by Thobias Bergmann
I enjoyed my walk on the old dyke that cuts through the forest. Here the views seem to have remained unchanged in the past 50 years. Somehow such continuity has a soothing effect on the human soul. At least it has one on mine. Majestic trees converge over me to form a tunnel. Below me, concrete bunkers were built into the dyke at regular intervals.
These grey structures, once manned by soldiers who feared having to kill or be killed, are a reminder of a sad past. I have passed them by hundreds of times, but they do not cease to exert a near-magic influence on me. They make me think about what once was, what could have been and why we now have what we take for granted. In their presence I feel grateful for my existence and at the same time encouraged once again to search for meaning.
For some reason, I decided to turn left into a narrow forest path which I had always chosen to ignore before. It was darker here and the ground was muddy. Suddenly the path was blocked by an old tree that hadn’t been able to withstand a recent storm – it was autumn after all.
As I climbed over the imposing trunk, my eyes caught a glimpse of something shiny. I looked closer and saw a piece of metal sticking out of the mud. I grabbed it, and to my surprise held a flat silver container, like an old-fashioned cigarette-case, in my hand. I wiped off the dirt from this little treasure and immediately noticed the engraving: two roses and the names ‘Melanie’ and ‘Marc’. My heart beat faster and for a moment I felt as if I were the only human being on this planet who had suddenly found proof of the existence of others.
My fingers explored and, as if steered by some invisible guidance, opened the little lock without any hesitation. Inside was a piece of paper, old but dry. I unfolded it with the greatest care, as if dealing with a precious archaeological artefact, which in a way it was. I found a letter, instantly recognisable as a passionate love letter from Marc to his Melanie, written at the beginning of the war, more than 70 years ago. The letter ended with expressions of the deepest desire to be united again in each other’s arms and the hope that this letter would find its way. While I couldn’t be sure about the first wish, it seemed clear that the second had remained unfulfilled.
I could not hold myself back from reading the letter again, with attention paid to every word; as if I was listening to Marc right now, his voice coming out of this box, where it had been preserved as an echo for over half a century.
I could sense the love he felt for Melanie, the feeling that is so absolute and all-consuming that it demotes everything else to a state of irrelevance. The world only has a meaning because of Melanie.
However, even all his love could not entirely hide his fear – a sense of foreboding. He saw that it was only a question of time before the forces of destruction would erupt in an apocalyptic thunderstorm. His fears did not seem to concern his life, his comrades or the world as a whole.
His fear was for their love and that their eternal bond and the beauty of the human soul that they had discovered in each other might be threatened, or even destroyed, by the unfortunate timing and historical coincidence of a senseless worldly war. And there was something else: the profound fear that his thoughts and words, which might have been his last, would never reach her and would be lost in time.
Again, as if commanded by some unknown instinct, I looked at the top of the letter and read Melanie’s full name and address; a street in Strasbourg’s old town, near the Cathedral.
While I was thinking what age Melanie might be today and how likely it was that she still lived there, I noticed that I was walking out of the forest towards town. My feet followed some instructions they had received, but I couldn’t remember having given any.
I wasn’t even surprised when I found her name still on the door of the old timber-framed house that had stood the test of time. I realised that I had passed it by many times, never wondering who lived inside. I rang the bell and the fact that it was answered by an automatic opening of the front door didn’t surprise me either. Should it have?
I went in and there was Melanie, sitting in her armchair by a window. Warm flames were dancing in a grand old fire-place and Melanie smiled welcomingly.
She was a fine old lady, with long white hair. Her gentle face radiated happiness. “Good evening, I’m Melanie, but you probably know that.” She smiled and gestured me to sit next to her.
After a few minutes I lifted my gaze from the fire and saw a collection of photographs on a shelf. “These are of Marc and me, before the war”, she said these words like a prayer. This reminded me of my reason for coming. I took the silver box slowly from my pocket and offered it to her. “I think this is for you.” – “Thank you, I have been waiting for a long time.”
I expected her to read the letter, but instead she pulled out an identical box and gave it to me. “Would you do an old girl a favour and deliver this please? It means a lot to me!” I tried to put my thoughts in order when I already heard my own voice saying “Certainly”.
I headed back to the forest and the bunkers. I opened the box, but knew that I would not read the letter. It was not destined for my attention; I was only the messenger. This was my part and I wanted to play it with a sense of duty. I didn’t even bother to check for an address, as there was only one place to deliver it. After I had placed the box in the same spot where I had found the first one, I stood for a moment, silently and alone. I was filled with a profound happiness and the feeling of having helped someone with an immensely important task.
I went for a glass of wine and proposed a silent toast to Melanie and Marc. After a while, I started reading the newspaper, but I shuddered when I saw the death announcements. Melanie had passed away the previous week, several days before I met her. I paused for a moment as if to check whether I was dreaming or in need of psychiatric assistance. No other option seemed possible. Then I shook my head, “No, that can’t be. That doesn’t make any sense.”
I drank the last bit of wine from my glass and couldn’t resist smiling a little. “Well, maybe it made sense for Melanie and Marc, and that is all that matters.”