The Other Side

Written by Katja Stein 

 Photograph by  Nicole Mason

Photograph by Nicole Mason

Since I was twelve I have been living in endless darkness. I was blinded by a water cannon in World War II. My mother pulled me through the masses of people running and screaming. I nearly couldn’t keep up with her but my mother would not let go of my hand. I stumbled and lost hold of my mother. When I got up again I heard screams behind me. Then shots. Without turning around I started to run. In front of me, the people started to slow down and screamed. There was a blockade. I was scared and confused and I desperately wanted to see my mother, to return to her. They shot teargas into the crowd. People were pushed from side to side, they were beaten and kicked. I could hear my mother shouting but I couldn’t find her in the crowded chaos. And then the water hit me. Directly in the face. I screamed. My eyes burned like hell. The searing pain shot through my head. I never knew water could hurt so badly. Then I heard my mother shouting.

'Elisa!' I was startled when she touched my shoulders. I couldn’t see her. Why couldn’t I see her?

'Mom?' I whispered full of pain. My eyes…

I heard her crying.

*****

I wiped the tears from my eyes, the memory now passing.

'Grandma? Are you alright?'

 I turned my head in the direction from where the voice was coming from. 'I’m fine, Tom.'

Footsteps. A hand on my arm.

'A memory of the war again?' It was a woman’s voice this time. Tom was 9. This was his mother.

'Yes. But they have lost their colours. It’s only black and white now, like our old TV.'

'Oh Elisa…' The hand stroked my arm and squeezed it a little.

'Grandma, come with me. I want to show you something!' A second hand took hold of mine. It was Claire, my Granddaughter.

'I’m coming Claire, not so fast!' I stood and let her lead me by the hand. I heard a man's voice quitely speaking in one of the other rooms. It was my son, Frank.

'I can’t live like this anymore. I have to help her.'

The woman's voice, which belonged to my daughter in law, and Tom’s mother, Annika answered. 'I know honey, but we don’t have the money. And furthermore-'

'You aren’t even listening grandma!' I turned my head, unable to hear the rest of their conversation.

'I’m sorry Claire. What do you wanted to show me?' Claire put my hand against her face.

'Can you feel it?' I carefully touched her face and I felt cloth.

'Are you wearing a mask?'

Claire laughed. 'Yes grandma! Tom and I are blind now too. Like you. We can now experience the world like you do.'

 I smiled. 'Oh, Claire.' I love these children more than they could ever imagine.

'It is really difficult.' said Tom, which was followed shortly by a shattering noise.

 'Tom!' shouted Annika.

'Sorry Mom.'

I could hear Annika collecting the shards. 'What are you and Claire doing with these masks? Take them off before you destroy our whole house.'

'But mom!' said Claire indignantly. 'We are blind. Just like grandma.' Silence. I waited for Annika's answer but nothing happened. Then I heard her cry. 'Mom!' said Tom, horrified.

'It’s alright sweetheart. I’m sorry'. and she walked out the room.

'Did I say something wrong?' he asked.

'You did nothing wrong. In fact, I think you made your mother very proud.'

'Then Why is she crying?'

'They’re happy tears, Tom.' I reached out for them and they each took one of my hands. I squeezed them and smiled. 'It isn’t that easy to live in the dark, am I right?'

Yes! It’s very difficult! How do you do that so easily grandma?' You never bump in to anything.

'I can hear and smell better.' I could hear the kids start to sniff.

'I can’t smell anything.' said Tom, disappointed.

'You have to learn it. Come on guys, I‘ll show you.'

*****

One week passed and I had so much fun with Tom and Claire. Meanwhile they learnt where the furniture was and how to find their way around. And when I called them, it didn’t take long until they found me. But during  this time, while we were having so much fun, I didn’t hear a lot from my son. I was a little worried.

I sat with Tom and Claire at the dining table. They both tried to sniff out what I had cooked them.

'Spaghetti!' shouted Claire happily and started eating.

'You've earned it. You two are really doing great.' Suddenly, I heard a rustle and then silence. 'What is it?' I asked.

Claire sounded sad. 'You know, whenever Tom or I don’t wanna be blind anymore, we can just take off our blindfolds. But you can’t. You are always blind.'

I reached my arm in her direction and took her hand. 'You know Claire. I’m really proud of you and Tom, that you tried to live like I have to. And you can’t imagine how happy I am that you two don’t have to live in this darkness.' My voice trembled but I kept myself together. 'I miss the colours. I really do. How blue the sky is, how green the grass in front of our house is, or how red the tomato sauce on your T-Shirt would be.' I laughed and the kids joined in.

 'Oh grandma,' sighed Claire. 'One day you will see again. I’m absolutely sure about that!'

'We promise!' said Tom.

I heard footsteps coming from another room towards us. Annika and Frank were back home.

'Kids, come with me please. Your dad has to talk to grandma.'  I heard the scraping of chairs being moved and Annika left the room with the kids. Frank’s hand took mine and I put my other hand on top of his. 'What is it Frank?'

'I have good news. If you want, you can have your sight back, mom.'

I stopped breathing for a second. 'What?'

'There's a doctor offers special treatment for war-children. He also does eye surgery. He can take a look at you and give you your eyesight back.' I could hear his excitement. 'You could see again, mom.'

'How much?'

He didn’t answer immediately. 'Oh, it isn’t that much. Please mum, it would mean a lot to the kids too.' I let go off his hands. 'Mom?'

I put his hands in the seat of my lap and turned my head away. 'I don’t want the surgery, Frank. I love my grandchildren and they had so much fun last week with the masks. And I realized that I am who I am. I am blind. I am old, Frank. Don’t waste that money, son, just because you feel like you have to help me. I’m happy.'

'But mom, what about all your memories losing colours?'

I turned my head back to him. 'Do you know what the last thing I saw was?'

'No. You never told me that.'

'It was absolute chaos. There was a blockade and as a little girl I was standing there alone. One soldier turned around and shot the water in my face. That was the last thing I saw. An evil, grinning soldier.' Frank was silent and I took a long breath. 'I’d rather live in darkness than to see something like that ever again.' I felt his arms around me as he hugged me. His tears ran down my cheek.

'I’m so sorry, mother'.

I stroked his back. 'It’s alright. What happened, happened. I’m grateful that I’m still alive. I have a great son, a great sister in law and two amazing grandchildren. I’m perfectly happy how it is now. Don’t change it.'

He wiped off the tears from my cheek. 'I love you, mom.'