A story of comfort and joy, for Christmastime
The two young men were so deep in conversation that they did not at first notice the Romany woman by the side of the road. It was snowing quite hard and her small, portly figure, clothed in black, was hardly visible through the falling flakes. It was Advent in Bavaria, 1885, and all the village houses had wreaths pinned on their doors. From the open portal of the small Lutheran church the choir practised in gentle, timorous tones, the Praetorius carol “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming” flooding out into the freezing night. But Friedrich and August paid attention to neither carols nor Christmas preparations. They were too deep in conversation; Friedrich, the younger of the two by four years, speaking so passionately that the clouds from his breath surrounded him like a halo in the church’s light as they passed it.
“I tell you, August, it’s time to leave this dump! Do you really want to waste four years languishing in military service? The meat is gristle, the gruel is water, and you’re stuck in some hole of a dormitory with twenty others. I’ve got my ticket, I’m off to Hamburg tomorrow, and if you had half a brain, you’d join me.”
August, whose military service had been deferred because he had to tend to his sick mother in Pomerania, dipped his head in a gesture of demurral, sending his Russian-style beret clean off it.
“I’m due to start soon myself,” he remarked, picking it up and brushing off the snow, “and I think I’d better, once the call comes. It’s my duty to the Empire.” August heard how pompous that sounded as he said it. But he could not take it back.
“Oh stuff the Empire!” Friedrich pouted. He had a mouth that was good for pouting, Friedrich. He was quite a handsome boy altogether, six foot with wide, cold, blue eyes. “I don’t owe them a week of my life, let alone four years. And then to troop home and have my father try and make me grow wine! I want to travel the world, August. I want to make my fortune. I don’t want to grow wine in a village where it snows in winter and the stuff tastes like vinegar. Isn’t there more to life?” He waved his hands in the air. “There’s a whole world out there, and it’s mine for the taking. I know it.”
“If you do take that boat, Friedrich,” August warned, “they’ll never let you back. Not if you skip your service.”
“Boo hoo.” Friedrich dug his gloved hands into the pockets of his sheepskin trousers. “I can live with – hey, who’s that?” For now they had drawn level with the Romany woman, who had moved from her position near the ditch at the verge of the road and was now in their path. She held her bare hand out, mumbling something.
“She wants us to cross her palm with money,” August said in disgust. “Come on, old woman, out of the way.”
“Hold on. She’s saying she’ll tell our fortune.”
“Friedrich, surely you don’t -”
“Oh come on, August. It’s just a bit of fun.” Friedrich rummaged in the small bag of coins hanging off his belt and placed a five-mark silver coin on her palm. The metal glinted in the snowy moonlight. “Right, old woman, what have you got for me?”
The woman pocketed the coin somewhere in her voluminous habit, then clasped Friedrich’s hand, took off his glove, and drew circles on his palm with her finger. August winced at such theatrics, but he did not want to leave his friend when Friedrich was in this state of mind, believing as he did that Friedrich’s decision to leave the country was madness. He tried to look the woman in the eye, but she was bent low over his friend’s hand.
“I see a journey,” she pronounced, her voice low and accented. “Over land, and then water. A great journey indeed.”
Friedrich brightened with a grin. August grinned too, in spite of himself. Friedrich was terrible at keeping a poker face. Terrible at poker too; August, by nature a cautious man, had bailed him out more than once, including their very first meeting in Baden-Baden when August was staying in there on a long hike which he never completed. Friedrich was making it clear to the fortune teller that she was on the right track, even though it was probably a lucky guess.
“This journey you make. I see a new country, a new world. Great wealth, enormous power.” Friedrich was lapping this up, beaming with pleasure. Then she gripped his hand tighter. “And I see it all destroyed. Because of you.”
That wiped the smile off Friedrich’s face. His eyes took on that mean look he sometimes had when he was on a long, losing streak. “What are you on about, you stupid, old cow? What sort of fortune telling is this?”
“In more than a hundred years from now,” the Romany woman continued, undeterred, “one man, and one man alone, will destroy that country from the inside, all its chambers and institutions. There will be war, darkness, rage that will consume the land like fire. The rich will pilfer the poor, and the lands will be taken from the people. Terrible calamity will befall the world. That man will carry your name and be directly of your line.”
Friedrich wrenched his hand from her grip, his glove falling to the ground. “What gut-rot moonshine have you drunk around some dirty campfire to come up with such nonsense? Give me my money back. Give it back NOW!”
But the Romany woman shook her head. “It will happen. What is written, is written.”
“Come on, Fritz.” August dragged Friedrich off, leaving the glove to lie in the snow. He could tell his friend’s mood was up and he could turn dangerous when he was angry, especially when any quantity of money was involved. For all his swagger, wine-growing didn’t earn much and Friedrich could ill afford to waste those five marks. Since he hated losing on principle, he would be marinating in his own rage for quite a while.
“Can you believe what she said? Can you believe it?” he ranted as they made their way towards his father’s home. But over time, his anger seemed to dissipate. It was too cold to be angry. As he and August tramped along the road, the snow swirling and falling all around, the silence rose up from the dark fields and forests, enveloping them both. Finally, they reached the red, five-barred gate that bordered Friedrich’s family land.
“Will you still go?” August said, in lieu of an auf wiedersehen.
Friedrich stamped his foot in annoyance. “You have to ask? Of course I’m going. That silly bitch isn’t going to put me off. It’s all nonsense, isn’t it? That’s what you keep saying, anyway.”
“Well, then,” August sighed. “Good luck, I suppose.”
“Four o’clock tomorrow if you change your mind,” Friedrich called after him.
August slept badly that night and woke early the following day. The light through the small window was pale and weak. His room over the village inn was a small garret, cold as charity, and he drew his knees to his chest to keep warm. He had stayed in this village all winter mostly to please his friend, his own Prussian homeland being hundreds of miles away. August’s mother had died after her long illness, though it had been a typhus epidemic that had taken her rather than the lingering, chronic condition that had disabled her limbs one by one. After death finally released her from pain, there had been nothing to keep him at home.
In one way August disliked Friedrich, but in another, he was drawn to his ability to take risks and not care about the consequences. Life was drab enough; Friedrich’s scrapes and bursts of ill-temper were a distraction. But now Friedrich was leaving Germany, and August had to decide what he was going to do with his life.
There was a barracks just at the end of town. He contemplated signing up there and then, rather than waiting to be drafted. Unlike Friedrich, August knew he would do well in an army setting because he could take commands as well as give them. And why not? Friedrich was right, in a way; there really was nothing else worth doing in the town. August had as little interest in viticulture as his friend.
Yes, he would enlist straightaway! It made sense. Excited by his decision, he sprung out of bed, performed his ablutions in the ewer on the washstand by the door – thankfully an attendant had just added hot water – and made a rather poor attempt at shaving, nicking himself several times. That done, he stumbled downstairs. Frau Kaltenhammer had prepared him his usual breakfast of cold meats, rye bread and black coffee in a little brass pot. She smiled at him.
“You seem in good spirits today, August.”
“I am,” he said, “I’m enlisting.”
“Are you, indeed? Well good luck, I say. We will miss you, you know. Always paid on time, never any trouble.” Unlike that ne’er-do-we’ll friend of yours, she didn’t add. The Kaltenhammers’ dislike for Friedrich was well known, ever since young Johannes Kaltenhammer had called him a cheat at mathematics eight years ago and Friedrich had retaliated by opening the Kaltenhammers’ henhouse so that the foxes could get in and make mincemeat of them.
By the time August had finished his breakfast and started the quick walk down the street to the barracks, his spirits were high and there was a spring in his step. The closer he got to the barracks, the happier he felt, until his stride was somewhat jaunty and he had begun to whistle a marching song. Then he came to a dead stop.
The Romany woman had appeared again, once more stepping out of the shadows and blocking his way.
August drew back, startled. After a tumultuous night dreaming about her screeching imprecations at him, he had begun to consider her no more than a wild figment of his and Friedrich’s collective imaginations. Seeing her there, stolid and corporeal, shook him more than he cared to admit.
“I have no money for you today. Sorry.”
But she did not move. “Money is not what I am looking for. Your friend already paid me last night.”
“So what do you want then?” A cart rolled by stuffed to the brim with timber, probably to be made into painted puppets and toys for the children at Christmastime. August tried to move the woman out of its way, but the driver, on seeing her, avoided them both with such a wide arc he nearly set a wheel in the ditch.
“To give you the money’s worth. I was not finished last night when your friend lost his temper at me. I have more to foretell.”
“Oh,” said August, bored now. “Well that’s hardly my concern. You can take it up with him. If you’re quick enough. He will be taking a night train to Hamburg and a packet to New York.”
“Indeed he will,” the Romany woman concurred, “because what is written, is written. And it is written, too, that you shall accompany him.”
August laughed shortly. “I shall do nothing of the sort! I’m on my way to enlist in the Army. I have no interest in going to America.”
A cloud passed over the winter sun and the sky began to turn grey. Although annoyed by the turn their conversation had taken, August could not help but be curious about his interlocutor. Now in daylight he could look at her face. She was middle-aged, unprepossessing, but had deep brown eyes and freckles on her forehead. With her headscarf drawn back, little patches of sleet landed on her scalp, but she ignored them.
“Duty is important to you, August.” It was half a question, half a statement, delivered with the gentlest mockery.
“Of course it is. What is the point of your question?” And how do you know my name?
“You will leave with your friend for America out of duty. Not to the Fatherland, no, a greater duty – to mankind. Because the second half of my prophecy does not concern your friend. It concerns you. I told him that a man bearing his name would destroy his own country and perhaps the world. What I did not say then was: a man bearing yours will stop him. He will be the one bearer of light in the midst of darkness and despair. Perdition will be avoided and honour restored, all in your name, August. But only if you take that train, and that boat. Tonight.”
“Tonight? What’s the rush?” August tried to laugh, but something in her unblinking gaze was getting to him. The way she said his name. The certainty of her.
“Because you will go on your way and later change your mind. You will reason yourself out of doing the right thing and go to the barracks after all. This vision I have had – it is not one of my usual apparitions. It is scripture.” She clasped both his hands in hers. Even through his lambswool gloves, they felt warm and firm. “You will turn around and pack a suitcase. You will take the train tonight and boat tomorrow. To fulfil a divine duty whose outcome you will never see in your lifetime. You will do this merely because a poor, friendless gypsy has asked you to.”
The woman continued to stare into his eyes. The cold around them grew keener and harder and August felt the wind bite his cheeks as he struggled to keep his reason; from her radiated an ineffable presence, a greater intelligence which appeared to subsume his own, an intelligence of the heart which ranged across centuries and gods and civilisations, knowing and understanding all. In the face of such a Power, what could August say, except –
“I will do my duty”?
The Romany woman dropped her gaze and his hands, and appeared quite ordinary again.
“Good. Now, get on with it.”
And so it was that before he could change his mind and come to his senses, August returned to the Kaltenhammers’ inn and packed a suitcase, left a few marks as a tip, and after spending most of the day reading and having a long glass of beer, walked back to the stop for the carriage. That would take him to the nearest train station three miles away in Bad Durkheim from where he could take a branch line. The cold had eased off a little – it worried at him now, rather than bit – and in the last light of day he could clearly see Friedrich waiting at the stop, as patiently as Friedrich ever could, which involved a lot of stamping and yawning. Three huge boxes surrounded him, as did a weary-looking fellow from the village whom he had obviously bribed to help carry them.
Friedrich waved and grinned. “Well well. You decided to come after all.”
“To keep an eye on you, Friedrich Trump,” August retorted.
Friedrich’s answering laugh was loud and long, but without rancour. “Good luck with that, August Mueller.”
Ten minutes later the carriage left with both young men inside, to start its long journey to America. As it disappeared from view, the horses’ tread and rattling wheels swallowed up in the gathering dark, the village forgot about them and continued with its Christmas Eve preparations, for that is when Germans celebrate. Life, as they say, moved on.
But the Romany woman who accosted them both vanished from all memory, and was never seen or heard from again.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Although both protagonists in this story are historical, I have taken enormous and outrageous liberties in bringing them together as they lived not only at opposite ends of Germany, but were an entire generation apart. The Trump family occupation was indeed wine, and Friedrich did indeed leave for America in 1885 at the age of sixteen. Although he revisited his hometown, he was never allowed to live in Germany again. Apart from that, you could call this “fake fiction”, but the heart of the story is true…
If this story whets your appetite, check out the below for more of my work 🙂
click on cover icon to read more reviews and buying options