THE CHOICE: 17th Century Black Forest

 

GUNTER

 

Herr Crankendinger cracked the switch on Gunter’s open hand. The lad, fourteen years old, the in-between of boy and man, clenched his teeth. He locked eyes with the scowling school master. Gunter had the urge to snigger. Not a good urge to have when the school master is beating his hand. Gunter pushed down the bubble of snigger rising from his beating chest. His stomach churned and all fizzed up, the snigger with a mind of its own, rumbled in his throat and then slipped out of his curled mouth.

‘Dumkopf!’ Herr Crankdinger screamed. He hammered the boy’s palm again and again. ‘You will learn!’

‘Aber, the water in the bucket is held by centripetal force, not magic. The man at the Show is not the devil.’

Herr C’s face glowed red and his ice-blue eyes bulged. He stomped his one foot and peg-leg (a casualty of the Thirty Years War), and cried, ‘Heretic!’

In the candle-lit chapel, thirty-nine pairs of eyes stared at their castigated classmate, and the owners of those eyes froze on their cedar benches. One boy in the back row tittered.

Encouraged by the titter of support, Gunter continued, ‘Gravity, have you not heard of gravity? Have you not heard of Isaac Newton?’

‘Oaf!’ The teacher pointed at the door. ‘Witch! And don’t come back! Your education is finished. Vestehe?’

‘Never learnt anything here,’ Gunter muttered as he strode between the rows of school boys towards the heavy doors made of oak.

He pushed one open, squeezed through and then bolted. Pigeons fluttered as Gunter ripped through the town square, Badenwil, a small village of the Schwarzwald (Black Forest). First flush of spring made Gunter a bundle of nervous energy, especially when he saw three milk maids delivering their buckets full of cow juice to the stalls in the square. He looked at the blonde triplets in their puffy cotton sleeves and blue pinafore dresses, and he stumbled on the cobble stones.

The girls sheered away from him.

‘Oh, keep away from the plague,’ one said loud enough for him to hear.

‘Ugh, he smells like cow dung.’

‘No one would want to marry him.’

‘All he attracts is bugs and flies.’

And the three girls giggled.

‘You’re no beauties yourselves,’ Gunter said as he dug his hands in his pockets. He didn’t care it was bad manners to dig hands in pockets. Too bad, he thought as he tramped up the hill to his home.

Gunter glanced in the pond half-way up the hill. His nose like the Blauen-Hoch dominated his dusky face, and pimples gathered in clumps pine trees on his high forehead, square chin and of course, his mountain of a nose. He pulled his thick dark curls over his face to hide the awkward ugliness, and then head down and hands buried in his pockets, Gunter shuffled up to his home presiding over the village, a mansion crumbling with neglect.

How long before his home looks like those Roman ruins down the road? Gunter wondered. Another victim of the Thirty years war. So close to the sanctuary of Switzerland, and yet…his father had to go and join the cause. So did his older brother Johann. How could Gunter as a boy keep the house and home together?

 

The planks of wood that resembled a door scraped on the stone floor as Gunter entered. Wailing from above greeted him, as did the damp musty smell. A rat scuttled along the wall of peeling rose wall paper and through a crack. Gunter feared that with the damp and vermin, it would not be long before the family succumbed to Typhus. He’d witnessed the fate of his merchant friends in the village—all eight of them gone in one winter. Their two-storey home in the village square had to be demolished as no one would buy it.

Gunter strode to the fireplace, the flames crackling on the wood chips comforted him. He stood with his back to the fire and watched his grandmother emerge from the kitchen wiping her hands on her once-white apron.

‘What’s wrong with her today?’ Gunter asked.

‘Says nurse tried to poison her,’ Grandmother said as she glanced at the tall Nordic woman scrubbing a pot in the kitchen wash basin.

His mother’s screams warbled, resonating from the room above them and bouncing off the rose-printed walls. Gunter and his grandmother looked at each other. They knew they couldn’t compete with the Banshee screaming. Gunter heard his sister cooing, calming the troubled beast.

The screams subsided to moans. Grandmother wiped her damp brow. ‘We really need to see the priest and get those demons out.’

Gunter tapped his temple. ‘It is nothing to do with demons, Grossmutter. Mutti has something wrong with her mind. Her brain is kaput.’

Grandmother ignored his comment. She manoeuvred her ample form through the labyrinth of tables, arm chairs and Gunter’s latest model of the solar system to where Gunter stood. In her hand she cupped yellow powder. ‘See? I got this from the market. It’s called Turmeric. This is what I put in her soup that Nurse gave her. It is a spice from India. It is meant to heal Mutti.’ She lifted the powder to her nose and sniffed. ‘It is wonderful! I have some in my food every day and I swear it has cured my aching bones.’

‘Really?’ Gunter pinched a sample and licked it. ‘It does not taste so special.’

‘But when you put it in—’

The wailing started again. Gunter sighed. Grandmother waddled to the table and began scrubbing it. Despite his sister, Salome’s pleading and urging to placate her mother’s rages, the screams rose to a crescendo.

Gunter shut his mind to the agonised cries and dreamed of a faraway land, the Great South Land. His father had told him about this land. As a lad, Gunter’s age, his father had been a deck-hand on a Portuguese ship that had explored the South Seas. The ship had been destroyed in a storm off the Great South continent. His father never really explained how he survived or returned to his home in the Schwartzwald. Most of his family and friends did not believe the salty sea tales of August Fahrer—they were just his fantasy. But Gunter believed his father and he dreamed of one day running away to Hamburg, joining a crew and sailing to that faraway land down on the underside of the world. He also dreamed he’d take Anna with him…so what if she was eighteen and he was only fourteen. So what if she barely noticed him in the classroom. What did it matter she was Herr Crankendinger’s daughter?

‘Gunter!’ Grandmother called, ‘Gunter!’

‘Huh?’ His mother’s warbling like a sad song still rang in his ears.

‘Go and find your brother, Johann. Dinner is ready.’

Gunter tore out of the mad house. He galloped across the yard full of chicks and hens, sending the birds flapping and squawking in all directions. The barn—Johann, since he’d returned from the army, was always in the barn. What did he do in the barn all day when he was home on furlough? Just sharpen and buff his swords? He had other weaponry, but Gunter hadn’t been allowed close enough to examine those items. Johann never allowed Gunter in the barn. That was his domain to sharpen and buff and admire his weapons. Johann possessed a cart that he stored at the side of the barn. But he neglected the cart and it sat, exposed to the rain and snow, wood rotting, leaning on its broken axle and its cracked wheel propped against the shattered side.

Gunter patted the cart-wreck and then poked his head through the wide opening and into the darkness. The stink of horse manure mingled with straw hit his nostrils. He looked around and blinked.

‘Johann!’ he called. ‘Dinner is ready.’

Gunter stepped into the darkness. He noticed propped against the wall a small canon-like weapon. He’d heard about such weapons. What were they called? He stepped towards the weapon, his fingers itching to touch it.

‘Johann,’ he said and paused.

Sounds of shuffling and muted giggles filtered down from above. Gunter jumped back from the weapon and looked up. He allowed his eyes to adjust.

More scuffles. Whispers. Was his brother not alone?

‘Johann. You must come to dinner,’ Gunter said.

‘What?’ Johann poked his head over the edge of the loft.

Gunter stared. A scene in slow motion played out on the mezzanine floor. A barrel teetered. It tipped. And then it toppled over the edge.

‘Watch out!’ Johann said, his vocal reflexes delayed by the shock.

The barrel hurtled down. Gunter woke from his brain freeze. Still in slow motion, the barrel cartwheeled in the air towards him. Frame by frame. Gunter’s short life flashed  before his mind’s eye.

‘Nay!’ Gunter shrieked and he jumped.

The barrel crashed on the packed dirt of floor, beer exploding and splashing all over his white shirt, leather pants and black shoes staining their square metal buckles.

Johann appeared leaning over the ledge and buttoning up his blouse. ‘Oops!’

‘Was is los?’ a woman’s voice asked what’s wrong?

Gunter caught his breath, as if his heart had jumped out of his throat. He knew that woman’s voice, but he didn’t want to believe it was her.

‘What is going on?’ he asked.

‘This is your fault, Gunter,’ Johann said as he glared at the rivers of beer coursing outside, rivers of blood reflected in the scarlet rays of the setting sun. ‘If you hadn’t interrupted us. How many times have I told you, you are not to come into my barn?’

‘But what are you doing up there?’

‘Never you mind.’

Her small oval face loomed from the darkness behind Johann’s.

Gunter choked. His mouth went dry. ‘Anna?’ he said, his voice cracked into a squeak.

Johann flicked his fingers at Gunter. ‘Get out of here!’

Gunter took a few steps back. ‘Aber…’

‘And don’t you tell Grossmutter! It’s none of her business!’

‘Why?’ Gunter asked. ‘She’ll want to know about the mess…with the beer.’

‘Just don’t. Go! Mach Schnell!’

Gunter backed out of the barn. Blinded by the light and eyes clouded with moisture, he stumbled into the forest.

He howled and hated himself. He sounded like his mother wailing and carrying on but the crying took on a force of its own and refused to stop. Now who would he take to the Great South Land? Now who would share his dreams of adventure and fantasies of travel to the stars?

How could Anna do this to him? She’d painted his portrait, without the pimples and a less prominent Hoch-Blauen nose. Gunter blew his nose on his sleeve. So what! It’s already soiled by the beer. He thought Anna liked him. He’d convinced himself Anna understood him—Anna intelligent, artistic, hair golden like the sun, and eyes dazzling blue like a lake on a summer’s day. One day Anna would get to know him and love him…but no. He whimpered. ‘Johann!’ He smashed his fist into the moss on the log. ‘Always Johann!’

 

‘Was is los?’

Gunter glanced up. ‘Nothing.’

He sniffed and observed the slim man with a pale face and a monk’s haircut. He held a thin tablet similar to a slate under his arm.

‘Doesn’t look like nothing,’ the man said.

‘Nothing you can help me with,’ Gunter said. ‘You are the magic man, are you not?’

The man threw back his small head. ‘Hardly magic, my son. Merely science. You have heard of Physics?’

‘Ja, aber…’

The man whipped the tablet from under his arm. ‘Tell you what, you look like you’ve had a rough trot. How about I make your day,’ he said and ran his finger down the tablet.

‘Who are you?’

‘Just call me, Herr Roach.’

‘Herr Roth? Mr Red?’

‘No, Roach, as in Cockroach?’

‘Huh?’

‘Never mind—call me Boris,’ the man said as he cleared his throat.

A whirring sound came from behind him and for a moment Gunter thought he saw dark wings of lace flutter and then snap into the man’s back. Were his eyes playing tricks on him?

Boris’ mouth spread into a wide grin with teeth in a neat row like keys on a piano. ‘Now where were we? As I was saying, anything you want, anything at all. Whatever you desire, your wish is my—oh, dear, that sounds a bit lame. Now, what is your greatest desire and I will make it so.’

‘You will?’

‘Yes, I will.’

Boris balanced the tablet on the tip of his finger. ‘Money, gold, wisdom—women and so on—you know the drill. Whatever.’ He flicked the tablet with his finger and made it spin through the air around their heads.

Gunter, his eyes wide, gazed as the object slowed and fluttered into a butterfly and then settled on the log where he’d been sitting.

‘Wow! How did you do that?’

‘I’m still awaiting your answer. Anything you want.’

‘But it changed shape. You made it come alive.’

‘Never mind that—anything at all, it’s yours.’

‘Aber, what are you?’ Gunter asked. He tried to catch the butterfly but it flew high above his head.

‘Oh, that’s hardly important,’ Boris said. ‘Come on, I’m waiting for your answer.’

‘I want to know,’ Gunter put a hand out to touch Boris, ‘where you are from.’

‘Not from this world,’ Boris stepped away from him and his arm became a tentacle and whipped Gunter’s hand. ‘Now hurry up! Tell me.’

Gunter rubbed his fingers. ‘Are you a demon?’

‘Oh, Herr Fahrer, how could you think such a thing? I’m insulted.’

‘Ja, aber for a man, you have some strange appendages.’

‘That’s because, I’m evolved, my race is superior to yours.’ Boris narrowed his beady eyes and antennae sprang out from the top of his head. With his mouth closed he fed thoughts into Gunter’s mind. ‘I don’t need a voice or a mouth. I can communicate my thoughts to you. So much simpler, don’t you think?’

Boris clicked his fingers and the butterfly floated into his open hands and turned once again into a tablet.

‘Now what will you have,’ Boris demanded with his thoughts, ‘Anything you want.’

The young man scanned the darkening sky and then spotted the first evening star glowing on the horizon.

‘Nay,’ Boris said, ‘further than Venus. Much further. The other side of the galaxy, if you must know.’

‘Galaxy?’

‘Come on, I’m waiting, I haven’t got all century. ‘Then in thoughts almost a whisper. ‘Got slaves to catch, planets to conquer.’

‘What? Did you say something?’

‘Are you a dumkopf? Tell me what you want!’

Dumkopf! Dumkopf! Gunter hated being ridiculed. No, he wasn’t stupid. He sighed. ‘I hate my life. And you know, I hate this world I live in. I hate who I am. No one will miss me if I go.’ He trod towards Boris. ‘Can I go to your world?’

Boris edged away. ‘Well, now, there’s the thing. My world sort of exploded. You could say I’m homeless.’

‘Oh, sorry to hear that.’

‘Any other suggestions?’ Boris’ eyes glowed in the navy blue of early night. ‘I can change you like I did the tablet, if you like.’

Gunter picked at his nails. ‘I would not like to be a butterfly.’

‘You can be anything—anyone.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes, no trouble at all.’

‘I could be a different person. No big nose. No brown curly hair. No pimples.’

‘Certainly, if that’s what you want,’ Boris said and flashed his wings.

Gunter pondered. Maybe demons do exist. Maybe his grandmother was right. ‘I don’t know.’ A shiver coursed down his spine. ‘I think I should be getting home. I am late for dinner.’ As he backed away, an owl hooted.

‘What about a free trial? Can do no harm, Herr Fahrer.’ The man-beast followed Gunter down the path. ‘Just one day, no obligation.’

Gunter stopped and turned. ‘Only one day?’

‘Yes, that’s what I said.’

‘Anything? Anything I want?’

‘Yes.’

Gunter stroked his chin. ‘Well, then, can you make me into my brother, Johann?’

‘Yes, I can do that.’

Boris pulled a stick from his stockings and plugged it into the tablet. He tapped the slate and read it for a few minutes. Then from a pocket in his cape, he pulled out a bottle. He tapped the bottle, picked out a pill, snapped it in half and handed the half-pill to Gunter. ‘Eat this and think of your brother, Johann,’ Boris said.

Gunter gulped down the pill. The slimy coating left a fishy after-taste on his tongue. He licked his lips, he had an idea. ‘I know, even better. Johann can become me. Then he’ll know how it feels.’

Boris rolled his eyes. ‘You’re a bright one, you should’ve thought about that before I gave you the Blob Fish pill.’

‘What? You can’t?’

‘I can,’ Boris said with a sigh, ‘but it will be a challenge. I do have the other half of the pill, so we’ll see what we can do.’ He rubbed the pill fragment between his finger and thumb. ‘Now, then I better hurry to do what you have requested. So, my boy, run along home, by the time you get there, you’ll be Johann.’

Gunter turned to go.

‘Just one more thing, where exactly is your brother?’

‘In the barn, always in the barn.’

‘Very well, enjoy!’ Boris said as wings sprouted from his back, he rose into the air and buzzed all the way up the hill to the barn.

Gunter pelted up the path to his home on the hill.

 

Gunter hobbled up the path to his house. His feet squashed into shoes too small for him. Just before he entered, Gunter examined his reflection in the window. He touched his pink cheeks and admired the sculptured perfection—the high brow with no acne, the strong chin with no spots but a beard like a man, and hair straight golden and manageable. He patted the top of his head. ‘Hmm, a bit thin on top,’ he mumbled. ‘Oh, well, now I can be happy that not even my brother Johann was perfect.’

Grandmother flung open the door. Gunter slammed against the window. The wood panel blocked her view of Gunter. ‘Now what am I going to do? The dinner is burnt,’ she said. ‘Where is he?’

‘Forgotten something?’ Boris said as he peeped around the corner of the house. He handed Gunter a pile of folded clothes. ‘Can’t go around the village dressed like a boy, now can you.’ Boris then vanished into the night.

Once Grandmother withdrew back into the house, Gunter tip-toed to the outhouse and changed into Johann’s dapper tights, striped breeches and white shirt with the obligatory lacy sleeves. As he strolled to the front door, he heard screams and then a slap. Then he observed Anna run down the path, and a gangly looking fellow in underclothes loping after her.

Gunter pushed open the door and waltzed into the kitchen. Grandmother continued to sweep the cracked black and white tiles. A cloud of dust chased her around the room as she swept. ‘Your soup is on the stove, Johann.’

Salome leaned on the balustrade of the stairs, her blonde locks pasted to her perspiring temples. She shook her head. ‘At the inn again, I presume.’

Gunter tugged at the hem of his shirt as Johann always did and said what Johann always said, ‘A man has got to do what a man has got to do.’

The door burst open and his brother stumbled in sporting a red welt on his cheek.

Salome launched into him like a fish-monger’s wife on an errant husband. ‘What have you been doing? How hard is it to find your brother? No supper for you. Off you go—bed—go on!’ She grabbed Grandmother’s broom and chased Johann in the form of Gunter into his sleeping quarters with Johann crying protests all the way.

Gunter hid his urge to smile behind his hand.

After helping himself to pumpkin soup and bread, Gunter yawned and mumbled his excuses for an early night and trotted upstairs to the bed he shared with his older now younger brother. Oh what a night it would be, sleeping on the less lumpy side for once, hogging the quilt and tormenting his brother. It was payback time.

 

The benefits of being Johann did not stop there. Next day, as he strolled in the village streets, men tipped their hats, women weaved out of their way through the crowd over to him and gifted him with fruit, home-made honey biscuits and apple cake. Milk maids, those same ones who reviled him the day before, this time, fluttered their lashes, blushed and shot him sideways glances. The tallest of the three sidled up to him as he stood talking to the tailor as they discussed his jacket for the May Day dance, and she pressed a note into his hand. Mein Gott, what a life!

Meanwhile his brother languished under the whip of Grandmother’s broom when she heard he’d been expelled from school—again. Ah, sweet revenge.

Then the icing on the kuchen—lunch with Anna. He arranged a picnic by the river. Blue skies, tulips blooming, green grass, the birds singing and the bees humming what a picture, what a day with is madchen in his arms. Anna talked non-stop the whole two hours. Gunter as his brother, held his tongue when she prattled on about how much she didn’t like Johann’s younger brother, especially after the prank he pulled the previous night.

‘He’s creepy,’ she said and shuddered, ‘he tried to grope me. Ugh!’

Her words stabbed at his insides. He realised as Gunter he never had a chance.

 

After Gunter walked Anna back to the school where she helped her father, he spent the afternoon brooding, drinking beer at the Bierhaus until he was almost sick. Then he tramped through the forest alone. The novelty of being Johann had worn off and revenge didn’t seem as sweet anymore.

At the dinner table Johann as Gunter raged. ‘I’m not Gunter,’ he yelled and stabbed the table with his fork. ‘What is wrong with you people?’

Their mother made one of her rare appearances down stairs but she seemed far away and unmoved by Johann’s tantrum.

Gunter decided he had to leave. His face tingled as he slipped out of the house and hastened to the clearing with the moss-covered log; the meeting place designated by Boris.

The ground glowed with warped and weird shapes under the strange luminous disk that hovered over the hill. No frogs croaked. No birds chirped. The air was still and cold. Even the cows refrained from braying.

Gunter sat on the log and waited. Time seemed to stop in the silence.

 

A beam shimmered from the disk. Gunter rubbed his eyes and blinked. Boris materialised in the centre of the beam. He appeared cockroach-shaped, then, as he strode toward Gunter, he morphed into human-form.

‘Well, now, Herr Fahrer, have you decided?’ Boris asked.

‘Yes, I have.’

‘Well, then.’

‘More than anything else, I want to be handsome, brave, attractive to the ladies like my brother Johann. But, I want to be myself, not someone else.’

Boris raised one side of the hairy eye-brow that spanned his forehead. ‘Very well, then.’

‘And one more thing, you know, like a package?’

‘Yes?’

‘Could I, with this new face, have a new life, say like in the Great South Land?’

‘Hmm,’ Boris nodded, ‘that can be arranged, if you wish. But…’

‘What?’

Boris coughed and flapped his wings. ‘You’re not going to fit in with the people who live there at the moment. I’d say wait until I’ve finished with Great Britain…’ He paced the clearing with his hands tucked behind his back. ‘In the meantime, I could take you on an adventure up there, into the far reaches of the galaxy. Consider it an added bonus, seeing what no man on this planet has seen before. What do you say?’

‘Ja, voll!’

‘Just sign here.’

Boris presented Gunter with the tablet, its screen chock full of tiny black lines. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘it’s all routine. Just basically says you take responsibility for your decisions. Just covering my back and yours. You know, some civilisations can be quite litigious.’ Boris handed a fine pointy stick to Gunter. ‘Use this pen to sign your name.’

Gunter wrote his name using the fine script he had learnt at school, and within seconds, he sat in a velvet-covered chair on the bridge of Boris’ ship. The walls shone with fresh white paint, the silver instruments gleamed and the furnishings were scented with potpourri. He studied the sun as it shrank to just a speck of light amongst many specks of light.

Boris reclined on his seat, fully armoured, fully cockroach. ‘You should notice the changes in your form soon, my fellow.’

Gunter tingled all over and he glanced at his hand. His warm, fuzzy sensation turned to cold hard panic.

‘My hand!’ he cried wriggling his three elongated fingers. ‘I’m turning grey!’

‘So, there you go,’ Boris said as he adjusted his light shields. ‘Right on schedule.’

Gunter picked up a looking-glass placed at his side and his hand trembled. He glared bug-eyed at his reflection. ‘I’m turning into a praying-mantis.’

‘You didn’t specify you wanted to be human.’

‘But a stick-insect? I’m hideous!’

Boris folded his four hands over his barrel chest. ‘So? Most Greys are females. So you, as a male, will be most attractive to them.’

Gunter unstrapped himself and jumped from his seat. He ran to the viewing screen. With his long fingers he traced the planets and sun of his solar system. ‘I have changed my mind. I want to go home.’

Boris smacked his lips and readjusted his bottom’s position on his seat. ‘Too late. You’ve signed the contract. Didn’t you read the fine print? All choices are final and cannot be changed.’

 

© Lee-Anne Marie Kling 2016

Photo: Schwartzwald (Black Forest) Germany (c) Lee-Anne Marie Kling 2014

 

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