When Liesl heard the noise from the cellar, her hand shook and the
coffee spilled. The liquid spread in claws across the counter, its color
neither brown nor red nor black, but some combination of all three,
earthen and old. A hopeless feeling rose in her chest. She had discovered
the grounds deep in the pantry yesterday, tucked behind a post, in a
tiny tin next to a tiny pot of jam, both labeled in the first wife's hand. It
was surely the last real coffee in all of Hannesburg, boiled with the last
of the morning coal, the sharp selfish heaven of its scent rising toward
her face. Then it splashed everywhere.
She heard the noise again, a grating, chinking sound, and then the murmur of the boys. What were they doing down there? Everything made her startle this morning. She had sent the package to Frank two weeks ago, confidently inking the address of the Weimar hospital where he was stationed as a reconstructive surgeon. Nothing suspicious in here, she hoped her bright, erect letters would imply. Yet she hadn't heard back from him. Two weeks, and two more letters had passed. She told herself that with disrupted railway schedules and parcel searches, the package could take much longer to arrive. If the officials found what she'd hidden inside, if, ifshe pressed her hands to her temples. The baby stirred in the cradle by her feet. He refused to sleep in his crib by day, preferring the small portable nest of wood that moved from room to room. He refused stillness, too. Whenever the house went too quiet or his cradle stopped swaying, he woke and cried.
She used her shin to shift the cradle side-to-side, side-to-side, as she tried to scoop the coffee back into her cup. She wanted it. She wanted it for herself, and because Susi must have wanted it once, to have gone through the effort of preserving such a miniscule portion. Then again, Susi had saved everything: thread too short to sew with, buttons to lost shirts, the heel of a shoe, the page of a missing book. In the kitchen, relics from the former cook still lingered, too: the hourglass, a cast-iron cauldron for cooking on a hearth. Because the former Frau Kappus had thrown out none of them, neither would her replacement. This made the rooms impossible to keep clean. There were so many objects and they each demanded the particular attention of a household used to servants, and not the friendless new mother of three boys.
Downstairs, a dull thud. Ani said something in his exuberant voice. Liesl didn't want to see what they were doing. She had potatoes to peel and Hans's hems to let out and a quick trip to the butcher to make, all the while darting glances above the treetops for Allied planes. She had to finish knitting six pairs of socks for the Frauenschaft collection to send to soldiers in the Ardennes. She had to grit her teeth through the radio program that Hans liked switching on, that always started with the "Horst Wessel Song," its notes marching through her head like a line of ants, eating up everything. She wasn't sure what bothered her more that motherhood was so much more unnerving than she'd expected, or that the Party's speeches now sickened her. Every day, panic and mistrust pooled like black water in her gut.
She reached for her cup, then a soup pan, pouring the coffee back. It was silly to warm it again, but all morning she'd longed for one hot sip, almost burning. For the heat and the sour bitterness to fill her mouth. To taste the quiet, simple mornings before her marriage, when she'd sat by the window of her room at the spa, lonely, but full of hope and purpose.
Another thud below. It sounded like meat falling. Liesl rushed for the stairs.
The boys stood before a crack in the cellar's west wall, their faces silvered by weak window light. A giant chunk of wall lay on the floor. Hans stood closer to it. He looked much older than ten; in a few years he would have the height and shoulders of a man. His face resembled his father's more than ever: the same craggy mouth and jaw, same blue eyes under a thunder of brows. In contrast, Ani's features were still fluid and childlike, shifting with every thought. Right now, they rippled with surprise as the crack quivered and widened.
Excerpted from Motherland by Maria Hummel. Copyright © 2014 by Maria Hummel. Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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