2018 Short Story Contest Winner
Updated: Nov 30, 2021
by Joan G. Gurfield
France. February, 1943
The train lurched to a start. Vivvie grabbed onto the seat and then settled back as the ride began. She was old enough now — six and three-quarters — to go into town by herself for lunch at her aunt’s. She’d done it twice. Each time, the man at the ticket counter wrote her name and her aunt’s name and “L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue”, on a cardboard sign, which her grandmother had hung around her neck.
The woven straw seat itched her bottom. She swung her feet, which didn’t reach the floor, and clutched the picnic basket, half-filled with potatoes. Her grandmother had made such a fuss about her remembering to hold onto it. Down below, on the platform that was rushing past the window, faster and faster, she saw high, shiny boots on men in gray-green uniforms.
She hunched over the basket and watched as huge, empty fields of snow-and-mud-streaked farmland fell behind the train. It was two stops from her grandparents’ farmhouse into L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, with the conductor shouting out the names of the stops, first “Digne-les-Bains” and then “Le Petit Bain”. She squinted, as they crossed over the river on the small railway bridge, so that the weak afternoon sun turned to an orangy-red blur on the horizon.
In town, she had only three streets to remember. The first had St. Mark’s big stone church on the corner; the second, the small park where her Uncle Jules used to play boules before he was taken prisoner in the war, and then, finally, there was Le Clerk, the street her aunt’s house was on, with Le Grande Café on the corner. Its dark blue umbrellas were all inside for the winter.
Aunt Annette peered from behind white, lacy curtains, watching for her and waving. She opened the front door, and Vivvie squeezed past her into the warmth.
“Hello, sweetheart. Are you frozen?” Her aunt helped her take off her winter coat and drew her into the kitchen. A big pot of vegetable soup boiled noisily on the stove. No one had meat any more.
Vivvie smelled mushrooms with dill and a hint of pepper. Her mouth watered.
“Sit in front of the oven,” her aunt pointed to a chair. “We’ll eat soon.”
She climbed up onto one of the hard, wooden kitchen chairs. Aunt Annette took the picnic basket from her, emptied out the potatoes, and went upstairs. Vivvie heard sounds like men’s voices from up there. It couldn’t be soldiers, or her aunt would have been worried. But why were there men here? Uncle Jules was in one of those camps, like her parents. She hardly remembered the night her mother had been taken, because it was so long ago. Her grandmother said it was almost four years. But the soldiers in the green uniforms had come for her father last year, in the middle of the night. She’d stood on the top of the stairs, shivering, as she’d watched them prod him with their long guns. He’d gone with them, silently. Her grandparents had come out of their room and watched without saying a word. She had cried.
From the glass bowl on the table, she chose a small, tart green apple and gobbled it down. And then — she couldn’t help herself — another one. The apples were crunchy on the outside and sweet inside.
Footsteps clumped down the steps from the second floor. A heavy, red-faced man came into the kitchen with her aunt. He stared at her in a way that frightened her. “Is this the girl?”
Her aunt nodded.
“I don’t like it,” he said.
Her aunt whispered something to him.
Other men came clattering down the stairs. There were five, including the first one. One wore his beret, even in the house. They had rumbling, deep voices. “…enough energy to run, afterwards,” the one with gray hair said. A younger one wore a plaid shirt with holes in the elbows. They each took a bowl from the counter. Her aunt served them soup, and they sat near Vivvie, around the long oak table, to eat. “There’s a big group of partisans near Nimes,” the young man in the plaid shirt told the others.
The gray-haired one nodded. He had a big, rough-looking neck and sunburned arms. He was scary.
None of them spoke to her.
Her aunt set a steaming bowl of soup in front of her and pushed her chair closer to the table so she could reach it. The young man in the plaid shirt glanced at her, but her aunt had forgotten to introduce her to them, and she didn’t know what the right manners were, so she looked away from him.
“Vivvie,” Aunt Annette moved towards the oven, “I’m going to give you something special to put in your basket when you go home.”
She hoped it was a cake. The other two times she’d come, her aunt had sent her home with jam or a cake.
Her aunt took fresh rolls from the oven and piled some in the basket and some on a plate on the table.
Vivvie blew on the scalding soup and spooned it slowly into her mouth the way her grandmother had taught her.
Two of the men stretched their hands towards the oven and rubbed them. She thought that maybe the second story of the house wasn’t heated, or maybe they had come in from the cold right before she had.
“There,” her aunt took something out of a cupboard, sounding proud of herself. She showed Vivvie a small reddish-brown teddy-bear dressed in loose, blue-flowered overalls.
She smiled at the sight of the bear. She recognized the material on the overalls from an old apron of her aunt’s.
“It’s special. The bear is for your grandmother,” her aunt said, placing the bear on top of the basket of rolls. “It’s important that you get it to her. She’s going to….make more of them, for…other children. Give it to her when you get to the farm, the mas. But not before. Maybe, after she sees it, she’ll let you keep it.” Her aunt winked at the red-faced man.
“Grandmama won’t want it. She doesn’t have toys.” She wanted the bear for herself. She’d make a home for it on her bed, cozy and soft, with goose-feather pillows.
The red-face man was staring down at her. He spoke gently, “We’re counting on you to get the bear to your grandmother. If any soldiers ask to see it, cry, so they don’t take it away from you. Can you do that?”
Her aunt was watching her expectantly. She didn’t know why they were so worried about the teddy-bear. Her face grew hot because they were all looking at her. She squirmed in her seat.
The others turned away from her. “The Brits will do recon, first, and then the drop,” the gray-haired one said. She didn’t understand. Was he speaking English?
“When’s the next train?” the man in the plaid shirt asked her aunt.
“Should I go with her?”
Her aunt and the red-faced man looked at each other. The man shook his head, “no.” He spoke to the others, “Go back up. No lights,” he pointed to the second story. The other men stood and clumped back upstairs.
He must be trying to help her aunt save on the electricity. It was getting dark earlier because it was winter, so the lights were on at night for hours and hours. At the farm, her grandparents worried about how much it cost. “Shocking,” her grandmother said, when they got the bill. Sometimes, to save money, they just used candles. Vivvie hoped she’d get back before it grew completely dark. She was afraid of the dark. She wouldn’t go out to the barn in the dark, or down to the root cellar. There were monsters there, who snatched children and ate them.
Her aunt drummed slim fingers on the oak table. “I’ll walk her to the station,” she told the red-faced man.
“Is that what you normally do? Remember, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing to call attention.”
“Vivvie, do you want me to walk you?” her aunt asked, as she always did.
Her aunt dressed in her winter coat and scarf, and she put on her heavy coat. She still wore mittens, which were for babies, but next year when she started school, her grandmother had promised she could have real gloves with fingers, maybe even leather gloves, if things got better. She’d had to wait a whole extra year to start school, because her grandmother had decided to keep her back. It was because when her father had been taken, she’d tried to throw herself down the stairs after him, but her grandmother had held on to her as she screamed.
When they were all bundled up, the red-faced man waved, “Goodbye, Vivvie.”
She smiled up at him. She still didn’t know his name.
The streets were deserted. As they got close to the train station, a few people rushed by, dressed in layers of coats and hats and scarves. They looked like baggy, walking tents.
When they got to the station, her train was already there. On the platform, her aunt hung a cardboard sign around her neck telling where she was going and handed her the picnic basket. It was filled with fresh rolls covered with a white cloth. The teddy-bear rested on one side of the basket. “Your grandmother will meet you. You can eat a couple of rolls, and share one or two if you meet people you know on the train. But make sure you leave some for your grandparents. Remember, don’t talk to any strangers.” She leaned in to hug Vivvie and whispered, “Don’t say anything to anyone about the men in my house.”
Vivvie climbed up the three steps into the train. She was in Third Class. The car wasn’t crowded. At the front, there was a group of older children, carrying schoolbooks and shouting, and at the rear, a man with a battered suitcase, sitting by himself. She sat in the middle of the car.
She had two stops to count. She didn’t want to miss her station. It wasn’t like the train coming from her grandparents’ into L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, where the conductor shouted out the name of the station, so you couldn’t miss it. Going in this direction, you had to pay attention.
As the train started, a loud rumbling came from the Second Class car. Two soldiers pulled open the door from Second Class and walked into her car.
The children carrying on in the front of the car grew quiet. They must be afraid of the gray-green German uniforms, too. The soldiers walked down the aisle staring nosily at everything, their guns in shiny leather holsters. Watching them, she felt her heart pounding. But she hadn’t done anything wrong.
They moved slowly towards her.
“Helloo, missy,” the taller, blond one stopped beside her.
She wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers. But her grandmother had told her she had to be polite to soldiers.
“Look at that!” the second soldier pointed to her basket.
The blond one had a mole near his mouth. “May I have a taste of one of your breads?” he spoke teasingly.
“My aunt said I can share two.”
Each of them reached a greedy hand into her basket. She took a roll for herself, to make sure she got at least one. She took a bite of hers.
The soldiers didn’t move on. Instead, they made themselves comfortable in the seats across from her and munched on the rolls.
“Where are you going?” the blond one asked her.
“On the mas, the farm.”
“That’s a big basket for a little girl,” he commented.
“I’m almost seven.”
“Those are good,” the shorter soldier looked hungrily at the rest of
“I have to bring them to my grandparents,” Vivvie felt tears forming in her eyes.
“Ooh, it’s so very sad,” he teased.
“Franz, don’t…. Is that your teddy-bear?”
“Is it a boy?”
She nodded again.
“What’s his name?” the short one asked in a mean voice.
She hadn’t thought of a name.
“Tongue-tied,” he reached across the aisle for the bear.
“No,” she leaned protectively over the basket.
“Teddipuss. Don’t you even have a name for him? Every bear has to have a name.”
Tears swam in front of her eyes.
“Leave her be, Franz,” the tall, blond one stood and stretched. “Three more cars and we’re done.”
A few tears leaked out of her as the soldiers walked towards the back of the car. She turned to make sure they were going. They stopped and said something to the man sitting behind her, and they made him open his suitcase. The shorter one poked around in it. Then they went into the next car.
“Digne-les-Bains!” the conductor shouted.
At the station, her grandmother waited. She smiled when she saw the basket full of rolls. She hugged Vivvie. “All right?”
“Yes.” She knew not to talk about the soldiers until they were in the house. “The teddy-bear is for you.”
She thought her grandmother would laugh, but she just nodded.
The farmhouse was dark when they got there. One light was on in the kitchen, and another in her grandfather’s study.
“Go up and get ready for bed,” her grandmother said.
She wasn’t tired yet. It was too early for bed, and besides, it was cold upstairs. She lingered outside the door of the warm kitchen.
She saw her grandmother take her big, black-handled scissors and cut open the belly of the teddy-bear. She reached inside. Vivvie’s mouth fell open. Stuffing came out of the bear. A folded up paper was inside him, along with the stuffing. Her grandmother took out the paper and smoothed it flat on the kitchen table. She read it.
“Martin!” her grandmother called. “Martin!”
Her grandfather came in from the study.
“Get the others. It’s tonight. Two a.m.”
Vivvie lifted her head from the pillow. It sounded like the annoying buzz of a mosquito. But it was winter. Mosquitos died off in the winter. The noise was growing louder. Could it be an airplane? She hadn’t heard them very often. She wasn’t quite awake, but she hadn’t fallen asleep either, at least she didn’t think she had. She’d been worrying about her grandmother cutting into the bear and whether the bear could ever get better after that. The bear’s belly was like meat. Butchers cut up animals, and then you ate the meat. She hated the butcher shop. It was smelly, and she didn’t like the blood dripping into the brown paper wrapping. But now, hardly anyone had meat, not even the butcher. Or if they had it, they had to give it to the Germans. Except once in a while, her grandfather would make sausages.
Did people eat bear meat? She’d never heard of it, but there were so many things she didn’t know. She couldn’t wait to go to school and learn everything.
The noise was worse. The whole house was vibrating. She got out of bed, pulled the curtain back, and peeked out the window. There was an airplane, overhead, buzzing the house. She’d never seen one so close. She’d only seen them way up in the air, looking like tiny sparrows, even though she knew they were made of metal.
In the darkness of the field down below, where her grandfather was going to plant broccoli rape in the spring, she saw lights flicker on and off, like fireflies. But it was too cold. They died off in winter, just like mosquitoes, or they went away, south. Maybe the lights were lanterns, like grandpapa’s. He had gone out of the house with a lantern and a rope and some other tools, earlier, right after she’d gone up to bed. She’d heard him open the front door and then her grandmother said, “Be careful, Martin.” Vivvie’d peeked out and seen him.
Strange things were happening today: first, the men upstairs at her aunt’s, and now this. She wanted everything to go back to normal.
Airplane sounds grew louder. She tugged the curtain further back, so she had a clear view over the farm. Below, on the field, small lights dipped and moved until there were lanterns flickering on all four corners of the property.
She watched the airplane circle overhead. Something dropped from it, a big package, and then another. They fell to the ground, hard. Then two large shapes like the sheets grandmama hung on the line in the wind came out of the plane and drifted downward, blowing slowly in and out. They looked like the jellyfish she’d seen at the ocean last summer. Two little stick-figure men dangled from the bottoms of the jellyfish as the sheets pulsed and fell. The airplane roared and lifted its nose in the sky, and then it went buzzing quickly away.
In the field, all the lights moved towards the jellyfish, which had reached the ground. Two men were rolling on the field near the packages that had dropped. The ground out there was full of rocks. There seemed to be ocean waves around the men. When they stood up, they were men, but a bit taller than the other men rushing towards them. The waves stopped. One of the lights rushed towards the packages and the man holding that lantern bent down and picked them up.
Vivvie shook herself, because sometimes she had scary nightmares about the men who had come for her parents, and she woke up sobbing. But this didn’t seem to be a dream. She was here, in her room, holding onto the curtain. It was chilly. She shivered and blinked, to make sure of what she was seeing. Outside, below, it was really her grandfather coming towards the house, his walk, and his face getting clearer as he moved closer. He was leading a few other men who carried lanterns and the two taller ones who had just landed.
As they got near the farmhouse, her grandfather blew his lantern out. The others followed his example. The front door creaked as they opened it and went in. She could hear the scraping of their boots on the mud-room floor below her room, and their gruff men’s voices.
She opened the door of her room and sneaked down the steps to see what was happening. In the kitchen, her grandmother was dressed in her daytime clothes, making tea for the men. On the table was some of their cheese and butter. And the rolls from her aunt.
“Vivvie, come in.” Her grandmother didn’t sound angry that she was up so late.
The two tall men looked dirtier than the rest, and when they spoke she could hear that they weren’t from nearby.
“In the morning, I’ll take them to town, to the contacts,” her grandfather told his friends. “If you see us on the street, just tip your hat. Any problems, give the signal and meet in the church. Once they’re established, we should have much better communication. If you run into them, later on, no sign of recognition.”
Her grandfather’s friends all shook hands with the two who had fallen from the sky.
“Everyone, get back home quickly,” her grandfather said. “Go to bed. If anyone asks where you were, my bull escaped tonight, and I needed you to help me find him before he did too much damage in the Lyons’ fields.”
The men began to move towards the door, except for the two with accents.
“Vivvie, you take these men upstairs,” her grandmother said.
One of her grandfather’s friends pointed to Vivvie and gave a questioning look at her grandmother.
“She’s completely reliable,’ her grandmother said. “Didn’t say a word about the bear. Vivvie, no one is to know these men are staying here. Don’t mention them to anyone.”
“Reliable? How old is she: five, six?”
“Six and three quarters,” Vivvie said.
She led the two men up to the spare room, holding a candle. Her grandmother must have made the beds, because Vivvie was sure she remembered that there had been old quilts piled on the one near the wall, last time she’d been in the room.
“Do you want the candle?” She hoped they wouldn’t take it, because it was dark, and the house wasn’t completely safe in the dark. No place was safe.
“Yes,” one of the men said.
She put the candle down on the chest of drawers.
The second man moaned softly and lay down on top of the covers, and the other went to the window and pulled the curtain aside so he could look out.
“I thought you were jellyfish when you came down from the airplane,” she made slow in-and-out motions with her hands, to show them how they had looked.
“That was our parachutes,” the one on the bed told her.
“What’s she saying? What’s ‘Meduse’?” the one near the window spoke in English.
“It means ‘jellyfish’,” the other one answered.
“My French isn’t quite up to that.”
“Jellyfish,” Vivvie repeated the English word. She liked the sound of it.
“It means ‘Meduse,’” the one on the bed explained.
“I’m going to call my teddy-bear ‘Jellyfish Homme’.”
“’Man,’” the one on the bed said. “ “Homme’ means ‘man’. Jellyfish Man.”
“Jellyfish Man,” she repeated. That sounded right.
“I hope they stowed the chutes,’ the one standing by the window said.
“Or burned them. Did they get the ‘piano equipment’?” the one on the bed said.
“Hush, John,” the other one’s voice was serious. He spoke English.
“They give us pianistes three months, four months. Not long. No one will pay attention, if she says something. Anyway, it doesn’t matter.”
“We should speak French only, remember.”
She didn’t understand what they were saying. She was growing very sleepy. She wanted to get back to her room to have a good dream about the bear. Maybe he could fall from the sky with a parachute. She liked that word, “parachute”. She said it a few times in her mind: “parachute,” “parachute,” parachute.”
From high up, squished in the front basket of her grandfather’s bicycle, her legs dangling in front as he pedaled into town, Vivvie could see how the year was changing. Now, it was spring. All along the way, wild cherry trees were budding with small greenish-yellow shoots and tiny, delicate new leaves. In the fields they passed, the earth was brown and muddy, ready to be turned over in clumps for planting. Her grandfather said the fields were coming back to life after the long winter’s rest.
Thursdays were the best days, market days, when all the local farmers would bring their produce to the town square. Her grandfather used to take his old truck, but getting petrol was impossible these days, so he took the bike instead, and she’d ride with him every week, in the front basket, even though she was getting too big for it and her legs fell uncomfortably over the sides and she had to be careful that her undies didn’t show under her skirt. He’d fixed up big side baskets, too, hanging over the back wheel of the bike, for the potatoes and rutabagas he’d sell. The wool scarves that her grandmother knitted were neatly folded on top of the potatoes, although hardly anybody bought the scarves.
Under one arm, she held Jellyfish Man. Her grandmother had sewn him back together for her and fixed his overalls. He was her special, her precious furry little one. She often talked to him, like an imaginary friend.
The bike was tippy on the old, rutted road, especially when they hit a bump. But her grandfather was a good rider. She’d never fallen off, not once, although she sometimes had nightmares about falling from the bike — screaming and screaming as she fell, and it was all mixed up with the nightmares of men who had come to take her parents. They came for her, and she was running from them and falling, not ever hitting the ground.
When they got to the outskirts of town, there were only a few carts driving ahead of them, with skinny looking horses. The Digne-les-Bains Farmers’ Market was held in a square right beside the Sorgue. Her grandfather said that in the olden days, boats would tie up near the square, and farmers from way down the river would sell fruits and vegetables right from their boats.
The market didn’t seem as crowded as usual. People talked in quiet voices as they moved from one stall to the next. Soldiers were there, more Nazis — she could tell from the head-shaped helmets and tight belts and high boots. They had their rifles drawn, and were sticking them into the piles of vegetables.
A large gray car with antennas turning slowly on its roof drove at a snail’s pace through the street. “Nazis,” her grandfather whispered to her. “Trying to catch radio waves.”
A few local men touched the tips of their berets when they saw her grandfather, but no one shouted, “Loiselle!” or asked him to have a beer later, as they normally did. Her grandfather’s friend, Henri, nodded as they passed his stall. He looked worried.
Her grandfather slowed the bicycle and dismounted. She held on tight to the handlebar, so she wouldn’t fall, as he walked it the rest of the way. The ride was bumpier in town because of the cobblestones.
Their family didn’t have a stall, but their neighbor, Madame Lyon, let her grandfather use a corner of hers. He started working right away, taking potatoes out of the baskets on the bicycle and piling them into a large mound on the table next to Madame Lyons’ turnips and rutabagas. People could buy as many rutabagas as they wanted, but they could only get a certain number of potatoes. You had to have a card and get it stamped. The Germans counted the number of kilos. Vivvie watched the other farmers and the shoppers, who were mostly women. She hoped that one of them would offer her a snack with cheese in it, or meat.
Her grandfather slipped something heavy into the folds of one of the scarves her grandmother had knitted. He wrapped it tight and handed it to Madame Lyon, who looked around and then quickly shoved it under a pile of rags she kept for cleaning the stall. She turned back to the square and called out, “Sprouts, turnips, potatoes!”
An old man turned to see who was shouting.
One of the soldiers approached the stall. Vivvie stared down at her teddy-bear so she wouldn’t have to look at him or talk to him. She was supposed to answer their questions and to have good manners, but nobody liked them.
“Nothing forbidden here?” the soldier asked.
Her grandfather said, “Nein, nein.” That was German.
The Nazi leaned towards him, “No Jews in the town? No foreigners?”
Her grandfather shrugged. “No.”
The Nazi moved away.
She was glad he hadn’t asked to see her bear, or to touch it, like those soldiers had done on the train.
A French militia car pulled into the square, followed by a big, shiny black car, which honked its horn loudly. People rushed to get out of the way.
Two French militiamen got out of the first car. A man in a green uniform got out of the big black car and shouted into a megaphone, “…Radio signals have been picked up in this area… lockdown… curfew … anyone found hiding them will be hanged…”.
Her grandfather’s jaw tightened, as it did when he got angry.
The man with the megaphone shouted some more, and then the soldiers, including the French ones, rushed through the market in one direction, staring at everyone, and then suddenly turned, and rushed through the other way, staring and poking their guns into piled-up carrots and cucumbers.
Still, they missed things. Vivvie saw the Lyons’ dog and another dog she didn’t recognize, under a table in the next stall, growling and fighting over a bone. Further away, a curtain was pulled closed on a storefront. But she had seen the twin girls, both blonde, who her grandmother said were Jewish. Her grandmother was glad they were blonde, but Vivvie didn’t know why. She didn’t exactly know what Jews were, but Nazis hated them. Madame Lyon had told her never to mention the twins to the soldiers.
Across the square, inside the pharmacy, one of the funny-accent jellyfish men who had dropped down in the field stared out the window. Then he disappeared.
Her grandfather had noticed him, too. “Fool! I told them to stay hidden,” he whispered to Madame Lyon.
“Idiots,” she agreed, peering out from under the low awning shading her stall, to make sure no one heard her. “We need to find a place for the twins, right away. Can you and Louise manage..?”
With his chin, her grandfather motioned to Vivvie. “….might talk….”
“I’ve tried everyone else. We have no other place.”
“I’m reliable,” Vivvie wasn’t quite sure what it meant, but her grandmother had said it about her, and it meant something good.
Both adults looked at her as if they were surprised.
One of the dogs at the next stall started barking. Beyond them, three women argued. “…lays two eggs every day.”
“I doubt it.”
“Are you calling me a liar?”
In the middle of the square, soldiers gathered beside the black car. A man, fatter and older than the rest of them, but wearing the same gray-green uniform with gold braid on his shoulders, got out.
Vivvie watched as the fat man walked from one stall to another, picking up a cabbage at one, a bunch of carrots from another, and handing them to one of the men trailing him. He was stealing!
He came towards their stall and glancing down at her, spoke in a fake-friendly voice, “What have we here? Potatoes, turnips, and a teddy-bear. What do you call him?”
She didn’t understand why all the Nazis wanted to know her bear’s name. Should she tell him? It was hard to think with him looking at her. Her grandmother said you had to answer them, if they talked to you. “Jellyfish Man.”
“That’s a strange name for a bear.”
“Like jellyfish, at the beach.”
“What made you think of that?” the Nazi leaned down, his fat face close to hers. He had enormous pores and black hairs coming out of his nose.
“My granddaughter has a lively imagination. We took her to the beach in Marseilles, last summer, where she saw jellyfish.”
“Not like those jellyfish,” she told her grandfather. “Like those,” she pointed towards the pharmacy, but the jellyfish man had gone.
“What do you mean?” the Nazi squinted at her.
“Like parachutes, going in and out.” She showed them, with her hands.
Her grandfather went pale.
“Ahhh… parachutes,” the Nazi’s voice got very quiet. “And where have you seen parachutes? Karl, Ernest, rip this stall apart. And bring them in for questioning.”
“Even the girl?”
The room in the jail was small, and she had to share it with Madame Lyon, who smelled of sweat and baby powder. There was nothing in it but two cot beds and a pail that she thought they were supposed to use for a toilet. At least it smelled that way. Through the iron bars, across the hall, her grandfather sat in his own small room, an exact copy of theirs. But he was by himself, sitting on one of the cots. She didn’t know why they were there, or why the men who brought them had been so mean, or why Madame Lyon was so annoyed with her, but it had to do with what she’d said. She shouldn’t have told them about the parachute men. Her grandmother had told her not to mention them.
They had been there for hours and hours. Through the tiny window near the ceiling of their room, she could see that it was starting to grow dark outside. Grandmamma would be worried.
“Soon we’ll go back to the market for your bicycle,” she called across to her grandfather. She wanted him to say, “Yes, soon,” but all he did was smile sadly at her.
She had to pee, but she didn’t want to do it in front of Madame Lyon and her grandfather, so she sat on one of the cots to hold it in, and she lay Jellyfish Man down gently on the cot beside her.
A Nazi soldier came into the hall and unlocked her grandfather’s door. Now, finally, they’d be let out. Thank goodness!
But instead, the soldier held a gun up to her grandfather’s chest and motioned for him to walk down the hallway. As he passed their room, her grandfather winked.
When the men had gone out a door at the end of the hallway, Madame Lyon lifted her skirt, pulled down her big white balloon panties, and straddled the pail. Vivvie heard the tinkling sound of pee. It made her need to go even more.
“Not even a shred of paper,” Madame Lyon complained. She stood up, holding her skirt as far from her body as she could, and shook herself to get the pee off.
Vivvie really, really had to go. She stood over the bucket the way Madame Lyon had done, pulled up her short skirt, and tugged down her underpants. The pee came out of her quickly. She felt so much better once it was out. She didn’t know why people peed, or animals. But everyone did, even squirrels, if you watched them for long enough. She shook herself off, so she wouldn’t get it on her, and pulled up her underpants.
“Where did they take grandpapa?” she asked.
“Interrogation,” Madame Lyon’s hands were shaking.
“They’ll ask him lots of questions.”
“When will he come back?”
Madame Lyon made a mean face at her, “Who knows? Did your parents come back?” She bit her lip, “Sorry, sorry.”
Her parents? Was this like that? Her father had been taken somewhere. Vivvie wanted to visit him, but her grandparents said they couldn’t. They thought he was in a camp. It was far away, and they didn’t have the address. And her mother — she hardly remembered her mother, except for a warm, soft singing and rocking that she sometimes heard right before dreams. The photos her grandmother had of them weren’t at all like what she remembered: her mother’s thick black, shiny hair was curled in a long curl that looked like a sausage, and her father had a stiff smile that looked as if someone was pinching him.
It was quiet in the jail. From far off, she could hear the sound of men’s voices and an occasional snort of laughter. She started to feel drowsy, sitting on the cot.
Steps came from down the hall. She jumped up and rushed to the iron grating that looked into the hallway.
It was her grandfather, moving slowly. Another man followed him, the soldier with a gun. Something had happened to one side of her grandfather’s face. It was all red. When he tried to smile at her, teeth were missing. She felt sick in her tummy, looking at him. His face must hurt. She knew how it felt to skin a knee, so she could imagine how having red, scraped skin on a whole side of her face would feel. And the teeth. Her first tooth had come out in December and then two others, and it had hurt each time. And been bloody.
The fat man from the market was behind her grandfather. He spoke to the soldier, “First the woman, and then the girl.” He went back through the door.
The soldier locked her grandfather into his room, and then came over to theirs. He unlocked their door and told Madame Lyon, “Out.”
Madame Lyon looked at her grandfather.
“I hardly know you,” grandpapa told her quickly in the local patois. He didn’t want the soldier to understand him. His words were muffled, because of what had happened to his mouth, but Madame Lyon and Vivvie understood him. “You were kind enough to let me share the market stand, but other than that, we barely know each other, we’re just neighbors, cordial but distant.”
Madame Lyon nodded.
Why was he telling Madame Lyon to lie? The Lyons and her grandparents had been friends for many years, since before she was born. He’d always told her not to lie. There must be something dangerous about neighbors knowing each other. The soldiers would do more bad things to him. Or to Madame Lyon. Or to her.
Madame Lyon walked out, followed by the Nazi, his gun pointed at her back.
“Grandpapa,” she called softly.
Her grandfather turned his head so she couldn’t see the injured side of his face, “I’m all right, Vivvie.”
“I don’t want to talk to that fat man,” she told him.
Suddenly, her stomach rumbled. She had to do a caca. She couldn’t stop it. She rushed to the urine-smelly bucket and pulled down her undies. The poop spilled out of her, loose and smelly, and it splattered all over. She started to cry because her grandfather was right there seeing her and because some of it got on her leg. There was no paper, no sink, no water to wash it off.
“Vivvie,” her grandfather called softly, “It’s all right. Don’t worry.” He spoke in patois even though there was nobody else there. “When they call you in, tell him that I was the only one out there that night with the parachuters. Remember, you didn’t see anyone else besides me helping them. Do you understand?”
She nodded and snuffled to stop the tears. Madame Lyon was going to lie because her grandfather had told her to, and she was supposed to lie, as well. They had to tell lies to get out of here.
She wanted her grandfather to say something comforting, but he was silent. “Do you think Grandmamma will come for us?”
“She can’t leave the farm.”
It was true: her grandmother didn’t ever drive the horse and cart, and she didn’t know how to drive the old truck.
She felt like she had to go again.
Madame Lyon and the soldier came back. As the man unlocked the door of their room, Vivvie could see that Madame Lyon’s dress had been ripped on top. She held the two pieces of material together, but her bosoms showed. She had big bosoms that were white. Madame Lyon was crying. She walked into the room and flopped down on one of the cots.
“So?” her grandfather called.
“They can do anything they want,” Madame Lyon said in patois. “But I was silent as a mouse.” Her bosoms went up and down. “It’s all her fault.”
“Adrienne,” her grandfather said.
They were all in trouble because of what she’d said about the jellyfish men. It was her fault that her grandfather was bleeding and Madame Lyon was crying. And the Germans would do bad things to her, too. “I’ll never tell your name again, never,” she whispered to the teddy-bear.
The soldier was standing at the door of their room. He sniffed and made a face at the smell coming from the bucket. She hoped he wouldn’t take her.
He pointed a finger at her, “You. Out. Now.”
“I don’t want to go,” she explained to him.
He pointed his gun at her, “Out.”
“Vivvie, go with the man,” her grandfather called.
Clutching her bear, she counted the iron bars on the rooms they passed — one-one hundred, two-one hundred, three-one hundred, like her grandfather had taught her — to make time slow down. She walked as slowly as she could down the hall, in front of the soldier. The floor was filthy. If her grandmother had seen it she would have said, “Disgraceful.” She would have gotten a bucket of water and an old dishcloth and cleaned it up.
Maybe she should offer to clean the floor. Then she wouldn’t have to talk to the fat man.
The Nazi opened a door and nudged her forward.
The room had a big desk. The fat man sat behind the desk smoking a real Gitane, which her grandfather said were hard to get, these days. “Shut the door,” he told the soldier.
When the soldier left and the door was shut, the fat man leaned back in his chair, puffing on his cigarette. He blew smoke rings towards her. “Sit.” He pointed her to a chair across the desk from him. The chair was too big for her, but she scrambled up on it and turned to face him. She hoped he couldn’t smell the caca on her leg.
“Is the man out there your grandfather?”
“And the woman is your neighbor?”
“Do you remember a few weeks ago, there was a full moon, and two men dropped from an airplane with parachutes?”
“Did they have a big box with them?”
She didn’t remember a box. She didn’t know what her grandfather would want her to say, so she told the truth, “I don’t think so.”
The fat man sighed. “Did your grandfather meet the men?”
This was the lie her grandfather wanted her to tell. “Yes.”
“Who helped him?”
“He was by himself.” There, her grandfather would be proud of her.
The fat man reached into the desk. “I have a candy here, for you, if you tell me the truth.” He placed the candy in the middle of the desk.
It was a marzipan wrapped in shiny red paper. You couldn’t get those now. But she remembered them from a long time ago. They were good. She wanted the marzipan, but she was afraid of the man, who was watching her carefully.
“Look, we know your grandfather had help that night. We just need to know who was there with him. If you answer that, you can have the candy.”
She shook her head. “I didn’t see anybody else.”
“Where were you?”
“In my room.”
“Where is your room?”
“How could you see what was going on?”
“It was light from the moon.” She wished he would stop asking her questions.
“Did you know your grandfather was going to meet those men?”
“What time was it?”
“I don’t know. Late.”
“Why were you awake?”
“The airplane noise woke me.”
“Did you see the men come into the house?”
She hesitated. “No.”
He yelled at her, “Tell me the truth, dammit. Who was with your grandfather?”
“No one.” She started to cry. Her stomach turned over. “I really, really need to use the toilet.” She couldn’t help it. Caca came out of her, from her undies onto her skirt, and some leaked onto the back of the chair.
“Jesus… Ernest!” the fat man called.
The soldier came in.
“Stinking goddamn peasants. Get rid of her!”
Ernest stared at the fat man as if he wasn’t sure what to do.
“Out! Get her out of here!”
She held the back of her dress so that the caca was only in one place as she followed the soldier to a door. It led to a bigger room where a few soldiers in gray-green uniforms were sitting, smoking and playing cards. Clinging to Jellyfish Man, she followed the one called Ernest towards the door leading to the street.
Outside, her grandfather’s friend, Henri, waited near the square. She ran to him.
He hugged her. “I’ll take her home,” he told the soldier.
Henri had a small market cart with an old piebald horse. He lifted her into the hay piled up in the back of the cart and covered her with a woolen blanket. He didn’t ask about her grandfather or about Madame Lyon. He didn’t say anything about the smell or about her skirt. “Rest,” he said.
It was summer, so her grandmother made an indoor-outdoor game of it. “Go, now!” she would shout, and the three girls would dash for the larger of the two barns, the one where her grandfather stored tools and hay, and where the cows spent the night. The girls had to hide under the hay and not make a sound, while Grandmamma searched for them, poking a stick into hay bales and overturning crates and buckets. The twins were good at staying completely still, but Vivvie would sometimes need to scratch an itchy place. She couldn’t help herself. Once, she had made a big mistake and giggled, because Jellyfish Man had landed on her face in the rush to hide. Her grandmother had been furious. “This is serious, Vivvie! You can’t make a sound. What were you thinking? The twins have to hide, because they are Jewish, but you don’t, if you don’t want to. This isn’t funny for them. It’s deadly serious.”
She was friendly with both of the twins, although she liked Elissa better than Anna. They were fraternal, not identical twins, which meant they didn’t look exactly the same. But they both had silky blonde hair — “Nazi-acceptable hair,” her grandmother called it. Elissa was funnier than her sister, and she had long, skinny spider legs that were starting to make her skirt look too short.
Because her grandfather hadn’t come back from jail, the farmland was turning to weeds and crabgrass. Her grandmother was no good at farming, so every day, she went down to the root cellar and brought up one jar of the fruits or vegetables she had preserved last summer. Soon, they would run out. She taught the three of them to look for edible mushrooms and dandelion leaves. She liked them to spend the days outdoors, gathering food or playing quietly, but close enough to the house to hear her if she called.
They sat on a bed of pine needles, hidden in the patch of woods near the farmhouse, under the ancient Chêne Vert tree, which had huge, knobby roots, bigger than they were. Vivvie had made a cradle for Jellyfish Man from twigs that she wove in and out. She rocked him. The bear looked contented, sleeping there. The twins were weaving small baskets, the way her grandmother had showed them.
She heard the loud hum of an engine from the road. That was odd; these days you hardly ever heard a car. Most people didn’t have money for petrol. She peeked out from behind the tree roots and thickly grown juniper bushes. “A jeep and a large truck,” she whispered to the twins, “pulling up in front of the house. Soldiers. Theirs and militia.”
“It’s them!” Elissa hissed. “Run!”
The twins raced towards the barn, the way they had practiced, but she stayed where she was. Jellyfish Man was sleeping. And besides, her grandmother hadn’t called them to tell them to go to the barn, so she didn’t have to go.
“Halt!” she heard. The man’s voice sounded mean. There was a clanging noise, and words in German that sounded like enormous snarling dogs. She scrunched down behind the tree roots, so they couldn’t see her.
A door banged shut — the front door of the house — and she heard a mewing sound, like a small cat. Or someone being hurt. A man shouted.
Another man screamed something back.
She counted in her head, “One-one hundred, two–one hundred, three-one hundred, four-one hundred…”. She wouldn’t come out until she had counted as high as she could.
It grew quiet. “Seventy-two-one hundred, twenty-eight-one hundred, forty-one hundred.”
She watched ants climb slowly over leaves and blades of grass as if they were climbing mountains.
Then, all of a sudden, there was more shouting and the low growling voice of an angry man.
“But please, please, can’t we just…,” she heard Elissa begging.
Banging noises came from the jeep and the truck as their doors slammed shut. The truck backfired, and its tires made scraping sounds in the dirt as it squealed out of the drive. The jeep followed.
She watched six ants march in single file over the basket that Elissa had been weaving. The ants didn’t find any food, so they joined another, larger file of ants going into a hole in the ground.
The only sound was the dull hum of crickets.
When she was sure there were no more soldiers, she got up.
No one was in the kitchen. “Grandmamma!” she called, holding Jellyfish Man tight. There was no answer, no thump of the twins’ feet scuffling from above. On the counter next to the sink, one of her grandmother’s glass jars of stewed tomatoes was open. She helped herself to tomatoes, one after another, until the jar was empty. They tasted like summer.
She went upstairs, but no one was there. The house was silent, but the ticking of the old grandfather clock in the hallway echoed, louder than normal.
‘Grandmamma!” she called again, standing in front of the clock, but she didn’t really expect an answer. Her grandmother had been taken, just like her father and mother had been. And her grandfather was gone, too. She started to cry.
Where were the twins? Someone had known they were staying here and had told on them. That’s why the militia and the German soldiers had come.
Her tears, when she licked them off her face, had a slight tomato taste, which she liked.
“What should I do?” she asked Jellyfish Man.
He was grouchy, because she’d woken him from his nap in the twig cradle, but he told her to eat the food from the jars in the root cellar, and to stay in the woods, out of sight, and to sleep in the barn, under the hay, in case the Nazis returned.
She ate the fruit first: apricots, peaches, plums. She made herself sick with so much fruit.
She washed and dried each of the jars and the lids and the round rubber pieces that went under the lids carefully and stood on a chair to store them on the shelf, just the way her grandmother did. Jellyfish Man kept her company.
She carried the few remaining jars of vegetables out to the barn: string beans, carrots in brine, red peppers, tomatoes.
The two cows were mooing impatiently outside the barn, so she opened the gate of the pasture and let them wander down towards the Lyons’ even though she knew that the Lyons had gone somewhere last week and no one knew where. She let the bull out of his pen, and he followed the cows.
At night, under the scratchy hay, every noise sounded loud, even the crickets’ chirping — louder and louder, like they were growing into an army of huge monster insects wearing high leather boots and holding guns, coming for her.
She was starving. Her stomach rumbled, loud in the nights. Even though she was scared the soldiers might come back, after three days she went back into the farmhouse and searched in every closet and drawer for things to eat. She found some paper money in the drawer near her grandmother’s side of the big bed. The money gave her an idea.
In a small satchel, she packed the last two jars of string beans and her sweater, which was getting too small on her. She carried the satchel, and in the other hand, she held Jellyfish Man, whose fur was matted from sleeping in the hay.
She knew the way to town because she’d gone there so often with her grandfather. She walked close to the rutted road, and when she heard a car coming, she hid behind a tree. Only one car passed her, and it was a normal car, not militia or Germans. She went across the railway bridge, to the train station.
At the ticket counter, she asked for Third Class to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. The man selling tickets looked at her and then stuck his head out of the booth and stared at people in the small waiting-room. “Are you travelling by yourself?”
“I always do, going to my aunt’s.” She pushed some of the bills towards him, trying to look older.
“Is someone meeting you?”
“It’s highly unusual for a child to travel alone.”
“My grandfather brought me here, but he had to get back to the mas.”
“All right. You’ll have to wear one of these and show it to the conductor when he takes your ticket.” He wrote her name and her aunt’s name and the name of L’Isle on a piece of cardboard and hung it around her neck. Then he gave her a lot of change, which she put in her satchel.
The train was crowded. There was an empty seat behind two women in the Third Class car, so she sat there.
Nobody bothered her.
When the train arrived at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, she just had to get from the station to her aunt’s house. Walking quickly, she counted off the three streets. At Le Grande Café, on the corner of Le Clerk, the dark blue umbrellas were open for the beginning of the summer season. That was a good sign. She started down the street.
Large wooden planks were nailed across the front door of her aunt’s house. No one could get in or out. A long piece of paper was tacked above the planks, with words written in big black letters, but she didn’t know how to read.
She glanced around to make sure there were no soldiers and no other people watching her. She hurried past her aunt’s house, hugging Jellyfish Man tight.
At the end of the street, she looked both ways. Houses and more houses, full of people she didn’t know. Were they like her grandparents and her parents and her aunt, or were they for the Germans? “Vichy,” her grandmother called those kinds of people, her mouth twisted like she was going to spit.
Three men huddled at one end of the street, talking. A woman wearing a green kerchief on her head and carrying a string bag for shopping came out of her house and locked the door behind her. It was impossible to tell what side people were on just by looking at them.
She glanced down at the bear.
She thought for a few minutes, and came to a decision. “Don’t worry, Jellyfish Man. We’ll go and look for a forest. We’ll find your Mamma and Papa.”
© 2018 Joan G. Gurfield