Story by Joseph Cusumano, Art by John Waltrip
What does God see in these humans? They’re repulsive, each a bundle of selfish urges, delusions, and conflicting motivations. Men and women don’t deserve our help, let alone God’s, yet He dotes on them and is so willing to forgive. I’ve always struggled with this enigma, but now that I must walk among them, it challenges me incessantly. The only aspect of human behavior that gives me any hope that their creation was not a colossal mistake is the tendency by most of the females to protect and nurture their young. The males seem murderous and unconsciously suicidal. And yet, God cherishes men and women. All of them. They regard themselves as the purpose of all creation, and God acts as if they were.
Humans call us angels, but heaven no longer regards Grigori and me as angelic. We have not been cast into hell but have been dismissed from His service. For nearly forever I have been called Bársala, and now I must become accustomed to the name Barbara. Grigori has become Gregor. Our minder, Mariah, says we must fit in, and she has provided us with documents which we carry at all times in case either of us is stopped and questioned. Of course we don’t want to be here, especially in Berlin, but the physical world will be our place for an indefinite period.
Mariah has cautioned Gregor and me against become physically intimate even though we will present ourselves as a married couple. So far, we’ve managed to keep a chaste distance from each other, our curiosity notwithstanding. Mariah explained that if we were to have a child, Gregor and I would be reluctant to leave when we are finally allowed to return to God’s service. She may be right about this.
My biggest concern is that if I’m here long enough, I will become like them. Gregor seems more resigned to our situation and willing to adapt. But what if there is no going back, in spite of what Mariah says? Maybe this is permanent exile. And if Gregor and I were to become essentially human, would God shower us with the same attention that He gives them? Will we be included among His most beloved? I hardly think so.
There is much to which I must adjust. Physical pain is near the top of the list. At work today, I sliced my left index finger with nothing more than a piece of paper. The tissue damage was trivial, but the sensation was startling. Another unpleasant surprise: fatigue. It’s not merely the need to force myself to continue working when I’m tired. It’s also the realization of how little energy is at my disposal each day in comparison to what I had and expected to have for all of eternity. Thirst, hunger, work and the other constant demands of this new life leave precious little time for reflection or prayer. There are so many things—bathing, cleaning, eating, drinking, sleeping—that must be done merely to maintain a physical body. And once a month, I bleed as the women here bleed.
Gregor and I are not among the Fallen, but we have been distanced from God like a planet flung to the outermost fringes of a solar system. We sense only a glimmer of His radiance. And for what? Realizing that God’s creation of humans was a big mistake?
Just yesterday, Gregor and I saw our neighbor Eva Mueller standing in front of a tavern on Friedrichstrasse, smoking a cigarette and displaying her legs in a short skirt and high heels. She was so brazen that, even in her sinfulness, I could almost admire her willingness to ignore both law and convention. With a large red banner emblazoned with a black swastika fluttering just one story above her, Eva smiled at the men coming out of the bar. Certainly not the role Herr Hitler has in mind for the young women of this country who must produce the next generation of soldiers. If Eva’s plan was to hook a man quickly and get him off the street before trouble arose, it worked. I don’t know where she led him, but it wasn’t to the large apartment building she shares with Gregor, myself, and more than a dozen other families. I asked Gregor what he thought and was a little dismayed by his practical, matter of fact response. “What does she need the extra money for? She told us she’s got a well-paid job at the Interior Ministry.” I’d expected a more thoughtful response than that. A hint that he is becoming more like the slugs who surround him each day at the machine tool factory?
A few days after Gregor and I had moved into a flat on Hornstraffe, Eva and I saw each other for the first time. I was in the first floor hallway of our apartment building, unlocking the door to our flat, and she was coming down the stairs with a large load of laundry in her arms. “Hi. I’m Eva,” she said. “I live directly above you.”
“Good to meet you. I’m Barbara. We just moved in, my husband and I.” Petite and attractive, she looked to be in her early twenties, and with her long dark hair and big brown eyes, appeared more Mediterranean than Aryan. “Have you lived here long?” I asked.
“A little over a year. It’s not a bad place. The people aren’t especially friendly, but management keeps the building warm in the winter.”
“Do you live alone?” I asked, then wondered if I was being too forward.
“Yes, but I occasionally have house guests. Let me know if we make too much noise.”
“I’m sure it won’t be a problem.”
“Just knock if you need anything,” she offered and headed toward the basement.
The following Saturday morning, there was a knock on our door. I carefully stepped around a few small damp spots on the kitchen floor which I had just mopped and quickly headed to the foyer. It was Eva, nicely dressed in a blue pinafore with a white blouse, looking so young and innocent – at this point, I hadn’t seen her working the streets of Berlin. She wanted to know if I could come up for coffee and pastries that afternoon, mentioning that she had two house guests that she’d like me to meet. I happily accepted her invitation.
I climbed the stairs to her place a little after 2 pm, having learned from Mariah that one should not be too early or too late when invited to someone’s home. Mariah had also suggested that I bring a few “bon bons,” adding that many women seemed to have a special love for chocolate.
“Hi, Barbara,” she greeted me cheerfully. “Come in and meet Rachael and her daughter Sarah.” The two were seated at a round wooden table, and they rose to greet me, each with a shy smile. Both wore nicely made white blouses and dark skirts and each offered a hand in greeting. Rachael looked to be in her early forties and Sarah was a young adolescent. I liked them straight away. Over the next hour, I learned that Rachael’s husband, Chaim, along with an unknown number of other Jewish men, had been hauled away by the brownshirts during the terror called Kristallnacht. Chaim never returned. Until recently, Rachael and Sarah had held onto the hope of seeing him again someday, but then mass deportations of men, women and children to the camps began. I looked suddenly at Eva and blurted “You’re hiding Rachael and Sarah?”
“For a short period of time.”
“Isn’t that dangerous? If they were discovered, wouldn’t you be sent to one of the camps along with them?”
“Very likely, I would.” I stared at the three of them for several moments.
“Aren’t there informants, maybe someone in this building, who would tip off the police if they suspected something?” I asked.
“Yes, there are,” she calmly said. “And then the police might even knock on your door, search your flat and ask a lot of questions. That goes for everybody in the building.”
“You’re endangering everyone?”
She simply nodded, saying nothing. I was about to ask Eva who had given her the right to put everyone in the building at risk –who knew what the police might find during random searches – when I remembered something Mariah had recently told me. We’re at war, and at the moment, we’re losing. By we, she didn’t mean Germany. On the contrary, Hitler was winning, taking land from Germany’s neighbors. And so far, he hadn’t used force.
That night at dinner, I shared little of the afternoon’s conversation with Gregor, unsure as to how he would react. As we continue to inhabit this bizarre time and place, Gregor’s values and priorities continue to drift, and I fear that I too could be lulled into an acceptance of what surrounds us. Sometimes when we’re discussing what is happening to this society, I detect in him a begrudging respect for what Hitler has accomplished in the first five years of his “Thousand Year Reich.” In all our time together, I never withheld anything from Gregor, but now I’ve chosen to do just that. I told him only that I’d spent a pleasant afternoon having coffee and pastries with Eva, never mentioning her two guests.
Aside from my concerns regarding Gregor, I need time to pray and contemplate over what happened earlier today. Why did Eva confide in me? We barely know each other. How could she feel confident that I wasn’t a loyal citizen of the Reich, someone who would inform the police that she was sheltering two “undesirables?” Had Eva’s invitation been a test to see if I would remain silent, protecting herself by moving Rachael and Sarah that evening to a safe new location? Eva had also revealed that she was part of a network that smuggled Jews and unwanted Christians out of Germany to western European countries, Palestine, and America. But why let me in on this at all?
When I later found that Rachael and Sarah hadn’t been moved out of the building that night, I began to wonder if Eva was someone apart from the rest of humanity. Might she be fundamentally different from others of her kind? With nothing to gain for herself, she appeared to be risking everything to help people who had no way out other than through a smuggling network. Then came the afternoon that Gregor and I saw her streetwalking, and I realized how naive I had been. Eva didn’t need the money. She was streetwalking to satisfy urges that I would never understand. We briefly made eye contact that afternoon on the street, but it had no discernible effect on her. Are there any truly righteous people on this Earth? I remember watching Abraham four thousand years ago as he vainly searched for just ten righteous men. He never found them, and God destroyed Sodom.
— ♦♦♦ —
An elderly woman lives in the flat across the hall from Gregor and me. Frau Volkmann, gray-haired and bent over, is probably in her early seventies but her type has been on Earth for millennia. She wears a building key around her neck, as if her officious manner weren’t enough. Although Frau Volkmann did no cleaning or repair work in the building, the residents were to report any problems in their flats or the common areas to her. As a result, it was hard to avoid this woman whose assigned responsibilities reinforced her prying nature. Eva told me to avoid her – good advice if it could be followed. I think Eva is afraid of her, with good reason. Whenever the Furher’s speeches are broadcasted, Frau Volkmann’s radio is turned up very loud as if she were reminding her neighbors of their duty to listen on their own radios. Both Mariah and Eva have told Gregor and me to keep our radio near a partially opened window so that anyone checking on us from the street could be certain that we were in compliance with the Reich’s policy regarding mandatory attention to these speeches. Fortunately, this policy doesn’t apply to Goebbels’ incessant spew of propaganda. I hate listening to that smug bastard.
One Saturday morning shortly after I had met Rachael and Sarah in Eva’s flat, Frau Volkmann knocked on my door and asked if she could borrow some sugar. She held a ceramic bowl in her hand, and when I said yes, she followed me into my kitchen uninvited instead of waiting in the hall. If she felt a need to make a quick inspection of our place, I was loathe to do anything that might make her even more inquisitive or suspicious. But I wasn’t about to invite her to stay for tea.
From the pantry, I retrieved a black metal canister in which the sugar was kept and got a large spoon so she could transfer what she needed. But after opening the lid, I saw that the canister was barely one quarter full. I handed it and the spoon to Frau Volkmann, and she began scooping up the sugar to transfer it into her bowl. She didn’t stop until my canister was essentially empty.
When I followed her back to the front door, we saw that Eva had entered the hallway from outside, each arm weighed down with canvas bags full of groceries. Eva set the bags onto the floor and straightened herself up as she greeted Frau Volkmann and me.
“Is all that food for you? You don’t weigh much more than I do, a worn out little old lady,” Frau Volkmann said. “This must have cost a lot, and some of it is going to spoil before you get a chance to eat it.” When I saw alarm cross Eva’s face, I quickly spoke up.
“Half of it is mine,” I explained. Turning to Eva, I said “But I didn’t realize you were going to carry it all by yourself. Wasn’t there an employee at the store who could have helped you?”
“Maybe there was, but they were really busy so I didn’t want to ask,” Eva said, immediately understanding my intent and playing along. “Besides, it’s only two blocks away. I didn’t separate your stuff into separate bags, so we’ll have to sort it out on your kitchen table.” I grabbed two of the grocery bags, and Eva followed me into my kitchen with the others. Fortunately, Frau Volkmann turned to enter her flat with the sugar I had given her.
With my front door closed and the groceries on the table, Eva whispered “Oh Barbara, danke! That was quick thinking. I don’t know how I would have handled that without you. That woman terrifies me. It’s like I can’t think around her.” She dropped into a chair at the kitchen table, and I began to make tea for her. With the kettle over the flame, I approached her closely and rested a hand on her shoulder. She covered my hand with hers, and thanked me again.
When the tea was ready, I poured a cup for each of us and joined her at the table. After a few silent sips, she seemed to calm herself and said, “Don’t even think about returning any of this food to me. It will confirm her suspicion that I’m hiding someone. I’m sure that old hag is going to be watching both of us. She might even have someone else in the building keeping an eye on me.”
“Well, she’s right about one thing,” I said. “It’s expensive to feed and clothe the people you hide. Let me give you some money to pay for whatever items you want me to keep.”
“Fortunately, the money situation is okay at the moment. Maybe I’ll need some later, so keep some in reserve for now.”
“But it’s not just food and clothing. Don’t you have to pay for the forged documents they’ll need? And what about the cost of transporting them through and out of Germany?”
“We have an excellent forger in our network, and he works for free. As for transportation, it’s too dangerous to put them on a train. Instead, another member of the network drives them in his own car to Hamburg overnight. Then he purchases the cheapest available tickets for them to leave Germany on a ship. We instruct them to stay away from the other passengers as much as possible.”
“But they need money when they arrive at their destination, don’t they?” I asked.
“Some, and we provide it, but there’s also a contact person waiting for them who eases their transition and integration into the new surroundings. It does take money, but we’re managing.” By then, she didn’t need to tell me where some of the money was coming from, and I felt the deepest shame for having judged her so harshly.
The next morning, at my urging, Gregor and I took a stroll through Berlin’s largest park, the beautiful Tiergarten. Because of what had happened yesterday, I decided to take a chance and tell him what I knew about Eva. He listened attentively, showing mild surprise only when I related the part about the network. “I knew something unusual was going on,” he said when I’d finished.
“I frequently hear more than one set of footsteps from the floor above. I think one reason Eva confided in you so quickly was that she knew you and I would realize that she was involved in something.”
“Couldn’t she just say that they were family members, a sister and a niece?
“I guess so, and it would work for a while. But eventually it wouldn’t, as more people were shuttled through her part of the network, especially the Aryan Christians who bear no resemblance to her. She probably figures that the best course of action is to conceal everything from Frau Volkmann rather than openly try to pass them off as family. But it’s hard for us to….” He paused, trying to order and articulate his thoughts.
“Hard for us to what?”
“To understand creatures who, unlike us, start life as infants, totally dependent on other flawed humans. Creatures who must struggle through the maze of contradictions that is their childhood and try to live in a world that can’t seem to heal. At some point in their lives, each of them has to face a growing awareness of his or her own mortality. And they never experience God the way you and I did before we were removed from service.”
“And what of us? Are we mortal now?” I asked. Instead of answering me, Gregor leaned into the purple blossoms of a Wisteria tree to enjoy their aroma. I closed my eyes and did the same. For several precious moments, nothing else mattered.
That night, Gregor told me to stay away from Eva and, under no circumstances, provide her with any form of assistance. It’s too dangerous was all the explanation I could get. He has begun to treat me in the condescending manner that the men of this world treat women..
— ♦♦♦ —
On a Monday morning with Gregor already on his way to work, I was standing in the first floor hallway about to leave for my own job at our neighborhood bakery, when four men entered the building. They were meticulously dressed in black uniforms, their shoes polished and shining. Each wore that hideous twisted-cross armband at his left upper sleeve and carried a handgun in a leather holster at the right side of his waist. One of them, graying at the temples, appeared to be the commander. He was all business, but polite, saying “Pardon me, fraulein,” as he brushed by me on his way to Frau Volkmann’s flat. Had they come to arrest her?
Within a few seconds of the knock on her door, she opened it, stepped out into the hallway, and said to the commander, “Follow me.” Displaying a satisfied smirk as she passed me on her way to the staircase, it was clear that she had been awaiting their arrival and was not their target. Then I realized where Frau Volkmann would lead them. I hadn’t fooled her at all by claiming that half of Eva’s groceries were mine.
At first not daring to leave the spot where I stood, I listened intently as they knocked at Eva’s door one floor above. After a pause, the commander resumed his knocking, this time more forcefully, and called out, “Fraulein Mueller. This is the police. You must come to the door. Now.”
There was still no response from Eva, and I quietly inched up the staircase until I could see the four uniformed men and Frau Volkmann waiting. From the gentle thudding of feet that had been transmitted through my ceiling earlier this morning before the police arrived, I knew that Eva, Rachael and Sarah were still there. At any moment, the police would break through the door, and I would helplessly stand by as the three young women were led away in handcuffs. I briefly considered starting a fire to create a distraction, but this would endanger everyone in this old firetrap of a building. Besides, it was too late.
Then Eva’s door opened. I climbed one more step and saw Eva standing just inside the dark wooden door frame. Her hair was wet and she was wearing a long white robe, apparently as an explanation for the delay in her response to the loud knocking and the commands. But how could this help her? No matter where Rachael and Sarah were hiding, the police would find them. That’s what police do.
After a very brief conversation with the commander, Eva stepped back to let the four men enter while Frau Volkmann, displaying more decorum than I expected, waited in the second floor hallway. I backed down to the first floor to avoid being caught observing this spectacle and waited with my human heart pounding in my chest, never having experienced the physical manifestations of fear and anxiety to this magnitude. Another lesson in what it means to be human. Returning to my flat seemed the only thing to do. Once there, I began cleaning the kitchen. I simply couldn’t remain still. Gregor was already gone and would have been no help in any case.
Twenty minutes later, I heard the repetitive thud of jackboots on wooden stairs as the group descended to the first floor. Hiding behind my closed front door gave me a feeling of safety until I realized that everyone in the building would be questioned as to what they might have seen or suspected. Finally, I forced myself to sit.
Being late to work is something that this society has little tolerance for, yet I remained seated at my kitchen table and tried to control myself. With the volume turned down to the lowest audible setting, I searched on our radio for one of those foreign stations that played American swing and jazz. This type of music was verbotten, but one could usually find some very intoxicating music before the authorities discovered it and jammed that frequency with static.
The music of Glenn Miller’s band was playing when there was a knock on my door. Most likely, it was Frau Volkmann, coming to gloat and possibly glean any information she could. I shut the radio off and remembered to move the tuning knob to another setting before placing the radio out of sight. I was tempted to ignore the knocking, but remembered that she had seen me this morning in the first floor hallway and probably knew that I hadn’t left for work. I got up to answer it, struggling to concoct an excuse for not being at work, but when I opened the door, I was speechless. It was Eva.
Seeing my shock, she didn’t wait for me to invite her in. After closing the door behind her, Eva put her right index finger up to her lips to keep me silent. She then beckoned me to follow her down the long hallway of our flat to the back bedroom which we used as a reading parlor. Just before entering, she turned to me and softly said, “Prepare yourself for another surprise.”
Standing in the middle of the room and looking terrified were Rachael and Sarah. At first, I couldn’t do anything except stare with my mouth open. Then I rushed to hug both of them, causing Sarah to begin to cry with fear, relief or both.
Eva had moved to the small closet that was tucked into a corner of the room and was staring upward. When I joined her, I could see a large opening in my closet’s ceiling through which a thick knotted rope was suspended from the underside of a closed trapdoor in the floor of Eva’s closet. Reading the expression on my face, Eva said, “Built by another member of the network, a carpenter. On my side, it’s a trap door in the floor of a closet just like yours except that it’s covered by a rug. On your side, it’s a suspended section of ceiling which I removed to give Rachael and Sarah a way down as soon as I realized who was at the door. It’s been there for months, but this was the first time I’ve had to use it.”.
— ♦♦♦ —
My “husband” has slid into licentiousness. When drunk, he has the personality of a wounded animal, and hearing him refer to Eva as “that whore” deeply offends me. Gregor frequently returns home long after I’m in bed and wakens me when he runs to the toilet to vomit. The next morning, he attempts to prepare himself for work with large amounts of coffee and aspirin and sees no connection between the ingestion of these substances and his nagging abdominal pain. I must talk to Mariah about this before Gregor is fired from his job.
With Gregor rarely returning home for dinner, Eva and I are seeing more of each other, sometimes meeting at a café off the wide Unter den Linden in the central part of Berlin. Even with the café at some distance from our apartment building, we take care to approach it from separate directions, and we avoid arriving or leaving together. Although the food is quite good, the breathable air in this place seems to have been extracted and replaced with concentrated cigarette smoke. The thick haze may provide a little more anonymity, but the next morning my clothes reek with a repugnant odor. Is this what hell smells like?
“How are Rachael and Sarah?” I asked Eva on a Friday evening after finding her at the corner table we preferred. I expected to hear that they were safely out of Germany, but she surprised me.
“I don’t know,” Eva answered.
“Hasn’t the driver who took them to Hamburg told you that he got them on a ship?”
“That’s something I don’t have to know to do my job. If he had given me even a scrap of information, it might be extracted during an interrogation. It would be great to know with certainty that Rachael and Sarah are safe, but that’s just not going to happen.” Again, I marveled at this young, petite creature who took such risks for so little reward. Again, I felt shamed by her. Who was the real angel?
When I arrived home that evening, Frau Volkmann was conversing in the first floor hallway with a young couple I had seen from time to time. Having noticed me, she rushed over excitedly and said, “Have you heard the fantastic news? Our troops are in Prague. We’ve taken Czechoslovakia without firing a shot. Czechoslovakia!” Then she waited expectantly. I knew what I had to do.
“Heil Hitler!” I blurted.
“Seig Heil!” she responded..
— ♦♦♦ —
I’m alone now. So alone. Gregor and Eva are gone. I remain cut off from God and all his minions. Mariah is all that I have. Autumn saw Poland viciously attacked and split between Germany and the Soviet Union. The empty branches of trees silhouetted against the gray skies weigh upon me as if I were completely human, and maybe I am.
Gregor simply didn’t return home one evening. I didn’t realize it until the next morning when I awoke and found myself in an empty bed. Initially, I suspected that he’d spent the night with a mistress or a prostitute, but whatever he chose to do, he never came back. I should have expected it, given what he said about Mariah the day before he disappeared, that her hope of someday returning to His service was nothing more than a delusion or fairy tale. “Look how long she’s been stuck here.” Then he sarcastically added, “Do you see any wings sprouting on her?”
Strangely, Eva’s departure was similar in that there was no auf wiedersehen. By late November, I had seen her shepherd numerous individuals through her portion of the network, but then a week came and passed with no contact from her, not even the soft padding of her feet through the ceiling. When I ascended the stairs and knocked on her door, there was no response. Of course I could have asked Frau Volkmann about Eva’s absence, but I chose to wait and pray. After several more days, and without conscious deliberation, I found myself entering my back bedroom and opening the corner closet. An envelope lay on the dusty wooden floor, and it contained a detailed two page letter that began: If you’re reading this, they’ve come for me..
— ♦♦♦ —
He’s noticed me now, so I smile coyly. Men seem to like that. It must remind them of certain types of smiles — the ones they got when they first began taking an interest in girls. For the typical man coming out of the bar, middle-aged and reasonably happy with his wife and children, my smile is a clear invitation.
The word prostitute won’t enter his mind until tomorrow. Tonight, I’m just a pristine young lady who finds him attractive, and my shyness doesn’t vanish when we get off the street. In the dark hotel room, I let him take off all my clothing, but I’m careful to hesitate and let him see some reluctance. Oh yes, this is all so new to me and I’m so very shy. This excites him greatly and also lets him know not to expect any unnatural acts from me. If I can convince him just for a few hours that I’m an unspoiled ingénue, he’ll be coming back. That’s important, because the extra money I earn gets put to use very quickly. The Reich’s solution for their “undesirables” continues with no end in sight, and one of them, ensconced in my apartment, awaits my return.
Polar Peril: A Tale of the Twilight Patrol by D.W. Behrend, Art by Toe Keen
Kevin Carson and his team thought they had seen it all before…they were wrong. Find out what they encounter when they undertake their latest death-defying mission. It’s a real page turner you don’t want to miss!