Annemarie stood in the doorway, watching the mourners as they sat in the candlelit room. Then she turned back to the kitchen and began to help Ellen and Mama as they prepared food.
In Copenhagen, she remembered, when Lise died, friends had come to their apartment every evening. All of them had brought food so that Mama wouldn't need to cook.
Why hadn't these people brought food? Why didn't they talk? In Copenhagen, even though the talk was sad, people had spoken softly to one another and to Mama and Papa. They had talked about Lise, remembering happier times.
Thinking about it as she sliced cheese in the kitchen, Annemarie realized that these people had nothing to talk about. They couldn't speak of happier times with Great-aunt Birte when there had never been a Great-aunt Birte at all.
Uncle Henrik came into the kitchen. He glanced at his watch and then at Mama. "It's getting late," he said. "I should go to the boat." He looked worried. He blew out the candles so that there would be no light at all, and opened the door. He stared beyond the gnarled apple tree into the darkness.
"Good. Here they come," he said in a low, relieved voice. "Ellen, come with me."
Ellen looked questioningly toward Mama, who nodded. "Go with Henrik," she said.
Annemarie watched, still holding the wedge of firm cheese in her hand, as Ellen followed Uncle Henrik into the yard. She could hear a sharp, low cry from Ellen, and then the sound of voices speaking softly.
In a moment Uncle Henrik returned. Behind him was Peter Neilsen.
Tonight Peter went first to Mama and hugged her. Then he hugged Annemarie and kissed her on the cheek. But he said nothing. There was no playfulness to his affection tonight, just a sense of urgency, of worry. He went immediately to the living room, looked around, and nodded at the silent people there.
Ellen was still outside. But in a moment the door opened and she returned—held tightly, like a little girl, her bare legs dangling, against her father's chest. Her mother was beside them.
10. Let Us Open the Casket
"You are all here now," Uncle Henrik said, looking around the living room. "I must go."
Annemarie stood in the wide doorway, looking in from the hall. The baby slept now, and its mother looked tired. Her husband sat beside her, his arm across her shoulders. The old man's head was still bent.
Peter sat alone, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. It was clear that he was deep in thought.
On the sofa Ellen sat between her parents, one hand clasped tightly in her mother's. She looked up at Annemarie but didn't smile. Annemarie felt a surge of sadness; the bond of their friendship had not broken, but it was as if Ellen had moved now into a different world, the world of her own family and whatever lay ahead for them.
The elderly bearded man looked up suddenly as Uncle Henrik prepared to go. "God keep you safe," he said in a firm but quiet voice.
Henrik nodded. "God keep us all safe," he replied. Then he turned and left the room. A moment later Annemarie heard him leave the house.
Mama brought the teapot from the kitchen, and a tray of cups. Annemarie helped her pass the cups around. No one spoke.
"Annemarie," Mama whispered to her in the hall, "you may go to bed if you want to. It is very late."
Annemarie shook her head. But she was tired. She could see that Ellen was, too; her friend's head was leaning on her mother's shoulder, and her eyes closed now and then.
Finally Annemarie went to the empty rocking chair in the corner of the living room and curled there with her head against its soft, padded back. She dozed.
She was startled from her half sleep by the sudden sweep of headlights, through the sheer curtains and across the room, as a car pulled up outside. The car doors slammed. Everyone in the room tensed, but no one spoke.
She heard—as if in a recurring nightmare—the pounding on the door, and then the heavy, frighteningly familiar staccato of boots on the kitchen floor. The woman with the baby gasped and began, suddenly, to weep.
The male, accented voice from the kitchen was loud. "We have observed," he said, "that an unusual number of people have gathered at this house tonight. What is the explanation?"
"There has been a death," Mama's voice replied calmly. "It is always our custom to gather and pay our respects when a family member dies. I am sure you are familiar with our customs."
One of the officers pushed Mama ahead of him from the kitchen and entered the living room. There were others behind him. They filled the wide doorway. As always, their boots gleamed. Their guns. Their helmets. All of them gleamed in the candlelight.
Annemarie watched as the man's eyes moved around the room. He looked for a long time at the casket. Then he moved his gaze, focusing on each person in turn. When his eyes reached her, she looked back at him steadily.
"Who died?" he asked harshly.
No one answered. They watched Annemarie, and she realized that the officer was directing the question at her.
Now she knew for certain what Uncle Henrik had meant when he had talked to her in the barn. To be brave came more easily if you knew nothing.
She swallowed. "My Great-aunt Birte," she lied, in a firm voice.
The officer moved forward suddenly, across the room, to the casket. He placed one gloved hand on its lid. "Poor Great-aunt Birte," he said, in a condescending voice.
"I do know your customs," he said, turning his gaze toward Mama, who still stood in the doorway. "And I know it is the custom to pay one's respects by looking your loved one in the face. It seems odd to me that you have closed this coffin up so tightly." His hand was in a fist, and he rubbed it across the edge of the polished lid.
"Why is it not open?" he demanded. "Let us open it up and take one last look at Great-aunt Birte!"
Annemarie saw Peter, across the room, stiffen in his chair, lift his chin, and reach slowly with one hand toward his side.
Mama walked quickly across the room, directly to the casket, directly to the officer. "You're right," she said. "The doctor said it should be closed, because Aunt Birte died of typhus, and he said that there was a chance the germs would still be there, would still be dangerous. But what does he know—only a country doctor, and an old man at that? Surely typhus germs wouldn't linger in a dead person! And dear Aunt Birte; I have been longing to see her face, to kiss her goodbye. Of course we will open the casket! I am glad you suggested—"
With a swift motion the Nazi officer slapped Mama across her face. She staggered backward, and a white mark on her cheek darkened.
"You foolish woman," he spat. "To think that we have any interest in seeing the body of your diseased aunt! Open it after we leave," he said.
With one gloved thumb he pressed a candle flame into darkness. The hot wax spattered the table. "Put all these candles out/' he said, "or pull the curtains."
Then he strode to the doorway and left the room. Motionless, silent, one hand to her cheek, Mama listened—they all listened—as the uniformed men left the house. In a moment they heard the car doors, the sound of its engine, and finally they heard it drive away.
"Mama!" Annemarie cried.
Her mother shook her head quickly, and glanced at the open window covered only by the sheer curtain. Annemarie understood. There might still be soldiers outside, watching, listening.
Peter stood and drew the dark curtains across the windows. He relit the extinguished candle. Then he reached for the old Bible that had always been there, on the mantel. He opened it quickly and said, "I will read a psalm."
His eyes turned to the page he had opened at random, and he began to read in a strong voice.
O praise the Lord.
How good it is to sing psalms to our God!
How pleasant to praise him!
The Lord is rebuilding Jerusalem;
he gathers in the scattered sons of Israel.
It is he who heals the broken in spirit
and binds up their wounds,
he who numbers the stars one by one...
Mama sat down and listened. Gradually they each began to relax. Annemarie could see the old man across the room, moving his lips as Peter read; he knew the ancient psalm by heart.
Annemarie didn't. The words were unfamiliar to her, and she tried to listen, tried to understand, tried to forget the war and the Nazis, tried not to cry, tried to be brave. The night breeze moved the dark curtains at the open windows. Outside, she knew, the sky was speckled with stars. How could anyone number them one by one, as the psalm said? There were too many. The sky was too big.
Ellen had said that her mother was frightened of the ocean, that it was too cold and too big.
The sky was, too, thought Annemarie. The whole world was: too cold, too big. And too cruel.
Peter read on, in his firm voice, though it was clear he was tired. The long minutes passed. They seemed hours.
Finally, still reading, he moved quietly to the window. He closed the Bible and listened to the quiet night. Then he looked around the room. "Now," he said, "it is time."
First he closed the windows. Then he went to the casket and opened the lid.
11. Will We See You Again Soon, Peter?
Annemarie blinked. Across the dark room, she saw Ellen, too, peering into the narrow wooden box in surprise.
There was no one in the casket at all. Instead, it seemed to be stuffed with folded blankets and articles of clothing.
Peter began to lift the things out and distribute them to the silent people in the room. He handed heavy coats to the man and wife, and another to the old man with the beard.
"It will be very cold," he murmured. "Put them on." He found a thick sweater for Mrs. Rosen, and a woolen jacket for Ellen's father. After a moment of rummaging through the folded things, he found a smaller winter jacket, and handed it to Ellen.
Annemarie watched as Ellen took the jacket in her arms and looked at it. it was patched and worn. It was true that there had been few new clothes for anyone during the recent years; but still, Ellen's mother had always managed to make clothes for her daughter, often using old things that she was able to take apart and refashion in a way that made them seem brand-new. Never had Ellen worn anything so shabby and old.
But she put it on, pulled it around her, and buttoned the mismatched buttons.
Peter, his arms full of the odd pieces of clothing, looked toward the silent couple with the infant. "I'm sorry," he said to them. "There is nothing for a baby."
"I'll find something," Mama said quickly. "The baby must be warm." She left the room and was back in a moment with Kirsti's thick red sweater.
"Here," she said softly to the mother. "It will be much too big, but that will make it even warmer for him."
The woman spoke for the first time. "Her," she whispered. "She's a girl. Her name is Rachel."
Mama smiled and helped her direct the sleeping baby's arms into the sleeves of the sweater. Together they buttoned the heart-shaped buttons—how Kirsti loved that sweater, with its heart buttons!—until the tiny child was completely encased in the warm red wool. Her eyelids fluttered but she didn't wake.
Peter reached into his pocket and took something out. He went to the parents and leaned down toward the baby. He opened the lid of the small bottle in his hand.
"How much does she weigh?" Peter asked.
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