by Emma Venables
I carry you and find myself fretting over your lightness despite myself. I dodge the rubble, the jagged pipes, the lazing road sign in need of a firm hand to pull it to attention. Your finger curls about mine as if you know what’s about to happen. A milk bubble forms at your mouth. You wrinkle your nose, blink. You have my dark hair, my rosy cheeks, my penchant for fighting sleep, but I can’t say which parts of you come from him. I can’t say if you have his eyes because I didn’t get to look into them: it happened in darkness; my face caressed only by the cellar wall. I can tell you all about his pulse – quick, so quick I worried – no, I hoped – his heart might force itself out of his chest and find its way to the floor; that his veins might convulse and split. I can also say that he was strong, unrelenting. I put up a fight; he zipped up his trousers with hands that were bleeding and his bruised cheeks greeted his superiors in the morning, of that I’m certain.
You yawn. I find myself smiling, but I look away. I watch a boy with skinned knees gripping his grandfather’s hand as he limps along, watch the nurses sharing a cigarette, their uniforms blood-flecked, admire the patent shoes of a woman walking down the hospital steps – you can get anything on Berlin’s black market these days.
I have imagined this moment: setting you down on the ground, turning away, but I failed to imagine the people – the casualties and their healers, the visitors. You mewl, you’re just weeks old but your Oma says you will talk the hindlegs off a horse when you grow up. I wonder what your voice will sound like. I wonder whether your ears will prick up when you hear Russian spoken nearby, whether you will you feel a heaviness in your tongue, a need to form words you have never spoken before.
One of the nurses smiles at me. I tuck the blanket tighter around you, feign maternal instinct, maternal want. I eye up the spot where I’m going to lay you down. There’s a slight crack down the centre of the slab – war damage, no doubt – but you won’t feel it through the many layers I’ve wrapped you in. I don’t want whoever finds you to think that you weren’t loved in some way, however confusing and fleeting that love might have been.
You stretch your arms, scrunch up your face. I move you so your head rests on my shoulder. We’ve only been together for a short time but I know you like to take in your surroundings – broken windowpanes, burnt-out cars, abandoned tanks. I’m not sure how developed your eyesight is yet, whether you’ll remember Berlin as she was when you howled your way into her. Perhaps you’ll see the photographs and they’ll remind you. The occupiers like to take their snapshots, to send them back home and show their families how broken we all are here in Germany. But I can’t see any photographers around now and for that I’m thankful – neither of us will want to remember this moment, will we?
The nurse, the one who smiled at us moments ago, walks over. She strokes your cheek with her index finger. I hear my heartbeat as if it were projecting through a loudspeaker. She rests a hand on my arm, asks if you’re alright, asks if I’m alright. Her face has that gray pallor that comes with the end of a long shift and the thought of an empty bed. I nod, step away from her. We’re fine, I say. Just out walking. She smiles, resists asking me why my stroll has brought me here, to the hospital entrance. Perhaps she knows. Perhaps she is fluent in the body language and facial expressions of a mother about to abandon her newborn.
Thank you for your concern, I say. I spot a bench, nod in an additional gesture of gratitude at the nurse and walk towards it. We’ll sit here until the time comes. I watch the nurse go back inside and then I look at you. You’ve fallen asleep. That’s probably for the best. I’ll ease you from me so softly it’ll be like I never held you, or at least that’s what I’m telling myself now. When I get home your Oma will cry, will collect her coat and threaten to collect you. But you’re mine to give away, to leave behind, not hers to gather up and mold into a new start. I know you’ll always remind me of bomb-blasts and brick-dust, of defeat, of helplessness, of him.
The grounds have emptied now. I stand and carry you towards the building once more. You slumber still; your mouth moves as if suckling an imaginary breast. I locate the cracked slab I’ve earmarked as your temporary cradle. I crouch, kiss your forehead before I place you on the ground. I straighten up, watch your hands furl into fists above the blanket. I step back.
Eins. Zwei. Drei.
I wipe my face. I’m not sure if I’m crying from sadness or relief, or perhaps a combination of both, of everything. I put my hands in the pockets of my coat, grip the material there for want of something to hold. I turn away, almost bump into a woman who can’t be much older than I am. My nerves begin to stammer. I pinch my thighs through my coat. Could I pretend I have just walked out of the hospital, just spotted you lying there? But then I notice the baby in her arms, the look on her face. I walk away, keep my eyes on the pockmarked path ahead.