Authors: Liza Perrat
Copyright © 2013 by Liza Perrat
The moral rights of the author have been asserted.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other non-commercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the email address below.
Cover design: JD Smith.
Published by Perrat Publishing.
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First printing, 2013.
When you go to war as a boy you have a great illusion of immortality. Other people get killed, not you. Then when you are badly wounded the first time you lose that illusion and you know it can happen to you.
We gather in the cemetery, before the ossuary, with the straggle of other remaining survivors and their families. Our heads dipped, the mayor begins his memorial speech to commemorate the tragedy that became a legend around these parts; the evil that part of me still believes was the result of my own reckless actions.
There isn’t a region in France that didn’t pay the price of war with the blood of its children, but here in the village of Lucie-sur-Vionne one can truly contemplate the depths to which the pure devilry of man was cast.
The chill of last winter stole my husband, and though my extended family are with me, I feel lonely without him by my side, remembering the fateful afternoon that has tormented me for sixty-eight years –– the sickening odour of charred flesh, the smoke parching my throat, the green-brown blur of the woods as I fled the clomp of German boots. My fingertips skitter across the scar on my left arm, eternal reminder of that inconceivable climb, then the free-fall of an unstrung puppet, and the certainty that I too would die any second.
My conscience might have been soothed if I’d been punished; if I’d had to pay somehow, but by then there was barely a soul left to sit in judgement.
Perhaps that’s why I chose to become a midwife, bringing new lives into a world from which I’d taken so many. Or, as my mother claimed, the birthing skills were simply in my blood.
I glance across at my granddaughter, who wears the bone angel necklace these days. She’s gripping the pendant between her thumb and forefinger as I used to; as countless kinswomen of L’Auberge des Anges did before us. I touch the spot where it once lay against my own breast, feeling its warmth as if I were still wearing the little sculpture.
I wonder again if my daughter and granddaughter truly understand what that heirloom endured with me through those years of the occupation. Can they grasp the comfort, the strength it gave me? I doubt it. You’d have to live through a thing like that to really know how it was.
My eyes slide down the list of names engraved on the ossuary’s marble plaque, their cries, curses and laughter chiming in my ears as if it were yesterday.
The breeze catches the perfume of lilacs and splays the velvety heads of the red roses, like opened hearts, as the mayor concludes his sombre speech. We stand in silence for a minute, remembering those who never got the chance to grow old –– loved ones who perished for our freedom.
From beside the row of the oldest, grandest headstones, the band strikes up
, the trumpets drowning out shrill birdsong and the low hum of a passing tractor.
We trudge out of the cemetery and head along the woodland path to the Vionne River for a picnic lunch, as we do every year. It’s part of the ritual.
trills a bird.
cackles another. A dragonfly hovers over a seam of current that folds the waters of the river across stones, ferns and errant flower heads. The Vionne displays her illusion of tranquillity, though I know, better than most, that it has claimed victims — witches of the Dark Ages punished by drowning, and the children who perished two centuries ago, for whom a stone memorial cross sits on the ridge.
I think of the others who died here –– those who have no such memorial; not the slightest trace, for rain and snow have long since washed away the bloodstains. I have always wondered who found them and where they were buried, and if it weren’t for a dog-eared sepia photograph gathering dust in a secreted wooden box, I might convince myself they had never existed.
After the picnic, my daughter offers to drive me home to the farm. No, thank you very much, I tell her, I’m only eighty-nine, still quite capable of walking back to L’Auberge.
L’Auberge des Anges,
haven for weary travellers, orphans and refugees, which has withstood centuries of plague, revolution and war, reclines on the crest of the slope like a solid matriarch. I shuffle through the wooden gateway, the sun flinging its warmth across the cobbled courtyard, the pink puffs of cherry blossom and the white backsides of rabbits bobbing through the orchard.
My daughter fancies herself as an artist and as I negotiate the uneven cobbles, I dodge the collection of sculptures she has fashioned from scrap metal, waste and discarded objects –– effigies of our loved ones who never came home. The official document confirming their deaths didn’t arrive until 1948 but it seemed we’d already mourned them for a lifetime.
Curious travellers who have heard of the tragedy stop off in Lucie-sur-Vionne on their way south, or west to the Atlantic coast, for summer holidays. Once they’ve toured the legendary site they find their way up here to L’Auberge des Anges, and wander amongst my daughter’s sculptures. They ask us who the people were, and they want to know about Max, as they admire his paintings in the gallery.
I climb the steps, wincing as another barb pierces my frail shell. It appears from nowhere, this guilt I claimed from the smouldering wake of that evil reprisal. I know it will shadow me for days, weeks or months. Then, as winter seems to have settled forever, spring arrives, and my self-reproach will vanish for a time, only to return to the same dark nooks of my mind, the cycle beginning again.
No one ever knew for certain why they marched into Lucie-sur-Vionne that hot June morning of 1944, but it is a crime I have never been able to forget. Nor can I forgive. Least of all myself.
Summer – Autumn 1943
‘Stop dawdling, Célestine,’ Maman said with her usual scowl.
I squeezed into the trap beside our boxed goods and Gingembre clopped down the hill to la place de l’Eglise. Beneath the lemony-green sky, dew glistened across stripes of vines and ripening wheat and oats. Sunflowers turned us a soulful brown eye and the orchards were a coloured patchwork of cherries, plums and peaches.
The village square of Lucie-sur-Vionne was always busy on market mornings with clouds of squawking chickens, bicycles loaded with baskets and wagons laden with urns of milk. Père Emmanuel cradled his bible and nodded greetings to members of his congregation. Men leaned against doorways, smoking, patients hurried to and from the surgery of Dr. Laforge, and the red flag with its black swastika flapped from the window of the Town Hall like some great bloodstain.
My brother Patrick took Gingembre’s reins and led the horse through women balancing trays of bread and pastries, stalls piled with fruit and vegetables, meats and cheeses. In the shade of the lime trees, Patrick slid off his beret as he greeted his friend, Olivier, and Gingembre drank from the fountain with the other horses.
The newspaper kiosk beside Saint Antoine’s church was, as usual, selling single-sheet bulletins informing us of the Germans’ version of the war’s progress. People walked by saluting the poster images that were stuck to the church wall, of a kindly, smiling Marshal Pétain, and schoolchildren chanted the song they’d been made to sing since the occupation ––
Maréchal nous voilà!
‘They only sing like that to impress the Germans,’ Maman said. She nodded towards the soldiers standing on each corner of the square, guns nestled in the crooks of elbows, bored looks on their pale faces. Another group sat on the terrace of Au Cochon Tué
bar enjoying croissants and real coffee. Yet more wandered through the stalls buying whatever trash we could palm off onto them for a ridiculous price: tablecloths and napkins embroidered with Napoléon or the Eiffel Tower, cracked bowls the potter couldn’t sell, and bags of worm-riddled fruit.
‘Impress the Germans?’ I said.
‘To make them look as if they’re co-operating with Vichy. Enough gawping now, Célestine, help me get these boxes unpacked.’
My mother and I set up our stall, laying out her brioches and
, nut and almond biscuits. We lost the income from my father’s carpentry work when the Germans took him to work for the
, and Maman couldn’t make enough from the eggs, goat’s cheese and orchard fruit, which we sold fresh and dried or made into jams, liqueurs and tarts. But my mother had her herbal remedies, and her other business –– the one she carried out behind the closed doors of L’Auberge des Anges
we did not go hungry.
‘She’s still not wearing the star I see,’ Maman said, narrowing her eyes at old Madame Abraham, setting up her antiques stall.
‘I don’t see why she should have to wear a ridiculous yellow star at all.’
‘Ridiculous perhaps, Célestine, but they’re all supposed to wear them, so people know who they are.’
‘Who they are?’ I fought to curb the thread of anger her every word provoked in me those days. ‘They’re just normal people, like the rest of us.’
‘Of course they’re normal, but it’s not me who makes the rules.’
‘She’s changed her name,’ Patrick said, back from the fountain with Olivier. ‘She’s Marguerite Lemoulin now.’
‘Good for her,’ Olivier said. ‘Can’t get much more French than Lemoulin.’
‘While I have nothing against a person acquiring a new identity,’ Maman said, folding her arms, ‘it seems unjust, her having the cash to get false papers while others have to go hungry to afford them. And all because she sells those useless bits and pieces for a small fortune. She probably paid barely a franc for them herself.’ She clicked her tongue and moved away to serve an approaching customer.
Patrick and Olivier raised their eyebrows and turned from me.
I caught only a snatch of their mutterings, ‘… midnight … train … clearing …’ but it was enough.
‘You could take me with you this time?’ I said.
‘It’s men’s work,’ Patrick said.
I shifted my gaze to Olivier.
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘Too dangerous for girls.’
‘I’m sure women could do those things as well as men,’ I hissed. ‘Look what Félicité’s doing. If that’s not dangerous, I don’t know what is.’
‘Maybe so,’ Patrick said. ‘But she’s not in the front-line, so to speak. Her stuff is more … more behind the scenes.’
‘The Germans might suspect the villagers of Lucie,’ Olivier said. ‘That’s why they set up camp here, but they have no idea what’s going on at a convent tucked away in the hills.’ He waved an arm towards the Monts du Lyonnais –– hills that flanked the village like silent, tireless sentries.
‘Anyway,’ Patrick said, ‘a hot-head like you could never keep her mouth shut.’
‘I’d never say a thing that might harm you.’
‘Look, Céleste,’ Olivier said. ‘We just want to keep you out of danger.’
My mother tugged at her apron, which was straight anyway. ‘That’s enough chatter, you three. There’s work to be done.’
I wrapped a strawberry pie for a customer, my hands trembling as a frisson of anguish seized me. Whether Patrick and Olivier wanted me there or not, that coming evening, I would join them.
The sun was high over the market square, burning our faces and necks, when I first noticed the three Germans. One was thin, with a malicious cat-eye stare, the second was short and dumpy, his eyes like finger holes in bread dough. The third soldier was taller, with a regal kind of poise and hair the shade of summer wheat.
‘Stop your staring, girl.’ My mother’s crow-like glare cut off my thoughts as smartly as the rose-heads she snapped off. I looked away from the Germans, my cheeks roasting with the blush.
Patrick and I continued serving, while my mother took the money. Maman never let either of us handle the money. She kept it in her apron pockets until we got home, then transferred it to a metal box beneath the floorboards of her herbal room –– the same floor under which she concealed her ash-smoked hams, her jars of butter, her pure pork fat, terrines and preserves. She stashed her money and jewellery there too –– the jewels I’d never seen her wear.
Minutes later, my gaze crept up again. With the casual stride of someone who has time to waste, the taller German was moving through the crowd towards us. I stiffened, feeling my mother’s hand on my arm, her tremor.
He stood before our stall, his eyes directed at me. They were not the milky blue of most Germans I’d seen up close but the strangest violet-blue, like a clot of storm clouds across the hills.
With an elegant finger, he pointed to the mound of cherries I’d plucked yesterday.
‘May I?’ he said in a feathery voice quite different from the usual harsh sounds of the Germans.
I nodded, and, as he chose the largest, darkest cherry and popped it into his mouth, my mother remained tight-lipped.
he said with a smile that lit his face, rosy from the warm air.
‘Ja, ja, délicieuse,’
I said, smirking at his accent, and ignoring my mother’s hot and shaky fingers squeezing my arm
With a brief nod, he turned and made his way back to the other soldiers.
Maman’s eyes darkened to the hue of nettles, glowering with the same hatred she usually reserved for the Boche.
‘How could you speak to that … that
? Never forget, Célestine, they are the enemy.’ She fiddled with stray hair strands, pleating them into the tight chignon that sat low on the back of her head. ‘And fraternising with them only invites trouble.’
‘You might as well go off and sing
Maréchal nous voilà!
with the rest of those collabos,’ Olivier said, tapping a foot up and down.
‘I certainly am not fraternising with the enemy,’ I said, meeting the three disapproving stares. ‘I was simply being polite to a customer. Isn’t that good for business?’
The church bell clanged midday, and Maman shook her head as she stalked off to buy a couple of rabbits with a portion of our earnings.
I began packing up the stall, and caught the German looking at me again, his cigarette tip cupped into his hand. As always when I felt out of sorts, I grasped my pendant, twisting it between my thumb and forefinger. As a girl, when the little bone angel had sat against my grandmother’s bosom, she told me the sculpture would belong to me one day, or to my sister. But I knew Félicité wouldn’t want it, because my sister had vowed to marry God and the only thing she wore around her neck was a crucifix.
Still holding my gaze, the German flicked the cigarette end onto the cobblestones, ground it out with a black heel, and unfastened the jacket of his uniform.
I inhaled sharply, conscious of my scruffy clogs and my dress with its yellow bodice and rust-red skirt, sewn from second-hand fabric.
Maman returned and we finished dismantling the stall, and packed the tarpaulin and trestle onto the trap. Patrick took the bag from Gingembre’s nose and guided her between the shafts. He shook the reins over the horse, and as we moved off it struck me that no man had ever looked at me like that before. I couldn’t help feeling flattered that someone –– even if he was a despised Boche –– seemed to admire me.
The midnight sky was glittering with stars when I heard the middle stair creak with Patrick’s soft footfall. I slid from my bed and watched from the window, as the boys gathered in the U-shaped courtyard below.
I recognised them all, strapping the supplies to their bicycles: Patrick, Olivier, and Gaspard Bénédict –– another village boy. André Copeau was there too, the boy who limped from polio, and Ghislaine Dutrottier’s brother, Marc.
I didn’t doubt Maman knew about the boys’ activities in L’Auberge cellar, only pretending to believe they were meeting to play cards; that the shelves of rice and salt lining the cellar walls truly were for the black market. She might be a bitter and unforgiving woman but I knew that such was her hatred for the Germans, she would never betray her son.
Patrick straddled his bicycle, and held a finger to his lips. He beckoned the others to follow, and, their berets pulled low over their ears, they all cycled out beneath the wooden gateway.
I scuttled downstairs, out into the quiet night, and across to the shed. I threw a leg over the rickety bicycle Félicité and I had shared before she left, and cycled away from the farm.
Pools of moonlight bathed fields of shoulder-high wheat, neat vineyards and orchards, the fruit dangling from the branches like Christmas decorations. My heartbeat quickened with every movement, each new shadow that darkened my path. My throat tight, I swallowed hard, pleased I’d remembered to oil the chain.
While I did find it thrilling cycling around at night in Boche-infested country, it was also frightening to be out without an
which allowed a person to circulate after curfew. I expected a fierce bloom of headlights to blind me any second, the police to demand why I was out cycling at midnight.
I reached the woods and the familiar path, gripping the handlebars as the bicycle bumped and shuddered across the sun-baked ground, speeding by trees that made me think of ranks of soldiers in brown uniform. I did feel safer here, sure the Boche wouldn’t be skulking around the woods at night, but a swooping bat startled me so that I shrieked and almost fell off the bike.
I reached the clearing beside the railway tracks –– the main line the Germans used to transport munitions and fighting vehicles, and stopped well away from the boys. I concealed the bicycle in the undergrowth, and crept closer to where they were hunched down at the track.
A twig cracked behind me. I spun around, to the luminous amber-green stare of a fox. But the fox too, seemed afraid, and slunk away through the scrub with furtive elegance.
I moved a little further along and crouched behind a rocky cleft, my breath quick and shallow in the cloying air, my eyes and ears alert for the slightest sound or movement.
Patrick, Olivier, André and Gaspard were still down at the track, while Marc Dutrottier moved off up the line to –– I supposed –– his lookout post.
An owl hooted into the darkness and I jumped. My quivering fingers grasped my angel pendant, and I willed its strength to my brother, forced to become the man of our house when the Germans took our father for “voluntary” labour service.
Nothing could happen to Patrick and Olivier; to my memories of summers on the Vionne River, of winter snowball fights, of dancing and drinking cider and feasting on stewed meats and pastries at festival time. The little angel seemed to reassure me that even if it meant taking human lives, we were doing the right thing. We had to drive the Boche away.
They were still bent over the railway line, Patrick’s ear against the silvery-blue sheen of track. Even as I felt the pulse of my frustration with them, for refusing to let me join in, I was excited to be there, part of the Resistance –– that mythical organisation where rumour scrambled after counter-rumour and nobody was certain who was friend and who was foe. It was a word that conjured images of secret meetings, midnight escapades, the thrill of danger.