Narrow Way flows downhill towards our house like a patchwork river of potholes. Its broken stones shed asphalt band-aids, as though they could refuse a cover-up of things that came before. Half-timbered houses huddle close; a car can barely squeeze through the crooked gap. But, in a German town, this is a street: it has a name. Steps leading to front doors jut into the stone-frozen current. Sometimes I climb them, just for fun, on the downhill journey from school to home. In the morning, though, I slog upstream, against gravity, against my will.
My mother says it is the law. She says if I don’t go to school, the police will come to our house. I pet and envy our poodle dog. At the corner of my eye, I see an officer in uniform. He watches as I pick up my yellow satchel, pull the back door shut, and trudge uphill.
At the top of Narrow Way I turn left, by the house without window panes, where a man lit a cigarette in a kitchen filled with gas from a leaky stove, then right, by another dilapidated house, empty since the war. Cobble stones take me around the schoolyard wall.
The school, plastered in brownish-gray, once was my father’s school and also his older sister Agnes’ school. On my first day the teacher explains that forty-four children are sitting in a single class because of Lehrermangel—a lack of teachers. The parents nod. They heard the word on their first day of school. No one asks where the teachers are. Some nod again when the teacher says he’ll need to slap some of the boys.
I love my colored blocks for first-grade math, but six is black, like Achim’s eyebrows, nine shines blue like Michael’s eyes, and ten glows orange like Lutz’s hair. When they struggle to divide or take away, I scan the floorboards for dog-shaped knotholes. Aunt Agnes’ teacher used to squeak across these dogs, when he lined up the Catholic kids to pepper them with rapid-fire arithmetic. Agnes would calculate until she got one wrong. Then she’d hold out her hand, palm up, and he would cane her fingers until they bled.
My father didn’t make it to arithmetic. On his first day of school, he learned how to lift his right arm diagonally upward and how to yell “Heil Hitler” at the top of his lungs. On day two, bombs fell and school closed.
In grade four my teacher talks about city gas: how it feeds the heater below the window, so that we can be warm.
“Look at the pilot flame,” he says. “As long as that is burning, we know there is no leak.”
Another teacher explains how Jewish children, just our age, walked into chambers that looked like showers and when the gas began to flow, they breathed it in and choked to death. I stare at the blue pilot flame. For the remainder of fourth grade I count how many seconds I can hold my breath.
—Catharina Coenen (from Orange Blossom Review)