A thin cry came from upstairs.
"All right," Liesl said, not moving. "But I'm writing to Herr Kappus about this."
The cry lengthened to a scream.
The scraping paused. "Where's that child?" said the voice from behind the wall. "I hear a child crying."
She did not answer Herr Geiss, but she turned and mounted the first step. "Ani, Hans, time to go upstairs."
"I want to stay here," said Hans.
"I want to stay here," said Ani.
"It's time to go upstairs," she said, louder.
The baby wailed. The boys did not move. They stared at the hole, transfixed. "If you don't come, there will be no dinner for either of you," she snapped.
The mention of food made the boys wilt back from the wall.
"We were just looking," Ani said, his eyes wide. He was such a beautiful boyit struck her every day like a splash of water to the face.
She cleared her throat, sure Herr Geiss was still listening, thinking, Cruel stepmother, depriving these growing boys.
Or was he thinking that she ought to have a firmer hand with them? "I found some elderberry jam," she said.
Ani started toward her, but Hans hooked his fingers over his brother's shoulder, holding him back.
"Fine, then. Two minutes," she said, hastening up the stairs. Slapslap- slap, a pathetic retreat in house slippers.
Later, when the older boys were washing up, she carried Jürgen carefully back down the steps and listened to the silence until she was sure Herr Geiss had gone. A thin veil of light fell through the cellar's low window. Blinking, she felt her way along the crumbly wall. After five paces, she sensed a shift in the air, a cold draft stinging her ankles where her tights had ripped. She stopped, peered. The gap was the size of a man's shoulders. Through it, blackness poured, the same coal-soaked air as their own cellar's, but somehow richer, deeper. She looked closer. At least a meter of packed dirt and stones separated the houses' two walls. It must have taken days to dig, and probably the help of other men. Herr Geiss could have asked her first. But why would he? Herr Geiss knew best. He was a member of the local air raid committee, and he had studied everything there was to know about protecting their houses from bombs.
"What do you think of this?" she murmured to the baby, holding him up to the crumbling edge. Jürgen stretched out a fat paw and batted the dirt and stones. "Do you think your Vati will approve?"
A few stones tumbled. The baby swatted at the wall again and more dirt fell. He began to giggle, and reached out with both hands, grabbing the rim with open fingers.
"Stop," she cried. She pulled the baby back to her chest with her left hand and lurched back toward the steps.
Her knee thudded against something heavy and cold. It was the vat that had held the family's sauerkraut every winter. This year, the sauerkraut had rotted in the weeks after Liesl had arrived, after the housekeeper had abandoned the family. Liesl hadn't known that pushing down the cabbage was part of the housekeeper's daily duties until the morning she looked out from the second story and saw Frank dumping the moldy brew out onto the grass. She couldn't get the image out of her mind: Frank's back quaking uncontrollably as he upended the earthenware tub and scrubbed it clean. But he'd never said anything to herno accusation, no explanation.
For his last package, she'd made a stollen dough from Susi's handwritten recipe, kneaded and shaped it carefully around a film canister stuffed with reichsmark and a map of Germany, and paid a local bakery more than the loaf was worth to bake it hard and golden. In every step of the stollen's production, Liesl was conscious of her inevitable failure. It would never taste like Susi's. It would never get past the censors. Nevertheless she'd wrapped the loaf carefully in butcher paper so it wouldn't grow stale and wrote a note warning Frank about the "fig" she'd baked whole inside. She wondered if he'd understand. She could tell by the soft way Frank looked at her that he didn't think she was capable of deceit. He'd ironed her old life flat with his desire, then molded her into what he needed. The young wife. She leaned her cheek into Jürgen's warm skull. The new mother.
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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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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