By Laura Schiller
Copyright belongs to the estate of Louisa May Alcott.
Jo hadn't meant to go near the cemetery that day. She had meant to show Professor Bhaer the scenic route through the park (well, as scenic as it got in mid-November), but their lively discussion of Goethe's The Suffering of Young Werther had distracted her so much that before she knew it, the two of them were standing right in front of the wrought-iron gates, looking at rows upon rows of headstones in the bare, brown earth.
"Is something wrong, Miss March?" asked the Professor, looking down at her with concern.
She saw the dead brown grass, the angel statues with their blank eyes and folded hands, the leafless trees clawing at the grey sky. She could even make out one particular grave; the mound of earth on it was flattened down by now, but she would know it anywhere.
"It's only … this is the place where Beth is buried. My sister. She … died … about two months ago." She could not remember speaking the words out loud before; they sounded strange, as if belonging to someone else.
"I know," said Friedrich.
That was all, but he said it so kindly, and with such a look in his warm hazel eyes, that Jo found no further words necessary. No I'm sorry or My condolences; none of the endless worn-out platitudes which Jo had been hearing from everyone, including her well-meaning but shortsighted father.
"May I see the place?"
"Er … all right."
He turned onto the cemetery's main path; since their arms were linked, she had no problem keeping in step, and could direct him to the site of the grave. No one had ever told her what an awkward business bereavement would be, especially where non-family members were involved; he had never known Beth, and Jo had an unreasonable urge not to let him see the grave. It was such an inadequate representation of Beth's memory; the name, dates and Bible verse had nothing to do with her.
When they arrived, however, she found that a subtle change had come over her friend in this sober place. The man who had been happily arguing with her about love and literature was now silent, his eyes downcast, his lips moving silently as if in prayer. His free hand, the one not holding Jo's, moved in his baggy coat pocket, for once finding nothing satisfactory to give. He frowned.
"I lost my sister also," he said, his words falling abruptly into the windy silence.
Jo knew this vaguely, from Mrs. Kirke's stories, but had never dared to ask him for the details. She had also never seen him like this before; his sorrow, which had always 'sat with its head under its wing' as she expresse it, had emerged, and was written in hard lines across his face.
"You mean Franz and Emil's mother?" Jo asked, in a tentative attempt to draw him out.
He let go of Jo's arm, crouched down, and very carefully began to brush some loose earth and dry leaves off the stone.
"Her name was Minna. She was five years younger than I. She married an American, a journalist, and followed him to New York. Father says, No, no. do not go so far from home. Minna says, I will do as I like. She leaves. She writes to me, saying this Schurke has left her and she is very ill, she cannot care for the boys, brother Fritz must go to America and help them. She has no grave, like this," gesturing toward the stone. "She was … burned. How do you say?"
"Cremated. Yes. With her ashes in the New York harbor, as she wished."
Friedrich's story tumbled out in choppy fragments, his broken English only adding to the tragedy of it in Jo's mind as it reminded her just how far from home he was. Beyond his grief, she could hear something else, something bitter; she never would have associated her sunshiny friend with bitterness in any shape or form, but there it was. He resented his sister for placing him in the predicament he was – a bachelor academic, landed with two children, struggling to get by in a foreign country.
Jo, who could always think better when working, knelt down in the dirt and began pulling up the last dandelions growing on the plot. How could she possibly express the sympathy she felt, the understanding; how could she show him it was all right to be angry with those you had lost?
"Sometimes you know somebody all your life," she reflected out loud, "And lose them, and it feels as if you never knew them to begin with. When Beth told me she was dying, I refused to believe it. I scolded her for giving up; called it a sick fancy. Couldn't understand how she could give up on life so easily, and leave me all alone."
"Exactly." The Professor nodded sharply, his breath coming up in clouds in the autumn air. "She … she was never at fault. I do my duty. I enjoy my duty. Franz and Emil are such dear boys, I would never leave them, not for anything in the world. It is not reasonable, Miss March, but it is true: we must both learn to forgive."
In reaching for the same plant; their hands touched – they drew away, but then his mittened hand closed around her cold, ungloved one and held on tight, as if she were his lifeline. He helped her to her feet and waited as she brushed off her skirts.
Learn to forgive. She could do that, in time.
"What sort of person was she – your sister?" asked Jo as they walked further down the lane. What happy memories did he have of her, to balance out the sad?
"As a child she was … joyful," he said, after a pause, not letting go of Jo's hand. "Beautiful, always laughing. Always pushing me outside when I wanted to read books." He chuckled. "We would fight. You know how it is, no?"
Jo certainly did.
"She had the Fernweh … she always wished to travel far away. James Hoffmann meant this for her – adventure, discovery. She was not to know his true nature until it was too late. Now it is I who travels in her stead, and it has been more wonderful and strange than anything I could have imagined. Strange, Miss March, is it not? In Berlin, I would never have met you."
A smile was on his face again, like the faintest sunbeam shining through the cloud.
Jo, relieved beyond words to see that smile, chimed in with an anecdote about beth from their childhood days. They lost all track of time as they walked, telling stories, exchanging memories of their loved ones and, by doing so, keeping them alive in their hearts.