Still Life with Nightmares

Having shot off my mouth last week about how I think fiction ought to be written, it’s only fair that I open myself to criticism for failing to follow my own advice.

I don’t generally write short fiction. I work rather slowly, and if I am going to invest effort in creating a fictional world, I’d rather spend several months on one long piece than a month at a time on several.

However, there are exceptions.

I want to make it clear that I don’t plan on making a habit of posting fiction here, but, given the nature of my last post, I thought I should put a little skin in the game. What follows this introduction is a short story that began life as a chapter in a novel I was working on. (Not the one I am near finishing now)

To make it more of a high-wire act, this offering has (a) multiple genres in one story (historical fiction and dark fantasy), (b) includes bits of a language I do not speak, and (c) allows plenty of opportunity for me to stumble over historical anachronisms I missed.

When you write fiction, always give yourself plenty of opportunity to screw up so people can rub in in your face. It makes it more fun!

I call this “Still Life with Nightmares.”

Berlin in 1924 was a city of birds. It posted sentinels along roofs and gutters and in the branches of naked trees. Helen felt their hard eyes judging her as she and Boltzmann left their hotel. She shivered.

“Is it always like this?”‘

“Is what always like this?”

“The birds.”

He looked up. “Yes, I suppose. Berlin has more open space and trees than most cities, and it attracts them. Even at that, it’s strange how many birds there are, like the souls of the dead.”

“Souls of the dead?”

“Nothing. An old myth.”

“What myth?”

“Nothing you need to know.”

They walked on for half a block before she spoke again.

“I wish you’d stop doing that.”

“Doing what, Mrs. Eliot?”

“Not telling me anything, not even why we’re here. And I hate the way you keep mentioning places or languages I never heard of and then clamming up when I ask about them. How am I supposed to help you if you won’t let me learn anything?”

“Formal training makes it difficult to see things as they are. I don’t want you adjusting your drawings to fit archaeological theory.”

“But I don’t know any theories.”

“Precisely. That’s why I didn’t hire an archeology student who can sketch. Your ignorance is as useful to me as your pencil.”

Helen took a long step to avoid catching her heel in a sidewalk crack. “All right. I feel like a fool, but I’ll play along. One thing, though.”

“And what is that?”

“What do I do when you grownups start talking about archeology?”

“Try not to listen.”

“Can’t you at least tell me why we had to come here?”

“We’re here . . .”

“Yes?”

“We’re here,” he stuck his hands into his coat pockets, “because there are people to whom I must speak.”

The winter sun brilliantly lit the frozen day. He led her along the central walkway under the famous linden trees in the center of the broad Unter den Linden, the boulevard that formed the city’s east-west axis. They crossed over to the north side of the street and continued west, passing under the enormous arches of the Brandenburg Gate topped by four horses pulling the now ironic figure of Victory.

Helen had gathered that Boltzmann had spent his childhood in Berlin but had not been back since. She noted that he stopped several times to take a city map from his coat pocket and consult it. As in London and Paris, men with empty sleeves or legless men on crutches or in wheelchairs were constant reminders of the war. They moved like ghosts among the living, who chose not to see them.

But Helen saw them. They looked like the men in the London military hospital during those weeks when she had almost been Christopher’s private duty nurse, living on tea and cat naps, leaving only when one of the doctors took her firmly by the elbow and led her to a waiting cab outside.

And now this. She was alone in an alien city with a strange new employer, surrounded by the people who had murdered Christopher. Perhaps one of those ragged men on the corner sharing a cigarette had thrown the grenade. Her fists clinched as she watched the men pass the butt around. Starve, you bastards, she thought. Burn in hell.

Then she saw a gaunt old woman in a thin shawl selling coal and averted her eyes.

Helen shivered as the wind’s icy fingers penetrated her clothing. She remembered how in the London tailor’s shop she had been surprised by the unaccustomed warmth of trousers on her legs. Boltzmann had ordered three pairs made for her. He said skirts might not be practical where they were going, but had refused to tell her more. She thought it would be nice to be wearing trousers now.

Boltzmann looked around and muttered to himself, “This is not right.”

“Why don’t you ask somebody for directions?”

“I am not lost!”

“You could have fooled me,” she said.

“Well,” he admitted, “perhaps things have grown unfamiliar over the years. But it’s more than that. I don’t remember Berlin being so . . .”

“So what?”

He shrugged and moved on.

They picked up a streetcar and traveled west into a suburb of parks and well-kept homes. The people began to look adequately fed and thus comparatively prosperous. Boltzmann nodded to himself and put away his map. After a few minutes, they got off and walked up the steps of a neoclassical building that could have been a Roman temple or the entrance to a large bank.

Once inside, it took Helen a moment to adjust to the relative gloom. Boltzmann, on familiar ground now, moved ahead without hesitation and spoke to a guard who ushered them into an office and vanished.

Helen took a seat in a chair by the window. Boltzmann bent over several ivory statuettes laid neatly out on a desk.

She pulled off her gloves and plunged her hands into the warm air above a radiator. “I know this comes dangerously close to asking a question, but what exactly is this place?”

He picked up one of the carvings, an idol in the shape of a woman. “A museum of antiquities. I have business to conduct that will take some time, probably the rest of the afternoon. During that time, you may practice your sketching.”

“Why do I get the feeling I’m being told to run along and play with my dollies?”

Boltzmann smiled, but said nothing. The door opened and a thin, balding man with a goatee entered. Behind him came an even thinner and much younger man in spectacles carrying a thick bundle of files which he placed on the desk.

Boltzmann gave rapid-fire introductions in German which Helen was unable to follow. The men gave her quick bows and shook her hand. Boltzmann asked the senior man something. He responded with a nod of approval and gave what was clearly an order to his assistant who stole a glance at her from behind the safety of his lenses. Boltzmann turned to Helen and shifted languages.

“Herr Kline speaks English and will be happy to assist you, Helen.”

I guess that’s my cue, she thought. She rose and smiled at Herr Kline. He took her coat, hung it up, and escorted her out into the museum.

He said, “I have not before met a woman artist from America.”

“Am I what you expected?”

“I had not expectations.”

“Oh.”

He took her through a large room with dazzling, colored enamel murals of winged lions into a smaller chamber where various objects were displayed in glass cases. Helen saw a striking bust of a woman wearing a dark, cylindrical headdress. She pulled out her notepad and pencil.

“What is this?”

Herr Klein’s eyes registered shock at her ignorance, but he covered it quickly.
“Nefertiti. She was an Egyptian queen. It is the famous.”

She nodded and began sketching. After a few minutes, Herr Kline spoke again.” It is easiest here with the good light and clean. In the field, work is not easiest. Ja?”

She smiled as she remembered how her French friends would sometimes look at each other and try not to laugh at her mangling of their language. “Yes, it is. Have you worked here long?”

“Yes, since gymnasium I am coming here. I am assistant for one year.”

She took a good look at him. Herr Klein couldn’t have been much older than his early twenties. He had probably just missed being drafted into the War to End All Wars. If she and Christopher had been a few years younger how different things might be. Strange to think of her gentle Christopher and this shy boy shooting at each other.

She returned to her work and within minutes was able to show him her sketch.
“How’s that?”

“It is good! And so quickly you draw it.”

“I’ve had a lot of practice. If you’re painting outside, you have to work fast before the light changes.”

He nodded. “Light is important, my artist friends say to me.”

“Really? You know some artists? What kind of art do they do? I’ve gotten so out of touch.”

“My friends make Dada art.”

“What’s that?”

“Dada is . . . Dada is hard to say. It is not like old art.”

“Is it like Expressionism? Fauvism?”

He shook his head, removed his glasses, and began to polish the round lenses with a white pocket handkerchief. “Forgive me, Frau Eliot. I do not know these words.”

“Well then, you’ll have to show me.”

“The museum has not such art.”

“Then you’ll have to take me to your friends.”

He paled. “I can not. I was not told so.”

She grinned at him. After Boltzmann, timidity in a male was a nice change. “Come on, Herr Klein. Level with me. I’ll bet you were told to keep the little lady busy and out of Herr Boltzmann’s hair while he talks to your boss. Yes?”

He blushed and nodded.

“I thought so. Well, I don’t need more practice. I can already draw anything I can see, and if I stay here I’m in danger of learning something about archeology. So why don’t you tell your boss I’ve asked you to take me somewhere and show me some art that isn’t three thousand years old? Can’t hurt to ask.”

He hesitated. She winked at him. He surrendered. “Please wait, Frau Eliot.”

Helen waited. After several minutes, she was about to take her pad out and sketch something else when he reappeared wearing a coat and carrying hers. He helped her into it.

A streetcar ride across the city and a stiff walk later, they went through a revolving door into the biggest café Helen had ever seen. The glassed-in terrace provided enough seating at its tables for hundreds of people. Most of the seats, even in the middle of the afternoon, were taken. Helen’s eyes stung as she walked through a cloud of cigarette smoke. On the cloud’s far side, the air carried the less toxic smells of beer, coffee, and sausages.

She unbuttoned her coat in the warm room. “Doesn’t anybody work?”

Ja. Some make work here, but most make good talk. Come. I introduce you.”

They passed a table where a skinny cowboy, complete with ten-gallon hat, boots, and spurs, argued loudly with a woman wearing a severe suit. Helen tried not to laugh and when they were safely past, said, “Who was that, Buffalo Bill?”

“He is a poet and is political. I think he make plays, too.” Herr Klein pointed at a man staring into space and sitting by himself at a table littered with empty coffee cups. “That man is doctor and Dada poet. He sew a rose into dead beer wagon driver and write poem.”

“My Goodness!”

Herr Klein’s face lit up with the pride he took in his city’s eccentrics. “Come,” he said, “my friends sit in back.”

She followed him through the café. He spotted a table with some of his friends, three men and an equal number of women, and led Helen to them.

One of the males, a gray-haired man senior to the others by decades, was so engrossed in drawing something on a napkin that he didn’t notice her arrival or that his cigar had gone out. She was startled by how openly the younger males undressed her with their eyes. Even Herr Klein could see it and reddened in silent apology.

On a wavelength invisible to Herr Klein, the female members of the party coolly assessed Helen as a potential rival. She smiled at them and thought, relax girls, I’m just passing through.

Herr Klein said something in German to his friends before turning back to Helen.
“Frau Helen Eliot, please meet my friends. Fraulein Muller, Fraulein Richter, Fraulein—”

The little redhead nodded at her. “Greta.”

Helen smiled at her. “Please call me Helen.”

The older man with the cigar looked up for the first time. “Enough! Formality belongs to the past. I am Walter.” He rose and pulled a chair over from another table and wedged it between his seat and Greta’s. “Sit, Helen.”

She did. The girl she had displaced started a conversation with Herr Klein who seated himself on her right. Helen turned to Walter. “What’s that you were drawing? Are you an artist?”

He turned the napkin so she could see that it was a skillfully-done sketch of a man’s face. It was attached to the body of a cow. “I am doing a study for a portrait of Martin Luther. Unlike my countrymen, you will appreciate how the title is an English pun that does not translate. I call it, ‘Here I stand, it is not safe to moo.’ I plan an entire show of such works done on café napkins. Napkins are more plentiful than canvas and easier to steal. The centerpiece will be a painting of the hall of mirrors at Versailles lined with urinals. Or, perhaps, the Cistine chapel with a line of Virgins doing the cancan, and Christ as a cabaret performer. Which would be better, do you think?”

Helen refused to be baited. She smiled sweetly. “Do you have a point to make or do you just enjoy blasphemy?”

“Both. I am a Dada artist.”

“Herr Klein used that word before. What is Dada, anyway?”

He pulled matches from his pocket and re-lit his cigar. He puffed. “Ah, so you seek the truth of Dada? An impossible task, like Diogenes and his search for an honest man. He and Socrates were fools. Like the unicorn, objective truth is a fable. Truth is entirely a matter of point of view, a question of utility.”

“All right, then. What’s your point of view on Dada?”

He shrugged. “Dada embraces the absurdity, the horror that is life. It is not sentimental. It doesn’t give the ugly a pretty face.”

“Then don’t paint the ugly.”

“But the world, American girl, is ugly.” He lifted a glass containing a very soft-boiled egg and drank the contents. “On the way here today, I hear a voice calling to me. I turn and find a boy. He stands in an alley. Maybe ten years old. He offers me his sister for twenty marks.”

“My God!”

Gott? He abdicated and lives in exile like the Kaiser. Perhaps they are neighbors. The old snob would like that. God, I mean, not the Kaiser. However,” he took a puff of his cigar, “I digress. Although things are much better now, such children are still not unusual. During the inflation, before the new money, half the girls and many boys dressed as girls sold themselves in order to eat. Do you know what inflation is?”

“Too much money chasing too few goods?”

His eyebrows rose. “Very impressive, Helen.”

“I was raised by an aunt who hated my interest in painting. It reminded her of being trapped in the parlor doing needlepoint and learning to curtsy. She became a suffragette to get even. Anyway, she wanted me to go into politics, so I had to study things like economics.”

“Ah, yes, I know the species. A pity she didn’t put her hatred of beauty to the use God intended and become an art critic. You know,” his eyes softened, “before the war I was a respectable man, a Herr Professor. I would have praised one of my students for such an answer.” He shrugged. “But I was a fool. Inflation is not as you said. Inflation is too much hunger chasing too little money. Four hundred million marks for a potato means dignified old men on pensions digging for scraps in the ash cans while their granddaughters walk the streets. It means no dowry for the bride and in Germany that means no hope of marriage. The modern German girl gives away sex in the hope of being loved in return. She is always disappointed. Is that not so, Greta?”

The girl turned at her name. “Ja?”

“Tell Fraulein Eliot your story about the Geld in the Bierkeller.”

Greta reddened. “Nein, bitte, nein.”

“She is shy,” Walter said, “but understands English better than she wishes you to know. Isn’t that so, liebchen?”

The girl shifted to heavily accented English. She whispered, “Damn you.”

He smiled, showing rotting teeth. “You are too late.”

Helen glared at Walter and then turned to the girl, “Greta, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.”

Greta hesitated, then shrugged. “Mach nicht. He make us crazy with his talk if not.” She took a slug of beer. “Last year in Bierkeller a foreigner comes. Many, many people there are. For two dollars he buys everybody dinner and champagne. Then he say, ‘Madchen—girls—who lose their clothes may have this’ and throw silver coins on floor. Many coins. Quiet it was. Then I lose my dress and under things and fight for coins with other girls. Big fight. I get coin and eat good for weeks.”

It took Helen several seconds to realize she was staring at Greta. The girl blinked back tears, said, “Keep your pity,” and turned away to finish her beer.

Helen spun on Walter. “I hope you’re happy, you cynical bastard! What gave you the right to do that to her?”

Walter tapped ashes off his cigar. “I wanted to see how much she remembered of the English I taught her. As to rights, she is my granddaughter.”

Later, back out on the street walking toward where they could pick up a streetcar, Helen said to Herr Klein, “I think I understand Dada now.”

Herr Klein grinned, “Ah, good.”

I understand it all too well, she thought, but I wonder if you do.

“Walter was telling me that things were very hard here after the war. Did your family suffer?”

He nodded. “Yes, hard. But we go to uncle on farm. We eat good.”

“I’m glad to hear that. Well, then did—”

Several loud bangs came from around the corner just ahead. Someone screamed. Herr Klein, wide-eyed, grabbed Helen’s hand and yanked her into an alley. They ran through it only to find that it dead-ended in a wall. He muttered, “Scheisse,” and shoved her into a crouching position behind some wooden crates.

“Hey! What’s the idea?” She stood up.

He grabbed her and pulled her down. “Nein!”

“Look buster, if you think—”

Den Mund halten!” He sealed her mouth with a large hand while she struggled against his surprising strength. After a moment, he recovered his English. “Quiet, please, Frau Eliot or perhaps we die.”

A fresh volley of gunfire, quite close now, filled the air. Bullets struck the wall above their heads and showered them with plaster. Helen hugged the ground, eyes shut, and tried to remember a prayer. There were more screams and gunfire, and then a retreating mob rumbled past the alley’s mouth. Helen risked a look just in time to see two men carrying an ashen-skinned third in blood-soaked trousers pause for thirty seconds to apply a tourniquet before hurrying on.

Helen and Herr Klein waited. Three cars filled with policemen roared by, their klaxons blaring. After a few minutes, normal city noises began to fill the space the riot’s sounds had vacated.

“Is all, I think,” Herr Klein said and helped her up. He couldn’t look her in the eye. “Frau Eliot, I apologize about how I hold you.”

Helen brushed dirt off her dress and winced at what crawling around on rough concrete had done to her new art-silk stockings. The destruction of expensive hosiery that she had only recently been able to afford was more annoying to her than the damage to her knees, skinned for the first time since she was a twelve-year-old tomboy. She looked at Herr Klein and saw that the poor man was shaking more than she was, knew it, and was trying to hide his fear. Helen managed a smile for him. “That’s all right. I’ve never cowered in an alley with a more perfect gentleman. Would you mind telling me what just happened?”

“Spartakists and Freikorps fight to have the city. Many people die.”

“No. Political.” He stepped to the end of the alley and peered around the corner. “Spartakists are like Russians and Lenin. Freikorps are like Italian Fascist.” He spat the last word. “I think it is safe now. We go.”

“Just a second. “Helen pulled a brush from her purse and started putting her hair back in order. “Why doesn’t the government stop it?”

“It stop most. In Bavaria, General Ludendorff and a corporal from Osterreich lead many Fascist from a Bierkeller. The corporal make a big talk, but he run like Kaninchen when guns come. He hide in a lady’s closet and police find him. He look like Charlie Chaplin.”

Helen started giggling and couldn’t stop. “Charlie Chaplin? Little mustache and all?”

Her friend laughed, too. “Ja, truly. And all. Funny little man.”

Herr Klein wanted to make a long detour around the area where the fighting had just taken place. Helen insisted on seeing everything, made it clear she was going, and offered him her protection. He didn’t find this as amusing as she did, but gave in to the inevitable.

They came upon a horse shot dead in the riot and still lying next to the wagon it had been pulling. Three sturdy hausfrauen were already hard at work carving up the bloody, still-warm haunches. Across the street, a shopkeeper swept the broken glass from the sidewalk in front of his shattered display window while an assistant hastily removed ladies’ shoes and purses from the easy reach of passersby.

Helen pulled out her pad and did a quick sketch of the women at their butchery. One of them shouted at her. She turned to Herr Klein for a translation and found him wearing a green complexion.

“What did she say?”

“She think perhaps you make picture for horse owner to find her. She say we go now. Frau Eliot,” his voice took on urgency, “she is angry and have knife.”

The big-boned woman who had threatened Helen stood, holding a wicked blade in one fist and a chunk of bleeding horseflesh the size of a dachshund in the other. She took a very unladylike step in their direction.

Helen closed her pad, mouthed, “Thank you,” and quickly moved on with Herr Klein in her wake.

A block farther on, after making sure they weren’t being followed, Herr Klein said, “May I ask why you draw the Frauen?”

Helen shrugged. “It’s what I do. It was an incredible scene, and I thought it deserved to be recorded.”

Herr Klein nodded. “It is most strange. Persons like you in all times there are. It is my reason I go to café and study you artist persons. Artists make memories for archaeologists finding.”

Helen smiled. “I like that. A maker of memories.” Her smile faded. “It’s a shame so many of them are horrid. Tell me, the things you people dig up, are they pieces of junk to be labeled and forgotten or do they teach you anything?”

While Herr Klein pondered her question, they walked on. Now that the riot was over, more of the normal inhabitants of the neighborhood, hollow-eyed children and a cluster of young women wearing the boots and excessive makeup that advertised their trade, emerged to survey the damage. Helen paused and discretely sketched an old woman sitting on the pavement rocking the dead body of her son. A proletariat Pieta, she thought.

Helen had quite forgotten her question when Herr Klein, carefully dressing his thoughts in his best English, finally answered it. “The pieces teach us some persons survive the bad life and make a beautiful thing. Not many, never many, but enough.”

Helen had assumed that the plumbing would work in a hotel as expensive as the Adlon. But it was, after all, only expensive for Germans. Her salary, twice what she had earned as a secretary in London, was paid to her in hard British currency that in Berlin made her temporarily rich. Helen intended to play the part until her coach turned back into a pumpkin.

After Herr Klein escorted her safely back to her hotel, Helen insisted on buying him dinner for all his trouble and the danger she had put him in. The poor boy certainly looked as if he could use a good meal. She told him to wait for her in the lobby, and took the lift upstairs to run a quick bath. Strolling a bath, she discovered, was more like it because there was almost no water pressure and her bathtub’s hot water appeared only as a sullen trickle.

While she waited for a few inches of bath water to collect, she selected an evening gown and shoes. She had just discovered, thank God, that she had packed all three pairs of her new stockings when she heard porcelain shatter in the hall. Helen pulled on a red kimono dressing gown and opened her door to look.

Pieces of a blue Chinese vase that had been on a small half-table rocked on the floor. A hatless blond man stumbled away from her down the hall, his right hand gripping his left forearm. Some drunk, she thought, and was about to close her door when he stopped in front of Boltzmann’s room. He fumbled in a pocket for a key and turned to open the door.

It was Boltzmann. His hands were bloody, and his face was ashen. The stickiness of his fingers made his handling of the key clumsy, and he dropped it. He stooped and retrieved it, but seemed unable to rise again.

She ran to him. “My God! What happened?”

Boltzmann blinked at her. He was clearly fighting pain and shock. “A little accident. I would appreciate it if you could assist me.”

“Let me get some help.”

“No! No one. Merely help me get into my room . . . please.”

She hesitated. Flashes of another wounded man superimposed themselves on the scene. She shoved the painful images aside and focused on the present. “All right.”

Helen took the key and opened the door. Then she draped his left arm over her shoulders and half-lifted him to his feet. They stumbled into and across his room and fell together onto the bed.

Helen freed herself and helped him sit up and get out of his blood-soaked coat. She inspected his injuries. “There are some nasty cuts on your hands, but the real problem is that you’ve nicked an artery above your left wrist. You’re wearing half your blood in that coat.” She found a small towel in the bathroom, folded it, and used the belt from her dressing gown to bind it as a bandage around his arm. “There. That should keep you from bleeding to death, but you still need a doctor right away.”

“No doctor. I don’t wish to attract attention.”

“Yeah? Do you think nobody in the lobby noticed you looking like Jack the Ripper on his way home from work?”

“The coat is dark, and I kept my hands in my pockets.”

“A swell idea.” She rose and picked up the telephone. “Desk? This is Herr Boltzmann’s assistant. Do you have a house doctor? Good. Would you send him up here please?”

“No! You can’t do this!”

She covered the mouthpiece. “Try and stop me.”

“I will discharge you!”

“Go ahead. If you die, I’m out of a job anyway.”

“No one must—”

“Relax. In a place like this the staff know to keep their mouths shut.” She uncovered the mouthpiece. “I’m sorry, what was that? Yes, Herr Boltzmann has cut himself rather badly. Thank you.” She replaced the ear piece. “He’ll be right up.”

Boltzmann sighed. “Very well. Thank you for your help. I am sorry to have disturbed you. You were admirably cool-headed and efficient.”

“I’ve seen blood before. Would you mind telling me what happened?”

He closed his eyes. “I will wait for the doctor. Don’t let me keep you. I see you were dressing for dinner.”

There was a knock on the door. Helen went to open it, remembering just in time that nothing was holding her dressing gown closed. An elderly, bushy-haired man carrying a medical bag entered

“Frau Boltzmann?”

“Uh . . . nein.” Helen blushed, “Excuse me,” and made her escape.

She collected Herr Klein in the lobby and entered the dining room on his arm. The Adlon, with its multi-lingual staff and excellent restaurant, was a favorite of foreigners, and as the maitre d‘ led them to a table she passed a pair of journalists having dinner.

The mustached Englishman was saying, “I quite understand your concerns, but the people here are finished with war. Even Krupp is turning out things like perambulators. The Germans will give us no further difficulty.”

His French companion shook his head. “Perhaps Krupp makes the toys for les enfants, but that is not the end. The old Imperial army plots with Krupp and I. G. Farben. They prepare to again leap upon us! They have spies and agents in all the world and make war in the shadows.”

Helen thought of Boltzmann’s wounds. A war in the shadows? People in Berlin to whom he must speak? Spies and agents? She smiled at herself. Really, Helen, really.

But it would explain a lot.

As Herr Klein helped her into her chair, the band leader nodded and the musicians began to play “Yes, We Have No Bananas.”

Helen smiled as she settled into her seat. “Is there a lot of foreign music here?”

Ja, there is much music that is not German. Much jazz comes. Here it is much liked, and near is a ballroom where the Charleston is danced.”

Although the waiters spoke adequate English, Helen asked Herr Klein to order for her, whatever he thought she might like, but that she could really use a drink before dinner to steady her nerves. Herr Klein and the waiter conferred briefly. The waiter went away and returned with a bottle of the white house wine and two glasses which he filled before vanishing.

Helen drained hers in a moment. She closed her eyes, noted the lingering fruity taste on her tongue, the blunting of her senses as the alcohol hit her empty stomach, passed into her bloodstream, and began to bathe her brain. She opened her eyes. Herr Klein was watching her closely. He had hardly touched his wine.

“Are you well, Frau Eliot?”

“Not really. I guess what happened upstairs upset me more than I thought.”

“Something happens?”

“Yeah, I had to play nurse again. It was almost like . . . it was almost like . . .” A sob escaped her. She stood up, muttered, “Excuse me,” and hurried off to the ladies’ room.

She entered a stall, latched the door, and wept. After a few minutes the washroom attendant tapped on the door. “Fraulein?”

“Go away!”

The woman’s sensible shoes retreated. The ladies’ room door opened and closed. A moment later, it opened again and Helen heard girls’ voices and the taps of their high heels enter the room and hover near the sinks and mirrors. Oh, good, Helen thought. Just what I want, an audience. She blew her nose and dried her eyes with a hankie and as quietly as possible opened the stall door, hoping to invisibly make her way to the sink to wash her face and repair her makeup.

The two young women in flapper outfits were bent over a dressing table. They held short straws to their nostrils and used them to inhale lines of white powder laid out on linen handkerchiefs.

Helen and the pair of girls stared at each other. Finally, she said, “Look, ladies, I don’t care about what you’re doing. I have problems of my own. Let’s just forget we ever saw each other, okay?”

The girls looked at each other. Their eyes were unnaturally bright. They giggled and began to dance an impromptu Charleston. Helen washed her face, repaired her makeup in record time, and went out the door just as they began to kiss.

The waiter was returning with their meals as she got back. Herr Klein rose and helped her back into her seat.

“Is besser, Frau Eliot?”

She nodded. “I’m better, thanks. I had an attack of self-pity. Take it from me, it’s a very unhealthy habit.” She tasted the food. “This is good. What is it?”

Weinerschnitzel.”

Helen nodded and took another bite. “Herr Klein, may I ask you a question.”

“Ja. Of course.”

“Please don’t think I’m throwing stones, because, God knows that in terms of mental hygiene I’m not exactly the Rock of Gibraltar, but except for you is everybody in this town completely crazy?”

They were trying to decide on a dessert when the assistant manager of the hotel came to their table and gave Helen a quick bow. “Forgive me for disturbing you, Mrs. Eliot, but your employer has asked me to convey a message.”

“Yes?”

“He asks that you prepare to leave immediately. Herr Boltzmann wishes to take the next train to Vienna which leaves in just over an hour. He has paid your bill for everything, including this meal.” The hotel official looked embarrassed. “We have taken the liberty, and please, only under his instructions, of having the maids pack your things. This is being done now, so if you wish to change your dress you should do so quickly.” He bowed again and stepped away.

Helen looked at her silver satin evening gown and matching heels. “I guess I have to go. I’d look pretty silly traveling in this.”

Herr Klein nodded. “I must then say good-bye. Thank you for the food. It is good.”

Helen picked up her purse and stood. Herr Klein rose too, looking like a lost puppy. Poor, sweet boy, she thought. She gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Thanks for the tour of Berlin. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.”

Before she hurried to the lift, she used half her German vocabulary to bring a smile to his face, “Auf Wiedersehen, Herr Klein.”

Helen stopped in her room just long enough to change from a butterfly back into a moth. Then she stormed down the hall to Boltzmann’s room.

She opened the door without knocking, and her nostrils were assaulted by the odor of liver. Boltzmann’s color had improved from ashen to pale; he had changed clothes, and with bandaged hands was just finishing a dinner tray.

They glared at each other. She said, “Okay, what’s going on? Why the sudden rush? At least Alice in Wonderland got to finish her tea and biscuits.”

“Isn’t it customary to knock before entering?”

“And waste precious seconds? Heaven forbid.” She wrinkled her nose. “My God, how can you eat that stuff?”

He shrugged and cut a last piece. “Doctor’s orders. He tells me this will quickly build up my blood.” He glanced at his watch. “The taxi will be here in a few minutes. Although I don’t think I’m in any danger of fainting, I can’t walk far and will require your assistance. I apologize for fatiguing you, but you will have a sleeping compartment on the train.

The phone rang. Boltzmann said, “Would you get that please?”

Still fuming, Helen snatched up the phone. “Yes? Okay, thanks.” She hung up. “The taxi is here.”

By the time she got him downstairs their luggage was already loaded in the taxi’s trunk. After they had gone a few blocks, Helen noticed that Boltzmann kept turning and looking out the rear window.

“Is something wrong?”

“Perhaps.” He studied her for a moment before continuing. “You are not a woman who is easily alarmed.”

“Is that a question?”

“No. It is a compliment. I did not anticipate calling upon your courage and artistic skills so soon, but I find I must.”

“Are you feeling okay? Maybe we should go back to—“

“Turn around, Mrs. Eliot. Turn around and look. I will ask you to remember and draw what I believe your eyes will show you.”

She did as he asked. At first, she saw only the traffic, the pedestrians, the street lights of the city. Then she noticed a black cloud the size of an automobile. It floated just above the traffic and half a block behind them.
It took her several seconds to realize that it was following them.

“No, please,” she whispered, “not again.”

“Just watch,” Boltzmann said. “Watch and remember.”

As the thing grew nearer, Helen could see it was more than a simple cloud. A jaundiced light flickered somewhere inside. When the cab stopped at an intersection, the cloud halted also.

A long, thin tongue emerged from the cloud and licked a woman standing on a corner. She turned and shoved a man on crutches, who fell into the path of oncoming traffic. Tires squealed as a car just missed hitting him. A man with an empty left sleeve pointed at the cloud with his remaining arm and, eyes fixed on it, stumbled off the curb into the street. He lay face down, clawing at the concrete with his one hand as if begging it to open and swallow him.

“A camera,” Boltzmann said, “cannot capture their images. I have discovered that persons who have lived through the right sort of sorrow are sometimes able to see them. When I saw your paintings in that little gallery in London—“

“I painted them,” Helen said. “I saw those things around the hospital when Christopher was dying. I thought I was going crazy!”

Boltzmann sighed. “No, Mrs. Eliot. Unfortunately, you were not. They are ancient. Evil and suffering attract them. The war, with its millions of dead and maimed, has drawn their attention like nothing else in centuries. I believe I may have discovered their origins and hope to stop them before something unspeakable is born.”

“Those cuts—“

“Yes,” he smiled. “A stranger with a knife. Someone under their influence, I believe. Don’t worry about the one behind us. It will soon turn back. They are rather territorial, and we are now far from its nest.”

Neither said anything during the rest of the drive to the Potzdamer Banhoff. The glare of the electric-arc lights in the enormous barn-like structure of the station and the air filled with coal smoke and steam made Helen think of an illustrated version of Dante’s Inferno.

Boltzmann purchased their tickets and ordered their luggage loaded. Then he turned to her, ashen again, and asked her to help him to a bench. After a few minutes rest, he leaned on her as they boarded the train and made their way to the dining car for another dose of protein. Helen suspected that he wasn’t hungry—she had noticed that he usually ate very little—but was stoking himself with food to more quickly end his dependence on her.

They were sitting at a table in the dining car, she over a cup of black coffee, he over an omelet, when the train pulled out of the station.

“Where did they come from?” Helen asked.

Wincing a little, Boltzmann took a notebook and pencil out of his coat pocket and handed them to her. “Please make a sketch of what you can remember before you retire. I’ll say no more about them tonight,” he lowered his voice, “especially not in such a public place. We shall wait until Vienna to discuss what to do.”

Helen looked at his hard face and decided he meant it. She shoved the items on the table into her purse and turned to look out the window at the receding lights of Berlin.

“They were so desperate.” she said. “Those poor people. Doing the Charleston to forget they were starving.”

Boltzmann nodded. “A common human response to overwhelming circumstances. Not unlike what happened in fourteenth-century Europe.”

“Tell me.”

“It’s not a pretty tale.”

“And I’m not a child. You owe me.”

He smiled. “Perhaps I do. Very well, one story. In 1346, Genoan traders occupied the fortress city of Kaffa on the eastern coast of the Crimean peninsula and guarded the trade routes to China and Turkestan. A plague of unprecedented virulence broke out in the region. The Tartars blamed the Christian infidels and besieged Kaffa. As the epidemic worsened, the Tartars catapulted their dead over its walls. The Genoans began to burn with fever and erupted with black buboes the size of hen’s eggs. They fled back to Europe, taking the disease with them.

“It killed twenty-five or thirty million Europeans, perhaps as much as half the population. Pestilence dressed in rat skins and claimed the saint as readily as the sinner. This did not go unnoticed. Morality broke down. Formerly decent people took to debauchery, fornication, and looting. Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow you die.”

“Couldn’t they do anything to stop it?”

“They kept the Pope surrounded by fires. Lesser men had to take their chances.”

“But surely they did something.”

“They did.” He looked out the window as darkness swallowed the distant lights of Berlin. “They blamed the Jews.”

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4 thoughts on “Still Life with Nightmares

    • For now, that’s it. This was a slightly tweaked fragment of a novel I was working on some years back. I may return to that project now that I’m nearly finished with the current one. Thanks for your kind words! Glad you enjoyed it.

      • Well, it’s definitely one of those reads that you could leave as is and have us wondering (in a good way!) what’s going to happen next 🙂

        You’re welcome!

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