It’s that time of the year, again. The time when the secrets hidden beneath layers of snow start sprouting, scattering seeds of magic in the soft breeze. I’m running along Main Street, past the cheerful throngs, past Derby’s café with its tempting fragrance of cookies, fresh from the oven. The mellow sunshine caresses my cheeks as I weave in and out of the crowd, my merry laughter echoing across the sun-washed world.
I spot my mother in the crowd. She’s coming closer and closer, her smile as bright as the spring morning. But, then…she stops. A shadow descends upon her face. I try reaching out to her, but my legs won’t move. Slowly, she starts fading away into a mysterious mist settling all around. I can hear her voice, a desperate cry for help, growing fainter and fainter, till it is no more.
The mist fades. But, the cheerful crowds seem to have vapourised into it. I call out for my mother. No response. My own cries echo back to me. Alone I stand- just me and my echoes, amidst the deafening silence of the once lively Main Street.
With a jolt, I sit up in bed, gasping for breath. Could I be dreaming again? That same nightmare returning to haunt my restless sleep? Yet, it felt so real, so close. I could almost feel the warmth of her arms. Will we ever meet again? Will they be safe? The drab, white walls glare back like the fragile remnants of life.
How long has it been since I left home? One by one, the memories rise- my mother’s tearful eyes, the tremor in my father’s voice as they bade goodbye. Tears streaming down my cheeks, I turned and walked…and walked. Should I have refused to leave?
A thousand ‘what-if’s come floating in. My mind gropes about for answers in the shadows of memory-lane, in the times before it all went wrong.
The blood-stained swastika was spreading its claws. The unrest sweeping across the continent had not yet reached Calanques- a small fishing town tucked away in a corner of Marseille, on the Mediterranean coast. Not many had heard of this charming little town or its adjoining beach. Tourists seldom came that way.
But, Calanques had its own charm. There was rhythm in those waves crashing into foam on the beach, in the sea-breeze rippling across the town. On holidays, the silent beach would come back to life with giggling children collecting seashells or building sand-castles again and again, no matter how many times the waves swept those castles away.
The horrors of war rattling Paris had not yet managed to shake this dreamy little town out of its reverie. The morning papers would bring in a bit of darkness from the world outside…rounding up of Jews, ghettos, concentration camps. Yet, it was a distant nightmare- one that couldn’t come true at least in France… in Calanques. But, as months passed and the dangers came nearer home, the folk looked on in disbelief, refusing to accept.
My father would say, with a smirk, “We’ve the blood of Marie-Antoinette on our guillotine. What can Hitler do, to us?”
Yet, Paris fell. Just a few months later. I remember his face turning deathly pale, as he gazed at the setting sun, fear in his blank eyes. That was the beginning of the end.
Since then, the magic of Calanques started waning away. Smiles were milder, eyes spoke of sad resignation. Sometimes, with wistful sighs, they’d gaze at the waters. As if, they could taste the freedom of England across the seas, just by delving deeper into the twilight. How they wished they had escaped in time! But now it was too late. The sun was setting faster than ever. Even children seemed to feel it. For, when the waves crashed down on their precious sandcastles, they didn’t care to rebuild them anymore.
One evening, I sat in the garden, my little dog, Rob beside me. As I breathed in the lavender-scented breeze, pondering over it all, my mother came outside.
“We need to talk,” she said. I knew that look on her face.
“Pack your stuff up. You’re leaving tomorrow,” she went on.
As I looked on in shock, she handed me a paper.
“Now onwards, you’re Sister Aimee. You stay at the church. Remember that. You aren’t Liesel anymore,” she declared. Her words were firm; her mind made up.
I felt a lump in my throat.
“And y’all?” I asked.
“We’ll remain here. The Church is just a walk away.”
I pleaded with her to let me stay. But, that look… knew it. She refused to take a ‘No’.
The night was long. I stroked Rob’s warm, golden coat, as the stars disappeared into fainter shades of grey. In my mind, I tried to paint a perfect picture of my room, as it looked at that moment.
Hours passed. Soon, it was time to leave. My mother hugged me for the last time.
“If there’s God above, we’ll meet again,” she whispered.
Turning back, through tear-drenched eyes, I could still see my parents waving, Rob wagging his tail as I walked away.
The morning bell shakes me out of my reverie. With a sigh, I drag myself up for another long day.
Each day feels like a year. In a sad monotony, they trickle by into weeks. A month goes by.
It always starts as a distant boom. Like thunder rolling beyond the hills. It comes nearer and closer, turning into bombshells crashing into the silence of my sleep- just another of my many nightmares.
With a start, I open my eyes. But, this time, it doesn’t go away. It feels very near, maybe right below my window. The sun is yet to rise. There’s a faint, pinkish glow in the skies. What could it be for, so early in the morning? With drowsy eyes, I peep out. My heart skips a beat.
Down there, their hungry bayonets sniggering back at us, they pass in heavy vehicles, roaring along to the little town by the beach. Their swastika stands high in the once-soothing sea-breeze.
I wish it’s a dream… just a dream I can wake up from.
The morning-bells ring, as though from a faraway world. I hear footsteps outside my door. I drag myself out. There’s a strange fear on every face. I catch the word “Calanques” many times. And I realise, for sure, it’s not a dream.
I need to go home, see them once. Just once. But, the Church won’t let me. It had been a pre-condition. “It’ll endanger many lives,” they had said.
I need to find a way out. Right now.
With a sigh, I let my mind wander, a bit. The world still feels such a beautiful place. As if, there’s no war. As though, the Nazis never occupied France.
Sunlight streams in through the open windows. The flower-laden branch of a tree on the sidewalk peeps into my room.
Like a lightning bolt, it flashes across my mind. A plan. A bit tough. Can I do it?
For the first time in months, I see a light at the end of the tunnel.
A deep silence prevails over the land. The world is finally asleep.
I tiptoe my way to the open windows. The flower-laden branch shivers gently in the breeze- a flickering flame of hope. I pull myself up onto it. It creaks, shedding off flowers into the darkness below. Clinging on to it, I cross the boundary-wall and land on the pavement.
How long has it been since I last took a deep breath and smiled? To my own surprise, I feel a speck of something that looks like happiness.
The road to Calanques awaits me now. I’m finally going home…home! I can imagine my mother’s frown, on finding me there, right in the jaws of danger. But, I’m going not as Liesel, but as Sister Aimee. And, I’ll be back before the morning-bells.
Sweet hopes of reunion playing in my mind, I walk towards home. It’s a cloudy night. From time to time, the moon peeps out from behind the pall to light up my lonely path. But, I don’t need the moon tonight. I know these lanes like the back of my palm. The darkness can shelter me from prying eyes, from lurking soldiers.
Eerie darkness seems to have descended upon the town. The uncanny silence is shattered by occasional hoots of an owl in the distance. Not a single street-light is working. I wonder why. Walking past the shops on Main Street, I turn a bend.
One after the other, they stand- the same, old houses- spectres in an ocean of darkness. Not a speck of light, not a trace of a human voice anywhere. An ominous foreboding starts creeping in.
I reach home. The garden-gate is wide open. But, the familiar lavender-scented breeze from the flowerbeds no longer greets me. There’s a melancholic fragrance in the air.
I take another deep breath. I’m going to meet them. Any moment now. Furtively glancing around once, I knock at the door. It swings open under my touch. How could they forget to lock it? In these turbulent times?
There’s pitch darkness throughout the house. I can hear my own heartbeat.
“Mamma! Daddy!” I call, in a soft voice. No response. Could they be asleep? But, Rob always knows when I’m around. He’d always come running, wagging his tail, covering my face with happy licks. Where is he now? Where’s his excited bark?
Lost in dark premonitions, I take a step forward. Something pricks my foot. I scramble about for my torch. It’s a piece of shattered glass. But where did it come from? Slowly, I flash the light around.
The expensive porcelain vase- my parents’ wedding gift, lies smashed into pieces. All around me are shards of broken glass, amidst the overturned coffee-tables. The ornamental teapots, reserved for special occasions lie in pieces, along with the brass Hanukkah candle stand- dented, broken, on the floor.
Through the mess, I spot them- muddy prints left behind by heavy boots- leading up the staircase.
Are they okay? Shouting for my parents, I rush upstairs to their room. No one there. The wardrobe is smashed open. My mother’s collection of party-dresses had been well-known all over town. Many a drowsy afternoon, she’d spend making them. Now they lie, soiled and tattered amidst the muddy prints. Her precious jewellery lie scattered across the room. But, where can my parents be?
The marks lead all the way to my room. The only room left to be searched. A part of me wishes they’d pop out from there. A part of me longs to pause for a moment and cherish hope. Yet, fear takes over. I peep in. Nothing but the bed is intact anymore.
Numbness sweeps over me. I plop down on a corner of my bed. This used to be home… my home. The place where I spent my entire childhood. Where every nook has a memory– a secret to hold. Now it’s all gone- my family, my memories, my…life.
Amidst the ruins, I spot that dress- my favourite dress- a gift on my last birthday. I feel its softness between my fingers.
For a long time, I have not let myself feel anything. Anything at all. For, to feel, to realise is death. I remember my mother’s parting advice. You remain blind as long as you can. You let the days just pass by. Allow yourself to feel the fear once and you’re doomed. You lose your urge to go on.
Yet, now, the floodgates seem to have given away. I feel my long-suppressed sobs rise as tears roll down my cheeks onto the soft fabric of the dress.
Time flows by. The eastern skies start lighting up. Soon, it’ll be time for the morning-bells. But, I’ve made up my mind. I’m not going back. With bleary eyes, I look at the identification papers-
Aimee Dupont. A blurry smile.
I tear it up into pieces. Putting on my favourite dress, I wipe the last drop of tear, take a final look at my room and with a sigh, walk out into the morning.
I find my Rob in the midst of a trampled flower bed. From a distance, he looks asleep. Yet, a closer look reveals the bullet through his head. His warm furry body has gone cold. I stroke it one last time.
The nightmare has come to life. I pass the deserted shops on Main Street. I walk past Derby’s café. They all look just the same. As if, Derby would step out any moment with her warm pancakes, her cheerful smile. Yet, the crowds are gone…all gone. Life has frozen in this land.
Past the playground, I walk along. These merry-go-rounds will never again ring with the laughter of children. It looks like some magician has cast a spell and Calànques has fallen asleep. Only it’s a sleep no prince, no kiss could ever wake her up from.
What lies beyond the last trace of fear? Maybe, a strange emptiness. Maybe, liberation.
The deserted beach stretches before me. No giggling children here anymore. Just the sea and her haunting song.
I’m building a sand-castle. Like I used to as a child. The grains of sand trickle through my fingers. For a moment, I gaze at the sea. Far far beyond these seas, on some distant shores, lies freedom. But, I don’t want to escape anymore. My brown tresses wave proudly in the breeze. The kind they like to throw in ghettos or murder in concentration camps.
Daylight seeps across the skies. The morning-bells ring out far away. As it fades, echoing through the rocks, I hear footsteps behind on the sand. Many of them. And a hoarse voice growing louder. They’re asking for my name. I turn around. There they stand- arrogant swastikas on their uniform, and those heavy boots that left their muddy marks all over my home.
“Liesel Kohn,” I answer, looking straight into those ruthless blue eyes.
Their lips curl in a sneer. They smell my Jewish blood. There’s a satisfaction in their eyes- that of a tiger doubling down upon its prey.
A wave of anger overwhelms me.
“Murderers!” I mutter through gritted teeth.
A sudden shove. I land on the beach, my forehead touching the wet sand. My sandcastle collapses beneath their heavy boots. I feel the cold teeth of the bayonet on my neck.
Their mocking laughter resonates throughout the silent beach. I don’t care. Not anymore. The sea still shimmers under the young sun. It sends its tear-drenched sighs to my beloved Calanques.
A boom. They pull the trigger. A peaceful curtain of darkness descends.
In that vacuum, it floats around – that promise – “We’ll meet again on the other side.”
Note: The author has taken artistic liberties with the setting.
This is an entry in ArtoonsInn ArttrA-5 hosted at Writers Room.
This ArttrA is sponsored by Tanima Das Mitra, Claws Club Member – ArtoonsInn, and hosted by the Watchers of ArtoonsInn.
Prompt: A soft breeze stirs the leaves that have fallen on the pavement. Otherwise, the street is tidy and beautifully maintained, just like the quiet houses neatly arranged along its side. Just like the vacant shop fronts along quaint Main Street nearby. Just like the silent playground. Where is everyone?
Cover Photo By Pixabay
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