JULIA LOECHERBACH (1708-1741?) Restaurant owner in a small town near Silesia, lost from history during the War of Austrian Succession.
No one ever saw her smile. But hers was a face you wouldn’t want to smile – something as hard and as sour as that wasn’t made for smiling, and the contorted effort of it would surely have been too much, it would have given nightmares to the children. The children were already frightened of her, she was what parents threatened them with to get them to behave: “You calm down, or we’ll take you to Frau Loecherbach. We’ll give you to Frau Loecherbach, and she’ll make sausages of you!” But it was a good fear; the children followed her around market, and snigger, they’d call her a witch, a troll, they’d say she was in league with the Devil – but never to her face, always out of earshot, only in fun, just fun; a good fear, a healthy and exciting fear, full of adventure and the possibility of magic.
She wasn’t the public face of the restaurant. Charm, clearly, was not her thing. Her husband Alois served the tables, and he was amiable enough, he would joke with the guests as he took their orders and recommended the specials of the day. And her three sons, Franz, Hans, and little Johann, they would help out too, they would bring out the food from the kitchens – great steaming plates of it, of Knodel and Schweinshaxe and roasted Rinderwursten. Frau Loecherbach would stick to the kitchens. No one doubted the genius of her culinary skills. But that didn’t mean anyone wanted to look at her.
When you ate one of Frau Loecherbach’s meals, you somehow didn’t want to like it all that much. Because the cook was so displeasing a human being, you wanted her pancakes and her borscht to reflect that. But it wasn’t possible to resist. The food was good. She could do miraculous tricks with a chicken, she could make it fizz with flavour, no matter how dubious the quality of your average chicken to be found on sale in that market square. Her breads tasted light as air. Her soups were rich and thick like steak, and spiced with something you couldn’t quite identify but seemed as familiar as nostalgia itself. To eat at Loecherbach’s was expensive. And these were hard times, and the townsfolk resented the expense. They resented the expense, and they resented Julia Loecherbach, strutting around the town with her hard face and her tight bosom as if she owned the place. But still they came back. And still they wanted not to like her food quite so much that they paid for dearly. And still they couldn’t help themselves.
No one knew how she had managed to snare herself a husband like Alois. And people wondered why her three sons didn’t leave home. They weren’t exactly handsome lads, Franz, Hans and little Johann, but they were strong, the girls of the town could net themselves worse, no one quite understood why they didn’t cut themselves free of their ugly mother’s apron strings and set out to find futures of their own. But Julia Loecherbach kept her men close. The gossip said she must have put a spell on them. It wasn’t just the children who thought there was a spot of devilry to her.
By the time the news reached the town that they were at war, the war was nearly over. Still, the garrisons demanded that every man fit enough to wave a sword must join their number. The army would continue its march towards the front the next morning; the town were expected to give up their men to them then. It didn’t look much like an army. The soldiers seemed like children wearing adult clothes, all baring their teeth with adult disdain, smoking and spitting and swearing the way adults do; there were old men, too, squeezed into uniforms too small for them, their white beards now tapered towards sharp martial points. They carried mostly cudgels and sticks. But they were very insistent – they were an army, really they were – and the leading officer carried some sort of seal, and said that it gave him authority direct from the emperor of Austria himself, so that was that.
Franz, Hans and little Johann prepared to go to war. They put their favourite belongings into knapsacks; little Johann took a toy boat his father had carved out of wood for him when he was a child. They all seemed very excited. Alois prepared for war too. He took out the greatcoat his father had worn the day he had been called to war; Alois now mostly wore it when the weather turned fierce in the winter, and sometimes killed the chickens in it – but nevertheless it had been part of a uniform, and his father’s uniform at that, and Alois was rightly proud of it. Julia watched her men busy themselves with men’s things, how they laughed, how they swaggered, how they jabbed at each other with sticks and pretended to kill and pretended to die. And she said not a word. And went to the kitchen to prepare dinner.
Frau Loecherbach let it be known that there would be a special dinner at her restaurant that night, and all were invited. People need only pay what they wanted. This was to be a celebration feast. There would be room for all – there would be tables lined up the streets, everyone would be able to eat at Loecherbach, man, woman, child. And, as one, the town came. Because though no one liked her very much, and she never smiled, and she was a witch, still her food was to die for.
“Do you want me to wait tables, liebchen?” asked Alois. And Alois was standing in his greatcoat, and already stroking at the places where he imagined his medals might hang. And his wife told him no; no, tonight he too would be a customer, tonight he would be able to sit back in their restaurant and relax and eat his fill. And the same was true for her sons; tonight would be a busy night, the busiest night of her life thus far, but still she would manage all by herself.
There was no menu. And there was no wine. Instead, the town took their seats and waited, hungry and sober, for dinner to be served. And there was palpable disappointment when at last Frau Loecherbach brought forth nothing more spectacular than a single tureen full of stew, and began ladelling it into bowls. There were catcalls. Some men beat against the tables, and they were laughing, but it was an angry laughter, they were soldiers already and feeling warlike and oh so fierce. “Hush,” said Frau Loecherbach, and she didn’t raise her voice, but the sound carried to all of the tables, and everyone fell silent. “You shall eat what you are given, and no more,” she told them, “and you will like it.”
The stew looked unappealing. Thin and watery, and a little bit brown; it seemed to have been made from the dregs of whatever had been in the Loecherbach larder. In one bowl there might float a discoloured lettuce leaf; in another, a chunk of carrot seemed to have considered its stewy surroundings, found them wanting, then chosen to drown itself deep in despair. And here was Frau Loecherbach splashing the liquid into the bowls, still not smiling, still so sour, and warning the townsfolk not to eat until everyone was ready. It all quite took people’s appetites away. No one much wanted to like Frau Loecherbach’s food, and tonight this was going to be easy.
“Now, eat,” she said, and they did.
And they tasted their childhoods.
They might taste the memory of the first pie they had ever eaten, the balance between pastry and meat being just right that first and only time. They might taste the apples they had scrumped when they were teenagers, then lying back on the grass on long summer days that seemed to stretch out before them and promised, faithlessly, never to end. They might taste sauerkraut, or stollen, or schnitzel, they might taste Butterkuchen the way they remembered their mothers making it. They ate not only their favourite meals. They ate the recollections of their favourite meals, the best they had ever been, better than they had ever been, the happiest they had ever felt – when, in spite of all, the world had been so full of possibility, when, in spite of all, they had been in love. Long married couples, grown bored and resentful of each other, tasted again their own wedding cakes, and how sweet it had been, and how it had crumbled upon their tongues – and how afterwards they had kissed each other, now husband and wife, now so proud and so grown-up, and had gone to bed, and how together they had made those tongues dance.
They were the best meals, and they were as good as they had ever been, and they were better than they had ever been. Spicier, sweeter, and the portions so much bigger.
Customers begged Frau Loecherbach for seconds. “Fill our bowls again!” they pleaded. She refused – “What you are given, and no more,” she said. She asked them all to settle the bill. And the townsfolk paid all the money they had.
Tonight the women take their husbands to bed, and they make love. And their lovemaking is as sweet as memory too. And, for now, their bellies are full, and warm, and they hold each other all night, and they feel as one – and nothing can separate them, not time, not space, not war certainly – and there is a recognition that if there had once been better times, then there can be better times again. Surely. Surely that makes sense. Surely that is just. And when at last they fall asleep there lingers the taste of knipp on their lips and spargel on their breaths and the salt sweat of honest passion on their skin. And the next morning the men get up and go to war.
A few weeks later an army came to town. It was a different army, and the schoolboys and old men wore uniforms of a different colour.
The commander was one of the old men, and on his cheek was a deep scar that he displayed with pride a little too obviously. He told the town that the war was over. There were still pockets of resistance, of course, one must expect that, but the resistance would be quelled, the war was over as far as they need be concerned. They had all been liberated from the rule of a tyrannical emperor who did not love them, and that they were now under the rule of another sort of emperor altogether. That they were part of Prussia, as they should always had been.
He said too that his soldiers would be billeted at the houses of the conquered townsfolk. And that, in respect of his position, he himself would be billeted at the wealthiest of those houses. That house, of course, belonged to Frau Loecherbach.
Away from the crowds, away from the soldiers protecting him with muskets and swords, the commander looked younger and more awkward. He politely told Frau Loecherbach that he regretted the inconvenience he was putting her to, and that he would do his level best not to get in her way. And he fingered at that scar of his nervously.
“Do you have anyone in the war?” he asked.
Frau Loecherbach told him that indeed she had four men in the army, one husband and three sons, all fighting for their country.
The commander attempted a consolatory smile. “God speed an ending to this damned war,” he said, “and that your family will be restored to you, and then we can all live in peace.”
Frau Loecherbach didn’t smile back. Frau Loecherbach didn’t ever smile. Instead Frau Loecherbach gave a nod, just the one. She then said that she was prepared to let the commander stay in her house, and did so with great gravity and after much consideration. But she said that she would not be cooking for him.
“I understand,” said the commander.
The commander issued instructions to his troops moreover that they must treat the women whose houses they were occupying with all respect and civility, and any reports of lewd behaviour, up to and including rape, would be punished with all severity. And he was a good commander, and his men listened to him, and most of them even obeyed.
It was believed that because the commander was staying with Frau Loecherbach that she must be living in luxury. On the days she went to market the people wouldn’t look at her. Under their breaths they muttered the word ‘traitor’.
The commander would buy a chicken each week, and roast it on the Sunday. Frau Loecherbach could tell from the smell coming from her kitchen that he had found a way to render it devoid of all juice or flavour. But she kept to her room away from him.
When the first snap of winter came on, the commander went outside, wearing his greatcoat for warmth, and chopped wood. From the sound Julia could almost believe that Alois had returned to her – or that Franz, Hans or even little Johann making logs for the fire. She asked the commander to stop, but he laughed amiably and told her that the exercise alone kept him warm! That it was his pleasure, and his privilege, to make the house a comfort to them both, to do what he could for her. And when Frau Loecherbach went to market that week, her neighbours called her whore and spat at her.
“You don’t ask me my name,” said the commander one night, as they sat by the fire.
“I don’t need to know your name,” she said.
“You should ask me something,” he said. “It would be polite. You don’t ask if I have a wife.”
“Do you have a wife?”
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I do. And I miss her.”
The winter wore on. The snow began to fall. Log chopping was no longer so much fun, and the commander ordered his soldiers to the task instead. Many of them had been chopping logs for their women, but the commander was having none of that, they would chop for Frau Loecherbach or no one at all. Frau Loecherbach stopped going to market altogether. And the commander sent his men to market, and they brought back only the best food.
The commander asked if he could cook for Frau Loecherbach. Frau Loecherbach was surprised. No one had ever cooked for her since she was a child.
He served her a red wine that he’d been saving for a special occasion. He said tonight was the special occasion. He said that the wine was the emperor’s favourite. He said that he hoped it was special to her, that this was all special to him, and he fingered at that scar of his a lot. Frau Loecherbach accepted the wine was better than the stuff she had served in the days she had run a restaurant, but she had still had the power to make hers taste richer, fruitier, darker. He served her Knodel, and Schweinshaxe, and roasted Rinderwursten in a wine sauce.
“Do you like it?” he asked. Still touching at that scar.
“Your food is terrible,” said Frau Loecherbach.
“It’s the worst I have ever tasted.”
“You do not care about the food. You do not bother to find anything inside the food that is good or special or dear. To you it’s not food, it’s just something to chew, then swallow, then shit.”
“Oh.” And then the commander said, and he sounded confused, “well, what else should food be?”
And so she got up, went to the kitchen, and showed him.
It was a harsh night, and the fire in the hearth made no impression upon the freezing cold, and the snow outside was falling so thick and so fast that it felt to Frau Loecherbach as if the house would be lost, buried behind walls of white forever and the world would never be able to get in and see them and judge them.
“I love you,” he said. “I don’t know why.”
“No,” she said. “I don’t know why either.”
And he suggested he take her to his bed. And when she refused he nodded sadly. And she told him that she’d take him to her bed instead, and his face lit up in surprise and he no longer looked like an old man at all but a delighted little boy.
“We will marry one day,” the commander said to her. “My wife will die. She’ll die eventually. And your husband too, maybe he’ll never come back from the war.”
And Julia lay in his arms, and it was she fingering his scar with the tips of her fingers, so lightly, and she said nothing to that at all.
With the spring came the news that the fighting was done. The fighting was done, there would be no more death, and peace would last forever more. The soldiers were no longer soldiers, and the townsfolk no longer hostiles under martial law; they were men, and they were women, let them be friends, let them be one people, one nation united. And in announcement of this, a dozen engagements were announced between the women and the soldiers billeted to them on the spot.
No one seemed to wonder where the men from the town had got to, or whether they would be home soon. They all had men, didn’t they, new men? Who needed the old?
Frau Loecherbach suggested that maybe the commander could now return to his wife. The commander said his wife was a world away, his wife was in Prussia of all places. Frau Loecherbach asked – but weren’t they in Prussia too now, wasn’t all the world a Prussia? And the commander glowered and said he didn’t care.
“I love you,” he said. “You have bewitched me.”
And he told her that Alois wouldn’t be coming home. Neither would her sons. Neither would any man from the town. That only a week after they had left for war they had been routed by the Prussian army, and they had all been executed. All of them, and little Johann too. “I was waiting for the right time to tell you,” said the commander. “When we were no longer enemies, and can just be lovers.”
Frau Loecherbach complimented him on his delicacy.
“I’m sorry about your children. But I’m still strong, and you’re young enough, I think we can have children of our own. This poor town, and all it has suffered, it needs to move on now, we need to forget the past, what good will the past do us? We need to live, and to love, and can’t you hear it? Can’t you hear all that love out there? And so soon, I promise you, this war will be forgotten, and the town will be full of babies, the sound of all our babies crying in joy.”
It sounded sincere enough. It sounded like a reason for celebration. Frau Loecherbach let it be known that there would be a special dinner that night at her restaurant, and all were invited.
Tables were once more set out on the street. And women sat with their soldier lovers, holding their hands, gazing into their eyes – who had conquered not only their land but their very hearts – and they were all so hungry, they wanted this meal so badly, they wanted that after all this time of bitter war and bitter cold there could be now some reason to go on together, some reminder that at the end of the day they were all just people with appetites, surely, and what was wrong with that, what could be the harm? And the commander asked if he could help Julia, and she said no, tonight he too could be a customer tonight he could sit back and eat his fill.
She brought out the stew. The winter had been hard, and there weren’t many dregs in Julia’s larder to fill it. No discoloured lettuce, not a suicidal carrot to be seen.
They ate. And they tasted their memories.
And the women cried for the loved ones they had lost, the sons they had weened for no bloody purpose now, the husbands with whom they had promised to share a life, a whole life, an entire life.
And the men cried, because they thought of their mothers, and that they would have been ashamed to see what they had become.
It was the best food they had ever tasted.
“Fill our bowls again!” they both pleaded, the men and the women. “Just a little more!” begged the commander, who had not been able to stop the tears from the moment the spoon had entered his mouth.
“Oh, as much as you like,” said Julia. “As much as your bellies can take.”
And they were eating more – eating their first sweets, fed to them by hand by indulgent parents, and how they’d laughed to see their child’s eyes bulge at all that taste, and how the child had laughed too without even knowing why, but the child knew it was a good thing, it was good to hear Mummy and Daddy happy. And they were eating with their baby teeth, and they were so much softer than their adult ones, and they remembered how different everything seemed when your little teeth wobble so, little teeth in little heads, little heads on little bodies, such very little bodies. And then they were sucking at their mother’s breasts, all that milk and they could never have too much, and oh my God mother, long since dead, or maybe just dying, or maybe just old and ignored – does she still love us, could she possibly love us now we’ve grown so old and hard and cold, and so unlike the little babies guzzling away like animals, all innocent, not knowing anything, not remembering anything, because there’s nothing to remember, nothing’s happened yet, you’re at the beginning, you’re back at the very beginning.
Julia steps through the crowd of babies, and goes into the kitchen for her knife.
And she bends to pick up the commander. No longer in a position to command anything, looking faintly surprised to be sitting in this pool of clothes, the uniform of a man he could surely never dream of becoming. Eyes wide and so blue, smooth skin, smooth lips, looking at Julia in utter trust as she scoops him up into her arms.
Julia holds the knife to his throat. The commander blinks. Then smiles at her.
And then she does something that only the baby ever sees. She smiles back. She smiles. And there’s a magic in that smile – and maybe that’s where all her magic ever came from and no one ever saw it to know. Or maybe it came from somewhere else entirely, who can tell, who can ever really tell.
She doesn’t kill him.
Into his cheek she traces his scar. It’s quick, it’s as if she’s cutting up a chicken, it’s no more cruel than that. And the commander is too surprised to howl out in pain. One quick gulp, then that’s it. And he has forgiven her.
She kisses him on the cheek, and her lips come away red, but the wound is already healing, and now the bleeding has stopped, look.
The other babies look around at each other in some confusion – what do they do now? where do they go from here? But that’s up to them, that’s not Julia Loecherbach’s problem. And the commander is so light in her arms, like bread, like her freshly baked bread, and he’s no weight at all, and she can walk on with him forever, and she walks straight out of the town.