Over dinner Lisel realized that her father did not love her mother. The idea moved perfectly into place––like a key into a lock, like a ring onto a finger. The place it took was the head of the table, between Lisel and her mother, and over a plate of steaming green beans, from the can or frozen––like wax they were––a mound of tepid apple sauce, the chewy, black jelly of cold caviar substitute. The place was her father’s chair, and her father was not in it, but an invisible man was, an invisible man who was everything her father was not, an anti-father, with sleeves of air and a stovepipe hat, and an appetite that was big and unabashed. He looked like a cross between Papa Noel and the illustrations of Jewish bankers she saw on posters when she was a little, little girl.
She would remember well the tick-tock of the soft-spoken clock and the occasional flutter of her mother turning a page in a book she was reading. She would remember well the silence between them, a famine of words––it could have been any other night of the week right down to the makeshift assortment of foods on the plate, even the portions the same, the fifth, no, the fourth, or perhaps sixth, seventh, eighth night, was it?––Lisel had started to keep a calendar in her bedside table, just a simple one she had torn out of a school reader, the kind with no illustrations from month to month, just ordinary lines and numbers keeping ordinary time, and on this calendar she marked off the days with a big, black, pencilled-in X, and, if she missed a day, she would wake up suddenly in the night clutching her pencil, a cramp in her wrist, the pencil point there over the day, and she would hurriedly draw it in such a way that she could recognize the regular Xs from the somnambular Xs, and the other Xs, the ones where she could forget, for three or four days at a time, about the calendar and, while it did not make her panic, she had a feeling that the calendar was false, that it was stupid, that it was immature, that it was now, that it had always been, that it always would be, the same sleepy November, the same chill in the air, the same stiffness in the fingers, the same cherry-tipped noses; the same eaves dripping in the afternoons with melted water, dripping from the same fangs of ice along the eaves of houses, the same patchworks of white snow filling in the zig-zag terra cotta patterns of rooftops, the same gutters running with brownish-green snow, that which was once white and pure, but now like rivers of snot all flowing to the same detestable sea; the same bombed out streets, the same gray, flaky snow that wasn’t snow at all but a sort of ashen precipitation Lisel had never heard or read of before, the same craters where the ground had been exploded again and again, each time the rubble getting finer and finer, harder to breathe, the debris getting more and more anonymous, everyone moving away to safer zones––and always, it had been this eternal November, a time for keeping the windows hung with thick, black cloth, and a cemetery full of brown, humpbacked graves of those who had not got out in time, twenty nine turned to two hundred, and a time of food that had no taste, that was only a mush of a certain temperature which, if held long enough in the mouth, would start to taste like bile, like the deep, acidic burp that used to come after a big meal. So Lisel tried to swallow as she imagined baby birds would swallow, quick and meaningless and in lumps. This way she could be completely detached from her food, in a way that wouldn’t maker her long for things she only knew about in dreams, like the word butter, a sweet, salty salve that may or may not have existed in the world or may have been like the dreams crazy people get just before they have to be taken away somewhere and kept under lock and key. Yes, she was pretty sure that it was November, that it had always been November, that it would always be, and that her father did not love her mother.
After a while, her mother left the table to turn on the radio. A beautiful and lonely tune was playing, an oboe was professing its love, its secret, doomed, unrequited love, for a chorus of female voices––Oh, Mozart, your father does not love you and has gone to where you ultimately cannot please him, cannot find him––and Lisel wished the Mozart, with all its strange intricacies, with all its demands to be heard, would just go away. She felt that otherwise she might cry, and so, be sent to bed early and without a light. She wished her mother would have turned on anything but the music, anthems or speeches in German would do; it must have been one of the illegal channels from France or England or America, where they not only played Mozart or Beethoven and Chopin and Liszt and Debussy but also, on some channels, swing or degenerate music. That always got switched past so fast that Lisel only ever heard fragments of drumbeats and mad trumpet blasts in between raging static and foreign voices. Sometimes the radio would just lapse into static all by itself in the middle of reports on the Allies ‘beating back’ the German army, the chop-up of English sentences drifting off into the timeless, spaceless, overwhelming chaos of static, leaving bits and pieces of information in the wake, the battle was…the damage done was…the number killed was…the number of Germans taken prisoner was…Static. Murmur. Rage. Chaos. Mozart emergent.
Lisel crept into the kitchen to get a knife and fork. The radio persisted in emitting the lonely, sad tune for some time before the bizarre spritzing of noise took over and it became just another empty channel. She waited until she thought her food was cold enough before taking small, furtive bites out of hunger, not appetite, and
even then her mother grimaced. If Lisel ate her food now, it meant that her father would not get home until very, very late, after she had already gone to bed. If she ate her food now, it would mean that her father would not be able to have second helpings of things because she had eaten all her rations before he even got a chance. She only narrowed her eyes a bit, but it was what her mother meant and said out loud not so many nights before. If Lisel would only just be patient, and not a greedy, gobblety, fat little girl, her father would come home and they could eat together again, her mother had said, ‘like a real family,’ and Lisel wondered if they were a ‘pretend’ family and, if they were, why no one had told her before the game started what the rules were.
In the empty chair, the anti-father sat and moved and lifted his sinister knuckles in the air, his fat, invisible index finger and pointed to her plate and made a gesture of his face, a furrowing expression, as if to say, “If you don’t mind, my dear, pass me your green beans and apple sauce and caviar, uhmm, yes, that’s nice of you” and the anti-father was only getting fatter, fat like the old Jewish bosses, fat in a way that her real father was not, and behind the invisible fat man the pattern on the wallpaper had tobacco stains––a yellow, dingy sort of visible sigh in places where her parents usually sat and smoked and read the paper. The stains were superimposed over the dusky roses arranged in dainty diagonals so as to form diamonds at the same time and, without which, it seemed to Lisel, the walls would crash down around them with a big, sweeping whoosh of air, taking mother, father, and child, swiftly out of reality.
The tick-tock, the extreme silence, the requiem, the static, the anti-father, the straight-backed empty chair, the forbidden food, the cold pit of her stomach, the once-pristine rose pattern now graying so fast––everything was making a strange growling feeling in her, making the hair on her arms stand up on end, was giving her a deja vu she did not want to have, was keeping her all locked up in the moment, when her mother said, automatically, “I’m sure he will be home soon.”
Her mother had a habit of saying things without emphasis on any word or syllable. The way that most people counted, her mother would say these short, random sentences, as if to generate conversation, and then she would sink back into her book, the same as before, no expression, no reply sought, the words suspended and floating in air––the anti-father, however, he caught them, like a frog catching flies, with his long, pink tongue and pulled the words into his fat, smacking mouth, one by one, until it was just as if they had never been suspended there at all. Unless Lisel were to say something too, but something clever, something nice, something clever and nice and quickly, too. But it was impossible. Her mother spoke to her in French. A language like the swishing taffeta of a party dress. And Lisel was fast forgetting it along with her memories of before the war, which she now did not comprehend as memories at all, but as the memories of dreams, the scope of sunshine, the depth of snow, houses with foundations, shop windows in which was possible to see one’s whole self held aloft, booted and with a tiny muffler, by a smiling woman with strong arms, the nonsensical and natural order of all things. So she said nothing because every time she spoke French it made her sneeze and stutter and to reply in her German was like a rhinoceros at tea, giant, pawing at delicate, tinkling things, was like a fat woman sitting in a too tight skirt, her thighs bulging and the fabric rending. That was not what her mother wanted to hear.
Her mother turned a page without peering up and murmured again, a high whispy whine without breakage, “I’m sure he will be home soon. This promotion is keeping him longer nights. Haven’t you noticed?”
Her mother slowly tilted her head up from her book and leveled her eyes with Lisel’s face, as if to say, Who are you? She stared at Lisel for a long time as if she did not recognize her own daughter, then she slowly, calmly reached across and swatted Lisel’s right hand and lowered the hand itself until Lisel was obliged to let go of the fork and fold both hands precisely in her lap. It looked as if there were a secret treasure––a piece of candy, a lipstick, a butterfly, an opal earring, a whistle, a doll’s head, a piece of tinfoil, a chocolate, a drawing pencil, a heart cut out of felt––anything hidden inside, but Lisel knew that if she collapsed that demure mound of little fingers, there would be nothing but tablecloth beneath. So she kept her hands folded politely in her lap and her braids laid straightly over her shoulder and collarbones––she hated it when there was a bulge in one, or when the ends curled unevenly up instead of pointing downward––and fixed her eyes on her hands. This is how she would want her hands to look, she decided, if they were in an oil painting in a museum.
And then Lisel added, “How long will this promotion last?”
Her mother moved to the window seat and wedged her slender torso up against the small rectangles of light formed by the wrought-iron glass panes. Beyond this the dying fuschia of sunset streaked across the sky. It should have reminded her to cover it, but she only left the window exposed. She let the ugly, inert, pitch black curtains hang in their slim, daytime columns. She was wearing a powder blue blouse, with a shimmer to it and a peter pan collar, three sweetheart buttons close beneath it, and a long, floral skirt. Both the blouse and the skirt appeared too thin, too light, too pretty for this time of year, and she had taken to wearing lipstick in a gaudy shade of red that devastated her pale complexion, a tell-tale O that drained the color and youthfulness from her cheeks, a round, red stain on a white flag of surrender. She sucked on the butt of a cigarette, the burning red tip help perilously close to her fingertips, making a nervous, reflexive ascent to the rounded lips, a squeaky, sucking sound, up, down again. The double red dot ran up and down the length of the reflection like a ladybug, but when she spoke, the smoke slithered out and around each work. The sun collapsed outside.
“Whatever do you mean…Lisel…?” Her voice trailed off the way a small child will sometimes get lost, hip-high in a crowd of adults. She snuffed the cigarette out on the sole of her shoe and tucked it hurriedly under the cushion.
Lisel saw her father’s figure swim through the glass and blackness beyond. He mounted the steps, shivering as he came, his coat hanging over the back of his shoulders, a black and formless afterthought, his arms let loose from the empty sleeves. Tucked under one arm, he held a brown paper parcel, oblong, a shoe box. He kept his head down and his eyes level with the ground. He moved so rapidly over the treacherous patches of invisible, black ice that it was as if he weren’t walking at all, but floating upwards into view. He looked to Lisel, who was trying to judge his hidden facial expression, as though his only reason for coming inside was to get in out of the cold. Shortly, there was a jingle of keys in the door, the metallic click and turn and with it the dissolution of that anti-father, that feeling brushing up against her arm, the way gooseflesh fades in the familiar embrace of one who is known and warm.
He said in the foyer, “Good evening, Kathryne.” A kiss for each raised cheek.
Lisel leaned over in her chair and saw her mother kiss his mouth, openly and widely. Her lips covered his own. Her father really was quite tall and lanky. Even in her heels, she had to stand on the bottom most stair. She slid the coat off his shoulders and draped it on the rack beside her.
He said, “A drink, a drink! Please, and then gifts for each of my two leading ladies.” He propped himself up in the door frame of the dining room and winked at Lisel. She smiled as her mother’s hand drifted up from behind and settled on his shoulder.
She said, “”Do I taste funny? I probably do. Like an ashtray, I found a fag under the settee, and, I can’t believe I’m telling you this, it’s so nasty a thing to do, but I smoked it just before you came. Did you notice that? Did you taste it?” Her voice, when she spoke to her father, was high and chirpy, like the birds in fairy tales when a snake came into the tree and neared the nest of bald, faceless eggs.
Her father eyed the room suspiciously, said nothing, crossed to the radio and poured himself a brandy from the bottle sitting out. He sniffed the air around Lisel’s head. “Well, I’ve just come in from outside. Everyone’s chimneys. It’s awfully cold in here. Anyone else cold?” A swig from the snifter.
He switched the radio knob. A singsong boy’s choir usurped the music, and then the triumphal blast that always preceded an announcement of the War Ministry. He cut it off and told Lisel’s mother to draw the curtains. Together, they dimmed the lights. They had kerosene lamps they used in the winter. The greasy, uncontainable smell of the fuel burning would forever after be in Lisel’s mind the special stamp of war. It was impossible to think the word without smelling the smell and vice versa. And with these actions, Lisel felt the pendulum of evening swing heavily against her eyelids and forehead. Her mother had been searching the lining of her father’s coat, deftly plucking a pack of cigarettes from the black folds. Lisel yawned and felt how heavy her arms were with the weight of smoke and air and lamp flame as they hung listless against the seat of the chair and as she watched the last curtain draw the room into softness. The distance between the three of them seemed to diminish. It seemed as though tomorrow and all the days after were only a blink and a yawn away. And in that blink and yawn the whole abyss of night, thick, uninterrupted by air raid sirens and subterranean refuge.
“I brought you a present,” her father said. He handed her the brown box, and she nudged it openly gently, as she would have picked apart the flaky layers of a strudel––how long had it been…?––and taking great care not to tear the paper. It was indeed a shoe box, and it contained a pair of odd-looking girls’ shoes, camel-colored leather, saddle shoe type, with a high, fashionable heel. But a scuff showed on the side of one, and the tongue of the other was stretched and wagging. Neither shoe had laces.
“Presents come in pretty paper with bows. You have brought me some other girl’s shoes,” she teased. She wanted to express her curiosity and her disdain for wearing shoes that were clearly some other girl’s before becoming hers. All this she wanted to express delicately without offending her father.
“Here, try them on. I think you are big enough to wear them.”
Lisel liked the shoes more once they were actually on her feet. She hadn’t known just how small the shoes she had been wearing were until she tried these shoes on. Her toes weren’t crunched up inside of them, fighting for room. They only gently hugged her flat, wide feet. And even if they were not particularly lovely, the leather was a durable kind that they could not normally afford to buy.
“She’s bigger now than all the children in her grade, I was noticing,” her mother interjected from the kitchen. It was that voice again, that lying voice, Lisel noticed.
She came into the dining room and withdrew Lisel’s plate from before her and the plate that was intended for her father. She took both plates into the kitchen and returned with one replenished plate for her father. He sank into his chair and shoveled the food around on his plate, arranging it in half-eaten heaps, methodically, without much interest. Since he had been promoted the lines on his face had deepened. His cheekbones had grown ferret-like and fierce. His eyes treaded backward in his face. He wore the expression of a man at a police interrogation. He didn’t wear it on the street or at public gatherings, but only here to wife and child and warm food and his hovel of glass and stone. He usually read the Reichsbanner or had a drink during the meal. Some evenings he did not come to the table at all.
“Perfect!” He clapped his hands and took out a match. With a flourish he drug it across the bottom of his shoe and the head came up flaming. He lit a cigarette and began twirling it with his camel-like lips on one side of his face. Ashes fell in haphazard clumps wherever he turned his head.
Lisel’s mother came out of the kitchen and looked at the shoes.
“That’s…nice…Where did you get those?”
“From a man who makes shoes.”
“From a a man who makes shoes. And with what did you pay him, Karl? Credit? Trust in the German army?”
Her father made a mock-wounded face. “Are you accusing me of thievery?”
“I am accusing you of nothing! I’m just asking you where…” Sometimes when her mother was upset she lost her breath and her voice became a wheeze like the slow squeals and degradations a train suffered at the last destination. She paused a while and leaned on the edge of the table. “How did you get those shoes?”
Her mother made her take the shoes off. Then she lifted one, examined it carefully.
“Sarah Hannah Goldstein,” she said, reading the fine imprint along the inside lip. “Really, Karl!––Did you think I would not notice? Did you think I would tolerate it for our daughter to walk around in the hand-me-downs of a Jew? You of all people, you who had me go three blocks out of my way to an Aryan butcher. In Hanover, you’d boycott when it suited your purposes, and I suppose you’re a father when the mood strikes you!”
She grabbed the other shoe and thrust them out at arm’s length. Her arms were straight as rods and thin as window panes. “Here take them back where you lifted them from. She doesn’t like them. You can take them back with you to work tomorrow.”
“She likes them. She needs them. I have them. They’re no use to anyone else. That’s all that matters. Don’t make it complex, Kathryne. I know how you spend your days holed up in here with your cigarettes and your nerve medications, with your boring lecture notes and your translations of tedious, dead intellects and your morbid fascination with banned books. I know Natasha has to dress her and feed her and read to her. No, I won’t. I won’t. I won’t take them back unless my girl tells me, and tells me plainly, ‘Daddy, Daddy, I cannot wear those shoes. I just cannot.’” The way her father impersonated a little girl’s voice was really quite funny, even if it was poking fun at her own voice, which Lisel considered, along with her diminutive age and height, the bane of her existence.
Now was the point at which Lisel must decide. The choice, but not the options, were all oppressively her own. To wear the shoes or to not wear the shoes. To please her father or to please her mother. They both looked at her, apparently not aware of their ultimatum, of their perpetual unfairness, and yet, Lisel realized, they were aware somehow, perfectly aware, for if nothing else this was what it meant to be an adult, to be aware of one’s actions and the consequences. And yet it was always easier to defer to a child life’s most symbolic decisions. Their faces, the faces from which she derived her own, were as water to her, rippling with a selfishness she could not control or conceal. It moved like goldfish in a shallow, courtyard pond, beneath their plaster brows and frowns, clear and precise and fanning out in all directions from its fattening red center, out of which bubbled up all these bloated, worded nuances.
“I have lessons to do. May I be dismissed?” Her tiny voice spoke for her.
“Oh really?” Her father said to her, but really to her mother. “What did you do at school today. Is Frauline Schrodel treating you well? Is she a good teacher, I mean? I care a lot, you know, that you get a good education, if anyone can anymore. A better one than I had.”
“It’s not Frauline Schrodel anymore, Papa, it’s a new one. Her name is Frauline Hoss. She smells like men’s cologne and wears her hair to here––”
“Good. What did you do today?”
“There was no school today because––”
“Good. What did you do yesterday then, Lisel?”
“We wrote poems.”
“Poems!––Did you hear, Kathryne? Lisel’s class is writing poetry!––What did you write about? I’m sure yours was the best.”
“All the poems were about the same thing.”
“And what was that?”
“Write a poem about the Fatherland, or, if we didn’t want to write about that, the Fuhrer.”
“The Fatherland! Whatever happened to artistic license?”
Her mother snorted. “Karl, would you shut up? Go ahead Lisel tell us your poem.”
“I can’t remember.” This was a lie. Lisel had doodled and dug little holes in her desk with her pencil until time to leave which meant that she would have to write her poem for homework tonight, for school tomorrow, if there was school tomorrow, if…everything depended on these crude ifs, these lights in the sky, as if the stars were moving, burning, swooping closer to the earth, and reducing everything in life to these quibbling contingencies, if this, then that, if the sky is clear, write a poem, if not, eat canned olives in a damp cellar while old men played cards and everyone sat on their haunches and pretended to do something when really no one was doing anything but waiting for another if…It was Frauline’s idea to write these poems. Then she would gather them all and keep them in a capsule in the school’s basement. That way, Frauline had said, at least their work, their expression, would always be preserved from harm, and for this reason they would write about what was most dear to their hearts––just in case Frauline always picked the subjects.
“Well, then go get it from your satchel. Your father and I will wait.”
“I can’t Frauline kept it. She said––”
“Good. It must have been very good for her to keep yours then.” Her father examined the plate before him. He furrowed his brow, struggling to find ample words for his disgust. Lisel thought she saw him strain, thought she saw little beads of sweat form along his temples, impossible little beads, impossible because the room was, now that he had mentioned it, indeed cold, even in the close confines of a house lined with curtains and black paper, even in a house prepared to exist in complicity with blackout ordinances for as long as Lisel’s small memory served her, there was never, in the only winters she remembered, these same winters called ‘war winter’ by her elders, never enough warmth to go around.
Her father buried his food in salt and shoved it forward. He did this rather too rapidly and the plate caught on the ripples in the tablecloth and sank with a loud, startling clank. Childish, Lisel thought, and even in this initial revulsion she felt at once an ally and a role model in her father. In the secret lapses of affection which took place between Lisel and her father when her mother was elsewhere or asleep, she felt important, important because she was the childlike embodiment of all her father’s naughty behavior. They had this in common, she and her father, and someday when she was big and grown and had a house of her own, Lisel would finally be free to exhibit so much childishness.
“How do you expect us to eat this slop eight nights in a row? Even Natasha can cook better than this and she is but a girl of fourteen,” was his ordained reply. It didn’t make sense in the context of the conversation, Lisel thought, they had been talking about shoes not food, but in the context of her father and mother it did for a predictable, tedious, complacent kind of sense. Every family on her block had its housekeeper, its Christmas tree, its lines of laundry hung thick and moist in the summer with various and sundry undergarments stretched and worn in lank testimony to the various and sundry bottoms of the wearers, and yet here was the very thing that transpired in the presence of no one but Lisel herself. Though she was but a little, little girl, her hands gripped the tablecloth in anticipation of the very thing unfolding before her for which she had found words. Her father did not love her mother. This was the reason for his lateness, not a promotion which was but one of those external features of his life she could not, because a daughter, be privy to. She looked down at her frightful white knuckles and the growing scales of her new piano piece soared high above her mother’s inevitable, stinging reply. The criticism of criticism. The fire for which the only fuel and the only cessation was fire itself. At night, the highly punctuated shouts of anti-aircraft guns aimed into the exploding, destructive havoc of Allied bombers, and, above it all, the small, forgotten trills of birds, those few still left in Northeim, escaping up out of burning trees and the swiftly falling eaves of stone edifices which once held the nest of these others, these immigrant populations, these flight-filled inhabitants, in the false permanence of their very outward faces. Who but Lisel heard this? Who but Lisel could counter her mother’s shrill scorn and her father’s inexplicable anguish with the sounds of Chopin and Debussy?
“Maybe you should eat there tonight, too. How do you expect me to buy anything differently when I can’t find all of our ration coupons.”
“Books are expensive where I buy them,” her father retorted.
“So are cigarettes and cognac. I have a nose, Karl.”
“And such a lovely nose it is. Not a straight German nose, not a French profile either, kind of big and curvy, almost…Jewish.”
Her father tipped his chair forward from where it had been leaning on its back two legs, the way the boys in school––the ones that always got bad marks––leaned their chairs to provoke the teacher, and emptied it of himself. “Cigarettes?! Cognac?!” Lisel followed his gestures, his candid display with her eyes. He was speaking to her. He was speaking at her mother. He was speaking to her mother through her. She was captivated a thousand times over by her father as he glided every evening to the large armoire at the head of the room and produced from it yet another bulbous glass, this time to be filled with a dark, red wine. Her father was funny this way. He often forgot, one way or another, where he had lain his last glass, and, come the end of the night, several glasses were left about, filled to the half way mark and below with liquids the color of silks, the golden brown and wine red of robes in fairy tales, the ones the kings and queens wore, they caught the light from the last candles, still burning after bedtime, neglected and spilling wax over the tablecloth and running in hardened tallow streams across the carpet.
He cupped this particular glass in his hands as if it were a ripe plum at the market. This thought made Lisel’s mouth tingly with longing, and she began thinking about how long it had been since she had had a decent piece of fruit. Her tongue poked around the dry roof of her mouth like a worm in a jar. Her spit tasted of nothing. “Why, Kathryne, a man must have drink, even a father, even in the middle of a war! What, would you drive me to drink!” This was funny to him. He said it a lot before the first swig, sometimes in between swigs, sometimes under his breath, but never to Lisel alone. She laughed. Her mother cleared the table and withdrew into the kitchen. Lisel was aware that she could get up from the table but was unable to decide what to do with herself. She seemed best right where she was.
“So,” her father called after her mother, “so you would have yourself keep your present while Lisel has to walk around in ragged and too small shoes with her toes sticking up and a hole in one side! Does that not cause you shame, woman?”
Lisel curled her leg up under the chair and tried to run her finger along the side of her left shoe without her father noticing. She barely felt it, but it was there. She wondered if the girls at school had noticed and perhaps chosen not to say anything. Where she went to school a hole in the shoe was truly a curiosity. That tiny exposed part of her foot felt like the thumb of someone who had just come in from outside pressed against the back of her neck, cold and conspicuous and accusatory. She imagined that it would go numb if she did not cover it up. Why should it be there? she wondered. Why should a hole ever be there, unless it was put there on some purpose? Why did anything ever fall apart unless it was abused in some strange way?
Perhaps, perhaps, she thought, it was from walking along streets that had been bombed, from playing after school in those areas she was forbidden from but which all the children gravitated toward, the streets paved over in rivers of sprawling glass and rubble and the scattered madness of possessions that could not be pirated away in time.
Her father was a very tall and very thin man. As he leaned against the radio and twisted his neck in the direction of the open doorway, his hipbones protruded slightly beneath his black uniform trousers. From the kitchen came the sounds of hissing water and dishes colliding in the sink. With a flick of his head, her father beckoned Lisel to take the books from the table to her mother. In the excitement of the new shoes, they had all overlooked the books. The books were, like the shoes, old and used. But Lisel knew this was an acceptable thing in books and not in shoes. The spines that lined the family’s parlor shelves were likewise old and had a musty, decrepit smell to them, a smell of dust and stasis, a smell that permeated their home even as they had moved from Leipzig to Hanover and to Northeim, from big houses to small, decaying ones, a smell that informed Lisel Don’t touch, for they were written in languages other than German, mostly French, and reserved for her mother’s hunchbacked, scholarly, desperately quiet hours. These were the only kinds of books her mother read anymore, and they had to be got from somewhere––only her father knew where––somewhere other than the bookstores, most of which were closed down now with big signs, written in bleeding black painted letters, that said they would reopen when the war was over and there was time for repairs. Lisel had been waiting most of her life for this time for repairs, and she was scared of it. What would become of her music and her play when she had to go to school every day? When there were no raids to cancel school and take away the good teachers, would she have to do her homework every day? Would she be able to lie and say it was not due till the end of the week? Would she still be believed when her father had no job and her mother could teach French literature again at the university? When there were no concentration camps, would they have to move again from the sleepy pillars of this forsaken hamlet to the big city of her birth? What would be expected of her when all their promises were no longer promises? And what would they all say to each other then? Beating back all these scattered thoughts, she took the books and tried not to look at the faded gold titles. Le Chanson de Roland and Voltaire, she noticed anyway as she went.
Her mother was standing in a shroud of steam and puffing away at the cigarette she had stolen from the lining of her father’s coat. In the steam, her face looked even older, more haggard by contrast, the way it looked when Lisel would occasionally interrupt her at her studies and translations. Lisel almost hesitated to give her the books. It only meant more secluded hours, more work that did not pay anymore, more tears to be shed over pages already salted by an understanding of that which Lisel, in her littleness, was spared from comprehending.
Her mother paused as Lisel set them on the counter. The books, like cognac to her father, like cigarettes to them both, were irresistible. She leaned over to study the titles and let her hands be still from their rustling about in the hot water. In the calm, the sound of someone outside, the sound of ice shattering on the pavement, rose up and penetrated the walls of the house. Their house had high, long eaves off of which hung long molars of ice. It had become a favorite pastime of some neighborhood boys to dash at the icicles from below and have mock battles with them. Lisel’s mother sighed furiously, deeply, and her breath got caught up in all the steam and smoke. “What are they doing out past blackout? Lisel, go tell those noisy, Nazi boys to stop, for the love of God.” The word God broke up into a spasm of breath, that exhaustion of having to deal with things outside of the house, another characteristic coughing fit.
Lisel did not want to go outside. She was afraid of the boys who were much older and bigger than she was, and it was cold. But how could she plead? How could she protest? She was young and strong and her mother had a condition and her father’s condition was he worked all day.
The boys, when they did notice her, one by one ceased their clacking and jumping about. Because the weather had been slightly warm that day, the icicles had begun to slacken and drool and, as the boys lowered their arms and turned to stare at her with the territorial opacity of children interrupted at their play, they became less swords than teeth, white, dull, defunct. One boy passed his from his left hand to his right. Another boy dropped his, but the two closest to her, they kept theirs. All of them had bare, bristly, red knuckles and runny noses. They were not the usual boys. They all had metal badges on and black short trousers and white stockings and short red scarves tied like gashes across their throats. She did not recognize them from school, although they looked only a little bit older than even the highest graders in her school. They had a rough way of standing, the oldest and the biggest and the meanest looking one stood with his ankles crossed and his right hip thrust out, exaggerated but nonchalant at the same time. It was clear that they had not expected a little girl and this was causing great indecision on everyone’s part. Lisel, too, had been prepared for someone or something else. No one spoke for an eternity of seconds. Finally she said, her mother’s copy of Le Chanson de Roland held steady with both hands over her head, poised for flinging, a bluff, “No horseplay is allowed here.” The oldest one cast a glance backward––the others were getting antsy, spitting on the pavement and making wide, sloppy circles with their feet––and slowly diluted his grim expression with a fulsome grin. They all began to laugh, a forced, constrained, but sinister laugh. Lisel stammered from her elevated stance on the porch. She swayed backward, toward the door, but did not, ultimately, shift her feet. “What are you doing here?” she said. “It’s after blackout. Please do leave.” This only made them more gleeful. They danced around her on the pavement, drawing up their swords, swooping them around their heads. Then, suddenly, they stopped and grew fiercely solemn again. The oldest one held out his icicle to her, letting it slide from his wet fingers slowly and smoothly, in one long, protracted motion which was no motion at all. As it hit the ground it shattered into perfectly congruent pieces and Lisel realized that, as if under a spell, her right arm was half extended though she had kept poised there above them. She fled inside. The boys ran shouting unintelligible threats and slogans down the length of the street, running out of breath until they became only the vacant clatter of feet in the distance.
Her father wanted to know who was that. “Pirates,” Lisel said wistfully. Her mother was in the parlor lighting a fire with old students’ essays, muttering to herself.
“Vandals, she means vandals. Oh, pity that, that was a good one.”
“It wasn’t mine, was it?” her father asked.
“No, dear, it wasn’t yours.”
They were sort of chuckling together. The fireplace crackled and hissed as her mother fed it crumpled passages from her former life. Her father sat down in his chair, crossed his legs, put his cigarette out on the roof of a brass reproduction of the Arc de Triomphe.
Her mother stretched her legs out on the floor, massaging her stiff, withered calves and ankles, and sighing, said, “Fie! You piece of filth! That was a wedding present from my father. Oh, dear, this used to be a house of culture!”
They were giggling now, her mother holding her slight mound of belly with her other arm. “Ja!” her father cried hysterically, “And I never liked the thing. Now, my dear, this is a house of pirates and spirits!”
“They’re gone now,” Lisel said timidly, from the doorway. Her parents remembered themselves. Her father gestured for her to come sit in his lap, and she went to him. Underneath her she could feel the hard cylinder of his leather flask against the soft cheek of her bottom. She squirmed to get her balance over it, and her father held her closer, kissing the back of her neck and saying how little girls always smelled so sweetly, like blossoms in the spring, or something like that. Lisel was still clutching her mother’s book, when he reached around and undid her shoes, slid them off as easily as a doll’s.
“Here,” he said, taking the book from her with the same ultimate ease. “I’ll hold this while you go get your new shoes from the table.”
And Lisel did. “Lisel, wait!” her mother interjected. “Go ahead and take them upstairs instead.”
And Lisel did. In her closet, next to her baby chair, the discarded porcelain heads of dolls she never played with anymore, Natasha’s first communion dress––a sentimental gift since Lisel would never have a first communion day––and the upright troop of her school pinafores, the shoes looked impoverished and out of place. Like hollowed out potato skins, wrinkled and empty, they sank over their own soles, having no laces to hold them together.
On the inside edge of the closet door frame, there was a little trail of nicks where Lisel had been keeping track of her own growth. She used a meter stick to measure any marks she made and wrote it in her calendar next to the date. She did this every night after her mother sent her to bed and every morning when Natasha got her up. When the black out came, it was hard to see pencil marks in the dark, so she had started using a carving knife which she had smuggled out of the kitchen. The marks leveled out after only a few inches and there became a deepening chunk of missing wood which was darker than all the rest of the door frame. If she looked carefully at her diary entries, she could trace all the days since last winter, the one when the bombs came not once or twice a month, but almost nightly, right to the blackening mark on the wood.
She had reached again the top of the staircase when she thought to steal the laces from her old shoes. Yes! They would do until there could be some new laces––in the springtime, when everyone said the war would be over, but they never said which springtime, this one, the next or any of the other springtimes after. She crouched at the top of the stairs, thinking how to do this theft without either of her parents observing her. Both her shoes were in the parlor. But both her parents were still in the parlor. She could hear their voices rising and tangling.
As she listened, she contemplated the paper on the stretch of wall above the stairs. It was the same print as in her bedroom, a nursery scene of fairies gathered round a patch of mushrooms, fanning and sunning their slender, childlike selves and smirking on their giant settees of fungus. At the bottom of the wall, there hung an oval lithograph leftover from the previous family. It must have been a Catholic family, Lisel thought, for the lithograph was of a woman, Madonna-like, her face just a half-moon of creamy complexion sheltered by a navy head cloth, and cradling a baby, a bald, pink bloom on her shoulder. Lisel studied this curious relic, the calm, dim pastel center of the house. Difficult, but not impossible was this task, she decided.
“It’s a dangerous thing you’ve done, you keep doing. You’re more than a prison guard, you’re a smuggler for your family.” Again that high, chirpy voice, strung out over the raspy, deepening loom of a smoker’s lungs and throat.
“So I take it you don’t want your present either. I suppose I should stop bringing you both presents if you’re going to be ungrateful about it. It’s a shame, too, a real collector’s item, first edition I think he said or some other such thing like that. I can’t remember anymore. It hardly seems fair that she should not get to keep her shoes and you get your silly book!” Poor, silly man, he did not even know when a woman was trying to say thank you.
A half-murmur of defense came from below. Lisel moved down one step and crooned her neck toward the voices. From her perch on the stair, she could peer through the bars of the railing and sometimes see her father or her mother move in and out of view, pacing, dueling, as if on a stage. As if from a balcony seat in a puppet theater, she disowned them for a moment.
“Voltaire, Balzac, Remarque. What’s next? Marx? Freud? Your young scholar protégé, Hannah what’s-her-name––God forbid such garbage ever be published. How is it different, a book written by a Jew, shoes made by a Jew? Are Jews not also fathers and mothers? Do their children not also wear shoes? What is the line, ah hell, prick me do I not bleed, ya-da, YA-DA!!! You tell me. You are the intellectual.”
An old woman drew her breath, and, in the space of that breath, derailed all the vituperations of the moment and the coming moments. The actors forgot their lines. Lisel lowered herself one, two more steps, to just beyond that curtain of shadow the parlor door cast on the carpet. Even there, the conversation had become the province of this passionate, this young, this confused leading man that was her father.
“It just is! What is that? What school of philosophy is that? It just is.”
Don’t sob, woman, Lisel whispered. Take the scissors. Stand on your chair. Make him listen. Stab him in the back. Why should a woman only clap and cheer, only cry and throb, extraneous and supine on the stage as in parades and academies and pictures in museums and beer halls?
“Shut up! Shut up! Don’t you understand? They came that day to tell me, to get out, quick, quick, Herr Chancellor Gesling himself was there, Karl, Karl, saying ‘Quick take what you can. You have disgraced us with your philandering.’ Philanderer they called me. Because of you, my dear one. ‘You don’t work or belong here. You can’t. Get what you can.’ And there were my books in my arms when the police came and the quadrangle green was burning and they took them like vultures as I was dropping them, and they threw them on the pile. There were my students holding signs. I knew their faces. I knew their capabilities. And they were the sign holders. ‘Filth literature!’ ‘Indiscriminate reading’ ‘Down with communists’ ‘Un-German filth’ And not a one could look me in the eye, except you. You know I was not part of it. I was just a teacher! I wasn’t feminine or democratic. I wish to God they had burned me instead. I mean, that’s when I realized––I realized that they were right. There could be no more teachers because there were no more students in Germany. I mean, if they wanted to have an auto-da-fe, it could have been me. It was me they hated, me and you, too. You, too. You Aryan rake, you. You, with your crooked smile and, and…intelligent blue eyes behind cracked spectacles and your ash blond good looks. I wish to God it had been us, us not these, not these silly books, our daughter’s only inheritance. She will live and die in these books, these un-German things!”
Her mother was on the floor, writhing, gasping, rubbing her exhausted throat. Her light blue skirt twisted. Flowers and leaves and bony, bristly legs meshed all around in the firelight. Her father knelt and swept her face up to his, fixing her chin fast in his hand. He whispered to her, as she heaved and shoved and convulsed against him. Lisel stood up. Was he smothering her or merely calming her? She bolted up the stairs to the bathroom, rifled through the baskets of medicine bottles, dark green and maroon and with thick rubber stoppers, and the empty jars, a few grains of smelling salts and the greasy residue of ointments stuck in the bottom of each. She found the dark green bottle with the white label, Morphine suspension, and walked, resolved to slowness, down the stairs.
“Shut up. Stop it. Don’t you unders-s-stand the danger-ger? Suppose someone sees her, Karl, think of my-my father, my f-f-father’s father, think, Karl. You always were so stupid. It’s not about Jews. It is about Nazis.”
“Shhh, shhh, my Pangloss love, not everyone is as shrewd as you. Not everyone cares.”
“You could lose your position.”
“Fuck my position. I mean it. If only I would be so lucky. It’s done all the time. There’s a stack to my thigh of gold teeth, fucking gold teeth, Kathryne. It’s done all the time. It was all for you, you and the baby. I’m not a soldier. I’m just a sorter, like a postman. I was once a layer of carpet. I was once a layer of carpet, that’s all I ever was.”
Lisel handed her father the medicine. He laughed and held her mother close, till she was so limp she moved inside his chuckles. Then he took the medicine and meted out a few drops into her open mouth. She pushed herself up with her arms, looked once at Lisel, once at her father, once at Lisel again, and said, perfectly still, “Now you are a layer of corpses.”
She stood, one hand against the mantle, brushed herself off, dusted her hands and announced that she was going to bed. “It’s black-out time for mummy, I’m afraid. Good night, dear. Good night, Lisel.” She kissed them both on the forehead. Her father was kneeling at the fire. She glanced at the bust of Hitler on the mantle, the laurel leaves around his neck so old they were black and crisp. Lisel knew what her mother would do next. She stood on tip-toe, leaned close to the Fuhrer as if to bestow a kiss. Then she spat into her palm and rubbed the dust around on Hitler’s head. She had done this so many nights before, there was now a thick brown paste where Hitler’s hair should have been. But tonight she said, “Good night, you fucking, low-class, Austrian mime-king, you!”
She made it all the way to the stairs without faltering, and added. “Karl, make sure Lisel does her lessons. And please wash yourself before you come to bed. You stink like a chimneysweep.”
Lisel was paralyzed for a moment by all that she had witnessed tonight, and by all that she had witnessed, ever. Her father had not moved or blinked. It was possible to see the fire in the gloss of his eyeballs which was growing, unthinkable, dampening. She moved softly to him, and hugged his neck, which was just level with her arms. The perfect height. She was the perfect height. She wished she would never grow again and said a vow inside her mind that she would forget all about the marks on the closet door frame if only he would move or speak, if only he would be as he was before.
His cheek was hot and red and stinging on one side from the fire. Finally, he spoke, and Lisel was relieved to hear: “Lisel, do your lessons. I have to go fetch Natasha. I think it’s going to snow tonight, and she won’t come all this way alone if there are drifts.”
He left. He forgot his coat. Lisel went to fetch her lessons from her satchel. She read a history chapter. It was about Pompeii, the great Roman city which Vesuvius had swallowed up. She wondered if there was not some mistake. If maybe, all the bombs and all the ashes and smoke in the air, and all the disappearances were not the product of some great volcano, slowly and voraciously sweeping Northeim into its fiery mouth. She would ask Natasha and her father when they got back.
Natasha was the housekeeper who took care of her when her mother was ‘indisposed’ which was often. Sometimes, in the winters, Natasha slept on the couch. Lisel liked this. If there were an air raid, Natasha would help her get dressed. Natasha always slept in her clothes. If not, Lisel sometimes would slip downstairs and sleep between Natasha’s plump breasts and sometimes, when Natasha was not feeling cranky, she would let Lisel play with her long, blond hair. They would pick pretty styles for Natasha to wear when they went out together, and afterwards, Lisel would try to braid her own hair, but it was usually too fine and dark to be of any use at all.
Now was the time for Lisel to let go of her fine hair and to write her dreaded composition. There could be no more gambling, no more hoping that bombs would drop on the school, or maybe the Frauline’s house, no more wicked thoughts like that. She wished that she had mathematics homework instead. She prefered the precise drafting of equations, the numbers shuttling back and forth like tiny armies across equal signs and realigning themselves into one perfect final sum, for the positive or for the negative, it didn’t matter so long as there were only one number for one problem. Mathematics was like the fluid notes of music, metered and divided out regularly across the black bars and scrolling staffs. If only all time could be like music time. If only Natasha were here, she would help her with her composition. Natasha was good at expressing things in a happy manner. Her mother had died and her father was a poor railroad man, but Natasha was never sad. Natasha had many siblings to care for and never went to school. If only her mother were awake, she might write her a sick note. She might not. If, if only, if, enough! Lisel sat in her father’s chair and tried to banish the ‘if’ thoughts.
She stood up in the chair and studied the room for inspiration, the mantle piece with the unpainted Hitler, cheap and ethereal at the same time, the tacky collection of beer steins her parents were always getting as presents and her mother was always trying to throw away or hide, but which her father kept hauling out of boxes in the attic to use when there were no other clean glasses around––some of them still had the warm, fomenting contents of past parties sitting in them and Lisel was for the first time conscious of the way the bitter, stale smell was spreading itself out in the room, was the smell of the room, was the instant greeting, the very flavor in the walls and furniture, which the house impressed on those who entered it, she was full of a mute shame at this––and, at the very end of the mantle, edged away by all the bric-a-brac, a picture of her mother in her wedding dress, a black background and a vivid white dress, possessing of that imperial curiosity of all objects older than herself, and made only more noble by the chipped, tarnished frame. The thin silver plating was rubbed off around the corners to reveal the baser metal it was made of. The picture was arresting not only to Lisel but to all who saw it and who saw her mother. People always remarked on the ‘traditional’ dress, ‘traditional’ she gathered, because it was somehow not representative of her mother––the scholar, the invalid, the misanthrope. But it was even more than that. The woman in the picture had hips and pale pink but full lips, a modest bit of fat on her cheeks, a nose that could be called comical but not unfortunate in such an aquiline, aristocratic face, a smile as fresh and winsome and slight as the thin string of fake pearls at her neck and the jumbled spring bouquet that hid her hands. And though the veil in the picture obscured it, Lisel felt sure that her mother’s hair had been longer. But none of this was making words come out of her pencil. She looked at the lines of books, books full of poetry, books which her mother said would be her life and death, but which she dared not, because of this, touch, open, taint. She looked at her father’s leather flask. That had poetry on it, of a sort, with little animals etched on it as pictograms. Don’t be an…it had a picture of a camel. So kick some…it had a picture of a donkey. Don’t be…it had a picture of a rooster. Lisel could read the English, but she did not understand the pictures and the rhymes on the flask. Her father did, but he was not here. On the back, a faded poem said, When you’re something , something…When your wife is pretty and your children cute, When everything in life is a hoot, When the good times get the best of ya, Then you’re drunk! drunk! drunk! Hallelujia! But this was not poetry. It was more like nursery rhymes, but not like nursery rhymes at the same time. Lisel wished that she would never again have to hear another nursery rhyme so long as she lived. Even the kind like this one on her father’s flask. Even if it was a witty thing intended for adults. The world was sick and dying, she felt, and it was all on account of nursery rhymes like this one.
She looked again at the Fuhrer, at her mother’s photograph, and scribbled the only thing that came to mind. “The Fuhrer is the lifeblood of Germany.” Line 1. “He is the father and husband of all the German people.” Line 2. “He knows best, though he does not always say.” Line 3. “If he beats his wife, it is for her own good and the good of all his children.” Done.
Now she had no poem to worry about, but she still had the shoes. Hannah’s shoes. The shoes of Hannah were there, but had there been a Hannah? Hadn’t there been, wouldn’t there have had to have been a real Hannah? Yes, yes, that was logic. There had even been a Hannah Goldstein at her school before the Jews left to have their own schools, in a far-off land beyond the forest. Yes! She remembered Hannah now, older by a year or two, a soft, quiet girl with curly, unruly hair she had to keep tied back at recess and which was her habit, even when it was tied back to brush away from her big, inky eyes. Tomorrow! Tomorrow she would find this Hannah and give her back her shoes. Say her father had brought them by mistake. She would ask Frauline where Hannah’s school was and take them, after school, Natasha would help her find the address, it would have to be past the church row, past the 1910er Zelt and all the meeting halls, past the railroad station with its tattered, wind-blown movie posters and political ads, past the terrace of city hall where the big red flags, with their huge crooked arm crosses, waved in the maniacal wind and cast fluttering cape-like shadows, past all this familiar terrain, Lisel was sure, there was a place for the reeducation of Hannah and where Hannah might be even now, barefoot and wondering where her shoes went. She hoped that Hannah had not outgrown her shoes and that she might be grateful for Lisel’s profound trouble. That way she could say she was practicing charity and neither her mother nor her father could say she had been wrong to do it. It would be beautiful in the morning. It would be like Cinderella. It would give her day a sense of purpose. It would be beautiful in the morning.
* * *
Natasha was there, her beaming, vapid face in the morning light materializing like the skin on warm milk. Lisel had fallen asleep at the piano again. In her dream, they were having a party. Everyone she knew was there and playing parlor games and eating cupcakes and strudel and the piano was playing, Lisel was playing the piano, everyone was in costumes and dancing, her father was dancing with Natasha, everyone was laughing, screaming for Lisel to play a dancing tune but instead of waltzes all that was coming out of the piano was Mozart’s requiem, people were frowning at her and throwing things around the room in protest as in Vaudeville, but when she tried to recall the good music, she looked down at her hands and saw all these little puppet strings tugging at her fingers, holding them fast down, busying them over the somber line of notes like sparrows falling on stones. The notes became a siren. Everyone ran out of the room breaking things as they went. The bust of Hitler tumbled into the floor and laughed at her. Lisel was moving her lips, dumb shouts pouring out, “Where is Hannah Goldstein? Someone must wake my mother!” but the sirens were so loud, they sucked the air and all the words right out of the room and through the shattering windows, and then Natasha was shaking her shoulders hard.
Lisel rubbed her forehead where the piano had left a line because she had been leaning against it all night.
“Natasha,” she said. “We should wake my mother.”
Natasha said there was no time. There was school today. She would be late. There was only time to get her satchel, put on her shoes. The shoes had a hole in them.
“Natasha, my shoes have a hole in them,” she said.
Natasha said, “Can’t have that.” It was that way Natasha had of making things seem all right for a time.
Lisel went upstairs, gathered her things, kissed her mother good-bye. Her mother did not move. There was a sweet, sickly smell in her breath. Her face was smeared with lipstick, a puffy, implacable mess. Lisel decided to tell Natasha about the shoes on the way to school. She and Natasha went out the door, past the rancid coat of her father, into the impossible, dizzying daylight. She told Natasha about the shoes, and also that she was hungry, that everyone had forgotten about breakfast, that it wasn’t right that she should have new shoes and no breakfast. Natasha, for the first time ever, was visibly vexed. She apologized for Lisel’s not having any breakfast in that way of hers that deflected any fault. She was, for the first time, just a girl, a stupid girl of fourteen, but she took the shoes out of Lisel’s satchel and, when they came to the footbridge at the Ruhr, she dropped them into the river. Lisel watched them flow outward until they were but two floating pieces of debris, two dark, moving pixels in the swarm of water and sunlight. She hoped in the most childish quadrant of her heart that the river would take the shoes to where Hannah was camping, but she knew better, she knew the shoes would go the way of water and ruination and she knew that Hannah too, was moving somewhere fast and steady down the line, her inky eyes dissolving in the swollen currents. And she did not care. There had been no breakfast this morning. She did not even think what would she tell her father. And she thought, too––she could still have been dreaming––that she saw her father walk past them––wearing his glasses again and out of uniform, in a blue pullover and trousers, his clothes somehow clumsy, out of date––walk past them and not say anything, but it could have been just another man to whom they were just another girl and just another, smaller girl. And it occurred to Lisel that it was not November at all but April again. The birds fluttered up out of the small trees on the other side of the river, trying with their cacophonous, shrill outcries to make sense and music of another springtime in Germany.