The old man pushing the broom across the cobblestones didn’t look like much. His hands were gnarled with arthritis, the large veins caused his nose to look a purpley-red , and his back was hunched.
The push broom swished and scraped on the cobblestones until he had cleaned all the debris. He leaned over and picked up the debris and put them in the plastic can near the doorway.
He had been like this since the war, one of the old ones would tell folks who were curious about this little gnome of a man. Inside the back of his eyes, if you looked hard enough, you could see the whiteness curling around. He didn’t see you. He didn’t speak to you. He had no contact with anyone except the owner of the B&B. For the work the old man did, he gave the old man a place to sleep and food.
The owner had tried to give the old man money, but the old man threw it on the ground and went back to work. When the owner had tried to give the old man a bed, he would find the old man sleeping on the cobblestones. Finally he set up a military cot in the garage. It was warm there even in winter. The old man would sleep with an old pillow and scratchy wool blanket over him. The owner knew the old man could talk because he could hear the screams in the night coming from garage. “Snow. Snow” were the only words he could say.
He pushed the broom, he ate lunch, and he sat on the old wooden bench and watched the birds.
When he was a young man, he had a name: Hans. He had a fiancée, Gertrude and he had just been given his first assignment. He gone through the training and he was ready to protect and to defend the Fatherland.
Before he marched with his unit he had been presented with the belt. The last guardian was dead and someone had to accept the belt. It was furry and scratchy.
His Oma warned him that the belt was special. “You never speak of it.”
He had known that the belt had special powers. The guardian’s job was to escort his family to the river Styx and make sure that the family made it safely to the Underworld. The job was dangerous because sometimes the guardian didn’t come back. He had been chosen for the job because he had the most duty and honor among the cousins.
He hugged his Oma, mother, and shook his father’s hand. “They say it will be over before winter sets in,” he told him. “Then I will be home.”
He had been so proud of his uniform and his duty. His unit was marching to Stalingrad. The Russians retreated, leaving starved hungry peasants. It had been easy those first few months. The Fuerhrer would have his breadbasket, Ukraine, by winter.
Then the snow started. It was first a few flakes, then more flakes, until the flakes turned into a blizzard. It was cold and the uniforms the men wore didn’t keep them warm enough. They were hungry and tired and cold.
The weather was against them. If only they had been able to pursue the Russians. If only they had known more about the weather in the Eastern Front. If only– still the officers marched them through the snow.
The peasants burned their food and their homes in front of the soldiers so they couldn’t reprovision or shelter from the storms. The diesel in fuel tanks froze, leaving the soldiers without tanks or vehicles. It was the worst storm in Russian history and the German soldiers were unprotected in the middle of it.
Then the unthinkable happened. They were defeated in Stalingrad.
The blood and bodies was more than even a soldier could take. Hans had started to sink into himself. As he marched in the cold, and snow, some of his fellow comrades would become snow blind, while others would just go crazy and throw their clothes on the ground. There was very little food or bread.
As they trudged back home, the ones who hadn’t died in the battle, many just laid down and died in the snow.
It was at one of these extreme moments, when he wore out his boots, his toes purple, that he remembered the belt. He put his almost empty pack down on the snow, and pulled out the belt. He remembered his Oma’s words “Don’t let anyone know you have it.”
He was all alone in the whiteness, the white fog covered him, and he couldn’t see anyone else. He was alone. He put the belt around his waist. It hung there on his skeletal frame. One minute he was standing and the next he was a gaunt wolf.
Hans was another casualty of the war.
When his mother had heard of his death, his father was already dead, killed on the Western Front. His cousins were dead or fighting in Bastogne. His Oma had died in her sleep. Gertrude, his fiancée, had also received the message. His mother and Gertrude grieved together.
In the following years the wolf hunted rabbits and small game. It was happy. It had been a part of a pack for a few years and helped raise the pups. It was a guardian. Still the wolf and his small pack kept moving towards his home.
When his mother died, he came to her and brought her to the river Styx. His father, cousins, Oma, and his dead were waiting for him there. “Come with us,” they said. He shook his head, no and went back as a wolf.
After the journey into the underworld, he left his pack then. He remembered he was human.
Hans was found in the early 1950s wandering in West Berlin in an old uniform. Even then, the white was in his eyes and he couldn’t speak. The new rulers of Germany tried to question him, but since he wore the old uniform of a foot soldier, they let him go. He wandered the streets and walked from path to path, looking for his old home.
Hans didn’t remember, but his body knew this place. Eventually he found the land of his fathers, he could feel them under the earth, while he pushed a broom and watched the birds. He dreamed and he ate, the whiteness never leaving his eyes.
The old ones speak of the time he came– gaunt, half-starved, and old before his time. They say no one will ever know his family because he can’t speak. Sometimes when he watches the birds he can’t hear. Sometimes he wanders. But he always comes back.
And if you look deep into his eyes, past the Russian snow, you’ll see the wolf.