Margaret awoke while it was still dark. Hans had coughed, and his wheezing breaths had paused, then stopped for too long and it had awakened her. He was breathing again now, and she allowed herself to relax. It wouldn't be long now, she knew. He could not hang on much longer, and it was better so. She reminded herself vehemently that it was better so, and looked over at the clock. Her vision was not what it once had been, but she could just make out by the light of the embers on the hearth that both hands were pointing nearly straight down and just a little to the left of the six. It was about six-thirty. She sighed and slowly eased her old feet onto the floor, finding her old worn slippers. Then she knelt painfully for her morning prayers, letting Hans sleep as she always did these days. There was work to be done and no one to help her with it so she prayed quickly, sure that the Lord would understand. The chickens needed to be let out into the yard and fed, the eggs needed to be gathered, the fire needed to be built up both on the hearth and in the stove, the dog, an ancient German shepherd named Fala, needed to be shooed up from her bed in front of the hearth and sent outdoors. By the time Margaret had breakfast heating on the stove the sun was up and she could see the mills swirling through the frosty air in the distance, on the other side of the canals. If it warmed up enough they would walk along the river for awhile, if he felt strong enough.
Hans was awake, sitting on the edge of the bed, his thinning, tousled hair looking like straw in the shafts of sunlight from the barred window. His eyes were curious today. He didn't know where he was, or who he was. In some ways that was better. On the days that his mind was blank he was easier to deal with, more pliant. Other times, when he fancied he was a little boy again he ran everywhere as fast as his old limbs would take him and she could never keep up. The few and far between times when he knew things were the most painful. Then he would reproach himself and beg her pardon for being such a burden all these years. Today he was a blank slate. Perhaps she would teach him his alphabet, later. For now she had to feed and bathe and dress him.
He liked the food today, sometimes he didn't. The eggs and biscuits were warm and done perfectly, she still cooked as well as she ever had. He didn't want to bathe at first, until she convinced him, mostly by signs and gestures and the reassuring tone of her voice, that the water was warm and nice and wouldn't hurt him. Then she dressed him like a large baby in his old, old shirt and overalls, and the wooden shoes that no one ever wore anymore. She dressed him just like the children that they had never had, and in many ways he was very much her child. The innocence and trust of an infant looked out from his china blue eyes, or sometimes the petulance and weepiness of a two-year old, or the playfulness of a schoolboy.
"Aunty Lars," he said, suddenly.
She started. He was a child again, and in this particular fantasy he thought she was his long dead aunt. "Yes, Hans," she answered.
"Aunty, Captain Decker comes by today."
"Of course he does my love," she said. His eyes were the eyes of a little child, out of place in his gray stubbly face. There were only a few days in the month in which she could shave him without danger of him moving suddenly and cutting himself. He rocked back and forth and bounced a little, a potbelly he had never had as a boy jiggling as he did so.
"Can we go see him, Aunt? I want to wave him by."
"It is cold out today Hans," she said.
He laughed. "Silly Aunt, it is summer. See the tulips," he waved towards the window with a withered hand, blue splotches showing through the transparent skin.
"No dearest, that is snow."
"Yes Aunty, but the tulips are under the snow, of course."
"Asleep?" she asked.
"No Aunty. Tulips only sleep during the night. Don't you remember when you took me out into the garden at night and we watched the tulips go to sleep. But in the winter time they are awake beneath the snow."
"Maybe they are my love, maybe they are. But it is still cold out."
"I'll wear my muffler Aunt, and I will stay warm. Please let me go out and watch the boats."
She sighed. It was still cold out and would be until the afternoon, but he would not be kept indoors until then. She nodded and got his cap and coat off the pegs on the wall. He tried to put them on, as she wrapped up some cold biscuits and cheese for their lunch, but he couldn't remember what to do with the buttons. She buttoned them for him and let him carry the lunch because he begged her to. And they stepped out, a bent old man trying to run ahead of a gray haired old woman, she holding him by the hand and telling him to stay close. They walked across the fields, still covered with snow in some places, despite the warm April rain of the days before. The canals lay on the other side, and beyond them the Zuider Zee, and at the end of that, the dikes and the harbor, the ocean with all the ships that he used to build. A flat bottomed river boat drifted by, and Hans called out to them and waved. "Captain Decker, Captain Decker, it's me, Hans." The man in the striped shirt stared and then tried to pretend he couldn't hear. Hans continued to call, disappointment in his voice. He broke his hand out of Margaret's and tried to run after the boat for a few feet until he came up short of breath and had to stop, bent over and gasping. He cried and Margaret held him and told him it was all right, but he soon forgot all about it. A patch of tulip buds, breaking out through the snow caught his eye.
"Look, Sis, tulips. I'll pick some for you, pretty Betty." She was his older sister now and he scampered off to pull the tulips up by the roots and bring them back to her. He insisted on putting them in her hair and teased her about beaux that she never knew. They meandered down the banks of the canals into the village. Margaret pulled the tulip stalks out of her hair before they went in, but he didn't notice. He liked the town, it was so alive. He ran between the stalls in the busy market, calling merry greetings to long dead friends he fancied he saw. Most of the people were regulars, and they knew him and greeted him back. Hans begged Margaret to buy some ginger that she might make some ginger snaps, and she did, knowing that Alice, the pretty young girl who watched the stall, would let her give the ginger back as soon as Hans forgot about it, which he did in less than a minute.
He moved down by the shipyards, and she followed. She tried to turn him back, but for once he would not let her change his mind, though the day's outing was becoming longer and longer and very soon it would be too late for them to get back before dark. He would not listen, he wanted to go down to the shipyards. She remembered long ago, when he was a young man. She had first met him on her way home as she walked past the docks. Some sailors on shore leave had jeered and catcalled as she went by, and she had blushed bright red at their words, too frightened and embarrassed to do anything but put her head down and walk past, trembling and not daring to look right or left. And then, suddenly, a young man with broad shoulders and thick, calloused hands had stepped out from an alley and was walking beside her. He did not say a word to the group of jeering men, he just looked at them with his blue, blue eyes as cold as ice, and his hands clenched into fists. He had been a very tall man then, well over six feet and immensely strong from his work in the shipyards. The sailors shut their mouths and looked away. After that she had never walked home alone. He was always waiting for her at the end of the street, and he always walked with her, at least part of the way home. And she loved him for it.
Now he stared out into the dry docks, where men were building ships unfamiliar to him, new ships without sails that burned coal and put out a dreadful smoke. He didn't speak, but looked very hard as if he was trying to remember, but whatever thoughts and distant dreams that were dancing in his head, they faded and eluded him. She could almost see them like wisps of smoke curling away from his groping mind.
But perhaps they were not gone entirely. He took her hand in his and squeezed it with all his feeble strength and said. "Come on, little Meg, I'll walk you home. No one shall harm you while I'm around."
"I know they won't, Hans. I feel safe with you." She had always used to say that, as she leaned her head against his shoulder, and it had always made him beam with pride and happiness. It still did.
"You are safe with me, Meg. Pray God I am always around to keep you so." He walked with shuffling steps the length of the dock, going still further from the way home, following the streets that they had traveled so many times in their youth. He forgot his fancy before they made it to her father's old house, and they were now walking through narrow, deserted streets. He seemed no longer able to feel her hand in his and he began to tremble with fear. He hated to be alone. It was the worst when he got lost in his own mind, no longer able to see, hear or feel her. He called out to her, "Margaret, Margaret." He didn't hear her answer and kept calling, "Where are you Margaret?" There was nothing she could do but put her arms around him and hold him until the fit passed. Sure enough, he suddenly forgot about it as if it had never been, the evil of loneliness swallowed up in the childlike purity of his withered mind, like a drop of poison dripped into the ocean. Gone, erased from his memory.
Time went on, as they continued to walk, and afternoon found them on the dikes overlooking the sea. The sunsets they had watched from there, the starry skies, the moonrises. She dared not stay long enough to watch another one, and at last he was getting tired, and allowed her to turn him homewards. It was a long walk, but she was not worried. It would do him good, he would sleep well tonight with no pesky dreams to disturb his slumber, and the memories that flooded over her were very strong, very beautiful. It would not hurt to take some time to turn them over in her mind, to thank God for them. She had long ago learned to live without bitterness, not like the first few years of loneliness after the terrible war had taken its toll on his mind and body. She had often thought it would have been easier to be a widow, rather than losing him while he was still alive. It had been especially hard when she was younger, for his mind had gone long before her beauty had faded into its present comfortable grayness. She had learned since then, painfully over long years, but she had learned. Now she lived to care for her husband and her love for him was so strong that he seemed to be more a part of her than a separate person. When it was time for him to go, she would feel the loss terribly, as if she had lost her right arm and right leg, but it was not time to think about that yet. The day had warmed up beautifully, and he took off his jacket and made a show of flexing his arms, fancying they still had the muscle of his younger days. She wasn't sure where his mind was then, but it didn't last long and then he was quiet again as they walked home together through the fields, following along the wagon trails. They still had a mile to go as the sun set blazing behind the windmills, washing the sky in red and orange, purple streaked with pink and bordered by the deepest of deep blues, rapidly fading to a satin black. There was one bright star with the temerity to shine out while the sun was still over the horizon as if impatient to start the night's festivities. It was alone at first, but as the sun sank and surrendered more and more of the sky the one star was joined first by a few, then a dozen of its stronger brothers and sisters, and then by hundreds more, and finally, all at once, a million of the smallest and youngest in the family appeared, twinkling diamond bright in the black. Sometimes he used to say the stars had voices and they sang, like a choir of very high, sharp chimes, voices that no human could ever understand, but with a beauty that would kill anyone who once heard it, or break their heart and drive them mad. She looked into his eyes, small dark circles with an entire galaxy mirrored in them, and she believed him.
When they reached their door, the wind was just picking up with a little hint of frost, reminding her that it was not yet May. He was in a quiet, melancholy mood, and she left him to sit quietly as she hastily did the chores and warmed up the leftover breakfast. She made him some tea, with a drop of whiskey and they ate quietly, and he sat still and listened to her as she said her evening prayers.
As she said "Amen" she heard his voice whisper, "Margaret?"
Her heart beat fast, and she met his eyes, realizing that he was having one of his rare moments of clarity. "Hans?"
"Thank-you, Margaret," he said, his voice trembling with age, but his eyes clear and steady. "I love you.”
"I love you," she said, but the moment was gone. His eyes were vacant again.
She began to hum through her tears as she dressed him for bed and rolled the covers back. It was an old song, one that had been popular when she was a little girl, but he recognized it as she tucked him in, and he hummed it with her, until his eyelids drooped, and he fell asleep. Margaret brushed two gray hairs away from his forehead, and then with a sigh, she leaned over and softly blew the candle out.
Written by Ryan Kraeger, June 2007: inspired by the 1968 song “The Dutchman” by Michael Peter Smith.