heiko rudolph

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the promise

It was many years ago, 3 weeks before the end of the second World War, late one evening, in the village of Ebbers, in the Austrian Mountains, on the road to Suisse.

The glow of the fire shed a dim light in the small cottage, Nani stared into the flames and dreamt. Her elder brother John would return some time tonight. He was still fixing a tractor on the farm.

The quiet knock on the door intruded slowly on her consciousness.
"Who is it ?" she asked.
It couldn't have been John, he would have hammered on the door and called out impatiently.
"A stranger come for a rest" a voice replied.
Nani cautiously opened the door a crack. She could see a dirty hat, thick beard and alert eyes looking at her quietly. Rain dripped off the man's hat and into his beard. They looked at each other. She wasn't sure what to do. If only he had made a move as if to push in, she would have felt a little justified in shutting the door on him, instead he just stood there looking at her.
"Come in" she said finally.
He entered and had totally looked the cottage over before he took his second step. Seeing only Nani he visibly relaxed. She motioned to a chair near the fire and he took it.
"Would you like something to eat ?".
A faint smile and a slight nod.
He moved aside as she bent down to stir the fire and set the soup to boil again. He was obviously a tramp. His clothes once of good quality were now dirty and torn.
"Still at school ?" he asked her.
"Yes but not for long."
He looked at her quizzically expecting her to say more.
"Another five months" she added reluctantly.
He nodded: "Then what ?"
"I Don't really know... there are many things..."
She didn't really want to think about that topic, too many people had been giving her advice and she did not want any more from him. She preferred not to explain the whole confusing business to a stranger. He did not push her, only nodded as though he'd just heard her thoughts and agreed. She gave him a bowl of soup. He ate.
After some time he looked up and asked her
"what do YOU want to do yourself ?"
She was surprised he still thought about this topic.
"Well I'd like to .... " and she stopped. She didn't really know what she wanted to do, of the many possibilities put to her none had really come from her own heart. He said nothing more and resumed eating, listening to his own thoughts. His bowl finished he spread his hands to the fire. Nani noted his sharp birdlike features. "Where are you going ?" she asked.
He smiled and was about to answer but the sound of a large number of motorbikes and people outside made him halt. A look of intense concentration came into his eyes. His eyes fixed Nani and he slowly imperceptably shook his head. A sharp knock followed by a loud shout to open the door sent her running for the latch. She opened the door a crack. Outside were German soldiers and Austrian policemen. When the Sargent saw Nani's face he stopped barking at her to open and asked in a gentler manner if she was all right.
"Sorry to frighten you, it being late and all. Have you seen a man with a thick beard about this tall ? and he indicated the height with his hand.
"Umm....."
"Did you see anything ?"
Nani looked past him and saw the heavily armed men waiting impatiently.
"You alone tonight ?" the Sargent asked her, obviously wanting some kind of answer from her quickly.
"Yes...yes." she stammered.
"Well then, you be a good girl and shut that door properly ...never know what a guy like that could do to you". With a wide grin he pulled the door shut himself followed by the throaty chuckle of his men. They rode off quickly.
Nani felt tempted to open the door and shout after them, but instead she continued leaning against the door feeling upset but not knowing why. She raised her eyes to find the stranger looking at her quietly. He put on his hat and said: "You've saved my life. Thank you !".
He moved to the door, opened it a crack and stood listening. After a time he nodded to himself
"Don't forget, I will repay - one day.. - ...Lock the that door" and he was gone.

An hour later John returned, full of excitement telling her about the soldiers he'd met on the way. In a gush of words he told her about how many there were, what kinds of guns they had and how desperate the fugitive was.
"I'm glad you were here" he added. "That man sounded really dangerous from what the Sargent told me. He sent me back to you actually." He didn't say in what words the Sergeant had expressed himself about Nani and her need for protection.

The next day she heard that the man the soldiers had been looking for was killed while crossing the border to Switzerland. Some said he was killed just inside the Swiss border.

***************************

Many years later Nani married Peter. They lived in Montreux on Lake Geneva. Three children followed over 7 years. The eldest was Frank, then Astrid and Katie the youngest.

Katie was 5 years old when the family went on a picnic near the lake. Frank was an excellent swimmer and enjoyed water sports of all kinds. On this particular Sunday afternoon a friend of the family had brought down a small boat. While the adults were busy talking, Frank took his sisters for a ride in the boat. When the first raindrops fell the dults hurriedly packed their picnic blankets and looked to find the children.
They spotted them a long way from the shore out on the lake. A storm was coming down in full force and the rain and wind whipped up the lake into a tossing battlefield. The children were in danger. Nani and Peter ran for help.

Frank was unaware of the weather until rain hit them. Astrid and Katie thought the waves a lot of fun at first. Frank had already started to head for the nearest landmark. Only when the wind really increased and lightning zig-zagged across the sky did they realize that this was a serious situation. Astrid comforted Katja and Frank was busy keeping the nose of the boat into the wind. A large wave caught them and capsized the boat. Frank quickly surfaced and looked for his sisters. He could see no one. The boat was already a fair way off. He swam towards it to see if they under it or near it. Grasping the side of the boat he almost cried with relief when he saw that help had already arrived. A man with a dirty beard and thin face, held both his sisters between himself and the boat. Katie and Astrid were a little anxious but quite safe. He held on next to them and the man. He looked at the man's face, No-one he knew, but there was no fear in his face so he didn't feel afraid any more either. It was impossible to talk in this storm so they all just held on tightly.
The wind blew them across the lake.

When the storm subsided a little they could shout at each other. Much later, they saw land ahead, trees bent over in the wind. The waves washed them into a small bay. As soon as they felt ground under their feet the children ran up the beach. Their boat was washed ashore behind them.

The bearded man pointed to a nearby house and the children ran to it. Frank had to carry Katie, who was shivering with cold. When they reached the front door they found they knew the family there. The Police and Nani and her husband were notified. As the children told their story Nani grew very quiet. In the description of the man in the lake she recognized the stranger of the night the soldiers came for years ago....

oooOOOooo

First written in:
- Japan, Akita Prefecture, 1987,
- edited 1998
- revised October 2001.
Inspired by Japanese folk stories such as those collected by Lafcadio Hearn in his book:
"Kwaidan - stories and studies of strange things"
Charles E. Tuttle 1971 Tokyo.

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2003 heiko rudolph

'dance me to the children that are asking to be born....'    Leonard Cohen