KookooKOOroo! KookooKOOroo! KOOKOOKOOROO!
I wander from the kitchen through the open doors to the front landing. The insistent crowing comes again and now I see the proud cockerel as he struts into view inside the makeshift coop on the old town wall. He knows he is magnificent: a hefty specimen in white with black and gray sickle feathers, and a brilliant red comb with a wattle to match. As he promenades out of sight again, I see five dusty white hens follow. They scurry and bunch together with loud clucks while he moseys slowly along, confident of his posse. I will come to call this the daily strut.
I am spending two weeks at the Tower, a medieval construction of stone built into the southwestern corner of the old town wall of Sulzbach-Rosenberg in Bavaria. The watchtower became home to my great-great grandfather Johann Renner in the mid-1800s. I knew it best as the fairy-tale home of my Ur-Opa and Ur-Oma— Johann’s son Martin and his wife Anna. Vivid and abiding memories linger from ages four and five. After I left Germany with my mother and a new American father at age seven, I didn’t return until I was twenty-eight, freshly divorced, and searching for redefinition in the heritage I had left behind. It would be many years again before I returned.
Now I’m here at the Tower as a guest for two weeks. The town has deemed it an historic landmark and rents it out through their website. It’s owned by a family member I have yet to meet, Martin’s grandson Erich and his wife Gabi. They are on holiday and I hope to introduce myself when they return. In the meantime, I’m determined to dig into the Renner family history.
Someone once told me that the Tower had been bestowed upon my family for some worthy deed that no one could name. I figured the town archivist would have records. I found him in his office at the Stadtarchive, seated at a room-length table piled high with dusty books and papers. More were stacked in the corners like pillars.
Mr. Hartmann greeted me in rolled up jeans and a loose button-up shirt of russet colors to match his red hair. He pulled out paperwork and an old newspaper article which dated the Tower back to 1388. I told him that I had found history books with drawings at the town library which date from the 1500s. The Tower is depicted in all of them, like a proud sentinel. I asked him what noble deed had been done by great-great-grandpa to be granted such a gift.
His eyes widened, then crinkled with his smile. He shook his shaggy head. “I have paperwork that was signed in 1853, papers we have not been able to completely translate due to the old formal handwritten script. But it’s clear the Tower was purchased, not bequeathed. It had been a watch tower, then a powder tower. I don’t believe it had been converted to a home when Johann bought it. He added the front addition. It probably took a while to make it livable, especially for the winter. And there was a moat behind it that became a popular public swimming pool later.”
My cousin Thomas had told me that Johann’s family had eight children, and a cow they kept in the cellar. I can’t imagine ten people in such a tiny place. And the poor cow! I do remember the cellar. It was dark with dirt floors and contained the original bathroom with a wooden washtub. On bath days, I would sit in vaporous, sulfuric-smelling spring water, the small window above me clouded by steam. I would think of hell and pray the devil stay away long enough for me to get scrubbed.
The pool was news to me, but I did remember a washerei, a wash house that spanned a portion of what used to be a moat. My child’s eyes saw heavy square beams, ancient and dark, above me to hold a tin roof, and also below, in the icy water. The women would scrub the clothes with a brush, whack them against the beams in the water, and then drape them in the sunshine on the outer beams to dry. I scrabbled along the edge and collected a cache of errant shiny buttons which I kept in a glass jar.
Mr. Hartmann went on to explain that, after a string of noble owners, the castle grounds became a place of utility. When the last duke from the House of Wittelsbach left for a bigger city, the tiny village needed money, so the town council decided to sell off unneeded portions. The old castle buildings now serve as a music school, and the town police station. Parts of the thick city wall were sold. Small houses of wood and stucco were built haphazardly on different sections of it.
My lusty rooster and his brood live on the wall, out of a blackened-wood shed and adjoining open area that is enclosed in chicken wire and slopes down for about twenty feet. Below this, someone has hauled in soil and created a garden. A young couple come in with two children to weed and water. The girl, who looks to be around four or five, runs around fondling the lettuce and whatever else is planted. A wooden slat fence keeps her from tumbling off, a drop of about fifteen feet onto the concrete of the cobblestone street below.
Above and to the right of the chicken shed, is another wood structure burnished by age, a narrow home with two dusty front windows. Two older men appear to live here. I see them make their way slowly down the steps in the morning, one stooped and shuffling, the other tall and erect with a long, gray ponytail. They dawdle the day away at a slatted picnic table, drinking beer, smoking, and cackling as they play cards. I wonder if they are the keepers of the rooster and his ladies. Above them is a two-story stucco house with a half tower attached. Today, snow-white bedcovers hang from an open window.
The town itself sits on a huge rock; everything is uphill and downhill. The downtown is flanked by two magnificent churches: one end is Catholic and the other Evangelical Lutheran. Both cast shadows over the cobblestone streets. Grüß gott, a greeting that is meant as good day but which translates literally into “greet God” rings out whenever folks pass each other.
KookooKOOroo! KookooKOOroo! KOOKOOKOOROO! The rooster crows throughout the day. He has a repertoire: as he reaches the wooden shed he stops to crow three times; the last one always strident. His hens pile up behind him. He turns, they turn with him, and head back down the slope out of my view. There! He crows again. Back into view he comes.
My Aunt Sieglinde lives in the upper part of town. I hear the squeak of the front gate and stand up from my working perch at the Formica kitchen table to see her march through the herb and rose garden. She bounds up four steps to the open front door, brushes away an ivy tendril from the overgrowth on the front wall.
“Hallo, Madlen!” My still lovely, seventy-eight year-old aunt is here to help me wade through questions about the family. She gets distracted by the crowing.
“Ach, that would drive me crazy! He is full of himself. Look! Look at his waltz!”
Sure enough, as we stand and walk outside, he’s prancing in a semi-circle, one wing extended to the ground. He sweeps it back and forth, and once again. His harem scatter, to huddle in the corner by the shed. My aunt laughs.
“He is reminding his girls that he is the man here. So typical! See, he only has five hens. A healthy rooster is better off with about ten. He’s probably wearing those girls out!” She laughs at my expression as unwanted images floated through my mind. Of dominance and chicken sex.
“It’s Okay,” my aunt assures me. “The rooster protects the henhouse, keeps a look-out for danger. He waltzes to show them he is on the job. In return, he gets to do what nature intended.”
In 1961, my mother left Germany behind with a huge sigh of relief. The country was still rebuilding after the devastation of WWII, and America looked like the Promised Land. Mom didn’t talk about either side of her family much. It is Sieglinde who will break the Renner history into fragments that I will have to rejoin to create a new whole.
I always thought that the loving great-grandmother I knew as a child was the mother of my grandmother Katharina, her two sisters and one brother. Now I find out this is not the case.
“No, no…the Ur-Oma you knew was the stepmother, Anna. The mother of the children died when Annaliese, the youngest, was only five. She gave birth to Annaliese when she was almost forty and she never recovered from the childbirth. When she passed, Martin married Anna. Fairly quickly. He needed help with the two youngest, especially Annaliese. And Anna needed a husband and a home. She was already middle-aged. But it backfired. Annaliese refused to accept the new mother and in turn, her stepmother was cold and demanding—like the stepmothers in fairy tales. It was terrible. The family became fragmented and sad. Annaliese never married. She didn’t think she was lovable. Perhaps she blamed herself for her mother’s poor health and decline. She spent her life as a teacher, very kind and supportive to her students. They were the family she never had. Her sister Susanna became a nun, your grandmother got married and Hans took off and got involved with politics. Anna passed a few years before Martin, who died very alone.”
Sieglinde purses her lips and taps my notebook. Looks at me with piercing blue eyes. “Here is where you can tell the truth, so everyone can understand why this side of the family is so distant. It’s really quite simple: Martin needed a wife and Anna needed a home and protector.
For a five-year-old, The Tower was a living fairy tale. A kitchen and cozy living area had been built-out in front of the original stone edifice. This room was where all important things happened: warm hugs and warm food, quiet conversations and childish giggles. I delighted in my great-grandparents. At Christmas one year, I cut shiny star shapes from red and gold foil. I still have them; they grace my tree every year, although they are a bit tattered. The original structure, was one round room on each of three floors, connected with impossibly narrow and winding steps with a heavy jute rope to hang on to. The original arrow slits were made into windows and closed with ancient iron latches. More twisty steps led to the attic, bedecked with intricate cobwebs and red dust from the roof tiles.
I would demand the very upstairs bedroom and curl up on the straw-tick mattress to stare at the ceiling and feed my romantic, my childish, imagination. Here, Rapunzel combed her hair and waited patiently for her prince. When I walked out on the landing, I always looked up at the dormer window and imagined long flaxen hair reaching towards the ground. How I envied her! For I knew— I knew without doubt— that he would come. The witch who had imprisoned her was powerless to his charms and strength. The prince was her protector.
Did Annaliese also sleep on the straw-tick mattress, wishing and willing for a prince to show? Did she gaze out of the window onto the lush lawn below, with hope in her heart and a prayer on her lips? When did she stop?
KookooKOOroo! KookooKOOroo! KOOKOOKOOROO!
BIO: MADDIE LOCK
German-born and American bred, Maddie fell in love with words as she learned the English language. Now a semi-retired business partner, animal lover and life practitioner, she is putting her BA in English to good use, writing and ruminating daily.
Maddie has published an award-winning children’s book, lamented about her writing obsession on Brevity’s Blog, and has an essay forthcoming on Gravel. She is also working ardently on a memoir about her newly-discovered German family, using research as a great excuse to travel frequently.