Raggety had revisited me several times over the years, but remembering him while walking the dog reminded me, as sure as nights are full of nightmares, of another childhood horror.
My father’s name on his birth certificate is David, but his father (also David) was, so the story goes, drunk at the time he registered the birth, and my father should have been called Michael. So that is what he is called, or Mike for short. Always Mike for short. He is the eldest of three children, followed by two sisters. One is close to him in age, the other many years younger.
The elder of my father’s sisters had gone to Africa to teach and had met and married there a Swiss agronomist who was tall and handsome and his family were very wealthy. His mother was a wonderful woman who showered the family with presents. We used to look forward to real Lindor chocolate at Christmas with its cold melting centre, and one of my proudest possessions as a child was a metal blue “car coat” that she gave me when I was about seven or eight. I am not really sure what a car coat is, but that is what I called it. It was a three-quarter length raincoat. It’s a strange present, when you come to think about it, for such a distant relative to give a child. Perhaps I needed a coat. She also gave me a doll which I named after her and who was a very comforting presence.
Anyway, another present that came from that direction, though I remember it coming from my uncle rather than Madame G******i (as we called her), was a book called “The Heart of Stone” written by a well-known German writer of children’s fairytales and illustrated in pen with line drawings by a well-respected American cartoonist and illustrator, David Levine. I did not know anything about the author or illustrator at the time. All I knew was the book terrified me and yet I was compelled at the same time. It used to have a white illustrated dust cover, but that has disappeared, but the book remains and I have it in front of me now.
It is the story of Peter Munk, a charcoal burner in the Black Forest in the southwestern corner of Germany. On one side of the forest lived the glassblowers; on the other side of the forest lived the lumbermen who cut down the trees. Peter was betwixt and between, spending most of his time in solitude next to his smoking kiln, belonging nowhere and envying both the glassblowers and the lumbermen, such was his poverty.
Each side of the forest had its own spirit. The glassblowers had the kindly Glassman, whilst the lumbermen had Hollander Mike. Hollander Mike was a revengeful giant of a spirit that struck fear into everyone’s heart and kept them all abed at night.
Peter find himself in financial ruin and Hollander Mike appears to strike a bargain with him. Peter follows him down into the dark abyss where Hollander Mike lives and discovers the bargain.
The most horrible illustration. Peter is in the depths of despair but seems to be having a nosebleed not weeping tears
Hollander Mike asks him if his life has not been blighted by his silly heart which makes him feel fear, which urges him to be generous to others when he cannot afford to be generous. He takes Peter to a room which is full of pickled hearts. On the jars Peter reads the names of all the most respected men in the Black Forest. Hollander Mike offers to exchange Peter’s useless heart for a marble heart and a hundred thousand florins and Peter finds himself the next morning a richer but indifferent man.
Life goes on.
“For two years he travelled, and wherever he stopped he first looked for tavern signs. He went sight-seeing too, but only because he thought he should – for neither buildings, nor paintings, nor music, nor dancing could give him pleasure. His stone heart remained indifferent; his eyes and ears were blunt to beauty. All that was left to him were the pleasures of eating, drinking and sleeping, so he ate for amusement and drank a lot and slept because he was bored.
And as he wandered aimlessly through the world, he often remembered how happy and gay he used to be when he was poor and had to work for a living, how, in those days, a simple thing like the view of a valley or a snatch of song had delighted him, and how he had looked forward to the plain food his mother would bring to the charcoal kiln. How could he have laughed so easily at the least joke then, he wondered, when now he could not laugh at all! Now when people laughed, he turned up the corners of his mouth out of politeness, but his heart did not laugh along. It was true he was always calm now, but the calmness was empty, and he could never really feel true contentment of any kind.”
Peter determines that he will make money and that will satisfy him. He surrounds himself with ferocious dogs to keep the beggars at bay, and derides the old hag of his mother who, stooped and frail, hangs around outside his house. He seeks consolation in a wife, but murders her – striking her with the ebony handle of his riding whip – because she is annoying him. Strangely, this death reaches even his stony heart and he is reduced to something akin to deepest despair.
Killing his wife
He returns to Hollander Mike and taunts him, making him believe that the heart that beats in his breast is still the feeling heart, that Hollander Mike’s collection of hearts does not contain him. Mike’s ugly pride drives him to rage.
“The giant was livid with rage. He tore open the door to the other room and shouted, “Come and read the labels for yourself! See that one over there? It belongs to Peter Munk! Look how it’s twitching! Don’t tell me a wax heart can twitch like that.
“It’s wax all right,” Peter taunted. “That’s not howa real heart beats, and mine is still in my breast. No, no, you’re not a magician!”
“I’ll prove it to you. It is your heart – I’ll make you feel it! And Mike ripped open Peter’s vest and shirt. He took the stone from Peter’s breast and showed it to him. Then he lifted the real heart from its jar, breathed on it, and put it carefully in its place. Peter could feel it beating and could feel glad of it.
“Now do you believe me?” asked Mike, smiling.
“Yes, you were right,” Peter replied, stealthily taking the little glass cross from his pocket. “I wouldn’t have believed that such a thing could be.”
“Well, now you know. But come, let me give you back the stone.”
“Not so fast, Hollander Mike!” cried Peter. He took a step backward and, holding out the little cross, started to pray whatever came into his head.
The more he prayed, the smaller the giant became, until at last he fell to the floor and lay there writhing like a worm. Then all the hearts began to twitch and hammer inside their jars so it sounded like a watchmaker’s shop. Peter shuddered and felt afraid.”
Peter runs away, and “all the while, his heart beat joyfully, just for the joy of beating”.
The Glassman appears and finds Peter crying for all the things he did whilst his heart was made of stone. Peter’s repentence is matched by the forgiveness of all those he wronged and he turns round to find his wife and mother. He becomes an upstanding, hard-working man, earning the esteem of all those around him. He was happy with his wife and good to his mother. He is blessed with a child.
Even the baby has Peter’s horrible nose
Now I know why I kept the book – the only book I have kept from childhood – for all those years, through so many moves. I had no conscious memory of the story, only a frightened fascination for the illustrations.