After graduation, after a divorce, after an election
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Every night, as Joseph tried to sleep, he felt as though his body were becoming disconnected at the joints — his limbs flying off in all directions. The sensation started with a slight tingling in his elbows, and spread to his shoulders, hips, and legs, until it reached even the small bones of his feet. His eyes would fly open to make sure everything was still there. He imagined his limbs corroding, disappearing, leaving only the thick, dumb part of his body, unable to move.
Anna Sophie said he should stop thinking so much and work a little harder — build a new grain loft or repair the pigsty. If he worked hard enough, his body would have to sleep like a rock. She did not understand, though; it was not that Joseph had been thinking too much, but that he had hardly thought at all. He had not allowed himself a single moment of reflection since he had stepped out of the lice-infested boxcar that had brought him back to Heilbrun after the war ended, seven days ago.
At the end of his eighth day back, Joseph was more tired than he had ever been at the front. He shut the door behind him and let his eyes adjust to the dimness of the foyer.
“Joseph?” Anna Sophie called from the kitchen. “Is that you?”
“It’s me,” he said, rubbing his temples. And then she was standing before him, planting an anxious kiss on his lips. She held his shoulders back and looked into his face. Since he had arrived, she’d had the look of a woman peering down a well.
“You’re late — I was worried.”
“You’d think I had gone back to the front,” he said, forcing a laugh.
She smiled and wrapped her arms around him, pressing her round stomach against his. She was much larger than when she’d carried Mechta or Heidi, but her arms and legs were bone thin, and her face had a shimmering pallor that did not seem right for a pregnant woman.
“Come eat,” she said. “I kept dinner warm for you.”
In the kitchen, Joseph sat at the head of the table. Anna Sophie’s Uncle Heinrich, by whose grace they had a roof over their heads, was away at his sister’s funeral in Hamm, thank God — the old man made Joseph nervous with his soft-voiced parables and unsmiling devotion. Heinrich had gotten to Anna Sophie already: last night she had said grace before dinner.
Anna Sophie measured onto Joseph’s plate a spoonful of lard to be eaten with his meal. The lard, she insisted, was to keep his strength up. A strong man like him, she said, should not have such hollows in his cheeks. Joseph had lost thirty-five pounds in Russia; the hard sinews of his forearms had dwindled, and his ribs had emerged in a stark pattern from beneath the disappearing muscles of his chest. Still, he had never been desperate enough to join those who had dug up crab grass from beneath the dirty snow to eat. That was the true measure of starvation.
“Are the fields loose enough to turn?” Anna Sophie asked. “I thought we could have them plowed for Heinrich when he comes home.”
Anna Sophie brought Joseph’s glass back to the sink and filled it with water. “I’m writing Tanta Trude in Hamburg now that you’re back. Maybe when the baby’s born we can go up there. I’m sure she’d let us stay with her until we find a house.”
Joseph brought the last forkful of potatoes to his mouth and wiped a piece of bread through the gravy.
Anna Sophie continued: “Heinrich says her husband’s contracting business boomed last year with the laborers from Passau. I’m sure you could work for him — supervise or something. It would be a start.”
Joseph put down his fork and nodded, looking over her shoulder at the linden tree outside the window. There were tiny hints of green buds along its gnarled branches. He had been to Hamburg once, when he and his father had gone to visit an uncle. It made him think of smoky train compartments, fat white knockwurst, and filthy pub bathrooms.
“I have no money,” he said flatly.
“I’ve been saving money from the chickens — just a little, but it could be enough.”
Joseph was silent, pushing at bits of cabbage on his plate, making trails through the clear residue.
“Joseph, I’m talking about going north, living in a city! I’m sure you’ll find work with a newspaper, or maybe teaching when things settle down. The war hasn’t killed everything — maybe there will be more opportunities, different ones.” She was scrubbing the table top vigorously. Joseph could see her muscles straining under her rough wool shirt. For such a small woman, with limbs like twigs and wrists so thin her two-year-old’s hands could nearly fit around them, she was almost frighteningly strong.
When they slaughtered pigs, Anna Sophie was the one who knelt below the table to collect the blood. The hired butcher would slash the pig’s throat and blood would pour into a metal washtub on the floor, where Anna Sophie stirred it with her bare hands, fingers spread, making sure it did not coagulate and become unusable for sausage making. When Joseph looked at her, her lips pressed in determination and her hands pulling slow, even circles through the gore, he was afraid. She was like some terrible kind of angel, elbow deep in blood.
“— until you find other work,” Anna Sophie finished, glancing over at him expectantly.
Joseph swallowed and avoided her gaze.
“I don’t understand — I thought you would be excited! I thought you hated it out here on the farm.”
“I am,” he said hollowly. “I am excited.” Outside the window, the sky was gray and flat, the ancient linden tree absolutely still.
When Joseph did manage to sleep, he would dream about the war. He would be buried again under loose dirt by an exploding shell, his fingers scrabbling frantically through the pebbles and clods as they fell over his face, into his mouth, suffocating him. Or he would watch the SS, who’d marched behind his division through the Russian countryside like vultures in their black uniforms, herding Jews off to the edge of town. He would see the mothers and children and thin, weary men clutching useless suitcases and menorahs. He would look into the pits the SS left behind and see the grabbing hands and slippered feet, the bloodstained clothes and pale limbs, the wide and frightened eyes covered with a film of dirt.
He would wake to Anna Sophie’s trembling hands smoothing his hair or cheek. But even though his whole body would ache to be taken in her arms, even when his eyes were open and he could see her startled gaze upon him, he would jump from her touch, swatting her hands away as if possessed. The last time it had happened, Anna Sophie’s voice had been low and secret as a key turning in a lock: “Joseph, what have you done?”
When Joseph walked into the sewing room, Anna Sophie and her mother, Emmi, were crocheting rough gray spools of Red Cross wool into bonnets and sleep sacks for the baby soon to arrive. Mechta, Joseph and Anna Sophie’s older daughter, sat cross-legged at her mother’s feet, dressing and undressing a brown sock doll with limp straw hair and beady button eyes; it looked spiteful. Joseph wondered who had made it for her.
“Show your papa the doll,” Anna Sophie whispered into her ear, giving her shoulder a pat. When Mechta was a baby, Joseph would pick her up, toss her in the air, and catch the small weight of her body, saving her with a simple twist of the hand. It was like playing God. She would land in his arms without a sound and stare at him, almost as if in challenge, with dark, unblinking eyes.
Mechta held out the doll toward him, still clinging to her mother’s legs.
“Hello, madame,” Joseph said, shaking the doll’s limp hand. “To whom do I owe this pleasure?”
Mechta stared up at him, uncomprehending.
“Tell Papa her name, Mechta,” Anna Sophie said, laughing.
“Miriam,” Mechta mumbled.
Joseph nodded and tousled his daughter’s hair. He walked over to the window and peered out at the green-gray stones of the courtyard and the corroding wall of the east barn, trying to familiarize himself with his surroundings.
“What are you looking for, love?”
“Nothing hit here?” he asked.
“A bomb landed over by the grain silo in the cow pasture — a mistake, I think. The silo was fine but all of Heinrich’s cows were killed.”
It was the silence that made the biggest difference to Joseph — no men, no gunshots, no tanks and trucks and roaring Stukas.
“Come here,” Anna Sophie whispered with her lips against the back of his neck, startling him. She moved stealthily, even now with her stomach so huge. “I have something for you.”
Joseph followed her down the hall and into the tiny bedroom she shared with their two little daughters. The house was too full for Joseph and Anna Sophie to have a bedroom of their own. Joseph slept above the barn with Manfred and Pepe Seidler, neighbors of Heinrich’s whose farm had been destroyed in the last air raid. At night when it got cold, they would climb down and sleep in the hay next to the horses.
Anna Sophie motioned for Joseph to be quiet, pointing at Heidi asleep in the wicker basket, her dark face peeking out above the tattered quilt. When Anna Sophie was eight months pregnant with Heidi, and Joseph was slogging through wet snow somewhere on the front, Anna Sophie was handed through a window of the last train leaving Tursberg. There was not enough room on the train for everyone trying to escape before the Allied bombing began; Anna Sophie would have been left behind had it not been for the man who pulled her through the train window. Joseph imagined a stranger’s hands grabbing her, groping her round belly as if it were a piece of fruit laid bare at the market. The image made Heidi seem somehow less his child.
Holding something behind her, Anna Sophie pulled Joseph back out the door and into the parlor.
“Here.” She thrust a bulky bundle of soft brown wool into his hands.
She bobbed her head. It was a beautiful, thick sweater with broad cables and complicated cross-stitching in the front.
“You made this? Where did you get all this wool?”
Anna Sophie shrugged. The fine lines of her jaw and neck, the sweet tilt of her lips, and the restrained excitement in her eyes raised goose bumps on his forearms. He wondered if there had been others while he was at the front: how many of the men here on the farm had looked at her like this — had wanted her? There was a terrible tightening in his chest and a familiar itch at the back of his brain, as if something were stuck there.
“What is it, Joseph?” She reached a hand up to smooth his hair. He suddenly felt old and ugly, as grimy and polluted as an animal rutting in the hay. He wanted to whisper terrible things into her ear and tear the sweater to bits before her eyes, to save her from her own mistaken goodness.
“Put it on, Joseph — go on. See if it fits,” she said, her forehead wrinkled with concern.
He shrugged himself into the sweater and felt the heavy wool pull snugly across his chest like armor. He nodded and tried to smile — tried to say it was the most beautiful thing he had seen in a long time — but he could only stand mute, holding her hand too tightly.
It wasn’t long after that — maybe two or three days — that the Russians came. Just before supper, Joseph had the unsettling feeling that everything was somehow different, the way it is before a summer downpour, when the trees turn their leaves to the sky and the wind sweeps upward from the ground. Through the window he could see the sun setting pink and orange across the fields, giving the tips of the wheat a burnished shine. Not even a ripple moved along the gleaming surface, smooth and unreal as gold.
Joseph sat down, picked up his deck of cards, and distributed them in seven neat piles before him to begin a game of solitaire. This he could concentrate on without his mind becoming agitated. There was something almost magical about the way the numbers fell into place, as if he were watching the pattern unfold rather than creating it. On the way to Leningrad, he had longed for cards. On endless evenings spent freezing in makeshift sheds with the wind screaming between the boards and under the door, the soldiers would try to find alternatives to card games. Counting games, thinking games, games where you tried to imagine: What was your wife doing right now? Your mother? Commander Thorman? Herr Hitler himself? Where would you rather be: at home in bed with your wife, or on the French Riviera with tropical women fanning your face, smoothing your back with oil? Which would you rather have: a big, round sauerbraten with potatoes, or golden batter-fried schnitzel with egg noodles and rich gravy? None of these games were as satisfying as a game of cards — none produced the same soothing numbness.
After three rounds of solitaire, Joseph stood up to stretch his legs and went to the window. Almost as if he had been expecting them, five or six dark, tattered figures turned from the road into the courtyard, walking in line across the brilliant patch of setting sun. Then all at once there were fifty, sixty, maybe a hundred of them descending over the gray-slate courtyard like a flock of pigeons coming home to roost.
“What is it, Joseph?” Anna Sophie asked, coming to the window with Heidi in her arms.
“Russian prisoners of war,” Joseph said. “The camps were opened two weeks ago.”
“Oh, dear mother of God,” Emmi whispered from the doorway.
“I’ll go out,” Joseph said mechanically as the sticklike forms began to take shape as men: legs, arms, and hungry, hollow faces. Joseph walked to the door feeling remarkably calm — palms dry, hands steady, mind blank. What remained of the daylight filtered through the hall, falling like a memory over the oak chest and table, the brown stones of the floor, the mounted heads of deer and wild boar on the walls.
There on the steps was a man with wild eyes sunk in their sockets as if resting against his skull. His grayish skin hung like a filthy sack from his protruding bones. Joseph was suddenly aware of his own fragile skeleton hiding beneath the softness of his flesh.
“Food,” the man hissed in broken German, spitting at Joseph’s feet.
Joseph looked over the man’s shoulder at the gaunt faces turned from the sun and lit in ghastly hues of green and blue. At least a hundred pairs of eyes bright with hunger and disease were leveled coldly at him. One of the men picked up a loose slate from the courtyard and threw it in a twisting arch through the window of the hayloft. The glass shattered with a grim, sparkling sound and rained to the ground below. A ripple rode over the crowd as the rest of the men stooped to pick up their own rocks. But before anyone else could throw, the man on the steps whirled around and barked a sharp command. The men returned to a shifty, uneasy rest, still weighing the stones in hand. The man shouted at the crowd standing before him like disciples, and the prowling silence that fell over them was more menacing than all the ugly words and chants they could have uttered. They were familiar to Joseph — these wide, sickened eyes and broken bodies.
The man turned back to Joseph, raising his eyebrows. Even in his emaciated state, the breadth of his rib cage was impressive. Sweat slid in streams down the sides of Joseph’s neck and between his shoulder blades.
“Wait,” he said to the man, “I will bring food. Potatoes.”
“Bring everything up from the root cellar,” Joseph ordered Anna Sophie, stepping back over the threshold into the warm kitchen.
“Emmi,” he said, “take the children upstairs and stay with them. Lock the door to the sewing room.” The firmness of his tone almost surprised him. It was as if he had been through this before — had been planning for it all along. He walked around the kitchen extinguishing the kerosene lanterns and turning off the electric lamps, leaving only two candles burning on the table. Then he checked the cupboards, the pantry, the shelves — taking stock. The silverware he rolled up into dish towels and put at the back of the oven with a huge, wrought-iron pot in front of it.
Anna Sophie came back with the first bin of potatoes. Joseph sat with her at the kitchen table scrubbing them and cutting the eyes out, chopping them in pieces so that they would cook faster. The flickering candlelight cast oblong shadows on her face, hollowing her eyes.
“Joseph,” Anna Sophie said, “are they starving?”
“They were not . . . fed in the camps?”
“Did you ever see one of the camps?”
Joseph did not look up. His knife sliced through cold, crisp potato flesh.
“How can I understand when you won’t even try — you won’t even begin to explain?” Anna Sophie began crying, thin tears running down her nose and cheeks and curling under her chin. Joseph got up and dumped a load of potatoes into the boiling water. Anna Sophie bent over and held her forehead, elbows propped on her knees. Joseph stared at her shaking shoulders, but his hands kept slicing the potatoes, twice across and one neat cut down the middle, as if he were gutting them.
Anna Sophie sat up and looked straight at him, her face ugly and red. “I thought we had you back, but you’re even more gone now than when you were away.”
Joseph kept the knife moving, bearing down at just the right point, slicing exactly, making the cutting into a numb science. He noticed only the cadence of her voice and the way her lips shaped the words like throwing stones.
“Joseph! Say something!” Anna hissed at him, stretching across the table, the sinews of her neck straining. “Joseph.” She slumped back into her seat with a small, desperate sound that reached him through the cold, consuming motion of his knife.
“Anna,” he said, his voice heavy from all his sleepless nights, “look out there.” Outside the window, the crowd darkened the courtyard, rustling with uneasy movement. “We can’t stop.”
It was almost eleven when the potatoes ran out. Anna Sophie helped Joseph bring out the last tub of boiled potato chunks. The men were still hungry, and they jeered and spit and shouted bawdy Russian songs. One of the men yanked at Anna Sophie’s skirt and Joseph kicked his arm away, feeling the brittle bone give way with a light snapping sound. The man sprang backward, clutching the broken limb, his face screwed up with pain. Joseph saw from the way he doubled over and cried out that he was a young man. When Joseph turned to go inside, the men began throwing stones through the barn windows again.
In the kitchen, the potato eyes were scattered like stars across the table, the floor, the wet cutting boards. Dirt was tracked across the tiles from the musty bins they had pulled up the cellar stairs. The kitchen smelled dank and subterranean — like roots and mold and damp limestone freshly unearthed and dragged into the light. While Anna Sophie went upstairs to check on the children, Joseph removed his pistol from the wooden rack behind the cupboard and rubbed its cold barrel over the palm of his hand. He plucked at the trigger, then loaded a string of bullets.
In the moonlight, the men clustered around the washtubs of potatoes. Watching them consume the remnants of the root cellar had given Joseph a strange wedged feeling in the back of his head, as if there were something he wasn’t quite remembering. The men clamored around him — a throng of fisted hands and harsh voices. His vision of them seemed somehow not whole; each movement of his eyes presented a different picture. He raised his hands above his head, and something in the futility of this gesture shut them up. They made way for Joseph, their skinny, dirt-encrusted bodies forming a tight tunnel around him as he walked to the stables. He imagined God, white all over like carved marble, pointing one lazy finger straight at him.
The horses were uneasy, ears pricked up and feet restless, pawing the old, creaky boards. There were three of them: Samson, a large six-year-old Belgian; Inga, his mate, a fifteen-year-old who pulled the plows and wagons and threshers with him; and Greta, an almost twenty-year-old mixed breed, like a palomino. Greta was finer, more delicate than the other two. She could be ridden, although these days her ribs protruded like the crossbeams of a ship, and her eyes looked so tired no one dared impose their weight upon her.
Heinrich had given Greta to Anna Sophie when she was a young girl so that she would have her own horse in his stables. On warm summer Sundays before they were married, Joseph and Anna Sophie had often taken the bus to Shulte Road and walked through the fields from there to Heinrich’s farm, the poppies bright along the cow paths and the smell of ripe grain in the air. There Anna Sophie had taught Joseph how to ride. Once, Greta had run off with him and dumped him in a pile of steaming black manure at the edge of the cow pasture. Joseph had rolled off and lain there in the soft, bee-buzzing grass, laughing till the tears rolled down his cheeks and Anna Sophie came to find him. If this is what it means to be dumped in shit, he had thought, it isn’t so bad.
Joseph looked into Greta’s runny brown eyes for traces of recognition. She held her blond head very still, ears forward, and stared back at him with interest. “All right, old lady,” he said softly, slipping the bridle over her head and tugging her reluctantly out of her stall. The leather felt abrasive and tight, like a noose. He imagined it coiled around his own neck, yanked by the hundreds of bony hands beyond the stable door. Outside, the night air felt cool against his hot cheeks, but his heart continued to thunder. “Fire — build a fire!” he shouted. A space cleared around him immediately, and in the middle of the courtyard they began to pile sticks, brush, and wood from the neat cords he had stacked along the wall of the bake house.
Greta was patient, not startled by the crowd of men. She seemed to be evaluating Joseph’s movements, shifting her weight and following him closely with her eyes. Dumb eyes, Joseph told himself; animals are stupid. His insides felt tight and snappable, like stretched rubber. The men blurred and faded; their shouts and voices made the itching in his brain so strong he could think of nothing else. Joseph waited for Greta to look away — to turn her gaze away from him to the strange creatures circling her, to her stable, to the cow pasture. She would not. Her pupils were flecked with green and black and an almost unearthly purple light, pulsing with her breath, making her eyes something greater than Greta herself — unblinking, omnipotent. Joseph’s hand, with the pistol hanging heavy from it, seemed like a separate creature, sluggish and menacing.
He raised the pistol and shot twice. Greta dropped to her knees, blood running in streams from her head into her still-open eyes. Her flanks hit the ground with a loud slapping sound. Joseph felt a tremor through his veins, and his own blood rushed hot and thick over his vision, twisting and distorting the hungry faces around him. The stink of their unwashed bodies caught in his nostrils and throat, and their teeth gleamed in gums shriveled from hunger. One of the men lunged toward Greta’s body and Joseph’s world shattered into fragments. With one clean motion, he raised his arm and shot — emptied the chamber into the man’s body, which twitched and quivered as he collapsed on top of Greta. His blood crept in a dark, mottled pattern over her stomach.
“Joseph, stop!” Anna Sophie shrieked. She was a frantic rush of arms and skirts running toward him, elbowing fiercely through the dumbstruck horde of Russians. Joseph could see her lips moving with his name, her face wild and shining wet, but in his ears there was a tremendous roaring sound drowning all else out. The men were closing in; the fire was hot behind him. Joseph kept his pistol raised.
Anna Sophie’s thin, frantic fingers closed around his arm. With her other hand she covered his mouth, clamping his jaw shut. Only when he felt his lips moving over her palm did he realize the roaring sound was coming from his own mouth, bellowing into the cold night air.