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#TheTwelveDaysOfChristmas: The Fifth Day

The Twelve Days of Christmas:

A Christmastide Tale in Twelve Instalments. With Elves.

By Xavier Romero-Frias (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Fifth Day of Christmas

I had to work again the next day. Usually I turn off my phone while I’m working; it’s not cool to have the phone ringing while you’re talking to a customer or, worse, while you’re measuring out pills for a prescription. Pharmacy techs can’t afford to get distracted. But that day, I kept the phone on.

Still no word from Tom.

To distract myself from my—well, I wouldn’t say worries, but let’s call them concerns, I stopped in at Engelhard’s on the way home from work. Engelhard’s is a clockmaker’s and jeweller’s. That’s right, even in a town so small that our shopping is restricted to a grocery store, a drug store and a second-hand book shop, we have our very own jeweller. Old Mr. Engelhard came over from “ze Old Vorld”, as he was fond of pointing out, where he properly learned his trade “back in ze olden days”. Now the shop is run by Young Mr. Engelhard, or, as everyone calls him, Joe, who is about sixty-five. But for all he keeps up his father’s old-world business practices, he added on the tech savvy of a much younger man. Among other things, he’s expanded the shop into an online mail-order business, and he is servicing people’s cuckoo clocks from as far away as Toronto. He loves his work so much, he’s even there on a Sunday—only open for six hours, though, which counts as downright slacking off for him.

What drew me to Engelhard’s was, I’m embarrassed to say, the rings. For a while now, I’d been eyeing up their selection of engagement rings. I’d never actually gone so far as to bring Tom into the store to show him—I’m not quite that un-subtle—but there’s no harm in dreaming, is there?

However, it had been a mistake to look at the rings that day. All it did was to keep Tom at the forefront of my mind, which was exactly the opposite of what I was trying to do.

I let me eye travel over the familiar contents of the glass case. But wait—not all of it was familiar! It seemed that over Christmas, Joe had brought in a couple of new rings. There they were, sparkling against the black velvet of the display: five classic gold rings, the diamonds glittering in their settings. I pulled out my phone. “Do you mind?” I asked Joe, gesturing with the phone.

“No, no, you go right ahead. Make sure you tag us on Facebook if you post the picture.”

I chuckled. “I’ll be sure to do that,” I said and snapped the photo. “You’ve sold the princess-cut, I see.”

“Yes, I did that. Just before Christmas, it was.”

“Who to, I wonder?”

Joe smiled. “Now that would be telling,” he said with a wink.

Oh. Did he mean…?

No. No, this wasn’t helping. I had to get my mind off Tom.

The bell over the door of the shop tinkled, and Joe and I both turned to see who had come in. My jaw dropped. The guy who walked into the store was the most handsome man I had ever seen. Dark hair like Tom’s crisply curling back from his broad forehead; silver-grey eyes with laugh lines at the corners (except that he seemed too young to have lines in his face); high cheekbones and a jaw so chiselled it was downright stereotypical. He dusted fresh snow off his broad shoulders—was it snowing again?—then turned a blindingly white smile on me that made me go weak at the knees.

“Hi!” he said in a sonorous baritone, “I hear this is the place to get rings?”

“I, um, uh,” I stuttered, my mouth dry. Then I pulled myself together and pointed at Joe. “Mr. Engelhard is the one to ask. I don’t, uh, belong here.”

“Ah. That, I find hard to believe. This is a place for beauty.” The man gave me another dazzling smile.

“What can I do for you?” Joe put in.

I beat a retreat. What had come over me, going weak at the knees like that, staring at this guy? I’d seen handsome men before… But there was something about this one, something that drew me… Who was this man?

To be continued…

XRF_12days

By Xavier Romero-Frias (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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#TheTwelveDaysOfChristmas: The Fourth Day

The Twelve Days of Christmas:

A Christmastide Tale in Twelve Instalments. With Elves.

By Xavier Romero-Frias (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Fourth Day of Christmas

 I couldn’t get through to Tom. None of my texts got a response. I had to go back to work on the 28th, so I didn’t have time to go running around looking for him. I’d stopped in at the police station on the way home from Mary-Lou’s to at least ask what it takes to file a missing persons report, but they’d already shut up shop for the weekend.

And besides, Tom was supposed to be at work in the mine, right? I tried to call Herb, the foreman, but couldn’t get a hold of him. I told myself that the fact that he hadn’t called back about Tom not showing up was a good sign. But just on the off-chance that Lilian had heard something, I dropped by her place in the afternoon when I got off work.

“Bohemian waxwings!” she greeted me by the door. “Just imagine!”

I was a little taken aback. Bohemian what?

“At my feeder!” Lilian gushed. “This morning!”

Oh. More birds.

“That’s nice,” I said. “Have you heard from Tom?”

“No, why?” She didn’t even pause for me to answer. “If I don’t get Birder of the Month for this… They were sitting there, one on either side of the feeder, calling to each other! That’s what tipped me off; they sound really different from, say, the Cedar waxwings! Here, look—” She picked up her little point-and-shoot digital camera. “I took a video!”

She brought up her picture gallery and booted up the video. It showed a couple of sleek, taupe-coloured birds with blush-red faces, bars of black streaking back from the beaks over their eyes to the funny little crests on the tops of their heads. They flapped their black-and-yellow-tipped wings at each other and chirped, hopping back and forth.

“They were right here!” Lilian said, pulling me by the sleeve over to the patio door. “See, there—” She gave a little scream. “They’re here again! Look, just look! There’s four now! I’ve never, never…” She was practically hyperventilating.

It was pretty cool, I had to admit. The birds were even more beautiful in real life than on her little video, and she was right, they sat there calling out to each other, almost like they were having a conversation. I took a quick picture on my phone, and caught them just as they took flight. Yes, I’d got them all in the frame.

But there had been something… “Could I see your video again for a minute?”

“Sure. Aren’t they gorgeous?” Lilian handed me her camera.

There! That’s what it was—there was a person in the background of her little movie! Kind of blurry and small, just visible through the slats of her patio railing—it looked like a woman with long blonde hair. I didn’t recognize her, but she was staring at the house with a strange expression on her face. Greedy.

“Who’s this?” I rewound the video clip a bit and set it playing again. “There, that person in the background?”

Lilian took the camera out of my hand and peered at the screen at arm’s length. “Can’t say I… Wait a moment!” She picked up her reading glasses, which hung on a chain around her neck, and perched them on her nose. “Ah! Kind of hard to see, but that’s that lady Tom was talking to a couple of days ago. You know, the one from out at—”

“—at Carson’s Landing, yes, I remember.” Maybe it was time to contact this woman, after all.  She was the last person I knew for a fact had talked to Tom. And that look on her face, in spite of the blurriness of the image, sent a shiver down my spine.

To be continued…

XRF_12days

By Xavier Romero-Frias (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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#TheTwelveDaysOfChristmas: The Third Day

The Twelve Days of Christmas:

A Christmastide Tale in Twelve Instalments. With Elves.

By Xavier Romero-Frias (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Third Day of Christmas

Mary-Lou didn’t think so either when I talked to her. We have an affinity—we bonded over both of us being named Mary-Something. My full name is Mary-Claire, which I think makes me sound like either a Southern belle or a Catholic nun. Fortunately nobody but my grandmother has ever called me anything but the short version.

“No, Mac,” said Mary-Lou, who had known Tom all his life. “He’s not a cheat. He won’t pull an Eldon; the only vanishing tricks he does are slight-of-hand in his magic shows.”

“Pulling an Eldon”—now there’s a local phrase for you. Until Mary-Lou said it, I hadn’t even realized that that’s what I was worried about. It referred to Eldon “Elvis” Lynn, who disappeared in 1971, which his old girlfriend Celia Whitewell would tell anyone who was willing to listen and a few other people besides. The town thought that most likely he’d just run off with another woman; there were rumours of a pretty blonde he’d been seen with just before he vanished. And as he’d been an Elvis impersonator—his party piece that year being Elvis’ new release “I’ll Be Home on Christmas Day”—he’d had his fair share of groupies. But Celia wasn’t having any of it. It was kind of sad: nearly fifty years later she was still waiting for Eldon to come back, kept doing her now-grey hair in a Priscilla Presley style because she thought he would like it, and wouldn’t hear a word against him. He was kidnapped, she insisted. By what—aliens? This time of year she always got worse than usual because it was around Christmas that he’d vanished. She should really just accept that Eldon had left her and skipped town.

But then… For the first time I got an inkling of where she was coming from. I still hadn’t heard from Tom, and it was now going on three days.

“Are you sure Tom hasn’t just gone AWOL or something?” I said.

“Sure I’m sure,” Mary-Lou said comfortably. “I’ve known the guy since Kindergarten, remember.”

We were out in her barn, where she was feeding her chickens. Mary-Lou collects fancy breeds of farmyard fowl.

“Why do you think he hasn’t texted?” I said, absentmindedly staring at a fat white chicken. It had a brown back that had the most comical ruff of feathers around its neck, like people in seventeenth-century paintings, and even funnier “socks” on its feet, as if it was wearing pants with long lace cuffs peeping out of the leg bottoms.

“Oh, you know him. Communication isn’t his strong suit.” Mary-Lou scattered another handful of chicken feed, and two more of those funny-looking chickens with the neck ruffs came running up, clucking madly. Mary-Lou chuckled at the sight of them. “Those are my newest girls,” she said proudly. “I got them for Christmas. They’re Faverelles; it’s a French breed—supposed to be good layers.” She checked the level of water in the watering dish. “Didn’t you say Tom did send you a text?”

“Just the once, on Christmas Eve, but I can’t make heads or tails of it.” I pulled my phone out of my pocket, thumbed open the message, and held it out to her.

She took a look and shook her head. “No, makes no sense to me either,” she said. “Maybe he meant that he’s going to be gone for twelve days this time?”

“Maybe.” I pulled my shoe out of the way of the pecking beak of one of Mary-Lou’s fancy new beruffled chickens. “I just wish he’d have said so.” Now all three of the French hens were clustered around my feet. I turned on the phone camera and snapped a photo; they were such funny-looking things.

Suddenly my phone buzzed in my hand. Tom!

pls keep tryi

I lv u

What on earth was going on?

To be continued…

XRF_12days

By Xavier Romero-Frias (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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#TheTwelveDaysOfChristmas: The Second Day

The Twelve Days of Christmas:

A Christmastide Tale in Twelve Instalments. With Elves.

Day2

The Second Day of Christmas

I went over to Tom’s house first thing in the morning on Boxing Day, before it was even light—not that that means much this time of year; sunrise doesn’t come until almost nine o’clock. His truck wasn’t parked at the curb where he usually leaves it. I used the key he’d hidden on top of the lintel—he figured that was safer than under the door mat—and let myself into his basement suite.

There was no sign of Tom. The bed looked slept in, but that didn’t mean anything—he never made it, so it always looked slept in. The real clue was the coffee maker. The dregs in the bottom were stone-cold, so he definitely had not been home that morning; he would never leave the house without at least one cup of fresh-brewed coffee.

A while ago, he had been making some vague noises about going ice fishing on Boxing Day with a buddy—I couldn’t remember who—but surely he would at least have let me know?

I checked the time on my phone. Seven thirty—I could probably get away with going upstairs to talk to his landlady.

“No, haven’t seen Tom,” Lilian, who was still in her housecoat, said cheerfully. “Not since Christmas Eve morning. But guess what I did see?” Suddenly she gasped. “There! There they are again!” She rushed towards her patio door, then stopped a few feet short of it and crept slowly closer, waving at me to follow.

“Look!” she whispered, pointing out the door. “A pair of turtle doves!”

Through the door I could hear the distinctive hooting call of the grey-brown birds that were perched on the edge of Lilian’s bird feeder. I knew that hoot well, as Tom liked to copy it—he could make all sorts of noises by blowing into his cupped hands. He tried to teach me, but I could never pull it off. I have to stick with beatboxing, which I’m not too bad at, even if I do say it myself.

“I saw them yesterday, during the Christmas bird count!” Lilian said, enraptured. “They don’t usually stay around for the winter, but this year they did! They’re so beautiful! I had to list them as mourning doves, of course; that’s what they insist on calling them in the records—but my family’s always called them turtle doves. Two turtle doves—that’s really unusual this time of year. Maybe I’ll win birder of the month with that!”

“Nice,” I said, pulled out my phone and shook it to open the camera. Even in the low early morning light the birds came out clearly in the photo; that could be nice on Instagram. “So, look,” I said, “could you do me a favour and let me know if you hear from Tom?”

“Oh, sure.” She nodded, her dyed red curls bobbing. “Maybe that lady out at Carson’s Landing knows something; I think that’s who he was talking to Tuesday morning.”

“What lady?”

Her eyes were back on the birds out on the patio, and she answered absentmindedly.

“Oh, you know, that sexy one in the fancy new house they built at Jimbo Carson’s old place. Her and Tom were standing out by the street, and Tom looked real smitten with her. Oops—I didn’t mean…” She looked around at me and giggled sheepishly. “I’m sure he isn’t—didn’t—”

No, probably not. Tom wouldn’t cheat on me—would he?

To be continued…

XRF_12days

By Xavier Romero-Frias (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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#TheTwelveDaysOfChristmas: The First Day

The Twelve Days of Christmas:

A Christmastide Tale in Twelve Instalments. With Elves.

By Xavier Romero-Frias (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The First Day of Christmas 

If you think that elves are small, cute, cheerful creatures with pointy ears, green hats, and jingle bells on the hems of their shirts, do yourself a favour: think again. Mind you, I can understand how you would come to such a conclusion, especially at this time of year—even our small town has a Santa in front of the grocery store with those little green guys flocking around him, luring small children to sit on his knee. Luring them—that’s about the only way in which the cheesy Christmas elves resemble the real thing.

I don’t know if it would have helped Tom any if he had known what elves are really like, that Christmas Eve he disappeared.

Tom Rimer is—well, was—my boyfriend. We had made tentative plans for him to pick me up from my place so we could go up the valley to spend Christmas Eve with my family; on Christmas Day he was on the early shift in Lord’s Mine.

He didn’t show up. I wasn’t too surprised—Tom’s a good guy, but not the most punctual; he tends to lose track of time.

However, when half an hour after he was supposed to have been there he was still a no-show with no communication on whether he was coming or not, I was getting a little miffed. After an hour, I was fuming. I’d tried calling him about three times, but the cell reception isn’t the best around here, so I didn’t get through.

I reached for my phone one more time and was just starting to type out yet another irate message, when my phone pinged and a text from Tom popped up on my screen.

12 days xmas” it said, “has 2B the whole thi

*thing

else I’m stuck here

pls try!!!

Say what? Tom is prone to being cryptic with his texting, but this was a bit much.

???” I texted back, then, “Where r u?

But there was no response—it was almost like I could hear the texts falling into the silence of an empty room. I gave up.

Leaving without you,” I texted, “c u Saturday

The next afternoon—Christmas Day—was when it started up.

“Look at this, Mac,” my mom called out, “come over here!”

I stepped over next to her by the living room window and looked out into the snow-covered yard. The Bosc pear tree still had a few forlorn brown fruits dangling from its highest branches where Dad hadn’t been able to reach them—plus, he always said, leave some for the critters, they need to live too.

In this case it looked like the critter in question was a small, round bird, perched on the spreading lower branches of the tree.

“That’s a big quail,” I said. “I didn’t know they like sitting in trees. And where’s the rest of the flock?”

“It’s not a quail,” Mom said, “it’s a partridge. Get it?”

Oh, cute. A partridge in a pear tree.

I reached for my cell, shook it to open the camera—it’s one of the features I like about that phone—snapped a picture, and texted it to Tom along with a pointed “See what you’re missing?

I never got a response, but as I figured he was at work I wasn’t too worried. Unfortunately.

When I got home late that night, I found a message on the answering machine of my landline.

“Hey, this is Herb. Trying to get a hold of Tom; he didn’t show up for work today. Tell him to get in touch, would you?”

To be continued…

XRF_12days

By Xavier Romero-Frias (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Nineteen Thirty-Nine

Let me tell you a story. A tale of a day seventy-seven years ago. It’s not exactly a true story – not everything happened just the way I tell it here. But certainly some of it did, even if not precisely on that day; those it happened to told me of it themselves. It’s a bit longer than some of the stories I usually put down here, and far more serious – I’m really sticking out my neck here. But I had to write this story, and I had to share it with you. So please bear with me – I think you’ll get the picture.

 

TKaroline

NINETEEN THIRTY-NINE

Johanna ran down the Friedrichstrasse, her blonde braids flying out behind her, her school satchel bouncing on her back. She cast a quick glance up at the church clock, visible between two of the brown tile roofs of the houses. Ten to eight—she had to hurry, or she’d be late again!

Neumeier’s bakery at the corner of Friedrichstrasse and Glockenweg was releasing some delicious smells of fresh bread and pastries. As she ran past, Johanna cast a longing glance at the apple turnovers that were on display behind the front window panes. The display window had only just been fixed a month or so ago; for most of the past year, since Crystal Night in November of last year, the window had been boarded up. Johanna could still remember the glitter of the glass shards that had littered the cobble stones in front of the shop, like the crystals that dangled from the chandelier in Grandmother’s parlour. The shop was Stern’s bakery then, but it wasn’t long afterwards that the Sterns had gone away. Johanna didn’t know where they’d gone, but probably back to wherever it was that Jews belonged. She had felt sorry for them having their shop window smashed up—she didn’t think it was quite fair, attacking people’s shops and houses. The synagogue at the Goetheplatz was a different matter, though; that’s where the Jews used to gather together, and everyone knew that their strange religion had them plotting all sorts of vicious things against the Fatherland. Johanna was glad that that place had been destroyed, to keep them all safe. Sometimes now the farmers temporarily stabled their pigs in there when they were taken them through on their way to the sausage factory on the other side of town; Father said that was just as well, as the smell of a dozen or so pigs all gathered in the middle of the Goetheplatz was really revolting.

Johanna missed the Sterns, though. Baker Stern had made the best breakfast rolls—white, soft and chewy on the inside, golden brown and crispy on the outside. There was nothing like fresh rolls, picked up from the baker’s just before breakfast so they were still warm, spread with butter and a bit of Mother’s apple jelly. Johanna’s mouth watered just thinking about it. While Baker Neumeier’s rolls weren’t bad, Johanna had never tasted one as good as the ones Herr Stern used to make. And when Johanna was little and had gone into the bakery with Mother or Tante Gerda to get their bread for the day, or maybe a pastry if there was company for afternoon coffee, Frau Stern had always given her a treat—a cookie, or the trimmings from a cake they’d been icing. When Mother protested that she really didn’t need to do that, Frau Stern had smiled and said, “Ach, the cookie was broken anyway,” and then she’d winked at Johanna. The Neumeiers weren’t nearly as nice; Johanna’s little brother Karl never got any free cookies, broken or otherwise. Ah well—Johanna hoped that wherever the Sterns had gone, Herr Stern was still baking his amazing rolls, and little kids got “broken” cookies from Frau Stern.

Johanna hitched her satchel higher on her back, and rounded the corner by the church yard. She ran through the stone arch that marked the entrance to the Kirchweg, the path that led up between the church and the cemetery, and mentally counted off the big trunks of the pairs of chestnut trees that were facing each other across the path. One, two, three… if she got to to the sixth pair by the time the church clock struck eight, she would make it to her seat in the classroom before the school bell rang. But just as she got to five, the deep tone of the church bell reverberated. Bong, bong, bong… And there was the shrill ringing of the school bell!

Johanna panted up the last few meters of the path, took the stairs to the school entrance two at a time, shoved open the big double doors and raced over the shining brown linoleum of the high-ceilinged hallway. She shuddered to a stop in front of the door of classroom 7B and caught her breath. She listened for a second—she could faintly hear Herr Schultheiss’ voice through the door. Softly, she pushed down the door handle, opened the door not much more than a crack, and slipped through into the classroom. Herr Schultheiss had his back to the class; he was writing on the blackboard, the bald patch on the back of his head shining in the morning sun that fell through the tall windows. Johanna raised a flat hand in the required salute. “Heil Hitler!” she said quietly, and she quickly stepped over and slid into her seat in the third row. There was definitely something to be said for having a soft voice; more than once she had been able to slip in late without the teacher even noticing, because he never heard her give the greeting.

But not today. Herr Schultheiss finished writing on the blackboard and turned around to face the class, dusting chalk off his fingers. His gaze sought out Johanna, and his mouth twisted in that sardonic expression Johanna disliked so much.

“Ah, Fräulein Hamel has finally deigned to grace us with her presence,” he said. “Now we can begin. It would be a shame if everyone had to miss today’s geography test because of tardiness.”

He limped over to his desk and picked up a stack of exercise books, looking like a shabby penguin as he did so. A shabby, sarcastic penguin.

Johanna supposed she should have more respect for her teacher—after all, he was a war hero who had lost a limb in the service to the Fatherland, defending Germany against its suppressors. But she couldn’t quite help wishing that Class 7 was still taught by Herr Hartmann, a man who was known throughout the whole town for being one of the best teachers around. Johanna still blushed at the memory of how she had met him on the street last November, and she’d raised her hand to greet him with “Heil Hitler!”—and Herr Hartmann had just given her a nod and simply said, “Good morning, Johanna.” She had felt so ashamed. Though why should she feel like that when she was only honouring their country’s leader—the Führer who had brought Germany out of the poverty and shame that the world had heaped on it after the War, the Führer who made their country great again? But, somehow, Herr Hartmann’s pointed avoidance of the Hitler salute had burned itself on her memory. Not long after that, he had been taken from his position of teaching Class 7, and now he was only allowed to teach Class 1, the little ABC-Shooters who needed to be taught their letters and numbers and had no understanding of politics and patriotism. Father said he supposed that’s where Hartmann could do the least damage to impressionable young minds.

Herr Schultheiss handed out the exercise books, calling out the students’ names as he did so. “Margarete Gaubach!” “Here.” “Fritz Gehringer!” “Here!” “Gloria Giuliano!” “Yes.” The quiet voice came from Johanna’s left. She looked over to see Gloria quickly glance up as Herr Schultheiss gave her her exercise book, then drop her brown-eyed gaze to the table again, a lock of her short black hair dropping down over her forehead. Johanna knew that Gloria hated how Herr Schultheiss mispronounced her last name—he always said it as if it was German, Ghee-yoo-lee-ahno, instead of the way it was supposed to be said, Dshoo-lee-ahno. But there was nothing Gloria could do about it. She was a half-foreigner; her father was Italian, and foreigners didn’t belong in Germany. They only took jobs away from hard-working Germans. At least that’s what Father always said. Fortunately, the job situation was a lot better than it had been just a few years ago; the Führer had made a big change to that—when Adolf Hitler got voted in in 1933, the unemployment rate had been staggering, but soon, anyone who wanted to work had been able to have work. Well, any German. Any German man, anyway. The economy had never been this strong, Father said; the Führer had done wonders for the country. Father was a machinist in the wire factory; he’d been working there for five years already. Herr Giuliano used to have a job there, too, but last week Johanna had seen him in town with a broom in his hand, sweeping up the debris after the weekly market stalls had packed up. Johanna had recognised him because he had the same black wavy hair as Gloria, who wore her hair cut short, not long in the proper German style. The Führer preferred to see a more feminine style on women; he was adamant that women should be women and men should be men. Johanna flicked her own blonde braid back over her shoulder.

“Johanna Hamel!” “Here,” replied Johanna and took the blue-paper-covered exercise book from Herr Schultheiss’ hand. She opened it to the first clean page, picked up the pen, dipped it in the inkwell on her desk, and wrote the date across the top of the page. 1st September, 1939. Mmh, there would be special hazelnut squares for coffee at home that afternoon. They always had hazelnut squares on September 1st, because that was when Onkel Karl’s birthday would have been, and hazelnuts had been his favourite. He would be—Johanna quickly did the math in her head—forty-one today. Would be—if he hadn’t died in the Battle of the Somme when he was just eighteen years old. In fact, September 1st wasn’t just his birthday, it was his death day, too. Some terrible Tommy shell had mowed him down, right where he stood. Mother and Tante Gerda, who were twins, had been twelve, the same age Johanna was now, and they had never gotten over the death of their adored big brother. “Never again,” Mother often said, “never again must there be a war to kill our men—our brothers, our fathers, our sons…” And she usually ran her hand over Little Karlchen’s blond head when she said that, sadness in her grey eyes. Johanna was glad they had the Führer to protect them, to make Germany so strong that no one would dare threaten or attack them. A strong country was a safe country.

Johanna turned to the blackboard and copied the first of the geography test questions into her exercise book.

“1.) What is the extent of the borders of the German Empire?”

That was easy. Johanna let the tune of the Deutschlandlied, the Song of Germany, play in her head. “From the Maas unto the Memel,”—the far West, in France, to the far East, the border of East Prussia with Poland—“From the Etsch,”—a river in South Tyrol, which was almost Italy—“unto the Belt,”—that was the North, where Denmark started.

Johanna nibbled the end of her pen and went on to Question 2: “What is the justification for drawing the borders this way?”

Easy again. It was all the German-speaking peoples. And after the Anschluss of 1938, even Austria properly belonged to the German Empire again. Thomas Müller in Class 6 had claimed that the Austrians hadn’t wanted to become part of the German Empire and that the Anschluss was an unjust act of aggression on the part of Germany, but Johanna didn’t believe it. Why wouldn’t the Austrians want to be part of the Empire, where they could have all the advantages of belonging to a wonderful country under the strong leadership of a man who didn’t put up with nonsense and always had the best of the Nation at the forefront of his mind? Besides, what did Thomas know, anyhow? His parents were Socialists, and everyone knew that Socialism was a sure way to the ruination of a country.

Herr Schultheiss pulled out his pocket watch and glanced at it; Johanna caught a glimpse of its face. Only half past eight… She sighed. Another four-and-a-half hours before she could go home for dinner.

*********

Mother ladled another spoonful of thick lentil soup onto Johanna’s soup plate, a small piece of sausage landing amidst the brown legumes with a little plop.

“You too, Karlchen,” she said, and she reached for the little boy’s plate.

“No, Mama! Don’t want more soup! I want…”

“Hush!” said Tante Gerda, who was fiddling with the dial on the Volksempfänger, the square brown radio box with its round cloth speaker in the middle, which sat on the dresser in the corner of the dining room. “There is a special broadcast on from Berlin!”

They all fell silent as Tante Gerda turned up the volume. There was that squeaking, hissing noise of the radio warming up, and suddenly the Führer’s voice filled the room.

“I have given my Luftwaffe the task to restrict its attack to military targets. But if the enemy thinks to take this as permission to fight, on their part, with methods that are the exact opposite, they will receive an answer that will set their ears ringing!” Johanna could hear the loud, long applause coming from the people who listened to the Führer in the Reichstag. “For the first time last night Poland attacked on our own territory with regular soldiers. Since 5:45 AM, we are shooting back! From now on, bombs will be met with bombs! He who fights with poison will be fought with poison gas! He who moves away from the rules of humane warfare cannot expect anything else from us but that we take the same step. I will wage this battle, no matter against whom, until the safety of the Empire is assured and its rights guaranteed!” There was another storm of applause coming over the crackling radio waves, but Johanna’s attention was caught by Mother, whose face was chalk white as she looked at her sister.

“It can’t be,” Tante Gerda whispered as she reached out a shaking hand to click off the radio, “for heaven’s sake, it can’t be true! Not war again—dear God, not war…”

Little Karl tugged on Mother’s apron.

“Mama? Mama? Mama, why are you crying? Mama?”

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Jaw Drop

IMG_20160520_104941I’m going to a Writer’s Conference this weekend, and as part of the conference registration you get to have a Blue Pencil (critique) session with a professional writer/editor. I sent in a short story I wrote a couple of years ago, an off-the-cuff piece about a girl who gets a marriage proposal she can’t refuse. I was feeling quite insecure about it – the blue-pencil presenter I’m having my session with judges short story competitions and is a professional editor, and, well, you know my rambling, drivelly style…

I fully expected her to tear the piece to shreds. I’d gone over it plenty of times, but couldn’t think of what else to do with it to improve it; it really was the best I could do with this story. So I just hit “send” on it, casting it on the waves – what will be, will be…

Then this morning, I get back an email from her. With fear and trembling, I open the message, and here is what it said:

“Hi Angelika, I really enjoyed your short story! In fact, it’s so good that I really don’t have a lot of advice to offer. Would you like to email me and bring the first 5-6 pages from another writing project to our consultation this weekend?”

And there I sat, with tears running down my face. Literally, that classic hand-clapped-to-open-mouth, laughing-and-sobbing-in-disbelief pose.

I carried my laptop downstairs to show the message to my Man, dried my cheeks, re-read the mail about another half a dozen times, then booted up my book files and found another piece to send to the editor. The first chapter of Star Bright – we’ll see what she has to say. At this point I’m willing to take almost anything from her.

Life, the Universe, and a Jaw Drop. Maybe I am a real writer, after all?

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