The Never-Ending Steps by Sean M. Perry
(Setting: Bohemia, ca. 1780)
The sky had finally turned clear although the countryside was still awash with the snows from the four-day long blizzard. Johannes wiped some of the frost from the small window and gazed out. The cemetery sloped downwards towards the valley and he could see for miles around; the smoke coming from the chimneys of scattered homes in the distance, and white, white, white.
It took a few minutes to rekindle the hearth but soon the air was rich with the scents of chamomile and eintopf, blending together with with other earthy smells of the ancient cottage.
Johannes took to his meal and listened to chirping of the birds echoing thinly as he planned his day. When ha was ready he donned his scarf, greatcoat and wide-brimmed hat, bid a cheery fare-thee-well to Felix with the admonishment that he continue his important mission of keeping their humble abode free of mice. Freezing air rushed in as he opened his door to the World
The cobbled path through the cemetery was snowed under, but he had his broom with him, using it alternately as well as a walking stick when necessary. Clearing the path was a daily part of his work and was the only way to the ridge, beyond which lay the big valley and Town, a pleasant excursion he had made almost every day of his life. The flowering mirabella in the spring, the laughter of summer, and the songs of autumn were his favorite childhood memories. His was the legacy of what had been his father's and his father's father before him.
When he made his way to the foot of the ridge, he methodically started upwards and continued to sweep snow and ice from every inch of the ancient stepping stones. The way could be treacherous so he often used trees to steady himself as he worked for it not for the abundant vegetation, one slip could leave one battered and broken hundreds of feet below, at very least scraped and gouged. Johannes had stories. As boys in wintertime they would often carry their sleds up to the apex and race down the rough track used to raise or lower goods, coffins, etc. up or down either side of the ridge, and sometimes with disastrous results. He, himself, once plowed head-first into a tree after losing control along a gentle curve and lay, dazed, in the middle of the track to be struck by other sledders following behind. He spent many weeks in recuperation with multiple fractures and was now, in his late 40's, one of the foremost foreseers of weather in the area.
He took pause when necessary at one of the resting spots situated at odd intervals along the zig-zagging climb. At one of these pauses he encountered young Franz Gregor, son of a local trader who regularly used this route on his weekly travels, bags of wares strapped all over his body so as to make rough going a little easier. A pleasant man who enjoyed whistling as he walked, he would often spend the night at Johannes' cottage, bringing the news and gossip with him from wherever he went. The younger greeted the elder first.
"Gruess Gott, Herr Schneider. How are you?"
Johannes smiled and nodded. "All is well, young man. I hope your family is also well?" Franz nodded in turn, then cheerily mentioned that he had treats from his mother for both he and Felix which he would leave at the cemetery.
Mutti Gregor was virtually a legend in her own time in every community within the province, her scrumptious baked goods, succulent smoked meats, and pickled vegatables which she was able to provide in, seemingly, vast quantities, were regarded as regional delicacies. Rumors abounded that she never slept, but the truth was much simpler; both she and her husband, now in their 60's, had had a total of 11 children, all healthy and robust, who had, in their turn, continued to add to their ever-growing clan. Mutti, at the same time shrewd, honest, thoughtful, jovial, and community-minded, came up with a job for even the youngest of the g'grands and g'g'grands almost as soon as they were able to walk. Gregor's, built up into a virtual emporium, occupying one whole side of the Marktplatz, a daunting operation, yet she always had time to sit and enjoy tea with all comers.
After mentioning to Franz that he was welcome to rest at the cottage if need be, instead of the wares shed, which was unheated, he resumed his upward climb and soon reached the half-way point at the top.
The very top of the ridge was as close to heaven as he had ever been. When the trees broke and he could see his own home almost a mile down, he turned and looked towards town, the spires of the kirke glistening in the morming sun, the (almost as tall) towers of the Schloss where lay the Provincial Rat, and even the giant banners which flew above it, tiny, above it. He could almost reach out and touch it. He always smiled when this thought came to him, as he knew he had had the very same thaught every time since being a young child.
The station at the top was truly a xommunity effort, as so many individuals and businesses needed to utilize it on a daily basis. Nominally unmanned, more often than not someone was resting or sheltering there. A portion of the small complex was built with huge wooden timbers, including a small lodge and stone hearth, outhouse, etc., but the way-station was constructed out of ironstone, outpost-style, able to withstand the buffetting winds which often assaulted the region at higher elevations. Besides storing the great spools of hand-braided rope attached to massive wooden winches used for raising and lowering, it was also used as a lookout in more turbulent times.
Downwards was almost, but not quite, simply a reverse of the way up. As he descended he encountered more and more people, all unamiamiously joyful at the improvement of the weather. Most of the way down he reached the dirst Gaststaette, lamp burning brightly atn all hours.
“Ah, Herr Schneider, be with you in a moment,” the proprietor called out as Johannes sat down at a small table close to the roaring fireplace. He smiled and nodded, leaned his broom against the wall behind him. Heinz Munch, just as he, was 51, and they had gone to school together, sharing escapades, mischief, broken bones, and girlfriends over the years. He pulled out his meershaum pipe, filled and lit it. Letting a long draught of smoke out, he leaned back a bit in his chair and surveyed the pub.
Heinz placed two tankards of bock on the table and scootshed the other chair over, sat down, yawned and stretched.
“Did you read the news?”, he inquired, knowing full well that he hadn't.
“Nothing interesting, I hope,” Johannes mused. Three days of being cooped up had begun to cure him of curiousity.
“Posted. Over there,” Heinz stuck his thumb over his shoulder without looking. “Seems someone broke into Herr Kruemmel's warehouse on the other side of town and stole sacks of grain and a number of his chickens. It was during the blizzard, so nobody saw anything. They tried tracking footprints, but by then the snow was too deep and they couldn't track them for long.”
Johannes groaned. "What, again? We just hanged those two bandits a few months ago."
Heinz shrugged, then walked back towards the bar to serve a few new arrivals. Johannes took a long draught of ale, lit his pipe. Such incidents were relatively rare, but this being an important trading route between provinces, it was bound to happen periodically. On the other hand, the generations of struggles and war had developed into a strong balance between professional congeniality and healthy suspision throughout it's citizenry.
He finished his drink and. taking up his broom, made his way to the end of the bar until Heinz finished with some other customers. Johannes motioned to him and the barkeep came right over to him.
"Is there any way you could send a few of your sons over to the cemetery to watch over the stores?" he asked, placing several gold Kroner on the bar in front of Heinz. "Tell them to bring some weapons and that they will have to stay until I return, which might be a few days."
Heinz looked at the coins, which was a considerable amount, "So you think it's that bad?" he asked, seriously.
"I don't know. But I may have to remain in town until tomorrow afternoon."
Heinz nodded. "I'll put Karl on it and have him rotate his people between here and there."
"Very well, sir. I will be at the Rat this evening and will report our findings to you upon my return. Please send them as soon as possible."
Gruess Gott, Herr Schneider"
"And to you, my friend."
He cut through the Marktplatz, which was beginning to bustle whith townspeople, all as happy as he for not being cooped up. Many of the booths were up and he eyed a few bottles of appelwoi which he paid 20 groschen for. He carefully wrapped them in cloth and placed them deeply into the pockets of his greatcoat.
He entered the emporieum via the main entrance and immediately was greeted by one of Mutti's youngest daughters, who smiled and then giggled, seemingly despite herself. Johannes browsed the many nooks and stalls until the restaurant was scheduled to open, leaving orders and always paying in advance; the candle stall, where he ordered a dozen beeswax candles, woolen socken at another, garlic, dried peppers and various herbs at yet another. Just as he was starting to head downstairs to the cellar where the cheeses, meats, beers and wines, etc. were kept, Mutti appeared, smiling, as always, broadly. They hugged and kissed each other on the cheeks, then she addressed him.
"Good Morning, young Johannes," she said. She always called him that although they were a mere handful of years apart in age. It dated back to when they were young and in school together, a time when age made a big difference.
"Morning to you, Mutti," he replied, Of course, he knew her name was Gitta, but since she started having children on a regular basis at 15, calling her Mutti was at first a tease, then an endearing term, and by her 20's, an everyday word. He told her that he would need to book a room for one or two nights and that he waited for the restaurant to open so he might eat before the council meeting.
Mutti nodded. "Well, the restaurant won't be open until tomorrow. But we have a buffet set up in the cafe'." She added, still smiling and with a twinkle in her eyes. "My cousin, Angelika, is in from Pest. Do you remember her from a few years ago?"
Johannes shrugged, feigning nonchellance. In fact, he did remember her; a very comely woman in her early 40's, long auburn hair, hourglass figure. He had had the last dance with her at Herbstfest, When she held her face up to his, he kissed her automatically, virtually falling into her deep brown eyes. Something awoke in him, feelings he had felt only a few times in his life, only more intense than ever before.
And then she was gone. He hadn't known she would be leaving so soon, and besides, his work took up much of his time. The sadness faded , slowly, although he never forgot. But Mutti was still speaking, shaking him out of his reverie.
"I will prepare a room for you on the second floor," she continued, "It will have adaquate firewood for the hearth, fresh water, and some snacks. Do you require anything else?"
Johannes shook his hed. "It might be late before I return. Will someone be here to show me?"
Mutti nodded. All the time they were speaking, she was leading him towards the cafe', Once they got to the inside entrance to the cafe', she hugged him one last time pleading pressing business. Johannes entered the cafe',
He made a cursory glance around, saw few people, then made for his usual spot, a small semi-hidden booth at the far corner of the room. After stoking his pipe and relaxing for a bit, he spied one of the daughters walking across the cafe' floor. He motioned to her and she came over, a little surprised that she hadn't seen her, but he assured her that he had just arrived. She asked what he wished and he ordered mintz tee mit honig, a brotchen with roast pork and cheese, as well as a small glass of stout beer. As was the custom, she brought the tea first, so he relit his pipe and sat back, preparing for his council appearance. His official position encompassed much more than just the cemetery. As commandant of the western district for trade and transport security, he had three deputies posted throughout the district with a generous budget approved by the Rat. They met monthly at the cemetery unless otherwise indicated and he had his most recent monthly report ready for presentation. He lit a small candle, placed it in the holder, and pulled out that report for review.
As he was reading, his food arrived and, without looking up, he motioned for her to simply place the tray onto the table. He continued reading, but after a few moments, he felt a presence standing next to him. He looked up.
Angelika was standing over him, "Johannes," she said quietly, his name coming from deep in her throat. He instinctively stood up and she melted into his arms, just as it had been on that wonderful night years ago. Then they kissed.
Neither one of them knew how to stop, nor did they seem to wish to, making up for the years of passion they had both yearned for. It wasn't until they both heard muffled giggles followed by several shushes! did they look and realize that they had an audiance. Reluctantly they extracated themselves from one another, spied several Gregor youths peeking around the doorway to the kitchen. Noticing they were caught, they simply vanished, although more giggles were heard fading into the distance as they fled the crime scene.
"Seems we had an audience," Johannes smiled. "Think we showed them anything untowardly?"
Angelika laughed heartily, then bit him lightly on the ear. "It's hard enough to keep Gregor kids away from each other at that age," She krinkled her nose. "I hated those rules until I grew older, until I could understand why. Even in small families, the girls are required to watch over each other carefully, and the boys usually all slept together in a seperate compound with the older couples and their children." She paused. "It is a practical logic in my culture. Girls need the freedom to learn how to handle the household. They are taught to take care of the younger children, required to help with the shopping, cooking, other family duties. The boys are required to help with the stables, the gardens, all of the heavy work. You understand?", she asked Johannes.
He nodded, numbly. Her scent was entrancing, and the timbre of her voice even more so. Her German was virtually perfect, but the Hungarian accent came though with every word. Giving her a peck on the the lips he took her hand and slid back into the booth, with her next to him. She came willingly, her hand coming to rest on his thigh as they sat.
"So, anyway," she continued, "The boys, who are less mature at the same age, are taught that they are under strong supervision so they won't try to sneak out and have sex with their horney sisters. That causes a certain resentment amongst the boys, who know that the girls have priveledges they don't have." She reached over and suddenly had a glass of wine in her hand. It was then that he noticed that the tray held another glass of wine, a bowl of goulyas, several pieces of garlic bread, and two spoons.
He took the wine glass and had a sip. It was a sweet autumn wine, very sweet, somehow perfect for the occaision. He then took up a spoon and filled it with stew, guiding it to her lips. She responded in kind, then they both reached for the bread. "Actually, it's the boys we are protecting from the girls. The girls are then forced to go outside of the family to get their ashes hauled and the boys follow suite a few years later, in which case they start being treated as adults. And do you know what the hilarious thing is" She giggled loudly, a musical sound. "They all seem to think it was their own idea!" She laughed even louder, slapping his thigh.
This time he laughed with her and took the opportunity to kiss her again. He felt young, a feeling he hadn't felt for a long time. After the mirth subsided, he told her he was on his way to council and must leave momentarily, but also the planned to spend the night.
She looked at him slyly. " Do you think there are any secrets around this place?. The second she manouvered you to the cafe, she ran straight to me then rushed to the restaurant to prepare a proper lunch. I had only a few minutes to wash a layer of flour from the bakery off and to put on a pretty dress. You like it?. Johannes nodded. "She even lied to you about the restaurant being closed so that we would be able to see one another in a more intimate place." She smiled. "Gitta has been pairing off couples, especially her own kids, for many years now and is never wrong. Scary, huh?"
Johannes shrugged and said, matter-of-factly, "Well, might as well stick with a good thing." He kissed her one last time. Lunch was finished and he was woefully aware that his meeting was seating at this time. His plan was to give his report as quickly as possible then leave quickly. As he left Gregor's, everyone smiled and waved to him, including some of the customers, lending even more substance to Angelika's claims. He waved back, although he rolled his eyes up a little and wondered how long it would take before the whole town knew.
He pushed everything else out of his mind for the moment and concentrated on what was immediately ahead of him. Most of his was routine, bordering on the mundane, although for formality's sake he would have to at least touch upon it, reporting from the specific stations for the record. But once all of the routine business from around the province was verbalized and recorded, there would be a (usually short) session, whereas the deputies would entertain questions from the individual ministers. Then a brief intermission during this part of the session would be called so that all could confer with one another. Upon resumtion, the rest of the guestions were posed and answered, then a longer break would be called.
Once Johannes reached the gates entering the Schloss, it swung open immediately. As a town of over 35,000 people and a major trading center, it behooved the guards to be diligent regarding access during sessions. Johannes, well-known for his compassion and generosity was always accorded the highest respect. He had often asked the youmger guards to call him Johannes instead of his formal title, but they could never quite bring themselves to do so, compromising by calling him "sir". He would also mention to them that whenever he got tired of his work and decided to do something different, he would love to come work with them. They would always laugh and guffaw, saying they would welcome that, the sargeant-at-arms being such a tyrant. He would always quip something like that they should have known him when he was younger, or that even his mother thought that as well, leaving them in stitches as he made his way to chambers.
Roll was being called as he entered. Making his way to the deputies table to the right of the Burgermeister's wing chair, he held up his hand when he heard his name. The other deputies were conferring and he joined them, making well sure that he was able to get some information on the recent proclamation. The wait for the Mayor was, in Johannes' opinion, the most productive portion of the council meeting, as much community business was accomplished.
The Mayor was ready for his entrance. Everyone rose to attantion and a round of applause started, lasting until the Mayor took his place at the head table. Once he was seated, everyone in turn took their places and the session was called to order.
Peter Rohrbach was a dazzling young mayor indeed, square of jaw, just enough point for a dimple, tall, and also with a full head of thick, auburn hair. He was the object of all the girls' affections. Back in the days when he was in his mid-20's, the royal children, teens, and young adults were going off to their various schools in Praha, Munchen, Wien or Berlin, Johannes often was the voyage master, ferrying them and a number of trading wagons