by Hermine Robinson
The war was not terror to Marta, it was just life. Her family spent their days foraging in bombed out buildings for firewood and food. There was never enough of either. At night, Marta slept in extra layers of clothes to keep warm, and when the sirens blared, the family had only a few minutes to scramble into the cellar before the bombers arrived.
Papa did the headcount. There was himself and Mama, Marta and her little brothers, Marc and Pieter, her Tante Truus, who was Mama’s sister and Marta’s older cousin, Willem. Her father also counted Herr Rosenfeld, the man who spent long days hidden behind a wall in the attic. No one spoke of Herr Rosenfeld. It was a time of many secrets.
Secrets were not the only thing kept close. Everyone in the cellar had important items sewn into the lining of their clothes. Marta kept her treasure, a small pouch of jewels, pinned into her skirt in the same way Mama pinned a packet of family photos close to her heart. Papa never went anywhere without his ‘safe-travel’ document (forged, but convincing) that had saved his life when the Germans let him pass. Marta’s uncle had not been so fortunate. Soldiers took Oom Jan away for being complicit with the resistance. Papa was complicit too, but very, very careful and so far, very lucky.
Once the bombing stopped and the ‘all clear’ was signalled, the adults (except Herr Rosenfeld) went out to scavenge the bomb sites or wait in food lines. It was Marta’s job to tend to her younger brothers. She was only nine, so Papa gave her careful instructions on what to do while he and Mama were gone. Stay inside, stay together and hide if the enemy comes. Say nothing if you are caught. Marta did her best to follow the rules, but the boys grew restless and so did she. When it became impossible to stay cooped up, Marta and her brothers would sneak away to play in the shell of a nearby stone building. Mama and Papa had not expressly forbidden them to play in the rubble but the children kept it secret, like so many things.
Marc and Pieter built a stone fort and drove small wooden cars over the patterns in the marble floor. Marta sifted through stone dust and searched for more red, blue and green gems to add to her collection. The pickings were good and Marta hummed softly to herself as she worked, cleaning her bits of treasure with a misty breath and a quick polish. She held them up to the light and they sparkled with the deep colours of ruby, emerald and sapphire.
“What have you got there?”
The voice startled Marta, but she managed to sweep a handful of stone dust over her pouch full of jewels before looking up at her cousin, Willem. “Nothing,” she said.
Willem grabbed Marta by the arm and yanked her up. “Liar!” he said. “Tell me what you found.”
Marta did not like her cousin. He was a greasy, smelly teenaged boy with peach fuzz on his upper lip. She squirmed to break free but made the mistake of looking down at her pile of treasure.
Willem followed her gaze. “Aha. I knew it.” He snatched up the pouch before Marta could stop him and he tore it apart. He dumped a kaleidoscope of colours into his palm. Marta grabbed for them, but Willem pushed her to the ground. All she could do was watch as her cousin ran his fingers over the jagged green and blue edges, and held a large red shard up to the light. He examined a couple more pieces before looking down at Marta with disgust. “Stupid girl, it’s just stained glass from the windows.”
“I don’t care. Give it back. It’s mine.”
“It is not yours, it belongs to the church.” Willem dropped the handful of glass to the floor and crushed it to dust with the heel of his boot. “It is a sacrilege to steal from the church.”
Marta wondered why Willem cared about the glass. This was not their church, and in any case, her cousin had denied God after the Germans took his father. But Marta remembered Papa’s instructions; say nothing if you are caught, so she stared at the older boy, silent yet defiant. Willem looked away first, feigning interest in what Marta’s little brothers were doing. He strode over to their stone fort and kicked it down. “Sacrilege,” he said and stalked away, leaving Marc and Pieter crying in his wake.
Marta wiped their tears with the hem of her skirt. “Don’t cry. Remember what Papa told you in the cellar. We are stronger than the enemy.”
Pieter held up his wooden block with wheels painted on the side. “I still have my Jeep.”
“Me too,” echoed Marc.
Marta examined her pouch and knew she could sew it back together. Out of the corner of her eye she caught a glint of red and picked it up. The best ruby yet. She showed it to the boys and said, “See, the enemy hasn’t won. We will rebuild tomorrow.”
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Hermine Robinson lives in Alberta, Canada where winters are long and inspiration is plentiful. She loves all things ‘short fiction’ and refuses to be the place where perfectly good characters and their stories come to die. In 2012 she went from scribbling to submitting, and since then her fiction has appeared in numerous print and on-line publications including: Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Fabula Argentea and FreeFall Magazine. She is married with 2 children, and most people know her by the nickname Minkee.
8 thoughts on “Wartime Jewels”
Sad, haunting, but it ends with a suggestion of hope and human resilience. Well done.
Thanks, my parents survived the war as children in Holland and it is about resilience.
Painful reminder of a time fading into forgetfulness, or perhaps unknown to many–the hell of war. The power of the piece is little diminished by a few slips: the fourth paragraph might be better if “would sneak away” were “snuck away”, providing a smoother transition. Perhaps, too, Papa’s reminder “We are stronger than the enemy” should have appeared earlier. Nevertheless, a strong piece. AGB
Duly noted, although I wrote the story with my mother’s voice in my head and despite the fact that she speaks excellent English, some little idiocincrasies persist. I wish I’d thought about mentioning Papa’s reminder earlier because that is the crux of the story.
Thanks for the feedback.
Minkee, what were you saying? What did you want to tell me? tell me your story again as if you were telling me while i’m driving from canada to texas.
Well, I’m not sure what you are looking for, but if I knew a different way of telling the tale I would have done it. It’s loosely based on the stories my mother told about living through World War 2, especially the opening line and the ending which speaks to the resilience of children through tough times.
Moves well. Stirs my heart.
Thank you, that is the reason for writing.