Burgundy, France. Fall 1940.
When the Nazis broke through the door of her family home, Rose Harcourt crouched in the darkness beneath the floorboards and held her breath. She clamped her hands over her mouth, stifling her cries as the jackbooted soldiers pulled her father from his chair and smacked the rusted revolver from his hand. It hit the floor with a dull thump and skittered across the swollen, aged wood like a clumsy beetle. Her father hadn’t even gotten off a shot.
“Stupid! Filthy Jew tried to kill us!”
“Ha! With that? We should have let him shoot, ja?”
“Would’ve seen him blow his own hand up!”
</em>Three of them, plus there are at least two more outside. Oh Papa, please don’t try to fight. They will kill you.</em>
One of them crossed the room over creaky floorboards, making them spill years of accumulated dust down into Rose’s crawlspace. Flecks drifted down into her eyes and she blinked as they grew irritated. Rose covered her nose and mouth to keep from sneezing.
A scrape from above told her the Nazi had picked up her father’s old hatchet. Rose could hear it rattle as he tossed it from hand to hand.
“What is this? You fancy yourself a wood-cutter too? Would you like to make me a table?”
Rose imagined snatching it from their grasp and using it on them. Papa had taught her how to throw it at the fence posts outside since she was very little.
The Nazi went on. “No, you are nothing so useful. Just another French wine-maker, ja? Tell us, could we have some wine? Your finest vintage?”
Encouraged by their squad leader’s actions, the other Nazis joined in taunting her father. “You see the grapes out there? Withered little berries like rat droppings. He probably hasn’t produced a decent barrel in years.”
“Pah! Like you know anything about wine!”
One of them was rifling through their shelves. “He has nothing! No money! His food’s no better than our rations!”
Rose angled her head up. She could see her father trembling as they seated him in a chair at the table. Her brow creased with concern.
Thugs. He’s already bleeding. When did they hit him?
One of them raised the butt of their rifle and struck her father in the temple. “Answer me!”
Rose flinched as though she’d been hit. Hot tears welled over her vision, but she could do nothing but let them fall in silence.
For pity’s sake, he’s helpless! You don’t have to do this!
The Nazis continued to laugh as they struck him. Again. And again. With each blow, more of her father’s face—bronzed from years tending their modest vineyard under the sun—became a bloodstained portrait of pain.
That was when the Hauptmann [Captain] entered. Even from her hiding place Rose could see him standing there like a monolith of cruelty. She got the idea from the intentional way he removed his black riding gloves that the squad captain had more ideas in mind than simple punishment.
“Leave him some teeth, ja?” he told his soldiers, as though he were already bored by their antics. “We won’t get anything out of him if he cannot talk.”
Rose pressed her lips together without realizing it. Just hearing that they wanted information was more than enough to make her clam up. She couldn’t say the same about her Papa though. His jaw sagged onto his collarbone, spilling blood and drool onto his waffle-knit shirt.
The Hauptmann pulled up a chair in front of her Papa and took a seat. He bid one of his soldiers to pass him a bottle of wine from the counter. Rose watched him uncork it and sample the goods. He made an unsightly, exaggerated grimace and tossed the bottle back to his soldiers.
“Cheap wine,” he muttered. “What kind of Frenchman are you, to produce such piss?”
A tiny white stab of pride moved in Rose’s belly. Her father had worked his hands to the bone in their vineyard. They’d had no help, not since the war broke out and reduced the availability of supplies. Papa had trusted their relatively remote location to keep them safe. They had no valuables; nothing worth stealing. And no one knew they were Jewish. Papa and Grand-Maman—her maternal grandmother—had often argued at the dinner table over, among other things, the Nazi movement. Her Grandmother had insisted on staying ahead of the occupation, whereas Papa couldn’t abandon the home he’d shared with Rose’s Maman [mother].
“She is dead, Pierre! She took up with you and bore Rose and she is gone! Do not stay here with her ghost! You have to let her go! Rose is almost seventeen! Ha-Sham [The Name of God in Hebrew] willing, one day she will meet a man and start her own family! It won’t be in this house. You have to move on from this place, otherwise you will cost Rose her life too!”
It had taken many years of listening to them argue for Rose to understand that Grand-Maman did not actually blame Rose for Maman’s death.
“I blame him,” she’d said one night, kissing Rose on the forehead as she tucked her in. “To stay here is suicide. They will come.”
And then she was gone. Disappeared out into the forest. Papa had said she had a cottage deep in the woods, but he’d never told Rose exactly where it was, for fear that she would leave. What he didn’t know is that Rose remembered visiting the cottage when she’d been a child and Grand-Maman herself had told Rose how to get there, in case she ever wanted to visit again on her own.
“Why can’t I see her, Papa? It’s been years!”
“These woods are dangerous, Rose. Your life is here now, with me. I could never live with myself if you left, too.”
So she stayed, though part of her longed to venture out and see the bigger world. There were other cities in France: Vichy, Bourges, Dijon… Paris. She dreamed of visiting them. But Rose knew she had waited too long to act on any of her dreams. Her season of opportunity had passed. Cold, cruel reality had swept across their country like a vicious frost; every city, town, and village in their path had succumbed. Now the danger was inside her home, beating the life out of her father. All Rose could do was watch her Papa wheeze bubbles of blood while the Hauptmann relaxed in her father’s favourite chair. Her heart twisted in her chest. She wanted to reach out and touch her father’s face. She wished there was something she could do to make them stop.
But what do you have to offer these monsters? What would they do to you?
Rose was tamping down raw shivers of fear down when she noticed that the Hauptmann was leaning forward and speaking to her father. Rose risked pressing her ear up to gaps between the boards, but she couldn’t hear what they were talking about. Her father was nodding, his bloody head rising and falling like a faltering heartbeat.
The Hauptmann was pleased with whatever he’d heard. “Das ist gut [That is good],” he said, rising out of the chair. He patted Papa’s cheek. “Keine schande dabei, Jude. Überhaupt keine [No shame in this, Jew. None at all].”
Rose blinked in confusion; her father had taught her some German, but she’d never had the opportunity to converse with one. There was no shame in what? What had her Papa done?
“We heard from our source that it is you alone in this vineyard, ja? Though, they could not be sure, they said they might have seen a fraulein [girl] around here a time or two. Might this young thing know something you do not? Perhaps we should ask her? Where is she?”
Rose held her breath. Who could have seen them outside together? Their small vineyard was quite isolated, and she rarely went to town with Papa. By the time she was of age to travel on her own, the war had broken out and Papa had forbidden it.
Papa’s head dropped down and he shook it. “My daughter used to live here, before I sent her to school in Vichy. She returned last summer to visit, but said this place was too small to contain her dreams. She… found the vineyard… boring…”
That made the Hauptmann laugh. “Boring! Ha! Well, let’s see if we can introduce some excitement!”
The Hauptmann barked instructions to his soldiers and they went about swiftly kicking down the door to the pantry and ransacking the place. After finding nothing, the soldiers returned and made their report, to which the Hauptmann sighed in annoyance. He wriggled his hands back into his gloves and returned to the door. Rose crept to the far corner of the crawlspace and heard what sounded like a transport truck waiting outside their open door. Before he boarded the truck, the Hauptmann stopped at the door and gestured to his soldiers. “Wir sind jetzt fertig [We are done now].”
One of the Nazis pulled out his pistol and shot her father. Papa sagged out of his chair and collapsed onto the floor above her. Rose bit into her hand to keep from screaming. Papa’s blood seeped through the floorboards, spattering onto her pale, trembling cheeks.
When Rose was little, she’d seen two snakes fighting in the grass outside the vineyard. They’d coiled around each other, twisted into wrought-iron shapes; their scales scraped together, creating a dull rasp that Rose had never forgotten. It was the same way her stomach felt while she waited for the Nazi truck to drive away. She crouched in the crawlspace, wringing her hands while she listened. It took the diesel motor ages to generate enough thrust to push the heavy vehicle up the dirt road. When the truck’s choking roar had receded far enough into the distance, Rose ventured up. It wasn’t too difficult to push aside the iron plate that housed the fireplace logs, but climbing up was always a tight squeeze. She pulled herself up through the hatch and scrambled over to where Papa laid, still bleeding.
The Nazis had left the door open, so a chill wind—befitting the autumn evening—swept through the house. Rose cradled Papa’s head in her hands. His blood and body were still warm. She used her skirt to wipe away bits of mucus and torn flesh away from his nose so he could breathe. A single candle on the table cast flickering light, its orange flame fluttering in the breeze. Rose could swear she saw that same fire dimming in her father’s eyes as he said, “Rose, you have to get out of here. They might come back…”
Rose lifted his head into her lap and stroked his hair. “No, Papa, I won’t leave you. If we have to escape, we can do it together.”
Papa blinked, but only one of his eyelids moved. The other was swollen shut.
“They broke me,” he said. Rose saw the admission bring despair to his ruined face.
She smoothed his brow. “What did they want?”
He reached up, seeking comfort. She held his hand and squeezed it. He could take her strength.
“We are like—rats—to them. Want to exterminate us. I thought we would be—safe—here. Oh, what have I done?”
Rose swallowed, but her throat felt sticky and full. Her lower lip shook, but she shoved her emotions back with a sniffle. There was no point in distressing her Papa any further. He was hurting enough. Rose searched for something to say that could ease the anguish he felt. This wasn’t his fault.
“We—we could move. Grand-Maman wanted us to go with her.”
The suggestion brought a little light to Papa’s eyes. He gripped her palm with both hands, using what little strength he had left to emphasize what he was about to say.
“Yes. You must run, Rose. The Nazis came—here—because they seek the location of the Rebelles Patriotes.”
Rose’s forehead crinkled in confusion. “The who?”
The corner of her father’s mouth turned up. “I’m sorry, Rose. I’ve kept these ugly truths from you for too long. They are Freedom fighters. Frenchmen—willing to risk their lives—to push those Nazi bâtards [bastards] back.”
There are freedom fighters in the woods. French rebels—the Nazis are hunting them down.
“Papa—are you part of these Rebelles Patriotes?” She had to know. Maybe this was why he and Grand-Maman always fought. Was this the real reason why he stayed?
Papa looked crestfallen. “No—they came to me early on, years ago. Asked me to join…”
But you didn’t. Rose felt a swell of pity for him. Joining the rebels meant he would have had to leave her behind. Papa couldn’t do it.
“Forgive me,” he said, choking on his words. “I just wanted to maintain our family in this home. Your Maman would have wanted that.”
Consternation rang in her chest. She couldn’t blame him, but his decision to stay was going to cost them everything. The Nazis could come back. But from the way her Papa coughed on his own blood, she could never tell him that. It would only hurt him unnecessarily.
So instead Rose said, “I understand, Papa. Do you know where these rebels are? Is that what you told them?”
Papa shook as air rattled through his lungs and bubbled out of him. His body reeked of shame. “Yes. Told them—the Rebelles are in the forest.”
The Nazis will kill them. They kill everything. I—could warn the Rebelles. But I can’t leave Papa like this!
And then her Papa touched her chin to break her thought. “You can’t. If the Nazis see you, they will kill you, too.”
How he knew her. Hot tears spilled out of her eyes, landing on his face. She smoothed them away. “We have to do something.” Rose said it that way so that Papa would know they had to work together. There would be a tomorrow after this. He just had to recover to see it.
And then her Papa smiled. “I know. There is someone you can save… there’s still time.”
It struck her like a bolt of lightning. “Grand-Maman! Is she in danger? Will they find her?”
Papa blinked wearily. She could tell it was getting harder for him to communicate.
She shook him, but he had gone limp. Rose looked down and saw blood blooming from his midsection. He’d been shot in the belly. The cold hand of fear gripped her heart. She had to do something, anything. Get a doctor. The nearest one was all the way in town, dozens of miles away. She couldn’t leave him like this. What if he came to and needed her?
Rose realized that she had to help him herself. As she eased him off of her, Rose saw that the exit wound in his back was turning into a red mess. She had to find materials to bind his wounds before he bled out. She cursed herself for sitting there talking when she could have been doing something to stop the bleeding. Rose ran for the cupboard. There were scant supplies inside, save for a couple of towels and dishes. In the drawer, she found a needle and thread. Grand-Maman had taught her to sew from when she was very young, but she’d never been very good at making anything of it.
I can clean the wound. Sew him up. Seal it. Let him heal.
Rose soaked one of the towels in water and cleaned his face. She gingerly rolled her father on his side to dab at the blood coming out of the exit wound in the back. Alarm prickled at the base of her spine when she saw that he had soaked through the towels she’d just laid down. Her mind started to race. She used the remaining dry towels to prop her father’s head up while she prepared the needle and thread by candlelight. Her hands shook and were still slick with blood and water, making things difficult. She took a few precious seconds to calm her pounding heart and tried again. The thread went through the bullet wound in his belly. She had stitched up cuts on a few farm animals they had around the vineyard, but this was different. This was Papa. She had no idea how to stop the bleeding on both sides.
He’s lost too much blood!
Rose gave her head a quick shake and sucked in the cool night air. It provided her with a fresh jolt of clarity. She could figure this out. Papa depended on it.
No more thinking. Just do what you need to do.
Moving the candlelight a little closer, Rose decided on a course of action. She would try and close the wound in her father’s back before sealing the entry point. Rose took a deep breath and went to work. She wrapped his chest as best as she could to staunch the bleeding while leaving herself enough room to manoeuvre. She used hot water from the kettle on the needles to sterilize them before starting. Rose sewed as swiftly as she could while his body sagged against her shoulder. Despite her best efforts, the needle, slippery with blood, kept sliding out of her trembling fingers.
Agonizing minutes ticked by while Rose worked in a daze, numb to everything but her task. When the exit wound was finished, she moved to the front and did the same. There were other fluids leaking out of him, and what looked like bits of raw meat. Like the leftover pieces from a butcher’s shop. Rose blinked. That didn’t make sense.
Papa’s not meat.