Writing Exercise №26

A Scene from “Rocketman”

Mass Bomber Raid on Cologne by W. Krogman • WikiMedia

Someone was shaking me, calling to me through the fog of dreams. No, I protested. Please, no… It was becoming harder to slip into a sound sleep; though life continued, the comfortable normalcy of it had begun to crumble and fall away, like the dead, dry skin of a snake.

Marlieeeeen, it hissed.

I awoke, startled, mother pressing firmly on my arm and calling my name softly, but urgently. Her voice had an edge to it that I had learned to recognize. It was worry, fear, exhaustion, and all of the other emotions she kept deep within herself. I didn’t understand then, but I would come to learn that she did this to protect us. As I grew older, I fought the disdain that threatened to creep upon this golden-hued memory of my mother, a disdain that whispered, she did it because she was weak and afraid. She kept silent because he would never listen.

“Marlien, aufwachen. Marlien, wach jetzt auf!

I rubbed my eyes, straining against the darkness to see the pale outline of her cheek.

Ja, mother. What is — ”

“Me must go to the shelter. The Allies are coming. They are bombing us.”

They are bombing us. The words took on more significance in later years, when I began to wonder why the Allies would bomb us. Mother’s hometown was in Michigan, after all. Didn’t they know we were them?

As a child in that terrible moment, however, the act of bombing was an abstract; mother may as well have told me the moon was falling to the earth. I knew only that it was ominous, but my imagination could not swallow within its naïve circumference the totality of what it meant to be bombed.

“Come,” she said, tugging me from the covers. “I have your shoes here. Your father and sister are waiting.”

The room was utterly dark, save for a tiny orange flame in the lamp my mother had set upon the nightstand. It was turned low, and the glass was wrapped in black crêpe so that only the feeblest of light peeped through. I fumbled for my shoes, which mother had placed at my feet, and slipped them on, my heavy fingers tying slow, sleepy knots. I was dimly aware that I was still dressed, and thankful for it; the act of dressing in this dreamy darkness would have been too much.

“Come,” mother said again, more firmly this time.

“Mother, can I — ”

Nein. We have no time.”

She took me by the hand and guided us into the hallway, the dull lamp scarcely illuminating the tall baseboards at our feet. Father stood at the doorway, feigning impatience, though I could see in his eye a familiar glint, the kind I’d seen in older boys who were about to do something dangerous and thrilling. He handed my baby sister to mother; she was little more than a swaddled lump, breathing peacefully, wholly unaware of the celestial event about to unfold upon us.

Through the heavy blackout curtains, I could hear distant rumbling, and over it, the unmistakable low drone of airplanes.

Mother turned out the lamp and placed it on a table near the door, and we slipped out onto the dark landing, then down the three flights of stairs to the main lobby. We spoke not a word to one another; our quiet, restrained fleeing reminded me of a quartet of mice creeping across a vast, open floor to the safety of a distant mouse hole.

Father and sister preceded us, so I remember the bobbing of his head, naked in the dim night. He forgot his hat, I thought, absurdly. How strange it was that a family should be together in these circumstances, that we should consider ourselves fortunate as we left the warmth of our beds, maybe for the last time. At least we are together, was a common refrain. There were many who lost loved ones in the bombings, or received tragic news from the front. At least we are together, I repeated to myself, as we hurried from our building into the relative brightness of the street. Mother and father are here, and we are together. That means everything will be fine.

I was not afraid, not even when the droning of the airplanes forced us to shout, nor when the flak cannons erupted, lighting up the sky with traceries of flame and ear-splitting fireworks. I would have been, had I not seen the glint in my father’s eye as he beheld this terrible spectacle. What I saw there was a kind of elation, one reserved for a man who is truly alive and incapable of fearing death.

Isn’t this spectacular? he seemed to say, as he danced, in my mind’s eye, towards the air raid shelter in the alley behind our apartment. Isn’t this something? Look! Just look at this!

And it was something.

If it weren’t for him, the noise alone would have reduced me to tears. If father isn’t afraid, then neither am I. If only mother had had my childish sense of invulnerability; then, it would have been easier for her, too.

This is but a small piece of my lifelong daily writing practice (Day 124). It is also an exercise in which I work on a potential scene from a novel about my grandmother’s childhood experiences in World War II Germany. If you enjoyed this, you may also like some of my other writing.

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