I'd not long been made journeyman when the Schöpfers' Guild gave me my first commission in 1928. Frau Leitner from Bavaria had written to request a small restoration—I took the southbound train from Berlin, made two changes, and disembarked at the end of the line in a small town tucked between the pleats of the mountains. A ragged man with a horse-drawn cart was waiting for me. We travelled by lamplight up a steep, icy path to the front door of an old timber chalet.
All was dark and quiet. I jumped down, the snow crackling beneath my weight, and turned to thank the driver. He'd already clicked to the horse and was turning the cart around, grimly avoiding my eye. He spat a wad of sooty phlegm towards me which landed on one of my new Guild-issued boots with a soft splot.
I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was, every time: even a Schöpfer's status couldn't protect me from this. I had curly hair, a sloping forehead, and dark, prominent eyes. An easy target. I wanted to shout at his retreating back that I had worn my fair share of rags too, that my pristine clothing wasn't due to some Jewish conspiracy. But I swallowed my words, of course, as I always had. I pulled out a handkerchief and knelt to wipe my boot.
The creak of the cart's wheels had faded by the time I trudged up to the door of the chalet.
I knocked; a woman with kingfisher eyes opened the door. "Wer sind Sie?"
"Frau Leitner?" I said. "I'm from the Guild."
She backed away to let me in. I ducked beneath the lintel—the low ceiling beams forced me to stoop.
"Thank you for coming, Herr Schöpfer," she said. Her voice was gravel, full of cracks and pops.
"Please, Herr Hertzel is fine," I replied, waving away the formal title. "I'm sorry to call on you so late. The journey took longer than I expected."
As I spoke, she led me into a small kitchen where a fire was dying in the grate. The logs looked suspiciously like chair legs. I shed my scarf and gloves, keeping my coat on for warmth, set my leather tool case on the table, and took a seat while Frau Leitner unhooked the kettle hanging over the fire. When she bent closer to the light, I could make out her features. The little details of this memory—the fabric of her coat, wool or cotton; the grain of the worktops, rough or smooth—they have, with time, disintegrated like flesh. They elude me now. But I do remember her face. It is a Schöpfer's habit, I suppose, to remember interesting faces. She was quite chinless, her bottom lip blending into her neck almost seamlessly, and her cheeks had a deflated, gaunt look that told of too much weight lost too quickly. Her hair was more grey than blonde. Old enough for grown children.
I knew better than to ask their whereabouts.
She poured tea into chipped mugs, and as she sat down, burst into an eye-watering coughing fit. She covered her mouth with a shaking hand, her cheeks flushing. I rose from my chair, unsure what to do, but she waved me down.
"That doesn't sound too healthy," I said.
"It comes and goes," she croaked.
I cleared my throat. "I know it's late, but we should discuss the restoration, if you don't mind. I'd like to get an idea of how much work is needed. What can you tell me about the piece?"
"His name is Ambroise."
She hesitated, her breath crackling. "Ja, originally."
"And how did he come to be in your possession?"
"He's been with us a long time. My great-grandmother took him in, helped him find patrons for his paintings." She took a tentative sip of tea. "He doesn't much like dealing with strangers, so I help him with it now."
I wasn’t surprised by this arrangement—many of Ambroise’s kind find positions with families as companions and teachers. "And it's a small repair?"
She coughed once, and looked away. "His eyes have deteriorated so much, he can hardly see to paint."
After our tea, Frau Leitner showed me upstairs to the attic. The slanted beams were high enough to allow me to stand comfortably, but there were boards covering the windows and I couldn't see anything at all. I began to take a step but Frau Leitner threw an arm across my middle to stop me. "Wait here," she said. With her coat pulled up over her mouth to keep out the dust, she disappeared into the darkness. I heard the splintering of old wood and suddenly starlight was streaming in from a large window, illuminating Frau Leitner as she propped the board against the wall. Perched on a stool in the middle of the room was the largest Steingeschöpf I'd ever seen.
Ambroise glowed so eerily in the starlight that he might have been carved from alabaster, not Queckstein. Every muscle was engorged and grotesquely defined. Like with many Steingeschöpfe, there were fantastical elements: he had a tail that stretched across the room, as broad and immovable as a felled tree trunk, spikes along his spine, and two twisting ram horns that erupted from his brow, adding another two feet in height at least. Veins of discolouration criss-crossed his chest and shoulders. Moss had colonised the twin hollows of his clavicles and the deep crease of his lower abdominals, which guided the eye downwards to a modest penis.
"Ambroise," Frau Leitner said, breaking my stunned silence, "this is Herr Hertzel, from the Guild. Er will dir helfen."
At the sound of her voice, Ambroise's head tilted. Buried in the midst of a large curling beard, a shapeless slice widened. It wasn't just his eyes that had failed: time had also blunted his mouth. This dilapidation, clearly the work of centuries, and the style of his carving, forced me to ask: "How old is he? Who carved him?"
Ambroise's head swung towards me, but it was Frau Leitner who replied, "De Loynes."
My mouth fell open.
De Loynes had been a French master, alive in the seventeenth century. Ambroise certainly fitted with what I knew of the de Loynes style—oversized, detailed, gargoylian monsters—but it was impossible: de Loynes's pieces were priceless. They decorated churches across Europe, populated the most exclusive of private collections, and according to the Guild, every piece was accounted for. What on earth was one doing here? And Frau Leitner wanted me—a journeyman on his first commission—to restore it? It was like asking an art student to restore a Leonardo.
I struggled to speak. "That is an … extraordinary claim, Frau Leitner. If it's true, I cannot—this restoration deserves a master's skill. I could do irreversible damage … He ought to be in a museum, he's a priceless artefact—"
The blue shards in Frau Leitner's eyes flashed, dampening the warmth of the gold. "Artefact,” she snapped. “Possession. You talk about him as if he's a thing."
I’d forgotten myself. The Guild had taught me to see Steingeschöpfe as pieces of art to be created and repaired; to Frau Leitner, of course, Ambroise was a dear and lifelong friend. I took a deep breath and bowed quickly to them both. "I'm sorry, but I'm not qualified for this commission. Please excuse me."
I stumbled downstairs and through the front door, into the cold, sobering night. The path that had brought me here was already obscured by fresh snow, but the grooves of the cart's wheels were deep enough to follow; I should go directly to the train station and telephone Berlin. But I'd left my scarf and tool case inside, and in any case the shock was catching up to me: my legs were shaking. I sat on the front step, the snow soaking through my coat and trousers, and lit a cigarette. Somewhere above me, Frau Leitner was coughing again.
My Guild badge felt heavy in my breast pocket. I pulled it out, a dark bronze disc just smaller than my palm, and ran my thumb over the embossed chisel-mallet-spark motif. Mine had been hard won, and I still wasn't convinced that I deserved it.
Berlin was hell during the first war. Food shortages had forced me to eat the bark off trees to survive, to get by with loaves made from one-quarter flour and three-quarters ash—hardly enough for anyone, let alone a boy of fourteen. I had no particular interest in becoming a Schöpfer, but after the closure of the home where I'd grown up, and the later loss of my hostel place, I applied for a Guild apprenticeship simply because the advertisement, trodden into the gutter outside a soup kitchen, promised hot, regular meals, and a dormitory with running water.
I was apprenticed with nine other boys to Herr Schöpfer Fellinger, a man with a severe centre parting who had developed, since the signing of the armistice, a deep suspicion for anyone who looked remotely Jewish. "You've got that pallid, sickly look about you," he sneered up at me during our first lesson.
"Aren't Jews supposed to be short and fat?" a scrawny red-haired boy with a crooked front tooth shouted from the back, which made the rest of the boys laugh.
Gradually, Fellinger introduced us to Queckstein, the material from which all Steingeschöpfe are carved. We spent months observing—and then experiencing, in small doses—its siphoning effect, how it sucks away a Schöpfer’s energy and animates itself.
We toured exhibitions and heard lectures from renowned Italian masters. We were shown newsreels of the Statue of Liberty, the largest Steingeschöpf ever created. She still guards the port of New York, wading in the deep waters of the city’s harbour and hailing new arrivals with the hearty “Bienvenue!” of many long-dead Frenchmen.
The bed and board—and the craft, I admit—invigorated me. I worked hard to recognise the difference between a rondel chisel and a toothed chisel. I learned how to touch completed Steingeschöpfe, how to listen to the echoes inside them. Even Fellinger had to admit my progress was more than passable. By the time I was permitted to work with raw Queckstein, however, it became clear that our styles clashed: he loved floridity, while I was drawn to everything sparse and efficient. "You favour a steady line," he once said as he inspected my latest carving—and from anyone else it might have been a compliment. I knew better. I knew that, to Fellinger, steady meant predictable. Predictable meant boring.
Of the ten boys apprenticed, only I and one other— Franz, the red-haired boy—earned our badges. The rest gradually peeled away. Some lacked the skill, others the patience. At least two were whisked away to the country by their parents to escape the escalating post-war violence in Berlin. One boy ignored Fellinger's warnings and never wore his mask while filing: a year's worth of Queckstein dust settled in his lungs, siphoning his energy unchecked until he died, cotton-haired and frail, aged seventeen.
I admired Franz's designs, as elegant as he was coarse. They had stretched-caramel limbs, unnaturally elongated and graceful. Wisps of stone, hardly existing at all. The shock, and the joke, came when they spoke: Franz knew every foul word I'd ever heard and then some, and every Steingeschöpf he made, however beautiful, knew them too. When Fellinger presented our work to the Guildmasters one summer—"Fick dich, du blödes Arschloch!"—we crouched outside the door with our fists in our mouths and tears trailing down our cheeks. Franz was given extra instruction in controlling the siphoning process, which would prevent this transference, but his aesthetic was highly praised.
I, however, was no artist. Franz had applied for an apprenticeship to improve his innate talent; I had only wanted a roof over my head. My work from the same summer—and every other summer—was received with little enthusiasm from anyone other than Franz.
I couldn't hope to match de Loynes's style. A three-hundred-year-old hidden masterwork would be ruined.
And no less of an issue—I dutifully reminded myself—was the fact that Frau Leitner had tried to circumvent our fees by downplaying the level of skill needed for the restoration. The inflation of five years prior had buckled the Guild's reserves, relying as it did on the buying and selling of Steingeschöpfe and fees owed for repairing wear-and-tear and war damage which, in the early twenties, no German had had the marks for.
As I nursed my cigarette, I became aware of Frau Leitner's death rattle behind me. I slipped my badge back into my pocket.
"His paintings don't sell that well," she said quietly. "I knew they'd send a master if I was honest in my letter, and I've heard what your lot charge. I'd have fixed him myself, but last I checked, you don't teach women." She sighed and sat with me on the step, nodding at my cigarette. "Do you have a spare?"
I did, but I hesitated. "What about your cough?"
Frau Leitner snorted. "What's it going to do, kill me?"
I lit her cigarette with a match, my hands protecting the tiny flame from the wind. The first few drags caught in her throat and she choked, but it only made her more stubborn to carry on. "These are good," she said, her eyes watering. I had to smile, and once she caught my eye, she smiled as well. She was not a beautiful woman, but something about her features—the way her mouth moved to accommodate her front teeth—irresistibly drew the eye.
"I'm sorry," she said, exhaling smoke.
"I understand," I said. "Times are hard for everyone."
She flicked ash into the snow. "He's been with me my whole life. He's taken good care of my family and now I want to take good care of him. I want to know he'll be all right when I'm gone." As if to punctuate her point, she coughed into her hand, dry and painful.
"The Guild at Berlin would be happy to have him," I told her, wondering whether it would be rude to pat her back. "He'd be welcome anytime."
Frau Leitner shook her head and swallowed. "And be gawked at for the rest of his existence? Listen, he's not interested in all that showy masters’ rubbish. Just a set of eyes and a tidier mouth—as good a job as you can make it that won't cost the earth. You can do that, can't you? Or what did you get that badge for?”
I rubbed my face. It had been a long day and I was exhausted. "I need to see him in daylight," I said, mostly to mollify her. Part of me, though, was buoyed by her distaste for the kind of ornamentation Fellinger always favoured. I squashed my cigarette on the step and got to my feet, my eyes picking out the wheel tracks in the path. "I'll find myself a room and call again in the morning."
I'd ducked into the darkness of the hall to retrieve my tool case from the kitchen, when she said, quietly, "The guesthouse won't take you."
I paused, bile bubbling in my throat. Recently, signs had started to appear in shop windows and hotel lobbies across Germany—"Keine Hunde," and then, below, like an afterthought, "Keine Juden." The collar around the necks of Germany's undesirables was tightening, inch by inch.
At length, Frau Leitner blew out the last of her smoke and flicked the cigarette away.
"You can sleep in the living room. The sofa's comfortable enough."
The sofa was not comfortable enough.
The next morning, aching in places I'd never known I could ache, I set my tool case down in a corner of the attic beside half a dozen canvasses. My fingertips took a moment to tiptoe through them. They were odd things: light and dark paint without any clear subject, individual bristle strokes preserved like fossils in the thickest smudges. They had titles scribbled on their backs such as Ein Garten ohne Blumen and Rike, '12. Looking at them, I felt as if I’d intruded on something raw and private.
I turned away and drew closer to Ambroise. The harsh light of morning hadn't been kind to him.
"Rike?" he said, his voice thick and impenetrable.
"I'm here," Frau Leitner said from the doorway. "Hab' keine Angst, Ambroise. Herr Hertzel just needs to have a closer look."
He towered over me. It was impossible to see the details of his face. "Can you bend down a little, Ambroise?"
He obliged, as cumbrous as a mountain, until his spine could bend no more and his face was level with mine. His eyes held traces of delicate iriswork; de Loynes had painstakingly carved individual muscle fibres into an otherwise smooth sclera. But everything had lost its definition and would have to be sanded away to give me a blank eye to work with.
I saw now that the disrepair of his mouth was in no small part due to an inexpert attempt to widen the cavity: scores had been left behind, made by a poker or a screwdriver. I glanced towards Frau Leitner, and she met my gaze steadily. If this was her doing, I hoped for her sake that she had covered her face well—but I’d already heard the state of her lungs.
I set my face and turned back to the task. His mouth was so obscured by the beard that in order to redefine it, I'd have to start from scratch. The whole beard, a sizeable chunk of his face, would have to go. And my eyes were drawn to the network of dark veins. No Schöpfer worth his badge could ignore these; they would only worsen and require more invasive restoration later.
A drop of sweat slid down my temple.
I reached out with my bare hand. If I was going to restore him, I'd have to touch him eventually. I might as well get past the first shock now. I pressed my palm to his chest and fell into the churning consciousness of a dozen or more men, sucked away in the act of carving and still thrashing with life, with rage, with creation. Aching backs and Queckstein dust caught under fingernails, a secondhand mask with a less-than-perfect fit; a persistent cough. And individual memories: a sackcloth-and-hay bed in a loft; a weeping sore in the groin and the smell of apples; the wetness between a wife's legs. Two young children and one blue stillborn; dark, muddy days and bright ones with blue skies. A hundred million things to paint, to write, to carve, to compose, all trapped in a body that's failing. Awareness of a brother come to save them at last, separated only by Ambroise's skin. They surge towards me: "Qui êtes-vous?" A red flash of pride—de Loynes himself?—brushes against my mind: "Don't defile my work, connard, or I'll—"
I jerked my hand away. The voices stopped.
"Are you all right?"
Frau Leitner was watching me with a frown. Without training, Ambroise was just cold stone to her hands. She'd never felt the turmoil beneath his skin, beneath the skin of every Steingeschöpf. "Fine," I said shakily. "A lot of work went into carving him. The Queckstein is … chatty."
What is it that makes those old, traditional masters so hateful? I almost looked forward to restoring Ambroise just to spite his creator. I thought of the long ride home and Fellinger's smug smile as I admitted failing my first commission. My fists clenched. I'd weathered a decade of taunts and sneers, of indifference—and for what? So that I could run home with my tail tucked between my legs at the first sign of trouble, and prove him right?
I explained what little I could do. Neither Frau Leitner nor Ambroise seemed perturbed at the thought of his face changing drastically, which set my resolve. "He will need to be cleaned. Could you boil some water? And can you spare any soap?"
I scrubbed away the lichen and grime, refusing Frau Leitner's help: she'd suffered enough for his sake. She coaxed Ambroise into letting me clean his hands, which he would not let me touch at first. They'd been warped out of shape by centuries of holding paintbrushes, like an old stone stair hollowed out and buffed by the passing of countless feet. I hauled myself onto his tail, ignoring de Loynes's tantrum pounding against my palms, and by using the spikes of his back as footholds, was just able to reach his horns. Patches of de Loynes's signature scale work were still visible on his shoulder blades. Their intricacy astounded me.
The Steingeschöpf stayed quite still, resigned to my ministrations. The bucket of hot water grew murky before I was satisfied he was clean. I insisted that Frau Leitner rest downstairs for the afternoon; I'd only brought one face mask. Once she was gone, I explained the next step to Ambroise.
The dark seams across his chest and shoulders were areas where the Queckstein had lost its energy—had, in other words, died. Steingeschöpfe can only exist on the combined energy inside them. Unless this reservoir is replenished, it runs out. Even after three hundred years, Ambroise had plenty of life left by my reckoning, but faults like his must be picked out and filled in with putty before the decay could spread.
"This will feel unpleasant, but it must be done for your overall health."
Ambroise showed no sign of having heard or understood me. I slipped on my face mask and gathered the tools I would need to scrape away the darkened Queckstein.
It disintegrated like dust at first. Then, the tool caught in a fault line and a chunk the size of my thumbnail popped out. Ambroise growled at me. "Sorry," I muttered. The siphoning process had begun in earnest. It was a delicate balancing act, completing the work that was required at the smallest possible cost to myself. My memories and emotions jumped around erratically in my head: a shoe with the sole peeling away, my pale toe visible; my fear of de Loynes, who in my imagination looked much like Fellinger; Franz, with the crooked tooth and the slicked red hair. Franz.
We were nineteen in 1923. We'd been paid our allowance for the third and last time that day, as had become the norm: wages received in the morning were barely enough to live on by lunchtime. Inflation meant that our pockets were stuffed with wads of paper marks in dizzying denominations—more money than I'd ever had in my life—and all we could get for it was a bottle of watered-down gin. We drank it in a dank alleyway, until it was dark and our heads were too muddled to hear the rattle of trams from nearby Potsdamer Straße. We'd heard rumours of a cinema projectionist who was letting people in through the back door, bypassing the unaffordable box office. We staggered to the cinema in question. Packets of powder and snuff changed hands, from Franz's personal stock.
The projection room was small and hot, and there was only an inch-wide gap in the wall from which to watch. We crammed our faces close. The moving picture was of poor quality, the film underexposed. A young woman stood by a bed and slowly stepped out of her dressing gown. My face grew hot. What was on the screen didn't matter to me—it could have been anything—but the crush of his body against mine, our boundaries blurred by drink, the ticktickticktick of the projector and the stifled moans of the people in the back row and Franz's eyes lit up by the chalky, stuttering strip of light—it all suddenly mattered very much. Franz's breathing quickened, and I felt myself harden. "Scheiße," he whispered.
We stood in the rain outside afterwards, our heads bowed and close, sharing a cigarette. Back and forth, back and forth, our lips settling into the same indent on the filter.
I stepped away from Ambroise, the faults removed, my heart thudding. My hands had gone numb; I had to give them a good shake to bring the feeling back. Ambroise gently poked the gaps I'd left. "Best leave them," I said. "You don't want to make them wider."
The stone-coloured putty came in stick form to be torn as required. I softened pea-sized pieces between my fingers and pushed them into the cracks where they would settle and harden.
Next, I used a miniature file to scrape away de Loynes's iriswork. The desecration would have given Fellinger an apoplexy. In the dust that drifted past my face, I thought I heard de Loynes's indignation. When the sclera was as smooth as oil, I began to shape the simple craters of his new irises. I thought of Franz as I’d seen him many times, finishing his latest piece, his shirt damp between his shoulder blades. My memories lost their colour and substance as I worked. At one point, I couldn’t recall the exact shade of Franz’s hair. My mind scrambled to drudge up other, more mundane things with which to feed the Queckstein. The attic grew dark; the numbness spread up to my elbows. I finally stepped away. His eyes were complete. They swivelled freely in their sockets, as big and round as apples, and fixed on me.
I hesitated. "What do you think?"
Ambroise looked around the starlit attic. His eyes settled on the pile of canvasses. I leapt out of the way of his tail as he all but lunged for them. He picked up the closest canvas—Ein Garten ohne Blumen—and stared at it. His shoulders started to shudder, and there came from him a noise like rolling thunder. He whipped around, banging his horns on a low beam. "Rike!" he boomed. "Rike!"
Frau Leitner's footsteps were quick on the stairs. She stopped to catch her breath at the top, a hand resting on the banister. Ambroise lumbered over to her and hunkered down. They regarded each other in disbelief. He reached out and ran his fingers through her hair. "Grau."
Frau Leitner's smile transformed her face. "Grau. I got old while you weren't looking, didn't I?"
That evening, I smoked and ate supper alone in the kitchen. My body felt like the rind of a fruit after the flesh has been scooped away. Fellinger and the other masters were often commissioned to restore Steingeschöpfe, and they always returned greyer and more wizened than ever. I finally understood why.
I snatched a glance through to the sitting room. Frau Leitner had taken a yellowing photograph of two solemn young men in uniform down from the mantelpiece. Ambroise was holding it.
Over the rim of the frame, Frau Leitner’s eyes met mine. Danke, they said. Danke.
My mallet had hovered in the air far too long. Ambroise's new eyes flicked between my face and my wavering hand. Carving irises was quite different to removing a considerably large part of his face. I had to pour my intentions into the chisel slotted beneath his nose, and by doing so pour a little more of myself than I would like into the Queckstein. This is the shape I want. Help me make it so.
The mallet swung down and the whole beard snapped clean off, landing on the floor with a bang. We watched it roll wonkily across the floorboards and grow still. I turned back and saw that Ambroise's eyebrow was raised. "Your first shave," I said. His new eyes creased with silent laughter.
I was left with a messy void from which to shape a jaw and a mouth. I worked quickly, and did my best to resist the pull—no, I thought, you’ve already taken too much from me—but the Queckstein demanded more.
The day we got our badges, Franz and I went to a bar and drank our own weight in schnapps. We toasted to the boy who'd died with lungs full of dust; we toasted to our future; we even toasted to old Fellinger, much as we both hated him. Years of hauling stone and working a chisel had reshaped Franz's body: the scrawny boy had become a lean man with callused hands and ropy arms. He still teased his crooked tooth with his tongue; he still slicked back his hair. In many ways he was the same old Franz, but that night he seemed different. Tightly wound. Something had happened between us in that projection room, and had existed between us since—a quickening that needed to be addressed—but neither of us could bear to break the illusion of easy friendship we'd created.
We sat so close that we drew attention. A band of brownshirts, their faces blotchy with drink, swaggered towards our table.
"Hey, you faggots!"
Franz's spring-loaded fist shot out; the ringleader's jaw crunched like an autumn leaf. The brawl that followed knocked out two of my molars and shattered the entire collection of vintage liquors behind the bar. The manager threw us out after ten minutes.
Franz and I left the brownshirts groaning on the pavement and staggered back to the safety of the dormitory, our arms slung across the other's shoulders, too drunk to keep ourselves upright. “Those fascist bastards,” he grinned through bloodstained teeth. “We got ‘em good though, eh?” We passed beneath a grubby poster for the Sturmabteilung that had been pinned to a high fence, its loose corners rattling in the wind. In my room, I found clean cloth and a small bottle of iodine, and dabbed Franz's black eye. I moved his head to one side to deal with a cut on his cheek. As he watched my face through half-lidded eyes, my thumb ran over his lips.
I blinked and realised what I'd done: I'd given Ambroise the jaw and mouth of my best friend. A sharp Cupid's bow; a plump bottom lip. Lost in memories, I'd reached out to touch his face, and he had leaned into my hand.
Tension was building in him, like the tension in Franz's arm that night. I leapt back, expecting a fist. Instead, he let out a roar so loud that the house vibrated. Dust—real dust, made of spores and crushed beetle shells and sand—drizzled down on us, coating my shoulders and turning my hair grey. The roar ended and became a full-throated laugh. He bellowed banned poetry from England, traditional tongue breakers, Italian love songs, classics in Greek and Latin—at last, all the things he'd held in his heart for decades, completely uncensored.
I stood back and witnessed his joy.
I needed a few days’ rest after completing the restoration. At the same time, Friederike—she insisted I drop the Frau—took a bad turn; she started to cough all hours of the night. Ambroise abandoned his lonely post in the attic to care for both of us downstairs, lack of space be damned. He pushed the little furniture they had against the walls to make room for his heavy, dragging tail, which left gouges in the floorboards.
Ambroise and I found ourselves with time to fill. It’s funny: I’d worked on many Steingeschöpfe during my apprenticeship, but I don’t think I’d ever sat down and talked to one before. I found it disconcerting. Ambroise was at once me and not me, a patchwork of personality and mood that I half-recognised. I found his German hard to follow, influenced as it was by different dialects and languages, but his voice was rich, like strong coffee. "Rike's been lying to me all these years," was one of the first things he said to me. "My paintings are terrible."
"I like them," I said. "They look … modern."
He shook his huge head incredulously. "Random dabs of paint on canvas? Whatever next."
Ambroise confirmed de Loynes as his creator, an unpleasant man by his account. "I was a very early creation," he told me as I lay in my sickbed. "I spent my formative years in a church in Rouen, ringing the bells every morning and watching the parishioners in prayer. But I was not rooted to one spot like the unfortunate Wasserspeier, and I left against de Loynes's wishes. I wanted to see the world, and to learn more of this god I'd heard so much about."
"And?" I asked.
Ambroise took a moment to answer. "When you've lived as long as I have, one religion starts to look much the same as another." He tilted his head. "What about you? Rike tells me you're a Jew, but … I think not."
It was as if the room had put on a heavy coat; both the light and my humour darkened. I closed my eyes and saw again Fellinger's sneers, the driver's spit on my shoe. “My parents—whoever they were—gave me to a children’s home when I was still a baby. I was brought up Catholic.”
Within a few short years, Jews would be identified, not only by their religious beliefs, but by their ancestry. It wouldn't matter that I didn't attend the synagogue or wear the kippah; it wouldn't matter that my parents only might have been Jewish. Without their papers, lost by the children’s home years before, I couldn't prove otherwise. All that would matter was the Jewish-sounding name they'd left me with, and the fact that my face happened to fit an arbitrary mould.
Ambroise watched me in silence, the same thought—my thought—undoubtedly occurring to him.
"I'm sorry," he said.
I looked out of the window. "Religion shouldn't matter to a Schöpfer, in any case. I create new life. It’s the highest blasphemy.”
Ambroise smiled at that, the features of his face grinding together as they moved. "Men and women create new life together all the time.”
My response was noncommittal.
He met my eye. "It’s strange to have memories of someone I’ve never met. The man with the red hair: who is he?"
I had added a part of myself to the mixture inside Ambroise—it was impossible to avoid. But I had left something else inside him too. The love I carried like a stone in my gut, uncomfortable and ever-present, would stay with Ambroise for the rest of his days. I didn’t have the heart to spoil it with the truth: Franz had been dead for over a year.
He’d been part of a communist mob intent on disrupting a rally for the Sturmabteilung. The brownshirts retaliated and things quickly turned violent; in the chaos that spilled into the street, someone drew a knife.
Steingeschöpfe carved by an apprentice are rarely sold, but for Franz’s artistry, the Guild made an exception. The night before they were due to be scattered like dandelion seeds across Europe, I went to see them. The pieces of himself he’d left behind. They watched me as I walked among them, their stylised heads moving as one. As insubstantial as cigarette smoke. What else had he poured into them besides his atrocious language? Was it possible, perhaps, that I was surrounded by fragments of his love for me? I would never see them again, would never have another chance to touch them; I longed to reach out my hands and fall into the world inside them—would it comfort me, to watch his memories and see his heart and hear whatever words he never said?
No. Whatever I could learn from them wouldn’t bring closure. Only pain.
There was no pain in Ambroise’s face as he waited for my answer. I envied him.
"Franz," I said quietly. "Franz Meier."
Ambroise mouthed the name with Franz's own lips.
A dry cough echoed down the hallway, and Ambroise sighed. "If only you could carve new lungs as easily as you carve new eyes."
On the morning I left, I put my head around the door of Friederike's bedroom. My train departed in an hour, and I needed plenty of time for the icy walk to the station. I expected her to be sleeping, but she was alert and propped up by pillows, the morning sunlight draped across the eiderdown. The gold in her eyes looked like melted butter. She beckoned me in and patted the space beside her.
So I sat with her, in the bed in which she would soon die.
Only one short month would pass before the cheque for my services, a letter, and several parcels would arrive at the dormitory. In the letter, Ambroise would describe Friederike's last days and tell me of his desire to return to the place of his creation, Rouen, to grieve. The parcels were his canvasses, sent with the hope that I would look after them until he could meet me in Berlin. Amongst them would be one new painting, in the same modern style. The composition was more refined, the colours more vibrant now that he could choose them properly. He'd called it Für den Mann mit den roten Haaren.
Bombs almost destroyed Rouen in 1944, taking Ambroise—and my memories of Franz—with them.
That was all to come; but for now, on that last day in Bavaria, Friederike Leitner’s hand was on mine, warm and pulsing with blood. She was watching me with her kingfisher eyes. "I made you something," she said. She drew from her bedside cabinet my Guild badge, which I'd hardly noticed was missing. She turned it over so that I could see the pin she'd worked into the back. I sat very still as her trembling fingers attached it to my lapel, over my heart.
“This is too important to keep in your pocket, Herr Schöpfer,” she said. "No more hiding it away."
The bronze badge, usually so dark, glinted in the sunlight.