September 2017

Back to Issue 2

Baby’s Breath

By Pym Schaare

“I’m sorry, sorry, sorry,” said the voice in Hannalore’s dream. It came, as it had for the last three months, from Erich’s Aunt. The proper Aunt who had come from Holland to find Haanalore. The Aunt who had kept her promise to find her.

         She had come to tell how Erich’s uncle, her brother, Jan, had spent whole days and nights of a week with him. To help him keep food from trickling out of his mouth. It was the uncle who helped him to the toilet, get the chamber pot from under the bed and helped to keep him on it. But Haanalore knew nothing of this. She had not been able to stand still long enough to hear it from the Aunt who had promised to tell her. And to tell her he loved her like life itself.

           On that day Haanalore felt she was truly on her own: that she was teetering on some precipice of disaster she had no way of recovering from, no way to secure a grip on her sanity. This was one incident after too many others that allowed no comfort. It was another death that enveloped her.

           After hours of wandering around, she finally decided to go home. At least there was a certain continuity there. Papi would either be home, or not. Either way she could sit at her window and try to think of nothing at all. If that was possible, then perhaps she could pretend all the losses hadn’t happened.

           But it wasn’t that easy. On her way up the stairs, there were shadows that walked with her. They didn’t clomp like she did in her heavy boots. They just slid up alongside her, quietly: Mutti, Monica, Erich. Their silence, as much as their absence, louder than any noise she had ever heard. It was soundless sadness that surrounded them as they floated and flitted around her. They covered her with each footstep she made toward her apartment door.

          Once inside, the shadows stayed. Their journey seemingly ended. But that didn’t stop her from making arrangements to deal with them. As Papi wasn’t home, she had plenty of time to think it through. On her own, she walked around the apartment, each time thinking of a loss and what it meant to her. That she had earned solace was a trick she had learned when held captive many months ago, another year ago.

          In that place of captivity, she walked around. Not physically. But in her mind. She practiced walking that room daily. Her mental footprints learning the width and breadth of it. Sometimes walking around the room, holding a cup of cocoa. A comforting distraction. Taking big gulps of the liquid, as it swilled around in her mug, spills resulted. Puddles were made. She wiped them up. And kept going.

         Other times, she swallowed huge mouthfuls. Without spills. She watched the patterns on the walls change from grubby to cracked, to peeling paint. It was this that gave her a feel for how she would traverse the room, once she planned how to get free of it. If she knew the geography: the geometry that shaped the room, she was sure to access an escape from its shape when the time was right.

          That night, as it darkened, she longed for Papi to be home. But she knew his work or a barter could have kept him out late. When she finally fell asleep on the lounge, a room she didn’t use that much because of the heating, her dreams were calming until the shadows found their way in. The shock woke her with a scream when Papi came to pat her, “Are you alright?” 

         When she told him about Erich, he hugged her until the sobbing stopped. Only then did she have the fortitude to go to her own room. With the already morning light making long stripes of gold on their lounge carpet, Haanalore disappeared down the hallway. As an invitation for action, it was too daunting.

         Tired from the outpouring of every tear she thought she had, Haanalore went to bed to sleep. She slept for three days, on and off. In those three days she had no desire for anything. She became part of the weave of memories, and they stitched her into the linen of her bed. 

         But when she finally came around, she had managed to store the new sadness alongside old beloved childhood memoires. Order and logic now reigned, where before chaos had kept her prisoner.

         She was amazed at the speed at which she rolled out of bed that morning. Her entry into the kitchen surprised even Papi. The expression on his face showed he wasn’t sure whether to ask a question, or to pamper her through breakfast. The answer to that wasn’t far away, as she took the lead in slicing the bread. With just enough to leave for tomorrow, she dusted her hands of the crumbs that lingered there. Done.

          But not quite. Haanalore was shocked at the spasm of fear she experienced as she told Papi she would be going to Monica’s to visit her mother. The feeling had brought her near to her knees. She shook herself free of her near faint, but with almost every move, the fear had a way of spiralling its way through her body. She wondered about a reprieve. But the thumping around her chest for most of that day was a hint it would not be so.

          At Monica’s house, she revealed all to Monica’s mother. “Call me Mutti. I’m sure Monica would agree. With all the gruesomeness of this war I am sure she is looking upon us with affection,” Mutti added with a sadness in her voice, which belied the remark, but retained a surety about it being right. So it was done. Her now new Mutti took her to the room she had shared so many times with her best friend, Monica.

          She brought out a box. And laid it on the bed near where Haanalore sat. When she left the room, Haanalore prised the lid off the box. The Schmuck, the trinkets spilled onto the bed. She lifted a charm bracelet. Between her fingers the tiny figures of a ballerina, a rose-gold boot, a miniature merry-go-round, and the last, a key, danced and jangled to the ether of childhood possibilities.

         The charms were from a long time ago. She landed them back in the box, gently, noiselessly. When Mutti entered the room, she sat beside Haanalore, hugging her close. Mutti took her mothering very seriously. She began, “You know Haanalore, it is important to keep track of your menstrual cycle. There is danger for women when they stop”.

         “At the moment mine are chaotic. There are months I miss completely. Malnourishment doesn’t help, Mutti. It is like this for every girl right now.”           

         Mutti nodded. She looked at Haanlore’s waist, standing her up to make a little more of it, “Your dress is pulling. A little here, and here,” she patted it down to straighten it around her.

          “Malnutrition, Mutti. It bloats your stomach. I feel as if I have to go to the toilet. Constantly. And when I get there, it’s just wind,” she laughed, “The noise of it annoying, inconvenient. But then who cares anymore,” she looked over for validation. “But when it’s real then I have to run for it, or else!”

         The month and a half she spent at Monica’s gave Haanalore the feeling she was reclaiming a time before her sorrows, a time of childhood, a time with her best friend’s Mutti, because hers was gone: the one who first helped fit her with a Bustenhalter, a garment which holds the breasts, the bra. And when she thought of Papi, she felt fear catching her deep in her chest. That her knees would give way as they would not remember how to hold her up to go back home felt brutal. Erich, Erich, Erich, Papi.

          It vanished. As quickly as it had come over her. She pictured Papi there, imagined their greeting, a celebration of safety. Finally the train came. The service to Berlin was not easy to access due to continued air raids. On the train she hoped her building was still upright. Papi would be home. While she watched other passengers in her carriage she wondered about their ventures for the day. Were they like her, returning home from a stay away?

          When she entered her street from the safer side, she saw the shapes she knew. “Details, details, you can’t discuss details with you,” she heard. The angry voice continued, “You are always looking over your shoulder.”

           She looked left and right thinking she was hearing things. This sounded like Mutti when she was there, angry, afraid. But when she looked carefully she saw it was not so. It was another Mutti who was afraid of what Hitler was doing to their lives. A last look and she saw the husband usher the Mutti with a gentle hand on her shoulder. The Mutti quietened.

With her key out and ready to unlock her door, she felt like she was coming home. But a step inside changed that. She felt uneasy at the sense of absence in her apartment. The quiet was brittle and fragile, as if the air itself was glass and she would be walking on it, crunching as she went through the rooms.

        A quick perusal of each room was just enough to sniff out its empty scent. In the kitchen, she saw the cupboard where the food was kept, empty, its tidiness not of her Papi’s doing. She tried for the bathroom where she found a towel hung a little skewwhiff. She imagined if Papi had the time he would have manoeuvred it to sit square with the corner of the room. In his bedroom she found similar tardiness. The drawer where his ties were kept was not quite closed. Not quite right-angled with the geometry of the room.  

          Haanalore’s next stop was to her bedroom. It was to look for the clue. Between them they had worked out a code for the possibility of him being taken. As a Kommie, Papi knew he was a target for the Getsapo on the lookout to make a larger sum, a bigger contribution to their loyalty for Hitler. The clue was right there where they had planned it to be. They had agreed that if the event was a political one, then the yellow strand out of place under the runner on her dresser was enough to let her know, and to take care that she would not be next. And taken again. 

         Her anxiety escalated immediately. Fear crouching itself into every part of her body. She had to pull herself to upright to fight it. With a deep breath she took the day ahead of her in hand. There would be no hiding from herself. She would get on with her everyday domestics as well as she could. Food had to be bartered for. She went to the drawer where the prise for the barter were kept, and went into action for the black market offerings.

         It wasn’t an easy day. Arriving at the designated place, she waited for that tell-tale sign that her barter would eventuate. There out of the corner of her eye she caught the movement of someone trying for a place in the shadows while also garnering one of revelation. The glance was swift.

         Completing each exchange, her fear grew. But she didn’t let it show. To avoid any extraneous conversation was the key to a faster return home. Minimal was what she opted for. “Und so, and so, have you bread?”

          “Yes,” came a quick response, “But I need cigarettes”.

           Haanalore’s hand moved slowly to her pocket inside the lining of her coat, “I have nearly half a packet.”

           A hard look crossed between them. An uncomfortable wait ensued. Haanalore held her position. After some time, a slow, “Alright then.”

          The handover, “And I need flour, lard and speck,” resulted in another dark, hard look, a frown to go with it this time.

          “I have silk stockings, two pairs,” to make the frown disappear.

          Her partner no happier with this exchange, grunted.

          “Some tea too,” Haanalore requested.

          The frown was aided this time with the heavy brush of the owner’s hand across it to mark its definite difficulty of procuring such items, “You know it gets harder each time to get my stock”.

          Haanalore not deterred, reached even more slowly into the pocket holding what was meant to show what was left of her bartering power, “So,” she said feeling around in her pockets to accentuate the paucity of her power. As she pulled out the other half packet of cigarettes, she held it between them. She was stalked again with that same offensive look.

          An even gruffer grunt emanated, “Alright, I need to leave. I have other business to attend to. So you are lucky.

 If she had known she could be this firm a long time ago, she would have chosen this method earlier. Hindsight makes a wonderful lie out of ethics.

That night she kept her normal routine. After a wave from the woman from the end of her street, the woman in her oversize dress, Haanalore made for a smart retreat inside.

        Inside the kitchen, she put her bags down. They had gotten heavy and she was glad of their release. The bench held them well for her to separate them into their designated places: the kitchen cupboard for the bread, the flour and the small ration of sugar, the shelf above the stove for the measly tea leaves, and the cooler for the lard and speck. 

         As she left the breadboard out with the half loaf on it, the rest in the cupboard, she thought about where Papi might be. She also thought his return possible. It might take the rest of the war for that. She had no illusions that he would be the same Papi. She promised herself rather belligerently not continue to dwell on any more ideas lurking around for sad outcomes.  

         Instead she went into her room to change. She went about emptying her knapsack from her stay at Monica’s. Her bed, a mess of clothes, would be put right quickly. With the tidy up came a semblance of order to her day. She took off the clothes she had worn, glad to be rid of them. She chose comfortable pyjamas before going back into the kitchen to make her supper.

          As the cold began to sneak in under her skin, Hannalore took her dressing gown from its hook under the picture rail. It was where the picture of her with both Mutti and Papi hung. The look of yearning spent itself in seconds. With her face back to normal, she tugged at the cord to tighten the gown around her. But its length was not quite right. She opened it up to see if she had caught its edges in the elastic of her pants, or its length had twisted itself around her. It was not so. With the gown loose, open she began to rub her hands up and down her body’s sides. Again nothing. But before she belted up, she pulled her pyjama bottom down a little where her two hands found their place, gently making a cradle across her stomach.

           She stood still. And in her head she heard the conversations she had with Monica’s Mutti. When she looked down at where her hands had found their comfortable resting place, she was reminded of when she was with her own Mutti, how pregnant women lovingly held their precious gift. But for Haanalore, the prospect was frightening. Slowly as her fingers unpeeled from the curve they had made around her belly, she ran into the kitchen.

           The routine for dinner helped stave off her concern. She had a way of getting on with the pragmatics of life. She didn’t regret what was happening, just thought the timing could have been more fortunate.

         After cutting from the half loaf, she took the speck from the cooler to add something heartier to the two dry rye slices. She knew she should have made an effort to eat more, but found her stomach in somersaults. Her instinct about what was happening had not helped. When she finally turned in, she slept well.

          Going out the next morning to catch the ration queue early, she realised that in the two months since Papi’s disappearance, she had only used the ration card twice. It was a good saving. And she was lucky she got away with her goods with, “Oh Papi couldn’t come today. He’s working.”

          With the stamp from the soft pad in her ration book, her chore was complete. She walked home slowly to take in details she might need for later. She was home before lunch, and knew she would go out again. The dark shadows of death were relentless in their pursuit and invasion of her. And she needed to move. To escape their lurking.

         After dividing her food into what would be used for barter and what would be kept in her kitchen, Haanalore was pleased with how organised she was becoming. She allowed herself some time with her head in a novel. She liked to read, but hadn’t found time for it, or the quiet of mind it required. She opted for it for the normalcy it offered.

          Her reading quota spent, she went about leaving the apartment. Still cold outside, even though spring should have brought more warmth, Haanalore made her way to the mahogany hallstand. .

          She pulled her coat on after looking twice in the mirror to see if her side shape had changed. When she twisted to get more of a view, she saw the slightest of bumps. At any other time it could have been the result of an overeaten meal, or nothing at all.

          Once on the street, Hannalore chose to go left. She hadn’t walked down this end since Papi had last walked with her. She took another moment to look left and right. The rubble there still had not been cleared, but it was no worse than before. She could avoid some of the more disturbing things in amongst it, although she needed to watch her step. She had tripped once and fallen into someone’s dead face, eyes staring, skin blue-grey.

        She took off with a firm tread of her boot on the sturdiest part of the rubble. If it had been like old times, she would have been making her way to Monica, to meet her at the Tiergarten. But it wasn’t. The times were new, beginnings of a kind not easily recognised anymore. Three buildings past hers, and she heard unfamiliar footsteps.

        Someone had just come out of the door of the last building in the block: the one on the end. The one she always checked after an air raid, to see if it was still standing.

        Standing there was the lady who wore the oversized dress. Haanalore had never spoken to her before. But when she spoke, her voice was soft. It matched everything about her: soft, plump, rich. Except for the dress.

         Her greeting resonated well with Haanalore. Caught up in her thoughts of her upcoming event made her feel vulnerable. A child would be so difficult to fetch for now. But the woman with the oversized dress told Haanalore more than she had expected. “I was on my front stoop the morning your Papi was taken by the Gestapo. I’ve been looking out for you.”

        When she looked down at Haanalore’s tall, but slender frame, she asked whether she had prepared for the birth. Haanalore blushed, not because she was ashamed, but because she had not known until a few days ago. “I have only just realised I’m pregnant. I feel so irresponsible.” She blushed again.

          The oversized dress tutted, “Don’t worry”.

          Haanalore liked and trusted the woman’s oversized shape. When she invited her in, Haanalore did not hesitate. Tea and sweet bread came out quickly, made by quick hands in the kitchen. They sat down to talk about Haanalore’s waiting time. The woman recommended she go south, to Austria.

          It would be safer for her. Haanalore’s awareness was sparked by the woman’s knowledge about people in the street. She knew about Haanalore needing help, before and now. It was now that she could help. Before was too difficult. If caught, she would not be able help others as she had been doing since the beginning of this war. She had hoped with each breath that Haanalore would survive to make it home from her earlier imprisonment. That she had contact with a competent midwife was a blessing for Haanalore. 

Dagmar picked Haanalore easily out of the crowd that stepped from the train in Austria two months later. The friendly woman from Berlin who wanted to help had even described the way Haanalore made her well-worn leather boots land on the station’s large cement squared platform.“Haanalore?” was more a question than a greeting.

         “Yes,” she affirmed, reaching to shake hands. Dagmar quickly put her arm around her shoulder. That their meeting looked like a family one was important. Too many Gestapo eyes reporting oddities. 

          Haanalore took her lead, leaning in to her for a tight hug, “Dagmar, hello!”

          Dagmar took her straight home as there were no other pregnant girls at the small hospital quarters nearby. Haanalore nodded and smiled. What was not evident in the smile was her sensitivity to stay away from groups. This kind woman would help her with her birthing. In some ways she reminded her of the woman in Berlin: the other kind one.

          Haanalore settled into her room. Putting her things away in the wardrobe and the dresser available to her she wondered how many other girls had had the courtesy of Dagmar’s help. “I’ll get some tea ready. And a small lunch,” she heard between her thoughts.

          “Danke schoen! Thank you, I’m nearly finished putting my clothes away. I didn’t bring much as I didn’t want to fuss,” she returned. “Almost done.”

          The room was beautiful: prettily decorated for a daughter who might come to stay. Neatly placed furniture and runners made the room calm. The curtains were pulled to so Haanalore pushed them open. The room overlooked an even prettier garden.

          No signs of broken bitumen or shattered homes in Dagmar’s street ransomed her thoughts and held her eyes captive. Although she had noticed some debris on the way from the station, Dagmar informed her, “The left overs of air raids some months ago”.

           “You should see Berlin. The beauty of it almost erased. Shadows and memories are what are left.”

           To Haanalore it seemed as if the war effort cared little about this part of the country, unlike Berlin which was broken and seemed unfixable. 

           Soon Dagmar brought tea and a light lunch. “I thought you might like something light now, with a bigger helping at supper, especially after your train journey.” 

          That whole month at Dagmar’s readied Haanalore for the new life within to make its presence known. To the dot, the twenty eight days’ wait introduced the world to Ingoff. With a tiny cry, eyes open for only seconds, he took in the smell, the sense and the feel of a world that had a tougher structure to it than his soft fleshy one. There the sounds were muffles, made of foggy material reaching his mind as his body curled and uncurled within as he woke and slept.

           In the week that followed, Dagmar kept a careful ear and eye on her tiny charge, as did his mother. But each with a different feeling. Dagmar had seen small babies before. She had known them to grow fast, catch up to the bigger ones. But he was not making the exponential increase in grams in as many weeks as he should. He was not following the pattern. Haanalore watched as he suckled for the face he made when he had had enough. She let him rest quietly in her arms.

          Both women saw how pale his complexion was. Even anger brought on by hunger only brought it to a milky pink. And Dagmar noticed the tinge of blue around his tiny mouth that told her he had a heart condition. She needed to tell Haanalore soon, in case she lost him quickly. But he persevered months beyond the telling. Haanalore fretted.

          “Ingoff needs what the American physicians are trialling with the blue baby syndrome, babies with a hole in the heart. For that I need to get back up north to Berlin. And contact with an American soldier is necessary if I am to save my son”. 

         Up north, Haanalore quickly fell back into the stride of life in Berlin. Her zealous attempts to talk to Americans who could help Ingoff fell on awkward and confused ears. She missed the callous comments from the Americana Soldaten that the women of Berlin were wretched. The language barrier outside the trade of cigarettes and silk stockings confined them to misunderstanding women of virtue.

Tragedy came in the middle of the night, when Ingoff missed his four o’clock feed. Tired to the bone, Haanalore slept through to the morning to find him quiet. When she pressed her fingers onto his chest, she felt the cold. Her first instinct was to bathe him with warm water.

          She picked him up to cradle him, letting water run into his mouth. When he gurgled, her breath was stolen from her. He gurgled again. Her heart broke. She needed to get him to the church, the one she went to as a child: to the priest who had overseen her milestones of Catholicism. Only he could help with the anointing Ingoff needed.

           She prepared the pram for the stairs down to the street and laid him in it. She pushed the swaddling around him to keep him in place for the upcoming bumps on each tread as they made their way to the street door, and then down the three steps to the street..

           Out of the apartment, another door closed. It came from the floor below. But because the owner of that one was slow to walk, Haanalore was already on the small landing between floors where he helped her down. She thanked him, grateful that he was not driven to small talk.

          The pram’s wheels were not suited to the mess of the street’s rubble. They sounded rough and were hard to manipulate into an easy path forward. She was thankful it was not a long walk to the church. And she so badly needed comfort. But while Haanalore’s gaze did not leave the ground for fear of tipping the pram over, lose its purchase on gravity, she also wondered about her own sanity. Death was testing her equilibrium every centimetre of the walk to the church. She was dizzy, losing sight of the stone sunder her.

          With the pram faltering on the scarred hard edged rock of a footpath, the pram tilted. Stuck, it forced her still. Stock still. Until her hands left the handle did she feel free to scream.  Catching the attention of a passer-by, she reclaimed the handle. With his hands on top of hers trying to free the wheel further from them, they fought for the stability which would let her attend to her duty.  

          Barely looking at her because he was afraid he would feel all the pain she was feeling made him feel somehow as broken as she was. Once the wheel was free of the rock which had captured it, Haanalore moved on, in a trance. She had nerve felt so unnerved, afraid her baby would fall, afraid it would be her fault, afraid all over again for his condition.

         When she arrived there, the tufts of what had been grass were thin, yellow stalks. As she looked around for the priest to help bless them both. With the pram on what was a soft verge of green, he church seemed an empty shell. And she felt it. Immediately. And the fear rose in her from the bottom of her feet to the top of her head. It spiked its way all the way through her and back in, doubling the effect.

          Reaching out to look beyond her pram, she saw the man who was working the cemetery grounds for something to do, to feel useful. He told her that Father Schondoch had succumbed to dysentery. Her face fell. Her eyes dropped from him to her child in the pram and back. He knew. And she felt it in the look that hovered above the pram. “What is your baby’s name?”

          “Ingoff,” she said as she squared off at him. He had seen that stance many times recently when people had come for godly sustenance and there was none.

           “Come,” he told her, “I will help you,” and they walked.

            Haanalore still held a semblance of what to do, how to act, even though her feelings had become a thorny, overgrown path. Slowly, her heart was hardening. She picked Ingoff up and gave him to the sextant to lay him in the small grave that seemed to be waiting for him. She handled the pram, rocked it, gave the blankets a little tug as if to cover its emptiness, and turned, walking away.

          With another glance back, she whispered to no-one at all, “I’m sorry, so sorry I couldn’t save you.”