Amsterdam, February 1532
The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid, what can man do to me? Heb 13:6
In an hour Jan was back, wild-eyed and panting. “Anna, grab your warmest clothes and come with me!” he gasped. “Now!” He swung an anguished look towards the children. They stared back at him in bewilderment. Three innocent faces turned to Anna, wordlessly asking for an explanation.
“No! I will not leave the children.” Anna put her hands on her hips and refused to move. “How can you even suggest such a thing?”
“You must trust me! It won’t be for long. We will come back in an hour or so, when the officers give up hunting for us,” Jan insisted, his green eyes flashing as he shifted from one foot to the other in agitation. “They arrested Willem and the baker, and when they’ve got those two locked up, they’re coming here! We have a head start of a few minutes, and we must be out of sight. Please. I’m asking this for your own safety.”
“Well!” Anna said, not moving an inch. “What about the children’s safety?”
Jan wrung his hands and searched the room with his eyes. Spotting her cloak hanging from a peg, he grabbed it and held it out to Anna. “Put on your cloak, I beg you. I assure you, the officers do not harm children. The worst they will do is take them to some Catholic home. We can find out where they are later.” He shook Anna’s cloak, as if his desperation alone could make her put it on. “You have two choices--come with me for a chance to escape, or stay here and be arrested. You must see that by staying here, you are risking the children’s future more than if you flee.”
Anna’s body seemed to be turned to stone as she allowed Jan to help her with the cloak. The children cried and so did Anna. “Be brave, my schatjes. I will come back as soon as ever I can.” Jan hustled her to the door, while Anna’s heart broke in two. Outside, he took her arm and hurried her along in the direction of the forest where the Anabaptist meeting had been held. He must have found a reserve of strength somewhere; it was hard to believe he had lain at death’s door the day before.
“They’re coming!” Jan gasped as they ran. Anna did not ask who was coming. She knew.
They plunged through the snow, their footprints filling in with drifting snow seconds after they left them behind. It was to their advantage.
“Do you… know… a place… to hide… in the forest?” he asked, panting. She knew of a place, but not how to get there. She had only been there once, about a month ago, but there had been a path. Now there was only snow and it all looked the same. They found a sheltered spot under the low-hanging branches of a cedar hedge and rested briefly. Jan’s breath rattled noisily. If anyone was trailing them, they need only follow the sound of his wheezing.
Anna peeked through the snowy boughs of cedar. She felt as tense and stiff as an iron poker.
“Tell me about it,” she said.
“I went… to the baker’s house,” Jan said, between puffs, “but he… wasn’t there. His wife… hissed at me to begone, … that it wasn’t safe… there anymore. Her… husband and Willem… have been… arrested, and they are going to… arrest the heretic… who had given him shelter. You!... We have to… keep running or hide…”
Anna stood up in alarm. “But the children! We can’t just abandon them.” She wished she had stood her ground and stayed home. Yet if she’d stayed, it was true she’d be on her way to prison and execution, or banishment at the very least. She groaned. These men should never have come to her house seeking shelter. They had lost the letter they were supposed to deliver into her hands, and they brought serious trouble down upon her head.
She prayed the officers would treat the children kindly, and she had to admit she had never heard of them harming children. The worst they would do was baptize them and teach them papist beliefs, which might be the best thing for them anyways. It had been an easy to thing to become engrossed with the Anabaptists and their humble kindness while no one was chasing her. But now, a safe place in a Catholic home seemed very attractive. No doubt, Anabaptists parents thought this a fate worse than death.
“Do you know anyone who could… take them in?” Jan asked, still out of breath. “If we manage to shake… our pursuers, we could go back in the night… and take them somewhere. Or find someone… to go to them.”
“They are like my own children. I must go back myself and make sure they are unharmed.”
“I understand. I will …come with you.” They were plunging through deep snow, a biting wind nipping at their cheeks. “But I don’t want you… to be captured.”
“I may not get caught.” She burrowed her face into her cloak. Jan had seemed to care for the children, so why was he even implying she should leave them behind? To hide in the woods for an hour or two was one thing, but she refused to abandon them to an unknown fate. Their mother was dead, and their father was in great danger. That was more than enough tragedy for little children to bear.
“You will be caught, Anna. Once the magistrates are on someone’s trail, they do not give up easily. They will be guarding the house, expecting you to go back to the children. Don’t do it.”
“But I promised Adriaen I’ll take care of them. I can’t break my promise to him.”
“Adriaen knows that if you go to prison or die, you can’t care for them either. God will take care of them. And I promise to help you find a way to have them looked after.”
Anna’s tears ran in frozen rivulets down her cheeks. It wasn’t good enough. They were not just any children. They were Adriaen’s children, and Maeyken’s children. There had to be another way.
The two of them floundered in the snow for a long time, deeper and deeper into the forest. Anna was nearly collapsing with exhaustion, and Jan’s hoarse breathing would give them away if the officers got close enough. Jan was bent nearly double; he didn’t have the energy to walk upright any longer. Anna held on to his arm, afraid he’d pitch headfirst into the snow. They tried to stay in the denser part of the forest, and soon they would have to stop.
Just when Anna thought they would perish of cold, they stumbled into a small clearing surrounded by cedars. She didn’t think it was the same one; it seemed smaller. It was almost like entering a house. Here the freezing, driving wind could not enter, and the two fugitives huddled together under a cedar tree, their breaths coming in short, frosty puffs.
“Do you think they will come after us here?” Anna asked bleakly. It would be awful if after all the struggling in the deep snow, they were discovered and forced to march back the way they had come.
Jan shrugged, his chest heaving. “They… might. It depends… how bloodthirsty… they are tonight.” His green eyes were like emeralds in his white face. Laying down in the snow, he curled up in a ball, pulling some branches over himself for warmth. Anna stared at him in alarm. She didn’t want to be stranded here with a sick man. Why bother running, only to freeze to death?
“Jan! I hear something!” She shook him violently. Something was crashing through the trees. Voices? She shivered uncontrollably. So, was this what an Anabaptist’s life was like? To live in constant fear of every sound? She felt like a cornered fox. More than ever, she wished she had refused to flee earlier, and gone to the authorities. Then she could live in peace with the children in the little house Simon had so thoughtfully left her. She would rather be safe and warm in church listening to a priest’s chant than lying out here in the bush, freezing to death. Especially with a dying man, waiting for the hunters to find their prey.
“Probably some animal,” he mumbled, already half asleep.
“It’s not an animal! I hear voices!” she whispered hoarsely. She grabbed his coat and shook and shook him with all her might until his teeth rattled, forcing him to wake up. He looked at her, bewildered and confused.
“Why are you shaking me?”
“The tauferjager are coming! You can’t sleep now.”
“The tauferjager?” He blinked. “Why are the tauferjager coming?”
“They are coming for us! Wake up! Wake up!” He merely closed his bleary green eyes, and then she could not wake him again. The shouts were coming closer. Would they be able to see the tracks? She pushed Jan over against the tree trunk, then slid next to him, making herself as small as possible. She tugged at the branches, pulling the fragrant cedar down lower to hide the two of them as well as possible.
Holding her breath, Anna listened to the snorting of the horses, the clacking of the bits in their mouths. There were two riders. She placed her hand over Jan’s mouth, in case he made some sound in his sleep. She heard the clanging of a chain and her ankles tingled, already feeling the cold metal. Silently she sent a desperate prayer to Heaven, praying like she had seldom prayed before. She didn’t think there was enough time for the Virgin Mary and the saints to intercede for her, but perhaps God would hear. Unless He was punishing her for complaining about her monotonous winter.
“Dear God, I know I have hidden myself from You, but please forgive me, and hide us from these terrible men who thirst for our blood. Hide us, dear God, especially this man who is needed to spread Your word. Amen.”
Let’s go home. I’m cold,” one of the officers complained. Amen to that, Anna thought. She could see the horse’s hoofs through the branches. These men were bundled up to their ears and were hiding behind their high collars, otherwise they would certainly have spotted their prey.
“Oh, all right. I don’t like hunting in the winter either. Let’s get back to the inn and warm up with some of Herman’s ale. The fox has got away this time, but we’ll find him yet.” They turned their horses around, so close that Anna could have reached out and touched a hoof. If they had their ears uncovered, they would have heard her sharp, short breaths and hammering heart.
The early evening shadows were upon them by now, and soon it would be dark. Anna wondered if any death the authorities might inflict on them could be worse than freezing to death. The temperature dropped as the sun went down, and Anna had to snuggle up to Jan to stay warm.
But she dared not sleep. The man must not be allowed to freeze. She kept waking him and forcing him to move his arms and legs. Dozens of times in the night, she got up and stamped her feet and clapped her hands to keep her blood moving. She didn’t allow herself to think about what she would do when morning came. If it ever did.
In the distance, she heard the wolves howling. She hoped they were far, far away and not too hungry. There were rustlings of smaller creatures, and once she heard the squeal of an animal that had become a meal for someone. The wind had died down and sounds echoed across the still and frozen countryside. A lonely cow bellowed from miles away; she couldn’t tell from which direction. She had no idea which way home was or how she would get there with Jan.
Home. There was no longer a home. By now, the children had undoubtedly been divided up and sent to devout Catholic homes. Maybe Father Hendricks had already baptized them, but surely it couldn’t do the children any harm. Why did the Anabaptists reject this sacrament so utterly? Even if they were right, and infant baptism was no baptism, would it make any difference to the salvation of their souls?
As the endless, freezing night went on, Anna’s mind began to get fuzzy. She longed to lay her head down and go to sleep, but she dared not. Again and again she got up, walked around for a minute or two, shook Jan until he groaned, then sat down tightly beside him to keep him warm. When that wasn’t enough, she grabbed some branches of a nearby cedar tree, tearing at them until they broke away. She covered Jan with a pile of the fragrant cedar boughs, then sat down, exhausted, tucking her numb hands under her arms to thaw them.
Would morning never come? And what would she do when it did? Was there anything she could do, besides walk into a trap and die? She simply could not think. If only Jan would wake up. She despaired of his life.
She wrapped her arms around her knees and tried to arrange her cloak around her body so that the icy air couldn’t penetrate. And then, finally, she gave in to the urge to sleep.