The Three Dark Kings

A short story for Christmas
by Wolfgang Borchert
(translated by me)
I have loved this story since the first time I read it. Set amidst the ruins of a town in Germany in 1945, it is quite short. Its sentences are terse, and the message bittersweet. A good news story . . . sort of.
Wolfgang Borchert was a young writer who fought with the Wehrmacht and was wounded on the Russian front. Never fully recovering from his wounds, he died in 1947 at the age of 26, but not before he had written many short stories, poems, and a play.
Unfortunately not much of his work is available to English readers. I have translated this one knowing I may be transgressing copyright, but then again, no one would have read it otherwise. I hope therefore I may be forgiven, especially as I am not trying to make any money from it.
It is a small Christmas gem: a gift. Hope you like it. If so, Wolfgang Borchert would have been pleased that you liked his “Drei Dunkle Könige”
(Google Images – YouTube)
He picked his way slowly through the dark suburbs. Ruins of houses stood out against the sky. The moon was absent, the pavement frightened by the late steps. Finding an old plank he used his foot on it until a rotting cross piece broke away with a sigh. The wood had a sweet rotting smell. He felt his way back through the dark suburbs. No stars were out.
When he opened the door (the door cried as he did so) he noticed the pale blue eyes of his wife. They looked out from a weary face. Her breath hung white in the air, it was so cold. He bent his bony knee and broke the wood. It sighed. Then the sweet rotten smell spread around. He held up a piece to his nose. Smells almost like a cake, he laughed softly. No, said his wife's eyes, don't laugh. He's sleeping.
The man lay the sweet rotting wood in the metal oven where it ignited and threw a handful of warm light through the room. The light fell on a tiny round face and stayed there a moment. The face was barely an hour old but already had everything that belonged: Ears, nose, mouth and eyes. Its eyes were big, that was obvious, although they were closed. But the mouth was open, puffing out air softly. Nose and ears were red. He's alive, thought the mother. And the tiny face slept.
There's some rolled oats, said the man. Yes, she answered, that's good. It's cold. The man picked up another piece of the soft, weak wood. She's got herself a child, and now has to freeze, he thought. But he had no one he could punch in the face because of that. As he opened the oven door, a handful of light fell again on the sleeping face. The woman said softly: Look, like a halo! Do you see it? Halo! He thought, and he had no one he could punch in the face.
There were people at the door. We saw the light in the window, they said. We want to come inside for ten minutes. But we have a child, the man said to them. Without replying they came inside, breathing fog from their noses, stepping quietly, lifting their feet. We will be quiet they whispered. Then they came into the light. There were three of them. In three old uniforms. One had a cardboard carton, another a sack. The third had no hands. Frostbite, he said and held up the stumps. Then he opened his overcoat to reveal tobacco and thin paper. They rolled cigarettes. But the woman said: No, the child. So they went to the door and their cigarettes were four points in the night. One of them had thickly wrapped feet. He took a piece of wood out of the sack. A donkey, he said. I spent seven months carving it. For the child, he said giving it to the man. What's wrong with your feet, asked the man. Water, answered the donkey carver. From hunger. And the other? The third? Asked the man, feeling the donkey in the dark. The third man trembled in his uniform. Oh nothing, he whispered. It's only nerves. Too much fear. They put out the cigarettes and went back inside.
(H & L Teichert, “Allerlei zum Lesen”, Houghton Mifflin Co.)
They stepped quietly over to look at the tiny sleeping face. The trembling one took two yellow bonbons out of his carton saying, these are for your wife. The woman opened her pale eyes wide as the three dark ones bent over her child. She was afraid. But then the child pushed its legs against her breast and cried so strongly that the three dark ones got up and went to the door. Here they nodded once more and walked off into the night.
The man looked after them. Strange holy ones, he said to his wife as he closed the door. Fine saints they are, he growled and saw after the rolled oats. But he had no face for his fists.
But the child cried, whispered the wife. He cried so strongly. That's why they left. Look now, how lively he is, she said proudly. The face opened its mouth and cried.
He's crying? asked the man.
No, I think he's laughing, answered the wife.
Almost like cakes, said the man and smelled the wood. Like cakes. Quite sweet.
Today is Christmas, said the wife.
Yes, Christmas, he growled, and a handfull of light from the oven fell on the tiny sleeping face.
(H & L Teichert, “Allerlei zum Lesen”, Houghton Mifflin Co.)

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