Ani held the badge in one hand, rubbing it clean with his other cuff. Then he raised the eight-pointed star to a place above his heart and addressed her solemnly, "Could you please sew this on for me, please?"
The white metal glowed. "What is it?"
"The badge of the Reichsluftschutzbund," said Hans, hovering behind. "Herr Geiss has asked us to be members."
"I see," said Liesl. They were all in the kitchen, Jürgen awake and fiddling with a cup, Hans and Ani dusty and triumphant and hungry. The blood had returned to their faces. They no longer looked like statues but poorly tended children, their hair shaggy and clothes mended past politeness. Hans climbed into the chair at the head of the table and picked at his nose.
"Hans," she said.
He withdrew his hand and rubbed it on his leg.
"Are you sure he meant to give you that?" she said. "It looks official."
"It is official." Hans hunched over his plate and picked up his knife and fork. "What's for dinner?"
Liesl showed him her saucepan. Hans scowled but said nothing. Ani continued to grin, adjusting the placement of the star. "Herr Geiss says we need to paint our beams with limes so they don't burn," he said.
"Limes!" exclaimed Liesl.
"He means quicklime," said Hans.
Ani adjusted the star again and gave a quick, one-armed salute. "And our neighbors', too."
Liesl winced. "The two of you are" She could just imagine Frank's face if he saw a military badge on his six-year-old's chest. "Your father will say you are too young for this."
"I'm almost old enough to join the Jungvolk. That makes me old enough for duty," said Hans. The word "duty" sounded dark and cold coming from his young throat. He met her eyes. "But I want Ani to have it."
As their gazes locked, Liesl felt an understanding flash between them: The unhappiness they both shared should not be spread to Ani, radiant Ani, fingering his eight-pointed star and imagining that green limes could be found in a winter so barren that all Liesl could drum up for dinner that night was boiled potatoes, applesauce, and a quarter of wurst for each of them. Ani could eat sawdust and sleep on nails as long as his faith in one thing was not brokenthat his father would come home. He had a skinny body and a handsome head, and his grin split his face like a knife did a melon, pure and true. In school other boys teased him for his innocence, for his big questions"Why are our ears shaped like bathtubs?" he asked her one dayand Hans defended him. Hans wrote his father careful, stern letters, and he always reported about Ani's safety, his contentment, in an overly mature tone, as if Ani were an inside joke they shared. Anselm is learning his letters, he wrote. You can guess that he has his own way of holding the pen.
She began to serve out the potatoes, their buttery aroma filling the kitchen. "You can carry the star in your pocket for now," she said. "It's not the same," Ani protested.
"I know," said Liesl. She had drunk the coffee cold, in one gulp, after coming back upstairs, and tasted none of it.
It took Liesl a long time to cut up the rabbit she had bought from Herr Unter, a neighbor who raised them in hutches behind his house. The white animal had looked plumper alive. Now it was as flat as a sock, and the small sinews kept slipping in her hands as she tried to separate skin and flesh. When she finished, she had only a handful of meat. She dumped it in boiling water, adding chopped carrot, onion, barley, and a pinch of brittle, graying rosemary.
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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