Fiction | The Prisoner by Tammye Huf

0
157

Tammye Huf


The Prisoner

I set my alarm clock for midnight, because at one in the morning we wanted to slaughter.  It rang muffled, under my pillow, but loud enough to jerk me awake, and I snatched it up to silence it before my mother could hear.  I’d tell her what I’d done when it was finished. 

I swung my legs off the bed and planted my feet into my house shoes, sliding forward onto the edge of my mattress, taking three deep breaths to steady my nerves.  The air puffed out in white foggy bursts, and the full moon shone through the frosted window, making the ice look like a frame of lace, a little reminder that the world could be beautiful.

I dressed in layers; my work skirt over my long undergarments, my rough cotton blouse layered under my old wool sweater.  Slinking like a thief, I collected the knives, the buckets and bowls, the rope. I kept the lights off so the neighbours wouldn’t see me, though most of them would have kept my secret.  Some of them had done the same thing and knew that I kept theirs, but there were a few who I wasn’t sure about.  As the war dragged on and we all grew hungrier, and the Fatherland grew greedier, needing first our men, then our food, then our boys, it became more difficult to know who you could trust. 

I crept out to Pawel and knocked our secret knock.  It was silly, of course.  By now he knew my footfall without having to look, but silly things made me feel safe:  secret knocks, and my father’s promise when he left four years ago that everything would be fine, and my brother’s promise when he left last summer that he would come home.  Things I knew I couldn’t count on, but I did. 

Pawel was our compensation.  We ran the mill, which the Party recognised as essential work, but we had no men to help us because they were serving the country according to the papers we’d had to fill out.  I wanted to scratch the words through and write kidnapped, but I wasn’t stupid enough to say what I really thought.  We all saw how dangerous that could be when the school director was taken at the beginning of the war.  And then there was that business in Steinen with Herr Krautmeyer. 

I filled out the papers the way I was meant to and was rewarded with Pawel Tarkowski, our Polish prisoner of war.  At first they brought him every morning from the labor camp but then they decided he could sleep in our pig shed, saving them the trip.  It meant we would have to feed him ourselves, so they gave us strict guidelines on his food rationing.  I convinced my mother that the Party guidelines should be considered suggestions and that we should feed him as we saw fit and were able.  After all, we needed him to work, not fall dead of starvation.

Pawel opened the door almost immediately at my knock, taking the buckets from my arms.  “Everything all right?”

I nodded, smiling up at him, because his grey eyes were another thing that made me feel safe but shouldn’t have.  He stepped closer and stood watching me.  If things were different, he would have kissed me, and I would have let him.  It took a few seconds for him to remember his place and back away, but not before I felt the heady rush I had learned to associate with standing close to Pawel.    

We dropped the supplies at the back of the shed and sharpened the knives.

“Are you sure you want to do this?”  He didn’t look at me when he spoke, carefully putting distance between us.

“I won’t let them have everything,” I said. 

The authorities took stock of our food and appropriated most of it to themselves.  Last winter we would have gone hungry if I hadn’t hidden potatoes in our pillowcases.  This year I was determined to slaughter our pig before they came to collect it.  My mother would have objected if she’d known.  When she found out about the potatoes, she said I was robbing the cause, but when the hunger was gnawing at her belly, she accepted the food without a word.

Pawel went out to the toolshed to get the ax and I placed a bowl in the trough to catch the blood.  When he came back in with it, I was shivering with cold and nerves. 

He leaned the ax against the wall and draped his coat around my shoulders, rubbing my arms. 

I leaned into the warmth of him, and we stayed that way until my hands drifted to his torso and lightly skimmed his back.  Pawel jerked away.

He took up the ax and swung it, dull side down, hard onto the pig’s forehead.  The muffled crack cut through the stillness and the animal collapsed unconscious.  We tied it onto a ladder, feet splayed, and together we heaved it over the trough, its neck above the bowl. Pawel slit its throat, and as it thrashed, we held the ladder tightly in place. 

When the blood waned from a gush to a trickle, we propped the ladder up against the wall so that the pig hung feet up, head down.  With the ax and a knife, we hacked it open down the centre, letting its intestines spill into a flat basket below.  

Steam billowed out of the splayed pig when the warmth of its insides hit the late November air.  The small space grew warm and damp and close.  

Pawel leaned up against the side of the shed catching his breath. He pulled his sweater off and mopped his forehead with his sleeve.  Hot and sweaty and breathing hard, I stepped away from the pig, stripping off Pawel’s coat and my sweater.  He watched them thud to the floor before looking back at me with a vivid desire tempered by fear. We both knew the law and the consequences of racial defilement.  In spite of everything I had been taught, I slipped my skirt to the floor and unbuttoned my blouse, baring myself to the moist night, to the illegal, gaping pig scenting the air with a coppery heaviness, and to Pawel. 

His danger eclipsed mine, making him hesitate.  It took six-seconds for hormones to conquer fear. 

We didn’t come together in the gentle, cautious way of new lovers.  The war and the National Socialists had stripped us of our humanity by degrees, and we clawed it back from each other that night in a frenzy.

I crept into the house at sunrise to find my mother sitting at the kitchen table waiting for me, knitting.

“Marina Himmelbach, where the devil have you been?”  Her clicking needles punctuated every word.  “Sneaking out of the house and turning up at dawn?”  Click, click, click.  “If your father were here he would skin you alive–”

“Well, he isn’t here,” I said.  And then recklessly, crazily, “He’s out there dying for a madman–”

“Don’t ever talk like that!”

She flew at me, striking me twice: once for Hitler and once for my father.  Thankfully, she had dropped her needles.

#

That evening, when we were speaking again, I told her about the pig.  She pursed her lips at me as I reminded her that we’d be glad of the meat this winter.  I told her it was already slaughtered, so she might as well help with the rest of it.  That was how she worked.  She would never break the law herself but she was practical enough to recognise the benefits.

“You shouldn’t have been alone with him in the middle of the night,” she said.

I turned to face her.  “We slaughtered the pig.  Nothing more.”  I held her eyes without flinching and wondered when I had become such a competent liar.

#

My alarm chimed at two o’clock in the morning, waking me immediately.  I crept down to the pig shed and knocked my secret knock. 

“Marina.”  Pawel said my name in a way that meant go away and please come in.  I chose to come in.

Without the heat of the pig we shivered under his meagre blanket, but we took our time, savouring each other like raspberries in the winter. 

“I’d better go,” I said, this time well before sunrise. 

He held me tighter, burrowing his face into the crook of my neck, inhaling my scent.  “This is dangerous,” he said. 

The fear crept back into our cooling bodies, clearing our heads enough to see the madness.  I lay my hand over his sputtering heart.

“You’re right.  This is too risky.  We should just–”

“Will you come back tomorrow?”

I pushed off of him to sit up, but he grabbed my hands and pinned them to his chest.

“Will you?” he repeated. 

I felt his heart hammering beneath his ribs.  “We might get caught,” I said. 

He squeezed my hands in his.  “Don’t let them have everything.”

I leaned down and kissed him as his hands snaked up my arms and down my sides, pulling me back on top of him.

#

When the weather turned that spring, Pawel made a butter churner that we traded for a suckling piglet rejected by its mother.  It squealed and shrieked at our lovemaking, so we took to meeting in a clearing in the woods.  We’d lie together on his blanket under the stars and after we’d finished, we would intertwine our bodies, savouring the sensation of skin on skin.

Bliss can be a dangerous thing.  It can make the world disappear until all that exists is the touch and the taste and the pleasure in front of you.  Not the sun, a little too high in the east.  Not the scent of the morning fire in the air.

They caught us on a Tuesday.  

Herr Richter, only a few weeks back from the war, surprised us just after dawn.  He’d lost his right arm and most of his hearing in some sort of explosion, which had earned him a medal and the self-proclaimed right to police the rest of us. 

“Get up, you Polish swine!”  He raised his gun with his one remaining hand.

I could see Pawel calculating his chances of wrestling it away, figuring that he could save me, even if he couldn’t save himself.  His muscles shifted and then froze as we both saw the posse of Hitler Youth coming up behind him, sweeping around us in a circle.

I gripped his biceps urging him back.  My nails dug into his skin, pleading for caution. 

“Fräulein Himmelbach, you are the worst kind of disgrace.”  He spat at us from a safe distance as the Hitler Youth closed in.  When they’d formed a tight circle, he kicked at Pawel’s back, his thigh, his side.  Pawel flung himself over me to shelter me from the blows until he realised he was the only target.  He tried to pull away to keep me safe but I grabbed hold of his neck and wouldn’t let go.  Once we were separated there would be no coming together again. 

They didn’t let us dress when they finally marched us out of the woods, clothes clutched to our bodies for modesty and warmth.

The Hitler Youth boys laughed at Pawel’s nakedness and gaped at mine, lecherous and disgusted at the same time.

I never found out who tipped them off.  For all I know it might have been my mother.  She was, after all, practical in her acceptance of law breaking, and the Racial Purity Law was impractical to break. 

I argued with the officials.  Pawel was a good Protestant, I told them.  His father had been a pastor.  He was born only twenty kilometres from the German border.  Some of them laughed at me, some of them hit me.  When they dislocated my jaw, I shut up and signed the Order for Protective Custody. 

My official charge is Race Defilement.   They put me on a platform in the market square of Frankfurt and the crowd shouted it at me as a barber shaved my head.  The sign around my neck read, I was expelled from the Volk community because I consorted with a Pole.  A newspaper photographer snapped photograph after photograph: me with the sign and my hair half shaven looking freakish, me standing bald in a sea of blond locks, me wading through the jeering crowd flanked by soldiers.  He didn’t take pictures of when they threw clumps of dirt or spat or knocked me to the ground.

I am glad that my village is too small for a spectacle, where I would have known the people spitting at me.  And I am thankful for my shaved head in prison.  It helps with the lice. 

When they took me away, my mother told me to pray for forgiveness, and I pray every day, but not for that.  I pray that we lose the war soon so that people will come to their senses, and I pray for a miracle for Pawel.  If not a miracle, then justice, and if not justice, then remembrance.

This story was second runner-up in The London Magazine 2018 Short Story Prize 

Tammye Huf’s work has appeared in Diverse Voices Quarterly, Forge, Ginosko, The Storyteller, Necessary Fiction, New Plains Review, and The Penmen Review. Having lived in the United States and Germany, she now lives in England with her husband and children.


To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.

Want to win £500 and be published in the UK’s oldest literary journal? Enter our Poetry Prize.