Fiction: Caroline Woods

Caroline has taught fiction writing and freshman composition at Boston University and the Boston Conservatory. Her short fiction has been published in Slice Magazine (which nominated her for a Pushcart Prize), LEMON, and 236. She has also received two Glimmer Train honorable mentions. As a teenager Caroline published a book of ghost stories, Haunted Delaware (Infinity 2000), which received praise as a self-publishing success story in The Village Voice, Writer’s Digest, and other publications. Her debut novel, Fraulein M., is forthcoming from Tyrus Books in 2017.

an excerpt from Fraulein M.

Chapter One

Berni, 1923

At St. Luisa’s Home for Girls in western Berlin, birthdays were observed, not celebrated. Berni’s eighth, which fell in the winter of 1923, came and went with neither singing nor candles on a wooden Geburtstagskranz. Instead, the sisters burned money.

“They treat us like livestock,” Berni hissed into her little sister’s good ear that morning at breakfast. They were eating dry slices of Vollkornbrot with nothing to improve its taste: no meat, no butter, no jam. “Kannst du mich hören?” This was Grete’s least favorite question, but Berni could never help asking.

Grete, who was five, tugged a lock of blond hair over her left ear. It was smooth and pink as a shell, with fewer grooves in it than in other ears. “I can hear you,” she muttered with a glance at the sisters’ table. “You needn’t speak so loudly.”

Berni took a bite of bread and wrinkled her nose, tasting a distinctive tinge of fish. On Friday mornings, the stink of pickled herring seeped into everything in the refectory: the girls’ hair, their bread, their thin gray dirndls. Having served breakfast, the cook and her staff peeled open tins of Voelker’s fillets to prepare a meatless dinner of herring salad. The one aroma that could cut through the fishy air was the comforting smoke from burning pine logs. But that winter the stack of firewood in the circular rack had dwindled.

“If we had parents,” Berni said, mouth full, “we’d be eating jam, cookies, tea—”

“Hush,” whispered Konstanz, who sat on Berni’s left. “I have a father, and he always said children need nothing more than potatoes to survive.”

“I am sure he didn’t serve you frozen milk.” Berni tilted her cup and glared at the sisters, who ate knackwurst and drank coffee at an elevated table, their faces hidden by the lily petals of their cornettes. They didn’t seem even to notice that today, for the first time, there was no fire at all. For firewood you needed money, and the sisters’ money, it seemed, was no longer any good.

Each Friday the firewood man arrived just after morning prayers, when the girls had their hands folded in their laps, their eyes active. Sister Maria Eberhardt, the reverend mother, waited for him beside the back door of the refectory with an envelope of cash.

Over the course of the winter, the envelope had grown larger and larger. On the first of the new year, Sister Maria paid him with a box full of money. Then a basket. Berni had heard the term “inflation,” but she didn’t understand what it meant or why it happened. She didn’t yet know that panic and hysteria were driving Berliners to vice, to risk. Her world was still small; what she knew was the slap of a bleach-dipped rag against the bathroom floor, the chill of chapel marble under her knees. From history class, she knew there had been a Kaiser and now a democracy, but as a Catholic—a minority in Berlin—she should not forget the pope sat above everyone else.

She had asked Sister Josephine, her favorite, about inflation one afternoon after mathematics. “Oh, child.” Sister Josephine spun Berni around, pulling her braids into long, dark ribbons of hair. “We have been trying to repay England and France since the end of the war.”

“Then why does there seem to be more money floating around, piles and piles of it?”

“Because there’s a man in an office cranking a printing press, trying to make enough to repay the Frogs. You must quit this nasty habit of chewing the ends of your plaits, Bernadette. You look like a wild orphan.”

If anyone else had said this, Berni would have balked. The word “orphan” was taboo among the girls. They were daughters of St. Luisa. They were Lulus.

Konstanz gave Berni a jab, and Berni looked down to see a yellow cardboard cone in her lap. Both of them watched the sisters eat as Konstanz passed it to Berni under the table.

The cone was a Schultüte, the gift parents gave their children on the first day of school. As Berni’s greedy fingers dug inside, her eyes drifted over the long tables and benches, settling on Hannelore Haas, an eight-year-old who’d arrived the day before. Her eyes were swollen from crying. As had been happening to families more and more frequently, Hannelore’s parents had been unable to support all their children, and so they left their eldest here. Giving her the cone was almost cruel, Berni thought; it suggested this place was just like any other school, though as soon as Hannelore saw it she must have recognized it for what it was.

Of course, the other girls had immediately seized Hannelore’s parents’ parting gift. Nobody was allowed to think she was special just because her parents were alive. Emboldened by Sister Maria’s absence from breakfast, they’d been passing it from table to table. By the time it reached Berni, the toys and school supplies and most of the wrapped candies were gone. She dug out a chocolate-covered nut, then glanced once more toward the sisters before popping it into her mouth. When she looked up, Hannelore’s glazed eyes were fixed on her.

“Don’t,” Grete murmured, but Berni bit into the chocolate, and her eyelids fell shut. The flavor, a bit bitter, stung the sides of her mouth and set her molars buzzing. The nut crunched into a sweet, oily paste. She could see the flavors, somehow, painted on her closed lids: magenta and yellow and aquamarine. When she opened her eyes to the whitewashed brick walls, the bare bulbs dangling from the ceiling, the gray of the girls’ uniforms and black cluster of nuns, she almost couldn’t believe this dull vision was the real world.

“Try one.” She pressed the cone toward Grete. “They aren’t paying attention,” she added with a nod toward the sisters’ table.

Grete shook her head, her blue eyes wide with fear.

“You have to. The chocolate, it’s—it’s a carnival. It’s May Day and Christmas together.”

Again Grete refused, and Berni pinched her lightly on the arm. If they were caught with Hannelore’s Schultüte, they both knew Berni would be in trouble, not Grete. The sisters scarcely noticed Grete. Sometimes it seemed even to Berni that her sister had been crafted from less substantial stuff than she was, that God’s brush had a little less paint on it when he made Grete, his clay mixed with a little more water. She was pale and petite, with weak hearing; there was nothing weak about Berni. The sisters said she must have had a bit of gypsy in her, with her dark coloring, her big feet and hands, her restless energy. All the proof Berni and Grete had that they were related were the shallow clefts in their chins, and their name. They were called Metzger, not Kirchhof or Ostertag, names the sisters gave to foundlings. Later, Berni promised, when they left St. Luisa’s, they would find other Metzgers. It would mean something.

“Fine,” Berni whispered when Grete refused again. “More for me.” The girls on the other side of Grete groaned.

“Ruhe bitte!” The refectory door swung wide, slamming the opposite wall.

Chairs shifted and spines straightened. Berni pressed the cone against her leg, willing it to disappear.

The reverend mother stood in the doorway with a wheelbarrow. A woman thick of neck and skull, Sister Maria taught six years of Latin to every child who came through St. Luisa’s. As she passed, Berni strained to peek inside her wheelbarrow and saw that it was stuffed with crisp new money. Sister Odi leapt from her table to waddle behind Sister Maria, picking up bills that had fluttered to the floor. When Sister Maria reached the back door, she stood and put her hands to the base of her long spine, straightening it in a series of cracks. Berni waited, holding her breath, for the firewood man to knock on the door. It did not take long.

“Come in,” Sister Maria said, standing impassive beside her wheelbarrow.

Berni had expected him to gasp at the sight of all that money, but he merely looked exhausted. Sister Maria had turned the wheelbarrow around so he could grasp the handles.

“This’ll buy you one log.” He cringed a little, inspecting her face, awaiting censure.

“He said they can afford only one log!” Berni said into Grete’s left ear. Grete nodded and swatted her away.

Sister Maria rose another few centimeters, her forehead level with the firewood man’s. According to rumor, she had been everything from a boatswain’s daughter to a lady wrestler in a traveling circus before taking the vows of the Order. The man shrank in her presence; the hand that held out the one dry log shook.

“We agreed on the price just last night,” she said, her voice firm.

“The price has already changed.” He scratched the back of his neck. “Most likely it has changed as we stand here. Nothing I can do about it.”

“These are children, mein Herr. They will freeze to death without a fire.”

“You know how things are, Sister. Madness.”

Berni could feel every girl in the room watching Sister Maria, waiting to see what would happen, eyes blinking in unison like those of a giant spider. “Keep your log,” Sister Maria said after a long pause. “God bless you in this difficult time.”

The man handed Sister Maria a few slivers of kindling without a word. After he had gone, Sister Maria stared at the kindling and the pile of cash. “Sister Odi,” she barked. “Take all of this and put it in the fire.”

“All of . . .” Sister Odi said, sputtering a bit. “You don’t mean . . .”

“Yes, this,” Sister Maria said, flicking her hand over the wheelbarrow. “It won’t do us any good as money. We might as well use it to light the kindling.”

Sister Odi reached into the pile of money and looked at it as though she wasn’t quite sure what it was. Gingerly she tucked a handful into the fireplace. Then she lit a match. Berni hovered a few inches above her bench to watch the bills curl and crumble, licked by the flames. A few banknotes skirted across the floor, lifted by a draft.

“What a shame,” Berni whispered. “They have so much money they can burn it. They might as well have given some to me, to us.”

The side of her vision went black. Berni turned to see Sister Maria looming, draping the girl across the table in the deep folds of her double sleeves. The scents of incense and lemon soap wafted from the fabric. “You should not be in awe of money, girls,” said Sister Maria, her gray-green eyes fixed on Berni’s.

Behind her the phrase Iudicate egeno, et pupillo, the guiding verse of the Order of St. Luisa, was painted on the wall in Bavarian script. The sisters translated it as “Defend the poor and fatherless.” Berni knew iudicate could mean “defend,” but it could also mean “judge.” Sister Maria insisted the two were interchangeable.

“Remember,” said Sister Maria, “where your treasure is . . .” She held out her hand.

“Where your treasure is,” Berni said, completing the scripture, “there will your heart be also.” She handed the Schultüte to Sister Maria. Across the room, Hannelore yelped.

*

Later, in the dormitory, when Berni opened her pockets, Grete was horrified to see the bills crumpled up inside. “Oh, Berni, how could you? You’re already in trouble!”

Berni unfolded one pale pink banknote, holding it taught between her fists. “Look at this, Margarete. Eine. Million. Mark.

Grete’s eyes widened. “But where would you spend it?”

Berni let Grete trace the scalloped patterns on the money with her fingertips, then stashed it all in her pillowcase. It would only upset Grete if she told her she longed to use the money to take her to a real ear doctor. Sister Lioba, who worked in the infirmary and performed annual hearing tests using tuning forks and whispers, knew nothing.

Grete said, lip trembling, “They’ll never choose you for the academy if you misbehave.”

“Ach!” Berni shrugged, pretending not to have thought of this. Every year the sisters chose a handful of teenage girls to attend a private Catholic academy in Wedding, run by Ursuline nuns. It was the girls’ only chance, besides finding a husband, at a better life. “I have years until then, to become a model child.”

After the lights in the dormitory went out, the girls slid under Berni’s quilt, leaving Grete’s bed empty. Grete put her face in the crook of Berni’s neck. “Tell me a story.”

For years they’d slept beside each other, even though the sisters liked to arrange girls by age. They’d come to St. Luisa’s when Berni was four and Grete two, after their mother died and they could no longer stay at her cottage in Zehlendorf. Berni remembered the smells of her mother’s home best: cedar chests opened in winter, nutmeg shaved over hot milk. As a baby, blond Grete also had a milky scent, and a fear of thunderstorms; as soon as she could toddle, she’d climb from her trundle into Berni’s carved wooden bed.

At times, Berni could not help feeling that her real life was a kind of river she was always running alongside, searching for a place to leap back into the water and be carried along by the current, back to her mother, Trudi. It was Trudi’s elder sister, a spinster whose name Berni would no longer utter, who had dumped them at St. Luisa’s. She’d come to live with them when Trudi fell ill with pneumonia and saw her through her death. The aunt stank of something briny and woke late every morning without feeding the girls. The last time they’d seen her, she’d been crying in the reverend mother’s office, hanky to her nose, saying she couldn’t do it anymore.

“Are you certain, Berni?” Grete asked once, chewing a fingernail. “That wasn’t our mother who gave us to the sisters, after our father died. Was it?”

“Hush! Mother can hear you in heaven.” Of course it hadn’t been their mother. Berni could vividly remember the first time she’d seen St. Luisa’s. It sat on a bleak corner in otherwise affluent Charlottenburg, gray as a prison, with rows of too-small windows. The trim, painted strenuous red, gave the building a stressed, weeping face, and Berni had known instantly they were in trouble. She’d given their aunt a good kick in the shin.

“Tell me a happy story,” Grete whispered now. Under the bedcovers her feet tickled Berni’s shins, her toenails poking through her holey socks.

“Once upon a time there were two sisters, Snow White and Rose Red. Schneeweißchen preferred the hearth and home; Rosenrot played outside and gathered berries for their mother.”

“No,” Grete said. “One about our mother.”

“Ahem. Once upon a time, in Zehlendorf, there lived a young woman who raised squab in a shaded dovecote in her backyard. She had two little girls who slept in the attic under the eaves: Bernadette and Margarete, one tall and raven-haired, one fair and small.”

“How did the dovecote smell?”

“It smelled foul, and so the mother planted wildflowers all around it.” Berni had recited the story so often she could see discarded feathers on grass. “One day, a magician came to the house. The young mother held baby Grete against her side and took Bernadette by the hand. ‘Choose the whitest birds you can find, my sweet, the ones with the most magic,’ she told Bernadette. The magician took them away with a sweep of his cape.”

“She was a kind mother.”

“Very kind,” Berni said. She did not have to recite the next part of the story, the one they knew best. Their mother had been very kind to introduce them to the magician; she did it to hide the real reason she raised their beloved doves, which was for meat.

*

So much money. Berni dreamt about it, woke up licking her lips. She felt it crunch between her fingers, under the sheets.

She didn’t tell Grete what she intended to do until Thursday evening, when Sister Maria marched out on her weekly mission to feed the poor and Berni’s accomplice, Konstanz, met them in the dormitory. “Sister’ll be out until eight, at least,” Konstanz announced. She had wide green eyes and a willowy build, more fairy than child. “You aren’t going to tell, are you, Grete?”

Grete had both hands over her ears, the corner of a blanket in her mouth. Berni knelt down, close to her face. “Nothing bad will happen. She has so much money she can burn it.” She couldn’t explain her need to possess something, anything, even if it did turn out to be worthless.

“Why must you always put us in danger?” Grete tilted her watery eyes toward the ceiling and sighed. “Every night I wish the next day will be quiet, every night . . .”

Before long, Berni was pulling Grete down the quiet corridor. Konstanz led the way, grabbing corners as the girls slid through the halls. At last they reached the east wing, where they tiptoed past the wooden doors to the sisters’ rooms. Berni put her arm around Grete, whose face had turned the color of bathwater, as Konstanz worked a hairpin into the lock. When finally the handle gave, Berni entered the room quickly and lifted the shade. Gray evening light illuminated the cot, the desk, the heavy crucifix. Sister’s laundry was folded atop her sheet.

“I don’t know why, but”—Konstanz’s eyes widened—“I never would have imagined they wore underwear.” Some of the bloomers were even faded pink, large and dainty at once. On a rough wooden table sat a teapot and tiny mug. Berni opened the pot to peek at the stiffened tea bag inside. She ran her finger over the edge of the cup to feel the greasy print of the sister’s lip.

“Let’s go,” Grete whispered. Berni pretended she hadn’t heard.

“Look at this.” Konstanz threw off a radio’s cover. It looked like a large wooden jewelry box with black dials. “It’s a TRF set. My father had one.” She began to adjust the reactor.

“Come, Grete.” Berni picked up the desk chair by the rungs. “You need to be closer to the sound.” Grete glared at her, face deep red, as she took her seat.

When a song burst out of the radio, they all leapt back. “Turn it down, turn it down!” Berni cried. She yanked Grete’s hands from her ears, trying to get her to smile.

“And now,” a voice announced when the music faded, “Frieda Pommer and Max Zuchmayer singing their popular duet, ‘If I Could Choose Again.’”

A lively tune began: horns, strings, accordion. Konstanz leapt into the middle of the room, landing soundlessly as a cat, and curtsied; she would be Frieda Pommer. She put one hand on her hip and glided her mouth over the words as if she’d heard them all her life:

A skinny man approached me to see if I’d be his bride.

A poor man with a good heart said that heart was free, but lied.

I’d gladly dance with either, but I’m already obliged

To a portly chap in uniform who has something to hide.

Berni was enthralled. The lyrics did not make her think of politics, only of men and marriage, of dancing and wine. She and Konstanz kept their shrieks silent and clapped without sound. Konstanz twirled and goose-stepped, and when Max began to sing, Berni stood.

She could not have said where the idea came from. If she had known how Grete would react, or what would come after, she never would have done it. She wasn’t even sure how or when she’d learned what made men different from girls, but she snatched a rolled-up stocking off Sister Maria’s bed and stuffed it into her underpants.

Konstanz put her hands over her eyes, giggling. Then Frieda looped back to the chorus, and Konstanz threw back her head. She and Berni linked arms, and Berni thrust her little crotch this way and that, hands on her hips like a Prussian soldier, the sock forming a bulge under her skirt. She had tears streaking her cheeks, her tongue pumping silently in her mouth.

Round and round she and Konstanz went, in dizzying circles—the dull Spartan room a blur, the only color the shockingly intimate laundry on the bed and the bright yellow of Grete’s hair, until—

The radio’s volume shot sky-high, blasting Frieda Pommer’s voice throughout the building.

Berni whirled around. Grete’s sticky fingers held one of the dials, and her mouth was pressed shut. She stared past Berni, at nothing. Berni had completely forgotten her as she danced. Konstanz cried out.

Berni tore the stocking from under her skirt and whipped it at the bed, then slapped Grete’s hand away and shut the darn thing off. Too late; she could hear the sisters’ doors opening, could hear their alarmed voices.

“If you wanted me to stop,” Berni murmured, “you could have just said so.” But Grete wouldn’t answer or meet Berni’s eyes, not even when Sister Odi burst triumphantly into the room.