Once again the girl with the short curly hair tried to stand up on the snow-covered slope and regain control of her skis—but more slowly this time. Every muscle seemed to rebel and force her to admit defeat. Her mind had not counted the many times she had fallen down, but her body knew and it reminded her.
The people in the town called her Heidi, even though that was not her name. And she did not really belong to that part of the world either. The Swiss Red Cross had placed her for a few months in the home of a Swiss family. Thousands of undernourished children from war-torn countries of Europe found a similar haven in Switzerland where they could regain their physical, emotional, and mental health.
Later in life Heidi would try to find out who had put this worthy program into effect. But at the moment her overriding concern was her frustration.
Through tearfilled eyes she could dimly see the outline of the house she called home. Home—that was what it had become to her. At first she had tried very hard to resist its beauty, but the urge lasted only a short time. The scent of wood paneling, the aroma of freshly baked bread and homemade soup, the crackling of logs in the fireplace enveloped her like a warm blanket every time she stepped into the foyer. She felt secure there.
Slowly, like a flower unfolding to the sun, she had opened her heart and soul to her surroundings. Heidi knew there would be pain in leaving at the end of her stay, yet she was willing to take the risk. Whatever heartache lay ahead would have to be met when it came. These glorious memories might have to carry her for a long time.
Heidi’s own country was in ruins. Food was scarce, and her father was a prisoner of war. Her mother was so blind with grief at the death of her only son that she was unaware of the needs and emotions of those around her.
For the first few nights after her arrival in Switzerland, Heidi lay awake trying to become accustomed to the sounds of the house. It was hard for her to believe that she could really go to sleep and that there would be no siren to make her heart race with the fear of yet another air raid.
Heidi had looked around the room. There was so much to see and explore. There was a soft white sheepskin rug on the floor by her bed and a huge, billowy feather tick that almost seemed to drown her. She often found a piece of chocolate on her pillow. Even the light bulbs were white, not blue like the ones she had been used to.
More than anything she loved the mountains. They seemed to her like people—some very gentle, others a little less smooth and polished. She remembered a man high on the Alps who spent his summers taking care of the cows and making cheese. He was not really anybody to be afraid of, but Heidi had never seen him smile. Once, without saying a word, he had given her a small handcarved goat.
Heidi had found a lot to be happy about in her new world, yet some things still grieved her. If only the other children wouldaccept me, she pined. Sometimes she felt trapped behind a wall of indifference. None of the children had ever invited her to join their games. At first she had not minded too much, because the games were not familiar to her anyway. Her childhood had been spent just trying to stay alive. However, standing at the window watching, Heidi learned fast. Now she longed to be included, but it seemed that that would never happen.
With the sensitivity and cruelty that only children are capable of at the same time, she was not left to guess at their feelings. Because Germany, her homeland, had started the war, she knew there was no way these children would make it easy for her.
All these pent-up feelings made Heidi determined to excel. She decided she had to win the ski race and made her plans in secret. The boots, skis, and poles she borrowed were much too big for her, but they’d have to do. Early every morning she would leave her warm bed to practice on the slopes. And long after the other children had gone home, Heidi still practiced in the early dusk.
Each waking minute was filled with the vision of winning the race. Heidi could picture herself flashing through the gate as the loudspeaker announced the fastest run of the day. It will be mine! It has to be mine! Heidi daydreamed. She was determined to be the one who would be given the cup filled with delicious chocolates. She was the one who would walk past the line of competitors as the winner. I’ll show them, she dreamed. They’ll be sorry then for all their insults. In Heidi’s mind much more than a place in the winner’s circle was at stake—she would have her revenge.
The day of the race came. There was no time for nervousness now, just a steely determination that had honed her ability to near perfection. Heidi skied as though she had nothing to lose and everything to gain, and it happened exactly as she had envisioned it so many times. Slowly her steps led her to the winners’ stand. She accepted the cup and turned to make the traditional walk past the other participants.
Eyes seemed to look through her, and nobody smiled or applauded. If this is victory, she thought, why am I so unhappy? Yet, could I really expect the others to understand and rejoice with me? It would be asking too much.
Heidi straightened her shoulders and took a few returning steps to the beginning of the line. What she was doing required courage. If she were not able to make amends today, she was afraid her resolve would falter.
Arm extended with the visible sign of her victory, Heidi invited her longed-for-friends to share in her triumph and her prize. For a small moment in time it was as though the very air around her held its breath. Nobody spoke or moved. Finally one of the girls took a chocolate and smiled her thanks. And then almost at once it seemed to Heidi that everybody was laughing and crying at the same time.
Acceptance had come at last.