The Drowning Time
Edith Brinkerhoff is given her medication at 6:00 a.m. The nurse might be Judith Green, a stout woman with big, blond legs, who is brusque to the point of meanness, and who leaves the room as quickly as she can, closing the door loudly—not quite a slam, which would be a violation of protocol. Sometimes it is one of the male nurses—Edith thinks of them as “the boys,” she can never remember their names. This morning, it is Helen Arlington, an efficient black woman with thin arms in short, cuffed sleeves.
“Good morning, Mrs. Brinkerhoff. I hope you slept well. I hate to wake you so early. Doctor’s orders. Here, you go, your treat for the day.” She rolls the bed to a sitting position and hands Edith two miniature paper cups each containing an assortment of pills, pastel blue triangles, green disks, pink disks. Edith tips her head back and pours one cup then the other into her mouth. She holds the pills on her tongue while Helen Arlington hands her a glass of water.
“There then,” the nurse says. “Let’s get you to the bathroom.”
Helen Arlington chats even though she knows Edith will not respond. Edith has not spoken for decades. The nurses say that, even if she had thoughts in that head, she wouldn’t be able to speak them, her vocal cords atrophied by now. Judith Green mutters that she’s glad the old bag is mute, who would want to talk with that one? Nazi bitch. She says it out of earshot of their supervisor, and of Edith, except for once, when she muttered it under her breath, just as she shut the door behind her. Most of the nurses are not so openly hostile, but they look at Edith warily as they rush through their work.
Rumors about Edith Brinkerhoff lurk in the corners of the nursing home. Every new nurse learns the first day in a whispered conversation that she was once a member of the Nazi party. That she was guilty of war crimes.That she murdered a Jewish family in her home—her own home—a family she’d known all her life.
How she escaped the authorities is anyone’s guess.
There was no proof. There were no witnesses.
Should have been tried with the rest of the war criminals. Should have been hanged.
Just a rumor.
It’s no rumor, look at those eyes.
Some of the nurses, but not Helen Arlington, secretly call her Frau Brinkerhoff or the Commandant.
Edith knows what they say. They do not say these things to her face, but she knows. She has trained herself not to care. They roll her onto the deck when the weather is pleasant and position her in front of the window of her room when it is not. She occupies herself with the movement of sunlight across the room. Now it is at the corner. Now it has reached the smudge on the wall, where a swath of paint covering a stain does not quite match the rest. It creeps across the door to the hinge. The nurses come with her medication and meals. Sometimes they speak to her, sometimes not.
“Well done, Mrs. Brinkerhoff,” Helen Arlington says when Edith is finished in the bathroom, as if urinating were an accomplishment. Edith brushes her teeth and washes her face. The nurse wheels her back into the room to get her dressed. She knows precisely how to maneuver her patient, how to pull her forward and support her as she lifts her buttocks. She fastens a brassier around Edith’s chest and pulls on underpants. She gathers a dress in her hands, and drops it over Edith’s upraised arms. She does not care whether the rumors about Edith are true. Patients are to be cared for. A job is to be done. She is neither kind nor unkind. She is professional.
Edith allows herself to be moved, jostled, dressed like a doll. She watches the nurse fold her nightgown into a perfect rectangle and slip it into the drawer.
She knows this: Six hours later, Helen Arlington will be dead. She will be driving home after her shift. A driver coming east on Appleton Parkway will be texting to his girlfriend. You were with him. I saw you. Dont lie 2 me. The nurse will be listening to All Things Considered on NPR, a bag of groceries on the passenger seat, a loaf of raisin bread on the top, a bag of not-quite-ripe peaches. At the stoplight, she will reach to punch a radio button, turning to soft jazz. She will enjoy the music, which she finds relaxing. She will think about her son, how he’s doing better in school. The light will change. She will toe the gas pedal. There will be no screeching breaks, for the driver of the other car will be reading his screen. U R such a baby i dont even like him.
The impact will hurtle Helen Arlington’s body forward and to the right. The other car, an SUV belonging to the parents of the texting driver, will tear into the body of the nurse’s old Saturn, into her own living body. The pain will be shattering explosions, purple, red. It will last for 9 minutes and 16 seconds before Helen Arlington dies.
The sunlight reaches the edge of the dresser in Edith Brinkerhoff’s room. Edith looks at the clock. It is 7:05. Helen Arlington will die at 1:17.
“Here comes your breakfast,” the nurse says. The aid has arrived with a tray. Steam rises from a bowl. The aroma of oatmeal mingles with the scent of hot tea.
The aid places the tray across Edith’s chair. “Enjoy your breakfast, Mrs. Brinkerhoff. I’ll come and pick up your tray in an hour. It’s a beautiful day out, so I can put you on the deck for awhile. Would you like that?” The aid is young and uncertain. It embarrasses her to talk to Edith, since there seems to be no point. The woman’s mind is clearly gone. Lights out. No one home. She looks up at Helen Arlington with a questioning expression. The nurse nods approval. Pleased that she has done the right thing, the aid turns and leaves.
Helen Arlington fills Edith’s pitcher with fresh water. She picks up crumpled tissues from the stand next to the bed and opens the blinds. “I’ll tell the girl to check on you every hour,” she says. “Have a good day, Mrs. Brinkerhoff.” Edith watches her leave, the last glimpse of her dark ankle in her white shoe.
After breakfast, Edith is pushed to the window. The day is sunny and warm, but the aid has forgotten her promise to take her outside. Mrs. Brinkerhoff will spend her morning watching the cars through the glass, noting their colors. Light blue. Dark blue. Silver. Maroon.
The rumors about Edith Brinkherhoff are true, mostly. Now, when her life consists of the moving wedge of light, the counting of cars and days, she has only this: to remember.
She remembers the Levinsons. Samuel, a quiet man with dark eyes and a threadbare jacket saturated with pipe smoke. His late wife, Rachel, cheerful, blond as any pure German, who died young of influenza. The twin boys, toddlers in her earliest memories, then raucous schoolboys, then awkward twelve-year-olds, who had left cuteness behind and would never have the opportunity to become handsome. The boys played the piano. The Brinkerhoffs heard the music from their apartment every afternoon, major scales, minor scales, Mozart, Chopin.
The Levinsons were the Brinkerhoffs’ neighbors for fifteen years. They were friendly, but not friends. The Brinkerhofs didn’t care that they were Jews, not until later. They were too absorped in their own troubles—the broken stove, the leaking pipes, the rising price of everything—to worry about the Levinsons. Edith’s father drank too much. Her parents argued.
She was not Mrs. Brinkherhoff then, but Fraulein Edith, a bony-kneed, nervous child, easily overlooked. Not disobedient or rowdy, but neither cute nor charming, and with a tendency to say odd things.
The bird stood on my palm, and that’s when I saw it—the wall coming so fast. I felt my shoulders move, not shoulders but wings.
Good God, girl, what are you talking about? Stop tugging at your hair. Stand up straight.
I didn’t see the wall, and then I did, it was white and it came so fast I couldn’t stop.
Go to your room and read one of your books. Papa is not in the mood for nonsense.
The bird was a wren who had eaten seed from her hand as she stood on the landing one spring afternoon. She found the wren—she felt certain it was the same one, though she could not say why—lying by the wall of the school, ants in her beak and eyes. Edith was with her sister Ilse, who was seven, two years younger than Edith. The younger girl wrinkled her nose at the sight of the bird’s broken neck and swarming eyes, and made gagging sounds to indicate her disgust. Edith took her hand. Come on. Class is starting. Ilse ran up the stairs, but Edith turned to look at the bird, the white wall.
It did not happen for a long time after that and Edith began to think perhaps she’d dreamed about the wren. No one can experience the death of another, a death that hasn’t happened yet. But she could not forget.
One day, Herr Levinson met Edith on the stairs.
“Wait here. I have something for you.” He disappeared into his apartment and returned with a small bag containing two chocolates, one for her and one for Ilse. A relative had sent them from Holland. “I suspect you do not get chocolates often,” he said.
“Thank you, Herr Levinson,” Edith said. She had been taught to be polite.
The same week a boy from Edith’s school died of measles. Rainer Muller was a tall, studious boy in her class, a boy who liked science and wanted to be a chemist. Many children had measles that year, but while most returned to school in a week or two, and were soon running around as if nothing had happened, Rainer was buried in the graveyard by the church two weeks before his 12th birthday.
Edith told her parents she’d dreamed about it before it happened. She called it a dream, though she knew it wasn’t. She was wide awake when Rainer’s hand brushed hers as he walked past. She felt the burning fever, her eyes like hot stones, the drilling pain in her forehead, the sweat-laden weight of the quilt. She heard the soft sobbing of a woman. When she opened her eyes she saw not her own mother, but Rainer Muller’s, clutching a handkerchief, her face damp and swollen. Edith closed her eyes and lay in the still center of the pain until she felt Rainer’s death, the slip-sliding away.
Her mother told her it was a coincidence that she saw Rainer’s death just before it happened. You’ve heard people talking about children who died of measles. It’s made you anxious, and your worry turned into a dream, that’s all. Now, go outside. Why don’t you take your sister to the park?
Edith was not like Isle, who was dimpled and empty-headed. Ilse sat on papa’s knees and giggled. She sang, and the relatives beamed and applauded, not because she was talented, but because she curtseyed so cutely and had such a pretty little mouth. Edith sat, lost in thought, ignored.
The child is so odd.
Herr Levinson did not give Edith chocolates again, but he did invite her in for tea. He told her to ask her parents if it was all right. She didn’t, but she told him she had. She sat politely in his living room while the little boys played the piano and showed her their books. She was not interested in music or books, but she was happy sitting in the Levinson’s apartment. Herr Levinson showed her a picture of him and Frau Levinson when they were young. Edith thought the couple looked very beautiful together, that they seemed to be glad to be married to each other.
“You are lonely, I think,” Herr Levinson said. “I was a lonely child, too. With an elder brother who grabbed all the attention.” He lit his pipe, filling the room with fragrant smoke. “If you ever want to come play with the boys, you let us know. Our door is open.”
When Edith left the apartment, she sat in her room and cried silently, as if Herr Levinson had opened a wound that needed cleaning. She was much too shy to come for a visit again, but every time she saw Herr Levinson, he smiled and stopped to talk. Even after she stopped speaking, he talked to her.
One day—autumn, gray—she stood in the rain outside the door of Herr and Frau Hofmeister’s, neighbors two doors down, for more than an hour, trying to get the nerve to knock. From beneath the door came the smell of sausages and potatoes frying, children shouting. She raised her hand three times and put it back down three times. The fourth time, she forced herself to be brave. Frau Hofmeister, who knew her only as the Brinkerhoff’s daughter came to the door in a grease-spattered apron, her hair frizzing out from her bun.
What is it then? Speak up.
I just came to say…
Yes? Say what? Frau Hofmeister turned to shout over her shoulder. Maddalen! Ferdy! Stop running in the house! Then back to Edith. If you have something to say, say it.
I came to say…please be careful of your cat, Frau Hofmesiter.
My cat? Wenzel? Frau Hofmeister turned to look at the smooth white cat reclining on the sofa, licking his side. What about Wenzel?
Please don’t let him outside. It isn’t safe.
What are you talking about?
He could get run over by a car. You wouldn’t want that to happen, would you? If you keep him in the house, he won’t get hurt.
Frau Hofmeister was busy and tired and she sent Edith off, but two days later, the Hofmeisters appeared at the Brinkerhoff’s door, Frau Hofmeister clinging nervously to Herr Hofmeister’s arm, both of them peering inside, looking around the room anxiously for the strange child. Edith listened from the stairs.
Wenzel has gone missing. Two days now! He is always home at supper time. I give him scraps from my own plate. He must be hurt—or worse.
The girl did something to him. Not Ilse, of course. The other one.
The other girl? Our Edith? She’s not the kind of child to harm an animal. She would never… Edith heard her mother’s voice dwindle. She heard the doubt.
She came to our house. She threatened us! She said she would harm Wenzel if we let him out.
Papa called Edith’s name.
Edith, what do you have to say? What did you tell the Hofmeisters about their cat?
Wenzel had sauntered up to her one day outside her house. She crouched to pet him, heard the squeal of tires, felt the crunch of bone. She jerked her hand away and stood, staring at Wenzel as he snaked around her ankles.
I dreamed it I dreamed it I dreamed it. It wasn’t a dream.
Edith was not punished. Mama and Papa told the Hofmeisters they were mistaken, that cats run off or die, it happens all the time. Still, Edith saw something new in their eyes. That night, she heard them discussing her. Such a strange girl. She’d heard this many times before, but now it had taken on new meaning.
After that, she kept her dreams-that-were-not-dreams to herself, and since she could not tell the most powerful thing she felt and knew, she fell into a silence broken only when adults demanded it, and sometimes not then.
The images came and came. When Frau Schmidt touched her palm while giving her change at the bakery, Edith saw her slip on a slick bathroom floor, felt the impact of the sink cracking her skull. It would not happen for another year, but it would come. An elderly man brushed past her on the streetcar and she felt his chest explode, saw the light grow white in his eyes before it blinked off. Two years in the future. Inevitable. She held the Schneider’s baby and knew his breathing would stop, unexpectedly and for no reason, in three months and four days, at 2:04 A.M..
She tried only once to stop it. There was a dog, a stray who lived in the neighborhood, and whom Edith fed scraps of bread and fat sneaked from her own plate. He was shy, but one day he lowered his head and allowed himself to be petted, and in that way she learned his death would come on a Tuesday morning in August, in the canal near the bridge, not far from the church. He would be trying to drink when he slipped. Cold water, a desperate flail of limbs, the burn of the lungs the hold hold hold hold hold of air, and the one thing that is worse than not breathing, and that is breathing water.
She thought about the dog every night, week after week, and as the day of his death approached, a deep, firm determination formed in her chest. She could not keep the wren from the wall or Rainer from measles or Wenzel from the crushing wheels of the car. She could not stop Frau Schmidt from falling or make the Schneider’s baby breathe. But she could keep the dog from the canal.
The day before, she waited, sitting on the ground, dirtying her dress, knowing she would catch trouble for it. She waited a long time, several hours, and finally, the dog came. She had a rope and a bit of bread. The dog was hungry. He knew her. He was a sleek, bony dog, completely gray with gray eyes that studied her face. He hesitated only a moment before lowering his head and humbly coming to her. He did not snap or bite when she slipped the rope over his head. He did not protest when she led him home. She managed mirculously to get him into the house and up the stairs without her parents knowing. She put the gray dog in the closet. He seemed to know to remain quiet. She lay down a blanket, and he curled obediently on it. She filled a bowl with water and placed it down for him, and that night, she sneaked him scraps wrapped in a napkin. When the family was asleep, she allowed the dog out of the closet and onto her bed. He would be safe now. When the time came, he would be nowhere near the canal, but in her room. In the morning, she would release him because the drowning time would have come and gone. He would die someday, but not this day. She closed her eyes and breathed next to the contented snoring of the dog.
A scream woke her. It was early morning, cold, and the scream came from her mother. The door to her bedroom was open. But how could it be? She had made sure to close it. She stumbled out of bed and down the stairs in her nightgown, rubbing sleep from her eyes.
Mein gott! Mein gott!
Papa swore. “How could such a thing have happened? How did that mutt get into the house?” The gray dog lay on the kitchen floor, his eyes glazed, his muzzle in a pool of blood. He had eaten the white powder Mama used to kill rats. He had ignored the scraps of fat and crusts of bread in the garbage, which he could easily have reached. He worked the cupboard door open, going for the one thing in the house that would kill him.
That is when Edith learned. Death comes when it comes.
In school, Ilse grew popular. At fifteen, she had large round breasts. She giggled, and no one minded that she did poorly at her lessons.They called her sweetie and angel. She no longer sang for the adults, her voice so out of tune that even her prettiness did not make up for it.
Edith, to her great relief, no longer went to school. She did not listen to the radio with the family or pay attention to Papa’s pronouncements when he read the paper. The world changed around her, and she grew more silent. She was sent out sometimes to buy bread or cheese. Mama could not stand the way she shut herself in her room. It frightens me, the way she stares. She made up errands to get her out of the house.
On a snowy day in February, Edith went to the butcher in Haupstrasse. She returned with a miniature piece of beef and a dish of cabbage and chicken the butcher’s wife, had made. She was a friendly, smiling woman, who more than once had given Mama pieces of meat when her husband was not looking. No, no. Pay later! Times are hard.
It was nearly seven by the time Edith returned. If it were not for that, she would never have met Herr Levinson on the stair, where he sat smoking in the evenings. He would never have said, Guten Abend, Fraulein Edith. He would never have helped her with the key. She would never have touched his hand.
She staggered back. The dish fell, shattering on the concrete, shards of glass mixing with cream and cabbage.
“Oh dear dear,” Herr Levinson said. “A terrible shame. I will get the boys to help clean it up.”
She stared. She did not speak. Her breath would not come, then it came too fast. She fled Herr Levinson, the stairs, the mess of meat and glass, up the stairs, through the apartment into her room. She closed the door. It is not a dream.
She had known a hundred deaths by then, but never one like Herr Levinson’s. It was far off, months or possibly years in the future, but coming, coming. There would be unbearable cold. There would be hunger. Not ordinary hunger, but a raging yearning for food, a burn in the gut like cold fire. Look at the wrists, the jutting bones, the skin hanging like rags. These are my wrists, my hands, these claws. She saw the eyes of strangers, too large in shriveled faces. She saw a face, a well-fed boy, not a man yet, rosy cheeks, cruel eyes. She smelled death everywhere, everywhere. Where are the boys? The boys, my boys, my boys. What did they do to my children?
Edith locked herself in her room. She curled up in her bed, but she did not sleep.
In the morning, the Levinson boys came to the door. She heard their voices and got out of bed to press her ear to the door.
“We cleaned up the mess, but our father was concerned. She seemed unwell.”
“She is fine. Thank you.” Mother said nothing more. She didn’t thank the boys for their concern or their father’s help. She closed the door. She no longer spoke to the Levinsons.
Edith heard the boys’ voices, and she remembered their father’s words, the words he had not yet spoken, that he would speak some day. My boys my boys my boys my boys.
Edith refused to leave her room, despite her mother’s roaring demands, the pounding of her father. Come out this minute! She would not speak. She heard footsteps on the floor above her bed, and muffled voices—Herr Levinson and his sons. They would all die, the boys before their eighteenth birthdays, grotesque, lingering deaths, without dignity or comfort, and their names would be forgotten.
Death comes when it comes. How long ago had she learned that? She remembered the wren, the cat, Rainer Holtzer dying in a fevered haze. She remembered the gray dog. She could not save any of them.
On a gray March afternoon, Edith Brinkerhoff knocked on the door of the Levinsons’ flat. She held a covered dish, one hand resting on the bottom, a potholder shielding her palm from the heat.
“I wanted to thank you. For cleaning up the mess. For inviting me into your house that day. Long ago now.”
Herr Levinson’s eyes widened. “You are speaking, Fraulein. It has been so long since I heard you speak.”
“I brought you a dish. Kugel. I hope…” She hoped the Levinsons would eat the kugel. Perhaps they ate only Jewish food. Perhaps they would be wary of eating a dish prepared by such a strange young woman. Perhaps they would throw her kugel out, not knowing it was their only chance. They did not have long. Things would get very bad soon. Later, they would get worse. A few months, and it would be too late to help them.
Herr Levinson took the dish, smiling.
“Come in, Edith. Have some tea.”
She said no. “Good evening, Herr Levinson. Say hello to your boys for me.”
“I will, Edith. Thank you.”
Edith’s mother ranted. She ranted when the Levinson’s died. Poisoning themselves! What trash! Good riddance! She ranted about her silent daughter, the price of meat, her husband’s drinking. She ranted, too about the rats. What had become of the white powder she kept below the sink? There was half a jar last time she looked. That Jew poisons his own sons and we cannot get rid of the rats in our walls. Later, she opened her eyes her heart speeding in the middle of the night, when the connection she could not make in the daylight came to her in the dark.
Ilse was relieved when her husband went to war. She did not mourn when he died, though it left her with two hungry children and not enough money and the bitter sense that she had been robbed. She listened to the radio and believed the stories of triumph and patriotism and was bolstered, thinking of her sacrifice for her nation and her race. When the war ended, her only regret was losing her beauty at too young at age.
In 1952, she and her second husband emigrated to St. Paul, Minnesota. There was nothing for them in Germany now, they said. Mama and Papa had died by then, both of colds that turned into pneumonia. Ilse insisted that they bring Edith, despite her husband’s protests.
We can’t leave her alone. She’s crazy as a bat. A murderer. If it got out what she did…
We can’t live with her, Ilse. Think of the children. We have to keep the children safe.
We’ll find a place for her.
Ilse paid for the nursing home out of her inheritance, and then from her husband’s salary, a dear price. Edith was, after all, her sister.
“I won’t be back,” she said, parking Edith by the window on the day she brought her to the home. “Ever. We’ve had enough, Edith. We know what you are, what you did, and we don’t want you in our lives. You will be provided for. We would not let you out on the street. We’re not monsters. Not like you.” She left the room. A few minutes later, Edith saw her below, walking through the parking lot to the car in her gray wool coat and hat. A cloud of exhaust puffed from the back, and Ilse was gone.
The same day, struggling with a strange country, a language she spoke imperfectly, an angry husband, and the burden of a sister she feared and hated, Ilse told someone—a new friend in her new land—the shame that burned like fire smoldering under ice, swearing the new friend to an impossible secrecy. Ilse must talk, as Edith must be silent. She didn’t know the way words spread, from one person to the next to a nurse who tends to Edith every morning.
Edith does not know how long ago it was that Ilse brought her here. She has watched the sunlight move across the room perhaps ten thousand times. Judith Greene brings Edith her lunch, and one of the boys comes in with her afternoon medication. She watches the clock hands move inevitably toward 1:17.
It is nearly two when she hears alarm in the voices from the hall. She cannot make out the words, but she knows they have gotten the news. They liked Helen Arlington and will grieve her.
You just never know when it is going to happen. You get up in the morning, and you just don’t know.
The sun moves to the small table, where there have never been flowers. It glares on the metalic edge of the mirror. It dims.
From her window, Edith counts the cars. She notes their colors. Three blue. One white. Four silver. Doors open and doors close. Footsteps mark out complex patterns, thousands of steps back and forth, leaving and returning, each one stepping toward the same end.
Jill Jepson is the author of Writing as a Sacred Path: A Practical Guide to Writing with Passion and Purpose (Ten Speed Press) and the editor of No Walls of Stone: An Anthology of Literature by Deaf and Hard of Hearing Writers (Gallaudet University Press). She holds a doctorate in linguistics from the University of Chicago and an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is a full professor at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, MN.