The Singing Bones by Stephen Spotte recounts the life and times of eighteenth century polymath and explorer Georg Wilhelm Steller, the first European naturalist to visit Alaska. Below is an exclusive excerpt from the book.
Sunday the 10th of March in the year 1709 holds a special place for me. On the morning of that day I was born dead. The stillborn child didn’t twitch or take a breath. I speak of him in the third person because my spirit had departed, and I was nothing but mortal remains.
He was placed mute and motionless on a dressing table in his family’s house in the free city of Windsheim, Franconia, 34 miles west of Nürnberg. While his mother lay in childbed weeping softly the rest of the family left the room to pray. The midwife, refusing to relinquish him to death’s grip, stayed behind and burned sulfur beside his nose hoping to induce a cough. When that failed she wrapped his quiescent little body in hot blankets, changing them often as they cooled. After a couple of hours he emitted a loud squall and recovered completely. It was a miracle. The family, hearing his cry, rushed to the bedroom, where everyone wept and prayed, and his father raised his arms heavenward and shouted, “Praise be to God for His eternal mercy!”
My parents named me Georg Wilhelm Stöhler in honor of the burgomaster of Windsheim, my godfather. I was the family’s second child of that name, an eponymous older brother having died in October 1706, just short of age 2 years.
The head of our household, born Johannes Jacob Stöhler in Nürnberg, was cantor at the gymnasium (Latin school) of the nearby Lutheran Church of St. Killian, where he also served as organist. Jacob Stöhler, the name he was known by, was a widower with a son, Maximilian Philipp Jacob, when he married my mother, Susanna Louysa Baumann from Würtemberg, a year after his first wife’s death. The first wife’s name had been Anna Regina, and she died at age 32. Maximilian was 15 when I was born and moved to Nürnberg to study music when I was age 4. He died in 1717, and I never really knew him.
Johann Augustin was my parents’ first child and my full brother, born 3 March 1703, 6 years before me. We called him Augustin, and he was the only sibling I was close to and with whom I stayed in intermittent contact as an adult. Between our births came the first Georg Wilhelm (December 1704) and Johann Friedrich (December 1706). After me, at intervals of roughly 2 years, three sisters arrived followed by three more brothers. All of us survived childhood. The fact that Vater seemed unable to keep his hands off our mother nearly led to fucking himself out of a place at the dining table.
My family could be described as lower middle-class and obviously fecund, the social status and dignity accorded a cantor (his position allowed him to carry a sword) being incommensurate with such a meager salary in light of his many duties. In addition to cantor and church organist he instructed boys enrolled in the lower grades in various subjects.
Of Mutter I recall very little, except she was sturdy, somber, and harried, always pushing the hair out of her face. I often wondered why she didn’t cut it or confine it under a scarf to make that movement unnecessary. I kept my opinion silent, of course. Ours was a raucous household. The only peace she probably found was while sleeping, and even then we must have disrupted and addled her dreams.
Vater flitted through our lives like a misplaced soul, skinny, frantic, head topped with a sandy mop of frizzy hair. He seemed always on the move and confused about the timing of his next task, whether tutoring the gymnasium boys or pumping the enormous organ in St. Killian’s and transmitting praise to God through his favorite hymn, Luther’s own composition, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. That God is a mighty fortress was perhaps his favorite metaphor, and it rang forever in my head like an irritating case of tinnitus.
At supper he fidgeted and jerked, not infrequently dropping his cutlery on the floor while waving it about emphasizing God’s displeasure for grubby little sinners like us. At meals and during other family times when we gathered he prattled endlessly about faith, inculcating us to obey the Lord’s Word in all matters and never utter His name in vain or we would certainly fry in Hell. From across the table Augustin would give me a sly look and raise his eyebrows almost imperceptibly, lips in a subtle smile. I couldn’t look at him without laughing, so I concentrated on my plate, pretending to study its contents.
In the park on the day of my birth the last remnants of snow have melted, although a few patches cling stubbornly to shady places and overhangs in the rocky landscape. The weather is cold, wet, and unpleasant, but a few pedestrians nonetheless stroll along the cobblestone walk of the public park, bundled and hunched against a driving sleet still undecided whether to surrender to rain and accept spring.
Green is appearing everywhere: on the grassy berms and mossy boulders around the pond, in the scrolled violin-necks of ferns already ankle-high. A flock of resident greylag geese, semi-tame, has cropped the winter grass until it looks carefully mown. The geese eat nothing else, and no one feeds them. Rooks in their somber black plumage stalk the rooftops and call out in raspy voices. They now have company: colorful songbirds newly arrived from the south probe the tree bark for insects and scratch for worms in the softening earth.
At night the geese sleep restlessly, nervously, floating on the pond safe from foxes and other terrestrial predators including some humans who would gladly wring their necks and convert them into featherless Sunday dinners surrounded by onions and carrots and roasted slowly in wood-fired ovens. And why not? The park is public property. No one would protest if you, one of those casual strollers, wanted to capture a fat goose and take it home for supper. The geese recognize their status as prey and by means of internal calculations keep a certain distance. They honk as you approach and waddle down to the water. If you follow too close behind they break into an awkward, rolling run.
I remember the geese clearly and also Herr Krause, an old man with a bushy white moustache and yellow teeth. He sat on one of the benches facing the pond, smoking his pipe and watching, eyes magnified and vaguely disturbed behind his thick glasses. I would see him every morning on my way to school. Once he stopped me and patted the space on the bench beside him, indicating I should sit. When I did he said quietly, “Can you hear it, boy?”
“Hear what, sir?”
“Her bones,” he said. “Last week she was barely humming, but today she’s singing softly.”
“Who, sir?” I said, straining to hear music.
“Nature. Spring is here, and her bones are singing.”