The Precious Child
Klara carried the pail of milk across the yard and in to the kitchen. Her steps were heavy. The creamy white liquid swirled around in the timber bucket. The smell made her nauseous, but then throughout all her pregnancies, everything seemed to make her nauseous. Whether this was a good sign or a bad one, she had no idea. All she knew was the terrible pain and sweat of childbirth, only to have the baby die.
Her only living child, having lost three babies, was Olphus. Dear, sweet, precious precious child, he was playing outside right now, and she could hear him chatting to himself as he ran around amid the chickens and the ducks.
She had taught herself to not think about the two little ones she had lost to diphtheria. And sweet little Otto to ….. what had killed him ? He seemed healthy enough when he was born, yet he lived only a few days. The familiar tightening sensation in her throat made its way around her neck, like an iron grip, for there is no grief like the grief of a mother. This baby, however, like his good strong brother Olphus, would be fine. She prayed for it to be so.
She was not one to lament nor to complain, and her grief and fear were worked out of her as she scrubbed and wiped and chopped and cooked, but most of all as she watched her little boy grow. She went over to the open door and stood leaning against the wall for a while in the sunshine. In the far distance she could just pick out the sky-line of Linz and, beyond the town, Postingberg Mountain. In the foreground were flat fields, and a narrow road leading to their little farm. Parked to one side of the track was a cart and horse which she knew belonged to the vet, Herr Keppler. Frau Morrin in the village had told her that the vet was going to get one of those new things – an auto – and that may or may not be true. She honestly didn’t care. The calf was not growing as it should. More expenses. Less money.
Klara sighed heavily. She could hear Olphus round at the side of the house, involved in some solitary game.
She placed the pail on the table and, using a finger, she picked out a few bits of straw and flicked them on to the table.
She was a tidy woman and kept the small farmhouse as clean and neat as she could with her limited possessions and money. Sitting on the stool to rest for a moment, she shuffed off her clogs and rested her elbow on the scrubbed oak surface of the table. The hem of her dress was damp from where it had trailed on the floor as she milked the cow, and her fingers were red from hard work. She so wished that her husband had stayed in his job at border control. He had set off every morning clean, returned clean – if bad-tempered – and had brought home a regular pay packet. This farming idea was madness, and both of them were constantly exhausted.
“No more children, my husband ….” She had tried to reason with him. “I cannot bear it. We have our son, let us be happy and grateful for that.”
She never used the pet-name Olphus in front of her husband if she could help it.
But he didn’t listen. Did these men ever listen ? When they have their man-needs, nothing stops them, does it ? They don’t care – he certainly didn’t – about her pain. She felt the sudden tiny movement, the first kick of the new baby. Just live, my little one, she prayed, her hand on her swelling tummy, just live, that’s all I ask of you. The century was drawing to a close ..… another six years and it would be the year 1900. Surely that was an omen ? Surely it meant that her children born now, hereafter, would be well and live and not succumb to the illnesses of babies. This new little one, she was sure of it, would see the century turn.
She got up and went to the door. Olphus was running – did he ever tire ?! – between the sheds, a stick in his hand. He waved when he saw his mother.
“Would you like some milk?” she called out.
The child rushed over, his face red with exertion, and waited as his mother filled a wooden bowl with warm, frothing milk.
“Still warm from the cow,” he announced, and wiped the milky moustache off his face with his sleeve.
“Don’t go where I can’t see you,” Klara reminded him. “Keep away from the top field. Stay near the house.”
But Olphus was already at the other side of the yard. Klara rinsed her hands under the kitchen pump, recently and ingeniously installed indoors, in the kitchen, over a copious stone sink. Absently, she wiped her hands on her apron as she slipped back in to her clogs and went out to the vegetable patch. She was vaguely aware of Olphus still terrorizing the chickens.
In the vegetable patch she spent some thirty or forty minutes weeding, plucking unwanted greenery from between the carrots, and pulling up spring onions. The vegetables she wanted for the evening meal were flung in to a basket at her side, and she made her way steadily, her pregnancy not sufficiently advanced for the labour to create back ache, up each row and slowly, carefully, back again. She had never much liked the outdoors, but nonetheless took a pride in her vegetable patch. There was a slight breeze and it was pleasant pottering away. Olphus has fallen silent, clearly having tired of the fowl. She hoped he was reading. He was a clever boy. Very clever, actually. She smiled. She could hear birds, and country sounds and, for a while, she was relatively happy.
Back in her kitchen she washed her hands and prepared some carrots for the evening meal. Olphus did not come in again for his habitual slice of bread and cheese, but she supposed the milk had sufficed him. Out in the barn she filled a bucket with potatoes and carried them to the sink. She would bake them as they were in the fire. She usually lit the fire an hour or so before it got dark. Her eyes wandered to the sky where she could see the afternoon was well advanced. Her heart sank – and she felt guilty for it – when she realised that her husband would soon be in from the field. She hoped he didn’t bring the vet in with him but, in case he did, she tidied her hair and put on a clean apron.
It was as she was tying the apron that the silence struck her. She went to the door.
“Olphus?” she called out in to the yard.
He had been reading a good hour by now, if that was what he was doing. Little else kept him so quiet for so long. She turned and went to the bottom of the ladder and called up in to the loft.
At first she was not really worried. A little perplexed, perhaps, but not truly concerned. He was a noisy, energetic child, and his proximity was always abundantly clear – his shouting, or even singing (he sang very nicely), never out of ear shot. Klara took the pail of milk over to the churn. She then went outside to fetch in the washing.
“Olphus?” she called again.
Feeling slightly cross now, she shoved the basket of washing through the kitchen door and marched firmly around the shed, calling for her son as she did.
“Papa will be back soon!” she called. That would make him reappear hastily!
Panic was an enemy she fought. It would not be the first time she couldn’t find him. He was usually discovered deeply involved in some little farmhouse chore, or his nose in a book, or engrossed in a game. There were few other children for him to play with when he was not in school, but sometimes a lad from a neighbouring hamlet would saunter by. That was it. Of course. The naughty boys had almost certainly gone in to the woods. Once when Olphus had gone missing she had found both boys in a dug-out in the woods, playing cowboys and Indians. On another occasion she found him – he’d have been about three at the time – sitting in the rabbit hutch, an arm around one of the rabbits.
Klara’s husband returned just as it was getting dark, the vet with him. Dutifully Klara poured each man a glass of beer. Neither of them spoke to her and she started to light the fire. Her eyes kept wandering to the window where night would soon be closing in.
“Excuse me,” she said politely, and went outside again.
Both men nodded absently at her.
“Olphus!” she called. “Come on in now! Come and say guten abend to Herr Keppler!”
Her call was greeted by silence, and the silence started to weigh heavily on her. If she told her husband that the boy was missing she risked ridicule in front of the vet; and – worse – Olphus would be beaten by his father. She never held with the beatings. She walked briskly round the house and the outbuildings, calling as she went. It was possible he was now hiding knowing that he would get a beating as soon as the vet had gone. By now it was very dark, and Klara knew that, although her son was a tough little fellow, he would want his supper and the candlelight.
“Is that your son you are calling for, Klara?” asked the vet when she returned to the kitchen.
“Yes ….. yes – I cannot find him.” She tried to sound light-hearted and gave a nervous little laugh. She noticed the thunderous look on her husband’s face. Oh yes, poor little Olphus would be beaten all right.
“Has he been gone long?” asked the vet. He rose to his feet, looking intently at her.
“I mean, I don’t want to worry you, Klara, but the gypsies are about ……..”
“Du lieber gott!” Klara’s hand flew to her mouth. “He has been missing two or three hours now – I thought he was reading ……”
“You foolish woman!” thundered her husband. “You know the gypsies are here at this time of year!! First you let our children die, then you lose one!”
“Calm, my friend,” the vet put his hand reassuringly on the other man’s arm. “Becoming angry does not help. Do you have a lantern ? We should first check the grounds.”
The two men set off, the light from the small lantern swinging eerily in the darkness. Klara could sense her child’s fear, and he would be so frightened – frightened of his father, frightened of the dark – Lord, don’t let it be that the gypsies have taken him! Don’t let it be!
After some twenty minutes or so – the farm was not large – the vet came back in and announced that he was going down to the village to ask the policeman to go to see the gypsies. They were camped in the valley by Johannes-am, barely two miles away. On reflection, he explained to Klara, it would surprise him if they did indeed have the boy and remained in the area. More likely he was stuck up a tree.
By midnight five villagers had joined the search. Carrying their lanterns, they spread out across the fields and made their way slowly over to the woods, calling as they went. A half-moon hung in the dark sky, casting reflections on the shadows, and shadows within the dark recesses under the trees and by the copses. A fox barked. At around two in the morning three more villagers joined the search, and one went home. He nodded sadly at Klara as he left. She watched him retreat in to the dimness, and knew that something dreadful had happened to her precious precious child. The grief this time would surely be too much to bear.
“No ….. no ……. “ she cast about her for something to help the situation, somewhere obvious to look, something excellent to do ….. but her mind was blank and her heart was filled with a terrible, heavy dread. No, never, never had he been truly missing like this …….. She scurried aimlessly between the house and the yard, calling him. A light drizzle started and an ominous damp pervaded the night air. Clouds moved in over the moon and it was totally dark.
One by one the villagers retreated to their own homes. Klara’s husband returned, muddy and looking grim. He collapsed in the chair by the fire and kicked off his boots.
“You’re a stupid bitch,” he growled at her, “ a truly stupid bitch!”
“He’s a little boy …….. just a child ……….. six years old ……..” her voice broke and she struggled not to sob. “You can’t stop looking …….”
Sometime just before dawn Klara fell asleep, sitting there on the stool at the kitchen table. She slept for a half hour and was suddenly alert and awake. She had heard something. There was movement outside in the yard.
“Olphus ?!” she rushed to the door. But it was one of the villagers, Olaf, back to see if the boy had been found. He shook his head grimly.
He set off across the field to where there was an old well. His