J. S. Kierland
Hannahs life had become so filled with ghosts that she didnt
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 shed 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 Hannahs
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
Many years before, when she was only a child, Hannahs 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 trains siding and whispered,
The signs are in Polish, Hannah. Theyre taking us the wrong
The aching cold continued for three more days until the train arrived
under huge lights that magically turned night into day. Her mother squeezed
Hannahs 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
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. Dont
sit down or youll 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 didnt 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 girls
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 dogs 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 mustnt think about Papa, her mother said. Hannah
didnt understand but knew by the way her mother said it that she
didnt 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
womans 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 didnt understand. The bearded man took Hannahs 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 Hannahs shoulder, and she screamed. The woman lifted the
hot metal piece off her arm and readjusted it while the soldier next to
her repeated Hannahs 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. Hannahs 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 theyd stare at each other through
the barbed wire. The old Guard and the dog would pass. Hed mutter
something Hannah didnt understand, and shed 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
Hannahs side of the fence and she watched the old man and the dog
disappear down the path before picking up what hed dropped and hiding
it in her coat to show her mother.
Why would the Guard give you food? her mother asked. Its
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 mans 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 hed 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 towers 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 hed be in the towers shadow and at that crucial
point hed 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 Hannahs
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 Guards body
hanging on the barbed wire. The dog lay on the stones in front of him,
where the little girls 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 mans 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 girls 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 whod
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. Shed 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 camps gates?
she asked, and Hannah nodded. The Russians caught the little girls
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 dont 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,
Maybe its because the Germans raped their women,
Thats 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 didnt
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
After the concert Hannah asked to speak with Madame Bruckner. It was the
only way shed 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
I was mistaken, Hannah lied. I thought you were someone
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 Hannahs plan for revenge that much easier.
Her record collection had grown larger and now included Bruckners
recordings of Schumanns 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 couldnt 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 Bruckners
door, stopped to listen, than rang the bell.
Bruckners footsteps hurried to the door and when the large, smiling
woman saw Hannah she embraced her, and said, Its 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, Weve already had a long life,
my dear. Besides, youve brought an afternoon white. Well open
it now and drink to the coming evening.
I didnt expect you to
Oh, but I insist on taking you out to dinner. Ive 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. Youre beautiful, Hannah, and should show
Its the spring rain, Hannah said, reaching for her bag
and slipping the Schumann album out of its case for Bruckner to sign.
Its such a dreary day that I almost didnt come at all,
I understand, Bruckner said, taking Hannahs 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. Id 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.
Well 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 Bruckners 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 dogs 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 wasnt sure it was you, Hannah said. I didnt
believe it until I saw the picture of your mother on the piano. Even then,
I almost didnt recognize her out of uniform and was told that she
died wearing it.
Bruckner stared at the empty bottle in Hannahs hand. It took
years for me to drive all of that out of my mind, Bruckner said,
wiping her eyes. Now youve 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 Bruckners chest and
rolled under the piano.
Youre 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. Thats what this
is all about, isnt 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 dont 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 Bruckners 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 dont want to remember,
she mumbled. All I want is to play music. Thats 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 theyd
told her. Like Hannah, shed lived someone elses 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 Bruckners round face stared back through swollen eyes.
I dont want to remember, she mumbled.
You cant forget the red ball, Hannah shouted. I
wont let you!
Bruckner nodded like a person possessed. But I didnt 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 friends...like you,
Hannah began to breath again, and this time her arms slipped around Bruckners
shoulders in an exhausted embrace. She had found both of the lost little
girls shed 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.