The women are all crying. Standing in knee deep snow, trailing out of the chapel. My sister, Claire, seems the worst off. And I tug at her elbow.
“What happened, Claire?” I say.
But she’s so full of sorrow that she sees no one. Not even me. So I let her pass. Jean-Michel’s over by a large oak tree, obscured by the fog. He’s not supposed to be here. And Herr Schmid, the German SS officer, who employs my sister watches through the thick lake mist from the alleyway. His black leather coat absorbs the light and his blue eyes pierce the fog. There’s something about him that fills me with longing and regret.
Granddad must have died. He was so old that it’s no surprise. But their level of grief for an old man seems unusual. I mean we expected him to die anytime really. But it’s not just Claire. Others weep too. Of course, tensions and anxiety run so high from the recent state of siege that the funeral could be an excuse for them to release pent up tears. I watch the funeral procession from the angle of the white stone church and try to put together the puzzle pieces. Father along with my brother, Alain and some neighbors carry the small figure wrapped in a white linen shroud and place it on the horse drawn wagon. Ginny, my very best friend’s eyes stream with tears. Her mother pulls her away into the mist before we can talk.
Claire lovingly adjusts the shroud around the figure stretched on the cart. Dad and the others back away when Farmer Elli slaps the reins against the back of the workhorse. The priest looks grim as he watches the black horse pull away. Other people advance in a slow procession through the snow. Their boots tread forward in heavy silence. The wagon and some black cars stop at my house. I wish they would tell me what happened. But no one ever tells me anything. That’s the problem with being the youngest. Everyone thinks you’re a baby, even when you’re almost sixteen.
“We’ve got to do it,” Father says. He rams a shovel against the frozen ground and it clangs as if he’s hitting stone. “Too hard now. We’ll do what we’ve always done.”
A ladder leans against the wall and a series of chords hang over the roof of our house. My brother and father place a flat board underneath the figure shrouded in white with rope at both ends and pull it up horizontally. I can’t bear to look. They did this to Mom last year. For months, I wept in bed at night thinking of her so cold and still on the roof above. Alain climbs a ladder to the roof. Dad stands on the ladder on a lower rung and helps to tug the corpse up while the others lift the body into the air from below. They make steady, even progress until the rope knots and one uneven tug nearly sends the shrouded body tumbling back to the ground. Claire’s pained voice cries out.
“Too late to think of that,” Madame Noiret mutters under her breath with a tone as sharp as a butcher’s knife. A puff of steam exits her mouth and fills the arctic air. My father and brother exchange glances and steel their faces as if they want to say something, but can’t. I sense their anger at Claire for something she did. But no one tells me anything. They think I’m too young to understand.
“It’s cold out here. Can we go in now?” I tug at Dad’s jacket and plead. I feel him tighten and steel himself. He concentrates hard to blink back tears and steady the body. Alain tugs from above and the body floats in the air like a ghost as it reaches the edge of the roof.
“Not yet,” he whispers and glances up at Alain. “Not quite there yet.”
My brother lifts the body over the edge onto the roof’s tiles where he adjusts the linen-shrouded figure so it lies horizontally on the North side of the roof out of the sun. Poor, poor grandfather. We’ll sleep under his frozen body until the ground thaws. Then he can be put to rest in the churchyard next to Mom and we’ll be in peace.
“Claire,” I whisper.
I want her to hold my hand and comfort me. I know I’m almost an adult now, but I’ve needed Claire more since Mom left. But she’s always busy now. I’m the youngest in the family, the unexpected one who arrived six years after Claire and seven years after Alain. Long after Mom thought about babies. Life’s not been easy since Mom died. I miss her every day. I could bear the occupation when she was around. She’d reassure me that God would take care of us. Now everything just seems bleak and lost.
“Maudit.” Cursed. Monsieur Noiret mutters. He’s a neighbor who once lived in Paris. He hates the Haute Savoie winters and compares the annual freeze to an icy hell. “What land puts dead people on rooftops?!” He hisses. “Cursed place!”
“It’s the way we do things,” Madame Noiret says. “Just remember not to die in winter, dear. Otherwise you’ll have no peace until spring thaw.” Her nasal voice grates like nails on a chalkboard and Claire places her hands over her ears.
Many neighbors huddle together inside the house and the heat stifles me. Dad drinks genepie herb alcohol straight from the bottle then hides it under his pillow before returning to face the crowd in the kitchen. Madame Renault brought her special savory cake with bacon and Madame Noiret empties her canned green beans and beets from glass jars into Mom’s porcelain dishes. We’ve not had green beans since Mom died and though I’m sad about granddad, it’s good to see something other than chestnuts, potatoes, and cheese on the table. So few people have decent food now that I shouldn’t complain. Even flour is rationed. The neighbors brought food when Mom passed too. I’m grateful for their sacrifice. My sister, Claire thanks them while I linger in a corner and wait for someone to say grace so we can eat. Hunger is my constant companion now.
“You know it’s not your fault, dear,” Madame Noiret says and pats Claire’s hand.
“She’s right Claire,” Madame Renault says. “We know you do your best. But you should really spend less time with Germans.”
Claire smiles tersely and escapes to the outdoor toilet where she doubles over in grief. I watch through the fog as Jean-Michel calls her over to the edge of the forest and hands her a cigarette. Claire leans into him and lights it against his.
“You shouldn’t be here. They’ll shoot you if they see you,” Claire says, sullen and grim.
“You going to inform on me, dear one?” He wraps an arm around her waist and draws her in tighter.
“Can’t tell who’s an informer or not anymore.” Claire huffs. She exhales a long trail of smoke, head tossed back. “I’m sick of it.”
“It’s better here with you than hanging out with all of the goats in the barn. Don’t think I can bear another piece of goat cheese.”
Like other young men, Jean-Michel hides in the mountain villages a few kilometers away on the plateau above Lake Annecy. They aim to avoid the Gestapo-imposed draft on young Frenchmen that would force them to go to work in Germany.
“Good to hear you prefer me over a goat.” Claire forces a smile. “I prefer you over those old goats in there.” Tears trickle down her cheeks.
“Hey, you’re a big girl.” Jean-Michel lifts her chin. “Besides it’s too cold to cry.” He wipes her cheeks with his calloused thumbs and kisses her face. “Those tears’ll freeze on your pretty cheeks.” She returns his kisses with passion. I watch from behind a tree, curious about what happens between men and women and wanting to know more. A chilly breeze carries their scent to me. Jean-Michel smells of wood smoke, warm skin, and fresh air and Claire…she smells of “Heure Bleu,” the expensive Parisian perfume our exotic aunt gave her.
Claire reaches into his pants.
“Now. Let’s do it now,” she insists.
“Crazy woman,” he says and gently holds her wrists. “People would be angry if they knew. Especially today.”
“I need to. Now!” She kisses him so hard that her tears stop. “I’m sick of caring about what others think.”
“Go back inside,” he urges. His back leans against a damp larch tree. “Please, Claire. You know how those old goats gossip.” His voice is warm and tender.
“No. I want you. Now.”
“You don’t want me. You want to forget.”
“Help me to forget then.” Claire’s tears begin again. “I don’t think I can bear it.”
He hugs her gently to his broad chest, then turns her to face the house. “Go.”
Claire glances at the roof. “That’ll remind me of my sins all winter long,” she whispers.
The stone house feels so, so cold in January. There never seems to be enough heat even with thick wool blankets and wooden shutters closed to keep the cold out. My teeth chatter and firewood grows scarce. So I go outside at dawn and pickup sticks. Dig them out from under snow. They’ll dry and we can burn them in the fireplace. I stack them on the stone step this morning. Claire will feel proud and happy that for once I’m doing my chores.
Claire steps out of the house on her way to Herr Schmid’s and sees the stack of sticks on the top step. Her brow crinkles. She looks up, and covers her mouth with her hand. Tears again. But I can’t tell if she’s happy or mad.
“What’s wrong?” I want to say. But Alain strides out of the door behind her on his way to the garage where he works. He leans over her shoulder to see what caused the disturbance. The two trade silent glances.
“Someone wants to help out. That’s all,” Alain says. He scoops up the sticks and turns away to carry them inside.
Claire chokes on grief. “It’s her. I know it’s her.”
“Of course it’s me. I’m sorry I didn’t do it much before,” I say. “I want to make up for it now.” They both ignore me. I don’t like it, but I’m used to it.
“These need to dry out,” he says over his back.
“You’re right,” Claire says and escapes through the snow to work. She cooks and helps Herr Schmid and some of the other Germans. They’re everywhere since the occupation. Claire negotiates with the French farmers to get eggs, bacon and fresh food for them. It’s all stuff that most of us can’t get any more since food is strictly rationed. Claire sometimes sneaks food from Herr Schmid’s and carries it home to keep us from starving.
I prepare my twill book bag, my thick wool scarf, and brown coat, and plod off through the snow. It feels so, so cold today. A small group of us huddle together and trek toward the school in Annecy on the other side of the lake. We live between the towns of Annecy and Veyrier and the youngest kids stay close to home, but the middle and vocational school kids, like me, walk or bike a kilometer or two to the town and take classes with the nuns. Even though the Germans declared a state of siege, we try to keep life normal.
I slip into my seat next to Ginny. A fat pencil lies in the space carved into the wooden desk. The classroom feels colder than usual with less and less wood for the fireplace. I keep my mittens on and my teeth chatter. Ginny listens half-heartedly to Sister Marie. Her head hangs on her fist, shoulders slumped forward. Her golden hair curls down and hides her glistening eyes. She fingers the spine of the books in my desk then scribbles a note, folds it into a square, the way we’ve always folded our secret notes to each other, and slips it into my desk. I pretend to pay attention to Sister Marie, but open it and read it. “I will always be your friend, Aurelie. Love, Ginny.” Her attention makes my heart soar. I nudge Ginny’s elbow under the desk. Her lips pucker with grief. When I try to ask what’s wrong, I lose focus and drift off.
In the afternoon when school lets out, I go to Herr Schmid’s. He lives in a luxurious apartment requisitioned from a Jewish banking family. Claire forbids me to come here. But my belly aches from too much hunger again. Watery school soups with a little barley and onions and meager rations of a little dry bread for breakfast left me starving, just like the other kids. But sometimes Claire gets real food from Herr Schmid and once she brought me here when he was away to show me the place.
The first time I met Herr Schmid, hunger and cold blindly drove me to find Claire. The courtyard door stood open, and I walked unnoticed up the four flights of stone stairs to his apartment, dreaming of a warm hearth and buttery apple tarts like the ones Mom used to bake. Rain drizzled outdoors and I’d never felt so hungry, depressed, and alone since Mom died. I tapped lightly on the door to get Claire’s attention. A young man, about my age opened the door instead. He wore a German soldier’s uniform.
“Bonjour,” I said, and asked for my sister between chattering teeth. He must not have understood French because he led me straight to Herr Schmid. I stood at the threshold of his study, head down, feeling so anxious that I couldn’t breathe. The young German retreated and left me alone with the imposing SS officer. I was struck by his broad shoulders and refined hands and the red arm band and swastika on his uniform. I’d imagined him with blond hair, but it was black and wavy. His skin looked pale as ivory, and his presence exuded power and authority even before he spoke a word. I stood there in fear and awe.
“Yes, frauline,” Herr Schmid said. His eyes remained fixed on an expensive linen paper as he wrote. My heart raced with anxiety and the stress combined with lack of food made my knees buckle and I collapsed. When I came to, I was on the floor with Herr Schmid kneeling beside me.
“What’s wrong?” His indigo eyes stared down at me. The fright, hunger, and grief from my mother’s absence all poured out at once. I sobbed like a little girl with my knees pulled to my chest and my head down.
“So sorry, sir. I…I didn’t mean to…I tried to…to tell the solider not to bother you…I…It was Claire I was looking for. But don’t blame her. Please excuse me.”
I raised my eyes to the wooden beams and high ceilings and then dared to look at him. His razor smooth cheeks looked luminous and healthy; he held his slightly cracked lips apart, and his eyes looked like untouchable blue oceans filled with wild currents and storms. He helped me into the red velour seat by the fire, and I worried that I’d be in trouble. My teeth chattered uncontrollably. He picked up a wool throw that lay on the edge of the couch and draped it around my shoulders. The scent of his vetivier cologne filled my senses with comfort. It was like the one that Dad used on special occasions.
He touched my forehead. “You have a fever.” His cool hand sent a warm rush of pleasure and confusion through me.
Consumed by hunger, my eyes lingered on a mound of almond cakes coated with a snow of powdered sugar on his desk. I said nothing. Girls were not supposed to speak much or ask for anything, according to the nuns. Especially not food. But my stomach growled loudly.
“I must be going,” I said. But my knees wobbled when I tried to stand and I collapsed back onto the red velour seat.
“Ralph,” he called. The young soldier appeared from the other room. “Is there any soup left?”
“I’ll check, sir.”
“Bring hot tea and more pastries. And soup if there’s any.” I felt light headed and weak, so I let him take control.
“You’re pale. You must eat.” He towered over me.
I needed to leave. I knew Claire would be upset. But this felt like an order. Ralph entered with a tea set of beautiful Limoges porcelain cups rimmed with gold, a pile of pastries on a silver plate, real sugar, and even an orange. He sat them on a low table. Such luxury and abundance was rarely seen these days.
“Sorry, no more soup, sir.”
“This will do,” Herr Schmid said and dismissed the young soldier.
“Here.” He lifted the plate of sweets. I had overheard Claire sometimes tell Jean-Michel about how strict and harsh Herr Schmid could be, so I cautiously took one coconut macaroon and gobbled it in two quick bites. Then I stared at the dish with longing. “Have more,” he insisted.
I ate four before the gnawing ache of hunger started to subside and leave me feeling stronger. He handed me a cup of steaming tea and I wrapped my numb fingers around it to warm them and closed my eyes. The chill subsided and I’d finally stopped trembling. It was the first time I’d felt cared for and properly fed for months. Since Mom’s funeral, actually when the neighbors had brought food to share. When I opened my eyes, I caught him staring at me.
“You are a beauty,” he said. I blushed and lowered my eyes. He poured more tea and touched my knee. “Feeling better now?” I nodded. “I was ten in the last war,” he said. “We had nothing to eat. My mother and I scrounged for roots.”
“So sorry, sir.” The tea cup rattled on the saucer as I sat it on the table.
“My mother died. But thanks to Herr Hitler I survived,” he said.
“My mother died too. Last winter.” Probably also thanks to Hitler, I thought secretly. If we’d not had the hardships brought on by the occupation, she might still be alive.
He took off his officer’s jacket and hung it on the back of his chair. A rust-colored house cat jumped up and purred on my lap and I dozed off until he touched my arm to awaken me. Surrounded by food and luxury, my heart sang and I wanted to stay there in the comfort and warmth.
“You saved me, sir,” I whispered. My heart filled with gratitude and affection. He stood, paced away, and then returned to his chair.
“Hans,” he said.
“Hans?” I looked up at him.
“Yes. My first name. Hans, from Stuttgart.” An aura of charm surrounded him and I yearned to be closer and touch him. I’d heard some of the school girls snicker about an awakening of their senses and desires for physical love, but this was the first time it happened to me. In that moment, I wanted him to kiss me.
“I’m Aurelie.” I lowered my eyes, embarrassed by my thoughts.
“Claire’s sister,” he added and smiled. “We’ll keep this a secret from her.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said. “She would be upset.”
“Yes.” He stood beside me and lifted a lock of my hair. I sucked in my breath. “We’ll keep this between us.”
A trill of pleasure and excitement blossomed in me. All of the blackness of the outside world and the war temporarily vanished in the cozy warmth of the glowing fire between us. Claire had described him as untrustworthy. She said he kept things hidden in deep inner rooms, walled off and remote and called him fickle and moody. But to me he was a warm, kind blessing. He lifted his tea cup and his sleeve slid up to reveal angry deep burns above his wrist.
“You’re hurt.” I instinctively took his hand in mine. He started to pull away like an injured animal, his mouth open between a snarl and surprise. Then he relaxed. Without thinking I did what my mother had always done. I kissed his wound.
“Mother always said nothing heals better than a kiss,” I said to explain.
His eyes watered, like he might cry, but he blinked back what had surfaced. I smiled a little and released his hand. He braced himself on the arm rests as if to flee. “It’s okay to cry,” I said. “It doesn’t mean you’re weak. It only means you’ve been hurt.”
He looked at me like I’d touched his deepest fear, that somewhere inside he was weak and unmanly. My heart broke for Hans and I felt his pain as if it were mine, as if we were mystically connected. It felt we already knew each other. Hans’ face turned pale and softened an instant. His pain ran so deep that not even he felt it fully, but I did. I cried. It seemed I shed the tears he couldn’t. The blue of his eyes paled as he stared at me, puzzled and momentarily disarmed.
A knock resounded at the door and startled me back to the reality that separated us.
“I need to go,” I said.
“Yes, but we’ll meet again. Soon. Will you promise?”
“Hans,” he said and he leaned down and kissed my forehead. He jerked his officer’s jacket from the back of the fireside chair, pulled it on, and trod over the polished wooden floor to sit behind his desk, back rigid. The red swastika glared on his armband. In a blink, Herr Hans Schmid shifted from broken-open to closed up tight; from engaged to indifferent; from warm and vulnerable to cold and aloof. He looked like a different man, like Herr Schmid, the powerful SS officer now, and no longer like Hans, the sensitive young man from Stuttgart with a tender heart.
“Enter,” he said in a monotone.
The door flew open and Claire walked in with a blast of cold air trailing her. She sucked in her breath when she saw me by the fire.
“Aurelie?! What are you doing here?!” I walked to her sheepishly and she shook my shoulders. “I told you not to ever bother Herr Schmid.”
Her eyes raced to him and she checked me all around with narrowed eyes. My buttons. Hem. Legs. When she seemed satisfied I was fine, she shot a fiery, warning glance at Herr Schmid.
“I forgot my purse,” she announced and lifted it from the fireplace mantel. “Let’s go. Now!” She pushed me toward the door. I turned back and saw Herr Schmid staring after me.
“Thank you,” I said.
Claire jerked me across the threshold and the door closed behind us. She marched me to a deserted side street and erupted.
“You foolish, stupid girl!”
I looked down at the ground, embarrassed and upset. An empty basket hung on Claire’s arm. “Look at me,” she said. I kept my head bowed and lifted my eyes. “Don’t you understand?! We cannot afford…” She lifted a hand to smack me then stopped and hugged me tight to her chest. “Mom’s gone now. I’m here to protect you. Don’t ever go there again. It’s not safe. I’ve warned you before. You must listen to me.”
“But I was starving, Claire. I passed out. I thought I would die. But that man, Hans, he gave me food. He saved me. He’s a good man,” I protested.
“You call him Hans? Don’t let him trick you. He’s not good. Handsome, yes. Seductive and charismatic. But not good. He’s the enemy, Aurelie. We can’t trust him.” She held both my shoulders in her hands to mark the point.
“Please. If you need anything ask me. I will help you. Promise me you will never go there again.”
“But you go,” I pleaded. “Besides he helped me.”
“I go because I have made choices. I’m an adult. You’re not.”
“No!” She shook me hard. “You must listen to me. You cannot go back there.”
I nodded agreement. But a dreamy feeling surged inside of me as I thought of his blue eyes and the way he’d wrapped the blanket around my shoulders and touched my knees and hands. As I replayed the scene over and over, I remembered every detail about him: his angular face and sensuous lips; his tapered waist and broad shoulders; his power and the sense of protection I’d felt next to him. My heart fluttered, and I fell in love with how’d he’d rescued me.
In the romance novels that Claire hides under her mattress, I read that a man can take you away and save you. I so want to escape the misery of rationing, war, and death, and feel whole and happy again. I fall asleep now and imagine Hans’ arms around me and his gentle kiss on my forehead. In my dreams, we escape into a beautiful paradise. I cannot tell Claire. She would be upset.