Released: Dec. 2008
Every Christmas Eve, the ghost of Catarina Bellamonte takes human form and waits for her lover to return.
It’s been sixty-two long years and Catarina’s ghost is still waiting for Philipp, the German soldier she fell in love with during World War Two. The white light calls her with promises of peace, but she refuses to heed the call when there’s a chance that her lover still might come. Didn’t they promise they would take this walk together rather than be parted?
Philipp Munch makes one last nostalgic visit to the old Italian villa and remembers Catarina, the woman he loved and lost so many years ago. As he enters the house his only thought is to say a proper goodbye and lay the ghosts of the past to rest. But it’s Christmas Eve, the one day of the year that Catarina becomes a living, breathing human again. He’s just about to find out that she kept her promise, and waited for him after all.
Free Read – The Heart Wants
Copyright © 2006 Alexandra Marell
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means mechanical, electronic, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior written consent of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser. The right of Alexandra Marell to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
First published 2008
All characters in this publication are purely fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Please Note I use UK English Spelling
The Heart Wants
EVERY Christmas Eve, at the stroke of midnight, the ghost of Catarina Bellamonte shimmers into being, takes human form and waits for her lover to return.
But after sixty-two long years little hope remains. She no longer hears the muffled staccato of distant machine-gun fire. The windows no longer rattle to the heavy drone of bombers overhead. And her German soldier has long returned to the Fatherland. Or died in battle – she never found out why he didn’t come for her.
Deep in the pine forest, hidden in the undergrowth, her soft leather suitcase gives in to the elements and crumbles away. And nearby is a grave, not shallow, but deep – they hid her well. No markers or traces remain. Those who knew are gone, like her, and their secrets with them. Honour was satisfied and Catarina paid her dues. For loving the enemy, and for bringing disgrace on her noble family, there could only be one price.
But what did they know of love and of the heart? A poet once said the heart wants what the heart wants, and that was so true. She could no more have stopped herself falling in love with Philipp than stop breathing.
The mirror reflects the face of a twenty-year-old woman, frozen in the bloom of youth, who remembers when the villa rang with laughter and life. Looking around, she takes in the cobwebbed and dusty walnut furniture. The familiar black and white of the marble floor tiles, littered now with dried leaves that crackle and scrape as the breeze catches them. Weak winter sun filters into the room through the fogged-up windows, throwing patches of orange light onto the moth-eaten quilt that covers her bed. Catarina rises from her stool and crosses the room. With her sleeve, she rubs a clean patch on the glass and looks out. The light is fading, the sun melting into the earth as the day winds down and she feels herself fading with it.
* * *
If he listens hard enough he still hears the sound of laughter and music, floating on the sharp night air from the elegant ballroom. Philipp Munch buttons up his thick tweed coat – he feels the cold badly these days – and stands at the rusting iron gates of the old villa. The years roll away and he can still remember the first time he saw her. The first and last time he fell in love. His heart clenches and, even as hot tears threaten, he finds himself smiling at the small bunch of alpine flowers clutched in his fist. Every detail is still there…
Satin skirts sweep the ground, glasses clink and the sea of faces parts to reveal the most beautiful woman Philipp has ever seen, smiling and walking towards him. He stands there, mesmerised and captive, as she floats by in a rustle of silk and a flurry of dark curls. She smells of flowers. He turns and, like a sleepwalker, follows her retreating form until she stops and talks to a young man who touches her elbow with his hand and tries to steer her away from the crowd. She resists, shakes her head and laughs. The man laughs too and sweeps up her hand to kiss her palm. His lips linger there while the woman watches him with heavy-lidded eyes, her mouth curved into a smile. The man whispers something, and her smile fades.
“Who is she?” Philipp asks the waiter, who stops for a moment to hand him a long-stemmed glass of champagne.
“Catarina Bellamonte. The only daughter of the count. The man is her fiancé, Santino Allessio, son of the richest man in the province.”
Philipp frowns and watches the battle of wills. The fiancé is short and sickly-looking. Clearly not good enough for her. And no match for her, either. The man’s arm is around her waist now, while Catarina strains away from him, and, in a moment of sheer madness, Philipp finds himself walking towards them with only one thought in mind – to dance with this enchanting woman. He’s in full uniform, something which gains him both reluctant respect and outright contempt. Italians aren’t a people who hide their feelings – one minute smiling benevolently, the next just as likely to slit his throat in a dark alleyway. When he reaches the spot where Catarina was standing, she is gone.
A quick glance across the room tells him that the Generalmajor won’t be needing the services of his driver any time soon. His commanding officer waves him away with a drunken smile and returns his attention to the champagne and the tall blonde hanging, laughing, on his arm. So Philipp makes his way to the double-doors, Catarina’s only means of escape. He finds her standing in the shadows at the edge of the stone patio. Arms wrapped around her body, she is staring into the night. Somewhere in the village below a church bell chimes and, to its slow, steady rhythm, he walks towards her.
“Buon Natale, soldier.” There’s laughter in her voice. She doesn’t turn around.
Phillip’s courage falters and he stops, just out of her sight, only now remembering the language barrier between them. “Buon Natale, Signorina Bellamonte.” The words trip on his tongue, still sounding awkward and strange to the ears of a young man who had never travelled much farther than the next town before the war. He fingers his glass, takes a deep breath and steps forward.
“Or should I say Fröhliche Weihnachten?” Catarina turns and steps into the pool of light spilling through the glass ballroom doors. “We speak German here too.” Her gaze flickers once over his uniform then comes back to rest on his face.
He shrugs, as if to say “What can I do? I’m as trapped as you are.” She smiles briefly and looks away.
Behind them, in the ballroom, Philipp hears the sound of people talking and, laughing. Exchanging festive greetings. Before him the ornate, formal gardens drop away in a series of terraces, which merge eventually with a stand of pine trees. The trees’ dark shadows form a boundary, beyond which he can see the shimmering lights of several small villages. Moonlight bathes the slope of an alpine meadow and catches the sharp peaks of snow-covered mountains. He feels very far from home.
He takes another step to stand beside her, and sets down his glass on the edge of the stone balustrade. Together they listen to the bells, now ringing in a joyful riot of noise and celebration. Catarina laughs again, a slightly hysterical sound which makes him turn towards her in question. In one smooth movement she tears a ring from her finger and throws it high into the air and into the garden below. Catching the moonlight, it tumbles into the flower bed below like a tiny falling star.
“It’s over?” he asks. Third finger, left hand – he saw that much – and Philipp can’t keep the laughter out of his voice either, nor the sheer relief that he has no right to feel.
What have you done to me? he thinks and shakes his head. Five minutes ago I didn’t even know you existed. Now you’re all I can see.
“They can’t make me marry him.” Catarina tilts her chin defiantly back at the house. “I’ll kill myself first. Throw myself into a ravine. Then they’ll be sorry.”
“Don’t do that,” he says quietly. He wonders what colour her eyes are.
“Easy for you to say. What, are you here to sweep me off my feet? Take me away from all this? Wave a magic wand and make Santino disappear?” Her hand moves suddenly and closes over the pistol holstered at his hip. Dangerously close to a part of him that has been responding to her since the moment she walked into his sight.
He recoils. Instinctively, his hand covers hers and holds it still. She’s so close now that when she speaks her breath warms his face. Her eyes catch the light. They are a deep green.
“Would you kill him for me?”
It’s a question, urgently whispered. A plea, a command and a challenge. Catarina deftly unclips the leather strap holding the pistol in place and half-slides it from the holster.
He’s never considered himself a passionate man. Nor one prone to outbursts. He’s not here for the glory of the Fatherland. He’s here because they told him to be. Philipp has always done as he’s told.
“Well?” Catarina tilts her head and holds her breath. Her hand under his flexes and he responds by sliding the gun back into the holster. Disappointment flashes in her eyes, so briefly he almost misses it – he’s too busy concentrating on the feel of her hand, trapped beneath his.
She presses her lips into a thin line and nods twice. “I’m sorry,” she says, sane again. “You must think I’m a madwoman. Did they send you to fetch me?”
“No, no…” he manages to stammer out. Her hand slides away, leaving his still on the pistol, gripping it tightly. In the heat of battle the enemy is unknown, faceless and remote. Killing is easy then. But to kill a man in cold blood – could he ever do that?
“What then?” Catarina returns her gaze to the garden, hands on the balustrade, arms rigid as she leans forward. “What could a lowly sergeant want with the daughter of a count?”
No, he may not be a passionate man, but he is a proud one and rises to the bait, consequences be damned. Clicking his heels together he makes a formal bow and holds out his hand. “My name is Philipp, Sergeant Philipp Munch. Would you give me the honour of this dance, Miss Catarina?”
Behind him the orchestra strikes up a waltz especially for them.
* * *
Light as air, Catarina floats between worlds, feeling, always, the pull of the white light with its promise of peace and completion. But how can she go when Philipp might still come? They promised to take this walk together rather than be parted. That hope refuses to die.
The shadows lengthen and the distant mountains darken in the purple dusk. Catarina clings to the earthly plane and prays harder than ever before.
“Please don’t make me do this alone,” she whispers. “Philipp, where are you?”
* * *
Philipp takes a key from his coat and, with a trembling hand, pushes it into the padlock. It hasn’t been opened in twenty-two years, yet the key turns surprisingly easily. The chains rattle to the ground, but the gate is rusted onto its hinges and refuses to move. He pushes harder, puts his shoulder against it and digs at the dusty ground with his heel. Bit by bit the gate opens until there’s a gap big enough for him to squeeze through. He retrieves the flowers and starts walking the long gravelled driveway, stopping halfway along to place a hand over a heart that beats far too fast these days. It used to do this for her. There were times when he swore she would give him a heart attack there and then – she was so beautiful. Especially when they made love…
* * *
He waits for more than hour, refusing to believe she won’t come and just as unable to believe that she will. As he’s reaching for the ignition key of the Audi staff limousine, feeling thoroughly ashamed of his foolishness, she’s there, standing by the small side-gate. The silk shawl wrapped around her shoulders flaps in the light breeze.
Philipp’s hand freezes on the steering wheel and his courage leaves him in a rush. What does he say to her? One dance and I’ve fallen hopelessly in love with you? Foolish indeed. He wants to run away. Instead he starts the engine, eases the car from its hiding place behind the trees and steers it back onto the main road. When he looks up, Catarina lifts a hand and waves. In one smooth movement he applies the brake. She opens the door and slides into the passenger seat.
“You came…” he says, and bites the corners of his mouth to stop the stupid grin that’s threatening to break out all over his face. For a few minutes he just drives, with no thought of taking her anywhere but away from here and marriage to Santino.
“Where to?” he asks eventually.
“Up there.” Catarina points to the top of the highest mountain. “Take me up there.”
The double meaning isn’t lost on him and suddenly he’s a teenager again, all atremble in anticipation of his first time. He shifts down the gears and turns the car onto the mountain road. Neither of them speaks until, halfway up when Catarina points to a side-road and orders Philipp to take it with a cry of “There!” He turns the wheel sharply and the car swerves onto the narrow track.
When she shouts “Stop!” he slams on the brakes and they both lurch forward. Before he can gather himself she flashes him a smile and opens the car door.
“Catch me if you can,” she sings, and for a second they’re both frozen in place, the challenge hovering between them. She’s an impossible dream, he knows that. Whatever he manages to catch of her will slip through his fingers like a mirage. He reaches out a hand, to make sure that he isn’t dreaming now, and is surprised to find her shaking as much as he is.
“I’m cold,” she says by way of explanation, and slides from the seat and out of the door.
There’s nothing dignified about this. Nor in the way he wants her. She won’t let it be. Philipp had always thought love was a serious thing – hadn’t its complexity occupied poets for centuries? They needn’t have bothered, he thinks when his body finally responds to his brain’s command to move and go after her.
The urgency of the situation makes everything so simple, so clear. His position as a staff driver gives him some protection from the dangers of war, but all the time foot soldiers like him are being pulled out to be thrown at the Russian front. There’s no time to waste on poetry and long courtships. Every passing moment is more precious than the last.
Philipp slides out of his own seat and finds her waiting for him. Standing in the alpine meadow with its light scattering of snow, backlit by the afternoon sun, she looks ethereal, other-worldly. Up here the air is sharp with winter chill, although that’s not why he finds himself heaving in great gulps as if his life depends on it. She waits until he’s almost upon her before turning tail and running down the slope of the meadow, curls bouncing, shawl streaming behind her like tattered angel’s wings. With the confidence of one who knows the mountains well, she leaps and jumps over rocks and grassy mounds while he stumbles behind her, falls flat on his face and scrambles to his feet. Keeping her grimly in his sights, he gains on her.
She lets him catch her when they’re hidden in the cool darkness of the trees lining the ridge. As she slows, his heart speeds up and he throws caution to the wind, bringing her down in a clumsy tangle of limbs. They roll out of control down a steep bank and land in a heap near the trunk of a great larch.
“Hello, Philipp.” Catarina stares at him, wide-eyed. She laughs and throws back her arms, unconcerned that they’re covered with scratches and her skirt is high on her thighs.
He lies panting beside her, wondering how he will explain away any tears in his uniform. When he looks at his watch, he realises that time is slipping away and in an hour he’ll be needed to drive the Generalmajor to yet another reception.
“Catarina.” Gently, he touches her cheek. My Catarina, he thinks. Whatever happens, I’ll always think of her as mine.
“I got your note,” she says, fishing into her pocket. She pulls it out, her expression a mask of mock seriousness, and starts to read in a monotone.
“Catarina, would you give me the honour of your company this afternoon, I wish to tell you something. Philipp.”
Philipp feels his face reddening. He grabs the note with his free hand and crumples it in his fist, embarrassed now at his audacity. And at the fact that he’s lying, dishevelled and out of breath, on a bed of mouldy leaves with the daughter of an Italian count. But that’s lust for you. It addles your brain and steals your reason. Why else would he be doing this?
Her laugh softens into another smile and she asks the question she must already know the answer to. “What do you want, Philipp?”
His fingertips linger on the soft skin of her cheek. Desperation makes him bold.
“I wanted to…to thank you for the dance. And I want very much to kiss you,” he adds. “Catarina, would you allow me to do that?”
The answer is in her eyes, still bright with laughter, as they widen slightly in anticipation then half-close in acceptance. In the slight pucker of her lips and the straining of her body towards his. Philipp rolls and meets her halfway, his hand slipping behind her head to gather her to him. Lips only a hair apart, he whispers again.
She breathes the word on an exhaled breath, and when their lips touch he’s momentarily overcome by a feeling of joy so strong that, if he didn’t have better things to do, he’d be standing on the mountaintop behind him shouting it out for all the world to hear. Clinging desperately, he tries to hold on to the elation. It’s too soon overtaken by a jumble of feelings and sensations that make him pull her to him until there’s not an inch of space between them. And make him kiss her as if his very life depends on it.
The way she responds and wraps herself around him, as if even this close isn’t close enough, makes him realise they’ve both started on a journey from which there can be no turning back. A journey that won’t necessarily lead to happiness, but like pilgrims walking towards a shrine, it’s a journey they have to make. If one thing could give this pointless war any meaning, it would be this.
Grinding his mouth against hers, one hand trapped between the back of her head and the clammy, mildewed leaves, he mentally apologises to the dim part of his brain that’s telling him to slow down and treat her with the respect a count’s daughter deserves. This is beyond his control. Caught between Fate and lust he can only follow where it leads.
“Philipp…,” Catarina, arches more urgently against him. Her legs have him locked so tightly he can’t move, nor get his hands between their bodies to unbutton his pants.
Inexperience makes them clumsy. He pulls away and fumbles with his fly-buttons. She gives a cry of frustration and pulls up her skirt. When she pushes him away, with another cry, his hand stills. There’s a brief moment of panic when he thinks she might have changed her mind. Or even worse, that he’s hurt her with his inept bumbling. Frozen in place, head and shoulders raised, he watches her pull impatiently at the waistband of her underwear. With a shudder of relief he resumes his frantic task, releases himself with a sigh, and rolls back into her embrace.
Seize the moment. Now he understands what that means. It’s a dizzy, reckless ride into the unknown. The first slow slide of his flesh against hers. A moment he’ll never forget.
He doesn’t know if it’s her first time – she cries out when he pushes into her. A slight resistance, then she’s clutching at him again, greedy and insistent. And she’s noisy. Somewhere through the fog of his wanting he hears her call his name, hears her demand and ask and plead that he never stop. He almost laughs out loud at the thought. Why would he want to do that?
He nuzzles into her neck and sucks gently, a counterpoint to their wildly thrashing hips, wishing he could leave his mark for all to see. Knows that he can’t. It’s a reminder that she isn’t his, and never will be.
In his desperation he forgets everything but the need for completion. Catarina is left clinging to him, eyes tightly closed, hips still pushing vainly against his own while he pulses and empties himself inside her.
She takes his hand, slips it between their bodies. Philipp mumbles an apology which she quietens with a finger on his lips. Then she closes her eyes. He watches her expression change, sees the way her lips part and her eyelids flutter as she moves against his slippery fingers. He’s still inside her, soft, but hardening rapidly.
Philipp starts to move with her, slowly and carefully this time, with his eyes open and firmly on her face. When she comes again it’s with a small, startled noise as if she was expecting something else, but got something infinitely better instead. Her eyes fly open and lock with his. He reaches for her hand and entwines his fingers with hers. They haven’t used any protection, but that’s a detail he doesn’t remember until much later.
* * *
Catarina fingers a faded photograph and remembers him, pale and beautiful as the winter sun. Yellow hair, slipping through her fingers soft as a drift of snow. Clear blue eyes always so bright with love – for her. Poor Philipp, he was so terribly homesick. Some Italians welcomed the Germans, others despised them. It was too easy to see only the uniform of an occupying force. Harder to look past that and see people with mothers and fathers and lives beyond the war.
How many hours had she spent in his arms, listening to him talk of his family and his home town, the longing evident in his voice? Not enough. Those quiet times were rare. More often their meetings were frantic and urgent. A mad frenzy of giving and taking.
Philipp told her, more than once, that she taught him the meaning of passion and how to exist entirely in the moment. Together they found a way to make the war and the rest of the world go away, even if only for a short time. The future was never spoken of because it simply wasn’t there.
Catarina lets her hand linger on her stomach and smiles, remembering how wrong they’d been about that. Life hadn’t been about to stop just because there was a war. Philipp’s reaction to the news had, strangely, been one of relief, as if he was glad the inevitable decision had been made for them. They had access to a car with a tank full of fuel. All she needed do was meet him at the right time and before morning they’d be over the border into Switzerland.
A simple plan. But in love nothing is simple. Fate may have thrown them together, but then, when they needed it most, it simply turned its back and abandoned them.
* * *
“Catarina, you are sick. Come, sit down.”
“No, Maresia, don’t fuss. I’m fine.”
The old housekeeper folds her arms and purses her lips. “Fine, you say? Have you told Santino yet?”
“Told him what?”
“About the baby.”
“Baby?” Catarina turns away, fighting off nausea that isn’t just caused by her pregnancy. The phrase “hot-blooded Italians” might have been coined especially for her father. He may fraternise with the German army elite, but his private feelings were another matter entirely. And what of family honour? What wouldn’t he do to protect that?
Catarina clutches at the chair. The blood drains from her face.
“Your father will understand. They will bring the wedding forward and nobody will be any the wiser. Come, sit down.”
Catarina sighs and turns to the old woman, who’s looking at her curiously now. Maresia’s eyes widen when she sees the tears tracking down Catarina’s cheeks.
“Come here, Cara. Haven’t I always been here for you? You’ll see it’s not so bad. Your father will understand.”
“Not this,” Catarina says on a broken sob. “I can’t marry Santino. I’ll never marry him.”
“Catarina.” Maresia sighs too and places a consoling hand on Catarina’s shoulder. “You have to now, Cara mia. Don’t you see?”
“It’s you who doesn’t see.” Catarina’s hands cover her face, muffling the words she’s been aching to tell someone as they spill out with more tears. “It’s not his and never will be.” She lowers her hands and faces the old woman. Her wildly beating heart and Maresia’s shocked expression make it hard to talk.
“Then who?” Maresia takes a step back and for a moment stands there, mouth open, hand clutching at the side of her head. Catarina holds her breath while the old woman cycles through all the options in her mind then answers in a doom-laden voice, “Your father will kill you.”
“I know.” A stab of pure fear makes Catarina weak at the knees. She stumbles backwards against the bed and sits down. When she raises her face to the old woman she has no idea whether she’s going to get out of this alive or not.
* * *
“How do you manage to get away so often?”
Philipp laughs. “The Generalmajor. You’ll never guess – he’s having an affair.”
A mischievous light glints in Catarina’s eyes. “And you are his accomplice?”
The taste of her is something he wants never to forget. An indefinable mixture of mystery and sweetness fills his senses as his tongue works a lazy trail over the skin of her stomach. She arches against him when he dips lower and cries out. He likes to hear her pleasure, and she’s never one to hold back.
“I am,” he says after a few long moments of discovering her all over again. Every time it’s like this. Small details he’s forgotten surprise him anew. Hidden delights are revealed and added to the treasure chest of memories he’s hoarding deep inside. He’s painfully aware of how precious this is and works her relentlessly with his hands and tongue. Even though their time together is limited, he always has time to give her this.
Catarina wriggles beneath him, breathing and talking, talking and breathing. Trying to concentrate on both things at once. “The baker’s wife…please don’t stop…the postmaster…yes, Philipp, just like that…the mayor…ohhh…”
With each touch she lets go a little more until she’s completely at his mercy. The sound of her ecstasy fills the confines of the car, the scent of her release mingles with the smell of the leather seats. Frantically she pulls at him. Her hand circles his painfully hard length and her legs part to welcome him inside. The first slow push of his flesh against hers makes him bite his lip and groan and forget everything, except what’s happening here, on the cramped back-seat of the car.
Three months since this started and by now it is familiar territory. Parked in the shelter of the trees, hidden from prying eyes, they fog up the car’s windows and find their own private heaven on earth. Philipp buries his face against Catarina’s breasts and, with a muffled cry, comes, deep inside her.
“Oh Catarina,” he mumbles, in between grateful kisses, “I swear you’re going to stop my heart one day. Here, feel how fast it is.”
She listens quietly, her flat palm pressed to the middle of his chest. Then she raises herself and kisses him just there. “The mayor’s wife. Am I right?” she asks.
Philipp gathers his scattered senses and moves up beside her. Folding her to him, he glances at his watch.
“You’ve guessed it.” He kisses her anxious face. “Don’t worry. The Generalmajor and me – everyone thinks we’re in Stanza, attending a highly secret meeting. He doesn’t need me to pick him up until five o’clock.”
“The mayor. If he finds out, he’ll kill him,” Catarina says, matter-of-factly. “Then he’ll kill her. Bang!” She makes her hand into a pretend gun and fires it. “He’ll do it. He’s Siciliano.”
Philipp frowns. “Meaning?”
She brings a finger to his lips, traces the outline and slips the fingertip into his mouth. He sucks gently.
“Passion, my love. And the honour of the family. To them, it’s very simple. I know these things. My father, he too is Siciliano.”
“Then we must be sure not to anger him,” Philipp says, half joking, half serious. He opens his mouth to say more, but Catarina’s hand is already covering it, stopping the words. Her face shows more than anxiety. What he sees is fear.
Sitting up, he pulls her with him and kisses her, deep and long.
“What are we going to do? he asks, voicing the question they’ve both studiously avoided. Time is moving faster and faster and soon he will be gone. This was never going to last.
“I’m pregnant,” she answers quietly. “We’re going to have a baby. That’s what we’re going to do.”
* * *
It’s a peculiar kind of pain. Part physical, part something he can’t exactly define. An ache that, even after all these years, still gnaws at his body and mind in equal measure. The ache in his shoulder reminds him of the day that should have been the happiest of his life. Philipp rubs absently at the spot, and stops to look up at the square villa with its rows of windows and huge double doors. The rich, red walls of its heyday are faded now, the paint peeling, window-panes cracked, and here and there ragged curtains flutter in the light breeze. Dried leaves litter the grand marble steps, and the once-immaculate gardens are a neglected ramble as nature reclaims what was once hers.
But as the light dims time’s blemishes fade away. The shadows creeping along the walls and paths gently cloak the house and grounds in a much kinder light, and Philipp willingly takes part in the deception. It’s too easy to look around and see only the past.
The worst part was the lack of closure. Philipp presses his face against a dusty window- pane and peers into the once-grand entrance hall. Catarina simply disappeared. For more than a year, he heard nothing at all, and by then the rumours had grown – almost to the proportion of legend. Locals talked of the family’s hasty departure. To this day the old folk still remembered the villa being emptied and locked up, never to be lived in again.
The family had gone south, they said, back to their roots. And Catarina had mysteriously decided not to marry Santino after all, but had been moved to take the veil and enter a nunnery instead.
Philipp turns away from the window and, with a shake of his head, walks up to the steps. It had taken a lot of talking and bribing and convincing the old retainer in the village that he wasn’t about to empty the place of whatever salvage was left. Just an old soldier, he’d said, returning for one last, nostalgic visit. No one had recognised him – and why should they? The lovers had been careful and guarded their secret well.
But not well enough, it seemed. Before long, talk of families returning to their roots became talk of revenge and family honour and things too dark to contemplate.
Over the years he’s been through every single detail of that night and wondered time and again if he could have made it end differently. Catarina had disappeared from the face of the earth, and no amount of searching and pleading and investigation had found any trace of her. The wall of silence had been solid, thick with corruption and indifference to his feelings.
He shades his eyes and peers through the stained glass panel flanking one of the doors, knowing in his heart that only death would have stopped Catarina finding him that night.
All he wants is closure and to know where she rests. Was that too much to ask after all these years?
* * *
He glances at his watch and taps nervous fingers on the steering wheel. The Generalmajor is late tonight. Parked safely out of sight in a side alley, Philipp pulls out a pack of cigarettes and lights one up, winding down the window to flick away the ash. Outwardly casual, but inside him everything is on high alert.
In the car boot is a map, his razor, and a small bag full of civilian clothes stolen from various washing lines. A cheese, three bread rolls and a bottle of wine are all the food he could scrounge without arousing suspicion. He can only hope that Catarina has had more luck foraging for supplies.
Does he realise how reckless this is? Of course he does. They both do. Plans made at the height of passion seldom survive the harsh light of day. It invariably reveals them for what they are – equal parts vain hope, desperation and a belief that, in love, anything is possible. The odds aren’t good, but that only makes him more determined.
Our courage will lend us wings. Catarina had once written the words on the misted up car window, and he has to believe them.
His hand is trembling, very slightly, and when he catches sight of his eyes in the rear-view mirror they’re bright with anticipation and, yes, love too. He does love her more than he’d ever thought possible. So much that the thought of deserting his post and the consequences of being caught fade to nothing beside the need to be with her.
Philipp refuses to dwell on the irony of having found the one thing which would make him blissfully happy, at a time when personal happiness counts for nothing. He’s a very small part of a very large machine. What he wants is irrelevant when measured against the grand plans of the politicians. Once upon a time, he’d accepted that. He used to be a good soldier. Now all he wants is to be with Catarina.
He hopes she’s remembered to wear good walking boots. It would be so like her to turn up dressed up for a grand reception rather than for the inevitable trek across the mountains. The car will take them so far, but the mountain passes will be heavily guarded. They will have to abandon it at some point and find a way through. He prays that the old map he bought in the secondhand bookstore is still accurate.
A sudden flurry of movement at the mouth of the alleyway causes him to throw down the cigarette and hurriedly start the engine. The Generalmajor appears at a run, half-in and half-out of his coat. Philipp only just registers that the man’s pants are hanging loose as he throws himself into the car and barks out the command that Philipp get him out of there without delay.
With a screech of burning tyres Philipp slams his foot down. He tries not to grin too widely at the thought of his commanding officer being caught in flagrante, and takes the corner so fast the car nearly leaves the road. From the back seat there’s a muffled curse. Philipp glances around and accelerates away, running on pure adrenaline now.
Above the roar of the engine Philipp thinks he hears the sound of a car backfiring twice, in rapid succession. The thought is quickly followed by the realisation that it’s the sound of the double barrels of a shotgun being fired. The windscreen shatters and the car swerves. That he’s been hit doesn’t register at all. All he remembers is driving into a wall of darkness.
* * *
In the chill of a spring evening, Catarina waits. Quiet and still, shadowed by trees, she strains anxiously for the familiar hum of the Audi engine and the sound of tyres crunching on the gravelled road. She frowns and tilts her watch towards the shaft of moonlight streaming between the branches. Where is he?
A brief panic overtakes her. He’s changed his mind. This is dangerous for them both, but more so for him. If discovered, her punishment will be severe. If he is caught, he will be shot.
A violent shiver shakes her body. The consequences are too awful to contemplate – she will not think of them. Instead she breathes deeply, takes in the sharp odour of pine needles on the clean night air, and searches her coat for cigarettes. Somewhere, high in the trees, the soft beat of wings catches her attention. She looks up. A dark shape drops from a branch, hovers for a moment, then, lifts high into the air.
Tomorrow that will be us, she thinks. Free to fly wherever we choose. And the feeling of panic turns to a burst of optimism so strong it makes her head spin. Another sound to her left, and she turns, eyes wide and shining with excitement, heart banging against her ribs. For the first time she believes, truly believes they can make it happen. She tucks away the cigarette packet and reaches for her suitcase.
She steps back and swallows hard. Another shape looms behind her, pulls her in and holds her close. Large hands circle her throat and start to squeeze. Her father growls close to her ear and shakes her. His hot, garlicky breath warms her face. Her first instinct is to struggle and run, but the hands on her throat are firmly in place.
“Who is he?”
In front of her Santino stands impassive, unmoved, and for him she finds a smile. A smile that tells him she would rather this than marry a man she doesn’t love.
The hands loosen their grip, a shotgun falls to the ground beside her. She hears her father’s voice. “The bastardo. Tell me who he is, so I can shoot him myself.”
Her spine stiffens. Even as her life hangs in the balance Catarina feels a familiar stab of defiance.
“Never,” she says, and her gaze flicks to the road. Stay away Philipp, she thinks frantically. Stay away.
Her father’s fingers tighten, and she does struggle, just a little. For all her pride, something inside urges her to at least fight for what she’s found with Philipp. She’s no match for her father’s strength, or his anger and, with the inevitability of her fate, there comes a kind of peace. A knowing that, denied a life with Philipp, this is the best she can expect.
“Thank you,” she croaks. Santino steps forward, eyes narrowed, hands grabbing at her shoulders when she falls.
“What for?” he asks, a note of unmistakeable anguish in his voice. He shakes her, as if it could bring her back.
For setting me free, she thinks. It was all I wanted from you.
“What have you done?” Santino’s voice, incredulous, shocked, angry.
“I never meant to go so far…God forgive me, what have I done?” Her father now, and horror is what she hears in his voice. Disbelief too.
He repeats it over and over – what have I done, what have I done?
Inexplicably she wants to comfort him. To tell him that there should be no guilt. Philipp once said she was an impossible dream, and he was right. Someone sobs.
Too late for regrets. Already she is up there, above the trees, soaring towards the mountains. Free as a bird.
* * *
For Philipp, life takes on the consistency of a dream. Time flows, sometimes so swiftly he barely notices the days, but more often it hangs, as if suspended in amber, and refuses to pass. After weeks, or was it months, in a limbo of hospitals and nightmares, he wakes up, in his own home, his mother’s anxious face hovering over him.
Gazing around at the normality of it all, he tries to recall the journey of pain and loss that brought him to this point.
His mother hands him a photograph. A young woman standing in a field, not quite smiling, her expression is serious, intent, all her attention on the camera.
“It was in your pocket.” Frau Munch sits beside him, folds her hands together and waits.
For a moment, they both stare out of the glass doors that open onto the neat garden which doesn’t seem to realise the world is at war. Within the high walls trees are bursting into leaf, spring flowers joyously coming back to life. An enclave of peace miraculously spared the fury of the Allied bombing raids. Philipp closes his eyes and one kind of pain makes way for another. The sharp stab of his chest wound fades against the raw ache in his throat.
“Catarina,” he says. “She was to be my wife.”
Frau Munch nods and puts out a hand. “You call for her sometimes, in your sleep.”
“You would have loved her… She was strong, like you.”
His mother’s hand tightens around his. “Your lung…the doctor says they’ll give you a desk job, a pension. The Generalmajor, he was very kind…thinks very highly of you. He says you’re to worry about nothing.”
So his secret was safe? One secret for another? “Mother, I must go back. You know I must go back.”
“Impossible.” She shakes her head. Gentle fingers touch his hair. “You’re not well enough. They wouldn’t give you a travel permit. After the war, perhaps?”
“I’ll walk back if I have to.” His features set and his gaze travels far beyond the walled garden, across bomb-ravaged cities, fields and mountains, to a moment in time, on an alpine meadow. The day is clear and bright. Crisp shadow stripe the newly-fallen snow. Catarina stands before him, buttoned into an old overcoat, collar raised.
“Don’t look so serious,” she says. “Always so serious.” She straightens her back, lifts a hand in mock salute. Tilts her chin and mimics his expression, gently teasing. The camera’s shutter clicks, just before the smile returns. “Everything will be fine,” she reassures him.
His eyes return to the photograph, all he has left of her. Then he looks at his mother and searches for words to explain.
Frau Munch wipes at her eyes and leans over to hold him close. “If you loved her, then I would have loved her too.” She rubs his back as she did when he was a child, and for a few moments he escapes from the harsh reality of now and returns to a time when the world was a much simpler place.
“Concentrate on becoming well,” his mother urges. “The war cannot last forever. A year or more at the most, they say. When it’s over, go back. She will wait for you?”
Yes, he thinks. If it’s at all within her power, Catarina will certainly wait for me.
* * *
Unlike the gate, the front door gives easily. The house beckons him in. What kept you? it whispers. We missed you.
Philipp hesitates and then slowly opens the solid door. Eyes widen as the past rushes back. His heart bangs against his ribs. The final step is surprisingly difficult. After this there will be nothing left but to sit and wait.
Behind him in the gardens a bird sings. Wind rustles the trees. The drone of an aeroplane passes overhead. Inside, it is quiet and still. Peaceful. It’s what he needs. Without looking back, he steps over the threshold.
Once inside it is almost too much for him. Everywhere he looks, there’s a memory. Catarina dancing in the ballroom, out of breath and laughing. Catarina in the kitchen, sitting on the marble table, watched by the indulgent cook, tearing chunks from new bread and cramming them into her mouth.
That memory still makes him blush.
“Why, Sergeant Munch,” she’d said, without looking up. “And what brings you here on this fine winter’s day?”
Driving gloves. Such a poor excuse. He’d lost his driving gloves. Had they seen them? The cook gave him a sideways look, and shrugged. Catarina jumped down and winked. Leading him from the kitchen to a side room, she opened his pants and took him to heaven in the space of a heartbeat. Then she left him, flustered and dishevelled, to face her father.
“I have missed you, Catarina,” he says aloud. “I wish…oh, how I wish…”
He places the flowers on the table and wonders if he should go. Memories have been his gold and silver over the years, but they didn’t bring her back, no matter how hard he wished. In the hall he looks around, feeling a kind of peace at last. Over the years the pain has dulled to a quiet grief, which ebbs and flows with the seasons. Manageable and secret from all but those close to him, outweighed always, by the joy and laughter Catarina brought into his life.
She wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Not Catarina, who took life by the horns and lived every moment. She’d have wanted him to do that too. And he’s tried. He really has.
* * *
He’d always looked so dashing in his uniform. Catarina tilts her head and takes in the sight of him standing below her at the foot of the grand staircase, cap in hand, eyes raised with just a hint of anxiety. He pushes back his hair and starts up the stairs.
She presses back into the shadows, fighting hard to contain the euphoria which threatens to overwhelm her. Was there ever any doubt? If there was, she can’t remember it. The agony of waiting is forgotten. Years of loneliness unravel and reshape themselves into a moment no longer than the blink of an eye. She steps forward, almost unable to stop herself laughing at the sheer joy of seeing Philipp again. He stops, halfway up the stairs, and slowly raises his face to hers.
At first, he seems to be looking right through her. He shakes his head, his smile wistful, full of regret. She calls his name softly and he looks again, more intently this time. At the moment of recognition the cap falls from his fingers, tumbles away, and his hand grips the banister. He blinks and takes another step.
Gently, she needs to return to him gently. Only then does she remember that the years have been long for him too. For her little has changed. He’s lived a whole life without her. No matter how real she feels, what he’s seeing now is a ghost. She holds out her arms.
The hand that reaches out for her is trembling, and oh so familiar. The expression on his face, of shock and disbelief, is the same as the first time they made love. And his eyes are still as clear and bright as they take her in.
“Catarina?” His voice is barely there. He glances at his sleeve, frowns and touches the rough cloth of his sergeant’s uniform. Reaches out for her again. “How real is this?”
She covers his hand with hers. Still looking at him, she bends her head and touches his knuckles with her mouth. He utters a small cry of longing.
“Christ,” he says, and closes his eyes. “You have no idea how much I want to believe we’ve gone back to where we were.”
Catarina lifts her head. “Then believe,” she says, and brushes her lips against his.
* * *
If the years have finally driven him insane, then so be it. No madman was ever happier. His rational mind tells him this cannot be, no matter how much Catarina feels like flesh beneath his hands. Her lips are sweet and caressing. Warmth enfolds him. He feels blood pulsing beneath her skin, breath hot against his neck. He touches her cheek in wonder, noticing again that he’s back in his sergeant’s uniform. He feels young and strong. Her fingers drift lovingly through his hair, and the years of loss and pain might never have existed.
Wearing dark pants, a roll-necked sweater and sturdy boots, she’s sensibly dressed for the trek across snow-covered mountains. Relief washes through him. A dream, he thinks. All those years without her were nothing more than a nightmare from which he’s struggling to wake up.
The optimism vanishes just as quickly. From the corner of his eye he catches a glimpse of the room. He frowns and panic trickles through the elation.
Still derelict. Broken windows, cobwebs hanging from the picture-rail, dust covering the tiled floor. Dizzy, suddenly, he clutches her arms and pulls her to him. If this is a dream, he doesn’t want to wake up – not yet. Not ever.
The urge to question is overwhelmed by the need to hold onto her. His chest tightens and with his face against her shoulder he struggles quietly for breath while she strokes his head and back. The young man who loved her passionately and the old man who missed her with such heartbreaking intensity – at this moment he’s a confusing mixture of both.
“I don’t understand… Catarina, what’s happening?”
“Don’t be scared,” she says. “It really is me. I waited for you.”
Through his tears she looks blurred, and he holds her tighter still, gripped with panic that she’s about to disappear. “Stay with me,” he says. How could she think he was scared of her? She’s his Catarina. She feels exactly the same, even though none of this makes sense. Again he looks around, and remembers that they should have been meeting in the forest. He shakes his head.
“I took a bullet. That’s why I never came for you. Did I die?” he asks. “Is that what this is?”
“No, you didn’t die.” Her eyes are a mirror for his own, full and bright with unshed tears. “Oh, Philipp, I knew you would have come if you could. Let me hold you. It’s been so long.” Again, they clutch at each other, groping for the contact they’ve been starved of. “You didn’t die, my love. I did.”
The impact of the words, of finally knowing for sure, hits him hard, knocking the air from his lungs. His voice catches in his throat.
“You waited for me. All these years. I should have followed you, tried harder. If only I’d known…”
“No,” she says, and covers his mouth with her fingers. “It’s enough that you’re here. A gift. Accept it.”
Philipp takes her face in his hands and presses his lips to hers, elated at the way she responds to his desperate mouth. Too much to make up for. Years spent reliving moments like these. Times he thought forever lost. That she waited doesn’t surprise him at all. So like her.
When they break free Catarina holds out her hand in silent question. The answer, the decision to take it, must be his. Philipp hears a muffled sound, and glances over his shoulder to the hallway. A shadowy figure is visible through the foggy glass beside the front door.
“Who’s that?” he asks, alarmed.
“Me?” he looks again at the face now pressed against the glass. “My God,” he says, understanding suddenly, “it is me. I’m still outside?”
“But, how? What’s happening?”
“You have a decision to make, Philipp.”
“Stay with me or return to your home.”
“Oh, I see. Yes, I think I understand. And yes, yes, the decision is already made. Let’s go now. Do what we meant to do all those years ago. Can you leave the house?”
“Not yet. I’m sorry.” There’s compassion in her eyes, and the steady, unwavering love he remembers so well.
“Then if I do…me…the man downstairs – if I do come into the house…?”
“Then you stay with me – forever. Are you ready for that, Philipp?”
Am I ready? he thinks. After a life spent preparing for this moment? He stops. Briefly he remembers his step- daughter, and his short marriage made more for comfort than anything else. Herta, his long-dead wife – a good woman who’d always been so understanding of where his heart really lay.
“I married,” he says, needing to confess, almost too ashamed to say the words aloud. He looks Catarina in the eye, asking for understanding. “When you’ve known love, living without it is unbearable. I wasn’t strong enough to face the years alone. She died sixteen years ago. Can you forgive me?”
Catarina’s eyebrows rise in surprise, but she looks happy for him. “Philipp, I’m glad. I never wanted you to pine away for me. You had too much to give. You…you, loved her?”
“Not the way I loved you. Herta’s husband died at Stalingrad, so she understood. We helped each other, and there was…affection, someone to talk to. Someone to share the burden with.”
“A step-daughter.” His hand drifts to Catarina’s stomach. She covers it with hers.
“Is she ready to let you go?”
Again he looks back at the door. The dark shape of the old man is hovering, a foot in each world, wondering which way to step. There had been times, despite the marriage, of bleak loneliness. Times when he’d ached for the passion he’d only ever found with Catarina.
“We’re very close. She fusses, you know, always telling me to button my coat, wear a hat. She didn’t want me to come. Said it would be too much for me. But, yes, she will understand.”
He follows Catarina’s gaze to the window at the top of the stairs and, through it, the darkening sky.
“Philipp, my love. Time is running out.” Her voice carries an alarming urgency. “Please open the door.”
* * *
Hers had been the easy part, after all. The guilt of betrayal weighs heavily on him, it’s so plainly written on his face. But how can she condemn him for wanting something to fill the emptiness? Despite wishing desperately that it could have been her filling the void, and their own daughter fussing about his wellbeing, Catarina knows that she’d have been the first person to tell him to take comfort where he could.
His step falters. “Forgive me first.”
“For living your life? Philipp, there’s nothing to forgive.”
“Herta, she always knew I’d be coming back to you. I hope she, too has found what she lost.”
Behind him, down in the hall, the front door opens. His fingers curve around hers.
“I’m certain of it. No more guilt, Philipp.” Catarina lets the joy bubbling up inside overflow. Teasing now, she says, “Come. You can spend Eternity making it up to me.”
The door swings closed with a soft click and the house exhales a long-held breath. Or so it seems. Far off a church bell chimes five times. Philipp’s cheek rests against Catarina’s hair.
“You’ll have to guide me. I don’t know what to do.”
“Come,” she says. “It’s easy, you’ll see.” She holds him close as the past and the present converge and Philipp steps out of time to pass over into her world. The letting go is quiet and peaceful. Catarina feels an incredible lightness, as if a long-suffered burden is lifting from them both. He rests quietly against her.
“So many of my friends died in agony during the war.”
“I know. I’m glad you were spared that.”
“After I lost you, I wanted to die. It wasn’t to be.”
Catarina slides her fingers over his tunic buttons. “There’s no turning back. How do you feel?”
“We’re dead, but we still feel so alive, it’s strange. What now? We go to see Saint Peter?”
“Whatever happens, it’s nothing to fear. Philipp, You have no idea how the hereafter has called to me over the years. It took someone very special to keep me earthbound.” She opens a button and slips her hand inside, feels his muscles tighten and quiver. He groans into her hair.
“We have until midnight. Stay with me and we’ll go on together.” The delicious feel of warm skin stretched over hard muscle sends a spiral of desire coiling through her. “Yes, my love. For now, we can still touch and feel as we once did. Saint Peter has waited this long – I’m sure he won’t mind waiting a little longer. Seven hours. We have seven hours left.”
“We should use it wisely.”
“Her hand slips lower. “What do you suggest?”
In answer, he scoops her up and heads for the nearest bedroom.
* * *
There’s so much he’s forgotten over the years. And such pleasure in the re-learning. The candle-light flickers off the rich chocolate highlights of her hair, a golden glow caresses her skin. Her eyes are lit with mischief and her mouth – Christ, how can he resist that mouth? When he leans towards her she grabs him by the loose cloth of his sleeves and pulls herself up on tip-toe to meet him.
“Now,” she says. “Don’t make me wait. It’s been too long.”
Philipp gropes for the dust-sheet and they tumble onto the bed. Catarina feels so real and alive. He does too, more than he’s ever felt. Ironic indeed, for a man who’s just decided to die.
“I still can’t believe this,” he says, unable to stop touching her. “It’s just so…”
She lifts her arms. Didn’t I tell you to believe? Now, take this off me.”
Philipp fingers the hem of her sweater then slides it slowly upwards, revealing her bit by bit. Her hair bounces in a mad tangle of curls when he pushes the soft wool over her head. He puts his mouth on the curve of her shoulder and tastes her. Catarina’s nimble fingers make short work of his tunic buttons. His shirt follows it to the floor. She dips her head and kisses the place where his scar should have been.
“It was painful?” she asks. Her voice against his skin makes him shiver.
“A welcome distraction. It stopped me from going mad.”
They lie down on the cool sheets, and he tucks Catarina into his side. Her hair tickles his neck. “I suppose the pain formed a bridge from one world to another and by the time I realised what had happened to me, months had gone by and they’d sent me home. After the war, I came back, but you were long gone.”
It’s wonderful to feel such desire again. To be hard and strong once more. And even though time is limited, he doesn’t want to rush. Too much to rediscover. Too many places to revisit.
“I don’t feel very dead,” he says, laughing at such a ludicrous statement.
“No, you don’t.” There’s a giggle in her voice. She flattens her palm over the front of his pants. “This feels very much alive.”
Philipp lifts his head and watches her touch him through the cloth. He raises his eyes to the ornate ceiling and fights for control.
“What are you thinking about?” she asks him. “Tell me.”
He pauses for a moment. Drops his head back down onto the pillow.
“That this is nothing how I imagined it would be. Yet it’s everything I’ve ever hoped for. Does that make sense? I was resigned to never seeing you again, although I always clung to the hope that we would meet somewhere in the afterlife. What happened to you?”
Catarina sits up. The strap of her camisole slips down over her shoulder. Philipp traces the soft outline of her breasts with a tentative finger.
“Santino and my father, they found me in the forest, waiting for you. He never meant to kill me, I believe that. Afterwards he was so distraught.”
Philipp pulls her down again and wraps his arms around her. Here in this strange limbo it feels safe enough, and he vows that nothing will ever hurt her again.
Then, for the first time since he walked through the door, he feels real fear. A tightening deep inside at the thought that here he has no control over anything. He failed in a place where he knew the rules and could have made a difference had fate not abandoned them, so what chance would he have here?
At any moment Catarina might turn to dust in his arms and disappear forever. He holds her a little too tightly and offers up the prayer that’s been on his lips for the past half-century.
“I’m not going anywhere.” Catarina presses herself into the embrace. “I was allowed to wait for you. There must have been a reason for that, don’t you think?”
“I hope so. Have the years been very long for you?”
“Yes and no. I came back to the house and found myself trapped here. Once a year, I feel things like I used to, but the rest of the time…it’s like floating in a fog. Hard to explain. Strange, frustrating, like reaching out for something just out of your grasp and never quite getting there. I’m buried in the forest.”
“I looked for you.”
“I know. Philipp, none of this matters any more. Make love to me. I want to feel all of you. I’ve wanted it so much, for so long. Touch me like you used to, with your body and your soul.”
She still has the ability to delight him with her words. Seduce him with the sound of her voice. Outside darkness falls, the moon rises in the sky and the real world starts to slip slowly away. Philipp feels heaven beckoning. He’s in no hurry, for how can it be better than this?
* * *
Hours alone. A real bed. No need to worry about being discovered. It’s something they’ve never had. All their moments together were snatched from the lives they should have been living. There was never a time when they could truly relax, until now. Before, there were only fragments. Now she has him all to herself, laid out before her, worshipping her with his eyes. To see that look again has been well worth the wait.
“Do you realise that I’ve never seen you naked?” she says.
“The first time for both of us, then.” He reaches for the buttons of his pants. “Let’s put that right, shall we?”
Catarina slides the camisole over her head, unhooks her bra. She hears the soft thunk of Philipp’s boots hitting the floor. She looks with hungry eyes at the man she waited for so patiently, and for so long.
“Perfect.” She touches her lips to his stomach. “Perfect,” she whispers again. The word falls onto his skin. He shivers, catches her and holds her in place.
“You too, Catarina. You’re lovely, still so lovely. I can’t begin to tell you how this feels. Or how much I want you.”
“We were always in such a hurry.” She hooks a knee over him and sits on his solid stomach. Gliding her hands over his chest, she leans forward and lets her hair caress his skin. Meets his mouth halfway for a kiss which leaves her weak with wanting.
When he catches her with a growl and rolls them both she welcomes the heavy weight, pinning her to the bed. She holds him tight, against her and guides him in, glad that she can still feel his heart beating. Skin to skin they move together and find each other all over again.
Afterwards, fighting for breath, still covering her, he pushes the hair out of her eyes and whispers, “I adore you.”
“I know,” she answers and kisses his hand. “And do you remember how much I love you?”
“Yes, but tell me again.” He rolls off and lies down, panting, beside her.
Catarina turns so they are face to face. “Well, how long do you have?”
“An eternity? E-ter-ni-ty.” He says the word slowly and slipping a hand behind her head, pulls her onto his shoulder. “I’m feeling, not exactly scared…apprehensive, I think. Thank you for waiting for me.”
“You know how stubborn I am.”
He laughs softly and holds her closer. “Yes, I do. I’m glad I was the only one.”
“Stay with me.”
“Always. How much time is left?”
“Time enough,” she says.
They love, deep into the night until the long vigil is nearly over. Now, when she touches him, she becomes a part of him. His thoughts are hers. His fears make her shiver. His joy makes her glad. She can feel herself in his touch. Hear herself in his voice.
They discover that, for them, passing over is more about becoming someone else than throwing off the physical body. Together they lie in peaceful silence, marking their final hours, listening to the stilling of their breath and the slowing of their hearts as they make the final transition.
They watch the world fade and change, whisper their goodbyes, and let it slip away
* * *
The old man leaning against the wall looks as if he’s sleeping. Moving closer, you would see that his eyes are open and staring out of the open door at the shadowy gardens and the mountains beyond. In one hand is a key, clutched tightly in his fist. In the other is a small bunch of alpine flowers. It’s been a very long journey and he’s earned his rest. A young woman crouches before him and gently closes his eyes. Her companion bends down and takes a flower. He threads it into the woman’s hair.
She takes the young soldier by the hand. “Come,” she says. “It’s time to go. And it’s but a short walk to eternity. Let me show you the way.”