by Jacinta Meredith
I swallowed hard as I looked at the frozen lake in front of me. Despite my promise, I glanced back, almost involuntarily, and then shivered, half expecting to be turned into a pillar of salt. But nothing happened. Nothing was there except the track of snowy footprints I had made behind me. A long line of tracks that would soon extend in front of me as well. I shivered again, almost wishing I had been turned into a pillar of salt.
But I hadn’t, and there was nothing to do but continue. So, I turned and placed one tentative foot on the lake, pulling it back quickly when I thought I heard it crack. There was no sign of a crack, however—nothing but the clear outline of where my foot had pressed, white from the compressed snow. A sudden gust of wind told me I’d been standing in one place too long. Paul was counting on me. With a deep breath, I forced a few confident steps onto the lake. Although there were some crunching sounds, nothing immediately broke, and no arctic water sucked me hungrily to my death, so I began the long, lonely walk across the lake, as fast as my weary legs would carry me, wondering why I, of all people, had been chosen.
“Daddy! Daddy!” The way I was shrieking, my indulgent father doubtless thought I was being kidnapped. As he burst into the room, though, I could almost see the worry lines in his face relax and I could certainly hear the amusement in his tone as he spoke. “Did your candle blow out again, sweet pea?”
“It’s not funny.” I sniffed back the tears that had already made their way down my cheeks and buried my face in the safety of his chest as he scooped me into his comforting arms before magically brandishing a lighted match and relighting the errant candle.
“Now, now, Anna. It’s all right.” He soothed as I continued to sniffle into his shirt, recovering from the trauma of my two-minute ordeal. “See? Nothing got you. You’re still safe.” Gradually, the tears lessened and I calmed, snuggling deeper in the safety of my father’s lap. As far back as I could remember, I’d been terrified of the dark. Positive the nightmares were lurking around every corner, just waiting to pounce as soon as darkness made it safe for them to emerge.
Although it was not the only time my father rescued me from the dark, it was the one time forever etched into my memory. Perhaps because it was the last time. They had come for us the next day. The tall soldiers with their angry, red swastikas that looked like bloodstains. I never saw my father again.
I shook my head to clear it, smiling grimly at the thought of my father seeing me now. Still just as scared, but no one to run to. No one to call to for help. My eyes constantly scanned the invisible horizon, still waiting for those lurking nightmares to appear from the shadows my eyes couldn’t pierce.
Those nightmares had come true the years following mine and my father’s arrest. Age eight to twelve, I was alone amidst a sea of strangers who quickly became my refuge. One by one, each person I knew would disappear, to be replaced by others. For some reason, I was never called to the showers, or the long road trips from which no one ever returned.
After a time, I was the only child left in my cabin, if you could call it that, and the women around me took to concealing me behind them whenever officers conducted inspections, a joint ownership making them determined that one, at least, would survive this nightmare.
They succeeded. I emerged, twelve in body, but much older in spirit, having witnessed more horrors than most of those who escaped with me by virtue of my longevity in the camp. As we all drifted out of the camp, liberated, each went in search of any family who might still be living and, for another four years, I traversed the streets, running errands for bits of money, walking, searching for anyone I might know. Most nights I found an alley to hide in. On cold nights, I’d wrap myself in newspapers and cardboard, curled up behind as much garbage as I could find, ever in fear of those nightmares that always seemed to chase me.
A howl broke me from the memories, and I jumped, my heart skittering. It was just as bitter tonight as it had been those nights, but my warm coat made a world of difference. The warm coat, however, still couldn’t keep the nightmares away. I waited for the wolves to emerge from the shadows, glancing with accusation at the fickle sliver of a moon that seemed determined to give me as little help as possible in my quest as it slipping in and out of passing clouds. But nothing appeared, so I plunged on, half sliding, half trotting on this never-ending lake, my lonely trail of footprints in the snow the only sign I’d been there.
“Anna! Anna!” My aunt’s grating voice shook me out of the world I was immersed in and I set down the book reluctantly, going to the door of my room, looking down the hall at her.
“What?” I asked, my voice gruff, for I already knew what she wanted and she already knew my answer. It was the only thing we fought about.
“It’s time for church.” My aunt declared in a tone that dared me to argue. I did.
“I’m not going.”
As usual, she marched down the hallway to me, the feather on her black hat streaming behind her. “God is the one who brought us through this and let us find each other. The least you can do is come thank Him.”
“I wouldn’t have to if He hadn’t let it happen in the first place.” I retorted.
“Other people’s choices aren’t his fault and the sooner you can come to grips with that, girl, the sooner you’ll be able to let your bitterness go and forgive them that hurt you – and the happier you’ll be.”
“Forgive them?” I looked at her, all the hatred for the Germans in my heart glaring through my eyes. “What planet are you from? You didn’t see what I saw! You weren’t there! You escaped, remember?”
“After I watched them shoot my husband and children. You are not the only one who suffered, child. Stop acting like you are.”
All the passion faded away as quickly as it came and I looked into my aunt’s sad eyes, mirrored by my own. “I can’t forgive them, and I can’t forgive Him, Aunt. I’m grateful to have found you – but running into the old baker in our neighborhood was luck. Not God. God no longer cares about us.”
I went back in my room and closed the door behind me, pretending not to hear the sigh my aunt let loose, as I lay down on my bed and picked my book back up, letting it make the nightmares fade away.
Would this lake never end? I slowed, my aching calves and smarting feet insistent that they must rest. I met them halfway, reducing my pace to a walk, and immediately the silence pressed in around me. Silence that was so much more ominous when I wasn’t rushing through it. I retied my scarf, pulled my hat a little lower, and pulled my gloves tighter as if that would help the biting wind.
The cold made my eyes water, freezing on my cheeks almost before I could blink them away. My heart smarted as much as my cheeks. I wished now that I had gone to church with my aunt. Even if I had not prayed, it would have meant so much to her. But how could I have known that she would die just before my 18th birthday? She hadn’t told me she was sick. Probably because she was afraid to make me more bitter.
Established in the community, no one objected to me maintaining my aunt’s house in Austria, increasing my hours at the factory to pay for it. Just as I was sure my life would be dreary forever, he appeared. The new security officer at the factory was handsome, jovial, and charming. When, of all the girls who mooned over him, Paul’s eye landed on me, I could hardly believe my luck. But time had made me cautious and I refused to move fast. He didn’t mind. For two and a half years, he courted and wooed me, spending evenings in my parlor under the loose supervision of a neighbor for propriety’s sake. Moonlight walks, rides in his fancy motor car, dances and socials — I learned I could laugh and, yes, even love, again, and accepted with joy when he proposed on my 22nd birthday.
Then came the night. Six weeks from our wedding, his arm around me on the sofa as my faithful neighbor knitted in the corner, I finally asked him where he’d been during the genocide of my people.
“Oh, I was in Berlin.” He responded with no sign of concern.
I pulled back to look into his beautiful blue eyes. “In Berlin? Doing what?” Anxiety made my voice sharp. I’d never spoken to him of my experiences, preferring to live in his lightheartedness.
He looked down at me with surprise evident in his face.
“Well, I was 10. At first I just went to school.” He shrugged. “But my dad worked at the newspaper, and later, he hired me as an errand boy. Really, all I did was run messages back and forth from his office and the Fuhrerbunker.”
A sick feeling slithered through me, down my spine, and coiled in my stomach. I scooted away, as if his arm around me were the cause itself. At my reaction, the first looks of concern flitted across his face.
“You worked for the Nazis?” I asked slowly. Distinctly.
I sensed, rather than saw, the neighbor lower her knitting, tuning into the conversation.
He shifted. “Well. I mean. I didn’t really think of it like that. They…had specific things they wanted my father to print, and he needed someone to run messages, so… it was just my job.”
I was standing in the middle of the room without knowing how I’d gotten there. Paul stood as he talked. I couldn’t meet his eyes without wanting to throw up.
“You ran messages—for that murderer?” I dared a single glance at him and caught the sickened look cross his face as understanding began to dawn.
“Anna—I… I was a child. I just did what my father asked me to.”
My neighbor came over and put her arms around me. There, but not interrupting. With her extra support, I raised my head to finally meet his eyes.
“You—you know I’m Jewish, don’t you?”
His normally jovial face turned as white as the fog that sometimes encompassed the city. “But—you—you don’t go to church. You—aren’t religious.”
“They killed my father. My grandparents, my friends—everyone I knew.” I felt like I was floating on top of the ceiling, watching myself talk to this man — this sudden stranger. “I spent years in a concentration camp.”
He took a step toward me, his outstretched hands as ashen as his face. “Anna—Anna—you never said. . . I didn’t—”
I turned and buried my face in my friend’s shoulder, unable to stomach the sight of him.
I had to stop. I sank onto the cold ice, dimly wishing for a rock or log in the middle of this frozen wasteland. I held myself, rocking back and forth, both to keep warm and to stop my memories from drawing out the cries that had pierced my soul as my neighbor forced Paul out the door.
“But, Anna, I was a child! I didn’t know—forgive me!”
But my tears had not assuaged the determination that I would never forgive. Never. Until tonight. I pressed my hands to my ears and squeezed my eyes shut as if that would make the memories, the tears go away, but they pushed in tighter, tighter, screaming for acknowledgement, for me, for my soul. It’d be so much easier to just give in. The nightmares, the darkness, the fear all pressed me, as stifling as if I was in a sinkhole instead of an open lake.
It had been six months.
My neighbor had appeared at my door with a pale face and a beckon to follow her.
I’d pulled back when I recognized Paul’s house, ready to berate her for bringing me there, but the look on her face was unyielding and she shoved me in against my will. I sullenly let her prod me forward, down a hall, and we entered a dark room.
A gasp broke my stubbornness as I looked at Paul on the bed, eyes closed, a pistol on the nightstand beside him, bloody sheets and rags around him. All the blood left my face as surely as if it joined the pile on the bed and I turned a mute inquiry to my neighbor. She only nodded to my side, and I looked to see a whiskered, sober-faced man emerging from the corner.
“You must be Anna.”
It was a statement, not a question, but I nodded anyway. He silently handed me a note. I recognized the handwriting without reading the large “PAUL” scrawled at the end.
Tell Anna I’m sorry. I’ll never forgive myself.
Tears began running down my cheeks without bothering to fill my eyes first and a heart full of bitterness suddenly broke wide open. I dimly became aware of an irritated voice in my ear.
“Stop it. You’re wasting valuable time.”
I forced myself to stop long enough to look at the stern man.
“He’s not dead. Yet.”
My tears vanished as quickly as they’d come and I looked at the still body, surrounded by blood, and then back again. “But—”
“It’s something of a miracle, but somehow the bullet passed straight through without killing him. He’s still clinging to life, barely, and there’s only one surgeon I know of who is good enough to save him, but he’s across the lake.”
“The roads are still blocked and the telephones are out from that blizzard yesterday. The only way I can even conceive of someone alerting him is to find someone to cross the lake by foot. It’s not thick enough to hold a car or probably even a horse — but it should hold a person.” His eyes met mine without blinking.
I drew back. “I—I can’t.”
“Yes, you can.”
“But—it’s dark. It’s—miles. I—why me?”
“Because you have been chosen.”
It might not make much sense to anyone else, but it did to me. A light caressed the cavern left by the bitterness that had broken open. I had been chosen. I must go.
I nodded mutely.
“Go, Anna,” he had exhorted as I left. “Run and do not look back until you get there.”
Run I had, and, despite the dark, my first hesitation had been only as I reached the lake.
Here I was. Wasting time as the nightmares caught me. As the snarls surrounded me. I, chosen? How could someone like me be chosen? How could God allow—something different hit my senses and the pressing around me eased. Just slightly. Just enough for a breath. The sense struck again. A strange shaft of light pierced my closed eyes and I felt my nightmares back away, as if they were the ones being frightened. I dared a peak, opening one of my eyes just a slit. Then both eyes opened wide, and I stood, my hands dropping to my side.
The nightmares. The darkness. Fleeing, as I stared up into a clear night sky filled with colored lights. Sheets of green, blue, and even pink streaked across directly above me.
As I watched, for the first time in my life, the nightmares no longer even lurked. The darkness did not matter. Something filled my soul, and I saw that aurora for what it was. Hope.
A magnificent display of forgiveness, majesty, and possibilities. The visual display of Someone who loved me. Who had chosen me. No more cold, no more aches, no more fears, no more crippling anxiety—nothing but me and the hope before me.
Memories of soldiers and their blood-stained swastikas flashed through my head and the symbols melted away, leaving only broken men chased by their own emptiness and nightmares.
I forgive you. I breathed to the world in general.
As renewed as if I’d had a full night’s sleep, I began running again, toward the twinkling lights that had appeared on the other side of the lake, accompanied by dancing beacons of hope.
Jacinta Meredith is a full-time writer living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. She loves writing stories that show readers how to find hope in difficult circumstances, and spends her free time devouring as many books as possible.