Fiction Historical Fiction

I settled back contentedly in my deck chair in the shade of the umbrella. The children capered about, chasing a lurking seagull which was eyeing the picnic basket.

“Oma, can we go in the water?” said Hannah.

“Ask your Mutti,” I said. “It is up to her.”

“She’s a mom, not a Mutti,” said Bobby, giggling. “That’s a funny word. Mootie, mootie, pootie!”

Hannah, with all the wisdom of her ten years, rolled her eyes at her little brother.

“You are so stupid, Bobby,” she said. “Just a silly baby.”

“Am not,” he said, on the verge of tears. “Aren’t I not, Oma?”

My daughter Lotte appeared at that moment in her bathing suit.

“Bobby, Oma grew up in another country called Germany where the word for Mom is Mutti and the word for Grandma is Oma. Now stop squabbling. Race you to the water!” They scampered off as fast as their stocky little legs could carry them.

I watched Lotte trot down to the water behind them. Shading my eyes against the sun, I saw their figures against the glittering waves, yelling in delight at the shock of the cold water, splashing each other and their mother.

“Oma, Oma, come on in!”

“Later, maybe,” I said, waving at them. “Oma’s tired. I might have a little nap.”

They snorted derisively at the idea that anyone would volunteer for a nap, waved back and resumed their antics.

Lulled by the sound of the waves, half-dozing, childhood memories surfaced. I knew how Bobby felt. I was ten the summer my lordly cousin Dieter and I went to our Oma’s farm. He was sixteen and had just joined the Hitler Youth. His self-esteem was boundless. He never deigned to notice me unless he was tormenting me. I loved the farm, especially the big, patient draft horses, and it was the proudest moment of my young life when I could name a new-born foal. Felix was the name I chose. I wrote an essay about Felix that autumn when I went back to school, illustrated with little glossy, crinkly-edged, black and white photographs. My cranky old teacher marked it down because my paragraphs were uneven. I didn’t know we had so many cranky old teachers because the young ones had been called up to the war. I thought only grumpy, old people wanted to be teachers. I still have that notebook somewhere.

    We were outside one hot summer afternoon, watching the harvest being cut. The horses waited patiently, tails swishing as the hay was loaded into the wagons. Dieter was chasing me with a bug. Much as I loved the farm, I was a city kid who hated insects. I was trying not to give him the satisfaction of crying when we suddenly heard a droning noise in the sky.

    “It must be a bee,” I said.

    “No, stupid,” said Dieter. “It’s planes. Look.” He pointed up over the distant woods beyond the hay field. A tiny dot appeared in the sky, followed by another. They looked like Dieter’s little toy planes. Everyone had stopped what they were doing and was staring up at the sky. The thrill of seeing the planes drained away as I noticed the adults’ grim faces. I ran to Oma and pressed against her, clutching her skirt. Dieter watched, entranced.

The droning rose and fell as they looped and dipped, vanishing and reappearing behind the clouds. It reminded me of the coin tricks the magician played at Dieter’s birthday party. Suddenly there was a sharp tapping noise, like a gigantic woodpecker pecking on a tree trunk or a demented drummer beating a rhythm. The droning turned to raspy, stuttering coughing. The planes tangled close together for a few seconds, then one began to plunge downwards with a high-pitched screech, smoke belching behind it. A moment later, there was an earth shuddering thump and a thick pall of black smoke plumed upwards from behind the trees. The acrid smell of burning fuel drifted towards us. The remaining plane lazily climbed higher and flew off overhead. The black and white cross on its side was clearly visible.

“That’s one of ours,” said Dieter, leaping around and shaking his fist in joy. “We can beat those English any day!” He waved at the receding plane.

One or two of the workers grinned, but hastily straightened their faces as Oma grabbed Dieter fiercely by the ear. He yelped in pain, scarlet with embarrassment. Everyone gaped. Oma was renowned for never losing her patience or her temper.

“That pilot was some poor woman’s son, perhaps someone’s husband or someone’s father. The only sure thing about war is suffering. His death is not a circus for you to cheer.”

She looked directly at the workers. They dropped their gaze and returned to work.

“Finish the work, please. There will be no more talk of this.”

She turned around, towing me by the hand and prodded a reluctant and humiliated Dieter in front of her to the house.

“One day I will be a pilot too,” he muttered, too softly for Oma to hear, glancing back longingly.

I gasped in fright as I heard the droning of a plane above. A cold, wet hand clutched my arm. It couldn’t be Dieter. He was shot down over the North Sea two days before his twenty first birthday. I jerked upright in the deck chair, my heart hammering, and shook myself free. I found myself staring into Bobby’s shocked face.

     “Oma, what’s wrong? I just wanted to show you the plane. Why are you mad? Look!”

He pointed upwards. A small plane was flying by low over the water, towing a banner advertising a local hotel. He still looked scared. Hannah and Lotte were staring at me in alarm.

     “I am so sorry, sweetheart,” I said, pulling his little, wet, sandy body close for a hug. “I just had a bad dream and woke up too suddenly. I did not mean to scare you.”

     “That’s okay, Oma,” he said magnanimously, wriggling out of my grasp. “I have bad dreams too sometimes. Can we eat now?”

      “Are you feeling better?” Lotte said, as she began to unpack the picnic. I watched the plane, and my memories, recede into the distance.

      “Yes,” I said. “I am fine now.”

February 11, 2021 21:29

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