December 1942 Germany.
The whir whir whir of fast machinery fills the air. The fresh, sweet scent of newly cut paper tinged with the acrid smell of glue mixes in the wide-open factory space.
Men and women scurry back and forth over the smooth swept floor, skirting hulking pieces of machinery.
Everything is in motion, conveyor belts whizzing, pots of hot metal bubbling, even the windows, high above the chaos, shift with the huddles of soft, grey pigeons watching the commotion below.
A book is spat out unceremoniously onto a conveyor belt, joining countless, identical ones. The letters gleam in the light, gold, freshly stamped onto a marbled green cover. In the middle of the cover a smiling witch rides her broom through a cloudy night sky.
The title sprawls above her. Grimm’s Märchen.
February 1943 Neuhof, Germany.
A woman exits a small bookshop onto a busy street, she hums as she weaves through traffic, bicycles and pedestrians, effortlessly dodging men and women. She grips a neatly wrapped package of unadorned brown paper in her arms, smiling softly to herself.
Moments later she wafts through the front door of a small house, steps light, smile brightening as a child comes barrelling down the hall.
He flings his arms around her waist, hands gripping her long skirt.
She laughs and unwinds his hold, presenting the package to him.
‘A present?’ his chubby little hands shoot out.
She watches eagerly as he rips the paper off. A marbled green cover with shining gold letters is rapidly revealed.
‘It’s a book of fairy tales, treat it well.’
He grips it eagerly, eyes shining.
‘Read me one?’ he asks ‘pleeeeease?’
She smiles down at him and takes the book in her hands. They settle down on a lounge and she turns to the first page.
‘Next to a great forest there lived a poor woodcutter with his wife and his two children. The boy’s name was Hansel and the girl’s name was Gretel.’
September 1944 Neuhof, Germany.
Walter watches in awe as his father buttons up his coat, the lines neat and crisp. His boots are polished to a high shine, an eagle sits above his breast pocket, wings spread.
His mother stands in the corner of the room hastily folding and packing clothes into a bag. Her face is lined with anger that Walter doesn’t understand. His father is travelling to Hamburg, a big city Walter hears. Maybe his mother is worried his father will like it so much he won’t come back. That’s what Walter fears.
He hurries out of the room, the adults don’t notice, caught up in their silent argument.
In the kitchen Walter is hurriedly tearing pieces of bread from a loaf, he has to make sure his father comes back, it’s his responsibility, he’s the man of the house until his father returns. His parents emerge from the other room, his mother has tears in her eyes now, his father looks as stoic as always, bag clutched in one hand, cap in the other.
Walter rushes to him, crumbs hidden in his fist, he throws his arms around his father who awkwardly pats him on the back. Walter slips his hand into his father’s coat pocket and deposits the crumbs. He knows it didn’t work for Hansel and Gretel but his father is smarter than that, he’ll find a way back and Walter is helping the only way he knows how.
December 1944 Neuhof, Germany.
Walter hides behind his bedroom door. His mother yells in the other room, his father yells back. The older man’s once handsome face is lined and his frame thin. An angry, red scar blossoms on his neck, a matching exit wound on the other side.
His mother’s face is red, she screams in Romanian, they’re not supposed to speak Romanian any more, he wants to remind her but his father beats her to it, yelling back in thick German.
She picks up a medal from the table and throws it at him, it glistens as it soars through the air, it hits his chest and bounces to the floor.
Walter slaps his hands over his ears, drowning out the yelling, the same arguments every night it seems. He hears his name in his mother’s frantic high tones, she worries about him the most.
He scrabbles over to the bed frame, digging beneath to find his book, small hands shake as they stroke the golden letters. He flips to the first page and whispers the story to himself. ‘Next to a great forest there lived a poor woodcutter with his wife and his two children.’ The screaming fades as the story captures his imagination. A witch, a gingerbread house, an encroaching evil.
He falls asleep clutching his book as his parents sit in angry silence in the adjoining room.
The next morning, he awakes to his mother shoving clothes into bags, a small sack each. ‘We’re not safe Walter. Your father realises his uniform can’t protect us anymore. Help me pack.’
Walter gets to his feet and heads for their small kitchen for the rest of their food. His father sits at the table, medal in his hands. He turns it over and over, he doesn’t look up as Walter sneaks around him in silence.
That night they sneak away, they’ll hide in the forest, it’s warm enough this time of year. Two sets of clothes each and as much food as they can carry. Walter’s book, his most prized possession, is tucked away in his rucksack with his shirts.
January 1945 Hildesheim Forest, Germany.
A quiet steady drip fills the shallow cavern. Twisted roots hang from above, rotten wood and leaf litter blocks the light from outside. Walter sits uncomfortably on the dirt floor, sheltered in the roots of a giant upturned tree. He ran out of food two days ago; his parents have been gone longer.
Time passes slowly, marked out by Walter’s scratching’s on the dirt floor. In the mid-afternoon the light just reaches through a gap in the makeshift door. He carefully pulls out his book, gold letters starting to fade. He opens it to the first page and squints in the sparse light.
‘Next to a great forest there lived a poor woodcutter…’
The page is wearing thin on the edges from countless turnings.
His stomach grumbles.
He strokes the illustration with small grubby fingers. Hansel and Gretel are curled up on the ground, the dark forest looming over them. A house sits in the background, warm smoke curling from the chimney, a pretzel curls over the doorway. A house made entirely from treats.
His stomach grumbles again.
He sighs and turns to another story, one that doesn’t remind him of his empty belly.
January 1948 Indian Ocean.
Walter leans against the boat railings, wind whipping through his hair, salty and fresh. He laughs with glee, seagulls swoop and dive above him.
His Mother appears behind him, her face is slightly green, concerned expression fixed on her son.
‘Walter, come back to the cabin, you’ll fall overboard like that.’
She hovers behind him, not too close to the edge.
‘Mum! Come look at the waves with me.’ Walter leans further over the edge, staring at the white wash far beneath them.
His mother gasps and her hand shoots forward to grab on to the back of his jacket.
‘Come along Walter, we’ll be there soon and your father wants you to practise your English with him.’
Walter groans, ‘Mum my English is fine,’ he replies, English strong, accent thick.
‘Well mine isn’t,’ she replies in Romanian, arms crossed over her stomach now.
Walter glances around, the ship deck is empty but he worries someone will have heard the foreign language all the same, she doesn’t care.
‘Alright, alright I’ll come practise with you.’ He jumps down from where he’d been standing with his feet on the bottom rails.
His mother grasps his elbow with glee now, ‘We can translate some of your fairy tales?’ she offers.
Walter smiles, ‘Yeah okay.’
They wander, arm-in-arm, below deck.
December 1953 Adelaide, Australia.
Walter’s mother sits in the living room of their newly built home, the radio drones in the background. Walter sits in the dining room with books and pens spread out around him. He can just see his mother through the open doorway, the soft sounds of the radio provide a perfect white noise backdrop to his study.
His father is outside working in the shed, tending to beehives and orchids, getting ready for sale.
The song on the radio cuts out and the muffled sounds of the presenter’s voice filters through the numbers and letters spinning in Walter’s brain.
Another song starts, the jaunty tune filling the bright morning air. A man sings, upbeat and happy.
‘Es hängt ein Pferdehalfter an der Wand.’
Walter bobs his head along to the music subconsciously.
‘Und ein Sattel liegt gleich nebenan.’
Walter’s head jerks up as the familiar but foreign words register. His eyes dart to his mother, sitting still in her armchair, staring at the radio.
‘Fragt ihr mich, warum ich traurig bin.’
He watches as his mother starts breathing faster, fingers digging in to the arms of the chair beneath her.
Walter starts to stand, to turn the radio off, change stations, anything. But he’s too late.
His mother darts out of her chair, grabs the radio and hurls it across the room. The plug catches then rips from the wall, the radio continues, crashing on to the ground and skidding down the hallway. The air hangs heavy and silent, Walter hovers in the dining room doorway, his mother stands, breathing heavily, staring angrily at the now broken radio.
She abruptly spins and heads for the bookcase, books in different languages sit side by side on the shelves. She starts ripping them out of their spots. German books fly down the hall after the radio, some Polish and English following, rage indiscriminate.
Walter’s father crashes through the back door.
‘What’s going on?’
Walter’s mother whirls, anger redirected.
‘Get out, get out!’
His father takes a step back, recognising his wife’s anger. She follows him out the door, screaming.
Walter darts forward and grabs his book of fairy tales, still safe on a shelf that remained untouched.
He hurries it to his room and places it in a box which he shoves under the bed. He rushes back out of the room, mind on the mess in the hall now. Another radio busted. He’ll have to sort through their books now.
His book of fairy tales sits under the bed, forgotten.
December 31, 1954 Adelaide, Australia.
A city street, lit brightly by overhanging fairy lights, glistens. New Year’s Eve. Loud music fills the warm night air, couples twist and spin through a street empty of cars.
Walter stands to the side, drink in hand, watching the couples. He thinks of fairy tales, eyes on the glittering tableau, he thinks of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, happy endings. There’s no room in his new world for children sleeping in the cold and bittersweet tales of morality. Only princesses and true love.
A young girl sidles up beside him, hands clasped behind her back, eyes fixated on the lively dancers.
He places his drink on the steps of the building behind him then turns to her and offers his hand. She places hers delicately in his and he twirls her onto the dance floor, moving with ease through the colourful crowd of dancers.
They step in time to the fast beat of the band, hands clasped together between them, feet moving back and forth in perfect sync. Walter’s hands go to her hips and he twirls her through the air with ease, flowing in and out of other couples. She twists effortlessly, suspended in flight, head thrown back in a surprised shout of delight, he can dance!
The band changes to a slower song and couples shift to a simple box step, moving between each other like water. Walter and his partner shift too, his left hand clasped in her right, they whisper to each other as the clock ticks steadily towards midnight.
February 1957 Adelaide, Australia.
Walter stands in the doorway of a large walk in wardrobe, small box in his hands. Larger boxes surround him, a bed sits to the side, half put together.
He cautiously peels the lid off of the box in his hands. There sits his marbled green book, dusty and worn. He sighs and replaces the lid, pushes the box up onto the highest shelf and turns back to the other boxes.
A woman bustles in, the same one from New Year’s Eve, shiny new ring on her left hand. She laughs and spins through the room, arms held out in glee. Walter smiles at his new wife, steps in line with her and effortlessly twirls her through the room.
His book of fairy tales sits in the wardrobe, forgotten.
August 1976 Adelaide, Australia.
Walter sits in a wooden chair beside a bed, book open in his hands. On the front cover a boy and a girl sneak through a forest, breadcrumbs trailing behind them.
In the bed a small girl cowers, covers drawn up past her chin, eyes fixated on her father. ‘She seized Hansel with her bony hands and carried him into the little stable and barred the door on him.’
The little girl gasps and pulls the blanket up higher so only her eyes are showing.
Walter smiles as he continues the familiar story, a rare moment with his youngest child. He turns the page of the new story book, written in English, the only language his children speak, the only language he speaks anymore.
His own treasured book is hidden away in the wardrobe, gathering dust.
Perhaps one day he will pass it on to his children, or theirs.
Perhaps one day he will be able to open it again.
September 1991 Adelaide, Australia.
Worn, wrinkled hands caress an equally worn cover. The witches smile no longer gleams gold, the embossed letters dull and worn. The spine creaks in warning as the hands turn to the first page which has come unattached, Hansel and Gretel remain curled in a dark forest, but Walter does not. He sits in a cosy room, sun shines through the window as he carefully wraps his book in paper.
Later he will take it to a bookbinder, a treasure entrusted to strange hands. They won’t do it justice, no care for the worn binding, crooked tape for the pages that have fallen apart. The beautiful title page destined for the trash.
But the witch will still grin, faded but alive.
November 1998 Uki, Australia.
Small hands rip through neatly taped paper. A girl, a toddler, holds the book with clumsy fingers. Her Mother reads a letter nearby, smiling softly.
‘Grimmmms…m…m…’ the girl stumbles over the unfamiliar letters.
‘Here,’ her mother hands her a sheath of papers. Hansel and Gretel neatly typed at the top, the story written in English underneath.
The girls face brightens at the familiar words.
‘Read it to me?’ she grins up at her mother.
The woman smiles and takes the paper back, her father’s letter set aside for later.
She laughs at the title at the top of the page, memories of cowering beneath her blanket while her father reads her a story about an evil witch.
‘Next to a great forest there lived a poor woodcutter…’
Later the child will palm through the old book, marvelling at the pretty words she can’t read. She’ll sneeze at the dusty, sweet smell of the aging paper. The new bindings and crooked tape don’t bother her. The witch grins brightly at her even if her smile is no longer golden. She laughs at the illustration of a dancing bear.
Years later she will treasure it for the piece of history that it is, years later she will feel her grandfather’s anger at the clumsy restoration, wonder what that title page looked like.
But until then it’s a pretty book with funny pictures and funnier words.