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Aus dem Schwarzspanierhaus


Johann Nepomuk Hoechle, Beethoven’s Room, via Wikimedia Commons

Schindler again. His eyes passing over her and away as he enters, scarcely seeming to see her. Closing the door behind himself he crosses to the bed, and as he does she is aware of the way when he is here, she might not exist. Strange, to be present, and yet not, as if she were somehow less than real. On the bed the master lies unmoving, his eyes closed, mouth half-open. Upon his face the skin is thin and dry, drawn tight across the sunken flesh. Mask-like, it might be the face of a corpse already, were it not for the sound of his breath, the slow, rattling whistle of its motion in and out, the space between each growing longer every time, as if with any one it might extend forever. By the curtained space of the bed Schindler pauses, looking down at him. On his face he wears the look of a man who thinks he smells an insult here, as if this sleep were a deliberate thing, a slur designed for him alone. Schindler is this kind of man, one who suspects insult in everything, without ever understanding it is this very suspi- cion which brings insult upon him. Watching him pause thus she hesitates, the cool porcelain of the basin cradled in her arms, the water deep and wet and still within. Upon the bed the master exhales, the air leaving him in a long whinny, and then, in a moment more, breathes in once more, the sound of it broken and uncertain, catching in a whistle at its end and stopping still within his chest, his body tight. In its sudden silence she feels herself grow still, her own breath catching in her throat. He does not move, or breathe, or make a sound, just lies still, unmoving, the moment stretching impossibly, until at last he makes a choking sound, and in a rush the breath runs out of him once more. Beside him she sees Schindler relax, and knows that he has thought the same as her, felt the same fear. With an abrupt motion he turns to look at her, his eyes narrowing.

‘Has he spoken?’ he asks, his voice irritable. The basin still held against herself she stands staring at him for longer than she should. Then at last she shakes her head.

Schindler regards her coldly, as if seeking some ground on which he might reprimand her for her insolence, until at last, as if the effort is too much, he nods just once and looks away.

‘Go,’ he says, ‘I would be alone with him.’


In the hall outside it is quiet. Through the high window the pale light, the streets below not yet busy. Moving closer to the glass she can feel the draft which leaks through where the casement sits crooked in its frame. The air outside is icy, and thinking of the room next door she sets down the basin and takes the handle in her hand, pressing her weight against it to force it shut once more. Pressed close against the glass she can see two children and a dog on the patch of open ground that lies within the curve of the street without. A boy and a girl she sees now, the boy holding a stick. As she watches he lifts it into the air, urging the dog to jump for it, the girl clap- ping with delight. As it jumps the dog barks excitedly, the sound coming as if from far away. They do not see her stand- ing there, their game played careless of any observation. What would they see, she thinks, were they to lift their eyes, what would they make of her face and body pressed so close against the glass. Would they wonder how long she had been standing there, watching them, or would they just laugh and turn away, her watching eyes forgotten almost at once. From downstairs there comes a woman’s voice raised in quiet song. A maid no doubt, or perhaps a cook. The words inaudible, the tune followed absently and without thought, her mind no doubt lost in some other task.


She has been two winters here, long enough to learn some- thing of his ways. His name was known to her before she came – how could it not have been – and so she hoped she might hear music in his house. But at first she was disappointed, for she could hear no music in the sounds he made at the pianos in his room. Hunched over one or the other of them like a dwarf his hands would pound the keys, as if by the violence of his playing he might make a sound loud enough to hear, the notes picked out with one hand clashing with the notes picked out by the other, as if he raged against some chaos inside himself. If these moments were all there were she might have thought him mad, a lunatic who made sound as others throw their shit or bark or strike at strangers, but in time she came to know that there were other times, quieter, when he would sit and move his hands across the keys more quietly, his fingers barely touching them. When he was thus the music came almost not at all, a note here or there rising from the piano’s strings, so gently did he move his hands. The others lost, slipped past him and away. And then one morning she came upon him without him seeing her and found him seated there, eyes raised to the view of St Stephan’s across the trees. He looked emptied out, his eyes almost expressionless. And in that moment she understood that he played not for her or for any other but himself, searching as he did for something inside himself, some unanswered thing, restless and unreachable.


The morning passes without him needing her. The others come; his nephew first, Herr Johann, then Herr von Breuning and his son Gerhard. Doctor Malfatti too for a time. She nods to them and curtsies at the door. Only Herr Gerhard, the boy, fourteen, now smiles at her as he passes. She has heard the girls from his father’s house say he is one who will need watching. The master wakes while they are there, for she hears his voice coming from the room, a rasping shadow of its former self. So weak he seems, and yet yesterday he woke, and determined to rise drew himself from the bed demanding his clothes. All of them were there, Herr Diabelli too, none knew what to do. Like chickens in a yard they ran about him flap- ping arms and shouting over one another, their voices raised as if they had forgotten that he could not hear, getting in each other’s way and quarrelling. Schindler shouted that the doctor should be brought, Herr Johann and Diabelli clutched a sleeve of his coat each, snatching it back and forth like quar- relling women as they disputed whether he should have it given to him or not. And Herr von Breuning shouted at the three of them, telling them to quieten down, to be calm, torn between preventing him rising and tearing the coat away from Herr Johann and Diabelli. In the end he sat down again with- out them noticing, his trousers on one leg, an unbuttoned shirt pulled over his nightdress. Where a moment before something of his old self had been visible, now he looked sunk in exhaustion. ‘Go,’ he said, lifting a hand, ‘leave me!’ Schindler grabbed at the book and scrawling something in it held it before his face for him to see, but he only waved at him to take it away again, and lying down turned himself against the wall as if he wished for them to leave him there.


The first time she saw him he frightened her. He did not look as she had thought he would. Frau Sali, his housekeeper, had impressed upon her the unique nature of his genius, and so to find this ragged man was the same she had heard spoken of was unsettling. He wore clothes a poorer man might shun, a battered hat and soiled coat, and he had a way of staring wildly at those who spoke to him, his expression so violent she was afraid he meant to do her harm. From others she had heard stories of his mulatto blood, and seeing him that first time she half-believed they might be true, for he had a gypsy’s swarthy skin and the heavy nose and brow of an African. She had been in the house a morning when he came into the room. Seeing her there he stopped and stared at her, demand- ing her name in his too-loud voice. She knew he could not hear though and so she just stood and stared, embarrassed for him for not knowing this, and for herself for her ineptitude. ‘Are you dumb?’ he demanded then. For a moment she was frightened that he might hurt her, so angry did he seem, and terrified she looked down at her feet. Before her he stood staring, until at last he shook his head and walked away.

Later she would sometimes watch him with his visitors, the broken conversations in his room. He kept what he called his books beside him where he sat, and if they thought to speak to him they would write their words upon the pages for him to read. As they wrote he would stare at them impatiently, then snatch the book from their hands and squint at it so he might answer or laugh or dismiss the words with a wave. Once when the room was empty she took up one of the books to look at it. Staring at the pages she tried to find the sense in the crabbed marks, their meaning seeming to press upon her tongue like something half-remembered. Just a girl, she heard her father saying, no sense in her reading. At the time she did not argue, yet standing there she found herself wish- ing that she had, wishing she did not feel diminished as she did, like a mute full of words they cannot speak


That was the summer Lottie came to work next door. Lottie was not beautiful, or not quite, but she was pretty in an irre- sistible way, and fearless. At first she was afraid of her, afraid to speak to her, so thrillingly alive did Lottie seem, and though she watched her whenever she could she never thought that they might be friends. Then one morning, returning from the market, she saw Lottie standing in the street, raised high on a pair of pattens. Her blonde curls were tied back, though some were already working loose. In her hand she held a mop. As she passed her Lottie seemed intent upon her task, tipping the bucket over so the water flowed away. Then as a pair of gentleman grew close she stood again, and taking the mop twirled it so the water it still held flew up and out across the two of them. They cried out, cursing her, and as they did Lottie turned to them, all meek and injured innocence, begging the pardon of such fine gentleman. That is what she called them, ‘such fine gentlemen’, and herself a poor maid. Whether it was her manner or her flattery or simply her pretty face the gentlemen were disarmed, their anger made ridiculous. Colouring they backed away from her, eager to be gone again, and only then, once their backs were turned did Lottie look at her, and wink, the devil’s grin upon her lips. All at once she felt a rush of light, to be admitted thus, and made her friend, and clutching the parcel that she held closer to her chest she smiled back.


Come midday, and Frau Sali sends her to the marketplace. She would rather stay: he is weaker again today, weaker than yesterday, weaker then than the day before. All of them know it, it is in their voices and their manner, the way they barely speak when they are with each other, the hollowness beneath their eyes. It frightens her, to think of him gone, the house empty of his presence. These last months she has watched him with a sort of panic in her chest. Not to see him die, for she has seen enough of death: her father, two sisters, four babies who lived barely long enough to have their names. Rather it is to see this man die: there is something in him she has come to see, some need to live. These last months as he has grown sicker, his body failing, his stomach swelling, she has seen the way he can find no peace in it, the way his mind will not accept the frailty of the body it inhabits. It is not fear, more a rage to live, to do. Sometimes she can barely look at him, hardly bear to see him so transformed. Every day when she and Frau Sali change the sheets beneath him they must be careful lest they touch the ulcers which scar their way into his back and legs. Frau Sali has told the doctor of them but he did not listen, almost as if it were offensive to him to be told his business by a serving woman, and so he has never lifted the sheet himself to see them there, the too-vivid red of his naked flesh. At first it made her feel sick, to look at them, but as he has grown weaker this has passed. Now she feels something else, a sort of shame to see him so reduced, his body once so stocky and powerful grown light as that of a child, his swollen belly hard.


There were the women of course. She did not know their names – some he found upon the streets, some the others bought for him, still others came of their own volition. These ones she understood – to give one’s body for money, or of one’s own free will, is of no one’s account but theirs and God’s. Yet there were others, fine ladies in society who came at their husband’s bidding. How was it that such a thing could be, she had often thought, how could a man lend his wife as if she were naught but a receptacle for seed. Was he so great in their minds that they thought it his due? Or was it some- thing less noble, some sense that they were made part of his greatness by this generosity? Once, years ago, she heard something of his played upon the piano in her parents’ neighbours’ home. It was their daughter who played it, a girl by whose meagre talents her parents set great store. And yet even through her halting passage through the bars she heard it, the way the music swelled with life, with a beauty which rose within it like a tide, the way it choked her throat and hands with feeling, the wordless wonder of it all. Perhaps it is this they think they will be wedded to by their generosity, that in some secret place they will know that it and they have shared a body in the dark?


It was Lottie who asked if it were true he could hear nothing at all. As she asked she bit her lip, not quite believing even then. It seemed wrong somehow, to speak of him to her, though they were friends by then. Looking at Lottie then she realised that Lottie frightened her sometimes, not for who she was but for the power she had over her. When she was with her Lottie made her feel beautiful, and free, her carelessness with life exhilarating, and yet even as she felt this she was fright- ened too, frightened that Lottie might see her for what she really was and slip away from her. And so she answered her, though even as she did she felt a pain, as if something precious were violated by her words.

Only later did she find herself thinking on it, on what it must be like to live as he does, without sound. How does he hear the music that he writes? Is there some inner place, some hidden place within himself in which it plays, as sweet and secret as an empty church? Sometimes she can imagine that, a place of sounds as remote as memory, and closing her eyes she can almost summon them, distant and echoing.


Back in the house Schindler stands in the hall, smoking and staring out across the park. To one side Herr Johann sits, a book held in his hands. They do not speak, nor even look at one another, each seeming to prefer to pretend they are alone. Of the many men and women who come to visit him she likes Schindler least of all. There is something in the way he fawns upon the master which she likes less each time she sees it. Frau Sali says he means to write a book about him when he is gone, an account of his life. A great thing, she supposes, to have one’s life set down in a book, and yet there is some- thing horrible to her in this, to know he means to try and make a picture of him on the page with words of Schindler’s choosing. How will he emerge from that, how altered will he be? Will Schindler write of the times he raged and bellowed at Frau Sali and her, or of the games she has seen him play with children and with dogs? Or by the act of setting those words upon the page will Schindler make his life his own, something he may possess and determine, in which the living man is made like a monkey dancing for coins?


Down in the kitchen Sali is pale and silent as she works before the stove. They do not speak, there is no need, both know it will be soon. Things are better now, between the two of them, since Lottie went away. She had not known Frau Sali did not care for Lottie until that afternoon, seven months ago. It was July, the city thick with heat. The days so long the sun never seemed to set, dust coating everything. At first she was dis- believing when Lottie said that they should go somewhere and swim, and then slowly she realised it was no joke but a test, the latest of the many Lottie had been setting her, that to refuse would be to fail. And so though there seemed some- thing wicked in it she told her she would come. It was a Sunday, slow and silent, the long afternoon heavy as they wound their way out of the city’s streets. She had never been this way, and so she stared at the passing sights cautiously, thinking to remember them so this day would never be forgotten. After a time Lottie showed her a street, and said that at its end stood the house where she was employed before she came to the von Breunings’. For some reason this knowledge made her uneasy, as if she were being made part of some design the whole of which was hidden from her. Then by a gate they met another girl, and Lottie greeted her with a kiss. Her name was Mary, Lottie said, and they had been together at the house along the little street. Mary looked at her and then away, her eyes empty of warmth of any kind. That she and Lottie had been friends was plain enough; as they wandered further on they walked ahead of her, arm in arm, giggling and touching heads, lost in a conversation made up of words and names she did not know.

Eventually they came to a gate at the end of a lane, and pass- ing through it into a little wood. The light was green beneath the leaves, the air silent, as if the heat had stunned even the birds. And then, nestled in the crook of a stream, they came to a pond. Here the sun glanced off the water in motes which dazzled, but by the water it was cool, and quiet. Lottie and Mary stopped, as if expecting something, and then from behind some trees a man appeared, two others close behind. Mary knew their names, and they hers, and so at once she knew this thing was long arranged. They had beer with them, and fruit, and there was no malice in them, but she was ashamed to be here, ashamed of the way they shot glances at her as they joked. There was one of them, the smallest one, who sat close to her, his leg touching hers, and though he spoke softly enough and laughed she felt herself grow stiff as he placed a hand upon her arm. Lottie and Mary were up by then, standing in the shallows, their dresses hitched up and their blouses loose. She sat unmoving, watching them, and as she did Lottie turned to look at her, much as she had done that first day in the street, except this time without laughter in her eyes. Reaching up a hand she undid the ties upon her dress, and lifting it over her head cast it away from herself onto the bank. Her body was thinner than she had imagined it to be, the thatch of hair between her legs thick and un- expectedly dark. For a long moment she stood there staring at her, and then beside her one of the men cheered, and turn- ing Lottie splashed away, Mary kicking off her dress to follow her, the men chasing after the two of them with whoops and cries.

They did not notice as she rose from where she sat and walked away along the edge of the stream. There was a path, of sorts, and picking her way she followed it. Overhead the leaves were still, and beneath her dress she could feel the sweat sliding in drops across her ribs. At last she came to a place where the stream widened again, the forest growing thinner, and here she turned, and shoes still on waded out, feeling her dress grow heavy as it took the water into itself. The pond was cool and dark, the sun passed overhead, and she felt it rise around her as she walked outwards into the stream. Somewhere far off she heard a shot, the squawking of birds, but she paid no heed to it, instead walking on, until at last she came to a halt. The water here was high about her body and chest, and leaning back she let it take her deep into itself, its darkness closing over her face. As she slipped down- ward she could see the light above glance and break, the drifting specks of the dragonflies and pondskaters as they moved upon it as if upon a sheet of glass. About her tendrils of weed rose high, snaking up towards the light, and as she sank the world above seemed to slip away and fade, the sounds of the afternoon growing faint and distant. Closing her eyes she could hear blood beat close, the trickle of the water as it coiled into the chambers of her ears. And as she floated there she thought of him, of the touch of a hand upon his skin, his silent world and the secret music in his head.


Nearly five, and already the sky outside is growing dark. In the last week the snow has begun to melt, and so in the street outside the ground is thick with mud, the stones soft and slip- pery, but now the air is cold again, bruised too, and green with snow. Upstairs in the room they are still there, still with him, save for the boy, Gerhard, summoned to a music lesson in his home next door. Time is slipping now, the hours pass- ing like something which falls away, impossible to keep. She knows Schindler is there, and Herr Johann too, and somehow this thought makes her sad, that these should be the ones to see him to the end. Sometimes she thinks they do not know him as she does, that they miss some vital thing in him. They never speak of music when they are here, save to belittle those who make it, only of money, and politics, each watch- ing the others as they speak, all of them seeming to see the way they are bound here not by love but by their shared enmities, and the figure in the bed. She wishes she could go to him, be with him as a daughter might, but she cannot. A thing that never was, but might perhaps have been in some other life. She thinks of Schindler’s book, wonders if there will be a place in it for her, and as she does she feels a tight- ness in her throat. Outside the snow has begun to fall, silently upon the air.

First published in Best Australian Stories 2003.

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