A skier gets lost, then found by the past.
The mountain beckoned. The helicopter hovered, then slowly lowered down. Johan hopped out of the copter, aware of the whirling blades above his head. When he was clear, he waved, and the copter pilot gave him a thumbs up. They would see each other on the ground in a few hours.
He watched as the helicopter sailed up into the bright blue sky, and took a deep, deep breath of gloriously cool mountain air. He felt glad to be alive! Strapping his skis on, he adjusted his equipment, and took another deep breath. The world lay before his feet! He felt so good; young, strong, and without conceit, he knew he was the finest skier in Austria.
He pushed off, and was gone. He felt the snow flowing under his skis as he poled himself forward, taking the slope easily, and watching the flow of the pathway. He had done this before, but that was to be the first. This time it was only for fun. There was no time limit, no need to hurry, no need to be reckless. This was for enjoyment only, and he was enjoying himself.
None of which went anywhere near to explaining how the young man, in the bloom of health and with superiour intelligence and skill, managed to simply vanish off the mountainside.
They waited for over four hours before they became concerned. After all, Johan was an experienced skier, and was wont to take his time and enjoy skiing down the mountain. But it should have taken, at most, three hours to ski down the mountain. When he did not arrive after four hours, they began to wonder, then to feel concern. Gerhardt, the pilot who had taken him up, was becoming concerned.
Another half hour he waited, then he gassed up his copter and fired it up. He lifted off with Kemper, his brother. He took him along to be an extra pair of eyes. They climbed into the air, and floated about the mountain, looking for the missing skier. He was nowhere to be found.
Gerhardt could not understand it. Johan was gone. Just gone. There were no avalanches, no difficulties with the route he should have taken. But try as they might, they simply could not find any trace of him. His ski tracks were almost impossible to see, but Gerhardt found them without trouble. But when they followed them, they simply faded, then stopped altogether.
The hovered over the area, shouting his name, but he was gone. There was no sign of an accident, no sign of anything. Nothing. Where could he have gone?
Gerhardt checked other possible routes he might have taken, even though it was highly unlikely that he would have taken another route. There was only one way directly down the mountain. But he wasn't on that route. In fact, he wasn't on any of the routes. Where had he gone? The sun was setting, and they would have to return to base soon. Johan would be left on the mountain in the freezing weather, without shelter.
Finally, Gerhardt and Kemper had to admit defeat. Johan was gone, and there was nothing they could do tonight. First thing tomorrow, they would organize a search party. But for tonight, Johan would be left to his own on a mountain in the middle of winter. Gerhardt prayed that he would be all right, and turned his copter for home.
He swept around small cairns along the way, enjoying the day, enjoying the feel of air against his skin, feeling alive. The sun was high in the sky, and the ceiling unlimited. He felt he could ski right up into heaven!
However, the day had a rather large surprise for him. As he slid around a large rock outcrop, he found himself face to face with a village! He stopped, and stared in wonder. There was no village here on the mountain! So where was he? He wiped a hand in front of his face. No, it was not his imagination, the village was really there. Finally Johan shrugged, and skied into the town. He saw a man walking toward him, and smiled.
"Good day, young man! We have very few strangers come here! May I help you?"
Johan lifted his goggles. "Yes, where am I?"
The man threw back and laughed; a good, honest laugh it was. Johan smiled as he heard it, for he had not heard the sound of genuine amusement for years and years.
"You do not know this place? Well, I'm not surprised! This town is called Holtzbrau! And I am the mayor of Holtzbrau, Kenor is my name. Allow me to bid you welcome!"
He bowed politely. Johan studied him, feeling a sense of familiarity. He was a chubby, balding man with a face like an apple. His eyes sparkled with good cheer, and he wore the costume of Germany in the middle ages, liederhosen with wooden shoes and a woolen cloak.
Johan returned the bow. "Thank you! I am Johan. I was skiing on Gerfetz Mountain, and when I came around yonder rock, I found this place. I had no idea there were any villages on Gerfetz Mountain. How long has this village been here?"
The mayor laughed. "Oh, you needn't trouble yourself about that! What is time between good friends?! But come, you must be cold and hungry! Let me take you to a good place where we can refresh ourselves! Yes, that is what we both need, I believe!"
He took Johan by the arm, and they walked along the beautiful town. The young man felt as if he were alive in a Christmas card, so lovely that it almost hurt. He knew this Germany was gone forever after the horrible wars they had suffered.
They came to a house that overlooked a running brook. The house was the classic village house, with a high gable that peaked, pointing towards the sun.
"Yes, this is the place!" he said, warmly.
He knocked on the door, but did not bother to see if anyone would answer. He turned the knob, and opened the door. He pulled Johan in after him, and closed the door behind him.
"Wilheim! Marta! Is anyone here?"
Two older people came bustling in, and stopped in surprise when they saw Johan. If they were surprised, Johan was shocked. He had never met these people before in his life, but he recognized them anyway. However, he had no idea how or where he had known them.
"Ah, there you are! My friends, may I present my new friend Johan! Johan, here are Wilheim and Marta, good people! They will provide you with all you need while you are here. Now, if you will excuse me, but I must be about my business! Please, enjoy your stay here! I shall see you later, perhaps."
The mayor was gone, whistling an old tune as he walked away with a bounce in his step.
"Welcome, Johan! We are most happy to have you in our home!" Marta greeted.
"Indeed, indeed!" Wilhiem seconded merrily. "Please, have a seat while I fetch beer for us!"
He ran away, then returned a moment later with three foaming tankards. "I make my own, you understand, so it might not be as good as you are used to!"
Johan sipped at the brew, and found it delicious! "Excellent!" he raved, "I don't believe I've ever had better!"
Wilheim beamed at him. Again, the feeling of familiarity overcame him.
"Do I know from somewhere?" he finally asked.
For some reason this sent both of them into gales of mirth. "Know us? Certainly not, but there are no strangers here, only friends newly met! Come, Marta, bring food for our guest!"
She smiled. "We've only just cleaned up from lunch, but there is plenty!"
She brought out enough food to satisfy an army, and Johan stuffed himself on fresh fish, strudel and other wonderful foods. Indeed, he had not eaten so well since the days of his childhood, before the war.
When he was finished, they showed him to a small, cozy room. "I expect you need a nap after eating, eh?" Wilheim said with a huge smile. "I know I always do!"
"Yes, I could use a nap. But before I do, could you tell me, is there a telephone here? I need to let others know I'm all right."
He looked surprised. "No, I 'm afraid not! We have no need of things like that here! If we need to talk to someone, we go visit them!"
"Oh, I see. Well, we can talk about that later. Right now, I would like that nap!"
He laid down in a delightful bed, soft and deep. He was asleep almost immediately.
The search party was quickly organized, and by noon they were crawling all over the mountain. There was no sign of Johan, not one. It was as if he simply vanished off the face of the mountain, and of the earth.
Gerhardt landed after a long, hard day of searching, his copter needed refueling, as did he. He climbed from the cockpit, tired and deeply concerned. He had known Johan since his childhood. They had gone to school together, and were the best of friends. Johan was better at everything than Gerhardt, but that did not matter to Gerhardt in the slightest. He respected and admired his best friend more than anyone.
But now he was gone. He was not on the mountain, that was certain. But if he wasn't on the mountain, where was he? Was he holed up in some hidden cave, injured and unable to respond? Maybe buried in a snow bank, invisible unless you were right on top of it?
He shook his head. No, that was wrong. Johan knew a dozen different methods of survival. He was famous for it. Could another helicopter have arrived and taken him off the mountain? No, that was unlikely, as well. There were few helicopters in this region, and he knew them all.
He rose, stretched, and went to get something to eat. As he ate, he thought again and again where he might be. And if he was safe. Oh, yes, he wondered if he was safe. They he prayed, and prayed again. He had to be safe. He just had to be.
Johan slowly opened his eyes. He was in a small room with a sloping roof, and he was surprised. Slowly he remembered the village he had come across. And the people he had met there. He knew them, but he did not know how he knew them. He thought and thought, but he could not bring his mind any closer to knowing.
The door opened slowly, and Marta's wide, kindly face peered in. She saw he was awake, and smiled.
"Ah, you're awake! Please, come down now! There is a big celebration in the town tonight, and you are to be the guest of honour!"
He grinned. "That sounds wonderful!" he exclaimed, because it did. He climbed out of bed, and followed his host down the narrow, winding stairway. When they came to the bottom, Wilheim was there, smiling with delight to see him again.
"Ah, there you are! Feeling rested?"
"Indeed, I feel wonderful! Thank you!"
"Good, good! Would you join us? We and a few others are going to do some fishing this afternoon."
Johan smiled hugely. "Nothing could make me happier!"
The couple laughed with delight, and Wilheim took him by the arm. "Fine, come with me, then! The women shall prepare the hall while we go catch our supper!"
Johan and Wilheim made their way to the stream, and stopped by a small shop. He opened the door to the tinkling of a small bell. It was a sweet shop, and he greeted the man there. Much to Johan's surprise, it was the mayor!
"Greetings, my friend!" the cheery man said. "How are you enjoying our hospitality?"
"I have never been in a finer place in all my life!" the young man said, causing both men to smile warmly.
"I thought as much! This is a wonderful place! And where are you off to now?"
"We're going to do a bit of fishing this afternoon, Kenor! Would you care to join us?"
"I would love to, but I must mind the store, you know, " he said with the first sign of disappointment on anyone's face so far. But he quickly brightened. "On second thought, why not? There is time and to spare for shop keeping! Let me gather the poles and tackle, and I'll close up the shop. I'll be but a moment!"
They awaited him outside, and within a few minutes they were making their way down to the stream, singing and laughing. They soon set themselves down and were wetting their lines. Within the hour a dozen good-sized trout lay on the bank beside them.
Still, they did not go home yet. The three men sat at their ease, discussing this and that, speaking from the heart about nothing at all. It seemed silly in a way, yet Johan had never felt so relaxed as he did with these good men.
The sun was just starting to set as they made their way home together, moving slowly, arms entwined about each other as they sang. He had never done anything like that before, and it felt perfectly natural now.
Dinner that night was held in the town hall. Everyone was there, and they enjoyed a fine feast of fish, meat and vegetables, washed down with more of Wilheim's fine beer. Dessert took a long time, mainly because no one was interested in hurrying it along. Songs broke out in the middle of the strudel, and they all sang as they clinked their beer steins.
After supper, they all gathered by the roaring fire, and sang songs, told stories and recited poems until the dawn was in the air. As the night progressed, the crowd thinned out as more and more of them made their way to their beds.
At the last, only Wilheim, Kenor and Johan were still awake. They had been silent awhile now, but Johan still had questions he wanted answered. Not that they were important, far from it! But he was curious.
"My friends, and you are my friends," he said in a sleepy voice, "I was wondering something. Where am I?"
"Don't you know? You should. And you probably do, if you but stop and think about it," Wilheim told him.
"I'm not sure, but I think this is heaven. It is to me, anyway!" he answered, and laughed warmly. Gradually, he slipped into a deep sleep. The two men looked at each other, and nodded.
"Johan, you are RIGHT!" Kenor told him so loudly that he awoke.
"You see, there is a price to be paid, no matter where you are, no matter what you do. I am your grandfather. I was killed by the Nazis. This is a place of atonement. Germany was made to be a land of evil by evil people. The German people have made this place, and bring those who died in the war here. Here those whose lives were made into a horror are brought, and we are treated to true German hospitality. This place is true Germany, this is the beauty and heart of Germany as it should have been. I thought you should know, before you are sent back. Yes, the price is being paid, but time is forever here, so be at your ease. There is nothing more to fear. You can come back when it's your turn. Yes, if you wish, you can return. And you will be welcome, my friend."
"Indeed, you will," seconded Kenor. Johan looked at him a bit closer, and seemed to know him again. He strained to see, but he fell asleep. He slept long and deep, and was at peace.
In the morning, he rose and saw no one. He knew it was time to leave, so he strapped on his skis and made his way out to the rock where he first saw the village. He turned back and smiled. It was a good place, but it was not his place. Not yet. He pulled down his goggles and poled himself to the mountain run. He found his track, and was flying down the mountain easily, enjoying the fresh air and cool morning.
He slid into the camp an hour before noon as he reckoned it, and found Gerhardt there waiting for him. He looked pale and angry, for some reason.
"Good morning, Gerhardt! How are you today?" he asked pleasantly.
"I ought to slug you! Where the hell have you been?"
"Why, I was at that village half way up, well, down, the mountain. Nice place. I thought you'd simply fly in and meet me there, but you never showed up. So, I slept there last night, and, well, here I am, safe and well."
Gerhardt paled. "Johan, when did you find this village?"
"Yesterday afternoon, of course! About an hour after you left me at the top."
He paled even more. "Johan, you've been gone for more than a week."
"What? That's impossible!"
"I assure you, you've been gone that long. We've had searchers up and down that mountain almost every day. I gave you up for dead. As did everyone else."
"But, why didn't you just come to the village? They had no telephone, so I couldn't call you, but,..., what's wrong?" he asked, seeing the look on his friend's face.
"There is no village on the mountain, Johan. There never has been. Never. It's too steep for a village, anyway."
"There where was I?"
He shrugged. "I have no idea. None. Maybe others might."
He looked stunned. A moment later a dozen people came flooding over to see him. A hundred questions came flooding out, but he held up a hand for silence.
"I can't explain where I've been right now, but let me assure you all that I am quite well, save for being a bit hungry. I could really use a good breakfast."
"Breakfast?" asked Kemper, amused. "It's almost five o'clock in the afternoon, and he wants breakfast!"
This was too much for him, and he collapsed. They rushed him to the infirmary, but once he was fed and rested, he was declared fine, and allowed to leave.
"I tell you, there was a village!" he demanded as he, Gerhardt and Kemper gathered at the tavern later that night.
"How could there be?" Gerhardt argued, around a mug of ale. "Face it, Johan, you were having an illusion, or even a delusion. You must have been unconscious, and dreamt it all!"
The door burst open, and to his surprise, his father entered! Johan jumped up and ran to him. "PAPA!" he cried. "How wonderful to see you! How did you get here?"
"I came as soon as I got Gerhardt's message that you were lost on the mountain! I was so afraid!"
"Well, I'm all right, father, quite all right! Come, let me buy you a tankard of ale."
He went to sit with them, and Gerhardt ordered another mug of beer for him. While they waited, Johan recited the whole tale for his father. When he mentioned the village, however, his father's face turned pale. He asked him to describe the place again. He did so.
"Oh, dear God!" he exclaimed, and sat back, his beer forgotten. "Where was this village?"
"About half way down the mountain, like I said."
"No, I mean what country?"
"What country? Why, this one, of course,..., er, now that you mention it, it wasn't here. It was in Germany. Yes, it was in Germany! But how could it be?"
"Did the village have a name?"
"Yes, it did, now hat you mention it. I believe it was, let me see, oh yes, Holtzbrau. Yes, that was it."
He looked at his son gravely. "Prepare yourself for a shock, my son. A hard shock."
"What is it?" he asked faintly.
"Holtzbrau was a village in the German Alps. It was destroyed in a massive landslide over a hundred years ago. It was never rebuilt."
He opened his mouth, and closed it again.
"There's more. Your grandparents lived there. Their names were..."
"Don't tell me! Wilheim and Marta!"
"So that was why they seemed so familiar! But who is this Kenor?"
His father shrugged. "I have no idea! Maybe he's somebody you made up?"
"No, he was somebody, I know that for sure!"
"What did he say?" Gerhardt said, interested.
"Well, now that you mention it, he said something strange. He said there was a price to be paid. He said that those who died in the war were brought there to be shown true German hospitality! That it was the true Germany, and that is was a place of atonement."
"They why were you brought there?" Gerhardt asked, puzzled. "You weren't in the war, and you had nothing to do with it."
"Not so," Johan's father said quietly. "My son, I've never told you this, but your grandparents were executed by the Nazis. They were caught harbouring Jews in their home."
"I see! Wilheim did say something like that. But it was all a dream, wasn't it?"
No one said anything more. They drank their beer and kept their thoughts to themselves. A short time later they went to bed. Johan stared at the fire for a long, long time before he went to sleep. Before he closed his eyes he thought he could see the large room in the town hall, and his friends sitting there, enjoying a last beer before retiring.
"Good night, my friends," he said softly.
They turned to him with those warm faces, and kind hearts. "Good night, Johan," they said back. He could hear their voices. Feeling warm and comfortable, he slept long and well, knowing he had true friends waiting for him someday. His life would be the better for his knowing that.