A Friend: Third Tourmaline (part one)
Mrs. Leonhardt had taken out all the old silver. Her mother’s silver, her own, the sugars and the salt cellars that she for a time had always been buying, always poking through the second-hand markets, offering half the asking price for anything blackened, anything with the handle or feet off.
“That’s good silver. You could polish it up.”
If a vendor gave her that, she gave back: “Well, so could you, then.”
She’d had foresight, that way.
And Anton, now, past the weekend. Their first days, she’d found him easy to manage, the way he crawled under the covers and stayed there, and she hadn’t known then if he was free as he claimed…or if an officer would come pounding at the door. So it was as well. In his suffering, his face had changed. Her son had all along, as in her mind she accounted for it, the brow and chin and the dark hair of her maternal grandfather. Only his pallor and thinness showed it now.
She was bringing out the things she’d coffered, to prove this to herself, that Anton was alive and not dead; that though he could not in memory place himself, how he’d lived away for six years, been imprisoned…
Some guardian angel had done her this kindness.
Of taking him to her doorstep and ringing the bell.
Proof economy profited one in mourning, as in all things. This reserve, this heart-burning restored to the ledger, of debts to be paid in future (for of course, in old age, one could always grieve), had been yet another instance of her born wisdom. There were mothers like herself, bereaved, many of them. They had spent it all and not been given this reward.
She first had nailed the mirror up—she had done this on her own—to hide the linen cupboard, those things she treasured, and things to barter. Of carpenter’s tools, she had generations’ worth. Anton’s father had not done very much fixing. But he’d been good about not giving things away.
“If you hear anything, don’t be afraid.”
She carried the hammer in her left hand, tapping Anton on the shoulder with her right.
“What, what?” He twisted towards her, fighting the comforter.
“I have a chore to do, I’m saying.”
To explain, she happened to raise the hammer. His face altered, lost its unconscious animation. He’d roused himself almost keen, engaged for the least second…at once, he seemed to remember. He met her eyes, and went guarded. She would not tell him again that she was his mother, that he was her Anton, and safe here at home. Today, she would tell him to go to the kitchen and get his own breakfast.
Carefully, carefully, Mrs. Leonhardt wiggled the pulling end—the claw, was it?—and when she’d got six labored nails loosened, knew she had two times as many remaining. Thinking now of the chore’s nature, she could see trouble, a single nail precarious, holding the heavy mirror by one upper corner. The bell rang.
And in that same way.
If Anton had gone downstairs, he could not have got to the door before the caller began leaning on it, letting a long, continuous summons rattle the front hall. Nothing, she found, after running with the hammer in her hand pell-mell to the landing, had been abandoned on the stoop. This time a soldier, shaved scalp under yellow beret, brass-snapped lapel fastened at the neck, waited smiling. But of course, if he were the same one, the angel, she wouldn’t know it.
“Ma’am.” He raised a gloved hand to his forehead. “Mrs. Leonhardt?”
“Corporal Herward. Do you live in this house alone, ma’am?”
The correct answer would be that she did. Or that she might. If Anton were well, he would want to take up with his friends, follow that woman, if he could find her now. As he’d gone off doing to begin with.
She had come to say it in person (this Palma thinking it honorable…that with this sort of news, an approach mattered). Anton had been killed. Mrs. Leonhardt lifted her chin, remembering. Liar. He hadn’t been. Why trust the resistance, then, their general?
The corporal, his tone of voice no different, repeated, “Do you live here alone, ma’am?”
“Are you asking,” she gave him at last, “to come in?”
“Only if I can help you with anything. We’re checking the neighborhood, that’s all. Have you got enough to eat?”
“Never mind food. Can you hold something for me?”
She thought it wasn’t much to ask. Owed, was what it was…a lot of things were owed. And she doubted Anton could help.
In that way, the G.R.A. corporal got his inventory (Mrs. Leonhardt knew he had), of her silver, her picture albums, the radio and batteries, the flour and sugar in their canisters, taped up against moths. But all along, while prying nails for her, strong enough to do this holding the mirror one-handed, he’d been polite as at the front door, not a sign of noticing. This forbearance, coming from one of them, began to feel like charity.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)