After so many months spent inside under curfew it felt strange to be walking in the dark. The icy streets of the little town were deserted, the windows blank, the curtains unmoving. I walked along briskly in the shadows, a shawl pulled high over my head in the hope that even if someone happened to look out they would see only an unidentifiable shape hurrying through the backstreets.
It was bitterly cold, but I barely felt it. I was numb. As I made the fifteen-minute journey to the outskirts of town, to the Fourrier farm where the Germans had billeted themselves almost a year earlier, I lost the ability to think. I became a thing, walking. I was afraid that if I let myself think about where I was going, I would not be able to make my legs move, one foot placing itself in front of the other. If I thought, I would hear my sister’s warnings, the unforgiving voices of the other townspeople if it were to emerge that I had been seen visiting Herr Kommandant under cover of night. I might hear my own fear.
Instead I muttered my husband’s name like a mantra: Édouard. I will free Édouard. I can do this. I held the painting tight under my arm.
I had reached the outskirts of the town. I turned left where the dirt road became rough and rutted, the lane’s already pocked surface further destroyed by the military vehicles that passed up and down. My father’s old horse had broken a leg in one of these ruts the previous year: he had been ridden too hard by some German who hadn’t been looking where he was going. Aurélien had wept when he heard the news. Just another blameless casualty of the occupation. These days, nobody wept for horses.
I will bring Édouard home.
The moon disappeared behind a cloud and I stumbled down the farm track, my feet several times disappearing into ruts of icy water so that my shoes and stockings were drenched and my cold fingers tightened round the painting for fear that I would drop it. I could just make out the distant lights within the house, and I kept walking towards them. Dim shapes moved ahead of me on the verges, rabbits perhaps, and the outline of a fox crept across the road, pausing briefly to stare at me, insolent and unafraid. Moments later I heard the terrified squeal of a rabbit and had to force down the bile it brought to my throat.
The farm loomed ahead now, its lights blazing. I heard the rumble of a truck and my breath quickened. I leaped backwards into a hedge, ducking out of the beam of the headlights as a military vehicle bounced and whined its way past. In the rear, under a flap of canvas, I could just make out the faces of women, seated beside each other. I stared as they disappeared, then pulled myself out of the hedge, my shawls catching on the twigs. There were rumours that the Germans brought in girls from outside the town; until now I had believed them to be just that. I thought of Liliane again and offered up a silent prayer.
I was at the entrance to the farm. A hundred feet ahead of me I saw the truck stop, the shadowy forms of women walking in silence to a door on the left, as if this were a route they had taken many times before. I heard men’s voices, the distant sound of singing.
The soldier stepped out in front of me. I jumped. He lifted his rifle, then peered more closely. He gestured towards the other women.
‘No … no. I am here to see Herr Kommandant.’
He gestured again, impatiently.
‘Nein,’ I said, louder. ‘Herr Kommandant. I have … an appointment.’
I could not see his face. But the silhouette appeared to study me, then strode across the yard to where I could just make out a door. He rapped on it, and I heard a muttered conversation. I waited, my heart thumping, my skin prickling with anxiety.
‘Wie heist?’ he said, when he returned.
‘I am Madame Lefèvre,’ I whispered.
He gestured to my shawl, which I pulled briefly from my head, exposing my face. He waved towards a door across the courtyard. ‘Diese Tur. Obergeschosse. Grune Tur auf der rechten Seite.’
‘What?’ I said. ‘I don’t understand.’
He grew impatient again. ‘Da, da.’ He gestured, taking my elbow and propelling me forwards roughly. I was shocked that he would treat a visitor to the Kommandant in such a way. And then it dawned on me: my protestations that I was married were meaningless. I was simply another woman, calling on Germans after dark. I was glad that he could not see the colour that sprang to my cheeks. I wrenched my elbow from his grasp and walked stiffly towards the small building on the right.
It was not hard to see which room was his: light crept from under only one door. I hesitated outside, then knocked and said quietly, ‘Herr Kommandant?’
The sound of footsteps, the door opened, and I took a small step back. He was out of his uniform, dressed in a striped, collarless shirt and braces, a book dangling from one hand, as if I had interrupted him. He looked at me, half smiled, as if in greeting, and stepped back to allow me in.
The room was large, thick with beams, and its floorboards covered with rugs, several of which I thought I recognized from the homes of my neighbours. There was a small table and chairs, a military chest, its brass corners glowing in the light of two acetylene lamps, a coat hook, from which hung his uniform, and a large easy chair by a generously stacked fire. Its warmth was evident even from the other side of the room. In the corner was a bed, with two thick quilts. I glanced at it and looked away.
‘Here.’ He was standing behind me, lifting the shawls from my back. ‘Let me take these.’
I allowed him to remove them and hang them on the coat hook, still clutching the painting to my chest. Even as I stood almost paralysed, I felt ashamed of my shabby clothing. We could not wash clothes often in this cold: wool took weeks to dry, or simply froze into rigid shapes outside.
‘It’s bitter out,’ he observed. ‘I can feel it on your clothes.’
‘Yes.’ My voice, when it emerged, sounded unlike my own.
‘This is a hard winter. And I think we have some months of it to come yet. Would you like a drink?’ He moved to a small table, and poured two glasses of wine from a carafe. I took one from him wordlessly. I was still shivering from my walk.
‘You can put the package down,’ he said.
I had forgotten I was holding it. I lowered it to the floor, still standing.
‘Please,’ he said. ‘Please sit.’ He seemed almost irritated when I hesitated, as if my nervousness were an insult.
I sat on one of the wooden chairs, one hand resting against the frame of the painting. I don’t know why I found it a comfort.
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