The Half-wit of Xeenemuende (link to Nesvadba homepage)

The first year in school they sent him back home because he was inattentive, forgetful, scatter-brained, and always fighting -- he had even thrown an inkwell at his teacher. It was a clear case of oligophrenia and the doctors offered no hope. And yet the wife of Habicht the engineer loved this child of hers above all. She discovered that he had a head for figures, and before the war began she had engaged a governess for him, and elderly lady who took care of him all day. The half-wit's name was Bruno.

A cousin of mine who was sent to work in Xeenemuende during the war told me all about him. My cousin lodged with a seventy-year old teacher who was to take the place of the strict governess at the Habichts, after she had been killed in a mysterious air-raid on October 4th. Up to then Xeenemuende had never been touched by the Allied bombers. There did not seem to be any important objectives there, either. There was only the underground factory, and nobody knew what was being made there. In the early hours of the morning of October 4th one small light-calibre bomb made a direct hit on the house where Bruno's governess lived, and killed nobody else but her, because the old lady lived alone. At the local command they swore there hadn't been an enemy plane within miles. They talked about long-range artillery fire. Why the British long-range artillery at Dover should bother to fire at Bruno's governess's house nobody had the faintest idea.

The old teacher was glad to accept Mrs. Habicht's offer. He earned a bit by coaching, because his pension was too small to allow him to buy anything on the black market, even potatoes. They didn't tell him the boy was a half-wit, though. He didn't find it out until the first day they spent together. Bruno was fifteen, with the face of a six-year-old and some of the habits of a toddler. During his first lesson he made a dive for a fly and swallowed it without turning a hair; he pushed his fountain pen up his nose and poured the ersatz coffee his mother had made for the teacher over the poor man's trousers. The latter of course got up and wanted to leave the house at once. The desperate mother spent a long time persuading him to stay; she raised his salary and offered to give him a warm supper every evening if only he would take her son on. And as if he wanted to ingratiate himself with the teacher all of a sudden, Bruno stood to attention and recited in a loud voice the multiplication table, division table, and square roots.

"He's got a wonderful head for figures," said Mrs. Habicht. "He can remember anything. He knows the Xeenemuende telephone directory off by heart." And Bruno promptly recited the first sixty names and addresses and telephone numbers. But he had no head for grammar, he was hopeless at history, and he couldn't read the simplest sentence. And he was fifteen, if you please. The unfortunate teacher always counted the minutes to suppertime; never in all his life had lessons seemed so long, and never before had he felt so reluctant to go and teach his pupils.

About a month later he caught sight of Bruno fighting a gang of younger children in the street. He was attacking a couple of eight-year-olds, tripping them up and then kicking them when they were down.

"Bruno!" he shouted from a way off, but he couldn't run because he had trouble with his breathing, and so it was the butcher's wife who dealt with Bruno because she had seen the whole thing from her shop. She grabbed the boy by the collar -- she was a muscular woman -- and just lifted him over the fence into the Habichts' garden. Then she took the other children indoors and washed their grazes for them.

"He's always doing things like that," she explained to the horrified teacher. "An idiot, that's what he is. Ought to be in a Home. If his father wasn't such a big bug they'd have taken him away long ago. Everybody's surprised at you going there at all."

It was a particularly good supper at the Habichts' that evening, though, and he could even taste a hint of real coffee in the ersatz. Even Bruno was behaving quietly, only staring sulkily at one spot in the corner of the room. And so the old man could not bring himself to give notice.

That night the whole town was roused by another catastrophe. The butcher's shop opposite the Habichts' was destroyed the very same way as the governess's house had been: by a small-calibre bomb or an artillery shell. The missile must have passed in through the window, and exploded inside the room, demolishing it. The shop was burned down.

Next day Bruno was smiling all through his lesson. The teacher began to feel uneasy.

"Who looks after your boy all day?" he carefully approached Mrs. Habicht at supper-time.

"Nobody. He's awfully good. He spends all his time on the veranda at the back of the house. His father put together a little workshop for him to potter about in."

"I'd like to see that."

"No!" the boy blurted out in a low, furious voice, and his face darkened.

"He doesn't let anybody else go in there," his mother explained. "That's his kingdom," and she winked conspiratorially at the teacher. "I've watched him through the keyhole sometimes," she went on as she conducted the old man to the gate. "All day long he just plays about with a set of boy's tools and some stuff my husband brought home from the factory for him. It's just harmless play."

"Are you so sure?" the man replied as he looked across the road at the burned-out butcher's shop. "You never can tell with children like that. He's not well, you know. He really ought to be in an institution..."

That made Mrs. Habicht really angry; so he had gone over to the side of the neighbours who hated Bruno!

"Oh, no, not at all. I'm really quite fond of him. I'm sorry for him. But still, I think he'd be happier in a Home."

"Never!" Mrs. Habicht stamped her foot with fury. "Never as long as I live!"

And so the teacher decided to have a look a Bruno's laboratory for himself next day. He went straight round to the veranda at the back of the house. The boy hadn't locked himself in. He'd got a little kitten tied up there and was torturing it with faradic current. The creature was half-dead when the teacher rescued it. Bruno did not want to give it up and they fought each other for it in silence, broken only by the boy's unintelligible grunts. The old man's heart began to pain him. There was only one thing to do. He aimed a blow at the boy's head. Bruno dived into a corner and stared at him with hatred.

"Krumme!" he spluttered. "You Krumme!" Now Bruno's governess had been Miss Krumme. The tutor's name was Brettschneider, and the boy knew that very well. The old man felt a strange horror creeping over him. He did not even begin lessons that day. Avoiding Mrs. Habicht, he went to see her husband at the works.

He was led along endless underground passages, with two armed men preceding him and two behind. It was like being in an anthill that was larger than life. The engineer listened to him impatiently.

"I know the boy has been responsible for a lot of trouble. He's a mischievous lad. But I really can't imagine how he could have had anything to do with either of the tragedies."

"Well, we'll see," said the teacher. "Nothing is going to make me sleep at home tonight. You can keep watch with me in the garden if you like." He lived in a little house near the station.

"You must excuse me. I've other things to think about. More important things..." Mr. Habicht refused the suggestion.

First thing in the morning he came dashing along, though. In the course of the night the teacher's house had been destroyed by a small projectile which exploded by his bedside.

Hidden in the garden the teacher had seen quite clearly the fiery ballistic curve of the missile, which was no bigger than his hand and left a trail of smoke behind it.

"I'm going to the commander at once," he told Habicht. "Do you want to come with me?"

At that time the commander was Major von Schwarz, and the factory was also under his surveillance. They were admitted to his presence.

"An extraordinary story. Quite incredible. And you admit it's possible?" the Major turned to Mr. Habicht. "Do you really think your son can have had anything to do with these catastrophes?"

The engineer stammered and turned first red and then white, and did not know what to say until the Major roared at him.

"I must confess, Major von Schwarz," he said at last, "that about a month ago I took the plans of our new secret weapon home, the Vergeltungswaffe zwei. We had so much work in the designing office that I couldn't cope with it. The boy may have got to see the papers, somehow. He can remember a lot of things. He's quite clever at some things, too. Nobody can be sure what's really going on in that head of his..."

These words decided the elderly teacher's fate. He had unwittingly stumbled on a secret -- the nature of what was being produced in the underground factory. And then, the engineer's son was now more valuable to the authorities than the man who had informed on him. The teacher disappeared into a concentration camp. That was what saved his life in the end.

"That means the boy's a genius," said von Schwarz, as he drove round to see Bruno, accompanied by Habicht and the regimental cook.

"He's a half-wit," said the father, "we've got a doctor's certificate to prove it."

"Hasn't it dawned on that block-head of yours what your boy has managed to do? You and a dozen more like you are still not capable of guiding our rockets to a definite target. You don't know how to aim them. And here's a fifteen-year-old boy who can hit a window from a distance, as close as fifteen inches or so. Can't you see how important it would be for us if our V2 could destroy certain targets in London instead of just falling at random?"

The engineer did not answer that.

"But I've never taken the plotting system home..."

"Of course you haven't, because there isn't one. That's just what your boy has worked out..."

And Major von Schwarz ordered the cook to unpack the cakes he had brought. For the first time in four years of war the man had been put to making cream for a chocolate cake, filling eclairs, spreading jam on a Victoria sandwich.

Bruno threw himself on the good things like a pig. Quite literally, pushing his nose deep into the cream and the decorated icing. The cook was thunderstruck and Mrs. Habicht started lamenting that the boy would make himself sick. At last he boicked contentedly and wanted to make off.

"Wait a minute," the major held him back with a grip of iron. "You can have cakes like this every day if you'll tell us how you did it."

"How he did what?" his mother answered for him. "He hasn't done anything. He's a good boy." The Major pushed her roughly out of the way.

"How do you aim your rockets?" he shouted in Bruno's ear. "Tell the truth or I'll have the hide off you!" And he pulled his old riding-whip out of his jackboot. He cracked it once and Mrs. Habicht fainted. Nobody bothered to revive her. The boy was staring sulkily into a corner and his over-large tongue was busy licking the crumbs of cake from round his mouth. He obviously didn't understand. He didn't resist when the Major whipped him. He just went on looking the same way.

At length the Major broke his whip in half. He was covered in sweat and breathing hard. He let the boy go, straightened up and yelled at Habicht.

"By morning you're going to find out how the boy does it, or else the whole family'll be court-martialled. And all your relations as well," he added as he went out at the door.

Outside the S.S. men were already jumping out of their cars and taking up positions round the house. Von Schwarz was still swearing as he drove away. That night he didn't go to the Town Hall to sleep, preferring to spend the night with his soldiers. There was nobody left in his Town Hall office but his pretty secretary, brought back with him from Italy at the beginning of the war.

She was killed that night when the Town Hall was demolished by a small projectile which came through the roof, this time, and burned the whole place down to its foundations.

The alarm was sounded in the barracks, the Major fastened his heavy Parabellum pistol on his belt, and was driven to the Habichts' house. "Where is Bruno?" he asked the engineer shortly. In trembling voices the Habichts said their son had gone to bed. He was found on the veranda, with his toy railway lines, putting the last touches to another rocket on his toy launching arm.

Von Schwarz shot from behind, with a bullet in the nape of the neck. Mrs. Habicht threw herself on the officer, trying to grab his pistol. She was mad with pain, tearing her hair and rending her clothes.

"What had he done to you? Murderer!" The Major tried to explain the situation to her.

"We cannot allow anyone to kill his neighbours just because they do something to annoy him. And with modern technique, too. He was an idiot."

"And what are you doing? How many people have you killed in London with your rockets? Did any of those Englishmen do you any harm? You've no cause for your murders. You're idiots, all of you, every one of you..." Von Schwarz wanted to have her arrested on the spot, but the air-raid sirens sounded.

"No," he shouted into the phone, "there's no need to raise the alarm. I've got rid of the source of the danger..."

In reply incendiary bombs began falling on the residential part of the town. The Allies had discovered the secret of Xeenemuende. A quarter of the inhabitants lost their lives in that first air-raid. Habicht the engineer was among them. Some people say it was a pity. He was a wonderful engineer, they say. One of the fathers of rocket weapons. A genius.

(from Vampires, Ltd.; translated by Iris Unwin from the Czech original Blbec z Xeenemuende, 1960)

Back to the Top

Coverpage | Bio and bibliography | Interview |
The Half-wit of Xeenemuende | Horribly Beautiful, Beautifully Horrible |
The Einstein Brain | The Storeroom of Lost Desire | Dr. Moreau's Other Island

Previous | Next

story copyright by Josef Nesvadba all rights reserved
reprinted with permission of author

Next story
Next story
Next story
Next story
Next story
Next story
Next story
Next story