The coins hit the bottom of the mason jar with a tight series of clinks. Lara held the thick glass at eye level: three little circles—two silver, one bronze—lay inside, their emblems and prominent profiles staring up through the jar’s opening. She jiggled it in her hand, listening to the coins clang against each other.
They sounded like freedom.
Two francs. It was far from what she needed, but it was a start.
Biting her bottom lip, Lara replaced the lid and shoved the jar under her mattress for safe keeping. The act felt deceptive. The money wasn’t hers. In that moment, she’d become a common thief.
She sat back on the floor and stared at her bed, second-guessing her decision. It wasn’t too late. She could return the money and continue with a clean conscience.
Who am I kidding, she thought. There’s nothing clean about any of this.
They certainly couldn’t judge her. After all, they’d hardly given her a choice.
Lara stood, pleased. If they thought secrets were so important, she ought to be allowed a few of her own.
“Come along, girls,” Marlene called to Miriam and Gloria. “This wind will send a chill right to our bones.”
Her voice, firm but kind, echoed off the brick buildings on the busy main street. The sisters held hands and they followed step by step behind their mother’s stride, so brisk that their ankles would have formed blisters had their leather boots not been broken in by years of wear from their older siblings.
Hand-me-downs—a new affair a new consequence of their mother’s frugality.
From a distance, they looked like an ordinary family: mother and three children, on their way to the market. Two youngsters, barely waist-tall, following their mother’s footsteps, and a baby propped on the woman’s hip. A common sight, especially in one of the most populated cities in Switzerland.
But this was no ordinary family. This was a prominent family. A wanted family.
Braving the blustery conditions of a particularly chilly February morning, Marlene glanced over her shoulder and hustled her daughters across the street toward the grocers. The hood of Gloria’s cape fought against angry wind for its place on the girl’s head. She reached up with her free hand to hold it in place, keeping her ears from the cool air.
Ahead, in Marlene’s arms and wrapped in a heavy blanket, baby Erich peeked out from behind the hem of a thick stocking cap. The heavy knit drooped lower over his eyes with each step his mother took, leaving him to simply hold on and trust her course.
A car whizzed past, and Marlene paused to adjust the empty produce bags on her shoulder. Her neck was tight. Shopping with three small children in tow took patience and dexterity—things she was learning to master in her new role as Mother.
At times, she had to remind herself: You’re a mother of eight now. Her past life seemed like a distant memory. One day a single, young woman, and the next—bam!—seven (eight, once Erich was born) children to raise.
She regretted nothing.
Having lived in Zürich for just under two years, Marlene was still acclimating to her new home. The children’s adjustment was easy—they readily adapted to their new surroundings and seemed quite content to start a new life so long as they were together. Marlene had never experienced such a bond between siblings before entering the Weiss’ lives. They were devoted to one another.
The children were closer than close. They’d been each other’s only playmates, spending full days without seeing another soul outside their brood. That type of connection can fuel one of two things: annoyance or affinity. For the Weiss children, it was the latter.
Adjustment for Marlene and her husband, Doctor Gerald Weiss, on the other hand, didn’t come quite as readily. They needed time, feeling very much like they’d left a piece of their hearts in Austria. They’d left so suddenly—less by choice than by force—when Gerald was ordered to serve as the private doctor to the top level of government officials. The Nazis wanted him. His vocal opposition only made them want him more.
“I won’t do it,” he’d said. “I’d rather lose my license than care for those bastards.”
In the end, with a threat of direct escort looming over his head, he’d gathered the family and fled into the mountains, where they’d made their way across the border to freedom.
Now, despite its geographical proximity to her homeland and the similarities between the countries, Marlene still felt like a visitor in Switzerland.
Everywhere she went, she scrutinized her surroundings. Were people staring at her? Did they know?
Reaching the other side of the street now, Marlene stepped up onto the curb and hoisted Erich higher on her hip, repositioning her arms under his chunky thighs. She turned to make sure the girls were close behind. Her bright eyes rested on their wind-flushed faces.
“We’re here, Mother,” Gloria answered the unspoken question with a smile that revealed two missing front teeth. Her cherubic face melted Marlene’s heart every time the girl spoke. She’d been the youngest for so long that despite Erich’s arrival, Gloria still acted like the baby of a family. So sweet, with full cheeks and long flowing hair, their youngest daughter had her parents tightly wrapped around her stubby, little finger.
“Alright,” Marlene said, ushering them through the wide double doors. The warmth of the store thawed their bones, and the girls removed their hoods. Marlene plucked Erich’s hat from his head, and as she did the acrylic sparked static electricity that made his fine, baby hair stand on end.
The girls giggled.
Already overheated from her heavy wool coat and the twenty-pound human on her side, Marlene focused. “Let’s pick out what we need for dinner.” She grabbed a basket with one hand and strode toward the produce stands.
The sisters helped hand items to Marlene, while she balanced the baby in one arm and the basket in the other. When the string beans started to spill over the edge of the woven plastic rim, the girls took turns carrying a second.
They didn’t need much, as grocery trips were something that kept Marlene busy during the week. She liked shopping for the family’s food. Back in Austria, before they were forced to flee the lives they knew and the home they loved, they’d had the luxury of a housekeeper. Frau Schuster did the grocery shopping then, and kept a kitchen full of crisp produce, soft breads and the best cuts of meat. The children had become accustomed to luxuries like a freshly-frosted cake on the counter, or a perfectly layered trifle proudly displayed under a glass dome. To them, the origin of these treats was a mystery. But it didn’t matter. They just appeared and sat there begging to be eaten.
Spoiled with a life of privilege, the Weiss children had lived comfortably. More than comfortably, in fact—at least in the material sense. In terms of attention and affection, they’d been sorely lacking for years before Marlene revived their father’s affection.
Now, the idea of their family gathering around the grand dining table and welcoming meals prepared and served by staff was nothing but a distant memory.
Marlene shook the thought from her mind. Things were different here. And while it took Gerald longer to adjust to their decline in affluence (a proud man never receives a demotion gladly), Marlene welcomed the change. Now, buying and preparing her own meals gave Marlene a sense of pride and utility. Living with such extravagance was never something she warmed to fully anyway, during the brief time following their wedding, particularly having come from an unpretentious life at the abbey. A spacious mansion? Grand parties? She preferred simplicity. Who needs the newest fashions when you can make your own perfectly suitable clothing from scraps of fabric around the house?
“Marlene?” A silvery voice made her turn from the rows of green and red apples. “Oh yes, it is you. I wasn’t sure from behind. Your hair is longer!” The woman, short and stocky with a spotted complexion—Marlene couldn’t tell whether they were freckles or age spots—flapped a hand in Marlene’s direction. Her headscarf was tied so tightly around her face, it made Marlene think of the wimples worn by the nuns she once called roommates.
Lena Huber was a teacher at the secondary school where Marlene’s middle children attended. When the family inquired about admitting two of their older children, Lena and Felix, after settling in the new town, Frau Huber was kind and welcoming. She gave Marlene and Gerald a tour of the facility and explained to Lena and Felix what a typical day’s schedule would entail. The looks on their faces said it all: pure intimidation. So the generous woman went out of her way to make the Weisses as comfortable as possible, seeing it was the first time the children had ever attended a public school. And for that, Marlene was eternally grateful.
“Oh, good morning, Nora,” Marlene replied warmly. “How are you?”
“Well, thanks. Aside from this bitter cold, that is. You?”
“We’re fine. Just grabbing a few things for dinner.” She gestured to the handfuls of apples Miriam and Gloria were dropping happily into their basket. “I told them we could make apple strudel,” she laughed. Marlene licked her lips and grinned at the girls, whose basket was nearly overflowing. “Hey now, that’s plenty, you two.”
Nora chuckled. “So sweet, your girls, Marlene. I hope to have them in my class someday!” She crouched to come eye level with the children. “I imagine you’re as much of a delight as your older siblings.” Miriam nodded politely, while Gloria grabbed onto her mother’s leg for security, sure the woman’s massive smile would bust the seam of her scarf along her jaw. Marlene rubbed the girl’s shoulder for reassurance.
“And look at this strapping lad!” Nora returned stood and reached out to stroke Erich’s tiny hand. “My, you’re getting so big! He’s adorable, Marlene. Really just the perfect combination of you and your husband.”
“Thank you.” Erich rested his head in the hollow of Marlene’s neck, and she gave him a squeeze. “He was the perfect addition to our brood.”
“Yes. You have a beautiful family. You’re truly blessed, Marlene.” She articulated each syllable—Mar-lay-na—in that eloquent way teachers do.
She swallowed the words down. They tasted bitter. That’s not a lie, she told herself.
“Listen,” Nora said, flicking her outstretched fingers, “we’re celebrating Clair’s eighteenth birthday next Friday evening. A big bash. You should send your girls over! She’d love to see them! The more the merrier.”
“How kind, Nora. I’ll certainly let them know.”
Gloria tugged on Marlene’s skirt.
“Okay, okay, we’ll keep going.”
“Oh yes, please don’t let me keep you,” Nora said, taking a step backward. “So nice running into you, Marlene! Give my best to the rest of the family. And tell Felix and Lena I’ll see them bright and early in class on Monday!”
She wiggled her cupped hand at the girls—a gesture one only does when saying goodbye to young children—then turned the other direction. Marlene led her gang further into the stands of vegetables, running through her mental list. They grabbed what they needed for dinner—veal, cabbage, and more than enough apples— paid the teller, and began their six-block walk home. The girls skipped ahead, a bag in each hand.
Upon arriving in Switzerland, Marlene and Gerald agreed that living in the city, rather than the countryside, was a much-needed reprieve. Their lives in Austria had been secluded in a way, and Marlene worried about the children becoming terribly lonely if they were forced to live in a remote place once again. They chose Zürich for not only its location but also its bustling, dense population: big enough to blend in. Marlene was determined to give the children a new life—one that she’d first introduced when she began her role as their tutor—which included dissolving their father’s impossibly strict rules.
From the moment she’d stepped a scuffed boot into the foyer of their sprawling home, she’d set the family on another course. It was the Reverend Mother who had suggested Marlene apply for the tutor position with the Weiss family. After spending only two years working in the convent classroom, Marlene and the Abbess had grown close, Marlene often turning to the woman for guidance.
At first keen to meet and help mold new young minds, Marlene was unprepared for the tenseness she encountered. Still, after time, her presence softened Gerald, bringing a renewed joy back to his soul, and the children relished in this gentler, sweeter family dynamic.
In Zürich, they immersed themselves into the general public of their fresh city, leaving behind much of the isolation the children had been used to. It proved to be a smart decision—the kids were thriving in Switzerland. They had friends—real ones, outside of each other!—and even engaged in extracurriculars. In all, each of the Weisses had become more outgoing, and overall more comfortable both in and outside the house.
Marlene’s magic touch had worked.
Their two-story home sat at the end of a dead-end street adjacent to the main drag. Being so close to town meant the family could walk most places, which Marlene enjoyed, and it gave the children an opportunity to breathe fresh air every day. She’d always loved the crisp smell of nature and using her legs to get her to where she needed to go. It was as if her limbs had a mind of their own—her muscles itched to explore, to take her new places. Marlene would start out walking and before long, she’d be skipping, dancing—and often singing—with the merriment of one without a care in the world.
Of course, she had cares now. Plenty of them. They lived in one of the largest cities in Switzerland, surrounded more by brick and shingles than grass and streams. Instead of frolicking in lush meadows, she now fought the clock to get homework done before dinner. Still, Marlene often found herself daydreaming of the times, when after she’d finished the lessons with her pupils in the little classroom adjacent to the convent, she would slip from its cold, stark walls and get lost in the green hills.
A soft voice brought her back.
“Mother, can we go to the park today?” Gloria asked, as they rounded the corner of their street.
“No, darling. It’s far too cold today. Plus, we need to get home because your brother is getting heavy.” She rearranged the boy in her arms again. Miriam and Gloria, having learned manners above all else, kept their disappointment to themselves, but dragged the canvas bags of food along behind them.
When they reached the wrought iron gate in front of their home, Marlene used her key to unlock and swing it open. The girls rushed through, galloping as quickly as they could while carrying the groceries, and bounded up the front steps, disappearing through the door. Marlene followed, trudging slowly under the weight of the baby and the full sack of food on her shoulder. From behind the white swiss curtain framed by two gray shutters, Marlene caught a glimpse of a child’s face. She suspected it was Karl, anxious for her return.
Once inside, Marlene placed Erich on the floor and dropped the groceries to the counter. Her biceps tingled from the baby’s heaviness, and she shook her arms to bring feeling back to her fingers.
“We’re back!” she called. Erich promptly crawled out of the room, his hands slapping against the linoleum. A loud pounding of footsteps followed, and soon four more Weiss children stood in the kitchen.
“Hello, dear. Help me unload these?” she asked Bettina, fifth oldest with thick raven hair and a wise look in her eyes. She was a reclusive child, more likely to spend the day reading than engaging with other eleven-year-olds.
“What did you get today?” Lena asked, peeking into one of the bags. Tall for fourteen, her height—along with her steady nature—often deceived people. With gangly limbs and butterscotch bangs cut blunt across her forehead, Lena lived in the gray area between girlhood and ripeness. She worshiped Lara, her older sister.
Or at least, she used to. But that was another time.
Before Lena could get a glimpse, little Gloria answered her question. “Apples!” she exclaimed. “Mother said we can make strudels tonight.” She hopped off, clutching a ruby red orb in each hand.
“Yum,” Felix said. “I hope you got enough for Karl and me!” The two boys of the family, aside from baby Erich, ate more than their fair share of food and Marlene continued to be amazed at their bottomless stomachs. At sixteen and twelve, the boys were sprouting fast, constantly outgrowing clothes. For that, at least, Karl was never in short supply of hand-me-downs from his older brother.
Felix was practically a man—evident by not only his stature, but also the deepening of his voice a year earlier and the blond whisker shavings Marlene wiped from the bowl of the sink (a much lighter shade than her husband’s dark five o’clock shadow).
Marlene watched the children put the food in the pantry. Lena folded the muslin bags and placed them in the small crate by the door, ready for the next shopping trip. Their father had instilled a firm expectation of obedience in his children, and even with Marlene’s more relaxed approach, the children still displayed a sense of responsibility that made her proud.
“Where’s Lara?” Marlene asked, heaving a sack of flour into the upper cupboard. The oldest of the children, Lara was a beautiful girl on the brink of womanhood, with shoulder-length dark hair and blue eyes as clear as a tropical sea.
The teen hadn’t quickly warmed to Marlene. “I’m too old for a tutor,” she’d insisted. “I’m practically finished with my schooling anyway.” Her attitude had changed, though, once she discovered Marlene’s most generous heart and fierce loyalty. When the relationship between Marlene and Gerald turned from business to pleasure, Lara’s openness grew. Soon, Lara and her stepmother were close.
At seventeen, Lara was the only one of the children who didn’t attend public school, instead reasoning with her parents to concede in allowing her to complete her high school education with an instructor who would come to the house regularly.
It was the least they could do.
“Upstairs, I think,” Lena answered her mother’s question casually. “Haven’t seen her much today.”
“Do we ever?” Bettina echoed.
Marlene frowned. It was no secret that Lara had struggled with their new life in Zürich. Since their arrival, she’d become withdrawn and somber, quite the opposite of her once genial self. Her siblings chalked it up to teenage heartbreak, after Lara’s boyfriend, Rubin, had turned out to be far from the person Lara thought he was.
And that was true—at least partly.
“Would you mind telling her to come down?” Marlene asked Karl, who was standing closest to the edge of the room and the one of the group contributing least to unloading the groceries. He spun in place and leaned his upper body around the edge of the doorframe.
“LARA! MOTHER WANTS YOU!” His high-pitched scream made Marlene wince.
“I meant could you go upstairs and get her.” She shook her head at the wide grin that spread across his round face. He smiled, clearly amused, baring all his teeth for display. Karl was once described as incorrigible by a great-aunt, but Marlene knew he was simply playful and young. The middle child certainly kept everyone on their toes.
Near her feet, baby Erich pulled up to stand, holding onto a drawer handle for balance. Bettina plopped down on the floor on the other side of the kitchen, spreading her legs in a wide “V.” She stretched her arms out in front of her and clapped her hands together.
“Come on, Erich,” she urged. “Walk to me. You can do it!”
Erich gave her a smile, four little teeth poking out of his pink gums. He glanced up at Marlene as he bounced in place with eagerness.
“Go ahead, little one. Walk to your sister,” Marlene encouraged.
He slid a foot out, still holding onto the handle with one hand.
“You have to let go, silly,” Bettina said. “Come on, come to me.” She wiggled her fingers out in front of her.
Erich wavered, then let go. His unstable body tilted from side to side as he attempted to gain balance. Taking two small steps forward, he quickened his pace, before falling to his bottom not far from where he began.
“Good try, buddy,” Bettina said with a chuckle. Marlene swooped down and gave him a peck on the cheek.
“You’ll be walking soon enough, my love,” she said. Then, turning to Lena, “Can you watch him for me for a couple minutes?”
She needed to find Lara. It was time for another talk. Her patience was wearing thin.
But, mother and daughter were wound tight—twisted together like the intricate tapestry of an abstract canvas. Push a girl too far, and everything could unravel.