Read The American Lady Online

Authors: Petra Durst-Benning

The American Lady


The Glassblower

The Paradise of Glass

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.


Text copyright © 2002 by Petra Durst-Benning

English translation copyright © 2015 by Samuel Willcocks


All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.


The American Lady
was first published in 2002 by Ullstein in Berlin as
Die Amerikanerin
. Translated from German by Samuel Willcocks. Published in English by AmazonCrossing in 2015.


Published by AmazonCrossing.


ISBN-13: 9781477826584

ISBN-10: 1477826580


Library of Congress Control Number: 2014910547

For Mimi—this one’s for you!


Lauscha in the Thuringian Forest, March 1910


The dance whirls round as the world turns round and I yearn for a joy I had forgot.
A promise, a passion, a taste on my tongue, a sweetness lost that can still be found, a sparkling glass filled with—what?

Marie sat at her workbench late into the night. To her right was a crate of glass rods, and to her left was a board studded with nails. She put the globes there to cool before they were taken to another bench in the workshop to be coated with silver and then painted. Marie was weary, but she nonetheless felt a gentle swell of pride in her work as she concentrated on the task before her. It wasn’t the same surge she had felt some nineteen years ago when at the age of seventeen, she, Marie Steinmann, had been the first woman to blow glass in Lauscha, snatching the privilege from the men of the village. But it was pride all the same, and it warmed her heart every time she saw her niece Anna sit down at the workbench and lean forward to turn the gas tap as though it were the most natural thing in the world.

The idea of a woman blowing glass was nothing new in Lauscha these days, when the boys and girls at the glassblowers’ trade school sat together in the same classroom, all intent on the same task. Marie smiled. Nineteen years might be just the blink of history’s eye anywhere else, but here in Lauscha it was light-years.

h . . .
it was such a comforting, familiar sound. “The flame has to sing if it’s to take the glass.” She could still hear her father’s voice as he spoke the words. And once more she wondered what Joost would say if he could see them now: she was a glassblower, Johanna was a businesswoman, and together, they’d made and sold thousands upon thousands of Christmas baubles over the years.

Marie stretched, then turned off the flame and got up from her stool. It was time to go to bed.


There was no warning at all. Suddenly someone behind her shoved something down over her head. It slammed her nose on the way down and squashed her right ear painfully. She turned her head from side to side but felt trapped in a narrow space.

“What’s going on?” she called out, startled. The words sounded strangely muffled, as though she were a little girl again, talking into a saucepan to hear the echo. But this wasn’t a pan on her head now—whatever it was, it was made of glass. A huge bell jar, already turning milky pale with her breath.

Was this some kind of silly joke? Weren’t Johannes and Anna far too old for such pranks? The twins were sixteen, for heaven’s sake.

Irritated, Marie tried to remove whatever it was from her head, but the palms of her hands were damp and kept slipping on the smooth curved glass. The sides of the jar were perfectly rounded—a globe rather than a bell—and it was warm, as though it had just come from the flame.

Marie could feel her own breath hot on her face, trapped in the glass.

It was a globe! The opening at the base was just large enough to fit over her head. The edges were smooth and rounded, but the whole thing was so heavy that she could feel it beginning to dig into the flesh at the base of her neck. She tried to wedge two fingers into the gap, but the globe clung tight to her like a suction cup, and her flesh was already swelling up around the rim.

Marie felt a wave of panic. This wasn’t a joke; this was a matter of life or death! She was gasping for breath now, panting out little damp clouds that clung to the glass. The more she tried to shake off the globe, the less air there was. The fear was metallic on her tongue. She tried to lick her lips and found that her mouth was completely dry.

“Help! Why won’t any of you help me?” she heard her own voice cry from far off.

A moment later, Marie was back outside the globe. She was just about to breathe a sigh of relief when she found herself back inside again. Inside? Out? She was still trapped—her eyes were staring out from behind the glass like a frog’s and her cheeks were puffed up like the gills of a fish. It was ludicrous. Wretched. Pitiful. Cold sweat ran down her clammy forehead and trickled down her neck, pooling along the inner rim of the globe.

She had to breathe; she needed air! A loud humming buzzed round and round her head, growing louder all the time. She tried to put her hands over her ears, but could only touch the glass.

Suddenly she knew that she would suffocate here.

She started to screa
m . . .


She sat up. Her nightgown was drenched in sweat, and Magnus’s arms were around her, his voice in her ear, reassuring her.

A dream. It had all been just a dream. But all the same, it was a long time before Marie’s breath was back to normal and she could take her hands from her neck. She still felt as though she were choking.

It was five o’clock in the morning.

Exhausted, she lay back down, not even sure that she wanted to go back to sleep.

Magnus looked at her with worry showing in his face.

Marie closed her eyes so that she wouldn’t have to talk. What a way to start a birthday!

“Marie! I hadn’t thought I would see you here today,” Alois Sawatzky said, bowing before her. “Allow me to wish you all the very best on this happy day.” He helped her out of her coat and hung it on a rickety hook behind the door.

“It’s very kind of you to remembe
r . . .
” She wiped a few raindrops from her forehead. There were damp patches on her sleeve where the rain had soaked through her overcoat, but they didn’t seem to bother her.

Sawatzky had never known her to visit his bookshop and bring an umbrella along. Apparently Marie Steinmann thought that carrying an umbrella was more trouble than getting wet.

“What a great shame that the weather is so poor on your birthday. Is there anything worse than March rain, day after day?”

“Unfortunately that’s not the only thing that spoiled my birthday mood,” Marie said with a sigh. “I’d better tell you straight out: I’m in a terrible temper today.”

Sawatzky raised his eyebrows questioningly. She didn’t say anything more, though, so he asked, “What about a cup of tea? I’ve just brewed a fresh pot.”

“It certainly won’t hurt.” Without further ado Marie flopped down into one of the shabby old leather armchairs that the bookseller had set out for his clients. Sawatzky smiled to himself as he noticed that even on her birthday, she was wearing her usual work clothes. Marie Steinmann wore pants and had done so for years; she could put any of those daring young things in the Berlin or Munich art world into the shade—but oddly enough, people hereabouts seemed to care even less about what she wore than where she worked. Or perhaps it was just that nobody was surprised at anything Marie Steinmann did anymore.

With a practiced hand he carried two cups of tea through the narrow confines of his shop, never once brushing up against the piles of books that reared up on all sides, as high as he was tall. He put one of the cups down on the low table in front of Marie and then sat down across from her and sighed. His arthritis had been giving him such trouble in the morning that he had toyed with the idea of keeping the shop closed today, but now he was glad that he hadn’t succumbed to that moment of weakness. Marie was more than just a loyal customer. They had known one another for nineteen years now, and she had become something like the little sister he never had.

He stirred his tea thoughtfully and Marie did the same. For a moment there wasn’t a sound aside from the gentle chime of candy sugar against the sides of the cups.

A customer could sit and browse or read an entire book in this cozy part of the shop. This was where his most passionate customers met to rediscover the classics, or to indulge in heated debates about the works of the latest writers. Alois Sawatzky’s little circle of intellectuals was well-known far beyond the town of Sonneberg. As was his bookshop, which stocked such a range of high-quality titles that it rivaled any of the big city shops.

“You look rather tired,” he said as he sipped his tea. “Did you begin celebrating your birthday last night already? Isn’t that supposed to be bad luck?”

Marie waved away the suggestion. “I would even welcome a bit of bad luck if it would shake things up a little. Apart from the fact that Johanna and the others insisted that I take the day off, it’s been a day just like any other.”

Once again he was surprised at how serious this young woman was about everything. He would have loved to see Marie Steinmann really make a day of it. She should put her hair up, put on a pretty dress, and let her sweetheart take her out somewhere, instead of sitting here with an old man.

“We shall have to do something about that!” He stood up and vanished into the depths of his shop. He came back a moment later with a bottle and two glasses. “It’s early in the afternoon, but may I nevertheless invite you to a glass of sherry?”

He didn’t wait for Marie’s answer but poured two fingers of the rich, golden-brown liquid into each glass. He knew that where tea was no help, sherry usually did the trick.

“To your health!”

She took the glass from him. “And to yours,” she replied.

He leaned forward in his chair. “Well then. Now you must tell me what’s on your mind. And don’t try to pretend that everything’s fine.”

Marie grimaced. “Everything really is fine, though. I mean, it’s ridiculous really, bu
t . . .
” She hesitated for a moment and then told him about her dream.

“I really thought I was going to suffocate,” she said when she had finished. She was still badly shaken. “Poor Magnus was scared almost out of his wits when I screamed!” She heaved a great sigh. “Thank God it really
a dream. I still feel awful just thinking about it.”

Sawatzky scratched his head. “Sigmund Freud would love to hear about a dream like that,” he said dryly.

Marie looked askance at him. “Don’t get started with Mr. Freud and his theories of the subconscious! I have to wonder why he can’t discover something useful instead.” Her voice was dripping with scorn. When Sawatzky didn’t reply, she went on, “Something that makes people’s lives easier. Machines or some such thin
g . . .

Not for the first time, the bookseller thought how strange it was that Marie always reacted so strongly to any mention of psychoanalysis and its founder. In other matters she was quite happy to hear about new ideas.

“As far as we can tell, knowledge of the subconscious has great potential to make people’s lives easier,” he replied rather pedantically. “But let’s not argue on your birthday. Or if we do, let’s at least have an argument that leads somewhere.”

He put down his glass. “Do you know what? You go ahead and find a book that you like and that can be your present!” If he didn’t manage to bring a smile to her face today, his name wasn’t Alois Sawatzky. Seeing her hesitate, he added, “It could even be one of those expensive illustrated volumes you like so much.” He raised his hands when he saw Marie open her mouth to speak. “No, I won’t hear a word of protest!”

She stood up hesitantly. But she had not even looked through the first shelf of books when she turned back to Sawatzky. “There’s no point.” She shook her head and went back to her chair, fighting back the tears as she sat down. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Now I’m spoiling your fu
n . . .

He didn’t say a word.

Marie lifted her head at last, almost in despair. “It wasn’t so long ago that I believed I would find the whole world in these books. I read every line devoutly, and I spent hours studying the pictures. Sometimes I felt a real connection with all those painters and artists. But what good did it do me? I wanted to better myself. To make something of my artistic gifts. Hah!”

He had been expecting just such an outburst for some time now. Any fool could see that Marie Steinmann wasn’t happy. All the same, he was shocked by the bitterness in her voice.

“So much for discovering the world! There are others who can do that. Your Sigmund Freud has discovered the subconscious, Franz Marc paints his blue horses, and just last week you were telling me about Alfred Döblin and his story ‘The Murder of a Buttercup’—now how in the world does anyone get an idea like that?” She looked over at Sawatzky almost accusingly. “Meanwhile, I paint stars and posies and bells and baubles for Christmas trees. Just the way I always have.” She swallowed hard. “And I don’t even paint well anymore.” Marie gazed into space.

Marie Steinmann. The youngest of the Steinmann sisters. The first woman who had ever dared to sit down at the lamp to blow glass. While the other women of Lauscha had been content to paint the finished wares as they had done for centuries in the glass workshops and to marry the men who blew the glass, Marie had sat down at her dead father’s lamp when she was just a young girl and practiced and practiced, in secret and at dead of night, until she had mastered the craft. And gradually she had begun making the loveliest Christmas tree decorations that Lauscha had ever seen. Glass baubles so beautiful, so imaginative, and so finely crafted that they made even the humblest home a palace when the holidays came around. There had been envy and gossip, of course, but success as well; it had started as a family business, with Marie as glassblower and her sisters, Johanna and Ruth, doing the rest of the jobs, but now they employed more than twenty workers. The Steinmann-Maienbaum workshop sold tens of thousands of baubles every year worldwide. Most glassblowers in Lauscha grumbled about the state of the economy and their waning orders, but with Johanna keeping the books and Marie bubbling over with new ideas, the Steinmann sisters were doing brisk enough business to expand. Even their critics had to concede that they had not done badly for themselves—especially for a business in which the women ruled the roost. And Ruth, the middle sister, who had followed her heart and left Lauscha years ago to be with the man she loved in America, also did her bit to help the business by taking care of their partners and purchasers stateside.

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