January 15, 1942
It only took Aleka one afternoon to thoroughly despise the stranger in her home, and he hadn’t even arrived. Reluctantly, she stripped her bed and remade it for him using her only other sheet set, the one used on her wedding night.
Blankets and quilts had not been aired. That was just his bad luck. Some things you can’t do when it’s snowing. But you could hide away the ripped feather comforter, used as a mattress top to soften the lumps, and you could leave the window open, just the tinniest bit, to flood the room with icy chills.
Aleka assessed her efforts. The cast iron bed occupied one wall, an empty chest of drawers on the other, with a solitary shadow above it, where a picture had just hung. A splintered chair stood by the door, and nothing more now, as even the hope chest, had been dragged away. Every personal item had been removed and the room looked naked and dead. Sorely tempted to snatch another rug from the floorboards, she wondered if that was going too far, and closed the door with a bang. At the very least the room would bite.
In the cozy sitting room, flokati rugs warmed their slippered feet. Aleka’s two curly haired boys knelt on the blanketed divan facing the window, wide eyed and searching. They almost looked excited. The scene didn’t do justice to the calamity marching towards her threshold.
Next door, the Fotilis family, had already suffered the trespass of one of Hitler’s privileged officers. There was no choice. Angry boots had stomped across borders to occupy their gates. Earlier that day she had seen soldiers’ tents going up in the town square, sharp orders popping at every turn like bullets.
She stood beside the pot bellied stove, where a crock of bean soup simmered, and wondered who her portion of misery was to be.
The whimpering squeals of her sons announced his arrival, like an air raid siren, splitting her world into fragmented shards. The boys quickly scampered to find their positions behind her.
“Frau Aleka?” he asked. “I’m Officer Rafael Leopold.”
She showed him in with a sweep of her hand, wincing as he dumped a canvas bag on the floor.
“I’m leaving my belongings here as I need to get back to the troops immediately. You will need to wash my clothes.” He spoke in fluent Greek.
Aleka stared up at the alpine invasion in her home, as unnatural as an indoor sprouting tree. Arrogant and assuming, he was already ordering her around before she’d properly latched the door.
“You speak Greek?” she asked, in confusion.
“I’m the Garrison Interpreter. I speak Greek, but I am a German, I assure you.” Scratching his neck, he turned to step outside. “I take all my meals at base camp, so I will only need a bed here. I’ll return much later.”
Spotting the two boys in the shadows behind their mother, he asked,
Aleka’s heart detonated in her chest.
“Yiannis and Spiros. They’re four and six.”
He stared at them gently for a very long time. Then, taking a step closer, he caressed the soft brown curls of each boy, before silently slipping away.
Aleka’s temper boiled as fiercely as the water in her tub. Worse than washing, this man had delivered his own army. Reaching for the kerosene she doused everything she’d been assigned to wash, before dropping it in naphthalene solution. Although her hair was knotted up in a scarf, she imagined legions advancing along her scalp. Smacking the soaking clothes in disgust with the laundry paddle, she went in search of her boys.
The day’s most arduous task was complete. The floor had been swept, and two tired brothers were trying hard to stay awake, for the lofty man’s return.
When he arrived, aching for a soft place to land, there they were in threadbare pajamas, peeping at him again, from behind Aleka. She nervously let him in.
Noticing the boys, Rafael instantly colored in shame. Their heads had been completely shaved.
But they looked up at him in friendly fascination, as he removed his woolen field coat.
Minefields are hard to negotiate and require a soft tread, Rafael thought.
“Boys,” he said quietly. “Look in my coat pocket. ”I’ve got some Bavarian chocolates there.”
He handed Aleka a wrinkled photograph of a curly haired toddler.
“My son, Rudi.”
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