BUNKER: a short story

Watercolor by Amelia Walsh
Watercolor by Amelia Walsh

Mila Rosenthal sat in the kitchen of her apartment a week before the first air raid of her city: Berlin. Her son, Peter, was still asleep in his room. Mila set the kettle on the stove top and walked around aimlessly, humming to herself. As the water began to boil, she watched the steam rise. It was beautiful. The vapor twisted and turned, dancing in the air before disappearing altogether. Mila was so mesmerized by the steam that she failed to recognize the kettle shrieking at her that the water was ready. The thing that tipped her off was the sound of Peter yelling from his room to “Make it stop!” Mila quickly dimmed the flame and made herself a cup of tea. She added some of the hot water to powdered milk for Peter. He emerged from his room sleepy-eyed and sat down at the breakfast table. He began sipping his warm milk. Mila stared at her beautiful boy with the unconditional love only a mother can know. Peter was six years old and would be starting kindergarten at the end of the summer. The year was 1940 and it was mid-August. Mila told her son to get ready for his trip to his Aunt Petra’s house.

Petra was the sister of Mila’s late husband, Aaron Rosenthal. He died in a car crash in late 1938. At the time, Peter was four years old. The other driver survived the crash and claimed that Aaron caused the crash intentionally, as if he wanted to die. Mila tried to ignore that idea. Aaron’s death alone was devastating to her. She channeled all of her love, which was once distributed evenly between Aaron and Peter, into her son. Motherhood consumed her life. It was the perfect distraction for Mila, who did not care to focus on the state of her country or the death of her husband. Instead, she packed lunches, patched clothes, and planned outings. 

Mila was nervous to drop off her son for his monthly visit with his aunt. She knew he would be in good hands. Petra gave him candy, let him watch the TV, and showered him in love. Peter always looked forward to their time together because his mother was so protective he was rarely allowed out of her sight. It was suffocating, and even a six year old needs their freedom. No, Mila had no concerns for her son. She was afraid of being alone, of the thoughts that would flood her head when she was not carrying out the role of a loving mother.

Mila kissed her son on the head and walked to a nearby park. If she had to be away from her son, she could at least be around other people. She pulled out her pen and notebook and started a list:

  1. Get tomatoes, lentils, and butter
  2. Take care of dirty dishes
  3. Make sure Peter has everything he needs for the approaching school year
  4. Take Peter to get a pastry (too unhealthy?)
  5. Encourage Peter to pick up an instrument

She was running out of steam. Mila looked up from her absolutely meaningless list and decided to people-watch instead. A handsome man strolled by in a suit. Mila noted that he was objectively attractive and his outfit implied success. Perhaps he was the type of man she would go after if she had not already experienced the greatest of loves. She had considered looking for a new husband so Peter could have a father figure, but selfishly reminded herself that another parent would take away from her time with her son. Two teenage girls walked by, whispering and giggling with one another. An elderly woman walked slowly by with a cane. On her tedious trek through the park she crossed paths with a happy elderly couple, probably around the same age as the unaccompanied woman. The couple walked quickly with their heads up and arms linked. They were smiling. I guess life was good to them. Mila didn’t like to see this interaction. Perhaps she was reading into it too much, but she could not help but see herself in that lonely old woman. She turned her gaze elsewhere.

A week later bombs were being dropped on Berlin.

Mila ran to the closet and grabbed the briefcase she had already packed. It was mostly full of jewelry and documents. She brought the jewelry for its value, hoping to use it for trades in troubling situations. For this same reason she put on her fur coat. The documents were essential proof that she and Peter were Aryan, so they could be accepted into the nearest bunker. She also brought along with her photos of loved ones, in the hopes that they could help her find people after the chaos of the war. Also packed in the briefcase was a letter from Aaron to his beloved Mila, which he had slipped in the case the morning before killing himself. Mila did not yet know she was carrying this item with her, running with it towards an underground bunker.

Peter was unusually calm in the presence of bombs. He did not cry, despite the loud noises and looming idea of death. Ever since the death of his father, Peter had been notably desensitized to the world. Sometimes Mila worried about the melancholic nature of her boy. On the playground, Peter would fall and scrape his knee and stand back up without changing his expression. Perhaps he would shed some tears, but he never paid them any attention. It was a physical reaction, not a mental one. Peter had loved his father very much, to whatever extent a four year old is capable of love. After Aaron’s death, Mila sheltered her son from the truth. Sheltering is what Mila did best. Peter was simply told that his father was no longer with them. This information greatly impacted young Peter’s developing mind. Since the unexplained disappearance of his father, Peter has accepted all moments, feelings, and relationships as fleeting. In this way, Peter was mature beyond his years.

As the two fled from their homely apartment to an underground shelter, Mila repeated a memory in her head. The teakettle was whistling at her and Peter had yelled from his room for her to “Make it stop!” At the time this had seemed normal, and Mila reacted quickly, embarrassed by her passiveness. She could not quite place why this memory was sticking with her, haunting her at a time where much larger problems should have been occupying her mind.

When they reached the entrance to the bunker, Mila and Peter had to push through a crowd, fighting against people in their same situation. It was every German mother and child for themselves. Mila, who would do anything for the safety of her son, was an excellent fighter. She became like a swift warrior in the crowd, holding the briefcase in front of her and pushing through her competitors. Peter hung on to the back of her fur coat and trailed closely behind. The three of them: Mila, Peter, and the briefcase, moved as one creature. A creature determined to survive.

At the front of the crowd, Mila displayed her and Peter’s documents and the two of them were administered into the bunker. The first room was lit from the outside, but the one beyond that was nearly pitch black. It contained a row of toilets with actual plumbing. Mila was frustrated by the darkness because something in the briefcase had caught her eye when she was retrieving her and Peter’s precious documents for the guard. Beyond the dark room was an entrance to yet another room that glowed green. Mila’s mind was playing tricks on her. She imagined that she had died in the air raid and that the inviting emerald light was the light so often described by those who had encountered near death experiences. She stopped in her tracks and Peter, not being able to see his mother halt, walked into his mother and bounced off her fur exterior.

Peter was perplexed by his surroundings. He had never experienced such complete darkness and chaos before. People were pushing on all sides of him as he stood completely still behind his mother. No grown men were allowed in the bunker, it was their duty to serve the country in this time of war. Children were crying and mothers were cursing. Every once in a while the sharp corner of a briefcase would hit Peter right in the skull (that’s the unfortunate height he was at) or the soft coat of another woman would gently graze him. Peter, being the unusual child that he was, was indifferent to the two opposing sensations. He felt as if time were passing by at an excelled rate; and he felt very comfortable. This situation perfectly matched Peter’s developing life philosophy. Things always just happened, sometimes they were good and sometimes they were bad, but they were all fleeting. He could just as easily be hit by a sharp edge as enveloped in fur, and there was no point in reacting because the next thing coming would soon take the place of what had been. For this reason, he did not react when Mila stopped in her tracks. He did not push her to keep moving, to take the obvious next steps, as he had when the kettle was howling.

Eventually Mila snapped back to reality. It could have been minutes or hours or years. The darkness removed any sense of time. Mila awkwardly took a step forward and then assumed her quick pace once more. The green light was not a warm afterlife calling to her; it was a room coated in glow-in-the-dark paint. Presumably, this brightness in an underground bunker could keep a mother and her child from going insane. The color was meant to be calming and reminiscent of daylight. The paint was very expensive though, so only one room was made into such a paradise.

Mila took advantage of this joyful lighting to rummage through her briefcase and pull out the envelope that had caught her attention earlier. It was addressed to her in Aaron’s handwriting. Mila’s heart raced. She was overwhelmed by suppressed feelings and crumbled to the floor. Other nearby women called her weak and accused her of taking up too much space. She ignored them as her trembling hands automatically opened the letter even though her brain was nowhere near ready to see whatever was contained in that envelope. She began to read:

“My Beloved Mila,”

Her eyes filled with tears and blurred her vision. Peter had never seen his mother so weak. She had always been on top of things, always fair and reasonable but strict at the appropriate times. She was controlling, and smothering at times, but never showed weakness. In Peter’s eyes, his mother was a strong individual. But as Mila shattered, so did Peter’s understanding of who his mother was. She had always been his provider and caretaker, but in this moment it was Peter who would have to take care of his mother. Never before had it crossed the young boy’s mind that his mother relied on him in any way. Little did he know that Mila’s sanity was completely dependent on her relationship with Peter. She devoted every waking second to keeping his life nice and orderly as a distraction from the dangerous tendencies of her thoughts. Because Peter was so sheltered and everything was set up for him, he was able to think of everything as meaningless and fleeting. Perhaps if he had more responsibility for his own life, if he had to figure things out on his own and fend for himself, he would better be able to understand why so many humans chose to give in to their emotions, why things actually can matter. For the first time Peter was experiencing this. He could sit back and watch his poor mother shake or he could take action, interject himself, and not remain passive.

He took the letter from his mother’s hand and tried, in his soft, childish voice, to read it to her. He struggled with some of the longer words, but was a very advanced reader for his age. Mila made sure of this by reading with Peter in bed every night and scheduling special time each day for them to work on his reading and writing skills. This was just another element of Peter’s overscheduled, overly planned out existence.

“My Beloved Mila,

I am a Jewish man. I am a traitor and a disgrace, the lowest of men. I have not only lied to you and Peter, but to myself as well. When we met in the café parlor I fell in love with you instantly. I needed to spend the rest of my life with you, and things were not going well for my people. I acted shamefully and turned in my old identity for a new one, one where I could be with you and live without worries. However, in these past few years, it has become more and more difficult to lie to myself. As Jewish men around me are being persecuted and shamed and murdered, I act as a coward, hiding amongst my natural enemy. But how could you and Peter be the enemy? I have never experienced such a love nor have I ever been worthy of such a love. I cannot live with myself any longer. I’ve betrayed every part of myself. I’m sorry I was too much of a coward to tell you these things in person. I’m a coward down to my bones.

–       Aaron”

Mila teemed with unexpected new emotions. Peter was able to pronounce the words but dared not interpret them. Fumbling with his newfound sense of responsibility, he stroked his mother’s hair and kissed her on the cheek. The two of them found the strength to move to one of the cots in a neighboring room and fell asleep.

The bunker was unbearably hot. It was crowded and humid. The body heat alone would have made for a miserable situation; it did not help that it was summertime in Germany and that nearly every woman in the bunker was wearing her wealth in the form of a coat made from the skin of dead animals. Again Mila recalled her son telling her to “Make it stop!” Now she understood why this moment was stuck in her head. Ever since Aaron’s death, Peter rarely displayed annoyance. He had an eerie indifference to every situation. So why had the sound bothered him? It had not. Peter only told his mother to make the sound stop because it was what she would normally do, what she was supposed to do in his eyes. Peter was used to things moving along, he was not used to being stuck in any one moment or feeling. His life was structured and there was no room for teakettles howling in the presence of his attentive mother. That’s why he had told her to “Make it stop!” because he thought it was her proper action in this ever-moving forward life he was experiencing. He did not care about the sound, but it only made sense for his mother to act out her role in his life. In this twisted way, Peter was as dependent on Mila as she was on him. It took Mila lying on the floor of a crowded, glowing room for either of them to realize their mutual dependences on one another.

Because of the scorching heat, Mila had a difficult time telling whether she was hallucinating or dreaming as she laid in her cot with Peter’s little body pressed against hers. She heard screams and distant explosions. Peter pushed her awake, again assuming his newfound position of responsibility. Everyone was rushing into a special room, equip with benches and candles.

The doors on either side of the room were sealed shut. If they were open, everyone was doomed. When the doors were closed, they could absorb the damage from nearby bombs dropped and leave everyone within the room unscathed. Or at least that was the idea. Later it would come to light that this bomb shelter did nothing except give hope to those hiding away in it. If a bomb were to have been dropped directly above the shelter, it would have been destroyed immediately.

Inside the room, children sat at their mothers’ feet. Candles were lit and placed on the ground beside the children. When the candles went out, it signified that there was no longer oxygen down there, and the children were moved to the shoulders of their mothers. Another candle was placed on the bench and lit. When this candle went out, the mothers stood up from the benches, still with their children around their necks, and still sweating in their fur coats. The mothers would hold the next round of candles. They would try to hold their breath, too. Nothing about being in the bunker was comfortable, but still nobody looked forward to the next part. When the third candle went out, all the women and their children had to exit through a side door and run up to the city streets for oxygen in the midst of an air raid.

Watercolor by Amelia Walsh
Watercolor by Amelia Walsh

Peter sat at his mother’s feet and she placed a lit candle by his side. He stared into the flame. Mila sat down on the bench and her thoughts began racing. Aaron. How had he kept this secret from her? What he did was selfish. Her confusion quickly melted down into anger. The physical heat she was suffering was nothing, was ice, in comparison to the burning rage she felt inside. Her husband was a fake; a Jew. Propaganda had corrupted Mila’s mind. She had never liked the Jews, and now to learn that she was married to one! It was so shameful, so fully unfair. She wanted to scream. She wanted to kill Aaron a second time. She had been a fool. She looked back on their times together and shuttered. How could he say he loved her? Mila was suffering indeed. There is nothing more painful than having fallen in love with a work of fiction. She thought Aaron had been taken from her but now realized that he never existed in the first place. And just as the fire inside of her was reaching its pinnacle, the first candle went out. The air was thin and Mila lifted Peter onto her shoulders.

She watched the smoke rise from the extinguished candle wick and was reminded of the steam that morning in the kitchen. It had seemed so beautiful to her at the time, so calm. Now a similar image meant that she was closer to putting herself and her son in danger. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She pictured Aaron’s car crash. There had been smoke there, too. Mila inhaled and exhaled deeply. The woman to her right shot her a death glare, as if her deep breathing was hogging the limited oxygen. Mila’s anger was settling. Time seemed to be moving in slow motion. She wanted to end her thinking right there. It was certainly easier to hate someone who died than to care for them. But Mila’s heart was not satisfied. Her good thoughts about Aaron emerged once again. She remembered his laugh and the way he used to spin Peter around. She recalled what Aaron had written in his letter, that he had fallen in love with Mila the first time they met. That he had betrayed his entire identity just to be with her. Poor Aaron. Mila could hardly believe the thoughts she was having. Her feelings, her infinite love for Aaron, were somehow expanding. Weren’t they meant to be together? If they both felt love just by looking into one another’s eyes? How could his religious upbringing change any of these feelings? Mila was taking on the same guilt that Aaron had felt. She was betraying what she knew to be right for the sake of loving an individual. It is often speculated that there is no fear in love. Mila was terrified by herself. Aaron had been as well. Maybe it is more accurate to say there is illogical bravery in love.

The second candle went out and Mila stood up. Peter had fallen asleep on her back. She would carry this boy forever, it brought her peace of mind. Her confusion, anger, sympathy, and guilt had all passed. The only feeling that remained was love. In this terrifying time, it was all Mila could be sure of, even though her reasoning still seemed unclear.

In 1973, Gregory Vlastos, a Turkish scholar of ancient philosophy, would write for the Princeton University Press:

We are to love the person so far, and only insofar, as they are good and beautiful.  Now since all too few human beings are masterworks of excellence, and not even the best of those we have the chance to love are free of streaks of the ugly, the mean, the commonplace, the ridiculous, if our love for them is to be only for their virtue and beauty, the individual, in the uniqueness and integrity of her individuality, will never be the object of our love.  This seems to me the cardinal flaw in Plato’s theory.  It does not provide for the love of whole persons, but only for love of that abstract version of persons which consists of the complex of their best qualities.  (…) The high climactic moment of fulfillment—the peak achievement for which all lesser loves are to be ‘used as steps’—is the one farthest removed from affection for concrete human beings.

Mila loved Aaron not as a whole, but for being the sum of his specific human qualities. It would not make sense to love somebody who has lied to you, betrayed you and your child, and belongs to a religious group you were raised to hate. Yet, Mila could not help but acknowledge the deep and ever-expanding feelings she still had for her late husband. His eyes. His mannerisms. Maybe it was not logical, but it was love. Finally Mila felt at peace with what had happened and turned her attention to the weight on her shoulders. She knew that what she was doing to Peter was wrong. He could be loved even with flaws. He would never grow and find meaning in the world around him if she did not give him space to breathe. With that thought, Mila was washed over with a great feeling of comfort. Her soul, Aaron’s soul, and Peter’s soul all provided a consistent and lovable identity through time. There was permanence there. They were infinite. The third candle went out.

Mila woke Peter and they ran for the door. Peter was given his space to breathe and Mila was freed from her fears.

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