[For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, SAM gave me this prompt: "The impending storm looked like one never seen before. The sky was green and the animals were restless. It was a bad day to be a zookeeper." I gave Laura this prompt: "An artist has got to be careful never really to arrive at a place when he thinks he's at somewhere. You always have to realize that you're constantly in a state of becoming. As long as you can stay in that realm, you'll sort of be all right." -Bob Dylan]
The days had begun to have an awful sameness. You slept out of exhaustion, awakening more tired than ever. You checked the phones, which were still down, then clicked on the radio, which surprisingly hummed to life. So there was electricity, which meant there may be coffee. Or something approaching coffee- Magda had to reuse grounds so many times now it was only a distant impersonation of the coffee you used to have. The radio announcer was talking of victories, pushing the enemy back, driving perfidious Albion back into the sea. If that's so, you thought, why do we get bombed by the British during the day and the Americans at night? You thought that, but of course, you didn't say it.
You put your feet on the floor, feeling it for vibrations. A vibrating floor used to mean that the streetcars were up and running, but now it only meant the bombs were coming closer. You shook your head, trying to clear it of any cobwebs. Thank God Herman and Francis were with Aunt Sophia in the country, far from the madness of Berlin. But was there anywhere that was safe any more?
You stood up, your darling Magda at the stove, trying to assemble something that resembled breakfast. You saw the tears and stains of her housedress, and you wanted nothing more than to rush down to Fassbender's or Schraum's and buy her a new one, one with lace trim and fine, fine silk. But the shelves were empty of all but the most essential goods, and sometimes not even those. There were no fine garments to be had. It was folly to even ask.
Your wife turned to look at you. The light had gone out of her eyes long ago, but it was her face you saw when you closed your eyes in frustration. Despite all the hardship, all the shortages, she stayed, devoted to you beyond all reason, delighted to see you and willing to share whatever she had with you. You started to tear up whenever you thought of how touched you were when she accepted your proposal, how awestruck and frightened you were through both of her pregnancies. She was the center of your world, and while you couldn't really picture what would make a man fight, when you thought about your Magda shot by a British plane, or struck by an American bomb, it filled you with a bottomless, impotent rage.
"Breakfast, dear one," Magda said, and she had indeed made coffee and oatmeal and toast she blackened over the stove burner. There was margarine, for once, a commodity that had been in short supply, and you wondered what sort of trade Magda had to make to get her hands on that. She set a tray down on the table and pulled your chair out, the kind of gesture that brought the sadness back all over again.
You thought about the birds at the zoo, the ones you knew were starving to the point that they started to pick at each other's flesh. This grain might help one or two of them live another day, you thought, but your own hunger overcame you, consuming the terrible, lukewarm dish with relish. Your own need sated, you looked at your dear wife, looking out the kitchen window at the perpetually gray sky, her ribs now clearly visible along the sides of her body, her tiny breasts even more shrunken.
"Did you eat, my love?," you said.
"Oh, yes, sweetheart," she said eagerly. You knew she was lying, but you let it pass.
It didn't used to be like this. When they came to power, when all this started, suddenly the shelves were full again, and things were normal. All they wanted, they kept saying, was to let the Germans be German- bring Austrian Germans and Czech Germans and French Germans together in one united Germany. All they wanted was the room for all the Germans to live together. They said they didn't want war. We didn't know war was coming, we just wanted the suffering and misery to stop, and that's what they told us they would do, and briefly, that's what they did.
It all turned, of course. They had a million excuses- they told you that there was treachery, that Germans were turning on the Fatherland, betraying their brothers. They told you that there was a minor setback that would be immediately reversed, and that if we only held on a little bit longer, all would be saved. They told you England would surrender, except it didn't, and then they told you they would invade it, except they didn't. They told you the Americans would never come, until they came, and then they said they would be sent home with dispatch. Then the bombers came, first occasionally, then regularly, then every day and night like clockwork. It got so bad that mockery began to peek out. When a loud explosion was heard nearby, Mr. Weber downstairs could be heard shouting, "Another minor setback, eh?"
You had to get back to the zoo. With all the men now serving, you were left with a crew of women and children and wounded soldiers, and they could barely be trusted to feed the snakes. Regular shipments of feed had stopped months ago, and at this point "running the zoo" amounted to figuring out how to divide up the shrinking stores to keep everyone alive for one more day in the vain hope that the long promised trucks would rumble in through the gate. "Pretty soon," Hans Gruder, a one legged veteran of the Russian front commented yesterday, "we're going to be feeding the small ones to the big ones." You laughed, but you knew Hans had a point.
You kissed your wife goodbye, then made your way to the street, walking down towards the bus stop. The buses used to be as regular as clocks, showing up, shiny and new looking, every ten minutes, but at this point, one in the morning and one in the evening was all you could count on. You saw the bus rounding the corner, uttered a short prayer under your breath, and hurried to meet it. You looked ahead at the others who were lined up, all of them as dirty and tired looking as you were.
You heard and felt the shock of a bomb explosion, very close by, shaking the cobblestones under your feet, and saw a column of smoke beginning to tunnel its way into an already dirty sky. The sun looked green through the haze. You lined up behind the others climbing on to the bus, still watching the smoke rising into the air. You said another prayer of thanks that it was not your house, not your Magda trapped in rubble and fire and screaming in pain. You heard a distant sound of a siren, wondering if they would get to this side of the city in time.
As you filed on the bus, you saw Dieter, who worked in the machine shop attached to a small concern that made gyroscopes. You used to drink with Dieter, when you both had free time, when times were good and beer was plentiful. You hardly ever saw him any more.
"A bad time to be a zookeeper," Dieter says, sliding over to allow you to sit. He smelled like liver and onions.
"It's a bad time to be anyone," you said.