ON THE DAY AFTER Judge Holgert’s news, the flow of refugees through Rundschau ceased. One of our villagers went out to investigate; he discovered that overnight, armed Canton Guards had cordoned the Linden-Rundschau road, sealing off nearby forests and blocking every intersecting byway. Since this was the only road into our district—surrounded as we are by mountains—we were as tightly sealed as a corked bottle.
If this quarantine’s success had been the will of God, we might have waited out the plague without further alarm. But the Lord ordained otherwise.
In those days, in the attic where my little brother Thomas and I slept, we overheard an exchange between my mother, who wept with terror, and my father, who at first only sighed. (Although I’m eighty-eight years old, my memory of these things remains sharp.) Suddenly my father said, “How can we sit here like rabbits in a hole, shutting the whole world out?”
“What else would you do?” my mother cried. “Go to Linden and catch your death along with everyone there? Don’t think of it! I won’t let you! And neither will the guards.”
Father, unlike his usual self, did not snap back at her. He sighed. “Oh, God—what indeed can we do?”
September’s final day came and went with nothing having passed through the cordon—neither refugee nor rumor. Already folks in Rundschau raised their hopes that the plague might pass us by.
The next morning—Wednesday, October first—a woman with disheveled clothing and hair came running into our village. It was Bertha Zellermann from Waldheim, a sheep farm high in the mountains. She was the wife of Zellermann the hunter, who often came into our village. Bertha seemed out of her mind, capable only of sobbing.
After much trying, Mama Bremer, the miller’s wife, managed to calm her enough to utter anything coherent. Amid tears, Bertha spilled her terrible news: the plague had reached Waldheim.
Here is what we managed to piece together from her words. Ten days earlier, their little settlement—three dwellings that housed sixteen people—was visited by a family of distant Zellermann relatives fleeing the plague, having come with their cart all the way from Geneva. Zellermann the hunter took them in. Within three days, he and two of his sons (Kurt and Klaus—I knew them both, and Klaus was my age), as well as all three of the new arrivals, were bedridden in a plague-induced delirium. Zellermann was the first to die. Very soon the plague spread to the others there.
By the end of the week, which had passed so quietly in Rundschau, the new widow, nearly beside herself with grief, took off running down the trail. She did not look back at the terrible sight of Waldheim, where the farm’s dogs howled, and the unfed sheep were bleating. There had been time and strength to bury only three of the plague’s victims; fifteen other bodies still remained unburied inside the three houses.
We in Rundschau were all dumbfounded by her story. Our last hope of being spared came crashing down. The armed cordon around the district had not saved us.
Now there would be no distinction between “us” and “them,” between inside and outside. The plague was everywhere. Already its black mask seemed to stare into all our windows.
Despite our terror, the village of Rundschau did not turn Bertha away. Anna-Katerina Krause, a wizened old midwife living by herself on the edge of village, agreed to take her in.
My father that day gave me permission to go into the mountains. I wanted to see Lothar, who at first light had taken his flock to graze in the last autumn meadows. I found him at our favorite spot along the Kreuzbach brook, where the grass was still green. To Lothar I blurted out everything I’d heard about Waldheim. His eyes seemed almost to pop from his head.
I watched him closely. Lothar glanced restlessly over the sheep; they grazed around the Kreuzbach waterfall, blissfully unaware of the plague. He looked up at well-chosen spots higher up where his three shepherd dogs, of good Alpine breed, stood guard over the meadow.
Finally Lothar spoke. With embarrassment, he confessed his urge to take off running from Rundschau and not look back. But where could he go?
Lothar looked at me. His right hand made the sign of the cross, spanning head and chest and shoulders. I realized he was preparing himself to die.
The two of us sat side by side under a solitary beech tree on the yellowing Alpine slope. Lothar and I were both twenty years old. Generally speaking, we were no strangers to death. Even in the best of times, there were many in Rundschau who died young, leaving to their friends a sad experience of the inevitability of loss: “Yes, we used to play with Franz Zitterbau, and—well, then he died.” At age thirteen, Franz had fallen off a roof and broken his back.
Lothar and I had many such memories. Karl Buntmann, having gone into the mountains to gather wood, died in an avalanche at age twelve. Dora Schneider died of scarlet fever at seven; Lieschen Schneebau and Kaspar Licht, both six, died of smallpox. Alfons Lemke, nine, and Michael Dormeier, fifteen, drowned in the Lün River. Any country boy can tell you a dozen stories like this.
Let me say also that Lothar and I had given ourselves plenty of opportunities to meet a similar fate; only recently had we grown beyond the age at which boys easily part with life simply out of stupidity or derring-do.
But today was different. We felt ourselves truly staring death in the face for the first time. And it stared back—giving us time to realize the inevitable, to appreciate the gravity of this moment, and to pass through every stage from false hope to acceptance of the inescapable. Our hour had come to settle accounts with this world, to come to grips with life’s end. As our brief final moments flowed by, we had to assess how well we’d lived. After all, we would soon be held accountable.
I felt neither fear nor self-pity—only a silent resignation. The good Lord had seen fit to grant each of us only two decades of life, but by his grace, they were all good years. Lothar and I should be grateful.
In such moments, one’s senses become particularly acute. Sounds and smells seized my awareness. I discerned and stared at distinct blades among the meadow grass, and separate bubbling water-drops in the brook, and individual leaves on a yellowing larch nearby. People are right when they say the sun is brighter, the air sweeter, and life more beautiful just before you die.
Then all sorts of nonsense crept into my head. My imagination painted images of graves and funeral processions on Rundschau’s streets. I could almost see fiery reflections, as if torch-bearing Canton Guards had come to burn the plague-ridden village along with all its inhabitants. In that orange glow, bodies lay on the ground with red-spotted cheeks and lumps on their throats. The bodies were people I knew well. Judge Holgert. Mama Bittner. The blacksmith Karl Reinecke. The carpenter Joachim Vogel. Father Theodor Riechmann, our parish priest.
And Lothar Lange.
Under the beech boughs, I turned to him beside me and thought, What devilry could this be?
Judging by his appearance, Lothar was also out of sorts. He sat frowning, leaning back against the tree’s trunk.
Flashing suddenly in my mind was this: Who’ll get it first—him or me? Ashamed of this unworthy thought, I silently asked the Lord for forgiveness. I, too, made the sign of the cross.
In that moment Lothar looked at me. His blue eyes grew dark. I sensed some daring plan brewing in his head.
“Waldheim—it’s not far,” he said slowly. The farm that Bertha Zellermann fled was in fact a two-hour walk through the woods up the side of Mount Tannenberg, and perhaps a half-day by the easier roundabout route, crossing mostly gentle slopes.
“Can you watch the sheep?” Lothar asked me.
I nodded in bewilderment.
Lothar squeezed my arm, jumped up, whistled for one of his dogs, then set out straight for the ancient pines covering Mount Tannenberg.
Over the many decades since then, my memory has returned often to the resolve I’d witnessed that moment in Lothar. It was of a special kind—the resolve of someone who, having won a battle with his inner self, moves to act quickly out of fear that should his doubts return, he might no longer have strength to overcome them.
Glimpsing Lothar’s bold resolve was not enough—after he’d passed from my sight—to inspire my own better thoughts during the hours I was watching his sheep. My resignation deepened into grief, especially as I recalled the expectations for my life that I’d come to embrace—particularly in regard to Veronika Genscher, the weaver’s daughter. Within just a couple of years—after I’d proven myself to be a real provider, able to support a household, according to the custom for such things in Rundschau—Veronika was to be my bride.
Not until evening approached, as the sun was ready to set behind the snow-covered ridge in the west, did Lothar finally return to the Kreuzbach waterfall. He drove before him a flock of sheep.
“Forty-seven head,” he announced to me. He looked tired, but smiled. His arms were smeared to the elbows in something that looked like mud.
Lothar collapsed on the ground next to me. The filth on his arms, I realized, was sheep manure.
After catching his breath, he explained that he’d taken the long way back in returning from the farm at Waldheim.
Well, I told myself, watch and learn, Arnold Enke, harness-maker’s son: while you wallow in despair, your friend takes action like a man.
The sheep he’d rescued had bunched themselves up into a solid mass, herded closely by Lothar’s dog. They looked dirty and scraggly in comparison to our Rundschau flock. With darkness nearing, we needed to lead all these sheep into their night’s keeping, but Lothar sat still. I saw tears in his eyes.
He explained more. He’d entered the Waldheim farm, opened the pens, and tended to the sheep, all the while trying not to look toward the houses with their corpses within. Two sheep, he discovered, were unable to walk. “I had no choice but to leave them there,” he said sadly. “All the rest are here. To be honest, I thought it would be worse.”
He stripped off his clothes and jumped into the brook to wash himself.
Could this autumn-cold water cleanse away not just the filth but also any infection Lothar might have caught at the farm? Was he crazy to risk his life by walking into the plague’s den for the sake of some miserable sheep?
But Lothar was thinking bigger. Splashing out of the icy water to where his clothes lay, he called to me. “Maybe now Frau Bertha won’t end up a penniless beggar—on top of her other misfortunes.”
I reminded Lothar, however, that the villagers might be furious at his bringing among them these sheep coming straight from a plague-ravaged farm.
Lothar agreed. “It’s too risky.” But he had a plan. We would drive the Waldheim sheep this evening to an abandoned farm half a league from Rundschau. The following mornings, when Lothar drove his own flock from the village, he would make a detour to pick up Frau Bertha’s sheep from their secret new home, then drop them off again on the way back. Later, he could disappear until nightfall, spending time with the hidden sheep to clean and comb their wool.
“Arnie,” he declared solemnly, “this must be kept secret.”