I suppose they took the name from her house. Kinderheim. It had been a one-room schoolhouse, back in the days before the Great War. No one remembers how long it stood empty. No one remembers being introduced to Frau Totenkinder. But we knew she lived there all the same.
They say she was an abortionist. But then, ‘they’ also said she was a caretaker of unwanted children, so lend that only as much credence as you will.
We had always been a small village with all that entails. It didn’t seem to us as children that hardships were magnified after the war, though it seemed that way for our parents. Suddenly the harvest that had always been enough was never enough. Suddenly clothes were too dear to be passed down. Suddenly there were too many mouths.
The first to take up the old woman’s services was a young lady who worked at the tavern. Her young man had been mown down by a Belgian sniper and her daughter was getting too big to feed on milk alone. The last we saw of her was a small figure carrying a bundle wrapped in a shawl. She never appeared in town after that.
Freder, whose family was still well off enough, took the bastards he’d sired by the village seamstress by the scruffs of their necks. They say he met her later that evening, ready for love in an empty house. He bore a burn scar in the shape of an iron after that day.
Henrich the farrier took his two younger children, saying he needed only one son to pass on his legacy. While he was gone the eldest boy propped his father’s shotgun under his chin. They say the farrier went back to Kinderheim after that, but the house was shut and the windows dark.
It came in like a dark wave. At first it was farmers whose crops were no longer enough. Then it was poor families with too many children. After that, all pretext of restraint was abandoned. Some led their children lashed together with twine, like goats. Some brought infants still squalling at their mother’s breast. The house would light up bright on the first night, greasy smoke pouring from the chimney. It went dark on the nights after that, as if she had been sated.
One day our father called to us, honeyed tones lacing through the reek of gin. He had found a way to settle his debts, he said. We would finally be able to eat, he said. We would see our mother again, he said.
Unlike our mother, we had long since learned not to take his word and hid in the thatch of the roof. He cursed us, overturning our beds and kicking through the hay to find us. He set off for the village at a lope to see if some charitable soul was hiding us. When he left we went the other way to the forest.
We hid out in the deepest woods we could, drinking water from rotted stumps and eating mushrooms. When we heard anything that sounded like a human voice, we hid in the leaves and pretended to be sticks.
When the soldiers stumbled upon us, they were very surprised. Another great war had broken out while our little village was busy, bigger than the last. They ushered us to another Kinderheim where we sheltered out the war with other lost children.
I look back on this now, as an old man, and the photograph of my memory is stark and clear as ever. I remember our lives before, and after, and I remember our parent’s faces. But one thing I can never summon up, one thing that had never been clear, is whether anyone had actually seen Frau Totenkinder.