It’s late, so Benjamin works quickly, first searching for something sharp — a piece of broken glass — and then choosing a spot on the wall. Behind the heavy wooden doors beside him, his parents and little brother, Walter, sleep in a double bed surrounded by wine bottles. Benjamin needs to be quiet.
He presses the glass against the crumbling cellar wall and begins. The sound of the glass scratching out his poem rings in his ears. The shard threatens to slide from the grip of his sweating palms.
Being silent, he’s learned, is a virtue. In his own home years ago, he used to play with his father in the backyard and fight loudly with Walter. Now quietly reading is the preferred family pastime. When Walter, a boy who aspires to be boisterous, tries to chat about building a model plane or his rumbling belly, their father raises one finger to his lips and then returns to his reading.
Although books are acceptable, Benjamin’s father discourages the family from writing their own words. Shortly after they moved to the basement, he scribbled on a note to Benjamin “Don’t write anything that would harm us if it appeared in Westdeutscher Beobachter,” the local Nazi newspaper.
So Benjamin panics when he hears soft, cautious scuffling behind him. He lowers his hand slowly and holds his breath, the pounding of his heart echoing in his ears and muffling the footsteps behind him.
The house’s owner will be angry if he learns that his cellar’s wall has been defaced. Certainly Benjamin’s parents will be upset that he’s poking around at night, even though the windows are covered with dirt and black cloth.
“What’re you doing?”
Benjamin exhales. It’s Walter, sleepy-eyed in a long white nightshirt, barely visible in the dark.
“Nothing. Go back to bed,” Benjamin says, glass behind his back.
“I can’t. Mama’s snoring again.”
“You shouldn’t do that to the wall,” Walter interjects. “Mr. Kempf will get mad you hurt his house.”
“It’s our house now, too.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Well, it’s the last house we may ever have,” Benjamin rejoins impatiently. “So I don’t think it matters if I write on the walls.”
“No. We’re going home,” Walter says, and then with more determination, “Papa says it’s going to stop soon and we’ll go home.”
“If you say so.” Benjamin shrugs.
Walter wants to stomp his foot, but he, too, fears being found out of bed. He hangs his curly head.
“I’m telling Mama and Papa,” he warns before shuffling away.
Benjamin turns back to the wall, heeding Walter’s threat: He’ll be in trouble tomorrow if Walter tattles. Still, he might be able to buy Walter’s silence. He can show him what he wrote on the wall, sharing it as a brotherly secret. He can draw pictures of planes and cars in newspaper margins and then tear them out for them to play with like paper dolls.
The days pass so slowly sometimes. A little diversion can go a long way.
His parents have faith that this will end quickly and the rumors they’ve heard are exaggerations. His mother promises that they’ll have a wonderful meal when it’s over. She’ll invite her sisters and their families over, and they’ll prepare everyone’s favorite dishes. His father nods, but raises one finger to his lips.
Walter believes them because he’s eight. At almost twelve years old, Benjamin feels old enough to consider other possibilities.
Trapped underground, none daring to raise a voice or venture out into the day—what difference is there between such a life and death? The transition between the two seems smoother now than Benjamin had ever before believed. He feels he seamlessly passed from one to the other when he first descended the cellar steps.
After almost two years in hiding, he doubts they’ll ever leave. He tries to save his faith for prayer, and his prayer and his poem are the same.
He writes the last line, his heart no longer racing. Squinting with his nose close to the wall, he reads his piece.
I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining.
I believe in love even when I don’t feel it.
I believe in God even when He’s silent.
Then his grip on the glass shard loosens, it slips from his hand, and slices his thumb. He quickly wraps the bottom of his shirt around the cut and grumbles. Tomorrow he’ll be in trouble for being out of bed at a suspicious hour, writing on the wall, and staining his shirt when it could be weeks before there’s another chance to wash it properly.
Until then, he should get back to his sleeping family. He quietly returns to bed. Walter’s still awake and crosses his arms when he hears Benjamin come in. Their mother is snoring. Their father lies on one side, his left hand resting on his right shoulder.
Living in the basement has simultaneously brought the family closer and pulled them apart. Benjamin now knows the exact number of times his mother will knead a piece of dough before folding it over. He recognizes how his father’s nose scrunches up when he’s anticipating a sneeze. Yet conversations are almost impossible. He knows that their thoughts are as mysterious to him as his are to them.
Thus, Benjamin said little and wrote nothing until tonight. And without leaving something behind– if something happens to him– there would be little record that he once existed. And that, he thinks, is the deepest death of all.
If he’s going to be imprisoned or killed, Benjamin hopes Westdeutscher Beobachterreporters find his poem. If he could, he’d dare them to publish it on the front page.
Author’s Note: The poem here was found on a cellar wall in Cologne where Jews were hiding during the Holocaust. The author is unknown, but believed to have been a child.
Virgie Townsend is a public relations specialist and Komodo dragon enthusiast from Central New York. Her work has been featured in Every Day Fiction, Pif Magazine, Flash Fiction Chronicles, and The News Media & The Law. Visit her online at virgietownsend.com or twitter.com/virgietownsend.