"Try it one more time, Fraulein."
I had a bit of difficulty learning English. It often embarrassed me how strange my own voice sounded. Sometimes I would be unable to form sentences right, and other days I did not even pronounce vowels correctly. It had been that way for two weeks.
"I... I am Brigitte Zeigler." My throat quivered as I spoke, adding a slight shaking effect to my voice. Thanks to Alois, I had learned the basics of English. There was - without a doubt - a language barrier, as I still could not make my Germanic mouth function properly enough to form a simple conversation with an American, even on the streets.
"We'll work on it," Alois always promised me. "We'll work on it."
Alois had become my best friend. He was always there alongside me, ready to rescue me from a conversation gone awry to even informing me of the politics of this land.
"Abraham Lincoln has just won the Presidency," the blonde man had even informed me one day over the kitchen table, peering at me with his freezing eyes over the newspaper. Apparently this Herr Lincoln had not been known very well in America until just recently. It made me wonder what was going on and how such an influential man could rise to power so quickly. Was that the way of the Americans?
I pondered these thoughts to myself, of course. God forbid a woman be able to speak her mind! I had always hated the prejudice that made women seem so weak and inferior, more like property than a human, but this was not my country and I had to respect the laws of the American people. Not that I would have been treated any differently in Germany, either, mind you.
Not long after Herr Lincoln became President, something strange happened with one of the states. This state - entitled "South Carolina" - stood defiant against its own country and separated itself from the others. Many states soon fell after it. What madness it was to be divided against one's own country! I may not have understood many American ways, but I had enough sense to know that a foreboding danger was looming nearby.
Louisiana - the state that included New Orleans - finally seceded as well, making us one of the "proud" states of the Confederacy. Was a war to break out? I scanned the newspapers as thoroughly as I could every day, checking for words I recognized (which were not many). Often, I asked Alois to read to me. I passed it off as making it easier to learn the strange English language, but the man probably knew my true intentions. Nevertheless, he read the newspapers to me every day when I did not understand them.
"What are we to do?" I sat at the kitchen table one morning, fondling the folds of my skirt. "What if the war becomes one that we cannot avoid, and even we are killed?"
Alois seemed to stiffen up at my remark. I did not mean to anger him. Before I could say so, he began to speak. "We shall not die," he whispered, his voice barely louder than the songbirds in the cold mornings. "At least, I shall not."
"You shall not?" I asked in wonder, my blue eyes stretching wide. I leaned across the antique table in hopes to understand more of what my friend was saying. "Are you implying that the war will not make it this far, or...?"
The young man did not want to answer my question. Instead, he merely smiled with an eerie calmness and cupped my cheek in his warm hand. "My dear Brigitte: come with me; I have something to show you." Without another word, Alois rose from the table and turned to go toward the cellar.
What was so important about this cellar? Curiosity flooding through all of me, I stood, too, and followed him. "What is this that you must show me, Alois?" I asked cautiously, fearful of stepping into the deep, dark abyss that was Alois's cellar.
"Just come along with me." His smile was trustworthy enough, and he had not steered me wrong before. "There is nothing to be frightened about; that is certain!"
Alois stood facing the small window of the cellar. It was the only part of the dark room that allowed some light. The moonlight glistened and shone through, illuminating all the dark shadows that should have been kept hidden.
"Herr?" I murmured, stepping toward him. What had he wanted to show me? Why was this man not responding? "Alois?"
When he turned around, I knew that Alois was gone.