The Nameless Town
Johann Geischer was born in a small town north of Munich and was the second eldest of six children. It was not entirely the fault of his parents but it was true nonetheless – there was simply no room for him at home. So, when he turned the unlucky digit of thirteen he had been sent away to a town equally as insignificant on the map, to become an apprentice gravedigger.
It was the winter of 1939, each day was averaging around minus three degrees and Johann was the unfortunate apprentice of Hubert Steig, who lived in a cheerless cottage on the edge of a nameless town.
Johann Geischer woke with icy fingers of cold whispering over his face and the remnants of yesterday’s misery lurking on his pillow. For a moment he lay still, tasting the elixir of early morning and as he often did, weighing up two options.
1. Go back to sleep and get woken up with a bucket of icy water
2. Get out of bed and get dressed as quickly as possible
Ein, zwei, drei… There was only ever one option. Reluctantly, Johann climbed out of bed and quickly got dressed, his toes cringing away from the frigid floor. Out in the pitch black of the kitchen he began a blind search for matches and a candle. As he carefully navigated the kitchen, his eyes adjusted to the dark. The hulking shadow of the stove glowered at him, with the pot of pea soup from the past two days resting beside it. The insipid substance was becoming a constant presence of late and the very thought of the stuff this early in the morning, was enough to make his stomach twist.
Johann’s unsavoury contemplations were thankfully interrupted by the discovery of the matches and soon a lonely flame illuminated the dingy kitchen. It was then that Johann realised he was not alone. On the bench, guiltily close to the pea soup was a rat.
The culprit looked at him with beady eyes for a couple of curious seconds, before deciding that the shadow of the fourteen-year-old gravedigger was not a threat. It could not have been more wrong.
In turn, Johann stared at the rodent; the contours of its skeleton, sharp under its decrepit pelt and the inquisitive way its nose investigated the pot of pea soup. “Hello little garbage thief…” he wheedled. Craftiness dripped from his gaze. As though in a trance, his hand drifted towards the dirty knife on the table. The motion was seamless. The knife swept through the air, the rat darted into invisibility and the knife screeched as it hit the iron stove top.
“@#$^*!” There was silence, and then a shadow appeared in the kitchen doorway that evolved into the murky form of Hubert Steig.
“The Wellers want their driveway shovelled,” Steig’s grey eyes fixed upon the notched blade of the knife. Johann nodded, not lost for words but rather aware that nothing he could say would in any way repair the damage. Similarly, Steig did not comment upon the incident that had no doubt jerked him from sleep but rather projected a stony silence.
They sat down, each with a portion of pea soup. The absence of yelling echoed uncomfortably – this was Steig’s speciality. After all, he was a gravedigger. He must have picked up something from the taciturn headstones and all those frosty days digging graves in the snow.
“When should I start?” Asked Johann, deciding now was a reasonable, if not good time to break the ice. Steig’s eyes wandered carefully over the grimy table top.
“Seeing as the car is half buried head to tail in three feet of snow, I imagine you’ll need every minute you can get. Meanwhile, I am going to see what the next infernal legume is on the market to kill us all. Make sure you bring back the money – I’ll be counting every pfennig.” And with this, the gravedigger stood up, placed his dirty bowl in the sink with a clatter and left, shutting the door with a snap. Behind him, Johann scowled with resentment at the shards of ice from the older man’s shoulder, scattered all over the floor. The justice of being an apprentice…
Leaving the remains of his breakfast on the table to spite Steig and appease the rat (after promising himself that poison would make an appearance as soon as he laid his hands on some), Johann grabbed his shovel from the hall and stepped outside. It was still early, no one was about and as he headed towards the centre of town, he composed a letter of loathing addressed to the devilish wind and the season of winter in general. Inside his pocket, a black book with silver words.
The crack of dawn had only just begun to shatter across the sky, when Johann arrived at the Weller’s house. The nameless town boasted little wealth but most of what it had, was safely locked away inside this building. Inequality is seen all over the world but there were several specific reasons why Mr and Mrs Weller lived where and how they did. Or more importantly, why they retained their status in the poverty-stricken year of 1939: Mr Weller was an officer in the SS.
The windows were empty, they were probably still asleep. Johann began to dig, his shovel crunching into the white snow and his mind beginning to thaw with the rising of the sour, yellow sun. By mid-morning the Weller’s car was completely free and the snow lay in two long drifts either side of the drive. Satisfied both with the work and the absence of Steig’s sarcasm, Johann climbed the steps and knocked on the door to receive the real reward: the money. Nobody answered. Not after he knocked again, nor again with more vigour; not even when he applied a savage kick to the door. His satisfaction vanished as quickly as the rat had that morning and was replaced with a venomous stab of spite. “Burn to the ground,” he told the wolf’s head door knocker. The whistle of an approaching train sounded in agreement.
Back at the cottage, the pea soup was gone and there was a note from Steig on the table.
We’re wanted at the graveyard
As he set off on the familiar route, Johann wondered who had died. The graveyard was empty, all except for Steig who was standing knee deep in a half-dug grave. “Took your time,” said Steig, evidently disgruntled.
As Johann began to dig, Steig filled him in. “A boy died on a train headed for Molching – blasted ice!” The gravedigger cursed.
“Where is he?” Johann glanced around the graveyard at the blanket of snow, disturbed only by their two sets of footprints.
Steig paused to wipe his forehead. “They’re coming with the Priest – there…” he pointed to the gate. A skinny, brown eyed girl and a small corpse wrapped in grey, that was held in the frightened, grief torn arms of a woman. The mother and daughter were starving from more than the lack of food, Johann could see it written in the grieving lines etched across their faces. The Priest nodding a solemn greeting to Steig who stood back rubbing his hands together in an attempt to get warm.
The sermon was short, the words floundering away on the strengthening wind that painted the sky white with clouds. The girl shivered and Johann felt a fleeting smudge of sympathy bleed across his heart but it quickly receded. Amid the desolate wasteland of snow, even the thought returning to the gloomy shelter of the cottage was diverting. The Priest finished talking and there was a shivering moment of silence before Johann helped Steig to lower the body into the ground. By the time the last shovelful of dirt and blackened snow was placed on the grave the Priest’s nose was tinted blue. The cold was intense.
After a several minutes Steig motioned that they should leave. Thankful, Johann followed; leaving behind him a girl with frozen blood, cracked across her hands and a copy of the Gravedigger’s Handbook.