THE AMBER CRANE
By Malve von Hassell
Chafing at the rules of the amber guild, Peter, an apprentice during the waning years of the Thirty Years’ War, finds and keeps a forbidden piece of amber, despite the risk of severe penalties should his secret be discovered.
Little does he know that this amber has hidden powers, transporting him into a future far beyond anything he could imagine. In dreamlike encounters, Peter witnesses the ravages of the final months of World War II in and around his home. He becomes embroiled in the troubles faced by Lioba, a girl he meets who seeks to escape from the oncoming Russian army.
Peter struggles with the consequences of his actions, endangering his family, his amber master’s reputation, and his own future. How much is Peter prepared to sacrifice to right his wrongs?
From Chapter 1
Peter pulled his coat tighter around himself against the wind. Occasionally he stepped into a depression filled with water, but it did not bother him. The sound of the waves soothed him; he felt as if he could breathe more easily. He dreaded the weight of his father’s unhappiness, the lingering sadness over his brother’s death, and the weaving and rocking from side to side his sister engaged in when she was upset. There was no room for Peter in any of this.
To get out of the wind for a while, Peter crawled into a little hollow beneath exposed roots of a stand of scraggly pine trees. Riding along a path on top of the dunes, the beach watchman would patrol the area, on the lookout for people gathering amber. The tide was going out but the sea was churned up by the storm, and gusts of wind continued to whip across the water. Occasionally the spray from breakers hitting the beach tickled his face and his lips tasted salty. The smell of the sea and the incessant slap of the waves onto the shore gave him the feeling of being worlds away from Master Nowak’s disapproving frown or his father’s gloomy dissatisfaction.
Absorbed in watching the shimmer of the water in the glow of the setting sun, he felt his thoughts calm down. Perhaps he could find a way to escape from all this. He began to dream of journeying far away, perhaps to the city of Königsberg, the heart of the amber trade. It would be marvelous to come upon a hidden cache of amber somewhere along the fabled amber beaches outside of Königsberg. Of course, he knew there was nothing more unlikely. He thought of the tales told by amber fishers who claimed to have seen large chunks of amber floating in the waves. Whenever they got closer, reaching out with their nets, it all vanished.
Peter ran his hand back and forth over the sand and the exposed gnarly pine roots near his legs, then stopped, wincing. He had cut the sensitive area between thumb and index finger.
Thumping sounds made him raise his head. The silhouette of a horse and rider loomed against the darkening sky—the beach watchman, cantering along the path on top of the dunes.
Peter squeezed farther back into his shelter, his foot digging into the sand. The ground reverberated as the rider thundered past his hiding place. Sliding down as if a sinkhole had opened up beneath him, Peter grabbed onto an exposed pine tree root to keep from making noise and attracting the watchman’s attention. The horse started and snorted as if sensing Peter’s presence. The rider cursed, kicking the horse, and within moments, passed by. The sounds of the hooves in the sand faded away.
Peter was still clutching the root with one hand when he felt a lump underneath the other. Slowly he sat up and tried to pull his find out of the sand, tugging until it was free. He shook it to dislodge some of the sand. The clump smelled bad; it was nothing but rotted netting, with barnacles and small shells caught in its coils. Disappointed, he raised his hand to toss it away.
Then Peter hesitated. The dark stringy strands reminded him of the nets used by the amber catchers. He could feel something firm inside the tightly twisted mess of rope and knots, and worked his fingers into the tangle, pushing and pulling until he was able to pry it apart. A salt-crusted stone with a rough, cracked surface fell onto the sand in front of his feet. He picked it up to take a closer look. There actually were two pieces, a longer one, about the length of his palm, curved around a smaller one, like a mother cradling a baby in her lap. When he prodded the clump with a little twig, the pieces came apart. These were not stones. They were too light.
Instinctively Peter closed his hands over his find and glanced around to see whether the watchman was coming back. The tops of the distant pine trees waved in the wind. The beach was deserted, and the only sound other than the surf was the raucous screeching of the cranes.
After a moment, Peter relaxed, opening his hands to study the lumps. Dull, crusted with salt, unpolished, they did not look at all appealing. But he had worked with Master Nowak long enough to know at least one of them to be a unique and unusually large piece of amber. On the amber market, it would fetch a high price.
The smaller piece was just large enough for a lady’s pendant. Peter could see it with his mind’s eye as clearly as if he had spent hours working on it—a perfect little heart with a warm dark-golden glow. He put it down and picked up the other one.
It was almost as long as his hand and half as wide in the middle. In the workshop, he rarely handled or worked on pieces larger than those used to make rosary beads. He poked at the crusty surface with his fingernail. He turned it this way and that. It made him think of a tall bird, perhaps a crane. Its oblong shape seemed curiously alive, as if a bird was waiting underneath the crust, dreaming inside its dark golden nest.
It rested on the palm of his hand, its secret hidden. He should throw it back. Someone might have seen him walking toward the beach. It would be awful if he were caught. He would have to count himself lucky if he only got flogged. He should throw everything back into the sea immediately. The watchman might come circling back any moment. He closed his hand firmly on his find and lifted his arm. Then, as if pulled down by a tremendous weight, his arm dropped. Just for a night. He would keep it just for a night. Tomorrow he would take it back.
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Malve von Hassell
Malve von Hassell is a freelance writer, researcher, and translator. She holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from the New School for Social Research. Working as an independent scholar, she published The Struggle for Eden: Community Gardens in New York City (Bergin & Garvey 2002) and Homesteading in New York City 1978-1993: The Divided Heart of Loisaida (Bergin & Garvey 1996). She has also edited her grandfather Ulrich von Hassell's memoirs written in prison in 1944, Der Kreis schließt sich - Aufzeichnungen aus der Haft 1944 (Propylaen Verlag 1994). She has taught at Queens College, Baruch College, Pace University, and Suffolk County Community College, while continuing her work as a translator and writer. She has self-published two children’s picture books, Letters from the Tooth Fairy (2012/2020) and Turtle Crossing (2021), and her translation and annotation of a German children’s classic by Tamara Ramsay, Rennefarre: Dott’s Wonderful Travels and Adventures (Two Harbors Press, 2012). The Falconer’s Apprentice (namelos, 2015) was her first historical fiction novel for young adults. She has published Alina: A Song for the Telling (BHC Press, 2020), set in Jerusalem in the time of the crusades, and The Amber Crane (Odyssey Books, 2021), set in Germany in 1645 and 1945. She has completed a biographical work about a woman coming of age in Nazi Germany and is working on a historical fiction trilogy featuring Adela of Normandy.
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