For long after hearing it, Anna is plagued by Martha's confession. How could this have gone on for so much of their fourteen years, years they have known each other and played together, years they have been in school and talked of books and boys, of clouds and music and fantasy? Fourteen years, and so much of this time, the things Martha said were – what, then? Lies? Is it possible to be innocent, to be a child, after such awful things?
A terrible question, but nonetheless one Anna cannot rid herself of.
If a father could beat his daughter – beat her bloody and bruised! Leave such awful welts on her arms, where anyone could see if she pushed up her sleeve – then what else would he be capable of? What else could he do to her? And what, then, will happen to the daughter?
Although Martha insisted they keep her secret, Anna wants to tell. She is not sure who; no good telling Martha's mama, who doubtless already knows and is powerless to stop it. No good telling her own mama: she would tell her papa, who would refute it, being if not friends then at least community-acquaintances with Herr Bessell. No good, either, telling teachers or the pastor: no good at all, to tell. And anyway, whose word would hold up: Herr Bessell, or young Martha? And once the word got out, if it got out – then what? What would it mean for Martha, for her mama and even for her cruel papa?
And Anna remembers playing with Ilse, when they were children. Ilse had such an imagination; she was prone to such flights of fancy that quite frankly verged on the pagan from time to time. Childhood is its own kind of paganism, Anna thinks, and such an idea surprises her: something that Melchior Gabor would say, important and intelligent Melchior Gabor. Not something she would say – not her, certainly, not gentle-voiced, overprotected Anna Weissman.
When Ilse was still at home, she was a playmate like no other – she led the other girls on adventures most girls couldn't dream of, onto pirate ships and medieval kingdoms, into mystical lands and places that sounded made-up. When they were very young they played with the boys; while Thea, especially, always lagged behind and played the helpless maiden needing rescue, Ilse would gamely act as a ship captain or a knight alongside them, alongside Melchi and the rest. She would climb trees, walk fences, race anyone who dared her: so adventuresome. Until the sparkle in her eyes began to fade, and then without warning she was gone.
How was Anna to know that such things would happen to her friends? As children they seemed so playful, so carefree. There was no hint of trouble, really, until the day Ilse was gone from school without warning; two days later, Anna's mama told her simply that Ilse had gone away. She learned the whole of it in bits and pieces: some from Ernst, whose house was nearest hers. He had seen her leaving the house late into the night. Some from Thea, who claimed that her parents had spoken to Ilse's about the whole matter – doubtful, the way she recalled it, Ilse's parents would hardly have spoken the way Thea said.
She hadn't the nerve to speak to Ilse; she heard from Hanschen, who knew such things, that Ilse had gone to be with the artists, which seemed somehow fitting although dangerous. Wouldn't such men treat her just as her father had? (For she knew it must be that – or now, at least, she knows. Even then she could feel the danger.) Soon the boys and the girls were pushed from each other's company, and Anna began to wonder exactly why - did it have something to do with the reasons Ilse left?
Just recently had they spoken again, meeting by chance in the market – Anna fretted over her, but Ilse assured her, almost flippantly, that she was all right, really quite happy – they didn't speak of fathers, but of school, of art – but there was a sadness in her eyes that Anna could now place in Martha's as well, a kind of world-weariness.
But now, Anna wonders, what would become of poor Martha? Left to suffer in silence, with no one to protect her. A mama and papa ought to protect their child, not hurt them – not be the thing they need protection from. A papa should not be a monster with a belt, he should be a wise word and a stern smile. A mama should be gentle and caring, not blind and cold.
Anna watches her youth unravel, what's left of it falling to pieces. Ilse's youth is gone, Martha's; soon Moritz's and Wendla's disappear too, and Melchior's. Soon, she will be the only one still protected, and then what? It is up to her, it seems, to protect, to save. Although it may be too late for Ilse, for Martha, for the others, there will still be her children, and their children. It must be part of the plan, she decides – someone must stay, to teach and to guide, to nurture. Just such a shame, that she couldn't begin now.