Jean E. Verthein
Granduncle Gentleman Way Back
Years earlier, before Meta and Katia, and their daughters, were born, centuries ago, the trees were uprooted for extracting salt and farming the land. Uprooting left the moors bare.
Rosy purple heather replaced the trees and glowed in August. Breezes crossed the high pine, soothing the skin and offering aroma for breathing in.
After the 1918 Great War armistice, before World War II, some people enjoyed peace, but most turned furious. True, its battles had spared Heide, the sandy, sour heath earth where Meta grew up.
Political street risings in teens’ and twenties’ Hamburg and Berlin, about two hundred kilometers away from heath farms. “Too distant for worry,” said Meta’s great-uncle. The arc of watch and wait began.
• • •
Nowadays, Meta ran alongside Hansi. Granduncle Heinrich did not yet call her back, as the children explored loamy moraines with blue flax, cannabis, and sugar beets. They picked blueberries for the old cook’s tortes to mellow Granduncle’s wrath.
They plucked currants from the Saxifragaceae plant, raspberries and blackberries, treasured for good times or hunger in hard times. Sometimes, when the children collected the berries, they snagged themselves on holly or thistle spines while searching for nut morsels, berries, and safe mushrooms.
As Meta rushed to claim them, low upright or flat stones, unseen within grasses, might trip her. She bumped into a rock, camouflaged by bushes. If burned down, she’d be able to see.
• • •
Observing her through his binoculars, her granduncle ordered his sister, Tante Lore, Meta’s aunt, “Forbid the child Meta from drifting away across the heath. Lock the door if you must. Keep her inside, hook the gate to slow her down.”
Now he yelled to Meta, “Smell the fire!” Meta heard his calls though as the flames were licking the land.
Granduncle, seeing her roam the Heide, the northwest semi-barren German heathland, yelled, “Back away from the flames.”
• • •
Just after 1918, the house watchtower was off-limits to children. It still lured them upward, especially Meta.
• • •
Here one day and gone the next in post-Great War, Meta’s mother’s hair had blossomed in waves around her face. Thus, Nanna let her know few details of her mother, as she protected Meta, age seven, at night. By nine, Meta could sleep alone.
• • •
Against Granduncle’s wishes, Meta now climbed up the watchtower near her room, surveyed the Heide, the heath, and begged for his binoculars. “The fire’s not spreading. Let me see.”
“No,” he replied. The fire was creeping toward his lands. Fellow large-farm-holders had set. It crossed common stone borders and smoldered over the old Plaggan, woodiness from ancient mostly uprooted trees. Inhospitable as food for lambs, plaggan benefitted newborns by absorbing urine, like diapers.
As for the fire, Granduncle Heinrich reassured her, “This fire should burn out.”
• • •
Inside his big house, Haupthaus, Meta, a fledgling, whose childhood waned and adulthood waxed, slipped into the closet abutting her uncle’s study.
He’d say to her or anyone, “Listen: mice or chipmunks are rummaging inside our walls.”
Nanna though urged him back to his books and manuscripts. “I’ll check the rodent noises.”
Meta held her breath against being found playing in this big closet with her big happy-sad doll, while Granduncle held forth in his circle.
A bluish tapestry covered the wall hole. Between the study on one side and the closet on the other, so went a family tale, this opening might have served ancient confessors or entrapped viewers. Through this worn tapestry, Meta began shadowing her granduncle and his circle.
He educated his neighboring peers on their Saxon history: Arminius was a Saxon turncoat against Caesar Augustus and General Varus heading the ancient Roman conquest. Thus, said Granduncle, Arminius won out against the Roman legions who were attacking Saxon forest lands.
In that same ancient time, Meta the child began guessing that Jesus’ homeless parents sought a room. None existed. So, the holy family wound up for his birth in the Bethlehem animal manger.
• • •
Now in modern times, winter bonfire councils sanctified war. Or in his study on summer days, Uncle Heinrich preferred that such warriors near his very farm had crouched with their swords.
Now with his cronies, squires, lesser nobility, merchants, and family, Heinrich reminisced about this marshland battleground, boggy and foggy near the sea.
Heinrich’s fire clicked, echoing ancient restlessness alongside the mythical smith Saxanus. Seriously, his compatriots studied scripted texts, like others in post-Great War time, thinker-writers like Rosenberg, other scholars, and the Stranger.
• • •
Upstairs, in the woman’s master bedroom, its ark-like bedstead with bas-relief masks, intrigued Meta. She peeked in. Her favorite doll was dressed in red sash on white shirtwaist and carried up from the downstairs closet. Two-faced, happy on the front and sad on the back, the porcelain face looked from glass blue eyes and her dark eyelashes. Her leather body lay near the fading mint silken dust ruffle that puffed onto the floor. This room was more forbidden to her than any closet or Granduncle’s study.
On the floor, next to the dust ruffle, Meta fanned out bisque dolls, who smiled with eyes closed or opened and listened to her fairy tales.
• • •
Since his wife’s presumed death, Heinrich, or Tante Lore, if visiting, hiss-whispered to Meta, “Avoid this room. If there, you’ll disturb everyone.”
Once a daytime housekeeper had left doors unlocked. Thus, Meta could enter. At the same time, others were saying, “No one’s trustworthy these days.”
Opening drawers, by age ten, Meta discovered mascara, lipstick, and rouge to tint her cheeks. A pale green Parisian crystal atomizer’s scent intoxicated her skin with frankincense. Dolled up in a flowery, gauzy shirtwaist, and red pumps with heels shaped like her calves, she shimmied before the tripartite armoire mirror.
One side angled just so toward a wall mirror for Infinite Metas. She’d bring a true friend to these mobile wing mirrors. For now, her mirror image befriended her.
• • •
Meanwhile, the gait of Onkel Heinrich pounded the floor, muted by the valued Persian hall runner, safeguarded by a crocheted ragtop rug.
Meta yanked off the fancy clothes and slid beneath the bedsprings. Her nerves exploded.
“Meta! Your scent belongs to one woman only.” Who?
Bending down, heavyset Granduncle managed to grab her ankle against her resistance. Hooking her fingers around the springs and bracing her free leg against a bedstead leg, she tried to counter his yanking her out from under the bed.
Horsewhipping her, he ratcheted up the stings to thirteen.
“This room’s off-limits. Tell no one what’s happened here. Otherwise, you’ll be sorry.” He locked her in.
The horsewhip pained less than his tree branches, his “switches,” hanging downstairs on the back-entryway rack. A silver object in the front had warranted her curiosity, as an iron catapult bolt point.
Like most area gentry and small farmers, Granduncle accrued weapons, for sport, hunting, and security.
• • •
Six hours later, Meta heard Nanna plead, “Heinrich, please, set little Meta free.” But Nanna was forbidden to do so.
Meta, still locked up in the room, kicked the door and spit words. “Why’s he so cruel?” The door moved ajar, but stayed locked.
In the forbidden master bedroom, earlier she’d also hid dolls. One by one, removing them from the armoire drawer, she smashed their heads on the floor. If unbroken, she threw them against the armoire mirror. They cracked.
A floorboard creaked. Nothing more.
Through the bedroom windows, finger-shaped leaves glistened on ancient giant high oak trunks. They could shelter her, if she climbed out. Haw, gum, and birch tree grove, once called Alah, had been worshipped by ancient people. On Moor inclines, in the salty, gritty air, giant oak domes and furry-wooly-prickly evergreens almost floated toward the sea.
From Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen), near Hamburg and Copenhagen, low by the Atlantic, rivers had been launching multitudes for eons. Observing the land and horizon through locked bedroom windows, Meta told herself, “I will go.”
• • •
Three hours later, Granduncle Heinrich still disallowed Nanna’s unlatching the master female bedroom to free Meta.
Outside he whispered. Mrs. von Handler said, “Without her as a nuisance, we have time together. She won’t miss you.”
• • •
By dusk, the door’s clicking by an unknown and unseen hand stirred some hope in the girl Meta.
Dazed while stuck there, she thought back in time. How could she slip out?
• • •
Sometimes she’d darted from the kitchen into the cellar. Wooden columns there braced the passages and ceiling of the semi-developed cellar. Pressed dirt walls revealed root hairs. Other cellar parts, bricked, and plastered, had snagged her tousled red-gold hair.
Cellar cupboards, closed for years, had enticed her into treasure hunts. So, vintage wines, vinegar with mother froth, tasty peppers, pickled pigs’ feet, and cucumbers lined the shelves.
Farther below in the subcellar, Ol’ Christoph, family doyen, reminded her, “No place for you to play.” In the wine cellar vat, southern wine liters could fill decanters to satisfy family needs. Many though preferred ales.
• • •
Here and now though, Meta heard the master female bedroom door click again. Keys were trying to fit the keyhole. By the window, Meta stewed and cried while gazing across infinity.
If escaping, whether from the bedroom or subcellar, she’d slip away from Onkel Heinrich, Nanna, Christoph the farm manager, and Tante Lore.
Meta vowed she’d follow monarch butterflies hovering below or the “horrible Blues,” hated moths. Hummingbirds, like music, were swinging around the trumpet flowers. Meta’s thoughts whirled toward being free.
• • •
Upside-down baskets intrigued her. These beehives pegged the heath earth to produce honey. Rose hedges massed nearby on the heath, Heide termed Saxum, enchanting travelers in August.
• • •
Her thoughts reeled, unreeled, and got snarled up in this locked bedroom.
Recently, her aunt, Lore, when present, would see to Meta’s breakfast and oversee household tasks. “Sweep the floor. Dust the furniture with feather dusters.”
When sneezing overcame Meta, Nanna added, “Polish the silver instead.” Both older women chorused that work increased to strengthen her.
But if Granduncle and Frau von Handler locked her in the master female bedroom, how could she do housework?
• • •
The heathery dream-froth was covering upright and flat rocks, Hunengraben, megaliths for unmindful wanderers to trip on. Along nearby riverbank serene horses glistened silvery, coppery, and gold.
Any creature—dog, cow, horse, or sheep—consoled Meta. Their furry hugs replaced parental care. Her granduncle thought he behaved like a father, while her actual mother was unspoken about. She’d confided in elder Nanna, “Animals are much kinder than people.”
• • •
The bedroom door clicked again. Worldlier than many, Aunt Lore had reminded Meta of fear. She kicked the door.
Once visitors arrived, after hours locked up, Meta was finally let out.
• • •
Both Aunt Lore and Meta loved sleek horses. After the Great War, breeding was revitalizing in local farming by 1923; each foal cheered farm communities.
The stock dealer who sold cattle, sheep, and horses to Granduncle Heinrich brought ’round Grete, his daughter, to visit with Meta.
Granduncle Heinrich would dicker with this dealer over sheep or horses for his farm. Theodore van M. and Heinrich von C. made rounds on his lands and discoursed on headlined political risings. So, afternoons belonged to two men apart from their two daughters. Hunting, trout fishing from the Elbe or Weser, crop failures, and war stories consumed the men.
• • •
To the elder Nanna, Meta repeated, “Animals are friendlier than people.”
When riding in a farm cart, Meta added, “Beavers flap and chew tree stumps to make their little dams across streams. Can we do that against people who oppose us?”
• • •
From having read the twenty-third Psalm and learned it by heart from her Bible, Meta fantasized about fleeing into a pastoral family. Some skinny sheep grazed around the shepherd and shepherdess. Wearing forest-green wool great coats, the elder couple seemed to have been sitting on the rocks their whole lives.
Everything fit. Mornings, they ate groats. Easing back after the Great War into their actual lives, on rocks their knitting needles clacked in purls and knits. “In vigilance, we spent the war years,” Frau Shepherd said, “as big-house servants, instead of outside with sheep in our rightful place.”
The shepherdess, pulling white cheese and black bread from her sack, handed some to Meta. “Where do you hail from?”
“Hope not.” Meta wiped her forehead, uncertain about her whereabouts.
“Where’s your mother?” With her crook, the shepherdess pulled a lamb against straying and guided another within the hold for the herd with one large gate. “Sheep in and poachers out.”
“In heaven or hell,” Meta replied. “Nobody tells me where my parents are, so my great-uncle and great-aunt try caring for me.”
“Maybe your parents are buried in that cemetery.” Here stood ancient high crosses and worn, semi-shaped rocks.
“Oh, they weren’t that old. No church’s near here.”
From the black-faced sheep flock, soft, woolly, a pair baaed at Meta. Herr Shepherd in local Plattdeutsch, incomprehensible local Saxon German, asked, “What’s your family name?”
“Von Cherusche, not quite my surname Cherusche.”
“Gut. Many after the Great War like you without fathers or mothers look for work. Some young ones fall in with bad types with no work. Careful, little beauty with the alpine red-streaked hair, watch for errant knights with nothing to live on. They maraud.
“Stay a few days in the hutment with us. When it’s cold, we rent a farmhouse room. You could too.”
“No, I belong in my uncle’s house, I think.”
• • •
On her way, meters beyond, Meta passed bark huts that clung to the moor. Poking along with her gingko branch crook and sack and pulling her dangling sun-bleached curls out of her eyes, she charged up the highest flattop rock to scan the horizon.
A dappled pony pulling an enclosed cart was less menacing than the lorry driver, who pulled up. “Little one, do you recognize me?”
Thirteen going on fifteen, she felt six. “No.” Her crook pocked the earth.
Gently, the voice spoke. His head blurred in her vision though eventually she acquiesced. “Your voice’s familiar.” The stranger drove off.
• • •
Two sheep were straying away from the shepherds’ flock. Their black Heideschucke masks were exposed, as if charred; such fuzzy roamers with curved downward horns needed fattening and removing of burrs from curly buff wool. Meta’s crook could steer them to hide them and care for them more than she had for the cow in the snarled garden hedge. There she’d placed the skinny cow she’d rescued earlier. The sheep, hidden, could munch rare grass. Better to lead these sheep than to follow them.
• • •
Days later, they, too, were missing. Meta was dismayed that she could not protect them.
• • •
Most bicycles had been drafted into the war effort for their metal structure and parts. So, any cyclist on the road, other than holidaymakers, jarred her. One unnerved her.
“Seen any sheep?” he asked.
“I’m looking for sheep.”
“I seen you stealing lambs.”
Her words throat-locked. He flipped out a bulletin and divulged his incomprehensible aim. His pale blue eyes, heavy-lidded, almost nonexistent, rolled back into his sockets, opened and fluttered.
“What’s this?” The local tongue written down confused her.
This pale-eyed fellow with a blond forelock tossed back against the wind patted her shoulder. She jumped. She grabbed leather bicycle sack for her small pickax and looked toward a pitchfork stuck in a dirt field.
“You will.” The cyclist rode away.
• • •
To anyone half listening, Granduncle cranked out farm problems: Weeds threatened their Garden of Eden; outbuildings’ bricks were falling. His words thundered away serenity. In her secret, hidden garden, the brambly area behind an unused outbuilding, Meta pastured her rescued animals.
“A skinny cow,” Heinrich noted, “means a fence is down or cut.” He wrote in his notebook.
• • •
Silence reigned at dinner. No one new to her sat there. Should Meta say grace?
With the gold Handsel, he cut the crossties binding the roast. The first serving, dark and crunchy, went for Lore and a third center rare for his Frau von Handler.
The old cook layered veal, pork, and turkey, which yielded, “You’ve outdone yourself.” Heinrich also sliced the Turkey Galantine on its gold-edged platter.
Meta, sleepy from eating too much, remembered the strutting turkeys before, sadly fading into oblivion. Hoping for invisibility, Meta bent from her corner perch at her uncle’s chair right. His toe angled toward Frau von Handler’s pointed toe. While prying secrets under the dining table leg claws that gripped clear globes, she caught her pug Mopsi, his snout flat sprawled out. Never full, tidbits falling off laps he leaped for. One thrown to him quieted his low whining into snorting in happiness over a turkey slice. His bubbly eyes whirled toward any gift, as his tail curled like a question mark. When Frau von Handler dropped another turkey bit, he wagged his tail. Women’s laps promised more for him than men’s without skirt-covered capacity for morsels that might slip off. He squeaked for more.
• • •
Many days later, Meta declared to Nanna, Granduncle’s aunt, “You said times were bad, so I must wed. Without old lederhosen, I’d be too girlish to work along with cows and sheep.”
“Dress like a lady for gentlemen.”
• • •
Meta left Nanna’s rooms for her own.
To see, while into the cellar, she groped her way. The candle and wooden matches for fireplaces or ceramic heaters were useful for a flame. It blew out in the basement tunnel’s breeze. Finally, she lit another large wick. Hot wax dripped. Ow! What if she set fire to this place?
Now who hung the carcass of the cow: hanging meat in the tunnel, not in a locker or smokehouse? This effigy dangled from rough-hewn rafters, once a tree trunk. Her uncle hooked it to swing over her frequented path. Few servants tunneled down here.
The carcass pendulum knocked out time. As a child, she’d pretended to fearlessness, so no one would bother her. As a young adult, she rolled her cape around her fear to look protected.
Haze and chill crossed the great northern moor outside the window; light flickered near the carcass, like someone hanging inside!?
Coughing. Was she being smoked out of the tunnel? Vapors from some vein of open earth consuming her.
Coming to, faint but alert to baking smells and scurrying sounds, she sensed someone above her. Rats? Nanna stood over her, disembodied. “Get up, dear; you can’t sleep on the ground.” Obedient in weakness, Meta rubbed her eyes.
Voices like dreams were evaporating. Her candle still lit but nearly blew out. She slipped ahead to the figure hanging from the rafter. When the candle died, a bat was nearing her. Improbable bats entered attics, barns, and evidently cellars.
She re-lit her candle and climbed after Nanna to the kitchen. No, she would sneak back down and up to her room and stay there. Diners, led by her uncle, could scour this corridor for her.
From the stairwell to her tower room, she heard a door thud. A draft blew out her candle again. She stubbed her toe in the dark and limped to her rooms to hide out.
Through the dormer window on the house wing, wooden horseheads seemed to writhe in the sunset on the roof points.
Squeezing the candle wax, she fortified herself inside against her outer door with a chest of drawers pushed against the door. House carpenters had built her bedroom walls around her sitting bench and niche bed. Walls contained a small blue and white tile heater. Clothing and bedding chests, carved with whirling flowers, sun symbols, bulked against the drawers. Other heavy furniture was unmoved. Staying put, she avoided Harald and Granduncle Heinrich still upstairs in the house.
Further, Meta fled under her featherbed and comforter. Her prayers took in wounds from terror sluicing over her. Through the window, the full moon awakened her—the fog cleared—moonlight was blinding.
A voice like her mother’s, vaguely recalled, came from the stars. “I’m at peace.”
Earlier, Meta shivered from the effigy’s image. If she’d hurried past it, nothing would happen. Did she invent the effigy? Again, she left her room to find out.
Once more nearing the kitchen stairs, she’d feared being locked out, until she complied. In the big house, upper corridor, the clock struck at seven, and her footsteps sounded like boots.
• • •
Her uncle had sacrificed the cow. This she knew. His act justified her removing herself from the upcoming dinner with guests.
Dreading them and beef for dinner, she heard clomping coming toward her. There he was. Risking his wrath, she confronted him as he hulked there.
“Uncle, why kill the cow and hang it up to rot.”
She was unsure what was happening.
“The caretaker Ol’ Christoph returned your sheep to our shepherd.
“Your cow was emaciated, half dead on her feet. Lately, there’s no Jewish cattle buyer even for her, either.”
Meta cringed. He meant Grete’s father, not Jewish, but Meta refused to reveal this fact.
“One sell herds or singles here. You know the father of your so-called friend.”
Meta shrank. Did Granduncle know all there was to know? When with her father, Grete had slipped her a note that another cow, maybe hers, had been sighted from among loose cows needing a barn.
Granduncle spoke. “Someone found your cow. Understand, much is stolen around here these days. You are just one more thief.
“Also, get this all straight: The newspaper says crime has increased here fifty percent recently. Your meandering with a pregnant cow bothers us, disturbs us.
“So we slaughtered her, salted and hung her here.
“Stick to pigs and piglets, if you must. We have plenty in Niedersachsen, Hannover.”
He opened his fist. “Stop kidding yourself you’ll find your mother! She’s dead.”
• • •
Months later, the household mellowed when her cousins visited. Liesl brought her good-natured newborn.
Country folk brought Torf from plaggan as gifts to collect urine, preventing a rash in tiny ones without cloth diapers in hard times. Uncle Heinrich would appreciate this method from his Völkisch mentality. The folks were thanked for their earth gifts, such as a willow crib.
Vast forests, cut long ago, resulted in plaggan, needed foresters no more. Prussia swallowed the Saxonies. Granduncle Heinrich reviled this battle lost and the war won by Prussia. This much she knew. Everyone in Northern Germany became Prussian.
“Christoph,” she asked days later, “who left for America? Didn’t you say plaggan led to my forester great-grandfather’s leaving during the American Civil War for America?
“And the Prussians took over Lower Saxony hereabouts. He, a forester, lost his job, so he journeyed to the New World for new trees.”
Doffing his squashed brown hat, Christoph squinted. “You’re old enough to understand how the Nazis are here everywhere coming faster than anywhere else. People are doing what they never did before.”
Meta replied, “People will leave… I will…for America by sea.”