She had found his photograph in an old book, at the Library.
The book had been in the selling room, a space set aside for the frayed of binding or loose of page, or the subjectively deemed "dull of content." This little annex of the old brick building was the last hope for the worn-out printed works, stamped "discard" with a heavy black ink. If they remained too long here, they would be recycled... not on to another bookshelf for a new pupil to absorb its wisdom, but to the blue bin, the mass grave of all abandoned codex. Most of the books in the room did not appeal to her; many were the encyclopedic chronicles of sports history, or dime novels stuffed with sensation and not much else, or plotless textbooks now long out of date. Most of them were old-ish, which in the world of books was akin to a hot-ish plate of pasta, or a funny-ish comedian at a club. It was the really old ones that caught her attention, with a simple cloth cover and the irresistible smell of aged paper. It is a treasure most uncommon in such places, but when you know what you're looking for, a keen eye can sometimes find a hidden or neglected two or three.
The spine of the book with the photograph was a dead give away: the cloth cover had let loose at one end and beneath the fading burgundy material, the telltale font of newsprint was revealed. She lifted the volume delicately, as a mother lifts a sleeping child, fearful of waking the infant and yet entirely unable to resist the pleasure of holding a baby at such peace. The book was extremely old, and not in English. Opening to the frontispiece, she scanned for a date. 1828, Berlin.
The German language is something few in her city were likely able to pick up and read, but it was the style of the printing and the formatting of each page that gave her the clues she needed to puzzle out the mystery. She was holding a Bible. She purchased the book before she asked her questions.
"It is most certainly a religious work of some antiquity!" quipped the woman standing behind the desk, turning the pages with reverence. "Although, I don't believe you have a full Genesis-to-Revelation account here. More likely it is a very old commentary, on "Lucas" and "Johannes," or Luke and John. To confirm, I suggest that you refer to a computer, and one of our language translation software programs. You can find them over there, in the "D" section." She thanked the librarian and returned home without the recommended double-check. It took her a few hours of uncomprehending meandering through the pages to find the photograph, but when she did it was like the whole world fell spellbound into the gaze of the young soldier staring out from the frame.
He was dressed in the Canadian uniform common to paratroopers in the Second World War. His whole form looked strong and quite handsome; he was a man of perhaps thirty years, his face full of bravery and fire and the lacing softness of human compassion. She was struck by how much his expression conveyed. He looked resolved, apprehensive, hopeful, cautious, full of a welling love, and something else that her young heart couldn't label at the time, but would later call wisdom.
The black and white picture featured a house and a garden in the background behind the man. There was a mailbox among other things, flag up, with numbers on the side that couldn't be read because of the angle of the camera. Was this his home?
She picked up the photograph and turned it over in her hands. On the back, in a simple scrawl, was the phrase, "Gott ist souverän," and lower on the Polaroid, "Meine Liebe, Jakob. Juni 23, 1940." She flipped it back over and took a closer look at the man's face, re-examining the details of his setting. There was a suitcase in the frame, leaning against the mailbox post. It was a hard-covered brown leather piece with a key and snapping front clasps. Centered near the handle was the word, the name, "TAPFER," printed in block letters.
Jakob Tapfer. And that was enough.
It was enough to drive her back to the Library, to the microfiche and the war archives. It was enough to find him on the memorial that had been set up in town to honour the men who died serving overseas. She learned that he had been in several small attacks before he died in an invasion known as "Operation Market Garden," in the Netherlands. Almost a month passed before she thought to look in a phonebook. Something about the picture compelled her to return it. However it came to be at the Library, and then into her care, she somehow knew that it was not hers to keep.
There were three Tapfers on her list. The first was a young woman who had recently moved up from Toronto, and had no connection to the family from the local papers of years gone by. The second number forwarded to an automatic voice message about vehicle rental rates and insurance. A man named Jakob picked up on her third try.
She stumbled through a clumsy explanation about finding an old book in the Library, and the photograph that led her to calling, and did he know of anyone by his name that served in World War II? The silence that followed felt chocked with emotion. Slowly the voice returned. "You... found one of her books?"
She listened quietly as Jakob Junior, the son of the man whose photograph she held, told her the history that newspapers ignored. "My mother was pregnant with me when he left. She used to say that he was a true Tapfer man, very brave. She said you could see it in his eyes. She loved him so much." He recounted, in brief, the history of his father that he had memorized from the cradle, the story that his mother had told him all of his life. "He was part of the Canadian Forces, enlisted early on to fight with the British Allies because he was already parachute trained. It had been a thrill in his youth, and he had learned the skill at home, only thirty minutes from Arnheim, the place he died. Both of my parents grew up in Kranenburg, you see. They moved to Canada in 1923 and became full Canadian citizens in 1934 and 1935, mother and father respectively. Neither entertained dreams of seeing their home again, but when my father left for War, he wrote that he thought God was going to take him home. And He did, twice; once to the airs of Arnheim, and then quickly to his heavenly place."
She listened without interruption for nearly two hours, completely absorbed by the passion and pride with which this man told his father's story. She learned that his mother, Sonje, had gone Home too, about a year ago. When her apartment had been sorted through by Jakob and his wife, they found none of the books or letters or anything else they expected her to keep. Months later they came across receipts for the rental of a small storage unit, under her second husband's name, but when they contacted the managers they were told flatly that, "anything unpaid and unclaimed for more than six months, whatever it be, is sold as a lot at auction." All of his mother's treasures had been given away from less than a hundred dollars. "We worked hard to track down the buyer, but once the sale has been made it is a very difficult process. You are the first to ever track us down."
So she offered, as she had planned, to return the photograph and the book it came with. After all of the story telling and reliving of the past, it was this act of kindness that overwhelmed him and his voice broke down into sobs. His wife picked up the receiver and arranged the details of a visit.
All of this had led her to the bus ride she was now taking. In a city as sprawled out as North Bay, the public transportation system is an important, if sometimes tedious, vein. The route was familiar, but the stop was not -- which is why she was so intently focused on watching the road signs out the window when the turnip hit her ankle. She didn't like to swear, and she had worked hard to keep her vocabulary clean, but when something as pain-inducing and unexpected as a rolling rutabaga breaks into your reality, the subliminal cultural training we have received sometimes slips out, entirely without our permission. As she bent down to tend to her pulsing foot, she knocked into a man behind her and set him off balance. He began to topple, just as someone reached out and caught him, under arm.
"Ethan!" she said with surprise, moving to help him right the man, apologies to both tumbling out of her as she struggled to orient herself in the moment. "Oh hello there, pretty girl," he said with a grin, "and where might you be off to with such determination? I've been standing here for nearly ten minutes, feeling very much ignored." His grin had swayed into a smirk. She smiled.
"I'm going to meet a friend," she said, careful about her verbal footing, unsure of how much she wanted to share right away. He caught the reserve in her voice and pulled a face. "Is it quite serious? Your other boyfriend, right?" She rolled her eyes as the bus pulled over and a few people hopped off between them. "It's a new friend," she said, deciding not to explain the adventure just yet. "I'm returning a book."
But then she thought about Sonje and Jakob. Life, her heart reminded her, is a fragile thing. She looked up at her man, smiling down at her face. Would she, in time, press his picture between the pages of her favourite book?
The bus pulled over at her stop at just that moment. Between closed doors and open doors, her mind had changed. "You know, I could use a bit of company after all. Will you come?" She took his hand. "Sure," he said, the grin returning, "But only if I can carry your books."