|The Mark of Thetis
As Frau Meinecke liked to remember it, the arrival in Hannau of the Schaub family was heralded by the Fohnwind. The warm rushing air devoured the snow, chasing winter into spring. There was a flurry of colour and bouts with hayfever and then, quite suddenly, it was summer, unseasonable and dry. And that was how the Schaub family came, unannounced but strangely anticipated. Many years later, when times were much grimmer and people given over to searching for omens, Frau Meinecke told her son Achilles that she had known even then that the early summer and the arrival of the Schaubs were signs of a great change.
But Achilles, honest at least to his own memory, recalled no omen or forewarning. For him the early summer had been a blessing, an escape from a world paralysed and made featureless by ice and snow. Summer brought movement, and movement brought freedom.
Achilles first heard of the Schaubs from his mother, who had picked up some extra work from them as a seamstress. "They are Catholics," she told him, her tone faintly disapproving. "I saw one or two crucifixes that held images of the Christ. And Frau Schaub has that priest-flayed expression worn by all Catholic women. They have two children, you'll be pleased to learn."
She pulled a green skirt out from her work bag, an old leather satchel that had long ago lost both its shape and its strap. "This is Frau Schaub's." She held it up so her son could see what it was like. "You can tell a great deal about people from their clothes. For example, this tells me that Frau Schaub has an unhappy nature." His mother handled the skirt the way a baker handles bread dough, shaping and pulling and testing the material.
"Did I tell you she has two children? Nina, who is like her father, polite and very pretty, but distant for a sixteen year old. You know, her eyes never focused on me. And Emil, who is thirteen and who is a dolt, but likeable enough."
Achilles absorbed the information. The girl, older, distant. The boy, younger, a dolt. They were Catholics. Frau Schaub suffered from an unhappy nature, whatever that might mean.
One morning Frau Meinecke was asked to do some work in the Schaub's apartment. "Frau Schaub needs the company of another woman, poor thing," she confided in Achilles. She took him with her to show him off and to rescue her in case conversation with the woman became unbearable.
Frau Schaub smiled at Achilles and patted his cheek, which no one had done to him in years, and offered coffee and a wide plate of biscuits sprinkled with sugar. He was introduced briefly to Nina and Emil, but a combination of timidity and duty meant that when they went outside to play he stayed behind to help protect his mother from Frau Schaub's gossip. It took him a few minutes to realise that from his position in the family room he could, if he craned his neck slightly, see Nina and Emil sitting together outside and talking. He liked looking at Nina. She was pretty, and he could see her legs to just past her knees, which was titillating without exactly being carnal. Occasionally, when he was asked a question directly or when he heard his name spoken in vain he would turn his attention back to the two women, but after a moment he would be gazing outside again, admiring Nina's calves and half-wishing he was out there with her and Emil, but half-pleased he was where he was-an unnoticed observer.
At first he didn't see the shimmering halo that surrounded the two Schaub children, or perhaps it was a case of the halo developing as the morning wore on, but eventually he found it quite distracting, as though he was looking at them through a lens that captured and refracted light. He wondered if it was some defect in the window pane he was staring through, but when he moved his head the halo stayed where it was, surrounding the two children in a soft aura of golden light. He was wondering whether or not to comment on it to his mother when the door to the apartment opened. Herr Schaub had come home for lunch, and Frau Meinecke used his arrival as an excuse to make her escape.
In the afternoon the Meineckes retreated to their apartment's small front room with its absurd fireplace and drinkstands covered in Irish doilies, its framed prints of eighteenth century Dresden and Torgau, and the heavy green curtains that smelt of old cigar smoke. From its narrow window Achilles could look out and see a church steeple and the round top of the glass and brick railway station built in 1881. Frau Meinecke seated her son near the door and told him to be still, then drew the curtains until there was only the barest fraction of light seeping through. Achilles knew what was coming and wished he was somewhere else, but the ritual was unavoidable. His mother put a Wagner recording on the gramophone and then stood by the curtains, her profile standing out razor sharp against the sliver of afternoon light, reminding him of the aura he had seen around the Schaub children earlier in the day.
Frau Meinecke stayed perfectly still while the music-reluctantly forced from the ancient horn-lapped around the room like the swell of a winter tide on a cold and deserted beach.
Achilles closed his eyes, the slit of light between the curtains burning then fading on the back of his lids. His mind began wandering, revolving around snapshots of Nina and her long legs, Frau Schaub, dressed too old and patting his cheek, and green curtains waving in a summer breeze, revealing spires and domes beyond.
The music had stopped and his mother was saying something to him. He opened his eyes and blinked at the sudden rush of afternoon sun. His mother had drawn back the curtains and was gazing at him with concern.
"Goodness, Achilles, you were a million miles away." She came and hovered over him, felt his temperature by placing her thin, blue wrist against his forehead. "Of course," she said after a moment, "it was the Wagner. You were really listening to him, weren't you?"
Achilles nodded. He supposed he must have been.
Frau Meinecke smiled and bent over to kiss him lightly on the top of his head. "My son," she said, almost whispering.
Somehow Frau Schaub had managed to invite herself to the Meineckes' for morning tea, and in her wake had come Nina and Emil. Achilles' mother was unused to having guests and behaved like a robin disturbed in her nest. Frau Schaub, realising her mistake, thought the mood would improve if her children left and she asked Achilles if he would be so kind as to show them the neighbourhood. Frau Meinecke looked startled but nodded her consent, and Achilles found himself on the street in temporary exile accompanied by two children he barely knew and around whom he felt strangely uncomfortable.
There was not a great deal to see in this part of town, and after pointing out Gimble's bakery Achilles took them to a small park hidden behind two apartment blocks. The park was little more than a hectare of grass and a few dozen trees, the last remnant of a great forest cut down over eight centuries before.
The trio sat underneath a spreading oak and fell into an awkward silence, eventually broken by Nina asking Achilles if he knew where his name came from.
Achilles blinked. Her tone suggested she knew the answer already and this almost made him decide not to like her. As well, she was not nearly as pretty as he had first thought. Her face was too round, her mouth too wide and her upper lip held the faint trace of a moustache.
"I'm named after my father, Achilles Meinecke, who died a hero at Vendhuille in 1918." His chest puffed out in pride. He had never known his father, who had died six months before he was born, but his mother never tired of telling stories about him.
Emil was impressed. Nina only smiled. "That is not what I meant. Do you know where your name came from originally?"
"Before then. A long time before then."
"I don't know what you mean," he said defensively, now wishing Frau Schaub and her children had not come at all that morning.
"Achilles was a Greek hero. When he was a baby his mother Thetis dipped him into the River Styx to make him invulnerable, but she had to hold him by the heel and that's how they killed him."
Achilles looked at Nina with surprise. How could she know all this? "Who? Who killed him?"
"The Trojans, of course. Haven't you heard of the Trojans?"
Achilles had, but did not know his namesake had been involved with them. "What does his ankle have to do with it?"
"His heel. That's where they pierced him with a pointed arrow." She said the last almost in a whisper, as though she was passing on a secret. Their heads leaned towards each other in physical conspiracy. "And to this day a person's special weakness is called his Achilles' heel. Or hers. I suppose it's possible a woman could have one."
Achilles leaned back, unsure what to say. Was she kidding him? His mother did that to him sometimes, leading him on until she had utterly bewildered him and made him feel like a fool. But Nina, he decided, did not look as though she was trying to lead him on.
"Do you know anything else about Achilles?"
"Oh, yes," she said primly, straightening her dress with exaggerated movements.
Achilles looked at Emil. "And do you know any stories?"
"He doesn't talk much," Nina said quickly, but Achilles had already caught that look in her brother's eye, the look that meant Emil's mind was not all there. Emil grinned happily at him and he felt compelled to return at least half a smile. "But when he does his stories are the best," Nina added, her voice almost apologetic.
They heard someone calling out their names. "That's mother," Nina said. "She's looking for us."
The three stood and walked back the way they had come, and it was then Achilles noticed his vision blurring around the edges. He rubbed his eyes with his knuckles but it did not help. He found he could see Nina and Emil clearly, but everything else was distorted slightly. And it was not just his vision that was affected. The sounds of modern Hannau, of trucks and trains, were fading until they seemed nothing more than distant echoes, and new sounds came to Achilles' ears: jingles and jangles; sounds he could not identify.
"There you are!" Frau Schaub declared. "We've been looking all over for you." She was standing with Frau Meinecke in front of the children. They had appeared from nowhere.
"We were in the park," Nina explained.
"Did you have a nice time?" Frau Meinecke asked, directing the question towards Achilles.
"Yes," he replied absently. His vision and hearing were normal again. He was feeling confused. He glanced at Nina, caught the end of a secret smile.
"Well, come along," Frau Schaub said, ushering her children before her. "It's time we were going. Your father will be home soon, and expecting his lunch. Say thank you to Frau Meinecke for having us, and to Achilles for showing you around."
The Schaub children mumbled some words. A few minutes later the Meineckes were alone in their apartment, besieged by sudden isolation.
"Did you have a nice time with Nina and Emil?"
"I could only get rid of their mother by promising her we'd both come for a Sunday meal. At least Herr Schaub will be there. Maybe that will make things easier." She said the last to herself as she collected tea cups and saucers. "All of Germany to live in and they choose Hannau, and of all the women in Hannau, Frau Schaub latches onto me."
She noticed Achilles standing by the living room window, one hand holding back the heavy green curtain, looking out at some distant point. "Wash your hands, Achilles. It's time for lunch."
Frau Meinecke, immaculate. Achilles, obedient. They sat together in the kitchen around an old wooden table that once upon a time had served duty in a boarding school refectory. Outside it was twilight; they could hear people walking and enjoying the warm air and talking to each other in voices that sounded carefree. On top of the icebox sat a radio, the volume turned down, and coming from it the music of Schubert.
Frau Meinecke was reminiscing. She was like a priest delivering a sermon. She talked about his father. She talks about him as though at any moment he will walk in and ask for his dinner, just like Herr Schaub, Achilles thought.
He lent only one ear to the sermon. With the other he explored the rest of the world. He listened to the music and then to the voices outside, straining to hear . . . what? Those strange sounds he had caught earlier in the afternoon when he was with Nina and Emil? Or something else altogether?
Twilight faded. His mother talked. Moths fluttered against the kitchen window. The radio played an American song, leaving Schubert for dead.
His mother reached out and grasped one of his hands. The hold was more than affectionate. He had become a temporary lifeline, the only link she had between her memories and reality.
For a moment he wondered if any boy had ever been as terrified of his father as he was.
It was the Saturday before the Sunday meal at the Schaub's. Frau Meinecke wanted to cook some pastries to bring to the meal and so sent Achilles shopping for some flour and butter. He was on his way when he saw a group of boys fighting on a building site. Natural caution overcame his curiosity and he decided to ignore it, but then one of the boys split away from the rest and ran toward him. Achilles recognised Emil. The other children ran after him. Emil ducked behind Achilles, his eyes wide, startled, his breathing ragged. His pursuers stopped only a metre from the pair. The biggest among them took a step forward. Achilles recognised most of the boys either from school or from around the neighbourhood, but knew none of them personally. He was sure he was a good year or two older than all of them.
"Give us back the idiot, Meinecke," the big boy said. His tone was not quite threatening, but nor was it friendly. "This fight is no concern of yours."
Achilles was not brave, but having Emil cower behind him made him feel protective, and pride would not let him back down from a group of boys who were all younger than he. He considered an answer for a moment, struggling to think of something particularly clever, but in the end could only manage: "Go away."
The big boy laughed in his face. Without thinking, Achilles punched him in the nose. There was a spurt of blood, disgustingly bright. Achilles was as surprised as his victim and the two recoiled from each other like released springs. The big boy covered his face with his both hands and moaned. His friends backed away, suddenly afraid.
"Go away," Achilles repeated. They turned and ran, their leader trying to keep up with them and at the same time staunch the flow of blood.
Achilles swallowed in relief. Then he remembered Emil. He turned around. Emil was looking at him with gratitude, and he took his hand before Achilles could pull away.
"Emil," Achilles whispered urgently, gently trying to tug his hand free and at the same time looking around him to see if anybody was watching.
"Emil, don't hold my hand, for God's sake."
But Emil ignored Achilles' pleading and pulled him toward the building site, using all his strength.
"What has gotten into you, Emil? Let me go, will you?"
By now they were passing a half-built wall, their feet lifting over discarded bricks and dried pools of mud and concrete. Achilles was starting to get angry.
The sounds of metal slapping on metal.
He had to get on with the shopping, and he pulled back on Emil's hand. "We've gone far enough, I tell you."
The sounds of water lapping against a shore.
"Emil, I'll tell Frau Schaub if you don't stop . . ."
His words faded because something had changed. He was looking down at Emil, his free hand arrested in the action of tugging at Emil's wrist. He realised he could no longer smell Hannau. Before, there was the smell of dried cement, bitumen and car exhaust, but now his brain was registering other scents, a peculiar mix of the familiar and the exotic: roasting pig and baking bread, the tang of stale urine, strange spices and oils, things musty and damp.
He looked up and saw before him a huge camp that ran the length of a strange shore, stretching almost to the horizon. The sun was to his left, and its wan, reddish light told him it was afternoon. Against the eastern horizon was a huge mound, and after a moment he realised that its strangely geometric summit-its edges wine-coloured in the fading sun-was made of crenellated walls. To his left a calm blue sea bordered the land.
"Emil?" His voice quavered.
He heard a clanking sound behind him and turned to see a troop of men, twenty or so, marching along the shore toward the camp. They kept in loose step, their armour glinting in the sun, their polished helms sprouting feathers and crests in all different, wild colours. They carried long spears ending in broad bronze blades. Shields as large as car wheels were strapped to their backs. They marched past Achilles and Emil, ignoring them.
"They can't see us," Achilles said then with certainty. He looked down at himself, saw his own brown legs sticking out of the khaki shorts his mother had made him wear that morning, his knees skinned and grey. He looked then at Emil, saw only the boy's eyes as brown as chocolate and felt himself falling into them.
"I am dreaming this," he said, but did not really believe his own words.
He felt the thin air around him shimmer. He sensed the world change again.
"Don't let it end yet, Emil," he said, but even as he uttered the words it was too late.
Emil was a slight boy dressed in shorts and a grey shirt which hung out over the back of his pants. His eyes belonged to a dolt, and his small hand was still in Achilles'.
"Take me back, Emil."
The boy said nothing.
That night Achilles and his mother went for a walk after dinner. A sudden summer rain caught them when they were still five minutes from their apartment and they arrived home drenched to the skin.
Frau Meinecke ordered Achilles to take a warm bath, then draped their wet clothes over kitchen chairs and lined them up in front of the gas heater in the kitchen.
He was still washing when she came into the bathroom dressed in her cotton gown. She knelt down on a mat and scrubbed his back with a rough flannel.
"It is getting to the time when you will have to do this for yourself," she said.
"I can do that now."
She shook her head. "No, Achilles. Not yet. You cannot do without me still."
He could not sleep.
From his bed he could see out his window, glimpse stars and half a moon that reminded him of his mother's breasts, hemispheres hidden beneath cotton folds, milky soft. And then he wondered what Nina's breasts were like. He imagined them small but round, with large pale nipples like those on the maidens adorning so many of the paintings in Hannau's only museum. They would not be milky, nurturing breasts like his mother's, but rosy and sort of firm.
He stroked his erection, but as soon as he did so his sexual excitement evaporated. It had been wrong, somehow, thinking of Nina so physically, and his body knew it even if his mind did not.
He watched the stars again and listened for what sound they might make, but they were too far away.
He could hear other sounds though, in the background: the sounds of Hannau which never completely rested, like a peripatetic old man suffering from insomnia. Wheels turning, the clopping of a solitary horse pulling the night cart. More distant the rattling of a freight train passing through, a long ribbon of dark boxes on silver wheels. Somewhere closer the chirping of an idiotic bird that did not know what time it was.
When at last he did fall asleep, he was hearing sounds he knew did not belong to Hannau.
Frau Meinecke enjoyed the Sunday meal at the Schaub's place much more than she had expected to, thanks largely to the presence of Herr Schaub who had an easy way with women, but also in part due to the fine sausage Frau Schaub had made especially for the meal.
Achilles had gone wanting to tell Nina about his meeting with Emil the day before, but when they finally had a moment together he could not find the words to describe his experience, so they talked about something else. It worried Achilles though, as if the telling was an obligation he had still to fulfil.
After the meal, while the adults talked and drank Ceylonese tea, the children were permitted to go outside.
"Remember it is a Sunday," Herr Schaub reminded them. "Don't make too much noise. Hannau is Lutheran, and on Sundays Lutherans are a dour lot."
Frau Meinecke blinked when she heard the words but said nothing, thinking that Lutherans were only dour when compared to Catholics, who were as excitable as squirrels.
Nina wanted to see the train station. "You can see its dome from anywhere in Hannau, but I have never been inside it," she told Achilles.
He shrugged, not particularly excited by the notion but having no better idea how to pass the time. It took them twenty minutes to walk there, and the hot afternoon sun made their skin prickly. The station's main entrance was a huge portal, its doors permanently swung back, its metal lacework covered with verdigris.
"It's like walking under a gigantic tree," Nina said, and Achilles nodded, wondering why he had never seen it like that before.
They walked through the atrium, its round pillars faced with Italian marble, to the platform beyond. There was a train waiting there. People were boarding carriages or huddling in scattered knots to farewell family or friends. At the front of the carriages a huge red locomotive puffed impatiently. Emil half-walked, half-ran to the locomotive, stopping only when Nina and Achilles caught up with him and held him back. Nina said something in her brother's ear Achilles did not catch and the boy nodded. He stared at the engine, his eyes wide with surprise.
"He has never seen one this close before," Nina told Achilles. She looked around excitedly, pointed to the dome above. "It's so high!"
Achilles looked up, felt a twinge of vertigo. The dome's green glass spread overhead, an artificial sky supported by a steel tracery dull and almost invisible in the gloom.
He was distracted by the Station Master calling for all passengers not yet on the train to board. The man strode along the platform repeating his announcement and ringing a bell. When he reached a point not far from the children he pulled a red flag out from underneath his jacket and raised it high. Those not joining the train stood back, waved at faces in carriage windows. The Station Master brought the flag down with a dramatic sweep; steam geysered from the locomotive, wailed in the air. The great wheels turned once, twice, then spun free for a moment before gripping the track and pulling forward; slowly at first, but then faster and faster. More steam billowed over the platform, swallowing Achilles and his two friends. He heard Nina scream in delight.
And the world shifted around him.
They were in a green place, a forest made from giant trees stretching high into the sky, their grey branches closing far overhead and keeping out most of the sunlight. It was a place of shadows and moss and rocks carpeted in lichen, a place of stillness where the wind was a memory stolen by the treetops, a place of stumps and fallen trunks colonized by mushrooms and antlered ferns.
"Oh, God," Achilles whispered, and felt someone take his hand. He turned, expecting to see Emil but seeing Nina instead.
"I am dreaming again," he said.
"A dream of sorts, I suppose," Nina answered. "But if so it is Emil's dream and not yours."
Something licked his other hand and he yelped in surprise. He glanced down and saw a bear cub sitting on its haunches by his feet; its huge pink tongue lolled out, wetted his fingers. The cub's eyes returned his stare; brown eyes, gentle and harmless and no longer the eyes of a dolt.
"I told you his stories were the best," Nina said.
"He wasn't a bear last time," Achilles said tonelessly.
"He can be anything he wants in his own dreams."
The cub snuffled in agreement.
A bird fluttered past from behind them, swung round and returned, hovered in front of them. Its bill was long and curved downwards, and a tongue as long as a licorice whip flickered from it; its wings were like the wings of a butterfly, giant yellow commas with black eyes in their centres; its tail was a stream of feathers coloured red and blue and green; one eye was black, the other white. It stared at the trio for a while, then started whistling, the trilling sounding like notes played on a flute.
Achilles reached out to touch it.
"No-" Nina began, but her warning came too late. The air shivered. A locomotive's whistle sounded far away.
Achilles blinked, saw the last train carriage pass them, heard people shouting their last goodbyes. Nina quickly let go of his hand, glared at him disapprovingly.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't know that would happen." He felt Emil's hand slide into his own and Nina's expression softened.
They took their time walking back to the Schaub's home, not speaking much but happy to be together, sharers of a secret.
At the door to the apartment Nina leaned over and kissed Achilles on the mouth. He was surprised by the gift and its sudden moistness, felt his cheeks blush with heat.
Nina laughed and opened the apartment door, pranced in with Emil laughing beside her. Achilles followed, more subdued, his face creased with a puzzled smile. His mother saw the smile and thought it was for her. She bent over him and kissed the top of his head.
"Now that you have returned we must go home," she said to him. "We have taken up enough of Herr and Frau Schaub's Sunday."
The Schaub parents protested politely but Frau Meinecke gently insisted and a few minutes later she and Achilles were on the street heading home, a generous portion of Frau Schaub's sausage wrapped in waxed paper and tucked under Achilles' arm.
"Did you have a nice time?" his mother asked him.
"Yes. I took them to the train station. Nina wanted to see it."
"That was kind of you," Frau Meinecke said.
"I was glad to do it," he said, and from the corner of his eye saw his mother look at him curiously.
They sat together in the front room, Frau Meinecke sewing up a hole in a pair of Herr Schaub's pants, Achilles absorbed in an old history of ancient Greece written for children he had found among his father's books, illustrated with bright prints of Greek heroes such as his namesake and Ajax the Great. None of the armour and weapons they wore looked as wild and colourful as the gear he had seen in Emil's dream, but he reasoned they may have been Emil's creations. And who was to say Emil was wrong?
"You are coming of age, Achilles," his mother said, interrupting his thoughts.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean you are ready to take on more responsibility as the man of the house." She stopped talking to bite through a thread, then put the work in her lap, her hands resting on top like two nesting sparrows. "Without your father I must rely increasingly on you as you get older. Soon you must get a job-"
"I could join the army," Achilles interjected quickly, the thought exciting him.
She looked at him coldly. "No. I will not lose my son as I lost my husband."
"Germany is not fighting anyone," he replied, sounding disappointed because of it.
"I said no, Achilles. The army would take you away from me. I need you here."
"You have money from your darning and sewing."
"Which gets us by, that and a war widow's pension, but it will not be enough for us as you get older." She took up the sewing again. "I have talked to Herr Gimble at the bakery. He needs an apprentice."
"He has Walter."
"Walter has left him."
This was news to Achilles. He had seen the tall young man with a face spoiled by acne only last Saturday.
"Where has he gone?"
"He has found another job."
"He has probably joined the army." Achilles meant it as a joke, but the way his mother's hands stilled for an instant told him he had hit the mark. "If the army will take someone like Walter-"
"Enough, Achilles! Mr Gimble wants you to start in the new year."
"But I don't want to be a baker!" he protested.
"It is a good job with good prospects. As long as there are people they will want bread to eat."
"But I don't want to be a baker," he insisted.
"Achilles, what you want out of life and what you get out of life are two completely different things." Her gaze lifted, appeared to fix onto something immediately behind him. "I learned that when your father was killed. The world I grew up in died on that day." Her voice almost dropped to a whisper. "My heart broke into a thousand pieces. All I had left was my infant son. I held you to my breast and cried so hard and for so long I ran out of tears. The next day the rest of the world carried on as if nothing had happened, as if your father's death had no importance." Her words stopped, but she continued looking through her son as if his father had rematerialised and now stood behind him.
"Achilles," she said, and he knew it was not him she called.
Early the next morning there was a knock at the door. It was Nina with Emil, and they had brought with them more work for Frau Meinecke. Achilles' mother took it gratefully, relieved it was the children and not Frau Schaub herself who had brought it across. Then Nina asked if they could see Achilles.
"Well dear, he has his jobs in the morning. He has to clean his room and run errands for me to all my other clients."
Achilles appeared then. "I've done my room, and they can come with me on my errands. I can show them around more of Hannau."
Frau Meinecke smiled apologetically at the three. "I'm sure Nina's parents have work for her and Emil to do-"
"Oh, no, not today," Nina interrupted.
The smile disappeared off Frau Meinecke's face. She coolly regarded the visitors. Nina stood her ground and Emil did not know any better. After a moment she said: "I suppose it is alright, then." She turned to Achilles. "But I need you back here in an hour."
Achilles nodded eagerly and ran to get the leather satchel holding the garments he had to return. A minute later the three children were on the street, watched by Frau Meinecke from the front room until they turned a corner and disappeared.
"Your mother does not like me," Nina said to Achilles matter-of-factly.
"That's not true," Achilles replied, sensing the lie even as he said it. "She likes everyone."
"I could be wrong, then," Nina said lightly. Emil, walking between them, nodded happily. Nina slapped him playfully across the back of the head and he skipped ahead, laughing.
"Is he really a dolt?" Achilles asked her.
Nina shrugged. "That's what the doctors say."
"But he understands everything we say."
"He understands everything I say. Maybe he understands you too. Other than me, you are the first person he has shared his dreams with."
Achilles accepted that without pride.
They reached their first port-of-call, an old spinster with a hairy mole over one eye and with few teeth. She took the parcel from Achilles, handed over some coins and shut the door in their faces.
"She is a witch," Nina said, staring at the door.
"She is Frau Baumhus," Achilles told her. "Mother says she is a widow, too. Her husband died in a mine accident, and her son lives in America."
"She is still a witch."
Over the next half hour they dropped off another three parcels and collected payment for them, then they raced back to Achilles' home, arriving at the apartment block out of breath and sweaty.
"You still have ten minutes before you have to go inside," Nina said. "Let's sit in the park."
Achilles agreed, grateful for the excuse to spend more time with Nina. He hoped for another kiss from her, but said nothing to her on that.
They sat under the same oak they had shared the first time they visited the park. Achilles gave Emil a leg-up so he could reach the tree's lower branches. Emil found a perch to his liking and wrapped his long, white legs around it; Nina and Achilles sat down on the grass beneath him, their backs resting against the trunk.
When Emil's dream started Achilles had been half-expecting it. First the sounds changed, the present day fading away as if someone was slowly turning down the volume knob on a radio. Then the physical world altered. The oak became the anchor point, its hues and textures spreading like water colours seeping across tissue paper; nearby apartment buildings metamorphosed into stands of trees, sunlight thickened like cream, the air they breathed became warmer, more humid.
Achilles looked up at Emil, wondering if he would again see a bear or perhaps some other animal, but it was just Emil, still in grey shorts and blue school shirt, his face stupid and wise at the same time, his eyes brown and placid, his mouth curved in the slightest of smiles.
Someone was coming. Achilles peered into the forest. A shape moved between the trees, at first without real form, only suggestions of colour that broke away, merged then broke away again from the surrounding forest. Slowly the shape solidified into a figure and a moment later he recognised Frau Baumhus. Surprise made his breath catch in the back of his throat. She was dressed in a long, black cloak and wore a witch's hat, its tip bent over. Unlike in real life, her right shoulder was humped, the arm dangling from it withered and sere. In her good left hand she carried a cloth sack and a staff decorated with intricate carvings Achilles could not decipher.
She stopped every few paces and prodded nearby bushes with her staff, then moved on to the next clump of vegetation. When she was some thirty metres from the children her prodding produced a croak and a frog leaped away from her. The witch cackled and chased after it, showing a surprising turn of speed. She caught up with the frog, bending down to pick it up by a leg with her withered right hand. The frog dangled from her grip, its swollen belly milky in the light. She cackled again, brought the frog to her mouth and killed it with a bite that crushed its skull, then dropped it into her sack. She continued her search, coming no closer to the children, and eventually disappeared back into the forest.
Achilles opened his mouth to say something to Nina, but she shook her head and pointed to a spot on the ground not far from where they sat. At first Achilles did not see what had drawn Nina's attention, but then he noticed that the grass was rippling slightly. He stared harder, realised it was not the grass but the soil underneath that was moving. A clod of earth suddenly flew into the air as if it had been punched from beneath, and then another flew up and another. Achilles saw the ground was opening up in a circle. After a while earth started dropping away, disappearing from the surface. A hand appeared, streaked with grime, waving around seeking purchase. The hand found firmer ground, was joined by its opposite. The wound in the ground heaved and widened, arms appeared followed by a hard, shiny dome that evolved into a miner's helmet. The face underneath was as grimy as the hands, the eyes white marbles in a black mask. More of the miner appeared, his shoulders first and then his chest, crushed and twisted by some great weight, the ribs at awkward angles, stretching and pulling at the skin covering them. Hips and legs followed, one leg broken so its foot pointed in the wrong direction. Except for the helmet, grey tattered trousers were all the miner wore. He opened his mouth and dirt fell out, followed by a sound like a frog's croak. He looked back towards the children and studied them for a second before turning away and shuffling into the forest, heading in the same direction as the witch. A few minutes later he was gone.
Achilles was breathing in short, sharp pants. His skin felt tight and prickly. Nina spoke and he started at the sound of her voice.
"Sometimes Emil's dreams are not so sweet," she said lightly.
Achilles looked at Emil, saw the same faint smile as before. Anger welled up in him, but then Nina touched his face gently with a cool hand and the anger disappeared. His face turned to hers and he kissed her on the lips. She pulled back slightly, then allowed him to kiss her again. His hands rested on her hips, hers curled around his shoulders. He heard Emil laughing above them.
When Achilles returned to the apartment his mother was waiting for him in the kitchen, working at the long refectory table. She put down the garment she was repairing and asked him if he would like some tea. He offered to make it but she insisted he sit down.
"It is warm outside, and you must be tired after visiting those clients for me."
Achilles retrieved the clients' payments from the leather satchel and put them in the glass jar his mother kept on the ice box. He gave the jar a shake, enjoyed hearing the coins rattle together.
His mother brought the pot and slices of tea cake to the table, then a jug of milk and the cups on their saucers.
"I've always wanted a proper tea set," she said. "Silver or porcelain, one that would last my lifetime and long after. A porcelain one with ladies and gentlemen in powdered wigs painted around the pot, and roses around the cups. Porcelain so fine you could see through it. Or silver so polished you could brush your hair by the reflection."
"When I start at Gimble's I will save my money and buy you a tea set," Achilles said thoughtfully. "We will go shopping and you will pick it yourself."
His mother sighed, reached across to pat his hand then let her fingers curl around his.
"Maybe you will have a girlfriend by then," she said carefully. "Maybe you will want to spend your money on someone else besides me."
Achilles tried to hide his surprise. Had she seen him with Nina in the park? Had she seen them embrace?
Frau Meinecke did not watch his face, but felt his fingers stiffen then twine. She knew then she was right about the Schaub girl.
"I will never leave you, mother," Achilles said, and for the second time that day realised after the fact that he had lied.
Frau Meinecke invited the Schaubs over for lunch the next Saturday. She invited other people too because, as she explained to Achilles, she wanted to broaden Frau Schaub's circle of acquaintances.
"She is a nice woman," she said, "but tiring in large doses. I will help her make new friends and we can distribute her amongst us."
For his part, Achilles eagerly looked forward to seeing Nina again. His mother had not let him visit her or her brother since the previous Monday, and he found himself unable to think clearly on any subject without Nina's face looming in his mind. Every night it took him hours to fall asleep because he kept on reliving their first embrace and the taste of her lips, the feel of her skin.
At last the day arrived, and every time someone knocked on the door Achilles rushed to open it in the hope it was Nina and her family. The first time it was their neighbour Herr Bittle and his dog, a small mongrel he called Franz if he was in a good mood and Satan if he was not. This morning it was Franz. The second time Achilles opened the door it was to let in Dr Nieman, the Meinecke family doctor, a tall man in his fifties with a bald patch and rimless spectacles. The third time it was Frau Reiner, a childhood friend of his mother's, and her husband.
And then, at last, the Schaubs themselves. Frau Meinecke introduced them to everyone. Achilles stood back at the edge of the group trying to catch Nina's eye, but she was concentrating on being the perfect daughter, polite and attentive, Emil sticking as close to her as possible.
Later, at lunch, they had little time to talk because one adult or another would always engage them in conversation, asking them questions and feigning interest in the answer. Even Dr Nieman, usually disdainful of children-even when they were sick-chatted with them for a few minutes.
Freedom for the children came with coffee for the adults; they were allowed to escape the apartment with the warning that they must not wander far so they could be called back if needed.
"We are tethered," Nina said darkly, Achilles not quite understanding, but she brightened once they were outside in the early afternoon sun. Without a word between them they headed straight for the park and their oak tree. Achilles clumsily tried to kiss Nina, but she pushed him away impatiently.
"Emil has a new dream," she told him.
"Not like last time?"
"Are you afraid?"
"Well, no, but . . ."
"You can leave if you want."
"What is it about?"
"I do not know for sure, but I have been reading to him about many things . . . including Troy."
"The first dream he showed me was about Troy, I think."
Nina sat down against the trunk, patted the grass beside her. "The sooner you stop asking questions the sooner Emil can begin."
Emil tugged at Achilles' hand, pointed to the tree. Achilles helped him up to his perch and took his place beside Nina.
The buildings flanking the park merged together, windows disappearing, bricks turning into cyclopean stones. The park itself melted away, replaced by a stony plain that stretched behind them to a silent sea. Part of the shore was protected by wooden barricades. Two armies faced each other across the plain, one massing in front of the walls, the other in front of the barricades, and before each army stood a single hero, taller than all his compatriots. The hero in front of the Greek army wore armour so resplendent it seemed to take up all the light there was and throw it out again; he was as bright as the sun. The crest in his helmet was the blue of the sea. The Trojan hero wore armour as dark as the walls of his city, wrapped around him like folding shadows. The crest in his helmet was burnt orange, the same colour as the plain. Each hero carried a figure-8 shield and a spear half again as high as its owner, ending in a broad leafed blade.
On top of the city walls trumpeters appeared and sounded a fanfare, the call echoed from the Greeks, each side trying to blow louder than the other. The armies started moving, slowly at first, thousands of feet tramping in perfect unison. As they came closer the pace picked up, and when they were no more than forty metres from each other every soldier broke into a run. When the two sides met the clash of armour on armour, shield against shield and blade against blade was so terrific it drowned out the trumpets still blaring behind the ramparts on both sides.
Human screams and yells now added to the cacophony, and a huge dust cloud kicked up by scrabbling feet rose into the sky, turning the sunlight as red as the blood now pouring onto the plain.
The contest went on for hours, and despite the mounting casualties on both sides the ferocity seemed to increase with the passage of time. The two heroes appeared wherever they were most needed, first one flank and then the other, and next in the centre, their bright spears lunging into the mass of their enemies, finding hearts and brains and kidneys, drinking life the way a soldier drinks wine. Through all of it the heroes searched for each other, but always some emergency distracted them, or their own armies, moving like the tides of the sea, would come between them and sweep them along to some other part of the battle.
Eventually the struggle seemed to centre on one flank, and the soldiers of both sides started to swirl around this point, their lines heaving one way and then the other as each side found and gained some advantage before having it snatched away again. Under these circumstances it was inevitable that the heroes should finally meet. At first each was unaware of the other's presence in the melee, but when their spears crossed in an accidental, glancing blow, the ringing sounded out along the whole battlefield and the fighting everywhere stopped as if all the combatants had received the same command to lower their weapons and step back from their nearest enemy.
A wide circle formed around the two heroes, giving them room to maneuver and also boxing them in. The entire battle would be decided there and then between the two of them, and the two of them alone.
For a moment neither of them moved, and then simultaneously they brought their spears over their shoulders, raised their shields and advanced on one another. The spears flickered in and out like snakes' tongues; the shields moved so quickly to counter the points that they were a blur. The heroes tested their opponent's weaknesses and strengths, seeking the opening that could be exploited to bring them victory, but for a long time neither hero had the advantage.
Then suddenly the Greek hero stumbled and fell to one knee. The Trojan's spear darted out, connected with his enemy's helmet, knocking it off his head and sending it spinning into the crowd. Instead of grabbing for it the soldiers, Greek and Trojan alike, pulled away from the helmet as if it was a live coal. The Greek hero seemed stunned by the blow. He shook his head, appeared to sway, could not get up from his knee. The Trojan brought his spear back for a killing thrust, his arm raised high above his head, realising even as he did so the mistake he had made. The fallen Greek was instantly rock steady, his spear brought up to his shoulder and its guiding hand whipping forward. The broad blade pierced the Trojan just below the right armpit, driving on up past the shoulder and collar bone and emerging between two vertebrae in the Trojan's neck. Blood sprouted in a great stream and the hero fell to both knees, the Greek spear snapping in two and propping him upright. In that instant a great wailing rose up from the Trojan army and was taken up by those in the city itself.
The Greek hero got to his feet and walked over to his enemy's body. With his heel he kicked the Trojan onto his back, grabbed the shaft of his broken spear and pulled it out with all his strength. He waved the bloody blade above his head, shouting in triumph. He turned, and for the first time Achilles clearly saw his face, and realised it was his own.
He fainted away, and the plain of Troy disappeared into the darkness.
Nina kissed Achilles gently on the lips and his eyes fluttered open. Emil was patting his hand.
"It was me," was all he could say.
"Of course it was you," Nina said. "It was Emil's gift to you. Achilles slaying Hector."
Achilles sat up, saw that the real world had returned.
"I was not expecting it."
Nina smiled. "Obviously."
Emil touched his cheek. "I am alright now," Achilles told him, and then: "Thank you for the dream."
He stood up, unsteadily at first, and Nina put her arm around his waist.
"That's nice," he said.
Nina giggled, withdrew her arm. "Deceiver."
Emil pointed in the direction of the apartments. Herr Schaub was walking towards them.
"Frau Meinecke told me I would find you all here," he said, beaming at the children. Achilles knew he must have seen Nina's arm around him but did not seem upset by it. Indeed, he seemed almost pleased.
"We have to go now?" Nina asked.
Herr Schaub nodded. "We don't want to overstay our welcome."
"What time is it, sir?" Achilles asked.
The man pulled out a fob watch. "Almost three."
Achilles was surprised. The battle before Troy had gone on for hours, he was sure.
"Time passes differently in a dream," Nina told him, guessing the source of his surprise.
Herr Schaub looked at them quizzically. "What's this about dreams?"
Nina took one of her father's hands, Emil took the other. They led him away from the park, changed the topic of conversation.
On Tuesday afternoon the Meineckes received a surprise visitor in the person of Dr Nieman. Frau Meinecke brought him into the front room where Achilles was struggling through a library copy of The Iliad. The translation into German had been made in the previous century from an earlier Latin translation of the Greek original, and though Achilles understood most of the words well enough the syntax and legion of unfamiliar names made it tough going for him.
Dr Nieman politely asked Achilles what it was he was reading while Frau Meinecke made tea, but as soon as she reappeared he ignored her son as if he was not there. Frau Meinecke asked Achilles to run an errand for her, and he was grateful for the excuse to leave the apartment, silently thanking his mother for the opportunity and not guessing she had some other motive in mind.
That evening was warm and humid, and as was usual in such circumstances Achilles and his mother went for a walk, starting off after an early supper and returning while it was still twilight. Their route brought them back through the park, and as they strolled under the trees Achilles heard faint sounds of battle, as if they were carried there by the wind from some distant place. Goosebumps rose on his arms and the hairs stood on the back of his neck. His first reaction was to look around for Emil, but he saw only other couples, none of whom he recognised.
"What is wrong?" his mother asked, sensing something.
"Nothing," he said. "I'm just a little cold." He rubbed his arms briskly.
Frau Meinecke touched his forearm, felt the goosebumps. "But it is so warm! I hope you are not coming down with a chill."
"I'm fine," Achilles reassured her, dreading a visit to Dr Nieman on his mother's suspicions.
"You must have a hot bath when we get home, and I will make you a lemon tea. That will fix it."
She picked up the pace and in a minute they were out of the park and only a block from their apartment. Achilles breathed easier when their feet were again on concrete and bitumen. The sounds of battle were left behind with the trees; in modern day Hannau there was room only for the here and now.
They sat together in the front room as night fell. Bach was spinning on the gramophone. He wondered if it was possible to buy records of American music in Hannau, but suspected even if it was his mother would never allow him to play them.
He sipped his lemon tea, hating the bitterness but accepting it for his mother's sake. As was her custom she sat near the gramophone, looking out the window to the city beyond as its lights flickered on. Sometimes she would talk with her son, but usually she stayed still and silent, listening to the music and gazing out over Hannau. Achilles was sure tonight was going to be one of the still and silent occasions when she said suddenly: "Do you like Bach?"
"More than Wagner," he answered truthfully.
"Yes, but do you like Bach?" she insisted.
She looked at him in surprise. "I was sure you did."
"You never asked me before," he said defensively.
"Your father liked Bach most of all. He liked English composers, too, funnily enough. Even one or two French ones, which I never understood."
"I like American music," he blurted, regretting it almost immediately.
She was staring out the window again. "Dreadful stuff," she said flatly, not interested in discussing it.
She was quiet for a long while, then said: "Your father said Bach was a mathematician, not just a composer. He said that Bach could help you understand nature, but that Wagner could only help you understand man, which isn't the same thing."
She looked again at Achilles, and he saw she had been crying. Tears like little glass beads ran down both cheeks, caught in the corners of her mouth.
"I never really knew your father. We were married for just two years when the war started. How much time is that, Achilles? I suppose a great deal at your age, but hardly anything in a lifetime. We were meant to be together for our lifetimes. We were going to grow old together, and he was going to teach me about Bach."
Achilles did not know what to say. When she talked like this about her husband he always felt as though she expected him to say something wise or consoling, say something like his father might have, something to make her feel as though the two years his parents had together had been twenty or two hundred. He did not know enough to say to her: "I am not my father."
When Bach was finished Frau Meinecke collected the cups and took them to the kitchen, then followed Achilles to his room. He stood at the bedroom door and meant to kiss her good night on the cheek, but she met his lips with her own, lingered for a moment and then hurried to her own room. He stood there for a moment, startled, surprised by the wetness of his mother's lips, but thinking of Nina.
Achilles dreamed of Emil. At first he thought Emil had taken the shape of a bear cub, but in fact it was just Emil behaving like one. He was walking on all fours through a forest. Once he stopped to paw among the leaf litter, found an acorn or nut and popped it into his mouth. Like a bear he then sat on his haunches, licked his lips, licked his hands. A noise attracted his attention. He cocked his head to get a bearing on its source, his eyes widening when he found it.
Achilles sensed the fear Emil felt in that instant, but could not see what he was afraid of. The boy went to all fours again, started scrabbling away, but whatever was chasing him was too fast.
Emil stopped, stood on his feet and spread his arms. Although his shape still did not change he took on the aspect of a bird. He lifted off the ground, hovered for a second and then flew off between the trees, dodging and weaving, trying to gain height. No matter how hard he tried, though, he could not raise himself more than a metre or two above the ground, and all the time whatever was after him was closing quickly.
Achilles saw that Emil was tiring, his small body and long legs barely clearing the ground. At last the effort was too much for him and he fell to earth, exhausted, a small frightened boy. Emil looked directly at Achilles, tears welling in his eyes, a whimpering sound starting somewhere in the back of his throat but unable to escape from his mouth.
Achilles realised then that Emil had been trying to get away from him.
The next day he told his mother he was going to the library to return his book. He tucked The Iliad under his arm and left the apartment, breaking into a run as soon as he left the building and heading straight for the Schaubs' place.
When he got there he saw a van outside and two workers and Herr Schaub loading onto it the family's furniture. Herr Schaub noticed Achilles, smiled tightly.
"Nina is upstairs if you want to see her."
"You are going? Leaving Hannau?" Herr Schaub had turned his back on him and did not reply. Achilles ran up the stairs to the Schaub's apartment. The front door was open. Inside he could see Nina's mother in the kitchen, sobbing quietly as she packed crockery into a large wooden crate. He went to Nina's room, found her sitting on the edge of her bed folding her clothes into a suitcase. She heard him, and without looking up said: "I thought you would come." Her voice sounded tired.
"I wanted to tell Emil about my dream last night."
"I do not think it was your dream. Emil is gone."
"An ambulance came for him last night to take him away to a special hospital."
"Your parents did that?"
"They had nothing to do with it." She closed her eyes, appeared to draw in on herself as if she wanted to become so small she would be invisible.
"Then how can they take him away?"
"Doctors have wanted to take him away for over a year now. That's why we came to Hannau, to try to escape them."
"The doctors chased you here?"
Nina laughed, but there was no humour in the sound. "No need. Dr Nieman signed him away."
"Dr Nieman . . ."
"Dr Nieman met him at your place on Saturday. He contacted the authorities right away. Father says it was his signature on the form ordering us to hand over Emil to the special hospital. They sent an ambulance for him. So Emil is gone, and we must follow."
"Berlin. The hospital is somewhere near Berlin. That is all we know. The men in the ambulance did not even know if we would be able to visit him."
"Will you let me know where you are in Berlin?"
Nina shook her head, still did not look at him. "It would not be right, Achilles. We will not see each other again."
Achilles, if not bright, was at least persistent. He eventually made the connection between his mother, Dr Nieman and the extradition of Emil. He floundered over the reasons behind the chain of events, not able to understand why his mother had arranged it all, but in time it would come to him. He was sure of it.
And in his own plain way he knew Nina had been right when she told him they would never see each other again. He sometimes fantasized about leaving Hannau and going to Berlin to find her, but he knew Berlin was a big city many times the size of Hannau, and if he left his mother who would keep her company? Who else would listen as patiently to tales of his dead father, so alive in his mother's imagination and so unimaginable in his own?
Many months later, when his memory of Nina was nothing more than a fading collection of sweet thoughts and adolescent passions, he realised what he missed most were Emil's dreams, dreams so real and so powerful they had been like a drug, and being no longer able to taste them left in him a longing he did not know how to satisfy.
And then, nearly a year after the Schaubs left Hannau, Achilles had the last dream he would ever experience, his own or anyone else's.
It was about Emil, his nature undisguised by another skin, cowering with others like him in the back of a truck. Achilles could hear the truck's engine racing, but it was going nowhere. It was dark, the only light coming from joins between the panels. There was a smell of darkness as well, a darkness deeper, greater, less forgiving than the mere absence of light. This other darkness spread slowly, wrapped itself around all the gentle, terrified minds, all the dreaming children, and snuffed them out one by one.
This story was originally published in
Eidolon: The Journal of Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy.
©1996 Simon Brown