ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

A journal for poetry, criticism, reviews, stories and essays published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998.


"A Timely Death" by Joachim Frank

Goethe's birthplace

Goethe's Birthplace


Frau Katharina Elisabeth Goethe mentioned in passing, as she was bidding farewell to her friend Lieselotte Manskopf, that she was going to die on Friday afternoon, in two days, and that, considering the circumstances, she was going to be quite busy.  She assured Lieselotte, who had protested against her departure — so early in the day! — that the afternoon at her house had been inspiring, and without flaw. 

“The pastry was quite delicious, my dear," Frau Goethe went on after dropping the bombshell.  "And the chocolate, too! The chocolate was simply sinful.  Still, a sense of duty is calling me; you will understand.” It was not the normal call, she added, with a smile on her face, but this time it was her duty to finish her business in the “brief “ — this was the way she put it— "appointed time." 

Lieselotte, her daughter Waltraud, and the surrounding staff standing in the foyer like statues looked at Frau Goethe open-mouthed.  Lieselotte had it on her lips to say 'certainly you must be joking' but etiquette was holding her back.  It was hard trying to contradict Frau Goethe, all the more in front of the servants. Seventy-seven years old, with hair white as parchment, and still in control of all her faculties, she commanded a presence like no other lady among Frankfurt’s families.  Known to her friends as “Frau Aja”, she was used to being in charge, and had only lately slowed down somewhat, to assume more of a posture of laid-back, warm-hearted, maternal retrospection.  Lieselotte knew that the word “business,” coming out of Frau Goethe’s mouth, meant a multitude of things: to make — or change — her last will and testament, to order her estate; to sort out her letters with the late Dutchess Anna Amalia and other correspondence with people of high standing; to brief confidants on her agreements with her publishers; to receive visits from her closest friends for a final Adieu; and to come to terms with her unruly son.  It was difficult to see how all this could be accomplished within a 48-hour time span, even accounting for the fact that at her age she could probably do with the barest minimum of sleep.  There was the possibility, though, that she had made up her mind much earlier, weeks ago perhaps, and that she only now cared to inform her friends and acquaintances.  Or, of course, that she was thoroughly mistaken with her curious premonition.

“Well,” Lieselotte said, smiling, inspecting her fingernails, “we all have our weak moments.  Just a week ago I was so tired I felt as though I were dead already.” The servants chuckled politely, apparently not wanting to take sides with either of the ladies and their preposterous pronouncements.  Waltraud, mumbling an apology and curtsying superficially in Frau Goethe’s direction, retreated to her room upstairs.  Her mother didn’t blame her seventeen-year old daughter for withdrawing from such an uncomfortable scene.

“It seems, Lieselotte-dear, that you are already ahead in this game,” Frau Goethe replied curtly, taking her hat from the servant.  “A good day to everyone.” 

She headed for the door, evidently convinced her host was trying to poke fun at her.  Her gait was steady and determined.  If there was any frailty, any indication of declining health, it was difficult for Lieselotte to perceive it. Hurrying to accompany her guest to the door, and see her off, she had it on her lips to invite her for the coming Sunday’s afternoon tea. But she immediately recognized that this would be extremely rude in view of her prophesy, and she thought of something better to say:

“You must know how much we always appreciate your gracious company, Frau Aja.  You and your son, his Excellency Johann Wolfgang, are always welcome in this modest house.”

But Frau Goethe, incapable of waiting for sentences to be honed to perfection, was already in her coach, her head just visible as a faint silhouette behind the curtain.

“This reminds me,” Lieselotte said, turning to Friederich Wandt, head of her staff.  “The dinner plates looked awfully dull at last Sunday’s soirée.  I think they are in need of a polish.”

“Gnädige Frau,” Wandt said, “with all due respect, may I remind her that we acquired platters made of pure gold precisely with the purpose of cutting down on the need for frequent service?  Gold is known to be inert, and just this past Sunday Herr Hellenberg quoted Herrn von Goethe as saying that it is an element whose nobility makes it quite adverse to mixing with common substances.  It is an element of such pure nature that it absolutely refuses to accept any sort of patina.” 

Hellenberg, of course, was Johann Wolfgang’s right hand, but without the brain that it took to comprehend the great poet’s oeuvre.  He tried to make up for this deficiency by conducting himself importantly. Lieselotte's husband called him a Wichtigmacher, or someone who puts on airs.  Hellenberg had been here at Sunday’s party while his master was on business in Weimar.  She was not obliged to invite him when he was on his own, but had nevertheless done so out of a sense of compassion with the rootless bachelor, who had devoted his life to serving the great poet and statesman, a devotion which left him without a life on his own.  But quoting Hellenberg quoting a purported utterance by von Goethe would get this Herrn Wandt nowhere; she would make sure of that.

“I beg your pardon?  Do I hear a tone of intransigence?” Lieselotte said sharply.  “Whatever you think, be assured that we bought those gold platters to have dinnerware compatible with our standing, certainly not for reasons of economy, let alone the comfort of the service personnel.”  Her voice was pitched up with righteousness. “And remember, if I say they look dull, then they look dull, and you are here to fix it with your staff.”

“I know Gnädige Frau usually has a high opinion of his Excellency’s, Herrn von Goethe’s, forays into the Natural Sciences.”

“That is enough,” Lieselotte said.  Again, Friederich didn’t know his place.  She faulted her husband for this —blatantly fraternizing with his servant.  Her husband, Johann Kaspar, who traveled six months out of twelve on the family’s international wine trading business, always came home a stranger, having forgotten the most elementary rules of his class.  Part of it was that the foreign countries he paid visit to, in the Far East and the Far West, had the most topsy-turvy rules of their own.  Especially the egalitarian ideas now in vogue in Philadelphia were confusing, and quite detrimental to the conduct of domestic affairs.  The last time Johann Kaspar had come home, he had invited Friederich to smoke a pipe with him in the Library. With his servant Friederich!  A pipe of tobacco!  And in the Library!  The Library was his most private of rooms if one exempted the bedroom, where her husband made cursory visits at best. For days afterwards, Friederich had been walking around in the house, his chest puffed up and unusually argumentative.  The problem was, Johann Kaspar never stayed around long enough to see the mischief he caused with these improper socializations.  A couple of months, that was the most Sitzfleisch he could sustain before he made preparations for yet another journey.  And, really, didn't they have enough?  The wine import and export was the biggest wine trading company in Germany, if not the world.  How often had she asked her husband to send one of his senior aides instead!

“I will take a rest now,” she told Friederich, who still stood at her attention but had his lips pressed together in a silent protest against her exercise of censorship.  “Tell the maids to keep the noise down.”

The house was built in this awkward way, with a back stairway running from the kitchen upstairs right next to the sleeping quarters, a perfect but unintended conduit for the clattering sounds from pots and pans.  She had been opposed to the purchase of this monstrous house, and the idea of getting disrupted in her nap brought back the old quarrels with her husband, who after all didn't have to live here for a good part of the year.

Absentmindedly, she lifted her skirt slightly to free her feet for the way upstairs toward her chambers. This strange Frau Aja!  Talking about her own death in this way, as if one could set the clock by it!  She was clearly in excellent shape, and would probably live for another 23 years, to make it a round hundred.  But, just supposing she was right, then surely the farewell she had just received was not commensurate with the immensity, the finality of the event.  As a matter of fact, she realized they had parted in a bit of discord.  Lieselotte shivered.  She halted her ascent and leaned against the railing of the staircase.  But this moment of weakness came and went, and presently she proceeded toward the upper floor with a self-assured smile.  She decided to send Frau von Goethe a note that would reach her before Friday, just in case.  And of course, the dispatch would be accompanied by the customary box of truffles, and a bouquet of flowers from her own garden.



Johann Wolfgang von Goethe left word with his secretary that he wished to be left alone.  The young lady who had requested an audience with him was exquisitely beautiful, and when he'd first set his eyes on her, rushing by her in the foyer, the agenda of the afternoon — all the important business of State that could not wait — had shrunk to nothing.  What, indeed would be lost if he postponed the report to the Duke, on the tax revenues received, by just a day?  Would the earth crumble if he refused to receive the emissary of the Bavarian King on this particular afternoon?  The matter on the table was not exactly war and peace, but simple questions of protocol at the upcoming wedding of one of his, Goethe's, protégés.  And the two hours his secretary had set aside for the preparation of a speech to the local Fossil Society this coming Saturday -- what kind of a joke was that? He could just as easily revert to the notes from last year.  Fossils, after all, had a habit of constancy that was measured in eons, not years or days.  Make a note of it.  Pregnant in metaphor.  Find use in poem.  East-Westerly Diwan, perhaps?  The only matter close to his heart was the upcoming opportunity to meet Napoleon, at the Fürstenkongress — the Congress of dukes of German nationality — in Erfurt, just a few weeks away.  There was nothing he could do to prepare for it, but the coming encounter was much on his mind.  To meet, eye to eye, the man who personified the chance for the scattered fiefdoms of Europe to be united!  The only man, as far as he could see, who commanded the necessary vision.

Following a cursory knock, the door opened for his servant to formally announce his visitor, Fräulein Käthe Sonnenburg.  She walked hesitantly into the gilded reception room with its showcases of precious stones and minerals, with its large bright windows overlooking the courtyard; the magnificent flower beds. She quickly looked around, to orient herself before facing the object of her admiration, the man standing by one of the windows, his profile sharply drawn by the light.

“I have been told you are a friend of poetry," he said, approaching her, bending down and kissing her surprisingly petite ringless hand. The fact that she had adopted the modern style, wearing no gloves, filled Goethe with excitement. He caught himself looking at her wrists for an inordinate length of time.

"It's not just the poetry, but the mind from which it flows that I admire," she said, blushing.  She seemed in her early twenties, quite refined in her clothing, yet without any coquettish embellishments, in a way that made her seem quite innocent and, at the same time, refreshingly modern.

"It's hardly true that there is a single mind at work when it comes to today's poetry," he said, stiffly.  He was determined to raise the bar for her flattery, but admitted to himself that he was impressed by her outspokenness.

"Ah, his Excellency is too modest.  I've been following his verses since I turned 15, and lost my sleep reciting them. Surely no-one alive in Germany can measure up to his sense of language, his potent imagery."

Now there is was, a base to build on.  He composed his face to give it the appearance of earnestness and determination, commensurate in his own estimation with the object of her praise.  He felt the deep vertical grooves on his cheeks bury deeper, as he'd seen in the mirror many times — the image of a public servant, committed to serving the Duke and his subjects, even if it required some sacrifices.

"It's Johann for you.  To be recited by those lips of yours is the best reward I can hope for," he said, addressing her with a slight perfunctory bow.  She acknowledged the silliness of this remark, coming from the great poet and statesman, with a broad conspiratory smile.  In his core he was no different from any other men she'd met, who would readily lose their heads following the fragrance of freshly ironed ruffled blouses and skirts and their fragile, ever-elusive contents.  Only here the game was played on a somewhat elevated platform.

"It may come as a surprise to his Excellency . . .," she started.

". . . just address me simply with Johann, and 'Sie'," he interrupted her, this time with a touch of impatience in his voice.

"It may come as a surprise to him, but I have taken on the study of geology and the systematic order in the world of fossils." 

Goethe looked at her with raised eyebrows.  He always took it for granted that his visitors, if they were not petitioning him for a favor within the purview of his official duties, were here solely to flatter him.  He did not expect someone to have a true interest in his idiosyncrasies, even less so coming from a woman.  However, the idea of linking courtship with science exhilarated him.  With a gallant gesture of his hand he motioned her to follow him to a large showcase at the opposite end of the room, to join him in front of the display.

"I might as well show you my collection," he said, opening the door of the showcase.  "It is a single source of wonder.  Organic forms, related to one another by natural sympathy and the law of diminished diversification, are juxtaposed like … like …"

"… like dancers at court?  Like flowers in a well-kept garden?" she suggested, effortlessly.  She seemed well aware of the fact that he prided himself as a master of metaphor.

"Take this specimen here: the stem of a fern, gigantic in scale," he said.  "It is the gift of Fürst Metternich, who sent an expedition to Neu-Schottland, off the shores of America. What do we learn from it?" he asked.

"It is a matter of conjecture," she said.  "Given the degree of our ignorance, even a modest amount of knowledge will go a long way.  I can't wait for the answer to your rhetorical question."

Goethe eyed her from the side, first with surprise, then with a flash of respect.

"The world looked quite different at one time," he said.  "There were plants and animals whose likeness is no longer to be found."

She looked closely, took the magnifying glass he held out to her, and focused it on the imprint of a fern leaf.  Goethe stood at her side, watching her.

"Nature has lasted eons, and we are but an insignificant addition," he said. "Having said this, I must say I do admire the perfection of your hands, Mademoiselle."

She turned to him abruptly, putting the magnifying glass on the showcase.  "Herr von Goethe is changing the subject," she said.

"The subject, unchanged, is passion."  He took her small hand into his hands, as though into a cradle, and studied it closely.  She made no effort to withdraw it.  "I believe that passion can be widely shared; that affinities exist among some men and women which cannot be denied, lest nature itself is denied."

"How this, coming from the author of Werther!" she exclaimed, taking her hand briskly back.  "Werther, who took his own life because the one woman his soul was secretly betrothed to could never be his?"

"You are quite correct: I'm more author than Werther at this juncture.  You must understand that I had to let Werther die in order to survive myself at the time the book was written.  But back to the premise — I'm enthralled by your inquisitiveness, by the unlikely parallels of our interests.  This must be my very first conversation with a member of the tender sex about the subject of geology.  The mere mention of this word never fails to send ladies I'm acquainted with off into the powder-room.  And fossils, of all subject matters!  I feel — how should I put it? — an affinity of minds that makes me want to embrace you."

"I stand here trembling at the thought of being embraced by his Excellency.  In matters of affection, though, we ought to be equals. I fear I must decline."  She looked up at him with a pleading look, betraying her fear of being perceived as ungrateful to her host.

"I'm wondering if you have heard about Myron's cow?"  Goethe asked, looking past her, out the window.  He had changed the subject again.  She shook her head, perhaps a reflexive gesture of disbelief about his scatteredness, or perhaps an indication of ignorance about the animal.

"I'm unfamiliar with both Myron and his cow," she said.  "But both must be fascinating if his Excellency has taken an interest."

"Myron was a gifted sculptor in Athens, more than 2000 years ago.  He made a life-sized cow with suckling calf, a statue that was praised for centuries by poets and writers.  The statue has not survived — all we have are the voices of these poets, which are strangely unfocused and imprecise, and a rendering of the artwork as a relief on a late Roman coin.

"The bards praised it for how life-like the artwork was: lions, they said, were ready to tear it apart, bulls to jump it, herdsmen to whip it, the rest of the herd to join it, and even Myron himself was said to have confused it, once finished, with the real cows of his herd."

"Pardon me, but didn't you mention a calf?" she interjected.

"I come back to the calf in a moment."  He made a swift motion with his hand, as though to shoo off an insect. "What I would like to point out is that life-like does not constitute art.  What is art here, as far as I could tell from seeing the coin, is the capturing not of nature, but of nature's very essence, in a closed universe of cow-calf, at the exclusion of the surroundings, even of the observer. 

"And by far the most touching thing for me is the depiction of motherhood, the stoic dedication of the mother in presenting her mammae to the baby calf, and sheltering it with her body.  It is ironic, though – don’t you think? — that we hardly have any records of statues depicting women breastfeeding their babies.  I believe the act was considered too mundane for goddesses to bother about.  On the other hand, of course, ordinary women were not considered worthy of being rendered in a sculpture, either."

She nodded, somewhat confused.  He stepped up to her, looking steadily into her eyes, and, seeing no objection, laid his hands on her bodice.

"Let me hold your breast," he said, his voice not hoarse, as she might have expected from the outrageousness of the request, but quite gentle and matter-of-fact, as if he were asking her to follow some standard court protocol.

She blushed and turned her head to look at the door.

"Nothing to worry," he said.  "My servants have strict instructions to respect the privacy of this chamber."

"And Madame Christiane Vulpius?  Your wife?  It's not my place to remind his Excellency …"

"… still Johann for you!"

"… not my place to remind Herrn von Goethe of what is acceptable, but many people I know, including my parents, would find this behavior scandalous."

"I did not ask to kiss you — a gesture, I admit, that has popular connotations of sealing a vow, of making a pledge.  You did not wish to be embraced, either — again I can understand your reluctance to commit yourself to a symbolic enactment of union.  Instead, I only ask you to allow me to place my hand close to your heart.  After all, my thoughts are already there.  My hand would just be allowed to follow."

Käthe briefly considered the tightening snare of his masculine reasoning, designed to minimize the significance of his request, and had to laugh.  He seemed so used to deal with nitwits of the opposite sex.  Still, it was true, wasn't it, that she had no price to pay, no guilt to be weighed afterwards?  Instead, she would gain something exciting and precious: a joint secret, a Geheimnis, with the Geheimrat.  Even if she were never to see him again, the secret would always be theirs, till her death, which she reasoned would follow his by a reasonable margin of apportioned time, on account of her vast advantage in age.

Returning his steady look, she made up her mind.  She gently urged his hand away and proceeded to untie the strings of her brocade bodice. 



There was an urgent knock at the door.  Goethe opened his eyes as his hand slipped off Käthe's firm breast.  It seemed an eternity had passed, and another had passed again. Before he could answer, the door burst open, and his factotum Hellenberg entered, urgency written over his yellowish face.  Käthe cried out, and rushed to the darkest corner of the room, opposite to the large window facing the courtyard, where she proceeded to put her dress in order.

 "Excellency, your mother has sent for you," Hellenberg said.  He stood at the door stiff like a wooden soldier.

Goethe, oblivious to his words, stood transfixed by the sound of Käthe's voice: it was a moan, really, that rose sharply in pitch as she fled away from him.  It was oddly similar to the intimate sounds of love-making of Lili, and then Frau von Stein, and lately Christiane, and other women who had confided their bodies and souls to him over the years.  He considered the paradoxical truth that extreme anguish and extreme pleasure extracted responses that were almost indistinguishable.  This was a general rule, wasn’t it, which was somehow related to other paradoxes of human nature, already noted by the Romans, such as the proximity of orifices dedicated to sex and to the passing of excrements?  Also, weren't some perfumes made by mixing the fragrance of flowers with the unpleasant fluids of animal glands?  If, by a divine dictum, balance had to be maintained in the overall order of things, might it be done by the pairing of opposites living in close proximity?  He reached for his little brown notebook that he carried in the front pocket of his garment, next to his watch, and scribbled an entry. But apart from the general principle, there was something intensely personal in the incident.  He mused over the streak of fate that gave him at least the illusion of ultimate intimacy with this young woman, who clearly had no intention to go another step beyond what she'd consented to, especially after this rude interruption.

"Herr Geheimrat, your mother has sent for you," Hellenberg repeated, impatience in his voice now.  "She is not well."

Goethe, hearing Hellenberg's voice coming from a far distance, turned toward him.  It took him a few seconds to take in the contents of the message, and to fully recognize the cause of the present turmoil. Then he said, sharply,

"Have I not left strict orders never to be disturbed, except in matters of life and death?"

"I'm afraid I must tell Herrn Geheimrat that I'm indeed following this very rule."

Goethe felt a pang, considering the implications of the answer.  "Is it that serious?"

"Herr Geheimrat knows his mother would not trouble him without good cause."

Goethe swallowed, and caught his breath.  It was impolite for Hellenberg to allude to the strain in his filial relationship, but he decided to let it go.  For 18 years, until two years ago, he had lived with Christiane as man and wife but without the blessing of society.  "We are married," he used to say, off-handedly, to his mother's ever-increasing chagrin, "except for the ceremony."

"Let her know," he now said solemnly, as if addressing the attendants of an affair of State,” that I will make immediate arrangement for my return to Frankfurt."

Goethe wrote a few lines on his stationary, sealed the letter, and handed it to Hellenberg for immediate dispatch.

"My dearest Mother! 
My heart breaks upon learning of your grave condition. I'm hasting to come to your bedside to provide comfort to you, and filial companionship."
          Your faithful son Johann Wolfgang."

As if in an afterthought, he turned to Käthe, who stood paralyzed in the corner, her bodice all back in order, but her face still in turmoil.

"Good Lord, Johann, I'm so sorry," she said under her breath.  "We shouldn't have …"

"Shhhh," he whispered.  "She understands.  She always understands."

"Always?" Käthe asked.  "You mean always?  Who else …?"

But he ignored her question and nudged her toward the door.

"It was an extreme pleasure to make your acquaintance, and to find myself so …"

"… close to my heart?" she suggested with a quick exasperated smile.

"Yes, so close to your heart.  You will understand, under the circumstances, I must follow higher duties."

"The pleasure was all mine, Herr Geheimrat."

This time, he did not correct her.  For the first time, he became aware of the perfume she wore, the beauty of her unclad wrists, the grace in her movements.  This all was never to be his!



“Gravity seems such an intense personal affair,” Frau Goethe said with an effort, her lips scarcely moving.  “I feel so being pulled down; it seems the earth wants me back!”

With her in the sick room were her maid and Lieselotte Manskopf, who had followed a sudden summons by her friend.

“You still seem so strong, Aja!  I came in a rush to humor your request, but I’m sure you will prevail!”

“Liselotte, dear friend!” Frau Goethe said.   “I’m so glad you came.  You must excuse me; I’m concerned about the courses at my funeral reception.  I’m afraid there is nobody here with any common sense.”

She asked her maid, with a halting voice— with what appeared to Lieselotte the last outpour of her energy — to write down a shopping list, and the proper selection and sequence of meals for the funeral reception.  But in the middle of this, Frau Goethe became agitated and asked:

“But where is he?”

“You refer to your son?  He has not yet arrived.”

“But I sent a dispatch twenty hours ago.”

“I’m certain he cannot be far.”

“No, he is never far.  But he’s never been close, either,” Frau Goethe said with a resigned smile.



Arriving in Frankfurt at his mother’s house, the place of his birth, the sight of a black carriage of a funeral service parked by the curb gave him a jolt.  As a liveried servant opened the door of his coach and helped him out, a woman all dressed in black, her head wrapped in a black lace scarf, approached his carriage to greet him.  He recognized her distressed face: Lieselotte Manskopf , a close family friend of the Goethes. 

“Johann, dearest!” she said to him.  “It grieves me that I must tell you that you have come too late.  Your esteemed, beloved mother has passed away last night.”

“You were with her, then?” he said in a toneless voice.  Lieselotte nodded, looking up to him, tears in her eyes.  Without comprehension, he noticed that the lace of her scarf was organized in so many hexagons.  Black thin threads meeting one another in distorted vertices, each marked by a tiny knot.  He just stood there, unable to think, except by thinking back.  He might have hastened his departure from Weimar if only he had known.  He might have skipped the two hours he had spent writing, expounding on the principle of opposites that night, and the hour and a half composing an as yet unfinished letter to Käthe, the charming young lady his hands and eyes keenly remembered as if she had departed seconds ago.  And he might have postponed the hastily arranged meeting with his staff to another day.

“What were her last words?” he asked, simply to say something, simply because he could not bear the silence.

“She gave instructions for the kinds of courses to be served at her funeral reception,” Lieselotte said, a smile rushing across her face.

So she’d been true to herself to the end!  Her kindness, and thinking of others first, and her eminent practical sense!   Goethe closed his eyes, sighing, trying to remember his mother's face.  Presently his mind could not reach past the darkness.  He was relieved when the thought occurred to him that there were a few remarkably lively portraits in the entrance hall of her house, just a few steps away.


Author's Note:

Joachim Frank, who lives in New York, took writing classes with William Kennedy, Steven Millhauser, Eugene Garber, and Jayne Ann Philipps. He has published short stories, flash fiction, and poems in a variety of places, including Lost and Found Times, elimae, 3711 Atlantic, Cezanne’s Carrot, Brilliant, Eclectica, Offcourse, The Noneuclidean Cafe, Ghoti Magazine, Duck and Herring Co. Pocket Field Guide, Hamilton Stone Review, Raving Dove, Bartleby Snopes, Red Ochre Lit, StepAway Magazine, Litbomb, Works in Progress, Black&White, Fiction Fix, theNewerYork, Rivet, and Short, Fast and Deadly. He also wrote three novels, still unpublished. His website is

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