-1000 Below: Flash Prose and Poetry Contest
Judged by Michael Martone
The castle wall rose into the sky, a stone facade in ruins whose windows showed an interior of blue air and clouds. The rooms of the old Schloss had crumbled away. The harsh rains that blow through Germany from the Atlantic had given way, on that summer day in Heidelberg, to pale sunshine. Standing with my husband in a crowd of tourists, I looked on in awe that monumental wall of windows, adorned by a battalion of mythological heroes along the roofline, their swords raised to battle the stars at night.
Eventually we drifted with a stream of people into the gardens overlooking the shining channel of the Neckar in the town far below. A black soldier walking ahead of us, built as only an American GI could be built, his shoulders as hefty as paving stones under his tank top, spoke in American-accented German to the blonde woman with him, his girlfriend or wife. I strained to hear his words, feeling a thread of connection to him, as displaced as me, the two of us the only dark-skinned people in a swarm of pale bodies. “People of color” we would have been called back in America. No German made such a big deal of Heidelberg, my husband Michael said, it was a university town turned into a destination by American guidebooks, because of the troops stationed nearby. He didn’t like the way I still consulted my Fodor’s after two years in the country, making him drive an hour to see the remnants of an unimportant castle. Germany became distorted, he thought, seen through naive American eyes.
We found an empty table on a stone patio tucked away on one side of the gardens and ordered beer. Did I ever tell you about my grandfather’s brother? I asked Michael. The one who came to Germany in the 1930s? After he got his engineering degree—in Berlin, I think—I said, trying to recollect what my grandfather had told me, he returned to India wearing a small moustache like Hitler’s, which was all the rage then. He spoke German, too, in the Punjab, not caring that no one understood him. Michael nodded cautiously, answering me with silence, as if he wondered what I was leading up to. My grandfather had told me the story about his long-dead brother on one of my rare visits back to India. I was his “American grandchild,” just as his brother had been the “‘German engineer.” I was a stone skipping across oceans, from India to America as a child, from America to Germany to marry, a girl with an almond-brown face and an American voice. My grandfather had thrown his hands up in the air and gesticulated wildly, remembering how his brother used to recite passages of Hitler’s speeches in thundering German, unable to shake off his memories of the “powerful orator” who’d held sway over a European nation, where he’d been a mere student from India.
The sky was wide and bright and hopeful that day, and I took Michael’s hand as we followed the cobbled walkways downhill, light-headed from drinking under the sun. I wanted him to try to feel what Indian men of my grandfather’s generation must have felt about themselves—that they were small and Europeans were grand, heroic in speech and strength. Usually when Michael and I went out for a walk, we took a trail through the city forest near our apartment building, the dark pines and chestnuts spreading their arms to make a grim cave of the woods. At one point, the path made its way around a gaping hole in the earth, a ragged pit left by a bomb dropped decades ago. A few houses that had stood along the forest were destroyed by bombs, an elderly neighbor once told me. What if Hitler never started anything? I sometimes asked Michael. Leaving the gardens now, I said, Hitler had threatened the British. Can you imagine how unbelievable that must have been for people in India? For my grandfather and his brother who’d been taught to idolize their rulers? Hitler was done with, the war was history, Michael said abruptly, cutting me off, as though I’d brought up my grandfather just to remind him of the past again—what was there to keep talking about?
His influence, I replied—do you think his ideas ended with him? I didn’t get into the wearying daily experience of living with brown skin in his country. He knew this, because I sometimes flung my anger at him over people’s refusal to look at me, to acknowledge me in a store or a bakery, as if I didn’t exist; or their impulse to answer me with a sneer, to reply gruffly to a simple question, or shout at me not to touch the cherries at a fruit stand which others were casually popping into their mouths to check their sweetness. Maybe bringing up Hitler was an accusation, a way to say people made me feel like nothing here.
We wandered into the castle gallery before heading home and I wondered under what influences an Argentinian painter, featured with a group of Berlin artists, created or dreamt. It was her painting I kept returning to, the mask of an ebony face contorted in pain and a hand held out, larger than the face, displaying its shattered lines like the roads of every unsettled person’s history.