Her beautiful boy is looking at her. A single tear is slowly making its way down his plump and perfect cheek, but he is quiet and still. He seems to somehow sense that immobility is what’s required of him. She forces a smile she hopes is reassuring, tries to pass off this wretched situation in her usually peaceful kitchen as normal. Only it is extremely difficult to do while there is a gun pressed against her boy’s fragile temple.
“Names. Now.” says the man in that vile uniform she has come to hate.
She has denied all knowledge until this moment, but the man who is holding a gun to her baby’s head smiles… a slow, almost gentle smile. The wooden blocks her boy was playing with before the man came in are still scattered on the table, making this whole scene incongruous – impossible.
Panic flutters inside her chest, a trapped bird trashing madly in its increasing desperation to escape – she cannot contain it any longer.
“The baker. He delivers messages late at night. I don’t know to whom… he takes that trail at the back of his house, the one leading into the woods… where he goes I don’t know…
Please don’t hurt my boy!”
This last bit escaped her, she couldn’t help it but what does it matter? The man knows she’s terrified, the man knows she’s weak, the man knows she’ll tell him everything he wants her to now.
He does look almost bored, maybe he does this so often that the enormity of it doesn’t even register any more, this thought scares her more than anything – the gun hasn’t moved, it’s still there, dangerously close, oh so close to the delicate temple.
“What else?” he calmly asks.
And now the dam has broken, a destructive flood gushes out and she couldn’t stop even if she wanted to.
“The butcher, he shelters resistants sometimes in his barn…his daughter cycles all over the county which is quite strange nowadays…and she used to go with the Chardin boy who’s joined the maquis. That man, Monsieur Pierroux who lives behind the church?…
She’s aware she’s babbling now, words rushing out, anything, anything so that cold hard barrel gets away from her boy’s soft skin.
“…he has counterfeit ration tickets, he sells them and…he listens to the radio broadcasts from London…”
What else, what else can she tell him so he leaves her and her baby alone?
“And Monsieur Thierry, he didn’t deliver even half of the harvest like everyone has to, he kept some of it back for his family… and the rest to sell on the black market… please, please…”
Finally, mercifully, the gun is lowered…. she doesn’t move though…not yet, it doesn’t feel safe yet.
The man in uniform releases her boy who immediately runs to her, she scoops him up into her arms and the relief…the knowledge and feeling that he’s safe is so huge that she’s crying and laughing all at once, on the verge of hysteria.
By the time she looks up again, the man in uniform is gone. Where? She doesn’t know. It is only the frantic pace of her heart and her boy’s tear-stained cheeks that convinces her she didn’t just imagine the invader’s presence in her home.
What is going to happen to those people she told him about? The baker, sweet Monsieur Martel whom she has known since childhood…who used to give her a freshly baked petit four on Sundays… the butcher who’s not particularly liked because he has the awful habit of casually laying his fingers on the scales while weighing meat…sweet lord, so he’s not averse to cheating his customers, but he’s certainly made up for that in other ways, hasn’t he?…and his daughter, whose only crime was falling in love with a man who can’t, won’t, accept the invader, whose only crime has been to help him in any way she can because she shares his outrage at what has been done to their country.
She heard about what happens in those cells…torture, often going on for days, torture that goes on even when they have squeezed every bit of information out of you, torture simply because they can, torture until your spirit and body are so broken you don’t even feel the sweet release of death.
She did this. She gave the names of people she knows… to the enemy…condemning those people to horrors she can’t even imagine. She smells her boy’s head, breathes that unique scent in deeply, closes her eyes and relishes the feeling of his precious body against hers.
Yes, she did this terrible thing she’s going to have to live with all her life…and she would do it again if she had to. She realises this, and the knowledge fills her with a mixture of despair, hot burning shame and defiance.
She doesn’t expect to sleep that night but she drops like a stone falling into a deep dark pond where neither dreams nor nightmares reach.
The next day, she walks to the village with her boy. She has had time to think: her house sits on the outskirts and she has no close neighbours. With luck, nobody will be aware that the invaders paid her a visit. It is a lot to hope for but hope is all she has and she grabs onto it eagerly.
Her husband is in a camp in Germany, letters are rare and she has no way of knowing if he’ll make it back, and in what state if he does. As for family, she has none to speak of: her parents died just before she married and there were no siblings—her husband is an orphan—the boy is all she has and there is nobody else but her now to love and protect him. Before yesterday, she also had the village where she lived all her life: her neighbours, the familiarity of paths trodden since childhood, the comfort of knowing there was a place she belonged.
The walk to the village is slow because the boy is fussing: he’s tired and his pale face pinched. She carries him part of the way though he’s getting heavy.
The unhurried pace suits her. It gives her time to put her thoughts in order, get her story straight, re-arrange all the facts so they fit depending on what people know—if they know anything at all. Self-preservation is an instinct that kicks in surprisingly quickly she has found, and she desperately needs to protect herself, as doing so is protecting the boy.
At this point in time, nobody can anticipate the frenzied and bloody revenge acts that will occur on “collaborators” when the invaders finally lose the war—but she does envision it – instinctively – a full two years before it happens, so she is aware of the need to get her story just right.
When she reaches the village, everything is quiet. The only sign of the intruders is the flag floating over the Mairie. It is a repulsive sight to her, even more than usual. They are to blame for what she had to do. They didn’t just invade her country and her life, they made her betray everything she believes in because they threatened the very core of her identity. Her nationality matters greatly to her and so does her essentially gentle, kind nature… but underneath all the different layers, she is fundamentally a mother.
The Nazis. She had so far resisted giving them any more than a vague name -referring to them as “the invaders”—as if doing so would make them more real, more “there”. However, she discovered yesterday that it was a futile gesture, like children tucking their blankets around them carefully without acknowledging that it is so the monster under the bed will not get them. The monster will get you if it has decided to do so, whether you name it or not – she knows this now.
Walking slowly towards the butcher’s, the ration cards in her hand, she notices that the blinds are drawn. The shop has an obscure and furtive look—a closed eye which may open at any moment and freeze her in space with its accusing glare. It is nothing short of unusual for the butcher’s to be shut on a weekday morning but she acts like any of the villagers would and approaches the door with an enquiring look on her face.
“They took him away, they came for him last night.”
The voice makes her jump, she turns and sees Monsieur Perrin leaning out of his window on the other side of the street.
“What happened?” she half-whispers, the two words getting caught in her throat.
“I saw it all, they dragged him out and threw him in the back of the truck. Marie wasn’t here at the time and I haven’t seen her. I hope they haven’t got her as well.”
She nods, not trusting her voice and berates herself for acting strange. Then again, how else is she meant to act faced with this awful news?
She says her goodbyes to Monsieur Perrin who quickly closes his window after looking up and down the street with a suspicious air she has never known him to have. Not until they arrived.
It is another three days before she learns the butcher’s daughter, Marie, was warned before she got home and not knowing what else to do, went to her fiancé in the Maquis. She wasn’t safe there for long, the resistants were attacked just a day later and most of them massacred. The butcher’s daughter and her fiancé were among the few who tried to run, to no avail. Seeing themselves surrounded, he shot her through the head before turning the gun on himself. A quick and merciful death compared to what the Nazis would have done to them – but how terrible to die between the trees which sheltered your hide and seek games as children, to have your blood splash the blades of grass you rolled in with your friends after school, how tragic to die at 20, in the full bloom of youth.
That night is when the nightmares start, they will come night after night for many years—more years than she can bear. They are horrifying even in their repetition. The hands grabbing in the dark, seemingly disembodied since she can never see whom they belong to, the mouths opened on silent screams…and no matter how hard she tries to get away from those grabbing hands, they always get closer and closer until the thought, the sheer terror of being dragged and forever caught in the dark with them wakes her, breathing harshly and covered in rank sweat.
Nobody ever finds out the part she played in determining the fate of so many people. Monsieur Pierroux, old, frail and benign was shot against the wall of his house—a random act meant to serve as an example, no doubt. Monsieur Thierry was taken to the Gestapo headquarters and kept there for weeks. In a capricious decision, they let him go and he came back with the eyes of an old man and trembling hands. The fate of Monsieur Martel, the gentle baker is never known. Some say he was sent “elsewhere”, others that he died in his cell.
Long after the country is liberated and the Nazis vanquished do the nightmares continue. It is the price to pay for her betrayal. It is a cross she has to bear and not one she can ever complain about. Not out loud. Not to anyone, not even to herself. When the depression threatens to engulf her, she looks at him: her boy. He is healthy, strong and happy. His father, improbable as it seems, came back from the camps when so many others didn’t. He has consistently refused to discuss his war experience but she understands and doesn’t prod him. After all, she hasn’t divulged what happened in her kitchen on that day either. Some things are best left pushed back in the recesses of the mind, buried and left to rot. What good would it do to articulate the horrors now?
Instead, she feeds the chickens and watches her boy as he runs and chases them, laughing gleefully. His innocence lights the day while she stands in the shadows, tainted. She watches him as he grows and turns into a man who, even with a family of his own, still comes around every Sunday and plants a kiss on her cheek on arrival, with a love that cannot be denied. He has forgotten all about that dreary day, he has no idea of everything she has suffered. For him. She hopes he never has to learn that love can be the deadliest of weapons.
*Written last year for the Master’s – Fiction is really hard for me to write but my tutor really liked this so here it is.*
Image credit: ppding.deviantart.com