The Gravity of Circumstances

Marianne Fritz

Artwork by Hidetoshi Yamada


Rudolf hung on the cross. Around him stood scattered groups of people, all of whom contemplated him with deprecating gazes. "Where's my mother?" Rudolf cried down from the cross.

"Your mother is in her grave," a faceless voice answered him from within the group of people, and Berta became conscious of herself, lying beneath the earth a few meters from the cross. She tried to dislodge the coffin lid and cry out with the force of her love:

"Rudolf! I'm still alive! I'm coming! Wait for me! Be patient! I'll get you down from there! Rudolf!" The dreaming Berta observed the other Berta, as powerless, as voiceless as a corpse in her futile struggle.

"Where's my mother?" Rudolf cried a second time and looked down onto the nearby hillock where there was no cross and no flowers, only shoveled-up earth, as on a molehill. A faceless figure, a torso on two legs, pulled away from the group and said: "There she lies. Let her rest. It will be over soon. You will understand when the sun has reached its zenith."

After the headless figure had spoken, the scattered groups of people merged into a single human mass. All of them held their heads at their side, holding them in their hands and resting them on their hips. Each head was the same as the others. And all the heads resembled helmets.

"What have I done to you?" Rudolf cried. And since no one answered him: "Why am I hanging here on this cross? Why?"

One headless being after the other stepped forward from out of the mass of people. The voices of women, girls, men and boys drowned one another out in turn.

"You can't catch a ball."

"You can't play an instrument."

"You can't even sing."

"You always fall down."

"Your nose bleeds."

"You have two left hands."

"You can't remember your numbers."

"You can't even remember the ten commandments."

"You can't write properly."

"You can't even copy things down."

"You can only draw animals and just barely a house; you can't draw people with two hands, ten fingers, two feet, and a head. Your people have five eyes and monstrous mouths. Your people have seven heads or no head, twenty-three fingers or none at all."

"You can't catch frogs."

"You can't even go to the bathroom at the right time."

"You're a bed-wetter."

"You can't box."

"You're worthless in a fight."

"You're weak."

"You always have diarrhea."

"You bite your nails."

"You stutter when the teacher asks you where you come from."

"You're stupid."

"You can't swim."

"You cry."

"You grind your teeth at night."

Rudolf cried down from the cross: "But I'm not a bad person!"

And the headless ones answered him in a chorus: "You are good for nothing."

The people put on their helmets, now they had heads again, only one stepped forward still headless, pointed in the direction of the sun, and said: "It is done. The sun is at its zenith," then threw its helmet on Berta's grave, and a tremor drilled into Rudolf's body like a bark beetle through wood. But the cry that Berta always awaited in the leafless season, this one definite cry, did not sound out.

And as Berta Schrei cried out for her son, so that a ghastly, thousandfold echo rang from the earth, the group of people, now dissolved, scattered off, with each person running for dear life. The voiceless Berta shouted down the hurricane-like storm that seemed in a matter of seconds to have driven grayish black banks of clouds from all the four corners of the earth to gather them together above the cross where Rudolf was hanging.

When the clouds burst and the rain began to lash down, everyone had already fled into their homes and dwellings, and Berta's cry told them that Rudolf's life had slipped away. His head hung down, and the hard rain pressed the slightly open coffin lid back closed. Berta Schrei knew she was dead before she'd been able to give Rudolf shelter from the gravity of circumstances.


The conversation with the teacher ended just as the one with the principal had. But Berta was incapable of understanding. She stood there before the teacher as though struck with a club and stared at her hoping that in the next moment, or at least the moment after next, the teacher would utter a redeeming word about her and her female creation.

"My dear Mrs. Schrei. Perhaps Berta does learn easily. However. In view of the circumstances. I have forty children in my class. I cannot respond to each one of them individually until sooner or later, most likely later, they are ready to show me that at least they have a notion of what one plus one might come out to." "But Berta knows that!" her mother countered, and the teacher shrugged her shoulders ruefully. "But she doesn't know when I ask her. And I can't know what's going on in her head. She doesn't even know the name of the city where she was born and where she lives. I can't be constantly probing what's in her mind. Just imagine. To probe inside of forty minds. It's impossible! Utterly impossible! I know this is not exactly the ideal solution. But can you perhaps tell me how I might get through all my material if I have to probe into forty different minds? It's simply not feasible."

"Give her another year. I know. Rudolf was something of a bad student from the beginning. But Berta. Doesn't Berta learn easily? Hasn't it always been so? Why should it be otherwise now?"

"My dear Frau Schrei. You're giving this little transfer too much significance. What's happened after all? Berta's changing classes, that's all. Try to look at the whole thing as a kind of organizational matter. Really it's nothing at all. It says nothing about Berta's eventual development. She may yet turn out to be a Madame Curie!"

"No. I can't stand by that. You cannot make my daughter into special student. That is something you may not do! I, ma'am, always got straight A's, and my daughter will also get nothing but straight A's. I promise you that! On my life: I will make sure of it. Just one more year. A year!"

"Calm down. Mrs. Schrei, do not get so worked up!"

"My Berta is to be placed in a special school? My Berta is supposed to be an idiot? And I should calm down!?"

The teacher complimented Berta Schrei with many gentle words as the latter left the classroom, gesturing with her hands.

In a trance, Berta walked in the direction of All Souls' Street number 13, valiantly choking back the tears. But hardly had she taken the first step onto the sidewalk of her street than the shame of it all made her quake and the defeat streamed from her eyes, and at last it was more blind than seeing that she stumbled along All Souls' Street, to house number 13.


Berta answered Rudolf's question for the umpteenth time.

"What was Grandpa again?"

"A gravedigger. An infantryman. A gravedigger. When he was an infantryman, he deserted," Berta chuckled. "He hid out in the hayloft of the farmer Zweifel in Gnom. Until the war was over. Zweifel's daughter smuggled him bread and speck. The farmer couldn't know about it. He never did find out." Berta chuckled again. "Yes, yes. Old farmer Zweifel was a distinguished gentleman in those days."

"That's not what I mean! In October! What happened with Grandpa in October?" Rudolf asked. It was only this one story about October that seized him, that inexplicably calmed him down.

"Yes. A newspaper wrote about it. A corpse was discovered. In the Mueller-Rickenberg forest in the municipal region of Gnom near St. Neiz am Grünbach. Under a mound of earth, tidily covered over with spruce branches. A grave. Shot in the head. Buried three to four weeks back. The corpse was gagged and its hands were bound behind its back."

"And the corpse was the gravedigger?"

Berta shrugged her shoulders.

"He went into the forest, and he never came back out of the forest."

"But why do you know that that was Grandpa's corpse?" Rudolf pressed onward.

"Well, you know, I was notified of it."

"Why didn't you go looking for Grandpa? Maybe that unidentified corpse wasn't actually him?"

Berta said: "That's just how it was."

"Did Grandma see the unidentified corpse? What did Uncle Wastl think, and Uncle Karl and Uncle Richard? Did they really all think the same thing, that the corpse was the gravedigger's?"

"It happened in October!" Little Berta said, shoving her brother with her elbow. "Are you stupid? They were all dead already."

"Aha," said Rudolf at length, and then once again, "Aha."

"Why was my Grandpa a gravedigger?" Little Berta asked, and Berta shrugged her shoulders. "He just was. He got his job back without any difficulty as soon as the war was over. He had no reason to disappear. The war was already well over."

Rudolf struck his sister softly several times on the back and said: "Nothing can kill the gravedigger; he always keeps his word. When he says he's coming home from the war, then he will come. And you know why?"

His sister, bored, answered him: "Of course!"

"Then say it! Say it, if you know why!"

Little Berta, insulted, remained silent. Berta answered in her stead:

"Because I'm a gravedigger. And gravediggers are necessary in any time when order is to be kept. In effect, I must survive. Maybe I'm the last one who still understands something of this craft. What happens to a craft when none of its masters come back home from the front?"

Berta chuckled and said: "He was just a devoted gravedigger. He just knew the meaning of his craft for the people. He loved his work."

Berta's gaze fell on Rudolf's profile, and her thoughts turned vaguely to her father, the gravedigger, who had been an infantryman for a time, and she said: "Yes. Yes. You really were a good gravedigger."

Rudolf's eyes fell shut, still he said: "Maybe a gravedigger is something I can still be as well," and she thought of how her children had become especially close to her over the last three days. She did not know exactly why, but somehow it seemed right to her to stay up through the rest of the night. Either to avoid the nightmares, or to sift through her own life and the lives of her children.

Maybe it was all of those things, maybe none of them.

Berta Schrei had given birth to a boy in the year 1945 and to a girl in the year 1950 and in the year 1958, before the beginning of the leafless season, she imparted to Wilhem a thing it seemed essential to impart: clean and clear, with the letters drawn out very legibly; precise, clear, contoured letters. She had always gotten A's in handwriting. Berta Schrei's last report card attested to the fact that a certain Berta Faust, resident of house number 12/13 All Souls' Street in Donaublau, had graduated with the cumulative grade of A.

Solely from considerations of thrift, Berta employed as a vehicle for this disclosure the blue envelope that tactfully hid the substance of the letter, just as when the teacher, from sympathy and warmest compassion, had taken pains to tactfully soften the substance of the school's decision, which loomed all the more heavily before Berta's eyes, that Little Berta, who learned so easily, could be an even worse student than Rudolf. "So much compassion," Berta knew already on her way home, "that means she is a hopeless case."

"And two hopeless cases," Berta Schrei decided on that long night, "are a doubly heavy burden."


Wilhelm, still in his chauffeur's uniform, imagined that upon his return, at around eleven in the morning, from Felsenstein, he would be able to march in triumphantly before Berta's eyes and announce straightaway: "What do you say, Berta? Two days earlier than expected! Would you have believed it?"

He crept in like a thief, laid his ear against the keyhole of the kitchen door, giggled cheerfully to himself, rubbed his hands together and jerked the door open: "Berta, it's me!" he shouted and stretched his arms outward.

Then he dropped disappointed into the armchair, took off his chauffeur's cap, thought to himself that his Berta must be out shopping, and was once again buoyant as he imagined how she would stare when she came back home and found him there sitting in the kitchen; as natural as it would be unexpected. He laughed, was happy with himself and the circumstances, and just then, his gaze fell on the blue envelope that lay on the table.

"I have brought my ill-starred creation to an end. Your Berta, who loves you."

He read and smiled, read again and smiled again. He did not understand at first. He still did not yet understand every trace of Berta Schrei had been struck from his life and the children had been buried.

Over the course of the second year thereafter, the notion slowly dawned on him that the shadow of the earth was not filing by him like a dream, and that the earth was somewhere he could make his home. He came somehow to the sense that he might best be defined as a citizen of the earth through and through, and the son of a nation above all: a nation that was the Isle of the Blessed.

This intuition, as vague as it was universal, helped him to grasp that at a given moment in his life, there could indeed be a person who had been capable of anesthetizing her children with sleeping pills and strangling them with her bare hands, only to fall upon a butcher knife with all her might. What this person may have erroneously suspected to lie beating behind her left breast was instead concealed behind her right: a medical anomaly. This circumstance aided the doctors, who really did struggle doggedly to save this person's life, to succeed in doing so.

Actually he did understand everything, somehow, so long as he did not take into consideration the degree to which what took place before the leafless season in the year of 1958 was as shadowy and ghastly as the war years.

With Wilhelmine's decisive proviso to the marriage proposal he had never offered: "If you marry me, then it must be on the thirteenth of January, 1960," he understood that it was time to ask for Wilhelmine's hand.

With Wilhelmine's proviso, the honor of the aforementioned person was restored: she resumed possession of her original forename, Berta.

translated from the German by Adrian West

Click here to read Adrian West's essay on Marianne Fritz, from our Writers on Writers Special Feature.