In the midst of World War II, Klara, from Germany, takes a job teaching schoolchildren in a small, mostly German-speaking town in Czechoslovakia; her duties include policing the children’s use of Czech.
In March Klara overheard some children speaking Czech.
It startled her. She was just going out for a walk when she suddenly overheard Czech; unsure what to do, she stepped back into the corridor and waited until the children had gone. A week later, she decided to visit their parents.
The parents of Erna Röttinger sat her down at a cleanly scrubbed table and offered her coffee. It was exactly as she suspected. Hugo Röttinger was German, the mother came from a Czech family. Just like Erna, she had a round face and clear eyes. Her German sounded softer, and when Klara gently announced the reason for her visit, Mrs. Röttinger reddened.
“You mustn’t think we speak Czech with the children,” she said. “We never do that. But sometimes my parents visit and I can’t order them to speak German.”
“We’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Hugo Rotteringer broke in quietly.
He had a wide, sensitive mouth and smoked a pipe with a short stem.
“It’s my duty to monitor these things,” Klara said reluctantly.
“Of course,” Erna’s father demurred. “And, honestly, if our daughter spoke Czech, she wasn’t thinking.”
His wife nodded, and Klara noticed how her husband squeezed her hand. Erna’s mother brought her into the darkening hall and touched Klara’s arm.
“You won’t tell Inspector Malke, will you?” she asked.
Erwin and Rudi Paulus’s parents owned a large farm with a row of stone stables. Two dogs were chained to the wall of the barn. They started barking when Klara walked into the courtyard. Oskar Paulus, a square-shouldered and taciturn man, looked out from the door and shouted at them. He brought Klara into a spacious and warm kitchen; a fire crackled in the stove; steam rose out of some pots atop it.
Paulus’s wife, standing at the stove, wiped her hands on her apron.
“Will you stay for lunch?”
Before she could reply, Paulus pressed her into a chair and set a bowl in front of her.
They ate in silence. The host said grace before his wife ladled out the thick soup.
“You chose a bad day to come,” she said, smiling at Klara. “If you’d come tomorrow, you would’ve gotten meat.”
When they finished, the children bolted, and Paulus sat next to Klara.
“So, tell me,” he said.
A bottle of schnapps appeared on the table. He poured three small glasses.
“You’re here because of the little ones,” he said and drank. Klara fidgeted.
“Well . . .”
“What have they been up to?”
She saw him ball his hand into a fist. “I . . .”
While Oskar Paulus stared at her curiously, his wife downed her schnapps and started clearing the plates.
“I heard them speaking Czech,” Klara blurted out. She turned and looked at Paulus.
His face relaxed and he broke into a laugh.
He rubbed tears from his eyes with the back of his hand and said something to his wife that Klara didn’t understand.
“That calls for a drink,” he exclaimed cheerfully and refilled the glasses. “And to think I was worried!” He took a sip.
“What crap,” he said.
Klara tried to smile. “I have to monitor it.”
“Yes, yes.” Paulus nodded, letting out another laugh. “When I was a boy, they used to run after us for setting sheaves of wheat on fire. Now you go hunting down brats for saying a couple words of Czech?”
He laid his head on the table as his shoulders shook with laughter. Klara’s eyes wandered over to his wife, who stood by the sink with a wet pot in her hand, smiling in amusement along with her husband. After Paulus had laughed his fill, he turned serious. He pushed the cork into the bottle of schnapps and slid the bottle to the edge of the table.
“Look, Fräulein Kolmann,” he said. “I don’t know where our boys could have picked it up. No one in this house speaks Czech.”
He glanced at his wife.
“There are plenty of kids in the village from mixed marriages. Maybe you should visit them.”
Klara stood and thanked them for lunch. He escorted her to the door.
“You should eat more,” he said instead of good-bye. “I can hear your bones rattle.”
She left Paulus’s farm, her cheeks burning with shame.
Hanna Weissman lived with her father on the outskirts of the village in a house next door to an abandoned castle garden. The wooden gate to the courtyard was locked and the windows were covered in dirt. Klara stood on tiptoe and peered over the fence. A vague smell of burning floated over the courtyard.
She tried calling Weissmann’s name. The only answer she got came from a small spotted dog, tied to the barn. Klara turned to leave. The thought of having to visit there again turned her stomach.
When she got back to the school she was surprised to find it unlocked; she was sure she had locked up before she left. She walked upstairs to her classroom slowly and found Fuchs standing there. He was flipping through her notebook, which she had left on the desk.
“You’ve been visiting parents,” he said when he noticed her. “Any problems?”
She shook her head. She was tired and didn’t want to argue.
“Don’t forget, you can turn to me anytime,” he said.
Her notebook was still in his hands. She walked over and took it from him.
“As I said, I’m happy to help,” he said.
She stepped back to allow him to pass.
“I don’t want you coming to my classroom when I’m not here,” she said when he reached the door.
He turned and stared at her briefly, then closed the door quietly behind him.
After he left, Klara sat on her desk and lit a cigarette; she could still taste Paulus’s schnapps in her mouth.
Once a month, she would buy meat, bread, and margarine in Tichý Brod.
She also usually made a stop at the post office to pick up any letters from home. Once, she stayed in town so long she only just caught the last train back. It was full of factory workers and she barely found a seat. When she sat down and looked around, she recognized some of them, fathers of children she taught at school. They said hello, then turned their backs on her.
She wondered whether they thought she was like Fuchs: maybe they suspected her of snitching to the school inspector.
She longed for a cigarette. The men around her chatted in a dialect of which she could understand only a couple of words. She wished they would speak to her; she believed one day it might happen.
Fuchs said maybe the grandchildren of their children.
She didn’t know anything about it.
She made up her mind.
“Do you have a cigarette?” she asked her neighbor.
He looked at her, astonished, then reached into his pocket and pulled out a hand-rolled cigarette, white and thick, cut tobacco falling loosely from it. She thanked him and slipped it into her mouth.
He had turned his back on her again, so she had to give him a nudge.
He handed her his cigarette so she could light hers.
It was like smoking tar, thumping her lungs, smelly and pitiless. She was used to Princesses, the cigarettes Magda Goebbels preferred. She wondered if she could trust these men in the car. Magda Goebbels, her mother’s cousin. The minute she lit up, the men went silent. She remembered Fuchs’s warning her that none of the village women smoked.
Their silence hurt her. She hadn’t chosen their village. She was as afraid of them as they were of her. They were different from the Germans she knew in the Reich, fierce and unhappy. They tested her, trying to weigh how dangerous she might be to them, and she had no idea how to convince them that she wasn’t a threat.
Hanna Weissmann’s father was at least a head shorter than Klara.
When she told him the reason for her visit, that she’d heard his daughter speaking Czech, he shook his head and gave the same reaction as Oskar Paulus.
“Don’t you have anything better to do?”
She stood in the doorway, a black-and-white dog jumping up and down, snapping at her ankles. It was early April and a mix of snow and rain was falling from the cloudy sky. It felt as if her body were divided in two; her back was wet with snowflakes while her face and chest were bathed in the warmth of the house.
Weissmann was blank-faced and unfriendly, so Klara was surprised when he invited her inside. The entry hall was dark and in the kitchen she almost fainted from the sharp animal smell; the source was not only Weissmann’s body, as she had first thought, but the whole house, the walls, the beams, the joints in the floor. She unconsciously wiped her nose and Weissmann laughed.
He handed her a battered mug and sat on the bench by the long table. He looked at her with curious, hard eyes, his lower lip slightly jutting out, which gave his face an irritated expression.
She sipped her coffee and looked around the room. Suddenly she noticed the odd equipment and as she took it in open-mouthed, he showed his strong teeth in an amused grin.
“I’m a slaughterer,” he said. “You didn’t know?”
He reached up to a shelf above him, took down a stuffed sparrow, and placed it in front of her.
“I sometimes work as a taxidermist,” he explained.
She touched the bird hesitantly.
“Take it,” he offered. “It’s yours.”
She thanked him and with some distaste put the bird in her pocket. Weissmann finished his coffee.
“So,” he said, “what’ll we do about Hanna?”
She wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible, get rid of the little corpse in her pocket, and give her hands a good scrubbing.
“Just make sure you talk to her,” Klara said.
Weissmann nodded and moved his face so close to hers she could feel his breath. Her stomach rose and she shrank back; he noticed, but said nothing.
“Hanna’s mother was Czech,” he said as he walked her out.
She stopped in the courtyard by a brick alcove with a long chimney.
“My kitchen,” he said, thrusting his chin out. “Want to have a look?”
She shook her head. He bared his teeth again, shiny and so dense it seemed as if they were a single mass sticking out of his gums. His dog suddenly gave a shrill yelp and Klara almost shrieked in terror. She stumbled and Weissmann grabbed her elbow.
“Careful,” he whispered.
Klara waded through the snow to the gate. She looked back and saw Weissmann standing in his doorway, bathed in the soft light of the lamp. He was watching her, his eyes shining like the glass beads he used on his dead animals.
She didn’t dare throw out the dead sparrow the slaughterer had given her. She pulled it out of her pocket, wrapped in a handkerchief, and laid it on the windowsill. When she went to bed that night, she realized a strange smell had spread through the room. She wondered for a moment what it was, then headed straight toward the stuffed animal. Sniffing it, she suddenly found herself back in Weissmann’s kitchen with its acrid smell of tanned hides, kerosene, and something else; she remembered the smell coming off the slaughterer’s body, spicy and unclean, the smell of a person in constant, fearless contact with death.
She grabbed the sparrow and threw it into the stove, slammed the door, climbed into bed, and pulled the covers over her head.
In 1888, a dispute erupted in the town of Rzy between Jan Eichler, the principal of the school, and Josef Gotthard, the deacon, who taught religion there every Thursday.
The dispute concerned a theatrical performance; the school inspector’s visit was almost upon them, and the principal had decided his students were going to put on a puppet play.
“And what will you put on?” the deacon asked, vaguely suspicious, handing the principal his usual glass of cherry schnapps.
“You aren’t going to like it,” the principal said, tipping the bottle of schnapps as if anticipating the priest was going to need a top-up.
“The Devil and Kate.”
The principal tried to suppress a victorious smile.
“We’re putting on The Devil and Kate.”*
The deacon swirled his glass of schnapps thoughtfully.
“Hmmm,” he said, “I don’t think so. It strikes me as making a mockery of a theological entity. That is, assuming the devil can be considered a theological entity.”
He handed the principal his empty glass.
“When you ridicule theology, you ridicule the church,” he added grimly.
“What do you mean, theological entity?”
The principal waved it off.
“It’s an ordinary fairy tale. I was just writing the parts of the characters today.”
The deacon narrowed his eyes. For some time now he had suspected the principal of being a closet Darwinist. Even if he had been having his pupils say the “Our Father” before class every day—the deacon had his spies—an anonymous letter had appeared on his desk a year ago, entitled “Why we should pay attention to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.” After a careful examination—and just before he burned it—the deacon concluded that the letters bore the unmistakable signs of Eichler’s handwriting.
“So when are you planning to do it?” he asked with a show of indifference.
“The middle of April.”
The principal didn’t miss the sparks in the deacon’s eyes. He landed his last blow.
“During Inspector Haselbauer’s visit,” he explained.
The deacon kept his head.
“Do you have puppets?”
“I’m going to carve them,” the principal said. “My father was a carpenter and I picked up a few things from him.”
He raised the bottle of cherry schnapps.
The deacon’s eye twitched.
“No, thanks,” he said, rising slowly.
“So, The Devil and Kate.”
The principal blushed.
“Well, we’ll see,” the deacon said ominously, and walked out the school’s front door to where his carriage awaited him.
A week later, he gripped the edges of his lectern so tightly you could see the whites of the knuckles.
“We’re putting on a play,” he announced to the bewildered children. “Those of you who aren’t acting in the principal’s play, sign up here.”
Two dozen unhappy souls signed up.
“Good!” bellowed the deacon, forgetting this wasn’t the pulpit.
The children cowered.
“Our play is going to be the envy of the whole town.”
A tiny girl with braided hair dared to ask which play they were going to perform. The deacon surveyed the children with a triumphant look.
“The Creation of the World,” he said solemnly.
Then, for a second, he faltered, realizing there were a lot more children than there were roles.
“And also the Great Flood and Noah’s Ark,” he added more quietly, astounded at his quick thinking.
The children cheered and the fighting spirit rose again in him.
The principal soon realized he couldn’t compete with the deacon (who hired his sexton to make the puppets) when it came to the quantity of puppets and so instead decided to concentrate on quality. His Kate sported real hair, and his puppet musicians’ instruments actually worked, at least until the little trumpet got clogged with saliva, despite his efforts to clear it out with a little stick.
Rehearsals lasted for several months and the premieres for both plays were set for Easter week, the same week as the inspector’s visit. The deacon tried to prevent the principal from putting on his unholy play just after the Resurrection, but the bishop, to whom he turned for support, had no time for such trivial matters.
The plays, performed one right after the other, were a great success, running as long as the pupils in the surrounding villages and towns were willing to come and watch. It was only with the arrival of the first frosts that the principal laid his and the deacon’s puppets in a box, covered them in wood shavings, and locked them in his cabinet. With the deacon’s help he carried the scenery, made from tough cardboard, up to the attic. The steep stairs nearly did the deacon in; he clutched at his heart, breathing heavily.
“So, it’s over,” he said. Principal Eichler could have sworn he heard regret in the deacon’s voice.
“Yes,” he replied. “And your play was a great success. Congratulations.”
The deacon gloomily watched a spider spin its web in the beams.
“Tell me,” he said, turning to the principal after they had made their way back down the stairs and the principal opened a drawer and pulled out the cherry schnapps. “Was it you who sent the letter?”
“What letter? The one about Darwin’s book?”
The principal wiped two heavy-bottomed glasses with a handkerchief.
“Yes, that one,” the deacon said, realizing he had never mentioned it to the principal before.
“Not that one,” the principal said, and the deacon caught a smile in his eyes.
When Jan Eichler died, in 1914, the deacon said the eulogy over his grave. In between the words of the psalms and words of condolence, he kept hearing the name of the fairy tale.
The Devil and Kate.
At one point he almost said it aloud, but luckily only the first part, which would have been acceptable seeing as the devil is a theological entity and therefore appropriate to include in a eulogy. In the following years, he often thought about the puppets, trapped in their boxes and locked away in the cabinet. He had an urge to look at the animals that the sexton had carved from soft linden wood, and he was saddened to learn that the new principal had moved some of his predecessor’s furniture up into the attic. Often, during the many masses he said for the victims of the war, his thoughts strayed to the puppet camels, hanging by their long, thin threads, and to Noah, whose belly resembled his own.
Klara found the puppets one night while poking around the school. She carefully brought them down from the attic and spread them out on the table in her room. The wooden figures smelled of dust and beeswax. She loved that smell; it reminded her of old paintings. She lit a cigarette and examined the puppets one by one, picking them up in her hands: Adam, his crotch covered with a thin piece of wood; the devil, sticking out his tongue; Kate, her arms outstretched; and the camels, their humps devoured by woodworms.
Fuchs wasn’t thrilled at her idea of having the children put on a puppet play; he was more concerned by the fact that she had been poking around the school on her own. Leaning on the stairs, he frowned at the padlock she had taken off the day before and left lying on the floor.
“You could have asked for the key,” he said.
“It was late,” she countered.
“And you didn’t want to wait till morning,” he sneered.
They climbed up together and looked at the scenery leaning against the wall.
“It’s all gnawed by mice,” Fuchs said. “We’ll have to repaint it.”
“I know,” Klara said enthusiastically. “We’ll do it with the children.”
“Where will you get the paper?”
She shrugged. He shook his head, stepped toward her, and put his hand on her arm.
“What do you want to perform?” he asked.
“I don’t know yet.”
It piqued him when she stepped back, leaving his hand hanging in the air.
Klara examined the scenery to see if any of it could still be used. Fuchs left her in the attic, and when he walked past her room he noticed that she had forgotten to close the door. He looked up. He could hear her footsteps above him, rustling, then a cry of disappointment as she dropped something on the floor.
He hesitated a moment, then pursed his lips and walked into her room.
It felt different when she wasn’t in it. Even the light seemed different. His eyes darted quickly around the room. Unmade bed, empty cup on the table, books carefully arranged on the shelves, wooden puppets in the corner, strings distentangled and hung over a broomstick.
The Kate puppet somehow reminded him of his mother, with its red blouse and missing hair. He took it gently in his hands, touching its wooden face—no woodworm, he noticed with satisfaction—then put it back. Turning back to the room, he nosily opened a drawer and ran his palm over some neatly folded writing paper. Finally he bent over her bed. He blushed when he saw her nightgown, its hem grimy with ash. He closed his eyes and buried his face in the blanket. He smelled chamomile and the lovely, sweet odor of female sweat. He inhaled and exhaled deeply. He wasn’t thinking of Klara, but of his mother, who smelled exactly the same.
From Němci © 2012 by Jakuba Katalpa. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Michelle Woods. All rights reserved.
*An opera (Čert a Káča in Czech) in three acts by Antonín Dvořák, set to a Czech libretto by Adolf Wenig. The opera’s début performance was at the National Theater in Prague on November 23, 1899.