The Lady with the Owl Eyes
By Garth Von Buchholz
When I was in college, I had a summer job at a personal care home for the elderly. I was that young kid wheel chairing the snowy-haired old doll into the courtyard, or saying carefully chosen words to the Alzheimer’s patient who wanted to know when her father was arriving, or helping a wizened gentleman in a musty suit and tie mount the stairs to the tour bus. They had their own tour bus that was used for taking residents on outings, provided their state of health was such that they wouldn’t collapse in the middle of a coffee shop in some other town.
The old folks seemed to like me. Occasionally they’d get a little cranky, but that was part of the deal. You get old, your body is sore, and you have a right to bitch at young people like me who could still get out of bed and look forward to the day instead of feeling like they were a wounded infantryman about to climb out of the trenches and onto the battlefield one more time. I liked most of them, too, but my favorite resident was Mrs. V., a Russian immigrant who settled in Canada after the Second World War. She was a cultured woman with round, glassy eyes like an owl, a haughty stance with her chin raised to a 20 degree angle, thick white hair that was styled like a movie star, and an impeccably outdated wardrobe that must have been fashionable once, though I wasn’t sure when. She looked like a living, black-and-white Kodak photo from a half a century ago.
Mrs. V and I would spend time talking after our weekly excursions on the bus. She admitted that she had no interest in most of the destinations that we visited, but simply went along with the group so she could escape her small suite. She was fairly independent, and was allowed to keep a small electric coffee percolator in her room so she could brew her own harsh, metallic java that I had to share with her. She asked me whether I had girlfriends.
“I started dating someone,” I replied.
“Are you having sex with her?” she asked me bluntly. I drank some coffee to collect myself.
“No, it’s not…we’re not at that point right now.”
She shook her head and twisted her mouth as if she had swallowed an insect.
“If I liked a man, I would give him sex,” she said in her percussive Russian syllables. “Get another girl. Don’t waste your time. You grow old fast enough, yes?”
“Yes,” was my meek reply, not certain what we had just agreed upon.
By the end of the summer, Mrs V. was ill with heart problems. She stopped joining the bus tours and started spending more time in bed. I still had my responsibilities with the tours, but I always stopped in to see Mrs. V. afterward, just to keep our little tradition alive.
The last time I saw her before she passed, she was startled as I entered her unlocked room. She had been asleep, and her curtains were drawn. When I spoke to her, she rose up on one arm and stared at me for several moments as if I were a stranger who was slowly transforming into someone she vaguely remembered.
I gave her a moment to primp her hair and sit up in bed with some dignity. I noticed she was holding a small, ornate box in her hand—not quite a jewelry box but more like a fancy pillbox that a child might use to store a baby tooth that had fallen out. She saw me looking at it, and her moonish eyes opened wider.
“It’s a lock of hair from a baby,” she explained. “My daughter.”
I was afraid to ask. “Is she still….”
“No, she died as an infant. An infant!” she emphasized.
I shook my head to show my sympathy.
“Do you know what you must suffer for your children? No, you don’t. You will have a child someday, you are young. Her name was Ekaterina. She was born in 1941, the year the Germans marched into Russia. In July, Stalin was ordering the Russian people to fight back against the Germans. Better to burn your own barns rather than leave them to the invaders, he said. My husband was fighting with the Red Army. I was alone with our child.”
Mrs. V opened the box and beckoned me to touch the hair inside. It was blonde. I didn’t want to touch it.
“One morning, the neighbors came to my door. They were fleeing. ‘The Germans are only a few kilometers away!’ they cried. My best friend, Sofia, told me the Germans were raping women and bayoneting babies to the walls of their homes. She was shaking so badly it made her baby’s little head nod up and down as if it were agreeing with her.”
“Terrible,” I said, for lack of anything else to say.
“I wanted to run with them, but I had valuables, things my husband entrusted to me. If I left without taking them along, he would never forgive me. It was all we had, something to help us start anew after the war. “
Mrs V. stopped and stared at a point just above my head. I could see the memories returning to her, at first like a slideshow and then as the frames started appearing more quickly, a movie.
“What was I thinking?” she asked herself, alarmed by some impending crisis that had, in fact, happened decades ago. “The time flew. As my mother always said, ‘Pray to God, but keep a sharp mind!’ I was tying a satchel and dressing the baby when I heard it.” She stopped and went still.
“Mrs. V?” I prodded. Was she having a stroke?
She looked at me gently, her eyes more glazed than ever.
“I heard my neighbors screaming,” she said. “I heard cars, tanks. The invaders had arrived. They were almost at my doorstep.”
My mouth was open, but I could not speak.
“The women were screaming. And children. ‘Mama, mama!’ I had no where to hide. I could not outrun their vehicles. That was when I knew that I would be raped in a few minutes. Raped. And my baby….” She trailed off.
I glanced at the open box again, and the little lock of golden hair seemed ghoulish, as if I were standing beside an open grave. I was stiffened by the horror of what had become of Ekaterina. It was too much for me to hear. I wasn’t certain I wanted to know what happened next. I tried to fast-forward her story.
“How did you finally get away? How did you survive?”
She laughed. “Oh, yes, it was survival of a sort. We were interned by the Germans, then the Red Army pushed back the German front and freed us into poverty a few months later. Here…” she said suddenly, pressing the little pillbox into my hand. “Keep it. You can throw away the contents, but not until after you leave this building, please. Maybe you give your girl a little ring inside it someday?”
I was aghast at her offer. I did not want the box. I did not want to touch the baby’s hair, ever.
“Please,” she begged. “I have no one left. The people here will put it on the table to be sold at one of those silly craft sales they have here. I want you to have it because you know the story now. Part of the story.”
I nodded weakly. I would accept it, just to honor her wishes. Then I would throw it away the first chance I got. She placed it in the palm of my right hand, and closed my fingers around it.
“The Germans did not kill my baby,” she said. There was a long pause. I counted her breaths: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6….
“Do you understand?” she asked.
I did not.
She whispered. “I would not wait for them to stick my baby on the walls with the tip of their bayonet. My mother taught me how to bleed a goat or a lamb. When I walked into my front yard carrying my child and my razor, Ekaterina’s sweet blood was soaking the front of my dress. It made me go mad. I was smiling because I knew she was in heaven and would never be harmed by those devils.”
I stopped breathing.
“When the Germans saw the crazy woman with the dead baby, the soldiers and their motorcade veered around me. They never even came near me.”
Garth Von Buchholz is an author of dark fiction, poetry, drama and non-fiction. His new book of dark poetry, Mad Shadows, was published in June. Garth is the founder of the Dark Fiction Guild (http://DarkFictionGuild.com) and Poe International (http://PoeInternational.com). He is also the Editor and Publisher of Dark Eye Glances, the eJournal of dark poetry. Garth lives on Vancouver Island on Canada’s west coast. Visit his website: http://VonBuchholz.com