The first time was when he was eleven, and he'd come home from the schoolhouse holding back the thick, foggy tears. Then he'd climbed the stairs of his house, clambered, fully-clothed, into his bed, and stayed there for the rest of the evening. She had stood outside the door, wringing her apron in her hands, listening to the miserable, quiet sobs of her son fill the air, and her heart wrenched with the maternal instinct to go in and cuddle her baby until he was better. But he wasn't a baby anymore, and so she was not sure what to do, and resolved to consult her husband when he returned home. As soon as he did, she had brought him up to her son's locked door, and they silently listened to the anguish seep through the air and stain the normally noiseless house. The cries weren't full-throated wails of teenage angst, oh no. These were the sobs of one who had been unjustly hurt by the world, and who had lost a great deal many things.
"I don't know what to do" she had said, feeling fairly close to tears herself. "He has been like this all afternoon, and I am completely at a loss"
"Leave the boy be" he had replied gruffly.
"Let him be" he snapped firmly. And so she silently turned away.
She had gone up to him, later. She brought him a glass of milk, and a few slices of bread and cheese to make up for his lost supper. He was lying, curled up, on his bed. He looked up at his mother when she quietly stole in, and his eyes made her draw in a sharp breath. They were red-rimmed, and swollen, but still with such melancholy in the deep sea blue of the irises. He tried to say something to her, a word of thanks perhaps, but his voice was strangled, and she walked over to him and enfolded him in a hug. He rested his head against her chest, and neither of them spoke a word.
When she went back downstairs, her husband gave her look of disappointment, and then went back to his crossword, and she went back to the laundry. And their son went back to his weeping, the food untouched.
She didn't know what it was about until it happened again, when he was thirteen. This time, he was a little more carefully guarded, managing to offer a chocked salutation before hastily retreating to his bedroom. She had sat, restlessly, in the kitchen, listening to him. This time there were other sounds. There were groans, and gut-wrenching roars of pure agony that made the air tremble, and she just sat there, praying for the safety and happiness of her son who should not be so distressed. In the end, only when the screams faded to muffled sobs, could she summon the courage to go to him. She hesitated, for a moment, outside his door, before knocking once and opening it.
He was in the same position as last time, curled up and facing away from her. Only this time, he did not turn around. His whole body seemed to tense. She sat down beside him, reached out a tentative hand, and stroked his hair gently. He flinched, and she drew her hand back as if she'd been stung.
"Whatever is the matter, my darling?" she whispered. There was no sound in that empty, dusty room, except for his breathing, shallow and deep at the same time, and the rush of the wind sweeping past the window. He had drawn the blinds; the room was dark.
"I'm a failure, mama" he had mumbled, eventually. His voice was like paper.
"What? Of course you are not! My dear boy, whatever gave you the impression…"
"But I am, mama!" he cried again, in oh so much distress. "I cannot learn a single thing although I try so hard, and then Herr Sonnenstich scolds me because I never remember the Latin, and I shall fail everything and then you will hate me and papa will hate me…"
"Now, that's enough" she said calmly, softly. "I shall never hate you. You are my darling boy and I will always love you"
"And your papa loves you just the same. My darling, never think you are a failure. Everybody has different talents. You may not excel in Latin, but you are the sweetest, most generous young man in the whole world, and not many mothers can say that"
She knew that he did not believe her. She also knew that the Latin was not the only thing he was weeping over. But she left him by himself to ponder, because he was always a thoughtful boy, and thoughtful people always tend to have the most to cry over.
However, his father had different ideas. As soon as he returned home, and saw his wife's wan expression, he knew what had happened, and he strode wordlessly up to his son's room. He was extremely angry, and she could tell. He would never lay a finger on his wife or his son, unlike Herr Bessell down the road (and didn't everybody see the red welts on his daughter's arms when her sleeves carelessly rolled up in play?). But she could hear the harsh words thrown across the room upstairs, reverberating and echoing through the wood and plaster of their home. And then he came back down, and silently carried on with his newspaper, leaving the boy to cry in his room.
"Dear…" she started, concerned. But he interrupted her.
"Let the boy alone" he said, as he had done the time before. "Let him cry. It is time we began to make a man out of him"
And that, of course, was the end of the matter.
The third time, when her son was fifteen, she blamed herself for letting her husband get to him first. If she had only been there to tell him that exams were not everything, or that no matter what she loved him, then maybe thing could have been different. But when she got home from shopping with Frau Diller, her son was gone, and her husband was scowling at today's headlines. She knew something was wrong. The air was stifling.
"What happened?" she whispered, laying her basked on the table. "Where is he?"
"Gone out" he had replied, not even looking up at her. "God knows where, or when he'll be back. Gone to that awful Gabor boy's place, I expect…"
It was maternal instinct, again, that shuddered with foreboding in her breast, but she tried to ignore it, and carry on like normal, repeating routine. Later that night, the knocks at the front door seemed to wound and bruise the wood.
At his funeral, his father stood by his graveside and cried bitterly for his son and everything that had never happened, and she thought it utterly ridiculous. After all, he had been the one to strike his own flesh and blood (as he confessed afterwards) for something so trivial, while she had always tried to comfort, and pick up the pieces of her son's slowly breaking heart. But, always the good and dutiful wife, she stood by him as his body racked in melodramatic bawls. As she sat in the pews, she thought she saw a shadow, looking down at her, but when she looked up it was gone. Afterwards, Martha Bessell, sweet, kind Martha, who did not deserve any of the hardships she faced, had gone to her and told her of her love for her son. They had quietly wept together. And then it was over, and life had to carry on like normal, repeating routines.
But that image of his eyes would haunt her forever. Every time she tried to sleep, or tried to momentarily forget, they would be there, the blue of worlds and the skin stained red from tears. Her son's eyes.
They would never allow her to forget what her Moritz had lost.