The medieval villa dominated a deeply green, forested hillside. It looked like something in a confectioner’s shopwindow; a castle sculpted of caramel, with spun-sugar windows and shutters the color of candied apples. Far below, a deep blue lake absorbed the reflection of the clouds. Manicured gardens allowed the villa’s occupants—and, more important, their guests—to stroll about the grounds, where only acceptable topics were to be discussed.
In the formal dining room, Isabelle Rossignol sat stiffly erect at the white-clothed table that easily accommodated twenty-four diners. Everything in this room was pale. Walls and floor and ceiling were all crafted of oyster-hued stone. The ceiling arched into a peak nearly twenty feet overhead. Sound was amplified in this cold room, as trapped as the occupants.
Madame Dufour stood at the head of the table, dressed in a severe black dress that revealed the soup spoon–sized hollow at the base of her long neck. A single diamond brooch was her only adornment (one good piece, ladies, and choose it well; everything makes a statement, nothing speaks quite so loudly as cheapness). Her narrow face ended in a blunt chin and was framed by curls so obviously peroxided the desired impression of youth was quite undone. “The trick,” she was saying in a cultivated voice, clipped and cut, “is to be completely quiet and unremarkable in your task.”
Opportunity walked into Eve Gardiner’s life dressed in tweed.
She was late for work that morning, but her employer didn’t notice when she slipped through the law office doors ten minutes after nine. Sir Francis Galborough rarely noticed anything outside his racing pages, Eve knew. “Here are your files, m’dear,” he said as she came in.
She took the stack in slim unmarked hands: a tall girl with nut-brown hair, soft skinned, deceptively doe eyed. “Yes, s-s-sir.” S was a hard letter to get out; only two stops on it was good.
“And Captain Cameron here has a letter for you to type in French. You should see her rattle away in Frog,” Sir Francis said, addressing the lanky soldier sitting across his desk. “She’s a gem, Miss Gardiner is. Half French! Can’t speak a word of Frog myself.”
“Nor I.” The Captain smiled, fiddling with his pipe. “Entirely over my head. Thank you for the loan of your girl, Francis.”
“No trouble, no trouble!”
No one asked Eve if it was any trouble. Why should they? File girls, after all, were a kind of office furniture, more mobile than an umbrella fern, but just as deaf and dumb.
You’re lucky to have this job, Eve reminded herself. If not for the war, a post in a barrister’s office like this would have gone to some young man with better recommendations and brilliantined hair. You are lucky. Very lucky, in fact. Eve had easy work, addressing envelopes and filing papers and typing the occasional letter in French; she supported herself in relative comfort; and if the wartime shortage of sugar and cream and fresh fruit was starting to pall, well, it was a fair exchange for safety. She could so easily have been stuck in northern France starving under German occupation. London was frightened, walking about now with its eyes trained on the sky, looking for zeppelins—but Lorraine, where Eve had grown up, was a sea of mud and bones, as Eve knew from the newspapers she devoured. She was lucky to be here, safe away from it.
It really was Pietrik Bakoski’s idea to go up to the bluff at Deer Meadow to see the refugees. Just want to set straight the record. Matka never did believe me about that.
Hitler had declared war on Poland on September 1, but his soldiers took their time getting to Lublin. I was glad, for I didn’t want anything to change. Lublin was perfect as it was. We heard radio addresses from Berlin about new rules, and some bombs fell on the outskirts of town, but nothing else. The Germans concentrated on Warsaw, and as troops closed in there, refugees by the thousands fled down to us in Lublin. Families came in droves, traveling southeast one hundred miles, and slept in the potato fields below town.
Before the war, nothing exciting ever happened in Lublin, so we appreciated a good sunrise, sometimes more than a picture at the cinema. We’d reached the summit overlooking the meadow on the morning of September 8 just before dawn and could make out thousands of people below us in the fields, dreaming in the dark. I lay between my two best friends, Nadia Watroba and Pietrik Bakoski, watching it all from a flattened bowl of straw, still warm where a mother deer had slept with her fawns. The deer were gone by then—early risers. This they had in common with Hitler.
As dawn suddenly breached the horizon, the breath caught in my throat, the kind of gasp that can surprise you when you see something so beautiful it hurts, such as a baby anything or fresh cream running over oatmeal or Pietrik Bakoski’s profile in dawn’s first light. His profile, 98 percent perfect, was especially nice drenched in dawn, like something off a ten-zlotych coin. At that moment, Pietrik looked the way all boys do upon waking, before they’ve washed up: his hair, the color of fresh butter, matted on the side where he’d slept.
Nellie couldn’t say what woke her. But when she opened her eyes, a woman wearing her white, lacy wedding gown stood by the foot of her bed, looking down at her.
Nellie’s throat closed around a scream, and she lunged for the baseball bat leaning against her nightstand. Then her vision adjusted to the grainy dawn light and the pounding of her heart softened.
She let out a tight laugh as she realized she was safe. The illusion was merely her wedding dress, ensconced in plastic, hanging on the back of her closet door, where she’d placed it yesterday after picking it up from the bridal shop. The bodice and full skirt were stuffed with crumpled tissue to maintain the shape. Nellie collapsed back onto her pillow. When her breathing steadied, she checked the blocky blue numbers on her nightstand clock. Too early, again.
She stretched her arms overhead and reached with her left hand to turn off the alarm before it could blare, the diamond engagement ring Richard had given her feeling heavy and foreign on her finger.
Even as a child, Nellie had never been able to fall asleep easily. Her mother didn’t have the patience for drawn-out bedtime rituals, but her father would gently rub her back, spelling out sentences over the fabric of her nightgown. I love you or You’re super special, he’d write, and she would try to guess the message. Other times he’d trace patterns, circles, stars, and triangles—at least until her parents divorced and he moved out when she was nine. Then she’d lie alone in her twin bed under her pink-and-purple-striped comforter and stare at the water stain that marred her ceiling.
On occasion, it is as if the latches in my mind have gone rusty and worn. The doors fall open and closed at will. A peek inside here. An empty space there. A dark place I’m afraid to peer into.
I never know what I will find.
There’s no predicting when a barrier will swing wide, or why.
Triggers. That’s what the psychologists call them on TV shows. Triggers…as if the strike ignites gunpowder and sends a projectile spinning down a rifle barrel. It’s an appropriate metaphor.
Her face triggers something.
A door opens far into the past. I stumble through it unwittingly at first, wondering what might be locked inside this room. As soon as I call her Fern, I know it’s not Fern I’m thinking of. I’ve gone even further back. It’s Queenie I see.
Queenie, our strong mama, who marked all of us with her lovely golden curls. All but poor Camellia.
My mind skitters featherlight across treetops and along valley floors. I travel all the way to a low-slung Mississippi riverbank to the last time I saw Queenie. The warm, soft air of that Memphis summer night swirls over me, but the night is an impostor.
It is not soft. It does not forgive.
From this night, there will be no returning.