The House on Kronenstrasse
Her mother's last words led to a place Christiane had fled as a child—and where truth lay concealed.
In this memory, which has haunted me the whole of my life, I am perhaps two and a half years old, and dressed in a special dress made of maroon velvet and lace. I am playing in a fountain that is ornate—and dry. The dryness is a striking fact, for until this moment of recollection, I know it only as a fountain that furiously spurts; I am accustomed to leaping away from its spray.
I have virtually no memories of my early years aside from this one, which I attribute to the fact of a wartime childhood.
In the memory I am filled with a distinctive mood I've not known since, and which I can only describe as a feeling of luxury—not of a trivial, material kind but in the fullness of the word's meaning: safety and ease, the promise of endless comfort, the implicit guarantee that all is right with the world and always will be.
My mother is nearby; I can sense her, if I do not see her. Then the moment blurs, and time skips long minutes, perhaps even hours. The sun has moved; it is now overhead and hot on the crown of my head. I look down to see that my dress is crumpled, its hem soiled. I see my mother crouched over the steps leading up to our grand home. She seems busy with something, though I cannot make out what.
At that moment she turns. She smiles. I am momentarily puzzled. I do not know why I am puzzled. That puzzlement has marked my relations with my kind soul of a mother for as long as I can remember. It is something I learned early on to try to hide from her. Only when I became a woman myself did I realize that my efforts had been unsuccessful—that my mother was all too aware of the odd distance between us, with which this puzzlement is intimately connected. This distance came from me, I feel certain, and has been a great sorrow for my mother, with all the losses she has suffered, and me her only child.
I glance over to where my mother now lies. Her body is so reduced by illness that she is almost invisible among the bedclothes. I recoil from the rattle of her breath. I grit my teeth against my own selfishness, and struggle to find something to say, though my mother no longer seems conscious. But they say the dying can hear, whether they appear to or not.
I approach the bed, lower myself beside her, and rest my head on the pillow next to hers.
Her eyes are closed. Her face looks unfamiliar; the deep lines I'm used to seeing are oddly smoothed away, as if she were undergoing a rapid undoing of years. I gaze into her softened features, imagining that this is how she gazed into my sleeping face when I was an infant. I struggle to imagine how she felt in just such a moment, but cannot catch on to it. I reach up to stroke her face.
Her eyes snap open, alert in a way I've not seen in months. "I failed you," she says, her voice almost robust. This comes as a shock, because my mother has not spoken in weeks.
"Hilde, whatever are you saying?" I reply. I have called my mother by her first name since I was a teenager, just one of the many little oddities in our relations. Her eyes are clouded with distress. She touches my face.
"Christiane, my Christiane," she says, her eyes leaking tears that settle in the creases of her cheeks, which seem to have reappeared with her alertness. "You've been a good daughter. I know how hard you've tried."
Something clutches in my chest. I know I've not been much of a daughter to her; I feel I've not been a daughter at all. I try to stifle the rising sob without much success.
"Ssssh," my mother says, batting at the tears that are now slipping down my cheeks. "It's not your fault. You see, I took it all away."
A terrible confusion takes hold of me. I feel as if a gauzy black curtain were being pulled around me.
"Hilde, what are you talking about? What is it you're trying to say?"
Her arm drops; she closes her eyes. Again, that odd dissolving of the heavy creases in her face.
"The house on Kronenstrasse. You know the number? Number fifty-eight."
I want to grab her, to shake her, to shriek at my mother: What? What did you take? What is not my fault? But I say nothing. I just lie there, the tears now flooding my eyes, looking into the smooth face that is no longer the face of my mother, that is now only a mask.
My father was killed in the early weeks of the war; all I know is that he fell on Polish soil, though even this my mother did not tell me; it was revealed during one of my surreptitious raids on the small stash of items she had hidden—she mistakenly supposed—beneath her bed. She had kept the notification of his death, an official Nazi document stating that my father, Hermann Kueper, was killed on September 13, 1939, west of Warsaw, in the Battle of Bzura: a hero, in the name of the Third Reich.
The rest I've pieced together using intuition and the few bare facts at my disposal. We fled Heidelberg after my father's death, when my mother was no longer able to find work to support us. I don't know what happened to the house in my memory, or to the wealth that must have gone along with it. My mother never wanted to talk about the past. At some point I stopped asking. I do know that we ended up retreating to Bad Gandersheim, in the Harz Mountains, where we stayed with a distant cousin.
I don't know how my mother secured passage to America after the war ended—only that we arrived in New York Harbor with refugee status. We had no relatives in New York or anywhere else in the United States, at least none that I ever heard of or met.
I know that my mother was grateful to be on American soil, and that this gratitude did not waver. She never complained that she was reduced in our new land to working as a maid. She took on her work with commitment and dignity. A good livelihood was cause for thanks, she said. She was proud to be on staff at the Plaza, such an old and respected hotel.
I know why I cherish the memory of playing in the fountain. I also know why it pains me still. Within that moment is a fullness of feeling I don't otherwise have in my life.
I give my mother a simple funeral. She had few friends. Eight people attend, including the priest and me—four retired fellow workers from the Plaza and two of my mother's elderly neighbors.
A week later I pack a small suitcase, take two of the many vacation weeks I have accrued, and buy a ticket to Frankfurt, with a train link to Heidelberg.
I have never been back to the country of my birth.
I do not think of myself as German, though neither do I think of myself as American.
From the train station in Heidelberg I take a taxi directly to my hotel, a small pension around the corner from the grand old Hotel Zum Ritter. I deposit my suitcase and walk for two hours or more, surprised by the magnificence of the city. I don't know what I expected, but I know it was other than what I have found. I walk along the river, past the Old Bridge, with its impressive stone arches and stern guard tower, and beyond the last of the bridges, where the river curves and the city opens out into the expansive greenery of its parks. On the way back I pause by Karl's Gate and stand for a moment, looking up at the huge arch, a visual echo of Germany's historical military passion. I take Haupstrasse past the castle and then wend my way back toward the town hall.
My mother and I spoke German to each other until I was a teenager, when, like many children of immigrants, I started refusing to speak anything but English. Now, though, in the first little transactions I make—talking to a taxi driver, and to a waiter in a café—my German comes back in fits and starts. It's like trying to get an irascible old workhorse back into action—brutish and reluctant, but in the end obliging and strong.
I consult the map I bought at the airport and locate the government building where housing records are kept. On my way there I stop at a small café and drink an espresso at the bar.
Tracking down the owner of the house is remarkably easy: one Herr Eduard Sturmer. The city registry is orderly and efficient, true to German stereotype.
I call from a public telephone on the street outside the housing office. The phone is answered by a man who sounds about my age and who informs me that Herr Sturmer, his father, died a little more than a week ago.
"I'm terribly sorry," I say, aware of my American accent and also of the uncanny coincidence. A little over two weeks ago my own mother breathed her last.
"I'm so sorry," I repeat.
"We had the funeral only yesterday. We wanted to wait for my sister to fly in from New York."
A sister in New York. I can hear the pounding of my heart in my ears.
Only now does the man on the line think to ask why I am calling. I know all too well the strange overturning of etiquette that comes with new grief. I recall how, after my mother was packed away in the slightly shabby and oddly inappropriate blue van en route to the funeral parlor, I went into the kitchen, washed the few dishes I'd left in the sink—which included a glass from which my mother had, earlier in the day, taken her last sips of water—and then turned off the lights, locked the apartment, and went back out into the world. I found myself entering the corner deli where my mother had bought liverwurst and ham for more than forty years. Around me the day was alive with people going about their Saturday-morning business. How could they all be so calm? I thought. I wanted to shout out to the deli owner, "Don't you realize what has happened? My mother has died! Nothing will ever be the same!"
A well-dressed young woman standing next to me, who was surveying the pastry case, turned and gave me a polite smile. I felt like slapping her face. Instead I ordered a quarter pound of liverwurst and the same of ham, my mother's regular order in the years since I'd stopped living with her.
Outside the store I deposited my purchase in a trash can.
"The house," I say to the man on the other end of the telephone line, who is waiting for my reply.
"We haven't decided yet what we're going to do with it. My father's death was very sudden, you understand."
"Perhaps in the meantime you'd be willing to rent it?" Without any forethought this absurd and impractical suggestion slips from my mouth.
"That might be a good idea. Let me talk it over with my sister."
I hang up the phone and look out onto the street, aware of how everything seems uncannily familiar and yet completely unknown.
My mind is racing with practical details that ten minutes ago would have made no sense whatsoever. Quitting my job, subletting my apartment in New York, dealing with my mother's landlord to put her belongings in storage. Canceling subscriptions, transferring utilities, sending for some of my things. I will enlist my best friend to help put the pieces in place. I'll call my bank to transfer funds from my savings.
Several hours of phone calls, I figure, looking out onto a square where sooty little sparrows hop cheerfully up and down the arm of a statue of a German poet from a lost age—that's all I'll need to undo my life.
This undoing is disconcertingly easy. When I call my boss at Columbia University, where for ten years I have served as assistant dean of the School of General Studies, he takes the news of my request for leave just a little too much in stride. We will have no trouble filling the position in your absence, he assures me; don't give the matter another thought. My best friend also seems just a bit too nonchalant. Yes, certainly she can tie up the loose ends—she's happy to do so. I'll miss you, Christiane. Both seem to have been waiting for just this unlikely scenario, and to wish to wrap things up as quickly as possible.
In any case, here I am, three days later, with all the arrangements made, my life in New York put neatly in storage.
We meet at the son's residence, in a leafy suburb. I come to a quick and ready agreement with Herr Sturmer's son and daughter for what seems a ridiculously low rent, given the grandeur of the house as it stands in my memory. No doubt my childhood perception enlarged and embellished the place. Besides, Herr Sturmer's children are probably people of means, and are perhaps simply grateful to have a final disposition of the house pushed off into the future.
The son types up an agreement, which all three of us sign: I will take the house for six months.
Two days is all they need, they say, to clear the house of their father's belongings. "My father lived a simple life," the son tells me. "Besides, the house is small; the move shouldn't take long." As for the furniture and household goods, they'll leave them for me.
"You can bring your suitcase and just move in," the daughter says, mustering more cheer in her state of mourning than I am able to achieve in mine. "It will feel like home in no time."
I am a little taken aback. How can anyone refer to the house as small, even taking into account the distortion of childhood memory?
They do not seem to think it odd that I don't ask to see the house first. When I stand to leave, we shake hands. I fancy I detect in the daughter's eyes a peculiar, knowing expression.
"How long did your father live in the house?" I blurt out. I hope this is not becoming a habit—my mouth's bypassing my conscious faculties, issuing statements and questions of its own accord.
"Why, it's the house we grew up in," the daughter replies, the peculiar look deepening. "During the war … so many houses were abandoned. I believe the house stood empty for some years. We took it over toward the end …" Her voice trails off. I think I see a glint of distrust in her eyes.
The driver turns off the engine and exits the car to retrieve my suitcase from the trunk.
Stepping out into the gray late afternoon, I find myself trying to stifle a childish sob of disappointment. Where is the fountain? The imposing wide steps? And where is my mother, crouched over something she's doing? Where has it all gone? I should have known, from the modesty of the rent they settled on. How could my mother have made such a mistake? Could she have directed me to the wrong house?
I catch myself. What does it matter? This address is a mistake—the taxi driver's mistake, most likely. Kronenstrasse is, after all, a common street name, like Maple or Pine in leafy suburbs all over America. A tonier neighborhood across town, no doubt, harbors a far grander Kronenstrasse, with the large brick house and fountain and grounds of my memory.
I am cold, standing there on the street. I have packed inadequately, assuming that early fall would be much warmer in Germany than in New York, which I always think of, irrationally, as the coldest place on earth from October to late March. Now, in my jeans and thin sweater, I shiver. I need to go in.
I climb the three brick steps to the front door. The key turns easily.
So the taxi driver was not mistaken. Perhaps my mother's mind failed her in the moments before her death. Reaching for one thing, she happened upon another, a neurological short circuit. Thinking she was handing me the key to my lost past, she instead shunted me to a meaningless dead end. Who knew whose address this once was, or why the street name and house number long ago lodged themselves in her brain? Perhaps she took piano lessons here, or visited cousins of lesser means.
In any case, I have landed here. In my purse is the neatly folded contract for a six-month stay. Besides, as I open the door and peer into the dark, narrow hallway, a murky intuition tells me that this house, wrong as it is, will offer up some kind of knowledge.
I slide my hand along the wall and flick on a switch. A dim bulb fills the hallway with insubstantial light, by which I see a worn floral carpet in fading pinks and browns, and an attractive staircase with polished mahogany balustrades and banister.
I recognize the close, musty smell of a house uninhabited by youth, of an old person's habits and lack of interest in freshness, brightness, and the new. I glance into the parlor to my left; I make out the shapes of several pieces of heavy old furniture, too large for the small dimensions of the room. I take the stairs and find another switch on the landing, which turns on a slightly brighter but still inadequate light. Herr Sturmer had either an aversion to bright light or a frugal concern for his electric bills. Here the walls are papered in vertical stripes of faded green. I tiptoe from room to room, finding three bedrooms, one converted to a sitting room, and the same weak lighting in each.
I brought with me a small bag of groceries—dark bread, a can of soup, apples, coffee, milk. I leave my suitcase in the largest of the bedrooms and make my way downstairs to the kitchen, where I rummage around for a pot, a can opener, a plate, a bowl, a knife, and a spoon. I settle at the small wooden table in the kitchen, rather than in the formal dining room, to eat my first meal in this wrong and musty and dark little house on Kronenstrasse that has drawn me to itself, though clearly under some cosmically mistaken premise.
After my meal I wash the dishes and climb the stairs. In a hallway closet I find blankets and sheets. I make up the bed in the room I have chosen, undress, and get into the bed. The sheets are worn and soft. Immediately I drift into a deep sleep. I am awakened by a draft that seems maliciously directed at my ears, which have always been sensitive. I rise, locate my light sweater, and wrap it around my head, not having thought to bring a scarf. In the morning I awake with aching ears and the uncomfortable fullness in my head that heralds a bad cold.
I spend the day wandering around the city and sitting in cafés, reading newspapers and magazines, which I find I can understand almost completely. Every now and then I consult the small dictionary I bought at a stationery store. When I have the need to talk to anyone, I am aware that my American accent is not quite so pronounced.
That night I drag my bed into the middle of the room and stuff a towel along the windowsill to fill the gap I have discovered beneath the pane. This helps a little, but not enough. My ears become so sensitive that every little sound is jarring.
The next day I buy a scarf and sleep with it wrapped tightly around my head.
My days take on a rhythm of walking, reading, walking some more. I drink a lot of very strong coffee, and sometimes forget to eat. When I walk, I enjoy a feeling of floating—after an hour or two all sense of effort evaporates, and I feel swept along by an external force, freed of agency. My mind, too, spins free, and I have the sense that I am hovering pleasantly some distance from my own body, like a small, friendly bird assigned to accompany my physical self on some important secret mission.
At night, the draft seems to be getting worse. On the fifth night I decide to change bedrooms. I strip the blankets and sheets from the bed and take them into the adjacent room, where I make up the bed and check the window, which seems to be newer than the one in the first room, and without gaps. I run my hand around the frame: no draft. I feel cheered and go to retrieve my things from the closet in the other room. I wonder why I didn't think to change rooms earlier.
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.
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.
Yes, I think, not knowing what to do with the knowledge. A false wall on the other side, in the bedroom I am now inhabiting. A space in which mice now live.
I go back to bed, though I sleep very little, and fitfully.
I'm amazed we managed to keep it hidden for so long—my continuing to work for the Arnholds the past four years. What Frau Arnhold said to me was true: to keep on doing so presented a danger of the utmost seriousness. I left then and there, no lengthy good-byes—in fact, no good-byes at all.
I do not know what I am going to do. I worry about them; I miss them more than I could have imagined. I've never made friends easily, and with what's left of my own family so far away, the Arnholds are my life.
I know they will be all right. An important newspaperman like Herr Arnhold—and Frau Arnhold, on the board of several prominent charities. How often did I serve the board members tea and sacher torte when they gathered in the parlor? With their means, and their countless influential relatives and friends, the Arnholds will find their way clean of this mess. I am sure of it.
But what about me? I don't have influential relatives or friends besides the Arnholds—and they are now powerless to be of any help to me.
Frau Arnhold's reply was caustic: You need to be alive to use a language—even German. I had never heard harsh words between them; I was quite taken aback. And in truth, Frau Arnhold's vehemence had frightened me. If they were to leave, what would become of Christiane and me? I could not imagine how I would find other work. Besides, I had been with the family since I was no more than a girl myself. I began working for Frau Arnhold's mother, alongside my own mother—their head housekeeper for twenty years or more—at the age of sixteen. In those days I knew Frau Arnhold as Sarah; she was only two years my junior. When she married, at the age of twenty, I followed her to her new house.
Twelve years of happy occupation—six in the mother's house, six in the daughter's—despite the danger and fear of the past four. We somehow managed to keep those at bay, to carry on—I was going to say as if nothing was happening, but that wouldn't quite capture the truth of it. Life simply has a way of moving forward, even under the most extraordinary circumstances. And in the midst of it all both of us fell pregnant, only five months apart, and then both of us had baby girls. And then, ten months ago, when Hermann was sent off for training, I moved in with them, though I kept my own house, to which I have now returned.
It is quiet here. Christiane is asleep. I feel so alone. What am I to do?
I will write tonight to my cousin in Bad Gandersheim. I met her just once, and she's only a second cousin by marriage. But her husband has a clerkship; perhaps he can find me cleaning work there.
I wonder if Christiane remembers her father. Ten months is a very long time in the life of a child not yet three.
I try to pray. For Hermann, lying in a grave somewhere in Poland. For our country. For the Arnholds, and all the Jews. To pray that I can find a way for Christiane and me to survive this madness. But I cannot pray. I stay for the longest time at the side of my bed, on my knees, as has always been my practice. But nothing comes. Only ashen words, empty of life.
Someone is rapping at my door. It's after midnight. Who can it be?
At first I am startled when I crack open the door, but then I realize that perhaps I've been expecting them all along.
I have never seen Herr Arnhold with such a look on his face, or Frau Arnhold. Even little Rachel seems altered, though she smiles when she sees me, pushes the door open, and runs into my arms.
I usher them in. They do not need to tell me why they are here.
"We had nowhere else to go," Frau Arnhold says. I nod.
"You will stay here," I reply.
Now Herr Arnhold speaks. "Just until we can find a way to get our papers." His tone is flat, and he doesn't seem convinced by his own words.
"Hilde, we should find someplace—"
I look blankly around the parlor.
"The armoire—it's spacious. During the day you could stay in there. Then at night—"
Frau Arnhold shakes her head.
"Too obvious. And as for nighttime, that's when they come looking—" She doesn't say for Jews. She doesn't have to.
I attended Rachel's baptism and afterward a luncheon. I remember helping the cook set out the platters; the thought of those little sausages, and of the crystal bowl overflowing with shrimp, now makes my mouth water. The whole family converted eight or nine years back, not so very long after I joined the household. Conversions mean nothing, though, in the face of the Nazis' racial-purity laws.
I think of Herr Arnhold's study, the twin busts of Goethe and Schiller. I always liked that he had positioned them facing each other on a display table across from his desk, as if the conversation between two of Germany's greatest writers were ongoing, and Herr Arnhold, at his desk, drafting editorials that thousands of people would read, were a part of it.
Other, smaller busts were placed here and there on the bookshelves that covered three walls of the room. I dusted them on a rotating schedule. I particularly liked the sculptures of Heine—he'd been a fine-looking man—and Borne, who sat beside Heine on the shelf as he had sat beside him in deep if stormy friendship during the many years of their acquaintance.
It would be difficult to imagine a room more infused with the glory of German culture.
Calmly, in my head, I go through my house—bathroom and three bedrooms upstairs, parlor and kitchen and dining room downstairs. No crannies, no nooks, no secret little place.
"The attic—" I begin.
"First place they look," Frau Arnhold jumps in. "Hilde, it's presumptuous of me to say, but before we left, we talked it over with August, who is going to stay at the house and keep up the garden until we can return. He had an idea."
Now Frau Arnhold tells me about the wall. About building a little chamber of confinement upstairs, in one of the bedrooms. We would match the baseboard that runs around the rest of the room, placing some slits beneath it to allow for the passage of air. We would build in a removable panel through which they could on occasion—perhaps once a week—crawl out. We would seal it with painter's tape, and I could keep a little can of matching wall paint in the cupboard to paint over the tape each time I resealed it. I could move my dressing table in front of it, which would cover this panel completely. One piece of baseboard would also be removable; through this I would pass food and remove waste on a daily basis.
Frau Arnhold's voice is calm as she lays out the details, the same voice she used in the past to go over the weekly program with the cook, the junior housemaid, and me—the lunch and dinner menus and schedules of duties. In her eyes, though, is the plainest desperation I have ever seen.
Hermann kept a well-equipped tool shed at the back of our small garden. I go outside into the blackness, and turn on my flashlight only when I am in the windowless shed. I do a quick inventory.
It is as if before going off to fight, Hermann had some premonition of how events would unfold, of this then unthinkable situation in which I now find myself. Nearly everything we need is on hand. After we were married, Hermann remodeled the house, which had belonged to his parents, both of whom had died long ago. He did all the work himself—papering, carpeting, painting, even building new cabinets for the kitchen. Neatly stacked in one corner of the tool shed is enough leftover baseboard to cover a length of wall, as well as a dozen or more lengths of wood suitable for framing and an adequate amount of plaster and lath. We'll need some paint, I calculate, and also some heavy glue, if I can find it.
In the tool shed I feel Hermann's presence so strongly that I swoon. I fancy I can smell him too—his reedy scent, which always made me think of the forest. I feel my knees giving way, and I sink to the floor. I reach for the hammer on the shelf opposite me and stroke the handle Hermann held so often, so naturally. I picture him swinging it, whistling in that quietly cheerful way he had, glancing over at me with the faintest of smiles.
We tuck Rachel into the bed with Christiane. She promptly falls asleep, and then we set to work.
First, we plan the frame. We work very slowly with the handsaw to minimize the sound. Then we work with the plaster and lath to construct the extra sections of wall; this takes a very long time. Fortunately, the baseboard is cut into suitable lengths, so we do not need to use the handsaw again and once more risk attracting attention.
By dawn our work is done, down to the fashioning of the removable panel.
Upon waking, Christiane is pleased to have Rachel and her parents with us. Five months younger than Rachel, who is now a little over three, Christiane has known Rachel all her life. Frau Arnhold was always glad to pass along Rachel's beautifully made clothes.
When I explain to Christiane that she must not tell anyone the Arnholds are staying with us, that it is a secret of great importance, her little eyes grow solemn and she nods wisely. "Secret," she whispers. "Christiane tell nobody."
At around eight o'clock that morning Herr Arnhold hands me a large wad of bills. It is a significant sum, enough to last us all a long time. I hope, however, that poor Frau and Herr Arnhold and little Rachel will not need to stay trapped between two walls for a long time, like rodents.
I do not ask questions, but I imagine that the plan for the new papers Herr Arnhold referred to is already in play—that in the very near future some powerful friend or colleague of his will knock on the door and hand me an envelope containing what they need to execute their escape.
The Arnholds retreat to the armoire (the new wall will not be ready until I can buy the few things we need), because we cannot keep the curtains drawn any longer; this is the hour I typically open them, and the neighbors do not miss a thing. We punch several holes into the thin backing of the armoire for air. I leave them with a jug of water, a loaf of bread, and a bedpan for their toilet.
I take my shopping bag, and Christiane and I head out. I visit three stores to find what we need. I feared we would return missing some critical item, but within two hours we are back at the house, fully equipped.
My ability to pray seems suddenly to have returned. I pray fervently for everyone I've failed to pray for in weeks. I pray that the papers will arrive soon, pray for the moment I'll be able to bestow one last embrace on this family that is closer to me than any real family I have left, and to wish them Godspeed.
The next morning I rise early. I eat a piece of bread and drink two cups of instant coffee. I splash water on my face, get dressed, and step out into the mild autumn Heidelberg day.
I walk toward the city center. Above the hills in the distance the sun is still dragging itself upward, spreading wan streaks of white light through swatches of thin cloud. Around me the charming façades of 200-year-old buildings, beautifully restored and maintained, lie about the dreadful events that took place here an eyeblink of fifty years ago.
I find a hardware store, housed in what must once have been the foyer of an elegant mansion. An impressive chandelier hangs from the vaulted ceiling, sending a shocking blaze of light out into the space.
A salesman approaches, and I stutter the names of the things I have come to buy. Finally I go behind the counter and point to the items I want. I eye a medium-size ax, but decide not to take it; it seems a suspicious item, and I don't want to draw attention to myself.
The clerk packs my purchases into a brown paper bag, and I pay.
I don't yet feel like returning home, so, clutching my bag of tools, I walk all the way to the old university, stopping to rest in front of Saint Peter's Church. I feel mocked by its idyllic beauty. All around me students carrying book bags wander and mill, exuding the unflappable confidence of young people raised in peace and destined for lives of privilege, success, and ease.
I cross the river and hike up to the Philosopher's Walk, where I sit for a long time looking down onto the city. The air is invigorating, and filled with the scent of a rich variety of trees: cypress and yucca and Japanese cherry, and numerous others I don't recognize. I gaze at the stone commemorating the German poet Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, who fell in love with Heidelberg in the early 1800s. I have never heard of him, let alone read his work, but I think about the expansive culture of which he was a part, and then think about how Germany thrust itself into its nightmare of destruction.
I head back down to the river, passing through residential neighborhoods boasting grand houses like the one in my haunting memory. I half expect to chance upon that house, as would happen in a dream. But this is not a dream, and I find no such thing.
I cross the Theodor Heuss Bridge and stop at an overpriced bistro for an early dinner. I order beef and sauerkraut and a Veltins beer, wanting to appear to be a tourist. This is silly, because I do not like beef and sauerkraut, and anyway, who do I think is watching me? Who do I think would care?
I leave the bistro feeling weighed down by the heavy, unpleasant meal, and fuzzy-headed from the beer. I walk the whole way home. Entering the house, I am aware of how very tired my legs are.
Still carrying the paper bag, I go directly upstairs.
I take out my tools and lay them on the floor. A good-size hammer, a crowbar, a medium chisel, three wrenches of different sizes, pliers, a screwdriver kit, a small handsaw, a package of sixty-watt light bulbs, and a flashlight. I put aside the various boxes of nails, nuts, and bolts—items I bought to make my other purchases seem more normal. Looking at the boxes now, I feel foolish. The clerk in the hardware store hadn't exactly been squinting suspiciously at me.
I reach for the chisel, position it just above the baseboard, and give it a gentle tap. The sound echoes—loudly, to my ears—in the small room. I look around wildly. What am I expecting? The clattering of jackboots on the stairs? I hit the chisel again, harder this time, pleased with the little hole that appears in the wall plaster. I tap gently at the edges of a growing hole, chipping off small pieces of plaster and lath and placing them in a plastic bag. When enough plaster is removed, I use the crowbar to pry the remaining lath away. With this technique I am able to work quietly, picking away at the wall, though the work is slow and laborious.
Time has congealed; it no longer seems to be moving forward at all. The whole world has narrowed to this patch of wall, to the small movements of my hands, to the focus of my eyes on the plaster.
Some time later I find myself sitting on the floor, tools in my hands, staring at nothing. I don't know how long I've been sitting here, but I suddenly realize I am hungry. I put down the tools, sweep up with the brush and dustpan I found in the kitchen broom closet, and then go downstairs. I fix myself some eggs and sit at the kitchen table, which looks out onto a courtyard shared by several houses. When I've eaten, I rise and open the window to get some air. An incredible stillness pours into the room—the stillness of countless thousands of people undisturbed in their sleep.
I hear echoes. The past presses its shoulder to the present.
They chose to come at night—I've read this (hasn't everybody?). Chose to snatch people from sleep, breaking through the fragile, enclosing shell of dream life, with its promise of wishes fulfilled, or else of waking from nightmare back into the safety of reality.
My father was an officer, sent early on to command an infantry regiment on the front lines. I like to imagine that he volunteered for this post—that he signed up for the horrors of the battlefield rather than enter the ranks of institutionalized thugs. But the truth is that I have no way of knowing what my father did, or the circumstances of his death.
After washing the dishes I close the window and return to my work. Perhaps, I think, I'll find nothing but a small space between the walls, there for the purpose of housing wiring or pipes or providing some kind of soundproofing.
I retrieve the flashlight from among my recent purchases and kneel down by the hole I have made. I direct its beam into the space. I can't see much, but I can tell that the space behind the wall is considerably larger than would be an area given over only to wiring or pipes.
I go back to chipping and prying, lost in a trance brought on by the repetitive, mindless nature of the work. I realize suddenly that the hole is now big enough to allow me to enter. I turn off the flashlight and, still holding it, crawl through the hole.
The air is thick with dust, and stale. As I make my way into the space, I am almost blind; only the faintest illumination comes through the hole from the dim ceiling light in the bedroom.
Several times I put my thumb on the switch of the flashlight, but each time I stop short of turning it on. I sense I am closing in on something fateful, on the truth behind that frantic determination in my mother's eyes when she blurted out this address—the kind of secret that can haunt a lifetime, that my mother, in the moments before death, suddenly felt certain she could not take unrevealed to the grave.
What peace could my mother's utterance have given her? And does such peace, if it is won, come only at the cost of robbing someone else—in this case, me—of hers?
Now, still on my hands and knees, I am struck by this thought: through much of my life I have been sleepwalking. And here, in this frightening enclosed space, the dust thick in my nose, I am perhaps about to awaken.
Christiane has developed a fever. It came on very suddenly. She is so hot that I have removed everything but her underclothes, and have sponged her off with cool water several times in the past few hours. I will wait until morning and then send for the doctor.
I leave Christiane for the shortest time while I run to my neighbor, Frau Ballin, to tell her to phone for Dr. Ullrich. Christiane is not really alone, of course. But she might as well be, given the reality of the situation.
This is all so unreal. Can we really have been passing the rudiments of life back and forth—food going in, waste coming out—for five months?
They did come out on occasion, though not as regularly as we thought they might, and then only to move like ghosts in the thick night. Even if there had been anything to say, the sound of voices, even whispers, has become too dangerous. I see them still—wafting through the space of the room, Rachel staying close by her mother's side, silent and gray, their movements an effortful slow motion in the darkness. As if they were not living people but only flickering images of themselves projected into the air.
For two weeks now I have not dared to remove the large panel.
Still no knock on the door from some friend bearing travel documents. Early on I was tempted many times to ask them, What plans did you make? What can we expect? But we've been reduced to silence, always worried that someone might hear, that the sound of voices coming from our house other than Christiane's and mine might arouse suspicion.
Eyes and ears are everywhere. Children are the most to be feared—especially the older ones, who will denounce their own parents to the Gestapo for expressing anti-Nazi sentiments.
Frau Ballin just left. She could not reach the doctor by telephone. Finally she went to his office. After waiting more than an hour, she was told that the doctor would stop by—if he could—at the end of his workday. Understandably, given the shortage of doctors, he is very busy.
It is two in the morning. Still no sign of Dr. Ullrich. Christiane is so hot—nothing I do seems to help, at least not for long. I fear giving her any more cool sponges; she's shivering from them, and at the same time her head is burning up. I wrap her in a light blanket, and then unwrap her. I just don't know what to do.
Three in the morning. Christiane's eyes have begun to roll back in her head. I am frantic. Aaaah—at last. The door. Someone is rapping on the door.
My finger is on the switch of the flashlight. I hesitate. Finally I flick it on. I move the beam of light through the space and discover, once I see what is there, exactly what I now realize I was expecting to find.
Clothing, I see clothing, arrayed in piles on a makeshift bench fashioned of brick and old planks. The clothing has shape; it is threaded through with bones. Two skeletons wearing clothes. Collapsed onto each other as if they were huddled together in order that they might better approach their death.
I crawl closer.
I am upon them.
I rise to my haunches and pick up a woman's jacket. In the beam of the flashlight I see that it is blue.
Not two but three people died in this tomb. The littlest is here, beneath the woman's jacket; the little bones are wearing a dress—a girl, then. The dress is velvet, and the collar is lace. Maroon velvet, thick with dust. A bolt of recognition at the touch of it, and then a curdling confusion.
With no room to recline, they were sitting, these people, on the rough bench. Among the bones are liberal scatterings of hair. A swatch of dark tresses, brittle and coated with dust. Another pile of shorter, light-brown hair.
I move in a dream; this cannot be real, this macabre archaeological find. Dazed, I move among the bones in this place of hiding that a young couple and a child clearly entered in the hope of eluding death.
The thought of that hope, lodged in the now empty spaces between their ribs, brings me to my knees. I allow my face to fall on the bench; my hands sweep at the plank, stroking the smooth leavings.
I touch something cold—something small and smooth, shaped, I think, like a heart. I fumble for my flashlight, but it falls to the floor and goes out. I find it and pull at the switch. It fails to work, somehow damaged by the fall.
The object seems to be a locket, and is attached to a chain. I feel around its contours, and snap open the latch.
I cannot see its contents in the dark, though I run my fingers over the filmy surface.
I want to tell my mother that I've found them, whoever these people are. I want to tell her she did not take her secret to the grave. I want to honor her heroism; perhaps she risked her life (and mine?) in harboring this family here, in this grim space.
Why, Mama, why did you feel that you failed me?
I don't know who they were. I have no hard evidence, but I am certain now that the two of us were here, and that my mother built this wall. I do not know why she left our grand house, how she came to be here, or why she then left, as she must have. I am still on my knees; I have assumed the posture of prayer. I want to pray for these long-dead souls; I want to pray for the soul of my mother. I want to pray for myself. But I have no one to pray to, so I simply bow my head and weep.
Back in the bedroom I fumble in the dark to remove the bulb from the table lamp and screw in one of the new sixty-watt bulbs I bought with the tools, in what now seems like another life.
A memory rears up: I must have been about twelve. I am fumbling in the dark to find my lamp, which I knocked from my bedside table when I leaped from the bed, awakened by a surge of nausea. I rush to the bathroom. Stumbling down the corridor, flinging open the bathroom door, I make it just in time—flip open the toilet lid and heave out the contents of my stomach. The bathroom has two doors, as in many other pre-war apartments on the Upper West Side. I lift my head to see that the second door, which leads into my mother's bedroom, is ajar. I see through the sliver that my mother, too, is awake; she seems to be crouching. I see only the crown of her head above the bed. She is praying, I suppose, as she often does.
She raises her head, and I find myself looking, through the queasy haze of my sickness, directly into my mother's eyes. I jump to my feet with the shock of it, for she is looking at me as if she does not know me. This is something different from the distance that has always existed between us. I am expecting her to call out—Christiane, is that you? Are you all right?—but she doesn't; she just continues to look right through me. I see then that she is clutching something, though I cannot see what it is.
Then she does say my name: Christiane. No inquiry, just my name. She utters my name a second time, and her face crumples; she clutches more tightly at whatever she's holding, and bows her head. I watch as her shoulders heave with grief.
I quietly close the door, rinse out my mouth, and creep back to my room.
I never mentioned this incident to my mother. But then, we failed to discuss a great many things.
Now I sit down in the comfortable chair by the bed. I closed the locket before leaving the tomb space. I snap it open again and look closely at the photographs.
What I see is not possible. And yet here it is, in my hands.
Doctor Ullrich has just left. He did not even try to disguise the truth.
There is little hope.
He says Christiane will probably not survive the night.
I have no one to turn to.
I do not know what to do.
The doctor has gone. Christiane is in my arms. She has not been conscious now for several hours.
I pray she will open her eyes. I pray I will have a chance to look one last time into her dear little soul. I want to tell her with my own eyes that no child has ever been more loved, that God will watch over her on her journey.
A mother should not outlive her child.
A knock. Who could it be? Dr. Ullrich again? Perhaps he has some medicine—or has realized his mistake. Not meningitis but something else—some other fever that is sure to break very soon.
No miracle medicine or new diagnosis. It is Frau Ballin. She is very distressed. The SS, she says: they're going door to door, tipped off that someone on our street is harboring Jews. They have pickaxes, guns; they are breaking into locked attics. They will tear down walls, Frau Ballin says.
How did she know? Who else has detected the truth?
She is wringing her hands. "You must leave," she blurts out. "Now. For Christiane's sake."
I am still holding Christiane. Frau Ballin looks down at her and puts her hand to Christiane's head; then she jumps back in horror. Only now does she see what must be in my face.
"It's too late," I whisper. "I cannot save her."
"You can save yourself," Frau Ballin says.
"Nothing of me will be left to save," I say, my voice dry stone transformed to sound.
Frau Ballin leans forward and presses her trembling mouth to my ear. She whispers, "The other child—the little Arnhold girl. Save her then, in Christiane's place."
Now my entire being is stone; I fear I am unable to move.
"They're at the end of the street. You have twenty minutes, perhaps twenty-five."
Frau Ballin pries Christiane from my arms, which have closed around her like granite.
"Your papers. Yours and Christiane's. And one change of clothes for each of you. Hurry!"
I move as in a dream—as in a nightmare. From a drawer in my bedroom I take my papers, from the closet a change of clothing for each of us. Frau Ballin, holding Christiane, follows me like a shadow. On an impulse I grab a little maroon dress, pull Christiane from Frau Ballin's arms—she is still wearing only her undergarments—and quickly dress her in it. I hand my child back to my friend. For a moment our eyes meet.
Then to the wall. I pull away the dressing table, peel off the contractor's tape; recently dried paint comes away with it. I push on the panel; it falls inward. I reach for the flashlight we keep on the inside of the space. Frau Ballin is behind me. She crouches and hands me my child, limp now, and gasping a little for breath.
They are huddled on the makeshift bench we cobbled together that desperate night. Their eyes are hollow. Had I passed them looking like this on the street, I'd not have recognized my former employers. I'd have walked on, muttering a prayer for souls that seemed already gone from this world.
In Rachel's eyes, though—I see this as I approach her—a spark of life still shines.
Frau Arnhold's deadened eyes travel down to my arms, where Christiane lies, and something flickers in them. She turns her gray face to me and then takes my hand and squeezes it—so weakly that I barely register the gesture. She nods slowly, and with the other hand grips my upper arm. This she does with some strength; she seems to be pouring all that is left of her being into her grip. I wince from the pressure; she lets go of me and opens her weak arms to my dying child. She embraces her, holds her to her own wan cheek, whispers her name: Christiane, little Christiane.
Now I reach for Rachel. Rachel turns wide eyes to her mother. For a moment Frau Arnhold's face is touched with an otherworldly brightness.
"Go, my darling," she says. "Carry me here—" and she lowers Christiane for a moment to her lap to free one hand, which she touches to her breast.
Rachel takes my hand, and together we crawl back toward the opening and out into the bedroom, where Frau Ballin awaits us. Before exiting, I turn briefly to glance at Frau Arnhold, who is fingering the velvet dress I quickly pulled onto Christiane. It was Rachel's dress; I remember how upset she was once when she soiled it while playing in the dry fountain that August had emptied to clean.
"I'll take care of your baby," I whisper.
A whisper comes back through the dank sanctuary that in the end was no sanctuary at all: "And I will take care of yours—"
I fear they'll stop us at the station, but they don't.
Now we must wait for the guard to come and check our papers.
We are on a train headed toward Bad Gandersheim.
Before we left the house on Kronenstrasse, I paused by the front door. I knelt and looked Rachel squarely in the face.
"Christiane," I said. She nodded a three-year-old's serious nod, and pointed to the wall.
I shook my head. "No," I said, taking her little hand with the pointing finger and turning it back at her. "Here. Now you are Christiane. That is your name, and you must answer only to that. Do you understand?"
"Me? Christiane?" she whispered, a puzzled look growing on her face as she pointed at her own little heart.
I nodded vigorously. "Yes, Christiane. Only Christiane. It is very important that you remember this."
Now it was her turn to nod, and this she did solemnly.
The guard is in the next car; I can hear him asking for papers.
I tell myself to remain calm. Rachel, bless her, is sitting quietly at my side, looking out the window. I have not wanted to say too much—I do not want to scare her. But children have a sixth sense. She knows the danger we are in; I can feel it.
At the station we waited for forty-five minutes to use the lavatory. Once inside, I changed her from the soiled clothing she was wearing into the fresh outfit I had brought for her—a dress that was also once hers, now slightly too small, but not obviously so. I brushed her hair and tied it with a ribbon I had grabbed along with the clothing.
"Your papers." I look up. It is a young man with a hard face. I hand him my papers.
He looks carefully from my face to the picture in my passport and back again, several times. He seems satisfied, and closes my passport. He looks at the picture of Christiane and then at Rachel. Something has stirred his doubt.
"Is this your child?" he asks briskly. "Her hair—in the picture it is curly. And more fair."
"Yes, sir. She has changed since that picture was taken, more than a year ago. At this age children change so in the space of a year. Especially their hair, don't you think? Why, my cousin in Frankfurt was born with hair white as snow, and now—"
"That's enough," the guard says curtly, snapping the papers shut and handing them back to me. But he seems to regret his shortness, because before moving on he adds, "Have a good journey."
I put the papers back in my bag and take hold of Rachel's little hand. Together we look out the window at the fields speeding by.
She never did open her eyes. I never did get my chance to look one last time into the eyes of my child. Perhaps she opened them after I left—to find not me, her mama, but Frau Arnhold, who looked nothing like the Frau Arnhold Christiane would remember.
I torture myself with this thought.
I only hope I have the strength to go on. I only hope I have the will to go on. For Rachel.
How quickly she took to answering to the name Christiane. Are all little girls so resilient?
I am holding the locket in my hand, staring at the two photographs within. On the left side is a miniature of a young woman who bears a striking resemblance to me—darker in coloring, but with the same arrangement of features: wide-set eyes and a narrow nose, sculpted cheekbones and a full mouth. She is more beautiful than I am or ever was, even in my youth. I attribute this to the common occurrence of similar features' arranging themselves in a more or less subtle or attractive way, as one often finds in families.
But when I study the picture I realize that except for our coloring, we're physically almost identical. The difference lies elsewhere. Even in this tiny likeness the woman in the picture exudes real charm, a kind of warmth I've always envied and admired.
My stomach is swirling with nausea; I fear I am going to faint. I close my eyes. The old memory rears up. That puzzled feeling again—only this time I am puzzled because I am wearing a beautiful dress of velvet and lace, and my mother is dressed plainly, over by the steps. This is new, entirely new.
Here, then, is the source of the puzzlement that has always dominated this memory, snapped, of a sudden, into clarity: I am in velvet and lace. And this is in contrast to my mother, who is crouched over the steps. What is that in her hand? A brush of some kind. Could she be brushing her hair? Here, outside? But the brush is large and has no handle. And what is that at her side? A bucket?
She turns, as she has turned all these years over and over again in the vibrant eternity of my memory. Shy, almost deferential, an affectionate, acknowledging look on her face. I smile and wave—not with a child's hot love for her mother but with something else: mild and peripheral affection, my attention more wholly absorbed by the pleasure of playing in the empty bowl of the fountain.
She is wearing a uniform; I register that now, for the first time. A simple blue shift protected by a crisp white apron. The uniform of a maid. I see now what she is doing. My mother is scrubbing the grand stone steps of the home.
And then this: She is not my mother.
I open my eyes and find that I am staring again at the pictures in the locket. On the right side is a photograph of a man; he is handsome and has fair coloring, not unlike my own.
I think of the two pictures, lying all these years in the dreadful tomb, facing each other in such darkness. I think of them facing each other this way through the years and the darkness, smiling right into each other's faces, closed within a heart of gold.
I turn over the locket. I see that the back is engraved. I hold it up to the light to read what is written. What I see is two names, in script: Sarah. Walter. And below this, an address:
I sit there in the now bright light of the table lamp, clutching the locket and listening to the silence of this Heidelberg night, so distant from another Heidelberg night in this same house, when a wall was not torn down, as on this night, but built. Same floorboards, same ceiling and walls—and time a mere flash from there to here.
I wait for the morning light. Finally I rise, change my clothes, and go to the bathroom to wash my face.
I glance at myself in the mirror. What I see catches me by surprise. I look different.
I swallow a cup of coffee and then leave, hailing the first taxi I see.
I give the driver the address, and then sit back in the seat and watch Heidelberg pass by. Beyond the Old City we turn onto streets that become wider and are soon lined with towering old trees whose leaves are beginning to change color. We pass by beautiful houses, taking a right turn here, a left turn there.
Finally the driver pulls up before a large, fenced-in property. We stop in front of the metal gate.
I pay the driver and approach the gate, above which I can see the top of the house, with its familiar outline. I reach up and ring the bell. Several minutes later the gate opens to reveal a man in his late middle years, dressed in gardening clothes.
"Please," he says politely, though within seconds his face fills with confusion and disbelief.
Beyond the gardener I see an impressive leafy garden, beautifully cared for. Trellises covered with creeping foliage, trees beginning to turn autumn shades, clay pots filled with a variety of plants lining the patio. A wrought-iron table and matching chairs sit beneath an ancient weeping willow; the table holds dishes and the remains of a breakfast.
"I'm wondering if I could come in," I say. My voice sounds strange, impersonal and far away.
"No one's here but me," he says, his eyes drifting across to the abandoned breakfast table. "I am the gardener."
I nod. He must see something in my face, for his own fills with compassion.
"I've lived on these grounds since I was a boy," he says. "You see, my father was the gardener before me. I'm sorry, miss. But could you be …" He hesitates.
"It's just that you bear such a resemblance to the woman who owned this house, many years ago."
I am looking beyond the gardener into grounds that are large enough, I think, to seem endless to a two-and-a-half-year-old child. The gardener stands aside. Slowly I walk by him.
I hear it before I turn my head: the fountain, with its cascade of water. A sculptured child holding a large plate covered with fruit, the water spurting out from its hands.
I walk over to the fountain, sink down by its side, and cover my eyes.
Time skips backward—but no, it is different. There, I wave to—I know she is not my mother. I wave to Hilde. There is Hilde, I say. I raise my arm in acknowledgment.
Now I turn to see her, her dark hair bouncing a little around her lovely face as she hurries toward me. Now I am flooded with the hot passion a child has for her mother, that flashflood of feeling that makes the world vivid and bright.
"The fountain is dry!" I call out with fervor.
"Yes, my love. Isn't it fun?"
I run into her arms. She embraces me, kisses my cheek, strokes my hair. I smell her. She smells warm and kind; she has the scent of jasmine.
"Mama," I say. My heart is so full that I fear it will burst through my chest.
"Rachel," she says. "My sweet Rachel."
Rachel. My name is Rachel.
She laughs. It is the sound of sunlight, the sound of a happiness I have never consciously known.
"I see you have dirtied your dress! Never mind, little gosling. Hilde will clean it. It will be as good as new."
I turn again to see Hilde, by the steps. Our maid. Kind, devoted Hilde, who tried so hard to be a mother to me. Who, in saving my life, took away my past. Hilde, whom I had failed, and who in her dying moment believed that she had failed me.
I snuggle into the warmth of my mother's arms. I have found my home, and returned there.