The Diplomat's Wife, by Jenoff, Pam
- ISBN: 9780778325123 | 0778325121
- Cover: Paperback
- Copyright: 5/1/2008
A sharp pain shoots through my right side. It is not over. Sound comes back next in tiny waves: rats scratching inside the walls, water dripping beyond my reach. My head begins to throb against the icy concrete.
No, not dead. Not yet, but soon. I can take no more. In my mind I see the guard standing above me, an iron bar raised high above his head. My stomach twists. Did I talk? No, a voice within me replies. You said nothing. You did well. The voice is male. Alek, or Jacob perhaps. Of course, it could be neither. Alek is dead, captured and shot by the Gestapo. Jacob might be gone, too, if he and Emma did not make it across the border.
Emma. I can still see her face as she stood above me on the railway bridge. Her lips were cool on my cheek as she bent to kiss me goodbye. "God bless you, Marta." Too weak to reply, I nodded, then watched as she ran to the far end of the bridge, disappearing into the darkness.
After she was gone, I looked down at the bridge. Beneath me a dark red stain seeped into the snow, growing even as I watched. Blood, I realized. My blood. Or maybe his. The Kommandant's body lay motionless just a few meters away. His face looked peaceful, almost innocent, and for a moment I could understand how Emma might have cared for him.
But I had not; I killed him.
My side began to burn white-hot where the bullet from the Kommandant's gun had entered. In the distance, the sirens grew louder. For a moment, I regretted telling Emma to leave, rejecting her offer to help me escape. But I would have only slowed her down and we both would have been caught. This way she had a chance. Alek would have been proud of me. Jacob, too. For a moment I imagined that Jacob was standing over me, his brown hair lifted by the breeze. "Thank you," he mouthed. Then he, too, was gone.
The Gestapo came then and I lay with my eyes closed, willing death to come quickly. For a moment, when they realized that I had shot the Kommandant, it seemed certain that they would kill me right there. But then one pointed out that bullets were scarce and not to be wasted, and another that I would be wanted for questioning. So instead I was lifted from the bridge. "She'll wish we had killed her here," one said as they threw me roughly into the back of a truck.
Remembering his words now, I shiver. Most days he is right. That was some months ago. Or even years; time here blends together, endless days of loneliness, starvation and pain. The solitude is the hardest part. I have not seen another prisoner the whole time I have been here. Sometimes I lie close to the wall, thinking that I hear voices or breathing in the next cell. "Hello?" I whisper, pressing my head against the crack where the wall meets the floor. But there is never any response.
When the footsteps in the corridor do come at last, I am always filled with dread. Is it the kitchen boy, who stares at me with dark, hollow eyes as he sets down the tray of moldy bread and brown water? Or is it one of them? The torture sessions come in sudden, unpredictable bursts, none for days or weeks, then several in rapid succession. They ask the same questions over again as they beat me: Who were you working for? Who ordered you to shoot Kommandant Rich-walder? Give us the names and we'll stop, they promise. But I have not spoken and they do not stop, not until I have passed out. Once or twice they have revived me and begun again. Most times, like today, I wake up back in my cell, alone.
Yet despite everything, I have said nothing. I have done well. I smile inwardly at this. Then my satisfaction disappears. I thought, almost hoped, that this last beating would mean the end. But I am alive, and so they will surely come again. I begin to tremble. Each time is worse than the last. I cannot take any more. I must be dead before they come.
Another sharp pain shoots through my side. The Nazis operated on me shortly after I arrived at the prison, removing the bullet. At the time, I didn't understand why they would try to save me. Of course, that was before the interrogations began. The pain grows worse and I begin to sweat. Suddenly, the room grows colder and I slip from consciousness once more.
Sometime later, I awaken. The smell of my own waste hangs heavy in the air. In the distance, I hear a low, unfamiliar rumbling sound. Through my eyelids I sense light. How much time has passed? I raise my hands to my face. My right eye is sealed shut by a fresh, round welt. I rub my left eye, brushing away the thick crust that has formed in the outside corner. Blinking, I look around the cell. The room is blurry, as everything has been since they confiscated my glasses upon arrival. I can make out a pale beam of daylight that has found its way in through the tiny, lone window by the ceiling, illuminating a small puddle on the floor. My parched throat aches. If only I could make it to the water. But I am still too weak to move.
The rumbling sound stops. I hear footsteps on the floor above, then on the stairwell. The guards are coming. I close my eye again as the key turns in the lock. The cell door opens and I can hear low male voices talking. I force myself to remain still, to not tremble or give any indication that I am awake. The footsteps grow louder as they cross the room. I brace myself, waiting for the rough grasp and blows that will surely come. But the men pause in the middle of the room, still talking. They seem to be having a disagreement of some sort. They aren't speaking German, I realize suddenly. I strain to listen. " too sick," one of the voices says. The language is not Russian or Slavic at all. English! My heart leaps.
"She must go." I open my eye quickly.Two men in dark green uniforms stand in my cell. Are they British? American? I squint, trying without success to make out the flag on their sleeves. Have we been liberated?
The shorter man has his back to me. Over his shoulder, I can see a second man, pointing toward the door. "She must go," he repeats, his voice angry. The shorter man shakes his head.
I have to get their attention. I try to sit up, but the pain is too much. I take a deep breath and cough, then raise my arm slightly. The man who had been pointing looks in my direction. "See?" he calls over his shoulder as he races toward me. The other man does not reply, but shakes his head and walks out of the cell.
The soldier kneels beside me. "Hello."
I open my mouth to respond, but only a low gurgling sound comes out. "Shh." He puts a finger to his lips. I nod slightly, feeling my cheeks redden. He reaches out to touch my arm. I jerk away. For so long, human contact has only meant pain. "It's okay," he says softly. He points to the flag on his sleeve. "American. It's okay." He reaches out again, more slowly this time, and I force myself not to flinch as he lifts my arm, pressing his large, callused fingers against my wrist. I had nearly forgotten that a person could touch so gently. He feels for my pulse, then brings his other hand to my forehead. His brow furrows. He begins to speak quickly in English, his blue eyes darting back and forth. I shake my head slightly. I do not understand. He stops mid-sentence, a faint blush appearing in his pale cheeks. "Sorry."
He pulls a metal bottle from his waistband and opens it, pouring some liquid into the cap. Then he takes one hand and places it behind my neck. I allow myself to relax against the warmth of his touch. His sleeve gives off an earthy scent that stirs a childhood memory, pine needles on the forest ground. He lifts my head slightly, cradling it as one might an infant's, bringing the cap to my lips. "Drink." I swallow the water he pours into my mouth. It has a salty, slightly metallic taste, but I do not care. I drink all that is in the first cap and a second, too.
As I drink, I study his face. He is no more than a few years older than me, twenty-three or twenty-four at most. His dark hair is very short on the sides but wavy on top. Though his expression is serious now, the crinkles at the corners of his eyes make me think he has smiled a lot. He looks kind. And handsome. I am suddenly aware of my soiled prison dress and matted curls, caked thick with dirt and blood.
I take one last sip. Then, exhausted from the effort, I go limp as he gently lowers my head to the floor. Don't, I want to say, as he slides his hand out from under my neck. His touch is familiar now, comforting. Instead I smile, trying to convey my gratitude. He nods, his eyes wide and sad. I can feel him wondering how I have come to be here, who would do this to me. He starts to stand. Panicking, I struggle to reach up and grab his hand.
"It's okay." He kneels beside me once more, gesturing toward the door of the cell with his head. "Doctor." He means to bring me help. I relax slightly, still clinging to him. "It's okay," he repeats slowly, squeezing my hand. "You will go." Go. My eyes start to burn. The nightmare is over. It is almost too much to believe. A single tear rolls hot down my cheek. He reaches out to brush it away.
He clears his throat, then touches his chest with his free hand. "Paul."
Paul. I stare up at him, repeating his name in my mind. I do not know if I can speak. But I need for him to know my name, too. I swallow, then take a deep breath. "M-Marta," I manage to say. Then, overwhelmed by the effort and all that has happened, I collapse into darkness once more.
"Awake now, are we?" A woman's voice, brisk and unfamiliar, cuts through the darkness. Have the Germans returned? I inhale sharply. Something is different. The air is no longer thick with waste, but with smells of rubbing alcohol and fresh paint. Gone are the sounds of the rats and dripping water, too. They have been replaced by gentle rustling, voices talking softly.
Snapping my eyes open, I am stunned to discover that I am no longer in my cell, but in a large room with bright yellow walls. Where am I? A woman stands by the foot of the bed. Though her face is blurry, I can see that she is wearing a white dress and cap. She comes up beside me and touches my forehead. "How are you feeling?" I swallow uncertainly. There is still pain in my side, but it is duller now, like a toothache. "My name is Dava. Do you know where you are?" She is not speaking Polish, but I understand what she is saying. Yiddish, I realize. I have not heard it since leaving the ghetto. But Yiddish is so close to German, and the woman speaks it with some sort of an accent. Perhaps this is just another Nazi trick to get me to talk. The woman, seeming to notice my distress, quickly answers her own question. "You are in a camp run by the Allies for displaced persons, just outside Salzburg."
Camp. Salzburg. My mind races. "Nazis ?" I manage to say. My throat aches as much from saying the word as from the effort of speaking.
"Gone. Hitler killed himself and what was left of the German army surrendered. The war in Europe is over." She sounds so sure, so unafraid. I relax slightly, letting her words sink in as she reaches above my head to a window and adjusts the curtains to block some of the sunlight that is streaming through. Don't, I want to say. I have lived in darkness for so long. "There, that's better." I look up at her. Though her full figure gives her a matronly appearance, I can tell by her face that she is not more than thirty. A lock of brown hair peeks out from beneath her cap.
Dava pours water from a blue pitcher into a glass on the low table beside my bed. I start to sit up, but she presses against my shoulder with her free hand. "Wait." She takes a pillow from the empty bed beside mine and, lifting me up slightly, places it atop the one already beneath my head. I notice then that I am wearing a hospital gown made of coarse, light-blue cotton. "Your body has been through a great deal. You need to move slowly." I lift my head as Dava brings the glass to my lips. "Slowly," she repeats. I take a small sip. "That's good, Marta." I look up, wondering how she knows my name. "It was written on your forehead when they brought you in," she explains. Then, noticing my surprise, she adds, "The soldiers who are liberating the camps often write things, names or conditions directly on the patients. They either don't have paper or they're afraid the information would be lost on the way in."
I take another sip, then lay my head down on the pillow once more.
Suddenly I remember the soldier helping me drink on the prison floor. "How did I get here?"
Dava replaces the glass on the table. "The Americans found you in the Nazi prison when they liberated Dachau, just outside Munich. We're just two hours south, not far from the German border, so many of the liberated are brought here. You've been unconscious since they brought you in more than a week ago. Your wound was infected and you had a very high fever. We weren't sure if you were going to pull through. But you're awake now, and the fever is gone." Dava looks over her shoulder across the room, then turns back to me. "You rest for a few minutes. I'm going to let the doctor know you're awake."
As she walks away, I lift my head again. Although my vision is blurry, I can make out two rows of narrow, evenly spaced beds running along the walls of the long, rectangular room. Mine is in the farthest corner, pressed against a wall on one side. All of the beds seem to be filled, except the one beside me. Several women dressed in white move briskly between them.
Dava returns a few minutes later carrying a tray, an older man with thick glasses in tow. He picks up my wrist with one hand and touches my forehead. Then he lifts the blanket and reaches for the corner of my gown. Surprised, I recoil.
Dava sets down the tray on the empty bed behind her and steps forward. "He just needs to examine the wound to make sure it is healing properly." I relax slightly and let the doctor lift my gown, trying not to feel his cold, unfamiliar hands as they press on my stomach. Then he pulls the gown back farther, revealing the wound. I am surprised to see fresh stitches along the incision line. "They had to operate again when you first arrived here," Dava explains. "There was a piece of bullet still inside you and you had developed an infection." I nod. In prison I often wondered why my side still ached so long after the Nazis operated on me. Now, not long after the second surgery, it already feels much better.
The doctor replaces my gown and turns to Dava, speaking to her in German too brisk and accented for me to comprehend. Then he hurries away. "He said you're healing really well. And that you should try to eat something. Are you hungry?" Before I can answer, Dava picks up a bowl from the tray behind her. "Soup," she announces brightly. I sit up slowly and this time she does not stop me, but brings the bowl close under my chin. A rich aroma wafts upward. Nausea rises in me and a cold sweats break out on my forehead. Noticing, Dava sets the bowl down on the table and picks up a cup and saucer from the tray. "Let's just start with some tea."
I swallow, my stomach calmer now. "I can hold it."
Dava hands me the cup and I take a sip. The liquid is lukewarm and soothing to my throat. Cradling the cup in both hands, I look upward. The ceiling is high and decorated with a pattern of some sort. I squint to try to make it out.
"This used to be a formal dining room," Dava explains. "The whole camp is housed on the grounds of Schloss Leopoldskron, which was one of the Hapsburg palaces. The Nazis confiscated it from its previous owners, and we took it from them. The palace is very beautiful, as are the grounds. I'll give you a tour when you are well enough."
"Thank you." I take another sip of tea.
Dava points upward. "If you look there, you can see the Baroque influence. The detail is really quite extraordinary."
"I can't " I begin, then hesitate. "That is, I can't see it."
"What do you mean?" Dava's voice is heavy with concern. "Did the Nazis do something? A blow to the head, perhaps? Or did you fall?"
I shake my head. "Nothing like that," I reply quickly, though of course they had struck me in the head many times. "It's just that I am very nearsighted. And my glasses were confiscated when I was arrested."
Excerpted from The Diplomat's Wife by Pam Jenoff
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