It was clear that the tech people were tired of each other’s company, and one of the tech women, a brunette who said she was from Kansas, kept looking at Michael and smiling across from her at the bar. They were all in the one tavern that catered to ex-pats. They served burgers with feta and soggy fries and lots of the local beer. The tech people were here most nights.
He had been standing by the door in the cold when they all walked in, covered in snow, speaking English loudly. When they had trouble communicating with the waitress, he ordered beers for them. None of them spoke the language and Michael spoke enough, and that was good enough.
Michael wanted to distance himself from the tech people, but they kept asking him to sit with them. He kept making excuses. Finally they gave up and he sat alone at the bar. He had been an English teacher long enough to know that expats made horrible friends. They were always moving, always drinking, too rich for the country they were stationed and too temporary to lay down roots.
The bar was high-ceilinged and dark. It stank of smoke and his friends, other English teachers, were late. When the waitress brought the tech people another round of beer, he saw that she had one extra. The tech guy gestured for Michael to sit with them. He finally walked over to the group and sat down.
They introduced themselves but he forgot their names. They welcomed him heartily and asked questions. The woman from Kansas made room for him next to her on the bench. His friends messaged him: they would be very late. Stuck in traff on R-strasse. Michael listened to the group, quietly sipping his beer.
Another tech arrived, a man whom everyone called The Doctor. He was a short, older man, a local hire with a Ph.D. and a belly. He sat next to Michael and they talked about work. They asked him what he did and he told them. Michael was a business developer, hired to build market share for a software product none of them had heard of. The tech people were in town to help the Ph.D. finish an implementation. Talk turned from technology to wives and girlfriends. Then the Ph.D. spoke.
“The best woman I knew, the very best I assure you, was a woman from my town, long ago.” he said. He had a way of speaking without moving his jaw much and some of his words got lost in his brown-and-gray mustache.
“This was after the war, when my town was in ruin. The men were not returning from war and the women waited at home in vain. As a boy, I had heard gossip all about supposed atrocities and horrors taking place. I was warned not to leave the town as the enemy left. One morning the town awoke to more horror — a girl was missing, the seventeen-year-old daughter of our neighbor. They scoured the town and some of the old men and us boys went into the woods to search for her.
“A week passed, then two. Her name was all that was spoken, a welcome respite because no one assumed she was dead but perhaps just run-off. Women did that, then, when they had the chance. They knew there was better work to be found in the cities. The war was nearly over, the men were gone, and women had the upper hand.
“A month passed, and some boys and I went to the woods. We were told of mines and of secret caches of explosives that we would not live to tell of. We wanted to see what the partisans and enemy fighters had left in the darkness beneath the trees. Then we found the girl.
“She had been kidnapped. A rope was tied around her ankle and she was washing clothes in a stream. A man they called The Donkey had taken her. He was a sick man, I now know he had a severe birth defect, an IQ near the idiocy level, I’d wager. An outcast, he lived with his mother in the woods. It was him the girl was washing for. She sang softly as she scrubbed his clothes against a tin washboard and wrung them out. We watched the soap suds caught in the current drift by our hiding place.
“We ran home, afraid to tell anyone of what we saw. We waited a week, then two. The secret burned in our hearts, and we, being young fools, had no idea what to do.
“But the problem sorted itself out, ultimately. The girl returned unharmed a few weeks later, and she told the town what had happened.
“The Donkey had kidnapped her, but only in name. He had forced her to come to his home and care for his ill mother. He tied a rope around her leg but did not hold the rope. He did it because perhaps that’s what he thought was best? As I said, he wasn’t smart. She was free. When she arrived at the house, the mother was already dead and had been for days. He was confused. She made The Donkey bury her and she cleaned his house and washed his clothes and cooked for him when he could bring food from town. She took pity on him.
“Weeks passed and The Donkey fell ill. Disease was rampant after the war, water was stagnant, food bad and hard to come by and he was particularly delicate. In his final days, she nursed him and washed him and he, ever thinking she was his captive, never thanked her.
“She let him keep her until he died. Then she returned to town to ask some men to bury him. They burned his house and he and his mother were forgotten.”
The group was quiet. The place roared around them and The Doctor ordered a whiskey and cleared his throat.
“Years later I heard that the girl, now a woman, had married a rich communist and had died trying to have a second child. Her remaining daughter came to me when I was a doctoral candidate because I was the only one in town who spoke English well. I had a certain love for the family and thought I would help them. The daughter wanted to write a letter to a man she had met in Finland, an American. She could say a few things but most of their interchanges had been translated by a friend who spoke both our language and halting Finnish, so the American had to translate the letters when he received them. I could see she was in love. I sat with her and translated as she talked.
“She talked of the weather, how dry it had been that summer. I wrote ‘My love, I wait for you and hope you will return.’ She told me to tell him of the new car her father bought and I wrote ‘My father would have me marry you if you would come to meet me.’ She told me to ask him what he did in America and I wrote ‘I want to spend my life with you in Ohio. My heart trembles.’
“She mailed it and was married a year later. I repaid The Donkey’s debt to her mother for the kindness she had shown him.
“I thought I had done a good thing, and to this day I wonder what would have happened had we told the town about The Donkey’s prisoner. They probably would have killed him. Those were hard and dangerous times. There was no telling when death would come. Things are better now.”
The tavern had grown quiet. It was late, three in the morning. The tech woman from Kansas held Michael’s hand under the table. The Doctor stood and cleaned his glasses and stumbled to the bar for another whiskey. Michael looked at his phone: his friends said they could not make it after all. The snow was piling up and it would be hard to travel anywhere.