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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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!
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 —
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
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
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
“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