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Innocent as a Rose

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Liesl knows she can almost pass as American until she speaks. Her hair is dark against her pale skin, the most discreet hint of powder lying on her skin like a caress and in defiance of her father's sternness. He is less stern now, with Maria by his side, auburn hair grown into soft curls and thickening as her own skin becomes translucent, but Liesl knows that powder is almost daring too much; to touch rouge would mean that the Von Trapp family singers would be one the less.

She feels distant from the others, the boys with their military bearing, the girls looking like alpine flowers, all freshness and no sophistication. Louisa especially could only be Austrian or German, shining braids pinned on top of her head, her body filling into rich curves and her expression all the more smooth and placid the longer they stay in poverty and exile. (Liesl, even back when the world consisted of "The Children" and everyone else, never quite knew what Louisa was thinking under that creamy surface, although her rare smile then was very sweet. Now, she knows Maria worries about Louisa, but does not quite know why - only that her closest sister is almost a stranger to her.) Louisa watches the Americans at the wedding without any evident interest, apparently not caring that the afternoon has been a success.

The guests are at first bemused by the group of siblings singing complicated harmonies in well-drilled German at their intimate gathering; gradually they are captivated, as much by Gretl and Marta's babyish earnestness as Kurt's angelic soprano. The little ones are taken onto the knees of well-dressed American ladies, submitting cheerfully to being petted and praised in English, and the lines between Father's eyes ease a little.

Liesl leans against the rose trellis, aware of the way her dark hair lies like a cloud of shadow against the background of pink flowers. She wonders why neither Louisa nor Friedrich seem to care about joining the young Americans, careless and laughing and dancing into the scented evening. She wishes she could change out of the dirndl and scarf. They don't suit her nearly as well as they do Louisa, Brigitta and the babies; there is another dress at home, something Maria has conjured out of air and love and the kind of miracle that can dress seven children from old curtains, a magical dress of soft green that could turn Liesl into one of these carefree American girls. But Father insists that they wear Austrian national dress to their gatherings, not only because Maria, who has proved herself remarkably hard-headed on some matters and able to thrive on inadequate lodgings and endless work, says it is all to the better in singing for their supper.

Even in Austria, the Von Trapps were always more Austrian than anyone else. Now, in America, it seems they are to be Austrian to earn their bread. But it is more than that: Father seems to have decided that it is his family, and his family alone, that will keep Austria alive long after Anschlüss has closed the country to the outside world.

They end each performance by singing Eidelweiss. The Americans are singing I've Got a Pocketful of Dreams, and laughing.

One of the boys, with blond hair and blue eyes, keeps deliberately catching Liesl's eye. Eventually he comes to her, stammering in his desperate efforts to speak slowly and carefully enough for Liesl to understand. She smiles and answers in consciously charmingly broken English, recalled from the days when Mother was alive and lessons had not yet turned into a battle between governesses and The Children. She ignores Friedrich's disapproving glare and Louisa's bland regard as the boy takes her hand and leads her into the garden.

The boy is young, and Liesl likes the line of his jaw, the easy set of his shoulders. It has been a long time since she felt like this, tense and taut and on the brink of something, all too aware of her breasts pressing against the fabric of her dress, heat rising on her cheeks, her smile too bright despite herself and her feet longing to dance. The glances from the boy make her prickle deep inside, like a badly tuned radio. When he places his hands on her shoulder, shyly, she gasps and parts her lips, ready.

"Have you ever been kissed before?" he asks, too solemnly, and she blinks at him as if she doesn't understand the words, trying to grasp why everything is suddenly spoiled, her pleasurable enjoyment retreating like a snail into a shell. The boy's brow creases in concentration, the words coming out awkwardly, unsure of the words and the order but trying out of some earnest gallantry to make her understand. "Kuss - küssen - ist der erst Kuss, Liesl?"

Another voice, consciously light and gay and with something dreadful behind it. Was that your first kiss, Liesl?

"No - no, no," and she has pushed him and is running, back to The Children, back to Maria, to put her head down on her stepmother's shoulder, wanted to be babied, to be a child again.

*

Kissing is something of which to lightly sing. It sparkles through the sweet peasant songs Maria trills as joyously when she sews as if she did not also spend hours a day drilling The Children in the same songs to earn their keep. It bounces disrespectfully on American radio. Liesl resents making kissing the subject of songs, as if it was no more meaningful than kittens or raindrops. Kissing breaks the world in two, before and after. There is no way to put the pieces back together afterwards. A cake raided from the kitchens in Austria, stolen for the sake of Marta and Gretl, who have been forbidden the indulgences Liesl remembers from before Mother's death, cannot be melded back into one cake to escape retribution. The smashed crumbs are too hard to sweep away.

Rolfe is Liesl's first kiss. He kisses her too hard, clumsy despite all his attempts to assume superior maturity (like Friedrich, wanting to be Father despite his own softness, keeping his shoulders straight and back), and Liesl can feel his teeth through his lips. There's no physical pleasure to it, but there is a painful wild sweetness; everything Rolfe makes her feel when he looks at her with something else behind the teasing affection tightens up and stabs her, in the heart, in her trembling hands, down where she suddenly pulses almost intolerably under her floating pink skirts.

She wants to dance afterwards, spin and spin, take the thunderstorm under her skin and become part of it. Perhaps she wants the rain to drive away the heat, but it is too late, part of her.

After that, long afterwards and forever, thunderstorms speak to Liesl of lowering darkness, of the merry, heartbreakingly young face of a boy, hardened to betrayal.

Her second kiss comes somewhere between the rush of joy and the betrayal, some time when the fear that she'd been cheated of her first kiss was growing inside her, long after the last time Rolfe had scattered pebbles against her window. Afterwards, she decides it was the night the Baroness had discovered that Father loved Maria, although she has no real reason to think this. Only that some of the bitterly fearful despair in her own heart was reflected back to her in the Baroness' eyes.

There had been a time, before Liesl had ever met her, that Father's Baroness had represented the summit of everything of which Liesl dreamt for herself -- beautiful, charming, fascinating enough to hold even Father's attention, a trick none of The Children had yet accomplished. On the balcony, aching with her own pain, Liesl remembers this and forgets her allegiance to Maria; Elsa again becomes everything Liesl wants to be and fears she will never accomplish, elegant and self-aware and knowing, holding men's hearts with a gesture of her hand or a half-mocking smile.

When Elsa kisses her, it is not in any attempt to be maternal, and it is worlds away from Rolfe's clumsy passion. Elsa's lips are soft and knowledgeable against Liesl's mouth, teasing and adult. When her tongue presses into Liesl's mouth, slides against her own for a moment, Liesl tightens deep inside and her limbs feel weak.

It's only for a moment, reaching through eternity, then Elsa releases her. "I'm sorry. Indulge an old woman who wants to touch the Spring one more time." Her mouth twists, fragile. "Was that your first kiss, Liesl?"

There is so much that Liesl wants to say, but she's trembling all over, and all she manages is, "Why do you want to marry Father so much?"

Elsa gives her a long look, and her laugh is bitter. "Goodnight, Liesl. You look like a rosebud in that dress - your father will have to guard you close."

It is only later, remembering fragments of conversation at Father's wedding (He might have had... Well, maybe it's for the best. They say her father married for money, and... You can tell from the back of the neck, always fleshy...and the earlobes... better a good Austrian woman even if she is...) that Liesl thinks she can work out why it was that Elsa, titled and beautiful and wealthy, was so desperate to marry a dour war hero.

Liesl tries not to think about it. Anschlüss has covered Austria like the fall of night. The Baroness had been beautiful, and she had tried to be kind even though she was not every good at it, and some thoughts, like Rolfe with a crooked cross on his arm, are not easily borne.

She wants to forget Austria. It's a long way from America, which cares little about war descending over Europe. But Maria makes them dirndls and lederhosen and beautifully embroidered skirts, and they sing Eidelweiss at weddings, and Liesl sees Rolfe in each young boy and Elsa everywhere.

*

In the dingy boarding house, Liesl dresses in her night gown and goes to sit by Maria. She tried to call her Mother, for a while, but while the little ones can manage it, she will always be Maria to Liesl: Maria, the miracle, who turned The Children into a family. Somewhere between sister and mother. Liesl lays her hand on her stepmother's rounded belly, and tries to feel the new life through the fabric. Strange thought, that there is someone there who will have never have been one of The Children, born in a foreign land, yet will replace Gretl as the baby. Liesl is jealous of the unborn child, and loves it burningly already.

"Are you all right?" Maria pulls a brush through Liesl's hair, slowly, comfortingly. "Louisa was worried about you. She said..."

"That one of the American boys tried to kiss me?" Curious, that Louisa noticed, and spoke to Maria about it. Liesl tells herself that she must become reacquainted with what goes on under her sister's golden braids. It used to be The Children against the world, and they can't lose that just because Maria and, unexpectedly, gloriously, Father have joined their side.

"That he upset you."

"It doesn't matter. Maria," Liesl takes the brush from her, turning to Maria's own hair, "are you happy? Here, I mean. So far from home." And poor, she almost adds, but fears it might be tactless, remembering the dress Maria was wearing the first time they met.

"I've never been so happy. I have God, and he brought me your father and all of you." And Maria is really radiant, not in a story book way but as if she really does have inner light, glowing from somewhere deep within. "Liesl - don't ever let yourself be kissed if you will regret it in the future. It's much sweeter to keep all your kisses without regret." She smiles just as if she was a worldly woman like the Baroness, and not a novice in a nunnery turned child bride.

Liesl thinks of a boy defiantly grown-up in khaki, and a beautiful woman with a brittle laugh, and the barely endurable thought that she will never discover what happened to either of them. Outside, she can hear Father's voice, flat and almost tuneless, rise in song, and the sweeter voices of his children join it. She leans against her stepmother, feeling her arm come around her, and spares a prayer for the people she left behind in Austria, whichever side they took under falling darkness.

"I don't regret any kisses," she says, and means it.

Outside the voices soar. Blossom of snow, may you bloom and grow, bloom and grow, forever...

Liesl hugs her stepmother, and decides to let her blooming wait on the passing of time.