She delivered the clothing to the family and instructed them to follow her to the bedroom upstairs. While they were changing into the clothing she had provided, she set the copper wash tub on the stove to heat water for a load of laundry, put Raymond and Anne-Marie to bed, and started to wash the supper dishes.
Charles returned to the kitchen wearing Karl’s clothing and carrying a pile of soiled clothing in arms that were visibly shaking. Warren followed close behind him as if he could not stand to let his father out of his sight.
“Where do you want these things?” he asked, as he noticed the large kettle of water on the stove.
Emilie rushed to remove the clothing from him; “I’ll wash these tonight, so they will be ready to wear again tomorrow.”
His sad eyes followed the pile of clothes that Emilie had taken from him. “That’s all we have left,” he whispered, and his eyes filled with tears.
Emilie reached to take Warren’s hand, “Come Lieben; Emilie will put you to bed,” she lifted the small child into her arms and left the room before his father’s misery could be witnessed by the small child.
Warren was exhausted and made no complaint as she set him in the strange bed between the two other sleeping children. He turned on to his side and snuggled his small body close into Raymond’s back and was asleep almost immediately. Watching the three children resting peacefully, Emilie felt a stab of love and compassion so strong that she too had to fight back the tears that threatened. She adjusted the covers over their shoulders and silently left the room, leaving the door ajar so she could hear them if they needed her.
She returned to the kitchen to find Charles still standing where she had left him. She went to the cupboard and removed the full bottle of whiskey that she had found safely tucked in the back of the cupboard, a few days ago. She did not know why Karl kept liquor in his cupboard, but at this moment she was glad that he did. She poured a generous amount into a tumbler and handed it to the grieving man.
He accepted the drink without comment, and swallowed it down in two large gulps. Handing the empty glass back to her, he straightened as if to firm his resolve, “I want to thank you for what you are doing for me and my family. I don’t know when or . . . or . . . how . . .” his voice broke, “but I will . . .someday repay your kindness.” He crumbled and started to weep in earnest, and the only thing that she could do was offer her arms and her heart to the devastated broken man.
He stepped into her arms and held on to her with a savage grip of strength. She rocked him, like she had his child, and she cried along with him. When his tears had finally dried she spoke softly to him.
“You need to rest, Charles. Go up there with die Kinder and get some sleep. Tomorrow we will start over again; Yah?”
He nodded his head, his reddened eyes thanking her in a way that words never could. He shuffled to the stairs and without turning back, made his way to the bedroom upstairs.
Emilie dried her own tears and turned to face the work that still lay before her before she too could settle for the night. She would have to boil the family’s clothing to remove the tar and smoke that had accumulated from the fire. She bent and gathered the soiled clothing into her arms; the immediate stench of smoke and ash filled her nostrils and she gagged as she remembered that the family’s mother, and wife, had lost her life in that fire today. She dumped the clothes into the large copper tub on the stove and with shaking hands and tear-filled eyes, used the butcher knife to chip away at the bar of soap that was used for laundry.
The knife slipped and cut across two of her fingers. Blood spurted out and immediately mixed with the pile of soap flakes she had made. She jerked her hand away from the knife, grabbed the dishtowel from around her neck and wrapped her two bleeding fingers tightly with the towel. Giving in to exhaustion and despair, she lowered her head onto her arms on the table and gave in to the misery she was feeling.
She cried for Charles and his family; for his wife - the woman she had not known - the woman who had loved and cared for the children that she now was responsible for. She cried for Karl and for his children - who like the others no longer had a mother to love and care for them. She cried for her own family now gone from her - her parents, her younger siblings and her beloved Wilhelm. Then she cried for herself - for her lost dreams and the way of life that she had no more. She cried until there were no more tears left to cry, until her head pounded so hard that she could not think.
When she could once again focus her burning eyes, she unwrapped her fingers and inspected the damage. The cut was clean and the bleeding had stopped, but her fingers throbbed painfully, almost as painfully as her head. Her eyes wandered to the counter where the bottle of whiskey still sat on the counter where she had left it earlier. Slowly, with purpose, she rose from the chair and headed towards the counter. Emilie did something she had never done in her life before - she poured herself a generous portion of the liquid fire into a tumbler, and without conscious thought, tipped her head backwards and drained the glass. The liquid poured into her throat with the heat of a roaring fire behind it. She swallowed hard, and came up sputtering. God surely was punishing her she thought, as she gasped for cooling air and tried to quiet the roar in her head that had accompanied the fire in her throat.
For a moment she was dizzy, her heart pounding madly in her chest, then suddenly she began to feel warm and content and calm. So, this was the feeling that lured men to drink, she thought, as she savored the new quiet that came over her body and soul. As nice as the relaxed feeling was however, she did not think that she would ever again care to feel the other effects of the alcohol.
She rested a few moments more letting the whiskey do its job and then slowly returned to her work. She lifted the now well-boiled clothing into the sink; added soap and fresh water and hand scrubbed the clothes with renewed strength. She rinsed them twice and then after wringing them out to the best of her ability, hung them close to the woodstove so they would dry before morning. She finished the dishes, wiped off the kitchen table and the counters, and then mixed up a batch of bread to be baked early the next morning. By the time she had completed all her chores it was well after midnight. She checked on the children, stoked the fire and made her way to her bed on the sofa.
She lay there for a long time, hoping that sleep would come and claim her mind, but it did not. Instead, her mind turned to Karl Wright, whom she had not seen now for several days. She wondered how much longer he would be away, and if he had thought about her at all these past few days that he had been gone. Was he worried about her and the children’s welfare? Was he lonely for his home? Was he with another woman, somewhere far from home, where he had no responsibilities and no children to worry over?
She punched her pillow and rolled on to her side. “What is the use of thinking about Karl Wright”, she mumbled to herself as she struggled to find a comfortable place on her makeshift bed. Karl was nothing to her, merely her employer, and not likely to become anything more, for that matter.
Harriet Tober’s words rumbled through her memory. “You should find yourself a widower with children. You might even be offered marriage!” the cruel woman had said. Emilie grimaced remembering the horrible way Harriet had addressed her.
“Well Mrs. Harriet Tober,” Emilie whispered softly to the still night around her, “I have found two widowers with children, and marriage is the least thing that either men needs or wants. What they need is someone to be their friend, someone to help them go on with the challenge of living - I’ll be that friend, to both men,” she vowed softly, as her eyes closed and finally, her mind rested with much needed sleep.