Don’t worry about the future. It will be no match for you.” Mama’s words echoed in my ears as the vast thickets of trees gave way to a forest of cement, stone, steel, and brick as the train entered Berlin and I left all trace of her behind. It was hard to heed her advice just then, but she’d never led me astray.
I pulled my worry stone from the secret pocket I had furtively sewn in my new brown traveling dress. I held the rock in the palm of my left hand and rubbed it with my right thumb.
Twelve years earlier, Mama took me to the bank of the stream that ran by our house. She took a stone from the bed of the stream and another from dry land beside it. “Liebchen, do you see how the water has made the stone smooth? The water has washed over it until the rough edges had no choice but to yield. You carry the same power within you.” She tossed the smooth stone back into the stream and handed me the small hunk of pinkish-white quartz that she had picked up from the muddy bank. “When your stomach begins to tighten, your shoulders begin to seize up, or when you can’t seem to fit air in your lungs no matter how hard you try, take this in your hand, concentrate on rubbing the stone, and let it take your troubles away like the stream rushing over the stone. It won’t happen in a day, but you’ ll learn to smooth the jagged edges of worry that pierce your gut.”
That Mama’s suggestion worked didn’t surprise me at all. Mama knew how to fix every ailment that ever presented itself to her. That she knew exactly how it felt when my nervousness overcame me was what stole my breath. Some of the children in Teisendorf said Mama was a witch. I wasn’t sure they were entirely wrong. But if it were true, she had been a kind and benevolent one, so I didn’t much care if she was.
I didn’t care if she was a witch, a goblin, or Father Christmas. I wanted her back.
But she was gone, and I was on my way to live with Uncle Otto and Aunt Charlotte.
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I also understood Papa’s reasoning for sending me to Uncle Otto and Aunt Charlotte to finish up my last year of schooling. They lived in the city and would be able to give me opportunities that he living in a small town could not. I understood why Papa wanted to send Pieter and Helmut to boarding school. He was too busy with his work at the shop to give two young boys the attention they needed. But just because I could make sense of it didn’t make it hurt any less.
Mama had been my monolith. Unmovable and constant like a star in the night sky to help me find my way. I kissed her cheek on the way out the door to school two weeks ago and came home to an ashen-faced Papa announcing that she’d been killed by a careless driver. There would be no funeral. No memorial. No viewing.
With all that was going on in the country, Papa thought such things were an extravagance. I got no chance to say goodbye.
And now it seemed the Führer would get the war he’d been begging for, and I was headed away from my beloved green hills right to the center of the hornet’s nest. Exactly where I had no desire to be. The train groaned to a stop in the Berlin Hauptbahnhof and I wanted nothing more than to stay in my place until the train returned to Teisendorf. But I stood, shaking as I grabbed my valise, and walked down the aisle.
“My goodness, this young woman cannot be little Hannchen,” Aunt Charlotte said as I stepped onto the platform. She was as tall and reedy as my father’s brother was short and stocky. She had long, glistening honey-blond hair that was coiffed to perfection while he covered his bald pate with a brown porkpie hat. The contrast between them had always struck me, but it seemed even more distinct now as she greeted me with an ebullient smile and he with a silent scowl. She kissed my cheeks and Uncle Otto took my one suitcase wordlessly.
“I was expecting a girl, but your father sent us a young woman!” Aunt Charlotte breathed as she held me at arm’s length to look at me. “Isn’t that right, Otto?”
“Quite the grown lady,” he agreed, his eyes scanning me from head to foot. For a fleeting moment I felt like a promising cow at a livestock auction. I rubbed my stone discreetly in my palm behind my back as he looked me over.
I hadn’t seen my aunt and uncle in more than six years. I’d been barely approaching the threshold to adolescence then and more than likely had been covered from head to toe in dirt from scouring the woods for wild herbs and mushrooms to use in Mama’s medicines. Today, I was scrubbed fresh, my hair neatly styled, and was wearing one of two new dresses Papa had bought for me so I’d have something decent to wear in the big city. I feared I looked like the poor country relation, and rumpled to boot, after the better part of the day cooped up on the train, but I hoped to at least meet with their approval on first impression.
“You must be exhausted, my dear. Let’s get you home so you can rest and eat, shall we?”
“The School for German Brides”
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I nodded my approval and they escorted me to Uncle Otto’s shining gleaming black Mercedes-Benz. It probably cost twice what our home in Teisendorf did, and I was afraid I’d somehow spoil it just by looking at it. It was a half-hour ride from the center of town to the villa where they lived in the Grunewald district. I felt a frisson of relief as the trees became denser and the houses much larger and more dispersed. These mansions seemed too vast for single families. Manicured lawns and pristine gardens weren’t the same as the rambling woods but at least there was the comfort that their neighborhood wasn’t as cold and foreign as the heart of the city.
Uncle Otto pulled up the curved drive in front of the house where a uniformed man took his place behind the wheel, presumably to park the car in a garage. I looked up at the sprawling villa and wished I could vanish on the spot. I’d need breadcrumbs to find my way from my bedroom to the dining room if I didn’t want to starve. I tried not to appear overawed but was sure I was failing in the attempt.
Inside, Aunt Charlotte showed me to an impressive suite of rooms down the corridor from their own. “This is where you will stay while you’re with us,” she said. The bedroom was the size of the kitchen and parlor of my parents’ house combined and had deep crimson damask wallpaper and heavy oaken furniture with stark white linens to lighten the room. There was a sitting room with a freshly polished desk and an adjacent bathroom with a cavernous claw-footed tub as well. It was elegant and tasteful, and seemed more suited to an important guest and not a visiting niece.
“I really don’t need anything this grand,” I said. “Please don’t go to any trouble on my account.”
“Nonsense, darling. You’re the daughter of the house as far as your uncle and I are concerned. We’re determined to see your education finished and send you off into adulthood properly. It’s the least we could do for your poor mother.”
“You’re very kind,” I said, bowing my head, now worried I’d offended her somehow.
“You’ve had a few hard weeks, my dear, but I know you’re the clever sort. You’re going to make good use of your time here. And if you can enjoy yourself in the meantime, all the better. I’ve taken the liberty of buying you a few personal things. Nightgowns and such. I think I’ve done all right for size, but if there’s anything amiss, just let me know and we’ll set it right.”
I opened my mouth to protest that I had plenty of clothes but thought it might be unkind. Aunt Charlotte was childless, after all, and perhaps had always longed for a daughter to dress and fuss over. Mama would want me to accept her generosity with grace, though it felt disloyal to get motherly affection from anyone else.
She left me to rest until supper. Though I was bone-weary, I knew that if I laid my head on the decadent goose-down pillows I’d not wake until morning unless roused with a bucket of ice water. The process of unpacking took only minutes, though I agonized over where to put my one photo of Mama. My belongings probably made the room look shabbier, but at least it felt somewhat more familiar. I looked in the drawers to find starched white nightgowns with the hem and cuffs trimmed in tatted lace and silky underthings finer than I’d ever owned. I opened my case and wondered why I’d bothered to pack. As I placed them away, I knew my own clothes would look grungy in comparison to all the lovely things Aunt Charlotte had procured. Silly as it was, I began to almost feel sorry for them and the months they would likely spend relegated to the back of the drawer.
Aimie K. Runyan is a bestselling author of historical fiction. She has been nominated for a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer of the Year award and two Colorado Book Awards. She lives in Colorado with her husband and two children.