There was precisely one cloud in the sky the day Friedrich returned from fighting the Americans. Maria had spent hours visualizing the moment in her mind: after Friedrich had destroyed the Allies in Tunisia, pushed them back to Anzio and then into the sea, and after he and his Korps had raised the German flag over the houses of Parliament, he would come back. A clean, shiny, black staff car would pull up and park in front of their apartment on Zimmerstraße, and he would get out of the back in his gray dress uniform and walk up to their door, the medals gleaming on his chest in the sunlight. She would see the car, and she would drop whatever she was doing and run outside to embrace him, for the first time in years.
She knew it was a silly thought even when she first considered it. That was before the bombs and the artillery had obliterated most of Mitte and removed the row of houses across the street as if the Russians were doctors who had seen a pimple on the face of Zimmerstraße and decided it had to go. She could tell when it was the Russians or the Americans because of which direction the planes came; not that it did any more good to shout into the sky “please don’t bomb us” in English or Russian than it would have in German, and Maria knew this because Herr Koch from Nürnburg had tried it.
But now, of course, Tunisia could have fallen into the sea and it would have made as much difference as shouting “please don’t bomb us” in English or Russian, and the Kaufmanns had moved in with her, because it was their pustule of a house that the Russians had lanced, so Maria was still unable to estimate how much food they would go through before the next week’s Red Cross truck arrived. This week, they were down to their last two cans of beans, four sausages, and one loaf of bread by Thursday. She went into the basement to look for Reichsmarks someone might have dropped in order to buy more food with them, if that was even possible.
The basement was an ugly, gray, poorly-lit place. It was damp and smelled of old dead rats but unlike almost all the other basements on Zimmerstraße was deep enough to stand up in, so the Blockleiter had decided a year ago it was to be the new Zimmerstraße bomb shelter. A few Reichsmarks from 1936 were hidden under a box, frayed to an almost velvety texture with a long-dead chemist’s face on one side. Maria picked them up, walked up the stairs to the front door, and went out carrying the Reichsmarks and the Kaufmanns’s ration tickets to the dusty remains of the Hirsch Feinkost und Viktualenkeller.
When Maria arrived, she still walked through the door. It was a pointless gesture; the windows and most of the front wall had been blown out by a Panzerfaust when Russians had taken refuge behind the counter. The doorframe and door still stood, but little else was intact. There was no real reason to go in through the door, since the hole in the wall would have served just as well. Maria went in through the door anyway, though, because that was what she had done before the war, and she was going to do it that way afterwards. The counter had been crushed under a pile of red bricks, and what food was left that hadn’t been looted was gone bad. A pungent odor emanated from a piece of cheese grey with mold on the shelf. On the top shelf of the powerless electric freezer, an empty jar of sauerkraut sat smashed in a smear of red paste. A sausage with a series of small bites riddling the intestinal casing lay on the floor by the wall, presumably dragged there by a rat and then abandoned. There was nothing to buy, but Maria stood there anyway, surrounded by the last decaying mouthfuls of the Hirsch Feinkost und Viktuallenkeller.
She stepped back outside. When brick dust entered her lungs she stifled a cough. She passed by the Webers’s house, which was a pile of rubble now. It had been reduced to nothing by the Americans even though the Webers always forgot to put out the Swastika on Hitler’s birthday and had hidden a Jew in their attic. It surprised Maria that the Americans weren’t more sympathetic.
Maria continued towards the Red Cross. Suddenly the color of the building to her right was wrong and the house after it wasn’t supposed to be here. It was supposed to be at the intersection with Charlottenstraße. But this was the intersection with Charlottenstraße, because she had turned east after leaving. Maria realized that she had forgotten the detailed map of Alt-Berlin that had developed in her head over the years. So many apartments had been blown out and so many bricks still lay in the street and so many Jeeps were parked where there had been Volkswagens. It looked just like a place she knew but at the same time like a place she’d never been before. She felt as if she had looked at the back of her hand and found someone else’s in its place, completely unrecognizable and covered in cuts and bruises that she had felt inflicted but at which she had never looked.
A car backfiring returned Maria to her senses; the moment passed. She dropped the Kaufmanns’s ration books and the Reichsmarks and dove to the ground. She looked up. Nobody was lying on the ground screaming, and she suddenly felt rather foolish for her hair-trigger reaction to the loud noise. She thought to herself how silly she must have seemed, and she felt ashamed. Mustering her last scraps of dignity and the ration tickets, she stood up and continued.
Maria arrived at the checkpoint. Barbed-wire fences blocked the road on either side of a low gray guardhouse. There were multiple trucks, all guarded by Russian soldiers. It was the middle of the day, and multiple other Germans were receiving rations from the truck. Even though their presence reassured Maria that she was safe, a cold, slimy feeling descended over the lining of her stomach and fear wedged itself into the left side of her heart. She felt her right foot move towards the truck, then her left, and with each step her throat slowly constricted a little bit more and the freezing emptiness spread further towards her arms and legs.
Maria found herself standing in front of two Russians with submachine guns slung lazily over their crimson shoulder marks. In her politest and least threatening voice possible, she offered the one on the right the Reichsmarks.
He looked aside at his comrade, and twitched his nose. His pupils were dark, empty holes in his eyes. He said something laconically in Russian.
The second one, in equally fatigued, halting, and broken German said, “Wir brauchen… die mark der besatzung Alliierte.”
Maria didn’t have any Allied Marks. She asked if she could use some of the ration tickets she had hoped to save for the next week. The Russian on the right looked at her blankly, and the one on the left had furrowed his eyebrows. Eventually, he unfurrowed them. He closed his eyes, bit his lip, swallowed, and asked her to repeat herself as though it were her fault for not clarifying already. She repeated the words. He still looked at her, or more accurately past her, his jaw slack and his hand drumming out a syncopated minor ionic rhythm on the wooden stock of his submachine gun. He looked thoroughly unimpressed. She decided there was no use attempting to speak any further; she couldn’t say anything in Russian to explain herself.
Instead, she dug into her pocket and produced the ration book. The Russian took it, opened it, and leafed through it very slowly, as if he had expected each new page of tickets to be written in Zulu or Finnish. It utterly nonplussed him when he saw they were actually in something as wildly boring as German.
He stopped midway through and handed the booklet back to her. He cocked his head to his partner and mumbled something in Russian.
The second one thought for a second, then muttered even more quietly than his partner, “Sonnabend… komm Sonnabend.”
Maria realized she was going to have to make the two cans of beans and four sausages last for Friday, and for Saturday morning as well. She forced out a dejected “danke” and walked away, back towards her apartment and towards a table with too little food on it. The day darkened momentarily as a cloud passed over the sun, which hovered perfectly between the east and west of the sky. Looking upwards, she saw it was the only one there. Nonetheless, it blocked the light as well as the bombers on the evening of Thursday the 24th of February at one thousand feet in the air. The one on the fifth night of the Big Week of bombing when Herr Koch went crazy and started begging the Americans not to bomb him. But of course they just bombed him even more.
Maria reached the front door of 51 Zimmerstraße. A dusty Jeep was pulling away, and a soldier stood in front of the door tentatively with his leg in a cast and a crutch under each arm. A black Wound Badge and a silver Infantry Assault Badge, both worn to the rough shade of graphite, were the only medals pinned to his torn field jacket. The red ribbon of the Iron Cross second class in his second buttonhole had been reduced to the color of a page from an old book that had been applied to a sucking chest wound for lack of gauze and then removed and thrown on the ground and trampled for the next few days.
The soldier’s face was still young. However, his hair was faded from stress and dust to the color of a dirt road that had frozen over. With a start, Maria realized it was Friedrich. He looked nothing like her memorie. She was struck by an urge to run and hold him, but a mound of cement slabs stood in her way. She placed her feet very carefully on the few bricks that didn’t wobble, and after a few unbalanced steps she was over and she stood in front of him. He couldn’t embrace her without dropping his crutches, and she couldn’t have reciprocated the gesture without dropping the ration booklet and the Reichsmark. She just stood in front of him and murmured a quiet “hallo”.
Friedrich returned the greeting, smiling wanly. He turned his head, scanning the street. He breathed deeply through his nose, then blew the air out of his mouth. He bit his upper lip. She wanted to tell him not to think about the destruction. She wanted to tell him how much she had missed him, how terrified she had been that he would die until she had become more terrified that she herself would die. Instead, she opened the door, helped him inside, and offered him some bread.