My Ship has Sailed

Submitted into Contest #80 in response to: Write about a child witnessing a major historical event.... view prompt


Historical Fiction Friendship Sad

Dear Bruno,

Forgive me father for I have sinned—or rather, I’m about to unload a bunch of my regrets on you.

Isn’t that what confession is ultimately about?

One of the nurses asked me, if I wanted to receive pastoral care. When I asked her, if that was the punchline to a joke about the Catholic Church, she explained that many people here want to talk to a priest before it’s too late. Well, that gives me a great excuse to write you. So I’m sending off this letter in the hopes that you’ll understand me across a language barrier and haven’t banished me from your thoughts yet.

Forgive me for not writing sooner. Rather lukewarm apology, I know. Sounds like what you write your co-worker in a belated birthday card, not what you write your childhood best friend, that you haven’t seen for the better part of a century, after straight up disappearing out of their lives. I’ll try my best to explain myself, if it’s even possible.

I kept having the same dream after I first got here.

The window in my room back in Schönwald is open, I slip out onto the roof. There, I'm sitting on the edge, just as we used to, when watching the sunset together, feet dangling over the gutter. The moon hangs in the sky. In the distance lies darkness, behind me the sun is rising. The trees below me, are bathing in soft morning light. A large zeppelin mounts the horizon. It sails towards me like a silver bullet aimed at my forehead. The airship moves closer and closer until it comes to a standstill above me. A ladder dangles from the ship. Now I’m climbing up the ladder—one rung at a time. But the gleaming underbelly of the beast is moving farther away with every inch I budge upwards. I panic, I climb faster, the zeppelin moves even faster now.

Then I wake up.

To this day I still don’t fully comprehend why we left Schönwald. Most of my childhood memories in Germany are somewhat hazy, but some, I see clearly before my eyes, as if they happened merely yesterday. The day of the attack on Guernica is one of those memories.

I never told you this, because my father made it clear that absolutely nobody was to know about it, but we used to go up into the attic together and listen to illegal broadcasters on a radio that my father had built himself. The volume hardly exceeded the sound of a whisper, so we lied down in absolute silence, the radio placed between our ears, both of us making sure not to move on the old wooden floor.

The day of the air raids on the Basque town, I remember listening attentively to the announcer discussing the political implications of the bombing, when my father suddenly flipped the switch. His jaw was clenched and his hands trembled. He took the radio, put it back in its hiding place and left me—alone and confused in the dark attic—without saying a word.

The same week he announced his departure to New York. I don’t recall the exact reason why he left, or when he’d return. I remember I wanted to tell you badly, but my father made me promise not to. In return, he promised, he would bring his camera to capture some images while we were apart, which somewhat raised my spirit and filled me with anticipation for his return. The day he left, he placed both hands firmly on my shoulder and looked me square in the eyes. “Take good care of your mother,” he said, a trace of gravity in his face-usually so filled with humor.

The night after my father left, I must’ve slept badly, because I woke up and discovered my mother in the living room, throwing valuables into an empty suitcase. I can’t even remotely remember the following conversation, but I was packing my own bags within the hour. I do remember wanting to run away to say goodbye to you, but my mother held me back at the door. She clung onto me desperately, while she tried to reason with me. Ultimately we both collapsed on the floor, red-faced and with tears in our eyes. In a plaintive voice, she begged me to trust her.

Most of the remaining time of the following day, we spent just walking. My mother carried a bag left and right, I held my small suitcase and a basket filled with food. We avoided any bigger streets. We walked past countless fields of wheat, and forests and the occasional desolate farmhouse. I remember incessantly pleading to take a rest. Despite my efforts we didn’t stop once. In the afternoon the sky turned dark and buckets of rain fell from the heavens. We kept trudging on through the mud, our wet clothes sticking to our bodies.

Just before sundown, we arrived at a barn, chilled to the bone. The farmer, a squat, hulkish man greeted us with a wide smile. He led us inside, where his wife and children were preparing a stew—she was quite the opposite of him in appearance, lanky and somewhat feeble. The children, ranging anywhere from infants to almost grown-ups, shuffled around the barn, all of them seemed busy doing something. The woman prepared a bath for us in a small, wooden tub. The steaming, soapy water on my skin felt like paradise. After we ate the simple stew they’d cooked, I fell onto a pile of straw—my bed for the night. My legs felt leaden, I couldn’t have moved them, even if I tried. As I was about to doze off, a small puppy trotted up to me and snuggled up to my chest. The dog had light grey fur with a big, brown splotch on its muzzle. I fell asleep hugging him tightly, tears rolling down my warm cheeks.

A week later we were on a boat in the middle Atlantic. I thought about you a lot, as I stared at the horizon for hours on end. One day as I was gazing out onto the eternal blue, my mother walked up to me. She was pale, trembling all over. She grabbed my hand and rushed me to the captain’s cabin, where we sat in front of the radio. I never heard a newscaster that strongly agitated. His voice was cracking and he was losing his train of thought. He talked about a fire and passengers screaming and just how terrible of a catastrophe this was. It took me a while to register that he was talking about an airship that had exploded—the same airship my father had boarded in Frankfurt.

I couldn’t get these scenes from the radio out of my head. The zeppelin bursting into flames, people jumping out of their cabins in desperation, the metal cage melting in on itself. We had no idea whether my father had survived, which turned the following days into long, torturous episodes. I jumped at every possible sign of news. By the time lady liberty greeted us, it had become clear that we wouldn’t be seeing him ever again. I can’t, for the life of me, remember why he’d even boarded the Hindenburg. Why could he not have taken the boat with us? I remember my mother told me as we neared the harbor, sometimes god does terrible things, but there’s always a reason. She also said, everything will turn out fine for us, but I could see in the depth of her eyes that she didn’t believe it herself.

Forgive me Bruno for the rambling. I know this doesn’t fully explain my departure. But I’m an old fart with an old brain. If you feel like tossing the letter, I don’t fault you, and I’m glad you read this far. You must think I died a long time ago. A couple of years ago my daughter showed me the google. When I found you in there, I was overjoyed, I scribbled down your address immediately. This isn’t the first time I’m trying to write to you since then, but I’m aware the intention isn’t what counts. Well, my regrets are looming over my shoulder right now, and I would rather die having written a letter that’s self-serving or lacking in purpose than not having written anything at all. Ideally, I hope it’s neither of these.

If you want to forgive me for anything, forgive me for the pain I’ve caused you and so many others. Once I got better at the google, I found a report that indicated the fire might have been caused by a camera flash. I can’t sleep properly ever since. Which brings me to the dream. It occurred to me again last night. Everything was exactly the same. The ladder, the shiny belly of the zeppelin above. My body felt like it had never aged. I was devoid of the pains that have been plaguing me recently—the same little girl that hadn’t yet left her little village in the Black Forest. For some reason, this time, I didn’t fight my way up the ladder, and to my surprise, the zeppelin actually came closer. I was so close, I could see my father looking down at me. Suddenly a nurse rushing by, bumped into the foot of my bed and woke me up. Poor thing, I was so enraged, I almost spat my dentals into her apologetic face.

The smell of antiseptic stings in my nostrils as I’m writing this. I’m sick of being here, surrounded by these, people with so much life left to live, stuck here, caring for my decaying body. I’m sick of people calling me Missus Winter, sick of being sick. My only connection to the outside world is a small window, waiting for me to climb through. If you want to pray for me, you must know that I lost all the love I had to spare for god on that boat in the middle of the ocean. But as I’m waiting for the unknown, I begin to think that I would love to see my father again. Hopefully, that the dream will come to me again tonight.

I suppose, by the time you read this, my ship has sailed.

Love, Wilma

February 12, 2021 17:45

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David Harland
18:27 Feb 15, 2021

Beautifully written. The story has an almost dreamlike quality which underlines the narrator drifting in and out of her memories. You also conveyed very well the horror of the crash in just a few sentences. One of the things that interests me with creative writing is how many different ideas can come from one prompt; and in this case we both used the same historical event yet approached it from very different directions. I enjoyed this and will look out for more of your writing.


Philip Hedges
19:08 Feb 15, 2021

Thank you for your kind feedback. Yes, indeed our stories were both quite different, although they described the same historical event. Looking forward to your future writing as well.


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Makena M.
05:37 Feb 14, 2021

Wow, what a moving story, and how elegantly you have narrated it! I'm a bit of a history buff and appreciate the way you help us feel compassion for those on the other side of the war. Here is a family caught up in a seemingly impossible situation and trying to escape it without the luxury of time. We can all empathize because, had we been in similar circumstances, would our decisions not have been the same? I am also touched by the way he wants to make peace with his childhood friend in his final days. They say that is when we reflect on ...


Philip Hedges
08:26 Feb 14, 2021

Thank you for your kind words. I agree, Schwarzwald is beautiful.


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Claire Lindsey
01:44 Feb 13, 2021

I loved the sentimentality of this, and the heartfelt tone. The format of a letter is perfect for this story. It’s a unique take on the prompt to have the character reflecting on their childhood rather than experiencing the event in real time as a child. I’ve got some suggestions for edits, which are all small grammar/punctuation things. I hope will be taken in the spirit with which they’re given :) “She clung to me desperately” (instead of clinged) “We kept trudging on through the mud, our wet clothes sticking to our bodies.” “This isn...


Philip Hedges
09:11 Feb 13, 2021

Claire, I'm glad you enjoyed reading my story. Thank you very much for your suggestions, I took them into consideration!


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