If it hadn’t been for the bird, Bruno never would have heard the cry.
As he walked down the moonlit road, he was paying little attention to his surroundings, thinking only of the destination and looking no more than six feet ahead, to check where he was stepping. Keeping his head almost immobile, comfortably tugged in the upturned collar and protected by the hat, made him feel nice and warm, and pleasantly lazy – so lazy that he still didn’t bother to take the hat off and brush off the piled-up snowflakes, even though their slow but steady fall seemed to have stopped a few minutes ago. Truth be told, he was convinced that if it wasn’t for the danger of slipping, he wouldn’t even have to look carefully at all – he had passed that very same course so many times that there was almost no way he could get lost while traversing it, even on a winter night. He knew better than that, of course, so every fifty steps or so, he actually raised his head to see if he was still following the right path.
He was walking briskly but without great hurry. It was already cold, and the temperature would start dropping fast in less than an hour, but he was not far away from the town, and his business there would be quick. He intended to make it to there and back home before the crisp air got so freezing as to become intolerable.
He had just slowed down to step past a treacherous patch of white that turned out to be a frozen puddle covered by a thin, powdery layer of fresh snow – just the sort of thing to slip on and break a leg – and he had his head down again, when the bird swooped past him, flying just above the ground, almost brushing his shins; startled, Bruno came to a halt within an instant and almost tripped, regaining his balance at the last moment. He gasped quietly and looked at the tiny intruder who had so brusquely entered his personal space, almost colliding with him. By then the bird was already far away to his right, merely a glint of shiny black feathers against the flat darkness of the night sky.
Bruno shook his head, not really annoyed, but surprised nonetheless. He breathed in and out, cleared his throat and moved his shoulders, telling himself it made him feel warmer. Then he moved his right foot – and froze.
The noise was barely audible, and if it wasn’t for that crisp calmness that immediately follows a sudden January snowfall, it would have no doubt been suppressed by something else. Any other time of the year, and even the quiet hum of grass swaying in the wind would be more than enough to muffle it. Had Bruno not stopped after the bird gave him a turn, had he still been moving at his earlier pace, he would have been out of the noise’s range by now.
It sounded almost like a distant yelp of a little pup. Bruno looked around, trying to see if there was a wounded dog anywhere in the snow, yet he could spot nothing but cold whiteness. He then waited for a while, motionless, in case the dog, or whatever animal it was, made another sound. That is, if one really was there, which Bruno started to doubt. More than likely, he thought, he either imagined the noise altogether, or merely overheard a passing night bird. A bat, perhaps… but, no, bats hibernated in the winter, didn’t they? A bird, then – it had to be. Maybe even the same one that first caught his attention.
Still, just in case, he cast another glance at the side of the road and pricked up his ears again, but nothing came. He turned and stepped back towards the road.
Then he heard it again. It was a little louder this time, and it no longer sounded like a puppy. It seemed to be coming somewhere from the right, but also from… below?
He knew there were no homes around for miles, and the road was on a tall embankment. The town was still too far away for any voices to carry over from its streets, and so – though in the opposite direction – was his village. There was only one possible area in which the sound could have originated. He stood on the edge and peered down. The slope of the embankment was covered by fresh snow and dead leaves, and disappeared in the dark about twenty feet below.
“Hello?” he called out. He intended to follow that with an even louder, “Is anybody there?”, but the answer came almost before the first word had fully left his lips.
“Help…! Help me, please!”
He felt a jolt and a sudden inrush of emotion, and he moved almost without a thought, climbing down the embankment, hurried but careful not to tumble into the unknown.
It was a woman’s voice, a young woman’s, and his alarmed imagination had already formed several pictures of whom he might encounter down there and in what condition – wherever “down there” would turn out to be – when he saw her.
She was about thirty feet below the edge of the embankment, a dark shape against the white surface of the river in which she seemed to be trapped up to her waist. Only her face was a lighter patch in the grayish darkness, as she stared up towards him. He thought he registered some small movement there, and he knew it was her mouth as he heard her cry out again.
“Yes, I can see you!” he shouted, moving the last few feet down with the greatest care; the last thing he needed now was to fall into the water next to her. He was on the very bank of the river now, and he could finally see her clearly. She was about five feet away, helplessly trying to climb out of a crack in the layer of ice that covered the river waters. The crack looked small and narrow, as if some malevolent force of nature sculpted it just big enough to trap the woman, yet small enough to make it impossible for her to get out on her own.
But how did she get in there? Was she ice-fishing? Walking on ice?
He brushed the thoughts aside; questions would come later – right now he had to help her. He looked around, hoping to see a broken tree branch, or at least a bush tall enough to lend him one. Yet there was nothing – the plants growing on the bank were plentiful, but their branches were thin and didn’t look strong enough to serve as a child’s fishing rod, much less as a means of gaining leverage when pulling the woman out. He would have to rely on his body.
He knelt and knocked on the ice, checking the thickness. He heard a satisfyingly dull thud. The woman’s eyes were wide open, following his every move.
“I think it’s pretty thick there,” she said, “It’s just here that it was – that it just cracked under me…”
He nodded to show her that she reached his ears. He was glad to hear that although her voice was still trembling with fear, it already got a little calmer; the fact that she was thinking clearly enough to be telling him of the ice was a good sign, too. He wasn’t going to step on the ice, though, no matter what she thought of its thickness. He positioned his feet at the edge of the bank, and slowly spread his body on the ice, reaching out towards the woman with his arms. He carefully thumped the ice around the crack that imprisoned her, and brushed the powdery snow that covered it. He stared at the frosty covering and saw that almost everywhere around her, the ice was milky-white and opaque; only around the very spot where she was trapped was it much more transparent and thinner. It seemed that two solid pieces of ice float had met right there, and that the once-empty space between them had subsequently frozen over and got covered with a thin layer of new ice, forming something of a hidden crevasse, long but less than a foot wide.
Whatever happened here, it appeared that the woman had been safe as long as she had been moving on the thick floes. Once she stood on that deceitful, slender coating, however, it must have cracked under her weight. Had it been just half a foot wider, he thought, it would have let her hips through as well, and then her arms – and she would have gone under in a flash, instead of remaining here, trapped like a cork in a bottle.
“It seems quite thick around you,” he said. “I’m going to grab you and pull you up and towards the bank. You dig your hands in, and then keep pushing yourself up against the ice and in my direction.”
“I’ve been trying just that ever since I fell in,” she said.
“And you were alone,” he replied. “Now we’ll try it together. I think if we combine our strengths, it should just be enough to get you out of there. Are you ready?”
She nodded quietly, and he took hold of her.
“All right,” he said, “when I say ‘go’, start pushing. One, two… go!”
He pulled and he heard her groan, just as he almost grunted in unison; he felt her arms quiver in effort. There was a sound of something crumbling, but it was the soft noise of small chunks of ice breaking on the sharp edges of the crack, rather than the deadly growl of an entire ice floe being split. She moved a little, barely a few inches. Then, suddenly, she went limp.
“I can’t!” she gasped. He shook his head impatiently.
“Yes, you can,” he said. “You’re doing great. Just keep it up.”
She nodded, wearily, but he could feel her muscles strain again, even through the thick layer of her coat. He pulled once, then again, but nothing happened. Now it was his time to feel doubts, but he chased them away quickly and, gritting his teeth, he yanked her unceremoniously with as much force as he could muster. Her hiss of pain almost merged with another sound, a far louder one, like a muffled gunshot: the crack finally gave, and there she was, out of the trap, moving so easily now that he actually felt surprised first, and only then was there a sense of relief. He moved his legs, pulling himself back onto the river bank, and he saw her slide across the ice on her knees. Another tug, another second, and she joined him on the river bank, safe and secure, and inhaling with exhaustion. Gently, he helped her stand up.
“Are you all right?” It may not have been a very bright question, but he didn’t really know what else to ask. She nodded wearily.
“Yes, I...” she began, and suddenly he saw her eyes grow wide. “Oh, God!” she shouted, and he almost jumped back in surprise. “Is it – is it safe? Is it okay?”
He stared at her face, visibly contorted even in the murkiness that surrounded them. Sudden hysteria, no doubt, he thought; it sounded like she began thinking she might fall into the river once again. A friend of his, a physician by trade, has told him of something similar once – people recently exposed to a traumatic event would start giggling uncontrollably once the daunting experience was over, often unable to stop for a long time. Bruno’s own uneventful life of a modest clerk has not given him any opportunities to witness this kind of behavior before tonight, and while he certainly wasn’t sorry about that, he now wondered how to react. He hoped her strange agitation would pass very soon – still, he felt he should do something to help her regain her composure. He vaguely recalled the physician friend describing how he had unceremoniously slapped a hysterical, screaming patient across the face once, and how the harsh treatment calmed the person down in an instant. Bruno felt appalled at the very thought of backhanding the woman. Should he even try to touch her right now? She started making strange gestures, patting herself over the body, as if trying to find a purse underneath her coat.
I’d better at least say something...
“Yes,” he uttered, carefully, “it’s completely safe. We’re standing on solid ground.”
He barely finished when she smiled, as suddenly as she had grown fearful just seconds ago.
“It is!” she exclaimed, and the relief was palpable in her voice. “It’s fine. I can feel it.”
Well, I’m sure glad that’s over, Bruno told himself silently, wondering if his own relief matched hers. She didn’t even seem to hear his words, but what mattered was that she was calm. He extended his hand towards her.
“Let’s go back up,” he said. “I’ll help you.”
They climbed up the slope, Bruno gripping the woman’s hand, and soon they were standing on the road. The light was much better here, and Bruno noticed that the woman’s modest, worn coat was covered with patches of snow that no doubt got stuck to her when she was sliding across the frozen river. There were shards of ice there, too, up to her waist, from the crack that had trapped her – and perhaps from the water as well; he never checked how deep the hole in the surface actually was.
“This should be taken care of,” he observed. She didn’t seem to react, so he carefully started brushing the ice and snow off her coat – and that was when he finally realized, at first feeling it rather than seeing.
“Good Lord!” he gasped, and she stared at him, alarmed at his reaction.
“What is it?” she asked, and he composed himself quickly.
“Ah, nothing as such, it’s just that – I’ve never noticed your condition until now…”
“Condition?” She seemed puzzled.
“Well, the fact that you’re…” he hesitated for a second, then pointed at the unmistakable protrusion. “That you’re pregnant.”
“Oh!” she exclaimed. She still seemed surprised, though. “And you haven’t seen it?”
“No, with the darkness, and with your coat, and, well – you know, I was a little preoccupied… We both were, you could say.”
He wondered if he was ranting, but she seemed to agree.
“That is very true,” she said with a nod.
“So, it is one thing to encounter a young lady in such circumstances, but now to see that…” He stopped in mid-word, as understanding hit him. “Oh, of course. Am I a fool!”
“Why would you say a thing like that?” she demanded. She wasn’t merely questioning his exclamation – she actually seemed perturbed by it.
“Because when you asked if it was safe, that was what you meant – your baby. Wasn’t it?”
“Of course, and…?”
He explained, and she listened intently, taking it in at first, and then actually smiling. She shook her head in amusement.
“So you thought I was going crazy,” she said. “What an impression I must be making tonight.”
“A very memorable one,” he said, smiling as well; the smile disappeared quickly as he silently berated himself for being thoughtless. “At any rate, much better than mine – I really am a fool!”
“What, again?” she asked, good-natured, and, though still concerned, he was glad to see her act so, since it was certainly a good prognosis as to her condition – still, as a layman, he couldn’t rely on his own impressions. He nodded.
“I am,” he said, “because here we are, standing in the cold, talking for a good minute now, when we should be going there,” he gestured west, “to the hospital. It’s in the town, about a mile away.”
Her reaction surprised him.
“But there’s no need to,” she said quickly. “I’m all right. The water barely reached my feet, and I hadn’t been there that long before you came. I was afraid for the baby, yes, but then I felt the kick, and I can still feel it move, even now. We’re both fine.”
“You still should be checked by a doctor,” he insisted. “Just to be sure. Come on, I’ll see you off to the hospital.”
She hesitated and looked down.
“I fear I don’t have enough money with me to afford a visit,” she said, quiet and ashamed, so much so that Bruno felt his heart twitch. So that was it. He made his decision in an instant.
“Never mind that,” he said. “We’re going there, and if they have the audacity to ask you for any money, I will take care of that.”
“But I couldn’t…” she started, but he cut her off.
“Please,” he said, “I would be a beast if I just left you here like this. I will take you there and see that they give you proper attention. You and your baby,” he added quickly.
She looked up now, straight into his eyes. She nodded, slowly and thoughtfully.
“I will pay you back, sir,” she said. “I don’t know when, yet – but I will. You’ve already done more for me tonight than I could even imagine.”
He waved it off.
“First of all, there’s no telling they’ll even ask for anything,” he said, “and second, don’t worry about it. What matters is making sure that everything’s fine. By the way, my name is Bruno.”
“I’m Klara,” she said. “Thank you. For everything…”
They started walking, and as they stepped past the corner, the moon came out from behind the clouds, allowing Bruno to see her face clearly for the first time. She was younger than he, probably by almost two decades. He guessed she was about twenty-six or so; twenty-eight at most. She wasn’t strikingly beautiful, but her face was pleasant, round but not plump, with lips that could be a little bigger and a nose that could be a little smaller.
Her eyes, on the other hand…
Yes, they were unusual. Silvery, a little smoky, but it wasn’t the color; there was something about them – and in them. A sharp, insightful look, tinted with a touch of… sadness? He silently chastised himself. Of course she looks sad, you simpleton; a few minutes ago she was scared for her life!
Then again, it wasn’t really sadness. Sadness is temporary, and whatever her eyes held, it seemed stronger, more permanent. Melancholy. Yes, that was it. But why should a nice girl feel it? Melancholy should come with age, or perhaps with trauma – and she didn’t seem desperate. Trauma might be an explanation, but of what kind? It couldn’t have been tonight’s misadventure – that would still be far too fresh in her mind…
She looked at him.
“I’m sorry if this sounds silly, but… have I even thanked you yet?” she asked. He smiled.
“You have,” he replied. She shook her head.
“I’m afraid I’m still not thinking very clearly,” she said. “The emotions, they’re – just too much.”
“It’s very understandable,” he answered. “It’s not every day that we face such unusual experiences.”
It was a trite thing to say, but she didn’t seem to mind.
“That’s a nice way to put it,” she observed. “I suspect the same could be said for you?”
“Oh, no doubt,” he said. “It’s not every day that I can rescue a charming young lady.” He saw her blush at that, but she seemed content. “I must admit that while it’s a new experience to me, I’ve rather enjoyed it. But I won’t go as far as saying that I’d like to repeat it every day.”
“Too exhausting?” she asked.
“Oh, it’s not about me,” he said. “I would just fear for the ladies’ safety too much.”
His tongue was firmly in his cheek as he said it, but she just nodded, as if she took the words literally. He decided to continue on a more serious note.
“It must have been truly terrifying for you,” he suggested.
“It was,” she replied. “At least until you showed up. Thank God it wasn’t really that long. I think I spent maybe fifteen minutes down there before you came.”
“More than enough if you land in freezing water,” he stated, and then wondered if he was scaring her, without meaning to.
“But I didn’t fall in,” she said. “That’s a blessing. I can remember grabbing onto the ice – it was thick enough around me that I only felt the water touch my feet.”
“Are they wet?” he asked. She nodded.
“But just a little,” she added. “I can walk easily. In fact, I’m starting to feel ashamed I’m even taking up your time anymore. Down there, I felt as if that hole in the ice didn’t want to let go of me, like it was holding me on purpose. It was fear more than anything else. Maybe all I really need to do now is to go home and dry my shoes.”
“We’ve gone over that already,” he reminded her. “It’s better to check than to be sorry.”
She looked at him, new concern evident on her face.
“Do you think there may be something wrong after all?” she asked. “I mean… with the baby?”
She sounded so fearful now, and so hopeful to hear a no that he felt ashamed for nagging her. Still, she should definitely see a doctor. The fact that the baby was moving was certainly a good sign. A new question began to formulate in his mind, though – when she fell in, did she hit her belly? He knew he had to ask carefully.
“It’s definitely fine. You’ve said yourself you can feel it moving,” he told her. She nodded eagerly, and he saw relief in her eyes. “It’s just a matter of being sure, especially after a mishap like that. How did it happen, anyway?”
He saw her hesitate.
“I was running down the road – just running, nowhere really” she said, eventually. “I think I was outside for twenty minutes at most, and I know I suddenly stepped on something slippery. Then I just remember sliding down that slope – you know, almost the way that children do this time of the year…”
“On your back?” he asked. She nodded. Good. It sounded as if her baby wasn’t hit during the fall.
“I think I was screaming,” she went on, “and then, suddenly, there was the river. I thought I was about to drown. It was horrible… even when I realized I fell into a crack rather than the water. I just couldn’t get myself out of there, no matter what I tried. And then – you showed up. It’s a wonder you even heard me down there…”
Bruno nodded. She fell silent, but he felt that there was more to it – that there was a reason for her running. He guessed correctly: maybe half a minute has passed in silence, and then she continued. Her voice sounded slightly hollow now, as if she was less sure she wanted to speak. Still, she did.
“I – ran out of our home,” she said. “There was trouble, and I wasn’t thinking. We had a row.”
“We…?” he asked, already knowing the answer.
“My husband and I,” she replied, her voice quieter now.
Of course there was a husband. She wouldn’t have been pregnant otherwise, would she now – not a nice girl like that, and not around here. Maybe somewhere abroad, where births out of wedlock were said to be common… but in these parts, the husband was a safe bet.
So why did it seem to surprise him?
He knew the answer – because that part of the encounter didn’t go in with the story he had already formed in his mind, this romantic nonsense straight out of cheap novels printed on even cheaper paper. There, the man was supposed to save the girl, like the great hero he always envisioned himself as, to then quickly have her fall in love with him. It was always like that, wasn’t it?
Except it wasn’t quite like that in the real world. Even when the first part, the one where you saved the girl, actually did occur. In the real world, she was a married woman. A married pregnant woman.
He almost laughed at his naiveté. Did he actually think otherwise, even for a little while? Did he expect anything different?
He probably did, he had to admit so. Never mind, he decided, driving away the thoughts – there was no reason to dwell on a silly fantasy that had appeared earlier and elsewhere for a moment, probably stemming all the way from his subconscious. Tonight has already been uncommon enough to give him memories to last the rest of his life, anyway.
He glanced back at her and only now did he realize she had been talking all that time. He wondered how much he had missed, lost in thought.
“It was my fault,” he heard her say. “He means well, I know it, and I was utterly wrong. So the money may not be plentiful now, but there aren’t really too many women who can say their husbands are such respected men, with uniforms and official titles… And the move wasn’t his choice, anyway, was it?”
Bruno could only guess she meant her husband, and wondered if he should nod – but it was clear that she wasn’t really asking him, but rather herself. She exhaled heavily, the tiny white cloud at her lips disappearing in an eye-blink.
“I can imagine what you must be thinking,” she said. “What a fool she is, going alone outside in the winter night over an argument at home, when she’s in her sixth month…”
“I never thought of you as a fool, no,” he lied. He was never very skilled at lying, and he noticed she saw right through his words. She didn’t seem to mind – actually, she was looking at him with something of a gentle smile on her face. He cleared his throat. “I didn’t think of the month, at any rate,” he said. “I couldn’t hope to recognize these things.”
“It is the sixth,” she said. “And you’re right, of course. I am foolish. Stupid and impulsive, and I would say I got what I deserved, but… My baby didn’t.”
She pointed at her belly.
“It’s innocent. My little angel,” she said. “And I had no right to endanger its life, no matter what. Even if he… if he…” Her voice trailed off. “If sometimes we’re having those… arguments. What can one do but pray to God and His angels, and hope for the better?”
A domestic squabble, then. Or was there more to it? It didn’t seem as if things were right at home for her. Then again, so many married couples were going through trouble at home these days – or so he heard, anyway. There wasn’t a day at the office that he didn’t get to overhear people gossiping of how someone’s marriage had it better than another’s – actually, it was usually how much worse it had than all the other marriages – no matter how hard he tried to shield himself from the pettiness of the chatter. In any case, this was hardly something he could get involved in. Perhaps it was even better that he didn’t get to hear everything she’d said.
Suddenly, she stopped, and he looked at her in surprise. She began inhaling heavily – and then broke down in tears.
“Oh, God!” he heard her gasp between the sobs. “I could have lost it! I never thought – I never accepted this – but now, I… If it wasn’t for you, my baby would have died there!”
Bruno averted his eyes, wondering what to say. She was right, he knew – another hour down there, at this time of the year, and the mercilessly growing cold would have robbed her of her voice. Then all she could do would be to just helplessly wait in silence, getting weaker and weaker, until eventually drifting off into the endless sleep.
That may be true – but that’s no reason to tell her.
In the end, he said nothing, but merely reached into his pocket, fished out his freshly washed handkerchief and offered it to her. She acknowledged the gesture with a short nod, and began to dry her tears. The silence grew, until he started feeling uncomfortable.
“It’s all right. It didn’t,” he offered, eventually. “But it is a horrible thought. I guess it must be a mother’s worst nightmare,” he added, as an afterthought.
She folded the handkerchief and gave it back, gradually regaining her composure. She sighed.
“You don’t understand… For me, it’s more than that,” she said, without looking at him. “You see… it’s my fourth one.”
He nodded. Truth be told, he didn’t understand how that made the entire matter so unusual – but then, who could know the way a mother thinks, except perhaps for another mother? In any case, he certainly didn’t.
“So you already have three children,” he said, just to say something.
“No… that’s not what I meant,” She hesitated, and he looked at her, puzzled. “I had two sons, but they… They didn’t make it.”
Her voice faltered, as the cold shiver of understanding came over Bruno.
“I’m sorry,” he said, hoarsely, wondering if something so simplistic was even the right thing to say. He felt a pang of guilt. Illogical, of course; why should he feel guilty? And yet…
She shook her head and swallowed hard. She started walking again, and he stepped with her.
“Two years ago,” she said, and he didn’t have to look to know she was still stifling tears. “Both of them. And then... I thought maybe a girl would live, and she did, at first, but then, last year… the illness…”
Mary, Mother of God…
A cold shiver passed over Bruno; the air around them had been steadily growing more and more frigid as they were walking, but he knew the frost was not to blame. He has been a bachelor all his life, and never knew how it felt to have a child and to raise one, but he could scarcely imagine witnessing one’s offspring die. And… three times? What horror must that be? It was a wonder she was able to function at all. Bruno had little patience for folk beliefs, but he couldn’t help thinking that it was almost like a curse. Probably must have actually felt like a curse to her…
Then maybe I’ve just broken that curse tonight.
She gave him a strange look, and, to his shock, he realized he had said that last thought aloud. Why?
“I’m sorry – I just thought, you know… it must be unimaginable, like a bad omen, so...” He coughed, trying to mask his embarrassment – then he gave up. “Never mind,” he said, “I was just – I wasn’t really thinking. I’m sorry.”
She nodded, slowly, and he wondered if she wasn’t as appreciative of him anymore.
What a thoughtless thing to say. Where did it even come from?
He shrugged. Maybe I should blame the cold, he thought. He then said it, and at that, unexpectedly, she smiled, as if grateful to have her previous thoughts directed elsewhere. Slowly, she nodded in agreement.
“Who could argue with that,” she said. “Cold makes us do silly things. Aren’t I a good example?”
“Well, it can make us say stupid things, too. And here, I’m the better example,” he deadpanned. She laughed now, and there it was, back to normal, as if his insensitive remark had never appeared. He felt relieved.
“Perhaps you really have done just that, though,” she said, after a moment’s quiet. “I’ve often wondered myself, what sins have I committed to deserve this? Each time it happened. And – I never could answer myself. I have a simple life. I pray, I worship, I do all my duties, as wife and woman. I cannot think of any reason why I should be – why it should be I that…”
Her voice faltered; it seemed she was on the verge of crying again. Bruno tried to think of something to say, and couldn’t. For a while they walked in silence.
“I’ve never understood,” she said, eventually. “But, you know, it’s funny… Somehow, I feel now as if it’s different. As if something has changed tonight. I think you have made that change.”
“That’s certainly a nice thought. Provided it’s a change for the better,” he observed.
“But of course it is! And it’s true. You’ve saved my life. My baby’s life. And there’s even more, I can feel it. It’s like you’ve changed my whole world.”
“Then maybe I should use the momentum and change the world for everyone, too!” He meant it as a joke, or at least a humorous observation, even though it certainly was true that he has helped her tonight, and indeed more than likely saved her life, along with that of her unborn child – but she took his words with keen interest.
“Why are you laughing? That’s a beautiful thought!”
“Sure it is, but one has to consider the facts. I mean, it’s nice to fancy this and that, but – let’s be realistic. What chances would I really have to do that? Even as a young upstart, decades ago?”
“But haven’t you ever wanted to do so? To change the world?”
“Oh, of course. When I was that upstart – and younger. How I used to dream! I would become a doctor and invent a cure for every malady that has ever troubled people, or maybe I would fly and discover new countries and new worlds, and fantastic new creatures…” He chuckled as the memories he hasn’t touched on in years came back, bringing half-forgotten images from the past. Klara wasn’t laughing at his words.
“You’ve had good ideas,” she opined.
“And good intentions,” he said. “At least I hope they were good.” At that, she smiled.
“Perhaps not intentions,” she said. “You know what they say about intentions.”
Now it was his time to smile.
“You’re right,” he nodded in amusement. “Ideas are better. Yes – great ideas with which to change the world.”
“Not anymore, though?”
“Not for a long time.”
“You never know,” she said. “You might still get a chance to change it. You’re not that old. If I may say so.”
“Older than you are. Anyway, I doubt this has ever been my destiny. Let me just pass on any plans to change the world to younger people. In fact, let them come up with their own plans, and best of luck to them. Younger people, like yourself.”
“Oh, I don’t have it in me to change anything. The world least of all.”
“Your child, then. Especially if it’s a boy.”
He said it in a cheerful manner, but it seemed to make her pensive instead.
“Yes,” she answered, lost in thought. “The world might be his for the taking. Why not?”
Bruno smiled; how motherly of her. Statistically, the boy – if the child was indeed a boy – was most likely to grow up to be a modest clerk at some local office; much like Bruno, in fact. But why shouldn’t she dream of seeing him climb the tallest mountains, of shaping the future of mankind? All mothers do.
“Well,” he quipped, “either way, seems like neither of us will get to do that. Honestly, I wouldn’t even want to go around changing the world at this point. Now I’m happy with just having a quiet life.”
“We all should be so lucky,” she said, her voice quieter now. He looked at her, wondering if the sadness was taking over her again. Perhaps he should stop it in its track.
“Speaking of what they say of good intentions,” he observed, “I sure hope it’s not true what they say of good deeds.”
“And what is it?”
“That no good deed goes unpunished,” he said, smiling. But she seemed astonished by these words, so much so she even slowed down for a few seconds as she stared at him.
“Is that really a saying?” she asked, “I’ve never heard it – and I wish I hadn’t! Good deeds being punished? What a mean thing to say,” she said quietly, shaking her head. He cleared his throat uneasily, and she looked at him with a gasp of realization. “Oh, no, I didn’t mean you! I’m sorry – no, I know you meant nothing by it. I mean that whoever said it first, whoever came up with the very idea – that he must have been a mean man. Mean and bitter. Because… how else can you actually believe that?”
Bruno shrugged. There’s no account for taste, he thought, and the same must be true for humor; Klara seemed truly disturbed by the sarcastic saying, whereas he has never even given it a second thought. Should he have?
“Well, I too certainly hope it’s not true,” he said in the end. “Otherwise I’ll probably have to take my lumps for tonight.”
She looked at him and smiled.
“That cannot be,” she replied. “God has plans for us all, and tonight, that was His plan for you. I don’t understand yet, but I think it was all meant to happen. This kind of deed would never be punished. And it won’t be.”
“I hope so!” he laughed. She nodded, very serious.
“I know so,” she said. “I don’t yet know why… but I can feel it.”
Wouldn’t mind that, he thought, as she went on.
“You know, for years I’ve prayed for angels. And maybe now God has answered,” she said quietly. He looked at her, wondering what she meant, and if he even heard her right; she saw his glance. “Maybe it was He who has sent you down this road tonight. Like a guardian angel.”
He laughed, mostly to hide his embarrassment.
“I think that might be an exaggeration,” he said.
“But you were there, and you heard me. You came to help. No-one else did.”
That much was true – the road has been virtually empty since Bruno took it almost an hour earlier, and now, as they walked together, they haven’t come across any passers-by, either. Even in the summertime, the road was scarcely traveled at night, and now, on a cold winter night, few would venture outside just to take a stroll.
“I was really supposed to take the road tonight, anyway,” he said. “I’m going to the office, to pick up some papers – I took a day off tomorrow, but I thought I’d work on something tonight. You know, for peace of mind when I go back.”
“You’re a very diligent man,” she observed.
“We’re a diligent company,” he replied.
“So what is it that you do? If you don’t mind my asking?”
“Oh, of course I don’t. We trade in wood products, primarily. Some exports… well, my tasks involve lots and lots of paperwork. Nothing very exciting, I’m afraid.”
“Exports?” she repeated. “I wonder if my husband ever saw your papers. You know, at the customs office.”
“Who knows,” he said, silently hoping that it wasn’t the case. So, it seemed as if her husband was a fellow clerk, although one collecting a government salary – but even so, he certainly didn’t sound like a man Bruno would be eager to meet. He felt at a loss for words; he raised his head to look around, hoping to fill time – and then he squinted. In a distance, maybe a hundred steps away, he spotted a familiar sight.
“This is it,” he said, pointing forward. “Faster than I thought it would take us,” he added truthfully, relieved and surprised by this sudden opportunity to change the subject.
The hospital was on the very outskirts of the town, an unmistakable building now looming ahead. Less than two minutes later, they were at the entrance, and he helped Klara up the stairs, then opened the door for her. He felt goose bumps for a few seconds – the pleasant sort, the kind experienced when entering a warm room from the cold, rather than the usual opposite – and he took off his hat. They walked over to a nurse sitting behind the desk. To Bruno, the stern, no-nonsense woman, with a pen and an old clipboard full of paper, seemed more like an administrator than a sister of mercy, but her cap was that of a nurse, beyond doubt.
Bruno cleared his throat and caught her eye. He explained everything in a few sentences. It surprised him that the nurse expressed no incredulity at his words, “She was trapped in an ice crack in the river,” but he thought that with everything that the woman must hear and see on a daily basis, she probably wasn’t shocked by anything anymore. There would indeed be a matter of money, but the sum required was not high, and in any case, Bruno would soon be receiving his next salary. After a while, he turned back to Klara.
“Everything’s arranged,” he said, “They’ll see to you and to the baby.”
“Thank you, again,” she said. “I will make it up to you, some day. I promise.”
“Hey, I was walking to the town, anyway,” he joked. “I should be thanking you for making the journey interesting.”
She smiled, and they would probably keep talking for a while, if the nurse hadn’t interrupted. Klara looked at him apologetically, he nodded, and she stepped towards the desk. Bruno moved aside and walked towards the door. He looked around the lobby, as he began buttoning his coat; the town may not have been too big, but its hospital was a proper establishment, offering good service, and he had no doubt that Klara would be well taken care of. He wondered if he should come back tomorrow and see her. Then again, would that really be such a good idea? It might be misunderstood, and he’d rather not have her think he was expecting anything untoward of her.
No, no point in doing so. Anyway, the nurses would probably not let him see her. He wasn’t family, after all. Perhaps they would run into each other in the future. Considering Braunau’s relatively small population, they very well might. Maybe it would even happen in spring, after April – after she has already given birth. He hoped she wouldn’t run into any problems – not only during the birth.
He looked at her again, as she spoke to the nurse. The woman listened, then her pen began to move.
“Tuesday, January…” she muttered – and hesitated, looking at the calendar on her desk.
“Twenty-second,” Klara offered. The nurse nodded.
“January 22, 1889… First name?” she asked, her pen momentarily frozen in the air, floating above the paper form. Bruno shifted his weight from one foot to the other, hoping Klara would notice; he didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye.
“Klara,” she answered. Now she looked away from the nurse, so Bruno caught her eye and waved at her; she smiled and waved back. He turned and grabbed the door handle.
“Last name?” he heard the nurse’s voice. He stopped, curiosity taking over him for a second – he never did ask her about it, come to think of that. Certainly, it wasn’t gentlemanly to eavesdrop – but the, he wasn’t really eavesdropping, was he? Besides, why should Klara be opposed to his knowing her name.
Probably a nice, common German name – Braun, perhaps, or…
“Hitler,” he heard her say. “Klara Hitler.”
Not as typical a name as he thought, but German, no doubt. For a second or so, he tried to recall if he knew anyone else bearing it, but no-one came to mind.
He pushed the door open, and, as the cold wind pushed back lazily, he turned to Klara once again, thinking it would do to tip his hat as a final farewell – but she wasn’t looking in his direction anymore, talking to the nurse now, pointing at her baby. Bruno walked outside and closed the door carefully.
A gust of wind chilled him, so he put his collar up. The frosty air bit his skin; it was almost midnight, and soon the temperature would begin dropping quickly. He still had to stop by the office, so he knew that by the time he got back home, he would probably be freezing – but that was nothing that some hot tea wouldn’t cure.
He looked at the dark street ahead, and suddenly the air turned white, in a fluttery fall of snowflakes. He glanced towards the sky and saw them up there, a myriad little shapes moving in unison towards him. Each one was different, he knew, but they might as well be identical, not just in their appearance but in purpose, as an unseen force pushed them all together in one direction.
Soon they would cover the world with an impenetrable shroud. Soon everything would change.
It would be a beautiful night, after all.