(this fable intersects with FROLIC)
The heron flew high into the sky, stretching his long neck towards the silver clouds above, then, slowly dipped his body back down; aiming for the chrome-colored sea below. Changing course, he soared across the water, his wide wings projecting shadows onto the waves below. The great bird, then, eyed a herring, and descended into the gaping, cold abyss.
It was the final day of the year – December 31st, 1917. The Great War was humming on the European continent. Just to the north of Europe, floating in the sea, lay a chain of bobbing islands, hugging the coasts of Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. It was there that the island of Nordenay floated forlornly in the North Sea. Sister isles did float nearby, each with her own unforgiving beauty; one silent and empty, one quaint and demure, another haunted by shipwrecks and wandering seals.
Germany was engaged in the first war of the century and had yet to be associated with the dark cloud of evil that was to become the Third Reich. Winter, as always, had a strong presence. Tomorrow’s sun would rise over a brand new year.
Henrietta Kruse held tight, her tall body bracing itself against the icy, northern winds. Her skirts whipped around her calves, her eyeglasses protected her from the scattering sands. She glanced east, towards the harbor, raising her hands to obscure the sun.
A large object appeared in the sky, initially a blur, then a glimmer, and finally a shiny, vibrating bird broke through the clouds. It was not an airship such as those build by Von Zeppelin, but to Henny’s surprise, an aeroplane, whose propellers she could now hear, chopping away at the wind.
After banking for a moment, the plane cocked its wings, swung around and landed on the water, creating a wake around itself. A crowd of villagers gathered at the edge of the sea, initially spreading away from the immense shadow the plane projected and then converging upon it. They whispered and gawked at the hydro-aeroplane. The smell of the salt air mixed with the tinny scent of an impending snowfall.
Two men appeared from the side of the plane and climbed out onto its amphibian arms. The townsfolk seemed to swallow them up, bringing them to shore in the process. Shortly after their landing, a number of local men helped the pilots drag their plane into a mudflat, covering it with brush and marsh grass to avoid possible sightings by the British. It seemed that the pilots would be there for a number of days until they could get a mechanic to fix the plane. As far as Edmund and his co-pilot Siegfried were concerned, this bought them a number of days of warm food, a possible bath, and a little bit of socializing. It was, in fact Sylvesterabend (New Years Eve), a day for celebration and promise, even in the midst of a world war…
That evening, Henny walked along the path that hugged the edge of the village. In the moonlight, Henny could see the snowflakes land everywhere around her like an enemy invasion of parachutes. Music stole into the silence of the fallen snow. Henny climbed the stairs of the rathaus and headed in the direction of the music. A band was playing at the other end of the open room, its sound, brassy and intoxicating. Couples danced amid a blur of laughter, intertwined arms, and fallen scarves. There was a frenzied joy in the air that night, a joy with which to drown the images and sounds of war, photographs of frozen bodies in trenches or the sounds of mysterious planes flying over the island at night.
Henny took in the activities. She stood taller than many of the women around her, with long, pale brown braids anchored by tiny white ribbons. She leaned against a wooden pillar, shifting uncomfortably, watching and listening. A man’s deep laugh rose over the sound of the accordion and Henny noticed that the laughter belonged to a man on the other end of the platform, dressed in a pilot’s leather jacket and military pants, surrounded by blinking young women. The pilot looked in her direction, held her gaze for a moment, and then returned his attention to the gaggle of women.
Henny, shipwrecked by her quietude, watched the activities from across the room, a vulnerable fawn watching its hunter from behind a thicket. Eventually the pilot walked in Henny’s direction, his skin flush with the cold air and his eyes sparkling blue against the backdrop of the night. The two braved a long silence, and then introduced themselves. “Good evening Fraulein. My name is Edmund, Edmund Grincicki. ” “Good evening Mr. Grincicki, my name is Henrietta Wilhemina Kruse. Welcome to Nordenay.” She grabbed a braid and twisted her hair, it still being stiff with ice from her walk over. “Was that your aeroplane that crashed into the harbor earlier today?” “Unfortunately or maybe fortunately (at which point he smiled), my plane had to make an emergency landing this afternoon. What a lovely place to have landed.” “Thank god you were safe”, Henrietta interrupted. “It seems your arrival has created quite a stir. Where were you flying to?” “We were flying reconnaissance, searching for signs of British Navy ships, when my aeroplane’s engine began to sputter. My co-pilot viewed Nordenay below and we quickly decided to attempt to land here for safety.” “I have never seen a hydro-aeroplane before. That must be something to fly above the clouds, into the heavens, so much closer to god.” Henrietta said. Edmund replied, “I am not ready to get too close to god or heaven, just yet, Fraulein Kruse.”
“Are you a member of the Flying Circus? Have you ever flown with der Rote Kampfflieger (the Red Baron)?” Edmund smiled and laughed, as this was a question put forth to him all too often, the Flying Circus being an elite group of pilots, the Red Baron being their brightest star…and probably one of the most famous men in Germany. “No, I am not a fighter pilot, I fly reconnaissance, investigating who is in the sky and which troops are on land, Fraulein.” “You may call me Henny. My brothers call me Henny.“ The two chatted for quite a while longer until Edmund offered Henny his hand and asked her to dance. They danced and danced until the last trombone was being dragged off the makeshift stage. The snow unrelenting, had left the colored streamers soaked and muddied; bleeding a rainbow of color onto the snow and ice.
The New Year had begun…
The next day Henny and Edmund met in front of the post office punctually at 3 PM. Henny had worked earlier that day as a nanny to two small children and spent her work hours, both distracted and thrilled. As she arrived in front of the post office, she could barely contain her excitement. Edmund ran to her bearing a small package of cookies wrapped in brown paper and string. The two took to walking the path around the edge of the island, arm in arm, stride in stride: a synchronized winter waltz.
Each day, the two agreed upon a meeting place from which they took long walks around the island or drank Friesian tea in a cafe. They talked about the war, their families, literature and even poetry, Henny’s uncle being a well-known poet on a neighboring island. They professed their love for one another and strayed off the main paths, finding hidden areas within the marshes where they kissed and held one another in private. The rest of the world had fallen away and there seemed to be just the two of them.
After a glorious ten days together, Henny and the entire village witnessed Edmund and Siegfried return from whence they came – back into the sky. The lovers had promised to see one another, if not by the end of the war, perhaps by Edmund’s next leave. He lived in Dusseldorf and could take a train to the coast and then grab a ferry to the island.
By summer’s end, Henny followed Edmund’s exploits via letters written every week. They were postmarked from Germany, the Netherlands, and as far away as Russia. Edmund wrote of the war and the worrying rumor that thousands of fresh troops were being sent each day by the United States to allied forces in France. He wrote of wanting to land his plane again on the Friesian islands and perhaps of one day staying. He reminisced about the aromas of the salt air, heather and the marsh grasses, calling up memories of salty, wet, windswept embraces, the aromas of which Henny took in deeply, often walking around the island, while reading Edmund’s letters.
Henrietta stood at the top of the dune from which she first glanced the metallic bird flying through the clouds. She stared into the vast empty sky, which remained so for a very long time. She waited. She listened. Nothing. She hoped for the sound of propellers slicing through clouds. Nothing. Eventually, her stare was broken by the tail of a kite, it being a splinter that broke into her vision of emptiness.
One autumn afternoon, Henny missed the Sunday meal with her family. The boiled potatoes were steaming on the table and the soup was just being taken off the stove, but there was no sign of Henny. Concerned about her absence, her brother Wilhelm ventured out along the coast in search of her. As he came close to the harbor, he saw Henny standing on a dune. From a distance she looked like a pillar of salt, still and erect against the bleak, breaking winds. As he approached, he could see that she was weeping, frozen in grief. Her lips moved ever so slightly, drawing in the salt from her tears, the taste being indistinguishable from that of the sea before her. In her hand was a ripped envelope accompanied by a letter.
Once Wilhelm managed to coax her off her perch, he brought poor Henrietta back to the house and tried to determine what was wrong. Henrietta, took a while to regain her breath and composure. Finally, she sobbed that Edmund’s plane had been shot down along the coast of France, at which point she became inconsolable. Henny’s betrothed had once again returned from whence he came, back into the sky…to heaven.
A long time had passed and Henny could forever be seen walking the edges of the island. Her figure cut a stark silhouette, tall, brooding, and dressed in black. Each day she stood at the exact point where land met sea, like a giant straddling two worlds, as if awaiting the exhilarating sound of propellers in the distance, as if able to stir the sea and conjure the dead from of it. Henrietta seemed to be stuck in time, a time, which never moved forward, a time where each day was the same as the one before.
…Edmund looked down upon the atlas of islands below. He adjusted the throttle and checked the wings as he banked in the direction of one island in particular. The light rain on the windshield blurred his vision and he swore out loud as he landed a little too close to a sailboat bobbing in the harbor.
In the distance a woman could be seen hanging her laundry to dry in the garden. She wore a starched, white dress and a long white apron tied in a bow behind her back. Her head cocked as she heard the first grumbles of the plane’s engine churning through the clouds…a smile spread across her face. A small child sat beside her on a rock, engrossed in trying to open her mouth wide enough to bite into an apple. The woman immediately put her laundry down and grabbed the chubby hand of the child. The little girl, Marieke, reluctant to leave the magic of the garden, burrowed her feet into the ground until her mother whisked her up in to her arms and ran towards the sound of the propellers.
The woman came to a road overlooking the harbor and saw the aeroplane skid across the water. She ran to the edge of the sea, clutching her child in her arms, and lifted the child’s small hand, puppeting a wave towards the beautiful metallic bird.
Edmund dismounted from the plane and was met by a small rowboat, which then guided him to shore. Intently, he searched the coastline, looking for a familiar face.
A stork flew overhead and landed on the thatched roof of a building nestled near the water’s edge. To the left of the building was a flowering heath and beyond that a small lighthouse painted in red and white stripes. The woman put the child down and together they ran towards the boat. Edmund stood up prematurely, to the chagrin of the pilot of the boat, and jumped into the shallow water, creating a splash and soaking the bottom of his trousers. Gulls circled above, as he raced to the shore and embraced Anna.
It was here on the island of Schiermonnikoog, off the coast of the Netherlands, that Edmund had landed 24 months earlier while searching the sea for the enemy. The island had been owned by an eccentric German, Count van Bernstorff-Wehningen, a safe haven for Germans during the great war.
Upon Edmund’s very first arrival, he was given the address of Anna who rented out a room and provided meals and laundry services to visitors. He had spent two weeks on the island. He and Anna had had had an affair. It was in one of Anna’s many letters that he discovered that Anna was to bear him a child.
One night in Russia, Edmund sat down in a pub, and after much thought, anguish, and vodka, he wrote a long letter to Henny. In the letter he detailed his stop on Schiermonnikoog and his having fallen in love with another woman. He told of his impending fatherhood and that now his future was held elsewhere, oddly, on another Friesian island. How strange that destiny had so wanted him to be in the windswept islands of shipwrecked sailors and the wet salt of distant sadness.
Henny held tight, frozen by the northern wind. She would not let the wind blow her over. The moon illuminated the nighttime sky and reflected the stars across the water on the harbor. She saw the silhouette of a bird soar across the water and eyeing a sliver of ice floating on the dark sea, descended upon it, landing with great aim, thereby avoiding the cold abyss. How long could she carry this secret inside her, this cavernous hole in her heart?
It was years later, after having left the island of Nordenay, that Henny found love with a gentle man who blessed her with the birth of two daughters: both bashful of their great beauty, both carrying the psychic scar of their mother’s pain. Henrietta never mentioned Edmund again. She never told anyone of the true contents of that fateful letter.
Copyright © 2009 Meike Kopp, All Rights reserved.