Winter seeped into the stone walls, the thick wooden floors, the still air. We put our frozen mittens on the sill of the kitchen window. Ice clung to their woolen fibers. It only melted in the brief sunshine that hit the southern wall in the afternoon. The light through the thick panes of glass magnified a circle on the floor occupied by a dozing kitten. The war required blackout rules. No fires in stoves. No oil lamps lit. During the day, it was bright enough, especially with the sun bouncing off the snow, knee deep in the pastures, shoulder deep in drifts blown into corners.
We left a path from the woods. Footprints and evergreen needles alleviated the dull white on white landscape. Into the forest we went, early in the morning to take advantage of the light, to get our tree. We cut down the perfect Fir like we do every year. Only this year, there would be no candles on the tree. No sparklers allowed.
It stood center stage in the middle room. Tangy-sweet, rich evergreen scented our breath clouds. Hand-made glass ornaments, a Robin’s nest with three blue eggs and red ribbons tied in bows decorated its branches. I sat on the bed, wrapped in a feather quilt to keep me warm and stared at the tree while illumination still glinted on bulbs.
We gathered in the front room, close together. We ate liver, bread dumplings in a chicken broth. We ate in silence. Except for my Ur-Opa who snored in his back bedroom. We ate warm apple strudel drenched in honey. It had been a whole year since we had sweets. Normally, the honey from the combs in the orchard was sold for what little money we could get.
I layered several sweaters under my red wool coat. I slipped my reindeer boots lined with rabbit fur over three pairs of wool socks. My uncle Viktor brought the boots home with him from Norway after he had been shot in the left leg. His knee was shattered and he could no longer march so they sent him home. He felt a certain shame in not dying for the Fatherland but we were glad to have him back. My five other uncles all died on frozen battlefields in places that sounded like fairytale lands: Kursk, Westerplatte, Nibeiwa, Narvik, Gembloux.
We went out into the black night to see the stars, The Star, shining just beyond the reach of my fingers.
Christmas Eve in the dark.
We stood in the chamomile field, in the silent night. I wanted to sing. We always sang on this night. I opened my mouth. A buzz rolled through the mountain peaks. At first, I couldn’t tell where the sound was coming from. It seemed to be everywhere at once and then I saw bright lights moving across the sky, a triangle of lights, a moving celestial tree. I clapped and laughed. My Ur-Oma grabbed my wrist, pulled me along behind her. I wanted to stay to see the Christmas spectacle.
Whistling followed us into the hall. The walls vibrated and shook as we sheltered in a corner. The bombs landed high in the alps.