Author: Monika Helfer
Translator: Mandy Wight
Translator’s note: Die Bagage is set in rural Austria during the First World War. Maria Moosbrugger, a woman known for her beauty, is living with her five children just outside a village in the mountains. Her husband was called up on the outbreak of war and the family, who were already very poor, are reliant on the help of others, like the local mayor, for food and supplies. The family are known locally as the Riff-Raff, because they are poor and keep themselves to themselves. They also incur disapproval because Maria’s last baby, Grete, was rumoured not to be her husband’s child, but the child of an affair. We see in this extract how Maria’s son, Lorenz, enacts a bold plan to help his family.
And then winter came round again. And they had nothing left to eat. There was no bacon hanging from the ceiling. The last potatoes were inedible.
Outside it was snowing. The snow was falling so thick and fast that from the kitchen you couldn’t see as far as the well. Lorenz came home from school. It was the afternoon. He shook the snow from his hair and took his school things off in the kitchen. He nodded to his mother by way of greeting. She had Grete on her lap, as always. Katharine was doing her homework with Walter. Lorenz went into the cowshed and told Hermann he had things to do there, he should get some firewood and go into the house. By this time Hermann had learnt not to challenge his brother. He whistled the dog over and disappeared with him. He asked no questions. Lorenz waited. He stamped his feet to keep them warm. He was waiting till darkness spread down from the mountain. Then he did what he’d worked out in the night to the last detail. He’d got everything ready. That morning he’d left a second pair of thick socks in the barn, together with his father’s thick gloves, a second shirt and his long johns—he never wore them normally, he thought long johns were for sissies, he couldn’t describe it any other way. But now, in the barn, he pulled on the clothes, even the cap with the padded ear flaps that also belonged to his father. Sat down on the handcart shaft and shoved his feet into his father’s heavy boots, which were too big for him, but only a bit too big now, and which fitted alright with a second pair of socks on his feet. Finally he worked his arms into the straps of the big rucksack, which smelt of mould and wasn’t used, as they never had so much to carry home that the small rucksacks wouldn’t do. Then off he plodded out of the house, down the deep, narrow path, trodden down in the snow, past the well and onto the lane. He marched along the lane into the village, head down against the snow which was falling from the sky, and marched through the village to the last farm at the other end. As he walked he whistled gustily, he even sang a few verses, there was no one out and about at that time, but if anyone had been out and about, Lorenz would have made a point of greeting them, that’s what he’d planned at any rate. The last thing anyone should think was that he was up to something secret. That Lorenz from the Riff-Raff, he’s cheerful today, that’s what they should think, anyone that ran into him. He who’s cheerful must be harmless. No one ran into him. With that snowfall no one left their fireside. But someone could be looking out the window maybe. Of course someone was looking out the window. That someone would see him, harmless, cheerful, in spite of the weather.
At the other end of the village lived a classmate, the only one he exchanged the odd word with now and again. Actually he liked the lad, but even at that young age the firm belief was ingrained in my Uncle Lorenz that he was someone who kept his distance from others — and as a result wasn’t allowed to like anyone. So he couldn’t like Emil. Though the fact was, he found that he did like him. He helped him with his arithmetic and more than once he’d even managed to get him a better grade. When he got to the house it was dark. He took hold of the iron ring and knocked at the door.
Emil’s mother opened the door. Lorenz swiftly removed his cap. So that she’d recognise him straightaway and wouldn’t have to ask who he was or get scared.
‘What do you want?’ she asked, without calling him by name.
That wasn’t polite, he thought. He felt a small swell of anger rise up to his throat, but he checked it at his Adam’s apple. He swallowed, and acted as cheerful as he could. He couldn’t find his reading book at home, he thought Grete may have gone and lost it, the little one was always losing things, and he was sure to find it tomorrow, but just as surely only after school, and at school tomorrow he had to read two pages aloud, and sadly he wasn’t especially good at reading, some lads were good at sums, others at reading, he’d prefer to be good at reading himself, and so it went on. He talked just like he’d planned it and just like he’d practised out loud in the still of the night before. Even if it was slimy talk, that was what he’d intended. It was all calculated. He knew Emil’s mother, he knew that she admired his head for figures, but also that she was envious, as arithmetic was her Emil’s weakest point. So he’d figured out that it would make her feel good if he pretended that he envied Emil, on account of his gift for reading.
‘I wanted to ask Emil if he’d lend me his reading book till tomorrow.’
What people said about Lorenz’s family was not exactly nice. In fact it was quite the opposite. Some people believed it, some didn’t. Some people believed it, but still thought it was out of order how the priest behaved, setting himself above the Lord God. The Riff-Raff children went to school just when they liked, just when they felt like it. You could criticise that, for sure. Maria had as good as given up looking after things. You never saw her in the village anymore either. That was arrogance for you. Emil’s father kept telling his wife she should keep her fantasies to herself, what did she know, and just because the Riff-Raff mother was better looking than other women, yes, really than any other woman, that was no reason to be so nasty. But reason enough to talk about her, you’d agree with me there, his wife retorted. Still, that business of removing the cross from their house, she wouldn’t have done that.
‘Wait there,’ said the woman to Lorenz.
Yet again he wasn’t called by his name and wasn’t asked into the house. He saw that as yet another slight. It was really mean. The door had been closed in his face. It was snowing so hard that in the few minutes he’d stood there without his cap his hair was covered with a white pelt. You wouldn’t have left a beggar standing outside like that. He was frozen and banged his shoes against one another. Emil put his head round the door to give him the book along with an apple. The dog, a light-coloured creature, squeezed between Emil’s knees and the door frame and stuck his nose outside for Lorenz to give him a stroke. The dog was a pet, useless as a worker. Lorenz shoved the book into his belt in front of him, pulled his jumper down over it and stamped off.
He went on his way. If they look out after me, they’ll see I’m on the usual path. They’ll see me in the middle of the lane. His footprints were already disappearing, already covered over by the snow. When he was out of sight, that is, before he came to the houses standing closer together on the way back into the village, he climbed up onto the fence alongside the road. It was barely visible, hidden beneath the mound of snow thrown up by the plough. He jumped from the fence into the snow on the other side and sank down up to his chest. He struggled across the field up to the woods, in summer he’d have done it in under five minutes, now he needed a good fifteen. He crawled up the last steep bit into the woods on all fours. The trees stood close together here, with only a little snow lying between the trunks. He had to catch his breath, so he knelt on the ground for a minute, knocked the snow off his clothes, and shook out his cap and gloves. Then he went back through the woods to the house where Emil and his family lived. The cowshed and the barn were extensions to the house, built onto the back. In the parlour you could neither see nor hear what was happening in the cowshed or the barn.
From the edge of the wood to the cowshed it was no more than ten metres. But you had to cross a hollow where the snow had drifted. After the first step, Lorenz slipped, and sank right down into the snow until he was completely submerged. When he got to his feet, he was still beneath the snow surface. For a minute he was scared, panicking even, thinking he could suffocate. He struck out with his arms as if he were doing front crawl. The snow got between his cap and his collar, his face burned with the cold, he struck out some more, hit out all around him, held his breath and finally his head emerged, thrusting up out of the snow. No way can I come back through here, he thought. He struggled on till he reached the barn. Under the porch he brushed the snow from his clothes, his cap and his gloves. He was exhausted, his legs felt numb above his feet, as if he didn’t have any legs at all. And his lungs hurt. He felt like swearing, but he couldn’t trust himself, he knew what he was like, once he started swearing, he couldn’t stop.
Then he heard a noise above his head: ‘Chink-chink! Chink-chink!’
A chaffinch was sitting on the lower cowshed roof. He couldn’t see it. He knew all the birds by their song. ‘Fly home or you’ll catch your death of cold!’ he said softly.
A squirrel hopped out of the barn, right up to his feet.
‘Go home, or you’ll catch your death,’ he said to this animal too. The hillside below the wood was glistening through the falling snow. There were no tracks to be seen. He hadn’t reckoned that he’d be swimming beneath a blanket of snow, but now he thought it was a good thing. No one would discover his tracks. No one would suspect him. This is the plan my Uncle Lorenz had thought up while lying in bed next to his brother Hermann the night before: if I go along to Emil’s house on some official business, and butter up his mother, then it won’t enter anyone’s head that the thief could be Lorenz Moosbrugger. They wouldn’t think anyone could be that cheeky. Not even one of the Riff-Raff could be that cheeky. Without that, the minute they see they’ve been robbed, they’ll think it was one of the Riff-Raff and probably that Lorenz. Even if it wasn’t me they’d think that. The thing with the reading book was a diversionary tactic. There’s no easier way to divert someone than by flattering them. Uncle Lorenz was proud of this theory. Tante Kathe told me he went on laughing about it till the day he died.
He broke into the barn, went from there into the cowshed, and crept from the cowshed into the cellar of the house. Sides of bacon were hanging from the ceiling, cheese wheels were stacked on shelves. They’d made provision, these people, and of course they had food to make provision with. There were glass jars filled with preserves: pears, apples, pickled cabbage, pickled squashes, cooked meats, stewed plums, cherry compote. He grabbed as much as he could and shoved it into his rucksack. Until it was so heavy he could barely lift it. Then he crept into the tunnel under the snow, crossed the hollow, and went up to the wood, and up in the wood he walked parallel to the village street, dragging the rucksack along, pausing frequently to catch his breath. Above the village, where the lane ended and the path to their house began, he stamped out a hole in the snow and put his booty there. Then, with an empty rucksack, he tramped through the snow, up into the wood, and back on the same path till he was standing once more above Emil’s house.
Lorenz climbed into Emil’s house five times that night. He cleared out their cellar, leaving them not one single jar of preserves. He took the cheese, he took the sausage and he took the bread. And all the while the snow fell from the sky and covered his tracks. On the final trip he stuffed three chickens into his rucksack. He’d already built a coop for them some days before, in the shed behind the cows. When he finally finished it was two o’clock in the morning. He could have caught his fingers in the door and he wouldn’t have felt it. He couldn’t even make it into his bed. He lay down on the kitchen floor. With all his clothes on. The padded cap on his head, the two pairs of gloves on his hands, his father’s heavy boots on his feet.
But he didn’t skip school the next day. In the morning he said nothing to his mother about where he’d been and what he’d been doing. And Maria didn’t ask. Her Lorenz, she could rely on him. Whatever he did, it was to help out his own. He asked her if she wouldn’t mind ironing the reading book, it was creased, it didn’t belong to him and he had to return it today. She filled the iron with glowing coals, placed a cloth over the book, and it soon looked as good as new.
After school, Lorenz ordered his brothers and sisters to help him fetch the things from the snow hole. He’d even designated the hiding places in the house in advance. Just in case it did enter their heads that one of the Riff-Raff had broken into Emil’s house. Either it didn’t enter their heads, or, if it did, they feared the fighting spirit of the Riff-Raff so much that they kept their mouths shut and looked the other way.
My Aunt Kathe said, her brother once told her how his mother looked at him that day. He’d never seen anything lovelier in all his life. He’d said that day had been the best day of his life. And that his mother had never been lovelier than on that day. And that he’d never been happier than on that day. He lay the whole afternoon on the bench by the stove and slept. A chicken had broken its wing, so Maria killed it, plucked it and made it into a soup. She wrapped her son’s feet in a warm cloth as he slept and tucked a blanket around him. That evening they had a special meal to celebrate. As for Lorenz, there was nothing more you could teach him now. He knew how to survive. You couldn’t tell him anything now. Just let them try.
Excerpted from Monika Helfer, Die Bagage, (The Riff-Raff), Carl Hanser Verlag, 2020.