The Fateful Words
A Short Story
The postman was one of the most important people in town. He was the person who delivered the good news, the letters and postcards from the front or from the hospitals all over the country, from men who had been lost but were now found again. His job was a good one.
Telegrams were what people were afraid of. Short messages, turned into little beeps that travelled quicker than the post, arrived much faster than any letter would ever be, but hardly brought anything but devastation and sadness.
Every single day, Helene prayed that no telegram would arrive. Every single day she prayed a letter would. She went about her life the way she always had. There was enough labour on the farm to fill your day from the early morning to the late evening hours. Cows needed milking, the hay had to be brought in, the eggs had to be collected, food had to be prepared for what was left of their family. Not that many, mind. The boys were all gone now, all fighting for their country, fighting for the Kaiser, fighting for glory which they would never earn unless a miracle happened. They were just foot soldiers, they weren't the people whom ballads would be sung about some day. There would be no fancy medals in their future. Hopefully there would be at least that: A future.
Maria came in from where she'd been working in the garden. As much as the girl scrubbed, her fingers never became completely clean. There always remained a hint of black discolouring her fingerprints. She was a nice girl, Maria, just eighteen years old. Helene had given birth to five children. Four boys and one girl. Maria was the youngest, bent under the responsibility of keeping everything running at home and worry. Helene sighed as she saw her daughters questioning look.
“I saw the postman come by,” she said. “Did he bring anything?”
The older woman shook her head.
“Only a letter for your father, bills for the milk cart.”
“Nothing from the boys then.”
She shook her head. No. Nothing. Nothing from Ernst, nothing from Hans and nothing from Heinrich. And also no letter from Wilhelm. Maria had never said it out loud, had never spoken of it, but Helene knew the girl was attached to their neighbour's oldest son. Wilhelm had left at the same time as the brothers. There had been tears in Maria's eyes for days and her mother knew it was not just because of her siblings. She had witnessed a touching scene in the back yard where the two lovebirds had said goodbye, thinking they were quite undisturbed and unwatched. She didn't even know why they had kept it a secret. Wilhelm's parents were old friends. They regularly were invited to the house for cake and coffee. Perhaps the young people had found it more adventurous, more enthralling, to be secret lovers.
Maria scrubbed her hands, then set the kettle on the stove to make some tea for dinner. Helene got the bread out. There was still a good half loaf left, but it was a little dry already. These days, they weren't enough people to finish the bread before it went stale. It was one of many little things that reminded her on a daily basis how very wretched the situation was.
The men came home, Arthur, Helen's husband, who had wanted to enlist, but had been told he was too old to fight for his “Vaterland”, Richard, who helped in the stables and who was the only man in the village who knew how to handle the oxen. He had been born with a deformed foot and walked with a limp, not fit to fight, but able to lift and carry around the farm. He was a big help these days. As was Elfie, his young sweetheart. She had not started off as his sweetheart of course. She was a remote relation of Arthur's, came from a family with more mouths to feed than food to spare and so she had ended up with them, helping with everything that needed doing around the house.That was it. That was all the family these days. The kitchen felt empty without the noise of the three boys. Helen put plates on the table, filled cups of tea, sat down with a heavy heart and only lent half an ear to Arthur's muttered prayer of thanks.
Right when she had scraped some butter onto her bread, there sounded a knock on the door. Everyone froze. Richard stopped chewing, Elfie stopped cutting the cheese, Arthur stopped talking about the new bull he wanted to buy and Maria dropped her cup, pouring tea over her skirt and the floor. Helene was the first to stir. She was the woman of the house, after all.
With a heavy heart she walked to the door and opened. There was a kid standing outside, a boy, perhaps ten years old, nice uniform, a little too big for him, snotty nose, dirty cheeks, he held out his hand toward her.
“Telegram for you, Missus.”
She gulped and took the envelope, gave him a few Pfennig and turned away to hide the tears that were already welling up in her eyes. Step by slow step she walked back into the kitchen and offered Arthur the envelope. He shook his head.
“You open it,” he said.
Her fingers trembled as she ripped the paper and pulled out the telegram, only when she deciphered the name on the tiny sheet of paper did she realize something was wrong. She quickly turned the envelope over.
“Oh God,” she whispered. “Oh God, no.”
“What is it?” Maria asked, standing up from her seat.
Helene shook her head, wanted her to sit down again, to not come to her, to not look over her shoulder to not...
“Oh God,” her daughter echoed so quietly it was hardly loud enough to reach Helene's ears even though Maria was standing right next to her. She took the envelope and the telegram from her mother's hands, her face white as a sheet. “Oh God.”
The name behind the fateful words belonged to none of the three boys. But it caused just as much heartbreak. Helene was prepared when Maria's leg's gave way under her. She pulled her into a tight embrace just as she had done a million times before with her baby girl.
“I'm sorry,” she murmured, patting the girls back, feeling her sobs shake her entire body as her tears soaked her mother's dress. “I'm so sorry, darling.”