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From Ashes Into Light
By Gudrun Mouw
Raincloud PressCopyright © 2016 Gudrun Mouw
All rights reserved.
November 10, 1938, Kristallnacht, night of shattered glass, broken bodies and broken faith. We are propelled into a chaotic world. Our Salzburg home has been torn apart.
I stare at drawers emptied on the floor, papers thrown about, clothes everywhere, and my 12-year-old mind cannot comprehend.
"Papa, where are Oma Gutherz and Onkel David? Did they go to the doctor? When will they be back? Who made this mess?"
We have just returned from visiting Stefan and Anna Richert, and papa wants to go back to the Richerts and make inquiries. Mother nearly yells, "Josef, they should be taken away? An old woman taking care of her son sick in bed? This I cannot believe."
"Esther, believe it. Haven't we been trying to convince you, Stefan and I? The Nazis have no mercy. We are lost."
The pain in my father's voice shocks me. I think, how can papa say lost? Grandmother Gutherz and Uncle David must be somewhere.
"What are we going to do? Josef, we have to do something!" Mother stands in the midst of our ransacked apartment. Forgetting danger, she begins to cry loudly.
"Quiet. Please, be quiet," papa whispers. Mother chokes back sound. "What do you think we can do, Esther? Don't you understand what's been happening since the Nazis took control?"
Before returning to the Richerts, papa warns, "Keep it dark, stay still, don't open the door." He points to an overturned lamp and pictures from the walls smashed on the floor in a pile of splintered glass. "The place has been well gone over. It's unlikely anyone will be back here tonight."
Mother and I huddle on the divan, afraid to talk. I hug my knees tightly. Forehead presses bone. Mother makes suppressed noises and her thick body heaves. How can I help? What can I say?
When papa returns, he whispers, "Stefan went to the Gestapo. He said he wanted to report breaking and entering and destruction of property. The Gestapo told him they already knew and not to bother about it. To cover himself, he pretended to be pleased saying. 'Good, good, they got what they deserved.' Then he heard someone give an order to send a telegram to Vienna about 'Salzburger Jews taken into protective custody.' Stefan thinks Vienna is their immediate destination, but someone else told him that those arrested would eventually be sent to a camp in Germany near Munich. He and I agree. We need to leave as soon as possible. He will take care of the business and send us money."
We wear extra clothes, bring food and a few valuables that hadn't been found. We walk inside dark pockets of night, hiding in the shadows of tall buildings. We peer in every direction as we hurry over cobblestones and past street lamps that glare down from building fronts. At the plaza, I linger by the bronze horses that rear up from the fountain's base. I have always loved the one on the right with his back to the cathedral. His forelegs kick above the water, head pointing up, mouth open as though about to make a loud, defiant noise.
I reach into the pool, trail fingers in the water, touch a smooth leg. "Goodbye, be brave," I whisper, echoing the words of my classmate Rolf, who told me more than once, "Ruth, be brave." Mother grabs my arm.
"It's not safe," she says.
We arrive at the edge of town, where Stefan Richert leads us inside the back of one of our Gutherz trucks, loaded for Vienna deliveries. He directs us to the right of a dresser, beyond tables and chairs and behind a bookcase. Mr. Richert has taken over our family's furniture business because of the Nazi requirement that all Salzburger enterprises be judenrein, free of Jews. Jews are no longer allowed to own businesses.
"You know the work and the customers," Papa had said to his friend and partner as they shook hands over the change of ownership. "You are an honorable person who will carry on the business with its tradition of quality, now that my family and I have become one of the displaced."
We conceal ourselves in the space Mr. Richert created at the back of the truck bed. He will drive us to papa's sister's house in Vienna. Will we ever see him again after tonight?
Sitting on the floor at the back of the truck bed, I settle into the constant motion of wheels rolling over concrete. I go into a mournful trance, my parents sitting quietly next to me in the dark. I no longer ask questions but try to center myself, so I won't lose my balance again as I had at the first sharp turn, jolting into a dresser corner tied to the truck wall. I listen to creaks, anticipate the changing directions, and shift my weight accordingly.
During a long, straight stretch of road, I reach in my coat pocket and find a feather. I smooth the frayed ends, stroking the softness. I found this treasure long ago at my aunt's weekend home near the Wienerwald. I remember the unusual, bright colors, like an evening fire. My fingers follow the spine to the delicate tip, over and over.
Suddenly, as if from behind my eyes, I see the feather radiating light, and the light is so powerful the furniture all around begins to shimmer. I look at the shadowy figures of my parents. Mother leans against papa. They don't seem to notice anything.
Light continues to shine, growing more intense, causing solid surfaces to appear fluid. Light burns warm, within and without, and the brightness explodes.
I am floating on air, above the truck, and through the roof I see below that my parents' eyes are closed. I see myself sitting near them with the feather still in my hands.
I am looking with bird's eyes and flying with wings outstretched. Wind carries me. I experience a strong current beneath.
After what could be a short or a long time, I have a distressing premonition. I falter, my body trembles with a sudden chill. I find myself back in the truck.CHAPTER 2
EL PARAISO, CALIFORNIA
I have seen many things as Phoenix. More than once, I was born European. I have inhabited Coyote and Bear. I know the essence of the medicine Mugwort. I hold in my heart the four-legged, the two-legged, the winged ones. I have worn skins of different colors. When the sorrow of the people is strong, I am consumed by fire, and whenever prayers collect, I rise up from the flames to see what can be done.
Now, the clouds around me are dense, dark gray with disorderly currents. When the clouds part, I look far below: Xuxaw trots out from behind thick chaparral to a clearing on the steep hillside. It has been a long time since I have seen the trickster, Coyote.
Xuxaw tilts his long nose upward. Shrewd eyes glint. He slips a sidelong glance, and I understand what his body shows: no fear, no burdens. In this moment I wish it were that simple for me; I listen to coyote's song on my flight over the Forest of the Fathers, as it would later be called. I lose altitude. The past and the future collide inside me.
Hills and valleys cascade toward the sea, as do free-flowing streams from the east-west mountains, a rich habitat for oak and bay. I ride the lower currents over pristine land abundant with canyon daisy, mountain lilac, and toyon holly. I see mothers, sisters, and aunts with long, shining black hair as they gather willow shoots and bark below. A waterfall plunges down the nearby canyon.
On an open slope several children play maqshtush, laying hands in a pile over one another. A young girl wears a light-colored buckskin around her waist. She sets her three-year-old brother on the saddle of a large boulder shaped like an arched whale. She holds him securely and says, "Perhaps Mother Ocean brought this whale up here for us to ride."
"She flew all the way," the younger brother yells, waving his arms like bird wings. Looking down the mountainside to the shore and beyond, the children watch waves on the ocean. Several canoes head towards deeper water.
The young girl points, "See, the men and older boys are going fishing!"
"Not Uncle," the young brother chants.
She looks up to sandstone cliffs. "He is climbing the mountain with Big Brother and Hew."
"Hew and Saqapaya!"
The name Saqapaya stirs something in me. I fly up the mountain. Inside a cave with the ceiling and walls painted in red, black, and white lines, in circles, spirals, and shapes that sometimes look like animals and sometimes like mystifying creatures, I see the one who is called Maxiwo. I bow my bird head.
The older man speaks with his nephew, Saqapaya, standing next to another young boy of the same age. Maxiwo chants a petition and song of initiation, holding a red-tailed hawk feather as he shakes a rattle.
"Oh wonderful and bountiful spirits. You who give us the ancient waters, beloved Sxa'min. You whose strength holds us up and gives us shelter, beloved Shoop. Please watch over and accept these children, who are making a dangerous and perilous transition. These innocents come with humility to petition for your guidance and blessings. To petition for dreams, so they may see truly."
Eagle, hawk, and crow fly overhead. Smoke streams up over the grass next to the cave like a silver thread of stillness.
Arms and legs painted with black and white rings, young Saqapaya envisions the future. Light spreads throughout his body. He forgets everything. He dreams.
He sees a young girl dressed in strange clothing. She holds a feather. He asks the spirit as his uncle has taught him: "Who are you? What is this feather?"
"I am Ruth. This is a Phoenix feather."
"What is Phoenix?" Saqapaya asks.
"The bird of resurrection from another time and place." Saqapaya nods although he does not yet fully understand; he is just leaving childhood behind.
The dream shifts, he hears a loud noise. Bear has come to warn him. Saqapaya sees the invaders, who have spread illness and are exploding the mountains. The future unfolds before him. Shoop's body lies wounded. She cannot breathe under stone and tar. Water becomes foul. The air smells wrong and rains do not always come. Great Turtle weeps. Condors die. Bear retreats to the highest mountains.
In his vision, Saqapaya prays for Mother Earth as his uncle has taught him, repeating the chants he has learned. He speaks Crow. He follows the swish of Eagle and Hawk, and sees the invaders increase. Even more First People die.
Darkness turns yellow at the horizon and Saqapaya opens his eyes. Uncle stands by the cave entrance wearing a wolf cape. Dawn spreads across the sky behind him. The vigil is over. "Uncle," Saqapaya calls.
Uncle comes to help the young Saqapaya up, his body weak from the momoy journey. He listens as Saqapaya haltingly describes his vision. Maxiwo is silent for a long time, considering. He too has had visions. He says, "Young Saqapaya, you have begun your journey to be a great 'asuyepeyepen. Your dreams show dangerous, challenging times, but your steady devotion to our ways will be a comfort to our people. Follow this path and you will always find what you need. Now refresh yourself. We must prepare for what is to come."CHAPTER 3
We finally arrive at the home of my father's sister, Aunt Lilli. I emerge from the truck; my legs feel rubbery. I am in a dreamlike state.
In the past we would have browsed along the beech- and fir-lined footpaths and rolling hills of the Wienerwald, the old-town street of Ringstrasse, or the Schoenbrunn Gardens. But on this day in 1938, the city of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, and Strauss doesn't play music.
My aunt's home is jammed with people I have never seen before. Loud jabbering moans, looks of fright and despair ricochet from every corner. One person wears a blood-stained bandage around his head. Another holds a sobbing woman in his arms. Bits and pieces of conversation seize my attention: "These vicious pogroms, these endless, senseless attacks ... What else is new? ... More and more terrible ... Don't forget, the death of Hugo Bettauer should have been a warning ... Turned out of our home ... Karl and his wife beaten unconscious ... In this day and age ... What's the matter with you? ... Don't you know history? This year is not so different from many other years."
It sounds so frightening. My throat becomes dry and constricted. I can't swallow without pain the tea my father brings. He and I sit together at the kitchen table. Looking at papa's forearm, I want to press my face against the dark, curly hair below his rolled up shirt sleeve as I used to do when I was little.
"Papa, what is happening to us?" I have to ask. "Please, tell me. Why are all these people here? I don't understand."
Papa holds my hand and shakes his head mournfully. He says, "Yes, Ruth, you must know. Many of our people have been arrested, and many, as you can see, have no other place to go."
Mother enters the room. She sounds frustrated. "Weh ist mir, Josef, that you should look so pessimistic. Have we not always obeyed the law? Must we become fugitives? I should live to see such things. Have we not always been good Austrian citizens? How can you talk like this in front of Ruth, knowing how sensitive she is."
Father doesn't say anything. When I look in his face I see wet eyes, and I notice for the first time silver in his black beard.
"It's my fault, Mutti, I had to know," I tell my mother. A great sadness comes to me; it penetrates my hand from my father's hand. Does papa know something he isn't telling? I push down questions rising in my throat.
Sadness pours from my father's hand into mine like a last remaining burst of Menschlichkeit, humanity. His sadness, his large, glowing eyes burn into me. I squeeze papa's hand. I wish I could say to him what I want to say — I love you. Papa, do you know? He looks at me, squeezing my hand in return.
Mutti says, "What's the matter with you two?"
Papa and I get up quickly, as if there's some urgent matter. Yet once we stand, we don't know where to go. We look at each other awkwardly.
Mother continues, "We need to stay in Vienna to find Oma and David. We have to stay together. We must not run off like criminals."
During the last months of the year, I walk, I talk, I sleep, I sit, I stand, I eat and yet live in a daze. I no longer see with the green eyes my father loves; everything looks dull and gray.
First, integrated schooling is no longer allowed; then, by the summer of 1939, we are excluded from the public school system altogether. I often hear other students talking about their plans and hopes for emigration, but I hardly say anything, hardly see anything, hardly think anything. I become a different person, no more the talkative one.
I put a distance between myself and life, as if there were a thick fog washing through me like a dream I wish to forestall, or a recurring nightmare I pray will never begin. I call upon my future to come and reassure me, but nothing happens. I think, maybe things aren't bad enough yet.
One day I find myself staring at a small hand mirror. My face disappears, and I am lifted out of myself once again.CHAPTER 4
Flying at the tail end of a storm, I search for a place in the future to dry my feathers. I find a window ledge under an eave. I have flown through space and time as Phoenix and land, in the fall of 1942, outside Adolf Hitler's quarters in East Prussia. I look through the window. Hitler screams. Uniformed men run out of the room. The Chief of Staff enters, heading for a large table where Hitler stands over a Soviet map. Because the World War I armistice cut East Prussia off from the rest of Germany with the Polish Corridor, Hitler wants revenge. The Chief of Staff bites the end of his sparse mustache, salutes, and pleads, "Thousands of our soldiers are freezing to death; thousands starve."
"Bunglers! Idiots! Traitors!" Hitler yells. "All of them! And you too! Get out!"
The war goes on. Murder continues. I have heard and seen such things before.
I look for another place, away from here, and eventually alight outside the consultation room of a German ethics professor. I see quite clearly that this elder is in great danger.
The white-haired professor tells a student, "The writings of Brecht, Mann, Freud, and many others have been publicly burned. Hitler takes no benefit from the eighteenth-century tale regarding Koenigsberg's world-famous philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Kant is said to have been disturbed from deep contemplation by a neighbor's crowing cock — so much so he was tempted to end its life, but he did not. As he thought on the subject, he came to the conclusion that the right of every being to exist must be respected." The student smiles in a way that tells me he is planning a report on the professor for the Gestapo. I open my beak. I call loudly, as a warning, but no one seems to hear. Discouraged, I continue my flight.
Excerpted from From Ashes Into Light by Gudrun Mouw. Copyright © 2016 Gudrun Mouw. Excerpted by permission of Raincloud Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Ruth Gutherz,
2. The Phoenix,
4. The Phoenix,
6. The Phoenix,
7. Saqapaya / The Phoenix,
8. The Phoenix - East Prussia,
10. The Phoenix,
11. Friede Mai,
18. The Phoenix / Saqapaya,
19. The Phoenix / Friede,
20. The Phoenix/Friede,
22. The Phoenix / Friede,
23. The Phoenix / Saqapaya,
26. Saqapaya / The Phoenix,
27. Saqapaya / The Phoenix,
30. The Phoenix,
31. Friede / The Phoenix,
37. The Phoenix,
43. The Phoenix,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Reviewed by Tracy A. Fischer for Readers' Favorite In a simply lovely and engaging story by author Gudrun Mouw, From Ashes into Light tells a unique story through the voices of three separate and special women. Ruth, a young Jewish woman living in Austria during Kristallnacht; Saqapaya, a Native American woman living in California during the Spanish conquest, and Friede Mai, a young woman who lived through the horrors of WWII, only to immigrate to the United States with her family to face more difficulties, all lend their voices to this beautiful story. All three narrators are examples of women in the most trying, difficult, and heart-breaking of times, but all of them also find an inner strength and resilience that is both admirable and shows the true strength of the human spirit amidst all of the horror one might encounter. I loved From Ashes into Light. Loved. It. How's that for a review? Author Gudrun Mouw has done an absolutely wonderful job in creating characters that her readers will relate to, sympathize with, care about, and think of long after the last page is done. If that isn't a hallmark of a great author, I don't know what is. The scenes set in this story are so realistic that you will look up from the page, surprised to find yourself in your comfortable familiar surroundings. I highly recommend From Ashes into Light to any reader who enjoys a fantastic work of fiction with strong and interesting female characters, works with a historical bent, or just a plain great read. I am very much looking forward to reading more from author Gudrun Mouw. With her talent, it is certain that she won't remain undiscovered for long!