Charlotte Eichner was only vaguely aware of what happened the day of her grandmother’s funeral. Grey, heavy rain clouds were hanging low over the town cemetery. The grey silhouette of the Black Forest lingered in the distance. Black clothes and grey, expressionless faces seemed all the same, as the dark coffin was being lowered into the muddy grave. The sole splotch of colour were her brightly painted rubber boots.
Yesterday night before going to sleep in her own bed for the last time, she had set out the black dress and blouse and coat and a pair of black, sweet patent leather shoes her grandmother had made her wear to church often. But exposing them to rain would have ruined them. When she woke this morning to the clouds pouring angrily, she had cried over breakfast. Not because she missed her grandmother, but because she did not want to go to the funeral in socks. Her brother, Heinrich, had put his hands on her shoulders and told her that their grandmother had never been too concerned with whether or not they were content, so why should she worry about a formality that would be only meaningful to their grandmother? Instead, he had said, she should wear the brightest shoes she had, simply to spite her. And so she had. It had earned her disapproving scowls and wrinkled noses from the pale community of guests gathered, and she almost regretted her decision, but in the end her feet were dry and theirs were not.
The pastor recited some verses from the bible. Heinrich was holding her hand, squeezing it lightly. No one was crying. Their grandmother had not been a well-liked woman. She had been difficult, grumpy, solitary, hung up on a better past, and had cared little for people. She had tolerated the presence of Charlotte and Heinrich only because they were family, and they were essentially free labour, for they could clean and cook for her and she could dismiss her maids and servants that way. No one was really all too broken up about the passing of Irmgard Eichner.
There was no wake. The funeral dissolved the moment the pastor’s reading was over and everyone made their way to their homes, getting out of the rain and back to their normal lives that would be completely unchanged by today.
All except for Charlotte and Heinrich. The life as they had known it for years was over. They had been brought to stay with their grandmother after their parents vanished years ago. Charlotte had been barely four years old, Heinrich only little older, and life in the old Eichner Estates was all they knew. It would all be taken from them now.
Irmgard Eichner had no will, and no family other than the children, and both were too young to inherit the lands. So, after her death, they had sat through several sessions of the town council with the pastor as their spokesman and it had been agreed that they would live in a home for children until Heinrich would come of age so he could inherit the property. It was not a vast property. It was a piece of land, and an old mansion, but it would be no use to them for the next seven years, when Heinrich would turn 18. The two were not eligible for adoption, as – officially – they were not orphans. Just because no one knew where their parents were did not mean they were dead, after all. So they would stay in the children’s home and wait.
After the service, the pastor took them to the mansion with his carriage. The old house seemed hollow and cold when they opened the doors for the last time. Not that it had been particularly warm and welcoming to begin with, but now it was worse. There was no fire in the fireplace, no lights were glowing, and the furniture was covered in white sheets to protect them from dust in the years to come. Charlotte wandered into the hall, her boots leaving muddy prints on the wooden floor. Her dark coat was dripping with rainwater. She made her way into the living room and barely paid attention to Heinrich as he marched in big steps past her.
“I’ll get my thing,” he said, and she heard him rush up the stairs. He was taking two steps at a time, something their grandmother would have never allowed. ‘Well-mannered children don’t run indoors’.
The living room was like a painting. A moment frozen in time, rain running down the windows, sofas and coffee tables and old sculptures and Chinese vases, all covered by white sheets, already covered in a layer of settled dust. They had never spent time in here. Their grandmother would sit here and read, and the only times when Charlotte was allowed in here was when her grandmother had gotten so old that she could not decipher her letters anymore, even with her reading glasses, so she had allowed Charlotte in here to read to her. She had not been allowed to sit – because it would impede her reading voice – and when she had stumbled over a word or made a mistake, her grandmother would make her repeat the entire paragraph. A daunting task for an eight-year-old.
It took a moment, then Charlotte turned to the covered cabinet. The fine china was in there, and on one board stood a collection of silver framed photographs. Charlotte hid under the covers and went through the photographs. Most of them were of her grandmother and grandfather, but the one she was looking for was the one of her parents. It was a wedding picture, her mother Christine in an elegant dress and long veil of finest English lace. She was a beautiful woman, delicate and with long blonde curls and a bright smile, her face freckled and girlish and pure, and when the picture had been taken, she was pregnant with Heinrich. Their father Michael was a tall man with a carpenter’s hands and a military haircut, his tuxedo cut perfectly around his broad shoulders and narrow hips. It was a rare picture of the both of them smiling, a picture that was not supposed to be put into an album because the quality was poor and blurry, but it was Charlottes favourite picture in the world.
She opened the frame, took the picture out and then emerged from the sheet again. As she did, a figure stood beside the staircase, startling her half out of her mind. Charlotte jumped, clutching her chest, a cold chill crawling down her spine. A woman figure stood beside the staircase, a hand resting on the wooden rail. She wore a gown that seemed to turn to mist at the edges, gently whispering on the floor. Her curls were put up loosely, and she smiled at Charlotte, an open, warm smile on a freckled face. It made her heart nearly skip a beat.
“… My Charlotte…” the woman whispered, her voice barely more than wind rustling through curtains on a mild summer’s morning. Charlotte was staring, wide-eyed in disbelief, and barely could bring herself to say the word.
There was a rumbling on the stairs and a moment later, Heinrich quite literally burst through the ghostly figure, turning her into nothing more than wisps of mist dancing around Heinrich. He fanned them away with his hands, mumbling something about ‘damn cobwebs, already?’, then dropped his suitcase on the ground with a heavy thud.
“Where are your things?” he asked, and only then turned to meet his little sister’s gaze. He blinked, then frowned. “Lola, are you alright? You look like you’ve seen a ghost?”
“I… think I have… I think I saw Mama…”
Heinrich blew a strand of his golden curls out of his face.
“You don’t even know what Mama looks like.”
“I do. She looked like this. Just like this, except not in a wedding dress,” she said, extending the wedding picture towards him. Heinrich rolled his eyes.
“Get your things.”
“But I am telling you, Henri, it was Mama! She said my name and she smiled at me and I think she wanted to tell me something, and-”
“Lola! Your things!” Heinrich snapped. Lola closed her teeth abruptly and squared her shoulders. Staring at him unblinking and in defiance under brows pulled into a deep frown, she tucked away the photograph into her dress and then, chin held high, she stomped past him and up the staircase.
“Master Heinrich? Miss Charlotte? We must really get going,” the pastor’s voice came from the entry hall.
“We’ll be just a minute more,” she heard Heinrich call back.
Charlotte’s room was the smaller of the two up here. There was a big, round window opposite the door, flower curtains and a small bench on which she would sometimes sit and watch the garden and the forest in the distance. She had a small bed, barely large enough for even a child, and a nightstand with a little lamp on it. That, too, had been covered with a sheet while they had been away for the funeral. The dressing had been stripped off the mattress, duvet and pillows, and everything that had once been in her wardrobe, she had folded neatly and placed into her small suitcase yesterday. Charlotte had not many things she called her own – a few dresses and blouses, undergarments and socks, three pairs of shoes (normal shoes, the patent leather shoes, and the very boots she was wearing at this moment), and a hand full of headbands. They were ribbons her brother had cut from their mother’s abandoned dresses when they were brought here, and he had given one to her on each birthday since – six in total. One, a black one, she wore today, the others were in her suitcase.
The suitcase was made from stiff brown leather and was just the right size for her, so it was not to full to carry. She picked it up, then took the only memorabilia of her grandmother’s she owned. A ruffled umbrella, black lace with pink and blue floral embroidery, a polished oak wood grip.
With one last, wistful look at her old bedroom, she returned downstairs to where Heinrich was waiting, arms crossed over his chest.
“Yes. Gosh. It’s like you can’t wait to go to the home for abandoned children!” Charlotte snapped.
“It’s not a home for abandoned children?”
“Yes it is. For abandoned children, unwanted children, and orphans. We’re all three of that!” she declared in her crispest voice. With that, she marched past her brother to the front door, where the pastor took her suitcase and put it in the luggage rack of their carriage. She was already sitting down when Heinrich emerged from the house. The pastor waited and it took her brother a moment to realise what he was waiting for. Heinrich reluctantly turned and took out the house key, locked the door, and then handed the key to the pastor. The old man nodded.
“You will get it back once you are of age. We will routinely check on the house, make sure no one plunders or squats in there in your absence.”
Heinrich nodded quietly as he joined Charlotte in the back of the carriage. The pastor climbed up next to the driver and looked back at them. “It is not as bad as it looks. It will only be temporarily, and Matron Hanna is well respected in our community.”
Charlotte and Heinrich had spent enough time with their grandmother to know that ‘well respected’ did not equal ‘well liked’. Or ‘nice’ for that matter.
The carriage moved, and Charlotte watched her childhood home grow distant for the last time.