Chapter 5: GRIEBNITZEE STATION
It didn’t matter how long I lay on the floor and tried to imagine another outcome, I still faced imminent removal in three days. I had no family, no support, and no options. Then the question suddenly struck me . . . what would Anton do? In the orphanage, he was clever and cunning. Often times he could outwit the nurses. When I was adopted, he was only fourteen and moved to the street. His ability to not only survive but function proved he would be disappointed in me right now—especially if I gave up so quickly.
I glanced around. The few furnishings we had wouldn’t fetch a price. Papa sold nearly everything of value, including the automobile, to bury mother. I, personally, had nothing of importance. With urgency, I opened all the cupboards and drawers—the very same places I checked when Papa passed, and the same sad result emerged. I deliberately passed by the phonograph, the only thing I could not let go of. I still held the hope of finding “La Vie En Rose”. I then spied the small carton of beeswax and chalk.
It was a long shot. Not even possibly worth consideration, but maybe—just maybe—the drawings I’d done held some slight benefit. Maybe someone would find them useful. Maybe some moneyed parent would buy one for their child. I knew it was a risk, possibly even nonsensical considering the east had so little, nevertheless, I had no other choice.
It was already dark outside. With no time to waste, I gathered my papers and supplies and walked down to the station. There were always people near Griebnitzsee at this time of night. Surely I would find someone who would pay fifty Pfennige or a Mark for a pretty picture.
I had no specific recollection of when my love for drawing began. The orphanage didn’t offer a lot of ways for me to learn or grow, outside of punishment, so doodling became a channel for me to express emotion. Anger, frustration, happiness, and fear; they all came out in my drawings. It wasn’t until Nurse Margret commented on my designs that I started to believe there might be a talent. I used anything I could find that made a scratch. My tenth Christmas, der Weihnachtsmann left me a small tin of
Stockmar wax blocks. This was the best gift I’d ever received at the home.
My favorite design was the butterfly. I’d rarely seen one in real life, only in books. I was smitten with the size of the wings in comparison to the small yet strong body and what seemed like limitless freedom—to go anywhere at any time and spread beauty along the way. The colors and design were an empty canvas. Anything could be created on a butterfly wing.
I sat with folded legs on the cold sidewalk. September nights brought a sharp pinch of chilly air, which indicated the possibility of another harsh winter. I laid several older pictures against the concrete around me and started to sketch a new one. The butterfly I placed in Papa’s casket was my favorite creation. The bodice was black with a vibrant glow of red and orange streaks exploding against the yellow wings.
Tonight, though, I would do a green one in honor of Anton. I worked feverishly for roughly thirty minutes without even the slightest response, until . . .
“What do we have here?” A group of mischievous teenagers looking for fun had stumbled upon my make-shift market. The boy who emerged as the group leader reached for a print before I could resist.
“Oops,” he sniggered. His finger smudged across the chalk and smeared the right wing into blended destruction. The other boys laughed at what their friend had done.
My face swelled with heat, though I said nothing. He moved swiftly as I reached for the page but pawed at nothing but air. Again, he got a hoot from his entourage. My hands dropped, and I stared him coldly in the eyes. I did not cower under his bullying nor take his bait, but simply said, “Sold. That will be one Mark.”
“Ha,” he chuckled. I’m sure he thought I was joking. I did not crack a smile. His eyebrow curled with curiosity as his lips wrinkled into a sly, half grin.
“Well, it’s damaged.” He laughed out loud and winked at the only girl in the group. She giggled with delight at his sole attention.
“One Mark or I scream,” I said, clearly and slowly. My face zeroed in on his. His light-blue eyes pretended to be expressionless, yet his pupils dilated. His face tilted slightly. He attempted to play it cool as his hand brushed his blonde bangs aside, but his face angled just enough to prove he searched for confirmation of my bluff. There was no sound. I did not back down.
“Pshhh, Obdachlose.” He shrugged his shoulders as if he didn’t care. His hand reached into his dress pant pocket and sprinkled a few coins on the ground, well outside my reach. “Keep it. It’s nothing.” He glanced at me one last time, his mouth turned upward into a calculating grin as his shoe pressed weightily on the picture as he walked away.
I waited until they were completely out of sight before I scrambled to pick up the silver coins. He had paid three times what I asked and ended his game with an insult. Tears of humiliation filled my eyes; I was like a beggar on the street. Defeated, I gathered my belongings and fought the urge to openly cry until I got home. Even with my shameful attempt to make some money, the three Marks I received wouldn’t even get me a room for the night.
Discouraged, my shoulders hung heavy as I walked. The outline of the dirty shoe print, which had distorted my drawing, enraged and pained me equally. I thought about Anton and what he would do. This brought a meager smile to my face because I knew exactly what he’d do. The thought of seeing the arrogant snob flat on his back or forced to apologize was satisfying, despite it being an imaginary scheme. Anton would never let anyone treat me that way. He made it very clear after a few physical run-ins his first year at the home. Eventually, by the time he was thirteen, his body had started to fill in, and he was no longer viewed as skinny and frail, but by then it didn’t matter, because everyone was afraid of him.
“Anton, you have to stop fighting!” I cried as we made our way down the hallway.
“They just make me so mad, Ella.” His hand rubbed along the top of his very short hair where the strands had recently been shaved off.
“They need to stop calling you blackie!” Anton’s face turned a shade darker the faster he spoke.
“Anton—” I reached for his arm to stop him, “—it’s OK.”
“But, Ella, you aren’t!”
I timidly examined my feet. Anton had become my best friend in a short time, only there were things we still didn’t talk about. “Nurse
Margret says my papa had to be a Negro.”
“Your mama wasn’t.”
“How do you know?”
“I saw your mama’s picture, the one under your bed. She looks like me.”
“I guess. I don’t remember. I was a baby.”
“Look!” Anton held his pale-white arm against mine. “See, you’re only a little darker than me. Like you are sunned!” I laughed. It almost seemed true.
“It doesn’t matter, anyway,” Anton whispered, “except, if
Frederick doesn’t stop, he will be sorry.”
For the first time, I saw Anton’s face differently. It wasn’t hidden anymore. His cheeks and jawbone were more defined than ever before, and those eyes—his striking eyes—were staring right at me.
“What?” he asked as he stopped near the stairway. The small candle’s flame on the platter danced before him, his breath moving it unwittingly side to side. Anton’s shield, pinned to his collar, flashed in response. I hadn’t realized I was staring.
“What? What?” I brushed it off and kept walking, although something felt different inside my chest. I must be getting sick.
As I walked back into my empty apartment that night, after the degrading encounter with the rich boy, I wished rather hard I hadn’t taken Anton’s friendship for granted. I missed him so much it hurt. He was all I could think about as I fell asleep. The same tinnie pin Anton wore in the orphanage was clutched tightly in my palm.