Germany was changing, and despite Georg’s best efforts to maintain his family’s stability in his absence, the Poles could not ignore what was going on around them. Ketziah was most affected, as her only security was stripped from her. The letters she often received from her family lessened until all at once, she stopped getting them. With the Final Solution put into play, it left little to the imagination. Happiness was a rare and wondered thing in the home, and soon, even the innocent paper crafts and piano couldn’t lift their spirits.
Georg’s letters never changed, however. Whether he wrote them in place of sleeping, or in the trenches, he always conveyed to his wife his undying loyalty to her. The only difference was the setting from which he sent them. He moved quickly through the ranks and his sudden reassignment threw everyone for a loop. The one week leave he was promised was stripped from him, and instead, the Heer sent him further east. Germany, in spite of all its pride, began to falter and the bigwigs were getting desperate. Leave was a privilege not even Georg’s rank saw, not for more than a weekend if any, and his letters began to arrive in short bursts- nothing for weeks on end, then suddenly, a backlog of them. The Germans were seeing too many losses at Kursk, and he could not leave, nor would he risk her coming to see him. One missed leave became two, and two became three, until it seemed that he would never see his wife again.
The soldier became a warrior, the war hardening his mind but strengthening his heart. Every setback was like kindling to the fire that burned for his wife, evident by the passion in his letters. In place of his presence, Georg illustrated how their reunion would be to every last detail such that it was as if he were there. His letters had to be cut short, but being a man of few words, he learned how to craft them well, fitting months worth of passion onto a single postcard, so desperate for communication that some of the letters came on the parchment that held their rations. Then one day, they stopped all together.
Ludwika and Ketziah built Marszenka a shaded bench by the mailbox, heartbroken by the way she would wait for his every letter. Nothing could convince her back in until the papers were in her hands and so the servants brought the home out to her, waiting with her as long as they could until the Winter cold got to them.
The time dragged. It was only the growing child that kept Marszenka going back inside at all, but one bitter February day saw even Georg’s wife retreating faster than usual. The Pole had just turned to go inside when the sounds of an engine cut through the winter silence, and she turned, eagerly, to greet the messenger she’d been awaiting so long. But her smile faded when the car was not one she recognized — sleeker, for starters, and when it came closer, clearly Gestapo. The woman’s brows knit in displeasure and she turned away again in haste, moving as quickly toward the door as her newly-heavy body would allow. “Girls, put the tea on. It is too cold today.”
“Where are you going?” the familiar voice called after her. Gerhard Richter of the Gestapo emerged from the vehicle, dressed in his finest uniform. He waved a single envelope, mocking the favored phrase that preceded every one of Georg’s letters, “Message for you.”
She stopped in place, an icy dread creeping up her neck and crawling back down to her heart, her eyes fixed on the envelope with mingled yearning and terror. But after a pause the woman moved, forcing herself toward him with her hand outstretched and a numb whisper leaving her mouth. “Give that to me.”
Richter hesitated, looking her in the eyes before slowly handing it over. “…I thought I would deliver this one personally.” His fingers slid away from the black eagle emblem, marking the envelope.
“No.” She was staring at the eagle, as colorless as the snow behind her and lacking any of its light, but after the pause she snatched it from him as if it burned and fumbled to get it open. “Let him be injured, Holy Mother. A leg gone, both – let him be hurting –” Marszenka slipped into a confused blending of Polish as she gave the envelope a final, vicious tear, shaking the halves away into the snow and forcing the note within open.
A card from the Heer, only not Georg’s typical postcards, the ugliest ones he would find that showed barren Russian snow fields with his witty scribbles, ‘wish you were here.’ Instead, the black framed parchment with the greyscale photograph of her husband, staring back at her. Under it, his name, the iron cross, and a single, definitive date. February 2, 1942. The block of text adjacent to it denoting his service and manner of brave ‘sacrifice’ for the Motherland, became a blur.
“…I’m sorry,” Richter barely whispered.
She didn’t scream. She didn’t say anything; her vision was swimming too badly to make out the words, but she saw Georg’s face and she knew what the cross meant. Marszenka’s mouth opened, then closed again, then she turned from the man to make her way painfully up to her door with only the strange idea that if she could get inside, it would not be true. But her foot reached the threshold, and then the other, and the horrible thing in her hands didn’t vanish. “No –”
The scream rose, to a higher volume and pitch that lost itself in wild weeping, the woman tearing at what she held with fingers gone weak, trying to destroy it herself through sobs of utter devastation.
“Pani!” Ludwika dove to her knees, meeting Marszenka on the floor, Ketziah gently taking the card from her before she could destroy it either by tearing, or with her own tears. The Jewess stared at the man in the card, her own face pale.
“Oh… Pani,” she could barely speak, feeling her body go weak.
The Gestapo officer took his time approaching the house, gently scraping the snow from his jackboots on the doorframe. He waited, not saying anything for a long time, watching almost impatiently with his hands clasped behind his back.
“It’s not true,” Ketziah argued, looking to the black dressed messenger. “Men like you only bring lies. It’s not true!”
“Ketziah!” Ludwika couldn’t stop her though, her arms were full of her master’s crumpled frame.
“It’s okay,” Richter defended, too uncharacteristic of him to be genuine. “Understandable, I mean. Let it out.”
“GO AWAY!” The young girl had shared much of Marszenka’s personality, looking up to her as a role model in every regard and now spoke for her, trying to be a guard dog. But Richter didn’t budge, he merely waited.
Even the shattered wife couldn’t bear having Richter there, witnessing her grief, and only a flash of the danger Ketziah was putting herself in made her lift her head to look at him, a woman with hollow eyes. “Leave me,” she told him hoarsely. “For God’s sake, leave me. Can you not see I do not want you here?”
“I’m sorry, fraulein. Really, I am. It’s grave news about your late husband, but I’m afraid I have worse news for you.”
“–Worse?” She choked. “What could possibly be –” Marszenka stopped, remembering her own heritage, then set her mouth into a grim line. “So where am I to go then, a work camp or a firing wall?”
“Don’t be so dark,” Richter begged, finally uncrossing his legs. “It’s nothing you’ve done wrong, but it is a little matter of false information. Your husband didn’t quite die as the Heer so hastily described in that card…”
“He lives?!” Marszenka shot up, lit by a terrible hope, but stopped before she had quite risen. “…That cannot be right, you said it is worse.” She collapsed into sobs again, trying to keep them quiet. “Please, go away. Come back in a few days and tell me then, I –I cannot bear it now.”
Still, the man continued, like a machine, only a machine would have been less cold. “‘Sacrificed himself, with honor, for the glory of the Motherland,’” he quoted from the paper. “Though further investigation discovered otherwise. …The Hauptmann was found retreating from the enemy… before he was killed. An offense, as you know, punishable by dishonorable discharge if not death. And in this case–”
“Lie!” The Pole surged forward again, this time striking Richter squarely in the chest with both hands, driven by a fury that forgot how heavy her baby was and now much she felt like dying. “He loved his men, they all knew it, you can ask every one. He would never leave them that way, never, never — you lie. Go to the devil! And out of my house!”
Richter stumbled, taken off guard by the sudden burst of fury, and fought to latch himself onto whatever furniture would catch his fall.
Chris: >.> he obviously never met a Pole before….
“It’s truth!!” he argued, scrabbling to his feet as Ludwika pulled back Marszenka.
“You’ll believe me when they don’t send his remains. The Heer has decided that he was a traitor to Germany, and such, his rank revoked and every right.” Now he dodged a vase that flew at him from the petite Jewess.
“You heard her! Get out!!” she hissed, not caring the consequences.
“You watch yourself, vermin,” Richter hissed back, interrupted when she threw a pillow at his face.
“This isn’t your house to make the calls… And actually, it’s not your master’s either. It belonged to the Reich, given to him as a privilege, and now it’s ours again.”
“You’re not the law,” now Ludwika protested quietly, hugging Marszenka tightly. Richter ignored her, walking through the house and inspecting it as if he were a potential customer, being given the grand tour.
The Pole clung to her servant, her breath ragged through her tears. What was she to do? There were no parents to turn to, they were far away; even Georg’s family was not near enough to help her now. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing, but there Richter was, still in her house, and Marszenka knew she didn’t have the power to make him leave if he had already decided to stay. “…So we are to go into the street?” she barely whispered, her lips numb. “In the middle of winter, a..a widow, my servants, my unborn child? You will put us into the snow?”
Richter ignored her pleas at first, still inspecting the house, running his finger along the door frames and wall paper. After a moment, he murmured, not even giving her the decency of eye contact.
“Mmm, no. Your servants belong to the Reich now. Me, actually. I’ll take them. This whole house too. I’ve been promised new living quarters, and I think I like this one.” Richter faced her, adjusting his hands behind his back. “Of course, I’m not entirely heartless…. You know I’ve had my eye on you, fraulein. Ever since our little run-in in the market. …I do feel awful about that. When I had mistaken you for a runaway polack. But as a German citizen, you have rights… choices. You could stay here, with me. I’ll treat you well.”
Marszenka was actually speechless, struck dumb with disbelief. When she finally found her voice again, she was staring at him as if he’d sprouted a second head. “…You come here to ask me this, before there has even been a funeral? Not even five minutes after telling me of my husband’s death? You plan to take my friends from me, to abuse them in ways only God could know, and you expect me to to agree to stay with you? I will take the snow,” she spat. “It is warmer than you are.” The young woman pushed Ludwika away from her, giving an order tinged with urgency. “Girls, out of the house.”
The servants were just as shaken, unable to move at first, and not willing to leave her alone with him for a second, but they did rise.
“Not another step,” Richter threatened, smoothly drawing his pistol and cocking it. “You don’t follow her orders anymore. As property of a traitor to the Reich, you’re mine now. Running away would be a crime punishable by death.”
Ketziah trembled, staring at the barrel of the gun as her life flashed before her eyes, wondering if this was the last sight her own family had seen before they–…
“Pani,” Ludwika begged quietly, her breath stricken from her lungs as it came out merely as a whisper. “Think of the baby… What if… What if he’s lying about it all?” It was good her voice was so quiet, as the Gestapo officer seemed to be losing patience with the girls.
“He has to be,” she whispered back in Polish, lifting a hand up to her eyes. “My Georg would never run away.” The woman moved then, stepping between the gun and Ketziah. “Please, Herr Richter, put it away. They will not leave.” She seemed trapped, however, every bit as unwilling to leave the girls as they had been to leave her, and doubly unwilling to stay and endure whatever Richter’s version of being treated well comprised.
“‘Please.’ Now that’s a little more like it. …I see what Georg saw in you. You’re polite for a Pole.” Richter sheathed his weapon, but kept his eye on them like a buzzard. “Why don’t you girls prepare that tea now? And Marszenka,” he began, strolling to the sofa. He plopped down, propping his feet on the glass table before them, the studded boots putting a crack in it. “Have a seat. We should discuss some new arrangements.”
The Pole cast a glance to the door, willing her husband’s silhouette to fill the doorway, or even a stranger’s — another officer, another soldier, anyone to stop this, but it remained silent. She didn’t even indicate that she would go toward him, eyes filling with grief again, but then the child moved within her and she walked, stepping slowly and stiffly to the chair angled toward the sofa, where she lowered herself with her eyes cast down.
“Good.” Richter breathed in a sigh, glancing around the long-coveted home once more, and now the wife he had been stalking like a coyote. “I know what’s running through your mind. I smell the fear on you… Don’t worry. I don’t lay with pigs. I just want your assets.” Of course there was more to it. He had become notorious in the Gestapo for fixating on elaborate suspicions, coming up with accusations that often did turn out stranger than fiction. His most recent capture of the least-suspected resistance leader earned his keep in an otherwise rocky position, but this fixation he hadn’t even spoke of to his peers and the Wolf couple had both known it. They just didn’t know why.
“…I do not understand.” She really didn’t. Marszenka was rigid with insult, her hands folded tightly in her lap. If the German was not actually attracted to her, then Georg’s wife was at a complete loss as to what he wanted. “You have just told me I have none. Nearly everything was in my husband’s name; if you have all the property, and you do not want me, there is nothing else to give.”
“Nothing tangible, of course…” Richter didn’t continue his string of thought, instead changed the subject as he began to clean his nails with his knife. “In time, you’ll grow to trust me. You really have no one else to turn to after all. I’ll take care of the child as if he were my own, and I’ll share my wealth with you. You have nothing to lose.”
Meanwhile in the kitchen, the servants were shaking both with fear and fury. Each took turns spitting in the cup before pouring his tea, and came out with it on a beautiful tray arranged with sugar and cream.
There was nothing to say. Frau Wolf just looked at him, not deigning to dignify that with a response besides a bitterly sarcastic “Enjoy your tea.”
She stood, with effort, her hand pushing against the chair’s armrest to lift herself up. “I am very tired. If you have no further argument I would be grateful if you would allow the girls and I to go to bed.”
“The two of you can… Leave the blond one with me.”
Ludwika went pale, letting the tray drop the last few inches to the table with a clatter.
“No.” Marszenka sounded frantic, this new terror even pushing through the grief. “Please, no. She is innocent…and as you said, I am a German citizen.” She looked at Richter then, and swallowed hard. “I know better. How…how to please you.”
“No!” Ludwika begged, but Richter’s voice overtook hers.
“No. You’ll find I’m nothing like your husband. I won’t stoop so low as to sleep with vermin. But this one can still be redeemed.” Richter ran his fingers through the girl’s hair, and she pulled away from him. The servant hardened her expression, puffing up boldly as she looked Marszenka in the eyes, still addressing Richter.
“I’m your servant, mein herr. I’ll do anything you ask on the condition that–”
“–Servants don’t set the conditions,” the man laughed derisively, cutting down what little bravery she had. “Don’t worry. I won’t harm your mast–, hm, your friend. I’ll treat her as well as I would a wife of my own.”
“But she’s not,” Ketziah reminded smartly.
“Ludwika, you can’t.” This was in Polish, agonized, and Marszenka moved to put her arms around the other girl. “Please, mein herr, have mercy. She is my friend too; the only family I have left. Let her be. I am begging.”
“She’s not dying,” Richter argued callously with a shrug. “Consider it a little payment while I take care of you here.”
Ludwika clutched Marszenka’s arms, pressing her forehead urgently to hers. She spoke in Polish. “I’ll be okay. If it’ll buy us any time, then I’ll be with him as long as I need to.” She was desperate, hoping Marszenka had some sort of plan, because she had nothing more than that, but when the servant saw the helplessness in her master’s eyes, her shoulders slumped. She thought hurriedly. “May… Maybe I can get him to talk. And see what he really wants with you?…”
“Nie,” Marszenka insisted. “Nie, it is such a beautiful thing, I don’t want you to know it as anything ugly –”
“–What are you saying over there?? There’ll be no Polish in this house!” Richter’s tone had turned sharp in an instant.
His voice cut her off, and she lowered her head helplessly, her arms tightening around her friend. “I am sorry, sir, but do you not realize how much it hurts this way? Please. I would rather pay.”
“Pay for what? I’m not going to a brothel. I’m staying right here. And so will she.” He patted his knee, making the servant cringe.
Marszenka still did not let Ludwika go, but her eyes fell on the tea set on the table before her. It did not take long for the thought to come, and she turned her face to press a kiss to Ludwika’s brow. “It will be all right, dear.”
Only then did her arms loosen, and she moved to the table, lifting the teacup up to him and offering it out. “Your tea -”
The woman ‘tripped’, splashing the scalding liquid from his chest to his thighs, with most of the tea concentrating between his legs. Marszenka caught herself on the arm of the couch, letting the cup crash to the floor and just barely suppressing the cold glitter in her eyes. “Oh, dear.”
“Scheiße!!!” Richter lept up from the sofa, stumbling into the small table and falling right through it, the glass shattering under his weight as he caught himself in the frame. “Augh!! How dare you!!” He struggled to get up, but the burning wouldn’t leave him and he madly tore at his uniform to remove it.
Ludwika gasped in horror while Ketziah could only snicker at the sight of the officer struggling out of his pants amidst the shattered glass and tea.
“Get me up!!” he demanded furiously, no one volunteering.
“It was an accident, mein Herr,” Marszenka protested, offering what little assistance she could with her child slowing her down. “I am so slow and clumsy these days, here –” She helped him unbutton, her face completely straight. “We will put cool cloth on and it will feel better tomorrow.”
Once on his feet, he shoved her off, messing with his trousers himself. “Don’t touch me!” The officer stumbled on the frame again, this time falling back to the couch where had no intention of getting up again. “Scheiße, it burns like hell! Get me some ice!”
Ketziah ran to the kitchen to volunteer, but mostly to hide her laughter. Ludwika dropped to Richter’s knees.
“Mein herr! Are you okay?? Here, let me keep you company,” she beckoned, placing her hand right between his legs with the least amount of care.
“AUGH!! I said don’t touch me!! All of you! Move away!” Richter hissed, curling up on the couch as Ketziah returned with a huge sack of ice, dropping it on his crotch.
“D8 your ice, sir!!”
“Aaahhh!!” the man cried out like a child now, turning over in agony and burying his face in his arms, begging, “GET BACK!! J-Just leave me!! All of you!! Go to your rooms!”
Richter: D8< HOW ARE YOU EVER GOING TO GET BOYFRIENDS, YOU PRUDISH, WRETCHED WOMEN!?
Ketziah & Ludwika: 9u9 Iiiiiiiiiiiii dunnoooooooooooooo.
Marszenka didn’t need to be told twice. She seized the girls by the hands and tugged them upstairs, stopping only to take the stack of letters on the table, now under the weight of the death card, but she tugged her maids upstairs and into the relative safety of the master suite, bolting the door behind them. “You are both all right?”
“We are,” they panted through smiles and stifled snickers, but once the excitement wore off, they sobered.
“…And you?” Ludwika’s voice was soft as snow, her heart breaking for the woman again as she saw the card.
Frau Wolf didn’t answer. Her smile faded, then flickered out like a dying light, and she lifted the card with Georg’s photograph into her arms, cradling it against her breast. “…I was going to write him,” she whispered. “What just happened. Then I saw…” She trailed off, a tear slipping down her cheek. “I’m tired.”
It was the old lie, not even close to the real thought in the woman’s mind. I feel like I have died.
The girls knew the cue well, but this time, they were reluctant to leave her alone.
Ludwika stopped the Jewess, allowing Marszenka to pass. Ketziah turned to the other girl now, helpless. “What are we going to do??”
“Nothing. It’s all we can do.”
“That’s not true. There’s always something we can–” but she trailed off, remembering the face in the card and that definitive feeling it gave her. It was more than a dead end; it was like the finish line, but there was no fanfare, no parade to welcome the hero home. For them, the war ended right there, and it didn’t matter what happened next.
Marszenka didn’t hear. She kept walking to the easy chair tucked into a corner of the room, and curled up in it — it had been made comfortable for her with the new baby, a place to sleep where she was not tempted to curl onto her side. But now she was staring down at her husband’s face, grim with none of its usual color, and the heartbroken whisper was just for him. “Georg.”
The tears came like rain then, breaking on a sob, and Marszenka sank into the sudden, terrible loneliness with his name, repeated brokenly as if speaking it would have the power to bring him back.
Downstairs, the Gestapo officer continued to swear to himself until at last he regained feeling in all his parts. He wished he hadn’t. The burn wouldn’t leave him and ice was no help. After picking the last remaining bits of glass from his rear, he slowly rose to his feet, legs wobbling beneath him.
“Wretched… wretches,” he barely grumbled through his clenched jaw. “I know you’re hiding them somewhere…” He began to limp about, his jackboots making a distinct hobbling clop on the wood flooring. “No more officer to hide behind now.”
The servants hovered at the staircase, pressing their ears to the wall to eavesdrop.
“What’s he looking for?”
“Probably Jew-gold,” Ketziah grumbled sarcastically.
“Jews?? He thinks we’re aiding Jews??”
“That’s absolutely stupid!!” the youngest hissed. “All of this for another Jew hunt?? Well he’s got one right here who would like to have a word with him! …With my FISTS!”
Ludwika caught the girl’s flailing arms, hushing her. “He won’t find anything. Ignore it… We should go pray.”
“…….. right u.u”
The girls’ prayers were the only ones heard in the house that night. Upstairs, their usually-devout mistress was weeping too hard to think of offering one, and would not have known what to say if she had. It was a long, long while before Frau Wolf became asleep, and only because her grief had exhausted her completely. She nodded off with her cheeks still wet, Georg’s letters still spread over her lap and an old overcoat bundled in her arms. It smelled of him, still, and in her dreams she clung to it as tightly as she had the living man.
By morning, the nightmare hadn’t parted. The girls’ distressed voices downstairs were like a morning alarm for their master. Ludwika and Ketziah stood at the bottom step, surveying the destruction Richter wrought upon the house. The lush furniture Georg and Marszenka had carefully chosen to embellish their nest, lie strewn and upturned. The mantle had been wiped clean of all the trinkets, gifts the soldier brought his wife back from all his trips. It was an unnecessary amount of damage, even the dish sets had been thrown from the cabinets. Richter was still there, standing at the window with his back facing the girls.
“Our house!” Marszenka stood on the landing, grey-faced with tiredness and aghast at the state her home was in. “Oh, what have you done to my house? Georg built this for me.”
She moved down the stairs in a kind of trance, gently putting Ketziah aside so she could pass and survey the destruction with a new grief. “Why would you do this to me?” Frau Wolf had not changed from yesterday’s dress; her hair was uncombed and her eyes still red with tears. Seeing her parlor covered in the shards of the dishes that had been so lovingly provided to her was enough to make her lift a hand to her mouth as the dark eyes brimmed again, in sorrow and disbelief. “…Those little things belonged to me, not Georg. You had no business to touch them.”
“…It would appear I was wrong,” Richter said quietly at the window, still not turning to face the woman, but after a moment he turned, expression hardening. “You would be better to confess now if you are hiding anything.”
“I am not.” Marszenka’s face was hardening too, her mouth setting into an angry line. “I am exactly as you see me — a widow carrying my husband’s child, and with nothing else. What were you looking for?”
His face did pale, surveying the damage with what might have been an inkling of remorse, but he remembered his place, and straightened his stance. “Nothing. Nothing at all. Servants, have this cleaned up immediately.”
“Yes sir,” Ludwika barely breathed, immediately diving to the mantle and collecting all the trinkets with the greatest of care.
“So does your offer to care for me still stand, Herr Richter?” Marszenka was angry now, and the venom was seeping into her voice. “Or was that arrangement purely for the sake of investigating some imaginary crime? I can have my things packed by this afternoon, if you prefer.”
“I– well, yes, of course my offer stands.” The man swallowed hard, trying to regain his smooth tone but everyone saw through it. “I have no intention of leaving. …This home, or you.”
“Ridiculous,” the woman scoffed. “Why would you stay with me? You do not like me. You do not lust for me. Where will you look next, down my throat to find a hiding Jew? Go ahead!” She flung an arm out, eyes blazing. “Go ahead. You will still find nothing and only make yourself look like more a fool!”
Her threat carried weight, and for a second, he considered giving up, but out of stubborn pride persisted. Richter approached her now, taking wide steps over the mess he had left and stopped right in front of her, eying her up and down. “Give it a little time and I’m sure you can convince me to sleep with you… But that’s not why I’m here, and it isn’t Jews I’m hunting,” he blatantly lied.
Ketziah burst out automatically. “Of course it isn’t. Because what fool would look behind the china set for a Jew?! Or on the mantle! Or under the LAMP shade for God’s sake!”
Richter stormed up to her with each suggestion, raising his hand to strike her.
“Ketziah!!” Ludwika dove in front, taking the hit for her and falling at the strength of his backhanded slap. “Ah!”
The officer pulled his hand back as soon as he had hit the pretty blond. “What are you doing??”
Ludwika lifted herself onto her hands, her hair sticking to her tear-moistened face. “…You’ve done enough harm… please… leave us alone.”
He caught his breath, watching the scene unfold, everything falling apart before his eyes. “…Finish cleaning up, then prepare a lunch for Frau Wolf and I.”
Marszenka moved to help Ludwika stand, soothing her with murmured words, and she slipped into the kitchen, returning with a piece of cloth-wrapped ice for the injured cheek. “Here. Sweetheart.” Ketziah got a squeeze too, just the press of a hand as she passed. “I am not hungry, sir. Thank you. I will eat later if I feel hungry.”
“Fine, but you will still sit with me at lunch. You should get used to my presence here. I have no intention of leaving.” He then turned to the piano, the only piece of furniture that hadn’t been upturned. “Why don’t you play for me?…”
Georg: TnT no. her pretty music is only for the ears of the pure. You won’t be able to hear it.
“No.” Marszenka’s refusal was immediate and flat. “I will sit with you if I must, but I cannot play — not for you, and right now not at all. My music needs a heart behind it and mine is in pieces.”
“…I see. Very well then.” Richter couldn’t take the tension, the great Gestapo officer finally taken down a peg by the weeping willow. He quietly retreated to the adjacent room.
“Thank God,” Frau Wolf whispered in Polish. She set to work with her friends, tenderly restoring the little nest as best she could and only sitting when the weight of her baby grew too heavy to bear. The woman wanted to do more, to place Georg’s picture in a place of honor and enshrine it as beautifully as could be managed, but she didn’t dare with Richter still in the house. Like as not the man would only ruin it, so as time passed she just kept her fingers on her belly, trying to reach the only piece of Georg left, and doing her best to explain that Vati wasn’t coming home. It wasn’t long before she broke down, and even less time before she was sleeping again, her cheek pillowed on the arm of the couch. The day passed in silence and tears, and as evening rolled around Marszenka finally roused herself up to the kitchen, splashing her swollen face in the sink and drying it on a towel. It was the only grooming she’d bothered with that day, and when she began to set the table it was clear she had no intention of eating for that meal either.
“Where have you been? I’ve missed you all day,” Richter said with little emotion as he sat at the head of the table, chair tipped back against the fridge and boots resting at the table’s edge. “I’ve asked your servants to prepare your husband’s favorite meal… I thought it would be a good way to remember him, jawohl?” He grinned, sure to be taunting her with that meal request, but Ludwika kept a smile for Marszenka, reassuring her with a wink. “Have a seat.”
She sat as directed, blank-faced and silent, folding her hands in her lap without granting Richter the dignity of a response. Just then she felt numb, although Frau Wolf had no doubt that the taunt would have hurt without the grace of Ludwika’s wink, but her friend had given it and for the moment she had no reason not to hope that the crass officer was on his way to a downfall.
There wasn’t much the servants could do; left alone with Richter was threatening enough as it was, but they managed to get by with the most passive insults. The meal was in fact, Georg’s least favorite, only ever having been made once due to the child-like fit he made when it was prepared, but even remembrance of the tiny speedbumps in their brief marriage was as painful as the treasured ones. Richter, none the wiser, gratefully accepted the meal.
The grieving wife did not touch it. Instead she stared down at her plate, looking at the food that had sent Georg into a tizzy completely unlike him. His tantrum had hurt at the time, but now Marszenka was looking at the prospect of never having one from him again. And she knew with complete certainty that she would take one, every day of the rest of her life, if it only meant having her husband back…
Frau Wolf stood abruptly and left without a word, walking to the front of the house and slamming the door shut behind her. She broke on the lawn, crumpling into the snow just at the edge of their driveway and collapsing into tears every whit as fresh as the thousands she had already shed.
Off in the distance, the street lit up with the headlights of a taxi that came speeding towards the house, slowing to a stop. It hesitated, engine still sputtering as if whoever was in the dark vehicle was watching.
Marszenka cringed from the taxi — the last car that had stopped here had brought Richter, and as far as she knew another Gestapo officer was inside. Did they all think she was hiding Jews too? But she was too far gone to stop her sobs, and too past caring to move, so after the first little flinch she just buried her face in her skirt again.
The taxi door opened, the whole car sinking with the weight of the giant passenger stepping out, and springing back once he had. Christoph Wolf’s silhouette was hard to miss against the bright headlights.
“You’re crazy!” the driver hissed at Chris, obviously rattled from the drive, and sped off into the night, leaving him standing at the end of the driveway with his bags at his feet. He surveyed the scene- the cozy home amiss with a sobbing wife… and a strange black car he didn’t recognize. Already, he didn’t like it and hoisted his bags onto his shoulders as he approached Marszenka.
“…Kindelein, what’s wrong?” The question would have seemed like a joke at any other time; it was obvious why the brother was there, and any wife would be grieving for the loss of such a great husband, but the scene was arranged all wrong. Chris made a quiet gesture to the black car.
“Christoph!” She raised herself, slowly, then flung herself forward into the safety of the giant’s chest. “A Gestapo man is here,” she wept. “He says the house and servants are his.”
Marszy: OnO This chest size is all wrong for hugging. *SOBS BITTERLY*
Chris: >.> it’s not, like. TOO terribly wrong….. Goldilocks.
The youngest Wolf brother, usually hard to shut up, went gravely silent. Only the trembling of her body against his kept his heart from icing over at the news. Though fury was boiling his blood, he spoke with all the gentleness that came with namesake. “Shhh. There, there. You’re not alone. I’m here. I’ll make everything right.”
As the promise left his lips, the young man felt himself age at that very moment, a new weight of responsibility overtaking him. He had come to grieve, but fully knowing there would be a young woman who needed company more than anything. The news of the Gestapo buzzard was unexpected, however, and he quickly adapted. Christoph was a war-hardened soldier himself, now, having been through his leadership training and experienced the taste of real blood, both that of his enemy and his own, but the war hadn’t turned him bitter as it had so many by this point. Somehow, he maintained the gentle spirit of the young boy who couldn’t even kill a chicken back on the farm. Gentle as he was towards the grieving wife, the man inside was about to get the other side of the Waffen-SS officer.
The door burst open with a clambering thud as Christoph threw his bags to the side, marching across the wooden floor with his cleated boots. He said nothing once his gaze honed in on the target at the head of the table and he immediately nabbed him by the back of the collar.
“WHO THE HELL’RE YOU!?” Richter choked, flailing like a rat in a housecat’s claws. Christoph still said nothing, throwing him down to the floor with such strength that all the dishes rattled in the kitchen and the maids shrieked. They took cover behind the nearest thing, terrified at his size and trademark uniform, but they recognized the features, a near spitting image of Georg, just stretched wider.
“That seat is reserved for the man of the house.” Christoph didn’t hesitate, bringing down his boot with every intent to crush Richter like a bug, but the man quickly pulled back his legs just in time.
“Who ARE you!??”
“You first.” Christoph stomped again, rattling the house.
“I’m with the GESTAPO, you lug-headed moron!!”
“Marszenka!” The two servants saw an opening in the doorway of the kitchen and quickly fled from the two men to hide at her side, confused and bewildered.
“That’s Georg’s brother.” Marszenka took the girls under her arms, sheltering them like a mother bird with open wings, and she ushered them to the side to be out of the way of the confrontation. “Christoph. He’s here to help us.”
She sounded tired, utterly exhausted by the emotional strain of the last twenty-four hours, but the relief was in her eyes and she found a tiny spark of her old spirit, addressing Richter, at last, with undisguised malevolence. “Perhaps you would like to tell my husband’s brother what you told me, Herr Richter? About how Georg Wolf was supposedly found…running away? Or perhaps the happy news first, how you have had your eye on me and we are now engaged!”
“N-No, I–” Richter shrunk in sheer terror, watching his attacker’s face contort with fury.
“How… dare you.” Christoph lifted the man by collar, choking him. “Get this straight first of all, Richter: if you so much as ‘put your eye’ on her again, I’ll gouge it out. …And second, you’re going to tell me exactly how the story went about my brother.”
“Khh–Glr….” The man clawed at Chris’ arm, scratching until he drew blood but the soldier didn’t flinch. “I kah…brrng…” Only once he finally let go, did Richter gasp for air and speak clearly. “H-He was… a traitor. A deser–”
Christoph gave a single swift kick to Richter’s ribs, shouting, “TAKE IT BACK!!” The servants shrieked again, clinging to Marszenka. “How dare you talk about it like you were there! It should have been YOU! Worthless, butt-kissing scum like YOU out there! What proof do you have!?”
“You can’t treat me like this!” Richter coughed, scooting back against the wall in self defense. “I’m with the Gestapo!”
“I’m with the SS,” Chris argued back, grabbing the man by the hair and dragging him towards the door at last. “You can take your bull—- back to headquarters and explain to them why they have to buy you a new car.”
“A new car?”
Christoph kicked open the door again, and with one hand still gripping a handful of Richter’s hair, the other on his belt, flung the Gestapo officer at the hood of his own car, smashing the windshield. “If you ever come back, you better bring the whole d— Gestapo with you!!” He slammed the door, chest heaving with long, steady breaths.
“Oh, Chris.” Marszenka’s face was wet with tears again, but this time they were of utter relief, and she put her hands out to him in blessing. “You are an angel — thank you — “ She locked the door with trembling hands, sagging against the frame with the listlessness of a woman missing her soul. “He has been here since last night. He brought me the—the card, and then followed me into the house right after and would not leave. H-he tried to rape Ludwika, and destroyed the house, and wanted them to make Georg’s favorite dinner to mock my grief — oh, I cannot bear it!” She wept like a child, indicating the mantle through heaving sobs. “I have not even dared put up his portrait, like he deserves, for fear that demon would set it on fire. I have had no peace all this time, and no one to turn to, and nowhere to go without leaving the girls alone with him. Thank you for coming to me; it has been so cruel!”
“…Kindelein. I’m so sorry. Why couldn’t I have come sooner??” He embraced her, tightly as he could, wishing he could pour all his brother’s strength into her, but he barely had his own. Her sobs strengthened him, however, and he pulled away from her only after he felt the tremors in her body cease. “He can’t hurt you anymore. He won’t hurt any of you now.” Chris noticed the other two women, soaking in their grateful faces and giving them a brief nod in return. “Don’t worry about him anymore. Don’t worry about anything. This is your time to grieve…”
Now the soldier gently seated her on the couch, pulling up his bag and sitting alongside her. He rummaged through its contents. “Here.” Chris presented Marszenka with a ratty teddy bear, its eyes held on by loose threads and fur worn away to the cloth. “Böhnchen. Georg got him for me from his trip to Switzerland when I was little.” He couldn’t help but smile at the little threaded face, its big head flopping to one side as he set it in her lap. “You won’t believe how hard it was for me to keep that thing with me in the SS >.>; …So he’s better off with you now. Okay?” His own smile was weak, brows twitching to hold their position on his forehead without him fully breaking down.
The woman’s arm went around his shoulder, drawing him close to her even as she took the teddy into the crook of her other arm. “Our time to grieve,” she corrected him quietly. “He is your brother. You have just as much right as me; perhaps more, for you knew him longer. Although I doubt anyone can claim they loved him better — “ Her voice broke, shattering on the memory of a beaming Georg leading her through a gentle kujawiak on their wedding day, and she fell against Chris with a sound of pain. “God forgive me; I do not even want this child right now. I just want to die.”
“Shhh, there, there.” Chris felt his heart break, but not out of grief for his brother, instead this bundle of a woman so shattered in his arms. “Please… It… It’ll be okay now.” Words failed him; what could be said anyway? The soldier allowed her as long as she needed to cry, simply cradling her against his chest the whole while, not budging nor stirring. The maids watched helplessly for a long time before allowing her her privacy as well. They busied themselves in the kitchen, cleaning up the meal, the mess, any trace of that wretched man that still remained and set aside a plate for the new guest. He didn’t eat it, however. He didn’t leave his spot on the couch, even as he felt her breathing slow into a soft snore.
The maids dimmed the lights around him, leaving on a single candle to burn on the mantle as they withdrew to their own rooms. Christoph watched the flame dance the whole night through, lost in memories and wondering what his brother saw in his last moments, wondering if he had remembered all those fond times in their childhood too. As the orange glow faded to smoke, he finally rested his eyes, catching what few minutes of darkness was left before the sunrise.