Excerpt from his novel-in-progress, My Red Heaven, a kind of love song for the Berlin of 1927, when everything seemed possible except the future that happened.
The Doberman’s name is Delia. Delia won’t see the end of this day. She doesn’t know that. What she knows is she’s on the longest, most glorious walk of her life. There is no time but this time, no place but this place. She can scarcely endure all the smells and sounds and touches and tastes inside her. She is with her masters and they have given her these radiant gifts and it is impossible to conceive of a way to thank them enough.
She doesn’t understand the woman’s name behind her is Elise Lemme. She doesn’t understand the man’s name is Otto Hampel. Otto and Elise woke Delia improbably early this morning, asking her if she wanted to go out. Delia always wants to go out. That is her only knowledge. The flat she lives in is too small, the air in it too used up, hope nowhere to be found except on the other side of the front door.
The whole of Delia’s day, the whole of Delia’s life, is an almost unendurable waiting for two questions: Do you want to go out, girl? Is that what you want?
She bounds out of her dream (in which she is bounding for birds on the grassy shores of the Schlachtensee) and, barking rapturously, bounds from her masters’ bed into her food bowl waiting for her beside the stove. She wolfs it down, feels the choker collar going on, the leash clicking into place. Somewhere behind her she senses the nub of her tail, over which she is continuously bewildered she possesses no will, furiously aspiring to wag.
And now she is here.
And now she is here.
And now she is here.
Delia has no room for any other idea in her head.
Elise is making several short loudnesses in the direction of Otto. Delia can’t understand what they mean. Delia doesn’t care. All she cares about is this flawless motion she is inhabiting. All she cares about is the prosperity of aromas and music through which she advances. How can one being celebrate them all? Morning soil. Clang gods. Urine echoes. Flower breaths. Honk frights. The indescribably compelling shits of other dogs — some shoe polishers no taller than Delia’s hocks, some small-bear huge and hairy, some agile, some nervous, some crippled, some cocky, some bereft, some almost as elated as Delia herself.
Delia savors an instant’s elementary pleasure knowing she could kill them all.
Elise says to Otto, smoke bulging from her mouth up into the acute morning nip: I feel like an idiot.
It’s not going to rain today, Otto replies.
He considers the enlivening sky through the branches, adds: It should rain on a day like today.
Maybe we should give it more thought, Elise says.
She is twenty-three, barely finished grammar school before dropping away from ruler smacks and painful benches to become a domestic servant, and now her hands look forty-five, puffy, reddish, big-knuckled. Otto is twenty-seven, large-eared, thin-lipped, meager-chinned. He fell into factory work after the war and cherishes Elise’s hands intensely because they tell him the same story every time he looks at them: I know what life feels like. I know how to pilot this place.
Maybe we haven’t done the math right, Elise says.
But she already knows there’s no math left to do. All the numbers are all the numbers. If there were more numbers to do, they would do them.
Otto opens his mouth to respond but Elise’s frown stills him in mid-optimism. Wordless, they finish the cigarette they’re sharing. Otto kneels, calls Delia over, clicks off her leash. The Doberman wavers, wavers, looking up at him for guidance. Otto pulls a fist-sized dirty white ball out of the pocket of his double-breasted coat and chucks it far down the path between the lindens.
Delia explodes after it, passing a funny-eyed old woman with long gray hair dragging her large leather purse behind her on the sand like a comatose poodle.
Otto lights another cigarette, sucks the smoke deep into the abundant branches of his lungs, passes it to Elise, trying to let the burn in his chest overrun him. Near the end of the path Delia scoops the ball up, brakes two meters farther on, spins, and, imagining the skull of a small animal between her jaws — a squirrel, a baby — bursts back toward them, an ecstatic black visual slur.
Sentence fragments orbit around Otto’s head. He decides not to speak any of them. Instead he kneels, calls Delia over, clicks her leash back on. Elise bends and fluffles the dog’s neck and face and ears.
And now Delia is here.
And now she is here.
And now she is here.
And now, slobbery dirty white ball in her mouth, she is trotting somewhere else. She can’t wait to find out where. She pushes forward into sunlight, proud, whirring with joy, oblivious that at the end of this walk she will meet a long line of puzzled fellow dogs. Delia will wait alertly with them, fragrances and loudnesses boisterous around her, utterly confident her masters have the situation in hand, and at the end of that line a sour-smelling man in a white lab coat will unceremoniously yank her choker tight as if she had just misbehaved (although she will be sure she hasn’t) and usher her into an airtight metal box with three young baffled yipping dogs whom Delia has never met (at which point her tail stub will decide to stop wagging), slam down the door, and flip on the gas valve.
For just under a minute Delia will remember bounding at those birds in her dream, feeling as if she is just at the gray edge of waking up again, and then she will be over.
By the time the sour-smelling man in the white lab coat opens the door, Otto and Elise will be gone, already several blocks away on their way home to their cramped flat in gritty Wedding, wordless, just two other dog owners among thousands who couldn’t pay Berlin’s raised canine tax.
They will miss Delia desperately for months, alternating between unconditional numbness and so much anxiety they will feel everything in the world will implode in ten seconds. They will relive that last betrayal, that line of rattled dogs, that metal box, that look in Delia’s eyes as the vet bent toward her over and over again in the middle of the night, sometimes together, sometimes alone, and then — wondrously — less and less, because, they will learn, that’s how damage intuitively diminishes itself in the human body.
Eight years, and they will wake up married.
Five more, and Elise will open her front door to be handed a curt telegram informing her that her brother has been killed in action somewhere in France fighting for something she can no longer fathom.
In the thirty seconds it will take her to read and reread that telegram, everything will convert into something else.
Perhaps as a way to honor her brother, her dog, honor all the feelings Elise and Otto almost forgot they were once capable of experiencing, the couple will begin writing hundreds of postcards in clumsy script and bad grammar that urge their recipients to refrain from donating money to their government, refuse military service, resist the thing their country has become.
Elise and Otto will leave those postcards in apartment stairwells and on park benches, in mailboxes and beneath neighbors’ doors.
Almost every one of them will be picked up by strangers and immediately handed over to the Gestapo. The sheer number will lead the Gestapo to conclude they are dealing with a large, well-orchestrated, wide-ranging conspiracy.
It will take nearly eighteen months for them to realize they were wrong.
Seventeen years after he throws Delia’s dirty white ball down that path for the last time, a weighted and angled guillotine blade in a backyard work shed at Plötzensee Prison will drop through Otto’s neck.
The blade will be reset and three minutes later drop through Elise’s.
Both Hampels will be strapped onto their backs so they can see their futures flying toward them.
What will be unusual about their executions is that nothing will be unusual about their executions. Otto’s and Elise’s punishments will constitute two among the nearly three thousand carried out in that work shed. Like all relatives of the beheaded and hanged in Plötzensee, theirs will be obliged to pay a fee of 1.50 reichsmarks for every day their family members spent in their cells, three hundred for the execution itself, and twelve pfennigs to cover postage for the invoice of expenses.
Like all bodies of the executed at Plötzensee, the Otto’s and Elise’s will be released to Herr Professor Doctor Hermann Stieve, physician at the University of Berlin, who with his students will dissect them for research purposes. The results over the years will generate two hundred and thirty important academic papers, including one providing irrefutable evidence that the rhythm method is not effective in preventing pregnancy.
Now, though, none of that is happening.
It is just Otto and Elise strolling along a sandy path between two rows of trees on a bluing day. Just Delia trotting proudly in front of them, leading the way toward that envelope containing the invoice of expenses.
A black shadow scrambles across their feet and flickers out.
Elise thinks cloud.
She reflexively raises her head to spot in the apartment house across the street two white faces hovering in two otherwise black windows, one directly above the other, peering down at her without expression.
Lance Olsen is author of more than 20 books of and about innovative writing. His next is the novel Dreamlives of Debris, forthcoming from Dzanc in the spring of 2017. A Guggenheim, Berlin Prize, D.A.A.D. Artist-in-Berlin Residency, N.E.A. Fellowship, and Pushcart Prize recipient, as well as a Fulbright Scholar, he teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah.