Fiction 3

Putting On the Dog: TSP Celebrates 5
Short Story and Poetry Contest
A Good Cause
Our Gift Shop
The Artist: Holly Friesen
Kalamazoo & Beyond
Talking to Stuart Dybek
Talking to Judith Fein
Talking to Marjory Wentworth
The Poetry of Marjory Wentworth
Fiction 2
Fiction 3
Poetry 2
Poetry 3
Cigar Lounge
Zinta Reviews
Andris' Blue Note
Links & Resources
Marketing & Donations
Submission Guidelines
The Editors

Holly Friesen

A Most Curious Activity

by James D. Sanderson



            Dear Mr. Sanderson,

            It is with sincere gratitude that I will relate to you some of the events of my life here in Berlin.  Quite by accident, (or was it fate?), my fiancé went shopping in the western sector of our city on Saturday the 12th of August, in the year 1961.  The hour grew late so she decided to spend the night at her sister’s house.  She sometimes did this and I gave it not a thought.

            May I take a moment to describe my fiancé – my liebchen – to you?  Her hair was dark and short and it smelled vaguely of a peeled green stick.  It was, perhaps, her shampoo.  I do not know.  She was quite athletic, having been a gymnast in school, so she was firm to the touch and she vibrated with life like a wind-up toy of some sort.  Her eyes, too, were vibrant; blue in color.  Her lips were drawn close together into a permanent pout which in her case was not an unfortunate look, but one that seemed quite natural for her face.  In a group photograph with her classmates she stands right out.  There is no mistaking her for another.

            That night, at midnight, there began in the heart of our city a most curious activity.  After the war our country was divided between the Soviets in the east – that which later became known as the Warsaw Pact – and the other allies in the west.  Our city was divided between the Soviet sector; and the western sector under the British, French, and you Americans.  It lent a sort of schizophrenic aspect to our lives.  In those years before 1961 three and a half million people fled from the east to the west.  Life under the communists was not the best.  I would have emigrated myself if it had not been for the fact that my mother was ailing, and in need of care.  We lived alone in our East Berlin flat; my father had been killed in the war.

            How is it that on that very night at midnight the authorities decided to divide our city with a wall; not a wall to keep enemy hoards out, but to keep their own people in?  Die Mauer, as it came to be called.  The Wall.  Trucks filled with men and construction material arrived up and down the line.  Concrete was laid.  Wooden structures were erected.  Barbed wire was installed.  In one night all 77 East/West crossings were blocked and manned with armed soldiers.  In that one night the hole in the ‘Iron Curtain’ as Winston Churchill called it – the hole that was Berlin – was plugged.  I would not be allowed out, and my fiancé Gerta Nagel would not be allowed back in.

            The East German authorities called it the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall.  The Anti-Fascist Protection Wall.  Their intention was to stop the drain of workers and technicians and professional people moving to the west.  After all, what kind of country would the German Democratic Republic be without any people in it?  The 97 mile wall around Berlin was only the last part of what had become a 559 mile border fence with guard towers, obstacles, dogs, armed patrols, an open strip ‘kill zone’, mine fields., antitank ditches, pillboxes, and bunkers that extended from the Bay of Lübeck on the north to the Czech border on the south.

            I was frantic, Mr. Sanderson, as you can imagine.  When I considered my choices – that of leaving my poor mother behind to suffer alone, or to live without my beautiful fiancé – I was torn in half just like my city.

            My mother told me I should go.  “I am an old woman now and my life is useless.  You should go and live the future for me.”

            The Wall was not yet solid.  People were still making their way across.  On the 15th of August a border policeman simply abandoned his post and escaped across the wire.  But I could not conceive of such a plan.  Though I missed my Gerta greatly, I absolutely could not bring myself to leave my mother behind.  My beloved fiancé, also, would have urged me to stay with my mother, I am certain of it.

            In the mean time people kept making their escapes hidden in cars or ramming the barriers with trucks, or slipping through on foot; and the wall became firmer with each passing day.  Houses near the border were torn down.  Sewer lines were walled off.  Every time someone escaped the authorities countered it by filling in the gap behind them.  I felt as if there was a constriction round my chest growing tighter and tighter.  Some days I felt I could not even breathe.

            In October there occurred a stand-off between American tanks and Soviet tanks at the crossing called Checkpoint Charlie.  For hours the tanks held their positions on either side of the border while the rest of us held our collective breath.  We all knew that one false move; one accidental round fired, and we were going to be enmeshed in the third world war.  But in a way it was even worse when the tanks backed away from the border.  Now we knew with all certainty that we were walled in, and that the West could do nothing to liberate us.

            Time passed.  Christmas came.  None of us were much in the spirit of Christmas but I bought my mother a gift just the same.  I brought it home – a small silver box for her everyday jewelry – on Christmas eve.  When I entered the flat I knew right away that something was different.  Everything was so still; so silent, that I knew something was wrong.  The place normally breathed with the life of my mother.

            I found her in the bedroom, lying on top of the quilt fully dressed.  She was dressed for her own funeral.  There was an empty bottle for pills on the table beside her bed.  There was a glass of water, nearly empty.  Wasn’t it just like mother to prepare everything just so.  There was a small yellow note paper with my mother’s handwriting on it.  “Live the future for me,” was all it said.

            For the longest time I could not move.  I looked down into her face; so peaceful now.  So familiar and yet now, without the usual animation of her smile and her twinkling eyes or, more increasingly lately, the beleaguered look of pain, I could not say that I knew her.  Soon, I knew, she would be confined to the cold earth and the images I had of her in my memory would meld together to become a single image that would emerge whenever I thought of her in fond recollection.


            Of course I knew why she had done it.  She was setting me free to go and make good my escape to once again be with Gerta Nagel.  That was becoming more difficult with each passing day, however.  After mother’s funeral I set my mind in earnest to a plan that would free me at last.  Nothing came immediately to mind.  I did not want to involve my friends, even in the knowledge of it.  What kind of friend would I be, after all, if I put any of them in a position of danger because of my own selfish schemes?

            We passed into the new year – 1962 – before a plan finally established itself in my mind.  I decided upon a tunnel.  And so it was that my own life became also a most curious activity.  After all what did I, a lowly government clerk, understand about digging a tunnel?  Nothing whatsoever.

            First it was necessary for me to find a viable place to dig.  After some searching I found a wooden shed with a dirt floor that was not far – a few hundred meters – from the wall.  I could pile dirt up inside the shed until I had the opportunity to dispose of it later.  I took a shovel and a metal bucket and concealed them there.  I was cautious to insure the border guards did not have reason to notice me.  My comings and goings were seen to be routine.  Still, I could not start digging until late spring, so my days passed in agonizing slowness.

            From time to time I checked on my little shed to be sure it had not been inspected or my spade and bucket trifled with.  At last, in May, I decided it was time to begin.  Fortunately the soil under our Berlin is sandy and not solid or hard-packed.  Since I am little used to physical labor, it took some time to get my muscles in shape for such laborings.  With the first thrust of the shovel into the dirt of the floor of the shed I felt a sudden exhilaration such that I knew my freedom was only a month or two away.  The hole began to form in the bottom of the shed.  I took bucket-full after bucket-full of dirt out the door, being careful to keep the structure of the shed between me and anyone who might be patrolling the wall.  I took the dirt out to the copse of trees that stood only a few meters behind the shed.  There, I dumped the dirt and spread it around so as not to attract any attention.  Such pains I took to avoid detection!

            I dug down about six feet at an angle so I could access my tunnel.  Then it began to turn more and more toward my destination.  Meter by meter I made my way toward the wall and, beyond that, my freedom.

            How can I describe for you how I felt, Mr. Sanderson, as I hauled bucket after bucket of dirt out of my tunnel?  My soul seemed to become lighter with each load.  And to know that I was only a few meters under the feet of the border guards – that feeling was truly sublime.  I always started digging in the late afternoon after work was finished for the day.  On Saturdays I could work off and on all day.  My tunnel got so long that the air began to taste leaden, so foul it was.  There was no way I could penetrate to the surface for a breathing hole.  I would just have to suffer the bad air.

            It was on a Saturday at about noon when the unimaginable happened.  The overburden collapsed down upon me while I was stretched out at the far end of my hole.  At first I could not breathe, so tightly packed down was the sand upon my back.  I panicked and began to scream, wasting what little air I had in there with me.  It was dark as the tomb.  Instinctively I pushed up against the weight of the burden and was able to purchase an inch, perhaps.  With that move my life was spared, I am now convinced.  My left arm was pinned beside me and my right was outstretched.  In a state of complete terror I flexed the fingers of my right hand, managing to push a little sand away with that motion.

            I don’t know how long I was stuck in that position, barely breathing.  Several hours passed.  I screamed myself hoarse, though I don’t know who I thought was going to hear me.  My head was swimming from lack of clean air.  I was sure I would die down there in my tunnel.

            At long last, and much to my surprise, hands grabbed hold of my boots and others cleared the sand out from around me.  Friends had found me.  They brushed the sand away from my face – my eyes and my nose and mouth.  I breathed real air again.

            “What a fool,” I heard someone say, though his voice was still muffled by the dirt in my ears.  “Doesn’t even know enough to shore it up.”

            It was true, of course.  I was a fool.

            When my rescuers finally had me clear of the hole I saw that my relief was to be short-lived.  There, on either side of me, were two Volkspolizei armed with automatic rifles.  They marched me away for interrogation and imprisonment.

            “Border guards have orders to shoot to kill anyone attempting to escape, you know,” my interrogator informed me.  I was supposed to be grateful to be alive, I guess.  I was given two years in prison to contemplate just how grateful I was.  My Gerta believed I was dead.  She knew I was going to attempt an escape.  Then… nothing.  Her sister tried to convince her to find a new fiancé.  To get on with her life.

            Much happened in those two years.  A young brick layer, eighteen years old, tried to escape in August.  Peter Fechter was his name.  He was shot in that no-man’s land between the wires and was allowed to lay there for hours as he slowly bled to death.  Our border guards did not lift a finger to help him.  He died there.

            The following year, 1963, in June, the young American president John F. Kennedy came to speak in Berlin.  They say when he saw the wall first hand he discarded his prepared speech and instead, speaking from the balcony of the Schöneberg Rathaus, told the people, “ich bin ein Berliner”.

            By 1964, I am told, there were seventy tunnels that were used to facilitate the escape of people like me.  I didn’t try to find one.  The police were keeping me under close scrutiny and besides, I just didn’t have what it took any more.  Spend some time stuck in the ground like a worm and you will know what I mean.  I had to put my life back together again.  I was not allowed to return to government service even as a clerk, so I got a job at a bottling plant.  There I spent the next twenty five years of my life.

            It wasn’t so bad.  The economy in the east recovered some, and we were even able to shop for the things we needed.  I did sometimes lament the waste I had made of my mother’s sacrifice on my behalf, but consoled myself that I had, at least, tried to make good my escape.  I heard nothing from Gerta but I remained faithful to the possibility of her.  I knew she had probably moved on with her life.  She had probably married.  Had children.  But I never accepted the invitations of others girls; even those who were equally as attractive.  No, my heart just wasn’t in it.

            At this point the story of my life might have ended, sadly, if it had not been for the events of 1989.  I don’t know what caused the explosion, but nearly overnight there were protestors in the streets chanting ‘Wir sind das Volk’ – We are the People – and other such slogans.  When Gorbachev came to visit, students shouted, ‘Gorbi! Gorbi!’ like he was a visiting rock star.  The Hungarians opened their border with Austria and East Germans began to pour through it – some30, 000 by the end of that year.

            How could the East German, GDR, authorities hope to keep order?  Well, we know now that they couldn’t.

            I will never forget those most curious activities of that year.  Hundreds of thousands came out into the streets to protest.  There was talk of a ‘Chinese Solution’.  That is, to treat demonstrators the way the Chinese had treated their pro-democracy protestors at Tiananmen Square in June.  But there were simply too many of us.  They couldn’t possibly shoot everyone.

            There was a saying in West Berlin.  “If the east-west barriers ever come down you had better climb a tree, otherwise you will be trampled to death in the rush.”  Well, I didn’t climb a tree, but I did witness the mad rush.  On November 9th at a televised press conference Günter Schabowski of the communist Central Committee was asked when his citizens would be allowed to travel freely.  He answered, “They can go whenever they want, and nobody will stop them.”

            His words opened a flood gate of people rushing to the border.  Hundreds of thousands appeared and began to shout, “Tor auf!  Tor auf!” which means, “Open the gate.”  Young men from the western sector climbed up onto the wall and began waving flags and cheering.  A side gate was opened and there was no stopping the people then from pouring through.  I was one of those.  I was quite literally swept up and through the gate by the surge of the crowd.  Champagne bottles were opened and passed around.  People tore pieces of the wall apart.  Flowers were offered to the border police.  Everyone was cheering and hugging.  It was total pandemonium.

            Candles were lined up along the top of the wall and lit.  We all shouted, “Berlin ist frei!”

            Of course I made my way from there to the house of my fiancé’s sister as fast as I could.  Gerta herself opened the door.  She had heard about the events at the wall and had wondered if I might not show up.  Tears were in her eyes as she threw open her arms.  No, she had never married, she said.  She had never given up on ‘us’ any more than I had.  We embraced each other and sobbed until midnight.  We could not speak – we could scarcely breathe.


James D. Sanderson has been interested in great literature since he was young.  Even as a boy he carried Tolstoy or Hemingway with him and was sometimes laughed at by his friends for that.  Now, however, he has established a successful blog, 'Literarary Greatness,' at where he explores the literary experience—reading great literature, tales of famous authors, and his own writing—from within the creative eye.  He is currently working on a series of short stories about nonviolent direct action.  His novel, The Angelic Mysteries, is due out on his birthday, August 18.


Forest Qualia by Holly Friesen

Blood Oranges—In a Dream

by Sunny MacMillan


                You are seven years old.  No, seventeen.  Maybe that’s wrong, too.  Maybe you are seventy-seven.  You smoke stolen Cuban cigars.  It’s hard for you to see in the dream.  Or is it just foggy mists, settling in along the riverbank where you’re parked with your girlfriend in your father’s car?  Or maybe you are in a nursing home, encased in an envelope of fetid smells, your own body defeating you, leaving you to wallow in a black swamp foul with your own wastes.  Or perhaps it is the animal smell of a wet dream, or your girlfriend jerking you off.  Or maybe you are crying. “ Mama, mamacita, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, lo siento, I was so busy playing I forgot the call of nature and now I soiled myself.”

                “Julito, a big boy like you.  You  have seven years old and you make in your pants.  Dios mio, that we had never left Cuba.  Now my son grows up like a small animal instead of in my father’s mansion in Habana”.

                You are ashamed.  No matter how old you are, you are always ashamed. Of living in a country that you can not own because it will break the heart of your sweet mother if she hears you say you are  American.  Of being ancient, a patriarch without a family to gather around him, without brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, sons, daughters, cousins, all swarming like bees around the honey of your money, all honoring you, sage of sages, begotten, not made.    

                Or you feel guilty that you have soiled the linen-white sheets by spilling your unneeded adolescent seeds and now your adorable little mama will know when she makes your bed.  And she will shriek to the Holy Virgin Mother and cross herself and drag you to early morning mass and stand outside the confessional muttering Hail Marys while you stutter and stammer inside to the priest.  In the part of her heart that is almost hidden from herself, she will feel pride to have such a macho son.  Surely he will marry well and take their family back to where they belong, back to Cuba.

                Or you are the small milk-fed veal of a seven year old, hiding in the back staircase of your grandfather’s mansion and you are looking up the skirts of the maids as they go up and down the stairs, doing the bidding of uncles, aunts, cousins.  You beg your little mama, the sweet holy one, for forgiveness for you know not what you do.You hold her photo, it is one of only seven things you took with you when you fled.  In it she is seventeen, a bride in her wedding day, sitting before the mirror of her vanity table in her bedroom.  Her bridal skirt of holy virgin white is spread lavishly around her, testimony to her sacred purity. She stares at herself as she faces her sacrifice on the bloody marriage bed so that the family Mercado can be joined  as it should be to the family Naruda.  You look at her photograph over and over  no matter how old you are---she looks so unhappy, happiness always  just out of her grasp.


Sunny MacMillan is regularly published  (feature articles, reviews, art related reviews, etc.) in regional  magazines and newspapers. Sunny wrote a column (from pie auctions to politics) for several years for Nova Scotia's largest paper, wrote articles for Internet publications,  taught psychology and art history at local community college, and worked as bilingual psychologist (Children's Hospital, Boston). 

©All materials, print, artwork and photography on this site are copyrighted and not to be reprinted without written permission by The Smoking Poet.