In the bone-chilling February of 1945 the Russian army had advanced toward Silesia and we had to flee from our Eastern estate to the West. Hiding out in our castle’s Rapunzel tower, we had watched as neighboring villages went up in flames and the bridge below our sturdy fortress was blown up. My mother and grandmother told me about this night—I was so young and only glimpses of those days are stored in my own memory. At the urging of our local priest, we prepared to leave, and bundled ourselves in furs, felt-lined boots, knitted woolen gloves and hats. My mother inserted the gilded key in the wrought-iron lock, closing in treasures of generations past and most of our belongings. She turned the big key three times. A single small trunk full of albums and clothes with sewn-in jewelry was all my mother and grandmother could carry between them. I had been allowed to bed down all my beloved stuffed animal friends among cushions on the sofa in the living room. Mother assured me that they would be snug and happy there until our return. Outside, she placed a hand in farewell on the massive front portal of our castle and then, with a flourish, threw the key into a deep heap of snow adjacent to the stairs. One of the few remaining horses pulled us in a hay wagon into a nearby forest where branches heavily laden with snow provided cover for the first night. The next day we arrived at the train station in Hirschberg and were heaved onto a transport with wounded soldiers from the warzone. Laboring, with constant stops-and-starts, the locomotive hauled us away from destruction and fear.
Thirty-six hours into our journey, my grandmother urged us to get off the train. She felt a strange foreboding. An argument broke out. My mother, a nurse, protested, “I was useful to the soldiers. We were safe on the train.” Grandmother’s warnings won out and we found ourselves on a deserted platform, a howling wind biting our faces, penetrating even through our thick coats. Crouching inside an empty waiting room, we held each other close. Suddenly a man burst through the entrance and exclaimed, “That train just took a dead hit in the tunnel near our fields. Everything exploded in fire and smoke.” Without asking how or why we were stranded at this forlorn train station, he picked me up and carried me to his waiting ox-drawn wagon, my mother and grandmother stumbling after him. In the moonless darkness, a light from a farmhouse ahead signaled rescue. An ample-bodied woman came to the wagon and helped us in. Soon we were in a cozy kitchen. I was bathed in a copper tub which the couple had brought in and positioned next to a wood-burning stove that radiated healing warmth. Wrapped in fresh clean clothes I found myself sitting on a straight-back bench adorned with carved red hearts. A hearty vegetable stew steamed before us.
As I spooned the nourishing soup I spied a stuffed cat on a shelf across the table. I looked, then stared. The more I focused, the more the cat took shape. It was oversized, black with an enormous, plumed tail which it held in the air like a flag. Its eyes were a glassy clear green, and sparkled. I could not stop gawking. I forgot to eat. The cat became real. I was certain that I recognized it from home. It must be Feathers who always jumped on my lap and purred. So many times had I stroked her smooth pelt. Feathers had followed us here. If only I could get closer, I could touch her. I was rapt, as in a trance. I was still ogling the cat when, with a soothing voice, the farm woman asked, “Would you like the cat for the night?” “Oh yes,” I whispered.
Tucked under the cover of a blue-striped featherbed I snuggled the cat into the crook of my left arm. I pressed it so tight that our faces touched, and I kissed its pink nose. It felt so soft and comforting. As I dozed off I was the happiest 4 1/2 year old girl in this windblown faraway land.
Morning broke bright and sunny. No more lashing wind or prickling snow. I rushed into the kitchen where my mother and grandmother were sipping tea, making ready for the trek ahead. The woman had a treat for me, hot chocolate and crusty oven-baked bread. I had only one thought. “Where is my cat?” I searched. A furtive look passed between my mother and grandmother. “The cat was yours only for the night.” The woman’s voice had an edge to it. “Oh no,” I protested. “It is mine. It loves me.” The woman was no longer friendly. Sternly, she broke in, “The cat belongs to my son who is fighting at the front.” Sensing my tears about to erupt, I pleaded, “You can tell your son, the cat wants to be with me. It said so last night.” The woman approached and hovered over me, “You misunderstood. I lent you the cat for the night. And now you should all get going. Such an ungrateful bunch.” My mother attributed my vivid imagination to the stress of the previous days and said nothing but thanked our hosts. I pushed my breakfast away and started to cry louder, snot running down my chin. Rigid with disappointment my body remained motionless even when the farmer gently lifted me from my seat and swaddled me in my winter wear. He carried me to the waiting wagon where my mother and grandmother were already aboard. For just a moment my stomach regretted not having taken a sip of the hot chocolate, but then grief overwhelmed hunger and thirst and I took refuge inside my grandmother’s fur coat. “The cat is mine. It slept with me,” I continued to sob. “The woman is wrong.” My grandmother stroked my hair and began to hum a sweet little folk song—”Es geht alles vorüber, es geht alles vorbei” (Everything passes, this too will end)—as the cart rumbled over frozen country roads toward the promise of the West.
A writer from youth, German-born Ute Carson has published two novels, a novella, a volume of stories, six collections of poetry and numerous essays here and abroad. Her poetry was three times nominated for the Pushcart Award. She resides in Austin, Texas with her husband. They have three daughters, six grandchildren, and a clowder of cats. Please visit her website www.utecarson.com