by Jé Wilson
I was six when Franz Stucken murdered a girl in our area. She lived on a Mennonite farm not far from our house on the outskirts of town, a cheerful fresh-faced teenager named Hannah, who wore dark bonnets and always waved to me as she rode past in her family’s horse-drawn buggy. I sometimes played with her little sister Edith, and whenever Hannah picked me up I’d try to rub off the bright roses mashed on her cheeks, and she’d laugh and swing me down again. On the day it happened, it was a summer afternoon and I was playing with Edith in her back garden. Because it made us shriek with laughter, we were pretending to be chickens, clucking our way around the potato patch as we tried to lay fat eggs. Hannah was in the side garden, unloading the clothesline. I could hear the clothes flapping as she shook them out, but I’d reached the end of the row and was clucking too loudly to hear whatever shocked sound she may have made when Franz Stucken came up to her, stabbed her in the neck, lungs and stomach, and walked off, still clutching the knife, toward the farmhouse. I didn’t know anything about it until later.
Hannah’s mother, her two aunts, and her baby nephew were inside the farmhouse. Franz kicked open the screen door. The women cried out but didn’t move. They watched him set the bloody knife on the kitchen table and heard him say, “I just killed your daughter,” at which point Hannah’s mother put her hands to her mouth and made a strange noise that matched her eyes. These details were recently included in a long article about the murder, twenty years after Hannah’s death. In it, I learned that Franz was now dead of lung cancer, which happened in prison shortly before the article appeared.
He is reported as saying that he went regularly to the local United church. He is described as being, “at the time of the incident,” a 35-year-old machinist “who lived by himself in a green bungalow in town.” He had an “arrogant starchy manner” that appealed to no one, and he was “abrupt and cool with women.” He knew he was not liked, and this angered him, sent him into sudden rages. Old residents in town still remembered his unpleasant awkwardness, his habit of launching himself at a group of churchgoers and haranguing them on subjects until everyone dispersed. What wasn’t true — a view now corrected by the article’s publication — was the former press coverage suggesting that Franz had always been hostile toward Mennonites. Despite evidence to the contrary, religious hatred became the theme of the murder, and since for years Franz wouldn’t tell anyone why he’d done it, the explanation stuck, although no one in the area had actually believed it. Now, twenty years later, the article is setting the record straight, with a fresh postmortem of the crime.
As Franz grotesquely (and now posthumously) tells it, his aim was simple: he wanted to have a relationship with someone by any means. He started out stealing belongings from the church coatroom: a mitten, a shoelace, the insole of a boot. He liked to think about how these would be missed, and how he’d managed to cause a tiny disruption in someone’s life. During those brief moments when the person searched for a missing item, Franz meant something. Only he knew it, but that didn’t matter. He was, for those minutes, of central importance to someone else.
Soon, though, petty theft wasn’t enough. He started to dream in a fanatical way about being always the center of another’s life. He wanted to be the axis on which the other rotated, and he wanted this state of things to last forever. Strange thoughts of cutting off someone’s finger or arm appeared in his mind. But he always pictured the finger growing back, like a green shoot, complete with a fingernail on the tip. It pointed at him, and a mouth laughed, and then the person went away. He decided that he had to make the connection permanent, and that the only way to do it was to kill someone. To steal a life: from that moment on, it would be the two of them together, Franz and Hannah. No one would be able to think about the murdered girl without also thinking “Franz Stucken.” It was, to Franz, a soothing, neatly-tied thought. He’d never be alone again — she’d never be alone — and he could live out his years knowing that his relationship to the dead girl was indissoluble and absolute.
It was sickening, repulsive — the fantasy of a lunatic. As soon as I finished the article, I threw out the magazine. It made me hate my fellow humans and hate myself too. It also frightened me that I could — a little, and only in the abstract — sympathize with him. The ache of being alone… But of course, he turned that ache into pain and horror for everyone else, and death for Hannah. His dream cinched itself around him until it became a nightmare that he dragged everyone into. I hated him and immediately set about forgetting him forever.
A week later I dreamed about him. It was shocking, as if the gates of hell had opened to put this nightmarish talking hologram inside my head. He stood there looking at me with his bright green eyes, his cheek twitching as he watched me sleep. Then he hovered closer, daring me to stand it, following how I turned over and back as I twisted the blankets around me. He murmured things. I was sweating and wanted to get away. I hated the world for putting him there.
It got worse. The bed lurched and I fell into a pit. I was awake then, in the dream, and running along the bottom of this pit, certain he was following me. I knew that he adored me and I was trying to get away from him, from his grabbing fingers. I hated him and had to say so. But I was furious that I had to say it, had to acknowledge his existence.
I turned to speak to him — if only to tell him that there was nothing between us, to deny that a connection existed or would ever exist... I opened my mouth. But when I turned he was right there, almost on top of me, and I screamed. I killed him instead — bashed in his face with a chair.
It woke me up. I was soaked with sweat. I lay there for a while trying to breathe normally. Finally I got up and made a cup of tea. It didn’t help.
In an irritable mood, I called my mother, woke her up, and told her I’d dreamed about her. I claimed that in my dream she’d killed a dog I’d given her, and my voice, in telling her this, took on a hurt, indignant tone. She expressed confusion, but soon, when I wouldn’t let up, practically railing at her, she got angry and sarcastic and told me to call her when I was back in the land of the sane: she couldn’t be held responsible for my nonsensical nightmares. She would never kill a dog.
She hung up.
I moped around my apartment, trying to find things to do. I felt upset. Shouldn’t she have seen through that stupid dream? What if I’d told her that, in another nightmare, I had killed her — knocked her head into a wall as I’d cantered past? It had been a pretty bad year between us. How would she react to being the victim of a matricide?
I found — listlessly — some chores to do. Later I had a staring competition, through the side window, with my neighbor’s cat. But every time I called my mother, wanting to have it out with her about many things, her number just rang and rang.
It wasn’t until evening that she answered. On hearing her voice, after so much of that recorded one, I felt a lurch and lost my nerve. It was her! Fumbling, I sat forward and told her, in a burst of anger, that I loved her. She told me she loved me. There was a moment of shock — some weighty silence — and then we both started crying a little, because it had been a bad year and we hadn’t said anything like that in a long time.
Jé Wilson is a writer who lives in New York. She can sometimes be found here.
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