Blue, White and Red

Submitted into Contest #96 in response to: Write about someone welcoming a stranger into their home.... view prompt


Historical Fiction Drama

As he jumped out of the plane, seventeen-year-old Noah Walker wondered if down below, a German soldier had him in his gunsight. His bowels felt loose. He wondered if he would lose control. He had seen more horrors than anyone his age should! If he managed to fall asleep, he would wake up in cold sweat and calling his mom after yet another nightmare! Here he was, suspended from a parachute and hoping to God that he would not land among a cluster of enemy soldiers.

He had long stopped praying with the childlike faith that had sustained his childhood hopes in a peaceful world, but he knew that back in the heartland of his country, his sainted mother was praying for him. He could occasionally sense her prayers, picturing in his mind what time of day it was back home. The remembrance of his family gathered around the dinner table in their farmhouse in Defiance, Iowa sustained him. He could almost smell the freshly picked corn slathered with butter! The countryside of Normandy was dappled in the sunlight, fields and orchards bearing a promising harvest of apples. As the earth got closer and closer, he imagined he could smell cider and smiled through the fear. He loved French apple cider!

After he landed, he bundled up the still billowing waves of fabric from his parachute, shrugged out of the harness and hid the whole thing under nearby bracken. Where were his allies? Where were the enemies? He was felt more alone than he had before. The thought made him antsy. He moved cautiously, always looking over his shoulder, careful not to step on twigs even though he saw no sign of any other human soul nearby. He headed downhill towards a meandering line of trees down in the valley. There HAD to be a river coursing through the landscape between the two lines of trees! And he was desperate for water!

He was right! Water! He drank from his cupped hand first, then refilled his canteen, keeping alert to any noises. All he could hear was the dawn chorus of birds. He got to his feet, turned and just about jumped out of his skin! A scrawny little girl in a tattered dress and apron looked solemnly up at him. Her right clog was drawing silent patterns in the wet riverbank. How had she put her two buckets on the ground without him hearing anything? Yet, here she was, her bucket yoke still around her frail neck and shoulders, looking like a fledgling little crow who had just fallen out of the nest! She was a dark little thing, hair so black it reflected blue in the sun, eyes a brown so intense that you could not discern where the pupil edged into the iris.

He pointed at her buckets and made a scooping motion. She handed him both buckets and nodded. He carefully filled them and wondered how on earth this scrawny half-pint sized girl would carry those back to her farm. She looked half-starved, all bones and dark pockets under her eyes. He pointed at the yoke, then, at his neck. Her smile of relief was so radiant as she shrugged the yoke off her shoulders and handed it to him that he could not help a chuckle. She put her finger to her lips in the universal shushing sign. He nodded, attached the buckets to the yoke and shrugged it on. He must be daft, he thought, to trust that her parents would be as trusting as she was when a complete stranger who spoke very little French and bore an American uniform showed up at their farm.

As they passed the tree near which he had landed, he took the yoke off his shoulders. Using his pocketknife, after spreading his parachute out, he cut the lines, hid the harness and line back in the bracken, and folded the fabric into a bundle. If they did not shoot him on sight, he could use this as a peace offering to the girl’s parents. New fabric was hard to find in war times! While he was doing that, the girl watched him, unnaturally silent for one so young. He guessed wartimes had taught her to be quiet when needed, and the thought saddened him. His little sister Nellie was about the same age but never stopped her magpie chattering. He pointed at his chest and whispered, “Noah”. She pointed at herself and whispered, “Suzanne”. He shrugged the yoke back on, clutched the parachute fabric to his chest and set off again, Suzanne skipping on the path ahead of him. He smiled. War may have taken her noise away, but not that natural inclination to skip. How he missed his sister! How he missed Ma and Pa! He remembered his promise to his mom never to let a cigarette touch his lips even though they were part of his ration. He had used them as trade goods, swapping them for other items in his bunkmates’ rations, mostly Hershey chocolate bars… which reminded him… He quietly called out to Suzanne. She stopped skipping and turned, her head cocked sideway. She really reminded him of a baby crow! He dug through his uniform pocket and pulled out a Hershey bar. Her eyes got huge! She took the chocolate bar from him with the reverence of a child receiving the symbols of the Lord’s supper for the first time at their First Communion. She unwrapped the chocolate, careful not to make noise with the wrapper. To his surprise, she ate but one square, then carefully folded the wrapper shut and stuck the rest in her pocket.

There were men in the farmyard when they arrived, a big burly farmer with hair as dark as the little girl’s and a tow-headed farmhand who looked to be about fourteen yet strong as an ox. They looked wary as they watched him approach with Suzanne. The tension around their pitchfork hand made their knuckles blanch. Noah dropped the fabric, shrugged off his yoke and buckets then held up his hands in a sign of surrender. The older man said something in rapid-fire French to the younger farmhand who ran off into the farmhouse, then he approached Noah and asked, “Inglitch?” Noah smiled at his pronunciation of “English” and he replied “American”. The man’s eyes were big as saucers as he extended his hand for a shake, “Mon premier Americain!”, the man exclaimed. He grabbed both buckets and nodded in the direction of the farmhouse door. Noah followed.

Inside, a tow-headed woman was busy at the stove pulling a loaf of brown bread out of the oven. A meager stew of turnips and greens with no meat smell to it was bubbling on the stove. Two older girls were busy setting the table and their mom told them to set an extra bowl. He understood her words since she was not rushing through her words as her husband had. Noah took off his battered combat boots and left them by the door, earning a smile from the farmer’s wife. He handed her the parachute fabric and her eyes lit up as she fingered the cloth, wheels already turning in her head about how many shirts or dresses she might sew out of such an unexpected boon.

Suzanne chattered away with her sisters and pulled the chocolate bar out of her apron pocket. The same look of reverence crossed her sisters’ eyes as Suzanne divided the treat into squares for herself, her parents, and siblings. Both Mom and Dad held up their hands, refusing their portion, so Suzanne redistributed the squares. Noah noticed she had taken one less square than anyone else and felt full of wonder at her integrity. She knew she had already eaten a square and that it would not be fair to take more than her share. It made him fall in love with this urchin no older than his own sister and feel very protective of her. After dinner, the rumble of trucks was heard down the farm lane. The farmer peered through the already closed shutters and uttered a “Vite! Cachez-le! Et cachez ce parachute!” The girls hid the parachute in the linen closet. The teenage boy moved a carpet, which revealed a trapdoor to an underground cellar. After Noah scrambled down the ladder, he heard the sound of the trap door closing and the carpet slapping back down above it.

The harsh guttural sounds and the sound of boots above left no doubt about the nationality of the soldiers searching the house. Noah knew enough German to understand that a patrol had found the parachute harness and was searching for whoever had landed near that tree. He heard the sound of ceramic breaking, a woman’s whimper of fear or pain. He bit the inside of his cheek to keep himself from jumping up in the woman’s defense and revealing himself. He tasted blood. The German soldiers finally left. The house fell oddly silent. He heard the carpet flipping over and the trapdoor opened. When he emerged, it was to a chaotic scene: broken ceramic, tumbled chairs, moved furniture, the oldest daughter weeping silently and the mom clutching her arm where a huge ugly bruise was beginning to form. He made for the door, but the young farm hand stood in his way. In intentionally slow French, he explained that leaving now would be foolish since the Germans were looking for him. They had already searched the house and would not be back. He was safer in their house than anywhere else out there!

Noah sagged to a chair, the weariness of the day flooding his limbs. Suzanne came over to him and held up her arms. He helped her up to sit on his lap. The familiarity of the motion, the feel of utter trust from Suzanne, the homesickness for his own home and little sister all caught up with him and great big sobs erupted from him in such an irrepressible fashion that his shame at crying was swallowed up and forgotten. He was exhausted. The farmer and his son, each in turn, placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. “We understand!”, the gestured seemed to say. They left to do the evening milking of their one remaining cow. Noah understood their leaving was an additional compassion so he could cry without other men witnessing his total breakdown. He did not even know their names, but they lived by the same man code his dad and older brothers back in Iowa adhered to.

Suzanne patted his cheek, rubbed the stubble, and laughed, staring at the palm of her hand and saying, “Ca chatouille!” The eldest daughter motioned for him to follow. He was shown to a big featherbed in the biggest bedroom in the house. She said, “Dormez bien” On the bed was one of the big men’s nightgowns, probably her dad’s. As he peeled off the layers of his uniform, Noah felt bone weary. For the first time in ages, he would sleep in a comfortable bed! For the first time in ages, he felt utterly safe in the cocoon of this bedroom inside this warm farmhouse! Thinking of his mother back home, for the first time in ages, he knelt by the bed and uttered a prayer of gratitude for this family who had been willing to risk everything to shelter a stranger from the enemy, from the cold, but even more importantly, from fear itself. He fell asleep to the sound of scissors and the hum of a sewing machine treadle. The sound was one more reminder of his mother and little sister. As sleep took him, he had a big smile on his face!

When morning came, and the sound of the rooster rose him from a dreamless sleep, Noah stretched, got out of bed. He opened the bedroom door quietly, found, neatly folded on a chair near the door, some underwear, wool farm pants, and a shirt, sewn out of the familiar parachute fabric. He made his way to the door to go use the outhouse and was startled when he found lumpy blankets blocking his way. The blankets moved and two head poked out from under them. With tears in his eyes, Noah realized that the farmer and his wife had given up their own bed for him, and that they had slept in front of the door to guard the house. He was rendered speechless by gratitude mingled with guilt for not realizing the family did not have a guest room. By the time he had used the outhouse and washed up at the yard’s hand pump, he was feeling refreshed. Breakfast was as meager as the previous night’s stew had been watery, but it was shared with such smiles and generosity that if felt like a feast.

Noah stayed a couple of days in hiding at the farm. He did farm labor during the day, always acutely aware of any engine rumbling so he could bolt back to the cellar. He insisted on sleeping in the hayloft at night. He got to know their names, Monsieur et Madame Armand and Marie Fontenelle, and their kids Amélie, 18, Adeline, 16, Henri, 14 and his favorite, Suzanne, age 8. In a corner of the yard near a tiny chapel that allowed them to have their family members buried on consecrated ground, were three tiny graves for Jean and Raymond, two little stillborn babies and Rosalie, who would have been 6 now had she not died of measles.

Suzanne would gather Poppies, Queen Anne’s Lace and Bachelor Buttons in the fields and along the paths near the farm and would flower the graves. She pointed at those three tiny bouquets of wildflowers on the second day and said, “Bleu, Blanc, Rouge!” and smiled proudly! The colors of the French flag… As young as she was, you could tell this girl would never accept the German flag as her own, even if the Germans won the war! He ruffled her raven hair. She playfully batted his hand away. He pointed out his flag had the same colors.

Marie washed and patched Noah’s uniform. Armand, who had dabbled as a cobbler in his youth, resoled Noah’s boots and did some minor repairs. They begged Noah to stay with them. They could use his strength at apple harvest time! They would keep him hidden, they promised! But to Noah, this would feel like deserting. He also could not bear the thought of his mom receiving a telegram stating that he was MIA. By lantern light, he wrote a thank you note in which he explained he why he had to leave. He left it on the porch stone beneath a Hershey bar.

In his journal later, as he neared the end of his life, he recalled how arduous it had been rejoining with his battalion and how many times he had nearly gotten caught by the enemy. He recalled how many times he had questioned his own sanity in deciding to leave the haven of the Fontenelle farmhouse. He told of more battles and of friends lost. He told of his joy on landing back in the USA, and of his homecoming in Iowa.

He wrote of how, ten years after the war ended, he went back to France with his parents to visit the Fontenelle Farm. Armand had died and was buried by his children’s graves. Marie was still as active as and feisty as ever. Amelie and Adeline were married with children of their own. Henri had just gotten married as well and ran the farm and orchards with his mother. His wife Jeanne was expecting. Marie recognized the American soldier she had sheltered ten years earlier and welcomed him with resounding kisses on both cheeks. He introduced his parents. There was laughter and tears as they caught each other up on the happenings of ten years.

The door flew open. A raven-haired beauty flew in, armfuls of red, while and blue blossoms nearly falling out of her grasp. She plopped those down near the sink, not having noticed there was company until she turned around. Her nearly black eyes suddenly filling with tears, her cheeks a sudden blush of pink. As Noah pulled a Hershey bar out of his pocket and held it out to Suzanne, the tears turned to crystalline peals of laughter. He was home!

Most of the evening spent in gesturing past the language barrier and laughing. Marie insisted the guests were to sleep in the best rooms. Noah argued that the hayloft had saved his life and that he wanted his family to spend the night there. He won! That night was the first one in ten years without PTSD nightmares, and Noah announced in the morning that if the Fontenelles would have him, he would stay for apple harvest. As they worked together, the age gap between Noah and Suzanne seemed to evaporate.  They married two years later.

As I close Granpa Noah’s journal and box it for safekeeping, tears are flowing down my face. Grandma died a month ago. The light in Grandpa’s eyes dimmed. He died a fortnight later. As I box the gilded frame containing their black and white wedding photograph, I know without a shadow of a doubt that the flowers in her wedding bouquet are blue, white and red. I also know from family lore that the dress was sewn out of parachute fabric. This is my history! Without the risk the Fontenelles took, I would not be here!

After placing the box of my grandparents’ belonging in the hayloft for safekeeping, I climb down the ladder and wander the lane of my grandparents’ farm, my dog Defiance sauntering by my side. I gather Poppies, Queen Anne’s Lace and Bachelor Buttons and visit our family graveyard. The half-melted bar of chocolate I eat on the way home tastes like family gatherings of old.

June 01, 2021 21:46

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