by Margaret F. Bach
Illustrated by Lynnette Moench
The story of a little immigrant who was looking for a home – and love.
The letter was waiting for Hans when he came in from his work shop. It was the middle of November and he was spending all his time on finishing the nativity set. Mary and Joseph were finished and the work on the Christ Child was almost finished, but the figures still had to be painted. Bishop Thompson wanted to put up the display the day after Thanksgiving, so there was no time to lose. Every day as soon as he got home from school he went out to the shed and worked until supper time.
Nat was coming out of the greenhouse as Hans went up to the kitchen door.
With a prayer for guidance in his heart
he inched toward the staircase
and found the first step.
“A letter came for you today,” Nat said.
“For me?” Hans wondered who would be writing to him.
“There’s a foreign stamp on it – it’s from Germany,” Nat said mysteriously.
“Oh!” Hans exclaimed,. “It must be from Miss Sommers – she said she’d write.”
Nat shrugged. “Can’t tell – there’s no return address on the envelope. Don’t look like American handwritin’ to me, though; it’s all up and down and sorta pointed like.”
“I’d better see who it’s from,” Hans said. “Are you coming in?”
“No – I got a few more things to tend to in the greenhouse. Your Aunt Minnie’s rose started to bud a few days ago and she’s as nervous as a mother hen about it, so I’m gonna check it once more before I leave.”
“Nat said there was a letter for me,” Hans said when he came into the warm kitchen.
Aunt Minnie nodded. “It’s on the mantel.”
Hans went into the living room and picked up the envelope. He studied the writing closely but it offered no clue. He opened the blade of his pocket knife and slid it along the top fold of the envelope. The letter was written in German:
My dear Hans.
I hope you will not be too shocked when you receive this letter. I am your mother’s brother.
Hans could hardly believe his eyes. he read the words again, then he read on – the years spent in prison camp – returning to find his family dead and no trace of his nephew –
Then I met Lieutenant Sommers who had made your acquaintance. It was an answer to my prayers. I know that you do not remember me. You were only a baby when I left for the army, but it is my wish to have you with me. However, it is up to you to decide. When I am settled and have found work I will write to your father’s sister and if you want to come and live with me I will make the arrangements.
The letter was signed, “Uncle Paul.”
Hans read the letter through several times, pausing now and then to stare into the fire and let the meaning of this letter sink in. Aunt Minnie had never really wanted him – she had said so herself – and here was someone who did. He sat forward on the hassock with his elbows resting on his knees and started making plans. He couldn’t leave until the nativity figures were finished, but after that –
“Land sakes,” Aunt Minnie said. “No wonder you can’t hear, the way that fire’s roaring. I’ve called supper four times.”
“I’m sorry,” Hans jumped up and followed Aunt Minnie into the kitchen.
They had just finished asking the blessing when Nat burst into the room. “Miss Minnie,” he panted.
“What is it?” Aunt Minnie asked getting to her feet.
“The rose bud – ”
“What’s happened to it?” Aunt Minnie’s voice sounded high and excited.
“Nothin’.” Nat assured. “Nothin’ bad, that is. The color’s beginning to show – ”
Aunt Minnie disappeared through the kitchen door before Nat could finish.
“Come on, boy,” he beckoned and the two followed Aunt Minnie into the twilight.
Aunt Minnie was examining the bud when Nat and Hans entered. Her face was flushed with excitement. “I’ll tell you what – I’ll drive you to your boarding house, Nat, and then I’ll stop at Ann’s. She promised to help me pick a name so I can get it patented.”
Nat nodded. “That’s all right with me; I’m ready whenever you are.”
“We’ll leave as soon as we finish supper,” Aunt Minnie decided.
Hans was glad that the new rose was the main topic of conversation at the supper table. He wanted a little more time to think about his uncle’s letter before telling the others about it.
“I’ll do the dishes,” he offered when they had finished.
Aunt Minnie nodded absently and took off her apron. King Midas’ touch – Goldilocks – no, that’s no good,” she murmured. “What do you think of Golden Beauty?” she asked Nat as they disappeared through the door.
It was still early when Hans finished the dishes, so he decided to go out to the workshop for a while. The night was dark and crisp, and he could see his breath on the air as he walked along the graveled driveway.
“I should have worn my jacket,” he thought as he hunched his shoulders against the cold and hurriedly opened the door. He flicked the light switch, and the bulb from the green-shaded lamp hanging from the ceiling lit up the work table in the center of the room. The figure of the Christ Child was just where he left it when he went in to supper. Joseph and Mary still stood in the shadows ready to be painted – nothing had changed, and yet everything had changed. As soon as his job was finished he could leave. “I might even get finished tonight, and the painting shouldn’t take too long – two or three days.” Hans picked up his tools and started to work eagerly.
The house was still dark when he finished. In a way he was glad. He could put off telling Aunt Minnie his decision until morning. He picked up a flashlight and threw the beam in front of him as he walked toward the house. He was very tired and went right up to his room without bothering to turn on the lights.
Hans did not know how long he slept or what awakened him, but one instant he was sound asleep and the next he was awake. He sat up in bed and listened, but everything was still. After a while he settled back on his pillow with his hands clasped under his head and stared into the darkness. He had an uneasy feeling that something was wrong, and the longer he lay there the surer he became that his imagination was not just playing tricks on him in the darkness. Throwing back the covers he padded across the floor and opened the door. He gasped and staggered back, the water streaming from his eyes. He tried to breathe, but all he inhaled was smoke. Choking and coughing he slammed the door shut but his room was already filling with smoke. There was no time to lose – he would have to get outside somehow. If he only had something wet to put over his nose and mouth. Well, he would do the next best thing. He pulled open the top drawer of the chest and located his handkerchiefs with the help of his flashlight. They would be better than nothing, he decided, when his flashlight pointed to something in the corner of the drawer – the paper-weight he had meant as a gift for Aunt Minnie – it was filled with water. He piled several handkerchiefs on top of each other and set the paper weight on top. One blow with the flashlight shattered it and the water soaked into the handkerchiefs. He put the wet cloths to his face and went back to the door. Swirling smoke filled the hallway, making the flashlight useless. He would have to feel his way. With a prayer for guidance in his heart, he inched toward the staircase and found the first step. There were sixteen in all, and it seemed forever before his bare feet touched the living room rug. He walked by instinct until he felt the tile floor of the shop under his feet. He walked toward the counter and patted the surface of it until his hand brushed the smooth, cold telephone. He picked up the receiver and waited. “Oh, please hurry!” he begged.
“Number, please?” the familiar voice inquired.
“The fire department – there’s a fire at Madison Greenhouse.”
“I’ll – ”
Silence at the other end of the receiver. The smoke was more than Hans could stand. He hurried outside and decided to wait until the volunteer firemen came. All at once he remembered the rose. He ran around the back of the building and entered the greenhouse through the outside door. As he made his way to the back of the greenhouse where the rose was kept he could smell the smoke faintly. He quickly gathered the flower pot in his arms and retraced his steps to the door. Suddenly he stopped. The night air was too cold for a plant; it would have to be wrapped in something for protection. But what? His pajama top. He took it off and wrapped it around the plant, but that would not be enough – Aunt Minnie always wrapped the plants for delivery in the heavy green wrapping paper in the shop. He would have to go back inside.
Hans set the plant in the doorway and went into the shop. He felt weak and shaky and it took every ounce of his strength to pull at the great roll of wrapping paper on the counter. It seemed like such a long time since he had called the operator. He wondered if she had understood his message. By now he was so groggy that he didn’t have the strength to walk. Falling to his knees, he crawled along the floor trailing the wrapping paper behind him. he lost all sense of direction and bumped his head sharply against a corner of the counter. The pain shot through him and a roaring sound filled his ears. At first he thought it was from the blow on his head and then he heard a clanging sound followed by a low wail.
“The fire department,” he exclaimed weakly and hoped they were close by.
That was Aunt Minnie’s voice – it was the first time she had ever called him by his name. “Over here,” he said weakly.
There was a great deal of tramping and then Hans felt himself lifted off the floor by strong arms. He was carried outside and someone wrapped him in a blanket. He felt a cool hand on his forehead and tried to open his eyes. “Ann,” he said faintly.
“Shhh – it’s all right – don’t talk now.”
“But the plant.” Hans struggled to get the words out. “The rose – I put it in the greenhouse doorway – it’s only wrapped in my pajama top.”
“We’ll find it and take care of it,” Ann said gently. “Now stop worrying.”
“… the nativity set?”
“It’ll be all right. The shed is far enough away from the house and there’s no danger of the fire spreading.”
After that Hans didn’t remember anything.