I should have been frightened that July afternoon when the Gestapo came to my grandfather’s Bavarian home, and if I’d known what my Opa knew, I would have been. Our benefactor, Graf von Schreiber, had been shot for treason. He’d attempted to assassinate our Führer. Yesterday. With a bomb. But I didn’t know.
My father was a faithful soldier. My Opa kept me safe while Papa was gone. The sounds of war, even when they neared, snagged on the dark bowers of the forest that surrounded our cottage. Snug amid the spruce trees, there was little for a ten-year-old girl to fear in that warm July of 1944.
Still, these Gestapo were to be respected. I gawked at them from the kitchen doorway. My grandfather shooed me away. When his attention was once again diverted, I moved back to where I could see and hear.
Two of the men were my papa’s height, but their uniforms, the color of dehydrated moss, were different than my father’s tree-bark gray. The third man, the tallest, had a deep voice and a pretty face and his left fingers tap-tapped on his thigh, busy as a hungry woodpecker. The combination almost made me giggle, but Opa gave me that look of his. The one that stopped me right where I stood.
Opa offered the men chairs, but they remained standing.
“Will you be staying the night?” he asked.
“No. We’ve work to do,” the pretty man said.
“You’ll have supper though?”
The pretty man met my grandfather’s gaze for a long moment before turning toward his men. He motioned toward me and then pointed at the stairs that led to our bedrooms. One of the men walked to the stairs. The other toward me.
I shrank into the kitchen and backed against the wall. The man ignored me. Stooping over, he looked beneath the sink. I scraped at a grass stain on my dress. I’d been digging up rain worms beneath the forest’s trees. I’d found three, each longer than my arm. Opa said we’d fish with them after supper.
The man in our kitchen looked in the pantry and stomped the floors. He went out the back door. I followed and stood on the step while he circled the wood pile. I picked up a stick and poked at pungent dirt in a wooden bucket. My worms were tunneling in there. Later I’d cut them up for fish bait. The man leaned toward the forest as though listening to whispers. If he heard anything, it would’ve surprise me. I hadn’t seen deer in over a year and I’ve never seen Gämse with their funny hooked horns.
He walked back to where I waited. I asked, “Do you want to see my riesige würmer?”
“Nein,” he said, pushing past.
Annoyed he didn’t want to see my worms, I followed him. I stood in the room with the policemen and my grandfather, arms crossed and feet planted.
The pretty man paced. Opa and the other two men sized each other up and decided what could and couldn’t be talked about. They spoke about papa so far away, about the war and rations. I kicked at a warped floorboard and watched dried mud fall from my shoes. We’d had such fun on our hike this morning. Usually Opa and I walked alone, and he’d point out grouse and ptarmigan. Today though, my friends from the village came with us, and—
Hands slapped down on my shoulder jolting me from my thoughts. The pretty man moved me aside. He kicked my warped board once, twice. It didn’t budge.
“Herr Hoffman,” he said, turning from me and the board. “Do you know Graf von Schreiber?”
“Me? No. I’m only a Förster.”
“You are a family friend?”
Opa laughed. “An old man like me? Friends with a count? No. I’m friends with the trees.”
What a strange answer! Just this morning the Countess von Shreiber had summoned Opa. We’d guided her boys—my friends—and their Great Uncle Max on a mountain hike. Oskar and Will rat-a-tatted machine guns made of broken tree limbs. I hid among the evergreens and spied upon my Opa. I heard Uncle Max make Opa promise to find Graf von Shreiber’s boys, which made no sense because they weren’t even pretending to hide. And oh, they were making such noise.
So now I said, “Großvater, our hike this morning—”
“Rosa. Seen. Not heard.” Opa’s voice quavered. The kitchen man smirked. Perhaps he thought Opa was afraid, but I knew better. That tremble was anger. I’d forgotten the rules. We never talked about other families. I kicked at the floorboard again.
The pretty man studied my messy clothes, his smile fierce and lovely. “You hiked this morning? Alone?”
“I walked with Opa and… and I dug up worms. The big ones. Do you want to see them?”
The man’s smile widened. He patted my head and nodded at Opa. “We’ll sit.”
Opa beckoned. “Come here, Rosa.” I moved to his side and he squeezed my hand. “You must make these busy men supper.”
“But we were going—”
“But nothing. Cook up that catfish we caught this morning.” He turned to the three men. “We don’t have much, but it is yours.”
I stared at Opa, my mouth slack.
“Don’t be rude. Go now.”
I snapped my mouth shut. I wanted to tell Opa we had no catfish. We had mustard seed, and cabbage, and some early apples. There were last fall’s Juniper berries in a jar in the pantry. They made everything taste better. And just today, after parting ways with our friends, we bought two eggs and a bit of milk in the village. I’d never made spaetzle, but I could try. Catfish though? That we didn’t have.
I scurried to the kitchen.
Behind me the pretty man said. “Herr Hoffman. You go too.”
In the kitchen I laid out our ingredients for my grandfather. I made the broth, rich and sweet, and added potatoes for body. Opa mixed the dough and added spaetzle one by one to the simmering liquid. He and I ate a bowlful and savored each spoonful.
“Get that catfish now, Rosa. They’re in the bucket outside. I think the two larger ones will do. We’ll use the other later.”
I giggled, finally understanding. “But Opa, why?”
“Someday, you’ll know why. You’ll know why these men, why this day. Right now, no more questions.”
While the men smoked their cigarettes we washed those worms carefully, as though they were new potatoes and we’d be eating the skins. As the men drank from silver flasks and poured over local maps we chopped our worms into little pieces and added them to the broth. The men talked in whispers while the soup simmered a long, long time. My grandfather tasted the wurmsuppe, and said. “More juniper berries I think.” I crushed them and stirred them in and he teased, “Sehr gut. Take a bite, Rosa.”
Our visitors suspected nothing, although the pretty man commented, “One can never fully hide the taste of muck when catfish is caught during July’s heat.” Still, they emptied their bowls.
After daylight gave way to new-moon dark, the men stole past the bucket with its one large worm and taking the path that led to our friends’ village, they disappeared beneath the bowers of the forest.
So, I ask you, what was there for a ten-year-old girl to fear that torrid July in 1944, with juniper berries for bitter soup, and spruce trees for
Barbara Rath writes prose poetry and fiction in the dark hours that surround full-time technical work. She has been published in the online journals, The Birds We Piled Loosely and The Scarlet Leaf Review (August 2018). She is an MFA in Writing candidate at the University of New Hampshire, holds memberships with Boston’s Grub Street and the New Hampshire Writers’ Project (NHWP), and just finished a stint as host for NHWP’s craft and publication webinars. Ms. Rath’s writing journey is chronicled at http://barbararath.com.