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The Days of Unleavened Bread, Chapter 16

The first snowflakes fluttered down, but they fell on soil that was still warm and they soon melted. Robert had his heart set on a sledge. Those in the shops were expensive. I kept putting off the purchase with promises: "Just let mummy earn a little more money, then we'll go to the shop to get the sledge."
.... In the evening we wrote a letter to Santa Claus. We put Robert's shoes, clean and well-polished, on the window-sill. Santa Claus would put a present in them.
.... There was a knock at the window.
.... "Who is it?"
.... "Santa Claus," said a voice outside.
.... Robert ran to the door and opened it.
.... "A sledge! Mummy, I got a sledge!" Robert exclaimed joyfully, and then ran out into the yard, from where I could soon hear an excited cry:
.... "Thank you, Uncle Boris, for showing Santa Claus the way to our house."
.... When the nights were cloudless, it turned cold, and the snow that fell usually lay on the ground. A beautiful, sunny day dawned. In the afternoon the breeze died down and it was pleasant outside in our warm winter clothing.
.... As we were leaving the house, I turned back and saw my father standing on the steps gazing after us. A white track in the snow, beaten down mostly by children's footsteps and sledges, led like a long, winding ribbon towards the hill overlooking the village.
.... Up on the hill, they had hidden behind a thick tree-trunk. They greeted me with snowballs.
.... "Fine gentlemen you are, the two of you against one lady."
.... "Uncle Boris, let's take mummy into our group."
.... "I don't know if she would agree to join us," Boris replied with a meaningful smile.
.... Robert's ringing, childish laughter, the snowball fight and the joyful tobogganing made me feel the warmth of a complete family. Was it fate playing tricks on us, according to some strange law of its own, and were we so helpless sometimes, so unable to direct its course? Then I was overcome by fear; what if Boris proposed to me? I was afraid that at a moment like that I might give in.
.... We took the same path home, only now it was somewhat wider. Robert wanted to pull the sledge himself. I thought about how time had flown, how Boris and I had run in the same way, pulling our sledges, and now there we were with our worries and with questions to which it was difficult to find an answer.
.... "Robert is a lively and happy boy, he's a joy to behold. Is he always so cheerful?" asked Boris.
.... I lied, I said he was always like that. He was as cheerful as that only when Boris was with us, but I wasn't prepared to admit that.
.... Then Boris said:
.... "That means he doesn't mind my being here, he's behaving so freely, as if we were always together."
.... "You're an old friend, and Robert has got used to you. People don't often come to call on us, so you're like an old acquaintance, a good uncle, and a good friend of Santa Claus."
.... Boris took me by the hand, stopped, turned to face me and grabbed my other hand. Was it happening, the thing I had been dreading? He suggested we should always be together like this, the three of us. He spoke slowly, emphasizing each word, as if he was afraid to stop talking, because then I would start to speak. Finally he said, smiling, that he couldn't take no for an answer.
.... What was I to say to him? How could I explain what I felt? What if I said yes and one day Alfred contacted me? But perhaps this was my only chance of starting a family and of ensuring a happy childhood for my son.
.... Boris asked me outright whether I would marry him. I had expected him to ask me that, and yet his question found me unprepared. I was silent for a while, and then Boris said:
.... "There are only two possibilities, Lisa, either you want to or you don't. You must have reached some conclusion by now. I'd like you to tell me what it is, now."
.... "I don't know what to say. I can see that Robert likes you, he's always glad to see you; I've been expecting your proposal and sometimes I've looked forward to it, but then other thoughts would come."
.... "If it's just because of Robert, then tell me so at once. In that case marriage would be pointless. Perhaps Robert and I would be happy, but how long would that last, if you were always so glum?"
.... These words frightened me. He seemed to have said them too glibly. I had expected him to be persistent, to argue and try to persuade me, not to behave as if he didn't much care either way. Was it just a psychological trick, the tactics of an experienced warrior dealing with a puny adversary?
.... I told him I would marry him, but that I wanted the wedding to take place in the spring, on my birthday.
.... "Lisa, may I kiss you now?"
.... Without waiting for an answer, he drew me close to him, holding me so tight that it took my breath away, and he kissed me.
.... We came into the yard holding hands. My father was standing on the doorstep, smiling, as if he knew everything already. He congratulated us and said that we were more old-fashioned than he was. He had been expecting this for a long time, and it had taken us ages.
.... The snow had hidden the mud and the dirt under its white mantle. You couldn't hear the rattle of cart-wheels, now fixed to sleigh runners. There was a white snow-covered trail and sleigh-tracks running down the street. The chestnut branches were sprinkled with snow and hoar-frost, and when the scarce winter sun peeped through the clouds, the tiny crystals sparkled, so that the avenue looked like a line of decorated Christmas trees lit up by a myriad candle-flames. It was as if nature wanted to make up for something that was no longer there. Christmas trees were no longer decorated at Yuletide. Religious customs were being abandoned, and Christmas was celebrated in secret, within the walls of one's home, after people came back from work, because Christmas was now a working day.
.... Boris had brought a small spruce, which Robert and I decorated on Christmas Eve. This time we didn't put it next to the window, because we didn't want it to be seen from outside. Beneath the tree, on a small heap of straw, sat Alfred's little amber dog, as it did every Christmas.
.... The New Year's party was to be held at the Army Club. Boris did his best to persuade me, begging me to go with him. I couldn't say yes, not yet, at least not that year. I excused myself, saying I had a cold and a headache. I knew Boris didn't believe me, but he didn't insist, as if he understood.
.... On the feast of Epiphany, the parish priest visited the Catholic houses to bless them, so that they could start the new year with God's blessing. Before the war and during the war, the parish priest would visit all the houses in turn. He no longer did so because many families were afraid of the new government, and some had joined the Party and broken with the Church.
.... The priest and the sacristan made the rounds of the houses and only went into the houses where they were invited. The sacristan wrote the usual inscription at the top of the door: 19+C+M+B+55.
.... Whenever our house was blessed, I always remembered something that happened when I was little: after the ceremony, when my mother had thanked the priest and given the sacristan some money, I pushed my way forward, went up to the priest and said boldly, "Reverend father, I know what those three letters on the door mean."
.... "That's nice, let's hear."
.... "Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar."
.... The priest patted my hair, smiling gently, and gave me a pretty coloured picture, showing Jesus Christ with a big heart on his chest, from which rays of light shone forth.
.... "Say 'thank you' to the reverend father, my mother reminded me.
.... Once, later on, while I was going through my keepsakes, I came across the picture given me by the priest, which I had shown people proudly, saying it was a reward from the priest because I knew the meaning of the three letters on the door. On the back of the picture there were three letters: C - M - B - Christus Mansionem Benedicat (Christ blesses this home).
.... A south wind had started blowing and the glassy icicles had started weeping, with a profusion of teardrops falling from the eaves, while rivulets of water ran from the twigs on the chestnut trees, white with frozen snow and hoar-frost crystals, down the branches and the furrows in the bark.
.... The wedding was to take place on my birthday, and that was when the chestnuts were in bloom. The snow disappeared virtually overnight. The meadow was sprinkled with the tender green of the first blades of grass, and the buds were already swelling on our chestnuts.
.... "Now I can die in peace, Lisa," said my father.
.... He had been afraid because I had no income, there was the child, and who would want a girl with a child, and a Hun as father to boot. Many of the young men of my generation had been killed, while the others had long since married. Boris, who had always been my parent's choice for me, had come, in my father's opinion, as a real saviour.
.... "If only your mother had lived to see this. She loved Boris like her own son," said my father.
.... Father and Robert had gone to sleep long ago. I was getting ready for tomorrow's wedding. All day the house had been full of women. The cakes had been baked, and the round cakes were cooling in the cellar.
.... The clock on the church steeple struck midnight. I counted the chimes... They seemed endless, the sound was so loud it upset me. When I closed my eyes, it got even louder. I pulled the quilt over my head, but it didn't help. Finally everything grew quiet. I drew aside the curtain and gazed at the crowns of the chestnuts. The white clusters of chestnut blossom were bathed in moonlight. How beautiful they were!
.... I dreamed I was standing in the middle of my room, in front of the mirror. I was wearing a lovely wedding dress. The hem touched the floor, and when I moved, a long train trailed on the floor behind me. I had a white wreath on my head, made of chestnut blossoms. In my hand I had a bouquet of snow-white calla lilies. Who were those people in the street, and why were they standing so still, dressed in black? Why was I here alone? Where was the bridegroom? I went out of the house, walking slowly, because I kept stepping on the hem of my dress and stumbling. I went out on the verandah, stopped and looked toward the road. I didn't know anyone. I had to get down ten steps. But how? The steps were covered with delicate, tiny white flowers. I tried to find a spot where there were no flowers. As soon as I put my foot down, I could hear, in the silence, the fragile flowers bursting under the pressure of my pointed heels, and each flower seemed to be bleeding. A thin red stream of blood ran down the stairs, turned to the left and flowed away in the opposite direction, towards a big meadow, through which a clear, blue river flowed, and on the river there was a boat - big, white, and beautiful. On the deck there was just one passenger. He was waving to me and shouting, "It's me, Lisa, here I am, wait just a bit longer!" Alfred! Tall and distinguished, as he had been that morning at our door. He got off the boat and stood beside me. The best man approached carrying a tray on which there were two glasses of red wine. We took them and touched glasses. Mine cracked and the wine spilt over my white wedding dress. What was I to do? I couldn't go to my wedding like that. Two women came to my aid, bringing armfuls of white flowers. They scattered them over my dress and, to my surprise, they all stuck to it and hid the stain... On the road there was a black carriage, with a post at each corner and a black sheet-metal roof. "I don't want that carriage, that's not the right kind for a wedding!"... We found ourselves in a hall with a mass of lanterns, and on the tables there were vases full of flowers. The musicians played our tune, and we started singing: "Aus dem stillen Raume, aus der Erde Grund /hebt mich wie im Traume dein verliebter Mund..." I felt the pressure of Alfred's hand, he was saying something to me, but I couldn't make out what it was. Then I asked him, "Where have you been so long? I almost married someone else."
.... I woke up and looked at the window. It was daylight. My eyelids were heavy. I wanted to sleep just a little longer. As soon as I had dozed off, I heard a knock at the door and my father's quiet voice:
.... "Come on, Lisa, your matron of honour has already arrived."
.... I felt tired and sad. My matron of honour noticed this.
.... "I was sad, too, on my wedding-day, I even cried when, in the yard, they played the music summoning the bride to leave the house."
.... Boris arrived, dressed in a dark suit and tie. He smiled and squeezed my hand.
.... At the registrar's office we had to wait for two couples who had come before us to finish with their weddings. Other couples were waiting in line after us. The weddings took place one after another, as if on an assembly line. In the room there was a big table, with a vase containing flowers, already a little wilted. The registrar read out our names:
.... "Elizabeta Muller."
.... The best man corrected him:
.... "Not Muller, but Muller."
.... "Ah, Miller," said the registrar.
.... The President of the Municipality spoke of the rights and duties in marriage, about the division of jointly acquired property if we got divorced. We were just getting married, and he was already talking of divorce. We signed our names, the photographer took a few pictures, and we went out as a married couple. Was that all there was to it? There would be no church wedding, because Boris didn't want it, and somewhere in the back of my mind I felt a spark of joy, and a ray of hope shone: perhaps Alfred would come back one day, after all.
.... I was young, full of the joy of living, I enjoyed going out. I loved dancing. I could do all that with Boris. The tunes from our wedding dance were still ringing in my ears, and I sang softly: "Besame Mucho", "The Autumn Rose", "Now Happiness is Over". No, it was not over, perhaps this was just the beginning of happiness, the beginning of a new life.
.... Boris came in quietly, on tiptoe. How smart we both were, I thought, smiling, where did he get those colourful pyjamas? He got into bed, pulled up the eiderdown, turned towards me and gazed into my eyes. It was pleasant to look at that blissful, radiant face, which, gazing at me in silence like this, spoke more clearly than a thousand words could have done. I was the first to speak:
.... "Won't you turn off the light?"
.... "No, I'm afraid of the dark."
.... "What kind of a warrior and war hero are you if you're afraid of the dark?"
.... "I'm afraid of it because it would steal from me the most beautiful thing I have now. It would hide the sight of you, and it's so marvellous to look at you, smiling like that. Lisa, you're so irresistibly beautiful!"
.... He put out his hand and ran his fingers through my hair. His hand was warm and his touch gentle, as if he was afraid he might hurt something delicate, fragile. I closed my eyes because there was so much longing in his eyes that I felt a thrill and a pleasant warmth passing through me. He slipped his hand underneath my coverlet and placed it round my waist. I gave a momentary start... No, I wouldn't think of the past, not now, for Heaven's sake, it was pointless. Why are our thoughts sometimes so rebellious? I couldn't get out of my mind the image of Alfred lying beside me and slipping his arm round my waist.
.... "I'm coming over to your side."
.... "Turn off the light."
.... "Since you insist, all right. Today everything will be as my little girl wishes."
.... He turned off the light. Pale rays of moonlight penetrated the room round the edges of the curtains, stealing the darkness I liked so well and longed for more than ever.
.... The warmth of the bed and the touch of a man's hand awoke in me the desire for an embrace. I closed my eyes and relaxed, I allowed Boris to caress and kiss me. I enjoyed his happiness. He spoke my name with so much desire and approached me with such longing. As I lay there with my eyes closed, feeling every touch of his body, I believed that I wanted him, that I loved him. When I felt his body, my imagination played a trick on me and the picture of that night with Alfred filled my mind. I whispered something, perhaps I even said Alfred's name, I felt as if he was there now, and it was only then that I let myself go completely.
.... I had been unfaithful to Alfred in Boris's arms, and I was being unfaithful to Boris on our wedding night, daydreaming about Alfred. Was I being unfaithful to them both, or were they using me selfishly?
.... I woke up, and Boris was still asleep. He seemed to be smiling in his sleep. For a moment I was overcome by a feeling of joy, which soon turned into a feeling of guilt and remorse. Why had I done this? What if Alfred were to get in touch with me?
.... It had rained during the night. I looked at the crowns of the chestnuts. Some of the blossoms had fallen off, others were still there, but they had turned grey, they had lost their previous whiteness. I was comforted by the fact that not every branch was like that. There were still some branches on which the blossoms were white.

Next: Chapter 17