Her hand circled the doorknob but did not twist it open. The brass went from cool to warm, as she waited through another round of knocking. Jürgen slumped against her shoulder, sucking at his fingers. She sorted through the worst scenarios. Officials had opened her package to Frank. Officials had lifted the loaf of Christmas stollen, surprised at its weight, and broken it open to find the canister at its center, filled with the money and map he'd requested. They'd arrested Frank and sent him to a prison camp. Worse, someone had shot him on the spot for attempted desertion.
Bile rose up her throat. She couldn't speak. She couldn't open the door panicked like this.
She gripped the handle and imagined lesser problems. Someone had caught Hans cutting willow sticks for kindling. Someonemany someonesdidn't approve of her marrying the handsome doctor two months after his beloved wife had died in childbirth. "We've done nothing wrong," she would tell whomever it was, but that wasn't really the point, was it? The point was to be liked, or if you couldn't be liked, to be overlooked.
The baby twisted his face into her neck. She turned the knob and opened the door.
"Heil Hitler." Herr Geiss's arm flashed.
Liesl adjusted Jürgen on her shoulder and raised her right hand. "It's you," she mumbled, flooded with relief and irritation. His physique reminded her of a pig'scompact, strong, and small. She could see bare skin peeping out above his house slippers, the sliver of neck-flesh that his coat did not cover.
"He's getting big," her neighbor said, nodding at Jürgen. The baby gurgled, revealing his six teeth.
"Almost nine kilos now," Liesl said. "Are you coming about your badge? I'll get Ani to fetch it."
Herr Geiss's slippers whispered on the snow. They were so old that his big toes cracked out the bottom edges. He blew out a gray cloud. "No, not about the badge," he said.
Did he know something about Frank? The thought chilled her.
"Would you like to come in?" She stepped back, but Herr Geiss did not follow.
"My daughter-in-law is arriving," he said. "In a week's time. She's finally decided to leave Berlin and move in with me." He huffed another cloud. "She has no other kin now. Her mother died in an air raid." "That'sthat's sad news," Liesl said, unable to stop herself mentally calculating. An old widower and an unrelated young woman sharing a roof. An unseemly combination. And one that would use up all her neighbor's extra ration coupons.
Herr Geiss continued to stand there. He pulled a pair of black gloves from his pocket but did not put them on. The dark fingers hung from his pale hand. "My house . . ." He paused and cleared his throat. "I have an acceptable house, of course, but it needs some improvement."
"It's a lovely home," Liesl said, puzzled, as Jürgen snuggled into her neck. "You should really come in," she told her neighbor. "The baby's getting cold."
Herr Geiss shook his head. In the street behind him, a car bumped slowly through the dusk, stirring up slush.
"I have good brooms and mops," he said. "My Hilda used the best wax. I still have four good cans of it."
The first flakes of snow began to fall, brushing the brick garden wall and melting. Liesl blinked hard. "You want me to clean your house," she said slowly. "Don't you have a Putzfrau who comes?"
A white fleck landed on Herr Geiss's bald skull and vanished. "She's expecting any day. I don't know anyone else I trust" So that's how he saw her in his dismal hierarchy of human beings: not fit to mother, but fit to polish his floors. Yet she couldn't refuse. Liesl tried to smile. "Then of course you can count on me."
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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