Even Silence has an Echo is a short story I first published in Awethology Dark 2015.
Synopsis: A couple work through their marital problems as society crumbles around them...
Even Silence has an Echo
Klaus flung the book into the fire and knew he had to confront his wife. There’d already been dropped calls to the house, the timbre of her voice had lost all its colour and spark, and she no longer wanted to have sex with him. And now that book. It was a first edition of Jung’s Man and His Symbols that he’d found nestled in at the top of the bookshelf, and on the first page it was inscribed with, My Dearest Elisabeth. For you. My undying love, Leo. Klaus watched as those words charred and curled.
He’d been given a rare day off – rare especially with everything that had been going on. The whole country was on the verge of disaster – and now Klaus wondered whether he’d have been better off in the office, still oblivious to his wife’s deception.
He poured himself a whisky. She was due back from the bakery in forty-five minutes. Any later and his suspicions would be confirmed beyond question.
Five p.m. came and went, and another three hours later he was drunk and enraged. He hauled on his trench coat, not bothering with scarf or gloves – the burning cold would not penetrate his grief. He grabbed his keys, opened the door, and there she was sitting on the front step, her back to him.
Klaus stumbled but managed to catch his balance on the railing. He squinted down at her dusky blond hair that, in the last few months, had become splotched with grey. ‘Where were you?’
She did not reply or turn to him, but her shoulders shook, her head finding the sanctuary of her hands. Her fingertips were bloody, the middle nail of her right hand hanging off and caked in blood.
As if sensing his eyes on her, Elisabeth ran her fingers through her hair until the loose nail snagged. She pulled at it, wincing with every tug until the nail ripped off and lodged in her hair.
Klaus wanted to bend down, draw her into his arms, but not only did his temples still throb with hatred towards her, there were flashes of an even more ignoble thought: that whatever had happened to her she’d probably deserved. Still, perhaps it was mere muscle memory of a fourteen-year marriage that compelled him to reach out towards the broken nail, but he snatched his hand back at the last moment and covered his mouth. He was going to be sick.
He ran back inside, down the hall, through the kitchen and into the bathroom, and spewed all over the floor around the toilet. Gasping for breath, clammy with sweat, he wriggled out of his coat, now stained at the hem with vomit. When he looked up, Elisabeth was there in the doorway, her expression obscured by shadows, hair frazzled and in disarray.
‘Are you OK?’ she said, her voice splintery.
Shame burnt his cheeks at her question: that she’d been the one to ask if he was OK when it should have been the other way around, as she was the one who’d clearly been hurt. He hauled himself to his feet, picked up his coat, stumbled past her, into the kitchen, and hung his coat on the back of a chair. He took out the mop from the cupboard, wheeled it past her and mopped up his sick.
‘You should have used bleach,’ Elisabeth murmured once he was done.
Klaus, feeling better, the cruel edge of his earlier hatred blunted by the menial work, closed the toilet lid and sat down. ‘Are you going to tell me –’ where you’ve been, was what he was going to say. Instead: ‘What happened to you?’
She moved over and sat on the edge of the bath. Klaus looked her over. Her lipstick had smudged, eyeliner smeared onto her cheeks, and her coat was ripped at the shoulder. All these things filled Klaus not with sympathy but with dread. Her eyes were dilated and restless, mouth parted, hands twitchy. Clearly she was vulnerable and unhinged, but Klaus knew what was really behind it all: fear.
He’d seen it too many times over the last few years. That haunted, wild-eyed, bewildered look.
But to see it on his wife now...
‘Honey,’ he breathed, reaching out and touching her bloodied hand, ‘what happened?’
She gazed at him, perhaps angry that he should even ask. Then something seemed to wilt within her. ‘I…’ She moved over, sat on Klaus’s lap and laid her head on his shoulder.
His first urge was to push her away. Instead he brushed the nape of her neck then stroked her hair. Eventually his fingers latched onto the errant nail. Using his other hand to keep her hair taut, he worked the nail out and placed it on the sink. A trickle of blood ran from the nail, down the soap groove and into the plughole.
‘It’s OK. You can tell me,’ Klaus said. ‘I can help.’
‘Nothing happened,’ Elisabeth said. ‘I just tripped when I got off the tram.’
Klaus exhaled. ‘We should clean this up.’
He gently moved her off his lap and got some disinfectant and cotton wool from the cabinet. Taking her hand in his, he cleaned the damaged finger. As he worked he didn’t look at her, but he could tell she was watching him, perhaps thankful he wasn’t probing her for truthful answers, at least for now. Klaus kept his concentration on cleaning her finger, trying to fight off the notion that this was the closest they’d been for months.
They went into the kitchen and made coffee, which they drank at the kitchen table. By now Klaus’s nausea had settled and he was left with an airy feeling that perhaps everything would be OK. But as they drained their cups, it wasn’t long before the reality that his wife was in some sort of trouble resurfaced again.
‘They were rounding up more people today,’ Elisabeth began. ‘The town square was crammed with them. I’ve never seen anything… I need something stronger than this.’
She got up, somehow refocused now that she had begun to talk, threw some ice into a glass and poured from the same bottle Klaus had been mauling all afternoon. She drank it in one shot, shook her head comically, poured herself another and sat down.
Trying to ignore the snake of his own fear coiled cold in his stomach, Klaus said, ‘They’re all being sent to east Poland. I told you this was coming. I told you this was always going to happen.’
Elisabeth searched his eyes. ‘What do you mean?’ she stammered, her shaking hands rattling the ice in her glass.
‘Come on, Elisabeth, don’t be thick.’
Elisabeth seemed to be about to speak, caught herself, took a swig of the whisky. This time when she swallowed there was no accompanying shake of the head, just an almost imperceptible curl of her upper lip, and a flash of teeth. ‘Then why didn’t you stop me from fucking Leo?’ she said. ‘If you knew what was…going on out there, you must have known what was happening in your own home.’
At hearing the truth about her affair, a vague sense of relief tempered the cold snake of fear in his gut, but not much. She was right, of course, he had always known. About everything. But that still didn’t excuse what she’d done to their marriage.
‘What have you done?’ he said.
Elisabeth reached over and squeezed his arm, her gaze steady and determined. It crossed his mind that perhaps she wasn’t aware of the danger, but the strength in her hand and in her eyes told him she knew.
‘I think I might have loved him,’ she said. ‘But we only ever…once.’ She paused.
‘Go on,’ Klaus whispered.
She reached behind her chair, draped Klaus’s coat over her shoulders, her bandaged finger toying with the gold-plated swastika emblem pinned to the coat’s breast pocket. Moonlight, percolating through the dusty kitchen window, glimmered silver on the SS collar badge.
‘They took Leo and his family this afternoon. I watched it all. It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen. All those people being herded together and beaten – families, children even – and I just lost it, started screaming…’ She broke off, drew the coat to one side, showed him a scarlet-black bruise on her thigh. ‘One of the officers beat me, threw me to the floor, called me a Jew-loving whore cunt…’ She let the coat fall back, covering the injury. ‘Obviously, he didn’t have a clue who my husband was.’ She looked at him directly, pride and disgust glistening in her eyes. ‘That you could have him killed.’ She smiled with maliciousness then laughed – a shrill noise that chilled the back of Klaus’s neck. ‘Tortured and killed.’
‘Who was he?’ Klaus asked, side-stepping the issue of the grotesque things, as Obersturmführer, he could have done to the officer who’d assaulted his wife; yet even as the words left his mouth he knew it was pointless. Even if he wanted to do something about it, Elisabeth, despite her bravado now, would never allow it.
‘You know that if I tell you who he is we continue to be part of the problem,’ she said.
‘So they took Leo and his family and all the others, packed them on the train, and that was that.’
Two thoughts now hit Klaus, impotent and selfish responses he might utter: Why did you have to fuck someone else? and the more precise: Why did the guy you fucked have to be Jewish? Of all the things that could cause him to lose his job, destroy his carefully cultivated standing with the higher officials of the Waffen-SS, and get him thrown out of the party altogether, for them both to become the object of ridicule: Why did he have to be Jewish?
What he said in the end was: ‘I need you to think carefully…’ He waited for her to lock eyes with him. ‘Apart from the officer that hit you, did anybody else see you there?’
She shook her head as if the act of doing so might fill her with conviction. But it wasn’t enough. ‘No. I don’t think so. I don’t know. Maybe… I’m sorry, Klaus, I don’t know.’ Her eyes brimmed with tears, but she refused to let them fall, wiping them away with the back of her hand.
Klaus was about to probe further but knew it wouldn’t make any difference. They had to assume she’d been seen. Had to assume that right now their names were being whispered in secret offices, their paper identities trawled through the system, that even if Klaus’s relatively high rank as Senior Storm Leader could count for something, it wouldn’t be enough to stop the machine from killing them both.
They had to assume the dull rubbery thud of boots and the cold click of gunmetal were echoing down deserted cobbled streets towards them at this very moment.
‘We have to go,’ Klaus said. ‘We have to go now.’
‘Wait,’ Elisabeth said, taking both his hands. He thought she was going to protest, plead with him that they couldn’t just leave their family and up and escape Germany. But she didn’t. Instead: ‘I need to know if you forgive me.’
Forgive her? Klaus scrunched his eyes: she was yet to realise that he needed her to forgive him. For all the things he’d done, could never take back, could never forget. For joining the party and allowing himself, during those heady years of the mid-twenties, to ride high on the swift and chilly air currents of National Socialist rhetoric and its saccharine covenant of revenge.
Forgive him for sitting silent and rigid in those terrible party meetings; nodding, docile, offering little more than a childish flinch at his colleagues’ slammed fists, staring straight ahead rather than confronting the spectre of those reddened faces and their flying spit of vindication…
Then more recently, after 1933, as Germany geared itself up for the ultimate expansion. All those interrogations happening farther down the corridor, and he’d kicked his office door closed, turned up the radio, buried himself in paperwork… And even that wasn’t enough to drown out the muffled screeches, or when a shrilled, broken-toothed gurgle smashed off crumbling walls, through the medieval ventilation system and into his draughty office. Klaus would run to the window, stick his head out and listen to the chug of the generator, the lazy bark of dogs and the warble of the blackbirds’ call… Those birds! When someone was pleading for their life, or gargling forced confessions through a ripped tongue held together by broken fingers, the birds did not fly away, startled, skittish, spooked. No. They chirped, they sang, they went right on ahead with their daily birdsong... Then Klaus, tortured, would cover his ears and hum Deutschland, Erwache! over and over to stop those screams, those horrifying cat-like retches of the walking skeletal that smashed off the crumbling walls and ricocheted through the medieval ventilation system and over the blackbirds’ calls... And those haunting screams followed him on his way home, too, clung to him, like sea fog, inside his house and into bed, bringing fetid and fitful dreams...
He clasped at his stomach, now twisting in on itself, racked and convolved. He was breathless, heart palpitations throbbing through his chest, an arctic sweat chilling his brow.
Oh God, what about the forms?
The damage and destruction from the soft brush of pen on paper, a minuscule twitch of muscles at the end of manicured fingers, and people’s lives forever altered.
He clutched his head, and now tears came hot and heavy and blinding and useless. He fell to his knees before Elisabeth, grasping at her skirt. Elisabeth crouched next to him, and now she too was crying.
‘What was Leo’s last name?’ he gasped.
‘Shush,’ Elisabeth pleaded.
‘...His last name..!?!’
She pulled his hair, sending jolts of electric pain tearing into his scalp. ‘Don’t...’
‘I have to know. We both have to know it was... me who signed the forms.’
Elisabeth emitted a pained, guttural half-scream, her finger nails clawing at his face. ‘Stop!’
Klaus let her nails tear into his face, did nothing to stop her.
Leo, he thought, the man who took my wife, took everything from me…
Elisabeth bunched her hands and slammed them over and over into his chest, yet he still did not stop her.
And as she continued to plough into him with those delicate fists, a realisation, scalpel-sharp and unforgiving, bladed into Klaus’s heart: Leo, by loving Elisabeth, by bringing the troubled Germany into his home, had made Klaus confront who he was, and in doing so might well have...saved him.
He caught Elisabeth’s hands, drew her close and looked into her eyes. Sensing something had changed in him, she calmed, her shoulders falling still.
‘You know I’ll always love you,’ Klaus said, ‘but time’s running out. You need to leave.’
Her eyes, red-rimmed and beseeching, searched the entirety of his face. ‘What..? …What do you mean…? You’re staying?’
‘Take what money there is and go.’ Then, seeing her unwilling or unable to move: ‘NOW!’
Elisabeth flinched, backed away, and scrambled to her feet. She took a few hesitant steps towards the kitchen door. All the money was upstairs in a Lande Ohne tobacco tin, and Klaus reckoned there was enough to bargain her way out of Germany. Before she went to get it, however, she turned back to him.
‘Rosner,’ she whispered.
Klaus held her gaze, managed to give her a nod, a look of thanks. She seemed to be about to speak again, but didn’t. She wiped her eyes, backed away, and ran out of the room.
You took everything I had, Klaus thought, getting onto his feet, but, somehow, by loving her, you gave us back our lives.
Paperwork may have condemned you, Leo, but paperwork can still save you. I’ll find you, Leo Rosner – you and your family. I’ll find you.