••• The International Writers Magazine - 22 Years on-line - Dreamscapes Fiction
Love in a Time of War
Larry Clinton Thompson
The German army marched into Chilon on June 24, 1940. Josette Lafleur was among the hundreds of people who watched the soldiers hang the Nazi flag from the balcony of the town hall. The German commander, with the mayor and police chief standing uncomfortably at his side, addressed the assembled crowd in poor French and promised a fair occupation -- but the crowd in the plaza was ringed by dozens of German soldiers, rifles and sub-machine guns at the ready.
Josette walked home with her friend Lise. "What of our husbands?" Neither of them had news of their husbands who were conscripted soldiers.
"They will return soon," answered Lise confidently, not daring to mention what both feared -- that their husbands were dead or prisoners of the Germans. "But until then, how will we live?"
"I have food in my cellar and my garden grows well. The children and I can endure the summer."
"By fall surely everything will be normal again."
Josette's house was at the edge of town. It was of stone, two stories in height, ancient and faded in grandeur, surrounded by well-tended gardens of flowers and vegetables. Her husband Antoine had inherited the house. His salary as a schoolteacher was inadequate for its upkeep. Josette, of modest parentage, loved the house despite its primitive discomforts.
Her children, Marie, ten years old, and Claude, eight years old, were waiting on the front porch. She had told them to stay inside. They were excited rather than frightened by the arrival of the Germans. "Mama," asked Marie, "Did you see the motorcycles?"
"And the tanks and the machine guns?" added Claude. "Will we go to school now that the Germans are here?"
"Yes, of course," answered Josette. "We must continue our lives as normal."
"When will Papa come home?" asked Marie.
"Soon, I hope." She was most worried about the loss of the monthly stipend paid her by the French army as the wife of a soldier. She hardly missed her husband, but she had no income of her own. Married at age 17, a mother at 18, she had never had a job.
The next morning came an insistent knock at the door. Josette was dressed in her gardening clothes, a sleeveless, wrap-around dress of gray and white stripes printed on thin cotton cloth. It fell to just below her knees and had a loose, v-shaped neck that revealed a touch of filigree and the hint of a cleft between her breasts. Her hair was tied into a pony tail and hung loosely down her back.
She rushed to the door, brushing from her face a wayward lock of light brown hair and pulled the heavy wooden door open, expecting Lise or another of her friends. Instead three German soldiers in uniform stood on her stone porch. One of them held a sub-machine gun in his hand; the other two had pistols holstered on their hips.
"Madame," said the oldest of the three, clicking his heels together and saying in heavily accented French, "Oberleutnant Albrecht Krueger will be staying with you in this house."
"What?" Josette asked in astonishment. "What is this?"
"Our German soldiers need housing. You have a large house. You may easily accommodate the Oberleutnant."
"But," she began, flustered, a hand tightening the loose cloth of her dress against her throat.
"He will take meals with you when he is not on duty."
"I have no food to share. I must feed my children and I have no money."
"It is decided," the soldier said, and the three pushed their way through the door. They looked around the house. "The Oberleutnant will need a room of his own. You will have that."
"That is all." He turned and walked out of the house, followed by the soldier with the sub-machine gun. The Oberleutnant remained, standing uneasily in the middle of her parlor, a rucksack on his back.
At that moment, Marie and Claude appeared. They had been playing in the garden. The children stopped in their tracks, staring at the German soldier.
"Good morning, children," said the Oberleutnant. "I am Albrecht. I will be staying here."
"Do you drive a tank?" asked Claude shyly.
"No," said Albrecht. "I am only a clerk and an interpreter. Before the war I was a teacher of French in Germany."
"My father is also a soldier. When will he return from the war?"
"Soon. The British will surrender and the war will be over."
"Go away children," Josette said. "Come, Lieutenant, and we will find a room for you."
"First," he said, "I have a gift for you. I bought some croissants at the bakery. But there was no butter to be had." He reached into his rucksack and pulled out a package wrapped in brown paper.
Josette raised a hand to object, but the children rushed to the German's side.
"Croissants!" cried out Claude. "My mother does not have money for croissants, only poor bread."
"Shhhh," said Marie. "Can we eat them, Mama?"
"I suppose so," conceded Josette. "I have some jam in the pantry." She looked at the smiling soldier standing beside her and felt obligated to him. "Would you care to join us for breakfast? I have some coffee. Or what we call coffee these days."
"Compared to Germany, Madam, the food is plentiful and good in France."
The four of them sat at the ancient, pitted wood table in the kitchen and ate croissants with grape jam that Josette had made the previous fall. She was uncomfortable and spoke only in monosyllables to the German sitting beside her and talking amiably with the children. Krueger was tall, blond, handsome, and very young, probably in his early 20s.
Lieutenant Albrecht Krueger proved to be little trouble in the Lafleur household. Nearly every family in Chilon with a substantial house had one or more German soldiers billeted with them and Josette, listening to the stories of others, was thankful that Krueger was polite, undemanding, and often absent for days or weeks. His facility with French caused his services to be required by the German army over a large area. While present, he contributed to the meager family larder with pastries, good bread, and an occasional chicken or fish. Josette had no money for luxuries. She canned and dried produce from her garden to carry them through the winter.
Josette and dozens of other women in Chilon learned with a shock that their husbands were prisoners of the Germans and would not be released. They would be held as hostages for good behavior by the French. Moreover, contrary to predictions, the British did not surrender, and the occupation of France stretched on endlessly.
For nearly a year after Krueger moved in with her, Josette avoided conversation with him. She called him "Lieutenant" and he called her "Madame." She knew nothing of his former life, whether or not he was married -- although she supposed not -- only that he had been a teacher of French. She never spoke to him of her husband -- although she had cried uncontrollably at the kitchen table when she heard he would not be returning home. He had tried to comfort her, but she pushed him away.
Marie also became reserved and distant with Lieutenant Krueger. Her animosity was readily visible, and she rebuffed his efforts to be friendly and the occasional small gifts he brought her. By contrast, Claude liked Krueger. They would sit on the bench outside her back door and talk about Krueger's experiences in the war. One day, while Josette was washing dishes, she heard Claude ask him, "Are you a Nazi?"
Josette shouted through the window. "Do not ask that, Claude. It is none of your business."
"It is okay," said Krueger. "I am not a Nazi, but I am a German and I must serve my country, just as your father did."
Josette pondered that Claude was getting too familiar with the German soldier. Krueger was becoming an older brother, or perhaps a father figure, to the boy.
It was a day in June, two years after France surrendered to Germany that Marie did not come to breakfast and was not in her room. Josette was frantic. The girl had become secretive and mysterious. Josette walked to the homes of friends to inquire about Marie, but nobody had seen her. At midmorning, she went to the police station to report her daughter missing.
It was an unfriendly atmosphere. Six French policemen shared a large room with a German officer in uniform. The lightening slash of the SS was displayed on his collar. The townspeople had come to accept the burden of German soldiers, but feared the fanatical SS and Gestapo who were increasingly present in the town, Several townspeople had been arrested and disappeared, their fate unknown.
Josette sat down in a chair across from a French policeman behind a desk. He was fat, an unlikely condition in the food-deprived country. While she was telling the policeman about her missing daughter, the SS officer came over. He sat down casually on the edge of the desk, leaning down until his face was too close to her own. He was tall and thin and his eyes bored into her and his face was twisted into a scowl. She felt a chill.
He spoke French. "What is the name of your daughter?"
"How old is she?"
"Do you have a photograph of her?"
"I do." She handed a photograph to the German.
He studied the photograph closely, then handed it back to her. "She is here. She has been arrested. For subversion."
"What? She is only a child." Josette tried to rise from her chair, but the German put a hand on her shoulder and pushed her down. The smell of cigarettes was on his breath.
"You will sit and you will be respectful. She is arrested. We will inform you when she has been judged."
"May I see her?"
"No, you must go home. And you may not speak of this. Am I understood?"
"What can I do to help her? Please!" Josette wrung her hands in agony.
"You will obey. Go to your house. Now."
Josette walked home in shock. She was sitting at her kitchen table that evening, drinking a cup of tea made from the chamomile she grew in her garden when Lieutenant Krueger came into the house.
"I have brought a piece of bacon for our dinner," he announced proudly. Josette did not raise her head, but remained staring at her cup of tea. "Is something wrong?"
"Marie has been arrested by the SS. She is in jail."
"I am sorry to hear that. What did she do?"
"I don't know."
"Perhaps I can find out." He handed her the piece of bacon wrapped in butcher paper. "I will be back in an hour. Perhaps you can cook the bacon for dinner?"
"I will do that. Thank you."
When he came back, she had set the table for two. She took the pot off the stove and ladled the steaming soup into his bowl and then into her own. "I put cabbage from my garden into the soup. Germans like cabbage."
Krueger laughed. "Yes, we like cabbage." He sat down at the table. "Your daughter was caught painting a "V" on a fence. Two boys with her escaped." The "V" was short for "victory," and painting it on walls and fences was a manifestation of resistance to the German occupation.
She sat down across from him, her palms joined in a sign of prayer, her knuckles white. "Is that serious?"
"If she were an adult it would be. As a child she will be released in a few days. We do not imprison children." He paused. "Yet." He took a spoonful of the soup. "It is delicious."
"Thank you. The bacon makes it good. It is hard to find these days." She relaxed in her chair.
"Is there a place where your children could go? Where they would not be known?"
She paused before answering, reluctant to reveal information to him. "My sister has a farm. Her husband is also a prisoner. She needs help with the work."
"You must know that you and your children are now being watched. I have been instructed to report any suspicious activity. Please do not obligate me to report you. Resistance to our presence is becoming more common. We must take severe measures." He touched her on the arm.
"I know nothing of politics or resistance. I wish only for my children and I to survive this war."
"My wish is the same, Madame. It is only my facility with French that has kept me from being sent to the war in Russia. I cannot jeopardize my life here." He paused. "May I call you Josette?"
"Yes," she answered after a moment. "And I may call you Albrecht? But we must only call each other by those names when we are alone in this house."
"Agreed. I am usually called Albert. Please pass the bread."
"Albert, it is." She handed him the baguette which was full of chaff and tasted like sawdust. She allowed her fingers to rest on his forearm. She thought of her husband, a prisoner in a camp in Germany. She recalled him as arrogant and bitter that all that remained of his family's prominence was a crumbling stone house at the edge of an inconsequential town. He had not been reluctant to tell her that she had married above her station into an old and distinguished family.
Marie was released as Albert had said and, to Josette's surprise, did not protest when told that she and Claude were going to the farm to live with Aunt Jean. She had been thoroughly frightened by the Germans during her several days in jail. Claude hated to leave his friend Albrecht, now Albert, but he was mollified when told he could eat more and better food on the farm than at home. He was a hungry and growing boy.
With the children away, Josette's restraint with Albert disappeared. They spent long evenings together sitting in her parlor talking of their lives, their families, the hardships of the present and the more enjoyable times of the past. Albert, she learned, was not married, but was engaged to be married to a girl in Germany who he had not seen for more than a year. He was the son of a postman. His family lived on the border of France and he had learned French as a child, and became a teacher. He was valued by his superiors in Chilon as an interpreter and translator.
Josette spoke of her life as the daughter of a moderately prosperous farmer and her marriage to Antoine, although not mentioning that she had been pushed into marriage by her parents. The windows of the parlor, in accordance with German regulations, were covered with black cloth and they talked by the light of a single oil lamp. The house had no electricity.
When school began in the fall the children stayed with her sister and enrolled there. She walked or rode on hay carts to visit them two or three days a week and to help Jean who was managing the farm on her own. Marie was afraid to live in Chilon after her arrest by the Germans, and Claude loved the farm.
Albert and Josette became lovers on a cold night in November. They had talked in the parlor until late at night and they traipsed to their bedrooms together, rubbing shoulders as they climbed the dark, narrow stairs. At the top, they stumbled into each other. He kissed her on the cheek, "Good night, Josette. I am happy living here with you."
She melted into his arms, and they kissed, and his hungry hands explored the small of her back and her hands pulled him to her and she pressed hard against him. She was breathing hard when they paused.
"I would like to make love to you," he said.
She was not surprised at his declaration. They had been building toward this moment, but she equivocated. "I must not get pregnant."
"I have what is called a French Letter among my things. All soldiers are given them."
She decided. "Come to my room. I will wait for you and warm the bed. But this is a secret. You may tell nobody."
She eased away from him and felt her way along the wall to her bedroom. She heard him shuffling down the hall to his room. In her room, shivering in the cold, she took off her heavy sweater, her dress, knickers, and camisole and climbed under the blankets of the bed.
Albert appeared a minute later. She heard him take his clothes off and then he slid beneath the blankets, his body cold against hers. She clutched him to her and felt the outlines of his naked body, warming slowly. They kissed facing each other. "You will forgive me. I do not know much."
She laughed out loud. "There is little to learn, but you must be gentle, because it has been a long time since I have done this and my body down there feels tender."
"I want for you to enjoy me. I have been wanting this since the first day we met."
"I also have been wanting you for a long time, but I must be careful. For a French woman to make love to a German soldier has consequences."
She gasped when he mounted her and slowly found his way inside her. "You are fine?" he asked.
"I am fine. Please do not stop."
He did not and they completed the act of love with a quiet passion, a sense of oneness, a conquest of loneliness -- and a nagging sense of doom.
They made love often after that, every night when they were alone in the house and sometimes, quickly, during the day. She experienced a passion with her young lover that she had never felt with her husband. When not in bed together and in the presence of others, they behaved as strangers and enemies thrown together by the winds of war. Her friends said only that she was lucky to have such a pleasant and handsome young man living in her house and told sad stories about the behavior of German soldiers imposed on them.
It was hard for her to conceal a glow of happiness and good health, brought about by the food he brought to the house. Pinched faces and pursued lips were nearly universal in the small society of Chilon. People competed for a meager daily ration of food and they envied and hated those who had a leg up over the less-privileged. Moreover, one never knew who was an informer to the Germans or, conversely, a member of the growing army of the night which resisted the German occupation.
The war came closer in 1943 and early 1944. Every night they heard the bombers of the allied air forces above their heads, and bombs occasionally fell near their town and allied bombers crashed or were shot down. Food became ever more scarce and the boot-heel of the German ever more heavy. A German soldier was killed in the town by the shadowy resistance. Ten citizens, picked randomly, were lined up by the Germans and shot in retaliation. As hated as were the Germans, so also was the resistance by many of the people.
Josette's children continued to live on Jean's farm, twenty kilometers from Chilon. They were safer there. The German army only ventured sporadically and in force into the countryside and there was less danger from allied bombs. Josette might have moved there, had it not been for Albert, but he was now only present in Chilon a few days each month, his duties taking him elsewhere.
It was at Jean's farm in March 1944 that she met two American airmen. Early one morning came a knock on the door of the two-room farmhouse. Josette was alone. Jean had left earlier with the horse-cart for errands in the nearby village of Omerville. The children were in school. She opened the door and stared speechless at the two uniformed men. They were young, about the same age as Albert. One of them was holding an improvised crutch and his pants leg was soaked with blood. The other one began talking to her in what she supposed was English. He punctuated his talk with the gestures of an airplane falling to the earth and simulated hunger by pointing to his mouth.
She covered her face with her hands. What to do? The Germans would be looking for survivors of the crash, and they might come to this farm and search the house and outbuildings. She had heard others talk about what might be done if confronted with downed allied airmen. Some argued that the allies with their never-ceasing bombing were killing more French people than the Germans and they should refuse to help downed airmen. Moreover, the Germans offered cash rewards to people who informed against airmen. Others said they had an obligation to help airmen. The Germans were losing the war. It was time to reassert French patriotism and oppose the occupation.
Josette's first thought was of Albert. What would he think? He would advise her not to endanger herself with an act of defiance to the German occupation. But she was French and the Germans, even Albert, were the enemy.
She gestured for the two airmen to come into the house. She pointed to the kitchen table and bid them to sit down. She sliced a heavy loaf of bread and put it on the table along with a bowl of beans she had intended to eat for lunch. There was no butter for the bread, but she found a small piece of cheese and a half-bottle of wine. She gestured for them to eat quickly, and they did so ravenously. She kept an eye out of the front window of the small house to ensure that nobody, especially German soldiers, was in sight.
What to do? She could not allow the airmen to remain in the house. The barn was small and offered few places to hide. The cellar and spring-house were the first places a German search party would look. The wounded airman could barely walk. Whatever she did, she must hurry.
While the airmen were still eating, Josette gestured for the wounded man to remove his pants so she could look at his leg. There was a gash above his knee, three inches long, inflamed and bleeding. She took a bottle of brandy from the shelf and poured it onto the wound. The airman winced in agony. She poured more brandy onto a strip of cloth she tore from her dress and wrapped the wound in it. Her hand was shaking so much that she could barely tie the bandage.
When the two men finished eating, she took another loaf of bread and a jar of jam out of the cupboard and motioned for them to follow her. Through the fields and forests, one kilometer away, she knew of the ruins of a large stone building, its roof staved in, the walls crumbling. Two hundred years earlier it had been a manor house, its owners, petty nobles, ruling over a countryside of peasants. She led them slowly and painfully to the ruin and gestured that they should stay there. They nodded in what seemed agreement. The wounded airman had barely managed to walk from the house to the ruin and only with the help of his colleague.
She pondered what to do next as she walked back to the house. She had heard friends say that you should contact the priest in a nearby town or village. At the very least the priest would not inform on the airmen -- or her.
She cleaned up the house as best she could to conceal that the airmen had been there, although Jean would certainly notice the absence of two loaves of bread when she returned. Then, she set off to walk the two kilometers to Omerville.
She met Jean returning to the farm in the horse cart. To the puzzled look of her sister, she explained that she had not confessed her sins to a priest for a long time and was going to Omerville to do so. Jean looked at her in astonishment, but did not question her further. Under occupation, circumspection was the rule. Curiosity was dangerous
She knew the priest from her childhood. She told him of the airmen now sheltering in the ruins of the ruins of the manor house. The priest did not comment at the conclusion of her story, saying only, "You must be careful, my child. You have done enough." She walked away from meeting the priest with the feeling that he would arrange for the airmen to be helped.
When she arrived back at the farm, she told Jean that she had decided she must return to Chilon that very day and that she would take the children with her. It was a shame that they would miss a few days of school, but they would be happy to see their friends in the town. She tried to persuade her sister to come with her for a visit, but Jean, obviously suspicious of her strange behavior, said that she could not leave the farm. With the shortages of food, it would surely to robbed if she were not present.
The children and Josette spent three days in Chilon. Judging that the danger was past, Josette then accompanied the children back to the farm, riding on a hay wagon part of the way and walking the remainder. Jean welcomed her back and made a point of saying that nothing worthy of mention had happened during her absence. Josette did not go near the ruined manor house, nor did she contact the priest again.
In April 1944, Albert told Josette that he was leaving, perhaps forever. The allied invasion of France was expected soon and he had been mobilized to defend the coast of France. They made love that night and the next morning coupled frenetically just before he donned his uniform and departed, leaving her weeping in the doorway. She ducked back into the house quickly when a neighbor walked past and she missed watching Albert grow smaller as he walked with hunched shoulders down a muddy street. It would not do to seem other than happy that the German soldier who had lived with her for almost four years had departed.
With the invasion expected, and most of the German soldiers who had occupied Chilon gone, the resistance became bolder, the allied bombing intensified, and food became scarce to the point of starvation. Even the children who had stayed on the farm were suffering. The Germans had raided Jean's garden and pantry for everything that could be carried away.
French flags came out of hiding a few days after the allied invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944. The remaining Germans in Chilon shot a number of French in retaliation.
Josette was lonely and depressed as she waited, as did all France, for the arrival of the Allied armies, much delayed by the tenacious defense of the German army. Josette had retired from her modest place in Chilon society during her relationship with Albert and she was now to experience the consequences. One morning, the word "Colabo," a slang term for a collaborator with the Germans, was chalked onto the low rock wall surrounding her house. She erased the chalked word quickly, but she realized that her close relationship with a German soldier had attracted both the attention and the animosity of some of the townspeople.
On a morning in early August the town woke up to find the last of the Germans gone and the resistance forces occupying the town hall and the center of the city. Josette's friend Lise came by her house. "Don't go downtown," she told Josette. "The resistance is fighting among itself. The Gaullists, the communists, the rightists, and I don't know who else. It is worse than it was under the Germans. The Americans are nearby and will be here in a day or two."
The next day, Josette heard shouting outside her front door. A dozen people were there, men and women. She went outside to meet them.
"Josette Lafleur, you are charged with collaboration," an ugly man declared. She knew him. He owned a butcher shop and was known as a black-marketer who had dealt in forbidden items with the Germans.
"I have done nothing wrong," Josette answered with a touch of defiance, but the thought that her romance with Albert had been known.
"You have lived with a German soldier for these four years. You were a mattress for a German!" The fat woman speaking was the butcher's wife. Josette knew her. They had competed for the attention of Antoine in secondary school and Josette had won.
"So have many women in this town. To accept a soldier in our homes was forced upon us."
"Many have kept their honor -- and you have not. You have been an enemy to the resistance, unfaithful to your husband, and a traitor to your country."
"Please ask the priest in Omerville what I have done to help the resistance." She was frightened. The angry people seemed capable of anything.
"You will come with us."
"I pray that you believe me. I have done nothing except protect my children."
Two of the men stepped forward and grabbed her by her arms and pulled her into the street. She resisted initially, then yielded, but throwing off the hands of the men holding her. Surrounded, Josette walked with arms folded to the center of the town. Hundreds of people were assembled there, crowded around twenty women, mostly young and attractive and all cringing in fear.
The butcher announced to the women, "You have been judged guilty of collaboration with the Germans. Your heads will be shaved."
A collective whimper of protest came from the captive women followed by a roar of approval from the mob surrounding them. Josette knew that several of the women had children by German fathers, and others had openly consorted with German soldiers. Somebody must have reported her for cohabiting with Albert. But who knew? They had been so careful. Was this the revenge of the fat butcher's wife?
The women were lined up and the first two were seated in chairs. Standing behind the chairs were men with shears and with a few swipes the women’s hair was cut down to the scalp. When it was Josette's turn, she walked with as much dignity as she could muster to the chair and sat down. The butcher's wife stared darts at her and smiled as Josette's long locks fell to the ground. Her hair was thrown onto a bonfire and the sulfurous smell of burning hair permeated the air.
After the women all been sheared, they were paraded through the streets and townspeople threw rotten vegetables and fruit at them. The crowd faded away as Josette neared her house. She was covered with slime. Lise was waiting for her there. She helped her bathe and Josette wrapped her head with a scarf to cover her nakedness.
"I am going to my sister's farm to live," she told Lise. "I cannot stay in this place." With that, she departed Chilon and walked to the farm. Two months later, her hair having grown to feminine length, she returned home. Lise had advised her that it would be safe as the Americans and Gaullists had gained control and suppressed the most violent and vindictive of the townspeople. Josette carried with her an affidavit signed by the priest describing the assistance she had rendered to the two downed airmen. She left the children with her sister while she tested the waters.
Her house had been looted and nothing of value was left, but her neighbors greeted her kindly. She marched to the town hall, affidavit in hand and insisted on reading it at a meeting of the town council. Her honor restored, she settled into her house, and soon brought her children back from the farm to live with her.
It was a year later, after the Germans had surrendered, that her husband Antoine was released from a prisoner of war camp and returned home. After five years of prison, he was a hesitant, broken, and indecisive man, stripped of his former arrogance and aggrieved pride. He lacked the confidence to return to his former job of schoolteacher. Oddly enough, Josette liked him better now than she had before his imprisonment.
Antoine looked to her for leadership. She rented a farm. Antoine cared for a small herd of cattle and Josette made cheese and sold it in the market. Her daughter Marie got a job at an American army base nearby and married a soldier and moved to the United States. Her son Claude was an excellent student and later became a successful attorney working in Paris.
She never learned anything of Albert's fate. She dreamed of him often.
© Larry Clinton Thompson 2021
Thompson has written several stories and travel accounts for Hackwriters. He is the author of two non-fiction books. Smallchief1941@gmail.com
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