written by lauren d. h. miertschin

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Excerpt from "Beyond the Pale," Chapter 2

December 5, 1941, Berlin

Hazel eyes peered through the slits of the Becker’s boarded up windows where the wood planks made deep impressions in Lisette’s cheeks. You could hear only her shallow breathing as she spied through the crevice on three young cadets, Schutzstaffel cadets, the S.S. She watched them intently as they walked past Gunter’s Laundry, past the jeweler, past the defunct bakery, then up to what was once known as Levin Books. There they crossed the street and headed directly toward Becker Watch Repair. Three pairs of black, standard-issue, knee-high boots stepped in unison across the cobblestone road, quickening to avoid a car that turned the corner, quickening to match Lisette’s heartbeat that raced at their approach. Through the slit her eyes seemed to meet those of the young man in the lead. Her heart pulsated up into her throat. Could he see her blinking eyes? Lisette jerked her head away nearly falling backwards as she rushed behind the display case like she could take cover.

“We’re dead,” she mumbled beneath her breath, “dead.” The tick-tock, tick-tock of clocks and display case watches pounded in her head, then moved down into her throat, then into her arms, then her legs. “Dear Jesus,” she muttered beneath her breath, “please save us.”

“Don’t be foolish.” Martin had a knack for startling his sister with an up, jovial-for-no-reason-at-all, demeanor. He removed his metal-rimmed spectacles and concentrated on the door. He too held onto the counter to ready himself. “Smile, Sister, and welcome our guests,” he said and grinned as if he were posing for the camera.

The bell attached to the door of Becker’s Watch Repair jingled as the cadets walked in, debonair in their starched black trousers and uniform coats decorated by red hakenkruez or swastika arm bands. Their boots echoed as they clapped down against the hardwood floor. The crescent shaped metal gorgets that hung from their necks swayed with each step, reflecting off the clocks and casting shimmers of light across Lisette’s face.

“Good evening, Officers. How may we assist you?” Martin threw a look at his sister to signal her silence.

The eldest of the three S.S. lingered behind the other two, his arms held stiff behind his back. Lisette and Martin’s eyes followed him as he slowly scanned the room, clearing his throat with slow melodic beats. The two cadets parted, allowing their obvious leader, if not officially at least self-appointed, to emerge between them. Caught in the room’s shadow his face remained dark. He cleared his throat then paused only to inspect the watches laid out on red velvet in the display case that ran along the room’s edge. His stone face didn’t flinch when the three cuckoos on the wall opened their finely carved doors to begin celebrating five o’clock. Two delicately crafted pewter clocks softly chimed in unison with the ornate Grandfather near the base of the stairs. The song and dance continued while the cadet cleared his throat again, seemingly annoyed by the pendulum at the staircase that swung in perfect time.

“I’ve a bit of a problem,” he said finally. He looked down at his coat and wiped a smudge from the black and silver bandolier across his chest. Then this cadet who seemed so sure of himself, wearing the uniform envied by young men throughout Germany, nervously tapped his steel-toed boot against the wooden floor. “Hoping you could help.”

“Trouble Boys?” Martin’s grip remained tight on the counter’s edge.

The last of the chimes sounded, the Grandfather silenced and the cuckoos shut their miniature doors entrapping painted birds inside. Again you could hear the constant ticking that had been drowned out by the chimes. Lisette hastily feather dusted the counter tops. Not for a moment did she remove her eyes from their customers.

“My grandfather, you see, fought for Bismarck’s dream . . .”

“Bismarck’s dream?” Martin stepped out from behind the counter and approached the cadet.

An uncomfortable silence ensued. Lisette hummed a simple tune and dusted her way over to the hanging pendulum.

“Of course. The Vaterland, why what would we be without Bizmarck’s dream?” He looked to Martin, his brows turned inward, then glanced up at the door that led to the Becker upstairs home.

“Oh, of course. You must be very proud,” Martin said.

“Proud indeed.” He cleared his throat. “He’d be disappointed though . . .” The cadet stopped and caught his image in the wood framed beveled mirror that hung on the back wall. Every blonde hair on his head in place as if painted there, he nodded approvingly, and ran a knuckle along the little blonde mustache cut and shaven to resemble Adolf Hitler’s. “Disappointed to know I’ve broken his watch. All I have left of him,” he added, his eyes still on the mirror.

“Of course, of course.” Martin said. He chuckled. One with a keen ear, like his sister, Lisette, might have caught the tinge of nervousness in his laughter. But the cadet was not so keen, having finally pulled his gaze from the mirror. His eyes rested at the staircase.

“Let me have a look,” Martin reached out his hand.

The S.S. cadet adjusted the grinning skull and crossed bones pinned to his cap before he slid a hand into his breast pocket. Then as carefully as he might handle a Faberge egg, he pulled out a gold watch and detached the gold link fob from which it hung. He bypassed Martin’s outreached hand, and with a light touch placed the gold piece on the counter.

“She’s a beauty. Simple case, but wait to you open her up.” He placed a cuffed hand to his mouth to hold back clearing his throat. But the temptation overwhelmed the cadet and he relented with three quick clears. His two comrades let out a chuckle from the back of the room, where they huddled over a photograph falling apart at the well-worn creases from repeated folds.

“Indeed.” Martin silently admired the finely detailed roman numerals on a delicate golden-laced background. The solitary diamond imbedded above the twelve was worth more than all the watches in the shop combined.

The cadet took to tapping his foot again. “I could never get used to those wrist type watches,” he said. “A bit feminine, if you ask me.” The young man laughed and winked at Lisette who had momentarily stopped her dusting. With his look, she quickly busied herself, abruptly turning her back to the men.

A soft creek in the floor sounded from the second story. The cadet straightened his shoulders and anticipated the upstairs door to the Becker home to open. The fact that Martin fiddled with the watch upon his own wrist went unnoticed.

“Came in mighty handy for our boys in the last war,” Martin said.

“What’s that?” The tapping foot stopped. The cadet cleared his throat.

“Here let me see,” Martin said and wondered what was he doing, about to go on with a lecture on how the wrist watch helped men in the trenches during the last war, The Great War, the one to end all wars . . . to stall, he supposed. But why stall? Best thing, he figured, was to get these men out of his shop, the sooner the better. So Martin popped open the back of the cadet’s watch, admiring its immaculate condition and the twenty-one jewel count engraved in gold. “Most likely the main spring,” he said. “Might have one upstairs. I’ll be a minute.” Martin rushed up the staircase to their home, but not before shooting a stern look to his sister.

She knew what the look conveyed. Silence.

Fortunately for Lisette, the cadets had no time to spare, as Himmler himself previously ordered all S.S. in the vicinity to a meet at the central office that evening. An elite Schutzstaffel position was such an honor, one didn’t dare arrive even a second late. The cadets quickly said their farewells with a promise to return, giving much respect to Lisette and her watch repair on the way out. “Every business is essential to lebensraum,” the cadet whose grandfather fought for Bismarck’s dream said as they rushed out to make their meeting.

As soon as the bell above the door jingled Lisette studied the cadets through the boards again, watching silently until they turned the corner safely out of sight. Several minutes passed before Martin returned with a spring in hand. Disappointed for not receiving payment that day for the repair, he placed the watch onto the counter and dropped down into the patchwork, upholstered chair behind the cash register. He ran his hand along the worn arms recalling that he wanted his sister to mend the tear on the backside.

“Just how long you think we can keep this up?” Lisette bolted toward her brother. “Well? Answer me.” With trembling hands she grabbed at the apron tied around her waist. She used it to blot perspiration from her face.

“Wish we didn’t have to keep it all boarded up.” Martin pushed himself up from the chair and approached the window, longing in his eyes. “For goodness sake, only sunshine we get down here nowadays are streams through the cracks . . . such a shame.”

“Forget the blasted windows.” Lisette glared at him, bewildered. “Somehow you convinced us to remove the boards upstairs – you think that flimsy shade will protect us? Have you any idea the cost to replace that window when it breaks? And it will you know. It will SHATTER,” her voice cracked, “next time London visits.” Gazing to the floor, she whimpered a soft cry.

The door at the top of the stairs cracked open then swung back to reveal a young woman’s petite silhouette in the frame. “Hush,” the silhouette whispered. “The neighbors, they’ll hear. Why don’t you come up?”

The young woman was Eva Graf. The only child of Martin and Lisette’s cousin, Eva, came to stay with the Beckers when her husband received orders to mend wounded on the Eastern front. Last she heard from her husband, Hans, he was somewhere outside Stalingrad – not a bad place for a German physician in the early days of the war. For a while Germany swept right on through Russia, and it looked as if the Fuhrer knew what he spoke of when he said they need only kick down Russia’s door and the whole rotten structure would come crashing down.

Eva dried her hands on the faded yellow apron wrapped twice around her waist. “Come, please – supper’s almost on.”

Lisette grabbed a metal box and threw in several watches from the display, the more expensive items, though few they were, along with the S.S. cadet’s watch. “Not right for her to take charge like that.” Lisette struggled to keep hold of the box, and stormed up the staircase, brushing her shoulder against Martin along the way.

Unaffected by her scorn, he winked at Eva. Then lured by the aroma of fresh bread he hurried behind his sister to their living quarters upstairs where Eva had pulled the blackout shade up for a moonlit dinner. She set the table with four settings, and fluffed a white cloth napkin over each plate to help show the way in night light. She frequently added little touches like that. Once she fashioned a floral centerpiece from butcher paper scraps. Another time she carved the dinner rolls into forest animal figures such as foxes and owls. Though white napkins didn’t help much on most nights, this evening, under a clear sky and full moon, the napkins seemed to glow.

When brother and sister arrived at the table, Eva rushed about as usual and checked the potatoes boiling on the stovetop. Then she neatly arranged a supper spread in the center of the table: a jar of jam and a stick basket of warm rolls, quickly cooling in the night air.

“Splendid,” Martin said as he pulled his chair up to the round table. He clasped his hands together and smiled wide, like one about to eat cake. “I am famished.” And he actually was. Martin was known for his large appetite.

Using the ends of her apron to grasp the silver platter, Eva placed the potatoes center table. Pleased that supper turned out just right, she took a seat for herself, but not before lining her glass up evenly with the fork.

Martin noticed the small detail about tonight’s supper that would upset his sister this time. And Eva knew that he noticed by the twinkle in his eyes. They both waited silently for the outburst.

“Mama’s silver?” Lisette’s eyes widened. “Martin,” she said, “how could you?” Lately she blamed just about everything on her brother.

“Nice touch,” Martin responded. Aside from the few watches though, that platter was the only valuable item the Beckers still owned. Everything else the family possessed, they sold after the last war in order to eat. Like most of their countrymen, the Beckers hoped that if anything, their Fuhrer would at least finally pull them out of the economic depression Germany had so long suffered.

“You’ll never guess what happened,” Eva said.

Martin jerked his head to look at Eva, his mouth full of bread, a dab of jam on his cheek. Lisette on the other hand, fixed her attention to spreading the napkin across her lap. “Mother’s best silver,” she complained but this time with an added shaking of her head.

“Chaotic market today.” Eva took in a quick breath “They forgot to ask for my coupons.”

“Wonderful.” Martin clapped his hands together and brought them up beneath his chin as if in prayer. He closed his eyes. “Double rations for tomorrow.”

“We’ve been blessed.” Eva smiled and squeezed Martin’s hand. “Come . . . eat up – there’s plenty,” she said. “Yogurt in the ice box too.”

“Like I say,” Martin said, “good things come to those who wait.”

Lisette rolled her eyes.

In supper grace, Martin thanked God for the extra food as music from their neighbor Gunter’s accordion spilled into their flat. The sound of knives hitting porcelain plates with faded, painted landscapes joined in with the sweet melody. For a moment there, Martin and Eva almost forgot all about the war that waged around the world.

Lisette, on the other hand resented them for their ability to drift away for even a moment. To damper it all, because no one should forget, she threw her fork on the table, a sort of outburst that was expected and becoming more and more frequent. “Him and his so-called perfect race,” she said, her voice wavering. “What are we, the Fuhrer’s personal pets?”

“Please . . .” Martin frowned, annoyed at her for pulling him from his reverie. “Careful.” He ran a hand through his hair and looked to Eva.

“I stay out of family squabbles,” she said.

Lisette knew for certain that Martin running his hands through his hair was a dig at her. She resented her brother’s good looks, his thick hair, his lucidness, most of all his, in her mind, his ridiculous positive outlook on things. “I can’t take it,” she growled.

“Be patient,” Martin said. “Please, be patient.” He helped himself to another roll.

“But our boys’, they’re pawns.” Lisette gasped to take in a breath. She didn’t want to hyperventilate like she had just twice the past week. “Oh,” she cried. “My baby, your only nephew Martin, just eighteen when they took him. Just a baby . . . and cousin Peter. You remember Peter,” she sobbed. “His Mama too, cousin Marta’s two boys – you played with them when you were young. Have you forgotten?” She paused to silently count on her fingers. “Mama, Hermann, Oskar and his wife – all gone,” she said. “DEAD.”

Lisette bowed her head and continued weeping. Eva reached out to her, but before she could take Lisette’s hand, a cluster of soft taps came from the kitchen pantry.

“No, not tonight,” Lisette said. She sobbed loudly and blew her nose into the dinner napkin. “I thought you fed him already. Oh . . .”

Eva bolted from her chair and rushed to the small walk-in pantry.

“Come, come – don’t be so hard on him,” Martin said and grabbed for the jar of jam. “We could use more company – more the merrier I always say.” He watched Eva as she walked into the pantry and thought about the wonders she performed in their home, how tidy and cheery she kept it. I could marry a girl like her, he thought. Then he shook his head quickly to wipe that thought from his mind.

With her sleeve, Lisette wiped the tears from her face. “Do you want the axe, Martin? One stroke – off with your head.” She pulled the dull side of a knife mockingly across her throat. “Our beloved Fuhrer, he does that to people like us you know. Why just last week . . .”

“Wait!” Martin said. “Don’t believe everything you hear, woman. No one’s coming with an axe.” He chuckled and patted his unresponsive sister’s back.

“Please! Both of you,” Eva cried from the pantry. “Good evening, Herr Levin . . .”

“Good to see you,” Martin hollered over his shoulder.

“Shhhhhh. I tell you,” Lisette said, her teeth clenched. “He’s going to have us all killed.”

Having retrieved yogurt from the ice box, Martin by now devoured it straight from the serving bowl. Though plain, it had a tinge of sweetness, a simple pleasure in times like these. Yogurt was one of the few items not yet rationed during this war. “Relish the simple pleasures,” he often said. In fact, he said that very thing this morning at the sound of a songbird out their window.

(c) Lauren D. H. Miertschin

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