M
MEGHAN Holloway
H
BLOG
Author, Librarian, Researcher
   
6 April 1940
Dear Nhad,
I arrived in Paris today. There is a disquiet and edge here.
It is as if the city is holding its breath. Waiting.
-Owain




i

27 August 1944
    I hated Paris as much as I did any city, with its buildings like encaging bars and the congestion of people making it feel as if the air were rationed. And never more so did I hate the city than when it was filled with gutted shops, sandbag barricades, and coils of barbed wire.
    The sun had not yet risen above the chimneys when I reached Rue de Vaugirard.
    Be wary near Palais du Luxembourg, the old man had warned, and the Panthéon. The fighting, it is heavy there with la Résistance.
    I shook off the fog of memories and swept my gaze from the streets to the rooftops as I skirted the palace. The streets were eerily quiet, and I knew the expansive gardens, though I could see little of them, were empty of the Luftwaffe. I followed the curve of the grounds, gaze continually moving.
    The heightened vigilance threatened to drag me back decades, and it was a relief when a shrill whistle split the air. An unseen enemy was always the more dangerous.
    I looked ahead just as the sun gleamed over the bell-like curve of a grand stone structure at the end of a wide, straight street. Then I turned to face the men separating themselves from the cover of foliage and shadowed alleys.
    “Hé! Qui es-tu?”
    “Où vas-tu?”
    The men approached aggressively, two of the seven with the straps of their rifles banded across their chests, one with a thick, gnarled staff propped on his shoulder. They had a bone to scratch, and I had crossed their territory at the wrong moment. As was often my lot, I stood head and shoulders above them, and the sidelong glances and fanning out around me hinted at their unease.
    Their faces were drawn tight with weariness, hunger, and suspicion. Such was the face of resistance.
    “Eh?” The one who had spoken first did so again, thrusting his chin at me. “Qui es-tu?”
    They were all bristled and lean, younger than they looked, I wagered, but whittled and hardened from four years of fighting. They murmured amongst one another, and I caught the words carlingue and allemande.
    “I do not speak French,” I said, widening my stance and shifting my weight onto the balls of my feet. I kept my arms loose at my side, hands open. “Je ne parle pas français.” The phrase came to me suddenly, and I remembered with startling clarity the boy who had taught me the words almost thirty years ago. He had been even younger than I, and he had been laughing over my stilted pronunciation when a German bullet punched through his helmet and skull. “I do not understand.”
    “You are American?” The one who spoke was the shortest of the seven, and though his stature hinted at youth, his eyes were like river stones.
    “No.” I shifted to keep them all in my line of sight as the one with the staff began to edge around me. “I am Welsh.”
    “Welsh.” The first one who had spoken was obviously their leader, and he conferred with the others now in a sharp burst of words. When he turned back to me, his face was twisted in a sneer. “Tu es anglais.”
    Anglais. English. “No.” My voice matched his for hardness. “I am not English. I am Welsh.”
    He spit on the ground. “L’anglais are cowards.” He finished with a torrent of words in his own language.
    I did not need to understand French to understand the tone, and I braced myself. I was expecting the staff and heard the whisper of air as it rushed toward my head.
    I had spent my life with a shepherd’s staff in my hand. It was a tool I knew well—well enough to also know how to use it as a weapon. I caught it before the blow could land, and with a swift twist and jerk, I yanked it from the man’s grasp. He was off balance, so it was a simple enough thing to sweep his feet from under him.
    I flipped the staff in my hands and thrust the thicker end into the gut of the man rushing me. He went down wheezing, and I caught the next in that sensitive region between the throat and the shoulder. He cried out, and I knew his right arm had gone excruciatingly numb.
    Then the butt of a rifle caught me in the temple.
    I staggered and went down on a knee. As I struggled to get my feet back under me, a boot caught me in the jaw, and the world wavered.
    I knew as soon as I opened the door to his bedroom.
    The bed was neatly made, the quilt Aelwyd had sewn before he was born smoothed across the narrow stretch. When I looked in the bureau, I found it empty. His coat and boots were gone from the hook and shelf by the door.
    I strode across the yard, cupped my hands around my mouth, and shouted his name into the hills. Only the echo responded.
    The road squelched underfoot as I walked to its summit south of the house. From the crest of the hill, I could see the track as it twisted through the valley. The hills were brown in the grip of winter, the sky the color of a cold sea. The lane was a seam that followed the curve of the land as it undulated in swells and peaks like an endless wave. The grazing sheep were skirted with mud and smelled of the moorland.
    It was empty for as far as I could see, and I staggered as the full realization struck me like a blow.
    He was gone.
    A kick in the ribs jerked me back to awareness as the four uninjured men dragged me into the closest alley. Another kick caught me low in the back, and I groaned. The alley spun around me, but I managed to catch the next boot aimed at my face, yanking the man off his feet.
    “Arrêtez! Arrêtez!”
    The new voice did not penetrate the blows until a gunshot rang through the alley and a shard of brick glanced across my cheek.
    I gathered an elbow under me as the men ducked and moved away. A woman stood at the mouth of the alley. The pistol in her hand was aimed above the men’s heads, but now she leveled it at the man closest to her. “Arrêtez. Ou le prochain sera dans votre tête.”
    An argument broke out, and the angry voices made my head pound as if it were on a blacksmith’s anvil. My stomach rolled as I forced myself up onto my knees, and I half-crawled, half-shuffled to lean against the stone wall. I propped my elbows on my bent knees and cupped my head in my hands.
    I did not realize consciousness had started to fade until a gentle touch on my shoulder startled me. “Sir?” The woman. Her voice was soft and accented, but the lilt was not French. “Are you well?”
    I lifted my head quickly and glanced behind her, only realizing I had caught her elbow and dragged her to my other side when she let out a startled yelp. The alley was empty.
    “They’ve gone. It’s safe now.”
    My sight wavered as I turned toward her. Even with my vision blurred, I noticed her eyes. They were the color of the sky in Wales before a storm, so dark and turbulent they were more gray than blue. They studied me intently.
    She leaned in close, cool hands cupping my face, brow furrowed as she peered into my own eyes. “You need medical attention, and we cannot stay here. Others will have heard the shot, and it’s best not to be caught in a crowd these days. Can you stand?”
    American. Her voice was low and smooth, but forthright and no-nonsense. She had to be American.
    “Aye, I can stand.” She straightened and held her hand out to me. It was covered in blood, as was her arm above her elbow, staining the edge of her dress’s sleeve. “You are bleeding.”
    Her eyes flickered. “It’s yours.”
    I looked at my hand to find it stained red. My face felt wet, and when I touched my right temple, I winced and felt a rivulet stream down my cheek.
    “Don’t. You’ll only make it worse.”
    I staggered to my feet and leaned against the wall as the ground tilted beneath me. Before I could protest, the woman wedged herself against my side and draped my arm over her shoulders. “Quickly now. Lean on me.”
    The top of her honey-colored head reached my breast-pocket, but her grip was strong. “More will come?”
    “It’s possible, but not likely. You landed some blows yourself, it seemed.” She tilted her head back to look at me and smiled, and it was as if I were home watching the sun break through the dense morning mist that blanketed the hills.
    “The pistol…” It was nowhere in sight.
    “Let me handle the pistol. You focus on walking. Is there somewhere I can take you?”
    I stumbled to a halt, almost pulling her off balance in my haste, and fumbled for my pocket, only relaxing when my fingers traced the crinkled edges of the letter. My head pounded in rhythm with my heart. The woman peered up at me, curiosity blatant in her face.
    “I have to reach 27 Rue Tournefort.”
    “Tournefort… I know it. But it is at least a kilometer away, and you need your head attended.”
    “I must—”
    “You can barely stand on your own. I have a cousin who lives nearby. She’s a nurse.” I resisted when she tried to guide me forward. “Please. I’m in the Ambulance Field Service. I know a concussion when I see it. If you come with me now, I will take you to Rue Tournefort myself once Dionne checks your head.”
    My stomach felt as if it were attempting to crawl up my throat, so I acquiesced. “Thank you, miss.”
    “Charlie will do.”
    “Charlie?”
    She did not answer immediately, instead peering out the mouth of the alley. “This way.”
    “My rucksack.” It lay in the street, and I swayed where I stood as she fetched it and slung it over her shoulders before returning to my side.     
    She led me down the long, straight street. The sun now gilded the dome of the stone structure ahead and pierced my eyes. I blinked in relief, eyes watering, when after a block, she turned north onto a narrow side street. “Charlotte Dubois, but everyone calls me Charlie.”
    I had known a lad in school named Charlie. He had looked like the south end of a north-bound wild boar and had the personality to match. He had been dim gwerth rhech dafad. “Charlotte. Rhys Gravenor.”
    “You are Welsh. They said you were English.”
    “I told them otherwise.”
    “Shame they did not believe you.” She turned into an alcove. “Just here.” She produced a key from the pocket of her dress and fit it into the lock. The door opened with a metal groan into a carpeted foyer with a winding staircase wrapped around a lift. My apprehension must have been apparent, for Charlotte glanced at the glass and wood box. “It has not worked in years. Careful going now. Dionne’s flat is at the top.”    
    The steep, circular climb was dizzying, and by the time we reached the sixth level, I was weaving on my feet.
    “Steady, steady,” she murmured, leading me to the last door at the end of the hall. She knocked, and moments later a dark-haired woman opened the door.
    “Retour si tôt? Ou—” The woman broke off as she caught sight of me and then launched into a hushed, rapid exchange with Charlotte in French. I fought to keep from leaning too heavily against the slight woman at my side. The Frenchwoman stepped back and opened the door wider. “Take him by the window, where the light is best.”
    The flat was small with the same sparse, threadbare look of Gaspard’s home. But likewise, the place was clean and welcoming. The ceiling was steeply slanted, and as we moved to the window, I had to stoop lest my head brush the ceiling.
    I sat down heavily in the chair the Frenchwoman dragged over, too disoriented to be concerned about dwarfing the delicate frame. I winced, and the woman’s shrewd gaze did not miss the movement.
    “Charlie, bring some water and cloth. And my medical pouch, yes?” She turned back to me as Charlotte disappeared behind the only door aside from the entry in the flat. The kitchen was in a corner of the room and a curtain was hung, behind which I guessed was the bedroom. “Lean forward, s’il vous plaît. You were hit in the back?”
    I did as instructed and propped my elbows on my knees. She untucked my shirt from my trousers and pushed it up under my arms. “Kicked. In the right kidney.”
    She clucked her tongue. “Oui, le rein. A bruise is developing.” He fingers were warm as she palpated the area, and even though her touch was light, I grimaced. “You will be sore, and there may be some blood.”
    I nodded and straightened, rolling my shirt back down my torso as Charlotte re-entered the room.
    The Frenchwoman moved around to face me. “Your jaw is swelling and bruised as well. Your teeth, they are loose? Broken?”
    I ran my tongue over the back of my teeth. “No.”
    “Bien. Charlie, you will clean his head while I will make a poultice for his face and back.” She disappeared behind the curtain and reappeared moments later with a number of green leaves in hand.
    “Comfrey?”
    Charlotte placed the basin of water in my lap, a medical pouch on the floor beside my feet, and dragged the one other chair from its place before a tiny table to sit before me. “Dionne always says that it is best for healing wounds, as long as the skin is not broken.” She dipped a cloth into the water and carefully wiped the blood from my face and neck.
    “My mother says so as well.”
    I studied her. Her skin was pale with the faintest dusting of freckles across her cheeks. Her eyes were mesmerizing. In the shadowed alley, they had appeared so dark as to be gray. Here, with the morning light glancing over her forehead and nose, they appeared as pale a blue as the sky in winter. Her brow furrowed, and as she leaned closer, dampening the cloth in the water again and dabbing around the gash at my temple, I could smell the crisp aroma of peppermint.
    “You are American.”
    Her gaze flicked to mine and then back to her work. She smiled and again her face was transformed, as if lit by the sun from within. “I am indeed.”
    She leaned back and studied my face and then bent to retrieve the medic pouch. Dionne spoke again in French, and Charlotte used a pair of crooked bandage scissors to trim a square of gauze before passing the rest to her cousin. She plucked an iodine swab from a box of tinctures, snapped the tip, and shook the contents to the end of the cotton. She applied the iodine, placed the square of gauze over the gash, and ripped a piece of adhesive plaster to secure it with the edge of her teeth with quick precision born of much practice. She smoothed the adhesive into place and peered into my eyes once more. “How is your vision?”
    “Blurred at times.”
    “Dizziness? Drowsiness?”
    I started to nod and thought better of it. “Aye.”
    She retrieved the basin of water, now pink with the stain of blood, and disappeared into the wash room. Dionne approached with two compresses, the comfrey poultice layered between pieces of gauze.
    “Hold this.” Dionne placed one compress on the swelling of my jaw. “Now lean forward.” She rolled my shirt up again and placed the second on the bruising over my kidney and secured it in place with the adhesive plaster.
    The clean, fresh aroma of the comfrey filled my head. It always reminded me of the scent of sliced cucumbers.
    “What is this now?”
    My mother straightened from arranging a compress of comfrey over a swelling knot on Owain’s forehead. She wiped her hands on her apron.
    “Billy Hughes was being a diawl to the new boy at school.”
    “Language, Owain.” My mother met my gaze, and the look on her face said that even though she reprimanded him, she agreed with him.
    I hid a smile. “And?”
    “And I stopped him.”
    I glanced at his knuckles. They were smooth and unscathed. I rubbed the back of my neck as I pulled out a chair at the table and sat next to him. “You let him hit you again.”
    He hung his head. “I did not let him.”
    “But you did not hit him back.”
    “No.” His voice was small.
    I sighed and leaned forward to prop my elbows on my knees. “Machgen i.”
    “I am bigger than all of the other children, Nhad. I must have a care.”
    “I know you do. But putting Billy in his proper place when he deserves it would not be amiss.”
    “I do not want to hurt anyone.”
    I ruffled his hair and tilted his head back so I could peer into his face. At sixteen, he seemed both ancient and painfully young. “You’ve a gentle heart, you do, and I am proud of you for being so kind.” He smiled up at me. “But I do not like to see you hurt.”
    “All’s well, Nhad. I am not hurt, just a little bloody.”
    “Rest is the best treatment for a concussion.” Charlotte’s voice startled me back to awareness.
    I rubbed my brow and squeezed the bridge of my nose. “I cannot afford to delay.”
    “Rue Tournefort will still be there tomorrow.”
    I met her gaze. “I have waited a near five years.”
_______

    We strode quickly, keeping to side streets. “The fighting was intense near the Panthéon just the other day,” Charlotte said, voice low. “We must be cautious.”
    “You do not need to come.”
    She was silent as we navigated an alley littered with rubble. When she paused to scan the adjacent street, she said, “You do not speak French. You may have need of me.”
    I caught her elbow. She had cleaned my blood from her arm, but the light blue fabric of her dress still carried a stain of rust on the edge of the sleeve. I noted absently that my fingers met where they were wrapped around her elbow. “Thank you.”
    She dipped her head to the right. “This way.” I relinquished my grip on her arm and followed her through the late afternoon streets. I had allowed the two women to convince me to rest for several hours while the poultices did their work and the ringing in my head settled to a dull throb.
    She stopped and pointed to a sign over our heads on the stone exterior of a building. White letters on a blue background proclaimed RUE TOURNEFORT.
    We arrived at the end of the street, but it took us only minutes to traverse the two blocks to reach the door labeled 27. I knocked heavily on the door, not bothering to curb the rising urgency, and Charlotte touched my arm.
    “I need to know what to say if someone answers. Why are we here?”
    “I am looking for someone.” I swallowed. “A young man. My son.”
    She stared at me in ringing silence as the echo of my knock and words faded. We both startled when the door creaked open. An old woman peered through the gap.
    “Bonjour, madame.” Charlotte spoke with her for several moments. The woman’s gaze darted to the street behind us when Charlotte mentioned Owain’s name, and she avoided looking at me as she shook her head.
    “Non, non, je suis désolée.” She moved to close the door, but I wedged my hand against it.
    “Rhys,” Charlotte said quietly.
    “Please.” I ducked my head to catch the old woman’s gaze. “Please. He is my son.” Keeping one hand on the door to prevent her from closing it on us, I withdrew the letter from my pocket with the other. “He was here, two years ago. He sent me this letter. Tell her, Charlotte. Tell her I am trying to find my son.”
    Charlotte translated quickly, and the old woman finally looked up at me directly. She glanced into the street once more and then opened the door further to usher us within. When we were seated around her table, the old woman began to speak to Charlotte, but her gaze stayed focused on me.
    “Her grandson knew your son,” Charlotte said. “They met working at the local café and became friends. They had similar opinions on the war.”
    You bloody will fight, or you are no son of mine! I will not call a coward my own. The memory of my shouted words reverberated in my mind, and the pounding in my temples started anew. I rubbed my forehead.
    “Rhys?”
    “Go on.”
    Charlotte hesitated and then continued. “He moved in to help her after her grandson was killed in the bombings. She says he was like a son to her.”
    Owain had always cared most for the things broken and hurting. My throat ached. “Ask her to continue, please.”
    “She says he met a woman here, a young Frenchwoman named Sévèrin. He would not tell her because he wanted to keep her safe, but she thinks the woman was Jewish. And she believes your son became involved with the Resistance.”
    “Where is he now? Does she know?”
    The old woman spoke again, and Charlotte’s voice sharpened as she conversed with her.
    “What did she say?”
    Charlotte sat back in her chair, and her gaze was hesitant as it met mine. “She says she has not seen your son since Vel’ d’Hiv.”
    “Vel’ d’Hiv?”
    “Rafle du Vèlodrome d’Hiver,” the old woman whispered, reaching across the table to grasp my hand with her gnarled one.
    “Tell me, Charlotte.”
    “Vel d’Hiv was when the gendarmes conducted a mass raid and arrest of the Jews here in Paris. She has not seen your son since July of ’42.”
_______

    “What are you thinking?”
    I rubbed the back of my neck. I had been as a blind man upon leaving the old woman’s home, and Charlotte had tucked her hand into the crook of my elbow and led me back to her cousin’s flat. “Owain is not Jewish. That roundup should not have touched him.”
    “Perhaps it did not. Maybe the timing is mere coincidence. When did he send you the letter?”
    I withdrew it from my pocket and offered it to her.
    She handled the creased, stained paper with care, turning the envelope over in her hands. “This has traveled some distance.”
    I had studied each stamp. They were from multiple locations at different dates. There was one from here in Paris, one from Lisbon, two from Africa, one from Bermuda, another from Manhattan, and one from Sutton Coldfield.
    “The first stamp is from November of ’42.” She tucked a loose lock of hair behind her ear. “In September of ’41, mail became restricted. I am stunned it made it to you.”
    Two years too late. I shook off the thought.
    “Do you need a light for that?”
    I glanced down and found I was rolling the cigarette I carried back and forth between my fingers. “No, thank you.” I tucked it into my pocket. “The man she mentioned after telling us of Owain’s disappearance. Where did she say we could find him?”
    She handed me the envelope without questioning its contents. “Alfonse. She said that your son mentioned l’épicerie with a red awning on Rue Pavée multiple times.”
    “Is it near?”
    “It is in Le Marais, on the right bank, but only a couple of kilometers away.”
    “Le Marais? What does that mean?”
    Charlotte placed a bowl of the stew Dionne had prepared while we were out on the table before me. The nurse had left soon after we returned to fill her overnight round at the hospital. Charlotte sat across from me at the tiny table. My knees bumped hers, but she waved away my apology. “Le Marais is the name of the district. It… It is the Jewish Quarter.”
    I sat back in my chair. “Then this Alfonse may know if Owain’s disappearance is linked to the roundup.”
    “If he is still there.” Charlotte’s voice was quiet, and she blew on a spoonful of stew before eating.
    I had no appetite, but I forced myself to eat. The stew reminded me of my mother’s cawl, though without the lamb. Even so, the fare was far heartier than any I had eaten of late. I was not certain if the gnawing in my gut was from the head injury, hunger, or disappointment. “I will try to find him tonight then.”
    “Wait until morning.” She cut me off before I could argue. “It is dangerous to ask these questions. Even now. That is why she denied knowing your son. She was afraid we might be with the carlingue. Fears like that do not abate after a few parades and speeches. People are even more leery to open their doors at night to a stranger. We will have better luck if we wait until morning.”
    “We?”
    She kept her gaze on her bowl, eating with the careful pacing of one long-familiar with rations. “You do not know the city or the language. I am offering you my assistance.”
    A fervent edge clipped the smooth cadence of her voice, and I searched her downturned features. Her face was expressionless, save for the pleating between her brows that gave away her tension. Unease crept into my mind, but she was right. A guide through Paris would benefit me.
    “Very well then.” I was careful not to let hesitation tinge my voice. “I accept your offer.”
    _______

    The street below the apartment was quiet, but even with the hush I could not sleep.
    I swallowed a groan as I stood. My head and jaw throbbed. My lower back ached and pinched, but the bed Charlotte had offered me was more comfortable than the cot in the old man’s wood shop, though it, too, was built for a person shorter than I. I had refused the bed at first, but Charlotte had insisted, saying she had spent many a night on Dionne’s settee and it was better suited to her size than mine.
    Grimacing as I stretched, I crossed to the window. I let out an unsteady breath and patted my trouser pocket for the cigarette. I tucked it unlit into the corner of my mouth, the taste of the paper and tobacco a familiar comfort. I had promised myself after the Somme I would never set foot in France again.
    My rucksack leaned against the wall, and my shirt was hung from a peg over a dress. The dress was green and soft, a fine contrast to the thicker, coarser fabric of the shirt Colette had given me. Charlotte had cleaned the blood from it after dinner.
    I retrieved the letter from the pocket and leaned against the window ledge. The fifth arrondissement’s buildings were clustered together like my Balwens jostling in the pen waiting to be sheared. The moonlight that did circumvent the rooftops was faint but enough to read by.
    I did not need to read the contents. I knew them by memory. I tucked the letter back in my pocket and stared out into the night, watching the sky gradually lighten over the shadows of the idle chimneys.
    And then a jolt of memory had me padding to the doorway of the bedroom and pushing the curtain aside to peer into the apartment. Though she had reminded me of her Colt M1911, Charlotte slept with abandonment, sprawled on her stomach with a thin arm and sock-clad foot dangling over the edge of the settee. Her movements in sleep had her dress rucked up to the back of her knees and pulled taut across the curve of one hip; the fall of her hair had parted to expose the angle of her jaw and the fragile-looking skin of her nape.
    I shook out the threadbare quilt that covered the bed. The August day’s warmth lingered even in the dark hours, but Charlotte murmured as I moved across the flat and covered her, shifting and drawing the quilt up to her chin.
    She made a picture of vulnerability, but I could still remember that ferocity she had shown in the alley and, later, the straightforward manner that was so American.
    And she had known my son’s name before I said it.