f i c t i o n

i l s e  m o l z a h n  

The progress of the novel:

At the turn of the 20th century, in Olanowo, a drought-stricken estate in Posmania (now a region of Poland), six-year-old Katharina, or “Cat,” spends the most unforgettable year of her childhood. In this struggling, isolated community, she witnesses things which she does not understand, and which no one is willing to explain to her. The adults whose passions, hopes and intrigues wreak such havoc live in a state of repression and denial, concerned only with covering up their feelings and the consequences of their actions.

It is the child who refuses to ignore or forget – yet, bitter irony, it is her own innocent, desperate insistence on the truth which makes the story take its tragic turn.

Cat’s father, a former army officer, bought the estate in an effort to improve his social position. The money comes from Cat’s mother’s family. Now overconfident, now full of rage and despair at the thought of financial ruin, he is determined to make a go of it. Cat idolizes and fears him. Her mother has retreated into icy self-discipline and piety – and expectation. A “little brother” is on his way. Cat is thrilled at the idea – she will finally have a playmate. Her only real companions are the Polish servants, especially the proud, beautiful maid Helene, who gives her the affection her mother withholds.

One day in early spring, the day of another bitter financial argument between Cat’s parents, a strange bird appears, a black stork. For Helene it is a terrible omen: the bird of death. But for Cat he is a symbol of freedom, of the unknown. That night, during a storm, Cat hears someone sneak outside. In the servants’ quarters, Helene’s lamp is burning. Hovering between dream and waking, Cat recalls the strange events of Christmas Eve: late at night, she had gone outside and followed two sets of footprints, seeing visions of stars and white-robed angels which turned out to be her two favorite pines. And beneath the pines she had heard two voices, whispering, panting, making inexplicable noises. Terrified, she had run back to the house, where Helene, in a torn dress, appeared a few minutes later to take her to bed.

The morning after this dream/memory, Helene is busy cleaning the house; Mother is writing to her parents to ask for money. Hungry for attention, Cat asks Helene why her light was on last night – was she “reading novels” again? And didn’t Father go down to see whose light was burning? Now Cat has Mother’s attention as well. She orders Cat to tell everything she saw. Frightened, Cat tells everything – including the “dream.” Helene faints, Mother sends Cat outside in a cold fury. There she sees a sight which brings the whole estate to a standstill: the white storks, the “luck-bringers,” are returning. But in their nest is the black stork. Cat, afraid for him, tries to frighten him off. After all, Father, who loves rare things, is also planning to “bag” him. The “battle of the storks” begins. The laborers gather to watch the spectacle, and attempt to break up the battling birds. Then Father neatly picks off the black stork with his rifle. For one brief moment Cat strokes the feathers of the beautiful corpse.

Helene is dismissed from the household and returns to her father, the overseer: a bully who takes his whip to bed with him. He announces proudly that he has given Helene, the “slut,” a proper beating. That evening Mother is “sick,” and Father rides off with Maryam, the coachman, to fetch the doctor from Marowin. Cat eats supper in the kitchen with the servants, who can talk of nothing but Helene. Only Tetzlaff defends her. The women recall her torn dress on Christmas Eve, and how Kascha, the cook, told her: “If your mother knew about that, she’d hang herself from the transom all over again.”

The next day Mother is up again; in the evening Maryan and Father return without the doctor. In the kitchen, Cat hears Maryan tell the story of their night journey: Father, ecstatic at the thought of a son, an heir, whips on the horses. They find the doctor drunk; he had spent three days at the bedside of a woman in labor, and in the end the child was stillborn. He has lost all faith in himself. Finally they ride off, but the doctor insists at stopping at a friend’s estate in Smardse. He declares himself unable to handle another birth today. Father gives in; at Smardse there is drinking, dancing. Father broods about Helene. He had taken her in out of pity after her mother’s suicide, knowing that she refused to go back to her father’s house. She began to attract him, flirt with him – yet, he insists, he never touched her. And that recent stormy night he had gone out with the full intent to take advantage of her “offer” but, looking back at the house, saw Cat at the window, like his “conscience incarnate,” and he “renounced the girl.” (This proves, says Maryan, that Helene is innocent. But Kascha insists that the girl is pregnant.) A stern, one-armed servant-woman appears to put an end to the increasingly dissolute festivities. She is known as “the Stag.” Her master, Kitzing, shot her in the arm by accident; when blood poisoning set in, it was amputated. By this point the doctor is too far gone to be of any use; it is morning, and Father and Maryan return to Olanowo without him. It was a false alarm, anyway; the child has not yet arrived.

Father stuffs the black stork and hangs him from the ceiling in the dining room. A mysterious old man comes to examine the estate and talk with Father. One night Cat is woken by cries and sees the doctor arriving. Cat dreams of Helene, of the black stork; when she wakes up, a nurse tells her that she has a little sister. The laborers Pawelik and Pawelitzka had also had a child that night. Cat is delighted by both babies. Maryan lets her ride in the carriage, she picks flowers, dawdles, realizes she is late and is afraid to go home. Instead, she goes to Pawelitzka. The house is empty; the baby is laid out in a coffin. Cat runs home in terror. Furious, her father beats her; the nurse intervenes. Kascha comforts her, informs her indifferently that Pawelik’s child died of convulsions – “but they’ll have another one all right!”

Cat’s maternal grandparents and Aunt Ella arrive for an extended visit. They are shocked (Aunt Ella is amused) to discover what a tomboy Cat has become. They have never approved of Cat’s father, who is from a peasant family; he in turn sees himself as rescuing the family from feebleness and degeneracy. Aunt Ella is flighty, eccentric, with an often cruel sense of humor – but her parents admire her as “artistic.”

Later that spring Cat encounters Helene again at last – on her way to the smith to have an inside lock made for her bedroom door. At night an “animal” comes into Helene’s room and slinks around her bed. It is clear (though not to Cat) that this “animal” is Helene’s father. In two weeks Helene will leave to work for Baron Kellenrab, Cat’s Uncle Mak. Cat’s father has arranged it for her. That evening a violent thunderstorm strikes. A few minutes of hail destroy the crops. Cat’s father confesses that he is no longer insured; he had no money to pay the premium.

One day the adults begin to gossip about Helene again. Something has happened, Cat realizes. She goes in search of her. In the garden she finds a rusty pair of scissors which her mother had accused Helene of stealing. So, finding Helene in the barn, apparently ill, Cat gives her the scissors. Terrified by Helene’s strange groans, she runs away again. At lunch a servant bursts into the dining room: Helene is bleeding to death! Cat is hustled off to her room. Soon, though, the whole family sets out for a Midsummer’s Day picnic in the woods. From the carriage, Cat sees Helene being taken to the hospital. In an awkward mood, the family arrives at the appointed picnic spot. Cat finds herself surrounded by strange children and elegant adults. Gossip about Helene circulates. Aunt Ella flirts excessively. Kitzing arrives; the party grows wilder. Cat feels ill-at-ease, remembering Maryan’s tale. The Midsummer’s Eve bonfires are lit. A strange man seizes Cat; he makes her leap over the bonfire with him, and she is not afraid. It is Uncle Mak. Later that night he gives her a ring, promises to visit.

Cat suddenly begins to outgrow her clothes. And she is in love. When she is big, she thinks, she will marry Uncle Mak. A postcard arrives for Cat – from “Helene.” Cat, overjoyed, can’t understand why the adults are so appalled. After all, Helene is in the hospital, getting better. That afternoon a gendarme arrives, takes notes; Cat’s father will have to testify in court. Cat is mystified; when pressed, her mother finally tells her the truth: Helene is dead.

Several days later Cat learns further details from a conversation between Kascha and Maryam. The village priest refuses to give Helene a Christian burial; Helene’s devastated father must go from door to door seeking volunteers, Maryan and Tetzlaff among them, to bury Helene in an out-of-the-way corner of the graveyard. The gendarme wants to know who fathered Helene’s child, and whether it was really dead at birth, as Helene insisted. She was found in the barn with the dead child, half dead herself from loss of blood. The scissors with which Helene cut the umbilical cord were rusty; that was what Helene died of: “the filth got into her blood.” Hearing this, Cat faints.

Cat begins to hear the “death-watch” ticking in the house. She feels weak and sick; she is growing too fast, the adults say, becoming anemic. She is taken to the doctor, who pronounces her healthy. He takes her to the graveyard to look for Helene’s grave. Cat tells him about the scissors; he assures her that Helene’s death is not her fault. Helene often spoke of Cat and wrote her a postcard from the hospital. He admired Helene, encouraged her; she seemed to be recovering, and suddenly she was dead. She simply had no will to live. Here in the graveyard the doctor is surrounded by the people whose deaths he could not prevent. With Cat he wanders among the graves, but is unable to find Helene’s. It doesn’t matter, he tells Cat. Helene is no longer there; she has flown away. And Cat feels comforted for the first time.

The overseer is a ghost of his former self, no longer feared or respected. The estate is in rapid decline, infested by a plague of mice. Cat’s father is often “sick” – suffering from depressions which turn him into a “stranger.” The mysterious old man appears again to look over the estate. A cat is found strangled in front of the overseer’s house. At last Uncle Mak makes his long-awaited visit; some gaiety returns to the house. But he, too, seems haunted.

The weather grows cold, and Cat’s winter coat no longer fits her. She recalls the beginning of spring, the black stork. “Since he fell from the sky into our dust,” she realizes, “nothing has gone well for us anymore.” A strange voice comes from Aunt Ella’s lips, telling the tale of the black stork, the Battle of the Storks, as a timeless legend. The black stork is a proud, free being, hated and condemned to death as a symbol of otherness and change.

The overseer gives his notice. Cat’s relatives depart. Her father, too, goes “on a trip.” Cat’s mother takes charge of Olanowo, does her best to maintain her composure, pooh-poohs the stories of ghosts, apparitions. The overseer’s corpse is found in the carp pond.

A governess arrives for Cat, Fräulein Elze, a young woman who writes love letters at night. Cat chafes under the new discipline, and is unable to “become friends” with the lonely Elze. Again and again Cat hears Helene’s voice: “Don’t tell, Cat.” News comes that Uncle Mak is about to get married to a duchess. Cat is devastated – and so is Elze. She gives notice. Father is also displeased. Mak, it seems, had been having an affair with his housekeeper, an admirable woman who was the life and soul of the whole estate, and now he has thrown her over for a duchess. Without her, he is sure to come to ruin.

Father is forced to sell Olanowo – to a Commission which will tear it down to build a railway and a road for “the automobile, which has a future.” The day of departure comes. The family has little to take with it; the furniture has been sold with the house. But the black stork is gone. Cat searches all over for it. Looking out the window, she sees the stork flying away, dwindling to a black fleck in the sky. The black stork has flown away. After an exhausting journey by carriage and railway, Cat and her parents arrive in the city:

It is already dark when we arrive in the city. Without a hat I stand among the many people, without a hat I stand in the glittering city. A thousand lights blind me. White moons hang between high, dark houses. I look for a piece of sky and cannot find it. The noise makes me fearful and small.

All the people wear hats on their heads. All the children walk solemnly in hats. Only I stand there with my uncovered hair. The air tugs at it, tears it this way and that. I do not know which way to look. And I am ashamed, so ashamed!!...

My mother is gone. The stairs which groaned under her weary steps are quiet. Now I hear the wind in the dormers. It tugs at the sacks of dried herbs which Kascha gathers and uses to cure all illnesses. They dance around the uprights, pattering and rustling. Or is it mice nibbling at the sunflower seeds?

My room smells like Mother. There is a hollow in the covers where her belly rested. A mountain bears down on me, and I can’t sleep. I try to think about this and that, but I get mixed up. And then the storm comes bellowing like a blindfolded bull.

His hooves paw our shingles, his breath spits around the gables, he butts the firs with his horns until they yammer and moan.

Now he tears snorting across the yard. Thunders against the stable doors, runs into the wooden carts, truly blind.

The cowshed is astir. Chains tauten and rattle as if at the snapping point.

And now he pounces on our house again. The floorboards quiver, bending to footsteps and springing back. Someone is sneaking across the attic.

I sit up. Who is that?

Now the footsteps reach my door; they pause there for a minute and move on. The stairs creak, and Diana, keeping watch inside the door, moves back and forth. I clearly hear her whimper and pad to and fro on the flagstones, scrabbling with her claws when she slips. She skips around someone she knows, is glad to see.

Now the front door opens quietly. A whistle. And then footsteps wander off around the house.

For a moment the storm lets up. I jump out of bed and go to the window. Dry woodbine tendrils menace, hinder my gaze. Outside is night. I see nothing, no one. And yet there is one light – shining from a window in the servants’ quarters. It’s Helene’s window. Helene’s light is burning; is she reading novels again?

No, she doesn’t read novels. Everyone laughed the time my mother took Helene to task about it. My mother insisted that one of her books was missing, and that Helene had taken the book to read at night and ruin her eyes.

Kascha split her sides laughing when she heard that, and afterward she said to Josefa that Helene has better things to do at night than pore over books.

But my mother stuck to her opinion. Why else would Helen keep her lamp burning half the night?...

The storm gains force again. A strange whistling picks up above the roof. It soughs under my door, lashes my bare feet. I crawl back into bed, reassured by Helene’s light.

Her light glimmers cheerfully across to me, banishing all the ghosts. Tendrils and leaves, tossing tree tops, and fanning fir boughs seem to bend before it.

I blink a little bit longer and fall asleep. I dream that Helene’s light has turned into many lights. I hear my mother’s voice saying softly: “Today is Christmas.”

No mountain crushes me now. I feel light and glad. The bells shake on the harness, and I am sitting in a sleigh, tucked into a deep foot-muff lined with fur.

We glide through night. I feel bumps and swaying and sometimes my mother’s warm knees. We scud through the snow as if flying straight into the sky.

Then there is a jolt, and we come to a stop. Bells peal just above my muffled head. A rasping voice descends into the cold cave where they lead me, and I hear what my mother has told so much, so often, the story of the Christ Child born in the stable.

The word dies away. A crowd of people stands like a wall. Choirs sing high above me. I try to climb up onto the bench where I sit, but my mother pushes me back forcefully. She sings so loud in my ears that I stop moving, intimidated. Here and there I glimpse a familiar face. I nod to them, but no one returns my greeting. Far away from me stands a tree, festooned with many lights.

My mother called it “Holy Night.” Once a year. Then I’m allowed to stay up late. The doors to the great hall are opened ceremoniously. At the very back stands the Christmas tree, studded with burning candles and hung with silver threads. Our laborers crowd in the doorway, singing Christmas carols and shuffling their feet. Presents lie beneath the tree. For me. All for me? I start to cry. They’re new, and so beautiful! I’m afraid to touch them. Cautiously I reach out my hands. But no matter what I touch, it doesn’t move. However much I push, turn, rock, it remains what it is, dull dead stuff.

Now my father sits down at the piano and plays “The Tyroleans are Merry.” He hammers it out with one thumb, pleased.

My mother reads letters which make her smile. Now and then she tries something on, a pair of gloves, a dress. Then she says, “Just look what a fine tree we have this year.” She says that every year. The same words always. Everyone looks at the tree, gazing into its burning candles, at its silver balls, and they make reverent faces.

But still! I don’t think the tree is real.

I know the forester brought it several days ago, giving it a good shake to keep the snow out of the house. But next to the “giants” it’s only a dwarf, even if it touches the ceiling in here.

I walk around it, feel its branches. Yes, they are real. They’re as fresh and green as the sofa where my mother sits reading. Its needles are very strong. As strong as my father’s thumb, still skipping across the keys. —

Suddenly Helene is kneeling next to me. She picks up a wooly sheep in her red hands and puts it on her lap. She gazes at it in wonder, petting it – a sheep with legs of wood.

Silly Helene! Doesn’t she see that the whole sheep is a fake? “Do you want it, Helene? Here, take it!”

Oh, no! Helene turns red, gathers up the fabric she was given, and disappears.

One by one they all disappear, we are left alone.

I still hear their footsteps and their voices outside.

All at once the hall is vast and empty.

The candles are still burning on the Christmas tree, but it’s much darker now. Their colorful kerchiefs have vanished, and with them everything familiar and bright. Only my mother is left, in her black silk dress.

But isn’t there a glimmer in the gap of the shutters? A mysterious white light spills into the candles’ yellow glow. I look through a chink and see icicles. Outside there is a shimmering and glittering, a billowing up like smoke.

Or are white hands waving to me? Is it the snow, or are those the angels my mother said would come in the Holy Night? I feel drawn outdoors. No one sees me slip out the door. The hall is dark and cold, but I don’t feel the chill. The door to the terrace is easy to find. I press down the handle; the door is ajar.

Who opened it, now, in the middle of winter?

Light streams in on its narrow path. Arcs of snow-dust spray across the threshold and lie in fine wrinkles on the flagstones.

Then white light engulfs me and makes me close my eyes. When I open them again, footprints cross the snow-drifted steps down to the garden.

Steps which never halted, feet which sank deeper and deeper but always hastened on.

The full moon is mirrored in the glittering, firmly-printed soles. And straight across the garden, from the side where the yard is, comes another pair of shoes, meeting the one which came from the house.

In places the footprints are drifted over, elsewhere they seem all the clearer.

Two and two, here they met. But where did they go?

Carefully I step into the footprints, here fleeting, there distinct. Clamber into deep prints, stretching my legs to match their span. I plunge up to my knees in the deep snow. Follow strange tracks which cross snowdrifts boldly, as if driven to go on and on, forward march! Ice-cold water trickles into my stockings. My heart is ice-cold too. As if at a warning voice, as if Helene were there, scolding me for getting my stockings wet. But I am drawn on irresistibly, it is too late to turn back.

All at once I feel a shove. Someone shakes me violently. I turn around, frightened, but no one is there. I am all alone. No angels soar above the shimmering expanse. There is nothing but snow, and from it, freezing, muffled in white cloaks, rise my “giants,” the two firs. Flaming lights hover above their tips. Many, many stars burn unmoving at their heads. The sky holds them in its blue mouth. I am lifted up to the sky, and it sucks me in as well. The stars burn very close. Golden eyes, they seem to me, and my lashes stroke them gently. Wide wings enfold me. Two angels stand before our house, smiling.

Wrapped in heavy cloaks, they touch with the tips of their wings and fix their unblinking gaze upon me.

Angels! My mother knew it. They crossed the terrace ahead of me. They glided down the steps into the snow and broke a path for me.

They have appeared to me to tell me the secret of this night, the secret I haven’t grasped yet.

They sing. Everything is filled with it. The snow begins to burn. Sheaves of fire seem to shoot up about me. One flame pierces me and kindles me from head to toe. In my frigid face my eyes stare like balls of ice. I am blinded, and snow-dust sprays sharp needles. Still I smile: Angels! Angels!...

I reach for their trains. I grope for their wings, blunder against branches and pricking needles. A solid mass of snow tumbles down upon me.

I rub my eyes. Feel two warm drops on my fingers. I look at them in surprise and shake them off. What was I thinking? Those are the giants, not angels! Shivering, I crawl under the sheltering canopy of their branches. Their darkness encloses me, but it is not comforting. The familiar boughs stare strangely. There is a creaking and rustling in the night of the boughs. It closes in upon me, eerie and immense. A strange breath mingles with the scent of the pine needles. I listen and hear whispering. I am afraid to move. Soon it will clutch my shoulders and press me to the ground. I want to get up, run away, but my limbs seem spellbound. I can no longer move, and only one cry escapes my throat: “Mother! Mother!”...

The cry hovers in my room. It came from me, but I don’t know that. I am awake and alone. I am lying in bed, not under the firs. No one is wandering about anymore. The wind howls as if it might tear the house apart. My body is hot, and my hair clings damply to my temples.

I was dreaming, and can’t find the dream’s end again. Outside day is slowly breaking. An alarm clock will clatter, and Helene will get out of bed. Will the storks come today?

In the air is a rushing like wings... No, I can’t tell it to anyone! This is what happened in the Holy Night:

I sat beneath the giants and heard voices. They whispered nearby, but I couldn’t understand a word. Once there was a laugh, but someone put a hand on top of the laughter. And I heard a sighing, but it was not the wind.

And suddenly there was a cry: “No, no — no!”

And another voice gasped against it: “Yes — yes — yeesss!”

And then I heard gusts of breath like the wind, whispering like leaves in summer, moans and cries like small children or night birds. A whimpering like a dog. And then all that came was a single, round sound like an “Oh!” with the breath knocked out of it. And now it was quiet...

Now I heard my heart. It knocked my chest to pieces like a hammer. But I couldn’t cry out. Only my teeth chattered. I wanted to flee, jump up, but I couldn’t move. I grabbed the giants to shake them, but they were immovable, fixed and iron-hard.

Then I scrambled up and ran straight into the mountain of snow. I pushed forward blindly. Sobs tore my lips apart, and my mouth filled with snow. The tears froze on my face. The front door was still open. The wisps of snow had become little waves, reaching far down the vestibule. I trampled them with my heavy shoes.

At the door to the hall I came to my senses again. My mother was sitting in the same place. She gazed into the tree. Now almost all the candles were burned out.

“What were you doing hanging about the kitchen again? What a horrid child you are! Off to bed with you, it’s late... Why hasn’t Helene come yet? And,” my mother asks, “was Helene in the kitchen?”

“Yes,” I say quietly, “Helene’s in the kitchen, I’m sure, I’ll go get her.”

“No, stay here!” says my mother, “who knows what kind of visitors they have today.” And she gets up.

But there is Helene – just as the last candle guttered on the Christmas tree.

“Come to bed, Cat!” she says.

We go up the stairs together as always.

As Helene opens the door to my room, I see a big rip under her arm. Her chemise gleams white beneath the black fabric.

“Helene, your Sunday dress is torn!”

But that makes her angry.

“Nonsense!” she says, immediately reaching for the spot. “That’s nothing. It’s just a split seam. Just don’t talk about it. It’ll be fine in the morning...”

I slip into bed and fall asleep at once...


translation ©Isabel Fargo Cole 2002
Published with permission of
Buchverlage Langen Müller Herbig , München



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