Master butchers singing.., p.1
To my father,
who sang to me.
Die Gedanken sind frei
Wer kann sie erraten
Sie fliehen vorbei
Wie nächtliche Schatten
Kein mensch kann sie wissen
Kein Jäger erschiessen
Es bleibet dabei
Die Gedanken sind frei.
—“Thoughts Are Free” (German song)
The Last Link
The Balancing Expert
The Butcher’s Wife
The Night Garden
The Paper Heart
The Burning of the Mutts
The Room in the Earth
The Christmas Sun
The Snake People
The Army of the Silver Firs
The Master Butchers Singing Club
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ALSO BY LOUISE ERDRICH
ABOUT THE PUBLISHER
FIDELIS WALKED home from the great war in twelve days and slept thirty-eight hours once he crawled into his childhood bed. When he woke in Germany in late November of the year 1918, he was only a few centimeters away from becoming French on Clemenceau and Wilson’s redrawn map, a fact that mattered nothing compared to what there might be to eat. He pushed aside the white eiderdown that his mother had aired and restuffed every spring since he was six years old. Although she had tried with repeated scrubbings to remove from its cover the stains of a bloody nose he’d suffered at thirteen, the faint spot was still there, faded to a pale tea-brown and shaped like a jagged nest. He smelled food cooking—just a paltry steam but enough to inspire optimism. Potatoes maybe. A bit of soft cheese. An egg? He hoped for an egg. The bed was commodious, soft, and after his many strange and miserable beds of the past three years, it was of such perfect comfort that he’d shuddered when first lying down. Fidelis had fallen asleep to the sound of his mother’s quiet, full, joyous weeping. He thought he still heard her now, but it was the sunlight. The light pouring through the curtains made a liquid sound, he thought, an emotional and female sound as it moved across the ivory wall.
After a while he decided that he heard the light because he was clean. Disorientingly clean. Two nights ago, before he’d entered the house, he begged to bathe in a washtub out in the tiny roofed courtyard, beneath the grape arbor. They built a fire to warm the water. His sister, Maria Theresa, picked the lice from his hair and his father brought fresh clothing. In order to endure all that the war necessitated, including his own filth, Fidelis had shut down his senses. As he opened to the world again, everything around him was distressingly intense and all things were possessed of feeling, alive, as in a powerful dream.
Quietness reverberated in his head. Ordinary sounds, people outside in the streets, seemed marvelous as the chatter of rare monkeys. A thrill of delight crashed through him. Even to put on his clean and vermin-free clothing was a task so full of meaning that the fastening of his grandfather’s gold boar’s-head cuff-links nearly made him weep. Breathing low, he collected himself, and stilled his tears with the power of his quietness. Ever since he was a child, when sorrow had come down upon him, he’d breathed lightly and gone motionless. As a young soldier, he’d known from the first that in his talent for stillness lay the key to his survival. It had carried him through the war as a pitifully green recruit of whom it was soon discovered that, from a sniping post, he could drill a man’s eye at 100 meters and make three of five shots. Now that he was home, he understood, he must still be vigilant. Memories would creep up on him, emotions sabotage his thinking brain. To come alive after dying to himself was dangerous. There was far too much to feel, so he must seek, he thought, only shallow sensations. Now he tried to adjust. He must slowly awaken even to this childhood room he knew so well.
He sat down at the edge of the bed. On a thick shelf set into the wall, his books stood in lines, or stacked as he’d left them, marked with thin strips of paper. For a time, though his occupation was assured, he’d cherished the vision of himself as a poet. Therefore his shelves were stacked with volumes of his heroes, Goethe, Heine, Rilke, and even Trakl, hidden behind the others. He looked at them now with dull curiosity. How could he ever have cared what such men said? What did their words matter? His childhood history was also in this room, his toy soldiers still arranged on the sill. And his young man’s pride: his diplomas and his guild papers framed on the wall. These things did matter. These papers represented his future. His survival. In the closet, his bleached, starched, and pressed white shirts hung ready to embrace him. His polished shoes waited on the shelf beneath for the old Fidelis to put his feet into them. Gingerly, Fidelis tried to slide his feet into the open maws of the stiff shoes, but they wouldn’t go. His feet were swollen, tender from frostbite, peeling, painful. Only his hobnailed boots fit, and they were green inside and stank of rot.
Slowly, he turned to contemplate the day. His bedroom window was a long, golden rectangle. He rose and opened the window, using the ram’s-horn curl of its handle, and looked out, over Ludwigsruhe’s slow, brown river, over the roofs and dead late-fall gardens on its opposite bank, across a patchwork of tender, gray fields, and then a tiny complex of roofs and chimneys beyond. Somewhere in that next town’s maze lived the woman he had never met before, but had promised to visit. He found himself thinking about her with a complex intensity. His thoughts formed questions. What was she doing now? Had she a garden? Was she gathering the final few dusty potatoes from a small, raised, straw-covered berm? Was she hanging out her laundry fresh and white on a piece of icy rope? Was she talking, over tea, to her sister, her mother? Was she singing to herself? And his own presence, what he had promised to tell her. How could he go through with it, and also, how could he not?
EVA KALB, 17 Eulenstrasse. Fidelis stood before the blond-brick walkway, frowning at the frail cast-iron arbor that marked the entrance. The ironwork was threaded with the tough overgrowth of climbing rose stalks, leafless and almost black, huge thorns white at the tip. The walk wasn’t swept and papers littered the front entry. The rest of the block was neatly, fanatically well-kept even in the chaos of defeat. Fidelis found the neglect of Eva Kalb’s house disturbing, perhaps indicating a death in the family already. His eyes filled with tears and he pinched the bridge of his nose—the readiness of his emotions, even in public, horrified him. There was some movement behind a sheer curtain in the front window of the house. Fidelis knew he had been seen, and so, breathing deeply and shrugging himself into a tougher shell, he stepped forward, onto the bricks of the walkway.
She opened the door almost immediately at his knock, so he knew she had been the one at the window, watching him. He knew this was Eva from the picture in his best friend’s locket, which he’d kept. Even now, in the tiny breast pocket of his jacket, the cheap vermeil keepsake made a hot oval lump. Inside the miniature frame was set the hand-colored picture of a woman who looked both capable and delicate, her mouth a sensitive line g
Directly afterward, Fidelis wasn’t sure whether he thought or actually said these words, but it did seem to him that sounds had come from his mouth. Although he didn’t hear them, Eva understood—she took the meaning of the sounds into herself with a huge, unsteady breath. That cruel air seemed to dizzy her and her intelligent face lost focus, her expression snapped away, so that Fidelis saw her, for one moment, in the state of a naked being accepting pain. Then Eva Kalb slumped toward him, hands clasped, face calm, in an attitude of prayer. As he caught her and folded her carefully against himself, he understood with a visceral surprise that she was pregnant. Later, privately, Fidelis came to believe that the child had actually knocked from her womb at that moment, its motion touching the helping palm of his hand.
Fidelis lifted his best friend’s fiancée into his arms and stood in the doorway of the house, holding the woman effortlessly, as he would have held a sleeping child. He could have stood there with her for hours. The strength required to hold her was a minute portion of the strength he actually possessed. For he was one of those born in the phenomenon of strength. He’d always had it, from the beginning, and each year it increased.
It is said that some people absorb the cellular essence of a twin while still in the womb—perhaps Fidelis was one of those. Maybe he was simply of that old Germanic stock who roamed the forests and hung their god from the tree of life. There is also in some parts of Germany a belief that one who kills is at the moment of the other’s death entered by that victim’s essence. If so, that explained both the lightness and the gravity of Fidelis. He had seen the flash of a man’s smile through telescopic sights in the instant before his sniper’s bullet shattered the distant face. He had watched the blood pump through a man’s fingers on the throat he’d neatly creased. He’d dealt death out so accurately from his sandbagged and reinforced turret that the French and the British tried to clock his watches. They hated him, and they tried with near success to capture him, for they had planned how slowly they would kill him. Between him and them, the war was very personal. He accepted this. And he had not turned away from his task. He simply continued with a raptor’s perseverant ease to pluck men from that too shallow rift in the earth.
They’d dug down deeper to escape him, and yet he caught them anyway in a moment of foolish ease, pure tiredness, or fatal exuberance. Perhaps it was true that those souls flew unerringly across the drenched slime to lodge within him, for the quiet in Fidelis had deepened to a serene violence undisturbed by the roar of the big night guns. His fellow soldiers began to fear and then detest him as their misery increased. He drew enemy fire, so he was avoided. He slept, and slept. Shells fell near him, men shrieked in his ear. Fidelis only frowned a little, sighed with childish irritation, and kept on sleeping. He dreamed black dreams from which he woke with no memory. He meticulously oiled and cleaned the workings of his rifle. He ate the brot and wurst, the little packages of dried peaches and apples he’d brought from home, and he dipped the finger he would set on the trigger, every morning, into a small pot of honey from his mother. He licked that finger and tasted the bee-sugar dark with forest bitterness. A childhood taste, sucked from the hidden blossoms of the densest stands of silver fir. He never licked all the honey quite off, and once he took the rifle up his finger never slipped.
Now, in the doorway, Fidelis waited until Eva’s mother came to investigate. When he brought Eva into her house and laid her down upon a faded rose pink sofa, he decided what he’d known already, what he’d promised his friend Johannes, who had died on the walk home from the war and in a shimmer of fractured musical notes. Fidelis would marry Eva. Later, when she agreed to his plan and when she kissed him, he tasted on her tongue and on the skin of her throat several layers of meaning. He tasted Johannes, whose forehead he’d kissed in death as though he were putting a little brother to sleep. That taste was the salt grief. Eva’s taste was different, and familiar. Hers was the bitter edge to the sweetness of forest honey, and her fragrance, as he lifted his face away from hers, possessed the fading sharp persistence of the secret flowers of the blackest pines.
Their wedding was a poor and scrabbled-together affair, she enormous with the child fathered in the war’s last insane and desperate season. But the priest, knowing all, blessed them, and they spent their first night together in Fidelis’s tiny bedroom, where he’d left his lead soldiers to patrol the sills. That night, she lay naked in the trembling light of a candle, her body covering the childish stain on the flannel-covered eiderdown. Her gold hair, shot with the same red as his, sprayed across the pillow. Her breasts were veined with blue fire, her nipples chapped and dark. He knelt before her, between her legs, put his hands on her, and felt the hot movement of the child. The powerful emotions that had accompanied his return had faded slowly, at last, to a sense of embarrassment at his survival. He now had no idea what to do about his life, but upon entering Eva’s body, clasping her hips to him, winding her legs behind his back, he moved from the dangerous quiet where he lived, into the unacceptable knowledge that in spite of the dead weight of killed souls and what he’d learned in the last three years about the monstrous ground of existence and his own murderous efficiency, he was meant to love.
FIDELIS SOON FOUND that he was also meant to travel. He became convinced that he should go to America because he saw, from that place, a slice of bread. This sighting occurred in the public square of Ludwigsruhe. Crossing it one day shortly after he married Eva, he noticed people grouped around a neighbor well-known to his parents. This man held something white and square in his hand that Fidelis took at first to be a picture of some sort, but it was blank. When he saw that it was bread, shaped with a precision that could only be the work of fanatics, Fidelis entered the circle of men to examine it. The thing was sent in a package from distant relatives, from a far coastal city, as an example of what such a commonplace item as a bread loaf became in the hands of inventive people. Machines had kneaded and baked and then sliced it. Or were these everyday American bakers? That was the argument. Fidelis inspected the bread when, passed hand to hand, it came around to him. He noted the fine texture and wondered at the treatment of the yeast, observed the sharp edge of the cut, shook his head at the strangely even gold brown of the crust. It seemed an impossible thing, to him, an artifact from some place that must adhere to an impossibly rigid order. Later that day, visiting the neighbor, he got the name of the place it was sent from, spelled it out on a scrap of paper, and kept it with him through the next months, until it changed from being the source of a small marvel to an actual destination.
STEPPING OFF THE RMS Mauretania into the harbor chaos of New York City with a suitcase full of his father’s miraculous smoked sausage, Fidelis was directed through the swirl of massed arrival by his power of quiet. It was 1922 and Eva’s baby was three years old. His talent for stillness had carried Fidelis through the war’s aftermath of want, in which he’d been forced to enter a treacherous black market. Now, in the suitcase that Fidelis carried was massed the wealth of his entire family. All of their remaining trinkets, including the cuff-links, and their best woolens had bought his ticket and kept him from selling his knives. His own carefully hoarded bullets and hidden-away rifle had poached the wild boar from which were made the sausages that would carry him across this new country. He spoke only the English that he had learned on the ship, words specific to his intent—train, train station, west, best sausage, master butcher, work, money, land. His family’s fortunes now lay solely with him and, as he saw it, his ability
In his calm immobility, it was true, there was a power. But that was complicated by the restless sweep of his eyes, which were of a blue so transparent that his skull seemed lighted from within. His thick roan-blond hair, crushed underneath his father’s prewar dress hat, needed cutting. He was clean shaven, though, and he wore clean underwear. The inside pockets of his father’s suit held all he needed. The suit was of the fine Bavarian quality of the hat. His family, who were emphatically not Bavarian, in fact distrusted people from the south and believed them of a coarser quality than their woolens.
Although they were tradesmen and master butchers, his family also prided themselves on acquiring a degree of learning and on a talent for producing male voices of special beauty that skipped from son to son. His older brother hadn’t much voice at all, for instance, but Fidelis had a singing tenor of such natural clarity and freshness that his last name, Waldvogel, might have been invented just for him. Waldvogel was such a common name in his town that he’d never thought of it, but in this new country, where Germans were Germans regardless of their regional origins, more than one person would remark upon it, and also note that Forestbird was an oddly gentle name for one whose profession was based in slaughter.
That was not how his family viewed it, of course; there was an art to a proper killing. The profession, acquired only through painstaking study and examination from a young age, was one of extraordinary precision and timing. A Metzgermeister’s diploma required working knowledge of every spice known to humankind, the arcane preparation of hundreds of varieties of wurst, and the ability to commit one’s knife edge to the animal’s created bulk and grain with a dreamlike intuition. His father, having practiced all his life, hardly seemed to move his hands as the animal fell into increasingly civilized circles and predictable shapes. On a block set before him, its creatureliness disappeared and it entered, as Fidelis saw it, a higher and more satisfactory form of being.