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Authors: Ida Hattemer-Higgins

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BOOK: The History of History
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She went upstairs and called her boss at the tour company. Her tours had been irregular lately and with scarce work there was scarce money, but now, despite that, she would cancel her tour that morning. It left her boss in the lurch, he would be put out, but she couldn’t help herself. Margaret would accept the challenge. She would climb out of Berlin.

She went back outside. With the new goal in mind, the ladders seemed to go on even longer before they met the clouds. It seemed an awfully long way up. Wouldn’t it be easier, she thought, if she started from a point already high in the sky?

But there was only one great hill in the flat city of Berlin. This was the Teufelsberg, the mountain in the Grunewald Forest on the outskirts of the city.

She rode to Nollendorfplatz and took the train to Zoo Station. She carried her bicycle into an S-Bahn car and began the ride out into the Western suburbs. Near the Grunewald, already before she got off the train, an unctuous sense of déjà vu laid its fingers on her.

Still on the platform, she knew that below, at the mouth of the station, she would find a small tavern with a gravel garden, outdoor tables, and a black picket fence.

And lo, at the exit to the station, she found a tavern with a graveled terrace, collapsible tables made of wood and iron in obedient rows, and a black picket fence. Just as she had thought of it: the kind of place where you can buy
and beer, an old place, a summer resort for the Wilhelmine petite bourgeoisie. Margaret could feel the women of 1910 in their summer cotton dresses and petticoats, the portly men in waistcoats, dancing to a brass band—she felt it as if she had put her hands near a fire and come upon a wall of heat.

And all the while, the rope ladders swayed above.

She took out her city map, unfolded it to its farthest Western grid, and once again, when she saw the scheme of streets, with the pattern of the encroaching woods and lakes, something about the lay of the land struck her as familiar and terrible. Her aim was the Teufelsberg, Devil’s Mountain, the highest point in Berlin, but her fear was almost too strong to continue. The map grinned up at her in its yellow and blue cover from the bottom of her bag, with cackling, mocking familiarity.

Margaret made her way through the streets of suburban houses, and the gardens of the homes were small here, the dwellings seemed to shoulder up on her—there was an atmosphere of institutionalized eavesdropping.

Margaret’s bad feeling peaked when she neared the end of the road. Here the street quit abruptly and left off for the navy blue of the pine forest. She stopped still. She would not walk forward into the Grunewald Forest. As surely as the seagull with flute-hollow bones cannot fly into the storm, she could not go on.

She decided her bicycle was the way to make an effort at proceeding. It was the only way of having more momentum than fear. She mounted the bike and set off precariously. She rode along the brambled path. Her heart beat but her speed was a salvation. She pedaled, and several times her skinny front tire was bested by one of the branches that lay in her path and it skittered off to the side. She did not end up on her back only because she was gripping the handlebars with such force.

The forest broke and a freshly paved road opened up before her. An elderly pair of men were walking down it.

The men were speaking Russian. They were laughing. They were drinking from a shared flask. Margaret asked if they knew where the Teufelsberg was. One of the men, his craw pink and loose, his German broken, laughed at her and gestured toward the west. After she passed them, she looked back over her shoulder and wondered what these two were doing here. It was her first thought outside of fear in a long time, and with it she noticed her misgivings pass. All of a bright sudden she was thinking with optimism.

She turned a bend and there it was, the Teufelsberg, before her, looming like a skyscraper. Right away she knew that she had never been here before, that her sense of déjà vu, too, had fallen away. She had been expecting a hill sloping gradually out of the landscape, covered
in trees. Instead, a soaring cliff of land rose before her. It was grand, it suggested the myths of icebergs floating in the night ocean.

Approaching the giant, she saw a zigzagging flight of stairs cut up the side of the vertical wall, and she was sure that her mission to climb out of Berlin was going to succeed, for already beginning to ascend the rough stairs she felt that in some essential way she was escaping, her heart casting off ballast.

She got to the top; she was panting. She had counted sixteen flights.

Up here the land spread around her in a vast plateau, as on the roof of a tower, and this, too, was right and good. As she often recited on her tours, the Teufelsberg, an artificial mountain made of the remains of four hundred thousand bombed-out Berliner buildings, was “the collected works of Adolf Hitler.” Now the great mass clambered toward the skies.

And here, too, the rope ladders were swinging in the heavy wind, filling the air in their locust swarm. The nearest ladder she grabbed hold of and, indeed, the grey sky was much nearer to the ground than it was on Grunewaldstrasse.

She began to climb with an energy that amazed her. The ladder was not pinned to anything below, so it was a jaunty, difficult ascent, the rungs twisting and spinning. But the effort of bringing her feet onto them occupied and emptied out her mind. If she looked down, she was hit by vertigo; if she looked to the side, she was distracted by the sight of Berlin laid out around her, and so she did neither.

Finally, she burst through the clouds. She had a sensation of pure happiness. The sun was bright and warm up here, the freezing early spring air somehow left behind. The smell of the open breeze embraced her, chilling the nostrils only slightly—tenderly. She turned her head up in exultation.

She was not fated to enjoy her happiness long. Just as quickly as the first, another whiff of air gusted toward her on the back of the other. A second scent, horrible and familiar. The smell of bird droppings. They were there, in the clouds. There must have been ten or eleven—nestled among billowing vapor—enormous birds of prey, as big as elephants, most of them a dark, silvery grey, cosied up like smoky jewels in the pillows of cold.

Without a second thought, in a steady panic, Margaret began to lower herself back down the rope ladder again. But this was a more difficult and slower operation than going up. Dangerous slowness, really. Before she could get very far, the bird that was nearest to her
began to pick its way across the cloud landscape in a slow approach, its head thrusting forward in repetitive jabs. As it came, it began to change. The head shrank, the shoulders narrowed, and the dark, grey-black feathers molted quickly to reveal black gabardine. Gleaming now in the bright, super-stratospheric sun, the grey-blond Marcel water-waves were fire to the eyes. It was the hawk-woman.

“Ah, Margaret!” it screeched, in a megaphone-loud, bird-like voice. “You remember me, don’t you? I’m Magda! How delightful we should meet!” There was a whistling sound all around, and these pronunciations, for all their volume, were almost lost to the wind. Margaret didn’t say anything, but her foot, which was looking vainly for the rung beneath her, was making the sad-futile gesture of a blind inchworm at the edge of a leaf, casting feelers into nothing.

The woman had trapped her. Margaret had no choice: she gave a nod.

“Going down so soon?” screamed the figure. “But if you don’t like it here, you could continue up!”

Margaret was prompted, then, to look
the rope ladder, which, stunningly, did in fact continue into the ether. “What’s up there?” Margaret asked doubtfully.

“Wouldn’t you know it! All the people you have lost,” was the gleeful response. Margaret stared up into the bright, endless blue, with the rope ladder tracing into it like a fishing line. “Perhaps you would like to see the one you left behind, Margaret?”

Margaret thought about this. Perhaps she would like to see—but the screeching voice of her interlocutor interrupted her thoughts. “And also there,” said the woman, “are all the people
have lost.”

“The people you have lost?” asked Margaret, dazed. “I’m going down.” And again her feet began to jab at the air, looking for a rung down.

“Stay awhile,” said the hawk-woman. “We can have a little chat.”

“That’s all right,” said Margaret, and again focused on her footing.

The rope ladder, however, seemed to have shortened in the meantime. Below her it did not extend much more than four or five feet toward the earth, which was far, far away. Margaret’s back prickled with electricity, her skin cold. For a brief instant, she thought she would jump. Assuming this was a dream, she’d only have to suffer the suffusion with fear, and then she’d be awake. But she couldn’t be sure. And if she was wrong? So she stayed.

“Ah, I see you’ve decided to have a little chat with me after all!”
screeched the bird-woman. “We have so much in common, you and I. I’ve been meaning to make your acquaintance simply for ages.”

And Margaret was warmed by this, despite herself. “Really?”

“Oh, yes!” the bird-woman said in a quieter, more human-like voice.

“Well—” Margaret paused. “That’s nice.”

“I think so too! What a lovely little setup you’ve got there in the Grunewaldstrasse. You and I are going to be the best of friends, I know it already.”

Margaret would have shuddered at this, but she found that with the rope ladder gone and her imprisonment in the clouds, the woman’s friendly overtures were more winning. She said, “You know, my ladder here, it’s shorter than it was. I have no idea how to get down.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that for a second!
take you!”


“Gladly, my dear. Just hop on my back. I’ll fly you.” And with that, downy feathers began to sprout from the woman’s face and hands, her clothes fell away to reveal the buttressed chest of her bird-self. Her face extended and her nose lengthened and latched into a beak. She fluffed her wings tentatively, and they spread wider and wider, telescoping from some inner resource. The woman’s wingspan was as broad as a city street. It seemed safe enough to ride on such a massive bird. As the wings were folded in again, Margaret inclined herself toward the back of the predator, and put out her hand. But with a great screech, the bird hopped away from her and swooped up into the sky. The sparrow hawk flew so high she disappeared from view in the clouds. Margaret craned her neck. But then the bird was plummeting back down toward her, Stuka-fashion, and without even realizing what was happening, Margaret was scooped up onto her back and borne away, traveling at high speed.

They jetted across the mist, they broke through, they swooped and dove, and then they were back below cloud level in bracing Berlin. There was the city laid out below, like a veined butterfly pinned down on the earth. The arteries, capillaries, bundles, clots, and junctures of the city streets interlocked and weaved. It all happened so quickly the eye couldn’t keep abreast. Margaret got used to the overstimulation, but by then the hawk had begun to fly lower still. They flew east along the line of Strasse des Siebzehnten Junis and coasted down toward the Brandenburg Gate.

Margaret looked for her favorite monuments. There was the dome of the cathedral, fluorescent in its green copper cloak. Then she looked beyond it, off toward Alexanderplatz, but there, something wasn’t right. The TV tower was missing. Where had the TV tower gone?

“The TV tower—” Margaret cried. But she could hardly hear herself—the wind was rushing by her ears.

The giant bird flew to the south now, veering away from Unter den Linden and turning along Charlottenstrasse, and as they moved even farther to the south, the high-rises at the base of Hallesches Tor were missing too. They moved into Kreuzberg; Margaret looked in vain for the Memorial Library. It was gone. She wished the bird would fly even lower so she could see what was on the site instead. But the bird was holding her altitude now. The tracks of the U1 were clearly visible from this height, although there was a portion that seemed to be dented. The canal ran under it. And yet, where were the housing projects that should have risen up over at Kottbusser Tor? The city seemed so grey.

But Margaret saw now where they were going. Up ahead was moribund Tempelhof Airport. Margaret had never had a chance to fly into this airport before—there were almost no flights through it these days, and Margaret’s many pilgrimages to the Nazi-era building had been only by bicycle, just to look around. So her spirits lifted a bit—she was finally going to see the place from above, just as she had long wanted.

The bird began to circle the grassy landing strip, coasting lower with every revolution. Margaret had the sensation of being sucked down a drain. Their speed increased, or maybe it was an illusion. The earth was so near. Finally they landed lightly on the grass of the airfield.

As soon as her feet hit the earth, Margaret began to run away from the hawk-woman without a word of thanks or goodbye. But she tripped and fell into the grass, and the hawk-woman caught up with her without trouble, in half-human, half-bird form. She came upon Margaret, who was still lying on the grass, and loomed over her.

“Margaret, honey,” the bird said.


“This has been lovely. But there is something fabulously important that I still need to talk to you about.”

“What is it?” Margaret shivered.

“You don’t have very much time.”


“You don’t have much time until you have to come with me underground.”


“I hope you’ll come at my invitation. We’d love to have you. But if you don’t come on your own, I’ll fetch you. I’ll carry you there, Margaret.”

“I don’t understand.”

“When it’s time, I’ll carry you.”

Margaret turned at these words. She didn’t pause. She ran toward the reception hall. It wasn’t until she got to the building that she dared turn around again. The thick grass of the airfield was a-flutter, waving in the breeze that must have come up only now. There was no trace of the massive bird. And there was no trace of the woman either.

BOOK: The History of History
5.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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