A radio operator is running from the Nazis and finds refuge with a farming family
|September 1943, Chenay, France|
I run. I run so fast my legs burn, and I hardly hear the whistle of bullets around me. My only focus is getting to the woods, away from the Germans and execution; the edge 100 feet away. Think of it as the track, fewer than 100 meters away! More bullets come at me, though none of them hits, not yet. My legs numb, my lungs burn. I feel as if this is all for nothing. I should give up now. I will surely be caught. If the Germans do not catch me, surely the owners of this farm will turn me in. I fall over. A bullet has hit my right shoulder, the impact deafening. My vision goes black, temporarily, but the adrenaline clears my eyes and the pain. I grit my teeth and try to run the last twenty feet. My left leg shot, I stumble, hobble still, safely reaching the woods. Finding a small ditch cleverly hidden from anyone, I settle down in its depths. German shouts of outrage fill the forest, with what I assume is cursing. The pain, becoming unbearable, blurs my vision.
The yelling stops. The tanks and footsteps move away from me.
My breath gets worse from the lost blood. I know I will have to go to the barn, and there may still be Germans awaiting my exposure. So much blood has spilled from my shoulder and leg, pooling up beneath and around me. Not one sound can be heard. I test my shoulder, groaning at the sharp pain. I move my burning leg. I know I can walk on it, but for how long, I do not know.
I push myself up and take my first step on my right leg, almost blacking out. I take a deep breath of air and climb out of the pit. I am slow, carefully trying not to move my shoulder and leg in the wrong direction. My breath, coming shorter and shorter, does not allow oxygen to enter my body, making me dizzy. I crouch down on my left leg, observing the clearing where the Germans had been. I look closely at the surrounding trees and bushes for movement. I look at my watch, 20:00. It will be dark soon.
The sun sets, and I make my way toward the barn. For the thirty minutes I waited, I did not see or hear any Germans. I slip, painfully slow, to the back of the barn in the woods. Seeing the clearing empty, I hobble to the barn door. I open it quickly and allow my eyes to adjust to the dark. I see a faint outline of the ladder, which I drag myself towards. They will probably find me in the morning, but I am not afraid to die anymore. I sent the RAF the most important message I have intercepted, my mission complete. The loft is musty and quiet. I move toward a pile of hay and lie down, feeling weak from loss of blood. I know I will pass out and possibly not wake up, but now, in this moment, I am alive.
I jerk awake to voices and commotion around me. The pain is so astounding, as if I was shot again and again. I groan loudly, unable to bear it. I open my eyes to blue ones staring back. A man about my age, twenty.
“Shh,”he says. “Calme.”
I look down to see a bloody cloth and knife in his hand and turn my leg to survey the severity of it. I am surprised to see all the mess cleaned up and the bullet taken out. I try a small smile, and see him with a sad one.
“Je vais souscrire la balle dans ton ipaule,” he says.
“Vous parlez anglais?” I ask.
“Oui,” he replies.
“What is your name?” I ask.
“Frédéric,” he smiles.
“Thank you for your help Frédéric, but-“ I start.
“De rien,” he cuts in. “Let me see the shoulder wound?” I try to push away the fabric, but cry out in pain. Frédéric immediately covers my mouth with his hand. Tears come to my eyes, the pain renewed. He hands me a cloth, motioning for me to bite into it to muffle my shouts. I calculate the Germans are still nearby. He takes the knife and carefully cuts the fabric around the bullet, careful not to hurt me. He looks straight into my eyes.
“I have cut the fabric from the bullet,” he explains. “Now, I will put alcohol on the wound to clean the tissue. Be still.”
I feel him move behind me, the coolness of the liquid, and then the pain of it being soaked into my skin.
Then, I scream.
I will myself to stay conscious, not wanting to pass out. I think I hear Frédéric tell me to be calm when I feel the blade of the knife against the bullet. I try not to tense, making it harder to remove.
The knife digs in to fetch the bullet and I clamp down on the cloth, screaming, hysterical. A hand is gentle on my healthy shoulder trying to comfort me. This pain is worse than being shot. I breathe heavily, trying to control it and not scream, as he successfully removes the bullet.
“The bullet is out,” he whispers. “Now a little alcohol to clean it, and then we will bandage both wounds. I know it hurts, but please, hold on.”
I nod, and continue to hold the cloth in my clenched teeth. I feel the pain of the alcohol, but it is not as bad, insignificant to the pain of removing the bullet. Then he puts on ointment, cool and welcoming compared to my warm skin. Has the fever come so soon? Have I contracted an infection already? Frédéric puts a temporary bandage on my shoulder and convers my knee with gauze.
“You need new clothes,” he states. “My mother will come with more and completely bandage you.”
“Does she speak English?” I gasp.
“Yes,” he responds. “Perfect English.”
He climbs down the ladder and I breathe heavily, the blackness threatening to engulf me. I need food, having none for however long I have been unconscious.
Frédéric’s mother climbs up the ladder. She is beautiful, with grey streaks that shine eloquently through her hair. She carries clothes and bundles of bandages.
“Bonjour,” she smiles broadly. “You are a brave girl, outrunning Germans. You should be glad to be alive. Do not fear, the Germans do not bother us. You are safe here my dear.” I smile back at her.
“Merci,” I breathe. “Mrs…”
“Begnaud,” she finishes.
“Mrs. Begnaud,” I start. “I am grateful for your help and hospitality, but I am a great danger to you and your family. All could be killed if-“
“We are aware of the risks,” Begnaud says, her face deathly serious. “We are wealthy farmers, and, although we hate the Nazis, they seem to respect us and look to us for guidance, which we rarely give. Here, I have brought some trousers and an old blouse for you. Let us take care of your wounds.”
I change quickly into my new, comfortable clothes. Mrs. Begnaud bandages my leg first.
“Do not put on the shirt yet,” she hisses. “I must wrap your shoulder.”
I sit there as she puts on new gauze and wraps my shoulder in bandages.
“Thank you,” I sigh, warm and relieved. Mrs. Begnaud strokes my hair. I close my eyes, wanting to succumb to a deep, silent sleep.
“Here is something for the pain,” she whispers, handing me the pills. I hesitate, and she laughs. “If we wanted to kill you we would have left you here alone and not helped. I know you are suffering. Take them and then you can rest for a little bit. The family wants to talk to you when you’re ready.”
I take the pills graciously, ready to be rid of this pain. As I fall asleep on the unusually soft pillows, I feel her comforting kiss on my brow.