A Woman like a Mountain, that Flies

Jeannine Meighörner
A Woman like a Mountain, that Flies
There are people who seem to be born as a whim of creation. An irony. Often they’re the ones who wish for a simple existence, carrying the soul of a child. A mountain child.
“Mountains do not come together, but people do!” say the people from Ridnaun in South Tyrol. This far off corner of the world brought forth Maria Faßnauer: “The tallest woman who ever lived!” As such she was loudly described far from home. Ridnaun lies in the valley of the same name northwest of Sterzing at the end of the valley near the Snow Mountain. It brought prosperity and also looked out over the larger Passeier Valley below that strived towards Merano. Golden Merano! Yes, Snow Mountain contained the highest mine in Europe at 2400 meters above sea level. Even 800 years ago, its silver was being forced out. Its mountain ridge resembled the back of a dragon, steep and dangerous. Disturbed in its rest, the mountain demanded a tribute in human life. Tunnels, dug into its flesh like termite passageways, collapsed. Miner boys were caught under avalanches and crushed by wooden trolleys. Or the mountain set its seed in the intruders, having them die of black lung.
“Mountains do not come together, but people do!” And when humans exploit mountains, some pay a high price. The parents of Maria Faßnauer were not looking for their fortune in the mountain, rather they cultivated the Staudner Farm. The one that lay like a swallow’s nest above Ridnaun on the shadowy side; only a few months of the year was it free of snow. Nevertheless, they regarded the altitude as a blessing. Below in the valley, the mining had poisoned the creek and all the fish. They and their animals drank good, clean water and lived nearer to heaven. For this reason Josef and Theresia Faßnauer named their first born after the Virgin Mary. She let the birth on February 28, 1879 turn out all right. Maria was a kind-hearted child. There was a lightness in her being. Yet when she was three, she began to grow quickly. She started school as tall as other children when they finish. She had to have her own specially-made desk. Strangers in the valley, passing by the first graders, would ask, “Mother, on your way home with the kids?” “I’m a school kid myself” she would answer in a deep voice, scaring the curious strangers noticeably. The schoolgirl also had to endure teasing: “Giant wench, you mountain of flesh, if you fell on your butt which is as big as a horse you could never get back up,” the boys called out. With one blow she could have destroyed those big mouths, but she never did. Maria was well-raised. God-fearing and ready to help.
Hard-working, she helped out on the farm. “In the field, she did the work of ten men and in one basket could carry 50 kilograms of salt,” and other such composed tales of her gigantean strength were hardly true. A tumor in her brain made her enormously large, but not enormously strong.
With her size came troubles. When she was 12 years old and two meters tall, she could no longer walk erect in any room or in the barn. In bed she lay rolled up like a cat. She walked so bent over that summertime visitors to the valley took pity on her. With saved up money, they made her a special bed. At 17, Maria was fully grown at 2.27 meters tall with a weight of 170 kilograms. In 1900, the average woman in Austria was 1.51 meters tall.
Naturally, everywhere she went she caused a fright. Her father, after a pilgrimage with his daughter to Riffian, announced, “No more will I go with you; everybody just gapes at us.” It was even worse when Maria went with her parents to buy something at the store Bauer and Schwarz on the Maria-Theresia Street in Innsbruck. Half of the city hurried there and stormed the store.
Even Maria’s Sunday trips to church became a sight-seeing event. Photographers and journalists waited for her. Kindly, Maria would stretch her arm out from her shoulder and let full-grown men stand beneath, not even close to her underarm. Such sights made for shocking “The Giant of Tyrol” postcards. Still the colossal woman seemed nice. Her face, long but not ugly, looked friendly and her huge body was clothed in a dirndl whose quantity of cloth had cost her parents a fortune. She could hardly eat enough to be full, consuming daily many plates of polenta, applesauce and compote. And her parents still had five other children to feed.

Showmen begged her parents to let Maria be shown for money as a curiosity. “The world has never seen anything comparable!” But some of them contradicted themselves and Maria also did not want to leave. Why should she go elsewhere when she had everything here? Calves, goat kids and kittens, mountain air, clear water and each night a magic show of stars. Staudner Farm was her paradise, a modest one, true, with a growling stomach.
In this way, Maria became “Littl’ Marie,” which sounded more contemporary and could be better marketed. A giant was spectacular, but a giant with the radiance of a mountain child was soul-stirring! Her management had found the pulse of the times. “Littl’ Marie, the Giant from Tyrol” moved people: in Vienna, in Prague, in Leipzig or Munich. At the latter she had her own tent at the Octoberfest. In Berlin, she was hosted by the chancellor. At the World’s Fair in Brussels and London she was billed as the “Monster for Millions.” Yet Littl’ Marie saw little of the outside world, not being allowed to be seen during the day. Whomever could see this “monster” during the day would not pay to see her in the evening.
A love story was composed for her with the tallest man in the world: the Australian Clive. Media-effectively, he asked for Littl’ Marie’s hand in marriage on stage. “You are like a mountain, that flies,” he charmed. Must be an error in translation, she thought, stifling her sonorous laugh. The largest pair on the planet were chauffeured in an open limousine through London, where the traffic broke down. Yet the giant woman let Clive move on; too great was her yearning for Ridnaun, the simple life on the Staudner Farm where she sent all of her earnings.
Shortly before the outbreak of World War I, people had other sorrows to care for than paying money to gape at a giant. Littl’ Marie turned back into Maria and returned home. Her posture was horrible from standing so much, exhibited every night. She died from dropsy shortly before St. Nicolas Day, 1917. “Earth from my homeland covers me easily!” she was recorded as saying. She was worried to pass away far from her mountains. She wished for a small grave. Only “Staudner Daughter” along with her name was to be carved. Finally at home among plain, normal creatures.

Translated from German by Shan Wardell
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