The Empress of Weehawken

A Novel

Irene Dische

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Excerpt
 
Much of what went kaput, as the Americans say, in the generations after mine can be blamed on Carl’s low sperm count. He had murdered his men with heroism, the exact details later. As a result, he only managed one child. And that was the wrong sex. We tried and tried for another. He would plant himself inside me and till away. He worked hard, grunting and sweating—he was not a lazybones. Afterward, I remained on my back, hoisting my legs in the air over my head, the soles of my feet touching in prayer.
 
God did not hear my prayers. When nothing had come of our efforts for more than five years, and our child was already in school, I said, “Carl, according to the laws of the Church, one does this to make children. According to the Church, if it’s not to make children, then you Must Not.”
 
Carl had arguments up his sleeve about procreation as a form, with or without content, developed by God along with prayer as a ritual to be repeated as often as possible. His faith was deep and I loved him, and believed him, although my body didn’t. Then one day, when I showed reluctance, he said, “The ancient Jews were commanded to lie with each other on the Sabbath, because the high point brought them closest to God.”
 
“Jews!” I snorted.
 
“Not everything about the Jews is bad,” he said. He was apologetic, a rare occurrence. I sulked for a while, and allowed him to take me again, it was my duty. I was gaining weight. Soon there was so much of me that it was hard to say where I began or ended, and he became discouraged, and left me alone. Even a surgeon can be surprised by the human body.
 
The fact is that when we met, I was beautiful. I was the pinnacle of female beauty in our family; after that, it was downhill. Do not laugh at my conceit—I am being objective. In the first place, everyone always remarked about me and my favorite brother Otto that we were the most beautiful children. Adolescence did not alter this generally held opinion. In the second place I am not blind: we looked like German gods; we both had thick yellow hair, chiseled noses, eyes blue and commanding as planets, and almost perfectly fleshless lips. One could see plainly that our family had ties to the aristocracy.
 
Nowadays this doesn’t count for much, especially in the less civilized world, like New Jersey. But it should matter. Because aristocracy is a chain of people passing along a sense of worth, handling it cautiously, so as not to lose any, from one generation to the next. My great-great-uncle was Joseph von Görres. I will not bother to explain who he was. In my youth, those syllables belonged to the syllabus of general education, not to mention countless streets and public squares, and anyone who knew us, knew as well that we were connected to Görres. Not a direct descendant, I admit: he married a distant aunt, who was a von Lassaulx, also a name of distinction. Generations followed, of doctors, lawyers, engineers, prelates. They weren’t all Germans—some were Dutch, others French—but they were all Catholic. Over generations, my family, the Gierlichs, took one turn after another that led it into the middle class, but we never sank below that. Of course this was thanks to the women, who made sure there was no monkey business.
 
It is up to the women to keep up a family standard, men are not strong enough. Women must keep them in line, including lineage. I learned this from my grandmother, who instructed me that my very presence must influence, that when I enter a room the men must unconsciously move their hands to their trousers, to make sure they have not forgotten to button up; I was about seven years old.
 
The women were groomed to choose their husbands prudently. My grandmother turned down a rich aristocrat because he was lazy. He had a castle, but not a position. Instead, she married an energetic engineer, who soon rewarded her by building the railroad from Berlin to Petersburg. Czar Alexander was so grateful that he presented my grandmother with a set of onyx and diamonds, big pieces that really qualify one to say “family jewelry.” I don’t like the first syllable of that word, but this substance is one thing that I really enjoyed in my life: I inherited and was given a lot of it, and I took excellent care of it. Many decades later, I risked my life to smuggle Czar Alexander’s generous gifts to safe shores—only to have my granddaughter auction them for a pittance at Christie’s, under circumstances so demeaning they make our flight from Germany look like a Sunday excursion to Chadwick Beach. I will return to that later.
 
Because this gory little narrative concerns my granddaughter, the hows and whys of her, a kind of True Confession I have decided to write for her since she has just reached a spot that is as lonely as a vacuum. Her conscience is in there with her. She has A Lot on it. She is not entirely to blame. She had terrible role models: her mother and her father. And she was, by nature, not well equipped morally. Really, all the bad qualities that could be cooked up in the family genes were served to Irene. I will get to these, but not as an excuse. Because one can overcome, make the best of what one has. In any case, her background must be recounted, to make sense of the foreground. But where was I?
 
My appearance.
 
In our engagement photograph I look like a martyr about to be thrown to a lion. My future husband holds me in his arms, his wild creature poking at the barriers between us: our layers of clothing, the weeks until the wedding ceremony. Soon it would be released. Carl’s eyes were even larger than mine, but black. His nose was large too, and beaked. His bones were large. His creature would not be small.
 
I am not suggesting that Carl was ever anything but honorable. He wore his military uniform to our wedding. With his medals for heroism, and his sword at his belt, he looked like the perfect German gentleman. His moral credentials were impeccable. But of course I was doing the Wrong Thing by marrying him. I aimed the family downward. I crash-landed the family. Love makes one careless. I argued with my parents that since he converted to my faith, just the way Gustav Mahler and countless other important people had, and was twice as Good as me, since goodness came to him without effort, whereas I always had to work at it (my parents nodded vigorously in agreement), he was a perfectly respectable choice in a husband. The alternative was no husband at all. This had been my sworn objective until I met him, Dr. Carl Rother.
 
We had met over a limb amputation, in an army field hospital.
 
I was one of the nurses, in a sterile gown, my hair hidden under a conical surgical cap. He was even more covered up. He wore a mask. I did not see the size of this nose until later. I saw his black eyes. And his quick, graceful hands, handling the saw with such familiarity. He cut and trimmed and sewed, all at great speed. His palm was square and muscular, his fingers long and tapering to small tips with round, neat fingernails. When the stump was all cleaned up and lay on the operating table looking like a giant salami, he sighed, stood back, and gazed over at me.
 
For a while, I would have none of him. I had already turned down all the eligible boys back in the Rhineland, where I belonged. But I allowed him to kiss me. It wasn’t so bad. He was very clean. He gave me a ring. I gave it back. He gave me another.
 
His father owned a hardware store in a small town in Upper Silesia. The men in the family wore yarmulkes, the women wigs. I accepted the ring. I told my family. My brother Otto said nothing. I mean: nothing; he wouldn’t speak to me. My youngest brother Heinrich proclaimed himself concerned. Up till then, he was the family problem; he hadn’t even finished high school and he seemed headed for a career in manual labor. Compared with me now, though, he was a shining light. He adored my predicament, and when I went home to discuss the wedding with my parents, he pretended to try to talk me out it. I was amused when he addressed me over a hastily called dinner, and my smile triggered his usual raging, his shouts of “kleiner Idiot” sprayed into the first course, a delicious Milchkaltschale, iced soup with beaten egg white floating in icebergs on top; it was the middle of the summer. My sisters looked at me, their souls doubled over in pain: betrayal. Together, we had danced our way through bourgeois Rhineland life, attended balls, dried our first bouquets, toyed with the officers and academics and higher forms of male being that invited toying, while exchanging, again and again, our childhood oaths to keep forever our virginity and to have, therefore, interesting lives. My decision shocked my sisters into a kind of submission to me. I had my way. A week after Carl was baptized, I married him. And I moved with him to the backwater where he had grown up.
 
I accepted his attempts at compensation—a boxer, a dachshund, and the biggest villa in town. It was larger than the Gierlich home overlooking the Rhine. It had high stucco ceilings, ornate parquet floors, an enormous kitchen, a wing for the servants, a nursery, and three bathrooms, two for the family, one for the staff. More compensation—I had a lovely sitting room, with a settee. I changed the slipcovering every season. Pastels in spring and summer, solemn browns and grays for autumn, and deep reds and greens for winter. A small table held my books, mostly biographies and travel guides, and the cookies, which changed with the seasons too. I looked forward to spring—flowery anise cookies; summer—airy waffles and Löffelbiskuits; autumn—russisches Brot; winter—Lebkuchen, Spekulatius. I could look out at the flowers or the snowdrifts in the back garden. The front yard had a high brick wall so that passersby could not stare in, but most of them were friendly, and many were related. I accepted Carl’s family and enjoyed calling them my own, even if they were socially not on our level: four good-natured sisters who did not employ servants but managed all by themselves to keep clean houses and bake various pastries; three brothers, one a barber, the other a cantor in the synagogue, and the youngest, like Heinrich Gierlich, the family problem—worse: a thief.
 
The youngest children are usually the family problem, as Irene would turn out to be. I have asked around here why that is, and received no satisfactory answer. When I met Carl, Jacob Rother was only fifteen and so enterprising that he had already found his way into a prison. His crime was modest. He had found a broken camera in a scrap heap and polished it up. He set off into the countryside on a mission, to make portraits of the peasants and their families. They dolled up, assembled in front of the camera, and he solemnly clicked their pictures and took their coins. And that was the last they saw of him. Little Jacob came out of prison, claimed to be sorry, shocked us with his stories, and disappeared on another scam. Although he was the only other man in the family not running around in a yarmulke, Carl detested him. “I have enough brothers to go around, I don’t need you, Jacob,” he said, and forbade him to visit us.
 
I opened the back door for Jacob when Carl was not home. I fed him a big meal, and told him enough about Jesus, a parable a visit—Jacob ate very vigorously, so I had to speak up—to justify the invitation. Even if I was sowing into thorns, I enjoyed the company of this young version of Carl—as dark and muscular and nearly as smart—and sent him away with admonitions he would never heed, my heart happy. I also liked all the countless little well-behaved nieces and nephews that lived in town. They turned the dreary provincial town into a warm lap.
 
The biggest compensation—Carl was a big man in a little town, but he was also a fairly big man in a very big town. He ran the local town hospital as chief doctor, but he also taught at the university of Breslau. His title was not just Herr Doktor, it was Herr Professor Doktor, and I was his wife, and my name became Frau Professor Doktor, and that bit of recognition, in the large sense small, made up for a whole lot of strangeness and smallness that a worldly Rhinelander like me took upon herself moving to Upper Silesia. But apart from all that, I admired Carl more than I had ever admired anyone but my big brother Otto. My husband was just as intelligent, as morally upright. He had grown up praying to a different God, but he believed in Jesus all the more passionately, and securely, for having spent so many years without Him. Our child made him miserable, because it soon became obvious that it had grave flaws.
 
Flaw number one: it did not resemble me in the way that mattered. It had Carl’s enormous dark eyes, his nose, and all on its own, I don’t know where they came from, red, flashy lips. Also unlike us, our child had a noticeably weak chin, and that, said Carl, represented weakness of character. All this was not obvious when the baby was born, for nothing is, they all look alike, I find them somewhat disgusting. But I knew that, and I can’t say it disappointed me. Something else. Flaw number two. A shock. I was unprepared: a girl.
 
It was bad enough being a girl myself, not being able to become an army officer, a hero of battles. Otto bathed naked but I had to take baths with my underpants on, so as not to see. I took my underpants off anyway, and my nanny smacked me. Father, I was impure. Constantly. All around me were shining examples. My sisters were in and out of the confessional in five minutes. Not me. Father, I was angry, envious, greedy.
 
It did not go unnoticed. I dunked the braids of the girl at the desk in front of me into my inkwell because her braids were thicker than mine. I had to leave the convent school. A girl spoke loudly in the confessional and I listened in and giggled; I had to leave the school. When our teacher fell from her chair, I claimed that we children had seen her underpants and she was therefore unfit to teach us. I had to leave the school. In the end, I had private tutors. A visitor gave each child in the family a heavy glass egg, with a figurine from the New Testament inside. But mine had a little chicken. A chicken! I hurled it out the window. My guardian angel nudged it off trajectory by one centimeter, so that it merely grazed the rim of a gentleman’s felt hat rather than killing him. Sin of nearly taking someone’s life. In living room and nursery and dinner-table confrontations they scolded that I was intransigent, my morals beyond repair because I was immune to scolding. I am afraid that I passed on my character to my granddaughter Irene. The difference between us is that all my life, I pitted my will to be good against my natural inclinations, while she saw no point in that. More about this later. I must explain about Otto. My brother Otto was pious, God-fearing, and quiet. We were often mistaken for each other. Otto was ten months older than I was, and exactly my height until he reached his teens. Then suddenly he grew much taller, he had a growling voice, while I kept the thin, piping one. He started treating me with disdain. He didn’t like girls any more than I did, even as an adult. I happen to know that he preferred boys. Another tragedy for me: I was not a boy he could love and confide in.
 
 
Excerpted from The Empress of Weehawken by Irene Dische. Copyright © 2007 by Irene Dische. Published in August 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.