This story was originally published in the Fall 2009 issue of the Yellow Medicine Review with guest editor Andre Guruianu. The special issue celebrated the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Norbert crouched in the bushes and stared for a long time at nothing. Every now and then he’d risk a glance to the north at the three and a half meter-high span of concrete that stretched in unbroken totality to the east and west. From where he sat, it seemed to stretch forever into the night sky, blocking out even the Western heaven.
Each time he tried to move his legs the renewed fear in his bowels held him in place. He ran his hands over the rough jute ladder he had carefully constructed over weeks and months and wondered if it would afford him enough purchase to make it over the first barrier. His eyes teared up again. The thought of Katrina weeping over his death didn’t bother him near as much as what she would say – or not say – if he got through. He had left her a letter in their special place, under the floorboard in the garden shed. That’s where they stashed the condoms and the forbidden magazines.
He hoped she’d find it, but either way, it didn’t change a thing. If he went back now, she wouldn’t know. But Norbert would, and he couldn’t hide it from her for long. Then she’d probably hate him more for not going through with it – and for not taking her with him. He wouldn’t blame her for hating him, could live with that thought easier than the risk of seeing her soft, pale skin punctured with bullets.
He thought back to the countless nights they’d lain awake and talked about what they’d do first.
“I’d buy bananas and drink real Cola every day,” she said.
Norbert had laughed. “And button-up Levi’s. You’d look fantastic in Levi’s, Tinka.”
“We could go to Paris.”
“And camping in Naples,” she had said with an elegant flick of her wrist, in one motion encompassing the idea of the easy life they’d lead in the West.
The idea with the distraction had been hers as well. And if Katrina had been with him, his lucky Fee, it might even have worked. As it was, the homemade explosive caps had fizzled in the moist, cold air, the pathetic small pop not louder than the Zitsch of a beer bottle.
Word had trickled down that the order to shoot had been lifted. Recent events contradicted that in a dramatic way. The rumor had sifted through the neighborhood, oddly this time with raised voices and indignation rather than the hushed whispers behind closed doors in the ever-present fear of Stasi retaliation.
Not forty kilometers from here, the Republikflucht attempt week before last had resulted in what some said had been a few dozen shots resulting in one bullet through the heart and a severe injury and imprisonment for the kid who survived. The dead kid hadn’t lived to enjoy his recent transcendence from teenager to adult. Norbert knew which of the two he’d rather be. That thought propelled him upward in the small hours before the sky lightened. He just couldn’t stand it anymore.
The first wall proved less of a problem than he’d thought. The ladder worked perfectly. The improvised hooks made from garden implements caught on the lip of the wall, allowing him to scale it quickly, fear firing his legs in a desperate burn. He’d felt the drop to the other side more in his clenched teeth than in his legs; sheer shock anesthetized his limbs. All his extremities tingled as if they had fallen asleep. He wasn’t sure he’d even feel the pain of a bullet.
Norbert glanced nervously at the towers to either side of him. No alarms had gone off. If he dallied too long in his dash across the barriers, the permanent searchlights would illuminate his progress, a human spider crawling across a whitewashed wall. And chances were good that the roaming searchlights from the towers would catch him in their glare. If he was very unlucky, early. His only chance would be to run for it and not look back, hoping to get to the metal fence he saw in the distance before the guards noticed him. He stayed in a crouch and took a minute to catch his breath before adrenalin pushed him upright.
He felt a hand on his shoulder and nearly shouted out in surprised panic. The dark eyes that looked at him were not mean or angry but held hollow sadness.
“Come with me. I’ve got the way.” The man looked to be a couple years younger than Norbert.
“Who the hell are you, man?” Norbert looked at him closely.
He seemed familiar … he wasn’t dressed like a guard … he had on jeans and a Tee-shirt, unusual garb for the biting cold at the end of February… his hair had bits of twigs in it … he smelled earthy and stale, like he’d been sleeping outside.
Whoever he was, he didn’t wait more than a few seconds, before he jogged off directly into the glare of the lights. Norbert felt a deep urge to stay put, but something made him follow the man. He didn’t look right or left, just spurted the few meters along the Todesstreife, the narrow strip of death between him and freedom, taking the same path as the man in front of him.
Norbert had trouble keeping up, but felt hope surge as the fence drew nearer and no sirens went off. He caught up to his pathfinder friend at the fence, Norbert's last few steps were spurred by tension that grabbed his legs and pumped them forward. The man prodded him to climb the fence first and Norbert hurtled himself to the top of two meters of steel grid.
His shoe caught as he cleared the edge. He screamed out in spite of himself, but it was wedged stuck in the fence. In desperation he pulled his foot free and left the shoe there. Once on the other side, Norbert waited in anticipation for his guide to join him, but the man just waved and turned back towards the towers. It was then that the lights flashed and the sirens clanged.
“Hurry up, climb over!” Norbert scooted backwards on his hands, away from the fence. Surely they wouldn’t shoot him now. They couldn’t, could they? He saw the lights limn his friend, for he could only think of him as a friend now, in stark black and white.
“Can’t just yet. Gotta go. Gotta find the way.”
The uniformed figures approached rapidly across the open ground he had just crossed. The man he had followed to freedom spurted in the opposite direction and just … faded into nothing. Norbert blinked and turned onto his hands and knees, his hands sweating and beads of sweat dripping down his neck. His breath condensed in the early morning air as he stumbled further away from the fence.
The men stopped after they’d lost their quarry, clearly confused. They didn’t even seem to see Norbert. He paused for a few seconds of paralyzed indecision before turning and hobbling away as fast as he could with one shoe and one sock towards the heart of West Berlin.
The cold November air wasn’t nearly as chilling as that February morning, a scant eight months ago, and this time Norbert wasn’t alone when he neared the wall. This time he looked towards the east while he walked towards the Brandenburger Tor. He knew Katrina would be here as soon as she could just as surely as he knew he’d not let her go back this night. Or ever.
Who knew how long it would be before they came to their senses and closed the gate? Hundreds of people crowded the Wall, and he scanned the faces, hoping he’d see one he hadn’t seen since the night of his escape.
Then he saw Chris Gueffroy. He sat near a rag-tag group standing and waving at the guards on the other side. Someone gave Norbert two hands up, and he made his way to sit next to his friend.
“Glad you finally found the way,” Norbert said and smiled at his guardian angel. He wondered if he was the only one who could see Chris. Norbert wondered if he was crazy because he could see him, but decided it didn’t really matter.
Everyone was going crazy tonight. He only hoped this kind of insanity was the kind that would last.
Chris Gueffroy died on February 6, 1989, just a little over 25 years ago, attempting to scale the Berlin Wall in his bid for freedom. He was the last victim to be shot for Republikflucht.
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