When the Time Comesby Josef Winkler
A TRANSLATION OF Wenn es soweit ist BY ADRIAN WEST
For two hours after the presents and the evening snack—sitting around the kitchen table, they ate homemade pork sausages with horseradish and mustard, which, to the children’s diversion, squirted grease as far as a meter away when stuck with a fork—the mother, father, and children prayed the rosary for the dead, with the mother leading. The deaf maid, who could read lips, stayed in the kitchen and prayed along, glancing often at the mother’s mouth. The farmhand, after his snack, retired into his unkempt hovel, its floor littered with straw blades and cigarettes, the soap foam dried on the shaving brush, and the stable shoes, their edges caked with excrement, lying upturned in front of the bed. He smoked a few hand-rolled cigarettes, sipped from a schnapps bottle with a gentian pictured on its label, undressed and went to sleep. The children put on their new checked flannel shirts, the stiff collars chafing their skin, and the thick long underwear the color of viscera, and went with their parents and the maid through the unlit, snow-caked village street to the church for midnight mass. Only the Shaflechners had left their porch light on, shining down over the village street; and here and there, inside the other houses, a few lamps remained lit. Children and adults, wearing their brand-new clothes, appeared in their doorways and headed toward midnight mass, stamping through the virgin snow. Even the calvary, where the painting pastor, Balthasar Kranabeter, had depicted Hell, was unlit, covered with a cap of snow. Crab-red Lucifer, pointy-eared and hook-nosed, his red wings unfurled, thick horns growing from his forehead, and long, bloody nails sprouting from his fingers, bent over the man lying on the floor in torment, beseeching release from Father Abraham, after throwing a life-sized Christ over a cliff decades before—later to be salvaged from the riverbed with his arms snapped off by the pastor, who stood him in the entranceway to the parish house and adorned him with seasonal flowers. Around the nude torso of the profaner of Christ winds a green serpent, fat and suffocating. Lucifer spills a cup of gall into his mouth. Left and right blaze the searing flames of hell, smelling of myrrh and incense. Toi qui, même aux lépreux, aux parias maudits, / Enseignes par l’amour le goût du Paradis, / Ô Satan, prends pitié de ma longue misère! The light from the stained glass windows in the church, already long lit up in anticipation of Christ’s birth, fell on the grave of Ludmilla Felfernig, the fifteen-year-old maidservant and suicide who smeared menstrual blood on her face and the head of the devil on her knees before the calvary, praying to her guardian angel, and then ran barefoot over the stubble field with blood-drenched hands and thighs, and threw herself, screaming, into the Drava. In the snow hills over the grave mounds, little spruce trees had been placed, decorated with candles and tinsel.
After the midnight mass in the ice-cold church, the parish cook gave a package to the eleven-year-old Maximilian in front of the cemetery gate and said: Quick, hide it! Hide it right away! With the package under his anorak he walked by the Calvary—a vase stood in front of Hell, filled with blossoming white and red Saint Barbara branches—down the snowy village street. The cotton-soft snow crunched under the soles of his shoes. Here and there he saw, on the second floors of the farmhouses, the peaks and upper branches of the decorated firs and spruces. The two peacocks were nowhere to be seen, they would already have taken shelter in the warm stable, near the cattle ramp. Snowflakes fell on the blue-green peacock-feather eyes lying on the gangway. Would the candles on the Christmas tree on grandfather’s tomb already have burned out? Burnt black angels’ hair in the branches of the little tree, soot-blackened silver tinsel. Snow crystals lodged in the crowns of iron thorns on the rusty crucifixes standing behind the gravestones. Two or three small green frogs, with slivers of host in the corners of their mouths, sliding repeatedly down the gold walls of the chalice, powerless to scale its rim and flee the tabernacle. Eyebrows ablaze. Even the footprints of the two peacocks were long snowed over. Ice muffled the murmur of the snow-covered village creek. Filthy beast! they said, when Maximilian trapped a crawfish after a flood and brought it to the kitchen in a washbasin to show everyone. The centimeters-high snow piled on the power lines fell to the ground like white ribbons, now from one cable and now from another. Snow dropped silently from the fir trees as well, ten, twenty meters high, standing snug at the forest’s edge, and also from the slender branches of the birches. Snowflakes tickled his face and gathered in his hair, quickly melting in the part. He kicked off the centimeters-thick snow from the soles of his shoes against the house’s outer wall. In the kitchen, he reached in his jacket pocket and scattered a fistful of incense he had scooped up in the sacristy—the pastor, at that moment, had been pulling his cassock over his white-haired head—over the hot griddle, where it smoked and crackled. The last snowflakes still in his hair melted in the kitchen’s heat, drained into his scalp, and ran sporadically down the back of his ears and onto his neck. He untied the package the parish cook had given him at the cemetery gate, and pulled Im Sudan and Durchs wilde Kurdistan from the crinkling wrapping paper, decorated with winged angel heads, bodiless and blowing trumpets.
Where, then, were the angels’ heads, winged and disembodied, that his mother, some years back—Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom my heart commends me here—had threaded with fine gold chains and hung around her children’s necks? Maximilian was five or six when he went out in the snow during Advent, barefoot and dressed only in pajamas, hoping to meet the parish cook out walking in the village street, and his sister followed him and dragged him back to the warm kitchen. Not a week later, in keeping with the wishes of the pastor Balthasar Kranabeter, Maximilian in his red acolyte’s tunic knelt before the altar at the priest’s feet as he said mass.
Maximilian leafed through the pages of the books, sniffed inside them, read the tables of contents of the two Karl May books, which told of slave-traders and hippopotamus hunts, kept them out of the hands of his brother, who rubbed his cold fingers together, went to the children’s room, heated by a still-warm wood burning stove, and laid the books on the night table. In front of it he placed his felt slippers and crawled under the bedcover. Only a tuft of brown hair peeked out. He prayed his evening prayers before sleeping. Before I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. And if I die before I wake, I pray the lord my soul to take.
Just once he would like to see nativity figures bigger than the Christmas tree behind them; it is always the Christmas tree dwarfing Mary, Joseph, and the Christ child, never those three, with the three wise men, larger than life, each with a Christmas tree lit with sparklers in hand, coming from behind the tall firs of the forest, densely snow-capped and collapsing down over us like a landslide, a torrent of mud, showering us with light and splendor, with sparklers and candle wax, wrapping us in angels’ hair smelling of frankincense and myrrh, burying us beneath chocolate crucifixes and prayer books—our chocolate rocking horses—with candy rosaries, ice cubes of holy water, chocolate waning moons and rising suns; but on the table, where there is a fir tree trimmed into the shape of a cross, they stand small and wretched, year after year, Mary, Joseph, and the Christ child, carved from spruce wood, their haloes overlaid with cherry veneer. Two images hang in the holy corner, one leaning in toward the other: Jesus stares from one; from the other, the mother of God looks down on the tuft of hair peeking out from under the comforter. Packets of funeral notices from the village dead gather dust behind the sacred images. Jesus shows his heart pierced by arrows, his mother Mary has a white lily in her hand. The glimmering silver peak of the Christmas tree, reflecting the children’s room, the parents, the grandmother, the maid, and the farmhand, turns toward Jesus’ arrow-pierced heart, which will bleed and bleed, and then shall the blood of Christ be shed over the shimmering Christmas tree, down over the branches, snuffing the candles and sparklers, sweeping away the wood figurines, Mary, Joseph, and the Christ child. Go with thy family into the ark! Take the beasts of the earth as well!
In the clay vessel in which the putrid-smelling bone stock was rendered, from the bones of slaughtered animals, to be painted on the horses with a crow’s feather around the eyes, nostrils, and belly to protect them from the mosquitoes and horseflies, lies the skeleton of Aunt Waltraud, who collapsed before her customers in the Rabitsch pastry shop in Klagenfurt in the middle of wrapping up a sponge cake, over the bones of Florian Kirchheimer, Maximilian’s grandfather, who died at ninety in his farmhouse of cancer of the gall bladder and who for a time, only a few years before his death, used to dress his two grandchildren, who were not yet old enough for school, until Maximilian began screaming in the mornings, refusing to be touched by the tall surly gentleman who wheezed audibly through his humid grey-flecked moustache and who, when he buttoned his shirt, would always graze his grandson’s chest with his yellow fingers, cold, bony and shivering. Maximilian would hide from his screaming grandfather—Come here, come here, you’re going to mind me!—and wait for his mother, who was in the stable feeding hot potatoes to the pigs. Her black hair always smelled of the cows she had just come from milking. Seated on the milking stool, she had pressed her head into the brown and white flanks of the milk cow. Scraps of boiled potatoes clung to her apron. Her fingertips, too, were cold, sliding the buttons through the eyelets. Child! She would say, why won’t you let grandpa dress you? He’s not going to do anything! Thou shalt in majesty return when the world has met its grave, then shall I face Thee, O mighty God, your weak and trembling slave. O say to me then, I know thee well, thou knelt at my manger and prayed.
The hunchback Hildegard laid her warm, arthritis-wracked right hand over the cold hands of her husband, wound through with a rosary and folded in prayer, shook his corpse until the coffin began to rock from the black-draped catafalque, and wailed: Willi! Willi! Willibald, who had worked for decades in the Heraklith factory on the other bank of the Drava, was dead from lung cancer. His hands in the air and his pants around his ankles, he stepped out of the bathroom and called: Hilde! Hilde! Help me! then fell over and died on the spot. After working in the factory, he was often to be met with a smoking pipe in the garden, where, alongside a row of red, black, and white currants, he had also planted gooseberries and flowers. Grass snakes, slithering over from the nearby swamp, would sun themselves on the hot glass of the lettuce cloches and had to be driven away with a hazelnut switch so that Helene and her sister Hildegard could lift open the glass panels in the afternoon and cut a few heads of lettuce. It always used to scare me, Helene would say, when I had to chase away the snakes, often they would wrap themselves around the stick. Sometimes she had found snakeskins among the broad green leaves of the lettuce heads she had cut. Then I would lose my appetite, said black-haired Helene with a grimace. After playing football with his cousin Egon, and punting the leather ball through the door of the woodshed, Maximilian would sit a long time in front of the bushes that bordered the garden, picking the blue or whitish-yellow gooseberries, one after the other, squeezing them against his palate with his tongue until they exploded, then spitting the skin, thick and slightly bitter, into the grass, and swallowing the thick pulp, warmed by the sun, while Willi smoked his pipe beneath the vines in the garden. A white mutt—Pomeranian and Dachshund—which answered to the name of Prinzi, knelt at his feet.
Helene is married to a man who even today venerates Hitler and who gets together with two other old men in the kitchen of his farm house to exchange war stories every year for All Saints’ Day after the blessing of the tombs, and who, by way of punishment, used to make his daughter Karin—not yet twenty—go to the cesspit with a long-handled ladle to gather feces and throw them into the manure tanker with a rusty bucket, until bloody blisters formed on her hands. When his children saw their father step out of his company car at night, returning from his work as a carpenter, and walk down the hill to the house, they would run from the kitchen to the house of their aunt Hildegard and uncle Willibald, where they would hole up under the holy corner until bedtime, nibbling homemade cookies. One day, he chopped up a leather ball his two sons used to play soccer with, especially on Sundays, behind the house. When his older son had crossed the road incautiously and nearly caused a traffic accident, he ran and hid himself in Maximilian’s father’s barn, and the carpenter beat him until he was half-dead.
A few years after her husband’s death, Hildegard began to languish and neglect herself, she stopped washing and doing her hair, she repeated the same questions, and never knew whether she had already eaten lunch or whether dinnertime was at hand. Hildegard, remember, took the then three-year-old Maximilian, lifted him in the air, and showed him the corpse of Leopoldine Felsberger, his maternal grandmother, who lay in a coffin covered with periwinkles, having died of heartbreak more than a decade after her three sons, all of them in the full flower of youth, fell in the Second World War. On the lower half of the coffin was draped a translucent shroud of black nylon. Her face was grey and ashy, her eyes deeply sunken. Back to this moment, Maximilian can remember, it is here that the flood of recollected images begins. Shortly before her death, when Maximilian was seventeen and his aunt Hildegard had long ceased to notice the feces and urine that streamed down her legs, over the nylon leggings held to her desiccated calves with an elastic band, she asked him whether he would follow behind her coffin, when the time came. When the time did come, the relatives, especially her sister Helene, who had cared for her selflessly, were glad for an end to her sufferings, and happy that Hildegard, who spoke derangedly and always smelled of excrement, had died in the hospital in Villach, and that her brother, the now ninety-year-old man with the grey-flecked moustache and trimmed eyebrows, had taken care that she did not lie three days exposed in her bedroom, as was the custom, because she had, to use his own words, looked off when she was shown to him in a refrigerated chamber in the Villach hospital. A twisted countenance overcame her in death. Her cheeks and mouth were deeply sunken. Livor mortis dotted her face and hands. Moreover, the process of decomposition was so advanced, it was impossible to expect that the funeral guests remain seated, praying their rosary before her open coffin. Her room, where her husband Willibald had also lain exposed—during their lifetime, they were only granted a large kitchen and a bedroom in Helene’s house—was again cleaned out and decorated as a mortuary chapel by the funeral director Sonnberger, and her sealed coffin, surrounded by wreaths and bouquets of flowers, stood on a catafalque draped in black. At the foot of the coffin was a small table on which the death notice lay, behind a silver crucifix flanked by two burning candles, recounting that our dearly beloved Hildegard, respected by all, always ready to lend a hand, sister, sister-in-law, and aunt, had been called to eternity by our Lord, and that we would accompany our dear deceased to her final resting place in the cemetery in Pulsnitz. Placed in front of the crucifix in a small teacup, full of the holy water her nephew had fetched from the parish house, stood a spruce twig. The attendees came to express their condolences, crossed the threshold of the room, turned to the coffin, made the sign of the cross, said a prayer softly, took the damp twig from the teacup and sprinkled holy water on the sealed coffin, then crossed themselves again and sat in the creaky wooden chairs, closing their hands in prayer. Still today, nearly thirty years later, Maximilian hears the splash of the holy water against the coffin and the black ribbons of the wreaths. When her husband, Willibald, lay exposed—the coffin lid was propped against the bedroom wall, behind the black decorations—holy water was splashed over his corpse, which was covered by a nylon shroud, black and translucent. The drops of holy water clung to the fine weave of the shroud and ran slowly over the dark suit of the deceased, dripped into his half-open mouth and over his thick and slightly disordered moustache, stained brown from pipe tobacco. The silver crucifix between two burning candles at the dead man’s feet, behind the holy water dish with the twig of spruce, was a part of the funeral director’s ensemble, and after the burial, he put it back in the black Mercedes he used to drive from one mourning chamber to another, throughout the Drava valley.
In late autumn and winter, especially around Christmastime, Maximilian would bring fresh milk, often still warm from the cow’s body, to his uncle Willibald and aunt Hildegard. Not far from the forest’s edge, he would go through the snow-covered fields with the full milk jug to the childless couple. In a single movement, the hunchbacked Hildegard would dump the milk from the brown enameled jug into a white pitcher. Without rinsing the empty jug, she would fill it half-full with home-baked macaroons, vanilla crescents, linzers, and glazed gingerbread cookies topped with multicolored sugar sprinkles. Returning home with the milk jug through the fields covered in hard snow—his shoes often broke through the crust, and he would sink knee-deep in the powdery snow—Maximilian would eat a few cookies softened by the last traces of milk. At home he would pass the milk jug to his mother with the rest of the soggy pastries, warm his naked feet, frozen and throbbing—his toes were all pins and needles—against the wood-burning stove, and sip the hot rosehip tea his mother had made him.
Hildegard was known and esteemed throughout the village for her exquisite sweets—Hilde, the dear soul—and her culinary endowments were gladly put to use by the townspeople and especially by her relatives, for baptisms, obsequies, weddings and fairs. When she cooked, she always wore a black velvet apron, and over it a white one, spotless and recently ironed. When her work in the kitchen was done, she would put the white apron aside and sit down at the table in the black velvet one, among her relatives, who drank coffee and ate cakes, usually beside her nieces and nephews. One time, in her sister Helene’s kitchen, she took Maximilian under her protection, resting her fingers, slightly twisted from arthritis, over his brown hair and pulling his head into her breast when Uncle Friedhelm—one of the All Saints’ Day war correspondents, after the blessing of the tombs—who even to this day is proud to have been in the SS, threatened to clip Maximilian, to cut off his genitals. Everyone laughed as Uncle Friedhelm leapt to his feet from behind the table, still littered with cake crusts, and dug in his pants for a pocketknife. Crying, Maximilian hugged his aunt Hildegard’s thigh and pressed his face into her black velvet apron, which smelled of pastries. She stroked his hair and whispered over and over into his ear: Don’t be afraid, I’ve got you! Maximilian also went with Aunt Hildegard to Villach for the first time, to have a blood analysis done. His relatives and acquaintances were struck by his alarming pallor, as they referred to it. Maximilian pulled back his arm in fear when the nurse, without warning, pricked the tip of his index finger and began drawing blood from it with a glass tube. When they went to a pharmacy, after getting the results, to pick up the iron pills the doctor had prescribed, Maximilian rested his chin on the counter and smiled, and the pharmacist, seeing his rotten teeth, gave him a tube of toothpaste. Say thank you! Aunt Hildegard said to Maximilian.
From his first to his fourteenth year, usually in the evening on Holy Saturday, before the villagers said mass and lit a bonfire in the church field near the ossuary and his mother’s second vegetable garden in celebration of the resurrection of the Crucified, his godmother Hildegard would bring him his “godmother clothes” as an Easter present— pants and a shirt or a pair of leather shoes, or a suit smelling of the tailor’s shop—which she would carry through the fields, muddy from the freshly thawed snow, to her brother’s farmhouse in a wicker basket. When she wanted to give Maximilian a suit, Hildegard went with the boy, pale and anemic with his prescription for iron pills, to the tailor in Kindelbrucken, a haggard little man who smelled of cigarettes and reams of fabric and took the measurements in his shop with a yellow plastic tape. The tailor, hunched down before the boy, squinting and puffing a cigarette, felt the boy’s thigh with his jittery hands, struck his calf with a flat sliver of pink tailor’s soap impressed with a trademark, tossed the measuring tape over his shoulder, opened the scissors, tugged at the boy’s fly with his bony fingers and adjusted the straight pins. Then Maximilian pulled up his shirt and let the tailor wrap the stiff yellow tape, cold and reinforced with thread, around his naked belly. Besides the suit in its wrapper, a big chocolate Easter bunny, and multicolored chocolate Easter eggs, Hildegard gave the boy, before the Feast of the Resurrection, a sugar-dusted coffee cake with a ten-schilling piece baked inside it. In the hole in the cake’s center, in a nest of green paper, lay a dyed egg with a decal portraying an Easter lamb holding the banner of the resurrection. The redeemer is risen, freed from death’s bonds, who lashes for me bore. Alleluia. The people are saved, Satan is chained, the stone has rolled from the door. Alleluia.
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 the eyes, nostrils, and belly to protect them from the mosquitoes and horseflies, lies the skeleton of Willibald Zitterer—who ran stumbling from the bathroom with his hands raised and his pants around his ankles, then fell over and expired, his face in a pool of his own urine—over the skeleton of Aunt Waltraud, who died of a heart attack at the pastry shop in the Lindwurmplatz in Klagenfurt. As the stunned Hildegard lifted up her dead husband’s torso, crying Willi! What’s happening?, warm urine dripped down her forearms. Aunt Waltraud’s burial took place a few days after Christmas in the Annabichler cemetery in Klagenfurt. Scarcely had his father, then seventy years old, with a grey-flecked moustache and trimmed eyebrows, returned from Klagenfurt, walking through the kitchen door, when he said, taking his head over and over in his hands, that his brother Eduard was so drunk he couldn’t even make it to his wife’s funeral. Brief is the night that covers me, till the angel is awaked. Then shall my savior my loyal soul to his dominion take. I shall stand for my heavenly trial, and the holy lamb shall walk down the aisle. Alleluia.
The Rail is proudly running this fantastic translation of When the Time Comes through the winter and into the spring of 2013.
JOSEF WINKLER (b. 1953, Austria) is the author of more than a dozen books, among them When the Time Comes and Natura Morta. His major themes are suicide, homosexuality, and the corrosive influence of Catholicism and Nazism in Austrian country life. Winner of the 2008 Buchner prize and current president of the Austrian Art Senate, he lives in Klagenfurt with his wife and two children.