Copyright is held by the author.
NICHOLAS, MONIKA says when she hears the chains rattle.
Maria does not know the Russian soldier’s name. Monika, her daughter, has christened him Nicholas because his chains remind her of the chains St Nicholas rattles to frighten recalcitrant children at Christmas time. So Nicholas he has become.
Outside, the Feldwebel detaches him from the train of prisoners, points to the garden that he is to turn over, and kicks him in the rear to move him on his way, while the rest march to repair a bombed bridge.
He stumbles with his legs shackled. Maria wonders whether he would not do a better job in the garden unshackled. Perhaps he will run away, although he hardly looks like he has strength to do much of anything. She has a few potatoes left and will offer him one at lunch to build up his strength; although to do so could mean trouble.
As the widow of a war hero, Eisernes Kreuz 2 Klasse, she is allowed certain indulgences, like having someone turn over her garden.
Monika stirs and wants her breakfast. From the kitchen window Maria observes the Russian soldier kneel in the soil and slowly crumble it through his fingers. He does this every day. A talisman that he is still alive?
At mid morning they go outside. The Russian soldier hears the door slam and stops his work. His face and clothes — rags really — are the colour of the soil. If he were to lie on the ground he would chameleon-like disappear and not have to return to prison. With black eyes he watches Monika search for wildflowers. Then he turns and continues his work.
At the well Maria fills a water bucket, which she places at the next furrow. She waits for him to turn; when he does she makes scooping movements with her hand, indicating he can drink the water. He does not come close, which is a blessing because of the smell. As she edges closer she can see that he is crying.
She makes gestures to question whether he is hurt. He does not understand but continues crying. In his right hand he holds a crumbled paper which he quickly hides.
Maria steps forward and he withdraws, knowing that a boundary has been violated. Quickly he scoops a handful of water and begins to turn the soil anew.
For lunch she brews malz coffee, and boils two potatoes. Anton watches her: she has placed his picture in every room, afraid that she will forget what he looks like although she dreams of him every night.
The picture in the kitchen, where she spends most of her time, is the most recent. He is wearing his Wehrmacht uniform, newly laundered during his last leave. She looks out at the Russian soldier and wonders how such pathetic creatures were able to destroy her exemplary husband. She should hate him but how can you hate a shadow?
She recalls Anton’s last letter. The one where he jokes that the Russian prisoners tell their captors that soon two new generals will arrive to drive them from their land: General Mud and General Winter. Even as the autumn of October arrived, Anton was still in good spirits.
Anton’s portrait is the last thing she sees at night and the first thing in the morning. It makes him real, although nothing exists. A direct mortar hit. Perhaps he is not dead; one day he will walk through the door. Consequently, she does not mourn. To do so would break the spell of hope.
Maria looks at his picture for acceptance but her mind is already made up. If discovered it could go bad for her and there is her daughter to think about. Anna, her sister, will take care of Monika, if things go bad.
The potatoes boil and she turns down the gas.
Maria calls him for lunch. Usually she leaves a tin plate from which he ravenously scoops his lunch with his hand. She has dispensed with spoon and fork. Table manners are a luxury he cannot afford.
He approaches cautiously, his leggings sounding like Christmas bells. He looks for his food. She gestures for him to come inside after he washes his face and hands. He shakes his head. Discovery means death. But she coaxes him with hand gestures, pointing to the pump and then moves her hand in an eating motion. While he hesitates, she returns inside.
Inside, it smells of cooking, the familiar smell of potato. All that is missing is the smell of cabbage to take him back to his mother’s kitchen. The table is set with plates and cutlery and cups.
When she turns she does not recognize him. His face is clean and he has pushed his wet hair back on his head; his hands and chest are as clean as the lye soap can get. She gestures for him to sit down and serves him a boiled potato and greens. He wants to grab it; his hands shake as he restrains himself. She pours a black liquid that smells faintly of licorice.
Maria sits across from him and he begins to eat ravenously. He uses a spoon to break the potato, shoveling the lovely starchy taste into his mouth.
Langsam, slowly, she tells him to savour the meagre food.
He looks up at the picture of Anton. Points his spoon at him and then at her. She nods. With his left index finger he slashes his throat and she is appalled by his brutality. He drinks some of the black liquid and then finishes his potato.
Vermisst vor Moskau, missing outside Moscow, she finally says. He recognizes the name and he pulls out the crumbled paper and begins to cry.
A photo of a man in uniform and woman and baby girl; his family, she assumes.
Monika comes into the kitchen searching for her. She stops when she sees her mother watch a strange man cry.
Bist du mein Papa? Are you my father? She asks.
Her spell of hope collapses and her tears join those of the Russian soldier.