Short Fiction by Emma Venables
Karin tries to remember what her apartment was like before: with intact walls and polished windowpanes. She remembers walking in for the first time, reaching her arms out and smiling at the fact her fingers could not touch another wall. She did not know wide open spaces in Kreuzberg, but she would get to know them in this Charlottenburg apartment. That first time Wolf dropped his keys on the floor, took her in his arms, and proposed a dance. He hummed something popular from the wireless. She still shivers when she thinks of his wedding band against her back as they swayed. Even when the first bomb hit her district in Berlin and part of the ceiling caved in, she could still spin around the rubble, rocking Jörg in her arms to the memory of that song. When the rain poured through the hole, Jörg reached his hands out, touched the droplets, and smiled as if it were perfectly normal. Karin cried, cried because she could see up her upstairs neighbour Frau Hertz’s skirt as she jumped over the gap, cried because her son thought it was normal, that this was life now.
Karin reaches out, runs her finger across a jagged tooth of glass that was her window. A springtime breeze nips at her skin. She looks down at the charred street below. No one hangs around. No children on bicycles. No old man with his dog. No Hitler Maidens seeking donations for the bombed-out. They are all bombed-out. The street teems with charred bricks, shattered sinks, twisted pipes.
Karin dares herself to press her fingertip down, harder on the glass, and she does so until she feels her skin split. If Wolf were here, he would grab her, shake her by the shoulders, demand she pull herself together. We cannot let them win, he would say. But everything’s lost, she says to the gaping windowpane, to the empty street below, to the thunder in the near distance, to the white sheet hanging from the shattered façade across the way. Should she pull out her own makeshift white flag, wrap herself up in it? Beg for reprieve, for no harm to come to her? But she knows harm will come, that white flags mean nothing.
Karin looks around at what remains in her apartment, nothing white, nothing suitable for a makeshift flag even if she were that way inclined. The curtains hang, pink, like flesh off a carcase. Her bedsheets, white and pure cotton, plummeted into the apartment below eight weeks ago, along with the rest of her bedroom. Frau Hertz’s bedroom from the apartment above fell too, with its old oak wardrobes and Persian rugs. Prior to this, Frau Hertz had banged on her door. Down to the basement – it’ll be a bad one tonight, she said. Karin shook her head. Jörg was teething; he needed sleep. He would never sleep with everyone crammed so close to him in the dark. Suit yourself, Frau Hertz said, but you do know you can get into trouble for not going to the shelter? Karin nodded and closed the door, continued breaking the dining table up by candlelight, ready for the morning fire, so Jörg wouldn’t be cold as she gave him the last of the milk. She looks at the empty space where the dining table once stood. The axe still remains in the spot where she made the final strike before the apartment building shook, before the windowpanes splintered, before the dust rose and clung to her skin, hair, teeth. She could not hear Jörg, could not hear anything but the remnants of the bomb blast in her ears – a ringing that took days to subside. A tear runs down Karin’s cheek.
The artillery fire grows louder. Karin leans against the wall, cannot decipher whether the tremor she feels is in her body or the building, or both. She touches the spot in the singed wallpaper, where Wolf used to rest his head after a long day in the office, before offices became fields and typewriters became guns. His greasy stain remains, where he does not, and she no longer tries to rub it off but stares at it as if it were a map whose contours she must memorise.
The apartment door opens. Karin does not flinch. She knows by the heavy breathing and cigarette-scent that Frau Hertz has made the pilgrimage to her apartment to try and coax her down to the basement. Safety in numbers.
‘Karin, please come with me. You’ll be safer down there with the men than up here alone,’ Frau Hertz says.
Karin almost laughs. All Germans are spoils of war. She knows Frau Hertz knows this, wonders how the woman can think that the elderly Blockwart with the walking stick will be able to prove a match for the Russians and their weapons. Perhaps Frau Hertz is so starved that she cannot think straight.
‘They’re almost here, Karin. Come downstairs with me.’
Karin shakes her head, does not look at the woman. Frau Hertz sighs.
‘No, thank you,’ Karin says, running a finger down the wallpaper.
The floorboards groan beneath Frau Hertz’s feet as she leaves. Karin turns, watches the apartment door awkwardly meet its frame. The shriek of artillery, the ack-ack of gunfire, thrusts itself into the air. She hears footsteps in the street below and does not need to look out of the window to know that they belong to teenage boys and old men who have been dragged into this lost war; Berlin’s final, wasted, hopes rest on ill-suited shoulders. She listens to the words of encouragement exchanged in unbroken voices as she walks across the room, smearing dust beneath her bare feet. Go. Quick. Duck. Go. Go. Go.
At the threshold of her bedroom, Karin stares at the giant hole in the middle of the floor. If she stands on tiptoes she can look into the chaos of the apartment below. Sometimes she stands and stares, convinces herself she can see something moving, something that is not a rat or a mouse or a cockroach. She cries out then, but nobody comes. Her screams are no different from all those other women who have loved and lost amidst the bombs, amidst the rubble. When the floor first collapsed, she ran down the stairs, pushed the front door to the apartment below until it gave way and scrambled to the remnants. The Blockwart had tried to restrain her, it was his apartment after all, and he had his own grief to process, his own furniture and memories blitzed beyond recognition. Karin had fought him, sifted through the wood, the plaster, the shards of a chandelier, until she found Jörg. He had slept through the fall; his face tainted only by the blood trickling from his right nostril and a bruise on his left temple. He was still warm, but without a heartbeat. Karin had sat holding him for what felt like an age, the ringing in her ears her only company until Frau Hertz prised him from her and took him away to be buried in the courtyard with the rest of the building’s war dead. Karin recalls Frau Hertz’s face – chalk-white – as she crouched before her.
Karin stands on tiptoes now, clings onto the doorframe for support. She can make out the fragments of her furniture: the doors of her wardrobes, a drawer, the bedframe – headboard and footboard bent inwards as if in mourning. She tries to seek out the crib, the eiderdown. Dust motes clog the air and she wishes she could waft them away, let the clean air through, but clean air is another memory of another time.
Karin looks up now, to the gaping roof with its fang-like outline attacking the low-slung sky. She tries to seek out a speck of blue amidst the grey. The sounds of gunfire, a low rumble of military vehicles, and the shouts of men form a grotesque orchestra. It is here, with her fingers digging into the woodwork, her eyes on the heavens and the all too familiar sounds at her ears, that she has an urge to let go, to tumble down into the ruins below, to crack her back and neck, to be found splayed across the belongings, walls, floors, ceilings, that once kept her safe. Karin sticks her leg out, lets her foot hover over the empty space where she used to walk, used to rock Jörg, lie next to Wolf. She moves her leg from side to side as if the air were a body of water. She closes her eyes, sees Wolf, with his arms outstretched and nose lifted to the sky, the lake lapping at his feet. Breathe deep, he had said. She had watched his naked back heave with the effort of filling his lungs and laughed. He turned and grabbed her, his damp skin sticking to her own, and pulled her shoulders back, tilted her chin to the sky. Breathe deep, he repeated. She inhaled, felt the hairs on his stomach and chest tickle her spine. We’ll come here every summer from now on and just breathe, he said. But they did not, could not. Wolf donned a uniform, she smoothed his lapels, waved him off on a train, destination: missing in action.
The building shakes, no longer a tremor but a full-on cower, and Karin opens her eyes, pulls her leg back to solid ground. The Russians must be mere streets away now. She looks up, red flickers at the edges of her sandy-brown piece of sky. Loose bricks fall from the upper floors. Dust clouds Karin’s vision. She walks towards the bathroom. She turns the tap out of habit, cannot recall the last time water splashed upon the enamel. She looks out of the window, puts her hand through where the pane used to be, and rests her elbows on the outer ledge. She stares at the courtyard – churned-up earth and little wooden crosses. She knows which cross belongs to Jörg but has not been able to bring herself to leave the apartment, to kneel on his makeshift grave. She says her prayers from here; her bathroom has become a confessional.
An explosion shakes the walls. Karin watches tiles slip from the roof of the apartment building across the courtyard. She steps back, an involuntary movement, that, when she looks at the spot where she stood, frustrates her. She does not know why she thinks, somewhere, that she deserves to remain unscathed. They married handsome, pure-blooded, men for this moment. Birthed babies for this moment. They survived bombing raids for this moment. This defeat. Karin climbs onto the window ledge, crouches. She clings to the wall, she feels flakes of cement collecting beneath her fingernails. If she were to propel herself forwards, let go, then she would be free: free of guilt, of defeat. She closes her eyes, recalls Wolf standing before the sink, brushing his teeth. Blue skies, he said through foam and spittle. She shrugged. He was leaving, so it did not matter to her whether the sky was blue or grey or purple. He spat out the toothpaste, wiped his mouth on a towel, and lifted her chin with his index finger. Whatever happens, you must look after yourself, he said. Not Jörg then – he arrived eight and half months later – but surely Wolf would have said to look after herself and the baby. She did not do that, has not done that. They had whispered of tables turning, he had made suggestions: names of friends in other towns, routes, provisions she would need. And if I can’t get out? she asked. Hide, surround yourself with people, he replied. She had watched him slip back into the sleeves of a soldier and march from her one last time. One foot on the train, one foot on the platform, he dared to say: remember what I said, Karin. She nodded. He climbed onboard, destination: missing in action. But such vague destinations do not mean certain death, do not mean Wolf will never climb the stairs to their apartment block again, stand over their son’s makeshift grave, share her grief, forgive her.
Karin steps back onto the bathroom floor. No, now is not the time to plummet. She cannot be found lying with her dress ridden up about her thighs. Fodder laid out, waiting for the Red Army. She imagines they will come with cameras, because men like to document victories and photograph this woman in a bombed-out apartment, lying in her brown dress with her bare, dust-darkened, limbs at sixes and sevens. Men will wonder who she was in a previous life, in the days of red, white, and black, and take it in turns to guess exactly how many times she kissed the Führer’s portrait before going about her day, how many times her back bowed with the weight of new life. They will make assumptions; she will become a relic of a fallen regime.
As she leaves the bathroom, Karin runs her fingers along the cracked walls. She walks back to the living room. She can hear a Russian tank making its way down the street, feels its rumbling within her like the beginnings of a stomach ache. Men shout. Guns fire. The apartment door rattles against its frame. Karin clenches her fists, for a moment she thinks they are here, but when the door bursts open the landing is empty aside from the noise. The pink curtains billow behind her. She listens to their whoosh, feels the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. If she goes now, goes down to the basement, she will have a chance to make it before the Russians get in before they sink their hands into her ruins. She steps towards the door as a plethora of artillery fire hits her building, setting alight walls and floors and the remaining rafters.