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Chapter One: 1894-1909
It didn't look like the kind of house that would carry a curse. Built by a German immigrant of brick and dark timber, the Wasserburg was six stories tall with six apartments on each floor. In the small New Hampshire town that carried the name of the lake it bordered, the U-shaped building took up an entire block and stood high above the clapboard houses and the shoreline. It was the kind of structure you might expect to see in New York -- with marble bathrooms and stained-glass inserts in the tall windows -- and it was too flamboyant, the townspeople said, too conspicuous for this part of New England where dusk set early upon the vast lake that was flecked with hundreds of islands and that the Indians had named Winnipesaukee -- Smile of the Great Spirit.
When Emma Blau was a child, her grandfather's Wasserburg -- water fortress -- was still splendid with carpet runners in the hallways, the design and colors of peacock feathers. Often Emma would pretend she walked on the tail feathers of an immense peacock who sweeps himself with her into the air. She soars above the sand-colored trim at the roofline and the glazed blue tiles set into the facade; above the courtyard with its brick walks and the birdbath fountain; above the elevated garden with its swing set and flower beds where her German grandmother Helene is planting snapdragons and geraniums and camomile and pansies -- Stiefmütterchen -- an affectionate term for little stepmother, a role Helene had taken on for the children of her husband's dead wives.
Ever since Emma's grandfather had brought her to the secret place where the house breathed, Emma had returnedthere alone, though it was a forbidden place where children might fall and get mangled by the green machines and wires that spun dust motes in the half-light. She'd steal the key to the roof door from behind the pewter cups in her grandparents' china cabinet, ride the elevator to the top floor, and slip into the brick structure that sat like an immense smokestack on the flat roof. As she'd climb the wooden ladder to the platform above the elevator, the breath of the house would raise the fine hairs on her arms with a whoosh, and she'd laugh with delight. Steady puffs of warm breath emanated from a wheel that turned to the left. Wound around this wheel was a chain -- similar to the one on Emma's bicycle -- that ran up to an oval loop and connected to moving rods that clicked and hummed in an always changing song. Whenever the elevator stopped, she'd feel a shudder rise from the shaft as if the building were stirring itself awake.
Emma knew the house from within and from above: she had crawled into its guts, played behind the boiler in the vaulted furnace room, climbed out of the second-floor window onto the curved balcony above the entrance, and balanced on the edge of the roof far above the town. Sometimes she felt she was the center of the house, breathing its breath-song, while other times the house was at the center of her like a pulse that warmed her as she held it safe within her body.
Her grandfather, Stefan Blau, was only thirteen when he ran away from his hometown in Germany one rainy November night in 1894. Convinced he lived in the most fascinating time possible -- an age of transformation and discovery -- he'd felt restless in Burgdorf. Too many traditions. Too many restrictions. America, he believed, was the country where people brought about changes instead of resisting them. But his parents didn't want to listen when he read to them about immigrants earning fortunes, about inventions, about gold in the hills; they didn't know that America had grafted itself to his mind so tenaciously that he had dreams of it every single night, dreams of an odd and magnificent landscape that fused what he had culled from various books, a landscape inhabited by buffaloes and by buildings so tall they pierced the clouds.
When Stefan bought an English dictionary and memorized forty new words each day, his parents shook their heads and told him they were not about to leave Germany, and when he suggested he'd make the passage alone and send for them and his sister once he'd made his fortune, they smiled. "What a child he still is," they said to each other.
They were asleep when he left.
Although short for his age, he was sturdy and talked his way into work on a coal barge that floated north on the Rhein past Oberhausen and Xanten into Holland, where the river split into two tributaries that swirled into the North Sea. The language of the Dutch -- even more guttural than his native German -- sounded harsh to Stefan. When he reached Rotterdam and was unable to trade labor for passage to America, he started toward Amsterdam and walked through cold nights and days, resting in barns or churches only when he was too chilled and exhausted to keep moving. But he never lost his enthusiasm because with each step -- so he reminded himself -- he was getting closer to America. Besides, people helped him along the way as if to make certain that he'd really get there: a bald priest gave him woolen earmuffs that some other boy had forgotten in the confessional, and a farm woman fed him Schwarzbrot with Blutwurst -- black bread with blood sausage -- and packed him enough for a second meal to take along in his wooden toolbox that already contained his clothes and books.
It was sleeting the afternoon he got to Amsterdam, but he felt lucky because before nightfall he was hired as a kitchen hand on a passenger ship bound for New York. So what if he wasn't sixteen as he had claimed to be? What if he hadn't worked on river barges for two years? Things only became a lie if you couldn't follow them through. Someday he would be sixteen, and as long as he could do the work he was hired to do -- and do it well -- it was his to decide what he told others about himself. Besides, he could pass for sixteen. He had more hair on his body than most sixteen year olds. Especially on his back. Black and soft and curly like the hair on his father's back. Though not as thick. Not yet. "You can recognize a Blau by his back," his father liked to say. "Regular pelts. If you line up a hundred men, their backs to me, I'll pick out the one who's a Blau anytime." His father's hair covered his back and shoulders and ran down his arms to his knuckles like sleeves that were too long. "All Blau men shave before they're fourteen," he had told Stefan when he was just three, making him look forward to that day when he, too, would lather his face and scrape off the foam with a Rasiermesser.
One dawn at sea Stefan awoke early and couldn't get back to sleep because he started thinking about the good jacket his father had sewn for him in his tailor shop, and how it must have hurt his parents that he hadn't taken it along. He worried more about that jacket than about the note he'd left for his parents, telling them he was going to America, and it wouldn't be until he was a father and his own son, Tobias, would run from him in anger, that he'd begin to understand how his leaving must have devastated his parents.
Once he thought about the jacket, he remembered other items he'd left behind, especially the telescope his mother had given him for his seventh birthday. She'd set it up for him by the kitchen window next to the larger telescope that used to belong to her grandfather whose name had also been Stefan. His mother knew everything about stars and planets because her grandfather had shown her how to draw star charts when she was a girl. "You can inherit interests the same way you inherit money," she'd told Stefan and his sister, Margret, and she'd taught them about the stars long before they'd learned the alphabet. Stefan had understood quickly that each star rose and set four minutes earlier every night. In one month that made a two-hour difference, and in a year it came to twenty-four hours. Lying in the grass behind their house, his mother would rest her head on the broad flank of their dog, Spitz, and point toward the sky, the white of her arm linking earth and the stars in one luminous arc. Sometimes he'd have to stare hard because all he'd see were the brightest stars, and it would take minutes for the others to emerge, although -- so his mother assured him -- they'd been there all along.
Whenever she talked about stars, she got so excited that she seemed more like a sister to him than the mother who powdered her face and made the crispiest Reibekuchen -- potato pancakes -- in Burgdorf. Eyes flickering with anticipation, she would unroll her linen star charts or sketch a swift pattern of chalk stars on Margret's blackboard, urging both children to guess which constellations they formed. At first they made mistakes, connecting the wrong stars or leaving out lines that should have been there. Soon Margret became bored, but Stefan was determined to get it right, and by the time he was nine, he knew how to figure out which stars were in the sky any night of the year. "Well done," his mother would say. Stefan was glad he didn't have an old mother: she was younger than the other mothers in town -- only fifteen when his sister was born, barely seventeen at his own birth. That meant she would live for a long time. He'd remind himself of that whenever he became afraid of her dying before him, leaving him.
And now she doesn't even know where I am.
To escape his uneasiness and the stale air of the sailors' quarters, Stefan climbed the stairs to the promenade deck, bracing against the icy fog. All sky was as gray as the sea, blurring the horizon. In the last few days he'd seen whales and flying fish, waves as tall as his parents' house, but now the gray made everything seem flat, though he could feel the ship heaving in the waves. There was not a single star. No moon -- not even an orange sliver of moon -- and yet it came to him, then, that orange moon in a sky so clear you can make out even the faintest stars. The air is still warm -- tinged with the scent of the last lilacs. High above stands Vega, bluish-white, part of the Lyra constellation. It's easier to connect imaginary lines to her stars than to Hercules' whose stars don't shine as much and spread over a larger area. His mother reaches toward the sky, snags it with her right forefinger that's been crooked since birth, and pulls the sky down, down till he can touch it too. Velvet and night. All his and smooth. "Can you see Pegasus?" his mother asks. When he says, "yes," she tells him and Margret the story of the winged horse that carried Perseus and Andromeda to safety. From the taller grass by the brook comes the croaking of frogs --
Not frogs. No. A different sound. Thin and long. Then silence again. Stefan glanced around. There, next to the stack of canvas chairs lay a seagull. It looked dead, one eye clouded over; but when he picked it up by one leg to fling it overboard, it flapped its wings and he could see that much of its back had been torn out. Stunned by the sudden awareness that it was dying alone -- now, as one day I too will have to die alone -- Stefan supported the bird with both hands, trying to make it more comfortable. It let out a frail screech. Then another. He lowered it to the planks. Backed away, knowing it would be best to kill it. Kill it swiftly. Now. Release it from its suffering. If he tossed it into the sea, he wouldn't have to look at it, wouldn't have to think about it. But he couldn't. Knew that he couldn't. He winced at the thought of crushing its head with his foot. Yet to let it live would be even more cruel. A slab of wood. Lay it on top of the bird. Step on it. Step on it hard. He ran off to find something. In the passenger lounge five chessboards were stacked on a shelf. He took one. Started for the door. But then sat down instead and rubbed his palms across the smooth-grained wood. Who wins? He thought of not going back. Of letting someone else find the bird. Because it isn't me who's done it, the hurting. And so it isn't mine to decide what to do about it and then live with that. With that. Yet already he was out there again in the fog, ready to lower the chessboard on the seagull and step on it.
But it had died.
Had died without him, and he felt weak with relief. Sorrow.
In lower Manhattan, he found work in an elegant French restaurant, where he peeled vegetables and washed dishes with the same eagerness that he would, years later, bring to his own restaurant. Only the owner was French; the rest of the staff were foreigners from other parts of Europe, who gesticulated and shouted scraps of Italian, Yiddish, Hungarian, German, and fractured English across the three long stoves in the center of the well-stocked kitchen. Not all had come to America as willingly as Stefan: some had fled from religion; others from family or war; but what kept each of them here was hope.
Being part of his new country would never be quite as total for Stefan as when he first arrived and wanted to be American in every way possible. How he loved the lack of convention, the instant familiarity. Here, respect had nothing to do with age but was earned with success. Class differences -- that complicated ladder of human worth he'd grown up with -- did not exist in America, he believed, and it would take him years to grasp the many subtle shadings of prejudice.
One day as he walked to work along West Street past vendors' carts and people on bicycles and horses pulling delivery wagons, he felt protected from the raw wind in his American coat and bowler hat, and it struck him that no one could tell he was a foreigner. As long as he did not speak and reveal his accent, he blended in like everyone else. He breathed it in, that certainty of belonging, held it in his body with deep exhilaration.
From the head chef, Tibor Szilagi, a Hungarian with a slight limp and a contagious laugh, Stefan learned about passion for food and its preparation. He enjoyed the work, the effort of it, the results. Liked the scents of grilled meats and sautéed vegetables. His eagerness soon earned him the job of kitchen assistant, as well as an invitation to the poker games that the Hungarian organized in his apartment on Gansevoort Street in the early morning hours. Curtains drawn, a group of tired men -- policemen just off duty and others from the restaurant business -- would gather around the table that was covered with one of the embroidered linen cloths the Hungarian's maiden aunts sent him for his birthdays. To revive his guests, Tibor would serve thick coffee with whiskey in porcelain cups, and when he'd push Stefan's winnings toward him, he'd accuse him of being far too lucky.
"It's because you don't have the fever of gambling in your soul yet," he told him one morning and winked at him.
"Not now. Not ever."
"It's a fine lover."
"Not for me."
"Always hot and never gets enough of you." Tibor Szilagi crushed half a cinnamon stick, mixed the tiny splinters into a handful of tobacco, and began to roll his special cigarettes. "It'll get you too."
Stefan smiled and shook his head.
"At least use your money. Travel. There's a lake you would like, I swear. I've only seen it once, but it reminded me of Germany. Trees and mountains and so much water that you can never see all of the lake at one time."
"Where is it?"
"New Hampshire. I took the train there my second summer in America. To a town with the same name as the lake. Winnipesaukee."
But Stefan didn't have time to travel. And he was far more interested in studying French recipes and checking the newspaper for yet another success story of immigrants. His new language was filling in around him, and he liked being able to read some sentences without looking up one single word.
"You should get some reporter to write up your story," he told Tibor one evening in the kitchen. "It's better than most I see in the paper."
"And who would wish to know about me, please?"
"Lots of people." Stefan liked hearing the story of how the Hungarian had come to America. Lame with polio since he was eight, he'd been unable to help on the family farm. His parents approved when he worked in the kitchens of married women, but when he was hired as cook in a bordello, his mother and her three unmarried sisters conspired to save his soul by hauling him to the priest for absolution and then bribing him with passage to America. After Tibor said farewell to his father, his mother and the aunts traveled with him on the train to Rijeka, where they hired a carriage and took him to the ship that would carry him south around the heel of Italy, west through the Strait of Gibraltar where monkeys lived in the crevices of high rocks, and then further west toward America.
"Lots of people would want to read about your miraculous recovery," Stefan said. "How you hobbled up that gangway. And how, when you got here, you stepped off with just a shadow of a limp. And how it has been like that ever since."
"And how this and how that..." Tibor Szilagi's laugh got two of the waiters laughing.
"But it is true," Stefan insisted.
The Hungarian removed a speck of cinnamon from his front teeth, inspected it, and flicked it off his thumb. "The limp might have gotten better anyhow."
"No. It's coming to America that did it."
"Some fellows have to see meaning in everything."
"Because there is."
From the Hungarian, Stefan learned to decode their employer's moods as well as his favorite sayings. The Frenchman considered English a crude language and spoke it as seldom as possible, antagonizing the delivery men by pretending to understand less than he could. "C'est comme pisser dans un violon" -- "It's like pissing into a violin" -- meant that whatever you were about to do would make no difference. Though extravagant by nature, the Frenchman would occasionally search for evidence of waste, stalking through the kitchen with its copper pots and painted serving platters, through the dining room with its marble fireplaces and stained-glass windows; yet, that same evening he might send you home with half a bottle of wine or a ticket to the opera. He'd urge you to buy American stocks -- railroad and mining and telephone -- while warning you not to make big plans based on shaky optimism: "Ne batissez pas des châteaux en Suede" -- "Don't go building castles in Sweden."
He liked to remind Stefan that he could afford to rent a better place, but Stefan was content in his room on Cornelia Street. It was small and on the top floor of the same boarding house where -- during his first few months in the city -- he had paid fifty-five cents a week to sleep on the chairs and sofas in the parlor with three men from Italy. At least this room was his alone, even if the windows were painted shut and he had to share the water closet down the hall with the Austrian family who lived in the room next to his. The building was better maintained than most on the block that had paint peeling from their doors and water standing in their cellars.
By keeping his rent low, he could invest most of his wages and poker winnings, except for the money he used to send presents to his family. He also mailed letters to his sister's best friend, Helene Montag, who lived next door to his family and had started to write to him. Occasionally their letters crossed, a current of words -- more than they had ever spoken to one another. While his family wrote to him about events that happened in Burgdorf -- weddings and births and funerals -- Helene's letters kept the texture of his hometown alive for him: high-water marks that the Rhein left on the inner slope of the dike; early frost that turned the hill by the chapel silver gray; willows arching with the weight of first leaves.
As Stefan worked next to the chefs at the wooden counters, he volunteered for chores that carried greater responsibility. He began to smoke. Grew a mustache that met his thick sideburns and made him look more like a man. He had enormous energy. Thrived on hard work. By the time the new century began, he was nineteen and wore one of the starched white jackets that set the chefs apart. It was what he had wanted, and he felt as proud of his achievement as he did of the wanting. Because it was the wanting, he knew, that had brought him across the ocean. To this city. To being a chef. Pastries were his specialty: delicate concoctions of layered dough with creams and fruits and chocolate curls. Though his German accent would always tinge his English, he developed a flawless pronunciation of French words that related to food.
One July evening, as the Hungarian poured cognac over medallions of veal, a slender flame licked his wrist. "Az istenit," he cursed and dropped the bottle on the stove where it shattered. The cognac ignited as it raced across the hot surface into a pan of sizzling beignets and from there through a basket with stained aprons and towels. After the fire leapt up the exhaust shaft, it twined itself through the dining room and an adjoining store, killing five women and four men, among them Tibor Szilagi who died while Stefan carried him into the street. Stefan knew the moment of his friend's death because the body felt suddenly limp and heavier. It seemed that without breath -- breath that usually smelled of cinnamon and tobacco -- Tibor's flesh could no longer sustain itself. The smell of burned hair and of burned flesh blotted out all else, blotted out all cinnamon, all tobacco, blotted out the starch-smell of table linen and flowers and cognac and freshly ground pepper; and what was most horrid about that smell of fire and flesh was how familiar it was, evoking the smell of chicken being grilled -- or pork rather? don't think about it don't -- just when the heat gets high enough to release its smell.
The clamor of fire bells burst through the smell, the screams, through night that was brighter and hotter than noon as horse-drawn fire engines pulled up, brakes screeching. When Stefan hoisted the Hungarian's weight higher, rocking him up, up in his arms, he felt Tibor's face dry and hot against the side of his neck, felt it slide and, for the instant of that motion, let himself hope his friend was still alive, though he knew it was Tibor's skin coming off against his neck.
After the flames had been extinguished and the bodies taken away, Stefan peeled off what was left of his white jacket and staggered home. His hands were blistered, and all hair was gone from his arms. Though his room was warm and stuffy, he was shivering as he crawled between the sheets in his scorched clothes. He slept, only to wake sobbing from dreams in which he was enveloped by fire and the familiar stench of burning flesh, dreams that got jumbled with memories of being small and soiling the kitchen floor with cow manure he'd dragged home on the bottom of his shoes, and his father -- "How often do I have to tell you to wipe your feet?" -- carrying him to the barrel of rainwater out back and then being inside that barrel -- headfirst and cold and not breathing because how could you? -- and afterwards the fever, hands like wicks of candles and yearning to cool them in the barrel that's no longer there.
When Stefan finally got up, a sticky, clear-yellow fluid was seeping from his arms and hands. It hurt to wash himself, to chew a piece of rye bread, to think of the Hungarian on whose sofa he'd often dozed after a poker game. He wished he could open his window. As he stared at the ashen wall of cinder blocks across the alley, even the light that leaked into the alley was ashen. Ash. Used up by fire. All at once Stefan was taken by such a powerful longing that his throat felt raw, a longing for air and clear light and his parents and the Hungarian's laugh and his hometown and family's dog, Spitz, and the French restaurant -- but most of all for himself as a boy. And it was then that he remembered Tibor Szilagi telling him about the lake that reminded him of Germany.
The smooth skin on Stefan's arms felt stretched as he rowed a wooden boat out on Lake Winnipesaukee, and as the oars spooned the water and left swirls that trailed behind him, he thought of the whirlpools in the Rhein where it flowed past the meadows of Burgdorf. From the boat, the stone gables of the church looked like St. Martin's where he'd gone to mass every Sunday as a boy, but beyond the outline of this town rose mountains, unfamiliar and stark. Tibor had been right: this lake was too large to see all at once. Wherever Stefan looked, his eyes came up against land: peninsulas and islands and the curving shoreline -- the promise of water around each turn.
He glanced back toward the dock where he'd rented his boat and toward the vacant clapboard house next to it. On the other side of the dock grew a cornfield, and all at once, within the shimmer of summer air, he saw the farm where he'd played as a boy, the Sternburg -- star fortress -- a castle for centuries until it was turned into a farm. With his friends Michel Abramowitz and Kurt Heidenreich he'd swung from the chains beneath its drawbridge, played hiding games in the stone tower. In that instant, as the water between him and the shore became the moat of his childhood, he saw the house he would build in the cornfield, a tall apartment house with pillars and a flat roof...a substantial but graceful building with a courtyard...rooms with high ceilings...windows that gleamed in the light....He could even see the reflection of his house and understood how water retains the memory of all that is reflected in its surface, takes it and holds it in its depth, and that the deeper the water, the more it can retain, including your vision, and mirror it back to you. Wasserburg, he decided to call the house. Water fortress. And he would build it with bricks the way they built houses in Germany, not of wood like so many American buildings. Deep within his chest something settled -- solid and calm -- and he knew he would not return to New York.
As he rowed back toward shore, he could already see marble fireplaces as wide as the ones in the Frenchman's restaurant, full-length beveled mirrors, a carpeted elevator with a brass gate that pulls apart like an accordion....Raising his face into the moist wind, he felt the breath of the lake on his skin as it rushed past him like fire. Not here, fire. Fire wouldn't live this close to water. He shook himself. Saw wrought-iron wall sconces in the hallways of his house, tiled windowsills wide enough for flowerpots. It didn't occur to him to wonder where the money would come from -- all he felt was a wild confidence that, in time, he would build this house just as he saw it now. Because he wanted it. Had he known how the Wasserburg would seduce and corrupt him and his family, Stefan Blau would have taken the train back to New York that day, but to detect rot is often impossible in its early stages: it starts beneath lush surfaces, spreading its sweet-nasty pulp, tainting memories and convictions. It entangles. Justifies. But what Stefan saw that summer afternoon was only the splendor of the Wasserburg as it would be the day he would finish its construction.
And he saw more -- a small, stocky girl in a black dress whirling through the courtyard as if she were dancing or, perhaps, throwing a tantrum. Her skirt fans around her, and as her arms move in a windmill pattern, white-blonde hair flies around her face and shoulders. Graceful and robust, she spins around a fountain, face bursting through her hair only for flashes as if she were sculpting her own features that moment. The boat swayed as Stefan stood up, one hand raised toward the shore to touch this child. He would search for her face in his daughters, but it wouldn't be until his granddaughter Emma was born that he would recognize the girl he had seen from the boat.
With his poker money he rented the clapboard house by the lake and installed a used stove in the kitchen. In one of the upstairs rooms he set up a cot and a dresser for himself. He sold his stocks to buy good china and tablecloths, but saved on pots and other items that his customers wouldn't see by bidding for them at auctions. After he built tile counters, he hired a waiter and opened a small restaurant, a French restaurant of course, much appreciated by the French-Canadians in Winnipesaukee. But most of the townspeople asked him why he wasn't running a German restaurant. And the name, they said, was hard to remember -- Cadeau du Lac -- even after he told them it meant Gift of the Lake. Why couldn't he just call it that? Besides, it was too fancy, they complained, too expensive. They'd speculate about where he got his money because he used it so easily -- his own as well as theirs -- yet, they'd arrive in their Sunday clothes to test the food at the Cadeau du Lac, and they'd go home with tales of Stefan's oyster soufflé, his cassoulet, his crêpes au chocolat.
Still, they didn't think his restaurant would last. After all, ordinary people didn't spend their money eating out. Yet, they'd return with their friends, with relatives. It turned out that the tourists were his best customers, already in the mood to spend from the moment they arrived on the Boston and Maine Railroad in their city clothes and loaded their fishing rods and beach umbrellas and sand pails and dogs and croquet sets into the horse-drawn cabs that would take them from the station to the hotels, the small cottages along the lake, or to the marina from where they could get a boat to the islands. Though most of the cottages were small, others were more substantial with lawns and porches and docks. A few even had boathouses or floating gazebos.
New Hampshire was not at all the way Stefan had imagined America back in Germany. No tall buildings like those in New York. No buffaloes. It reminded him much more of Germany with its small towns, except that forests here were denser, mountains higher, and the lake larger than any he'd seen before. Stone walls, flecked with lichen and moss, fenced in cattle and sheep. Some of the farmers in town liked to say their land grew rocks. After clearing their fields and meadows, they could always expect to find more rocks in the spring when the ground, upon thawing, heaved them to the surface as if giving birth to them. Early crop, the farmers called these rocks, and they'd pile them on the low stone walls that marked their boundaries. Building these walls continued every year and was hard work, as hard as bringing ice in from the lake. His first winter in Winnipesaukee, Stefan learned to cut slabs of ice from the lake, drag them to shore on a sled, and store them beneath layers of sawdust in the icehouse that was built into the earth against the side of the foundation.
By April, the hair on his arms finally began to grow again, though not black and curly as it had been, but reddish as though it held the memory of fire, and it would never grow beyond a stubble that felt coarse to the touch. In May he offered to buy the building from its owner, a widow in her eighties who still had all her teeth, and when she refused to sell, he purchased a porcelain statue of St. Joseph, about a foot tall with a brown porcelain coat and a patient smile that suggested eternal waiting. It was night when Stefan dug a hole into the hard earth next to the front steps of his restaurant, lowered the saint headfirst into the ground, and packed the hole with dirt. That's how the nuns back home had come to