In the dream she could only see the hems of her over-skirt and petticoat dragging and snagging through the mud and pine mast, catching on the points of her shoes, making her stumble as she tried to run higher and higher up the mountain path. There was no other sound, no other perspective — just the thick damask cloth and lace of the once-fine garments that she grasped desperately and hiked over her knees to give her more speed. Look up, look up, Glika commanded the girl caught in a nightmare. And finally, she did.
Ahead of her rose a silvery beech tree, spring leaves small and sparse. Heaped against the trunk was a teepee of twigs, sticks, grass, and brush. A wooden plank was nailed on the bark above, aping the look of the bars of a cross. She could see faint shapes of men — her neighbors, her friends — pointing at her, leaping and shouting, their faces twisted with hate. One of them held a flaming torch. “Witch, witch,” assaulted her ears out of the muffled silence. A hundred throats screamed, “Burn the witch, burn her, send her to hell….”
Glika started awake and sat up, gasping for breath. She put her palms to her temples and tried not to cry. She pulled the blanket more snuggly around her shoulders. It was spring, but very cold at night in the Hrubý Jesenik mountains. And they didn’t dare light a fire.
Glika slid her eyes to her right, almost afraid to see if her younger sister, Eliška remained at her side. But yes, she could see by the moonlight that the red-headed girl slept bundled in a coat, boats, and scarf, wrapped in two blankets, her head resting on her pack.
Eli suddenly opened her eyes, stared directly into Glika’s own. “What time is it?” she asked softly with a husky voice.
“Close to dawn,” Glika whispered. She shivered.
“Glika, we can’t go on like this,” Eli said, rising to sit as well, clutching her covers.
“We have to,” she answered.
“I’m sure one of the families you helped, like the Hausmanns….”
“But you helped Tinka, when no one else could or would. You are the miracle teacher of Ŝumperk. All those children — we called them idiots and retards — but you told us to treat them with respect. You said you could teach them and you did. Tinka loves you. Mrs. Hausmann worships you. Why do we have to keep hiding in the mountains?”
“I’ve explained it to you Eliška, you’ve seen it yourself.” Glika’s arms and legs ached with tension, her heart thumped rapidly. Every day it was harder and harder to convince Eli, to keep her alive. “This whole country is part of the Reich now. They want all the Jews removed. Everyone is gone, now, except us.”
“You say Mummy and Poppa were sent to Poland, and died there, but how do you know? You say, the camp at Theresienstadt is a trick, but Zuzka told me, she had post-cards from her family there, and it was a nice camp. She’s my best friend, and now she’s there too. Why can’t we go join her?”
Glika rose to her knees and leaned over, fumbled for her canvas duffle with her stiff wool-covered hands. She glanced up at the silhouettes of spruce boughs etched in ink above them, then at the branching shadows as they writhed in moonlight on the rocky ground. A cloud seemed to slide across Eli’s pale features. “I know these mountains, the highlands, these forests,” Glika repeated for the umpteenth time. It sounded less confident now. “I used to stay for days up here, I know every path, every rock, every cave….”
“Where they burned the witches in the late 1600s, from Mohelnice to Zlaté Hory. I know. I used to love your stories of the Boblig Witch Trials, now they scare me.”
Glika moved close to her sister, embraced her with one arm. She softened her tone. “We’ll get out of this,” she affirmed. “We’ll survive this. I still have some bread and potatoes that I pilfered from the spa. I’ll set traps again for rabbits and wood grouse….”
Eli pushed her away. “I want to sleep in a bed. I want to be with my friends. Why can’t we use the mountain trails to go into Poland, to find our parents?”
“Because they’re dead, Eli, they’re dead….” Glika was thirty years old, but felt like a child all at once. Just a week before, she’d still been filled with angry self-assurance that they couldn’t kill her, they couldn’t catch her. These mountains, this land of her birth, the spirits of the men and women burned alive, would protect her. She started to feel ashamed and stupid. Maybe, Eli is right…. “Let’s get something to eat, and move on, and we’ll talk about this later,” she said out loud.
“Please, Glika, please, let’s turn ourselves in,” Eliška begged her, lacing the fingers of her ragged gloves in front of her.
Hours later, Glika checked the position of the pale sun veiled by a thin mist. She felt empty and exhausted. They were moving southwest, back towards home. The gneiss and granite bald spots that protruded through the grasses glinted with specks of ice. Here and there, as they trudged through patches of meadow they could see purple bellflowers, blue lady slippers, and white alpine bells. When they entered the woods once more, the spruce were crowded here and there by dwarf pines that had been imported decades ago, and were overtaking the native trees. “But the Norwegian spruce isn’t really native, either,” she said out loud. “Look there, a couple of oaks and a linden tree … we’re in one of the older stands, maybe virgin forest….” She turned around briefly and caught Eli’s irritated look; she almost smiled when she faced front once more, but a sense of grief and failure overwhelmed her.
Eli was petite and slender and looked younger than her eighteen years. She trudged bowed over under her blanket-wrapped supplies, her green scarf knotted under her chin. Her man’s trousers had once belonged to a neighbor; stolen off the clothesline and altered to at least fit enough so they didn’t slide off her small hips. Her hair gleamed like copper where it curled over her forehead and hung in a single braid down the middle of her back. Her eyes were on her scuffed and cracked boots when she bumped into Glika, who had suddenly stopped. “What is it?” she asked, wondering if they were close to home yet. “Where are we?”
“I….” she started, but instead was frozen by what she saw in a clearing to their right.
“It’s going to be a bonfire,” Eli said as she came to her sister’s side and gazed ahead, following Glika’s line of sight. “Isn’t tomorrow April 30th? It’s the burning of the witches!” She sounded excited again, as if everything were normal, her memories overtaking her. “We used to have so much fun.”
Glika fixed her attention on the tall beech tree, the twigs, brush, branches, and grass twisted together into a teepee shape that was leaned against the silver-white trunk. “I wonder who they’re going to burn?” she asked, cynically, without thinking.
Eliška hit an elbow into her sister’s side. “Stop it, just stop it. You know they make an effigy of the witch and burn it at sundown, and then we roast sausages and sing and dance. We burn the witch of winter, and welcome the spring!”
Glika shook her head. “No, no, I don’t know,” she muttered, the images from her nightmare twisting her stomach. “We’d better get away from here.”
“But you promised, you said we were going back, right?”
Glika raised her chin and looked at the patches of sky, still covered in a caul of mist. “Yes, Eli, I’m taking you back to Mrs. Hausmann’s so you can turn yourself in,” she said in a monotone. She again tried not to cry. She’d argued and argued with Eli all morning, and had finally given up, her resolve weakened, her self-doubt mounting. “I can only pray you’re right.”
“Of course I am!” Eli said, too loudly. “Mrs. Hausmann will help us, I know she will. She can talk to the Germans and explain, and they’ll take us to the camp.”
“Eli,” she tried once more. “Listen to me … the Germans are taking children like Tinka, they’re taking them away and killing them.”
“Be quiet, be quiet, be quiet….” Eli nearly shouted, putting her hands to her ears and stomping in a half circle.
“I specialized in helping children, and I kept in touch with other therapists, like Anna Freud in Vienna. They told me what was happening.” But it was useless. Eli wouldn’t listen. Mrs. Hausmann hadn’t listened either, a year before, when she displayed her Nazi flags and stuck out her arm and yelled “Heil Hitler” ecstatically welcoming her liberators into their Moravian town.
“Mrs. Hausmann loves Tinka more than anything,” Eli said, her chest heaving. She lowered her hands into fuzzy fists that hung at her sides.
“I know she does, I know she does….” Glika embraced her sister in a tight hug. After a moment, she said, “Eli, listen, I’ll take you to the edge of the Dusek and Hausmann farms, and then you’re going to have to go in yourself.”
“I’m not turning myself in with you. I can’t do it. I think the Germans will shoot us, or worse. We tried to hide. We didn’t go with the others when we were ordered to. I think they’ll make an example of us. Hang us, or….”
“Burn us alive? Like your precious witches? You promised me….”
“I said I’d take you back, not that I would….”
Eli’s cheeks blotched. Her blue eyes flared. “You’re abandoning me, you’re leaving me.”
Glika took hold of one of her own brown braids and pulled, hard, trying to get herself under control. “No, Eli, you’re too big, old enough to make your own decisions. I can’t force you to stay with me in the Jeseniky. I want to live. I want you to live. But I can’t force you to….”
Eliška’s mouth became a thin, blanched line. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll survive in a nice family camp, while you freeze to death up here, or get eaten by wolves.”
Glika didn’t try to control herself then; the tears rolled over her face, making tracks through the dirt, dripping from her chin. She rubbed a coat sleeve across her cheeks, under her nose. “Okay, let’s go,” she said, glancing one more time at the pyre in the clearing. “If we keep moving, we should be in the Ŝumperk area by noon tomorrow.”