The Little German Boy

“Everything will be just fine,” Greta murmured. She rocked back and forth with the small, frightened child in her lap, and hoped that he didn’t feel her racing heart and her fear. He clung to her neck and sobbed, voicelessly. He didn’t even pull on his nose or sniffle. He just let his tears and nose run and his shoulders shake, all in eerie silence. Greta was horrified that any child his age – she guessed he was four or five, although he was small and terribly thin – could control himself this way. The boy that she’d had when she was younger had been rambunctious, always running around, putting his hands into everything, shouting at the top of his voice until he tired himself out and plopped down in the comfiest spot in the house for a nap, just like an enthusiastic kitten might do.
“Shh, shh,” Greta began and stopped herself immediately. No, no, she shouldn’t, she mustn’t shush him. The poor thing hadn’t spoken a word, hadn’t made a sound since entering her house. She knew why, or she thought she knew why, but she didn’t want to think about it, and succeeded in pushing the complicated, conflicting notions out of her mind. She hoped that her son wouldn’t get home tonight. He hadn’t said he would, but sometimes he popped by after a night of drinking with the men, and when that happened, she never knew what kind of mood he’d be in. He was often weepy and melancholy as a drunk, and he would want to discuss her memories of him as a boy. But sometimes he would get himself into a rage and would talk at Greta, pacing around and around the small kitchen like a caged tiger at a circus. When he was like that, she tried to make herself small. He frightened her then and reminded her of her husband, may God rest his fiery soul and protect him from ending up in Hell.
The sobs abated and Greta pulled back from the child, trying to look into his face. He allowed her to do so, becoming limp like a rag doll in her arms and looking down at his little hands instead of up into her eyes. He’d only met her gaze once, when she’d found him in the outhouse, shivering, and then there’d been such fear – such absolute terror! – in his hungry eyes that Greta was almost thankful that she hadn’t needed to face it again.
A shout from outside made them both jump. Greta listened, and recognized the sounds of a parade starting to go through the village streets. The soldiers paraded often – theirs was a small town, and they didn’t have much work to do in it in between ventures to other towns in the area to recruit or into the countryside to scour it for runaways. As the boots began to pound the street, the boy in Greta’s arms started to shiver violently and then tried to leap off of her.
She struggled to hold him close, but he was like a wild animal, scratching at her hands and kicking his feet, trying to get away. When he bit her finger, she let out a moan of pain and let go and he scampered off through the house. Greta was off the couch in a second, after him. He ran from one small room to another, trying to open doors and windows, but they were all locked – Greta had locked them quickly and silently when she’d brought him in. She’d pulled the shades down too. When he couldn’t find a way out, he crawled right into the chimney and attempted climbing up it, frantically, falling down over and over again, try as he might to catch a handhold.
Greta knelt in front of the hearth and held out her arms to him, ignoring the pain in her finger. “Come, I’ll protect you,” she whispered. “They won’t get you. They won’t come here. You’re safe. You’re my little boy – I have peroxide, we can dye your hair, everything will be alright. My little blue-eyed boy.”
He stared at her, his sea-blue eyes stretched wide. He touched his hair, so filthy that Greta didn’t know whether it was brown or black. He met her eyes again, and she wondered whether someone like her had betrayed him once already, because there was such wariness in his face, such uncertainty.
“Everything is going to be alright, I promise. I’ll protect you,” she said again. Slowly, ever so slowly, he crawled out the fireplace and allowed her to whisk him away to the kitchen, where she made him a hot cup of tea as that parade went by outside.

A Mad Woman in Berlin

She leaned over the back to back metal benches and asked the pair of English tourists if they smoked tobacco. Her accent was thick, sometimes sounding German, and at others Russian, although her English was good. The man, glancing uneasily at his partner, answered that he did. When the woman asked if she could have some, he looked confused for a moment. His partner told the woman that they only had cigarettes. The woman nodded eagerly, and asked if she could have one. The man smiled politely and produced a pack of Camels. The woman asked for a light, and the man leaned over toward her and lit her cigarette, which she sucked on greedily. He then turned to his partner, and they both spoke for a while in another language.

The mad woman didn’t quite fit the stereotype of a homeless person, living on the streets. Her hair was a shock of grayish-brown and her skin looked almost healthy. She was somewhere between forty and fifty, but wore the age well on her face, which was elegantly lined, although her cheeks were still full and youthful. Her clothing was oddly fancy, or at least the top half was. She wore what looked like a light brown leather jacket and her handbag was of similar material and color. The mere fact that she had a handbag was strange. Her skinny legs were wrapped in tight pants in shades of brown, olive and black, like a military uniform made into fashionable jeans. The mix between the pants and the well-kept leather jacket were perhaps an indication of her madness. Still, she could have been an eccentric fashionista and nothing more.

Except, that is, for the fact that she was talking to herself loudly and was holding a pink carton of cheap wine.

“It is security, you see. I don’t trust a man, and security is inside me. You have to stay inside the clothes, inside the pants. The pants are protection, they protect me. But I am an attractive woman. If another man come near I go away. But if another woman approach me,” and here she sounded a little defensive, “then that is okay, I mean I am an attractive woman. A woman can look at a woman and appreciate her and I don’t mind if a woman looks at me.” She took a drink from her pink bottle, and the smell of wine washed over the English tourists as well as the others on the platform. Just then, the train arrive, and everyone boarded, including the mad woman.

She sat across from the English couple and fell silent for a time. When a fat man with a tiny dog boarded at the next station and sat next to her, she got up at once and moved into the narrow space between the Englishwoman and a bearded businessman. She started talking again. “It is like the jackets, do you know the jackets in London?” she turned to the businessman. It wasn’t clear whether he ignored her or nodded for she kept speaking almost at once. “There are nice jackets in London, long coats. Every person should have them, they are made of good fabric, of, what is it called… Not wool, it’s not wool. It’s not like the jeans. There are jeans that are made of denim, and they are the color of – the color of indigo. How do you say indigo in German?” she turned to the Englishwoman.

“I don’t speak German, I’m sorry,” the tourist said, shrugging and smiling, but drawing closer to her companion so as not to brush the woman’s jacket.

“That’s right, you’re not from here,” the mad woman dismissed her at once and continued speaking of fabrics and jackets in America as opposed to those in London. She got off at the next stop, still speaking to herself in a loud, coherent voice, as if she were having a conversation with someone else. The English tourists probably never saw her again, but there was no way they would forget this strange and lonely woman who chose them as smoking- and seat-companions on a short journey on the U-Bahn in Berlin.