In Fiona and Ferdinand, Josef Haslinger tells the story of a village in Austria’s Waldviertel, or “forest region,” that is forced to reckon with its past when a bundle of human bones wrapped in newspaper are discovered in a locked trunk in one of the villager’s homes.
While rummaging through old their old belongings for a button-down shirt for the corpse of a religious man named Bachmaier—decay had set in around his neck while he was still among the living—his next of kin came across a locked trunk. They opened it with bolt cutters and were horrified to find, under a horse blanket and threadbare undergarments, a bundle of bones wrapped in newspaper. Human bones, it was quickly determined. Without troubling any of the authorities, they handed the bones over to the parson. He blessed them, even though he knew they could be the mortal remains of Communists, and interred them along the cemetery wall.
On the day of Bachmaier’s funeral there were two messages from my mother waiting for me on the answering machine. In the first one she asked me to call her back, in the second she said that the village was in an uproar: I was to come at once. Calls from my mother were rare. It was almost midnight when I listened to the messages and I thought it’d be too late to call back. Then the telephone rang again. My mother, in an outright fit.
First she explained about finding the bones. And then she said, “Franz Bachmaier is swearing up and down that the two of you played with the bones as children.” That seemed so macabre to me that I let out a sudden laugh. And just as suddenly the laughter was gone.
Herr Franz Bachmaier was the son of the deceased. We were almost inseparable when we were growing up, and not just on our way to the school in the neighboring village, a distance we covered on skis in the winter. We also met up in the afternoon to help each other do our chores: baling hay, milling grain, mucking out the pigsty, and cleaning up around the farm. As soon as the chores were taken care of we made ourselves scarce—nothing was more loathsome to our fathers than the sight of children playing. Once we dismantled the chassis of a plow that stood in the neighbor’s field and as a result, I had to kneel on firewood that evening and Franz wasn’t allowed to come over for a week. And one time we actually shot at some skulls, but my mother had called it playing. That sounded more harmless.
“I never mentioned that to you?” I asked her.
“No,” she said, “it was news to me. At first I couldn’t even believe Franz.”
There was a note of astonishment in her voice, like I should still have to own up to it today. Stalling for time, I asked how they knew the bones were the same ones.
“Franz recognized them by the rusted iron wires,” she said.
“That’s right,” I said. “We wanted to build a skeleton like the one from school, but then the bones disappeared. Do they at least know whose they were?”
“They’re saying it could be the two Russians who killed the Grafs’ daughter.”
“Whose daughter?” I asked.
“Don’t you remember the Grafs? They lived up by the edge of the forest. Later some people from Vienna bought the house.”
“Herr and Frau Graf,” I said.
“Yes,” my mother said, “Herr and Frau Graf.”
Herr Graf had always worn a foppish coat. When he’d walk through the village I’d say hello to him and then feel the urge to take off. But he would ask questions, how things in school were going, what my parents were doing. He spoke proper High-German; that was uncomfortable. Herr Graf had been principal of the town school when my parents were young. I couldn’t summon a clear mental image of Frau Graf. I barely ever ran into her, only at church and now and again at the grocer’s. People stopped talking when she showed up. She died just after her husband’s funeral, but wasn’t found until her corpse was half-decomposed.
Now, on the telephone, I was hearing for the first time that the Grafs had had a daughter, Elisabeth, and that she was murdered at the end of World War II. Not a single person had ever talked about it, at least not to us children.
“And I’ve got something else to tell you,” my mother said. “There was practically a riot after the funeral today. Frau Gutwenger threatened to hang herself. She ran off, with Franz Bachmaier shouting after her that she should go ahead and do it.”
“Why should she want to hang herself?”
“It’s about the bones. She’s got her own ideas about them. I can’t explain it to you over the telephone. You have to come and talk to Franz. You were always best friends.”
I didn’t answer right away. “Even Herr Schmied is saying you ought to come,” my mother added.
”Old Herr Schmied. He was over here today after the funeral. He said Franz would listen to you.”
I couldn’t get out of teaching in Leipzig the following day, so it wasn’t until the day after that that I drove across the Erz mountains and through the Czech Republic into the Waldviertel—Austria’s forest region. There was construction outside of Budweis. A detour led me through the little villages surrounding the pastures in Bohemia, where the houses still looked somewhat like the farms of my childhood. I stopped over in one of the villages and sat on a bench for a while. An old woman emerged from a doorway. She studied me for a bit, motionless. Then she went back inside the house.
In the mid-sixties, three brothers came to our village. They were known as the plumbers: it was their job to draw water off the meadows and fields. They used long picks and a mechanical dredger to dig trenches branching all over and which, leading down from the hills, flowed into the stream. The excavated earth was layered into banks of mud along the trenches. My father brought a trailer loaded with clay piping from the village called Gross Gerungs, and he stacked them along the trenches in little piles. When we had finally finished our afternoon chores, Franz and I would run out to help the plumbers lay the pipe work. Our parents didn’t approve.
Both of the older brothers were divorced. We watched them smoking and cussing and talking about girls. Once the older brother said to the younger: “You’ll get your own little pipe laid plenty too.” What he’d said remained a mystery to me for a long time—I had taken him literally. In the evenings, when I had brought the milk containers into the cold store, I usually met up with Franz. We pulled our little wooden cart around the village streets and watched the plumbers through the window of the local inn. They weren’t alone; the village girls were there too.
We spent Sunday afternoons hanging out by the inn too. There was a gas station where the moped riders from Wiesenfeld, Fritzenschlag, and Selbitz gathered. They had just started a race with their souped-up engines as the brothers were returning from the fields. The older brother was cursing. “God damn working on Sundays,” he yelled, stamping his foot on the street. Right then it didn’t really seem to me that the three of them were lacking in morals—my mother had always been going on about how one may not profane the Lord’s day with work—when he yelled again, but this time he cursed the blacksmith because he refused to fire up the forge on Sunday. They’d barely closed the door to the inn behind them before we were heading in the direction they’d come from.
For weeks now a mechanical monstrosity had been cutting deep furrows into the meadows, and this was our first opportunity to have it all to ourselves. We sat down on the chain tread and noticed with expert eyes that the bucket excavator was cracked. It didn’t take long for us to clamber onto the driver’s seat, and Franz managed to start up the engine. But something was wrong with the exhaust, because as I gave it some gas, such an ear-splitting noise came out that even the plumbers at the inn noticed. They sent the youngest brother out to investigate. He came running down the path from the village, his fist raised at us from far afar. We shut the engine off and got out of there. The plumber took out a pocket knife and snapped open the blade. “If one of you snot-nosed brats gets back on the dredger, you’ll get cut.” He took the key out of the ignition. Then, waving the knife around a few more times, he sauntered back to the inn. As soon as he was out of sight we went back to the dredger, but the prospect of having the plumber give us the same treatment the hog castrator gives the piglet interfered with our fun a bit. So we abandoned the machine, took off our shoes, and leapt into the drainage ditches. Flakes of granite glittered in a little stream that trickled along the bottom. A few dark, oblong stones lay in the sluiced out sand; they looked like the finger bones from a hand. When we pulled them from the water we could tell right away that they really were finger bones. We found a spot on the wall where another bone stuck out. We snatched up the shovels lying around and dug until we had come across most of two skeletons. Since we could barely tell bone from clumped earth on the shovel, we threw everything into the bottom of the ditch and used the water to rinse off the skeletons.
The meadow belonged to the Bachmaiers. At first we had planned to get Herr Bachmaier so that we could show him our discovery, but then we decided that we would hold on to the bones for a little while. We made a pact not to tell anybody about them. Franz ran home to get a wagon and a potato sack. My plan in the meantime was to wash off the bones. I climbed deeper into the ditch, where the water was rising. More and more earth was washed away and the remains became clearer. Two fractured skulls were lying there, a severed jawbone, a pelvis broken into bits, and moldering long-bones, all of them somewhere between dark brown and green in color. I had thought that the stream would wash them clean and then they’d look like the bones from the skeleton at school. I was shoveling them out of the dirt like they were stones, when I noticed other body parts among them. I didn’t dare touch them. Teeth were sticking out from the upper mandible of one skull. But I also didn’t want to stand around there like a coward, so I took the shovel, scraped the bones a little, and turned them over in the water. They just wouldn’t turn white.
When Franz got back, I suggested letting the bones dry and then painting them white. We stowed them in a potato sack as agreed, but then didn’t know where we should hide our discovery. The woodshop seemed like the right place to Franz. It had a small loft where nothing was stored but the hayracks so it was used only twice a year. We dragged the dripping wet sack up there and laid the bones out to dry.
From then on, we met in the loft every day. We held a wake. Sitting next to each other on the piled hayracks, we looked at the bones and made guesses about whose they could’ve been. We hadn’t found anything other than the bones, no clothing or pieces of shoes. After a little back and forth, we agreed on lovers who had made a suicide pact. We named the two of them Fiona and Ferdinand.
Austrian writer Josef Haslinger has authored more than sixteen books, including most recently Jáchymov. He divides his time between Vienna and Leipzig, Germany, where he directs the prestigious German Literature Institute. Eugene Sampson teaches German at DePaul University and is an MFA candidate in poetry at Columbia College.
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