If you want me to talk then I'll choose the story. It seems right that the last words you hear are pushed from my mouth, just as the first ones were mine as you lay in the angle of my elbow. Your own little girl sleeps in the next room, her breath slow in dream—I watched her, curled under the blanket like the sweetest cashew. This reversal is so unnatural; the ground they've dug up ready for you, when it should be me, the old woman, whom they take.
There were fish that season, in '45. Remember the trout in the stream that April? They ran like sportsmen in the shallow water, over the algae-thickened stones. Your brothers caught so many we were sick of fish for months after. You used the supple bones to make a fairy broom, tied them to a twig with twine and left it for the sprites to find. Your father had just returned from Vienna, a trip that cost him three fingers on his left hand, two on his right, the driver of the cart that ploughed him down as blind as he was Hungarian. We coped that spring with one sack of flour from the mill because your father's broken hands wouldn't let him turn the crank to grind our grain. Your brothers insisted they were big enough to do it, but neither of them could pull down the handle.
You could. I remember you at daybreak walking for Klaus' mill, a bucket of grain swinging from your white hand. Gerhard pleaded to go with you—he was barely seven—and you pinched his ear and turned him back inside. You strode easily up the hill and out of sight, the innocence of girlhood flying like the tails of your apron behind you.
May came silently that year. If there had been no calendar to note the date it might have been April for twice the time. A sparrow hawk that nested in our oak all winter suddenly died that first morning. I found its cold body on the woodpile, maggots already creeping under the feathers. It was also your first menses—how happy you were at the sight of that blood. You waited anxiously for it to arrive, wondering if you might be barren.
You were not. Every day I absorbed your fruitfulness. The thyme you grew from seeds and nursed through the winter on the windowsill, the sugar beets in the garden that had never grown so large and bulbous. I can still taste their sweet tang on my tongue, their fiber against my teeth. And you did become a woman, though that May we all wished you had been born a boy.
It was the twelfth when the first warning came. You sat at the window, nursing hole-riddled socks your father had thrown out in frustration. Your hands dipped with the needle so smoothly, like the flash of field mice at harvest. Gerhard fought with the dog on the floor, wrestling it into easy submission with shouts of supremacy.
"The larch looks sick this year," you called to me. "Perhaps Papa should trim off some bark." Then you looked away because you knew his hands wouldn't let him.
"Can we play with Maynard and Angie, Mama?" asked Gerhard from under the dog's front paws.
"They're away in Eisenstadt," I said. "You can help me with the scrubbing if you want to be useful."
He didn't like that and crawled into our bedroom to keep away from unwanted suggestions.
The crunch of Christian's footfall came through the open window a minute before he shouldered the door. He had taken the grown-up tasks your father set him so seriously, the cleaning of saddles and hay bailing. But now there was a stiffness in his walk and as the door came open I remember thinking: this is it. He has come home to change everything.
"Katye," he called, unable to see at first in the dark house, and you so well-fitted against the curtains. He turned to me then, his hazel eyes momentarily devoured by black pupils. "They have come across the border," he said. "Herr Leinsing heard they will be in Sennorsdorf tomorrow."
"Who? Who is coming?" Gerhard rushed to grab his brother by the legs and pull him down, but Christian stood like a bear to his efforts.
Christian glanced at you, at the sock you had dropped to your lap. He chewed his lip. "It's as bad as they said."
I can’t recall the small events of that afternoon. I'm sure you went out for water and brought back a few yellow daisies from the field for me. Perhaps we finished the kneading and second rise of bread together, your hands so skilled even at sixteen. Perhaps nothing much happened, the calm of common chores an easy breath that day.
What I do remember is you at ten years old, your golden hair light as cobwebs as you ran after the wagon that carried your older brother away for the last time. You had such a sweet face which later grew longer and finer, into the imagining of itself. But as a child your nose lifted just enough to be slightly tipped up, the cleft above your lips deep and round. You smiled as soon as frowned in those days, so easily squeezed, Karl would say.
It was this, your last moment with him. He was preparing to ride to the village and then take the train to Eisenstadt for work. Those lean years were hard on farmers especially and Karl wanted so keenly to help. You wanted one more day, one last smile from him, and kicked over the coal bucket when he shouldered his satchel.
"Katye," he said. "Don't make more work for Mother. I'll be home before the frost."
"It's no more work for me," I said from the kitchen table. "She can clean it herself."
"I won't!" you said. "Why does he have to leave now? Why not tomorrow?"
"The train leaves today," said Karl.
"You haven't seen my cabbages," you said desperately. "I've been watering them every day. Mother says they're the best she's ever seen."
"It's true," I said. "They are the best. Katye, let your brother go."
And he did. You followed at a run behind the wagon that rocked along the track. Karl looked over his shoulder once, at the junction with the road, and waved. This last sight of him for both of us, his dark head disappearing as the track dipped. I watched from the doorway, your shaking frame, hands to cheeks. I watched and cried, that you might not forgive me for taking his side, letting him go. You did forgive me. I did not forgive myself.
That evening after Christian came with the warning, I remember all of us by the fire. The wind forced itself into the eaves of the roof, whistled through the cracks. It was the undoing of your father that he could never tighten the house enough to keep the wind out.
"I'll get some caulking tomorrow," he said, Gerhard heavy on his legs. "I need to see Ludwig in the village anyway."
"I can do it for you, Papa," said Christian. "The caulking, I mean."
"I want to help too," said Gerhard.
"You're too young," Christian laughed.
"You are both too young," said your father. "And Christian, you should help your mother with the meat I brought home."
"I don't mind helping you, Papa," Christian protested.
"No!" Your father's bandaged hands quivered as he pushed Gerhard off his legs and strode out of the house.
In the aftermath of that storm, you offered to put your little brother to bed, and Christian and I sat alone by the flames, watching.
It had only taken his father's lost fingers for him to grow into a man, a slippery transformation that was still incomplete, and it took all his bravery not to try and reverse. I sometimes saw his thirteen-year-old shoulders sag with the weight, but he never cried. He said only one thing to me then: "We'll have to hide her."
Three days before, you had found the only photograph in the house. It was your father and I, fresh from our honeymoon, squint-eyed in the sun as someone took the picture of us arm-in-arm. I wore a green dirndl with a white blouse and my hair was pinned on my head in a crown, still blonde. Your father laughed at something I'd said, his brown face pulled tight with humor.
You examined the photograph carefully, fingertips on the corners, as if you might smudge the image away from the paper.
"Why is this the only one?" you asked.
"Photographs aren't cheap," I said. "That one was a gift from friends. Why do we need pictures when we see each other every day?"
You sat down at the table as I washed carrots in a bowl. "But if I go away to the city you might like to have one of me."
"And when would you go there?" I asked.
"I don't know. Perhaps next year."
"And which suitable young man will be accompanying you as your husband?" My cold knuckles hit the sides of the bowl.
"Mama! Boys go to Eisenstadt all the time without chaperones."
"They are boys, older than you, and I would even question their mothers in letting them go so young."
You crossed your arms. "It's what they have between their legs that helps them."
"It's true. I hate being a girl."
"You don't. I would have gone mad if you were a boy too."
"I don't believe you."
"What?" I caught the blade in your voice and stopped working.
"I'd be fine as Karl's replacement," you muttered. "But I have to be on the farm, help in the kitchen and stay out of the dirt. Karl wasn't even my age when he went to Eisenstadt!" Your brows rutted together like your father's.
I lifted the bowl and let it hit the table hard. "That is not the same."
"Why? Because he died? Is that what you're afraid of?" You got up so quickly the chair wobbled.
"Katye! Don't talk about your brother like that!"
"What have I said that isn't true?" you shouted. "What happened to Karl will not happen to me, or Christian or Gerhard!"
I slapped you without knowing I did it. It happened so quickly, and afterward the sound of my hand on your cheek ran through me, a haunting I can still hear.
In Sennorsdorf, they hid their girls in trees. I heard about it in the village the next day, where a few mothers had gathered to talk about prices we might get for our corn and potatoes. A rash of quiet had spread around the village; even the moulting dogs lay still.
"My Emile has seen them," whispered Gertrude Kuiper, her small fat hands wringing themselves under her chin. "He was over the border for a few days last month—they cleared a whole village of girls! Just like geese they herded them out, back to their camps, and none were spared what they did."
"And Anni is with child again," said Judith Lösen. "They wouldn't take her, would they?"
I shifted the sack of potatoes on my hip. "Perhaps they'll have had their fill by the time they get here."
"You know what they did in my cousin's village? They bundled them into the oak trees. Gave them bread and cheese and green dresses to hide in." Helga Mueller had come round the corner from the street, her brown shoes shuffling in the dirt.
"And it worked?"
"Some of them were saved. My cousin's girl was. The bastards sniffed around for them, but thank God they're mostly as stupid as cockroaches." Helga dropped her sack on the scale.
"We don't have a tree big enough," said Gertrude. "Do you, Judith?"
"My husband's sister does."
"Listen to us," I said. "We're crazy, talking of big trees!"
"Not that crazy! Will you leave Katye in the house when the Russians come through?" asked Gertrude. "Not your precious daughter, Maria!"
"No more precious than mine," said Helga. "Anja wants to marry Hans Grober next spring and she won't be tainted if I have to tie her to the roof!"
"You speak as if it's your virginity, not hers," laughed Judith.
Helga picked up her sack quickly, setting the scales to swing. "There is nothing to laugh about. Those bastards will not have my daughter. Even if I have to give them all the food in my house, everything in my garden, even myself, she will be spared." Helga turned on her heel and clipped around the corner.
Then it was the terrible day we saw their smoke. It rose from behind the hill where the boys liked to watch for foxes. Gerhard was spinning stones in the yard and saw it first. He slapped the door open and ran into my stomach, blind with the message.
"The Russian smoke is over the hill," he said to my apron.
We went outside, you, Gerhard and I, and listened for the booms we knew would come. They were detonating things they no longer needed to carry in our barley fields and turnip patches, probably would all the way to Vienna.
Though it sounds strange, you never looked more lovely than those few moments as we waited for the gruesome thunder of exploding crops on the other side of the hill. The morning bath had left your cornsilk hair wavy down your back, wisping into your blue eyes. The line that folded itself into your skin when you smiled was furrowed as you squinted to the horizon, thought and listened. Those perfect lips, the best I ever made.
Before we heard anything, Christian galloped down the track on your father's grey gelding, the reins flying on the horse's rump.
"They're here!" he shouted, jumping off in a whirl of wool sweater and leather boots. "They'll be marching down the road by tomorrow morning!"
You thought of it yourself. It wasn't my long-thinking hours in bed that birthed the plan, nor the hours with your father at the midnight kitchen table, candle-less. At three years old, you came to me with a broken-legged sparrow and suggested we fasten a stick to support it. At sixteen, you asked me to make you a room out of bricks. A room with no windows and no doors. You asked me to wall you up inside our house, so when the Russians came, I would have no daughter. And I said no.
"It's the only way," you said, limpid eyes shining with the idea, so newly formed.
I shook my head and threw the bread dough against the table.
"Mama, they'll know the trick in the trees now. There is no other choice."
You put your hands on my busy ones, my trembling ones.
"But if they realize what we've done they will take you, it will be worse. There isn't time to set the mortar. They will smell it. They'll know."
"If we start now it will dry. It's a warm day. Christian will help," you said, so calm and resolute.
"And me too, Mama," said Gerhard, bouncing on tiptoe.
"Christian has gone to get the bricks," you called, already in search of the tools.
In remembering all this, I think of other things. Funny how the mind slips to something so different. Though not completely, I suppose: every moment is the same moment living new. I think of your father and me on Verdner Hill, beside the brook that wavered down the slope and into the sharp cut valley our little town was sheltered in. I think of his fine skin—how in love with that skin I was. In so many ways I fell in love with him, but first was his coppery, salty skin. It gloved his hands so perfectly, his long fingers, left just the right amount of nail exposed, the right thickness over the blue whisper of veins. His touch was always warm, always smooth on my arm or cheek, lit from within.
The sky had emptied the night before and that day was so fresh everything looked scrubbed clean. Across the valley, we watched a cart laden with yellow hay trundle along the track. Your father swore it would be him next year, when he had his own farm and fields. The itch to prove himself a farmer was evident every time I looked at him. All he wanted was to use those hands.
"You better have a wife by then," I poked.
"Can you recommend one?"
"What about Liesl, Krauss's daughter?"
"Muriel from the cobbler's?"
"Have you smelled her on a hot day?"
I slapped his thigh. "And you've been that close?"
He tumbled me over backward and I pinched his nose until he yelled.
"Say it," I cried. "Say it!"
"All right!" He rolled onto his back on the grass. A corn flower bobbed between us where we'd lain on it. "All right," he laughed. "You'll do."
I reached for his nose again. "And?"
"Will you marry me?"
I put a finger to my chin and pretended to study his feet.
"Don't make me wait, Maria!"
"No, I think the question is wrong."
"It's the right question."
"Not for me. Not for you."
"What else can I ask?"
"This is what you, Franz Eschner, say to me: Will you have me, Maria the Lovely?"
"That's what I say?"
"What will the answer be?"
"The right one."
He blinked those long eyelashes. "Am I something to be had? A piece of furniture? A cow?"
"And you the heifer?"
"Say it. Your door is closing."
"Will you, Maria the Lovely, woman of my bewitchment, keeper of my manhood, have me to be your husband, your bull in all things?"
The breeze lifted the fair hair off his gleaming forehead. He never looked so much like home.
It was your father who brought the bricks in the end. Christian had intercepted him in the village and together they returned with almost a full cart load, the horses so sweaty when they got to the house we had to swim them in the pond. I remember the crease between your father's eyes as he piled brick after brick from the cart, brought them pile on pile into the house, to the wall upon which you had decided to build the room. Gerhard stood in the doorway, staring, shuffling aside as each armload came through.
You worked in the kitchen, mixed mortar in a feed bucket. How easily you could have been making breakfast for us, porridge or fruit bread, wiping down the table with your apron, perhaps humming to yourself, hair awry under a kerchief. But we had eaten hours before as the sun crept up the grey poplars; I cleared the kitchen of all food, so when the dust from the mortar filled the house nothing would be spoiled. It was the light from the strengthening sun I remember, shafted through the window on your young, working shoulders. You with a bucket of sloppy mortar, stirring as if it were edible.
By noon the base of the wall had been erected, your father and Christian kneeling on the wood floor with their hands caked in mortar, fingernails cracked from rough bricks. You took the far end of the kitchen to make us lunch: hunks of bread and cheese with early spinach you'd grown in the garden. Gerhard played on the floor with the dog, trying not to look put out that he was too little to help.
"Come. Stand here," your father called to you, the wall up to his waist. "You must see what you think, soon you'll be in there."
All through this he had not once flinched because of his fingers, not once did he look like a man with so many missing. This task was so different, so crucial, I think he knew if he couldn't do it he would be useful for nothing.
You hopped into the new room with the help of the ladder and we all watched you from the other side.
"It's like a farm wall," said Gerhard. "Like Uncle Klaus has."
"But this isn't really a wall," said Christian, taking his brother's shoulder. "It's going to be a room for Katye."
"I want to go in with her," said Gerhard.
"It's just for me," you said, white hands resting on the top bricks. "You can come in when this is all over."
"When will that be?"
"A few days," said your father, "maybe less. Go and help your mother, Gerhard."
He came to me without wanting to and I put him to work wrapping bread and smoked ham in linen and then canvas. I counted sixteen bundles, enough for four days, plus water and apples, a bit of cake I'd saved. It wouldn't be four days. They would pass through quickly and get to Vienna, where whores abounded to slake their thirst for anything. I pounded this conviction into the floor with every step, so sure if I wanted it enough it would happen.
Soon the wall was too high for you to jump down into. Together you and I went into the yard, a last chance to use the outhouse before all you had was a lidded chamber pot. The sky had cleared and swallows swooped out of the blue after mosquitoes. You walked so maturely, with swinging arms down the path. I thought: here is my grown daughter. There is my little girl. A cuckoo made its low call among the oaks and a horse nickered behind the barn. Beyond the hill, smoke that had risen early in the morning still blew steadily upward. There was an echo of rifle shot, then another. I stood in the yard, hands clenched, for you to return so we could walk inside and barricade you into a fictional room.
"They will smell the fresh mortar," your father said.
He handed me a bar of soap as we scrubbed the floor where all the bricks had shed dust like paprika.
"Franz. They aren't here yet, it might be hours. By then it will be dry."
"It was a foolish thing to do. They will not be kind to us all if they realize."
"And you'd sooner have her here in the open for them to take?"
He rested his forehead in a crippled hand. "How much worse might it be for all of us, Maria?"
I threw the brush to the floor as I rose, my face hot and tight. "You've lost one child. Would you knowingly put your daughter in their path to save us all a little discomfort?"
"It wouldn't be discomfort, stupid woman!" He stood too now, bent at the waist as he spat the words. "They can be monsters!"
"And Karl's dying wasn't enough discomfort for you to go through?"
"Don't speak of it, Maria!"
I saw the hand coming; he didn't intend to hit me, knew I'd duck the blow. We stared at each other frozen and unaware of who the other was.
From behind the new wall, in the silence that ate my insides, came your half-voice, cut by the inches of brick that divided us. I've never asked you what you sang that night, though I always wondered. Perhaps if I recognized the melody it would have lessened how your father and I reached for each other, held on crushingly, as we had when the telegram announcing Karl's death reached our hands. It did not occur to me then that you may have heard our argument and were trying to stop it. It seems impossible to think you were singing for joy.
The Russian boy had broken teeth. This is what I remember when he first stooped to come through the door. That and his breath of parsley, like he'd eaten someone's garden. Gerhard and Christian had been walking the track and seen them march up the hill, a troop of dark-uniformed, tired men.
Three turned up at the door a few minutes after your brothers flew in panting. Two blond men, years of fighting etched into their faces, and the young man, perhaps twenty, a light beard threatening to age his smooth face.
I sat at the fire with Gerhard, who wouldn't be put in the bedroom but clung to my skirt, wide-eyed. Christian stood beside me and I smelled sweat coming off his skin with a tang. It seemed strange to think you were there too—somehow another part of the house. Your father pulled the door open too fast; the soldiers' faces held looks of surprise. Perhaps no one else had answered their knocks so easily.
"Do you have wine?" asked the young Russian. He stood squarely on the doormat, hands clasped. The other two flanked him, said nothing.
"No," your father answered. "We have some bread and a little ale."
The young Russian turned to the others and murmured a translation. They nodded together.
Christian tensed beside me; I could feel the muscle of his arm tighten.
"Is it just you, your family?" asked the young Russian.
Your father looked straight at them, his mouth a thin flat line. "This is our family. Our eldest son is away in the city."
"But Papa," Gerhard began. Christian quickly squeezed his shoulder and he fell silent.
One of the older Russians grunted something to the young one, who said haltingly "There are no young women here?"
"Do you know where my friends can find young ladies to visit with?" The young Russian shifted from foot to foot.
"Eisenstadt. Vienna." Your father gripped the doorknob with white knuckles.
"Fine. We will take the bread please." The young Russian muttered something to the other men, who backed out of the light and into the yard. Christian fetched the bread from the kitchen and gave it to the young man. Crickets chirped in the grass; their song came through the open door. I smoothed Gerhard's hair, watched my trembling fingers part it again and again.
The young Russian spoke with a rough accent that garbled his words. "My mother has your eyes."
I looked up, saw his hands still clenched together in front of him, his face pale under his cap.
"She looked like you, in her rocking chair," he said. "I have not seen her for three years."
"That's a long time," said Gerhard, who got up and shuffled to your father, taking his hand.
"Very long," said the young Russian. "Thank you for the bread."
There is only one more thing to tell, and this I will say as we cover your oak box with soil. I cannot say it aloud; there are too many here to see you off.
The air is cold for September and your little daughter wears two sweaters. Her warm hand is in mine as we watch them lower you on careful ropes. Your brothers are here: Christian with his wife and son, and Gerhard with Amelia—they will be married next year. A robin sings in the hawthorn and your daughter turns her head to find it. She squeezes my fingers and I squeeze hers in return.
I was seven hours in labor with you. Not like Karl, who took more than two days to arrive, bloody and small, a screaming creature so beautiful and breathing. You were thick-white and thoughtful, or so I imagined from the bed as the midwife wrapped you. The room must have held such fascination for your new nose, the hot smell of your journey bright on the bedclothes, the herbs my mother had sprinkled on the floor before you came. The sounds of little Karl scratching at the door, the thrush in the tree by the window.
The night we pulled you from the brick room, your father and I took two hours to break a hole big enough for you to crawl out on your stomach. Christian and Gerhard slept off the exhaustion in their bedroom, finally convinced they could not be of help. It was strangely like the early days—your father and I alone, working side-by-side in the quiet. But this time is wasn't the wheat harvest or a potato crop. Each chip with the chisel and hammer was a heartbeat, each new crack the possibility of the whole thing crashing down, on you, on us.
"We aren't masons," your father muttered, his hair slicked back with sweat. "We don't know what we're doing."
"It can't be that difficult." I sponged water onto his forehead.
"Not so simple either. Any strike could crush us if it all falls." He grunted, flexed his shortened fingers.
A cool wind picks up as I walk with your daughter to our house, where friends have gathered. She is brave in her steps, quietly humming a tune she wouldn't be able to repeat if I asked her. Her hair, incarnation of yours, swings in the breeze about her shoulders. She is still oblivious to her beauty, still young enough to imagine herself invisible. Christian and Gerhard have gone ahead with their families, those grown men of mine stooped with the weight of you in the ground. At the gate I pick a dandelion and give it to your daughter; her pink fingertips cradle the yellow head.
With one last blow, your father opened a hole at the floor. I put my hand through and found your foot, damp leather, the toes clenched inside. A moment later there was your hand, smooth in mine, squeezing as if we were merely sharing a secret knowledge of something.
I helped him with the next blows, calculated to bring down just enough brick to let you escape. The dust filled our lungs and dulled our hair and skin, but it was the smell of your freedom and I couldn't get enough.
Just as your father recoiled to strike the last blow, your sudden laughter spilled out of the hole—then your shiny pink face peered between the broken bricks. "Mama, you look so frightened! I'm almost there!"
Your father shouted for you to move away, struck the wall and even before the dust settled you were crawling out, inching across the floor until your legs wriggled free and you were in my lap, laughing, crying, and clutching me like you were a child again.
In the house, your daughter walks among the mourners as if in a forest, her bright head a beacon in the dark clothing. I take a moment from the crowd and follow her into the kitchen, where she sneaks a piece of cake from a cloth-covered plate. I stand in the doorway and watch her examine the room. She knows the house as well as you did, knows the corners of the table from the bruises they've left on her head, the mysterious dip in the floor that's the perfect size for her feet. She knows about the lone brick in its place by the far wall, as if a child played with it and forgot to put it outside again. She has asked about it and I've told her the story, though not the one I've just told you.
She walks over to it, the last remnant of the wall that housed you for three days as the dregs of the Russian army drained its way into Vienna. Your daughter picks up the brick and weighs it in her small hands. She looks up to the ceiling, breathes a sigh into the quiet kitchen. There is no hint of that wall left, no specks of dried mortar anywhere. You and I scrubbed it clean together.
Copyright © Ria Voros 2008.