She didn’t know she was being followed as she drove through Bavaria and into the heart of the Black Forest. Who would follow her, after all? And why? No one back home knew why she’d left, and no one at all knew where she’d gone. She kept her eyes on the road ahead and didn’t once think to look behind her.
A vague uneasiness, a quiet sort of dread, had burrowed into her mind and made a home there. The sun, which had seen almost as much as she had in her lifetime, chased her car as she raced down a road shrouded in towering pine trees. Dark. Light. Dark. Light. Nora sensed the shadows wanted to catch her and keep her. She pushed the accelerator and fled deeper into the forest.
At last she came to the end of the road and spied a small thatched-roof cottage hidden among the pine and fir trees. Two stories and made all of stone, the little house seemed an exile from a fairy tale. A kindly woodcutter could live in that house—the sort who’d save a little girl from the jaws of a wolf. If the cottage were part of a fairy tale, who was she? The woodcutter? The girl?
Or the wolf?
She gathered her things from the car and strode toward the cottage. The owner had warned her there was no lock on the door but promised she would be safe. This part of the woods was on private land. No one would trouble her. No one at all.
Ivy covered the cottage from the ground to the chimney. She felt as if she’d stepped back four hundred years when she crossed the threshold. Gazing around the interior, she made her day’s plan. She’d build a fire in that great gray stone hearth. She’d drink tea out of ruddy earthenware mugs. She’d sleep under heavy sheets in a rustic bed with posts of rough-hewn wood. In another time and under different circumstances, she would have loved it here. But grief clawed at her heart, and her task lay hard before her.
And it wasn’t in Nora’s nature to relish the prospect of sleeping alone.
She took her bags upstairs to the sole bedroom and knelt on the floor by the smaller of her two suitcases. She unzipped the bag carefully, slowly, reluctantly. From a bed of velvet she pulled out a silver box the size of a pew Bible and held it in her shaking hands.
As the cottage owner had promised, she found the cobblestone path that led to the lakeshore. The smell of pine surrounded her as she wandered down the path. It was April but the scent called Christmas to mind…. “O Holy Night” playing on the piano, red and green candles, silver bows, golden ornaments and Saint Nicholas coming to hide coins in the shoes of all the good little children. Idly she wished Saint Nicholas would see fit to visit her tonight. She’d welcome the company.
The path widened and ahead of her she saw the lake, its dark clear waters silver tipped in the sunlight that peeked through clouds. She stood on the stony shore at the water’s edge.
She could do this. For days now she’d been preparing herself for this moment, preparing what she would say and how she would say it. She would be strong. For him, she would do this, could do this.
Nora swallowed hard and took a quick breath.
“Søren …” As soon as she spoke his name she stopped. She could get no more words out. They backed up in her throat and choked her like a hand around her neck. Turning her back on the water, she half walked, half ran to the house, the silver box clutched to her chest. She couldn’t let it go yet. She couldn’t say goodbye.
She set the silver box on the heavy wood fireplace mantel and turned her back to it. If she pretended it wasn’t there, maybe she could believe it hadn’t happened.
Outside the cottage, the wind picked up. The rickety, ivy-covered shutters rattled against the stone walls. Electricity brushed against her skin. Ozone scented the air. A storm was rising.
Nora started two fires—one in the great stone hearth and one in the smaller bedroom fireplace. The owner of the house had stocked the refrigerator and cabinets for her. An unnecessary kindness. She hadn’t had much of an appetite for two weeks now, but she’d make herself eat if only to stave off the headaches hunger inflicted on her.
The day passed as she kept herself busy with small tasks. The cottage was clean but it gave her a sense of purpose to wash all the dishes in a large copper kettle and to sweep the hardwood floor with a witch’s broom she found in the pantry. She worked until exhaustion overtook her and she lay down on top of the bed and napped.
Nora woke from a restive, dreamless sleep and ran water in the claw-foot porcelain bathtub. She sank into the heat, hoping it would seep into her skin and relax her. Yet when she emerged an hour later, pink and wrinkled, she still felt tight as a knot.
She dressed in a long white spaghetti-strap nightgown. The hemline tickled her ankles as she walked and brushed the tops of her bare feet. To distract herself, she stood in front of the mirror twisting and pinning her hair this way and that, taming the black waves into a low knot with loose tendrils that flowed over her neck and framed her face. When she finished, she almost laughed at the effect. In her white nightgown, with understated makeup and her hair coiffed in curls, she looked like a virgin bride on her wedding night. An older bride, of course—she’d turned thirty-six last month. But still the woman in the mirror looked demure, innocent, even scared. She thought grief aged people, but tonight she felt like a teenager again—restless and waiting, aching for something she couldn’t name but that she knew she needed. But what was it? Who was it?