At the Marketplace

“ I was born in Czechoslorakia,”EIUK GIPPNER writes,when to buy a fat goose for Christmas one needed only money. But one day the stores became empty,the streets silent. From then on everyone began to converse in whispers, if they conversed at all,”Miss Gippner experienced the Nazi occupation and the Russian liberation of her country. She now lives in New York, where each day she finds new excitement in the nuances of the English language.

SHE left when the sun was hot in the cloudless sky. Even though she had wanted to leave at daybreak, she had hesitated each time she was about to put the rabbit in her black net bag and saw Mrs. Kunze and her son Hans still in the yard fussing with the lock of the rabbit house. All the same, she had to leave and try her luck in the city.

The rabbit was squirming in the bag. She patted it and said, ‘’Keep still, Friday.” She had named it Friday because she had stolen it on Friday. She looked at the Kunzes again — they were still preoccupied with the lock. Now was the time to sneak past them. After she got past the Kunzes it would be only a matter of walking down the little hill and then through the village and onto the plain.

If she had only been smart enough and lied about her age, she would have gotten her ration card and her money yesterday, like all the other children. But who would have thought that one year could make such a difference? She had been honest, too honest maybe, and now she was paying for it. She would have to wait another week. One whole week.

At last she reached the road, and she began to feel now that she should never have left. It was scorching hot, and the dust on the road was so thick that her feet left a deep pattern in it. Ahead of her finally appeared the milestone, the halfway mark on the road that wound through the flat, open country like a river. When she got to it, she gently lifted the furry bundle out of her net bag and set it in the dry grass, where it immediately turned a somersault. Then, as she bent over to pick a few limp blades of grass, she noticed that there was no one in the surrounding fields, and it was clear that no one cared whether the wheat was cut or whether it burned a deeper orange. There had been no rain for more than three weeks, and the wheat lay dying and dead. The gray, juiceless grass by the roadside was already dead, but that didn’t matter. Who needed it? Who wanted the strips of green that were of no use except to cool the feet of weary hikers or to be crunched up by rabbits?

From behind came the whir of a bicycle.

“Friday! Here, Friday!”

She picked up the rabbit quickly, but before she could wave the rider to the center of the road a chalky cloud rose in the air and fell curdling on her dress. By the time it had settled, the rider was a mere swaying dot on the broad, white road that led to the city.

The rabbit, looking like a sugar-dusted bunny that confectioners used to make for Easter, snuggled closer as she blew the dust from its fur.

“You silly thing,” she murmured, pressing it to her breast and smelling the gamy fur. She dropped it back into the net bag and began to walk again. The rabbit folded itself into a neat ball that sunk and rose in rhythm with her step.

A fork in the road, adorned with four signs, made her stop. Pointing to the right was a yellow sign bent and punctured with bullet holes, MUNCHEN 60 km., and above it, fastened with a piece of chicken wire, was a sign in white, Moscow, pointing to the sky. On the left was another yellow sign, ERDING 48 km., and underneath it, painted with thick, red paint was NEW YORK 3421 miles. She took the road to the left, the one leading to New York.

She shifted the rabbit to her other arm. It got fidgety and clawed her dress until she put it back in its old place.

“You rascal. We’ve become friends since last night, haven’t we?”

She walked slower because it was getting even hotter.

“But if we had to separate for just a little while, say one week, that wouldn’t be so bad, would it?”

It would not be good, and she knew it. She would miss the soft fur caressing her arm, and she would long to feel its body press against her. And maybe when they lost sight of one another it would long for her voice and her hand.

She stopped to wipe the mucky mixture of sweat and dust off her forehead, and then she saw in the distance the tip of the city’s church steeple shining a bright silver underneath the vivid blue sky. A thrill went through her. The city was still many kilometers away, but the sight brought her into it, and she pulled at her yellow dress to make it look longer than it was, to make it look more respectable, which was a difficult thing to do if you had outgrown your dress. A sudden dip in the road hid the steeple from her, and she was once more looking at nothing but the broad, white road spreading out before her. Then, almost before she realized it, there rose the bomb-battered railroad tracks, a heap of twisted steel, behind the station. Save for two large sheep dogs that came up to her, the railroad station was deserted. She strode past them quickly, holding the rabbit tight, and then swung into a small side street that led over a bridge into the heart of the city.

WHEN she came to the large square, which was the center, or had been before the Americans took over the city and the best-looking houses that were in it, she wondered why she always got confused there. It was the squareness of the square, of course, and when the sun was overhead or when it was dark or cloudy, you could never tell which side was north or south or east or west, because all the buildings looked alike. All had the solid look of rich merchants’ homes, which they once were.

She stopped, then turned first in one direction, then in the opposite, and, shielding her eyes against the sun, she began to run across the cobblestoned square toward a store fronted with a shingle so rusty that she could barely read the name, M. KRAUSE, Bäkerei.

When she opened the door, a bell in the back rang sharply.

“Good morning,” she said, trying to sound cheerful and friendly. There were four people — three customers and the shopkeeper.

No one answered.

Two women were waiting to speak to the small bald shopkeeper. Each carried a package, and she saw them trying stupidly to conceal it under their arms. And then she noticed that the shelves were empty and dusty.

An elderly man with gray hair stood at the counter whispering to the shopkeeper. “If you please, just a slice?” His hands, white and smooth — too smooth, she thought — plucked nervously at the shopkeeper’s shirt sleeve.

“Oh, all right!” the shopkeeper snapped, and reaching under the counter, brought up half a loaf of bread, chopped a thin slice off, shoved it at the man, and said, “Stick it in your pocket and go!”

She saw the two women, obviously sisters they looked so much alike, nudge each other and close in on the counter.

“May God bless you!” cried the old man, seizing the shopkeeper’s hand. “And if I should ever have the good fortune—”

“Yes, yes! Good-bye! barked the bald shopkeeper impatiently.

As soon as the man left, he put back the bread. Meanwhile, one of the women had undone her paper parcel and taken from it a polished silver serving spoon. She laid it on the counter without a word. The shopkeeper looked carefully at the woman and shook his bald head. She turned to her sister, who had opened the second package and silently spread its contents on the counter top. The shopkeeper saw six rolls of sewing thread, four combs, and a tube of toothpaste. He inspected these items minutely. He unscrewed the cap of the tube, smelled the paste, tasted it, and nodded his head. At this the two women sighed and smiled. The man then bent down once more, brought up the bread, cut off a thick slice, and held it out to the woman who had shown him the silver spoon. Then he disappeared through the door behind the counter with the tube of toothpaste, and the two women gathered their things and left silently.

The girl was alone.

The shopkeeper returned. His face was flushed, and he glanced at the rabbit and asked, “male or female?”

She blushed. “I don’t know, sir.”

“Let’s see it.”

She held it up for him to look at.

“Give it here.”

She couldn’t look at his face. He lifted the rabbit by the skin of its back and, turning it over, laid it on the counter top. The rabbit’s belly was so white, so white, that suddenly she felt like — She turned away. She heard its hard nails scratch against the wooden counter top. She heard the shopkeeper curse. But she kept looking at the cobblestones in the square.

“Male!” he said. “Can’t use it.”

She took it back without looking up and kept brushing its ruffled fur over and over.


“No, I can’t.”


“Got enough rabbits, see? Got enough silver. Got enough of everything.”

“Just take it — for a week — and give me a slice of bread. I’ll have a ration card and money then. I’ll give whatever you want when I get my ration card and my money. Keep the rabbit for security.”

He laughed. “And feed it too, the bastard!”

She looked up at him, and then noticed that he was staring at the front of her dress where a button was missing and you could see the curve of her breast. She was ashamed, not only because he was looking at her, but because she wore no slip. She had outgrown the only one she had, and she knew that he knew it.

“No. I’m afraid that can’t be done.”

“But why not? I’ll take it back next week.”

He looked at her. “We don’t have any bread left.”

“Yes, you do! I saw it!” she cried, looking him in the eye for the first time. “You gave that man a big slice of it without getting anything for it, and I know there’s a lot left.”

“Well, he’s an old man. He can’t get food any other way, but you can. I told you that the last time you were here, and I’m telling you now!” His voice raised to a screech.

“I hate you. You’re a big, fat pig!”

She knew he was angry, and she could see it by the way his forehead broke out in sweat, but she didn’t care. She remembered he always seemed to sweat like that.

“Get out of here! Go to Berte’s!”

She didn’t move, but instead looked stubbornly past him at one of the shelves where a fat housefly licked a large, dry, dusty crumb of bread.

“You ever been there?” he asked, stepping around the counter. “Or come back here at two. I’ll be alone then.” Then he came so close that his bulging stomach pressed against her back, and she felt his fingers fumble for the opening in her dress.

She tore away and dashed out of the store, running diagonally across the square, holding the rabbit tightly against her. She heard him slam the door. The pig. Who did he think she was, she thought, running faster. After she passed the great fountain in the center, the church bells started to ring announcing noon. She was too late. Now she would have to wait for two hours until the stores opened again.

J^^OT quite knowing what to do or how to get off the burning stones quickly, she ran back to the fountain, moved around it looking lor a place to sit. and then slumped down on the step closest to the basin.

The fountain was dry. It had not had any water for weeks — she could tell by the corky look of the stone. On top of the center column, a stone nymph, her arms clasped around the waist of a large fish, stared down at the empty basin.

The girl leaned closer to the gray stone wall for a little shade. The bells stopped. There was no other sound. There was only the dry-hot, absolute stillness clinging to the yellow sandstone houses that framed the large square. All the windows were shut, and the shades and curtains drawn. All the doors were closed. No one was about. And the cobblestones in the square, as brittle and faded as dried skulls, would have sounded hollow had she walked over them now.

She took Friday off her arm and leaned back again to escape the sun, but it was useless. The bright, hot light burned into her skin. A curtain moved in one of the second-floor windows of the house opposite her. She knew that she was being watched. Even though she heard nothing, she knew that there was life behind the closed windows and the shut doors. She shifted uncomfortably on the rough hot stone step and fixed her eyes on an overly large cobblestone, keeping one hand on the rabbit’s back. The animal wiggled closer.

She stared at the contours of the stone so long that when at last she looked up, the houses in the square seemed dwarfed and distant. Even the fountain, towering overhead, had grown smaller. If she had some water, she would wash her face and then drink the water, dirty or not. But instead she wiped her face with her dress and leaned back once more against the curved stone of the basin. Her tongue had the sharp, spicy taste of brine. The air throbbed with heat, and it smelled of brine. Her hands smelled of it. Her dress smelled of it. And suddenly she had a wolfish desire to drink glassfuls of it. She fumbled in her dress pocket for a few blades of grass and began chewing them. The bitter juice was hard to swallow, but she swallowed it, and then leaned back as far as she could, feeling much lighter somehow. When she looked at the blue sky arched high above, she noticed that the brightness went out of it slowly, but then quickly, so that the houses on the square darkened sharply until suddenly she could no longer see them at all.

A dull pain in her forehead made her realize that she had fainted. The rabbit struggled to get out from under her. A thin stream of blood trickled over her left eye down onto the step, where the sun dried it up immediately. Her head continued to pound heavily. She wiped off the blood with the hem of her dress and then looked at the red stains printed across in a crazy pattern.

“They’ll think I killed someone, Friday. Why, I couldn’t even kill you.”

And then she thought, nobody will give you a piece of bread for your thoughts. No one. Not this one or that one, not they, not one of them would care about you. The rabbit tilted up its ears when she pulled the black net bag out of her other dress pocket.

“Get in! We’re going to Berte’s. Come!”

Her knees felt as soft as warm wax. The taste of brine still clung to her tongue and was fermenting in her stomach.

She looked through the glass door and counted five people besides the man and woman behind the counter. She knocked hard against the glass.

“What do you want? We’re not open yet,” Mrs. Berte said, looking at the bloodstained dress.

“Mr. Krause sent me.” Of course, that wasn’t true. She wanted to see if it would work. It did. Mrs. Bertc opened the door.

“Come in. You’ll have to wait, though.”

That all depends, she thought. Besides, just then she noticed two large loaves of bread sitting on top of the counter, and more than that, Mr. Berte — it must have been Mr. Berte — was sinking a long knife into one of them. The bread was soft, it parted willingly. It was made to be cut and chewed and swallowed. It was a generous cut, she thought, and he had done it well. The smell of the warm bread sent stabs down her stomach. It was not easy standing there with her mouth watering. It was difficult to pretend to look at it without desire, or not to look at all. When she turned away, she noticed that all the customers were staring at the bread hungrily. She knew what to do.

“Mr. Krause wants you to take this rabbit, see?” she cried, pushing her way to the counter shamelessly, holding the rabbit high in front of her and not caring who was ahead or how long they had waited.

“And he said you’re to give me a thick slice of bread for it.”

“Wait a minute!” shouted a tall man who then barred her way with his thick, hairy arms.

“I can’t wait!” she snapped back. “Mr. Krause said to hurry, Mr. Berte. He’s in trouble with the police, as you might be, too. He said you’re to keep this animal for him. He’s got too much stuff, and he can’t hide it all, so you’re to keep it for yourself.”

“What is she talking about?” Mrs. Berte asked, turning to her husband. “It doesn’t make sense!”

“It does so! He’s helped you, I know he has. And I’m helping him and you, and I’m going to get a piece of bread for it.”

Mr. Berte glared at her. “Anyone could say that. You’ve never even been here before.”

If she hadn’t seen Mrs. Berte’s face grow pale, she would have run away, but she did see it, and, what’s more, she felt a shiver of excitement go through the people in the store.

“You can do as you please!” she snapped. “And so will I!”

She turned sharply away and left Mr. Berte standing there. It was difficult to reach the door because the customers were all trying to leave at once, and were fumbling at the latch, blocking her way, and Mr. Berte was shouting, “Don’t let her get away!” while he pushed his wife through the exit behind the counter.

That’s all right, she thought. It’s perfect. And he did come up to her and pull her back and seize the rabbit by its ears, so that its eyes narrowed to a slit from the strong pull, and then, then he thrust it into the hands of the tall man, screaming, “Through the back! Take it with you!”

The rabbit’s body writhed with fright, and the sight of it stretched and tore something inside her she knew could never be mended. But she got her slice of bread.

It was a big slice, but an unevenly cut slice, thick on one side and thinner on the other, because it had been cut in a hurry. What’s more, she had lost part of it, the thin part, when she tore through the people out into the square and past the houses so fast she nearly missed the road leading to the bridge. She passed the two large sheep dogs and shook them loose after they had followed her for a while, and then, well, then, she felt safe, back on the broad, white, dusty road, where she could sink her teeth into what was left of the slice. But she did not. Her appetite had suddenly left her when she saw again the burnt wheat and the blue sky and no one, no living thing, about.