By Allison Walters Luther
Just as the log falls to the axe, so must man.
Johann mused upon that thought as he battled the large sycamore, hauled with much effort from the forest to the north.
Anna had always wanted a large table born of a single piece of sycamore, sanded to a velvety smoothness, nary a splinter to be had. Johann had finally found the perfect tree, large enough to satisfy his wife who was so hard to satisfy.
The cutting was slow going, as he had no sons and no neighbors willing to help, but still he labored on. It was what Anna would have wanted.
And he aimed to have it ready for her if she ever came back home to him.
On the third day of the third week of the month, as he always did, Johann left as the sky was starting to brighten. Three hours there, three back, and he would still have to see to the livestock when he returned. These traveling days were not easy for his body, his mind, or his heart.
Three towns over, surrounded by desolate prairie, the manor house holding his daughter perched on a hill, an avenging god from some horrible myth. Clouds swirled around it, blue sky beyond, and Johann supposed it would have been pretty had he not known the horrors within.
As he approached the wide steps, he tried to ignore the screams coming from the windows. He heard those same screams in his dreams where people wore masks to fool him.
Inside, eyes cast down as he felt was proper (and to help him avoid the filth he was sure to come across) he made his way to the stairs leading up and up to the third floor, where Berta was kept.
He wondered if she would recognize him this time. If she would speak of that day three months ago, of horrors done and nightmares seen. Of the words Anna had flung at them both, accusations false and misleading, a strange man by her side, while she kept her hand protectively on her stomach, pleading, begging, for an understanding Johann was incapable of giving.
He brushed past bodies on the stairs, in the corridors, careful not to look directly at them. His rational mind assured itself insanity was not catching, but deep within his soul during the darkest parts of the longest nights, he doubted. What if he, too, was insane? Would he not have to be, to have lived with insanity for so long without recognizing it? Oh, how he doubted.
She sat, as she always did, in the corner by the fireplace. No chair, no cushion, simply there on the floor, watching the flames. She wore a simple shift, more gray than white. If he closed his eyes, Johann knew he would see her covered in blood and screaming, before she stopped screaming forever, before the doctor took her away.
“Hello, daughter.” Johann winced as he lowered himself beside her, knees pressing painfully into the wood floor. “How are you faring today?”
Her only response was to stare into the fire, hands twisting into each other, taking no notice of him. Her eyes had burned into his as the axe had swung that day, in protection of him, of her, of their family, and never since had he felt the weight of her gaze.
“How are you today, Mr. Dreier? Has there been any word from Missus Dreier?”
Johann recognized both the voice and the sturdy black boots that stopped next to him. “No word yet, Jane, though I do thank you for asking. How has our Berta been these weeks?”
“As you see here.” The nurse stooped to put a cup of water to the girl’s lips. She drank reflexively, not out of thirst, and liquid splashed down into her lap. Nurse Jane simply pulled a rag out of her apron and wiped Berta’s face.
“Has she spoken?” He braced himself for the answer, always knowing it could come one day and change everything.
“No, sir. Doctor Willard would like to do another series of ice baths. He feels that will induce her to speak. He feels that she may never recover if we don’t act soon.” Her voice was level, even, and Johann couldn’t tell how the nurse felt about the doctor’s suggestion.
“I would like to speak to him, if he is not otherwise occupied.”
“He is away to Churchill this week. There is another doctor who is supposed to be passing through on the new train he wanted to speak to.”
Johann grunted. “When he returns, please let him know he is not to proceed with the ice baths. Berta will speak when she is ready, and I do not want her to be forced. Is that understood?” He pulled himself to his feet and bent over to place a kiss on his daughter’s head. “One day she will speak, and we will know the truth of that horrible day.” The lie came easily from his mouth.
Johann’s worry was lightened after seeing Berta still in her silence as she had been since that day. He wished that whatever was lost in her mind would stay lost, as it should.
The sun was heavy in the sky when Johann returned to his empty home. He went about his business, never stopping to look at the splintered holes in the barn door: one, two, three. Nor did he notice the axe laying cast aside, rusted blade staining the ground a similar red as it had been on that day.
Only once did his step falter, in the barn, where the big sycamore rested. The earth lay uneasy, hastily removed and replaced, poorly concealed with sawdust and wood shavings. He hesitated but then shook his head and went to feed the chickens.
After all, there was no reason to worry.
Anna would come back to him some day. He was sure of it.
* * *
Allison Walters Luther is a story-crafter who defies strict genre classification. Believing that no story is ever really over, she frequently leaves her pieces open-ended and doesn’t feel the slightest bit bad about it.
You can find links to her published works and read some unpublished stories at allisonwaltersluther.com
She resides near Seattle with her husband, three children, and a grouchy parrot. She is currently working on her first novel, THE OTHER SIDE OF WINTER. You can follow her on Twitter at @AllisonLuther.