The Red Ball

J. S. Kierland


Hannah’s life had become so filled with ghosts that she didn’t know where to put them all. They popped around her like faded black and white photos. A simple cough, a pool of dirty water, even a crawling insect would start them fluttering through her head, making her remember things she tried so hard to forget. Decades passed. She got married, had children, grandchildren, but the ghosts remained and made her feel she’d done something wrong and was being punished for it.
One rainy morning, after another long and sleepless night, Hannah decided to take out her frustration on the one person she felt was responsible for her situation. This sudden decision was exactly what Hannah’s ghosts seemed to want because, without any explanation, they disappeared. But the ghosts had haunted Hannah too long and too deep for her to be convinced so easily. She still felt them around her, waiting to see what she’d do.
* *
Many years before, when she was only a child, Hannah’s ghost problem had started when a long line of gray cars and trucks roared into the small Balkan town where they lived. The trucks belched hundreds of helmeted soldiers into the narrow streets while a loudspeaker blared, “all Jews must pack essentials and assemble in the town square. From there you will be transported to work for the war effort.”
Her father had been expecting this and wrapped one of his heavy coats around Hannah, while her mother prepared some food for their trip. They were marched through the streets with other members of their Synagogue, and when they reached the railroad station they were packed into cold, empty boxcars. After many days and nights of traveling and praying her father peeked through a crack in the train’s siding and whispered, “The signs are in Polish, Hannah. They’re taking us the wrong way.”
The aching cold continued for three more days until the train arrived under huge lights that magically turned night into day. Her mother squeezed Hannah’s hand so hard that it hurt, and when they got down off the train her little legs gave way as they moved up the frozen ramp where black booted officers in heavy overcoats shouted orders that no one seemed to understand. A small man with thick glasses pointed at her mother and a young soldier shoved both of them up the ramp with the butt of his rifle. Her mother picked Hannah up and carried her the rest of the way to the top of the ramp, and when Hannah reached back to help her father he was gone.
* *
Hannah lay close to her mother all night. When the early light hit the window the long train they came in on began to chug its way out, and the heavy iron-gate swung soundlessly back into position again to block the entrance. As the morning light grew an empty paved road appeared next to the tracks. It led to a building where smokestacks spit out a thin gray ash, making the yard look like the cover on a beautiful book of fairy tales Hannah had once seen in a store window.
A funny little bearded man arrived, with a brown woolen cap and old slippers. He went to each bed waking the women and leading them to the back of the barracks where large muddy holes with cement collars stood in long straight rows. When he left, her mother whispered, “Be careful, Hannah. Don’t sit down or you’ll get sick.”
“It smells, Mamma,” she said, holding back her tears, and they squatted in the slimy mud to relieve themselves with the other women.
The bearded man came back and waved at them to follow him to one of the nearby buildings. He told Hannah to wait at the door while he took her mother inside. When they were gone a thin ray of light flashed from above and Hannah looked up into a pair of binoculars that stared down at her from a high window in the gray tower just outside the gate. A door opened at the bottom and a red ball bounced out, followed by a laughing little girl in pigtails who ran after it, kicking the ball against the tower. The red blur shot back past her, and she chased it toward the barbed wire fence where Hannah stood watching on the other side.
The little girl wore a fine blue coat, with polished black shoes, and her long pink stockings matched her woolen dress. They were about the same age, but Hannah didn’t remember seeing her get on the train. The pigtailed little girl walked toward the fence, picked up the red ball and hurled it at Hannah. The ball hit the barbed wire and bounced back across the smooth, river rocks on the other side. The little girl’s glare, and the hatred in her eyes, shot through the barbed wire at Hannah.
A large German Shepard and a Guard suddenly appeared on the stone edged path that circled the fence between them. The dog slipped over the smooth river rocks and picked up the red ball in its mouth. The Guard was an older man in a rumpled gray uniform, with a rifle dangling from his shoulder. He pulled the ball out of the dog’s mouth and handed it back to the little girl on the other side of the fence. The old Guard glanced in at Hannah, said something in German, and continued his patrol with the dog slinking along beside him. Both little girls watched them go, and so did the binoculars in the tower.
The numbing hours passed and the little girl with the red ball finally left in a big black car, and the door behind Hannah opened and the funny little bearded man appeared again. Her mother stepped into the doorway with a frightened look in her eyes. Hannah forced a smile, and they followed the bearded man down the path toward the smoking stacks.
Her mother squeezed her hand like the night before. “Are we going to see Papa now?” Hannah asked.
“We mustn’t think about Papa,” her mother said. Hannah didn’t understand but knew by the way her mother said it that she didn’t want her to ask any more questions.
The bearded man stopped in front of another door and waved them inside a small room with a wooden table, hard-backed chairs, and a bright light. A heavyset woman sat behind the table in a gray uniform with a shiny red and black pin in her lapel. Hannah could see under the table where the woman’s boots stood rigid with gleaming pieces of metal strapped across the toes. The uniformed woman spoke to the bearded man and Hannah heard her name. The lady shook her head, seemed annoyed, and said something she didn’t understand. The bearded man took Hannah’s arm, pulled up her sleeve, and placed it on the table. The woman held her wrist and adjusted an odd shaped piece of metal on her arm. A sharp pain rushed up into Hannah’s shoulder, and she screamed. The woman lifted the hot metal piece off her arm and readjusted it while the soldier next to her repeated Hannah’s name and wrote it down in a large black book.
The bearded man picked up Hannah from the chair and told her mother to take her place. Hannah’s arm burned and when she looked down at it she could see an inky image forming through her tears. 57426.
* *
Life in the camp crept on, getting colder each day. Every morning her mother reported to the same building, and Hannah would wait patiently for her in the doorway. Sometimes the little girl with the red ball appeared on the other side of the fence and they’d stare at each other through the barbed wire. The old Guard and the dog would pass. He’d mutter something Hannah didn’t understand, and she’d move in closer to watch them go by.
One morning the old Guard glanced up at the tower, pulled something out of his coat and slipped it through the wire. It fell among the rocks on Hannah’s side of the fence and she watched the old man and the dog disappear down the path before picking up what he’d dropped and hiding it in her coat to show her mother.
“Why would the Guard give you food?” her mother asked. “It’s against the rules. Verboten.” She broke off a small piece of the bread, carefully tasting it before giving it back to Hannah.
“Eat it slowly,” her mother whispered.
“Yes, Mamma,” she said, and they stood in the shadows eating the piece of dark bread together.
Sometimes another guard, a young clean-shaven blond-haired boy, would go by in the old man’s coat. Hannah could tell by its torn pocket that he shared the coat with the older Guard who came with the dog. Each day she waited for the old man to come because she knew he might bring her something to eat. Sometimes he’d throw bread, potatoes, even small pieces of meat, while the other little girl played with her red ball against the tower.
One foggy morning, while the young guard was passing, the dull thud of cannons began to float into the camp. He stopped to listen, became frightened, and ran away along the fence. Each day the cannons got closer and one of the women who scratched names on the walls whispered that it had to be the Russians because the explosions were coming from the east.
From that day on things began to change. There was less and less food and all inspections stopped. Each day Hannah waited for the old Guard and his dog to pass, and watched the other little girl throw the red ball at the gray tower’s wall. At the other end of the fence the Guard and his dog made the wide turn and Hannah took a step closer to the barbed wire. The old Guard edged toward the fence, keeping the dog on his left. For a moment he’d be in the tower’s shadow and at that crucial point he’d drop food for her through a slightly wider space in the wire. The Guard put his hand into his torn pocket, angled closer to the fence, and a bright red apple appeared against his dark gray uniform. The old man reached out toward the fence and dropped the apple through the wire. The door of the tower flew open. The large woman, with the curved steel boots, shouted at the Guard to stop and aimed her pistol at him. The Guard pulled the dog in closer. When the woman shouted again the little girl with the red ball pointed at the old man and the apple on Hannah’s side of the fence.
The explosion threw the old Guard back onto the barbed wire in front of Hannah. In that instant, the dog raced at the woman and a second explosion echoed through the rows of buildings and down the paved road that led to the smoking stacks. The dog fell to the ground in a whining yelp. For a moment, everything stopped. Than the woman aimed the gun at Hannah on the other side of the fence. Their eyes locked for a long moment, and the woman lowered the pistol, took the other little girl by the hand and went back into the tower.
The apple lay on the ground between Hannah and the old Guard’s body hanging on the barbed wire. The dog lay on the stones in front of him, where the little girl’s red ball had stopped. Hannah picked up the apple, stuffed it into her pocket, and ran back to the doorway to wait for her mother.
The young guard came and pried the old man’s body off the fence, dropped it onto a wooden barrow, and wheeled him away with the dead dog on his chest. The boy was crying and he glanced back through the barbed wire at Hannah as if she was to blame for what had happened to the old man, and Hannah felt for the bright red apple in her pocket to make sure it was still there.
The next day the Russians came in their tanks and knocked down the large front gate. The German guards had left and little Hannah snuck outside the barbed wire to retrieve the other little girl’s red ball. She stuffed it into her pocket with the half-eaten apple and followed her mother and the other women into the nearby village to look for food. Like the guards, the townspeople had left and the women ran through the empty houses looking for whatever they could find to eat.
* *
Years later, in a supermarket aisle, Hannah met one of the women who’d been in the camp with her. She told Hannah that the little girl who played with the red ball had become a famous pianist, specializing in Gershwin and Irving Berlin, playing for American tourists who stayed in the Swiss hotels along the border. “She’d become quite accomplished at playing American songs written by Jews, even used their music for encores at her concerts,” the woman told her. “I never understood that kind of madness. It made no sense,” she said, with a grunt. “Do you remember when the Russians came and tore down the camp’s gates?” she asked, and Hannah nodded. “The Russians caught the little girl’s mother,” the woman told her. “You remember the Commandant with the steel on her boots?” Hannah nodded again. “They hung her from a tree near the camp, but I don’t think they raped her because of the child being there. The Russians liked to rape the German women whenever they had the chance though. I never understood that either,” she shrugged.
“Maybe it’s because the German’s raped their women,” Hannah replied.
“That’s a thought,” the woman said, and went on with her shopping as if none of it had ever happened.
* *
The woman had told Hannah the name of the little girl at the camp. Heidi Bruckner. She bought two of her recordings and began to search for the pianist she had watched play with the red ball as a child. She even went to one of her concerts. But when Bruckner came out to play Hannah didn’t recognize her. The elegant lady on the stage looked nothing like the pig-tailed little girl she watched play with the red ball on the other side of the barbed wire fence. She began to think that maybe the woman in the supermarket had been wrong. This Madame Bruckner played beautiful music. Hannah closed her eyes and let the wonderful sounds lift her into the rafters of Carnegie Hall. When it was over, she clapped wildly along with everyone else. Madame Bruckner bowed graciously, returned for her encore, and played a medley of Gershwin and Irving Berlin just like the woman in the supermarket had told her.
After the concert Hannah asked to speak with Madame Bruckner. It was the only way she’d be able to tell if she had been the same little girl she watched play with the red ball, and the moment she was ushered into the dressing room she recognized her eyes. Hannah could never forget those blue-green eyes that had so much hate in them.
“You said we had met before when we were young,” Madame Bruckner asked. “I had so few friends back then and wondered who it could be.”
“I was mistaken,” Hannah lied. “I thought you were someone else.”
“How sad,” Madame Bruckner said. “I so wanted to meet an old friend again.”
Hannah sensed the loneliness in the woman and her need for a friend. They talked about the concert, exchanged phone numbers, and made vague promises to have lunch. Anyone interested in music seemed to interest Bruckner, making Hannah’s plan for revenge that much easier.
Her record collection had grown larger and now included Bruckner’s recordings of Schumann’s early piano concertos. So her request for Bruckner to autograph an album would be certain to bring them together for at least one more time.

* *
Hannah held the gray veil across her face and walked the steep hill to where Bruckner lived in upper Manhattan. She had visited the building several times before to practice exactly what she would do, and how she would do it. Like so many other old women walking under a black umbrella, Hannah moved up the street in the light spring rain, carrying her purse and the bottle of German wine.
She stepped into the small courtyard, opened the front door, took the few short steps to the elevator, and began to have doubts about what she was going to do. The elevator door closed and she rose upward. Hannah still couldn’t be certain that Madame Bruckner had been the little girl on the other side of the fence. It happened so long ago she began to doubt that it had happened at all. A television set blared in one of the apartments on the fifth floor, and she moved down the hall to Bruckner’s door, stopped to listen, than rang the bell.
Bruckner’s footsteps hurried to the door and when the large, smiling woman saw Hannah she embraced her, and said, “It’s so good to see you again. You look so beautiful in your gloves and veil.”
“Thank you Madame Bruckner,” Hannah mumbled.
“Your elegance flatters me,” Bruckner said.
Hannah handed her the bottle of German wine she had brought, and said, “To a long life.”
Bruckner laughed, and said, “We’ve already had a long life, my dear. Besides, you’ve brought an afternoon white. We’ll open it now and drink to the coming evening.”
“I didn’t expect you to—“
“Oh, but I insist on taking you out to dinner. I’ve already made reservations...and you must start calling me, Heidi,” Bruckner said, heading for the kitchen.
It was all going just as Hannah had planned, even down to her fake attempt to stop Bruckner from opening the wine. She unpinned her hat and veil, but kept her gloves on. When she looked up a frozen face stared back at her from a silver frame on a baby grand piano in the living room. A black and white picture of a face she could never forget. Madame Bruckner came back into the room with a corkscrew and wine glasses. “You look so much better,” she said, turning the corkscrew in the wine. “Stay away from veils and hats. You’re beautiful, Hannah, and should show it.”
“It’s the spring rain,” Hannah said, reaching for her bag and slipping the Schumann album out of its case for Bruckner to sign. “It’s such a dreary day that I almost didn’t come at all,” she mumbled.
“I understand,” Bruckner said, taking Hannah’s album and pulling a pen from her pocket. “I signed it to a long life for the beautiful Hannah...on a dreary day,” she said, handing it back.
“Would you date it?” Hannah asked. “I’d like that.”
“Of course,” Bruckner said, dating it, and going back to opening the wine. “This was so thoughtful of you,” she said, pouring a bit of the sweet wine into a glass, sipping it, nodding her appreciation, than pouring the wine into the glasses and handing one to Hannah.
“We’ll drink to our new friendship,” Bruckner said, raising her glass. “And to the music that brought us together,” she added. Hannah froze and Bruckner noticed. “Are you all right, my dear?” she asked, and Hannah reached out and took the glass of wine out of Madame Bruckner’s hand, picked up the opened bottle, and hurried to the kitchen. By the time Bruckner caught up with her Hannah had poured most of the wine down the sink. Bruckner stood at the door, with a frightened look in her eyes, waiting for Hannah to finish.
When their eyes met again, Hannah lifted the red ball out of her purse. Bruckner stared at it. “I watched you play with this every day for over a year,” Hannah said in a hoarse whisper. “It still has the Guard dog’s teeth marks in it. These other scars happened when you threw it at me and hit the barbed wire.”
Bruckner took in a short gasp, and the tears began to stream down her face. “And you came to kill me,” she said.
“I wasn’t sure it was you,” Hannah said. “I didn’t believe it until I saw the picture of your mother on the piano. Even then, I almost didn’t recognize her out of uniform and was told that she died wearing it.”
Bruckner stared at the empty bottle in Hannah’s hand. “It took years for me to drive all of that out of my mind,” Bruckner said, wiping her eyes. “Now you’ve come back into my life again, dragging it with you, wanting to kill me.”
“With cyanide, the preferred Nazi death,” Hannah said, setting the empty bottle in the sink and pushing past Bruckner to gather her things. “Of course, this belongs to you...and always will,” Hannah said, flipping the red ball at her. It bounced off Bruckner’s chest and rolled under the piano.
“You’re the little girl on the other side of the fence,” Bruckner said, in a surprised whisper, her eyes wide. “You were there...with me. They must have punished you for what happened. That’s what this is all about, isn’t it?” Hannah stared coldly back at her. “We were so little,” Bruckner whispered.
“Your mother shot the old Guard...not me. And it was your mother that branded me,” Hannah said, holding her arm up to show Bruckner the blur of numbers. Bruckner turned away, and Hannah moved toward her in a rage. “She taught you to hate and destroy things...and you did!”
“I don’t remember any of it,” Bruckner screamed.
“Your mother shot the Guard and his dog right in front of us,” Hannah said. “You accused him and she killed him. I was there! I saw it! I remember it all!” Hannah snapped, picking up the red ball and shoving it into Bruckner’s hand. “You want to hear what else you did?”
Bruckner shook her head, staring down at the red ball in her hand, and crying like a little girl. “I don’t want to remember,” she mumbled. “All I want is to play music. That’s why you wanted my autograph,” she mumbled through her tears, and Hannah sensed how the other little girl had been forced to believe the same lies they’d told her. Like Hannah, she’d lived someone else’s life and had been hiding from her own for all these years.
Both women were crying and Hannah could hear herself chanting, “You killed my father...I never saw him again.” She began punching the woman until Bruckner’s round face stared back through swollen eyes.
“I don’t want to remember,” she mumbled.
“You can’t forget the red ball,” Hannah shouted. “I won’t let you!”
Bruckner nodded like a person possessed. “But I didn’t kill your father, Hannah. They did.”
“Your mother did!”
“They killed my father too. I never saw him again...and had to watch them hang my mother. Now I only want music...and you,” she said.
Hannah began to breath again, and this time her arms slipped around Bruckner’s shoulders in an exhausted embrace. She had found both of the lost little girls she’d left at the barbed wire, and their ghosts began to fill the room. They came out of every corner and closet. The old Guard and his dog, and the women who scratched names on the stained walls marched together. Russian tanks rumbled by and the long lines of the dead passed with them. Their ghosts were disappearing into a narrow space that only two little girls could have known was even there.