i was not naked (antistar_e) wrote in veritasrecords,
i was not naked
antistar_e
veritasrecords

Fic: The Strauss Girls [The Book Thief][2/2]



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-


"Frau Hubermann?"

"You know my name, you swine. Use it. And pass me -- thank you."

"Ja. You never said -- what happened to Franziska?"


-



When the war starts, and Rosa loses all but two of the washing-and-ironing customers, she starts cutting expenses wherever she can. But she has four mouths to feed and a husband with unreliable income and when the early start of 1941 warms into spring without much change in circumstance, she's confronted with the stomach-melting, horrible sensation of feeling her fingers touch bottom of their penny jar.

She writes a letter to Gitte. It feels all manner of wrong, asking for help from her baby sister, but Gitte, at least, could be relied upon to not come visit.

With a Jew in their basement, it doesn't seem like the right time to encourage company.

Gitte, bless her, doesn't send money -- vow of poverty and all that. But she sends a package that contains the following: four pairs of nylon, two old, two new; two rolls of twine; kerosene; one pair of scissors. Liesel takes one look and immediately loses interest (no books, and therefore not interesting,) but for the first time in a long while, Rosa fights the temptation to kiss the cross. She knows as well as any Strauss girl how to make all these things last a very long time.

Do you have any news from Franziska? is all the note attached says. She doesn't write to me.

By the time June comes, they've only got the one customer left: the mayor and his wife.

It's not a bad month, not really, although Rosa's not short on things to complain about -- that miserable, irresponsible Frau Holtzapfel, Liesel's friendship with that swaggering lout of a Steiner boy -- did you see what he came home covered in the other day? She swears she can still smell it -- and the stench of paint fumes in the basement, from where they've been painting the torn-out pages of Mein Kampf and hanging them on the laundry strings that Rosa used to use for the washing. All those months of practicing on his hands for Rosa's benefit, and now Max has graduated. It's miserable. Liesel hogs the paint!

"What's got you so happy, then?" Her husband interjects into a pause in this litany. "Are you feeling all right, Rosa?"

He makes like he's going to check her forehead for a temperature, and she retaliates by shoving a still-wet page into his face.

"Hey!" Max protests.

They paint the page over again, of course, but Max and Liesel both solemnly swear there's a section in his sketchbook that still bears the imprint of Hans Hubermann's startled expression.

These days, when Liesel comes home, she'll fly in the door with a "Hi, Mama!" and Rosa will just barely have time to get started, rumbling up into a "saumensch, you --" but she's already tromping down the basement steps, demanding Max's attention with news about what the clouds are doing, or one of Rudy's stories about the sadistic Franz Deutscher, or a question that needs immediate answering.

Rosa, personally, quite likes the weather reports, when she catches snatches of them. On good days, when the basement door's open and Liesel's voice carries clearly, she'll still her hands for just a moment and lean towards the window, watching the progression of the sky exactly as it's being described down below; humpy clouds and jet trails like papercuts and all.

She can tell the exact moment the change in circumstance registers with her preoccupied husband, because he's sitting at the kitchen table one day when Liesel darts by, newspaper in hand.

She acknowledges him with a brief, "Hello, Papa!" before she's gone, disappearing down into the basement.

Hans blinks after her, and blinks again when Max's delighted voice mounts the basement steps like it's got light feet of its own. It never does that for one of their visits.

The expression that crosses his face right then makes Rosa put her spoon down and laugh herself sick.

She laughs and she laughs, and when she catches her breath, she starts into, "You poor bastard," with great and thorough enjoyment. She puts a hand on his shoulder to balance herself. "You poor, sad bastard. How does it feel, hm, to not be the most adored person in this house? For once?"

He frowns, steadying her with a free hand. A beat later, he must realize she's teasing, because he makes an injured noise and grabs for her spoon, and she has to wrestle it back from him.


-


For three years, Rosa Strauss lived in a convent with sixteen other girls, most of whom she knew -- neighbors whose farms and homes had been razed with fire, too, to form the Munich blockade. The Allied plan was to starve the Bavarians out and take the capital, and it worked splendidly.

She was lucky, she thinks now, that she got to stay with the two sisters she had remaining to her, that they had no brothers who'd be taken elsewhere.

She and Franziska slept in side-by-side beds underneath a window that got direct, cold sunlight in the winter, and Gitte was in the room next door with a Jewish girl named Isi, and they had three rules for existing:

1. Don't let anybody call them orphans, even though that's technically what they were.
2. Respect the nuns.
3. Don't do anything that might get them separated. Strauss girls are loyal, Strauss girls stay together, and that doesn't change just because everything else has.

Gitte was still young enough for school, but Rosa and Franziska were put to work almost as soon as they changed out of their funeral blacks. Washing and ironing -- every day except Sunday, when the nuns did their prayers and then parish rounds, leaving the girls under the supervision of a matron named Frau Hulshoff. Rosa and Franziska sustained their musculature, scrubbing and cranking the clothes press every day, but no matter how strong they got, no one could ever beat Frau Hulshoff when it came to a good arm wrestle. The woman was a bullfrog, but kindly; she was their appointed chaperone, and she was sympathetic to the romance that occasionally happened in the convent yard; boys who snuck through the gate to hold hands and kiss girls between the rows of potatoes and rioting mint.

The problem started with a soldier named Karl, who became Franziska's beau the spring of 1919, the same week that the old Austrian emperor was exiled to Switzerland. He was part of a regiment stationed in Molching -- the plan, he said, was to attack and take back Munich, to force the socialists out, and they wanted to give them no ground to run to.

"I thought we were all part of the Reich now," Rosa squinted at him.

They were sitting by the banks of the Amper River, down by the parts where nobody went, which wasn't nearly as romantic as it sounded, not in the spring with the snowmelt turning everything to mud and slush, and Rosa tried her best to ignore that Franziska and Karl were holding hands behind their backs; their fingers wrapped around each other, his thumb brushing back and forth across her knuckles with aching slowness.

"That's the plan," he said back. "And that's how it's going to be."

And Franziska tilted her head back, smiling at him, for once strangely wordless.

They were a secret, the two of them, one that made Rosa's stomach twist with unease. The first time she saw them kissing in the shadow of the square where they hold demonstrations (where later they'll have bonfires), she cornered Franziska in their room that night and hissed, "Are you crazy?"

"He promised," Franziska whispered back, as fierce and flat as someone flinging up a hand to defend themselves. In the dark, her eyes were stains of color, her mouth a gash of blackness as it opened and pleaded with her, "Please, Rosa, he promised."

"That what? He'd leave that wife whose ring sits on his finger? That he'll marry you instead?"

"Yes!"

And there was something in her voice that made Rosa pause, something warm and leaking -- Rosa, who knew her sister better than anybody else in the world, heard the lovesickness in Franziska's voice and knew nothing she could say would get through to her.

Fine, she thought, wordlessly accepting the tin of Vaseline passed between their beds so that she could nurse the cracks in her hands. They'll have their affair, he'll leave with the other soldiers, I'll put her heart back together, and she'll have learned from this.

Besides, Rosa had problems of her own to deal with:

Hans Hubermann had returned from the trenches in France.


-


Two days after Max Vandenburg takes flight, Rosa Hubermann loses her temper.

Their house sits boxily on Himmel Street, empty and silent as a bird's nest in autumn, and when Rosa slams out through the gate to Number 33, her breath hits the cold air and puffs out, as pearlescent as cigarette smoke. Between their houses, Frau Holtzapfel works at the water pump: she's not dressed for the weather, the flexing muscles in her shoulders visible under her blouse. She looks up and opens her mouth automatically.

"Don't start with me today," Rosa bites off, slamming it down on the cobblestone.

Such is her tone that Frau Holtzapfel's jaw snaps shut like a trap, and Rosa turns and strides away.

She makes it to Frau Diller's shop on the corner, heils, and asks to use the phone, which is the only one on Himmel Street. She pays for the privilege, picks it up and tucks it between her chin and shoulder like she's seen other people do before, and calls her sister. Shame curdles atop the stove of her heart and lungs.

In the ringing tone, she hears the echoes of her own words:

You shut your mouth, you don't get to cry! This is the second son we've lost to your stupidity!

It was the first time she's used Hans Junior as a weapon to hurt her husband, and the way all insults do when they go too far, she thinks it might have hurt her just as much as it hurt him. She'd left him gored by it, sitting at their kitchen table. She feels like she must have left a trail of blood all the way here. It has to be dripping off of her, surely.

"It's almost Advent, Frau Hubermann," the voice is saying on the line. "The nuns are all extremely busy."

"I'd like to speak to Sister Cecilia," she says again, and adds as an afterthought, "Please."

Finally, they get Gitte, who says into her ear, "Rosa?"

"My husband made a mistake," Rosa says in lieu of greeting, and across the counter, Frau Diller's piggy-bank eyes squint over at her with keen interest, as gritty and silver-blue as dropped coins.

And Gitte, horribly: "Another?"

She closes her eyes. "Please, Gitte. If the Gestapo take us away," because what's the point of beating around the bush. "Will you take Liesel? The convent. Can the convent care for Liesel, like it did for us? I want her safe."

"Liesel?"

"Our daughter."

"The illiterate one?"

"She's not --"

But she doesn't get a chance to defend Liesel's exceptional progress, because Gitte, sweet, baby Gitte who took the name of the patron saint of music when she took her vows, completes her train of thought, her tone an incredulous arch, "But isn't she a Slav?"

Rosa pulls the phone away from her ear. She looks at it.

She looks at it the same disgusted way people inspect the bottom of a flyswatter for the gory remainder.

Then, numbly, she hangs up.

On the way home, two thoughts catch up with her, almost simultaneous.

The first is, The Party got my sister.

The second is, That's the first time we've ever called Max our son, and he wasn't there to hear it.


-


The first time she saw Hans Hubermann after the war, the day was swimming and warm, the sunshine a swampy, humid weight on the tops of their heads and their shoulders, and she was arm-in-arm with Franziska on the way back from church, Gitte on ahead of them and warning them of upcoming muddy patches by slipping on them, when a voice called out, "Fraulein Strauss!"

They all stopped, of course, and there, of all people, was Hans Hubermann, coming down the steps of his apartment block.

He looked different -- Rosa didn't know if it was him who'd changed between the day he left for war and the day he came back, or if it was her who'd been completely rearranged, who now looked at him different. His face was long, all his features pulled into one another, and his eyes caught the sunlight. He carried, of all things, an accordion, which sat perched in his hands like a serving dish.

Gitte recovered first. "Hans! You're back!"

"In one piece, even," he acknowledged, smiling at them all with difficulty. The roll call was slim: Wolfgang Edel was summoned home to Molching early after the death of his father in a poppy field outside of Nice, to take over his business. Herr Diller was killed defending the homeland, leaving his widow the sole keeper of their shop. Johann Hermann never came home from Russia.

Craters appeared before them, blown clean through their social map. They stepped with care.

He escorted them the rest of the way, still holding that strange accordion to his chest, where it bumped and wheezed with every step. None of them asked about it, though they were all curious: Rosa tried to remember if she'd ever seen Hans with an instrument before, and drew a blank. They talked instead about the summer markets, how they felt about German unification (good, of course, because what else was there to feel?), and Hans's parents, who they all saw once a week, and theirs, whose loss Hans was sorry for.

Finally, when they were nearly there and Franziska drew on ahead to shout something to Isi, who was waiting for them outside the gates, Hans stopped and said to Rosa, "Will you let me play something for you, Fraulein?"

He held up the accordion.

Her heart pulped in her chest, and she felt consciously aware of Franziska's absence from her side. "No, I will not," she answered politely, but firmly.

"All right, then," said Hans, easy.

He asked again the next week, and the week after that. The seventh time he offered, which was the same week that the soldiers left Molching with surprising little theatrics from Franziska, Rosa replied, "Only when you've perfected whatever it is you want to play me. Then I will listen."

He smiled at her in answer, so slowly it felt like melting, and from that moment on, it was understood that Rosa Strauss and Hans Hubermann had an arrangement.


-


He never actually asked her to marry him. Not formally, at least.

It just appeared in their plans one day, discussed right alongside everything else. Yes, he would be attending brunch with the nuns on Sunday; yes, the price of paint bricks had skyrocketed along with the price of bread for Christ's sake -- the mayor was calling it hyperinflation, whatever that was; yes, when they had their own house, it would be on the Amper side of Munich Street, because the pollution from the factories upriver may have turned the water sluggish, oily, and devoid of any good fishing, but it was still greener than the other side of Munich Street, don't argue with me, Hans.

Hans Hubermann, she learned, loved three things:

He loved his first cigarette of the day.

He loved a good innuendo. He ran a roaring trade in dirty jokes at the Knoller, but even better than that, he loved Rosa Strauss's face when she finally got it; two parts disgust, one part exasperation, and one part admiration, and all of it was his.

He loved that accordion, and because of that, he kept a little spare money in an empty sardine tin behind the tobacco. Every month or so, he would adjust the amount inside of it depending on what the boards at the Barnhoff said, but he made it very clear: they were never to touch this money, not for any emergency in the world. This would be saved for a train ticket to Stuttgart, should it ever be needed.

That money remained untouched for twenty years, until the morning an accordionist and a soldier named Kugler sat down to have a discussion.

"When I was young," the result of that conversation tells her, with the warmth of someone coming into a story they know is good, and she takes her scissors and grinds their jaws shut to show she's listening. She's cutting out the salvageable bits of linen to make new nappies; Liesel won't phase out of foster care for a couple years yet, but it doesn't hurt to be prepared for whoever might come after her.

Max does crunches on the basement floor, and his voice punches out of him in chunks on every rise, "When I was young, my idea of marriage was that the person you married had to be a person you'd knew you'd love for all of your days." He rises, touches elbows to knees, flashing her a winded wink of a grin. "When I was four, the only person I loved that much was my mother."

Rosa lifts her eyebrows. She rearranges the basket in her lap. "What did she have to say about that?"

Max's grin makes a second appearance, crowning over his knees. "I was very determined. I kept promising her, 'I'll marry you and you won't be sad,' and she always answered, 'you'll change your mind someday.'" He remains upright this time, breathing hard. There's color in his cheeks. "I remember being very insulted by that."

"She knew," Rosa assures him briskly. In her imagination, Erik Vandenburg's wife looks a lot like Max, sharing his starved smiles and the hollowness of his bird bones, and sometimes she even looks a little like Wilhemne Strauss. Surely she had to know how much her only son loved her.

"Yes," he agrees, and she thinks that's it, Max has shared all he's going to share today, except then he continues.

"My mother loved me long before I was born." She looks at him, but he's looking at the wall and a section of Liesel's dictionary. "She had the idea of me when she was still very small, and has loved me since that moment, so that when I finally arrived, there it was, waiting for me."

And it's Rosa's turn to say, "Yes," because she knows what that's like.

Two weeks after she and Hans posted a bulletin at the church announcing their engagement, she returned to her room from the washroom early and caught Franziska out of apron and blouse, which wouldn't have been strange at all if she hadn't been turned in such a way that the first thing Rosa saw was the gravid curve of her stomach, distending the band of her suspender belt.

She shut the door behind her, fast.

"You stupid saumensch," flew out of her mouth with such speed that it skidded on the floor, and Franziska jumped, covering herself hastily. Rosa dropped her voice, "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Franziska, what --"

Her sister recovered just as fast, coming at her and fisting the fabric of her sleeves, hauling her in.

"Shut up," she hissed back, and forcibly sat her down on the edge of her bed. It was instinct, as natural to Rosa as breathing and insulting was -- obeying her big sister. "Listen to me --"

"He's not going to marry you," burbled out of Rosa. Her mind reeled and staggered. She wanted to go back to the way the world was a minute ago. "You do know that, right?"

"He will," Franziska said confidently. "But listen, Rosa, until then, he sends me money. I've been saving for months, I've almost got enough, please, you can't say anything --"

"Arschloch, I'm not telling anyone you've got one in the oven, are you crazy? The shame of it!"

"Shut up! With the money, I'll rent a room --"

"Where? Some hovel like Johannesburg Street? Or Himmel Street?"

"-- and I've got work promised me, and until I can get out, I'm going to keep this a secret, do you understand?" She put her hand over her stomach, automatic, protective, and the absurdity of the gesture struck at Rosa, a blow as strong as if she'd been smacked: Franziska thought she had to defend her baby from her, her own sister.

She grit her teeth. She shuffled her thoughts, ordered them up, and filed them away.

"One thing at a time," she handed out. "How are we going to keep this hidden from the nuns? You're only going to get bigger."

For four more months, they did it. In the mornings, Rosa helped her with a girdle ("saumensch, you can't wear this, what if you crush it?" "It's either crush it or I get caught, Rosa, and I promise you, I know which is worse, now shut up and help me with these eyelets,") and they dressed her in the biggest dresses they could scrounge up. Her ankles swelled, she tired quickly -- Rosa helped her with the washing to cover the drop in her productivity. It was just until Franziska could get that room. They just had to survive until then -- they had no illusions that all their problems would go away when they got to that point, but somehow, that didn't matter yet.

It was during this time that Rosa Strauss (soon to be Hubermann, and she wasn't sure if she liked how that sounded, Rosa Hubermann,) learned how to hide an entire person.

Franziska gave birth that autumn, merely three days after she made her farewells from the convent, carefully avoiding any interaction that might involve an embrace. She had the baby in her own house, which sat on one of the poorest streets in Molching, completely unfurnished. Rosa and Hans became her midwife purely by accident; they'd come to see the new place, the first one owned by a Strauss since their farm burned down, and found Franziska crouched like a bullfrog on the kitchen floor, alone except for the peeling-up linoleum and mice droppings. There was nothing there to welcome a new baby with.

"Is there a phone on this street?" Hans asked, helping Rosa support Franziska's weight as she keened and tried to squat again. "Should we call a nurse?"

"There's one in the shop on the corner," Franziska said at the same time Rosa spat out, "Are you stupid? Look at this place -- there's no way a nurse will let a newborn baby stay here if she sees it. No, we deliver this baby and then we clean up this house and then we'll call a nurse and pretend to be very surprised."

Franziska and Hans exchanged a glance.

Rosa, of course, saw a crisis and rose to the occasion splendidly.

"I think you and I have birthed enough animals in our time," she told her sister, rolling up her sleeves and giving her knee a slap. "Let's see how different humans are, really."

"Oh, thanks."

She turned to Hans. "You, be prepared to do exactly what I say."

"Yes, Fraulein."

There was no clean linen, so Rosa shucked her sweater and dress and laid that down as protection, leaving her in nothing but her shift. Franziska's clothes were already soaked; her waters had broke, she said, while she was cleaning out the stove. It left them with nothing to wrap the baby in when it came, but Hans fetched them the day's edition of the Molching Express and peeled out the middle pages.

"Clean and warm," he said by way of explanation, handing them over. "Poor man's wool. We used to stuff our shirts with them in winter when I was younger."

"Thank you," said Rosa, and then, suddenly, before any of them were quite away of it, there was a baby boy. It caught them off guard somehow, like all this time she knew her sister was carrying the next member of her family, growing it in secret the way other girls might try to hide a smoking habit, but somehow that thought didn't connect to what she pulled from Franziska's body, fully formed and screaming.

"It's a boy," she announced.

Franziska tried to heave herself upright, her eyes glazed and face grey. "A boy?"

"A son. After all this time, a Strauss has a son," and she took the hem of her shift and wiped his face, his chest, and what she could catch of his angry, kicking limbs, and then she wrapped him in the newspaper and handed him over. Franziska's eyes cleared as soon as his weight settled against her chest.

"Hello," she murmured. "Hello, my little secret. Hello. Welcome to the German Reich. You've missed a lot."

Rosa put a hand on her stomach, pressing down and feeling around, cataloguing Franziska's discomfited flinch. Afterbirth, hopefully soon. "Do you have a name for him?"

"'Hans' is very traditional!" came the input from the other room, where Hans was keeping himself busy by sweeping up the dust and dirt, and they all laughed; stupid, delirious, and relieved.

"This," Franziska tilted her arms, exposing her son's face. "This is your aunt Rosa. Say hello."

Very seriously, she informed the ruddy, squalling thing, "I still think your mother is a stupid cow."

"Ja, ja," and she leaned her head against Rosa's arm.

Afterward, when they'd hauled in a basin for washing and heated up water for a bath which both mother and baby enjoyed first, Rosa sat in the empty, swept front room and stared at the wainscoting. Hans walked in -- this whole time, he hadn't cringed once at the sight of blood. Rosa filed that information away. There was still blood in the creases of her knuckles, her wrist. It'd even gone up to her elbows.

He folded all of his long limbs up, crouching down next to her and taking her hand, blood and all.

"I've got no clothes on," she felt the need to point out to him. She was still in just her shift.

He smiled. He said, "I'm so glad I'm marrying you," with all apparent sincerity. It warmed her. And then, "You know, the house next door is being let."

"Don't even joke, you saukerl."


-


When Alex Steiner is sent to war in October, 1941, Rosa Hubermann shoulders into the Steiners' home and takes all the mending, because however Barbara might claim she enjoys being kept distracted, there's productively busy and then there's being being the sole provider for six children.

There are two baskets of clothes that'd been accumulating all summer, but with winter starting to blush against their windowframes in the mornings, and the reality of war sitting fat and swollen in the backs of their minds, it had gained priority. Rosa takes one and then the other down to the basement, setting them down with a thunk on the stair above Max Vandenburg's head.

"Do you know your way around a needle?" she demands when he makes his appearance, blotting a paintbrush dry on the inside pages of a Molching Express.

Max nods. "Yes."

That's not the answer Rosa anticipates, and it throws off the next caustic thing that she'd had prepared. She's wrong-footed for a moment, which Max takes advantage of by emerging fully, leaving the paintbrush behind with its mates in a paintcan he's collected in his corner with the others. Max lives most of his life out of paintcans these days.

Steadily, he says, "What do you need me to do, Frau Hubermann?"

And since Rosa's hands are free, she wallops him. "You call me Rosa, you swine, and you help."

For the rest of the morning, they work, matching color threads and passing the needles and scissors back and forth. Weak sunlight pools on the stones from the open door above, and an ache starts in Rosa's back from continually craning herself to see what she's doing, but she doesn't retreat upstairs where the lighting's better.

After he finishes patching the elbows of a shirt much too small to belong to himself or Hans Hubermann, Max asks, "Whose clothes are these?"

"The Steiner's. They live next door --"

"Alex and Barbara. Kurt, Rudy, Anne-Marie," Max lists, and then squints a little at the wall, eyes ticking back and forth like he's reading something. "And Bettina's the youngest, I know that, but I've … forgotten the ones in the middle, I'm afraid."

"Hey now," says the middle child sitting across from him.

When she doesn't stop staring, he explains, "Liesel talks, I memorize," and then returns the spool of thread, reaching into the basket for the next article of clothing.

"And the mending?"

He pauses, smoothing the fabric down over his knee. "I come from a large family too, you know," he says with a voice that comes in two pieces, barely hinged together in the middle, and Rosa remembers that aching first year at the convent and lets it drop, swelling her belly up like a bullfrog and using all that wind to complain at great length about whatever comes to mind next; Frau Diller's prices, Liesel's lousy attempts at cleaning Frau Holtzapfel's spit off the door, Herr Schmiekl down at the Knoller, the party making Wolfgang Edel fly the flag from the front of his carpentry shop, like Wolfgang Edel had ever set a foot out of line, for Christ's sake, what rock were they going to try to overturn next?

They darn the socks, they mend the fraying hems of coats and blankets, they patch up tears and worn-through holes in Hitler Youth uniforms and school blazers, and when Rosa takes the baskets back across the space between their houses, Barbara blinks at her in wonder.

"What do I owe you?" is what she finally manages to say, after she's seen the extent of the repairs.

"Bah," is Rosa's response to that.


-


She never liked being pregnant. She wasn't overly fond of babies, either -- she liked children best when they could articulate and correct their own behavior -- but she really didn't like being pregnant.

When she delivered her own son, she reportedly handed him to her husband at the first opportunity and said, "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I am never doing that again," before rolling over and going to sleep -- much to the frustration of the midwife who was trying to change the sheets under her -- which naturally meant she found another baby quickening in her stomach before the year was out.

"You," she informed Hans Hubermann with great solemnity. "Are a complete swine."

Hans grinned at her, all his accordion-teeth on display, and said, "Come now, come look at this face," for he had Hans Junior in his arms, growing limbs akimbo and mouth fixed open, mid-snore. "Don't you love this face, Mama? He looks like you."

"He looks like he's about to pass gas."

"Yes, and? … ow!"

The goodness of those years swelled and waned with the seasons. Hans worked steadily -- business never boomed, and there was never much in the way of leisure money left at the end of the week (certainly not enough to necessitate the use of a bank, at any rate, although she might like to set foot in one someday, just to see what it's like,) but they were at least a comfortable breadth away from starving. Rosa did the washing and ironing for the houses on far side of Munich Street, because after all of her twelve-hour days at the convent, it'd gotten its hold on her. The children were healthy.

The only weevil in this bowl of oats was Franziska.

The soldier visited periodically, never more than once or twice a year, and each time he had the same promises. Franziska introduced him as "my husband, Karl," and kept calling herself by his name when he was gone. He genuinely seemed to enjoy Michael, who was now going on two and finding himself as pleased with the state of the world as his mother, which is to say, not at all. He still sent money, and what he didn't cover, Franziska did, doing the washing and ironing on this side of Munich Street, where Rosa wasn't allowed to poach her customers.

"Why are you so angry at me?" she asked Rosa once. "I know this can't be about the coffee, I've already paid you back for that."

"I don't care about the coffee," Rosa agreed.

Her sister watched her. The weight of her gaze settled against her like a physical thing, and Rosa hiked up her shoulders, turning away to busy herself with wiping the mess that somehow had gathered on Hans Junior's face in the few moments since the last time she'd done the same thing.

Their entire childhood, Franziska Strauss had anticipated what her little sister wanted to say and said it for her, and she had no trouble doing it now.

"Don't you see what I've done?" she said very quietly. "Don't you see what I've created? What were my options, Rosa? Marry poor, like you? Take that monkey suit like Gitte? I took advantage of a situation."

"It's a lie."

Franziska made a rude noise. "Give it time and convince enough people and nobody will remember that it isn't the truth."

"Why can't you stop embarrassing yourself? You're still young, still beautiful -- there are men in Molching who could guarantee you'd live without fear," Rosa tried. Nobody made her try nearly as much as her sister. Her stupid, stubborn Strauss of a sister. "What about that saukerl down the street? The one with the medal?"

Franziska's lip curled. "The pffifukus? That whistler? Don't start with me, Rosa."

The argument never settled. At best, it just scabbed over, and both of them took care not to scratch it. Hans sometimes went over with the children so that they could drag Michael outside with them and he could play the accordion for all of them, but Rosa just slowly stopped. There were days when she felt like she'd merely outgrown her sister.

Some relationships end in rot; they decompose and fade away. Rosa wasn't so lucky.

In the beestung June of 1924, Franziska came to her with news. She was expecting again.

This time, she wore a ring on her finger -- something she picked up from a pawn shop in Munich, Rosa knew because she had to lend the money for it, but naturally she wore it around like it was the real thing, not a prop, and Rosa was sure there were people out there who'd never met Franziska before, who looked at her and saw nothing but a war bride with an absent husband. She never called herself "Strauss" anymore.

And this time, Rosa had no patience for her.

"You are ruining all your chances, you miserable saumensch, I hope you know this," was the first thing out of her mouth.

Franziska made a cage out of her teeth, all wire grit. Everything about her seemed made of wire, now, thin and bent. "With you around, how could I forget?"

Rosa flared up, because how could Franziska let this happen? Again? And with that stupid arschgrobbler who was never going to leave his wife and come live in this hovel on Himmel Street with her, didn't she know that?

"I decided on him," Franziska snapped at her. "And I have him."

And Rosa spread her arms and yelled back, "No, you don't! You are not his frau, you stupid cow! Pretend all you want, flash your ring up people's arschlochs for all I care, it's never going to be real. Never. And you're going to be stuck here, raising his bastards." She ran out of steam, then, and took a moment to catch her breath, panting hard like her argument was a sprint. Her voice came out with a drag, "You poor saumensch, how I pity you."

Whatever it was about that, she didn't know, but it did it: she saw the exact moment the scrape and throw of her words shattered the mirror glass of Franziska's expression.

Piece by piece, she reassembled herself.

She drew herself tall and glared Rosa down.

She said, heavy-handed, "You will leave. You will leave now. And from this moment on, if you ever see me again, you will not call me Franziska. You will not call me sister. You will call me Frau Holtzapfel or you will call me nothing."

"Fine," Rosa said, and spat at her feet.


-

"Rosa?"

Max's voice comes meandering towards her. She's aware of its presence at her back, but it takes her a moment to acknowledge it.

"Rosa?"

"Yes?"

It puts its hands behind its back, and when she picks up the hot iron and turns towards it, it does something she cannot begin to fathom.

It says, "If they capture me --"

And that cannot be tolerated.

"No," she says, slamming the iron down hard enough to make the board rattle on its frame, and drags it across her husband's shirt with a harsh rasp. She speaks overloud. "No one is going to capture you."

Max doesn't even do her attempt at misdirection the courtesy of respecting it. He waits only a beat, then repeats, "If they capture me …"

There's a question in there. She contemplates not answering it, but it's not in her nature.

Strangely, it's her father's voice she hears in her head right then, an echo from deep within her memory like a well with a coin tossed in. Her father, with simple humor, simple faith, and a simple, plain-colored, whole love for his wife and daughters. She truly believes he could never have fathomed the situation she found herself in. God won't like it, Rosa.

Finally, she exhales and shakes it off.

Her relationship with God operates much the same way her relationships with everybody else does: with grudging, mutual tolerance that covers up a cynical amount of condescension, but this is one thing she has to disagree with Him on.

She puts the iron down. She looks over at Max and she says, "Ja," and then, "ja" again.

For Rosa Hubermann and Max Vandenburg, this is the summer of 1942. While Hans and Liesel are out painting, covering windows and doors with black paint for whatever meager barter they could scrounge from the people of Molching, Rosa takes a coil of rope in the dark of the basement and shows Max how to tie a noose. Then they practice it with linens, and with whatever clothes he might find himself with.

Just … for security.

"Who taught you this? Surely not the nuns."

"No," Rosa agrees with a laugh. The sunshine's pouring down the steps and the linen, for now, is ironed flat again. "No, it was -- well, actually, it was Michael Holtzapfel. He went through a spell at fifteen -- you know, as you do," and Max nods. His spell had come hand-in-hand with rising oppression, a dying uncle, and a yellow star sewn into his sleeve. "I think he just wanted somebody to know that he knew those knots. So he taught me, and with it, he stopped wanting to use them."

Her voice shifts at the end, and she sees Max's head lift as he notices it. Damn him anyway, he's been spending too much time with Liesel -- nosy, over-observant arschgrobblers, the lot of them.

"Were you close? You and Frau Holtzapfel's son?"

"Ja. He was very young when we stopped calling me his aunt, but --" she jerks her shoulders. "Maybe he still remembered. I don't know."


-



Liesel comes home late one night with Rudy Steiner, pulling their bikes behind them, and Rosa's already snarling as she hauls her inside by the ear.

Until Liesel is safely accounted for and the door locked, they can't pull the curtains, which means Max can't emerge from the basement.

"Saumensch!" she snaps out. "Where have you been, tromping to Berlin and back? The bathwater is cold!"

Liesel grimaces back. "Sorry, Mama, sorry. Yes, Mama," because they didn't keep Max alive all through a two-month fight with pneumonia just to dump him in cold bathwater because somebody was too busy running around with that swine of a Steiner boy and couldn't get her scrawny arsch home on time, honestly, it wouldn't hurt her to consider somebody else for once.

"I know you don't hold much water with cleanliness, saumensch, but it keeps disease down, do you hear?"

"Yes, Mama."

"Give it a rest, Rosa!"

And his timely rescue gives her ample opportunity to lay into Hans, which she does gleefully, and Liesel makes her escape.

Later, while Max is toweling his hair dry by the fire and Liesel is downstairs, Rosa stands with her husband in the kitchen, taking advantage of a moment of peace to stretch her back. The weather report today, given Liesel's late return, included a night sky, with stars scattered like pinpricks of sugar on cold ground, she said. Rosa twitches the curtain aside briefly to admire the view, tasting the sweetness of it like it really was sugar.

Aloud, she wonders, "Do you think he'll marry her?"

"Rudy?" Hans chuckles, like there's anyone else they could possibly be talking about. "Aren't they a little young to be thinking about that?"

Rosa dismisses this with a flick of her fingers on the curtain. "I was their age when I decided on you."

When she glances over she can tell she has quite thoroughly surprised him. Good, that'll keep him on his toes. Rosa Hubermann is not one for easily fulfilling people's expectations. "I decided I was going to marry you, and then it was a matter of waiting for you to come to the same conclusion."

(Not long from now, in this very kitchen, Liesel will push Max's sketchbook across the kitchen table and say, "Here, Mama, I think this was for you," and Rosa's first instinct will be to laugh. Ever since that boy woke up and tumbled out of his nest and Liesel Meminger was the first thing he saw, everything he would ever say or write or draw in this house belonged to her. All of it, for her. He imprinted the way small and feathery birds do. What could there be in The Word-Shaker that had anything to do with Rosa?

And then she will look.

On the page, there's a young girl with sharp-drawn lines of elastic hair done up in a bun, and with her is a young man with a long face who manages, in just a few lines, to radiate kindness. They're holding hands.

It's how Hans and Rosa would look if someone ironed all the wrinkles and stains out of them.

I decided on you, is the caption, and Rosa realizes he must have heard her, and her heart starts aching and doesn't stop, not for months.)


-


She never met Erik Vandenburg. She's never even seen a picture of him.

But when she imagines him, he always looks like Hans. Or, more to the point, like Hans did the first time she saw him after the war, like perhaps he brought home Erik's face as well as his accordion, coming back from the trenches in France. When she looks at the man she married, some part of her knows she's looking at Erik Vandenburg, too. This is his legacy.

Sometimes, moreso even than the accordion. The music Hans makes on that instrument is purely his own.

"I'm glad we got the chance to reunite them," is something he gives her, there at the beginning of the whole mess, returning home from the Knoller at half-two in the morning, and with the perfect clarity of the half-lucid, Rosa knows he's talking about Erik Vandenburg's accordion and Erik Vandenburg's son, together again under the same roof.

There are times when she looks at Max -- bent over his book or twitching his hair out of his eyes or pulling whatever pen or needle or other utensil she might need out of those organized shelves of paintcans he has -- and she thinks that wherever on the globe that accordion goes, there Max Vandenburg will wind up. It's not the most sensible connection Rosa's ever made, but she's fond of it. She believes in it like faith.

Keep that accordion safe, Rosa, she tells herself, hauling the basket of washing up the basement steps. You never know when you will need it to call them all home.


-


Max Vandenburg leaves at just after 11 PM on the night Rosa's husband ruins everything.

The street is clear.

Liesel stays pressed against the window, too confused to even cry. Hans makes a bent-hanger shape in the chair, head in his hands. Rosa stands by the stove, helpless, stewing something that chunders and bubbles inside her stomach.

He'd asked her a question, just before he left, when they did an exchange: her directions to the ruins of her family's old farm for his sketchbook, which he handed over and said, for Liesel, with his heart in his throat.

"How many loops, again, Frau Hubermann?" he said, directing his voice at the buttons of his coat as he did them up. "Is it seven?"

The noose, she realized. He's double-checking how to tie the noose.

"Shut up," she bundled up every bit of fierceness she'd ever displayed and threw it at him, slapped him with it until she could see the imprint of it in red on his face. "You shut up, and you call me Rosa, understand?"

He regarded her with calm eyes, wooded eyes -- she has never, she thinks, seen his eyes with the full weight of sunlight on them. What color would they be then?

She embraced him very tightly, a typical Strauss girl hug, all bruising strength. She can still feel it in her arms. "We'll see you in four days. You got it? Four days," and Max nodded and said, "of course," and then the door closed and he was gone. There's a ringing in Rosa's ears, like someone struck a glass with a tuning fork, and she turns away from the stove.

Liesel stays at the window, and somewhere, somewhere, her papa promises, "If they don't take me away, we'll bring him home, Liesel. He'll be safe by that area of the river."

In the bedroom, Rosa gives in, and twitches the curtains aside; at the end of the street, a shadow turns right and vanishes, his shoulders drawn up like they bear a great weight. Their prayers, she should think. They cling to him like feathers.

Rosa Hubermann never sees him again.



-
fin


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