1. The Sighting
The priest had just finished the funeral for their stillborn when Hans heard the gunshots. All three heads turned west—down toward the valley and his millpond.
They couldn’t see it from up here—not now that the leaves were out, but across the old dirt road lay a weedy, rocky field, where travelers sometimes camped. There were wagons there last night, probably getting underway now in the cold and dreary, early morning mist.
His young wife Ava stood to his left, their hands clasped, side by side in their silent, stony grief. He turned towards her and saw the questions in her blue eyes—a new worry added to weariness and grief. At least this was a problem Hans could do something about.
He drew her hand to his lips, kissed it, squeezed once, then hurried off—down the winding, mountain path to the house to get his gun and gather news. But for the moment his mind stayed behind.
They had buried her next to the other one, up here in the little meadow on the side of the mountain behind the mill. The priest had been kind enough to come. It wasn’t a real funeral. Stillborns didn’t count, they said. But the three of them had done this twice.
Once was a simple tragedy. But twice? Twice meant little chance of having children at all. Twice changed everything.
They had sailed from Germany six years ago, newly wed and determined to start a new life in this new world. Mr. and Mrs. Mueller had found this place, Millers Valley, and thought it was perfect—a narrow valley with road and streams, coming down from the Appalachian plateau, a mill and millpond, barn and fields, farmhouse and meat house. They sunk their inheritance into it, worked hard at getting established here—making a living, repairing, restoring, rebuilding, preparing for many wonderful years and many wonderful Muellers.
Now their dream had broken. They could no longer pretend. There would be no little hands and hearts on this homestead.
His feet finished the final slope of the hidden path, then carried him through the great rhododendrons that guarded the wall of the mountain. As he stepped back into the world of the valley floor, the unsettled murmuring of the approaching caravan grew suddenly loud enough to bring his mind back to the task at hand.
He crossed the narrow footbridge over the deep channel of the mill stream and quickly strode between the house and the barn to where he could see the road. A pair of men on horseback led two covered wagons—one up front, one at the rear—with a smaller cart between them. The men seemed tense and wary, the horses skittish.
Anyone could see how Hans got his nickname, “The Bear.” Tall, heavy, muscular, grave and black-bearded—no one but his beloved wife would even think to call him what she did in private, when she gazed into his dark brown eyes—Mein Bärchen, My Little Bear.
When the men saw him, they seemed somewhat relieved—which surprised him. It was not the typical reaction.
Hans saw one of them exchange a few words with the driver of the lead wagon—a clean-shaven man just starting to grey and fairly well-dressed for someone on the road—and watched as they led their train to a halt in front of him. Hans noticed a cane on the seat beside the older man and a holstered revolver.
“Good morning, sir. I’m Mr. Williams,” said the driver. He paused for a moment for a polite response, but getting none hurried on. “I reckon you heard the shots.”
“I did,” was all he said. But it was enough for anyone who cared about such things to notice his heavy accent. Mr. Williams was unfazed, but Hans saw suspicion replace relief on the faces of his armed escorts.
“We’ll hurry on our way, but you should know what we shot at. Surely that’s your millpond back there and your land.” Then Mr. Williams continued hurriedly, alternating between earnestness and embarrassment at hearing his own tale.
“It was twice a man’s height—or at least it seemed to be. We were just moving out after breaking camp when we saw it peering at us through the trees across the road. Of course, it’s a dim morning, and maybe it was just some giant bear or something, but I have family with me. It terrified them, and—bear, monster, or whatever—we didn’t want it charging us, so we shot at it. It disappeared, but whether we hit it or it just ran, I don’t know. We had no interest in investigating, having pressing business elsewhere.”
While Mr. Williams spoke, one of his men rode his horse slowly towards Hans, staring intently into his face. The worn-out patrol cap on his head might once have served a military man, but any insignia of rank, role, or allegiance were long gone. He was tall and lanky, but would have had to look up at Hans on his own two feet.
As the horse lent him height, he seemed to think that volume would lend his voice an air of command. Addressing the leader, but still staring at Hans’ face, the Loudmouth called out, “And pressing it is, Mr. Williams. Let’s leave this boxhead and git movin’.”
“Boxhead”—Hans had heard this and other slurs before. It didn’t bother him, but affirmed his opinion of the rider.
Just then something behind Hans caught the Loudmouth’s attention, and Hans watched his lips curl with distaste. He thought it best not to turn his back on the rider just then and waited.
“Hans,” Father Montgomery called out and strode up beside him. “Hans, excuse me for interrupting, but I must go. Ava wanted to tarry by the grave. Under the circumstances, I advised against it, but she insisted that she would be fine up there. I thought it best to let you know before I leave.”
Hans saw on the Loudmouth’s face that some entirely new idea was taking shape under his worn-out cap. He felt his open hostility subside, so turned to the priest. “Thank you, Father. I’ll check on her.”
“Hey, Bob,” the Loudmouth called out to his companion on the other horse, “these people are Catholic boxheads.”
Calmly, but firmly, the priest took up their defense. “Whatever you may think of our religion, please show some respect for the dead. This young couple has just buried a child.”
Unnoticed, Mr. Williams had climbed from his seat and walked over to join them. “I’m very sorry to hear that, sir. We won’t trouble you any further.” Then turning to the Loudmouth, “Mr. Thatcher, let’s move out.”
“Yessir,” said the Loudmouth. “We should put some distance between us an’nat monster. He was right there by this German’s millpond. No tellin’ what damage he mighta done.”
“Aw now, Fox, you can’t know that,” remarked his partner with some exasperation. One got the impression that this was just the latest in a long series of such conversations, as if the Loudmouth often made claims that his partner did not believe or understand.
“All the same,” he replied and looked directly at Hans. “Best check it out. Hey, I’m just bein’ neighborly. We wouldn’t want the German here to think he weren’t welcome.”
Mr. Williams had had enough. “Bill Thatcher, I hired an escort for this trip to prevent trouble, not make trouble. Now can you and Bob do the job you were hired for?”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Williams,” Bob spoke up, suddenly concerned. “Fox an’ me, that is, Bill an’ me’ll keep trouble away. Won’t we, Fox?”
The Loudmouth ignored his partner. “Speakin’ of which, it’s time for us to scout ahead again. There’s a bridge acomin’ up that’s sometimes out. Iffen it is, then we need to know soon, so we can go the other way.”
“All right, you go check it out,” replied Mr. Williams, who seemed relieved to get back to business.
The riders turned to ride away. Before breaking into a run, the Loudmouth called back, “And we’ll keep an eye out for any other strange creatures makin’ mischief.”
Hans kept watch on the riders until they reached the crossing in the distance and turned north onto the main road. “Fox!” he scoffed to himself. “I doubt he earned that.”
The Loudmouth reminded him of Christoph’s father—although Mr. Schneider was a better man. A Lutheran, he was well-known for his confrontational dislike of Catholics—although he had some excuse: His brother had been injured in a fight with some hot-headed Catholics and for the rest of his life he walked with a limp.
When Hans was twelve, the Schneiders bought the neighboring farm, and he soon had his first run-in with the son, Christoff. Nothing serious, just name-calling, but it was the first time Hans had faced such a thing, and he didn’t know how to handle a younger boy, goading him into a fight. Eventually they became fairly good friends, although secretly because of the father, and then only for those few months.
Those were troubled years in his native community, and it was partly to get away from all the deep-rooted problems and troubling memories that they emigrated. There was no German community here, like in some of the bigger cities, and now and then they ran into men like the Loudmouth, but mostly life here was better.
Better? The pain of his loss brought him back to the present.
He didn’t trust the Loudmouth, but Mr. Williams seemed honest enough and sounded genuinely scared by something. He would stop at the house for his rifle, revolver, and hunting knife.
Rather than take the road, Hans decided to hike back up the mountain and follow the trail that ran atop the ridge. It curved around behind the millpond from above. He wanted to scout out the area of the sighting from behind before he took the road down to examine the area more closely.
Also, the mountain trail went through the little meadow, so he could check on Ava as well.
Behind the house, beyond a few shade trees, and across the millstream, the mountain rose abruptly from the valley floor. Downstream to the right, eastward toward the main road, an impassable wall rose almost vertically for a hundred yards. Soon the deep streambed turned and joined the mountain wall, like a castle moat, barring the way.
But here the straight course of the mountain broke into great, ragged edges. Here behind the house, Hans crossed back over the millstream on the narrow wooden footbridge and slipped into the tall, dark mass of rhododendrons that hid the only trail up.
Winding between the broken faces of the rock, the secluded path climbed up between the evergreen branches of laurel, rhododendron, and pine. At times they touched him, marking him with the dew, so narrow was the way. Only one at a time could travel this path.
The child had been very small and come much too soon. The labor itself had not been too difficult. That was a week ago now—only a week. It seemed like a month. So much had changed.
In body, Ava was much better, though of course not fully recovered. In heart and mind?
A few days ago, after midnight, Hans had found her in the other bedroom, sitting in the dark, rocking back and forth, holding something. She had bundled up the quilt they were going to use for the baby and held it gently to her breast. “I was just saying goodbye,” she had told him as he helped her back to bed.
After the first, short meandering climb through the rocks and roots, the trail had room to spread out on the mountainside into a lopsided zigzag. Hans knew the way well—the first gentle ascent around to the right, then the sharp turn and steeper hike to the left, then the second gentle ascent to the right again.
It was harder on Ava, of course. The bond between mother and child begins almost immediately. Ava had experienced the child’s brief life directly, he only indirectly. He knew her sense of loss must cut deeper.
If life is a journey, then what of the lives of his two children? Their entire lifetimes spanned only months within Ava’s womb. Normally, this nesting time in the dark would be barely a beginning, unremembered by all but she who bore them—a memory pushed aside by the practical struggles of caring for a newborn, working out new routines, ordering a new family life together. But these two brief journeys had soon—all too soon—taken sharp and sudden turns elsewhere.
During the last few steps, before the trail emptied into the meadow, Hans began looking for Ava’s blonde head through the trees. He expected to find her easily by the gravesite, but it was vacant.
He stopped to listen.
After the damp weight of winter snow, the old leaves told him little. He called out to her.
“Here,” came the answer from the woods to the right, and then he heard her swishing toward him through the forest litter. He strode toward her along the path, wondering what she had been up to.
As they got closer, he knew she could see the rifle barrel over his shoulder. “So what’s going on, Hans?” As always, they spoke German in private.
“Jittery travelers. Gone now,” he called back. “Just going to have a look around.”
And then they embraced. He had noticed a look in her eye that he was happy to see again. She spoke quietly, but earnestly in his ear. “Hans, I want to plant a little flower garden up here, around the graves. It’ll almost take care of itself. I’ll move some daffodils up from the yard, and I know I can get some peonies from Mrs. Smith, the midwife. I’m sure I can find some tiger lilies somewhere.”
“That sounds grand, Maus,” he managed to whisper back through his tightening throat.
She released the hug, grabbed his hands, and looked up into his face. “I want to begin today, to do something today,” she said. “I found a good, large flat stone that I want to use as a seat. I’ve rolled it upside down to get a good look at it, but I knew I shouldn’t try to move it, even roll it further until,” she hesitated, “until I’m stronger. Could you move it for me? Right now. Please, Bärchen.”
Of course, he did, and gladly, helping her get it settled. Then he told her about the caravan. Neither of them expected anything to come of it.
As he hiked toward the top, the dim whiteness moved down to meet him. In the fog and the complete stillness, the woods had that indoor, closed-in feeling.
The deed in the courthouse recorded that he owned all this land. Much of it, he knew well. Some he had never seen. He had walked the ridge trail often enough and knew that the wild things used it as their own—a clear road that avoided the humans, who lived and worked in the cultivated valleys.
He reached the high ground, but could see only the trunks of the nearest trees, the largest hosting mosses and lichens—vivid greens and greys, awakened by the wetness. But he didn’t need to see far. To the left, the land sloped down into Millers Valley. To the right, it fell into the narrow fold of Briar Lick. He need only keep to the ridgetop.
His only choices lay just ahead, where the land fell into a great hollow, shaped much like the bowl of a spoon. The ridge trail approached it from the east side and there it divided, left and right—to the right, out toward the bowl’s wide end, and to the left, a slow descent toward the bowl’s narrow neck. Down there it opened into and joined Millers Valley just behind the millpond at Millers Gap. Maps gave that secluded valley no name, but the locals called it Giants Hollow.
He took the left trail and began the descent along the ridge. As he departed the summit, he hoped that he would escape the fog. But that was not to be. He could not see far, and the familiar trail seemed strange to him. He came unexpectedly to the end of the trees—to the rougher, rocky ground near the trail’s end.
Hans knew that beyond the trees, the trail veered to the right, away from the ridgetop, and began a gentle zigzag down into the narrow neck of Giants Hollow. To the left lay an ancient mass of grey rock, broken and weatherworn, rounded slabs and irregular stones.
Emerging from the cover of the trees, the bare path widened enough for two, but Hans kept to the right. On the left edge, a few short, rounded rocks jutted upward into the path, like the topmost towers of a buried castle. Altogether, it was nothing dangerous really, even in this weather, not for the alert and careful.
On the path, only a thin layer of sandy pebbles and hard dirt had been darkened by the falling dampness. Beneath this, the hard ground remained dry. This came as no surprise to Hans. What did surprise him were the regularly spaced skid marks that exposed the lighter earth beneath. Someone had been running up the path from Giants Hollow—and recently.
He soon found where the runner had tripped, then scanned the terrain for further news. Down and to the left, at the bottom of the formation, on a wide ledge of rock about twenty feet away, a body lay, unmoving. As quickly as he could, Hans worked his way down—eyes on the maze of protruding rocks and deep rifts, selecting each step with care.
It was an Indian, or so he thought at first, since he was dressed in fur and leather, rough moccasins tied around his feet. He lay on his back, one arm at his side, the other across his chest, as if he had been holding shut the fur cloak, his only upper garment.
He was breathing. Dark blood had run from a ragged gash in his forehead. Not enough to be alarming. Mostly thickening now, some had smeared across his head and face. Other injuries: A large, swollen bump on the side of his head. Some scrapes, particularly on the hand and arms. No bones broken.
It appeared he had partly skidded and mostly rolled down over the rock, trying to catch himself in a panic, hit his head twice before stopping here. Then turned on his back, wrapped his cloak around him, and passed out.
Hans unslung his rifle and removed his brown, flannel jacket. This he folded neatly. Carefully lifting the man’s head, he slid the jacket onto the rough, grey rock, and gently laid his head upon it. His dark brown hair was pulled back into a short ponytail, tied with a length of dried vine.
Next he used his hunting knife to cut a strip of cloth from the tail of his cotton shirt and wrapped this carefully around the man’s head over the open wound. The man was clearly too warm. Hans didn’t see how this could be related to the fall—not so soon, but he thought it was a bad sign.
He didn’t look like an Indian—his complexion pale, his features heavy and thick, especially the brow. He certainly had no prominent cheekbones. The man was five feet tall at least, yet had no beard whatsoever—perhaps very young, despite his size.
There was something unusual about the face overall. The eyes seemed too large, the features not quite right. But the face was not unpleasant to look upon. Indeed, as he lay there unconscious he had an almost childlike appearance.
Hans stood up and considered his next move. This last slab of rock rose a few feet above the forest floor. Just a few steps away, a trail of sorts, little used, wound around to the bottom. Hard work, but he thought he could carry him that far—to the edge of the wheat field. After that he would need the horse and wagon or something. He would hurry back to the barn first, working out details on the way.
He would want Ava’s help soon, but she might still be at the gravesite. If he returned the way he came, he would pass through the meadow, but even if he ran, that way would probably take longer, and she might not be there, wasting time.
Hans decided to just head down from here to the valley floor. Once he got close enough, he would call out. Wherever she was, she would start towards him. He shouldered his rifle, took one last look at his patient, and started off.
What were Indians doing here? How many were there? Could he find them and return their fallen man? Would there be problems because he had taken him?
But was he an Indian at all? And if not, what was he?
Such questions would have to wait. He jogged along as fast as he dared, eyes on the trail. He hadn’t used this shortcut since early winter. Things changed in the woods, so he had to watch every step for something that might trip him up. Hurrying too fast brought delays.
Meanwhile he pondered the problem of the haul to the barn. The wounded man would fit comfortably into the large wagon, but before the return journey Hans would have to turn it around by driving over the soft, wet ground of the field. He didn’t want to risk the delay of getting stuck.
The small cart would be easier to manage. He could unhitch it and turn it around by himself, keeping to the hard ground of the back path. But would the man be too big? He would have to lay him on his side and curl up his arms and legs. And even that might not be enough. He would bring the small ladder just in case. He could lash it to the top and use it like a stretcher if he had to.
From the millpond to the mill, the base of the mountain curved away from the road in a wide arc. All along the first rising of the mountain ran the millrace—a narrow, manmade watercourse that carried a quick stream of water to the mill. Between the millrace and the road lay a field, now filled with winter wheat, row after row of short, grassy bundles.
The trail brought Hans to the wheat field, about halfway along the arc between pond and mill, and onto a broad, low hillock jutting out from the base of the mountain. The millrace cut through its top, making for an easy crossing. He thought it would not be so easy after carrying a man all the way down here.
Now for a flat run along the back edge to the lot by the mill where the farmers parked their wagons, then over the bridge, and up to the barn with the house behind. About halfway there, he called out to Ava. If she were still up in the meadow, she would hear him and begin down.
He kept up a brisk pace, listening for some response, but heard nothing.
Just before the mill bridge, he knew he would normally be able to see the house beyond the barn. He shouted her name again. This time he heard her call back from somewhere in the direction of the house. “Here.”
He stopped for just a moment, so the barn did not block their exchange. “Meet me, barn,” he bellowed slowly.
“Yes,” came her answer, so he hurried on.
They met on the side of the barn away from the house, where the doors opened towards the mill and the deep channel of the millstream. Hans explained in short bursts, while he caught his breath. “Man down.” He pointed back to the site of the accident. “Fell.” Hans bent over and rested his hands on his knees. “Alive. Hurt. Out cold.”
He got in a few deep breaths, while his wife waited. “Taking Friede…cart…to haul him…here.” After that, he gestured for her to follow. He saw she understood: He could talk better in a few moments, and those were best spent doing something.
While he prepared the horse and cart, he told her what little he knew, and they hastily made arrangements. Hans would get the man back here as soon as possible. Meanwhile, Ava would gather whatever she thought they needed and wait for them in the barn.
Hans dropped a horse blanket into the cart and also a coil of rope, one end of which he used to quickly secure the ladder, so it wouldn’t fall off. He left his rifle in the barn and brought the hatchet just in case, then drove back the way he had come.
He thought perhaps the man might be gone—recovered or rescued, but he lay as he left him. Now it was time to do what had to be done.
The table of rock made it easier. Hans rolled the body to the edge, unto its side, facing the forest, and carefully positioned the limbs. He thought the legs seemed unusually long. He hopped off, squatted down, and placed his back against the stone. Then he maneuvered the body across his shoulders—like a shepherd carrying a lost lamb.
He grabbed the rough, irregular rock as best he could, took a few deep breaths, then stood up, pushing with both hands and feet. Anything to make this easier. He had a long way to go.
Hans shuffled toward the left and stepped forward. Swaying with his burden, his body soon settled into a slow rhythm—breathing, plodding—as he labored down, bearing the warm weight.
Unneeded here, his mind wandered elsewhere.
He was thirteen. It was late afternoon, the Saturday before Advent began. His family was at Aunt Gerta’s in town, so they could all visit the Christmas Market. They had walked a few blocks through a little fresh snow. His sister had left her mittens in the wagon. His father asked him to run back and fetch them. He took the shortcut—a hidden, narrow street, more like an alley.
He slowed to a walk. Something lay in the street ahead. It looked like a man—the fresh snow all around him trodden in a wide circle. Now he could see red in the snow here and there.
“Mister?” he called out. “You OK, Mister?” No response. He stepped closer.
He didn’t recognize him at first, his face bloody and swollen. Of course, he didn’t know his face very well anyway. Hans always avoided him. He didn’t approve of their friendship. That’s why they met in secret.
It was Christoff’s father.
The next day, Hans waited in their secret place in the woods, hoping Christoff would come at the usual time. He was late. “I can’t stay long,” he said curtly.
After all these years, snatches of what was said remained vivid:
Dad was doing so much better, too, trying to change.
He told me he didn’t do anything this time. They just jumped him.
And now they’ve arrested HIM instead!
Maybe it’s like Dad used to always say—you’re not like us.
They were taking him today to stay with a cousin. He didn’t know when he’d be back.
A month later, Hans’ father broke the news that Mr. Schneider had been sentenced to jail time. Hans didn’t know details, but his father believed it was a great injustice.
Hans was troubled. They talked.
“They’re not like us. No,” his father said. “They’re not—in some ways. But in other ways they are. What you will have to determine is which are more important.”
And, “Yes, sometimes it’s worth fighting. But have a clear purpose, so you know when to stop. No matter who wields it, brute force usually does more harm than good—just like what we see here.”
They never saw Christoff again.
Weary now, Hans saw his resting place. Just a few more, he told his shoulders, back, legs. Just a few more. Then you can stop, but not yet. Then you can stop.
Now the final effort. He stood beside the cart and began to bend down. First the legs. Get the feet in. Now bend the knees. Don’t drop him. There.
The weight gone, Hans stopped to rest. He now had the body sitting in the back of the cart, the head and arm still draped over his left shoulder as he bent over, supporting the torso.
Then he felt it—a slight turning of the head, and he heard a soft moan, a few mumbled words. The voice in his ear was higher than he had expected—not strangely so, but clearly not the voice of a man or even of a young man.
It was a boy then.
4. What He Is
Hans led the horse back toward the barn. Relieved of its burden, his body now felt light. Not so his mind.
Once he had his patient in the cart, he untied his rope belt, so he could wrap him back up in the fur cloak. A fistful of fur in each hand, he pulled the cloak taut around the back. Clearly, this was the chest of a child, and the armpits confirmed it. “A boy of this size?” Hans thought. “There really was something wrong with him.”
Something was also wrong with his clothes. Instead of pants, he wore a breechcloth—two squares of skin, front and back, sewn unto a rope belt—and leggings, one for each leg, tied at the top to the rope. Hans wasn’t certain, but he thought not even Indians dressed this way anymore.
Maybe he’s the runt, and they abandoned him, and somehow he’s survived on his own, making his own clothes, Hans thought. No, no, that can’t be.
And what now? If he is just a boy, then he can’t survive on his own. Maybe Father Montgomery knows of an orphanage. At his size? A strange, wild Indian? He rejected that thought.
Would anyone know what to do with him? Other than handing him over to a circus. Or just plain putting him down, he thought grimly.
They were working to save his life. Surely his people were looking for him. And Mr. Williams had seen something. They simply had to get him back to his own people.
She must have heard the horse and cart crossing the bridge. “Hans,” she called out from the direction of the barn.
“Here,” he called back.
When he made it to the track from the road up to the barn, she emerged from the fog, walking down to meet him. She brought him a cup of water.
He stopped to drink. “How’s my Bear?” she said.
He finished the cup, wiped his beard with his sleeve, and nodded a few times thoughtfully. “I’m recovering. Thanks, Maus.”
She looked away toward the cart. “And how is he?”
“Well enough. I think he’s coming out of it.”
Hans started off again, but Ava stood and waited for the horse to pass, then walked beside the cart all the way to the barn, pondering her charge.
She had everything ready. In the corner of the barn’s main aisle, she had prepared bedding, a blanket over straw. Off to the side, stood the small worktable. It bore two more blankets, neatly folded, the oil lamp, flame low, cloth for bandages and cleaning, a pitcher of water, some cheese, bread, and a couple of apples. On the hard ground beside it waited a bucket of water and the milk stool.
He made no sound as they rested his body on the bedding. Hans untied and removed the cloak, then carefully set it aside. Since he seemed to have a fever, they covered him with both blankets.
Ava set to work, cleaning him up and caring for his wounds. Meanwhile, Hans unhitched the cart.
They talked while they worked. “I see what you mean,” Ava said, “something is wrong. I wonder…is he young, but grown much too large, or is he old, but never matured properly.”
“I don’t know, but we must get him back to his people. It’s his best chance.”
“I know, Hans, but what if we can’t?”
He didn’t want to think about it. “I have to try,” was all he said.
Hans picked up the cloak and rope belt. He gathered a handful of straw and used the belt to tie it into a bundle. This he tied to his own belt. Then he retrieved his own rope from the cart and cut a good arm’s length. He wrapped the cloak around him and used his newly cut rope to secure it, then shouldered his rifle. He had thought this through.
“His people should be close,” he continued, “probably looking for him. I’m riding down to the millpond, where Mr. Williams saw something. I hope I can track them from there. I won’t be able to talk to them, but they’ll recognize the cloak. If I cannot find them quickly, I’ll circle back up to the ridge and leave the belt and straw where I found him. They’ll understand that. I hope.”
“I hate to leave you here alone, but this may be our only chance. I promise I’ll be quick. You have the revolver.”
She looked up from her charge. “Be careful, Mein Bärchen.”
“I will, Maus. That poor soul shouldn’t give you any trouble, but watch him carefully all the same.”
“Yes, Hans. I will,” she said.
Then he led the horse outside and shut the barn doors.
He mounted and rode off at a trot, down the farm track onto the dirt road, then turned right, up the valley toward the millpond. On horseback, he would arrive in just a few minutes.
Hans reached the roadside field where the travelers had seen and shot at something only an hour earlier. First he explored the campsite on the left, riding slowly around in a wide circle, but found nothing unusual. Then he returned to the road and peered toward the mountain, but in this fog saw only a dark mass where the forest began. The air had been clearer earlier.
He headed toward the trees, between scattered, decaying stumps and weedy saplings. After he reached the tree line, he turned right toward the pond and rode slowly along the tangle of vines and bushes that grew along the shadow of the forest, where on other mornings the full light of day could reach them. He saw nothing unusual.
At the pond, he dismounted and tied up the horse, then crouched down and slipped into a gap in the underbrush. Once within the forest, Hans slowly picked his way back along the inside of the barrier, searching for clues—churned up leaves, broken branches, bent stems, or drops of blood. He hoped he would find nothing more grisly.
When he found it, he had no doubts. Something had stood here recently. And anyone could see the trail it had left through the forest litter, back towards the mountain—a nearly continuous track of something shuffling or being dragged.
He followed the trail, alert for what he hoped he would not find, but after only a few steps, one curled, brown oak leaf caught his eye. He bent over and carefully lifted it by the stem, its shiny surface marred by a dark red stain. A few steps further, he found another and then another until he no longer bothered to look. Something large and wounded had gone this way.
The miller’s pond nearly filled the shallow basin that lay between the feet of two steep outcroppings. Behind it, between the legs of the mountains, an unnamed spring fed a small stream, flowing out of Giants Hollow.
Hans worked his way through the narrow woods, over the main stream, along the far side of the pond. The trail led here, but not up the path that climbed to the top of the ridge, where he had found the boy. A few paces upstream, he found a stone, smeared with blood, probably where something had fallen. He followed the stony streambed.
He peered up through the branches to a rocky clearing on the rising mountainside. A man, dressed in fur and leather, lay motionless among the grey boulders. But what he saw made no sense at first.
He unshouldered his rifle and crept closer. Hans understood soon enough. He froze. Surely it lay dead. He had to be sure. He aimed the rifle, then shouted, “Ha!”
Nothing. He stepped cautiously to where the feet lay. Aiming his rifle carefully at its blood-smeared head, he kicked one great moccasin.
Nothing. He watched and waited. Hans thought sure the chest drew no breath, but wasted no time proving it. He had seen enough to know that this one would trouble no one anytime soon. But what about the other one, the boy with Ava in the barn? This was surely the father or close kin.
The giant corpse stretched away from him for nearly twice his height.
5. He Awakes
By the time Hans finally reached home, he had talked down his sudden fears. Or maybe it was just that he would now know and could act, rather than just hurry and wonder.
He slowed Friede to a walk, dismounted, and froze—surprised, puzzled, and relieved. Hans heard Ava singing softly. Brahms’ Lullaby slipped through the gaps between the boards and into his soul. All was well—at least for now.
He slowly slid open the barn door and led the horse in. Ava sat on the straw beside the giant boy. He lay curled up on his side, facing her, and her right hand rested on one of his.
She paused, raised her left forefinger to her lips, then gestured for Hans to approach, while she finished singing the verse.
Hans nodded. He hitched up the horse and closed the door, but he kept the rifle on his shoulder.
When he drew closer, she said quietly, “He’s doing much better now. Let me tell you what has happened.” She pulled the milk stool over next to her and patted it, gesturing for him to sit.
He sat. He could tell that she was excited and that she thought her news was good. He composed himself and let her go on, waiting for a better time to tell her.
“I cleaned up his head and face, replaced the bandage. After that he looked so much better. I kept a cool cloth on his forehead for the fever.
“In a little while he started waking up, mumbling something. I couldn’t catch it then, but I’ve heard it many times now—N’dadan.
“He seemed half-asleep still, like he was dreaming. He didn’t open his eyes—even when he sat up, and the damp cloth rolled off his face. Then he put his hands on his head. I’m sure he had a headache, and no wonder.
“I wanted to get some water in him. I tried just putting the cup to his lips, and that worked. He drank the whole thing, then lay back down, turned on his side and curled up—just like he is now.
“He’s very much a child, Hans—acts about five or six maybe.” Hans didn’t say anything, but he thought the boy might be younger than that, judging by the size of the adult.
“I was humming, when he woke up. I thought humming would help, but he didn’t pay any attention to me at first. He started crying, tears just streaming down his face. I thought at first he was in pain, and I didn’t know what to do for him, but then he got up and knelt on his haunches, facing away from me, that way.” She pointed diagonally across the bedding, in the direction of the millpond.
“He just knelt there and bawled, saying over and over, ‘N’dadan. O, N’dadan.‘ His father’s dead, Hans.”
Hans’ jaw dropped. “How did you…” he paused and nodded in realization.
“Because he knows. And he knows where, too. That’s what I really don’t understand. How could he know which direction? He was unconscious when you brought him here.”
Hans just shook his head thoughtfully. He said nothing. This was not yet the right time to tell her.
“He just cried and rocked forward and backward. It took a while, but he slowly calmed down. Then he just stopped. It was like he came back to himself and suddenly realized where he was.
“He started to shiver a little, too, so he sat back down and pulled the blankets up over his shoulders. He just looked at me with his mouth open and those big brown eyes wide. Wait till you see them.”
It wasn’t until much later that they realized how they must have looked to the boy giant—like children who were somehow all grown up or like leprechauns or elves from some fairy land, especially Ava with her blonde hair and blue eyes.
“Well, now his face was a mess again. His nose was running, and he had wiped it with his arm, which was still dirty, so he smeared it all over himself. I just grabbed a cloth and started wiping his face.
“He let me. A boy his size would normally turn away or fuss, but he just acted like this happened all the time. He must have someone that takes care of him,” she hesitated, “or he used to anyway. He really is just like a small child.
“After I got him cleaned up, I offered him some food. He went right for the cheese. Ate it all up. He wasn’t so sure about the bread, but he sniffed it, then tried a small piece. He looked at me and said something. He must’ve thought it quite good. He ate a good bit.
“I thought he’d need some water after that, so offered him the cup again. He drank it all, then touched it to his lips a few times. I think he was recalling what I had done earlier, while he was half-dreaming.
“Then his eyelids started drooping shut. He sat there and swayed a little, then lay back down. I tucked him in. He seemed to like that. He smiled a little and said something else. I think this may be the softest bed he’s ever been in.
“I put my wrist on his forehead to check his temperature, and then just started talking to him, quietly, chattering really. I knew he couldn’t understand me, but I thought it might help. Then he fell asleep again.
“He stirred once, turning onto his side and curling up again, and he hasn’t moved since.”
She had wound down now. “I’m sorry, Hans, you have news to tell me, too. I guess you didn’t find his people?”
This was it. He kept his voice quiet and calm. “Ava, the father’s ten feet tall—at least.”
She gasped, covering her mouth suddenly with her left hand, then sighed thoughtfully. When she turned toward him, he knew her mind was following the same trail that his had followed, putting the pieces together.
“O dear. Tell me.”
He told her.
“What do we do now, Hans?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think we can get him back to his people. And we know we can’t just hand him off to,” he hesitated, “to anyone else. You know what would happen to him. And we can’t keep him.”
Ava didn’t say anything. Hans wondered if she felt as strongly as he did about not being able to keep him.
“But even if we can’t find them, maybe he himself can find his people,” he continued. “He knew where his father died.”
“Hans, he’s just a little boy.” She saw the look on his face. “You know what I mean.”
“I know,” he said. “But his people probably live in the wild. He may do all right. And out there he may have a better chance.”
He said nothing more and waited. He knew she had something on her mind she needed to say.
“I don’t know,” she said. “But I keep thinking that we—not just anyone…we were meant to find him, that there’s a reason for,” she paused, “for all of this.” He knew she meant more than just what had happened this morning.”
“I know. I know, Ava.” He looked intently into her eyes. “But how can we hide him? You know we have to. What do we do with him while we’re busy working? Can we keep him fed? How are we even going to talk to him?” He looked over at the boy and tried to imagine the father’s huge bulk lying there instead. “And what happens as he gets bigger?”
“Hans, he isn’t too big now,” she said softly.
“I know, I know. I worry too much,” he said. “But what if we just can’t? It only takes one like that Loudmouth to find out. Just one.”
Then Hans noticed the eyes, looking up at him. The boy uncurled himself and turned over to stare straight at him. Hans had never seen eyes like that. You knew something was different when they were closed, but open they changed his whole face and made him look even more childlike, despite his size.
Eyes wide, mouth open, he seemed astonished, rather than afraid. He looked over at Ava, then back to Hans seated next to her, then over to Ava again. She smiled at him, then took Hans’ hand, drew it to her lips and kissed it, then laid it back on Hans’ knee.
Perhaps the boy took this as more than just a reassurance that Hans was her family and so his friend. Or perhaps, like any small child, he just acted out his feelings without restraint. He sat up, reached out slowly and put his hand on the man’s.
Hans spoke. “I won’t hurt you, boy.”
Immediately, he got up and knelt in front of Hans. He put both his hands on his cheeks and rubbed his beard. He seemed fascinated by it.
Hans felt uncomfortable, but he could see, as Ava had insisted, that this really was just a very little boy.
The boy stood up in front of Hans. Put his right hand on his head, patted it gently and smiled. Then suddenly he wrapped his arms around his own naked torso and rubbed them, shivering.
Hans stood up slowly. He unshouldered his rifle and carefully lowered it to the ground. Then he undid his makeshift belt and removed the fur cloak. He wrapped it around the boy, who took it gladly and held it tightly.
Hans untied the boy’s rope from his belt and loosened the knot around the straw, letting it fall to the floor with the rest. Then he tied the rope around the boy’s waist.
“There you go—,” he hesitated, “boy,” he said finally. “What do we call him anyway?”
“Ghízdova,” the boy spoke up.
They looked at each other in surprise.
“Ghízdova. Zha Ghízdova,” he said, pointing to his chin.
Ava tried to repeat it, “Geez-doe-vah.”
He nodded and pointed again. “Ghízdova.“
“How did he know, Ava?”
“I don’t know, Hans, but we’ll have to be careful what we say around this one.”
Suddenly the boy started squirming. He crossed his legs and put both hands on his crotch.
Ava’s eyes sparkled as she tried not to laugh.
“Hans, I think he has to pee now.”
Hans bent over, picked up his rifle, and shouldered it. They would go—away from the house, up the mountain path. Maybe the boy would find his people. Maybe someone was searching for him. That would be best for everyone.
He gestured and spoke, “Come on, Geezda—boy.” Then he turned, walked to the back of the barn, and slid open the door on that side. The giant boy followed, holding his legs together while he walked.
“Ava, you know that if he finds his people or if they find us, I have to let him go.” She just nodded. He could tell she didn’t like it, but she understood.
“Please put Friede away for me.” She nodded again.
Hans took the boy’s hand and led him out. Whiteness still surrounded the world. They hurried straight for the footbridge behind the house—thirty yards away.
The narrow bridge would not allow them to go side by side, but the boy was hanging back anyway. Hans went first, leading him across the noisy channel and into the rhododendrons.
Only one at a time could climb the winding mountain path through the evergreen thicket. Hans pulled the boy in front of him, held him by the shoulders, and gently, but firmly, guided him into the opening.
Then he released him suddenly with a gentle push. “Go on!”
The boy took off. Hans could hear him tearing through the maze, listened while the noise faded.
The boy was gone.
And now he waited.
There were just too many problems, he told himself. They couldn’t take care of this giant boy. He would be better off gone.
Hans thought of Christoff. He knew, of course, that Christoff would be a grown man now—somewhere, if he still lived at all. But in his mind the ghost of a boy lurked still, hiding unremembered for months and years until some senseless violence called him out, some tangled net of human ills and vice that caught and maimed and killed…the blameless as well as the guilty.
A sudden feeling called him back from his dark wandering. The giant boy had not gone. He was waiting. Hans should go up.
Hans shook his head, pushing aside such foolish thoughts. He turned to walk away, but then he heard someone coming down through the maze.
The boy stepped out from behind the first turn and gazed at Hans, a puzzled look on his face. He chattered some question.
Hans said nothing in reply. He wanted this to be over.
Then the boy hurried down between the green walls, around and behind Hans, and pushed him forward onto the path, chattering all the while. Then he stopped, let go, and clearly said, “Go on.”
The surprise scattered his worries. He couldn’t help but smile. And shaking his head slowly, Hans climbed up the winding, narrow way to find out what this was about.
The boy followed Hans through the thicket and then led him about halfway along the first long leg of the trail along the wooded mountainside. He turned left, off the track, and up the mountain slope about forty feet until they reached a large patch of wild ginger.
The boy started talking to Hans, as if explaining it all to him. He crouched down on his haunches beside the crowd of downy, bright green hearts, and quickly found one of the long creeping roots. He broke off a small piece and rolled it between his fingers, rubbing off the soil, then stood up triumphantly to show it to Hans.
Suddenly his smile vanished, his mood and bearing changed. He stood very upright. “Vagan,” he announced soberly. Then he turned to face down into the valley, closed his eyes, and pivoted slowly from one side to the other as if scanning the horizon. He soon settled in one direction and repeated, “Vagan,” then added in a low, steady voice full of distaste and suspicion, “Gola.“
But then some new thought startled him, and Hans heard a soft, startled “oh.” Without moving his feet, he looked over his shoulder at Hans, embarrassed as if he had said or done something wrong.
Hans sensed his alarm and discomfort. “What is it, boy?” he asked calmly.
The boy pointed at Hans. “Gola,” he said simply. He turned and looked ahead, pointed forward and down into the valley. “Gola,” slowly and distastefully, poking the air several times. “Vagan gola.” Then he pointed back at Hans and said brightly, almost affectionately, “Dugan gola.“
Hans understood. Hans was a human, a gola, but a good human. Down in the valley, a bad, dangerous gola had come close.
And then he realized that the boy was pointing in the direction of the house.
They hurried back to the path, back down the mountain, going more slowly and quietly in the thicket maze. The boy stopped just within the cover of the great rhododendrons, stood up tall and closed his eyes, as if listening.
After a moment, he looked at Hans and pointed—not to the house, but off to the left. “Vagan,” he announced soberly, then added with some distress, “Gola-gola.“
Over there, hidden in the fog, stood the meat house, a small, but sturdy, windowless structure, where they smoked and stored the ham and bacon. Hans kept a padlock on the door, but a gola trying to get in the meat house? That made sense. Hans unshouldered his rifle.
They crossed the bridge stealthily. Hans turned to the boy to try to make him understand that he wanted him to hide in the barn, but the boy was already moving off in that direction along the stream.
The meat house stood close to the farmhouse, but its door faced away because they had the hog killing over there, not near their dwelling. Anyone trying to break in would be on the far side.
The grass was long and wet. Watching carefully for twigs or rocks that would give him away, he moved in quick spurts, from behind the trunk of one old shade tree to another. Hans decided to approach the meat house from his left. The door opened that way.
He reached the left corner, held his breath, and listened. He thought he heard the sound of something heavy falling with a soft thud.
He crept slowly along the twelve-foot wall to the front corner. A careful look partway around the corner told him the heavy door was wide open. Good. It would hide him.
Someone kept walking out and back in. He could see him through the crack between the door and the jamb. Thud. He timed his next move while the thief was inside, moving along the front wall to behind the door.
There might be another, keeping watch. He waited.
Thud. The thief went inside again. Rifle ready, Hans peered around the door. A wide square of burlap laid spread out on the grass like a picnic blanket, several of his hams and sides of bacon on top, a small coil of rope nearby. The thief hoped to load the sturdy burlap, tie it up like a sack, and drag it away to a safe distance. He saw no second man and stood quickly back behind the door.
Thud. This was it. He stepped out, aimed the rifle, and called out steadily, “Hands up or I shoot!”
“Agh!” the man shouted in surprise. After a quick spasm of fright, he froze, then raised his hands high.
Hans saw a revolver on his belt. “Make no sudden moves. Turn around slowly.”
He did. Standing white between the bare meat hooks and hanging hams, he stared wide-eyed at the rifle. “M-mister,” he stammered, “it m-musta bin the monster done it.” The thief was the Loudmouth’s sidekick Bob.
Hans had foiled a robbery. Normally he would just march the thief off his property, keeping him in his sights until he was safely away. But the fog was too thick for that. And the Loudmouth was likely out there somewhere in the fog. If he were anywhere near, he had heard those shouts. They had to move.
Hans backed up as the scared man stepped through the doorway. “Stop,” he commanded, then, gesturing toward the house, “That way. Slowly. Do it.”
When Bob cleared the meat house, Hans ordered him to stop, then slowly sidestepped, being careful not to trip on his own hams. Once he had cleared the meat house, he would order Bob to turn around, so that he could march him behind it into the sheltered yard between it and the farmhouse, among the broad trunks of the old maples.
But to his left, unnoticed, a shadow stepped from the fog, rifle drawn. “Drop it, Boxhead, and nobody gits hurt!”
Bob was shaking now. “Fox, let’s just go.”
“Shut up! We came for meat, and we’s gettin’ some. I ain’t leavin’ empty-handed.”
Then Hans watched with a mixture of surprise, relief, and concern, as Ava walked along the backside of the house, arms outstretched, both hands on the revolver, ready to fire. Ava was no sharpshooter, but he knew she could handle the revolver.
“Boxhead, it’s two against one, and I have the advantage. So drop it.”
He did not trust the Loudmouth. And Bob was scared and stupid, a dangerous pair. He began to lower his rifle, but only slowly, just enough to buy her some time.
Ava reached the corner of the house and stopped. Her first shot would be her best, but he knew she would not stop until the threat was gone or her revolver empty.
The first shot was a solid hit, but it turned Fox toward her. Bob shouted, then watched open-mouthed as the Loudmouth was hit twice more.
He saw the Loudmouth struggle for control, then turn his rifle toward Ava. He had to act—now. Hans turned away from Bob, aimed, held his breath, and squeezed.
The Loudmouth went down hard—a hit to his right chest. Hans turned the rifle back to Bob, who was still armed.
“Ava!” he called out.
“There’s rope here. Come tie this one up!” he said in English. He did not want the intruder to get the wrong idea and panic.
Hans kept Bob’s attention on the rifle, while Ava took his revolver and tied his hands behind his back. Then they made him lie down and tied his feet.
The Loudmouth lay on his side, unmoving. While Ava aimed the revolver at him, Hans lifted the rifle off the body and tossed it aside. He seemed to be out, but Hans quickly removed his revolver as well, then checked him. He was breathing.
“We can’t take any chances with this one. I’ll keep the rifle on him. You get that coil of rope from the barn. Aren’t there some bandages left?”
“Better bring those, too. We’ll see we what we can do for him once we’ve tied him up.”
They tied up the Loudmouth, securely, but compassionately. Hans tied bandages on the worst chest wounds, but he needed a doctor soon. Ava would guard the prisoners, while he rode to find a neighbor who could go into town for the sheriff. Hans didn’t want to leave her alone with them for long.
Both were worried about the boy. It seemed unlikely Bob knew German, so he took the risk. “Ava, when you went to the barn did you see the boy?”
“No, but I didn’t take time to search. He could be hiding,” she said.
When he hurried to the barn to saddle up the horse, there was no sign of the boy.
Hans was not gone long. The first neighbor he found said he could ride to town immediately, so help would probably arrive within the hour.
While the rogues rested on the lawn, Hans and Ava worked to undo their labor, hanging the hams and sides of bacon back in the meat house. Even though she spoke in German, Ava still lowered her voice: “Hans, how did you catch him in the meat house? Did you and the boy come over this way? Did they see him?”
“No. We were up on the mountainside. The boy had found a beautiful patch of ginger and wanted to show me and tell me all about it.” Holding a ham, he smiled at the memory of it.
“Then all the sudden he just knew. He knew someone—some human—had come close, and he knew which direction as well. He led me as far as the rhododendrons and pointed over here, even though we couldn’t see anything in the fog. I’d have said he was listening and heard them, except for what I saw him do up on the mountain.” He told her about it.
“Then he ran off,” Hans said. “I guess he went to get you. Now that I think of it, he must’ve known there were two of them and they had separated.”
“Yes,” she said. “He showed up without you, and I knew right away that something was wrong, so I grabbed the gun, and he led me out behind the house. Then I heard you shout, ‘Hands up.’ ” She folded up the burlap.
“One thing’s sure,” Hans said. “We wouldn’t have to hide him. He can do that himself better than anything we could manage.”
“And,” she added, “he seems to understand what we say—at least the gist of it, so talking to him isn’t as big a problem as it could be.”
They searched all around, but they could not find the padlock or any evidence of how the thieves had broken in.
The Sheriff arrived within the hour with the paddy wagon and the doctor. As soon as they arrived, Ava thanked them and took her leave.
“No trouble, ma’am,” said the Sheriff. “I reckon you’ve had your fill o’ these two rogues.”
“That I have, sir. Good day to you both,” she said and walked off. Hans noticed her pass the house and walk straight for the barn.
The doctor checked the unconscious man’s wounds. “I don’t know if he will live. It isn’t likely. But if he does, he has you to thank for it, sir. Most people would not have bothered to patch up a scoundrel like this.”
The doctor was elderly, so Hans helped them carry the body. Then he, too, thanked them, gathered the rifle, and rode Friede back to the barn.
8. Christening, Illness, and Burial
Hans rode up at a trot, and Ava must have heard him coming. She slid open the barn door and stepped out to greet him, the only sunshine in the fog. Before she spoke, her broad smile told him that she had good news. “Hans, you have to come and see this,” she called to him.
She pushed the door wide open, and Hans rode right in. He halted the horse and looked around, expecting to see the boy. Instead, atop the small work table by the boy’s bedding, he noticed two bunches of greenery.
Ava closed the door, but said nothing, just smiled. When he dismounted, she took his hand and led him toward the table. As he got closer, Hans saw two batches of plants—one of small dandelions and another of alehoof in half-foot lengths—not heaped in piles, but carefully laid out.
“Hmm, it looks like a harvest.”
“I think so, too,” she said. “He’s been busy working.” Hans knew his wife approved, though he doubted they had any use for these particular gleanings.
“This must be his job for his people. That’s why he knew about the wild ginger and was so excited to show me.”
“Yes. Scouring the woods for useful plants is something the children could do to help.”
Hans decided right there to settle something that had been bothering him. “Ava, tell me, what it is again that he calls himself?”
“GEEZ-doe-vah,” she said slowly, “although he does something funny with the ‘G.'”
“It sounds like ‘Christopher,’ doesn’t it?”
Ava broke into a knowing smile, turned, and looked up at him. But she backed off on the smile when she saw his face, serious and thoughtful. “Yes, Bärchen, it does.”
“I would like to just call him that. I can say that. What do you think?”
“I think that would be grand, Hans.” She hesitated, “Does this mean you think he can stay for a while?”
“It looks to me that we can make it work,” he said, gesturing to the boy’s harvest as evidence. “Besides, I don’t know what else we can do anyway.”
Ava embraced him, long and tightly, before she finally said softly, “This is right and good, Mein Bärchen.” He didn’t need to see her face to tell that she was crying happily.
“Yes, Maus,” was all he could say. He knew how important this was to her.
Just then, they heard the back door start to slide open. Loosening their embrace, they both turned to see the giant boy peeking in through the narrow opening. Ava smiled at him and said, “Come in, young helper.”
The boy shut the door, leaning into it with one arm. In his other hand, they saw he held his latest prize—something mostly purple. He walked proudly up to Ava and offered them to her, not holding the stems in his fist, but laid out flat in his palms, like a platter—a dozen violets.
Ava received them, gathering them up into a bunch, and said, “Thank you, young man. I will put these in some water right away.” But the boy seemed puzzled.
Hans smiled knowingly. “Ava,” he hesitated. “I think he means for you to eat them.” In confirmation, the boy reached out, slipped one blossom from her grasp, and popped it into his mouth, nodding and munching happily.
The woman accepted this turn of events graciously. She plucked a violet from the bunch in her hand, raised it to eye level to inspect it carefully from all sides, then lowered it to her mouth and bit the flower from the stem.
As she chewed, the boy watched attentively. She forced a little smile, then offered one to Hans. He found it edible, but bland. Hans thought now would be a good time to turn to something else.
After thanking the giant boy, he reached out and placed his right hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Christopher.” The boy looked up at him intently. “Can I call you Christopher?”
The boy seemed to recognize this as his name, but also to understand that something more important was happening. Suddenly, he knelt down before Hans and bowed his head, like a knight-elect before his king. After that he did not move.
Surprised, Hans looked to Ava for suggestions. “I don’t know, Hans. He seems to be waiting for something. Try putting your hands on his head, like a priestly blessing.”
Hans did. The boy still did not move.
“Now say, ‘I call you Christopher. Welcome.'”
He did. Only then did Christopher look up at him, smiling weakly. And then he began to sway unsteadily.
“Ava, the boy is warm.”
She hurried over, bent down, and held her white wrist to his forehead. “He is much warmer than he was earlier. Help me get him into bed.”
They led him to the straw bed, keeping him from stumbling, then removed his cloak and settled him in the blankets. “All this excitement has been too much for him,” Ava said. “Hans, put some water in the bucket for me. I’ll get some cloths.”
She also grabbed a small container for the violets.
It was still mid-morning, but only the clock seemed to know. The fog had thickened, the day turned darker.
Christopher quickly got worse. He was clearly ill and slept uneasily. They did what they could for him—which was not much beyond trying to keep him comfortable—then watched and waited.
Hans left to tend to necessary chores, while Ava kept the first watch. At midday, she left reluctantly for a quick meal in the house with Hans. Other than the blessing, neither spoke much.
Working was easier than waiting with only worry for company, and Ava had borne that difficult duty long enough. Hans insisted. He would keep watch for a while.
He slid open the door and stepped into the barn—so familiar, yet now so strange, because of the newcomer and the unusual darkness of the day. Here—yet again—lay a problem he could do nothing about.
He remembered the funeral—just hours ago. The priest had said that funerals were like doorways through which we stepped from the past—from a familiar world that included the one now gone—into a new present, a strange, unknown world without her, but one in which we would learn to live.
And into this world, into the aching wounds of their lives, this strange, new boy had fallen. The whirlwind that followed kept their minds and hands busy, gave them purpose, and they had dared to hope that something good had now arrived. But the storm’s final blow had felled him, too, and left them alone again—alone except for those two children of the darkness—worry and despair.
Would Christopher, too, now leave them so soon after he arrived? In caring for him, would they, too, fall ill? Was this to be their sorry, lonely end? And, finally, in the weary silence beyond the worries, came the unanswerable question. And that one small word, heavier than all others, mounted the saddle of his mind—why?
And under that weight, the great bear of a man knelt down alone beside the giant boy and in that darkness prayed—no questions, no special requests. “Our Father, who art in heaven…”
And after a time the heavy rider left him, though he didn’t notice when, and for now it was enough.
Ava found him, a few hours later, sitting in the dim light of the lamp beside the boy. “Ava, there’s one more thing I have to do today. I have to bury the father.”
“O! I forgot about that,” she said. “But how on earth are you going to do it?”
“I’m just going to raise a cairn over him, using the rocks and rubble all around him. It isn’t a proper burial, but it’s the best I can do.”
She nodded in agreement, then added suddenly. “Hans, I need to see him first. I know you’ve told me, but I have to see for myself.”
“All right,” he said after a moment’s thought. “I understand.”
“But I don’t think we should leave Christopher alone now,” she said and, anticipating his objection, she explained, “We need to get some water in him at the least—and a little food if we can. What if he wakes up while we’re both gone?”
She was right, he knew. She took the horse—and the revolver, just in case—and rode off.
He heard the horse about the time he thought he should. Ava said nothing, and he gave her time. He closed the door behind her and helped her down. They walked toward the boy and stood, gazing down at him, the man behind the woman, holding her. The silence became awkward, but he waited.
“Hans, I’m glad I didn’t know. If I had seen that first…” she stopped. “I don’t think I would have…Things would not have turned out the same.” Then simply, “Thank you, husband.” She turned and embraced him long and hard.
He held her until she let him lose, then rode off to raise the cairn.
He stood and stared upon the corpse, bracing himself. No pine box this, but flesh and blood with arms and eyes and nose. Gently and carefully, rock by rock, Hans covered the great body, protecting it from beasts and prying eyes. And in that grim and sobering labor, he also built a bond, and the monster became a man.
Hans stepped back, surveyed his work, and was satisfied that he had done well. He knew it would be best to lay no marker of any kind, no sign, no clue, but he could not leave just yet.
At the foot of the cairn, he faced the rocky grave. He made the sign of the cross in blessing and said, “Rest in peace. Farewell.” Then he turned and walked slowly back to the horse.
By now the air was clear, but the fog had turned to steady rain.
9. A Pair of Visits
Determined to see this through, they settled into a routine, taking turns working and watching, day and night. Hans slept in the barn on a cot. On the second night, Ava volunteered, but he insisted.
Lack of sleep gnawed away at their strength—at first only a persistent nuisance, nesting in the hollow spaces of their minds, but breeding, feeding on their spirits, chafing their tempers, chewing holes in their reason. In such a place, to love is to remain silent. This they did—mostly.
Christopher’s wounds were healing, but he remained fevered and mostly unconscious, half-waking at odd intervals for a little food and water, in and out.
By the third evening, they began to have second thoughts and wondered how much longer they could keep this up.
That night Hans had a dream.
He is in his childhood bedroom. His father comes into the room and calls him. A deep voice says, “Come with me.”
Now Hans is at the cairn. It is not his father, but the Giant, standing at the head. Three others are there—one at the foot, one at the right, one at the left, heads bowed.
Hans looks down and sees Christopher, lying ill on a rough bed in a cave. “It is the Plague,” another voice declares. “Two generations ago the Plague nearly wiped out the tribe. He must leave.”
The first voice answers, “I will carry him to the old northern cavern. We may die, but the tribe will be spared.”
The Giant strides slowly along the ridgetops, the child strapped to his back. He is weary. Finally, they have arrived.
Hans carefully lowers the child into the cart. The three days are up. He seems much better and should not die.
Now he must find the sealing stone, but this cavern has not been used in many years. There has been a rockslide. It is getting dark. Clearing the rubble must wait until daylight. He is so tired, and he knows he has a fever. And Ava can’t help at all. She’s seven months pregnant.
He slept again.
Ava! What is it? But, no, Christopher’s mother died when he was born.
It was first light. Where is the baby? He’s wandered off. But he isn’t well! He may be confused or mind-blind. I hear humans over in the valley. I have to look for Christopher. What if he wandered there?
I cannot see. Why is it so cold here? Why has someone tied me down? I must get up. I’m coming, Christopher!
There they are. What are they doing? I think they are leaving. Do they have him? I cannot see. I must get closer.
What are all those dogs looking at? Agh! The dogs bite. Agh! How can they bark so loud? My side, my head! He grabs his side, then falls. There is blood on his hands.
Where is Christopher? I must get back to the barn before the dogs come and tie me up again.
He is not here. Where are you, Christopher?
I am so cold and tired.
Again, he slept.
Hans lies in his own warm bed, the comforting weight of blankets and quilts heavy upon his body. A pillow covers his face. What a strange dream I had! But now it’s time to get up and get to work.
Within the tangle of covers, he slowly maneuvers his arm around to lift a pillow from his face. It is stone.
O, I didn’t think you would still be here. The Giants are standing around his bed—one at the foot, one to the right, one to the left.
>He is lying inside the cairn, covered in rocks. He sits up. Someone else is standing at the head of the bed. It is Christopher’s father.
The great voice says, “We are sorry to disturb your mind. It is not our way, but you needed to know.” And then, “Others have fallen ill with the Plague, and we may not survive.”
The four giants walk away and surround one huge boulder. They lift, carry it slowly, and place it atop the cairn.
“Go now in peace. But while you have him, take care of our son.”
When the birds awakened him, Hans recalled none of this at first. He sat up on the edge of the cot, placing his feet in his waiting boots and wrapping the blanket around him.
But when he looked over at Christopher on the straw bed, curled up on his side, facing him, then the first memory from the dream drifted up from below—Christopher, lying on a rough bed in a cavern. Wondering where the image came from, Hans tried to hold on to it, but just then Christopher opened his eyes, distracting him.
Hans stood up, his boots still untied, and walked carefully across the aisle. Christopher turned over on his back to look at him. His gaze clear, a sleepy smile on this face, he pulled his right arm from underneath the covers and reached up to Hans.
In one motion, Hans took Christopher’s hand with his left and sat down next to him, then he rested his right hand of his forehead. The child was cool.
Hans closed his eyes, inhaled slowly and deeply. “Thanks be to God,” he whispered.
And then he heard the boy call out weakly, “Ava.”
Hans just shook his head and smiled knowingly. He didn’t mind. Weren’t all children’s first words addressed to the woman?
He helped Christopher sit up, tucked a blanket over his back and shoulders, and gave him some water, then some stale bread from the table, then more water. Plain, simple tasks, but Hans relished them, so different from those worried, awkward feedings in the middle of the night.
Soon they heard her, sliding open the door, wrapped in a blanket and wearing her blue nightcap. “Hans, what has happened? Something has happened.”
Only later did they realize that Christopher had called to her, not to slight him, but because Hans was already there. He just wanted both of them.
But now, their worries leaked away with their tears, and they busied themselves with the pleasant labor of putting back the disrupted pieces of their lives and working to reorder their world anew.
But before his mind filled up with this day’s plans, Hans remembered most of his dream. Busy he was that day, but not busy enough to keep out the images and the feelings and the questions.
He found himself planning how he could get away unnoticed for a quick trip to the cairn. This was silly, he told himself. It was just a dream.
He did not tell Ava, and he walked down the muddy track from the barn on his own two silent shoes. The sun shone brightly in a clear blue sky as he strode along the road and then over Sugardale bridge. Hans told himself that he had work to do and shouldn’t be wasting time here. Perhaps he’d better turn around now.
He turned right and walked along the grassy shore of the millpond to the forest’s tangled hedge. Once through, he passed beneath the shadow of the giant trees toward the mountain wall. Upstream of the millpond, the rolling waters almost touched the narrow footbridge. As he crossed, Hans caught himself whistling.
After picking his way over the rocky, narrow strip between mountain wall and water, he found that the stony watercourse from Giants Hollow had likewise filled it bed, so he followed a meandering course through the woods to its left, away from the thickets on its bank. Soon he heard the hidden trickling of the spring that flowed steadily from its source up near the exposed bones of the mountain—his destination, a place he thought he knew.
He climbed through and up, near to the very place where he had stood days ago and peered through the branches to see the fallen giant. There, in the clear light of day, atop the pile of stones that he had laid with his own hands, rested a huge boulder.
Hans stared, stunned. And then he turned away and headed home, packing away the dream memories in the attic of his mind. Spring had come, and Hans began busying himself with the challenges of the new life that lay before him. And that was enough.
He did not look back.
A week after the funeral, on Saturday morning at eight o’clock, Father Montgomery came to call, as he had promised. He brought news and a small, leather bag that seemed to hold something heavy.
“Good morning, Father. Thank you for coming,” Ava greeted him at the door and led him into their sitting room.
“Good morning and peace to you, Ava,” said the priest.
Hans stood and walked toward him, hand outstretched. “Good morning, Father. Welcome.”
They shook hands firmly and warmly. “And peace to you, Hans. I heard about your ordeal. I’m so sorry.”
“Thank you, Father. We are fine now,” said Hans. “Please, sit down.”
After a few minutes of talk, the priest brought out a sturdy, bronze padlock and held it out to Hans. “This is yours, Hans. The Sheriff gave it to me yesterday to bring to you.” The shank had been cut cleanly in two.
Hans took it and turned it over several times, puzzled and concerned. The priest anticipated his questions. “They found that on the partner, Bob Coleson,” he explained. “And the other one had a large tool sewn into a pocket down the back of his jacket. The Sheriff showed it to me—about this long,” he held his hands about two feet apart, “like a double-jointed pair of pliers with blades on the end. The Sheriff called it a ‘bolt clipper.'”
Hans nodded. “I have heard of this.”
“He said they are used to open crates and that Bill Thatcher stole this one from the B&O railroad, where he worked for a time.”
“We must get a better lock.”
“If it helps, Hans, one arm of the tool said ‘cut no hard steel.'”
“It does help, Father. I will talk with Mr. Martel about what he can order for me.”
Then Father Montgomery smiled and held out the leather bag for Hans. “And this should help, too. It’s from Mr. Williams. He felt partly responsible. The Sheriff said he was quite upset and concerned about his good name. He left this with the Sheriff for you as recompense for your trouble and any loss.”
Hans worked open the drawstring and poured out some silver coins onto the palm of his hand. “It should be fifty dollars, Hans. It seems Mr. Williams is quite well-off.”
Hans put the coins away. He would count it up later. “We will put this to good use, Father.”
“Yes,” Ava said. “Thank you for bringing it. I will speak with the Sheriff soon and see if he has an address for Mr. Williams, so we can thank him.” She paused and look troubled. “So, Father, did the man survive?”
“Yes, he did.”
Ava looked relieved. “Good,” she said. “I hope I never have to do that again, shoot a man like that.”
“You did what you had to do, Ava.”
“I know, Father. Thank you.”
Then he turned to Hans. “The Sheriff said you foiled a clever scheme. There have been other thefts like this one, with locks cut, but they’ve never been caught. I told him God and St. Christopher were watching over you.”
Hans and Ava looked up suddenly, as if startled. The priest continued, surprised and puzzled, “I meant only that you are travelers of a sort, being from Germany.” The fleeting tension drained away, quickly forgotten. It was common knowledge that St. Christopher was the patron saint of travelers.
Father Montgomery then held out a prayer card. “I thought you might like this. The painter was German.”
Hans looked it over and then handed it to Ava so she could see. “Thank you, Father,” he said.
“Yes, thank you for your thoughtfulness.”
Father Montgomery continued, “St. Christopher was a big man, a giant some say, but I’ve not seen a painting like this one before.” The priest chuckled quietly. “Here he looks huge.”
And Hans and Ava just smiled. Christopher was out gathering ramps.
David Alan Webb has always cared deeply about people—especially the weaker, the smaller, and the younger. In recent years, there seem to be more and more of “the younger” around everywhere, and in this last quarter of his life, he finds himself empathizing and identifying more and more with weak, wounded, hurting humanity. Storymaking has been a lifelong ambition. And he hopes to contribute something beautiful and good to the lives of his readers.