New York City’s Grand Central Terminal is the inspiration for this collection of novellas from ten bestselling authors whose stories are all set on the same day, just after the end of World War II, in a time of hope, uncertainty, change, and renewal…. This excerpt is from the third entry, “The Branch of Hazel,” by Sarah McCoy.
Sarah McCoy is author of the New York Times, USA Today, and international bestseller The Baker’s Daughter. Sarah’s work has been featured in Real Simple, The Millions, Your Health Monthly, Huffington Post, and other publications. She has taught English writing at Old Dominion University and at the University of Texas at El Paso. She calls Virginia home but presently lives with her husband, an Army physician, and dog, Gilly, in El Paso, Texas. Her novella “The Branch of Hazel,” featured in the anthology Grand Central (Penguin), releases today. Her third novel, The Mapmaker’s Children, releases from Crown May 5, 2015. Connect with Sarah on Twitter, her website, or ‘Like’ her Facebook page to stay up to date on all her news and upcoming events.
From “The Branch of Hazel”
©Sarah McCoy 2014
Cata pulled the hatpin from her flesh and felt the blood ooze hot through her stockings. Flames of guilt blistering her back. She wanted to turn and speak to him—in their language. To say all the things she’d been thinking ever since she’d learned the details of the Jewish camps. She’d been ignorant of those truths. Perhaps unconsciously, perhaps not. In a way, she felt as culpable as the Nazi officers she’d bedded and borne a daughter and son.
Nein, she would bite her tongue and leave this man to make his way in peace—to have a new beginning without any reminders of war and suffering. Leave the past behind. Take the fastest train into the future. Wasn’t that what they were all doing here at the station?
“Whereto, miss?” asked the man behind the barred ticket window.
It was her cue. She’d practiced the proper response for weeks on the ship. Mass-ah-choo-sitz, she visualized it spelled out in phonetic syllables on her journal page. She didn’t stumble if she said it slowly, but the slower she spoke, the more foreign she sounded. She wiped a sweat bead from her brow before it streaked her rouge.
“Massachu-setts.” She hurried through the beginning and broke it in two, flipping her bob between. It seemed to work. The man’s gaze remained fixed to his receipts.
“Amherst, Springfield, Salem, Boston?”
To her relief, she was able to reply in perfect impersonation, “Baw-stin.”
He looked up then and gave a crooked smile when he saw her. “Aw, yeah? I got a brudda up d-air. He’s a caw-pentah. You goin’ to see family or friends?”
She nodded. “Yes.”
Mildred, called Milly, was a cousin, twice removed. She’d married a wealthy mercantile and moved to Boston a decade before.
You cannot come home to Luxembourg, Cata’s mother had penned when the war ended. It’s too dangerous. Your brothers are young and still in school. Your father could lose his business.
Cata had been banished, in essence. So she’d written the one family member removed from all connections to the Kutter family name.
Milly had consented to give her lodging and keep her heritage a secret if she financed her own way to Massachusetts and agreed to work as the family’s governess. She had her hands full with three girls: ages eight, six and two. She was expecting her fourth child that winter. A boy, she hoped. Lebensborn Program mothers earned special privileges and honorary cards for their male offspring. Milly wanted to please her husband. Cata understood.
While she wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea of playing the hired nursemaid to her distant cousin, she was in no position to debate the one charity offered. She had to leave Germany immediately. So she emptied her savings and sold off everything of value: jewelry from SS officers, nightgowns made of French lace, silk stockings, feather hats, fur wraps, her favorite pair of T-strap shoes dusted in gold sparkle, ivory-handled hair brushes, perfumes and soaps, even her lavender talc power, half used. All for pennies on the dollar. Better to get solid coin for her journey, she decided, than hold on to the items merely to have them confiscated if arrested. She brought only what she wore and a small handbag containing toiletries, a change of underthings, pajamas, a card stack of photographs and a handful of personal effects. Everything else she sold, right down to the length of her hair. The bob was more American, she told herself as her traditional blond braids were lopped off.
In total, she was able to amass enough to pay for the Steinhöring Home’s gardener to drive her to the coast in his covered produce truck, single-room passage on an America-bound steamship, one night’s boarding at a women’s hotel in New York City and this train ticket from Grand Central Station to the Boston depot. She was on the final leg and could not afford a careless mistake now.
The ticket booth man cocked his head as if waiting for her to go on. Instead, she silently counted out crisp American bills, tousled her blond hair and angled her chin down with a grin. He winked, took the payment and stamped her receipt.
“If you come back this way—stop in and say hello.” He tapped on the counter. “This’s my booth. I’ll be here.” He slid her ticket under the bar but kept his fingers there so hers were forced to touch his.
Amis or Jerries, she thought, all the same. Men were men.
“Thank you,” she said and strolled off knowing full well that his eyes were on the sway of her hips with every step.
She nodded gingerly as she passed the Jewish man, but he kept his stare to the burnished floor.
A violin began to play somewhere, a slow, sad melody that didn’t bounce off the walls like the child’s cry but pooled in the station’s enclaves like dew in a tombstone’s etching.
Cata made a beeline for the Main Concourse where the song was lost in the scramble of people zigzagging this way and that, looking up to the train schedule and down to their luggage; porters and conductors tapping watches; children holding their parent’s hands; soldiers in uniforms everywhere. Fleshly specters, pointing cloaked fingers, Nazi. She could hear the collective whisper in the rhythmic panting of the train engine, Nazi, Nazi, Nazi. She checked her ticket and the rail board then found her track.
Get on, get on, she told herself. Inside she’d be safe. Inside she’d be on her way.
On the platform between her and her train was a lonesome, young girl, standing straight as a quill amid the flurry. She surveyed the crowd then paused on Cata. Her eyes were bluer and clearer than any child born to the Lebensborn Program—bluer than Cata’s daughter’s eyes. Cata could not look away. The girl cocked her head under her stare but did not smile; her jaw set hard with thought. Cata’s stomach dipped. A mass of chills crawled down her back and she had the unnerving feeling that the girl saw her. Saw everything—Steinhöring, the officers, the babies and Hazel.
She quickly moved on, down the platform, though her ticket was for first class. She’d walk back up the entire length of carriages to avoid those piercing eyes and did just that.
Finding her roomette, she pulled the door’s shade, put her bag away, took a seat and exhaled. Finally. The voices, music, whistles and cries of the station muted to a dull discord. Her hip tweaked from the stab. She shrugged off her wool coat and rubbed the spot.
“The needle is worn,” Hazel had said when they came home from the marketplace that awful night.
Hazel had been working on a dirndl bodice and pushed the needle through the material too hard. It had gone straight into her arm. She’d never been very skilled at sewing. She held a rag to the wound, splotched with more blood than Cata imagined a prick to produce.
“Nothing worse than a dull tip.” Brigette had snickered and set her wet mittens by the stove. “Did you miss us?” Without waiting for a reply, she’d gone on, “A bad January. I don’t know how we’re supposed to make good German stock on a diet of root vegetables. We need meat! And what I wouldn’t give for a slice of Black Forest cake.”
Cata moved aside Hazel’s brown dirndl panels to set the grocery bag on the table. “We saw your friend Ovidia. She had new buttons carved with edelweiss. They’d match your dress. She said hello.”
Brigette said after a tsk, “Poor thing. I can’t imagine how she goes on—after giving birth to a deformity. The dishonor would’ve killed me.”
Ovidia had been in the Program with them. A tender, quiet girl who liked to take her meals alone in the garden so she could sketch the summer flowers and winter birds. She’d wanted to be an artist, so they said. Her talents garnered praise in the Bund Deutscher Mädel, Hitler’s League of German Maidens program, and had been her doom, too. The leaders of the BDM had recommended her to the Lebensborn Program for her aptitudes. Her parents were of earliest Germanic heritage and she was pretty enough. Though she’d never said as much, they could all see her heart was distant from the Fatherland’s mission. Many took offense—other mothers and staff. Insolent, they called her. So when she gave birth to a Mongoloid boy the spring before and was discharged from the Program, there was little sympathy. She didn’t go home to her family. Instead, she opened a market stall and sold materials and sewing bits to make a living. There were rumors that she stayed in the hopes of finding the son taken from her at the delivery bed, a blemish on the Steinhöring Home’s record. That kind of word spread fast, right to the doors of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest if they let it. A shame, Cata thought. Ovidia had always been kind to her and a friend to Hazel.
“She does sell the finest fabrics.” Cata nodded to Hazel’s sewing. “That’s got to count for something.”
“A waste of money.” Brigette pulled a grimy cabbage head from the sack. “Much good a pretty dress will do if the Americans and Russians come. Just one more enticement to throw you on your back and have their way.”
Two spindly carrots, an onion and four pockmarked potatoes: Cata lined them up on the table. They’d paid triple what the items were worth, but with so little to be had, even the farmers’ children were crying with hunger pains.
“It’s for when my family sees me,” Hazel explained flatly.
“If your family sees you,” corrected Brigette. “The Program is not permitting anyone to travel or visit. Besides, you had best take better care of yourself first. If word gets out that you’re producing flawed children—well, look at Ovidia—you could be gone for good.”
“I’ll make us a delicious vegetable soup,” Cata had said and pulled a dark loaf of bread from the bag, smiling widely. Change of subject.
Hazel had given birth to twins near Christmastime, a girl and a boy. The girl was round and pink. A true Aryan gem. The boy, however, was terribly inferior and growing worse with each passing day by refusing to eat. Hazel had gone to see him more often than was typically allowed post delivery. Cata only saw her Yann when called upon to wet-nurse. The doctors had hoped Hazel’s additional mothering might break the child’s starvation. Sadly, it had not, and they’d moved the boy from the Program’s nursery to a facility better suited to care for his ailments. Now the doctors were conducting further testing on the girl twin to ensure she did not carry a hidden deficiency as well.
Since the boy’s removal, Hazel had withdrawn completely. Her eyes were dark from nights of crying in bed, and she’d lost such a substantial amount of weight that her milk had dried up already. Cata couldn’t blame her. While Brigette was as blunt as a butter knife, her words cut true: the sorrow and disgrace could kill a woman.