The Friendless Unburied
by K. Noel Moore
Call for the robin-redbreast and the wren,|
Since o’er shady groves they hover,
And with leaves and flowers do cover
The friendless bodies of unburied men.
— John Webster, “A Dirge”
The knock at the way-station’s door came very early in the morning.
It sounded once, then twice, then silence. A moment later, Lili was poking her head out from under the covers, and then the knock sounded again.
“Mutti,” Lili hiss-whispered, “Mutti. Jemand klopft an die Tür. Wach auf, Mutti.”
The Matron sat up, rubbing her tired eyes.“Ich bin wach, Kind,” she muttered, “Ich bin wach. Bring mir die Lampe.”
She slipped a coat over her dressing-gown and pulled on her shoes. Lili returned with the lantern, already carefully lit. With the lantern raised high, the Matron descended the stairs.
Outside, silver sheets of rain poured from a cobalt sky. The man at the door could have graced a recruitment poster, back when Britain first entered the fray; perfect English features: brown-haired and blue-eyed and Roman-nosed, dressed in the olive drabs of an anonymous private. Truly anonymous: he had no medals, no ribbons, and no dog tags on display. Only a patch on his upper arm marked him as the lowest of rank-and-file soldiers. He had no gun.
“Guten Morgen,” he said.
“Guten Morgen, junger Mann. Was führt Sie hierher?” she asked. Always the first question: What brings you here?
He shivered, opening his mouth wide and silent, the cold stealing his words.
“Oh, bitte, kommen Sie herein,” she said, gesturing for him to step inside. “Schnell, schnell.”
The boy nodded gratefully and stepped inside. “I come from the Ardennes,” he continued in his broken German, dripping on the hardwood floor. “I was left behind there. I woke there alone. I come alone.”
The Matron guided him into the kitchen, clucking “Setzen Sie sich, setzen Sie sich. Trinken Sie Kaffee?”
“Ja, bitte. Danke.”
She set the pot brewing and handed him a towel to dry his face, to which he politely mumbled Danke again. “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” she asked. “Französisch?”
“English. I speak English. Do you?”
“I speak good English,” she said proudly. “My sons, they live in England. They teach me.”
The young soldier breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank God. I know some German, but I’m not sure how long I’d be able to keep it up.” He had no identifiable accent.
“Woher kommen Sie?” she asked. “Do you know? Do you know where you come from?”
“England, I think. Scotland? The North of Ireland?” He shook his head. “I think in English, and I’m wearing a British uniform. That’s all I know.”
“No dog tags? No name?”
“Nothing. I don’t know where my tags went. Maybe someone stole them off my body, or maybe a friend took them home to my family.” He said the words “friend” and “family” uncertainly, carefully; of course he did, unsure as he was if he had either.
Lili came bounding down the stairs. She jumped up on the kitchen table, lying on her stomach with her chin resting on her hands, and looked the young soldier up and down. “Guten Tag,” she said cheerfully. “Wie heißen Sie?”
“He speaks English, Lili. And he have no name.”
“Can I give him one?” Her English was even crisper than the Matron’s, but then her German was equally fluent. Language would give no clues to her past.
The Matron snorted lightly. “He is not a doll. You can, if he let you, but you ask him first.”
“Can I give you a name?” she asked.
“Sure. I guess it’s better than having none.”
She squinted, reading whatever secrets were written on his empty eyes. “Dietrich,” she said decisively. “I’d like to call you Dietrich.”
“Like Marlene Dietrich,” he said, “the movie star.”
“Or Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” the Matron offered, “the preacher.” She set a steaming cup of coffee on the table.
“Ah, danke.” He furrowed his brow as he sipped. “Funny that I remember Marlene Dietrich. I remember a lot of things that have nothing to do with me.”
“Not funny at all. The last man I meet like you, he say the same thing.”
“I named him Dmitri,” Lili said. “I like names that start with D.”
Not much was known about those revenants who had come back with no memory. People smarter than the Matron had suggested that a trigger was needed, some familiar sight at the time of the Resurrection to tell the risen who they were. Most woke surrounded by comrades, or in a place that was at least somewhat known to them. Some had a photo in their pocket, dog tags around their neck, a trinket that the living had placed into their hands at their funerals.
And then there were those like Dietrich. He had not died on the battlefield, she guessed; perhaps he was jumped by the enemy, robbed and left alone; perhaps he died of illness and had to be buried by the roadside, and his effects were taken to be sent back to his family, the only thing they could bury.
“I’m like you, you know,” Lili said. “I don’t know where I came from or how I died. Matron calls me Lili because I had a flower in my pocket when I came here: a lily. See?”
She pointed to a shadow-box hanging on the wall, a pressed white flower inside.
“It’s beautiful,” Dietrich said. “I have some flowers in my pocket now, see? I picked them as I was walking.” They were half-crushed, but still beautiful: red poppies and pale purple Sweet William and little white daisies. “Would you like them?”
Lili nodded eagerly. She cupped the blossoms in her hands with the utmost gentleness. “Thank you.”
“All right, Lili, you’ve greeted our guest. To bed, now.” The Matron took her by the hand, leading her back up the stairs.
When she returned, she found Dietrich had finished his coffee and was wandering about the kitchen, looking for somewhere to place his empty cup. “Nein, nein, bleiben Sie sitzen” she scolded him. “You have walked far. You need your rest.”
“You’re very kind.”
“This is a way-station, junger Mann. Kindness is the way of things here.”
“Is there anyone else here now, besides Lili?”
“Nein, just you and me and my little girl. She is not a guest, you see; she is my family now. Lili belonged to one of those... ah, what do you call them? Those caravans.”
Dietrich nodded. “The civilian revenant caravans. I’ve run into one; they were on their way to France. Paris is offering them shelter until all their families have been notified — those who have family left. A lot of them came from countries that are Soviet-occupied now, and no one wants to send them back. No one wants to put them through more repression, after what some of them went through in the camps.”
She saw him pause, wondering if Lili could have been, and then put the thought out of his mind, just as she did when it came to hers. Some pasts were best left forgotten.
“Did she run away?” he asked.
“She was lost. In a crowd of thousands, is easy to lose one small child. She go from way-station to way-station, and finally she come here. Since she have no memories, I think no family will come to find her. My children are grown, and I miss them. I am happy to raise her.”
“Raise” was not the word for Lili. There was no raising a girl who would never grow up. Both knew it, and neither said it.
“Come sit by the fire,” Matron said instead, “dry your clothes.”
“You should go back to bed,” Dietrich said as he situated himself before the flames. “I woke you up before the sun.”
“Nein, nein. I am up now, I do not think I could go back to sleep. Are you on your way to Dunkirk?” she asked.
He nodded. “I hear there are boats putting out from there, transportation across the Channel for the ones who got left behind. Have you heard that, too?”
“Ja. Many young men have come before you, going the same place. My last guests, they were two American boys with their sweethearts. They both fall in love with Belgian girls, want to take them home.” She shook her head. “A living girl and a revenant boy. Imagine. That will not last long, poor boys.”
“There was a battle at Dunkirk,” he said. “I remember that.” He kneaded the heels of his hands against his head. “It makes me mad. It hurts, that I can remember so much about the world, but I can’t remember my name, or my mother’s face, or if I was going out with a girl.”
The fire flared and crackled with the boy’s anger.
The Matron twisted the wedding ring on her finger. “My husband, you know, he die in the war. A nephew, too. My nephew did not come back, and my husband, he come back wrong. He is like you now, wandering, only with nowhere to go. He search for something that cannot be found. This is why I become a way-minder; I wait for him to return. The Resurrection is for only God to understand, I think.”
“Ah, I have no time for sadness. I have my Lili to keep me company. I have grown flowers since I was a little girl. I sell them in town. Lili helps me now; we keep busy.” The townsfolk still stared when she brought Lili by. They were unused to the ashen-faced dead walking alongside the living, even her foster daughter, with her doll face and wide white smile, Lili who could charm the Devil himself.
A great yawn racked Dietrich’s thin frame. “If I never get my memory back,” he said, “I think I’ll go to London, help rebuild bombed-out tenements and hospitals. I don’t know why, exactly, but I feel I was a builder in my life, or a maker of some sort. A carpenter? Someone who put pieces together. And the world’s a bloody mess now, with a war that killed tens of millions and about half of them coming back as if it didn’t happen, no one knows why. It needs somebody to put the pieces back together.”
“That’s good. You hold on to that feeling. It lead you somewhere, maybe.”
“I feel I grew up somewhere where it was green in the summer and white in the winter. The hills. A farm? I feel I used to sing in pubs, and people would listen.”
He inched closer to the fire, hugging his chest. The flames painted him gold as he rocked lightly back and forth. “I’d like to be in love one day,” he said. “I feel I’ve never been in love before. Maybe I’ll find a revenant girl in London. Maybe...” Another great yawn. He blinked, and with each blink his eyelids were heavier.
The Matron slipped her arm around his shoulders, helping him to his feet. “Kommen Sie, Dietrich. Zeit fürs Bett.” Time for bed.
She led Dietrich up to the way-station’s guest room. That had been Christophe’s room, when he got too old to share his space with Matéo, and it was Matéo’s when Christophe left for England, and his brother was tired of being relegated to the smaller space. She led him upstairs as she had led them whenever they dozed off over their English studies, tucked him into bed just the same way. “Schlafen Sie gut, meine Junge.”
As she returned to her own room, she recalled all the times she had led her husband Theodor back to their bed, guiding him off the porch or away from the windows, afraid he would wander away into the night, chasing whatever phantoms he saw in the dark. She had quietly given up hope, long ago, that he would ever stop chasing them.
The rain had subsided. The Matron leaned, tired, against her window, watching the sign in the front yard sway lightly in the breeze.
A year before, the way-station had been flooded with new arrivals, one every day, it seemed, and often more than one. Bands of soldiers, lone soldiers, lone civilians, bands of civilians before they grouped together into caravans and headed for the welcoming environ of France. The Resurrection made no distinction between Jew and gentile, slave and free, man and woman; the dead came to her from all the nations of Europe, all walks of life therein. There were old men, there were children, there were women, and there were so many young men. They wore dingy prisoners’ uniforms and drab soldiers’ uniforms and finery and rags.
But that was nineteen forty-six. In nineteen forty-seven, arrivals slowed to a mere trickle. They would stop altogether one day, and then the Matron could rest. She could prepare her daughter for a life without her, live her last days simply and happily, beholden to no one, and then she could lie down and join the many who weren’t chosen by the Resurrection.
Let the young piece the new world together; all she wanted was to see every lost soul return home. That was her part in it all. She hoped she had done it well.
Copyright © 2019 by K. Noel Moore