Amsterdam, February 1532
May our Lord Jesus Christ …who loved us…comfort your hearts…Thess 2:16
Much of their time was spent sitting around the fire; talking, dozing, adding logs to the fire and occasionally eating. Anna wondered how Cornelia could have survived alone all these years. She was half-crazy herself after a week of this life. If she knew where the children were, it would be much more tolerable. The children were always on Anna’s mind; as soon as she awoke in the morning, she anguished about their fate. The pain never lessened. A few times she had pleaded with Jan and Cornelia to allow her to leave, but they always shook their heads.
‘It’s not worth the risk. Remember your last attempt? There is nothing you can do for the children except pray.’ Anna could only try to resign herself, as well as her charges, to God’s care, and yes, pray. She kept on praying to Mary, mother of Jesus. As a mother, Mary would know what Anna was going through, better than Jan or Cornelia.
One evening at bedtime, Anna made up her mind to leave the next morning, regardless of the weather or lack of permission. Then, when morning came, it was so quiet that it took her a minute to identify what was missing. She listened. The wind! It was gone! She leaped out of her bearskin and skittered to the door. The freezing rain had stopped, and the sun was coming up through the trees.
“Jan! Cornelia!” she shouted, “Wake up!” Cornelia was on her feet in a flash, and Jan only a moment later.
“What’s the matter?” Cornelia asked, her shawls falling around her feet.
Jan blinked, his red hair sprouting every which way. “Is the house on fire?”
“Don’t you see? The sun is out! Today I am leaving, whether you two come or not.” Anna brushed her unruly hair with Cornelia’s ancient comb, and put on her cap. After smoothing her dress and apron, she reached for her cloak. “Are you coming?”
“You mean right now?” Cornelia looked bewildered. “What about my things?”
“What do you want to take?” Anna didn’t see much of value in the hut, though probably Cornelia had some mementoes she wanted to keep.
Jan helped Cornelia pack some things into a bundle, including her supply of herbs and some bottles of mysterious liquids. Anna rolled up the bearskins; they might need those. There was one loaf of the hard, brown bread left, and some ale, which Anna gave to Jan to carry.
A short time later, the three bedraggled and gaunt-looking figures moved steadily through the forest. They sloshed through slush and snow as gratefully as children dismissed from school early. Jan dragged the sled behind him, the rolled bearskins knotted securely in place with rope.
Cornelia led the way with brisk strides, and Anna hoped she knew the way out, but she need not have worried. Cornelia was a wily old woman, and definitely not a witch. Jan whistled a merry tune as if he were a bird escaped from his cage.
“How far is it?” Anna asked, not caring that she sounded like a child.
“It shouldn’t take long until we’re out of the woods,” Cornelia said. They trudged for hours through the trees, or so it seemed.
When they finally emerged from the forest and saw Amsterdam, it was like the heavenly city of gold to their eyes. Its ragged rooftops and smoking chimneys were a beacon of hope as they sat on the sled and rested, catching their breath before trudging on.
Anna did not know many people in Amsterdam, and she had no idea whom she could trust. Anybody who saw her could betray her to the authorities, and the gossiping housewives would probably do so if they got the chance, especially those who had taunted her before. She also hoped to avoid the sly little servant who seemed to turn up everywhere like rain at a parade.
“I’m hungry,” Anna said. “Let’s eat the rest of our bread.” They ate it slowly, to make it seem like more than there actually was. How would they eat later?
Remembering that she had a few coins back at the house, Anna reminded herself to check for the money. Although she had accepted days ago that the house was sure to be empty, of both money and little children. She had not forgotten how Elizabeth’s house had looked after the officers went through it.
They slipped through the city gates unnoticed. Anna’s stomach churned now that she walked down the familiar street, and she couldn’t help glancing at each window of the houses she passed. She watched and yearned for a glimpse of fair-haired, childish faces.
“Can you two just wait behind this cedar tree for a minute?” Anna said. “Only one of us should go to the house, lest we attract attention. I’ll take a quick look around to confirm the children are not there, and I also want to see if my money is still at the house.”
“Uh…do you think that’s a good idea?” Jan asked. “If something happened to you, I’d never forgive myself. Somebody could still be lurking about waiting for you to come back. I’ll gladly go with you. And don’t worry about the money. I do have a few coins that I’m happy to spend on food.”
“I’ll be fine,” Anna called over her shoulder. She could handle this herself. She circled around to the back of the house first; maybe she could climb in the window like Adriaen had. One shutter hung lopsided on one hinge, and she peeked inside. Nothing seemed to be out of place, but there was no way she could climb in there with her long skirts hindering her. So she crept around to the front, peering up and down the street. A few people walked about but paid her no mind. She tried the latch, and the door opened.
Anna stepped inside, and blinked. After a few moments, her eyes adjusted to the dim interior after being out in the bright sunlight. Everything appeared to be intact, although it was much too eerie and still, with no children’s voices chattering in the kitchen. It was also freezing cold. The logs she had dragged inside were still lying beside the fireplace, and water was frozen in the wash bowl.
She combed through the house, trying to shake the chill from her back. No trace of the children remained, not even one article of clothing. It was as if their happy chatter, and the patter of their footsteps, had never dwelled there. Crushing grief turned Anna’s feet to stone, and now that the evidence of the children’s disappearance was in front of her eyes, she found it almost impossible to accept. The tears that should have flowed down her cheeks stuck in her throat. She stood in Simon’s bedroom, her feet frozen to the floor.
Where were the children?
Forcing herself to keep moving, she tiptoed behind the bed frame and stuck her hand beneath the loose floorboard. Nothing. In that heart-stopping moment she remembered the little booklet Adriaen had given her, the one with an explanation of his faith, the ’Concerning a True Soldier of Christ’, which fitted Adriaen so well. She reached a trembling hand under her mattress near the fireplace. It was gone. The officers hadn’t turned the house upside down because they found what they were looking for right away, under the mattress where she had left it.
The skin of Anna’s neck prickled as cold sweat ran down her back. Now she was in truth a real heretic. The authorities had found forbidden writings in her house; it was all they needed to arrest and condemn her.
The line had been crossed a while ago, but now there was no going back to being a loyal Catholic subject. She could recant, and promise to be faithful to the Church, but that would not necessarily save her life. The best she could hope for in that scenario was an easier death. She might as well cast her heart and her lot with the Anabaptists and hope to understand their faith some day. But could she ever become a ‘true soldier of Christ’? The only one she was fighting for was herself, and she feared she could never surrender her will to Christ.
On her way back outside, she spotted a few wrinkled apples in a basket on the table, and she snatched them up. She hurried back to Jan and Cornelia, waiting behind the tree where she had left them. Two pairs of worried eyes betrayed their relief at her safety, though their countenances fell when they saw Anna’s face. The answer to the anxious question didn’t need to be said in words. Anna handed out her half-frozen apples, and they chewed on them, though poor Cornelia could do no more than suck at hers with her toothless gums.
Now what? Anna didn’t know of any more Anabaptists who might help them out.
Just because thousands of them were said to live in Amsterdam, didn’t mean they walked around with signs on their heads announcing who they were. Rather, they were as unobtrusive as possible, slipping around at night or hiding in crowds. Finding one of them without a clue where they lived would be risky and difficult. They couldn’t just enter an inn and start asking questions. The baker she had known, but he had been arrested.
“Let me go and ask around,” Jan suggested. “These people don’t know me so maybe they won’t be suspicious.”
“But your red hair! It’s so easy to remember.”
He pulled his hat down as far as he could. “Better?”
“You can’t hide your beard.”
“Well then, I will put my life into the loving hands of God.” Anna watched him go and clenched her jaw. He must come back safely, and hopefully with news of the children.
“You would do well to marry that boy,” Cornelia said, with a twinkle in her dark eyes. “He has a heart of gold.”
Anna nodded. “That he does, but he seems more like a brother to me. Besides, he would never look at me. Men never do.” She looked up at the graying sky, desperate to hide her pain from Cornelia. The sun had slipped behind a cloud, a dark cloud that threatened more snow or freezing rain.
“That’s nonsense. He looked at you quite a lot back at the hut.”
Anna blushed. This she could not believe, though Jan would be a good catch for some lucky girl. “He could hardly avoid it in such close quarters.” She peeked from behind the tree, although she knew Jan could not possibly be on his way back yet.
“The servant, Pieter! He’s in front of my house!” Anna gasped.
“It’s a good thing you’re not in there anymore.”
“It seems he turns up wherever I go. I don’t trust him. I wonder where Jan is?”
When Jan finally returned to their sheltering cedar tree, Anna’s heart sank at the look on his face. His head hung, and his shoulders drooped. Grief filled his murky green eyes, and Anna’s world spun dizzily as she prepared herself for ill tidings.
“Anna, I don’t know how to say this,” Jan said, hoarsely.
“Just say it.”
“I met a man on the street who asked me if I’m looking for someone. I don’t know what made him think I might be, but I did ask him where the family went that used to live beside Simon. Anna…”
“I want to know.”
“He said they all died of fever, and the father is in a dungeon awaiting trial for heresy, and certain execution. I’m so sorry.”
Anna sank down on the sled, no longer able to stand. She buried her head in her hands and shook with uncontrollable sobs. It couldn’t be true! How could three lovely children all die in such a short time? In her heart she knew it was only too possible. Children got sick and died all the time. They were so fragile. But not her children. Other people’s children died, and that was just a fact of life. But not beautiful little Trijntgen and Bettke and sweet little Dirk. She felt like a huge piece of her heart had just been ripped out.
Jan patted her shoulder awkwardly and Cornelia sniffled. “I guess God needed more little angels up in Heaven.”
“I needed them too! And Adriaen! I wonder in which dungeon he is?”
“The man I met didn’t say. Probably he didn’t know.”
“What shall we do now?” Anna said, though she didn’t feel like doing anything. Not only because the children were gone, and she would miss them dreadfully, but also because she had failed to keep her promise to Adriaen, and she had failed Maeyken by not keeping her children alive.
“I know.” Anna answered her own question, her voice watery. She got up from the sled, and even though the tears trickled down, she lifted her chin. “We shall look for Anneken and Elizabeth and Claes. If at least one of the children is still alive, the pain in my heart might ease a little.”
“Yes,” Jan agreed, and Cornelia nodded. “That would give us some direction. Shall we pray and ask God to show us what to do?”
“You pray,” Anna said. “I can’t.”