[I wrote this in high school and am well aware of its problems. I’m working on a complete rewrite. But I am still fond of this version. 🙂 ]
I fled in terror at the woofs and snarls of guard dogs. They didn’t know the difference between the other prisoners and me, the one who wasn’t supposed to be killed.
I found myself going downhill, my velocity increasing until I couldn’t control myself. At least a recent rain had dissolved most of the snow, and the mud had dried since then. I fought to stay upright as I slid to the bottom of the hill. I nearly crashed into a tree a couple of times.
Running up the next hill made up for the time I gained going downhill. Winded, I reached the top, paused to catch some of my breath, and began gaining momentum going downhill again.
At the foot of the hill I stopped for a moment to rest, then started up the next one. I was so thirsty that I started swallowing spit to try to wet my throat.
At the top of the hill I found a spring feeding a trickle–and my best means of escape. The water was so icy I had to wet my fingers and suck them.
I went down the hill and found a place where the trickle curved south at the bottom and began to widen slightly. I forded the spring at an angle past this place. In case the dogs could find my scent again if they crossed the stream or went around the spring, I doubled back several times before running away.
I trotted at right angles to the western-flowing first part of the trickle until I figured I was far enough away. I climbed an oak tree and hid among the branches.
I kept watch until sunrise. The last rays of sunlight disappeared, the stars came out and moved across the sky, and the first light of dawn dared to show itself in the horrifying night.
Fear kept me wide awake and begging God for help. Terror made my hearing, always better than average, especially acute. I held my breath at the slightest noise.
A few times I heard murderous snarls along with voices yelling in German. Once I shuddered at a scream. But they were always some distance away.
When the sun cleared the horizon, I hadn’t heard any such noises for some time, so my fear waned a little. Thinking I might have successfully evaded the searchers, I fell asleep almost as soon as I put my head down on the branch and closed my eyes.
When I woke up, the sun was starting to set, at about four in the afternoon–almost twenty-four hours since Torsten’s death.
I wept again, suppressing the sobs so no searchers could hear me. My throat ached. The physical ache in my heart just couldn’t go away.
I forced him from my mind so I could stop crying and clear my head to think. If I traveled at night, any guards that might still be searching would have trouble seeing me, but I would have trouble seeing where I went in the unfamiliar hills and plains. But I needed food and water–and fast, especially if I were to travel far.
I thought I’d heard the average temperature in that part of the country at that time of year is between 28 and 32 degrees. Either that or below 28. With the help of constant walking and the coat given me by the camp officials, I shouldn’t freeze. Following the stream would give me a constant source of water, even if I had to break through ice.
Maybe I could even find a farmhouse along the stream which I could hide in. I knew acorns could be eaten, but not how to get rid of their poison. I considered catching fish and cooking them over fires hidden by the hills, but had no knife nor fishing line. I prayed to soon find food or someone to take me in.
The best thing seemed to be to go on. I walked between the hills in the miniature valley along the right bank of the stream, which used less energy than climbing hills. I hoped I was close to the Bavarian Alps, which I’d heard are so high and beautiful.
The lower the sun dropped, the more afraid I got, especially when I started across the first of several large patches of sand that reminded me of the Saudi Arabian desert. The Gulf War was going on when I left home, you see. A few plants and trees lined the stream, which I called my oasis.
I felt exposed, even in the dark. The light from the moon helped me watch my step when twilight passed, but I believed anyone who looked hard enough could see me.
I pressed on, fording rivers and streams, going out of my way sometimes to avoid towns and villages, taking rests when I needed to, hoping to cover a lot of distance before dawn. How much, I did not know. The water helped stave off my hunger as I walked, but I didn’t have the energy to go fast near the end of the night.
Just after the first light of dawn, I climbed a little way up the first foothill on my side of the stream, looking for a place to collapse and sleep. I began to turn around in a circle, scanning the hillside with my eyes, then stopped and gasped: The Alps began in the distance, and not far away stood a house. I slid down the hillside and hurried down the bank.
The three-story house stood on the side of the nearest mountain. Stones weighted down the obtuse roof. A chimney, like a misshapen chicken coop, jutted from the roof. The top floor had a balcony; a balustrade surrounded the lower third of the second story.
I ran to the house as fast as I could–which wasn’t very fast–and slowed down to find the door. I knocked. I could barely stand. I must have been a sight, with my scrapes, bruises and tangled hair.
The door opened. I cried in German, “Please help me,” and fainted.
I awoke in a bed. The room was neither large nor small, and had few furnishings besides the bed: a nighttable, a dresser, a closed closet, a simple kerosene lamp on the nighttable.
There were no pictures, but there was a small bookcase full of books. A small mirror hung above the dresser.
A middle-aged woman sat beside me, feeding me chicken broth. She spoke in a dialect I didn’t understand, so I said in German, “Do you speak High German?”
She smiled. “Yes, a little. You’ll be all right,” she said, addressing me in the formal Sie, according to custom. “Have a roll.” It and the broth gave me strength to sit up.
“Where am I?” I said.
“On the second floor, in the bedroom of my only son.” Her eyes filled with pride. “He’s fighting in the war.”
“What’s his name?” I kept my composure, not wanting to show disgust, offend her, and find myself turned out of the house and back in the wilderness, alone. Or worse, turned in to the Nazis.
“How old is he?”
“Eighteen? I’m seventeen. What time is it?”
“In the morning? Ach, Mensch! I’ve been unconscious that long?”
“Yes. Who are you?”
I panicked. How much should I tell her? And how should I tell it? I decided to act as much like a German as I could, which meant pronouncing my name the German way.
“My name is Margaret. I need help: Some men are chasing me. Maybe I’ve lost them, but I’m hungry, so I don’t want to go back on my way. I don’t know what’s good to eat outside, and I’m dead tired. Will you help me?”
“Yes, I will. Don’t worry.”
“Ach, thank you, thank you so much.” I saw in the mirror that I wore a nightgown and my hair was brushed. “Where are my clothes?”
“Do you want them? They were so–” I didn’t know the next word, but I guessed it was “torn” or “dirty”–“except for the coat. I’d rather make them into rags. I’ll make more clothes for you.”
“Ach, thank you.” I felt more gratitude than I expressed. The clothes the Germans gave me, even torn, could identify me much more easily to searchers than the clothes of a young German girl. I felt safe such a long way from the camp and closer to the border, but not safe enough.
My strength returned the next day, so the Frau measured me for clothes. Her boots were too small, but taking me or even my boot size into the village could be too risky, so we decided I would wear the ones I already had. If only they didn’t look so odd with my dress. Until she made my clothes, I had to wear one of her dresses, which just fit my measurements but was too short.
Now that Volker was in the war, only the Frau and Mann lived in the house. When addressing them, I called the woman Frau and the man Herr. They spoke in High German when they wanted me to understand them, but they also began to teach me the local dialect.
They farmed the slopes and everything else they could with potatoes, hay and grain. The livestock wintered there, but in spring were taken to the alps, or pastures, above the tree line at a higher elevation. A foot or two of snow now covered the forty-acre farm, and in the distance I could see rocky, white-lined peaks.
Having left tracks didn’t concern me, since there hadn’t been snow or even much mud until I’d left the camp far behind. However, I’d feel safest if only rain would’ve come and washed away my tracks.
I began my walks again as soon as the Frau gave me my first set of warm clothes. Until then I had to amuse myself somehow while shut up in that little room, so I began to explore it.
First, after brushing my hair with an old brush the Frau washed and gave me, I opened the closet. Insider were Volker’s clothes. Many of them were fashionable for the time, though simple, but there were some lederhosen and heavy walking shoes. Also some hats, some modern, but others traditional Bavarian hats with a long feather sticking out of each. I figured he had knee socks in one of the dresser drawers, but didn’t want to go snooping in his underwear.
Next, I scanned the titles in the bookcase. Trying to read the books could keep me busy for hours. I pulled out a Bibel and leafed through it. If I could read it well enough, I could keep up my daily readings.
I turned to the first chapter of Genesis, but translated it more from memory than from the words. I “read” the first chapter, then prayed.
I put the Bible back in its place and picked up Faust. I read it in English as a sophomore, but even after another year’s worth of German, I had so much difficulty with the original German that I put it back.
I reached for Grimm’s Fairy Tales. It was hard to translate, too, being in old-fashioned German words and writing. While I still studied it, the Frau brought me Mittagessen, or lunch.
Sitting by the window that night, I chuckled at the thought, “I feel like a prisoner, shut up in here–like I was back in the POW camp.”
Then the memories of Torsten came gushing back over the dam that conveniently blocked them.
First the good ones, such as his conversion to Christianity and the kiss.
Then the last few moments of his life. I sniffled as hot tears soothed my cheeks, then I sobbed.
Oh, Torsten, if no one had planned to escape, you’d still be alive today, and I would be in the camp with you. If only there hadn’t been an escape plan. If only you’d refused to open the gate. You’d have been knocked unconscious, but still alive. If only you hadn’t been involved. And whose fault is that? Mine. If only I hadn’t suggested you. It’s all my fault. I killed you!
The Frau rushed into the room and knelt beside me. I sat hunched over with one hand over my eyes and its elbow on the windowsill.
“What’s wrong?” she said, adding denn for emphasis.
I turned my head to look at her. “I–My boyfriend–he is–dead.”
“in the war?”
“Yes. And it’s all my fault.”
Now she used the informal du. “Your fault? How is that?”
“Ach, no, the enemy did.”
“No, it was me.”
“You’re too hard on yourself. It wasn’t your fault. Tell me, did you love him?”
“Yes, very much. And I killed him! Ach, Gott, will you ever–forgive me?”
The Frau put her arm around me. “I don’t know why you blame yourself, but I understand your sadness. If I were to lose my husband….” She said nothing else, just stayed with me until I calmed down.
I loved wearing the Bavarian dresses the Frau gave me. I had a black hat with a white band and feathers at the back. The bright-colored dirndl dresses each had a black waistband laced in X’s down the front and a full skirt. I also had white stockings.
The prison boots looked ugly, so after a while we decided it wouldn’t be quite so risky to just take my shoe size into Wil, the town, and get some shoes made. I got black ones with open tops and high heels, each with a strap under the ankle. I wore pigtails, trying to look as much like a German maiden as I could. The couple chuckled at my hair, thinking it cute: It was, after all, the forties.
The Mann drove me around the Bavarian Alps in their Volkswagen. I thought, but didn’t dare say, If I ever get back home, just think of what I can tell my friends: that I’ve seen this part of the Alps in the forties, and without spending a dime on plane tickets.
I began to learn the couple’s dialect and understand Volker’s letters, though at first I had to read them on my own after they were read out loud. The writing seemed guarded, hiding a hostility to the war from his mother. The little family were all Christians and belonged to the Wil German Evangelical Church, but Volker and his father were most devoted to the faith.
Torsten’s absence grew more acute as the days passed since I last saw him. My pain grew much worse. I often cried.
Spring finally came. I walked on the south side of the mountain, hiding from anyone who might still be searching for me. Hopefully they gave up by now.
I wandered through unplanted fields and greening groves. I imagined I was a native, living in the days of fairy tales. Whenever visitors came, I hid outside until they left.
On Sundays when the couple was at church, I went to a special part of the forest. Here was a fallen log over which the trees arched and blocked out the sun.
I either sat or walked back and forth on the log, reflecting on God. This was my worship service. Sometimes I sang a hymn or other Christian song. I sometimes brought Volker’s Bible with me. Translation came more easily now; I looked for answers to many questions, and ways to make my beliefs and theories fit together logically.
One morning in the fields, someone called to me. Torsten? That was impossible! I turned in the direction of the road, which was some distance to the west of the mountain. A half-sized figure ran toward me. In no time, he came close enough to recognize.
Torsten, in his guard uniform!
I ran to him, my heart pounding. We hugged and kissed; the kiss felt like our first.
“I was only wounded, Liebchen,” he said. “Now have I come to help the Mann with the cattle.”
“Come on! I want to show you the beautiful things I see on my walks.”
Strolling with him and pointing out the scenery and flowers, especially the edelweiss and Alpine roses, I mentioned my upcoming eighteenth birthday. I grinned. “What will you give me?”
“The best gift for a woman: a wedding ring.”
Ignoring the old-fashioned sexism, I stopped and stared at him in disbelief.
“Yes, Liebchen, I want to you marry, and as soon as possible. We can live here in den Bayerischen Alpen. Do you accept or refuse?”
“Accept, natürlich!” I threw my arms around his neck, the Alps timeless, our families nonexistent. “You’re not just playing with me, now?”
“Natürlich nicht, Liebchen. Ich liebe dich.”
“I love you, too, Torsten. Ach, Mensch, I’m so happy.”
I closed my eyes as we kissed again.
I opened my eyes–in bed in Volker’s room. I glanced around the room in bliss at the gray and black shadows in the moonlight.
I got up, went to the window, and gazed at the same effect on the mountains and trees. My mind began to awaken. The mountains were black monsters against the dark gray sky. Morning wasn’t far off.
Wait, it was only a dream! Torsten was dead. He never joined me on that walk, and he never proposed to me. The bitterest tears fell.
The Mann left to drive the cattle to the alps, and didn’t come back until the end of September. I watched him go, my eyes wet because of his absence and because it reminded me of my dream.
I helped the Frau with the crops until he returned. The summer temperatures, even in July and August, rarely went above the lower 70s, and averaged in the lower 60s.
After about a year, I often thought about Torsten with a deep, aching sorrow, but rarely cried. In my dreams and daydreams, we shared time and mountain experiences and what I read. I asked God to send messages to him from me.
In the winter, I went on walks, helped with the housework, or read, making good progress in the books. My sense of humor and appreciation for beauty improved.
I’m low on paper and don’t want to forget anything important, so I’ll jump ahead two years after they took me in. Thinking I was nearly twenty, I looked in the mirror, but saw only a high school girl. One day, I overheard the Mann say to the Frau,
“How could you tell a thing like that?”
“The same way I can tell a clock has stopped,” the Frau said.
“But then you have markings to use as comparison.”
“We have that here, too: You estimated her age at seventeen before she told us, and Volker also looked his age at seventeen. See this picture of Volker at eighteen, before he left? Does she look older or younger than he?”
“There’s not much difference, and she should look older. Good heavens, you’re right.”
“She’s never told us her birthday. Strange, isn’t it?”
“How can this be possible? She’s not a witch, as you think she is. I’m sure of that.”
“But I’ve heard they age very slowly.”
“An old wives’ tale!”
“A government experiment, then. She said some men chased her here. Maybe she escaped the government. If so, we should return her.”
“This all seems so ludicrous.”
“To me it seems so supernatural, eerie, unnatural. We must question her.”
Hearing her step on the stairs, I rushed back to my room without a sound, closed the door, and hurried to the window. I regained my composure, and turned to face her when she opened the door.
“Sit in the chair,” she said, so sternly I couldn’t disobey.
I sat down without delay. She stood over me; I craned my neck to look at her.
“Who are you?”
“I’ve already told you: I’m Margaret.”
I gulped–no easy thing with my neck in that position. My last name wasn’t at all German. But could it be? I mentally spelled it “Rusch” and pronounced it “roosh,” to fight my ingrained resistance to lying.
“Don’t give me that. I don’t know where you’re from, but you used to have a foreign accent. Now give me your full name as one of your countrymen would say it.”
I rested my neck by staring at the floor. I could barely say, “Margaret Rush.” Yet I sounded more German than American, after such a long time in Germany. I even thought and dreamed in German now, and had a German accent for my own tongue.
“That’s English, isn’t it? Well, isn’t it?”
“So why are you in Germany? Who–what–are you?”
How much would she believe? Anything she wanted to, probably. I prayed that, if it were God’s will, she would take pity on me.
“In America I stopped a German from killing some Jews. He tried to take his revenge on me without killing me, which would be too quick and painless.”
“You’re a Jew-lover! What was his revenge?”
“He abducted me and stuck me in a POW camp here, hoping the women-starved men would rape me, I guess.”
“So you escaped and the guards were chasing you?”
“Yes. Please, as a woman, have pity on me!”
“Why don’t you age? Why doesn’t your hair grow?”
“If I knew, I’d tell you. Trust me.”
“We did trust you. We sheltered you, fed you, even–even let you use our only son’s room and read his letters home. It’s a blessing we never told Volker about you. And all the time we were harboring an escaped prisoner.” She sniffed, then asked me the name of the camp. “You are not going to get us into trouble.” She turned on her heel and stalked out of the room.
I trembled, knowing what she would do.
What could have caused me to stop aging? Whatever it was, it was my betrayer. Maybe crossing the time lines and entering a different time frame had so shocked my body that it stopped aging. If I returned to my own time, the exact moment when I left, the aging process would probably–hopefully–resume.
The next day, after Mittagessen, as I tidied up my room, I overheard the Frau and the Mann:
“She’s done nothing wrong. She has good character. I want to keep protecting her!” yelled the Mann.
“It’s too late. I called them already.” Using the old crank phone I admired so much!
“We are violating hospitality! How can you do this, wife? I will help her escape!”
“If you do, I will tell them what you really think about the Jews.”
Just then, someone rapped on the door.
Strange men’s voices came next, then tramping on the stairs. I opened my window, but, checked by the sight of melting snow in the unseasonable warmth, didn’t jump. As I stared at the once-friendly landscape, a strong hand grabbed my arm and spun me around.
A uniformed man looked me over. “That’s her, all right.”
The Mann was nearby. My eyes pleaded with him for help, but he just stood there, helpless, afraid of the guns.
The other uniformed man said, “Thank you for capturing her. We were in a great deal of trouble when we couldn’t find her.”
“Capturing me?” I said as they led me away. The Frau either lied or withheld information.
I can’t write anything more. This is the last of my letter paper, which of course I can’t use for letters because I have nobody to send them to. Maybe I’ll be out of here in a couple of months.
Written January 9-11, 1945
118 days to go