Maria im Schnee
Maria im Schnee
Mary in the Snow
Old Hochgöllner’s House stood high up between the crags and ridges at the Italian border. It clung like the nest of a bird of prey to the granite boulders which protected it from avalanches that frequently raged and surged into the valley below. Hochgöllner lived in the house with his only daughter, Mary. Up in the Tirol mountains, Hochgöllner lived in isolation for as long as he could remember. During peacetime, only seldomly did anyone come to the wasteland of stone labyrinths and snow fields where the mountains emerged like islands. But ever since the war began, and the Italians refused to back down from their attempts to absorb the highlands, the buzz of gunfire has settled over the crags, day and night, like a remote thunderstorm that cannot pass over the mountains.
When the Austrians dug their trenches in those specific areas where the enemy could penetrate, Hochgöllner should have abandoned his old nest.
But, he had not left. Nobody could do that to him; in his old age he should not have to leave his home.
The Katzelmacher (lit. “kettle maker;" a derogatory term for an Italian or Southern European person) would certainly not find the old nest, and would not come through as long as the Austrians held watch. They hated the old geezer in his house; one man staying with his daughter wouldn’t change anything anyway. Hochgöllner did not pay attention to the war. He kept his livestock in order, and wove baskets daily, that his son who lived in the valley would have picked up in peacetime. Since he was enlisted as a Kaiserjäger, his old regiment, he didn’t come home anymore.
A bit away from the Hochgöllner house, in the middle of a snowfield, stood a statue of the Virgin Mary that the old one had once carved. Above her head and halo was a small roof to keep the snow from harming the picture. She was called Mary in the Snow by the elder, because she stood in the middle of a snowfield. His daughter went to her daily and prayed there. The young Mary was pious, the solitude and wonder of nature might have made her so, for she was consistently alone, having no friends and no companions, and her only brother gone long ago. Ever since the noise from the artillery hung like a menacing shadow over the hills, she went there more often and prayed.
One morning, as she knelt once more before the picture of Mary, a soldier suddenly stood beside her, who contemplated in astonishment the peculiar picture. Here above in the deepest solitude, like a miracle, he saw the beautiful young girl who knelt before the saint. He found no words at first as she stood and greeted him.
She wanted to tell him how she came here.
She quickly explained.
She liked the soldier. She studied him closely, and found on his cap an edelweiss flower that twinkled in the sun.
Then was startled.
“Are you a Kaiserjäger (a Tirolean rifle regiment soldier)?”
“Are you one of the good ones?”
“One would think.”
“Then, perhaps, you know Hochgöllner?”
He didn’t, but asked if he was with the Kaiserjäger.
There were so many there, but he would inquire.
She laughed joyously at that.
“See that you find him. And tell him, to come if he can. You can come with!”
The Kaiserjäger grinned.
“I would love to see such a pretty dirndl again..”
“Don’t flatter yourself... but I like you.”
Mary reached for his hand.
“And how are things going, then?”
“Now that we’re there, just fine, lass. What’s your proper name, so I can tell Hochgöllner.”
“I am his sister.”
The soldier, who was with other comrades on patrol, trudged along.
Mary told her father nothing of this encounter; she wanted to process it herself, first. The encounter filled her with excitement.
Terrible days befell the highland. An abrupt gale came from the valley and pushed through the opening by the trenches. It brought cold and swathes of snow. It covered the stone-laden house up to the window and the chimney with a mass of white; it blew the snow onto the ridges, and almost buried the Mary in the Snow.
Neither the old man nor his daughter could leave the Hochgöllner’s house. She had only shoveled a narrow path through the yard to the stables, so she could tend to the livestock.
While the Höchgollner sat and braided his baskets, the girl crouched by the window, and peered into the storm that devoured even the noise from the guns. One heard or saw nothing of friend or foe.
Even the fight between the men had to be impossible in this raging storm.
And Mary thought that her brother was near, that he must ride out the weather in some shelter. And he probably had a comrade with him, whom she liked.
Should Johannes find the path to the Hochgöllner house, how father would celebrate.
But the brother didn’t come.
On the fourth day the snow drifts finally let up, and the sun broke once more through the grey clouds, the country bathed in dazzling light.
Mary wanted to go outside to she who shares her name and free her from the heavy coat of snow that was bearing down on her. She also wanted to pray for her Tirol, that the Italians wanted to capture, for her father, for her brother, and for someone whose name she didn’t know.
The snow fields in front of her were shimmering like a frozen lake. She already thought she had gotten lost in the solitude because she couldn’t see the Virgin Mary in the snow. The statue barely poked out of the white waves.
Who was that?
Someone else must have been here today. Footsteps from snow shoes trailed over the vast field.
The girl stopped to think. The footsteps led to the statue from the enemy’s side where the Italians held their positions. She could clearly see that that was where the footsteps had come from.
The footsteps trailed to the statue of the Virgin Mary in a wide arc. And ... aren’t those red strawflowers blooming in the snow?
Mary bent down. They were drops of blood. For Christ’s sake! Blood! Something terrible must have happened here. Only soldiers were in this area. Immediately, she thought of the strange soldier she had met here. If he had been back here, maybe he had a message for her. Oh no! If that were the case he would’ve come from the side, where the Kaiserjäger are stationed, not from the enemy side.
Immediately, Mary got back up, folded her hands for a quick prayer, and followed the trail of footsteps that led eastward.
The drops of blood became larger and larger.
If the wounded man had found his way back to his people, then that would be good; however, if he had collapsed on his way, he would have died miserably. She moved hastily on her skis.
There, a heap rose from the snow. It looked like a pile of discarded clothes.
A person! A soldier! Within a few minutes she was there. It was one of the Kaiserjäger, bent over and hunched up. The bandage on his left leg was soaked in blood.
She straightened him up, looked him fearfully in the eyes, staggered slightly because he was so heavy in her arms.
The wounded soldier lifted up his weary eyes and smiled.
“What is it?? Speak!”
But he did not answer; he was too weak. Only a gentle laugh and a smile at the corner of his lips remained. He knew he had been rescued.
“Why did you not come home?”
“Couldn't. Had a patrol. Had to report news first and then I thought about the statue….”
She understood him. He hadn't thought of his wound, he wanted to follow his orders first. He had hoped to find his sister at the statue of the Virgin Mary or to leave a sign there. He had been right after all.
“Is the message important, do you think?”
She then unstrapped the skis from his clumsy boots, letting him sit on them like on a sled, and pushed him in front of her, until they found the platoon of the Kaiserjӓger.The captain shook her hand and praised her. She waved off the compliment. It was her brother, after all, whom she had saved, and she confessed she wanted to visit an acquaintance.
“Who is he and did you come into this blizzard to visit him?” Asked the Captain.
She laughed. In the group of soldiers she saw him again, the one whom she had seen at the statue in the snow. Now she could find out his name and tell him that he should go to the Hochgöllner house with her brother. He would understand her.
Contributors: Timo A., Eleanor B., Max D., and Bret W.