“I must have done something really bad or really good to have two clergyman visiting me.”
Iris Hielscher smiled over her crossword puzzle after Kenny and Mike introduced themselves in her nursing home room.
“Nothing bad at all,” Mike said. “Your pastor, Dr. Wiedermann suggested we speak with you.”
“Dr. Wiedermann! Isn’t she the best? You know she was a professor? I tried to read one of her books, but it was beyond me.”
“It’s probably beyond us, too, Mrs. Hielscher,” Mike said, “She’s a smart pastor.”
“I waited all my life for a woman to lead my church, and I finally got one.”
“May we sit down, Mrs. Hielscher?”
“Go right ahead,” Iris said, “I don’t know why you’re here, but you’re welcome to visit.”
As they took their chairs Kenny finally spoke up, “Dr. Wiedermann said you might give us a little insight into some town history.”
“I’ve seen over a hundred years of it now.”
Mike said, “I imagine the world is a different place from the world you knew as a child.”
Iris said, “When I was a child I remember when my family got a Model T Ford. My father thought he’d finally made it. He and Mama, they came from Germany with nothing. When Papa had enough for that car he thought he finally arrived. Now look at us--cars everywhere and planes in the sky and those phones everyone carries around.”
Kenny said, “Maybe you can help us with something from that time. Does the word hoffnung mean anything to you?”
Iris tilted her head down and looked out at Mike and Kenny across the top of her eyeglasses. She paused for an uncomfortable couple of seconds. “Why would you ask me that?”
Kenny said, “We were researching the Thomasville Monster.”
“The monster,” Iris said. “I didn’t know anyone still believed that story.”
Kenny spoke again, “I don’t believe it, but I know it’s a story people tell around here. You might have known my grandfather, Rev. Robert Long. He said it was just a scary story people told to frighten each other.”
“You’re Bob Long’s grandson?” she asked.
“Yes, I’m Gary’s son. I used to spend a month at grandma and grandpa’s house in the summers when he was the pastor at the church.”
“Kenny!” She said. “Yes, I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you. It’s been a few years, and you were a child then. I knew your dad and aunt and uncle, too, when they were younger. I used to play Bridge with your grandma and grandpa. I remember when you’d come to stay during the summer. You’d be deep in your book while the rest of us sat around the card table.”
Kenny said, “You know, I think I remember that. Grandma would let me have a popsicle if I didn’t interrupt the game.”
Iris asked, “You’d sit there on the couch with your popsicle and your book, and you were as happy as could be. By the time our game was done you’d be asleep with an empty popsicle stick in one hand and your book on your chest. So what’s got you digging around old monster stories?”
Mike said, “Well, I got Kenny into this. I’ve always been interested in it. It’s such a strange story, and then there’s the bit about the treasure with it. I found an old journal from one of my predecessors at Bethany Christian Church. He said the treasure was hidden at the old Presbyterian Church. We went looking around there, but we didn’t really find anything. We did find a cellar though, but the entrance to it wasn’t obvious. It was lucky we found it. It was empty, but we did find hoffnung written on the wall. We can’t figure out why a German word was written there.”
Iris waited a few seconds, and then she spoke. “You’re asking about things we don’t really talk about anymore. I told Dr. Wiedermann a little of it, but not the whole story.”
“Are you ok with telling it to Rev. Norris and me?”
“I don’t know it all,” Iris said. “I only know part of it by accident. When I’m gone no one will know it, so maybe I should tell someone. When I was a child we only had a wood stove for heat. Our bedrooms were cold during the winter. I’d been sick with a fever, and my parents made me a little place to sleep on the floor by the fire so I’d keep warm. My parents’ friends, Mr. and Mrs. Wagner, were there at the dinner table talking in German. My parents spoke German in the home, so I knew both German and English then, but now my German is rusty.”
“Mine, too,” Kenny said. “I spent a semester in Munich, but I’m out of practice.”
“It goes if you don’t use it,” Iris said. “Then I was as fluent as any German. They thought I was asleep there by the fire. They’re talking in hushed tones, not wanting to wake me. I listened with my eyes closed, pretending to sleep. The Wagners were new to America. Papa is telling them to be careful, that the locals don’t like Germans. This was after the first World War. Papa told them the monster came during the War. My parents and a few other families were the first Germans to come to Thomasville. They weren’t liked at all, these strangers coming speaking a different language.”
“They weren’t American enough?” Kenny asked.
Kenny said, “I hear people say the same things about immigrants now.”
Iris said, “We haven’t really changed so much, have we? We were called ‘Krauts,’ and all kinds of things. Here it was we were at war with Germany. Our church started with a German language service. By the time the second war with Germany started they ended that. No one wanted to be caught acting or sounding too German. Then people were coming home with visions of this monster, and people thought we brought it with us from Germany.”
“So the monster was real?” Mike asked.
Iris shrugged her shoulders. “My parents never saw it, but they said people sure believed it back then. Here my parents were German immigrants, speaking broken English with a heavy German accent. Then the whole town was in hysteria over this monster. Who do you think they blamed for it?”
“The German families?” Kenny asked.
Iris nodded. “My parents and the few others. They were afraid. They needed to hide.”
Mike asked, “Were they afraid of a mob with torches and pitchforks coming in the night?”
Iris said, “My father seemed to think so. He said they thought a long time before they stepped out on the street to go anywhere. They hid for awhile.
“I had no idea,” Mike said. “This town has a dark side.”
“I told you this was something people didn’t talk about. My father said Rev. Cogman helped them and hid them. They hid at your old church. They couldn’t stay there long without others knowing, so Rev. Cogman found a place for them. From the church they were to follow the old Indian trail into the forest. When they heard the bell they were to follow it and to say the word and there they’d be safe. That’s the last I remember, though. I was young then, and I was tired and sick. I think after pretending to be asleep I really did fall asleep”
“What was the word they were to say?” Kenny said.
“Don’t you understand?” Iris asked. “It was hoffnung.”