Her mother's admonitions ringing in her mind, Tina returns to the empty Nazi boxcar.
Nothing had changed on the streets: people stood and talked in the parks or in front of their houses, waiting for the Allies, some running gaily about in celebration. Everywhere there was joy.
She carried the cheese back in the basket of her bicycle. Throughout the starving winter her mother had never questioned where the food came from. The money had run out already in early December, long before the cold had set upon them like a curse. But by that time her mother had already abandoned the city around them and kept no track of money anyway: "Take the money in the cup," she had told Tina every morning through February, as if there were still some there, as if money could regenerate itself. But by Christmas it had been gone, and it was Tina who had been forced to find ways to keep them healthy when there was so little.
She kept it out of her mind as well as she could--how all of it had started, how Jaap had said he needed her because she was so small. That first night she'd slipped out past the candlelit bedroom to help steal firewood from the Germans. He needed her slimness to stretch through the wrought-iron fence. Later she began to understand what he wanted in exchange for food and the fueld she and her mother needed. What they did had become an unspoken arrangement. He would get her food, and for that she would be with him. The first time it had been cold and hard as concrete, when over Jaap's square shoulders, sparrows in the rafters fluttered like bundles of raging sound in the thick darkness. But each time later--four more times--it had become easier to give in to him; and the last time it had been done in silence, the two of them lying there together in payment.
When he was through, she had found herself holding him as if he were at least something. Someday, she hoped, she could be forgiven. But even on those winter nights when she would awaken to the sirens calling her and her mother down into the old shop where they waited through the storm of bombs, it was as if the moment she awoke Jaap would be there in the darkness of the hallway outside her room. For a price Jaap had kept them alive.
She kept all of that from her mother, taking home scraps and pieces, a potato or two, carrots or kale, sometimes a end of a sausage. By April the Allies had dropped food--biscuits, flour, bread and jelly--bread, real bread, not the sticky dough people made from flour ground out of whatever was available. She hadn't seen Jaap again for weeks. Things seemed to be getting better, but still she had her daily search.
Her mother never questioned her about the food. "Take the money from the cup," she always said, even yesterday when the Nazis left.
She followed the dirt path that ran along the tracks until she came to the boxcar. Everyone was gone. Footprints matted the brown grass, and straw was strewn like an apron around the open door. She leaned her bicycle up against the car and slid the round out of the basket, holding it upright in her hands as she lugged it over to the open door. Behind her the sound of firecrackers popped in the streets closer to the city, but on the tracks there was only silence. She bounced the cheese to the floor of the boxcar and the wooden walls rattled.
It was foolish to leave it there in the middle of an empty boxcar, like some pagan's offering. It was food, after all--a blessing that had cost her nothing--and it belonged to no one, the Germans already miles away. But in the silence she had to leave this painless food, such a blessing. To see it there--one solitary wheel of cheese, embarrassed her. She pulled it back into her arms.
Through the open door on the other side, she could see out into the country, through the fields to the farms and the cows. Today already the milk would belong to Dutch children. Maybe it was time to return to the commandments, she thought; now the world was like the Bible said--now that the Germans were gone.
She pulled her arms out from beneath the cheese. The whole world was getting better. Soon the Allies would be there in the streets, and the city would be delivered.
She hoisted herself up backwards onto the edge of the car and sat. She couldn't leave it there in the open, one solitary wheel of cheese like some silly testimony. Piles of straw still lay up against either end of the boxcar, so she picked up the cheese and carried it into the dark end, away from the slant of light that came through the open door. She kicked the straw around until there was nothing but wooden slats beneath her feet, then set down the cheese and covered it. It would be her secret.
She stood there in the open door and tried to imagine what it would be like to be clean and forgiven in the new heaven and the new earth.
Tomorrow: She witnesses a disturbing event right on the street before her.