These were the original opening and closing scenes, which were removed during the editing process. A young German student comes to Alix Lenan’s home under the pretext that he is researching the summer of 1944 for a university project, but he is lying.
I still like them a lot.
It’s ringing. Once. Twice. Maybe she’s not home? Wait. Old people always take a long time to pick up the phone…
“…Allo, oui… Bonjour, Madame. Madame Lenan?”
“Oui, c’est bien moi…?”
Her voice is steady, barely a note of fragility. I hope I don’t sound as nervous as I feel.
“Je m’appelle Helge Hartmann. Je suis étudiant… Histoire et Littérature Française. I’m working on a project on the Vercors…”
“…You mean the Resistance?”
“Yes, yes, precisely. I was hoping that you might be able to help me. Since you were here at the time, you might remember…”
A soft laughter at the other end of the line. My embarrassed stammering is amusing her. “I’m afraid the things I remember would not be very interesting to a History student.”
“Doch… I mean, yes, I would be so interested if you don’t mind. The personal experience is what I’m looking for, I wouldn’t take too much time…”
Does she mean yes, I see, or yes, you can come? I’m afraid to ask. What if she finds me rude? Another rude, presumptuous German intruder. What if she refuses to talk to me once she realizes who I am?
“Monsieur Hartmann?” she asks softly, almost indulgently. “When would you like to come?”
“I’m right here, in the village. I could just…”
“Oh, that’s wonderful. I’ll just wait for you here.”
The yard is overgrown, no noise from the mill. It looks abandoned. The door is framed by two extravagantly red geraniums.
“Come in,” she says before I have time to knock.
I go in. It’s dark inside. Unlike us these people don’t like to bring home the sunlight or the views, however beautiful. Secrets. I feel them in the room. So many picture frames, so many faces. I can feel their eyes on me.
“Monsieur Hartmann,” she says from her armchair by the fireplace, “thank you for coming.”
“No, it’s me, I’m so grateful that you allow…”
“Please, sit down,” she says, pointing to a chair next to her, “and tell me again who you are.”
I repeat my introduction. The eyes in the picture frames are drilling through me. I can feel their suspicion, their hostility. They know I’m lying.
“That’s interesting,” she says. “A number of people have come to me with questions, students like you, associations, once even a real writer. But you’re the first German.”
As she says these last words her smile does not change. It seems carved between the lines crisscrossing her face. But I feel the pressure of something boiling behind it as she looks at me. “And your French is quite good,” she adds with a complimentary nod.
She’s not angry. The weight lifts off my chest. “I’m particularly interested in what happened here in the spring of 1944, between the Maquis―C2 it was called, no?”
“C2, that’s right.”
“Between C2, the Militia, and the German forces stationed in the area.”
She seems so sorry. For me. “You will not like what you hear.”
“I know. But it’s important not to lie about the past.”
She leans back in her armchair. “Look on the table. That big stack of papers. It’s everything I know. Stories I used to tell my son, my grandchildren. Memories, dreams. I can’t really take them apart anymore. La petite, Marielle, she’s put it all together so it makes sense, typed it all on her computer… She says it makes a good book. Take it.”
I stare at the pile of papers on the table. I can’t believe my luck. “Are you sure?”
“Take it, take it, it will be easier than to listen to an old lady’s rambling. You’ll be the first one to read it. Marielle will be happy.”
The cliff in front of me glows gold and pink before slowly sinking in the velvet of the night. That’s when I realize. I watch the darkness gather under the cliffs. It spreads, it crawls up along the walls, filling the lines in the rock with shadows, stretching. It reaches the jagged line of the crests and from there, from the very edge of the cliff, soars into the sky where it fades among the stars. Night doesn’t fall on the Vercors, it rises.
I wish the story would end here. But it doesn’t, and I know what happens next. A disaster. No Mediterranean landing, no backup. When the paratroopers come, they are German. While in London strategists are weighing timing, tactics, and already obsolete command structures, the small army of the Vercors, the first Maquis of France, its first free republic under Nazi occupation, is abandoned to its fate. For six weeks they fight with fierce and sometimes desperate courage a force twenty times superior in size, equipment, and training. But they are slaughtered, unspeakably tortured in some cases―too many sawmills in these mountains. Hundreds are deported to their death. So the Vercors lost its battle. Who remembers? A battle like any others, with its heroes, its villains, its innocent victims, its martyrs, a battle that doesn’t matter. I must look at the pictures carefully when I see her again.
“Alors, vous avez trouvé ce que vous cherchiez?”
I’m not sure what she means. My face goes blank, and her eyes sparkle as if she was enjoying it.
“What you were looking for…” She looks at me, so tiny between the pillows of her armchair. “The torment, the pain, the shame for what you did to us…”
“I…” I stop to collect my thoughts. Not only is she ahead of me, but so far ahead and so precisely close to the truth that I feel she’s been waiting all these years for me to come. I get up to look at the pictures. Now I recognize them all. Eusèbe sitting on a chair with Césarina standing behind him, her hands resting on his shoulders. Régis leaning against the frame of the bandsaw, eyes so clear they look almost white. And there she is at eighteen, huddled against a man in civilian clothes, smiling. The same man in another frame. A close shot at his face, tired, unshaven, I can distinguish the layers of crumpled fabric and heavy straps of a field uniform that makes him look broad. He’s young. He’s young on all the pictures.
“Yes, this is Marc,” she says. “The last picture he sent me.”
I don’t know why, but my throat tightens. I don’t even know him, or her for that matter.
“He did make it through that dreadful summer. With what was left of his unit he joined the Southern Vercors groups and they went on to take Roman and Valence. And then it was beautiful. They made contact with Leclerc’s army, the French army, and he was made a real Lieutenant. Then he followed them north… and he fell somewhere… far away from here, on German soil. We didn’t get married, everything went too fast, the city halls were upside down, and the church for us… well, it was out of the question.”
“But the child… Were you pregnant with his child?”
“His child, yes, a boy.”
“Who never knew his father.”
“He never met his father,” she corrected, “but he knows him. He knows him well. Marc never left us. I didn’t know at first, I cried all the time. I think it scared him. He didn’t dare come too close. Then little by little I felt him, between the tears. When I gave him a chance, so to speak. You have to be careful with souls. They’re easily worried.”
I find the picture of their son. Tall, skinny, he has his mother’s blonde hair.
“That’s him,” she says. “His name is Marc, like his father, Lenan, like mine.”
“But wasn’t Marc just a war name?”
She smiles and declines to answer. “Would you like something to drink? A drop of walnut wine? That bottle right there. Give me a glass too.”
I fill two small glasses with the dark reddish-brown liquid, and hand one to her.
She takes a sip. “Now, your turn,” she says. “Tell me why you’re really here.”
No. This time I won’t let her throw me off. I taste the wine―delicious―and lean back in my chair. “Well, you see…”
“You came for him, didn’t you?”
“What do you mean?”
“You have his eyes.”
Mt first impulse is to get up and leave. But her gaze holds me nailed to my chair, and I’ve been a coward up till now anyway. “I’m so sorry,” I whisper, and the weight goes off my chest.
“Hurry,” she says.
“I found a letter in my mother’s papers. It was addressed to a woman named Maria Kraft, from her brother, Hans Rieder. It contained information about a child she was to bring back to Germany.”
“I never had his child. He never touched me.”
“I know. But convinced it would happen, he had already made the arrangements. Maria was my great-grandmother.”
She looked at me. Her smile disappears and something like pity washes over her eyes.
“I can still hear his voice. Blood is old, Alix, and blood remembers everything.” She winks as if to say that she’s tired of him making the same old argument for the past seventy years. “Listen. Blood is smart too. It knows how to sort things out, the evil and the beautiful. And sometimes it cries because things go astray. Hans… He was not meant to become what he became. But I couldn’t tell him then. One day you’ll understand that, and you’ll stop being afraid of who you are.”
I turn back to the pictures on the cupboard, just to hide my face. I know that if I say one word, I will cry. Stuck under the wooden frame of the wall mirror is the picture of a little girl with wet auburn hair. She’s hugging a dog.
“Ecoute, Petit,” she says, “I didn’t say a word about him. It was never the right time and I didn’t want to be bothered by all these people, the cops, the newspapers, the witnesses… He’s still there under the stones of the waterfall… It’s a nice place to rest.”
“Oh, and it’s such a good thing you came. I had started to wonder whether all these things had really happened… with no one left to remember but me. If only I could…” She fidgets between her pillows, her hands pull weakly at the armrests. “I wish you could… How long are you staying already?”
“A few more days. I thought I would try to locate the places you mentioned in your memoires…”
“That’s what I mean. Ma mémoire. Go and see. The castle. The cottage. The caves. It’s all there. Go and see quick. The monastery. The waterfalls. Marielle knows. She will show you. She knows.”