Sunlight slices through the window bars, splashing over your face. I will carry this piecemeal image – eyes scrunched shut, your late father’s nose, pink lips suckling – with me to the hangman’s noose.
Not long left, Liebling. Each blessed moment is precious. You’ve kept me alive longer than I ever hoped. Pregnancy and mother’s milk count for something in these dark times. Yes, I’ve done my part fattening you up for the Reich. Your rosy cheeks. Your healthy limbs. But another baby for the Führer, you are not. I’ve cradled you close, whispered words you’ll never remember. Be more. Resist. In darkness and dampness I’ve told you of those still out there. I’ve spoken in code, soothed you in Russian. I’ve armed you as if you were a fresh eighteen-year-old recruit for the cause, not a helpless infant about to be handed off to a life extending well beyond mine.
I pace around the cell, rocking you. Sometimes I count, singing each step into a makeshift lullaby you might someday remember. Perhaps on a rainy Thursday a window cleaner will pass humming a note, and you’ll feel the walls close in around you, see how the light splinters through the window glass, smell my milky odour, hear my voice. Broken. Bloody. Unbowed.
A rat scurries out of the darkness; it stops amid the filthy floor and glares up as if it were my landlord and I owe it rent. I want to stamp my feet, chase it off, but instead, I turn my back and focus on your whimpers. I kiss your forehead. Once. Twice. On and on. A kiss for every birthday I’ll miss. A kiss for every bruised knee and skinned elbow I won’t soothe. For every question that will hang unanswered over the dining table until the time’s right and your grandmother spills forth what she remembers.
I shift you so your head rests beneath my chin, your fists clenched against my chest. I listen to your deep drowsy breath, savour the roughness of your cradle cap against my skin. Your grandmother has a remedy for that. She’ll have a remedy for everything, except my absence. You will climb into her arms, grow up to her shoulders, cry in her lap.
I sway to the sounds of prison: my next-door inmate coughing, dirty feet shuffling across cold floors, the thud of metal on metal, the shrill demands of the women who’ve yet to accept their sentences. I have accepted mine. I know pleading with a madman is futile. I could wail and bang my fists against the bars, but that would mean putting you down and I won’t do that, not until they prise you from my white-knuckled fingers.
Not long now. I can hear the crunch of heels on concrete, the steady gait of someone with a purpose. The eager jangle of keys. I wonder how you’ll think of me, for you won’t remember me but will know I existed: every child has a mother, after all. I hope when you hear my story that you’re in a better time. I hope you bombard your grandmother with questions beyond the colour of my eyes and my favourite pair of shoes. She’ll tell you all that, but you must ask her why I’m not there. Don’t accept that I died in childbirth or during a bombing raid. Don’t accept that I was caught up with the wrong people, that I went against the Führer and got what I deserved, that the leaflets I dropped spewed lies and dissent. The world around you is a lie, and if by the time you’ve grown taller than your grandmother this country is still red, white, and black, you must find your people, our people, and do what I did. Be proud of the resistance thrumming through your bloodline. But take extra care of your life. Always look twice, then twice again. Take detours. Cross busy streets. Never pause. Never look back.
Metal screeches on metal. The warden standing on the threshold inclines her head. Extends her arms. You’ll leave first. I lift you so we’re face to face. Your eyelids droop, you gurgle in my arms. I kiss the crinkle between your eyebrows. Your weight slips from my hands, and you cry.
You will bawl your way out of this place into the daylight. Your grandmother will shush you on the walk to the U-Bahn, kiss your forehead on the train, sing a lullaby as she carries you upstairs to her apartment. And then you will quieten and your life will go on. I hope.
I clench my fists, close my eyes to your tear-stained cheeks, and turn away. The warden mutters as she struggles to calm your flailing limbs. I smile despite the sudden chill of loneliness. In the precious hours left before the gallows, I will always remember you as rebellious.
It runs in the family, I guess.
Image – wikicommons – public domain.