The ceremony was short, subdued, and without ostentation. Only afterward, in the church’s reception room, did the voices return to normal. Wine, homemade pastries, and sweets were served. Schmidt, the lawyer, hugged Karl warmly, as if a business deal and not a solemn ceremony had at last been concluded. The touch of the lawyer’s hand once again brought school before Karl’s eyes, the graduation parties and his Aunt Franzi’s bright face, an entire life that now flowed into the abyss with a deafening roar.
Karl checked his emotions and shook the guests’ hands with a smile. The more that passed before him, the clearer it became: there was no going back.
He had known most of them as classmates: Now in their thirties, some of the men were bald, and the women had become frim little housewives. Only yesterday these faces had been open and alive. Now the years had sealed them up. For a moment he forgot the ceremony, and the memories that passed filled him with gloom. That lasted only a moment. The hands that were extended to him from all sides were familiar. A few secret enemies, perhaps, but he knew that if he were ever in trouble he could depend on most of them.
Several guests surrounded Father Merser and congratulated him too. Father Merser seemed to tower above everyone, perhaps because he was still wearing his long priestly garb. He sister, Miss Clara, gaily offered cream puffs. Everyone knew her too. She was a pretty woman, around forty. She had been the cause of a few scandals that had been resolved with her brother’s help. Father Merser was fond of her and would bring her to ceremonies like this one, to demonstrate that she had reformed.
On the other side of the room cognac and liqueurs were being served. A tall man stood in the center, Slavic-sounding words rolling off his tongue. With his long arms he made some elaborate gesture, and everyone around him erupted in laughter. Karl remembered him too, but couldn’t recall his name.
The spell of the ceremony gradually faded, and everyone grew hungry. A ceremony like this is no more than a tonsillectomy, one of his childhood friends had told him. But Karl now felt differently: as if his legs were weighed down.
In the corner stood a woman, not young, dressed in old-fashioned clothes. It was Aunt Franzi’s friend. She too had dreamt of a career in theater. She had studied in Russian, with Stanislavsky, for several years. Upon her return she had married an impoverished nobleman and settles on the outskirts of town. Aunt Franzi was very close to her and would describe her as “a great woman who was crushed by the provinces like a fly.” Karl crossed the room and hugged her gently.
“We all end up here,” she said with a good-natured smile.
“So it seems.”
“I did it while my parents were living, and I regret it to this day. Things like this should be done secretly, under cover of night, don’t you think?”
“How did you hear about it?”
“The church bells, my friend, didn’t they ring? I don’t live far from here. I see and hear everything.”
“How is Aunt Franzi?”
“I haven’t seen her in years,”
“We’re criminals,” she leaned over and whispered. “Those who are dearest to us we neglect. I the world to come, they’ll whip us like dogs.”
Father Merser circulated among the guests, most of whom he knew well. He had even married some of them. Though pleasant enough, he was not well liked. “No one easily forgets the one who converts him,” Karl’s friend Erwin had once said in a moment of insight.
Afterward Karl spoke passionately of the need to institute certain municipal laws to decrease friction between citizens and the authorities. His words didn’t suit the event. They sounded as if written for a different audience, but no one objected. Everyone was caught up in the celebration, which rushed along with a gay murmur.
Martin Schmidt, the lawyer, approached Karl again. “Everything went very nicely.”
“It was simpler than I had imagined it.”
“Father Merser is a very pleasant man.”
“And very tactful,” added Martin.
“So it seems.”
Martin Schmidt had converted more than ten years before, with his parents’ permission, and since then he had attended every conversion in the city. This time there was an additional reason: he and Karl had been close friends since childhood. Martin’s early conversion had put a crimp in that long friendship, but now it was as if the two of them were brothers again.
“See you later,” said Martin.
One after another, the guests came and shook his hand. He hadn’t expected the transition to be like this. The pain was so subtle he could barely feel it. If anything of the ceremony stuck in his mind, it was Father Merser’s sturdy fingers gripping the brass vessels on the altar.
Quite a few people had converted in recent years. Some with their parents’ blessing, but most on their own. They were the young and not so young, and even a few old men. Five years ago a resident of the old age home had converted, a fellow of about ninety. For years he had threatened that if they didn’t improve the heating, he would go to the Catholic old folks’ home. People had made fun of him. They didn’t believe him. In the end, he carried out his threat, and Father Merser presided over the ceremony, with his customary grace.
The conversations in the reception room ebbed and flowed. People were talking about city affairs, the district, transportation, and the fate of the empire. Karl went from group to group. Telling a joke or simply nodding his head.
“Permit me to congratulate you,” said Hochhut the industrialist, extending the cold hand at the end of his short, stubby arm. In gymnasium Hochhut had been two classes ahead. Karl had never been fond of him. The man always made him nervous. In school, Hochhut had not been much of a student, but ambition had accomplished what his brain couldn’t. In fact, he had achieved the impossible, establishing a string of factories along the Danube. As if to spite everyone, he lived not in the capital, but in his native town, surrounded by friends and enemies.
The reception was supposed to last about an hour, but it went on. In one corner people spoke energetically about the need for change in the city. Everybody knew this meant pulling down the old Jewish shops in the center of town, but no one said it in so many words. More than once in recent years the municipality had been about to condemn the district, but the merchants had outsmarted the authorities, putting money in the right hands, and the plan was never carried out. Karl caught the drift of conversation. He was familiar with the issues. His parents had owned a shop in the old market. Unprofitable, it had burdened them like a humped back. Finally, they sold it for next to nothing, to a Jewish merchant, who turned the dank cave into a thriving business.
“We’re talking about the center of town.”
“I understand,” said Karl.
“Its former glory must be restored.”
“The center must be elegant.”
Since leaving school, Karl had worked for the municipality. His parents had wanted to send him to the university in Vienna, but in the end they simply couldn’t afford to. Karl tried for a scholarship, he had no choice but to remain in his parents’ house. For a few years he worked as a trainee, and afterward he began making his way up the hierarchy. Now he had his eye on the high office of municipal secretary.
“I wish to congratulate you,” said the doctor. Karl knew him well. He was a shy man, full of inhibitions, for whom school was a constant struggle. Had it not been for his parents’ ambition and private tutors, he would never have graduated. So it was in medical school, too. His parents worked night and day in their little shop, helping him and urging him on, but they didn’t live to see him sit in his office. They had both passed away before he graduated. Karl didn’t like him. For years he had avoided him. Now the doctor was standing before him, face to face. The same old Freddy, the same stooped posture, the same pallor. Neither medical school nor conversion had changed a single feature of his appearance. Karl marveled at the constancy.
“How are you, Freddy?”
“All is well. This is my wife.”
Karl had never met her before. She was taller than Freddy, and thin. Traces of the peasant remained in her face, but in her expression one saw a strange blend of cunning and smugness, all because of her husband’s clinic.
“You look excellent,” Freddy told him.
“Same as ever,” said Karl, taking a step backward.
“We would be pleased to see you in our home,” said the wife,
Karl knew women like this very well. While still at the gymnasium, they decided they would get a Jewish husband, no matter what. Afterward, they would mold him however they wished. Now Karl noticed that something of Freddy’s wife had rubbed off onto Freddy’s face. To the blush of shame was added the flush of beer.
Copyright © 1999 by Aharon Appelfeld. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.