It was a small meal, but she still felt obligated to be grateful for it. She had grown up with her aunt's and uncle's stories of starvation after the last war. Her aunt claimed that she'd chewed yarn dipped in grease to make her stomach feel full. Her uncle said he'd eaten a soup made from boiled crickets. They told, and sometimes shouted, these stories to their six children and Liesl, to remind them all to appreciate their laden table. Liesl had excelled at gratitude. She ate it for supper, always the last to be served. She wore it on her back, always clothed in her aunt's stained, cast-off jumpers. She listened to it all night, positioned as nurse outside each incoming baby's room, ordered to wake if he cried. She would be in Franconia still, head bowed and dutiful, if her friend Uta had not rescued her with the chance to work at the spa in Hannesburg.
She set a lid ajar on the pot and crept upstairs to find Ani swooping his wooden plane through the air, Jürgen sleeping under an afghan by his brother's hip. Hans was out gathering sticks for kindling. "He wakes up if I move," Ani whispered, and then made a crashing sound through his teeth as his plane dove down. The view beyond the half-fogged window was gray-white and peaceful. It had been an entire week since the last air raid, and Liesl had a strange slack feeling whenever she looked at the sky, as if a rope once pulled taut was suddenly ripped free and falling.
"You're a good brother," Liesl said.
Ani put his nose to the window, avoiding her tender gaze. "How come you don't have any brothers or sisters?" His frank question made her flush. "My parents just had me," Liesl said.
Ani drew a circle in the fog on the glass. "But how come they don't visit?"
Liesl sighed. She had been wanting to tell the boys that her mother had died when she was six. That she knew and understood their loneliness. But another part of her resisted. She did not like Hans and Ani thinking this was how the world worked: that mothers died and fathers disappeared, as hers had, soon after the pneumonia had taken her mother. War-addled brains, her uncle had said. Shiftless, said her aunt. They'd received one postcard from him from Chicago, USA, and never heard from him again. Liesl did not want Ani to know that once both parents vanished, a child became a burden to be passed around until some practical use was found for her. If she had favored her bonny, buxom Mutti, it might have been easier. But Liesl had resembled her fatherthin and serious, with brown-red hair that frizzed loose from its braids. She wasn't good at mending or strong enough for mucking stalls. She thrived at enduring the pummeling devotion of small children, however, and finally found her place as the caregiver for her sturdy, wild cousins, teaching them each to read and write and swim in the Badensee, as her mother had begun to teach her before she died. It wasn't until Liesl had abandoned them for a position at the spa that she'd realized what she wanted: her own life, and one day, her own family.
"They passed away," she said finally. "But maybe you can meet my cousins sometime," she added, though she knew her relatives would never leave their farm and village, much less Franconia.
Jürgen stirred and woke, lifting his head, staring at them with wide, uncomprehending eyes.
"How did your parents die?" Ani asked.
"In the war. Your brother's hungry," she said, and carried Jürgen down to the kitchen to heat his milk.
Someone knocked loudly on the front door. A hard, official sound.
The fist dug into the wood and made it ring.
Liesl felt her body moving across the kitchen with Jürgen, heard her voice call to Ani to stay upstairs.
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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