Then he stopped wanting sex. Then he stopped talking much at all. At his worst he’d pace through rooms and the air would adhere and follow him and all the time you could feel all these thoughts going through his head—these images of syphilis and rot and brazen, worldly troops traipsing through whorehouses covered in the stink of viruses. You had to avoid him when he got like that, when the war became sexual and he’d become angry at the mere existence of you so you’d hide away and make yourself small. It was as if you became a symbol of all the bad, all the soldiers in temporary hospitals with their puss-filled skin and lesions and lust. He’d look at you and see them and then he’d get angry because he couldn’t understand why nothing in this world could be pure. Why he alone saw what was light and good and clean.
That was the way with my Führer. (He was always my Führer, even after everything.) There was this weight of history in him; pressure and weight and work. You had to understand he was burdened by bigger things, burdened right to the end.
In bed he’d read his reports. He’d read and I’d be next to him and sometimes I’d ride my hand up his leg (all secret and quiet) and then he’d shoo me away and there’d be a silence. When he left the room I’d read those letters decoded and sprawled in patterns across the sheets, read about the soldiers and trenches and the sharing and exchange of illness. The extent of disease and the obsessions that build history. When he’d return I’d pretend to be asleep and he’d keep reading and I’d think about how my hand was a moment ago at his leg, about how actions can divide between two points in time.
It became habit to read his letters. I found where he kept them and I’d sneak glances when I could. I read and tried to understand him through words, those shaking symbols that spoke of large and terrible things and places I’d never go. When people came to dinner I’d hear things too. I’d be in the kitchen, fixing drinks and food and he’d be in the living room entertaining and speaking of plans in hushed and boisterous tones, and I’d hear it all because I was already a spectre by then, existing more as a presence in a room than within it. I could see and observe and learn. I tried to understand him.
I wanted to see him again as I did before. I wanted him to see me, wanted to turn things back to when he wasn’t angry, when he wanted me and cared, and I couldn’t grasp what had changed. I tried to understand and thought of old painted seaside days and the ways that memories follow you through space—him in knit-top and shorts plashing through icy water; candyfloss and vinegar and the smell of brine-soaked air. Funny how instead he just sat and read or talked in hushed tones about the sickness that follows lust and I just had to sit apart and understand and pretend.
Often it would be Hannussen with him at dinner. The old and anxious industrialist that grovelled and spoke bromides and seemed to linger through rooms. He liked Hannussen. They shared that same distrust of disease and rot; that same obsession with purity. It was Hannussen, I think, that first proposed the idea, and it was Hannussen that brought the first shipments of the synthetics, the bottles and boxes with long chemical names and symbols hieroglyphing their sides. It was Hannussen that recommended the contractors, rebuilt the basement, turned the house into a shifting, complex thing. I hated him. I hated what he did, hated the constant sounds of drills and hammers and industry that filled my ears as I made food. When Hannussen would leave my Führer would become quiet again and descend down into that basement, lock the door, turn away all light and sound from the world, and I’d be up in the kitchen, pretending, pretending not to notice or care or think about all the machinations that go on in great minds.
Yes, I pretended not to notice. I pretended and I hoped he appreciated my pretending.
I pretended not to read the reports and I pretended not to hear the building.
When Hannussen dropped the key I pretended not to pick it up, pretended and disappeared back into those background spaces.
I pretended and the basement became an important place and suddenly it was there that I imagined my Führer. He stopped being with me—left living rooms and kitchens and theatres—became fixed in that basement. He’d come in and descend down and I’d still be in the house not knowing but imagining. I’d wonder if he still considered me. I’d wonder at what it takes to construct a world. And it was strange watching our lives diverging, me upstairs thinking of seasides and him below not thinking much of me at all; both of us two rambling points in space, unfurling away with time. Both of us so different. I wanted to talk to him, to make him understand, but I didn’t, so I tried to understand him and kept my own pretending and when he’d come up to bed I’d pretend to be asleep. And then sometime after the end of the hammers and building he started touching me like he used to, had these wandering and lingering hands. It was strange and I’d wonder as he touched what had made him do it; and the touching would be terrible because you could tell that he wasn’t really there. He’d take me and he’d be there but he’d be in the basement. He’d be in the basement, far away. And there I was, being touched and pretending.
Then began the missing brassieres and panties and silk stockings and skirts. The lipsticks and powders. There was all the commotion that happened in a night and the way I’d sometimes hear him raiding my wardrobe as I feigned sleep. There was that new touching and the way he’d become so virile so quickly after he’d come from the basement and it became so unbearable and wild and I had to know.
It was only after that I decided it must have felt like foreplay for him. I decided that the whole war must have felt like foreplay.
It was the day when the war had taken him to Hamburg and I was alone and I had Hannussen’s hidden key. I remember I started moving and descending and it was like a thing falling and I felt compelled to the basement and then I was there. I remember I switched on a light and I remember there was a smell of polyvinyl. I saw her. She was propped against a wall to give an illusion of standing and she was wearing one of my dresses, the thing drenched over her like a fluid. Her features were flat, almost spherical, and her hair (horsehair) was bleached to an off-white. More than anything was the sense of plasticity to her, the pure and edifying plasticness that speaks of coming things. Her makeup was smudged around the mouth and I kept looking at her and I saw all the holes and all the horrifying implications that can stem from objects. There were the thoughts of sounds and plastic under friction, of the nights he’d started wanting me again. Everything was alive and shaking and violent. It was horrible. I wanted things to be quiet again.
When he came home I went back to the pretending except it was all tainted now and the way he moved frightened me. He’d take me in the night and I imagined them both together, imagined him building her with a certain proclivity for love, and I’d think about all the things he must have done, about her below beckoning a sort of quiet beckoning. I thought about purity and cleanliness and how unhampered she was by decay and death and sin. I wondered if he loved her and then of course he did. He loved her and didn’t think of me and the idea of seasides became stupid and schoolgirl and I understood that I could never hold anything to her; I was so horribly finite. She beheld light and I was bound to nothing and he built a church to her: that thing that stood as a conformation of everything he believed in.
I tried to weather it. I covered my ears with a pillow when I heard things at night. I cooked his food and laughed when he wanted me to (It’s amazing what the human mind can live with), but he became bolder and his ideas got bigger and soon I’d overhear him telling Hannussen that she would be the first of many—a prototype in need of sisters.
They were sitting together drinking and talking and he was becoming so animated: crying out about a sort of reverse germ warfare and the end of sin. He wanted to replicate her and gift her to the troops, send her out in a million little boxes all across the Continent to be enjoyed and played with. He so loved having a plaything. He hoped, he told Hannussen while I existed as a ghost over everything, that this could be the start of something great—not only freeing hospitals but setting an example for his people, showing them a perfect and undying race, the conclusion of playing with bloodlines. Everything was so animated as he spoke. All so pure and defying and German and clean. They agreed to construct and package the girls in one of Hannussen’s old buildings—the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum in central Dresden—using Hitler Youth to aid in the stuffing and packaging of those deflated things. I heard it all, of course, pretending not to notice and with them not noticing, and it was a strange thing and it was as if that thing below was becoming concrete as I faded away, gaining a certain life as mine ebbed, sort of flowing into the corners of rooms.
He started disappearing for a long time after that. To Dresden, presumably, though he never said. Sometimes he’d send me letters and sometimes his reports would arrive and I’d read them before he got back. I’d go down into the basement and often she’d be there and often she’d be gone, and I’d think about how she was helping him and all the things he was building, and about what it takes to be made with a certain proclivity for love.
The first group of girls flew within six months of the project starting. From what I gather they were loaded into HE-177 bombers and flown out across Northern France. When I learned that I remember being excited. He was down in Dresden then, watching them fly, and I imagined her being with them, flying off and away and for a moment then I was hopeful. For a moment I considered the whole thing to be over—a point in time that could vanish with its unfolding. I made dinner and bought wine for his return. I cleaned and sorted and wanted to build a castle for him and show that I loved him: that there were things more capable of love.
Of course, then he did return.
He returned and I was sleeping and when I woke up he was just there.
All that day we barely spoke and he seemed distracted, distant, and it was all so horrible because I knew that she must have not flown with the others. I suspected and I knew but it was only later when I managed to sneak a peak into the basement and I found her there, the first, the non-clone. She was there in her dress. In my dress. She stood down there and I knew he must really love her because he couldn’t let her go—had to keep her for himself, the constant companion and plaything. I knew then that she was real to him, a different, a porous real, and it was dreadful and sad and I cried and wanted to wail but didn’t because I was worried he’d hear. He couldn’t’ send her away and I tried to cry silently and let those watery trails congeal in little rivers along the contours of my face; I tried to imagine him happy and with me and not here and not tortured by whatever was happening to his mind.
War does funny things to a person.
The worst thing was that he didn’t notice my crying. Or if he did he was past caring. I went back upstairs and fixed dinner and he barely looked at me and I realised then that something was over; that we’d lost an important part along the way and now we were just floating and drifting and soon things would diverge away to nothing. It was a powerless feeling. It made the idea of finding his truths seem pointless, schoolgirl. It made everything a sort of grey, and it was all the worse knowing he didn’t care: I was grieving for something that he didn’t even remember.
The girls fell over France.
They fell over Rouen, Jersey, Le Mans. They fell in a sweeping web spiralling towards Paris.
They fell and I felt his absence. I felt him down there, with her: totem-like and plastic and pure. He was so far away. You could have filled a whole universe in the spaces between us
When Hannussen visited there’d be all this singing and laughing and bright, shining joy. I began to wonder if Hannussen was there to offset the mourning that was filling the home. They’d talk about the troops; they’d roleplay being the troops and finding the dolls, always so elated and thankful. God I hated both of them. I hated their smug smiles and the way their happiness seemed to invalidate my misery. It was all so certain and pleased and the singing would keep me up as I tried to sleep.
Seasides began to seem like impossible things.
The girls fell over Reims, Soissons, Meaux.
It was horrible and sad and seemed eternal but then a wonderful thing happened. It was something to do with their conversations, the way they talked about the girls with such fervour, but after the boxes dropped there’d be nothing, no word on the dolls’ impacts, just their arrivals. It seemed that once girls had rained down, parachuted to the waiting men, they’d vanish. There was never any word on the state of the troops, how they enjoyed their toys. Him and Hannussen didn’t seem to care, at least for a while, but there came a point where they seemed anxious. I noticed Hannussen would come around and they wouldn’t sing but instead would discuss softly, worriedly, at it seemed I was no longer the only grief that seeped through a room.
He started making all these trips to Dresden again.
When he was home he’d always yell and fiddle rhythmically with his fingers. Whatever I did made him angry and it became easier to exist as purely separate entities—paths truly diverged and distant. Hannussen would worry him and there’d often be nothing but talk of the girls lost in France—how none of the reports were thankful, how the dolls seemed to have been swallowed by the earth. Allied intervention? Communist plots?
It was only later, once we moved to the bunker, that I learned what had happened. It was when Hannussen made his final visit before the bombs dropped and the Russians closed in and all the walls and ceiling kept shaking and there was that constant low hum of background screaming. There was a lot of commotion and running people and Hannussen was with him and talking about old times. Everything was so lost and cold and they didn’t notice me and they talked about the dolls and they even laughed a little—a not happy, not sad laugh that signifies the end of things.
I found that commendable, I suppose. The binds and bridges that masculinity forms.
They sat with me in the background and they remembered the embarrassed troops, the troops that laughed at the dolls; the troops that used them as target practice, firing volley after volley into synthetic plastic. They talked and sort of lamented those dead girls. The tragedy of it, how they were born into a world unready. It seemed the soldiers found it stupid and lost respect and apparently once you’ve lost that you’ve lost everything. Maybe the world’s naturally suspicious of eternal things. The whole thing was very strange but by then everything was strange and the world was shaking and it all seemed almost irrelevant. Though I was happy thinking about those girls rotting in a French winter. The dignity that comes through rot.
Of course, I only learned this later, understand. While we were still at the house I only knew that my Führer was unhappy and that the war was shifting and that he spent all his time in the basement or in Dresden.
And I knew that we were losing and that things were beginning to disintegrate. It was coming up to the tail-end of things, and we’d be leaving for the bunker soon. The Allies and Soviets were closing in on both sides, squeezing space together to a singular point, and people were afraid. I was afraid. I didn’t know what would happen to us and I wanted him to guide me, guide everyone, but all he’d think about were his stupid dolls and that stupid thing downstairs and I despised him for that. He was revolting and selfish and stupid and all he’d do was mope about those damned girls while history crashed around him. In those last days I hated him so much. I hated him and I barely slept and then there was that night when he didn’t come to bed at all; I laid there in that black, waiting, and he didn’t come, and I had that compulsion to descend, to fall again, just like that first time, to the basement. I hated him so much and I wanted to see what he was destroying everything for. I went down and cracked the door open and peered into the light and I saw him there with her. I saw him standing and staring into those eyes—those plastic eyes—and I could hear him mumbling. He was talking about the war. The words were quiet and I couldn’t hear everything but I heard what was important—I heard him telling her that it was lost, that everything was lost. That now he was waiting and then it would be done. That he was sorry that this was how it went.
I think she’s the only person he ever told that to.
We didn’t stay in the house long after that. We moved to the bunker and everything became dark and the Allies and Soviets closed in. She came with us, of course. She was kept in a room I wasn’t allowed to enter. She was brought so that he could prepare for the end.
In the bunker you could hear a lot of things and there was a lot of shouting and moving and papers everywhere. You could hear fighting sometimes. He would retreat to her and come out fresh and maybe give a speech to calm people and make everything ok, use some words to colour reality prettier than it really was.
Hannussen came and went and I heard he died, captured by Russians and disappeared. I was happy about that, I suppose, one of the last times you could all anything I did happy.
At some point Churchill ordered 722 heavy bombers to drop 3900 tons of high-explosive bombs over the city of Dresden. Apparently the factory dissolved to a plastic paste. I was happy about that, too. It felt poetic, right, some karmic justice amongst these breaking things. A crew was sent to salvage what was left after the fire and all they found was torn iron and burnt wood and synthetic gunk. A dead and dying industry. After that he stopped caring about anything and saw the doll a lot and then he didn’t even care enough to hide her from me. She was just there in her room and sometimes he wouldn’t bother to close the door behind him.
Sometimes I’d wonder if he even remembered me.
I hated her so much and I hated him more than anything. I hated her and her body became a temple for my hate, an aggregator that stored and consumed it. She was there with him and no one else seemed to care, were all doing their own pretending and not noticing. And it was all so stupid and I was so sick of pretending and I wanted to hurt. I wanted to feel that wonderful rush of causing pain.
And then the bombs kept falling over Berlin, beginning together and then diffusing away and you could see that he only thought of her. There was a lot of screaming and I knew a lot of people were dying and all that time he couldn’t stop thinking of her and his entire face was filled up with her, as if it wasn’t so much him but her now—her being enveloping and contorting him. I thought about killing them both; I thought how wonderful it would be to kill them both. I made plans. A soldier gave me a gun and I thought I could do it. There were so many bombs and suddenly we were married and I couldn’t understand why and even as we got married he was thinking of her. Bombs and artillery and us getting married. It was all so stupid. After the ceremony he just went back to her again and her smug grin and I thought that the next day I would do it. It felt good to construct certainty. Everything felt so sure and right and I could do it and then Allies and Soviets kept squeezing, squeezing the city and it became too late, everything too late, and I remember looking at that damned plastic face and I blamed her because in some way it was all her—she had done and caused everything and he loved her so much and I just couldn’t understand. I wanted to kill her but everything was over and pointless and she existed in all places. In his mind and in my mind and in the end of wars. I cried for that, for me and for him, for everything that she’d done to us, and he comforted me because he thought that I was afraid, but I wasn’t because nothing mattered. He told me that it would soon be over and I believed him. I looked at him and tried to remember that he was built with a certain proclivity for love and he handed me pills—little tablets, smelling of almonds—and I cried and he held me and I tried to think of us and not of her but she was everywhere. The world diffused slowly through the room: lights and sounds and beings. She was everywhere. I looked into his face and cried and I let out one last little prayer that maybe he’d think of me and not her when it ended. A pointless prayer. Even then she filled up everything. It was like staring into her eyes and not his. Things diffused and I thought of her and the synthesis and glory of plastics. I thought of her and him and him thinking of her and the room fell apart and the walls rumbled and everything diffused away. There she was, a quiet prayer into a synthetic night, signifying everything.
Callan Preece started writing short stories when he was 20, mostly telling small stories about small people that he finds interesting, occasionally veering off into things of a more historic nature. He has forthcoming publications in Piker Press and hopes to be published elsewhere soon. Callan is currently training to be a math teacher though he expects that won’t last too long, economies being what they are. Mostly he’s just grateful for anyone taking the time to read his stories.