From a High Tower - Mercedes Lackey


BLESSED Mary, it is bitter. Friedrich Schnittel did not take his coat off after closing the door to the single room he and his family inhabited in a ramshackle building on the inaptly named Gartenstrasse in Freiburg. There was no point in taking it off. It was only a little warmer inside than it was outside. The single room, with its peeling wallpaper and single window with rags stuffed in every crevice, was mostly heated by the bodies of his family, when all was said and done.

His eight children crowded around him, waiting to see what he would produce out of his coat, but they knew better than to clamor at him. And they knew better than to grab for the loaf of day-old bread, the head of cabbage, and the little pot of rendered fat that was all he had to show for an entire day of work stacking crates of wine. He passed these treasures over their heads into the hands of his heavily pregnant wife, Maria. Eight pairs of eyes followed the food with longing and hunger. Maria sat down beside the hearth on a tin bucket, and propped a piece of chipped tile on her lap to use as a cutting board. The cabbage wasn’t very good, or very large, but Maria chopped it fine and added every bit, including the stem, to the pot over the tiny hearth. Meanwhile, Friedrich sat down on the bit of ruined masonry that he used for a stool on the side of the hearth opposite her. They didn’t have any furniture to speak of; if they’d had anything, it would have been broken up and added to the fire long ago. The only reason they had anything at all to burn was because three of the four oldest children spent all day scavenging every bit of wood or crumb of coal they could find within walking distance of their home. They were good at it, finding even the smallest scraps and the thinnest twigs, but they were competing with many others in similarly impoverished circumstances.

The eldest boy had a different task: he took whatever jobs people would give a nine-year-old boy, which in the winter, wasn’t much.

Friedrich stuck his feet, shod in his cracked, rag-wrapped, and ill-fitting shoes, so close to the tiny fire that if the flames had been enthusiastic he might have been in danger of scorching them and surveyed his family with the eye of despair. Eight children, six boys and two girls, all of them clad in every scrap of clothing they possessed, all of them staring at his wife with desperate longing as she cut the loaf into ten absolutely equal pieces and scraped a bit of the lard over the surface of each piece. All of them with the pinched, slightly grayish faces of those to whom hunger was ever present, and soap unheard-of. Dear God, Friedrich thought, sadly. Oh, dear God, why did You make Maria so . . . fertile? I know that You have told us to be fruitful and multiply, but surely You meant that for wealthier men than me. . . . The Priest at Saint Martin’s Church said that it was a blessing that they had so many children, and that none of them had died, but Friedrich could not see how it could possibly be a blessing to have so many children when not one of them could get a full belly no matter how hard he worked.

Especially not in the winter, when they needed full bellies the most.

Maria looked up at him sharply, as if she had gotten wind of his thoughts. But then she looked back down at her task, which was no easy one, slicing so carefully through the bread so as not to waste a crumb and carefully apportioning the lard so that everyone got the same tiny amount. When she had finished, she carefully—almost reverently—handed it over, slice by precious slice, into the outstretched hands. Then she protected her hand with her threadbare skirt and lifted the pot off the hook, took her own battered cup, and apportioned one cup of the cabbage soup to each of nine bits of abused tin or chipped pottery that the children passed her. When she had given Friedrich his, she lifted the kettle and poured out the rest—exactly a cupful—into her own vessel.

They all ate slowly, carefully, dipping the bread into the broth and taking tiny bites and then, when the bread was gone, drinking