“The worst was the maggots.”
That was the accepted punch line of an already firmly established family legend. Lucy had heard it first when she was six. At thirty-eight, she still sat on the edge of her chair waiting for her favorite parts with fairytale anticipation when her parents told it again, as they did at least once every few years.
“We left our things behind with a farmer when we moved on to another village thirty-some kilometers down the road. Then one day I borrowed a bicycle to pick up our stuff,” Linde said. “Your brothers were too small, so I left them with the people I was living with.”
Jochen couldn’t wait to cut in with his storyteller bass. “That was the farm where I had been hired as help. One day the youngest boy comes running out into the field. We were bringing in hay. ‘Mr. Hertel,’ he pants, ‘your wife is here!’ Oh, was I mad at him. I threatened to box his ears for having me on.
‘Never, never joke like that with me,’ I growled at him.
‘But it’s true.’ The boy jumped out of my range, but repeated his message. ‘She’s here. Come.’ Something grabbed my chest. I dropped my pitchfork, everything, and ran back to the farm with the boy.”
“They hadn’t said anything to me,” Linde interrupted. “In case he wasn’t the right one after all.”
“But I was,” Jochen said. “And there was Linde. I said her name.”
“I turned and he stood there,” Linde interrupted. “I couldn’t get a word out.” Her mouth pursed. “You know how rare that is.”
“You did open your mouth.” Jochen grinned. “But nothing came out.”
“I couldn’t believe it.” Linde’s hand flew up from the table, collided with her glass, and spilled mulled wine. “Oops.” She steadied the glass. The purple wine ate rapidly into the crisscross fibers of white tablecloth. Its orange peel and nutmeg smell seemed even stronger in the spill. Linde hesitated, then chose her story over the fabric. “I felt like, now what? Can I finally give up some responsibility? All of a sudden I felt weak. Dizzy.”
“You never told me that.” Jochen’s eyes lifted from the wine spot to meet Linde’s.
“No? Anyway. The point is, you were there.”
Lucy leaned forward, Linde to her right and Jochen to her left. “And you both just happened to be in the same area by chance,” Lucy prompted. This, she thought, was the best, the miracle part of the story.
“Well, I did ask around wherever I could.” Jochen lifted his chest. “I knew Linde had gone on a train to that general area. I got that piece of information from the old post mistress where we used to live.”
To Lucy this was news. She hadn’t heard it like that before.
“So there we were.” Linde’s voice was a fairytale whisper again. “Since I only had the one bicycle, I decided to stay the night. I didn’t want us to have to be apart again.”
Jochen reached across the table to put his bony hand on Linde’s arm. His elbow rested an inch away from the wine spill.
Linde’s eyes blinked. “I would have crawled through a mine field to be allowed to stay with you that night,” she addressed him directly. “I didn’t want to lose you again.”
“We sent one of the farmer’s sons on the bicycle to let our boys, and the people where Linde was staying, know what was going on. We didn’t want them to worry,” Jochen said to Lucy.
“Yes, and the farmer’s wife made up a cot for us,” Linde said. “Up under the roof.”
“Where they had their salt meats hang from the rafters,” Jochen added.
Linde crinkled her nose. “It wasn’t just the smell. There were maggots, too. And they kept falling down into the sheet on the cot.”
Lucy felt her stomach protest the concept. She grimaced. The thick spice of the wine fogged over her sinuses. “Could you even sleep?” she asked. Memories of college flashed across her mind, cheap student housing with no less than three varieties of roaches. She had never been able to sleep naked since.
“I got them off the sheet, of course,” Jochen said.
“Sure,” Linde said. “But the meat was still up there. And so were the maggots that were still on the meat.”
Jochen shrugged. “I couldn’t very well take down all of their meat. Where would I have put it?”
“All night long that meat over our heads,” Linde said. “It was hot, too. It was summer already. I did fall asleep toward morning, though….”
“Shh,” Jochen interrupted. “The news. I don’t want to miss the news.”
Linde and Lucy exchanged a glance of indulgence. Years had passed. His hair had gone gray and thin on top. But, as far back as Lucy could remember, Jochen had never changed his news routine. He didn’t read the papers, but, ever since they had owned their first TV, for the evening news the rest of the world was required to either stop or keep on turning without him.
“You’ve been through so much, Mom,” Lucy whispered to Linde with compassion and admiration. “Miracles, too.”
It wasn’t necessary to whisper. Jochen’s hearing was steadily getting worse, which Linde always tried to help mask, by pretending she was the one who needed words repeated or the volume turned up higher.
* * *
Thank God you don’t know the rest of it, Linde thought, acknowledging Lucy’s miracle comment with a pixie smile.
Would she tell anyone? Ever? Not likely. Certainly not her daughter. The mealy white maggots were nothing.
* * *
When Jochen stands face to face with Linde, she trembles, though it is summer and warm. How skinny he is. His bones stick out into his grimy undershirt, which is all he wears over patched tan trousers. His arms and shoulders are muscular, though. Blood seems to drain from her brain, her heart. She feels faint. His smile is anxious, and glistening with bliss and fieldwork sweat. He looks like an incredulous boy about to get something he has long wished for. His eyes are moist.
Both of them are fragile, broken in a lot of ways. She feels ancient compared with when she last kissed him good-bye, almost a year ago, in their former home. She wants to look at him with innocent and unselfconscious love. She wants him to be her teacher, her hero, her prince. She had been taught to revere a man for squaring up to the enemy. And there he stands with a lopsided grin, looking so young despite all that has happened, and looking also like a stranger she has never seen before. She likes his strong smell of work and of hay. She trembles and stutters and doesn’t have a clue what either one of them is saying, even as words at last come from her own mouth.
She wants to be in love, excited. He seems to be both. But all her old dreams of a fairytale life at the side of her handsome husband surround her and taunt her like malevolent ghosts.
She looks at him and registers an unexpected fear. She wants to shoo it away. Who are you? she wonders. Their experiences have taken them worlds apart. She doesn’t want to bother him with hers. Katherina’s birth and death, a life that Jochen created with her and never got to see.
How may children have you killed, Jochen?
She blames herself for allowing such a question into her mind, but she has no defense against it. She shivers.
All afternoon they are shy with each other. But at night his hands find her. So what if they lie under maggots, or even on top of ones that have fallen unnoticed? She already knows that later she’ll be able to talk of the maggots, and the smell of these hams overhead. Salty. Porky. Rancid.
She feels she is being torn in half, for she is glad to hold her husband in her arms, but the new fear of him she felt this afternoon has, if anything, grown. Will she ever be able to embrace him again with the breathlessness of innocence? The scent of perspiration and sexual fluids is overpowered by the salt pork in the rafters. Her pain feels like bones growing.
What frightens her most is that she no longer knows who he is. Has he killed? By hand? With a gun? Has he snuffed out lives? One? Two? More? None? Has he slain a Frenchman? A Russian? More likely a Frenchman, because he spent more time in France than later in Russia. A French baby perhaps, like Katherina? Inadvertently? On purpose? Fais dodo, fais dodo, mon cher petit ange, the child’s mother might have sung just an hour before its death.
The more Linde tries to push the uninvited thoughts away, the more vividly they insist on being present, huge and grotesque. If they had all been killed on their train journey from the eastern part of Germany, she, and the boys, and the girl who didn’t survive the journey anyway, those bombers–British most likely–wouldn’t even have known how many children and women they had personally extinguished. Has Jochen killed? A baby? Like hers? Like his own?
He told her a story that afternoon, because it was still fresh and grisly in his mind. After escaping from prison camp in Russia–no dangerous stunt there, they simply walked away at an opportune moment and kept on walking; nobody knew what to do with so many prisoners anyway–he and a buddy joined other men walking toward some nebulous future somewhere in the western part of Germany. Among them was a small group led by a young commander their own age, possibly even younger.
One day they came face to face with Americans.
“Surrender,” said the young German commander, raising his arms.
An old German soldier shot the young commander in the back. His message: A good German doesn’t surrenders. A good German prefers to die proudly. Blood spread in a circle on the young man’s brown shirt. The old philosopher in turn was shot at once by the Americans before he could take out more of his own. The rest were allowed to surrender in peace, including Jochen.
How brutally obedient men could be to principles, beliefs, convictions. And if you disagreed with their convictions, that made you, with table-thumping logic, the enemy.
How many of his so-called enemies has Jochen taken out in zealous righteousness? It is all she can think of as his penis presses against her, then moves inside. His lips cover hers with wet kisses.
“Linde,” he murmurs, emotion humming in his voice. “That I get to be with you again.”
Against her will she thinks of the dead, dead at his hands, perhaps, and certainly dead at other hands. Katherina. Children spilled open. Women split apart. Chests ripped. Arms sliced. The smell of blood, metallic. Salt. Decay. Ham. Maggots.
How can she make love to this skinny, handsome man, this stranger, this husband, never knowing if he has killed, sunk a bayonet into someone as easily as he now sinks his member into her? He seems carried away, taken over by need. She envies him.
Will she ever get past her questions? Will they ever go away? Whom has he killed? Katherina? No, not Katherina, of course. A French bébé somewhere, burning up with the fever of war? Or in a blast of fire?
She knows she’ll never ask. She doesn’t have the nerve to reach for and face that kind of truth. What if the answer were yes? And who is she to be his judge? But there is no trust left in her world. How is she to love without trust?
She remembers Katherina’s birth, easier than that of the two surviving boys. With Katherina she had hardly felt any physical pain, just loneliness. She had ached with its vastness, not knowing where Jochen was, or whether dead or alive. And then the loneliness of the yellowish drops of the baby’s saliva on her blouse, exactly in the place where one might pin an ornament, when the child exhaled for the final time.
Now Jochen is here in her arms. She keeps as still as possible, so as not to break apart with despair while he is taking his pleasure of her. She owes him this–and everything else she can possibly give him. He is a survivor who made it to hell and back.
But doubt and fear seem to strangle her. She prays she won’t conceive this night, not while the surprise attack from within is raging. Maybe in time she will get used to her doubts. Maybe in time she can forget that she may be holding in her arms an executioner who nonetheless still needs her tenderness. She realizes that it is okay to sob. Chalk it up to release of worry, to relief, even to pleasure.
She prays feverishly. ‘Not this night, God, please. Not like this. I don’t want my precious Katherina replaced by a child conceived like this.’
She starts counting Jochen’s thrusts. Killer? Thoughts stab through her mind. Fourteen, fifteen. A memory, but from a sharp distance, of how she used to adore his body moving inside hers.
He no longer kisses her lips. He is too busy concentrating on his body’s urgency. Good. The less of her he touches, the less surface there is with which she has to hide from him.
I know you didn’t start this war, Jochen. And yet I hate you for it, she thinks. I love you for surviving. But I’m not sure if I can ever love you for yourself again, for the essence of what once was my Jochen, the man I married.
* * *
No, this wasn’t the kind of story to tell your family. Linde pressed her fingers on the edges of the wine stain, as though trying to prevent its spread. And yet, who would tell it then? No one? And if no one, then how would the truth ever change?
* * *
Twenty-seven. Twenty-eight. She is waiting for his groan. Her heart is filled with tears. Her throat is filled with tears. She feels she can’t get air. Thirty-three. Thirty-four. His breath is loud.
I love you, Jochen, she tries to chant to herself. I have always loved you and I always will. You are my husband. I chose you for love. I want to give you all my tenderness. I have promised it to you with my wedding vow. I want to keep my promise.
But horror competes with her chant and gains the upper hand at times. Who are they after all? Two maggots copulating on a blanket among others? Writhing. Wiggling. She is yearning to be human.
In the morning while Jochen is still talking to the farmer down in the kitchen, she rubs at the spot they have made on the sheet with a sprinkling of water from a jug and the small stick of green shaving soap that he left by the wash bowl. But when she hears Jochen on the ladder up to the loft, she stops. It can’t be helped now. She folds the bed sheets neatly and leaves them at the foot of the cot.
* * *
When the news on TV was over, Jochen excused himself from the table to brush his teeth. Linde followed his back with her eyes. In time the horror did fade and love grew out of it again. Maybe it wasn’t necessary to share these kinds of secrets with others.
“Did you ever wonder if he slept with anybody else, when he was away for so long? In France, for instance?” Lucy still whispered, though he could not possibly hear.
“No.” Linde laughed out loud with relief, thrilled to have something to laugh at freely. That thought had never occurred to her.
Still, she felt like a coward. Maybe that was how women got their reputation for stupidity–because they hid these things–things that were true but were treated as though they didn’t exist. Smiled away with defeated smiles of tenderness and resignation. Until the smiles began to look like simpering stupidity instead of merely a make-shift mask over knowing too much.
Lucy gathered up the empty glasses and carried them to the kitchen. When she returned, she pulled off the tablecloth.
“What are you doing?” Linde asked, puzzled momentarily.
“Maybe I’ll get the stain out while it’s still fairly fresh.”
“Oh, good idea.” Linde lifted herself out of her chair to follow Lucy to the kitchen.
About the Author
Born and raised in Germany, Beate Sigriddaughter came to the United States in her teens, and now divides her time between Denver and Vancouver. A Pushcart Prize nominee, Beate has published short fiction, poetry and essays in over 25 magazines and ezines. Beate is also fiction editor of Moondance (www.moondance.org), a women’s literary ezine. “The Stain” is part of her novel “Parcival,” a novel about women and war, which is currently in search of a publisher. For more information on Beate, visit her website www.sigriddaughter.com