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The Small Boat of Great Sorrows
US paperback

Excerpt: Chapter One

November 1998

Down in the mud of central Berlin you never knew what you might find. Last week it had been an American bomb, as long and fat as a giant bratwurst. A poor fellow from Poland poked it with a shovel and the whole thing went up. Five more fatalities for the casualty lists of World War II, courtesy of a B-17 that hadn't flown for half a century.

Then there was the corpse, or the skeleton, rather, that rose from the ground on the yellow teeth of a backhoe. Probably nobody famous. Just a Russian from 1945 who never made it home, judging by the buttons, the boots, and the rusty helmet. Two efficient men in sport coats and ties hauled him away in a black plastic bag.

Barbed wire turned up, too, on this landscape of accidental archaeology, but that was of a more recent vintage, left by the East Germans in the path of their long and formidable wall. And sometimes when Vlado Petric trudged through the ooze, he pondered all the German shepherds that had patrolled this narrow strip of land, day after day, year after year. Plenty of their leftover shit mixed in the mire, he supposed, and for all those reasons he spent ten minutes at the end of each workday cleaning the waffled soles of his boots with a screwdriver, prying loose the mud. It was the richest sediment of twentieth-century misery the world had to offer, and he had no wish to track it home. He'd tramped enough to his doorstep already, nearly five years earlier, as one of the hundreds of thousands of Bosnians who'd escaped their own war for some quieter venue across Europe's sagging theme park of history.

So, when Vlado and Tomas Petrowski mounted backhoes Monday morning to dig into the muck of Potsdamer Platz, they knew there was always a chance they would unearth some history, even though they were construction workers, not archaeologists. They were the merest of drones, in fact, two among thousands on a landscape that Berlin's boosters were billing as the world's largest construction site. Not since Albert Speer unrolled his blueprints for Hitler had the city witnessed such architectural hubris, and tourists with nothing better to do could pay a few deutsche marks to climb the stairs of a red building on stilts at the heart of it all. Indoors there were photos, maps, and charts to see. But the real attraction was out in the elements atop a switchback of corrugated metal stairs. It was a high viewing platform where you could stand in the wind and rain to marvel at it all, to watch the city be transformed from the inside out, as if an alien spaceship had uprooted a massive high-rise shard of downtown Dallas, and dropped it onto the belly of old Europe.

If you stood there that Monday morning with a set of binoculars, you might have picked out Vlado and Tomas as they went to work, marching toward their backhoes, almost emulating a goose step as they picked their way through the slurping ooze, yellow hard hats bobbing. They were a few hundred yards from the green edge of the Tiergarten, Tomas a short and stubby Pole with the golden hair and beard of a Viking, Vlado of medium build and measured expression, clipped dark hair above deep-set brown eyes, a face that strived mightily to give away nothing. Each wore jeans and a flannel shirt bought from the battered metal stalls of outdoor markets on a gray Saturday morning, and each knew how lucky he was to be working for twelve D-marks an hour, with all the right papers and documents to make it legal.

Neither spoke the other's language, but both spoke enough German to grunt and nod their way through a day on the job. Their task was simple enough. Other men drove stakes and markers into the ground, then Vlado and Tomas dug trenches and holes between them, generally working straight through until lunch. At noon they carried brown bags to benches in some damp birch glade of the Tiergarten, as calm and green as an Alpine meadow, then ate their sandwiches and apples, watching rucksacked legions of young Germans glide past on bicycles.

But this morning, if you'd been patient with your binoculars up there on the viewing platform, you might have noticed an interruption in their routine, shortly before ten, when they shut down their engines and dismounted.

Tomas had found something.

The jagged mouth of his backhoe had struck a slab of buried concrete, and out here that meant you'd made a discovery. The rules were clear on what to do next, and both were careful about knowing the rules.

"Who's going to tell them?" Vlado asked in his halting German.

Tomas shrugged. Somewhere in the warren of trailers where the supervisors sat was a keeper of old maps who could put a name to what they'd found. And somewhere in a ministry nearby, in a room with rolled yellowed charts bearing faded swastikas, there was an authority on this subterranean history, an expert in naming and classifying every hibernation chamber where men in gray had once hunkered down for defeat. He was always the one who decided how to proceed, and so far his decisions had never varied: Rebury it and keep building.

"Maybe it is not something to report," Tomas said, knowing as the words left his mouth that he was wrong.

Vlado's answer seemed to take them both by surprise. "I think maybe you're right. Let's make sure it's worth reporting. Let's investigate."

A half century earlier such disobedience would have earned each of them a bullet in the head. Now, labor rules being what they were, the consequences would scarcely exceed a tongue-lashing as long as everyone's immigration papers were in order. Few Germans would work for these wages anymore, no matter how high the unemployment rate, which is why thousands of Poles, Irishmen, Scotsmen, Russians, and others streamed every morning to this grand amphitheater of mud. Bodies had become too valuable to spare on this front line, especially with companies like Sony and Daimler waiting eagerly to move in.

So, Vlado and Tomas climbed aboard their machines and went back to work, grinning as they heaved and shoved at the earth to expose more of the slab, fighting down a panicky sense that they might be stopped at any moment. Within an hour they uncovered the top of a door. An hour later they reached the bottom, and by 1 p.m., having forgotten about lunch altogether, they'd completed a sloping trench that would let them reach it on foot. It was then, with stomachs growling, that they finally shut down their engines and dismounted again,sweating in the cold, stunned by the sudden silence.

The Small Boat of Great Sorrows
UK paperback

They glanced around to make sure no one was watching, then descended the mud passage and pushed against a heavy steel door—once, twice, then a third time, ready to give up until it began groaning open against the concrete floor. Leaning with their shoulders, they pushed it further ajar, the air issuing from it like the stale breath of a tomb. Then, breathing rapidly, they stepped into the damp chill of May 1945.

Vlado flicked his cigarette lighter to reveal a mural on the opposite wall, as bright and fresh as if it had been painted the day before. The flickering light played across the faces of rugged SS men, dapper in pressed uniforms, standing watch over blond wives and blue-eyed children, a sunny tableau of Aryan comfort for this gray day in November.

Vlado and Tomas might well have spoken, but their new language tended to fail them at moments like this, as if they'd misplaced the manual for some particularly unwieldy tool. But both knew they'd gone far enough, and Tomas strode off to fetch the foreman. Vlado waited in silence, wondering what sort of ghosts might yet lurk in a place where the concrete walls still smelled wet and new after half a century underground.

He took a deep breath, then, flicking his lighter again, walked across the floor into a second room, where he found a row of low iron beds with thin mattresses. Steel lockers lined the opposite wall, but Vlado's eyes were drawn to a yellow-and-black inscription on the door, a lightning-bolt insignia of the SS. Above the door were German words in Gothic script. It took a second for him to translate: THERE ARE MANY PEOPLE, BUT FEW GOOD MEN.

Vlado stepped slowly, as if there might be someone asleep just around the corner. None of the noise from above could make its way down here, and he felt a weight on his chest, a change in air pressure, or perhaps it was all in his head. His flannel shirt was damp with sweat, cooling against his skin.

There was one last room, and he stepped inside. It was emptied of furniture, with a mural on the wall, only this one was a map, a meticulous paint job of the Nazi empire at its zenith. Germany lay at the center in red, her spidery borders encompassing Austria and Czechoslovakia and half of Poland. Beyond it, slanting red stripes covered captured lands—Hungary, Scandinavia, Belgium, and the Netherlands, as well as much of France, the Soviet Union, and the Balkans. He found his own land, the old name "Jugoslavia," and, to the upper left, "Kroatien," for the puppet fascist statelet of wartime Croatia, its borders encompassing most of what was now Bosnia. His home city merited a black pinprick, and he touched the careful lettering for "Sarajewo," the concrete chilly, its surface just bumpy enough that he could imagine the mountains themselves were beneath his fingertips. How odd to feel a stab of homesickness from this map of conquest, yet, if he closed his eyes, he knew he would see old women in kerchiefs and long dimije skirts scuffing down dirt lanes, bent men in wool caps seated atop mule carts piled with hay, wheels creaking. For the most part Vlado had been raised a city boy, but farms and villages were always only a valley away, and they were the places that called to him now. Strange, he knew, especially down here in this well of captive darkness. Enough to make him feel like a homesick old peasant who'd never been five miles beyond the milking shed.

The sound of a voice made him jump. A column of chattering men was approaching the door down the slope of the muddy trench, and he retraced his steps to the bunker entrance just in time to see a foreman in a hard hat squeezing through the opening, looking hurried and embarrassed, chattering rapidly in German, loud voice going hollow as he entered. Accompanying him was a tall, balding man in a suit, shod in Italian loafers caked with mud. Tomas was behind them, looking scolded, saying nothing. The second man unrolled a blueprint in the beam of the foreman's flashlight, everyone's breath misting in the ancient air. The man needed merely a glance before he found what he was looking for. He poked at an upper corner of the map while shaking his head slowly as if disappointed in them all.

"Ja," the construction boss said. "Hier." And from their expressions Vlado gathered this was a well-known place.

"Der Fahrerbunker," the man in the suit mumbled.

"Fuhrerbunker?" said the foreman, eyebrows raised in panic. He looked ready to flee.

"Nein, du bloder Idiot! Fahrer."

Drivers, in other words. Chauffeurs. This had been the home for the SS men who drove around the generals and the chiefs of staff. But with nowhere left to drive in the springtime rubble of 1945 they had mostly stayed here, awaiting the end. Vlado had heard of the place. It had been unearthed a few years ago and resealed, lest it become a shrine for neo-Nazis. This was not the sort of tourist attraction the locals wanted in the heart of the new Berlin.

"Bury it," the man announced in German, rolling up his blueprint with a disdainful flourish. "And next time," he said, eyes aimed straight at Vlado, "come to me before you go this far. We already knew of this place. There was no need for all this."

They plodded back to the surface in single file, Vlado reluctantly. He had wanted to stay a while longer, not just to poke among the relics but to get a handle on the climate, the atmosphere. Such readings seemed important when you had recently lived through two years of a siege, with death dropping from the sky like cinders from a chimney. He and his neighbors had somehow made it through, subsisting on the world's handouts of bread and beans—two winters without heat, two years without electricity or running water or glass for your windows, coffee for your breakfast, salt for your food, soap for your bath, candles for your darkness. Two years without a wife and child to keep you company. And down there in the bunker he had suddenly seemed very close again to the feel of those lonely nights, to the mood of a city where even a funeral became an invitation to gunfire from snipers who might have once called to you by name.

Surviving that qualified him as something of an expert on manmade disaster, he felt, and what better place to take comparative readings than in that damp hidey-hole. Check the barometric pressure, the relative humidity. Collect the motes of dust. How could you possibly draw such air into your lungs and not be changed in some small way, and who knew where that might lead?

Or maybe this was just the wishful thinking of a man who, for all his joy and relief in escaping a war and rejoining his family, ached to return home, or, at the very least, ached for change. Four years, ten months, and counting in this land of flat horizons, doing work that numbed him to the bone. The mountains of home had begun to seem like something out of a dusty old atlas, a fairy tale of a place, with all its crabbed problems snagged in the creases of the hills.

But as the foreman departed, Vlado felt a giddy sense that perhaps change was in the works at last, that a day already so different from all the others would only become more so.

Within an hour they had regraded the mud into a neat, level surface above the bunker. Then other workers poured a layer of new concrete, the foundation of yet another high-rise. Vlado and Tomas watched in chastened silence as they belatedly ate their sandwiches, marking the location by other points of reference, mapping it in their heads for posterity. No matter what rose here, they'd always know what lay underneath, like a dormant cell of some once virulent plague.

So this is what becomes of the ruins of war, Vlado mused, staring at the wet concrete, and he wondered if his home in Sarajevo had already been torn down and rebuilt in his absence. Or his favorite cafe. The house where he'd grown up. His office? That would be fine, considering the way so many people in it had ultimately betrayed him. Then he thought of friends, some of them dead, and of a woman he had barely met yet whom he felt he knew quite well. And as he sat on a curb to clean his boots in the gathering dusk, he took extra care in removing the day's mud. Then he brushed off his hands and walked a half mile to the long stone platform of the Unter den Linden S-Bahn station. He boarded a rattling commuter train for a forty-minute ride to the eastern reaches of the city, out to where, if you kept walking, the plains would take you all the way to the forests of Russia.

By the time he reached his stop it was dark, and it took a brisk twenty-minute stroll to reach a tall, gray high-rise where he rode an elevator to the eleventh floor. He opened a door at the end of the corridor to find an American in a suit waiting for him on the living room couch.

© Dan Fesperman