HITLER DEAD! FÜHRER FELL AT REICH CHANCELLERY!
Anton’s American soldier had whipped out the torn front page of the newspaper for him to translate the headline. His German was very bad and Anton’s English worse, but they worked it out anyhow, repeating it back and forth to each other until they were satisfied with the results. He admired the headline mainly because the American was his friend, then asked for chewing gum.
His American was inclined to be generous with his largesse, so he gave to Anton four pieces of Juicy Fruit wrapped up in a twist of the old wrapper. He also got a pat on the head, which at ten years old was something to resent but he put up with it anyway. He wrapped up the gum in his handkerchief. Anton took only half a piece for himself, chewing it and chewing it on the road home until it lost all of its flavour and was tack in his mouth. He weighed up his options: it was a well-known fact that swallowing it would coat his lungs and almost certainly kill him, but it seemed like such a waste not to.
His father was sitting next to the smuggled radio when he came through the door, crying and laughing and crying again as Radio Hamburg repeated the news: Attention! Attention! Our Führer is dead. Bread was burning on the stove, but the pale sour bread he made wasn’t much to cry over if it was burnt up. Anton left him with three and a half pieces and his handkerchief and went back out into Stuttgart, rich with time to waste before work.
In the evenings, the house rubble looked like the hills of giant ants. He liked to pretend that they were what had laid waste to so many of them: huge six-legged insects with clacking, dripping mandibles, knocking down chimneys and blackening the walls with their giant ant excretions. It might look like the scorch-mark from a shell, but Anton knew it was the monster ants, fooling everyone else by acting like it was the war. He spent a little time nudging his toe into sooty puddles and watching smoke rise from the American barracks over to the south, and went to loiter by the fences there when the thrill of giant ants palled.
There was a camp there, for Russian prisoners. In the evenings you could hear them arguing in loud Slavic voices, their figures in the prison yard wreathed in darkness as they shouted and sometimes fought. Hitler was dead, but it seemed like they yelled as they always yelled before and wheeled blows at each other with the exact same blind, unhappy aim. Anton decided to go back home by weaving a path behind the empty cloth factory where the tall, frondy weeds grew in the cracks in the path.
In the shadow of the smokestack stood his American soldier and a strange woman, with a headscarf over her head. The soldier had his gloved fingers crammed in her mouth so that the only noises she could make were wet pants, and her skirts were ripped across the breadth at the back. Her legs were naked and white, flashing in the shadows as she struggled, and Anton stared dumbly as the man scraped the woman’s forehead up against the factory wall over and over and over again.
He noticed Anton, but didn’t even seem to care for either staring boys or blood. Anton could not move. “It’s all right,” his American assured him in his broken German. Alles gut. The woman seemed to be nearly knocked senseless, half-fainted against the cold concrete. “It’s all right, son.” He dropped his handful of headscarf and rooted around in a pocket instead. “You go home! You have good night!”
Though the flesh was white, the blood on it was purple. Anton had something thrown at him. It slid off his jersey and onto the ground. “You go home,” said his American. “You go.”
The woman did not make a sound, but every so often she jerked around like a fish on a hook. An unopened packet of chewing-gum lay near the frondy weeds. Juicy Fruit. The woman in her headscarf gurgled into those prying fingers, more blood mixing with saliva, and Anton took the gum and ran away; he could think of nothing else to do.
Somebody would know. Somebody would find out. The Juicy Fruit paper crackled in his fingers. When he thought he had run away enough and could not see the cloth factory any more, he sat on a pile of rubble and crammed all of the gum into his mouth. It made a wet and noisy ball as he chewed it. He swallowed, hard, and it made a lump in his throat all the way down.
His father worked in the Red Cross hospital that the French doctors had set up. Well—that wasn’t quite true. He did not work in the hospital, but in the basement of the empty bakery next door where they had the morgue. When the doctors and nurses were tired of them and had done all that they could, Anton’s father washed the bodies of the dead. So did Anton, as the hospital was small.
It was an odd occupation and he liked it. He wasn’t one of those boys who ran around and shouted; he was a boy who liked looking at things. Looking at the dead people was easy now. His father told him they were all going to Heaven, except maybe the Nazis, so you didn’t have to feel bad about them. When he passed by the hospital to go to the bakery morgue, he saw rows of whey-faced women there.
“I don’t want you going out at night,” said his father, washing toes. “All these Moroccan soldiers, those Tunisians, attacking our girls. It’s disgusting. You come here before six o’clock, Anton.”
Anton thought about it.
“Why is it only women?”
His father made that tch! noise which meant he didn’t really want to answer the question. “Your hair’s getting too long,” he said. “I will cut it.”
“They do things to them, don’t they?”
Wrong question. Anton was set to wring out sponges.
He kept thinking about the gum in his stomach rather than anything else. Swallowing all those pieces really would kill him. He would drop down dead, which was a relief, because then he wouldn’t ever have to meet his American soldier again or think about the woman. He thought about the woman’s white, bloodied legs and split lips. He thought about the unbuttoned front of the American’s trousers. Sweat prickled on his palms.
“You smell like sweets,” said his father, when he was done with the sponges. “No more! Stop annoying the soldiers for them. The Americans, they’ve liberated us. Stuttgart was proudly outside the Reich for years. Now we have our dignity back—if the Tunisians would just go and stop their disgusting business.”
“What if it wasn’t Tunisians?” asked Anton, but his father didn’t understand.
The next day he found himself by the factory again. His legs took him there, unwilling, and he watched the American soldier fold a woman over some abandoned crates. Anton thought it might have been the same woman. He did not talk to Anton this time, just rummaged in his pocket and tossed chewing gum to him like you would for a clamorous seagull. Then he went back to his work. Anton’s mouth tired of chewing by the time he got back home. He had started burying the wrappers in the rubble piles, like they were for the monster ants.
One night, his father washed the body of a woman and he realised with a start it was his woman—the American soldier’s woman, that was: it had taken him a bit to notice because her throat was torn in a long raggedy line terminating halfway across the neck. His father fancied himself a bit of a coroner. “Suicide,” he said, shaking his head. “See how the first hole here is deep, and the rest of the gash is much shallower? See how it is a hole, not a cut? Ah, Anton, what a waste. Commend her to God. “
Her hips and her thighs were all one bruise. Her wrists had bracelets of fat red marks with flecks of dried blood beneath her fingernails. Anton did not breathe.
“Poor lady,” his father said. “She is somewhere happy now.”
She did not look happy. Her jaw was clenched shut. There was a silvery fleck at the corner of her mouth, and his father reached out to try to wipe it away. It didn’t wipe. His fingers were very gentle as he pressed on her lips and opened them up, and took a thin wafer out from underneath the swollen tongue. “Those nurses are being lazy,” said Anton’s father, and held up the wafer to the light. A striped Juicy Fruit wrapper, oily with blood.
Anton had to close his eyes and count to ten, which he had not needed to do in the morgue since he was eight. His father must have seen, because he said quietly: “Go out and get some air, darling. Not too far. Stay by the door.”
The night was dark and cold. From down the street he heard raucous voices, infantrymen. Anton hugged his knees to his chest until his father came outside to take him home.
On the third day his American soldier was smoking indolently by the chimney wall. “What,” he said laughingly, “now ‘haben Sie cigarette’?” Anton shook his head. “Good boy,” said the American. “Good. No smoke! Makes yousick.”
There was only one piece of gum for him now. He clutched it in his fist and saw every policeman on the corner now as he walked, every woman, imagined their staring through his fingers to see what was inside. The giant ants settled in their holes underneath the untidy piles of brick, muttering about chewing-gum and Anton, and he took the key from beneath the bakery flowerpot to open up the morgue.
Nobody had come for the woman because nobody knew who she was. There were many people in Stuttgart like that now. She would be written down as Lieschen and put at the crossroads grave come Sunday when the priest came. Anton touched her chilly fingers gently, as his father had touched them gently, and then he prised open the mouth to put the piece of chewing-gum within. He could hide it there, inside her.
He wet himself when the dead woman began chewing. The soft rectangular strip mulched between her pink-stained teeth as she rolled it around in her mouth, gray eyes flicking open as she spread it on her palate and sucked out the flavour as Anton always did. He was aware of hot trickles down his legs.
When she swallowed, there was a brief flash of pink in that ugly hole at her throat. The dead woman was staring at the ceiling, and he was sure that once she turned that gaze on him he would be killed immediately.
“Tell me how much you got,” she said.
Her voice was a little bubbly, whistling through that awful hole, but otherwise sounded perfectly normal. Anton could not speak. She said, “You ate his food. How much did you eat?”
Because his brain would not work, he had to count on his trembling fingers. He had liked math when he had been at school. Five pieces to a packet, which meant—“Ten pieces,” he said, and recalled further. “And one half. Ten and a half. Since Tuesday.”
She was silent. He tried to be brave about it. “Am I going to die?” he said.
“Ten pieces,” she said without answering, “and a half. That will be enough, I think. Go and get me ten pieces and a half as payment for your staring—and change your pants.”
Ten (and a half) pieces of chewing gum was an unbelievable amount. For one, he had gotten ten-and-a-half pieces only by accident in the first place, but fear made him trek all over Stuttgart in desperation thinking about how he was going to do it. When the next day his American soldier said, “No rations!” he nearly wept like a baby of five. His soldier must have felt bad, because he ruffled Anton’s curls instead. Though he’d had a bath just that week, Anton had to go and wash his hair after.
The next day he got two pieces from the American, and two from a French doctor who knew his father—impertinence his father would have smacked him for, but this was a matter of life and death. Anton snuck down to the morgue and fed them to the dead woman piece by piece.
She spat out the two from the French doctor—”No good,” she said—but ate the two from the soldier. Her eyelids fluttered and her fingers twitched, slowly unbending, stiff toes curling inward underneath her sheet. “You’re slow.”
“He didn’t have much. It’s hard to get.”
“You got it before. You can get it again.”
There was nothing he could say to that.
One piece the next day made three, which meant the vastness of seven and a half pieces to go—now the dead woman could sit up and even hobble a little, and he got her a coat and some skirts to hide all the red splotches from where her body had lain on the table. His dread tripled when she said, “It’s cold here. Take me home with you.”
“You can’t. My father will find out.”
“This place is full of dead people. I don’t like it.”
“But you’re dead,” said Anton, nearly crying from frustration.
“Just one night.”
There was nothing for it. He went to her late that night, and she leaned on his shoulder through the streets of Stuttgart where nobody noticed them but a policeman who said, “Go home!” when he saw them both. The woman was heavy and smelled a little sickly, that familiar chilly smell of dead body. When they got to Anton’s house, she clambered through his window then laid on his bed.
Anton made to sleep on the floor, rolling up his unravelling jersey to put underneath his head. They both lay in awkward, uncomfortable silence.
“I just wanted a cigarette,” she said. “I was going to pay him, you know; I don’t beg. I had some apples that weren’t soft.”
He did not know what to say to this, but felt like he had to say something. “Were you very old?” asked Anton.
“Nineteen,” said the woman—so, yes, quite old.
The floor was hard, so he was surprised when he did somehow get to sleep. He was woken up by a noise like wet hiccups: the dead woman was crying. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry.” Anton put his clammy hand up into hers. After a little while she stopped crying, but held his hand until he was nearly asleep.
“My name is Elke,” she said, startling him awake.
“My name is Elke. When they put me away,” she said, “don’t let them call me anything else.”
In the thin morning sunlight she was gone and he was tucked up in the blankets. Truthfully, he was relieved.
Six pieces. His American had given him another three to make him go away when he found him talking to an American girl, one of the ones with stockings and shiny hair who came with the USO. The day after that, Anton couldn’t find him, and Sunday would come soon, and he didn’t want his dinner because he was too busy thinking about ways to get more chewing gum. That suited Anton, because when his father found out that he had asked the French doctor for candy he got a wallop. Anton didn’t really want to look him in the eye.
He went to the gardens of the houses that had been bombed, picking flowers. It was a sad bunch of woody roses and nosegay, but when he gave it to his soldier, who was still standing in the shadow of the factory wall, he was touched. “Oh, son,” he said. He took one of the roses and put it in his buttonhole, waving it to be admired, and Anton smiled wanly. “I have a brother.” He fumbled with the German as he said it: Mein Bruder? Mein kleinen Bruder? Now Anton felt sick. “Little brother. Just like you.”
He pinched Anton’s cheek and laughed at his grimace, then gave him a whole packet of Juicy Fruit. “Brush your tooths,” he said.
Eleven pieces—that was eleven—he stuffed the packet down his shirt and ran all the way to the bakery. His fingers fumbled with the key. As he flung himself down the stairs, his dead woman was already sitting up, gaunt and waiting, and they ripped open the packet together with impatient hands. The last piece he broke in half with his fingernail. She gobbled it up with the rest.
“All right,” she said. “That’s good.” She swung her legs over the side of the pallet and wrapped herself in the skirt and coat, pulling the collar up over her punctured neck. Anton didn’t quite know what he’d been expecting; she was still very dead, though now she walked tall and graceful and smooth. “Let’s go, shall we?”
“Where are we going?” he asked.
But he already knew.
Outside in the bustle of Stuttgart nobody looked at them. He held tightly to her hand, the skin slipping a little underneath his palm, past the anthill piles of rubble from the houses and past the camp where the Russian men fought. He led her to the abandoned factory with its thrusting smokestacks, and there was his American soldier: still with the rose tucked inside his buttonhole, grinding out the butt of his cigarette as he prepared to leave.
At first his mouth rounded in a greeting for Anton, but then he saw the dead woman. The coat had slipped open to show her dead and naked throat, the squeezed bruises of her—her chest, her waxen skin.
His American soldier screamed. She was on him even as his gun clattered bullets into her body and she forced his face into the wall—pushed her fingers into his mouth so that his screams spluttered into a wet muffle. Anton thought that she put her mouth to the place between his soldier’s neck and shoulder to kiss him, but then there were wet gristly sounds that were definitely not kissing.
He pretended himself into one of the rubble piles safely buried in the rocks. He put himself into a monster ant and walked around in the dark, his bristly body scraping up against the bodies of other monster ants. The dead woman chewed wet, noisy mouthfuls, swallowing in grunts, hand rooting around somewhere at the soldier’s belly and into his shirt. Their bodies moved together as one.
When it was over, his dead woman’s belly was grossly distended and there were only scraps of cloth left in her hands, and he couldn’t believe how she’d done it—and she couldn’t either, because she had to be a little sick next to the wall. He did not look. Her mouth was dripping red and she tried in vain to wipe it, but when that didn’t work all she did was cry and cry like a child.
“I was always going to be in the ground with him in me,” she said. “I just wanted to make sure, that’s all. I just wanted to make sure.” And then she was a little sick again.
Anton went to see her Sunday when she was buried. Before she was wrapped up in her sheet she said, “You will come and see me, won’t you? You don’t hate me?” and could only fall asleep when he held her hand. Perhaps it wasn’t sleeping. He sewed her up in a grubby shroud as he had seen his father do, and he was there when they put her at the crossroads grave for suicides. Her and the American. With a stone he expended some effort scratching letters onto a piece of wood, and when he was done had some splinters and E-L-K-E for his pains.
When he made the walk back home into Stuttgart and to the bakery next to the Red Cross hospital, he tried to imagine the monster ants again, but they didn’t come. It was as though he had thought about them too hard and they had burnt up in his brain.
There must have been something in his face when he met his father at the door of the bakery morgue. “I forgive you, darling,” said his father, and put one arm around him. “Just stop acting like one of the beggar-boys from now on. Look! I have something for you.”
From one of his capacious pockets, his father drew something thin and silvery. He presented it to Anton with the air of a magician: two sticks of Juicy Fruit in a bit of their wrapper, smelling as sweet and as sickly as they always did. “There,” he said proudly. “Since you like it so much.”
He did not understand why Anton gagged.
© 2013 Tamsyn Muir.