Extract from Michael Mitchell's translation

Catali Dennhof's A Houseful of Ghosts

A perfectly normal day at school. Or so I thought.

Broad bands of light were pushing their way in through the wide-open windows and settling on the tables and benches, their brightness releasing the countless specks of dust from their shadowy existence. It smelt of our teacher's perfume and of horse dung; big round piles of it that Farmer Lehmann's nag had once more dumped with precise aim right outside the school gate.

The farmer, questioned about this by our gentle headmistress after she had slipped on one such pile, is said to have replied, with a broad grin on his face, “He shits when he has to shit.” To this truly outrageous answer she is said to have retorted that it would be a red-letter day for her when the swinish beast finally departed this life.

Swinish? Beast? And who was meant by that? Lehmann or his nag?

The story went round the town like wildfire. A few days later our headmistress indignantly denied having said any such thing, which didn't surprise anyone—after all, she was on the committee of a society for the prevention of cruelty to animals.

Be that as it may, in that class we were talking about pets. Then all at once Frau Nüsslein told me to come up to the blackboard and write the name of my cat on it.

Nothing easier, I thought, and immediately skipped down to the front. One letter after another appeared and before I turned round to face the class again, I still thought it was a perfectly normal day. One like so many before. With noise and quiet, giggles and quarrels, from the first to the last bell.

Quite content with myself, I dropped the piece of chalk into the little box that was attached to the lower frame of the blackboard and turned round, without a care in the world. My eye fell on my teacher's thin legs, slowly moved higher, paused, caught up in all the squares of cloth from which her skirt was made, continued upwards over her long, white neck, that was always swaying to and fro a little, like the curved neck of giraffes with their gentle gaze, until they reached her eyes. And in that moment this perfectly normal day was shattered. Bang! Just like that.

Pointing her outstretched forefinger straight at me, Frau Nüsslein said—no, she hissed—in a menacingly toneless voice, “You should be ashamed of yourself, child.”

I was ashamed of myself. On the spot. Without understanding why. Felt the waves of heat sloshing around in my body, rising, turning my cheeks red. Bright red. Red as a beetroot. And then everything went quiet. So quiet you could hear a feather drop. Twenty-four pairs of eyes were staring at me. I couldn't hide my face or run away, and even if I'd tried I wouldn't have got anywhere because Frau Nüsslein was standing there, right in the middle of the doorway. And she was staring too. If only she'd said something to me. Just one single word. But she was silent, remained silent, her eyes fixed on me, piercing eyes that forced me to stay standing there.

Somewhere a clock was ticking away quietly. In desperation my fingers started to clutch at the round buttons of my cardigan, while I mutely looked for a way out, racked my brains to understand why, until I finally realized that there could only be one reason for the irate expression on my teacher's face: the name of my cat.

That was crazy. It didn't make sense, no sense whatsoever, but I had to do something to get it to stop, to go away: that reproachful look. My teacher's outstretched forefinger that was still pointing at me. So I took a deep breath, picked up the piece of chalk in my right hand again, at the same time sticking a strand of hair in my mouth with my left, and wiped it off, the first letter. Replaced the capital ‘H’ with a ‘B’. Now ‘Bimmler’ was written on the blackboard. My legs began to quiver.

“Bimmler? Well, yes… of course,” Frau Nüsslein said, rolling her eyes a little. She took one last deep breath and dropped onto her chair with a quiet snort. “That's an amusing name. Why didn't you write it like that the first time, Clara?”

Again I went bright red, because Bimmler didn't just sound stupid but was a lie as well. Somewhere inside my head I could hear my Great-Aunt Helene pontificating, “It always starts with a lie and ends in purgatory.” She was everywhere, inescapable, even in this classroom, and for a moment my situation really did seem hopeless.

I turned my head to one side a little.

“But you don't have to pull a face like that.” My teacher's voice sounded conciliatory.

“Now off you go, back to your place.” She clapped her hands. “And stop chewing your hair, will you. It doesn't make things any better.”

It wasn't any better, but at least things were back to normal. For Frau Nüsslein. Not for me.

Something had changed.

Sulking, I crept back behind my desk. Crushed. Longing for the class to end. I thought of Uncle Franz, who could swear like a trooper and wished I had the courage to do so too. But no… it was clear that I'd messed it up, this class, this day, everything.