|Oct/Nov 2013 Fiction|
Electronic/fiber artwork by Phillip Stearns
In 1944 the Boches are everywhere, not just in Paris. The greatest fear is falling into their hands and coming to their special attention.
"Annette, make sure you practice your German phrases, and color your hair, every two weeks. Every two weeks, do you hear me?"
"Maman, my hair is practically falling out, it's brittle, and I hate the smell."
"Well, it's important, Annette. Mine's white already, but yours isn't, so it's important that you make it blond."
"If it's so important that we have a Jewish ancestor somewhere on Papa's side, then why don't we leave like others have done?"
"Because, my darling, Papa is ill, and I am old, and we don't have a chance to start a new life elsewhere."
"Maman, I'm old enough, I'll take care of you both. We should go."
"Annette, it would kill Papa, and it might kill me, too. We're too old to start over."
So Annette colors her hair. The Boches now swarm all over Strasbourg, and everybody lives under a cloud of fear. One day they come to Annette's house to interrogate her parents, but not Annette herself. Not yet, she assumes. She sits in the garden, crying with fear and with shame. And with frustration. And lack of hope.
"Vous voyez comme une déesse," a man says behind her, and she is so taken by surprise that she laughs out loud despite her despair and in the face of all common sense. She quickly sobers up and tells him that she speaks German. Immediately he asks, in German, why she laughed like that, and she feels fear go through her like a blast turning all her muscles to mush. She can barely sit upright. She reaches for the closest tree to steady herself. He tells her to look at him and to tell him. So she looks at him, and his eyes are kind.
"You said I see like a goddess," she explains. "You probably meant to say I look like one."
"Then you must teach me to keep my French in better order," he says.
"If you want me to."
"I do," he says. "I am Adjutant Fuchs. And you're the daughter of the house?"
She nods. She knows he is constantly keeping his eyes on her with a proprietary kind of gaze, and she in turn tries to look his way as little as possible. She hates her own submissiveness and knows it can't be helped. "I am called Annette Stein."
"Then you're really partly German," he says.
She doesn't say anything in response, but when he touches her arm, she trembles so much that she feels her skin is going to simply fly off her bones.
For several weeks she teaches him French for an hour each day. He brings her presents of food at times and tobacco for her father, who doesn't smoke but hoards it to pass along to others in exchange for other things. Her family is left alone, conspicuously so, because neighbors start to behave strangely, becoming more distant, which hurts her mother deeply. Annette can tell. Her father is too ill to be out and about much, so he hardly notices. Annette keeps dyeing her hair to a color Adjutant Fuchs declares more than once he thinks is beautiful. Little does he know.
It is summer, and as often as the weather and the long hours of daylight permit, they have their daily lesson outside. He is always polite. He starts calling her Annette. That seems only normal. He also tells her his first name, Florian. But coax as he will, she cannot possibly call him by his first name, much less can she use the informal form of address with him, "tu" or "du," except in impersonal examples of language, of which he then proceeds to make quite a game. But in real life communications she addresses him formally, and, to her surprise, so does he with her, despite also continuing to call her by her first name. She starts trusting his good will, though his presence feels awkward to her, clumsy and heavy. Perhaps it is her fear of him as a Boche that makes her feel that way. One time he tries to kiss her, and she looks so terrified that he abandons the attempt, says a regretful two-syllable word, "Naja," and never repeats the attempt.
After four months he is called away from Strasbourg and stationed elsewhere. He leaves her and her family a large stash of tins. Then one night their house goes up in flames. Her father's weak heart doesn't make it through that night. There is a cursory investigation, but the fire isn't of any great importance at the time to anyone besides her and her mother, what with so many other war-time calamities occurring left and right. Her mother dies shortly afterwards, both of her parents before the war ends, which end they would have enjoyed witnessing.
Annette gets by, living in a room she rents from a friendly spinster school teacher. There is no money to have the house rebuilt. In fact, for the time being nobody has any money, not even to buy the land from her and develop it for themselves.
Life doesn't turn out to be what it had promised to be, or what she believed, promise or no promise, it would be. She works as a seamstress in a small clothing factory, doing some of the finer needlework that can't be sent down the mechanical production line, not with the state of the art of then current machinery. Sometimes in the evenings she goes to visit the ruins of her old home and just sits there, looking into the past and trying to see the future. In the summer when the weather is nice, she goes almost daily. She sits on the long stone wall that is left standing, cleaned now from ashes by years of rain and sanitized by the scorching of the sun.
One day in 1948, a shadow steps out from among fruit trees now left to grow wild for birds and squirrels and adventurous children who don't mind playing among the ruins.
"I couldn't forget you," he says. He is no longer Adjutant Fuchs, but plain Florian Fuchs. One of his arms is missing. He says it doesn't matter. He also says it doesn't matter about her hair, which is no longer blond, but brown, and, he insists, very attractive. He is now studying for the ministry, and she is glad he is alive.
His presence still feels heavy to her. The whole situation feels heavy, with him stepping out of the trees after so much loss, after so much animosity and fear. She isn't sure what her feelings are exactly, but she is grateful for his willingness to be her friend, and she is touched by his tales of carrying her around in his heart even while they were officially each other's enemies.
They are married as soon as his theological studies are completed, and they decide to emigrate to the United States rather than stay in either one of their formerly warring countries. They are young enough for that kind of courage. They are young enough for the three children they create together. They are young enough to start a new existence, she in a country she already wanted to go to once anyway, and he in the ministry where he finds standing up for God a much gentler discipline than standing up for Hitler.
When they get to New York Harbor, having dutifully admired the Statue of Liberty with both anticipation and apprehension, they stand in the immigration office, separated by a glass divider from the immigration officer.
"You're Mr. and Mrs. Fuchs?" the officer asks.
"What does it mean?"
"Your name," the officer clarifies. His complexion is peculiarly ruddy. "Does it mean anything in English?"
"Yes. It means fox."
"Permit me to issue your green cards with the English name. Mr. and Mrs. Fox. Trust me. It is better."
They are confused but feel obliged to trust him, and they certainly do not want to cause any trouble of delay or other inconvenience to themselves. If the immigration officer says they must be called Fox, then they will be called Fox. Later Florian changes his name, informally and for practical purposes, to Fred. Annette's name doesn't appear to be in need of any adjustments.
They spend a good 20 years together in the New Country, and he is much respected in the community despite his never quite eradicated German accent, which at first offends some people in his congregation because they have lost brothers, fathers, and sons on account of Hitler's ambitions. Annette is respected, too, but that is not surprising. The French hadn't offended anyone very deeply of late.
The last words he says to her before he dies are these: "Vous voyez comme une déesse." Then she laughs and cries and believes that she has loved him all along, that dashing, formerly blond man who once made her tremble with such fear.