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Below is an entry I submitted to the Writers’ Union of Canada’s 250-word “Postcard Story” competition last year. Another delicate, young thought-dove cast forth from my solitary literary ark, never to be heard from again. Truth is, I think I’d probably be willing to part with a kidney to have something even remotely resembling an olive branch come streaking across the horizon and into my writing life at this point. (Wait, the kidney’s the one you can donate and still get by with just one, right? Anyway, you know what I mean…)
Whatever the judges may have thought, however, I always rather liked this tight, modestly-sized narrative. It might, perhaps, be a little obscure, but, then again, so am I. So what other options do I have? Plus, you guys are clever, right?
I’d love to hear what you think.
“It’s 250 words. You’re going to want to tell me, but you need to show me.”
She was right, of course, but it was a tall order. An approach that would allow for only a single vector. Gear down, essence screaming toward truth at alarming velocity. The subtle rubber-kiss of wheels at tarmac versus a vulgar, titillating fireball.
“Only connect,” Forster rails at us from the grave, yet we are alone as always. Alone with our apparent immediacy, our e-mails and texts. Maybe more alone than we’ve ever been before.
Reclined, I can feel the warmth of the afternoon sun stealing through the window and embracing my extended legs, crossed at the ankles. Drowsing, willing myself not to surface, but, instead, to linger unfocused, suffused with the presence of absence.
What an odd sort of emotional calculus seethes within us. Equation after barely understood equation twitching at our puppet strings, overwhelming us with the complexity of the exercise. Pinball math. The glimmering buckshot of lives rocketing forward on the hard cusp of some phantom plunger. Bouncing, twirling, re-bounding, generating light and sound like fireballs along constrained parabolas infinite with possibilities. Until a final, deceptively smooth arc awakens us to the creeping momentum of our descent, beyond the salvation of bumper or paddle, accelerating toward oblivion with no second chances remaining in the breech. Oh, to swerve, to master the trajectory…
“Wake up,” she whispers.
“I am,” I respond.
Am I? I wonder.
Here it is. Two days late, and weighing in at just over 4,000 words — instead of the requisite 2,000 — but otherwise just as the flash fiction challenge outlined. Namely:
> Subgenre: Psychological Thriller
> Setting: The Zoo
> Conflict: Abduction
> Aspect to Include: A rare bird
> Theme: Chaos always trumps order
I hope you enjoy it and would love to chat about it here on-line should you have any questions or comments.
The story’s called Anhalter, and it goes like this.
The Russians were almost here.
The news made the rounds of our small enclave in a matter of minutes. I could read the anxious expressions on the faces of the staff moving quickly through and out of our ward in waves. And old Herr Doktor Friedrich Otto Enders, perpetually weary, now bent almost double, the weight of the world, this strange looming apocalypse, fully upon him.
I was pleased, though I was careful to keep my feelings to myself, — I had been here long enough to know better than to expose any hint of emotion to the staff or to my fellow travellers in woe, the poor, inconsolable fools — and felt no small elation at Enders’ obvious discomfort.
The bastard. Herr Doktor Frederich Arschloch Enders, Direktor of the Die Drei Linden Sanatorium. At your service! How I loathed him. I wanted nothing more than for a wild Russian soldier to burst through the door at that very instant just so that I might have the opportunity to watch him die of a heart attack. Or better yet, of a rusty bayonet thrust deep into his gut. Twisted sharply — left then right — as Hermann, my darling Hermann, had once explained to me they had practiced in combat training before he too left me, and was then lost to me altogether at the hands of this insatiable war. A swift rotation of the bayonet, counter-clockwise, then clockwise, managed double-duty: it further intensified the recipient’s gut wound and internal injuries while at the same time loosening the bayonet within its victim’s body so that it could be more easily withdrawn.
Wishful thinking or not, I prayed that Enders would suffer piteously at someone’s hands before this war rattled to a close, if, in fact, it was ever destined to do so. I had been at Linden since last March, more than a year at his mercy, kept from searching for my little Karl the entire time. Try as I might I had simply not been able to convince him that there was nothing wrong with me that couldn’t be set right if he would only grant me the freedom to find my son. Karl would be seven now, and every day behind these walls put him that much further away from me.
Would I ever be able to find him again, I wondered? The last I had seen of him was his small hand held out to me through the smoke and debris of the main concourse at the Anhalter Bahnof, the percussive blasts of the aerial bombardment sucking the air from our lungs. This was the first major bombing raid the Americans had carried out on central Berlin in some time, I later discovered from Doktor Enders, and one of the last significant raids of 1944. It was just a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time…
The wrong place at the wrong time.
That’s how Hermann would jokingly describe our first date, when people asked us how we met. He was certainly at the wrong place at the wrong time when the enemy artillery obliterated the defensive perimeter that his platoon had been holding on the outskirts of some god-forsaken Russian village. It seemed this whole disgusting war was one big wrong time, wrong place gaffe after another. With Hermann gone, all I had left left was my baby, my Karl. And all that stood between me and my son was that damnable Enders.
By morning they were gone. Enders, the nursing staff, the interns, the lot. They had left us to fend for ourselves, that much was clear. Bastards that they were, however, at least one among them still had enough of a conscience to leave the ward door unlocked and thus enable my liberation. Maybe Hegel, the janitor, or Nurse Klara, with her sad eyes and ever-present double-large crucifix.
It was still early, about 6:15 or so, and I was the first out. I had no idea how the others would fare, but left the heavy, rivet-studded metal door ajar for them in hopes they’d eventually determine the means of their own escape.
I had planned my exit from the centre for so long that I knew exactly where my next steps would take me. Given the administration wing was now empty, however, I undertook a preliminary detour which I had previously never imagined possible.
The door to Doktor Enders’ office lay partially ajar, and, inside, his once-neat office appeared in some disarray. He had obviously had only a short time to clean out what was most valuable to him in the room and then beat his retreat, along with the rest of the staff, before they felt the Russians were about to arrive. But I wasn’t worried about the mess and, instead, turned my attention to the row of filing cabinets flanking the far wall. Each of the cabinets boasted a cleanly typed alphabetical index of what was contained therein. I stopped at the third cabinet labelled “Manheim-Petal, 1942 – ”. The drawer was fastened with a small brass lock on a clasp in the top corner. It soon yielded to several blows from a lead bookend in the shape of a globe that remained on the doctor’s desk.
I retrieved my file, “Necter, Anna Elisabeth, #72696 F, 23 March 1944,” and thumbed through it quickly. Nothing in it to suggest where Karl might be. Only admission forms, some financial statements from the Wehrmacht relating to payment of Hermann’s survivor benefits over to the hospital, a number of legal forms outlining the terms of my incarceration, and page after page of Enders’ notes from our sessions together. I read several of them, but they offered no new insight, and were redolent with Herr Doktor’s nonsense that Karl had been killed in the bombing raid at the train station.
I left the office, and then, after pilfering what few remaining bits of food were left in the kitchen — an ancient can of peaches in syrup that had fallen down behind one of the cupboards, a small, nearly empty bag of flour, and some mouldy chunks of cheese left unnoticed in the icebox — exited the hospital and headed west toward “Die Lodge”.
It was early April and the winter was lingering. I estimated that “Die Lodge” was about 15 kilometres to the west of the sanatorium where I had been detained. Another 20 kilometres beyond that, I knew, were the outskirts of Berlin proper — the Russians’ and, I assumed, the Allies’, final prize. Still, I knew if I could make it back to “Die Lodge,” Herr Drechsler would put me up and help me find Karl. But it was cold going and everyone I encountered seemed strangely feral, lost in their own panic. I kept to myself as I knew it would be unwise to trust anyone else — even if they would have been interested to hear my story in the first place.
When I gained the final bend in the road that opened onto the vista of the long winding approach to “Die Lodge,” my heart sank. The once-proud stone manor house now seemed fortified within an inch of its life by the Wehrmacht, as if the Germany Army had planned to stop the entire Russian advance in this very location.
The house, originally built as a hunting lodge in the late eighteenth century, had been in the Drechsler family for generations, and was surrounded by hundreds of acres of woodland. Amongst these acres was the family’s small, private zoo which housed, in its heyday, such diverse stock as deer, elk and moose, mountain goats, wolves, fox, otters, a selection of waterfowl and rare birds, and a prize brown bear, Ursula. Hermann had managed the zoo for Herr Drechsler, and I managed Hermann and Karl. At least, that is, until 1943, when the Drechslers began to feel it was ridiculous to maintain such an enterprise in the midst of total war. A war, furthermore, in which they could no longer prevent their young manager from being called up to fight. Herr Drechsler had let Karl and I stay on in the small zookeeper’s cottage after Hermann’s death, but I soon grew lonely and determined to return to my family in the north. That’s why we were at the Anhalter Banhof when the bombs started to fall, and that’s how I got separated from Karl.
I should never have left the zoo.
I was ragged and dirty and very hungry as I approached the house. The defences seemed manned, alternately, by thin, wizened old men and fuzzy-faced adolescents, clumsy in the over-sized rough cloth of their grey battledress. I explained that I was looking for the master of the house and got passed along from one bewildered functionary to the next until it became clear to me that Drechsler and his family were no longer in residence and might, in fact, no longer be amongst the living.
My sobs and tears were enough to elicit a filthy old blanket and half a loaf of stale bread from the soldiers, but, against my protestations, I was quickly sent on my way.
Once I turned the corner of the long drive again, out of sight from the manor, I headed into the woods and towards the zoo.
Our old cottage was a wreck of twisted, blackened timbers and framing. In fact, there was an extensive swath of destruction right through the centre of the zoo compound that seemed to continue into the woods for hundreds of yards in either direction. It had obviously been destroyed by a bombing run of some sort. Hardly deliberate, I imagined. No doubt by a stray bomber that needed to shed its payload and gain some additional altitude in a hurry. Nobody died in this bombing run. Nothing had been killed here save for thousands of trees. The animals, and Karl and I, were already long gone by then, but the zoo was in shambles and I was again without shelter for a second night in a row.
As dusk fell, the cold mist that had held me in its icy grip throughout the day began to turn to a numbing, freezing sleet. If I stood here and continued to sob I would surely die and, if so beaten, I would never be able to find Karl again. In desperation I turned around and around trying to find any semblance of shelter. Nothing. The grey stared back at me. I closed my eyes…
SQUAAAWK! My eyes flew open again and, startled, I turned toward the somehow strangely-familiar screech. There, perched incongruously atop the ersatz rocky knoll at the centre of the now-dilapidated brown bear enclosure was one of the zoo’s former India Blue Peacocks, his iridescent tail erect in full mating array. His colour and plumage were mesmerizing against the ashen sky. But after an isntant, with a slight tilt of his head and a further squawk, the spell was broken.
I moved toward him, not really sure why at first. Maybe if I could get close enough to him I could kill him. And eat him. Raw if had to. I was that hungry that my mouth watered at the thought. Hermann would be ashamed of me.
I held the bird’s gaze, moving toward him, willing him not to bolt. By the time I made it to the base of the knoll, however, he was bored with me and shuffled off with impressive haste, awkwardly, imperiously, his petulant squawks fading into the nearby tree line as he was swallowed up by the forest. Leaving me alone again with my grey despair.
But like the mythic animals of yore, the bird had led me to my salvation, for here, in the overgrown brush at the base of the knoll was the gaping entry to the zoo’s former bear den. I fell to my hands and knees and crawled forward into the side of the hill. I fit through the opening easily and paused just inside this sort of preliminary entry tunnel, letting my eyes adjust to the gloom.
Thank heaven it wasn’t yet evening and and even the wet, grey light outside was sufficient to dimly illuminate the den in front of me. It was bigger than I would have imagined, the size of an expansive drawing room, its domed roof cast out of concrete and with a raised ledge on the far wall, presumably a sleeping platform for its former lodgers.
Surprisingly there also seemed to be some evidence of human habitation. A small, rickety chair and a broken nursery table stood amidst a carpet of trampled-down straw to the left of the platform. I rose and walked toward the chair, moving my body out of the way of the entry tunnel to let as much light through as possible. Scattered around the straw appeared the humble treasures of a small boy. A rusty tin tobacco can filled with small chunks of pyrite, and two battered agates — one green and the other blue. Some sharpened, spear-like sticks, sundry bits of rope and twine, several battered toy soldiers with barely a remnant of their original paint finish intact, a broken compass and two ragged, dog-eared volumes of adventure stories.
I moved my back against the ledge and sat down. Without thinking I reached under the blanket which I still had wrapped around my shoulders and started to tear pieces of stale bread from the loaf the soldiers had given me and place them in my mouth. An idea started to coalesce in my mind while I chewed, but I din’t want to think it. Didn’t want to jinx it by giving it purchase…
Maybe my Karl has found his way back here as well.
When I opened my eyes the next morning I knew I hadn’t jinxed it at all. That Karl and I were obviously meant to be re-united again here at the zoo where we had been so happy together. I knew because there he was, sitting in the small chair, staring at me, waiting for me to wake up.
My heart felt like it was about to burst and I rushed toward him, throwing my arms around him, smothering him with kisses and nearly knocking him off the chair in the process.
“Karl!” I screamed, holding his wriggling body tightly against mine.“My darling boy. Mother’s here!”
He squirmed in my arms. Maybe he didn’t recognize me. It had been over a year after all, and he was only seven. I held him at arm’s length so he could look at me, recognize me.
He continued to maintain his struggle and eventually I had to slap him sharply to try to calm him down. His breath was coming so jaggedly, in sobbing convulsions, I thought he might choke. And the tears in his eyes were killing me.
What was the matter with him? He didn’t seem feverish, but he must be ill. It was as if he wasn’t himself. His eyes were big with fear when he looked at me and he kept mumbling about a boy named Erich who must have been somebody he met after we were separated at the train station because, as far as I knew, he never had a friend called Erich prior to that time.
Eventually he became so distraught I realized I would have to restrain him lest he hurt himself. I knew only too well the terror of restraint, but I had no other choice. What if he, in his frenzy, ran from the cave, away from me. I couldn’t bear to lose him again.
He struggled, but his small body was no match for mine and I soon had him fixed to the chair, tied fast with the bits of rope that had been strewn about on the floor of the cave.
“Karl,” I explained softly to him, “You’re not feeling well. Mother is here though, darling. Mother will make it better.”
I was tired again, and now, with Karl beside me once more, I felt truly ready for sleep for the first time since the bombing. I laid down in the straw, drew the dirty blanket over my shoulders and closed my eyes.
This time I awoke to the force of the blanket being ripped from me. Then I felt clumsy, strong hands start to yank at my skirt, trying to pull it down over my hips. As I rolled over to try to defend myself I glimpsed the filthy brown serge of a Russian uniform, then the dirty, stubbled face, the barred stained teeth, and the senseless eyes of the young soldier above me. I struggled, but it was no use — I was exhausted and he soon had me pinned. Angry and petrified as I was, I quickly realized that I needed to remain quiet, worried that screaming out might alert any of his comrades who happened to be nearby. And I dearly hoped they weren’t lined up outside the cave entrance, each waiting patiently to have their turn with me.
Karl was moving around in his chair, struggling with his restraints but thankfully turned at an oblique angle to me so he wouldn’t quite be able to make out what was going on. By now the Russian had given up trying to pull down my skirt and had pushed it up over my waist instead. He was awkwardly leaning all his weight on me to pin me down whilst simultaneously trying to open his flies and tear off my drawers at the same time. I could feel the warm tears running down the sides of my face and closed my eyes tightly against seeing any more of this agony unfold.
His rough woollen trousers scraped painfully against the inside of my legs, but just as I sensed he was about to enter me his body went slack and I heard a horrible moist “thwacking” sound — then again and again — followed by the feeling of the full force of his body against me like a dead weight.
My vision was obscured as I tried to open my eyes, my face now wet with something other than my own tears. I managed to free an arm from under the soldier who had had me pinned and wiped at my eyes in an attempt to discern what had happened. Standing above the Russian I saw man in work clothes holding a large jagged stone, covered with gore, and I immediately understood that he had just smashed in the head of the soldier who had been attacking me. I now understood why my face felt so wet and begin to retch. There was nothing in my belly to throw up, however, and all that happened is that I felt the bile raise painfully in the back of my throat.
The man with the rock was trembling, the rock still held up as if for another blow. “Scheisse,” I heard him mumbling under his breath, “Scheisse.” He was dressed in farm clothing and about my age, a long forelock of lank blond hair hanging over his left eye as he murmured to himself above me. There was no arm in the left sleeve of his coat — the empty cloth of this sleeve was simply pinned up double at his elbow instead.
Karl is still struggling in his chair and both the one-armed man and myself seem to come to our senses at the same time. He puts down the rock, pulls the Russian’s body mostly off me with his one good arm and starts to untie Karl.
I slide out from underneath the Russian then roll away from him, standing up and pushing my skirt back down over my waist. I pick up the discarded blanket and try to wipe the gore off my face and out of my hair. The one-armed man is making surprisingly quick work of my knots given his obvious disability.
“Thank you,” I manage to croak. “Thank you for saving me and my son.”
He is working on the last knot and pauses for a instant to look, uncomprehendingly, over his shoulder at me. Soon that knot is slipped and Karl jumps into his arms and embraces him furiously. While Karl clings to him the man begins to unfasten the gag that I had been forced to use on him, my dear boy, to settle him down and stop his yelling.
“Thank you,” I begin again. “I have only just found my son again — this morning — after we were separated in a bombing raid last year. I can’t thank you enough from saving me from that…” My words trail off as I look down toward the body of the dead Russian.
Karl is sobbing and the man is looking at me, wide-eyed, as if he doesn’t understand German. But he does.
“What are you talking about woman?”
“My son, Karl,” I say, pointing to the boy. “He came back to me this morning. This is where we used to live.” I pause, I realizing how strange this must sound, then explain. “Not in the bear cave, of course, but here at the zoo. He remembered and came back to find me. But I had to tie him up so he wouldn’t wander out of the cave. He wanted to see his friend Erich, but the Russians are on their way.” I glanced down at the dead man on the floor between us — that much, at least, must be evident to him
The man man shook his head.
“This is Erich,” he spat back at me. “My son Erich.” Then he started to move toward the cave entrance, as if his crazy pronouncement had settled the whole thing.
But there was no way I was going to lose Karl again, and I flew at the man with what little strength I still possessed. I tried to wrestle Karl from him, but he was too powerful for me —even with only a single arm — and Karl still seemed to be clinging to him for some reason. Half way across the den he managed to throw me off and continue toward the entry.
But I simply wouldn’t lose my boy again. I couldn’t let that man take him from me.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the Russian’s weapon discarded on the floor to my left. I turned and picked it up quickly. It wasn’t exactly a rifle, in fact it wasn’t even Russian. It was German, a Schmeisser I think they called it. He must have looted it from one of our dead soldiers. I had no idea how to fire it. Did it have a “safety” like Hermann’s old hunting rifle, or a bolt that needed to be pulled back to make it fire? I had no idea and no time to think. The one-armed man was starting to bend forward to fit through the cave entrance.
I pointed the gun at his back.
He looked back over his shoulder at me and I closed my eyes and pressed the trigger.
The gunfire in the cave was deafening. The weapon jerked in my hand like an electric shock and bullets went everywhere. I had hoped to shoot the man in the back, but instead of a single shot the bullets flew from the gun in a wild torrent until I realized my mistake and took my finger off the trigger. I’m not sure how I wasn’t killed by the ricochets which seemed to rattle around the concrete cave for what seemed like seconds after I had stopped firing.
The one-armed man was now on the ground at the entry to the cave, crimson stains forming across the back of his his coat. Karl had been in front of him. Please, God, let him be alright, I prayed!
I threw down the gun and rushed to the cave entrance. The man was unquestionably dead, and I hurriedly tugged him out of the way by pulling him to the side by his good arm. Karl had been trapped beneath him and I had shot the man at such close quarters the bullets had ripped right through him and into my poor son’s tiny, young body.
How could I have lost him again? I turned him over gently and brushed the hair from his forehead. His shirt was wet with wounds and blood, like the body I had just pulled off him.
He, too, was dead, but as I stared into his face, I realized this was not my son at all. My heart broke for this poor, dead boy, but, in death, I could now see he was not my boy. Not my Karl.
The morning sun was pouring into the passage and I knew my son was still alive, waiting for me, out there, somewhere. I needed to find him. I crawled from the mouth of the cave, then stood up in the bright sunshine.
“Hold on, Karl,” I whisper to myself, adjusting my skirt and moving forward into the day. “Mother’s coming.”