt succeeded along the desolate shores of the Drava. For years afterward, the interior of the Volkswagen smelled of the deadly exhaust fumes. It was always a torment for me, having to get into that car as a child, Roman’s nephew said, I would think over and over of my grandfather’s killing himself on the shores of the Drava and of my uncle, hanging dead from a rafter. My grandmother and my parents almost never talked about it. Anyone who brought it up they called a downer. Though the father and son were both buried in the mountains, in the Protestant cemetery rather than in the Catholic one in Pulsnitz, the black Mercedes still drove by the calvary with the corpses, up the village street to the morgue in Großbotenfeld. On the left and right of the hood of the black Mercedes were two flags bearing images of Hell. The red flames fluttered in the draft. The accursed devil dumped out his gall, but as the car drove by, the contents of the cup could not reach the mouth of the afflicted, who lay on the floor of Hell, calling out to Father Abraham. The serpent’s tongue, hissing and sputtering, was coated with soot from the restless flames fed by the draft. Toi dont la large main cache les precipices / Au somnambule errant au bord des édifices, / O Satan, prends pitié de ma longue misère! The mother of the one suicide and wife of the other, a prematurely old and wrinkled woman, had—like Maximilian’s mother—lost three of her brothers in the full flower of youth, on the battlefields of the Second World War.

It was in the Hafners’ shack that Maximilian, then five or six, first saw a mortuary chapel, with black cloths and electric candles, after the death of the rachitic farmer’s grandmother, who was also buried in the Protestant cemetery in the mountains in Blitzbergen. Maximilian, in worn-out leather short pants, his knees crusted in blood, sat on a fence under the branches of the plum tree and bit into the pulp of a blue plum while the casket and the wreaths were packed into a cattle trailer. The mourners and family members crouched around the casket among the wreaths. With a rumble, the cattle trailer set to motion, the coffin slid a half-meter and the people seated around it grabbed onto each other’s shirt sleeves.

Recently, the mother of Roman, the boy who brought his life to an end in the barn of his rachitic uncle with a harness of the kind used to drag calves into the world, sat on the bus beside a neighbor who used to go daily to the graveside of her grandson, killed in an accident at five years of age. The two women leaned their heads together, their faces deeply furrowed, when they saw Maximilian take his seat behind them. Maximilian was not even ten when he had run into a schoolmate in a shop who told him, unsettled, that a boy had been squashed in the neighboring village of Römerhof. Maximilian ran through the street, passing by the power station, descended the hill, and saw a group of people gathered in a field beside the shoulder of the road. The five-year-old child on the shoulder of the road had slipped from the grasp of his grandmother—the same one who would sit in front of Maximilian on the bus decades later—and been struck by an oncoming car and was thrown through the air in a high arc, over the frightened, screaming woman’s head, into the clover field where he lay with a broken neck. Helpless and heaving, the doctor knelt before the body, took the boy’s pulse and confirmed he was no longer breathing, closed his brown doctor’s bag, and laid packing paper over the boy’s blood-smeared head. Over and over he took the boy’s pulse and dropped his hand despondently in the grass. The horrified grandmother, in a severe state of shock, stared at the little bare feet that poked out from the packing paper and pressed a wrinkled kerchief with shivering hands against her trembling lower jaw. A helper, surrounded by onlookers, wrapped the boy’s lifeless body in the brown paper and took the corpse to his parents’ house, fewer than a hundred steps from the scene of the accident. The torn nylon suspenders of the dead child danced in rhythm to the footsteps, grazing the grass and gravel along the way. His shoes lay somewhere out in the field.

For three days the child lay in his parents’ house, surrounded by spring flowers, narcissus, tulips, and Christmas roses, in a sealed coffin, small and white. Maximilian’s mother had packed a wicker basket with Linde coffee, Melanda coffee, and a kilogram of sugar cubes, and had gone to the viewing the following night, after working in the stable and feeding the pigs. Pale, with blue lips and her eyes glazed over, eyelids swollen and red, she came back two hours later and tapped on the kitchen window. Maximilian closed his Karl May book and opened the front door. She didn’t speak a word, she made dinner for her children, milk-coffee and polenta, washed the dishes and went to her room, where a newborn was breathing in an oval-shaped wicker basket in front of a ceramic stove beside her bed.

The burial took place three days after the accident. The white coffin with its four white angel wings of braided wire, moving in rhythm with the footsteps, was carried by four teenagers, white-clothed and freshly shaven, through the village street, passing by the schoolhouse and the calvary in the direction of the church. Under the vibrant red flames leaping up from Hell, a yellow beeswax candle burned, giving off a great quantity of soot. Beside it lay the wrapper from a book of matches from the Sirius match factory in Klagenfurt and a prayer card with red and yellow flames. On the right biceps of the crucified, whom Steinhart, the sacristan, at the head of the procession, carried on a long staff, a white flag was tied and fluttered fretfully. A group of children with lit candles whispering continuously to one another picked the hot candle wax off their fingers and followed the pastor Balthasar Kranabeter, dressed in black and praying aloud, flanked by two acolytes in black and white who carried the censer and the hammered copper aspersorium. The wind pressed the black mourning veil against the face of the child’s grandmother. Many of the candles were blown out, and the parish cook relit them with Sirius matches. The peacocks were not to be seen. Partridges and pheasants ran through the fields behind the orchards, took flight, and lighted elsewhere. The hunchback servant Oswin, toothless and gasping, pulled the bell rope in the sacristy when the funeral procession neared the open cemetery gate. The next day, after the matins, Balthasar Kranabeter sat on a stool, meticulously wiping the soot from the beeswax candle off of the red flames leaping up from the floor of Hell, with a cloth that he dipped in a chemical solution. Not Isaac, but the son of God, perished for our good! Mercifully he looked on as they nailed him to the wood. And we sinners complain when our way comes a mote of earthly strife? The crosses we bear lead us to despair, we know not that they promise eternal life.

By the cross she stands, tears on her cheeks, desperate and alone, her heart pierced through by the dying cries of her only begotten son. After Jonathan, wearing only his pyjamas, jumped out his bedroom window in the middle of the night and met with Leopold, who awaited him in the garden, the two went to the stable and put a three-meter-long hemp rope in a bricklayer’s bag splattered with quicklime. On a September night, under the light of the moon, they walked with the rope up the village street, passing the calvary, not noticing the devil’s red wings, which were stretched to the point of tearing—Lucifer was sweating blood—and then up the hill of the parish house into the barn. In the empty barn full of dusty cobwebs—the parish house was unoccupied at the time—they climbed a wooden ladder to the crossbeam. The two boys tied the two ends of rope behind their ears and jumped into the emptiness, weeping and embracing, a few meters from the armless Christ who had once been rescued from a stream bed by the priest and painter of prayer cards and who now stood in the entranceway of the parish house, gasping and smelling the blood sweated out by the devil in the calvary. With their tongues out, their sexes stiff, their semen-flecked pants dripping urine, Jonathan in pyjamas and Leopold in his quicklime-splattered bricklayer’s clothes, they hung in the barn of the parish house until they were found by Jonathan’s sixteen-year-old cousin, who shined the beam of his flashlight across their four dangling legs twenty-four hours later, and were cut down with a butcher’s knife by Adam the Third.

The two boys’ lifeless bodies dropped to the floor of the parish barn and slumped together. Adam the Third laid the bodies in the hay, pressed their hands together, pushed their tongues back into their mouths—Leopold’s was bitten off, and no one, not even the police, ever found that scrap of tongue in the barn—closed their eyelids and, with a pounding heart and trembling hands, prayed for the intercession of the saints before leaving, his butcher knife still in hand, to call the police; finally, taking the crossroads from his house to Jonathan’s parents’, he knocked at the kitchen door and stood horrified at the threshold, his arms outstretched, his eyes wide open, and his mouth agape. No words were necessary, the disaster was written on his face. Jonathan’s mother Katherine’s eyes fogged over. She knew what to do to be close to her son, to feel his presence. She turned in a circle, elegantly, at first, with her hands extended, before taking leave of her senses and falling with a bang, like a marionette with its cords cut, to the wooden floor. The afflicted was laid on the sofa, her knees bent, by Adam the Third and her husband, who sobbed loudly. The straitened mother of Jesus, who does not feel her plight? Who can fail to fall before her, wailing and contrite? 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 around the eyes, nostrils, and belly to ward off the mosquitoes and blackflies, the skeletons of the two suicides lie over that of a five-year-old child who, holding a bouquet of mayflowers, pulled away from his grandmother’s hand on the side of the road. Maximilian, just after learning of the double suicide—the local press dedicated countless pages to that tragedy of youth, and on the radio one often heard the creaking of hemp rope, recondite explanations of knots by experts, and every hour, the cordier from the neighboring village repeating his slogan—went from Klagenfurt to Pulsnitz to the parish barn, and found a piece of rope still there. He keeps the instrument of suicide even today, and from time to time he picks up the hemp rope and examines the depression where it once held more than one hundred fifty kilograms off the floor. The two halves of the rope that were tied around the boys’ necks were confiscated by the police, preserved in formalin, and sent to the Vienna Crime Museum. It was horrible! said Anita Felfernig—the village’s television owner and mother of seven hungry children, who would die of breast cancer a few years after the double suicide—to Maximilian, when she saw him come over the hill to the parish house and approach the scene of the disaster. Jonathan’s parents only sent the blue-trimmed death notices to their closest relatives, because the townspeople were feuding, and after the deaths of Balthasar Kranabeter, the pastor and painter of prayer cards, and of Matthias Felsberger, Maximilian’s dumbstruck grandfather, who had lost three sons in the full flower of youth in the Second World War, they were engulfed for years by spite, slander, and litigation.

At a meeting of neighbors in the village inn, where the landowners gathered once or twice a year to talk about the use of the shared combine and the common floodplains, the farmer Philippitsch—Adam the Third—who had taken pity on the two boys’ lifeless bodies and cut them down from the heights, sprang up from his chair—a beer bottle overturned and a coaster rolled across the floor—and defamed Maximilian’s father: If I listed every one of your outrages, you’d have to hide under the table in shame. In court, Adam the Third was unable to attest to any such outrages. I’ll hunt you down whichever way I can! threatened Adam, who was strong as a bear, after the trial had ended, pointing with his index finger. Adam’s brother-in-law, whom Maximilian’s father also hauled before the court, was likewise incapable of proving that the latter had stolen sacks of grain from the Philippitsch farm. Adam the Third’s brother-in-law, a locksmith and a drunk—his son is a locksmith and a drunk as well—let fly on one of his benders that he had not only caught Maximilian’s father red-handed stealing grain, but that he had punished the thief for this outrage, in the dusty, cobweb-cluttered mill, laying him across his knee like a rascal. I lit him up good! he boasted to the amusement of his drinking companions at the bar of the inn, lifting up—Cheers!—one glass after another of the yellow, foamy liquid, produced in Villach-on-the-Drava. After so much slander and so many trials, the farmers avoided each other whenever possible, and years passed without their exchanging a word. But if their paths crossed by chance, unexpectedly, at a funeral or on Corpus Christi, or at some church function during Holy week— eventually they had to get in line with the villagers on Good Friday to kiss the feet of the Crucified—they stuck their heads in the sand without a word or greeting. Maximilian and his cousin held the tall cross against the closed altar rails and watched the mouths of the believers as they bent over to plant one on the nailed-together feet of Christ. They took note of who merely mimed a kiss and who actually pressed their lips against a toenail or one of the spikes in Christ’s feet, as well as of those who remained shut-eyed, their heads piously bowed, several seconds before the Crucified, before standing and filing out through the black rows of pews. Maximilian’s father exchanged his final words with the drunken locksmith before the court. It was not his way to say: He is nothing to me, or he is dead to me; he hardly mentioned his accuser, or perhaps never again, for him the drunk, who is now on the mend—Cheers!—was already dead and rotting even before he had suffered his first heart attack.

The ninety-year-old man with the grey-flecked moustache and the trimmed eyebrows was in the meantime informed by Hannes Walluschnig, who has since met his end as well, from cancer, that Jonathan had had to turn over a part of his earnings to his parents when he began his mechanic’s apprenticeship. Whether his parents placed this money in a savings account or used it for their own purposes was not discussed. A vicious rumor also spread through the village that, as an acolyte, Jonathan had stolen money from the collection bag, and everyone asked himself whether the thief had stolen his or someone else’s ten-schilling piece. During mass, after the transubstantiation, when the pastor Balthasar Kranabeter would convert a half-chalice of Samos wine into the highly concentrated blood of Christ, quench his thirst therewith and ingest the Most High, before administering the host to the faithful, impressed with an image of Hell, and thereby either calming or further distressing their souls, Jonathan would pass among the rows of benches with the collection bag, giving thanks to whatever parishioner cast his alms in the red cloth bag with the golden cord and nodding his head with the phrase: May God repay you! A long pole was used to reach those of the faithful who seated themselves in the back corners, to pass the bag under their noses and to stroke the stubbly chin of the spendthrift farmer Philippitsch with its gold-fringed hem. As children, the three daughters of Adam the Third used to stroke his black stubble with their small, tender hands before the barber laid his razor on his temples to shave it off. You should not say Thank you, you should say May God repay you! It is God who shall repay you! the pastor Balthasar Kranabeter clarified to the acolytes in the sacristy, while Maximilian and the other underlings thanked him for the five schillings he pressed into their hands in reward for their services. The acolytes knelt before the priest, the five-schilling coins in their fists, saying Praise Jesus, and exited the sacristy, after the pastor had answered their thanks with the phrase, For ever and ever, Amen! Jonathan had also complained, Hannes Walluschnig claimed, that his landowning parents found the company of his friend Leopold unbecoming, because the latter, a bricklayer’s apprentice, who had to earn his room and board in a farmhouse in the village like a peasant, was the mere son of a servant couple, a farmhand and a maid, who raised their twelve children in the outbuilding of a farmhouse that had served as lodgings for German children on vacation before Leopold and his siblings were born. Maximilian remembers that the drunken Leopold had once hugged Jonathan at the village fair, and had cried out, loud and desperate among the din of the dancers and the noise of the brass band, You’re my boyfriend! Jealous and red-faced, Maximilian left the hot, moist church tent, which smelled of cheap aftershave, bad wine, the sweat of dancers, and lukewarm Villach beer. Parish feast! you had better say, I never want to hear the word fair again, God’s servant Balthasar Kranabeter said to his acolytes, it is a festival in honor of the Lord and his house. The house of God shall not be turned into a fairground! Not over my dead body!

Neither did Maximilian’s aunt Silvia nor her husband Kajetan receive the blue-trimmed death notices—they had feuded with Jonathan’s parents, and didn’t say a word to them for years, after Jonathan’s grandfather, the sacristan, had cursed his son-in-law Kajetan: I hope you drop off like the Kohlweiß innkeeper!—but this did not keep her from flaunting her misery, she went off unbidden to Jonathan’s funeral. After all, she was the suicide’s aunt, his father’s sister. In front of the pit where Jonathan’s blue casket lay covered over with flowers, mostly with pink roses and pink carnations—beside the mound of shoveled earth, next to the hemp ropes with which the coffin had been lowered into the earth, recalling, no doubt, for all the attendees the instrument of the boy’s suicide—Jonathan’s mother walked over to her sister-in-law and held her by her son’s open grave, in a manner of reconciliation. They began speaking to one another again after the interment. At first it was hesitant, but soon they were meeting every Sunday evening for a cup of decaffeinated coffee or rosehip or peppermint tea. No black tea, please, none of that Russian stuff! And not too much schnapps, that’s good enough right there! Sometimes one of them, sometimes the other, would bake a Sachertorte, a Malakoff Torte, a Gitterkuchen or a Reinling with the dry red raisins that were beginning to ripen on the grapevines clinging to the outer walls of their houses as the two boys dangled from the rope; and eventually they exchanged Christmas cakes on Christmas day and toasted each other with hot mugs of mulled wine. As Jonathan’s parents’ house was located at the foot of the town built in the form of a cross, the funeral train, with its many wreaths, their white ribbons inscribed with gold—A Last Goodbye / Love, Your Parents—did not pass by the painting of Hell. No one knew who had covered the roof of the calvary with purple, redolent summer lilac on the day of the funeral. Butterflies fluttered around the purple summer lilac of the calvary, reflected in the windows of the schoolhouse. The vain devil raised his head and stared deep into his own rufescent eyes. Who, in bitter pain, can bear to restrain his moans, seeing the mother’s grief as she holds her only departed son?

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


Josef Winkler

JOSEF WINKLER (b. 1953, Austria) is the author of more than a dozen books, among them When the Time Comes and Natura Morta. His major themes are suicide, homosexuality, and the corrosive influence of Catholicism and Nazism in Austrian country life. Winner of the 2008 Buchner prize and current president of the Austrian Art Senate, he lives in Klagenfurt with his wife and two children.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

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