Love was such a strange thing. One could love somebody and hate him at the same time. Irma had learned that long ago. Accustomed to brutality, when she encountered any small degree of gentleness she could imagine herself to be in love. With shame, she remembered Hugo Lundow. Why could she not forget that name? It came back, as did her other memories, like a recurring dream of unpredictable frequency and intensity. He was a young Nazi guard at the munitions factory where she was forced to work for the German war effort. His tap on her shoulder was ever so light when he came to fetch her for the superintendent, his pale eyes kind, his lips curved in sympathy.
When she opened the door of the superintendent’s office to leave, he would be leaning against the wall on the opposite side of the corridor, looking at the floor as if trying not to hear or see what he knew was going on behind the door. It was touching, the way he tried to make conversation as he escorted her back to the line, but what is there to talk about with a prisoner of war?
“Have you served on the front?”
“Not yet. Do you like filling bullets?”
She told him she hated being covered with gunpowder, and the eye irritation and blue lips that went with it. He took her to the shipping room and told the civilian German woman in charge to train her for a packaging job. Then, with a nod of encouragement, he turned and strode out. Irma felt certain it was strictly Hugo’s decision to take her off the line. The superintendent had expressed no interest in her, beyond unloading into her. He had not even left his chair but simply pushed it back from his desk a ways.
Sunday was the superintendent’s day off and one of the guards was assigned to take his place each week. Eventually, Hugo had his turn and he sent for Irma. He dismissed the guard and took her hand. When he removed his hat, Irma was surprised at the sparseness of his wheat-colored hair. He would be bald before he was twenty-five, she thought without sympathy. He had spread a blanket on the floor and arranged a picnic on it. The meat paste spread on thin crackers, and rich chocolate cake topped with thickened sweet cream, made her nearly delirious with pleasure. They washed it down with bubbly German wine that left her dizzy and happy. It made the office, dimly lit by a desk lamp, seem like a mirror-image of itself, viewed through shimmering glass. She forgot about the factory and the women’s barracks, and felt only gratitude and, yes, love for this man, who had freely given her all these wonderful things.
When he began kissing her she kissed him back, his mouth still tasting of chocolate. Slowly, he removed her clothes, calling her beautiful and caressing her lightly, as though with a feather. Undressed, he looked as young and vulnerable as her brothers, skin pale as his hair and head too big for his shoulders. She thought about the food when he rolled on top of her and pushed her legs apart with his knees, and she didn’t mind because she wanted to repay the pleasure he had given her.
* * * * *
Afterward, he lay beside her and he smelled like a boy on a summer day, instead of the vague chamber-pot smell she had learned to expect from men. She was conscious of her own uncleanness and briefly ashamed. After a time they dressed, and he watched as she ate the remaining food. Had she given a thought to the starving women with whom she lived, as she added more to her already bulging stomach? Would they have thought of her?
When she returned to the packaging room, there were only two hours remaining to work. She kept thinking about the meat and the cake and the thick, sweet, clear wine like nothing she had ever tasted, and he was all mixed up in the memory of the food, and she loved him. He was a Nazi soldier, but she dreamed of him bringing her chicken, fried and greasy, the way her mother prepared it in Ukrainebfor Obzhynky, and she looked for him every day after that, for the rest of the war, but he was gone. And then she hated him for going away, even though she knew he had probably been sent to the front and probably died there. Hate was a strange thing, too.
Deanna Northrup earned her MFA at Spalding University in their superb brief residency program. Her fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in A Handful of Dust, Amarillo Bay, Copperfield Review, Kennesaw Review, O Tempora! Magazine, Perigee, Spry Literary Journal, and The First Line. If any of the aforementioned journals have since gone defunct, she accepts no credit. After reading and writing, she loves dogs, flamingos and all things retro.