The last paper boat. At least Herman hoped it was, watching it float away. Transported by the Danube to a world far from his own. A world without weapons and bombs. Without destruction. Where dreams didn’t die, where they weren’t shattered. Where men lived. He watched as it carried a tale of love, of loss, of grief and of war. Is that why they call it the Black sea, he wondered. All emotions coalescing to form a black, murky mass. Was the sea black inside, hiding behind a shade of blue, flowing nonchalantly. Like the people around him, hiding their sadness behind a smile. It will all be alright, they said. To others, to themselves. That it was destiny. There was nothing they could do, and the world would return to normalcy. It had to. Someday.
As it drifted away, he wondered whether it had a destination. Would it continue gliding away forever? One day it would end, he thought. Sauntering aimlessly, it would go, the ebb and flow of the river, charting it’s path. Until the day a wave would topple it. The boat would not see it coming until it was too late. It would lose control, having no authority on it’s fate. Like the story that it carried. The story of his brother Maximillian. A paper boat in the world.
He remembered their childhood. Orphaned at a young age, they had lived with their uncle. Frolicking around the countryside, they had grown up, known for their mischief. Playing in the river, stealing mangoes from their neighbour, they would return home to face their uncle’s wrath. When they were not wreaking havoc, they could be found helping their uncle in his printing press. One adjusting the frimpet and tympan while the other exerted all his might on the handle to make sure the ink got impressed on the paper. But soon after, their uncle had passed away. That was the day they sailed their first paper boat. One boat for each.
His brother had taught him the trick. Where he learnt it, Herman didn’t know. They had walked to the river, paper in hand. Instructing him at every fold, his brother had explained the symbolism of it. “Sail them away,” he said. “The bad thoughts floating in your head. Gnawing their way inside, they will eat you and your happiness. So sail them away and let them be free”. And he had – let go. Watching the two boats meander away, he felt a calmness flow through him.
Their uncle had left them nothing except for the printing press. After his death, Maximilian, sixteen at the time, took over the business. Dropping out, he had toiled day and night to make ends meet and put Herman through school. After graduating, he had joined his brother in the business. Together they had expanded it and, in a few years, amassed quite a fortune. They enjoyed the work, and everything was going well. Diving into adulthood, they had lofty ambitions. But the good old days have to end sometime. And they had.
He remembered that unfateful day quite vividly. Knocking on the door, the mailman had called out. There were two letters for them. One for each. He remembered the horror on Maximillan’s face as he read them aloud. The first one said that Herman was eligible for arbeitseinsatz. There was a train waiting for him the next day that would ship him away to a factory manufacturing weapons for the war. His brother had not been so lucky. His letter said that he had to fight in it. A different letter, a different train, and a different destiny. Every detail of that day was ingrained in his memory like it had happened yesterday. That was the day they sailed their second paper boat. They folded the letters and let them go. One for each.
Leaving everything behind, they set out the next day. As they made their way to the train station, they grasped at every little detail. The oak tree standing tall. The rhythm of the cuckoos on it chirping belligerently. The pattern the flowers made, lying haphazardly on the way. Suddenly, it all seemed so important. No words were said. No words needed to be. They were walking the same path, but it led to different destinations. They reached just in time as the trains sounded their horn. Signalling the beginning of their new life, and the end of their past. Hugging each other, they battled to hold back tears. Tears and their innermost fears. Goodbyes were exchanged and promises made. Promises to meet after the war was over. When they would come back home to the printing press. To each other. As if it was so simple. They had never been away from each other. As they parted ways for the first time, they wondered whether it would be their last.
Today, he received another letter. His brother had been killed – martyred at war. That letter was the only possession his brother had left him, the last paper boat. There was only one now. Drifting away. Alone. As he watched it zigzag away, a tear rolled down his cheek, and he bid goodbye to his brother. To the paper boat. Rubbing the tears away, he made his way back. He had to get back to work now. War was not yet over. The smell of sweat wafted through the air as he entered the factory. Metal clanged against metal, drowning out his sorrow. Lost in the humdrum of the machines as men hard at work manufactured weapons. Weapons that would kill someone else’s brother.