I’m outside of the house hanging laundry when I first spot them in the distance, ApfelKopf clopping along, Vati bobbing on her back. Hope rises in my heart, then dies when I see the full parcel slung across Apfelkoch’s hindquarters.
They did not fare well in town.
When Vati finally reaches our house and slides off of ApfelKopf’s back, I expect him to give me the same shrug of weary acceptance he has been giving me these past three years, ever since the war ended and food prices skyrocketed.
Ever since we realized Franz was never actually coming back.
I shake these thoughts out of my head, both out of instinct and in surprise at Vati’s unusual demeanor. His back is straightened, and his eyes have an excited gleam in them.
“Elisabeth” he says, handing me the bridle, “go put Apfelkoch in the stable for me. I need to discuss something with your mother.” I go do as Vati says while he heads inside, and then dash to the back door to eavesdrop. The laundry can wait.
Cracking open the door, I can see Hilde napping by the yarn basket. My parents are bent over our rickety table; Vati gesturing fervently at a paper while Mütter listens intently.
I recognize the paper as Catherine’s Manifesto. Jutte had shown me a copy of it at church last week. In it, the Empress promises many wonderful things for farmers who leave Germany and settle in Russia. Tax cuts. Money for livestock. Freedom from the draft. Franz would have appreciated that last part, would’ve liked to hear that in Russia no man would come knocking on our door, requiring his service for a fight he had no interest in.
Vati becomes increasingly excited as he continues talking to Mütter. “The recruitment officer in the tavern, he said that the lands in the Volga provinces are as fertile as the upper Rhine.”
A recruitment officer! I’ve heard of them before, Russian men who travel across Hesse, offering opportunities to impoverished farmers. The paper Jutte showed me came from her brother, who also frequents the tavern.
I turn my head away from the window and rest my cheek against the wood of our house. We had a bigger one when I was smaller, with sturdier boards. We had better land, too, our own large plot with fields that Vati planted acres of wheat on. Then Germany went to war with England and Austria, and Franz was taken to throw his life away for a German crown that let our homes be pillaged, leaving us with land that brought little food and little money, the latter now being drained away by high taxes.
I turn my eyes and ears back to the window. “The Hohnstein’s received a letter from their cousins last week,” Vati whispers excitedly to Mütter. “They say that Volga is a rich province, and that they are treated fairly. The crop output isn’t amazing, but it’s far better than here. And it’s early still. The crop may flourish in a few short years.”
Mütter furrows her brow, but her eyes have the same hopeful gleam as Vati’s. These past few years have brought us little but hardship, and we have few friends and even less relatives to give us a reason for staying in Wiesbaden.
She begins to reply, but then Hilde starts to fuss. While Mütter goes to shush her, Vati tucks the Manifesto in the breadbox and heads towards the door. I dash back to the laundry line and begin tearing down quilts.
Vati comes up to me and tugs on one of my braids. “Is Apfelkoch taken care of?” he asks. I nod, and he puts an arm around my shoulder. The bags under his eyes show that he is tired from two days of arguing with customers over prices and begging for buyers of our meager potato crop.
Back when we had rich land and people weren’t burdened with taxes, Franz would go help Vati sell food in Wiesbaden. I wonder if Vati thinks of that when he goes into town, of a time when there was good business and a son he was proud of. I wonder if he thought of Franz when the officer spoke to him in the tavern.
Mütter steps out of the house with Hilde on her hip, but pauses when she sees the two of us together. She waves the Manifesto in the air and nods at Vati. He nods back and faces me. “Elisabeth,” he begins.
We are going to Russia.
The past two months have been a blur of settling finances, pawning furniture, and saying goodbyes. Early this morning, I stood in our now empty house and wondered why I was not sad to leave it. Perhaps it is because we were never able to make it into a home. In Russia, maybe we will be able to do that.
The sun’s still low in the sky. We’re at the east edge of Wiesbaden now, preparing to leave in a cart for Büdingen. There, we will register for the journey that will take us to a colonization site in Russia.
Two other families from towns farther west are heading there with us. Both are young couples, one childless and another with twin toddlers. I’m happy that Hilde will have companions on this trip. I hope they don’t fuss.
Jutte’s family comes to say goodbye one last time. I may not feel sad upon leaving my house, but her I will miss dearly. We hug and I tell her that I will write if I’m able.
“Don’t worry,” Jutte says, “That may not be necessary in the future.” She looks pointedly at our fathers, who are deep in discussion. They have the Manifesto out. We embrace once more, and then I clamber into the cart. The horse harnessed to it reminds me of Apfelkoch. I hope Herr Dietrich takes good care of her.
The cart begins to bump along. I wave at Jutte until she is a speck and then settle down for the day’s trip ahead. I begin to daydream of fields of wheat and heavy purses.
My fantasies are interrupted as all three babies begin to wail.
I wake to Hilde’s sticky fingers up my nose. I stretch and settle her into my lap, unsurprised that I’d slept. I hadn’t caught a wink the night before due to excitement.
Looking around, I see I’m not the only one who dozed off. Both my parents are resting against the side of the cart, snoring gently. The only other person awake is the childless young wife.
She grins when she sees I’m up. “Look,” she whispers, rising slowly in the moving cart, “Büdingen.” I steady myself and rise with Hilde on my hip, looking in the direction she points.
Büdingen looks similar to Wiesbaden, although somewhat larger. Townhouses cluster around a large church spire in the center. I lean over and poke my parents awake. “Mütter, Vati, we are here.”
We are standing in front of the recruitment officer’s desk in his building in Büdingen. The childless couple had gone in before us and came out looking pleased, the man jingling a small purse of coins. The woman had patted me on the shoulder as they passed. “You’ll be fine, don’t worry,” she’d said.
Now, my family stands before a man with a thick set of bifocals and an equally thick Russian accent. His German is very good, though, and he questions Vati quickly. “What is your profession? Have all your taxes and debts been paid?” Vati answers the best he can, and the officer scribbles his answers down in a big leather book. He asks for our names and ages. When I tell him I’m eighteen, he pauses and peers at me over his spectacles. “Young lady,” he inquires, “do you plan to marry soon?”
When I hesitate, Vati answers. “No. We expect to need her help when we settle down.” The officer purses his lips. “We do recommend that the unmarried secure a spouse before they leave for Russia.” I feel my palms go sweaty. Marriage? I’ve only ever had one suitor, and he ended up running off with the baker’s daughter.
“However,” the officer resumes, picking up his quill, “you are the last to arrive before we ship everyone out. I understand if the girl is unable to procure a husband in that time. It is likely she will find one in Russia.”
I exhale slowly, and Mütter squeezes my hand. The recruitment officer has us all sign contracts committing ourselves to becoming colonists, then hands a purse of coins to Vati. “Courtesy of Her Majesty Catherine the Great,” he says. “This ought to cover food and housing for your family here before everyone leaves for Lübeck.” They shake hands, and then we exit the office to look for lodging.
On our way out, we pass the couple with the twins. Hilde shrieks at her little cartmates, and their mother laughs nervously. “Don’t worry,” I tell her. “You’ll be fine.”
About four hundred of us leave Büdingen two weeks later, traveling over land and water to Lübeck. We have little to do but talk to each other along the way, and the most popular subject is everyone’s reasons for moving. Most decided to leave for the same reasons as us: high taxes, destroyed farmland, and war-weariness. Many speak of relatives they lost in the fighting. A few of the men had been a part of it. Pictures of living and deceased soldiers are passed around, and I am struck by how young so many of them are, looking childish in their blue waistcoats. They remind me of Franz.
On a boat ride over a river, I end up next to the childless young woman and her spouse. She introduces herself as Ethel, and the man slouched next to her as Dirk. Her husband is snoozing, like he had been in the cart to Büdingen. She is lucky; he’s quite handsome.
“Why did you choose to emigrate?” she inquires kindly, and I tell her about our suffering farm and dismal finances. She has a warm face, so I feel comfortable telling her about Franz, too. She nods sympathetically at this. It’s similar for me,” she sighs. “Vater was killed in service, and my Mütter died of heartbreak. We were able to get by for a while on Vater’s pension, but it was not enough.”
I can see the same melancholy in her face that I feel within me, and I thank God for benevolent Russian Empresses.
We’ve been in Lübeck for four days now, and I like it plenty.
We were put into clean barracks and given allowances our first day here. Ethel and I have been going to the docks to see the many different types of ships sailing in and out of the port each day since then. I tried flirting with a sailor once, but my tongue went cold when I noticed his ears reddened whenever he was embarrassed. Like Franz’s had.
I’d hoped Franz’s memory would stop aching once we’d left Wiesbaden, but it’s followed me all the way to Lübeck. I hope once we leave Germany, the war and those we lost to it will leave everyone’s minds.
We’ve been in Lübeck a month now, and I hate it.
Hundreds kept pouring in after we arrived, and now the barracks are so full that they’re close to bursting. Mütter, Hilde, and I share a bed now. I’ve lost track of Ethel in the hubbub.
I’m impatient to leave. The Russian officers keep talking about Volga; about the building materials we will receive in the winter and how we’ll be able to start planting this coming spring.
These notions excite me. I’m eager to experience prosperity again so that some of the bad memories that keep swimming around in my head will fade.
Finally, we’re leaving!
Yesterday, an officer came and separated everyone into groups for travel to Oranienbaum in Russia. My family’s been assigned to one of the pinks in the harbor. I have seen it before, a sleek ship meant to carry about 200 people. Hilde cried when I pointed it out to her; she wanted to travel on one of the little packet boats. I’m glad we were assigned to a larger ship, for this means there’s a greater chance I will be traveling with Ethel and her enviously attractive husband.
Two weeks have passed since we watched Lübeck’s lighthouse fade into the distance, and we’re halfway through our cruise across the Baltic to Oranienbaum. Sadly, Ethel and her spouse are not on the pink with us; they must have been assigned to a boat leaving later this month. Mütter and Vati have their hands tied with Hilde’s fussing. Many are seasick, but I have something worse. Nightmares.
I keep dreaming of Franz. The nightmare is always the same. He and I are in our old orchard. It’s year before he is to be drafted. Franz holds his hand out to me, laughing. “Come on, ‘Lisabeth,” he chuckles; “let’s climb the oak. We always climb the oak together.” For some reason, I don’t want to climb the oak this time. But he does, and begins climbing faster as we go up. I scramble after him, but he’s quick, and I lose him eventually. I keep climbing and calling his name, but I never reach him. I always wake up panting, knowing I’ll never catch him and bring him back down the oak with me.
It must be the waves getting to me. I hope that we arrive at Oranienbaum soon, so that I can get off this cursed ship. And if I get stuck into cramped barracks again, so be it.
At least there will be less vomiting.
The ship dropped us off at an island fortress named Kronstadt last week, where our documents were inspected and doctors attended to any seasick travelers. I considered asking one about my nightmares, but I don’t think there any cures for those. Then we were taken by rowboat into Oranienbaum!
Oranienbaum is a grand place. Our housing is comfortable, and the allowance we receive from the government is adequate. We’re close to the waterfront, which I take Hilde down to since Ethel isn’t around. Hopefully, we will meet again on the same settlement.
Besides boat watching, my days are filled with classes on Russian language and customs, as well as shopping for our future home. My anticipation for finally settling has risen now that we are in Russia. I wish to feel safe and proud again, with land for my family to farm.
I had a dream the first night we slept here.
In it, I finally reached the top of the oak. Franz was waiting there for me, looking out onto the grassy flatlands of Norka, our new home. The plains were dotted with shacks hastily set up by the recent arrivals.
Franz turned to me and tugged my braid. “Enjoy your new home, ‘Lisabeth, he said. “There’s no need to ache for me anymore.”
“Are you sure?” I whispered. He reached out and thumbed one of the tears tracking down my cheeks. “I’m sure,” he whispered back. Then he cracked a grin and tugged on my braid again. “Go back down now.”
I left him sitting on top of the oak, and scampered down it into the new shack Vati, Mütter and I had set up. I fell into bed, closed my eyes, then opened them and sat up in the early light. Hilde and my parents snored gently nearby. I wiped my briny cheeks and went outside to start a fire.
That was a week ago. Now, I’m standing at the edge of the makeshift village us settlers have made, watching carts carrying more colonists and supplies draw nearer in the distance. Mütter and Hilde are meeting with neighbors. Vati is discussing property boundaries with other farmers. I’m waiting to see if new tools have arrived so that we can start building a proper house.
The first cart stops near me, laden with bodies. A woman jumps down from it and cheerfully calls my name. Ethel!
We embrace and begin to chatter at once, her with questions for me about Norka and I with answers. Behind her, Dirk tosses their packs down from the cart.
I help them carry their things into town, naming neighbors and talking about the land. At one point, Dirk stops to converse with someone he recognizes from Büdingen. I take this opportunity to tease Ethel.
“So,” I say, “I suppose you and Dirk are going to have to give your babies Russian names now that we’re here.” Shock crosses her face and she begins to laugh, but not at my joke. “Elisabeth,” she giggles, “he’s my half-brother.”
Half-brother! I flush at my ignorance, but also feel a flutter in my stomach. So the attractive husband is actually an attractive bachelor. Interesting.
I follow them over to the edge of the makeshift village, and then leave them with their luggage and the materials for their own shack. Dirk tips his hat at me when I say farewell. Perhaps I may soon fulfill the Büdingen officer’s wish.
As I make my way back to my family’s own little shack, I look out at the plains of Norka, brown in the winter air. Come spring, they will be softened ready for plowing. It will be hard work, but if the other existing colonies are anything to go by, it’ll be worth it. I wonder which section of the plains Vati will claim for us. My heart feels light with excitement.
Thank God for benevolent Russian Empresses!