So this is Dresden.
The city of my birth.
The city where Daddy was shot for being a spy.
The city where Mommy abandoned me.
I was conceived here, born here, lived here for five years; yet memories are hazy, like drifts of confetti in layers of fog.
Daddy’s lawyer called me in London on my eighteenth birthday. “Is that Kristl Barnett...can you confirm your date of birth...and your parent’s names?”
I recited the answers and he seemed satisfied. “I have something for you but your father asked that it be in strictest confidence. Could you stop by my office later this week?”
I went the next day, curious, concerned, unhappy about keeping secrets from Aunty May. The something turned out to be a letter.
My Dearest Kristl,
I’m hoping I’ll be around for your eighteenth, but suspect I may not be. I’ve invested some money for you and if you’re no longer in Germany, use some of it to go back to Dresden. I want you to think back on our Saturday outings and retrace our steps. The rest is up to you.
With much love, Daddy.
I was consumed with doubt. Why the secrecy? Why now? It had taken me forever to get my life back on track. Daddy’s sister in England had adopted me, yet the rumours persisted for years. “Spy kid” they used to call me at school.
I was angry with Mommy too. She disappeared after Daddy was shot, only to surface five years later. “I’m sorry, Kristl.” she said on one of her brief visits from Germany. “I was afraid one of Daddy’s spy friends would kill me as well.”
“What about me?” I wanted to shout.
I needed answers so I asked the lawyer to book the flights.
I realise now that I’ve dreamed about Dresden for years; my sleeping moments a kaleidoscope of memories. As I’ve travelled through the city, murky shadows have clarified into snatches of childhood. I recognised the shape of our family home, grey walls softened by pink blossoms. I smiled as I saw the narrow driveway where I rode my tricycle. The city centre was familiar too; bakeries of golden-wood and soft light, their glass shelves lined with sweet tarts and gingerbread men. Trams that rattled through streets, pausing at cemeteries lined with fresh flowers. Trimmed lawns and austere buildings, garish graffiti and grey concrete, the magnificent bridge across the River Elbe. I’ve seen all these places in my dreams.
I remember too, the Saturday outings that Daddy wrote of. We would leave home at 6am, just the two of us in his sporty little car. Our destination was an hour away: the Saxon Switzerland National Park.
I’m on my way there now in a bus.
I loved the crazy rock formations that poked up like giant fingers and the hundreds of tiny steps that led through soaring towers and peaks. When Daddy put me on his shoulders to walk the Bastei Bridge, I felt I was on top of the world. I had no fear of the sheer drops and gusting winds when I was with him.
The bus crawls round the corner and the mists of memory merge into magnificent sandstone spires. I can picture exactly where Daddy went and follow the trail as though it were yesterday. Up narrow stairs, round circular walkways, across the Bastei Bridge, down the other side, and then off the track into the heart of the stone fingers. My heart is pounding with anticipation and fear. Thirteen years is a long time. Will the things Daddy hid in the rocks still be there?
We used to play a game. “Watch the path, Kristl.” he’d say. “Call me straight away if someone’s coming.” Then he’d clamber up the rocks, an envelope or package in his hands.
The narrow funnel-like opening is still there, blocked by a rock the size of my arm. Hands shaking, I tug and push until it sags to the side. I shine a torch into the hollow and see that Daddy’s things are huddled in the back.
I’m still sitting there an hour later, surrounded by the terrible truth. Photos of my mother handing documents to grey-coated men, copies of incriminating letters penned by my mother, cassette tapes and negatives rolled in plastic. The words in Daddy’s note come back to me. “The rest is up to you.”
I stand slowly, sick at heart, tucking everything into my backpack. “The rest is up to me.” I repeat.
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