What felt worse, how normal things used to be, or how terrible they became?
I laughed when they came. I did your job, I told them. Laughter was the best
medicine, but it wouldn’t cure the gaping hole in my chest, self-inflicted agony, from
where blood oozed like the toothpastes they gave us. Just a little pressure, and it all
came rushing out.
How could you laugh when you might break at any moment?
The fog is going to be terrible tonight. Uncle won’t come. Some birthday!
Annalise was dismal. The cake was ready, and Mama rushed past the simmering
Sauerbraten to hide it, as Annalise entered, her face flushed poppy-red due to the
The velvet curtain behind her concealed Vati, his breath hushed, lest the curtain
They were both going to pretend that they had forgotten her birthday. It was a
terrible strategy to duplicate so frequently, but it always seemed to work.
‘Mama, what- ‘
‘Now, now, Schnuki, Vati will be home soon. You wouldn’t want to go to bed
hungry, would you? So, let me make dinner peacefully.’
‘But, Mama- ‘Annalise's protest was feeble. But her voice had the slight tremble in
it that preceded crying. As she turned, her parents shared a glance and thought
together: ‘Happiness before surprises.’
Suddenly, she looked up. ‘Is that- Uncle! Uncle!’ Annalise bounced with joy. Uncle
was Vati’s friend, and her favourite person in the entire world. She hadn’t expected
him to come tonight, he was so busy.
As he appeared, the cold wind whistled in. Something seemed to be amiss. His kind
face looked downcast, resembling her own, when she didn’t want to eat her
vegetables but was trying to please Mama. It was probably because of the stress of
the police job he had been enlisted in.
Vati emerged from behind the curtain- So they hadn’t forgotten after all! - with
balloons full of candy and éclairs. It will be fun to pop. He and Uncle looked at each
other, talking without words. Vati’s face, wrinkled with smiles and tension,
‘You said you’d tell us days beforehand, Warin!’
‘I did tell you about the inspections! I told you that all the Jews from Vienna have
left, but you insisted on staying! I can take Anna, but- but-’
‘That won’t be necessary.’ Vati’s voice was icy.
‘What? You can’t- ‘
‘Dan! Warin!’ Her voice softening, she turned to Annalise. ‘Let’s see the decoration!’
The candles on the cake flickered with the wind. Mama smiled, but she looked like
Ms. Boesch had when she had given them the Speech.
First, Miss had said that the special kids had left school. After a few seconds, she
added that the Jews were special too, so they couldn’t attend school
anymore. Now, Uncle taught her. She could still hear him shouting at Vati.
‘Mama, why is Uncle speaking in the forbidden tone? Is it related to the
Every night, more of their neighbours were disappearing. All their belongings were
intact; they were the only elements missing from the houses. The street was almost
empty now. Mama and Annalise spent many nights trying to solve the mystery.
Whenever Vati saw them, he pursed his lips in a disapproving manner. It was
probably because Vati hated the police.
‘They are inhuman, greedy, cruel mercenary villains. You shall never join them.’
His tone suggested not that she couldn’t, but that she wouldn’t be able to.
‘What do those big words mean?’
‘I’m afraid you’ll know soon,’ Vati had said sadly, but why would learning the
meaning of words be sad?
Maybe his hatred for the police was why Vati and Uncle were fighting?
A cacophony shook the walls. Mama stopped Annalise from rushing out, but she
fought her way out. What if Vati disappeared too?
She saw the curtain first. The beautiful velvet, the one thing Mama had asked for
on her birthday, was ruined due to red drops. Vati smiled and beckoned to her.
Blood, blood, blood. Pain, suffering, agony. He smiled as he clutched his chest. ‘Ich
liebe dich, meine kleine Prinzessin.’
I love you, my little princess.
He winced as he lay down and closed his eyes.
When she turned, Mama smiled, even as Annalise took in the blood pouring from
her, the way love did. Behind her, Uncle was sobbing quietly, a small device in his
bloodstained hands. A gun. He did something with his fingers to it-
‘Happy birthday, Lisa.’
Was this his present?
(c) Pragya Rathore