Ingrid guided the wheelbarrow down the center of the dusty road. Her hands were raw, her shoulders sore and swollen.Five more steps, she told herself.Five more steps, then I can rest. She steered the heavy load around ruts and rocks and bumps and furrows, squinting to drive the sweat from her eyes. And when she had taken five steps, she took five more, and then another five.
Normally the trip to Inzell took less than an hour on foot. The road cut across the far side of the valley, skirting the lake before plunging into the forest where it descended rapidly in a dizzying series of switchbacks. Five miles and fifteen hundred feet later, it reached the village. Today, however, the journey might as well have been fifty miles. She'd left Sonnenbrucke two hours ago and was barely at the far end of the meadow. At this rate, she wouldn't make Inzell until noon. She refused to think about the return trip up the mountain.
Gathering her breath, Ingrid struggled to adjust her grip on the slick handles. Her pace was deliberate, not only because of the weight of the load but because of its contents. Ninety-six bottles of wine lay in the iron bed, each wrapped in a damask hand towel borrowed from the linen closet. To be safe, she'd lined the wheelbarrow's rusted bed with the smallest of her mother's embroidered tablecloths. While the eight cases of Bordeaux wouldn't enjoy the bumpy trek to Inzell, at least they'd reach their destination intact – which was more than she could promise herself.
Breathing in with one step, out with the next Ingrid maintained her sober pace. In an effort to redistribute the load from her hands to her shoulders, she had fashioned a makeshift harness from the coarse rope Papa kept to bind fallen game. The harness was attached to the center of the barrow and passed over her shoulders and around her neck. A chamois cloth laid against the nape of her neck protected her exposed flesh from the splintery twine.
A half mile ahead, the road disappeared into the shadows spread by a curtain of Arolla pines. A soft breeze skittered past, then died, teasing her with the relief the distant shade would provide. She spotted a patch of grass at the foot of a pine and decided it would make an ideal resting place. Five more steps, she whispered to herself.
A quarter of an hour later, she was there.
Collapsing onto the grass, Ingrid closed her eyes. The forest buzzed and chirped and squawked with the frenetic joy of a warm summer's day but all she could hear was the throbbing of her own heart. After a moment, she sat up and took stock of herself. Her palms were an angry pink. Pale ovals surfaced across the underside of her fingers. Soon they would become blisters. Even seated, her legs trembled with fatigue. Pulling the cloth from her shoulders, she ran a hand along the back of her neck. The shallow groove left by the harness was hot to touch. She checked her fingers for blood. Thankfully, there was none.
Legs stretched before her, hands brushing the cool grass, Ingrid remained motionless until her heartbeat calmed and the sweat ceased pouring from her forehead. Her eyelids grew heavy. She wanted to sleep. A lazy voice told her not to worry about the return trip up the mountain. She could get a lift with an American serviceman. They were everywhere these days. Though forbidden to fraternize with Germans, none paid the rule much heed. Besides, she'd never had a problem convincing men to bend the rules – or even to break them.
Drifting off, she entertained a vision of herself stumbling into Inzell in her torn blue work dress and stained apron, the silk foulard tied around her head dark with sweat. Her face was blotchy; her lips crusted with spittle. She looked more like a haggardhausfrau than a damsel in distress. The horniest GI in Germany wouldn't give her a second look!
Shaking off her desire to sleep, she stood and walked to the wheelbarrow. Several bottles had shifted during the journey. She re-wrapped each and positioned them carefully on top of the pile. How easy it would be to drop one, she imagined. To lighten her load by a single, heavenly pound. Angered by her lingering lethargy, she dismissed the thought. Then what would she bring home to the children? Ingrid bent her knees and draped the harness around her neck. Taking firm hold of the wooden grips, she rose. For one excruciating moment, every muscle in her being screamed. Clenching her jaw, she allowed herself one deep breath, then began walking. The path was three miles, all downhill.
She had done it before. She could do it again.
The village of Inzell boasted a grocer, a butcher, a clothing store and a combination tobacconist and kiosk. The stores were evenly spaced along either side of a narrow road. All were identical two-storey buildings of burnished wood and whitewashed cement topped with dark shingle roofs. Running up the mountainside behind them were a host of chalets, cabins and huts. Window boxes blossoming with daisies and dandelions brightened every sill. To all appearances, the war had never ventured into this Alpine valley. At the far side of the village, a tall stone fountain shaped like Napoleon's Obelisk shot water into a circular pool. Next to it stood a railway station, complete in every detail except one. No tracks passed before the passenger platform. Construction of the spur from Ruhpolding to Inzell had stopped in February 1943. After Stalingrad, every ingot of steel, every bar of iron and every cord of wood was diverted to the protection of the Reich.
Setting down the wheelbarrow next to the fountain, Ingrid lifted the harness from her neck, then peeled the foulard from her hair and dunked her head into the cold water. A shiver of pride and relief swept her body. After rinsing her hands, she pulled her hair back into a pony tail and smoothed her dress. Her damp fingers made sure it clung in all the right places. Now she could do business.
"Good morning, Frau Grafin," chirped Ferdy Karlsberg as she entered his tiny store. "How are you this lovely day?"
Like every grocer she'd known, Karlsberg was short and fat and, if not a pincher, at least a leerer. He had ginger hair and bright blue eyes and cheeks so bloated she swore he must be caching a dozen acorns for the winter. As usual, he was having a great deal of trouble keeping his eyes from her dress. Today, though, she welcomed his interest.
"Good morning, Herr Karlsberg," she answered, determined to match his good cheer. "I'm wonderful, thank you." She didn't dare say it was much too hot for trudging down the mountain with a thousand pound wheelbarrow. Instead, she chose her most vulnerable smile. "The usual, I'm afraid."
She removed a yellow card from her dress and passed it across the counter. Her ration card entitled her to three loaves of bread, two hundred grams of meat, one hundred grams of butter, one hundred grams of sugar, a pound of flour and a pound of wheat each week. Theoretically, it was enough to insure a daily intake of 1,200 calories for three adults and one child. But theory died a quick death in the real world. The meat – sausage, actually – was often rancid; the butter, sour; the bread always black and stale. There was nothing wrong with the sugar, flour or wheat once one removed the rat droppings.
Karlsberg tore a square of brown paper from a dispenser on the wall and laid it on the counter. Turning his back to her, he ran a hand along his shelves collecting first the bread, then the sausage. Naturally, he chose the smallest ones. He measured out the flour and wheat, weighing them on a scale she was sure ran a few ounces heavy, then placed each in a paper sack. When she asked about her sugar and butter, he shrugged. "The food authority failed to provide any in the latest delivery. I am sorry."
Ingrid offered Karlsberg her best smile. The food was hardly enough to feed a growing boy, let alone Papa, Herbert and herself. She'd spent hours figuring how she might get her hands on a ration card entitling her to more food. Miners in the Ruhr were receiving double rations, as were farmers and skilled laborers. A widow and her child were hardly vital to the nation's reconstruction.
There was another way.
She recalled her visit from General Carswell, his kindly smile and flirtatious manner.
Would she be interested answering some questions about her father's activities, say at the Casa Carioca in Garmisch? Eyeing the meager provisions set on the counter, she decided she'd been naive to decline so quickly.
Karlsberg wrapped the bread and sausage and, using both of his stubby hands, slid them across the counter. "Is there something else I can help you with?" His eyes were fixed on the only thing he found more appealing than her wet dress – the wheelbarrow outside his front window.
Ingrid smiled coyly, baiting him. "Are you sure you don't have any sugar?" Karlsberg blushed, then grew angry at his shame. "Come around back and don't make any trouble."
Ingrid guided the wheelbarrow to the rear of the building where the grocer was already waiting. She found the charade ridiculous. Everyone in the valley knew Ferdy Karlsberg was a black marketeer. She supposed Herr Schnell, the local constable, had insisted he run his operations from the back of his store. It was just like a Nazi to condone an illegal activity as long as it didn't soil the impression of legitimate business.
"What do you have to offer today?" Karlsberg asked, his smile back in place.
In the two months since the war had ended, Ingrid had become an expert in the workings of the black market. Reichsmarks were practically worthless, yet Germans were not permitted to own dollars. A new currency backed by a new government would not be introduced for a year or two. Still, people wanted something to eat, smoke, drink, and wear – in that order. The fiat of the new Germany was cigarettes, preferably American, preferably Lucky Strike. Want a pound of ham? Three cartons of Luckies. A bottle of White Horse scotch? Five cartons. A pair of hose? One carton. But most Germans did not have access to the American post exchange. For them – and Ingrid, who included herself in this number – any household item of value would do provided you had someone to sell it to. Cameras and binoculars were in particularly hot demand. Wine, unfortunately, less so. For her, men like Ferdy Karlsberg existed.
Ingrid handed him a bottle, gauging his reaction as he removed the linen cloth.
Karlsberg's eyes glowed when he eyed the label- a 1921 Chateau Petrus. "Is it all this quality?"
She nodded. What did the fool expect Alfred Bach kept in his cellar? A few Rieslings and a Gewiirztraminer?
For the next hour, Karlsberg examined the bottles one by one, making notations on a block of paper. Petrus, Latour, Lafitte-Rothschild, Eschezeau. Wines fit for a king. When he had finished, he tallied up his figures and pronounced, "Ten thousand Reichsmarks."
"That's all?" Ingrid was unable to conceal her disappointment. Ten thousand Reichsmarks sounded like a lot, but these days it was only equal to a hundred pre-war marks.
"The market dictates the prices, not I, Frau Grafin." He led her up the rear stairs into his back room. "How may I be of service?"
Ingrid handed Karlsberg a prepared list. His eyebrows rose and fell as he studied the paper. He gave her breasts a final ogle, then said, "Let us see."
Karlsberg drew a blue linen curtain to reveal a wall of cardboard cartons and wooden crates. Spam. Peaches. Pears.
Corned beef. The bounty of the American army. He took several cans from each and set them on the counter. An icebox squatted in the corner. He opened it and took out a half dozen boxes of Danish butter and a dozen eggs. A burlap bag full of sugar slouched against the wall. He emptied two brimming scoops into a paper bag. Apples. Potatoes. Corn. Soon the counter was covered with enough food to keep her household fed for a month. She sifted the goods. Something was missing. "I asked for steaks. Last week you assured me that you would have some good US chops."
Karlsberg removed his spectacles and cleaned them with his apron. Several times he glanced up at her, only to look away when he met her gaze. Clearly he was mustering his courage. "I have the steaks," he said haltingly, "but I've given you all I can for the wine."
"You said ten thousand Reichsmarks."
"And I've given you ten thousand Reichsmarks' worth of groceries."
"Balls!" she exclaimed. "These bottles cost at least that muchbefore the war, if you were fortunate enough to find them."
"Certainly, Frau Grafin is correct. However, customers are less discerning these days. A Latour may bring more than a simplevin du table, but not much."
Ingrid fought to hold her tongue. The prick might as well have both hands in her pockets stealing her money. She could feel her face flush with anger.
Karlsberg reached below the counter and brought out a carton of Chesterfields. "Take some cigarettes. You cankompensieren."
Kompensieren meant to trade or to barter. This is how it was supposed to work: Ingrid would take Karlsberg's cigarettes to a nearby farm and use them to purchase a hen or two, a dozen eggs, maybe even a gallon of fresh milk if she was lucky. Bundling up her supplies, she'd find a train into the city – Munich, let's say – and trade half her eggs for lightbulbs, one of the hens for heating oil, a pint of milk for some medicine. If particularly canny, she might end up with a few cigarettes to spare, and at day's end, repurchase a bottle or two of wine from Karlsberg to toast her business acumen.
Ingrid had neither the time nor the opportunity to go from one vendor to the next trying to bargain for eggs or chickens or cigarettes. She lived in a secluded valley, fifty kilometers from the nearest town of any size. She had Ferdy Karlsberg and that was that. The only thing she could do with the Chesterfields was smoke them.
"It was steak I requested. For my boy."
Karlsberg stared at her long and hard, then went to the freezer and took out a white box that he placed on the counter. "Here are the steaks," he said, lowering his head as if ashamed by this show of weakness. "But you'll get nothing else out of me."
But Ingrid had seen something in the freezer that held far more appeal than the steaks. "Is that ice cream I saw in there?"
Karlsberg smiled. "Vanilla and strawberry."
Ingrid's first thought was of Pauli. He adored ice cream and hadn't had a spoonful of the stuff in over a year. He would be mad with joy. She could practically hear him giggling. Slow down, she cautioned herself. Even with an ice block or two in the wheelbarrow, the ice cream would melt long before she arrived home. Her only chance of getting the ice cream home in some kind of edible condition was to find someone to drive her there and on this of all days, she hadn't seen a single GI. It figured. Another possibility came to mind. Ferdy Karlsberg used to deliver their groceries in an old brown Citroen truck. If anyone had gasoline, it would be him. As a black marketeer, he had connections, and Lord knew, he was as frugal as a Swiss.
Suddenly, Ingrid was acting, not thinking. Recalling his lascivious glances, she grabbed his apron and pulled him closer. Before she knew what she was doing, she had whispered the proposition in his ear. Karlsberg turned beet red. His eyes were wide with surprise and desire. "Well?" she asked. "Is it a deal?"
"_Jawohl, Frau Grafin_." The disrespect had evaporated from his voice.
Ingrid stepped away from the counter and shook her hair loose. A streak of heat soured her body, momentarily promising nausea. Drawing a deep breath, she steeled herself to her task. She unbuttoned the front of her dress, pulling down the sleeves one at a time. And when she was sure she had his fullest attention, she unsnapped her brassiere and pulled it off her shoulders. There she stood, daughter of Germany's richest industrialist, object of adoration for field marshals, famous actors, champion drivers and the like, breasts pale and exposed, nipples embarrassingly erect, in front of a fumbling bunzli whose face had grown so red, so feverish, that the mere whisper of a pinprick would make him explode. And all for a quart of vanilla ice cream. She'd take two quarts, goddammit. Let him stop her!
Karlsberg let slip a petulant whimper and the next thing she knew, he was over the counter, clammy hands groping her breasts, moist breath wet in her ear, moaning about love and desire and she didn't know what else. Ingrid wrestled free of his clumsy grasp, fighting off the inquisitive hands then taking an abrupt step to the rear. The excited grocer tumbled head-first onto the floor, landing in a pile at her feet. The entire incident had lasted no more than ten seconds.
Ingrid rushed to fasten her brassiere and button up the dress. But she held her ground. Neither shame nor fear nor acute humiliation – his or hers – would separate her from her groceries. She waited until Karlsberg dusted himself off, then addressed him in her most formal voice. "Be sure to load everything into the truck before you get the ice cream. And bring an ice block or two along just in case." Karlsberg remained frozen to the spot, his cheeks angry, his eyes accusing.
"Sofort!" she shouted. "Right away."
Karlsberg jumped to work.