"Sacrifice" is not a new story. It's at least 20 years old, and, once upon a time, won the Iowa Fiction Prize for the best story written by an Iowan. It's unusual for me--a story from WWII, from the Netherlands, and it's set on a particular moment, the day the Nazis left, and just before the Allies arrived to liberate the people of a small town.
It's a true story--that is, the arc of the story actually happened. It was told to me by a woman who was a girl in 1945, the central character. Elements are fiction, but what happened that particular day was a story she told me she would never forget.
I wrote her life story years ago, and soon after she was killed in a car accident. It's a story--her story--I'm glad to have written.
The day the Germans fled a great lid was lifted from the city, and the people went lustily and joyfully mad. Tina forgot her hunger completely, forgot it was her job to find food for herself and her mother. Alone, she walked down the familiar streets, her head up in the deep and joyful breath of new freedom all around her, watching the pageant the way a stranger might have. Happiness had hid itself in whispers for so long that when finally it could emerge, it clamored down boulevards and alleys, loud with praise for the day of liberation at last.
But the war had gone on so long that it was difficult for Tina to remember what life had been like without the sound of the Germans, singing as they marched, hard to remember a time when she couldn't smell their sharp, metallic odor or hear their raspy language. But finally now, they were gone. She could feel their absence inside her, as if a cancer had passed from her completely, left her soul smiling and spotless. God himself once again seemed to reign.
Yesterday, looking for food, she had watched a German straggler throw an old man from his bicycle and take it, then kick him bloody. It had been warm for early May, and the soldier threw off his coat in his frenzy, and left the old man in the ditch. The Germans were leaving, retreating from the Allies moving closer somewhere west. Yesterday a wagon full of sympathizers had left the city, guns in hand, following their German friends, dozens of people taunting them with obscenities. Last night the drone of the bombers had once again grown to so heavy a pitch that it rattled the windows, then softened as the planes passed by the city to drop their bombs closer to the border.
"I think you're right, Albertina," her mother had told her. "I pray you are right." Her mother knew it too, even though she seemed to know so little about the world outside their apartment. Not since early fall had she left their home on Front Street. All through the winter and early spring--not once. Every night she carried a candle to her bedroom because since father had left, her mother wouldn't sleep in the dark.
Soon enough there would be stew and meat, Tina thought. But today the whole city was left in a gap, the Germans already gone, the Allies not yet arrived. Time had stopped, as if at a point unseen a Moses were holding an arm up to the sun.
Several weeks had passed since she'd seen Jaap, and she needed him now once again because they had no food. Already a week ago she and her mother had eaten the last of the potatoes he had brought her. He had saved them through the winter, when they had their arrangement, brought them food when there was none to be found. In the barn the last time, what they had done together had been done in silence because she knew the price. The first time it had been different. The straw's sharp points still pricked her shoulders. The last time she had done what he expected, but they had not spoken, as if what he'd done weren't his demand.
It was better in silence, but each night she had prayed anyway for forgiveness, swearing to God that it shouldn't happen again. Jaap was an old man, past thirty. Today he and the others would be chasing the Germans, as if the hated invaders were running from the Dutch resistance alone. Somewhere right now he was chasing them, she guessed, his thumb hooked proudly in the strap of his rifle.
That would have to be the answer she would give her mother: this morning there is no food; there won't be any until the Allies come--maybe tomorrow. Then there will forever be enough.
Tomorrow: The Germans abandon a railroad car full of precious food.