The children, the children. She often heard their cry in the dark of the night. The whimpers. The sobs. The heartbreaking sound. She didn’t think they still would be here so many years after. They hadn’t been there in the beginning but now when her body was tired and old she heard their cry. In her sleep and awake they never left her alone.
In her bed, in the line at the grocery store, at the doctor’s office and at the library as she tried to pick out a new crime story to read. Their cries, faint, in the background. Everywhere. And no one left to speak to. To ask if this was what happened to them, too. Was this the final payment for the crimes they had committed? But then, back then when the sun was coming down from the clear blue sky, back then it wasn’t a crime. They were heroes. They followed orders. They did the right thing for humankind.
Oh, when her body was young, strong and full of life all those years ago. Now, now she hardly could get up the stairs. And now they came back. The children. Their cries. Sometimes they would cry for their mother or nana or father. But often they simply whimpered. In the beginning it had been hard to listen to those cries but strangely enough you can get used to anything. Even the smell.
People who are barely alive, closer to death and life, develop a certain smell. Eventually, she had learned to recognize how they smelled when they wouldn’t live any longer. Some could look dead but still keep on living. Others could look better and still be closer to death. She had often wondered why some lived longer than others even though they were treated the same. Did some carry a stronger life spark? Or was it good genes? Or simply luck?
She sat up in bed, looked around the dark room. “I know you aren’t here,” she said firmly. As she spoke the whimpers and the cries stopped. She laid down again. Closed her eyes and fell asleep.
She was young in the dream. Her body firm. Straight. Still beautiful. She stood in front of the mirror, caressed the dark blue skirt and the white blouse. Her hair was shiny, light brown and she wore it in a bun on her neck. She touched the ring on her left hand, spun it around and felt the smooth gold under her fingers.
Hans, her love. Suddenly her heart turned tight. She missed him dearly. With her whole body and soul. Missed his smile. His green eyes. The brown, unruly hair that hung down over his forehead. How he used to whisper "Annelies" in her ear and caress her neck with his lips. What if he never came back…no, no she could not think like that. Victory was theirs! The Fuhrer had promised this. And she believed him. He spoke so true. With so much passion. She took a deep breath in. The spring day outside smelled of apple blossom and she heard how the blue tit’s chicks chirruped for their parents to come back to feed them. When this war was over. When victory had come they would have children, Hans and her. Many of them.
Something woke her up, a dull sound from outside the hallway. It sounded like someone was bouncing a ball on the carpet. She listened more carefully but then the sound disappeared. “He,” she said to herself. “Curious…my old ears are playing tricks on me.” Then she heard the sound again. “One of those nights…” she sighed, turned on the lamp on the nightstand and got out of bed. The floor was cold and she searched for her slippers with her feet until she found them. Then she grabbed her old wool cardigan and wrapped it around her body.
The hallway was empty, of course, she lived all alone now. Frank, her last dachshund had died six months ago and now it was no use buying a new one. Who would take care of the dog when she died? It was years ago she had stopped thinking “if I die”. We all die. Eventually.
She slowly walked down the stairs, holding on to the handrail and leaning close to the wall. The light over the kitchen table was always on at night. She stepped into the golden light and felt more at ease.
The nights she couldn’t sleep she did the same thing. Toasted a couple of slices of wholegrain bread and made a pot of chamomile tea. She poured the yellow-green liquid into her favorite 1382 Arzberg cup, then added honey and milk. Sat down with the cup and her toast by the table and started to solve crossword puzzles. The one in the Sunday paper she always saved for nights like this. The puzzle was hard enough to keep her mind occupied and eventually sleepiness would win over weariness.
But this night her mind wandered. The dream had brought memories to the surface. Memories of youth. Of Hans. Of Beauty. And of destruction. She sighed and rubbed her face. The dreams she had carried as a young nurse had crumbled when the war ended. Hans came back a different man. He looked the same but he was different on the inside. And she…she sighed again. The years in jail hadn’t been easy for her. She only got ten and was released after seven, she was lucky in many ways or sometimes she let herself think that she hadn’t been as bad as the others. But evil is hard to weigh on a scale. Are you less evil because you obey orders?
She took a bite of the toast, the plum jam was from last year, this year she hadn’t had the energy to make any. The autumn night was still one uniform darkness outside the kitchen window. In a few hours the young father across the yard would get up to get ready for work. Sometimes she turned off the ceiling light and watched him from her dark kitchen as he poured cereal, ate standing up in front of the TV and then left before the rest of the family had woken up.
She never had her own children. When she came out of jail in 1953, Hans were nowhere to be found. He hadn’t visited her much in prison and the last few years not at all. The day she was released was a cold but clear March day, she stood with the engagement ring in her hand and decided to not put it on again. She still had some pride left. No one had paid any attention to her as she walked to the train station and went back home.
Life had somehow turned into a kind of normalcy as she had spent years locked away from reality. To her it seemed as if everybody wanted to forget what had been. Forget the war. Forget the Fuhrer. Forget what they had felt. Move away. Move into the future as fast as possible. Leave it all behind. Her younger sister had gotten married, started a family and wasn’t overly happy to have her staying with her so she moved back to her parents house. It would only be for a while. Only until she had gotten a job. Settled down. Adjusted to this new life. She never left.
In the beginning they all said, “Find someone new.” “Let him go!” “You will see it will all turn out good in the end.” Sometimes she held the engagement ring in her hand and read the words inside Myn Genyts, My soul. My heart. But she never cried. Jail had snuffed out her tears.
She rubbed her face again and yawned. Maybe she would be able to go to sleep now. She took the last bite of her toast and left the table. In the downstairs hallway she stopped for a moment and looked at the pictures on the wall. Photos of her and Sonja. First as babies, then as school girls and then as teenagers in their BDM uniforms. Her parents had removed the photos but when they died she fished them out of the box in the attic and put them on the wall again. Her sister had protested, her nieces and nephews hadn’t understood. But her grandniece, Sandra had asked questions. Some were uncomfortable to answer and others easy.
As she stood there she got the sensation she wasn’t alone. Something stroked her leg. Lightly and soft as a cat begging for food. Then she heard the bouncing from the upstairs hallway.
With determination she grabbed the hand rail and started to climb the stairs again. “I am on my way up and I would appreciate if you could show yourself this time.” The bouncing grew louder for each step.
The girl stood with her back towards her as Annelies arrived at the top step. She wasn’t perfectly solid but not translucent either. She looked like a faded hand colored photo. She bounced the red ball a few times. Annelies stood still, catching her breath for a moment. The girl stood still, too. “You killed them.” The voice didn’t emanate from the girl, it came from everywhere and still nowhere. Then the crying started again. Not very high, more like a radio you turn on in the background to keep you company.
She recognized the girl. She knew who she was. She had been the doctor’s favorite. Beautiful, slender, strong, bright with black eyes and golden skin. The sun seemed to live under that skin, it glowed by itself. The doctor had given her the red ball and she used to bounce it up and down the hallway in the hospital or outside on the dry, dusty ground. She defended her ball with fierceness and bravery. “Savages,” the guards used to laugh when she fought the other children for the red ball.
She lived longer than the other children who had arrived at the same time as her. The doctor gave her apples and extra margarine and jam. And he used to ask her to sing. Her voice high and clear. Angel like. Annelies used to think it all was absurd. A game with reality. The child wouldn’t survive no matter what and the doctor knew this. Still he kept the girl as a pet for a whole year.
In the summer of 1944 the camp started to get crowded and more people were sent to the gas chambers. The girl still had her red ball and still got her apples and jam and margarine but the doctor started to grow tired of her. Her skin didn’t glow as the sun anymore. The camp had sucked the essence out of her.
One day he asked one of the guards to take her away. The girl cried, and fought and screamed. Of course she knew what was waiting for her. They all knew.
The next morning another child picked up the ball and played with it. Annelies watched the child as he played and then she walked up to him and took the ball away. “It is not yours!” she had said and for a moment she had felt like the world made sense in all its madness and horrors. She kept the ball through all these years. Last time she had seen the ball, a few summers ago, it had been in its normal place in the trunk in the attic.
Now the girl bounced the ball, then she slowly turned around and looked at Annelies. She was as beautiful as she had been in the beginning.
“Evil never goes away,” the girl said with her clear voice. “We always remember.”
The darkness behind the girl changed, it trembled, she could feel the trembling under her feet. Then one spot of light appeared, then two, then three, then more than she could count. The lights hovered behind the girl. Pulsated then grew. Each light slowly transformed into a child. Some she recognized, others she had forgotten.
“You starved us,” a little blonde boy said. He wore a blue shirt and brown shorts. One of his socks had slid down.
“I…I,” Annelies stammered. “I wasn’t in…I didn’t decide how much…”
“Evil never goes away,” the girl said again.
“You drowned them like kittens.” At first she couldn’t see who spoke, then a girl stepped forward holding a baby in her arms. The baby was wrapped in a white and yellow blanket and seemed to be sleeping deeply.
“You don’t understand,” her voice was urgent. “A baby couldn’t survive. We had to…”
The girl with the baby stepped closer to her. She had two long, thick braids and big brown eyes.
“You drowned them like kittens.” The baby in her arms started to move, opened its eyes. The eyes were a newborn’s clear, deep eyes. One day they might have turned brown but now they were blueish green.
“Hold him,” the girl said and reached out with the baby in her arms. Annelies shook her head and took a step backwards, she was very close to the stairs now. The other children moved closer. “Hold him. Hold him. Hold him,” they all murmured.
“No,” Annelies screamed and shut her eyes. “You don’t exist! Leave me alone!”
It grew quiet around her. She stood with her eyes closed and listened. She heard how the boiler turned on down in the basement and how the heat moved up the radiators. But she didn’t hear anything else.
She opened her eyes again. The hallway was empty. She shivered, suddenly cold. Her body was covered in sweat and she was exhausted. Slowly, she walked across to her bedroom, opened her door. The room was peaceful. Her bed looked inviting. She kicked off her slippers and crawled under the blanket. She left the bedside lamp on and closed her eyes again. Sleep would be liberating. As she felt her body grew warm and relaxed she heard the bouncing again. And then children who were laughing.