Otterswang village painting

Two Camels

By Catharina Coenen

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Across centuries, cultural, ethnic, religious, and political divides, sexual violence has been part of war. World War II is no exception.

 
When we deny the story, the story defines us.
When we own the story, we can write a brave new ending.
– Brené Brown

 
Upper Swabia spreads like a quilt of meadows, fields, and woods across a triangle of southern Germany; within it, the village of Otterswang would be lost if country lanes were not stitching it to other clumps of farms. Where roads knot at the village center, St. Oswald Church looms like a rectangular walk-in wedding cake. The parish house, set at a right angle to the church, mirrors the pitch and swirls of St. Oswald’s gabled roof, its two stories and two attics a bulky counterbalance to the towering church. A white-washed wall, topped with red shingles, surrounds both buildings and the churchyard green, enclosing the house-of-God and the house-of-the-man-of-God into a baroque gated neighborhood of glistening white and careful right angles. Outside the enclosure, a grubby congregation of half-timbered farmhouses huddles close, each clutching its own assemblage of sheds, stables, manure piles, and turnip clamps within a web of crooked streets derived from medieval rights-of-way. After Mass, parishioners in their Sunday best form a gauntlet of greeters outside the church’s side entrance, which opens upon the lawn. Perhaps the wall around the green was built to save their polished shoes from manure, for just beyond the far corner of the wall the ancient village fountain drops water into a round basin, large enough for six or seven cows to pause and drink as they pass from pastures to stables. Cobblestones block cloven hooves from turning the square between the churchyard wall and council house to mud on rainy days.

Early on a sunny morning in May of 1945, a little girl stood at the western corner of this cobbled square, staring, transfixed, at a group of animals and men. Some of the men were splashing in the fountain, naked. Others, half-dressed, were winding turbans from long sheets of cloth. Donkeys and mules grazed on the churchyard green; men bustled among them with saddles, packs, and donkey carts. From the eastern corner by the council house, two camels looked on. Never before had this girl seen dark skin so unlike her own, turbans, camels, or naked men. No one paid attention as the rising sun gilded wild curls into a halo, transforming the barefoot curfew-breaker in the mended dress into a cherub with hollow cheeks. No one accosted the breathless, small woman who came running down the Hopfenbacher Straße, grabbed the girl’s arm, and tugged her away.

This is how the scene painted itself within my mind from my grandmother’s telling: my aunt Elfriede, a stunned seven-year-old; my Oma Lotte, a terrified mother who had just discovered her older daughter gone from bed. It had been no more than a week since French tanks had first rolled through the village under the white sheets women had hung from their upstairs windows. That evening, the village announcer had walked around clanging his bell, chanting a declaration that anyone out in the streets between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m. would be detained or shot on sight.

On this morning, after changing and nursing her infant son back to sleep by the makeshift cooking stove that also served to heat their sitting room, my Oma Lotte tucked baby Alfred back into his crib beside the stove, then glanced into the bedroom, intending to wake her two daughters for breakfast. Only my mother Anna’s tousled head was on the pillow. Elfriede wasn’t in the girls’ bed—or anywhere else inside the tiny house. My grandmother glanced one more time at her two younger children, grabbed her bathrobe, and stumbled down the creaky stairs. She yanked the robe’s belt into a knot, clutched the collar over her chest with her left hand, pulled the annex house’s front door shut behind her with her right. And then she ran. Ran through deserted village streets, in her bathrobe and slippers; ran, not knowing whether to call for her daughter, or, somehow, remain invisible. Ran along the cobbled street that led down to the church, for she knew Elfriede’s dogged determination to attend morning prayers, even though no one had rung the bells for Angelus at 6 a.m. since the curfew had been declared.

My mother smiles and recalls fascination and surprise at stepping out the door one morning and watching camels walking down the road.

Perhaps four decades after my grandmother last described to me how she found my youngster aunt gawking at naked troops and their animals by the village fountain, I retold the story to a friend with an interest in European wartime history.

“Um,” my friend said, politely, but with a wrinkled nose, “I believe that there were French colonial troops from Northern Africa in Germany at the end of the war, and that makes sense. But camels? Why would they drag camels with them, all the way north through all of France?”

Horses, mules, donkeys—these all seem useful if you intend to hunt down scattered enemy units in the Black Forest’s densely wooded mountains that hunker like a bulwark between the Rhine and upper Swabia. Lumbering desert ships, however, not only look out of place on rain-slick woodland paths, but might prove an outright nuisance, an impediment.

How did camels appear in front of Otterswang’s baroque village church? Did my Oma Lotte really mention them, or did my childish imagination paint them into the scene to complement what she said about the troops’ turbans and their flowing robes? Maybe schoolbooks or stories enticed my mind to augment turbans with camels. Or maybe it was church: no German nativity set is complete without the Drei Weisen aus dem Morgenland—the “three magi from the land of rising sun”—of whom, inevitably, one is depicted as black and, one, inevitably, leads or rides a camel.

Or, perhaps the camels sprang from a popular German children’s song. My sister and I learned to sing “The Auntie from Morocco” at aunt Elfriede’s house; I remember evenings spent cross-legged on her living room rug, surrounded by cousins and foster cousins, belting out refrains. “The Auntie” was a favorite—the jaunty melody banished homesickness, the text was simple enough to chime in instantly, and a group of children got to yell a counter-chorus after every verse:

I’ve got an auntie from Morocco and she comes, (hipp, hopp)
got an auntie from Morocco and she comes. (hipp, hopp)
Got an auntie from Morocco, got an auntie from Morocco,
got an auntie from Morocco and she comes. (hipp, hopp)

The text is sung to the tune of “She’ll be Coming ‘Round the Mountain.” German children most likely snatched the melody from American GIs after World War II, along with the chocolate and chewing gum the men tossed to them from atop their tanks. French and American regiments traded small towns in upper Swabia back and forth before zones of occupation solidified; maybe the children who invented German lyrics to the tune got confused about which men in tanks taught them the song.

“The Auntie’s” camels—two of them—appear in the second stanza, rudely shouldering the song’s original six white horses out of the way:

And she’s riding on two camels when she comes, (hoppity hopp)

 

I can’t ask my grandmother if “The Auntie from Morocco” might have smuggled the camels into her village fountain scene, because my Oma Lotte is no longer alive. And Aunt Elfriede disappeared three years after she taught us the song. For the six years that followed, my grandmother, rung out of bed by the phone in the small hours of random nights, listened to silence or ragged breaths across the line, then implored her older daughter to please come home. Elfriede never answered on the phone, but reappeared at Düsseldorf Airport, when Egyptian authorities deported her. By way of explanation, she said she had been “helping prisoners” in a Cairo jail.

My mother repeatedly tried to help Elfriede find new footing, but also tried to keep her away from my sister and from me. Distance was necessary, because every time Elfriede stopped taking the pills that make her sick, she buried anyone she imagined being in need of help in an avalanche of letters, advice, packages with used items from her home, prayers, hymns, surprise visits, extreme diet prescriptions, and threats of eternal damnation for all who refuse to go along. My grandmother regularly took the brunt of Elfriede’s rage, morphing into Satan incarnate in her daughter’s mind. Since Oma Lotte’s death, my mother has called her sister nearly daily in between the manic bouts. Elfriede’s five children stopped calling many years ago.

Even on good days my aunt’s childhood memories seem sketchy at best: when my mother asked her about their time in Otterswang, Elfriede claimed to remember nothing at all. My mother also says she has no memories of her sister having disappeared one morning after the tanks rolled through the village and my grandmother having to go look for her. But when I ask whether she remembers anything about the end of the war, my mother smiles and recalls fascination and surprise at stepping out the door one morning and watching camels walking down the road. She describes riders wearing turbans and more men with turbans walking alongside.

“It was the first time I ever saw someone with dark skin,” my mother says. “The camels walked to the end of the village, where the parents of Elfriede’s best friend, Alma, had a farm, and they stayed there for a few days.”

“Do you remember how many camels there were?” I ask.

“Not many. It wasn’t like a caravan or anything. Maybe two.”

It matters to me, because I want to know what the men with camels did in Otterswang.

My mother was five in 1945. Might she, too, have fantasized the camels into being—a universal child’s mind trick conjured up by black or turbaned men? When I ask her about “The Auntie from Morocco,” she says she never heard of that song. When I sing it for her, she remembers the melody, but with a different text: From the far blue mountains here we come, a collection of camel-free stanzas that poke fun at teachers.

How did two children in the same family end up with two different sets of lyrics for one song? My mother believes she learned her version years after leaving Otterswang, in a northern German schoolyard during breaks.

 

My mother’s descriptions of the camels’ motions, their size and proximity, their riders, their destination, are all detailed, vivid. It was the first time she saw camels and first impressions leave strong memories. But perhaps the turbaned men and donkeys simply reminded her of a scene from One Thousand and One Nights. Or, even if she didn’t know Scheherazade’s tales, maybe she, too, conflated turbans with the camel-leading magi in German church nativities.

Unable to let the camels go, I pull up wartime maps of southern Germany. If the camels were real, they would have had to walk from the city of Karlsruhe, where French troops crossed the Rhine, all the way across the mountains of the Black Forest, and on across the Neckar River valley to reach upper Swabia, a trip of at least one-hundred miles. Someone besides my mother and grandmother ought to have seen them along the way. I comb through internet eyewitness accounts, some of them collected by a school project in Karlsruhe, many published in regional papers. I read village chronicles, assembled by local historic societies. Dark-skinned men with turbans, usually identified as “Moroccans” regardless of their nationality, appear in accounts from all over southern Germany; they march down the streets of Freiburg and Stuttgart, they scour villages and remote farms for German soldiers that might be hiding in cellars, stables, haylofts, sheds. Some of the men drive tanks or armored vehicles, some ride horses, many walk; often they are accompanied by donkeys, mules, and flocks of sheep.

But the camels only appear in a single report: Maria Margaretha Zabel, née Frey, who was 19 years old at the time, describes camels walking by her parents’ water mill on the River Wutach. The mill, known as Die Schattenmühle, is a popular tourist destination, because the Wutach Gorge is a picturesque canyon. The building also overlooks a bridge, the only place for tanks to cross the river for many miles in either direction.

Maria Zabel does not mention a date in her account, but newspaper reports describe French colonial troops arriving in the villages closest to the Schattenmühle on April 26th. By the most direct route through the thinly populated mountain valleys of the Black Forest a foot march from Karlsruhe would require around 33 hours of walking time. The French crossed the Rhine on April 4th—plenty of time for two camels to amble to the mill from the bridge over the Rhine by April 26th. And plenty of time, too, for them to walk another 28 hours from the mill on the Wutach to St. Oswald Church by May 6th, the day when reports from Winterstettenstadt, only six miles to the north of Otterswang, attest to “Moroccan” regiments arriving in the village from the south.

Does it matter if the camels are real? Does it matter if my mother and my grandmother remember the same camels that Maria Zabel saw? Does it matter if these are the two camels that walk through children’s songs? It matters to me, because I want to know what the men with camels did in Otterswang.

Only when the neighbors hint that things happened to people, not just to chickens, do other memories burst into existence in her head—vivid, sudden, and complete.

My aunt Elfriede taught us the third stanza for “The Auntie from Morocco” like this:

And she’s shooting off two pistols when she comes, (piff poff)

 

“Apart from the carnage in the chicken coops, no shots were fired,” a farmer from Stafflangen, about 12 miles away from Otterswang, tells the Schwäbische Zeitung in an interview about the end of the war. Eyewitnesses report that chickens were shot pretty much in every village. Sometimes children found their heads lined up on fence rails or on windowsills. Quotes from witnesses express outrage and surprise at the slaughter—but my grandfather’s letters from the last years of the war attest that German soldiers, too, considered taking of enemy fowl routine: “A crow for dinner,” he wrote from somewhere on the Russian front on April 29th of 1943. “It’s time that we gain ground again, so that crows turn into chickens.”

At three years old, the German writer Gertrud Ennulat watched French soldiers slaughter chickens in the coop across the street. Throughout her life the chickens’ terrified screams and images of red blood on white feathers kept rising in her memory, unbidden, like soap bubbles drifting in from nowhere. Each time she felt her body seize in gut-wrenching fear. At 66 years old, she decides to write about her childhood and asks neighbors what happened on the day French troops came through her village. Only when the neighbors hint that things happened to people, not just to chickens, do other memories burst into existence in her head—vivid, sudden, and complete: Soldiers rushing into a basement full of women and children. Clothing rips to shreds as women are pushed against walls and thrown on the ground. Guns point at people, shots ring out.

 

“First they stole all of our fowl—chickens, geese, and ducks—and everything that wasn’t nailed down in the house,” Maria Zabel also says about the “Moroccans” who came through the Schattenmühle. But once the chickens were dead, the soldiers forced Maria and her mother to walk across the Wutach Bridge—to trigger any mines that might be hidden there—and then to dismantle the tank barricade that German soldiers had put across it. Barricade removed, the soldiers lifted Maria up onto a tank, right below the gun, drove off into a remote valley, locked her into a shed, and fired machine guns through the walls. Maria threw herself onto the earthen floor to evade the bullets. She later dug herself out from underneath the wooden walls with her bare hands. Then, she says, “I crawled through the bushes and shrubs, since I knew every trail and path. I finally arrived home extremely weakened. It took a very long time for me to process this act of violence.”

I read her account twice, and then twice more, stalling, each time, on “act of violence,” Gewalttat. Certainly, shooting through the walls of a shed into which you have just locked a girl constitutes an act of violence. But I am left to wonder if Maria might be referring to more than her abduction and the shots. “To inflict violence upon someone”—jemandem Gewalt antun—in German is an old-fashioned euphemism for rape.

 

Across centuries, cultural, ethnic, religious, and political divides, sexual violence has been part of war. World War II is no exception. Historians have attempted to quantify rapes by Red Army soldiers moving into Germany from the East and also for American and British troops. Several dissertations lament the difficulty of quantifying rapes committed by German Wehrmacht soldiers on the Eastern Front during “requisitioning,” during quartering in civilian accommodations, or during outright pillaging. For women abducted from countries invaded by Germans during the first years of the war, sexual violence was a daily threat in German labor camps.

To my knowledge, no systematic study of rapes committed by French regiments in southern Germany exists. The scattered numbers I discover in village chronicles and hospital reports suggest that the percentages of women who reported rapes by French soldiers may have been similar to reports for Red Army rapes in Eastern Germany; they hover around 15 percent in the few communities in Swabia for which I could find both estimates of rape cases and population numbers. In a 2005 study in Germany, only 8 percent of women who had experienced sexual violence—one in 12.5—said that they had reported it. Reporting rates in largely Catholic villages in 1945 were likely even lower, because sexuality was taboo. Some books and articles contain heart-breaking accounts of German women being shunned by neighbors and rejected by their husbands after a rape. The German police ceased to exist with the invasion, which meant that the only agency where women could report a rape were the occupying forces—which were often the perpetrators. The few existing estimates of rape rates during the invasion most often come from hospitals, where the worst cases were brought for help after life-threatening abuse, and from pastors, in whom women confided because they could trust no one else.

My meager numbers clench my teeth: A reported rape rate of 15 percent, multiplied by the peacetime factor of under-reporting, 12.5, means that, in some places, no one got away.

“To inflict violence upon someone”—jemandem Gewalt antun—in German is an old-fashioned euphemism for rape.

Some witnesses suggest that alcohol led to mass rapes by French colonial troops: “The Moroccans pillaged the distillery in Schafhausen and then attacked anyone in Magstadt who was wearing a skirt,” the Lutheran pastor in Magstadt, 70 miles northwest of Otterswang, wrote in his report. “They neither spared girls only just confirmed in the church nor the oldest women. Even the parish house, where many women had taken refuge, turned out to offer no protection.”

 

The fourth stanza of “The Auntie from Morocco” goes like this:

We’ll be popping corks from bottles when she comes. (plop plop)

 

Village chronicles, hospital accounts, and eyewitness reports that, near-universally, label perpetrators as “Moroccan” emerged from a stew of racialized fear. German xenophobia was stoked by incessant Nazi propaganda, ratcheted up throughout the war to push German soldiers to fight until the end. Racism also ruled in armies on all sides. There are reports of white French commanders ordering executions and public whipping of North African soldiers who committed rapes, but none for white French soldiers. U.S. military records, too, show disproportionate executions of black soldiers, relative to whites, for rapes committed in the U.K. and in France.

 

A hidden camel is a dangerous beast. It may run away with your better parts, your clear-eyed judgement, your empathy. It may trample your ability to tell the difference between now and then. Fear-stories—untold, unacknowledged, unanalyzed—wreak havoc underground.

“You just wait, if we help them, they’re all going to come over here,” my mother heard her father say, decades after the war, in response to debates about Germany sending developmental aid to countries in Africa. My mother remembers her own incredulity that her sweet and caring father would watch hunger on TV and reject sending help—and, too, the strange fear that knotted her own gut when hearing his response.

 My mother’s father is long dead, but in Germany, still, and again, fear breeds hate, and hate-filled men throw gasoline-soaked burning rags into shelters that house brown and black refugees. In Germany, still, again, xenophobia marches—and it votes. I am scared of German racial anger, German hate—and also of the fear that gives it fuel. I am afraid of the place, deep inside myself, that hides my own fear.

I write the camels to make them walk where I can see them. In the past. And in the light. It takes a year to find the places, the movement of French troops, the books, the newspaper reports, the eyewitness accounts. It takes nine more to write, erase, rewrite. To show a trusted friend. Who says: “You cannot write this. Not like that.” To sit with shame. I know I can’t. I know I live in a country that kills black bodies because of white fear, because of stories white women tell. I hit delete, delete, delete. I try to write race out of the camel story. I show it to another trusted friend. Who says: “You cannot write this. Not like that.”

By then, I know to sit and breathe. By then, I know I must. I know there may be no safe way. I know that there is danger, yes, in telling stories others may bend to fuel the very fears I try to write out of my body, into light. That I may be too blind to tell it right. I also know the danger in silencing my inherited fear, in allowing it to lie in wait, to carry me away in the very moment when I may most need my head.

A truth is that I come from a country where men—white and black—committed mass rapes of women at the end of the last war. A truth is that my mother, grandmother, and my aunt were there. A truth is that a place inside me holds their fear. I write. Again. A truth: I want to walk out of my grandmother’s anecdote with more freedom, more clarity, more ability to see than I could claim before I wrote my way inside. I want to I write people, real people, not faceless victims, but real women, not armies, but real men.

A hidden camel is a dangerous beast. It may run away with your better parts, your clear-eyed judgement, your empathy.

Women from towns where North African regiments stayed longerterm do tell other stories, stories where not everybody looks alike. Stories of sorting the “Moroccan” soldiers into “good” and “bad,” of choosing to launder uniforms and turban cloths for “good Moroccans,” no matter what the neighbors said. Stories of “Moroccan” soldiers putting out fires, giving children donkey rides. Stories of turbaned men like the one in Freiburg, who, in search of German soldiers, entered a house full of women, his pistol drawn—and who started beaming the moment an old lady greeted him in French. “I am so sick of war,” he said. “I just want to go home to my wife and to my children.” But most of all, I want to remember the story of a young “Moroccan” soldier, still a boy, who was quartered with the narrator’s family for many weeks. “He never knew,” the narrator says, “how much we depended on the food he brought home to share from his regiment. He told my mother she reminded him of his mom, and how homesick he was. And when he had to leave, he cried.” 

 

Which parts of my nervous system hold the fear of something that my grandmother, mother, aunt lived through? What came to me in my mother’s genes, her mitochondria, or in the way my grandmother’s hand might clutch my wrist? How can I tell what came to me from stories, from Nazi propaganda, or from the xenophobia in which my country bathed? How do I comb these old afflictions from the tangled knot that is my present tense? How do I see the real, the now, with clearer eyes? How do I teach my body to remember that men violating women is not race, not creed, but war—is age-old woman-as-possession, world-wide toxic masculinity, a poison-stream that runs through cultures on all sides?

 

Were the men my aunt Elfriede watched in the fountain by the parish house cleaning up after too many days of walking and camping along muddy roads? Or were they splashing their heads with icy water to chase away a post-binge headache?

I can find no published account of the French entry into Otterswang. In Winterstettenstadt, six miles to the north, where Moroccan troops arrived from the direction of Otterswang on May 6th and 7th, chronicler Eugen Mohr reports that “single women and girls were warned about acts of violence and were able to go to a guarded collective shelter at mayor Müller’s for the night. Other than the missing chickens, no transgressions or acts of violence have become known in the village.”

Known to whom? Become known how?

When I ask my mother if anything happened in Otterswang, she says: “We knew the French were doing something bad to some of the women. But we didn’t know what the bad thing was or who those women were.”

How much did my aunt know that morning in May, as she stood looking at the men in the fountain? How much did any of the children know? And if they knew, how did their mothers shut them up? Young children at the time were taught to address unknown adult males as “uncle,” a habit that remained widespread when I was a child. Did mothers in southern Germany tell their children not to sing about “The Uncle from Morocco,” or did the children intuitively know that, to be sung, the uncle had to turn into an aunt?

If gender-switching transformed pistol-wielding Moroccans into a harmless, bizarre “auntie” fit for children’s books, the fifth stanza of the song can be read as more ironic-reversal camouflage:

We’ll be slaughtering a piglet when she comes. (oink oink)

The piglet becomes a code allowing children not to mention the chickens while simultaneously thumbing the eye of pork-avoidant Muslim occupiers, forbidden rage disguised as merriment. Read in this way, the continued prominence of The Auntie from Morocco”  in collections of German children’s songs turns into a chilly repeat of the fate of “She’ll be Coming ‘Round the Mountain,” which originated as a slave hymn about the second coming of Christ, with “she” being his chariot. On the song’s path through Appalachia, “she” became Mother Jones, Jesus’s chariot in the rapture transformed into a supply wagon, and added stanzas about white puppies and chicken-and-dumplings eventually sweetened the original hymn about death and destruction into something fit to be sung by Alvin and the Chipmunks. Similar disguising stanzas—drinking Coca-Cola, baking cake, scrubbing the apartment—appear in some modern versions of “The Auntie from Morocco.”

When, in passing the song from one child to another, did knowing-but-not-saying turn into singing-without-knowing? How did my aunt learn the song she taught to us? How could she fail to recognize the “auntie’s” camels as the first camels that she saw, the same ones that stayed at her friend Alma’s farm?

Which parts of my nervous system hold the fear of something that my grandmother, mother, aunt lived through?

I’ve asked my mother about the night of the invasion. She remembers my grandmother’s fear and that it, somehow, had to do with a decree not to lock the doors. Too many reports mention this decree to relegate it to fiction. Most likely, the order was real—a measure intended to prevent German soldiers from eluding captivity or sniping at French troops. Women interpreted it as complicity of occupying officers with mass rapes committed by their men.

Because of the unlocked door, my mother says, they had had to hide my grandmother under baby Alfred’s crib; my mother also remembers strong admonishments that they absolutely could not tell anybody where their mother was. “Moroccans” were rumored to be kind to children—handing out chocolates, sharing their rations, throwing candy from their tanks. My grandmother likely decided that having invading soldiers find three small children alone, asleep within their beds, was smart, a calculated risk to spare them from having to watch their mother being raped.

“Some of the women later banded together,” my mother says, “because after the first night they no longer felt safe sleeping alone. But by then we had the French officer downstairs.”

I don’t know how my grandmother found out that live-in French officers often protected the women in whose houses they stayed from rampaging soldiers, but my mother remembers being told that “children’s prayers go right up to Mother Mary through the clouds” and that therefore she and Elfriede were put in charge of praying for a French officer to move into their house.

“And the next morning,” my mother says, “there he was, knocking on our door and politely asking if he could have the empty rooms downstairs.”

 

I imagine Elfriede on the night of the invasion, a seven-year-old put in charge of keeping her mother safe.

“You have to hide me,” her mother says, “and you absolutely cannot tell anybody where I am.”

Elfriede doubts that mother can fit under the crib’s mattress, but once they peg its support into the top holes of the corner posts, moving the mattress as high as it can go between the slatted rails, Elfriede can lower the support down over her. Mother looks like a crouched animal in a cage through the slats. With the mattress in place, Elfriede threads the over-sized sheets down through the gap between the rails and the mattress support, arranging them so that there is only a tiny crack for mother to peer through. When she lifts Alfred back into the bed, the whole arrangement no longer looks like a circus cage with a curtain. It looks like a crib, a crib with a happy baby in it.

With mother peering through the bed sheet-curtain, Alfred tucked in above her head, they practice praying: “Dear God, please protect us through this night. Please make a French officer come live in this house.” When mother is satisfied that they know the prayer, they sing Alfred to sleep, and then mother says the girls must go to the bedroom and keep praying there, and to remember that Elfriede must sleep in mother’s bed tonight, and Anna must sleep in the girls’ shared bed by herself.

Elfriede doesn’t tell mother this won’t work, because Anna won’t know how to pray or how to fall asleep without Elfriede in her bed. She just gets into bed with Anna like every night, prays with her and holds her until Anna falls asleep. Before crawling over into mother’s bed, she kneels on the wooden floor for another round of the rosary. Even though this late in spring the blue walls of the room no longer glitter with ice, her sister’s warmth seeps from the flannel of her shirt before she finishes the first Hail Mary. She keeps at it until she reaches the required ten—one for each knuckle—then one “O my Jesus” and one “Lord’s Prayer,” then ten again. Under mother’s cold covers, she wraps her feet into the hem of her nightgown, pulls the feather comforter over her head, tucks her knees into her chest and folds her hands around her shins.

Slowly, she tenses all muscles in her body—“Hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus”—then suddenly lets go—“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” Breathe, breathe, breathe. The pastor’s sister says only real Catholics are allowed to pray to Mary. Tense. “HailMaryfullofgracetheLordiswiththee blessedthouartamongwomenandblessedisthefruitofyourwombJesus.” Breathe out. And in. “MotherofGodprayforussinners nowandatthehourofourdeath.” Breathe. Breathe. Mother also prays to Mary. But mother isn’t really Catholic. Hold. “HailMaryfullofgrace… fruitofyourwombJesus.” Out. “Lutheratholic,” father always jokes. “Motherofgodpray… hourofourdeath.” Breathe. In religion class the pastor said that if Elfriede or Anna ever stepped foot in a Lutheran church, they would go straight to hell. In. And hold. “HailMary… fruitofthywombJesus.” Will mother go to hell because she goes to St. Oswald Church? Out. “Motherofgod…. hourofourdeath.” Breathe. What happens to Lutherans who pray to Mary? Last knuckle. “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who have most need of your mercy.”        

Can I see the boy who, lugging heavy saddles, carries homesickness and dread within his belly like a stone?

I, too, want forgiveness, want to be saved from the fires of perpetual fear. I want to slow the breathless village-fountain scene, freeze the pane, with my grandmother not yet arrived, peer over my aunt’s shoulder. I want to I hold the image long enough to slow my breath, long enough to tamp down inherited adrenaline. Can I see faces, eyes, and hands, the other stories hidden there? Can I pick out the war-weary soldier crushed by worry about his wife and children left at home, his entire body aching to be with them? Can I see the boy who, lugging heavy saddles, carries homesickness and dread within his belly like a stone?

“Not much farther,” I want to whisper from behind Elfriede’s narrow back. “Just a two hour walk to Winterstettenstadt and you’ll be getting on the train back home.”

Swiveling their short, round ears in my direction, two camels turn their heads.

 

 

Catharina CoenenCatharina Coenen is a first-generation German immigrant to the Northwestern “chimney” of Pennsylvania, where she teaches biology at Allegheny College. Her essays have recently appeared in The American Scholar, The Southampton Review Online, Chattahoochee Review, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the Appalachian Review’s 2019 Denny Plattner Creative Nonfiction Prize, a 2020 Creative Nonfiction Foundation Science as Story Fellowship, and a Hedgebrook Residency that will hopefully still happen in 2021. Find her on Twitter or on her website, Botany for Storytellers.

Header image, Otterswang, Öl auf Leinwand 1835, by Johann Georg Sauter, courtesy Wikimedia.

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