Hilde sat alone in her kitchen, watching the clock hands turn.
A white, crisply ironed skirt lay heavy upon her legs, which were tucked beneath her chair. Every few seconds, she snatched at one of her gray flyaways to put it behind an ear. Otherwise, she was perfectly still, her back straighter than an iron bar. In the living room, a thick wooden television set hissed static audible from the silent, sun-filled kitchen.
Suddenly, as though the dials had been twiddled by invisible hands, the television screen lit up in black and white.
A man’s voice, sharp but cloyingly steady:
“—and if our boys, our dear boys, dying every day, might have a chance—” Static. “Do our people need to live in fear of bombs dropping on their heads, day after day?”
Hilde let out a painful gasp and ran into the living room, dropping to her hands and knees in front of the television set and shutting it off.
“My God,” she whispered, still on the floor, “my Erwin, how lucky my Erwin is—that he moans of his hours sitting at his beautiful wooden desk! That he is desperate for his dinner, too hungry to say hello, that he laments his work, his employer, his cold-footed commute, that he grinds his teeth at our rationed mutton and yet—the frugal bastard—gives me nothing, nothing, not a penny to spare… ” She rose, staggered backward, and sat down heavily on the couch.
“Oh, my Erwin. You horrible man, with your warm smiles, and your kindly dark eyes. Your graceful, slender fingers that have never worked a single hard day. Your gentle palms, resting on my bony shoulders. Why should I deserve a penny to spare? What have I done for you? What could I possibly want when there’s no flour in the shops, and our boys are getting gunned on foreign land?”
She stared up at the ceiling light.
“My Erwin!” she shouted, eyes upturned, and spread her hands wide. “My darling—how you have changed me, shaped me, made me your own.” She rose, hands still outstretched. “My darling, how could you have ever chosen a girl like me? I am nothing, no one, no beauty, no princess, and yet you chose me. You were a man and I was a girl. You wore gray suits, white socks, a small black hat. You had a little mustache, you pale-cheeked, well-educated, well-respected man. You came to my house and asked my father for my hand. On a Sunday! A Sunday!”
She ran to the window, which was already visibly darkened. “A Sunday!” She flung the window open, letting in a cool rush of air and accidentally knocking over her mop, which was standing in the corner, in the process. She picked up the end of the mop and rolled the wood between her hands.
In a near whisper:
“My darling, how your absence pains me, worse than when your mother was ill, and you left to live with her for weeks and weeks, and worse than when you were at university and I hardly saw you at all. Oh, but you promised—you promised never to leave me again!
“I wish—I wish I were Thisbe, darling, and I could run to the lofty wall that divides us, and press my lips against it, so that even from a distance I might sense the warmth of your sweet lips. You would be my Pyramus, and if we should die for our love, then let death be upon us, but only if we would die together—for solitude, that would be the greatest agony of all!”
Then she paused, looking down at the mop handle in her hands. “No. I cannot let this go on. I must go out. I must find you, my Erwin, I must!”
Hilde ran back into the kitchen, shoving her mop back into the closet where it belonged. She then
dashed to the front door, grabbing her coat and woolen scarf from the coat-stand. “If this is the last thing I do—” She jerked the coat over her shoulders. “If this is the last thing I do, let it be the last thing I do—” She began winding the scarf around her neck. “Then it must be so. It must be so. I could not live with myself… ”
She lifted a hat from the top of the coat-stand and fitted it on her head. She reached for the door.
A sound stopped her.
It was a kind of quiet pop-pop-popping sound.
“First the rationing, now this? My God!”
From beneath her oven there was emerging a moss-colored goop, a viscous puddle that spread out across the floor toward her and bubbled softly as it went.
She took a step back, and then a step forward. She leaned forward and peered over her kitchen table to get a better look. The goop was seeping around one of the chairs, like any other liquid might, wrapping around the legs and continuing on its path.
An interrogation commenced:
“Who are you looking for?”
There was no sound except the bubbles’ pop-pop-pop.
“Who do you want? What do you want? Is it me you’ve come for? Is it Erwin? He’s not here, I tell you, he’s not here, there’s no one here but myself!”
The seeping goo approached the hem of her skirt and she danced away, but not before a green streak had stained the white fabric. “How dare you! How dare you reach for me in that way, how dare you enter my home and go where you like, don’t you know you are trespassing, who invited you, what on earth do you want—?”
She closed her mouth, having realized the goo was no longer moving.
Warily, she circled it.
It still did not move.
Glancing behind herself every other second, she slowly walked backward, now heading back to the broom closet to fetch her mop. “Now look what you have turned me into!” She slammed the door of the broom closet. “The housewife I was praying not to be.”
As she mopped and scrubbed and ground the goo away, the sun slipped ever lower. The moon pressed its bosom up against the clouds. The mop trembled in her soft lady’s hands, dust mites dancing around her ankles. With her body’s every movement, she seemed to be attempting to thrust forth her sorrow into the empty room—and the sorrow itself filled the emptiness, making its presence known.
At last, with a long, bone-shaking sigh, she determined to make her way upstairs to her bed and lie down a minute, so as to recover from the strain of keeping herself alive.
Lying in bed she finally felt safe. Even with the stars beginning to stand out in the night sky and the bed as cold and empty as ever, Hilde was exceptionally calm.
So calm, in fact, that she didn’t even register the sound of pee tinkling onto water in the bathroom, at least not at first. But then she did hear it, and she realized it was continuing, and continuing, and—
“Why would someone be peeing in my toilet, in my house? Could it be a burglar? An intruder? An assassin ready to slit my throat?”
She got out of bed.
The sound continued. She began to tip-toe down the hallway. As she approached the bathroom, the tinkling grew even louder. She did not doubt that the bathroom was the source of the sound, nor that the sound itself was, in fact, the sound of urination.
She paused outside of the door. She had had the sudden thought that maybe it wasn’t an intruder after all. Maybe it was Erwin, home at last, with urgent bowels.
She called out, “Erwin?”
The tinkling stopped.
She heard a man’s cough.
She pushed open the bathroom door.
No one. Nothing. An empty bathroom, toilet seat closed.
“Oh, you silly old woman, it was nothing, nothing, nothing, and look how you worked yourself up.”
But now she began to feel very concerned. Why wasn’t Erwin home? Wasn’t it late enough? Hadn’t he worked enough? Wasn’t he desperate to leave his office and return to her warm, loving arms and eat his plateful of hot home-cooked food?
“Erwin, why do you always make me wait?”
The empty house did not respond.
“Erwin, you don’t even like your job.”
“Erwin, you don’t even want your job.”
“Erwin, we have enough for you to retire—we could live modestly—maybe pick up a few odd jobs, or at least—part-time, Erwin, would you consider working just part-time?”
“Erwin, I need you.”
“Erwin, would you please just come home?”
The doorbell rang.
Hilde ran to the door so quickly she nearly tripped over her feet. She unlocked it with shaking hands. She swung it open with a huge, vigorous movement.
But it was not Erwin. Hilde stood blinking, staring into the sunrise. It was Mrs. Fischer, the neighbor. Her mouth was opening, slowly, everything was moving very slowly—
Hilde paused to catch her breath. It did not take long. In fact, Mrs. Fischer’s mouth was still opening by the time she had caught it. She hurriedly brushed down her clean, well-ironed, pale-green skirt, which had become ruffled in her dash to the door.
“Mrs. Fischer! I really must ask you—I really must—Mrs. Fischer, have you seen my Erwin? I am so concerned, Mrs. Fischer, I have been waiting and waiting—”
Mrs. Fischer’s eyes went wide.
“Miss Hilde, who is this Erwin you speak of? I only wanted to borrow your mop—the moths have eaten away at mine—”
Hilde’s whole body went rigid. She felt consumed by horror at the memory of the goo, and her whole skeleton trembled.
“Mrs. Fischer, I must apologize, but currently, my mop is vile!”
“Oh, well, thank you, I’m so sorry to have disturbed you, maybe another time—?”
Hilde slammed the door.
Slowly she turned back to her empty kitchen. She saw her mop still leaning against the oven: proud, lifeless, and very much clean.