Josua hugged the barrel of the machine gun. The Pe-2, the dive bomber of the Red Army, also known as a Pawn, was diving straight down at its target, the long trek of rack wagons carrying fleeing people westward. Farmers and townsfolk of villages and small towns around the Warta were on the run scared by reports of the cruelty of the fast advancing troops of Stalin's army, the Red Army.
Josua hugged the barrel of the heavy machine gun even tighter as the small biplane started its dive. Blood shot into his eyes as the aircraft descended like a falcon in a 70° angel towards the trek moving slowly along the rough country road. The sour mush of the inedible army bread in his stomach made him nearly throw up. As soon as the plane abruptly pulled up into the air again Josua nearly fainted.
During the whole attack Josua, the gunner, kept his forefinger on the trigger of the machine gun sending round after round of deadly bullets down at the trek. The noise of the diving bomber was deafening swallowing up the BANG, BANG, BANG, BANG of his gun. Because of the pace of the diving aircraft Josua was unable to watch the bullets hitting their targets.
The bullets, however knew their targets by heart. They perforated the canvas covering of the wagons, perforated what was inside the rack wagons, perforated the draught horses, the drivers on the wagon boxes and everything on the road, living or dead. The bullets performed their innate task without compassion, perforated the belongings of the fugitives, perforated the sleeping fugitives huddled insides the wagons. Sleep was no shelter anymore. Josua's bullets didn't discriminate between living and dead, between inanimate and animate, animals or humans. After Josua's dive bomber had reached the lowest point of the trajectory its weight suddenly decreased by several hundreds of pounds, as its load of small bombs was uncoupled and smashed into the trek. Josua, the gunner, soared up into the dark sky again.
"It's a dream Josua; it's just a dream Josua!" Lukas desperately tried to comfort his older friend moaning loudly in his sleep. "It's a dream, Josua, we are safe. Josua, we are in the cottage, a real house. We are in a bed. A blanket is keeping us warm. The door is locked, no stranger can enter. The cottage is leaning against a chapel with its tower pointing to heaven. Josua, you do not have to be afraid anymore, our guardian angels are awake, wide awake! Josua dear Josua, stop shaking with fear! You are scaring me. Josua!" Lukas was holding Josua, the older boy, in his arms, caressed him and tried to calm him.
The curtain of the small room in the back of the cottage moved to the side. The light of a kerosene lamp filled the cold kitchen with swirling shadows. "Is he sick, your friend Josua?" the Old Man asked with cracking voice, "Boy, oh Boy! Lukas, is your friend sick, your friend Josua?" "No Sir, no! The nightmares are hunting him every night since he rescued me." "Does Josua need help?" "No, no, he is sleeping while the nightmares are hitting him. He is crying, every night he is shaking, he is tossing and turning like mad, but in the morning he can't remember a shred." The Old Man watched the two boys some minutes longer and when Josua had calmed down and Lukas had fallen asleep, he left the room and went to sleep in his own bed in his room in the back of the cottage, not greater than a cubbyhole.
Soft shuffling steps aroused Josua from his light morning sleep. In the dim light filtering through the window shutter he watched the Old Man moving from his room to the stove, taking a metal bucket and shuffling to the door. The rattling of the bucket and the screeching latch of the wooden door called Lukas back to life as well. Pulling the blanket over his head he placed his warm cheek on the elder boy’s chest, "The Old Man is already up, are we to rise as well?" he asked, "I am still so tired. I do not want to rise, Josua! I like it here. It's safe." "Sure! You don't have to, stay in bed Lukas! The blanket will keep you warm. But I have too......!" While Josua peeled from under the blanket, the squealing of the pump handle let the boys know what the Old Man was doing outside. "He's getting water from the well. I have to.....!" He wiggled out from under Lukas, "Let me leave Lukas!"
At the door Josua and the Old Man met. "The outhouse is to the left behind the hazelnut bushes. Do not forget to clean your hands afterwards and your face as well." Cat-calling Josua, "Bring in an armful of logs from the pile of wood beside the door."
Once inside the Old Man lightened a fire in the iron stove and moved the pot with potato soup prepared yesterday to the cook top to warm over the meager meal. Meanwhile Josua unlatched the wooden shutter and the gray December light was seeping through the dusty window panes into the room. Turning to Lukas, the Old Man asked, "Hungry Lukas, my boy?" slightly chuckling, "You and your big friend have to be content with the left over soup from yesterday’s evening. I do neither have bread nor flour for baking some." Lukas smiled, "A warm soup? We hadn't had a warm meal for days!" Jumping up from the rug covered floor in the corner of the room and taking a chair at the small table was the deed of a moment.
Slightly uneasy and with a questioning look Josua was meanwhile waiting at the door with an armful of frozen logs. "Put the wood down there besides the stove. It has to become bone-dry before it burns right. Then fetch the plates from the cupboard and join your friend at the table."
Josua was surprised. In the small cupboard he only could spot four plates, three soup plates and a dinner plate. Every one of the chipped plates seemed to be of different origin. Even the soup plates were different. The bone white one had a golden rim. The one with a light blue glace showed the picture of a church and the last one was rainbow-colored. The ultimate surprise however was the dinner plate. The plate was of a milky white, nearly translucent and its edge as was decorated was with fire-spitting dragons. A marvel!
The table was hardly big enough for three soup plates. Therefore Josua placed the spoons into the plates. The Old Man served the steaming soup. While the boys dug in he began his questioning. "It's war, I know! I have made my own experiences with these cruel fights between brother and brother. It's sad." Having said this, the Old Man dipped the spoon into the heavy pottage and ate silently. Giving the boys happily gulping down the soup a second serving he resumed the questioning, "People call me guardian of the chapel, but who are you two? Still wet behind your ears! What happened to you? Why on earth you are on the road? Boys of your age aren't supposed to be in the center of a raging war. Smiling at the smaller boy, "A tender boy of your age Lukas shouldn't be on a journey through a war ridden country."
"We are two!" Josua stated the obvious, while Lukas added, "We didn't set out alone! No Sir. We...." suddenly tears welled up in his eyes. Sniffling he told the Old Man, "No! No Sir! I left with my mother, my sisters, Greti and Hanni, my grandmother and my old aunty." He dried the tears running down his cheeks, "We left our village together in a canvas covered wagon. We left together with five more wagons loaded to the brim with people and goods to go westwards."
"Yes Sir, we also left our place, a small town!" Josua took up the thread, "Our treks met on the road along the Warta close to Srem. Our caravan counted twelve carts. We had left Konin four days ago when our treks met two days later close to Pyzdry." Josua stated with the straight face of an unaffected spectator.
"The whole morning an easterly wind had been blowing snowflakes through the icy air and everyone in the trek was chilled to the bones. It happened just about 5 o'clock in the afternoon. It was already getting dark. With exception of the drivers everybody had retired into the shelter of the canvas covered wagons to be out of the cold wind. I too had wrapped up in my blanket." Josua swallowed hard, "Then suddenly the high-pitched noise of dive bombers came drawing closer and closer." He breathed hard. "Just a moment later a hail of bullets perforated the carts , the people, and the horses. Our horses neighed, tried to break away. The cart tumbled, turned over and came to rest in the ditch. Some wagons in front of us were ripped to splinters by the impact of bombs." Josua closed his eyes as if he wanted to ward off the memory. "I crawled out of the overturned wagon while the next dive bomber zoomed down from the sky like a falcon. The moment the dive bomber approached I was able to catch sight of the gunner's face. The gunner smiled, while pointing his machine gun at me. I saw his face! I would recognize him at any place of the world." When the Old Man looked at him doubtingly, Josua explained, "It was the face greeting me every morning in the mirror. It was my own face! The gunner's face was my face!" Josua broke off, in terror.
The Old Man looked worried at the distraught boy, remembering Josua’s nightmare. Did Josua recount the events of that evening properly or was it the nightmare the boy recalled? Had he really seen his own face looking down at him from the forward gunner compartment of the dive bomber destroying the trek? Truth or imagination? In any case bad for a boy of fourteen! He had to know more to be able to help him! For the moment he was at loss with the situation therefore he decided to distract the boys, "Josua and Lukas let me show you around my place, you sure want to know where you have stranded. Yesterday it was already pitching dark when you arrived!"
"No, no Sir! Not yet!" Lukas objected, "You have to hear my story first!" Lukas didn’t await permission by the guardian of the chapel, "I was in the rack wagon, when the explosion of a bomb ripped a crater into the street just in front of our cart. The horses were torn to pieces, flying all over the place. The wagon was lifted from the ground, tumbled through the air and ended upside down on the frozen soil of a field beside the street. The roof covered by canvas broke instantly and we all were trapped under the wagon. I passed out." His face went sad. "I must have stayed unconscious for hours. When I woke up everybody was gone and I found myself stuck under the broken cart. I couldn't move, just cry and shout for help. I began shouting. I shouted again and again and finally I must have passed out again!"
Suddenly the sad expression of his boyish face changed into a big smile, "That's the situation when soldiers found me, soldiers of Red Army, small men clad in earthy-brown uniforms rescued me. They fished me out of the remains of the car. As soon I was standing on my own feet I run off across the bare field, fell, jumped up, fell again and then all went black. I came back to life when Josua picked me up, Josua, my Josua!" he slipped from his chair, run over to Josua, crawled into his lap and clung to his big friend.
Josua smiled, holding Lukas tight, "It’s my turn now to fill the gap of our story, Sir. I appreciate your offer showing us the place, but it's the best time now to tell you what happened after the next attack of the dive bombers." He waited for an affirmative nod and then continued. "I was scared to death by the attack of the second bomber, maybe even more by the smile on the face of my splitting image. I took off, stumbled like a blinded man across the empty field till I found myself caught by a thorny hedge growing the edge of a grove. I ducked away between the shrubs, tried to melt with the cold ground, tried to become invisible to the dive bombers. Hours seemed to pass. The air was icy. I got cold to the bones. Soon I couldn’t move. I watched peoples leaving the destroyed trek, taking along the wounded but still living people, the horses still alive, all the recoverable goods. I couldn't move. I didn't have the wish to join the running people. I was paralyzed."
"Didn't you care for your parents? Didn't you want to know what happened to you mother and your father, your brothers and sisters?" the dismayed Old Man tried to break the shell around Josua.
"I didn't try to escape the enemy with my parents. No! I wasn't with my parents, I was with my uncle and aunt. I had left my parents. I had lost them years ago!" Groaning bitterly, "No, I didn't leave my parents, they did send me away! Maybe they had to! They sure wanted my best, but I, I had never a chance to give them a helping hand since our separation." Shaking his head, "At the age of seven my parents entrusted me to friend to save me from starving to death in the Ghetto of Lodsch. Their friend, an elderly man I was singed over, was my uncle in name only. He was righteous but harsh. I have never been close to him, neither to my aunt in name. My head is thankful for the chance these people gave me, not however my heart. I would have preferred to stay with my parents, to starve with my parents, and to fight with them in the Ghetto against the Nazis."
The Old Man understood the reasoning of Josua. The care of his parent had prevented him to pay back their love, to carry out his duty as their son. Was it this sense of guilt, why Josua did care for Lukas like a brother?
"Sure I did look for my aunt and my uncle at the destroyed trek. In the dark I searched all along the wrecked carts, but didn't find a sign of their presence. They had probably left with the other people, I was sure!. I searched our destroyed wagons for food and useful items. In great haste I recovered my backpack, a heavy blanket and all food I could find. Afraid of more dive bombers I left the dead trek to return to my hideout across the field in the grove. Further up the hill just behind the grove I had found a haystack offering shelter for the night."
"Was this the place we spent the next days? Lukas asked, "The days you called me back to life?"
"Yes Lukas, but this night I did spend alone. Around midnight the rumbling noise of combat tanks in the distance aroused me from sleep. The noise increased minute by minute and then the tanks came rolling on. They didn't stop at the remnants of the trek. The iron monsters just did run over every single part still on the street, they crushed everything, broken wagons, dead horses, dead peoples. Much later in the early morning light an advance party of the Red Army came along. Small soldiers riding on small wagons, drawn by small horses, panje-horses pulling panje-carts. The soldiers pulled up and began to rummage the remains of the trek. That was the moment I saw Lukas for the first time. "
Lukas, still sitting on Josua's lap turned his head to the Old Man, "Yes that's the moment Josua and I became brothers!" As the Old Man shook his head in surprise, "Yes Josua and Lukas are brothers now!" the small boy added in triumph.
"As I told before the soldiers began to rummage the wrecked wagons. Two of them turned over Lukas's wagon and the only usable item they recovered was a boy, a crying boy, a struggling boy fighting back the strange looking men. Surprised by his fierce attack the soldiers let him escape into the gray morning light."
"That's the truth. I stumbled across the frozen field. I hardy could keep upright. My legs were still like paralyzed from being caught in the broken cart. Then out of the dark Josua came. My Josua took me pickaback and carried me away."
"Yes, I fetched him and not one of the soldiers did hinder me from doing it. They pointed their guns at us, but didn’t shoot. Yes Sir, that's the very moment I got my brother." Josua became silent, pressing Lukas to his breast.
The Old Man rose, walked over to the boys, looking down at them smiling, he just said, "Sometimes a wonder happens!"
After lunch Lukas's head dropped off, full and still tired from the exhausting days before and he fell asleep sitting at the table. "Wake up Lukas, wake up." Josua was trying to shake his friend out of his after lunch nap. "Wake up, we have to leave!"
"Let him sleep Josua. Look at him! Doesn't he look like a little angle, a Christmas angel, with his unwashed hair. Let him sleep. He needs to rest!" the Old Man smiled. "But we have to leave, Sir. We have bothered you too long already and I promised Lukas to go West as fast as possible. He longs to be with his mother, with his sisters!" Shaking Lukas slightly, "Thank you for all you did, Sir, but we have to leave!"
The Old Man went to the door opened it partly and the cold February wind blew snowflakes through the crack into the room. "It's snowing Josua, you and Lukas have to stay. My old bones are forecasting bad weather. It will not stop snowing for the next few days." Closing the door, he walked over to the boys, eyeing both carefully, "So far you have been lucky on your odyssey just walking on frozen ground but not through fresh snow. You can't make it far in wet deep snow. You also look tired big brother! "But....!" Suspecting correctly that Josua didn't want to bother him further on with their presence the Old Man interjected, "Stay here Josua, keep me company. I am an old man and happy to have young blood around!" "But you will have to feed us, because we have consumed all the food I could recovered from the wagons of the trek." "I got enough foodstuff to feed three of us, if potatoes will do. However we have to prepare some straw sacks, because you can't sleep on a rug covered ground one night more." When Josua didn't object anymore, he smiled, "You agree? Help me put Lukas into my bed. He's just seven and needs his sleep!" In the small back room the Old Man eyed Josua up closely. He older boy too looked tired to death. "Aren’t you tired too? Join Lukas while I get the straw from the shed."
The soft sounds jolted Josua out his dreams. For the first time in days he felt well rested. He had been dreaming a nice dream, a boy's dream of sun and fun, not of bombs and destruction. Glancing around in the small room in the back of the cottage he noticed a small locker, a bookshelf with dozens of books, a map on the wall and a crook, like a bishop's staff, leaning against wall by the door frame. Rested, Josua slipped out of the bed trying not to arouse Lukas, who still was sleeping like a log.
In the kitchen the Old Man was stuffing potato bags with straw singing in low voice. "You woke up just in time. Come on help me wad your mattresses and later you can help move the shelf from the wall. We will place the straw sacks in the space between the wall and the shelf and then you two will have your own little room for the time being."
Josua examined the darned potato sacks closely, shook them well and then glanced at the Old Man, who answered with a laugh, "Are you scared of dirt? I thought you have been sleeping outside in the dirt during your odyssey. The sacks are clean! Besides we will cover them up with this old carpet. It has been used in the chapel by generations and generations of pilgrims and now is soft like sheep skin."
Working along with the Old Man, Josua started wondering. The night before the Old Man had offered shelter and food to two strange boys frozen to the marrow knocking at his door at dark. He invited them in without asking, he fed and bedded them. Today he had patiently listened while they had opened their hearts to him. Now he invited them, the uprooted kids, to stay with him, without setting a time frame or claiming recompense.
In his short life Josua had met many people, students and teachers, rabbis and ministers, policemen and soldiers, neighbors and people from far away. He had been living with his fellow brethren in a Ghetto, living with the strangers giving him shelter from the relentless police, his uncle and aunt in name only. Everybody had expected a counter value for his efforts, his care, his affection. Even his parents had demanded compensation for their care, their affection and their love. Sure it was different in case of his parents. He loved them dearly, missed them daily, but in exchange they had expected his obedience, his affection and his love. Up to now the Old Man hadn't ask for any compensation. He just was here for them, the two strange boys. Shaking his head in surprise, Josua was sure he had never experienced this kind of selflessness like that of the Old Man.
The two had barely arranged the straw sacks on the sleeping place when Lukas showed up, sleepy dust in his eyes. Spotting the new bed and jumping into it was the matter of a second. "That's comfy, Sir, did you prepare this for tonight?" turning to the Old Man, "Can we stay over at your place, Sir? At least for one other night? I like it here, it's....." Lukas hesitated a moment, "It's nearly like at home." Then he ran over to the door. Examining his features in the clouded mirror beside it he tried to comb his matted hair but he had only limited success untangling his hairs. He turned to Josua and whispered questions in his hear pointing at the Old Man. "Lukas asks for a comb. Do you have one? He doesn't want to sleep in a clean bed, with thistles in his hair!" The Old Man chuckled, "Have you both got any water on your body since your odyssey began?" sniffing at Lukas's hair, "I guess not!" "We always did wash our faces, Sir," Lukas countered, "and my mother gave me a wash from head to toe the day before Christmas!" "That's more than 40 days ago. Tomorrow it's Candlemas and you sure should be clean on a high holiday like this!" smiling at Lukas "Do you like to bathe, Lukas?" When the boy nodded, "There is no bathroom in this poor cottage. I can offer you a small bath tube full of hot water however, provided Josua will help me to get the water from the well and enough wood for the stove to heat it up." When Josua gave the Old Man a questioning look, he nodded, "Sure big boy, you can use the tub as well, but standing up only and provided you do not mind using the same water Lukas has been using." With a shrug Josua accepted, "As long as Lukas doesn't pee into the water I am fine with it." Sticking out the tongue to show his scorn for such a groundless suspicion Lukas retorted. "I am no baby anymore! You should know this by now, Josua!"
Looking at Josua, the Old Man asked "Do you know the genesis of the church festival called Candlemas, Josua? No?? At the beginning of February every year the church is celebrating the presentation of Jesus in the temple. It's one of the twelve great holidays of the Catholic Church! You may have heard about Candlemas, but you sure don't know that this chapel was build to celebrate this anniversary."
"In school we learned about it, but I am …...." Josua fell silent. The Old Man guessed why Josua didn't speak on. His name Josua betrayed his descent. Therefore the Old Man continued, "I am no Christian, neither a Catholic, nor a Lutheran, nor an Orthodox, nor a Jew. I am not a Hindu either or a Muslim. I do not belong to a religious group." The Old Man hesitated a moment, because he was afraid to shock Josua. Then however he continued stating expressively, "I am what I am! I am no Buddhist also, however as the fundamental principles of Buddhism is that all entities are equal and that you should do onto others as you would wish them to do onto you, you may call me a Buddhist, a Buddhist by heart, not by religious affiliation. Buddhism also teaches the whole universe develops out of its own accord, implying there is no God directing the fate of the world, nor the fate of the mankind. However there is one fundamental rule rooted in all religions: Love others as much as you love yourself. Let me tell you my Josua, in these horrible times altruism, the selflessness, the concern for the welfare of others, is the only adversary of war." Josua furrowed his brow trying to get the full extent of the Old Man's point .
Practically inclined and trying to get his mind off the complicated reflection Josua asked the more obvious, "Is the chapel harboring an altarpiece devoted to the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple? Every church honors the patron saint of the church, does it the chapel too? Can I visit the chapel? I tried it! However the front door is bricked up and the side door locked!"
The Old Man looked very sad, "This chapel had been a famous pilgrim site for more than five centuries. I have the key deposited beneath the door sill. Go have a look yourself. However it's war! In war times even the most valued treasures are uprooted: people, trust, understanding, love. Even inanimate treasures like works of art are becoming nothing but merchandise." He then added, "You should have learned this truth by now!"
Josua cleared a way through the snow to the side entrance of the chapel, unlocked the door and pushed it open. Stale, cold air hit his face and made his eyes flicker. Adapted to the dim light inside he guessed the number of pews more than actually counting it, because of the deep dark hovering inside. The only light entering the interior came through four small windows in the presbytery two on each side of the back of the choir where Josua expected to marvel at an altarpiece displaying the Presentation of Jesus in the High Temple of Jerusalem. However instead of an alabaster shrine with golden ornaments and high candles and a golden tabernacle in front of a colorful triptych he could only distinguish a heap of clay bricks on the floor and an overturned altar stone. There was no sanctuary light burning and of the pulpit only some steps of the winding staircase were left.
Shivering with cold and disillusioned Josua turned to retreat when the voice of the Old Man stopped him. "That's war. The altarpiece for more than four hundred years adored and worshiped by pilgrims from near and far is now the pride of a museum far, far away from here. The chapel has lost its soul and the people their place of refuge, their harbor, their retreat. In the museum the triptych is just a peace of art, not of hope, it's a nothing, you can replace the triptych by pile of gold." Lagging behind the Old Man Josua dragged himself back to the cottage deep in thought.
On the way back to the cottage the Old Man picked up a bucket full of cold water at the well, while he asked Josua to go for more logs to feed the fire in the stove. As soon the water in the big canning pot was nearly boiling he added some fragrant herbs to it and poured the sweet smelling brew it into the small bath tube standing close by the stove. After adding cold water to get the temperature passable he told Lukas, "Now Lukas hurry up, undress and get into the tube. But please do not spill all the water because Josua has to use it after you." When Lukas looked shamefaced from one to the other, the Old Man just smiled, "I go to my room to get some rest. In the meantime Josua can help you to get clean. I bet you are not ashamed to be bare in front of your big brother." Now Lukas smiled "Thanks Sir. Should I help Josua also?" "Ask him, but I know he is old enough to clean his back without your help."
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