“Is it true that when Satan was banished from Heaven he fell into a blackberry bush and cursed the brambles as he fell into them?
Brambles and fruit, a ‘bush’ that grows snarled within itself, wild with the veracity of a holy terror. Angelo starts this story telling of his witness at the birth of a baby girl born in America on 9/11 … simultaneously bearing witness to the birth of a baby boy born in Germany on 11/9 (European style) … the day the Berlin wall fell.
What they share is a seemingly random destiny as tangled as a blackberry bush. Their family trees intertwine; his side and her side. The simple story can be skimmed, or experienced on many levels of profound depths, as the author mingles symbolism and metaphors to tell story inside of story inside of story.
‘Life is like a coin with two sides — destiny and random chance. The truth is, each side grows out of the other.’ Storytelling doesn’t get any better than this. The Blackberry Bush is brilliant.”
—Mary S. (as reviewed on GoodReads.com)
The summer of 1943
World War II
Hillegersberg, outside Rotterdam
Walter walks toward the gate, checking his elite Ziffer à Grande Complication 1924 Swiss watch. It is his special treasure, given to him by his proud father just before Walter left for his military assignment in Rotterdam. His particularly emotionless face seems drawn in by the music and the light from the church.
An officer in the German army, Walter is from an aristocratic Rheinland family that used to do business here at the downstream North Sea port of Rotterdam. Tonight he is off duty and going for a walk in civilian clothing to clear his head. He misses his wife and young son, Harald, back in Germany, and it seems strange for him to be the “enemy” in this city so familiar to him. His father’s company has had an office for years, on and off, in this vital seaport.
Walter’s father is an elder in the little Protestant Church back home in Oberwinter. Deeply patriotic, the Dornbusch family has supplied high-end officers to army after army, war after war. His great-great-grandfather led the premier Prussian division into the pivotal battle of Sedan. Walter’s father was decorated with the Iron Cross. But it isn’t likely that Walter will follow in those heroic footsteps. He’s stuck here in occupation duty in Holland, in charge of the rebuilding of the Rotterdam infrastructure that his own nation’s air force destroyed. Nothing like pouring concrete in the middle of rubble.
The foolishness, futility, and irony of it all has led him out to get some fresh air. His current project, the pedestrian/bicycle/auto tunnel under the river not far from the elegant port terminus of the Holland-Amerika steamship line, is meant to be an Autobahn link in the network of Greater Germany, into which Holland will eventually be absorbed.
His colleagues are readying plans to move half the Dutch population out of Holland to the steppes of partially conquered Russia to homestead new farms side by side with Germans, after the final victory.
Walter is the first in a long line of officers who will have no thrilling battle stories to tell his son. He’s authorized to carry a sidearm but doubts he’ll ever fire it. He’s a bureaucrat in a military uniform.
But Walter’s life is about to take a turn he’d never expect.
How pathetic, he thinks, as he walks through the gate toward the side door of the church. Any glory is gone from my life.
He pauses at the door of the church. I can pass for civilian Dutch in these clothes, he thinks, as long as I don’t have to say a lot.
It has been a long time since Walter has been in church. But the sound of the organ reminds him of his home congregation, and all that home means to him. Homesick and a little depressed, he opens the door and walks in.
Placing his wet umbrella in the stand with the dripping others, he realizes, awkwardly, that he is late for the Sunday evening service and that this door opens near the pulpit. Every eye in the place turns to him briefly as he moves quickly to the left…and out of the line of sight.
There is an empty place on a bench next to an elegant young woman with wavy, shoulder-length, shiny dark hair that peeks out from under her brimmed hat. He can’t see her face from this angle.
Walter sits down, not sure if he is wet mostly from perspiration (it’s a humid summer night) or the rain. But he feels wetter than everyone else in the room. Grief and disappointment well up inside him. Both seem out of place in this ancient holy place that overflows with goodness and promise.
As the sermon winds down, the congregation rises to sing another Psalm from their little black books, and Walter shares a book with the young woman he noticed earlier.
As the organ prelude pauses for the congregation to begin singing, something otherworldly happens.
Her voice, clear and potent, resonates with Walter’s very body. They say the precise pitch/note that gets produced when you “ping” a crystal glass, when amplified, will shatter the glass.
She’s not even looking at the book. This Psalm is coming from a deep, deep place—perhaps from the patriarchs and matriarchs of her proud nation.
….de afgrond roept tot den afgrond…
(deep calleth unto deep)
Something like crystal shatters in the back of Walter’s throat, and little pieces of emotional broken glass catch in his mouth.
In that very instant, this young woman outranks him, both emotionally and socially. Some people just have power over others. Walter chokes up and struggles for breath. He has to sit down. She continues to sing forth, and a wave of emotion rolls over Walter. All the seeming vanity of his pointless, non-heroic life rolls in hot tears down his cheeks. It is simply impossible to stay dry in any way tonight.
He gathers himself and automatically looks up and to the left. She has placed her perfectly manicured hand on his shoulder. Her concerned brown eyes match her deep (for a young woman), resonant voice. “Gaat het, meneer? (Are you okay sir?)”
How can someone so young—at least ten years his junior—have such an “arrived” countenance? Here he is, the occupying soldier, and his heart defers to her instantly.
In a few minutes, he’s regained his composure—taking part in the church service with the rest of them. Walter leaves quickly after the blessing, wondering whether the Dutch black-robed minister would still bless him if he knew he’s German.
Rounding the corner into the neighborhood with broad sidewalks and massive leafy trees, he slows down and glances up at the moon that’s trying to break through the thickly clouded sky.
Hearing sudden footsteps next to him, Walter pivots, startled.
The woman’s eyes look up from under the brim of her hat. “I’m Cornelia. But everyone calls me Nellie. And your name, sir?”
She reaches out her elegant hand to him. Instinctively he bows and kisses it, as if a knight with a princess at court.
“Walter, Gnädiges Fräulein. (Graceful young lady),” he whispers politely after the kiss.
Her other hand shoots to her mouth as she steps back quickly.