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The Vision of Emma Blau
Given the fact that women buy the majority of novels published in this country -- and given the number of so-called "women's novels" out there -- there are surprisingly few writers who consistently manage to produce family sagas that are both compulsively readable and literary enough to be intellectually satisfying but not so high-blown as to feel like homework. Anita Shreve succeeds intermittently. So does Diane Johnson. But it is Ursula Hegi who consistently scores near the top of the crowd- and intellect-pleasing short list.
The Vision of Emma Blau is a wonderful, satisfying novel about three generations of a 20th-century German immigrant family. Fans of the Oprah-fied Stones from the River will recognize Hegi's voice (and some of her characters); newcomers to the Hegi oeuvre will feel at home with them immediately. An old-fashioned tale of family, sacrifice, and love, Hegi's latest begins with the story of Stefan Blau, a small-town German boy who emigrates to New Hampshire at the beginning of the 20th century. Possessed of a vision of how life should be, Blau marries an American banker's daughter and buys an apartment building he turns, via copious amounts of sweat and tears, into the finest such establishment tiny Lake Winnipesaukee has ever seen: Blau's apartments have chandeliers, indoor plumbing, and all manner of modern conveniences. Although in some ways the Blau family will always remain outsiders, Stefan Blau soon becomes a pillar of this New Hampshire society.
But Stefan is not nearly so lucky in love, burying two wives and one baby within a decade. Now a widower with a son and a daughter, he imports a third wife, Helene, from the old country and fathers another son, Robert. And now the rich story begins: Helene, though a good mother to Stefan's children, can't help but favor her own blood, and so subtle conflicts begin to mar the lives of the latter-generation Blaus. There are property disputes among Stefan's children after his death (can you say Bleak House?) and myriad complications in their relationships. Soon we're following Robert, a character so layered with guilt and obligation that he smothers himself in food, work, and music, leaving his wife, Yvonne, and children -- the Emma of the title and her brother, Caleb -- to sort out the mysteries and secrets living in the house that Blau built.
That's a plot summary, but no such recounting of the facts can do justice to the intricate tapestry that Hegi weaves in this long but never slow novel. There are myriad subplots, some involving characters (e.g., the dwarf) who appeared in the beloved Stones, and even the most minor characters are beautifully, completely drawn. Miss Garland, an old woman who is one of the first tenants in Blau's building, lives a life parallel to the Blaus and seems to symbolize the passage of time and culture; the Jewish couple the Blaus manage to befriend even as their countrymen try to exterminate that race are particularly heartbreaking. The beauty of Hegi's work is in these and other details: the rendering of the young Stefan's dreams of glory, the flashbacks to pre-World War I Europe, the evocation of the rise and fall of an ambitious family that almost melts into the American pot. Hegi writes in a straightforward style tinged with lyricism and even a touch of magical realism. The scenes of Stefan and Helene in the old country evoke both the beauty and the superstitions of that time and place, and the tenderness with which Hegi draws the developing relationship between them reads like something out of the 19th century: knowing, yet generous about the emotional ambivalences that characterized even this prepsychotherapy age. And although it's impossible to write about German Americans in the 20th century without touching on the world events of the time, Hegi never beats us over the head with her understanding of the shame these emigrants must have felt as news of Hitler's atrocities permeated the American consciousness. We've read so much about the German-Jewish experience, but Hegi is one of the few who can make us feel for those who were German by birth but American by choice. For all their wealth and success, Hegi subtly makes clear, to be German American was to remain forever other in both cultures.
Some readers may be initially surprised by the book's title, if they take it to mean that this is the vision belonging to Emma Blau. It's not that so much as it is the young Stefan's vision of the young girl who is not born until soon before he dies; from his earliest days, he had a hope and fantasy of the future -- and a premonition of the child who would further his promise and his dreams. For her part, Hegi has carried out her own promise -- the one that began with Floating in My Mother's Palm: She has produced yet another piece of wise, intelligent fiction about people who are both imprisoned by their own past and hopeful about their futures.
Sara Nelson, formerly executive editor of The Book Report and book columnist for Glamour, is now managing online editor of Oxygen Media. She also contributes to Newsday, the Chicago Tribune, and Salon.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Engrossing...a risky story of love and history and an invigorating, memorable story about the power of desire.
Anne Stephenson The Arizona Republic Hegi's characterization is superb, part of a story that is as well constructed as the Wasserburg itself.
Linton Weeks The Washington Post Book World Rife with life and death and magic realism in the tradition of Gabriel García Márquez.
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 %151; with marble bathrooms and stained-glass inserts in the tall windows %151; 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 %151; Smile of the Great Spirit.
When Emma Blau was a child, her grandfather's Wasserburg %151; water fortress %151; 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 %151; Stiefmütterchen %151; 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 returned there 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 %151; similar to the one on Emma's bicycle %151; 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 %151; an age of transformation and discovery %151; 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 %151; even more guttural than his native German %151; 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 %151; so he reminded himself %151; 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 %151; black bread with blood sausage %151; 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 %151; and do it well %151; 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 %151; so his mother assured him %151; 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 %151; potato pancakes %151; 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 %151; 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 %151; not even an orange sliver of moon %151; 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 %151; 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 %151;
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 %151; now, as one day I too will have to die alone %151; 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 %151; that complicated ladder of human worth he'd grown up with %151; 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 %151; policemen just off duty and others from the restaurant business %151; 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" %151; "It's like pissing into a violin" %151; 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 %151; railroad and mining and telephone %151; while warning you not to make big plans based on shaky optimism: "Ne batissez pas des châteaux en Suede" %151; "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 %151; during his first few months in the city %151; 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 %151; more than they had ever spoken to one another. While his family wrote to him about events that happened in Burgdorf %151; weddings and births and funerals %151; 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 %151; breath that usually smelled of cinnamon and tobacco %151; 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 %151; or pork rather? don't think about it don't %151; 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 %151; "How often do I have to tell you to wipe your feet?" %151; carrying him to the barrel of rainwater out back and then being inside that barrel %151; headfirst and cold and not breathing because how could you? %151; 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 %151; 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 %151; 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 %151; star fortress %151; 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 %151; solid and calm %151; 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 %151; 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 %151; 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 %151; Cadeau du Lac %151; 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 %151; his own as well as theirs %151; 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 own the land for their convent.
"Nuns can get any land they want," his mother had told him when he was a small boy. "All they do is bury St. Joseph upside down."
"Why?" Sitting on the edge of the table, he watched her as she kneaded dough, her forehead moist with sweat, a smudge of flour on her chin. She believed things were safest in the earth. She even had a burying box for her silverware %151; tin lined with wood %151; that she'd dig up for special occasions and then bury again behind their house as though it might grow roots and flourish. Multiply. But he'd never seen nuns bury anything. "Why?" he asked again.
"Because St. Joseph is known for his patience," his mother said.
"But why upside down?"
"Because then the saint is uncomfortable and wants to work his way out." As she leaned into the dough, her fists sank into the pale mound, folding it over, punching it down. "Once the nuns have their land, they make sure to dig St. Joseph back up again. Because he keeps working as long as he's in the ground. You see, if you forget to take St. Joseph out, the land keeps going to new owners."
His mother was more superstitious than anyone Stefan knew: scratches stopped hurting if you blew on them and then sang, "Heile heile Segen, morgen gibt es Regen..." %151; "Heal heal, blessings, tomorrow there'll be rain..."; white spots beneath your fingernails revealed how many mortal sins you had committed; the small crab inside her amber necklace protected her from spider bites; and her favorite saying, "wer sich das Zeug am Leibe flickt, der hat den ganzen Tag nicht Glück," meant that if you darned your clothes while you still wore them, you wouldn't have luck that entire day.
Small towns fostered superstitions. And yet, ironically, after crossing an ocean, Stefan had ended up in another small town with its own superstitions: if a bridegroom dropped the ring, it meant bad luck; if you had a cold, you should rub your feet with butter; if you bit your baby's fingernails, it wouldn't become a thief.
But it felt familiar to live in a town where, soon, he knew almost everyone: Frank Weber who owned the hardware store; Father Albin who placed the communion wafer on his tongue every Sunday; Clem Weeks who had his cigar stand on Main Street; Lucie Magill who'd just opened a store called Magill's Fine Clothing; Jules Margaux, the lamplighter, who came down Main Street at dusk with his ladder to turn on the gas streetlights. Stefan wrote to Helene that he enjoyed walking through town and having people greet him by name, enjoyed welcoming them into his restaurant, which was already known for the finest meals around the lake.
Within a year, he dug up his St. Joseph and rinsed him off in soapy water because his landlady was moving to Boston to marry a coffin maker young enough to be her grandson, and she was eager to sell her building, along with the cornfield, for a price Stefan could afford. Some days he worked sixteen hours. He expanded his kitchen. Hired two more waiters. An assistant cook. A kitchen helper. By adding an enclosed porch that overhung the water, he doubled his seating capacity and gave his guests the illusion of floating above the lake. He liked to make decisions on his hunch of things to come. That was the American way, he explained to Helene Montag in a letter, to plan beyond the obvious. He wrote to her about becoming an American citizen. About the satisfaction of accomplishing something that you first just see in your mind and then make real by doing it.
To honor the porcelain saint, Stefan built him a shelf in the lobby, and when he climbed on the old piano bench he'd set beneath it and positioned the statue on the shelf so that St. Joseph could see everyone who entered the restaurant, he thought he heard the voice of the Hungarian. "You're far too lucky." Stefan spun toward the door. But he was alone, except for a hint of cinnamon and tobacco in the air and the Hungarian's infectious laugh. "...far too lucky."
The winter he was twenty-four, he married his first wife, Elizabeth Flynn, a flutist with delicate wrists whose pale hair covered her entire pillow at night. Though she'd never kissed a man before him, her fingernails were speckled with mortal sins and were so thin that they seemed transparent.
Stefan adored her small, bony face. Adored her extreme shyness that kept her from talking to people. Even adored the tenacity that replaced the shyness once she knew you well. When he built a fire escape and tiled the upstairs floors to block any flames that might start in the restaurant, Elizabeth decided she'd learn how to paper their walls. Though her parents objected, she stripped the bedroom walls by herself, covering them with bottle-green paper that was scattered with white roses %151; the same pattern she'd had in her childhood room. Since her fingernails kept breaking as she worked, she trimmed them close to the tips of her fingers. In the evenings guests in the restaurant would hear the haunting sound of her flute above them.
What Stefan did not adore about her was her mischievousness. She liked to hide things when he wasn't looking: his toothbrush or his coffee cup or his slippers. She'd laugh, make him search, even though he'd grow irritated. "It's childish," he'd tell her and stalk off to his restaurant. Only to come home and find that she'd knotted the bottoms of his pajamas.
They used some of her dowry to order a birch armoire, bed, and two nighttables from a South German carpenter in Wolfeboro on the other side of the lake. Most afternoons Stefan would slip from the kitchen for a while, and they'd tumble onto their mattress and sink into the feather quilt, laughing as he'd peel her out of her petticoat and corset cover. Still, even here, he would stay aware of what needed to be done next in his restaurant %151; dice carrots, marinate veal, sauté mushrooms, order sugar and olives %151; while below them in the kitchen, his assistant cook and kitchen helper would stare at the ceiling, placing bets on how long the thudding of the bed would last.
"I'm so glad we met here in America," he told her one evening.
In the light from the oil lamp, she ran one thumb around his ears, down the frown lines between his thick eyebrows. "Tell me why."
"Because in Germany the president of a bank would never allow his daughter to marry the son of a tailor."
"Fuck him then."
"Don't say that."
But she liked to shock him by talking dirty, and it astounded him when she told him she'd gotten that way in college. "Women alone, locked away in a school...you'd be surprised what we talk about."
That lewd side of hers made him feel he was guarding a secret whenever they were in public, and he'd wish for her shyness to come back. Still, knowing what she might say was exciting. Troubling. Certainly her parents didn't know that side of her. They were polite. Formal. Sitting across from Elizabeth at her parents' cherrywood dining table, Stefan would compliment her mother on how she'd decorated the ceiling fan with silk flowers, say, or with vines, while all along he'd be afraid his wife would say something vulgar, and that her parents would blame his influence on her.
He knew it meant entirely too much to him to be accepted by a wealthy family like hers, and that embarrassed him because it was so...German. He was in America now. Where everyone was equal. What embarrassed him too was that he couldn't stop feeling proud when on Sundays after church, his in-laws would stroll with him and Elizabeth along the lake, his wife's shoulders at the same height as his, her gloved hand floating in the bend of his arm, her Persian lamb coat with its seal collar shielding her from the cold. And if he sometimes felt irritated because Elizabeth would correct his pronunciation, even in bed, he would tell himself that it was to his advantage to shed his accent and sound like an educated man.
As soon as Elizabeth discovered she was pregnant, she urged Stefan to borrow money from her father's bank to build his apartment house in the cornfield.
But Stefan was reluctant. "I figured on waiting until I'd saved enough from the restaurant."
"That could take ten years," she persisted.
Every evening she talked about it.
"That's what banks are for," she'd remind him.
It was her father who summoned Stefan to his bank and took him into his office, a suite of three rooms divided by velvet drapes that were tied open with silk tassels. "Sit," Hardy Flynn said, "sit," his voice high and impatient as he pointed Stefan toward an overstuffed leather chair, smooth and golden-brown.
The color of wealth. Stefan sat down, knowing that one day he would buy a leather chair for himself in that color.
Hardy Flynn remained standing. His gray beard looked out of place in his pink, unlined face. "Take one of these." He extended a silver box with cigars, lit one for himself, then Stefan's. "A personal loan. That's how I want to do it. Without interest, of course."
"That wouldn't be right."
"What's not right about me helping my daughter get ahead?" The banker stroked the forked ends of his beard. "What's not right about you wanting the same for her?"
"I %151; "
"Elizabeth should not have to fill the lamps. She should not have to live in rooms full of cooking smells from your restaurant."
"I didn't know that bothered her."
The banker crossed his arms in front of his wide chest. "Elizabeth is used to certain...comforts in her life."
"Which I will provide for her." The moment Stefan said it, he could see his wife's broken fingernails and felt ashamed. Felt a sudden rage at the banker for knowing about the broken fingernails and his shame.
"Let me explain something to you. Money I give to the church has nothing to do with the church."
"I don't understand."
"It has everything to do with what my wife needs. Lelia enjoys visiting with the priest %151; investigating her soul, Father Albin calls it %151; and he is generous with his time when it comes to the wealthy wives of this town."
The back of Stefan's neck felt itchy, his starched collar too tight. There was too much of everything in the banker's office, the banker's house. It all only emphasized the gap between Elizabeth and himself.
"With a loan from me, you can provide what my daughter needs much sooner than you can on your own. I want you to think about my offer. Both your names on the deeds %151; for the house and the restaurant. With right of survivorship."
To get away, Stefan promised, "I will think about it. A very generous offer," he added on his way to the door.
But when he told Elizabeth, she misunderstood and assumed he had already accepted. She was so delighted that he felt miserable telling her about his misgivings.
"Misgivings?" She stared at him. "About what?"
"About borrowing money from your father."
"But he offered."
"I know. And it makes me feel selfish, expecting you to live above the restaurant. Especially now that you'll have a child."
"It should make you feel selfish...damn selfish."
"I feel pushed. By you and your father."
"I think of you wallpapering by yourself and %151; "
"I wasn't pregnant then." She grasped him by the arms. "Can't we just celebrate? The loan and the baby?"
When he finally agreed, she bought him a present, a green rowboat. He found reasons not to use it: he was too busy; he was tired; the weather was not right. But by summer %151; the only summer the two of them would have together %151; she was taking him for moonlight outings on the lake. She'd line the bottom of the boat with pillows and bring a thermos filled with hot chocolate. As he'd point out the pattern of stars for her, they'd sit with their backs against one side of the boat, feet dangling across the other side.
Now that an architect was drawing up blueprints of the building with its thirty-six apartments, Stefan was glad he didn't have to wait any longer, and it gave him pleasure to listen to his wife plan their own apartment on the sixth floor. The largest in the house, it was to take up one entire side of the U-shaped structure, with the living room and kitchen facing the lake. Elizabeth knew exactly what she was going to buy and described everything to him in vivid detail as if she were already living in those rooms with velvet sofas and chairs, white china with a border of golden leaves, painted wicker baskets with asparagus ferns. But while the windows in her parents' house were covered with lace curtains and brocade drapes, she planned to keep hers bare, their only backdrop the sky and mountains.
Those nights on the lake had a timelessness about them, infusing Stefan with a feeling of being totally at home, more certain than ever that he'd been meant to leave Burgdorf and come to this very place, and when he would remember those nights as an old man, they would seem to fill years of his life.
By November, when the workmen had erected the massive foundation, Elizabeth lay in a hard-breathing labor that took hold of her for forty-one hours and seized her life as her child pushed through her flesh. While the midwife, Mrs. West, pried the infant's head and shoulders from its cooling grave, Stefan shook Elizabeth's arm and cried out her name as though he believed he could jolt her back into life.
"Like a crazy man," the midwife told Mr. Heflin when she bought salt and molasses from him the day before Elizabeth's burial. "Stefan Blau shoved me from the room as soon as his wife was dead. Told me to never come back."
"Like a crazy man," Mr. Heflin told his sister-in-law who, in turn, repeated those words to others who climbed the path to the cemetery where Stefan stood with the infant pressed against his chest, though several of the women would have liked to relieve him of that burden.
The cemetery lay right at the edge of town on a plateau from where you could see most of the houses and, beyond them, the lake and white-capped mountains. A path with deep ruts %151; the outer ones from carriage wheels, the center rut from hooves %151; stopped about five hundred feet from the cemetery. There, you would leave your carriages and carry the coffins the final stretch, which was so steep that the old people of Winnipesaukee quite often didn't make it up here for funerals of their family and friends. It was said that once you were very old, the one way to get up to the cemetery was if you were to die and get carried.
Between and around the graves, a lot of the pines and birches had been cleared, and those that were left had moss hanging from their lower branches as if they were weeping. From a distance, these long, greenish strands looked airy and soft and swayed with the slightest wind; but if you happened to walk into one, it would feel coarse against your face, and you'd notice bits of bark woven into the moss along with specks of dust that looked like fleas.
Since winters were so cold that you couldn't bury the bodies deeply enough in the frozen ground, all of the graves had stones piled on them to prevent animals from digging. Come spring, white flowers would sprout from between those stones, but at Elizabeth Blau's funeral the only flowers were wooden tulips, three yellow and three red, that stuck in the mound of stones on the Heflins' family plot. These stones had partly sunk into the earth, the smaller ones in the middle and the larger ones around the outside.
As Elizabeth's mother stepped up against the edge of the cemetery, her heart went still because all she heard was the noise of the brook that came off the mountain behind the cemetery at a steep angle and tumbled in swirls of white toward the lake. She knew if she were to take a single step on the other path behind that plateau that brought you down to the brook, her skin would feel cooler as a hush of cold blossomed around her, drawing her downward toward its source. But she knew not to go there. Not now. And not for at least a year. People in town called it Brook-that-finishes-grieving because mourners had thrown themselves into its white fall after the loss of someone they had loved. They fretted especially about their children who were old enough but not wise enough to love, and who climbed down to hidden pockets of forest along the brook to do their loving in secrecy. It was a hazardous path. A path that some %151; who now lay beneath the earth %151; had returned to after their love had ended.
Elizabeth's mother turned back to the grave of her daughter and circled her son-in-law's wrist with her thin fingers. "Promise you won't go near that brook," she said.
The townspeople would look upon him with mercy, this foreigner who had become a widower after not even a full year of marriage, and they would pray for him and for Elizabeth's parents who had brought up their one child with the best of everything they could give her, only to lose her twice %151; first to marriage and now to death %151; the interval between those two passages so fleeting that they would fuse into one for the townspeople in the decades when the newborn girl would grow into a woman far older than her mother had ever been.
Elizabeth's parents, who expected Stefan to turn from the child in his pain, offered to raise her in their house, but he thanked them and promised to bring their granddaughter for a visit every Sunday. When she was christened the week after her mother's burial, he deliberated on names that were common in America and Germany, and he chose his sister's name, Margret, but called his daughter Greta. Clearly, she was not the child he had envisioned dancing around the fountain. She was of delicate build like her mother, and her downy hair was the color of the stubble on his arms as though she had sprung from fire.
He hired a nurse for Greta, but in the late evenings he'd rock her on his knees, stunned by the absence of his wife's current of words. It made him mute, that longing for her voice, and he found it unbearable to speak to his daughter in her mother's language. But it eased him to talk to Greta in his native language that he'd rarely spoken in years, cradling her in one arm while she sucked on her bottle, her clear eyes on his face as if she could understand every word.
"Fröschken," he called her. Little frog.
And he pointed to himself. "Vati," he said. Daddy.
When she was teething, he rubbed her gums with whiskey, and when that didn't help, he climbed into the icehouse, where he scraped the sawdust from the top layer of ice, carried a large chunk with tongs to his kitchen, and chipped off long splinters for Greta to suck on. That summer she learned to swim before she could walk. With the lake right there, Stefan believed in preparing her for water so that it would never become a danger to her. As a boy, he'd swum in the Rhein with his father, and he took Greta into the water, one hand beneath her, the other holding her head above the shallow waves, keeping her safe the way his father had kept him safe, the way he would teach each of his children and grandchildren to swim.
After the year of mourning had passed, he began his careful search for a suitable mother for Greta. He noticed Sara Penn who worked behind the counter of her family's bakery. The firstborn of eight children, Sara had looked after her sisters and brothers since she'd been tall enough to fry an egg without burning herself. She had what the people in Stefan's hometown would have called Schlafzimmeraugen %151; bedroom eyes %151; with smooth, long eyelids that seemed always half closed. Although five years younger than Elizabeth, she seemed more like a woman while Elizabeth had remained a girl.
The summer of 1908 he began to invite her for walks with him and Greta, who'd toddle between them, gripping one of their fingers in each pudgy hand and linking them in that manner, breathing in the smells that identified them for her: tobacco and melted butter for her father; warm bread and rose water for Sara who wore dresses in shades of blue, ranging from indigo to pale blue, who had a long, easy stride and a dark braid that swung across one shoulder, who would hoist Greta on her hip as though she belonged there and carry her without effort, singing in her low voice.
Sara had firm hands that touched Stefan's temples if his head ached and held on to his broad shoulders when he bent above her in his struggle to erase the features of Elizabeth which, too often, superimposed themselves upon Sara's face.
Sara's favorite possession was a lined notebook she'd filled as a schoolgirl with legends she'd heard, and Greta loved hearing about the first white settlers and the Winnipesaukee Indians, especially the one about the Indian princess, Ellacoya. As she'd listen to Sara's words, pictures would shape inside her mind, pictures of Kona, the young chieftain who crossed the lake to court Ellacoya, pictures of Ellacoya's father, the warrior Ahanton who said no to anyone who wanted to marry his daughter. Greta saw him attack Kona, saw the princess step between them. After the wedding Kona returned across the lake with his bride, and a storm nearly overturned the canoes. But all at once sun split the clouds, showing the way to safety. Ahanton called this the Smile of the Great Spirit %151; Winnipesaukee.
"That's how our lake got its name," Sara told Greta.
A gatherer by nature, she took Stefan and Greta to a slope on Belknap Mountain where blueberries grew in rich and deep-blue patches and showed them how, from up here, you could see the
entire town the way it lay around the curved shoreline of the lake like the arm of a woman, hugging it closely. Its houses %151; some brick, but most white or gray clapboard %151; clustered around the three churches: Congregationalist, Baptist, and Catholic.
One afternoon, while Sara and Stefan made love, rain pelted his bedroom window, and after the rain stopped, they woke Greta from her nap and took her for a walk. At the edge of the schoolyard, they came across Elizabeth's mother, breaking a white rose from one of the bushes that she and her husband had planted here where their daughter had gone to school %151; one bush for each year of her life. Though Father Albin %151; whose guidance Lelia Flynn sought out far too often, the townspeople said %151; had cautioned the Flynns that roses did not always survive the harsh New Hampshire winters, they'd still planted them because Elizabeth used to love white roses; and they had done so without the help of their gardener or even the principal who had offered to assist them when he'd seen them out there in their expensive clothes, wielding shovels, awkward and determined. Despite the priest's warning, the tender shrubs had already made it through their first winter and were thriving, forming what was to become a lush hedge between the playground and the lumberyard across the street.
When Mrs. Flynn noticed Sara with Stefan, she stood with the stem in her fingers as if she'd been caught taking something that didn't belong to her. "Stefan," she said. "Stefan?" Her eyelashes fluttered for an instant. "Greta."
The air was still so moist that Sara felt it wet against her face, her neck, between her thighs that still held the memory of Stefan's body. And what had felt right when she'd lain with him, felt like sin now that she was standing in front of his dead wife's mother. "Let me wrap your flower," she offered and unfolded her handkerchief, dipped it into a shallow puddle. "It'll be fresh when you get it home."
Lelia Flynn glanced at Stefan, then at Greta who clutched a blue fold of Sara's skirt.
"It's clean, the handkerchief," Sara said.
"Oh %151; it's not that." Lelia Flynn extended her rose.
When Stefan tried to introduce the two women to each other, Sara said quietly, "Mrs. Flynn knows me from the bakery." Carefully she wound her wet handkerchief around the stem.
"Thank you. I will have this washed so I can give it back to you next Sunday."
"When my son-in-law brings you to my house."
"I did not intend to imply that you should feel honored to be %151; " Lelia Flynn sounded flustered.
Stefan watched Sara, impressed that she was not impressed at being invited by the banker's wife.
Lelia shook her head. "What I wanted to say was that I would be honored if you came to my house. Father Albin will be there too."
From then on Sara was invited along every Sunday and sat at the table that Lelia would decorate with settings of varied height, three-tiered silver trays with petit fours, glass bowls spilling grapes and plums and bananas, strawberries scattered in deliberate disorder on the tablecloth between the candlesticks and bud vases. By the time Sara married Stefan %151; almost exactly two years after Elizabeth's death %151; Lelia had grown so fond of her that she gave her an exquisite set of Italian silver trays. At the reception that was held at Stefan's restaurant, Sara propped Greta on the table next to the wedding cake and fed her icing right from her thumb.
While working in the restaurant kitchen, Sara often balanced the child on one hip while she measured ingredients. Though Stefan still arranged the final garnishes on his pastries, she prepared the crusts and fillings. He was careful not to mention his first wife in front of Sara, but he was constantly reminded of Elizabeth because her features were growing more pronounced in his daughter, whose gray eyes would settle themselves upon others, absorbing, memorizing. Most people felt uncomfortable and glanced away, but Sara laughed and swung Greta around in her arms, telling her not to be so serious, unaware that the child was aching with the knowledge of Sara's death.
She gave Greta crayons and sheets of butcher paper and hung up the stick figures the child drew for her. Two weeks before Sara became pregnant, Greta's drawings took on pear-like curves that softened the silhouettes of her stick figures and contained another, smaller shape curled within the curve. Sometimes there'd be two shapes, not touching, one far tinier than the other as though it needed time to bring it to fruition.
When Sara hadn't bled for two entire months, she took Greta to her parents' bakery and left her with one of her sisters, while she walked along the lake by herself, the collar of her coat turned up. The water was choppy, and crests of foam bobbed above its lead-colored surface. The only boat out was the mail boat, its long, knotted ropes hanging from its hull. Wind snatched at the white haze that rose from the smokestack, and the sun bounced off the windows of the pilot house, brief flashes of light, as if a child were playing with a pocket mirror. There'd always been children to care for in her life...her siblings, and now Greta. Children she loved. But she couldn't imagine herself with a child of her own.
She returned for a walk the following day and the days after that, returned till she was used to the idea of herself being a mother. And only then did she tell Stefan.
He stood in front of her like an awkward boy. "Are you happy then, are you?" Pressing her hands between his, he asked, "Are you?"
He took his best suit from the hanger and told her he'd be back soon; but instead of stopping at the construction site to supervise, he headed for the Catholic church, careful to avoid the deep mud. While the lower regions of the mountains had been turning green, their summits were still capped with snow, and spring thaw had left the roads of the town so spongy that carriages and delivery wagons had been getting stuck all week. Pete Morrell and some of the other farmers were earning extra money by keeping their teams of oxen ready for towing.
As Stefan approached the churchyard, a flock of swallows rose from a puddle, forming a cone that spun upward and was sucked into the mild, damp wind. On the church steps, he scraped the wet earth from his shoes before he entered. The oxblood-colored curtain of the confessional enveloped him like an embrace of shame, and after Father Albin's raspy voice absolved him from years of sins %151; pride and greed among them %151; Stefan knelt by the side altar, where the statue of the Virgin cradled the waxen corpse of Christ. There, as he remembered the banker's words %151; money I give to the church has nothing to do with the church %151; he proposed his own deal to God: he would attend church every Sunday, sing in the choir, and contribute ten percent of his income if Sara and the child survived.
"And future children," he made sure to remind God.
The construction of the Wasserburg was progressing, and the town had become accustomed to the sight of Stefan's short, solid body %151; always in a dark suit and crisp white shirt %151; as he strode among the workmen with blueprints from the linen originals, issuing orders in an accent that sounded both stern and melodious to the townspeople, who still whispered about him as much as the day he'd arrived: that he had a way with money; that he looked like a Frenchman %151; not a German %151; with those black curls and fierce green eyes; that the bathrooms in his apartment house would be divided %151; toilet and a sink in one room, tub and sink in another. At a town meeting some complained that his building blocked their view of the lake, while others speculated that it was too big to ever fill with tenants.
But what they talked about most was that the fire inspector had said it was ten times as safe as any other structure in town. "Goddamn thing's so heavy," he'd muttered, "it's anchored right to the middle of the earth."
Between each floor were ten inches of cement, ten inches of sand, and another ten inches of cement %151; an impenetrable fire barrier. The outer walls were built of brick and heavy timber, while the inside walls had masonry between layers of plaster.
Sara preferred their rooms above the restaurant and felt uneasy with the growing debt. "A banker's taste," she called the Wasserburg late one evening when she and Stefan were sharing a custard tart from the restaurant as they often did before they went to bed.
"And what would you want?" he challenged her. "A baker's taste?"
She took a small bite, set the tart back on the plate between them, and chewed slowly before answering him. "Tel l me then %151; what is wrong with a baker's taste?"
Both elbows on the tablecloth, she leaned toward him. "I like the baker's taste."
"I said I'm sorry." He dabbed one finger against the side of her mouth. Smiled at her. "You got custard on your face," he said and licked off his finger.
"And the farmer's taste. And the chimney sweep's taste. This entire town is built in that kind of taste. It suits me. The house you're building does not fit into this town."
"It's the most beautiful house I've ever seen."
"Oh, Stefan. Of course it's beautiful. But it's so large that it changes the way the other houses look...so large that I get embarrassed."
"It's like...bragging, a house like that."
"Not to me. And you knew....You knew from the beginning that I was building it."
"But I didn't know how much it lived inside you. With something that big there isn't much room left. And what's left is still taken up by her."
"So that's what all this is about? About Elizabeth?"
She looked straight at him. "It's her name that's still on the deeds."
"I told you I would change them over to you. I just haven't had time." Marjoram, he reminded himself. I'm also running low on pepper. Plenty of paprika left, though, and salt.
"And you did nothing to stop her mother when she ordered me to visit."
"I thought you like visiting there."
"I go because of Greta and you. But when I'm there, I still feel like someone who stole you from their daughter."
"Elizabeth was dead before you and I %151; " He stopped. Be patient, he reminded himself. Patient. He kissed her forehead. "The Flynns are always kind to you."
"They are. The way they would be to a servant. Because I'm from trade."
To agree with her would mean admitting that equality was not as total in America as he had figured it was, and letting in the uneasy certainty that Elizabeth's parents had never really accepted him either. "No. It's because they're both generous people."
"The kind of generosity that comes with conditions."
"They've never pushed me for the loan."
"Because you're the father of their grandchild."
"I don't understand you," he said, feeling this one chafing hurt between them that he'd sensed before, though it had never risen like this in words. To reassure Sara, he added, "It's you I'm married with." Right away he knew he should have said married to. Elizabeth would have mentioned his mistake. But Sara didn't even know enough to notice.
The morning he felt movement beneath the swelling of her belly, he went to mass though it wasn't a Sunday, and when Father Albin's wide, pink hand floated up to bless the congregation, Stefan felt a deep conviction that God would keep Sara alive. Still, the evening her labor began, he was snagged right back to the night of his first wife's death. Sara's screams were ripping through him, and when he tried to get into the room where her mother and Dr. Miles bent over her in the wide birch bed, they kept him from her and sent him to look after Greta who was alone in her room.
When he opened her door, his daughter was crouching against the wall in the far corner of her bed, legs drawn to her chest. "Fröschken," he whispered. "Fröschken?"
A gingham pillow was crammed in the tight space between her knees and stomach as though she, too, were giving birth. When he picked her up, she was shivering so hard that he knew those final screams of her mother had survived in her memory. Touching his lips to Greta's forehead, he wished he could reassure her that Sara would soon be well again, but since he didn't know how to ease his own fears, he was silent as he guided her arms into the sleeves of her checkered coat and tied the ribbon of her matching hat beneath her chin. After he buttoned her shoes, he lifted her on his shoulders, and as he walked along the dark lake with her, she linked her fingers across his forehead, preserving the heat of his skin in her palms. Autumn wind molded the trees to the shoreline, their branches reaching for the restless surface of the lake with the promise of a diviner's rod.
"Look, Vati," Greta said and pointed to the reflection of the half moon that swayed on the water like a slab of frost. It was an image that would come to her in later years %151; the moon, just like that, on the water %151; usually before she perceived something about people that most others could not see, and it was like that now though she was too young to frame it with words.
Copyright © 2000 by Ursula Hegi
Posted August 25, 2004
Hegi's novel was visionless in my opinion. The characters were developed as a continuum of Stones From the River, and in this novel, showed a lack of depth, a lack of movement and lack of interest. The book was slow-paced, the characters filled with greed and manipulation (which gave them some depth), and the repetition caused me to put the book down for several days, go back to reading it, and then the cycle started over again. I could not stay with the story straight through. I am disappointed in Hegli, and am not sure I would purchase another one of her books after reading this one. I read for stress release, and for the pure enjoyment of reading, and for me, there was no enjoyment in this novel.
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Posted January 21, 2001
I found this book to be a disappointment after enjoying thoroughly 'Stomes from the River.' The Blau family's story was told in a tedious fashion that left me wishing for some action, some relief from the slow narrative. I was bored with the first section and the plotline, which was quite depressing, and as a result it took me about two or three months and several other books before I decided to try again and go back to continue with this one. If you want to sample Hegi, try 'Stones' rather than this dreary second act.
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Posted March 2, 2015
Incredibly well written novel. Not sure why the low rating. It does deal with prejudice against German Americans because of the two world wars. It is a subject that should not be overlooked, however. The ending was a little unsatisfying but the story was very well told.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 26, 2012
I have read each book Hegi has written about the inhabitants of Burgdorf and found this book to follow her others in style and depth. Although this is not her best effort (not as good as "Stones From the River") readers will still find characters they like and dislike, tragedy in missed opportunities/communication, and the hope and power that comes with accepting change and creating a life for yourself. I especially appreciated Hegi's exploration of the immigrant's experience. There is a lot to learn from this book about that!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 22, 2000
Having really enjoyed Stones from the River, I was deeply disappointed in Hegi's lastest. Vision is shallow, full of underdeveloped characters, and uneven. I found the beginning of the book interesting, but the author attempts to cover too much ground making it a chore to finish the last 100 pages.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 22, 2010
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Posted November 7, 2008
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Posted August 9, 2010
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