Loaf of Bread
Denise ran noiselessly up the narrow path and through the olive grove, dodging the gnarled tree trunks twisted and bent by the fury of past mistrals. At the edge of the clearing, she paused, gasping for breath. The bench was empty. The lone cypress stood behind it, tall and motionless like a Nazi sentinel. A small lizard scurried across the seat and dove for cover as though it too, were seeking escape from some invisible enemy. The September sun was blazing in the cloudless sky, its evening rays beating down on the deserted park in the southern French town.
Denise wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. She was very hot in spite of her light clothing: thread-bare boy’s shorts too large for her petite ten-year-old frame and a faded pink cotton shirt. Crude homemade sandals completed her outfit.
She sat on the ground and took off her right sandal. The nail had come out again, and blood trickled down the side of her foot. She wiped it off with the tail of her shirt and hunted for a heavy rock. With practiced ease, she pounded the nail into place. The black rubber soles barely oozed in the heat of the evening. The white grosgrain ribbons were still holding fast. Denise felt very proud of her handiwork: she had had a hard time cutting out the soles from a discarded tire. She rewound the straps carefully around her thin, deeply sun-burned ankles.
The sudden chirp of a cricket shattered the stillness, startling her. She was suddenly aware of the lengthening shadow of the cypress across the ground. Soon the evening battalion would march in the narrow paved street at the foot of her retreat.
Denise stared at the empty bench. . . . It was made of stone and its legs bore an elegant gargoyle design, such as was carved upon the many fountains of the old city. Her mother had remarked how picturesque it was: “How pretty,” she had said. “Thank you, Denise, for showing me to your special hiding place.” After that first time, the two of them had come every evening to escape the stifling heat of their small box-like home and maybe the sight of Denise’s father swinging back and forth on a kitchen chair, his face bitter and brooding.
It was here that she first caught sight of Madame Kaplan, her mother’s only friend. Was the meeting a coincidence, she wondered, or had it been arranged? She never asked. It was tacitly understood that the less said, the better, as in case of arrest, no one could betray what he did not know. Madame Kaplan was a soft-spoken middle-aged woman who reminded Denise of a small Parisian sparrow. She had a round face, baby blue eyes, and soft brown hair pulled back in a bun. She was always in black, as she was a war widow. Her husband had been killed during the invasion. Now she was alone. She came every day, and the women sat side by side on the stone seat, discussing recipes for rutabaga and tomato paste, and sometimes, their voices dropping to a whisper, the “situation.” They were really quite alike, Denise had observed, with ladylike ways and old rusty clothes. . . . They often giggled like schoolgirls, their eyes dancing in gle3, and at such moments Denise felt safe again.
One day, however, their friend was missing at the usual rendez-vous. Tired of waiting, Denise began to play behind the stone bench, making a carefully designed garden of pebbles, leaves, and pine needles in the manner of the Park of Versailles. Then an old woman appeared at the edge of the clearing. After a fearful glance, the stranger ran to Denise’s mother and whispered hurriedly into her ear …. Denise caught a few barely audible words: “They came in the night . . . took her away… who shall be next?” … After this, her mother never went back to the hiding place, but Denise always managed to steal away by herself before curfew, in spite of her parents’ warning. She came to mourn, to remember, to nourish the burning defiance inside her and the savage pride that would not let her cry.
The hard blue sky was paling now, and the concert of crickets, awakened from their afternoon nap, was almost deafening. They would go on all night while she lay in her bed in the oppressive darkness, their malevolent chirps mixed with the low, threatening notes of the bullfrogs by the nearby pond, screeching: “They are coming! They are coming!” until driven by a panic she could not control, her heart thumping wildly, her mouth dry, she would flee on the bare tile floor to the door of her parents’ room, to wait out the break of dawn.
But every morning, she tiptoed back into bed. She felt for her parents a fierce protective love, and would not let them know of her terror-filled nights. And then, there was her pride.
Pride was a necessary sustenance. It made her strong. Pride steadied her trembling knees when, standing up in class, she repeated her false name, false address, and false religion to the watchful principal. Pride made her contemptuous of the battalion of soldiers in the street, shouting their marching songs, their black boots shining smartly in the sun. It helped her swallow down the daily fare of black bread, tomato paste, and water, which stilled the hunger pangs until the next identical meal. It sharpened her wits when she parried the questions of curious classmates: “Where are you from, where do you live? What does your father do? Can you play after school?” However, one had to be careful, and she had learned never to look a Nazi in the eye, not in the narrow streets of the old city, nor by the murmuring fountains where she fetched the drinking water. She was afraid to be betrayed by the very intensity of her feelings, and she had steeled herself to fix her gaze on the left shoulder of their uniform: she would rather die than bow her head.
Somewhere there had been, she knew, a plump little girl with soft brown hair and a sweet disposition. A little girl dressed in white lacy frocks and short white gloves, going up the Champs-Elyseeswith her mother, gazing at the elegant displays, or running through the Park of Versailles, her father following along the well-manicured walks,then sitting down to a Sunday dinner of roast chicken and chocolate mousse. That seemed like a thousand years ago. The crybaby Denise whoused to whimper at the slightest hurt, who laycurled on the soft bed in the dove gray bedroom with the French provincial furniture, watching the parade of pink clouds passing by her window while the big city traffic hummed seven stories below-that little girl was gone forever.
The new Denise had emerged two years ago, after their hurried exit from Paris, crawling on their bellies along railroad tracks on a moonless night, while high up on the banks, Nazi sentinels kept watch on each side, their machine guns slung across their shoulders. Her parents had warned her not to cry, cough, sneeze or make the slightest sound …. They did not need to repeat their instructions as they crouched in the secret compartment of a large locomotive rushing them to the comparative safety of a small town where they lived from day to day, with false papers provided by the local underground.
This was no time for weakness. Denise often thought of the Three Musketeers …. She had taken a secret vow to be like D’Artagnan, strong, gallant, unafraid. She had adopted his motto: “All for one and one for all,” and had promised herself to be a worthy companion to her father and mother.
The old Denise had cherished her books about Camille and Madeleine, two well-behaved, impeccably dressed young ladies of good family, who always emptied their plates, never told a lie, and went through life in a flurry of ruffled petticoats and pantalets edged in eyelet embroidery, with a smile on their ruby-rose lips.
It had been her ambition, she remembered, to reach such perfection, and indeed there were times when she had felt quite as virtuous and charitable as her beloved heroines. But Camille and Madeleine simply did not belong here, and it was best to forget them.
The sound of approaching steps brought her out of her reverie. She lay quite still, holding her breath….
A Nazi officer was coming out of the woods. He walked slowly toward the clearing, carrying a parcel under his arm. As Denise watched incredulously, he sat down on the bench, his gray-green uniform resplendent in the setting rays of the sun, his black boots polished to a high gloss. He opened the paper bag and took out a whole loaf of bread. He broke a piece of it and was lifting it to his mouth when he caught sight of Denise, crouching a few steps away. His hand stopped in mid-air.
The bread was pure white, smooth, and fine textured, crowned by a splendid crust of pale gold. She could not detach her eyes from it. Her mouth filled with water, her eyes wide with desire, and she stared in fascination at the perfect loaf. Long-repressed memories washed over her: hot chocolate on Sunday morning, strawberry jam on a damask cloth, her mother’s voice saying over and over: “Eat, Denise, eat, eat, EAT!”
She felt the officer’s eyes appraising her, his gaze noting the threadbare shorts, the blouse cut out of the bathroom curtain, the makeshift sandals. She hid her feet under her, still unable to glance away from the loaf lying on the bench. He picked up the bread and motioned for her to take it. She swallowed hard, struggling in the whirlpool of her emotions. She raised her eyes toward his face. He had handsome, sensitive features. He was looking, not at her, she saw, but rather past her beyond the realm of realities, with an odd tenderness, his brow wistful, his mouth soft, longing, remembering.
Somehow, she knew. He had a child back home,a little girl maybe, and he was lonely. What would his daughter be like, she wondered? She had a vision of a blue-eyed, fair-haired little girl running through the snow, all bundled up in a furry coat and a red woolen cap, her pigtails flying in the wind. Denise’s heart filled with compassion. She felt herself irresistibly drawn by the imploring eyes and the beseeching hand closer and closer to the golden loaf.
Then, she heard it: a marching song, the cadence of boots beating on the pavement below. The battalion returning to quarters. She closed her eyes in defense against the hateful sound but it came nearer and nearer, the refrain swelling through the evening, invading her private mourning spot. Now she remembered why she had come.
“They came in the night and they took her away.” Could he, she wondered, have been one of them? She felt the first stirrings of hatred rising in her throat, sweet as honey, heady as Passover wine. She got to her feet, carefully fixed her gaze on the left shoulder of his uniform, and said, intones of icy courtesy: “Non merci, I am not hungry.”
That night, she could not sleep at all. Throughout the malicious chorus of crickets and frogs, a kaleidoscope of faces kept revolving in front of her: the face of her father, dark and brooding as she balanced to and fro on the kitchen chair, swearing softly: “Ah, the swine, ah, the swine,” the face of Madame Kaplan, animated and smiling, as she waved her last good-bye by the edge of the olive grove, and above all the face of the officer, lonely, vulnerable, pleading for the gift of her acceptance. Dawn finally came. Quickly, moved by an impulse she could not fathom, Denise slipped on her clothes and ran through the back door to the hiding place.
The sun’s rays were already hot, beating hard on the small path as she hurried to the clearing.
The cypress tree was standing guard over the silent grove. The bench was empty. The loaf of bread was gone.
Denise reached over gently to touch the rough gray stone. Then, the tears came.