Updated: Apr 20, 2018
"This is my time to honor unwanted guests, and pray for the day I can make them go home. Pardon my scorn, but these guests are the enemy. Not the Germans I grew up with, nor the man I married and lost. This enemy is a rigid, twisted, oddly obedient criminal lot everyone fears.
We French were asleep when the lethal infection next door grew overnight into a Teutonic Juggernaut. I slept, too, preferring my ignorance. Now I grovel in servitude like everyone else.
People whisper about a local Resistance, but no one is sure who's in it. We talk among ourselves when our overseers are out of earshot. Our liberty, equality and fraternity are lost.
My widow's soul is frightened. The mother in me knows my daughter's life is not safe, even here at the foot of the Jura Mountains."
"This morning I'm on the shore of the Doubs to check my boat's mooring. Our river crested in a storm last night, and dumped all manner of trash on my banks. I stand here in its eerie mist with my boots sloshing in the shallows. Nothing appears amiss on this bloated artery . . . except a stench of rot that smacks my nostrils.
South of us, the storm's upstream current must have pulled an animal under and it landed here. I pursue the foulness, and tread carefully around tree limbs, fishing line, and torn river grass.
My nose leads me to large mounds that protrude from the mud. I break off a sturdy branch to move the rubbish aside. Pulling at a piece of bark causes it to peel away from a tree stump like old skin. The ripping sound alerts my senses. With sickening urgency, my hands scrape the muck aside. Then, poking around, I feel something soft and familiar.
What is this? What's underneath these mounds? I dig madly at the mud before I numb, anticipating. . . . No, this can't be happening. Oh, Mon Dieu! There is one, no, there are two yellow stars, two people. A Jewish couple has washed up on my shore! Conservative black clothes cover their blistered skin. They're still, like the inanimate trash around them. My heart constricts. Aye, I touched them with my bare hands, and twitch with revulsion. Nausea rises up in me. I can't stop staring at their soul's bodies. Their indignity is so alive.
The warm vibration of my flesh wants to defend me against these two dead people, but my mind is cold and my heart is in shock. I panic, turn away, fall to my knees and retch.
When I look at my visitors again, sadness carves hollows inside my chest. My whole world convulses. Sobbing, I grieve for their lost lives.
Were they the phantoms that called me from sleep last night? Their groans left me floating in this cauchemar, this nightmare that is here, this evil omen at my feet. Cold terror creeps up my spine. The finality of decay that replaces their youthful dreams—will it worm its way into my life?
This war has come too close.
I get up slowly and look back at the stands of trees on the riverbank. A few moments ago, I was rooted in this noble nature. Its energy filled my cheeks and stood me upright like the saplings around me. Now the water's gentle waves lap a dark refrain on my clotted shore.
Your freedom is just an illusion.
Death has visited you again. You have read a bitter future in its debris.
You have been chosen.
Chosen? Why? For what?
Fright pounds in my ears. I look away and take flight. My stately home thrusts above me from the sheer lime hill. My feet squish in my boots as they grab its mushy slope. A dark foreboding colors the uneven breaths heaving from my chest. I shudder. I'm unsteady. The gruesome fingers of death reach up to pull me backward toward the river.
I cry and curse this degrading Occupation and my pristine refuge that has betrayed my trust. My feet slide on wet pine needles littering the steep private path. I run past weeping willows and stands of young pines. My legs slow at the last thirty meters to the top of the ridge. I pause, gasp in disgust, and scrape my heels against the sharp edging stones along the public walkway.
The inert intruders are mere specks on the shoreline from this height. What shall I do? What if my daughter asks Guy to walk with her down there?
Moving forward, I shove open the heavy blue gate to my high-walled yard. A bitter gust of wind scurries me past barren fruit trees and vegetable-laden cold frames. The rusty hinges on the chateau's basement door groan as they welcome me into its warm corridor. I look around uneasily, and pray aloud, 'Please God, let me feel safe in here.'
But the familiar fragrance of drying lavender can't erase the mildew of death that comes in on my coat.
I look down at my muddy hands and feel odd, distant and afraid. I catch sight of myself in the large cracked mirror in the corner. Mon Dieu, my coat is covered with mud. I've been upset and hadn't noticed. I rinse my hands in the stone basin and remove my coat, socks, boots and skirt. I wrap myself in a large towel and tiptoe upstairs.
Still estranged from my surroundings, I stop on the steps realizing the dead are not just victims, but also uninvited guests. I have removed their mud, but not their message. Their presence has stolen the peacefulness of my chateau and the beauty of my forest.
Before today I felt protected here. My thoughts flowed freely within these walls and outside over those steep lime hills to garner nature's forgiveness toward her stubborn seedling that grew among the rocks. Now it's as if I'm exposed, my heart is found wanting and I must prove myself.
I am like my dubious river, Doubs. This river is filled with doubt about who she is. Less than half her distance is navigable. Three times she deceives us with changes in the direction of her flow—with her twists, turns and doubled waterways.
I had hoped the Nazi takeover would be temporary, and end in a quick, winter kill freeze.
Now I fear we are in for a long and terrible siege."
"I'm still shivering a few minutes later in the receiving salon as I stare into the glowing fireplace, my mind in a trance. My social and financial advantages have insulated me from this war. I have not had to confront change or take responsibility for anyone beyond my family. Yet my life of wealth and privilege is useless to prevent tragic deaths. I cringe, and a new darkness creeps toward me with a poignant message I cannot interpret. It is my turn now, but for what?
My eyes fix on the photograph of my late husband, Emil, on my writing desk. The Jews on the riverbank remind me of him, dead, crumpled in the snow almost two years ago.
I couldn't save him. I couldn't save them. Is there anyone I could save?
I came upon today's carnage alone, in isolation, but will now, no doubt, be publicly exposed. I wring my freezing hands, anticipating the provincial commentary this tragedy will unleash between the visiting Visigoth and our native Gaul. I can't ignore this. I must do what's right.
I dispatch my butler, Guy, to alert the authorities while I sit here, waiting, in shock.
I feel the carnage on my shore infuse its details into my sitting room. The soft feminine shades of garnet-green upholstery meld into dark mire. The soft, white wallpaper turns grey. From now on the dead will permeate every aspect of my life. They foretell a bittersweet future that begins with male voices riding the wind when I open the rear balcony doors.
'Madame Fellner, down here, if you please.'
I give my lips a quick once over in the powder room mirror. My cheeks are rosy, clean and tight from the cold, wet day and a good wash downstairs. Long brows are knit in a sentimental frown. Dark, grief-triggered circles below and around my green eyes confirm my lack of sleep. I tame my mess of auburn tresses from the damp, and whisper to my reflection,
'Dear Emil, the beauty in this mirror atrophies for want of your love. . . .'
The riverbank mocks my trivial preoccupation with feminine middle age, and a wave of guilt sweeps over me for being intensely alive against that couple's solemn warning. My eyes scan the leafless trees above the young pines. A crowd forms on the shore. My hands shake, tightening the belt on my black mourning coat, as I descend the spiral balcony stairs for the second time today.
The Jewish corpses hover in front of me as I recall a casual conversation at the bank a week ago. I shared my frustrations with the loan officer. He agreed we French have to wait it out. I decided to take Marta to visit her Grandmaman's idyllic farm. But there, instead of peacefulness, doom haunted my haughty but vulnerable heat. Our family interlude was not safe.
There is no way to escape the shame of Nazi bondage.
And now my forty-one-year-old widow's world wobbles like a child's top near the end of its spin."
"Dieter Van der Kreuzier, a music colleague, meets me at the gate. He takes my hand as we descend the pier path and sidestep puddles to the few solid areas at the river's edge. Dieter towers over me as he takes giant strides.
What is he doing here, and why is he moving so quickly? I can barely keep pace as we pass a crowd of onlookers. I nod to local farmers, fishermen, the Agricultural Prefect and a few neighbors drawn to the somber scene. Their murmurings rise in little grey clouds like a cold morning air of wasted breath.
'Dieter, thank you for your kindness to escort me.'
His chivalry goes beyond the diverse boundaries of French caste still held dear in this provincial backwater. Yet he barely acknowledges me, distracted today. The rest of these men smirk at their town's widowed aristocrat. They stand in a colorless clutch and wait for me, their land-owning empress, to falter at the sight of our first Vichy-authorized deaths. Annoyed, I swallow thickly against the rotting odor and tuck my black-and-white silk scarf into my coat.
Within a few meters of the two bodies our Duchamps Police Prefect, an avowed anti-Semite, commiserates facetiously, leering as he pulls on his wiry mustache.
'The river has played a ghastly trick, Madame Fellner. Sorry it's upon your doorstep.'
How pompous he is. Why am I bothered by such Vichy vermin?
'Really, Monsieur Le Préfet? The river did it? Indeed, let me see.'
I watch the swollen current in the distance as it carries debris north, and ask myself if the Doubs carried these bodies to me despite the flow of the storm's current—where did these two come from, if not up north? It's strange. They journeyed so close to the Swiss border, yet did not cross to freedom.
I bend low for a closer inspection, next to Jacques Devoir, the coroner, who turns over the bodies to expose their backs. Seeing them a second time is less shocking but no less gruesome, except, wait,
'Mon Dieu, bullet holes! They were murdered, yes?'
Devoir nods sadly and looks up at Alain Duvette, the town's senior doctor, a shy, edgy man. Duvet glances at Dieter and chews his lip as he flicks cigarette ash to the mud. The three men are silent, but I am furious.
'Sshh! Madame, we don't want the whole town to know now, do we?'
Small wonder that the Gestapo officer is pleased and his French marionette is nerveuse. That chameleon of a mayor has the gall to scold me. The little toady wants me to shut up so he can stay on good terms with the Huns. He's so ordinary; he uses his authority to cover a spineless mentality. A far cry from the days when men like my Emil ran Duchamps. The town had class then as it did when Dieter was mayor before him. What has made us complacent?
'And why not, sir?' My raised voice grabs the rabble's attention. I will use my thespian charisma on my neighbors, the only audience I'm ever likely to entertain.
'Two young people are lying here, murdered, on my property, if you please.'
'They were Jews, Frau Fellner,' the Gestapo agent finally presses his authority, after quietly observing his prey.
'Really! And that makes their murders acceptable? Well, who are you?'
Upset at his violation of my pristine landscape, I give this Teuton an aristocratic tone before catching Dieter's glance. Kreuzier's delft blue eyes bore holes in my skull. Much taller, he stands behind the Nazi and frowns, then shakes his head imperceptibly in a 'no' that tells me it's best to change my attitude.
But speaking out was worth it. The German becomes more pliable.
'Allow me to introduce myself, Madame Fellner. Erich Heisler, head of Gestapo in this region. A pleasure to meet you.'
A pleasure indeed—a trifle astonished by my candor would be more accurate. His mouth twists into the shy smile of a handsome blonde Aryan. How sad, when good looks are wasted on a specimen of the Super race. He performs a robotic military salute and clicks his German heels. I wince at his mistake. He digs his boots deeper into our muddy French terrain . . . and splashes the hem of my dress.
The French bystanders snicker.
Heisler's men about-face and take aim at the crowd!
The townspeople gasp and step back. The SS leader is flustered at this piece of hyperbole and orders his men 'at ease,' excusing himself for soiling my dress. He blushes as I wipe away a bit of the stain.
This is my first encounter with an overseer of our French defeat. How can anyone seriously sport that adolescent Totenkopf, the skull and crossbones insignia on his hat and the three pips with lightning stripes on his collar? And I have to appease this Allemande harlequin when everything in me resists. Quelle theatre!
Annoyed, I answer in flawless German. He's surprised and appears delighted with my distinctive Bavarian accent. The French authorities and my neighbors can't follow our conversation. He becomes relaxed as I hiss in his language . . . perhaps too relaxed. I feel his eyes rove my slim waist and shapely calves above my rain galoshes. He undresses me with his eyes while these two innocents at our feet plead their cause in decomposition.
I kneel down to touch the woman's cold grey hand. I shed a silent tear for her when suddenly, as though she were still alive, I feel called upon to defend her and snarl an unexpected revelation to the Swastika, Heisler,
'You killed three people, Obersturmfuehrer. She was enceinte!'
Immediately, the coroner kneels down to inspect. He hadn't noticed she was with child, but will confirm it later. It takes a woman to sense new life—even when it's dead.
Jacques helps me stand. I scowl at Heisler and announce to the crowd,
'She never had a chance to fulfill their love with their child.' Then I turn to the SS and town bureaucrats to finish with,
'Damn this war and everyone in it!'
I have risen too quickly. The hot roll of stomach acid teases my throat. The tiny, unborn corpse and this Nazi fool's bristling Aryan Supremacy make my head reel and eyes roll up. My body sways toward fainting. Dieter and Jacques rush forward to steady me.
I revive to the undercurrent of murmured support from the crowd as Dr. Duvette passes lavender scent under my nostrils. I have a vague idea that a beautiful female has insulted her new German master and garnered enough public support, this time, to get away with it."
"Then Marta's call wafts over us from the small second story balcony like an eerie angelus, 'Maman, Maman. What is it? Who's there? May I see?'
We look up from the bodies. My eight-year-old never misses a chance to satisfy her curiosity. My eyes open wide as the Nazi spies on her through a miniature telescope. His voyeurism elicits my protective lioness. A deep, contracting pain radiates from my groin into my chest. Enough tragedy. I can't breathe.
'Excuse me, gentlemen, my child must not see this carnage.'
I give the predatory Kraut a cursory glare and casually wave my hand to dismiss him. His face is impassive with boredom for his Franche-Comte territory, but his eyes burn to conquer.
Provoked, I bark with authority like a general to a lowly foot soldier,
'Whatever legalities are necessary, Obersturmfuehrer Heisler, you may see me later.'
I call to my pig-tailed gamine with overplayed maternal sweetness,
'I'm coming, Marta. Stay there, mon ange.'
Cold and perspiring, my nerves shudder me back to family concerns. She must not climb down that narrow outdoor staircase on her rigid, jerky, left leg.
'Begging your pardon, Messieurs. . . .'
I hold my head erect with Gallic pride as Dieter offers his arm to escort me to higher ground. The fickle gawkers part to give their new 'Marianne' a path.
'Are you all right, Ingrid?' he asks quietly when we're a short distance from the crowd . . . as if he knows my conscience is fast losing an argument with my heart.
'I'm bilious and angry, but I'll survive,' I whisper, and mix an ironic laugh with a sour cough, 'And you, Dieter?'
I search his handsome face. Dieter manages a sweet smile, but his eyes show worry. He appears distant, as though his mind sees his body swathed and his eyes blinded in some future occurrence, perhaps even more ominous.
When I shake his hand, my 'Thank you for your help—and regards to your Amelie,' fall on deaf ears.
Until today, mourning for Emil shielded me from the death of France.
Now I feel raw inside. My riverbank has abandoned me, and murdered Jews diffuse their sorrow upon my peaceful domain. Their ghostly presence initiates my heart into the nail-biting consciousness of wartime Europe.
What shall I say to my daughter?"
"Once inside I run past her into the powder room and deliver up the rest of my breakfast. She follows, tugs at my arm and chirps like a hungry baby bird with a nest full of questions.
'Maman, why are you sick? What happened out back? Why all the people? I'm scared, Maman. Why were the police here and the Gestapo and Monsieur Dieter? Will the Nazis take us away?'
'No, Marta, we're safe.' I cough out answers between dry heaves. 'How do you know enough to think that way, chou?'
Pursing her lips, she raises her eyebrows, but says nothing.
'Are you listening to the French war broadcasts over the BBC? Answer me, ma fille.'
'Oui, Maman, just as you do. With a water glass against the closet wall in my bedroom, when you think I am asleep. Don't be angry with Grandmaman. She showed me how.'
'What a clever little princess.' I rinse my mouth, dry my face, and smile into her question-mark eyes. No one controls my mother's enthusiasm for her granddaughter.
'All right, angel, let's talk. No, wait. First get Marie up here with a cup of peppermint tea for me, and a buttered tartine for you, with hot cocoa.'
'Ah, oui, Maman, I'll tell her. She just came home.'
I watch Marta teeter toward the street floor kitchen. Her left foot turns in more today. She touches the furniture and walls for balance.
Cocoa is a rare, hoarded, treat under rationing. It keeps her at bay when I need to think. I am at the end of a huge tin I purchased last year, before the war.
I sit listening to my heart race and knees knock from the casual evil of the Gestapo and the town's sniveling bureaucrats. The couple lay still, her dead baby rotting inside her, its tiny soul gone elsewhere. Why did those poor wretches choose me, and this place?
My sprite interrupts my reflections. A stern-faced Marie walks behind her: she's worried I'll dismiss my princess when her questions can't be answered. Then it will be Marie's turn.
'Maman, tell me now. Here's our tray.'
'Yes, in a moment, Marta.' Still freezing, I stand to stoke the embers in the hearth.
'Uh, well, some people were injured on the riverbank. I went down to confer with the police.' (No use lying completely; she's too smart for that.)
'Why didn't they bring an ambulance if they were hurt, Maman?' She deduces the truth too quickly, 'Maybe they were dead, Maman?'
'I don't know, Marta, it's over. Get your schoolwork and we'll correct your test.'
Marie raises an eyebrow as she leads Marta out to get her materials. It's harder and harder to fool my little stick of a girl these days—to protect her innocent spirit and rigid flesh.
It would be easier for us to live with her Grandmaman. I tried to be comfortable in the mountain countryside, but I need my independence here even when the loneliness is unbearable.
If I had the courage to help people like that young couple, except for my widowhood and this war, I'd have everything I ever wanted. What have I done with my life? Given away money. So what? It costs nothing to be a philanthropist. I hide my light under a bushel basket while my daughter watches me like a hawk. Before this incident on the riverbank, I was content to shake my head at the war from a distance. Now that cauchemar shames me, and that young family's death will become my recurring nightmare. "🌲
Copyright June 2017, all rights reserved.