A Child's Christmas Wish

By: Erica Vetsch


Berne, Minnesota

November 1, 1875

 “Lord, haven’t we suffered enough?” Kate Amaker didn’t say the words aloud, but they echoed in her head as Grossvater Martin urged the horses to hurry over the wooden bridge and up the slight rise to their farm drive. “How much more can we take?”

Ahead, a dull orange colored the night sky, illuminating the undersides of billowing gray clouds of smoke. Something on their farm was burning. Something big. What building was it? The barn? Thankfully, all the cows were out in the pasture tonight. The cheese house? An entire summer’s worth of cheeses gone up in smoke? All their equipment…their livelihood?

Rattling over the bridge, they drew near, and Kate’s heart sank. It was neither the barn nor the cheese house.

It was their home.

Kate put her arm around Grossmutter Inge and gripped the edge of the wagon seat with her other hand. The horses responded to Grossvater’s shouts by galloping up the hill, the wagon jouncing and slewing.

Johann and Grossvater had built the farmhouse together, replacing the three-roomed log cabin the family had lived in when they first arrived from Switzerland more than twenty years before. It was the house Johann had been so proud to bring his bride home to after their wedding almost two years before. The farmhouse was to shelter them through the coming Minnesota winter and welcome her baby in a few weeks. An ache started behind Kate’s ribs, so heavy she couldn’t take a deep breath.

Flames shot from every window and licked out under the eaves. Smoke bellied out in puffs and twists and tendrils, drawn up against the stars.

Grossvater brought the wagon to a halt well back from the fire. The horses snorted and stamped, and Kate sat in frozen horror on the wagon seat as the merciless flames engulfed the house.

Grossmutter clutched Kate’s arm, her mouth open but not making a sound. Tears tracked down her cheeks, catching the light of the fire and glittering as they followed the wrinkles and seams of her lined face.

Kate turned back to the fire, knowing it was far too advanced to stop. Already the shingles were beginning to smoke. Soon, the flames would engulf the roof. Nothing could be saved. She huddled in her late husband’s woolen coat, too shocked to grieve.

Shouts caught her attention, and the sounds of horses and wagon wheels on the road. Neighbors, coming home from the same church service where the Amakers had been worshipping and giving thanks to God for this year’s harvest, drawn by the flames.

They drove into the farmyard in their wagons and buggies, but once they spied the three Amakers, no one dashed about trying to rescue anyone or save anything. No one tried to put out the fire. It was too late, and everyone knew it. Instead, they sat, faces illuminated by the angry blaze, silent, like Kate and Grossmutter and Grossvater.

What was there to say?

After a time, someone reached up to assist Grossmutter to the ground, and then reached up again for Kate, putting his hands under her arms. Numbly, she braced herself on the man’s shoulders and found herself looking into the eyes of their closest neighbor, Oscar Rabb.

He took great care swinging her to the ground, and she felt the solidness of his muscles under his thick, black coat, steady and strong. The moment she was on her feet, he let go, stepping back. His broad-brimmed hat shaded his eyes, but the glow from the fire touched his cheeks and beard. He watched her, as if he thought he might need to catch her if she fainted.

She hadn’t realized how big he was. Not just tall, but solid. She’d only seen him before from a distance as he worked in his fields, never this near. He had been an acquaintance of Johann’s, but not a close friend. He was something of a recluse, a widower with a little girl, she believed.

The glass broke in the upstairs windows and fire shot out, voracious, consuming everything in its path. A hard lump formed in Kate’s throat. All their things, all their memories.

“There was no one in the house?” Oscar asked. He stood facing the fire, his hands in his coat pockets, his breath making frosty puffs in the night air.

Kate shook her head. “No. We were in town. At church.”

She turned away and put her arm around Grossmutter, who wept softly. When the fire began to encroach on the grass, neighbors brought buckets from the trough, dousing the flames lest they race toward the barn.

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