by T.F. Grognon
“We must train people who will devote the whole of their lives, not only their spare evenings, to the revolution.” – Lenin, 1900
1934: Maidens in the woods
Crammed in the back of a baker’s truck, Berit bounced and jolted against sacks of flour and seven comrades she’d only met that afternoon. It smarted slightly less to knock into a person.
She asked the driver to drop her off at the back entrance to the college. This saved him some time, but she wasn’t motivated entirely by courtesy. She longed to be back in the fresh air, alone, able to savor fully the exhilaration and exhaustion cascading through her.
She leapt off the running board – landing right in a slushy puddle – and did not break stride, scrambling up the incline with a grab at a low branch and a painful plant of her left knee in the loose muddy gravel. She savored the pain, added it to the day’s collection. Her palms were blistered from carrying the protest sign (and then, later, from wielding it as a defensive weapon in their escape from the scabs); she’d lost the heel of her right shoe soon after the parade began; her ankle was twisted, her hair flyaway, her eyes stung. This was how she was supposed to feel, this was what she was meant for. Scraped raw, stinging, wholly alive.
She made her way through the woods toward Miss McCabe’s cottage. She dearly wished that Miss McCabe could have attended the march with their brave little group. No one had a stronger voice, a steelier backbone, than Miss McCabe.
All the same, Berit considered the march a great success. There were more sympathetic attendees than anyone had expected and they made it nearly all the way to City Hall before the scabs, Pinkertons, and constables had broken them up. Even that assault was a positive thing. The ferocity of nightsticks, the vulgar cruelty of taunts, everything terrible and reactionary demonstrated just how powerful the message was. It was being heard, and it was formidable.
The world was about to change. They were so close, she could practically see the revolution in the wisps of fog snaking between the birches and oaks.
Any day now.
As she made her way through the woods, Berit shivered, rubbing her bare arms, smiling widely enough to make her cheeks ache. She was not cold, exactly, though the night was chilly. She felt superheated inside, a bright ember moving unnoticed through the dark world.
She had passed her jacket to a wounded comrade, an older woman who’d been tripped and trampled in the rush to escape. Her own shirt had been torn right down the middle and she clutched the pieces to her chest, shame and pain bowing her back. Berit would have given her more, anything, to see her straighten up and lift her chin, before rejoining the march. They linked arms, Berit’s jacket strained across the woman’s midsection, and raised their signs as one.
That sort of solidarity, easy as breathing, prevalent as sunshine, defined the day. Never mind the beatings, the narrow escapes, the lost shoes and turned ankles: Berit could not stop smiling any more than she could have stopped her own heart beating.
She felt she could do anything. Returning alone from the city, well after curfew, was a paltry accomplishment compared to what she was capable of.
She had not always been quite so brave, nor nearly so confident.
When she’d begun at Haskell College, not even two years ago yet, Berit had been a slow-moving, slower-witted thing, barely able to utter her own name above a whisper. She’d trailed through the dormitory halls, gaze cast down at the scuffed toes of her dowdy shoes, and if anyone bothered to greet her, she’d startled like a moose and froze. She’d spent hours on the third floor of the library, or in the basement of the Science and Mathematics Hall, bent over her books, despairing of ever seeing any sense in the words and formulae blurring before her.
Once she arrived on campus, she hoped that somehow her ankles would be suddenly slim, her voice mellifluous. She would read lyric poetry with gusto and know how to wear the most stylish frocks.
Once she arrived, she kept dreaming. She had to, as no changes appeared to be forthcoming. She left herself behind to follow the laughing girls who tramped past her window, picnic hamper swinging between them, their hair blowing wild across their petal-pink cheeks. Everyone seemed to move about in devoted couples or loud quartets, clutching hands, shouting names, always on the go, always up for more delight. They were light-footed and slim, willowy, never uncertain, whether in Latin class or shouting across the quad after chapel.
She longed to be among them. At the same time, she was convinced that she would never be.
On the walls of her dormitory parlor, where tea was served with professors every Tuesday, photographs in heavy gilt frames were hung. They memorialized the girls of the house down through the years; among the house portraits, which were generally too crowded to study, there hung pictures of girls who had achieved campus-wide recognition: cum laude scholars, nurses who’d died in the Great War, Winter Ball hostesses, and, Berit’s favourite series by far, May Queens and their courtiers.
The May Queen’s gown changed with the fashions of the times, from powder-pigeon swollen curves to severe, unadorned Grecian pleats, but it was always white, blindingly so, even in the dark corners of the parlor. She was crowned in the mid-morning of each May Day after a secret council of campus leaders; she was the loveliest, the kindest, the most graceful and popular girl in her year. Her courtiers, also draped in white, smiled bravely, but as runners-up, their disappointment was nearly palpable.
She passed most of the teas like this, studying the girls’ faces, tracing out the lines and shadows, faults on the negatives and blurs of hands. Should anyone approach her, she reasoned, she had plenty of conversational material right at hand.
(She need not have worried. Well into October of her first term, her house mother still did not know her name or recognize her face. When Berit arrived home after curfew, her Practical Zoology class having blown out a tire on the way back from the marshes, the house mother refused to let her in until Berit produced her mailbox key as proof of her residency. Despite her pink flannel wrapper, cold cream swirled over her face and neck, Mrs. Livingston presented an intimidating figure. Berit almost wished she’d decided to sleep on the porch swing instead.)
Berit could not have articulated what drew her to these pictures in particular. Perhaps if she had been the poetess she longed to be, a neurasthenic beauty subsisting on hot tea and internal scansion, she could have identified the pull. The May Courts brought a touch of the pagan, old and timeless superstitions around sowing and renewal, into this decidedly modern and debased world. Virgins in white, dancing ’round an upthrust pole, tethering it to them with glinting ribbons: the entire set-piece was heathen, dangerous, completely enthralling.
Or so Sibs said, warmly, against Berit’s ear: “They’re tying down the phallus, you know. Restraining its tumescence.”
Aloïse Sibley Moore – her given name came crowned with the diaeresis, and woe to any who omitted it – had only spoken to Berit once before. That had been back on Frosh Day, when all the new girls descended on Haskell like flocks of chirping, preening birds. Berit was dragging her trunk up the stairs to the fourth floor of their house, thump-thump-whack against the steps and the wall, when she backed into something immobile but soft.
“You can hire a porter,” the girl said. “At the train station, they’re practically begging to help.”
Berit twisted around, unable to see clearly while maintaining her grip on the trunk. All she could make out was a general impression, like the watercolor sketches in Harper’s Bazaar of honey-colored hair, tanned skin, a tennis racket.
“They were all engaged. It wasn’t far.”
The girl exhaled noisily, impatiently. “Aren’t you the picture of a New Woman?”
Berit saluted, then grabbed for the handle as the trunk started to slip away. The girl laughed, not unkindly, and slipped between Berit and the wall of the stairwell. “Careful, or someone might think you need help.”
I do, Berit nearly said. The words formed in her mouth, around her tongue, but the girl had gone.
Now, having heard her say the word phallus, seeing her grin cheekily, Berit was again dumbstruck.
Miss Moore slipped her arm through Berit’s and indicated the May Court again. “It’s true. It’s all in Jessie Weston’s magnum opus. Simply everything can be traced back to fertility rituals.”
Berit tried to cough discreetly. Miss Moore smelled like tea roses.
“Sex,” Miss Moore whispered dramatically. “I’m talking about sex.”
Some seniors near them twittered, but Berit could not look away.
“It’s more fun to do,” Berit said, “than to talk about.”
Moore’s laughter pealed out, unrestrained and loud. She hugged Berit closer. “Oh, I like you. I like you very much.”
Despite the stories that circulated later – because of course they did; Haskell was a tiny, vicious community that thrived like Mina Harker on the blood of its own – Berit was neither the amiable gudgeon of Sibs’ erotically-channelled boredom, nor the rough-handed farm girl wrestling illicit pleasure off the debutante.
When Sibs slipped into her narrow bed, clammy after a brisk walk in the wintry rain, Berit knew not only what she wanted to do with Sibs, but how. She was no cloddish virgin, and if Sibs had, on balance, kissed more pairs of lips than she, the difference was not altogether remarkable.
At Haskell and its sister schools, there were several categories for relationships. A smash could develop into something called true-blue, or fizzle out like a firecracker; if it persisted, the true-blue soon found itself to be a marriage.
There were, so far as Berit and Sibs were concerned, no adequate terms for what they felt. This had to be much, much more than a marriage; there was no passion like theirs in any marriage they had seen.
Everything was possible. The world was theirs.
They planned to take a flat together after graduation, in Boston or New York, London or (depending on the European situation) Paris. Perhaps it would be Baltimore, if Berit put off graduate study and took a permanent position at the Aberdeen Proving Ground.
They discussed visiting Russia. One of Sibs’ cousins still had contacts with AMTORG, and Miss McCabe, of course, knew any number of journalists and visiting dignitaries. Sibs could visit the Hermitage, textile design workshops, poets’ collectives, and Berit could consult with aviation and artillery experts as well as the academic mathematicians.
For her birthday, Sibs gave Berit a slide rule, eighteen inches long and heavy as a book, accurate to three decimal points. It required a magnifying glass to make out the notations. It was, to be perfectly honest, the most beautiful thing Berit had ever seen. The world was unruly and violent, unjust and full of despair, but it could be understood, with patience and generosity and ingenuity. The slide rule, like Sibs’ sleepy laugh and the sight of dawn fog rising off Lake Minnetonka, was proof enough of that. Beauty came in small, easily-missed packages, but once noticed, it erupted, expanded, shone through the whole world.
Berit was never going to be a poet. As much as she longed to, she was incapable of describing what moved her, of communicating it, capturing it, passing it on. Sibs was both the beauty and the seer for both of them.
For the first time, however, Berit did not resent her shortcomings, let alone feel them as keenly as mangled limbs or open veins. She found herself, somehow, at peace within the mad whirl of courtship and flirtation, confession and escalation, as content with herself as she was exhilarated by Sibs.
Nothing, however, lasted forever. As Berit grew more serious about politics, enrolling in reading groups and serving on relief committees and taking on work for Miss McCabe, Sibs became, in a word, disenchanted. Restless, resentful, embittered.
They had not spoken since Easter.
Her brother Gould was also home for the holiday from law school and Sibs had taken on his derisive attitude as easily as others might breathe. Gould had cornered Berit one morning in the pantry, blocking her escape with his arm, to lecture her about “pernicious influences” and “romanticism” clouding his dear sister’s future.
“No one wants to marry a Communist, is that it?” she had asked. “No one important, that is.”
He dropped his arm and shooed her out. “Run along.”
“It’s been a gas!” Sibs said on the train up to Haskell from Manhattan. “But don’t pretend for a second any of it means anything.”
“I disagree,” Berit tried to say. “We can make a difference. We have to–”
“You’re very dear.” Sibs patted Berit’s knee and laughed again.
What had been a gas? She probably meant “playing the revolutionary”, as Gould had called it, but she might as well have meant their entire friendship.
She was almost to the cottage now.
On the path ahead of her, just at the bend, the May Queen flickered into sight. For a moment, she glowed, a vision of white and gold like a shaft of morning light through the dark.
“Berit Apeland.” She pronounced the names as everyone out East insisted on doing, as if Berit were an attraction at a zoo. The Hall of Insects, Owl Hollow, Bear-It Ape Land.
“Aloïse Sibley Moore,” Berit replied. “Good evening.”
“You’re out late.”
“I might say the same.” Her voice sounded guttural and strange in her ears. “Can I –? What do you want?”
Sibs tilted her head and spread her arms slightly, lifting her gown, displaying the folds and expanses of organza. “Is that any way to address a queen?”
“Royalty is only good for one thing–”
“Testing the guillotine’s blade, I know,” Sibs finished for her. “Or, I suppose, target practice for the revolution.”
The gown whispered like running water as Sibs moved closer. She was, of course, lovely, but now that Berit could see more clearly, she also looked half-under, fairly zozzled. Her face and neck were blotchy and flushed, her eyes sleepy, her smile loose as old elastic.
“You should lie down,” Berit said. “Get inside.”
Sibs mimed holding a tommy gun and sprayed the area with imaginary bullets. “Bang! Bang! Rat-a-tat-tat, aristos!”
“You must be freezing–” Berit tried to take her arm but Sibs shook her off.
“You have to listen to me,” Sibs said.
“I’m the May Queen.”
“Congratulations on that.”
Sibs frowned. “I looked for you all over! Nowhere to be found.”
“I’m watching Miss McCabe’s for the week.”
Sibs pushed Berit’s shoulder. “I looked there, why do you think I’m here?”
She looked just about ready to fall over. Berit pictured it, the collapse of meringue and cream, crashing to the muddy path, littered with pine needles and daisy stalks. Berit took her by the elbow and pulled her close.
“Come inside,” she said and Sibs sagged against her side. “I was in the city. It’s May Day.”
“I know it’s…. Oh.” She looked up at Berit, lips parted, eyes wide. “Oh, I see.”
“Indeed,” Berit replied.
They made their way slowly to the cottage, trying to walk in tandem but stumbling over roots and ruts in the mud, and the hem of the gown.
She should not care about the state of that gown. It was an obscene expense, particularly these days, and a symbol of a terribly reactionary and useless ritual. Nonetheless, it pained her to see the rips in the skirt and mud splatter. Something so fine, so elegant, was not long for this world.
Sibs sagged against the hitching post while she unlocked the front door. Berit was fully cognizant of the potential for irony, thank you very much. She did not mean the dress to symbolize Sibs herself; such a substitution was itself reactionary, allowing an inert luxury item to stand for a living, breathing woman. A woman who was currently living and breathing right against her, arms snaking around Berit’s waist, head tipping onto her shoulder.
“Hi,” Sibs said.
“Careful,” Berit said, helping her over the doorstep and, finally, inside.
The door banged shut behind her as Sibs slid away, whirling, only to hook her arms around Berit’s neck and push her back. Her breath was hot, her lips sticky, on the chilled skin of Berit’s throat.
Her skin, everywhere, had been tightening and warming from the first sight of Sibs. She had no way to control that; her body was, in this matter, heedless and greedy. If it could, it would have wrapped itself around Sibs immediately, adhered to her, squeezed her so tightly so as to sink in.
“Please,” Sibs was muttering against Berit’s mouth. “Please, I’m the queen, I –”
“You get everything you want,” Berit said. “I know the custom.”
“No, no, no, I give whatever you want.” Sibs tipped back her head, her mussed hair falling back in soft waves. “I can’t take anything, I have to grant wishes.”
The pressure of Sibs’ body dizzied Berit. She was warm and vital, a little sweaty, breathless. Her breasts, loose under the silk, flattened and shifted against Berit’s own.
“I see,” Berit said. She swallowed, then swallowed again. She knew that she ought to say something else, but she could not exactly understand what. Words were rocks, rough and heavy, sinking away fast.
Sibs kissed her then, hand on the back of Berit’s neck, fingernails digging in. Berit kissed her back, leaning into it, her heavy hands coming to rest on Sibs’ hips. She clutched at the gown’s material, crumpled it in her fists, tugged it up.
Not long for this world. Made for touching, for feeling.
Sibs laughed into her mouth, wiggling a little, getting (impossibly, and yet) closer. Her nails raked up Berit’s scalp. “I can give you anything,” she whispered. “Please, darling.”
“I know.” Berit tried to catch her breath. She released her grip on the gown and squeezed shut her eyes, trying to think clearly, even for a moment. “Believe me, I –”
She remembered Miss McCabe’s regret when Berit told her that she and Sibs were no longer friendly. Such a shame, Miss McCabe had said. Her family is very well-placed, you know. So many connections.
Sibs was kissing her neck now, up on tiptoes, pulling Berit down. Her other hand roved up and down Berit’s side, brushing her breast, lingering over her waist. Berit had never wanted anything more than she wanted to give Sibs everything. It was the first, the most important thing, that she had ever excelled at. The difficulty, to put it mildly, had come when Sibs stopped wanting what Berit could give her. She was a measly offering, to be sure. The surprise lay in just how long it took Sibs to realize that.
But now she was back. Not for long, Berit knew, and certainly not wholly, but back all the same.
Sibs backed up, pulling Berit away from the door, deeper into the small front room until she hit the arm of the chesterfield and fell back. Spilled out like that, a tangle of glowing silver and rosy skin, laughing, she had never been more beautiful. Berit started to fall forward, intending to catch herself before completely smothering Sibs. But Sibs sat up, meeting her halfway and twining her arms around Berit’s waist.
Their kiss deepened, throbbing in time with Berit’s pulse, accelerating. Sibs twisted and pulled until they were half-splayed across the couch on their sides, knees on floor. She was laughing, or whispering, but Berit’s lips were burning, her head swimming, and she could only fight to keep up. Not make sense, only touch and taste, clutch and quiver. One of Sibs’ breasts pushed against her palm, the nipple hard under silk, and Berit cupped the weight of it, squeezed, before slipping her hand under the gown and feeling the hot, sweaty skin beneath the breast.
Maybe Sibs murmured victoriously, or with relief: whatever she said, she repeated it, higher, breathier, when Berit pinched that nipple, then buried her face between Sibs’ breasts. Her mouth open, flattened against skin and silk, she wanted nothing more than to enfold herself in this.
Sibs wiggled a hand between Berit’s legs, plucked at her garter, let the snaps open and sting. Berit opened just as willingly, just as fast. She yanked up her skirt with her free hand, pushing up to Sibs’ touch, loath to stop touching, break contact, lose anything. They squirmed, grunting, until Sibs lay atop her, hand cupping Berit, and Berit held her tight, kissing her again, running her hand up under the back of the May Queen gown until she could hold Sibs by the hips, then the buttocks.
“Hi,” Sibs said, blinking down at her, her lips swollen and hair awry.
Berit smiled at her, thrusting up — against Sibs’ fingers, into her hold on Sibs’ buttocks — and pulling down, until they were kissing again. They rocked together, tangled in half-undone clothes, awkward and halting. Berit pushed against the heel of Sibs’ hand, onto her slim fingers, digging her own hands into the cleft of Sibs’ ass. Her hips twitched back and forth, side to side, even as they canted up.
Her desire went deeper, more irresistible, until her jaw was cracking open and one leg was wrapped around Sibs. She wanted to draw Sibs inside, swallow her whole, crush her tight. But she also wanted to fly free, rub herself out in sparks and spatters, against Sibs’ touch. Just tear like organza, rip herself apart, flap in the wind, spin out past pleasure.
She was sobbing as she came, grunting hoarsely, on Sibs’ hand, in her hold. She smelled tea roses and salt and heard little past the surf-clamor of her pulse. Sibs was calling her darling, kissing her eyelids, shimmying her hand free from the prison-grip of Berit’s thighs.
Berit crumpled down, slid bumping to the floor, pulled Sibs with her. Drops of her sweat freckled the crushed silk, smeared it dark, as she pushed the gown up to Sibs’ waist, then higher. Sibs settled back on her elbows, smiling lazily, her legs falling open easy as a book. The dark curls at her crotch were plastered to her white skin already; the wetness caught the light, the scent rose unmistakably, and Berit’s mouth watered.
“Well?” Sibs asked, laughing.
“You can only give,” Berit reminded her.
“Sod that,” Sibs said, running her bare foot up Berit’s side, reigniting all the warmth and aches that had only just begun to fade. She knocked her knee against Berit’s head, gently at first, then more insistently. “Please, darling, it hurts, you have no idea.”
“I do,” Berit said. Her tongue flicked out to taste the wet curls, the smears and shines of juice. She ran it down the length of Sibs’ labia, sucking them whole into her mouth, then parted them with her tongue, drove it against the yearning hole.
Sibs moaned. Music and whimpers, a tantrum banked and elevated into an aria. She rubbed herself against Berit’s still face, moistened her from forehead to chin, until Berit caught her clit and sucked the shaft down. Sibs swelled in her mouth, her moans breaking like porcelain into sharp, dangerous notes. If she’d wanted, Berit only had to hold still, tongue out, and Sibs would eventually reach her peak. She was ravenous, anxious to be devoured, everything red and hot and wet and delicious.
But Berit was not still. She couldn’t be, not with Sibs clutching at her skull, open for her mouth, her pubic bone bouncing painfully against the bridge of Berit’s nose. She came, and came again, and again, because Sibs was perfect and rich and got everything she wanted in countless multiples. Three ponies, seventeen gowns, forty pairs of shoes, pleasure unending.
She was, however, limp and pliant even as she was still gasping and peaking, when Berit helped her turn over, spread her buttocks again, licked the length of her cleft. Sibs had her own hand between her legs now, her mouth on a throw pillow, her ass in Berit’s face. Berit mimicked her, touching herself anew; she was still sensitive, but the pain cut through into pleasure, frenzied and erratic.
Her final peak came, lasting longer than any other, shudders coursing the length of her body. She bucked against Berit, then rolled away, naked and gasping.
Berit plucked her thumb and index finger against her own clit, about to come, wavering there on her knees. Her chin banged her chest when she came, and the horizon tilted just enough that she fell to the side.
When she opened her eyes again, she heard water running in the kitchen, followed by the clang of the kettle being set on the stove. Sibs was proud of her hard-won domestic facility, which led her to be very loud about it.
Berit retired to the WC and washed her face and hands before wrapping herself in one of Miss McCabe’s large wool houserobes.
In the parlor, Sibs sat primly by the radio, pot of tea steaming at her hand. She was still naked, but the quality of that nakedness had changed. She was remote now, stern and beautiful as Athena in marble. Her nudity was a rebuke, a mockery of Berit’s messy clothing and need for covering.
Berit took the floor before her. A little later, Sibs poured them each a cup of tea.
“I wish you’d come to the parade today,” Berit said. It felt like a confession more intimate than anything she might have shouted during lovemaking. It made her vulnerable, it exposed her. “You should have been there.”
After all, though she came from good Midwestern stock who had consistently voted for Eugene Debs, Berit knew or cared very little of politics until meeting Sibs. Sibs had been the one to take her to her first League for Peace and Democracy meeting. In New York over Christmas, they’d ventured to their first Communist Party meeting together, clutching each other’s hands, trying not to be rude to the scruffy, lost-looking types milling about. Without Sibs, Berit would never have known love of the world.
She told her as much.
“I mean it,” Berit insisted. Now that she’d confessed, she saw no reason to be shy. “I would love for you–”
“You love being in love.” Sibs spoke with all the world-weary languor of the disappointed sophisticate chiding a bumpkin. “You fall in love with everything.” She meant it as an accusation. Perhaps nothing truly mattered to Berit because she loved so fiercely, so devotedly.
That, Berit had to believe, was utter nonsense. How could love possibly diminish its object or put her sincerity into question? She was neither complex nor cynically jaded enough to see anything but cruel fallacies in Sibs’ observation.
Their tea had long since cooled. Berit’s joints ached from holding herself still, from crouching here, hoping for a reprieve. She swallowed the soupy dregs in her cup and rose to her full height. She hoped that Sibs would look up, but she was disappointed. Instead, she spoke to the part in Sibs’ soft, waving hair, to the crescent of skin on the nape of her neck.
“I do,” Berit said. The texture of that hair, that skin, their flavor and fineness, were memories, but stronger and louder than her own voice. “You know me so well.”
“You seem to think love is enough,” Sibs said, abstractedly, as if following her own wending thoughts, unaware of Berit’s speaking.
“It would be charming if it weren’t so inconvenient,” Berit put in. “Isn’t that what you said?”
Sibs did look at her now, blinking slowly. Although her eyes were shadowed, the motion of her lids, glints winking off and on, was mesmeric.
Berit was certain of one fact: Nothing was enough, not without her. Yet having her was the impossible thing. Wanting more, wanting better, that was the most human need of all.
They met again after the war.
Everyone said nothing would ever be the same, but Berit wasn’t so sure that was entirely a bad thing.
In the fall, when the oppressive heat that had encouraged the deadly bloom of cholera and typhus was retreating in the face of killing cold, Berit’s work was changing. She had spent her first few months here registering non-German-speaking displaced persons and organizing the conscription of women to break up and remove rubble.
Now, someone, somewhere, had remembered that she in fact possessed scientific and technical knowledge. She was to interview specialists for their dossiers and make recommendations for their possible repatriation.
In the Tiergarten, there was nothing but rutted mud, scored by tanks and heavy equipment, and overturned, smashed statuary. The few surviving trees erupted from the ground like broken bones. Even more so than the city itself, the park was ripped open and exposed to the sky.
Berit waited at the pedestal of a monument to some Bismarck aide de camp. She no longer smoked – indulging in a luxury like that in front of the women hauling rubble struck her as obscene, unforgivable – but she wished now for something to do with her hands.
The time for her contact’s arrival came and went. She waited another fifteen minutes before making her way back out of the park. The cold made her face feel stiff, her knees ache. Her new heeled shoes did not help the pain; she could not trust her balance and out here, there was nothing to grab should she fall. Missed appointments were, she was coming to understand, simply part of the interminably long process of trying to accomplish anything these days.
She stopped at a makeshift cafe at the mouth of In Den Zelten. She preferred to avoid such places, which catered to Allied officers and the bureaucrats who had begun to pour into the city’s administrative void. Everything was overpriced here, you rarely heard German, and the music was always too loud to enjoy.
She paid through the nose for a terrible coffee and bought a packet of cigarettes as well.
Rather than squeeze in next to three Brits loudly praising the assets on a woman at the counter, Berit took the last stool along the wall and balanced the coffee precariously on one knee while lighting her smoke.
“Ah, sweetheart, just stop and chat? You look like you could use the company, I just wanna be nice, won’t you let a poor lad far from home open his heart to you?” The officers spoke separately, but so far as Berit was concerned, they shared the same puny little mind.
The girl they were all but pawing over wore a small felt hat, tipped over pale hair. She extricated herself gracefully, dodging one lad while shimmying past another. “Where’re you going, honey?” the third asked, reaching for her gloved hand.
Her clothes, Berit noticed, were much finer than you usually saw, even around the Americans and French. Her coat was perfectly cut for narrow waist, and she wore what might very well have been real silk stockings. That she took note of clothes now, well before face or figure, was one of those ironies of the war that Berit could not quite appreciate. They sat uncomfortably in her heart, these signs of status that she could sort and classify almost without thinking about it.
“To speak with an old friend,” the girl told the Brit, and took the chair beside Berit.
“Ah, that’s the oldest trick in the book!” he complained. “She’s not your chum, you just want to hurt me!”
She kissed Berit, first one cheek, then the other, and it was only as she was pulling back that Berit made the connection.
She was older, of course. Who wasn’t? Yet age had only warmed her features, thickened them slightly, hardly done so much as glance across her face.
“It’s Allie these days, Allie Fielding,” she said, pulling off one glove, then the other, and helping herself to one of Berit’s cigarettes. “Whatever are you doing here in the ruins? The last anyone heard, you’d disappeared among engineers and generals.”
“A little of this,” Berit said. “A little of that. Various agencies, too many bosses, not enough resources.” It was not quite a lie, but it wasn’t nearly the truth, either.
“Chip’s here with United Press,” Sibs said. “Or is it Life?”
Now, that was a lie, but Berit did not know if Sibs knew she knew that. Chip Fielding was OSS, about high as one could get, and if he weren’t, Berit would eat Sibs’ pretty little hat.
Berit lit her cigarette for her. She thought, a little vaguely, that she ought to be more moved by this chance encounter. She ought to feel more, whether joyous or angered.
Sibs sat back, smoke curling from her lips. “And I’m tagging along, probably getting in the way, you know how it is.”
“No,” Berit said. “I don’t.”
Sibs acknowledged that with a lift of the eyebrow. “Fair enough.” She took another drag, then handed the cigarette to Berit so she could fumble in her handbag.
Berit studied the dark red lipstick on Sibs’ cigarette. Despite herself, she wondered how it cost, what sort of riches it could bring in barter. On Sibs’ mouth, it looked redder, much wetter. It matched the small rubies in her ears, the scarf neatly knotted around her throat.
She tried to remember what Sibs looked like out of her clothes, scrubbed of cosmetics, and for a long, confusing moment, she could not. All she could see in her mind’s eye was a generic body, almost a doll’s or an illustration in an anatomy textbook.
Then Sibs leaned over, sliding a small packet of paper under the table, along Berit’s leg, into her lap. She kissed Berit’s cheek again, but lingered this time, and the damp warmth of her breath, the scent of tea roses among nicotine, brought it all back.
“For you,” she said, grazing her teeth over the hollow just below Berit’s earlobe, and, “We all do what we can.”
When she pulled back, taking up her cigarette again, she was once more the composed American socialite, eyes hooded, mouth red.
“I’m here pretty much every afternoon,” she said before stubbing out the cigarette and rising. “It was so wonderful to see you, what a delightful surprise, we must do this again!”
Berit watched her go. Her stockings were indeed silk; nothing else whispered, nor clung smokily to bare skin, quite like it.
The dossier, on a V-2 expert currently being courted by both sides, proved invaluable for Berit’s career just as much as for the overall mission.
The next time they met, Sibs passed along more “junk” she claimed to have found lying around Chip’s study. She left her lipstick smeared on Berit’s collar. The trails of her raking nails down Berit’s back, parallel red welts, ran as randomly, heedlessly, as any tracks in the mud.
The world was broken, irreparably, but we all do what we can.