Authors: Paul Grossman
What is weak must be hammered away.
THE NEARER THE BONE
“I’ll teach you the meaning of respect—” The schoolmarm’s whip sent shivers up Willi’s legs. “Drop those drawers.”
Below, the knickers-clad boys trembled as their instructor approached in her shiny black boots. “Bend over.” She snapped the rawhide. What choice was there but to obey, to do whatever she wanted? “This is for your own good.” Her strong white arm rose. And as her wrath rained down, hilarity gripped the Admirals-Palast, for even in the mezzanine, spotlights now illuminated how the traumatized tykes were not tykes, but middle-aged men with derrieres that hung like potato sacks.
“No shame, eh? No fear of authority?” The teacher warmed them up for a real mashing. “Take that, useless weeds. And that. And that!”
The harder she beat, the more hilarious the audience grew, because these victims clearly loved getting creamed, the perversity of which tickled some deep communal funny bone. Except in a few detached souls, such as Willi. Or the Prussian baroness next to him, who observed it all as if she were cast of iron.
“So.” She finally removed the cigarette holder from her mouth. “
is where all your precious freedom has led, Fritz.” Her chin aimed cannonlike at their host. “The world hasn’t seen such decadence since ancient Rome.”
“Forgive me if I’m less than alarmed by your exhibition of repugnance, Baroness.” A thin smirk caused Fritz’s blond mustache to arch.
“What would you have me do,” the baroness parried, “hide behind my sleeves?”
Caught between the two, Willi awarded her the point, because plainly she had nothing to hide behind. The ladies tonight, even the old baroness, wore only the most au courant, thin-strapped evening shifts. Not a sleeve in sight. Her victory, however, was strictly Pyrrhic, and as the spectators roiled with new hilarity, the stage screams mounting toward an unmistakable group climax, a loud sigh heaved from her jeweled bosom.
“A most ominous sign of the times.” She returned the cigarette holder to her lips.
At this, one-eyed Dr. von Hessler across from her all but ejaculated, “You know, Baroness, times do change. A mere two centuries ago it would have been unthinkable for a prince to take his after-dinner shit without his guests on hand to share his royal odors.”
Everyone at the table froze.
An old school chum of Fritz’s, von Hessler was a scientist of some sort. Very stiff-lipped about it. Willi was never sure what he was a doctor of exactly, only that whenever they met, he’d always managed a few lines about the “groundbreaking work” he was engaged in. Pompous, and peculiar, Willi thought, though he couldn’t say he knew the fellow well, despite their long mutual acquaintance with Fritz. Hessler’d been on the French front too. After the war he’d gone from wearing a standard black patch over the eye he’d lost at Verdun to a sterling-silver plate fastened on with leather straps, polished so brightly that when you spoke to him, you couldn’t help noticing the strange reflection always shining back at you … of yourself.
“And your point with that enchanting vignette?” The baroness smiled irritably. “Are you implying the difference between virtue and vice is relative, Doctor?”
Von Hessler opened his palms in a gesture of regret.
Just then Willi spotted Vicki across the table eyeing him from beneath her brown fringe of bangs. Dear Lord, he thought. Busted in midyawn. When she cocked her head as if to inquire if he was okay, he felt a pang of guilt. Generally he told her all about his latest cases, but not this time. When it came to children, she got too upset. So he telegraphed her a reassuring wink and returned his attention to the party.
Of all those on hand to celebrate Fritz’s birthday, Willi wanted to be here even less than the baroness, he was sure. Not that he didn’t love Fritz. He’d do anything for his old army pal, even attend this vacuous revue on a work night. But Fritz was an aristocrat, and as glad as Willi was to know him, their friendship was a historical fluke. Willi accepted it as such. It wasn’t Fritz but his choice of entertainment, this insidious mélange of sugar and excrement, that was getting under Willi’s skin. And not because he was law enforcement, either. No law forbid raunchy burlesque to benefit a foundling hospital. It just rubbed him the wrong way.
After all he’d seen this morning.
A night of flooding rain had turned up a real horror show half an hour east of here, out in industrial Lichtenberg. At the bottom of a construction pit, a burlap sack was regurgitated, apparently, by a massive backup in the sewer system. By the time he’d arrived, a score of people must have been staring at the spilled contents. Truly a spectacle. Bones. Nearly two dozen of them. Not just loose, but arranged. Singled out by size and shape. Bound together into what could only be termed … designs. Arm and leg bones fashioned almost like bouquets of flowers. Toe and finger bones, strung with some sort of sinewy thread into what might have been … jewelry. Small lumbar vertebrae bored through with little holes. Willi had never seen nor heard of anything like this. Even after a cursory exam, the pathologist, Dr. Hoffnung, had said the bones were most definitely human. And most definitely not adult. Children’s bones, by size and density. Boys’ bones, according to pelvic structure. Four or five different boys in all.
Willi squirmed in the seat.
As the schoolmistress and her students bowed to a storm of applause, ending a skit titled “Lesson Well Learned,” his hands clapped along mechanically. Three years on the Western Front. Seven in Kripo, Berlin’s diligent Kriminal Polizei. No one could say he hadn’t seen his fair share of lunacy. But bone art?
“Next on hand to support the lost children of Berlin,” the
’s voice rang through the theater, “the best-looking, best-drilled ladies in town—”
Sixty-four magnificent legs tapped across the stage in perfect columns.
“Dancing in syncopated rhythm to a piece titled ‘Mass Production’—”
Thirty-two lissome figures in skimpy halter tops, white short-shorts, lacy ankle socks, glittering high heels.
“The Admirals-Palast is thrilled to present, our very own … Tiller Girls!”
“Ein, zwei, drei, los,”
one screamed, and all thirty-two launched into a choreographed homage to modern manufacturing, their rows devolving into rotating gears, pumping pistons, conveyor belts, even a giant typewriter. Legs lifting, heels tapping, shoulders shimmying with high-speed efficiency, every muscle worked as one. No toe out of line. The audience roared with approval. Here was a world they could be happy with, Willi thought. A world in sync. In
The individual, absorbed and on the march. Long after the Tiller Girls had shuffled away as a diesel locomotive, the crowd was still cheering.
really,” Fritz’s wife, Sylvie, said, beaming with a set of glowing teeth.
“Such precision,” Vicki added with near-believable sincerity. She’d prefer the symphony a hundred times over, Willi knew, but would never be so impolite as to say so.
The baroness was unconstrained by bourgeois sensibility. “An unmitigated pile of you-know-what.” She stuck another cigarette in her holder. “No moral. No story. Just a big bucket of—”
“I happen to agree this time.” Von Hessler adjusted his eyepiece. “The revue holds a harsh mirror to our republic. How slick on the surface, yet underneath, how badly fractured. Indeed, I am frequently struck in the streets of Berlin these days by the sensation that, in an instant, everything could just—” His hands flew apart.
Intermission had brought up the houselights.
Tout le monde,
it seemed, filled the Admirals-Palast for tonight’s charity gala. The balconies were packed with lawyers and doctors and businessmen, their overdressed wives chatting excitedly. The mezzanine, where Willi sat, overflowed with industrialists and department-store owners, publishers, politicians, underworld crime bosses by the dozens, all crammed around tables. Fritz, a third-tier cousin of the deposed kaiser, and a writer for five or six newspapers, had a well-placed corner table overlooking the orchestra. Down there, by center stage, where the photojournalists could get in for close-ups, the seats brimmed with luminaries. World-renowned playwrights, architects, and artists: Brecht, Gropius, Klee, and Kandinsky. Even Albert Einstein had turned out with his wife to support the Boys and Girls Foundling Hospital. It may not have been de’ Medicis’ Florence, but despite all logic and against all odds, Berlin, vanquished a decade ago in the Great War, and then ravished by the Great Inflation, had emerged somehow as Europe’s cultural capital.
“This country cannot survive without a rigid fist to guide it. Believe me.” A sardonic grin seemed to freeze across the baroness’s old, rouged cheeks.
Fritz’s blue eyes danced at her. “Germany’s never been better off and you know it. Democracy’s rooted. The economy’s flourishing. We’ve the highest standard of living in Europe.”
“But no respectability, Fritzchen.” The irony melted. “And what are we without that?” A wave of real grief washed over her face. “Just barbarians. From Monte Carlo to Moscow, Berlin’s become a byword for … depravity.”
The word hurled Willi back to Lichtenberg, factories pounding, smoke belching. At the bottom of that construction pit, besides those bizarre bone configurations, inside the burlap bag there’d been a Bible. Most of it washed away. But several passages that were still discernible had been circled in red. One stuck out. From the New Testament, Ephesians: “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked … and were by nature children of wrath.” Even thinking about it now, his hands got clammy.
Something dark had washed up in that bag.
As dark as he’d ever faced.
Von Hessler’s eye patch glistened in the chandelier light. “The baroness is quite right, I’m afraid. At bottom we Germans have an appalling lack of self-control, which is why we crave order so terribly. Sooner or later somebody’s going to have to emancipate us from all this emancipation.” He gave a mad little laugh at his own joke.
A chorus of deep drums beat up from the orchestra pit. “And now…” The theater fell dark again. “The woman whose name has come to symbolize the Jazz Age … the world’s most famous stage personality … the very sophisticated … terribly savage … absolutely one of a kind … Josephine Baker!”
Like a tropical storm, the legendary American Negress blew in from her usual stint at the Folies Bergère in Paris, dueling spotlights flashing across the sheen of her black hair, the giant spit curls scrawled on her cheeks, the breasts cradled in colorful sea pearls. Around her waist, the iconic banana skirt, each yellow fruit arching unmistakably upward, flapping as she leaped into her famous “jungle” dance. Unlike the Tiller Girls, every joint in Baker’s body seemed possessed of a mind of its own—hips, wrists, ankles, legs, all moving in directions disassociated from the rest. Even her eyeballs appeared to orbit in her head. The most reticent in the audience had not the power to resist her, and when she finished, they rose to appease the dark goddess with reverence and awe.