Aunt Berthe and Her Devil

A Marxist revisionist story with elements of the supernatural, loosely inspired by George Saunders’ “Sea Oak”. Set in East Berlin, late 1940s.

Photo by Emile Guillemot

Mina and Jana bickered as they peeled potatoes. As they did, they fought over the possibility that once Mina would receive her Ph.D., she would have a chance of getting the hell out of here and head over to West Berlin. Jana felt she would forget about both of us. Nevermind me, I could live with staying here, but my other sister Jana dreamt of living in New York and white-walled art galleries behind her sculptures. But until then, Mina was one learned potato peeler, earning her Marks cooking for tenants in the building while contemplating how worthless she felt peeling potatoes. I could see it in her face. She couldn’t teach anywhere in East Berlin because she was a woman who academia only politely thought of as an intellectual Jewish girl. But she wasn’t Jewish. Mina did, however, think she saw the face of Jesus in a potato skin as she worked. I guess that’s how mind-numbing the work was for her at the time. She just started hallucinating or hoping for a way out of all of this. Jana, my other sister, on the other hand, helped her out, but more often than not, fooled around. At times she found a way to channel her propensity for sculpture into the potatoes she was working on (she helped my sister hoping that she would earn some Marks too). Jana imagined that once she was in New York, she could turn anything into a sculpture. Imagined herself joking in a party about peeling sorry, pale-looking potato flesh in East Berlin and turning it into something wondrous. Jana’s medium was usually bronze and she was wont to create something geometric, abstract — or something biologically absurd. But in this instance, she sculpted a potato with her filleting knife into a phallus.

“Mina, look over here, put down that knife, it makes my sculpture nervous,” Jana said to her sister.

“That’s absurd. Impressive, but absurd. But it’s degenerate art that would have gotten you in big, big trouble–”

They both chuckled. They both knew they would have perished during the War. But the potato phallus sculpture, which was slimy and shiny, mathematical, was a work that was sure to guarantee Jana an exhibition in New York. She told me she would title such a piece, “East German Ideological Phallus” or “Virulent State Father”. She also told me that she would see to it that a card underneath would read, “Medium: Idaho Potato”. Of course, that would be once she escaped to New York City. Until then she was dealing with sorry-looking East German potatoes.

Both of my intellectual potato-peeling sisters who survived the War would never have children. How could they? And be anchored to the East German state? Although they were fleeing the East German State, they owed much to it for their education, their innate cynicism; their wild desires to be something bigger than they were, intellectually, artistically.

At least that much they would admit. Yes, living in the same benevolent State that produced enormous lines where you had to wait to buy that good toilette paper that made your ass fragrant. This was the same State that provided universal education and delighted us with charming Soviet music concerts at the People’s Hall of Arts and Music. My sisters frequented the latter. I at least preferred drunkenness when I wanted to step outside of East Berlin. If only mentally — if you catch my drift.

My sisters were accomplished and cultured in a way that I was not. I decided upon a Henry Miller type of existence in East Berlin, even if there wasn’t much Henry Millering around to do. I had the poor sense of writing novels that would never sell. So, I reasoned with myself one evening in a cafe — that I would continue to write novels I hoped would sell in West Germany while taking up writing smutty stories again here. Sex sells anywhere, I reasoned. I also mulled over the idea that is drunk enough too, I could bring myself to write propaganda to further supplement my meager income.

In the months before my sisters were getting ready to leave, I wrote pulp-fiction, porno novels, or sometimes sold a bit of dope to some modest profit (I had taken to growing some in the basement; not an undangerous risk, you see). What was I supposed to do in East Berlin at the time? Ah! I was stuck. You see, I was too goddamned broke to hitch a ride before they first barricaded the Western Gate. But my financial problems — my sisters’ career ambitions — would all have to be dramatically placed on hold, given the extraordinary circumstances that suddenly befell us.

For you see, our dear Aunt Berthe, who lived with us in our rowdy Mietskaserne (which we used to joke was more of a meat-packed concrete building than anything else) began to behave very oddly.

How will I begin to pen this story? Let’s see — our Aunt Berthe — poor Aunt Berthe! lived with us at our rat-ridden apartment in Gesundbrunnen. At the time she was working at an Apotheke as the head pharmacist. Despite her advanced age she retained enormous enthusiasm (which was questionable, as you shall see in a bit). Aunt Berthe used to always sing of the People’s Party’s generosity for having a livelihood, for giving us our apartment, and having two women educated in our modest household (as for me, I never bothered to finish college). That was until she was demoted to assistant pharmacist. Then to working only two days a week.

“You should slow down, Berthe,” the new director at the pharmacy would say. He was a youngish, beefy bald-headed fellow from Bavaria.

“Slow down? Never!” Berthe would say.

“But a woman as advanced in your years ought to retire early. The State will support you. Don’t you want to take up something pleasant? Like crocheting?” he would say.

She often repeated this story to us, until I could clearly imagine it over our potato and beef dinner in our apartment. But Berthe had other ideas. She became paranoid. Increasingly hostile. She just loved to work. If she didn’t work she didn’t feel productive. But I suspect it was her vivacity for the State. That it was her way to show her enthusiasm for it, I think. I am not sure, but something strange was beginning to take hold of her.

One day Aunt Berthe returned to home early, and at her elbow was the new head pharmacist, the one from Bavaria.

They both came through the door, Aunt Berthe trembling as they did.

“Lordy!” she exclaimed, much to the surprise of my sisters who had just finished peeling the potatoes. Then she collapsed to our shock.

“I would take care of her,” the Bavarian said to me, in hushed tones. He confided that our dear Aunt Berthe chewed on Benzedrine while working, in an attempt to demonstrate how lively and productive she could be. We learned this through the new head pharmacist that she had the compulsion to work four, five days a week in twelve-hour shifts. But the fact remained that it wasn’t because she was useless that she was demoted or consigned to a few working days a week. It was just that the State, who owned the Apotheke thought it was “her time to go, gracefully, after many years of service,” as the fellow politely put it. He left, and I thanked him for his aid.

“Capitalist swine!” She shrieked once she came to on the couch. Mina and Jana and I could not tell if Berthe was coming off the Benzedrine hard or miserable that she could not pull off long shifts anymore.

“They won’t let me work anymore! Those capitalist swine! As if working twelve hours a day, four, five days a week is not enough of my time! To think of it, how much I loved this Party. How much I decided to stay here, East, then rot in West Berlin!”

“But Aunt Berthe,” I put forth in mild tones, “Who is asking you to work such grueling shifts?”

“How can they be capitalists?” chimed my sisters.

“That’s what this country is coming to!” she howled. She didn’t look so well. Her face was grey and her eyes were bulging. “It’s my right to work! Haven’t I done enough for our dear East Germany? After many years of service at the Apotheke, they throw me away now like an old sock! That’s because there are Westerners among us! That won’t corrupt the system! It’s all survival of the fittest now! Now, one must do whatever it takes to keep it up. To be efficient. To fill up a thousand orders a day, stock the shelves, spend no more than two minutes shitting–!”

“Really, Aunt Berthe,” said Jana trying to console the mad, raving woman that had now become our Aunt. “Really, you must not overexcite yourself!” she said.

“Have some water,” Mina offered. Auntie refused and stayed on the couch. She flung a water pitcher and went crashing against the peeling, flower-printed wall.

Mina and Jana were silent. I stepped in and offered my thoughts.

“Mina, Jana, let’s leave Auntie to rest, shall we?” They looked at me, nodded, and disappeared. I stepped out later that night, the first night of her transformation under a full moon. I was hoping to drum up some propaganda work or whore off my modest writing talents wherever they were appreciated.

***

Many nights faded in and out of our collective consciousness. We were terrified, and we hardly saw Aunt Berthe. We thought that she was merely coming off of the pharmaceutical-grade amphetamines. That she should return to herself, and find some other way to be industrious. But that was further from the truth. We suggested that she enjoy what little privileges that the State offered us. She didn’t have to work. She could find other ways to be productive or enjoy herself. If anything, I added–

“The work is alienating you, Berthe! And for what? This is not West Germany!”

“I’m not hearing it!” Berthe exploded one day. It was one of the last times I talked to her before she underwent full-transformation. She looked ghastly. Like she was possessed. But still, she would go on with her diatribe.

“I’ve done it all for this State, and if any of you take my benzies — mein Got! I will stab you with a fountain pen! You hear me?!”

Needless to say, we were all afraid of Berthe. Then, many weeks would pass and would cease to see Berthe. My sisters were busying themselves with scrimping money here and there however they could to depart, in secret from East Berlin. Life was business for me as usual, and I knew I always had an apartment over my head. Nevermind that I was terrified of it, especially at night when Berthe would stir around in the apartment and talk to herself in the dark.

“Berthe? Is that you?” Mina or Jana would call in the dark after a few nights. But she was at this point beyond answer. They slept in one room, Berthe, of course, had her own, and I slept in the living room at night. Sometimes it was cold, but I was, I confess — too afraid to open my eyes at night to see what had happened to our dear old Berthe, whom I feared that no longer possessed herself but was possessed.

The following morning, Mina, Jana and I had had enough. We were terrified. We didn’t know this Berthe who hardly showed herself, who had become some nocturnal creature. Over breakfast with only the three of us around, we had a serious conversation over meager toast and sausage and stale beer.

“I’m scared shitless,” I confessed.

“Me too,” chimed in Jana.

“What are we going to do?” said Mina.

“Well, I think we had better get a priest. Things don’t seem to be improving for our dear Aunt,” I said.

“You would think after a sumptuous party sponsored by the State, that Berthe would make her peace, that she is not needed anymore!” said Jana.

“Don’t say such a thing! Shhhh! She might be here!” said Mina, wide-eyed and looking about the apartment. No, it was just the three of us, her assured look seemed to convey.

“Yes, well, it would appear that she did come to the party, but hopped on the tables, and denounced the State that she had formally loved.”

The girls were shocked. They hadn’t learned this but I had through the Bavarian.

“Girls, I think we need to get a priest.”

“How? That will be a little difficult. It’s hard to know who is one these days.” said Jana.

“Why, what are you suggesting?” said Mina.

“I think our Berthe is possessed.”

“Possessed?!” the girls echoed together.

“Yes, she is possessed by some unclean spirit. I believe that her Benzedrine use made her soul vulnerable to demonic powers, and possibly the Spirit of Industry and Capitalism,” I added.

“Dear God!” Mina exclaimed.

“Lenin look over us!” Jana said.

I stood my ground firmly and told them that I would find me a priest. That this was the only way. We would invite him under the pretense of dinner, and he would stay the night to carry the ritual out in the apartment. My sisters and I agreed that first, and foremost, he should be a Catholic priest (those were hard to come across by). And if not, that our second best option was a Lutheran priest.

Thus I soon found myself in a tavern, talking hush-hush with a man I believed to be a genuine Catholic priest. I was referred to him through a mutual contact. Nevermind how. Over beer we talked at length.

“Exorcism?” said Father Bren.

“Auntie has become a creature of the night,” I said. “It happened after she was laid off from the Apotheke. She says work is her life force now — muttering this over and over again at night. Says that work is her lifeblood. You have to help us, Father Bren. I think she may be in league with Satan”.

“I see. Yes, this may be the case.” Father Bren added.

“Do you need clearance first from the Vatican before the exorcism?” I didn’t know what the protocol was.

“Normally yes,” Father Bren added. “But sometimes a priest must take matters into his own hands. We are little cut off from the Vatican here,” he added. “How do you propose we go about this?” he added.

I then suggested we have him over for dinner, and that he spend the night. He agreed. I paid our tab (priests don’t come cheap, you know!) and we left for Gesundbrunnen.

***

Father Bren comes to our apartment with a box of Berliner donuts. We know at this late hour Berthe is to be home. I step in quickly, let him in, and bolt the door behind us.

From inside comes the sound of breaking glass. Breaking glass and something heavy falling, and Jana and Mina yelling. Dogs are even howling outside.

Father Bren lays the Berliners aside. “You must try to forgive the State at once Berthe! Forgive them and call upon the Virgin Mary!”

“This is too much, mein Got!” says Mina.

“Call the cops!” cries Jana.

The priest has been thrown after a litany of Latin Hymn, prayers, and Our Fathers. Berthe, who is walking around the walls and ceilings like a spider, eyes glaring red at us, roars thunderously. She throws a pill bottle of the Benzedrine and hits Father Bren in the eye.

“Unclean spirit!” roars Father Bren. “You have entered the soul of poor Berthe, a Christian woman who opens herself up to you and your legion to enter her soul! She cleaved her spirit into two as she took the amphetamines! Your methods are well-understood Satan!” Father Bren cries. I assist in throwing some holy water as much as I throw up.

“Silence, priest!” howls Berthe.

“What is it that you want, Berthe?” the girls cry. I am all but paralyzed by fear. I’m not much of an exorcism helper.

“I want to work! The great Satan has possessed me! And I will never be at rest until I can work and be productive! I need to work twelve hours a day every day goddamn you!”

She launches another glass bottle of the Benzedrine but this time hits me squarely in the head. I pass out.

I wake up and find my sisters looming over me. An eerie silence prevails in our dingy apartment. Before I can scarcely bring my lips to utter it, Mina pronounces –

“She is gone.”

I see the priest slumped over on the couch. He hasn’t quite come to.

I think to myself, “Oh God, please don’t let Berthe come back. Please don’t–”

In time I learned that Berthe scaled out of the apartment, through the window. What little we could hear from the East German Radio told us that a woman of uncanny ability had bypassed the militarized zone and crossed over to the West, with prodigious abilities. She ran faster than the soldiers — she tired them out, and just like that — leaped over the barricades and disappeared.

We never got out of East Berlin, but the last time we heard of Berthe was when a report came from America that an old, German lady of impossibly energetic disposition opened up a pharmacy in New York, open twelve hours a day, six days a week. If this was true, ah well then. It was a damn shame. We could have used some of the money back in East Berlin.

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Allen Bauman

Raconteur and essayist with a funny bone. Educator by profession.