Tuesday, 21 June 2016

That Wall

Wow, I haven't been on here in months! Anyway, a couple of weeks ago I wrote this short story about the Berlin Wall. Here it is.


That Wall



“Get over into West Berlin. Once I’m freed, I’ll follow you there.” Axel stared at the ceiling of his room as his brother’s words echoed over and over through his mind. Ten years. Ten painful, grueling years of sorrow and waiting and praying. And still his brother hadn’t come.
Turning over onto his side, Axel watched his nephew Wilfrid as he slept. The little boy had never even met his father. He hadn’t been born yet when they’d fled East Berlin. Ten years without knowing even the sound of his father’s voice.
Axel sat up and walked to the window. From their apartment, he could just see the wall in the distance, a black line in between dark buildings. He sighed slowly and clenched his fingernails into his palm. That wall. Someday he was going to knock it down.
~
Wilfrid opened his eyes to see Uncle Axel standing by the window, his face pressed against the glass. From his position, Wilfrid couldn’t tell if Uncle Axel was crying or not. Last night he had been, and the night before that. He sighed quietly and waited until Uncle Axel crawled back into bed and buried his face in his pillow.
Wilfrid climbed out of bed and tiptoed out of the room. Crossing the tiny hall, he opened his mother’s door a crack and peeked in. She was lying on her side, fast asleep. Wilfrid went over to her and touched her arm.
She sat up with a start. “Wilfrid!”
He sat down and leaned his head against her.
“What is it, honey?” she whispered.
I want Papa to come to us, he signed. Can’t he come soon?
“Oh Wilfrid.” Mama held him close and rubbed her nose against his hair. Wilfrid felt a tear drip into his scalp and he pressed against her. “Papa can’t come to us right now. He’s under arrest. And even if he weren’t, the guards won’t let anyone across, certainly not an anti-communist writer.”
Wilfrid stared up at her. When will we be free?
Mama choked a little on her words. “I don’t know, honey.”
There was a soft knock, the door opened wider, and Uncle Axel stepped into the room. “Did he wake you up again?”
Mama nodded. “Yes. It’s all right.”
Uncle Axel sat down on the bed and rubbed his face with his hands. “Do you mind if I stay a moment?”
Mama shook her head and wrapped her arms around both Uncle Axel and Wilfrid. Wilfrid looked at his uncle’s face. He had been crying. Wilfrid leaned close and kissed his uncle’s cheek.
Uncle Axel took Wilfrid’s hand. “God’s got to change this sometime, Etta. They can’t hold us in check forever.”
Mama stroked Wilfrid’s back. “I know. Every night for ten years I’ve been praying that He’ll change something. I know he will one day. We just have to wait.”
The room went silent. Wilfrid looked at his mother and uncle, and then at mama’s window in the corner. Pulling out of mama’s arms, he walked over and stared out at the streets of West Berlin, at the wall. Somewhere in East Berlin there lived a father he had never seen, a father he had never touched. A father he wanted so desperately to meet. Only one thing stood in his way: a wall. A massive, strong, impenetrable wall, the symbol of the terrible Communist hold on East Germany.
As his mother and uncle came to stand beside him, Wilfrid gripped the edge of the window sill with his fingers. That wall. Someday he was going to knock it down.
~
Axel wouldn’t let go of her hand as they made their way, crouching, along the narrow passage. Etta stared at the dark sewer that stretched out before them and shuddered. Her baby was in peril every moment they stayed this awful place.
“Can we go any faster?” she breathed, not daring to whisper.
Axel shook his head. “I don’t know how much this thing echoes. If anyone is working on the pipes, they might hear us. We have to take it slow.” He was silent for a long time. “Are you okay?”
Etta closed her eyes for a moment. Stifling back her tears, she tried to stop thinking about Stefan shut up in their house. “No, I’m not. But we need to keep going.” For my baby’s sake.
Axel removed his hand a moment, sniffed, then took her hand again. Etta could feel his tears against her palm. She tightened her grip and smiled. “Come on. If we can escape, we can try to free Stefan. Maybe it will be easier this time.”
Axel nodded and peered ahead into the tunnel. “We’re almost there.”
Footsteps echoed behind them. Etta started to whip around, but Axel clenched her hand and pulled her forward. They almost ran towards a faint beam of light gleaming hopefully ahead of them. But the footsteps sounded louder and closer. Etta could hardly breathe. One hand on her stomach, the other in Axel’s grasp, she felt as if she was going fall. She was going to fall.
“Axel!” Etta sat up with a jolt, her whole body shaking. She stared around at the room. It was her room. Of course. Lying back down, she started crying. In real life, they had escaped without being caught, but in her dreams, they were always caught by the guard, always brought back to be jailed in East Germany.
Maybe they should have stayed. Etta sat up again and buried her face in her hands. Maybe I should have stayed with Stefan. Given him comfort instead of seeking my own freedom. Maybe I should have let Axel go by himself.
But that wasn’t what had happened. She shouldn’t feel guilty. Besides, Stefan had nearly ordered her to go. He wanted her and the baby to be free. And Axel wouldn’t have been able to survive on his own. He’d been only fifteen at the time. He wouldn’t have been able to live without someone else to help him. Besides, Stefan had argued, if they were already free, it would be easier for him to escape, being only one person instead of three.
Etta got out of bed and pulled on her bathrobe. The sun was coming in the window, and she sat down in its light and sighed. She had done the right thing. She knew it. And perhaps soon, Lord willing, she would see a good result come from her heart-rending decision. Stefan would come and be reunited with his family.
~
Stefan paused in his work and stared around the small courtyard. Thirty-two years old and his professional career was gardener. Pitiful. And right now there were hardly any flowers left, so all he could do was weed among the terribly boring shrubs that surrounded the walls of the East Berlin government building.
Getting to his feet, Stefan stretched the crinkles out of his neck and shoulders. Perhaps someday someone would notice his hard work and promote him. Maybe he could become a janitor. At least then he would be indoors. Then maybe he could save enough money, and then maybe he could find a way to get across the border. He had to get over soon. It’d been too long already.
He shook his head and picked up a spade. At least he’d been released from house arrest. After seven years, the government had decided he wasn’t very dangerous anymore, and had allowed him to once more move around East Berlin. But he was still heavily watched, and had no way of sending any word to Etta and Axel.
“....It’s going to be tonight, really!”
Stefan glanced towards the back entrance of the building as two officials walked out. The one with a beard was speaking excitedly to the other.
“Are you sure?” the other man asked, his face tense.
“I heard the spokesman say so himself! At midnight tonight, we’re allowed to cross the border!”
Stefan dropped his spade and rushed over, grabbing the man by the arms. “What did you just say, sir?”
The man laughed and clasped Stefan in an embrace. “We’re being freed! Our superiors have decided to open the wall! At midnight tonight, citizens of both East and West Berlin will be able to go to whichever side of the city they choose!”
Stefan yelled and shook the man hard. “Praise the Lord! Hallelujah! I can’t believe it!” The thought of his wife, son, and brother filled his mind, and he grinned. “I’ll get to see my family!”
The other two men weren’t listening; they were too busy talking to each other. Stefan left them and went back to his garden patch, his arms trembling. They were going to be free. In just seven and a half hours, they would be free! How could he contain himself until then?
~
Someone was shaking his arm hard. Wilfrid opened his eyes to see mama and Uncle Axel standing over him. “Wilfrid! Get up, honey!” mama said, tears on her cheeks.
Wilfrid sat up. What’s wrong? he signed.
“Nothing!” Uncle Axel almost shouted. “Now get up and and come on! We have to go!”
What are we doing? Wilfrid asked, climbing out of bed and squinting in the dim light of the rising sun.
“You’ll see,” mama said, her voice all choky.
Wilfrid tugged on his coat and shoes and followed his mother and uncle down the stairs of the apartment and out onto the chilly street. Why were so many people up at this hour? Wilfrid stared as both younger and older people hurried past him. They all seemed to be heading in one direction, and Wilfrid’s stomach trembled as he realized what direction that was. Towards the wall. They were all going towards the wall.
Walking closer to his mother, Wilfrid glanced at Uncle Axel and saw that he was carrying a huge chunk of cement block. What’s that for? he asked.
“You’ll see,” Uncle Axel whispered, his hand grabbing onto Wilfrid’s.
Mama, what’s going on? Wilfrid persisted, stopping entirely.
Mama took a deep breath and crouched down so that she could look him in the eye. “Wilfrid. How would you like to meet daddy?”
Wilfrid screamed, jumped to his feet, and took off towards the wall, mama and Uncle Axel laughing as they caught up with him. Holding their hands, Wilfrid strained himself forward. They had to hurry! Daddy. He was about to see daddy.
~
Stefan shoved his way through the crush of people. Of all the nights to be called in for questioning, why had it needed to be this one? It had taken him hours to get of the building, and now it was already sunrise. He had to get through the gate. He had to get to his family.
Suddenly, he stopped and stared at the wall ahead of him. There was no way he would make it through the gate quickly enough. It was jammed, literally jammed with people.
His eyes strayed to the wall itself. People were grabbing at the cement, trying pull themselves over. His heart raced, and he ran forward, then jerked to a stop, staring at his feet. He had come to the sand trap. A snowy white blanket stretched before him, showing hundreds of footprints. They would show his footprints.
Stefan took a deep breath and started moving again. That sand didn’t matter anymore. The wall didn’t matter anymore. They were free. And each step he took brought him closer to his family.
~
They were so close. Wilfrid broke from his mother’s and Uncle Axel’s grips and charged the last few feet towards the wall. He ignored the jammed gate several feet away, and instead dug his fingers into the cement itself, trying to find a grip. Someone gave him a boost from behind, and Wilfrid felt himself lifted up, up until he was chest high with the top of the wall. Grabbing the huge pole that sat atop the wall, Wilfrid hauled himself up and glanced back to thank his helper.
It was an East Berlin guard.
Wilfrid froze. He stared at the guard, the machine gun strap still slung across the man’s shoulder. The guard looked up at him and smiled. Wilfrid gulped, blinked, and then smiled back. Placing his hand on his mouth, he brought it away and downwards. Thank you.
The guard grinned and stepped away, and Wilfrid turned around. He was the first person on top of the wall. For a moment, he stood tall, gazing across at East Berlin, the city that had held his father prisoner for ten years. His shoes balanced carefully on the rounded pole, and the cool breeze brushed against his forehead.
“Wilfrid, do you see daddy?” mama called from below in the churning crowd.
Wilfrid recalled the picture of his father that mama kept on her dresser to his mind. Dark, curly hair, light eyes, a tiny scar on his forehead. Looking down at the boiling, noisy mob below his feet, he stared at the East Berliners, trying to find his father.
Uncle Axel hoisted himself up beside Wilfrid, then pulled mama up too. As others joined them on the wall, all calling out, laughing, crying, Wilfrid took his mother’s hand and kept searching.
Then suddenly he was right there, right below Wilfrid, staring up at them all. Wilfrid gazed at the strange man for a moment, his heart racing. His pawed at mama’s arm, trying to get her attention.
His daddy looked at mama, and then right into Wilfrid’s eyes, and held out his arms. “Wilfrid!”
Wilfrid dropped to his knees, and slid off the top of the wall into his father’s arms. His arms closed around daddy’s neck, and he placed his face against his shirt. He heard mama crying, sliding over the wall, and felt her suddenly against him, her arms going past to him to wrap around daddy. Looking up, he saw them kissing, and once more buried his head in his father’s chest. Daddy. He had found his daddy.
~
Axel stood on the top of the wall, staring at his brother, sister-in-law, and nephew as they hugged each other and laughed. Tears ran down his cheeks, and he grinned, then slid over the side of the wall, landing with both feet on East Berlin ground. Picking up his chunk of cement, which he had dropped over the wall while climbing, he turned, heaved it into the air, and smashed it into the wall’s ugly side. His hands stung from the blow, but he recoiled and did it again. He had told himself that someday he would knock down this wall, and now he could do it. His cement block smashed again and again into the wall, and then suddenly, with one last blow, he let it drop, feeling too weak to do anymore. He sank onto his knees and cried, his head pressed against the wall. All the emotion from ten years of waiting came pouring out, and he couldn’t decide if he was more sad, angry, or relieved. Maybe all three combined.
Stefan finally broke from his family and knelt beside Axel. “I missed you, Axel,” he whispered, putting his arms around his brother’s shoulder.
Wilfrid and Etta came over, and the four huddled together next to the wall, crying and holding each other. Around them, people laughed, shouted, cried. Everyone seemed to be feeling the same mix of emotions.
Wilfrid tugged on Axel’s sleeve and Axel glanced down at his nephew. “What is it?” he asked.
Only today is the war really over, Wilfrid signed.
Axel stood up and nodded. Wilfrid was right. On November 9, 1989, forty-four years after World War Two ended for the rest of the world, it ended for the people of Berlin with the destruction of the wall.
Axel picked Wilfrid up and swung him around. “The war is over! It’s finally over.”
Wilfrid grinned at his uncle. And the wall is finally no more.
The End