Hidden among the StarsBy: Melanie Dobson
For thy power standeth not in multitude nor thy might in strong men:
for thou art a God of the afflicted, an helper of the oppressed . . .
a saviour of them that are without hope.
JUDITH 9:11 (APOCRYPHA)
LAKE HALLSTATT, AUSTRIA
The blade of a shovel, cutting through frosted grass. That’s what she remembered most from the spring of 1938. In the year that followed, on the darkest of nights, she could almost hear the whisper of digging again. The sound of Max Dornbach calling her name.
“Annika?” His confident voice bled into the fluid sounds of that evening, but her heart took on a rhythm of its own, twirling like the feathery seeds of dandelion caught in an Alpine storm.
How did Max know she was hidden behind the pines?
When she peeked between the branches, he was looking straight at her. Reluctantly, or at least attempting to appear reluctant, she stepped out from her haven, into the cast of blue moonlight, Vati’s winter coat buttoned over her calico chemise.
Temperatures had dipped to near freezing again, but Max wore a linen shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Strength swelled under those sleeves, arms that had rowed a wooden fuhr boat around Lake Hallstatt nearly every summer of his seventeen years, carving his muscles like the fallen birch her father liked to shape into benches and chairs.
“What are you doing out here?” he asked, though she should have been the one questioning him. He’d awakened her when he snuck by the cottage she and her father shared in the woods.
At first she’d thought it was Vati who crept by her window, on his way to the tavern, but then, in the beam of light, she’d seen the threads of blond in Max’s brown hair, the shovel resting against his shoulder as if it were a rifle readied for battle. She liked to think he’d purposely rustled the branches because he’d missed her these winter months as much as she’d missed him.
“You woke me.” Annika took another step toward him. “I didn’t know you’d returned from Vienna.”
“My parents wanted a holiday.”
The Dornbachs visited at Christmastime, but rarely in the spring while Max was studying in Gymnasium. Unlike Annika’s father, his parents thought an education with books and such was important.
“I’ll tell Vati you’re home,” she said. “He can light the furnace.”
“It’s not necessary.” Max stomped the heel of his boot onto the shovel to remove another pile of earth. She imagined the rust-colored clumps yawning after their hibernation this winter, shivering in the frigid air. “My father already lit it.”
She hadn’t realized Herr Dornbach could do such things on his own, but then again, even after living fifteen years—her entire life—on this estate, Annika knew little about Max’s parents. Neither Herr nor Frau Dornbach bothered to befriend someone beneath their rank. Certainly not their caretaker’s girl.
Annika scanned this knobby plot of land, harbored between the pines. “Why are you digging at night?”
When he shook his head, refusing to trust her with this, her heart wrenched. She’d never told another soul any of his secrets. Not about the dent in Herr Dornbach’s motorboat four summers past or the gash in Max’s leg that she’d helped wrap or the evening he’d cried when he lost Pascal, the pet fox he’d rescued from the forest.
Pascal now rested peacefully in this piece of earth along with numerous rabbits, four cats, two squirrels, and a goldfinch, each grave marked by a pyramid of stones that Max collected from the cliffs on Hoher Sarstein, the mountain towering over his family’s estate.
When they were younger, Annika had helped Max conduct a service for each animal, solemnly crossing herself as they transferred the care for these animals over to Gott. Once a laugh slipped from her lips, as they’d been reciting the words from Job.
“But as for me I know that my Redeemer liveth, And at last he will stand upon the earth: And after my skin, even this body, is destroyed, Then without my flesh shall I see God. . . .”
They’d been burying a beetle named Charlie in the dirt, and the thought of this creature standing before a heavenly being, his six spindly legs trembling in awe, made Annika laugh. Looking back, it wasn’t funny—irreverent, even—but she was only eight and quite nervous at both the thought of death and the unknowns surrounding the afterlife. All she could see was a frightened Charlie, feeling as small as she would feel under the gaze of the almighty God.