Chapter 11: ENTITLED
It was a bit of an adjustment to not only go from living alone but to living with complete strangers. Nevertheless, I learned very quickly why everyone called Frau Genau, Mama G. She was like a mother hen, protective of those around her, and I became no exception. Despite the unfavorable living conditions, I settled into my new life easily, attributing it to the minimal expectations I’ve had since childhood and the ease of which Mama G made it.
One of the wonderful surprises I discovered after my arrival was another phonograph—much older than the one we had at the Kühn’s, but I was hardly picky. Mama only had one record, “Irgendwann Erwacht Ein Neuer Tag” (Sometime Awakened a New Day). She had a thing for Camillo Felgen’s velvety voice. Watching Mama’s reaction as she listened to him croon nearly every night at sunset, renewed my own desire to search for “La Vie En Rose” (Life in a Rosey Hue) once again.
Work at the Frankes’ was also going well. Quickly learning everything Lena taught me, I managed a routine of my own with responsibilities in the dining room, kitchen, parlors, and library. Each day was filled with constant labor, dusting, cleaning, vacuuming, washing, and polishing, only to repeat it all the next day. Hard work was natural for me, so I pulled my weight wherever I went, but it was lonely. I missed my family.
After my adoption, there was very little time to get to know Mama Kühn. She was healthy when I first arrived, but thirteen months later, she fell violently ill. Josef suffered more with her loss. He was adopted a good three years before me, so he had her for four of his eight years.
That one year with Mama was special. She spent much of our days educating me. I had a five-year-old reading level at the age of eleven, a typical consequence since the orphanage was always filled beyond capacity. Subsequently, education routinely fell far behind basic care. My drawing was the only literacy lessons I engaged in, and it was self-taught. Art was my outlet to a very isolated existence. Mama worked tirelessly to help me learn to read, write, and discover a love for books.
It was because of that love my favorite place to clean at the
Frankes’ was the library. They had an extensive supply and variety of books. On occasion, when I believed no one was around, I would pick one off the shelf and glance through it. Some I could read, others I could not, yet all fascinated me the same.
I had one book at home, besides Josef’s childhood storybook. Immensee had been given to me from the Kühns the first Christmas I was with them. Written by Theodor Storm, the story follows Reinhard and Elisabeth throughout their tumultuous lives. Over time, what started out as a young friendship—surviving both separations and challenges— developed into love. It wasn’t until after I finished it for the second time, I imagined mine and Anton’s lives somehow paralleled this story. Our own friendship started much the same way, only we faced a much larger division, one with no possible reunion in sight. It was a romantic thought but quite painfully hollow.
“What are you looking at?” The unexpected voice made me jump, and the book I held fell to the floor. I didn’t move. Katharina walked over and picked it up.
“Oh, you don’t want this one,” she said with a wide smile. “I have a good one for you if you like poetry.” She placed it back on the shelf and went to the opposite part of the room. Her finger ran along the spines of several books until she found one, removed it, and grabbed the book hidden behind it.
“You will love this one! It’s from my secret place.” Her happy, energetic personality each time I saw her was rare in this home. Of course, with the life she lived, why would she be otherwise?
I remained still as she held it out to me.
“It’s OK—” she paused, “—my parents are away.”
I wanted to. I was curious. As she picked up my hand and placed the small brown book in my palm, I glanced at the door for assurance then back to her. The name Heiner Müller was deeply engraved on the front cover. I smiled. Katharina knew what I knew . . . if her parents realized she had this book or even read it, they would be angry. His works had recently been banned in the DDR.
“Thank you, Katharina.”
Her eyes went wide. “No fair, how do you know my name? I still don’t know yours.”
I grinned. “It’s Ella.”
Katharina paused as she stared at my face, only inches away. I hesitated and waited for the questions to come regarding my skin color.
They always did.
“I believe you have the prettiest face I’ve ever seen.” I shifted uncomfortably, slightly shocked at her directness.
“I” —my hand brushed a small bead of sweat off my nose— “I . . .
don’t know what to say.”
Katharina smiled and whispered, “Thank you is enough.”
I smiled back. “Thank you.”
“Ella?” Katharina sat on one of the canapés in the room and patted the seat next to her. “Will you read with me?” I still didn’t move. I was too nervous.
“It’s OK, I promise,” she justified and patted the seat again.
I relaxed and moved to sit next to her. Opening the cover to the first poem, I handed it to her, indicating I wanted her to read first. Her beautiful, eloquent voice was perfect for poetry, the vocabulary recited was extensive and refined. She handed the book back to me when she finished. I was afraid to read now.
“Come on,” she encouraged, “it’s your turn.” Her countenance was warm and inviting. She had such a natural way of making others feel good. I picked up the book and flipped the page.
“Leichter Regen auf Leit—“
“Leichtem Staub,” Katharina helped.
“Leichtem Staub die Weiden im Gasthof—“
“Katharina?” a voice sailed in from the hall. “Katharina?”
“I’m in the library, Stefan,” Katharina answered but didn’t take her eyes off the book. “Keep going,” she said. She didn’t seem to care if Stefan saw us.
It’s hard to say whose expression was more surprised, his or mine. In the three weeks I worked at the Frankes’ home, I’d never managed to come face to face with Stefan. Nor did I really care. Although here, right now, I wished I’d had some foresight.
“What are you doing here?” Stefan’s tone was sharp.
“What do you mean?” Katharina missed the fact he directed his question to me. “I’m always in here,” she responded.
“Not you, her!”
“She’s taking her break with me. We’re reading.” Katharina had again missed his underlying intent.
“What are you doing in my house?” He came closer with a threatening look in his eyes. Those pale-blue eyes I would remember for the rest of my life.
“I am staff. I work here.” I boldly stood up from Katharina’s side.
She slowly tried to piece our conversation together.
“Not here, you aren’t!” Stefan’s disgust was clear.
“Stefan!” Katharina exclaimed. “You are being rude!”
“Katharina, she is obdachlose—”
“No, I’m not!” I shot back defensively. “I’m not homeless!”
“She lives on the street, Katharina! She’s a beggar!” Stefan’s pale face turned a deeper shade of red. “Mother would be livid if she knew.”
Katharina’s eyes went wide, glancing at me and then her brother. It was apparent she wondered who was telling the truth.
“How do you know this, Stefan?” Katharina asked logically, showing maturity beyond her years.
I wondered what he would say. His condescension towards me and my drawing would always be engrained in my memory.
“I saw her,” were the only words uttered in response.
I turned to Katharina and pleaded, “I rent a room. I have a home.”
“Are you saying you were never selling a painting down at the
Griebnitzsee station with the other vagabond?” Stefan was unrelenting.
“I was selling my artwork to avoid being homeless,” my voice rose heatedly. I couldn’t believe I had to justify anything to this spoiled boy. “Why don’t you tell Katharina how you really behaved that ni—” I bit my lip with restraint. I had more to lose now.
Stefan’s stance was unmoved. His eyes narrowed. “You don’t belong here!” he snapped.
Katharina held her hand up, “Please, be quiet.” She stared at us, then at the door. Her eyes reflected concern as if others might be listening. “Katharina, I am not from the streets. Ask Lena.” “Who’s Lena?” Stefan asked as he glared my direction.
“Another staff member,” Katharina answered. Of course he wouldn’t know, even though she’d been there for years.
“Get this taken care of Katharina!” Stefan demanded. “The streets are full of resistance to the DDR, and father’s reputation is at stake.”
As if he really cared about that with all his own irresponsible conduct.
“She could be an oppositionist.” He sneered and walked out.
“I’m not a rebel, Katharina.” I placed my hand over hers. “I don’t side with anyone politically, . . . and I’m not from the streets.”
“I believe you, Ella,” she sighed. Her eyes grew sad. “But I must confirm it for father’s sake.”
I knew I had nothing to worry about, Lena would clarify the situation. Although, the fact Stefan caused Katharina to have doubts in my integrity bothered me the most. Additionally, his shallow attitude skillfully managed to degrade me a second time without, it seemed, an ounce of regret in his body. He infuriated me.