Der Keller (The Cellar)
More potatoes, schieße. Curse that woman, I’ve been down here three times already, Karl thought as he climbed down the stairs to the cellar.
The last stair tread groaned. One day I’ll fix that, must be pulling a nail out. He drank deeply the cool musty air, like wet stone that had never known sunlight or warmth. I hope we still have some left. Ahh, good, one more bag. He slung a bag of potatoes over his shoulder, fine dirt sifting through the holes onto his work shirt. Godammit!
As he turned to come back out of the cellar he heard quiet music and cocked his head. Upstairs? He started up the stairs, stepping over the loose tread, but the music was more faint. What’s there, a radio down here? He clomped back down and followed his ear, tendrils of dust sluicing down his back. From the back wall he could hear old band music, horns, clarinets. Was there always a wood shelf here? Funny, two years bartending and I never saw that shelf. He dropped the potatoes with a grunt and tilted his head toward the stairs.
“Brigitte? Did you know there was another cellar next door? They’re playing music. I thought the dress shop didn’t have a cellar. Brigitte?”
The clink of glasses made him jerk his head back. Could that be heard through a basement wall? Was there a duct or some opening between the cellars? Dust motes hovered in a pale cone of light cast from a battered pendant. In the darkness he could make out a corner he hadn’t seen before. Why wasn’t there more shelving back here? A breath of warm air brushed his beard, making him freeze in place, blood whooshing in his ears. I ought to get back upstairs, Brigitte’s no good at pulling beers. Always spilling foam on the glass.
A woman laughed behind the wall.
“He—hello?” Certainly they couldn’t hear. But if he could hear a laugh…and now, over the music and glasses, he could begin to hear words.
“Oh sure, another?—come on! [mumble]—stupid ass—the colonel won’t [mumble]…”
“Hello.” Then louder. “Hello, you people?”
Karl stood in the corner, his hand to the wall. A dirt wall down here? Pills of dry crumbling soil tapped on his shoes as they fell free. He whipped around as he heard music behind him, his neck slick with cold sweat. It was there, the strains of a brass band. Or was it back near the wall? Gott in Himmel, it was dank down here. Maybe a duct broke. Must be it. How else could I hear so easily between cellars? And why the hell hadn’t I seen the wood shelving and dirt walls here? Weren’t they all metal?
“Brigitte! Come down here!”
I don’t like the panic in my voice, no sir. Time to go upstairs.
He turned to leave and bumped into another shelf. Darkness and dust, the smell of forgotten places and things long dead. Where was the stair? Had the light gone out? He pushed against a shelf and felt splintered wood under his palm. Warm air billowed his hair and tickled his eyelashes, the feeling of a stuffy room filled with people and…woodsmoke?
Pah. He huffed once, an airy sound swallowed up by thick darkness. Ridiculous, getting lost and worried in the bar cellar. Now to get back. Yes, back to the bar upstairs, light and normal. What a crazy thing, this broken duct.
He froze. The music was closer now, and he saw light around the corner of a shelf. His apron snagged on a nail and tore with a rending sigh as he squeezed between a row of shelves. Sweat wormed its way between his shoulder blades. Either I’ve gotten fatter in the last few hours or these shelves are closer together. This is some elaborate trick. A surprise party. Is it my birthday? Brigitte’s?
Around the corner was an open door, an old-style portal with black metal hinge straps. Light scattered on dirt at the threshold and shadows danced beyond. Unmistakably, the smell of burning pine, beer, and cigarettes. Hold on, you can’t smoke down here. Or even inside anymore. Someone’s having a right good party.
Karl approached the door, wiping his hands on his apron, feeling tentacles of fiber at the tear. The air was warmer out there, better than the miserable cold of the cellar. And there was something lively, a party. I’ve somehow wandered into the neighbor’s cellar, but…well, I could peek in and see. Through the open the door he saw a low-ceilinged room crammed with men in military dress. Oh Lord. Oh merciful lord.
Red armbands and upturned hats, medallions, short haircuts fading to bare skin. The bent-armed swastika on the soldiers was undeniable. A neo-Nazi group. Reenactors, perhaps. Damn them, they went for the full effect. Serving women with their hair in old-style tied-up braids wove through the men with double and triple mugs of beer. This was the dress shop? I thought it was built last year, but those ceiling beams are ancient things, hand shaped and uneven. Wooden tables with rough benches and three-legged stools. Coals glowing among rustic andirons and black iron pots in the gaping maw of a stone fireplace. Even the record player pumping out tinny brass band music, it had a ridiculous brass lily of a trumpet. Bracing himself on the doorway, Karl felt cold sweat drip down his temple and chin to land with a plop on the stone floor. Look at that. They even put in old stone here, dust in the cracks.
This was all illegal. The uniforms, all the Nazi regalia and symbols. All outlawed since the war, seventy years ago. And you couldn’t smoke inside. It seems every man had a cigarette in his hand, and grey clouds draped from the ceiling. Time to go back. Enough of this.
He turned back to the cellar and found the shelves closer together. Great God, it would be a tight squeeze. Electricity coursed through his legs and he tried to push himself between the wooden shelves. They were packed with old crates and dusty beer bottles that shivered and clinked as he pushed himself forward.
“Achtung! You there!”
His feet scrambled in the dirt and he fell forward, his arms trying to pry apart the shelves.
“Hey! Barman! We’re thirsty!” A voice behind him laughed and in the darkness of the cellar, an arm reached beside him and pulled out a crate. Another arm clapped on his shoulder. The air left Karl’s lungs and he gulped for air as he was pulled backward and turned to face the room.
“Look, gents, he found a case of eiswein!”
A cheer went up from the room and Karl felt his face drain. Nothing but to play along now. He turned to the man who found him and stammered, “Yes sir…found it.”
He was facing a young man with excessively short hair, crisp uniform, and bars on his collar that looked freshly polished. His eyes were grey, dizzying and vacant. Karl looked away, his stomach twisting. The soldier yanked Karl into the room.
“Here is our new hero! To serve us and Germany!”
Men laughed as Karl was marched to the middle of the room. Old electric lines swooped from the rafters, and fat antique bulbs put out greasy yellow light. This felt…it felt real, what they were doing.
The soldier dropped the crate onto the table with a clunk. “Now then, barman, you get these open and we’ll see to emptying them.”
Karl’s head felt thick, his hands clumsy. This was kilometers beyond a joke, it was in a different country, on a different planet. Where was his cellar? These people, they were so…perfectly period. Every last detail from the hair to the wire-rimmed glasses, how had they done it? And that music, it was hellishly loud.
His hands shook as he pulled the bottle from the crate. The top of the bottle was dark glass, a moon of cork just visible under white dust, but the sides were clean. This was a find, after all. An old cellar like this and some ancient eiswein. He rotated the bottle to read the label, then let out a barking laugh.
“Nineteen thirty-one!” He turned to the soldier beside him. “Gott in Himmel, this wine is eighty years old! It looks brand new! You can’t drink this!”
The soldier snarled and grabbed Karl by the shoulder. “Schieße, man, we’ll drink what we please, and you’ll pour till it’s gone. It’s a war and we’re thirsty.” He relaxed his grip and cleared his throat. “And it sounded like you said eighty.”
Karl looked around at the grey swirling eyes of the men gathered around. They weren’t looking at him, really. They weren’t looking at anything. And there was something about their jaws, the way they hung from their skulls…
Brigitte. Now he wanted to see her, to get back to his job, his home—a little apartment with a creaky metal bed and a TV that showed football games in fuzzy reception. This place was madness. These people…
One of the barmaids stepped up to him with a corkscrew, a polished sliver worm with a pointed tongue. She pressed it in his hand and smiled.
Oof, this isn’t right, no sir. She looked like a living, breathing version of an old picture. Like an actress in full costume and makeup. But her eyes were in rich black shadow that followed her as she moved. The music was loud, drilling into his ears, clarinets squealing and baritones oompahing. Great Christ, that music, how could they stand it? The smoke, the noise.
Karl closed his eyes and sat down hard on the ground, his jaw snapping shut and a jolt of pain shooting through his lower back. Music washed over his head in waves and the smell of beer, sweat, and wet wool was stronger on the cold floor. He kept his eyes shut.
“Go away please…get back…” he mumbled. “Get back!” He screamed and opened his eyes. The rough lip of the table was above him and he was in a sea of legs and dark boots. There was mud in their treads, he noticed, that had fallen out in crumbles on the floor. The ruffled hem of the barmaid’s dress rose in a creamy cone. God help me, I’m still in the old cellar.
“Brigitte! Brigitte!” Karl screamed until his temples thumped and spit dripped down his chin. Hands hooked under his armpits and he was dragged to his feet. Soldiers’ faces peered at him as the room swung in lazy circles. Nazis, every one of them. Real, original Nazis.
They looked at him with dark eyes that swirled like water disappearing into a sewer. Beyond the sea of hats and swastikas he saw some of the metal shelves of the cellar, cardboard cases of pretzels and liquor. His heart leapt. It was his cellar…then it wasn’t. Old paintings on the wall, rough plaster, smoky streaks above dancing oil lamps. I can’t breathe, I can’t move.
He was dragged across the room by two soldiers. One of the men had a pistol on his side that brushed against Karl’s leg with each step. Karl watched it, saw the security strap undone and flapping against the man’s thigh, the nubby pistol grip, the ridges on the hammer worn to silver from use. There was a way out of this cellar. A quick way.
He threw his arm down and grabbed the gun, then staggered backward and fell against a table. The stairs out of the cellar swam in front of him, a brilliant rectangle of light balanced at the top.
Music buzzed in his ears like a hornet’s nest and the stomping of boots closed around him. Nazis. They needed to be shot.
A woman stood in the light, as far away as the end of a train tunnel. Barmaid? Nazi? Mein Gott, it’s hard to tell. The music was drilling into his head, the smell of smoke and dust clogging his nose.
Karl lifted the gun, felt the weight and solidity. Finally, something real.
“Get back, Nazi. I’m getting out of this cellar. Keep your eiswein, your old record player, your haircuts.”
The gun recoiled in his hand and a cloud of smoke drifted up to the ceiling. The rectangle of light became whole again as the woman’s shoulder jerked back, then she pitched forward in a slow arc. Her arm hooked in the railing, and she spun onto her back and cartwheeled down the stairs. Blood spattered the wall and hit Karl’s face like rain. He heard the distant scuffle of movement.
The music was faint now, like it was at first. Karl slid backward and fell to a sitting position.
“Karl? What have you done?” wheezed the woman at his feet.
Karl heard a brass band thumping away somewhere, the clack of hobnail boots on stone floors. They were dancing.
© Peter Soutowood 2010