Even the Wicked

Must Eat

Short Story

 

The air raid siren’s wail rose in pitch from whine to scream to howl. Ava’s chow line split apart and she saw Joseph file in towards the amphitheater basement. Other workers followed her towards the rear of the half finished coliseum. She was out in the middle of the dusty construction yard—exposed—when she spotted the heavy bombers strung out in evenly spaced lines, wings and tails emblazoned with white stars and stripes. Their ant sized bombs began to trail and fall towards her city and turned potato, then melon sized just before the flashes of light reached her.

Someone to her left screamed “Hurry!”

She turned to their voice and ran for the shelter doors, froze, and watched a cafe explode out into the street.

A man yelled, “What are you doing?”

Ava snapped from her stasis. It was Joseph. He moved towards her, hand extended and yelled again, but his voice was the rumble of shells. She extended her hand and followed towards the cellar doors, but was thrown back—like someone had hooked her spine and yanked. The walls of the amphitheater quaked, turned blood orange and yellow, and all was black soot and smoke.

*****

Ava woke with the feeling that she’d overslept for work. Something was wrong with her left leg and her toes itched. Pain pulsed from her hip. The space around her was absolute dark. A single blade of flame split the dark. A hand, then an arm, and then Joseph’s face appeared. He drew the flame away.

“You’re awake.” said Joseph.

She smelled turned earth and smoke on their clothes and something copper. 

“What…where are we?” asked Ava.

“We’re somewhere under the coliseum. You’ve been asleep since yesterday, or whatever time it is outside. I’m not really sure.”

“I’ve been out for days?”

“Not that long.” Joseph tipped a small canteen towards Ava’s lips.

Ava nodded and wet her tongue. The metallic water was divine. The lighter went out. She could hear flint and metal. The light came back.

“How do you feel?” asked Joseph.

“Dizzy. My leg hurts.” Ava returned the silver canteen and scanned her feet. “What happened to my shoe?”

“Your foot is swollen. I had to cut it off.”

She remembered the planes: forest-green angels of death.

“I saw you just as I was about to close the shelter. You were frozen,” said Joseph.

They both flinched as the roof of stone and brick shifted overhead. Dust filtered down onto them. The lighter went out. Joseph scratched the flint and the yellow flame was back. He held the flame near her bashed foot. The skin beneath her toenails was already turning purple and black.

“It’s bad.” Ava said.

“You’ll be fine once we get you to a doctor.”

Ava laughed. Joseph killed the lighter.

“You don’t smoke,” said Ava.

“How did you know that?”

Ava blushed and was glad for the dark. “I see you at lunch every day and I’ve never seen you smoke. Do you always carry a lighter?”

“No. I…”

“What…” Ava realized where the lighter had come from. Their collapsed space, in its pitch black, was not as small as she initially thought. The sour smell and a chill in the air spoke of death, of locked eyes and flesh. “The crew from Munich. How many?”

Joseph raised the lighter towards the far end of the room. Ava could see twisted bodies, frozen eyes, and dried blood. The light dropped.

“I’m OK if you don’t do that again.” said Ava.

“Sorry.”

“I’m Ava by the way. Sorry to meet you here.”

“Likewise.”

Ava rested her head back against a slab of cool rock. It wasn’t soft, but at least at a natural incline to her neck.

“Are you hurt?” asked Ava.

“Only a couple bruises.”

“That’s good.” She stretched her lower back, grimaced. “Any food down here?”

“I remember Mr. Heikal had stashed some canned goods down here, but I can’t find any. I looked while you were asleep.”

Ava nodded. “We’ve all been hungry.”

“True, but that doesn’t mean we’re thieves.”

They sat in silence. She could hear his breath in, out, in, out.  

Ava spoke again. “This doesn’t make sense.”

“What doesn’t?” asked Joseph.

“We did we make it to the cellar. We should be…”

“I don’t know. I’ve been replaying the moment right before everything went upside down. You’re right. None of it makes sense. I think we fell into the cellar through its ceiling. I’m not sure.”

Ava nodded. She missed the smell of salted beef and cabbage and the afternoon breeze which rushed off the sides of the amphitheater.

“Have you heard anyone digging or calling for us?”

“No, but they know we’re down here. Either way, I’m not going to sit around waiting for them. You rest. I’m going to see if I can find the stairs down here, or at least pry around on some rubble.”

Joseph stood and raised the lighter ahead of him and his flame ghosted away towards the far wall.

*****

Nuremberg had been attack every week for a year. The planes rumbled overhead at night and shook the homes, the burnt out factories, the empty cathedrals. There were always more bombs. 

There hadn’t been any planes the night before. Ava woke for work and walked to the half-moon of the amphitheater. Red pennants dotted the wall’s top which rose high above the rest of the Nuremberg. Fifty thousand voices became one in this temple. Ava loved the straight lines and clean cut grass, the brass eagles at the heads of planted staffs, the freshly delivered marble pillar sections on the army truck flatbeds, the wreaths for the dead soldiers—the coliseum grounds had perfect symmetry. Her love of theater was nothing new. Francis, her Opa, had cemented her affection for the stage when he took her to see the play about the lost brother and sister, the candy home, their toast crumbs saving them, the child sized oven preheating in preparation of their child flesh, the old woman’s cackle.

The stage children had escaped.

Ava had not.

The stadium rallies terrified and thrilled her, just as the peppermint striped house had on the stage ten years before. 

The stadium was empty this morning. The work gangs arrived an hour after her. They were brought in from Munich to finish the new entrance to the marching grounds. She stood over a cauldron of boiling beef and potatoes the morning she first noticed Joseph. His shoulders were as solid as the stack of bricks which had dominion over him. Ava didn’t lie to herself. She felt the pull in her gut, the warm tingle in her thighs and stomach when she noticed his arms flex with each brick laid into the wall. Joseph moved slowly down the wall, laid a single brick at the coliseum's new entrance. He was dwarfed by the high arch.  She liked his cropped blond hair and warm oak brown eyes. Mr. Heikal, in his clean leather boots, walked up to Joseph, told him something, motioned to the far corner of the new brick wall and moved on to the next group digging post holes. Joseph paused for a moment to wipe sweat from his forehead and added water to a fresh batch of mortar. Ava turned back and stared as a cut of beef turned gray in the boiling cauldron. The box of potatoes wasn’t going to dice itself either. Her boss, Gretchen, was a fair woman but unforgiving of idle hands. Her nasal voice rang through Ava’s mind: “Food is a weapon. We must not waste it.” Ava nodded silently in agreement. 

As much as she tried to ignore Joseph, he would not leave her eyes alone. She only knew his name from the other men teasing him while in her food line. He was always polite to her. He looked at her eyes and not her breasts when he ordered. She would always give him a slightly larger portion. She was certain that he had no idea what her name was. 

* * * * *

There hadn’t been any meat to serve for months. Much of the work had been repairs from the weekly attacks. The Allied bombers rumbled over the city and damaged the marching yard and stone seats. Each morning, the crews would begin repairs. It seemed futile to Ava. There hadn’t been a rally in Nuremberg in over a year. Mostly, the workers were tired of cabbage. She chopped the same green leaves daily and the men rarely joked in her line anymore. She didn’t understand why they were still working on the monuments when so many were starving, but she didn’t complain, grateful to have a job. 

* * * * *

She awoke in the cellar. Fever heat rose up her neck. Her hip and leg pulsed with pain. She caught herself grinding teeth as the pain rose up. She couldn’t move as each wave peaked. She remembered her mother describing labor pains in the same way. Her mother said, “Take slow breaths.”

Ava remembered a rustling sound just before her last fitful sleep, but did not want to know the specifics of Joseph’s grizzly rummaging.

“Are you awake?” asked Joseph.

“Yes.”

“I can’t sleep. I’m hungry and nauseous.”

Joseph scooted away from Ava.

“Stay please. Is there any lighter fluid left?”

“I used the last earlier.”

“Did you find the stairs?”

“No. but I did find a watch. The gears had already run down. I didn’t find any food. I pried around on the far wall and ceiling, but nothing’s budging.” 

Ava lay in the dark and remembered her visit to the theater years before, could see of the bright house facade in the paper mache woods, the red framed door, the wide kitchen table, the pillow stuffing smoke trailing out in the staged woods. Her grandfather had given her two mints for the show. The hard candies melted on her tongue as she watched the brother and sister loss their way in the woods. She hugged her grandfather’s arm and sat in horror and fascination as the wicked old woman locked the children away. After the show, she asked her grandfather about the cage and the cast iron oven, but he just smiled in the bright city street and said: “Even the wicked must eat.” The words had puzzled her, but now she realized that she might be the girl in the forest house. She might be the girl sweeping the kitchen floors. She had forgotten to drop bread crumbs years ago. 

“I’m sorry I never asked your name.” said Joseph. His apology pulled her back to their present cage. “You were always so kind to me, even when there was only broth and cabbage.”

“No one is coming for us, Joseph.”

“You don’t know that.”

She could his breathing speed up. “Yes I do.”

* * * * *

Ava woke in pain. She felt her heart race, thump against her ribs, abruptly slow. She had stopped sweating and the fire in left leg had dissipated to embers. The neighboring bodies were rotting logs in a pitch black wood. She smelled herself heading their way. They had neither heard a voice of rescue nor the crack of shovel. Joseph slept next to her. She laid on her good side, bad hip and leg dead weight. 

He stirred. “My head is pounding. How’s your hip?”

Ava lied. “The same. I’m just thirsty.” 

They paused as dust shifted down from the overhead rubble. Ava could hear their breath rasp in unison. Another moment. Only silence. She wanted him wanted next to her at a musical in a nice suit, wanted him to walk along a park path with her under shade trees, to sit with her and sip dark beer, to feed her small strawberries and candies, to follow a small blond boy running along a city street free of rubble. Ava wanted to trace the crumbs back along the path of her life and out of the woods. She wanted to walk back to the city with Joseph. They would open the door to their house and she would bake apple cakes and he would play guitar on the front steps. They would close the gates on the amphitheater and march away from it.

Ava drifted into a fever sleep:

Brick and stone parted way. She walked out of the rubble and into the auditorium, passed long rows of seats. It was the same stage from her childhood. She knew, without a doubt, that it was set for her: trees and spot lights fixed on the forest path, the house front freshly painted red and white, with dark wood and white plaster that hadn’t aged at all and would stay fresh for a thousand years. She walked down the auditorium aisle, went up a side stair, and onto the stage. She caught a wife of mint. She crossed the stage and tried the front door, found it unlocked. She entered. The living room was in order: a lovely autumn crotchet blanket over the couch, fresh Baby’s Breath in a clear vase, crystal glasses polished in an oak cabinet. Ava stepped into the kitchen and found a four legged oven, hot and full of ash. She turned from the hot cast iron and saw a note on the kitchen table: “Make yourself at home dear. I’ll be back shortly. -Oma.” Ava set the note down and moved through the kitchen. The room smelled of chalk dust and Lyme. She watched as the oven door dropped open and thousands of mints poured out onto the tile floor, like so many white and red stripped molars. She screamed, ran off stage, thrashed through tall dark stage curtains and found her way out into the night street. Her Opa was there, sitting on a metal bench. His cheeks and forehead were wrinkled. He struck a match and lit his pipe. He saw her, stood, and came up to her. His sea gray eyes beamed down at her, were no longer old: “Even the wicked must eat, Ava, my dear child. Even the wicked must eat.”