Stories in the series:
Sympathy for the Torturer
Promoted to Exile
Page in progress . . . stay tuned!
Mrs. Leonhardt had taken out all the old silver. Her mother’s silver, her own, the sugars and the salt cellars that she for a time had always been buying, always poking through the second-hand markets, offering half the asking price for anything blackened, anything with the handle or feet off.
“That’s good silver. You could polish it up.”
If a vendor gave her that, she gave back: “Well, so could you, then.”
She’d had foresight, that way.
She’d had Anton now past the weekend. Their first days, Mrs. Leonhardt had found him easy to manage, in the way he’d crawled under the covers and stayed there; and she hadn’t known then if he was free as he claimed . . . if an officer would come pounding the door . . . so it was as well.
In his suffering, his face had changed. Her son had had all along, so she accounted for it in her mind, the brow and chin and the dark hair of her maternal grandfather. Only his pallor and thinness showed it now. To prove this to herself, that Anton was alive and not dead; that though he could not in memory place himself, how he’d lived for ten years, been imprisoned . . . some guardian angel had done her this kindness. Of taking him to her doorstep and ringing the bell. Economy profited one in mourning, as in all things.
This reserve, this heart-burning restored to the ledger (for of course, in old age, one could always grieve) had been yet another instance of her born wisdom. There were mothers like herself, many of them now. They had spent it all and not been given this reward.
Mrs. Leonhardt had got behind the mirror and brought out all her boxes. She had first nailed the mirror up—she had done this on her own—to hide the linen cupboard, those things she treasured, and things to barter. Of carpenter’s tools, she had generations’ worth. Anton’s father had not done very much fixing. But he’d been good about not giving things away.
“If you hear anything . . . don’t be afraid.”
She’d brandished the hammer in her left hand, tapping Anton on the shoulder with her right.
“What, what?” He’d twisted towards her, fighting the comforter.
“I have a chore to do. I’m saying.”
She raised the hammer. To explain. His face altered, lost its unconscious animation. He’d awakened almost keen, eyes engaged for the least second; at once, he’d seemed to remember himself. He’d met Mrs. Leonhardt’s, and gone guarded. She would not tell him again that she was his mother, that he was her Anton, and safe here at home. Today, she would tell him to go to the kitchen and get his own breakfast.
Carefully, carefully, Mrs. Leonhardt wiggled the pulling end—the claw, was it?—and when she’d got six labored nails loosened, knew she had two times as many remaining. Thinking now of the chore’s nature, she could see trouble, a single nail holding the heavy mirror by one upper corner.
The bell rang. And in that same way.
If Anton had gone downstairs, he could not have got to the door before the caller began leaning on the bell, letting a long, continuous summons rattle the front hall. Nothing, she found, after running with the hammer in her hand pell-mell to the landing, had been abandoned on the stoop. This time a soldier, shaved scalp under a yellow beret, brass-buttoned lapel fastened at the neck, waited smiling. But of course, if he were the same one, the angel, she wouldn’t know it.
“Ma’am.” He raised a gloved hand to his forehead. “Mrs. Leonhardt?”
“Corporal Herward. Do you live in this house alone, ma’am?”
The correct answer would be that she did. Or that she might. If Anton were well, he would want to take up with his friends, follow that woman—if he could find her now—as he’d gone off doing to begin with.
She had come to say it to Mrs. Leonhardt in person (this Palma thinking it honorable . . . that with this sort of news, an approach mattered). Anton had been killed. Mrs. Leonhardt lifted her chin, remembering. Liar. He hadn’t been. Why trust the resistance, then, their general?
The corporal, his tone of voice no different, repeated, “Do you live here alone, ma’am?”
“Are you asking,” she replied to him at last, “to come in?”
“Only if I can help you with anything. We’re checking the neighborhood, that’s all. Have you got enough to eat?”
“Never mind food,” she said. “Can you hold something for me?” For a moment, she’d weighed this plea. She thought it wasn’t much to ask. She doubted Anton could do it . . . she would not be able to get his attention.
In that way, the G.R.A. corporal had taken an inventory—Mrs. Leonhardt knew he had—of her silver, her picture albums, the radio and batteries, the flour and sugar in their canisters, taped up against moths. But all along, while prying the nails for her, strong enough to hold the mirror with one hand, he’d been polite as at the front door, and hadn’t shown a sign of noticing.
“My son,” she told him, “has just come home. I can’t say what he plans to do.”
“I think I know Anton.” He’d surprised her with this.
Anton had not put the kettle on for his cocoa, or put his plate in the oven to warm. He stared at Corporal Herward, head lowered, squinting up; then he crossed his arms and thrust his hands in the opposite sleeves. Mrs. Leonhardt’s son now sat mute at the kitchen table, blank in the eyes, rubbing his handkerchief on a silver card tray. He’d absorbed himself with the task, as soon as Herward had set two or three things in front of him.
“I have chocolate bars.” She told her guest this; and also, “You can drink my coffee. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
“Thank you, ma’am. Yes,” Herward seated himself on a vinyl-cushioned stool that wheezed, expelling air . . . he chuckled at the noise, and spun towards Anton, speaking for his benefit, but to his mother. “My first assignment was down the coast. I grew up in Cadwilliam. So I’m native. You could tell that.” He gave her an agreeable bob of the head. He had called the capital of the new Central District by its colloquial new name.
“Yes,” he said again, and this time rested fingers on Anton’s forearm. “Vonnie and I are good friends. I saw her with you.”
“I don’t think Miss Swisshelm could be called Vonnie.”
“Oh, well. I call her that. Because of knowing her. She may have told you to call her something else.”
Continued from A Friend (part two)
“Hmm. What is telling? I tell the truth. I give my name as Anton. I was given the name of Anton. I tell you I am Anton Leonhardt. She will not give me her name. She gives me a ring. She gives me over to the enemy. I am given paper to write a confession. But I am given no light . . . her green stone not meant for seeing . . . it may be aventurine or tsavorite. I was told I would know when I had got it right. Herok, unterceddhore.”
“Now, I don’t know what that means.” Mrs. Leonhardt had not heard Anton make such a speech, and her face flushed at his doing so before company. She poured coffee, and turned from the burner to the table, holding the cup on its saucer in one hand; on a salad plate in the other, the chocolate bar. This she had not unwrapped, because if the corporal shook his head, she would put it away again.
His half-smile remained sociable. “The herok is a sort of bird, a tattle-bird. It’s a saying of the Hidtha. The Swisshelms had you studying the language.” The corporal said these things, the first to Mrs. Leonhardt; the last, with another touch on the arm, to Anton . . . for Anton had not stopped speaking, but mumbled more of the strange words, working an agitated hand over his polishing.
When she lifted the pot again, Herward lifted his cup, understanding her, and so Mrs. Leonhardt poured him a second. Rather than have one herself, she took Anton’s. That saved the waste, and Anton would protest if he’d wanted it after all. He must for himself do that, at least.
Yes, she would start a sterner policy with him . . . else, he might get worse . . . she thought he was getting worse, and would have to be seen by a doctor. Was that a question, then, for the corporal, a kind of help she needed?
Herward was helping himself to her box of photo albums, and had accepted the chocolate bar, chewing while he fingered her things, not even paying this treat full attention. He had his soldier’s pay, and didn’t care what food cost. He didn’t care that the G.R.A. had closed all the banks, seized all the land deeds, placed her on a monthly stipend—one she’d had to ask them for. She was paying rent on her own house. The woman behind the desk, that she’d had to apply to, had suggested she might be healthy enough to work.
“That’s not your business,” Mrs. Leonhardt said to her.
She could say the same now.
“That’s your husband . . . ?”
“With Anton. He was six.”
She didn’t like this, the stranger’s pointing to the blond child. She hadn’t remembered it as clearly as she’d supposed, what her son had looked like. But then Herward said, “Sure, of course. I knew that.”
He looked across at Anton bent over his work, shaking salt into Mrs. Leonhardt’s dregs of cocoa, tamping in his handkerchief, heedless of the stain, and rubbing this on the silver—nodding to himself at this better success, no longer mumbling.
“Anton hasn’t changed so much, has he?”
She looked again, both at the picture, and at Anton. “He had blond hair when he was small, but it went dark.”
This seemed to her possible . . . and having said the words aloud, Mrs. Leonhardt came partway to believing them.
“And this is Anton with his grandmother.”
“No. That’s the older boy.”
A minute ticked by. “A shame,” Herward said.
That was a way of putting it. A number of things might be a shame, and she had given not much thought, for many years, to the child who had died so early.
“You talked to your roommate about your grandmother.” Herward said this to Anton and gave him the photo, slipping it onto the cloth under his hand. Anton took it up at once between two fingers and held it over his head, while with his other hand, he polished. Herward gave up, caught the photo, and tucked it back into its plastic.
Anton said, “Yes, I think she may be living, still in her old apartment. My grandmother.”