The House on Kronenstrasse

Her mother's last words led to a place Christiane had fled as a child—and where truth lay concealed

I return with an armful of clothing and then stop short. I survey the room. In one corner is a small side table holding a basket of silk flowers. The bed, a bedside table, and a dresser complete the furnishings. Three smooth walls, painted pinky-beige, the fourth wall broken only by the well-sealed window.

No closet.

I put the clothing on the bed and find myself walking the perimeter of the room, running my hand along the wall. These old houses often have few if any closets; clothing was hung in armoires. But something about the layout of the space is odd. A closet on the other side of this wall, in the bedroom I've slept in these past five nights, but no closet here, on the complementary side of the wall, as one would expect.

I return to the first room. Open and shut the closet door. Examine the wall, trying to imagine an explanation for what seems a kind of optical illusion related to the design of these rooms.

I sit down on the bed and glance around me, aware of a heightened feeling of eyes. I have often had the sense that other people are watching me, though I've learned to dismiss such feelings as a quirky neurosis. I date this odd sense to my seventh birthday, when my memory, having been almost wholly erased up to then, seems to have kicked back in. Ever since, it has existed only in fits and starts—vividly comprehensive regarding some periods or events, wholly amnesic regarding others.

I don't recall all of that birthday, just one pulsing moment.

I am sitting at a table, and before me is a cake, fashioned ingeniously by my mother from coarse ration flour, a lump of lard, a single egg, and a precious cupful of sugar. How proud she was that morning as she assembled those ingredients. She was particularly pleased with the sugar, which was very hard to come by and must have cost what was to us at that time a small fortune. Slowly she touched her finger to her tongue and then placed it in the cup of sugar. A few granules clung to her fingertip, which she put to my lips. "Isn't it delicious?" she said.

She also saved a candle stub, and here I am, sitting before the cake, looking at the wavering flame. "A wish," my mother is saying. "You have to make a wish." I look around the table: my mother's cousin, a woman who can't be over forty but looks old to me, and her husband, a clerk, both of them wearing expressions of irritation and distaste; their three children, much older than I, already in their teens. All of them are looking at me in that sideways manner they have when addressing me, as if they can't quite stomach looking at me full on.

We are only just tolerated, my mother and I; we are not a welcome presence. To pay for our keep my mother hands over much of the pittance she earns doing housework for her cousin's colleagues. I know that these relatives are sitting at the table only for the rare benefit, in that time of terrible scarcity, of a piece of cake, however skimpy in richness, texture, and taste it might prove to be.

Fervent wishes regularly passed through my child's imagination at that time, intense longings incubated by the suffering I'd witnessed and by our many deprivations. But looking around at those faces, at all those sideways eyes fixed on my face with a distaste I do not understand, and which makes me feel hollow and achy inside, one wish only burns in my mind. I close my eyes and give it full voice: Stop looking at me.

I open my eyes to find that my wish has come true. My mother, smiling a rare smile, is cutting the cake—and now all eyes are on her. She hands me the first slice. Then she leans down, her smile full and warm, though she has tears in her eyes.

"Happy birthday, Christiane," she says. "Seven years old! Imagine that!"

Now, in the house on Kronenstrasse, I feel overcome by tiredness. I lie down among the clothes I have put on the bed and doze.

When I awake, I am in darkness. The bulb of the lamp must have chosen this moment to blow. I stumble up, still half lost in a rapidly dispersing dream, and fumble for the switch on the wall. A scuttling on the floor to my right tells me I am not alone. A mouse, perhaps? I leap back onto the bed, but in the dark, and still unsteady on my feet, I miscalculate. One leg makes it up onto the bed, but the other misses, and I find myself falling awkwardly forward. I fling my arms out and tumble headlong into the wall. The lip of the baseboard catches my cheek sharply, while my forehead thuds the wall above. I lie there disoriented and frightened. I get to my feet and switch on the overhead light. I can feel a trickle of warmth down my cheek; I touch the spot, and my fingers come back red.

It is only when I am in the bathroom, dabbing at my cheek with a wet towel and staring into the mirror at the swelling lump on my forehead, that I realize something was odd about the sound my head made when it banged against the wall. This old house is solid—solid as a rock. But when my head made contact with the wall, it produced a hollow thud.

I flash on my mother's face, her dying words, the peculiar urgency in her eyes. No, her giving me this address was not a mistake, not the utterance of an addled mind in the moments before death. She intended this, intended that I be here, intended—though this seems so unlikely, so impossible—that I discover this wall that gives off a hollow thud when struck.

I dry off the cut and return to the bedroom. I kneel down to examine the place where I tumbled against the wall. There, at the bottom of the baseboard, is the little slit through which the mouse, flattening its body in that impossible way that is the special talent of mice, disappeared.

I look more closely at the slit. It is not a crack that has appeared from age or the gradual settling of the house but something made deliberately by some sort of woodworking tool. I run my fingers along the bottom of the baseboard. Sure enough, I find a series of such slits, perhaps eight or ten, along the length of the wall. They are perfect for mice to enter and leave, though I feel certain they were made for another purpose entirely.

I put my ear to the wall and hear faint scratchings on the other side. I knock once, twice, on the wall above the baseboard. The scratchings on the other side stop; my knocks echo hollowly in the room. I stand and go out into the hallway and then into the bedroom next door. I knock on the wall there; I hear the heavy sound and unyielding thwack of knuckles on plaster-covered brick.

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