My torn coat flaps in the vicious breeze as I walk slowly back home, my four year old brother running and skipping ahead, oblivious to our suffering. Pain shoots through my empty belly as I jolt and shake with each jagged step. My skin feels burnt, despite the cold, as I stride to what I humbly call my home. Disappointment reddens my face every time I walk the broken garden path to my front door. The door is dull and weathered, the lock all but broken. My sunken eyes blur as I notice the torn curtains and empty closets. I check for letters then hurry inside to start dinner for my little brother. My father is in the army. He will not be back for supper. I pour water into an iron pot and open the pantry door. I stare at the same thing I stare at every day. Nothing. I stifle a sob, not wanting the carefree nature of my brother to be corrupted by my hopelessness. My mother is dead. She was shot protecting the daughter of two complete strangers. The fruits of a country too long at war. She will not be home for supper.
I shove the evil memories from my mind, trying to concentrate on the more urgent issue. We live in northern Germany where the winters get so cold that I have seen my neighbours amputate their own fingers and toes to keep the frostbite from spreading. The rock hard ground will yield almost nothing, even in summer, as winter comes so early and the spring arrives so late. I go outside anyway, hoping to find some form of edible greenery in our vegetable patch but I find nothing. I turn to go inside, dreading the moment I pour the water out of the dish. I watch my hope spill as the water flows from the metal pot.
I turn away, face blank and look at my brother. I notice his sunken cheeks, fatigued expression and frail frame. His arms and legs bulge at the joints and his skin has an unhealthy tinge beneath the filth and soot. I look out the window at the already darkening sky and see my own reflection. Once thick, golden hair now hangs like bundles of greasy, uneven straw. My body wasting away so that my bones protrude under my skin. The colour of my deep blue eyes remains unchanged, though a solemn glint, a certain misery, is shining back at me from the window. I feel a tugging at my jacket sleeve so I turn to the source. Large, watery eyes look up at me. "Betsy! Betsy!" he pleads whilst still yanking my sleeve. "Will we have supper, Betsy?" he chirps.
"Not today, Joseph." I whisper, moisture stinging my eyes as I see his shoulders sag.
I bite my tongue as his enthusiasm returns. "It's okay, Father will be back soon. Then we can buy apples and corn and maybe even..." He continues to list an array of food though the memories of their tastes escape me. I wipe my eyes, trying hard not to be discouraged, for my brother's sake. If it weren't for him, my sense of purpose, my meaning to live, would have long ago abandoned me. I would have joined many others in a mass grave and been long ago laid to rest.
My heart skips a beat as the warning siren howls through the night. They came too late. I throw my scrawny body over my brother's as fire and debris invades our home, incinerating everything in its path. My brother begins to cry as more bombs fall from the night sky whistling as they drop to the earth. The planes are invisible as they circle over our war struck town. Smoke and heat stings my eyes as fire devours the furniture around us. I stand, choking, as I pull my sibling against my side under my coat, and guide him through the gaping hole in our wall. Smoke aggressively caresses my face as we step out into the night, our neighbours weeping as their homes burn. I turn my eyes to the heavens. The bombs fall like snowflakes. All in a hypnotic, deadly dance before spreading like a beautiful, bloody fireworks display. I force my eyes away from the picture of beauty and terror, remembering I am standing in the middle of a road that is being razed. I tighten my grip around Joseph's shaking shoulders and half lead, half drag him into the outskirts of town and into the fast thickening forests, bombs and fire still devouring what we use to call our home.
The darkness is dense and presses against our skin. I curse myself for not taking boots. The knee deep snow quickly sends my bare feet numb, forcing me to slow to a walk. My coat offers little protection from the angry breeze as it blows through the tall pine trees and worms its way deep into my bones. I pause. Joseph looks up at me with blue lips and a shaken expression. His coat appears to be in better condition than mine. He opens his mouth as if to ask something but stops. A piercing howl splits the night followed by the sound of many padded paws running lightly across snow. My mind leaps into overdrive as adrenaline floods my bloodstream. I stand frozen as I realise the wolves have our scent. Our only hope is to get upwind of the pack and pray the wind does not change. "Hush, Joseph," I whisper, "I have a plan." I tell my whimpering brother, fear plainly written within his large eyes. I unbutton my coat and let it fall to the ground. My sense of self-preservation long ago abandoned me. My driving force is my brother and his safety. He is young and deserves a life without so much war and bloodshed. I hold the underside of my forearm to my mouth and bite down with all the strength of my jaw. Blood gushes freely from my wound. I smear the pooling blood into the fabric of my coat and I watch for a moment as it drops to the snow. The cold is numbing the pain in my now unless hand. Joseph looks at me aghast, a mixture of horror and awe, at my blood on the fabric, at the blood that must cover my mouth and hands. Despite my exhaustion I grab Joseph with my good hand and run in a north easterly direction, making to bypass the pack as my bloodied coat leads them astray.
My breath comes in gasps. From the cold, my own exhaustion and the valuable blood I now lack. At times I find Joseph is the one leading. My starving body falls to the snow covered ground. We stop in a clearing by the foot of a cliff illuminated by silver moonlight. My vision blurs from malnutrition and blood loss. Every movement sends the wound in my arm gaping, allowing fresh blood to soak my thin top as I clutch my arm to my body. My hope is gone and I begin to weep at the unfairness of it all. Tears held in for far too long flow freely down my face, my sobs shaking my entire body as I cry. Joseph stands, watching me intently, letting me have my moment. As I sit on the ground crying, my hands in front of my face, he kneels in front of me and gently takes my hands in his. Looking in my eyes he says, "It's okay, Betsy, Mother will be proud." Fresh tears roll down my dirty cheeks as he cups my face in his hands and leans in and kisses me on the bridge of my nose, the same way my mother always had.
I cry a while longer then wipe my eyes with my good hand. Something catches my attention in the moonlight. Maybe five metres away, overshadowed by cliffs, is a chicory plant. The only edible plant hardy enough for the winters here in the north of Germany. I rush towards it. The leaves and roots may be bitter and unpleasant but they are edible and contain many minerals we have been lacking for weeks. The vibrant blue white flowers are the only colour within miles of forest. My heart swells with gratitude for the Maker who has had mercy on us when so many die on the battlefields and within concentration camps. My eyes water with a different type of tear. Joseph and I uproot the plant, placing half in my brother's jacket for later and holding half in our hands, smelling the rich fragrant.
I stand from my kneeling position and take a few steps back into the forest when Joseph calls to me, "Wait, Betsy. Look!" I look towards my brother's shivering form, his blue lips and pale skin. I wonder why he has not complained of the cold. I am so very tired. Exhaustion makes my mind sluggish and movements slow. I turn to look at where he is pointing. Near where the chicory plant stood, there is an indent in the cliff face, partly covered by snow. My heart swells with the hope that I may have found shelter for my brother. I stagger towards the indent and scoop snow out of the cave entrance. Before long I have dug out the narrow entrance to what may have been a fox borrow in times gone past but which now lies abandoned. Snow falls around us as I motion for Joseph to climb in. I follow, just fitting through the entrance because of my starved body. Once inside and stationary I notice his violent shaking. I become achingly aware of every pain and wound on my own body. As my flesh begins to warm, I more acutely feel the cold. I grind my teeth thinking how cold my little brother must feel. With some difficulty I pull my top over my head and pass it to Joseph. I press my bare back to the narrow entrance, shielding my sibling from the bitter weather. I fall asleep knowing that he is safe and warm despite not feeling so myself.
Sometime during the night the temperature fell well below zero. I awoke, felt my body stiffening and cold but saw the colour return to my brother's face and lips. I whisper to the darkness, "I'm sorry Joseph, I won't be home for supper." I shed my final tear before it freezes to my face.
Dawn had scarcely begun to brighten the forest when I awoke to my mother's soft lips pressing into the bridge of my nose. Birds were singing and the sun was warm against my face. I was lying outside the burrow on my back, the evergreen trees laden with snow tower over me. At once disoriented I look back at the burrow. My frozen back still blocks the cavity entrance from the previous night's weather but I lack a certain light that living things bear. My mother holds out her hand, beckoning for me to follow. "What about Joseph?" I mean to ask but my mother presses a finger to her lips and gently cups my face in her slender hands. My fear and uncertainty melt as I feel my mother's skin against mine. I glimpse a splinter of future. I see my father returning from the war a week from now and how my brother survives for that time off the bitter chicory leaves. I know that my father will find him. A smile beams across my face for the first time since the war began. I breathe in deeply, putting my taxed mind to rest as a calmness warms my heart. I take my mother's hand and walk with her into the halls of our ancestors.