Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone: A Novel

Acclaim for
Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone

“Full of dark folk magic and frightful, lurid wonder. It casts a spell, winking all the way through every grim detail and shadowy secret.”

—Paul Elwork, author of
The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead

“Creepy in a way that actually made me quite nervous.”

—Ben Loory, author of
Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day

“A brilliant amalgam of Faulkner, the Brothers Grimm, and Günter Grass as if condensed for intensity.”

—Josip Novakovich, author of
Fiction Writer’s Workshop
Writing Fiction Step by Step

“The characters are all doomed. ‘Doomed to what?’ is the only question, and you won’t put the book down until you find out.”

—Christopher Buehlman, author of
Those Across the River
Between Two Fires

“[A novel] with a chilling twist here and there, a sly, stark wit, and a fascinating cast of lost boys and girls.”

—Timothy Schaffert, author of
The Coffins of Little Hope

“Stefan Kiesbye would be a writer to watch out for if he had not so clearly already arrived.”

—Daniel Woodrell, author of
Winter’s Bone


has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan. Born on the German coast of the Baltic Sea, he moved to Berlin in the early 1980s. He studied drama and worked in radio before starting a degree in American studies, English, and comparative literature at Berlin’s Freie Universität. A scholarship brought him to Buffalo, New York, in 1996. Kiesbye now lives in Portales, New Mexico, where he teaches creative writing at Eastern New Mexico University. He is also the arts editor of
Absinthe: New European Writing.
His stories and poems have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, and his first book,
Next Door Lived a Girl
, won the Low Fidelity Press Novella Award and was praised by Peter Ho Davies as “utterly gripping,” by Charles Baxter as “both laconic and feverish,” and by Robert Olmstead as “maddeningly powerful.”

Your House Is on Fire,
Your Children All Gone

a novel

Stefan Kiesbye


Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) • Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England • Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) • Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) • Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi - 110 017, India • Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, Auckland 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) • Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:
80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

First published in Penguin Books 2012

1  3  5  7  9  10  8  6  4  2

Copyright © Stefan Kiesbye, 2012
All rights reserved

Pages 21–30 appeared in different form under the title
“Rico’s Journey Through Hell” in
in 2007.

Pages 93–103 appeared in different form under the title
“The Mill” in
Fickle Muses
in 2007.

Publisher’s Note
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Kiesbye, Stefan.
Your house is on fire, your children all gone : a novel / Stefan Kiesbye.
p. cm.
ISBN: 978-1-101-60363-5
1.  Older people—Fiction.  2.  Early memories—Fiction.  3.  Villages—Fiction.  
4.  Germany—Fiction.  5.  Psychological fiction.  I.  Title.
PS3611.I4464Y68 2012
813’.6—dc22        2012023841

Printed in the United States of America
Set in Adobe Garamond
Designed by Elke Sigal

Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.



For Sanaz Kiesbye, Nils Fahrenholz,
and Don Mitchell

We’re a lukewarm people for all our feast days and hard work. Not much touches us, but we long to be touched. We lie awake at night willing the darkness to part and show us a vision. Our children frighten us in their intimacy, but we make sure they grow up like us. Lukewarm like us. On a night like this, hands and faces hot, we can believe that tomorrow will show us angels in jars and that the well-known woods will suddenly reveal another path.

The Passion

It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside…. Look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.

   “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”

Table of Contents


















ime is of no importance. I have returned to Hemmersmoor to live in the same house in which I grew up, the same cramped house in which my father and my sister Ingrid died when I was a schoolboy. I pour water from silver ewers onto their graves and pull weeds and put sweet williams into the soil. From time to time, one of the old villagers asks about them and remembers the incidents from forty years ago. Then their noses start to twitch, as if they smell a fire. Their lips tremble, but the words won’t come and they drop the topic immediately. Nobody has ever bothered me about their deaths. I never had anything to hide.

Our village has grown—rich people from Bremen have built vacation homes here, and their immaculately polished cars park every morning in front of Meier’s bakery. The noise seems foreign, life seems to have quickened. When I was a boy in Hemmersmoor, our village consisted of the main street and a few alleys and dirt roads. The houses were old and stooped—the doors and windows narrow and low, the beams twisted by rheumatism. The cobblestone was full of humps and holes, and nobody drove through our village just for pleasure. Even the sunlight seemed different, darker, never without suspicion.

When I learned of my mother’s death, I lived in Buffalo, New York. I had retired from my work the year before and hadn’t heard from my family in decades, had pushed them to the outer limits of my memory and caged them there like wild animals.

The solicitor’s letter from Groß Ostensen did not reach me in time to come to the funeral. I’ve learned that not even my sister Nicole made the trip, and she has not visited the village since. Why I returned, I cannot say or even think. It might have been my wife’s death. It was she who gave me a home in the New World. She was my continent, and without her, I was uprooted a second time. Perhaps it was the prospect of stepping into my father’s house as its owner. Perhaps I thought the wild animals had died with my mother and I was safe from them now. I had planned to return to the States after two weeks.

Alex Frick, a friend of mine from the past, also lives in Hemmersmoor once again. The sins of his early years are forgiven—or perhaps only forgotten. He is running his father’s tavern and is an important man. We are now the old people here, nobody but us remembers his years in the correctional facility, or his brother, Olaf, who almost cost him his inheritance and who one day disappeared forever.

When we meet in the streets, Alex nods. We don’t talk much about the past, there’s no reason for it. Our secrets in Hemmersmoor were always open and always kept safe. These days the two of us safeguard the stories of our village; we are their caretakers and can change them at any given time. Alex remembers me, Christian, the pale boy whose eyebrows were so light that his face seemed completely naked. He remembers my father, who drank himself to death and whose daughter gave birth to a
bastard child. Alex knows that much remains unsaid, but he has better things to do than to rummage through old stories. He expects me to return his favor.

The young people in the village work in factories in Bremen or in stores and factories in Groß Ostensen. The farmers have given up, and the boats that once sailed our canals are now tourist attractions. Hemmersmoor looks colorful and immaculate, as if we were put here for the sake of the hobby photographers. Potters and painters are offering their wares.

The pharmacy, which even decades ago was always freshly painted, still overlooks the village square. The old schoolhouse is still standing, but two families are living there these days. The once sandy school lot is now a multipurpose garden, and a young woman grows vegetables there. Her children’s voices tear the silence to shreds.

Just outside the village, near the Droste River, stood Brümmer’s tool factory. It was a low-slung building that had served as an ammunitions factory during the last war. In front of Brümmer’s, the only railroad track ever to reach Hemmersmoor ended, and in the afternoons the other boys and I sat by the buffer that prevented the cars from rolling into the river and waited for a train to appear.

There was no set timetable, and most days we waited in vain. But still, the mere prospect of catching a glimpse of the small, black steam engine and two or three cars kept us enthralled.

The factory now stands empty; the tracks are covered by tall weeds. A few years back, a fire destroyed what was left of Otto Nubis’s workshop. What lay beyond the factory, outside our village, we all have dutifully forgotten. The county is trying to open a museum there, but who is going to buy our paintings
and clay souvenirs if their plan is successful? The villagers are shaking their heads. Why should we have to suffer again? We had nothing to do with it.

Time is of no importance. I was young and didn’t know a thing about our time. There had never been a different one in Hemmersmoor. In our village time didn’t progress courageously. In our village she limped a bit, got lost more than once, and always ended up at Frick’s bar and in one of Jens Jensen’s tall tales.

Yet now time has made a daring leap. No matter how much I look for them, the dark corners of Hemmersmoor are freshly scrubbed, the wrinkles have been smoothed over, and my memories lead me astray. I have returned, but not to the village I once left. That village doesn’t exist anymore, survives in only my memories and dreams. When I walk through our streets at night, blue flickering light can be seen behind every window. I haven’t lived under a rock these past decades, but when I think back to my boyhood, there’s no room for television.

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