Hans Dietrich stood alone, watching the copper-colored leaves fall from the aged oak trees. Coaxed by a gentle breeze, they silently floated from the branches to the ground. Like the fall foliage, Dietrich, too, felt powerless to stop the march of time or the changing of the seasons. After two-and-a-half years of waging war in the deserts of North Africa the relative peace and tranquillity of his life now seemed surreal. The glaring African sun had been replaced by the softer rays of the Northern Hemisphere; the memory of the unmerciful heat cooled by a benevolent breeze; the sound of heavy machinery and gunfire supplanted by the call of the geese flying south for the winter. He stared at the sun setting in the western sky and felt as dormant as the dead foliage.
Standing near the stone banister that encircled the terrace of his country home, Dietrich gazed about the extensive grounds surrounding the estate. Many milestones of his life had taken place here. He had caught his first trout in the pond beyond the woods behind the house. He had learned to ice skate on that same pond, breaking his ankle in the process. He had kissed his wife for the first time in the gazebo, which now was missing many panes of glass and in desperate need of repair.
Leaning on his arms for support, his hands gripping the railing, he could feel the cool smoothness of the stone balustrade. Solid and sturdy, it was more decorative than functional - the only barrier between the house and a world he no longer recognized. A gust of wind mussed his hair and caught his open collar. The shirt, a little too large after too many years of army rations and captivity in a British POW camp, billowed slightly and he found himself shivering against the cold.
Running his hand across the cold marble, he tried to remember simpler days . . . the days before the war. He remembered Christmas time the best. He could recall his father closing the house on Wilhemstrasse in Berlin, then leading the motorcade of family and servants along the snow-covered streets of the city until they turned into country roads. He would bounce along in the back seat of the old Mercedes, wedged between his mother and younger sister, bored when the trip became too long but anxiously looking forward to the festivities that awaited him. It had been a more innocent time, and he wondered if that innocence ever could be recaptured.
He smiled in spite of himself, turned to gaze into the house, and propped himself against the railing. Thin curtains gracefully billowed in the breeze from the open French doors, as if playing hide-and-seek with last rays of sunlight. The fine tinkle of crystal drew Dietrich's attention to the chandelier hanging from the ceiling of the music room. Sadly, the sweet chime of the light fixture was the only melody that had been heard in the house for many years. There had been little reason for celebration in the past six
years. Yet the house had survived through all adversity, a testament to a lost age of prosperity and pride; a stoic reminder of a more civilized time.
The ancient home had been in his family for many more years than Hans had been alive. In many ways it was the focal point of his life. As a child, he had spent every holiday here with his family. Expansive, yet intimate, the family home had been the perfect setting for birthdays, baptisms, and weddings; the one ageless witness to a never-ending circle of life.
All things considered, Dietrich was fortunate and he knew it. Between the Russian invasion and the Allied air raids his home in Berlin had been pummeled into ruins, but not before his wife Ilsa had wisely chosen to take their child and leave the city. If it weren't for this aged estate, he and his family would be living in shelters along with the greater part of the German population. Hitler's "Aryan nation" now was nothing more than a melting pot of the wealthy and destitute, the clerics and criminals, all thrown together in desperate survival. He thanked God that, by some miracle, this home had escaped major damage or occupation.
Dietrich sighed and crossed his arms over his chest. The occupation by the Allies had brought stability, but their uneasy alliance with Russia underscored the tenuous balance of power with a new air of paranoia and fear. And the German people kept working in a feeble semblance of routine, eager to put politics and the war behind them, anxious to mourn their dead and renew their lives - only no one was certain how to proceed.
Suddenly he felt a hand on his arm, the familiar touch drawing him from his meditation. He thought his wife was as beautiful as the day she had married him. Her blonde hair fell in a wave to her shoulders and her delicate face reminded him of porcelain. He would not have been human if he did not smile when he was in her company.
"Hans, do you want a jacket?" Ilsa asked, sliding her hand under his arm. "It's becoming rather chilly."
He covered her hand with his and smiled at the use of his given name. After years of hearing "Hauptmann Dietrich," it had taken him a while to become accustomed to the simple "Hans." "I'm fine," he reassured her, then stared back into the house, his thoughts continuing to waver between past and present.
Ilsa decided not to press the issue. She had given him as much space as he needed since his return home, trying not to push him in any one direction, allowing him to find his bearings. But his transition from a Werhmacht captain into an ordinary citizen had not been an easy one. Severed from an army that no longer existed, he found himself with too much time on his hands and too much to think about. In-between intervals of readjustment, he became prone to long periods of silence and inexplicable restlessness. Often she would find him wandering about the grounds, with no particular purpose or objective - just the need to be moving.
"The Moenichs are coming over tonight," Ilsa started, trying to break his mood. "They're organizing homes that are willing to take in refugees."
"We have plenty of room," Hans offered quietly, suspecting his wife had already volunteered their home to host displaced families. In his absence, she had grown accustomed to making decisions without his assistance and, surprisingly, he was glad of it. It was easier to let someone else take control and, to his amazement, he had no trouble relinquishing it.
"They also want to meet you," she announced proudly, then added with feigned pomposity, "the 'Great War Hero.'"
Dietrich responded by abruptly freeing his arm from her grasp as he turned around to face the opposite direction.
Ilsa drew nearer to him and placed her hand on his back, feeling as if her attempt at humor had been ill-timed. "I'm sorry, dear." She lovingly caressed his back. "I was just trying to make you laugh." She had missed his laugh almost as much as she had missed his friendship and his love. "I'll ask them not to come if you would rather not. . ."
"No." He instantly regretted over-reacting to Ilsa's comment. "It's fine. Truly. It's fine," he repeated, as much as to reassure himself as his wife. "I'm just not feeling like much of a 'hero' these days."
The evening passed quickly. Dinner was meager but filling. Food rationing called for creativity, Ilsa claimed, as she continued to surprise her family with new ways to fix leftovers. Living in the country was a definite advantage. The family estate spread out over several hundred acres, most of which was farmed by local tenants. The farmers, who were generous by nature, had provided milk and vegetables during the worst of months following the occupation. Now that the German currency was essentially worthless, food was more important than money to a starving nation. Bartering had become a way of life. Desperate refugees traded what little they had for basic food staples. As milk and bread became more and more scarce, the farmers thrived. Dietrich and his family, in turn, gladly accepted whatever the farmers could offer in exchange for their lease payments.
Conversation at the dinner table floated above and around Hans like a desert sandstorm that had swept over him, leaving him momentarily disoriented, then passing as quickly as it had come. He ate little and spoke even less, still feeling like a pariah, unable to partake in even the most banal conversations.
He glanced at Gretchen furtively. She was small and delicate, much like her mother. Yet, he had been told, her temper could equal his. Although he had not experienced her anger firsthand, he did occasionally catch a glimpse of fire in her eyes. His daughter would soon celebrate her fifth birthday, but he was a virtual stranger to her.
Dietrich had missed Gretchen's first birthday by a few days when he suddenly was called to the Mediterranean on a reconnaissance mission for the then Lieutenant General Rommel. His knowledge of the indigenous population made him a valuable asset to Rommel's staff, and he spent most of the next year traveling between Berlin and Libya. His visits home became increasingly rare and limited by a tortuous schedule. He rarely saw his daughter for more than a few hours at a time; when he became stationed permanently at Tripoli, he never saw her again until he was released by the Allies and sent home.
He still could remember the first day he had held her in his arms upon returning home - the way she had squirmed in his embrace, crying out for her mother. It was ridiculous to think she would remember him, but he had held out hope there would be a natural bond between father and daughter. There had been very few men in her life, and no one she could call "Papa." When he finally relinquished the child to Ilsa, it felt worse than any defeat he had suffered at the hands of the enemy.
Clutching her spoon, Gretchen chased a pea around her plate until her mother's firm hand stopped her. "Are you finished eating?" Ilsa asked softly, leaning forward to meet the child's eyes on her level. Gretchen nodded uncertainly. "Then sit there quietly, like a little lady, until we are all finished," she instructed.
Gretchen plopped the spoon down with a defiant thud, and pouting, sat back in her chair, her arms folded across her chest. Again, Dietrich noticed the spark of flame and smiled in spite of himself.
Ilsa too noticed the reaction, so similar to her husband's, and looked up to gauge Hans' response. Their eyes met in a moment of shared amusement. Quickly regaining her motherly posture, Ilsa dabbed at her mouth to hide her smile behind the napkin.
"I think we're finished," Dietrich announced, as much as to please his daughter as to keep his wife and himself from breaking into laughter. Gretchen glanced at her father, then looked to her mother for approval.
"Go on, then." Ilsa helped the little girl down off the antique chair before retrieving the pot of coffee from the sideboard.
Following her across the room, Gretchen tugged at the hem of her mother's skirt. Bending down, Ilsa listened to her daughter whisper, "Will Papa read to me tonight?"
Ilsa thought her heart skipped a beat. For the past five months she had tried hard to bring father and child together, only to be met by steadfast resistance on Gretchen's part. This was the first time she had asked for her father. "Perhaps you should ask Papa," she whispered back.
Gretchen looked from her mother to the man she had been told was "Papa." A puzzled expression crossed her face, followed by uncertainty and then decision. Finally, she timidly approached her father. Hans pushed his chair away from the table, allowing Gretchen to lay her small hand on his knee. "Mama said I should ask you to read to me."
A lump formed in his throat as the tears welled in his eyes, and he could not find the words to respond. Momentarily closing his eyes, trying to get his emotions under control, he cupped his daughter's face in his hands. "Of course, I will," he finally responded, fumbling for the right words. "Certainly."
Gretchen's bright blue eyes stared back at him in bewilderment. She tentatively reached a finger up to trace a tear than had left a path on his face. "Why are you sad?" she asked innocently.
Another tear escaped down his face. Closing his eyes, he shook his head. "I'm not sad, darling." Taking her hand in his, he added, "You've just made me very happy."
A look of childish bewilderment crossed her face, then, convinced that she had done nothing wrong, Gretchen shrugged off her Papa's reaction as one more thing she did not understand about adults. Gently pulling away from him, she giggled and then skipped out of the dining room toward the stairs. "I'll get ready for bed." She paused and turned back again to look at her parents. "Will you read to me then?"
Gazing after her, Dietrich smiled and nodded in agreement. As Gretchen disappeared up the stairs, he glanced at his wife, then wordlessly stared at his dinner plate. Gretchen's words repeated again in his mind. He only noticed that Ilsa was standing beside him when she reached down to wrap her arm around his shoulders. She gently kissed his head, then smoothed his hair back from his forehead.
"Everything is going to be fine, Hans," she promised. For the first time in more than two years, she felt it was, indeed, true.
Dietrich finished the fairy tale and tucked the blanket around his daughter, who lay on her side, fast asleep. He was about to shut off the light when he glanced back to take one last look at his child. She looked like an angel, he thought - an angel he was only beginning to know. Standing in the doorway, he stiffened at the thought of the thousands of children who would never get to know their fathers. They would hear stories of how their fathers had given their lives for their country, for their patriotic convictions . . . and for a political ideology espoused by madmen. Sighing, he turned off the light and shut the door behind him.
Walking down the stairs to the sitting room, Dietrich glanced at his watch - 8:15. "What time were the Moenichs supposed to be here?" he asked, slipping on the sweater he kept draped over the back of his favorite chair. The nights were getting colder now, and the scarcity of wood and coal for fires required some pragmatism.
"Eight-thirty," Ilsa answered, busily rearranging pillows and sofa cushions. "Is Gretchen asleep?" she asked as an afterthought.
Dietrich lit a cigarette and shook the flame from the match. "Yes," he answered, laying the match in the ashtray. He released a stream of smoke and watched it dissipate. Smoking was a filthy habit he had picked up while he was in the service. In the desert, cigarettes had been easier to find than water, and in some cases more welcome. Water might renew one's strength, but the cigarettes calmed the nerves. Since he was no longer jumping at the sound of heavy artillery, he had made a tentative promise to quit. "I think she's heard that same story so many times she probably knows it by heart."
"I'm sure of it," Ilsa answered, smiling. She approvingly looked around the sitting room. The light on the desk gave off a warm, comforting glow. A few magazines were arranged gracefully on the coffee table. Even if they were months old, they presented the image of a cozy, stable household. Now, with her family intact, Ilsa felt the old house was beginning to feel like a home.
Dietrich watched his wife, attempting to conceal his amusement. "This isn't an inspection, you know," he said playfully. "They're coming here for our approval, dear."
Ilsa gave him a wry smile. "I know, I know," she answered. "I just want to make a good impression."
Dietrich shrugged his eyebrows and sighed, watching his wife nervously move around the room, making last minute adjustments to the curtains, doilies, and whatever else she could find to straighten. They both looked up at the knock on the front door.
"I'll get it," Ilsa offered, moving to greet their guests. Extinguishing the cigarette, Dietrich followed her into the entrance hall.
"Ilsa!" Edward Moenich exclaimed as he wrapped her in a bear hug that she returned as best she could, throwing her arms around the rotund older man.
Frau Moenich watched with a warm smile on her face and waited for her turn. The two women gave each other an affectionate embrace of understanding based on a shared history of struggle and strength. Taking the older woman's hands in hers, Ilsa ushered the Moenichs into the house.
Dietrich kept his distance, making a quick appraisal of his wife's friends. Edward Moenich was a short, stout man; Hans guessed him to be in his early fifties. He was balding; the few wisps of remaining hair still meticulously combed in place were the last vestiges of what at one time had been a full head of copper-colored hair. He had a pale complexion and blue eyes that sparkled behind wire rim glasses which were mended with tape.
His wife had a gentle face, creased with lines that were the result of both laughter and tears. She was almost as large as her husband, but meticulously dressed in a woolen coat and stout shoes. The worn piece of fur fashionably draped around her neck that matched the small pillbox hat set back on her head completed the perfect picture of disenfranchised wealth. No doubt they had come from "old money," which now was worthless in a bankrupt economy.
More victims of the war, Dietrich thought despondently.
"Please, come in." Ilsa stepped aside allowing the couple to enter. She took Hans by the arm and urged him forward. "This is my husband, Hans." She was positively beaming. "Darling, this is Edward Moenich and his wife, Lucie."
"Herr Moenich." Dietrich offered his hand first to Edward, who heartily returned his greeting. "Frau Moenich." Dietrich gently grasped only the fingers of the woman's hand in a formal handshake normally reserved for a noblewoman. Touched by his deferential treatment, Frau Moenich returned the gesture with a small curtsey. The two became immediate friends.
"We have heard so much about you, Herr Hauptmann-"
Dietrich interrupted Moenich. "Please, call me Hans." He noticed the look of surprise that passed between the couple, but decided not to comment. There was no army. He was no longer a captain; that was a part of his life he had been forced to put behind him. More than anything, he wanted to avoid altogether the subject of his military experience.
Ilsa recognized Hans' uneasiness and immediately steered the conversation in another direction. He had said little to her about the war, and she was sure he would not be comfortable discussing it with total strangers. He would deal with it on his own terms, as he did with most things; tonight was not the time to test his patience. "Why don't we all sit down," she suggested, "and I'll bring some coffee."
"We've known Ilsa for quite some time," Edward Moenich stated, accepting the steaming cup from his hostess. He sparingly stirred a few drops of milk into his cup. Milk was high on the list of rationed products and the German people had learned to live with less.
"Oh, yes!" Frau Moenich agreed, as she gazed fondly toward Ilsa who was seated on a chair opposite the coffee table. "She was so helpful in our efforts to collect medical supplies for our troops. We always knew we could depend on her for help."
Ilsa shyly returned the older woman's smile. She had worked hard, but so had many others who were able to help. "I did what I could," she answered modestly.
The mention of medical supplies forced Dietrich's suppressed memories to surface once again. Hundreds of young men maimed and dismembered. The smell of burned flesh, blood saturating the khaki uniforms turning them a muddy brown. The cry of soldiers holding onto life, the vacant look in the faces of the dead. It was the one nightmare he could not shake.
Ilsa noticed her husband's attention slipping away. She reached out to take his hand in hers, bringing him back to the present. "Isn't that right, dear?" she asked, drawing him into the conversation.
Dietrich gazed at her in momentary bewilderment. "Hmm? What?" he stammered. "I'm sorry, I. . ." His voice trailed off apologetically.
"I said it's time for us help each other," Ilsa anxiously repeated.
The atmosphere suddenly became uncomfortable; Dietrich immediately composed himself. Reaching for another cigarette, he noticed his hand shaking as he struck the match. Closing his eyes, he took a long drag, exhaled the smoke and rejoined the discussion. "Which is why we're here."
He flicked the ash in the crystal ashtray. Sitting back in his chair, elegantly crossing his legs, he decided to take control of the evening. "What can you tell us about the family who will be staying with us?" It was always best to get to the root of the problem, and get things done quickly.
"They're just a small family," Lucia Moenich began, as she rummaged through her purse, looking for the pertinent information. She triumphantly withdrew a few folded pages, yellowed and worn around the edges. Carefully unfolding them, she read the family's statistics aloud. "The mother, Clara Muller, is thirty-nine and widowed. Her husband Ernst was lost on the Russian front. She has a daughter, seven years old, named Rosa. Her son Martin is sixteen. They lost their house in an Allied raid over Meinz." She looked hopefully from Ilsa to Dietrich, then continued. "They just need a place to stay until her sister can come from Switzerland to retrieve them. I don't think they'll be here longer than a month." Frau Moenich finished by stuffing the paper back into her purse, and snapping it shut.
"It would be pleasant for Gretchen to have a playmate," Ilsa said, as if debating the idea with herself.
"They can stay in the guest rooms in the west wing," Dietrich offered. Ilsa's right, he thought, it was his duty now to help his fellow countrymen as best he could.
"I'll have to open those rooms. . ." Ilsa was already making plans to provide for their guests' comfort.
"There is one small problem." Ilsa and Hans both looked up apprehensively.
"The young man - Martin," Edward continued, "He's been in a bit of trouble." Suspecting the Dietrichs might change their minds, he quickly added, "Nothing serious, just a few misdemeanors." The elder man fumbled for a handkerchief in his breast pocket and nervously wiped the perspiration from his brow.
Dietrich studied him for a moment, then glanced at his equally nervous wife. He had an odd feeling that this had been arranged in advance - what the Americans would call a "set-up." Leaning forward, his elbows resting on his knees, he cradled the cigarette in his hands. If he had learned anything from the war, it was the art of intimidation. Dietrich looked Herr Moenich squarely in the eye. "Just a few 'misdemeanors?'" He repeated Moenich's word slowly and calmly for the best effect. A quick smile played on his lips. "Herr Moenich," he started, then felt Ilsa's restraining hand on his arm. He focused on the nervous gentleman seated across the table from him. "I am not running a rehabilitation center here."
Frau Moenich joined in, hoping to support her husband's petition. "He's been in a few 'altercations.'" It was the only word she could find to present the boy's problems in the best light. "To be honest," she said, realizing the only way out of this would be a complete confession, "that is one reason we were hoping you would take him in." She continued hurriedly, her comments directed at Hans, "You were a captain in the army - surely you dealt with many young men with such problems. We were hoping you might be able to help him . . . to put him on the right track."
Dietrich shook his head in disbelief, and sat back in his chair. He did not know what the boy had done to warrant the attention of the authorities and he wasn't willing to risk his family's safety to house a petty criminal. "Absolutely not," he pronounced with determined finality.
"Hans. . ." Ilsa still was committed to offering whatever assistance they could to the displaced family. "It won't be for long, and-"
"Ilsa!" Dietrich wasn't accustomed to debating what he considered a closed subject. "You don't know what sort of mischief the boy has been into. I'm not willing to risk your safety, or Gretchen's."
"And," Ilsa continued, completely ignoring his argument, "perhaps he could benefit from a man's influence in his life." Determined to state her case, she added calmly, "Hans, I've lived two-and-a-half years without you for protection. I've seen Russian tanks rolling through the streets of Berlin, and Allied bombs exploding almost in my back yard. I think I can handle a sixteen-year-old juvenile delinquent."
Ilsa's logic prevented Hans from voicing any further protest. Only beginning to understand the war his wife had fought at home, he paused long enough to marvel at her strength. Still, he remained convinced this whole arrangement was not a good idea. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath and calmly replied, "This is not the same thing."
Ilsa returned his stare, and considered her response. "No, it's not," she agreed at last. "These people are German."
She's right, of course, Dietrich thought. This family needed their help, and perhaps all the boy needed was a strong guiding hand. He looked at the anxious faces staring back at him from the couch where the Moenichs sat waiting for his decision. Then, noticing the determined set of Ilsa's jaw, he realized he was outnumbered. He wanted to keep fighting, but hard won battle expertise told him to retreat.
"Very well," he announced at last. "When will they arrive?"
A small gasp of elation escaped Frau Moenich. Smiling broadly, her husband reached over and clasped her hand in his.
"I'm not promising anything," he warned. "They will be gone at the first sign of trouble."
"There will be no trouble, Herr Haupt- Hans," Edward pledged as he adjusted his glasses on his nose. "I promise."
Dietrich sighed in exasperation. These people were so kind-hearted they couldn't see past the plight of their adopted refugees. The boy was going to be trouble, and Dietrich would not give Moenich two Reichsmarks for his promise.
The remainder of the evening was spent making last-minute preparations, as the Mullers would be arriving in two days. The Dietrichs' household rations would be increased to include three more people. Everything would be taken care of, Lucie Moenich promised, and "it was so very kind of them" to do this.
When they finally wished their guests a goodnight it had begun to rain. As Dietrich walked them out to their car, holding an umbrella over Frau Moenich's tattered fur, he wondered how he had been so badly out-maneuvered. He looked back to the house; seeing Ilsa standing in the doorway, he shook his head in defeat and smiled.
The rain continued through the night. It was cold and wet, the gray clouds casting a gloom over the entire house. Ilsa watched quietly as her husband slept. She knew he had been uncomfortable all night, his body reacting painfully to the wet weather. The telltale signs of injury and abuse - the scars on his right wrist, a blemish on his shoulder where a bullet had found its mark, a mysterious deformation where a broken rib had not healed properly - were all pieces of the puzzle Hans had become. When asked, he had refused to share the history behind the wounds, and now she wasn't sure she wanted to know. She ran her fingers through his hair and to her dismay, found another scar at his right temple.
Dietrich stirred at Ilsa's touch, and winced when he rolled onto his back. His hand habitually reached to hold his aching side. Vaguely aware of someone watching him, his eyes fluttered open and he was pleasantly surprised to find his wife sitting next to him on the bed.
"Good morning," he said, his voice a sleepy rasp.
"Good morning," she answered. Squeezing his hand, she bent over to kiss him gently. "How are you feeling?"
Dietrich inhaled deeply and stretched his arms over his head. "Much better, now." A devilish smile danced across his face, then disappeared when a twinge of pain caught him unaware and his body tensed. Catching his breath, he closed his eyes and waited for it to pass. "Must be the weather," he commented reassuringly.
The concern in Ilsa's eyes made him uncomfortable. She worried about him constantly; he hated being the source her distress. It would take time, he had told her - time to forget, time to remember, and time to come to terms with broken promises. Time was one thing he had an abundance of these days. He decided to change the subject before she started fussing over him. "What's in your hand?" he asked, glancing at the envelope she held in her lap.
"A telegram came for you." She flipped the envelope over in her hand. "I wasn't sure I should tell you about it."
"Why not?" He gently caught her arm in his hand, her satin dressing gown soft and smooth to the touch. She clearly was upset. "What could be so horrible?" he asked jokingly, unwilling to let her see his apprehension. Telegrams were not a welcome sight, even now that the war was over.
"It's from Allied Headquarters in Berlin."
Dietrich sat up stiffly, pulling an extra pillow behind his back. "What?" he asked, leaning against the headboard and reaching for the letter still in his wife's hand.
Ilsa reluctantly handed it over to him. She waited while his eyes scanned the message within.
"It's from a 'Major Thomas Armstrong,'" he murmured. Request meeting with you. Stop. Thursday November 18 10:30 a.m. Stop. Please advise if you can not attend. Stop.
He repeated the man's name, rank and military affiliation, then looked at his wife in bewilderment. "What do they want with me?" He could see the same question reflected in his wife's face.
Ilsa rose from the edge of the bed and nervously began to pace the room. "Hans," she began, then hesitated. Turning towards him, she studied his face. Worry creased his forehead; the kind of worry, she suspected, that could be born of guilt. Had he taken part in the war crimes that other German leaders had been accused of? Could he be capable of such things? Did the Allies suspect him of wrong-doings? The unbidden accusations raced through her mind as her heart raced to deny them.
"There are many things you and I never have discussed," she stated, trying not to sound accusatory. She could see Hans waiting, wary of the direction this conversation was taking. "Were there things . . . during the war?"
"Ilsa!" Dietrich was dumbfounded. He knew exactly what she was asking. Throwing off the down comforter, he rose and walked toward her, standing at the foot of the bed. Holding her at arm's length, he studied her eyes. "Certainly you don't believe I would take part in any of those senseless crimes."
When she didn't answer, he asked again, "Do you?" The thought that his wife might judge him guilty of such acts was abhorrent, incomprehensible. "Ilsa?" he pleaded quietly for some sort of response.
Ilsa always could read his emotions in his dark eyes - they would smolder when he was angry, narrow with suspicion, or sparkle with mischief when he was happy. As she stared at them now, they registered nothing but hurt and alarm. Immediately ashamed of her suspicions, she nervously fingered the lapels of his pajamas. "I'm sorry," she apologized, unable to meet his gaze. "It's just that you never talk about what happened to you. I've seen the scars; I know you were injured. And now this cable . . . I couldn't help but think. . ." Her voice trailed off into a whisper.
He took her chin in his hand, tenderly raised her head, and saw the tears in her eyes. "It's all right." Pulling her close, he cradled her head against his shoulder and held her tightly. During the years they had spent apart, Ilsa's belief in him and in what he was fighting for had been the inspiration that persuaded him to carry on, even in the most dire circumstances. The thought of losing her faith terrified him.
After a long moment, Hans pulled her away to gaze into her face. Holding both of her hands, he promised, "I will tell you everything . . . one day. But it still is too real for me. I just need to put some distance between me and. . ." He searched for the right word, ". . . everything. Can you understand that?"
Ilsa nodded. She would have to have patience; she knew he was worth the wait. "What are you going to do about the telegram?" she asked, wiping an errant tear from her face. "Will you go?"
Dietrich returned to the night stand where he had left the cable and read it again. "November eighteenth at 10:30 a.m. What is the date today?" he asked, his attention still focused on the note in his hands.
"They want me to be there tomorrow!" he exclaimed, wondering why he had been given such short notice. He read the date at the top of the cable aloud. "10 November 1945." The telegram had been sent a week ago, yet it had arrived only today. "I suppose cables get low priority these days." He looked up at Ilsa who stood across the room from him.
"Is there enough petrol in the car to drive to the city and back?" he asked, his voice tinged with a note of umbrage at what amounted to a summons.
Ilsa crossed the room and stood near him. Laying a hand on his shoulder she asked, "You are going then?"
Dietrich looked from the paper to Ilsa. "Yes, I suppose I should." He had discovered long ago it was better to face the enemy straight on; it was easier to plan a course of action when you knew what to expect.
The remainder of the day was spent preparing for the Muellers' arrival. Ilsa remembered the last time these rooms had been opened. The occasion had been Johanna's wedding. She could remember Hans' sister looking resplendent in her mother's gown, slightly yellow from age, but nevertheless a beautiful mixture of lace and satin. The house had been filled with spring flowers in shades of white, yellow, and pink. Ilsa imagined she still could detect the aroma as she climbed the stairs that lead into the west wing.
Johanna and Heinrich had been married the same year the German troops had marched into Poland. The house was filled with family and friends attending the wedding. Laughter and music floated in and out of every room; the celebration went on for days. Ilsa wondered how the festivities would have been different if they had known what was to come over the ensuing six years.
The empty halls now echoed with nothing but the sound of Ilsa's footsteps. A layer of fine dust covered the once clean carpets; the hardwood floors that had sparkled with a warm luster were powdered gray. Cobwebs danced in the breeze of Ilsa's skirt as she passed them by.
Walking beside her mother, Gretchen sneezed when the particles of dust irritated her nose. "Gesundheit," her mother said, opening the door to the first bedroom on the left. Gretchen preceded her into the room and sneezed once more. "Again?" Ilsa asked in mock surprise.
Taking one of the clean hand towels Gretchen had carried from the laundry, she wiped her daughter's nose.
The girl rubbed her nose with the palm of her hand. "My nose tickles," she giggled.
"It's from the dust," her mother explained, giving Gretchen's little nose a playful tweak. Tucking the towel in her apron pocket, she placed her hands on her hips and looked around the dismal room. "This is going to be more work than I thought," she muttered absently. "Well, perhaps the first thing we need to do is get some light in here."
Ilsa pulled the heavy drapes aside and frowned at the windows; very little light would pass through these panes of glass. "A great deal of work," she amended.
"Mama," Gretchen said, running her hand over the footboard of the double bed, "why are these people coming here?" She held her palm to her face to study the streak of dirt left there.
"Because they don't have a home," Ilsa answered, trying to avoid the inevitable.
Ilsa turned her back to the window to look at her daughter. Gretchen's face was pensive and solemn; there would be no simple answer this time. At times like these Ilsa wished her little girl had not inherited her father's curiosity. She previously had tackled her questions concerning why they could not go back to live in Berlin. However, it wasn't until she took Gretchen to the empty lot where their house had stood that the child had understood fully what had happened. How could she now explain the Allied bombs that had routed the rest of their country, showing very little discrimination in their chosen targets? How could she tell her about the thousands of civilians who had lost their lives in these bombings? How could she make Gretchen realize how lucky they were to have escaped the greater part of the devastation?
"Did the airplanes hurt their house?" Gretchen quietly asked before her mother could answer.
On more than one occasion, Ilsa had been awestruck by her five-year-old's perception. Now she was humbled by the childlike simplicity of her insight. "Yes," she answered, hoping to forestall any further explanations.
"Did Papa fly in the planes?"
"No, Papa drove tanks," Hans answered.
Startled, mother and daughter spun around to find Dietrich leaning against the door frame, a wistful smile crossing his face.
With one hand on her hip and her head tilted at a puzzled angle, Gretchen asked, "What's a tank?"
Dietrich wanted to sweep up his five-year-old up in his arms, but hesitated, uncertain about what sort of reception he would receive. Instead, he sat on the corner of the bed and took her hands in his. "It's like a big automobile." With guns and explosives, the voice in his mind reminded him. "It has many large wheels and-"
Gretchen suddenly pulled her hands out of her father's grasp. Obviously frightened, she ran to hide behind her mother. "Tanks hurt houses, too," she whimpered, clutching at her mother's dress, causing Ilsa to stumble backwards.
"Gretchen!" Catching her footing, Ilsa looked over her shoulder and immediately offered a comforting hand. She looked back at Hans, surprise and disbelief reflected in her face.
Dietrich replayed their conversation in his mind, trying to understand what had caused such an alarming reaction from his daughter. Tanks, he thought, his brow furrowed in concentration. Of course!
He mentally reprimanded himself for being so thoughtless. Russian tanks! Gretchen had seen them in Berlin amid the rubble and bombed-out buildings. Now she connected that devastation with her father. Dietrich felt as if he were living one of his worst nightmares.
Mercifully, Ilsa had also made the same connection. "Gretchen," she said softly, bending down and holding her daughter gently by her arms. She looked the frightened child in the eye. "Those were Russian tanks," she tried to explain. "Papa did not drive the tanks you saw in the city."
Ilsa could not be sure Gretchen would be able to make the distinction between Russian and any other type of artillery. She wasn't sure a distinction could be made.
Gretchen did not understand what "Russian" was, but seemed consoled that her father had not taken part in the destruction she had witnessed in Berlin. She cautiously glanced at Dietrich and then back to her mother.
Ilsa smiled at her to dispel her confusion. "Why don't you run downstairs and bring Mama the mop from the kitchen."
Not entirely convinced that the man who sat on the edge of the bed could be trusted, Gretchen cut a wide path away from her father and flew out of the door to the hallway and down the stairs.
Ilsa watched Gretchen leave and then turned her attention to Hans. She was uncertain whether to be angry or sympathetic. No one could have predicted Gretchen's realization, and she knew Hans only was trying to find a common ground with his daughter. Still, she - as any mother would - wanted to protect her daughter from the violence that hung like a specter over their country. A specter that continued to haunt her family.
Dietrich sat in silence, resting his head in his hands, unable and unwilling to meet Ilsa's eyes. Whatever tenuous relationship he had built with his daughter had been destroyed by his thoughtlessness. What had possessed him to discuss such things with his child?
Ilsa sat on the bed next to her husband and, putting her arm around him, gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
"She thinks I'm a murderer," Dietrich stated flatly.
"She's a child - she doesn't understand."
Dietrich looked around the room. Still reeling from his daughter's rejection, he was unable to focus on anything, unable to keep his feeling of failure from coloring his perspective. "Perhaps she understands better than we do." Hans finally met Ilsa's gaze. "What have I done?"
Without losing eye contact, Ilsa answered. "You told the truth."