A Novel by Martha Conway
So We must meet apart –
You there – I – here –
With just the Door ajar
– Emily Dickinson
June 21, 1940
He’s not nervous until he sees the expression on the pilot’s face looking back toward the rear of the aeroplane. Dieter looks, too. Smoke is rising from the Junker’s starboard engine.
Today marks the midsummer, the ceremonial time halfway between planting and harvest. He’d just been looking out his small, square window and thinking how Ireland reminds him of Germany—the green fields and gray stone houses, the sloping hills and brown rivers. His grandmother’s house outside Hamburg was made of a similar gray stone, with cherry-red shutters and a veranda where they ate breakfast in good weather. He was sent to Oma—“that old witch,” his father called her—for the first time when he was four, the day after his baby sister was accidentally scalded to death in a boiling bath. After that he spent every summer with her, away from his mother’s bruised face and his father’s temper. It was the only place where, as a child, Dieter was happy.
The pilot, Hans Anschuler, nudges the radio operator sitting next to him, cocking his head toward the problem: a rising gray plume wagging in the wind like a tail.
Dieter is sitting alone in the rear double seat. “You must try to land her,” he shouts over the noise.
Anschuler is the same age he is, twenty-two, but seems younger. His face is stiff, all bone and nose. His forehead is bright with sweat.
“Yes, yes,” Anschuler shouts back irritably as the metal frame starts to wobble. He doesn’t like to be told what to do but Dieter is in charge of this operation.
It’s twilight, the time of day when, according to his grandmother, ghosts can be seen walking our world. Technically, civil twilight; Dieter calculates the sun to be only 5 or 6 degrees below the horizon. The moon won’t rise until after midnight. They’d planned on cloud cover to hide them or, failing that, indecision on the part of the Irish. They’ve no anti-aircraft machinery as far as Dieter knows, and an army made up mostly of bicyclists.
Anschuler cranes his neck left and right looking for a suitable place to land while the radio operator sends out a distress signal. The faulty engine coughs and hisses as though someone is applying wire cutters to it, raising sparks. Below them, in the elbow of the river, Dieter can see a block of shops ending in a long, flat field.
He’s leaning forward trying to read the altimeter over Anschuler’s shoulder when something through the windscreen makes him blink: one of the shops is displaying a German banner. A trick of the light? But no, there’s the white circle and the Nazi insignia. Even more surprising: a German Panzer truck is parked on the dirt road. But that’s impossible. The German high command has not committed to an invasion of the Irish Free State, as they like to call Ireland. Not yet, at least. What would be like to rule the Irish like the Norse did, and then the English after them? To teach Irish children German, lead competitive games, reward healthy habits and physical bravery? Dieter’s supervisor back in Hamburg declared the Irish unteachable; “subhuman,” he called them. A word cast about in many directions these days.
The plane circles as it descends over the shops. The Nazi banner flaps in the wind. “Do you see that?” Dieter asks.
But Anschuler has begun pulling the nose up to bleed off excessive speed. The plane’s wobble has grown into a violent shaking, and although the field looks to be long enough there’s a ditch and a stand of trees to clear first. The smell of smoke and burning fuel fills the cabin.
Dieter leans forward again. “Stay above 300 hundred feet until the last turn.”
But even as he’s speaking the starboard engine coughs and cuts out.
No more turns. They have to land.
Anschuler pulls at the controls furiously, trying to hold the plane level as it approaches the field. The radio operator—an old man at forty—is clutching his iron cross as the stone farmhouses and green fields zoom in ever closer. In the day’s leftover sunlight Dieter can see the grain glittering as though their tips have been dipped in ice.
Is this how it ends? His stomach tightens but strangely he isn’t afraid. His skin sings with feeling, and he’s awash in a kind of brilliant heat. He can remember every movement his body has ever made. Skating on Herr Graesler’s pond in winter, swimming in the Elbe, dancing on an outdoor platform at a midsummer party in France. Two American girls, sisters, one missing her right hand, watch him foxtrot. He can feel the weight of their gaze. Then the wind wraps itself around the plane and tilts it hard.
“Left rudder!” Dieter shouts. He holds onto his safety belt and grips the knapsack between his knees as the earth rushes up to swallow them.
“The dead watch us,” his Oma used to say, “waiting for their cue to enter.”
April 9, 1940
She isn’t lost, at least. The address on the paper—Gaby looks down to check again—matches the brass number on the door, 41 Glanmire Road, a blue-gray house with white shutters. It’s a narrow, city house; only a whisper stands between it and its neighbors. A mouse couldn’t squeeze its way through, Gaby thinks.
It’s colder and smoggier in Cork than she expected, and the street behind her is loud with buses and taxis and horse carts. Today is Market Day today, apparently. Near the ferry she watched cows in canvas halters being air-lifted onto boats while barefoot boys led goats up the streets. The goats got in the way of cyclists who were getting in the way of the cars and buses; Gaby can the hear grinding motors alongside bicycle bells and rhythmic honking, also shouts that end in curses and sometimes laughter.
She steps back to look up at the windows for signs of life. The wind brushes across her face, carrying with it a faint smell of gasoline. Petrol, she reminds herself. Like the bird. Different spelling. She’s wearing the narrow, shiny shoes that she bought back in France; leaving Customs she stepped on a piece of discarded chewing gum, which is still stuck on her heel. She tries, once again, to scrape it off but can’t get enough friction off the cobblestones.
Cobblestones! On top of everything else she’s gone back a century in time. When Monsieur Perrin first suggested going to Ireland, Gaby imagined old-fashioned Georgian houses and funny-looking telephones. But the houses here are cramped and run-down, not at all like picture postcards, and there’s soot everywhere. All she wants to do is stretch out on a bed or sofa or anywhere and close her eyes. The sea became choppy as soon as they left the French port and her cabin mate, a dancer from Paris with peroxide blonde hair, was sick for the entire two-day crossing, spurting a line of yellow vomit up the wall the time she couldn’t make it to the sink and hadn’t yet succumbed to the bucket. Up on deck was almost as bad with its stench of machine oil and sea-rotted wood. The chairs were claimed at once and, as far as Gaby could see, never relinquished, and she could hardly walk for all the tagged suitcases and crates and the people lying between them wrapped in horse blankets, a few holding umbrellas against the sea spray, all of them probably just thankful to have found a way out of France ahead of the Germany army. One family sat around a wire cage of chickens while a nearby woman held, like a prize, two pigs on a split leash.
The fog is turning into an icy drizzle and a drop like a wet finger slides down the back of her neck. She’s eighteen, tall and healthy looking; with lipstick on she can pass for twenty. But at the moment she feels like a child wandering around an unfamiliar neighborhood, spent and confused.
Maybe you should leave, find something to eat, come back in an hour? She’s begun talking to herself this way in the last few weeks, as though it’s someone else giving her directions. As she picks up her suitcase she hears a scraping noise from the house next door, and a woman with a wide red face appears at an upper window. She crosses her arms over the outside sill.
“Is it Mrs. Sheehan you’re looking for?” she calls down.
Gaby raises her voice. “Yes, I’m her niece. Her great-niece, I mean. She’s expecting me. Gabrielle Donnelly.”
The woman pulls back her chin. “American, are you?”
She’s wearing a brown head covering that looks like a cloth duster. A moment later something furry bobs at her side: a small child with a fluff of curly hair.
“Yes,” Gaby calls up.
The child disappears and then reappears a moment later; she must have climbed up on a stool because now Gaby can see her face and chin and the top of her shoulders. She has a wide red face like her mother.
“Your father’s a Donnelly?”
“That’s right, Kevin Donnelly. Mrs. Sheehan is his aunt. Though he isn’t . . . he grew up here, but then he moved to New York. That’s where I’m from. Although just now I came from France.” Gaby flaps her hand in a meaningless gesture, aware that she’s jabbering. She unsticks her right heel, feeling a slight pull from the gum, and sets it down carefully on another spot.
“Do you know where my aunt is? Should I wait for her?”
“Well. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you. Mrs. Sheehan passed last Saturday.” The woman makes the sign of the cross. Her daughter does, too, bypassing her forehead in order to catch her movements up with her mother’s.
Passed? For a moment Gaby’s vision narrows to the neighbor’s window with the woman and child framed within it, and the trim’s peeling green paint.
“A stroke or a heart attack, they’re not sure which, maybe both at the same time.” She leans out to tell the story. “The postman was just there and he ran to call the hospital while Mrs. O’Keefe, she lives on the other side, she sat on the step with her. But poor Mrs. Sheehan was gone before the ambulance could get to her.”
“But I spoke to her only last week!” Gaby has the urge to argue with someone, plead her case. “I was supposed to stay with her until I could get back to New York.”
“Were you, now?” The woman shakes her head, and her little daughter shakes her head, too. “That’s a shame.”
* * *
Mrs. Daly—she introduces herself when she leaves her window perch and comes down to the front door—is shorter and plumper close up. She hands Gaby a business card from Aunt Maeve’s solicitor. “He gave it to me Monday when I saw him on the property and asked him his business. Here you are then, I don’t need it.”
Gerald Faley, Esquire. An address on St. Patrick’s Street.
There’s a taxi threading its way between horse carts. Gaby waves it down then takes a wrapped peppermint drop from her purse and offers it to the little girl, who accepts it solemnly with her pink, clean, babyish hand and, when prompted by her mother, says thank you.
The taxi is worn but clean inside, smelling of disinfectant. As she struggles to close the window the driver glances at her.
“Sorry, that needs to be mended,” he says.
So she leans back, trying to keep her face away from the thread of wind whistling in. They pass pigs and priests, and a trio of women in long black cloaks with huge hoods—one of them is holding a straw basket as big as a washtub—and old men bent over from the weight of the bundles tied to their backs. Also, glimpses of modern life: shiny double-decker buses advertising whiskey and a couple of gorgeous teenagers crossing the street arm-in-arm, both of them wearing belted raincoats and bright pink lipstick.
Meanwhile a newsboy calls out the headlines:
“Germany invades Norway and Denmark this morning in stealth attack! Denmark surrenders after only three hours!”
The taxi driver shakes his head. “Three hours, can you credit it? They know how to plan a raid, those Germans. Everything worked out to the minute.”
She’d heard the news already on the ferry this morning but now the war comes back to her. She can’t return to France, where the fighting is only getting worse. Skirmishes along the border have evolved into full-blown battles, and the French government has begun rationing meat and flour. Gaby needed special papers just to travel from her grandmother’s house to the port.
“We’re all of us wondering if we might be next,” the driver says. “No doubt the Dev will make a broadcast tonight.”
“Eamon De Valera. Our Taoiseach.”
“Tay-shuh?” She’s never heard of that.
“The prime minister, you might say.”
She’s embarrassed by how little she knows about Ireland. The potato famine, of course, and how Ireland is really two countries, Northern Ireland and Ireland—or Eire, as her father called it. Rhymes with Clara.
“But I thought… Ireland’s neutral, isn’t it? In the war?”
“That didn’t help Norway or Denmark now did it?”
He meets her eyes in the mirror. Gaby has one overstuffed suitcase, eighty francs, and the roll of ten-dollar bills that her father always traveled with, his “emergency funds,” which she found at the back of his sock drawer. She looks down at her hands, which are white and cold, her fingernails bitten to the quick. A hunk of cold steel forms in the middle of her chest like an undetonated bomb.
Don’t panic, she tells herself.
The driver stops in front of a row of brownstone office buildings and gets out to help Gaby with her suitcase. On the sidewalk she pools the coins from her coin purse into the palm of her hand.
“Can you …?” she asks, holding out her hand to him.
He shakes his head as he picks out two coins. “You Americans. I’m only wondering, have you got so much money to spare that you don’t care if a stranger cheats you?” His fingernails, brushing against the creases in her palm, are trimmed to a straight, square shape. “Here’s two shillings, see? And the fare is two shillings. So I’ll just pocket that.”
“I only got here this morning.”
“And already setting yourself up to be robbed.”
But he smiles as he says it and her heart warms unexpectedly. Human contact, she thinks.
Keep it together, Gaby. One step, and then the next. As Monsieur Perrin advised.
* * *
Mr. Faley’s office is above a chemist’s shop; a square, chilly room with high ceilings and long bookcases crammed with thick leather volumes. A small electric fire is glowing (uselessly, it feels like) in the corner, and three tall file cabinets stand like soldiers against one wall, one of them partially blocking the window.
Mr. Faley gives her tea and condolences—”So unexpected, a lovely woman”—while pulling out one file and then another until he’s located the one he wants. Gaby wraps her fingers around the mug and leans back in the worn leather armchair facing his desk. When her eyelids droop she inhales sharply, willing herself into alertness. You can take a nap later.
“Yes. I liked your aunt very much,” Mr. Faley is saying as he sits down. “Very organized, so she was. She listed your father as next of kin; well, naturally I did try to contact him in—” he opens the file on his desk and looks down at his notes—“in Poughkeepsie.” He pronounces it Pow-keepsie instead of Poh-keepsie. “But I couldn’t get through to him.”
“No. You wouldn’t. We were in France.”
“In France? I’m surprised to hear that, considering the state of things.”
He means the war, of course. He has a kind face with crinkly blue eyes and ears that jut out from his head. About forty, Gaby guesses. Does he have a wife, children? He manages to be both instructive and kind, like her father. She shifts in her chair.
“I know. But we always spend every summer there. At my grandmother’s house in Puy-de-Dôme. That’s where my mother grew up, she’s French. But my grandmother had a stroke in August and so naturally we had to stay on, even after they declared war. We were in the country, I guess it felt safe enough. And we thought there’d be a treaty soon.”
Her grandmother was ill for months and they kept hoping, though not really expecting, that she would recover. Gaby’s grandfather had died before Gaby was born, and Gaby’s mother, Adèle, was an only child. “We’re all she has,” Adèle kept saying.
Anyway the war will be over by January, everyone said. In January they said it would be over by April. Years later people will call this period The Phony War and Gaby will think: Yes, that’s exactly how it felt.
“And then, just a few weeks after my grandmother died, the rest of us—my whole family—we came down with typhoid fever.”
She stops and bites her bottom lip. When Mr. Faley asks her, gently, whether her parents recovered, she shakes her head.
“No. They—no. Also my younger sister, Sabine.”
“Oh dear. Oh my dear,” he says, his face crumpling.
She looks down. Don’t, she tells herself, but an image surfaces of Sabine’s silvery blonde hair, her long pretty lips—Gaby tries to push it away. It’s no use thinking how others have it just as bad or worse; like everyone else in the world she’s seen the grainy photographs of displaced Polish children, victims of Hitler’s invasion, but her sympathy for them can’t replace her own misery. There seems to be an infinite amount of room on that shelf.
She works to keep her voice steady. “It’s why I came to Cork. To live with my Aunt Maeve. My grandmother’s neighbor—Monsieur Perrin—he arranged it for me. He said Ireland would be safer since it’s a neutral country. Also he thought maybe I could get to America from here. I’m supposed to be in college. Vassar. That’s where my parents taught.”
“They were professors? Your mother as well?”
“She taught French. My father was history. European history.” She bites her lip again. If she starts to cry she might never stop.
Mr. Faley shakes his head. “Well, there are no ocean liners going across the Atlantic now, I’m afraid. The Germans have been laying mines underwater. No one will risk it. But don’t worry, my dear, we won’t leave you to wander. We’ll get you sorted.” He begins to thumb through the papers on his desk, finds one, pulls it out. A bus rumbles by outside, making the windowpanes rattle.
“Your aunt was related to the Grogan family, am I right? Thomas Grogan and his wife? I’ve done some work for them in the past.”
“Connected, more like. Not related.”
“But surely they would help you? They own The Majestic, that’s the largest hotel in Cork, also the largest import business outside of Dublin. Do you know them at all?”
“We met them once. My father didn’t like them.” Snobs, he called them. “We’re not related,” she says again.
After his parents died Gaby’s father lived with his Aunt Maeve, who sent him to university in Dublin and then helped him get to America for graduate school. He and Gaby’s mother met a few years later in New York. By then Kevin was teaching at Vassar, and Adèle, who had a degree from the Sorbonne, was hired to teach French. Aunt Maeve married Mrs. Grogan’s uncle soon after Kevin moved away, and became a widow when Gaby was a toddler.
“So you see I don’t really know the Grogans. I don’t think my father has spoken to them in years.”
“Well let me ring them up for you.”
“Please! Don’t do that. Can’t I stay in my aunt’s house? Until I can get back home?” She’s not sure how long her money will last but maybe she can find a job.
“Problem is, your aunt didn’t own that house. The Grogans own it. And they’ll want to get a new leaseholder straight away.”
“A new leaseholder?”
Mr. Faley looks down at a sheet of paper. “I can see that they gave your aunt a good rate, but yes, she paid them rent.”
This fits with what Gaby knows of the Grogans; they have more money than God’s favorite prince, as her father would say, but they still look for every opportunity to make more.
“Thomas Grogan passed some years back but let me ring Mrs. Grogan at least,” Mr. Faley says.
Gaby can tell he’s trying to be helpful. And what choice does she have? She came here with no back-up plan, she didn’t think she needed one. Take a ferry to Ireland and then find a steamer to New York: that was the whole plan. All this death. It doesn’t make sense. It’s easy to imagine a bomb falling on this little office, the walls shaking and crumbling inward, the roof collapsing on top of her. It’s not that she wants to die, exactly, it’s just that she can see herself dead. She wants the impossible: to be back home with her sister and her parents.
“In the meantime,” Mr. Faley continues, “we’ll find you a hotel for the night. I know one or two you might try. Not The Majestic, of course.” He spreads his hands, as if summoning all the wealth Gaby doesn’t have. “Something comfortable, but on a smaller scale.”
April 9, 1940
Ireland, The Otherworld
The first wave of soldiers dropped from the sky at sunrise—white balloons, Sabine thinks when she sees them. Then she notices the men attached.
Parachutists. Scores of them. Like a swarm of flies above a carcass, slowly drifting down to feed.
By this time Sabine has been in Cork for nearly a week, sleeping in alleys near the harbor with rats running over her legs. She’s drunk rainwater that collected in barrel tops and has eaten wet cabbage, discarded sausage casings, potato peelings, scraped bones, moldy bread, and the soggy ends of unidentifiable brown-spotted vegetables. Last night she discovered an export warehouse that had a loose board in the back, which she pried off. At nearly seventeen, she’s only recently left girlhood behind and is still thin as a board herself. Sucking in her breath and twisting uncomfortably, she managed to squeeze through the gap.
Inside she found crates and crates of butter packed in ice. She had to break a crate to get to one of the tubs, and then break the tub. She ate the butter with a broken slat like an oversized spoon, holding it with her good left hand and balancing it with the stump of her right hand.
Butter and honey shall be eaten that he may know to refuse the evil and choose the good. Isaiah 7:15. This, printed on a lemony square of poster paper under a picture of a fat black and white cow, was pasted on the side of every crate.
Was it an advertisement, Sabine wondered, or a warning? The rumpy cow made light of the quotation, and the somber quotation made the cow seem ridiculous. She made a nest for herself using straw and papery packing materials that smelled like glue.
The boom of guns wakes her. Her first muddled thought is that it’s thunder, a rainstorm. But when she goes outside there’s not a cloud in sight. A brilliant flare, dropped from a plane, lights up the sky; that’s when she sees the parachutes.
A man jumps out from a doorway, startling her.
“It’s begun,” he says. He’s wearing a thin, oat-colored sweater with the sleeves rolled up over his elbows.
“The Germans, they’re invading. Take my advice and get out of the city quick as you can.” He wags his thumb like a hitchhiker a couple of times before he runs down the street. She watches him turn into an alley and disappear.
The butter warehouse is in a line of buildings facing the water. Boat lights blink on; an armada. Planes buzz over the rooftops. The sky lights up again as more flares float down. The parachutists are far away—they’ll land in fields, organize themselves, and march into the city—but there are legions of them, and they’re coming.
The blood rushes to Sabine’s ears. Every cell in her body seems to twitch in a different direction.
“By air and by sea,” she thinks.
* * *
Maybe because the first thing she heard after the invasion began was, “Get out of the city,” Sabine tries to follow this directive. But she’s hemmed in by the troops and can’t escape Cork for over a week.
The first days are chaotic. Submarines surface off the Irish coast and great ships unload Panzer tanks that roll through the narrow Cork streets, turning awkwardly through the maze of the city and chipping stone buildings they meet at corners. Glass shards litter the sidewalk from so many windows being shot out as soldiers with rifles lean out of tank hatches to fire into any crowds that form. People quickly learn to duck into doorways if they hear the rumble of metal links eating up the street. Armored vehicles follow the tanks, with helmeted soldiers pointing rifles in every direction.
Sabine sees one tank nick the side of a wooden structure as it turns. The wall splinters and falls, and a moment later the roof slides down over it into the street, and then the adjacent wall crumbles into its neighbor. A couple of more buildings collapse, a domino effect, and a woman screams from a third-floor window as the building she’s standing in starts to fold. But there is nothing anyone can do.
She came to Ireland to be safe, to get away from the war in France. Ironic. She doesn’t belong here. She’s lost her passport. Her sister Gaby and her parents are dead—but that’s too painful to think about, so she tries not to think at all. She works to keep her panic at bay, which is no easy task. Keep moving, find food, hide. She can’t let herself dwell on anything else.
If she does stop to think she might start crying and never stop, or forget to peek around a corner before rounding it, or find herself standing in the middle of the street, giving herself up to whatever this is out of sheer exhaustion.
Leaflets rain down from the sky, German propaganda dropped from airplanes: “Irish men and women: we have come to you as friends, to save you from the English.” All the government offices have closed, and the Lord Mayor has fled. Bands of young people arm themselves and fight back while others carry flour and sugar in burlap bags as they try to get out of the city.
Soldiers on the street corral young men, pushing them into the back of trucks with the butt end of a gun across their back or head or face. No one knows where they’re going. A group of men are lined up and shot against the wall of a pub (“Watch, you must watch,” the soldiers shout to the crowd), and three boys are hung with some ceremony in Elizabeth Fort for disrespecting the German flag. Their bodies are left hanging to rot while crows flap around them, swooping in and away. An old woman wearing a long black cloak with an enormous hood throws loose cobblestones at the birds, trying to shoo them off. “But I can’t stand here all night, now, can I,” she complains.
Sabine helps her, hoping the old woman will offer her a place to sleep that night, but when she spots a soldier coming toward them lifting his rifle she runs.
* * *
Like everyone else she’s searching for shops that haven’t already been completely looted, while also trying to stay as far away as possible from the soldiers. One woman pushes a wheelbarrow full of puppies down the street and Sabine follows her for a while, curious, but the woman is walking aimlessly, crying and talking to herself. One sandwich short of a picnic, as her father would say. Sabine can hear his inflection so clearly; a lump rises in her throat and she veers away, swallowing hard. On a side street she comes upon a passel of children, maybe one family, all wearing nothing but white shifts. They glimmer in the sunlight like angels but are stick thin and they crouch in the dirt crying with hunger or fear.
She hears a tank coming and presses herself into the nearest doorway. The street, not much more than an alley, is empty except for the children and herself, and the children don’t move from their spot. One of them, the smallest, starts hiccoughing while she watches the tank pass. Following the tank are two jeeps, coming so close to the children that the driver could have touched the little girl’s head as he passed. When the second jeep brakes, Sabine holds her breath. A German soldier jumps out of the back with something in his hand.
A loaf of bread.
He gives it to the little girl. Then, moving heavily with all the guns and ammunition strapped to him, he jogs back to his jeep.
The four ragged angels in their stained white robes stagger away with their prize. For a moment Sabine has the urge to follow them, to snatch the bread for herself. She’s taller than the tallest one and probably older. She makes herself walk in the opposite direction.
* * *
“And where are the Brits in our time of need, I’d like to know?” asks a young man with greasy red hair and a red birthmark shaped like a strawberry on his cheek. He’s crouching behind a blown-out window with Sabine and five or six others, all strangers who rushed into an abandoned basement flat—scrambling through a huge hole in the wall like a round Chinese door—when they heard tanks coming up the street.
“What about Ireland’s army?” Sabine asks. Every morning she wakes hoping that this is the day that soldiers will come marching into the city and save them. Save her.
“What army is that? The LDF’s a joke,” he says, scratching his throat with four fingers. Something her father used to do.
“What’s the LDF?”
Another man snorts. “Bicycle units and that.”
“You’d think the lads up in Belfast would lend us a hand,” says a bony woman wearing a man’s ripped overcoat.
“They’re fighting for their own lives up there.”
“So we’re doomed altogether.”
“It’s not just us. Norway and Denmark were invaded, too,” the man with the strawberry birthmark says. “I heard the news at the hotel where I work—used to work.” He scratches his throat again. “It’s all past tense now, so it is.”
The bony woman is looking at Sabine’s short right arm, at the rounded end where her hand should have been.
“What happened there?” she asks.
Sabine raises her chin. “I was born this way.”
“Mm. Thought you might have forgotten it somewhere in all the commotion,” the woman says and the men laugh, meanly. Sabine feels herself flush. But they stop laughing when another furious spray of bullets razes the street. Sabine crouches lower and holds her breath, listening to the metal clang of spent shells on cobblestones and then the wail of an animal — a dog?—in pain. She can’t afford to peep out, to find it and drag it to safety. I’m a coward, she thinks. No one else moves, either. We’re all cowards. Finally the tanks turn the corner and are gone.
* * *
Horses appear in the city, brought by the Germans on boats to haul all the heavy guns from their landing craft—jeeps are no good on the beaches. One unit is ordered to clear the Woolworth’s on St. Patrick Street so it can be used as a stable.
Sabine is inside when they come, combing through the shelves for anything useful among the piles of ribbons and skeins of colored wool, packets of needles, packets of pins, bicycle tire pumps and repair kits, garden tools, shoelaces. She finds a knapsack, that’s good, but there is not a scrap of food—even the licorice whips are gone—so she looks for supplies: a ball of twine and a pen knife, a bakelite cup and plate, and all the cutlery from a wicker picnic hamper. Her plan now is to leave the city at night, in the darkness, avoiding the sentries. She’s tried twice so far—last night and the night before—but turned back when she spotted German patrols. She heard them asking for identity papers and she doesn’t have any.
Woolworth’s familiar smell is comforting. It reminds her of America, as far away as Mars.
“All in a flash, it’s everything gone,” the woman next to Sabine complains. She picks up a pair of boys’ woolen knee socks. “Here now, these might fit you.”
But before Sabine can take them a German unit comes bursting through the heavy doors. She barely has time to look up before they begin spraying the room with bullets.
But no one can get out; the soldiers are blocking the exit. The people who raise their arms in surrender are immediately shot. The woman next to Sabine drops to the floor and begins crawling but as she crosses an open aisle she’s gunned down, too.
Thieves, get out.
More gunfire. Some of the soldiers are laughing as they pick off people trying to leave.
It’s a large store and Sabine is near the back. She crawls under the ransacked display tables and until she finds a door marked Employees Only and struggles to pull it open with her one good hand, thinking maybe there might be a rear exit. Instead she comes upon iron steps winding down into total darkness. Another spurt of gunfire sounds. She runs down the steps.
She finds herself in a dimly lit storage area piled with boxes and crates. An old dresser stands against the wall; it looks, at first glance, like a squat, many-eyed monster. The room smells of rusty iron and wet wood and packing materials. She can’t see an exit.
“Friend or foe?” comes a man’s voice, low and quiet.
She spies two figures sitting in the corner with their knees up and their arms around their legs.
Sabine says, “Friend, I think.”
“American, are you? What are you doing over here?”
“I don’t know,” she says truthfully.
He tells her they’d only just come down to the cellar when the soldiers charged in. “Out on the street I’d seen the horses, a man at every bridle. Only they were stopped at the corner and waiting for what I didn’t know. But now I’m putting two and two together. They need a stable I’m guessing and this’ll be it, so it will.”
He introduces himself as Joe Kearney. “I used to work upstairs. I was thinking there might be something left in the storeroom, that’s why we headed straight down. This is Moira,” he adds.
“Why don’t you come sit with us,” Moira says.
Sabine crouches down beside them. Her eyes begin to adjust to the darkness—not totally dark as there are a couple of small vented windows high up on one wall. When Moira shifts her position, Sabine sees that she’s pregnant.
Moira and Joe want to get back to their flat in another part of the city but they are all trapped there for the better part of the day, listening to furniture (and bodies?) being hauled outside, and curt commands, and then hammering and sawing. Joe has a tin of ham in his bag which he slices open with a butcher knife when the hammering begins. After he left his job at Woolworth’s—Woolies, he calls it—he found work as a carpenter, and Moira works at the Thompson’s Bakery on MacCurtain Street.
Joe says he wasn’t surprised when the Germans landed.
“England’s back door,” he tells Sabine, handing her a slice of ham. “They’ll go there next, I’m thinking, and truth be told at first I was just that little bit pleased. The English deserve to know what it feels like to be conquered and pushed around. But seems like they’ve decided to burn us down first. The Germans, I mean.”
The ham is good, the first unspoiled meat she’s eaten in weeks, and she’s aware that she’s eating too fast but can’t help herself. Also she visibly startles at every loud noise above them, something else she can’t help. She both is and isn’t getting over the shock of how her world has changed so suddenly—all in a flash, as the woman upstairs (now dead) put it.
“Had an accident, did you?” Joe asks, noticing her hand.
She lifts her chin. “It’s always been this way.”
“Well don’t let the Germans see. They don’t like anything defective. I’ve a mate who escaped from Warsaw a couple of months ago, saw his uncle taken away because he’s retarded.”
“I’m not retarded,” she says.
“No. But you’re pretty,” Moira tells her. She glances at Joe. “That might be a problem, too.”
Joe finds a pot with a lid and they take turns peeing into it. He examines the crates and from one pulls out a pile of heavy sweaters, which he hands around. He pries open a second crate to find small round tins of beef tongues, and a third with tins of baked beans.
“Let’s find you an opener,” he says to Sabine.
He has to time his movements to the noise upstairs, stopping whenever there is silence. When the horses clomp in, dust shakes from the ceiling. Joe lights a match to check his watch and in the spark of light Sabine can make out a poster behind him:
Cover that Worn Patch
And Beautify Your Home
With a British Made Floor Mat
Above the block lettering, the colored illustration of a woman wearing a flared apron over a gingham dress makes her think of her mother, although her mother didn’t own a gingham dress and hated to be seen in an apron. She was a French professor and wore tailored suits even on Saturdays. Sabine’s throat feels like there’s a hard round marble stuck at the top. She tries not to think of her mother or father or her sister, Gaby. She digs her fingernails into her thigh to keep herself from crying but she’s angry, too. You left me alone.
“It’s getting cold down here.” Moira hands Sabine a sweater. “Here. Put this on. You want help?”
“That’s okay,” Sabine says.
She arranges the sweater the way her father taught her so long ago, placing it on her lap and folding up the hem until she can push her good arm through the body of the sweater to make a channel, in the opposite sleeve, for her short arm. She pushes her short arm through the channel and then pushes her good hand through the other sleeve. Then she grabs the hem material from the outside, bunches it up to get as much as she can, and leans over to pull the sweater on over her head.
You must do things for yourself, her father told her, as much as you can. She always grips jars with her right elbow so she can use her left hand to open them, though that can be hard if the jar is cold or wet. Cutting her fingernails is fairly impossible so she bites them instead.
“Sun has gone down,” Joe says. “It’s nearly time.”
“Time for what?” Sabine asks.
“To make our escape.”
Most of the men will leave when it gets dark, he guesses; they’ll go back to their quarters with only a sentry posted outside. Maybe also a man guarding the horse stalls, so they’ll have to be quiet.
“There’s an employee entrance we can use to get out, but it’s upstairs.”
“What if it’s locked?” Moira asks.
“We’ll break the window next to it, crawl through and make a run for it. But we should wait until it’s absolute dark.” He looks at Sabine. “You’re not afraid of the dark?”
Sabine shakes her head.
“At least we’ll miss the pookies and ghosts,” Moira says.
“What do you mean?” She has to go to the bathroom again but feels shy about asking for a match to see her way to the pot.
“That’s when you can see them, after sunset but before true darkness settles in.”
Joe says, “If you believe that nonsense.”
“Oh I do,” Moira says. She and Sabine are sitting side by side against the wall, and she’s holding Sabine’s good hand. She gives it a squeeze. “We’ve a ghost living above the bakery, so.”
“Moira. She’s only young, and scared enough.”
“And who wouldn’t be with soldiers stomping around waving guns above our heads? But ghosts, they’ll not harm you. They’re just sad and confused, usually. Wandering about. Searching for something.”
“Isn’t it midsummer when the veil is thin?” Joe asks, jokingly. “And here it is only April.”
“What’s the veil?” Sabine asks.
“The veil between our world and the next. And it’s always thin,” Moira says.
Sabine isn’t afraid of ghosts but she is afraid of water. She doesn’t tell Moira and Joe this. She’ll have to swim across the river to get out of the city, they’ve decided, since the bridges are well guarded. Joe agrees that without a passport it would be best to head north, get out to the countryside. “More food in the country, too. But you’ll have to keep your distance from the soldiers all the same.”
“Maybe I could just stay here?” She isn’t altogether joking. When she was little she had a secret wish to live in the Woolworth’s in Poughkeepsie. She would sleep in the display hammock set up in the window and make hamburgers for herself behind the counter. She’d be able to inspect every item on every aisle without her mother hurrying her out.
“They’ll come down here eventually,” Joe says. “Better for you to head north, toward the middle of the country. They’re less likely to bother you there.”
He can’t find a tin opener so he gives Sabine his butcher knife. “We’ve an opener at home.” Moira packs Sabine’s knapsack carefully so the tins won’t rattle. Then she finds a rubbery raincoat to wrap around the outside.
“It’ll not be perfect,” Moira says, “but hopefully some of it will keep dry.”
* * *