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EVERYTHING IS TO REMAIN AS IT IS
It was early March, drizzle-cold, and the world outside our window was noisy. Military vehicles rumbled down the road, and refugees and displaced Germans created a constant traffic from the east, their wagons overloaded with pots and blankets.
My older sister Hilde burst into the house trailing a conversation behind her like an unraveling scarf. "They say Ivan is getting closer. They say —"
"That's enough." Mutti was in the kitchen taking bread out of the oven. "And you will please lower your voice. Katja is practicing."
But I'd heard. Ivan was the Soviets. That was what everyone called them — as if they were one man, the size of an entire army, wearing giant kirza boots.
Hilde wandered into the sitting room. "Don't you have anything better to do?"
"Who told you that?" I asked quietly. "About Ivan?"
"A girl. I don't know. I don't ask their names anymore."
Right. It was like naming barn cats. You called them Cat or Mouser, and then your heart didn't get broken every time they moved on. But I always asked their names. A name could be held on your tongue, like chocolate.
A name can dissolve. I didn't want to think about that, but sitting at my piano working on the Moonlight Sonata, it was difficult not to.
I persisted. "What did she say?"
"Nothing," Hilde said. "It's nothing to worry about."
"Stop treating me like a baby." I was sixteen — old enough, I felt, to know the truth about what was going on.
That morning I'd heard the radio, before Mutti had shut it off. "Everything is to remain as it is," the Nazi Gauleiter announced. "The German population is in no immediate danger." I wanted to believe him, but his voice was full of forced calm — like we were panicked horses a startle away from bolting. Even I could tell the people from the east were fleeing their homes. Was the danger like typhus? Would it spread?
Hilde went back to lingering by the side door, waiting for the postman — these days we never knew when he'd show up — while I practiced the opening arpeggios of the Moonlight's third movement in the right hand. The first bars were charged with fury, hard to play without my fingers getting tangled. It took up enough of my attention that I could ignore my sister's smug look: I'm waiting for a love letter. All you can do is play that stupid piano.
Hilde was like a planet; the force of gravity around her drew men in. She was taller than I was, and prettier, and had nicer hair. Even the postman was in love with her, and he was at least sixty years old. I'd never had a boyfriend. But what did I care? A piano didn't run off to war hoping for a fancy belt buckle that said Gott mit uns — God with us — like Hilde's boyfriend did.
"Beethoven wasn't pleased with this sonata," Herr Goldstein had told me during one of our lessons. It was winter and the cellar was especially cold. He'd brought down a mug of warm water for my hands, and we both kept our coats on. A yellow Star of David was sewn conspicuously across his. "He considered it inferior to his other pieces for piano."
"How could he think that?" I said. "It's the best sonata he ever wrote."
"I agree." My piano teacher gave one of his theatrical shrugs. "But an artist is rarely satisfied with his own work. Look at you, how hard you are on yourself."
The memory was even sweeter than the smell of Mutti's bread. He had called me an artist.
But I was an artist with small hands. Anything more than an octave reach was too much of a stretch, so Herr Goldstein had doctored up the sonata, crossing off nonessential notes to make the bigger chords manageable.
"For God's sake, stop playing the same bits over and over," Hilde shouted from the door. "You'll make us all crazy."
"It's called practicing," I said. "It's how you get better."
When the postman arrived, she stepped outside and asked, "Anything for me?"
"No, my dear. I'm sorry," he said in a softened voice.
I didn't know why she bothered waiting for mail anymore. There hadn't been a letter from her boyfriend, Paul, in months. These days most mail arrived in black-bordered envelopes, like the news of Papi's death. The postman had the worst job, handing over those envelopes and watching people's faces crumple. Papi's farm jacket still hung in the closet — smelling like the hay fields, expecting his return.
Hilde's skinny, pimpled boyfriend, Paul: if he was all that stood between us and the Soviets, we were in trouble.
Mutti darkened the doorway between kitchen and sitting room. "The bedsheets should be ready for scrubbing now."
I groaned. Washing bedsheets was a three-day chore. They'd been soaking in soapy water since yesterday, in gigantic pots in the pig kitchen.
Hilde glared at me. "Today you're helping."
"Herr Goldstein said it's not good for my hands," I said.
"Herr Goldstein isn't your teacher anymore."
"Hilde." Mutti gave her a pointed look. Herr Goldstein was one of those names that silenced a room and made everyone pretend to be busy.
"And I don't care about your delicate hands." Hilde flicked her long hair back. "You didn't make her help yesterday," she said to Mutti. "It's not fair."
Hilde was eighteen, but my piano playing reduced her to a whiny five-year-old.
"All you did yesterday was boil the water," I said. "You didn't need my help."
"All you did was play the same notes you're playing today," Hilde said. "You're not even getting any better."
"Shut up. That's not true."
"Girls." The dirty washrag was in Mutti's hand. One of us would get it in a second. "You will help this morning, Katja. The piano isn't going anywhere."
I wanted to work on putting the right and left hands together in the opening bars, but I would have to do it later. I rose reluctantly, exchanged my house shoes for wooden clogs, and went outside. The winter snow had melted and the ground was thawing, but the world was in that in-between stage where everything looked brown and bare and smelled like sour chicken shit. The mud sucked at my clogs as I crossed the small yard to our barn.
The pig kitchen was dim and cold and smelled of the boiled potatoes we cooked for the pigs. A hint of manure lingered from the other side of the barn, even with the door closed. Three large buckets in the middle of the room held the soaking bedsheets. In a corner sat a basket of potatoes from last year's harvest.
Mutti brought out the washboards and we began scrubbing. The bedsheets were heavy when they were wet. After ten minutes my arms ached. Mutti used to sing when she worked, but that was before Papi had been killed. Now she just worked, hair pulled tight into a bun, face pulled tighter with determination. The back-and-forth scrubbing reminded me of the dull noise of marching soldiers.
"Ach, Katarina, do a better job," Mutti said. "It's all for nothing if they don't come out clean."
Hilde gave me one of her looks. "I'm not redoing the sheets because of you."
There was a blur of sound in the background, as if the crowd on the road had swelled. I heard it, then set it aside, more concerned about how I would practice the piece I was preparing for Mutti's birthday without her finding out. It was by Schumann, her favorite composer, from a collection of Lieder Herr Goldstein had given me.
Suddenly the blurred sound clarified into shouts and shooting.
Panic rose like fire on Mutti's face. "Stop. Stop the washing."
We crowded around the small window. Soldiers with rifles ran across the field, noise exploding everywhere. Our neighbor stood beside his cows with his hands in the air.
My whole body prickled. "But the Gauleiter said ..."
Everything was to remain as it was. Wasn't that why we were washing the sheets?
Mutti rushed us across the soggy yard and into the still-warm kitchen without even changing her shoes. She pulled the portrait of Hitler off the wall and threw it behind the compost pot. Supporting Hitler was one of those things we'd been pretending about for years. You pretended, or you got in trouble.
"Into the attic." She was shoving us out of the kitchen when three soldiers burst through the front door — the door reserved for guests. They wore long coats, heavy boots, and helmets. Eyes wild, breathing hard, they pointed their rifles at us and my heart thudded into my knees.
Mutti grabbed a cookie sheet and held it in front of us like a shield.
"Nemetski?" one soldier asked.
Mutti looked confused. "We are German."
The soldiers stomped through the house in their muddy boots, opening closets and cupboards, rattling the cups and saucers of Mutti's coffee sets — the ones with a man and woman having a picnic under a willow tree. One of them found the piano and leaned on an octave of bass notes with his forearm.
Another pointed at me. "Papa here?"
"Nee," I said.
Beside me Mutti stiffened. Don't speak out. It was one of her wartime rules. But surely the soldiers would figure it out. There were no men left in the village anymore except grandfathers and young boys.
"My husband will be back soon," Mutti said in a confident voice.
When a soldier put out his cigarette on the floor, I grimaced. Savages.
The men found a bottle of Papi's schnapps, cheered, and took it outside. We watched from the window as they opened the barn doors and fence gates, and our cows, pigs, and chickens filed out onto the road. There went our milk, meat, eggs — and not just ours. Mutti sold food at the market in town.
"If Ivan is here, that means the war is almost over, doesn't it?" Hilde asked in a quiet voice.
"Almost over," Mutti said. "And just beginning."
A wave of unease rose inside me. I waited for her to tell us it was time to go back to the bedsheets. I was chilled, my sleeves still damp from the washing. The fire in the grate had gone cold.
The door burst open again. "Out," said a soldier. He tapped the gold ladies' watch on his arm and held up ten fingers. Then he left.
"What does he mean, out?" I said.
But Mutti was already on her way to the kitchen. "We have ten minutes. Take only what you can carry, and only the important things. Clothes, food. Nothing frivolous. Hurry."
"But why are they making us leave?" I said.
"They have guns," Mutti said. "They don't need a reason."
I felt dizzy. Out meant out. "We can't walk away and leave everything behind." I'd never lived anywhere except in this house. I knew all its bumps and corners by heart.
Hilde glanced at Mutti. "We'll be back soon. Right?"
"It's only temporary," Mutti said.
Outside our window people passed with their horses and wagons, the women riding with the children, the men walking alongside waving long sticks to keep the horses moving. Only temporary? Their wagons were so stuffed it was a wonder they didn't topple over.
Mutti rushed around gathering food. I was surprised to see she already had a bag packed with photographs and clothes — things she must have prepared in advance.
"Where will we go?" I asked.
"I'm sure Aunt Ilse and Uncle Otto will take us in until this blows over," she said. Like a storm, or the smell from the fields when the manure had been spread. She handed us each a bowl and cup, a fork, a shawl. She wrapped up the bread she'd made that morning, and packed all the salami.
I ran to the piano and grabbed my book of Beethoven sonatas, and the book of Schumann's Lieder Herr Goldstein had entrusted to me before he'd gone away. You'll take care of it for me, he'd said. "No, Katja, they're too heavy," Mutti said. "You'll have to choose one."
My heart argued with me back and forth. It was like choosing which kitten to save.
Hilde stood there with her hands on her hips. "What will you do with piano music but no piano?" She always said she was the one God had given all the common sense to.
No piano. I had stepped away from it so easily that morning. You never knew when something would happen for the last time. If you did, you'd cling to every precious second. I stuffed Herr Goldstein's book into my bag and then eyed the piano — the most immoveable instrument of all time — as if there were some way of bringing it. How did you fit a lifetime onto your back? You folded it and folded it until your life was so small it took up almost no space. Out of impulse, I snatched the doily from on top of the piano and stuffed it into my pocket.
I went to the bedroom Hilde and I shared, put on my second dress and my sweater, and packed socks, underclothes, and a blanket. Then I put on my coat. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Hilde pack a hairbrush and the pictures of fancy city clothes she'd cut out of catalogues and taped to our bedroom walls. I suspected Paul's love letters were already in her bag.
Our two beds sat side by side near a tall Kachelöfen. During winter we filled it with wood and coal until the ceramic tile radiated heat and made our room as warm as a cave. On the window there were green curtains — besides the ugly blackout curtains — and through it I could see the pond was thawing.
Mutti stood waiting for us at the side door. She fastened a bucket to my rucksack, stuffed our pockets with food, and said, "We have to go."
None of us wanted to take that first step out the door.
"Hold your head up," Mutti said, leading the way. "We'll leave with dignity, if nothing else."
"Who's going to milk the cows while we're gone?" I asked. The cows would come back to the barn when it was time for milking. They would call out, and be upset if no one came to relieve them of all that milk.
But Mutti didn't answer my question.
"The rhododendrons and lilacs will need a layer of compost." Hilde's voice trembled.
We walked past the pond where a willow trailed its branches in the water like hair; past the vegetable garden, the soil not yet turned for spring. I heard Hilde's heart break. It was a delicate sound, the sheen of ice on a puddle shattering and sinking.
I was surprised to hear Mutti singing. "All the birds are already here." It was a song about spring.
I made myself respond, "All the birds, all." When I was younger I used to put my ear to the earth to listen to it wake up. As the thaw began, I swore I could hear the soil stretch with relief. But this year the ground had been shaken awake by soldiers' boots and, farther away, by bombs and tanks.
Papi had planted two pear trees in the front yard for us girls. I wrapped my arms around one of the rough trunks. I wanted to believe we would come back, to know it the way I knew the return of summer.
"Blackbirds, thrushes, finches, and starlings." Mutti's voice cracked. "Come, Katja. You must make yourself brave."
I tightened my grip on the tree. It was Hilde who eased me away, her arms around me, guiding me as Mutti closed the small wooden gate behind us. It shut with a click.CHAPTER 2
OVER. AFTER. NEVER.
The Autobahn would have been the most direct route to Aunt Ilse and Uncle Otto's place, but it was full of tanks. We took a smaller road, lined with pine trees and jammed full of people like us. I recognized several from our town, including the butcher and his wife. Farmers walked with their cows. Others pushed things in heavy carts that were trussed like Christmas geese. My heart ached at what we had left behind. There hadn't been time to pack up a cart, and Mutti wouldn't have let us anyway.
"Look how they're struggling through the mud," she said to us quietly.
The bucket banged a hundred times against my back. One hundred steps. Or rather, one hundred more steps away from home. "The piano will still be there when we're allowed to go back, right?"
Hilde and Mutti exchanged a look.
"The war is almost over," I added. Surely we'd go home again. Even the dogs on the road must have thought so, the way they kept looking behind them.
"Stop making that face," Hilde said. "Of all the things you could be upset about. It's only a piano."
"What do you know about that?" I said. "All you care about is your hair."
All at once the air filled with a sharp scream and Mutti pulled us behind the trees. Make yourself invisible: it was another wartime rule. A Tiefflieger came out of nowhere, flying barely higher than the trees and shooting at everything. People on the road scattered, ran, fell. I gripped Mutti's hand. The war wasn't on the radio anymore; it didn't echo in empty houses or arrive in black-bordered envelopes. It was right here in front of us.
After that, we chose a narrow path through the fields and forests, sticking together with a group of people — some we knew, many we didn't. The air smelled of smoke and unwashed socks.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "My Long List of Impossible Things"
Copyright © 2020 Michelle Barker (text).
Excerpted by permission of Annick Press.
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