by Nathan Sweem
Kriemhilde spied shadows of clouds through a classroom window and admired with innocent jealousy how they played freely along the peaked rooftops. Sketches of the Rhineland architecture and the sodden landscape which surrounded it often found themselves penciled into the squished margins of her school books. Fanciful castles, too, appeared in their cramped edges, grown out of the semblances of buildings in town with their tallest corners exaggerated into grandiose spires, and buttresses added where she could find room. The finest of these was where she imagined she’d live with Sigfrid, the boy who sat ahead of her, after they’d married.
After school, Kriemhilde started home on Enkenbach’s only paved street, then veered onto a dirt road that ran between nearby houses. That one converged with others that wound through neighborhoods all the way to hers. Alone along the way, she made a game out of leaping across potholes filled with lingering rainwater. When she arrived, however, her levity was struck down by a scene of distress. She found her mother Philistine and two sisters Phili and Irmgard huddled around the dining table in tears. Soldiers, they told, had raided Papa’s factory and taken him along with their older brother Siegfried.
“What did they do wrong?” Her older sister, Phili, asked.
“Nothing,” Mama affirmed.
Mama relayed what neighbors had witnessed and told her, that soldiers raided the factory looking for the Jews who worked there, Max and Hugo. Kriemhilde didn’t know what a Jew was or why that mattered, but she knew Max and Hugo. Her father Ludwig treated everyone who worked in his factory like family, those two included.
“Did they find them?” Kriemhilde asked.
Before Philistine could give an answer, everyone hushed at the sound of a subtle knock at the front door. Mama glided over and let in a man who wore the recognizable field-grey uniform of a soldier. Tall, black boots clicked on the wood floor. Dark hair neatly cropped in the military fashion framed wolfish eyes that made Kriemhilde’s hackles raise. She gave him an ugly look.
He came no further than the entrance, where he produced a document from a breast pocket. He handed it to Philistine and told her that Ludwig and Siegfried were being held temporarily along with others as part of the effort to locate the individuals listed. She told him that they knew nothing.
“The sooner that people come forward with information, the sooner everyone will be released,” he appealed in a raspy voice that Kriemhilde didn’t trust. Then he left.
Mama locked the door behind him and brought the note back to the table to peruse. It listed Max and Hugo as wanted persons and iterated that to provide assistance to wanted persons was considered a crime. She shucked it with disdain. It settled on the table.
“What do we do?” Phili wondered.
“After dinner.,” Philistine suggested. “Much easier to think on a full stomach.”
They had the quietest meal. Grief mixed with anger roiled beneath the surface. Philistine lamented her husband’s absence especially, and voiced concern over him and their son missing a meal.
“We could bring them food,” Kriemhilde suggested.
“If only we could,” Mama expressed.
Phili’s eyes glinted with inspiration, and she added between mouthfuls, “I know that the soldiers are keeping everyone at the station. I know the way there.”
“Better to stay away from the station,” her mother warned. “Besides, dinner wouldn’t survive the trip.”
The rebellious thought nagged, and Phili elaborated, “We could make them something else that we could carry more easily.”
“Like what?” her mother challenged.
Phili mulled the question over her next bite, then answered, “Schneckerdudel.”
Philistine laughed and the younger girls giggled. Phili broke a smile, but her eyes were serious. “I know how to make them, if we have the ingredients. Like you always say, where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Philistine capitulated. The thrill all over Phili’s face excited the younger girls. The quest lifted spirits. They made a full batch of schneckerdudel, more than Papa and Siegfried could eat at once.
The station occupied by the soldiers was on the far side of town. Kriemhilde volunteered to accompany her older sister. They needed to make the round trip before nightfall.
“We’ll be quick,” Kriemhilde promised.
“Swift as Walküren!” Mama said, “Hide from anyone you see on the road. Make it back safely.”
The girls stuffed their pockets until they overflowed with schneckerdudel. Kriemhilde brimmed with excitement. They slipped out the door.
Phili led the way and her younger sister followed closely alongside. A waxing gibbous moon, tinted red, rose early before a blossoming sunset. The roads were clear. The girls weaved between squat houses. Lights flickered on in scattered anticipation of dusk that loomed behind them. Kriemhilde was unafraid. She noted landmarks as they faded in the waning sunlight. They arrived at the station without a single disturbance.
Before the soldiers took over, the building had been used to house a modest detachment of police. A rude, boisterous noise spilled through cracks under the doors. The place lacked a proper jail, however, and the prisoners were instead locked down below in a cellar. The girls crept around to the opposite side and found a window near ground level opened just a crack, too narrow for even Kriemhilde to squeeze through. They huddled together around the glass and strained to search the dim interior.
Still figures clothed in drab work garments and dusty boots lined the wall. They saw a number of faces they recognized, workers from Papa’s furniture factory. Siegfried was among them. A shade of worry overtook his face at the sight of them. Then they saw Papa, and he came to meet them, utterly shocked. The girls’ excitement reached its height as he neared the window. Then a noise from the main level of the building made everyone jump.
“Scat!” a soldier’s voice shouted, followed by a bout of half-drunken laughter muffled behind the walls.
Kriemhilde clasped a hand across her mouth to smother a laugh. Phili and Ludwig did the same. Everyone’s face puffed a little more with every chuckle caught in their cheeks.
Ludwig mouthed confusion at their presence. The girls showed him by gently lifting the smuggled goods from their pockets. Hints of cinnamon wafted under their noses from the schneckerdudel freed from captivity. They displayed them in the window for Papa, whose expression made a silent burst of surprise and joy. They passed the treats through one by one. Papa dispersed them among his fellow prisoners, then motioned for the girls to vacate. Mission accomplished, the girls silently wished their father goodbye with waves and huge smiles, then skulked back onto the road. Once out of earshot of the soldiers, all their pent up giddiness bubbled out of them in spurts of disbelief at what they had done.
“Right under their noses!” Phili exclaimed.
“It’s getting dark,” Kriemhilde reminded her sister.
They raced the sunset at a brisk walk. They popped through the front door with a gust of chill air and Mama gave them a tight embrace, noticing the lack of bulges in their pockets.
“The schneckerdudels?” she asked.
“Delivered,” Phili reported.
The girls told her how they snuck across town to the station undetected, and how happy Papa and the others were to see them. They also bragged at how the soldiers in the station were so busy drinking and playing cards to catch them delivering the pastries right through the window.
“How many were there with Papa and Sieg?”
“Everyone from the factory,” Phili guessed.
Philistine staggered at the thought. But she was quick to express pride in their bravery, and told them, “You did a good thing today.”
“Can we bring them more food tomorrow?” Kriemhilde requested. Phili seconded.
“We don’t know how long Papa and Sieg will be there,” Philistine reminded, “So, we’ll see tomorrow.”
When Papa didn’t show the following day, the girls carried out another supply drop to the prisoners, this time of liverwurst sandwiches sliced small enough to fit in the palm of Kriemhilde’s hand and wrapped carefully in butcher paper. The day after, still no Papa. The girls ran another payload through the blockade. They had to vacate the road to avoid being seen by passing vehicles more than once, but they remained undetected. Papa and Siegfried returned on the third day. After the initial excitement, Philistine and the girls wanted to know every detail of what had happened to them.
“The soldiers came with a letter saying you were arrested because they were looking for Hugo and Max,” Philistine mentioned.
Ludwig nodded, and said, “They came to the factory again, but a dozen of them this time, armed with machine pistols.”
“What about Hugo and Max?”
“They are safe.”
“We hid them in the back of the lorry, across the street,” Sieg shared.
“Did they really arrest everybody?” Phillipine asked.
“Yes, they did,” Ludwig confirmed. “Nobody would tell them what they wanted to hear. They came waving a paper just like this one,” Ludwig said, and grabbed the soldier’s letter from the table. Then crumpled it up, took it to the living room, and tossed it into the wood stove. He dusted off his hands, and declared, “No one is going to say a thing about Hugo or Max to anybody. No matter how many pieces of paper they shove in our faces.”
“Where are they now? Surely they haven’t been in the back of the lorry this whole time, it’s been days.”
“They have a safe place to hide,” Ludwig informed, “And they’ll stay there for as long as needed.”
“But what does this all mean?” Philistine’s face was riddled with agony and confusion.
“Did they really do something wrong?” Phili asked.
“No,” Papa said firmly. “You know them, they are good people. They’re family.”
“But what if they arrest you again?” Phili voiced.
Ludwig saw the concern on her face, and told her, “Do you remember the story about Rahab, when she hid the two Israelites?”
“The King of Jericho knew that the Israelites had gone into Rahab’s house. He sent soldiers there to find them,” Ludwig recounted.
“She hid them,” Phili added.
“Absolutely. She hid them on her roof. And when the soldiers came looking for them, she told them that the Israelites had left. That’s what we’re going to do. The soldiers can ask us as many times as they want. We’re going to keep telling them that we don’t know where Max or Hugo went.”
Phili was comforted for the time being, but not Philistine.
“But what does this mean? How many times are they going to come around arresting people? Are Hugo and Max supposed to keep hiding forever?”
The unanswered questions opened the gates for uncertainty, which brought in a flood of tension with it. Papa and Mama became trapped in it. It filled their entire home. There was no outlet for it. They had to live with it. Everyone tried to resume normalcy, but there was none. Papa and Sieg went back to the factory in the morning. Kriemhilde went back to school. Everyone went through the motions, but nothing was ever the same. All the small things that the family had done to tap their forehead at the soldiers had suddenly fallen silent under a tremendous fear that grew more suffocating each day.
Kriemhilde’s walk to school felt different, quieter. She found herself tiptoeing around puddles rather than frolicking through them. The slightest unexpected sounds triggered adrenaline-filled flashes redolent of her and Phili’s evening excursions to the prisoners that made her want to dart out of sight. The restlessness carried on into the classroom to such an extant that she hardly remembered a thing from the lessons afterwards.
No relief was found upon returning home. Papa devoured newspapers and cigarettes faster than ever. Mama waited for life to return to normal the way a sailor’s wife waited for her husband to return from sea. Irmgard and Phili found sound sleep an extreme difficulty. Nightmares haunted Kriemhilde of soldiers who burst through the door to arrest a different family member each night. When her turn came, she kicked and wailed.
The soldiers grew more and more bold in town. She saw fewer and fewer people outside on her walks. When she did, it was out of the corner of her eye and only for the briefest moments. Then they scurried out of sight like mice. The whole town was drowning in fear.
School changed, too. And so did her friends. Even Sigfrid. He started to wear the Deustches Jungvolk uniform and his eyes looked dead. He hardly ever smiled, and he refused to speak to her. The teacher started to wear a uniform, as well. She wanted to stop going, but couldn’t.
One morning, Papa stopped her at the door on her way out, the invisible sludge of anxiety up to his neck. Sieg had already gone to the factory. Mama sat teary-eyed in the kitchen while Phili helped to keep Irmgard entertained. Papa’s face told her that he had no good news to share.
“Kriemhilde,” he huffed, keeping his voice low as if he wanted to share a secret. He stooped to meet her eye level. Beads of sweat teetered along the edge of his forehead. His breath was sour with cigarette smoke. Glassy, reddened eyes peeked over the circular frames of his reading glasses. “Take this with you.”
He unwrapped a lime satin cloth to reveal a Derringer pistol with an ivory handle. It was small enough to fit comfortably in her palm. The metallic shine of its polished frame reflected in Papa’s glasses. He handed it to her and told her to conceal it in her book bag.
“It’s loaded. Don’t take it out of your bag unless you have to use it. This is in case any soldiers try to stop you on your way to school. If any of them try to talk to you or ask you questions—”
“I won’t tell them anything,” Kriemhilde promised.
“I know. But if they try to take you, don’t go with them. Run away as fast as you can.”
“This is in case they try to stop you from getting away. If that happens, shoot them, and run away. Don’t kill them,” he emphasized with forefinger raised, “Shoot them in the foot and run away as fast as you can. It only has one bullet. Don’t use it unless you absolutely have to.”
She agreed, for lack of a better response. She trusted Papa. But that didn’t help her confusion. Nor the hollow feeling of family members drifting apart. She felt lost in her own home.
“Remember David and Goliath?” he asked her.
“David knocked down the giant Goliath with a single shot. One shot is all you need.”
He tucked it into her bag against her notebook. Its weight was negligible. Due to its size, it looked like a silly thing, like nothing more than a fancy toy. She hurried to school, and the day rushed past her. Things seemed to move too quickly for her to make up her mind about it.
She scampered home with her head down under a heavy rain. Flooded roads forced her to change her route more than once. The sky was so black with clouds by mid-afternoon that the town was practically dark as night already. She strayed closer to the soldier’s station than she had intended and didn’t realize this was the case until a black covered kübelwagen careened around the corner and zoomed past her. The driver spotted her through the rain and turned around to pull up right in front of her, blocking her path. It was the soldier’s captain.
“Stop,” he ordered, stepping out into the downpour.
Kriemhilde faced him and glowered her meanest. She held her bag close to her chest and poised herself with a deep-set frown.
“Wouldn’t you like a ride? You’re getting soaked!” he yelled over the precipitation.
Kriemhilde shook her head, No.
The captain insisted and stepped closer, heading to corner her against the nearby building. She stood her ground and met his vulpine smile with grave determination. Her hand slipped inside the book bag and cupped itself around the pistol handle. The ivory grip felt smooth and snug in her palm. She wasn’t sure if she had to use it until the captain came within arm’s reach and completely blocked her way to the road. She drew the pistol and leveled it against the captain’s foot. His ugly jackboot was too big to miss.
“Away!” she cried and squeezed the trigger.
The gun popped. The captain flinched like he’d planted his foot on an upturned nail. His face clenched momentarily until a torrent of profanities spewed from his lips. He toppled against the idling vehicle, grasping his leg and foot in pain.
The way was clear.
Kriemhilde flew past him and around the nearest corner, across the road. The weather was her ally and covered her maneuvers through the neighborhoods and back home. Her arrival brought relief to her family that had been concerned for her delay, until they noticed the gun in her hand. She didn’t realize that she was still holding it until they pointed it out.
“I shot him,” she told them, “In the foot. He was going to take me.”
“The solider,” she said.
Kriemhilde recounted the incident to her family. Papa retrieved the weapon and confirmed that it had been fired. He fetched the lime satin cloth to wipe it down and put it away. Oddly, that was when the sea of murk that had engulfed his face seemed to drain away. A wave of solace washed over him and took fear with it out the door.
“That settles it,” he decided. “No need to wait another day. We’ll leave tonight.”
“Leave where?” Phili asked.
Sieg slipped out to the factory while the others gathered what they could carry. He returned with the factory lorry, which they used to deliver furniture. It contained a few tables and cabinets in the back. Siegfried shoved these aside to reveal ample room for Philistine and the girls. They climbed in with armfuls of their belongings. Then Sieg moved the furniture back into place, secured it with rope, and layered canvas sheets over the tops and sides to conceal them from outside view.
Kriemhilde huddled close to Phili in the dark. Mama and Irmgard snuggled directly across from them with everyone’s feet lined up in a row side-by-side. Papa rode in the cab while Sieg drove. His door slammed shut, and the truck crept forward.
“How far away is Denmark?” Phili asked.
“A long drive away,” Philistine replied. “You should try to get some rest. I bet we’ll be there by the time you wake up.”
The combined heat from the four of them made the back of the lorry comfortable enough. Rain pattered steadily on the roof. The truck rumbled and swayed along a winding provincial road. They drifted to sleep, one after another.
Kriemhilde lingered awake until the last. The dark was unsettling. The belongings clutched in her arms were the only tangible remains of home. The rest, house and all, drifted into the darkness behind them. She recalled the station cellar where Papa had been kept prisoner; how cramped he and the others had looked squatting shoulder-to-shoulder in the dark; how careless the soldiers had been; and the soldiers’ laughter. She closed her eyes and imagined the truck soared into the sky. The soldiers’ carousing faded into the void while she drifted soundly asleep among her favorite clouds.
She awoke in a strange place where a different language was spoken. Their new house, a temporary one, Papa said, was confined and awkward. He found work as a repair man while Sieg made deliveries part-time. Phili was gone most of the time, as well, apprenticing as a seamstress several blocks away. Kriemhilde spent most of her time reading with Mama and playing with Irmgard. Each day brushed up against the next with little room in between and no end in sight.
When the war ended, the family returned to a town half-deserted. Normal was gone forever. But so were the soldiers. And it was safe outside again.
Nathan Sweem served five years as an Army linguist. He writes fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. His work has appeared in Land Beyond the World Magazine, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Message Magazine, and others.