by Emma Venables
Previously Published in Train Literary Magazine
My mother holds my hand as I leap from rubble heap to rubble heap. I cheer each time I land and her mouth turns upwards in a precarious smile. I want to ask her to climb up beside me, to launch herself too, to laugh for a little while, but I just rub my thumb over her calloused knuckles, enjoy the roughness. Every night I peer into the sink as she rinses the city from her skin; I swirl my fingers through the silt she leaves on the enamel. I’m helping Berlin back to her feet, she says. Her voice sounds thin, crumpled around the edges. She moves her neck from side to side, rolls her shoulders forwards and backwards. Is she standing taller today, mama? I ask. A little bit, she says.
I turn my head to her now. Look where you’re going, she says. I watch her wince with the effort of holding her arm up, supporting me. She lifts her chin higher than necessary in an effort to stretch out her back. Even though she has the day off work, she still wears a kerchief knotted about her hair. My ankle wobbles; her grip tightens. I steady myself and jump again.
I loosen my fingers from my mother’s and look up at the sky. Some days it is hard to breathe – the dusty clouds, the remnants of war, hang low – and the scent of defeat – broken sewers, open fires – clogs my lungs. I wonder how my mother bears working outside, collecting bricks and glass, her brow damp and her muscles sore. She lights a cigarette and I crouch to inspect the fragments beneath my feet. I like to find the glints: things that could have been mirrors, chandeliers, cutlery, jewellery. I never remove these items, just admire them, but sometimes I will pick up a stone or a jagged tooth of wood and put it in my pocket, to help my mother and the other women who sift and sort Berlin day in, day out.
My mother sighs. I could fall asleep here, she says, her voice drooping with smoke and exhaustion. The intention is to make me laugh, but I know she is not joking. I consider the logistics, the impossibilities, of carrying her home. I have no relatives to summon; we only have remains in unmarked graves. I won’t, she says. I nod, eyes still on the ruins. I listen to her take a final drag of her cigarette and ground the butt into the dust with the heel of her boot.
I straighten up, ready to jump to the next rubble heap. My mother’s hand touches my waist. She stands next to me, knees bent slightly. This will wake me up, she says. I watch her toes leave the broken bricks, watch her legs splay, her arms extend upwards.
Emma Venables’ short fiction has recently featured in Mslexia, Lunate, and The Sunlight Press. She was a runner-up in the Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize 2020. She can be found on Twitter: @EmmaMVenables.