Spring isn't mine.
That said, this is going to get all kinds of dark and angsty. And it really, really takes a lot on faith, but once the idea got in my head, I couldn't shake it.
Ilse is late to school one morning, slipping into her seat in the second row of the classroom long after the grammar lesson has already begun. "Fraulein Neumann, you're late," the teacher calls out, without even turning from the blackboard.
"I'm sorry," she whispers, but doesn't offer an explanation, simply taking out her things and putting on an air of paying attention.
"Psst," whispers her best friend, Wendla, sitting at the desk next to her.
Ilse's head doesn't turn; she rests it in the cradle of her hands, her eyes fixed on the front of the room without actually seeing.
"Psst, Ilse," Wendla hisses again, nudging Ilse's leg gently with her foot. Ilse sits up with a start, her hands immediately flying to rub the spot where Wendla's foot hit.
"Oh," she moans quietly.
"Ilse," Wendla repeats, worry starting to fill her eyes. "Are you all right? Did I hurt you? I'm sorry."
"No, it's fine," Ilse says, her face impassive. She cannot meet Wendla's eyes.
"It's not fine at all!" Wendla exclaims, forgetting to whisper. "What's happened? Why were you late?"
"Fraulein Bergman," the teacher reprimands, turning to give her a pointed glare.
"Sorry," Wendla murmurs. She rips a page from the back of her composition book and, scribbling in her rounded, rushed cursive:
Ilse, please, tell me what the matter is. Can I help?
She hastily shoves the note onto Ilse's desk, and Ilse glances down, opening the folded paper and scanning her eyes over it. She bites her lip, too hard – another moan fights to escape her throat, but she doesn't let it. Taking her own pencil to the page, she replies:
Really, don't worry. I just didn't feel well this morning, and Mama wasn't sure whether to send me to school or not. But I feel better now.
Wendla reads this response several times over, trying to decide whether she believes it or not. From Ilse's clouded eyes, slumping posture, reed-thin voice – all so unusual – she's inclined towards the latter. But she's not sure quite how to say that, so finally, she just writes back:
Are you sure there's nothing I could do to help?
She lets her hand linger on Ilse's when she passes the note back; she tries to squeeze it affectionately, but Ilse doesn't notice. Her reply is bold, quick:
Please, don't. I'm fine.
Something about this doesn't sit well with Wendla, but she lets it go, just for the time being; she can't help but cast fretful glances towards her friend all morning, though, noting she seems but a ghost of her usual self.
At lunchtime, they join their other friends – Thea, Anna, Martha – in the small field adjacent to their school, spreading out with their little baskets, chattering away.
"It's getting so warm," Wendla comments, fanning herself with her handkerchief.
"I can feel the summer coming on," Thea grins. She pushes up the sleeves of her little yellow dress, leans back on her hands. "It's lovely."
"You must be burning, Ilse," Anna says with concern, reaching over to touch the wool of Ilse's dress. "In those long sleeves, that heavy fabric."
"No, I'm – I'm fine," Ilse stammers, tugging at her sleeves anxiously. "I'm actually a bit cold today."
"Are you well?" Martha asks, and she meets Ilse's eyes just long enough to know the true answer.
"Yes, well, I was feeling poorly this morning, but I'm all right now," Ilse murmurs.
"I should hope you're not ill," Thea says. "It would be a shame to be stuck at home in bed through all this lovely weather. We ought to go to the bridge later."
"Maybe we could bring along our reading," Martha suggests. "We've so much to get done for history, and it would be so pleasant to do it by the water."
And so, once the school day draws to a close, the girls gather their books and make their way to the little footbridge they so often sit by when the weather's nice – surrounded by grass and flowers, by the mild blue stream. They spread about: Thea laying flat on her stomach with her skinny legs in the air, Martha leans against the edge of the bridge, her books spread out in her lap.
Anna sighs with contentment, feeling the light wind play through her curls. "My, doesn't this feel nice," she murmurs.
"So very," Thea agrees. "Wouldn't this be the perfect place to come when we're older, with a boy? Just to sit here so peacefully together…"
It's just like Thea to make everything about boys, and the others let her comment pass. "Ought we to take turns reading aloud?" Wendla suggests. "So we all finish quicker."
The others agree to this, and begin to recite in turn, each taking a paragraph of the text. They get along just fine until Ilse's turn comes about; the other girls wait in a moment of silence before Anna taps her shoulder, saying gently, "Ilse, it's your turn to read."
"Hmm?" Ilse mutters, seeing for the first time the others staring expectantly at her.
"Your turn to read," Anna repeats.
"Oh, oh, I'm sorry, I must have drifted off," Ilse apologizes, hurriedly picking up her place in the reading, stumbling over the first couple of words but eventually finishing without a hitch. Wendla cannot shake the feeling that something's wrong, but she doesn't say anything further, knowing all too well that Ilse won't admit it even if something is.
They stay by the stream till the sky begins to grow dusky, and Martha suddenly exclaims, "I ought to be home, my parents will wonder where I've been."
"Mama will be wanting my help with dinner," Anna agrees, and, taking Thea's hand to help her up, says, "G'bye till tomorrow, then." She and Thea head off in the direction of their homes, and Martha follows, waving Wendla and Ilse a quick farewell.
"Ilse," Wendla says, snapping her friend to attention. "Shouldn't we be going home?"
"Yes," Ilse murmurs, her eyes stone-cold. She rises to her feet, and gathers her books; she begins to wander off towards her house, leaving Wendla to catch up. Wendla threads her arm in Ilse's, and can't help but notice Ilse stiffen up just the slightest.
"I'll walk you home," Wendla offers. "Make sure you get back all right. I'm still not convinced you're feeling well. You've been so distant all day."
"Really," Ilse says with a sigh, "It's just a bit of a cold, it'll pass. But thank you."
They head down the path almost silently, until they reach Ilse's house. They part, Ilse waving to Wendla from her doorstep. But once the door is closed, Wendla doesn't move; something compels her to pause, listen closely.
Nothing, for a while; then a heavy thud emanates from the house, and what sounds like breaking glass; Wendla turns and runs, unsure what to make of it, thinking she's perhaps making something of nothing – but hoping that Ilse's all right.
That night, Ilse lays in bed curled up against the wall, pulling her legs to her; she feels her pulse beating in every inch of her body, traces over and over the trickles of dark blood that have dried on her skin. Her braids hang like ropes over her shoulders, weighting her down. She doesn't sleep, but just stares into the dark.
It's hard, the next morning, to conceal the bruise surrounding her left eye – without a word, her mama hands her a bit of powder, but the purplish, swollen skin still stands out. She tries to comb her hair over it, but when Mama's not looking, her papa yanks her backwards by her braids, into the wall, and hisses in her ear, "Don't let me catch you stepping out of this house with your hair in your face like a harlot, child."
"But – " she starts.
"Oh, you just fell, Ilse. Falling's nothing to be ashamed of," he says, quickly letting go of her as he sees her mama back in the room. "Don't worry, it'll heal soon."
She makes sure to be on time to class this morning, running part of the way there, feeling the even beat of her little black boots against the road course through her body. She has to stop by the side of the road to be sick, feeling at once woozy and tired, but she forces herself on, taking a small sip of water from the stream to clear the sicky taste from her mouth and throat.
"My God, Ilse, what'd you do to your eye?" Anna exclaims, seeing her in the coatroom before class.
"Oh, it's terribly silly," Ilse murmurs, shaking her head. "I tripped coming down the stairs, and smacked my face right into the banister – didn't think it was possible to be this clumsy, but there you go."
"Oh, dear," Wendla fusses. "Have you tried putting ice on it? It looks swollen."
"Yes, yes," Ilse replies. "I'll be fine."
The other girls don't entirely believe her excuse, but then, it's not the first time she's fallen and hurt herself like that. They don't press it, but simply go about their day as normal.
Still, at day's end when Thea again suggests they go to the bridge, Ilse says, "I can't, Papa wants me home right away."
"Oh, but it's even nicer than yesterday," Thea pleads. "The sun's out so nice – we could dip our feet in the stream, maybe, watch the boys from the bridge…"
"I can't," Ilse repeats, stacking her books quickly and running out the schoolhouse door before the others can protest. Wendla can't help but notice, with alarm, that she runs unevenly – almost limping.
She's sent to her room straightaway. Her mama brings her a glass of water, and a handful of pills; she's not sure what they're for, but she takes them anyway, swallowing them all at once. She changes into her other dress, the lighter one she can't wear to school anymore because the sleeves are too short, they show the bruises up her arms; she lies on her bed, on top of the covers, and she falls asleep.
She dreams fitfully – she feels tugging at her hair, her clothes – she hears the rip of fabric and the smacks of hands on bare skin – she sees swirls of blues and purples and blacks, dark meaningless colors – she feels hands pressing down on her wrists, her thighs, her aching stomach – she hears crying, screaming – she doesn't see anything.
She feels her mama shaking her awake. "Come on, child, get up," she mutters.
"Mama, what's going on," Ilse groans, doubling over as she tries to rise. Her stomach hurts so dreadfully.
"Just lace up your shoes and let's be going," Frau Neumann insists, guiding her daughter through the motions.
"Mama, I'm going to be sick," she shouts, bracing herself against the wall.
"No, you're not!" her mama shouts back, grabbing her away. "You'll be perfectly fine so long as you come along. We're going to the doctor."
Ilse looks out the window – it's pitch dark outside. "This late at night?"
"We're not going to your usual doctor, child," her mama mutters, trying to pull her along. "This is a special doctor. He's going to help you get rid of those stomach pains you've been having."
"Mama," Ilse moans, "I don't feel well." It's all she can think to say.
"It's going to be all right," Frau Neumann replies. "He'll take care of the problem. You needn't worry."
She manages to shove her daughter out the door, leads her down endless streets. Ilse keeps talking, though, feeling trepidation creep through her. "Mama, what's the doctor going to say about my bruises?" she asks.
"Nothing," her mama replies. "All you did was fall."
"He's not going to believe that," Ilse insists. "It's not the truth. Those bruises aren't from me falling, Mama, you know that, you've got to."
The nighttime, the nerves loosen her tongue. She can't stop herself from saying these things. She feels them bubbling up from inside her – surely her mama must know what goes on in her bedroom night after night – and if she doesn't, maybe she ought to tell her – maybe she'd stop it –
"How else would they have gotten there?" Frau Neumann replies, coldly. "Honestly, child, don't tell stories."
"I'm not telling stories!" Ilse cries, desperately, rushing her words. "Papa hurts me, he hits me and – he touches me, underneath my dress – and I bleed – "
She doesn't have time to register her mama's hand coming across her cheek, stinging. Tears well in her eyes. Her mama takes her by both wrists, holds her still, says in a low, dark voice, "Don't ever tell those kinds of lies about your father, ever again! Do you hear me! My God, Ilse, what could possess you to say such things?"
"It's true, Mama," Ilse weeps, hanging her head in shame. "I'm not making it up."
"Of course you are," Frau Neumann says, putting an end to the discussion. She nearly drags Ilse the rest of the way to the doctor's – only it doesn't seem like a real doctor's, it's down the stairs from a tavern in the heart of town, a door without a sign – her mama knocks and a rough-looking man comes out, demanding money. He holds his hand out, motioning for Ilse to follow him.
Shivering, even though the night's not very cold, tears still streaming down her face, Ilse looks up at her mama, who says, "I'll be with you every moment."
"Every moment?" Ilse asks, a strange fear coursing through her body.
"Yes, child, of course," her mama insists, and pushes her through the door. It slams shut behind her, and she jumps, startled – but her mama just sends her further inside.
The man leads her into a room with a table, tells her to sit atop it; she eases herself up, wrapping her arms around herself to keep warm. Her mama hovers by the door. Minutes pass, and Ilse stops counting them; she shuts her eyes, unable to pin down why she feels so wrong about this.
"What's the matter with me, Mama?" she asks.
"You've just got some sort of flu," her mama replies, monotone. "Some sort of stomach flu. Let's hope it's nothing serious."
"But it doesn't feel like that at all," Ilse says. "Why couldn't we go to the real doctor? I don't like this place."
"It's a place meant for girls like you," her mama says. "They fix your problems and don't ask questions."
"I – I – I," Ilse stutters, things falling into place almost instantly. "I'm not sick at all, am I? I'm – "
"Watch what you say, Ilse," her mama cautions.
"I'm going to have a baby, aren't I?" Ilse finishes.
"There you go again, with your lies," Frau Neumann says, in a disbelieving voice. "How would you even know such things?"
"I remember – when you were going to have a baby," Ilse exclaims, "Before you miscarried, I remember how you were so sick in the mornings, how your stomach hurt so – everything that's happening to me right now! And it happened to Wendla's sister, too! And she's got a child! And when Frau Robel had her last child, Ernst said that she complained of morning sickness constantly! Mama, please tell me the truth!"
But Frau Neumann is silent. The door creaks open and another man walks in. He murmurs something to Frau Neumann, who murmurs back in response; they hold an entire conversation five feet from Ilse and she can't make out a word they say. She strains to listen, but it's all too soft. She's still crying a bit; she holds her stomach, wondering how she didn't know before.
Her mama comes over, and touches her hand with little sympathy. "Now be quiet, and listen to what the doctor tells you," she instructs.
"It's Papa's fault!" Ilse exclaims, tearfully. "From when he touches me at night – he's the one who did this."
"You stop it," Frau Neumann hisses. "Stop talking about your father like that. It's hideous the lies you're telling. Honestly, if we weren't in public I don't know what I'd do to you – "
"Hit me?" Ilse asks, mockingly. She feels so reckless, but she's so tired of keeping quiet. She's been mute about her pain for too long. "Hit me like Papa?"
She grabs Ilse's hand, now, twisting it in her grasp – Ilse lets out a cry. "I told you," she mutters. "Don't talk about your father like that. What did we ever do to deserve such nasty accusations?"
She drops Ilse's hand, and Ilse cradles it, massaging out the momentary pain. The doctor approaches, with an eerie smile, a "hello" – he lays her back against the table.
"Mama?" she shrieks.
He fastens one of her thin little wrists, then the other, under leather straps on the table.
"MAMA?" she shrieks again.
He spreads her legs apart, and soon she's held down at the ankles, too – she struggles against the leather, but it just rubs her wrists and ankles raw. He begins to ready tools, long, silvery instruments that she can't quite make sense of. He strokes her sweaty forehead, saying, "There, there, we'll fix you up nice, don't you worry your pretty head about it, dear." His hand slips down to caress her tear-soaked cheek, and she turns, ready to bite. He covers her mouth with his rough, rough hand, and his eyes turn cold: "Don't you fight, girl, don't make this harder than it has to be."
The moment he lets go of her, she screams "NO!"
He glares at her, but she continues to fight, screaming, "NO!"
She lifts her head, and sees her mama walk out the door, shutting it behind her. "MAAAAAMAAAAA!" she shrieks at the tops of her lungs.
The man, the doctor, shoves a handkerchief in her mouth, quieting her. She spits it out, defiantly, continuing to scream.
"I told you not to fight!" he says darkly, and this time he pushes her head up, wrapping the handkerchief around her mouth, between her teeth, gagging her, knowing she'll not be able to work her way out of it. He can't risk a little screamer getting him discovered down here. She thrashes against the table, but only the weakest of sounds can be heard from her mouth – she's mute about her pain, once again.
It's unlike anything she's ever felt before. It's cold, so cold – it feels like a twisting, a wrenching, a great chasm opening from her body. She can feel the blood pouring out of her. Her body tenses, her hands beat against the table; moans escape her lips, her tongue muffled by scratchy cotton.
It seems to last forever.
When she wakes, she's no longer restrained; the leather straps have been undone, the gag removed. Her stomach feels so hollow – like something that was there has been taken out. And she knows that it has.
It's barely daylight; her mama waits for her outside the door. Neither of them speak, save Frau Neumann's brief "you're very lucky, child. I hope you realize that." They walk the distance back to their home in a silence weighted with betrayal and disillusionment. Ilse's dress is stained with blood.
And her papa doesn't give her a second glance over the breakfast table; nobody says a word. She goes on to school like nothing has happened, walking slowly, dragging her feet along the road, feeling so heavy even though there's less of her than there was yesterday. She can barely make herself move.
She arrives to class on time; she sits in her seat and does her work, although it's barely readable. The other girls all look at her as if they've seen a ghost – knowing, positive that something's the matter, unsure of what it could be. At lunchtime they crowd around her, feeling her forehead for a fever, massaging her shoulders.
"You can't be well, Ilse," Martha sighs. She doesn't elaborate, though she could – Ilse knows this, too, somehow knows that the bruises on her arms and legs mirror ones on Martha's – she's seen them, from time to time, during long hours of play – she knows that wounded, helpless look that so often finds its way into Martha's eyes. But neither of them can say this, and so neither of them will for some time.
"You're so pale," Anna murmurs. "It's like you've got no color at all, like you're bloodless."
"Do you want to go home?" Thea asks.
"NO!" Ilse shouts, nearly breaking into tears. "Please, no, I don't want to go home."
"Ilse, what's the matter?" Anna insists. "You can tell us, really, you can."
"No, I – I can't," Ilse stammers. "I'm fine. Really."
"You're not," Wendla says, with a low sigh. "Something's wrong, I know it."
"All of you, just stop!" Ilse cries. Seeing their startled faces, surprise all over Thea's, a bit of hurt crossing Anna's, what almost seems like sympathy across Martha's, she adds, "Really. I'm fine. Please, just…" She trails off, turning to meet Wendla's eyes. "May I go to your house after school?" she asks. The request is filled with thousands of silent additions: I don't want to be alone. I don't want to be in my home. I don't want to be where they can get me.
"Of course," Wendla says, soothing her. She wraps her hand around Ilse's and holds tight, and she doesn't let go until they're back in their desks, ready to begin the afternoon's lessons.
The two girls sit in Wendla's parlor all through the afternoon – while Wendla's mother runs errands, while her father is at work – they don't say a word, but Wendla strokes her hair gently, unbraiding it and combing through all of the tangles, braiding it back up nicer than she could ever do herself; she rubs Ilse's back, working the knots in her shoulders out as best she can. At first Ilse is stiff – hating the touch of anyone else against her skin – but she soon relaxes, knowing that Wendla would never hurt her. Not like some.
Frau Bergman returns as it's nearing dusk, and gasps when she sees Ilse seated in their parlor, pale, the purple bruise still surrounding her eye. "What's happened to you, dear?" she exclaims.
A moment passes, the length of which is enough to convince Ilse that she's done being silent. She lowers her eyes and whispers, "May I speak with you, Frau Bergman?"
"Yes, of course, child," she says with concern. She looks to her own daughter, who's watching wide-eyed, and murmurs, "Wendla, run outside and gather some flowers for the dinner table." Obediently, Wendla jumps to her feet, stopping in the doorway to cast another affectionate, reassuring look towards her friend, and dashes out the door. Frau Bergman comes to sit beside Ilse, and gingerly touches the bruise, tracing its outline. "Can you tell me how you got this?" she asks, slowly, as if talking to a girl much younger than Ilse's thirteen years.
And Ilse tells her everything. From the way her papa hits her – how he's hit her since she was small, for any transgression, any backtalk, any mistake – how, after her mama miscarried, he started coming into her bedroom at night, lifting her nightdress, placing his hands on her, placing himself in her – all the way to last night. Frau Bergman listens with obvious concern and terror – fearful, clearly, both for her fate and the effect it might have on the other girls. She can't help but ask Ilse, "Have you told anyone else these things?"
"No," Ilse shakes her head. "I couldn't."
Frau Bergman insists on walking Ilse back to her home; before they depart, Wendla comes and wraps her arms around Ilse tight, saying softly in her ear, "Don't forget you'll always have me. You'll always have your sister."
Ilse, though teary, can't help but smile a crooked smile at this: she and Wendla swore long ago they were sisters, even if not by blood – it's just like her to bring it up, and she's so glad that she has. "I know," she murmurs. "And you'll always have me."
"Sisters and friends until the end," Wendla replies, just loud enough for her to hear, no louder.
"Perhaps we should go," Frau Bergman says quietly, taking Ilse by the hand although she's much too old for it. Wendla stands waving Ilse good-bye until they disappear into the distance.
When they arrive at Ilse's house, Frau Bergman comes inside, asking to speak to her parents alone. Ilse is sent upstairs, and sits on her hands, wondering what's to happen next. She can't see past the upcoming minute, though, and this worries her – she can't imagine what's to come.
It seems as if hours pass before her door flies open, and there stands her papa, blazing furious. "How dare you tell lies like that to Frau Bergman? To anyone? My God, you'd have the whole world thinking I was some sort of monster! What sort of child are you?"
"I didn't lie," Ilse says quietly.
"Speak up, I can't hear you," her papa menaces, slamming the door shut. It's just the two of them.
"I didn't lie," Ilse repeats. "I only told her the truth."
"ANOTHER LIE!" he roars, yanking her up from her bed. He holds her inches from him, keeping a tight grasp around her arm, just daring her to move. She trembles, although she tries her hardest not to – her eyes grow wide. "You'd tell someone such terrible things about your own father… all lies… all out of, what, some elaborate fantasy to make people pity you? To make people feel sorry for you? Poor little you? It's as if you had no respect at all!"
He slams her against the wall, and she crumples to her knees, dry-sobbing, the wind knocked out of her. "I told Frau Bergman the truth, you know. I told her you were just making up stories."
He grabs her up by her braids – such long, long ropes tying her to him – and wraps his cruel arms around her, holding her still against him. "I can't have anyone thinking that I'd do such things, can I? Much easier to say it's just my filthy lying slut of a daughter, telling stories."
He pushes her to the bed, stands over her – she inches backwards, bit by bit, although she knows she's got nowhere to go. "Ilse… Ilse… story time."
She recoils, curls into a ball; before she can think better of it, she reaches out and kicks her papa away from her, leaping off of the bed. She makes for the door, but he's up following her, grabbing her wrists, shouting, "Who do you think you're going to tell, Ilse? Nobody will believe you. Nobody will believe you."
"I'll tell anyone, until I find someone who does," Ilse cries, "And they'll see that you're the liar, you're the story teller, and they'll see that you get what you deserve!"
"Such words, such words from my only daughter," he hisses.
"I'll do it, I swear I will," Ilse threatens.
"Not on your life," he counters, and she begins to scream. He comes closer, and, though it takes up more strength than she really has, she knees him in the groin and runs out the door, dashing down the stairs. He comes barreling after, all the while shouting, "You little bitch! You little lying whore! I'll teach you to make up stories like that!"
He corners her against the front door, pins her against it. "Just try and tell more of your stories, Ilse, and see what happens."
He slaps her, hard, just once; her hand flies to her cheek, and as he stalks away, she collapses to the floor, leaning against the door, staring off in shock. Her mama, standing in the parlor, gives her one good look – sitting there, her sleeve torn, holding her swollen cheek – and says, "Get out of my house."
Ilse doesn't move.
"Get out of my house," her mama repeats, louder this time. "A little lying whore like you doesn't deserve to be called my daughter."
She doesn't have to be told again. She grabs her schoolbag, from by the door where she'd left it, and runs out the door, slamming it behind her, loudly. She runs faster than she thought possible, wind whipping through her hair, loosening the ribbons round her braids. She lets them fly – not caring anymore, what happens.
Though it's late, she knocks on the Bergmans' door, hoping, praying…
"Oh," Frau Bergman sniffs, opening the door and seeing her standing there.
It's no use. Her papa's lies were more believable than her truths – where once Frau Bergman might have regarded her one of Wendla's friends, another daughter perhaps, all she now sees is a fallen woman, a liar, a harlot.
The door shuts. Wendla is standing behind her mother, in the doorway, near tears, unsure of what's gone on, knowing only what's to come.
Ilse turns and begins walking once more, feeling the night air against her skin.