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Gerta

“Gerta, get me more potatoes. I’m still hungry.” Gerta smiled at her younger brother, Helmut, and like a child, clutched her apron in small fistfulls of shyness.

“More potatoes, Gerta…from the pan…yes?”

Gerta, still smiling, moved across the dining room toward the kitchen, her hunchback slowly heaving up and down as she walked. Helmut leaned back from the table and as he dabbed the white serviette on his lips, he watched her walk away. As a child, Helmut had imagined in Gerta’s hunchback all sorts of nightmarish possibilities…a misplaced pregnancy, a dromedary with a human face, even a thief concealing stolen goods on his back. Now, a middle-aged man, Helmut still couldn’t help see his misshapen and feeble-minded sister as something other than a natural being. He sighed loudly and folded his serviette into a neat square.

His older sister, Helga, was still eating. Helga’s ample bosom hovered over the diminishing plate of pot roast. She had been silent throughout dinner except for the occasional belch followed by a self-administered chest thump. Now, at last, Helga spoke. “Helmut! What are you thinking when you stare at Gerta like that?”

“I…I don’t know, but I think our little sister, Gerta, poor creature, is getting worse lately.”

“Ach!”

“No, it’s true. It seems she does things slower every day.. .perhaps she’s worried about something?”

“You’re dreaming! What could Gerta possibly have to worry about! She knows five or six chores and beyond that, what does she know and what does she care? The lucky thing. Ignorance is bliss!” Helga blissfully forklifted the last load of food into her mouth and sat chewing.

“Yes, she’s incapable of any sort of contemplation, yet I still believe that in an animal sort of way, she is affected by things.”

“And what kind of things is Gerta so affected by, Helmut? Certainly not the inflation!”

“No, not directly… but perhaps political things. Just the other day Cousin Zolly was telling me he was leading Gerta home through Shtrunkenstrasse on Wednesday. Hitler was there and the crowd like always lately was enormous. Flags, loudspeakers, kettledrums, shouting. Gerta just could not stand it. Zolly said she screamed like an infant and he had to actually drag her home. Gerta was too fearful to move.”

“Shhh! Helmut!”

Gerta entered with the pan and slowly scraped out the last two crusty spoonfuls of potatoes for her brother and then she returned to the kitchen.

“So? This is new? She’s always been afraid of loud noises. She’s very sensitive to it. Over-sensitive. When Mama and Papa were alive they kept her away from such commotion. Zolly was a fool to have taken her out at all. For what does she need sightseeing? Since September with the Nazis running the show, there’s more noise than ever. I, myself, have thought lately the streets of Berlin are like some Rumanian carnival. Anyway, we’ll get gray before Gerta. It’s ridiculous to even talk about her. It spoils my appetite.” Helmut said nothing. He felt, as usual, completely helpless in the face of Helga’s matter-of-fact answers.

“What do you want to talk about then?”

“I want to talk about me.” Helga said, and then after a pre-meditated pause, “I’m going away.”

A silence heavier than their conversation fell over the dining room. “So?” Helga demanded at last, “Aren’t you going to talk? Aren’t you going to ask even ‘where’?”

“Where,” said Helmut.

“Since you insist on knowing, I’m going to America.. .with Siegbert. His brother there thinks he can get him a good office job in Minneapolis. Siegbert wants me to go with him. So, I am…Friday, the eleventh of August.”

Helmut felt emotions swell inside him. The sort of emotions that were definitely not good for his heart. “I must stay calm,” he thought, “or she’ll smother me for sure.” He took off his glasses and laid them on the table, where they faced Helga straight on.

“Very convenient for you to run off, Helga, very convenient. Very thoughtful to leave us to the whims of the National Socialists and escape. No doubt you’ve been plotting this since September? Well, what am I going to do alone with Gerta in these times? What in God’s name?”

Helmut snatched his folded serviette and wiped his forehead and the back of his neck. This was preposterous! Too much for him to bear. What did she worry for him or for Gerta?

“Of course, go to Minneapolis with your gigolo but what sort of money will you use, please tell me?”

“My money, the money from Mama and Papa. Half of that is mine.”

“Half yes, you have half the money but also half the responsibility for Gerta, or perhaps you’ve already forgotten your promise to Mama?”

“I’m going, Helmut. Gerta will be fine without me, probably happier in fact. I’ve never understood her and she understands nothing.”

Helmut felt his anger strangling him. He could no longer talk nor even look at Helga. He hated her, all of her, plumped in that chair, breathing hard, ventillating like some human barrel organ.

When Helmut could speak again, his voice came out all wrong. He sounded like a fearful patient.

“And you think this move is good for Gerta?” he croaked. “Or could it just be you never gave her a thought at all? That’s it, isn’t it? You’ve always looked out for your own behind and the hell with everyone else. When you sit in a hot bath, you think the whole of Berlin is warmed! But this time, you’ve gone too far. You’re not sticking me with all the responsibility for Gerta. If this Siegbert is so fine, let him pay for himself and you take Gerta. Yes, if he’s such a mensch, let him pay for himself, the loafer! the leech! the cockroach!”

“You leave off talking about Siegbert!” Helga suddenly screamed. “You have a nerve to speak about him that way! Siegbert is misunderstood by mice like you. He just needs money right now, is that so terrible? He’s had some big deals going and some didn’t do too well, that’s all. So, I invested money in Siegbert, what’s it to you? It’s my money, not yours and not Gerta’s!”

“Invested money in Siegbert… such a Mr. Big Shot!”

“What do you know? He is a big shot. He owns land in Bavaria somewhere!”

“The hell with his land! The goat has a beard too, does that make him a rabbi? This Siegbert is a gigolo, a liar, a pimp, a…”

Helmut stopped. Suddenly a wail was heard, a hellish primitive scream like the cry of a wounded animal. A cry so unnerving it made both of Helga’s chins tremble.

“See! See now what you’ve done!” she hissed. “All your noise has upset Gerta!”

The two sat quietly like guilty schoolchildren for several minutes. Gerta’s wails swept through the house like winter wind. There was a terrible eerie aspect to the cries, as if they were neither from this world nor from this time. As if they got their strength from another, more powerful place.

At last the wails changed rhythm, becoming long broken sobs then short hiccup gasps.

Long after Helga and Helmut left the dining room, Gerta was still crouched beside the pantry sideboard, her apron pulled over her head. She had stopped crying and the familiar peace of her soul was returning. After a while, she pulled the apron off her head and moved quietly tovvards the kitchen door. She waited until she heard her brother and sister close their bedroom doors, then she stood up and made her way through the kitchen to the long downstairs hall. The hall was black. Neither Helga nor Helmut had remembered to leave the light on and so now Gerta had to feel her way along the walls of the passage, groping her way slowly to the end.

In her bedroom, she pulled the long center cord of the ceiling light and closed the window. Gerta’s bedroom window faced the street. She could hear the clacking sound of people’s shoes on the pavement. Helmut was always opening Gerta’s window to air out the room, but whenever she noticed it open, she closed it. The noise of footsteps outside made her anxious. They were too loud. People walked too loud. Gerta hated loud noises. Loud noises were not funny.

Gerta sat in front of the beveled vanity mirror and unpinned her brown hair. She grinned at the reflection in the mirror and flirted with it, first smiling and then showing her teeth, small and white. She made her mouth into a wide rubbery yawn and then suddenly threw her long hair over her face and from this fur mask, peeked at the child-woman in the mirror.

Gerta took from her dresser a worn leather box, brown and shaped like a sea shell. She turned the tiny brass key on the side and the nursery song, “Kleine Nacht” played. Cradling the box gently in her hands, she sat on her bed and listened to the tinkly soft music. Gerta listened for a long time, for even before the song fully stopped, she turned the key to play it again. Again and again and again. At last she fell asleep and the music box lay silent in her hand. Like so many times before, Gerta had neglected to get into her nightgown. Now she was slumped on top of the eiderdown fully dressed. The music box slipped from her hand and fell to the floor where it began to play very slowly. The night was warm and moonlit. Outside the window came the far away sound of boots beating the sidewalk in swift measured rhythm.

Fights went on every night now and Helmut no longer tried to restrain himself. The very thought of being left, stuck with Gerta, filled him with a fresh wave of terror. Each night now he tried to convince Helga to stay. Helga, though, was stubborn as an ox and yelled insults so loudly that Gerta no longer came out of her room at suppertime, and they were forced to serve themselves.

Then one day, a month before Helga was to leave, Helmut came home from the office with something important to tell her. The unusual heat of that Berlin summer permeated the apartment like a disease, wilting the flowers, softening the Sabbath candles, and making even the metal on the cold water taps fever-hot to touch.

When Helmut opened the door, he saw Helga seated at the dining table, painting her nails. For a moment Helmut was stunned by a vision of Helga melting, but on coming closer, he saw she was just perspiring. He figured he had better speak before supper. Helga’s fortitude was not only greater than his but it was also enlarged by food.

“Helga, you’ll be happy to know that I, too, have travel plans. Not as grand as yours, perhaps, but you might like to hear them.” Without looking up from her nails, Helga said, “What are you getting at?”

“I’m leaving for Czechoslovakia on the eighteenth, isn’t that nice?”

“You’re crazy.”

“Not at all. Shiffler has finalized the move today. He feels as I do that it might be good to be out of the country until this whole Hitler charade falls apart, and that can’t be too long now. I’ll be in the Prague office no less. Shiffler got the visa and arranged all the paperwork too. I’m a lucky man.”

“You’re a fool. What’s going to happen to this place and to Gerta? Mama and Papa made me promise never to put her in an institution and I can’t take her. She’s a liability.. .they don’t need any more halfwits in America.”

Helmut looked at Helga as she spoke. Drops of sweat rolled down the sides of her cheeks like crocodile tears.

“Gerta will continue to live here,” he said.

“By herself?”

“No, not entirely. I have already talked to the landlady—to Frau Lansmueller. She will look in and help with the shopping, laundry, and cooking. I will pay her in advance for her help before I go. And, of course, Cousin Zolly will be around now and then to bring food and take Gerta on walks. Gerta will be fine and as long as the apartment is lived in, there’s less likelihood of any harm being done to it in our absence. Remember, it’s not Gerta or her type that the Nazis are concerned about. It’s us, Helga, because our thoughts can undo them!”

“So how long do you intend to stay in Prague?” Helga asked, suddenly feeling very tired.

“We’ll see, Helga.”

After Helga and Helmut had left, Gerta’s days were filled with a timeless contentment. Days went by and she talked only to herself or to Mama and Papa… talked and giggled in a voice so soft as if whispering secrets to mice.

Every few days Frau Lansmueller let herself in with a key and spoke to her about the importance of wearing stockings and the importance of not burning herself on the gas stove. Frau Lansmueller came from some village near Munich and when she went on like that it was hard to tell whether she was talking or yodeling. Gerta hated talk, it was always too loud and too hard to follow so she hummed a lullaby silently inside her head and smiled as Frau Lansmueller spoke. She smiled because Frau Lansmueller’s glasses were so thick and it was funny how they made her blue eyes look like big, big cornflowers!

In caring for the house, Gerta carried on pretty much as before. In the mornings she swept and dusted. In the afternoons, she warmed the food Frau Lansmueller left for her. It had always been Gerta’s job to set the dark mahogany dining table and she continued this setting still for three rather than one. It was not that the unused empty plates held a promise of return. It was that she liked the way they looked. After a while, she lugged up a small sack of potatoes from the cellar and placed it in Helga’s chair and built a pillar of books in Helmut’s. Then, whenever she passed the table, she smiled.

In the late afternoons, Gerta spent much of her time sitting on the back pantry steps which overlooked a small garden. Here she listened to the apple tree and basked in all its sounds. The low pitched creaking of its branches, the occasional snapping of twigs, the soft damp thuds of falling fruit and the frenetic clicking of insects within its bark.

Gerta sat, finger in mouth, listening hard to the whole symphony and felt a great deep peace.

When the autumn rains started, Gerta stayed in her room and played the music box, often forgetting completely to get dressed or even to eat.

One morning, while Gerta was in the dining room, dusting Helga’s porcelain clowns, there came a pounding at the door. Gerta crouched behind the bookcase. The pounding got louder and louder. Whoever it is should go away. People shouldn’t bang. She hated banging. It was not funny.

Gerta stuffed her fingers in her ears and shut her eyes so tightly she saw yellow designs swirling in her head. The noise was getting louder and louder and louder and it was only when she felt a firm grasp on her shoulder did she understand the noise was her own screaming. She opened her eyes and looked up to a tall man in uniform, standing over her and talking.

The eggman! Gerta smiled up at him and twisted her hands round and round as if wringing out some invisible sock. The eggman was older than she, and older than the one who did the deliveries last season. The shirt of his uniform was strained in all directions by his excess weight. At the stomach, buttons and holes played out a violent tug-of-war. When he took off his hat, Gerta giggled at the egg-man’s bald head, which was sunburnt brown and freckled like a hen’s egg.

Gerta went on giggling and clutching her apron and the eggman stopped talking and looked at her. He took her hand and held it just like Papa used to. Only Papa’s hands were dry and firm and the eggman’s were damp and knuckly. Still, it was a long time since Gerta felt the sweetness of a small hand inside a larger one and it made her feel giddy and unafraid.

He led her slowly through the apartment, to the back pantry door and then through all the rooms. Round and round they quietly went and when he led her into Helmut’s bedroom and turned the bronze key, he was very nice, very careful to remove the crocheted spread first and placed his boots on the blue flowered rug. Soundlessly.

The eggman came to the apartment again, and after that again and again. Summer leaves had once more formed and still Gerta had received no letter from Helmut and only a little money from Helga. Frau Lansmueller collected all the mail in the morning and told Gerta there had been no word from anyone. Cousin Zolly came a few times but his voice made Gerta uneasy and then he, too, stayed away. It was simply as if he had disappeared. Frau Lansmueller laughed that surely Germany was a magical place the way people could disappear just like that.

By the following fall, Gerta was spending almost all her time on the back pantry steps. The apple tree had only a few token leaves left and the oversize fruit lay sticky-dry and wasted on the cement. The wind was already chilled with the coming season and as it blew through the dry branches, it left a sound like the cold chatter of teeth.

Day after day, Gerta sat listening, finger in mouth, still as an eavesdropper. She seemed to live only for the soft sounds of things now and only sometimes when she woke at night and heard the high trills of the crickets, like short shrill police whistles, did she feel loneliness.

Then one morning early in November, Gerta was wakened by shouting at the back pantry door. She sat up in bed, paralyzed with fear, screaming and sobbing. When she calmed down, the banging was all gone and the eggman stood there in front of her and there was another one… two eggmen stood there talking. Frau Lansmueller was there, too, talking. In whispers and shouts, in whispers and shouts about her!

The eggman took her hand and led her to the front door. His grip was tight and she cried out. The other, “new” eggman swore at her and then in one clear swift moment Gerta knew he wasn’t an eggman! He was one of the noisy ones, the ones she saw with Cousin Zolly…when was that? Yes, and her eggman was a noisy one too. And he was in the street with her now. She didn’t have her coat but it was her music box she wanted to go back for, but the eggman suddenly yanked her and his voice smelled of anger.

The morning was cold and clear. The station was not far but getting there was slow. There were so many people on the streets that morning all going to the same place. At the station, men and women stood grey-faced and ragged next to their grey and ragged baggage. Children screamed from the noise and the cold, making clouds of fog with their still warm breath. People were walking in crushing lines, some pulling baby buggies full of things, a few others pushing wheelbarrows which they were soon forced to abandon. Most people had no more than a small box or canvas sack.

At the station, beyond the platform, Gerta could hear hundreds more approaching. They made a somber shuffling sound as they walked, the old ones trying hard to keep up with the young ones, the youngest ones whimpering and stumbling to keep pace with their elders. A freight train roared in front of the platform and groups of people were herded through the cattle car doors, which opened wide and black as hell and then clanged shut with coffin-cover finality.

Gerta heard all this and heard the screams of the soldiers and the sharp whizz of truncheons in the still air and she let out a howl that carried to the end of the platform and beyond. She was given a slap and her name found out and written in a column.

Even when they strapped her hands together she could not stop screaming. She screamed and screamed like one possessed. She screamed in fear of that sound. That sound she heard like no other sound before. It was not the noise of the soldiers’ boots scraping the concrete, nor the sound of their pistols cracking the air. It was not the weeping and shrieking of the people on the platform nor was it the low rumble of the newly approaching train. It was a sound beside and beyond all these noises. A sound she must have known as a pronouncement and that froze her heart in terror. Through her screams Gerta could sense it clearly.. .the vast and terrible silence to come.

UPDATED BIO: Maxine Rose Schur is an award-winning travel essayist and children’s book author who teaches a yearly writing workshop in Paris.