The husband, as much in love with his partner as on their first day, had mourned for the children they would never have. With them had disappeared the cries of joy, the tears... He still admired the one who had chosen to share his existence beyond all the trials of denied motherhood, neither of them having wanted to blame the other. Their aborted line of descent had, in fact, brought them closer.
The woman took care of all the household chores, and looked after the home where no disturbance ever entered. From the beaten earth floor to the old but well-kept furniture, this cottage exuded cleanliness.
The furnishings told more about the occupants than any words they could have uttered. Simple and practical with, however, one exception: a superb box bed, a family heirloom, which attracted the eyes of everyone who entered the dwelling.
The cabinetmaker was Anna’s grandfather. He had made this piece of furniture for his granddaughter’s wedding, a priceless gift as he had put into it something of himself. It was a robust piece of furniture, with no embellishment, whose clear, regular contours recalled the rectitude of their maker. And what might have been taken for an artist’s fantasy, that motif which brightened its façade, was neither joke nor decoration, but rather a symbol of a far-off religious origin meant to protect the couple and ensure their happiness and fertility.
The man sitting with them at the table was different. He had neither their weather-beaten faces, nor their calloused hands, big and strong, cracked by the cold, disfigured by hard work. Nor did he have the bronzed aspect that the proximity of the sea had given their complexion. Nevertheless, he had found a place within the family structure; he was neither a son nor a friend... He was a stranger who was admired and respected because he represented everything they had not managed to be.
This man had given them no explanation; his clothing, like a talisman, had sufficed to assure him of their protection. They had never left the Brittany of their birth and knew nothing much beyond their locality but they had already seen that uniform in pictures in the local newspaper. They even knew what the initials R.A.F. meant. They therefore knew what this man was looking for. He had not needed to beg, the door to the home had opened quite naturally and without anything being expected in return.
At the beginning, they had tried hard to talk to each other, but they could not understand that strange-sounding language. They had already suffered enough trouble accepting that national language which had been imposed upon them by the big stick and which they were loath to use. Gestures were enough to make themselves understood and they had little use for the extravagant thanks of the stranger. They took him in as much for their own sake as for his. The children they had not had, the right to fight that had been denied him because of a shameful limp... He was the fulfillment of all their hopes, a gift from the Heaven out of which he had miraculously fallen.
They had, however, different desires: he hoped to get back to his nearest and dearest as soon as possible, they never tired of his presence. They would even find it hard to let him go now...
As they were finishing their meal, a noise broke into their peace and quiet. A sound rang out from far over the heath, voices... in a mixture of languages.
“It’s this way!”
Fear etched itself onto the face of the British officer; he had realized what was afoot and what it meant for him. Those voices echoing outside had another meaning for them; they revealed the betrayal bearing down on them, for in the middle of all those words they did not even understand, they had recognized the voice of Yann T, that unhappily married man, who had never got over his bitterness and had finally found a way to wreak his revenge on the one who had the audacity to refuse him.
Jean got up without a word and slid back the front of the box bed. He hauled out the rudimentary mattress which covered the bottom of it and held it out to his wife. The words pronounced by the ancestor from the past rolled back down the ages: “One day this bed will be useful to you for something other than rest”. After some effort, he revealed a secret compartment that no-one would never have guessed was there. He leaned down to take out their meagre savings and signalled to the stranger to slide into the secret space.
Surprised and reluctant, he was unwilling to penetrate that mysterious hidey-hole which did not bode well, but the imminence of the danger outweighed the last of his scruples and he entered, not without apprehension, the gap ingeniously created by the cabinetmaker. Jean replaced the cover and readjusted the mattress. With that, he closed the box bed up again, thus making the dangerous presence vanish.
The German soldiers, guided by the local Judas, came into the cottage. They jostled the man and woman unceremoniously. Screaming and shouting, they ransacked the interior. It seemed that nothing would put an end to their destructive madness. They took no more care with the bed, whose front panel they ‘massacred’. The big piece of furniture creaked under the furious blows of rifle butts which rained down upon it. The mattress was dragged out and mercilessly disembowelled, releasing its damp, vegetable entrails. Then they turned away, evidently unable to discover any more.
They had not, however, assuaged their thirst for violence, so they turned their attention to the occupants and set about persecuting them. They dragged them outside. Anna, on her knees, was still refusing to answer those questions of which she understood nothing although she could guess their meaning. The shouting had no effect on her.
Then the officer aimed at the woman and fired. She crumpled. Jean had neither moved nor protested. But his heart was bleeding, it was a mortal blow.
The German was banking on his survival instinct but for that man who was used to death, in a land where it is more often a companion than an enemy, there was nothing left but to die, now that they had taken the woman he loved from him. Without waiting for questions or threats, he walked up to the soldier and leaned his forehead against the still warm barrel of the gun, defiantly challenging the man. The soldier understood that he had failed and not wanting to lose face in front of his subalterns he executed the man who was demanding deliverance.
In his shelter, the Englishman could hear only muffled sounds. Yet the first shot made him jump and he hit his nose on the lid. At the second shot, he realized what had happened. Tears ran down his cheeks. He thought about them, recalling all the quiet joyful moments they had shared, never imagining that the bullets had just sealed the lid of his coffin.
Translated by Wendy Cross