Fandom: The Book Thief
Characters/Pairings: Liesel/Rudy, Rosa, Hans, Paula, Max, appearances by almost everybody
Summary: It happens like this, in a single fateful moment. A pilot sneezes, and the bombs, when they fall, are off-target.
Word Count: 12,000
Notes: So, as you do, you read a book, you finish it, you weep. Then you immediately turn around and give it to somebody else so that it can destroy them too. I did this, and a friend came up to me after and shook me very hard and shrieked, "FIX IT."
"Okay," I said. So here's the AU where it's Nazi Germany, 1943, and everything goes slightly better than expected for everyone :)
[read @ AO3]
In the cockpit of a plane whose belly is swollen, heavy with bombs, a pilot sneezes out a lungful of ashy German air.
"Ah, hell," he mutters, having instinctively caught it in his palm. He wipes his glove on the breast of his uniform and inspects the remainder. Then, a couple seconds later than he intended, he lets the bombs fall. They're off-target. They're almost always off-target. It's not like anyone's going to criticize him for it, right? At least he hit something -- that's the point.
When the bombs go off, everything jumps -- the buildings, the cobblestones in the streets, and even the air itself seems to leap with surprise.
In the basement of 33 Himmel Street, Liesel Meminger comes shockingly, suddenly awake.
Upstairs, she can already hear Mama swearing.
The second mistake comes at the hand of a clerk in Munich, who squints tiredly at the report in his hand and then calls over a supervisor. "Does that say 'Himmel'?"
"How the hell should I know?" is what's handed back to him, heavier than he anticipated. It bends at him. He strains to carry the weight of it. "I can never read those bastards' handwriting. What's the verdict?"
"One hundred thirty-three casualties. No survivors. They had no warning."
A pause settles itself between them. They're both thinking about how easily it could have been their own streets -- no sirens, no time for anything, just obliteration. All depending on the whims of a couple bomber planes.
"Hell," mutters the supervisor. "Send out the letters. Any soldier whose lists his home address is … Himmel, ja?"
Alex Steiner makes it home first, from Vienna. As the train pulls slowly into Pasing, he steals glances out the window, seeing the places that have been carved out of the landscape in great scoops. He cannot imagine Himmel Street in rubble. No survivors, the letter had said. No, no, that at least is accurate -- Alex is still alive, yes, but he won't survive this, he can already tell.
On the corner, Frau Diller's is tipped precariously off-balance, the whole building shifted and listing crookedly out over the street. The sight of it curls at the edges around his heart like paper brought too close to fire.
His three youngest children are there, suddenly, picking up roofing tiles from the sidewalk, pocketing them in the front of their clothes and giggling amongst themselves. Further down, Kurt leans over his mother's shoulder, pointing out something on her shopping list.
It's Rudy who spots him first.
Was he always that big? Alex thinks, stupidly.
The next homecoming is three weeks later, when the preliminary clean-up of the bombed streets is nearly at its end. After Rudy's father explained to them about the letter that had mistakenly told him Himmel Street was among those parts of Molching that were leveled, they're almost expecting it. Mama wrings a dishtowel like it's got a neck she can break, standing at the window and peering out into the street. It takes a long time for news to reach the Germans fighting in the Russian snow. It takes even longer for one to get home.
Hans Hubermann Jr., when he comes, makes it as far as the mess of Munich Street before he's sawn apart, glued to the ground with shock.
An apparition approaches him. It's his father. He's carrying, of all things, a broom.
With him is a girl, whose hair is wrapped up under a cloth. They're both caked with dust, parched the color of tombstones. It took days after the bombing for it to stop raining from the sky -- Mama scrubbed Liesel hard behind the ears and rumbled aloud about how it was never going to come out, how they were going to have to carry those poor dead people and the ash of their things on their bodies forever. Rosa Hubermann could handle a great number of things, but the bombing of Molching rattled her, you could tell.
"Hans," says his father. His hand grips his shoulder, fierce and many-fingered.
"They said --" the Nazi says. He reassembles himself, drawing upright. The words clatter out of him, "They said --"
"Himmel Street is fine. It's heavenly, even, compared to these poor souls." He nods to the cleared street behind him. "No one's going to bomb a street named after heaven, son."
Two Hubermanns stand at the mouth of Munich Street. One carries a gun, the other a broom. Both have silver eyes.
One says to the other, "I hated your politics, but I never wanted you dead," and he's grateful that he got the chance to say it.
Two years pass like a book being bent apart, pages sliding into one another. Liesel and Rudy become fifteen, then sixteen. Hans Hubermann Jr. returns to war after his leave is up, but he doesn't go far. Germany is teetering, everyone can smell it, and its priorities whittle down to match. A young and zealous soldier like the Hubermann's son would be sent to Poland, to be part of a hasty and tireless execution squad. Visions of a great German empire are imploding, dusting into clumps of Russian snow, and instead, all that's left is to try to mop up the rest of the mess as quickly as possible before the inevitable comes.
Rudy's father refuses to go back at all -- they even go so far as to discuss the merits of injuring him and making it legitimate. They could shove him off Herr Hubermann's ladder, maybe, Kurt suggests, and hope he breaks something unimportant, like an arm or a leg. Or they could shoot a hole into his hand. (Alex Steiner protests vehemently against this one. What use is a tailor with a maimed hand?)
But in the end, the army simply isn't in a position to argue. Tracking down one defector and punishing him (again) is, at this point, a waste of valuable resources.
Both Hubermann children come home for Christmas brunch that year; Hans even brings his fiancé with him on their way to her parents'. She is almost as tall as Hans Hubermann Sr., with scratchy hair and an accent that wobbles out of her in a way she can't mask, more Slavic in its vowels than true German: his parents both hear it, but Hans Jr. himself seems deaf.
They met on the train to the Russian front, she says. They are to be married in the spring, after all the snow melts.
In the post-meal confusion of cleaning up, Liesel sneaks downstairs to the basement. In a stranger act of thievery than is her norm, she'd stolen a thick purple candle from the Catholics' advent wreath earlier that morning (the cathedral itself, of course, had been carted off in many chunks and pieces on the back of a garbage truck, so the quiet little Protestant church diagonal to Frau Diller's opened its doors, until another church could be built.) She lights it and leaves it out for Max -- the mix-up of religious symbolism is lost on her, but she thinks that if he were here, he might like something to read by, at the very least.
Then, after the war is over and the Americans occupy Munich in 1945, Rudy Steiner comes kicking at her door.
"Well?" he says, when she demands to know what exactly in hell does he think he's doing. "Are you coming?"
Liesel has no idea what he's talking about. She glances behind her, but Mama and Papa don't even bother to get up when Rudy comes knocking anymore, so there's no wardrobe-shaped woman to curse at him for her in a satisfying way. "Coming where?"
Rudy grins at her, white-picket teeth all on display. His father had only recently been able to reopen his shop, and one or two of the suits that were now woefully out of fashion had gone to the Steiner boys. He's wearing one now, trim lines fitted over his adolescent shape. If Liesel didn't know better, he almost looks like somebody she'd respect.
"To get your friend, of course! It's over, right? So it's time for him to come home!"
He backs up through the gate.
"Come on, you lazy ass-scratcher!" he calls back, while Liesel is still flash-bang-stunned in the doorway, hope a painful radiating point of impact in her chest. "It's a long walk, and we'd better get started."
At the end of each week, Liesel and Rudy dress in their Sunday best and walk the long road to Dachau, wearing their shoes thin in the places where they'd once laid down chunks of bread. The Americans turn them away at the gate, week after week, and they walk the perimeter fence instead. In the months of July and August, the insects in the long grasses sing as they bake in the hot weather, but they fall quiet when the autumn winds come, leaving only the dry crackle of the grass as companions for Rudy and Liesel.
Then, in October, an American soldier approaches from the other side of the fence and calls out to them through the wire.
What he says is, "Strange place for a picnic, isn't it?" but when they just shake their heads at him, he switches to a limping, imperfect German and says, "Whoever you're waiting for, you realize they've been taken to a rehabilitation camp, ja?"
"I thought that's what this was," Rudy kicks the words across the fence to the man. He gestures, encompassing all of Dachau with the incredulity of it.
The soldier's smile limps as much as his language does. "An in-between one. You cannot just throw open the gates of a place like this and let everyone out. Many of them were starving, diseased, beyond language, beyond --" he stops, seemingly checking the youth rounded in their faces. He measures his words. "They need somewhere to become human again, somewhere safe."
Liesel asks it. "Where is this somewhere?"
They go, her and Rudy, that very day. Even though it's Sunday and everything is quiet -- it's a camp of a sort, hobnailed together like the miscellaneous debris in a storage room, all shoveled together in one corner. There are no fences. It's not the threat of barbed wire and a watchman with a gun that keeps people here.
Somebody comes to the office door to answer their knocking. He has a face that looks like somebody inexpertly chopped it out of a block of wood, all hard chiseled slopes and lips with no flesh to them. The American flag on the side of his helmet is chipping -- it's missing half its stars. For years and years after this moment, Liesel will assume that this is how all American men look. They are all this man or Jesse Owens, with no room for variation.
"What?" he demands, and Rudy and Liesel don't need that translated.
"Hello, sir," she says, breathless from the strides she'd taken to eat up the distance as fast as possible. "Is Max Vandenburg here? We're his family. We've come to take him home."
From a little blue box, the man shakes a toothpick into his hand and transfers it to his mouth. He chomps on it and spends a long time scrutinizing them, teeth grinding down hard on the wood like gristle. There are a dozen and one things he could say, but it's a Sunday, and the only thing he can think about is how he hopes his soldiers have children who will come to greet them like this, hope stained red into their cheeks and their mouths buzzing, is he here? We've come to take him home.
"I will check," he allows, and leaves the door open when he goes back inside.
Rudy and Liesel turn their heads, gripping each other hard with their eyes. She steps up to the threshold.
"Your name?" the man asks. He has a logbook severed in half on the desk in front of him. Names fill the pages in columns of letters, lines that neatly march up and down: a record of people finally accounted for.
She swallows against the baked feeling in her throat. "Liesel Meminger."
His carved-out eyes snag at her.
"Meminger?" he says, and flips a page. He tracks a finger down, down, down, taking so long about it that she can't stand it.
"Please," burbles out of her, and she takes another step inside, ignoring Rudy's hiss like perhaps she's walking barefoot on coals. "Please, is he alive?"
He looks at her with an expression of such sudden surprise, and then laughs -- his laugh is as choppy as the rest of him. "Yes," he answers her, voice swollen at the edges with the joy of being able to deliver such news. "Ja, child, we have a man by that name here. He has you listed as next of kin. You are Liesel Meminger of … Mole-ching?"
"Molching," she corrects him. "Yes, yes." She says it one more time, "yes," letting it swing from her like it's on a cage door.
"Ja. In fact, you are listed as next of kin for two prisoners."
He could not have shocked her more if he'd flung her into a river.
Behind her, a voice: Rudy, always stepping in.
They warn her that the former inmates of Dachau might not be fit for visitors yet. They have the right to refuse to see them, and in that case, to just come back. As many times as necessary. Liesel, thinking of how her papa had come to her bedside without fail when she was younger, every time, and how much that meant to her, nods. She and Rudy will walk here every day, if necessary, she's already decided.
But when they take her to the yard, it's only a matter of minutes before she hears footsteps approaching fast, an echo between the cardboard buildings. She's running, too, before she even gets a good look at who's coming.
She trips when she sees him, and he gets to her before Rudy can, hands catching under her elbows, helping her up. Their arms tangle in their haste to get them around each other, and Liesel's eye immediately begins to water following a glancing encounter with Max's wrist.
Her knee stings.
None of that can compare to how her chest aches.
They don't say anything, just lean their bones together for what seems like forever and no time at all, and then Max's chin shifts against the top of her head and he says, "Hello, Rudy."
"Hello," returns Rudy from behind her, a shy beat of a sound.
Liesel shifts in Max's grip, looking back over her shoulder. Her hand, without meaning to, finds Max's bones and the knot of muscles that stretch over them -- his ribs, the sharp jut of his shoulder blade. She feels skeleton and muscle and not much else. Every part of him drags; his eyes, his hair, his hand across her shoulder, like he isn't sure how to lift any of it. He looks both better and worse than he did on Munich Street, on the day of that summer parade.
Max whispers to her, "His hair isn't as bright as you described it to me."
They look, and Rudy, having heard the exchange just fine, immediately scrapes at his bangs in a self-conscious way. It's grown darker as he lengthened into adolescence. Liesel had noticed that, yes.
"Has he grown?" Max echoes her thoughts. "Or, perhaps … he is not as handsome as you always insisted he was?"
"What?" Liesel draws away from him, gaping in outrage because she had done no such thing, and Rudy says "hey!" in the way boys do when they aren't sure whether to be offended or not. Max's smile reaches his eyes this time, brightening the swampy color in them. He's teasing them.
Rudy scuffs forward like he's going to say something, but then a second sound attracts their attention: another set of approaching footsteps.
"Max," says Liesel quickly. "Do you know who else here might list me as their next of kin?"
"I do." His hands on her shoulders turn her. "I owe her my life. It's becoming quite the trend with you Memingers -- keeping Vandenburgs alive."
There, at the lip of the alleyway --
After her arrest in 1939, Paula Meminger worked in the women's sector of Dachau, the concentration camp seated like a cancer in Germany's very heart. Molching was the closest city beyond its fences -- a fact Paula thought of every single day. Liesel could have walked there in a single morning.
"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," Papa breathes. "You were in that place for six years?" He asks exactly what they're all thinking: "How did you survive?"
Four chairs gather close to the Hubermann's kitchen table, each an old piece of furniture with its own achy spots that groan at contact. That's only four chairs for six people: Mama and Papa, Max, Rudy standing back by the stove with curious, mirror-like eyes, and Liesel and her mother, who are sharing a chair that just barely manages to seat both of them. Everything about them is skinny; her mother's arm hooks around her like a fishing line, holding her so close it's like they exist in the same air. It makes Liesel think of trains, how tightly her mother held on until she didn't anymore.
"It helps," Paula Meminger starts haltingly. Speaking in front of so many people plainly makes her nervous. Liesel squeezes her. "To pretend to be much plainer and stupider than you really are."
Her smile gashes at her face.
"It makes you invisible."
It's Rudy's idea -- leftover, she thinks, from that time they broke into his father's shop while he was away at war, just so he could be be surrounded by his father's suits on Christmas Eve -- but it's a good idea anyway, and one quiet, punched-out grey day in November, Alex Steiner knocks on the Hubermann's door and asks to borrow Max Vandenburg.
"He is not yours to borrow!" Rosa fires back immediately, putting her hip up against the doorframe and glowering. Only then does she ask, "whatever for?"
Alex holds up a coil of measuring tape. "I need to borrow his measurements," he says, and adds, vaguely, "It seems my sons grew up while I was away, so I'm out of practice with tailoring for someone his size."
It's a lie, but it only takes Rosa a moment of thin-eyed scrutiny to see through it to the kindness underneath.
She steps back and calls over her shoulder, "Max?" Her voice is so dry it scrapes. "Do you feel like being a model?"
The answer, when it comes, pokes its head confusedly around the corner, wobbly and a bit hard of hearing. "Wie bitte?"
I beg your pardon?
Alex Steiner comes through to the kitchen, where Max, Liesel, and her mother are gathered around a copy of the Molching Express they they've dissected and have pinned down to the table. Paula Meminger has an office pencil in her hand, circling the words on the page that she recognizes. Liesel writes them down on the back of a page of sandpaper. They've collected almost a hundred words so far, which surprised and pleased them all, but perhaps none as much as Paula.
"Forgive me, Frau Meminger," Rudy's father says to the woman, after they've communicated to Max what needs to be done. "I would take your measurements as well, but I'm afraid pantsuits for women are not my strong point."
When he asks if Max would please remove his shirt, Liesel wonders if anyone's going to suggest the audience be not as big as it is.
Max catches the expression on her face before the words can find their way through her teeth.
"This is nothing," he assures her. "I have no modesty left to be offended by all the staring, I assure you."
"Yes, but I still do!" she retorts, and a small burst of laughter from around the table drops into the awkwardness like a stone into still water, spreading ripples. Max grins at her, and spreads his arms for Alex's inspection.
He touches the measuring tape shoulder-to-shoulder, then shoulder-to-waist, and a smallness tears at the corner of his mouth.
"Well? Am I the model of wartime rationing?" Max asks.
"Something like that," Rudy's father replies.
The fact of the matter is: it doesn't matter that the Hubermanns will never be able to afford to buy the suit Alex Steiner makes to fit Max perfectly. If you don't count the outfit slapped onto him in camp, and you really shouldn't, then Max Vandenburg hasn't worn a single stitch of new clothing in well over eight years. And the expression on his face when he sees himself for the first time in the mirror in the Steiner Schneidermeister, dressed in clothes that aren't basement-grey -- it makes Liesel think of the snowman underground, how you have to choose the kind of joy that you will let kill you.
"It was a good idea, thank you," she tells Rudy Steiner, and with all her bravery, bumps her mouth against his cheek.
Winter, when it comes that year, grips hard at the messy, ugly skeleton that shivers in the place of the formerly ambitious German empire. The Hubermanns, with five mouths to feed, find themselves counting every pfennig, touching their round coin faces as if they hope they'll multiply. Hans still takes the train to Munich every day to work for the war machine, which doesn't stop needing bodies to file its paperwork even though other bodies have supposedly stopped falling to bullets, and takes the accordion to the Knoller when he comes home. This is where Frau Holtzapfel's extra coffee ration comes in handy.
Liesel starts going in early before school to type up letters in the office. It doesn't pay much, but it helps.
She, her mother, and Max all suggest to Rosa and Hans that it's time they move on. They do it several times, prompted whenever the Hubermanns can't quite hide the pinch of poverty. Liesel's sixteen now, almost seventeen, she can leave school, she and her mother can find factory work or something -- there's always something to be done. And Max, always as desperate to leave as he's desperate to stay (that, at least, did not change,) says that he should probably be getting back to Stuttgart. Speaking of factories, maybe enough good blonde German boys died in the war that his old job is available again.
"What are you, stupid?" Rosa Hubermann tells each of them in turn, and then loudly clatters at the vertebrae of her washing board in its tub until they get the hint.
Hans, of course, comes in with the last word, which is always the right one.
"The world is crazy out there, trust me, I've had to sign papers for all of it," he shows teeth, inviting humor to a humorless statement. "There's no harm in staying where you are safe and loved, a little longer."
The fear doesn't go away.
It's a particular hitch in the lungs like a persistent cough or a scar that pulls at a certain movement. It's an oft-present reminder that just because the occupying forces say that's it, your prejudices are over now, you can't persecute your neighbors like you've been doing -- that doesn't mean a Jew or a communist's widow can suddenly walk about without fear.
It just becomes something that can be worn in public with a little less shame.
In the mornings, while Liesel is at school and Hans is at work, Max and Paula collect an errand list from Rosa, who grumpily shoves warm soup down them (or porridge, if they have it, which Papa jokes is because she just likes Max and Paula better, that their portions come without the weevils,) before sending them out the door. They always go together, there in the beginning -- "you look like soldiers!" says Bettina Steiner, on a day that she is sick and staying home from school with her mother and the new baby. "You are always walking in straight lines," and she comes down from the steps to show them, falling in neatly behind them. There's too much color in her cheeks from her illness, candle-colored like if you blew on her, she'd go out.
They stop walking and she stops, too, automatically snapping her heels together. The sound is flint-sharp, as fanged as a swastika, and in an instant, a peculiar kind of shame flashes across her face. She separates her heels again.
She looks like she's about to apologize.
"Bettina," says Max before she can, and Paula Meminger watches with eyes the color of gravestones. "Do you think you could show us the way to the cobbler? Frau Hubermann gave us directions, but …" he shrugs, and Bettina nods with serious understanding. No one has to explain Rosa Hubermann.
Nobody talks about how soldiers go everywhere in pairs because when they go alone, then no one knows where to look when they don't come home.
It's too easy for one person alone to be taken.
They pick up and drop off whatever Rosa Hubermann tells them to. They go up and down Munich Street looking for work.
There's very little to be found, of course, but then there are days when old Helena Schmmidt needs help rehanging a cabinet door, and other days when Gertrude Koffmann needs someone to mind the little ones for "just five minutes, promise, I got a bit of coin but I don't got any quiet, please, I just want a smoke -- sorry, what? Oh. Well. You live with Herr Hubermann, don't you? He painted our door black for scarcely anything at all once, I'm not gonna forget that in a hurry, now am I, so I trust any one of his ilk."
The first time they come home with the groceries and more money in their pocket than they'd left with, Rosa's cardboard mouth folds at the corner, and she squints at them very hard, like when you first step outside in winter and the sun off the snow is blinding.
"What is she so pleased about?" Hans asks when he gets home, limping a little harder on his bad leg than he usually does. It's the cold.
By the fire, Liesel opens her mouth to provide the answer, but he seems to think better of it, because he shushes her:
"No, shh, don't say anything or we'll ruin it."
"Too late, you saukerl," grumbles out of the kitchen, curling around the doorframe like a cat with its hackles up, and the four occupants of the other room giggle like children.
Slowly, Paula Meminger learns to speak.
She and Liesel have the room upstairs, and they sleep back-to-back for warmth. (Max sleeps downstairs, on his mattress by the fireplace, and when Liesel asks him about his nightmares, he tells her it's impossible to have any, what with Rosa snoring at them like some giant guard dog. He says this within Rosa's hearing, and endures the insults that are immediately hurtled at his head with a smile on his face. Nobody sleeps in the basement.)
Her mother kicks fitfully in her sleep and is usually awake even before she is, waiting in the chair Hans used to sit in and holding a hairbrush.
"Hold on, Mama, I have to wash my face first," Liesel says, and when she has done that, she lets Paula braid her hair. There was never much time for it when she was younger, and Werner always pulled it out before long, anyway, so this is new, almost, the feeling of her mother tugging on her scalp.
The braids crown her head in a style so old it's in fashion again -- or at least that's what the girls at the office tell her. She thinks it's a compliment, but she isn't sure.
At first, Liesel does all the talking. Her mother pulls all the snarls in her hair to the ends and gently unknots them, and Liesel tells her about soccer and school and the Americans that drove their trucks down Munich Street on the day the war was lost. She tells her about Rudy and Ludwig Schmiekl's bloody mouth and Arthur Berg who saved their lives once. She pulls out The Standover Man and the The Word-Shaker and lets her flip through them.
"Will you read me the words?" she asks.
"Max and I will read them to you together," Liesel decides, and watches Paula turn the pages of what used to be Hitler's manifesto and now contains Max Vandenburg's drawings; the amateurish, the beautiful, the terrible.
When she finally starts talking back, it isn't about Dachau. Sometimes, she'll say things as an aside to Max that will swing open like a door to a dark room -- "Didn't Pietro say he had a cousin in Pasing who fixes automobiles?" and "Remember the woman who sang? She sang every morning and they couldn't stop her," and Max answers "yes, but Pietro also said he had a cousin who was on the Titanic and survived" and "I still hear her sometimes. It's in the way the wind whistles off the frost, and I turn my head to look for her." -- but instead, when she finally starts taking out the things she's stored up, she talks about Werner. She talks about Liesel's father.
He was German, she insists. No matter what the Nazis said, he was a good German specimen, tall and broad and blue-eyed. It was his mind that they considered rotted.
"Was he a communist, then, like everybody said?" Liesel asks.
"Where did he learn it?"
"From me," says Paula Meminger. Her voice is as quiet as morning light in a graveyard. She kisses the top of Liesel's head. "I am not German."
Liesel turns seventeen in February. She gets a new collar for her school dress from her mama, because the other had finally frayed through at the throat. Rudy Steiner kicks a ball at her face and shouts, "happy birthday, saumensch!" in the joyful way of best friends. She gets hugs from Papa and Max -- so many, in fact, that it becomes a joke, two grown men popping up like carnival toys when she least expects it, and she goes to bed that night with the imprint of their arms on her bones, love squeezed so tightly into them.
But the best present comes later that month, when pea soup and porridge stops being the only thing available to eat in the Hubermann household.
"What is this?" Rosa's voice comes out with claws. "This is not what I sent you to get. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, is this grass? I suspect we are eating like horses this week, then?"
"They didn't have the peas today, Frau Hubermann," Paula says placidly. "And I know how to cook with these."
"Well, then. You better make yourself useful, ja? And for Christ's sake, you call me Rosa."
The soup is too watery, and it could use some pepper, but the lentils are earthy, hearty, and sharply-flavored. They eat it with bread, mopping up the last mushy remains at the bottoms of their bowls.
"How did you know?" Papa asks Paula, after Rosa threatens him with a wooden spoon when he tries to sneak another mouthful from the pot. That has to last us until next Sunday, you saukerl, keep your hands out! "I wouldn't have recognized them as lentils. I would have passed them right up."
"We ate them a lot as children," Paula answers. Her words sit on the table. They cower. Their identity, their foreignness, cannot be hidden. "When times were hard. Where I am from, winter is different."
"Well, we're all grateful for it." Hans Hubermann lowers his voice, like somehow Rosa isn't sitting on the other side of the table. "Don't tell Mama, but --"
"One word about my pea soup, and I will skin you alive!"
They're a strange collection, Liesel thinks. An accordionist and his wife. A Jew. An Ukrainian prairie girl, who became the bride of a German boy and spent the rest of her life being punished for it, sitting here with her lentils and her bones. And her, Liesel.
She swings her legs happily, and goes to bed with that full feeling still in her belly.
The spring comes, and Frau Holtzapfel from next door reneges on two years of cease-fire with the Hubermanns.
She stops answering the door to Mama's knocking. She doesn't let Liesel come in to read to her, so that's the end of the arrangement for extra coffee. She pretends to be deaf when Papa hails her in the street. She spits -- not at the front door, because that would involve coming in through the gate, and she can't do that because Max Vandenburg's there, sitting on the front steps.
She spits at his feet instead.
"Filthy Jew," is her usual accompanying comment.
Sometimes other accusations join them, stewed-up like the contents of a slop pot and then dashed onto the stones in front of 33 Himmel Street.
"Miserable, traitorous Jew-loving family," makes a frequent appearance and, specifically to Max, "look at you, able-bodied and young, and where were you when my sons were out in the snow, dying for this country? Hiding your filthy head, that's where you were, you swine."
Max, who is clean-shaven and straight-backed on the stone steps, smiles back at her and says, "A good day to you, Frau Holtzapfel."
Like Rudy Steiner, nobody needs to tell him who she is. She is Liesel's caricature brought to life.
"You're right," he whispers to Liesel after one such encounter, while she still sits next to him looking miserably embarrassed. The glob of brown saliva spreads shinily out as it settles at their feet. So she spits, he thinks. What is there to fear from spit? Spit is not a whip or a gun. Spit is not a shower. "Her nose and chin are so long and pointy it's like she's got a beak and she'll peck your eyes out if you give her an opening," which startles her into laughing and saying, "did I really describe her like that once?" and Max, loyally: "Yes, you did."
He spends hours, now, sitting outside the Hubermann's front door, shivering until the weather grows warmer like it was his own force of will that brought it there.
There are colors in the sky he's never seen before, he says, greys and blues that don't exist until the sun starts staying a little longer, shining a little brighter.
He's always there when Liesel comes home, from school or from soccer with Rudy Steiner, which has stopped being a full-street production now that their usual teammates have stopped going to school and work in other parts of town, and these days mostly just consists of Liesel and Rudy kicking a ball against the side of the school, pretending to curse each other out in American slang when the other inevitably cheats.
One day, when they come tromping up Himmel Street with their bags swinging from their hands and their coats unbuttoned to let the cool air breathe through them, they find Max sitting with Papa's accordion in his hands.
It breathes faintly as they approach, a slight stretch of its ribs and a burnt-out sigh of a note.
"Ah," says Max, and lifts his finger from a key.
"What are you doing with Herr Hubermann's accordion?" Rudy asks.
Liesel's quicker. "Are you going to learn how to play?"
Rudy has never seen that accordion in anyone's hands but Papa's, but Liesel remembers the way Rosa Hubermann slept over it, keeping it cradled to her like it was her own ribs she had to pump, to breathe, her own lungs deposited into her arms. And it brought everyone home.
"Ja," says Max. And then, "I promised."
The story goes something like this:
There was once a place where barbed wire kept watch like carrion crows, and in it, a Meminger crouched over a Vandenburg. They were filthy and grey. They were starving. The weather had dried them into people with the consistency of birch wood, picked-at and peeling.
At one point, it was agreed upon that Max Vandenburg would not survive the night. Whatever prayers there were to say, they should probably be said, and they were, by a man with a kindling-colored beard in a neighboring cot who only half-remembered the words, but it didn't matter, because he didn't dare say them very loudly anyway. Paula Meminger came and she brought the sick man presents. She carried them in the only place she could hide anything and it would not be found: her mouth.
They were words, and she handed them down with a ferocity she'd never shown anyone before.
They were chunks of salt and grief. "You cannot die." They peppered his face. "Do you understand? You cannot come this far just to die. You promised me. You promised that when we got out of here, we would go to Himmel Street and my daughter would teach me to read. You promised you'd learn to play your parents' accordion, that you were a fool for ever forgetting. Liesel will not forgive me if I leave you here. She will not forgive me if I do not bring you home."
Yes, she will, Max had wanted to tell her. Liesel will forgive you anything.
But the woman's genius was this:
To tell her that, he had to live.
On a Friday, Max plunks his way through the opening of a song he learned at his mother's knee at the age of seven, and when he stops to breathe after a minute or so, hard like he'd sprinted through the intervening years to get here, Paula says, "Look at us."
Liesel opens her eyes. She's stretched out in front of the fire, taking the luxury of drowsing with her head on her mother's lap. One of Paula's hands strokes her hair, the other has a piece of chalk and she uses it to build letters on a slate. She spells her name, again and again, while in the kitchen, Hans and Rosa talk lowly about Hans Hubermann Jr.'s wedding. Papa will leave for the Knoller soon, but not until Max is done.
("I fear I might not be cut out for music," he'd confessed, after the fourteenth time he struck a wrong note and somebody couldn't hide their flinch. "Not like my parents were. I'm probably better suited for boxing. Or writing in basements," and Liesel looked up, smiling.
"Nonsense," said Papa. "People are never just one thing. Keep practicing.")
"Look at us," Paula Meminger repeats, in a feathery exhale of a voice, the stretch of something small and warm behind a cage door.
"Yes," agrees Max. And, "how about that."
continue on to part two -->