Somebody yells quick, snap the bloody picture already, but she can’t understand anything apart from the word Foto, a word which scares her. She’s brave, she keeps still, her lips pursed, huddled together, her eyes staring into the black abyss of the lens. That’s how her mother told her to be — a statue. She’s only four. Her father’s night-time stories have grown darker lately, he’s been saying the camera steals a chunk of a person’s soul every time the shutter clicks, and she shudders, expecting to hear it any moment now. The man who holds her in his arms smiles at her benignly and the image is burnt onto film. In it, he looks down at her with almost holy benevolence, and she looks terrified of the little contraption a lot more than the Nazi officer holding her to his chest.
The picture is printed in two copies and the family is kindly awarded one of them, signed by the officer himself, with best wishes to the little one, who’s at least ten-millionth in the queue to the gas chamber. The Germans love her family. They’re not like rats, these people, not like this other kind they hunt for, stuff into trains and send down south. No, her family are more like squirrels. Both rodents, but squirrels are harmless, cute, hardworking. And most of all, no threat to the Lebensraum*, at least for now. So they are often gifted copies of the pictures the officers take with the ‘company clicker’, which is what her father calls their Kodak 35.
She’s born right at the brink of war. The occupation follows shortly, a red carpet of terror rolled out for the foreign newcomers. Local men are put to work, trenches are dug, and the big barn in which her father keeps all his crops is converted into headquarters for the area. For two years, he walks around grunting, paying the family no attention, making up blood-chilling stories at night. Her mother feeds the working men in secret when the sun stands high. Then at night, she prays, her knees thudding as she kneels onto the floor, not loud enough to wake the slumbering god she gropes for in the dark. The next day, she feeds the men at lunch again.
The girl’s older siblings are all too old, which makes the old brown mongrel blind in one eye, Brownie, her closest relative. She’s the wagging tail of the family, honest and lonely, separated from the rest of the warm body, betraying it. At the beginning of the occupation, the girl and the dog both react similarly to the guests, barking and howling every time an officer comes into view. This is how she grows up — raised by a dog, uninformed, her heart always on her sleeve. Whenever she’s grabbed by an officer in passing, she bites, and they love it, this lack of meekness, this single, truthful face she has, scornful and harsh like an Eastern winter.
When she teaches herself to walk, the men scoffing soup behind the barn clap quietly, cheer, someone wipes their eye. When she says her first proper word, it’s in German, and it’s hallo. Her mother puts in some effort she can’t spare after that, scared of her daughter’s little mouth shaping herself in foreign ways, so she sits the child down every day, labouring her words so much that the time seems to stop. It is during that immeasurable time her mother tells her to stop biting the Germans while slapping her butt, and she learns. They prod and tease, but she stands still and solemn as before, only now her hostility drained away by the motherly device of a clip on the ears.
Towards the end of the occupation, a greyed eyelid closes on Brownie’s milky pupil of a canine prophet. Her father cries, kneeling by the corpse, and the officers flock around him, lured out of the barn by the sobs. Before he knows it, a grave is dug and the body is lowered into the muddy hole. The officers hum a mournful melody which disturbs the family — witnessing humanity they didn’t expect pooling in the men’s diaphragms, trickling up into their lungs and throats and escaping through mouths like steam on a cold morning.
The next day, a new dog is produced out of nowhere, a lovely little puppy of pure race, and the officers call him Brownie, too. He’s a creamy, almost sand-coloured specimen. The father walks away, cursing the officers’ lack of skill in the language they so passionately occupy year after year.
The new dog doesn’t bark whenever he sees them, which worries the family, especially during feeding time, when the men with hungry eyes stuff their mouths behind the barn, waving forks away, instead using their dusty, thin fingers.
One day, just like they came, the officer pack up to leave. The mother prays on her knees all day, scared that the whole family might get cylindrical parting gifts of steel embedded in their skulls, but the men abandon the land without hurting anyone. In fact, they call the father into the barn one last time, sit him down and pour out a little vodka for everyone present. He comes back into the house holding the camera.
‘They thought we might enjoy snapping,’ he says.
‘Yes, but only their necks,’ the mother whispers, looking back at the door, paranoid.
Two days later, the whole family gathers and the little one, the one of no importance, is asked to press the button on the camera, prearranged on top of the kitchen table. In the portrait, everyone smiles brightly, alive and full of hope. Their souls appear intact, and so she begins to tame the camera, overcome with curiosity. She most likes to turn the aperture up and down while looking into the rangefinder to make the world melt into a colourful stain.
It’s barely a week before someone bangs on the door in the middle of the night. A group of men with wild eyes and dirty uniforms tell them in Russian they have been informed that the farm used to house German headquarters. They’d like those shown.
Her father’s heard the rumours, so he offers no reply. Instead, he lights his lamp and takes them to the empty barn, neat and lifeless again. They drop their belongings and settle down for the night, shooing him away.
Brownie barks all night and all morning, even when the family start busying themselves around the backyard as usual, apprehensive about the newcomers. The girl’s mother is shelling white beans, her father is raking, and her siblings run around on mute after being spanked with the rake’s handle and told to shut up. She’s perched on the front steps, twiddling with the camera, ridiculed by the older children. They all glance towards the barn and occasionally, her father threatens the dog and waves the rake around to get him to quiet down.
When the men finally emerge in the mid-morning hours, Brownie’s barking becomes maddened. One of the men strolls towards his fenced keep almost immediately. He pulls out a gun and shoots the howling dog and the silence steals into gaping mouths, metallic like bullets and blood, and the man’s companions laugh and pat him on the back as he walks away and merges with the group again. They’re here to stay, this pointless death like a crimson stamp on their indefinite visas. Away with the old occupation, in with the new.
The girl runs across the backyard and the man points the gun back up, squinting.
‘Bang,’ he says and shrugs, looking at her family, frozen, wide-eyed. ‘Relax. I’m only joking. Very bad at this distance anyway.’
They bury the dog after dark in fear of being shot. The girl takes a picture of the family by the light of the gas lamp, all kneeling around the hole dug right by the first one. Her father’s fingertips are white from the paint he uses to make a cross on a rock he’ll put over the grave. Her mother’s knees look twice as old as the rest of her body, wrinkled and dry from the kneeling.
The picture doesn’t come out all that well, the grain almost physical over the image. She runs her finger over the smooth paper again and again, hoping she can wipe the sand away from it somehow, even though she knows it’s burnt in forever.
‘Noise,’ her father says when he sees the developed results. The figures in the photo are like marble statues, white, unmoving, surrounded by the night’s enormous shadow, their lips slightly open, forming words of curse or prayer, there’s no way of knowing.
‘Yes,’ she replies. ‘So much noise.’