Copyright – Clemens P. Suter
“Grandfather, grandfather!” The two boys burst into the kitchen, throwing their schoolbags into the corner. Old Hans woke up with a start, his smoking pipe in his mouth and all. Guiltily, he glanced in the direction of the woodstove, where his daughter Annie, the mother of Hans Junior and little Fritz, was preparing the afternoon meal. But, as she was stirring the cabbage soup, her back was turned towards him, and she hadn’t noticed that he had been dozing off.
“Yes, my children, welcome home. How was school?”
Fritz was the first to have pulled off his jacket and shoes, and to put his slippers on his feet. “Grandfather tell us the story! The story of the monster, as you promised this morning!”
Hans smiled into his beard. For certain the two boys hadn’t picked up much in school today, too nervous to hear his tale. Now Hans Junior also snuggled up to him. “Please grandfather!”
“Well…,” said the senior, “it is still some time until lunch, so I could start at least. But first, throw some more wood on the flames, the room is getting a bit chilly! And Fritzi could bring me some of the cold coffee, the pot is right next to the stove. And then come over here and sit next to me, each on one side.”
Annie turned her head towards the three: “Are you forgetting about me!” she smiled. The boys got of their seats and ran to their mother and kissed her cheek. Soon the fire in the oven was roaring again, and grandpa also had his cup of coffee in front of him. He puffed on his pipe. “Now let me see, where do I start…”
The boys looked up at him eagerly, their cheeks red from the winter cold and anticipation. The candle on the table flickered. “Ah yes,” started the old man, “It must have been, well, at least 30, 40 years ago…” His face became pensive and a bit sad, as the memories slowly came back to him.
It had been a December, a few weeks before Christmas. The town of Hockenheim rested peacefully on the plain of the Rhine valley. People were going about their business; children were born and went to school, young adults fell in love, couples founded families, and old people died. The virus that had caused so much havoc all over the world was long past, the economy had somewhat recovered, and the extremist government that had followed the pandemic had been overthrown and replaced by some law and order.
Yes, all was well in Hockenheim. Up until one night: a Tuesday, old Hans could remember it well, as Tuesdays he went to play chess in the old church building. He had returned late and his wife had gone to bed. Annie, their little girl, slept peacefully in her cot. In the small hallway of the house, Hans pulled of his wet coat. November and December had been very rainy, and the Kraichbach was almost overflowing with water; almost, since many decennia before, a city council had decided on a water management project, which now proved to be quite beneficial. In reality, the Kraichbach was a small, meandering brook, which carried water from the hills in the east, passed through Hockenheim and poured into the Rhine a few miles to the northwest.
Hans decided to have a small sip of red wine before turning in and had just lighted a candle and filled his glass, when a terrible banging on the house door sounded. “Das der mi veräbble will!” cursed Hans, as he hurried to the door and pulled it open. Outside stood his neighbor Roland and a policeman. Hans looked at the two in astonishment. “What’s up?” he said.
“Follow us. Quickly!” said the policeman. Hans looked at their faces, which were pale and serious; yes, filled with fear. He realized that something of great importance had happened. Hurriedly he grabbed for his coat, which was still dripping with water, and the cold of the garment on his shoulders made him shiver. Upstairs, Annie started crying, and his wife called.
“It’s OK, darling,” shouted Hans. “It is Roland… and a policeman. I will be back soon.” Without waiting for an answer, he stepped out of the house and pulled the door close behind him. The two men were already moving. They left the Schulstrasse, turned into the Hirschstrasse, over to the Ottostrasse and from there, past the city hall, into the Marcus-Zeitlerstrasse. Several men stood in front of house number 15, torches in their hands and grim looks on their faces. The policeman pushed them out of the way and the three men went to a room at the back of the house. A woman, unknown to Hans, sat in a chair, crying. A man, probably her husband, stood next to her, holding her hand. He too had tears in his eyes. The policeman pointed at a children’s bed. He looked at Hans and said only one word, as if it was enough to explain the entire situation.
Hans felt a shudder running along his spine. He realized why these men had collected him. The mayor was out of town, and Hans was acting vice-mayor; a role that was honorary at best, without any pay, but, in emergencies such as this, with some limited responsibilities. He looked from one to the other and inspected the bed more closely. Obviously, a child had slept here, a girl by the look of it. Hans stepped to the terrace door that led to the garden, and touched the glass; to his surprise, the door was unlocked and swung open, so that he and the others in the room could look into the dark garden. Hans didn’t say anything or ask any questions, instead he stepped out into the rain, the policeman followed him and switched on his torch. They walked through the grass until they came to a wall at the end of the garden. Instinctively, Hans decided to follow it to the right. Soon they came to a door, which was also not locked, and from there into a small passage, which they followed. After just a few paces, the policeman pulled Hans’ sleeve. “Look,” hissed the man, pointing at the ground in front of them. There, on the red sandstone, was a footprint. They bent down to inspect. It was the size of a man’s foot, but broader, the impressions of individual toes clearly visible, but far apart, and seemingly connected by webs. Hans immediately concluded that this footprint wasn’t of human origin. It looked like the print left by a giant frog, an amphibian. A strange smell hung in this alley, a smell of fouling river water and blood. A sense of dread came over them and they checked their surroundings for any movement, but the owner of the footprint was not to be seen. Hastily the two men scanned the rest of the ground, but no more footprints could be found. The policeman ran back to the house and soon all available men spread out through the dark town.
This makeshift search party did not return before the light of morning started to appear in the east. The men had been unable to find the missing girl. But they had found one more wet footprint and a shred of the girl’s nightgown, close to the bridge where the Kraichbach crossed underneath Karlsruherstrasse.
Annie banged the heavy pot with cabbage soup on the table. “Lunch,” she said, wiping a lock of blonde hair from her eyes. “Get the bread, Fritzi.”
The four of them settled down and as always ate in silence. No story telling during meals! The two youngsters looked at each other and grandfather expectantly. The old man slurped his soup and pretended to ignore the boys. After the meal he brushed the breadcrumbs from his beard and stuffed his pipe. The boys put more wood onto the fire and Annie started to do the dishes and cleaning the cooking corner.
The next day, the town was in uproar. People met on street corners and at the many bakeries and hairdressers that enriched the village, and speculated about the occurrences of the night before. Soon, all agreed that some monster, a watermonster, had been responsible for the girl’s abduction. Nobody seemed to think that the girl was still alive; many Hockenheimers regarded optimism as a distraction. The wet footprints were a telltale sign that something had crawled out of the river, a river now overflowing with water. The city council, together with the mayor who had by now returned, tried to calm the populace, but to no avail. An edict was released with some simple directives, including the advice for people to stay indoors after sunset and to keep all ground floor windows and doors closed and locked. Some immediately started to follow these guidelines, but many decided that they were ineffective and even humbug, yet remained incapable of offering any coherent alternative measures.
And so, the town continued to live in fear for several days. Although the search continued, no trace of the girl was found. People started to become more skeptical about the theory that a watermonster, whose existence was hypothetical at best, had indeed been the culprit, and the anger at the city council grew. “Ha-noi,” they set to one another, “Well no, it is hard to believe that this was a monster. It probably was a man, a pervert, a drifter from out of town. A foreigner perhaps?”
But five days later, deep in the night, the inhabitants of the Goethestrasse were brutally pulled from their sleep as a horrible cry echoed through the streets. Next, pounding footsteps and excited shouting could be heard, as the night watch, which the mayor had stubbornly installed against the wishes of the city council, rushed to the scene. The men came upon traces of blood and wet footprints leading towards the east. The men followed these hurriedly, batons in their hands. They followed the Karlsruherstrasse, and as they came closer to the Kraichbach, they could see a huddled yet massive shape moving about in the distance. The shape climbed the landing of the old bridge, opposite of the age-old statue of Saint Nepomuk, the protector from floods and drowning, and stood straight on the parapet for a few seconds, then lifted its arms and threw what looked like a bundle of white clothes into the water. It jumped forward… and was gone.
The men of the night watch arrived at the scene. They shone their lights into the muddy water. For a few seconds there appeared to be some movement of a body swimming downstream. Whatever it was, it stayed well underneath the surface and moved very rapidly. It obviously made no sense to follow its route in the dark of the night.
Back on the bridge, the men were met by a horrible sight. They found a bundle consisting of the shreds of a cotton nightgown, covered with blood. As they unpacked the bundle, the bloodied foot of a young child became visible. Some of the men turned away and threw up into the river. Apparently, the creature had decided on a late-night snack before returning home – wherever that may have been. In any case, the Watermonster of Hockenheim, as it was now officially called, had claimed its second victim.
After that, nothing was the same in the town of Hockenheim. Each day, as soon as the sun started to go down, even the most skeptical went into their homes and barred their doors. Many, especially the parents of young families, had boarded up their windows. The town started to look like a ghost town, and not only after hours. This was exacerbated by the many closed-down stores in the Karlsruherstrasse.
But the watermonster did return and managed to claim a third and a fourth victim from houses that had not been protected well enough. The town was under siege from an invisible, formidable enemy. Needless to say, Christmas and the Silversternacht – new year’s eve – passed by almost unnoticeable, and in many homes without the traditional Christmas Weihnachsgans and without Kartoffelsalad und Bockwurst.
Grandfather sucked his pipe. The boys looked at him eagerly. “What happened next?” whispered Fritzi.
“Well,” said Hans senior, “Here is where Frederick Quicksilber enters the story. Frederick lived with his mother on the east side of the town, close to the cemetery. An unlucky fellow, as Frederick was just a small guy, a dwarf.”
“Father!” called Annie from the sink, “You shouldn’t use that word anymore.”
“Yes, right,” said grandfather. “Uhum. Let me put it this way: Frederick was a person of alternative bodily dimensions… in a minimalist sort of way. Smart and humble, he was, dear Frederick. But his efforts to rescue the town from the monster, which indeed he did, wouldn’t have been possible without help from that tremendously fat woman over from…”
“Father!” shouted Annie again.
Grandfather’s face got quite red. “Arschkrott,” he said under his breath, and puffed smoke from his pipe agitatedly. “Hum. Hum. How do I put this… this woman was also of alternative bodily dimensions… but optimized towards… hum… but towards a maximized body mass index.”
“Why do you want to mention all of this, father? Can’t you just skip describing the way they looked?” asked Annie.
“Herrgottnochmal! It just happens to be relevant to the story,” grunted grandfather, struggling to quiet down. “Well, anyway, this woman with, ah, a maximized body mass index, of extraordinary proportions, went by the name of Obesia Guirlande. Obesia lived alone and was perhaps a bit older than Frederick. Up to that moment, they had known each other only in passing.”
One day, Frederick had a coffee in an old café at the end of the Karlsruherstrasse, which went under the name Etcetera – a name that meant “and other similar things.” What these items were, or to what they were similar, no Hockenheimer knew. Obesia entered the café and selected the empty table next to Frederick. Soon they entered in a conversation. Obesia was impressed by Frederick’s wit and intelligence. Naturally, their tête-à-tête also turned to the watermonster. Like all Hockenheimers, they also discussed the official measures that had been taken and, typically, didn’t agree with most of them.
Frederick and Obesia met again the next day and the day after, and by that time a seed of a plan had started to develop in their minds, a plan so daring that they could only talk about it in hushed voices. The other patrons in the café nudged each other, winked and said something to the effect of: “Just look at those two. Two people of alternative bodily proportions, falling in love. Aren’t they cute?” But love wasn’t on the mind of the two conspirators. By now, they were convinced that their plan would put a stop to the terrible chain of events.
A few days later, on a Wednesday in the middle of January, close to nightfall, a strange scene would have met any passerby brave enough to stroll out of the town in the direction of the river Rhine.
Here, the flat lands, created by the river in times when it still meandered majestically between the Odenwald and the Pfalz, stretched far and uninterrupted. Today, the Rhine follows a bed created by the engineer Tulla, who, in order to improve navigation and reduce flooding, had straightened the river. The Kraichbach splits into two rivulets at this location: the Alter Kraichbach and the Kraichbach itself, and both make their way towards the Rhine, close by, yet hidden in the plain. The bridge over the Rhine and the cathedral of Speyer, dating back a thousand years, were only visible to those that stood on the tips of their toes.
Late birds crossed the sky, hurriedly, to reach their sleeping spots in time for night. Bats were still absent; they would only reappear in spring, to fill their eager bellies on the abundance of river mosquitoes. As in all seasons in the Rhine valley, there was very little wind.
A woman of considerable stature, dressed in a white dress, which was in turn covered by a black cape, on sturdy shoes, strolled next to the water. She was pushing an old-fashioned pram with high wheels. The cover of the pram was up, so any passerby would have been unable to look at the child inside.
Yet, nobody was about. The people of Hockenheim had already closed and bolted their doors, windows and shutters, and were now in their Stube, their low-ceilinged living rooms; sparsely lit by a few candles. It had been four nights since the last abduction, and at regular intervals the muted conversations turned to the watermonster; mostly followed by forceful attempts to change the topic.
The woman was not heading in any particular direction. Instead, she followed the river in the direction of the Rhine for a few minutes, and then would turn around and follow the Kraichbach all the way to the Altwingertweg, and back again. The pram was obviously heavy, as her cheeks had turned rosy and she was puffing as she walked along.
This went on for considerable time. A faraway church bell sounded nine in the evening.
“How long do we have to keep this up?” whispered the woman. Surprisingly, a voice answered from the pram, the voice of a man.
“The monster always attacked in the hours around midnight.”
“Aren’t we too early then?” whispered the woman, slowing down.
“No! Remember our theory. If we are correct, the watermonster swims upstream from the Rhine, its home. It will then need some time to swim to Hockenheim. And then it would still need to find a house that it can enter, a house where either windows or doors are unlocked. No, my calculations tell me that it should pass through the river soon… if it intends to strike tonight.”
“Ha-joh, Frederick, you are so smart.”
“Thank you, Obesia. But without you I could never carry this out! Perhaps it is better if we now go to phase two, what do you think?”
Obesia looked around and moved the pram as close to the brook as possible. She put the brakes on the large wheels, and after some fumbling managed to put the cover down. There was Frederick, a children’s gown of the brightest white cotton over his normal clothing. Frederick winked at Obesia and put his finger to his lips: “ssssh!”
Obesia winked back at him and arranged his gown so that it hung over the sides of the pram. Obesia stood back and looked approvingly at both the brook and pram. She made some adjustments, and then, after a soft “good luck,” she walked to a park bench about forty paces away.
She sat down and waited.
After the rain of the past weeks, the sky was now exceptionally clear. The cold crept in from the fields, and the humidity of the air condensed on her clothing. The moon had risen, it appeared more gigantic and stolid than she could remember. It looked down at the scene with cold white light. The only sound was the water in the brook, as it passed slowly beneath them.
After a while, Obesia noticed that her eyes started to fall shut. She was an early riser, and consequently this was far beyond her usual bedtime. In all fairness, she also did not expect the monster to appear tonight, on the first night that they tried Frederick’s scheme. It would have been too much of a coincidence. As they had discussed, they would probably have to repeat this exercise several times; and at different locations too. Still, the location was well chosen, if the monster came from the Rhine, and used the water as its route, it would have to pass this exact point. Further out in the plain, the Kraichbach split into many subsidiaries, that either re-united, or ran independently into the Rhine.
Obesia fingered under her cape. Two hammers were stuck in the wide pockets, one for each hand. Would Frederick have his knife at hand? Stupid question! Frederick had shown her the large blade, and how swift he was in handling it. No, even though he was in a most dangerous position, she did not fear for the little man.
A lone heron passed by overhead; its head fixed straight towards its unknown destination. Something must have disturbed the bird, as normally they do not travel after nightfall. Had it been a fox or some other creature? Slowly, Obesia nodded off and slumped sideways on the park bench. Time passed.
Suddenly Obesia opened her eyes. She looked straight ahead towards the water. Nothing could be heard, yet something had called her out of her sleep. She closed her eyes to small slits and stayed as still as possible for ten, twenty, thirty seconds. Then a shape became visibly, on the bank of the river. A large dark hand clawed in the grass. Obesia froze with fear. The hand didn’t move for a long time, but then, slowly, it dug deeper in the ground, and the arm attached to it drew a large body from the water beneath. Finally, a strong, dripping figure climbed on the bank. It was at most twenty steps away, and directly between her and her pram. The figure, naked and black-green, had a tremendous chest carried by long thin legs. Its arms were long too, and muscular. The creature stared at Obesia with large pale eyes, which blinked irregularly. Large gill-like structures flapped softly on either side of its face.
The monster stood very still, slightly hunched over, and observed her in silence, only the dripping of the water from its skin could be heard. Obesia’s heart started beating even faster. What if the monster would come pounding at her? She would never have sufficient time to pull the two hammers from her gown. Thoughts raced through her mind.
Just then, a baby cried out. The child’s voice, very nearby, surprised Obesia, until she realized that it came from the pram. Frederick! He had imitated a small child’s voice to lure the monster away. Brave man! Immediately, Obesia strengthened the impression that she was asleep by smacking her lips and imitating a big snore, which made her breast visibly rise.
Slowly, the monster turned its head towards the origin of the cry, then back at Obesia… it seemed to be considering its options. Then it began to walk towards the pram, but backwards, its eyes and attention still focused on Obesia.
The trick had worked, the watermonster had decided that the child would be an easier prey than this gigantic woman.
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