War has not come to this city but like the twisted path of the abortionist’s wire, the scars are there. It has taken their men and replaced them with strangers: refugees from leveled cities; prisoners of war. Once 600,000 strong, the city has swollen to twice that number.
None is her Frederick.
There are so many. Why should she care for them? Give them food? They huddle in abandoned factories and railway stations. How do they deserve a roof when their men—no, her man: Frederick, darling Frederick, so handsome and tall, too young to die—freeze on the Russian front?
Hannah’s boots are flat so she won’t trip on the cobblestones as she works her way towards Friedrichstadt, the factory district where the American POWs are kept. She prefers feeding the POWs, though they deserve it less. The refugee shelters are full of children screaming for their missing mothers. At least the POWs are silent.
They are lucky to have porridge. Where has it come from? The railways are broken, twisted by bombs. The city has no farms, only palaces, museums and towering cathedrals. Florence on the Elbe or so they say. Hannah would not know; she has never been to Italy.
She sees no faces, only bowls: dented, cracked, leaking; held forward for her ladle by trembling hands, thick with crusted dirt. The bowls clang against each other as they shake for her attention. Hannah goes as fast as she can, not daring to look in their eyes.
There are no individuals in war, only multitudes; an endless sea of need and futility. So many, all similar in their differences: the color of their skin; their accents; the stench. Until one hand catches her eye: a clean hand, white as porcelain, the veins threading the skin like the intricate designs of the city’s famed china. Hannah looks up then.
His blonde hair, so pale, his eyes a thousand shades of blue. “Frederick?”
Hope is the luxury of possibility. Hannah meets his urgent gaze and sees what she wants to see. He smiles the same crooked smile as Frederick and she is lost.
The sirens scream for the 160th time. Hannah jerks, nearly drops the bucket. “Don’t be afraid,” he says in English but she hears German. His warm breath puffs tiny ghosts into the cold air. When his long, white fingers brush her arm, his touch is like ice, like her frozen husband.
For the 160th time, no bombs fall.
The next morning, Hannah sips her steaming tea. She trails a finger along the rim of the cup. It seems a lifetime ago that she had worked at the factory. In the cold of her room, it was difficult to remember the radiant heat of the kilns as they burned, hotter than hell at 1400 degrees. She misses the heat.
It is easier than she thought to smuggle him from the camp. Easier still, to keep him in her empty, attic apartment. His name is Mark but he does not mind that she calls him Frederick. Hannah is smart enough to know he doesn’t love her and wise enough not to care. When the sirens sound, she no longer wonders if the warning is real.
A few weeks later, it is Fasching, Germany’s Mardi Gras. The city bustles with excitement. In their fancy dress, it is easy for the women to pretend there is no war. Even the refugee children shriek with joy as they run down the streets, trailing colourful streamers, stopping only to dip their fingers in buckets of sugar, saved just for the occasion.
Hannah removes her costume from the trunk and dresses in the room once meant for the babies she will never have. Not now. Maybe, not ever. She piles her long, blonde hair on top of her head; fishes makeup from the bottom of a drawer and steps into the dress.
He stands naked in the sitting room, drying his hair with a towel. He gasps when Hannah emerges but does not move. She must go to him. She touches his face with soft hands and trembles when he pulls her close.
They don’t hear the sirens at first and ignore them when they do. As a pilot, he is the first to hear the planes.
“Come, Hannah.” He grabs her hand and leads her to the door.
They are naked but he does not let her dress, only grabs a blanket to wrap around her. The stairwell is empty as they scramble down; the neighbors on the street, enjoying Fasching. He takes her to the basement where it is cold and damp.
“We will be safe here,” he says, and tightens the blanket around her.
When the bombs drop, the roar is like the marching armies of hell. Green light flashes at the small windows and he tightens his grip around her. The screams of the revelers morph from glee to terror to silence. Concrete crumbles as the building above is hit. Dust fills the air and it is difficult to breathe. It is hot, too hot; she is suffocating. Sweat dripping down her face, she shrugs off both him and the blanket.
“Hannah.” His pale, white hand crawls through the dust towards her as Hannah feels her innards bake.
“Mark,” she pants, acknowledging him for the first and last time, her voice burnt porcelain in a roaring kiln.
Barbara Lovric is an American expat based in Kerry, Ireland. She facilitates a local writing group and has taught creative writing workshops. Her novel is currently being edited for submission. She tweets @BALovric.