"Just look at this," she said, opening the door to the little-used formal living room with its old-fashioned furniture. "He never dusts." And she picked up her cleaning rags.
"And, Kirsti," she added, "the God of Thunder made a very small rain shower in the corner of the kitchen floor. Keep an eye on him.'"
Late in the afternoon, Uncle Henrik came home. He grinned when he saw the newly cleaned and polished house, the double doors to the living room wide open, the rugs aired, and the windows washed.
"Henrik, you need a wife," Mama scolded him.
Uncle Henrik laughed and joined Mama on the steps near the kitchen door. "Why do I need a wife, when I have a sister?" he asked in his booming voice.
Mama sighed, but her eyes were twinkling. "And you need to stay home more often to take care of the house. This step is broken, and there is a leaking faucet in the kitchen. And—"
Henrik was grinning at her, shaking his head in mock dismay. "And there are mice in the attic, and my brown sweater has a big moth hole in the sleeve, and if I don't wash the windows soon—"
They laughed together.
"Anyway," Mama said, "I have opened every window, Henrik, to let the air in, and the sunlight. Thank goodness it is such a beautiful day."
"Tomorrow will be a day for fishing," Henrik said, his smile disappearing.
Annemarie, listening, recognized the odd phrase. Papa had said something like it on the telephone. "Is the weather good for fishing, Henrik?" Papa had asked. But what did it mean? Henrik went fishing every day, rain or shine. Denmark's fishermen didn't wait for sunny days to take their boats out and throw their nets into the sea. Annemarie, silent, sitting with Ellen under the apple tree, watched her uncle.
Mama looked at him. "The weather is right?" she asked.
Henrik nodded and looked at the sky. He smelled the air. "I will be going back to the boat tonight after supper. We will leave very early in the morning. I will stay on the boat all night."
Annemarie wondered what it would be like to be on a boat all night. To lie at anchor, hearing the sea slap against the sides. To see the stars from your place on the sea.
"You have prepared the living room?" Uncle Henrik asked suddenly.
Mama nodded. "It is cleaned, and I moved the furniture a bit to make room.
"And you saw the flowers," she added. "I hadn't thought of it, but the girls picked dried flowers from the meadow."
"Prepared the living room for what?" Annemarie asked. "Why did you move the furniture?"
Mama looked at Uncle Henrik. He had reached down for the kitten, scampering past, and now held it against his chest and scratched its chin gently. It arched its small back with pleasure.
"Well, girls," he said, "it is a sad event, but not too sad, really, because she was very, very old. There has been a death, and tonight your Great-aunt Birte will be resting in the living room, in her casket, before she is buried tomorrow. It is the old custom, you know, for the dead to rest at home, and their loved ones to be with them before burial."
Kirsti was listening with a fascinated look. "Right here?" she asked. "A dead person right here?"
Annemarie said nothing. She was confused. This was the first she had heard of a death in the family. No one had called Copenhagen to say that there had been a death. No one had seemed sad.
And—most puzzling of all—she had never heard the name before. Great-aunt Birte. Surely she would have known if she had a relative by that name. Kirsti might not; Kirsti was little and didn't pay attention to such things.
But Annemarie did. She had always been fascinated by her mother's stories of her own childhood. She remembered the names of all the cousins, the great-aunts, and -uncles: who had been a tease, who had been a grouch, who had been such a scold that her husband had finally moved away to a different house, though they continued to have dinner together every night. Such wonderful, interesting stories, filled with the colorful personalities of her mother's family.
And Annemarie was quite, quite certain, though she said nothing. There was no Great-aunt Birte. She didn't exist.
9. Why Are You Lying?
Annemarie went outside alone after supper. Through the open kitchen window she could hear Mama and Ellen talking as they washed the dishes, Kirsti, she knew, was busy on the floor, playing with the old dolls she had found upstairs, the dolls that had been Mama's once, long ago, The kitten had fled when she tried to dress it, and disappeared.
She wandered to the barn, where Uncle Henrik was milking Blossom. He was kneeling on the strawcovered floor beside the cow, his shoulder pressed against her heavy side, his strong tanned hands rhythmically urging her milk into the spotless bucket. The God of Thunder sat alertly poised nearby, watching.
Blossom looked up at Annemarie with big brown eyes, and moved her wrinkled mouth like an old woman adjusting false teeth.
Annemarie leaned against the ancient splintery wood of the barn wall and listened to the sharp rattling sound of the streams of milk as they hit the sides of the bucket. Uncle Henrik glanced over at her and smiled without pausing in the rhythm of milking. He didn't say anything.
Through the barn windows, the pinkish light of sunset fell in irregular shapes upon the stacked hay. Flecks of dust and straw floated there, in the light.
"Uncle Henrik," Annemarie said suddenly, her voice cold, "you are lying to me. You and Mama both."
His strong hands continued, deftly pressing like a pulse against the cow. The steady streams of milk still came. He looked at her again, his deep blue eyes kind and questioning. "You are angry," he said.
"Yes. Mama has never lied to me before. Never. But I know there is no Great-aunt Birte. Never once, in all the stories I've heard, in all the old pictures I've seen, has there been a Great-aunt Birte."
Uncle Henrik sighed. Blossom looked back at him, as if to say "Almost done," and, indeed, the streams of milk lessened and slowed.
He tugged at the cow gently but firmly, pulling down the last of the milk. The bucket was half full, frothy on the top. Finally he set it aside and washed the cow's udder with a clean damp cloth. Then he lifted the bucket to a shelf and covered it. He rubbed the cow's neck affectionately. At last he turned to Annemarie as he wiped his own hands with the cloth.
"How brave are you, little Annemarie?" he asked suddenly.
She was startled. And dismayed. It was a question she did not want to be asked. When she asked it of herself, she didn't like her own answer.
"Not very," she confessed, looking at the floor of the barn.
Tall Uncle Henrik knelt before her so that his face was level with hers. Behind him, Blossom lowered her head, grasped a mouthful of hay in her mouth, and drew it in with her tongue. The kitten cocked its head, waiting, still hoping for spilled milk.
"I think that is not true," Uncle Henrik said. "I think you are like your mama, and like your papa, and like me. Frightened, but determined, and if the time came to be brave, I am quite sure you would be very, very brave.
"But," he added, "it is much easier to be brave if you do not know everything. And so your mama does not know everything. Neither do I. We know only what we need to know.
"Do you understand what I am saying?" he asked, looking into her eyes.
Annemarie frowned. She wasn't sure. What did bravery mean? She had been very frightened the day—not long ago, though now it seemed far in the past—when the soldier had stopped her on the street and asked questions in his rough voice.
And she had not known everything then. She had not known that the Germans were going to take away the Jews. And so, when the soldier asked, looking at Ellen that day, "What is your friend's name?" she had been able to answer him, even though she was frightened. If she had known everything, it would not have been so easy to be brave.
She began to understand, just a little. "Yes," she said to Uncle Henrik, "I think I understand."
"You guessed correctly," he told her. "There is no Great-aunt Birte, and never has been. Your mama lied to you, and so did I.
"We did so," he explained, "to help you to be brave, because we love you. Will you forgive us for that?"
Annemarie nodded. She felt older, suddenly.
"And I am not going to tell you any more, not now, for the same reason. Do you understand?"
Annemarie nodded again. Suddenly there was a noise outside. Uncle Henrik's shoulders stiffened. He rose quickly, went to the window of the barn, stood in the shadows, and looked out. Then he turned back to Annemarie.
"It is the hearse," he said. "It is Great-aunt Birte, who never was." He smiled wryly. "So, my little friend, it is time for the night of mourning to begin. Are you ready?"
Annemarie took her uncle's hand and he led her from the barn.
The gleaming wooden casket rested on supports in the center of the living room and was surrounded by the fragile, papery flowers that Annemarie and Ellen had picked that afternoon. Lighted candles stood in holders on the table and cast a soft, flickering light. The hearse had gone, and the solemn-faced men who had carried the casket indoors had gone with it, after speaking quietly to Uncle Henrik.
Kirsti had gone to bed reluctantly, complaining that she wanted to stay up with the others, that she was grownup enough, that she had never before seen a dead person in a closed-up box, that it wasn't fair. But Mama had been firm, and finally Kirsti, sulking, had trudged upstairs with her dolls under one arm and the kitten under the other.
Ellen was silent, and had a sad expression. "I'm so sorry your Aunt Birte died," Annemarie heard her say to Mama, who smiled sadly and thanked her.
Annemarie had listened and said nothing. So now I, too, am lying, she thought, and to my very best friend. I could tell Ellen that it isn't true, that there is no Great-aunt Birte. I could take her aside and whisper the secret to her so that she wouldn't have to feel sad.
But she didn't. She understood that she was protecting Ellen the way her mother had protected her. Although she didn't understand what was happening, or why the casket was there—or who, in truth, was in it—she knew that it was better, safer, for Ellen to believe in Great-aunt Birte. So she said nothing.
Other people came as the night sky grew darker. A man and a woman, both of them dressed in dark clothing, the woman carrying a sleeping baby, appeared at the door, and Uncle Henrik gestured them inside. They nodded to Mama and to the girls. They went, following Uncle Henrik, to the living room and sat down quietly.
"Friends of Great-aunt Birte," Mama said quietly in response to Annemarie's questioning look. Annemarie knew that Mama was lying again, and she could see that Mama understood that she knew. They looked at each other for a long time and said nothing. In that moment, with that look, they became equals.
From the living room came the sound of a sleepy baby's brief wail. Annemarie glanced through the door and saw the woman open her blouse and begin to nurse the infant, who quieted.
Another man arrived: an old man, bearded. Quietly he went to the living room and sat down, saying nothing to the others, who only glanced at him. The young woman lifted her baby's blanket, covering its face and her own breast. The old man bent his head forward and closed his eyes, as if he were praying. His mouth moved silently, forming words that no one could hear.
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