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68 17 In October 1908, while Maria was at school, Father married Helene. Now she works everywhere in the house. Father tells Maria to call ­ Helene “Mother,” and although it is hard for her at first, she does what Father wants. Mother Helene barely says a word to Maria; she has no time for that, anyway. The first afternoon that Maria is home, Grandmother tells her about the terrible thing that happened to Christina and little Setta. An early frost came suddenly in November. Christina and Setta ran indoors to warm their hands at the stove, but the stove wasn’t throwing out enough heat for them. They hurried across the yard and into the barn, where they found enough straw lying around to gather up and take into the house. Christina opened the little door of the stove, and inside a log was still smoldering. Setta watched as Christina stuffed all the straw into the stove. They knelt in front of the stove door and watched little red flames lick at the straw. They were so pleased with their warming fire. Christina felt a cold shiver run down her back, so she turned around. Setta, too, turned her freezing back to the stove. Neither of the children noticed how the little flames increased in number, grew larger, and devoured more and more of the dry straw, until they reached the ends poking out from the stove door. Soon they were no longer little flames but had become a single, raging one. Christina did not feel the tongues of fire licking at her little apron and dress, she did not feel it until she was all ablaze. Setta, to whom nothing had happened, screamed at the top of her voice. Alarmed, Grandmother came running, saw the child burning, grabbed sacks and jackets and threw them over the child. She pulled Christina to the floor, rolling her back and forth, and slapping the flames dead with her bare Stories Main Pgs 1-258.indd 68 4/26/2017 12:17:36 PM The Stories They Told Me 69 hands. Meanwhile, Setta ran screaming out of the house. Grandmother then carried the unconscious Christina upstairs into the bedroom. Completely horrified, Maria looks at Grandmother’s face and immediately goes up the stairs to Christina, with a sinking heart. As she opens the door to the cold room, she can smell a nasty, sweetish odor. She feels like turning around and leaving again, but she pushes herself forward. Christina is lying in the bed, so gaunt that Maria hardly recognizes her. Grandmother has said that Father has no money for the hospital, but a nurse who lives in Lommersdorf comes to Freilingen every day to apply fresh salve and dress Christina’s horrible wounds. Maria feels sick. She cannot stand the awful stench or the sight of her helpless little sister. She goes back into the hall, opens the attic door,­ closes it behind her, and quietly climbs up the curved stairs. The sky shines through cracks and skylights in the attic ceiling. Up here there is the pleasant smell of wheat, rye, and barley grains, which lie on the floor in small heaps. The cat is curled up in the wheat and lifts its head to blink at Maria. Spider webs are draped like curtains. Bunches of chamomile and peppermint and bundles of dry onions hang down from the beams. Maria detects a spicy scent in the air and also the smell of dust. She sits down in the grain, a little distance away from the dozing cat. The grain is cold, smooth, and heavy. Here she can cry at last, cry and cry. She longs bitterly for her dead mother, pities her sick sister, and is sorry for herself because she cannot hear. Now, because of her wounds, Christina will not be able to go to school with Maria in Aachen. Life is so hard. They are poor, and that means work and more work. No one has the time to show love. The cat looks warily at the sobbing child and twitches its ears. Can the cat hear her crying? That animals turn their heads toward her when she approaches, even when they cannot see or feel her, surprises Maria again and again. Even animals can hear!—and she can’t. Maria has been careful to cry without using her voice. She must not press in her throat. She does not know if anyone downstairs can hear her, and does...

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