Oliver Potzsch: The Poisoned Pilgrim

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Oliver Potzsch The Poisoned Pilgrim
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Oliver Potzsch

The Poisoned Pilgrim



MAGDALENA FRONWIESER (NEE KUISL), the hangman’s daughter

SIMON FRONWIESER, Schongau bathhouse medicus

KARL SEMER, presiding burgomaster of Schongau

SEBASTIAN SEMER, son of the presiding burgomaster

JAKOB SCHREEVOGL, stove fitter and Schongau alderman

BALTHASAR HEMERLE, Altenstadt carpenter

KONRAD WEBER, city priest



JAKOB KUISL, hangman of Schongau

ANNA-MARIA KUISL, the hangman’s wife

GEORG AND BARBARA, the hangman’s twin children

PETER AND PAUL, Magdalena and Simon Fronwieser’s children







BROTHER LAURENTIUS, novitiate master

BROTHER BENEDIKT, cantor and librarian


BROTHER VITALIS, novitiate and watchmaker’s assistant


COELESTIN, novitiate and apothecary’s assistant


MICHAEL GRAETZ, Erling knacker

MATTHIAS, knacker’s journeyman

COUNT LEOPOLD VON WARTENBERG, the Wittelsbachs’ ambassador

COUNT VON CASANA UND COLLE, Weilheim district judge

MASTER HANS, Weilheim executioner




Dark thunderclouds hung overhead as the novitiate Coelestin, with a curse on his lips, marched toward his imminent death.

In the west, beyond Lake Ammer, swirling clouds towered up, the first flashes of lightning appeared, and a distant rumble of thunder could be heard. When Coelestin squinted, he could make out gray rain clouds over the monastery in Die?en, five miles away. In only a matter of minutes the storm would be raging over the Holy Mountain, and now, of all times, the fat monk of an apothecary had sent him to fetch a carp from the monastery pond for supper. Coelestin cursed again and pulled the cape of his black robe farther down over his face. What could he do? Obedience was one of the three vows of the Benedictine order, and Brother Johannes was his superior-it was that simple. An occasionally hot-tempered, often enigmatic, and above all gluttonous lay brother, but nevertheless his superior.

“Porca miseria!” As so often when he was in a bad mood, Coelestin switched to his mother tongue. He had grown up in an Italian village on the other side of the Alps, but in the turmoil of the war, his father had become a mercenary and his mother a whore who followed army camps. Here in the monastery on the Holy Mountain, Coelestin had found a home in the pharmacy at Andechs. Even though the incessant litanies and nightly prayers sometimes got on his nerves, he felt safe here. Three times a day he got a good meal; he had a warm, dry place to sleep, and the Andechs beer was said to be one of the best in the entire Electorate of Bavaria. In these hard times, one could have it much worse. Nevertheless, the spindly little novitiate cursed under his breath, and not just because he would soon be as wet as the carp in the pond of the Erling Monastery.

Coelestin was afraid.

Ever since the discovery he made three days ago, fear had been eating at him like a rabid beast. What he saw was so horrible that his blood almost froze in his veins. It still followed him at night in his dreams, when he woke up screaming and bathed in sweat. God would never allow such a crime to go unpunished; that much was certain. To Coelestin, the dark clouds and the flashes of lightning in the sky seemed like the first harbingers of an Old Testament revenge that would soon be visited on the monastery.

Even more threatening than the heresy, actually, was the man’s hateful gaze. The man had recognized Coelestin when the novitiate tried to make a hasty escape-at least that’s what Coelestin thought. And the look on the novitiate’s face said more than a thousand words. In recent days they had reached out to him, prodding, as if checking that Coelestin hadn’t betrayed the secret.

Coelestin knew that the other one had powerful advocates. Why would they believe him, the little novitiate? The accusation was so monstrous that he could be considered insane. Or even worse, a character assassin. This comfortable life, with meat, beer, and a warm, dry bed, would then no doubt be gone forever.

Nevertheless, Coelestin had decided to speak up. The next morning he would tell the monastery council what he’d seen and his conscience would finally be clear.

A loud clap of thunder rolled across the countryside, and the freezing novitiate could feel the first cool drops of rain on his face. Hastening, he tightened his hood and had soon left the last houses of Erling behind. Fields and meadows spread out before him. On the other side of a small wooded area, surrounded by fences and bushes, lay the fishpond. When Coelestin turned around, he saw storm clouds towering over the monastery up on the mountain-the home he might soon have to leave. He sighed and shuffled the last few yards to the pond, as if advancing toward his own execution.

In the meantime, drops fell faster and faster, until the surface of the pond seemed to boil up like a poisonous brew. Coelestin could see the fat gray bodies of the carp slowly coursing through the dark water by the dozens. Their hungry mouths snapped at the raindrops as if they were manna from heaven. Coelestin shuddered as a wave of disgust came over him. He’d never cared for carp. They were dumb, slimy scavengers whose flesh tasted of moss and decay. The fish reminded him of the monsters he’d seen in pictures of Jonah and the Whale: horrible creatures of the deep that swallowed whole everything that wriggled in front of them in the water.

Timidly Coelestin started down the narrow, slippery walkway and reached for a fishnet leaning on a post alongside the pier. With his hood deep down over his face, he leaned into the wall of rain and wind and moved his net back and forth listlessly in the water. If he hurried, he might be back in the monastery pharmacy before the trousers and socks under his thick black robe were soaked as well. In another life he probably would have slapped Brother Johannes across his chubby face with the carp, but for now, he was damned to prayer and obedience. This was the price he had to pay for such a comfortable life.

A slight creaking sound, almost drowned out by the thunder, caused the novitiate to pause. It sounded as if someone had stepped onto the walkway behind him. But just as Coelestin was about to turn around, something started flopping about in his net, and with a sigh of relief, he pulled in the long pole.

“Got you,” he mumbled. “Let’s have a look at what a big fish-”

At that instant, something heavy hit him on the back of the head.

Coelestin staggered, slipped on the rain-soaked wood of the walkway, and finally fell-fishnet and all-into the swirling water of the pond, where he thrashed around and fought to save himself. Like so many people of his time, Coelestin could skin a rabbit, identify hundreds of herbs by their smell, and recite whole sections of the Bible by heart. But one thing he couldn’t do was swim.

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