To the Rubble Women

Julie Herrick White

The cellars of Dresden had to be opened. I remember it.
The stairs had to be cleared. Allied prisoners
had to go down, acetylene lamps in hand.

We despised them for touching our dead.
We kicked them. Once I tried to slap a man's face.
Someone pulled me back, but my finger had touched
one of his eyes. It was soft and seemed to give
a little, perhaps in astonishment.

But the cellars had to be opened. The floors
had to be spread with chlorinated lime. I remember
the horse—drawn carts, the bodies being loaded
with pitchforks. Where did they get so many
pitchforks? Where had they been storing them?

The bodies were stacked all the same: heads
on one end, feet on the other. Some did not have
heads. Some did not have hair. Yet on a few
the hair seemed beautiful and alive.

I greatly admired Adolph Hitler. My parents thought
he was charming. We listened to him on our radio,
my mother with a little smile on her face that she hid
from my father, my mother at forty—five with hair
as silky and blond as mine, and we were all so proud.

But the cellars had to be opened and emptied out.
The smoke never lifted in those days, and I had seen
bodies wrapped in brown paper and tied by the relatives
with string. As for my husband's photograph,
the glass was shattered. He was off in another
world, and some nights his smile turned sinister.

I didn't think I would survive. My hair turned black.
My foot was pierced by a piece of metal. It went
through my shoe. You need boots, they said to me,
but there were no boots.

We were walking in broken glass. These were pieces
of windows that had once let in light. I thought of
puzzles from childhood, the pieces so easy, the winters
so warm beside the stove. Yet I survived the wound
in my foot, and my children survived, fretting and
coughing as my mother—in—law took care of them.

I remember the cat we saw every day, thin and dirty
but always on the march. I remember everything:
the million bricks and pieces of tile,
even timbers and concrete slabs, even broken chairs.

Sometimes we found body parts. Or a hat. Or the sleeve
of a coat. They seemed like body parts too.
Once I found a wedding ring. I turned it in.
Our husbands wore gold wedding rings like the ones
they had cut from the hands of the dead and kept
on file. They kept clothing cards too, a piece
of cloth from each body pasted on a card. But they

By now my hair and skin were permanently dark
and my lungs were filling with soot and brown coal
dust. Where did they get all those pitchforks,
and what became of my parents who were at the cinema
that night? And what will they do with twenty thousand
wedding rings stored at the Ministry of Interior?
Interior of what? I am an eighty—year—old woman now,
survived with bad lungs and a prolapsed uterus.
That is my interior.

My husband did not come back. I think all men
with their soft, astonished eyes go into that wilderness
called war and we never see them again.
I still ask myself what happened to the animals
in the zoo that night. What happened to the children
in carnival costumes? What happened to the circus

They say a west wind was blowing the night
Dresden was bombed. They say that icing on the aircraft
was expected at very low altitudes.

Such fire and ice have marked the skin on my face
forever. I know too much. If Adolph Hitler could
see me now, he'd think I was some hateful foreigner.
This makes me laugh.

Copyright ©1998 Julie Herrick White. All rights reserved.

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