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SOME NIGHTS, WHEN THE STORM came in from the west, the house groaned like a boat tossed back and forth on a heavy sea. Gusts of wind squealed before being deadened by the old walls.
That’s what witches sound like when they’re burning, Vera thought, or children when they get their fingers caught.
The house groaned but wouldn’t sink. The ragged roof held fast to its timbers. There were masses of green moss nests in the thatch; it was only sagging at the top.
The paint had peeled off the timber frame facade, and the exposed oak posts were embedded in the walls like gray bones. The inscription on the gable was weather-beaten, but Vera knew what it said: This hoose is mine ain and yet no mine ain, he that follows will caw it his.
It was the first Low German* sentence she had learned upon entering this farm in the Altland in northern Germany, holding her mother’s hand.
The second sentence came from Ida Eckhoff herself, and set the tone for the years they would spend together: How many more of yez Polacks are comin’ here anyhow? Her entire house was full of refugees. It was enough already.
Hildegard von Kamcke had no talent whatsoever for victimhood. She moved into the ice-cold servants’ quarters off the hallway that Ida Eckhoff assigned them with her lice-ridden head held high and three hundred years of East Prussian pedigree behind her.
She placed the child on the straw mattress, put down her backpack and, in a quiet voice and with the precise articulation of an opera singer, declared war on Ida: “My daughter needs something to eat, please.” And Ida Eckhoff, a sixth-generation farmwoman from the Altland, a widow and the mother of a soldier who had been wounded at the front, immediately fired back: “You’re not gettin’ anything from me.”
Vera had just turned five. She sat shivering on the narrow bed, with her damp woolen socks scratching her legs and the sleeves of her coat soaked with snot, which ran incessantly from her nose. She watched as her mother planted herself right next to Ida Eckhoff and started to sing in a fine vibrato and with a sneer: For reading and for writing I did not give a damn, The only thing I care about is pork and lots of sauerkraut.…
Ida was so taken aback that she stayed rooted to the spot until the chorus. My pigs are my obsession, My life and my profession, Hildegard von Kamcke sang, raising her hands in a grand operatic gesture in her small refugee room, and she was still singing when Ida, frosty with rage, was seated at her kitchen table.
When darkness fell and the house was still, Hildegard crept through the hallway and went outside. She returned with an apple in each coat pocket and a cup of milk straight from the cow. After Vera had emptied it, Hildegard wiped it out with the hem of her coat and returned it quietly to the hallway before lying down next to her daughter on the straw mattress.
* * *
Two years later, Karl Eckhoff returned from a Russian prisoner-of-war camp. His left leg was as stiff as a splint, his cheeks were so hollow it looked as if he was sucking them in, and Hildegard von Kamcke was still having to steal her milk.
You’re not gettin’ anything from me. Ida Eckhoff was a woman of her word, but she was aware that the individual in question made nightly visits to her barn, and at some point she placed a jug next to the old cup in the hallway. She didn’t want half the milk going to waste during the nightly milking. And in the evening, she no longer removed the key for the pantry where the fruit was stored, and sometimes she gave Vera an egg, if the child swept the hallway with the broom that was much too large for her or sang her the East Prussian anthem, “The Land of the Dark Forests,” while she was trimming green beans.
* * *
When the cherries ripened in July, and the children were required to drive off the starlings from the orchards—the birds swooped down onto the cherry trees in large swarms—Vera stomped through the rows of trees like a windup toy monkey, drumming an old pot steadily with a wooden spoon and bawling out all the songs her mother had taught her over and over again, with the exception of the one about the pork.
Ida Eckhoff observed the child marching through the cherry orchard for hours on end, until her dark hair stuck to her head in damp curls. By midday, the child’s face had turned bright red. Vera then slowed down and began to stumble, but she carried on drumming and singing, and marched on, staggering like an exhausted soldier until she tumbled head over heels into the mowed grass next to the cherry trees.
The sudden silence made Ida sit up and take notice. She ran to the front door and saw the girl lying unconscious in the cherry orchard. She shook her head in exasperation and ran over to the trees, hoisted the child onto her shoulders like a sack of potatoes, and lugged her over to the white wooden bench that stood next to the house in the shade of a large linden tree.
This bench was usually off-limits to riffraff and refugees. It had been Ida Eckhoff’s wedding bench and was now her widow’s bench. No one apart from Karl and herself was allowed to sit on it, but now the Polack kid was lying on the bench with sunstroke and would have to stay there until she came to.
Karl came hobbling out of the shed but Ida was already at the pump, filling a bucket with cold water. She took the dish towel that was always draped over her shoulder, dipped it in the water, made a cold compress, and pressed it against the child’s forehead. Karl then lifted Vera’s bare feet and placed her legs over the white armrest.
The distant clatter of wooden rattles and pot lids could still be heard from the cherry orchard. Here, close to the house, where it was now eerily quiet, the first starlings were venturing back into the trees. You could hear them swooshing and eating noisily in the branches.
In the past, Karl and his father had shot at them to scare them off. They had moved through the arbor with their shotguns and blasted into the black swarms as though they were intoxicated. Afterward, gathering up the broken little birds was sobering. The huge rage and then the puny bunches of feathers in its wake.
Vera came to, retched, turned her head sideways, and threw up on the white wedding bench under Ida Eckhoff’s grand linden. When she realized what she had done, she started violently and tried to get up, but the linden was spinning above her head, the high crown with the heart-shaped leaves appeared to be dancing, and Ida’s broad hand was pressing her back down onto the bench.
Karl fetched a cup of milk and a slice of buttered bread from the house and sat down on the bench next to Vera. Ida grabbed the wooden spoon and the battered pot to drive off the impudent birds that were making themselves at home in her orchard and eating what didn’t belong to them.
Karl wiped the child’s face with the white dish towel. When Vera noticed that Ida wasn’t there, she gulped the cold milk down and snatched up the bread. Then she got up and gave a wobbly curtsy before scurrying across the hot cobbles holding her hands out at her sides like a tightrope dancer.
Karl watched her head back to the cherry trees.
He stuck a cigarette in his mouth, wiped down the bench, and threw the towel into the grass. Then he tilted his head back, took a long draw, and produced beautiful round smoke rings, which hovered high in the crown of the linden tree.
His mother was still raging through the rows of cherry trees with the old cooking pot.
Soon you’ll be lying here with sunstroke too, Karl said to himself, just carry on drumming.
Ida then ran into the house, fetched the shotgun, and fired into the swarms of birds, blasted into the sky until she had driven every last glutton from the trees, or had scared them off for a while at least. And her son, who had two good arms and one good leg, sat on the bench and watched her.
* * *
All in one piece, thank God, Ida Eckhoff had thought when he’d come limping along the platform toward her eight weeks earlier. He had always been thin but now looked exhausted as well, and he was dragging his leg. But it could have been a whole lot worse. Friedrich Mohr had gotten his son back without any arms.… He’d now have to see what became of his farm. And Buhrfeindt’s Paul and Heinrich had both been killed in action. Ida could consider herself lucky that she got her only son back in such good shape.
And that other thing, the screaming in the night and the wet bed some mornings, that was nothing to worry about. Just nerves, Dr. Hauschildt said, it would soon sort itself out.
* * *
When the apples ripened in September, Karl was still sitting smoking on Ida’s white bench. He blew beautiful round rings into the linden’s golden crown. A crew of pickers was working its way basket by basket through the rows of trees, and at its head was Hildegard von Kamcke. Being from East Prussia, she was used to farming on an entirely different scale, she had declared, and Ida had once again felt like chasing the haughty dame off the farm. But she couldn’t get by without her. She had a tough time of it with this thin woman, who mounted her bike early in the morning as though it were a horse, then rode off to milk with impeccable posture, who toiled away in the orchard until every last apple was down, and swung her pitchfork like a man in the barn as she sang Mozart arias, which didn’t impress the cows.
But Karl on his bench liked it a lot.
And Ida, who hadn’t wept since her Friedrich had floated as lifeless as a cross down the drainage ditch eight years earlier, stood at the kitchen window and sobbed when she saw Karl sitting listening beneath the linden tree.
If you don’t feel the longing of love…, Hildegard von Kamcke sang, thinking of course of someone else who was now dead. And she knew as well as Ida that the man sitting on the bench was no longer the Karl that the mother had longed to see for years.
The heir to Ida’s farm, Karl Eckhoff, so strong and full of promise, had been left behind in the war. They had brought her back a cardboard cutout. As pleasant and unfamiliar as a traveler, her son sat on her wedding bench blowing smoke rings up into the sky. And at night he screamed.
* * *
When winter came, Karl, whistling softly, built a doll’s baby carriage for little Vera von Kamcke, and at Christmas, the countess of dubious origin and her constantly hungry child sat at Ida Eckhoff’s large dining table in the parlor for the first time.
In spring, when the cherry blossoms fell like snow, Karl played accordion on the bench and Vera sat beside him.
And in October, after the apple harvest, Ida Eckhoff retired and had a daughter-in-law she could respect but couldn’t help detesting.
* * *
This hoose is mine ain and yet no mine ain …
The old inscription applied to both of them. They were equals who battled hard in this house, which Ida didn’t want to give up and Hildegard no longer wanted to leave.
The screaming that lasted for years, the swearing, the banging of doors, the breaking of crystal vases and gold-rimmed cups entered into the crevices of the walls and settled like dust on the floorboards and ceiling beams. On quiet nights, Vera could still hear them, and when a storm was rising she wondered whether it really was the wind that was howling so fiercely.
Your house isn’t anything to write home about anymore, Ida Eckhoff, she thought.
The linden stood in front of the window and shook the storm out of its branches.
Copyright © 2015 by Dörte Hansen