Chapter 4 – Untermenschen
The next night, Peppi sat at the table across from his mother, watching the candlelight dance across his plate of potatoes and bread. They had run out of rationed meat and since the bombing, they both knew they had to let the rabbits repopulate their cages. It would be months before he would again taste his mother’s delicate variations on the theme: Civet de Lapin, braised rabbit in olive oil, batter fried rabbit. His mouth watered as he thought of those delicacies, another reminder of a life that was quickly slipping into the darkened closet of the past, he with the key in his hand, not ready to lock it – not just yet.
For now, he enjoyed the quiet of her eyes as she sipped her red wine – the one link to that past that never seemed to run dry – while he sipped the cool elixir of well water, basking in the respite it gave him from the past few days still whirling in his mind.
He hadn’t yet gone to the Stammführer. He didn’t know exactly why. What he told himself was that he had to think about it to make sure, because he had the sense that once he did, he would cross a threshold that would disappear behind him and fall into a part of his past that was an endless abyss where things went that could never be found again. He also had to admit to himself that he was scared. He had a vague foreboding about some chain of events that would ensue that he could not predict but would lead him to places where his mother would never be able to find him again.
Such was the sacrifice of duty, but he wanted to put it off for at least one more night while his mother showed him soft eyes and her warm smile, one more night where she saw him as just her little boy, not the Hero of the Fountain Square, the pride of his Stamm. One more glass of wine. One more sleepy cavern of silence in front of the crackling fireplace while she stroked his hair and the sparks chased each other up the flue. One more night of not having to think of anything more important than whether or not to stir from her sleepy embrace and fetch another log. One more night.
He blinked, jolted from his reverie by a harsh knock at the door. Hard, fast rappings, as if whoever was on the porch was running from wolves and needed to rush into the living room, panting, and slam the door behind them.
His mother looked at the door, set her glass down and waited. Another round of knocking – still she waited. Once it was done, she flew out of her chair, ran across the living room and opened the door just a crack to see who was standing on her porch.
Peppi’s heart jumped and all thoughts of the evening’s respite – the meal, his mother’s soft eyes, the fire – they all leapt away from him as his vision tunneled when he heard her say the postman’s name. “Hans, what is it?”
She opened the door and stepped aside, beckoning the postman into the living room. Peppi caught a glimpse of the man’s face before he had to look away, wishing he could disappear into a hole that would open up right there in his mother’s kitchen to rescue him from that moment. The postman’s face was creased with worry. His eyes darted around the room. Sweat had broken out on his forehead.
For his part, the postman didn’t seem to notice Peppi and he certainly didn’t seem concerned that the boy who held the postman’s life in his hands was sitting right there in front of him. He didn’t know! Peppi felt a rush of jagged elation at that thought, but it was like a wild horse that he had somehow roped in the fields. He held the rope tightly, but the horse bucked and whinnied and Peppi knew it would jerk him off the ground and fling him into the sky. It was one thing to rope a horse. It was another to know what to do with it.
“I’m sorry to come to you uninvited, Frau Engel, but I was told you could be trusted.” Peppi’s ears perked up at the words, and he cringed at what he was about to discover.
His mother turned towards Peppi and stared at him with a harsh look that told him the horrors of a wrath he had never known should he not obey her very will at that moment. She held a finger up to her lips and her eyes narrowed. He gulped and nodded, just once.
She turned back to the postman. “Yes, I recognized the knock. Whoever sent you knows who I am. You can trust me.” She put a hand on the man’s elbow and gently guided him to the couch. He sat down slowly, quietly, so as not to disturb what was left of the domestic harmony she still labored to maintain in her shrinking corner of the world.
“It’s about my daughter,” he said.
Peppi’s mother glanced at Peppi again, the same harsh look in her eye telling him to never repeat what he was about to hear, and then angled away from him so he couldn’t see her face.
“Go on,” she said.
“I don’t know how to explain this, but I think I have been discovered.”
“What makes you think so? You’re the postman. Everybody trusts you.”
“The SS have replaced the Kripo guards at the camp.”
Her mouth fell open a little and she tilted her head slightly. “Why would they do that?”
“I don’t know. We have a working arrangement with them, but I don’t know how much longer that will last.” She arched her brow, asking him to tell more. He shook his head and glanced at the floor. “It’s particularly difficult for Patrina.”
She nodded slowly, not wanting to believe what he was implying, but knowing better. War brought out the worst in some even as it brought out the best in others. “Do you have anywhere you can go?” she asked.
“Not anymore. Since leaving Munich, I have lost touch with the few families left in our caravan. Travelling has become too dangerous, even at night. Besides, what better place could we find than here? Where else would we find a Frau Engel?” He smiled sadly and bowed his head, a gesture of humility she knew pained him severely. Dignity was the first casualty of war and she sometimes wondered if it was the greatest loss of all.
Peppi watched the man’s face in the shadows of the living room – his mother had not lit one of the kerosene lamps that usually showed the faces of visitors. A grim smile. The man held his hands out, palms up.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m new at this sort of thing, as well. I forget that there are questions I shouldn’t ask. Please, forgive me.” She took the postman’s hand. “What do you need?”
The postman shook his head and let out a sigh, relieved at her kindness, but embarrassed at risking her by contacting her this way. “It might not be anything, but just in case, I need to know if there is a place for -” His words trailed off and he let out an exasperated sigh.
Peppi saw then the look of a man who could not fight back, a man who could only run. A man who had no place to turn except for his mother’s living room. A man whose world had been turned upside down. A river of confusion flooded Peppi’s mind, but he could not think of any questions to ask to try and wrestle into place some profound truth unfolding in front of his very eyes. The horse bucked and ripped the rope from his hands.
His mother spoke softly, resolutely, proclaiming her stake on some island of defiance for any in the world who might want to know. “Patrina is welcome in this home any time. She can stay here for as long as she needs.”
The man’s eyes grew wet and he clamped his mouth into a thin frown. “It could be for – some time,” he said. “A very long time.”
Nobody spoke for several moments. The man looked at Peppi’s mother with a mask of anguish that carved ever deeper into stone, unmoving, unrelenting. Peppi thought of the girl’s eyes he had seen the night before, and he understood that anguish. The thought of losing even that one moment, gazing into her eyes tucked in the shadows, told him everything the man was feeling in that moment. Except that Peppi understood there were years of a father’s love for his daughter behind that etched stone. Whatever Peppi had felt in that moment was just a glimpse into the heart of a man, now crushed and beaten because losing her meant losing everything he had left that made his life worth living. Peppi could understand that, could even imagine how he would feel if he never saw those eyes again. And then he didn’t have to imagine it as an unfamiliar pang knifed its way through his heart.
“For as long as she needs,” his mother said again.
The man nodded, his chest heaving as he let out the breath he had held back, waiting for just that answer. “Thank you,” he said. He smiled sheepishly and stood up.
The man pinched his lip and then looked at Peppi. He stepped out of the living room and looked down at him. “You will like Patrina,” the postman said. “She isn’t much older than you and she is a wonderful cook.”
Peppi blinked, not sure what to make of the postman’s clumsy words, not realizing that the man was trying to apologize for intruding on his life.
The postman cocked his head and said softly, “And she knows how to keep to herself. She won’t be a bother.”
Peppi looked at his mother, whose stern gaze darkened even more. Peppi stood up and studied the postman’s face. He wasn’t as old as he looked, the years added by the strain of running from his own life because it had been taken from him.
“I’m sure it won’t come to that, Mr. Mettbach, but if it does, my mother and I will help.” He stuck out his hand and waited.
The postman hesitated, then smiled forlornly, because he didn’t have any other choice. He shook Peppi’s hand. “Thank you.”
Peppi nodded his head, thinking how to say his next words without them being misunderstood. Still holding the postman’s hand, he said, “You should have registered.”
The postman’s hand slipped away and a look of desperation came over the his face. He bent down so he could look at Peppi more closely and said, “I know. But I had no choice.” He nodded somberly. “So yes, this is my fault. I can’t change that now.”
Peppi wanted to tell him that it really wasn’t his fault. Understanding the policies his Fähnleinführer lectured about day in and day out made sense until he had to reconcile them with a man aged beyond his years because he was trying to protect his daughter. He told himself it wouldn’t be like that if the man had simply followed the rules. But it didn’t make him feel any better.
But Peppi didn’t say anything. He simply smiled and politely nodded.
The postman turned back to Peppi’s mother. “I’m sorry to disturb you at this hour. Thank you for seeing me”
Peppi’s mother gently guided the postman to the door and peeked outside before letting him walk out onto the porch. “Be safe,” she said. The postman nodded once and walked out onto the porch as she gently closed the door behind him, holding the latch open until the door was fully closed. Only then did she let the knob turn back to close the latch.
Peppi was still watching the door, trying to understand everything that had just happened, when his mother whirled and stomped towards him. Kneeling down in front of him, she grabbed both of his shoulders and peered at him with a fiery glare that told him she would not relent this time.
Her voice was coarse, ragged, a voice he had not heard before, reminding him again that if he did not yield to her will at that very moment, did not surrender every fiber of his being to her command, that he would endure a wrath rivaling that of the Stammführer himself. “What did you do the other night, Peppi? What did you do?”
Peppi blinked, still wheeling from what he had seen. His mother – somehow involved in helping a man like the postman. The words You can trust me wheeled in his mind, over and over. The postman, now fearing for his daughter’s life. It all seemed like so much lamenting over spilt milk. They all seemed so much more worried than necessary. What, exactly, were they afraid of? The police weren’t going to come and take them in the night over a sack of stolen food. A fine. Perhaps a short time in the city jail. They would have to register. The worst thing that could happen was that the postman would lose his job and they would both have to go work on the farms. Not the worst of fate when men like his father froze to death in Russia. Which, as far as Peppi was concerned, was exactly what should happen to the SS soldier. There was no question in his mind the soldat should be sent to the eastern front, where he belonged.
And that’s all there was to it. What about all this had brought such terror to the man’s eyes and his mother’s promise to protect his daughter? What was he missing?
She shook him, demanding his attention, demanding for him to see her gaze burrowing into him as fiercely as the Stammführer’sown ominous gaze lashing out from across the desk. “Answer me, Peppi. What did you do?”
The smell of fear still lingered in the house and Peppi felt his stomach tighten as he thought of the girl. He knew it could never come to such a thing, but he did imagine her being ripped from her father’s arms and crying out for him as he was taken away for his crime. Taken away to some place Peppi couldn’t imagine, for a time too long to make sense. But he saw all of that in his mother’s eyes, declaring to him that some power beyond his awareness had been unleashed. She was afraid. What would she do if she knew what he had seen that night, even though it was still his secret? And his alone.
“I can’t tell you, Mama. I have to take it to the Stammführer. You know this.”
“What did you do?” she screamed.
Peppi grew quiet inside. He sighed. He wasn’t sure what he would do with his secret, but he couldn’t tell her that. So he lied. “Nothing to do with what you and the postman were talking about,” he said.
“What then?” she demanded.
“Just some boys rummaging through some back yards in the village. They were out after curfew and I thought they might be stealing from the neighbors.”
His mother pulled back from him a few inches, her brows knitting with puzzlement. The stern ferocity that had lashed out at him faded. “Boys? Where?”
Suddenly, Peppi realized he could capitalize on both his lie and what had actually happened, sleighting one into the other. “The townhouses on the east side.”
His mother turned away and studied the floor, her eyes motionless as the wheels in her mind spun, groping for an answer that he hoped led her away from him and towards a more benign mystery.
Turning back to him, she released her grip and her voice came back gently, as if she had exorcised a spirit. “Alright. Why didn’t you tell the constable?”
The question took Peppi by surprise and he had to fight the urge to look away. Instead, he kept his eyes fixed on hers, the way the Fähnleinführerhad taught him. Always look a person in the eye when you speak to them. He searched desperately for his next lie and had to keep from boyishly yelping when he discovered it. “They’re HJ. The matter needs to be taken up directly with the Stammführer. It’s within his jurisdiction, not the constable’s.”
“Have you heard anything?” she asked.
“About the postman? No, nothing.”
Her gaze floated around the room and her mouth opened slightly as she worked through the scenarios and paths that could lead away from his lie and into the darkened doorway of the postman’s daughter. He could see now that she would go to the same lengths to protect that girl as she would to protect him. His mother’s embrace reached wider than he could have ever imagined. He resented that, somehow, but at the same time, he felt relieved knowing that his mother watched over the girl who had looked at him through the darkness, capturing a part of him that still lingered in the forest, looking across the field and into the shimmering eyes of a girl he had never met.
She stood up and walked back to her chair at the kitchen table, sat down and took a long drink from her wine glass. She looked at him with soft eyes and smiled. “Let’s finish our dinner then. And later, we’ll build a new fire.”
Peppi looked at her, feeling that something now stood between her soft eyes and his own – the question that lingered in the air, a question that would never be answered. He smiled sadly, sat down and drank the last of the cool, sweet well water from his glass.
The question hovered there, just over the candles, refusing to subside and leave them be. Did she believe him?
Peppi’s legs already hurt from standing stiffly next to the Stammführer’s door. The secretary sitting at the small metal desk where she answered the telephone and attended to visitors – most of them adults, not young aspiring Hitlerjunge such as Peppi – smiled again and said, “You can sit down while you wait. It’s alright.” She gestured – again – to one of the wooden chairs against the wall next to the Stammführer’sdoor.
And, again, Peppi simply shook his head. He squared his shoulders again, and held his chin up. No, it wouldn’t be suitable for the Hero of the Square to sit down as he waited to report his important discovery to his Stammführer. He stood, because he knew he represented the pinnacle every member of the Deutsches Jungvolkshould aspire to. Later, when the pretty young secretary mentioned his visit, she wouldn’t just say, “That boy who saved those people in the fountain square was here.” No, she would say, “The Hero of the Square stood for 30 minutes, waiting to talk to theStammführer. Never have I seen such discipline!”
Peppi frowned indignantly, proclaiming the solemn burden that was his alone to set the example that no other boy could. The secretary just shook her head and went back to shuffling papers.
At long last, Peppi heard the doorknob turn and the door squeal open on tired hinges. Peppi kept his eyes forward, waiting for the Stammführer to speak. Instead, the man stuck his head out to look at the empty chairs lining the wall and actually flinched when he saw Peppi standing next to the door.
“How long have you been standing there?” he asked.
“Not very long, Stammführer,” Peppi replied, his eyes never wavering as he continued to stare at a spot on the opposite wall.
“Well, come in then. I understand you have some news for me.”
Peppi took one step from the wall, executed a crisp right-face, took another step and again turned sharply with a right-face. He then clicked the heels of his boots. “Yes, Stammführer. Important news.”
Peppi marched forward two steps and then stood rigidly in front of the Stammführer’s desk. The man closed the door, sat down behind the desk, propped his elbows on the desk and stared at Peppi over folded hands. “Report.”
Peppi raised his arm. “Heil Hitler.” He held his arm up, waiting for the Stammführer to return the salute. Instead, the man looked at Peppi with a quizzical look on his face. Then, he flicked his hand and mumbled, “Heil Hitler.”
Peppi lowered his arm, and stared at the man for a moment, fighting the urge to actually ask him why he didn’t seem enthusiastic about saluting the Führer. He took a breath, chased the thought away and said, “Mein Stammführer, it is my sad duty to report that I have witnessed the misconduct of an SS guard stationed at the outpost outside the -“
The Stammführer raised his hand. “Stop right there.” He narrowed his gaze and Peppi felt the sudden urge to swallow. Instead, he focused on controlling the rhythm of his breathing, again hoping the Stammführer didn’t see the sweat breaking out along his hairline. “Before you say anything more, you need to understand something. Something very important.” The man fell silent, waiting for Peppi to respond.
The Stammführer’s chair creaked as he leaned forward, staring into Peppi’s eyes with the same foreboding look as when he had admonished Peppi for making disappointing choices. “You must be very careful when it comes to making accusations, especially if it involves the SS.” The man arched a brow. “Before you go any further, are you sure you have evidence – rock solid evidence beyond dispute – that will confirm your claims?”
Peppi hadn’t expected this. He had seen people from the village hauled from the streets based on nothing more than rumor. Wouldn’t the SS expect its members to be held to the same standard? Maybe, even a higher standard?
“I can only report what I saw, Stammführer. Do you wish for me to swear my oath to the truth of my words?”
The Stammführer smiled, his cheeks puffing out just a little in amusement. “Alright, I have explained this to you. Continue.” The chair creaked again as he leaned back and looked almost bored as Peppi continued his report.
“Three nights ago, at approximately 23:30, I witnessed an SS guard standing guard at the Gypsy camp abandon his post.”
The Stammführer’s brows arched. He placed his hands behind his head and leaned back even further. “And what were you doing out after curfew in the vicinity of the Gypsy camp, an area where you are not allowed to go in the first place?”
Peppi abandoned his pretense of staying calm. He sucked in a sharp breath and cleared his throat. “I had to run a late letter to that side of town for the postman.” He was surprised at suddenly lying to the Stammführer and he felt the room tilt just a little, as if he were launching a rowboat onto a foggy lake.
“And why would the postman have you running mail after curfew?”
“It was a test, sort of, Stammführer.” Peppi resisted a desperate urge to lick his lips. Despite a dull pain growing in his chest from the strain of doing so, he also forced himself to look directly at the man across from him, not allowing his eyes to drift to either side, just as the Fähnleinführer had taught him. He even slowed down his blinking, hoping that the Stammführer didn’t see the growing nervousness from his lies. “He said I was ready for my first delivery of a widow’s letter on my own.”
“And this brought you to the Gypsy camp how?”
Peppi was starting to feel queasy. He didn’t like lying to the Stammführer, but more importantly, he was starting to resent how he was being treated like the criminal when he was the one making the report on the SS guard who had committed the real crime. He thought of a tactic that had never worked with his mother, but that might work with the Stammführer. After all, the man didn’t know him as well as his own mother did.
“Mein Stammführer, I do confess that curiosity got the better of me. The delivery was at the far end of Eiberger and I heard sounds coming from the other side of the hill.” He leaned in, lowering his head just an inch in deference. “So, I went to see what was making the noise.”
The Stammführer grunted. “Let me ask you this: would you be here today if you had not seen this alleged crime that you feel compelled to report?”
This time Peppi knew the truth was his strongest move. “No, Stammführer, I would not.”
“Then you understand that you must be disciplined for this excursion of yours. Even the Hero of the Square is not exempt from the rules that everyone else must obey.”
“I understand, Stammführer. But I still have a duty to report this crime.”
The Stammführer studied Peppi for several long moments, his eyes never wavering. Peppi didn’t dare blink as he waited for the man to speak again. When he finally did, Peppi’s eyes burned from the dryness. “Go on.”
“As I said, at approximately 23:30, an SS guard left his post. I watched him walk away from the camp and to a house on Eiberger, which he entered from the rear.”
The Stammführer cleared his throat. “And how do you know he wasn’t simply going off duty?”
Peppi wanted to say that it was because he actually paid attention in his DJ meetings, where they discussed such things so they all knew what to watch for. So they could all watch for something exactly like what he was trying to report now. Instead, he said, “Because I did not see a replacement guard and, as you know, the guards rotate every six hours. He would have been relieved by the next guard at midnight.”
The Stammführer looked puzzled, almost defeated in a way. “Do you have any witnesses?”
Peppi’s mind stopped cold. He knew the postman had been there, delivering stolen food to the camp, and had some deal with the very guard that he was reporting now. But he put that thought out of his mind. Then there was the girl in the lamplight, those almond pleading eyes reaching out to him with a promise that waited in the darkness. That moment when he saw the curve of her face, a moment that he wished he could stop in time, never seeing or knowing anything else, insulating him like a warm blanket from an eternally cold night. He heard his next words as if they had been spoken by somebody else. Words that came from some greater part of himself that stepped in to protect him, the girl, his mother. Even the postman. A greater part of him that knew she needed protection even if he didn’t know why.
“No, Stammführer. I can only bear witness of my own words. But I will swear by them.”
The Stammführer frowned somberly, nodded and stood up. Peppi reset his stance, looking at a point just beyond the man behind the desk.
“As to the disciplinary measures you must face, I will consult with your Fähnleinführer. You’ll be hearing from him soon.” He didn’t say anything more, but he hadn’t yet dismissed Peppi, either.
“What of my report, mein Stammführer?”
“You did the right thing, Peppi. I will take your report under advisement and see to it the right course of action is taken. You may leave the matter with me and put it out of your mind.” He stepped around to the side of the desk and placed a hand on Peppi’s shoulder. “From now on, you tend to carrying out your duty, which includes setting an example by following the rules, and leave other matters in the hands of those tasked to deal with them. Hmmm?”
Peppi couldn’t help feeling deflated, but there was nothing more he could do. He had made his report, at the risk of his own status as a young DJ who had, he realized now, let his own sense of self-importance get the better of him. And now, he couldn’t help sense that he was simply being punished for it. But he trusted the Stammführer to see to it the SS guard was punished, even if it was only because he had no other choice.
As for the postman, he wasn’t sure what to think of what he had seen him do. It was – complicated. Had he actually seen a crime? Had the SS guard not given him permission to deliver the food to the camp? Surely, the SS guard knew that “Hans” wasn’t the postman’s real name. Peppi didn’t know what all of that really meant. Not any more. So, he kept quiet about that part of it. Maybe he would ask the postman about it later.
What he wasn’t willing to think about was the simple fact that he was afraid for the girl and the lies he told trying to protect her. He wasn’t ready to admit that to himself because being an aspiring Hitlerjunge demanded something more than personal concerns. And yet, he couldn’t bear the thought of her not being there, in that doorway, looking out into the darkness. Because, as long as she did, he could imagine that one night she would look into the world and see him standing there.
“Peppi?” The man’s voice jolted him from his reverie and Peppi realized he hadn’t answered the Stammführer.
“Yes, mein Stammführer. I will redouble my efforts and promise to do better.”
“I know you will. Dismissed.”
Peppi raised is right hand, making sure to keep his wrist locked tight in alignment with his arm. “Heil Hitler.”
The Stammführer flicked a casual salute and responded flatly, “Heil.”
There had been no visitors that night and her father, who always slept soundly anyway, was in a deep slumber after she had made him a rich meal with the rabbit meat, onion, bell pepper, rice and even a small bottle of olive oil he had brought home. As she had prepared the meal, she couldn’t help feeling that it would be the last time she would cleave rabbit meat with the razor-sharp blade of her mother’s cutlery – one of the few valuables they had refused to surrender. She was fast and precise with a knife and when she had finished, she had slowly turned the blade to watch the candlelight dance along its glistening blade. A shudder had run through her as she mused about what such a knife could to a man – if it ever came to that. It would be a futile exercise in vengeance, but a fleeting whisper of gratification ran through her as she thought of it. She had learned there were far more effective ways to persuade a man. But if only, just once, she could have used the knife instead.
They had stood at the table a long time, looking at the bounty sitting on the brown paper it had been wrapped in, as if he had panned gold from a river and there lives would never be the same again. Unspoken between them was the somber truth that this would be the last time they would enjoy such a veritable feast. They didn’t know why, any more than they knew why the winds blew a certain way that morning or why their house had escaped the carnage brought to their neighbors by the Royal Air Force. They never knew the reasons behind these truths – only that they existed, as if to remind them to cherish each day’s breathing for the next day’s might never come. And so they let the anticipation linger like the fleeting perfume of a lost love that would never again come home. Almost with remorse, she had carefully picked up the paper and its cradled delights to carry them to the kitchen, where she had meticulously prepared the meal and brought it to the table with a formal grace that would have suited the serving of a king.
They hadn’t said a word until they were finished and she cried when he said simply this: “Your mother never made a finer meal than this.” Then, he had reached across the table to take her hand.
Now, the night wind swirled outside her window and she listened to the faint tidal sonnet of her father’s snoring in the next room. She couldn’t sleep. Even though she knew he wouldn’t hear her stirring in the night, she carefully slipped out of bed, slowly slipped on an old gray field dress and stepped lightly into her shoes.
She looked over her shoulder as she padded down the stairs, using the rickety hand rail screwed into the wall to guide her through the darkness. Tip-toeing through the front room and towards the back door, she stepped over the floorboards she knew were loose, like skipping over stones in a river, until she made her way to the back door. The hinges squeaked softly as she opened the door, but they were not as loud as her father’s snoring spilling down the stairs in a gentle waterfall of contentment. She slipped through the door and ran towards the crater-pocked field behind their townhouse.
A half-moon hung low, painting the field and the forest beyond with a dull blue icing that let her imagine she was somewhere far away – some place she had never been, and was only now seen for the first time. She raised her hands as she ran, the wind tossing her hair behind her shoulders as she lifted her face to the sky and smiled at the vastness that lay between her and the moon.
She ran, begging for her mind to stop and let the fantasy envelop her, for she knew this truth, as well: Never again would she be free to run through the night air, unseen, unknown, scampering through an ancient land that had just then sprung up to provide her an imagined estate that only she had ever seen. Some day, she would return home and tell the tale of her journey through fields aglow, trees whispering with windsong and the ribbons of steel that wound into the beyond, where she would one day find yet another mystical land that no human eyes had ever seen.
She found herself standing on a railroad tie, right in the middle of the train tracks that skirted the edge of the forest and then curved away into the dark corners of Germany and beyond. Suddenly, the illusion collapsed as she realized they had always been there, laid by men sweating in the sun as they carried the rails in tongs, set them onto the ties and then drove spikes along their edges, forever bonding them to their fate of carrying the world on their steel shoulders. She had never seen or heard the trains that had run along those tracks, but they came from places that others knew – Essen, Cologne, all the way to Munich, and then went to other places that the world had already seen – Dortmund, Leipzig, Berlin, and on into the far reaches of the east.
No, the world had seen it all before. It was only she that had not seen the mystical lands that lay along those tracks that tied the world together, squeezing the mystery out of what should have been her frontier.
Her heart sank as the fantasy of running through some lost land bled away and now the moonlight glinted off the steel, carrying its existence a thousand miles all at once, like some telegraph that said, “Yes, we know of these things, too.”
This was why she missed the caravans. They travelled roads that only her people had really seen, and it wasn’t all that hard to take a day’s journey off those roads to find some copse, some shallow, some pond, that nobody had ever seen before, even in a world where trains screeched from whistles to say, “I am here. I am there. I am everywhere.” Ah, but you are not.
On a whim, she drew a box in the sky. She stared up at the space inside its invisible lines, knowing that no birds would fly at night. Except that sometimes they did. She gasped as she saw a V of blackbirds swim ponderously through the left side of her box.
She watched the birds float off into the darkness and then disappear behind her. Then, she looked down the tracks as far as her eyes could see in the moonlit dark. She imagined the lamp of a far-off train lumbering towards her. She could feel the rumble of its weight rippling along the tie she stood upon. She could hear the shrill of its whistle, proclaiming its thunderous trampling of the world before it. Out of the way, out of the way!
And the birds told her that it was not a good time to take such a journey. It would be better to wait.
But that didn’t matter much, because Patrina decided at that moment that she didn’t like trains. Let the world rush through itself, never seeing what blurred by in the steam and smoke.
She stepped out of the track, looked back at the moon and ran on through the night, hoping for a glimpse of the lie that would let her believe she was in a far away land that nobody had ever seen before – a land that, for just a moment, belonged only to her.
But the moon would not lie. When she looked at it again, all she could see was the kerosene lamp and its oily smoke curling out from her windowsill, beckoning the night to come take another portion of her soul so she could drop a few more coins in the jar that she no longer believed would buy them a passage home. Everywhere there was to go was the same now. They had always lived on the fringe, because that was where nobody could find them. That was home. But even that was gone now.
Gasping for air, she fell to her knees and surveyed the landscape. Meadows. Fields. Forests. All the legacy of Arminius. Conquered and baptized in Roman blood, while the wanderers could only peek out from the shadows and hope to find another path to travel, away from the Führer’s slithering coils.
Patrina cried out into the night. “Let me go!” She pounded the soft ground with her fist and then rolled over on her side, hugging her knees.
“Please, just let me go.”
copyright 2020 Michael J Lawrence
All Rights Reserved