Pierre St. Lacouis squinted at the page shivering before him in the night air, the gentle wind rustling the tree leaves that shimmered in the moonlight. Even in the dim light, his sharp eyes caught every single note of Camille Saint-Saens’ piece, a piece he knew by heart. It was another one of those songs that instantly touched his heart—instantly made his fingers yearn with the eagerness to produce the sweet notes on his own instrument.
The violin he held balanced under his chin waited, the bow held just so above the strings, and the audience waited with them both. Pierre’s fingers quavered, the corners of his mouth twitching into his bewitching grin. The eyes rested on him, the outside gathering in the villa situated on the edge of the city’s limits knowing what he was thinking in that moment of hesitation.
The notes of Camille Saint-Saens’ Le Cygne could get him killed.
The slightest hint of a frown puckered between the young man’s thick, dark brows as his brown eyes glanced up for the merest second.
The second that saved his life.
All of a sudden, blinding lights flashed into the dim garden, dazing Pierre as he stumbled up from his chair. The chair tumbled backwards into a clump of bushes, the young Frenchman’s foot catching on the unevenness in the cobblestones. It all flashed before him in a second…the rapid nearness of the rock, the impulse to throw his hands out before him, and the crash and splinter of wood right before a deafening siren.
“Halt!” A well-built man stepped forward, his large black jack-boots ringing on the cobblestones and his hands reaching for the pistol at the holster in his belt. The crisp gray uniform fit his muscular figure well, the visor cap casting his sharp-angled face in shadow. He took another step forward, half a smile lifting his hard-pressed lips as he absently kicked at the young man desperately scrambling on hands and knees to gather the broken splinters of wood littering the ground.
“Mull,” he laughed, shaking his head. “What garbage, Junge."
Dazedly, the French boy still didn’t seem to be registering anything, something that angered the SS Hauptsturmfuhrer as he stood there with the hard lines deepening in his face. The dark hair flopped into the boy’s pale face, his trembling fingers snatching at any wood he laid his rapidly-blinking eyes on. Finally, he collapsed into a corner of the garden with his arms filled and his eyes full as he stared down in disbelief.
“Doesn’t compare to Straussen’s,” remarked the Hauptsturmfuhrer with a shrug, kneeling down on the pavement. Now at eye level, the SS officer smiled again. “So, do I have the pleasure of finally meeting Pierre St. Lacouis?"
Pierre blinked at the German Nazi officer, his eyes becoming vacant and distant as he sat with his back pressed up against the rough wall of the villa house. He reached a shaking hand up into his masses of dark hair, his fingers forking through as his teeth increased their pressure on his lower lip.
“Junge!” shouted the Hauptsturmfuhrer as a sudden stinging and burning descended on the French boy’s face. “Are you stupid? Is your name Pierre St. Lacouis?”
His mouth was slowly filling with blood, the sharp, bitter taste making him almost shiver. Without a thought, Pierre reached out a hand for the sheet music resting on the ground just a few feet away. The SS officer flashed out his pistol, smacking the hard, cold end of the firearm on the boy’s hand with a nauseating crack.
“Are you listening to me? I am your superior; I am from the Fuhrer himself and therefore worthy of your respect!” shouted the Nazi. “Now answer me—are you the violinist Pierre St. Lacouis?"
With tears blurring his eyes that he desperately fought back, Pierre gripped his hand with the other one against the excruciating pain shooting up his hand and into his arm. Wordlessly, he shook his head in disbelief, the shadowy figures of the audience members fading away into the darkness of the night.
“Don’t worry,” came a sudden voice as another, taller Nazi SS officer strode up with his hands clasped behind his back. A grin gradually spread across his face, eyes glinting strangely in the artificial light. “We have ways to make him talk."
“Take me back to your first memories of the university.”
“It wasn’t a university,” Pierre answered, shaking his dark head as he kept his eyes fixed on the ground.
“Well, to the academy then. Surely, it must have been an academy.”
“No, not an academy either.” It was hard to keep the bitterness from seeping into his tone, no matter how much he tried. Pierre frowned down at the floor, knowing very well that disrespect could put him in a lot more trouble than he was facing already. He had heard stories, but had either dismissed them as improbable or even greatly exaggerated.
“Pierre, we both know you must have learned your skill from somewhere.” The interrogator’s wheedling tone annoyed Pierre, and he would have listened to the steady drip of water over the overly-amicable tone of the young German soldier’s voice.
He was only a child too, Pierre had realized in shock when he had first laid eyes on the young man who was supposedly the interrogator. With a face so smooth it could have belonged to a baby, and innocent eyes the color of the sky after a summer rain in the rural Touloise countryside, the German soldier must have been no more than sixteen years old.
“I suppose so,” shrugged Pierre absently, toying with a nail that jutted out of the wood in the table between them. “Someone has to learn their trade from somebody.”
“Don’t get smart with me,” sighed the young German, who Pierre had decided looked very much like a Hans. “I’m here to have a conversation with you and not an interrogation. I leave that to my superiors.” “Then why don’t we talk about the weather or mathematics?” suggested Pierre. “If we are going to be so friendly as to have a conversation, I think it would be best if it was something neutral.” ‘Hans’, obviously ignoring the Frenchman’s comment, raised his white-blond eyebrows and glanced over at the clock on the wall.
“What was his name?
“It doesn’t matter."
“Just a last name, and then we will allow you to leave." “No.” “Pierre, just one name, and then this will all be over."
Back and forth it went for hours on end, until finally, Hans stepped back from the table in frustration and agitatedly began to pace back and forth across the room. There was silence for once in the small habitation, and Pierre stared calmly back across the table at the German soldier seeming to hold an argument with himself. Every second, the boy’s face would go from confused to bewildered to frustrated to angered and then to helpless, and then reversed. Had it not been for the circumstances, Pierre would have seen it as almost amusing, but the sight of his crushed violin in the corner brought his mind back round to the reality of it all.
And then, Hans was gone. It was days before Pierre was allowed out of the small cell that they had taken him to, and finally, he was allowed out—something that he had never expected in all the time of solitary confinement he had spent in the administration building. They were Nazis, and he had heard what they were capable of. Nothing seemed right. They were too friendly—too patient with him.
Little did he know, though, that they knew how to crack a man until he was so desperate that he would be willing to die if it would end the torture they had the power to inflict.
They had sent a truck to send him home. After being ushered outside into the dazzling sunshine, Pierre had found himself being shuttled along with a small crowd into the back of a cattle truck. It must have been at least three weeks on the road in the stifling summer heat, the unimaginable stench and filth of the car nauseating him and sending him into spasms of dizziness and dazes that rendered him as good as unconscious.
And then, when he had thought he couldn’t bear another hour of it, they had arrived.
Arrived where, was the first question on his mind as he had been trampled over in the other people’s efforts to escape the cattle truck. Blinking in the haze of dust hanging in the air from the sudden struggled marching of what must have been hundreds of people, Pierre fought to his feet though his knees dipped and buckled beneath his body.
For the rest of his short time on earth, Pierre would never be able to get the image of those people out of his mind. All else was shoved to the edges of his consciousness as his dark eyes, once trained to recognize, read, and interpret music notes, were filled with so many dark things that were unimaginable to sane human minds.
Bodies as thin as rails straggled on through the entrance to the camp, them seeming to belong to some sort of labor unit returning from a day’s work. Emaciated, broken, bruised, and bleeding limbs dangled from the living skeletons “marching” with eyes staring emptily ahead of them. No, there was nothing there but one desire, the desire to keep ahead of the others and not fall behind to the back where the weakest were trying their hardest to keep from dropping down into the dirt out of sheer exhaustion.
The collective rasping of ragged lungs filled his ears, as well as the sharp voices of the Nazi troops striding along at each side of the group as they entered the camp.
“Step to the right, step to the left, attempt to escape,” was the barked reminder in the prisoners’ ears as the soldiers flourished their StG 45s. And, as Pierre was soon to discover, something he would learn to never forget as well.
“From when I was seven years old, I knew I wanted to be a musician.”
Lieutenant Richler nodded, dutifully jotting the note down on his pad of paper, eyes then instantly darting back up to Pierre’s thin and pinched face. Anxiety lines dug deep into the young man’s face, lines etched there by the months he had resided in the camp. He had seen much in those months, things that no human should have ever seen or been forced to endure. After a nervous breakdown in the meeting grounds in the center of the Konzentrationslager, the twenty-one-year-old had been relocated to the medical building where others were also being treated for more serious things. “Yes?” “My parents—they thought I would never be able to make a living, but the professor told them that a musician would always have a place in the world so long as the people continued to love and want music. Which would be always,” Pierre faltered, the word ‘always’ quivering unsteadily while pain filled his large eyes now seeming enormous and unearthly in his haggard, pale face.
“So you became a violinist,” concluded the lieutenant with another nod.
“Yes,” answered the young Frenchman. “I told them I didn’t care, which caused a break in the family from that moment forward. They had wanted me in the service, but I can’t stand the sight of blood. They wanted me to follow in my father and grandfather’s footsteps. But I knew what I wanted, and the professor was going to give that to me.”
“They didn’t want you in politics?” questioned Lieutenant Richler with sudden interest.
There was a hesitation for a moment as Pierre seemed to be delving back into unwanted memories with unmistakable reluctance. His hands were clasped in his lap, the bones appearing clear through the transparent skin. “I never allowed them to talk about politics with me."
“Any particular reason? Dissension...disagreement?"
“I wasn’t a politician,” Pierre said simply. “I was a musician."
“Where did you work?” queried the lieutenant, narrowing his eyes as he leaned forward and rested his elbows on the tabletop. “A musical society disbanded at the beginning of the war,” the young man stammered as emotion began to catch up with him, and he buried his face in his hands. “No work meant no money and then no food for me or the professor. I don’t know what else we were expected to do…but we found jobs here and there playing for those who still appreciated good music and could afford it.” “What happened to the professor?"
Silence fell heavily over small room. Wordlessly, Pierre stared back at Lieutenant Richler who was sitting, expectant, right across from him, the pistol well-visible on the table beside the pad of paper. How could he put into words and sentences what had happened to the professor when he didn’t even understand it himself? A master French violinist in the gradual decline of his career, passing the baton on to him who had been told he had so much potential.
“You can play anything,” the professor had once chuckled in his light, pleasant laugh. “Pierre, I have never met someone who remembers each and every strain of a song after hearing it only one time through. My son, one day, this will serve you well.”
What had the professor done to deserve that night in the street?
The aging man had stopped at a small restaurant that the common people frequented. He had been called for out the open door of Gershan’s and consequently heeded his good friend’s voice. Unsuspecting, unaware, the old professor had stepped into the restaurant to find himself surrounded by SS Sturmentruppers with their StG 45s trained on the violinist.
And then, from where he stood, utterly terrified and paralyzed in the street, Pierre had watched his professor and old friend, be gunned down by the soldiers after he had refused to tell them something they wished to know.
But what had it been?
He had always hated playing Ernst. Some of the pieces the man had wrote were well impossible.
In the dimness of the dying twilight, Pierre stood with the striped uniform whipping about his emaciated figure as he held the instrument tightly in his left hand. The wood was cold to the palm of his hand, the bow in his right hand slightly moving about with the whim of the wind. His shaved head stood out strangely against the dark wood as he finally lifted the violin to his chin and closed his eyes.
We found you a job, Lieutenant Richler had smiled serenely after the interview in the interrogation room.
They didn’t want to hear music, Pierre thought to himself as he opened his dark eyes and stared out at the mass of animals gathered with their eyes staring as windows into their very souls. There was nothing there but hunger and weariness, always the near-death expression lurking beneath the façade of those feelings. What one of these degraded people desired to hear music when their stomachs were bloated with hunger and their bones ached beneath their torn and frostbitten skin? It was ridiculous…a mocking of what these people had once been.
His heart beat like the rapid bullets that left the Sturmentruppers’ machine guns, pounding in his chest and against his ribs. The officers stood to each side of him, and one stepped forward, speaking something in thick German that Pierre could not understand. But with his poor German skills, he did understand that it was either play or face a worse fate than he had seen already at the Konzentrationslager.
“You will play ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ by Ernst,” the officer turned and told him.
He didn’t remember how it went. All that would come to his head was the simple tune accompanying Irishman Thomas Moore’s poem.
Once again, Pierre closed his eyes and held the bow trembling over the strings. His fingers itched for the feel of the strings beneath them, and his ears strained for the notes that would break the still, freezing air.
The shadow of the first smile that had come over the young Frenchman’s face in months began to dawn. The bow glided across a single string, a few heavenly notes quivering in the air.
In that moment, Pierre St. Lacouis decided that there was nothing more beautiful than a swan.