Updated: Apr 26, 2021
By Stacy Benson
Short Fiction Honorable Mention, 2018 VSU Student Writing Contest
Keturah frantically crawled through the dank, black tunnel with her little brother in tow. They made their way to an opening where about ten other runaways sat cramped together. No one greeted the new arrivals. It was as if they were afraid that even a whisper would alert their enemies to the location of their subterranean refuge.
Silent tears fell from Asher’s face. Despite his cherubic features and wide-eyed innocence, he understood that silence was crucial. Keturah held Asher in her lap and comforted him as best as she could. Her mother would have soothingly rocked him in her arms, but Keturah was somewhat paralyzed from exhaustion, fear, and shock.
The two sat embraced for hours. No one spoke nor moved in the hideout. Eventually, sleep overcame the two exhausted siblings. But Keturah’s slumber was not a blessing. Her mind played the horrific scene from earlier that day unremittingly; each time she felt the same terror fresh and anew.
The day began as any other. The family rose early to tend to the chores before breakfast. They had heard that the Nazis were now in Austria, but perhaps their secluded, small farm in the Tyrol would stay cloaked in the nooks and crevices of the mountains. Muhlerhof wasn’t far from their farm, but visitors were rare. Papa felt that the German’s wouldn’t waste their time on ousting a few Austrian-Jews from an insignificant, remote location. Mother was not as optimistic, but she always deferred to Papa’s judgement.
Keturah spoke soothingly to Clover, the family’s dairy cow, as she squirted milk into her pail. She chatted softly with the chickens while she gathered eggs in her apron. Of course, her closest companion, Gretel, followed her everywhere she went, keeping watch over her charge like an auspicious supervisor. The animals were Keturah’s friends and she was content with that arrangement.
Keturah deposited the collection of eggs in the basket in the kitchen. Asher sat sleepy-eyed at the table waiting for Mother to feed his hungry belly. Keturah sat next to him and stroked his back as he leaned on her shoulder. At twelve-years-old, Keturah thought she would like to be a mother herself one day. Looking after a toddler could be difficult sometimes, but she felt her heart would burst with the love that she felt for that little boy. After all, she helped the midwife deliver him.
Papa sauntered in the door just as mother began to pick up the eggs only to break them in the pan.
“Look at what I brought for my pretty girls and growing boy!”
Papa announced that a friend of neighboring farmers knew a butcher who was lucky enough to have some extra weisswurst on-hand. Veal was a special treat, especially in hard times, so the family’s excitement was understandable.
Keturah was pleased with the weisswurst. She loved to eat meat. But she did have a hard time thinking about from where the meat came.
“Papa, thank you for such a savory surprise,” Keturah honestly said to Papa. I just wish the poor baby calf didn’t…” She couldn’t finish her statement, but Papa knew what she meant.
“Ah, sweet Keturah. It can be a sad thing to think about, I know. Every life is precious. Some animals that God created, He allows to be handled for our nourishment. It is a sacrifice in a way. To help others.”
Keturah ate her portly breakfast and enjoyed the taste of it very much. However, she meditated for some time after on the poor calf that had to die so she could receive sustenance.
After breakfast the family started about the rest of their daily activities. When it was time for Asher’s nap, Keturah cuddled with him on his bed to help him fall asleep. The house was quiet and comfortable. Suddenly Papa threw open the door and ran to Mama. He grabbed her and ran to where the children were lying down. He shook Keturah and told her that the Nazis had found their way to their tiny farm in the Tyrol. Mama stood with a shocked gaze and heavy breathing.
“Keturah, you have to take Asher! Take him and run with him! We cannot let the soldiers find you! Run to the Hoffer’s farm. They will tell you where to hide from there. But stay off of the road! Keep low, stay quiet. Run!” Papa desperately whispered.
Keturah was stunned and couldn’t move. Papa dragged her out of the bed. Mama was crying now and hugged her daughter fiercely. When Papa picked up Asher, the boy awoke, startled. He smiled at first to see Papa. Then, when he was roughly placed in Keturah’s arms he realized something was wrong. He started to whimper but he stopped as soon as Keturah carried him out of the house.
“I love you, sweet Keturah! I love you, sweet Asher!” assured Papa. Mama echoed Papa’s words. “Now run!” He bellowed.
Keturah ran hard. She knew the way to the Hoffer’s, but how far was it? Four miles? She could hear the jeeps rolling toward her home. Panic overcame her. Then it seemed as if all sound stopped. And as if time had stopped too. Yet she was still moving, running, panting. Then the sound barrier broke. Gunshots were fired! What was happening to her parents? Should she go back? No. Papa said to run. But she couldn’t help herself. She had to know what was happening to her parents. She told Asher to be very quiet and she, with as much stealth as a twelve-year-old could muster, headed back to the farmhouse. The German soldiers were surveying the land and her home. Papa and Mama stood outside. Mama was yelling at the soldiers telling them to leave. A soldier punched her in the throat and she hit the ground hard. Papa reacted quickly and struck the soldier’s face with such force that Keturah could hear the crush of the man’s nose from where she stood hiding. When Papa kept landing blows on the German man’s busted face, one of the other soldiers yanked him away and shot him right between his eyes. His body fell like a rag doll to the earth.
Five days had passed since Keturah’s world changed forever. Asher, who initially was quiet and complacent had become restless in the black cavity. The older children had taken turns sneaking out at night to meet Mrs. Hoffer who shared as much food with the escapees as she could spare, but the tribe already looked as if they were starving. Tonight, it was Keturah’s turn to find Mrs. Hoffer. She dreaded having to leave the safety of her shelter, no matter how awful it was. But it had been decided and she now had to summon up the courage to move her trembling limbs into the open air.
Asher was not happy at all that his sister left him. He screamed so loudly that the other children smacked his cheek to make him stop crying. Fortunately, Keturah’s mission was quick and successful. She divided the fare among the children and settled back down with Asher for another long night in the aphotic, rancid hole in the ground.
They would sometimes hear the jeeps rolling close by and their panic heightened. One night when the sound of motors and the voices of German soldiers could be heard, Asher’s whining could not be stopped. The other children became enraged. They yelled for Keturah to silence him. She couldn’t. One girl a little younger than she crawled over and struck Asher. That made him cry more.
“Maria!” Keturah said with scorn, “Do not hit my brother!”
“He needs to be quiet! We will be found if he doesn’t stop his obtuse crying!” Maria was now only an inch from Keturah’s face.
Asher’s face contorted and his cries were more shrill.
Then the angry band of children swarmed the two siblings and forced them to leave the shelter of the hideout. They pushed and clawed Keturah and Asher, surely leaving bruises.
“Get out! Get out!” The children sinisterly repeated.
They demanded them to leave and to get as far away as possible so their sanctuary would not be discovered.
Asher clung to Keturah as she laboriously maneuvered through the tunnel. Miraculously he stopped crying, but the furious horde had already demanded their departure. The night was frigid and dark. Clouds prevented the stars and the moon from lighting up the sky. Keturah made it to the camouflaged exit/entry to the shaft. She paused before crossing the barrier into the exposed countryside. She peered to the right before exiting and was crushed with horror when she saw a uniformed, jet figure sweeping his flashlight across the terrain. Feeling as if a million tiny needles pricked her skin, she was paralyzed with fear. Asher held tight to her and was miraculously as quiet as a mouse.
It seemed like an eternity before the officer left to search another area. Keturah saw an opening and then bolted out of the tunnel, clutching Asher to her chest as she ran. She stopped short when she realized there was another man close by. She hid with Asher in the tall grass flush against a massive boulder. She had only made it a few feet from the hideout. Just when she thought that the soldiers were leaving for their jeeps, Asher began to sob. Keturah tried to quiet him, but to no avail. The soldiers had heard him! Panicked for her brother, panicked for herself, and panicked for the den of hungry children, Keturah placed her scarf over Asher’s mouth and pressed hard to quiet him. He squirmed and tried to push her away, but Keturah tapped into unrealized strength and stifled Asher’s cry. The soldiers dismissed the sound, figuring it to have been an animal. When Keturah realized the soldiers had actually abandoned their search and were driving away in their steel chariots, she released her grip around Asher’s face.
She breathed a sigh of relief and smiled down at her baby brother.
“Asher. It’s okay, baby. The bad men are gone,” Keturah said soothingly.
Asher didn’t move.
“Asher? Asher? Wake up!” She screamed at the limp, little body.
But Asher was no more. Keturah’s throat closed and she gasped for air. She wrapped her arms around her baby brother’s small frame. She lingered in this way until the warmth left Asher’s tiny form.
The next day Mrs. Hoffer stumbled upon the mournful scene by the boulder. She woke Keturah who still clung to her brother’s corpse. To speak any words in that moment would have been worthless and superfluous. So, Mrs. Hoffer led the grief-stricken girl to the farmhouse. The kind couple cared for Keturah, hiding her from the Nazis, providing nourishment for her body and her broken spirit.
Several weeks had passed and Keturah, who was able to move freely throughout the house when the Nazis weren’t around, remained secluded in her hiding place in the Hoffer’s home. Mrs. Hoffer brought her food and water and tried to comfort her. Keturah would not be comforted.
Mr. And Mrs. Hoffer spoke of the other children who were in the tunnel. Arrangements had been made for them to move to other locations with people who could help hide them. But there was one little girl who was mistakenly left behind. The Hoffer’s decided to take her in along with Keturah. It would be tight, but they would manage.
Mrs. Hoffer slowly approached Keturah with the four-year-old clinging to her skirts.
“Keturah,” Mrs. Hoffer said sweetly. This is Rachel. “She will be staying with us.”
Keturah looked up from her trance-like state. She recognized Rachel. That’s Maria’s sister! Initially, Keturah wanted to charge the child and claw and push at her the way the tiny horde did to her and Asher all those weeks ago. But it was a fleeting thought. Tears began to flow down Keturah’s cheeks as she ran to hug the scared little girl who stood before her. The embrace unlocked the steel heart Keturah had harbored since losing all of her family.
Over time, the motley crew of the Hoffers, Keturah, and Rachel morphed into a new, loving family. Providence protected them during the remainder of the rule of the Third Reich. Keturah continued to grow as a kind and nurturing woman. She never married, but through the orphanage named after her brother, she had many children to love.