Marie groped her way along the tunnel walls longing for just a sliver of light to help her find her way to the exit. A labyrinth of passageways criss-crossed the old town of Lyon, France providing silk workers with a way to transport their bolts of fabric without getting them wet. The silk trade had long ago flamed out, but the locals continued to use the passageways to get from one part of town to another.
It was in one of these tunnels that Marie found herself now. She understood the necessity for lights out and curfews, but most of the passageways led to indoor courtyards and could not be seen from the street. Would it hurt to have a single bulb to light the way?
Curfew was looming and she needed to be home before then, otherwise she risked being picked up by the occupying forces who patrolled the streets, looking for any infraction to whisk someone away. Classmates had been apprehended for even more trivial reasons than breaking curfew and few were heard from again.
Marie let out an enormous sigh and then froze in place, aware that she might not be alone in the passageway and that the longer she could remain undetected, the safer she would be. Moving her hands along the stone wall she inched her way towards the opening. Before propping the door open, she listened intently. Voices. German voices? French? Behind the huge oak door, it was hard to say. She decided to wait it out.
Laughter. It must be the guard. No French person had any reason to laugh these days. Between the food rations and neighbors being hauled off in the middle of the night, the strain of everyday life during the occupation had taken its toll.
She wished she knew what time it was. It must be bumping up against curfew now, but she could not take the risk of getting caught. If she were stopped, she would be questioned about where she was going and what she had been doing and if there was one thing everyone agreed on, Marie was a terrible liar. She knew that. And the Gestapo would know that if she were stopped. Marie was inclined to talk and talk when she should just keep quiet.
She waited. When the voices died down, and Marie could no longer smell the cigarette smoke, she waited another ten minutes. Or was it five? Or an hour? Time was hard to measure when you were waiting. Waiting for something to happen. Hoping that nothing would.
She glanced both ways to make sure the coast was clear, before slipping out. Walking briskly-she didn’t dare run-because motion might garner attention. She sped down the cobbled streets, heading to her grandmother’s house, relieved when she finally made it.
Marie pecked her grandmother on the cheek and then slid into the wooden chair at the table where her place was set. Her grandmother served the soup and they slurped in silence.
“Delicious Grand-mère!” Marie said breaking the silence.
“There wasn’t much at the market today,” the old woman replied bitterly. “Maybe you could come with me to the butcher’s tomorrow. A pretty young face might yield us a bone.”
“If the butcher doesn’t have a bone for you, he won’t for me either.”
“Not necessarily. Madame Dupré from our knitting circle said the old coot is eager for a little attention, so he might respond to you.”
“Oh don’t be such a prude. I tried telling him some of the rumors I’d heard about the Allies, but he feigned disinterest. Maybe he’d be more interested in what you have to say.”
“Grandmère, you need to be careful. You can’t casually gossip anymore to the neighbors and the butcher. We are at war and you don’t know who may be listening. Who might use your words against you. Against us!”
“Child,” her grandmother replied, tapping her wrinkled hand on top of Marie’s twice before withdrawing it. “Don’t you worry about me. I know exactly what I am doing.” Marie found no comfort in her words. She knew the walls had ears and a longtime friend would sell you short for a few extra ration tickets. Everything had become more sinister. She worried her grandmother’s loose tongue might draw unwanted attention.
The next day Marie’s grandmother set off for the café to meet up with the ladies from her knitting circle. While fabric was hard to come by, yarn was still available for those who could afford it. Marie’s grandmother couldn’t, so she simply unraveled her old sweaters and re-knit them in different styles.
There was a certain sense of companionship the old women got from meeting up. It gave them something to do, now that the men were off to fight and the household chores had been reduced. There was little food to speak of, so cooking was off the table too. The café owner, was happy for the company, and let them sit around knitting and chatting until it was time to go.
Why it was still called a café was anyone’s guess. Coffee was strictly rationed, so the little there was got blended with chicory to make a bitter concoction resembling coffee only by its color and temperature. It was coffee in name only. The café, the place, still lived up to its reputation as a gathering place for people from town to come together.
Apart from the knitting and companionship, the ladies gossiped. With most of the men being off at the front, and the schools nearly shuttered, imaginations ran rampant with speculation. The most covert subjects were the most appealing. Troop movements, who had been seen cavorting with a young German soldier, and where supplies from the black market could be found, all made their way into the conversation, albeit discretely.
A total absence of chatter descended whenever a German soldier stepped into the café. When that happened, the ladies bent their heads down and imitated a profound fascination in their knitting, sipping from demi-tasse cups that had been drained long ago. Rapid eye-movements between the knitters and then over to the intruder and back again, could have been an Olympic sport. Not a word was spoken.
Marie, for her part, begged off during the day telling her grandmother that she was meeting up with friends or studying for exams, in case classes ever resumed. Although her grandmother suspected this was not the case, she knew that her granddaughter was a good girl and would not get into any trouble unnecessarily.
Marie had longed to play an active part in liberating her country. She loved her country and it tore her apart to see how they lived now, in a state of terror and uncertainty. She could not enlist because she was only 16 and it was mostly menwho joined up. Unless you had skills. Nurses. Secretaries. Drivers. Those women were welcome. Marie was not, so she sought some way to make an impact. Finally, she found what she was looking for.
Lyon resided in the free-zone and it is here that numerous resistance groups took hold. Nearly in the middle of France, and not far from the occupied territory, Lyon had a strategic role to play and Marie ached to be part of it. When her classmate recruited her for a youth resistance cell, Marie jumped at the chance. Most of the work her group did was boring..stuffing fliers in mailboxes, rolling bandages, and occasionally lookout. Marie did not mind the long hours of tedium, but seldom did she see the fruits of her labor. That was about to change.
When Marie showed up at her youth resisters meeting today, the head of their cell was lamenting into the wall phone, yanking on its cord in frustration. “Oh Mon Dieu! Good God. How many?” he asked, aware the group was now filing into the room. Putting the receiver back on its cradle, he composed himself.
“Several groups were infiltrated and the participants have been hauled off. I need to stress once again the secrecy of your mission. You may not feel like what you are doing is important, but every person in the organization has a vital role to play. I will be looking for some of you to take on more prominent roles. And by that, I mean dangerous. If anyone…”
Marie’s hand shot up. “Moi. I would like to be part of this.”
“Me too,” said Jacques.
“Very well. You two come with me.”
“Our cells are collapsing. I need you to be couriers. This means delivering messages or information or supplies between different resistance group cells. We will start with messages. These are the easiest because if you're caught, you will not understand the information and your captors won’t either.”
Marie and Jacques both nodded their understanding.
“The messages will be passed using the tunnels, which both of you know intimately. It has been the strongest part of the resistance. While the Germans may know of their existence, the labyrinth is impossible to figure out if you're not a local. This is the home team advantage. There is no denying that these tunnels are invaluable to the resistance.”
“So how will this work?” asked Jacques.
“You and Marie will work alone. You will each be sent to a place where you will pick up a message. In that message, you will be directed to the next place. When you get there, another clue will lead you to the next place until the message has been delivered.”
“Like a treasure hunt!”
“This will be nothing like a treasure hunt, Marie! Lives are in danger. All these precautions are for security. Yours. And ours.”
The first assignment went off without a hitch. Marie went home with her adrenaline levels soaring. It had been dangerous, but rewarding. Her new mission was something that made her feel like she was finally doing something. She yearned to share the news with her grandmother, but knew that she would be putting her in danger, so she said nothing.
The next night, Marie arrived home late, but dinner was not on the table. Her grandmother was hunched over her desk writing something with a magnifying glass.
“What are you doing Grand-mere.”
“Oh I’m writing a letter to a dear friend.”
“With a magnifying glass?”
“My eyesight has grown so poor. I’m afraid I need it whenever I write anything.”
Marie said nothing and went into the kitchen to serve herself a bowl of watery soup.
The next day, her training filled in some of the missing pieces. If at any time you are in danger, you will be put in contact with our forgery team. They will give you a new identity and you will immediately be whisked away by one of the members of our covert operations who will take you to a safe house. You will not be safe until you get there. So, follow instructions and move quickly. You will have a target on your back. Your safety means the safety of all the others in the network. Ask no questions, just go.”
Marie imagined that the trainer was being overly dramatic, so as to emphasize his point, but you could never be certain. Weeks went by and Marie and Jacques continued to deliver messages and occasionally supplies, going from one stop to the next picking up clues and moving to the next check point. Sometimes they worked together, posing as a couple, but mostly they worked alone.
It was a Thursday in February 1944 when a man approached Marie in the tunnel. “You’ve been compromised. Head to this location. Ask for the granny gossipers. They will set you up.”
When Marie arrived at the address, she recognized the café to be the one where her grandmother met with her knitting circle. She hurried inside and met with the furrowed brows of knitters, but her grandmother was not there.
Pulling one of her grandmother's friends aside, she asked in disbelief, "Is this a cell? The knitters group?"
"They call us the Gossiping Grannies. We're the perfect decoy."
"Does Grand-mère know about what you do?"
"Marie, there is no time to talk now. There is a forger in the back who will provide you what you need to make safe passage. Papers, aliases, and more. A courier will take you to the safe house. You must leave now though."
Reluctantly Marie slipped into the backroom where the forger was putting the finishing touches on her papers. When the forger swiveled the chair around and rose to give Marie her papers, Marie's jaw dropped. Her grandmother extended the papers to Marie and embraced her tightly as the courier ushered her out the door.
"Grand-mère, you're the forger for the cell?" Marie asked in disbelief.
"My lips are sealed, child," she replied.