Bread and Salt

Bread and Salt: from Chapter One
At the very beginning of the First World War, when many folk in Germany still had enough to eat, there lived three hungry sisters. Sofie, the oldest, had restless gray eyes, the color of the ocean on a stormy day. Amalia’s eyes were the steady brown of newly plowed potato fields. Dora’s shone blue as the Virgin Mary’s robes.

At ages nine, eight, and seven these girls didn’t have to be told the world was dangerous. They knew from their mother’s worried face and how she said it would be only for a short while but they had to be good, no trouble to anyone, and spend their days locked safely in the room rented from Frau Becker–a tight white room with a bed, a chamber pot, some crates that served as table and chairs, one high shelf, a plain dark crucifix, and the necessary nearness of sisters.

The coal darkened city of Tauburg, their strange new home, spread beneath their window. Sofie elbowed past her sisters and hung over the ledge, the morning air already thick and grimy. She watched their mother, Hanna, until she passed the butcher shop, until she disappeared around the corner to clean the factory owners’ houses. The cobbled streets pulled Hanna away as surely as the current of the muddy river in which the girls had learned to swim, the river that cut across the far corner of their farm–the farm that wasn’t theirs anymore even though it had belonged to Hanna Heller Bauer Kleinschuster, and three generations of Hellers before her. Behind Sofie, Amalia and Dora jostled each other. Each girl, buttoned and braided, clutched a hunk of bread their mother cut before leaving, the last of the loaf.

“Let me see,” Amalia insisted.

“Mama’s gone,” Sofie said without relinquishing her spot.

Dora attempted to squeeze in beside her. Amalia pressed against Sofie’s back. Sisters. Sofie longed to join the bustle in the streets, to have somewhere to go, dangerous or not. She might have followed her mother or even wandered a bit, in this crowded city tucked between the Ruhr and the Rhein, mighty rivers hectic with boat traffic, rivers she wouldn’t dare to swim, even though her stroke was powerful and precise.

Dora ate her bread and had only crusts left to chew. Amalia had divided hers, eaten one piece when the church bells rang nine and planned to eat the other at noon. Sofie stripped her crust and ate that first. With her thumb and fingertips, she pinched bits from the soft middle, rolled them into pellets, put half in her pocket and and placed the rest in a row on the window sill.

“Birds will come and snatch those,” Amalia predicted, hiding her own piece from herself among piles of clean clothes stacked in a corner, the clothes they’d helped each other into more than a month before, dresses over dresses until they couldn’t bend at the waist. The outermost layer tore at the seams as they and their mother sneaked away in the night, past their stepfather, a tremendous mound of a man. The smell of stale beer rose from his mouth with every snore. “If the birds eat all your bread,” Amalia said, “you will have nothing.” No one would catch her putting the last of her food out on a dirty window sill.

Sofie fingered the bits of gluey dough in her pocket. She liked the generous feeling that swelled inside her chest at the rustle of sparrows at the window. She knew how to take care of others and herself too.

At noon the church bells clanged for the longest time. Smells of cabbage and lard and sausage squeezed under the door. Amalia lifted a dark skirt to retrieve her bread. Sofie let a bread ball turn to mush in her mouth and gave another to Dora. The other boarders, all students at the mining school, streamed into the kitchen below for Mittagspause and consumed potatoes and soup and meat. The girls’ stomachs ached and gurgled. They hoped that when their mother came home in the evening she would bring leftovers from the rich people. The day before she had brought almost nothing.

“Let’s do a story now,” said Dora. It would help to pass the time until they could eat again. “‘The Fisherman and His Wife.'” Her favorite. “I want to be the magic flounder.”

“You always want to be the fish,” Amalia complained. “It’s the best part.”

“I know.” Dora frowned so hard that two wrinkles formed between her eyebrows. “That’s why I always want to be it.”

“Well, someone else should have a turn.”

“But if you’re the fisherman you can say the rhyme,” Dora said and began, “Flounder, flounder in the sea. . ..”

“All right,” said Amalia. “As long as I don’t have to be the wife.”

Sofie put on their mother’s apron. Amalia would never play a wicked part. Dora would, upon occasion, be an enchantress or witch, but an ordinary greedy woman or careless man? If Sofie didn’t act those characters, no one would. She understood them to be as necessary to the story as the magic.

The fish was caught and released. Each time the fisherman approached the water with one of his wife’s escalating demands, Amalia recited the rhyme, and they argued over the exact color and state of the sea.

“First it’s gray and thick and then it’s purple and bubbling.” Dora stopped wriggling on the floor and stood up.

“No, it goes clear, green, purple, dark gray, black.” Amalia ticked them off on her fingers.

“When she tells him to get her a hut, it’s blue.” Sofie knew she was right. “Then when she wants the castle it’s purple and smelly, and when she wants to be the emperor–”

Amalia stomped her foot. “It doesn’t go like that! First it’s–”

“Gray!” Dora hollered.

“Get back in the water,” said Sofie. “Fish don’t stand up. You’d be dead by now.”

“I’m a magic fish,” Dora reminded her. She flapped her elbows like fins, opened and closed her mouth with a loud popping sound, and made her blue eyes huge.

“That doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want.” Amalia squeezed her arm. “Lie down.”

“Will Mama be back soon?” Dora squirmed free of Amalia’s grip and looked out the window.

Sofie untied her apron. She wanted to fling it onto the floor, but instead she matched the edges and folded it into a smooth white square.

At the window again, they waited for their mother as the day wound down, like most of their days, with Dora whining, Amalia worrying, and Sofie hating the rich people for making her mother work so hard.

Dora shouted, “I see her!”

“You do not,” Amalia said.

Sofie stretched high on tiptoes and crammed her hands into her apron pockets to keep from shoving her sisters out of the way. Their mother would scold if she walked in to find them fighting.

They leaned out the window as far as they could and waved and shouted.

Their mother lifted her head in a nod and disappeared through the door beneath their window. She would stop in the kitchen to chat with Frau Becker, to see if the landlady’s knees were aching. If so, Hanna would be paid a bit to help with the evening meal and washing up.

The girls waited, pressed close to the door– those last few moments as long as the whole day. They yearned for their mother’s voice, the touch of her cool fingers, the cheese, bread, meat and cake she might unwrap, her brush strokes against their scalps.

“It’s taking longer than usual,” Dora said. “Isn’t it?”

They waited, listening with their whole bodies, no sound of their mother’s feet on the stair. “It is,” Sofie and Amalia agreed. They waited some more.

“Let’s go see what’s keeping her,” Sofie suggested.

“How?” Amalia asked, pushing the door handle. “It’s locked.”

“There’s a key.”

“Mama has it.”

“No, another one. In the blue bowl. Beside the music box.” Sofie pointed to the high shelf. They weren’t allowed to touch the music box, a treasured gift from their father to their mother before he married her.

“Why didn’t you tell us?” Dora demanded.

Mama had told Sofie about the extra key, trusted her with adult information not to be shared with her sisters, and instructed her not to use it except in an emergency. Sofie had never been tempted to tell, to ruin a secret shared with her mother. She suspected, too, that Amalia and Dora would expect her to use the key, to make good on her big talk about exploring the city, and she didn’t want to feel pressured.

“Why didn’t you say anything before?” Amalia said.

“I forgot,” said Sofie. She forced herself to look right at them.

Before they could challenge her further, before they figured out that her tendency to do things they wouldn’t scared herself as much as it scared them, she stacked the packing crates they used as chairs and table and prepared to climb the wobbly tower.

“If Mama comes now, she’ll be angry,” Amalia said. “You won’t know how to unlock the door anyway, even if you have a key.”

“She’ll come soon, Sofie,” Dora added. “Get down. You’re going to fall.”

“Listen by the door and tell me if you hear her,” Sofie ordered through clenched teeth as she gripped the edge of the shelf and reached.

The key was heavier than she expected, with a heart-shaped head, longer than the width of her palm. She leapt from the top box as the teetering pile crashed to the floor. Dora’s hands flew to her ears. Amalia scurried to arrange the crates as they’d been before. Sofie picked herself up and waved the key over her head.

They stood still and waited for their mother or Frau Becker to holler or burst in, but no footsteps sounded on the stairs. No shouts.

Sofie fit the key into the keyhole as if she unlocked the door every day. She slipped the key into her pocket feeling important and told herself to remember to put it back.

“We shouldn’t do this,” Amalia said as she and Dora followed Sofie down the steep and narrow stairs.

Frau Becker was saying, “Over a month now. . . they’re good girls. No trouble to me. I admit I was worried when you first came, but I couldn’t say no, you were so. . . so tired. But look at you. Still tired. More tired every day and the girls. . . it’s no good for them to be all day in a room. They should go to school. The oldest one anyway. But who knows what will happen now with a war starting.”

Sofie flattened herself against the wall and motioned her sisters to do the same. They peeked around the door frame. Frau Becker, knees stiff, lurched around the large, low-ceilinged kitchen. Their mother sat at an end of the long table, just beyond the wide arch that divided the cooking and dining areas. They couldn’t see her face. A cup steamed by her elbow.

Frau Becker stirred soup on the huge black stove. “With a war things will only get worse, even with a quick victory. The Kaiser says we will show our foes what it is to provoke Germany. I’m sure he should know! Isn’t there someone who could take them, just for a while, until the war ends, to give you some time to make a home?”

Mama said nothing. Frau Becker went on. “They say the war will be over by Christmas. Somewhere in the country they might want help with the harvest while the men are fighting. Maybe my friend in Elsterdorf knows someone. That’s not so far–less than a day’s journey.” She shook her head. “I keep a good, clean house but it is no place for little girls.”

No one had told Sofie about any war. Their mother had said they would start school here in the city before long. Mama taught them their numbers and letters. Even Dora could read the red covered, fairy tale book. For a few months, back home, Sofie and Amalia had gone to school to sit on benches in rows. Every morning Dora cried and their mother had to hold her hand to keep her from following. The scowling teacher with bushy black eyebrows only called them to the front of the room as examples of what happened to children who didn’t bring their copybooks. They didn’t know how to say their stepfather wouldn’t buy their school supplies. Better the quick pain of the willow branch than the long humiliation of everyone knowing their mother’s mistake in letting that man into their lives.

Their mother’s shoulders slumped lower each time Frau Becker spoke. The old woman stooped to stir the fire in the bottom of the stove. Sofie wanted to kick her broad behind.

“Who could take all three?” their mother said. “I wouldn’t want to split them up. Especially after all I’ve put them through.”

“I want to go back upstairs,” Dora whispered. “Please.”

“Come on.” Amalia tugged at Sofie’s skirt.

Sofie slapped her hand away.

“Hanna, you’re going to have to do something. Look at you, you can barely sit up. And it isn’t good for those girls. They should be outside. I know you worry about them, but children need to run. And God knows what will happen to us now. The young men will go to be soldiers and . . .”

“On Sundays, we spend the whole day outside,” their mother said. In the shadows Sofie nodded. They went to church and to the park and Mama showed them the streets where the owners of the mines and factories lived in beautiful houses with gardens full of flowers. They collected the blossoms that fell onto the street from the bushes and trees. Just the Sunday before they’d filled their pockets with pink and purple petals. That evening, when they took the flowers out to look at them, the edges were brown, but they still smelled nice. They crushed them in a cup, added water, called it perfume, and they all, even Mama, brushed it into their hair.

“I can’t. . ..” Their mother shook her head. “Anyway.” She straightened her shoulders and her voice gained strength. “War or not, people need coal. There will still be miners. You’ll need help to run the house.”

“At least think about it,” Frau Becker insisted. “There must be someone.”

“Come on, Sofie,” Amalia said. “We’re not supposed to be here.”

Hanna rubbed her forehead with both hands. “My girls are waiting,” she said. “I should go upstairs.” She drank her cooled coffee in one long swallow.

Sofie spun around and led the way back, silent and quick. Moments later they heard their mother’s key in the lock. She fingered its twin in the folds of her pocket. They sat in a row, on the one bed, the bed their mother slept in, watching the door handle move.

Their mother’s face looked the same as always, pink and worried. She smelled like smoked meat. “I brought some wurst and apples.” She put the basket on the largest crate and began to unwrap parcels. She noticed no difference in the arrangement of the crates, no clue that they had been moved and stacked and climbed upon. Amalia had done her work well. Bellies aching, the girls eyed the shriveled sausage and bruised fruit. Dora swung her legs and her heel hit the enamel chamber pot, but nothing spilled.

Mama sighed and said, “Help set the table. Aren’t you hungry?”

The girls moved as a group to bring the dishes to the table. They crowded together on the same crate when it was time to sit.

“What’s a war?” Dora asked. Sofie waited for their mother to realize they’d been spying.

“Nothing for little girls to think about.” Mama put wurst on each of their plates. “Eat.”

The meat filled their mouths. They chewed each bite for a long time. Only the apple stems and a few seeds remained on their plates, and they were still hungry.

“Will you play dice with us?” Amalia asked. “Will you help us with our numbers?”

Their mother shook her head with a weak smile. “I’m tired tonight. We’ll wait until morning to brush out your hair.”

“But what about a story?” Sofie dared to ask. While their mother brushed their hair, at night, that was when she told them their favorite tales. In the morning she was always in a hurry, rebraiding with a minimum of brushing.

“Please!” said Sofie. It didn’t take strength merely to tell a story. “You can lie down and tell it.”

“Mama, please.”

“No!” Mama patted Dora’s head, then Amalia’s, then reached toward Sofie as if to soften her refusal. Sofie ducked, but they all stopped begging. They didn’t want to hear her say no again. They rolled out their blankets and tried to sleep.

“People get killed in wars,” Amalia whispered.

“Only soldiers,” Sofie whispered back. “And the Kaiser will win. Frau Becker said.” Outside, the sky stayed light for too long, the air still and sweltering.