by Ute Carson
“It fits.” She pounded the left heel of her travel-weary brown shoes. In its hollow my grandmother had just buried a diamond-in-the-rough. A few days before, sitting on the steps of their ramshackle cottage near the diamond fields of the Namib Desert where my grandfather was an overseer, she had spotted an object in the sand. The African sun had reflected off its glittering surface.
British freighters, anchored in the bay off Lüderitz, were ready to transport German settlers back home following the English takeover of South West Africa in 1919. The diamond mine workers had already been evacuated.
Back in her native Germany my grandmother stored the shoes among other valuables in her closet. “You never know when we might need it,” she told my mother.
A war later, fleeing invading Russian troops, my grandmother trekked westward. She wore her trusty worn African shoes.
In the icy winter of 1946 I contracted diphtheria. Although I lived in a cocoon of familial love, infected children were forcibly quarantined in a provisional hospital by American authorities. “Have a heart,” my distraught mother pleaded, “we have never been apart.” She was summarily ushered out.
I was delirious and barely aware of what was going on. I vaguely recall crying “Mutti” during nights of feverish demon-dreams as children around me died in droves. Once I threw my arms around a nurse, thinking she was my mother. Medicines were scarce and penicillin was available only on the black market. There was little hope for me.
My grandmother made contact with a street-smart volunteer in the hospital’s storage room where CARE packages containing powdered milk and instant soup arrived from abroad.
That night she pried off the left heel of her African shoes, lifted the diamond out and spit-polished it with her handkerchief. “Your time has come,” she whispered to it and then cloaked herself in a shabby gray coat. Under cover of darkness she descended into the underworld of our city where smugglers eagerly exchanged the precious stone for the new wonder drug. “Just in time,” sighed the doctor at the children’s ward. I soon recovered.
I was left with fear of separation, a damaged heart valve, and an amazing story. My grandmother had to recount her adventure again and again. It was the ending that I envisioned with vivid imagination.
“After being led through tunnels to a dimly lit shed, a bespectacled man examined the diamond under a magnifying glass and exclaimed: It’s real! He then reached up to a shelf behind him and pulled down a box with black lettering: PENICILLIN. He dismissed me abruptly, urging me to go quickly before we were found out.” My grandmother assured me that she had not been frightened until that moment. “But then I realized,” she confessed, “that I might be followed and robbed.” She hurried away, clutching the box of tablets to her chest, then stuffing them into her undergarments.
“But where?” I asked with childish curiosity. “Close to my heart,” she murmured.