The Fairy Tale Years (3)

Their eyes opened wide when they perceived the richness of the place, the wooden floor, the glittering cones, the blindingly white shirts, the squires’ proud, albeit beer-flushed faces. The old woman held the little boy close to her, lest he stumbled and broke something. Then, she took a cautious step forward and asked the nearest man, “Beg pardon, sire, what is this place?”
Unfortunately, she had talked to the squire whose turn it was to bowl. Distracted, he missed the cones on the far side, and his bowling ball hit the tunnel wall instead before disappearing in the darkest recess of the gallery.
The man swivelled around and yelled, “Darn old beggar woman!” His angry, drunken voice wobbled. “Now I’ve lost my ball! How am I going to play, huh?”
His comrades, as drunk as he, roared with laughter.
The squire got even angrier. Madness showed in his eyes as he glared in every which way.
Then he discovered the boy, half-hidden in the folds of the old woman’s cloak.
In one swift movement, he jerked the boy away from the old woman. Slowly, he picked up an axe.
His malevolent eyes glinted. “Found me some new ball,” he slurred.
And chopped off the boy's head.
The other squires cheered, some clapped their hands, others laughed so hard that they fell backwards. “Now let’s bowl!” the squire hollered. New cheers echoed through the gallery.
The old woman had sunk to her knees. Her old, wrinkled face contorted with disbelief, grief, and anger. With tear-blind eyes, she stared at the squire.
Then, she whispered, “I curse you all, cruel squires.” Her voice rose thunder-like. “Curse you, proud and cupid men! May all your riches and your fortune disappear! May you all perish!”
A loud rumbling followed her words, the earth shook. And several huge rocks came tumbling down in front of the Bowling Gallery, blocking the exit.
The mountain continued to groan and rumble and tremble.
The squires, sobered up by a rising panic, started to retreat further into the old gallery. From working here day by day, they knew their way; they hoped to be able to get away through a side-tunnel. But deep inside the mountain, secret rivers started to swell as if fed by the old woman’s tears, and icy floods came rushing through the tunnels.
There was no escape.
That evening, all the squires drowned, one after the after, and the old woman drowned, and the waters flooded tunnels and galleries, covering all the remaining silver forever.
That’s how the squires had brought about the downfall of their mine and of their blooming village. After the old woman's curse, no one ever dared enter the tunnels again.
It is said that there are riches galore in those tunnels and that it takes a brave man with a pure, loving heart to discover them.
But maybe, that silver is cursed forever, tainted with the young boy's blood, hexed by the squires' inhuman deed.


The Fairy Tale Years (2)

Here’s a legend I’ve heard many times when I was a kid. A regional story that impressed me a lot and might be the reason I’m not into gold, silver, or riches.
I might also be looking for an easy excuse. Yes, I’m bad with money. Procrastinators always are.
Anyway. When you leave Kleindorf, the coalmine's slate pile to your left, the cornfields to your right, the village in your back, you will stumble upon the river Pöls at one moment. Follow it upstream, pass in front of the moated Rennaissance castle, walk on, walk on, and you'll move away from the plain and enter the Pöls valley. It winds up between the mountains toward a more than 1,200 metres high pass.
But you don’t have to climb up that high. Halfway, there’s a brook to the left that comes babbling down from the mountains. Near the brook lies a little market town.
Today, it’s a sleepy, rural settlement with narrow lanes and old but perfectly preserved baroque houses, with rustic farms, verdant meadows, lush pastures, and rustling forests. The archetype of the romantic, clean Austrian village.
In the olden times, the most important silver mine of the whole Habsburg Empire was situated here. The market town was a rich town back then, its population of peasants, merchants, craftsmen, and squires behaving with the natural arrogant pride that comes with wealth.
Every morning, while the rising sun was still hiding behind the mountain peaks, painting them in red and orange and gold, the squires set out on shady paths, clad in ample, white shirts and dark trousers. They climbed up to the entrance of the mine, a carefree song on their lips, holding a black metal lamp in one hand and their tools in the other.
All day long, they’d crouch in the moist, hot, low tunnels and galleries. Their work was tedious and hard; their faces had turned black with soot and dirt when the day's labour was done.
But their efforts were worth it. They extracted so much silver that the Emperor eventually possessed more silver plates, silver spoons, silver cups, silver knives, silver candlesticks, silver helmets, silver combs, and silver toothpicks than anyone else. The local notability started to weave silver threads in their clothes. Even the squires became rich, their white shirts made of the softest, most precious fabrics, their boots always shiny and black, their houses bigger and more comfortable than any miner's house throughout the rest of the Empire.
Such was their wealth that the squires started to think they deserved the riches that destiny had bestowed on them. They started to think they were superior to everyone else.
In those days, the squires had a favourite pastime. They’d often meet in an old, abandoned gallery, enjoy some pints of beer, and bowl. Of course, in the beginning, they had played with wooden cones and wooden bowling balls.
But now, they were rich. Their cones and bowling balls were made of pure silver.
One winter evening, while the wind was howling outside and snow was falling on the mountains and the valley, a poor old woman and her little grandson passed in front of the entrance to the Bowling Gallery. Both were cold and hungry and tired.
When they saw the cosy light spilling out of the tunnel, they stepped in, hoping they’d find a place where to escape the bitter winter’s eve.


The Fairy Tale Years (1)

Anna Plochl
To recount my childhood years is a strange exercise. Not because I had a strange childhood, not at all. If I wanted to summarise its benchmark data, I guess it would look insipid, trite, even dull: living in the bosom of my family from age zero to four; kindergarten from four to six; primary school from six to ten.
That’s about it.
Seen from that angle, it’s a dry documentary starring me. Mom. Dad. Kathi. Uncles, aunts, cousins. Several friends.
Alright, any story seems uninteresting when you tell it that way. That’s why most résumés make people yawn.
But that’s my point. I can’t find anything strange when I try to remember my life as a kid.
The strangeness I’m talking about lies in the fact that when I look back, nothing feels fixed or solid. It’s a long, shifting, hazy period with no room for a clear chronology. I remember facts as precisely as I remember the secret code of my Visa card. But those events could have happened at one moment. Or another. Later. Or sooner.
My childhood is a borderless, timeless, enchanted realm.
A happy, carefree realm.
No wonder. I’ve been born, and I’ve grown up, in a sort of fairytale country.
Austria. A land with more than thousand years of history. Knights, counts, dukes, archdukes, kings, emperors galore. If you rather go for the beautiful princess, you can find some neat examples, too.
By the way, I daresay that Austria makes a pretty good living milking that fat cow. Even today. There’s the tale of archduke Johann, for instance. Very popular in my home region Styria. He was a member of the Habsburg clan. Born in 1782, he married Anna Plochl, a simple postmaster’s daughter, against the explicit opposition of his family. Trite? No, no, no! That’s the yarn with which we spin the story of an outlasting romance in Austria. A romance that sells.
And almost everything is like that. On the surface at least. Visit Vienna, and you’ll see the truth of what I’m saying. It’s all about Mozart, and Maria Theresia, and empress Sissi, with a zest of Freud and the Sweet Era of Coffeehouse Writers.
We lost two World Wars? Go find traces of that. I wish you good luck.
We’ve never shied away from a good lie, either. If it stands a chance to be profitable, that is. In the 14th century, didn’t Rudolf IV forge a document creating the rank of archduke for the Habsburgs in order to show they were better than simple dukes?
You bet he did.
Didn’t we collectively accept a legend, invented in 1943 by the Moscow Declaration, claiming that Austria was the first victim to fall prey to the aggressive foreign policy of the National Socialists?
You bet we did. That 99.7561% of the population voted in favour of the Anschluss in 1938 is considered a minor detail in that matter.
Didn’t we collectively applaud when pope Paul VI. dubbed the country “The Isle of the Blessed”, shortly before I was born? No one knew exactly why, by the way. The pope, a refined and cultivated Italian, had intended no irony. Perhaps he had only meant to be nice. Yet we all adhered to that ridiculous idea.
And when you drive through Austria, you’ll have the overall impression that everything is swell, neat, clean. Beautiful wooden chalets with big balconies where geraniums bloom. An ever yodelling population wearing traditional garb. It’s like “The Sound of Music” come alive, over and over again.
Well, yes, some visitors are disappointed they don’t stumble upon any kangaroos. They’ve mistaken us for Australia. We simply pat them on their shoulders, offer a glass of schnapps, and yodel away their frustration.
I’ve went astray. Again. Let’s come back to my childhood years, then.
What I’m trying to tell you is this: I will not be able to recount a straight story. No pun intended, here. This part of my personal novel will come in odd bits and pieces. A chunk from when I was one year old, maybe. Then a chunk from when I turned four.
A medley, in other words. A childhood compilation. Childhood fairytales from an Austrian fairy boy.
I try and do my best to keep confusion at bay, though.


A letter and a kid (8)

“Remember me for what I was, not what I couldn’t be…” That’s a line from a song Anne Clark sang on her album “Hopeless Cases”, released in 1987. The music builds ornamental spirals around her expressive voice. Which sounds like a suitable background to this.
It’s a snapshot. Taken right after my christening in 1972, in front of the plain, white church of Kleindorf. It shows what I was.
What I couldn’t be, what I cannot be is manifold. But what I was is unique.
You can see the whole family on the photo. To be honest, a stranger could mistake their solemn faces for grim glares and conclude they have assembled for a funeral. Or a vendetta. Sure enough, they look like a Sicilian Clan straight out of “The Godfather”.
Pretty spot-on, in some ways. My family can feel like a Sicilian Clan. Without the Sicilian origins, that is.
Anyway. There’s grandma Cilli, in the centre, holding me in her arms. She’s my godmother, that’s why her stance and her face reflect honour and pride. She’s holding me tight, she’s holding me safe. A knowing half-smile shows around her lips.
To her right, my father. In a dark suit. Black-haired, handsome, slender, well-proportioned. He’s laughing at the camera, his teeth blinking, white and spotless. Ask everyone to look solemn, and he’ll still manage somehow to laugh. He holds one of my tiny fingers in his big hand.
To Cilli’s left, my mother, wearing a mini-skirt, a white blouse, a light jacket, her gaze directed at my father’s head. She looks smitten. As if to protect me, she has placed one hand on my bald, shiny head.
The priest to her left leans slightly on her to make sure he’s on the photo. He folds his hands as if saying a prayer. Another protection for me. He crinkles his wise face into an enigmatic expression.
Up front, my cousins. Sulking because they hate wearing their Sunday best. They have already hated sitting still in church and putting up with that long, dull ceremony. Now, they’d rather play Cowboys and Red Indians than to behave well. One has scraped her knee on the way to church. The scab is barely visible under the seam of her short, white dress. She’s wearing an oxeye-daisy in her hair.
Aunt Lucia’s already grey hair stands out behind grandma Cilli and my parents. Her features are set, resolute, dynamic; she's holding my one-and-a-half-year-old sister Kathi in her arm. Who doesn’t look amused. No, the baby girl frowns as if questioning the whole thing.
My aunt’s other arm lies on grandma Berta’s shoulder. Berta leans against her daughter, a walking stick in her hand. She looks small and vulnerable, her lips drawn into a stern, unsmiling line.
Around the two, my other aunts and uncles.
Grandpa Ferdi stands on the right margin, you only see one half of his body, his protruding belly. He stands straight, upright, exhaling his workman’s pride, winking at the camera. You have to guess whether he’s doing it because something amuses him. Or because he’s staring into the sun.
On the other margin, grandpa Hans has been cut in two by the photographer, too. He wears a discreet, polite expression, as if he’d come across a stranger’s christening. As if he didn’t have anything to do with the rest of us.
In the very centre of the snapshot, a tiny worm, wound into a clear-coloured sheet. They say this was I. Only my hands and my hairless head jut out of the sheet. I seem to concentrate, to meditate something essential, my fat little face wrinkled with the effort.
But look closer.
You’ll discover that I’m fast asleep, probably dreaming, and ignoring the fuss and flurry they’re all making.



A letter and a kid (7)

My mother’s reaction when the midwife presented me, clean and peaceful after my first outburst of anger: she was too shocked for words.
That is, she seemed tired but joyful enough. Until the midwife trilled, “Yes, ma’am—it’s a boy!”, parting the white cloth in which she had wrapped me, discovering my baby willy and red balls. She expected enthusiasm, maybe a bout of misplaced pride.
Instead of that, my mother started to sob.
The midwife, fearing a precocious outbreak of Baby Blues, thought it best to lay me on my mother’s lap, tiptoe away while she still could and find comfort in the hip flask filled with schnapps she had stored away in the staff room.
But my mother doesn’t do Baby Blues. She’s more into the Anything-can-be-a-problem-Blues. Some say it’s because she’s a Virgo, always worried and angsty. Others believe it’s because she thinks life too easy-peasy and has to invent problems in order to feel alive. Anyway, she grabbed the midwife by the sleeve and whined, “What have I done to deserve this?”
“What’s the matter, ma’am? Aren’t you happy?” the midwife asked.
“Oh… yes, I am. Very much,” my mother lied, looking more miserable by the minute. “Really… happy’s the word, yes.”
“You don’t look happy to me!” The midwife lifted me up again and held me tight, fearing that she was talking to a madwoman who might take the baby and smash it against the wall.
My mother’s voice became tiny, tears still streaming down her cheeks. “Well, it’s a boy! know how to deal with a girl, wash her, powder her, you know. But how shall I deal with… that?” She made a lame gesture toward my baby privates, still in full sight. “It looks so… fragile. What if I do anything wrong?”
“Oh!” The midwife sighed with relief, hiding tiny noddle and eggs from view at last. “That. Don’t you worry, ma’am. We’ll show you. It’s… well, different, yes. But not very complicated. You will learn in no time. Now, do you want to hold your son for a second?”
My mother looked only half-persuaded. But her hormones kicked in at last. Or her maternal instinct. Or simply her sense of duty. “Yes,” she said. “Give me my son.”
The midwife complied, her face expressing ‘All’s well that ends well, and I can go have me a quencher’.
My mother pressed her nose to my neck and inhaled my sweet-sour baby smell. Then she kissed me on the forehead and whispered, “I love you, my little son!” And she did mean it.

The next problem arose when my father came to discover his son. After a first explosion of joy, he fetched a chair and took me in his arms the way one picks up a piece of precious china. “How are we going to call him, darling?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” my mother replied, her tone meaning ‘I don’t care right now’. She had just delivered a baby, after all; she felt too weary to take a decision.
“Shall I ask Mom?” my cunning father asked.
This stirred the reaction he had hoped for. My mother sat up in bed, her eyes sparkling with determination. “Over. My. Dead. Body!” she hissed and held out her arms to reclaim me.
Amused, my father handed me back. “We could call him Johann, after your dad,” he proposed.
“Everyone will call him Hans. Or Hansi,” my mother said. “I don’t want people to use one of those hideous nicknames.”
“Ferdinand, after Dad?”
“People will call him Ferdi. Or Ferdl.”
“Josef? Christian? Sebastian?”
“Sepp, Chris, Wastl.” My mother shuddered. “Why not choose something special?”
“Alright. My son will become someone special anyway,” my father replied. “He will do the things I couldn’t: go to university, have a fine career.”
Both pondered the question for a moment. Until my mother came up with a name. A special name. None they had ever used before. They knew no one who had that name, either. “If we called him… Cornelius?” she suggested.
“Hm… Cornelius Dohr. Sounds good. Okay. Let’s call him Cornelius,” my father said. Sealing my fate without knowing it.