Exhaustion etched crevices into his face. The shadows beneath his eyes and his sunken cheeks suggested that Death stalked his steps. His 17th birthday had passed him by just a few short weeks before. He had been climbing steadily for five days. With care, he placed one foot in front of the other, as if he walked on broken glass.
His escape from the prisoner’s march was two weeks behind. The headlong rush into dense woods followed by machine gun fire seemed to have happened in a dream. He had run until his wobbling legs buckled. With a final burst of energy he rolled beneath a thicket where he lay breathless with fear. Seconds crawled by, then minutes, then his eyelids became heavy and he fell into a dreamless sleep.
He woke enveloped in the pungent fragrance of crushed walnut leaves while starlings flitted amongst the branches above. His prized possession, a coat four sizes too big, had kept him warm during the cool autumn night. Gingerly he straightened cramped legs and an arched spine. He became aware of a raging thirst that had dried his mouth; it gave him the impetus to move. Many years later he told me that the stream he’d stumbled across carried the sweetest liquid he’d ever tasted. Its cold, clear waters quenched his thirst and saved his life.
The fighting was over in many parts of Europe now. However, there were still a few pockets of resistance made up of fanatics and conscripted boys. These battles were usually short and deadly. Lacking training, supplies, and ammunition, most were killed, some captured and then forced to march. The cold Russian north was to be their final destination.
After three days he realized that no one was searching for him. He was a lone boy, unimportant and insignificant, not worth the effort. Night was his ally as he moved like a wraith across the empty and abandoned landscape. Faint with hunger, he took refuge in the barn of a deserted farm just before sunrise on the third day. The overgrown, wild garden exposed a treasure trove, potatoes and carrots so sweet they tasted like candy. With a full belly he slept away a day and a night hidden behind a bale of straw in the loft.
The farmhouse yard was strewn with broken furniture and moulding clothes. Looters had taken anything of value and destroyed the rest. He rummaged through the piles of weather rotted rubbish and found a small dented saucepan, and a rucksack. This he filled with the remainder of the potatoes.
Rested, and with some restored energy, he decided to take to the road in the early morning hours. He was able to move faster by day, and if need be, disappear into the bush if he heard vehicles approach. With the available information he had gleaned prior to his capture, he had made his destination Italy. Although a small obstacle lay in his path: the Alps.
In the mountains, he found people scattered amongst the highland meadows and crags. Places too remote to be touched by battle. These independent folk lived off the land and sometimes were willing to help a stranger. The best part of his journey was a wagon filled with sweet hay. He rested his sore aching body in its warm cocoon while the rhythmic clop of oxen hooves lulled him to sleep. Waking only when the farmer pressed a loaf of thick coarse bread and a hot mug of broth into his hands.
He had left the last sign of civilization behind almost two days before. Hunger was his only companion now. His last meal had been yesterday morning, a small piece of mouldy bread and a sliver of hard cheese. The sun was setting. It would be full dark in less than a half hour, and he still had to find shelter.
A granite shelf stopped his progress; it jutted out over a dark drop-off. Straining his eyes into the gloom, he thought he could make out a path leading down a steep slope. His only other option would be to follow the edge of the ravine which wound back and around until it was lost in the thick, creeping darkness.
He pulled off his heavy parka, rolled it up, and wrapped it around his pack. It would mean certain death to lose it. He used the rope from around his waist and criss-crossed it over both shoulders, tying the coat to his back. Gingerly he let himself down the side of the ledge until he hung full length over the drop. Was that the ground just below his toes? It was just too dark to tell. If he let go and it was farther than a couple of feet he could get hurt. He hung motionless for a few seconds trying to decide, then chose the safer path. He scrambled back up and headed into the woods to look for firewood.
In the gathering dark he stumbled over a root and fell. He crashed to the ground and rolled down hill, desperately grabbing for anything to stop his momentum. As he tumbled, thick branches slapped his face and clawed at his arms. Seconds later he lay dazed in a crumpled heap, unhurt except for a few stinging scrapes.
When he tried to retrace his steps, the steep bank and thick branches barred his way. Night was so black here it was as if he had fallen into a deep well. There was nothing to do but put his parka back on and tie it tight against his emaciated frame. He broke several tree branches and piled them into a heap, pulled a recently acquired thin blanket from his rucksack and wrapped it around his legs. He lay still, inhaling the sharp scent of pine, and was asleep in moments.
Although the temperatures dropped during the night, he managed to stay relatively warm in his hasty shelter. Only his feet were cold. But, they soon warmed as he stamped the ground to restore the circulation. The grey morning light showed that he was at the bottom of a small hollow surrounded by thick pines. Dropping to his hands and knees, it was easy enough to crawl back out in the daylight. A few steps took him back to the granite outcrop where he stared down a thousand foot drop. He pictured his shattered body lying amongst the jumbled boulders below, and shivered.
He turned and began to follow the ridge line. It was almost afternoon before he found a stream gurgling over rounded pebbles. Here he stopped to rest and build a small fire. He dropped handfuls of dried Queen of Meadow flowers into the saucepan of boiling water. As he waited for the tea to cool enough to drink he spotted several large mushrooms growing around a dead log. Those also went into his tea. His stomach still growled as he packed the pot away.
A half hour later he came across a road which lay in the direction he wanted to go. Was he still in Austria? Or had he already crossed the border into Italy? The lane was covered with tall, dried grasses thick with frost; the ruts were buried beneath vegetation. This road hadn’t been used in a long time, but it ran more or less in the direction he was heading. It was easy going for an hour; then he hit the snow line. For a while the crust was thick enough to walk on but soon his feet began falling through, and he could not push through.
He scooped some snow up in his hand and squeezed it into a small ball, sucking on the melt water to quench his thirst. It was dangerous, but he had no time to stop and build a fire. Daylight was beginning to fade and the blue-grey shadows of the tall pines cast deep silhouettes across the white countryside. Time was running out and he still had to find enough firewood to last the night.
Just as the sun began to set behind the mountain his eye caught a glimmer in the distance. It looked to be a partially buried window pane. Marshalling the last of his strength he left the road and struggled toward that shimmer of hope in the night.