MEREDITH WADLEY: From the Swiss side of the Rhine

Flash Fiction by Meredith Wadley

The Bells on Her Hem Are Ringing (Turkish: Etekleri zil çalıyor)

Back in the early eighties, Dean and I backpacked through Germany. We knew little about it, only that the war of our grandparents lingered, coldly keeping the country divided. In Munich, a woman plucked us off the train station platform, promising us a centrally located room plus breakfast. Marching us past a corner Wirtschaft, she said, “Good beer. Cheap menu. Popular with students.” That evening, we backtracked to it.

Seated at a table for four in the crowded dining room, we ordered  Semmelknödel, sauerkraut, and two Weißbiere. A couple arrived, a blonde wearing a rainbow shemagh around her neck and a maxi skirt that jingled. The man’s voluminous black curls hung shoulder-length over a shemagh matching his green combat trousers. Conversations dampened in the room as the waitress led them across the room, seating them with us.

Unaccustomed to sharing a table with strangers, we dropped our conversation to whispers.

The blonde spat, “English?” The lenses of her wire-rimmed glasses made her blue eyes enormous. Her nose was as sharp as her teeth.

We’d already discovered that Europeans couldn’t place our accents. Brits were the more frequent travelers, and Canadians identified themselves with maple leaf patches, pins, or silk-screened T-shirts.

“We’re from the States,” I said.

The man tilted his head. His round face and dark eyes made him seem much younger than the woman. “The States?”

“The US,” Dean said.

The woman said, “I’m German,” and added in a defiant tone loud enough for others to hear, “My boyfriend is Turkish.”

“Turkey? Cool,” Dean and I said in unison.

“My best friend’s brother married a Turkish woman,” Dean chirruped. “Both biochemistry professors. They live in Istanbul.” He turned to me. “That should be our next trip. Turkey.”

Our German tablemate sniffed. Her Turk smiled.

The waitress brought the couple beers. “Alles Okay?” she asked us, rolling her eyes toward the couple.

I recalled the short time I’d dated a Ph.D. student from Cameroon—the disapproving looks we received when we went out together, especially in restaurants, as if our mix-raced presence could ruin appetites and evenings.

Our Turkish neighbor described his home region—a fertile plateau, snow-capped mountains, clean, crisp air, and orchards of almond, cherry, and apricot trees. Fat figs and honey cakes. “The coffee’s so thick, only good fortunes are read in it!”

Dean said to the woman, “You must love it in Turkey!”

She banged down her beer stein—good thing it was empty. “Do you not understand what it means for a German woman to go out with a Turk?” She grabbed her purse and headed for the WC, her tiny silver bells jingling.

The man chuckled. “Eteklerizilçalıyor,” he said.

“Which means?” I asked.

“The bells on her hem are ringing—wherever she goes.”

“Quite beautiful,” I said.

The young man said, “Yes. She tries.”  

The Clever One Yields; the Donkey Stays Firm (Swiss-German: De Gschiider git nah, de Esel bliebt stah)  

In 1939, war loomed. We, Switzerland’s able young men, cleaned our K31s, edged their bayonets, and polished our black leather boots. We buttoned into our green wool uniforms and reported for duty.  

My unit installed itself on an emerald stretch of the Rhine River, guarding medieval Kaiserstuhl and its bridge to Germany.  

We anticipated a German invasion; the Fatherland’s refugees invaded instead. By 1942, our justice minister cried, “The boat is full.” We barricaded the bridge.  

Folks carting their worldly goods amassed on the Reich’s side of the bridge, crowding the German Zollhaus. Beneath flags emboldened with swastikas, they quieted babies and aided the old and infirm. Three girls with yellow stars on their sleeves played jacks.  

It fell to our unit to retrieve with hooks those who tried to swim to safety but failed; some bodies clothed—in greasy wool, threadbare cottons, frayed silks, or wretched furs—and some naked.   We were forbidden to touch rucksacks, purses, pockets, and seams.  

A repugnant undertaking, but the faces I saw could have been neighbors back home. Dye stained a man’s hairline. Fresh stitches had mended a baby’s cleft lip. A young woman’s earrings resembled those worn by a girl I’d once kissed behind the church.  

“What do we do if someone makes it across, sir?” a private asked our Korporal.  

“When; not if.” He lit a cigarette and left the question open.  

One evening, Korporal and I patrolled the riverbanks between Kaiserstuhl and a bunker. The gunners waved us inside. Across the river, German womenfolk and children swam and picnicked upon a grassy bank. The children’s cries made me homesick for my brothers and sisters.   The gunners had given the young women nicknames, scoring marks into the concrete for comeliness.  

Korporal said, “Men, have you no respect? The body is divine.”   Their commander laughed. “Herr Korporal, this we know, precisely!”   The gunners laughed, too.  

We resumed our patrol.  

The lowering sun gilded the river and turned passing clouds pink and orange. As we ate hardtack and dark chocolate, the evening church bells from both sides of the river harmonized. We approached the bunker again, and two swans took flight. The whistling of their flapping wings was followed by splashes of water that sounded like the strokes of a swimmer.  

My palms sweated against my rifle stock. When I flicked on my flashlight, Korporal masked the beam with his hand.   Water sloshed our banks nearby. Lungs gasped.  

In the dark, twigs snapped, footfalls faded.  

“See anything, Private?”  

Nein, Herr Korporal.”  

De Gschiider git nah, de Esel bliebt stah.”  

The clever one yields; the donkey stays firm. “Sir?” I asked, uncertain of his meaning.  

“This one got away, Private. That’s all.” He offered me a cigarette. I lit it from his, our hands shaking. In the distance, atop the bunker, the Swiss flag snapped, its white cross gray in evening’s dim light.   

Meredith Wadley lives and works in a medieval microtown on the Swiss side of the Rhine River. Her most recent longform fiction appears in Collateral, Line of Advance, Longleaf Review, and New World Writing. Pieces from her series of idioms reimagined as flash fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in several publications, including Bandit Fiction, Disquiet Arts, Fiction Kitchen Berlin, Fudoki Magazine, Gone Lawn, JMWW, Lammergeier, Lunate, and Orca Lit. Visit her at: www.meredithwadley.com. She tweets at: @meredithwadley.  

Flash Boulevard is edited by Francine Witte. Banner photograph Wes Candela

Published by poetrybay

George Wallace is a poet, professor and freelance editor living and working in NYC. Writer in residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace since 2011, he is author of over 3 dozen books of poetry and editor/co-editor of such fine literary publications as Poetrybay, Great Weather for Media, Polarity, Flash Boulevard, Long Island Quarterly and Walt's Corner. George travels internationally to perform his poetry, and his many honors include the Naim Frasheri Prize (Tetova Poetry Festival), Orpheus Prize (Plovdiv Poetry Festival), National Beat Laureate (Beat Poetry Festival), Suffolk County Poet Laureate, CW Post Poetry Prize; and the Alexander Medal, from UNESCO/Greece, for his contribution to the arts.

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