Since I wrote a couple of short stories last year, I thought I might as well share them 😉 This is the first one in what will hopefully become a series – Enjoy 😉
A Gift for Hannah
Flakes settled on sidewalks and roads, where they merged with salt, dirt and old cigarette stubs to form a blanket of gray mush. Cars honked at one another as their drivers tried to find someone to blame for the chaos. At the parking meter, a woman was shouting at her husband, who had forgotten to change the tires and was going to make them late for dinner. Music was blaring from the loudspeakers of the shops that lined the streets. Both the H&M and the Müller were playing Silent Night, but they obviously hadn’t coordinated it, since the H&M’s version had already reached quaking shepherds and Müller’s was still praising the holy infant so tender and mild. The discordant result didn’t strike Christoph as particularly silent or holy.
People were rushing past him, clutching their bags in one hand and their shopping lists in the other. Christoph remembered a time like that, when Monika had written him detailed instructions on which gifts his relatives deemed acceptable and where the cheapest place to get them was. Then, five years into their marriage, Monika had unsuspectingly sent his great-aunt Charlotte, a devout teetotaler, a bottle of Merlot. His great-aunt had been mortally offended, sent the gift back, and refused to accept any kind of apology, and Monika, equally offended, had decided that his snobbish family could damned well buy their own presents. Christoph and Monika’s resulting shouting match had woken Hannah, who had finally fallen asleep after a long and strenuous day, and they had sheepishly come to their senses, shared the bottle of Merlot between them, and rocked Hannah back and forth in her crib until her eyes fluttered closed once more. A bittersweet ache came over Christoph at the memory and he turned up the collar of his coat against the incoming snow.
As he limped further away from the main road, the ground beneath him changed from gray to white. The music started to fade, giving way to chatter and laughter. Booths had been set up everywhere and their occupants were clamoring for people to buy their wares and survey their artwork. Children were running around and shrieking, while the adults stood huddled in small clusters, clasping mugs of mulled wine in their gloved hands.
Christoph felt that he didn’t belong here, yet at the same time, everything was so devastatingly familiar. The dinosaur statue in front of the Museum of Natural History was wearing a cap of snow. When she was six, Hannah had tried to climb it when Monika wasn’t watching and chipped her tooth when she fell. Hannah had howled, but that didn’t deter her from trying again. Thankfully, she had acquired more skill by the time her permanent teeth grew in. The dinosaur had since been painted brown – it had once been something that Christoph said was green but Monika swore was blue – but it still looked very much the same.
As did everything else. Hidden behind a large fir, now covered in twinkling lights, was Dani’s, possibly the world’s best kept secret when it came to obtaining pizza for birthday parties or late-night Germany’s Next Top Model marathons. The ice cream parlor that had those big strawberry sundaes Hannah had liked so much had been shuttered for the winter and there was a vendor selling gingerbread and roasted almonds in front of that ridiculously expensive place where they had bought the dress for her tenth-grade ball last year. Children had their noses glued to the window of the sweetshop and their breaths painted foggy landscapes on the glass as they stared at the assortment of peppermints, caramel drops, candy canes and pralines. Their parents eventually showed up to drag them away and tears stained pink little cheeks, only to fade again at the promise of cookie dough waiting to be baked at home. Reality blurred with memory and Christoph turned away, dragging his leg after him.
The pavement beneath the snow gave way to cobblestones. He kept walking, aimlessly, until the noise of the market faded into something more peaceful and quiet. The alleys were emptier here, devoid of people, and the only decoration he could see was a shabby straw star someone had taped to their door. Behind it, somebody was playing piano, something classical. Maybe Dvořák. He and Monika never had been any good at recognizing composers, something Hannah had continuously teased them about, but they had always loved to hear her play. He stood rooted to the spot, listening to the melody soar as it changed from major to minor. Whoever the pianist was, they were good. The music was filled with pain and sorrow, but it was a good kind of pain, a good kind of sorrow, the hopeful kind that made you feel again and realize that you could feel, that you were capable of emotion. He listened, captivated, oblivious to the snow soaking the cuffs of his pants. The musician finished the piece and started another, then another. Christoph listened, as though in a trance. His bad leg was starting to hurt again, but the ache was familiar and, like the music, almost soothing. He didn’t know how long he stood there, but the pianist kept playing, as if aware that there was someone listening outside.
When the music finally ended, it was abrupt, and Christoph was hit with a feeling of loss so insurmountable that he didn’t know if he could bear it. He stood rooted to the spot, hoping that the music would come back, that that which had brought so much emotion, so much pain, pleasure and joy, wasn’t gone, out of his reach forever. The alley stayed silent though, the only sign of movement being the snow that fell on the illuminated patches beneath the windows. He watched the flakes settle with their companions and waited, but the music didn’t return.
The church bells tolled, striking quarter to eight. Their final clang resonated through the air and then it was silent again, like there had never been anything but quiet in the world. It was late, Christoph suddenly realized, and that meant the shops were about to close.
He limped through the snow with a newly found sense of urgency. His leg was really aching now and it took all his strength to navigate across the cobblestones without slipping. You’ll have to push through, the doctors had told him after the accident. Your leg will probably never fully heal, but if you want to walk again, you’ll have to push through. He hadn’t needed their encouragement then – the pain had been the punishment he deserved and craved – but he was reminded of it now, and their words kept him going until he reached the shop, which was exactly where he remembered it being.
The light was still on. Someone had hung garlands in the windows and they seemed to beckon Christoph, maybe unforgiving, yet understanding all the same. He felt light, lighter than he had in months. It was a feeling so unfamiliar that he almost did not recognize it for what it was. Hope.
He pushed down on the door handle, a gust of warm air greeting him as he did. It smelled faintly of oranges and old paper, and the bell clanged as Christoph stepped inside.
Monika was sitting at the kitchen table when he got back. She stood up when the door opened, looking frail and vulnerable in her washed-out blue nightgown.
“You’re back,” she whispered. He had promised he would be home for dinner.
“I didn’t know if you were okay. I thought something might have happened.”
“I’m sorry,” he repeated. “I’m so sorry, Monika, I lost track of time.”
He gathered her into his arms and held her while she cried, rocking her back and forth like he had once done with Hannah.
“I got something for her,” he finally said. He drew out the music and spread it out on the table in front of them. “A gift for Hannah.”
She looked at it, her fingers tracing the notes, tears blurring her eyes.
“She would have loved this,” she said.
They looked at each other, more directly than they had dared to since that day, and Christoph reached out to grasp her hand. It didn’t matter that there was nobody left in the house who could read the music, that the piano hadn’t been touched in almost a year. What mattered was that it was almost Christmas. And that, after almost a year, he was finally able to cry.