1636 The Devil’s Opera – Snippet 16

A man stepped out of the circle to stand by the table. As the two wrestlers joined hands he laid his atop theirs. “Begin when I count three. One . . . Two . . . THREE!” With that, Otto dropped his hand and jumped back. The contest was on.

          The muscles in Hans’ arm sprang to hard definition. To Simon it almost appeared like there were sticks under the skin, the cords were so strong.

Karl snarled and grimaced, ducking his head as if he was clenching every muscle in his upper body. The joined hands began to move his way, his forearm forcing Hans’ back and down. It was a slow movement, but steady, until the hands were maybe halfway toward the table. Then the motion stopped.

The hands stayed there for a long moment. Nothing Karl did moved Hans. No snarl or grunt affected him, no additional push moved him, no glare from fevered eyes touched him. Hans was rock steady.

Simon was so excited he was almost jumping up and down. He’d seen boys and young men arm wrestle before, but nothing like this contest. Here were two grown and very strong men pouring their all into the conflict, and the excitement filled the air around them. Simon found himself chanting, “Come on Hans, come on Hans,” while the men around him were all shouting and shaking their fists in the air. The roar in the tavern was almost deafening.

The boy almost missed it when it happened. He saw Hans’ eyes narrow a little, then his hand turned a bit, forcing Karl’s hand to twist on its wrist just the slightest amount.

The joined hands began to move again, only this time Hans’ hand was moving upward and Karl’s hand was moving back. Time and again the man from Hannover would grunt or snarl and try to stop the movement, only to fail. Hans made no noise but the breath whistling in and out of his nostrils. His hand made its slow and steady movement until it passed the vertical and started pushing Karl’s hand toward the table.

The shouting redoubled, until Simon wondered if the building would collapse from the noise. He wished he had two empty hands, so he could cover his ears. At the same time, he continued to chant, “Come on, Hans!”

Back and back and back went Karl’s hand. Hans showed no sign of elation or triumph; he continued pushing as if he were closing a door.

The end came suddenly. There was a snap sound, and Karl’s hand smashed into the table.

Aaaah!” Hans released his grip at Karl’s scream and sat back, while the other man’s face paled to what looked like a corpsely green in the dim light of the tavern and he grabbed his right arm above the elbow. Simon watched as the Hannoverian tried to move his arm and his face contorted with pain. “You son of a sow!” he shouted at Hans. “You’ve broken my arm.”

Hans shrugged. “It was a fair contest. I did nothing to force that to happen. Everyone here will witness to that.” Voices all around them were raised in agreement.

Barnabas was at his cousin’s side, pulling on his sound arm and muttering something about a doctor. Hans held his hand up, stopping Karl in mid-rise.

“You lost,” Hans stared into Karl’s eyes. “You owe me. Veit, empty the purses on the table.”

Simon had been right; the purses were almost flat. There were few coins in either of them. Two coins fell out of one; three out of the other. But the coins that fell out, now that caused eyes to widen all around the room. There on the table top lay three Groschen and two pfennigs. Simon sucked in his breath. He counted in his mind, twelve plus twelve plus twelve plus two — thirty-eight pfennigs worth. He’d never seen that much at one time.

Other minds had been doing their own counting. “Six Groschen you owe me, plus four pfennigs,” Hans declared. “Pay up.”

“I will do no such . . .” Karl began, only to be interrupted by a growl from the crowd. He looked around. Simon thought he turned even paler. The Hannoverian said nothing more, but reached under his jacket and dug out a purse with his left hand. He handed it to Barnabas and made a violent gesture toward Hans. Barnabas took the purse almost timidly, opened the drawstrings and rooted through the contents until he had counted out the bounty that Hans had won.

Hans looked over his winnings, smiled and nodded. Karl lurched to his feet and shouldered his way through the crowd, followed by Barnabas. Hans waited until the door crashed closed behind them, then stood. He pulled his coat back on, plucked his hat off of Simon’s head and crammed it back on his own, then scraped all the coins together and poured them back into one of the purses.

“Well, lads,” Hans bounced the purse in his hand, “not a bad night’s work, eh?”

Some men in the crowd were grousing as they had to pay off on the poor bets they made, but most of them laughed. Simon heard a mutter sounding from all around him. “Stark Hans. Stark Hans.”

Hard Hans indeed, he thought to himself. The hardest man he had known in his short life. The nickname sounded even harder because it was pronounced in the truncated form so often found in Amideutsch. In most German dialects the phrase would have been “Starker Hans.”

“Veit,” Hans called out. The tavern keeper looked his way. Hans held up a Groschen for all to see, then flipped it to him. “Ale all around.”

There was a loud cheer from the crowd as it made a mass movement toward the serving counter. In a moment, Simon and Hans were standing by themselves amid a scattering of tables, chairs and benches.

“Well, Simon my lad,” Hans said. “You’ve been my luck twice tonight. Here.” He reached over, took the blue bottle from the boy, and tucked it in a side pocket of his coat, then handed Simon a pfennig. “Let’s go home.” He placed his hand on Simon’s shoulder and they went out the door together.