1836: Escape to America Chapter One excerpts: Berleburg
Much of 1836: Escape to America takes place on the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, the Mississippi River or the Illinois River, but the book opens where the journey begins, on a cold February day in Berleburg, Westphalia, in what was then Prussia and is now Germany.
FRIEDRICH KÄSTNER LOVED AND HATED Berleburg as few others could. It was the city of his birth, its royal house the wellspring of his greatest accomplishments and foulest disasters, and it had been his refuge after the wars, sweet and treacherous though it was. Today, as he strode downhill toward the river, he loved every glistening cobblestone, every patter of horse’s hooves, every six-pointed snowflake, every scent of pine and spruce, hardly aware of the cold until he reached his turn into the market square.
On the far side of the square, a young man emerged from the butcher’s shop – his youth and shabby clothing told Friedrich at once that he was a university student – then a sergeant in the blue uniform of the Prussian police stepped from the shadows, and three more turned from where they had been hunched over a fire barrel, warming their hands.
“That’s him! Seize that man!” rang out from the sergeant.
The student sprinted for a nearby carriage, an old barouche with a tattered seat. The pony startled and the driver, panicked, whipped it forward. One of the soldiers raised his rifle, fired, and hit the fleeing carriage. It swerved, toppling the driver from his seat. He hit the ground hard, shrieking as the iron wheel of the carriage ran over one out-flung arm.
The student tried to dodge back into an alley, but the soldiers surrounded him, and even though he raised his arms in surrender, threw him to the ground. One of them, using his rifle butt, landed a single, devastating blow to the young man’s head. Friedrich heard the sickening sound of a skull cracking and saw a dark circle of blood beginning to spread.
The frightened pony was still on the loose and now heading straight for Friedrich, who, although he was no longer young, caught it and ran alongside for a stretch, pulling the pony to a stop, and then turning the reins over to a soldier who had come running up behind him. Friedrich nodded and tipped his hat to the soldier, looking submissive and avoiding being seen full in the face, hiding the almost decorative web of sword-fight scars across his cheeks.
Like a goddamn coward, Friedrich thought, but he was unarmed, he was an ordinary shopkeeper now, no longer a soldier, no longer in the cavalry, mounted, armed and ready; the silver-handled sword that had gone with him to Moscow and back was hanging over the fireplace, unsharpened. Even now, twenty years after the wars, Friedrich Kästner was still extraordinarily powerful, heavily muscled, broad shouldered and thick-necked with a square jaw and deep blue eyes, but he knew that on this day, unarmed, he was no match for the Prussian police. The square was already cleared out, people having melted away into shops and around corners, doors closed, shades drawn. Friedrich turned on his heel and headed for the tavern the next square over. There would be no trade until the police cleared out the driver and the dead student, no doubt seditionists, over-educated traitors, loud-mouthed trouble-makers who had dared to speak out against the monarchy, foolish men who belonged to the German Democracy Movement, the outlawed Deutsche Demokratiebewegung. As did Friedrich Kästner himself.
WAIT, THOUGHT GÜNTER EHRENSTEIN wait, wait, wait. He waited for the night watchman to pass, hearing the watchman’s footsteps fade in the distance, sorting out the sound from his own heartbeat, so loud that it seemed to fill his ears, before he slipped further through the night, placing each boot soundlessly on cobblestones silvered by ice and moonlight. He hurried down Old Kästner Lane to the ancient, half-timbered house at the end and gave the stout oak door three stealthy knocks.
Friedrich Kästner, on the other side of the door, asked, “Who goes there?” and Günter was quickly admitted.
“There could be another sweep within the fortnight,” Günter said, more breathlessly than he meant to.
Friedrich Anton Kästner nodded. He rose and paced the room soundlessly, his hands clasped behind his back. He was a man of middle height but extraordinarily powerful even now, heavily muscled, broad shouldered and thick-necked with a square jaw, deep blue eyes and an almost decorative web of sword-fight scars on his face. A fortnight. It was no more or less than he expected. There were bigger targets to be sure, but his name could not be far down the list. This was a call to action, as surely as the ‘carga,’ the Armée’s bugle call to charge. This was no time for hesitation, for the faint of heart; there was not a moment to be lost. Günter was tall and spare, and now his thin shoulders drooped more than usual as he saw the decision settle onto Friedrich’s scarred face.
Still, he put the obvious question to Friedrich directly: “What will you do?”
“We will go,” Friedrich replied, knowing that Günter would follow his meaning and that the less detail, the better, even behind closed doors.
“Ah,” said Günter, by which Friedrich understood his personal sadness at losing his friends, his joy in their promising future, his concern for the difficulties of their journey and his deeply felt envy. It was a great deal for one word, but between like minds, it was enough.
Suddenly a log shifted, sparks flew up, and both Günter and Friedrich turned to the fireplace, each man thinking through the implications of this decision for their families, their neighbors and their fellow citizens, men gathering across Germany to talk of unity, constitutional law and liberation from a thousand years of monarchy. The clock on the heavily carved mantel chimed nine o’clock and Günter, glancing at Friedrich, saw a gleam in his eye.
Günter had in fact seen this gleam before in Friedrich’s eye: when they talked of America. Günter knew the avid attention with which Friedrich and Katherine read Bericht über eine Reise nach den westlichen Staaten Nordamerika's with its odd American Indian names, glowing descriptions of the Missouri River valley, at the wild western edge, the wide open frontier of America: abundant cheap land, fertile soil, low taxes and “contrast to all European prejudice [in] regard to rank in society of the tradesman and the respect in which physical activity is held….” [i] Gottfried Duden’s book was not the only one that Friedrich and Katherine read about the New World; they were as prepared as anyone Günter knew to risk everything for a new start.
Without Friedrich, a man who knew a great deal about the inner workings of the Prussian oppressors and a genuine war hero to whom others would listen … or might listen, depending on whose side they had been on when Napoleon tried to remake the world … without him, it would be harder to drag their homeland toward the bright future they both conjured in their dearest imaginings. But it was Friedrich’s decision to make, his alone.
“I honor your decision, my dear friend,” said Günter, “and I put the future in your hands. I am at your service.”
HANS-JÜRGEN KÄSTNER HAD GROWN UP motherless and fatherless, too, Friedrich being required to rejoin his regiment between his getting and his birth. His grandparents, Friedrich's mother and father, raised him within a shining circle of loving kindness. By the time he was four, they didn’t even try to catch him. They just sat in the middle of the old wooden floor and smiled while he ran rings around them until he flopped down and dissolved in the laughter of innocents. He didn’t miss his parents; how could he?
Still, the brightest time of his childhood was when he was six and his father was home from the wars, strong and handsome in a resplendent uniform, his blue eyes and wide smile lighting their days. It seemed to Hans-Jürgen as if the world had been set right. There were glorious days of tromping through the woods, of shooting off arrows from a fresh bow his father cut from an ash tree for him.
Together, they lit a candle for his mother, and Friedrich told him about how she had been both beautiful and gentle. There were dinnertimes when laughter went round the table as Friedrich regaled them with tales of his days with Napoleon and of the interesting, amusing characters he had met in the Grande Armée. There were nights of the sweetest music he had ever heard: his father and his grandfather playing together, one on the fiddle and the other answering on a deep and melodious viola.
Then one night there was a terrible pounding at the door and angry voices and terrible screams. He crept downstairs to find his grandmother cradling his grandfather and sobbing. Men had come for his father, and when his grandfather tried to stop him, one of them put a sword through the old man’s heart. He died very quickly, without a last word to either of them, so much blood spilling out into a pool beside him.
This was a terrible time when it seemed that nothing would ever be right again, when Hans-Jürgen was confused and hurt, when he jumped at every odd noise. There were dark nights when men gathered at their house in secret, speaking in outrage about torture and reprisals and rescues, rescues that never materialized. His grandmother’s lovely warm smile disappeared, and she was often in tears. He played every game and trick to cheer her, but her face had turned an ashen grey, and when she managed a smile, her eyes told a different truth. Once cheerful and loving, she looked sadder than he had known a person could.
Hans-Jürgen was already almost too big a boy for sitting in his grandfather’s lap or falling asleep to the gentle retelling of old stories about how the red fox found his courage or how the beech tree protected the whole forest, but oh, how he missed the old man. His grandmother must have missed him, too, because she seemed to have shrunk. She suddenly looked small and frail. At first, Hans thought with surprise that he was taller than his grandmother; then he knew he was, and this made him try to do everything for her, far more than a little boy should have to do.
Together they struggled to keep the old farmhouse warm and clean and to find enough to eat. His grandmother explained that his father was being held in a Prussian prison and that she could not say whether he would come home. He tried to parse out what that meant. Was his father already dead? Had he deserted his family? Was he being forced to fight in some new war? Hans-Jürgen was not at all sure what any of this meant, and because he afraid to ask, he could only be horrified, because after all, his grandmother was horrified. Every night, they prayed together for his father.
But every day, his grandmother grew more distracted, more distant and less predictable. One cold winter’s evening, he found her entirely unhinged, searching in the barn for a baby. “There is no baby,” he told her, and then he reversed himself and told her, “The baby is safe and warm. It’s inside, it needs you, come and take care of the baby.” She was wearing only a thin, old nightgown, and her toes were frostbitten before he could get her back in the house. His aunts and uncles came soon after that and took her away.
And that began an even worse time of terrible loneliness and uncertainty, when he knew his Uncle Gerhardt wanted their house and wanted him out of it, Gerhardt who looked like a thin, angry version of his father and spoke habitually with bitterness: in childhood he lost every childish contest and in adulthood he had never been thought a hero, not for an instant nor by a single Christian soul. At night in the big old empty house Hans-Jürgen rolled up with his blanket over his ears and sang to himself to keep away the wicked ghosts and the even more wicked ghouls known to haunt old houses and seize bad little boys and eat them for supper.
Then, to everyone’s surprise, Friedrich Kästner returned. He was a broken man, old before his time and barely able to eat or walk, driven back in a stinking manure wagon and dumped off in the town center, to the shame of the family. He had been released to save the time and trouble of burying him, the neighbors whispered, and more than that, to teach others where democratic ideas will get you, and it may have been true.
Some of them helped for a while, but they were busy with their own families, and it seemed a hopeless case; besides, Friedrich was an enemy of the state. Soon what help there was faded to a pitiable level – a few roasted potatoes wrapped in a handkerchief and left on the stoop, or a pair of hen’s eggs. At the marketplace, shopkeepers watched Hans sharply, convinced that any day now he would turn to stealing, and old biddies stood together in pairs or clusters, glancing disapprovingly at him and spreading baseless tales about his father.
Hans, who had prayed and prayed and prayed for his father’s life, hardly able to hope that he would ever return, was unaccountably angry with him. While he cared for the injured man as best a boy could, he still had to fend off his Uncle Gerhardt, made nastier and more spiteful than ever by the very sight of Friedrich. Outside the sickroom Gerhardt shook the boy by his bony shoulders and told him in a fierce whisper, “He has disgraced us. Better he was dead.” Hans did not know where the truth lay, but he knew he hated his uncle.
Each night Hans fell into bed exhausted with worry and work. All around them, the house fell further into ruin, rain piercing the attic roof and mice breeding in the kitchen. Still, as time went by, his father began to heal. They went together to the hot mineral springs in town, and soaked away much of his pain and some of their cares. Friedrich hired a servant, a cheap, pock-faced teenaged girl that no one else wanted. She began to put the house back in order and fix them a little something to eat. She threw open the shutters, and the fresh scent of pine and spruce filled the house again.
Then one glorious day, a day to be remembered and celebrated, Friedrich was strong enough to sit up in the chair by the fireplace and give Gerhardt the very devil of a tongue lashing, calling him a stupid, cowardly, thankless, evil charlatan of a man, not fit for man or beast, no brother of his and certainly unworthy of his wife and children, even though she was a gossipy harridan and they were snotty brats, every one of them.
In fact, the pendulum had swung again, and better days would follow, one after another. But by then, Hans did not know how to find his way back to happiness.
ONE PERFECTLY IDEAL AFTERNOON last summer, William Josef and Hans laid their muskets at the field’s end as they prepared to plow for their great-uncle, old Herr Beckmann, a late plowing to ready the field for sowing winter wheat. They liked good-hearted old Herr Beckman, and besides, of all the great many vices a man might privately or publically espouse, Samuel Beckmann really had only two: he smoked a prodigious long pipe like a Dutchman or a Dane, and he liked to lie abed of a morning. However, these he indulged with such a degree of thoroughness that little else was accomplished on the farm he still called his own, and his childer, of whom there were a great many, having inherited some touch of his particular vices, could rarely be seen to take up much of the great deal of slack about the place.
Herr Beckmann’s field lay adjoining the great Ancient Forest of Berleberg, owned for generations by the town’s own aristocracy, the Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleberg dynasty, dukes from time immemorial and recently made even more royal – raised into princes – by the Prussians.[i] The Ancient Forest was a magical place where lynx stalked their prey, black storks returned in the spring to build huge twiggy nests, and the kingfisher’s wild rattling call enlivened the shores of crystalline lakes. Red deer, fallow deer and even the graceful little roe deer were plentiful in the forest; they often escaped the trees to graze in Herr Beckmann’s field and thus these delicious does and magnificent stags became free game that could be shot without penalty.
All afternoon the brothers worked, one handling the plow while the other drove the team of Schwartzwalder Fuchs (Black Forest Fox horses)[ii] named King and Greta, their flaxen manes and tails swishing over dark sorrel coats. The boys had been riding and driving horses since they were striplings, so it came naturally to them. One gripped the plow with both hands while the other exerted exactly the right pressure on the long leather lines threaded through the harness to the bit in the horses’ mouths. Mid-afternoon, they switched positions to stave off some of the sore muscles they were surely earning.
The gloaming came early and lasted long, lit by a bright layer of pink and golden clouds in the west. The horses’ manes and tails glowed magically in the low light, and William Josef remembered his great uncle bragging about the breed, calling them, “Pearls of the Black Forest.” It was easy for William Josef to imagine some boy like him eons ago who saw these lithe, powerful little horses in this same delicate light and first called them “Pearls.”
His great-uncle had told him that these horses had lived wild in the forest before man tamed them, but his great-uncle was an excellent source for a great many far-fetched tales that were hard to credit, and this might be one of them. His father spoke with love of his favorite army horse, a tall chestnut Polish Trakehner named Zimt,[iii] but to William Josef, it was hard to imagine a more beautiful horse than the two sturdy Swartzwalders so gracefully pulling the plow today.
He stood at the top of the last row as the horses turned, ready for Hans’ “giddup.” That was when he saw it: at the wood’s edge, a wisent, the European bison so rare as to be rumored extinct. A shaft of sunlight caught its golden brown coat, and it looked up when William Josef quietly gave a firm command: “Whoa.” A surprised Hans looked at him and then followed his gaze to the wisent: a big, dangerous looking animal, almost six foot high at the shoulder.
In a moment a wisp of breeze brought the scent of the wild bison to the horses, who shuffled and whinnied. The wisent raised its curved horns with a snort and then lowered its shaggy head. Its hump showed threateningly, and one hoof pawed the ground. Time came to a halt as man and beast waited to see who would make the next move. Their muskets, William Josef realized, lay almost under its hooves.
Then the massive wisent turned its thickset body and disappeared into the dark spruce forest. The boys breathed again, soothed the startled horses and urged them down the last row, the better to distract them. When they looked at each other, William Josef and Hans-Jürgen were both grinning. It’s not every day you see a wisent![iv] It’s not everyone who ever sees such a rare and magnificent beast.
Hans was conscious of storing the memory in a place where he could revisit it and treasure this feeling of serendipity. He had long admired William Josef’s seemingly boundless, daily enthusiasm, though sometimes grudgingly, since he himself had little ability to sustain either confidence or glee, seeming to be blown about by outside influences. Neither of them spoke a word as the team trundled down the lane toward the barn, King and Greta's hooves steadily clip-clopping to the rhythm of the clinking of trace chains against their haunches. A flock of geese wheeled overhead, honking, as the horses crossed the pasture.
Through the leather lines he held, William Josef could feel the team’s strength and gentleness; for the first time, he felt with immense pride that this was his land. He was a part of this land of spruce trees and birch trees and massive beech and oak, of rolling fields of wheat and oats and flax, of vineyards slanting down to the river. It did not and could not belong to the goddam Prussians or the duchy of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleberg, or even their great-uncle, Herr Beckmann, good-hearted, well-meaning, untrustworthy, lazy and tired old gentleman that he was. It occurred to William Josef for the first time that the land belongs to those who work it and who care for it. They are its true citizens, not just those with a deed in their pocket, and that this citizenship is a vow made to become a steward to man and animal and trees and wheat and the very Earth itself.
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