The world didn’t stop when Hermann was at school, no matter how ardently and how often he asked the tea to keep everything the same until he could come home. Perhaps he had used up the magic on stupid wishes, he thought miserably while his father explained, on the phone, the divorce in legal terms that sounded as though they had barely dried on the documents.
Can I live with her? he didn’t ask, because it had was already explained that when he was not at school, he would stay at the Altes Haus with Bastien. Mum would go to the United Kingdom with Dietrich and Karla, who wouldn’t be called by her old name since she’d pierced her ears and wearing her school’s kilt. It was a sensible split and meant the least disruption to Bastien, who would continue his studies in Germany.
Instead, Hermann swallowed and asked if they would still be home when he returned for winter break, a week from now.
“You don’t have any other questions?” Lars asked, and Hermann shook his head, waiting with bated breath. “Yes, barring catastrophe; everyone will still be here when you’re finished the semester.”
“Very good,” Hermann said tightly. “I think Alfred wants to use the phone. I will call again tomorrow.”
Hermann hung up before his father could respond and nearly ran to his dormitory, eyes brimming with tears he could not shed at the communal telephone. Shadows and pinpricks of light swirled around him while he sat on his bed and sobbed through grit teeth, though they did nothing to cease his angry loneliness. He wanted to scream and yell like a toddler but knew that was unbecoming of the young adult he was trying to be.
Instead, Hermann gripped the head of his cane and went to the kitchenette to make his tea. He couldn’t think of a wish outside of the realm of the impossible to make, and he’d always been sensible. He drank his cup and left the petals on the windowsill, and then fell into a restless slumber.
Hermann had luckily finished the most important of his assignments, for the next week was spent in a strange and distant place where he couldn’t entirely focus and didn’t know the answers to any questions he was called upon to answer. His sympathetic maths teacher promised him a flunked calculus test could wait until the new year to retake, when he was able to focus, and clasped his shoulder gently when Hermann began to cry, imagining his father’s reactions to the careless errors he could now see on the paper, plain as day.
The day before he was meant to take the train home, Hermann was called to the office. His mother sat there with the principal and smiled when she saw him.
“How would you like to go home a day early, Gottlieb?” the principal said. Hermann nodded, staring at the ground. “Very good. You’re all packed?”
“Yes sir,” Hermann muttered, trying to sound excited.
“All right. Rivka, it’s always a pleasure to speak with an old friend, but I shan’t take any more of your time.”
“You can’t take what is willingly given,” Mum said graciously and stood. “Hermann, let’s get your bags.”
Hermann was silent until they got to the car, and Mum opened the passenger seat for him.
“Did your father explain?”
“He explained,” Hermann said, and slumped in the car seat. “Why didn’t anyone tell me before?”
“We thought it would affect your studies, darling.” Mum frowned. “And I’m afraid it was rather sudden.”
Hermann wanted to keep on asking why until the knot in his throat untied, until they could both see they were being stupid, so very Adult about all this, in the way unhelpful adults were, tied to the mast and ears stuffed with wax like Ulysses, deaf to the siren call of wishes and kindness.
“Our first concern is always going to be you, Hermann, your brothers and your sister,” Mum said. “Your father and I have only ever wanted you all to be happy and safe, but that means that he and I must be as well.”
She looked over with a furrowed brow.
“I am so sorry we didn’t tell you before your holidays,” she said. “I know you’ve been working hard. Can I make it up to you?”
Young men didn’t sulk, didn’t snap at their mothers or ask if they were still loved even if they were seen less. Hermann bit his cheek to try and stop himself from crying and in a bruised little voice he said, “You can try.”
“Oh, sweetheart,” Mum said, and leaned over to hug him tightly. “At least I can try and make this a good day.”
Hermann thought he would cry, but instead, his heart lifted, if only fractionally, and he managed a smile.
Karla was outside when they finally arrived at the house, building a snowman with Bastien, who must have grown since Hermann was last home because he was nearly up to her shoulders now.
“I’ll bring your things in, Hermann, why don’t you go play?” Mum said as she parked. “Bastien has talked of nothing but your return this week. And Karla has a Hanukkah present for you; she didn’t want to mail it.”
“Okay,” Hermann said and paused. “I do feel much better than this morning, Mum.”
“I was hoping you would,” Mum smiled. “Go on then.”
Karla’s hair had grown, and now it fell to her shoulders in loose black curls. Hermann almost couldn’t remember what she looked like over the summer, and it didn’t matter. She was happier now, big nose red in the cold, and ears freshly pierced with little golden studs.
“Hermann!” she cried with a smile, and ran to meet him halfway, capturing him in a familiar hug. Bastien looked up from where he was making a pile of snow which might be called a man and clapped his hands in excitement. “Hermann, I’ve got so much to tell you.”
“Where’s Dietrich?” Hermann asked, and Karla rolled her eyes.
“He’s too old for snowmen, so he and Father are watching Fanny and Alexander instead. What a waste of all this fresh snow!”
They played until Bastien got tired and demanded to be picked up. Karla swung him up onto her hip.
“What about hot chocolate, Manny?” she suggested. Once Bastien heard ‘hot chocolate,’ he quickly nodded and pierced Hermann with his big blue eyes, and Hermann sighed fondly.
“Thank you, Karla, for reminding me of my true function as a purveyor of hot chocolate for Prince Bastien.”
“You make it best. Even Mum can’t get it right.”
Hermann stirred the little pot he always used for hot chocolate, shaved more chocolate into the milk while Bastien hovered over him. He set the block of chocolate down and tipping the liquid into a deep mug. It seemed like too little chocolate until the moment it reached someone’s lips, and it perfectly satisfied. Or so Bastien seemed to think. Impressing a small child with sweets was easy.
His drink finished, Bastien left to find Mum.
“We’re still sharing a room,” Karl said as they walked upstairs. “Mum said you wouldn’t mind.”
“Of course I don’t mind,” Hermann said. “Better you than Dietrich.”
“Well reasoned, I can see school truly has done its work on you.”
Karla opened the door, and Hermann smiled.
Their room, at least, had stayed much the same. Karla’s side still covered in the sharp relief black and white prints of horror movie posters, the Bride of Frankenstein figurine which took pride of place on her bedside table, and the dressing room table, long ago liberated from an opera house during an estate sale, rumoured to be the favourite of prima diva Monika Schwartz. It was now covered with all sorts of jewelry and accessories.
Hermann’s side was neatly made up and untouched, the Einstein poster and the bookshelf crammed with the books he hadn’t justified bringing to school. He all but crashed onto his bed and grabbed Mutzi, his old bear he didn’t want to risk losing on his travels.
“Good to be back, nu?” Karla said and sighed wistfully. “I suppose we’ll both have our rooms to ourselves after the move.”
Hermann didn’t want to think about that, tossed an eight-sided dice at Karla’s head. She rubbed the spot where it struck.
“Sorry,” she said. “Why don’t I get your present instead of depressing you?”
“Presents are good,” Hermann nodded, and they both laughed. Karla pulled a neatly wrapped package from her bedside table and hopped over to Hermann’s side, sitting beside him. He carefully opened it, found a small notebook already filled with Karla’s cramped hand.
“It’s a book of spells,” Karla explained. “A grimoire, if you will.”
It was beautiful, with hand-drawn illustrations and stickers. Hermann, though he knew Karla’s adherence to English superstition was a little strange at her age, loved it.
“Thank you. It must have been a lot of work to make.”
“Mum helped me. There’s a couple of blank pages in the back if you want to try making some of your own! It could be like writing code.”
“That would be a fun game,” Hermann said, and Karla’s face fell.
“It’s not a game.” She paused. “It’s not just a game.”
Hermann nodded. It was good to remember how important this sort of thing was to Karla and Mum, even if he didn’t always understand it.
“I will take good care of it.”
“You should try… this one.”
Karla flipped the pages until they landed on a spell with a simple procedure called ‘How to make thin the Margin of Error.’
“It’s a memory trick,” she explained. “For cramming and whatnot.”
Karla always did have the best mnemonics and study tricks. Hermann marked the page with the slender velvet bookmark in the back of the grimoire.
“And I whittled you a planchette,” Karla said, pulling a chain from under her shirt. Dangling from it was a little coin of wood with a hole in the middle. “The instructions are in the book. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried talking to them, but this helps moderate the conversation. You can wear it just like this when you’re not using it.”
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” Hermann reminded with a roll of his eyes. Karla squinted.
“Well, you can not believe all you like, little brother,” she shrugged. “Maybe it will be useful for a game anyhow.”
“I did get you something,” Hermann said in a bid to change the subject. “I thought you might need new clothes? And Mum said we could stop in town before getting home, so I got you these.”
It was a pair of blue gloves which would reach Karla’s elbows, embroidered and beaded with golden constellations. Hermann had seen them, felt how soft they were, and nursed a pang he associated closely with his sister. It was like they had chosen themselves.
“I’m afraid they're not too practical,” he said with a frown.
“Well, that’s perfect for me, silly goose, thank you,” Karla said. “I have a cape which will go perfectly. Oh, they’re gorgeous. I’ll think about you every time I wear them.”
Hermann’s face reddened from the effusive praise. His sister had turned glamorous and beautiful over the past semester, and comparing her to the quiet, hidden Karla of the summer was a remarkable thing to ponder.
“You’re so different.”
“Not too different, I hope.”
“No. Just… different.”
“I feel brand new, sometimes,” Karla said after a long thought. “I feel like an actor right after curtain call, and now the audience sees how I sweated for two acts, and they see me. That’s not even close to everything I feel, but that’s what it’s like. Taking off clothes which aren’t mine, answering to a real name. I wish I could have put pen to paper to explain to you properly.”
“How did you know?” Hermann asked tentatively. Karla looked at him, and he struggled to regroup. “How did you know that you were only acting and there was something… someone else you were?”
“I always knew,” Karla said, scrunching up her nose. “And enough evidence accumulated that I could support it and explain properly. Hermann, do you think…?”
“I don’t know what I think,” Hermann sighed. “All I know is I am Hermann, and a good student, a good brother. I often don’t do things young men ought to do because I have no desire to do them. And what are you except what you do and what you think? But I don’t know what I think.”
He didn’t mention the other part to her, the painful clenching in his chest when a boy at school was kind to him, or talked to him even briefly, even for the quick answer to a tricky equation. How girls were perfectly pleasant, beautiful like Karla, but is affection was either quite remote or simply not extant. Hermann had no doubt Karla would understand, but he still wanted to keep these little flashes of intuition tenderness, secret. Secret like the glimmers and shadows which followed him sometimes. Secret things were less real. Something to be staved off by his studies, by the insurmountable logic of numbers that kept him grounded, weighed him to the world of matter.
“It’s alright not to know,” Karla said, and Hermann must have looked very troubled, because she hastily continued. “I think it’s very wise.”
“Not knowing makes me feel slow.”
“Then you must be going mad because there is no logical reality where you are slow,” Karla scoffed. “If you don't know now, it’s because it’s a tricky problem you haven’t worked out yet, but you’re so very clever. I can’t imagine that will be permanent.”
“I’ve missed talking to you,” Hermann said. “You must promise me to write when you’re in England.”
“Of course. If I can think of smart things to say and not just weather talk,” Karla said with a dismissive roll of her eyes. “And you have to write too! No more radio silence while you’re in school.”
They stayed in their room until dinner, Hermann reading a book while Karla sketched. While he was aware that this would be the last of this kind of evening for a very long time, he felt remarkably unbothered by the prospect.