By Jan Verhoeff
Insomnia, isolation and destiny ravaged by the cross hairs of life. I stood there looking out the window wondering if I was still in the crosshairs or if I’d somehow managed to elude those who’d spent much of the days prior chasing me. The breath I took felt ragged and raw. Where was I? The city outside looked just like any other city I’d seen. I didn’t have any idea where I was. I struggled to lift myself out of the bog I’d slid into with the medicine.
“Mark?” the nurse entered the room. “Oh, good! You’re awake.”
“Yes. Where am I?” I asked.
The nurse straightened my bed and put a tray on the table. The tray held food. I wasn’t sure what, but it didn’t look like anything I wanted to eat.
“That’s the Cumberland out there, Mr. Paisley.”
“Mr. Paisley?” I voiced the name over. It had been years since I’d heard that name, it belonged to my father. I saw the face in the mirror. An old man stared back at me, but it wasn’t my father. The gray hair, the bald head, the wrinkled face, and the eyes without luster, those didn’t belong to my father. I looked deeper, deep inside those gray blue eyes, I saw someone I recognized, from a while back. A man, the man I had been was still there, hidden by the pale skin and aging body of the man I’d become.
I closed my eyes for a moment.
“Nurse, the Cumberland, where?”
“Yes, I’m fine. I just didn’t know where I was.” I admitted, allowing a sigh of contentment to escape. “There have been many rivers.”
“Yes, sir.” Her reflection smiled at me.
“Do you have a name, young lady?” I asked, smiling back.
“Yes, my name is Doris, Doris Holmes.” She nodded. “Is there anything I can get you?”
“Maybe some juice, my throat feels dry.” The eyebrow lifted and I remembered, a girl in Singapore pointing out my eyebrow. The one on the left, held a wild hair that circled up, always black, and usually longer than the rest. She had dark hair, almond shaped eyes, and a smile that lit up my world for the three days I knew her. I winced in pain at the memory of why she was no longer there. Her life had been taken in an instant. She didn’t matter, she was a girl child.
“Mr. Paisley, let me help you back to bed.” The nurse encouraged, her voice was smooth as a warm summer night.
“Thank you, Doris.” I used her given name, something I’d rarely had opportunity to do. “I’ll have dinner before I rest.”
She pushed the tray closer and I spooned some soup from the bowl. It was creamy and warm. I savored the small bite and took another. The flavor reminded me of a morning in Germany. I settled back into my pillow and let my mind wonder back to that foggy morning on the hillside. Was it West Germany? My memory was fading, I couldn’t remember, the countries all ran together, but I remembered the people. Olga, sweet as jam on a warm biscuit, on a clear winter morning she stood near me in a flannel dress with no coat. I’d worn my black overcoat to the funeral of a friend. I had to see his widow one last time, she’d saved his documents, and I’d need them to escape the country. I must have been behind the curtain, in East Germany. I took off my coat and offered it to her, but she refused. Instead, she stood a little closer and I wrapped my coat around the both of us, to keep her warm.
Her flannel dress was thin from much wearing and many washings. She felt nearly as thin, a frail woman in her twenties, she looked older than I did now. Her skin drawn taut over a German bone structure with dirty blonde hair and clear blue eyes.
Her demure voice haunted me as I drifted into sleep.
The fog cleared, an icy morning welcomed me as I stood in the white drifts outside an office building in Moscow. White frosted trees filled the park across the street, life traipsed slowly through the drifts. One by one, people passed. I drew the last puff from a cigarette and tossed it to the ground. The butt sizzled out in the snow. I stood waiting, the crowd dwindled as offices opened. The streets were empty.
He stood across the way slightly hidden by trees, his gray coat blended into the bark of the scraggly trees. I watched his reflection in the office window in front of me. He probably knew I was watching, but he stayed. I looked at my watch and turned west into the bright noon sunlight. I had to walk three blocks. The bullet whizzed by my head and I ducked into an alley. I took off running in the tracks left by a vehicle. Into the first open doorway, I slid back against the wall.
The knob turned and I opened the door. Inside a woman worked with four small children around a table. I lifted my finger to my lips for her to be silent. She nodded and pointed to the back room. The children watched me with silent eyes and made no sound. A window on the opposite wall opened to another alley and I crossed to look out. I climbed through the window and dropped to the snow below. There were already tracks in the snow, so mine would add nothing new. I turned my coat wrong side out and walked back the way I’d come from a different alley into the street.
I saw him perched in a doorway, his gun at the ready and kept walking. I walked seventeen blocks in the icy winds. He didn’t follow.
A gray tenement covered by drifting snow had a scooped walk and a bright white painted door, with leaded glass windows. Etched with time worn elegance the brass hardware on the door indicated there was more experience than this door had weathered here. I entered and sat on a red mohair chair.
“You be lookin’ for me son.” A small frail woman spoke from the corner, leaning heavily onto her cane. She had deep set eyes that had seen more of life than I wanted to know, and gray hair bound to the back of her head by a pin. A woolen shawl wrapped around her shoulders kept away cold winds that blew through the house. “For shame be he that giveth his country to treason, lest he have no home.” Her words echoed a quote she’d heard some place. I realized she knew no English, only what he son had given her. “He be soon.” She spoke again, leaving the room.
I rolled the message in my mind, “Come to the white door, sit in the red chair and wait.” The white door had been key, but I didn’t realize it while I sat there, waiting. Darkness came and the woman brought a wooden bowl of porridge from the kitchen. It was warm, sweet with cream and I ate.
“Be rest.” She took my hand and led me to a small room added onto the back of the hut. She gave me a green woolen blanket and pointed to the feather tick on the dirt floor. It looked cold. “Me son, come soon.” She nodded.
Morning came too soon. Bitter cold had been my companion, but the freeze lingered. I stood carefully as the first gray light of dawn sifted through a single icy window pane. I was taller than the open eaved room, so I kept my head bowed low. I remembered the woman, and wondered if her husband had also been small. And her son?
The air from the kitchen turned to steam when I opened the door. I stepped inside and closed it fast. The woman looked grateful. She poured a cup of hot water and offered it to me, along with a small metal pitcher of cream. I realized that might be the last of her milk and took sparingly. The cupboards looked none too full. She broke a small loaf of black rye bread in two and took small bites between sips of milk tea.
“From me son.” The woman handed me a message written on a small scrap of paper, after I’d finished my bread. “You’re safe, wait here for me.” The words said. I stared at the note. I knew the woman didn’t have any understanding of my dialect. I’d heard her humming and singing about the house. She spoke a different language.
She nodded toward the parlor again and I sat in the red mohair chair. She sang as she worked and went to stand in the corner of the parlor again. We waited. When the sun was high, she went to the kitchen, stoked the fire, and brought a bowl of bean soup. It was watered and thin. We sat for the afternoon, until I realized there was a piano in the corner. I stood and walked to the piano.
The lid was down, but it opened easily and I fingered the keys softly. A melody rang through the room. The woman sang low with the music words I didn’t understand, although they were the words to the song I played.