The Parisienne on Rue de Varenne

Submitted into Contest #80 in response to: Write about a child witnessing a major historical event.... view prompt


Fiction Historical Fiction

June 14th, 1940, Paris, France

Marie-Thérèse Bouc blew a blonde curl out of her face as she tried to capture the likeness of her cat, Toulouse, on her canvas. She started to paint Toulouse’s face, which is the hardest part, due to his large ears. 

Suddenly, the cat, who had been sitting on a pillow nearby with his paws tucked under his belly,  jumped up and ran out of the room. 

Marie-Thérèse let out a long, annoyed groan. She had been working on the painting for days, and she wanted to have it ready as a present for her maman's birthday the next day. 

 The cream-colored box and length of pale green ribbon that Papa had picked up for her at the papeterie that morning seemed to mock Marie-Thérèse from the place on her bed.

After the young Parisienne brooded at her easel for a few moments, she sighed and set the painting out on her balcony to dry for a little while. Then, she changed out of her old beige cotton overalls and slipped on a white sundress. 

Her maman walked in then to tell her that it was time for lunch with their neighbors, the Bernsteins. 

Marie-Thérèse’s cheeks went pink at the mention of them. She had a crush on the son, a boy named Matthieu. He was two years her senior, but the Bouc girl still dreamed of him.

Just as Madame Bouc was walking out of her daughter’s bedroom, there was a commotion outside. The two Boucs shared a confused glance before rushing out to the balcony. 

There were dozens of Parisians gathered on the street, listening to a loudspeaker that was mounted at the top of a telephone pole. The voice on the loudspeaker was a bit muffled, so Madame Bouc and Marie-Thérèse couldn’t decipher what it was saying. 

Fortunately, but also unfortunately, some of the Parisians on the street could understand. They started yelling, “Curfew! The Nazis have issued a curfew! They’re invading!” 

Marie-Thérèse’s lip quivered, and she turned to her maman for reassurance, but she had none. Madame Bouc had a grave look on her face, and all she could get out was, “Pack. Pack, my darling. We are going on a vacances!” 

She took one last look at the street before rushing out of the room, breathlessly yelling at her daughter to shove things into a suitcase. 

Marie-Thérèse was a bright child, but she was still quite young, not more than nine years old, so she could not understand why they had to leave their beloved Paris. Still, she knew that she should obey her maman, so she gathered a few outfits, books, the oil pastels that her papa had gotten her at Magasin sennelier, and her leather-bound sketchbook to put in her suitcase. At the last second, she threw in the unfinished portrait of Toulouse, still wet despite the best efforts Paris sun.

Ten minutes later, Marie-Thérèse shuffled into the kitchen with Toulouse following her. Her maman was still running around the apartment, packing her suitcase and Monsieur Bouc’s to the brim. She kept on muttering curse words, which Marie-Thérèse pretended not to hear.

When Madame Bouc passed her daughter again, the little girl grabbed her by the shoulders and sat her down at the table. “Maman,” she said softly. “Where are we going? I know it’s not a vacances.”

Madame Bouc stared at her daughter for a moment. She couldn’t believe how much her little girl had grown up. 

“Come here, mon enfant.”  She pulled Marie-Thérèse close to her and smoothed her curls. “We have to leave, darling. Papa has been involved in helping the Allies, so we are both afraid that we may all be put in danger now that those Nazis have come to our dear Paris. Your papa and I have decided that you and I should go to Aunt Hélene’s house in Switzerland. We will be safe there. And once the war is over, we will come right back here!” 

She tried to muster up some enthusiasm and hope for her daughter, but tears still formed in her eyes. Marie-Thérèse smoothed her maman’s hair, which made the latter laugh. 

“Can we still have lunch with the Bernsteins before we go, Maman? Matthieu promised me that he would show me the book on astrology that he borrowed from la bibliothèque!” 

Marie-Thérèse looked at her maman hopefully, but Madame Bouc shook her head sadly. “No. Je suis désolé, mon cher.” 

The little Parisian girl didn’t know it at the time, but her maman wasn’t just saying no because they had to leave; it was mainly on account of the fact that the Bernsteins were Jewish. 

A half an hour later, as Madame Bouc was making sure that she and her daughter had everything they would need for their journey, Marie-Thérèse wandered out to her balcony. 

The streets were deserted, nothing like they had been just forty-five minutes before. Anyone who valued their lives had the good sense to stay inside and away from the hateful gaze of the Nazis.

The one person that wasn’t in their house, though, was Matthieu Bernstein. 

Marie-Thérèse spotted her neighbor across the street, walking with his hands in his pockets. She first noticed that he seemed like he was trying to stay hidden, then she saw the patch on his shirt. It had the same symbol on it that she had seen flying above the Arc de Triomphe that morning. 

Just as Marie-Thérèse started to open her mouth to say hello, she heard an angry, yet hushed yell from next door. To her surprise, it was Monsieur Bernstein, telling his son to come home. Matthieu looked from his papa to Marie-Thérèse, shrugged, and crossed the street to get to their side of Rue de Varenne. 

Madame Bouc called for her daughter to come inside and get her shoes on. “Vite, vite,” she said. “We mustn’t waste time. We need to make the two o’clock train to Geneva.”

Marie-Thérèse closed her eyes for a moment, breathing in the sweet June French air and wondering when the next time she would do so again. 

Toulouse scurried out to the balcony and twined himself around his owner’s leg. Marie-Thérèse laughed, picked her feline friend up, and brought him inside. She had a sinking realization: what would happen to Toulouse when they left?

She ran to her maman and asked her this. Madame Bouc pursed her thin lips. “I’m afraid Toulouse cannot come with us, mon cher. I will have la conciergerie bring him food and water until we get back or your papa is home.”

This answer semi-satisfied Marie-Thérèse, so she set Toulouse down on his bed and slipped her feet into white Mary-Janes. 

The two Bouc ladies finished packing some bread, cheese, and apples into a bag for the train before locking the apartment door and walking down to the lobby. 

Marie-Thérèse tried to memorize the lobby of their dear building on Rue de Varenne. She took a mental photograph of the gilded mirror on the wall behind the olivewood front desk, the bouquet of Giverny roses in a ceramic vase, the painting of Rue de Varenne, and last but certainly not least, the apartment “mascot”, a little poodle named Jean-George. Marie-Thérèse made sure to give him one last pat on the head before following her maman outside.

A black 1936 Buick Roadmaster was waiting next to the curb. It wasn’t unusual to see luxury cars on the streets of their fairly wealthy neighborhood, so Marie-Thérèse and her maman kept walking.

A blond-haired, handsome young man in a khaki uniform stepped out of the car and tipped his hat at the ladies. “Bonjour, madame, mademoiselle. Are you the Boucs?”

Madame Bouc froze for a moment, then nodded on behalf of herself and her daughter. 

“Yes, we are the Boucs, but we did not order a car. Are you sure that you are at the right apartment building?” She tried to keep her tone as light as possible. 

The man grinned devilishly. “Why yes, madame. I was sent here by my commanding officer, Lieutenant Karl Krüger. We received word that your husband is a traitor. He has committed treason against the French and German government by helping the United Kingdom.

“I have been ordered to take you and your daughter to le poste de police, where you will be questioned thoroughly, and possibly detained. Now please follow me.”

The man opened the door to the car with his white-gloved hand. Marie-Thérèse looked at her maman and asked with her eyes if she should follow the man’s instructions. Madame Bouc hesitated, then gave a quick nod.

The seats of the car were made with buttery, soft hand-sewn leather, but the Boucs couldn’t enjoy them because of how nervous they were. 

Marie-Thérèse stared at her hands the whole drive, willing them with her mind to stop shaking. But they didn’t. Next to her, her maman simply tried to slow her breathing and bring a sense of reassurance to her young daughter. But she couldn’t.

The ten minute drive to the police station felt like an eternity for Marie-Thérèse and her maman. As reluctant as they were to be questioned by the Germans, they were even more reluctant to stay in the Buick. 

As they walked into the station with officers on each side of them, Marie-Thérèse gripped her maman’s hand, wishing for the nightmare that was that time in their lives to be over...

February 13, 2021 03:41

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