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Fiction by Mildred Pond

The Stowaway - page 15

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So it began: An exchange, a need to converse, to counter the fear, the terrible inner solitude – in both of us. He divulged a few more tidbits – that he was German, born in Sudetenland, that region of Czechoslovakia ceded to Hitler in 1938 as part of Chamberlain’s mythical peace package. Then – he insisted on this – it was my turn. I told him I’d studied at Cambridge, that I’d had two posts before being assigned to Dakar – Accra, Brussels – but he also adroitly tricked me into revealing that I had married right after my graduation, and suddenly his probing became heavy-handed -- die little “lumpkin, woe ist zie?” “You’re unbelievable, Schmidt. I’ve half a mind to turn you in, after all,” I said. This offended him; he’d meant to tease me kindly, he said, simply wondered about Mary, my wife, why I avoided talking about her. “Because she’s dead!” I burst out emotionally, still bitter, after all these years. “Ach so.” He said he was sorry. Then, “How did she die?” I stopped answering, certain he wanted to break my reserve even further, gain the upper hand, keep stalling, remain slippery – about himself, about what had happened to his father after the Nazis forced him to return to Germany. Schmidt told me instead that he was a fiddler by trade, inventing that one on the spot. “Tell me you were a circus clown, Schmidt, and I’ll believe that.” A teacher maybe, or a small businessman, I thought. Furthermore, why did I still detect, for all of his mix of false or true confessions, remnants of a military bearing?Some, perhaps many, Sudeten Germans, choosing repatriation before the war, must have joined the Nazis. But Schmidt had also hinted that he was a Jew, hoping to escape to Israel.When I remained silent, Schmidt told me that he had never returned to Germany, that he’d hid in the mountains with his mother until the war’s end. Then why was he a fugitive? He’d divulged in our first encounter that his case was one of mistaken identities. They think I’m someone else. Who thought that? Would he be on the run to South America if he were innocent, whatever that word might mean these days? I tried a new tack, asked about his mother. “What happened to her?” His mother had been a schoolteacher, he said.“Tot,” he said, “She died in the war. “Und ihr muter?”