from The Breach
Arlund, November 1922
At the cemetery on St. Anna’s hill, Katharina stood with Annamarie’s hand in hers. She pointed out her two great-uncles and Annamarie’s great-grandmother.
At the engraved photo of her parents, Katharina said, “Annamarie, that was your Opa, Josef Thaler. And this was your Oma, Marianna Thaler. They were my mother and father, just like I am your mama and Papa is—”
Katharina could try all she wanted, but Annamarie was Angelo Grimani’s. Her daughter had his long fingers, his eyes, his slight dimple on her chin, and even a shade of his Italian colouring. Everyone in the valley said that Annamarie looked like Katharina. Even Jutta and Florian, the only two who knew Annamarie was Angelo’s, said with careful diplomacy that Annamarie would be tall like her mama, and a beauty like her too.
Maybe. But Katharina saw her daughter’s other half just as prominently.
Annamarie slipped to the ground and grabbed at the black-eyed Susans on the graves, and Katharina bent to rescue the flowers, but a sharp pain in her back halted her, and Annamarie had the first daisy’s head off in no time. Katharina stretched, one hand on her rounded belly: her next child, Florian’s. Before her daughter could get hold of another flower, Katharina scooped her up and winced at the strain of it. Annamarie was what weighed on her most. It would be the father’s side of the child’s story Katharina would never be able to properly share.
She remembered how, when Florian received news of his mother’s death the month before, he’d slowly folded the telegram and said, “I’m sorry my mother never got to meet her granddaughter.” His voice had faltered at the end, and he looked at Katharina’s belly. “Or maybe it will be a boy.”
When she had Annamarie wrapped and tied to her back again, Katharina called for the dog. Hund loped up the path back to Arlund, turning sideways to stop and check on their progress. Before entering the woods, Katharina looked down into the valley at the skeletons of new barracks between Reschen and Graun. The area for the Italian officials was growing, the buildings becoming sturdier, more permanent. In the last two years, the wives and children of the border guards and police had joined their husbands. There was a new schoolteacher from farther down in Italy. And Captain Rioba was now prefect, which meant Georg Roeschen was no longer mayor of Graun. Jutta had complained, with a sour face, about how the landscape was changing, and Kaspar Ritsch had said that if the Italians were building so much, then chances were that the Etsch River wouldn’t be diverted to where the Walscher—the Italians—were living.
“Then we should all relocate to the Italian quarter,” Opa had retorted.
Katharina reached the wayward cross and put a few daisies into the vase at Christ’s feet. Above them, she heard the cry of a goshawk. It grasped something in its claws, but she could not make out what. It was a fine day for the first of November, warm and sunny, and the mountain peaks were not even covered in snow yet. She crossed the bridge at the Karlinbach and came to the clearing leading to Arlund. In the distance, smoke curled from the chimney of the Thalerhof. She smiled at the thought of surprising Florian with the hare she’d caught in one of their traps. She would bake it in the Roman clay pot with cabbage and a thick sauce, the way he liked it.
At the sound of running water in the Hof, Hund dashed for the fountain set just before the house on the garden side. That summer, Florian and Opa had carved out a fresh log, hollowing it out first, then tapping into the spring below with a wooden spigot where the water ran through the small plug at the bottom of the log, nonstop. When it was very hot, the dog would jump in and crouch to her midriff, lapping up the water as if she’d just crossed a desert. But now Hund just stood on her hind legs to drink, and Katharina untied Annamarie from her.
The girl awoke and began fussing, then grabbed the crucifix hanging around Katharina’s neck. After she set the child down, Katharina went to the fountain and splashed cool water on her face. At the sight of the window boxes, she realised she’d forgotten to water the geraniums, which were wilting in the unseasonable heat.
With a bucket in hand and a blanket in the other, Opa came out of the workshop. His cough had returned, rattling within him like loosened gravel rolling down a slope.
“I’ve pulled some of the softer apples out,” he said when he caught his breath again. “They won’t make the winter. Thought you’d make a cake tonight.”
“That, and something for your chest.” She pulled the pouch away from her side and held up the hare. “I’ve got something too.”
He glanced at her middle. “Your husband should be doing that kind of work, not you. Gives him a feeling of self-worth, a tie to the land.”
“Now, Opa,” she started, but he walked away, muttering that he was going to Graun.
“Been two weeks since anyone’s picked up the post,” he tossed over his shoulder.
She would go, she wanted to say, but voices from behind the house stopped her from calling after him. Florian appeared with Toni Ritsch. She hung up the hare before greeting Toni and asking about Patricia.
“She’s fine,” Toni said. “The baby is keeping her busy. Spirited boy. We’ve named him Andreas.”
“A fine name. Tell her I’ll stop in tomorrow and help her.”
“We’re negotiating the bull,” Florian said. Though he smiled, he gave her a look that signalled he was not pleased about the business.
Toni rubbed his beard and nodded at the hare. “Looks like dinner. I should make my way home.”
“Nonsense. It’s early,” Florian said. “Come in and have some refreshment.”
“I won’t change the conditions,” Toni said. He turned to Katharina. “Florian’s showing me new ways to earn money. Told me about his mother’s house in Nuremberg and the rent he’s earning from it. It’s a good idea. Think I’ll do something similar. We Ritsches have lots of property, and we could build something to lease out. Maybe even to some Italians. It’s time I got something back from them. I’ll show them what bauernschlau means.”
Katharina glanced at Annamarie. Nobody—not even Florian—knew her daughter’s real ethnic background, and the way people talked about the Italians, she would do anything to keep it that way.
“And the terms of your bull have now changed?” she said. “Is that why you two are still negotiating?”
Toni at least had the decency to look sheepish. “It’s the economy—”
“Indeed, Toni. Just that. And loyalty. My grandfather and your father go a long way back. There are certainly some things that have not been squared away over the years.” She knew about how Opa had lent the Ritsches money when Kaspar had fallen on bad times, and Opa had never asked for a single Heller back. “We’re not Italians either, Toni. We’re your neighbours. Remember that as you negotiate.”
Florian clapped Toni on the shoulder. “Let’s go in and have a glass. We’ll just talk, and then you can think about it.”
Katharina watched the men go into the house, remembering how Toni and his friends had once forced her and the other schoolgirls to climb the Planggers’ tree so that they could look up their dresses. Patricia had refused to do it, and Toni had pinned her down on the ground. Their saving grace had been the call of a farmer looking for one of his sons.
“Florian,” she called after them, “where’s my father’s knife? I need to dress the hare.”
Her husband returned to her and lowered his voice. “You want to tell me about those dues owed now?”
“I’ll tell you what kind of a neighbour you’re dealing with,” she whispered. Just the least of the worst. “A few years before my mother passed away, we used to have hares in the hutches out back. My mother went to feed them one day and found one that had died, of old age, we supposed. She buried it out in the meadow somewhere.
“Toni’s dog dug it up and left it on the Ritsches’ front stoop as a gift. When Toni found that hare, he brushed it off, got it as clean as he could, and went and put that dead animal back into the hutch, like nothing happened.”
“No,” Florian said, eyes wide, clearly stifling a laugh out of respect. “Tell me he didn’t.”
Katharina nodded. “My mother, bless her soul, went out to feed those hares the next morning. When she saw the one that had returned from the grave, her heart dropped into her pants. We all came running at her screams.”
Florian coughed into his collar, his shoulders shaking, and Katharina felt a laugh rising in her as well.
“Did he ever admit it?” he asked.
“Kaspar had to.”
He sucked in a deep breath, trying to put on a straight face. “I understand.”
“Now you know what kind of people he is.”
He held out her papa’s knife to her. “You’ll tell me the other things later.”
“Oh, I certainly will.”
She took the handle and started to dress the hare.