Chapter 41: MURDER
14 July 1963
The number 74 remained on my bedroom mirror even though it had now been three weeks since that awful day. Unable to bear looking at the number any longer, I reached over and smudged it off. The reflection before me suggested I wore another person’s clothing as my dress slipped off my shoulder. I pulled the loose sleeve back in place as I stared at the glass smear. The memory of that day was imprinted in my head every waking moment, and from the dark circles that accented my weary eyes, I was sure it plagued my dreams as well.
Despite the few visible wounds and only a small scar where my nose and hip had been cut, I appeared hollow and empty, unable to even force myself to smile. By early afternoon, I made my way to the rocking chair even though Mama had placed a warm bowl of Linsensuppe on the table. She had studied the healing powers of lentils and garlic, but even the lovely aroma of that and the Kalter Hund sweet cake, baking in the oven, couldn’t entice me to eat.
Time had not been kind to me. I was thin and weak. Daily, Mama tried hard to get me to consume something, but I refused. My appetite after the attack hadn’t returned, and with Stefan’s subsequent arrest, eating seemed like a luxury I didn’t deserve. I punished myself harshly. If Stefan couldn’t indulge in anything, neither could I, including food.
Katharina sent word with Lena last night—she had news. I could not allow myself to be hopeful until she arrived in the next few hours. If I imagined the possibility of Stefan’s freedom and it was a lie, it would destroy what was left of me. I had nothing more to give.
I reached for a new book Mama had brought home in hopes of lifting my spirits, The Flight of Icarus. In past conversation, she learned of my interest in Greek mythology and with what little money she had, she attempted to brighten my world. Since leaving the Frankes’ vast library, I read Immensee another two times, only to find myself in an emotional quarrel knowing full well it reminded me of Anton. Another indulgence to refuse.
In this book, Icarus had been given a pair of meticulously crafted wings by his father, Daedalus, to escape a labyrinth, which he created at the demand of King Minos to imprison his enemies with horrible creatures like the minotaur. Daedalus warned his son not to fly too high or the sun would melt the wax that secured them nor too low that the dampness of the sea would weigh them down. Icarus, caught up with the thrill of flying, ignored the warnings and fell into the sea when the sun melted the wax . . . the Icarian Sea is his final resting place.
I too had been given a great gift. The gift of love, companionship, and devotion and in a similar manner did not recognize the value or heed the warnings, and because of my carelessness, came crashing to the earth. Nothing will ever be named after me and my foolish actions—no, instead, someone else will pay the debt. Even in my reading I could not find relief.
Each day grew darker. I couldn’t imagine what the future held, much less the next hour. I couldn’t even bring myself to write Anton or Joseph. Somehow, I felt if my thoughts turned to Anton, I would be turning my back on Stefan, and I couldn’t do that.
“Ella?” Mama shuffled in holding something tight in her fist.
My eyes shifted her direction, but I didn’t speak.
“I found this under the chair this morning.” She held out a folded piece of paper as she shook her head. “I’m just not as thorough as I used to be.” Confusion covered my face. I knew she struggled to keep the floor as immaculate as she desired, but why would I want a piece of rubbish?
“Ella, here.” Insistent, she pushed it into my palm. Immediately, the familiar shape of a pin poked against my fingers. I choked back a sob. It had been a few days after the incident that I sadly realized Anton’s tinnie pin was attached to my clothing . . . the clothing left on the floor of the remand room. I quickly unraveled the paper, a simple message was revealed.
“This jewel was found on your dress, I hope its return will bring you some peace.”
I had been separated from Anton’s shield pin several times, and every time it somehow found its way back to me. What does this mean? My lip trembled as my thumb glided over the details. My spirit yearned for Anton in my life, but it was my heart that belonged to Stefan.
A mere moment later, Mama happily announced from the door, “Katharina is here.” Her voice always carried a lighter tune when she spoke to me, a vast contradiction to the emotional pleadings I heard her cry at night in her prayers. Even though I was not her daughter by relation, she cared for me as though I was.
I stood up from the rocker and let my book fall to the ground, the pin still in my grip. My dress annoyingly slipped off my shoulder once more as Katharina approached. Her hand flew to her mouth, a wisp of air escaped despite her attempt to stop it.
“Ella.” She reached for me. Her arms had never completely enclosed me before. Her hands lingered on my arms as she released her embrace. “Ella, you’re . . .” She glanced at Mama, then the table where my food remained untouched. “Are you eating?” The concern in her face increased as her eyes visually scanned the length of my body.
“I’m not hungry,” I whispered, steading myself against the arm of the chair. Even standing for a few minutes, drained what insufficient energy I had.
“Oh, Ella, . . .” She kissed my hand sweetly. “Please, Ella, sit down.” She waved her hand. “I have to tell you something.”
From the lift in her voice, my own heart sensed a dormant charge.
Maybe she really does have good news.
“Stefan . . . is not being sentenced . . . to death,” she wept in between her words. I watched her intently, not being sentenced to death does not mean free. “He has still been sentenced though.” My face fell as she continued, “He faces ten years of active duty service in the Nationale
My mouth fell open. “Ten years?” I wasn’t sure how to react. A decade was an exceptionally long time. Normal conscription was only eighteen months. His sentence seemed unfair. I shook my head. The news really was better than expected; he would not be in prison or a Stasi labor camp . . . or . . . executed.
I cried hard. Both of us did as we clung to one another. It was overwhelming. Picturing Stefan as a soldier was difficult, but a much better image than the one I was preparing for.
“He leaves in two days—the 6am train to Strausberg.” She smiled through her tears. “We get to see him off at the train station.” “We?” My eyes lifted.
Then Katharina realized what she had said.
“Oh, Ella, I’m sorry . . .” She bit her lip and turned away as if it was she who betrayed me. “Mother and father will be there.” I nodded.
“It would not be a good idea right now if you came,” she whispered. I could sense she was trying to be kind in her rejection, but it still felt as sharp as a blade.
My eyes dropped again. Of course, nothing has changed their conflict with me. I know they despise me . . . and they are his family. They need to say goodbye.
I was instantly jealous. It wasn’t Katharina’s fault. I couldn’t change what happened. If I could . . . what would I change? The only thing I could imagine is not serving that day. Every other decision I’ve made since Papa passed led me to Stefan in a strange but destined way. He was part of me now.
“I have to go” —Katharina kissed me on the cheek— “but I’ll let you know how we can get letters to him. I know he would want to hear from you . . . and, Ella, is there something you want me to tell him? I could whisper it in his ear.”
“Tell him I’m sorry—” My eyes once again filled with tears. “— and I love him.”
I said goodbye to Katharina and waited for her to leave before I tumbled to the floor once again. The sensation of touching, pressing against something seemed to be the only comfort I could find. I rolled to my knees and held my sides tightly. Please! I begged aloud. If there really was a God, I needed him to hear me right now more than ever. Please! Please! One chance! I’m only asking for one chance to see him again! Mama’s footsteps, although dainty, slapped in a hurry my direction. She scooped me up in her arms and cradled me in her chair with minimal exertion. Either her adrenaline was improved or I really had lost a great deal of weight . . . or both. My head fell gently into the curve of her neck as she began to hum.
“Ten years,” I mumbled. My chest heaved as I let the tears come. “Ten years.” Just saying it was immensely painful.
It was difficult to be grateful. Stefan was given a chance to live— he would be breathing, talking, and maybe even laughing again, it was not forever—but ten years could change everything.