In the spring of 1889, Kaiser Wilhelm II visited Constantinople for the first time. He was enchanted—by the Topkapi Palace, the promontories of the Golden Horn, and in particular (as the rumor went) the exotic gyrations of the Sultan’s harem. The German Emperor, then at the height of his power, became convinced that the destiny of his kingdom resided in the expansion of its frontier into what he whimsically called “the Sultan’s forlorn flank.”
The discovery of vast oil reserves beneath Iraq ratified this notion and led to the conception of the so-called Bagdadbahn, a railway intended to connect Berlin to the Persian Gulf. Using the Ottoman Empire as a fueling station and trade depot, Germany would challenge the imperial dominance of Britain and Russia.
Historians may debate to what extent these ambitions contributed to the First World War. This much is known: in 1912, the Deutsche Bank transferred Wilhelm Geist, a Jew of modest birth and steadfast manner, from Berlin to Constantinople to oversee the project.
If you think that story opening is so dry you have to blow the dust off it to read it, well, I won’t disagree with you. It’s kind of odd to encounter in the “knock their socks off with an exciting first paragraph” age. I suspect the story would be savaged in a workshop setting, and without Almond’s name, would never get out of the slush pile (a few months ago, my blogging buddy Jake Weber had similar comments about another Pushcart-winning story that would never have seen the light of day without a “name” attached to it. But I promise, here the detachment adds to the story, since it’s indicative of character. And, by the way, there’s plenty of action. A visit from the Kaiser. The tension of a project failing in the setting of a losing (literally) battle. A terrifying train ride. There’s also a great deal of emotional depth as the focus shifts from Wilhelm to his wife to their daughter over the years covered in 16 pages. And it all comes down to this: you can never outrun the past that made you who you are.
The Bagdadbahn was a real project in the early 20th century, and in fact still exists although its use is limited to certain stretches and purposes. Herr Geist, however, appears to be a fictional character, or at least his contribution is too obscure for Google. We start with his obsession to complete the railway, an obsession he never realized; it was abandoned at the end of WWI, and only completed in 1940, just in time for another war. But that’s not part of our story.
As it becomes evident that Germany is losing the war and Constantinople is in danger, Frau Geist (we never learn her first name) and child Leah board a train for Berlin; they will never see their husband and father again, only hearing of his death months later.
They make a larger journey than planned on that train ride, however. From a privileged life of respectful servants and social status, Frau Geist is now merely a homely defenseless Jew. While it will be a few decades before Germany adopts genocide as policy, their lives are changed. The train they ride is commandeered for military transport of wounded soldiers, and they are evicted from their comfortable compartment. It’s only by the grace of Frau Geist’s small stash of gold coins that they are not thrown off the train and abandoned in Hungary or Romania.
Frau Geist pulled Leah under her mink and whispered, “You see? We’ve found a cozy place to sleep!” Thick bodies resettled themselves against her, seeking warmth. She smelled the putrefaction of their wounds. The stars whistled and zoomed.
As dawn filtered into the car, Frau Geist surveyed the pine benches, the filthy water closet. Daggers of ice dripped from the window slots. Her shoulders jerked silently. Leah heard her mother murmur a single phrase with such bitterness it was as if the words were a poison released onto her tongue: “Dritter Klasse Ohne Fensterscheiben.”
Third class without windows.
With Geist’s train building obsession, and Frau Geist’s traumatic journey, and the general aura of Germany and war, albeit WWI, in mind, I couldn’t help but flash on Steve Reich’s “Different Trains”, a musical statement about the Holocaust. Sometimes we’re lucky we’re on the train we’re on; sometimes not. Sometimes we don’t know for years which it will turn out to be.
We see mother and daughter make it to Berlin, and out of Berlin just in time. We watch as their lives unfold in perhaps predictable ways. And then we see them come together again, since they are perhaps they are the only ones who can understand each other.
Leah picked up one of the anise biscuits her mother had set out with tea. It crumbled on her tongue. All women are hostages, she though suddenly. They believe themselves protected by beauty or wealth or powerful men. But in the end the world takes hold of them and they are left to protect themselves.
Like I said: it’s not a dry story at all. The initial tone sets it up like a relationship: the story only lets us come closer as we get to know these women better.
As I noted a few posts ago, Ecotone publishes fiction that shows a special connection to place, particularly transition between places: “a place of danger or opportunity, a testing ground.” Our characters move from Berlin to Constantinople to Eastern European railroad beds to Munich to New Jersey and Chicago, but nothing is ever left behind.
Whenever I read a story by Steve Almond, I think of his teeny-tiny book of writing advice/microflashes, This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey. One of those flashes got me to cry over Richard Nixon. Reeling me in to the Geist saga wasn’t ever in doubt. Love your characters, he advises. Push them up against their deepest fears. Turns out, all our deepest fears – failure, loss, loneliness – are pretty much the same, though they happen in many different settings.