A Little Village
From my birth until I am six years old.
In the same year that the five-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his Minuet for Harpsichord, in the precise year when the British captured Pondicherry in India from the French, in the exact same year in which the melody for ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ was first published, in that very year, which is to say 1761, whilst in the city of Paris people at their salons told tales of beasts in castles and men with blue beards and beauties that would not wake and cats in boots and slippers made of glass and youngest children with tufts in their hair and daughters wrapped in donkey skin, and whilst in London people at their clubs discussed the coronation of King George III and Queen Charlotte: many miles away from all this activity, in a small village in Alsace, in the presence of a ruddy midwife, two village maids, and a terrified mother, was born a certain undersized baby.
Anne Marie Grosholtz was the name given to that hurriedly christened child, though I would be referred to simply as Marie. I was not much bigger, at first, than the size of my mother’s little hands put together, and I was not expected to live very long. And yet, after I survived my first night, I went on, despite contrary predictions, to breathe through my first week. After that my heart still kept time, without interruption, throughout my first month. Pig-headed, pocket-sized thing.
My lonely mother was eighteen years old at my birth, a small woman, a little under five foot, marked by being the daughter of a priest. This priest, my grandfather, made a widower by smallpox, had been a very strict man, a fury in black cloth, who never let his daughter out of his sight. After he died, my mother’s life changed. Mother began to meet people, villagers who called upon her, and among them was a soldier. This soldier, a bachelor somewhat beyond the customary age, possessing a sombre temperament brought on by witnessing so many appalling things and losing so many soldier friends, took a fancy to Mother; he thought they could be happy, so to speak, being sad together. Her name was Anna-Maria Waltner. His name was Joseph Georg Grosholtz. They were married. My mother and my father. Here was loving and here was joy.
My mother had a large nose, in the Roman style. My father, so I would come to believe, had a strong chin that pointed a little upward. That chin and that nose, it seems, fitted together. After a little while, however, Father’s furlough was over, and he returned to war. Mother’s nose and Father’s chin had known each other for three weeks.
I was born of love. The love my father and mother had for each other was forever present on my face. I was born with both the Waltner nose and the Grosholtz chin. Each attribute was a noteworthy thing on its own, and nicely gave character to the faces of those two families; combined, the result was a little ungainly, as if I were showing more flesh than was my personal due. Children will grow how they will. Some distinguish themselves as prodigies of hair growth, or cut teeth at a wonderfully young age; some are freckled all over; others arrive so pale that their white nakedness is a shock to all who witness it. I nosed and chinned my way into life. I was, certainly, unaware then of what extraordinary bodies I should come to know, of what vast buildings I would inhabit, of what bloody events I would find myself trapped within, and yet, it seems to me, my nose and my chin already had some inkling of it all. Nose and chin, such an armour for life. Nose and chin, such companions. To begin with, for always, there was love.
Since girls of my stamp were not schooled, it was Mother who gave me education through God. The Bible was my primer. Elsewise, I brought in logs, looked for kindling in the woods, washed plates and clothes, cut vegetables, fetched meat. I swept. I cleaned. I carried. I was always busy. Mother taught me industry. If my mother was busy, she was happy; it was when she stopped that uncertainty caught up with her, only to be dispelled by some new activity. She was constantly in motion, and movement suited her well.
‘Discover,’ she would say, ‘what you can do. You’ll always find something. One day your father will return, and he’ll see what a good and useful child you are.’
‘Thank you, Mother. I shall be most useful; I do wish it.’
‘What a creature you are!’
‘Am I? A creature?’
‘Yes, my own little creature.’
Mother brushed my hair with extraordinary vigour. Sometimes she touched my cheek or patted my bonnet. She was probably not very beautiful, but I thought her so. She had a small mole just beneath one of her eyes. I wish I could remember her smile. I do know she had one. By the age of five I had grown to the height of the old dog in the house next to ours. Later I would be the height of doorknobs, which I liked to rub. Later still, and here I would stop, I would be the height of many people ’s hearts. Women observing me in the village were sometimes heard to mutter, as they kissed me, ‘Finding a husband will not be easy.’
On my fifth birthday, my dear mother gave me a doll. This was Marta. I named her myself. I knew her little body, about a sixth the size of my own; I learned it entirely as I moved it about, sometimes roughly, sometimes with great tenderness. She came to me naked and without a face. She was a collection of seven wooden pegs, which could be assembled in a certain order to roughly resemble the human figure. Marta, save my mother, was my first intimate connection with the world; I was never without her. We were happy together, Mother, Marta, and me.
The Family Grosholtz.
Father was absent during those beginning years, his army finding ever more excuses to postpone his next furlough. And what could Father do about it? The poor dandelion seed must go wherever they blew him. To us, he was absent but not forgotten. Sometimes, Mother would sit me on the joint-stool by the fire and instruct me about Father. I took much enjoyment in saying that word, Father. Sometimes, when Mother was not about, I would address the stove in my private way as Father, or a chair or chest, or various trees, and bow to them or hug them, in rehearsal for my father’s return. Father was everywhere about the village; Father was in the church; he was by the cowsheds. Father was an upright man, said Mother. And he would surely have remained so in our minds had he never come home.
But then, one day, he did. Actual Father had been forced into retirement – not by a battle, since there were no battles in Europe that year, but as a result of a malfunctioning cannon during a parade. The cannon had been damaged at the Battle of Freiberg in 1762 and its repairs must have been very shoddy, for a single appearance of that faulty instrument caused irrevocable change in my life. One Sunday parade, the cannon’s last, it was lit as a salute, but it was somehow tremendously blocked, and it sprayed, backwards, sulphur, charcoal, saltpetre, and scorching metal in a wide arc. Father was within that wide arc, and because of that he was finally allowed home.
Mother was beside herself in worry and in joy. ‘Your father is coming home to us! And very soon he will be quite recovered. I feel certain of it. Your father, Marie!’
The man who returned to our house, however, was pushed. The father who arrived was a father in a wheelchair. Father’s yellow eyes were moist; they seemed to recognise nothing in the wife who stood before him; nor even did they show any change when the wife began to tremble and moan. There was no hair on top of Father; that erupting cannon had scalped him. Most of all, though, what was lacking about this poor bundle contained in its wheelchair was the inferior maxillary bone, the largest bone in the human face, commonly called the lower jaw.
Here and now I must make a confession: it was I who had credited my chin to Father. Otherwise, why else would I have such a proud, rude thing about me? I had never seen Father, but, not seeing him, I desired to have his mark upon my person, so that it was daily certain that I was his and he was mine. I cannot now say for certain – these early years being so far away and the other actors in them being no longer upon the stage – whether I declared my chin to be his only after his return, in some fit of longing, or whether I had always believed it. But its absence was the thing, and I longed to understand and to make a fuller picture of the man who was my father in distress. I wished to see him complete and fancied my face could complete the portrait, as the portrait before me was such an unhappy, ruined one.
With my father’s arrival, a hint of my future had appeared to me. A small window opened up and called.
The man in the wheelchair may have been lacking his lower jaw, but in its place had been fitted a silver plate. This silver plate was moulded into the shape of the lowermost portion of a very average human face. This silver plate was taken from a mould, and so it would be fair to conclude that several tens of unfortunate people had exactly this same silver chin that Father had now. The silver plate could be detached. Father came in two pieces, which could be fitted together with a little pain.
Poor Father had no idea where he was. He was incapable of recognising his wife, nor could he tell that the little girl silently watching him was his own daughter.
For assistance my mother rehired her midwife, a fond, breathless lady with thick arms who adapted herself to any paying occasion, and called often upon the doctor from the nearby village, Doctor Sander. Together they made up the little room beside the kitchen for Father, and once he was in he never left. He just lay there all day, sometimes looking out of the window, sometimes at the ceiling, but never, I think, exactly focusing on anything. I sat with Father very long hours, and when he did not talk to me I gave him some words, and imagined all the things he would want to tell me.
After Father’s arrival, Mother climbed the stairs to her bedroom and closed the door. As days went on, she spent more and more time in bed. She stopped moving, and that was never good for her. Doctor Sander said that my mother was in a state of pronounced shock and must be slowly encouraged back to herself. Her whole body changed after Father’s arrival; her skin grew shiny and yellow, like that of an onion. She gave off new smells. One morning I found her outside, barely clothed, lying on the ground, in winter, crying. I helped her back to bed.
I went from one parent to the other, from Mother upstairs to Father downstairs, and read to them both from the Bible. I used the little joint-stool, my extension, to position myself at various stations around the perimeter of Father’s bed, depending on his needs. I was present when Father was cleaned and washed. The midwife was very affectionate to me; she sometimes held me fast to her, and in those moments I was surprised at how very big bodies could be and held her in return with all possible force. We ate many meals together; I think she must have given me some of her food. When she spoke to me of my father she frowned in concern; when she spoke of my mother she shook her head.
One morning, as I sat beside him, Father died. It was a very small death, even gentle. I watched very carefully. He shook a little and rattled, only a tiny bit, and then very quietly, barely noticeably, left us. The last little noise was the sound of the last Grosholtz thought in his Grosholtz head making its way out. I was still seated beside him holding his hand when the midwife came in. She knew immediately that Father was no longer to be numbered among the living. Gently she put his hand on his chest and moved the other one beside it, then took my hand and led me to the house of her daughter. I must have slept there the night.
A few days later, Father was buried. But the father in the box, which we were invited to throw earth on top of, was not complete. Doctor Sander had given me Father’s silver plate, which he said was worth money. It had a certain weight to it, about that of a tin mug filled with water. I could not help wondering if Father would miss it, and suspecting that it might better have remained with him. I wanted to dig up his grave and slip the jawplate in. How on earth otherwise could he talk in heaven? But then, when I thought it through, I realised: this plate was not Father’s chin, not really. It was modelled after someone else. Only I had his true chin, keeping it always with me, a little beneath Mother’s nose.
Father had left behind his military uniform, a silver plate, a widow, a half-orphan, and penury. His army pension would not suffice. For Mother and me to survive, she would need to find work. Taking the matter in hand, Doctor Sander discovered through his medical connections news of a doctor, one Philip Curtius of Berne Hospital, who was in need of domestic help. Employment and usefulness, said Doctor Sander, would save my mother’s health.
Mother, with unhappiness displayed throughout her shining body, sat down to write to Doctor Curtius. Doctor Curtius wrote back. When the letter arrived, motion returned to Mother – more than even before, as if she feared terribly to stop.
‘A very educated gentleman, Marie!’ she exclaimed, her eyes wide. ‘Of the city, Marie, a doctor of the city! Not for us any more the small, dark rooms of the countryside. We shall find instead tall places of light and air. My father, your grandfather, always said we were worthy of better places. Oh the city! Curtius of the city!’
Shortly afterwards, sometime in 1767, Mother and I found ourselves on a cart headed towards the city of Berne. I sat next to Mother in the cart, holding a corner of her dress in one hand, Father’s jawplate in the other, and Marta in my lap pocket. The Family Grosholtz was on the move. We rattled away from the village of my birth, away from the pigsties, and the church, and Father’s grave.
We would not be coming back.
A One-Way Street
Until I am eight years old.
A Berne night consists of gloomy rising buildings, narrow and unlit streets, shadow people moving about them. Berne Hospital appeared, helpfully enough, looming above the streets. We were set down in front of the hospital, our single trunk, former possession of our priestly antecedent, placed beside us. The cart rattled away, longing for the countryside.
At the centre of Berne Hospital was a great black gate, wide enough for two carriages to pass at once, a great titan’s mouth to swallow patients into its vast and mysterious interior. It was this black gate that Mother and I approached. There was a bell. Mother rang it. The noise echoed all around the empty hospital square. From somewhere nearby came a sound of coughing and spitting. A tiny square of wood in the gate opened. A head appeared; we could barely see it.
‘No thank you,’ said the head.
‘If you please—’ said Mother.
‘Come back in the morning.’
‘If you please, I’ve come for Doctor Curtius. He ’s expecting me.’
‘Doctor Curtius. We’re to live with him, my daughter and me.’
‘Curtius? Curtius is dead. Five years since.’
‘I had this letter from him,’ Mother strained to insist, ‘a week ago.’
A hand stretched out, taking the letter; the hatch was closed again. We could barely hear people talking behind it before it opened once more and the head reappeared. ‘That Curtius! The other Curtius. No one has ever come asking for that Curtius before. He doesn’t live on the grounds; he’s off on Welserstrasse. You don’t know where that is? Country people, is it? Ernst could guide you, I suppose.’ We heard another voice behind the gate, and the head responded: ‘You will, Ernst – yes, you will if I say. Ernst will show you. Go round the corner. You’ll find a side door. In the side door will be a lantern, waving. Beneath that waving lantern will be Ernst.’
The hatch closed again and Ernst came out to greet us, wearing the black porter’s uniform of the hospital. Ernst had a nose that twisted in the opposite direction of his face; his nose set forth one way, his face quite another. He had clearly been in many fights during his young life. ‘Curtius?’ asked Ernst.
‘Doctor Curtius,’ Mother said.
‘Curtius,’ said Ernst once more and off we went.
Only five minutes from the hospital was a small, mean street. This was Welserstrasse. Walking its length that night, I thought the houses seemed to be murmuring to us, Don’t stop here. Keep moving along. Out of our sight. Ernst finally halted at a house thinner and smaller than the rest, squeezed in between two bullying neighbouring residences, poor and neglected.
‘House of Curtius,’ said Ernst.
‘Here?’ Mother asked.
‘Even here,’ confirmed Ernst. ‘I came here once myself. Shan’t ever again. What’s inside, I won’t say, but I will say I never liked it. No, I don’t do Curtius. You’ll forgive me if I leave before you knock.’ And off went Ernst and his contrary nose, quicker than before, taking light with him.
We put down our trunk. Mother sat down on it and looked at the door, as if perfectly content to find it closed. And so it was I who stepped forward and knocked three times. Four. And finally the door opened. But no one came out into the night. It remained open, and no one came to meet us. I waited for a while with Mother, until I tugged on her hand and she at last gathered herself up and we, with our trunk, stepped inside.
Mother quietly closed the door behind us; I took a good handful of her dress. We looked about in the shadows. Suddenly Mother gasped: Over there! Someone was lurking in the corner. It was a very thin, long man. So thin he seemed in the last terrible stages of starvation. So long his head nearly touched the ceiling. A pale, ghostly face; the meagre candlelight in the room trembled about it, showing hollows in place of cheeks, showing moist eyes, showing small wisps of dark, greasy hair. We stood by our trunk, as if for protection.
‘I came for Doctor Curtius,’ Mother explained.
A long silence, and in that silence the head nodded, barely.
‘I wish to see him,’ she said.
There was a slight noise from the head. It may have been, ‘Yes.’
‘May I see him?’
Quietly, slowly, as if it were a coincidence, the head volunteered: ‘My name is Curtius.’
‘I am Anna-Maria Grosholtz,’ said Mother, trying to hold on to herself.
‘Yes,’ said the man.
The introductions exhausted, another silence followed. At last the man in the corner spoke again, very slowly. ‘I . . . You see, I . . . I’m not so very used to people. I haven’t had much practice lately. I’m very out of . . . practice. And you need to have people around you, you need to have people to talk to . . . or you might forget, you see, how they . . . are exactly. And, in truth, what to do with them. But that’ll change now. With you here. Won’t it?’
There was a longer silence.
‘Shall I, perhaps, if you’re ready – shall I show you the house now?’
Mother, a great unhappy look on her face, nodded.
‘Yes, perhaps you’d like to see it. I’m so glad you’re here. Welcome. I meant to say that before: Welcome. I meant to say that when you first arrived. I had the word ready, I was thinking of it all day. But then, ah, I forgot. I’m not used . . . you see, not used,’ said the doctor and slowly unravelled himself from his corner. He seemed made of rods, of broom handles, of great lengths, tall and thin, unfolding the great length of himself as if he were a spider. We followed, keeping our distance.
‘There’s a room, at the top, just for you,’ said Curtius, pointing the candle up the stairs, ‘for you alone. I’ll never go up there. I do so hope you’ll be happy.’ Then, with more confidence: ‘Please, please, come this way.’
Doctor Curtius opened a door off the hall and we stepped into a small passageway. At the end of it was another door, a little light glowing from underneath. This was surely where the doctor had been when I knocked. ‘This room,’ said Curtius, ‘is where I work.’
Curtius stopped in front of it, the great length of his narrow back towards us. He paused, straightened himself as much as he could, then spoke slowly and precisely: ‘Please to come in.’
Ten or more shielded candles were burning inside the room, illuminating it wonderfully, showing us a place so cluttered it was impossible to understand at first. Long shelves were filled with corked bottles, inside them colours in powder. Other shorter shelves contained different, thicker bottles; these had more persuasive glass stoppers, hinting at the possibly fatal personality of the viscous liquids they contained, black or brown or transparent. There were boxes filled with hair; it looked like – wasn’t it? – human hair. Positioned across the length of a trestle table were various copper vats and several hundred small modelling tools, some with sharp tips, others curved, some minute, no larger than a pin, others the size of a butcher’s cleaver. In the centre of the table, upon a wooden board, was a pale, drying-out object.
It was difficult to identify this object precisely at first. A piece of meat? The breast of a chicken perhaps? But that wasn’t it, and yet there was something so familiar about it, something everyday about it. It was a something . . . and the name of that something was on the tip of my tongue. And that – what a jolt – was it! It was a tongue! Very like a human one, upon a trestle table. And I wondered: if it was indeed a tongue, how did it get here and where was the someone who’d lost it?
There were other things besides tongues in this room. The most impressive part of the atelier, I saw now, was to be found in rosewood display cases, their clearly labelled shelves running up and down, left and right, till they covered most of one wall. Among the labels, inscribed in sepia by a ne calligraphic hand, were a host of words: OSSA, NEUROCRANIUM, COLUMNAE VERTEBRALIS, ARTICULATIO STERNOCLAVICULARIS, MUSCUS TEMPORALIS, BULBUS OCULI, NERVUS VAGUS, ORGANA GENITALIA. Near the tongue on that table was one more sign, this reading LINGUA.
I was beginning to understand: body parts. A room filled with them. There I was, a little girl, looking at all the parts of the body. We were being introduced: Bits and pieces of the human body, this is a little girl called Marie. Little girl called Marie, this is the body in pieces. I hovered behind Mother, still grasping her dress, but peered out at the spectacle.
Curtius spoke now: ‘Urogenital tract. With dangling bladder. Bones. From the femur, the strongest and largest, to the lachrymal, the tiniest and most fragile of the face.’ He was surveying the contents of his room. ‘Many muscles, too, all labelled. Ten groupings of the head, from occipitofrontalis to the pterygoideus internus. Many of the ribbons of arteries, from the superior thyroid to the common carotid. Veins, too: the cerebellar, the interior saphenous, the splenic and the gastric, the cardiac and the pulmonary. I have organs! Individually, resting on a bed of red velvet, or displayed with their neighbours on the wooden boards. The impressive intricacy of the ear’s osseous labyrinth. Or the long, thick clouds of intestines, both the small and the large – such long and winding ways.’
Mother was regarding the room, looking increasingly unwell. Curtius must have noticed her horror, for he continued now very hurriedly: ‘I made them. I made them. My osseous labyrinth, and my gall bladder and my ventricles. I made them. They are models only, that is, replicas. I didn’t mean ... I’m not used ... I do apologise. What can you think of me? Don’t think them . . . real. They look real, of course. Don’t they look real? You must say yes. You know you must say yes. Oh yes, very real, but they’re not. No. Though they do look it. Yes. Because, in fact, you see, I made them.’
We turned to look at him. We had been so surprised at the objects all about this room that we had failed at first to study the most significant object of all: Doctor Curtius, in the light. Curtius was a young man, it now appeared, at least younger than Mother. When I had seen his long shadowy form move itself about in the darkness, I had assumed him to be old, but now I saw him both long and thin, shy and passionate, and young, breathing excitedly. Six feet or more of leanness, rising far above us in the corner of his atelier, his thin nostrils flaring slightly now. He was so clearly proud of his room, watching us looking at his work. His cheeks pulled inwards, never out, as he breathed; his nose stretched down his long face like a tightrope. Veins sprawled across the sides of his forehead, thickly and thinly. Finally, the enormous slender hands of this strange man met before his narrow chest. I thought he might be about to pray but instead he began to clap. It was not a loud noise but an excited little beating, as of a small pleased child at the promise of something sweet to eat, a happy noise that sounded out of place in this room. His upper body stooped over his clapping hands as if some pale bird were trapped there, flapping before his heart, and he was anxious that it should not escape.
‘Me. I made them all. Every one. Out of wax. On my own! And many more besides, this being but a fraction. The great majority housed in the hospital, visited frequently!’
When Doctor Curtius had finished his introductions, I turned to Mother. Her face was very pale and sweaty. She did not say anything. We three stood together in silence until Curtius, disappointed I think, wondered if we needed to sleep after our long journey.
‘Most tired indeed, sir,’ she said.
‘Good night then.’
‘Oh, excuse me, sir,’ Mother said. ‘Our papers. I suppose you should take them.’
‘No, no, I don’t think so. Please to keep them yourselves.’
I followed Mother as she carried our trunk upstairs, closing the door to our small room behind us. Curtius could be heard wandering about downstairs. Mother sat by the window for a long time. She kept so still, I feared her illness had returned. In the end, I helped steer her towards our bed. We did not sleep at all that first night in this new place. Mother held on to me. I, in my turn, held on to Marta. In the morning we were still holding one another. Three small women, very anxious.
Before we went downstairs, Mother said to me, ‘We are bound now, you and I. Do you understand? Our every action must be to please him. If he abandons us, we are lost. So long as we remain in Doctor Curtius’s employ, so long do we persist. Be of good service, dear daughter.’
When I took a handful of Mother’s dress, she said, quietly, sadly, ‘No.’
Mother took the keys. We scrubbed floors. Mother cooked. We went to the market for food, but the market was frightening to her. The streets were filled with people, but it wasn’t just that. The objects on sale – all that meat hung on hooks, cut open, all those animals divided in fractions or whole and strung up by their feet, whole birds with lazy necks and bloody beaks, hanging like felons – all these, and the eyes of fish, and the flies, and the meat of living people’s hands, spotted with gore, all this recalled to Mother, again and again, what she’d seen in Doctor Curtius’s atelier.
The doctor’s house, at least, was quiet. Curtius himself spent the day in his atelier and rarely came out. When he did appear, he seemed surprised to see us there: ‘Not used . . . not used,’ he whispered, and retreated to his room. When it was time for his lunch, Mother loaded the food on a tray, her Waltner nose flared in disapproval, and held the platter hovering above the kitchen table until she shuddered, causing the soup to spill a little. I led her to a chair, sat her down, then carried the food in to Doctor Curtius myself. He was bent over his table, a portrait of three tongues: the actual separated human tongue, his perfect wax duplicate, and his own tongue sticking out between his lips as he worked.
‘Soup, sir,’ I said.
He said nothing in response. I left the soup with him and closed the door. It was the same later that day, when I entered the atelier saying, ‘Stew, sir.’ It was the same in fact throughout the first week. Twice, Curtius came into the kitchen to say to Mother, ‘I’m so pleased you’re here, so pleased, so glad, so . . . happy.’ Twice, Mother’s hands sought her crucifix.
During the second week, when we had I thought grown a little more used to one another, Mother and I were startled by a knock at the door. It was a visitor from the hospital, dressed in a black uniform like Ernst, but called Heinrich. Heinrich had an unimpressive nose and other unremarkable features; I recall nothing of them now, indeed nothing of him at all beyond his unmemorable name. ‘Delivery for Curtius,’ Heinrich said, introducing himself. ‘I do the bringing. We’ll be seeing a lot of each other. What have we got today?’ he said, lifting the lid a little and poking at a muslin- covered object within. ‘Bit of a diseased gut, I reckon.’
Mother closed her eyes and crossed herself. I stepped forward, aiming to be useful, and held out my hands. Heinrich looked uncertain.
‘Thank you,’ I said, holding my hands out a little further. ‘Thank you.’
When Heinrich reluctantly passed the box to me, Mother closed the door in a hurry. She looked at me for an instant as if I were no longer recognisable, then retreated to the kitchen. I followed to ask her if I should take the object in. She nodded fiercely, waving me and the box from the room. I carried it to the atelier.
‘Bit of a gut, sir,’ I said, leaving the box on the same portion of the table where I always left him his meals. This time Doctor Curtius did look up.
Mother found it increasingly difficult to work. She often sat in the kitchen with her hands on her small crucifix. Flies in Curtius’s house, and there were always flies, caused her to panic utterly, for they could travel throughout the house, could get into the atelier and from there spread the news of the atelier everywhere about. Mother often sat still, eyes closed but perfectly awake, whilst I moved about to her instructions.
Two days after I delivered the parcel to Doctor Curtius, I was sitting in the kitchen by the fire, with Mother reading to me from the Bible, when Doctor Curtius knocked faintly and came in.
‘Widow Grosholtz,’ he said. My mother closed her eyes. ‘Widow Grosholtz,’ he said again, ‘I would like, if it isn’t too much trouble, Widow Grosholtz – and I’m so happy, by the by, at how happy we are, so, um, delighted, at all this . . . company, at how we are getting on so well, at what companions we are, at this community we have – I should like, yes, a little help in my atelier. Could I? Tomorrow would be best, I think. First thing would be perfect. I should like to teach you how to handle my work, so that you don’t harm it. I should like you to get, you see, properly acquainted with it. I’m sure you shall come to love your new duties. You’ll be an expert in a trice.’
Doctor Curtius saw Mother give a slight nod. But I was not taken in by it. Mother’s nod was, rather, a inch misinterpreted.
‘Good night, then,’ he said. ‘Thank you.’
That night, back in our attic room, Mother kissed me on the forehead as she put me to bed. ‘Be useful, Marie. You are a very good child,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry, I cannot. I have tried, but I cannot.’
‘You cannot what, Mother?’
‘Do be good now, quiet down. Good night, Marie.’
Then Mother told me to close my eyes, that I must go to sleep instantly. Keep your eyes shut, she told me, your face turned to the wall. I heard her busy arranging things, pulling a sheet from the bed, moving a chair. I went to sleep.
When I woke up, the candle was out. It was the early hours of the morning. Mother was not in the bed beside me. A faint blue light was coming into the room. I could just make out something dark suspended from the rafters. I couldn’t recall seeing such an object before. More light slowly arrived and I began to understand what this object was. It was Mother. Mother had hanged herself.
Fretting, I took one of Mother’s feet in my hand, but that naked foot gave me little comfort; it was a cold foot after all, and in that coldness was the awful confirmation of Mother’s passing. A woman’s death is a simple enough thing perhaps; women will always be dying about the place; no doubt several women have died as I have been writing this sentence; only this one woman who concerns me now, this one woman tied up to the rafters, unlike all the others in the world – this woman was my mother. Before, I had always had Mother to hide behind; now I was exposed. Her death was not a quiet, thinking-death like Father’s had been, her death was about business; it was all hurried action; Mother had jolted herself out of life. Whose dress should I cling to now? There would be no more dress-clinging for me, not ever again. Her cold nose had swung away from me, the signpost of her rejection.
‘Mother,’ I said, ‘Mother, Mother. Mother!’ But Mother, or that hanging thing that was only partly Mother, kept herself very quiet. In my panic I flailed around for something, some solace or protection, and found only Marta.
Doctor Curtius must have heard me crying, for he called to me from the bottom of the stairs. ‘Where’s your mother?’ he asked. ‘It’s time. It’s time long since. It was agreed.’
‘She won’t come, sir.’
‘She must, she must, it was agreed after all.’
‘Please, sir. Please, Doctor.’
‘I think she is dead.’
And so Curtius climbed the attic stairs. He opened the door; I followed behind him. Curtius knew dead bodies. He was an expert in dead bodies and their slumped faces. And here, he immediately recognised on opening our bedroom door, hanging up like a coat, was yet another example.
‘Stopped,’ he said, ‘stopped, stopped . . . stopped.’
He closed the door. I stood beside him at the top of the attic stairs.
‘Stopped,’ he said again, bending down very close to me, whispering as if it were a secret. He walked down the stairs, then turned round to me, nodded once more and whispered, his face collapsing into a grimace of terrible sorrow, ‘Stopped,’ and walked out of the building, closing and locking the door behind him.
After a long time, I sat halfway down the stairs with Marta. We sat very still and waited. Mother is upstairs, I thought. Oh, Mother is upstairs and Mother is dead.
At last men came from the hospital. Doctor Curtius was with them. ‘I can’t make people work,’ he said. ‘I can unwork them, I can take them apart, yes, I’m actually very good at that, considerably accomplished, but they’ll never work with me. They won’t. They refuse. They shut up. They stop.’ The men from the hospital walked up the attic stairs, stepping around me and Marta, barely regarding us at all. The oldest of the hospital men opened the door, and let everyone inside – all except Curtius, that is, who was kept outside, the door closed on him. And so we both remained outside, and both, I think, began to wonder if we had done something terribly wrong, otherwise why wouldn’t they let us in too? Doctor Curtius, very shy now, did not look at me, even though we were very close to one another, young Doctor Curtius and I. He seemed now extremely young, a child almost, his eyes fixed only upon the door.
Finally, the door opened. The oldest of the men, very serious, spoke quietly and slowly: ‘Take the girl downstairs. Keep her there.’
Curtius shook his head, then spoke in a very small, very hurt voice. ‘If you make me touch her, Surgeon Hoffmann, I think that she’ll die too.’
‘Nonsense. Come now, Philip. Philip Curtius, you can do this.’
‘I’m not sure. I’m really not sure.’
‘Take the child downstairs. Let us attend to matters here.’
‘But what do I do with her?’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ snapped the surgeon. ‘Just get her away from here.’
The door was closed on us again.
After a moment, Curtius tapped me lightly on my shoulder. ‘Come,’ he said, ‘please come,’ and led me down the stairs to his atelier. I put Marta in my pocket so she would be safe, then stood up and slowly followed.
In the atelier, Curtius looked about him, as if unsure what to do with me. Then he seemed to find the answer. Taking a box of bones down from a shelf, he handed me, with great kindness I remember, a human scapula, the right, I think.
‘It’s a good bone,’ he whispered to me, ‘a great comforting bone. This part of the shoulder girdle is large and at and triangular, and is excellent for stroking. Yes, a wonderful, soothing bone.’
After a time Surgeon Hoffmann came down to find us sitting together in the atelier, I on a stool, Curtius on the floor beside me, rummaging through a box of bones.
‘And this, you see, is the temporal bone . . . And this, ah, the left parietal . . . And this, the sacrum – wonderful, isn’t it? Wonderful, aren’t they? All my old friends!’
‘It is done,’ said the surgeon.
I kept very still.
‘Now,’ continued the surgeon, ‘what is to become of the child? Some place must be found for her.’
‘Can I keep her?’ asked Doctor Curtius quickly. ‘The child. Can I keep her?’
I was the subject of a discussion. I did not move.
‘Out of the question,’ said the surgeon.
‘Oh, I’d like to keep her.’
‘Why on earth?’
‘She isn’t frightened.’
‘Why should she be?’
‘She holds bones.’
‘And what does that signify?’
‘She is quiet.’
‘She may be wise, she may be stupid, I do not know. But for now, if you don’t mind, I’ll keep her.’
‘Is she useful to you?’
‘I shall train her perhaps.’
‘Well,’ said the surgeon, ‘keep her for now, for all I care. Until something better can be thought of.’
That first evening together, I stood in the kitchen while Curtius tried to cook. Aiming to be useful and working as Mother had shown me, I asked Doctor Curtius if I might assist him, for he was very agitated, and so I stopped the pans from burning and helped in the preparation of the food. Doctor Curtius said to me: ‘I’m not frightened of you. You don’t frighten me at all. You have nothing, do you? Nothing at all.’ When we were finished, and it was time for bed, Curtius watched me walk up the attic stairs.
‘Good night, little child.’
‘Good night, sir.’
‘What is your name? I should know your name, you know. I’m not certain what to do with children, I’m sure to make mistakes, but it is generally understood that they have names. What do you go by?’
‘Anne Marie Grosholtz. But Mother always calls me . . . Marie.’
‘Good night, then, Marie. Go to bed.’
‘Good night, sir.’
And so I went upstairs into the attic, harbouring frail hopes that Mother would be there again, so that I might tell her about this most extraordinary day. And of course she was not there any more. But though they had taken Mother away, they had forgotten the sheet she had hanged herself with; it remained in one corner of the room, in a heap. And I thought then that she really would not be coming back. Not tomorrow, or the next day, not by the end of the week; the city of Berne, the house of Curtius, even I myself would have to keep moving without Mother. I wondered where they had taken her.
I was very unsure of the attic room. When I looked away I could suddenly feel Mother still hanging from the rafters, with her bent neck and her head leaning to one side, but when I looked back she was gone. And that hanging person did not exactly seem to me to be Mother at all, but perhaps the person who had stolen Mother from me. I did not trust the room – I would rather be in any room, I thought, than the attic – and so when I felt certain that Doctor Curtius had gone to his bed I crept back down the stairs with a blanket, with Marta whom Mother had given me and with the jawplate that was Father’s. I tried the kitchen, but in the kitchen I felt the hanging woman back again; I felt that twisted- necked mother sitting by the replace; I saw Mother’s Bible still there upon the ledge and I was frightened of it now. I would rather be in any room, I thought, than the attic or the kitchen. But as I moved from the kitchen it seemed to me that the twisted-necked mother was following me about the house, and it occurred to me that the only place she would not follow me was the atelier. In the atelier, I knew, were kept all those terrible objects, all those secrets that were best undiscovered, but outside the atelier I felt the twisted- necked mother breathing nearby, and so I went very quickly there and closed the door hurriedly behind me. I was alone in a room full of body pieces, their characters crowding about me. But I could no longer feel the twisted-necked mother, and so I carefully made a little bed for myself under the atelier table, and begging the body parts to please be kind, and closing my eyes very tight, I finally fell asleep.
I had intended to be awake early enough to tiptoe back upstairs without Doctor Curtius hearing me, but all at once I was aware that Curtius was shaking me and that it was morning. ‘And there you are! Asleep here!’ he said. ‘Come now, time to get up.’ He said nothing more about my sleeping in the atelier, under his trestle table. I folded the blanket and placed it on a shelf, the remembrance of Mother’s death rushing to me. ‘Come on, come on,’ he said. ‘Hurry, hurry, you must hurry.’
Promptly at seven, my education began.
‘You must remember,’ he said to me, ‘I am not used to people. I know only parts of people. Not whole people. I want to understand them; I want to know them. But the influence of my models upon me is too strong. I have begun to dream of myself in a rosewood display case backed with red velvet. Yes, and the worst of it is, what really terrifies me, what I can’t get on top of, what I can’t ignore, what I cannot seem to get over, is that in my dreams I feel so comfortable there. Let me out,’ Curtius said, tapping my chest lightly with his fingers. ‘Someone, let me out. Can’t you hear me tapping on the glass? I’m in here. Who will let me out? I want to get to know people. I want to know you. Yes. Here we are. This is it. I’m not frightened of you. Not in the slightest.’
Doctor Curtius stood up suddenly and hurriedly went to work.
A short while later, he turned abruptly from what he was doing. ‘I know!’ he exclaimed. ‘I know how to go about it! I know just the way!’ He moved around the atelier collecting objects and positioning them upon the table.
‘Let us, Marie – for that is your name, you know,’ said Curtius when he was satisfied with his progress, ‘let us, if you are ready and if you are willing, let us begin.’
‘I am quite ready, sir.’
‘These tools were once my father’s,’ he said. ‘My father was the head anatomist at Berne Hospital, a very great man. When he died, these tools came to me.’ He went over to a bin filled with plaster dust and took a measure of it, then poured this into a metal bucket and mixed it with a certain amount of water, stirring it thoroughly.
‘To show you how it all works, so that you can get an understanding, so that you may follow the process, I shall take a cast. Not of any body piece, no, not today. Today I shall cast, for your education, if you do not object, your own head.’
‘Your head, yes.’
‘My head, sir?’
‘I say again: your head.’
‘If you wish it, sir.’
‘I find I do.’
‘Well then, sir, yes, my head.’
And so we began.
‘First a very little oil’ – he applied this oil to my face – ‘so that afterwards,’ he said, ‘the plaster can be easily removed.’ He began to apply it. ‘Straws!’ he suddenly called out. ‘There must be straws! I almost forgot,’ he said as he cautiously placed straws in my nose so that I might breathe. ‘Close your eyes. Do not open them again until I say.’
He brought the plaster. I felt it dripping upon me in small layers, followed by more strips of cloth dipped in plaster. The strange warmth of the plaster seemed to lock into my face. All was dark and warm about my cheeks and eyelids and lips and neck, until I felt I was floating away somewhere and might even be dead already. In the darkness, once, I thought I saw Mother, but she was gone again and it was black and empty and no one was there at all.
At last the plaster was pulled away and light returned, and I was back inside the room. Doctor Curtius hurried with the cast to the table. Next he smoothed down my hair with oil, I was repositioned, and he took another cast of the back of my head, then further casts of my ears.
‘Now,’ he said, ‘the stove must be laid, and lit. I shall do this but one more time only. The next: your turn.’ He lit the stove. ‘Now watch and follow.’ He moved about placing tools upon the desk. At first he ground pigments. ‘Madder lake,’ he explained, ‘cinnabar, together. And crimson dye. A little blue. And green. A touch. And crush. Very little yellow. And mix. Like this. Now this,’ he said, marching to a large demijohn with a tap and pouring some out into a smaller container, ‘turpentine oil, added all the time to the pigments. So: a mixture. So: your colour.’
He took from a shelf a large copper bowl, showed it to me, made me look into it. He placed the empty bowl upon the stove top.
‘So far: nothing. Now, there is a stool, sit down upon it. Now, I think we are ready.’ Picking up a large knife, he walked over to a locked cupboard, unlocked it, and very carefully, out of my sight, cut into something. Then he locked the cupboard again and returned.
‘This,’ said Curtius, holding up a slab of yellowish murky material, ‘what I am holding, this substance, this is everything. And yet,’ he continued, moving it lovingly around in his hands, ‘and yet it is itself without character, without personality. In itself it is nothing, it is no one. And yet it can be friendly, it can be stand-offish, it can be beauty, it can be ugliness, it can be bone, it can be abdominal wall, it can be strings of arteries or of veins, it can be lymphatic nodes, it can be brainstems, it can be fingernails, it can be all, from the tiny stirrup we keep in our ears to the miles of intestines we keep curled up inside us. Anything! It can be anything! It can be: YOU!’
‘But what is it, sir?’ I asked.
‘It is sight, it is memory, it is history. It can be grey lungs, and brown-red like a liver; it can be anything: it can be you.’
‘Can it be Marta my doll?’ I asked.
‘It can be! Yes, it can! It can adopt the surface of any object with astonishing accuracy. Rough, smooth, serrated, shiny, at, mottled, pitted, torn, scarred, crusted, slippery. Make your choice. There is not a surface it cannot be.’
‘And can it then, can it be Mother?’
‘No, child,’ he said after a moment, ‘this it cannot be. Nor can it be my father or mother. Dead also. It could have been. I wish that it had. But now it is too late. They have gone into the void. Can you understand? They cannot be taken out again, images of them we hold inside us, not precise images, flickers, little bits. There’s not enough for it. There’s no surface left, and it, you see, needs surface. That is its one rule. Too late for your mother.’
‘I am sorry that it cannot be Mother.’
‘It longs for personality,’ he said, rushing on when he saw tears coming, ‘it longs to be something. It just needs a little instruction. Shall we instruct it, little girl, Marie child? Shall you see what a wonderful servant it is, what a great actor?’
‘Well then, why not hold it? Here, take it. Here, smell it.’
And I took it. And I smelt it.
‘It is only wax,’ I said, disappointed.
‘No! Never! Never only wax! Not ever! All wax is sacred, and this, this here, is the aristocrat of waxes, the very prince among waxes. Greatest of detail collectors, nest of imitators, most honest of matters. This, even here, is a portion of nest beeswax.’
‘Finest beeswax,’ I repeated.
‘Made by Asiatic honey bees of the genus Apis. Very good then, let us put it to work.’
‘Of the genus Apis,’ I said.
Wax was melted in the copper pan, the pigment was added, and also some resin. He explained how the heat must be watched, how the wax must be mixed very carefully. And then he was ready. First the mould of my face. He brushed its surface with a substance called ‘soft soap,’ so that afterwards the wax could be easily removed, and then the wax was poured in. At first only the tiniest amount, a very thin surface over the mould, carefully watched over by the doctor. He picked up the mould with his hands and moved it about so that the wax journeyed up and down the surface, so that all air bubbles might be gone; then after a while a second layer was added, and a while after that a third, a fourth, a fifth. For the last two layers, he said, he was only adding thickness to give the cast some strength. And then a few minutes’ wait, only a few, and it was ready. It came away very easily from the mould.
‘Is that my face?’ I asked.
‘Precisely,’ he said.
He left me with it. It was still warm, as if it had a life of its own. But soon enough it was cold again. He poured wax into the remaining casts of my head. Each mould revealed its secret. There in front of us were different portions of my head in skin-toned wax, exactly my colour, just as he had said. My hair had been flattened down atop my head, and this he cast in wax coloured brown. Then began the business of fitting those pieces together, of joining the model up. Each bit connected to the next: at the joins the wax had to be attended to, chipped off or cut away, then new warm wax was smoothed over, eliminating the seams, and the neck made at at the bottom so that the head could stand on its own. The wax head was hollow, the inside filled with old rags, with hemp waste and some wood chippings. ‘For strength,’ he said.
And there upon the worktable was my head.
‘I put that all together,’ Curtius said, ‘not apart.’
I looked at my head: there I was in the atelier, with my eyes closed. A girl, with her father’s chin and her mother’s nose. It seemed to me now that I existed twice as much.
At the end of that first day we had soup in the kitchen.
‘Excuse me, sir?’ I said.
‘Yes, what is it?’
‘I have been wondering, sir, about my mother. Where they took her.’
‘I cannot say,’ he replied. ‘But we may find out. Surgeon Hoffmann will surely know. We shall ask him when next he comes.’
‘I should like to visit her grave.’
‘Yes, yes. Of course. We shall ask.’
When we had finished the soup and I had cleared all away, he said, ‘It is time to go to bed, Marie Grosholtz.’
‘Yes, sir,’ I said, fearing terribly to return to the attic room. ‘You may sleep downstairs, if you wish. In the atelier. But don’t touch anything! Though wait a moment. Tell me, you weren’t frightened in that room alone?’
‘I could feel them about the place. All those bits.’
‘And after a while I didn’t mind.’
‘Yes? Some people are repelled. Bed now. And sleep hard.’
I returned to the atelier and bedded myself down. There I was, under the table, and also there was my head, on the table. In the night, if I was very quiet, I thought I could hear all the body bits breathing. With my wax head in the room I felt I almost belonged.
I thought, also, that if I was very careful he would keep me.
Sometimes I was required at the stove, sometimes to pass Doctor Curtius his tools. To be of use to him, I must learn the names. There were compasses and spatulas, there were burnishers and finishers, there were rakes and wires, and paddles and gougers, there were plaster scrapers and catgut for cutting clay, there were whole battalions of different knives with different grooves upon their tips, some with curved noses, some twisted; there were tools made of iron and of lead and of different woods, of hardwood, and softwood, of rosewood and cherrywood, some smooth, some rough, some must be very sharp and others absolutely blunt; all these I must know by name. All these were the familiar business of the sculptor, but they were only a portion of the tools he used. Curtius had many surgeon’s devices that he found essential for his work. They had been christened too and must never be referred to as ‘this one’ or ‘that one’, nor ever ‘long tip with bend’ or ‘curved with hook’ but the whole enormous genus must be learned and remembered. There was the family of scalpels, from the straight to the convex to the straight-buttoned to the fistula. There were many cousins of scissors, the straight and the fine-angled, the dilator-holders, the plate tenculums. Here was the cannulated stylet, there the cannulated probe. Do not forget the coin-shaped cautery, nor his brother the tapered cautery, nor their cousin the key-shaped cautery. Never confuse a pointed stylus with a seton needle. There are the simplified pelican pliers and those the tirtoir pliers. That there is a cataract knife, and that a nasal probe, this a tongue depressor, that a gorgeret. And all these odd-looking tools were made for the wheedling about inside of people, for the picking at this, for the plucking at that, here to scrape, there to cauterise. But Doctor Curtius did not use them for their original purposes; he had adapted them all for his specific modelling purposes. And it did seem to me they had a very deep thirst to enter inside humans. Whenever I picked one up by its handle, I was always absolutely sensible that it wished to change its direction and burrow into me. You had to be very strong with those tools; they had very determined personalities. You must always show them who was master, for the moment – the tiniest moment – you became relaxed with them, they were at your skin. Several times they had the better of me, grazing my fingertip or biting my palm, and always to Curtius’s fury. For Curtius they always behaved; he had tamed them all. In his hands they were absolutely meek.
Heinrich from Berne Hospital came twice that first week with his boxfuls, loaded with pieces for Curtius to copy. I watched him and began to assist in minor tasks. Here I was among deep objects. Often those diseased pieces that were delivered to us had already been attacked by some anatomy student in the hospital, had been raked to shreds, a torso already riddled with student holes. What yellow and grey skins were heaved onto the worktable. The smell would wipe out all other scent. Long after the source of the stench had gone away it stayed with you very close, inside your mouth, up your nose, in eyes and skin. Body part, I would wonder, whose were you? A scar, a freckle, a mole, a crease in the cold flesh, hairs along an arm, were enough for wonder. It wasn’t such a horror after a while; it became quite usual, something to expect. Curtius taught me that.
‘It’s just a little of a human body, Marie. Nothing to get worked up about. Human bodies are after all such an everyday thing.’
At the end of the week, Surgeon Hoffmann came. He stood before my wax head in wonder. ‘Well, well, here you are all over again. It is a good likeness, Curtius. A very good likeness.’
‘Thank you, sir,’ he said.
‘Of course, it is of little significance,’ he mused, though he seemed unable to look away. ‘I don’t suppose, Curtius, but no . . . of course not.’
‘I was going to say something unnecessary, something foolish.’
‘Well, that is, Curtius, I was going to wonder, to suggest, that perhaps you could make such a likeness, such an exactitude, of me. Could you? Do you think?’
‘Yes, sir. I could.’
‘You think me foolish?’
‘Not at all. If you would like it, sir.’
‘I would like it. I believe I deserve to be celebrated, after all. I’ve done very well. I cannot expect bronze statues, but this, one like this, of wax, well, why not? I should appreciate it.’
‘It may be done, sir.’
‘Good. Yes. Good.’
Curtius went away to the plaster bins. I stepped forward to the older man.
‘Do sit down, sir.’
He sat, a nervousness about him now. I placed a sheet around him as if he were at the barber-surgeon’s. Curtius came forward with the oil.
‘I must open your shirt a little to expose the neck. Close your eyes, sir.’
‘Yes,’ he said.
‘And keep them closed.’
My master smoothed some oil upon the face. The surgeon flinched.
‘I shall be quite under your command, shan’t I, Curtius?’
‘You must keep absolutely still,’ he said. ‘It is very necessary that you do. I shall place these straws in your nostrils, and you must breathe through these until I say. And your mouth must remain closed.’
Silence then from the surgeon, silence as we went about him. He had given himself over. His chest upped and downed, sole proof of his continued living. When Curtius pulled the plaster away, there was the man underneath, humbled and vulnerable, blinking, uncertain of us. It was then that I took my moment.
‘Excuse me, sir?’ I asked the surgeon.
‘What is it, child?’
‘I was wondering where it is that my mother was taken.’
‘Your mother, I’m afraid, is dead.’
‘Yes, sir, I do know that. But where is she? I should like to visit her.’
‘Visit?’ he marvelled. ‘What a notion.’
‘When my father died, there was a grave. Where, sir, please, is my mother’s?’
‘Child,’ he said, ‘there is no grave.’
‘No grave, sir? None at all?’
‘No, no, there ’s a pit. She will have been put in with many other unfortunates. But not for the students, not to the hospital, on account of Curtius. I would not allow that. Still a pauper’s grave, you understand. A quick burial, not undignified. Some words said. Quicklime. Put alongside the rest of the day’s moneyless dead.’
‘But where is this pit? Where is my mother now?’ I was by now quite desperate.
‘You do not speak to me like that. You may not.’
‘Records of such matters are not kept. And the quicklime is . . . quick.’
‘Oh, Mother!’ I cried.
The surgeon went to Curtius.
‘May I see my head?’
‘It is in there,’ said Curtius, showing the mould, ‘in negative, in opposite space. But wax shall bring it out.’
‘I should like to see it.’
‘You may, in time. A couple of days. Come back later. We don’t need you any more. Not now we have this.’
‘I leave my head with you?’
‘It is quite safe with us.’
That night, alone in the atelier, I wept into my blanket, for my mother had no grave to visit. Nothing of her, nothing left at all, save her Bible, which seemed to contain only a scrap of her unhappiness. But then, wiping my snotting nose, I came upon a great theory. Here was my nose – my mother’s nose. Here she was then, still. Mother. My mother. Thus I stumbled upon my great nose system: she had left me her nose, and that was all I needed to remember her by. My twin air tunnels, from which I might breathe love and smell love. I was glad of these thoughts, proud of my theory. Here was Mother, here was Father, so I might go on.