Fiction – “How Molière Saved Lydia Bruer: A History in Two Fragments” by Tracie Welser

I was naked when I arrived. When I recollect it, I see the ground coming up to meet me, and it is dry and hard. No grass grows, no flowers bloom.

History brings the past into the present, voices speaking in straight lines, chains, and broken bits. It is diaries and artifacts and words on a screen, but people behind the names once walked, laughed, and suffered in their own heavy flesh. The past is their present. History tells stories about tragedies and heroes. This is the story of how I fell from the sky.

A fence surrounded the compound, tall, electrified and topped with cruel barbs that said there’s no way out. I saw the German textile mill to the left, a dirt path connecting the two lonely places. A group of women walked through the gate under the lazy stares of two guards with rifles. The women were clothed in identical dresses, gray with blue stripes going down, and their heads were covered by white scarfs. They were all very thin, but once they moved past the guards, they smiled secret smiles to one another. None of them saw my fall, so you’re the only one who knows it happened this way. I lay on the ground behind a metal shed. I was surprised to find myself here, unable to move. I had used my gift to step backwards in time before, but not so far as this. I already knew there would be no return.

Does that make me a hero?

It may have been minutes or hours before Stennie found me lying there, with my mouth full of dirt and twin trickles of dried blood trailing from my nostrils to my ears. I didn’t know her name until later, of course, but I remembered her face from the photographs. She squatted next to me, and I smelled the warm odors of her body mingled with the scent of the harsh detergent that chafed her hands.

They hid me in the B block barrack, Stennie and Carmena and the others. I didn’t speak for a while. It’s one thing to study Dutch but another matter to listen for the language, ears straining, as women whisper in the chill of the night from bunk to bunk. I caught on after a while, adjusting to the cadence. They dressed me in a blue and gray dress, like theirs, an extra one they’d stolen from a waste bin in the infirmary. Stennie shaved my head so I wouldn’t stand out, and threw my hair into the latrine. Carmena gave me a head scarf fashioned from the corner of her pillow. Then I learned to walk as they did, back slightly rounded, head down. It was like being reborn as a snail.

The women shared their breakfast with me each morning until Charlotte died and I took her place on the bread line. Every woman got a single piece of bread and a bit of weak coffee in a metal cup. They each broke off a carefully measured piece and gave it to me, and so by giving up a little we all received an equal ration. After that, I became Charlotte, and her smudged identification triangle was pinned to the breast of my dress.

This is when I started looking for the book, the one that will save Lydia. I’m saying this so you’ll know what to listen for.

***

At five A.M. the siren wails and we all jump up. We put on our headscarves and straighten our socks, put on the ill-fitting wooden shoes, then shuffle to the bread line. Carmena lags behind because she likes to make up the shabby linens on the bunks. A few of the younger girls help, so it goes quickly. We make sure everyone eats. Stennie eats one bite of her bread and puts the rest in her apron pocket.

“This has to last, so save it well,” she tells me.

I start off by eating all of my slice right away, but after a while I see what she means. I’m hungry all the time.

Roll call is at six. We form up in rows of ten so the overseer can count us. If anyone is missing, anyone at all, we stand there until that woman is accounted for, even if it takes hours. A young girl named Thea, who is the only Ukrainian in our barrack and speaks no Dutch, passes out one morning from exhaustion and hunger. We prop her up until she is counted, and Stennie gives Thea her bread.

That same day, I find the woman with the book. I know it’s her because she is the one trading items she’s hidden under her dress for other items and bread. She has an inkpen and a portion of a newspaper smuggled out of the officers’ quarters, a skein of green ribbon, a tiny tin of salve, and a worn wooden toothbrush. When I ask her about the book, she shakes her head. Too soon, I think. But not too late.

When I become Charlotte, I take the dead woman’s place in the tailor’s shop, which is the part of the textile mill that makes uniforms for the army. After roll call, a group of us walk past the guards, through the gate and down the path to the mill. I’ve never even seen a sewing machine before, and the pace of the assembly line affords no patience to the ignorant. Yards of fabric come down the line, cut into pieces, and I just stare at it. The mill overseer screams in my face in German; some of her spittle lights on my nose and cheek. I am glad to lack understanding of what she says. She backhands me, but then Carmena steps in between us and shows me what to do. After a few weeks of hiding my mistakes, I learn the task fairly well.

A thin soup for lunch and then we are back on the line. I assemble the pockets for the trousers, and along with the other women, sneak scraps of fabric out of the mill and back to the barracks after the five P.M. siren blows. Not too many or too much. If a woman gets caught, the barracks overseer will lock her in the shed for a week, and the others will have to sneak her food. Carmena tells me this happened to her once, but after that she never got caught. The women make little dolls out of some scraps, using the shirt facing for bodies and arms, and stiff jacket fabric for tiny petticoats. They exchange them as gifts. The biggest doll is no larger than my thumb, and Carmena gives it to Lydia, the young music teacher, whose new baby the women are hiding in the C block barrack cupboard.

That morning, I walk to C block with Carmena and feel my skin prickle when Lydia opens the door. Her clear, hopeful face turns up to meet mine, and I think, what if being a hero means you save just one person? To step through time, and save someone, whose importance will not be felt in her lifetime, who will soon feel her own life is worthless, something to throw away in a moment of despair?

Lydia’s spirits are high now even though she is afraid for the baby; the overseers take away babies born in the camp, and they are never seen again. But the women work together in shifts to care for and quiet the baby, named Gustaf after his father. I hold him for an hour while Lydia and the younger women of the impromptu choir practice their hymns, and his face is a soft peachskin. A pink blotch of a birthmark winks from the corner of his left eye. I know that the guards will come for Gustaf soon, but it won’t do any good to warn the women. ?

Time passes, each day as much like the next as two pieces of fabric on the assembly line. This is a voice from the past, as I said before. There is hunger, and fear, gnawing at me from the inside, at all of us, all the time. Deaths occur. Some events matter and some don’t. I hope you can accept that much, at least.

The woman that I’m keeping my eye on tells me she was put in the camp because she is a Gypsy. I say, “You don’t look Romani.” She laughs.

“None of us look like ourselves here,” she says. “For one thing, I used to be fat.” She holds up a thin arm, pale skin hanging loose around the elbow. “My papa used to call me his plump babushka.”

She has the book now.

A woman in block F cleans the officers’ quarters. The gypsy works in the infirmary, but she trades with women from all different sections of the camp. The slim paperback, Molière’s The Misanthrope, is small enough to hide inside her undergarments.

Maybe my hands shake; somehow she sees how much I want the book. It’s my reason for being here, but I can’t tell her this, and I can’t hide my hunger for it. Like all of us, she hungers, too.?

“I’ll trade it to you for bread,” she says.

“How much bread?”

“Two days’ bread for each act in the play,” she says.

“That’s too much,” I say. The play has five acts. Angered, I think of ways to steal it from her, and my face feels hot. She’s trying to survive, like every other woman here. She did, too. She lived thirty-eight long years after the liberation of the camp, to a ripe old age of ninety-six.

In the end, I agree to give her half slices, when I can, and she agrees to give the acts to me in installments. A week later, she tears Act I from the book and I give her the second half-slice of bread. I am dizzy with hunger and exhaustion, but events unfurl in the exact way they should.

***

Stennie Prutomo’s diary, February 1945

The young woman speaks Dutch with an accent; she may be American. She has not told us her name, but now we call her Charlotte.

The actual Charlotte is sorely missed here. We tried to hide her age for as long as we could. Carmena overheard the officers and the Aufseherin discussing the order to eliminate the women workers deemed too old to be of use, so we schemed to prevent the identification of the elderly by dying their hair, among those whose gray hair has grown enough to betray them. I stole several bottles of black ink from the factory office, and we used it to that end. We also switch colored-coded triangles around to confuse the guards. Charlotte’s was purple with a P sewn on it, for political prisoner.

We prevented a few deaths by this tactic, I think, but Martina, who was sixty-two, died soon after; she had a head cold when she arrived, no small matter at her age, and the cold weather caused it to worsen. Then dear Charlotte was singled out one day when she tripped in the factory and spilled a box of remnants. They shot her the next morning after roll call.

Fortunately for the new Charlotte, our captors regard us as numbered bodies and hungry mouths, and crafty members of our resistance work in the records office where accounting is done.

The woman we now call Charlotte is a lovely, healthy girl in her thirties with a beautiful smile and strong limbs. She has a sweet manner about her, but a far-off look. She has been beaten in the factory more than once, Carmena told me, once for incompetence and three times for “insolent glances and remarks” to the overseer. She is resisting in her own way and has the bruises to show for it.

Carmena and I have held the women of B barrack together like a family, and the choir has kept their spirits up. But they are slipping after the reduced rations and recent deaths, especially Thea and this tragedy with Lydia’s baby.

***

Committing a play to memory is not an easy thing to do. It’s not like learning languages, which comes easily to me. If I had enough paper, I could write it down. As it is, all I have are scraps from the factory.

I am often too tired to read when the factory shift ends and we trudge back down the path to the camp and line up for another roll call. If the count is done quickly, I can have a little coffee and what is left of my bread, and then read over Act I or II again before it gets dark. I force myself to stay awake by pinching my arms. Sabine has been helping me although she cannot read. Her spoken French is of course much better than mine. We sit on the bunk we share with two other women, and she listens while I read. I ask her questions to check my understanding of the French, and then I translate it from English to Dutch in my mind.

“No, listen, Philinte is telling him, ‘hey, you are a hypocrite,’” says Sabine. “‘Why your standards are not applying to the woman you court?’”

It would have been immanently helpful if the name of the play had been recorded; I could have learned it beforehand and saved a lot of time. But that’s not how the history works, not how my story goes. I have to do it here.

The next step is convincing Lydia to direct the play, to give her a reason to live. She must live, she has to, or this is all for nothing.

This is why I fell, you see.

***

Stennie Prutomo’s diary, March 1945

My grief was too great to tell of the death of Thea and of little Gustaf before. Like a black choking cloud, my grief tried to smother me in the night. I wrestled it to the ground and cast it out of the barrack door so that I could continue. The others depend on me to be strong. It wouldn’t do for me to go mad.

But pretty Charlotte has gone mad, I believe.

Gustaf’s end was simple. Sabine left him sleeping in his cupboard while she went to the washroom and when she returned he was gone. No sound, no shouts or recriminations. Just taken. You can imagine poor Lydia’s suffering.

Lydia lay in bed for three days. We told the overseer she was ill, so she was sent to the infirmary for two more days. Her eyes were hollow, her face like an empty mask, when she came back.

As for Thea, my heart hurts to tell it. At the morning roll call, she could hardly stand upright. The Aufseherin joined the overseer that morning for an inspection, and these terrible women enjoyed one of their cruel games at our expense, wherein the guard trainees were ordered to strike those prisoners who could not maintain balance on one foot. Thea stumbled and fell, and seeing this, the Aufseherin said, “This one is a weakling. Put her out of her misery.” Poor Thea had held on for so long. She was thin and pale, and her skin had a rash that crept up from her breast to her neck.

In spite of her weakness, she looked the overseer in the eye and spit in the dirt at her feet. Then she ran like a gazelle. They chased her, but she made it to the edge of the camp. We all heard the pistol shots but not before her scream as she threw herself onto the electric fence.

This may be what drove Charlotte mad. She frightened me with a confession and a prophecy. She came to give us hope, she says. She waits with us for the Soviet army; she says they will come to liberate us in a few weeks time, but she will be dead by then.

She seems rational, but there is a glint in her eyes that I recognize. The hunger can make you mad, and the slender beauty that she had is gone, wasted away. I never see her eat any food, and her eyes are sunken. She spends all her time scribbling. She asks me not to tell the others what she revealed to me, and I am relieved.

***

The play is translated, and I write the principal parts on paper squares taken from the factory office by Stennie, who helps me with the writing. She understands, I think, what I am trying to do. She gives me portions of her bread, but I give them all to Lydia.

The eleven women who will perform the play rehearse with Lydia every other evening behind the shed. If it’s too cold, they hide inside the shed, huddled over candles made from hoarded bits of margarine. Lydia even arranges some of the lines into song. Her touch is remarkable, and it’s too bad I won’t be here to see the play performed.

“Charlotte, you should play the part of Éliante,” she says. “She’s the good girl.” The goed meisje. She and I are the same age, but she still sees me as a student, a child. Her eyes are alight with creative fire that is half born of malnourished delirium, but it obscures her grief.

My goal is accomplished. I can die now.

***

Stennie Prutomo’s diary, April 1945

The day Charlotte left us, we saw and heard the bombs falling on Berlin. The city is only ninety kilometers from the camp, and in those days we would often see English and American bombers flying overhead on their way to Berlin. The guards would scream at us to get inside, but we waved and cheered as they went past.

That evening after roll call, the bombs fell, and the guards were afraid. They knew something they weren’t telling us. When the first sounds of the explosions came, Charlotte smiled. We all did. Then she put on her head scarf and went outside.

The guards had all retreated indoors, for fear the camp itself would be bombed, I suppose. I followed Charlotte at a distance, trailing her between the barracks in the dusk. At the corner of B Block, she took off her wooden shoes and left them in the dirt, then walked on. She strolled past the shed where Lydia and the others were rehearsing the play, and she patted the corner of the shed as she passed. I watched her around the corner of the shed as she approached the fence, and I wanted to cry out, “No, stop!” but I couldn’t make a move toward her or even utter a sound.

When she reached the fence, Charlotte took off her head scarf and laid it down next to the fence post. Then she took off her dress and neatly folded it, setting it on the ground as though it were precious. Her body looked much thinner than I had realized; the loose-fitting dress had served to disguise the extent of her starvation. She glanced back toward the shed. I don’t think she saw me. She reached out and touched the fence.

I expected her to scream, like Thea, or twitch like the birds that were sometimes electrocuted when they lighted on the wire, but she didn’t. She stood up straight and tall, and I saw a light arc from her naked body to the evening sky, and she was gone, dissipated into the dusk as if she had never been.

***

History brings the past into the present. You, the historian, should know this best of all. There are documents, diaries, and the whispers of those who saw the story unfold, but they can’t always be trusted. This history tells us Charlotte died. History also tells us that Lydia the music teacher died, succumbed to grief and took her own life, but you know she didn’t.

I saved her, with a book, a play that gave her reason to live a few weeks longer. She had six beautiful children and many more grandchildren. One will be an important leader.

Is this missive scribbled on scraps of paper the whole story? Will you be moved, dear historian, to sentimentality by my death? Am I a hero?


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About the Author

Tracie Welser is a graduate of the 2010 Clarion West Writers Workshop. When she’s not teaching Women’s Studies or grammar in a classroom near you, she might be obsessing over owls, drumming, stories about time travel, or utopias and dystopias at www.thisisnotanowl.com.