A sense of emptiness came over me the moment I took my seat in the cafe, like the feeling I’d lost something or had walked through a door without knowing why.
The waitress brought me a menu. It’s cover of fresco wall paintings framed the face of their female proprietor. And my memory returned.
I smiled at the young lady. “Pardon me, but I must leave!”
Rushing from the cafe into the busy streets of Vienna, I boarded a tram. Twenty minutes later I got off at the road near the famous ‘Top Kino’ cafe.
At eight in the evening, a gorgeous twilight painted the sky, and I walked to a store front that was closed.
I asked the dealer at the shop next door, “Is that place next to yours an antique store?”
“It is,” he answered. “But it’s closed. Wilhelm always closes shop around eight in the evening.”
“When will it open again?” I asked.
“In a week,” he answered. “He plans to make a very special visit.”
“When is he leaving?”
“Tomorrow morning on the train from Wien Central. But why so many questions?”
“I must buy an item from him; it’s most urgent.”
“I’m afraid you’re too late.”
“But there must be a way,” I pleaded.
“The only way is to meet him at the station, tomorrow.”
“The one to Salzburg.”
“And what’s your name?” he asked.
“I’m Fredrick,” I answered and shook his hand.
“Danke!” I thanked him in German as I departed.
That night, I hardly slept. I kept seeing the hands of a ticking watch, glowing before me, while I lay awake and in my restless dreams.
At first light I put my backpack on and took a metro to the station so I could catch Wilhelm before he left.
The train was almost empty, and after searching two carriages I saw the man I’d met by the antique shop.
“Guten Morgen, Wilhelm!” The old man studied me through spectacles when I addressed him.
“I was at your antique shop yesterday evening.”
“Ah, I recollect! Fredrick, isn’t it?” He focused slowly, like a man who hadn’t had his first cup of coffee.
“Wilhelm, there’s an item I’d like to buy from your shop.”
“Which item might that be?”
“The portrait of the Nazi woman, dated 1944.”
He didn’t answer.
“Wilhelm, I’d like to buy that portrait. I’ll pay whatever you ask for it.”
He kept silent and stared.
The train pulled away to the howl of a lonely whistle.” I hadn’t bought a ticket, but now I was committed!
After a full minute, he pulled a faded picture from a large crate he carried. “Is this the Nazi woman you speak of?”
Her deep ocean eyes washed my mind. Her haunting beauty conveyed the restlessness and pain of war. The headscarf she wore, the old tweed coat, the faint smile on her lips, her stare…. Her eyes seemed to look through me. Her gaze had captured me when I first passed his antique shop. As I sat in the cafe, I realized the woman was the mirror image of my Anne, the girl I’d come to Vienna to see. The portrait even felt like Anne. I realize how absurd that sounds, but the likeness was so striking, I felt compelled to buy the painting.
“Is this the woman in the work of art that you wish to buy?” He asked again.
“Yes. How much do you ask for it?”
“It’s not for sale,” he said calmly, stressing each word to give it meaning.
“But I need this, ‘Wilhelm!”
“I cannot sell it!”
“But why not?”
“Why do you want it so badly?” he countered.
“Because in her I find Anne, the girlfriend I have lost!”
Wilhelm, looked at me. “What is this about Anne?”
“It may sound absurd, but I feel a connection between this Nazi woman and Anne! I came to Vienna to visit Anne, yet she eludes me!”
“Your story is not my concern,” he said as the train entered a station.
“Why is this portrait so precious to you?” I asked as we got off and waited for another train.
“She’s my grandmother,” he answered. Beside this old worn picture, the portrait is all I have of her.”
“All you have?” I asked searching his eyes.
“It’s a long story.”
“Tell me, Wilhelm. We have time.”
Wilhelm looked down the tracts as if to collect his thoughts and sighed. “The sketch was drawn the day the war broke out. Freda, my grandmother was in her twenties. She left home with the artist who drew her picture and never returned. A few days later she sent us a letter telling us she was in Salzburg, where she spent the rest of her life. She died there in 1962. All that remains of her is the picture I showed you, the portrait and the message she wrote on the back of the canvas, “My love is as timeless as this sketch of me by Michael.”
“Michael, her lover, fought for Germany and died a martyr’s death.” Wilhelm continued, “The sketch changed her reputation as a deserter and a tramp. She had a child by the martyr who painted her portrait which is hailed as a timeless work of a art. So tell me, how can I sell this painting to you? What would you do in my place?”
I was speechless.
He continued, “I have no family left–but one, and before my death, I must give it to the one soul who may value it as I do. Come to Salzburg where grandmother and mother sleep. Might you know the date grandmother died?” he asked.
“Of course not. How could I?”
“She died July 19th.”
“Come with me and pay homage to the lady.”
“Very well.” What more could I do? I was his captive now.
We boarded another train and were in Salzburg two hours later. After spending the night at a hotel, Wilhelm and I rented a cab and went to the cemetery, where the gatekeeper helped us to find the tomb of Freda Herbst and her daughter. There, in glorious sunlight, Wilhelm took the portrait from its crate and held it over the tomb.
“This is where it should be,” he said.
I agreed, and we stood in silence as yellow flower petals floated around Freda’s headstone.
After a time of frozen expectation, I felt footsteps.
“She is coming,” Wilhelm said.
“Who is coming?”
“Turn around,” he responded.
I turned, and my world stood still. Colors became more dazzling. The scent of flowers filled the air, and even the cemetery came to life. The woman who walked towards us was Anne, my lost girlfriend!
“‘Anne!” I choked in disbelief.
“Yes, Anne is the great granddaughter of Freda who died a single mother. Freda and Michael never had time to marry. The war came too quickly. She lived her life–a single mother, and her daughter, my mother, was later interred with Freda. I’m your girlfriend’s uncle, Fredrick. It was my hope she would come here today to visit her grandmother’s tomb. So, I brought you with me.”
My world stood still. Anne hugged her uncle and stood before me. We had too many words to speak, and we were silent as she took my hand.
Wilhelm gave his niece the framed portrait. “I think you are the right person to give this to. Treasure it, as I do!”
A single tear streaked down Anne’s cheek. Other than that, she could not speak, and Wilhelm walked slowly away from us.
“Where will you go?” I asked.
“Back to my antique shop in Vienna. Come for a visit if you please, both of you.”
“Uncle….” Anne managed to say as she nodded to him.
Wilhelm exited the cemetery. Anne squeezed my hand.
We held the portrait at the tomb of Freda and her daughter, beneath a breathtaking blue sky with the snow-covered Alps looking over our shoulders. As we kissed, I could feel Freda, the Nazi woman, smile.
Five years later, Wilhelm died. Anne took ownership of his shop, and the first picture she hung on the wall was that of her grandmother, for she renamed the little place ‘Freda’s Antique Shop.
- Subhadip Majumdar is a writer poet from India. He is certified in Creative Writing from University of Iowa. He also edited for a long time a reputed Bengali poetry journal. Wrote a short novel as Tumbleweed writer in Shakespeare and Company, Paris.Two poetry books published and one novel in process of publication.
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