Slowly, he turned to contemplate the day. His bedroom window was a long, golden rectangle. He rose and opened the window, using the ram's-horn curl of its handle, and looked out, over Ludwigsruhe's slow, brown river, over the roofs and dead late-fall gardens on its opposite bank, across a patchwork of tender, gray fields, and then a tiny complex of roofs and chimneys beyond. Somewhere in that next town's maze lived the woman he had never met before, but had promised to visit. He found himself thinking about her with a complex intensity. His thoughts formed questions. What was she doing now? Had she a garden? Was she gathering the final few dusty potatoes from a small, raised, straw-covered berm? Was she hanging out her laundry fresh and white on a piece of icy rope? Was she talking, over tea, to her sister, her mother? Was she singing to herself? And his own presence, what he had promised to tell her. How could he go through with it, and also, how could he not?
Eva Kalb, 17 Eulenstrasse. Fidelis stood before the blond-brick walkway, frowning at the frail cast-iron arbor that marked the entrance. The ironwork was threaded with the tough overgrowth of climbing rose stalks, leafless and almost black, huge thorns white at the tip. The walk wasn't swept and papers littered the front entry. The rest of the block was neatly, fanatically well-kept even in the chaos of defeat. Fidelis found the neglect of Eva Kalb's house disturbing, perhaps indicating a death in the family already. His eyes filled with tears and he pinched the bridge of his nose--the readiness of his emotions, even in public, horrified him. There was some movement behind a sheer curtain in the front window of the house. Fidelis knew he had been seen, and so, breathing deeply and shrugging himself into a tougher shell, he stepped forward, onto the bricks of the walkway.
She opened the door almost immediately at his knock, so he knew she had been the one at the window, watching him. He knew this was Eva from the picture in his best friend's locket, which he'd kept. Even now, in the tiny breast pocket of his jacket, the cheap vermeil keepsake made a hot oval lump. Inside the miniature frame was set the hand-colored picture of a woman who looked both capable and delicate, her mouth a sensitive line grooved at the corners by sensuality and shrewdness. Of deepest green, her slanted, indecipherable Magyar eyes now shocked Fidelis with their open, searching gaze. The trained immobility that had helped him to survive the last few years cracked when she looked straight at him. Schnell, die Wahrheit, she said with a preemptive hostility that caused him to obey her directly and to state what he had come to tell: Her lover, her betrothed, her husband-to-be, Johannes, with whom Fidelis had endured all that could be endured, was dead.
Directly afterward, Fidelis wasn't sure whether he thought or actually said these words, but it did seem to him that sounds had come from his mouth. Although he didn't hear them, Eva understood--she took the meaning of the sounds into herself with a huge, unsteady breath. That cruel air seemed to dizzy her and her intelligent face lost focus, her expression snapped away, so that Fidelis saw her, for one moment, in the state of a naked being accepting pain. Then Eva Kalb slumped toward him, hands clasped, face calm, in an attitude of prayer. As he caught her and folded her carefully against himself, he understood with a visceral surprise that she was pregnant. Later, privately, Fidelis came to believe that the child had actually knocked from her womb at that moment, its motion touching the helping palm of his hand.
Fidelis lifted his best friend's fiancée into his arms and stood in the doorway of the house, holding the woman effortlessly, as he would have held a sleeping child. He could have stood there with her for hours. The strength required to hold her was a minute portion of the strength he actually possessed. For he was one of those born in the phenomenon of strength. He'd always had it, from the beginning, and each year it increased.
The foregoing is excerpted from The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
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