Schnee, 1939

Chapter 1 of September Cold

The sky makes him stumble out of the barn. That excuse would make Papa snort. He’d say, “If not the sky something else -- a bucket, a clod of frozen horse manure -- my son would stumble over a fly in his path.” But just out the barn door, Art’s on his knees and can’t take his eyes off the sky, huge and strange with something about to happen. There’s a heap of dark clouds, like waves tossing a battleship that’s shelling enemy ships trying to hide in enemy clouds.

Shelling the enemy. He should try to erase that picture from his mind before it gets too big and dangerous. Papa, Mama, Oma and Opa, his uncles and aunts and pastor and Sunday School teacher -- everyone, all of his elders anyway -- would say it’s not right. We’re to love our enemies. He should know that by now.

He closes his eyes to erase it but when he opens them again the battleship is still there, only now it’s bigger, with three times the smoke in ominous clouds. And his hands are freezing although it’s only almost suppertime on September 1, his and Ulla’s twelfth birthday. What’s going on? Just yesterday it was still summer and they were sitting on the lawn by Oma’s snapdragons eating potato salad and cake, never dreaming of this cold.

Something will fall from this sky, he’s sure of it. He’ll wait for it, even if Papa comes in from the fields and catches him on his knees dreaming like an idle fool, or his sisters spot him now from their upstairs bedroom window and tease him to death for the rest of the week. He flexes his fingers and keeps his eye on the sky. Soon, soon whatever is coming will come.

Schnee. It floats down like a tiny angel and kisses him on the nose. Then another flake, and another melting on his hand, on the sleeve of his jacket. Schnee in Saskatchewan in September! He laughs and jumps up and tries to catch the flakes on his tongue as if he were just six again and running out of the house with his sisters, all in their pajamas, dancing in the first snow of the year. He can’t stop laughing, he’ll run in and get Elsie and Dora soon—

“Stop this nonsense.” Papa’s gloved hand on his shoulder. Art wants to duck away but follows Papa to the house. “And what will this weather do to the harvest, hmmm? Did you ever think of that?” He stamps his boots and hangs up his dripping cap. “What were you thinking of, to dance like a fool in this bad luck?”

The house seems strangely quiet. When they reach the kitchen, Mama and all the girls – Elsie, Dora, Margaret and Frieda -- are already sitting around the table. “Whoever heard of snow in September?” Papa says, taking his seat at the head of the table.

Art expects some kind of answer, perhaps a smart retort from Elsie. How does Vripsi even dream of speaking to Papa as she does? But no one is speaking. There’s just the clock and the Coleman lantern sounding like Herr Epp from German School making that ch noise at the back of his throat.

“There’s more than snow this day.” Mama’s voice, usually so quiet, is even softer, almost drowned by the sound of the Coleman. She fiddles with her fork, then looks hard at Papa. “On the radio…we…we heard this afternoon—“

“They’ve started a war in Danzig, the Germans have, against Poland,” Elsie explains in that know-it-all voice of hers, trying to be a teacher even though she’s only a year older than Art. “And they fired a shot from this old battleship, the Schleswig-Holstein, that started it all, and Tante Trudy and Onkel Manfred and Ulla are right there and—“

“Where did they fire?” Papa springs from his chair and turns on the radio, crouches by it with his head jammed up against the box.

“At Westerplatte,” says Elsie.

Why doesn’t she just button her mouth and let Mama do the talking for once? Art wants to run upstairs to his room to check if Ulla’s letters are still okay, all 55 of them – 45 in German and the last 10 in English, to hold them in his hands and untie the string and take them all out and hear her voice – or what he imagines to be her voice -- rambling on about all the little streets and the Neptune fountain in the square, the places he’s dreamed of seeing on his visit to the grand city as Distinguished Guest Professor of Piano.

Idiot, as usual! The war isn’t here, it’s way across the Atlantic, and Ulla is the one to worry about, not her letters. Westerplatte is right in the Danzig harbor. She would have heard the shooting.

“…and Tante Anna in Bohnsackerweide,” Elsie is still going on, “and cousin Erhardt and all of the rest—“

“Sh, Vripsi, be quiet for a change,” says Mama. She’s staring at Papa, who’s fiddling with the dials to get a clearer sound. “It will be okay, Hans. It probably won’t amount to anything, and your sister and Manfred will be fine—“

“With Manfred in the police?”

His question hangs a moment.

“They’ll be fine.” Mama smiles and looks Papa straight in the eye. “Now, these potatoes are getting cold. Margaret, please say grace.”

All through the meal–potatoes gone cold, ham gone cold under the throaty chhhhhh of the Coleman lantern–Art watches the snow melt into the yard, the flakes growing less and less until the swirling angel-land he danced in earlier is just some brown sludge crowned with a bit of scrawny sunset. So much for his birthday supper--clanking cutlery and the gloom of Papa, who stays by the radio until the weather report, then wolfs down his meal and leaves for the barn to check on the cows.

“May I please practice?” Art asks Mama, who’s bustling with the girls about the dishes, setting down a lantern by the sink, pouring boiling water into the wash basin.

“Yes, yes,” she answers, smiling at him through the steam and nodding toward the barn. “In this mood, he’ll be a while with the cows. I’d say you probably have an hour. Has he said Happy Birthday yet?”

Art shakes his head, traces a worn brown square of linoleum with his toe.

“You know he’s so worried. Even before he heard the news, he was worried about the harvest. He forgets.”

Art nods.

She touches her fingertip to his nose. “We didn’t even have a special prayer. I’m sorry, with all of this news we just forgot.”

“It’s okay.” His toe finds a small crack in the square. He wants to leave to practice but can’t, wants her to say something more about Danzig and Ulla.

Mama plunges her hands into the water, scrubbing hard at a plate that already looks clean. “Ulla will be just fine.”

“Girlfriend, girlfriend, Art has a girlfriend,” Elsie sing-songs, trying to whip him with her twirled-up flour sack tea towel.

“You’ve got it all wrong.” He grabs the towel from her. “Here, like this.” He twirls it expertly up to the embroidered tomato and wrist-flicks it fast into the air. “Use your wrist. It’s not a towel,” he whips again and snaps her knee, “but a weapon.”


“Enough!” Mama says in her quietest voice, the one that’s always somehow the strictest.

Art immediately hands the towel to Elsie but turns just before closing the door to the living room. “For the hundredth time, she’s not my girlfriend. She’s my cousin.”

“Theoretically, she could be his girlfriend because she’s adopted, right, Mama?” Elsie is saying as Art closes the door to the living room and sits down on the rickety bench with relief.

He presses the scorch mark at middle C, feels the spot where some of the key melted. Elsie again! Even at the piano, he can’t get away from her. A few years ago, she traded cookies to that English Johnny Wheeler in return for a firecracker, which she kept hidden in her pocket. One Saturday afternoon, shut up alone in the living room – “prison” she calls it – to practice piano, she was bored as usual and decided to press down middle C and stick the firecracker in.

Art can never figure out the next part. How did Vripsi even dare to dream up the idea of lighting it? He gets a sick feeling in his stomach even just picturing her creeping into the kitchen to steal the match from its holder on the wall.

“I thought if I just lit it, I could pinch the fuse before it went off,” she explained later in a perfectly calm voice to Mama and Papa, as if lighting a firecracker in the piano was something a person did every day. “Johnny told me I could.” But Johnny must have been too busy munching cookies to tell her the fuse would burn her fingers. She quickly pulled them away and the whole thing ka-boomed all over the living room, Mama’s china cabinet door rattling and one small vase inside it broken.

Everyone came running. Frieda was sent out to the fields to get Papa and Art. Art was hoping Elsie would get a good licking for a change, that she might even be sent down to the creek to find her own switch, but she got away with a bare hand spanking.

“Injustice!” he whispers in English under his breath as he launches into his scales, giving the scorched middle C an extra hard accent. “Injustice,” he whispers again just to get the pronunciation right. Home is German, but school is in English and he tries out new words whenever he can.

Of course, he wrote Ulla all about the explosion and she was perfectly outraged, filled two whole pages with Elsie Punishments and then more pages with drawings. Art’s favorite is one of Elsie exploding from the piano and landing in a cow pie. Art had told Ulla about cow pies, as well as milking and manure shoveling and rock picking and horse riding and Ulla kept wanting to know more.

“How does the threshing machine work?” she wrote. “What do you feed to the pigs?” Art was such a slow letter-writer, he could never keep up to her questions.

He finishes his scales and takes out the Bach preludes but he can’t concentrate on the music. It’s all jumbled up with Ulla. What if she can’t write to him today because of the war?

Their first letters to each other were written on their seventh birthday. It was Mama’s and Tante Trudy’s idea at first. Art complained about having to write a letter on his birthday to a cousin he didn’t even know.

“Ulla isn’t just any cousin, she’s your twin,” Mama said. “It’ll be fun to make friends with someone exactly your age, living in a faraway country.”

Art wrote three sentences in English. Ulla wrote a page in German. When her letter arrived, everyone, especially Elsie of course, wanted to hear it, but he took it up to his room to read alone first, and even the first sentence seemed to bring her over the ocean, all across Canada to the farm. It was as if she were right there in the room talking to him.

He takes out the Mozart sonata and starts at the hard spot with the trill. Ulla seems a bit like Mozart’s music. You never quite know what she’s going to say next, and underneath all of her jokes and questions and exclamation marks and drawings is something else -- Art looks out at the night sky behind the piano – something quieter, like that first snowflake dipping its way down from a September sky. What will she write to him on their strangest birthday yet?

About the Author

Barbara Nickel

Barbara Nickel of Yarrow, B.C., writes books of poetry and fiction for young people and adults,for which she has won many awards, including being shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award. An accomplished violinist, her work is sometimes a response to composers such as Mozart, Bach and Haydn. The CMW journal previously published a contribution by her in the For Young Readers issue in May 2010. Forthcoming in 2015 is a children’s picture book, A Boy Asked the Wind. Barbara graduated from Goshen College and earned an M.F.A. at the University of British Columbia. She has taught creative writing at the University of British Columbia and Canadian Mennonite University. Her poem was inspired by reflections on her family’s visit to Bonaire in 2012. http://www.barbaranickel.ca/about-barbara-nickel/