Saturday, August 18, 2012

Uprooted: Part XIX -- Escape

These Saturday blog entries have been devoted to a serial novel titled Uprooted, a story about Ralph Kand, a young crippled man from Estonia during those difficult and challenging years from 1939-1945. It's a story of alienation, and of the relentless pursuit of freedom and a homeland.


Escape

Blankets of snow had descended on Schrunz making the mountains more beautiful than ever. The ski resorts remained operational but there was no bustle of enthusiasm in the town for what was happening. Ralph continued to set up his speakers and pour strains of Finlandia and Beethoven up the mountainsides when he was able, leaning into the balcony raining sucking his black cigarettes, lost in it all.

During his time here he had found others from Eastern Europe who were not enthusiastic about the approaching Red Army. And as luck would have it they managed to find a guide who promised to lead them through the mountains into Switzerland. It would cost them nearly all their savings but Ralph was willing to pay that price for the freedom he longed for and prepared for yet another exodus, this one a treacherous trek through the mountains.

"We have to go at night," their guide told them, "and it should be when there is cloud cover. The moon can make it bright as day in the thinner air of the slopes."

There were eleven who had been given instructions to meet at a lodgeon the westernmost part of town, but only nine had arrived -- a family of five, a young couple, Ralph and an older man who looked tired.

"My sisters were afraid," he said. "They're not coming."

Ralph mumbled a disparaging remark under his breath and shook his head.

Their guide was a wiry, grim-faced man in a white parka. He looked at the small company of followers and noted that none were dressed in white. "Thank God there's no moon tonight," he said. He then held out his hand toward Ralph.

"What."

"The others have paid already."

Ralph pulled an envelope from his pocket. "It's all there," he said with little enthusiasm.

"Time to go,"  the guide announced. Then looking at Ralph again, "You up for this?"

"I've been dragging this bum leg my whole life. Since I was three. I can probably climb better than you. And I'm a helluva skier."

The guide trudged forward without comment  and the party followed his lead. Every now and then he would pause to let the laggards catch up.The young couple from Lithuania was surprisingly slow on the climb.

The children in the group were young teens and seemed hardy enough but when they began chattering the guide hushed them and said it was imperative that they not make noise.

The trail they were on came to a ridge and their guide quietly gave instructions to be still, that there was a road they would have to cross. He would go forward and make sure all was clear. Ralph had a bad feeling about this but could do nothing and let it play out. The guide's head appeared between two mounds of snow and he ushered them forward with a eave of his hand.

"Hurry," he whispered harshly.

The group crossed the road and found a trail across the road up through the trees. The mountain continued to rise with menacing steepness. Nearly everyone was breathing deeply now, and pauses became increasingly frequent.

"Can we stop for a bit?" the Lithuanian man asked.

"Do you want to turn back?" their guide replied.

There was no response.

"Stay here," the guide commanded quietly. I will see how far we are from the crest. There's another road to cross up ahead. 

The Latvian family was huddled together for warmth beneath a network of branches amidst the trees. Ralph, wonderin how there could still be road this far up the mountain, began shivering against the cold. He didn't have a parka nor a family to press against.

Just then the silhouette of a man appeared from above, but it was not their guide in the white parka and Ralph saw that he was holding a rifle. The other man with neither family nor spouse immediately broke into a run down through the trees. The rifle barked twice and the man fell forward into the snow.

The soldier shouted something in German and Ralph knew there was nothing to do but go along with it. Two more soldiers appeared to lead the group up to the ridge where two vehicles wearing Nazi insignias were waiting.


CONTINUED

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