“I don’t like it here,” Jenna said. She pulled the bill of her Chicago Cubs baseball cap lower over her eyes.
“I don’t blame you.” Tom dropped his cigarette and crushed it under his hiking boot congratulating himself for paying a little more and choosing waterproof Merrills. He raised his Canon Powershot XG7 and shot a close up of Jenna’s sour face. Taking her picture was normally fool proof in elevating her mood. She liked pictures of herself. This mood though, felt unbreakable. Pursed unhappy lips, left eye slightly closed, nostrils flared: Jenna hated it here.
A hushed summer rain fell on the forest surrounding them. No wind stirred. Water dripping off of foliage kept an uneven but persistent time. Google Maps said they had a 1.3 uphill kilometers walk to get to Teufelsberg.
“You know I get these feelings.”
“Yeah. I know. And like I said, Jen, I don’t blame you. But if we get up there and see the street art it’ll be a total coup d’etat.”
Coup d’etat was Tomspeak for any travel experience he was certain none of their friends or family had or would replicate. The kind of experience he would recount tirelessly over craft beers back in Omaha. The kind of experience that, in his mind, made people envy him.
“It’ll be fine. I know it’s a little creepy but you can take comfort in knowing that we’re not the only people to ever do this. Undoubtedly, the only Nebraskans, and that’s what’s cool, but not the only people,” he laughed. This was one of Tom’s signature arguments: the “a million people have done this before you so it must be completely doable” angle. It was an effective persuader for the most part, except in its failure regarding the matter of childbearing. Apparently, the billions of women before Jenna who successfully carried and raised children was not enough to assure her that it was an experience she needed, or wanted, to have. And as Jenna had just turned forty-two, it had become an argument without a debate.
“I don’t want to miss this, Jen.”
“I’m just saying,” Jenna looked around, “this place is loaded.”
Tom knew loaded was Jennaspeak for spaces she deemed as spiritually infiltrated, invariably in a negative way. She had used the term when they visited Wounded Knee, a mass burial site in South Dakota for 300 Lakota natives killed by the U.S. Cavalry in 1890, and again last week when they visited Pere Lachaise, a cemetery in Paris.
“You said that about the cemetery in Paris and nothing happened there.”
“Yeah. Well, that was in broad daylight in the middle of a major European capital.’
“And what’s Berlin? A dusty cow town?”
“No, Tom, it’s not a cow town. But it is a town of a lot of death. For Christ’s sake, this is where World War II ended. There’s pock marks from Russian bullets in the walls of our hotel. People died awful deaths here. And I have a feeling a lot of the dead are buried in this hill we’re about to walk up.”
The hill they were about to walk up was a man made-hill called Tuefelsberg, Devil’s Mountain in English. It was located in the Grunewald Forest, not far from the 1936 Olympic stadium in Berlin, Germany. It was a man made-hill covered in dense foliage. Devil’s Mountain came to Tom’s attention, by accident the day before, while sipping coffee near the tourist magnet of Checkpoint Charlie.
“West Berlin was an island of western capitalism surrounded by a sea of communism,” the guide explained in an accent that Tom recognized as New Zealand’s Kiwi English. He was speaking to three middle-aged hipsters on what Tom assumed was a private guided tour, the kind that Tom dismissed as the crutch of the travel impaired, but which, if truth be told, were simply too pricey for his and Jenna’s travel budget.
From eavesdropping on the guide and hipster tourists, Tom learned that the mountain of Devil’s Mountain was created from the rubble of over 400,000 homes destroyed at the end of World War II. It was the highest point in Berlin. Before it was a mountain it was the site of a Nazi college so well fortified that the post-war Allies could not destroy it with bombs. They chose, eventually, to bury it and for nearly a decade eighty trucks a day deposited the organic and inorganic remains of a crumbled Berlin to Grunewald Forest where a mountain grew. Its elevation enticed the NSA to construct a state of the art spy facility and for most of the Cold War, Teufelsberg listened to the Russians in Eastern Germany. The locals called it the Big Ear. The NSA left in1992, and the enormous white silo with its two geo domes stood, an abandoned phallic symbol, since. According to the excited guide, Berlin’s outlaw artists adopted it as their own over the past two decades, filling the walls of the cavernous space with tags and graffiti.
“Berlin is the street art capital of the world and artists from all over have work up there. There’s a Banksy”.
That was all it took. The word Banksy and Tom was snared. Coup d’etat.
When Jenna returned from the toilet, Tom excitedly explained it all. Jenna listened, and in the cheery sunshine of a bustling Berlin café it seemed a classic Tom and Jenna travel experience was being born.
The luster of that moment had dimmed as Tom and Jenna stood in the rain, next to their rented Opel, facing a worn path leading off into a dense stand of trees.
“This is insane, Tom. It’s not gong to stop raining.”
“It’s our last day in Berlin and all we’ve done is the predictable. City Centre, Brandenburg Gate. There’s a fucking Banksy up there somewhere, Jen. We got to try this or we’re going to regret it forever.”
Tom’s devotion to this rainy boondoggle up Devil’s Mountain had a religious zeal. He planned on taking numerous photographs that he would then share on social media and in person with friends and family. These pictures were important. They were what Tom and Jenna went to in response to when Jenna’s sister, or their Omaha friends, scrolled through endless images of their kid’s birthday party or soccer game. Tom and Jenna would pay appropriate attention and feign more interest than they really possessed in the lives of others adding “Isn’t she just precious!” or “that boy certainly has his old man’s eyes.” Tom waited his turn and would then counter with pictures of paella from southern Spain or the throne of Franz Ferdinand, but most likely a shot of a Turkish toilet or French bidet – Tom had a passion for “exotic vessels of intestinal relief” as he liked to call the shitters.
“You just want to take your fucking pictures.”
“Yeah, Jen, I want to take my fucking pictures. It’s what I came for. It’s kind of all I get. You don’t have to go. Just hang out in the car. It won’t take that long.”
“There’s no way I’m sitting down here alone. Let’s just get this over.” She walked across the expanse of meadow that served as a parking lot toward the forest path. Tom followed. Devil’s Mountain was one of many enormous green spaces scattered around modern Berlin, a European capital that sprawled for miles and that was surrounded by a series of inter-connecting lakes.
The wood-chipped path through Gruewald Forest was narrow, so Jenna and Tom walked single file, Jenna leading with an aggressive pace. Tom recognized her default reaction to fear – anger. He watched her arms swinging mightily off her slight figure, her head and eyes fixed rigidly forward. Her new and expensive sea-foam green Patagonia rain jacket glistened like an opal even in the gray of the rainy day. Her wet brown hair, pulled in a shoulder length ponytail through the back of her baseball cap, swayed side to side.
Tom looked at her ass and thought, as he was doing more and more lately, about the children they did not have. It was that ass, and Jenna’s vain obsession with keeping it that exact size, that stood between him and the children he did not have. He knew Jen regarded her pregnantly unblemished body as a source for everlasting youth, but it wasn’t true. Avoiding pregnancy may have kept her ass the same size, but it didn’t keep the skin on her face and hands from wrinkling and sagging. And despite her rigorous workout schedule, her unchanged ass was sitting more and more atop a pair of ever expanding thighs. No, her Forever 21 ass was not getting the job done.
Tom imagined a little boy, maybe eight, and unimaginatively similar to what an eight-year-old Tom would look like. He is also dressed in Patagonia hiking gear, walking in between them, looking around in rapt wonder at the kind of forest he would never see
in nearly treeless Nebraska, being truly thankful for these opportunities to experience the wide world. Simultaneously, the image excited and frustrated Tom who understood both its incredibility and incongruity. It’s too late – a baby is not going to happen and if it had ever happened, they wouldn’t be walking up Devil’s Mountain right now, nor would they have travelled to any of the places they’ve been.
That was the arrangement, made and petrified over the years into an unassailable, unspoken code – there will be no resource-sucking children, no mouths to feed, butts to wipe, over-priced tuitions to pay. There will be no adding to the stress of an already over populated globe. There will be no indulged, spoiled child. Instead, it will be just them – devoted to each other, their own welfare and the welfare of others. Their intention was to spend the time they would have devoted to rearing a child working for charities like Big Brothers and Big Sisters, and offering, in a favorite uncle and aunt fashion, to baby sit for the children of their own brothers, sisters, and friends. Making the world a better place. And they did for a while. But gradually the Big Brother and Big Sister weekends were substituted with cash donations to the charities, and then nothing. The baby-sitting for their burdened brothers, sisters and friends, which was never robust, all came to a halt when Tom took a job in Omaha, two and half hours from everybody back in Des Moines.
The rain had stopped and a compressed silence grew in the absence of the pitter-patter it had been making on the forest vegetation. It occurred to Tom that they were in a cocoon of thick wet foliage. No sound from the relatively close outside world, the din of semi-trucks or aircraft, was reaching them and, conversely, no sound they made, like the synthetic swishing of Jenna’s rain-coat sleeves, seemed to get very far. It was in this instant that he first felt what Jenna had felt – an absolute wrongness to being here.
The path they walked veered right and left every few yards so their line of sight was dim and constantly blunted. Tom’s eyes moved upward from Jenna’s ass to just over her left shoulder.
Jenna’s angry steps died instantly as she was seeing what Tom was seeing. In the near distance, off the path to the left, tree saplings and shrubs were bending back and forth. Next came the low muffled grunting. Without moving her feet Jenna turned her head toward Tom behind her. “Tom?”
This is where Tom wished he had enjoyed camping and the outdoors more as a boy – that he had a familiarity with the natural world. Truth is, he hated it: camping, canoeing, biking, swimming. His boyhood stints at Camp Mertoncrest were no less than a prison sentence and he cried nightly for the two weeks. He had not calculated that a forest in the middle of a European capital could feel so isolated. No, in fact he had counted on it being “forest lite,” an urban park. One that would provide an appropriate wilderness backdrop to his selfies and allow him to brag back home in Omaha to his heartier craft brewery buddies about his swashbuckling walkabout in the German woods. No, Tom did not enjoy the outdoors and never less than now.
The swaying vegetation moved closer and the grunting louder as whatever was out there came toward them.
“Don’t move,” he whispered.
And she didn’t, at least not her body. But in her eyes, fixed on him, Tom could see all sorts of action. Eyes that widened in fear, deepened in fury, and grew moist in the sadness of resignation.
The prospect of being attacked by a German bear (for that’s what Tom had come to believe the hidden creature was) and dying a bloody death in the woods, had become a notion only slightly less comfortable than being with his wife.
He then saw that it was not a bear, but a boar, or was it a sow? Snout to ground and snuffing about, the large pig crawled out from beneath a thick stand of fern and silver birch just to their left, followed by a brood of wiry, reddish brown piglets.
Tom and Jenna were stones. The pigs were far hairier and much longer legged than the Iowa versions he had known on the farms back home. Tom had been afraid of many things in his life, and was confident that there would be many more to fear, but this current one, involving a wild German pig, caught him quite off his guard.
The parent pig rooted aggressively in the soft soil, two tusks tearing understory plants out of the ground with ease. Her swaying udder confirmed that she was a sow. She took no notice of Tom and Jenna, but the last feral piglet in the bunch did, stopping to inspect the interlopers on the path before scurrying ahead to rejoin the group.
The sound of grunting and ground gouging trailed off down the rubble hill as did the wake of shaking saplings and shrubs.
“Jesus Christ, that pig was big!” Tom was whispering and he didn’t know why. He wished he had snapped a picture.
“No shit, Sherlock.” Jenna said. Her eyes now said very unambiguously that he was a dumb ass.
“Don’t look at me like that, Jen.”
“Like…just forget it. Let’s go back to the car.”
“And follow pigzilla down the hill. No way. We’ll just wait here for a long while. And then we’ll go.”
Tom shook his head intending to look at Jenna with a face that communicated resentment and injury, but he couldn’t bring himself to it. He cowered at the notion of what he would read in her eyes. Instead he avoidingly looked up and over the top of her head where he saw a white something off in the short distance.
He smiled. “There it is.”
She turned and saw it too through a small gap in the latticework of dark tree branches – a white structure barely fifty yards off.
“The Big Ear,” said Tom brushing past Jenna and up the path.
Jenna sighed in exasperation and followed.
Shortly, they were standing at the top of Devil’s Mountain, just out of the woods and before a tall cyclone fence. On just the other side of the fence was a convoy of trailers and trucks lined up in tandem. Smoke from a cooking fire or barbecue rose from behind the trailers and trucks. Voices speaking German could be heard.
“What the hell?” Tom said. “The guide said this place was abandoned.”
“Not today.” Jenna said.
Walking the fence line the couple soon came to a gate where a security guard was standing. He was a stocky, dark haired man – bearded with a lanyard showing identification hanging around his neck. He wore a navy blue raincoat.
“Guten Morgen,” said the guard.
“Guten Morgen,” replied Tom. “English?”
“Ja. No visitors today. There is filming.”
Hearing this Jenna threw her arms up in the air, spun, and took a few frustrated steps back toward the trail.
Looking past the guard, Tom saw assorted people at assorted tasks involving wires, lights and cameras and beyond them in the distance the two silos and dilapidated geo dome. “Filming? Filming of what?”
“Film for Amazon.”
“Amazon dot com?”
“Ja. Come back tomorrow. You can get in.”
Tom sighed and looked around impatiently. “Were not here tomorrow. We’re from the States.”
“Ja. I know,” said the guard looking down at Tom’s hiking boots. Lifting his camera Tom made his plea. “We just want to take a few pictures. We won’t take long and we’ll stay out of everyone’s way. It’s kind of important.”
“No admittance. Come back tomorrow.”
“Like I said, we’re not here tomorrow,” Tom said through clenched teeth. “It’s really really important.”
“Not to me.”
Tom turned to Jenna who was now walking back to the trail. “Jenna, wait!”
“Fuck this shit, Tom. I didn’t want to come anyway.”
Tom turned to the guard. “Dude, you are fucking up an already fucked up deal. Give me a break.”
“Yeah. Me too.” Tom left the guard and gate in pursuit of Jenna who, down the fence line, was nearing the trail entrance. “Jesus, Jenna! Just wait up.”
Ignoring him she entered the forest on the trail. By the time Tom arrived at the entrance she was out of his line of sight.
“Jenna!” No answer. With a final glance toward the guard and the gate, Tom headed down the trail.
Moments later he heard it; Jenna’s unmistakable shriek. It was classic Jenna: a shriek that was half outrage, half fear. How distant was unclear to Tom as the dense foliage played tricks with sound. Tom rushed down the trail as fast as holding a camera steady with one hand would allow him. Jenna’s cries were becoming louder. Tom was impressed with how far down the trail she had gotten. Then Tom picked up the aggressive grunting.
When he got to her she was a few yards off the path clinging to a linden tree, having attempted to shimmy up it, she had pulled herself a few feet off the ground. Not enough that the red hog, on its lengthy legs had much of a problem gouging her in the ass with its tusks. To Tom’s estimation the sound of the attack outweighed the sight. The sow’s guttural angry mom barking, Jenna’s panicked screaming, and the high pitched squealing of the surrounding piglets made for a sound storm of chaos. Each thrust of the pig’s snout elicited another scream from Jenna but also propelled her body up the tree trunk. This, along with her motivation and upper body strength, was helping her make way. If years of pilates and boot camps had ever trained her for anything useful, this was it.
And before Tom could act, if that had ever been his intention, she was out of the pig’s range to gouge her any more, having reached a tight little fork in the trunk of the tree. She flung one leg over the branch and bear hugging it she found a moment of rest. The bellowing hog had reared on its hind feet and leaned on the trunk with her front trotters. Her tusked maw a few feet below Jenna’s ass, which Tom could now see through her torn and tattered J Crew legging jeans, was torn up pretty seriously and bleeding.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Jenna called from the tree.
Tom raised the camera he was holding up to his eye in the direction of his wife and the feral pig.