Vea Kaiser will be appearing as a featured writer at the Festival Neue Literatur. The following excerpt is translated by Edna McCown.
Blasmusikpop oder Wie die Wissenschaft in die Berge kam
Oompah Pop, or How Science Made Its Way to the Mountains
Honeymoons hadn’t been invented yet in St. Peter am Anger in the 1950s, but thanks to Johannes’s injury the young lovers could now celebrate their marriage. Several times a day the two enjoyed the freedom of no longer having to twist themselves into pretzels in hay barns, woodsheds, and smokehouses as they had when they were younger. Until they both began to feel ill. With Johannes it started as a constant bellyache, which then led to serious digestive problems. Each morning soon thereafter, Elisabeth could be found in the privy throwing up everything she had eaten the day before. On the steps of the church one group speculated that this was due to Elisabeth’s lousy cooking, while another group, gathered at the fountain, was of the opinion that Johannes habitually was pouring the two of them too much schnapps. Only after the goat-faced doctor from Lenk in the valley had held his bimonthly consultation in the town hall was the riddle solved. Both of them had something in their bellies: Elisabeth was pregnant and Johannes had a tapeworm.
Elisabeth’s joy was boundless. Two hours later she had already had the rocking chair carried down from the attic and was blissfully rocking away, knitting bootees for the baby. Johannes, on the other hand, was feeling anxious. He could scarcely be happy about becoming a father when he was constantly brooding about what the worm was up to. Was it sleeping, was it swimming around? Did the worm have eyes, and most importantly: How had it gotten into his belly? The doctor had answered Johannes’s questions in a Latin that not even the priest would have understood. The doctor, in fact, was insulted that Johannes had chosen the village carpenter instead of a specialist to set his broken arm, and in his resentment announced to Johannes that it would take at least half a year for an anti-worm medication to arrive from the capital.
After finding that the village schoolmarm as well could tell him nothing about worms that lived inside human beings, Johannes, perturbed by the strange ideas he was hearing expressed in the pub, spent three days skulking around the town hall. He was sure that the theories being expressed in St. Peter were nonsense – he definitely would have noticed it had some big worm snuck up on him from behind. On the third day he finally dared to open the town hall door. He walked through the entrance hall and past the post office and the gendarmes’ common room to the village library, located at the very back of the building.
It took a while before he could locate anything of use in the disorganized stacks. But finally he wiped the dust from a book for which he would be grateful for decades to come. Karl Franz Anton von Schreibers: On a Major Collection of Animal Parasitic Intestinal Worms and Invitation to a Literary Connection. It had been written in 1811, but for woodcarver Johannes Gerlitzen it was precisely the right book. This wasn’t a complex scientific work but rather a chronicle, a report on discoveries made through the study of worms at the Royal Imperial Cabinet of Natural History in Austria’s capital. When these researchers first began their work scarcely anything was known about worms. And so, fortunately, Schreibers’ chronicle commenced at the same level as Johannes’s knowledge. The woodcarver spent the entire day in the library, following the sun as it made its way across the rickety little library table. On the way home he already felt a bit less revolting: In the country’s capital of almost 150 years before, practically everyone had had a worm.
The fall of 1959 started off with weeks of bad weather. The wind brought a low-pressure front to the Anger Valley that pressed against the Sporzer Alps like a scrunched cotton ball, to the point that the clouds seemed to have gotten snagged on the Großer Sporzer. Johannes now visited the library more often. The town hall’s multi-purpose staff member, who also served as librarian, had suggested that he borrow the books. But to sit at his seat in the library every day from 8:30 in the morning to 6:00 in the evening and read through the research on helminth parasites was like taking part in the dissecting, analyzing, classifying, and preserving; it felt like work to him. He couldn’t do any woodcarving yet due to his busted arm, and Johannes was of the general impression that the only useful activity he could engage in at the moment was reading. Ötsch, his neighbor to the left, had in the meantime discovered a new passion in sneering about Johannes’s enjoyment of reading. But Johannes had promised Elisabeth not to get into any more fights before the baby was born. Once the rains set in, however, even Johannes’s friends at the pub were making fun of his visits to the library.
“Wifey won’t let ya at ‘er, so you wanna be a priest now?” This from smart-mouthed farmer Anton Rettenstein, and from Friedrich Ebersberger, the fat son of the mayor, grocer Wilhelm Hochschwab, and even the postman, Gerhard Rossbrand, who otherwise was so nice, and despite the fact that St. Peter’s priest held a very low opinion of books. He used reading only as punishment for sinners, and outside of mass devoted all of his time to the renovation of the church tower. Johannes paid no attention to the snide remarks. Due to the constant rain the men had nothing to do but to stumble from bed to the pub. Even the gendarmes were enjoying their first beer around noon already. Nothing ever happened during the rainy season, and if it did, it happened in the pub.
Johannes, however, was on a mission that neither a broken arm nor rain could deter him from – he was reading his way through the world of worms. Soon he was utterly fascinated by the creatures. He found it extraordinary that such a tiny speck in water could be swallowed by a crab, which in turn was eaten by a fish that a fox or dog or human then devoured, until the speck could develop into an actual creature in the intestine of the last link in the chain. He was astounded by the will to survive that such a creature must possess in order to hazard all of these stages knowing full well that only with a great deal of luck would it arrive at the right destination.
Elisabeth found all of this disgusting. Whenever Johannes began talking about it she threatened to throw up, and he didn’t want to do that to his unborn child. He would so have liked to tell her, his wife and best friend, about the new things he was learning. The ability to do something special was the norm in St. Peter, but to know something out of the ordinary set him apart from the other villagers. From day to day – and not only when he wanted to talk to her about worms – Johannes was amazed at how different Elisabeth was since becoming pregnant. She complained often about how trying it was, how she was suffering, how everything hurt. Johannes didn’t understand her. What had happened to the Elisabeth who, while at work damming up Mitternfeld Creek, had stepped on a nail and, totally unfazed, marched home through the East Woods and across two fields with it stuck in the sole of her foot? Johannes continued rummaging around in the library. He read that pregnancy was the greatest possible happiness a woman could experience, the most wonderful stage of her life, after which he found it difficult to take Elisabeth seriously, and fled from her complaints more and more often. But what Elisabeth never would have admitted was that she was jealous of Johannes, whose stomach with worm attracted more attention than hers with child. Sundays, as soon as they came out of church, they were surrounded by the village children, who never asked to feel the baby kicking, but wanted only to press their ears up against Johannes’s stomach to see what the worm was up to. Some aunt or other of those of Johannes’s associates who dealt in saint figurines, or some grandmother of cousins in the oompah band were constantly sending him diverse herbal concoctions or worm emollients. None of which got rid of the worm, if anything they exacerbated Johannes’s bouts of retching and sprints to the toilet. Elisabeth, however, was offered no remedies at all.
The Gerlitzens celebrated Christmas at home, listening from their balcony to the brass band play in the church tower, and Johannes recreated the Christmas story with crèche figures he carved himself – Mary and Joseph bore Elisabeth’s and his features. Elisabeth was already too pregnant to make her way up the hill to midnight mass. Then right before Epiphany it finally was time. Trogkofel the midwife, whose worm remedy had occasioned such a fit of vomiting that Johannes was afraid the worm was going to come up out of his front end, banned him from the house before he even could utter the wish to remain at his wife’s side. For fourteen hours he sat on the wooden bench out front, flushing his wife’s screams out of his ears with the help of a large bottle of chequerberry schnapps. About the time that his hair froze solid and his skin was so dried out that it appeared covered in a fine white netting, he heard the baby’s first cries. Johannes bolted into the house, tore up the wooden stairs, didn’t knock, didn’t pause and wrenched open the door so violently it almost came off its hinges. But he froze at the doorsill. The baby girl lay naked in the midwife’s arms, still covered all over in vestiges of the birth, which nonetheless failed to conceal a highly conspicuous head of black curls such as never before seen in either Elisabeth’s strawberry blond or the Gerlitzen’s white blond families. Only Ötsch, his neighbor to the left, sported such a black mop.
* * * *
As Ilse was growing up, Johannes Gerlitzen tried to suppress the fact that his daughter might possibly have a sex drive. He devoted himself intensely to his helminth research and waited for her to finally break up with Alois. Shortly following his maypole action, Alois once again had forfeited the respect of the village when, after losing a game, he got drunk and set fire to the equipment shed of the soccer club while attempting to blow up the balls with firecrackers. What Johannes had failed to realize, however, was that it was precisely Alois’s wild rebellious nature that Ilse loved. Johannes longed for harmony, he was tired of arguing with the most important person in his life. For her part, Ilse believed that her father was so far gone in the world of worms that the only procreative possibility he could imagine was through the depositing of eggs. But in time it bothered Alois that he could only meet Ilse in smokehouses, forest blinds, and hay barns. Especially after one late afternoon in September, when the twin brothers from Kaunergraten stole their clothes and Alois had to streak through the village in an old apple sack in order to find Ilse something to wear. When a week later Alois broke out in red splotches that then began to itch horribly and old lady Hohenzoller, the herbalist, diagnosed that the apple sack, which the whole village had had a good laugh about, had been crawling with lice – at which the village laughed even harder – he decided that it was time to put an end to all of their sneaking around.
On a Friday at the end of September 1981, after the itching had stopped and his scratches had almost healed, Alois Irrwein walked over to the Gerlitzens’, though he knew that Ilse was at a meeting of the girl youth group leaders. He knocked at the door for a good half-hour before Gerlitzen opened it. Johannes didn’t invite him in, of course, nor did he greet him, but Alois didn’t let this deter him and got right to the point.
“Herr Doctor, could I marry yer Ilse?”
“Of course not!” Johannes shouted, so loud that it could be heard in the village square, before slamming the door shut. All of his life Alois Irrwein had gotten a “no” to anything he wanted to do. He was on better terms with no than with yes, so he ran over to Café Moni, where the girl youth group leaders were discussing which Christian folk songs they should rehearse with the children for the harvest festival and, though men were not allowed at these meetings, burst into the little back room, fell to his knees and pulled out the ring he had bought with his spare savings. Excitedly and somewhat out of breath, he popped the question:
“Ilse, d’ya wanna be my wife?”
The ring was plain, his hair uncombed, and he was sweaty from running, but Ilse immediately threw herself into his arms, hugged him close, kissed him, and replied with a loud Yes. She stayed there for a long time with her arms around his neck, enjoying the jealous looks her friends were shooting at her back – though she had been the last to have a boyfriend, Ilse was the first to become engaged.
The engagement of Alois and Ilse set in motion a chain reaction of further engagements. Peter Parseier, who was from the neighboring village but who had lived for several years already in St. Peter, hired by Hochschwab the grocer as his business manager, proved himself the cleverest young man of marriageable age. The day after Alois and Ilse became engaged he went down to the valley and bought a ring, then got down on one knee to Edeltraud Hochschwab, who immediately said Yes, with an eye on the ring’s glittering stone. Previous to this Edeltraud Hochschwab had never exhibited any great interest in her father’s employee, though Peter Parseier had long been courting her. But Peter was a thoroughly clever fellow who understood that engagement, marriage, and having children was a competition among the women of St. Peter. He strolled happily around the grocery, which soon would be his, while Edeltraud ran around the village showing everyone her beautiful ring, which sparkled so much more brightly than Ilse’s. Reinhard Rossbrand and Toni Rettenstein, Alois’s best friends, drinking buddies, and constant accomplices, didn’t comprehend that suddenly a new wind was blowing through the village. Toni Rettenstein was riding with his father to work one day during haying season when his father abruptly cut the tractor engine in the middle of the field and ordered his son to get down. Toni did what his father asked – he assumed something had happened with the mower – but Anton Rettenstein looked down at him from the driver’s seat and said:
“So, on yer knees now, and ask if I’ll marry ya.”
Toni stared at his father like a deer frozen in the headlights, until Anton lost his temper and barked:
“Ar’ ya dense, or what? Practice it now how yer’ll be proposing to Ebersberger’s Marianne tomorrow. The wimmin’ve all gone nuts, so see that ya get it right, otherwise yer’ll be left behind, an’ Marianne’s a good catch, she’ll bring ya five fields!”
Reinhard Rossbrand, equally slow on the uptake, wasn’t lucky enough to have a father who jumpstarted him. His girlfriend, Angelika Ötsch, wouldn’t let him within three feet of her after Alois’s and Ilse’s engagement. Reinhard Rossbrand, like his father, was a mailman and a wag, but after a week of no physical contact with Angelika all the wag went out of him, and after two-and-a-half weeks of abstinence he occasioned the greatest uproar the post office in St. Peter am Anger had ever seen, when, lost in thought, he failed to deliver even one single letter to its designated destination. When Angelika heard that one of that lech Fritz Ebersberger’s dirty magazines had landed in the hands of Grete the priest’s cook, who fainted dead away on the spot, she relieved Reinhard of his agony, as, after all, she didn’t want her future husband to be jobless.
“We ca’ do it again only after ya ask me to marry ya,” she told him sternly, at which Reinhard dropped his mail pouch where he stood and ran all the way down to the valley to buy a ring. The jeweler, still new to the valley, was amazed at all the young men from the Anger who were buying rings as if they were sold by the yard – it was extremely rare in the Anger Valley town of Lenk to see any people from St. Peter at all. His predecessor, the old jeweler, finally explained to him that, strange as it was, the villagers of St. Peter showed up only occasionally, after which they then would disappear for a decade until their tenth anniversary, when they would come back to have their wives’ rings enlarged and to buy little gold chains so that the women could hang their husbands’ rings around their necks. In St. Peter am Anger it was considered unmanly to wear one’s wedding ring after ten years of wedlock.
The round dance of marriages in 1982 began on May 8 with the nuptials of the farmer’s son, Toni Rettenstein, and Marianne Ebersberger, who, because she was the mayor’s daughter, insisted on being the first to wed. This had necessitated a massive intervention with the priest on the part of her father, as Hilde Arber and Erich Wildstrubel had already reserved the date. After the priest cancelled Hilde and Erich, Hilde spent a week sobbing in anger, but had her revenge on May 8, 1982, when it rained buckets. On May 15, 1982, Peter Parseier and Edeltraud Hochschwab exchanged vows, and for five years to come Edeltraud would hold it against her father, the grocer and richest man in the village, that he had scrimped on her wedding feast. In his stinginess Herr Hochschwab had put only sausages and juice on the menu. On May 22, Hilde Arber and Erich Wildstrubel finally tied the knot, and Hilde was rewarded not only with bright sunshine but with a sunburn, as to one-up Marianne she had decided on short notice to hold her wedding reception out-of-doors. Unfortunately, Hilde Wildstrubel’s veil concealed a part of her forehead, so for a long time after the sunburn had faded a white triangle there served as a reminder of her wedding day. May 29th fell on the weekend of Pentecost, so no weddings could take place, and the pub owner closed his doors so that his barmaids could give their swollen ankles a rest. June 5 was the wedding date of young hairdresser Angelika Ötsch and mailman Reinhard Rossbrand, who remembered little of his big day because the bride’s three brothers had gotten him so drunk the day before that one of the acolytes had to whisper the marriage vows to him and another had to use hand signals to let him know when he should stand, sit, kneel, and say I do. On the June 12 wedding of auto mechanic Richard Patscherkofel and barmaid Gertrude Millstädt, it was the bride herself who caused quite a stir when, in the middle of the sermon, she leapt up to vomit in the holy water font in the sacristy. She claimed afterwards that her dress was too tight, but as everyone in St. Peter am Anger was a neighbor, they all knew that the bride had had too much to drink the night before, after, as tradition dictated for all brides, an archway of woven evergreen branches was placed before her door, the so-called threshold.
Finally, on June 19, 1982, gnashing his teeth and having polished off half a bottle of cognac for breakfast, Johannes Gerlitzen walked his daughter Ilse down the aisle. He refused to give a speech at the reception that followed in the pub, and went home after the meal to finish off the cognac. Ilse was very sad about all of this, especially as Alois had not touched a drop of alcohol all day to show what a good husband he would be. At midnight Ilse’s veil was removed during the Kranzerl Dance and, following tradition, was replaced by the village women with a kerchief, signalizing that the wedding day had ended and that from now on she was a housewife, at which Alois downed four beers in succession. The last wedding took place on June 26, and after Sunday mass the following day the priest and his cook left for a week of silent retreat in a remote mountain cabin, in order to recover from the most intensive marriage marathon of his ministry.
* * * *
Johannes’s graduation suit was soaked and sticking to his skin as he boarded the last bus of the day for St. Peter. He was the only passenger, and the seats smelled like wet dog. The bus driver, with no regard for his fare, turned on the radio. The local station was broadcasting a repeat of the latest Hit Parade program, and the driver was singing along loudly with Ursprung Buam. “It’s ladies’ choice today for all you dames who’ll play; whoever wants the floor to dance, now’s the time to seize your chance!” he warbled, two beats off, when suddenly, as he shifted from third to second gear on the steep incline, the bus gave a hop and a skip, and Johannes’s head banged painfully against the window he was leaning against.
“Holy shit, ya stupid son-of-a-bitch,” the driver cursed at the bus, but it just kept hopping along until the exhaust gave a loud bang, the motor began to cough, and the bus jerked to a stop. There was a cloud of gray smoke pouring from the engine, and the bus driver turned to Johannes before he climbed out of the bus, to tell him to stay put. But Johannes was alarmed by the smoke, and as the radio was still playing Hit Parade, even louder now without the roar of the motor, he clambered out of the vehicle. The driver, checking the bus, asked Johannes if he had a cellphone, and when Johannes replied in the negative, shook his head in disbelief and uttered another curse. It was raining cats and dogs. Johannes’s collapsible umbrella was of little use, and he wasn’t surprised that it was today of all days that the old post bus had chosen to give up the ghost. It went along with everything else that had happened that day, and Johannes was so defeated that he expected nothing but the worst. Once the driver had ascertained that he couldn’t repair the bus, he sat back down on the driver’s seat, lit a cigarette and pulled a bottle of schnapps out of the glove compartment.
“You’re not serious, right?” Johannes asked, but the driver merely shrugged.
“Don’ be stupid,” he answered, “y’er the only guy yer age who don’t have a cell, aren’t ya.”
Johannes stood there for a full ten minutes, soaking wet down to his toes, until he heard a car coming up the mountain. He walked over to the side of the road and stuck out his thumb, but when the car rounded the curve he was blinded by the bright headlights. Johannes squeezed his eyes shut and shielded them with his hand as the white jeep came to a stop next to the bus.
“Wanna lift?” When Johannes could see again, he recognized old Herr Rettenstein at the wheel. Next to him was former Mayor Ebersberger, and in the back seat the grandfather of his old elementary school friend, Robert Rossbrand, and next to him, old Herr Hochschwab. The four had been to a livestock show in a neighboring village and were now on their way home to St. Peter. Johannes could see that there was no room for him in the backseat between the two spread-kneed old geezers, but before he could decline the invitation the bus driver had agreed that Gramps Rettenstein would take Johannes with them to St. Peter and send someone back to tow away the bus. The old codgers realized there was no room for Johannes on the backseat, so Gramps Rettenstein opened the back of the jeep, removed the package shelf and told Johannes to take a seat on the checked blanket on which, as was obvious from the hair, the dog usually sat.
The white jeep not only reeked even more intensely of wet dog than did the bus, but also of mothballs and cucumber salad. Johannes had no doubt about it, this was the worst day of his life. His expression was so miserable that it was obvious to the old men, who eyed him closely in the rearview mirror.
“How come yer so spruced up?” Gramps Rossbrand finally asked, and when Johannes, staring out of the window, answered curtly that it was the day of his final high-school exam, it immediately became clear to the four eminences that he had botched it. Johannes sat cross-legged and sideways in the back of the jeep with his arms on his knees and his head hanging down between them. There was a rusty hunting knife on the floor by his feet, a few shell casings, and something that looked like a squashed sausage.
“Well, Johannes, we always said th’ test ain’t for those of us from St. Peter. Who gives a fig!” former Mayor Ebersberger chimed in, meaning well, but Johannes was insulted by this.
“Ya know, Johannes, we St. Peterans have other strengths, none of us lead with our heads,” Gramps Rossbrand added, and smiled.
“We always said the same thing to yer gramps, but he didn’t listen t’ us. Yer gramps b’lieved he hadda go out in the world out there, but in the end he came back, once he noticed nowhere’s as beautiful as is St. Peter.”
“Ya know, Johannes, yer grandpa was an easygoing, pleasant sorta fella once, but then he went a little nuts. I b’lieve all those books made ‘im stupid.”
Gramps Rossbrand tapped his forehead with his finger and the others nodded.
Rettenstein Sr. stopped in front of the Irrwein house and got out to let Johannes out of the back of Jeep. The chairman of the Hunters Association gave him a penetrating look and in a serious tone said, ”Johannes, we always knew ya’d never make it through high school. You’re a St. Peteran. Mark it well, the village is for you. We’ve fought the high and mighty shits for a hunnert years, and it’s all to the better ya’ve shown us yer not one of the high and mighty shits. So, good night then.”
Old Herr Rettenstein patted him on the shoulder, got back in the jeep, and drove on with the others to the pub. Johannes stood there in the rain, looking at the taillights until they disappeared around the curve to the village square.
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