"What's going on here?" Liesl demanded.
Neither of them answered. Hans had his arms down, his palms open and aimed back, as if he were shielding his brother from an attack. He winced when the crack split and a metal spade poked through, but Ani ran forward, saying, "Look, look!" The spade retreated. Pale worms shoved the grit aside, wiggled for space. It took Liesl a moment to realize that the five tiny heads all belonged to one hand. Filth crusted the fingernails and knuckles, but the flat palm shone. The hand's twisting made something go cold inside her, and she backed up a step, bashing into one of the shelves Hans had carefully organized for their air raid shelter. The boys ignored her.
"You're through," said Ani, and he reached out formally and shook the hand. It engulfed his fist up to the wrist. "Welcome to our cellar, Herr Geiss."
"Thank you, young man," said a gruff, muffled voice, and the hand retreated. "It's Herr Geiss," Ani said, finally acknowledging Liesl's presence.
"He's connecting us."
"Connecting who?" said Liesl.
"Us. Cellar to cellar," said Ani.
Metal glinted in the hole again. "Good morning, Frau Kappus," said the voice.
"I don't know what your father will say about this," said Liesl. "It's for our safety," interrupted Hans. "People can get trapped. It happened in Kassel and Darmstadt. If we neighbors adjoin our cellars, then we have a better chance of survival. Everyone knows that." "But a hole might weaken the wall." Liesl put her hands on Ani's shoulders and pulled him back. "Herr Geiss, I must ask you to cease this until I correspond with my husband"
She heard her voice falter as the spade continued to work, as Ani shook free and hurried to the crack again, breathing into it. Two weeks ago, Liesl had woken to the thumps of Herr Geiss sandbagging both their roofs, clambering from red tile to red tile on his thick old legs. She knew he called her the "young wife," as if Susi were still alive and Frank had somehow acquired an auxiliary spouse. She knew that Herr Geiss was the reason Hans never got caught for poaching kindling from the willows in the Kurpark. Herr Geiss had ties high up in the Nazi Party, and people feared him. He had been Frank's neighbor since Frank's boyhood. He had helped delay the surgeon's deployment after Frank's first wife had died. Every week, he gave Liesl extra ration cards, ones meant for his widowed daughter-in-law, his only living relation, who refused to leave Berlin. Yet Liesl also knew that Herr Geiss didn't trust her. Herr Geiss had told Frank that if his "young wife" did not watch his boys well, he'd see them safely away from her, to a farm in the country. All over Germany, families were splitting up in order to protect their children, but Liesl couldn't bear the idea, and had told Frank so.
"He won't send anyone away," Frank had scoffed. "He likes you."
One afternoon following a thunderstorm, she'd opened the gray living room blinds to see Herr Geiss looming over their house from his second floor. At the sight of her, he'd flinched, then frowned. She'd blushed, suddenly aware of her narrow hips, her red springy hair, and their contrast to Susi's blond, groomed curves. The young wife. Or maybe the wrong wife.
"It'll weaken the wall," she said again, over the scraping.
There was a grunt. "I'll brick it up after I make the hole," Herr Geiss said. "You'll hardly know it's there."
The basement light stripped the flush from the boys' skin and accentuated their skulls. Even plump-cheeked Ani looked like a statue poured from molten metal, his rosy lips darkened to brass. She realized that she'd never heard the boys laugh down here.
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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