Even Erich Reichmann was once a child. It is an idea I grapple with even now, so many years later. Back then, it was not a thought that ever crossed my mind. In fact, I did not like to think of Reichmann at all. When I did, it was usually when I was on the streets, at night. Such thoughts always hurried me home, where I felt safe from him. Only once did I hear his name spoken within our walls, when mama said of him, quite unbidden: "That boy, he looks like he is made out of nails." An accurate description; Reichmann was a hard man, all corded muscle and scar tissue.
A feared street-brawler, Reichmann held our little neighbourhood in the palms of his cold, brutal hands. Surely his life of crime started in some schoolyard, where he must have terrorized the other children as soon as the teachers turned their backs. I knew him as an angry young man who drunkenly stalked our streets at night, muttering to himself, most often brandishing a straight razor, swinging at shadows. It was then, at night, when he was least dangerous, for though he was quick to anger his drunken limbs were slow and pendulous. Easy to avoid. In the light of day, Reichmann spent his time stealing from the local shops, or breaking into people's houses. Those who angered him when he was sober were less likely to escape unharmed. Many were there whose scars proved that crossing Erich Reichmann was a dangerous thing. It was said that he'd even killed, once or twice. This was done out of anger, and never for money; the bodies were found with wallets still stuffed to overflowing with Rentenmarks.
I was twelve years old when the Weimar introduced the Rentenmark to replace the Papiermark. One Rentenmark equalled one trillion Papiermarks – it sounds like an astronomical sum! Both were totally useless. That winter we burned money in our little stove. It was cheaper than wood. I tell you this, so you will understand why my brother and I were so eager to take a job from Max Kolb, the baker's son. Kolb could offer us something better than Rentenmarks; he offered us bread, one loaf each! All we needed to do, according to Kolb, was go out into the woods, a mile out of town, to a spot which I knew. There we would dig.
How big of a hole?
"Deep enough to stand in," Max Kolb said. "Wide enough to lie down in." I understood.
The hole was to be dug before sunrise. Josef was only nine then, but he knew the value of food. He did not complain when I woke him so early. We found the shovel – there was only one to share between us – and crept out of the house, careful not to wake mama and papa. Only, when we stepped outside, we discovered a sky full of ominous clouds. We grabbed my father's umbrella, the one with the brass handle shaped like a duck's head, the one he cared for so much.
It was still dark when we reached the stated spot. The clouds continued to loom threateningly, but not a drop had fallen. Immediately we set to digging; I went first, and when I tired, Josef took over, but never for long.
"Albrecht," Josef finally asked, "what sort of bread will it be?"
"Don't be stupid," I replied. I said this often to Josef. Kolb promised it would not be that disgusting fake stuff some were baking – half bread, half glue and sawdust. "He is a baker's son," I explained. "It will be baker's bread." This seemed good enough for Josef.
"Why didn't the baker's son dig this hole himself?" Josef asked, without much of a pause since his last question.
"He has something better to do," I said. "Enough questions."
Josef nodded, and was silent for a moment. He looked up at the sky, probably wondering if the rain would come. Then he began to sing. It was an old song that mother used to sing to me. She sang it now to Josef, since I was too old for such songs. His shrill, child's voice seemed too cutting for the work at hand.
"Quiet!" I hissed. I handed him the shovel, hoping that he'd hush if kept busy. For the next while, we worked with only the sounds of the rustling leaves and the chirps of a few curious birds to break the stillness around us.
Kolb entered the woods shortly after the sun made its appearance. With him was a man I had never seen before, a silent man with a ragged beard and a serious expression. Between them they led a mule. The mule was pulling a cart; in the cart, tied down with cord, was a heap of bloody sheets. They'd made no effort to hide it.
Kolb and his friend did not complain that the hole was not as big as specified. Instead, they busied themselves with unloading the cart, cutting away the cord with a familiar razor. The two men grunted as they heaved the mass of bloody sheets onto their shoulders. Of course it was a body – I had known immediately, or perhaps even before they'd arrived. Why else the hole? Then the two men walked over to the mouth of our shallow grave and threw their burden in, just like that.
"Bury him," Kolb said, slouching back towards the cart. "Your bread will be waiting for you at home." His silent friend lit a cigarette, clutching it awkwardly in his hand as he looked Josef and me in the eye. His knuckles were badly bruised.
But I did not pay attention to Kolb or his friend for long. You see, when they had tossed the body into our little hole, the face had come uncovered, and now it was staring up at me.
"Albrecht," Josef whispered to me, once the two men had gone. I had not even noticed their exit. "That's Erich Reichmann!" Of course I knew it was.
He was looking at all the blood. "They stabbed him a million times!"
"Don't be stupid! Maybe six or seven!"
"Albrecht," Josef asked, after what seemed like a long stretch of silence, "why aren't we digging?"
Why not? In fact, I was horrified of Reichmann, even then. I wanted nothing more than to run. But what then? No bread, that's for sure. And my brother, little Josef, he would think me a coward.
I started to rake the soil onto Reichmann's body, hoping to get it over and done with, but Josef, stupid boy, had lain papa's umbrella – the one with the brass handle shaped like a duck's head, the one he cared for so much – at the mouth of the grave. One careless swing of my shovel, and in it went.
"Albrecht!" Josef gasped in horror, watching as the umbrella fell.
I stopped dead.
The umbrella had landed next to Erich Reichmann's uncovered face. The duck's bill was touching his sunken cheek, as though kissing him.
"Leave it!" Josef pleaded, eyes frantic.
"Don't be stupid!" I shot back without even looking his way. I took a deep breath. I considered the umbrella, the body.
With my courage gathered, I slid down into the grave.
"It's not so bad!" I said, showing Josef that I was not afraid. One foot was braced against the loose, earthen wall of the grave, the other planted between the body's legs. I feared that my foot would slip on the sheets, and I would fall. The thought terrified me.
"Albrecht! Get out of there!"
I inched toward the umbrella, testing each step on the bloody sheets, fearing that I'd stumble on them or on the loose soil. I tried to keep my eyes locked on papa's umbrella, but they kept rebelling, shifting instead to the face that had terrorized my neighbourhood for so long. Slowly, I reached for the umbrella, my heart in my throat. I almost had it!
And Erich Reichmann coughed.
Already I was scrambling out of the hole, my frenzied movements causing little avalanches of soil. Josef grabbed my arm, pulled me up.
Then Reichmann coughed again. Blood came out of his mouth, and his eyes opened slightly. He saw us – he saw us! Josef clasped at my arms, and I at his. Reichmann's lips moved, but no words came out, only a rasping, desolate sound.
Josef's watery blue eyes were filled with fright. What to do?
"Dig!" I yelled. With shovel, with hands, we forced the soil back into the hole, covering up Erich Reichmann – starting with his face, so he would stare at us no more. We worked in a fury, gasping and straining but never once stopping, finally patting the soil flat with our palms when it was done.
And then we ran.
Papa never asked us what happened to his umbrella. It wasn't until years later that I realized that he must have thought we had traded it to Max Kolb for those two loaves of bread he found on the doorstep that morning. A prudent man, he must have accepted it as a fair trade.
Back then, though, I never thought of my father's reaction. I did not care. All I thought of, for days, for months, were Reichmann's pleading eyes – and some nights, when I slept, I dreamt of Erich Reichmann arriving on our doorstep, his clothing soiled and bloody, clutching my father's umbrella in his cold, brutal hands.