The church bells rang twelve o’clock as the door of a small house creaked open.
“Yes. Can I help you?”
“You know Wilhelm Schuhmacher, right? I’ve just come from his house.”
“Yes, yes, I know him. He’s the one who was keeping the wild girl.”
“That’s exactly what I wanted to talk over with you.”
“Come in, Mr…?”
“Schneider. Helmut Schneider. I’m Wilhelm’s uncle.”
“His uncle? Have a seat. Would you like some coffee? I always talk better with coffee.”
Soon the coffee was ready, and the two men began the interview.
“Wilhelm said that you knew Erika.”
“Yes, but not so well.”
“But you knew her. That’s important. Tell me about her.”
“I used to live in another village, if you could even call it a village. There were just six houses there in the forest. A couple of days’ travel from here. We were farmers.”
“And Erika lived there?”
“Yes. She was… how can I put it politely? The illegitimate granddaughter of one of the farmers there in the forest. Her mother married a few years later and left Erika there with her own parents.”
“What was she like? Wild?”
“No. We hardly ever saw her. She wasn’t allowed out of the house. I only saw her from the window, and once when she was four years old, she ran out of the house. We all knew that she was there, but we never talked about it much. You have to understand that an illegitimate grandchild was a sore reminder of the sins of Erika’s mother.”
“You said that you tried to warn Wilhelm.” Mr. Schmidt reached for the coffee pot.
“Yes. Erika killed her aunt and uncle and also two others in our village.”
“What actually happened?” Helmut Schneider hurried to put the words down on paper.
“She burned down the whole village.”
“Yes, I believe so. She worked for her grandparents as kind of a servant girl and was supposed to make coffee for them. All of a sudden they ran outside and shouted, ‘The house is on fire!’ Our houses were all close together. Soon the flames were everywhere. We gathered outside and tried to put the flames out with water from the well, but it didn’t help. It was July and not a drop of rain since May. The fire spread so quickly that some people couldn’t get away. Erika’s aunt and uncle lived in the same house. They died, as did two elderly people from the house next door.”
“And Erika watched the whole time?”
“No, she was still in the house. She had hidden in the attic. We could see her from the window gasping for air. ‘She didn’t want to make any coffee for us,’ her grandfather said. ‘So she let the fire in the stove get too hot’.”
“They didn’t even try to rescue their own granddaughter?”
“She was the illegitimate child! Besides, the flames were too high to go back in.”
Helmut Schneider said nothing.
“When the fire got to the attic, she burst out of an upstairs window and sprang to the ground. She hurt her foot in the fall. ‘It was an accident, Grandma!’ she cried, but her grandfather grabbed her by the arm. ‘No, you wanted to kill us all because you didn’t want to make coffee, you good-for-nothing!’ ‘No, it was an accident!’ She tried to break free from him, but he started hitting her. We could already hear the cries of her aunt and uncle in the burning house.”
Helmut Schneider emptied his cup of coffee in a hurry.
“Suddenly Erika broke free from her grandfather and disappeared with a scream into the forest.” He shook his head. “But our houses were already destroyed. Her aunt and uncle were dead and two others. We lost everything.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “We never saw her again… until that time I saw her on Wilhelm’s roof. She was completely different. Wild. After the fire, her grandparents went to live with their daughter, Erika’s mother. They were finally rid of the illegitimate child. Oh, the coffee’s all gone!”
“Thank you, but I’ve got to be going. What was the mother’s name, if I may ask?”
“Adelheid. Don’t know her married name, but she lives in the village next to the creek.”
“Thank you, Mr. Schmidt.”