Elke Birnbaum beat her hands against her thighs. She coughed, spewing out hot, white air against a bundled fist. She shambled over to the counter and grasped the styrofoam cup with both hands. After a lingering sip, she lowered the liquid to her chin and inhaled. The steamy, spiced scent burned her nostrils, and defrosted her eyelashes as it wafted up the folds and crevices of her face.
“How much is this one?” A woman asked. Her index finger and thumb were wrapped around the smooth wooden figure’s rotund belly. Holding a miniature stein in one hand, he perched on a small log. A thick, black moustache dominated his round face, and a pipe hung from his hollow, agape mouth.
“Sixty.” Elke smiled. She remembered the long hours in her cellar workshop, sanding and rounding the Räuchermann’s stout limbs, cutting, carving, and painting his top hat, his collar, his buttons.
The woman looked to the man next to her and touched his shoulder. Elke imagined the figure atop the mantel of a fireplace in their warm, comfortable home. As they would gather around the fire on Christmas Eve and open gifts with their beautiful, wide-eyed children, burnt fragrance would drift up through the Räuchermann’s mouth and into the room in a thin coil of smoke. As time went on, as that couple grew old and generations passed, the scent would cling to the air, embed itself in the walls, the rafters.
The man nodded and the woman smiled. She turned to Elke and handed her two crumpled bills. The couple continued to the next stall arm-in-arm, her head resting on his shoulder. Shadows of the past flicked in Elke’s mind: her hand entwined in Jörg’s, the warmth of his cheek against hers as they whispered sweet secrets in each other’s ears.
“I got you more glühwein.” Her daughter’s docile voice brought Elke back to the present. Lise Birnbaum maneuvered around a few shelves and handed her mother a styrofoam cup.
“Thank you, schätzchen.” Elke lightly squeezed her daughter’s cheek, then stroked it with her thumb. Her cheeks and nose were always bright red in the winter, like her father’s.
Lise wiped her face with the back of her hand. She took a sip from her own cup and adjusted her wool hat, covering two pink earlobes. “So, I was won—”
“Oh, these are just beautiful!” A woman exclaimed in French. Her fingers landed on a wandering Santa Claus, a pipe in his long, white wooden beard and a walking cane in hand. She lifted her head toward Lise and Elke. “Are they handmade?”
Elke gave the woman a smile, polite and encouraging, as Lise shuffled over to help. She watched Lise talk to the woman in French, show her other ornaments. She spoke easily, foreign words flowing from her mouth without hesitation. Her mother had never been one for languages; Lise had gotten that talent from Jörg. In Naples, St. Petersburg, London... Paris, Lise’s father had been a master in the arts of speech and persuasion.
Elke remembered when Lise was seven. They had come home from a day in the park to find Jörg just returned from Italy. A bouquet of daisies lay across the kitchen table; Jörg’s large frame stood at the stove, stirring and sautéing. The apartment smelled like basil and tomatoes; he reeked of cigarettes and shame.
He spent that evening playing explorer with Lise. Elke had watched as the two marched one after the other around the apartment; secret portals took them to China, India, Mexico. Lise’s eyes widened as Jörg told tales of his journeys, filled with ship captains, princesses, and thieves. Together they walked like Egyptians, hiked the Himalayas, swam the Amazon. They marched with the same deliberate, confident steps, and their fair hair swayed in the same movement as they trudged through a sandstorm in the Gobi.
Jörg left the next morning, off to his next adventure. Elke had emerged from their—her—bedroom to find his bags by the door. He was in the kitchen once again, encasing a plate in saran wrap.
“For how long?” Elke asked from across the room.
Jörg turned and smiled. He put the plate on the table and reached his arms toward Elke. “Hey, good morning. Come over here.”
Elke stayed still. There she was again, playing the fool. She wanted to punish him, to let the space between them linger like a foul stench. But he was leaving, and she could hear the seconds wasting away.
She inched towards him, but leaned against the counter a few feet away. “Where to?”
“Paris, indefinitely. I’ve got this gig photographing inner city youth.” He dropped his arms. Silence. “Here, those are cannolis that I made. They’re for you and Lise.”
“Who taught you how to cook Italian food?”
He scratched the back of his neck. “Oh, you know... I just pick things up quickly.”
She forced a smile and took the package. “Great.”
There wasn’t much to say after that. Jörg took his bags and left.
Elke ran a hand through her auburn hair, then pulled at the strands. She flung the envelope out the window. The photos drifted into the street with gleaming flashes of ocean, brick, sun, and sky.
The cannolis followed suit.
She saw Jörg’s spark in Lise, in her gray eyes, in her determination, in her childhood defiance. But Elke had extinguished it quickly, keeping her daughter close and protected. She had scraped away all that she could of Jörg, spent years sanding the rough surface, and she had succeeded. Lise was a good girl, an upstanding girl, a safe girl. She could barely see the spark anymore, but feared the day the flame would reignite and Lise would abandon her, leaving her trapped under a pile of ash and soot.
Elke inspected a few of the figures on the booth’s shelves: moved the farmer an inch to the right, twisted the barkeeper’s torso back to center.
“That woman bought one for seventy-five.” Lise said.
“They just think they can buy anything, don’t they?” Elke scratched a piece of dirt off a mushroom-shaped Räuchermann.
“The French,” Elke spat.
“So, Mom, I wanted to know...” Lise began.
A mother and daughter wandered into the booth. The girl’s eyes widened at the Räuchermänner on the shelves, at their exquisiteness.
Elke smiled at them. “Let me know if you have any questions.”
The mother smiled and nodded. The girl approached a shelf and peered at the figurines. They stared back, enticing.
“So, Mom,” Lise continued. “I just wanted to let you know that my friends Amalie and Lukas and
“Amalie and Lukas and Martin,” Lise sighed. “We’re starting to plan a trip across Europe over vacation—”
“Stop right there,” said Elke. She pulled at the ends of her hair. “There is no way—”
“—Or maybe to America, even. We want—”
Crack! The little girl’s eyes began to water. At her feet lay the remains of an angel Räuchermann, the head severed and split in two on the frozen asphalt. The cylindrical base rolled across the uneven surface in circles.
“Scheiße!” The mother hurried to pick up the pieces and places them on the counter. Her daughter stood there, crying. “Hush, Sabine!” The woman shuffled through her purse. “I am so sorry. I can pay...” She looked up. “How much do you want for it?”
Enkle clenched her fists. “Do you have any idea what your daughter just did?”
“I know,” the woman sputtered. “And I am so sorry. I know that so much work—”
“Yes, that’s right. Work. Time.” Elke took a step closer to the woman. “I make each of these things by hand. I spend hours, days, cutting and carving and sanding each and every individual piece that goes into every single one of these pieces.” The little girl began to wail, but Elke just spoke louder. “And because your daughter couldn’t keep her fucking hands to her fucking self, my hours of careful goddamn work just cracked open on the concrete!”
“Mom,” Lise intervened and put a hand on Elke’s shoulder. “It’s okay.”
“No, it is not. Don’t you get it?” She grabbed the broken pieces and held them in her open hands. “I only make something once. I don’t make duplicates. Even if I could put the pieces back together, it won’t be the same. Even if I could glue—” She hurled the salvaged bits toward the ground. “—this piece and this piece and this piece back where it’s supposed to be, it won’t matter because she’ll still have a fucking crack in her fucking head.”
The woman stared. For a moment the two stared at each other, Elke breathing out white air into the woman’s measured face, while the girl cried. Lise stood next to her mother, motionless.
Finally, the woman responded, her voice cool. “Ma’am, I am really sorry, I just want to know how much—”
The mother scooped up the little girl and scurried out of the war zone. Pedestrians peered into their booth as they walked by.
Lise turned to her mother. “What is wrong with you?! Do you have any idea of the scene you just started?”
Elke shook her head. “You’re not going on that trip. End of discussion.”
“What?! Why not?”
“You’re too young, you’re not ready. And because I say so.” Elkie could hear her blood pulsing, the sound loud and deafening in her ears.
Lise looked her mother in the eyes. “Bullshit.”
“Dammit, Lise, why do you have to ruin a perfectly good thing?” Elkie exclaimed. “This is our time. It’s our thing. It’s Christmas! We drink glühwein, we sell our Räuchermänner. We do it together, and now you want to leave! You want to ruin all of this!”
“This is not our thing.” Lise replied. She lifted her hands above her head. “This? All this is yours. You make them, you sell them, and you drag me along! I’m my own freaking person!”
Tears welled in Elke’s eyes. She heard it, the flick of a lighter, the crack of wood on concrete. “I know that, schätzchen.” She reached out, but Lise pulled away. “I just... you know I worry. It’s Christmastime and now you’re rambling about going on some trip and you know my policy on boys...”
“Why can’t you listen to me? Why can’t you just understand what I’m trying to tell you? I need to get out of here. I’ve never gone anywhere or done anything.” Lise grabbed an artist Räuchermann off the closest shelf and shoved it in Elke’s face. “Jesus, Mom, you can’t just put me on a shelf! Let me go.”
Elke, tearful, stared at this thing in front of her. Its gray eyes shone resolute, dauntless, and bright.
Lise let the artist slip from her hand, turned, and left. The figure’s arms split from the body as it crashed on the ground. Elke sniffled and knelt down to pick up the pieces. The Räuchermann’s incense cone had broken, releasing small bits of scented ash across the asphalt.