It was a summer of mad winds.
They flapped through the city with dervish destruction, kicking up dirt, ripping washing from lines, scattering newspapers along the parkways, tugging at hair, leaving grit in the mouth and at the corners of eyes. The winds whistled to one another from each edge of the city, twisting, writhing, gusting, making dogs bay and snarl at undisclosed threats, cats flatten themselves to the ground and domesticated birds beat themselves against the wire of their cages. At night, people who had been caught on the streets during the fury would blow the brown dust of these gales into tissues.
Sirocco, Pampero, Barat, Ostria, Suestado, Lebeccio, Brubu, Chubasco, Cordonazo, Williwaw, Diablo, Haboob, Matanuska, Taku, Gregale. A wind by any other name will drive you just as crazy.
The Sirocco then. The Greek word for wind: σιρόκος — sirokos. The dry lungs of the Sahara blowing red dust towards the Mediterranean, reaching hurricane speeds in North Africa and southern Europe. Tuaregs tighten their indigo cloth around mouth and nose against the Qibli’s hot breath. Libyan Bedouin claim homicide is defensible if El-ghibli’s sandstorms last more than four days, and that camels can experience immaculate conception during the raging of the winds. The French smoke and drink with bored disdain in cafes in southern France, waiting for the Marin to tire of them as they have of it. Croatians shelter from the dirty rains of the Jugo in gloomy cathedrals, contemplating the rushing wind of the Spirit and its tongues of fire. And in Germany, the Sirocco is known as the wind of baby-craving madness, perhaps suggesting some cultural memory shared with the camels of Libya.
But by Scandinavia the Sirocco has run out of puff. Färdig. Bort. Gjort. Över.
In March 1922, the Sirocco rose from the Sahara with a ferocity and stamina that had no match in living memory. Its sandstorms reached Cairo within ten hours. Under the whirling red sky, with winds gusting violently through the city, the merchants at Khan el-Khalili helped each other to secure wood panelling to the fronts of their stalls.
Kasib, who had conducted a successful trade in beaded wedding chadors for more than forty years, looked heavenwards, running his hand down his long greying beard, a habitual gesture his wife gently teased him about when he balanced his books at the end of each day of trade. A few stray hairs came away in his hand and the wind whipped them from his palm and into the air. ‘Khamseen, rih al-khamseen,’ he muttered, calling the Sirocco by its Egyptian name as he borrowed a wooden bucket of mutton fat from his neighbour. He plastered the grey grease into cracks where the boards of the timber facade protecting his gossamer silks were warped or did not quite meet. The wind of fifty days. And indeed, to a day, that was how long the wind inflicted its mayhem on his city, his country and others far beyond the borders of Kasib’s imaginings.
Schwerbad, for example, Germany. Population thirteen thousand, founded in 1812. Renowned in the early days for its cobblers and the suppleness of their leathers. The unparalleled pliability of Schwerbad’s hides was ascribed to a rare species of grass, Pennisetum europaeus, found only in a thirty-mile radius of the city and consumed voraciously by local livestock. King Frederick William IV of Prussia, whose feet would only tolerate shodding by Schwerbad’s artisans, sought on several occasions to transplant the grass to his own estates. On the eighth failed attempt, and with six gardeners already sacked, Frederick consoled himself that the scarcity of the leather, more than its physical attributes, gave it its value. He promptly decreed the farmlands of Schwerbad to be state property in the interests of scientific research (and sartorial convenience).
By 1922, however, the Pennisetum had been eaten to extinction by the larvae of an equally rare species of moth. With only a few cobblers left, bravely plying their trade for reasons of sentiment rather than economics, Schwerbad was instead famous for its Prima Pretzels. These were baked to a closely guarded recipe by Ruben Mahler, a sixty-three-year-old bachelor, a single child in a lineage of one-child families who traced their genealogy and their culinary geography back to Alsace. Pretzel aficionados travelled from all over Germany for Herr Mahler’s crisp breads. His product enjoyed sufficient longevity and was held in such esteem that he was able to export it to Austria and Poland, and even to outposts of the German diaspora in the pretzel wastelands of Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and Egypt. Business, in fact, was booming so extravagantly that the Prima Pretzel Boulangerie Patisserie now filled three shopfronts on the bottom floor of an apartment building on Hauptstrasse. It employed several of the building’s inhabitants, mostly youths whose parents could not afford their schooling.
An unremarkable girl not more than sixteen years old, Lauren was among Herr Mahler’s resident staff. She lived in a seventh-floor apartment with her parents: her father, Heinrich, who worked in Schwerbad’s tannery curing hides for sale to the shoe factory, and her exquisitely ankled mother, Renate, who modelled footwear at Schwerbad’s two annual trade fairs — the summer and the winter shoe collections. Local residents noted with some pride that Renate’s legs were so perfect in shape, tone and proportion, she could have stuck her feet in a rotting pig’s carcass and buyers from around the country would have fought each other to place their orders. Lauren’s mother did nothing much in between the two month-long fairs but passed many idle hours with her legs elevated on a leather ottoman (upholstered using off-cuts from the tannery) to avoid oedema.
Lauren had no brothers or sisters, an omission on the part of her parents which, as the years went by, conceived in Lauren a premature yearning to have a child of her own. Her single-child status in a ghetto of large post-war families drew Lauren to Herr Mahler’s early attention, stirring in him ill-defined affinities, and even before she began working in his bakery he would slip her end-of-day pastries and cupcakes iced to resemble the faces of girls and boys.
On Lauren’s thirteenth birthday, Herr Mahler had knocked on her parents’ door and handed her mother a Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte so heavily soaked in cherry brandy that it announced itself well before it was handed over.
Lauren’s mother had never liked the look of the baker. He wore his sweat-slicked hair in a long greying ponytail and had no ankles to speak of — even for a man. Most of all, Renate could not abide Herr Mahler’s habit of chewing qat, an affectation he had acquired during a business trip to the Horn of Africa. Still, the brandy fumes and the miserly complaint of Renate’s pantry were overpowering. Herr Mahler looked less surprised than his hostess when, after only a moment’s aloof hesitation, she found herself inviting him in for a piece of cake and a cup of tea. (Had Renate realised that the cud in Herr Mahler’s cheek was a narcotic, not tobacco, the afternoon might have progressed differently.)
As her husband was not yet home, it was Renate who decided on Herr Mahler’s proposition — that Lauren come to work in his bakery as assistant pretzel chef. If a little less Schwarz wälder Kirschtorte had been consumed, Lauren’s mother would surely have deferred an answer till there was adequate opportunity to consult the head of the household. By the time Herr Mahler made his offer, however, half the cake was gone, Renate’s feet were resting comfortably on tapestry pillows collected by her guest from about the room, and an undertaking was given.
Lauren, who had also eaten a piece of her birthday cake, felt an unfamiliar warmth in the cavity of her chest and made the acquaintance for the first time of primitive, reassuring notions of destiny.
Her shifts began at six am. She left the house promptly at five minutes to the hour and clattered down the seven flights of cast-iron stairs that clung to the courtyard side of the apartment block. If it stormed she took more care on the stairwell, which was as slippery from use as from rain, and so arrived at the bakery wet. Herr Mahler would remove her coat as she came inside and make her a mug of hot chocolate with nutmeg. She drank this at the kneading table with Herr Mahler sitting opposite, saying nothing.
Her mother was still in bed at this time — the pillow under her feet higher and harder than the one she used for her head — but Lauren’s father would stand on the balcony overlooking the courtyard, shaving and watching his daughter’s descent. Herr Mahler opened the back door of the bakery to Lauren on the dot of six o’clock. Though he never looked up, he always sensed the paternal scrutiny and so avoided the solicitous gestures — a hand on the back, a palm under the elbow — with which he greeted his other female staff.
The pretzel mixture was prepared and waiting. Lauren’s job was to roll and cut and tie it into knots, to place these on baking trays and to baste the uncooked dough with egg white, sometimes sugared, or cinnamon butter or even some unidentified spice in a syrup which Herr Mahler would hand her with a wink, tapping the side of his nose and whistling gaily. Once she mastered the pretzels, Lauren graduated to sourdoughs, ryes and breads flavoured with caraway, olives, ripe cheeses and herbs and crusted with rock salt. As time went by, Herr Mahler introduced her to choux pastry, profiteroles, mille-feuilles, éclairs, ground almond biscuits, strudels, flans and tortes.
Lauren’s sixteenth birthday fell on a Sunday. Both parents were home when Herr Mahler arrived with a chocolate gateau, ten inches high and decorated with spiralled cylinders of pure Belgian couverture — white and dark.
‘I have an announcement,’ Herr Mahler said gravely once the family had settled around the dining table and the cake was cut. ‘I propose to teach Lauren how to make Prima Pretzels. Not just assemble them,’ he added hastily into the indifferent silence which greeted his offer, ‘but make them.’ He brushed chocolate crumbs from the white linen napkin tucked into his collar. ‘From scratch,’ he concluded, and then rested back in his chair with his arms crossed over a chest puffed with pride and magnanimity.
Father and mother murmured. Lauren smiled to herself and bit into her cake.
‘But she will have to start at three am.’
The following morning Lauren’s father watched his daughter tiptoe down the stairwell at two fifty-five am. It was too cold to shave so he simply stood there in his dressing-gown. He nodded when she turned around outside the bakery and waved to him as the door opened to her. The oven-warm air and all its secrets condensed as they collided with the night.
‘Didn’t he always say he’d only ever disclose his pretzel recipe if he married or adopted?’ Lauren’s father recalled on returning to the gloomy marital bedroom.
Lauren’s mother grunted and rolled onto her side. Her husband lay down next to her, contemplating myriad pretexts to visit the bakery. But, weighing carefully in the scales of parental responsibility the alternatives to the baker, he had to concede there was little, on balance, he could produce to compete with a world-renowned pretzel recipe or, for that matter, its ageing, rat-tailed, qat-chewing owner.
That year, autumn and winter were more brutal than ever. Lauren padded herself against their bite with warm custards, poached fruits and thick slices of brioche dipped in steaming cocoa from the kitchen of the Prima Pretzel Boulangerie Patisserie. She poured warm chocolate syrup over day-old Kartoffel-Kuchen which was destined for the scavengers’ bin outside the shop, and she was rarely found without a half-eaten pretzel in her apron pocket. She was rising like a well-leavened round of dough sitting in a warm and cosy corner of the bakery, but her mother, observing that Lauren’s ankles were still as dainty as her own, chose to pass no comment.
Spring came, but not an ordinary spring. The Sirocco, which had taken a mere half-day to find its way to Cairo, took only a few more days to cross the Mediterranean and travel the length of southern Europe. Its curtain of dirty rain closed over Schwerbad and for days on end there was no sign of the nourishing sun the city’s residents had been waiting for all winter.
The rain fell in sharp lacerating sheets. It devastated gardens and rotted bulbs. It stung cheeks. It turned umbrellas inside out then flipped them the right way round into the faces of their owners. An elderly woman lost an eye in such an accident but consoled herself, and the spinster daughter whose duty it was to look after her, that, Gott sei Dank, it was the eye already damaged from cataract that was taken. The rains pushed pedestrians blindly into each other, brought trains to a standstill, flooded streets and closed schools. And when they stopped, the hot Saharan winds howled like a banshee and tore what was left of Schwerbad’s sanity to shreds. And then it rained again.
On nights when the wind moaned in the courtyard beneath her apartment, smashing planter pots of spring blooms against the cobblestones, Lauren sat on her bed with her arms roped around her knees, rocking back and forth and singing lullabies to herself. Her parents urged her from her room but she seldom emerged other than to pick at her dinner or to make the perilous journey downstairs for her pretzel-making shift. She said the rains and the wind had driven her appetite from her, and indeed she was fast returning to her lithe frame. The nerves of most townsfolk were worn jagged by the weather and Lauren’s parents saw little to distinguish their daughter’s behaviour from the melancholy madness on Schwerbad’s street corners. Certainly Renate, too, had taken to her daybed with more than her usual enthusiasm throughout the Sirocco’s ministrations.
Hiding from the elements behind the drawn brocade curtains of her bedroom, and with her ears plugged against the whining of the wind, Renate didn’t hear her daughter leave the apartment late one afternoon. She was still draped across her bed, dozing, with her door firmly closed, when Lauren returned an hour or so later carrying a mewling bundle swaddled in her coat. Lauren had emancipated the three-month-old baby from its mother’s pram during a moment of maternal neglect. The frantic parent’s voice was one wail among many along Schwerbad’s footpaths and it was some time before her cries were heeded. The Sirocco was by then in its forty-second day.
The morning the wind began to die, day fifty, was the morning Lauren’s father heard a baby crying in his daughter’s room. In a box between Lauren’s bed and the window, the thing mewed and yawned from a gummy mouth. The stale milk air of the room so long closed, and probably the shock too, made Heinrich retch. He opened the window and looked more closely at the child. At that moment a final Sirocco gust blew into the room, dropping a hair from Kasib’s beard, blown all the way from Cairo (a stop-start journey of miraculous proportions), into the makeshift cradle. The long grey strand settled across the baby’s forehead and the child turned her head from side to side as if to release herself from the encumbrance.
Lauren’s father pinched the hair between his thumb and forefinger. ‘The baker,’ he harrumphed, and left for the tannery.
In 1922, the Schwerbad tannery was not preoccupied with matters of occupational health and safety. Goggles and gloves were rarely seen in the tannery pits and the hides swam in pools of liquid that would be found on lists of banned substances in today’s laboratories. To hasten the shedding of hair from hide, tannery chemists used a concoction that was not toxic as such, at least not if consumed in modest quantities. It was assumed the human body’s response to the chemical — whether applied topically or ingested — would replicate that of a cattle skin, suffering depilation, and tannery workers were encouraged to wash their hands at the end of their shifts.
The small volume of powdered depilatory agent which Lauren’s father had spooned into a glass jar bounced against his hip as he hurried home. The day’s baking at Prima Pretzels was finished. The ovens were cooling and the kitchen was silent. No one was present to witness Lauren’s father tip his powder into the hessian sack of dried plants which Heinrich thought was the baker’s supply of qat. At home, as yet undecided about how to approach the subject of his daughter’s baby with either his wife or his child, Heinrich chose to pretend it didn’t exist.
Unfortunately the qat that Herr Mahler stored at the bakery was not for personal consumption but for grinding; it was his secret ingredient — to be either mixed into his pretzel dough or spread across the knots in a simple sugar syrup. Shortly after three o’clock the following morning, Lauren dutifully measured the strict proportions of qat specified in Herr Mahler’s recipe, which she now knew by heart, and tipped the dried leaves into a grey marble mortar. She paid no attention to the traces of white powder sifting through the organic matter; the kitchen was a dimly lit affair until dawn and its surfaces rested under a perennial dusting of flour.
Many of the pretzels that came out of Mahler’s ovens the day after the Sirocco subsided travelled far. Glossy and brown, separated by layers of wax paper, in boxes stamped PPBP, some went by train across Europe. Some — more adventurous — crossed the Mediterranean by boat, southbound. A few even swayed over sand dunes atop Sirocco-impregnated camels. But one ended up in a pocket, climbed six flights of stairs, crossed a dining room, entered a nursery and soaked for a while in milk before its crumbs were pushed between the lips of a perpetually sedated baby.
Because Herr Mahler preferred his qat neat, he never partook of his famous, inexplicably addictive and, for one batch (and one batch only, but enough to put him out of business), baldness-inducing pretzels. Andreas Schiller, however, a German engineer living in Cairo, waited in a state of agitation each Sunday afternoon for Prima Pretzels to arrive at the souk of Khan el-Khalili. He bought three bags of the travel-weary bread from the far end of the souk at a small shop which imported foodstuffs from around the world. Seven pretzels in each paper bag. A week’s supply — one for morning, one for noon and one for night. His fiancée, a young Egyptian woman from Cairo’s Coptic community, found Andreas’s attachment to his cultural roots endearing. She looked down her nose at her countrymen milling around the markets, getting into fights in the hours before the qat merchants opened their shutters, but walked proudly behind her husband-to-be on the way to the souk, contemplating his fine European sensibilities.
Business had suffered throughout the wind of fifty days. Kasib’s pulling on his beard had become more fretful the longer the Khamseen’s gales blew and his wife no longer teased him about this habit. So in the week the winds died, when the bell on his counter tinkled and Kasib looked through the curtains to see the German standing expectantly and a young girl cooing over his most expensive chador, he said reverently, gratefully, ‘Allah Akbar, Allahu Akbar min kulli shay,’ and rolled up his prayer mat.
He was not a greedy man. He added only twenty percent or so for what he thought of as foreigner’s tax, and maybe another ten as Khamseen duty. The girl was too pleased with the look of herself in the fine red silk with its gold and pearl beads to quibble with his price on the foreigner’s behalf. Her doe eyes glittered with the abundance of the future and her long raven hair seemed spun from the same thread as Kasib’s cloth. So delighted was Yasmin with her wedding chador that Andreas refused the small amount of change he was due from the money he handed Kasib and he opened one of his bags of pretzels to celebrate the transaction. Kasib poured three glasses of coffee from the silver urn at the back of the shop.
Andreas, whose hairline was already receding, went bald within three days. Yasmin’s last locks had fallen out by the time the next batch of pretzels arrived at the souk (and were promptly destroyed). Kasib lost his hair in two stages. By Thursday there was not a hair to be found anywhere on his body except for his chin. His beard, which had resisted manual epilation for many years, took another three days to succumb to the chemical attack.
Andreas went back to Germany without hair or wife. Yasmin’s charms, he realised regretfully, had flourished in her appearance and in the happy exoticism of his life in Egypt. Tragedy, or even unkind happenstance, can sour the sweetest love. He assuaged his conscience by rereading the receipt for the wedding chador and ignoring the thought that his ex-fiancée would likely never have an opportunity to wear it.
On arrival home, Andreas was surprised to read in his local newspaper of the Sirocco’s devastation, as if a current of air would pay any more attention to borders than would a human being. Amid descriptions of physical destruction, damage to person and property, much was made of a curious report from Schwerbad. A young girl driven mad by the baby-craving winds had stolen and poisoned a three-month-old girl. Charged with murder in the first degree, she pleaded insanity. The pretzel-loving judge, the only woman in Germany’s judiciary to have reached such a senior position, was in a foul frame of mind having recently gone bald. It was insufficient consolation that in her professional life at least she was provided with a wig. Disinclined in such a state to tolerate either whimsy or superstition, she ruled against the girl’s plea and sent her to jail for twenty years.
By Lauren’s calculation, she would still be of child-bearing age when she was released.
Excerpted from Lightning by Felicity Volk. Copyright © 2013 by Felicity Volk.
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