Otto was interested in the beginning of things and the ending of things. He liked to watch the lambs being born in the fields, where the grass was so rich his father’s milk raised the best price at auction, and he liked to watch the disintegration of rabbits’ carcasses as they passed through each stage of decomposition, ending with the chalky dust which eventually blew into the wind to be carried to the earth’s four corners.
It was as if an understanding of these thresholds could help him to make sense of everything else that went in between; why the weather changed so quickly in the mountains, why fingernails tasted good and why his father so patently preferred his sister.
“Mama…is it because Marta is like a cow that Papa loves her so?” He had asked as a seven year old. Marta, blond, placid and slow moving, with eyes of blue was clearly his superior.
“Hush Otto. That is no way to speak of anyone, especially your sister.”
“I didn’t mean to be unkind.”
His mother ruffled his hair, which he hated for its darkness, hair that made him feel marked out, different. Hair as dark as if Mussolini himself had snuck over the Bavarian border into his mother’s bed, the night Otto was conceived.
He wasn’t the only brunette, of course, but as a general rule where most of the children were large, he was small; where they were clean, he was grubby, and where they were amused, he was bored. Childhood, to Otto, seemed like very hard work and he found himself wishing away the days from a comparatively young age.
The summer of 1926 was hot and to the twelve-year-old Otto’s delight, mosquitoes laid their eggs in places where it was normally too cold.
“The big green ones are the girls and the smaller black ones are the boys.” Otto had jumped; thinking himself alone as he squatted over a stagnant pond, jar in hand. The boy who’d spoken lifted Otto’s jar up to the light. The larvae, like tiny dragons, moved awkwardly up and down in the sunlit water.
“Look. That one is a girl, and that one, asleep at the bottom,” the boy tapped the glass with a surprisingly clean nail. “That’s a boy.”
“Why are the girls bigger?” Otto asked, impressed.
“They’re the ones which suck the blood, lay eggs, carry disease, do all the work really. The boys just fertilise the eggs, then they die. Quite a nice life, if you think about it,” said the boy with a grin.
“Apart from the death bit,” replied Otto, regarding the boy who was everything Otto aspired to be – tall, blond, broad shouldered with a direct blue gaze. If love were the measure of how a child grew then, Otto decided, this boy had been loved a lot.
“I’m Wilfrid,” the boy said, sticking out a hand.
Otto took it, feeling its warm dry weight, and he smiled.
“Do you like insects, then?”
Wilfrid’s head moved vigorously up and down and Otto felt a little thrill of pleasure.
“Oh yes! Papa and I, we love them. We have some fine specimens. Would you like to come and see?”
Wilfrid pulled Otto to his feet and fastened the lid of the jar, poking two holes through it with a penknife he took from his pocket. The carpet of needles crunched, muffled, under their feet, and the sun burnt onto Otto’s back when he crossed the spaces between the shadows of the pines.
“Are you new to the village?” Otto’s stab at small talk felt awkward, as if his mouth were full of sand.
“We arrived last weekend. Papa is the new doctor.”
“We have a new doctor?”
Shyness was forgotten at this exciting revelation. There wasn’t a child in the village that hadn’t suffered at the hands of old Dr Lentz. Whether he was checking your chest or your scrotum, it was bound to hurt.
“Yes, we have the house next to the bakery.”
It being August, Otto’s inventory of the village had been lacking. Normally he scanned the two-road village with a sharp eye, not realising how much he hoped for a change; any change, but nothing ever did, here in this village, where everyone had known everyone else for at least three generations.
“So you will come to school in September?”
“Yes, I can’t wait.”
Otto’s eyes slid away lest this nice boy see the jealousy he felt. Of course he was looking forward to it, a boy like him, simply by virtue of his appearance would take his place at the top of the rigidly defined social tree.
“I met the teacher already. She seems nice. Papa thinks I might be a little ahead of class, so she is to set me some extra work.”
By the time Otto and Wilfrid had reached Wilfrid’s white painted gate, Otto was enchanted with his new friend. They ate coffee cake; still warm from the oven and with creamy milk moustaches they swung their feet in the flag-stoned kitchen of the new doctor’s house.
“So, where did you live before?”
Otto’s eyes widened.
“Frankfurt the city?” Wilfrid nodded, his mouth full. “Why did you come here?” Otto asked, incredulous.
“My mother died.”
Otto shrank down in his chair.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, crumbs falling from his mouth. Wilfrid swung his legs against the leg of the table.
“Papa wanted a new life. I think the old house reminded him of Mama’s illness. He put it on the market the day after her funeral.”
Otto noticed the red gingham curtains flapping at the window, the scrubbed pine table at which they sat and the cat, asleep in a patch of sun on the sill. If there ever was a house, which felt healthy, this was it. Otto’s own home never seemed to welcome him as this one did. At home the stairs creaked at him, the taps splattered him with unexpected bursts of water, and he trapped fingers and stubbed toes more often than anyone he knew.
“Well, I am glad you are here,” he offered.
Wilfrid smiled, wide and golden.
“Me too.” He wiped his mouth, “Come, let us see if Papa is home.”
The village of Frieberg had grown outwards over the years, but the white clapboard church still lay at the centre of the crossroads. Just across the road was the bakery, so concentrating on church services was impossible; so tempting was the smell of the bread. Wilfrid’s house was tall and of stone, built before the villagers decided they preferred the warmer wooden ones. They climbed the stairs, and Wilfrid knocked at a heavy wooden door.
“Come!” An authoritative voice; a doctor’s voice.
Wilfrid seized Otto by the shoulder and pulled him into the room.
“Papa, I have made a friend.”
A man with hair as dark as Otto’s his own, and a full, but neatly manicured, beard looked at him. Seemingly and, seemingly liking what he saw, he smiled; a. A proper smile, with every part of his face. And his teeth! Clean, white, regular. Not like Dr Lentz’s mouth, full of crumbling tombstones.
Otto’s face grew warm. People did not usually smile at him like that. Already he hoped never to have to leave the house of Wilfrid and the doctor.
“So Otto,” the doctor leant forward and shook Otto’s hand. “It’s very nice to meet you. Young Wilfrid has been hoping to make a friend. Whereabouts do you live?”
Otto shuffled his feet a bit.
“I’m out toward the forest, our farm is the last one on the road to Munich.” Then emboldened by the doctor’s friendliness he said, “Wilfrid said he would show me your insect collections.”
The doctor’s face lit up.
“Ah ha! An entomologist. Which are your favourites?”
Otto wasn’t entirely sure what he was talking about, but he nodded nonetheless and replied:
“I like them all.”
The doctor narrowed his eyes.
“But if I had to make you choose?”
“Umm…the Devil’s Coachman, when I can find them.”
The doctor leaned back into his chair, nodding.
“A very good choice. Tricky little blighters, aren’t they though? Very, very hard to find; but so rewarding when you do. Wilfrid likes those too, don’t you?”
The doctor came out from behind his desk, which was littered with papers and, now Otto had a closer look, a large and exciting-looking magnifying glass. Crossing the room he stopped before a heavy wooden chest about five feet wide by four feet deep.
When the doctor pulled out the first drawer Otto couldn’t help letting out a gasp, for it was not really a drawer at all, it was a specimen case. Under the giant piece of glass, neatly pierced and labelled in a calligraphic script, were rows of shining beetles. Leaving the drawer open the doctor closed the heavy curtains against the light and held a lantern up above the glass.
“See how their bodies change colour?” He moved the lantern backwards and forwards. “That’s called iridescence. Insects developed it as a means of defence.”
“How does it help?” asked Otto, mesmerised.
“The changing colours confuse its predators and whilst they’re standing thinking the beetle might be a rock, the beetle makes his getaway.”
The doctor smiled and pushed the drawer back in and pulled out another.
“I think you’ll like this one.”
Otto gazed and gazed.
The Devil’s Coachmen lay like dry twigs against the blue of the blotting paper. Even in death, to Otto, their menace was impressive. The long black ridged bodies and the large domed heads, as big as the tip of his thumb, with multi-faceted, now-sightless eyes. They didn’t move very fast, but Otto never forgot the first time he had seen one, it’s sinister appearance had been enough for him to let it go on its way. He could only imagine what another insect might make of it.
“Where…how…did you buy these?” He asked, fingering the handle of the drawer beneath.
Wilfrid let out a laugh.
“Buy them? No no! Papa and I collected them. I chloroformed them and Papa did the pinning and the writing.”
“Really? You collected them together?” The idea that a father might engage in an activity with his son that was unrelated to work was so alien to Otto; he almost didn’t understand what Wilfrid was saying.
“Yes. We would go collecting every weekend, when Mama was alive so she could sleep.”
The doctor was looking at Otto.
“Would you like to come with us sometime Otto?” But Otto was gazing back down at the specimens, lost in their beauty, too distracted to do more than nod. The more he looked at their glossy carapaces, the less he found himself trying, and failing, to draw parallels between Wilfrid’s family life and his own.
The remaining four weeks of the summer were like ones Otto had never experienced before. He would wake early, as if making up for lost time and be out of the house before the sun had risen. Having rushed through his chores, he would get to Wilfrid’s in time to take breakfast with them and their housekeeper, Mrs Fehling, a practical woman who stopped the house from disappearing under a pile of microscopes, medical dictionaries and missives from the Ministry of Health. Then the doctor would attend to his surgery and Wilfrid and Otto would be free for the day.
It was a constant amazement to Otto at how Wilfrid was expected to do nothing more than get good marks at school. He had no endless list of jobs to finish before the day’s entertainment began; there was no pressure to look as if he were always gainfully occupied - he could lounge at will and his father didn’t seem to think less of him because of it. Before long, Otto was spending more time at Wilfrid’s than he did at his own home.
“Who are these people Otto?” His father asked one night when Otto had been commanded to stay at home. “And what is it you do there all day?”
“We study, father. Or we go out and collect samples and bring them back and mount them… if they are good enough. The doctor is very particular.”
“And what is the point of this collecting, Otto?” His father looked at him as if it had been a struggle to remember his name, and Otto wondered how old he would have to be, before he no longer needed to reply to his father’s questions.
‘Hush, Andreas,” interrupted his mother. “It is good Otto does these things. He is studying, he is learning. At least he is not just banging a gate with a stick.”
His father snorted and brought his mouth down to his plate to suck in a piece of ham rind.
“That, at least, would be something I could understand.”
“Mama is right, Papa. I am learning things. Only yesterday the doctor bred frogs which all turned out to be girls.”
Otto’s father’s face folded in on itself.
“Why on earth would he want to do that?”
Otto was carried away with the excitement he’d felt on watching the experiment from its inception to conclusion, exulting alongside Dr Bauer, when the his assumption had proved correct. It was as if the doctor had power over creation itself.
“To see if it were possible,” replied Otto simply.
“It’s not Christian this messing with God’s world. If God wanted girl frogs he’d have made them. The man’s clearly a heathen.”
Otto stood up, his temper rising with the flush of his cheeks.
“He’s not. He goes to church!”
“We all go to church! Even that crook, the butcher, goes to church.”
“Andreas,” said his mother, but his father ignored her. He pointed a meaty finger at Otto.
“I do not want you going there again. You spend too much time there. I don’t like your head being filled with these stupid ideas.”
Otto sat back down again. He knew better than to argue. If he did, any chance at all of seeing Wilfrid would be taken away. He looked at the food laid out on the table in front of him, which had once seemed enough and now no longer was; bread, cheese, milk seemed so plain after the Italian sausage and trifles he’d had at Wilfrid’s. He looked around the room with its wooden cabinets, and longed for the doctor’s study with its carpets and glowing lamps.
“You think we’re not good enough for you now,” his father said in a low voice. Otto looked at him. He tried hurriedly to take his feelings from his face, but it was too late.
“It’s not that Papa.” He thought to make one last try at explaining himself. To explain the overwhelming need he had for experiences beyond the ones his family could offer him and how, now having had them, there could be no going back.
“It’s just there, at the doctor’s…it’s so different… so interesting…he says I’m clever, that I could be a doctor like him.”
His father’s eyes narrowed and then flew open, as did his mouth, red and wide, as he laughed deeply, confidently. Otto stared at his plate, willing the tears not to come, summoning mental images of his favourite specimens; the sparkling bottle green of the dragon fly, the midnight blue of the scarab, the glossy raven black of the stag beetle – would that it were here now, life-size, antlers primed for attack at a word from Otto.
His father wiped his eyes. His mother and Marta were still.
“You a doctor? Doctor Otto? Come boy,” his father seemed for a moment to get himself under control and his voice softened.
“Doctoring’s not for people like us and,” his eyes slid over to Otto. “I wouldn’t want you to be disappointed.”
“Why would I be disappointed? The doctor said I could get a scholarship. I wouldn’t have to pay for anything…” A feeling of freedom came over Otto, as if someone were shining a light through a closed curtain on a dark night.
His father looked at him with an expression close to pity.
“What do you think they’d make of you when you got there? Poor little farmer boy. I don’t want them laughing at you, Otto. Life is hard enough already.”
Otto’s curtain closed and the light went out.
How stupid he’d been.
This would be the reason his father would hide behind.
“No, you will stay here and become a farmer.”
“Andreas,” his mother spoke. “Do you not think if maybe the doctor…” but her voice was soft as smoke and his father, rising from the table, seemed not to hear her, and her words hung in the air long after he’d left the room.
There was the sound of a door opening and closing and his father’s boots on the dirt outside. Then the opening of the ice store, the chink of a bottle and the settling of his father’s weight in his deep wooden chair outside. His mother rose to clear the table, her movements irregular like those of a marionette.
“Go now, upstairs…no talking and lanterns out.”
The last thing Otto heard before he slept was his mother winding a leather thong around the latch of his door.
So Otto carefully constructed the childhood, which might lie ahead of him; school, farm, work, church and Wilfrid’s house; and held onto it for dear life, but its instability gnawed at him constantly, making his tummy hurt and his bowels loose.
As September crept in with its dewy cobwebs, Otto found, for the first time in his life, he was looking forward to school. It meant he’d be away from home for the entire day, away from his father’s vigilance in making sure he became enmeshed in the running of the farm. As if his father thought this might persuade him farming would be a better future.
Of course, it had the opposite effect.
With each calf he pulled and each hay bale he tossed, Otto could feel little parts of himself disappearing. One minute he knew exactly how long he needed to dip a sheep for all the ticks to be killed, but in the next moment the memory had fled and, no matter how much his father shouted at him, he couldn’t locate it. How was it his father could think a perfectly tilled furrow would interest Otto as much as the experiments the doctor was to start on with brown and white mice? How could Otto ever explain it? He wouldn’t know where to begin.
On that first day at school, Wilfrid surpassed even Otto’s expectations of how he’d like a best friend to behave. Wilfrid had waited for him in the chalky dust of the playground, ignoring the stares from the children around him; the girls in black wool dresses with white aprons, the boys in black gaiters - all of them sweating around their high collars. Then he had walked with Otto into the schoolroom and sat next to him in the mercifully cool air of the stone building. Otto felt his energy return, his stomach settle and he smiled.
“Has anyone spoken to you?”
Wilfrid shook his head.
“Someone threw a stone at me, but I didn’t see who it was.” Wilfrid looked around at the faces looking at him, some surreptitiously, some openly. “They look all right. Leastways, I’ve seen worse.”
Otto found this hard to believe.
“What, worse than Gorstmann?” He gestured with his head to a square, ginger-haired boy, with forearms like tree trunks, and skin as uneven as the surface of the moon.
“He is a little alarming,” Wilfrid grinned, “but the trick is to make them your friend…”
Otto didn’t think he’d ever be able to see Gorstmann as a friend but, for Wilfrid, he would try. Sure enough, after school Gorstmann, Schmidt and Lentz blocked their path at the school gates.
“Who’s the new boy, squirt?”
“This is Wilfrid Bauer. His father is the new doctor.”
Wilfrid opened his eyes wide and stuck out his hand. Otto could see the other boys eyeing his size, estimating his weight.
“You’re Lentz aren’t you? I heard your grandfather was the best doctor the village ever had. All my father’s patients say how much they will miss him.”
Lentz, wrong-footed, swallowed and looked for some kind of a trick or a joke, but there was only Wilfrid and his hand and his open friendly face.
Lentz accepted it.
There was a muffled snort from Gorstmann, but Wilfrid was quick to congratulate him on the wrestling plate he’d won the previous summer. Gorstmann’s small eyes narrowed with pleasure and his pale skin turned pink. Wilfrid clapped one of his own, large, arms around Gorstmann’s shoulders and walked with him from the schoolyard, enquiring whether Gorstmann thought, he, Wilfrid, might have a chance to join the wrestling squad. Otto thought, if they had been dogs, Gorstmann, Lentz and Schmidt might have rolled over on their backs and asked for Wilfrid to scratch their tummies.
Three days later, he had permission to join Wilfrid after school for milk and cake. Mrs Fehling let him in and he had to restrain himself from running up the stairs to the doctor’s study.
“It’s very nice to see you. Come and see how it’s going.” The doctor’s eyes twinkled. “I’ve had no one to show it to.”
Otto smiled, inclusion making him feel warm and blanketed.
“What about Wilfrid?”
The doctor lifted a heavy glass box from a shelf and laid it upon the desk.
“Oh Wilfrid, he loves the insects, but this experiment he likes a little less. Between you and me, I am losing the battle for his soul.” The doctor looked ruefully at the piano. “Still, music is a fine alternative. Now look. See what I have done.”
The doctor and Otto peered into the box. It was divided into four sections and each section held two white mice; some asleep, curled in their wood shavings, some looking back at Wilfrid with brown eyes, whiskers twitching.
“Oh sweet, but I thought white mice had pink eyes?” Otto said.
“Ha!” The doctor clapped him on the back. “You’ve got it already and I’ve not even told you what the experiment was to prove.”
“What was it?”
“To produce a white mouse with brown eyes. Look,” he lifted the two mice from the first section. One had brown eyes and one pink. “These are the grandparents. They had three litters and in each litter there was only one mouse, out of six or seven, with pink eyes. All the rest were brown eyed, which means…”
He pulled a large piece of parchment open, sealing each end with a weight. The paper was heavy and criss-crossed with lines in pink and brown ink. As Otto looked at it, he could see the lines originated from two circles at the top of the page and led down, and out, in an ever-increasing Christmas tree shape.
“So you see,” the doctor traced the lines so Otto could follow them. “Here in my own house, I’ve reproduced the experiments of Professor Mendel. In my little living room in Bavaria, I have proved the law of inheritance.” The doctor shook his head. “Life is strange indeed.”
Otto looked from the doctor’s face back to the criss-crossing lines and from being an inky blur, they gradually morphed into a pattern, a pattern as beautiful and universal as the sun. With a forefinger he traced the lines of brown, down through the mouses’ family tree.
The door banged and Wilfrid came back in, banging a tray down on a side table.
“Don’t tell me he’s got it out already?” Otto laughed.
Wilfrid leant in and lifted a mouse, bright white and brown eyed. “We’ve called this one Adam. The firstborn.”
Otto stroked the feathery head.
“Hello Adam.” He turned back to the parchment.
“So you see,” continued the doctor, “two generations of brown eyed mice from one pink eyed and one brown eyed grandparent. What do you make of it?”
Otto thought for a moment.
“If you have a mouse with pink eyes and one with brown, the babies’ eyes will usually be brown?”
The doctor’s eyes gleamed.
“Exactly. And here, look what happens if you have only grandparents with pink eyes,” he pulled out another sheet of paper. Otto looked, but on this sheet there were only lines of pink.
“They had no babies with brown eyes?”
The doctor nodded.
“Isn’t that extraordinary? Yet, if you add a field mouse with brown eyes, in two generations you have most offspring with brown eyes.”
“So two blue eyed mice can’t have a brown eyed baby?”
“It would appear so.”
“And two brown eyed mice can’t have a blue eyed baby?”
Otto thought for a moment.
“Do you think this might be true of humans?”
The doctor smiled.
“We don’t know yet, but mice are mammals, as are we. There are bound to be similarities.”
Otto took one of the mice and held it in his hand, it’s sniffing nose tickling his palm.
“My eyes are brown.”
“So they are.”
“My mother and fathers’ eyes are blue.”
The doctor was leaning deep inside a leather trunk on the other side of the room.
Otto looked out of the open window at the white church spire poking at the sky and the beech leaves, copper and red.
Freedom might smell like this, he decided; leaves turning, dry earth and wind, empty of their own scent, free to take on whatever scent Otto chose.
Walking from Wilfrid’s house, he noticed the road home seemed longer; it didn’t come up on him quite as quickly as it usually did. At the wooden gate, stood a ring of giant dead sunflowers, slowly going to seed. Their stalks were as thick as his father’s thumbs as Otto grasped them and heaved the roots from the ground, leaving the sweet-smelling earth upturned. Then he walked slowly towards his house. In the distance, he could see Marta and his father amongst a line of cabbages, their golden heads bent downwards, like the sunflowers in his hands, their movements the same, as they dug each cabbage free of snails and weevils.
There was a step on the porch and his mother came to stand next to him. She took the sunflowers.
“Thank you Otto, Papa will be pleased to have the seeds.”
Otto looked at his mother, as if for the first time. Everything about her was familiar and yet unfamiliar, as if the world had been quietly taken apart and then reconstructed whilst he was inside Wilfrid’s house. In that moment, he saw his mother’s features in his face, as if superimposed; the small nose, the sharp chin.
Of his father’s face, there was nothing.
“What is it Otto? Are you ill?”
“No I’m fine.”
She touched him on the shoulder.
“Come inside. I have something for you.”
In the kitchen she took down a package from the top shelf and handed it to Otto. Inside the brown paper was a microscope, old and battered, but a microscope nonetheless. He lifted it free of its wrapping and put it on the kitchen table.
“Is it the right one?” Her face, plain and kind, was anxious.
He squinted through the lens, but the glass was broken and all he could see was an infinite darkness.
“It’s perfect Mama.”
“Can you show me how it works?”
Otto’s filthy fingers fiddled with the tiny wheel on the microscope’s neck.
“Not just yet. I need to set it up properly, clean a few of the pieces. Wilfrid’s father can help me.”
His mother’s face fell.
“Is there nothing I can do?”
“Very well. Now put that away, and go and wash for dinner.”
That night, as Otto lay on his bed, a moth, large and feathery flew in through the window. It flew twice around the room, carefully, as if checking for obstacles, then it flew back out into the folded blackness and up along a silvery path to where the moon hung in the hot night sky.
Otto bunched his pillow and placed it beneath his head. In a moment, his eyes closed and he slept.