As promised in last week’s post, I will share over the next few weeks excerpts from books I am currently writing.
This is from the opening chapter of Shelter Me, a novel, to use Netflix’s favorite claim/disclaimer, “based on true events.”
These true events happened in and around several villages in southeast France during WWII. During the war, a cluster of small and mostly Protestant communities worked together to shelter refugees, mostly Jewish children, from deportation and death at the hands of the Nazis and their French collaborators. The main village was Le Chambon sur Lignon (where Cheryl and I were set to live for three months this spring but, because of COVID, had to leave after a mere twelve days). Historians mostly agree that the central figure in this heroic effort was pastor André Trocmé, along with his formidable wife, Magda.
My opening chapter starts in the darkest year of the war, 1943. It introduces the two main characters, André and Madga, as well as a young Jewish refugee, Hannah. Hannah is a fictional character whose portrait I have created from a composite of several historical accounts. The final character I introduce here is Virginia Hall, an American spy and military operative working under British directive. Her story is only now fully coming to light – expect to hear a lot about her from various sources in the next few years. She displayed extraordinary courage, dedication, resourcefulness, and resiliency – not the least because she did all her derring-do while nursing a prosthetic leg. Her work in the latter part of the war directly touches on the events that unfolded in Le Chambon.
I hope you enjoy.
by Mark Buchanan
February 11, 1943
A north wind scythes down the sharp-cut valley, bent on tearing rooves from walls, pulling trees from roots, scattering every loose thing every which way. And it snows, not gently: each flake a tiny barb, each gust a strafing. It will be hard to find warmth tonight, anywhere. The wind here is often hard and bitter cold. But tonight is La Brule, the demon wind. A force of pure malice. It can destroy in a single stroke things the earth has nurtured for centuries.
Only fifty feet to go. Then fire, bread, soup. Then his children, gathering around him, competing for space on his lap. Then her arms. Her strong thin arms, lean and tough as ropes, cinching his waist, pulling him into her sinewy fierceness. Though if he doesn’t stop eating all that bread, she won’t be able to reach all the way around. She’ll lose her grip on him.
André Trocmé pulls the collar of his jacket tight against the flesh of his neck. He shields his cheeks with his arm. His bones ache. And his back. That old injury every year twists deeper into him. Shows up in weather damp or cold, an intruder hammering the door, pushing its way in, taking up more and more room inside him. He limps the last twenty feet, drags his left leg like he’s taken a bullet in the thigh. The door is locked. He hammers on it.
And she’s there, worn, thin, but still beautiful. “Come in,” Magda says. Oh, come in.”
And her arms take him, and reach all the way around.
And it is warm.
“Of Le Chambon sur Lignon?”
“You are married to Madga?”
“I am simply establishing your correct identity. I do not want to make a clerical error, you understand?”
“Magda, she is your wife?” “Yes.”
“You are the pastor of The Protestant Temple?”
“And there is another pastor there?”
“Pastor Trocmé of Le Chambon sur Lignon, there are rumors.”
“Do not take me for a fool. You know very well what I am speaking of. No?”
Trocmé falls silent, looks at his big hands. He wants to reach a hand around to his back, knead the soreness there. But he holds still. He’s learning to avoid all unnecessary movement.
“Yes,” Trocmé says.
“Yes, I know what you are talking about.”
“Then say it.”
“Ah, yes: the Jews. So we understand one another?”
“I do not think we understand one another.”
“Listen, Monsieur Trocmé. Listen well. These are times for great caution. Great prudence. And you, you are putting yourself, your family, your church, your village – all whom you love – in grave peril, by these things you are doing.”
Trocmé looks up. The officer wears a rumpled suit. His tie is askew. Bread crumbs fleck his lapels. The Gestapo would disapprove, sternly. The Milice too. He seems a kind man, sober and slow, doing his job. Bored. Thinking of the end of the day. The bread and soup his wife is making. Her arms.
“Perhaps I am,” Trocmé says. “Perhaps. But perhaps you are putting yourself in graver peril, by what you are doing, and not doing.”
The man leans forward, lowers his voice. “Do not test me, Monsieur Trocmé. Do not try my patience. You must take care. Great care. I am telling you this as a friend.”
Trocmé looks at his own hands again. They have grown leathery of late. Ink, like nicotine, stains dark the seams between his fingers. It won’t come out, no matter how hard he scrubs.
“Perhaps you are right,” he says. “Perhaps we do understand one another.”
Wet earth soaks Hannah’s clothing. It soaks her skin. It seeps into her bone and muscle. Its coldness is like a burning. She trembles, can’t stop. She wants to cry, but swallows it: any sound that does not mimic the pulse of the deep forest, its chittering animal noises, the aching groaning of its trees, its long eerie silence, will give her away. But the dogs will likely find her soon anyways. Their barks splinter the air, break it like stones shattering glass. The dogs will pick up her scent, double their speed, bear down on her with lupine ferocity: sharp teeth glistening, tassels of saliva looping from their mouths. Their masters will not restrain them. She has seen all this before.
She thinks of Sasha. Sasha laughing, her head tipped back. The whole room glowing with candles and firelight. The whole room filled with the smell of food. The whole room filled with laughter, like coins falling. And it is warm. She settles into the memory as though into a soft bed.
Virginia and the two men with her and her passeur halt. They are ten feet from the Spanish border, but a small guard house with two guards stands athwart the trail. One guard looks sleepy and bored. If it was only him, Virginia thinks, he would wave them through. But the other guard, the one in charge, has a lean hawkish look. He is rigid with his official status, and bristles with a kind of pent-up vindictiveness. The two men travelling with her sit down heavily on a fallen tree near the path. Virginia wants to join them but remains standing. She wishes she had taken her pistol out of her pack.
“Papers,” the angry guard says.
The passeur produces his papers with a swift smooth action. He’s done this before, she thinks. The guard examines them closely. He holds one up to his face and looks at the signature and bureau stamp with a magnifying glass. He hands them back, wordless.
“You,” he says to Virginia. “And you two, get up. Papers.”
She takes off her pack and starts to open the ties. The other guard, the sleepy one, suddenly comes alert. He cocks his rifle, points it at her. She takes her hands off the bag.
“Well, you men will have to decide which it is. Do you want my papers, or do you want to shoot me?”
“Slow, very slow,” the guard with rifle says.
She reaches into her bag. She feels the handle of her pistol. She put a fresh clip in last night, and oiled it. She touches the cool smoothness of the barrel. She could pull it out and kill the guard with the gun first, then hold up the second guard before he unholstered his side arm, or kill him as well. She looks up, into the face of the one pointing the rifle at her. He must be no more than twenty. Probably still living at home. A little sister, maybe. A father with a bad back who gets up every morning, uncomplaining, and shuffles off to his job at a foundry or brick works. A mother who feeds him more than he needs, more than the family can afford. He is, she sees, scared. She imagines the news reaching his home, that their son, their brother, has been slain in cold blood in the service of his duty.
She pulls out her papers. The other two men with her are also holding theirs.
Then guard inspecting them takes all three sets at once. He looks them over, one at a time. His face betrays no emotion. He seems to be about to hand them all back. And then, with blinding speed, he pulls his gun, cocks it.
“You are all under arrest,” he says.
The other guard looks ready to shoot.
In twenty minutes, the three of them are in a police wagon on their way to prison in Figueres, Spain. The passeur is on his way back to France, scolded, warned, flush with Virginia’s money.
Virginia looks at the two men, smiles. Neither smiles back.