“It's a boy, Mein Herr,” said the doctor. The boy's father looked at his watch.
“I need to know the time of birth,” said the boy's father.
Then doctor said, “Precisely twenty-one minutes after noon.”
The father made a note in a small, leatherbound book. “His name shall be Jakob.”
The baby was wan and undersized, a wriggly wraith with fierce eyes.
“He will be fine,” said the doctor. “A little undersized, perhaps. And mother is fine.”
A nearby nurse said, “He does have fierce eyes.”
Jakob grew slowly and ate sparingly. All who saw him said, “My, he does have fierce eyes.” This was in place of commenting on the boy's spindly corpus.
He was also diagnosed with a “murmur of the heart,” as was said then. Doctors were unanimous in the opinion that this would not have a major effect on the boy's life.
“Perhaps less sturdy than some,” said one cardiologist. “And he does have fierce eyes.”
Jakob's father was a watchmaker. The family lived in Freiburg im Breisgau, wedged on the edge of the Schwarzwald between France and Switzerland. His wife took in ironing. They had a pleasant, if small, house on Blauenstraβe.
When Jakob started elementary school, he became the target of taunts from bigger, stronger boys. Jakob also learned that he had fierce eyes. One stare could eliminate all threats. But rather than fear Jakob, his schoolmates respected him and simply gave him leeway.
Jakob was an ordinary student—as most of his teachers agreed. He showed promise at maths and grammar. Unlike most students who enjoyed the language, Jakob was loath to read or write. However, when it came time for testing, Jakob performed exceptionally. “Listless and disinterested during class,” his teachers would write on reports. “But he tests remarkably well.” In the faculty room, all of his teachers agreed that Jakob had fierce eyes.
Jakob's parents did not worry about him, his slight build or his fierce eyes. He outgrew the arrhythmia. He was never late for meals or chores, so his father noted. His mother tended to her ironing. And Jakob—even at a young age—yearned for something that interested him.
He tried sports, just enough so that physical-education teachers ignored him. Due to his language-arts skills, he began to study Latin, Greek and English. He would race through these books, ahead of his class, but never allowed his teachers to know this.
Jakob's life wrinkled when his parents announced that another baby was on the way. Some months later, his brother Urs was born. He was a bubbly, chubby baby, without fierce eyes. He soon became the darling of the household; people would come visit just to see the twinkling Urs. As relatives and friends fussed over Urs, Jakob would retreat. They would remark “how cute”; “a healthy boy”; “what an athlete he'll be.” Jakob knew these people were dying to affix “not like his brother” to such compliments.
This concerned the older boy little.
One day, Jakob found what he had been looking for. After school one day, he peered into a higher-grade classroom. Rolled down over a blackboard was a huge map of Baden-Württemberg, his home state. Jakob felt pulled to the map, an unseen hand beckoning to him.
He inspected the big city of Stuttgart, plus smaller ones with fascinating names: Sindelfingen, Friedrichshafen, Pforzheim. Jakob could not believe the wealth of information one document could display. He stayed until a teacher shooed him from the room. She said that a boy Jakob's age should have no interest in such advanced material. Jakob started to protest that he was older than he looked (a truism that chased him all of his life).
On that day, Jakob felt the first twinges of passion. It seemed to touch him lightly on his shoulder, pleasantly inviting him for further adventure.
Jakob's parents didn't care a whit about what he did after school. He just had to be home by 6:08, which was when dinner was served every night. Jakob looked at food as a necessary evil in his house. His mother would inevitably cook roasts and other dishes that she could put in the oven or on the hob and forget about while she tended to her ironing. The food was dry and bland. Sustenance.
Jakob began spending time at the Stadtbibliotek in the Münsterplatz. It was a short trolley ride from school; another tram would take him home. In the reference room, he would immediately go the map section. He pored over countries from all over the world. He soon became bored with Europe and branched out, seemingly reaching and alighting in places foreign. Moldova and Mongolia. Swaziland and Sri Lanka.
Jakob was especially fascinated with America. How could fifty states even fit together? How could a single state—like Texas or California— be bigger than his entire country? There were four such states. Germany could fit into Alaska almost five times!
Jakob used most of his meager allowance on transportation. Unlike his peers, he didn't waste his pfennigs on sweets, movies or comic books.
The ado over Urs continued. The little one grew steadily. By the time Urs was five (and Jakob, ten), the younger sibling was out-eating his brother. Food was fuel to Urs; he used it to his advantage, continuing to win favor and succor from his parents.
“Eat like Urs,” Jakob's father would say.
He would look at his watch and announce, “There is still nine minutes left of dinner. Do you always want to be sickly-looking, Jakob?”
After such remarks wound around the dinner table a few times, Jakob lanced his father with an exceptionally fierce look (one the boy was learning to master). Jakob's father soon stopped criticizing his older child.
That same year, Jakob was scheduled to advance from elementary school to gymnasium, which would carry him through thirteenth grade and into his abitur, the test for college.
But an even bigger change loomed on the horizon. Just as the school year ended, Jakob's father stood up at the dinner table—something the family had never seen. He clinked his daily glass of beer and said, “I have good news. For all of us. This summer, we are moving to Passau.” He fleshed out his speech: He was moving to a smaller company, one that made high-quality watches. He would be working for almost double the salary. Jakob's mother would not have to take in ironing anymore. They would have a nicer home.
For once, Jakob actually listened to what his father had to say. Due to his diligence at the library, Jakob already knew that Passau was a scenic city on the Danube, bordering Austria. He figured it was about 600km away.
Of course,Jakob had no friends with whom to part. He hoped he could find a good library—with a good map room.
Jakob—as it turned out—found much more than maps in Passau.
He fell in love with the city—a quarter the size of Freiburg—almost immediately. It was a city of rivers: The Inn and the Ilz met the Danube there.
His parents purchased a house on the Frühlingsstraβe, which was a short distance from his new school, the Adalbert-Stifter Gymnasium. In turn, the gymnasium was only steps from the University of Passau, where Jakob soon learned he had library privileges.
Jakob's mother still ironed every day for lack of anything better to do. He and Urs had the freshest, starchiest shirts in town.
The gymnasium was simply a freer school for Jakob. He was able to choose a variety of studies, adding French to his already-honed knowledge of Latin, Greek and English. He was subject to less badgering from the other boys—all dismissed with his Fierce Look, which Jakob had sharpened along with his language skills.
While Urs remained a pudgy, laughing, popular boy (the family's backyard was filled with rowdy playmates almost daily), Jakob blossomed on his own. He finally grew to be the same size as most of the boys in his grade—and later, even taller.
And he spent most of his spare time with, in and around maps. He was a regular sight at the library on Innstraβe. He soon became popular (for the first time in his life) with some of the staff there. During his second year in Passau, the head librarian, Frau Tiefsinnig, began to give him little chores to do. Soon, Jakob was stacking books, sorting magazines and newspapers. He even swept the floor on occasion. Frau Tiefsinnig in turn would pay Jakob a small honorarium for his work.
In the next year, Jakob was given a regular schedule at the library. The state of Bayern gave minors the right to work at libraries for a set number of hours weekly. Jakob—proud to be an employee of a university—almost ran from the trolley to his house to show his father.
“Dad,” he exclaimed, “I have a job. Sometimes in the evening. Would it be fine for me to miss dinner on certain nights?” He shrunk back, expecting the worst.
Jakob's father looked at his watch, barely noticing the gleam in his son's fierce eyes. “I imagine,” he said stuffily, “that this would be suitable for you. You hardly eat anyway.”
Jakob loved his work, as menial as it was. He eked by in school, knowing when he had to excel on tests, doing just enough prep work to keep his mediocre grades solid.
He naturally gravitated to the maps in his free time. Some of the workers there called him “Karteknabe,” a appellation he secretly enjoyed. He would tell the other people, “With my maps, I can go anywhere I want.”
He found a few reasonably-priced food trucks in the area—most of which served new, foreign dishes. Jakob even made his own map, stuck securely in a notebook, with markers denoting the origin of the dishes he had tried.
Later that year, the people at the library noted that Jakob's habits had changed. Although he still did his chores and used the map room, he no longer pored over the large books. Instead, armed with pads of paper and colored pencils, he would sit and fill the paper for hours. No one dared peek at his work. One university student opined, “I'll wager he's making maps.” She had no idea how close she was to the truth.
The next sea change in young Jakob's life occurred the next year, his fourth at the gymnasium. Looking at the course offerings, he found out he could take world geography. He jumped at it.
After working as many hours as he legally could at the library over the summer, he couldn't wait for the school year to begin.
He was surprised as the teacher entered the room for his first geography class. She was Frau Staack and by far the youngest looking teacher Jakob had ever seen.
She was a tall, raven-haired woman, big-boned, will full hips and full lips. And—as the boys noticed immediately—a full bosom as well. She tried, in vain, to cover this feature with loose-fitting clothing. Some of the boys passed salty comments right off the bat. Jakob was more excited to learn about geography.
Frau Staack's class soon became his favorite. She took Jakob around the world, trumping his paper maps with actual narration. She seemed to sense his interest and speak directly to him at times. Is she really talking to me? Jakob thought, more than once.
However, the rude boys in class succeeded in getting under the teacher's skin. “Frau Staaaaaaack,” they would call her. Behind her back, they would hold out their hands, cupping them from their chests. Jakob believed she saw some these mocks. He could tell by the way her face reddened.
One day after school, Jakob saw Frau Staack walking toward the car park. A few boys walked behind her. They were from a lower form than his.
And the abuse began:
“OOH FRAU STAACK.YOU ARE STAAAAAACKED.”
“I WISH I HAD YOU IN MY CLASS. DO YOU TEACH THE GRAND TETONS? OR JUST SHOW THEM?”
Jakob's teacher upped her stride and disappeared into the car park. He caught up to the boys who had been riding her. Facing them, he turned on the Fiercest Look he had ever unleashed.
“HOW ABOUT IT? WHO WANTS TO GO FIRST?” cried Jakob. He clenched his fists, taking this pose for the first time in his life. Jakob turned into another person—almost like a Kafka character. He snarled and spittled, wheeling from one boy to another.
“I WILL BURY YOU!!!” came the feral howl from Jakob's twisted mouth. The boys, saying nothing, turned and ran.
Frau Staack sat on a bench in the car park. He could see her bowed head and hear her tears, even from a few yards distant. He walked over to her tentatively, then offered her an immaculate, freshly ironed handkerchief.
She took it and used it. For a while, neither person spoke. Then Frau Staack patted the bench next to her. Jakob dutifully sat. After she regained her composure, the teacher said, “Thank you, Jakob. You saved me from those boys.”
“Well,” Jakob said, “I don't know about save. I just stopped them from bothering you.”
Frau Staack said, “The boys like to tease me about my, er, my ...”
“I know. I AM fifteen,” said Jakob, as his teacher's face reddened. She hunched foreword as if to hide her chest.
Jakob went on, “I know that Grand Teton is in Wyoming, USA. 4,000 meters tall.”
This made her laugh.
She said, “Well I have to go. I have a graduate class at the University.”
“I'm going there, too. I work in the library.”
“Then you shall walk with me, Protector Jakob.”
On the way, Jakob—after easing out of his discomfort in being with a teacher—talked of his love of maps and the world. Frau Staack told him that this was her first year of teaching gymnasium. That Herr Staack was in prison, and a divorce was pending.
They parted at the library with a handshake. “Good-bye, my hero,” the teacher said.
For the rest of his shift, Jakob thought, Hero.
The next day, Frau Staack entered class without casting so much of a glance at Jakob. Gerhard, seated behind Jakob said, “Here come the bazooms, bazooms, bazooms!”
The teacher snagged him. “Gerhard, that's two days of after-school punishment. Now, who's next with the smart mouth?” There were no takers.
Over the next few days, Frau Staack disciplined a few other boys in the same fashion. Whenever one returned to class, Jakob would give the offender a merciless stare-down. His teacher—from a distance—took notice of this.
One day after class, Frau Staack whispered to Jakob, “Please stay for a minute.”
He sat at his desk, fearful, excited, anxious. Fray Staack said, “Do you work on Saturday?”
“Yes, until noon.”
“Perfect, I will meet you in front of the Language Centre at twelve- ten, okay? We're going on an adventure.”
Jakob could only gulp a pallid assent.
That Saturday, Jakob remembered to wear newly pressed clothes. He even stopped at a kiosk and bought a small bottle of men's cologne. Frau Staack was right on time.
“Ooh, Jakob, so grown up,” she said. “I'm glad to have you as my date today.”
“We are going to St. Stephen's Cathedral, just down the way. They have the largest pipe organ in the world. It's a free concert.”
They sat together in the magnificent building. There was a huge chorus grouped behind the massive organ. The sound from the pipes rumbled as the group launched into a piece called, “Hilft Deinem Volk” by Vincent Lübeck. Jakob felt as if an undergound train was passing beneath them.
During the performance, he looked at Frau Staack. She had let her hair down from the prim, tightly coiffed bun she usually wore. It cascaded in ebony wonder, splaying about her shoulders. She also had on a more form-fitting blouse. Jakob tried not to look.
At one point, she turned to him and said, “Do you enjoy it, Jakob?”
“I think it is splendid, Frau Staack.”
“Marieke,” she said. She squeezed his hand for a moment.
Jakob thought he might faint. He tried to repeat the name; breath eluded him.
After the concert, Marieke suggested a stroll by the Donauslände, a promenade by the river. They stopped for coffee and pastry. So this is a date, thought Jakob.
They laughed and talk for over and hour. Marieke was impressed by Jakob's knowledge of the world. Finally, he blurted out, “When can I see you again?”
“Silly. In geography class.”
“No. Like this.”
Marieke furrowed her brow. After some thought, she said, “Jakob, you are a delightful young man. I have enjoyed today. Yes, it was my idea. But I am still your teacher … and you my student. We can be casual friends, I guess, but nothing more. If we continued to see each other … nothing good would come from it.”
Jakob wanted to debate the woman but knew she was right. He waved a pale good-bye to her as he boarded his trolley home. She smiled at him as if nothing were wrong.
That night, Jakob decided his course of action with Marieke.
For a few days in school, Jakob basically ignored his teacher. And she him. It was if they had done something wrong the previous Saturday, and both wanted to act as if the day had never happened.
The following week, Jakob gave Marieke a note before class. He made sure to do this surreptitiously. It said:
Dear Frau Staack,
I would like to meet you in the library tomorrow afternoon at four. We will just stay there. No walks or concerts. I have something to show you.
The teacher quickly read the note and offered him a short nod and another smile.
The next day, Jakob greeted his teacher casually at the library. She asked, “Alright, Jakob. I am filled with curiosity. What do you have to show me?”
Jakob produced a large portfolio. He had his own cubby at the library in which to store such things. He unzipped it and withdrew about forty sheets of thick art paper. On the sheets were drawings of all colors, shapes and sizes. He spread some on the spacious reading table.
Marieke Staack glanced at some of the pages. Upon looking closer, she found it difficult to breathe. The room seemed smaller; she lost focus for a few seconds. Jakob withdrew to allow his teacher some space.
On every sheet was a map.
One country to a page. Each was drawn in painstaking detail, complete with cities and towns (hundreds of them), lakes, rivers, deserts, forests. Icons signified manufacturing centers, farmland, suburbs. Legends at the bottom included scales from centimeters to kilometers. The maps were true works of art, rivaling any of those in Marieke's textbooks and reference works. But something strange coursed through Marieke, causing her to shiver.
None of these countries actually existed. Not a one.
Each land was carefully labeled: Braha, Palidonia, Futoshu, Miramidium.
She turned and looked at Jakob, who was smiling. Stuttering, she managed, “Jakob, these are superb, but ...”
“I know what you are going to say, '… but none of them are real.' And I'm saying they do exist. Take Futoshu here; it's a third world country with famine and disease rampant.
“The Shemana are a warlike people, in constant conflict with their sworn enemies, the Bitvu. Here, I'll show you both and you can see the borders.”
True, one country abutted the other perfectly.
Marieke seemed to calm slightly as Jakob spoke further. He said, “I know this seems crazy, but I grew bored of the the 257 countries we all know of. So, I decided to explore further. And this is what I found.
“Take Roton. It's an amazing place. The country produces everything it needs to survive. It has plenty of farms, growing healthful crops. The people here never get overweight or malnourished. They have builders, factories, everything.”
Marieke finally said, “I think I should sit down.” The couple repaired to a nearby lounge. Jakob gave a cup of water to his teacher.
“I don't what to say,” said the woman. “The work is just amazing—all the little things as well as the big. All out of your imagination! Simply amazing!”
Jakob smiled again, “Well, not exactly out of my imagination. But I can explain that to you another time. You really like my maps?”
“Like? I love. But I have to leave now. Can we talk more about this?”
During the next week, Marieke plotted scenario after scenario to find a way to see Jakob again. Finally she selected a Sunday and arranged to meet him at the Danube promenade again.
They met, walked for a while, and then sat on a bench. Marieke was full of questions. Jakob, excited as he was, kept trying the change the subject. He had something he wanted to say.
Marieke finally asked, “Has anyone else seen these maps?”
“No. Of course not. Only you.”
“Well, I'm flattered, but these are worth showing off your talents. Why share them with only me?”
Jakob suddenly took Marieke's hand in his. “Simple. Because I love you.”
Marieke pulled a way from Jakob for a moment, but then, to his surprise, leaned closer. She said, “I know what you expect me to say: that this isn't right; that it's just a crush; that we have to keep a distance. But I can't say that. I don't know why.”
Jakob said, “I know you don't feel the same way about me. And I realize that you are eight years older than I am, which I don't think is a lot. But every time I see you, you become more beautiful in my eyes. Most of all, I think you have much more beauty inside. And you have allowed me—like it or not—to see inside of you.
“And you don't think I'm crazy about the maps. I knew I could trust you. So, all this means I love you. You can't do a thing about it. These are my feelings, and no one can tell me I'm wrong.”
Marieke drew closer and smiled at Jakob. She held his cheek with her palm. Then she touched her lips to his for the briefest moment. Then she was gone.
Jakob sat there for a while, wondering what to make out of the whole situation. What he didn't know was that the brief exchange with his teacher was seen. By the most improbable person.
Jakob received a note in homeroom that Monday. It was from the headmaster, Herr Weissbart. He was summoning Jakob to his office, immediately upon dismissal.
The school day dragged interminably. The corridor to the office seemed longer, narrower. When Jakob walked in and saw Frau Staack also sitting there, he knew trouble was moments away.
Herr Weissbart was already into his monologue. “ … a very disturbing accusation.”
Marieke looked indignant. “An accusation of what?” She sat tall in her chair, her hair still pinned up.
“Of, er, certain improprieties with Jakob here. This very grave, Frau Staack.”
To Jakob's surprise, his teacher leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “That,” she spat, “is the level of 'impropriety' I have stooped to, Herr Weissbart. With this amazing young student who has shared his talent with me. I'm going to need more from you before you railroad me out of my job.” With that, she grabbed her purse and marched from the room.
A shocked Mr. Weissbart turned to Jakob. “Has Frau Staack ever suggested or done anything, er, improper with you?”
Jakob darted a Fierce Look at the headmaster. He said, “You just saw it, sir.”
The older man's throat began to constrict. He words were mere squeaks. “Very well, Jakob. You are hereby excused from geography class for the rest of the term. You will get the grade you deserve. Study hall will take the place of the normal period. Dismissed.”
Jakob walked home that day, not bothering to call in to the library even though he was scheduled to work. The next day, with about two weeks left in the term, he gave his notice, to the shock of the whole staff, especially Frau Tiefsinnig.
He knew what he had to do.
During those two final weeks of the term, he didn't see Frau Staack at school. He knew she was there, for he could walk by her classroom and see new lessons on the board. He didn't even bother to look for her around the campus.
On the last day of school, a Tuesday, Jakob went to library to fetch his portfolio and to make perfunctory farewells. “Maybe you'll attend here after your abitur, Jakob,” said Frau Tiefsinnig.
Jakob said, “Oh, there's no chance of that.”
Carrying his work, he knew exactly where he was headed. Down to the river. To the promenade. Where Marieke was waiting.
All she could say was, “They fired me, Jakob.” And then she ran to his arms. At first Jakob tried to cradle her. But she pushed forward, melding her body with his.
She sobbed, “I don't care who sees now.” Then she pulled her head back and kissed Jakob fully, passionately on the lips. He didn't want her to stop. Neither did she. The kissed more, waltzing down the promenade.
Jakob, out of breath, finally spoke, “You do love me then, don't you?”
Marieke smiled and said, “Yes. I just realized it now. Just don't ask me why. But what can we do? I have no job. You have more school. What, you're not worried?”
Jakob said, “Not in the least. Where would you like to go?”
Marieke laughed, “Oh. Let me guess. One of your countries!”
“And I'm sure you've been there before. And we two can go just like that.”
“We can. Now, what country? I have all my maps here.”
“I don't need a map. I want Roton—the place where there are no worries.”
“I've been there. You will love it.”
“And it's that easy, Jakob?”
“Just like that, Marieke.”
“The let's go.”
The pair, clutching each other, headed down the promenade, into an enveloping mist coming off the river.
When Jakob didn't arrive home that night, his parents barely noticed. They were being entertained by Urs, who had picked up some guitar. The next day, they finally called the police. Soon, a search was on.
No one seemed to notice that Marieke Staack had also left town. Two weeks later, her landlady, looking to collect rent, noticed an ugly stench coming from the teacher's apartment. The police arrived and the landlady allowed them access.
No one was there. Full closets, toiletries in the bath. Jewelry, appliances, books, art: all there. The foul odor came from the refrigerator. It seems the electric had been disconnected for lack of payment.
Finally a student at the gymnasium, one Gerhard Stern, came to the police with his parents. It turns out that Gerhard had seen Jakob and Marieke dallying on the promenade in what the student said was “an intimate embrace.” He told police that he had reported this to the school.
Then Mr. Weissbart was brought into the mix. Immediately following were the papers, especially the tabloids.
STUDENT-TEACHER TRYST TURNS DEADLY
DID MARIEKE DRAW JAKOB INTO A DEN OF DEPRAVITY?
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
The authorities dragged the Danube; trains, buses and planes were checked. Austrian law enforcement chipped in. No sign of the couple there. Or anywhere. After a month the police explained that could not devote any more funds or manpower to continue the fruitless quest.
About a year later, a boater in the Danube turned an article in to police. It was a cylinder wrapped in oilskin.
The piece was taken to a crime lab for analysis. The specialist unrolled the tube's contents after removing the covering. Peering at it, he said, “Hey Otto. Ever heard of a place called Roton? It looks nice.”