When Liesl heard the noise from the cellar, her hand shook and the coffee spilled. The liquid spread in claws across the counter, its color neither brown nor red nor black, but some combination of all three, earthen and old. A hopeless feeling rose in her chest. She had discovered the grounds deep in the pantry yesterday, tucked behind a post, in a tiny tin next to a tiny pot of jam, both labeled in the first wife’s hand. It was surely the last real coffee in all of Hannesburg, boiled with the last of the morning coal, the sharp selfish heaven of its scent rising toward her face. Then it splashed everywhere. She heard the noise again, a grating, chinking sound, and then the murmur of the boys. What were they doing down there? Everything made her startle this morning. She had sent the package to Frank two weeks ago, confidently inking the address of the Weimar hospital where he was stationed as a reconstructive surgeon. Nothing suspicious in here, she hoped her bright, erect letters would imply. Yet she hadn’t heard back from him. Two weeks, and two more letters had passed. She told herself that with disrupted railway schedules and parcel searches, the package could take much longer to arrive. If the officials found what she’d hidden inside, if, if—she pressed her hands to her temples.
The baby stirred in the cradle by her feet. He refused to sleep in his crib by day, preferring the small portable nest of wood that moved from room to room. He refused stillness, too. Whenever the house went too quiet or his cradle stopped swaying, he woke and cried.
She used her shin to shift the cradle side-to-side, side-to-side, as she tried to scoop the coffee back into her cup. She wanted it. She wanted it for herself, and because Susi must have wanted it once, too, to have gone through the effort of preserving such a miniscule portion. Then again, Susi had saved everything: thread too short to sew with, buttons to lost shirts, the heel of a shoe, the page of a missing book. In the kitchen, relics from the former cook still lingered, too: the hourglass, a cast-iron cauldron for cooking on a hearth. Because the former Frau Kappus had thrown out none of them, neither would her replacement. This made the rooms impossible to keep clean. There were so many objects and they each demanded the particular attention of a household used to servants, and not the friendless new mother of three boys.
Downstairs, a dull thud. Ani said something in his exuberant voice.
Liesl didn’t want to see what they were doing. She had potatoes to peel and Hans’s hems to let out and a quick trip to the butcher to make, all the while darting glances above the treetops for Allied planes. She had to finish knitting six pairs of socks for the Frauenschaft collection to send to soldiers in the Ardennes. She had to grit her teeth through the radio program that Hans liked switching on, that always started with the Horst Wessel song, its notes marching through her head like a line of ants, eating up everything. She wasn’t sure what bothered her more—that motherhood was so much more unnerving than she’d expected, or that the Party’s speeches now sickened her. Every day, panic and mistrust pooled like black water in her gut.
She reached for her cup, then a soup pan, pouring the coffee back. It was silly to warm it again, but all morning she’d longed for one hot sip, almost burning. For the heat and the sour bitterness to fill her mouth. To taste the quiet, simple mornings before her marriage, when she’d sat by the window of her room at the spa, lonely, but full of hope and purpose.
Another thud below. It sounded like meat falling. Liesl rushed for the stairs.
The boys stood before a crack in the cellar’s west wall, their faces silvered by weak window light. A giant chunk of wall lay on the floor. Hans stood closer to it. He looked much older than ten; in a few years he would have the height and shoulders of a man. His face resembled his father’s more than ever: the same craggy mouth and jaw, same blue eyes under a thunder of brows. In contrast, Ani’s features were still fluid and childlike, shifting with every thought. Right now, they rippled with surprise as the crack quivered and widened.
“What’s going on here?” Liesl demanded.
Neither of them answered. Hans had his arms down, his palms open and aimed back, as if he were shielding his brother from an attack. He winced when the crack split and a metal spade poked through, but Ani ran forward, saying, “Look, look!” The spade retreated. Pale worms shoved the grit aside, wiggled for space. It took Liesl a moment to realize that the five tiny heads all belonged to one hand. Filth crusted the fingernails and knuckles, but the flat palm shone. The hand’s twisting made something go cold inside her, and she backed up a step, bashing into one of the shelves Hans had carefully organized for their air raid shelter. The boys ignored her.
“You’re through,” said Ani, and he reached out formally and shook the hand. It engulfed his fist up to the wrist. “Welcome to our cellar, Herr Geiss.”
“Thank you, young man,” said a gruff, muffled voice, and the hand retreated.
“It’s Herr Geiss,” Ani said, finally acknowledging Liesl’s presence. “He’s connecting us.”
“Connecting who?” said Liesl.
“Us. Cellar to cellar,” said Ani.
Metal glinted in the hole again. “Good morning, Frau Kappus,” said the voice.
“I don’t know what your father will say about this,” said Liesl.
“It’s for our safety,” interrupted Hans. “People can get trapped. It happened in Kassel and Darmstadt. If we neighbors adjoin our cellars, then we have a better chance of survival. Everyone knows that.”
“But a hole might weaken the wall.” Liesl put her hands on Ani’s shoulders and pulled him back. “Herr Geiss, I must ask you to cease this until I correspond with my husband—”
She heard her voice falter as the spade continued to work, as Ani shook free and hurried to the crack again, breathing into it. Two weeks ago, Liesl had woken to the thumps of Herr Geiss sandbagging both their roofs, clambering from red tile to red tile on his thick old legs. She knew he called her the “young wife,” as if Susi were still alive and Frank had somehow acquired an auxiliary spouse. She knew that Herr Geiss was the reason Hans never got caught for poaching kindling from the willows in the Kurpark. Herr Geiss had ties high up in the Nazi Party, and people feared him. He had been Frank’s neighbor since Frank’s boyhood. He had helped delay the surgeon’s deployment after Frank’s first wife had died. Every week, he gave Liesl extra ration cards, ones meant for his widowed daughter-in-law, his only living relation, who refused to leave Berlin.
Yet Liesl also knew that Herr Geiss didn’t trust her. Herr Geiss had told Frank that if his “young wife” did not watch his boys well, he’d see them safely away from her, to a farm in the country. All over Germany, families were splitting up in order to protect their children, but Liesl couldn’t bear the idea, and had told Frank so.
“He won’t send anyone away,” Frank had scoffed. “He likes you.”
One afternoon following a thunderstorm, she’d opened the gray living room blinds to see Herr Geiss looming over their house from his second floor. At the sight of her, he’d flinched, then frowned. She’d blushed, suddenly aware of her narrow hips, her red springy hair, and their contrast to Susi’s blond, groomed curves. The young wife. Or maybe the wrong wife.
“It’ll weaken the wall,” she said again, over the scraping.
There was a grunt. “I’ll brick it up after I make the hole,” Herr Geiss said. “You’ll hardly know it’s there.”
The basement light stripped the flush from the boys’ skin and accentuated their skulls. Even plump-cheeked Ani looked like a statue poured from molten metal, his rosy lips darkened to brass. She realized that she’d never heard the boys laugh down here.
A thin cry came from upstairs.
“All right,” Liesl said, not moving. “But I’m writing to Herr Kappus about this.”
The cry lengthened to a scream.
The scraping paused. “Where’s that child?” said the voice from behind the wall. “I hear a child crying.”
She did not answer Herr Geiss, but she turned and mounted the first step. “Ani, Hans, time to go upstairs.”
“I want to stay here,” said Hans.
“I want to stay here,” said Ani.
“It’s time to go upstairs,” she said, louder.
The baby wailed. The boys did not move. They stared at the hole, transfixed.
“If you don’t come, there will be no dinner for either of you,” she snapped.
The mention of food made the boys wilt back from the wall.
“We were just looking,” Ani said, his eyes wide. He was such a beautiful boy—it struck her every day like a splash of water to the face.
She cleared her throat, sure Herr Geiss was still listening, thinking: Cruel stepmother, depriving these growing boys.
Or was he thinking that she ought to have a firmer hand with them?
“I found some elderberry jam,” she said.
Ani started toward her, but Hans hooked his fingers over his brother’s shoulder, holding him back.
“Fine, then. Two minutes,” she said, hastening up the stairs. Slap-slap-slap, a pathetic retreat in house slippers.
Later, when the older boys were washing up, she carried Jürgen carefully back down the steps and listened to the silence until she was sure Herr Geiss had gone.
A thin veil of light fell through the cellar’s low window. Blinking, she felt her way along the crumbly wall. After five paces, she sensed a shift in the air, a cold draft stinging her ankles where her tights had ripped. She stopped, peered. The gap was the size of a man’s shoulders. Through it, blackness poured, the same coal-soaked air as their own cellar’s, but somehow richer, deeper. She looked closer. At least a meter of packed dirt and stones separated the houses’ two walls. It must have taken days to dig, and probably the help of other men. Herr Geiss could have asked her first. But why would he? Herr Geiss knew best. He was a member of the local air raid committee, and he had studied everything there was to know about protecting their houses from bombs.
“What do you think of this?” she murmured to the baby, holding him up to the crumbling edge. Jürgen stretched out a fat paw and batted the dirt and stones. “Do you think your Vati will approve?”
A few stones tumbled. The baby swatted at the wall again and more dirt fell. He began to giggle, and reached out with both hands, grabbing the rim with open fingers.
“Stop,” she cried. She pulled the baby back to her chest with her left hand and lurched back toward the steps.
Her knee thudded against something heavy and cold. It was the vat that had held the family’s sauerkraut every winter. This year, the sauerkraut had rotted in the weeks after Liesl had arrived, after the housekeeper had abandoned the family. Liesl hadn’t known that pushing down the cabbage was part of the housekeeper’s daily duties until the morning she looked out from the second story and saw Frank dumping the moldy brew out onto the grass. She couldn’t get the image out of her mind: Frank’s back quaking uncontrollably as he upended the earthenware tub and scrubbed it clean. But he’d never said anything to her, no accusation, no explanation.
For his last package, she’d made a stollen dough from Susi’s handwritten recipe, kneaded and shaped it carefully around a film canister stuffed with reichsmark and a map of Germany, and paid a local bakery more than the loaf was worth to bake it hard and golden. In every step of the stollen’s production, Liesl was conscious of her inevitable failure. It would never taste like Susi’s. It would never get past the censors. Nevertheless she’d wrapped the loaf carefully in butcher paper so it wouldn’t grow stale and wrote a note warning Frank about the “fig” she’d baked whole inside. She wondered if he’d understand. She could tell by the soft way Frank looked at her that he didn’t think she was capable of deceit. He’d ironed her old life flat with his desire, then molded her into what he needed. The young wife. She leaned her cheek into Jürgen’s warm skull. The new mother.
Ani held the badge in one hand, rubbing it clean with his other cuff. Then he raised the eight-pointed star to a place above his heart and addressed her solemnly, “Could you please sew this on for me, please?”
The white metal glowed. “What is it?”
“The badge of the Reichsluftschutzbund,” said Hans, hovering behind. “Herr Geiss has asked us to be members.”
“I see,” said Liesl. They were all in the kitchen, Jürgen awake and fiddling with a cup, Hans and Ani dusty and triumphant and hungry. The blood had returned to their faces. They no longer looked like statues but poorly tended children, their hair shaggy and clothes mended past politeness. Hans climbed into the chair at the head of the table and picked at his nose.
“Hans,” she said.
He withdrew his hand and rubbed it on his leg.
“Are you sure he meant to give you that?” she said. “It looks official.”
“It is official.” Hans hunched over his plate and picked up his knife and fork. “What’s for dinner?”
Liesl showed him her saucepan. Hans scowled but said nothing. Ani continued to grin, adjusting the placement of the star. “Herr Geiss says we need to paint our beams with limes so they don’t burn,” he said.
“Limes!” exclaimed Liesl.
“He means quicklime,” said Hans.
Ani adjusted the star again and gave a quick, one-armed salute. “And our neighbors’, too.”
Liesl winced. “The two of you are—” She could just imagine Frank’s face if he saw a military badge on his six-year-old’s chest. “Your father will say you are too young for this.”
“I’m almost old enough to join the Jungvolk. That makes me old enough for duty,” said Hans. The word “duty” sounded dark and cold coming from his young throat. He met her eyes. “But I want Ani to have it.”
As their gazes locked, Liesl felt an understanding flash between them: The unhappiness they both shared should not be spread to Ani, radiant Ani, fingering his eight-pointed star and imagining that green limes could be found in a winter so barren that all Liesl could drum up for dinner that night was boiled potatoes, applesauce, and a quarter of wurst for each of them. Ani could eat sawdust and sleep on nails as long as his faith in one thing was not broken—that his father would come home. He had a skinny body and a handsome head, and his grin split his face like a knife did a melon, pure and true. In school other boys teased him for his innocence, for his big questions—“Why are our ears shaped like bathtubs?” he asked her one day—and Hans defended him. Hans wrote his father careful, stern letters, and he always reported about Ani’s safety, his contentment, in an overly mature tone, as if Ani were an inside joke they shared. Anselm is learning his letters, he wrote. You can guess that he has his own way of holding the pen.
She began to serve out the potatoes, their buttery aroma filling the kitchen. “You can carry the star in your pocket for now,” she said.
“It’s not the same,” Ani protested.
“I know,” said Liesl. She had drunk the coffee cold, in one gulp, after coming back upstairs, and tasted none of it.
It took Liesl a long time to cut up the rabbit she had bought from Herr Unter, a neighbor who raised them in hutches behind his house. The white animal had looked plumper alive. Now it was as flat as a sock, and the small sinews kept slipping in her hands as she tried to separate skin and flesh. When she finished, she had only a handful of meat. She dumped it in boiling water, adding chopped carrot, onion, and barley and a pinch of brittle, graying rosemary.
It was a small meal, but still she felt obligated to be grateful for it. She had grown up with her aunt and uncle’s stories of starvation after the last war. Her aunt claimed that she’d chewed yarn dipped in grease to make her stomach feel full. Her uncle said he’d eaten a soup made from boiled crickets. They told, and sometimes shouted, these stories to their six children and Liesl, to remind them all to appreciate their laden table. Liesl had excelled at gratitude. She ate it for supper, always the last to be served. She wore it on her back, always clothed in her aunt’s stained, cast-off jumpers. She listened to it all night, positioned as nurse outside each incoming baby’s room, ordered to wake if he cried. She would be in Franconia still, head bowed and dutiful, if her friend Uta had not rescued her with the chance to work at the spa in Hannesburg.
She set a lid ajar on the pot and crept upstairs to find Ani swooping his wooden plane through the air, Jürgen sleeping under an afghan by his brother’s hip. Hans was out gathering sticks for kindling.
“He wakes up if I move,” Ani whispered, and then made a crashing sound through his teeth as his plane dove down. The view beyond the half-fogged window was gray-white and peaceful. It had been an entire week since the last air raid, and Liesl had a strange slack feeling whenever she looked at the sky, as if a rope once pulled taut was suddenly ripped free and falling.
“You’re a good brother,” Liesl said.
Ani put his nose to the window, avoiding her tender gaze. “How come you don’t have any brothers or sisters?”
His frank question made her flush. “My parents just had me,” Liesl said.
Ani drew a circle in the fog on the glass. “But how come they don’t visit?”
Liesl sighed. She had been wanting to tell the boys that her mother had died when she was six. That she knew and understood their loneliness. But another part of her resisted. She did not like Hans and Ani thinking this was how the world worked: that mothers died and fathers disappeared, as hers had, soon after the pneumonia had taken her mother. War-addled brains, her uncle had said. Shiftless, said her aunt. They’d received one postcard from him from Chicago, USA, and never heard from him again. Liesl did not want Ani to know that once both parents vanished, a child became a burden to be passed around until some practical use was found for her. If she had favored her bonny, buxom Mutti, it might have been easier. But Liesl had resembled her father—thin and serious, with brown-red hair that frizzed loose from its braids. She wasn’t good at mending or strong enough for mucking stalls. She thrived at enduring the pummeling devotion of small children, however, and finally found her place as the caregiver for her sturdy, wild cousins, teaching them each to read and write and swim in the Badensee, as her mother had begun to teach her before she died. It wasn’t until Liesl had abandoned them for a position at the spa that she’d realized what she wanted: her own life, and one day, her own family.
“They passed away,” she said finally. “But maybe you can meet my cousins sometime,” she added, though she knew her relatives would never leave their farm and village, much less Franconia.
Jürgen stirred and woke, lifting his head, staring at them with wide, uncomprehending eyes.
“How did your parents die?” Ani asked.
“In the war. Your brother’s hungry,” she said, and carried Jürgen down to the kitchen to heat his milk.
Someone knocked loudly on the front door. A hard, official sound.
The fist dug into the wood and made it ring.
Liesl felt her body moving across the kitchen with Jürgen, heard her voice call to Ani to stay upstairs.
Her hand circled the doorknob but did not twist it open. The brass went from cool to warm, as she waited through another round of knocking. Jürgen slumped against her shoulder, sucking at his fingers. She sorted through the worst scenarios. Officials had opened her package to Frank. Officials had lifted the loaf of Christmas stollen, surprised at its weight, and broken it open to find the canister at its center, filled with the money and map he’d requested. They’d arrested Frank and sent him to a prison camp. Worse, someone had shot him on the spot for attempted desertion.
Bile rose up her throat. She couldn’t speak. She couldn’t open the door panicked like this.
She gripped the handle and imagined lesser problems. Someone had caught Hans cutting willow sticks for kindling. Someone—many someones—didn’t approve of her marrying the handsome doctor two months after his beloved wife had died in childbirth. “We’ve done nothing wrong,” she would tell whomever it was, but that wasn’t really the point, was it? The point was to be liked, or if you couldn’t be liked, to be overlooked.
The baby twisted his face into her neck. She turned the knob and opened the door.
“Heil Hitler.” Herr Geiss’s arm flashed.
Liesl adjusted Jürgen on her shoulder and raised her right hand. “It’s you,” she mumbled, flooded with relief and irritation. His physique reminded her of a pig’s—compact, strong, and small. She could see bare skin peeping out above his house slippers, the sliver of neck-flesh that his coat did not cover.
“He’s getting big,” her neighbor said, nodding at Jürgen. The baby gurgled, revealing his three teeth.
“Almost nine kilos now,” Liesl said. “Are you coming about your badge? I’ll get Ani to fetch it.”
Herr Geiss’ slippers whispered on the snow. They were so old that his big toes cracked out the bottom edges. He blew out a gray cloud. “No, not about the badge,” he said.
Did he know something about Frank? The thought chilled her. “Would you like to come in?” She stepped back, but Herr Geiss did not follow.
“My daughter-in-law is arriving,” he said. “In a week’s time. She’s finally decided to leave Berlin and move in with me.” He huffed another cloud. “She has no other kin now. Her mother died in an air raid.”
“That’s—that’s sad news,” Liesl said, unable to stop herself mentally calculating. An old widower and an unrelated young woman sharing a roof. An unseemly combination. And one that would use up all her neighbor’s extra ration coupons.
Herr Geiss continued to stand there. He pulled a pair of black gloves from his pocket but did not put them on. The dark fingers hung from his pale hand. “My house . . .” He paused and cleared his throat. “I have an acceptable house, of course, but it needs some improvement.”
“It’s a lovely home,” Liesl said, puzzled, as Jürgen snuggled into her neck. “You should really come in,” she told her neighbor. “The baby’s getting cold.”
Herr Geiss shook his head. In the street behind him, a car bumped slowly through the dusk, stirring up slush.
“I have good brooms and mops,” he said. “My Hilda used the best wax. I still have four good cans of it.”
The first flakes of snow began to fall, brushing the brick garden wall and melting. Liesl blinked hard. “You want me to clean your house,” she said slowly. “Don’t you have a Putzfrau who comes?”
A white fleck landed on Herr Geiss’s bald skull and vanished. “She’s expecting any day. I don’t know anyone else I trust—”
So that’s how he saw her in his dismal hierarchy of human beings: not fit to mother, but fit to polish his floors. Yet she couldn’t refuse. Liesl tried to smile. “Then of course you can count on me.”
He looked relieved. His heavy chin wagged as he thanked her. Suddenly he seemed to her like an aging caricature of the Aryan face she’d once admired: his fair hair melted away, his eyes too blue, his jaw too strong, his thick soldier’s body grown squat as a headstone.
“I’ll set things straight in no time,” she said with false lightness.
The snow fell harder, faster. It frosted the black gate and the heap of frozen dog turds that a fat dachshund deposited there every morning, led on its leash by Frau Hefter, a woman made invincible to neighborly criticism by the silver Mother’s Cross pinned to her coat for bearing six healthy German children.
Her neighbor flashed his own tobacco-stained dentures. “Good night, then,” he said cheerily and reached out to squeeze Jürgen’s foot. The baby chuckled and pawed at the air. “Such a nice boy,” he said, turning away. “He has his mother’s smile.”
Herr Geiss’s slippers whispered down the walk, pausing when he reached the gate. “Tomorrow would be best,” he said, glancing back over his shoulder.
“Tomorrow,” she repeated.
MARIA HUMMEL is the author of the poetry collection House and Fire, winner of the 2013 APR/Honickman First Book Prize, and two novels: Motherland (Counterpoint, 2014) and Wilderness Run (St. Martin’s, 2003). Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in Poetry, New England Review, Narrative, The Sun, The New York Times, and the centenary anthology The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two sons.
Adapted from Motherland, by Maria Hummel, Copyright © 2014 by Maria Hummel. With the permission of the publisher, Counterpoint Press.