BY TONI DIETKUS
This is a novel excerpt. Copyright is held by the author.
Bavaria, Germany, 1939
LONG AFTER her younger sister had fallen asleep, Elizabeth Schoene lay awake. Starlight faintly lit their attic bedroom and outlined panes of the window. She studied the familiar view overhead, the rafters’ odd corners and crannies, log and plank of the cabin’s peaked roof. What might their mother have said to do, she wondered, about the warning from Hedda’s teacher?
“Membership in the League of German Girls is mandatory; otherwise, serious consequences could be waiting for her.”
Her younger sister was a girl who craved activities promoted by the German Girls, the athletics and competitions, the hikes and camaraderie. It was unlikely that their father would allow her to join, though. He suspected any overture by the new government to be a lure to snare and enslave the mind and heart of ordinary people, let alone the young. Despite her natural bent to rebellion, Hedda would do whatever he decided. He was the only parent Hedda knew.
Elizabeth heard him downstairs operating their “illegal” radio, trying to tune in ‘illegal’ broadcasts of world news, information forbidden by the Fuhrer’s Third Reich. Germany was no longer a democracy.
Hedda, sighing in her sleep, moved to lie closer to her. Elizabeth turned onto her side as well, and gradually the warmth of her sister lulled her into sleep.
Downstairs, Everard Schoene touched the dial — gently — tuning out static. The voice came in strong — words distinct — then faded to whispers in his earphones. The “Midnight Madman” put himself in danger by airing these ‘illegal facts’ — a concept hatched by propagandists — over private Hertzian wave radio in the dead of night.
“ . . . like my sister’s grand wedding . . . all in the presentation, the timing, my friends, hard work done ahead behind closed . . . impressive feast, victory served up all at once . . . Austria a stunning gift dropped into the hands of our cunning Fuhrer . . . No one saw the ruthless gathering up, the meat cleaver wielded beforehand in the kitchen . . . ”
The words became whispers that evaporated. Everard cupped his hand to his ear, as if that would help, and muttered a curse. Whoever he was, the Madman had to be close to those gripping the reins of Germany, steering her to — to wherever they were headed. Not to paradise, as the Third Reich advertized.
Much of the Madman’s detail was not known even to the BBC, which was the reliable if illegal foreign news source. German radio and newspapers spouted propaganda: “Not a shot fired, the people rejoice.” “Bloodless victory in the re-annexation of Austria to Germany.”
No other world power had pointed out that this expansion of boundaries was contrary to the conditions of German surrender after The Great War.
The radio shrieked and Everard hastily lowered the volume to avoid disturbing his daughters sleeping just up the hall stairs. Interference was increasing, probably that row of thunderheads he had watched all day along the mountains between him and Munich to the south.
Static burst sharply, stabbing his eardrums. He switched the radio off, removed the headphones and set them on his dusty typewriter. He pushed himself up from the cracked old creaking leather chair and winced as his partial foot hit the floor, toes having been lost to frostbite in a foxhole more than 20 years ago. Circulation in the foot was not good, but he was grateful for the use of it.
Grabbing the lantern, he limped from his study into the hallway. At the stairway to the bedrooms he hesitated, not ready to go up to bed. It was not that he was afraid to send himself into the world of nightmares just yet, he told himself. It was the sorry foot. He might stagger against the wall and awaken his daughters, Elizabeth, who had lately become the image of Eleonora herself, and Hedda the beloved, whose birth had cost him Eleonora.
Abruptly, he turned back along the hallway, past the rifles on antler racks, shrugged into a heavy shirt from those hanging on hooks, and went into the kitchen where the floor was warm to his stocking feet, and lit rosily from coals still glowing in the stove’s grate. He set the lamp on the oilcloth-covered table in the large, clean room. His shadow, a giant on the wall, followed him to the stove. There was coffee, still hot, from supper.
He poured a cup and ambled out to the front porch to sit in one of the big comfortable chairs he had fashioned from pine he had harvested. The sky was black and bristling with stars. Starlight silvered the porch rail. A blade-like moon, red, was late rising over Austria, just behind a row of darker saw-tooth mountains to the east. He wondered if his cousin Karl had heard tonight’s broadcast. Probably not. If his reception was poor, Karl’s, just across the border in Czechoslovakia, would be worse. Well, he would relay tidbits to him on his next visit.
He gulped coffee and looked up at the night sky. Dizzily he remembered sitting in that foxhole looking up at just such a sky, giant stars ablaze, clouds silvered, a week before Christmas — in France — his rifle clutched like a lover to his pounding heart, the barrel icing up from his panting — while tanks thundered toward him — feeling that he was the only one in their path, as if there were not hundreds of his brothers in trenches nearby, holed up like vermin, waiting unseen, hoping not to be exterminated.
His tobacco pouch came to hand, and in the dark he tamped his pipe full, struck a match against the wood of the chair and sucked in smoke. Smoking soothed him but, like a key, drifted through his mind unlocking ghosts shut away in cartons and valises, picture albums and scrapbooks, other times he had sat smoking with comrades-in-arms long gone, young men laughing, bragging . . . going up in flames, screaming, choking in the cloud of mustard gas eroding their lungs.
“God help us,” he muttered, shaking his head. Had that not been enough war forever?
He closed his eyes. Which nightmare would he take to bed tonight?
Elizabeth woke when her sister’s arm fell against her throat. She slid from bed and crouched at the window of their attic bedroom.
A dream had unearthed memories of her childhood in Munich. Bright images of city life faded into the grey world outside. Trees were half-seen cloudy forms. Mountains were muffled in mists. It was early. There was time to go hunting before breakfast if she started now.
She shucked her gown and pulled on cold clothing, shivering. Her younger sister already had sprawled into the middle of their bed. She grabbed a heavy sweater to wear over her blouse and skirt and went down the steep stairs in stocking feet, staying close to the wall so creaks would not awaken her father, who often had trouble sleeping. She lifted her rifle from the antler rack in the hallway and gathered a handful of bullets to drop into her sweater pocket.
The white curtain over the kitchen sink flared in a breeze that brought the yeasty scent of unwashed beer jugs. She tiptoed across the cold floor to close the window, then started a fire in the stove. She pumped water into the coffee pot, and set it on to heat.
The workroom, an enclosed back porch, was just off the kitchen through a doorway. She left her shoes there, and tugged on boots from the muddy pairs kept near the back door, beneath the rain hats and heavy coats hanging from pegs. Carrying her rifle, she stepped into the silent silver world.
Not a sound came from the goat pen or the chicken coop as she went past, following a footpath toward deeper woods. Ghostly mist touched her face, damply, and swirled away as she walked.
In an area thick with ferns and rabbit droppings, she sank down in damp weeds and balanced the rifle on a boulder. Like a shadow leftover from night, the black hare appeared, sudden-stopping to sniff the air, his head targeted in her sights. She fired — as he bolted. She felled him with a quick second shot that reverberated sharply from the mountain faces. Spooked birds ascended in droves, shaking branches that showered her with dew. In a leafy gully, a grouse flapped its wings to rise. Quickly, she sighted in on the grouse, her finger on the trigger.
A boy stood up from under the leaves.
She froze. They stared at each other while echoes of her rifle shots bounced among the mountains. The child’s pudgy hand came up and he put his finger to his lips, shushing her. Rustling betrayed others in the gully. Two men stood up, leaves and sticks falling from them. A woman, white-faced, crawled to the boy and flung herself in front him, gasping unintelligibly.
Lisbet stood, setting aside the rifle, spreading out her empty hands. “Oh! I’m so sorry!”
“Mutti. Mutti,” soothed the little boy, who stared at Lisbet while patting his mother’s arm. The taller and older of the two men lifted the woman to her feet and gathered her into his arms, whispering. The younger man ducked his head to Lisbet, leaves tumbling from his cap. “Grub Gott, Fraulein.” He spoke barely above a whisper.
“Guten Morgen,” she answered, speaking quietly as he, as echoes of her rifle fire faded.
“Ja,” nodded the younger man. “Guten Morgen. We meant no trespass, but we are disoriented in the fog.”
“You are welcome to cross our land, of course. Can I offer you comfort? Food? Water?”
“We do have supplies,” the older man said. The men exchanged a glance and both looked at the woman.
She pressed her palms to her eyes for a moment. “The shots, so close. But I am sane again.” She reached down and hugged the little boy close. “Mutti is fine now, Jacob.”
“My name is Lisbet. How can I help?”
“Show the direction of Bruchs? There is the train there, yes?”
“Yes. Go in that direction to the most direct footpath. There are byways, but all lead downhill to Bruchs, in the valley below. I can show you.”
While the travellers gathered their packs, the little boy stroked the fur of the rabbit where it lay in the ferns. “Will you eat him?” he asked.
“I will,” she smiled, squatting down to his level. “He shall be rabbit stew. My sister will make a mitten, perhaps, from his fur, or a pair just your size.”
The little boy leaned in. He cupped his hand to his mouth. “The bad soldiers have guns like your gun,” he whispered, his eyes wide. “They shot my vati. He is dead. I am sad.”
“That makes me sad, Jacob,” she said, at last.
“We have to be quiet and get ourselves away. I could not bring my —”
The breeze carried a distant shouted command, “This way, men!” and there were sounds of crashing through underbrush.
“Jacob!” The younger man snatched the little boy. The older man hissed. “Hurry!”
The three travellers fled in the direction Lisbet had indicated. The little boy waved as he was half-carried, half-dragged along, soon closed from sight behind trees and a swirling curtain of fog.
She grabbed her rifle and the rabbit and strode rapidly away from the travellers and toward the noise. Three soldiers wearing brown uniforms and caps, with red and black swastika patches on their sleeves, burst into view, rifles levelled.
“Halt!” one shouted.
“Watch it with your rifles,” she shouted back, her own fear lending her force and anger.
Surprise showed on their faces. The tallest one held up his hand. “Rifles down! I know her, Elizabeth Schoene. We went to school together. Good Morning, Lisbet.”
“Make her produce ID papers, Sergeant,” a red-faced soldier demanded.
Ignoring him, Lisbet rested the butt of her rifle on the ground. “Good Morning, Gunter. Why are you up here?”
“Routine patrol. Refugees cut through here. Men, let’s check further east. This trail leads nowhere except up to her house.”
“We should look in her house!” the third soldier insisted.
“Another word and you both are on report! I am leader! We head back!” Gunter nodded to Lisbet. “Nice rabbit.”
She sucked in deep breaths, watching them go off noisily, then began a circuitous route back uphill toward home. Morning mists were dissipating. The sky was dark blue in the west, where white thunderheads boiled, and light blue in the east, where frayed clouds seemed brilliant leftovers from last night’s sunset. Angels Peaks, always snowy, were pale pink cones high above deep green forests.
She was sweating and had removed her sweater when she approached the patchwork hillside of levelled small fields where her father grew hops and barley. Smoke puffed fitfully from the chimney of the hut where he made beer. She would have walked on past to hurry breakfast and her sister Hedda off to school, but she heard happy whistling. She set down her rifle and pushed open the hut’s door.
“Good Morning, Lisbet. Aha, rabbit stew?”
She blinked at his rare smile. “Good Morning, Papa.”
The warm air smelled sweetly of malt. When the door shut behind her she could barely discern his bulk and shock of white hair as he emptied a bag of hops flowers into a bubbling vat on a squat stove.
“I came across people hiding in our woods. Austrians.”
He looked up while stirring. “Oh?”
“Soldiers were patrolling, so I had time only to direct them—”
“Soldiers! What soldiers?”
“The young Nazis. One was Gunter Braunheimer. I directed the Austrians to the path down into town, but that’s all. Should I have done more?”
Her father’s heavy shoulders sank and his normal gloom descended. “You did the right thing. God help us all.”
She listened to his silence and watched him stir hops into the mix, then stepped out, retrieved her rifle, and plodded on uphill.
The back porch smelled of burned meat and coffee. Setting aside her rifle and sweater, she laid the limp rabbit on newspaper on the work table there and kicked off her boots. Through the kitchen doorway she could see her sister at the table bent over some writing, eating a slice of sausage like a cookie. Curls of wavy dark hair escaped yesterday’s braids. “Oh, good, you’re up, Hedda,” she called. She took a skinning knife from its hook, decapitated the rabbit and secured its back feet to tug off the pelt.
“Lisbet!” Hedda spoke with her mouth full. “Papa figured out how I could do that stupid assignment letter. We copied a page from All Quiet on the Western Front.”
“You copied a page from a banned book. Wonderful.” The rabbit’s guts splashed into the pail of chicken scraps.
“It’s a joke! Don’t you see?” Hedda touched her middle finger to her nose and thrust out her arm in the popular salute. “The Fuhrer will think this refers to him!”
Lisbet scowled, carrying the rabbit carcass to the kitchen sink. “What if Fraulein Krueger recognizes ‘your letter’?”
“I changed some words around. Of course. How could she admit it? I’ll say I was testing her — and turn her in.” Hedda’s dark eyes flashed. She kicked the table leg. “I miss Sister Marie, Lissy. Why did they make her leave? Fraulein Krueger is mean.” The latest note from the teacher was crumpled into a ball on the table. “I hate her!”
“Watch your attitude, little sister. Fraulein Krueger says harsh measures—!”
The young thin face twisted. “What do you say, Lisbet?”
What could she say? That Papa was wrong to put her in danger? Was there danger? Her jaw tightened. She worked the pump handle and water splashed over the rabbit in the sink. “You are just a girl, Hedda. Sometimes you must do things you don’t like to do!”
“Oh! Well! Why didn’t you say so?” Hedda crammed her assignment into a book. She scooped the rest into a precarious armful and stamped toward the door to the front porch.
“You might want a sweater!”
Hedda turned, with a look, while she grabbed her sweater. “I’m not five years old!” The door to the front porch slammed.
Lisbet rinsed her hands, and while drying them, went to stand at the window that gave onto the front porch. She watched Hedda march down the steps to the yard, slide her books into her bag, and sit in the swing, scuffing up dust with her feet, while she finger-combed and re-braided her hair. Just then the radio crackled from their father’s study.
She went down the hall to answer it, taking an extra breath before entering her father’s study. It was like walking into her father’s mind, a dark world of the past, the years of the Great War and the turbulent years after. Huge old history texts filled huge old bookcases. Many shelves were crammed with books banned by the present regime, including one of Hedda’s favourites, All Quiet on the Western Front. A false section of book spines hid their radio. A massive desk now occupied an entire corner of the room that had been an inviting sitting room when Mother was alive. The window drapes were old, dark and heavy. She seldom went into this room, and did not often clean in here, which suited both her and her father. When invited, she would type his latest work before it was mailed out. She was ‘fastidious,’ he said, which irked her, but meant she was patient enough to remember the ‘A’ key on the ancient typewriter worked slower than the rest, and her touch was even.
She flipped a switch on the radio and spoke into the microphone.
Karl’s voice boomed back. “Everard? Oh, Lisbet. Say, is that old reprobate nearby? Making beer, eh. That’s what he does best, ha, ha.”
“You would know, Uncle,” she said, smiling. “I’ll have him radio you back. Oh, hold on — I hear him coming in.”
She went back to the kitchen. Her father was changing out of his boots in the porch work room. A pail of milk sat on the work table. “Papa, Karl is calling.”
“Thanks, Lisbet.” He indicated the pail. “Make cottage cheese?”
She had finished trimming and butchering the rabbit when Everard came back into the kitchen.
“How are Karl and the family?”
“Fine.” He smoothed the crumpled note from Hedda’s teacher with his stained hands and offered it to her. “You talk to this Fraulein Krueger this time. I refuse.”
She re-arranged pieces of the rabbit as if she had some design in mind. “I would not know what to say!”
“Just — speak to her.” He tossed the note onto the table and rolled up the sleeves of his blue shirt.
“About — what should I say?”
“Tell her you’ll speak to me about it.”
“‘It’?”“This — German Girls, German Through-and-Through summer camp. Hedda’s attitude. Or anything she says, the senseless female. If your mother were alive —” He pumped water into the sink and scrubbed his hands. “Take your rifle along.”
“Do we need more meat?”
“Just have it with you.” He dried his hands on the towel. “Oh, Karl and Hugh are coming by tomorrow. He wants to show Hugh off before he goes back to Munich. He won a scholarship for his second year because of how well he knows the electronics — thing. Karl says he is advancing . . .”
He raised a hand and let it drop, acknowledging the impasse between them over her schooling, which was pretty much a moot point now, because of lack of money coming in from his writing. “Let’s be congratulatory to Hugh. They are our relatives, after all. I need these bottles in the sink, soon as you wash them.” He hung the hand towel on its hook. At the back step he called, “Don’t forget the mail.”
She stood at the sink and watched him stop at the outside pump, fill the ladle for a drink, then walk past the root cellar and spring house, the chicken yard, the goat pen, down toward his hut. She was not really seeing him. She was looking at the dripping overflow from the pump. It recalled her mother’s habit of batting the pump’s overflow of water onto the tulips she had planted there, which still grew up and bloomed brightly each spring. They were gone now, the spent yellowing spikes needing to be clipped. She added that to her list of things to do.
Later that afternoon Lisbet slid down a steep descent in a shortcut to town, riding loose rocks as if her brogans were skis, using the rifle’s stock for balance. Her good shoes in a string bag bumped her thigh. The storm had been brief but clouds lingered in the tops of firs and cedars like tufts of white hair.
Below in a valley was the village of Bruchs. Dark buildings clustered in a haphazard pattern around the church with its white spire, which faced the schoolhouse with its bell tower, which was her destination. Bruchs’ only claim to importance was the station house on its far outskirts, where the train stopped. A train’s keen whistle bounced melodically from mountain face to mountain face. The faraway sound stirred melancholy in her. This was one more task, as father had pointed out, that she had to do because mother was not here. Not that there was any help for it. But — if only mother were still alive.
The foot trail in town was well-trodden and muddy. The old school’s wood steps were splattered with drips from the wide eaves. The roof was new, as were frames for windows. In the vestibule where the odour of disinfectant was strong, she added her muddy brogans to the trough of galoshes and slid on her cold church shoes. Sharp words from inside Hedda’s classroom broke the silence.
“Time! Pencils down!”
There was a slap, a child’s cry, stopped at once. Lisbet opened the door and stepped in. She leaned her rifle against the doorjamb. Not one of the straight-backed children turned to see who had entered, not even her sister, sitting at the head of a row. Fraulein Kreuger’s pale glance flicked toward Lisbet, registering the intrusion. A red-faced, red-haired girl sat in a chair facing the room.
“Katrina, because of you, class will be late to leave.”
The bone-thin teacher, probably about Lisbet’s age, paced to the blackboard, her stocky heels rapping loudly on the plank floor. She wore a red swastika armband on the sleeve of her brown blouse and a Nazi Party pin on her collar, a flared brown wool skirt. She looked much like the soldiers in the woods. She took up a long ruler. “How poorly does Katrina regard her Fuhrer, her Fatherland and her classmates!”
The girl mumbled, “Fraulein Krueger, I love my Fuhrer, my Fatherland, and my classmates. I only crossed a ‘t’ that I already wrote.”
The teacher pointed to the slogan on a banner over the blackboard. “Class?” She struck each word as the class responded in chorus. “‘The-needs-of-the-people-before-the-needs-of-the-individual.’”
A tear rolled down the girl’s freckled cheek and she dropped her head.
“Face your shame! What did you do?”
“I j-just f-f-finished —”
“You ‘j-just f-f-f-finished’?” mocked the teacher.
Titters arose from a few boys in Hitler Youth uniforms.
“This is how treason starts, Katrina. A betrayal here, a little greed there. What does our Fuhrer demand of us?”
“T-to think of the needs of everyone.”