I’d never heard of them until a German woman told me the story one day, the same as she told me another story, about her grandfather. He was from Bremen too.
In the story, four old animals, an ancient donkey worn-out from work, a dog too old to hunt, a cat too tired to catch mice any more and a cockerel too much of a cockerel, too loud in his crowing, all of them considered too old, too much of a burden to be any use any more. All of them destined to be killed or left to starve.
Being industrious northern Germans they thought they would do no such thing. After all said one of them, you can get anything better than death. The four ancient beasts team up, find a house in the deep woods and seeing it occupied by robbers, turn them out of doors by a trick. The robbers return but by then it’s night-time, dark, confusing. The cat goes berserk and scratches them, screaming, the dog bites them, the donkey kicks them, the cockerel crows and crows, not useless now at all.
The robbers run away, never to return. The four animals found a co-operative and live amicably in the old house ever after.
My friend’s grandfather came from the same place. When the war came he was a surgeon in the Wermacht, posted first to Norway, then to Romania, both a long way from home. One day early in 1945, fed-up and tired of stitching young men like himself back together only for them to fight again he made a joke about Hitler. His friend laughed. And that was very nearly that. The joke was overheard. Both of them were sentenced to death.
As they were being taken out to be shot the kind of thing that happens in Hollywood movies happened. Partisans attacked. The surgeon looked at his friend and said one word: “Run!”
They ran. They walked, they hitched lifts, they avoided the patrols looking for deserters, they avoided the Russians, they avoided the death squads and somehow, months later, 900 kilometres later, having seen Dresden burn with his own eyes, the surgeon opened his own front door, intact, back in Bremen. His wife ran a bakery there. A day or two later he walked around the corner and surrendured to a Britsh patrol. They asked him where he lived. When he said ‘around the corner’ they told him to piss off home. So he did.
He lived to be over ninety, a prosperous doctor in West Germany who saw the wall come down before he died. I saw a photo of him once. He sat next to his grand-daughter, the woman I knew. She was about seventeen in the picture. Both of them blond, blue-eyed, with their high Saxon foreheads and something I never saw in my family, a fierce love bathing the two of them like fire. You could see it like an aura and feel the heat of it in the old man’s eyes, bask in the warmth of it in everything about her being. In the picture, while he was alive, anyway.
As the four musicians said in the fable, you can always find something better than dying. But you have to try for it.