One day Franz accosted me. He grabbed my wrist, and I was frightened by his face.
“Franz, let go of me,” I didn’t want to make a scene. I was a nurse, and a nun besides that.
“Don’t say that, I am not hurting you.” He smiled again, in that same way the first time I met him. It suddenly occurred to me that it was a blank sort of smile. Just on the outside, not a deep true one. I wondered what he was thinking. “I just want you to stay here for a moment; you are always running all over. Catherine, why are you a nun?”
I cringed, and hoped there would be some interruption. I did not want to face that question.
“Oh, I don’t know. I grew up here, you know. I am an orphan; my relatives put me here when I was little. It was just natural to stay.”
“Did you take the vows for life, or whatever nuns do?”
I was reluctant to tell Franz that I was free to go, if I wished. I felt he would take advantage of me and convince me to leave. And for some reason I dreaded the thought of running away with Franz.
“Not for life, I mean, it isn’t that strict here, it more like, you know…I think I hear someone calling me. I’ll be back.”
I slipped away before he had a chance to stop me. I went to see Frederick, hoping he wasn’t asleep.
“Hello, how are you feeling?” I asked him, wanting to sound like a busy nurse checking up on patients.
“What did you want to say, Adele?”
“They call me Catherine, here,” I protested.
“But you look like Adele, I can’t help calling you by it. It is much prettier than Catherine. Was there something you wanted to ask me?”
“No, not really.” He looked so kindly at me, I decided to speak. “Frederick,” it came out very slowly, but naturally. My tongue slipped over it so easily, yet I was embarrassed by saying it. He nodded encouragingly to me. “Frederick, what was it like, outside of the nunnery, before the war?”
“You’ve lived here all your life then, haven’t you?”
“Since I was four. I spent a week with my aunt last spring, that was all.”
“Adele, I don’t remember the first war, the Great War, I was only six when it ended. But I can still see the streets afterwards. My family changed. My father used to be a jocular, happy man, who tossed me up to the ceiling when he came home each day. But after the war he would merely sigh when he saw me. And almost every night, after I was put to bed I could hear my parents shouting and arguing. My mother loved to bake pies and those sorts of things. But after the war we lived very frugally. There wasn’t time for that anymore. Her lovely lips, which kissed me every evening, became thin and perpetually pursed. Her twinkling eyes turned hard and severe. And little by little, as I sat and watched my parents I noticed something creeping into their voice, their faces, and their hearts. It took me a long time to understand. But I do know what it was now. It was hate. They began hating Germany for losing. They hated the victors for being so demanding. And then they hated themselves all the more for being so hateful. I spent my days outside alone, playing. We ate meals together, but they were silent meals. There was nothing to say except bitter complaints. I ran away when I was sixteen to join the army. I do not know if my parents are alive or not. When I listened to Hitler, at first I did not understand why the multitudes followed him. But I slowly began to learn why. It gave me such a satisfactory feeling to do something against someone. I had always tried to love, or at least respect those around me, they were after all, fellow humans. Hitler taught me to despise my friends and harden my heart against those who wanted mercy. Once I let go of the restraints, I couldn’t stop hating people. I hated people who told me what to do, I hated those who had humiliated Germany and forced us to start another war, and on it went. I lived that dark life until one day, in battle. The hatred just burst out of me, and I killed the enemy with such glee and satisfaction. As I looked at the strewn bodies, I realized it was me, it was my fault. I knew these other men had families, and people loved them. Yet my hatred destroyed their lives. Just as my parents were at home waiting for me, these soldiers had parents, perhaps wives and children eagerly awaiting news. They would be having a funeral soon. Because I hated, and did not stop myself. It was that night, as I lay in the dark, when I resolved to stop this foolishness, I would begin to love those who wronged me and my country.” He began to cry, just a little, and I gave him my kerchief. “I see now, after contemplation, that love is the only way to end wars. If we keep holding grudges and hate, we shall keep on fighting for eternity.”
Neither of us said anything for a long time. I was kneeling by his side, on the floor. When he took the kerchief, he did not let go of my hand, but kept holding it, ever so gently I hardly felt the pressure.
“Adele, thank you. I needed to get this out. It is better to let go of the past and move on. You’ve never hated anyone, have you? When you came in to help us, I could see by your face that there was no hatred. And yet no love either. You’ve never loved, have you? It will come, it will come someday. I suppose the only one you can love in a nunnery is God, isn’t it?”
He embarrassed me; I did not know what to say.
“I suppose God is a worthy object of your affection…” he murmured, and I said, as a dutiful nun should, that God is the right and more worthy object of human love. He laughed and said they had trained me well. I did not tell him why I was living in the nunnery, that it was out of fear and cowardice…but I felt he already knew. It just seemed like I didn’t have to tell him very much, for he knew me just by looking at me.