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Hegi's interest in writing began when she was six years old. At the age of fourteen or fifteen, she wrote in German half a novel on lined note paper. It was not until after she arrived in the States that she wrote and tried to publish her first novel. Discouraged by all the rejection letters, she abandoned writing for three years. When she was twenty-eight, with two sons ages five and one, Hegi enrolled at the University of New Hampshire for a BA and then an MA. This was when her serious commitment to writing began. It was then that she made the decision to keep writing, even if no one ever read her work again. It changed the way she wrote: instead of writing to be published, she wrote for herself With the self-imposed pressure removed, her work began to flow. Her first novel, Intrusions, was published in 1981.
Germany beckoned Hegi to return in 1986 when she was researching Floating in My Mother's Palm, the highly acclaimed novel about life in a small German village called Burgdorf. While visiting her hometown, she searched for the Zwerg woman she remembered from her childhood, a woman who had been feared by the people of the town because she gossiped about everyone's secrets. Hegi was unable to locate her. The Zwerg woman, hearing that Hegi was looking for her, found Hegi in a cafe. Instead of answering the questions Hegi asked, she said, "I hear you've been divorced." Only after Hegi disclosed some details of her personal life was the woman willing to respond to Hegi's questions. This way of bartering for information contributed to Hegi's character development of Trudi Montag.
"You should have named him something else," Eva said one fall afternoon after they'd given up on trying to submerge Seehund. "A seal is supposed to love water."
"We'll call him Earth Snail," Trudi suggested.
Eva laughed. "Turtle Breath."
Both arms stretched wide, Trudi whirled around. "Turtle Breath," she chanted. "Earth Snail...." Her right foot banged into the end of the wooden planks that spanned the narrow arm of the brook soon after it forked. She cried out.
"Pinch your earlobe," Eva yelled.
Clutching her toe in one hand, Trudi hopped back and forth on the other foot.
"Just try it," Eva ordered. "It stops the pain."
When Trudi pinched her earlobe, it stung. Miraculously, her toe stopped hurting. "How come it works?" She plopped down on the grass next to Eva.
"It just does. I'll show you something else." Eva brought her face up against Trudi's. Her breath smelled of raspberry pudding as she opened her lips -- so wide that Trudi could see deep inside her mouth. Its roof was curved like the ceiling in St. Martin's Church, and the dark gap in back was separated by a pink icicle. When Eva's tongue stretched up, it hid the gap but exposed bluish veins beneath her tongue and a taut membrane that connected it to the bottom of her mouth. "Try it." Eva's voice was muffled. The tip of her tongue danced against the roof of her mouth. "Move it so it tickles."
Trudi tried. "It feels silly."
Eva closed her mouth but right away yawned as if she needed to move her lips. "Remember to do this if you're ever hiding and have to sneeze and don't dare to because someone may capture you."
"Who would capture me?"
"You never know. It's an old Indian trick. Indians do it when they don't want their enemies to find them."
"How do you know?"
"My father. He read it in a book from your library. I know all kinds of other remedies."
"Can any of them -- " Trudi felt her hands go sweaty. That morning, when she'd told Sister Mathilde she wanted to become a teacher, the sister had said it wasn't a good choice because children wouldn't have respect for a teacher who was shorter than they. She rubbed her palms against her skirt before she dared to ask Eva, "Can any of those remedies make you grow?"
Slowly, Eva pulled at a clump of grass until it came out by its roots. She tossed it into the brook, where it swirled in slow loops as it drifted away.
"I don't know of any remedies." Eva's voice was soft. "You'll grow on your own."
"Sister Mathilde -- she says I can't be a teacher."
"My mother says people can be anything they want to be."
"What do you want to be?"
"A doctor. I'll be a doctor and you'll be a teacher."
"Teachers have to be tall."
"Teachers have to be smart. You're the smartest girl in class."
"I know," Trudi said without enthusiasm. She would gladly give up being smart if she could be tall. "I don't want to look different."
"Look." Eva unbuttoned her cardigan and blouse. "I'm different too." She pulled up her undershirt. A dark red birthmark, shaped like an irregular flower, spread across her thin chest. Its petals blossomed across her nipples and toward her waist in a paler shade of red than the center, as if they'd faded under a strong sun.
Air and sound and scent spun through Trudi as she raised one hand and brought it close to Eva's flower, spun through her, spun her, as though she were spinning in a world that would always and always spin through her. Her ears hummed and her arms tingled and it took impossible effort not to lay her palm against Eva's chest until Eva nodded, but when she finally did, the skin of the flower was the same warmth as her own hand and it felt as though she were touching herself.
Eva swallowed, twice, and Trudi felt her heart beating beneath the flower. With her free hand, she traced the outline of the petals, wishing she could trade her difference for Eva's.
"It's beautiful," she whispered.
Eva yanked down her undershirt so hard it dislodged Trudi's hands. Her long fingers jammed the buttons back through their holes. "You'll grow, but I'll always have this." She leapt up. "And when I have babies, they'll drink red milk from me." She dashed across the planks to the other side of the river and down the hill that led toward the fairgrounds.
When Trudi ran after her, Seehund raced toward the brook, barked, but recoiled a couple of times before he stalked across the planks like a very old dog. As soon as he was on the other side, he caught up with Trudi, then Eva, circling between the two girls like a sheepdog pulling in his flock.
Trudi wanted to keep running, wanted to keep hearing that conviction in Eva's voice: You'll grow. "You really mean it?" she shouted, her legs feeling long and light as if they'd already begun to stretch.
"What?" Eva stopped. One of her braids had come undone and hung in waves down one side of her face.
"Yes," Eva shouted back and flung herself into the high grass. "Yes yes yes." Her head disappeared, and she stuck her feet high into the air -- above the clover and daisies and cornflowers -- her legs pumping the air as though she were riding a bicycle.
Trudi threw herself down next to Eva, her breath fast and dry, but Eva's legs kept flying through the air as if she were trying to get away from wherever she was. Trudi broke off a handful of purple clover and began to braid the stems.
"What are you doing?" Eva dropped her legs and lay motionless.
"Making a crown for you."
Seehund nudged Trudi's shoulder, then dashed off again. Careful not to snap any of the stems, she wove more of the purple flowers into a crown for Eva. The air was moist and still, very still. As Trudi set the crown into Eva's sweaty hair, she wished she could take Eva to the sewing room and keep her there, lock her up, her friend forever.
They stood up, and when Seehund ran toward them, a bird -- a gray bird with a ruby chest -- swerved from the grass near him. Like a lopsided top, it reeled and whirred, one wing spread, as it fluttered into the dog's path. Playfully, he stopped the mad flight with one paw and, before Trudi could come to the bird's aid, closed his jaws on it.
"Make him stop," Eva cried.
With both hands, Trudi pried Seehund's teeth apart. A startling trace of something ancient and rotting rose with his breath. As he let go of the bird, Eva scooped it up in her hands. Its chest was rising and falling rapidly, and one wing hung at a crooked angle.
Eva carried the bird home in the basket that Seehund had come in. Her mother would set the wing in her office, and Eva would keep the bird in the basket for two days and two nights before she'd find it dead. She would be inconsolable until her father would phone Herr Heidenreich. At his shop, the tall taxidermist would cradle the bird in his hands and promise Eva to give it a new soul. To convince her of his magic, he'd let her hold the lifelike bodies of other birds he'd preserved, inspiring in Eva a fascination with stuffed birds that would continue into her adult years.
But the night after Seehund hurt the bird which, quite likely, had already been injured, Trudi didn't let him into the house. Tied with a length of clothesline to one of the pillars of wood outside the earth nest where Trudi's mother used to hide, the dog spent the night outdoors. Alone in her room, Trudi kept seeing the flower on Eva's chest, kept seeing it through the layers of clothing, lit from within Eva's body.
In school, Trudi and Eva learned that the Jews had killed Jesus. That was true because the sisters said so; but Trudi didn't know if what Fritz Hansen said was also true -- that Jews killed Christians and drank their blood and offered them as sacrifices to the devil who was their God. Jews like that seemed far away and foreign -- not at all like Eva and the Frau Doktor; or Frau Simon; or the Abramowitz family; or Fraulein Birnsteig, the concert pianist who, it was rumored, was a genius. The Jews in Burgdorf were different kinds of Jews, not the kind who killed Jesus -- or anyone, for that matter.
They might beat you up, but not kill you. Trudi had already learned that belonging to one religion meant getting beaten up by kids of other religions. Mostly, though, the Catholic kids would be the ones to chase the Jewish or Protestant kids. There were lots of other reasons for getting beaten up: if you were a girl or if -- in any way -- you didn't look like others.
In school you also learned it was wrong to question anything that had to do with God and the saints. You had to believe. And for answers that demonstrated your belief you received holy cards -- pictures of saints with rings of light around their raised heads. Questions were doubts. Doubts were sins. Even wondering why the Holy Ghost looked like a pigeon was a doubt. Or trying to figure out how that pigeon stayed up in the air between God and Jesus without having to flap its wings like other pigeons.
"There are things we do not ask...."
"If God had wanted us to know, he would have sent us proof, but God wants us to believe...."
But for Trudi, questions that weren't answered kept prodding at her. When she asked Sister Mathilde what God ate, the sister said, "God is nourished by his own eternal love," and when Trudi wanted to know how Jesus could change from being God to being that small, heavy boy on the shoulder of St. Christopherus, the sister told Trudi. "This is what faith is all about -- believing what cannot be explained."
But it wasn't only during religion lessons that the sister talked about God. God and the saints had a way of appearing in every subject.
"If Saint Hedwig has ten plums and there are five lepers -- how many plums will she give to each leper?"
"When God made the world, where did he put the North Sea?"
"It pleases the Virgin Mother when she sees tidy handwriting."
The prettiest statue of the Virgin Mother was kept in the church basement, but the last day of November it was dusted off and displayed on the side altar of St. Martin's, part of the nativity scene. Maria's gown was the color of heaven, and her mouth curved in a cryptic smile as she knelt next to the pile of straw where the Christ Child lay. St. Josef looked rather stodgy and old, like Herr Blau, the way he stood behind her, leaning on a stick. But all three had identical glittering halos and were surrounded by nearly a hundred clay pots, filled with lush violets, that belonged to the winner of the annual violet contest, an honor that the old women of Burgdorf dreamed about all year and competed for, fiercely.
That December Trudi became a member of the church choir. Sister Mathilde had selected her and Irmtraud Boden because they had the best voices in class and could memorize entire hymns. Trudi loved standing on the high balcony next to the organ, loved the way the other voices in the choir filled in around her voice, and as she belted out the hymns, she felt them vibrate in her chest, her toes, lifting her on the current of music.
"She has the voice of an angel," Herr Heidenreich, who also sang in the choir, told Trudi's father. That compliment meant a lot coming from the taxidermist, whose voice was so beautiful that the pastor always chose him for solos.
When, the first Sunday of Advent, Herr Pastor Schuler lit one of the four candles on the pine wreath that hung above the Holy Family, Trudi felt all sacred and still inside. The rich threads in the pastor's brocade chasuble glistened, and the scent of incense wove itself into her breath. If only she could become a priest. But only men could be priests. Women could be nuns, but she didn't want to be a nun. Nuns had to listen to priests and wear layers of black cloth and stiff wimples that made it hard to turn their heads. Still, if nuns went far far away and became missionaries, they were almost like priests. If she were a missionary, she could travel all over the world like St. Franziskus and baptize hundreds of thousands of pagans in India and China.
Copyright © 1994 by Ursula Hegi
Excerpted from Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.