Fiction | ‘Abroad Alone’ by Annabelle Baptista

I

Corrine hadn’t really thought through her visit to Germany, after the Christmas holidays, other than the fact that she wanted to see her grandmother’s childhood home. Her funeral preyed on Corrine’s heart. Days before Thanksgiving, she had sat with her mother and sisters and brother, reminiscing about the woman at ninety, who had buried her husband four years earlier. They spoke of her tenacity and love.

Now, Corrine wondered how she would explain her blackness to her German host.  At the moment, she felt too tired, suffering from jetlag and busy processing a quaint, family-owned inn. She conversed with the only English speaker at the Inn, trying to frame the right words to say if anyone asked about her reason for being in the small German village.

In broken English, the innkeeper’s teenage daughter welcomed her, mentioning briefly that she had English in her studies, and showed Corrine to her room.

“No central heating. Every room have fireplace.” The daughter explained and handed Corrine a rough, white towel to use in the shower.

Corrine didn’t understand what the other guests said when they gathered outside the communal bathroom. She’d showered swiftly, under a trickle of water, contemplating washing her hair twists in the toilet because there was more water over there, and then settled for dampening her hair with wet towelettes which she had packed to clean her hands once she walked back to her room.

Feral eyes looked out from every available wall space. As if someone had gone hunting on Noah’s Ark, they all looked wide eyed. She could sense them saying something, Run.

II

Dora picked up Corrine from the guesthouse the next morning.

“I have always wanted to go to the U.S., but I never got the chance,” Dora said starting up the engine of her Smart.

Corrine had met Dora through a travel app that provided guides for city visits, people who volunteered to show you their city.  Corrine wasn’t due back at work for a few days so she had plenty of time, to explore the city her grandmother called home.

Corrine directed Dora to take her to the village cemetery.  It was a small cemetery, like everything else in the village, and it didn’t take her long to find the headstone she was looking for.

“Do you know anyone from the Ashe family?” Corrine asked, thrilled that she’d found the headstone.

“No, can’t say I’ve ever heard of them.  What about you, how did you come hear from them? I thought you’ve never been to Germany. How do you know this old, very German family?” Dora asked..

“Does it surprise you?  Well, I…have known a few Germans in my lifetime,” Corrine said, as she stood in front of the cool, gray stone and appreciated the fresh winter air.  Dora didn’t prod her further and she didn’t want to tell Dora that these people were her great grandparents. Her grandmother had mentioned them quite regularly, and shown Corrine an ivory and lace photo album, with a family tree drawn inside its pages, which was all she‘d chosen to take from her family home. Corrine wished she had brought some flowers, but the grave had a slate covering; they seemed to have had no expectations.

III

On New Year’s Eve, Dora had a concert inside a monastery. Corrine’s heart was full as she looked down on Neuheimstal from the hill.  She stood outside watching the provincial concert goers, almost marching, one after another into the church.  She imagined her young grandmother here, thinking of the man she would marry. Open to whatever the future had planned for her.

The monastery’s massive door had heavy oak and ironwork; Corrine had never run into anything as solid in Boston. With concerted effort, which took longer than she expected, she opened the door. It wailed on its hinges, as if releasing a spirited ghost. A monk walked the aisle wearing a black robe and swinging a metal censer suspended from a chain. Corrine’s throat seized. She began to cough. Mindful of making a scene, she moved aside from the crowd, leaned against a cold marble column hacking and sneezing. Four people noticed, and moved as if to help, but Corrine waved them away.

She spotted a back room under the nave and ducked inside, thankful that no one followed her. She hadn’t seen Dora since she started preparing for her choral production. Corrine took great gulps of air and let out a “Thank God.”  The room felt warm and damp, but it didn’t smell of incense. Her eyes adjusted to the obscure light, which came from a small window on the opposite wall.  She caught sight of a figure moving beneath a blanket on a velvet couch from the corner of her eyes.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know anyone was in here,” Corrine started reopening the door.

“Come in, come in.” Herr Tinnermann motioned with his hand as he sat up. Corrine shut the door.

“I have to get up anyway.”  Herr Tinnermann reached for his jacket lying on the back of a camel back chair.

“I felt ill from the smoke,” said Corrine, adjusting to the light. She’d met Herr Tinnermann at a brunch held earlier that afternoon by Dora.

“Take all the time you need.” Herr Tinnermann said, “You know I do this concert every year and it never stops filling me with wonder.”

“Did you know Ditmar Ash?” Corrine felt an alarm go off in the room. Her heart started pumping as if she were revving an engine to go from zero to a hundred depending on his answer.

“Yes, I knew Ditmar and Klaus, they had a lovely daughter.  I cannot remember her name. I remember her angelic face. Their daughter moved to the U.S…, why? Did you meet her? Did you know her?”

Corrine felt her heart break. “Yes, I knew her. Their daughter, I mean.”

The odd tuning of the instruments in the orchestra began to fill the room with whining exhalations.

“I must go. See you after the concert,” Herr Tinnermann said.

“Yes, I look forward to it.”

The smell had begun to dissipate, as a stream of fresh air came through the opened door.  Corrine could breathe freely again; the tightness in her throat disappeared.

She wanted to escape to the comfort of her hotel room and skip the evenings’ New Year concert and celebrations with the lie of a headache. But it was not possible to be alone, not at the guest house. What had made her think she could fit in in this strange place, with strangers who did not speak English? Yes, she had found them, her blood, her ancestors, but deep inside she knew they would have rejected her. Her heart ached.

IV

The singer’s voice warmed the hall, the band’s shadow dancing on the walls around them. Herr Tinnermann informed, rubbing his hands together, that he would play a piece on the pipe organ. Corrine swiveled her head. Suddenly, the room filled with a confluence of sounds; otherworldly. The heavy dirges expressed through the music was Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, said the program’s prospectus, but Corrine had first heard it played by Count Dracula when she was twelve, sitting in her Grandmother’s living room with popcorn. They had watched it together; a Friday night horror movie and she had been allowed to stay up till ten that night. Her grandmother had told her Romania was a beautiful country, not at all scary. Now, Corrine was sure her grandmother had been looking for snapshots that might remind her of home, because why else would she love Count Dracula so much.

V

Later in the early night, she met Dora, standing on the monastery’s expansive grounds staring up at the fine gauze draping the moon. The New Year’s Eve celebration had begun. The people ooh’d and ahh’d at the fireworks displays which lit the sky.  At midnight, all the church goers kissed one another on both cheeks and wished each other well, with the church bells ringing in undulations. Corrine hugged Dora a minute longer.

“Thank you for inviting me to your home. I have something to tell you.” Corrine said, pausing briefly before continuing. “I am half German” She waited for Dora’s response, trying to read her face for signs, which in her head were either of horror or disappointment.

“You are half-German, then you are German,” Dora proclaimed happily, almost jumping up and down.

 “You have home in Germany now, come back soon,” Dora said.

“Es war wunderbar. Ich gehe Morgan, aber du bist im Herzen” Corrine balled her fist tight and placed it over her heart.

She planned to take a cab to the airport in the morning, but at this moment, she felt already at home as she said her goodbyes to people who she felt she knew, like Herr Tinnermann and Dora. Their singing faded behind her as she left the monastery’s grounds on her way back to the guesthouse.  They would have killed her grandmother if they had known so many years ago, her Grandmother had told her, it was not allowed. She had feared for her life, loving a black man. She would have been an outcast. Her grandmother had also dealt with people who were racists, had hated her color and everything she represented, in Boston, but she had made a home for her family there. Corrine opened the window and breathed in the crisp, fresh air, and reflected on what her grandmother had taught her, love will make a home for you wherever it resides.

Annabelle Baptista is a poet and short story writer born in Indianapolis, Indiana. She currently teaches English as a second language and lives in Neckargemuend, Germany with her husband. She has been published in Coloring Book: An Eclectic Collection of Fiction and Poetry, Andwerve magazine and Families: The Front Line of Pluralism.

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