Margaret lived alone, in the old stone house, and no one came to visit. She went out every morning to feed the chickens and milk the cow. During the day she would weed the garden and tidy up the house. And in the evening she sat and stared at the fire until it died away into blackness, and then she would go to bed.
It was true, when she was younger she had friends, there was Loise, and Sophie, they were once good friends. But Loise went away to Berlin, with her husband. Although Sophie still lived in the village, she had three children already, with another on the way, and the two women were no longer close. Margaret could not bear to visit Sophie’s house, with the merry prattle of children all around, a house full of brightness, hope and energy. And Sophie was not sure how to speak to Margaret, how to comfort her old friend after the miscarriage…
Both the doctor and midwife were called for the delivery. It was early, and unexpected—Margaret and Nikolaus were worried. Elsteraue had a doctor, a new-fangled addition to the village, and the old midwife, who had been around longer than any of the women could remember. The baby was born in the morning, and Sophie decided that by late afternoon Margaret would have enough time to rest, and perhaps she could help around the house and let Margaret relax. So she gathered up some blankets, a jar of her own jam, a loaf of freshly baked bread, and a few other things, put them in her basket and set out to visit Margaret. But as she approached the house, she felt something wasn’t quite right. Even the air seemed to bode ill as she went closer. She was ready to knock on the door when she heard a scream.
“No…not my baby!”
It was Margaret.
Sophie paused and did not knock.
“Margie, come, lay down, don’t go over there,” Sophie could hear Nikolaus pleading.
“What’s wrong with my baby? Don’t let her die! Nikki, do something, please…don’t let her die!”
“Margie, don’t get up, lay down, let me cover you up. Everything will be alright…”
And Sophie suddenly heard the crack of breaking glass.
“She’s dead! And we didn’t do anything! Nothing! Now it is too late,” Margaret cried. There was the sound of fabric rent in pieces, chairs knocked over, and more glass shattering.
“Nikki…our baby is dead…” Margaret’s shrieking ripped through the calm of dusk.
Sophie backed away from the door, and as Margaret’s voice followed, she began to run—she ran all the way back to her home, frightened and disturbed by what had come over Margaret.
After that, she didn’t know what to say to Margaret, and so they slipped apart, Sophie consumed with her own family and home, Margaret enveloped by her husband and their love, until he left. Then the sounds, the sights, the smells of her past haunted her every moment.
She would hear someone out walking on the road and jump up, for it sounded just like her father, returning from the war. She made soup, and the aroma of the spices brought back her childhood, those cheery nights with her mother—just the two of them, dunking thick wedges of bread in their soup. Margaret would tell stories to her mother about her day’s adventures, what she played with Nikolaus, and what they discovered together.
And then Margaret’s mother became the child, and Margaret had to grow up quickly, in order to take care of her. She didn’t have time to go out and join in on the plans of her friends, she sat at home, in a chair beside her mother, next to the window so she could watch the day pass, and they talked together. Margaret’s mother talked a great deal of nonsense, and Margaret quietly assented to what she said, not wanting to disturb her little world. And sometimes, just sometimes, Margaret wished she could escape into her own world too, where life was always happy and there was always the expectation of it becoming even happier.
“Your father will be home soon from his business, won’t he?”
Margaret’s mother pushed the war out of her mind, it didn’t exist for her, and she believed her husband was in Berlin, on a business trip.
“Yes, it will be very soon.”
“And he will bring lovely things back to us, chocolates, and silks, and lace…” and she would go on all day, dreaming of a better life that would never come.
But Margaret wasn’t patient all the time.
“You don’t want Papa to come home, do you?” her mother said one day, in an accusing voice. “You don’t want him to come back because he’ll make you stop seeing that boy from the village. I suppose you hope he’ll be killed on the way home, or something dreadful will happen to stop him.”
“Mother! What are you talking about?”
“That boy, Fredrick, you’re always sneaking out to see, and you know Papa doesn’t approve. It would be just like you to secretly hope Papa never returns. And then you’ll probably sit around and wait for me to die, and then go off and marry Fredrick.”
“I will not let you sit and say those lies!”
“It isn’t a lie—it is the truth, I know it! You go off every morning to see him…”
And Margaret rushed out of the house, slamming the door behind her. She ran, not knowing where, just running away.”
“Margie! What’s wrong?” She heard a familiar voice.
She stumbled and fell on Nikolaus, nearly knocking him over.
“Nikolaus?” she asked, as if in a daze.
“Yes, it is me. Are you alright? What’s going on?”
He held her steady while she wiped the tears from her face.
“Come sit down, this log will do, tell me what happened.”
“Oh, Nikki, I am so tired of everything, this isn’t what life is supposed to be. I am young, I want to live, I want to do so much, but I can’t.”
“Nikki, I live with a crazy woman. My mother isn’t in her right mind anymore. You’ve been so busy with your farm, and your family, we haven’t talked for so long. But she’s crazy now. She sits and talks of my father coming back from Berlin, she asks where my little brother is, and I have no brother or sister. I am tired of it all.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yes, Nikki, of course I am serious. You can come see for yourself.”
“How long has this been going on?”
“Since at least the spring, it started quite a while ago, but didn’t get bad until then. It has been fine, but today she said I didn’t want Papa to come back from Berlin because I wanted to marry some boy Papa didn’t approve of.” She tried to laugh, a tight and strained laugh. “I just couldn’t take it anymore, she is so unreasonable, there’s nothing I could do to stop her from prattling on.”
“Doesn’t anyone come out from the village to visit?”
“Not much. Sometimes a few of the ladies make some jam or soup and bring it out, but they never stay long. I think they’re afraid of my mother, they don’t know what to do around her.”
“So it is just the two of you, all the time?”
“Who else would come?” she said, almost bitterly, “so of course it is just us.”
Nikolaus was silent for a moment and finally spoke.
“Margaret, my father has some jobs for me to do today, otherwise I’d come home with you right now. But I’ll come over tomorrow to see you, alright?”
“I don’t want to take you away from your work and everything…”
“It is fine, I don’t mind, really.”
“Thank you, Nikki, thank you. I didn’t realize how lonely I was, until today. I’ll look forward to seeing you tomorrow.”
“Will you be alright going home by yourself?”
“If I can’t walk home by myself, I am not much good for anything. I’ll be fine. Thank you again, Nikki. Good-bye.”
Margaret slowly walked home, thinking of Nikolaus and his kindness to her. There were many pretty girls in the village who would give anything to have Nikolaus look their way, and yet he was still so thoughtful to Margaret.
When she entered the house she didn’t seem to mind her mother’s fretting and childish whining over her absence.
“Mother, there will be someone visiting us tomorrow, so you must look your best.”
Margaret rushed around the house, straightening the furniture, plumping the pillows and dusting the shelves.
“Who is coming? Is your father returning already?”
“No, not father,” she said quietly. “Someone else. A friend of mine.” “I didn’t think you had any friends.”
Despite her buoyant mood, this sharp statement left her stunned for a moment, before recovering herself.
“Well, mother, I suppose this will be quite a surprise to you, but I do have at least one friend,” she returned briskly.
The rest of the day seemed to drag so slowly, and it was with a sigh of relief that she helped her mother into bed, and collapsed—weary, but happy—on her own bed.
Margaret was up early the next morning, straightening the house again and worrying about if Nikolaus would come at a mealtime, and what to prepare.
She helped her mother dress, and they both sat in silent expectation, until Margaret began to worry that maybe Nikki wasn’t coming until later in the day. Her mother grew tired of sitting for so long, and was irritable.
“I don’t know what you meant by someone coming to visit, I can’t think of anyone who would want to visit us. Whoever it was probably just lied, and doesn’t mean to come at all.”
She went on like this longer and longer, Margaret was growing desperate.
At last there were footsteps outside. Margaret jumped up and ran to the door.
“It is Papa returning!” Her mother cried joyfully, “He has come back at last!”
“No, Mama, it is my friend coming to visit.”
“But it sounds just like Papa—you are telling lies again.” Margaret was ready to retort, but there was a knock at the door. She smiled and opened it slowly.
“Oh, hello Nikolaus, it is so good to see you. Please come in.”
“Mother, this is my friend Nikki, he came to see us.”
“Hello, Mrs. Bachmeier, it has been a long time since I’ve seen you.”
He spoke in polite and quiet tones, but was shocked to see how frail and small Margaret’s mother had become. Like a child. Her eyes betrayed her simplicity and childishness. He said nothing of this to Margaret though, they both knew it, why talk about?
“Nikki, please sit down.”
They both sat down awkwardly and silently.
“So where are you from, boy?”
Margaret winced at her mother’s overbearing voice.
“I live just up the road, on my family farm,” Nikki answered patiently.
“I suppose you help your family and are a credit to them.” Margaret’s mother sighed. “What a blessing that would be—Margaret here is nothing but trouble. She doesn’t lift a finger more than she has to, it makes life so difficult.”
Nikolaus glanced at Margaret. Her eyes were filling with tears. He slipped his hand over her’s and held it tightly.
Margaret smiled, and was glad for once of her mother’s failing eyesight—seeing Nikolaus holding her hand would surely incite much fury.
“So, I see you have a nice garden, Mrs. Bachmeier, is it growing well?”
“Oh yes, the peas are just gorgeous, plump and juicy. I am so eager for Heinreich to get back, he will be so happy.”
Nikolaus gave Margaret a questioning glance.
“My dead father,” she whispered.
Margaret’s mother rattled on and on, Nikolaus always patiently replying. At last he stood up and said,
“Well, I really need to get back to my farm. But I was wondering if Margaret could come over some time and visit.”
Margaret stood up, shocked at his daring. My mother would never allow it, she seemed to say silently.
“I’ve heard Margaret is very good at knitting, and my younger sister has such a time with knitting, she just can’t get it right. Perhaps Margaret can come and show her how to do it properly? It would make my mother so happy if my sister learned how to knit.”
“Well…” Margaret’s mother sat deliberating, and Margaret was trembling with fear, that she might say no. “I suppose she can, she is rather good at knitting, and if it would make your mother happy.”
“Yes, yes, it would. Thank you so much,” Nikolaus said, “can she come tomorrow evening?”
“I suppose it is best to get it over with…yes, she can go.”
“Thank you, Mama, thank you.”
Margaret led Nikolaus to the door.
“I have no younger sister,” he whispered.
“Yes, I know,” she smiled.
“But don’t forget to bring your needles anyways, to make your mother happy. I will come by to get you tomorrow evening. Good bye!” “Good bye, Nikki—and thank you!”