A flamethrower belches a stream of burning oil. A chorus of rockets squeals into the smoke encrusted air. A heavy machine gun rattles. But Sigrid closes her eyes to all of it. She craves this square of darkness like an addict. Only sleep offers her such sanctuary from the present world. Alone in the darkness, she reopens the past, and returns to the instant before Egon had spoken his first words to her.
Listen to this, she hears him say from the empty seat beside her, though she knows it is only a whisper of memory.
The mezzanine had been an icebox that day, but the simple sight of this man who was not her husband had drawn her toward him, as if she had just found an unexpected source of heat. He was sleekly barbered and wearing a cashmere coat with the collar turned up, striking a dandyish note that was incongruous with the rawness he exuded. Something in his expression was unruly, and his posture was defined by a confident animal brawn.
She had come to the cinema to find an empty space in the day. War movies were best, because attendance was usually weak, so she had bought a ticket for the matinee of Battle Group Danzig, in order to find a crevice of solitude. To find a fissure in her concrete routine, where she could escape the racket of office typewriters. Escape the noise of her mother-in-law's complaints and the wordless criticisms of her husband's glances.
The house lights were still up. She couldn't help but steal a look at the man as he brooded over a copy of the Morgenpost. He looked out of place, but intentionally so. A premeditated outsider. Is that what had prompted her to disregard the number on her ticket and choose a spot only two seats away from his? His eyes had captured and then released her. Then nothing. Only the newspaper claimed his interest as she adjusted her scarf and settled herself in the seat, trying to build her walls out of the empty space. A stout Berliner occupied a seat at the front of the balcony, his hat clamped down over his ears as he stared in obedient anticipation at the curtained screen. She inhaled the tang of smoke from the projector operator's cigarette above her head. Beside her, the man who was not her husband grunted to himself and turned a page in his newspaper. She found that she, too, was sitting in obedient anticipation, her palms clammy. Was she expecting something? There were many reasons why she should not be planting herself so close to a stranger. Any number of reasons, not the least of which was that she had just made some small effort to conceal her wedding band in the way she folded her hands. A thin, unadorned ring of electroplated gold on the third finger of her right hand. As unadorned as the marriage itself.
"Listen to this," she heard the man say suddenly, without preamble, without introduction, as if they had been in the midst of a conversation. His voice was deep, as if scraped from the rock of a cave. " 'Physician of true German stock, fifty- seven years old and a veteran of the Cameroon campaigns, fervently desires marital union with a modest and frugal Aryan female, who is strong and healthy, blessed with broad hips for childbearing, and who is repulsed by nicotine and cosmetics.' My God, now, there's a catch," he said, and grinned, showing her his smile for the very first time. "Don't tell me you're not tempted."
"No, I think not," Sigrid replied, even though she knew she shouldn't be answering. Even though she had no business doing so. "I'm afraid I once owned a tube of lipstick."
"Well, this one, then. I know this one will set your heart pounding. 'Aryan widower of property, age sixty- two, wishes male progeny through matrimony with a young, fertile Aryan mate, in order to preserve an old family name from extinction.' There you have it. An old family name, yours for the taking." He read on. This old man and that old man searching for pure- blooded Aryan bedmates, but Sigrid was not fully listening. Instead, she was watching the slight twitch in his jawline as he spoke. A thin tremble of muscle that she felt repeated as a shiver beneath her skin.
Excerpted from City of Women by David R Gillham. Copyright © 2012 by David R Gillham. Excerpted by permission of Amy Einhorn Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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