|Excerpts > Winter 2003|
in the Obersturmführer's car
Anna has never given much thought to the Obersturmführer's mode of transport to and from KZ Buchenwald. In her mind, he simply appears in die Bäckerei: not there one moment and demanding all attention the next. If forced to conjecture, she would speculate that he drops out of the clouds, ejected from the doors of some dark carriage, or that he materializes from the ground itself, like an emissary from the brothers Grimm.
In actuality, his chariot is a Mercedes, a sleek black staff car that seems to Anna to be as long as the bakery's front room. Its ornaments gleam even in the muted light of this overcast April morning; two Nazi flags flutter on the hood. As the Obersturmführer hands Anna into the cave of the back seat, she allows herself the small pleasure of inhaling the smell of well-cared-for leather, boot polish, and cigarette smoke. She thinks for a moment of her father Gerhard.
Then the Obersturmführer lowers himself in beside her with a grunt, the leather squeaking under his weight. The young driver closes Anna's door and races around to attend to the Obersturmführer. Anna can't see his hair beneath the peaked uniform cap, but his face has the naked, lashless look of the redhead. Anna wonders whether he was driving that first afternoon a year ago, when the Obersturmführer came to interrogate her as to whether she had been feeding the prisoners at the camp quarry. Has the driver been idling within this steel cocoon throughout subsequent evenings, smoking and peering at the bakery windows, picturing his master's activities inside? He looks through the windshield, expressionless, but she thinks she's glimpsed a gleam of prurient interest. She stares with hatred at the vulnerable hollow between the tendons of his neck, just below the skull.
The driver starts the engine and maneuvers the staff car around the holes in the road. Anna turns to watch the bakery's thick gray walls and darkened storefront recede from view. For a moment she's terrified. Then they are passing the villas on the outskirts of the city, and Anna cranes at her neighbor's houses: like die Bäckerei, they are in glum disrepair. The Weisbadens' home looks as though it hasn't been inhabited for months; starlings swoop in and out of a nest beneath the eaves. Anna is seized by the sudden certainty that the townsfolk have all been evacuated, that she and the Obersturmführer and the driver are the only people left in Germany. She begins to feel carsick.
The Obersturmführer pays little attention to her. He is in something of a temper. His briefcase acting as a surrogate desk on his knees, he shuffles through documents, tossing some aside and scratching his signature on others so viciously that the nib of his pen tears the paper. He purses his lips, emitting pfffffts of irritation. He glares through the side window, then pinches the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. He mutters phrases under his breath. He unbuttons his uniform tunic and shrugs it off. Then he swears.
Look at this, he says.
Anna isn't certain whether he's addressing her or the driver, but she looks anyway: one of the Obersturmführer's shirt cuffs bears a brown scorchmark.
It's a disgrace, the Obersturmführer says. After I was assured by the Brauns that she possessed impeccable credentials. What kind of laundress can't even handle an iron? What do you think, Karl?
I don't know, sir, the driver says. His voice is surprisingly froggy.
I think she falsified her papers, that's what, the Obersturmführer says. I think she was a Jew. A Jewish laundress who can't iron a shirt--the joke's on me, eh, Karl?
I suppose so, sir, the driver says.
The Obersturmführer raises his cuff to eye level, squinting at it.
Jew or not, she's ruined her last shirt, he says. It should be enough that I have to cope with this endless paperwork--everything in duplicate, triplicate--I have to be bothered with these petty domestic details as well? Where am I to find time to find another laundress?
I don't know, sir, the driver says.
The Obersturmführer rolls up his sleeve with short, jerky movements, hiding the scorchmark.
Maybe she was a Pole, he muses.
The driver says nothing. Except for the rattle of the Obersturmführer's papers, the car is silent. Anna pictures the Obersturmführer's office, reconstructing it from details she has gleaned. He is a man of Spartan tastes: the room contains his desk, a chair, a bank of file cabinets, and a portrait of the Führer. There is also the window from which he surveys the inmates. On bright days, he can see beyond them to the patchwork fields and hills in which Weimar nestles. The hapless laundress would stand in front of his desk, her head covered with a neat white cloth.
But here Anna's imagination falters. Does the laundress sink to her knees, her hands scrabbling for purchase at the Obersturmführer's boots, babbling pleas for clemency? Or does she stand hollow-eyed, silently accepting her punishment? Does the Obersturmführer take her around the side of the building himself, or does he summon an underling? Perhaps the laundress never saw the inside of his office; perhaps she was pulled from a cot in the basement of the Obersturmführer's lodgings, her eyes blurry with sleep, stumbling as she was led away.
Suddenly conscious of the buttery speed of the car, Anna gropes at the inside of her door for the window crank.
What is it now? the Obersturmführerasks, frowning over at her.
I'd like some air, says Anna. Please.
The Obersturmführer sighs. Karl, he snaps, and the glass glides down a few inches.
Anna tilts her face into the rush of wind, which loosens her hair from its careful roll. The breeze is cold but sweet, its smell of damp earth heralding the advent of spring. This reminds Anna of something, but what? After a moment it comes to her: she remembers wresting her hand from her mother's to run ahead, skipping around the puddles on the flagstone walk, delighting in the flutter of the ribbons on her braids. She can hear her mother calling, Anchen, slow down! Little girls should never run in the churchyard.
Anna has not regularly attended church since her mother's death, over a decade ago. The Partei, as her father often reminded her, frowns on such activities, such blind obedience to the antiquated dictates of Catholicism. And so it has come to pass that now, Anna has no opportunity to tie her own daughter Trudie's hair in ribbons: at the Obersturmführer's request, Anna has placed the child in the care of Frau Buchholtz, the butcher's widow, and on this Good Friday, Anna is accompanying the Obersturmführer to Berchtesgaden for the weekend.
Her nausea slides away, to be replaced by an emptiness at the pit of her stomach. Initially, Anna mistakes it for hunger; then she recognizes it as an uneasy anticipation. She has not been to the Alps since she herself was a child. It is Easter 1943, and she has not left Weimar in five years.
like a good wife
The cessation of movement jolts Anna awake. For hours, it seems, she has been dreaming of being in a lift, rising and falling in an iron cage. Now she climbs from the car with the discombobulated sense of having traveled back four months as well as south, because Berchtesgaden presents the impression of permanent Christmas. The frigid Alpine air seeps through Anna's coat and tweed suit to the sleep-warm skin beneath, and candles glow in the windows of the houses. Anna imagines breaking a piece from one of the step-laddered Bavarian roofs and biting it to find the taste of gingerbread. She yawns, coughs in the thin air, then yawns again, shivering.
Anna, the Obersturmführer says. Is it your intention that I stand in the cold all night?
His glacial tone signifies extreme displeasure, his earlier sour mood exacerbated by the flat tire they suffered in the foothills. As the driver unloads the bags from the trunk, the Obersturmführer propels Anna toward the entrance of the hotel, his hand iron against her spine.
The reception room is more opulent than one would guess from the Gasthof's storybook exterior. Anna's feet whisper over Oriental rugs; the walls are festooned with hunting tapestries in red and gold and forest green. Two men wearing the gray tunics of the SS lounge in carved wooden chairs before a snapping fire. They examine the new arrivals before turning back to their schnapps. The woman with them, a stunning brunette Anna's age, doesn't bother to look up at all.
The Obersturmführer stalks to the front desk and summons the innkeeper, a middle-aged Brunhilde with coiled braids and a chest on which one could balance a plate of schnitzel. Anna feels drunk with color and sudden warmth. Yawning convulsively, she watches a little drama unfold by the door: yet another officer, young and with flat Ukranian features, has just stumbled in, clinging to a girl whose tongue is in his ear. When he notices the other guests, he pushes her away, saying, Shh. Shh. But flecks of spit fly from his lips with each Shh, and he begins to laugh.
The girl can't be more than sixteen; the sharp planes of her face are blurred with drink, and she wears no coat. The ruffled neckline of her tea-party dress, far too flimsy for the altitude and season, slips from her shoulder. She claps a hand to the young officer's behind.
Stop that, you shameless wench, he slurs; behave yourself or you'll get a spanking.
Bitte, she says, and cups his crotch, looking around with drunken craft. Then she spots Anna.
Well? she says. What are you staring at? Pulling a long face of prudish dismay, she sways toward Anna. I didn't know we were in a convent. Something smell bad to you, Sister? Or is it just the stick up your ass?
Really, Gitta, you are incorrigible, the young officer says, and sniggers.
The Obersturmführer crosses the room in three strides and seizes the girl by the nape of the neck, forcing her into a chair. She sputters, struggling to rise, but he shoves her back down. Then he takes the younger officer's elbow and murmurs something too low for Anna to hear. The group by the fire watches intently.
Whatever the Obersturmführer says, it has the desired effect: a blush suffuses the young officer's face, starting at his neck and climbing upward like wine filling a glass. When the Obersturmführer releases him, he sketches a salute, staggering a little. Then he drags the complaining girl out into the night.
One of the officers by the fire sets his schnapps on the table and applauds. You have preserved the spotless reputation of the Schutzstaffeln singlehandedly, he says. Well done.
Shut up, Dieter, the other says amicably. He smiles at the Obersturmführer. Pay my friend no mind; he has so few opportunities to be gallant himself, you know.
For a moment, the Obersturmführer looks uncertain, as though trying to decide whether these comments are genuine or sardonic. Then his colorless gaze sweeps past his brethren and alights on the innkeeper.
What kind of establishment are you running here? he barks. Have you no discernment in your clientele?
No, sir, she says, wheezing. Yes, sir. We cater exclusively to officers--
And to their whores as well, apparently, the Obersturmführer snaps. I have been a visitor here since 1933, and I have never seen such behavior. It is a disgrace to the Reich.
Yes, Herr Obersturmführer, sir, the innkeeper says. Bitte--
I am mortified, he says, that my wife should have witnessed such a scene. He turns his back on the innkeeper. Heil Hitler, he says to the other officers, and then, Come, Anna.
Dutifully, her head lowered like a good wife, Anna walks behind the Obersturmführer to the stairs. Only when she has gauged from his pace that he will not turn and catch her does she make a wide-eyed face of amazement at his broad gray back.
the Obersturmführer's nightwear
If the reception area of the Gasthof mimics a baronial castle, its sleeping quarters are undeniably gemütlich. When the innkeeper unlocks their brightly painted door, there is another behind it, reminding Anna of Advent calendars. Since she is in the Obersturmführer's world now, Anna half-expects this second door to reveal a scene of dismemberment rather than the chocolate she found as a child. Instead, it opens into a little room that could belong to a maiden aunt: the furniture is sturdy pine, the bed heaped with a white eiderdown, the only wall decoration a sampler featuring a boy in lederhosen and a girl in a dirndl, holding hands. Downstairs, the SS strut in pomp and circumstance, but here they clearly prefer the plainer comforts of childhood.
Anna moves to the window and pushes aside the lace curtains.
A pity about that flat tire, the Obersturmführer says from behind her; we would have arrived in daylight otherwise. The view is stupendous.
I can imagine, Anna says, without turning.
Have you everything you need? he asks. I would order dinner to be brought to us, but at this hour--
No, it's perfectly all right, Anna says. Having not eaten since morning, she has arrived at the stage beyond hunger, in which the stomach feels like a rock.
We'll have a fine breakfast, the Obersturmführer assures her. They provide quite a repast, if memory serves.
His footsteps creak on the floorboards and Anna braces herself for his touch, but then she hears the snick of a latch and understands that he's gone instead to the WC. She releases her breath and fetches her bag, which has been deposited with the Obersturmführer's by the bureau. Anna digs through her daytime clothes to the lingerie beneath. What is the Obersturmführer's current mood? Which would he prefer, the diaphanous red negligee, the garters? Although the tags are missing from every item he brings her, their cut indicates that they are French. She has long stopped trying to picture whom they belonged to before. The embroidered children smile at her from the wall.
The door to the WC opens and Anna turns, straps dangling from her hands. Which-- she begins, and then words fail her: the Obersturmführer has emerged in yellow paisley pajamas.
Anna's face works like a rubber mask. She bites her lip, but it is no use. Laughter explodes from her, and the more she tries to choke it back, the more helpless she becomes. The muscles of her diaphragm, unaccustomed to such exercise, ache as though she has just been sick. It is a delicious feeling.
Eventually she regains control and lowers her hands. The Obersturmführer is climbing into bed with great dignity, wearing a wounded expression.
I'm sorry, Anna says. Really, I apologize. I don't know what came over me.
Perhaps the altitude, the Obersturmführer suggests.
That must be it, Anna says. She coughs into a fist to conceal a final giggle.
Please, could you -- The Obersturmführer jerks his chin toward the lamp.
Oh, of course, Anna says. But do you want me to--? She holds up the lingerie.
No, it's -- No.
Bemused, Anna shuts off the light. She strips to her brassiere and slip, modest garments designed for comfort rather than seduction; then she settles into the bed, pulling the eiderdown to her chin. The Obersturmführer lies stiffly on his portion of the mattress, his limbs not touching hers. Between them, there is a zone of cool air.
He shifts toward her and again Anna tenses, but he merely places a kiss on her cheek. Goodnight, he says.
Anna's vision has adjusted; she can discern the window's outline, a faint gray rectangle in the wall. If the Obersturmführer is watching her, he will see her smiling, so she turns over to hide it. It is too heavenly not to be savored, the concept of sleeping in this soft bed, revered as a wife, unmolested. It must be too good to be true.
It is: near dawn, she is yanked to consciousness by the Obersturmführer thrusting against her from behind, pushing her insistently across the mattress. Anna has to grab the edge of the bed to keep from tumbling to the floor. At some point he has removed the pajamas. He entangles one hand in her hair and pulls; with the other, he tugs up her slip.
Anna remains in a fetal position. She feels like a snail who, believing the outside world to be safe, pokes its soft head from its shell only to be prodded once again; she curls inward both mentally and physically. As he wedges a knee between hers, she thinks how very unpleasant it is to be awakened thus in the night, worse almost than the Obersturmführer's regular visits to the bakery by dint of its being unexpected. She thinks, Let him get on with his business and then we can go back to sleep. She twists onto her back and makes noises to encourage him, scissoring her legs around his waist. The Obersturmführer's breath steepens. He cups her buttocks and lifts her against him, and then her cries become involuntary.
A tinny churchbell begins to ring just outside the window, tolling the hour. The Obersturmführer thrusts in perfect, solemn rhythm. Bong. Bong. Bong. Bong. Bong. He hisses like a goose in her ear, as he always does near climax, but this time he says, Anna! Then she feels the telltale internal trickle. The Obersturmführer collapses, trembling.
Anna turns her head toward the window and receives her first visual confirmation that they are in the Alps: gray and white peaks rear sawtoothed into the sky. She waits for the Obersturmführer to roll off her, but he stays as he is, lying on her like a dead thing, his weight pressing her into the feather mattress. His sweat slicks them, or is it hers? She is unable to take a full breath; she can't tell whether the heartbeat that thuds against her ribs is the Obersturmführer's or her own.
a small cog
By mid-morning, the weather has taken a turn for the worse. From the dining room, Anna watches a fog roll across the mountains, first snagging on the peaks and then cloaking all Berchtesgaden in a dense shroud. The Obersturmführer is disappointed; he has envisioned a rigorous hike in the foothills, lunching like Tristan and Isolde beneath the trees. But the conditions permit neither picnicking nor perambulation, so after their breakfast, they return to their room.
Anna sits astride the Obersturmführer on the bed, straddling his buttocks; he lies on his stomach, his dark head turned sideways on the pillow. He wears only his briefs. His wounded shoulder, he tells Anna, reacts poorly to the cold and damp; it often troubles him in the camp, but it is a misery to him here. I am a human barometer, he says ruefully, his voice muffled. Anna doesn't have the breath to answer; massaging the muscles around the wound, as he has instructed her to do, is a vigorous business.
The Obersturmführer gazes toward the window. The fog, a swirling gray mass, is so heavy that one cannot see the church opposite.
The Gods conspire against us, Anna, he sighs. And I so wished to show you the trails. The excursion up the Hohe Goell is especially magnificent.
Hummm, Anna murmurs. She is drugged, gravid with food. As the Obersturmführer promised, breakfast here is a veritable feast: eggs! cheese! yoghurt with Mueseli, and, a small miracle, jam! Her overladen stomach groans. Even the Obersturmführer's back reminds her of unbaked bread. His wound is a saucer-sized crater near the right shoulderblade, the scar tissue stiff and shiny, but the flesh around it is elastic as dough. Anna plucks it between thumb and forefinger, watching fascinated as it slowly sinks, reddened, back into place. The Obersturmführer has always been an enormous man, but solid; now, he is getting fat.
And the Berghof, the Obersturmführer adds. The Berghof and the Kehlsteinhaus, the Führer's private retreat--a marvel, truly!
He grunts as Anna probes an obstinate tendon and closes his eyes.
I was there only once, in 1938, when Koch and I were summoned. We SS stayed in the Hotel Tuerken, of course; only the biggest wheels slept at the Kehlsteinhaus. But I never forgot the view--one could see into Austria!--nor the grounds. Just think, Anna. Among those inhospitable peaks, Bormann has created Utopia: a greenhouse, a mushroom farm, beehives and birdhouses. Salt licks for the Führer's deer.
It sounds quite opulent, Anna says, unable to prevent a note of sarcasm.
Oh, yes, you can't imagine-- The Obersturmführer chuckles. Just reaching the place is an engineering exhibition. First the drive up the mountain, a nightmare of a road, hairpin turns every hundred meters or so. And when the road stops, one drives straight into the heart of the Hohe Goell and then is whisked to the top by a lift. I have never been fond of heights, but Koch's face--it was absolutely green, I can tell you.
He laughs again.
One can drive into the mountain? Anna asks, intrigued despite herself.
Bormann ordered a tunnel blasted through the rock with dynamite. Ingenious...
The Obersturmführer grows pensive. The laborers were all criminals, of course, rapists and murderers. But I must admit, I felt some sympathy for them, clinging to the mountainside like goats. The explosives and exposure did away with quite a few. And to look down from that height is to see oneself falling into the abyss, to envision one's own death... However, they were well-treated. There was even a cinema where they could watch films once the day's work was done.
Suddenly the Obersturmführer stiffens, drawing air through gritted teeth. Achhh, he says, not so hard!
Anna forces her hands to unclench. I think it's revolting, she hears herself say.
After a pause, the Obersturmführer replies thoughtfully, I suppose you're right. Such decadence when even gasoline was declared a national resource--yes, it shows poor judgment.
Anna resumes her work, pummeling harder than necessary, her hair swinging on either side of her face.
Between us, says the Obersturmführer, this sort of thing is rampant within the higher levels of the Reich, this...corrosive decadence. It troubles me. It corrupted Koch, you know.
The Obersturmführer flexes his arms backwards. His spine cracks. I myself am no angel, he says; at the front, I... In any case, some adolescent behavior is to be expected, given our demanding work. One seeks spiritual release in the physical. But one would think the Kommandant, at least, to be above such behavior-- More on the left shoulder, please.
Anna obliges. The Obersturmführer groans: Koch, what a Dummkopf! That he contracted syphilis--stupid, but understandable. To want to hide it--who wouldn't, in his shoes? Frau Koch would have had his head on a platter had she known. To order the extermination of the doctors who treated him was just covering his tracks. But to record the whole business in writing! Unpardonable stupidity! The decadence dimmed his thought processes, you see. The incessant parties, the orgies; exactly the sort of degenerate behavior that riddled the Weimar Republic, which one was led to believe the Reich would stamp out.
Anna tries to picture the Obersturmführer participating in an orgy and fails. It seems more likely that he has learned his dexterity from whores. In a group activity, she imagines, he would have stood to one side, watching, uneasy.
The Obersturmführer sighs. Kommandant Pister runs a tighter ship, which is a relief. But he has given me Section II duties, whereas Koch never would have wasted a deputy Kommandant's time with paperwork! I haven't much nostalgia for the early days, but... without Koch, you see, I'll never be... more than a small cog in a big machine. I don't have the... stand-out quality; I do my job well, but... I don't possess the requisite...
As he struggles for the words to express his inadequacies, a man unacquainted with introspection, Anna thinks she can almost hear the dirt gritting between the gears of whatever passes for the Obersturmführer's own strange clockwork. She has never seen him this preoccupied, vulnerable, dreamy. How many camp inmates, how many members of the Resistance of which she was once a part, would give their lives to catch the Obersturmführer in such a state? Her hands tremble on the whorl of moles between his shoulderblades. How many people could she save by shooting him in the center of this natural target? His pistol lies within reach, on the bureau with his dagger. All she has to do is cross the room.
Instantly, she thinks of all the reasons as to why this scenario is impossible. She would be suspected. There would be reprisals, not only her own death and Trudie's but within the camp. And even if, as in a fairy tale, she could escape undetected, another officer would take the Obersturmführer's place. The rations and provisions for bread, the lifeline upon which she and her daughter depend, would be cut off. On a simpler, pragmatic level, she has never fired a gun, nor so much as held one.
Yet beneath these concerns exists another reason. It revolts her to feel any understanding for this creature; how is it possible? But that morning, the Obersturmführer hesitated in the doorway of the breakfast room. He must have heard, as Anna did, the sarcastic stage-whisper of the officer who applauded his actions the night before: Look, it's the hero with his little...wife. For a moment, watching the Obersturmführer's face sag, Anna glimpsed him as a small boy: wary, ridiculed by his peers, never quite comprehending why. Then, nodding icily, he guided her to a table on the opposite side of the room.
The despair within Anna over her own cowardice, her instant of fellow feeling for this man, is so great that it seems to have an accompanying sound, a desolate internal whistle. She lowers her forehead and touches it briefly to the freckles on the Obersturmführer's back.
The Obersturmführer heaves galvanically beneath her, turning over. He takes her hands in his. My masseuse, he says. Such strong hands, like those of a pianist, or a farm girl.
It's from working with bread, Anna tells him.
He catches a finger between his teeth and nibbles. And what astounding things you do with these demure little hands, he murmurs, mouth full. You--
Without any forethought whatsoever, shocking herself, Anna asks, Do you have a wife?
The Obersturmführer thrusts her hand aside and swears. He frowns in the direction of the sampler. Anna doesn't dare look at him. She stares instead at her lap, split in a Y because she is still straddling his waist.
After a time, he snaps, Yes, I have a wife. She's a spoiled, fat, wretched woman who suffers agoraphobia; she hasn't left the house in years. She lives with her mother in Wartburg. Does that answer your question?
Yes, Anna whispers.
She senses rather than sees the Obersturmführer's gaze on her. Then his finger is on her chin, forcing her to face him. He has mistaken her surprise for heartbreak, for he bestows a smile upon her, rich and reassuring.
But I never expected to meet somebody like you, he says. Do you know, you alone save me. Your purity, your values--our shared values--they elevate me above the filth that surrounds me every day.
He grasps Anna's hands again and gives them a small shake. You are my savior, he says. After all, if not for you, I might have been pulled into Koch's decadence, and then I too would have been removed from my post. We might never have met, Anna! I often think of that.
As do I, says Anna. As do I.
the mother's cross
The Obersturmführer deposits Anna back at the bakery late Sunday afternoon. She stands watching his car pull away, realizing belatedly that she could have asked for transport to collect Trudie. The thought never so much as crossed her mind; the less the townspeople of Weimar know about her arrangement with the Obersturmführer, the better for all concerned.
No matter; it is a fine, mild evening, and the sun now holds some warmth even as it sets. Yet Anna wants to grizzle like a child as she trudges along. She is exhausted from the Obersturmführer's revelations and nocturnal demands. How much faster this journey could be in the Obersturmführer's car! Anna finds that she would like to slap herself for such a thought, but it persists nonetheless. She vows not to look away if she encounters a labor detachment; she will give the pastries in her handbag to anyone wearing the yellow star. But the streets are deserted. And no wonder: it is dinner hour on Easter Sunday.
Indeed, when she knocks on the door of the butcher shop, Mother Buchholtz and her flock are just sitting down to eat. The butcher's widow leads Anna behind the store into the kitchen, where her children are gathered around the table. All sounds of slurping and chewing cease as Anna enters; the children inspect her traveling suit, its warm nubbly tweed, with awe.
Mama! Trudie calls. She is wedged into a highchair that is too small for her, and she struggles to escape.
Just a minute, little one, Anna says. She makes a face of chagrin at Frau Buchholtz. I'm sorry to have interrupted your meal.
Frau Buchholtz averts her eyes.
That's all right, she says to the corner.
Her hands wander to the Mother's Cross pinned to her shirtwaist, her reward for having produced six children for the Fatherland. Its silver glints as though she polishes it every day. Perhaps she does.
Anna unfastens her daughter from the chair, planting a kiss on Trudie's head where the parting divides into fair braids. In preparation for Trudie's stay here, she carefully selected the child's shabbiest clothes, only those of the Obersturmführer's gifts that have stood the most wear. Nonetheless, the difference between Anna's daughter and the Buchholtz children is all too evident: Trudie, though still too thin for a girl of nearly three, has good color and a shine to her hair, while the wristbones of the Buchholtz brood look as though they will soon break the skin. Their eyes, staring at Anna over plates of bread spread with lard, appear simultaneously sunken and too large.
Anna hoists Trudie on her hip. What do you say to Frau Buchholtz?
Thank you, says the child, uncharacteristically dutiful.
Frau Buchholtz smiles and sticks out her tongue. Leaning from Anna's arms, Trudie touches it with the tip of her own.
I hope she's been no trouble, Anna says.
No, not at all, says Frau Buchholtz. As she guides Anna back through the hallway, the widow's hands are again drawn to her decoration, caressing it. And did you have a good journey? she asks.
Oh, yes, says Anna, brightly reeling out the tale she's rehearsed all the way from Berchtesgaden. My Tante Hilde was in fine spirits, though she complained about the lack of food. I thought in Liepzig one might be able to procure more rations, but apparently it's the same as here. Too much to die, to little to live, as they say.
Frau Buchholtz shakes her head in commiseration. Anna, knowing she is embroidering too much but helpless to stop, continues, And the train! a hellish journey. Though I was lucky to get a spot at all, since it's all Wehrmacht these days. It would have been impossible with the child. I stood the entire time, crammed in with the others like sardines...
She trails off. It is a peculiar thing: in the Obersturmführer's presence she lies with impunity; yet in front of this woman, she flushes. Does Frau Buchholtz, who has provided meat to Anna's family for years, know that Anna has no Tante Hilde? Anna wonders how many others have seen the Obersturmführer's car sitting in front of the bakery. Frau Buchholtz continues to finger the Mother's Cross. Her fidgeting suddenly irritates Anna beyond endurance. She stands as tall as she can and squares her jaw.
But when Frau Buchholtz, perhaps perplexed by Anna's silence, looks directly at Anna for the first time, Anna understands that not only does the woman know, she is terrified. There is no condemnation in Frau Buchholtz's glance, only the fear that Anna might have spied some infraction that she will certainly report, well-connected as she is. Disdain is a luxury, like sugar or real coffee, that one cannot afford in wartime.
Anna wonders what small crimes this good mother might have committed: trading on the black market, perhaps, to feed that multitude of hungry mouths, or listening to the BBC broadcasts. She puts a hand on the other woman's arm. Frau Buchholtz's flesh wobbles loosely from the bone, like chicken skin.
Thank you for watching Trudie, Anna says. There will be extra bread for you this week.
My pleasure, truly, Frau Buchholtz replies. She is again looking anywhere but at Anna. She opens the door, her relief at Anna's imminent exit as palpable as sweat.
As Anna, feeling much the same, steps over the jamb, Trudie uncorks her thumb from her mouth.
Mama, she pipes, did you see Saint Nikolaus? What did he bring for us?
Shush, Anna says. If you're a good quiet girl you'll get a story before bed.
I don't want a story, Trudie says. I want a rabbit. Saint Nikolaus said I could have a rabbit.
Anna presses Trudie's face against her shoulder. Shhh now, she says. Shhh. She glances back at Frau Buchholtz, who has withdrawn into the dim interior of her shop. The woman could not possibly guess at the nickname Anna has given the Obersturmführer to keep Trudie from venturing upstairs during his weekly visits: if you're a bad little girl and try to see Saint Nikolaus, do you know what will happen? No more milk. No more bread. Nonetheless, Anna can feel the widow watching, listening.
Mama, let go, you're hurting me. Trudie drums her feet against Anna's thighs. I want Saint Nikolaus! she wails.
Saint Nikolaus won't come at all if you're bad, Anna whispers to Trudie. Remember?
She embraces her contaminated child more tightly. The door slams behind them.