The Boys in the ForestHeather Jacobs
It is early morning in the middle of March when the boys leave home with their knapsacks, meaning never to return. In the town square, a lone hay cart clips past. A woman raises her arms repeatedly in the air, scattering geese. The only other movement is a fountain’s gelid dribble, and in its pinched, ungenerous flow, a reminder to the boys of the cantor’s insults, and the sting of his birch rod on their legs.
An epidemic of fever grips the town. The friends leave hurriedly, not stopping for anything, though they wish they had more than bread, hard cheese, and a skin of diluted wine for their journey. For all other needs, the boys carry a small sack of silver groschen. Georg, who at seventeen is nearly a man, counts the contents of their purse; the money must stretch, improbably, the half-month it will take them by foot to reach the monastery in the North where a choral scholarship awaits them. The younger but stockier, Sebastian, smuggles in his pack an item of value only to himself—an organ manuscript of Buxtehude he has copied by hand.
Reaching the town wall, the boys pause before stepping beyond. The woods exhale a scent of rain and rot. The change in the air dampens the boys’ faces and heralds a domain they have explored since the time they could run free—of mosses and fungi and cool springs, and the small, preyed-upon beasts of the woods, among which they now count themselves: the dormice, the shrews, the spotted fawns.
The boys enter the forest, a spirit more palpable than the Holy Ghost. Their voices carry ahead of them as they walk. Their breath steams. The trees are bare and snow lies in patches along the sides of the cart track.
The boys press deeper into the forest, where the ground itself seems to recall those long years of war—plague, famine, the slashing of the woods. Yet the great beeches remain, and in their shadows grow the yews and hornbeams and the tough little children of the larger trees. Georg claps his hands loudly, as if to ward off ghosts. More than cold, it is fear he must keep away. His cheeks are red. He sings chorales and tavern songs alike in a strong, mellow countertenor, while Sebastian’s clear soprano laces harmonies. Singing like this, they cover good ground. Georg, taller and longer-limbed than Sebastian, swings his arms. Sebastian tucks his thumbs into the straps of his knapsack. They sing until the wine is gone, until their mouths are dry.
On the eve of the second day, they arrive in the town of Sebastian’s birth, where his much older cousin Christoph greets them. They thought to stay the night, bathe, take on more provisions, but when they see a small regiment of the family’s cots camped around the stove, and the children limp with fever, the boys know they must continue on. They refuse the boiled barley Christoph’s wife offers, watching instead as she gratefully feeds it to her babies. But they do accept a pair of warm stockings each. Christoph, the great organist, not even wearing clean linen himself, apologizes for the state of his household.
“Dear cousin, there is no need,” Sebastian says.
Christoph kisses their foreheads. His lips crackle with heat. “Go with God,” he says.
In the twilight, the boys pass beyond the town wall and soon come to the churchyard where both of Sebastian’s parents are buried—first mother, then father. In the distance another mourner holds a torch, its flame strangely comforting, the intimation of another season, the hope of warmth. Georg begins to sing, and Sebastian takes up the hymn. The boys offer their farewells. They will never come back here.
When they enter the forest again, it seals around them like a letter.
The wind is cold and at night the muddy tracks freeze into miniature peaks and valleys. Rain seeps into the loam and turns to shafts of buried ice that the boys kick at with the toes of their boots. By midday the ground will warm to mud again and they will be ankle deep. Walking from first light to last, they consider it a great stroke of luck if they spot a cottage in the evening, and find the courage to knock on its darkened door. For the doors are always dark, and wary faces peek out, if anyone answers at all. Inside, huddling near as they can to the fire, the boys sing for their suppers, eyes turned heavenward, to the herbs and sausages hanging out of reach in the beams. They sing hymns of their childhoods and bawdy quodlibets with equal fervor. Anything to entertain. The boys and their hosts are poor and stringy as old mutton, yet they learn it is still possible to break a stony countenance with a song.
Where there is no village, the boys make a fire. Sebastian, Georg notices, is possessed by certain melodies. He unrolls the organ manuscript and studies it in the firelight. “What do you expect to find there?” Georg asks. Sebastian does not answer. “You’d better put it away,” Georg says. “It’s gathering to rain.” Sebastian agrees, but not before the manuscript is ticked with sleet, his youthful script smudged.
The boys sleep poorly, in turns, one of them always staying awake to poke at the fire. The ground is lumpy with roots, harder than the benches on which they used to sit reciting their Latin, under the glare of the illustrated beasts from their history lessons, hung on the school room walls. They shiver and dream of Cerberus, and wake often to the cries of wolves. Finally at dawn Sebastian gets up to relieve himself. His fingers, which only a short time ago danced over the harpsichord in his brother’s house, are damp and blue. He stands at the base of a massive trunk, half dozing on his feet as he lets out a warm, voluminous stream.
When he opens his eyes, a wild boar stands not ten paces away, rooting the air with its snout. Long white tusks curl outward from its jaw. Sebastian’s dagger is with his breeches, down around his knees. He speaks to the boar in the softest of tones. “Please,” he begs. “Please, do not harm me. Let us agree to go our separate ways. You see I have a bit of life left in me yet.” The boar breathes one loud huff and holds its ground. Sebastian avoids its eyes. He looks, instead, at the boar’s ear, and at its thick pelt. “What a beautiful coat,” Sebastian says. “Where did you get it? You must be very warm. But I am not jealous. Only admiring. Don’t mind me; I’m nothing but a chorister, a poor orphan.”
Sebastian cannot avoid the boar’s stare now. But instead of challenge, he finds only indifference there. At last the creature turns away, taking the full measure of time to do so, and disappears into the fog. After some moments, Sebastian reaches down and carefully retrieves his pants.
A week passes in the forest. On the day of his fifteenth birthday, Sebastian comes upon a pheasant hanging in a tree. Its neck, caught in twine, is elongated; its beak points towards the sky; its wings droop away from its body but do not open. With his dagger, Georg severs the noose and lets the bird fall into his arms. “Soft,” he says. “Feel.”
Sebastian strokes the bird with one finger. The feathers are small and form a dense covering over the supple breast. “What do we do with it?” he asks.
“What do you mean?” Georg replies. “We eat it.”
Such music in the forest! The boys sing morning, noon, and night, even as their voices wear rough with cold. The trees answer with a slow, appreciative drip-drip of moisture from their branches, and the woods applaud with snapped twigs and quivering shrubs and the occasional regurgitation of some form of human life—a horse and cart, whose occupants might toss them a few pfennig or a crust.
Late one afternoon, they startle a girl their age gathering firewood. The tops of her ears turn crimson when the boys approach. “Miss, do not worry,” says Sebastian. “We are children of God.” He has spoken to no one but Georg for so long, his own voice sounds foreign to him in the presence of a stranger. Georg interrupts: “Children of God who also need to eat. We are choristers, Miss. Traveling to Lüneburg for that purpose. We are hungry and freezing. Will you offer us food and a fire?” The girl answers with a nod and thrusts her load of kindling at Sebastian’s chest. He curls his arms around it and staggers a few steps. The girl laughs, though not cruelly. Sebastian watches her ease with Georg, a smile turning her cheeks to two shining apples. He strangles the bundle he is carrying until the smaller pieces begin to splinter. Georg ignores him and follows the girl right behind, whistling, watching the swing of her skirts.
She leads the boys to a hut in the woods. There they dine with her family. The father, a huntsman, wears a moldering wolf skin across his shoulders, making them appear broad and bulky. He says nothing but follows the boys with his dark eyes, while his wife greets them, sweeping feathers from the hearth into the fire. She covers her mouth when she speaks, hiding the gaps in her teeth. Her hands are raw and flecked with down.
The girl offers bread, beer, and a plate heaped with boiled potatoes. She has pinned up her hair to reveal her slender, pale neck. Is this a trick of the Devil? Her parents are brutish and coarse, yet the girl is as lovely as the starry white flowers that carpet the forest in spring. It is either the work of some spell or of time. How much more powerful and capricious the latter, Sebastian thinks.
After the meal, the girl joins them in the singing. She knows their childhood hymns, and it is enough to lift the boys’ spirits to the sky. As they begin to feel at ease, they slip into their usual fare of folk songs with more than a tinge of low humor. The girl laughs again—a melody all her own—and the huntsman runs the boys off to sleep in the goat shed.
They wake early when the huntsman comes to milk the family’s goats. The boys know it is his daughter’s job to do the milking. The father’s face is deeply shadowed. The boys dress quickly and pack their bedding while the huntsman watches. They depart in the barest light. “Keep away from my pheasants,” the huntsman calls after them.
The boys enter the forest once again. For the first time, they walk in silence. At a good distance from the hut, Georg mutters, “What a codpiece.” Sebastian smiles. “We didn’t even learn her name,” Georg whines. “That’s probably the last girl we’ll see up close for years, eh, Sebastian?” But Sebastian has stopped, while Georg keeps walking. “It’s been so long since I last saw you,” Georg sings, “and your red lips and your tarty arse…” Sebastian lets his friend get ahead of him. Through the trees he hears, “Pucker up, my darling… This dagger won’t sting… Come on, Sebastian! You’re a little bit in love with her, aren’t you! Sophia! Yes, she whispered it to me!”
Sebastian trails Georg, then rushes him and hooks him around the neck. He kicks at the back of Georg’s knees until both boys fall onto the path. Georg thrashes and manages to clip Sebastian in the chin with the back of his head. Sebastian’s teeth clack together. Georg pulls free and kneels on Sebastian’s thighs and begins punching him in the ribs. Their breath comes in clouds. Sebastian’s lip is bleeding. His pack sprawls on the ground next to him, a corner of the precious Buxtehude sticking out, torn. He is crying, pleading with Georg, trying to block the older boy’s fists. Something has happened to his friend on this walk: He has lost all his scrawniness and now he is not only taller, but stronger, too. The opposite has happened to Sebastian: He finds he is bled of everything.
Georg stops punching and sits back. “What did you attack me for?” he pants. “I was only joking.”
Sebastian lies in the path, the ground cold under his back.
“You poor bastard,” Georg says, rising to his feet and brushing off his dirty clothes.
Sebastian gets up, too. He recovers his breath. Sophia. Invented or not, the name is something perfect, inviolable. He charges Georg again and shoves him against a tree trunk. It knocks the wind out of the bigger boy, but Georg is quick enough to bring up his knee between Sebastian’s legs. Sebastian doubles over and retches into the bushes.
Georg pats his friend on the back, hauling him up. Sebastian spits. Georg puts his arm around the younger boy’s shoulders. “That’s the end of it, then. You’re warm now, aren’t you?”
Two weeks, and they have not yet reached Lüneburg. They are thirsty. Sebastian is coughing.
“You can’t lose your voice,” Georg admonishes. His eyes cloud over with concern. Sebastian rests by the side of the path. “Wait here,” Georg says. “Let me go and look for a cottage. I’ll be back.”
Sebastian hands over the sack of coins. “Did you tie this knot?” Georg asks. He works at it and reaches in and pulls out a handful. “How is it we’re left with only a few pfennig?”
Sebastian pats at his pockets as if the coins might have migrated on their own. “I don’t know,” he says. “A hole must have torn when you beat me.” Both boys look back at the path they have tread, but no silver shines there.
“It was that prick of a huntsman,” Georg says. He hurls curses into the forest. The trees absorb his voice. Nothing comes back. Finally Georg commands Sebastian to wait while he searches for water, something to eat.
Sebastian has no choice. Alone, he listens to the trees. The sound is like thousands of insects eating, clicking their mandibles. For a long time he tries to locate the noise, but it is all around him, overhead and in the ground. Is this how the trees sing? Their leaf-buds swell and then burst. Minutes later, shade spreads over him, and the air smells sweet, like fresh bread. Before the sweetness fades, the leaves blaze and fall and blow away again. Sebastian begins to hum a melody, a little Fantasie of his own that mimics the forest, the movements of heavenly bodies, flight patterns of birds. Having no quill or parchment, he tries to remember. But it is no use; the notes are lost to the canopy. He tilts his head back, stretching his neck, and his jaw pulls slightly open. Like the trees, he drinks the sky.
Near dark, Georg returns with bread, water, a little smoked meat.
“How did you?”
“Shh,” Georg says. “God will forgive.”
The boys eat and drink. They walk and the forest stands still.
The woods thin, opening to fields of winter wheat. The boys’ faces are long and solemn, their coat hems caked with mud. Still, they sing. They will sing until all the air has gone out of the world.
Then, from across the fields, comes an unfamiliar sound. Georg hears it first. He puts out his arm to quiet Sebastian. The boys listen. Wooden wheels, the jangle of a harness, the dotted rhythm of hooves—a draft animal at a brisk walk. The driver hums in an old but sturdy baritone. Sebastian and Georg chime in with the tune, singing it back loudly to the only other company on the road. The driver rounds a bend and they are relieved to see a farmer with his horse and cart.
Georg thumps Sebastian on the back. “Look alive, friend.” The boys stand up straighter, in the middle of the track, causing the farmer to jerk up on the reins. The old man clears his throat, a rattling to rival his loose-bolted wagon.
We are choristers, the boys explain. Expected to take up our places at the St. Michael’s school in Lüneburg. We have walked from Ohrdruf, two hundred miles to the south-east.
The farmer rubs the front of his smock, as if the mention of the journey has made him hungry. “But you are at least another day from Lüneburg,” he says. “If I take you the rest of the way, will you sing to keep me and my horse company?”
The boys climb into the cart, pushing aside bags of seed and crates of last fall’s withered vegetables. The farmer passes them an apple that escaped his wife’s saucepot. It smells of root cellar but its skin is still brushed with red. “Oh, Sebastian,” Georg says in a falsetto, holding up the apple, “carry my wood for me, murder my hideous parents, take me away and give me lots of ugly babies.” Sebastian snatches the fruit and cleaves nearly half of it in one bite, releasing a concentrated, sweet juice. Georg protests, then begs, but Sebastian is already sucking on the musty-tasting core. Bits of skin and seed stick in his teeth. He leans back against the side of the cart and closes his eyes. The sun shines on his filthy face, through his eyelids, a warm red glow.
“Beets and cabbages drove me far away,” Georg sings. “Had my mother cooked some meat, then I’d have stayed much longer.”
“I’ve not been with you for so long,” Sebastian’s voice joins with his friend’s. “Come closer, closer, closer.”
The boys leave the forest and enter the town. They cut along narrow streets and alleyways, no longer following cart tracks and footpaths, but the guiding spire of the Michaeliskirche. Women in doorways shake their heads, curl their lips and whisper as the boys walk by. What sorry rascals! How can they go about like that? Look at their shoes!
It is the start of Holy Week. The boys make their way to the church to present themselves to the cantor. They rub their faces clean with spit, drag fingers through their hair, remove burrs from each other’s sleeves. If they are lucky, they have timed their arrival well—the cantor will overlook their appearance and welcome their voices for the Easter choir. They find the old monastery and the library, where the cantor is summoned to meet them. Seeing the state of the boys, his nostrils flare, his eyes bulge, and his wig begins to rise, as if he’s been squeezed. When his face recomposes itself, the wig settles with a puff of powder.
“Well,” he says, “have you your traveling papers in order? A letter of introduction at the very least?”
“Yes,” says Sebastian. “Honorable sir, it was posted a month ago. From my brother, organist at Ohrdruf.”
The cantor sucks in his breath, but says nothing.
“You should have received it by now,” Georg says, beginning to redden.
“Most esteemed sir,” says Sebastian. “Would you please be so gracious as to conduct a brief search for this letter? My own brother sent it. It will have his seal.”
“I might have seen something like that pass through here.” The cantor scowls and disappears through a doorway, leaving the boys to shiver in their damp clothes.
“Why don’t you offer to lick his arse?” Georg whispers, when the cantor has gone.
Sebastian inhales the scent of paper. On the shelves are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of manuscripts—like the one he stole at night in his brother’s house, to copy without the elder’s notice, slipping his hand through the lattice on the cupboard and rolling the parchment to extract it. He rubs his frigid fingers together. “Keep quiet,” he says to Georg. “Or do you want to walk all the way back home?”
Georg’s head droops. The boys hug themselves among the stone walls of the monastery. They breathe shallowly, careful not to disturb anything in the hushed library. The walls breathe with them, magnifying the sound of rain outside, the distant tremble of an organ in the sanctuary, and, at last, the swish of the cantor’s robes as he returns. There is the trace of a smile on his lips, and his eyes are shining.
“We did not know when to expect you, young masters,” the cantor explains.
“We didn’t know when we would arrive,” Georg replies.
The cantor sets down a folded letter and a registry where the boys sign next to their names and their proposed salaries for the Matins Choir:
Georg Erdmann, 12 groschen
Joh. Sebastian Bach, 12 groschen
When they have signed, the cantor snaps the ledger shut. “You will report to the chapel tomorrow morning,” he says, wig twitching. “But first, you will want a bath.”
A note from the author: Several books were indispensable in the writing of this story. For details of Bach’s life and environment, I am especially grateful for John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven. Also essential were The New Bach Reader edited by Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel, Journeys of a German in England in 1782 by C.P. Moritz, and The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. The lyrics to the folk songs in this story are from a movement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations; the translations I used, in slightly altered form, appear in the Schirmer’s Library edition of the music.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Three.