The House on Kronenstrasse

Her mother's last words led to a place Christiane had fled as a child—and where truth lay concealed

They do not seem to think it odd that I don't ask to see the house first. When I stand to leave, we shake hands. I fancy I detect in the daughter's eyes a peculiar, knowing expression.

"How long did your father live in the house?" I blurt out. I hope this is not becoming a habit—my mouth's bypassing my conscious faculties, issuing statements and questions of its own accord.

"Why, it's the house we grew up in," the daughter replies, the peculiar look deepening. "During the war … so many houses were abandoned. I believe the house stood empty for some years. We took it over toward the end …" Her voice trails off. I think I see a glint of distrust in her eyes.

''You must be mistaken," I say to the taxi driver as he pulls up in front of an attached house on a dingy, treeless street. The driver repeats the address and then points decisively at the brick façade, which is slightly crumbling in places. It is a two-story house with comfortably high ceilings, but with none of the grandeur I had expected.

The driver turns off the engine and exits the car to retrieve my suitcase from the trunk.

Stepping out into the gray late afternoon, I find myself trying to stifle a childish sob of disappointment. Where is the fountain? The imposing wide steps? And where is my mother, crouched over something she's doing? Where has it all gone? I should have known, from the modesty of the rent they settled on. How could my mother have made such a mistake? Could she have directed me to the wrong house?

I catch myself. What does it matter? This address is a mistake—the taxi driver's mistake, most likely. Kronenstrasse is, after all, a common street name, like Maple or Pine in leafy suburbs all over America. A tonier neighborhood across town, no doubt, harbors a far grander Kronenstrasse, with the large brick house and fountain and grounds of my memory.

I am cold, standing there on the street. I have packed inadequately, assuming that early fall would be much warmer in Germany than in New York, which I always think of, irrationally, as the coldest place on earth from October to late March. Now, in my jeans and thin sweater, I shiver. I need to go in.

I climb the three brick steps to the front door. The key turns easily.

So the taxi driver was not mistaken. Perhaps my mother's mind failed her in the moments before her death. Reaching for one thing, she happened upon another, a neurological short circuit. Thinking she was handing me the key to my lost past, she instead shunted me to a meaningless dead end. Who knew whose address this once was, or why the street name and house number long ago lodged themselves in her brain? Perhaps she took piano lessons here, or visited cousins of lesser means.

In any case, I have landed here. In my purse is the neatly folded contract for a six-month stay. Besides, as I open the door and peer into the dark, narrow hallway, a murky intuition tells me that this house, wrong as it is, will offer up some kind of knowledge.

I slide my hand along the wall and flick on a switch. A dim bulb fills the hallway with insubstantial light, by which I see a worn floral carpet in fading pinks and browns, and an attractive staircase with polished mahogany balustrades and banister.

I recognize the close, musty smell of a house uninhabited by youth, of an old person's habits and lack of interest in freshness, brightness, and the new. I glance into the parlor to my left; I make out the shapes of several pieces of heavy old furniture, too large for the small dimensions of the room. I take the stairs and find another switch on the landing, which turns on a slightly brighter but still inadequate light. Herr Sturmer had either an aversion to bright light or a frugal concern for his electric bills. Here the walls are papered in vertical stripes of faded green. I tiptoe from room to room, finding three bedrooms, one converted to a sitting room, and the same weak lighting in each.

I brought with me a small bag of groceries—dark bread, a can of soup, apples, coffee, milk. I leave my suitcase in the largest of the bedrooms and make my way downstairs to the kitchen, where I rummage around for a pot, a can opener, a plate, a bowl, a knife, and a spoon. I settle at the small wooden table in the kitchen, rather than in the formal dining room, to eat my first meal in this wrong and musty and dark little house on Kronenstrasse that has drawn me to itself, though clearly under some cosmically mistaken premise.

After my meal I wash the dishes and climb the stairs. In a hallway closet I find blankets and sheets. I make up the bed in the room I have chosen, undress, and get into the bed. The sheets are worn and soft. Immediately I drift into a deep sleep. I am awakened by a draft that seems maliciously directed at my ears, which have always been sensitive. I rise, locate my light sweater, and wrap it around my head, not having thought to bring a scarf. In the morning I awake with aching ears and the uncomfortable fullness in my head that heralds a bad cold.

I spend the day wandering around the city and sitting in cafés, reading newspapers and magazines, which I find I can understand almost completely. Every now and then I consult the small dictionary I bought at a stationery store. When I have the need to talk to anyone, I am aware that my American accent is not quite so pronounced.

That night I drag my bed into the middle of the room and stuff a towel along the windowsill to fill the gap I have discovered beneath the pane. This helps a little, but not enough. My ears become so sensitive that every little sound is jarring.

The next day I buy a scarf and sleep with it wrapped tightly around my head.

My days take on a rhythm of walking, reading, walking some more. I drink a lot of very strong coffee, and sometimes forget to eat. When I walk, I enjoy a feeling of floating—after an hour or two all sense of effort evaporates, and I feel swept along by an external force, freed of agency. My mind, too, spins free, and I have the sense that I am hovering pleasantly some distance from my own body, like a small, friendly bird assigned to accompany my physical self on some important secret mission.

At night, the draft seems to be getting worse. On the fifth night I decide to change bedrooms. I strip the blankets and sheets from the bed and take them into the adjacent room, where I make up the bed and check the window, which seems to be newer than the one in the first room, and without gaps. I run my hand around the frame: no draft. I feel cheered and go to retrieve my things from the closet in the other room. I wonder why I didn't think to change rooms earlier.

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