December moved in, taking up residence with Noor in her cell, and freezing the radiator.
Cold coiled in the bowl of her pelvis, turning shiver to quake as she lay beneath her blanket on the cot. Above, snow drifted against glass and bars. Shreds of thoughts, speculations, obsessions . . . some glue still held her fragments together.
The flap door clanged down.
“Herr Vogel . . .”
The rest, in rapid German, was senseless.
Silly hope reared inside; she reined it in.
The guard placed something on the thick, jutting tray, something invisible in the dingy half-light. Soup, probably. She didn’t care.
She heard a clunk and a small swish.
Yes, she did.
Noor rolled onto her stomach, chained wrists before her, supported her weight on her elbows and knelt. Then shifted to extend the chain running between her wrists and ankles far enough for her to be seated. The clanking weight of the leg irons pulled her bare feet to the floor.
She slipped into prison clogs, shuffled across the cement floor.
A pad of onionskin. A scrawl that filled the whole first page. It said in French, For Princess Noor — write children’s stories only. Signed, Ernst V.
She had asked Vogel for paper, pen and ink, but never expected to receive them. “Everything in my power,” Vogel had said.
She tucked the pad under her arm, then tested the pen nib against her thumb. She reached for the glass jar. Dark blue ink. She opened it, inhaled its metallic fragrance.
She carried the writing materials back to her cot. She lay down, eyes open to the gloom, gritting her teeth to stop their chattering. Mosquito thoughts buzzed.
Do it. Shouldn’t. Do it. Shouldn’t. Do it.
Use initials, think the names, use false names, code names.
She caterpillar-crawled to the edge, turned on her side to block the vision of any guard and examined the leg of the cot. A pipe welded to the metal frame. Hollow pipe with a steel cover.
If I can hide some of my writing, I will write what I want.
She pressed a chain-link against the steel cover. Was it welded? Cold-numbed fingers exploring. No, not welded. Screwed on tightly.
Push, push with the edge of her manacles. Then with a chain-link. She wrapped her chain around the cover like a vise. It didn’t move. She pushed and turned in the dimness for hours, till she was wiping sweat from her eyes. She froze whenever she heard — or thought she heard — a movement at the peephole.
Deep breath. Attack the hollow leg again.
Night blackened the cell. Baying and barking outside, beyond the stone walls of the prison. Twice, the rush of a train passing very close. Noor grimaced and grunted on.
Finally, the steel cover moved a millimetre along its treads. By dawn, it loosened. She lay back, exhausted. Then, with her back to the door, she rolled up half the onionskin, poked it down the pipe-leg and, with an effort, screwed the cover on again.
Above her, the window brightened.
The guard was at the door. She unchained Noor’s manacles so she could use the toilet. Did not glance at the bed. Did not shout.
The flap door dropped for Noor’s morning bowl, sawdust bread. A single bulb lit the cell.
Begin, “Once upon a time there was a war . . . “” No. She would write une histoire, not the kind her captor had in mind, but for someone who might read her words in a time to come:
I am still here.
I write, not because this story is more important than all others, but because I have so great a need to understand it. What I say is my truth and lies together, amalgam of memory and explication. I write in English, mostly, English being the one language left in the ring. Other languages often express my feelings better — French, Urdu, Hindustani. And perhaps in these languages I could have told and read you stories better than this, your mother’s story. But all my languages have been tainted by what we’ve said and done to one another in these years of war.
When the flap door dropped that evening, Noor dragged her chains to it and placed two sheets on the open tray. On one she had written the Sufi tale about the attraction of a moth to a flame, on another the one about the young man who came knocking at his teacher’s door and when his teacher asked, “Who is there?” cried “It is I” and was told, “Come back when you are nobody.”
She could see the guard glance at the English writing then thrust the sheets in her pocket without examination. The pad of onionskin lay upon the cot behind Noor, but the guard didn’t enter to count its remaining pages.
So, the next day, Noor wrote another paragraph, and another:
With that first creation of Allah — the pen that Vogel has allowed me — poised over the ink pot, then over the page, I wonder what to call you. Little spirit never whispered into this world — une fée. In Urdu I would call you ruh. Feminine. Ma petite ruh. We all begin feminine in Al-ghayab, the invisible, before we enter our nameless bodies.
I imagine you, ma petite, nine years old, looking much like me and as much like Armand, expectant and still trusting. Encourage my telling as any audience encourages a teller of tales, though I may tell what you may not condone, what you may not believe, or what you cannot bear to know. I write so you can see me, so Armand will appear again by the telling.
Against the flume and smear of a dying sun, the silhouette of a motorcycle rider rose over a ridge of dirt road. The sharp engine roar dropped and levelled. The rider’s gloved hands downshifted to avoid the scorched remnants of a tank blocking his way. The bike bounced over ruts and craters as Kabir swerved the pod of his sidecar around the shell-pocked hull. The Tiger tank was canted over its cannon, its mud-caked treads stilled in a ditch.
Kabir didn’t stop to examine the tank, or let thoughts of the Germans who must have died inside cross his mind, but goaded his rattling steed past. Showers sprang from spinning rubber as he furrowed a puddle. He shot a glance through spattered goggles at the jerricans bouncing in the sidecar and, gritting his teeth against flying mud and wind, headed into the darkening horizon.
Out of Strasbourg, Kabir had raced over a makeshift pontoon bridge crossing the Rhine with a moment of wonder. Only a few months earlier, before the Germans surrendered, crossing the Rhine at any point was unthinkable.