by Emma Venables
I’m going to faint. I feel it in the stitch in my side, the rumbling of my stomach, the sun’s scorch on the back of my neck. But I can’t pass out now because we need to clean up this city, to put it back on its feet.
All of us work as one, a whole line of women snaking our way around this bombed-out street, in our various states of dress: kerchiefs and aprons, dresses and borrowed trousers, baggy shirts and stolen boots. We are doubled by my blurred vision, but we are vast regardless. Hella. Sigrid. Gisela. Rita. To name but a few. Dust-smeared skin and heaving chests. Wide hips which bore the weight of the Aryan race and, every night since defeat, have bore the brunt of an army out for revenge.
I sway, reach out for something to grab onto, but merely catch another burden to pass across. I force my spine straight, force my eyes open. My hands ache with the weight of all the bricks, all the fragments of Berlin I have cradled with a swift swing of my arms. Seconds, that’s how long each bit of this broken city gets. Rocked from my hands to Johanna’s, from Johanna’s hands to Helga’s, on and on and on until they land in the crater or on the pile.
Charlotte steps closer to me. We’ve developed a sixth sense — a quick glance to your left or right will reveal a break in the chain, a potential problem. She takes the brick from my hands, passes it along, all the while we stand shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip. She will not let me fall, not under the eye of the Russian overseer who claps his hands. Faster. Faster.
I close my eyes, feel my neck jolt, barely feel the next brick caress my palm. Sweat trickles down my back, pooling in the waistband of the trousers I stole from my uncle’s corpse. I shake my head, let the sunlight back in. I can’t faint. I have to work, have to get the extra rations so I can feed my parents, my son. The overseer steps towards me now. I stare him down. No cause for concern here. Please just announce break time. Let us enjoy the power of watery soup while we mull over the future, over how — after we’ve cleared the streets of Berlin — we will go about clearing out our consciences.
The overseer looks at me and then at his watch. Break time. Our shoulders droop. We wipe our foreheads, wonder how we’ll manage the walk to our hard-earned food. The thunk of ruins upon ruins stops. Charlotte squeezes my hand: well done for staying strong, Jutta.
Generations from now people will walk these rebuilt streets unaware that our labours lie underfoot. And in those places where they do remember us, they will not know our names; they will simply know us as a collective: Trümmerfrauen.
Emma Venables completed her creative writing PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London. She has taught creative writing at Royal Holloway and Liverpool Hope University. Her short fiction has previously featured in The Gull, Litro Online, The Lampeter Review, Strix and Normal Deviation: A Weird Fiction Anthology. She can be found on Twitter: @EmmaMVenables.