By Ronda Gibb Hinrichsen
The pickup truck’s bed jostled over so many rocks Ulrich Krauss stopped counting them. Too far, too long on this dirt road, weaving through the dense Bayern forests. Where was he? Even if he could see the stars through the burlap canvas the Lang brothers had thrown over him, Ulrich did not know enough of the sky’s mappings for them to be of use. Not that any of it mattered now. Lang, Ziegler, and the other men he’d trusted to help him hide the Jews’ paintings from the Nazis had lied to him. Shot him when they’d caught him standing in their shop’s doorway, inadvertently witnessing them counting and recording the two paintings his Jewish friends had reported stolen and overhearing the brothers’ plans to get rich on the paintings when the war ended. That witnessing, the older Lang had told him, had endangered Das Geschäft, The Business. Ulrich would not keep his mouth shut about their thieving from the Jews, and he’d said as much. They could not allow Urlich’s hours to continue beyond tonight.
Yet still Ulrich lived.
Ulrich inhaled. He ignored what he could of the pain in his bleeding gut and pushed the fear that wrapped round his chest like a noose into the metal truck bed beneath him. Could he escape? If he did, he would find a way back to his wife, Ilse. Not only would he smile when he found she’d gone against his wishes and celebrated his birthday that evening, but he would also hear her once more call him “my dear hermit” when she knocked on his workshop door and asked him to come inside for supper. “You’ve been in there long enough to build a hundred toys,” she would say as she always did. “Come and spend time with me and the baby before the day is over.”
“What is this?” he would then ask her when he opened the door. “You do not want me forever in the house with you, do you? Under your feet where you can get none of your own work done?”
“Nonsense,” was all she would say, but she would laugh too, cup his cheeks between her hands, and kiss him on the nose.
He’d complain, teasing her as she expected him to, pull her to him, and kiss her squarely on the mouth.
If he lived.
Exhaust choked Ulrich’s lungs like burned motor oil. Ulrich couldn’t see the smoke, but he pictured it exploding into the air and slowly disappearing as if it had never existed. As if explosions never upset earth’s natural rhythms.
The pickup’s wheels dropped into a wide rut. Ulrich’s head bounced against the truck bed’s wall. The pain in his abdomen screamed at the movement, and he pressed his shackled hands against the open wound. His backbone, his shoulder blades, his hips pounded against the hard uneven floor beneath him, certainly bruising him. Perhaps so much that Ilse would fuss over him like a hen protecting her favorite chick. If—no, when—he saw her again.
Another bounce, this time followed by a swerve. Ulrich’s head banged onto the floor, jerked into the wall again, and fell back onto the truck bed. He groaned. Tears seared his eyes. Why hadn’t they killed him already?
What am I thinking? I will not leave my baby, Beate, without a father.
Ulrich nursed the pain in his dislocated shoulder and filled his lungs with exhaust-scented air. He held it inside him until all he wanted was breath then spanned his hands farther over his wound. He pressed harder. He willed his flowing blood to slow.
Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t—he couldn’t tell—but hours, days, certainly not minutes, later the truck stopped. Someone opened the tailgate and pulled the burlap canvas off him. Heinz Ziegler’s wide shoulders, square head, and pockmarked face filled Ulrich’s vision. His ten-year-old son, Gerlach, stood next to him. Ulrich smothered the disappointment that clamped around his heart and looked away from the lad he’d considered his friend. So Gerlach was also part of this fraud against the Jews.
“Take the bucket inside, Gerlach.” Heinz’s usually soft-spoken voice had a hard tone to it Ulrich hadn’t heard before.
Gerlach lifted out a metal pail that had rolled to the back of the truck as Heinz grabbed Ulrich’s ankles and dragged him toward him. Ulrich screamed out in pain. He couldn’t help it. Couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t open his eyes for fear the pain would grow worse. Help me, God.
“It will end soon,” Heinz said.
Had Ulrich said his prayer aloud? He hadn’t thought so. Talking required unclenching his teeth, and clenched teeth was the only relief he had.
Four hands—two of them boy-sized—lifted, pushed, and dropped Ulrich over Heinz’s burly shoulder like an inconsequential bag of wheat. Ulrich screamed again. Was this moonless night so black no one saw what was happening to him? So dense no one could hear him? Ulrich’s breath became slivers of ice. Perhaps Das Geschäft intended to bury him in a field.
“Don’t forget the bucket,” Heinz said.
“Yes, Vater, Father,” Gerlach said.
Heinz slapped the side of the truck. “Go now, Lang.” The engine roared to life, and Heinz walked up a grassy hill like it was a warm summer’s day and he hadn’t a care in the world, walked until he climbed one stair—
Ulrich gasped with the bumping against his abdomen.
—a second stair. A door opened. Ulrich’s body slipped backward, but this time he felt little of the movement. His ongoing pain must have at last deadened his nerves. Thank you, God, for teaching our bodies to mask our agony.
Heinz walked across a plank floor. He opened another door. He stepped down a staircase. Gerlach’s feet followed them down . . . down . . . down until they reached a cement floor. Heinz hunched nearly in half. He yanked Ulrich off his shoulder and flopped him in a back-first heap on the floor against a rock wall. Stronger pain throbbed through Ulrich’s head and jolted his body. Again, Ulrich screamed.
Heinz bound Ulrich’s ankle to a dangling chain attached to the rock wall behind him. Ulrich pulled his shackled leg away from the wall, but the chain’s give ended at about a foot and a half. “Please, don’t do this.” He breathed. “I won’t tell anyone what I saw.”
“Hide him,” Heinz said.
“How?” Gerlach said.
Slap. A tiny whimper.
Ulrich turned his head toward them and opened one eye. A stack of rockand-mortared stones formed a wall that spanned the length of the room and was about five feet in front of him. He scanned up to the gap between the top of the stones and the ceiling that wasn’t much taller than Gerlach. Gerlach cupped his ear, and Heinz stood behind him.
Heinz whisked his hand through the air in front of him as if he were taking in the expanse of the tiny room. “How hide him? Use your brains, boy. I’ve taught you how to lay bricks for a reason.”
“These aren’t bricks.”
“Stones will work just the same.”
“Of course, Vater.”
Heinz turned back to the stairs. He climbed them slowly. Not once did he stop. Not once did he glance back at either Gerlach or Ulrich. Why had Ulrich trusted that man? Ilse had believed something wasn’t right with him. She’d warned Ulrich not to do business with a man who, she said, had a soul crusted with soot. Ulrich had chuckled when she’d said that, had put her imaginings up to the dreams of a fanciful female. If only he’d trusted her insight.
Heinz closed the upper door behind him, and Ulrich looked at Gerlach. What it was, he couldn’t say, but something in the boy’s eyes peering at him through the opening shot hope through Ulrich’s heart. Did he have a plan for Ulrich’s escape? Would he help him?
The boy noticed him watching him and turned away. The hope died.
“Your ear,” Ulrich said. “Are you all right?”
Gerlach didn’t answer. He only mixed something wet and thick inside a tall bucket.
“Your father hit you pretty hard,” Ulrich said.
Gerlach picked up a scraped-clean trowel, dipped it in the bucket, and slopped wet mortar along the top and sides of one of the stones.
“Is your ear all right?”
Gerlach set the stone on top of another stack of already-mortared stones. Scrape, flump, splat.
He’s building a wall, Ulrich thought. “We’re friends, aren’t we?” Ulrich tried to keep his voice calm, but even he heard tightness closing round his throat.
“Shut up.” Gerlach’s eye twitched. Scrape, flump, splat. Another stone slid into place.
“I didn’t know you were studying masonry.”
“Been learning since I could walk.” Scrape, flump, splat.
“You’re doing good work.”
“I said, shut up.” This time Gerlach’s eyes were fiery, hardened, and— Ulrich swallowed—determined.
Ulrich, his arms tied in front of him, squirmed for breath, for life, like a caught fish yanked from the water and thrown onto a rock. Dear Father in Heaven, what do I do? “You don’t have to do this, Gerlach.”
“You heard Vater as well as I did,” Gerlach said. “I’m not doing this because I want to.”
“Don’t do it then.”
Scrape, flump, splat.
“Help me,” Ulrich pressed. “Help me”—gasp—“and I’ll give you everything I have.”
“What do you want?”
“Money. Vater has a lot of it.”
“I don’t have a lot of money, but if”—gasp—“if you help me out of here, help me live, I’ll give you my home, my tools.”
"The figurines too. I’ll make more of them for you. You’ve always liked them.”
“I do not need your tiny people.”
Ulrich flipped himself onto his side. Pain sharper than the initial gunshot burst from the hole in his gut and spread, burned his chest, his limbs, his thoughts. Pain yields life. Allow pain. Escape. He rehearsed those words over and over through his mind, but each sentence only brought him closer to agony. He inched himself backward against the wall to support his back and relax his muscles.
Scrape, flump, splat. Set. How many more stones must Gerlach lay until the wall fully entombed him? Forty? Thirty? Surely more than twenty.
“I have enough figurines to fill many orders,” Ulrich said.
Gerlach frowned, clenched his trowel, set another stone.
“And I already possess”—Ulrich clenched his teeth through a new wave of pain—“those orders. They would pay enough to support me . . . and my family for a month.”
Scrape, flump, splat. Set.
“You can have them all. More, too, if you want. I’ll sell them for you. There’s one in my pocket”—gasp—“you can have it. Add it to the other I gave you. You can trust me. We have been friends.”
At last Gerlach set the trowel somewhere next to him behind the wall. He leaned over the hardened part of the wall directly in front of Ulrich. “You have a figurine with you? Which one?”
“Rumpelstiltskin. Your favorite.”
Gerlach stared at him for a long moment and climbed over the wall and through the opening. He knelt beside Ulrich, removed the figurine from his pocket, and rolled it over in his hand.
“Do we have a deal?” Greater pain burst beyond the numbness, and Ulrich winced.
“Gerlach!” Heinz yelled down the stairs. “Are you finished?”
“Not quite, Vater.” Gerlach slid the Rumpelstiltskin figurine into his pants pocket and climbed back over the wall. He didn’t look again at Ulrich, but his voice dropped so only Ulrich could hear. “What do I need with a fairy tale?” He set another stone into place and then another.
“Please don’t do this.” Ulrich kicked his legs, but he couldn’t reach the wall. He twisted his body and pulled against his shackles. New pain burst through him, but he didn’t care. “I have a family,” he yelled.
The shadows darkened. Scrape, flump, splat. Set. Scrape, flump, splat. Set. Too soon, all but a long rectangle of light above Ulrich enveloped him. The thick, stale air smothered him.
“I must obey Vater.” Gerlach dropped a wooden figurine through the hole. It landed on Ulrich’s arm and rolled to the floor in front of him. Ulrich grabbed it. He squeezed his fingers around the shape he’d cut and sanded so smooth the paint had made the man, his oldest patron had said, seem almost lifelike. His patron had ordered a hundred just from a demo. This demo.
Please, God, let me die quickly. Another stone. And another.
Please let Ilse know what happened to me.
Gerlach’s last stone blacked out all light. Ulrich pressed the figurine against his wound. “I love you, Ilse . . . Beate . . . Ilse . . .”
Unforgettable Chapter 1
Author Ronda Hinrichsen