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Franzi Kern was small. In fact, he was the smallest of four small brothers, and the third born, so he shouldn’t have inherited the farm at the top of the steep hill in the Austrian highlands. A farm where the cold wind hit hard and never stopped, where the view was all sky and clouds and green hills arching down the mountain’s back. Where on a clear day, far in the distance, he could see the snowy Alps.

As a boy, when he wasn’t shoveling snow, cutting firewood, scything, or raking grass, he’d sit for a few minutes under a birch tree on a rise toward the village and chew on a pine needle and wonder what he would be. The farm would go to the youngest—that was the Austrian way. His eldest brother wanted to be a baker. The second brother liked building things and wanted to be a carpenter. Franzi thought, well, I like chewing on pine needles and sitting here under this tree. And he kind of liked girls.

Word came that Austria joined Germany, which didn’t make his independent neck of the country very happy. Then news of the war came, which made them even grumpier—because they had so much work and if all the boys left, who would chop wood, clear snow, milk the cows and make hay?

The Kern boys did feel a thrill of freedom as they stepped out under the low stone door lintel for the first time without a chore in mind, and a thrill of fear, for there was a risk they would never return. All were sent to the Russian front and only little Franzi was taken alive—a Russian soldier found him chewing a pine needle under a tree in his one single moment of peace of that war. He surrendered and his captors trundled him off on an interminable train ride to a POW camp in Siberia, where he admired how the Russians could work in that cold. For they all worked—guards and prisoners—building structures to house more prisoners. They worked outside unless it was under 40 below Celsius. How could Franzi not admire that! And how Franzi wished his second brother were there to help build, for Gerhard would’ve known how. He shook his head.

As for himself, he felt weaker and weaker. True, he didn’t get a lot to eat—just watery cabbage soup—but the cold seemed to have frozen his insides to sleep, and he couldn’t wake up. After two and a half years of failing, he turned nineteen, and they sent him back home to die. But on the train ride which took weeks and weeks, he felt happier and happier, warmer even, the closer he got to that old birch tree, and he remembered the little neighbor girl Maria, and how she smiled. She’d be older now. She was only a girl when he last saw her.

Unluckily, his region of Austria was currently occupied by the Russians and as he got near home, they gave him a physical examination. The Russian orderly stared at Franzi’s face, pulled down his lower lids to see the whites of his eyes, listened to his heart and then pinched his cheeks. “Your skin is pink!” he accused. “March back and forth!” He did so. “You’re fine,” said the Russian. “We have more work for you!”

So, he was sent back on the train, traveling for weeks and weeks, until he reached the Siberian camp again, and again built houses daily unless it was colder than 40 below Celsius. He was sad. There were no pine needles and little Maria was getting older. She might have picked someone else.

A few years later, the Russians reluctantly let him go. He’d again weakened but he felt lucky. Other POWs were kept for work even though word had come that the war was long over. He sighed and got on the train for the tedious journey home. He fell asleep and dreamed it was early spring and his mama was making a syrup from the sweet pine needles. And that he walked out to the birch and saw how it had grown, and waited, hoping little Maria who’d be almost sixteen would come sit with him. Then he woke and remembered he’d have to think what he would be—maybe a baker like Robert, or a carpenter like Gerhard, but not a farmer like Alfred.

On arrival, his tiny mama grabbed him and wept. She answered his questions. “Your brothers are dead. You’re too small but you’re the farmer now. There is so much work. Here’s your scythe—I kept it sharpened.”

As he scythed the meadow, he paused now and then to use his whetstone, and to glance towards the neighboring farm. In mid-afternoon, outside on the path appeared a young woman, grown so beautiful, surely taller than he. He barely recognized little Maria, till she smiled at him.

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