The boats circled out into the deeper channel, engines trebling up. The Russians could not stop them now. It was over.
Motion drew his attention back to the far side of the boat.
Tola leaned over the baby and delivered a soft kiss atop the boy's wispy-haired pate. She lifted her face, meeting Jakob's gaze. He saw no defiance oranger. Only determination.
Jakob knew what she was about to do. "Don't—"
Shifting up, Tola leaned back over the low rail behind her and kicked off with her feet. With the baby clutched to her bosom, she flipped backward into the cold water.
Her guard, startled by the sudden action, twisted and fired blindly into the water.
Jakob lunged to his side and knocked his arm up. "You could hit the child."
Jakob leaned over the boat's edge and searched the waters. The other men were on their feet. The boat rocked. All Jakob saw in the leaden waters was his own reflection. He motioned for the pilot to circle.
Nothing.He watched for any telltale bubbles, but the laden boat's wake churned the waters to obscurity. He pounded a fist on the rail.
Like father…like daughter…
Only a Mischlinge would take such a drastic action. He had seen it before: Judische mothers smothering their own children to spare them greater suffering. He had thought Tola was stronger than that. But in the end, perhaps she had no choice.
He circled long enough to make sure. His men searched the banks on each side. She was gone. The whistling passage of a mortar overhead discouraged tarrying any longer.
Jakob waved his men back into their seats. He pointed west, toward the waiting plane. They still had the crates and all the files. It was a setback, but one that could be overcome. Where there was one child, there could be another.
"Go," he ordered.
The pair of boats set out again, engines winding up to a full throttle. Within moments, they had vanished into the smoky pall as Breslau burned.
Tola heard the boats fade into the distance.
She treaded water behind one of the thick stone pylons that supported the ancient cast-iron Cathedral Bridge. She kept one hand clenched over the baby's mouth, suffocating him to silence, praying he gained enough air through his nose. But the child was weak.
As was she.
The bullet had pierced the side of her neck. Blood flowed thickly, staining the water crimson. Her vision narrowed. Still she fought to hold the baby above the water.
Moments before, as she tumbled into the river, she had intended to drown herself and the baby. But as the cold struck her and her neck burned with fire, something tore through her resolve. She remembered the light glowing on the steeples. It was not her religion, not her heritage. But it was a reminder that there was light beyond the current darkness. Somewhere men did not savage their brothers. Mothers did not drown their babies.
She had kicked deeper into the channel, allowing the current to push her toward the bridge. Underwater, she used her own air to keep the child alive, pinching his nose and exhaling her breath through his lips. Though she had planned for death, once the fight for life had ignited, it grew more fierce, a fire in her chest.
The boy never had a name.
No one should die without a name.
She breathed into the child, shallow breaths, in and out as she kicked with the current, blind in the water. Only dumb luck brought her up against one of the stone pilings and offered a place to shelter.
But now with the boats leaving, she could wait no longer. Blood pumped from her. She sensed it was only the cold keeping her alive. But the same cold was chilling the life from the frail child.
She kicked for shore, a frantic thrashing, uncoordinated by weakness and numbness. She sank under the water, dragging the infant down with her.
She struggled up, but the water was suddenly heavier, harder to fight.
She refused to succumb.
Then under her toes, slick rocks bumped against her boots. She cried out, forgetting she was still underwater, and gagged on the mouthful of river. She sank a bit more, then kicked one last time off the muddy rocks. Her head breeched, and her body flung itself toward shore.
The bank rose steeply underfoot.
On hand and knee, she scrabbled out of the water, clutching the baby to her throat. She reached the shoreline and fell facedown onto the rocky bank. Shehad no strength to move another limb. Her own blood bathed over the child. It took her last effort to focus on the baby.
He was not moving. Not breathing.
She closed her eyes and prayed as an eternal blackness swallowed her.
Cry, damn you, cry…
Father Varick was the first to hear the mewling.
He and his brothers were sheltered in the wine cellar beneath Saints Peter and Paul Church. They had fled when the bombing of Breslau began last night. On their knees, they had prayed for their island to be spared. The church, built in the fifteenth century, had survived the ever-changing masters of the border city. They sought heavenly protection to survive once more.
It was in such silent piety that the plaintive cries echoed to the monks.
Father Varick stood, which took much effort for his old legs.
"Where are you going?" Franz asked.
"I hear my flock calling for me," the father said. For the past two decades, he had fed scraps to the river cats and the occasional cur that frequented the riverside church.
"Now is not the time," another brother warned, fear ripe in his voice.
Father Varick had lived too long to fear death with such youthful fervor. He crossed the cellar and bent to enter the short passage that ended at the river door. Coal used to be carted up the same passage and stored where now fine green bottles nestled in dust and oak.
He reached the old coal door, lifted the bar, and undid the latch.
Using a shoulder, he creaked it open.
The sting of smoke struck him first—then the mewling drew his eyes down. "Mein Gott im Himmel…"A woman had collapsed steps from the door in the buttress wall that supported the channel church. She was not moving. He hurried to her side, dropping again to his knees, a new prayer on his lips.
He reached to her neck and checked for a sign of life, but found only blood and ruin. She was soaked head to foot and as cold as the stones.
Then the cry again…coming from her far side.
He shifted to find a babe, half-buried under the woman, also bloody.
Though blue from the cold and just as wet, the child still lived. He freed the infant from the body. His wet swaddling shed from him with their waterlogged weight.
He quickly ran his hands over the tiny body and saw the blood was not the child's.Only his mother's.
He glanced sadly down at the woman. So much death. He searched the far side of the river. The city burned, roiling smoke into the dawning sky. Gunfire continued. Had she swum across the channel? All to save her child?