A stranger’s life hangs in the balance. But to save him is to risk everything.
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SNOW ON THE TULIPS
By LIZ TOLSMA
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013 Christine Cain
All rights reserved.
THE PROVINCE OF FRIESLAND, NETHERLANDS
Schnell, schnell!" A German soldier jammed the cold, hard barrel of his rifle into Gerrit Laninga's back.
Gerrit's heart throbbed against his ribs like waves in a squall against a dike. Any minute now, it would burst through his chest, splitting open as it flopped to the ground.
He scrambled to keep pace with the nine other Dutch Resistance workers in front of him. If he fell behind, the Germans would shoot him on the spot. Not that it mattered one way or the other.
Gerrit was on his way to his execution.
"Be merciful unto me, O God: for man would swallow me up." The words of Psalm 56 that he had memorized long ago became his prayer. I know, Father, what awaits me on the other side of the bullet. But if it be Your will, let this cup pass from me.
The smell of boiled cabbage wafted on the early evening air as people finished their suppers. He sensed their pitying stares as they hid behind their lace curtains, peeping out to spy on the men marching to their deaths. Behind closed doors, these people whispered, wondering what crimes the men had committed to be executed in this way. Tomorrow morning they would talk about it around their breakfast tables.
He would not be here in the morning.
Behind one of the house's brick facades, a child shrieked in laughter. The Gestapo officer jabbed his weapon between Gerrit's kidneys.
"What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee." Please let it happen quickly. No pain, no suffering, Lord, please. But spare me, Father. "When I cry unto thee, then shall mine enemies turn back: this I know; for God is for me."
He'd had many close calls during the war, like the time the Nazis searched every nook and cranny of the house where he had been hiding. They failed to move the rug that covered the trapdoor to the cellar where he was concealed. Or the time he had seen some soldiers on the road when he'd been delivering ration cards. He was able to hide in a ditch before he was caught.
I trust my life to You, sovereign Lord.
Peace filled him, a sweet taste of the heaven that awaited him.
No matter what happened, God was in control.
The men in front of him watched their feet as they moved forward, their backs hunched, their shoulders slumped.
Gerrit held his head high. He refused to let the Germans think they had him conquered. Death was not defeat. Death was victory.
His hands were tied in front of him. He clasped them together, tighter and tighter as death approached.
His ankle turned and he stumbled on the uneven street. The butt of the rifle slammed into his back.
With his wrists bound, he couldn't balance himself. He fell to his knees. His breath caught in his throat. Any second now, a bullet would pierce his skull.
The Gestapo officer grabbed him by his upper arm, placed him on his feet, and shoved him. Gerrit spoke his thanks with a smile. If he could earn the sympathy of the soldier, maybe somehow he could find a way out.
The man stared at Gerrit with frosty blue eyes. Then he frowned and turned away.
Escape slipped out of his grasp.
A cold chill wrapped itself around him.
The death march continued to the canal. A squat house stood sentry at the water's edge, its two first-floor windows like eyes, watching, recording, memorizing these events. The setting sun's rays reflected off the still water.
Visions of Mies and Dorathee flashed across his mind. One woman had broken his heart. His heart broke for the other. He did this so they could be free.
The Germans forced the condemned down the icy canal bank beside the bridge. The early evening frost made the grass slippery. Gerrit and the other prisoners slid and skidded down the small hill. The Gestapo officers shouted at them while jabbing them with their guns. "Get up, get up. Schnell. Now line up here."
This was the end.
Gerrit righted himself and faced the officers. The men who were slow to stand were kicked and dragged to their feet.
A neat line formed.
Silence filled the air.
He stood tall. He couldn't think.
He fixed his gaze on the cobalt-blue eyes of his executioner.
Into Thy hands I commit my spirit.
A white-hot pain seared through Gerrit's body.
He crumpled to the ground.
Cornelia de Vries sat in her rocking chair, alone in the small front room with its out-of-date red brocade wallpaper, the heat from the black cast-iron stove warming her cold feet. Twittering birds serenaded her as she sewed the fraying hem of her silky green Sunday dress. Glancing at the picture of Hans on the wall, pain nibbled at the edge of her heart.
The skirt's material cascaded over the arm of the faded blue davenport beside the rocker as she laid aside her mending. She rose, watched the pendulum swing in the schoolhouse clock on the wall, stared at Hans's picture, then went to the long front window. Parting the lacy curtains, she peered out to watch the birds on the bare, brown branches of the bush. The sky, often filled with droning Allied planes on their way to Germany, remained serene. The sun cast its dying rays over the canal, a thousand lights playing on the water's surface.
The birds blended in with branches, but when one of them hopped from twig to twig or flitted to another bush, she caught glimpses of their black and brown feathers.
Then a different kind of movement on the other side of the water caught her attention. Not the cheerful, bouncy action of birds, but the movement of men. A plodding motion. She parted the curtains farther for a better view.
A number of men, maybe a dozen or so, marched toward the steep canal bank. Five or six German soldiers, armed with rifles, surrounded the men and shouted at them. If they were trying to reach the edge of the canal, it would have been easier to do so about fifty or sixty meters from the bridge where the land once again became even with the water level.
What was happening?
The answer came as soon as the thought crossed her mind. From her vantage point, she watched as the soldiers forced the men to scramble down the bank, though their hands were tied in front of them. The Germans kicked many of them as they slid and fell.
Cornelia dropped the curtain.
She closed her eyes because she couldn't watch.
She covered her ears because she couldn't listen.
She sank to the floor because she couldn't stand.
Memories of that horrible night more than four years ago knocked at her consciousness. Denying them entry, she pushed her hands harder against her ears and scrunched into a ball.
Pop. Pop. Pop.
She had hoped and prayed to never hear that sound again, but the reverberations echoed in her head. The past mingled with the present.
Pop. Pop. Pop.
All fell silent. The birds ceased their chirping.
Five or ten minutes passed as she sat on the floor, her entire body shaking. The floorboards creaked under the unmistakable bounce of her brother's footsteps on the stairs. She opened her eyes. He moved down the hall and passed the front room to the door.
She rose to her feet. "Johan?"
He stopped, frozen by her call.
"I am going out."
"Nee," she screeched. "Nee. The Nazis just executed a dozen men. There is no way you are going to step foot outside this house."
He stood several centimeters taller than her and he used his height to his advantage, peering down at her. "I want to see the men they shot. Maybe we know some of them."
She stepped in front of the door. "They will arrest you on the spot, you know."
Her brother ran a hand through his tousled sand-colored hair. "They are gone now and I'll be careful. I promise."
"I won't let you go." She stood with her hands on her hips, something she had seen Mem do a thousand times. With their mother no longer here, she was the caregiver to her brother.
"You can't forbid me. I'm an adult."
"Only a fool would go out there now."
"Maybe I'm a fool, then. I am going anyway."
"What will happen to you if you get caught? Working in German factories with all the other young men who have never returned—is that what you really want?"
"Nothing will happen to me, because I'll be careful."
"What do you plan to do out there?"
"That is none of your business." He tried to push past her.
She stood her ground. "You are my business. And my responsibility. You're not going anywhere."
"Yes, I am."
Holding to what Mem always did, Cornelia stopped arguing and glared at Johan. She wouldn't let him out the door. Not when it meant an almost-certain death sentence. A few moments later he shrugged his broad shoulders, sighed, and turned up the stairs.
She won the battle. This time.
GERRIT BREATHED IN and out. Pain arced through his body.
Pain. He was still in pain.
He wasn't dead.
German voices floated around him. The soldiers who had attempted to execute him remained here. If he moved at all, he would be dead. The rise and fall of his chest, the twitch of his eyelids, a swallow would mean a bullet in his head.
The Gestapo spoke among themselves. "Give each of them a good kick. Let's make sure we got them all."
What would happen to him when a jackboot met his side? The pain would be unbearable, but he couldn't cry out, not even a whimper, no matter how great his agony.
He heard them as they made their way down the line, reassuring themselves that all of their prisoners were dead. Thud. Thud. Thud. A boot met each body. Each of his friends. Each of his fellow Resistance laborers.
He gritted his teeth. Forcing himself to go limp, holding his breath, Gerrit lay motionless.
Lord, please, spare me.
The soldiers moved closer. They stood right next to him.
"This one is dead. I hit him squarely. Come on, let's go. Leave the bodies here to teach these people a good lesson about what happens to those who resist."
With that, the sound of the German voices, the clacking of their weapons, and the heavy thunk of their boots faded.
How could the officer be so sure he was dead? Gerrit didn't believe his acting skills were quite that convincing. Did his executioner hold himself in such high regard that he believed he couldn't miss? Or when Gerrit locked eyes with him, did he unnerve the man enough to cause the shot to go astray?
One thing he didn't doubt—he needed to be gone from this place before the soldiers came back. No need to put his theatrical abilities to the test again. He also had to be cautious not to leave too soon. They may look this way, spy movement, and come back to finish the job.
He lay without moving for as long as he dared. Around him, nothing stirred. No one moved about.
When he convinced himself that the Gestapo had left the area, when he hadn't heard their voices for many minutes, Gerrit moved. Pain shuddered through his right shoulder when he lifted his head. He looked down and bile bubbled in his throat. The bullet had torn away his skin, and blood spurted from the wound. He needed help.
Forbidding the anguish in his shoulder to register in his brain, he rolled to his left side. He pulled himself to a sitting position with the greatest of care.
The world careened, then crashed to a halt.
He sat without moving for a minute, not daring to look at the broken bodies of his comrades. His chest tightened.
The brown brick house at the top of the bank beckoned.
He sucked in his breath, then pulled his feet underneath himself. Pushing off with his uninjured arm, he stood. Or attempted to stand.
He couldn't bring himself upright. The world kept moving. Dusk had fallen. A sense of urgency pulled him along.
The light in the house's window winked at him. The occupants had yet to draw the blackout curtains. Biting his lip, tasting the saltiness of his blood, he rose to his knees, tucking his injured arm close to his body to keep it from jostling.
He crawled like a baby, edging his way along. He couldn't climb the bank. Instead, he needed to get to the place where the land flattened. Each movement sent a searing heat through his shoulder. Each movement brought him that much closer to safety.
Centimeter by centimeter, he fought his way to level ground. He lay panting for a moment, drenched in sweat, though the cold breath of a North Sea breeze touched the late winter evening.
He didn't have time to rest. Any moment those German soldiers could return. Gritting his teeth, he continued his excruciating crawl toward the house at the top of the bank.
The green door lay a few meters in front of him now. Hand, knee, knee; hand, knee, knee. Then it stood within arm's length. He reached up, knocked, then collapsed to the ground.
Rustling came from behind the solid wood door before it opened. Gerrit peered into the soft, round face of a dark-haired woman. She glanced around and, not noticing him lying in front of her, began to shut the door.
"Please, help me," Gerrit's voice rasped.
She turned her gaze downward. Her mouth fell open into a small O, but she didn't utter a sound.
A man came behind her, gray tingeing his hair. "Who is here, Maria?"
She pointed to Gerrit. "What are we going to do about him?" she whispered.
"Help me get him inside. Then close the door and bolt it."
They grabbed Gerrit by the shoulders and he groaned.
Maria released her grip while the man clinched him around the waist, dragging him to his feet. "Get that door closed. I'll bring him to the bedstee."
Blackness closed in on Gerrit, but he fought it. He needed to stay alert. These people might be collaborators.
The man half carried, half dragged Gerrit to the front room and deposited him on the bedstee, a bed in a cupboard with doors that could be opened or closed. Oh, the joy not to be moving, not to be jostled, to have a few minutes to let the throbbing in his right shoulder calm a little.
"Who are you?" the man asked.
"Jan Aartsma." One of his many false identities.
"We heard the shots. What did you do?"
Was the man curious, or did he have another agenda? "Last night I was arrested. They caught me out after curfew."
The man pulled Gerrit's shirt away from his wound with jerky actions. The fabric tugged on the raw edges of his flesh and Gerrit tensed.
Maria examined the hole in his shoulder then turned to the man. They held a brief, hushed conversation. Gerrit couldn't hear what they said, but the woman shook her head. The man nodded, taking her in his arms. He brushed her dark hair from her face and kissed her forehead.
He glanced over her shoulder at the entryway, then leaned above Gerrit, the long-forgotten odor of pipe tobacco clinging to his clothes. "Why were you out after curfew?"
He asked enough questions, questions Gerrit didn't want to answer. So he told the man what he had first told the Gestapo. "I had a meeting with a woman. A married woman. In the fields."
A blush crept into Maria's pale cheeks and the man took a step back. Good. Maybe they wouldn't question him further. The occupiers may be ruthless, but they didn't shoot men for clandestine meetings. They must know there was more to his story than he was willing to share, but the less they knew, the better for them. The less he told them, the better for him.
Maria handed a bottle of something to the man, whom Gerrit assumed to be her husband. Her hands shook. "You'll have to clean and dress the wound. The sight of it makes me sick to my stomach." She ambled out of the room.
Gerrit bit his lower lip as the man poured the pungent peroxide over his bloody shoulder. Millions of little needles pricked his wound. Darkness crept over him and he wanted to embrace it. But he couldn't. Not until he determined what kind of people these were, until he could be sure they wouldn't turn him over to the Germans. They had to know he had fabricated his story like a woman knitted socks.
He cried out in agony as the man patted his wound dry and when he positioned Gerrit to dress his shoulder. The rough cotton he used to cover the injury rubbed and chafed until tears came to Gerrit's eyes.
The man finished his work and stepped back, pacing four or five meters from one end of the small, bright room to the other, pausing for a moment before repeating his circuit. "You have to leave here." Maria returned to the man's side and he rubbed her shoulder while she wrung her hands.
His voice rose in intensity. "The Germans will come back to bury the bodies. When they count them and know one is missing, where do you think they'll look? Our house is the closest to the bridge, and they won't hesitate to turn this place over and shake it until they find you. And then they will arrest us for helping you." Fervor filled his words. "I have to protect my family, and having you here will mean we will all end up in prison. I'm sorry. You have to leave. Now."
Excerpted from SNOW ON THE TULIPS by LIZ TOLSMA. Copyright © 2013 Christine Cain. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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