Ellen stood on the deck of the boat, staring across the water. There was a light fog, so though it was a scant distance away, she could not see Denmark. She imagined there might be a young woman on the other side, squinting and hoping to see Sweden.
An old game, one that brought a smile to her face. She was going home, after all, where innocent games lingered.
It was good to have her feet on the deck, and to breathe the sea air, however heavy it was this time of year. Quite an improvement over the last time she’d done this. She sighed, and looked around for a place to sit. There had been no room, the last time. Nothing enjoyable to recall. She stretched a bit and tipped her head back, enjoying the relative peace that comes from traveling alone for the first time.
Assuring herself there was no reason to look back, Ellen now had time to wonder over what she was going toward. She’d been in Sweden for eleven years, just about half her life. She hadn't spoken Danish aloud in years and was more worried than she would admit that she may have lost it altogether. Her family had been unable to find passage out of Sweden to the States or somewhere, anywhere else, and after the war, her parents had chosen to move to Kristianstad instead of returning to Copenhagen. She’d become much more accustomed to a relatively provincial existence than she would have thought herself capable of, when they first boarded the boat that took them across the sea.
But whatever anxiety she had was about more than wandering in a city that had no doubt grown even in the years since she'd last been there. Her hand went to her bare throat, her fingers lingering as though looking for a necklace to fiddle with. She hadn’t worn one at all since leaving Copenhagen. Her father tried giving her a new one, not long after the war. Ellen refused it.
She refused many of the things her parents tried to pass down to her, as it happened. Not at first, but more and more over the years.
She shook her head in the breeze that had picked up, attempting to shed her darkening thoughts, and reached into her bag for the letter that had brought her this far. The handwriting wasn’t at all familiar; she and Annemarie Johansen had been forbidden by circumstance from keeping in touch, and neither had reached out until very recently. The tone of the letter was as open and generous as she remembered her friend being, however; it was an invitation to come and visit. The postscript was hard to read, as if the author had been afraid these were the words that might scare her friend away. It read: “I still have it. I kept it safe. Oh, please tell me you will visit. – AJ”
It was safe. Ellen was surprised at the relief she felt.
Something had survived, after all.
Ellen had written back, overjoyed at the opportunity to leave Kristianstad and stretch her wings just a bit. She said nothing about the necklace. Plans were set, and while her parents frowned a bit, there was nothing they could say to a daughter who was earning her keep and then some, who had the means to make this short journey.
Her mother had come to her the morning before. She stood before Ellen and wrapped a knit scarf around her neck; it was an old one, but no casual observer would ever know. She’d kept her knack of remaking old things to look and feel new, a skill Ellen had never been able to learn.
Rachel Rosen had prayed then, holding fast to Ellen’s hands and preventing her from moving away, as she did so often now.
“Save Ellen from every enemy and ambush, from robbers and wild beasts on the trip, and from all kinds of punishments that rage and come to the world.”
She said the prayer in Hebrew, her voice choked with tears, the words imbued with a meaning none in the Rosen family was ever willing to articulate aloud. Ellen felt her own eyes sting, but blinked hard to keep the tears from falling.
They stood for a moment after the prayer ended. Ellen pulled her hands from her mother’s, gently, understanding all at once that the old fears had never really died; they had not been in danger for long, all things considered, but it was clear it had been enough. The damage went deep. Ellen’s leaving, even for such a short trip, was bringing up harsh memories for her mother.
Ellen felt sad, but not remorseful. It had been eleven years. It was time, past time, to go.
Now, as the ferry boat finally pushed away from the dock and Ellen’s journey was underway, as she clutched Annemarie’s letter and let her fingers play at her throat, she was getting a sense of the fear her mother had never stopped feeling.
Ellen looked up at the sky. The clouds and fog were nearly gone. It was a scant three kilometers across, and she would step off the boat on her homeland. No one was waiting for her except an old friend. The boat rocked, and Ellen felt transported; childhood seemed close to her, like a dream from which she had just awakened, and if she closed her eyes she might find every unfulfilled wish waiting for her to continue on.
A young boy ran across the deck, laughing. The sound broke whatever spell had overtaken Ellen.
The ferry ride was over, almost before it had a chance to truly begin. Ellen was not sorry.
The train to Copenhagen brought with it no sudden remembrances, no choking fear, and perhaps most happily, no dreamlike lull. She had crossed over, and was free now to laugh and make conversation with the young Dane who was telling her a tall tale in an effort to see her smile. What a sight she was, had anyone stopped and noticed – gone the stocky, pudgy-cheeked girl who had been chased away from her home, and in her place a tall, dimpled brunette. The knit scarf was a shade that complimented her well, and she shone, knowing her attractions and unafraid of them.
When asked her name, she was simply Ellen, from Sweden.
Ellen sprang down to the platform, feeling all weight lifted from her; she was home!
The sounds, the sights, she fancied even the smells were as familiar as they’d been when she was a child. A dark-haired woman in a grey overcoat walked by; Ellen could imagine, it was her mother, a regular city woman, and nothing had changed at all.
Of course, time had passed, this was a new world for all it was the old city, and that was a stranger passing by. Ellen held a hand up to shield her eyes from the sun, seeking a familiar blonde head and shy smile of friendship.
She found it, and the girls – now women – laughed as their eyes met for the first time in far too long.
Annemarie recognized her friend, despite the changes. Souls that had shared what they had, seen what they’d seen, would probably know one another in another life. That was what Kirsti had said to Annemarie’s anxiety about seeing Ellen again after all this time, and Annemarie chose to believe it.
For her part, Ellen thought Annemarie had not changed at all, except of course to grow taller. As they embraced, and both began to talk excitedly, Ellen was relieved to find she did recall her Danish.
They spent the afternoon walking around Copenhagen, Annemarie pointing out new cafes and shops, avoiding all mention of the war or the occupation. Ellen pretended not to see scars and ghosts, which to her mind were everywhere; she did not share this with Annemarie.
They spent a merry few days in the city, and Annemarie took Ellen to every one of her new haunts as well as many of the old. But every day, Ellen could feel the questions Annemarie had for her. She laughed and danced and found a new beau with whom to flirt at every gathering, all to keep from sitting too long with Annemarie and letting her say a thing.
The visit was far too short, in the end. Annemarie had a surprise for Ellen on the last day; she would take the train with her friend to the ferry, and they would have those hours to themselves. Ellen had to accept, and she did so gladly, by this point not thinking about Annemarie’s questions. She just didn’t want to let go of the freedom she’d found here in Denmark.
They had a compartment to themselves, and they spent the first hour singing old school songs and giggling; they told stories of their teenaged selves, crushes and dates and the like, Annemarie’s far more detailed than Ellen’s. When they had settled down, and began to talk wistfully of having missed each other’s big moments, the air shifted. The time had come and Ellen was not sure she welcomed it.
“Ellen. I have your necklace.” Annemarie held out a carefully wrapped box. “I promised you I would keep it safe.”
Ellen’s breath had shortened; her face colored. Annemarie looked at her in alarm. “Are you alright?”
Ellen let out a short, high-pitched laugh. “I don’t know if I want to open that box,” she confessed in a rush.
Annemarie’s look of concern deepened, and Ellen willed herself to calm down. Inside that box was the last vestige of who she had been all those years before. The girl who couldn’t draw attention to herself, even with something so slight as a necklace her father had given her. It meant nothing at all, truly, and yet everything. It meant the cramped room on a stinking boat in the dead of night, her mother’s tears.
Annemarie whispered then, as if concerned she would frighten her friend. "The night you left; I dreamt about it for years. When we got word you were safe, I wanted to come and find you."
"I promised you I would come back," Ellen said, in an equally low voice.
In the last several days, they had discovered the fast friendship of their childhood had survived; after only a few hours, they could finish each other's sentences, recall quirks neither of them revealed to others in the intervening years. But as the train took them closer to Elsinore, the journey not wholly dissimilar from the one that had separated them, they were both realizing, it was more than they remembered each other fondly. They had kept faith, each in her own way. Ellen had never forgotten - she knew what Annemarie had risked, carrying the basket back with their papers, the soldiers who had stopped her.
Ellen's hand went to her neck as it had on the ferry ride over from Helsingborg. She remembered asking Annemarie where it was, that night so long ago. She was struggling with so much, with who she was and what she wanted, whether she could continue on as her parents wished her to. None of it mattered, though, when she considered that her Papa's gift was here before her, the only link she had with her childhood, thanks to her friend. Her hesitation evaporated.
It was, after all, only a necklace, and Annemarie had been so faithful.
Ellen took the box and opened it. It was as she remembered it, not a bit damaged or tarnished by time. Annemarie had likely taken it to be cared for, before wrapping it up for such a presentation.
Ellen’s tears, long held in, spilled over now, in gratitude.
Annemarie gave her a watery smile, and the women – the girls – embraced.