This week, we invite you to travel through myth and history with Christopher Rowe’s “The Mourning Quilt” in a story that asks us to consider how to keep faith and how to say goodbye.~ Julian Yap and Fran Wilde, November 27, 2022
The Mourning Quilt
By Christopher Rowe
There was a man trudging through the snow, ignoring the calls and screams in the dark stone buildings he walked among. He called himself Hank Bird.
There were only a few other men out at midnight, walking the icy paths under thick cloud cover. By the sounds of the curses they muttered over the frozen locks, Hank knew them to be the sons or grandsons of Englishmen. Hank Bird was not an Englishman.
He came to a row of fieldstone buildings with high pointed roofs. The man who had hired Hank had said they were styled after the pagodas in Japan. This was not Japan, but Ohio.
Hank Bird found the key to the heavy locks of the building he was to clean, which housed the birds he was to feed. (See, Mr. Bird, a little joke, his new employer had told him in October. We’ll give you the aviaries for your work.) The lock was new. One of his first tasks when he’d been hired four months ago had been to remove the old Schlage locks from San Francisco and replace them with new National locks from Illinois. National Lock Company was a safe name in the America of 1918.
But the name on the locks themselves was National, and it was the name they wore that mattered. So Heinrich Berding worked hard to say welcome with its strange, crying wuh sound. He read the Cincinnati Enquirer instead of the Freie Presse and he avoided the biergartens in Over-the-Rhine. When his wife, Käthe—Kate, he must remember she was Kate now—came home with a copy of the new Max Brod book, he threw it in the muddy Ohio River. And he called himself Hank Bird.
* * *
The building was cold and the birds were quiet. Hank pulled off a heavy leather glove and placed his hand on the radiator. The gas that fueled the zoo’s steam plant was being rationed, so the radiator was barely warm. Warmer, though, than the long walk up Vine Street had been. Coal was being rationed, too, so the streetcars were not running.
Hank had not minded the walk. It gave him some time away from weeping Kate and the children, the children who cried less because of the news about their uncle than because of their bewilderment at their strong mother’s sobs. Hank had given them such awkward comforts as he knew, pushing away any thoughts of his younger brother until he left for the zoo, long after dark.
They had owned a machinist’s shop together in Pennsylvania. In the spring, their neighbors and customers had burned it down and chased them from their home with stones and ugly words. Gerhard, younger and angrier, had chosen to prove his American spirit and followed Pershing to France. He enlisted as Gary Beard.
Heinrich took his family west, to the one city in America he thought might still welcome them. When they arrived, they read the news of murders of German speakers and watched city workers taking down signs reading Bremen Streetand Frankfurt Street, putting up signs that read Republic and Connecticut.
So it was as Hank that he’d found a two-room flat and a job and taught his children never to call him Vati. The letter that came that morning had been addressed to Mr. Bird, the letter telling of barbed wire and frozen trenches, of tetanus and the death of his brother.
In the aviary, Hank knew that the lamps would not draw enough gas to light his work. He lit a lantern, watching the flame sputter and smoke as the congealed whale oil liquefied. He gathered his buckets of sand and his rake, his bags of seed and suet, and went to the first cage.
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