I don't know who started this absurd Christmas ritual, but it's become as essential to family get-togethers as pecan pie or honey-baked ham. As soon as the food is served and we're all seated around ... [+]
As the train made its way into the countryside, the destroyed skin of the city stripped away to reveal honey colored wheat swaying in spring winds, and tall grass fields scattered with blooming wildflowers. Both peacefully unaware of the terror surrounding them.
Dusk set in as I walked towards the towering cobblestone church, worn through years of carrying the prayers and sorrows of debtors on its spine. The door creaked open and a man with paper skin rushed through the night to greet me, speaking an intricate blend of French and Dutch. He ushered me inside the church, as I managed to understand that I would be living in the dormitories with other boys who had been sent until the war was over. Nazis could not reach me here, so I would eat and learn and sleep until white flags waved their surrender.
The first nights proved to be the hardest. I missed simple things: the coarse wool of mama’s sweater brushing against my cheek in a tight embrace, and the way her words sung me to sleep each night. Mon amour, ma lumière, mon garçon. The nuns placed me next to a boy with terrible nightmares and I found myself waking up feeling as though I had never shut my eyes. The boy writhed in his sleep, soaked in his own sweat and urine, pleading for the bombs flashing under closed eyelids to cease. His name was Loic, and I pitied him. He had no family, he told me when the other boys were sleeping. They died when the first bombs dropped on Paris, leaving Loic with a distant aunt who took him to the church when she could no longer care for him.
Loic and I grew close through these conversations. We’d wait until the last candle ceased to burn and the rustling of bedsheets calmed, then sneak from our beds to the gaping clock tower hidden by the shadow of a pale moon and old curtains draped across its ascending staircase. We’d sit together with our boney knees tucked beneath our elbows and share stories till dew set across the wildflowers. Those nights were our escape from the terror our Earth had become. The bombs couldn’t reach us in that clock tower, the home we made in the stars and we cherished those few hours of complete silence under the moon. Loic’s thin fingers would weave through mine, and we’d think nothing of our burning cities, destroyed families, or the nightmares that invaded our sleep. Only of each other, and how much beauty our lives would hold if the world would just stop for a second and fill it’s gasping lungs with air.
Grim weeks passed slowly in the church as the beast of war only grew angrier. The nuns did their best to shield us from the outside, but between lessons we’d catch rushed frantic whispers and deep-set worried looks, the way they’d stare beyond the countryside as though a band of Nazis would come running up through the fields and set fire to the old church at a moment’s notice. The sky knew also, and rain poured from clouds in a bleak effort to wash away the sin and pain of millions, to extinguish the fire before it even began. Heavy raindrops flooded the countryside and slipped through the thin cracks of the ceiling.
Drip, drip, drip.
A grenade only seconds from explosion
Drip, drip, drip.
Counting days before terror would infest the walls of our safe haven.
The constant sound pulsed through our veins and taunted our sleep until the first night it became our reality. The nun in charge of our schooling lessons burst open the door of the dormitory and rushed to a young Polish boy sleeping restlessly in the corner. She grasped his arm and wretched him outside, and before a single breath could be exhaled, the church erupted into unimaginable chaos. Thick military boots thundered up the stairs to where we lay, and I called out to Loic in complete darkness. Booming German voices sent my entire body into still shock, as they turned over our beds, ransacked our trunks, and beat boys as young as six with wooden sticks. I felt a heavy hand clutch my shoulder and lead me away from the violence and towards the clock tower, and struggled to let out more than a weak whimper.
“Tu es en sécurité avec moi, ma fleur.” You are safe with me, my flower.
Loic wrapped his familiar arms around my shoulder blades, softly covering my mouth with his hand and curling his body around mine. We sat there together praying the Nazis would leave as soon as they had come, and that on this night our lives would be spared. Silent tears rolled slowly down our faces as the sound of own blood pumping in our ears did it’s best to drown the screams from our dormitory below. Minutes trailed slower than lifetimes, but German yelling and the sound of steel boots began to diminish. We had nothing left for them to take. Loic and I lay in a crumpled heap behind an old boudoir, too afraid to risk a creaak escaping from the floorboards.
“Komm heraus, kleine Mäuse!” the Nazi spat.
He had seen us escape during the chaos, and taunted us now: cat and mouse, bloodhound and bird. We were his prey and he wasn’t going to stop until his hunger had been satisfied. I felt Loic’s fingers squeeze tighter around mine as the shadow of the dark figure loomed above our crouched bodies. The heat drained from my veins as wicked lips unfurled to reveal sharp teeth glinting in the moonlight. The soldier began to yell in German, demanding us to stand up and reaching for our nightshirts. The bones in my body turned to stone, and I sat rigid while Loic, shaking, did his best to stand before the Nazi.
Loic threw himself in front of me, pushing the barrel away from my head as the gun fired directly into his ribcage. His lifeless body crumpled to ground and the Nazi, satisfied with his actions, seemed to forget about my presence and turned away on his heel towards the soldiers below us. I laid beside Loic’s body for hours, my tears a steady stream pooling with the blood from his bullet wound and staining the wooden floor, waiting with the hope that breath might slip through his lips.
I don’t know why I was spared that day, and sometimes I still wish it had been me that met the cold embrace of death. When I met Loic he was nothing more than a skeleton: empty, hopeless, accepting of his fate. Together we had grown in the old church, found beauty in the wildflowers and the moon dripping in silver, and managed to forget pain and sorrow and replace it with love. Loic taught me courage in the strongest sense. He made a choice in the old wooden clock tower to live, or to protect something he felt was more important than anything he could’ve continued with on Earth. Not many of us lived through that night, but those of us that did never lived the same again. I continued with my walks in the field outside the old church, feeling the sun against my face and Loic’s soothing whisper in the breeze. I carried his courage and love like a badge of honor, knowing peace would lay its head amongst the wildflowers soon.