My back was aching, I was unbearably cold and I was sure my feet had lost all sensation, yet I refused to move. Moving would make it real. I looked again at the place where she had dropped. Just two hundred and thirteen minutes ago she had dropped there. Those first thirteen minutes took every ounce of life out of my soul which had been left after the war and terror that devastated the landscapes of my homeland.
No, those thirteen minutes were the worst. They made the shooting and the gun fire seem a symphony in the background. They made the destruction around me, which crumbled and shook with every accent in the symphony, which reached for a crescendo, a dream. Those minutes made me remember the fact that I couldn’t recall a time when there was colour and happiness in my village – all I could remember were men who weren’t my father, battering their fists against the door. I could remember nothing of a life of peace – now there was only constant uncertainty and fear.
My only measurement of time was the church clock: I had no measurement of seasons, though my mother claimed that it was winter. I knew no months and their clichés: to me all seasons looked the same, all with a bleakness and a terror which I experienced every second. I knew that another world, another time existed, a time where men didn’t drink themselves senseless in the café with their dirty uniforms and twisted jokes. There was a time when my mother smiled, I had a father and a brother, and we didn’t need to run every time we heard the gun fire of the biggest guns start up again.
A man had shot her. He had been in a different uniform to everyone else. They all wore grey, and they promised to protect us. But this man, he wore green. She pushed me out of the way when he came towards us. I fell against the wall and my head started bleeding, but I was quiet and curled up, pretending, like Mamam always told me, like I wasn’t there. The man shot her in the legs when she saw he wasn’t a grey man and tried to run. Grey men were nice we had learnt. They had come to our village and had treated me kindly, though they rarely gave me food . They patted me on the head, told me I would become a beautiful women and then told me tales of their homeland, which was different to ours. The men were cordial to my mother, but only because their captain reprimanded them when they weren’t.
Men ran by. The clatter of their loud footsteps should have warned me of their coming; I had heard them but I had been too scared to listen, so when they ran by the alley their pounding footsteps seemed amplified. I looked at the men and was relieved to find them wearing grey.
The grey men, who had resided in our village for almost four years, had left for a month or two. Mamam said that that meant the shooting, the killing and the war were almost over, but now they were back, bringing their gunfire with them.
The men ran past the entrance to the alley continually, and as the minutes wore on I recognised the odd man. Different groups came to our village and rested here for four or five days. These were made up of about fifty men. I remembered the captains, who wore eagles on their helmets, I remember the nice men, who gave me a sip of their drink which tasted disgusting or let me wear their caps for a day. From the crowed of running men I picked out some of the men who had asked me to pray for them, some of their friends and some men who told me of their losses.
I watched, fascinated, as the line of men seemed never ending. They ran in pairs, their rifles and packs slung over their shoulders, tins attached to their rucksacks rattling as they ran. Their panting was almost inaudible over the thump of their heavy boots against the cobbled street, though after listening to their boots slapping in the puddles from the spring rain. I could hear the anger and the fear in the panting.
I started counting the seconds again, using the beat of the men’s footsteps as my measurement. There seemed to be an unendless line.
Slowly the panting of the men became more audible and the running became slower as the end of the line approached. The last unit was lead by an old man.
I knew this man very well. His unit was the first to sit in our café and talk to us. He had a bushy moustache and a kind face, and many of his men were from a place near France. He spoke French well, though he taught me some German words so I could communicate with his men. Mamam had forbid me to speak any German, but although the language was harder to learn than I thought I liked talking to the men, so I carried on learning it.
We children had a nickname for him, because he was here in the beginning I hadn’t been the only child then. But after the gunfire faded into the background, like birdsong in summer, families moved away. Soon the only people left were the family owning the café, the old couple, Monsieur and Madame Grielé, and my mother and I. The only family we had lived in Strasbourg, which was on the other side. We called him Général Oiseau because of the giant bird on his helmet.
I was cold and in my desperation for help, I feebly called his name.
He didn’t even look up from his tired trod, though one man did. I knew this man from seeing – he was one of the thoughtful men who sat at the back of the café, not drinking anything but coffee and a vacant look on his face as he wrote another letter. He had smiled at me once or twice but never been as engaging as the other men.
He saw me and stopped abruptly, calling to his superior. The whole band of men came to a halt while I cursed myself for calling at all. The man slowly advanced down the alley, muttering things to calm me. I was too cold to run even if I wanted to, but I was glad of his kindness.
“Mädchen?” the man’s voice was soft and I nodded feebly. “Come here.” He lifted my body into his arms and brought me to Général Oiseau, who inspected and recognised me.
Général Oiseau examined me, concerned. ‘”Sophie, où est ton mere? Where is your mother ?” I shivered, remembering those thirteen minutes, while the grey man clutching me whispered something to Général Oiseau, pointing in the direction of the alleyway.
I knew enough German to understand the men’s odd words, so I concentrated hard and tried to remember everything that Général Oiseau had taught me. “… we do?” the grey man had just said, hitching me up in his arms. The jolt ran through my bones and made me shiver.
“Weiss ich doch nicht!” Général Oiseau looked back at the alleyway and then into the direction the other troops had disappeared to. How am I supposed to know? Général Oiseau had taught me to say that to any soldier if they asked me anything about the war. It would keep me safe, he promised.
“Wir fallen zuruck. Nimm das Kind. Wir lassen sie beim nächsten Bauernhof.” The grey man saluted before thanking the captain and going back in to the line. A smile was on his dirty face, like he was triumphant. I hoped it was good news. I knew what ‘Bauernhof’meant – I used to live on one. Were they planning to bring me home? But I would be all alone! I shivered again and the grey man looked at me in concern.
He examined my dirty dress in concern before asking me, in perfect French, whether I was cold. I was too numb to feel anything, so I just shook my head, but he chose not to believe me and took a flea bitten blanket out of his bag. He wrapped me in it like a baby and I felt comforted. At Général Oiseau’s command the men started running again, and as I jolted with them I couldn’t believe my luck. I was being saved by this kind man, who had even given me this blanket!
“I have a daughter just like you.” He told me, his breath becoming irregular with the strain of the run and my weight. I perked up, surprised and yet wanting to hear more. I had never heard a word from him in the café, so perhaps I would find out why he was quiet. “Her name is Tabitha.”
“Tàbithé?” I tried and he laughed.
“It’s an English name. She was born before the war. I have a good German name though. My name is Siegfried.”
I was too tired to make a sentence so I just pointed at myself. “Sophié.” Then I pointed at him. “Siegfried.” I made the ‘g’ soft when I pronounced it, making it sound very French.
“It sounds nicer in French.” He stated and I nodded in agreement. Everything was nicer in French. “She’s six now. My wife tells me she looks as beautiful everyday and she has my facial expressions. I wouldn’t know, though, I’ve missed four years of her life. Just like your father’s missed four years of your life.”
I nodded holding up four fingers, showing him the years my father had missed. “Et mon frère” I told him.
“My brother was in the war too. He died at Ypres though, three years ago.” I didn’t know the place, but I saw the tears in Siegfried’s eyes and I knew it was a sad place. To lose someone, that was hard. To lose someone in battle was harder, especially if the battle won nothing. But to watch someone die was the hardest, and I wanted to tell Siegfried he was lucky he didn’t have any thirteen minutes. But I didn’t. I kept silent and listened to the irregular breathing of the men around me.
I shivered again as Siegfried ran down a muddy path, jolting me up and down. The jolting soon developed a rocking rhythm to it and then, too exhausted even to think, I fell asleep in Siegfried’s arms.
The next village was miles away, but I slept during those minutes, waking up screaming every time I closed my eyes, Siegfried panting German lullabies when I was screaming in fear.
I woke up when the heavy rhythm of Siegfried’s breathing slowed and the run he had been at for an endless amount of time ended. I knew what this meant, and through the fog of sleep that still clung to me, I gave an involuntary sob. I didn’t want this man to leave me.
He hugged me tight and shushed me as he continued at a walk, and I heard Général Oiseau’s voice next to my head. I opened my eyes to find Général Oiseau falling into step with Siegfried, walking towards an odd cluster of villages, just as grey and forgotten as mine had been.
I looked over Siegfried’s shoulder and saw Général Oiseau’s men waiting patiently, welcoming the rest from their run.
Général Oiseau knocked on the first door with authority, though the house turned out to be empty. “Verdamte Franzosen.” He murmured under his breath, an insult I did understand. I sniffed, making sure he saw that I had understood his rudeness towards my people.
“Sorry Sophié.” He said, smiling, but I was too tired to respond with more than a feeble smile. We knocked on three doors before some owners answered. A large, elderly woman, looked at me in horror, and addressing me in French asked me what these men had done to me.
Général Oiseau assured her that they had done nothing, but until my father returned from war I would need some where to live. The woman took me in, giving the men suspicious looks, obviously not trusting Général Oiseau.
I got to see Général Oiseau rueful face one last time as he smiled and Siegfried waved before the woman slammed the door in my face, shutting off my view of the outside world and imprisoning me in the house.
Her name turned out to be Angeline, and she was a very nice woman. When the war ended we went back to my village to see whether any of my relations had come back, yet no one appeared, and I knew neither any names nor addresses, making it difficult for me to track down anyone.
Angeline didn’t mind having me, I was a third daughter to her – she had had to elder ones who had moved out, and she doted on me, making sure every one of my needs was met. The village was kind enough to support her financially, yet this was only, as I later found out, because they all thought the Germans had tortured me, or killed my mother, or in some other way acted as villains.
I knew the truth. I knew something I never mentioned to anyone for they wouldn’t have believed me. I knew that my Germans had been good, kind and loyal people. I knew the truth.