Frau Amsel sat with her knees together and her hands folded in her lap. To her left, the window was slightly open, and a breeze lifted the frayed edge of her curtain so that the light shifted over her table and walls. She could hear the sounds of traffic outside—a few cars, bicycle bells, the light pummel of many feet, all pushing through on their way to schools and jobs that wouldn’t abide lateness. She felt giddy, or nauseous. She couldn’t tell.
The flat was clean, everything was in order. He would arrive soon. She wondered, if she held herself still enough, if she kept the clean lines of herself tucked and uncreased, if she kept her fingers from twitching and her feet from shifting, she wondered if she could slow his arrival. Perhaps she could stop there, just make everything stop. Herself. Could she ever just make herself—stop? She pushed the thought down with the bile that threatened to rise in her throat. Of course not. The children. Her Soul. She almost laughed at this. Damned. Either way. And she would make do, as she always had. They would make do, she and the children. They had survived worse, she thought.
The last time she saw him, she had not known what to expect. On the previous Tuesday, the telegram had told her that Paul was gone, but it had taken her days to know it. He will not come back, she had whispered to herself again and again as she prepared cabbage and a little bread for the children on Thursday; he did not think of us, she had chanted under her breath as she made soup from the last potatoes on Sunday. All that time tears silently ran down her face. She did not sob, did not wipe them away, did not know how they continued to come all through the day and night without the normal tremors of crying. The children had watched her warily, and did not make the sounds children should make.
And then when Tuesday came again it brought the summons to his office, and she finally wiped her face with the bottom left corner of her apron, untied it, and put on her coat. She walked several long streets to a building she had not seen before, and up the five flights of stairs to the right level. When she arrived she was frightened, but she made a decision to draw an impassive face across her features, to remain calm and quiet and obedient. She sat with her knees together and her hands folded in her lap. This was what survival told her to do.
She was taken into a barely furnished office, and told to sit at a spare desk. An official came into the room with a small pile of items which he placed on the desk without looking at her. The official sat and opened a file folder, and read her a statement about her husband’s death. He had not carried out his orders. His cowardice put the other soldiers at risk. It was therefore necessary and prudent to place him with the group of partisans he had refused to execute. Thus he met the same fate as them.
‘There is some poetic justice in this, Frau Amsel,’ the official said. ‘Your husband did not act to protect his country. But a price has been paid. Perhaps the shame will not stigmatise his family forever.’
Frau Amsel heard in his voice that the official meant this to sound like he was being kind. But she also heard the steel vein of mockery that ran beneath his words. Why had he brought her in if not to put her in her place? She fixed her eyes on the space between the wall and the sharp edge of the desk, and did not let her thoughts change her expression. Though perhaps her defiance did not matter, since he had not once looked at her since he entered, and all she could see of him was his chin and nose beneath the ring of hair that surrounded his balding pate.
Then, finally, his speech finished, he lifted his head and looked her full in the face, and told her that her husband’s few possessions were now hers to collect. At this, she looked properly at the official, waiting for the signal that she might leave. His eyes widened slightly, his mouth slackened. She saw it then, something familiar, something from the past, a resemblance to someone she once knew. But she couldn’t place him. Couldn’t remember. She wondered if her lack of attentiveness would cost her. His mouth was open in a small ring of surprise, and then he gathered his features in, shuffled his papers back into their file, returned to his face the veneer of control that was so important to his rank.
‘Frau Amsel, you were once a Klein I believe, before your marriage?’
‘Yes.’ She did not know what else to say. How did he remember her so well?
‘I knew your brother. Perhaps your husband did not do well by his country and his family, but your brother made the ultimate sacrifice. Indeed, on balance, you may hold your head high.’
She did not need to be told how to hold her head, or who she should be proud of.
‘Yes, Carl and I were friends in high school. Your mother would invite me for supper.’
She did not allow her expression to change. If she could only hold still long enough, she was sure it would soon be over. The official watched her. There could be no gaps through which he might enter.
‘How is your mother, Frau Amsel?’
‘She died almost a year ago.’
‘I am sorry to hear this. And your father?’
‘He died long before the war.’
‘You are very much alone then.’
She thought of her in-laws in Hamburg. They were far enough away that contact was difficult. Travel was almost impossible.
‘How will you feed your children, Frau Amsel?’
She could not hold it. Her eyes twitched and lowered and looked to the side. When she looked back he was watching her even more closely than before. She hoped her voice would not shake.
‘There is my cleaning work. The Winter Relief.’
‘Yes. Of course. Our destitute are provided for. But this will be only the minimum, barely enough for survival without some other income.’
They were both silent. The silence stretched between them for too long. It was all she could do to stay in the chair now.
‘I would like to visit you, Frau Amsel, to make sure your brother’s niece and nephew are well taken care of. But it is better that the children do not know.’
The silence sat between them again. She saw what his request would mean. She saw that a refusal would not be received well. Even so, a good woman would leave immediately. A strong woman would turn her nose high and find a different way. She saw her bewildered children and her bare cupboards and a war stretching out beyond the horizon and no knowing the end of things.
She let her chin lower, just a little, to signal her assent.
And so he came each Thursday at 11am, with a basket of food. Sometimes he brought soap and items of clothing, once he brought an accordion for the children to play. The extra items were not new, but she did not ask where they came from. That first day, when Frau Amsel finally heard the boots on the stairs, she had to clench her thighs together so that she did not wet herself. He knocked, softer than she had expected, and when she let him in, he told his guard to wait outside. He showed her the basket, and she said thank you and took it to her kitchen. When she returned they stood in silence again, until he cleared his throat and asked why she had not offered him a seat. She apologised, gestured for him to sit, sat herself and then stood again.
‘Pardon me, Herr, Herr—’ She had not realised until that moment that she did not know what to call him.
‘I am Fuchs,’ he said.
‘Yes, pardon me, Herr Fuchs.’ She could no longer stand the game. Frau Amsel was a practical woman. She felt like prey waiting to be pounced upon. It would be easier, she was sure, to be direct. ‘What would you like from me?’
The officer’s eyes widened slightly, but he quickly drew himself back into the seat and narrowed them again. He stood.
‘I must admit, Frau Amsel, that I am surprised by you. I thought you would remain coy for much longer. It is a shame that you speak so bluntly because I do like the coyness of women. But I will not leave just yet.’
He let his eyes roam down her neck to her left shoulder, where he held them for a long moment. She felt the restraint in his gaze, his thoughts roaming further down her body, his control of the impulse for his eyes to follow. He looked up again, the reason for his visit bold in his face.
‘I do not have a family. My work demands much of me and thus I have no time to pursue such things. But, of course, I am a man. Certain arrangements can be beneficial for two people in need of something from each other. I can offer a little protection, some food. You can offer me . . . other comforts.’
A noise escaped from her mouth before she could hold it in.
‘Ah, Frau Amsel, do not be afraid. It is very simple. What I would like now is for you to go into the bedroom with me.’
There were worse things. She thought of the space in her cupboard that should be occupied by food. She thought of her dead husband and parents and brother but they seemed far away. She allowed herself to move, keeping the clean lines of her shoulders straight and her spine upright, as she had been directed.
And so that was how it was between them each time he came— routine, mechanical, her attempting to conceal as much of herself as possible even as she stood or lay before him naked; he trying to rouse some response from her but, failing that, taking his pleasure as he could. It did not hurt her, she was relieved to find, it was not such a high price to pay. She did not feel anything for the activity that happened to her body for that half hour each Thursday morning, but she did find an anger grew in her for the husband she had loved and admired when he was living. He had left it all to her, the work of raising their family—he had made her responsible for the clothing and feeding of two growing children. She would never have been put in Herr Fuchs’ path if it hadn’t been for his selfish choice. Now she was forced to make this sacrifice because her husband had not cared enough to sacrifice his morals. Did it matter that he took a stand? Those people died anyway, and he along with them. Frau Amsel became a cynical woman.
One day, after Frau Amsel had tolerated Herr Fuchs’ proximity for long enough to see a film of sweat form on his back and hear a small grunt of satisfaction, Herr Fuchs asked for a cup of tea. This was new, and she did not like it. While she worked he watched her, and cleared his throat a number of times, and looked, for the first time she had seen, rather like a shy schoolboy. Her kitchen was tidy, but there were badly patched windows that had shattered during air raids, and cupboards that hung from their hinges unless she carefully lifted them to swing them closed. All of her teacups were chipped, except the special collection she had wrapped and packed in their own box, in the bottom cupboard. She would give him her least favourite of the good cups. She did not want his pity.
‘What are those?’ he asked, holding her arm, which in turn held the cupboard open as she tried to retrieve a single cup.
They both looked at the collection of porcelain jugs and cups that peeked out from their wrapping in the box. Each had a different pattern, or different glaze, some were large and some small. Several showed different kinds of animals, or characters from stories.
‘They are nothing,’ she said, ‘some old family relics, that is all.’ She quickly closed the cupboard door.
‘But Frau Amsel, you move so quick to hide these nothings. Are you keeping something from me? Please open the door.’
She looked at the cupboard, now closed beneath her palm. Just one thing, she thought, just this one thing.
She opened the cupboard. He reached in and pulled three pieces out, replacing them without re-wrapping them.
‘Ah, what a collection you have there. You must bring them out. You must show people.’
‘They were my mother’s.’ She let the statement hang in the air. It was not possible to tell him how she felt about his commands.
‘I am sorry. I have been too inquisitive, and now you are unhappy with me. I will leave. But you must know, this collection of yours, it has a certain beauty.’
She did not want to share her treasures with the official, but she could not help the small smile that tugged the corner of her lips. ‘Each piece comes from a different place. This is the secret of them. They must each tell a story of a different journey, or I do not keep them.’
Sometimes, at night, she took them out and lined them up on her table and rubbed a soft towel over them as she recounted the story of how each came to the women in her family. The truth was the collection had begun with her grandmother. Before the war, she had added to it as well. The children were allowed to listen to the stories as long as they did not touch. When they went to bed, she would think of different ways to categorise the porcelain, putting those of the same region together, or placing the animal-shaped vessels in one group, or sorting by colour. When she had been a child, she had imagined a personality for each piece, and given each a voice that only she could hear.
‘You like them very much.’
He grinned momentarily before regaining his composure. Then he left without drinking the tea after all. She did not know whether to be pleased or fearful about his odd behaviour, though she did not trust it.
The following week Herr Fuchs did not come to her door, but his guard arrived at the appointed time. He told her to come, and so she found herself in a strange car, on her way out of the city. As she watched the familiar buildings become scarce, she felt a cold stone-like weight in her belly. She clenched her knees together and sat erect. After half an hour, they stopped at a place she did not recognise. The guard took her through a back door, then down to a basement entrance where Herr Fuchs stood. She did not know what they were doing there, but she hoped very much it was not what they usually did on Thursday mornings.
‘Ah, Frau Amsel, I apologise for not coming to your flat to bring you here. There were arrangements to be made—I could not be in both places at the same time. But trust me—you will like this.’ He opened the door, and gestured for her to enter. The room they entered was dim and smelled musty. So far, she did not like it. He switched on the lights and it took her several long seconds to understand what she was looking at.
There was a table in the room, with pieces of pottery lined up along it, many just broken pieces or orbs of some kind she could not distinguish. But lined up along the walls were several long shelves, and on these there were many giant pots and bowls with faces and patterns moulded and inscribed on their rims. She looked from one to the next and the next, each with an impish face that stared from the edge of its vessel. There must have been hundreds.
‘You may go closer,’ Herr Fuchs said. She looked at him and saw that his face was open and eager. He wanted to please her. He meant this as a gift.
She went closer. The faces on the pots were so strange, but each gave a different impression—serene or joyful, severe, bewildered.
One looked on wisely and had a trunk-like handle for a nose and patterns like a beaded necklace where a mouth should be. They each had individual decorations like this, thumbed in repetitive patterns or dotted with circles and holes. Further in there were bowl-like vessels, though they were big enough to hold a meal for thirty. These ones had smaller faces on the inside rim. She recognised their features as if the other pots were their kin.
She reached out a hand, and hesitated.
‘Yes, yes, touch them if you wish. They are fire bowls from German New Guinea. The women made their cooking fires in them.’
She looked at him.
‘It is a hobby of mine, to know something of their provenance. I have a colleague whose job it is to keep this collection safe until the bombing ceases. I have taken a personal interest in such things for some time.’
She ran her hand along the smooth contours of the bowls, felt the fullness there, the expectation of being filled with something—a hearth fire, sustenance for a family. The pots were black in some places, tan brown in others. She wondered if it was fire that blackened them, or if the clay was made that way.
‘But, why are there so many? What do the faces mean?’ What of the women they belonged to, she wanted to ask, but was unsure she really wanted the answer.
‘They can teach us something of the history of man. The ethnographers have their reasons for collecting as they do. Do you not think they are wonderful?’
He was right, they were wonderful, but that was not enough. She ran her hands along the rims, traced the faces and patterns with her fingertips. She tried to gain the measure of them with her eyes and arms. And all the while she wondered at the mysteries behind their features. Eventually, she let her hands fall to her sides. She wanted to ask more, but she did not want to give the official the satisfaction of her curiosity. She remained impassive, silent. She felt him watching. Then he cleared his throat.
‘You will not fit any of these pots into your cupboard of treasures, Frau Amsel.’ He liked his little jokes. But she kept treasure in other places too, where he could not look.
When she looked at the official again, his expression had changed. He seemed smaller, as if he had been puffed up with air before and had now let it all go. ‘I am sorry. That is not what I meant to say when you came. I cannot show weakness, Frau Amsel. It would not do for me to be soft. But you . . . You do not let me in, and I would like it if we could be . . . friends.’ She did not allow her expression to change. He took a step closer, so that he could whisper. ‘Please. I could take care of you. After the war . . .’
‘There will be no “after the war” for us, Herr Fuchs. This is it.’ She had interrupted him. Her voice was hard.
‘Of course. How foolish of me.’ He straightened, stepped back towards the pots. ‘There is a story I know,’ he said, clasping his hands behind his back and nodding toward the shelves, ‘about an ancestress with magical powers. She could command the clay, the pots and the firewood. The clay would come to her and she only had to form the pots. She then ordered the firewood to pile up. She only had to light the fire. Then she ordered the pots to hop in. After they were baked she told them to go to the market. All the pots would run to the market to stand in line waiting to be traded for food.’
She imagined the pots bouncing along—they already had personalities—it was not hard.
‘One day the ancestress got married. On her wedding night, after she had been with a man for the first time, she lost all her magic. Since that time women have had to work hard digging for clay, collecting firewood and carrying pots to the market place.’
She thought of them, the women with skin the colour of their pots—she could see where their fingers had worked circles and ridges, where they’d lovingly smoothed until the face on the pot relaxed. She could sense their tiredness and their steady determination. The fire, the collecting, the carrying. All the while children at their heels.
‘These fire bowls represent the ancestress herself. She was called Kolimangge. They are from the Sepik River. The face on the large storage pots is Meintumbangge, the eagle man, her father. He was a head-hunter.’
She did not know what a head-hunter was, but it was gratitude she felt when she looked up at the Herr Fuchs again. More gratitude than she had felt for all his baskets of food.
That afternoon, he took her home and did not stay with her. She found she could not hate him quite as much. At least for the moment. Perhaps it would be easier if she could like him. Would it be so bad to let him in? She considered it, the next time he came. She tried to see the part of him that was not the Official, the part that was hungry for her approval. But when he touched her, she could not respond. She thought of her husband, her gentle husband, who had no stomach for the things war makes men do. He had been stronger than she could have been. She thought of dark women in a land she couldn’t imagine, who worked their hardship into mud, and made things of beauty from it. Herr Fuchs could not reach the part of her that thought these thoughts, but when she smiled, he thought it was for him.
When her children came home, Frau Amsel went to her cupboard and took out her treasures. As she unwrapped each one, she recited her mother’s stories. Then she placed the collection on her table in a circle, so that no particular order could be discerned. When her little girl asked, she said yes, they could touch the cups and plates, and even make stories with them. While she watched her children play, Frau Amsel sat with her knees together and a treasure cradled in the palms of her hands.
Tina Makereti’s first novel, Where the Rëkohu Bone Sings (Random House), has just been published and this year she will be the Randell Cottage Creative NZ Writer in Residence. ‘Frau Amsel’s Cupboard’ was inspired by the ethnographic collection at the Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt, where she was a resident writer for some weeks in 2012.