The Apple trees were blighted. I knew it when I first saw them, even though Otto denied it. An excellent orchard, he had said in his letters, a tidy farmhouse. You will be well taken care of, the wife of a landowner. But the apples were small and misshapen and the cider Otto made from them was bitter. I remember pouring Otto’s cider into my little cups, the eggshell porcelain I brought with me, so carefully, all the way from Ulm. My disappointment showed on my face, and, as usual, he became angry.
Last July, on my 99th birthday, I made a document with the help of the nuns. I wrote that even if I became seriously ill, I did not want any land of treatment, even medication. I told the nuns and the doctor that I was not afraid to die, that it was certainly almost time. Several years ago, however, I consented to a surgery for my eyes. I was in the hospital for only a day and after the surgery I was able to read comfortably again; my prayer book and the lives of the saints, and other books, mostly in German. Sometimes, I read again The Sorrows of Young Werther.It is a silly book.
Then I was 34 and not beautiful and I had no prospects. I had lost Heinrich, my young man, in the great war and my family, who had been well-to-do, now had nothing. So I believed everything Otto told me in those thin onion skin letters. His handwriting was firm, seeming to indicate a resolute character, and my mother’s cousin, Gerhard, had known him when he was younger. When I look back now, I realize that Gerhard told me nothing good about him, but I was hearing what I wanted to hear: I was going on a voyage to a wonderful land, the west of America, to be the wife of a landowner. I was leaving my family and the dear children for whom I had been governess, but I was not going to be that thing that I so feared: a woman alone forever, with no husband and no children of her own.
For the past five years, since I was 95, I have lived in Mount St. Mary’s, the retirement home, with the nuns. Before that, I had my own little house, very snug, grey stucco with a little porch held up by two sturdy pillars. I had a fireplace and I stocked up wood, wood, wood, for the winter and I would read during the long winter evenings and sometimes drink a little schnapps by the fire. I found in 1955, a little breakfront, just like the one my mother had in her parlor in Ulm before the war. In the breakfront, I had seven Dresden cups with little saucers. One of the older nuns, who had been taught in her girlhood to paint china, painted them for me with delicate shadowy roses. They are just like the ones I brought with me on the freighter and they are the only possessions I kept with me at the home.
Otto, in his letters, spoke of owning “timber.” I had always loved forests. The ones near my home were ancient and well tended, like parks. My father loved to take us on picnics and taught us to recognize all the trees and flowers and mushrooms, both by the common and the Latin names. We picked mushrooms to eat, both in the spring and in the fall, morels and boletus and others, always depending on my father’s expert knowledge. The life of a mushroom hunter is always in danger. I looked forward to happy picnics and mushroom hunts, just as in Germany, but perhaps with Indian tepees occasionally among the bushes.
For the past year, my life was like this: I awakened about 4 a. m. , when it was still dark. I waited quietly, thinking, until Sister Boniface called me for breakfast. I used to think about my house and about the women in my Altar Circle and wonder which one would come to see me. At first one person came every week. This may have been carefully planned, but, in any event, the visits were welcome.
However, so many of the women died, or came also to live here, that visits became very infrequent. It was not such a loss to me, because I found myself most of the time thinking about my parents and about Heinrich. They had become more real than the people around me.
Until recently, I continued to do certain things. After eating my breakfast, I went to the chapel for mass, using my walker, but independently, without any assistance from the nuns. I think that I usually slept until lunch. Sometimes I played cribbage with one of the volunteers in the afternoon, and then I slept again. I realized that every day I was getting weaker. The sleep, I was sure, was a preparation for that much longer sleep, but I was mercifully free from the many miseries I saw around me.
But beginning last month, I began to have a recurring dream about that first trip with Otto. Not that long voyage on the freighter, across the Atlantic and into the tropics, through the canal and then to the western coast of America. That was uneventful, with a few rather sociable people eating each night with the captain and bantering with me about my impending marriage: And not my trip alone on the train from Portland. I came first along the Columbia River, blue as the Danube, then through a bleak desert landscape, then into forests and mountains that seemed to go on forever, until I arrived in the green Baker valley. The valley was surrounded by snow-covered mountains and looked to me very much like Bavaria. At that point, I felt I was in a fairy tale and had just reached the happy ending.
None of that is in my dreams—only the look on Otto’s face when he first saw me and his dirty farm wagon, pulled by a workhorse with scars on its flanks. I dream about the way he threw my trunks in the wagon and then scowled at me, beetling his bushy eyebrows, when I raised up my hands and said, “Nein, nein.”
I had intended to speak always my careful grammar book English, but found myself able to speak only German. I was wearing my black merino wool dress and high shoes with buttons. I had realized on the train that I was much out of fashion, but thought that Otto, a farmer, would not be concerned with that. He spoke only a few words to me, then muttered things under his breath, but quite audible to me, about my clothes and my face and my figure, saying that he should have known better, saying he bought a “pig in a poke.” I climbed into the wagon by myself, because he had not even extended a hand to help me, and just in time, because he was already yelling and beating the poor horse, and the wagon was moving before I was able to get seated.
It was in mid-July at about five in the evening. I had not had anything to eat or drink since my lunch on the train, and I had assumed that Otto and I would go somewhere for a celebration, a before-the-wedding feast. It had been arranged by my cousin Gerhard that we would go immediately to the priest. Instead, Otto, scowling, looking straight ahead and still muttering, urged the horses through the little town (a respectable town with neat frame and brick buildings and some pretty carpentered houses), out past a poor little graveyard, to a rutted and graveled road that led through bleak and endless hills.
I sat there in the wagon, trembling, with Otto saying not a word, watching the brown hills go by. Eventually, after more than two hours, Otto turned from the main road onto a road even more rutted, that led toward a forested mountain, blackening now in the dusk. In spite of myself, I began wringing my hands, which suddenly became freakishly palpable to me, like the hands of another person. I thought of a tale of the Brothers Grimm that had always terrified me, about a man who takes his bride, who knows nothing about him, into the dark forest.
I will say nothing about that night. Until recently, it had been almost blotted from my memory: the rough house, with its broken furniture and dirty dishes, the eerie smoke and smell of the kerosene lantern, the bed with its dirty mattress, with no sheets and rough blankets. I was not an innocent, like some young women of my generation. My mother had been frank, but most important, I had been a passionate young woman. Before Heinrich went off to the war, when I was afraid, and justly so, of losing him, we had become lovers. For the six months since my agreement was reached with Otto, I had been imagining him as a kind of God-given transmutation of my poor Heinrich. But as I looked at that awful bed in that awful bedroom I could not bear to think at all.
Last week, I awoke from a dream of that night, so malignant and terrifying that I felt that it had actually happened again. Sister Boniface was leaning over me saying, “Mrs. Muller, Mrs. Muller, tell me what is wrong with you. Please, Mrs. Muller.” By the time I had fully come to myself, the nurse on call had rushed to my room with the oxygen tank and was preparing to put a green mask on my face. “Nein, Nein,” I found myself saying, although I have rarely spoken German for the past 50 years.
That next morning, I awoke while Otto was still in an ugly, snoring sleep and went to the kitchen, I poured water from the pump into a bucket I found on the floor, splashed some on my face, then stared out into the wilderness in back of Otto’s house. I felt like a person who has been shifted to another dimension. On television nowadays there are programs that tell about people in times in the future, on other planets. Those stories do not seem so strange to me as I felt that day in that kitchen. I looked at the world outside, grasses blowing gently in the wind, flowers that looked like blue bells clustering around gigantic trees, pines with needles like brushes, for which I knew neither the common nor the Latin name.
I thought to myself from outside myself, I could commit suicide, now, like Young Werther. I stared out the window for long time, thinking that it would be easy, that there must be a knife in the kitchen and the arteries on my wrists were blue and obvious and close enough to the surface so my courage would probably hold until I cut through them. Then, I thought again, on the other hand, I could clean up the kitchen.
The Otto who awoke that morning was not the Otto of the night before. He was sheepish and conciliatory and said he did not remember anything that had happened the day before, even the trip in the wagon. He had come to Baker City, he told me, at ten in the morning, because he was anxious to see me. He had been nervous and excited, and had done what he had intended never to do after I came to his household. He had gone to the saloon, called the Stockman’s, and he had begun to drink whiskey, every time saying he needed just a little more to calm his nerves.
As I was to become very much aware, the surly Otto was the Otto who was drunk. The sober Otto was certainly not a gentleman, but I think in some way he wanted to be kind. I think he thought that in marrying me he would undergo some kind of transformation, into a worthwhile person, a good householder, and a prosperous farmer.
After Otto’s death, I was terrified that I would have no way of meeting my own needs, since in this part of the world, people do not employ governesses. The people in the church had been kind, and I could see in their faces when Otto was still alive that they knew how he was and they pitied me. In those days, however, such things were not talked of and no one interfered in another person’s life. I thought that if I became destitute, these people would help me, but the thought was not pleasant.
I found when I looked through Otto’s papers, that in addition to the rude little farm, he had many acres of undeveloped forested land which he had purchased with a small bequest from his father. I sold the farm to a neighboring farmer, who tore down the house and the buildings and used the area for pasture for his Hereford cattle. I kept the rest of the land, because it was of no use to anyone. This was extremely fortunate, because a few years later, just when my limited funds had almost vanished, the timber became precious, like gold, and I sold the land for a considerable sum, which I invested carefully. I lived a quite comfortable life and had enough when I came here to pay the nuns a reasonable stipend for my care. In addition, there will be something left to give to the church.
The dreams have become worse and worse. I had not thought to experience anything so terrible again. They are dreams and yet more than dreams. I find it hard to believe that everything that happened is still in my mind, like a cinema, when I had thought it gone forever.
The last starts in a way that is deceptively pleasant: the visit from Francis, the son of my neighbors, and his wife and his two little girls. I have seen them often in church with their pretty dresses. The wife is young and sweet and I am delighted to see them. Because I do not want them to go into the house, I have set up a small table in the bare little yard using a drawn-work cloth I made for my trousseau. I am serving them lemonade and cookies with my precious Dresden. The mother, Alicia, protests that the china is too delicate for the children, but I can see that they are impressed to be treated like grownups and will be very careful.
Francis and I are discussing mushrooms. His parents, from the old country, have taught him to hunt them and he wants to know if the ones I find here are similar to the ones that I found in Germany. I tell him that many are the same. The morels, for instance, are like little immigrants from the Black Forest and I am always delighted to see them. Otto does not want me to pick them and refuses to eat them, but he is not with us. He is away in the orchard picking apples to make his terrible cider.
Francis mentions that today, when he was hunting for morels in the woods near his parents’ homestead, he found the beautiful red Amanita. I tell him that I, too, have found them, this year more than ever. But they look like nothing else, I say, and I have been well instructed by my father, who called them Death Angels. Francis is relieved, and I realize that one of the reasons for the visit is that he is concerned about my welfare.
They are saying their goodbyes and I am giving the children more cookies to take with them, when I see Otto walking toward us. He is stumbling and he looks very disheveled. It is obvious to me that he has been drinking in the orchard.
“I am so sorry,” I say, “here comes Otto. There is no time for him even to say ‘hello, ’ because we must go into town on business.” I walk toward their car with them, hurrying them away. I know they must know that this is a pretext, and Alicia looks at me very worried and hesitates, but I say, “Go, go. Everything is fine. I will see you in church on Sunday.”
And Otto is coming toward me stumbling with a pail of apples in his hand and I can see that he is angry because I have sent Francis and his family away, when he intended to speak to them. He curses me in English and again in German and he takes his big fist and brings it down on the table, crushing one of my Dresden cups and knocking the others to the ground. He turns over the table completely, then begins to stamp with his big boots on each cup and saucer.
I push him and hit him and scream at him, but I can’t prevent him. This makes him even angrier and he shakes me by the shoulders, but I keep screaming at him and he grabs me by the throat and squeezes and squeezes. I am struggling and the fear and the pain at my throat are terrible, but not as terrible as the crushing in my chest that comes from having no breath, a crushing that lasts until everything is a void and a blackness, like death.
This was exactly played out in my dream last night, but I awoke to the nurse and the green mask and the doctor. Sister Boniface was there, saying, “We know Mrs. Muller, that you asked not to be treated, but we could not bear to let you die in such fear. The doctor has given you some medication.” I still felt a pain in my chest, but not like the pain in the dream, and I said, “No, no, I did not want to die that way, in fear, without breath. You were right.” So I was taken from the home to the hospital, but the fear has not gone.
The rest of the story continues to play out in my mind and I cannot get away from it.
I awaken with a horrible pain in my throat. I am so weak that I stumble and half crawl toward the house, where I find Otto, in a stupor, and by him, half a jug of the cider he made last year, fermented and ugly smelling. I am afraid that he will wake and torment me again, so I go, slowly, when I can summon the strength, toward the woods in the back. I fall asleep in the woods, and sleep far into the night, until I awake chilled to the bone. It is there, half-frozen, in the brilliance of a full September moon, that I find two perfect Amanitas.
I find Otto still asleep when I return to the house and I know that he will wake up and finish the cider. I know also that he will never notice the foreign taste of the concoction I pour into the jug. I get a quilt from my bed and go back to sleep in the woods.
Nothing is said about Otto’s death, either by the doctor, who is not surprised that his liver has failed, or by the neighbors, who treat me with great kindness. I wear my black dress to the funeral, and a black scarf and a mourning veil as they did in the old country. I wear all these in public until the bruises on my neck are well healed.
I lie now propped up in bed in the dark, a vise tightening around my chest. The malicious little light on the machine by my hospital bed dances fast, then faster. I think that it is the Will-O’-the-Wisp, and Otto is with the witches in the shadows. I felt no guilt then and still do not, but now I am terrified of death. It has become, not a passage to a quiet rest, but Otto, with his angry scowl and his curses and his big hands reaching for my throat.
I doze off despite the pain in my chest and think that my father is reading Faust aloud to us, the section on the Walpurgis night. He hands me a huge book with Gothic script, but it is not Faust at all, but Otto’s life. The ornate letters distort and bleed on the page until they are unreadable, but even though I can’t decipher them, I know that what they say is bitterly sad.
For the first time, I feel pity for Otto and pity for myself. We were not creatures of arrogance, like Faust, I think, or creatures of innocence like poor Gretchen. We were both creatures of a terrible necessity. I wake myself up gasping for breath and I begin to weep.
I sob and sob, accompanied by the demonic flicker of the Will-O’-the-Wisp.
Then slowly, the vise on my chest loosens, and I take in a lovely breath. As I breathe out, the vapor hovers in the air, and through some strange alchemy, it blossoms. I see branches full and white with delicate petals, and I think before I drift off, that it is so beautiful, it will surely bring forth good fruit.