Mar 26, 2021
On this day, August 7, 1741, I, Margaretha Anna Hohl Sommer, being of sound mind and sixty-five years, do entrust the corner cupboard built by my father, Piotr Thomas Hohl, to his grandson, my nephew Hans Martin Hohl. Hans, beloved of my father, and trained in the Secret Wisdom beginning in the year of his tenth winter, was long ago approved as the recipient of this cupboard without reservation or regret. At the time of his death, my father desired that the cupboard should leave my hands and be entrusted solely to those of my nephew should he venture to the New World so that the wisdom inherited from his father, Mattheus, might never be forgotten, but grow for generations, even as grapevines in the Moselle Valley. That day has come.
This is my testament.
The year was 1686. I had seen ten winters when my father brought the corner cupboard to live with us. He was already a white-haired man and much a stranger to me. Mamma, hardly more than a child herself, was his second wife and I the first issue of their union. Until that day I was content in the knowledge that I knew more of my father’s back than any other part of him, for he was always leaving. The world of Oppenheim offered much more than could be found in the company of a young maid and her mother. I accepted this though I cannot say it pleased me.
Then he brought the cupboard. My world that day became much larger than seems possible even now.
I stood beside Mamma, near the hearth in our two-room cottage, as my half-brothers, fully men, carried the dark, gleaming piece inside. I had no difficulty noticing that Mamma was displeased. She balled a piece of her frock in her fist and squeezed it. She worked her bottom lip with her front teeth. Once the men had it leveled and blocked, my father stood back and cried “Ja! Ja!” in such a tone of pure joy as I’d never imagined coming from his throat. Like birdsong from the mouth of a dog. My own jaw fell open as I stared at him. My father’s face shone as brightly as the cupboard’s oiled wood. He traced his fingers over the carvings that adorned it, all manner of figures that seemed to come alive in the lamplight. Oh how I yearned to touch them! I twined my fingers together so as not to fidget and draw Mamma’s ire.
He turned to her then, looking up from under his brows, his lips curled into the smile of a little boy. “Magdalena?”
Mamma dropped her fistful of cloth and planted one hand on each hip. “Oh, Piotr, is there no buyer for such a piece?”
“Buyer!” He fairly shouted the word, but not in anger. The second astonishment in as many minutes, my father began to laugh. A sound both heavy and light, like the flow of the Rhine in Spring.
“Piotr, this cupboard is too fancy.” Mamma folded her arms across her breast.
My father laughed harder then, bent over, one hand on each knee. He held out a flat palm toward Mamma and shook his head, imploring her silence.
“Liebling,” he said, finally, his breath in gasps. “Your words provide a fit objection to Richelieu’s robes or Frederick’s table. Not to this.”
He held Mamma’s gaze until, at last, she looked away from him.
Then he called me. “Margaretha.” I glanced up at Mamma, but she had no concern for me. I took a slow step toward him. He held out his hand, drew me to him. I went.
“This, child, is my magnum opus. Do you know these words?”
I shook my head.
“My great work. My golden apple. A man who makes such a thing lives forever!” He laughed again, and rested his hand on my shoulder.
“Look! Look!” He gestured toward the cupboard. I looked. My eyes drank in the images as if they might quench a great thirst I only that moment knew I suffered.
Women with long hair like trailing vines. Trees with roots that might be serpents. A howling wolf in a ring of fire. An eagle, wings spread, perched at the top of the world. A full sun, a crescent moon, and lightning’s hammer. A galloping horse with an oak-leaf mane. The earth trembled beneath its hooves. I felt it.
“You will know them all.” He whispered.
“You will teach me?” I whispered.
Then Mamma cleared her throat. “Piotr, what will the churchwomen say?”
“They will cluck their tongues like hens and hiss like snakes.”
“Piotr! They are good women.”
“Not too good to go where uninvited.”
“But I do invite them.”
“Into our home, but only that. They are not invited to force cures for ailments not suffered.”
Mamma walked to the cupboard. “They will not understand this. They will call it Satan’s work.”
“Tell them they are mistaken.”
“Are they?” Mamma continued to look at the carvings. “Why can you find no comfort in the Church?”
“It leads only to the Mind of Man. I seek the Mind of God.”
“And fear not the blasphemer’s fate?” Mamma’s voice trembled.
“Liebling,” my father softened his tone. “That is the one fear entirely unknown to me.”
So it was that I came to be my father’s acolyte.
Piotr Thomas Hohl, a joiner by trade, devoted the next seven years of his life, until the day of my marriage, the day he entrusted the cupboard to my care, to teaching me what he called the Geheime Weisheit, the Secret Wisdom. He’d learned this Wisdom from his own father, Mattheus, an engraver for the famous Oppenheim House of de Bry. My father explained that as Mattheus illustrated the works of the alchemists and philosophes published by the House, he read them. And the words came alive for him. These men would understand the Ginnungagap of his Jura Mountain childhood. A magical and creative, power-filled space would not smack of blasphemy or paganism to these men whose books he illustrated. What better tool than magic might divine the Mind of God?
Mattheus made his own woodcut engravings to remind him of what he read. When Piotr had lived ten winters, he took his son as student of the Wisdom he had learned. The cupboard became my father’s way of living the Wisdom even as he strived to pass it on. Each image he carved a double-edged sword.
My father taught me this:
One must bathe in these truths as in the waters of the Rhine.
One must be burned by these truths as by a forger’s iron.
One must be blinded by these truths as by fog that lingers, hanging in the forest long past sunrise.
Only when marked in these three ways has one embarked on Adlige Suche, the Noble Quest to Know the Unseen World.
In what God has given me, I am content.
Magdalena Anna Hohl Sommer
Oppenheim, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany
August 7, 1741