And so, the next part of the journey begins. Or is it the next piece of the puzzle? A cup of coffee might work well here, but who am I to say?
Music? A couple of pieces played a central role here. Try this one first:
And then there was this (but then again this album is always close to the edge):
I guess words matter. I listen and see memories take shape and the words you read follow and take shape. The muse finds you where she will, ya know?
Forgotten Songs From An Imaginary Life
Part I: When The Sky Falls
Copenhagen, Denmark 28 March 1939
The man looked out his office window and scowled.
“It is snowing already, Mette. I will need my coat and boots!”
“But you have another patient, Doctor. Am I to reschedule her?”
“Is it a new patient?”
“Yes. Something Baumgarten?”
“Something? Her name is Something?” Dr. Anders Sorensen scoffed. “Seriously?”
“No, no, I just don’t have the file in front of me right now.”
“What is the issue?”
“Stomach pain, fatigue, blood in her stool.”
Sorensen growled and put his lab coat back on, then he put his stethoscope where he always put it – in the coat’s lower right pocket – before he walked into the nurses office to look over the file. He put on his reading glasses and quickly looked over the information the woman’s family physician had sent along with her file and then, before he had seen the patient, he asked his nurse to check on the availability of an operating room for tomorrow morning.
“How long a procedure?” she asked.
“Four hours and I will require two assistants. Preferably my residents.”
Sorensen walked out into the clinic’s waiting room and looked around until he found the likeliest looking person. “Ina?” he said to the frail looking, ashen-faced woman sitting with, he guessed, her husband. “Shall we talk now?”
The woman had trouble standing and he rushed over to help her husband, and she leaned on them both a bit as she got steady on her feet.
“Are you feeling dizzy now?”
“Yes, Doctor. Very.”
He took her left wrist in hand and felt her pulse, then he checked her right wrist. “Can you walk now?”
“I think so, yes.”
He helped the woman to his exam room and then left her with his nurse to get into a gown, and he went out to talk with her husband.
“How long has your wife been feeling ill?” Sorensen asked after he confirmed the old man was indeed her husband.
“It is months now, Doctor, but she would go to our doctor.”
“Have you noticed the blood in her stool?”
The old man nodded.
“Has she been vomiting?”
Again the old man nodded.
“And there is blood in the fluid?”
“Yes, doctor, and much more this last week.”
Sorensen put his hand on the old man’s shoulder. “I will go and speak to Ina now, but you must be prepared for a hospital stay. Is there someone you can stay with here in the city?”
“Yes, Doctor. My son teaches engineering here, at the college.”
“Fine, fine. I will come and speak with you when I am finished.” Sorensen returned to his exam room and looked over the patient’s vitals, including an orthostatic pressure check, then he took his opthalmascope and peered into the old woman’s eyes and nodded.
“I am going to help you lay back now, and I want you to point to where you feel pain when I do.”
She immediately indicated the upper central region of her abdomen and Sorensen gently palpated the area she indicated, then he felt around the rest of her belly. “How is your appetite, Ina?”
She shook her head. “Not good. I have not been hungry for weeks.”
“What about red meat?”
“No, no…the idea makes me ill even just to hear the words.”
“Trouble swallowing, even when drinking water?”
“Yes, how did you know?”
He smiled. “Ina, I think we must go get an x-ray now, but I think it very likely that you have a cancer in your stomach. We need to see if the cancer has reached your liver, and if it hasn’t then we will need to operate as soon as possible.”
“And if it has spread, then what?”
“We will discuss that if and when the time comes. For now, I want you to keep thinking only of good things, about happy memories, okay?”
“Now we go to the x-ray machine.”
“Does this x-ray thing hurt, Doctor?”
“No, no, it is all quite painless. You won’t feel a thing.”
The snow was ankle deep and falling wet and heavy by the time he left the clinic; Sorensen pulled his coat’s heavy fur collar up to keep the wet snow from getting to his skin and causing a chill, then he put on his hat and pulled-on his fur-lined gloves before he stepped out into the blue light of evening. His house was only two streets away but the walk was just long enough to be bothersome on nights like this, and he tried to think of something, anything, other than this Baumgarten’s tumor. He would know more once he was inside, of course, but malignant spread was obvious on her x-rays – yet the liver was not involved yet so maybe there was hope for a decent outcome.
He stepped out into traffic and almost immediately a taxi honked its horn and slid to a stop on the slick surface, in the process spattering his legs with slushy snow. ‘That was too close for comfort,’ Sorensen sighed as he shook his head, then, as he stepped back onto the sidewalk, he nervously pulled his scarf tight – just as a stream of water puddled on his neck – before running down his back.
He shivered once then tried to concentrate again – on the traffic around him and on the slushy piles forming on the sidewalk – until he made it home, but when he entered he was surprised by the silence that greeted him. No servants to take his coat? And…the house smelled of fresh cut flowers – but no dinner? Where were the cooks?
“What is going on here?” he said to the silence, and when no-one spoke to his question he turned and took off his overcoat and hung it in the closet, then he shook off his hat and put it away, too. His gloves and scarf came off next, but just then he heard scurrying footsteps on the floor above, followed by the sounds of breaking glass.
He turned and ran for the staircase, made it up to the next floor in a mad dash, only to find his wife sweeping up the remnants of a mirror that had, apparently, just fallen off the back of a closet door.
“Are you alright!?” Anders cried as he ran into the bedroom. “I heard glass breaking and no-one is in the kitchen! What is going on here?”
His wife, Tilda, shook her head and smiled. “Must I tie ribbons around your fingers? We are going out tonight, in case you have forgotten. I gave everyone the evening off!”
“Out? Tonight? You didn’t…oh wait, yes, yes you did.”
“Yes, I did.”
“The recital? Or is it a concert this time?”
“She is only the daughter of your best friend in all the world, and already he forgets! Anders! You are hopeless!”
Sorensen shook his head, scolding himself. “Ah, yes. Imogen, her new concerto, at the concert hall.”
“You have had a bad day?”
“A bad afternoon. A bad case.”
“How early must you go in?”
“Four thirty in the morning. It was the only opening tomorrow.”
“Then we will just make a brief appearance at the reception after. We must get you home and to bed.”
“I hate to mention it, but what about dinner? Do we have plans?”
Tilda shook her head. “I thought we would go to Hugo’s tonight. There is time enough.”
He pulled the pocket-watch from his waistcoat and looked at the time. “Barely. We will need to hurry.”
“Then let us hurry…but you’d better call for a taxi.”
“I should tell you, in case you have forgotten, that you are the most beautiful woman in the world and that I love you tremendously.”
She smiled as she walked by, pausing only slightly and kissing him gently on her way to the stairs. He looked at her and smiled, because even now, after ten years, the sight of her thrilled him.
Copenhagen, Denmark 2 September 1939
Anders Sorensen looked over the patient’s chart, then up at the surgical residents standing around the bed. He seemed to all who looked at him very agitated, perhaps even a little angry, and in the experience of his residents this was most unusual. Sorensen was usually the calm, steadying hand, and he had never, in their experience, appeared fearful. But today? Yes, something was amiss. Or very, very wrong.
“Pers,” Sorensen asked as he consulted the chart once again, “the patient is two days post-op and now has a temperature. His abdomen is tender where?”
“Right upper quadrant, Doctor.”
“Which makes us think what, Matilde?”
“That there is the possibility of another stone, Doctor, perhaps in the hepatic duct?”
“And so we should do what, Stefan?”
“An x-ray with contrast medium should be our next procedure, Doctor Sorensen.”
Sorensen hooked the chart onto the end of the patient’s bed and nodded. “Let me know when you have the results,” he said as he turned and strode back to his office without so much as a word.
“Have we done something wrong?” one of the residents asked. “He seems offended by our very presence today.”
Stefan Jensen looked at the group then at Sorensen’s retreating form. He knew what was bothering Sorensen but now was not the time to talk about such things, not around all these loose-lipped, clueless students.
All Denmark was on edge, after all. The Germans had rolled into Poland just the day before and already it appeared that both England and France would declare war of the Germans, yet now there were reports that German units were gathering along Denmark’s border. And both Jensen and Sorensen were, like many students and faculty here at the medical school, Jews.
So yes, of course Sorensen was agitated. Everyone of his residents had seen the dozens of photographs of German Jews forced to wear armbands, being beaten and harassed as they walked down streets in Berlin. And then they’d all heard the horror stories of homes and businesses being confiscated from German Jews – before some mysteriously disappeared. Hitler’s views, as well as those of all his myriad acolytes, were by now more than well known in Denmark, and so now, with Poland about to fall, the thinking was that when the Germans inevitably rolled into Denmark it wouldn’t be all that difficult to figure out what would happen to people like Anders Sorensen.
Or, for that matter, to Stefan Jensen, but, then again, Jensen’s family had no intention of staying in Copenhagen and waiting for the inevitable. Even now his father was making arrangements to move the family to Canada by way of Sweden, and just last night his father had tasked Stefan with finding out if Professor Sorensen would like to make the journey with them. He’d penned a letter to that effect, charging his oldest son to deliver it to the professor as soon as possible.
And so, when Sorensen walked off towards his office, Jensen made up his mind right then and followed him.
But he hadn’t counted on having to deal with the Professor’s secretary-nurse, a ferocious creature who jealously guarded Sorensen’s privacy as well as his time.
“I need to speak with Professor Sorensen,” Stefan said as he came sliding breathlessly into the anteroom. “It is most important!”
“What’s this about, Jensen?” Anders said, as he had not yet made it all the way into his office.
“A personal matter, Doctor. A letter from my father, for you, sir.”
“Well. come in, come in. I have a few minutes…”
“Thank you, Doctor.”
“How is your mother? I heard she was feeling ill?”
“Ah, better. Thank you for asking.”
“Now, what’s this all about? A letter, you say?”
“Yessir, from my father. About, well, Poland.”
“Poland? You don’t say? Well, you’d better let me have a go at it, don’t you think?”
“Yessir,” Stefan said as he pulled the envelope from his lab coat and handed it over.
“Do you know what this is all about?” Sorensen said as he took the letter from his young resident.
“Not the specifics, sir.”
Sorensen opened the envelope and read through the letter twice, taking a deep breath once then rubbing the bridge off his nose, trying to chase away too many hours without sleep with one futile pinch. Then he walked over to his office window and pulled it open, letting waves of fresh air wash through his stuffy little office.
“I love the smell of this city,” Anders said as he put his hands on the sill and leaned out into the air. “The sea, the market shops, the streets here around the university…life…I smell life…intoxicating life everywhere.”
“I think my father smells death, Doctor. Fear and death.”
“And there are few people in the world I respect more than your father. You know that, don’t you?”
“I do, sir.”
“What about you, Stefan? You have your medical degree now but your training will be incomplete, so what do you think of all this commotion? Such a departure will make for many difficult choices, and for us all, yet for you this decision may be more than a simple inconvenience.”
“I have heard that a German branch of the Gestapo has already formed here in the city, and that there are collaborators in all levels of the government ready to deal with the Germans.”
“Yes, I have heard this too. And lists will be made, knocks on doors will come in the middle of the night, as surely as the night follows day. Synagogues will burn, too – yet always under mysterious circumstances, of course – but by then all the Jews in Denmark will have disappeared. Stefan, I fear this new animal, this new kind of superman. And yet, I think I fear for our world most of all…”
“It makes sense to leave now, does it not, Professor? Before such a decision becomes too difficult, if not impossible. We risk much now, I know, but we do not risk the end of our families and our lives. We will endure if we leave. We will survive another season of man.”
“So, we must teach the horse to sing after all? Is that what you are saying, Stefan?”
“Yes, Professor. But what about the Schwarzwald’s? Do you think you can convince the professor to join us?”
“Professor Schwarzwald? Never. He will never leave Copenhagen, and he has told me so many times.”
“What about Imogen?”
Sorensen backed into his office and turned to face Stefan, a scowl creasing his face. “That will depend on Avi Rosenthal, of course…”
“I do not trust that – bastard,” Jensen said, almost spitting out that last word.
“She is not well, Stefan.”
“Imogen? I did not know this…”
Sorensen pointed to his head and shook his head. “Her father fears she is fast becoming schizophrenic. Apparently she is visited by an old man who whispers to her in the night.”
Jensen shook his head too. “She is such a talent, such a brilliant physicist. Her mind must be at war with itself.”
“You have known her since…”
“Yes, since forever. Since before we started school together.”
“So…you know Avi well enough to…”
“I do. He is a prick who would sell out his mother…”
Sorensen held out his hand. “Enough. His father is a dear friend, as you well know.”
“I understand. What should I tell my father?”
“Tell your father…that all in all I would prefer Quebec or Toronto, but then again I would rather resettle in California over any other place. San Francisco above all.”
Jensen beamed. “Really? Well, this is excellent news!”
“Yes, go tell your father. Now, I have to talk to my wife about all this. It will come as rather a surprise, I should think. And before you run home, might I suggest you finish seeing to your patients, Doctor Jensen?”
Everything was arranged quite hastily, with travel under the guise of attending a surgical symposium in Philadelphia employed. And almost immediately the Jensens and the Sorensens traveled to Gothenburg to board to the Svenska Amerika Linien’s MS Kungsholm, leaving for New York City in early October, 1939. By the time the party arrived at the old red brick Stigbergskajen quay in Gothenburg, word was already circulating among the people gathered there that this would likely be the last passenger crossing from Sweden, and Anders Jensen thanked his lucky stars that he had acted as precipitously as he had.
Because of the fourteen hundred and fifty two people gathered on the pier that crisp autumn morning, most were Jews, and most were by now quite frantic. Frantic because all of the Jews gathered there feared that something would prevent their boarding the ship – and so prevent their escape. Already the Gestapo was monitoring air traffic within Europe, already they were plucking prominent Jews from aircraft bound for Lisbon, where the last Pan Am Clippers were departing mainland Europe for Miami and New York. Because, in a very real sense, these fleeing Jews were like desperately unwitting fish being forced into waiting nets, and this crossing on the Kungsholm appeared to be the last best way off the continent – simply because the Gestapo had yet to find a way of operating within neutral Sweden.
So by the time Anders and Tilda Sorensen cleared immigration and walked across the boarding ramp and into the ship they each felt a palpable sense of release. Walking up the grand staircase to the reception area they felt an ongoing cascade of conflicting emotion: regret and sorrow for leaving the life they had always known – then tumbling down the very real slopes of fleeing a deadly, ominous and incomprehensible force bent on their destruction. By the time they settled in their stateroom Tilda was a quivering wreck, so distraught she could hardly walk; Anders, however, pulled a prized old Meerschaum from his coat pocket then stepped out onto the promenade and slowly filled the bowl, watching the liner pull away from the quay as he lit the tobacco – a quieting ritual he had stumbled upon when he had been a surgical resident some ten years before.
When he was able, when his own hands had steadied, he returned to his stateroom and helped Tilda get out of her traveling clothes and into something more appropriate to walking through the ship for lunch, then he took her out to the promenade for an easy stroll in the freshening breeze. He put his arm around her and once again he marveled at the way they seemed to have been made to fit together. Everything about her felt so right, and it always had…from their very first moments together.
“We have made it, my love,” he said to her reassuringly, gently, and he felt her relax as easy-loose sensations arced through his arm into his soul.
“You have decided on Toronto, I take it?”
“As a first stop, yes. The Americans have closed down immigration from Europe now, especially for Jews…”
“It is the same story, my love. The same as it has always been, the same as it will always be.”
“So tell me again, please – why are we running?”
“To stay one step ahead of the hatred. To survive, to live and to love life while we are alive.”
“So? Toronto? And then what?”
“Do you remember Stefan Petersen, from my days as a resident?”
“Stefan? Of course?”
“He is teaching now at the medical college in San Francisco, and yet I have been in contact with him since he left Denmark five years ago. He has been trying to convince me to come join the faculty there, so I think this will work out – but even so we may need to be patient. Some doors will not be so easily opened now, not with all these new restrictions, but we will be safe in Toronto for the time being.”
Tilda looked across the sea to the faint shimmering coastline across the strait and sighed. “That is home, is it not?” she said, pointing across the water to Denmark in the distance.
“Yes, that – was – home.”
“Do you think we will ever come back?”
Anders shrugged. “Before this madness began I had thought about San Francisco as a home for us. About America. I was beginning to feel so hemmed in at the University, like my future there was predefined and limited. I thought about San Francisco and I felt hope, even a year ago, and now I feel our future is there, and that for us it will be bright.”
“I have always trusted you, my husband. Where you go I will follow.”
“And wherever we end up, I will love you with all my heart.”
She smiled and the sun peeked out from behind a scudding layer of fast moving clouds. “Do you think that, perhaps, they have food on this boat?”
“I have heard a rumor that this may be so. Are you finally hungry?”
“I am,” Tilda Sorensen said, her red hair streaming on sun kissed breezes, her green eyes alight with hope and happiness. “For the first time in days, I think.”
“Then let us find something! I am so happy you finally feel well enough to have an appetite.”
Still looking out to see, Tilda pointed to something in the sea, and her brow furrowed with sudden anxiety. “What is that?” she said, and as Anders followed her eyes he squinted and shielded his eyes with his left hand.
“That,” he sighed, “is a periscope.”
And as if on cue, a German U-boat surfaced a few hundred meters off the Kungsholm’s port beam, and she steamed alongside with her Nazi ensign streaming in the wind from her conning tower. Anders and Tilda and several hundred fleeing Jews stood at the port rail, all of them gathering in sudden fear, all staring at the submarine as if they were staring into the eyes of death itself, and soon enough all Tilda Sorensens’s happy appetites had slipped away on dark, errant breezes. The ship’s captain came on over the ship’s PA just then and announced that because of anticipated submarine activity the Kungsholm would omit her customary stop in Southhampton, England, and that they would be steaming directly to New York. He assured the passengers and crew that as a vessel flagged in Sweden they had been assured safe passage.
Anders Sorensen looked at the black submarine steaming alongside, the sub’s captain having decided to come closer still – perhaps to menace the Jews standing at the rail a little more – and his heart was filled with loathing. He did not, he realized, understand his fellow man. Hadn’t all the hate cultivated by the Church and Hanseatic merchant guilds finally dissipated once and for all? Why had the virulence resurfaced, and why now, and so suddenly, and with such malevolent intent? ‘What have we done to deserve this?’ he wondered – just as Jews all around Europe had for a thousand years.
Or did this hatred spring from another place, from a darkness within all men’s souls?
He looked down now, almost straight down at the men standing on the conning tower. Men in black leather jackets staring up at the Jews clustered along the Kungsholm’s rail, and he wondered what was on their minds, and in their hearts, as they looked up at these fleeing Jews. Predator and prey? Mindless pursuit? Or was there something darker at work here? And in the face of so much hate, would this submarine captain recognize something as inconsequential as Swedish neutrality?
The encounter lasted perhaps a half hour but the submariner had made his point.
Every time Anders went out to take a walk around the promenade he stopped at looked at the Kungsholm’s wake, for the periscope out there closing-in to end his life. Yet the submarine captain’s emotional victory was complete, if only because, for the rest of his life, Anders continued to run from images of that submarine and her torpedoes coming for him in the night, and in his nightmares he died a thousand times, and always in searing agony as the Kungsholm slipped beneath oily waves on her way to eternal darkness.
© 2021-2022 | adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkühnwrites.com all rights reserved, and as is always the case this is just a little bit of fiction, pure and simple.