The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2013

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JUL-AUG 2013 Issue

When the Time Comes


The successor to the painter of Hell, the pastor Nikolaus Nußbaumer, often trotted out his trained dog before the acolytes; when he made a sign, it would adopt an attack pose in the backseat of his car, open its jaws, lips leaking spittle, and show its crooked, wax-yellow teeth to the children who watched it through the windshield; and when he gave another sign it would curl up, meek as a lamb—so that I may in Heaven come—and take its place in the backseat; since the time he ordered the house of the former sacristan across from the cemetery destroyed, the barn where Roman hanged himself is the building closest to the cemetery on the right hand side of the village built in the form of a cross, and Jonathan’s parents’ house is the closest on the left. The two houses of the dead and the cemetery have come together.

The church keeper Johanna Jessernig lived for decades in the sacristan’s house. She grew flowers in her garden beside the cemetery wall and placed them in vases on the high altar and bye-altars, dusted the figurines of the saints, cleaned the floors of the church weekly, and, during the sacrament of mass, sat praying in her pew, not far from the black confessional. Shortly after the death of Balthasar Kranabeter, the pastor and painter of Hell, she drew people’s attention by her ever-stranger speech. She no longer recognized many of the people from the village, she mixed up the children, and would go to the farmer several times a day with the empty milk can to ask whether or not she had picked up the day’s milk. At Jonathan’s burial, she was seen by the townspeople kneeling and praying out loud before the calvary. Fanning herself with a kerchief and striking it against the painting, she dusted off the fires on the floor of Hell and the devil’s unfurled glowing wings, and repeated: What is a suicide doing in our cemetery? At her feet, her brown milk can rested atop the flattened snapdragons. She never missed religious service for decades, whether at six in the morning in winter or in the middle of the night. She was presented to the dean and the vicar general, and shook the hand of the bishop of Gurk, who gave her his blessing; she could be found at the church at every baptism, wedding, and funeral; still, Johanna Jessernig refused to go to Jonathan’s burial, preferring to lend her services to the poor sinner in Hell. After her death—she was buried just a few meters from the suicide Jonathan Steinhart—the pastor Nikolaus Nußbaumer, who never took his trained dog into the cemetery or the sacristy, instead leaving him shut up in his car at the cemetery gate, had the sacristan’s filthy house knocked down, along with the barn and the ossuary. To make way for the expansion of the cemetery, he also had cleared the two fruit and vegetable gardens bordering the old cemetery wall—one belonged to Maximilian’s mother, the other to Johanna Jessernig. All the farmers in the village seem to have contributed with diligence to these improvments. Toi qui, pour consoler l’homme frêle qui souffre, / Nous appris à mêler le salpêtre et le soufre, / O Satan, prends pitié de ma longue misère!

In the midst of a feud, not long before the double suicide of Jonathan and Leopold, the sacristan Gottfried Steinhart screamed at his son-in-law Kajetan Felsberger in his yard, over a rotting fence held together with rusty nails: I hope you drop off like the Kohlweiß innkeeper! The owner of the Kohlweiß inn was run over and killed by a bus, blindsided as he passed on his bicycle through a narrow and curvy thoroughfare in the Lieser valley—to one side was the roiling river, to the other the damp stone wall, steep and dripping water. A bus coming around the curve caught him in its yellow jaws, rolled over the bicycle, and sent the Kohlweiß innkeeper flying, with a broken neck, over the guardrail and down into the river’s rapids.

Jonathan’s grandfather, a bald man, very tall, served the people and the church as sacristan for decades. He was the only one in the village who knew how to bang the keys on the organ and could play along to the Sunday hymns. Three times a day he pulled the rope of the church bell—he tolled the big bell; the feebleminded Oswin, the small one—prepared the chasuble for the pastor, helped him get dressed, lit the meter-long candles on the altar before Mass and snuffed them out when the services were over, and took care that there was enough Samos wine in the sacristy, as during mass it would be converted into the blood of Christ and the priest would drink it from a golden chalice that rested on the tabernacle. The pastor Balthasar Kranabeter, painter of prayer cards and images of Hell, never washed out the golden chalice with water; he always wiped it off with a freshly ironed white cloth. When someone in the village died, the sacristan went into the sacristy, tolled the bells, and, in the winter snow as well as in the summer heat, when all around the chirping of crickets could be heard, led the funeral train with a polished crucifix on a wooden staff, raised high over the heads of the mourners, glimmering gold in the sun. When the sacristan was sick, the organ would go mute, but the toothless little halfwit Oswin, wheezing heavily, especially in winter, when his breath would burst visibly from his mouth, would lead the procession with the crucifix, toll the bell with the acolytes, and perform the other offices of the sacristan. The church wives would get together and cling to one another’s sleeves so as not to slip on the gleaming ice with the funeral wreaths they carried on their shoulders and fall under the horse sleigh bearing the coffin, or else get caught up and trampled under the frantic black legs of the horses. The farmers behind the wagon felt safer in their hobnailed Goiserer boots, they chatted about the constantly fluctuating prices of beef and pork and the unprofitable export of wood to neighboring Italy. When the casket, holding a wax-yellow young man, a child, or adult in repose, was carried by the pallbearers to the final church service, the scent of the withering carnations and roses would blend with the fragrance of the figurines of saints, treated with beeswax and sprinkled with rose water, the scent of the burning wax candles, the aroma of incense and the scent of the rotting body that lay in its shoddily screwed-together coffin.

The children and adolescents were brought to their graves silently, in blue or white coffins. The adults, when one could pin their war decorations and service medals to their suits, were carried in black coffins to their final resting place by blue-suited firemen to the accompaniment of funeral marches. For the obsequies of distinguished landowners, the already maturing Pulsnitz boy’s choir sang in contratenor, with their crocodile’s tongues: Take me out over the Onga! The women, to whose grave clothes one could pin neither military decorations nor service medals, and who could not be carried before their coffins on a purple, velvet-covered cushion, were buried, like the children and adolescents, quietly and discreetly, but at least one person from each house stood by the body, as they would remind one another proudly at the funeral receptions, with beer foam on their lips and orange goulash sauce in the corners of their mouth. With an aspergil from the copper dish that lay on the shoveled-up mound of earth, the mourners would sprinkle holy water into the open grave, and with a small pointed shovel stuck in the mound of earth, they would scatter sticky clumps of cemetery dirt, which clattered on the lid of the coffin, and then shake hands with the next of kin and whisper, dewy-eyed and in a choked voice: My condolences! You’re supposed to say my deepest sympathies! the pastor Balthasar Kranabeter shouted many times down from the pulpit, but the townspeople stubbornly persisted with the locution. My condolences! they went back to whispering to one another, when the black-clothed priest and his black-clothed acolytes concluded the exequies and left the cemetery, going into the sacristy to change clothes. The word sympathy did not rise to their lips, not even before an open grave.

At six in the morning, when Maximilian, the first acolyte, would stamp through the snow-covered village street to morning mass before the pastor —the snow mounds were as high as his shoulders—he used to knock first at the house door of Jonathan’s parents. In the kitchen, which normally smelled of donut grease and fresh milk, the toothless sacristan would stand at a hammered tin washbasin with his torso exposed and his broad, worn-out rubber suspenders hanging crosswise over his upper legs, lathering his armpits, belly, and nipples, which were ringed with long white hairs, with a bar of turpentine soap impressed with a stag with antlers; he would scratch his itching shoulders, speckled with moles and liver spots, with them. At times, when his daughter-in-law Katharina had just lit the stove and fitted the five or six clattering, concentric stove plates one inside the other, the kitchen would smell of a mixture of donut grease, milk, and oven smoke.

After the daily ritual of washing with the deer soap, the sacristan and Maximilian would go to the church together and pull the bell rope in the sacristy. Not long afterward the pastor, Balthasar Kranabeter, would appear, kneeling down to pass through the door of the sacristy, and bless the early risers with the words, Praise Jesus. A few years after the suicide of his grandson Jonathan, someone else led the funeral procession carrying the long black wooden staff with the polished gold Lord of Nazareth at the top, because the bald, toothless old organist, sacristan, and landowner, Gottfried Steinhart, who had not dropped off in the rapids like the Kohlweiß innkeeper, but had rather died naturally, a few years before his son-in-law Kajetan, lay in the lacquered black coffin, a rosary wound through his joined hands. His funeral procession did not pass by the calvary, because the sacristan’s farmhouse lay at the end of the village constructed in the form of a cross, near the cemetery. His skeleton lies over the skeleton of his daughter-in-law, Katharina Steinhart, who at night, after the bells tolled, when all was quiet in the village, no calf lowed from hunger, no dog howled, and no rooster lifted its head with its comb raised and its neck stiff to let out two or three cries, when the peacocks had nestled into their hollow under the gangway or curled up by the warm chimney on the ridge of the rachitic farmer Hafner’s roof, used to take her old Zeiss binoculars in hand—an inheritance from her father, who one day, surrounded by hunting trophies, lay on his deathbed with a curled moustache—and stare fixedly at the candlelight that flickered over the hillock beneath which her seventeen-year-old son Jonathan crumbled to dust. O Lord, I am not worthy, to sit down by thy side, but accept my humble entreaty, in thy kingdom to reside.

The ninety-year-old man with the grey-flecked moustache and the trimmed brows returned home agitated from a visit to his brother-in-law Kajetan, hung his filthy, worn-out hat on the red porcelain knob of the coat tree in the kitchen, and called out: That Kajetan! He’s drinking black coffee again. He’s got heart problems as is. Coffee is like a scourge for your heart. In the clay vessel in which the pandapigl was rendered from the bones of animals, to be brushed on the horses with a crow’s feather around the eyes, nostrils, and belly to protect them from mosquitoes and horseflies, lie, over the bones of his father-in-law, the sacristan and organist who called out over the dilapidated wall—I hope you drop off like the Kohlweiß innkeeper!—the bones of Kajetan Felsberger, who failed to fulfill his father-in-law’s wishes and be run down by a bus along the roaring river. Instead, one afternoon, snacking on speck in his farmhouse, he fell dead, striking his head on the edge of the table. Undisturbed by his grandfather’s death, his three-year-old blond grandchild went on soaking up drops of milk with an ink-stained sheet of blotting paper from the blue-green eyes of a pair of peacock feathers. Their reflections in the window stared down at the deceased. The purple lupines arranged under the holy corner, slurping holy water loudly, and the crosses in the windows of the mortuary writhed in pain. In the orchard, the Gravenstein apples and the Perry pears fell from the trees in dread. The milk glass bulb in the kitchen swallowed the eternal light and spit out spit out shards sharp as razorblades. In the holy corner it was deathly still. A spider, weaving and spinning around Jesus Christ’s loincloth, stopped a moment before casting away its thread and crouching in a loophole to wait for whatever was to come. At the moment of death, the young man and his mother were milking the cows, spinning curds and hauling the manure from the stable. The laborer tried in vain to put out a wheelbarrow full of burning wax candles. Soon afterward, when the wife of the deceased went to the kitchen for hot water to clean out the milk buckets and wipe off the flames of Hell on the calvary which lay between the schoolhouse and their home, as she did every afternoon, she found the body under the kitchen table. She dropped the clanking bucket in the doorway on the kitchen floor and yelled: Kajetan! For years Kajetan had been treated with mood stabilizers and heart medications by a retired doctor who is said to have given his hundred-year-old mother Leopoldine an excessive injection in the heart years back, in the room hung with framed photos of her three sons who had fallen in the full flower of youth.

After the corpse of one of his three brothers who fell in the war had been transported from Yugoslavia to Großbotenfeld by train, Kajetan brought it back to Pulsnitz in a hay cart over the rough, unpaved country road. Before saddling the horse at his parents’ home, he sank a pheasant’s feather in the thick bone stock and smeared the black mass, smelling of decay, around its eyes, nostrils, and belly. With long spruce branches, he covered up the coffin, which was set atop the cart harnessed to the horse smelling of bone stock. During the desolate journey, more than an hour long, he got stuck with the hay cart in the mud of the country road, and the horse, its bulging eyes ringed with pandapigl, could not pull the vehicle from the mud; a pair of Ukrainian field hands who had been working nearby came to help, setting down their jute bags, half full of potatoes, which were printed with the image of a whip and the legend Café do Brasil, and pushed the hay cart laden with the dead soldier so that the horse could pull the vehicle onto the roadside and Kajetan could carry his brother’s remains back to their birthplace.

A few years before his death, Kajetan, along with his family members, had to carry one of his grandchildren, who died of peritonitis at only a few days old, in a little white coffin with angel’s wings made of goose feathers, to the cemetery in Pulsnitz--but without tolling bells or obsequies, in accordance with the instructions of Nikolaus Nußbaumer, the priest and hunting dog trainer--after the mother had refused her right to have her baby placed in the coffin of a dead stranger, as is customary in the hospital in Villach, and have it buried somewhere out in the country. The child’s frail skeleton lies 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 protect them from the mosquitoes and horseflies, beside the bones of the sacristan and organist, who for years led the funeral processions with a crucifix turned facing the coffin, shimmering in the sun, and who shouted over the rickety fence that separated the two estates from one another, I hope you drop off like the Kohlweiß innkeeper! to his flustered son-in-law, who suffered from a heart condition, on his way to work. Kajetan, after the war, and after the deaths of his three younger brothers, had had the thought, for a long while, of entering the French Foreign Legion rather than taking charge of the farm, but in the end he had no courage to leave his homeland forever and give up on his estate. The child, dead of peritonitis five days after his birth, was buried in the tomb of Kajetan’s grandmother, who was also the grandmother of Maximilian’s mother, who, when Maximilian asked her how she found out that her three brothers had fallen, told her son the following story. She was seventeen years old and was coming back home from the agricultural trade school, when her grandmother told her of one of the brothers’ deaths with these words: Michael’s coming home too, but different! Michael was rash; they said he entered a basement in Yugoslavia, storming past everyone else, stepped on a mine and was blown to shreds, the two other brothers lost their lives in the Russian killing fields, one near the city of Nevel. It was never precisely determined where the other had died. Somewhere deep in Russia, they always said. On a memorial certificate, on which the three brothers are portrayed, the following is written: Dear Parents! Take up your cross! God’s eternal wisdom has ever foreseen the cross we now give you as a precious gift from his heart. His all-knowing eyes looked upon this cross before he sent it, his divine intellect has comprehended it, his wise justice has tested it, he has warmed it with his loving mercy and weighed it in his two hands, that it be not a millimeter too long nor a milligram too heavy. And he has blessed it with his holy name, anointed it with his grace, suffused it with his compassion—and he has looked upon you and upon your courage—and so it comes to you suddenly, as a special greeting from Heaven, like alms to you from the compassionate love of your God.

On Sundays, when the pastor used to put a host into the mouth of the young Kajetan impressed with the image of Hell, and the boy, thusly favored, would take his two thirsty horses from the stables to the well after services—the cold well water, mixed with saliva, ran over their hairy lips and down over their thin black legs, littered with fat grey warts—he would lean his back against the newly built fence, over which, three decades later, the sacristan and organist Gottfried Steinhart would shout, I hope you drop off like the Kohlweiß innkeeper! and turn his head, grinning, whenever the young Silvia Steinhart, his future wife and helpmeet, would show up in the window of her parents’ house and take her time arranging the curtains. Soon after, Silvia would lift up her white wedding dress, overcome the obstacle, and marry herself to the neighboring Felsberger estate, back when the fence rails that separated the two farms were not yet rotted through with green-grey mold and the fence-nails were still free from rust. Little girls who had not yet ingested many hosts, bearing wreaths of daisies, would hold up the long white wedding veil in their white, slightly baggy gloves of bobbin lace, so it didn’t get snagged on the fence and torn to shreds, before the priest, in the marriage ceremony in the church, split the host in two and placed the half of the body of Christ impressed with the profaner of Christ, lying among the fames of Hell, on the tongue of the farm girl bride and the other, with Lucifer inclined over the sinner, on the tongue of her farm boy husband. O Lord, I am not worthy, to go up to thy table, but make me worthy, accept my appeal. Quiet my longing, bridegroom of my soul! This Easter lamb accepts thee with zeal!

The funeral procession—Kajetan Felsberger lay in the casket—did not pass by the calvary, as the farmhouse of the deceased, like that of Jonathan’s parents, was in the lower part of the village, and the calvary with the image of Hell in the center, across from the schoolhouse. A few months before his death, Kajetan stood a long time before the calvary, staring at the freshly picked catkins, which had already withered and were strewing their yellow pollen to the wind, at the Adversary’s taut red, outstretched bat’s wings, and at his pointed chin and nose; he stared long at the horns that slowly grew, retracted, and reappeared, like the antennae of a snail, from Lucifer’s forehead, before beginning to mumble, at first incomprehensibly, and then, walking back and forth in irritation, hurling saliva, to shout, I hope you drop off like the Kohlweiß innkeeper! until his wife Silvia overheard him, ran down the gravel path between the gardens and the village street, a bucket of bloody goose feathers in her hand, and led her husband, who knelt grimacing across from Hell, back to the farmhouse.

As has already been mentioned, the cemetery was expanded fifteen years ago by a third by the pastor Nikolaus Nußbaumer, who used to show the acolytes his trained German shepherd, but until today only the deceased mother of Adam the third, Eva Philippitsch, has been buried in this new section of the cemetery where, some time back, the second vegetable garden of Maximilian’s mother used to border the ossuary that was knocked down to make way for the expansion. The ossuary stood in the way of both the living and the dead. The bone fragments they discovered when the ossuary was demolished were ministered their last rites among the vases of rotting flowers, with frankincense and holy water, funerary wreaths, plastic roses and plastic carnations, and laid to rest on the cemetery waste heap, among field mice and rats. The reverend Nikolaus Nußbaumer had the parish animal, grown big as a calf, put to sleep by a veterinarian, because the bellowing of the rheumatic German shepherd reverberating in the cold entryway of the parish house where the tall, pallid, armless, Lord of Nazareth stood at the wall, his skin crumbling from his body and his withered crown of thorns hanging over his face, could at times be heard from as far away as the sea of Hell in the center of the village. The bone collector lays the skeleton of Eva Philippitsch over the skeleton of Kajetan Felsberger, who suffered a heart attack in the kitchen of his farmhouse, dropped his carving knife, struck his head against the border of the table, and was later found dead, his nose broken and his face smeared with blood, under the table. Just after his burial, his son, the inheritor of his estate, ate the piece of carved speck with a garlic clove and onion rings. The hairy rind of speck was wrapped up in wax paper by the wife of the deceased, held together with a thick red rubber gasket from a canning jar, and placed in the big freezer in the pantry among the pork portioned out into cutlets and schnitzel. The eighty-year-old mother of Adam the Third left behind in her closet a plastic bag in which lay a devotional, a crucifix, a rosary, and a paper on which, in gothic script, she conveyed to her survivors that, when the time comes, the contents of this little plastic bag should be laid in her coffin. King of Heaven, blessed be thy name and thy glorious domain. What Jesus wills is our command, and soon shall be obtained.

Adam the Third, the great Philippitsch landholder, boogeyman and demon, after thorough consultation with his confamiliars, saw to it that the tombstone of his grandfather, who had also been christened with the name Adam, disappeared from the cemetery of Pulsnitz without a trace, though Adam the Third had known his grandfather, dead since the fifties and now erased from the tombstone, even longer than his own father, who was called Adam as well and who died when Adam the Third was twelve. The tomb in the old part of the cemetery, which lay across from the war monument—long is the gilded list of the fallen—was abandoned. The family tomb was moved to the new part of the cemetery, where the names of his father and mother were carved into a new stone, while that of his grandfather, who raised him, was omitted. On the one hand, the wagging tongues in the village conjecture that the tombs of his grandfather and father in the old part of the cemetery were abandoned so that the family could avoid the cost of a second tomb; on the other, they babble, burning red and dripping spit, that for his hypocritical dirndl-wearing housewife—the peahen! as she is known among the people in the village—who keeps getting her stiletto heels stuck in the soft asphalt in the height of summer and emits low, exquisite little death wails, the care of a second tomb was too much of a nuisance. For decades she had never neglected to sweep the dust from in front of the calvary with a bundle of wheat ears on Holy Wednesday—singing all the while—and to soothe the Adversary with the stiff, tickling, gold-colored husks, scrubbing his burning red belly. How splendid are the wounds suffered by God’s son. The angels are rejoicing, death is overcome.


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

JUL-AUG 2013

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