From where the birch takes the sun
Peter Maier waits in his back yard. He paces the patchy lawn, from where the birch takes the sun; from where he sits in summer to read. Or in the crook of the linden, further back, behind the vegetables. He follows the brick path, and remembers every time he’s helped his father turn the soil, plant the carrots, the potatoes. Just like this, wandering, unsure where to stand, where to go, what to think about what his mother calls the ending. He can hear the artillery a few kilometres away. They’ve been warned – later today, or tomorrow.
Peter Maier wears his best Sunday clothes. His mother laid them out for him, and his father watched as he got dressed, saying, ‘It needn’t be such a drama.’ But, by definition, it does, and will be, and this is why he’s so anxious.
His father comes to the back door and calls, ‘Peter, your aunt’s here.’
‘It’s time to come in now.’
His father – who up until recently was mayor of their small town, sixty-three kilometres from the capital – is also dressed in his best suit: dark, with pin-stripes, shoes (polished that morning), a new shirt and favourite tie.
Peter just stares at him. He knows the procedure. He knows why they’re dressed in their best, and why his father’s brother has arrived, and his mother’s sister, and why his own sister has sat, staring out of the window all morning. He sits on a low bough of the linden and notices his pocket-knife, left open, from where he’s been peeling peaches. He closes the knife and places it in his pocket, and his father calls again, and he refuses again. He feels a strange sensation in his chest, and down below. Perhaps this is God (he’s been told) preparing him for what comes next. Although he doesn’t believe in all that (his mother for, his father against). And anyway, what’s it matter now? It’s past the point of reasoning, of talking, the family meetings, the discussions about who’s done what to whom, his father the mayor, the camp, on the edge of town.
Peter loosens his tie. He takes a deep breath, feels the sun on his face, notices the high clouds and wants to go inside to get his book. But then a strange plane flies over, and they look up, and his father says, ‘They’ll be landing soon.’ His fat arms, and solid body; his walrus moustache, trimmed the previous evening (by his mother). The party badge on his lapel. ‘What, you’d have them arrest me?’
‘And you. You know what would happen then?’
‘Not if I’m twelve, and Anni, seven, what could they …?’
‘I told you.’
I just want to stay here, Peter thought. I want to eat oranges, and read about Brazil, and how toucans got their colours. ‘You, then,’ he says.
‘Together. It’s time.’
‘I don’t want to have to get angry.’
Peter can see his father’s face turning red, the steam (he’d laugh with Anni) venting from his ears, his eyes popping from his skull (as they rolled on the grass, just here, imitating the way his spoke). ‘Don’t make me ask you again.’
Peter Maier runs from his yard, up the side of the house, jumping across the front garden, until he’s on Forstweg. He takes a moment to think, where should I go? As the artillery continues, and what sounds like Panzerfaust, and rifles, the tack of machine pistol in the cold morning.
His father, following him to the street, saying, ‘What’s the point of this? Now you need to be with your family.’
Peter sees his sister in the front window, her eyes pleading with him to run, he thinks. She mouths something, but he can’t tell what, then she shouts something, then his uncle closes the curtain.
‘You’d rather they strung you up somewhere?’
‘I showed you the pictures.’
He had. Whole families – parents, boys, still in uniform, with their hair parted, their faces washed, their necks at strange angles.
Peter decides. He turns and runs along the street, and his dad calls after him. He sprints, past his friend’s, Willi’s, house, three bikes lying on the gravel drive, past the Wilhelm sisters’ roses, pruned, fed, filling the morning with lavender and spiced-apple.
His father runs as best he can, more, a sort of waddle, stopping and starting, leaning on fence posts.
An army truck goes past and five or six soldiers call something to him, then laugh, then one indicates he should return to his father. This is how it’s been, these last years. Everyone telling him what, where, how, sing this or that – like there was a plan he, and the rest of his troop, couldn’t fathom. That had led him here.
Peter Maier continues past his school, the lawns still neat, the flags still flying. They’ll have to be taken down. They’ll convince the Russians, everyone, we were enjoying it. Anyway, they’ll see it all at the camp. He’d walked past it a hundred times with his sister, the men in grey tunics, the dogs forever barking, the chimneys forever smoking, the station they called Z, because it was the last place (everyone knew) you ever visited.
He thinks of going into the school, but guesses they’ll check there too. So he continues, towards Str. den Einheit. The shoe shop, boarded up; the grocer, its doors always open; the paper shop, where Mr Goldblatt once worked (telling him about Ali Baba and Robinson Crusoe); the town hall, where he’d visit his father after school. The big, oak-lined office, his secretary, her typewriter (on which he’d practise his name).
An old man stops him and says, ‘Where are you going, son? They’ll be here in an hour. Where’s your father?’
Peter points down the road, and his father waddles towards him, calling, ‘Hold him, Stefan.’
So the old man holds him by the arm, and he struggles to get away, but Stefan is solid too, and won’t let go. Soon, his father catches up, takes a moment to get his breath and then goes to slap him across the face, but remembers the day, the time, the plans.
‘I’m too old for this.’ What does that matter? Peter thought.
‘Where will you go?’ his father asks Stefan.
He points to the far end of the street, and a barricade, hastily set up. A few men and boys, still in their uniforms, and Peter says, ‘I’ll go there, I’ll help them. We should fight, shouldn’t we, instead of …?’
‘They won’t last five minutes,’ his father says. ‘I told you, Peter, I can’t afford to get caught.’
The old man lets go, and Peter stands staring at his father. He looks in the window of Dorfmann’s, and notices new shoes, reduced. This means there’s still hope. Life can, and will, continue with new shoes.
But the guns pound, and the glass rattles, and his father says, ‘Are you coming home?’
Peter feels his legs, cold, and the need to pee, but dares not.
His father opens his pill case and reminds him of what he calls ‘our one consolation’. He says, ‘Just like falling asleep.’
But Peter overheard them the previous night. How the prussic acid stops the lungs absorbing air, and there are moments, a minute maybe, where you can’t breathe, and shake, and piss yourself. Before you die.
The three of them stand, listening, thinking, then the old man asks if his father has a spare pill, and takes one, and continues down the road.
Peter can’t see a way forward. His hands are small, and he is good at piano. He can carve eagles from soft pine (his sister has a shelf full). He can do long division better than anyone in his class. For what? The pills are small for what they can do. They are white, like egg shells. They look like mints in his father’s palm.
Stephen Orr @datsunland has written several novels (most recently, This Excellent Machine) and a short story collection (Datsunland). His is interested in family dynamics, and how people fit into unwelcoming landscapes. He has written for The Guardian, The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Minor Literatures, and many others. https://www.stephenorr.com.au/
Banner Image “Holes in the Sunshine” by Robert Frede Kenter. Tweets at @frede_kenter