DISCLAIMER: All named characters in this story do not belong to me, they belong to the creators and producers and studios that own Xena: Warrior Princess.
THE HISTORY: I am not a historian, or a history major or a major expert on history. This story, first and foremost, is a work of fiction. Not everything depicted in this story is historically accurate, particularly the details pertaining to the Nazi nuclear program. For example: the Nazis never developed a nuclear reactor capable of firing a nuclear bomb. Fritz Houtermans is a real German scientist who worked on fission experiments and developing nuclear technology. However, he did not remain in Germany and joined the war effort in America. Merkers was a mine but not a cover for a nuclear storage facility, etc. etc. I tried to be as accurate as possible without interfering with my intention to explore the effects of WWII. Plus it creates drama, and I know how much you guys love drama
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
SPOILERS: THE XENA SCROLLS.
The air was fresh and warm, the crest of summer on the horizon. The aroma of potato pancakes travelled from the café into the streets, patrons enjoying them on the tiny patio at the entrance. Kartoffelpuffers. That was the name. Was it Jack who taught it to her? She shrugged, sauntered through the courtyard as the sun beamed onto the thick fabric of her uniform. It was against the doctor's orders to be in the sun. She was getting too dark, Jack told her. Too much sun. The nagging aggravated her, though in private, she thought he was right.
A breeze flitted through the lengthening strands of her hair. Her eyes scanned the streets, cobblestone and serpentine, bright with rays. The speakers in the square blared the recorded words of the Fuhrer, then Joseph Goebbels: Nun, volk, steh auf und sturm brich los! Deutschland über alles! It played over and over and finally cut to music, the fifth replay of Die Wacht Am Rhein that morning. She began to sing it, the tune engrained in her from habit, the lyrics following. It was all merely reflex. She turned down another street; German children played games, hearty and fair-skinned. Peasants and soldiers ate confectionaries on terraces. Pastries and coffee, sweetness with the tickling scent of spices. And so it was, May fifth, 1944, that a year had passed with such immediate haste and indifference to them: the people caught drowning in the ebbing tide of time.
She would have to get back to the café. Melinda troubled over her if she wasn't punctual. She chuckled at the thought. Mel never heeded the doctors, stayed close whenever Janice requested. She knew it hurt them: Melinda and Jack. Jack couldn't understand her though he tried. He could not see human nature like Janice could. Mel too, was oblivious to it: the things that Janice could see, but Melinda never denied her, never sought to explain her.
What if the war never ends and we're trapped here? And we can't go back to how we used to be In Gottvertrau'n greif' zu dem Schwert! Und tilg' die Schmach mit Feindesblut! Repeat, repeat. Yes, she thought, dear Melinda, what if we are trapped here I think you know the answer. You are no longer Melinda Pappas, and I am not Janice Covington. Never again. Christofer Gottlieb, the papers say: a man, a soldier, a German, a Nazi. Gottlieb, Christofer. Deutschland über alles!
She ascended the steps to the house, used the key Jack gave her to open the door. She could never go through the café entrance; everyone was watching. The soldiers were already talking about the young boy from the Russian front. Too much attention, though the Nazi Becker, friend to the Resistance, had drinks with her in view of the public. It was known about the town that she was Jack's nephew recovering from injuries. The neighbourhood women, the wide-hipped mothers with podgy faces and reddened cheeks flustered themselves with gossip: Jack's boy is daft! Quite senseless and empty. Oh, but he is a little handsome, yes, his eyes, his face, but that alone! It must be the genes. And you know Jack, with those dark, foreign eyes of his. So it's in the family. The boy must get his dark skin, his shortness, certainly his idiocy from those bad genes. And they say now, that the younger one barely breathes a word, going mad just the same
Janice closed the door behind her, inhaled the scent of cooking broth emanating through the house from the café stovetops. The air was hot from used ovens and baking. She shrugged off her jacket, unbuttoned her shirt and placed them both across the backs of the wooden chairs in the kitchen. She stretched her arms, felt the cotton undershirt strain, ran her fingertips across her skin and the scar beside her left bicep. Helen stitched it well. She stared at the table, remembering the pain and the confusion of the world she'd stumbled into. She had been relieved to see Jack, thankful to be alive and away from the prison cells that smelled of rot and urine. And the Nazi doctor.
She cringed. Doctors, doctors, doctors: the gramophone of thoughts. The program that played revolution after revolution: scratch, scratch, scratch! She traced the larger scar on her pelvis, brutally twisted and curved. And what was it that was really gone? A little piece? An organ -what? She didn't know. She never wanted to know. Preoccupied with constant malaise, she knew only that she was still alive, that the days were long and wearing.
With luck, she had escaped infection and Melinda tended the stitching well, monitoring it, dabbing it with medicine obtained from the town physician. Janice knew he gave it to her. She would never allow him to administer it; never let him close to her stitches with any instruments or vials of liquid. And she knew Melinda hated him. It satisfied her, calmed her when he came over to inspect her condition, give advice, test her mind.
The rules were made plain: she had to improve. The doctor warned her and scolded Melinda for encouraging her deviance. Improvement was necessary, he would declare, and then proceeded to list the consequences: the failure as a man -a German man, and as a Nazi, the betrayal to the Fuhrer and to country. She would be sent away to a clinic if there was no progress. Melinda was infuriated. She decided she was going to cure her. It consumed her, became a new habit. And Mel slowly forgot the drink, working between shifts at the café to coach Janice to walk about, to speak and act normally.
It was, Mel told her, just an act. She recognised the insincerity of Janice's attempts, the abnormal half-heartedness for routine activities. Talking was most difficult but Melinda would drag it out of her. Talk to this person, to that person, and talk when spoken to. They expect it. A performance of necessity. Janice stared with eyes glazed around the quaint kitchen, remembering Melinda's anguished plea as she sat in one of the chairs:
"Just pretend," she said, "Please. Please, Janice, pretend!" She paced. "It doesn't have to be real or true, and when they're gone, you may do as you please. I promise, I promise. Whatever you want! Just act it for me. Or they'll take you " she knelt on the floor in front of her, took her hands and enfolded them in her own, "You'll vanish. People just disappear. And no one knows where they go... I -you would never see me again "
Silence as she stared up at Janice. Her lips pursed and emerged blood-red, "Is that what you want?"
Janice shook her head.
Slender, alabaster fingers reached up and cupped her face; desperate eyes searched hers, "Then speak. The man is coming to see you."
It was always the man, never the doctor, so as not to excite her, Jack would say. It irritated her when he talked like that, like the doctor -what was his name? Dr. Blank. Yes. With his doughy face and combed moustache hair and perfect suit. Dr. Blank who said she was too dark, too stupid, too underdeveloped for a boy. Idiot.
Janice picked up her jacket and shirt and headed down the hallway to the bedroom, dropping her clothing on the clean duvet. Melinda was in the café with Jack and Helen and Ben. She was alone, isolated by the quiet with the homunculus that lived in her head, kicking about the soft meat of her brain, spurning thought and agony. Progress. The homunculus knew nothing of it. It lingered in the past, suffocated her with it, made her stare off at the walls when someone talked to her, made her head hurt, made her collapse in public. But she had to improve. Act, behave. Distraction was helpful. She stripped off her clothes and threw them on the bed, heading into the shower.
Objects. The homunculus recognised the familiar ones. Jack and Melinda's bed, her bed in the basement, the kitchen table, each with its own powerful significance. The kitchen was the training ground, the rehearsal stage: walk properly, speak well, look healthy, arm your weapons and go! Over the top, boys! Don't get shot!
Down the hall, to the bedroom, was the church, the bed and the altar. It was where she lay when her condition was extreme, when no one knew why, when nothing of her silence was understood. She had the stitches and the marks but never talked about them, refused to give life to them or to think of them freely. So she stared blankly at the ceiling and everyone around her panicked, laid her on the bed and surrounded her. Faces peered over her, Jack and Helen, Melinda and Ben. And Jack and Ben wore hats, speaking words that she didn't understand from a book opened over her. Melinda and Helen wore shawls, and repeated the words into the air, heads bowed.
Mel explained it to her much later, after Janice began to talk again. It was a prayer, a Jewish prayer for the sick. Jack insisted on it, uncovering with thorough care a Torah from beneath the floorboards, unbinding it from the other forbidden mementos of their past lives: American passports, credit cards, bank notes, birth certificates, yarmulkes, Melinda's Christian bible. They dimmed the lights around her, lighting candles so Jack could read from the Torah and they prayed:
May the One who blessed our ancestors -
Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,
Matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah -
Bless and heal: Janice Covington
And the ritual repeated, night after night that she did not speak, the few words she uttered to Melinda kept secret. Progress. If the doctor could not move her forward, then perhaps God could, Jack reasoned. God was the answer to the failure of men. Janice remembered hearing them over her, their voices low and harmonious, calming her until she slept.
HaKadosh Barukh Hu
yimalei rahamim aleha,
Janice turned the showerhead on. The warm water of the shower crackled against the porcelain tub, hitting her skin with force. Her eyes closed and she felt the water invade her ears, rolling down her head, shoulders and back. The shower held memories too. She scrubbed her flesh raw, feeling unclean: the dirty thickness of guilt. Melinda and Jack fought once; she heard them through the hollow sound of heavy water drops:
"We can't keep doing this, Melinda," Jack said, "We're putting everyone at risk."
"The Resistance," he continued, "Ben, you, me!"
"She needs our help, Jack!" Melinda's voice was unusually shrill.
"At what expense? Her employer is demanding she continue with the next phase of her contract "
"She's in no condition to go anywhere."
"They won't wait forever!"
Mel's voice became quiet, "How can you defend them? Haven't you seen the marks on her? Do you remember where you found her?"
"Yes. But when I agreed to help her, I agreed to put my own life on the line and no one else's. Now everyone is jeopardized. I never agreed to endanger you and I won't participate in anything that deliberately puts you in harm's way -"
"I chose to participate, Jack," Mel interrupted, "I've decided to protect her. She's my friend our ally why is this so difficult for you?"
"I don't understand it! Her behaviour, her distance That is not the woman I met in Greece "
"I don't understand it either, but I won't abandon her here."
"And every night you're with her for nightmares, I know. But she's not a child!"
"We don't know what she saw what they did to her she was tortured. How can anyone begin to live after that?"
"I don't know!" His voice rumbled furiously through the walls. "I never know anything anymore!" And more quietly, "Why the hell did all of this happen?"
The tension swelled in the silence, growing insufferable until Jack spoke again in a lowered voice,
"You can't keep her here or else "
"Or else, what?" Melinda's voice was hurt, defiant.
"She can't stay here forever. Not the way she is."
"I'm serious, she can't -"
"If you force me to choose between the two of you, I will never forgive you for it."
Janice had waited next to the door, listening, the shower still running, water trickling down her cold flesh. She heard movement, the mattress creaking and footsteps growing fainter. Jack spoke again.
"I don't want to make you chose but she has to get better."
"Don't disappoint me, Melinda."
And the silence returned, unremitting.
Janice shook the memory from her consciousness, closed the faucet and wrapped her body in a towel. She stared at her golden complexion in the mirror, her pale colourless lips in the glass, her bright green eyes haloed by an unruly red mane. Too dark. Yes, she was too dark. But her eyes stood out from her tanned skin and it made her look exotic. Mediterranean perhaps. No, no, it was quite ugly. She longed to reverse the days she spent in the sun on archaeological digs, travelling through the Middle East. It meant nothing to her now, and she was left with the permanent mark of the sunlight, the punishment of bronze residue on her skin that would not wash away.
She opened the bathroom door and steam whirled around her. She reached for her clothing on the bed, eyed the duvet and the homunculus began to kick about again. Digging, digging, looking for relics that she would inevitably bury: learn to forget. But while she could still remember, it teased her, provoked her with recollection against her will. And time moved backward, behind her eyes as she remembered Melinda in the darkened bedroom. It smelled of incense. There had been a prayer. A figure moved behind Melinda, walking through the door, middle-aged and medium height with peasant clothes and the scent of tobacco.
A briefcase bounced against his knee as he walked, a stethoscope peeking out of the collar of his tunic. A doctor. She cringed and curled up on the bed, knees beneath her chin. He sat beside her and Melinda came near, reached a hand out to her shoulder. The man had a full head of brown hair, gold-rimmed spectacles and a large nose. His face was long and carbuncular and there were crows-feet at his dark eyes. He looked at her meekly, kept his hands folded in his lap.
She turned to Melinda with uncertainty and Mel sat on the bed, rubbed the chorded muscles at the back of Janice's neck to calm her.
"This is a friend," she whispered, "He came to visit Jack."
Janice narrowed her eyes. Melinda's ears flushed when she lied.
"He wants to make sure you're alright," she continued, "He knows who we are and who you really are."
Janice wanted to laugh. Who am I, then, really? Please tell me, Doc, tell me, tell me but she merely nodded.
"Okay," Mel said, grimacing, "You're going to have to let him look at you you have to remove your clothing." She caressed Janice's cheek, "I'm going to be right here."
Mel grabbed a blanket from the closet and kept it next to Janice as she helped her out of her clothing. As Janice began to panic, she cloaked the blanket over her bare shoulders, shielding her from the doctor's eyes. Nude beneath the cover, Janice clutched the woolen fabric in a fist, stared at the floor and felt Melinda's hands rubbing her upper arms. "Whenever you're ready," Mel said.
Janice turned and listened to the doctor talk, shrugged off the blanket at his instructions. Melinda's warm hand on her back gave her comfort, never breaking contact, never leaving.
"Her body is healthy," he said to Melinda, after the examination. She stroked Janice's spine through the cover of the blanket. Janice stared at the patterns on the duvet.
"But her mind "
"What do we do?" Melinda's voice was raw, exhausted.
"I'm not sure," he said, "I have never encountered such a condition myself. And I'm not an expert on the brain no one is. All I can offer is advice, Miss Papas, and I believe you should remain vigilant. I think this abandonment of speech may be the mind's rejection of trauma, perhaps of the war. This silence brings control control brings order. I cannot tell you what, specifically, it is that makes your friend so quiet, but it seems to me that she would try leave this world altogether."
Mel's eyes widened as she deciphered his meaning, and she looked anxiously toward Janice. "Oh no," she whispered, "She wouldn't do that."
The doctor nodded, "Perhaps you're right. You know her better than I." He wrapped his tools and medicine vials in a felt cloth and tucked them away in the briefcase before he exited the bedroom, joining Jack and Helen in the kitchen. Melinda remained, fingers curling red strands of hair behind Janice's ear, voice whimpering and breaking with emotion.
"You wouldn't do that, would you?" She cupped Janice's face in her hands, staring into blank green eyes. "Tell me you wouldn't do that." Silence. "Tell me." Janice was expressionless. Melinda's chest heaved with stifled sobs and finally words, pitched high, began to die in her throat, "You wouldn't "
Her arms closed around Janice, clutching her tightly. "What has happened to you?" She buried her face into Janice's shoulder and cried.
Janice walked out of the bedroom, dressed in uniform, feeling the warm air turned cool on her neck moist with the wetness of her hair. It had grown to the end of her ears, a deeper red in the summer season. She sighed, travelling through the kitchen to the larder, heading toward the cellar. A year! A year of everything and nothing at all. She had just begun to feel again, to talk as the spring weather warmed. The chill of the winter was gone and she realised she hardly felt it while it was there. She seldom felt anything. The seasons passed without significance and her silence suffused the world. She used to scream in her sleep, Melinda told her, but she could only remember awakening in Melinda's arms disoriented.
What it was that made her cry out at night was a mystery, objects and realities replaced with feelings of dread, sudden moments that unnerved her until she could not withhold her fury. The screams would rip through her, wake Melinda, make Janice tremble and forget everything. For months it was the same. And she hated it, loathed to watch Melinda suffer with her, to see her disintegrate as Jack aged from worry.
But one day, in the spring, as Melinda walked with her through the square, arm linked around her own, she felt the warmth in the air. It was strange at first, wholly foreign to her and she stopped walking, struck by the sensation. Mel halted and stared at her, worried that they were suddenly in danger. She watched as Janice tilted her head, listening. Birds singing. Odd. Forgotten. Janice craned her neck to hear them, inhaled the scent of grass and vegetation struggling for life after winter thaw. Life continued despite the war. Life returned. The sun was upon her, the heat permeating her pores. One did not forget completely. Her brows furrowed in concentration, Melinda's eyes stared anxious and searching. Janice let her hand travel down Melinda's forearm; she gazed at their entangling fingers. The beginnings of a smile formed on her lips and Melinda's face softened, became unreadable. Janice grinned beneath the shadowed brim of her SS cap. Beauty how had she overlooked it? They walked down the street with their fingers entwined, laughing to themselves.
Down the steps, descending, her feet drummed on the wood. The cold in the wine cellar was immediate. It made her flesh react, rising tiny bumps along her arms. She removed the shelving to her room, unlocked the door and went in. As she looked toward the bed, her mind drifted again, homunculus tempering about inside. She despised it, fantasized about flicking it from her head with Jack's shaving razor. It would be so simple, at her forehead, between her eyes. She knew exactly where the homunculus lived, imagined flinging it into the sink, gouging it from its place of rest. But that would be ugly. It was not proper, a thought unbecoming for all forms of life
Lying down on the bed, she caught the aroma of Melinda's perfume: fresh sweetness and the floral scent of hers that, so often worn, had become engrained in her skin and hair. It was embedded into the pillows and the sheets. Janice put her head on the pillow, inhaled deeply. The homunculus in her brain turned and twisted, and she could hear Melinda's voice in her mind as though she was nearby:
"You had another dream. It's over now. I'm here."
Janice pulled her face away from Melinda's neck, met her gaze with tears trickling down her cheeks. It was over. The world behind her eyes a mirage. Her chest heaved erratically. The fear was gone for now. Gentle fingertips massaged the back of her neck. Home again.
Janice adjusted her position, moving them both down onto the bed, facing one another. Mel brushed the hair from Janice's eyes, reached out and caressed her flushed cheek. Melinda's hand dropped down to her shoulder and squeezed it gently, her thumb rubbed back and forth against the bone. She was lost in thought, staring at her moving thumb.
"What is it that you dream?" She said absently, her eyes hooded with fatigue. She glanced up at Janice and back down again as she continued, "I don't expect you to answer that."
Janice remained still, a curious expression surfaced.
"I don't dream much," Melinda said, "Not now anyway I did have a bit of a dream a few nights ago. But it was short and very strange. Not a bad one just peculiar."
Janice folded her hands against the pillow and placed them beneath her cheek, staring as Melinda lost herself in private thoughts. She sighed, removing her hand from Janice's neck.
"It was about Greece " she began, "Shortly after you and I met that is, on the night of the day that you and I met "
The beginnings of a smile tugged at Janice's lips, and Melinda, fumbling sleepily through the start of the tale, lightly giggled. "I remembered us that night, driving away in the jeep and then I saw moments of daylight. It's very fuzzy, the whole thing: this dream. And I felt very dizzy in it. Very sick. I was lying down in bed and everything was white and grey. Sterile almost. There was someone passing by a window next to me, a nurse I think. It's very odd, this world. And that smell from the crypt in Greece "
The tranquility in her green eyes faded and Janice focused on the fibres in the bed sheets, running her calloused fingertips over them.
"You remember that, don't you? It smelled disgusting. See? It makes no sense And then, I dreamt of my hotel room, the one with the balcony and the small kitchen, and the door that lead to your room "
Janice turned over, faced away from her.
Her voice was hoarse from lack of use, "It wasn't a dream."
Melinda rose slightly from the mattress, leaned closer to see her face. "What?"
"Not a dream."
Mel absorbed the words.
"What do you mean?"
Janice drew a deep breath, sighing, "That's a memory."
Melinda's brows furrowed, disbelief intoned in her voice, "I don't understand -"
"You were in the hospital. I don't remember being pulled out of the crypt myself, but out of all of us: me, you, Jack, and Smythe's team, you inhaled the most. That was one of the traps inside the crypt: sulphur vapours. We were all out cold by the end of it, but you breathed the most sulphur. You were bedridden for about a week. I walked back and forth in front of your room window they let me see you during their visiting hours but not anytime before or after. So I waited until you woke up -"
"Wait!" Melinda said, sitting up on the mattress. "Janice, what are you talking about?" She put her hand on Janice's shoulder and coaxed her to turn. Janice moved to lie on her back and stared up at Melinda.
"Sulphur vapours," she said simply, "They make you hallucinate."
Creases appeared stark on Melinda's forehead as her expression changed to one of disbelief. Her voice became hushed, "Hallucinations "
Janice nodded, her melodic tone carrying gently to Melinda's ears, broken by harshness from deep in her throat, "Yeah. The things we saw down there. The sarcophagus with that man in it. Ares, the god of war. All that fantastic magic." She ran her tongue over her bottom lip, "It was all a lie."
"I don't I can't believe that, Janice. That's not possible. I -" She whispered, "I felt a connection to him. I can't describe it but I know he was there."
"He talked to me!"
Janice stared at the ceiling.
"I remember so clearly what he said. I fought with him. I felt him near me."
"I know you think you did -"
Melinda angrily turned to face away from her, lying down on the bed. She glanced over her shoulder, huffed in defiance, "How do you explain the fact that we all saw the same thing?"
"I don't know what you saw."
"You saw Ares like I did."
"We spoke to each other. Fed each other's fantasies until they got more and more incredible."
"I don't believe you."
Janice traced circles with her index finger into the cotton fabric of the pillow case, tried to clear her mind of thoughts. Melinda spoke.
"If that was true, then Jack would also know about it."
"If I asked him he'd tell me the same story you just told me?"
She nodded again.
"What about Smythe? I saw Ares impale him on a sword."
"That's how I know I'm right," Janice said softly, still turned away from her.
Melinda felt her indignation flare up again, "And how's that?"
She was slow to respond, the sound of her breathing filled the air. "Because he's my employer."
Melinda shook her head slightly, unable to process what she heard. She reached out for Janice, feeling her flinch as her hands made contact with her shoulder. She murmured to herself. "Did we find the scrolls?"
She shrugged the hand off of her shoulder as though it was an insect, "Goodnight, Melinda."
Janice willed herself to be silent again that night, thrusting the pillow at her face whenever she was tempted to weep. The soft noises she heard haunted her for the rest of the night, rousing her from sleep each time she drifted into the peaceful haze of rest.
Lying on the bed in the same position, Janice recovered from her memories. The homunculus was finally quiet, drowning in the tears that trickled from her eyes. She swiped at them. She breathed a sigh of relief turning to look at the empty space beside her, gazed at the cream-white pillow. The void was somehow more pronounced. She wished Melinda was there.
The sound of the lively café blared in a rising crescendo through her ears. She was oblivious to it before; now she could hear everything above her: the music, the clinking of dishes, the voices, the shouts, the stomping over the floorboards. All happy and drunk and dizzy. There, cravings found satisfaction one after another: feeding, dancing, drinking. She heard the women laughing, the soldiers singing. And up the stairs, they would run to the bedrooms, the bargirls and the Nazis: fucking in the hallways and the vacant rooms. Did Melinda have to do that?
She tossed to the left and cringed, retreating to the other side of the bed. A corpse with a butchered face, holes struck through the eyes and forehead, throat slashed. The prison guard. His jaw hung from his upper lip, mouth agape in an awkward grin. His eyes were small and beady, staring out, not quite at her.
"Go away," she demanded, her voice trembling.
His head turned to her, on the rotting, fleshy neck. Eyeballs moved to look at her for a moment, and then he turned to gaze beyond her, fixed at a point on the wall.
She covered her ears, squeezed her eyes shut. The homunculus awakened, stirred by the chaos. If she screamed, she would be in trouble. They would all be shot against the café wall outside. She couldn't scream. In a few hours, Melinda would come through the door, into the room and it would be calm again. Melinda would be with her soon.
- You there, boy! Komm her zu mir.
The General. His teeth gleamed large and yellow in the gloomy light. His face erupted in a doughy, grinning mass, rapture slathered over his round, melting cheeks and mouth. He sat with his stubby legs apart, gut overflowing from the edge of his tight, leather belt, the buttons of his jacket barely held together. He was wearing his cap inside the café, too proud to remove it. It was kept straight, perfect and clean, the black rim shinning. His inflamed, heavy arms gestured toward him again. His smile became more menacing, Komm her zu mir, Ben.
Ben approached the table cautiously, eyes travelling from the stout general to the thinner, younger officers smoking cigarettes and whispering. He looked at the Jewish traitor, the rat who consorted with them, eyes narrowing on the tiny spectacles and curly brown beard. Full of joy, full of intensity. Ben clenched his jaw.
"How old are you now?" The General asked.
Ben swallowed, "Sixteen, Herr General."
"A fine age," the fat man chuckled, tremulous convulsions consumed his burly frame, lumpy cheeks jiggled. The General's company eyed Ben with severity, murderous desire manifest in their faces. He continued:
"You do love Germany, don't you?"
"Yes, Herr General."
"Then, too, you must love the Fuhrer. He has done wonderful things with this country, has he not? And defeated so many of our enemies! The Jews are the biggest problem, of course, they drained us of our vitality, but so too did the Americans!"
Melinda heard the General's words and disappeared behind the kitchen door. Jack emerged from the doorway and eavesdropped from the bar counter, scrubbing a clean mug with a rag.
"Yes! Hitler has made the Motherland rich again," the General said, "The Americans -the Allies would have us all living in the most detestable squalor. Do you remember? Oh, but you were a little thing. What were you then? Five? Maybe six? You don't remember "
But Ben did remember. He recalled playing in the court as his father lumbered home, a wheelbarrow full of marks for two weeks of work. He would help him carry the piles of money inside and dump them onto the kitchen table, watched his father sit and stare at them with blood-shot eyes. Every crumpled bill was worthless. His mother would curse his father, toiling over the meagre scraps of food for dinner. And his little brother and sister, the twins, would come bounding into the kitchen, finding the pile of cash and squealing. They thought it was a game.
His little brother would collect the marks and stack them finely, the tiny, three-year-old brain somehow obsessed with order and neatness. And his sister, with a wicked grin on her face, would wait until the stacks were precise until she knocked them down and threw them into the air, watching the paper flutter whimsically to the ground. His little brother would cry and his father would storm from the house, while his mother swatted his sister across the bottom with a wooden spoon.
Then at night, he remembered the shouts: his mother crying, his father screaming. A growl, a sob and his father roaring: Benjamin! He covered his face with the sheets. His brother and sister would wail, startled by the noises. He knew he had to obey, and hesitantly rose from bed, hair tousled from sleep, padding into the kitchen. Then his father would strike him. Sometimes outright, sometimes with warning, but he was certain to bleed like his mother. And then back to bed.
"They said it was a peace treaty " He remembered his father saying one night. "It's a death sentence. Those goddamn Americans and the British and the French! The Soviets too." He would stand at the table, making swooping gestures with his arms. "We won't lie here to rot forever! Germany will rise again." Then he would turn to Ben, "One day, when you're a man, Germany will come to ask you for your help. To ask you to take back her dignity. And you will go to her."
His mother would try to intervene and his father would push her away, slap her sometimes. He continued, "You see your little brother and sister? You know they're hungry. You know that feeling. It's mad! I cannot even buy you food! The Americans and the British have stolen it from us, straight from your mouth, Benjamin. Do you remember good food? Sweets at the kino?" Yes, he remembered faintly, the feelings of warmth and comfort. His father and mother happy. His mother's belly swollen with the twins. His father's laugh, his mother's smile as she stood over the stovetop and the house filled with the scent of cooking. Eating without reserve. Ice cream. There was something blissfully unreal about it all, as though it was merely fantasy.
It repeated: his father miserable from work, would come home, and made more unhappy by family, would drink and squander the piles of marks. The twins shrieked, sitting on the floor with bloated stomachs, starving. It unnerved him, the constant wailing. Ben learned one of his mother's old sayings: 'I eat with my eyes and taste with my mind.' A Portuguese maid taught it to her when she was young, after her father died. Ben taught it to the twins when they cried for food, repeated it in his mind when he passed the people on café patios or when he stared at the expensive cakes in bakery windows.
"The revolution has begun," his father said over a dinner of bread and bowls of wine. "It has begun with this man this Hitler. He is strong. He has conviction. He is going to lead us, and we will live again!" His father wasn't drunk that night, or the other nights that followed. He went to meetings and joined an unofficial congregation of the National Socialist Party. He was proud again, proud of Germany and of himself. He forgot the drink for a while.
Then Ben's little sister was ill. Coughing fits at first and the doctor didn't know the cause. After dinner one day, Ben sat next to the bed where the twins slept, organising a scattered pile of marks into neat rows. His brother fussed, stirred anxiously. Ben looked up at him, saw the boy nudging his sister on the pillow. He got to his knees, a look of confusion on his face. His brother's movements grew more desperate. "Ariel?" Ben said and got no answer. She seemed unusually pale. Her lips were colourless. And then his little brother pushed her, and Ariel fell from the edge of the bed, hitting the ground with a muted thud, face toward the floor.
She rolled, so simply, like a little doll and remained still. Ben swallowed, afraid to touch her. His brother started to cry. "Ariel?" He called out again in vain. He touched her limp arm, turned her over. That same harlequin face: swollen, puckered little lips that emanated no sound, a porcelain complexion. A doll. He felt around her mouth. Not breathing. His little brother continued to wail. His mother rushed into the room, disoriented and panicking. She swatted Ben away and scooped the little body up into her arms.
His mother cried endlessly that night, and his father disappeared for weeks. When he came back, Ben's little brother had died. They were too close, the twins, vital to one another. And so he went peacefully in his sleep, chubby cheeks blue-white as the sun filtered in through the shutters, fists curled beneath his chin as though he sought to shield himself. Too little food, Ben thought. The Americans must have stolen it.
The General's gruff voice cut through his reverie.
"It was a terrible time. I lost a son to it. He died in the mines. Got crushed "
Ben's eyebrows furrowed as he absorbed the words, unaccustomed to hearing gentleness in the General's voice. The General grew distant for a moment, took a sip of cognac and then willed his emotions away with a sinister grin, "Hitler is great! Our revenge is almost complete. We are going to win, to kill those that would threaten our freedom! We have taken our money back, and so too taken Germany from their clutches. You see, Ben? The Fuhrer is like a father, the kindest father you will ever have. He has given you life. He buys you anything that you want. Spoils you out of love. Isn't that right?"
Ben nodded. He was right, in a way. Germany was rich and there was nothing Ben couldn't have. The piles of worthless marks had value again, and were replaced with tiers of luxurious things to buy. All the food he could eat. Chocolate. Ice-cream. There was a small cinema in the village with exciting pictures about the Nazis' certain victory. He had fine clothing and shoes, hot water for baths, the cakes and pastries that Jack made for breakfast. Meat. Eggs. Candy. Fine wine and cognac. There was nothing he couldn't touch. He could consume the world for himself if he wanted to.
But there were rumours, stories that troubled him. People were being killed, and they were neither soldiers nor criminals. He was a Jew and was forced to hide it. The Jewish people wore stars on their clothes. Why? And his parents disappeared on the trains, and the children were herded into cars in packs. Screams in the distance from Niederhagen. Jack and Melinda hid him, protected him. They were Americans, he knew. Yet they took care of him
"You are old enough, now, I think " The General's voice continued to filter into Ben's consciousness, "Yes, you were old enough some time ago. You look healthy, certainly. I'm told that you're Austrian. That's good enough. Tomorrow, you'll report to me at 06:00 in my office. You know the one. Germany has come to call on you, Ben. You will raise her up, won't you? To God himself, if she asked you to?"
Ben stared blankly, nodded as the General chuckled.
"Excellent! More cognac! And if Melinda is around, do tell her to have a drink at our table. She can sit beside me."
The table erupted in a fit of laughter as the General's men caroused. Ben turned back toward the bar, headed for the kitchen, lost inside his mind:
Yes, they were American. Of the very stock that betrayed and deserted him, his family, murdered his brother and sister, bankrupted his country from an office chair with a pen and a signature on a scrap of paper. The betrayers that his father spoke of, that Hitler spoke of, that all of Germany knew had forsaken them for their position in the first war. Those people. They cooked him breakfast, lunch and dinner and hid his identity from the Nazis. They made him laugh and let him pray: he and Jack, as Jewish men, in secret of course. The enemies of Germany, the Americans, who kept him alive and helped to clothe him. Melinda with her captivating eyes, the beautiful American woman who spoke perfect German. And Jack, with whom he had so much in common. He considered Jack a father: the kind from American pictures that respected him and would never beat him.
The Americans were not the enemies then. Who else could it have been? Not the Jews, Ben knew, because he was Jewish. He wasn't a criminal. The Germans? No. His father and mother were German and Jewish, and Jack was German and Jewish, and Braun and Becker were Germans.
Ben walked into the kitchen and sat on a stool in the corner, staring at the blank, white wall. Braun. He saw the body rolling under the wheels, crushed and mangled and dead. Rolling again, the memory repeated over and over. Just like his sister. Rolling like an object -a rag doll, limbs that twisted up and bled underneath the rubber tires. Braun pushed him out of the way. Braun was dead because of his carelessness. His fear. He was not a man. He was a coward. Unfit. They would call him unfit.
He looked up and saw Braun's face in the wall, the eyes and the crushed nose forming in the plaster, crawling out toward him. He lifted his hand and touched the face. It was hard but smooth. Ani Mitzta'er! I haven't forgotten! He couldn't pray because he was Jewish, couldn't exist because he was Jewish. Was anyone listening? Braun's face was twisted in a mask of horror, mouth agape, skin whitewashed and stuck inside the wall. Adonai! Adonai! Adon HaShamayim veEretz! Are you watching now? The Americans were not enemies, Jews and Germans were innocent. People were dying in strange and horrible ways. People disappeared. Bodies trampled to death beneath the tires of cars and died of starvation. The Jews were marked with stars. The Jews were hiding. Why? Everyone was guilty. He was a coward, a murderer. I am hollow. His parents had been vaporized and he lived like a prince. The evil Nazis liked him, the good Nazis loved him. People were packed into trains like cattle. People were shot against the walls and forced to march to their death in masses. On the stovetops, bodies boiled and bodies burned, and he served them out on plates, to the customers, where they were eaten, devoured by gluttonous pigs. Braun's face began to bleed, dripped scarlet down the white wall. Abraham. Your people struggle in vain! You have filled me with promises and now I am empty. Adonai, my God, we have toiled for you. Our penance is done! Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? Do you see your people now?
Melinda nudged his shoulder, but he remained motionless, staring at the wall. Jack walked up to them, stared at the boy.
"He isn't responding," Mel said, "I've tried for at least two minutes now."
"Shit. He's doing it again. Get Helen."
Melinda turned to leave as Jack prodded Ben's shoulder. "Ben! C'mon. Ben, answer me!"
The boy turned, face stoic. He glanced up at Jack, stood up and straightened himself, "Today is May 5th, 1944."
Jack gazed at him, searching his young, dark eyes clouded by spiked blonde bangs.
"Tomorrow " Ben continued, pausing a moment as he thought. His expression became resolute, "Tomorrow, I lift Germany up to God."
He wandered into the house, oblivious to the voice that called after him.
She watched the drifting smoke, traced the twisting white lines in the air with her fingertips. "Does anyone know what's wrong with him?"
"No," Melinda replied, finishing the last of her cigarette. She daubed it into the ashtray and settled back onto the bed.
"Is he really leaving for Omaha?"
"Yeah. In a few days. After his meeting with the General."
Janice sighed, feeling nauseated. She steadied herself. "So it is."
"Do you miss France?" Mel asked, propping herself up on her elbows.
They were silent for a moment. Janice stretched, listened to her bones and joints creaking. It was common for her to enjoy the quiet. It was her sanctuary. But when Melinda was in the room, it was the still, dead air that she could not stand. Something deep within her yearned for connection: a vivacious desire for survival. It brought her out of her daily hypnosis, out of the colourless haze of her performances. With Melinda, she felt little need for delusion, felt less vulnerable.
"I won't miss any of these places will you?" She asked.
Melinda inhaled a deep breath, "Miss what?
She chuckled, "If I ever got the chance to leave, you mean? Not really. Well a part of me is here, and I do love Germany. Yes, I suppose I would miss it."
Janice closed her eyes and nodded.
Mel ran her tongue along her bottom lip, lost in thought. Over a year since Janice arrived, hiding in the wine cellar. She saw the grieved face that emerged from the shadows, eyes wide in shock, lips paralyzed and the deep lines of wear beneath her eyes. The first few nights spent with her were filled with it: shame and regret. She knew that Janice felt it too, despite her smile, the quiet laughter. They no longer knew each other.
And then her transformation: the profound, levelling insanity. Was it insanity? Melinda stared at Janice's tranquil expression, her charming lips and childish face. She traced the scar on Janice's arm. No affliction? Yes, affliction, insufferable but not incurable. Somewhere, deeply buried was the woman she met in Greece, the brilliant and beautiful archaeologist that toiled over the translation of the Xena Scrolls, artefacts splayed out on her mattress at the hotel.
A soft smile played at her lips as she remembered the months spent in Greece after the adventure in the crypt. Was it really all a dream? Jack stayed down the hall from them, postponing his trip to America. There was something he had to do in Germany, he told them. He was heading to the Alme Valley soon. He was boyish and witty. Charismatic. He appeared at the door to her room one night, sheepishly inquired on the scrolls and offered to buy her and Janice dinner. They ordered it to their room, turned away from work to enjoy a bottle of wine and a game of cards. He and Janice smoked cigars and teased her when she refused to do the same, lighting a cigarette instead. He was always warm and polite. Thoughtful. His shy gaze would make her blush. She knew, even then, how much he liked her.
And Janice. She used to wear glasses when she read, eyes squinting in concentration. A crease on her brow, her tongue between her teeth, resting on her bottom lip. It was the absent pose as she worked, motionless, reading scroll after scroll. Melinda watched her from the kitchen table, books and papers scattered around her. Pretty, that fiery red hair curled behind her ears, her cheeks golden tan, the quirk of her eyebrow when she found something interesting, her glasses falling down the bridge of her nose. Then morning again and the ritual would repeat. She would teach Mel this and that, share a tale of a dig in Egypt or the Congo. But when the dawn broke and bathed Janice's slumbering form in golden light, Mel could watch her in private, stayed the night sleeping in the nearby chair. She studied the contour of her jaw, remembered the colour of her long lashes, her lips swollen and parted during sleep, her chest rising and falling rhythmically. Janice with her hair fanned out on the duvet as the day filtered in, still fully clothed with the scrolls unrolled on the covers beside her, the beloved fedora balanced on the ledge of the bed.
"What happened in Greece after I left?" Melinda frowned at the sound of her own voice, raw and unfamiliar.
Janice sighed, inhaled a deep breath.
"Did we find the scrolls?"
Mel's face lit up, "So that wasn't a dream."
"No it wasn't. Not that part."
"Then we did have them translated them at the hotel "
Janice nodded, the hint of a smile tugging at the corners of her lips, "I remember that."
"Me too," Melinda said, a large grin on her face.
"I do want to tell you, Melinda " Janice began.
"It's okay you don't have to if you don't want to."
She swallowed. "After you left for Germany that night I went to a bar had some drinks. Some Greek boy found me, chatted me up "
Mel smiled, adjusted her position so she could prop her chin up on her arm.
Janice ran her tongue along her bottom lip, "He was nice. I God, I forget his name. He had very clear eyes like yours. Clear and blue. He walked back with me, talking like he wasn't sure what we were going to do. He thought it was charming, I guess. But when we got to the hotel "
Melinda's brow creased, "When you got to the hotel ?"
"It was on fire."
Melinda's eyes widened with fright at the realisation. She rose slightly from the bed, "The scrolls!"
She cleared her throat and looked down at her lap, voice low and raw, "Gone."
Melinda's face twisted in a mask of horror, tears collected in her eyes and she covered her mouth, "All of them?"
"My God " Melinda cried, her tone defeated and wavering with emotion.
A tear escaped Janice's eye, "The police wouldn't investigate, so I tried on my own. I started to make some ground when I was taken into the police station. I didn't have any I.D. It was all destroyed in the fire. I didn't I don't exist. Not without my papers and everything is in America. I couldn't prove anything. And when I was taken in Smythe was there. He told me everything. He was with the C.I.A. They were going to make me a deal. Complete a few jobs in Europe and I would be granted re-entry into the United States without question. I would get my papers back, my life, my identity. All I had to do were a few simple tasks to help the war effort."
"So you went to France," Mel was barely audible.
"Yeah," she replied.
"Do you know who set the fire?"
After a long pause, "Smythe's team."
"Our own government, Mel. C'mon. Think about it! What would happen if those scrolls were authenticated? Went public? Independent female warriors with strength equal to and greater to entire legions of men? Julius Caesar dying because that Xena convinced Brutus to betray him? Women controlling the course of history? It would make Homer and Virgil wrong, every history textbook wrong. They feared a revolution... "
"So they burnt them."
She nodded, "No one will ever know."
Melinda sat quietly, stunned.
"I didn't tell you," Janice said, her voice small, "Because I thought it would break your spirit."
Mel's cold fingertips found hers, entwined them together. Janice refused to look at her.
She swallowed. "What's done is done."
Janice yanked her fingers away and turned on her side, faced the wall. She squeezed her eyes shut and a nervous quiet engulfed the room. The stress drained her, and struggling against the chaos of her mind, Janice fell into a deep, exhausted sleep that numbed her to sensation.
When she awoke, in the middle of the night, Melinda was behind her, breathing heavily. Her long arms reached out: one traveling over Janice's shoulder, the other beneath her neck to meet in the middle of her chest, clutching her body in a tight embrace. Janice trembled, felt her back and bottom pressed into the silk of Melinda's nightgown and the contours of the nude body beneath it. Melinda nuzzled her ear and Janice's nostrils flared with the overpowering scent of gin. Janice froze, controlled her breathing, willed herself to sleep. Mel's hand stroked her abdomen through her undershirt, hot breath and the smell of hard liquor hit Janice in waves. Minutes passed and at last, the hand stopped, breathing became even. Melinda fell asleep, her nose buried into the hair at the back of Janice's neck.
Long, agonizing hours passed until Janice let the heat of Mel's body coax her into slumber.
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