Before the Storm

On the dark, starless night of March 12, 1938, a sullen sixteen-year old boy slowly walked up the trail across the pastures by the mill trench. He had spent the evening at the home of his friends, so that he would be able to listen to the news broadcasts. His parents did not own a radio. He was depressed; he still did not have a clear idea of what would happen next. All night long, bracketed by seemingly endless military march music, they had listened to directives from the Minister of the Interior, Seyss-Inquart: “Do not resist the contingent advancement of German troops.” The speaker’s voice on the radio had sounded strangely hollow.

The young people had racked their brains, trying in vain to make sense of the ominous meaning of the word “contingent.”

“Does that mean definitely?” one of them had wondered.

“No, it must mean ‘in case’,” the other had interjected, but despite trying to recall all the vocabulary they had accumulated by reading books and newspapers, none of them had ever come across the mysterious word “contingent.”

They had sat together in the small kitchen, puzzled. Outside, no sound could be heard but the wind rattling the windowpanes. The evening had ended with many unanswered questions.

During the week, a thaw had crept into the region along the flow of the river Traun; from the valleys it had moved up to into the mountains. The snow had turned gray, and now the first bare spots were beginning to appear in the wet parts of the meadows. But the night was so dark that those spots could not be seen right now.

Melting snow along the Traun River.

The narrow trail to the mill trench was paved with large limestone slabs. Underneath, the snowmelt sloshed under his every step. He was at the juncture where the trail branches off into the mill trench. Normally, the light from the inn below would still be visible, as it was barely past midnight. But tonight, not a glint penetrated the black wall of chestnuts lining the path.

Franz Kain’s neighborhood in Bad Goisern.

Map of the Salzkammergut region. The German troops arrived in Bad Goisern from the Northwest via Salzburg (not shown) and Bad Ischl.

The boy climbed slowly, and the creek behind the alder and hazel bushes gurgled quietly near the ponds; the snowmelt had not filled the creek yet. A rustling sound came down from the high forest, waxing and waning with the winds. From afar, it sounded like an ominous moan.

Far above, near his parents’ house, another trail branched off, leading across a small bridge to a lonely farmhouse.

Franz Kain’s childhood home in Bad Goisern. The girlfriend’s home in this story closely resembles the features of this house

The boy hesitated for a moment, then crossed the bridge and walked slowly up to the house.

His heart beating nervously, he approached the tall nut tree that towered over the building’s gables. He noticed that the snow had already melted around the base of the enormous trunk, and he stepped down from a tall tier of snow onto the mossy ground that ringed the tree.

He listened tensely. No sound came from the house; there was only some water that dripped languidly from the wooden gutter into the soft, waning snow. He sneaked around the corner of the house and looked longingly up to the window above a small tool shed that had been added on to the wall.

It was not his first time lurking around this house at night. Granted, it had never been this late before. But this night was full of premonitions that left him without answers. Right now, he must wake the girl that slept in the room behind the window.

Next to the tool shed whose roof led to the girl’s window, there was an old plum tree with mossy bark, its branches hard as thorns.

He reached for the branches and pulled himself up. Then he slid up on the roof, lifted a shingle, and, holding on, moved slowly toward the window. The planks were wet and slippery, and he had to be careful not to get his fingers caught between the shingles. At last, he could feel a hand’s width of space between the roof and the wall.

He knocked quietly on the windowpane. At first, nothing moved, but when he knocked again he heard the girl turning over in bed.

“Who is it?” a sleepy voice asked, but by the time he could say his name the girl had already gotten up and come to the window.

“Is that you? Are you nuts?” the familiar voice asked.

The boy, who had really only come to talk with the girl, forgot all his good intentions when he saw the slender form before him. The girl had put a blanket around her shoulders, as the night was cool.

“It’s about time a real man came to visit you,” he boasted.

The girl laughed, and to hide his awkwardness, the boy played the smart aleck. Even though he could only say it with a tremble, he challenged her: “Open up, you need someone to warm you up; you are cold all by yourself.”

The girl reached through the window with her hand and stroked his hair. “Don’t you see that the window is barred?” his old school friend said. “I would love to ask you in, but you would not fit through,” she said, appeasing him insincerely.

“Just open the door by the path behind the house. I can get to your room from there!”

“But this small blanket would not be big enough to cover us both,” the girl teased, chuckling.”

He reached through the window and embraced the girl through the bars. He felt her warm skin, and the girl came closer to the bars.

“You!” he said, and sighed.

She laughed again and retreated into her room. “Don’t you have anything better to do than to wake me up in the middle of the night?” she scolded, and now she was suddenly no longer his old friend. She was a young woman that talked to a green boy. And yet, she did not reject him outright and stroked his hair once more before closing the window: “Enough now, I have to get up early tomorrow.”

The boy, confused, continued to cower in front of the closed window. Once or twice more he tapped the panes with his fingers. But nothing moved inside, and he reluctantly slid down the roof.

The night was still cold, but he felt warm from a fire within. “I will come back tomorrow and the next day,” he thought. “As long as it takes for her to open the door.” Walking back to the mill trench he felt a shiver run down his spine when he recalled the caress of her hand.

His home was at the dark edge of the forest. When he tiptoed carefully upstairs to go to bed, he was surprised that the staircase did not creak. But even though the fir planks did not make a sound, he sensed that nobody was asleep that night. Back in his room, he saw that his brother’s bed was empty.

He was already awake when he heard his mother handling the frying pan in the kitchen. As he entered the room his parents looked at each other, baffled. A neighbor on his way to work had just now called through the open window: “The Germans are here!”

When his mother leaned out of the window to hear the details, the caller had already disappeared in the morning twilight.

“The Germans are here,” the father repeated, his voice hollow. His mother just said: “The soldiers have arrived.”

A long, awkward silence ensued. His father washed his hands, sat down at the table, and drank black malt coffee from a small bowl. He did not touch the steaming, rich farmer’s breakfast that the mother had put in front of him.

The son felt uneasy. He knew his father’s habits well. A construction worker, he was employed to help build a dam across the Traun River, and because the work was hard he had to have hearty food with plenty of fat in the morning. The sixteen year old could not remember a day when his father had turned down this food, not even when he had had one too many at the inn the night before. But today, he would not even touch the spoon next to the frying pan.

His mother admonished him in vain: “All day long you have to move heavy rocks. Please eat!”

Father just shook his head and did not even finish his coffee. He took his mottled overcoat and put it on, moaning quietly. His face looked surly when he walked to the door, as if he was about to walk out into a torrid blizzard.

A moment later the boy had another surprise.

Every morning, his father left a bit of his hearty fare in the pan. The boy got up as early as 6 am just to get these leftovers. Half an hour later, his younger brother, who was still a schoolboy, would come over from the living room to join them in the kitchen. Their mother always made sure that the boy would leave a few spoonfuls of the leftovers for his brother. Often, they were fighting over the bits, and nasty words were exchanged.

But today, the son sat happily at the table. Today, the whole pan was full! He anticipated his mother’s reminder to leave something for the young one. But his mother stood at the stove, lost in thoughts, and did not say a word. To the boy, who was usually ravenous early in the morning, it all seemed mysterious and depressing. And so the impossible happened: He had hardly eaten two or three spoonfuls when the bites began to seem bigger and bigger, choking him. He put the aluminum spoon down. He felt a dull sensation that something extraordinary must have happened.

Meanwhile, dawn had come. Around 8 am, his mother discovered that the older brother was not home.

That had happened a few times, and usually there was a fuss, quite obviously for the benefit of the younger boy, who needed to know that it was not acceptable to roam around all night.

But today, his mother seemed to suspect that something else was going on. Her face was ashen as she came down from the bedroom, where she had gone to make the beds.

“He isn’t there,” she said, and her sigh told the boy that she might have anticipated this outcome. It dawned on him that there was a connection between the restless atmosphere of the past few weeks and his brother’s disappearance.

In February, Schuschnigg, the chancellor, had traveled to Berchtesgaden. He made a secret deal with Hitler. Nobody really knew what was negotiated there, but right afterwards two “nationals” had joined the cabinet. One was a lawyer, Dr. Seyss-Inquart, whose name had been unknown before. And the SA returned.

SA in uniform

The whole world was talking about a transitional period, but nobody knew where this transition would lead. In late February, Schuschnigg announced that a plebiscite was scheduled for March 13. It would ask all citizens to decide whether Austria should remain independent or be annexed to Germany.

The quiet mountain village was gripped by a feverish restlessness. A great rift formed.

“What? You want me to vote for the Black Party?” some asked.

“We have to, or we are doomed,” others said.

His brother had told the boy that the illegal labor unions and government representatives were negotiating in Vienna. The labor representatives demanded restoration of their old rights, and the government made vague promises without committing to anything.

The village mirrored all of these events and thought processes in a unique way. The old salt miners who had held their first May celebration fifty years ago were still alive. Back then, they had been a small group, laughed at and mocked by some, hated and persecuted by others. The combative traditions of the salt miners and lumberjacks still held some influence today. But up to now these men and the entire regional labor movement had fought against power structures and forces that they knew very well. After all, who were the executives that had managed the forests and salt mines? Before the war, Catholic counts and their retinue had been in charge. And the workers knew well enough who had aimed cannons at tenements in Linz, Steyr, Leoben, and Floridsdorf, claiming that an uncivilized lot lived messy lives there.

“If we side with the government now and vote for independence they have to restore some of our rights,” his brother explained. It was important to campaign around the region in support of the idea, he said; that must have been the reason why his brother had not been home for days and nights on end.

It was March 12. Tomorrow, the referendum should have taken place. But now the German troops were here.

“They came under the cover of night,” a neighbor said, passing by to get water from the well.

The day brought all kinds of news. No German soldier had been up here yet, but they were already down in the valley.

“The first ones drove in before dawn,” the boy heard a neighbor say to his mother while they were shopping together. “Now they are coming on horseback, and foot soldiers are advancing via Salzburg.”

Around noon, a boy showed up wearing a red swastika armband on his sleeve. He was looking for people to clear the Pötschen Saddle road, because the German army vehicles were stuck there in the snow.

The road across the Pötschen Saddle. The Germans crossed the saddle to march into the province of Styria.

“They pay well,” he said.

People were restless and did not want to stay home; the sun was glimmering across the fields. They got together to talk about the events.

“They are bringing us work, just as they promised,” someone said. “We have to admit that much.” Another disagreed: “The first work that they will bring us is work for the soldiers!”

“Whatever they give us now will cost us dearly in the end,” an old salt miner said quietly, his voice bitter. Others expressed different opinions: “Come what may, it cannot get any worse than it is now.”

The boy did not report for the snow-shoveling job, even though he would have liked to earn the money. Something kept him from mingling with people. He thought of his vanished brother, and when he looked at his mother’s worried face he did not know how to help her.

Driven by restlessness, he tackled the woodpile that afternoon. During the winter, he and his brother had sawed logs and snapped branches into pieces after bringing the wood down from the forests on a sled. A thick layer of snow remained on the wood logs, but the snow was soft and heavy by now.

He rolled the beech wood chopping block from the woodshed, scratched the snow from the perimeter of the pile, and began to split the logs. The wood was still wet from the snow, and the split logs fell left and right under the blows of the heavy axe. A smell of fresh, sappy wood permeated the air, and the boy felt relieved.

Through the branches of the bare trees near the creek he could see the farmhouse where he had lurked the night before. The thought that he would return to the little window later made him forget the oppressive restlessness of the day. Surely she would expect him; she had to know that last night would not be the last time. She had probably wanted to open the door, but had kept him at bay to test him.

These thoughts occupied the boy, and the expectations of things to come later made him restless. But it was a restlessness that inspired him and made him giddy. He split the gnarly logs with mighty blows and felt such a surge of power that he chopped the logs horizontally, toward the core, instead of vertically. The wood cracked loudly, and the logs flew far into the snow. By now, the edge of the axe felt hot, and the height of the woodpile already matched that of the cutting block.

While he worked, caught up in exciting thoughts about the coming night, his mother approached from the house below. Her eyes were red, and her voice was low and brittle. He would have to go out to do some shopping in the valley, she said; she did not want to be among people today.

“He still has not come home,” she added and sighed.

The son was abruptly wakened from his dreams. The day had returned, filled with restlessness and uneasy questions. He went through the motions of splitting a few more logs, but suddenly felt so gloomy that he no longer perceived the spirit of the forest emanating from the cut wood.

He was just about to put the axe down when a boy from the neighborhood walked up the trail. He knew him well. The boy was wearing the red swastika band around his sleeve and was visibly embarrassed when he approached his schoolmate.

“This guy, too?” the boy wondered, because he knew his mate as someone who had always proclaimed that he would prefer a pint of beer to all the politics in the world.

Now the boy stood in front of the cutting block and looked sternly at him: “You are to come to the school at five o’clock today; there will be an assembly at the gym,” he said, and the boy wondered why he had not addressed him by his name even though they knew each other well.

“An assembly?” he said diffidently.

“Yes, for the likes of you” the boy with the red armband answered rudely, his voice cold as if he were speaking to a stranger. “And don’t you forget it, or they will come to take you away.” And on he went to other houses, most likely to deliver the same message there.

When the boy got dressed to walk down to the valley his mother watched in disbelief as he tied his boiled-wool gaiters over his trousers, tying them carefully to the straps of his boots.

Boiled wool gaiters protect clothing and shoes from moisture.

“The trails are impassable right now. Everything is indistinguishable,” he said slowly, like an old man.

He threw his green backpack across his shoulder and left the house. He did not tell his mother that he had been ordered to attend an assembly.

On the way to the valley he avoided the well-traveled paths. He walked along the edge of the woods and bushes and hedges that separated the pastures from the meadows. Water dripped from the trees, and even in the shadiest areas, where snow formed a hard crust before it finally melted, the snow still reached above his knees.

The village swarmed with soldiers. Grayish-green uniforms dominated the streets and squares. The German soldiers seemed to be off duty and were looking to befriend the locals. People were standing around in small clusters, and time and again the boy heard the locals ask if things would get better now. Even though he did not understand everything the soldiers said, he heard them proclaim loudly that life was much better back in Germany. Clearly, it was about time to clean things up over here in Austria.

Yet when he observed the shoppers at the local co-op he could not help but notice that the soldiers were purchasing a lot of food: white bread, butter, coffee, and heavy cream. He listened intently and heard a soldier whisper spitefully to another: “Spoiled people, those Austrians!”

He bought bread, flour, and margarine, because those were the things he was supposed to bring home.

When he had finished his shopping, he squeezed by the troops of soldiers and turned into side alleys to get to the back of the school. The Germans had set up their headquarters in the town hall. He saw several pairs of sentries who stood like statues in front of the entrances.

Bad Goisern elementary school, the site of the assembly.

As he reached the vicinity of the school, he noticed that many others were also approaching the building. But each of them walked alone; nobody talked.

At the entrance to the school garden, in front of the iron-gate, another pair of sentries stood guard. They had posted themselves carefully, so that anyone who wished to enter had to pass by them.

The boy looked at the faces under the steel helmets and was shocked by their uncanny uniformity. Those faces were naked and smooth and seemed strangely merciless.

Yet another pair stood at the entrance to the gym.

He took his time stomping the snow from his boots before he entered.

Long rows of chairs were set up in the gym, and there was a podium with a lectern up front. In the last row he saw the two brothers with whom he had spent the previous evening.

Didn’t I tell you that “contingent” meant “definitely,” the younger brother whispered when he had sat down next to them. The others said nothing, and the one who had been right was not happy about it.

“Now they are here,” he said. The room was filling up, and one of the brothers whispered at the boy: “Our brother still hasn’t come home - he’s been gonce since yesterday!”

“Neither has mine,” he answered, and they looked at each other.

Some SA men had been standing along the walls all along. Now, more and more young men with armbands entered. Some of them were already wearing caps and the kind of high boots that usually only bikers wear.

“Now we are in charge,” the boy had overheard a man with an armband earlier, when he passed by a group of people after his trip to the grocery store.

“They certainly are,” he thought, when he saw that SA men had been posted three meters apart along the walls. All around, at the entrance to the building, at the gate facing the street, in the village and all across the country, German soldiers were posted.

Some SA men seemed quite aware of it, too. They scanned the meeting-hall, embarrassed. If they recognized a neighbor, they avoided his gaze. But some seemed to have become one with their makeshift uniforms, looking at the people in the meeting-hall with cold arrogance.

The audience came from all walks of life. The boy noticed salt miners, forest workers, and workers from the aluminum factory. Almost all of the mill workers and the bakers of the regional co-op were there.

But some townsfolk were here, too: the baker, the butcher, and a blacksmith. An old, white-haired farmer sat one row ahead of the boys. People told stories about him; he had been a prisoner-of-war in Russia at the time when the lands of the lords were distributed to the peasants. He would still talk about it often, recalling the revolutionary events with profound and thoughtful comments.

The sacristan of the Catholic Church was one of the last people to enter. He looked around to see where he might find a seat.

The boy was tempted to laugh out loud when he saw the sacristan. He had been the target of many pranks. Whenever the boys passed the church tower after school they never failed to check if the gate was locked. Occasionally, the sacristan forgot to lock it and they would to ring the bells. Right away, the sacristan would burst onto the scene, his anger making his mustache bristle like a tomcat’s.

The boy’s smile vanished when he saw that the sacristan’s gray mustache looked just as bristly today as it had back in the days when the children had roused his anger.

But he could not entirely suppress a smirk, considering that the “coal-black” sacristan now had to sit with the “Reds” that he had fought so doggedly. At the same time, the boy wondered why no Starhemberg followers were there. The “illegal” Nazis had always regarded them as their worst enemies. He scanned the room and eventually spotted a man who had only recently worn the Heimwehr uniform.


The uniforms of the conservative Heimwehr militia

But he did not sit among the others. He stood near the lectern, wearing an SA uniform. He was one of the few who had a cap, boots and even a holster belt.

Then there was movement at the door, and an officer of the German army entered, followed by the Ortsgruppenleiter of the National Socialist Party.

The officer walked straight to the lectern and started to speak in a jarring voice. He spoke of “his soldiers,” who had completed a “liberation mission here,” and of the World War as a  “brotherhood of arms.” Now was the time to say good-bye to the old flags and symbols, he lectured: What would remain was the spirit of commitment and discipline.

The boy did not quite know what to make of these words. He looked around and saw many obstinate faces that conveyed the attitude: “Say what you will, we are not going to be loyal to you, and neither are we your Kamerad Schnürschuh.

He wanted to force himself to listen carefully, but the gush of words passed him by. The SA men along the wall kept their gaze fixed on the officer. He ended his speech with a barking reassurance that the Reich, which now included Austria, was well protected by his soldiers.

The Ortsgruppenleiter stood up and thanked the officer for his speech. When he held out his hand, the officer shook it, but his face remained petrified and he never relaxed his stiff posture. He came across as one of those fanatic military types that the old World War veterans talked about in their stories.

There was no applause anywhere in the hall, and the audience listened in angry silence, waiting for further announcements.

The Ortsgruppenleiter, who knew almost everyone in the room by name, sensed that the speech had caused resentment. He knew that this was not the right tone to strike with people around here. He, the local butcher’s son, tried to dissipate the frigid atmosphere that the officer had established in the room.

He reminded the audience that he himself had spent time in jail with many of them, and that they had always gotten along despite their political differences. That observation was aimed at the Social Democrats and Communists. After all, they had faced the same opponent, and his party would not think ill of anyone who had fought the religious party. After all, they were the ones who had plunged the country into poverty and misery.

He rambled on, and it almost seemed as if his only reason for being there was to hold a reunion with old acquaintances. But the tone of his address changed soon enough: Now that everything had been explained, it was time for all of them to work together to fulfill a great mission!

The speaker raised his voice and supported his points with hand gestures. The conversational tone he had struck before was gone, and the man who was speaking up there was no longer a neighbor from the village but a man who knew that he had the support of a powerful and smoothly functioning system. His voice sounded alien and cold. The audience felt it, and many lowered their heads.

Anyone who continued to participate in Communist or Socialist projects was in direct opposition to Führer and Reich! They would show no mercy! Then he took a list out of his pocket, waved it in the air and shouted: “We already had to take action, because some criminals thought that they could oppose our cause, the cause of the German people. Because of their subversive activities they have been put behind bars. We found incriminating evidence against all of them, but we made sure that they could no longer disseminate it.”

Then he read the names of those who had been arrested. The boy’s brother was among them.

“We are going to create our own Socialism!” the Ortsgruppenleiter shouted, “because Jewish Marxism is dead, once and for all!”

The boy noticed that the white-haired farmer in front of him raised his shoulders a bit, tilting his head to the side as if his muscles were aching. His body language suggested opposition, yet it also looked aloof, as if he were expressing disbelief. A tiny smile played around his eyes, which were surrounded by small wrinkles extending across his brown face. It was still there when he turned around to look at the three boys.

The Ortsgruppenleiter stepped off the podium and left the room through a side door. The SA men looked stern. Early on, they had still nodded at some familiar faces in the audience. Now, they only projected cold superiority.

People left the hall quickly. Everyone had arrived alone, but now people formed small groups. They walked across the yard together, and the sentries had to step aside, because nobody showed any willingness to walk through the gate in a single file.

It was already dark in the village when people began to disperse. The boy walked along the muddy road with his friends. All three were quiet and serious. When they reached the farms beyond the village line one of the brothers said: “They arrested them illegally.”

They all knew what he meant.

They were not yet here last night; they arrived this morning. Until then, the old laws were still valid. The three boys began to realize that the time of law, even if it had just been the distorted law of the clerical state, had come to a sudden end last night.

They left each other at a fork in the road, not knowing what to make of the contradictory experiences of the day, the rumors that floated around, and their impressions of the evening’s assembly. 

The snow in the road, which had been pressed down by the lumber sleds all winter long, had been melted by the German army vehicles.

At the juncture where the road ascends and the forest extends from the hillside he saw a figure coming toward him, staggering in the slush. He did not realize that it was a German soldier until the figure was very close. He tried in vain to knock the snow off his boots by clicking his heels together.

The soldier approached the boy and asked him: “Well, my boy, is there a post office in this hick town?”

He did not answer because he did not quite understand the question. “Why shouldn’t there be a post office in town?” he thought. Where was this guy from to think that there was no postal service in Austria?” He tried to recall what he had learned about foreign countries. It would never have occurred to him to ask whether people had a post office. The slight had injured his pride, and he proudly thought: “Doesn’t he know that the salt mines around here have been active for 3000 years, and that our region gave an entire culture, the Hallstatt Civilization, its name?” 

“I have a few postcards that I want to take to the post office,” the soldier said.

Reluctantly, the boy showed him the way. He felt mischievous: “Go on, keep walking for two kilometers until you reach the post office,” he thought. “Then you’ll realize how big this hick town is. And to think that there is a tobacco-store right under your nose where you could have bought stamps, and a mailbox right next to it, where you could have dropped your postcards.”

He hastened his steps to put distance between himself and the German soldier.

He quickly approached the spot where a trail branches off from the main road into the hills.

His heart was beating uneasily as he recalled that last night he had intended to return to the girl who had once been his childhood friend. Wasn’t he officially an adult as of today, by virtue of having been included in the assembly? Even though he was the youngest person there, the threat that there would be no mercy was aimed at him as much as the others. Hadn’t he looked at the sentry’s face under the steel helmet just as an adult would? Didn’t he have to show the girl that she was wrong to still treat him like a small boy from the neighborhood?

He pondered those thoughts as he walked up the path that branches off from the main road near the sulfur springs spa resort.

When he crossed the bridge across the small creek, two soldiers appeared sporting the inevitable helmets. “We can’t get through here,” one of them said, “there is a barrier.” A rope stretched across the path, tied to two chestnut trees. Without saying a word he took the other path around the sulfur springs. When he reached the old horse barns that had stood vacant for years, he noticed that horses were crowded together there in a corral. He also heard stomping and neighing from the barn stalls. A crowd of people stood talking in front of the corral, both soldiers and civilians.

He left the path, curious to find out what was going on. He waded into the meadow in front of the stables. “Good thing I am wearing my gaiters,” he thought. Near the great bushes in the middle of the meadow, he sank deeply into the muck. The remaining snow only formed a thin bridge across the ground, which was already breathing the warmth of spring.

He listened intently and heard loud giggling from the direction of the stables. “Great,” he thought, “the soldiers have hardly arrived, and the girls are already throwing themselves at them.” Working his way through the snow toward the direction of the snorting sounds of the horses, he thought acrimoniously: “But they invite us locals to a big lecture.”

He looked toward the low stables. The path was swinging right by them; the same path that lead up to the lonely farm house with the great old nut tree and the discreet little window.

The crowd of people had dispersed, but a few girls were still standing around the soldiers. The boy did not know them. He did not hear what they were saying because they lowered their voices when he approached.

Tall stacks of hay bales were arranged in front of the stables. The soldiers had improvised an electric line, and in the dim light of the weak bulbs he could see inside the stables. The flirting laughter of girls wafted out of the stalls.

He knew then that he would not sneak around the old nut tree tonight, and that he would not climb up to the small window, for fear that the room might be empty and that the girl might have flown the coop.

Robotically, he set one foot in front of the other, ascending the trail slowly. The stables and the horse corral vanished behind him in the darkness behind. His face burned, and he felt tremendous fatigue in his knees. He reached the forest, unable to form a clear thought. On one side of the trail young trees poked their tips through the snow. Great trees had been cut there when he had started school. On the other side of the trail some huge fir trees with wide crowns still stood.

There was the old bench. A long time ago someone had nailed two slabs made out of larch wood between trees, one to form a seat, and one to form a backrest. When he was little, he would rest there with his mother, who would put down her sack of mill grains. He rested there on the way home from school and on warm summer nights when he had secretly drunk a mug of tart cider after working the pins at the bowling alley. The tall firs never changed; their rough bark and high stems seemed like giant columns.

He sat down on the bench and leaned his face against the hard bark. Less than 24 hours had passed since the news about the “contingent” arrival of the German army, yet the world seemed profoundly changed.

He had never seen his parents as worried as they had been that morning. The mystery of his brother’s disappearance had been ominously solved, and by virtue of having been included in the assembly, he was now part of the circle of suspicious persons. The Ortsgruppenleiter’s threats were serious, and they were aimed at him.

They barricaded a road that I have walked a thousand times, he thought gloomily.

He sat on the bench and felt the warm winds engulf the valley. He had heard them rustling in the high forest for days; now they plummeted down the Eternal Wall like a breath of hot air. Their gale forces grabbed the tall firs, which swayed, softly moaning, under the pressure.

Ewige Wand, the “Eternal Wall” is a vertical cliff that towers over Franz Kain’s neighborhood. His parents’ home is right at the base of the cliff.

When the boy got up, the storm grabbed him, and he had to muster all his strength to brave it.

He stepped out of the forest. In his mind’s eye, he saw the face of the old farmer, who sat in front of him at the assembly. The face sported thousands of tiny wrinkles, and yet there had been a spark of mockery in the corners of his eyes. The assembly hall was large; more than two hundred people had been there. They knew about two hundred people in the village, but surely there must be more!

The boy felt a touch of relief. Bracing himself against the stormy gales he walked up the trail to the high forest with determined, firm, steps.


Franz Kain, “Als der Föhn einbrach,” Die Lawine. Weitra: Bibliothek der Provinz, 1993. 172-197.








Copyright Marion Hussong, 2010