Chapter Twenty-Nine

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The snow on the road gradually decreased as David and Maria followed the Aar from Brugg. Ten kilometres into the trip, they stopped to remove the tyre chains, and they paused again in Koblenz, at the junction with the Rhine, to refill the gasoline tank. From there, their route led them eastward along the south bank of the Rhine.

"We're only a hundred metres from Germany here." David pointed across the turbulent river to the opposite bank and the snow-clad mountains of the Black Forest above it. "A hundred metres of swift, cold water. I wonder how many have braved the swim. I debated doing it in April."

"You'd have been washed down the river. Look how fast the current is." She pointed to a tree being swept along.

"The trick is to keep swimming across the current and ignore the sideways movement. End up on the Swiss bank half a kilometre or more downstream. A hundred metres isn't a great distance to swim, but the body is quickly sapped of energy by the cold. I thought of over-heating myself then stripping and bundling my clothes in the oiled canvas."

"You were actually considering doing it, weren't you?"

"After seeing the deserting soldier shot at the border bulge near Basel, yes. I pondered it for a long time. I've often taken dips in glacial lakes to clean after a long day of climbing, so I know what water barely above freezing feels like. I assumed the Rhine would be warmer than that, but not by much. The flow in April would still be mainly from the melting snowpack of the high Alps. The main problem, though, would be to keep the bundled clothes dry enough so I could rewarm once I reached the other side."

"I'm shivering just thinking about it."

They continued a rambling conversation, and the forty-five kilometres to Schaffhausen went quickly. As they drove across the Rhine Bridge, Maria pointed to where the road check had been. "I wonder whether the men had any difficulty crossing."

"Four of them have legitimate papers, and the seven forged ones look good. The only suspicious aspect would be in explaining where a large group of young men was going." David ran his fingers through his hair. "But they've been trained to think quickly and creatively. They'd be fine."

As they headed westward on bare roads, past wood lots and scattered farms set in brown fields, Maria pointed through the windscreen. "That's what it looked like from Gottenhein; the line of snow on the slopes of the mountains."

"It appears to be not much more than a hundred metres up."

"I used to play a game, guessing where the line would be when I woke in the morning." She shrugged. "Heh! I had no one else to play with, so I always played with myself."

David laughed. "That likely didn't come out the way you intended it."

"Oh! I did that as well. A lot." Maria giggled. "But my brothers wanted to do things on their own, and I was not welcomed." She began trembling.

"You've rarely spoken about them."

Maria burst into tears. David wheeled the car to the side of the road, stopped and set the brake, then he wrapped Maria in his arms as she continued to shudder. He held her for a long time, remaining silent as she noisily wept.

When her crying eased, she lifted her head from his shoulder. "I've needed to do this for a long time. Forced myself not to think about them. Almost a year and a half since they left. Over a year now since we heard..." She laid her head again on his shoulder and allowed a renewed sobbing to wrack her body.

David held her tightly, one hand stroking the back of her head as he gently rocked. Once she had calmed again, they continued along the road, and shortly before three-thirty, they arrived at Sonnenhang. David placed the Lancia alongside the lorries in the courtyard, then he gave Maria a hand as she stepped out of the car.

"I'm relieved to see both lorries here," Maria said. "You should go down and talk with the men. Find out what they did. I'm curious to know whether Manny found a Sheila."

"I can do that later. Let's go in and greet Tante, then go upstairs and cuddle. You need to continue pouring out your grief."

Maria nodded as she dabbed her tears. "My face must be a streaky mess."

David bent and licked her cheeks. "Close your eyes, let me clean them a bit." He ran his tongue over her eyelids as he unfolded his handkerchief.

Maria trembled. "Oh, God."

<><><>

Nearly two hours later, Maria stirred from her slump on David's chest. "I needed to do that. Needed to for a long time. Too long. Thank you for helping me with it."

"Talking often helps. Think of how you've allowed me to move beyond the horrors of the trenches."

"Umm. Holding it inside doesn't work, does it?"

"Come, let's take a long, hot shower. Or do you want to soak in the tub?"

"A shower. Bathtub for two days was enough. I've come to enjoy the shower more." She rolled off him and sat up. "We should have undressed before we laid down. Look at all the wrinkles."

He glanced down at his trousers and her dress, then back to her face. "Those will easily come out. We had other things which needed attention at the time." He began unlacing her bodice. "Come, let's let the water wash the rest of it away."

"Can you lick my eyes again?" She trembled. "That was so heavenly."

He finished unlacing her top, lifted her chemise and bared her breasts, shuddering as he gazed at them. "We can dally here before we shower."

"I'd love that."

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