Paul J. Braun, Natya Ivanov, Yuri Pavelov--1954
It had been almost seven months since he had been released from the Gulags, released from his ice prison in frigid Siberia and slowly but surely crawled his way back home to Germany. Days turned into weeks before he returned home to a broken city, still in the throws of rebuilding, caught in constant conflict between two super powers that had impressed themselves over every day life... just like he had done. But now he was the victim, and no longer had control over anything but himself; too many ears and too many eyes in this city that he had once called home. He had managed to find his best friend alive still, hiding, avoiding the past. What remained of Paul Braun had been taken in and cared for by his best friend Albert Vogel and Albert’s family. They had got him his new leg and a wheelchair for his near broken back and had helped patch him back together; for that he would be eternally grateful. Six of those seven months had been spent trying to track down his lost love Natalya Ivanova.
Paul loved her.
She loved Paul.
They had married in secret during his tour of the Ukraine in 1942. But he was a soldier and they both realized what that entailed of the time, it said that at any moment he could be transferred away and further down the Front. Their love brought along with it a stigma that could be the death of them both should anyone know just exactly how close he had grown to a Slav and how close she had grown to a German Officer. They had crossed too many boundaries of their countries ideology to be safe anymore, yet they still held each other close on many a winter night before he was called to move on deeper into Russia. Like rainwater after the first spring story, insults and jeers merely fell from them and pooled only to be evaporated like they never existed. After he left, save for a few letters he received in the month following his going away, he lost all contact with the woman he loved so much. He feared the worst and the thought tortured him for the remainder of the war and the eight years of captivity, yet he had always held onto that faint sliver of hope that she was still alive and keeping her promise to him. He held that picture of them close to him on those lonely nights out in Siberia. As he cried himself to sleep many times, hungry, cold and in pain, he would keep holding onto that memory:
“I promise... I’ll wait for you forever, Pasha.”
“Why wouldn’t I? I love you; it wouldn’t seem like forever at all...”
“I love you too, Natya.”
Over and over again he remembered those words, she promised him. Those words echoed in his ears, they echoed louder than the clang of the pick to lay the new railroad tracks in Russia, louder than the blasts of TNT to clear permafrost.... It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven her words and he held them close to his heart. They soothed him and they kept him sane. They gave him a reason and a goal to survive the attempted hanging and the starvation, the cold and the constant numbing pain that forever took its toll on his body.
Six months it took him and Vogel to even remotely get hold of a lead of where she might be. Albert knew someone at the Board Patrol office that new someone in cahoots with the Stasi who knew someone in the Army who knew someone in the NKVD, at least that was the simplified version that Vogel had told him and he also said that he was lucky because the man at the head of all this owed Albert a huge favour. They took their sweet time, he and Albert would spend hours of their own attempting to track her separately incase anyone filched the deal and backed out on them. They hit dead-end after dead-end and just when Braun had lost all hope they received a call one day. It was in Russian, so Paul had to take it and things blossomed from there. They had found someone just outside of the Moscow area by the name with the same patronymic. When he was told that he almost broke down into tears of joy, but he had the courtesy to wait until after the call was finished before his eyes welled up.
Within the week he found himself in Russia again, Moscow area with nothing more than a piece of paper in his hands and a suitcase of everything that he owned strung over the handles of his wheelchair. Vogel was not letting him get away that easy, he pushed his friend along the city streets, looking for the address, asking and looking some more. Braun was shaking something awful when they finally found the place after almost two hours of searching. They must have looked like a couple of regular vagabonds, Vogel with half his face marred by burn scars as well as his left hand missing and Braun confined to his wheelchair. Paul blinked behind his glasses, staring up at the multiplex building, wondering which place belonged to his long lost love. He wondered if it was warm enough for her in the winter and he wondered if she furnished it the same way as she had when he met her living in Demjansk. She probably had her reasons for moving, he made note to himself to not ask about it.
The sky overhead threatened rained and made the air heavy with fall chill. Every gray building merely blended into the gray cloudy sky and loomed ominously over them for they all looked the same and were all in the same amount of decay. They all had the same windows and the same doors; they almost had all the same style walkways leading to the street from the steps leading to the entrance. Braun and Vogel both merely let their eyes wander from the foundation to the roof of the building. It was intimidating staring up like that at the building, drab indeed from the lack of color, but an intimidating structure none the less. The silence that passed between them for an instant was like the calm breath before the plunge, the graceful cloud forming before it finally broke and poured down rain. Vogel pushed the wheelchair forward and when there were no accommodations for those who were handicapped, Braun forced himself to walk, the leg braces clicked against each other through the fabric of his pants as he held onto any railing he could on the way up to the third floor.
Pain. His legs were shaking violently, he could only walk for short periods of time now, but trying to tackle all the stairs made his aching knees worse and sent little numbing waves up his lower back. When he finally reached the floor he had to sit down in his chair again to catch his breath, Paul was not getting any younger and everything had been starting to hurt lately, probably was finally starting to get some sort of arthritis if anything. He was breathing slowly when he felt the gently hand on his shoulder, “Hm?” he said as he turned a bit to look up at Vogel.
His friend looked at him with his one good eye, “I don’t think I should be here... this is between you and her and I feel I might be intruding if I stay...”
Braun frowned slightly, “But you don’t speak Russian, Albie...”
Vogel smirked, the burn scars upon the left side of his face making it look like a winced grimace, “I can be mute... it’s never failed me before,” he winked at this reference. When he was caught in the blast on the Normandie beaches that left him permanently disfigured, he let Paul do all the talking when they disguised themselves as French farmers so that he could get proper treatment in time.
Braun chuckled slightly, “fine...” he nodded, “I’ll come meet you at the square we passed earlier in an hour or so... make sure you use your cane to walk or your wife’ll box my ears off...”
“Of, course, Paul... of, course.” For once Vogel did listen to him; he used his cane to limp away and head down the stairwell, disappearing from Braun’s sight.
Braun waited there in the hallway of the building.
His hands tightened their grip upon the handles of the wheelchair as his bespectacled brown eyes looked through the window at the end of the hallway. The sky was growing darker. He tried to push the thought from his mind that this might be some sort of omen for him. It could not be.
It simply could not be.
Now it was him and Natya. It was just between them for he was alone in the hallway and he assumed... he hoped - many people change in eleven years, that she would be alone.
Swallowing hard he rolled forward to the door that held the apartment number he was looking for. His hands started to shake, indeed, that first crash of thunder outside echoed within his ears and made him halt for a moment. Perhaps... perhaps, there would be no tempest and he could just so happily fall into her arms like he used to. Perhaps he was too late, eleven years too late to save their relationship and that was what scared him the most. He was still the same. At least, as far as he knew he was still the same man that had said I do to her all those years ago... but that still left him wondering was she to be the same Natya. Perhaps this was not even the right Natya that he had been led too. Questions. So many questioned stormed about his head yet he finally mustered the courage to knock upon the door.
His breath caught in his throat when the door opened a crack.
Instead of whom he had expected to see, a boy answered his knock.
The boy was tall but had the face of a young child showing just exactly how young he was in reality despite his height. He had auburn, curly hair and brown eyes... Natya’s eyes, and that was when Paul knew that he had managed to find the right place. But he had frozen up at the sight of the boy. That meant...
“Can I help you, mister?” the boy said politely as he held onto the door.
Braun jolted himself from his stupor, everything gone numb suddenly as he looked to the child in front of him. His mouth had gone dry as all prospects of reuniting with his wife seemingly evaporated upon the spot like the water after the first rainfall. “Yes.” He finally was able to mutter out, “Yes, is your mother home?”
The boy nodded, “Da, she’s in the kitchen...”
Just then a voice came from deeper inside the house, “Who is it, Yuri?” When he heard that voice Paul’s heart leaped up into his throat, it was her.
“I don’t know...” the boy called back, “It’s a man in a wheelchair...”
“Wheelchair?” came her response.
Braun felt the color of embarrassment rise into his cheeks. What would she think of him when she saw him like this? He was a complete wreck and a mere shadow of the man that she had last seen, leaving her to be transferred out in 1942. What would she say?
Yuri opened the door all the way, “See?” he said as he looked to his mother.
Natya had come out from the kitchen and now was standing near the entryway drying her hands upon a washcloth when her son opened the door and for the first time in eleven years, the two laid eyes upon each other in the flesh. She looked older, her auburn hair was speckled with gray and crow’s feet spread from the corners of her eyes. Her brown eyes were tired, everything about her seemed tired and beaten down. She was not as thin as he remembered nor was her skin as smooth, but he did not care. She was still the most beautiful woman in the world to him and there was no way she could ever be replaced from that position within his mind. He felt the sad smile gently start to curl the corners of his mouth.
The wash rag dropped from her hands. Her eyes filled with shock, her mouth slightly open. “P-pasha...”
“Hello, love...” he said, his eyes glossing over slightly.
The boy merely looked confusedly between his mother and the new comer.
“Yuri,” she said gently, “Why don’t you go outside and play for a bit...”
The boy lit up instantly, “Really, even though I still have schoolwork?”
“Yes... just be back before dinner...”
Instantly the boy was in his rain jacket and out the door, “Bye mom!” he called as he zoomed down the hallway and disappeared into the stairwell.
Braun watched the boy go; he turned when he felt a gentle touch to his arm. He looked to see Natya had placed her hand on his shoulder, as though he was some sort of mirage and she was just hallucinating him coming back to her.
“Pasha... is it really... really you?”
Braun could only nod as she stepped aside, letting him roll inside. He did. Natya kept her hands over her mouth as her eyes welled up and she bit hard upon her lower lip. Her eyes were once more drawn to the chair as she gently moved her hand from his arm to the chair handle as though that was not real as well. “My God...” she squeaked out before she went deathly pale.
Paul had not moved his eyes from her and instantly caught this change, “Love!...” he said as he reached to her to steady her, his hands holding firmly to her as he had done so many times before. “Perhaps... you should sit down...”
Natya kept her hand upon her head, “Nyet... I’ll... I’ll be alright....” she looked to be upon the verge of tears, all color drained from her face save for a harsh red at the tip of her slightly too long nose. She merely clenched her eyes shut from him and went slightly limp within his grasp. “I’ll be fine...”
“Please, love, please sit down.” He begged her.
She finally complied. She led him into the sitting area of her small apartment and let herself fall onto the couch, carefully holding her head. Throughout all this, Braun shifted uneasily. This, almost subdued, reaction, was not the one he had been looking for and he felt as though she was being almost too polite towards him as she somewhat left him there by himself in the middle of the room.
“What happened to you?” she raised her glossy eyes to him, for a moment before looking back down to the hands which she had just let fall limply onto her lap.
“I was sent to a Gulag and imprisoned.”
Her head came up at the word Gulag.
“I worked on the rebuilding of the railroads for eight years. This chair is a result of a miscalculation when laying TNT and having it go off prematurely before I could reach the safe zone and sending a rail across my back.” He continued on about being a prisoner, but he eventually trailed off seeing how much this was disturbing her for he could see that she was slowly sinking back further and further into the chair. “Love...” he carefully whispered out. “I’m sorry I left...”
“Why didn’t you write?” she squeaked out.
Braun looked confused, “I did. I wrote you almost every day...”
“I never got them...” she confessed to him.
“But... how...” he went quiet for a moment before changing the subject. “What about you love... how... what happened to you?” he gently reached for her hand and to his delight she let him take it. Paul let his fingers gently run over it; her skin had gone soft over their years apart yes her hands still were aged and almost weak looking now.
She turned her eyes to watch his fingers, a dreamy smile gently tugged at the corners of her mouth. It was reminiscing of years gone passed and their shared a few moments of quiet between each other, just holding hands like they were before she spoke.
“It was hard...”
They spoke softly to each other for a long time. She being too polite, he trying not to be too forward with how much he had missed her and how much this new silent Natya was torturing him. She had taken the few minutes to make them tea some time later and they enjoyed the beverage together in silence once again.
Their conversation, however, had become more and more strained as they continued on, talking of the past and what had happened to them. It however reached a point where a certain someone could not be avoided any longer. Braun licked his lips before he had to ask, “Uhm...” he had hoped that this part of the conversation would never come. “The boy that answered the door, Natya...” He shifted uneasily in his wheelchair, “He is your son, correct?”
Natya raised her eyes and then nodded. “Da.” She did not elaborate upon her answer, letting their strained conversation drop like a droplet from a raincloud.
“So...” Braun gently tugged at his sleeves as it almost hurt him to say it, “When will his father be back?”
Natya shook her head and then answered tersely once again “I don’t know.”
That struck Paul as odd, “... you don’t... but he...” he paused to see no ring upon her right hand any longer, but instead upon her left. “... He died?” Braun said rather weakly.
Natya avoided the question, “There never was another father, Paul... There were several who wanted that position over the years, but I never said yes to them... it has always just been me and Yuri...” The subtlety of her statement concerning Yuri and his parentage went completely over Braun’s head at the time for he was almost ecstatic when she told him that there was no other man in her life and had not been for a long time.
“You mean...” He held tightly to the handles, “You mean... there is not other? ... Natya... does that mean I... I can...”
“No...” she choked out as she shook her head, not looking at him lest she break out into tears, “no, Paul...” she stumbled through his given name. “It’s not that simple... so many things have changed...”
“But!” he reached out to her, that same sick feeling falling deep into the pit of his stomach. That feeling that everything was slowly slipping away came right back to him and hit him like a torrential down pour, “But, I’m still Paul... I’m still your Pasha, Natya... d-doesn’t that mean anything? ...I... I came back for you...”
For the first time, he saw the gently fall of tears from her eyes. She shook her head, “I... I can’t...”
She gripped the table tightly, swallowing back her tears. “Please... don’t ask me that, Pasha, it’s too difficult to...”
Braun kept pressing for an answer, he needed one. “Can’t what, Natya, can’t what?” He leaned in closer over the table towards her, he still held his hand out for her to take it, but she did not. She did not move a muscle, every fiber of her being concentration upon something. “Talk to me... please te-“
“I can’t!” she interrupted him, “I CAN’T!”
Braun retreated slightly as she raised her voice, despite it cracking wildly. “... Why?” he ventured to ask.
“Please...” she turned her face from him.
“Why, Natya!” he raised his voice, he was getting more and more unnerved by her lack of answer and it was only driving that hurt in his heart deeper.
She jumped at his shout, “Pasha... please, just ... just go...”
And that was what did it, his eyes widened in shock as he was silenced. “No...” no this could not be. “No... Love... I’m sorry... please don’t...” he continued to babble out his words and apologize profusely to her for raising his voice. He had just shot himself in his own foot, he feared and he felt that if he said nothing for himself, they would be ended right then and there. “I didn’t mean it... Natya... love, I’m sorry...”
Braun’s hand shook terribly, “Love...”
Paul for the longest of times did nothing, he merely stared. Frozen in his position, just looking at her, not comprehending what she was telling him. He stared, she did not respond. His hand trembled and she did not respond. He finally blinked, his head shook slightly. He opened his mouth to say something but instantly closed it, his eyes glossed over once again, as he drew to the conclusion that it was best to remain silent at this point and leave for anything he could say perhaps could make things worse and she would forever never want to talk to him again. Braun nodded his head finally, putting his hands to the wheelchair’s wheels.
It seemed like years passed before he reached the front entry way of the apartment building again. The sky had finally broken loose and he was pelted with rain as he pulled himself out onto the door step. He looked skyward. The near black clouds seemed to drain away every hue of color from his view as the tightness that had blossomed across his chest only increased in his silence. Pain. Indeed there was pain as everything seemed just to come crashing down upon him in that moment. Paul did not even bother to pull his coat around him as he rolled down the path back out to the sidewalk, the cold rain slowly seeping through his shirt and clinging to his body. He ignored the chills that shook him, he merely... rolled. He went away from the building until his fingers could not longer grasp the wheels of his chair to turn them they were so cold and the steel so slick. After that he merely stopped where he was. He was panting, but his heart felt like it had stopped within his chest.
“Paul...” Vogel had finally managed to catch up to him. “Paul, Jesus, you’re soaking wet...” With that Braun suddenly felt the water landing upon him stop. He turned his blood shot eyes up to see that Vogel had given up his umbrella and put it over him. “What happened?” Albert asked, his voice was muddled with confusion. “What did she say?”
Braun looked to his knees.
“She told me to go...”
Vogel went silent.
“I didn’t even tell her good bye...” He shivered violently from the cold and the soaking jacket around him. The thunderstorm raged over head, pouring down rain relentlessly upon them and he felt as though he could die there at that moment, one of the last things that he held close to him was gone. The person he had held onto in his memory. The one that had helped him get through the eight years of captivity alive, the one thought that had given him the gumption to keep raising the pick axe against the frozen earth day in and day out and still want to keep on breathing had told him to leave. The thought that he could find her again and curl up in her embrace was extinguished with the utterance of simple words.
“I HATE THE RAIN!” he cried out in anguish for there was nothing more he could think of to say at that moment as he wept. “WHY WON’T IT STOP?”
Vogel was looking at his shoes, quiet as the grave. He merely held the umbrella over his friends head with his fake hand and held tightly to Paul’s shoulder with his good one. Now he was the one getting drenched from the accursed rain.
They stood there.
Braun crying into his hands, Vogel merely holding onto his friends shoulder for there was not much more that he could do for him.
It seemed like hours passed before either of them uttered anything. Albert was the first to break the aching silence between them. “Paul...” he said softly, “Let’s go home...”
Shaking his head, Braun answered, “No... There’s... there’s nothing left back home...”
Once more silence descended upon them as neither of them made any move to leave the street to find shelter or to do what Vogel suggested. “I’m sorry...” he murmured, “I really am.” Albert let out a small sigh.
“I don’t know what to do anymore, Albie...”
Vogel gently leaned in and carefully hugged his friend tightly, “We’ll figure it out... just like we have always done, Ja?” he let go of the embrace, “Ja?”
Braun swallowed hard and then nodded.
Paul found himself praying for the first time in years. He wanted to hold her once again and whisper into her ear that he loved her like he used to do. Braun had but given hope in those few hours that he found himself on the sidewalk in the middle of a rainstorm.
But so after the rain comes the sun, dissipating the gray clouds to reveal clear skies and the smell of fresh flowers and cleansing, Braun had been holding his head in his hands when he heard the gentle call of his name.
Both he and Vogel’s heads snapped up to see Natya standing there, getting drenched by the downpour of rain, unmistakably crying for her eyes were going bloodshot. Her hands were clasped together as she looked upon the man she had married all those years ago, upon the man who had left her alone and yet still had kept his promise to return and to find her. The man who was the father of her child and, despite everything that her family had said... what everyone around her had said; she still loved him deeply.
“Pasha...” she stuttered out and with that completely broke down, she ran those last few meters, practically diving into Braun’s awaiting arms.
It was the sweetest moment of Paul’s life, holding her so close to him after so long; she cradled in his arms protectively as he held her on his lap. He kissed her and this time she kissed back, everything that he had missed was all present still, every gentle feeling and emotion he had been deprived of for so long she reciprocated in that single instance. He did not show any signs of letting her go, they just kept their lips locked with each other’s, his hand gently holding the back of her head, his fingers getting tangled in the gentle waves of her auburn hair. She held her arms around his neck like the most precious neck tie any man could ask for.
“I love you, Natya...” he smiled, despite the tears of joy that were leaking from his tired and aged eyes.
“I love you too, Pasha...” she gently stroked her finger down his cheek, simply crying, “Please... ...” she choked out, biting her lip to try and quell her emotions long enough to get what she had to say out, “Please... come back... I want you to come back... I can’t live without you...” she kept shaking her head and rested her cheek against his as she tightened her grip upon him a though he might disappear at any moment.
Braun smiled broadly as he held her close to him, “and I don’t plan on leaving...” with that he kissed her once more.
The rain seemed to lighten around the three of them.