Long before the war ended, things taken for granted, like socks and tea, onions and soap, disappeared. Without paper or pencils, or even whole textbooks, the fraulein attempted to teach each day. Gaunt-faced, the children huddled at their desks like a listless, colourless sea without a ripple of ambition.
Fair-haired Henning looked angelic, but his blue eyes could not hide a shadow of anguish. The SS had taken his father, and his mother had been killed in a midnight bombing.
The fraulein yearned to give the children, not just Henning, a brief respite from the chaos beyond the dust-streaked windows. For inspiration, she scavenged through her memory and the few books she still owned, the rest having been relinquished to cleansing fires.
“Children, there is a country far away where the sun shines all night long during the summertime. You can swim at midnight, or walk by the river, or have a picnic.”
It had been thoughtless to mention picnics. Picnics would remind them of lemonade, streusel, and sliced ham.
“Ferocious, snow-white eis baer live in this far place. They swim in the ocean, hunting seals.”
A few eyes showed a flicker of interest, and encouraged, Fraulein continued.
“The snow is deep in the wintertime and many people go skiing.”
“Fraulein, how long until summer?” Henning asked.
“When the grass is green. Maybe soon.” But, gardens were buried under rubble, and trees had been shattered by bombs.
The class quieted into disinterest again.
Fraulein leaned forward and whispered, “Do you know about cowboys? Men who ride horses? In America?” It was a risk, speaking of the Allies; even the walls were listening.
There were nods and grins. “All day, cowboys ride, caring for cattle with long horns. They wear wide-brimmed hats, tall boots, and bandanas.”
“I saw a picture of a cowboy on a wild horse,” offered Annelise shyly.
“That’s how they... teach... the horse. The horse tries to get the cowboy off.”
“Do they get hurt?” Henning asked.
“I think, yes. But, cowboys are very brave. They sleep outside and cook over a fire.”
“What kind of food?” Henning swallowed.
Fraulein was careful this time. “Oh, just turnips. And beans.”
The children looked disdainful. Maybe cowboys weren’t so wonderful after all.
“A cowboy says, ‘giddy-up’ when he wants his horse to go, and ‘whoa’ to stop. Can you say, ‘whoa?’”
The children shouted “giddy-up” and “whoa” and spun imaginary lassos over their heads. They practiced saying “howdy” and aiming make-believe six-shooters.
While artillery fire drummed across the sky that night, Henning dreamed. He rode a horse with smoldering red eyes and a smoking mane and tail. It carried him above the turmoil and destruction to a place with green grass and grazing cattle and hot cocoa in a tin can.
“Henning,” his grandmother whispered hoarsely, shaking him. “We must go to the cellar.”
The cellar, where one waited for death.
“Bang, bang, bang,” Henning murmured in the dark, breathing in dust and the sharp smell of fear. His grandmother rocked and prayed, her kerchief pulled over her face.
In the morning, acrid smoke twisted around broken stones and charred timbers, and missing houses looked like gaps in a toothless smile. Henning released his grandmother’s hand and, avoiding the shattered glass, sat down on the step. He heard a deep rumbling and watched a tank maneuver around the corner, pulverizing debris beneath its tracks.
“Whoa,” whispered Henning.
A military truck followed behind, and Henning saw men with bandanas over their faces.
“Whoa,” he repeated, louder. Miraculously, the truck stopped, and a soldier swung down. Henning stared at the man’s American insignia and his dust-crusted bandana.
“You bet, pardner,” chuckled the soldier. The man’s eyes were kind as he examined Henning’s frail body. “Are you okay?”
“Are you hungry?”
Though he understood nothing, Henning nodded enthusiastically, because the words were gentle and caring. The soldier pulled a candy bar from his pocket. Henning’s eyes opened wide in surprise as he turned it over and over. Not turnips? Beans?
“Eat that while I check things out.” The soldier shook his head as he reached for Henning’s grandmother’s hand. “It’s a miracle that anyone’s alive here. Wrecks on wrecks. Amazing. Pretty dang amazing.”
Henning squatted in the glass shards and peeled foil from the candy bar.
“Bang, bang, bang. Whoa!”
“You said it, kid, you said it. It’s over. You’re safe now, pardner.”
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