Gwen C. Katz is a writer, artist, game designer, and retired mad scientist who lives in Pasadena, California with her husband and a revolving door of transient animals. Her first novel, Among the Red Stars, follows Russia’s famous all-female bomber regiment, the Night Witches. It was released in 2017 by Harper Teen.
My God, he’s handsome. His jawline looks like it was drawn with a ruler and his cheeks are as smooth-shaven as if he’d just stepped out of the barber’s chair. Every yellow hair on his head is perfectly coiffed with pomade, which is not something I would take to war, but everyone has their own priorities. He looks less like a real person and more like the men on propaganda posters that plaster our streets, their captions translated from German into Dutch. Or even less real than that—like a plaster mannequin in a store window. I glance at the hand holding his glass, half expecting to see the tapered, featureless fingers of a mannequin, and am almost surprised when he has knuckles and nails like anyone else.
His looks stop me short in the doorway. I don’t know what I was expecting. A monster with fangs and horns? Monsters don’t look like that, not in real life. A boy from school was shot for handing out leaflets, shot by a man you wouldn’t have looked at twice if he weren’t in uniform.
I hover awkwardly, holding the pub door open and letting the cold March air in until the bartender snaps, “Come in or stay out.”
I come in. I settle on the stool next to the mannequin man, hoping he can’t see the shudder that runs through me as my elbow brushes the sleeve of his uniform. I run my fingers along the dark, smoothly polished wood of the bar. Everything in here is the same as it always was—the dim lighting, the crowded tables, the thick, sticky smell of tobacco.
Everything except the man next to me in his sharp gray uniform with the swastika armband. He does not belong. The other patrons, hunched over their drinks, throw him distrustful looks. He drinks slowly, as cool and easy as if they weren’t there.
The bartender places a glass of pale golden beer in front of me, condensation beading up on its sides. I take a sip. My lipstick leaves an apple-red smudge on the rim of the glass. I reapply it even though it doesn’t really need it, tossing the mannequin man a shy look. He nods at me.
“Drinking alone?” I ask.
“I’m new in town,” he says.
“I know.” It slips out before I realize how accusatory sounds. Of course I know his unit just arrived. It’s not like I could miss five hundred pairs of tramping boots. I hasten to add, “They’ll warm up to you when they get to know you. We’re not a hateful people.” Another dig. Leave it to me to fail at flirting. Freddie would do better. She’s a natural, even at fourteen. But I can’t allow Freddie to take on this task, not while I can still protect her.
Luckily the mannequin man either doesn’t pick up on my words or doesn’t care. He says, “A bit young to be in here, aren’t you?”
“I’m sixteen,” I say defensively. As if to prove myself, I take a long draught of the crisp, bitter drink, draining half the glass without taking a breath.
A smile curls one edge of the mannequin man’s mouth. “This little girl can drink!”
“You’ll find Dutch girls can do a lot of things,” I say, tossing my hair over my shoulder. I hate myself for saying that. I hate myself so much. All I can think is how glad I am that my father isn’t around to see this.
My father was always the romantic one, prancing into the kitchen singing a French serenade while my mother swatted him with a dish towel. My mother is endlessly practical. Maybe that’s why their marriage didn’t last.
No one can afford to be romantic now. The shelves of the butcher shop lie empty and we cut our coffee with chicory and burnt sawdust. And we’re the lucky ones. Last year they packed all the Jews in Haarlem into crowded, dirty boxcars and shipped them off like cattle. We hid our next-door neighbors in our house under the guise of relatives from out of town. Earlier today we baked pastries with the last of our sugar and helped them cut masks out of colorful paper, because tomorrow is a holiday. Purim. They told us it’s a day when they remember how God secretly protects his people, even when they can’t see it. In a sense, I’m observing the holiday.
Caring for our neighbors is the only decent thing to do, but they’re two more mouths to feed. My mother brought home a new man a few years ago, which helped, but in due time a new baby followed. Prices got higher. Ration books got thinner. Then someone came to the door and told us she had work for two pretty girls like us.
I lean towards the mannequin man, resting my chin on my hand and cocking my head just so. I laugh at everything he says. To my astonishment, it works. He responds to me as though we were reading from a script. I didn’t really think I could pull it off. I’m not pretty and charming like Freddie. I’m plain, my face splattered with freckles that make it look dirty even when it’s freshly washed. But that doesn’t seem to matter to the man next to me. He must be awfully lonely.
No. I can’t think like that. His feelings mustn’t enter my mind or I’ll lose sight of why I’m here. The beer has taken the edge off my nerves, but not nearly enough. I wish I’d ordered something stronger, not that the bartender would have served hard liquor to a kid my age.
“Do you want to take a walk?” I ask.
“I’d like that very much,” says the mannequin man.
As casually as I can manage, I lead him down a narrow side street beside a canal, my heels clacking on the paving stones. The tall brick houses block the last light of the setting sun, leaving only a swath of pastel pinks and deepening blues above us, reflected in the water. Spring has only just begun to cut through winter’s chill. My legs prickle under my threadbare stockings. It’s too cold to be wearing this dress. I pull my coat tight and lean against the mannequin man. He puts an arm around me.
He’s warm. That startles me. It shouldn’t, of course—everyone is warm—but it makes me sharply aware that the man next to me is a living, breathing human being.
The hint of sympathy sprouting up inside me withers when his hand slides down my arm and I spot the gold band on his finger. He doesn’t even try to hide it. I cling to my burst of indignation that flares up. Whether or not he personally executed dissidents or rounded up Jews, this is not a good man, and I mustn’t let myself forget that. A part of me madly wants to ask after his wife, as if that would accomplish anything.
Instead I say, “It’s so pretty tonight. Let’s walk through the woods.”
He allows me to steer him past the edge of town and into the shadowy trees. I step gingerly to avoid slipping on the leaf litter. I’m not a master of walking in heels. The elms and plane trees are just putting out their first pale green leaves, but the firs are thickly blanketed with needles. The warm lights of Haarlem wink on and off through the gaps between the branches.
In the daytime, this is a fairy tale forest. At night, it still looks like something out of a fairy tale, but the other kind. The kind with witches and monsters and murdered children. The stories my mother told me to teach me that not everything has a happy ending.
“This reminds me of the forests back home,” says the mannequin man. “I used to love to walk in the woods when I was your age. I was such a dreamer. I wanted to be an artist. My mother gave me no end of grief about it.”
No. No, he can’t talk to me like this. He can’t make me see him as a person. I have to keep thinking of him as a plaster figure.
Now he’s bending and picking a violet. He hands it to me before I can stop him. I take it, not knowing what else to do, and touch its delicate petals.
“What’s your name?” he asks me.
“Truus,” I whisper. I shouldn’t have told him. He doesn’t need to know. But somehow I feel I owe him that tiny part of me.
“You’re a good sort of girl, Truus,” he says. “We need more girls like you.”
My resolve wavers. It’s not even the particular words he said, but the fact that he has particular words, that he thinks and loves and hurts in his own way. At this moment that seems precious to me, no matter how ugly his thoughts, how vicious his feelings. Would it be so terrible to turn him around and walk him back into town? But it’s too late for that.
A man in a hat steps out from among the trees.
“A little girl shouldn’t be out here at this time of night,” he says. “It’s after curfew. Don’t you know that?”
I don’t look at him. I look past him, at the redheaded girl hidden in the shadows, watching us. The one who came to our house that day. Freddie and I sat on either side of our mother, fidgeting with loose threads on the couch while we listened to her proposal.
“It’ll be dangerous,” she warned us.
“I can handle danger,” I said defiantly.
“I know,” she said. “But they don’t. That’s why it’s brilliant. When they look at us, they don’t see a resistance fighter. They only see little girls.”
The mannequin man steps forward to challenge the newcomer, his relaxed body language replaced with the rigid posture of a Nazi officer. “Who are you? And what is your business being out here at night?”
I tug his sleeve. “It’s all right. I’ll go.”
I slip away just as the other members of the resistance step out from behind the trees, guns drawn, and surround my companion.
Freddie is with them. She comes up beside me, her hair in pigtails, half skipping with her hands in her coat pockets. “Nicely done. And look, you even got a flower out of it!”
I crush the violet in my hand. The gunshot comes, dampened by the trees. No one in town will hear. No one will find a fresh mound of earth deep in the forest. I wish I could feel Freddie’s exuberance, or satisfaction, or at least relief, but instead my insides are as cold and numb as if I were the one made of plaster.
Freddie and I head home to try on our Purim masks.