In Zurich, a frail young woman sits down in a café. On her arm is a tattooed number—a souvenir from her time in Bergen-Belsen. As far as the French government is concerned, she is a dead woman, a casualty of the concentration camps. But after a narrow escape, Lily de St-Germain is back, and ready to take revenge on everyone who buried her. When the war started, Lily fled the countryside for Paris, hoping to convince her husband to abandon his work at the Louvre and help get their children to safety in England. There she found him in the arms of her sister, a betrayal that pushed her into the ranks of the Résistance—that fearful band of partisans who taught her to kill, and forced her to survive. The war may end in 1945, but Lily’s battle will have only just begun.
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The Hunting Ground
By J. Robert Janes
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2013 J. Robert Janes
All rights reserved.
It was quiet now, no more fighting, no more tears. Through the tall French windows of the kitchen, I could see the children outside and I wondered, as I have so often of late, whether I ought to take them to England.
The Nazis were threatening war. First it was the Saarland, then Austria, then Czechoslovakia, and now Poland. Hitler wouldn't stop. France and Britain would have to go to Poland's aid, but if they did, and I took the children to England, Jules and I would part company—he'd never let me have the children, not if he could stop it. And anyway, who was to say France wouldn't keep the Germans out, but if she weakened and couldn't, what then?
The faded orange-red brick of the courtyard always trapped the sun, and I remember those bricks as if it were yesterday and I were still there: the warmth that emanated from them, the smell, the roughness. Jean-Guy was only seven when it all started, and I remember a day in late August 1939, remember the sight of him playing in the sandbox. He had mountains and valleys, roads and tunnels—bridges, railways, houses, farms, so many things, and I could understand, of course, why he had wanted it all to himself. Marie-Christine would have destroyed things—not intentionally, ah, no, she would want only to help or to build a little something herself. To dig perhaps.
Jean-Guy was so like Jules. You saw it in the pinched, aristocratic face, the hawkish nose, thin upper lip, tight smile, dark brown eyes that hid so much and tried so hard to analyse, sometimes with great success, sometimes with utter cruelty, believing as he had, that he'd said and done the right thing.
Totally committed to his play, he brought the train up to the station. I can still hear the lineman shouting in the near distance and see that one waving his lantern.
Then the train started up. Yes, yes, that train ... I can't ride one of those things, but I hear the sound of the wheels and remember. Marie-Christine was only three when it all started. Three!
She had placed herself safely under one of the pear trees. Not too close, yet close enough so as to be a constant reminder of the fight and to trouble the conscience of a brother whom she could both hate and love with equal passion.
Normally cheerful and industrious, Marie always painted boldly with the strength and flourish of her grandmother, whom she loved without question. Torn sheeting covered the dress, forming an enormous smock that trailed to her ankles. Sweat dampened the silky ash-blonde curls that would, in time, turn to an auburn through which the sun would shine copper-gold.
Now and then, the watercolours I no longer had time to use wouldn't mix with the water. At these times, she would scold the brush and talk sternly to the glass of water that was perched half on and half off the edge of the chair. She'd get thirsty, too, and drink the water. 'Red wine—yes, it was wine, maman.' Ah, mon Dieu, they had been so little, so innocent, and I ... why I had thought we might just get away with it.
The château—increasingly I had found myself wanting to call it that, to tell people I lived in this great big beautiful house in the woods on the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau, but it was really just a manor house, une maison de maître. Built in 1794, owned always by the de St-Germains, its pink stucco, grey trim, shutters, slate roof, and faded brickwork had the air of ruin about them as if, in just being there, they had stayed too long.
There were seventeen rooms, countless family heirlooms and priceless pieces of art, long corridors, a grand entrance, and a staircase, the huge and cluttered attic, the kitchen—our refuge—with its courtyard at the back. Nice ... Oh, for sure, it was nice, but it was also lonely and that, too, was a part of things.
There were no other houses around us, no neighbours, just Tante Marie and Georges who lived down the road in the cottage, housekeeper and gardener when it suited them or their loyalty to Jules.
In Fontainebleau, the shopkeepers tended to think Jules had money because he lived in such a big house and his family had once been well-off. Pah! How crazy it was. Far better to have lived on the farm near Barbizon with mother. There the people had earth and manure under their fingernails, and that was always good for building character if nothing else. Barbizon wasn't that far from the château—just six or seven kilometres through the forest, more by road, of course, but all the closer to Paris. Bien sûr, there were plenty of tourists, both in Barbizon, for the artists' colony that had once been there, and in Fontainebleau for the palais, the hunting lodge of kings. But who could be friends with tourists and the hordes from Paris when they took over everything, crowded the cafés and shops, and pushed you out of the way even though you lived nearby and had done so nearly all your life?
Yes, we should have stored the furniture and things and leased the château. Living off the income would have made life easier. Mother wouldn't have minded. She adored the children. After she had become used to having us, things would have been all right.
But I mustn't lie—not to myself. Paris ... I was only thinking of escaping to my lover, my husband, Jules.
I remember taking a handful of flour from the bin at my knees. Sprinkling it over the dough I'd been kneading, I blew stray strands of hair from my brow and cursed the heat from the wood-fired stove. Deftly, I shaped a loaf for Marie. It would be in the shape of a fish that day, with great big eyes and scales all down its back and sides. I would baste the loaves with beaten egg yolk and a little sugar to make the crust a golden brown and give the fish a bit of a glaze. Surely, a little sugar wouldn't hurt her teeth? Just a little.
Jean-Guy had started the fight by demanding the whole of the sandbox and his sister's brand-new shovel. He really ought to have been punished. I should make his loaf into the shape of an ugly toad. Yes, a toad.
This I couldn't do. He had asked for a tiger. Every day, he reminded me of his father.
Covering the loaves with a damp cloth, I set them to rise some more on the shelf above the old iron range. Wiping my hands on my apron, I tried to tidy my hair but knew it would only be a mess. Jules was then forty, a professor of art history at the Sorbonne. I had met him there and we had fallen in love, he eight years older than I. We had been married for seven years before it all started. Well almost. Well, six-and-a-half. Jean-Guy had decided things.
Jules had liked younger women but ... why, I'd been the younger one, just twenty-five and full of happiness, eager, so eager for life. Jean-Guy had been born that spring, a short two months after the wedding. Thank God for the château then, for the loneliness it provided.
Like so many of the French intelligentsia, Jules expected me to be housewife and mother, to cook his meals, do his laundry, look after his family's house, and never question why he was staying overnight in Paris, the weekends, too.
Lots of the girls had worshipped him. I'd been a fool to ignore things. Janine, my little sister, had been almost at the same age as I had. Twenty-six and ripe for mischief. A dangerous situation. Something had had to be done. We had to have money, too. Jules had expected it to grow on trees, I suppose. I only know he wanted to go on living as his father had.
Yes, money. That had been a part of it. Money and my sister.
The children played in the warmth of the sun and quiet of the garden. I took off my apron and washed my hands and face at the pump by the sink. Then I ran a comb through my hair and went outside to study their handiwork.
'C'est une chatte, maman. Une grosse chatte!'
Marie-Christine stood back too. Paint-covered fingers gripped one chubby cheek and pulled the lower eyelid down as she looked up at me and then at the painting. 'Babette,' she said. 'The cat, it is named Babette.'
I adopted a wise and thoughtful air. 'But it's such a frightening cat. Am I to think it must be chasing a mouse?'
'It has already caught one,' she confessed shyly.
The eye was a little inflamed. A speck of sand from the fight? I wondered anxiously. 'Darling, don't look at me like that,' I said, betraying my very English side, my irritability.
She blinked. Tears rushed into her great big eyes. I crouched and, heedless of the paint, took her into my arms. Lifting her up, saying, 'Oh, my, you're getting heavy!' I stood there studying the painting.
Droplets, blotches, bold strokes, and swaths of colour had been blended harmoniously and that was the remarkable thing. At three years of age, the child had an artist's eye. There was even a faint suggestion of a tail. As for the rest of the cat, I was certain she could see it.
'Ah, bon, you're a painter, chérie. Another Millet or Rousseau, one of the Barbizon school. No, wait a moment. Cézanne, I think. Yes, you have that boldness. Some day you will be a great artist, or maybe even a potter like your grandmother.'
Taking a corner of the smock, I dried her eyes and dabbed at the paint on her cheek. Her nose was cool, the lips warm and wet. I tidied her hair and ran a smoothing hand over her brow.
Not for a moment did those hazel eyes leave mine. They were so innocent and full of love. Just like mine had once been before it all began.
'Paris, please. The Sorbonne. Department of Art History. Yes, Operator, I know the lines are still bad. Yes, of course, I'll wait. Look, I want to speak to Jules de St-Germain.'
Zurich is a lovely city and they've let me out of the clinic for the afternoon. The nurse who accompanies me has asked to do a bit of shopping.
I return to the table and wait for my call. Out over the lake, the water shimmers under the alpine sun. The air, it is so pure and good, but I can't breathe in deeply, not yet. They say it may take years.
Even coffee is too much. I have to drink it well watered, and preferably made from roasted barley and acorns. The ersatz stuff. Caffeine is still too much even though it's the autumn of 1945, and I've been out of Bergen-Belsen for nearly six months, the last two of which have been spent in this place.
Rare in this city, and beautiful, sunlight glints from the coffeepot. It may take an hour for that call to get through. Everything's in such a shambles except for here. Almost the whole of Europe's been torn to pieces. It's crazy being able to sit on a terrace like this among everyday people who enjoy a smoke, cuddle tiny dogs, read a newspaper, eat cake, or stir coffee.
They can't know why I listen all the time for the sound of hobnailed boots or for the shrieks, or wait for the beating that must come before the bullet or the axe.
'Madame, your call to Paris.'
It's such a civilized thing, the telephone, so everyday the touch of it makes my hands tremble as I hear the operator saying, 'Paris, you must wait. Allô ... allô, is that Zurich?'
'Your party's on the line.'
'Is that Jules de St-Germain?' I ask.
There's silence at the other end, the crackling of a bad connection. 'Oui, c'est moi, c'est Jules de St-Germain.'
'Le mari de Lily?'
Again, there's silence. 'Yes ... yes, I was once her husband.'
'Ah, bon, monsieur.' That's all I say. I hold the receiver from me and I hear him cursing:
'Are you the one who sent that thing to me?'
I put the receiver down. The man behind the counter looks questioningly, but I walk out to my table to sit in the sun, to shut my eyes, and to remember.
My name is Lily Hollis—Lily de St-Germain, though I'd love to delete that upper class de. I didn't choose to do what I did. Me, I'm ashamed to have survived.
You see, the death sentence had been passed long ago and the order had finally come down. We went out behind the hut. I remember that it was raining and that there was a wooden chopping block standing in a sea of mud. There were boot prints all around it. We could hear the guns of the approaching British. It was only a matter of hours until our liberation and yet these bastards were going to kill us.
Seven ... there were seven of us women. Some fell to their knees to pray. Some stood erect and tried to sing the "Marseillaise." I reached for Michèle's hand and was struck hard across the face.
The rain ... April's a wretched month in the lowlands to the north of Hanover. There was always water everywhere. It dripped constantly through the roof and from the fir trees.
The axe came down. Michèle turned swiftly towards me. 'Lily ... Lily ...'
I held her. I felt her frail body trembling. I couldn't stop her tears; she was far too young.
Another of us was grabbed and flung to her knees before that thing. A boot pressed the head down as if it were a log. The axe went up ...
In the confusion of those last hours at Bergen-Belsen, all but one of us died. Stricken by what had just tumbled in front of me, I was conscious only of a burst of orders, all in German. The sounds of gunfire.
Guards and executioner fled. The axe was left lying on the ground. Michèle Chevalier's lovely brown eyes stared up at me.
I knelt. I remember reaching out to her, but I couldn't stop shaking. Her hair had always been so like my daughter's but, of course, they'd cut it off and shaved our heads again.
All dead ... all of them. Both the men and the women, my comrades-in-arms. Tommy Carrington and Nicki. My sister, Janine. Even my two children—I'm certain they're dead. Certain! Me, I was the only one to live. Can you imagine what a burden that's been?
I think it was a British corporal who discovered me some hours later. I know someone took me to a senior officer who said, 'My God, get her out of here.'
The number on the inside of my lower left forearm is blue, and when I press a finger against the skin, its seven digits open out a little and their edges are blurred.
Lily Hollis—Lily de St-Germain. No matter how hard I rub, this number will never go away, and I know that somewhere there's a record of my name against it. There were so many of us in the camps—millions, I suppose. Such confusion at the end. Still, it's only a matter of time until the doctors and nurses discover who I am.
But for now everyone thinks Lily de St-Germain is dead, that she died by execution in Bergen-Belsen.
You see, mes amis, I've sent them all their little black pasteboard coffins just like we did with the collabos during the Occupation, each with their name in white chalk on the lid, a large cross at the top, and at the foot, between the two V's-for-Victory, the cross of Lorraine, and I've come back to remind them of what they did.
The children were having their rest or private time. Hopefully, Marie-Christine would be sleeping, for Tante Marie and Georges had come. Freed for an hour, I left the house but, at the road, paused to look back as if I couldn't leave them yet.
The château was partially screened by beeches and cedars of Lebanon. Framed by tall, spiked iron gates, it was seen across a lawn that needed cutting and was bleached by the sun. Smoke trailed above the grey slate roof, thinning as it merged with the cloudless sky.
Tante Marie would look after the rest of the baking. Though she'd complain about the quality of the bread, she and Georges would eat it well enough.
I remember that I smiled then and gave a gentle laugh, for I liked the two of them and thought they must like me, though it was often hard to tell.
Brick-red flowerpots full of crimson geraniums flanked the low stone steps to the front entrance. The doors were almost French windows, for the panes of glass didn't quite extend to the floor but stopped at a quarter panelling of wood. In the storey above, the windows were French but there were no fanlights, they were simply tall and rectangular, their balconies being an expense that was never added. Shadows made the glass appear dark and rippled.
There were five of these windows upstairs, and together with their open shutters, they occupied very nearly the whole of the wall. Above them, there were two gabled windows in the attic. Four chimneys marked the ends of the main part of the house. On the west side, however, the wing was a storey-and-a-half. Recessed, too, from the main wall, it had its own door and a window upstairs but with curved lintels of cut stone, not fanlights. Here, too, there was a chimney on the outer wall.
It was an imposing house. Stolidly French and looking of wealth, but smelling of mould and decay.
Excerpted from The Hunting Ground by J. Robert Janes. Copyright © 2013 J. Robert Janes. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Gtg to bed soooper tiredr ill go huntin tomorrow meet me at camp then well come back here