The first day of hiking had been long and hard, but Georg knew that the family had made good progress, especially considering the little ones. When the sun was close to setting behind the hills, Georg stopped at the crest of a smaller one. His eyes found a distant house and barn. A few of the windows reflected flickering yellow light, and Georg hoped that whomever lived there would find it in their hearts to be generous enough to put his exhausted family up for the night.
The thought of his family caused Georg to look behind him, taking in the sight of his family following him. Louisa and Brigitta were first, holding hands and helping each other as they walked over the unsteady, grassy terrain while they talked amiably to each other. Next came Friedrich and Kurt, each holding one of Marta's hands as they helped her along; they told jokes and funny stories to keep her smiling and energized. Both of these displays made Georg smile, proud to see his children helping each other and showing their maturity.
What followed behind the five of them not only warmed his heart, but melted it too: his wife, Maria, carrying five-year-old Gretl in her arms. Gretl was a bit clumsy on her little feet, and tripped more when the terrain was unsteady, so the parents had decided to try and keep her off her feet so she would not get injured in any way. He saw Gretl whisper something in her mother's ear, and Maria smile softly in reaction. His heart melted even more at the sight. How could I ever think I could live without her? I could never get through all of this without her.
But the person at the very back of the procession, some feet from her mother and youngest sister, melted the smile off Georg's face. Liesl trailed behind the rest of the family at a slower pace, arms crossed tightly and her head down. This made it difficult to discern the expression on her face, but Georg felt certain that it was nothing positive.
Before he could dwell further on Liesl's melancholy, Georg saw that his family, seeing that he had stopped, came to a halt when they reached him. He pointed to the farmhouse in the near distance. "We'll be able to reach there before dark, and I'll ask if they would be good enough to give us shelter for a night or two. We all need to be willing to do any help or work there we can if it means we get a roof over our heads, so I want everyone to be ready to help in any way they can, all right?"
Everyone nodded, but they couldn't quite mask the fatigue on their faces from hiking all day. He gave a gentle smile to everyone. "We've covered a lot of distance today, and I know this hasn't been easy. But know that I couldn't be more proud of any of you."
And he meant it. None of the children had uttered a word of complaint since the decision to leave Austria so hastily yesterday, despite the Nazi ambushes and hours of tough hiking. All of them, even the little ones, had behaved so wonderfully throughout all of this.
In response to his praise, the children gave him radiant smiles – except Liesl, whose posture had not changed and didn't appear to be listening. Deciding to do something about that, Georg waved his arm for everyone else to go on ahead of him.
"You're faring all right?" he asked Louisa and Brigitta, the latter in particular, because she was more at ease indoors than outdoors.
Brigitta nodded. "Just fine. Louisa's a big help."
"Good." He kissed both of their foreheads before they moved past him. He gave proud smiles and nods to the boys, and kissed Marta's kerchiefed head as she said, "This is fun!" Georg smiled at her giggles as the boys lifted her off her feet over a particularly big rock.
When they'd passed, Georg turned back around to see Maria stop beside him, smiling at him softly. He smiled back. "And how is this one doing?" he asked, tickling Gretl's side which made her giggle.
"Just fine," said Maria. "She's tired, and has told me about all of the kinds of chocolate treats she wants to try when we get to Switzerland."
"Ah, I might have known," said Georg, and kissed Gretl's cheek.
"Give Mother a kiss too, Father," ordered Gretl. "She makes me feel so safe."
Georg smiled at his baby girl and then his blushing wife. Caressing the latter's cheek, he said softly, "Yes, that's how she makes all of us feel." Then he leaned forward and kissed her lips – chastely, because of the five-year-old, but with his heart on his lips.
Maria returned his kiss and then smiled as she caressed his cheek. Then her expression became more serious. "Keep Liesl company?" She had obviously noticed Liesl's melancholy, as well.
Georg nodded and kissed her palm, caressing her back as she and Gretl walked past him. He watched them for a moment, and then turned back around to watch Liesl approach. When she saw her father was still standing there, she stopped and looked at him inquiringly. Georg became even more worried when he saw her bloodshot eyes, which meant she had been crying and not told anybody.
Looking at her, and remembering how close they all were to possible shelter and rest, Georg knew that asking for answers from his firstborn right now was not very wise. Wanting to follow through on Maria's wise request, Georg gave Liesl a warm, reassuring smile and held out an arm to her. "Help your old father out?" he asked nonchalantly.
The shadow of a smile crossed Liesl's face at the innocent request disguised by a joke, and she slipped her arm through her father's, and they began walking again, following their family.
Liesl said nothing, so neither did Georg. But she did lean against him, rest her head on his shoulder, and grip his arm tightly. Georg could sense her fatigue and also a turmoil inside of his sixteen-year-old, and prayed that he would be able to help resolve it when the time was right.
The family's prayers were answered: the elderly couple who lived at the farm were more than willing to give the family shelter in their old barn for a few nights, where there was a roof and plenty of warm hay and blankets to sleep on. In exchange, Maria and Georg had insisted that they and the children help prepare their meals and any other chores that needed doing before they moved on.
Georg was glad that they now had a few days, for he could more clearly plan the route he was to lead his family on to the safety of Switzerland. Until they got to some town in Switzerland where he could access the bank accounts into which he had deposited all of his fortune years ago, there was little money that they could spare for anything.
The first night in the barn, Georg was looking at a map in the light of a lantern. The elderly farmer had given it to him; though Georg had not told them who they were or their reasons for traveling, he could tell they, like him, hated the Nazis and because of that did not ask questions. He was extremely grateful for that.
As he was looking over the map, Georg felt Maria kneel behind him, put her hands on his shoulders, and press her cheek to his temple. "The children are asleep," she said softly, rubbing the tension from his shoulders.
He gave a deep sigh, and leaned back, letting Maria cradle him in a moment of fatigue and vulnerability; only with her could he freely show such things. He must always be strong for the children, but with Maria he could drop any façade, and the same was true for her.
"You need to sleep, love," she murmured, kissing his temple.
"Mm," grunted Georg non-commitedly. "I've drawn out the best route for us to take, Maria. If we leave in two days, we can be safely over the border by the end of the week. Once we find a town in Switzerland, I can withdraw some money and get us all settled."
"Good," murmured Maria, kissing his cheek.
Just as he closed his eyes in content surrender, the sound of troubled groans caused both parents to instantly sit up, alert. Georg recognized the sounds first as coming from Liesl, and he immediately got up and crept over to where she lay. She was still sleeping, but tossing slightly in her sleep, and clearly she was having a nightmare.
Kneeling beside her, Georg reached out and caressed her head, gently holding it still as he shushed her and hummed "Edelweiss" softly, as if she were a baby again – in Georg's eyes, she was again.
When she was quiet, and slept soundly again, Georg breathed a sigh of relief, but still stroked her hair gently. Maria had now joined him and did the same.
"Something is haunting her," murmured Georg, distressed by Liesl's still-pale face.
Maria sighed and shook her head. "After what happened in the graveyard, I would be worried if she wasn't upset…but it breaks my heart to see her hurt."
Georg raised his head so he could look at his wife, remembering how Liesl had shouted, "Rolf, please!" at the boy who had discovered them, once telegram deliverer and now a blinded Nazi. Georg also remembered that same boy throwing stones at Liesl's window the day he had brought Elsa and Max to the villa. "Maria," he said quietly, so as not to wake Liesl. "What do you know about the…relationship Liesl had with that boy? I know something was going on between them."
Maria gave him a long look and then sighed. "I know that Liesl did not do anything shameful, but I can't break her confidence."
Georg nodded, and looked back down at his sleeping firstborn.
Maria covered his hand with hers. "Why don't you talk to her? I think you have the power to help her more than anyone else."
Georg looked at his wife again, not quite believing her; she had been wonderful with Liesl from the very first day, and he was still not very confident in the individual relationships he was still developing with his children. Especially Liesl, whom he was still reconciling to the fact that she was now a young woman, no longer a child. And this scared him.
But Maria, who seemed to always be able to read his thoughts, was giving him a very reassuring look and smile, still holding his hand.
Georg raised his hand to his lips and kissed it before nodding. "Soon. I promise."
One week later, Georg finally felt true relief for the first time since the Anschluss: they had crossed the border into Switzerland. Even though his family were sleeping in an abandoned barn that night, the knowledge that they were both in a neutral country and would be in a town tomorrow was more than enough for him and Maria.
Now he and Maria were putting the little ones to sleep, which was taking a bit longer than usual. Gretl, especially, was being stubborn, for she could somehow sense her parents' excitement and anticipation.
But just as he and Maria were nearing the end of the bedtime story, a brief but terrified cry caused both of them to sit up straight in fear and worry. Both saw Liesl sit bolt upright, white as a sheet, and panting as if she had almost drowned.
Georg immediately got up and rushed to her, while Maria stayed to soothe the little ones, who were scared by the sound. Georg immediately knelt by Liesl's side and caressed her head. "Liesl, what is it, sweetheart?"
He became even more alarmed by the fact that tears were streaming down his firstborn's face. But he only briefly saw this, for in the next moment she had buried her face on his shoulder, and hugged him tightly to her. She only managed to speak in broken gasps. "The gun…right at your heart…"
Georg held her tightly to him, disgusted at how this idiot Nazi boy had done to her heart and mind, to the point where a raincloud hung over her every day and had nightmares every night. He looked over Liesl's shoulder at Maria, who was watching them with anxious eyes. She gave him a nod as if to say, "You take care of her, I'll take care of the rest." Georg nodded back and, standing up, scooped up the still sobbing Liesl, and carried her out of the old barn and into the cool night air. Sitting himself on a boulder, Georg cradled Liesl in his arms while she cried, as if she were Gretl's age again. The whole time he only made calming shushes and said nothing else. She would talk when she was ready to.
When her sobs finally calmed, she stiffened somewhat and moved off his lap to sit beside him, trying to act her age or even older. She wiped her eyes and said, "I'm sorry…I don't want to worry you and Mother…"
Georg rubbed her back with one hand. "You have nothing to be sorry for. What we all went through to get out of Austria was traumatic for everybody, but especially for you." He paused for a moment before resuming. "As if leaving home this way wasn't bad enough…having your heartbroken would make it nearly unbearable, and well deserving of nightmares and tears."
Liesl turned her bright blue gaze on her father, widened with shock and also fear. This sight broke Georg's heart, remembering how his former self would have dealt with this. Well, he was, mercifully, no longer that person anymore.
"I'm so sorry, Father," said Liesl before he could say anything. "I swear, I didn't know he was involved with…them…until I recognized him in the graveyard. Otherwise, I would never have…" Her voice drifted at this, as if she were afraid to continue down that path, so she changed it. "My gasp when I recognized him…that's what gave us away…we nearly died because of me…It would have been my fault if he'd shot you…"
She began to cry again, and Georg immediately hugged her again. "Hush this foolish talk, Liesl," he said, wishing there were some magic switch that would appear that would take away his daughter's pain and guilt. Unfortunately, it was never that simple. "You have nothing, absolutely nothing, to feel guilty about. All that matters is that we are all together, unharmed, and in safety. And even if one of us had been hurt, it wouldn't have been your fault; the fault would only lie with him."
Liesl took a deep, shaking breath before pulling away again, but she let her father keep an arm securely around her. Her eyes drifting to the distance. "I can't understand it…he used to be so…good…and kind…how could he…"
Now it was Georg's turn to sigh and shake his head. "He's not the only one, Liesl…far from it. So many young people are being taken in and brainwashed by the Third Reich…Hitler has even created youth camps for young children to be sent away to so they can be brainwashed right away. If we had remained in Austria, no doubt your younger siblings would have been sent off to them."
Liesl gasped at this knowledge and shook her head, a look of utter confusion and horror on her face. It was a very sad sight for Georg, watching one of his children witness the evil parts of the world that every parent wanted to protect their children from, but knew they couldn't.
"I wish I had a reason for the evil in this world, and I wish I could protect you all from it. Heartbreak, as well."
Liesl again looked at her father, and he could see the nervousness, and her wanting to know how much he already knew about her relationship with Rolf.
Georg gave her a reassuring smile. "Don't be afraid to confide in me, Liesl," he said. "You're sixteen years old, and it is only natural that you would be introduced into this romantic world now. I certainly was, and like you, it did not end well."
Now Liesl looked surprised, and turned towards her father. "What happened?" she asked with wide eyes.
Georg chuckled and scratched the back of his neck as he brought the memory back; he hadn't thought about it for a long time. "Well, I was sixteen-years-old, and at the naval academy in Italy. Near us was a boarding school for girls, and we interacted with the girls at social functions set up for us to teach us proper manners, dancing, etc. At one of these functions, I met a girl named Francesca, a beautiful Italian girl a year my senior whom I immediately became infatuated with immediately. I'll be honest: I was a lovesick puppy. Would've done anything for her. I would often sneak over to her boarding school, throw rocks at her window, and then proclaim my devotion with the latest love poetry I'd learned in classes."
Liesl, to his great relief and joy, laughed. "Good heavens!"
Georg chuckled, realizing for the first time how very funny and foolish his behavior then had been. "This went on for about two months, until I came to a social function and saw her flirting with the another boy. The eighteen-year-old, handsome, top of his class, son of a French viscount, to be more specific. She'd not only forgotten all about me, but never returned my feelings at all."
Liesl cringed at this knowledge and looked aghast that any woman could treat her father like that. "Oh, Father…"
Georg nodded. "Safe to say that made me very angry, bitter, upset, furious, and hurt." He squeezed Liesl a little tighter to him. "I know what it feels like to be young, spellbound, and then hurt. It's completely natural, Liesl." He then turned himself to they were facing each other, and took her hands. "But I also need you to know that, no matter how dark things are now, you will be alright."
"Really?" she asked in a small voice. "I just wish that none of this had ever happened…at least you can look back and laugh about your first experience with Cupid…how can I ever laugh at mine?"
Georg nodded in understanding, and then, still holding Liesl's hands, stood up and got her to her feet as well. "Perhaps not, but do you know what you will be able to do someday? You will be able to look back on this experience and say…'That wasn't love.' When I met your birth-mother a few years later, that's what I was able to do. And someday you will too, and be glad that God did not forget you. For he won't, Liesl. Look at me and your mother. I'd given up all hope of loving again, and your mother never expected love in her life. But God had other plans for us, and healed our pain, just as he will heal yours someday." He smiled at her and smoothed her hair. "And, my darling girl, remember that you are never alone. Not only is God with you, always, but we are all here for you: myself, your mother, and your brothers and sisters will always, always, be here for you, whenever you need us for anything."
Now happy tears streamed down Liesl's face, and she hugged her father close to her, face buried in his chest. "Thank you, Papa. I love you."
Her voice was quiet and muffled, but he heard it as he held her tightly. "And I love you, Elisabeth."
They stayed like that for a long moment, both silently rejoicing that they could talk to each other so easily again after so long and after so much had changed. The love between father and daughter had never died. Eventually, they broke apart and walked arm-in-arm back to the old barn.
Maria was leaning against the open door into the barn, the six younger children all sound asleep behind her. The sight of father and daughter arm-in-arm gave her much relief and she smiled at the sight. When they came to her, Maria immediately held out her arms for Liesl and the two women hugged.
"Are you all right?" whispered the older woman.
Liesl pulled back to look at her mother. "I know I will be."
Maria smiled and wiped her daughter's face with her handkerchief. "I'm glad you were able to start talking about it."
Liesl nodded, getting a twinkle in her eyes for the first time in over a week. "Father was wonderful. He told me this great story of when he was my age and recited poetry outside the bedroom window of this Italian girl he –"
Georg cleared his throat loudly to halt Liesl's voice; he saw his wife give him a raised eyebrow and very curious and amused look. "Yes, all right, it's time for us all to get some sleep. Come along, ladies." He put an arm around each and led them back inside the barn.
But he was not out of the woods yet. After Liesl had been put to sleep by both parents humming soft, familiar lullabies, husband and wife went to their own big pile of hay and blankets. When they were laying in each other's arms, Maria softly asked, "How is she? I've been so worried about her, watching her keep everything in. I've tried talking to her but she didn't want to worry us while we were making our journey."
Georg nodded and kissed her forehead. "I think she was able to talk to me now that we are safely in Switzerland. And she knows she can talk to us anytime, anywhere, about anything. She's going to be all right." He sighed. "It makes me sick what that boy did…she blamed herself for us nearly getting caught, because she gasped when she saw that boy…her nightmares are about him pointing that gun at me."
Maria gave a shaky sigh, held her husband closer, and buried her face on his neck. "Oh, the poor girl…but we're helping her now and we are all out of danger…" He felt tears on his neck. "She wasn't the only one who was terrified when that gun came out."
Georg held his wife even tighter as she let out a few silent tears she herself had been holding in. He couldn't help but marvel how extraordinary she had been through all of this, just like the children.
Maria sat up and wiped her face. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to be so emotional."
Georg sat up and cupped her face. "Don't be silly, Maria. You've been so strong throughout all of this. You never protested or argued when we had to cut our honeymoon short or when we had to leave Austria so quickly. To be honest, I would be more worried about you if you hadn't cried a little by now. I wonder now how often you've cried silently after I've fallen asleep, so as not to worry me, like Liesl was trying to do."
Maria lowered her head in shame, but Georg put a finger under her chin, lifting her face again so he could meet her gaze. "Maria, I promise you this: I will make this up to you. Tomorrow begins our new life in safety and freedom, and tomorrow night we will be able to stay somewhere we can have some privacy, and I can give you the undivided attention I haven't been able to give you recently."
Maria gave a small smile through her tears, a twinkle in her eyes that had been in Liesl's eyes not too long ago. "How? Standing below my window and reciting poetry to me?" She chuckled when she saw Georg's embarrassed expression. "I never knew you could be so grandly romantic, darling."
Georg wrapped his arms around his wife, and lowered her back onto the warm hay. "I think I can do better than that," he murmured, and then kissed her as he hadn't kissed her since they'd come home – passionately and desperately – to hold them both over until tomorrow night. When that finished, Georg pulled a blanket over both of them as he held Maria to him.
"I love you," she breathed as she drifted to sleep, holding his hand.
"Goodnight, my love," he murmured back as he closed his own eyes.
Both fell asleep quickly.
The next morning, Liesl was the first to wake up, just as the sun was beginning to rise. She felt refreshed, and happy that she'd had no nightmares the previous night. After stretching and rubbing her eyes, her gaze fell on her parents, still asleep close by. They slept close together, holding each other even in sleep. Liesl remembered what her father had said to her the previous night, and felt a new hope for herself. No, God will not forget me. He didn't forget Father in his pain, or Mother in her loneliness. He will bring me love when I am ready, and in the meantime, I have the best parents and family to help me through my healing.
Smiling and blowing the two of them a silent kiss of gratitude, Liesl got up to watch the beautiful sunrise, the perfect symbol for herself and her family as their new lives started.