The Devil's Hat - Part One
Updated: Jun 26, 2020
This is one of my longer stories at thirty pages, so I'm breaking it up into three parts, to enjoy over the span of a few weeks. Also, my Illinois readers will recognize the names of the towns in this story - a literary shout-out to my beloved Fulton County!
Clyburn Home for the Aged
I am not young, but I am not tired. Not yet. Not tired enough, anyway, to not tell my story.
I have been preparing for the 100th birthday party being thrown for me at the Lutheran Church just a few blocks away. In a few hours – and against my better judgement – I will be attending. My great-grandson, Robbie, will be transporting me there, escorting me like a corpse bride. It will be a cheery party, with my grandson, Kurt, a man whose own hair is shot through with silver, toasting me, saying loudly, Here’s to another hundred, Grandmother Hilde! He always speaks so loudly in my presence, although my hearing is excellent for my age.
The room will be choked with crepe paper and people, well-wishers who are betting in their secret hearts that they will be gathered together again a few days or weeks or months (but certainly not years) consoling themselves with funeral cake that will taste remarkably like the birthday cake – devil’s food with buttercream frosting – that we will share today. I will not particularly enjoy it, this party, but I will do it for them. Mein familie.
I brush my sparse hair, bending it to my will into waves that crest and break over my wrinkled forehead. I stop mid-brush, laying it down gently on top of the matching handheld mirror. In the mirror in front of me, the big one attached to the vanity, I trace the outlines of my ravaged face. The map is still there, the old countries with their old ways and names still visible, if only barely, beneath this time-scarred one, now melded together into a fractious union. I run my knobby finger, cool against the glass, along my former jawline. Its borders were once rigid, without question, granite - my daughter once said it could be used as a whetstone, it was so sharp and carefully delineated. Now my cheeks, once sleek and proud soldiers, obscure my jaw. Like melted candlewax, my face drips down, blurring my secrets. But they are still there, underneath.
I smooth my lipstick over my cracked lips, where it almost instantly begins to bleed into the fine lines that radiate out from my mouth. I appraise the reflection. I am finished.
I move to the chair, a sparse and careworn spot, but one that is familiar to me, salvaged from my marital home. Gray clouds loom in the distance, threatening the ignorant sun, as I settle in to look out of the window. I am ready early, which is fine. I have always liked being punctual. Robbie will not be by for a while yet, so I have time.
Always, always, there is time.
Sprottau, Lower Silesia
Mother sends me out for food. I am six years old, a striking child with white blonde hair and blue eyes so pale like the ice that forms on the water bucket in the corner of the room of our ferienhaus. Our cottage. Engel – our crow-like neighbor calls as I trudge by her doorway each morning. Angel, she says, as she reaches out to touch my dusty skirt.
Father is gone. I have no memory of him before he succumbed to smallpox. Mother speaks of him little, except to tell me that I look like him. All I do know then, at age six, is that his name was Peter and his departure has left me with a terrible, raw ache in my stomach most days. There is nothing to fill it but turnips and bitter greens that grow along the muddy roadways. In a short time, Mother’s face grows pinched and her fine cheekbones (the same ones that I inherited – my only dowry) stand out in stark relief. She stops making enough milk to feed my little brother, who also grows thin and translucent. One day, he too is carried away and Mother and I are again alone.
We are in a bad place, a frightening spot of hunger and deprivation, and she is never well. On this day, she ties a black scarf over my white hair, telling me Finden sie uns etwas zu essen, in a voice that is gray with ash. She shoves me gently out of the door. Find us something to eat.
The streets are a wasteland, familiar, terrible. No one looks me directly in the eye; they have their own sorrows. I shiver against the cold spring air that brings nothing but a promise of death. I stumble, sniffing like a blind dog, radiating in my loneliness. At one point, far away from our ferienhaus, I squat down and pick up remnants of other people’s lives – a piece of frayed purple ribbon, a doll’s arm, a ground up shard of pottery that once shone as blue as my eyes. As I stir the dirt with my finger, a voice from above speaks to me in clotted, soothing tones.
“Hallo, liebchen. Warten sie für mich?” Hello, sweetheart. Are you waiting for me? I look up and the man is tall, so tall and he is wearing a round, black hat, singed at the brim. A warm, yeasty smell radiates from him. He is handsome, with yellow hair like new straw and blue eyes that are very similar to mine. He looks so much like me that he could be my father.
“Is your name Peter?” I ask, turning my innocent face up to his.
“Of course,” he says, still smiling with his glittery eyes. His handsome face moves under his skin, its planes in a constant, turgid motion.
“Look what I have for you, liebchen.” He draws something out from under a supple, bottle-green coat. It is wrapped in a new cloth, almost as white as my hair. He draws back a corner slowly, as if he is unwrapping a precious gift. I gasp.
It is a loaf of bread and it is still warm. It is beautiful, a deep, golden brown in color, and has a shiny crust, as if it has been baked by expert hands. He holds it out to me and I fall upon it like a dog on a soupbone. I tear off a piece bigger than my own hand and shove it so far into my mouth that I gag. The handsome stranger chuckles.
“Easy now, liebchen,” he croons. There is something in his voice that I cannot place because I am a young child, very young, and so I keep choking down the bread. One piece after the other disappears into my chirping mouth, filling my wanton stomach. It is so warm.
Finally, for the first time in months, I begin to feel sated. My eating slows and I take time to glance at the bread. I am surprised to see that it is still almost whole. As if I had only been nibbling like a little mouse, instead of devouring it like a wolf. There is only one piece missing but it is enough. I look up at him with questioning eyes. It is like staring into the sun.
“Oh, liebchen,” he says and laughs again, an ageless laugh. He must be my father, I think. He is so kind. No one is kind anymore.
He pushes the loaf towards me. “For your mother,” he says. His long fingers open my tiny hands, pushing the rest of this wondrous bread into them. It will be a feast for her, my mother who has suffered so.
He touches the burnt brim of his hat – the color of deepest night – and tiny sparks fly from it as he says, “Until next time, liebchen.” He moves past me in silence, the warm baked smell moving with him. Again, I am alone.
I stumble home, my prize clutched tightly to my pale body. I am so worried about someone taking my bread from me that I hunch low over it as I run, but everyone is so consumed with feeding their own sorrows they do not notice my precious parcel, nor smell the delicious perfume it gives off as I hurry home.
I scuttle into the house, crying Mama! Mama! Suchen! Suchen! I unwrap the loaf and thrust it towards her. She stares at it. I am sure she is shocked at our good fortune, because her face turns the color of ash and she demands to know where I have gotten it. Bewildered at her reaction, I tell her the story of the tall handsome man with the black hat and the bluest eyes. When I tell her his name, her hand goes to her mouth.
She says nothing, not a single word. She drags me to the wash basin and begins to push thick handfuls of lye soap into my mouth, holding my birdlike jaw closed with an iron hand and pinching my nose until it forces me to swallow the vile stuff. It burns its way down to the pit of my stomach and she does it again and again, until she steps back, her forehead glistening with perspiration and her eyes wild, looking much like a cornered fox. I stagger back weakly and vomit into the corner, near where she and I sleep. What comes out, spattering the clay at our feet, is thin and watery and tastes only of turnips and lye.
Dear Jesus, my mother whispers as she looks at the mess on the floor. I whimper like a beaten dog. I am only six and cannot understand what I have done wrong.
Mother touches one hand to her forehead. She places the other on the top of my white hair, so bright in the gloom of the ferienhaus that I see its glow from the corners of my eyes.
Es ist vollbracht, she says sorrowfully. Her voice is low, a benediction. It is done.
The Everholt Estate
The place where I came from and the place where I have settled are very much alike, in looks, if not temperament. The small hills and valleys of Illinois are shaped and sculpted very much like the topography of Lower Silesia. It is the same soil, black and rich, and it holds the fertile smell of ten thousand years. But whereas Silesia was dark and gray and wild, full of werewolves and wanderers and unslaked hunger, Illinois has already been carved into neat rows, with its backdrop of sleek, green trees that smell of plenty. People here own the land; the fickle earth does not own them. They have tamed it with their hard work and good sense.
Sensible is the most apt word, chosen from one thousand, to describe my mistress. Missus Septemia Everholt is a sparrow of a woman, fine-boned and small, with a high and quiet voice. The mourning clothes she has worn for years bring to mind a hungry crow. Spare and black, with unblinking eyes.
If I paint an unfortunate picture of her, the Missus, I do not mean to. She is an economical woman and does not suffer fools, but she has a generous spirit and a giving nature. She is stern, but fair. Her eyes are black and snapping and hold no small trace of kindness. They were the first thing I took notice of when my mother and I arrived on her doorstep six years ago, carrying the burden of our own sorry history and little else. I knew from first glance that my mistress, while not warm, would never treat me badly.
Now I am thirteen, and my mother – she who saved me from death – is dead herself, taken by cholera three years ago. Her death was not painless and I suffer even now in my thoughts of her. There were nights when my dreams tormented me and Missus Everholt was there in the gloaming, her dry, cool hand on my cheek soothing, giving place to my fevered wandering. We never spoke of her nighttime visits and over the months they spaced themselves further and further apart. That is our secret, shared by our silence. But it is not our only one.
The Missus is a woman of means. She was widowed at a tender stage in her life, just prior to turning thirty. She already had five sons, the youngest not quite two, when her husband died. He killed himself, with a rope slung over a fortuitously placed beam in his barn, after some hushed unpleasantness with one of his sons, though I have never been privy to the full and unvarnished truth. Instead of mourning, instead of tearing at her clothes and gnashing her teeth, the Missus set about correcting his mismanagement of their sprawling farm. She evicted several ne’er-do-well tenant farmers and placed her trust only in herself and God (and in that order). Not even any of her own sons, all grown men by the time I first met them, dared to tell her how to manage her affairs. By the time my mother and I arrived on her formidable doorstep, she was quite a wealthy woman. If she carries her own bag of sorrows, she keeps it well-hidden, stashed somewhere only God or the Other could know.
She also keeps a house of secrets. I collude with her and in turn, make them my own. The house, my first home in America, sits proudly amid her farmland, its Gothic style architecture given an American flair with the pigs that root barely two hundred feet from the back stoop. It has a relatively grand entrance, with arching windows that flank the heavy oak front door. There is a generous parlor off to the right, and to the left is a library. It is there that I was taught to read in English (I knew little of my native tongue in print anyway) by Irving Everholt, the Missus’ fourth son. To the back of the entryway is a simple, yet elegant, staircase that leads to the second floor bedroom. My own private space is on the third floor, under the back eaves. Small and cozy.
Under the staircase, on the first floor, is a closet that holds all sorts of detritus from the past. Several pairs of ice skates with rotten and tangled laces. The long-departed Mr. Everholt’s United States Army uniform. A fragile old doll that belonged to the Missus ages ago that is missing both of her eyes. I hate that doll, and since I have had plenty of occasion to go into the closet, I have thrown a tattered cloth over it, so I do not have to look at its blank face every time I enter.
I have seen plenty of time in that closet under the stairs. Behind a row of outgrown and forgotten clothing is another door, imperceptible to any unknowing eye, so craftily had it been carved into the wall by an unknown person. Beyond that door is a small area, small enough so as not to arouse suspicion, but large enough for a man to stretch out easily. Or for a woman to lay with her children and hold them close.
We are a cog in a great and dangerous machine, just one tiny gear, but understanding that each part has to be kept well-oiled and smooth with no burrs to catch and grind against one another. These runaways that come to us under a hot blanket of night have eyes that shine white and round even in the darkness. Their nostrils flare like skittish horses. Most often they devour whatever food I scare up for them, but some are so terrified at the prospect of freedom that they cannot even choke down a single crumb. I do not understand their fear, but I know my own.
On this night, just past my thirteenth birthday, the Missus summons me to the parlor in the late evening hours. She is reading a book, a novel, by lamplight. Its title, embossed on the cover, is reflected in the weak glow – Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I know nothing of the book, nor its author, save snatched bits of conversation I have heard among Missus Everholt and her contemporaries. But the book itself is a clue, and my heart begins to thump steadily.
She places it carefully down on the plush settee, marking her place with a leather tassel. Her eyes are sharp in the lamplight.
“We have a special visitor, Hilde. His name is Amos. Please make sure he is comfortable.” Her face is like marble, impervious to time.
I nod. My heart hammers below my ribcage. This is the beginning of a certain chain of events, one that culminates in me visiting the place under the stairs. Only the Missus and I, and Henry, the butler, are privy to this secret. Even Agnes, our tireless Swedish cook, does not know, so any meal I take our nighttime visitors is cold. But as always, there is plenty to eat: lard biscuits and creamy milk, dried apples and hard, salted cheeses. Our kitchen is a place of plenty so I fill a small basket quickly for our new guest.
The air in the closet is breathless. The faint scent of decay which always accompanies unused things tickles my nose. Below that even, there is something else, a sharp and slightly sour smell, something new, but I cannot place it. I push aside a mothy overcoat, a discard of one of the many Everholt sons, and softly rap twice on the well-concealed door. A friend, I whisper into the paneling. I pry open the door.
To be continued...
(Part Two arriving next Friday!)