Plüschow’s libido diminished as he traveled into Switzerland and finally stepped foot onto German soil. He did not linger on the visage of any of the young men aboard the train cars or waste his imagination on a fleeting glimpse through the window working the fields or travelling the roads. They all wore far too many clothes covering pale skin and he thought of them like snails, a supposed-delicacy only the French could conceive of, poor things that needed the Mediterranean sun, which would divest them of wool and bronze them into something worthy of the palate. By the time he saw the Baltic Sea he suspected he’d have the arousal of an old wether.
His last tryst had been before he had been jailed—had been the reason he had been jailed in Rome. It had not even been a particularly satisfying refreshment, yet, his statement to the judge that had he known that the boy lacked promise he would never have taken him to bed did little to mitigate his sentence.
Now he stood at the Konstanz rail station, almost three decades since he had expatriated. His memories of crossing borders so long ago were dim and fragmentary but the station had prospered since then. Italy wanted to retain its rural aesthetic for tourism while Germany had little interest in its past. A nation that stubbornly looked forward. Plüschow would benefit from this by purchasing the latest Voigtländer camera. He brought along his old Century no. 10, small enough for the limited space allowed in a single steamer trunk and not valuable if lost.
He tipped the porter loading his trunk into the cars of the train heading north. One Pfennig since the man was almost Plüschow’s age. He reached for his pocket watch to check the time, felt nothing in his vest pocket and remembered—yet again—he had pawned it to help pay for the trip. He decided against purchasing a beer; it would only be a waste of money as years in Italy had stolen any appreciation he once possessed. As the station clock showed he still had a while before departure, Plüschow wandered and browsed, two acts that did not require expense, not even on an October morning that had some bite in the wind.
When he happened upon a disheveled young man fixated on the resting metal behemoth engine, Plüschow began staring at the youth. He saw nothing socially unacceptable about staring—it was a most efficient and potent means for conveying a host of emotions, especially Plüschow’s two favorite: desire and envy, both sides of a single coin, beaten from a golden sliver of Eris’s apple.
His assessment of the uncapped young man was that he must be poor, because his clothing looked patched, had what looked like a grain stalk poking out of a worn sleeve and collar, traveling alone, because for brief time Plüschow stared none had approached him or even acknowledged his existence with a nod or greeting, and he was very handsome, despite the blond hair that needed trimming, with cheeks and chin without a wisp of hair, as Plüschow preferred.
Plüschow casually strode around the young man and noted the fearful expression on the boy’s features. He must never have seen a locomotive before and was utterly intimidated by its presence at rest. Once it screeched steam, the young man would likely run back to whatever fields he had just harvested.
Plüschow felt so moved by the sight of such rustic innocence that he was inclined to approach the young man and allay his fears—and Plüschow became aware that this kindness was, in fact, motivated not out of philanthropy but rather a renewed stirring of his cock. He decided then that he owed this boy a debt, one he intended to pay, for returning desire to its proper housing.
So he walked up next to him and said, “I agree they’re ghastly, belching terrible smoke, reeking of coal. And the sounds they make. Squeals and roars. Like the engineers are shoving an entire menagerie of animals into the fire. But I wouldn’t be too afraid. It is far better than traveling on one’s two feet.”
No response, not even a glance in his direction. The poor boy must be deaf! Plüschow became more tumescent—a crippled lad was likely never shown affection—and brazen. He repeated a fair amount of what he thought was clever while tugging the boy’s sleeve. That elicited a reaction, one of genuine shock at being touched. A smell of fresh cut grain came on the breeze.
“You see me?”
“Of course.” Plüschow didn’t think the question odd, not until much later, on the way to Wismar. “You happen to be standing next to one of the foremost photographers in the world. My eye notices the finer features of young men.” He huffed. “Oh, and women. Now tell me, has anyone ever taken a portrait of you?”
The young man blinked and seemed not so much lost in thought but abandoned to it; perhaps Plüschow had happened upon the idiot of Konstanz. But then a smirk transformed the youth’s features from merely pleasing to remarkable. “You can see me.” He followed this with a chuckle. “And no, I’ve never met a photographer.” His naïve tongue mangled the word.
Plüschow gestured towards the train’s passenger cars. “Are you traveling north?”
“I’ve not made up my mind.”
“But you must. If at least to visit Berlin. You’ll need a ticket. Forgive me for saying this, but you look rather down on your luck.”
The young man leaned in and sniffed by Plüschow’s ear. The sudden intimacy made Plüschow coo like a pet dove. He would have gladly handed over his last mark to undress the boy.
“You don’t smell like the other men here.”
“Be assured that there are no other men like me here. But the scent is from my pomade, purchased in Rome. Olive oil is a marvelous base.”
“What’s an olive?’
Plüschow slid his arm around the boy and oriented them toward the passenger cars. They began walking together. “A miraculous fruit found in the Mediterranean. The locals press it for oil and the oil is used in everything from cooking to remedies to . . . well, lubrication when dry skin would be a terrible bother.” Plüschow grinned. “I could purchase a ticket for you . . . ”
“I am curious . . . ”
“Never stifle curiosity. Be open to every experience is my belief. No, my religion. You aren’t religious?”
The cornsilk-haired youth laughed. “My beliefs are older than you.”
“Then I feel young again in your company.” Plüschow gestured that they walk up the few stairs to the first class car where he was berthed—an indulgence bought to calm his anxiety caused by the return home but not most opportune to entertaining company. “Shall we?” He smoothed out his mustache. “You may call me Plüschow.” He sat down and patted the space beside him but the youth took the cushioned bench across from him.
“I’m the Haferbräutigam.”
“Is that an honorary title or a nickname?”
The young man stretched and put his bare feet on the very spot Plüschow patted. Plüschow scowled, not really annoyed by the dirt visible on the boy’s soles—he had wiped away all manner of dust, grime, and even ash from skin, in effect polishing lovers—but rather disappointed he had not taken notice the boy lacked shoes. Plüschow claimed to being discerning and missing such an obvious trait hurt his pride.
“Where are we going?”
“Northwest to Offenburg. My destination is Wismar. Have you heard of it?”
The Haferbräutigam shook his head.
“I was born there,” Plüschow said. “The mattress beneath my mother suffered through seven children. I was the first, hopefully anticipated with great enthusiasm. My siblings, well, stain after stain is how I sometimes regard them.”
“I was born in a field.”
“I would imagine a scene of much . . . consternation.” Ahh, rustics. They rut in fields, they toil in fields, give birth and die in the fields, or at least, that was the image that came to mind. “I’ve outlived Bismark, who was born only a few days before me,” Plüschow said. “And yet I am not spoken of as often as him. Not very fair, do you think?”
The Haferbräutigam did not comment but gazed out the window as the train began moving.
Plüschow had met a German who had no opinion of Bismark. Remarkable.
The ticket agent arrived. Plüschow handed over his ticket. He was about to search for the funds to pay for the young man’s passage when the Haferbräutigam smiled at the uniformed man, who tipped his cap and then left without saying another word.
“I am not the only one to notice your charms.”
“So, funeral, wedding, or to make amends?”
“You smell foreign, sound foreign, so you have been away a long time. You are travelling to back to the cradle but spending money to do so. Men return from a long absence for a funeral, a wedding, or—”
Plüschow held up a hand. “I dislike funerals and weddings. For different reasons, mind you. And I never apologize.”
“A family reunion.” Plüschow left unsaid the difficulty in accepting the invitation. He did not recognize the name—apparently a grand nephew; he had no idea how many children his siblings had engendered, and their offspring’s offspring . . . and so forth. He took out his pipe and tobacco while the Haferbräutigam watched him and flinched when Plüschow lit the match.
“So, my little alienist,” Plüschow encouraged the tobacco to burn, “I shall admit to being a scoundrel.”
The Haferbräutigam grinned. “Thank you for warning me.”
With the pipe stem clenched between his teeth, Plüschow turned toward the Haferbräutigam’s bare feet. No stockings and so the skin above the ankles waited to be stroked. Plüschow risked resting a palm over the round bone above one foot.
“I have been in prison,” he said.
“Are you dangerous?”
Plüschow shrugged. “Are you frightened?”
“No. No man has ever frightened me.”
Plüschow squeezed the ankle. He expected hard bone but the foot gave a little and he heard a crackling sound. Perhaps the child was ill?
“So you are a felon?”
“I am. Dare you guess my crime?”
“Is this a game?” asked the Haferbräutigam.
“It can be.”
“What are the rules?”
“Are you hungry?”
“Always. I never get full.”
“Ahh, the appetites of the young. Older men have more discriminating appetites. Three guesses to my crime. If your deductions are correct, I shall treat you to a sumptuous meal of your choice in the Bistrowagen.”
“And if I always guess wrong?”
Plüschow slid his hand an inch higher up the Haferbräutigam’s shin. “I satisfy my tastes here.”
“Marvelous,” Plüschow said. “Before we begin, to be fair, I will allow you to ask one simple question of me–which I swear to respond with the utmost honesty—before each guess.”
“You’re being too kind.”
“Am I? I suppose a face like yours causes me to let down my guard.” Plüschow examined the Haferbräutigam’s toothy smile. He realized that he may have been too kind, indeed. “Oh, but you cannot, of course, ask me why I went to prison . . . that would be rather a cheat. The questions have to do with—”
“With appetites,” the Haferbräutigam said. “So tell me, do you prefer honey or sugar?”
“Such an odd question to begin with. The answer is sugar.”
“You were jailed as a thief.”
“While I have been accused of taking innocence on occasion, that was not my crime,” Plüschow said.
“Do you prefer capon or hen?”
“Ahh, I suppose you know the answer before asking.” He slid his hand further. The skin beneath his fingers was dry, so very dry. “Capon.”
“You were jailed as an agitator.”
“I definitely live an unrepentant life at odds with the sanctimonious mores of those in charge around me, but I roused no rabble.”
“Do you eat the seed of the fruit?”
When Plüschow said yes, he felt a decade younger and smothered by the layers of clothing he wore.
“You were caught fucking a boy born in springtime.”
Plüschow cursed as his thumb tamped down on the bowl of his pipe and singed the pad of skin.
The Haferbräutigam laughed and, in a most nimble move, took seconds to stand and jump over Plüschow’s knees.
“Well done.” Plüschow cleared his throat. He felt rather distressed as much as disappointed though he could identify why. “Though before your last query I found myself distracted with the thought of the Bistrowagen’s menu, so really I am rather relieved to guess was lucky.”
Plüschow lead the way through the train cars and to the crowded Bistrowagen, so crowded there was not a single empty table. The smell of fresh coffee and grilled meat mingled in the air. Plüschow had not dined on any traditional German dish since his youth. Recognizing dishes was akin to paging through photographs, seeing faces and remembering the taste of the models who’d once posed for him. A pinched-faced woman dressed in a widow’s wedding dress cut across cervelat while her equally dour companion, a man with white tufted eyebrows that made the top half of his bald head appear alert while his drooping mustache lulled the remainder, sampled Lard d’Arnad and black bread.
“I should have said ‘honey,’ ” Plüschow muttered to himself. “Speck needs honey.” He leaned down to the old man and recommended he ask the server for some. The man ignored the suggestion, most rudely without even a “Thank you” or nod.
The Haferbräutigam went to the next table. He took the fork from a businessman’s hand without resistance and dropped it onto the wood table. At the moment it clattered, the man left his seat, abandoning both plate full of food and table. The Haferbräutigam then gestured for Plüschow to sit with him at the table. He swept the plates to the floor. Not a single head turned at the crashing of dishes and glassware.
“I don’t want you watching me eat.”
“Something very wrong is happening,” Plüschow said. A server carrying a platter stepped onto a broken plate without concern and moved right past them. “Pardon me . . . ” But no one would pay attention to Plüschow, whose stomach growled.
The Haferbräutigam smirked. “I want to thank you for the game earlier. The last time . . . I think was a young mother. There were no locomotives back then. Carriages with real horses. Don’t be sad, she lost too. But I do love to play. You never had a chance of winning, and I could never have sated what you craved. So you have to go hungry now.”
The Haferbräutigam sniffed the air. Plüschow’s old nose did the same and noted that all the various odors of food had vanished from the Bistrowagen. It smelled like a barn instead.
Plüschow sneezed, which elicited giggles from a nearby table. Not from the father or mother but the two young girls across from them. They wore fine dresses and shiny shoes. Light blue ribbons decorated their plaited dark hair. They stared at Plüschow—no, at the Haferbräutigam—and smiled and giggled more. One whispered in the other’s ear.
The Haferbräutigam turned his head with the slow yet fluid motion of an owl following the sound of a mouse among the leaves. When he smiled at the girls his chin grew another two inches to accommodate a jaw with so many teeth, and the scent of grain became cloying.
“What are you?”
“Not so different from you.” The Haferbräutigam did not look away from the animated girls, whose titters and whispers to each other now consummated with them waving hello and blowing him kisses. He gestured for them to come close and they nearly tumbled off the bench in their enthusiasm to approach.
Plüschow shook his head. “I refuse to believe we’re alike in any manner.”
The Haferbräutigam reached out and petted more than stroked each girl’s long hair, their shoulders and small waists. He touched their cheeks. His smile never waned. A long strand of glistening saliva dropped from the side of his mouth closest to Plüschow.
“I don’t want you watching me eat,” the Haferbräutigam said again.
The girls took hold of his hand and tugged him to his feet as if it were a game—he was not much taller than either and yet, he loomed over them once on his feet. The girls’ giggles scraped along Plüschow’s spine.
“I won’t . . . ” He lost whatever threat he had sought to voice when the Haferbräutigam looked at him. The wolf from fairy tales stands before me. He has hens in his mouth and dares the old rooster to raise a cry.
“Remember, these are my prize for winning the game, Herr Plüschow. Remain humble in defeat and I may one day return the generosity, but,” the Haferbräutigam lifted both arms, like a hunter raising the brace of hares he had caught to show off his good fortune—and the girls kept giggling even though their faces contorted in the pain of having their small arms wrested high almost out of the socket, “if you cry foul then you will regret ever leaving that prison.”
Plüschow made a show of covering his mouth while rubbing his mustache back and forth. He felt sick, as if he has witnessed an act of pure cruelty. Yet he did not doubt the threat made the terrible spirit he had invited aboard the train. Yes, that was the worst: who was to blame for the abduction, the fate of those girls on than him?
As soon as the Haferbräutigam and his merry prizes had left the Bistrowagen, Plüschow sat down on the vacated bench opposite the girls’ parents.
“Quickly! While I cannot myself rescue your daughters there might still be time for you!” They glanced up at him from their plates, their forks, their knives. “At the very least demand the conductor stop the train before . . . ” He could not bring himself to say what the Haferbräutigam’s intentions were because not only did it sound insane—a dashing man with a wolf’s teeth tearing apart little girls? The stuff of fairy tales, indeed!—but he did not want to terrify the parents. Nothing in nature sounded worse than a hysterical woman’s cries except the banal promises by the husband with the Sisyphean task of comforting her.
“We are so proud of our Häschen.” A forkful of sauerkraut followed the wife’s words. She had damp lips and dry eyes.
“And to think I didn’t have to spend a pfenning on a dowry. Oh, these are tough times, tough times,” the husband chewed a piece of kassler openly. He was missing several teeth, which meant he favored one side of his mouth.
Plüschow gripped the edges of the table. He could not understand their unruffled demeanor. He wanted to add their plates to the mess on the train car’s floorboards. “Don’t you care that they were taken?”
“We must remember to come back in the spring,” the wife said to her husband.
Plüschow stood. He cuffed the husband’s hat off his head. The fellow scowled. “Do you even remember their names?”
Plüschow did not want to know the answer and headed back to the passenger cars.
He collapsed on the seat beside the window and drew the shade down.
He stared at his hands, both of them, first at the palms. He thought about the rustics of Italy he dealt with so often that he could guess correctly the course of their day from waking to sleep. What they eat this season and when. What they worried about—nearly always money, which was why so many of them agreed to let Plüschow photograph their children for centesimi, lira if he brought them back to his studio in Naples or Rome. He knew which fathers and mothers suspected he wanted to fuck their sons. He knew which fathers and mothers sold them their sons.
But this? The Haferbräutigam?
Plüschow never left returned a boy with so much as a scratch.
Those girls would be scratched. He remembered the dry flesh of the Haferbräutigam. His teeth . . .
The simple folk around Naples believed in folletti, spirits, goblins. They blamed many things for bad crops, poor health, lost animals, lost children, lost loves. Rather than look around them and see that the twentieth century had arrived, rather than welcome it, they sought refuge in the ignorance of the past. And not simply the lingering, whimpering final years of the last century but rather their beliefs were consistent with a man from 1805, say. An Italian farmer could spend an entire month in the company of such a superannuated figure and never see the difference between one and the other. But not the German people—they understood the momentum of progress, on the land and on its people.
Or so Plüschow always believed. He could never have run his studio in, say, Württemberg. His dwindling patrons did not want nude boys in German meadows. Or dirty lads working in factories.
Or photographs of girls. No, not girls in pretty dressed with blue ribbons. Not ripped girls.
He needed a drink. He felt dry, parched, his hands rubbing together sounded unpleasant. Those girls would be scratched. The Haferbräutigam’s teeth . . .
No, he should not blame himself. The parents were right there, the Bistrowagen full! He had no notion of that . . . thing’s true nature. Or its appetite. He’s lucky to have survived the encounter. Should he feel guilty because his heart still beat? He suffered. His heart felt erratic in his chest as if the organ itself knew fear. He doubted he would forget this day. Why should the girls’ parents . . . and the others present . . . all masticating like sheep . . . why should he alone remember?
Perhaps his mind was too keen to be taken in by sorcery? Should a man of this new era look askance? No. He must look forward even if some tears are shed.
But a bottle of something strong would not be refused by anyone sane. He lifted up the shade and watched the landscape roll towards him, moved his head and saw what fell away. He would be thankful if they pulled into Offenburg station early.