TWELVE - Ester
Otto hurries us out of the house, barely giving mama time to lock up. I am surprised that mama is not asking any questions and simply following Otto’s directions. She is not one to follow blindly. She does not even do that with papa. (I have to get it from somewhere!). Why is she so docile then? I will talk to her later.
Right now, I need to figure out whatever it is that has crawled up Otto’s breeches. Currently, we are on our way to Mrs Moravec’s lodge. It is a very short distance from our home. Otto insists that we stay in the back lanes. Mrs Moravec is surprised to see us at her door at this late hour. But she quickly lets us in.
“Thank you, Mrs Moravec,” Otto says.
“What is this, young man? Alois will be home soon,” Mrs Moravec asks. Mr Moravec does not know that in his absence, his wife Marie helps the Resistance in any way she can. Sometimes by letting the fighters stay at her place for a while, sometimes by helping them with their laundry and other everyday jobs. She even cooks and delivers for the fighters. In fact, she is known among the Resistance as Tetička (Auntie). For many of the resistance fighters who have lost all their family in the war, she reminds them of their mothers. But, she does all this without her husband’s knowledge. Her seventeen-year son, Ata, knows and helps his mother. The fighters are all heroes for him. He wants to be one of them as soon as he can.
“Oh! Can we go to the Fafeks?” Otto asks. The Fafeks are one of the many, many families who help the Resistance by hiding the fighters in their own homes.
“Yes. That will be best,” agrees Mrs Moravec.
We thank her and are off, towards Liběna Fafek’s home. The Fafek mother and daughter both share the name. Mrs Moravec was referring to Mrs Fafek when she said Liběna. It is a fair distance away from where we are. Otto turns to me and says, “You go on to Liběna’s. I will see you there later,” referring to the daughter, our friend.
“Otto, no. You dragged mama and me out of the house, for what reason I do not know. But now you’ll have to explain yourself before I let you go,” I threaten.
Otto looks at me and there is again that haunted look in his eyes. It is now giving me a very, very bad feeling, indeed. He says nothing, simply repeats the same instruction to mama and walks away, muttering, “Sorry, Ester.”
We get to the Fafek’s home. I know nothing about why Otto set us off on this fool’s expedition. But he was insistent enough and here I am. Luckily, Mrs Fafek takes us in without any questions. This weird behaviour of Otto’s has set all our nerves on the edge and I cannot wait for him to come back. I hate imposing on these good people. If something has gone wrong tonight, I do not want to bring trouble to their door. All our lives are difficult enough as it is.
Just as Liběna and her parents are about to retire for the night, there is a sharp knock at the door. My heart jumps up into my throat. Who could it be at this time of night? When people knock at your door at night in these times, they are up to no good. Liběna’s father, Petr hurries to the door while the rest of us wait inside.
He is back within moments, with Tomas following right behind. Tomas looks like he has run a marathon. He looks at mama and me and lets out a tortured breath.
"Tante Helga, Ester! Thank God I found you.”
“Tomas, Sohn. Do you have news of Joseph and Klara? Otto seemed very worried when he asked us to leave our home,” mama asks him, calmly. I am now gaping at her. Her reactions to all the craziness that has gone on this evening have been nothing remotely like her normal self. A stone, the size of a car, drops in my stomach. I can bet on my next breath that she knows of what we had planned for tonight. But how?
I do not get the chance to dwell on this particular mystery, because Tomas blurts out, “Ester. Fuchs knew of tonight’s plan.” Did I mention that the idiot has lost the filter between his brain and mouth? He speaks first, then thinks and by then things are usually well on their way to hell. Like right now. I can imagine about a million questions about tonight’s plan from the Fafeks and mama.
I glare at him. Not that it is going to help the situation in any way.
“Tomas, why don’t you sit down and tell us everything slowly?” I ask him and add, “I will get you some water. You look like you could use it.” Actually, he looks like he could use something far more strong than water. But this is not my home. And although Liběna’s a dear friend, I am already feeling embarrassed by the way we have crashed into her home. I cannot, therefore, offer Tomas anything other than water.
“I will get you some brandy,” Liběna’s papa says.
Tomas looks to be in complete agreement with the choice of beverage offered by Mr Fafek. Well, good! That will calm him down. He accepts the brandy from Mr Fafek, while mama and I both decline. After he has had a few fortifying sips inside him, Tomas seems to get ready to talk. This is so not going to be good. I just know it in my gut!
Tomas looks at everyone in the room. The Fafeks, mama and finally me. He seems to consider his words. That’s a definite first! And then he starts talking. I cannot begin to understand why he would choose to spill it all at this time. Actually, that is not correct. The fact that he chooses to bring everyone present into the loop solidifies the dread that I have been feeling since the moment Otto rushed into our home.
He tells everyone the broad outline of tonight’s mission. And then, he drops the bomb. “Someone, someone among the six of us, tipped Fuchs off,” he says, his dark brown eyes spearing into me. And then he drops an even bigger bomb, “How is your ankle, Ester?”
It takes a while, but the ton of bricks hidden in those five words drop on me finally. I surge up from the chair I have been sitting on.
“What ridiculous rubbish, Tomas! How can you even think such a thing?”
Luckily, mama does not give me the opportunity to say anything else. I am sure I would have run my mouth and then regretted it afterwards. After all, at this point in time, all of us except Klara are suspect.
“Where is Joseph,” mama asks Tomas. He looks at her, agony sparkling in his eyes.
“We do not know Tante Helga. But since he has not returned home yet, I am afraid, it cannot be anything good. I am so very sorry.”
Mama gets up and walks to the fireplace, her back toward us all. I go to her and take her hand in mine. There is nothing I can say right now that is going to make this easier. So, I hold my tongue. But Tomas wants to have it out. I can see it in the rigid stance of his body, the hard glitter in his eyes. I understand why, though. It is not only him. I also suspected him as he was telling us how he tried to rescue Klara.
“It was Otto,” I finally manage to push out the words that have been poisoning my insides ever since Otto showed up at home. I can feel everyone’s eyes on me. I know what they all want to say. I also know they cannot find the right words to phrase the question. I put them out of their misery.
“That is the only thing that makes sense. Tomas, you learnt of this when Klara told you. Klara learnt it when Fuchs told her. When did Otto learn of this? Who told him?” I ask.
“Maybe Fischer told him. Or Frank,” says Tomas. I know he accused me in the heat of the moment. Just as I suspected him in the shock of learning the truth.
“Maybe,” I agree. “But I do not think so. Otto was...” I trail off. I cannot exactly describe what I saw on his face. Neither can I describe the sick feeling in my stomach which has been there since Otto sat down in our home, his head in his hands and murmured, “Forgive me, Tante Helga” in the broken voice of a man who has lost his honour.
I give up trying to explain it and simply say, “I just know it was Otto.”
If anyone can find me an answer to this question, I will be forever grateful to that person. I do not even want a reason that will justify this action. Just a simple reason will do. Anything. Something to bring the ghost that Otto has suddenly become back to life. Because that is what Otto has become now. A ghost. Something without form. I knew Otto, was in love with him. I was to marry him.
How did I not see this? Yes, he has never completely approved of Klara or me working for the Resistance. But I always chalked it down to the fact that he worries about us. Cares about us. Loves us. And now he has killed us all. Because that is what will happen. I am under no illusion that we will survive this. We will run, yes, and hide, for as long as we can. But, if Otto could betray us, someone else is sure to come along and help the Germans catch us.
I do not know what Otto will get out of this. Money, perhaps? Or power? Influence with the new regime?
“Tomorrow I will try and find out more about Onkel Joseph,” Tomas says. I had not realised when he came up to stand next to mama. But he has his hand on her shoulder, squeezing gently. The Tomas that I grew up with, the clumsy kid who always ended up saying the wrong thing is gone. In his place, I see a hard man, a determined man.
Liběna gasps softly, “Tomas! What if they know about you also?” she asks.
When Tomas looks at her, there is a warmth in his eyes and I suddenly know how he found us here. He did not know he would find us here. He came to see his love!
“If they do not already know about me, mein Liebling, they soon will. There is no helping that. But we cannot stop fighting, can we?”