Sunday, August 31, 2008

Say to Me Where the Flowers Are by Augusta Li and Eon de Beaumont

Heinrich picked his way through the streets of Berlin, saluting whenever he met another brown-shirted soldier, wondering whether they knew his true feelings. He had never imagined himself a soldier and, in truth, he wasn’t. Designing bridges, tunnels, and roadways while employed by the army did not make one a soldier. Heinrich knew that his thin frame and delicate hands would never be an asset on the battlefield, but in Germany with the world at war, everyone belonged to the army.

He pushed the small round glasses he wore up his thin nose with one finger and read the gaudy sign that sparkled like a jeweled brooch compared to the gray city surrounding it. Die Komödie des Lebens, one of the many Cabarets that had popped up in the city, afforded the citizenry an escape from the fear and frustration so prevalent in the world. Inside a person could sit down, have a meal and a few drinks, and be entertained by an array of performers. Although the only performer occupying Heinrich’s thoughts as he descended the familiar steps into the Club was Marika.

The room was misty with smoke as usual. Heinrich found a small single table near the center of the room and ordered a scotch and water. He removed his army cap, revealing his short-cropped, dark brown hair. Lighting a cigarette of his own, he looked about, noting other brown shirts here and there. Lizzi was on stage and every eye was glued to her, the very picture of the Aryan ideal: blonde hair and strikingly blue eyes. Tonight her hair was tied back with a shining golden clasp that matched the clinging golden gown she wore. She sang something vaguely suggestive and slightly sleazy as usual. Because of Lizzi, Komodie could operate without government interference. Her voice was good but her talents off-stage were what kept high-ranking Nazi officers happy and willing to overlook the opinions of the conferencier, which were often at odds with those of the Party. Lizzi finished her song, bowed deeply, and gave the audience a good look at her ample cleavage. She was certainly beautiful, but not what drew Heinrich here night after night.

* * * *

Lizzi took one final bow and blew the audience a kiss, her gaze lingering on the thin, dark haired soldier with the pretty blue eyes. She found the edge of the curtain and hurried backstage to the dressing room she shared with Marika. If Lizzi was a warm, golden summer day, then Marika was the perfect night that followed. Marika had just finished dressing in a long, shimmering black gown with a high-collared neck and moved out from behind the dressing screen. Lizzi began to peel her dress off before the dressing room door closed, marching to the enormous vanity in the center of the room. Marika had inky, black hair cut into a bob with severe bangs. It framed her pale face perfectly, accentuating her deep, dark eyes. She glided over to the large vanity and sat down. She could have been a black and white photograph had it not been for the gleaming red lipstick she now applied.

“He’s here!” Lizzi could barely contain her excitement as she released her elbow length hair from the golden clasp. “Five minutes before the end of my first set, like clockwork.”

“Who?” Marika asked, trying to sound disinterested and failing.

“Don’t you dare! You know who! Heinrich! He’s here to see you again. Will you speak to him tonight?”

“I can’t.”

“What? Why?!”

“You just don’t understand.”

“What’s to understand? You’re a beautiful, single girl. He’s a handsome soldier who’s obviously infatuated with you. He even brought you flowers last night. What are you waiting for?”

“It’s not that simple.” Lizzi had no idea just how complicated it was. Marika wanted desperately to speak with Heinrich and more, but the last time they spoke, it ended in kissing and could have been disastrous had she not stopped him and left.

“I don’t get you, Mari. You haven’t been on one date since you came to Berlin. How can you stand it? I would go crazy from lack of sex.” Lizzi turned to look at Marika very seriously and both women burst into laughter. The door opened and Ernst, the stage manager, told Marika she had one minute to get on stage. She stood up, pulling on black satin gloves that ended just above her elbow. She laid one gloved hand on Lizzi’s naked shoulder.

“I’ll think about what you said, Lizzi. He is very attractive and very kind.” Lizzi patted the hand resting on her shoulder and Marika floated from the room.

“I wish I could move like that,” Marika heard Lizzi lament to the emptiness.

* * * *

Marika took her place behind the curtain and waited for Helmut, the witty, sarcastic conferencier to introduce her. This moment always frightened her the most, made her wonder if she had done everything correctly, and hope she had not overlooked something that would give her away. She knew if she were to be found out, it would be just after opening the curtain.

“…mesmerizing Marika!” The applause followed and she took a deep breath before stepping through the curtain into the spotlight. The audience applauded a little more and Henri played the first few notes of the song as the spotlight dimmed, as per her instructions. Lizzi might love the flooding glare of the spot, but Marika preferred a more intimate lighting, allowing the audience to feel closer to her. The dusky glow suited her choice of music better as well. Tonight she sang Es leuchten die Sterne and the crowd fell as near silence as a crowd could, listening to her purr out the lines. Marika’s earlier apprehension melted away as she moved slowly around the stage. Her lithe body undulated, similar to the motions of the gypsy belly-dancers who often visited the little town where she grew up, but slower, more sensual. Her song spoke of love lost and she held the note in her throat, noticing Heinrich with his scotch and water, his eyes wet and sparkling with emotion. She let the note go and sang just to him, looking him straight in the eyes. He shifted in his chair and she caught a glimpse of him putting his hat in his lap. Her lip curled into a mischievous grin. Maybe Lizzi was right. Maybe there was a chance for her to be happy, despite her nature.

She finished the song and the crowd applauded. One of the officers in the back stood up to clap. How flattering, she thought.

Aloud she said, “How about something a little more upbeat?” The crowd applauded again and Henri began to bang out Ich Bin Eine Vamp. This was why they came to see her. She always started her set with something beautiful but sad, followed it with something peppy and fun and then brought the house to its knees with the show-stopper, Sag Mir Wo die Blumen Sind. Not a single member of the audience ever kept a dry eye. Marika liked to think the lyrics alone didn’t evoke such sentiment in her audience but also the way she sang them, the belief she had in them and her own passion infusing them with reality.

She danced about now, strutting up and down the stage, the slits in her dress exposing her perfectly toned legs in their silk stockings, enjoying herself, playing the crowd. She imagined this part of the act as the calm before the storm. Marika flashed her most winning smile and caught Henri’s eye, giving him a wink. The music and her voice built to the end of the song and without warning, the piano stopped, the lights went out and someone began to clap, before Henri interrupted with an ominous tune. Instead of the spot, a blue filter lit the stage, making Marika’s lips look as black as her eyes and hair. The officer in the back sat down uncomfortably, mid-clap. First timer, she thought, and then she sang. Profound grief saturated her voice as she crooned the words of Sag mir wo die Blumen sind. She sang with her eyes closed, letting the tragedy overtake her and flow through her, thinking of what she wanted to be, what she could never be, everything that she wanted but would never obtain, and the things that she’d missed since coming to this city.

“Sag mir wo die Blumen sind, ” she sang. Say to me where the flowers are. She contemplated the words, acutely aware of the fleeting fragility of life, beauty and happiness, of how quickly and cruelly it was stamped out and stolen away. As she continued, the audience understood the tragedy in ways too eloquent for explanation, and their tears flowed, each for his own lost happiness or love.

“Wo sind sie geblieben. Sag mir wo die Blumen sind, was ist geschehen?” Where have the flowers remained? Say to me where the flowers are. What has happened?

Marika looked out across the audience, all of them flowers, frail and doomed. Her eyes found Heinrich, his face a mask of despair, and her own loss permeated the lyrics, steeping them in more sorrow.

“Sag mir wo die Blumen sind. Mädchen pflückten sie geschwind. Wann wird man je verstehen, wann wird man je verstehen? ”

Say to me where the flowers are. Girls plucked them swiftly. When will one ever understand? When will one ever understand? She thought of Heinrich and his mouth, how he devoured her the night before last. They hadn’t even made it into his apartment before being overtaken with their feelings. She recalled the firm but gentle way he cradled her neck while exploring her mouth with his tongue, the way he sucked just slightly on her bottom lip before releasing her. And finally, she remembered looking into his eyes and seeing something there that frightened her more than being found out, and then running from that look all the way back to the apartment she shared with Lizzi above the Club. She remembered how grateful she was to find the apartment empty. She sang and remembered, listening to muffled sobs of the audience. As the song drew to its close, she opened her eyes and looked directly at Heinrich, with tears streaming down his face. Marika knew that Heinrich was remembering that night, as well. This time it was Heinrich who ran off, tipping over his chair in his haste. She finished the song feeling spent, exhausted as always, wanting to run after Heinrich but unable to propel herself forward. She simply stood, gasping while the crowd slowly got to its feet, applauding. Henri stood beside her now, helping her bow, holding her hand. They left the stage as the officer in the back called out, “Wiederholung.”

* * * *

Marika passed through the curtain, where Henri handed her off to Lizzi, who helped her the rest of the way to the dressing room. Marika could hear the music for the next act cueing up and wondered who would follow her.

“That was amazing, Mari! I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything as powerful as that. Heinrich jumped up and ran out. I couldn’t believe it. What happened between the two of you? Did it have something to do with the flowers?” Lizzi kept asking questions, but Marika had stopped listening. She could only think of Heinrich. Beautiful Heinrich. She wondered if she could find her way back to his apartment. After mumbling something to pacify Lizzi, she made her way out of the dressing room to the back stage door. All she wanted now was a little fresh air, despite the stinging cold of the night.

One of the stage hands knelt with his back against the wall, smoking. When he saw Marika he grinned, his dirty face a latticework of lines poking from his red scarf. He offered her a cigarette from his pack and she took one. He stood to light it before going back in the building. Hugging herself, leaning back against the wall of the theatre, she took one long drag, feeling the smoke burn her lungs. It was impossible to think straight. She wanted desperately to go to Heinrich, yet remained dreadfully afraid of what that might mean for her future. She took another puff, letting her eyelids flutter closed, listening to the muffled music mingling with the sounds of the street.

Somewhere in the distance a gunshot rang out, startling her back to alertness, reminding her of the dangers of the world she inhabited and the caution she needed to exercise to survive. Marika crushed the cigarette out with one shiny, black heel. Before she could open the stage door, she was spun by the shoulder to face Heinrich’s pale, blue eyes, still wet with tears.

She opened her mouth, not yet sure of what to say, when Heinrich lunged forward, removing any need for words. His mouth crashed against hers, kissing her furiously. She didn’t resist but wrapped her arms around his neck, pulling him toward her, clinging to him as though her life depended on it. His tongue traced the line of her teeth and her tongue moved to caress his. The bricks scraped cold and hard on her back but she didn’t care as she grabbed his back with one hand and crushed his pelvis against her. Heinrich turned his attention to her neck and shoulder, coating them with kisses.

“Oh. Oh, Heinrich,” she sighed.

Heinrich kissed her ear and whispered, “I love you.”

“You can’t.”

“But I do. This war has made the world far too uncertain not to jump when life offers you something wonderful. Marika, you are something wonderful.”

Marika sighed, resting her head where Heinrich’s neck met his shoulder. She inhaled his scent. “We must go inside. I’m freezing.” Marika took Heinrich by the hand and led him through the door.