Ami entends-tu le cri noir des corbeaux sur nos plaines,
Friend, do you hear the black flight of the crows on our plains?
Ami entends-tu les cris sourds du pays qu'on enchaîne,
Friend, do you hear the muffled cries of the country that's in chains?
Ohé partisans, ouvriers et paysans, c'est l'alarme,
Oi there! Partisans, workers and peasants, this is the alarm!
Ce soir l'ennemi, connaîtra le prix du sang et des larmes...
Tonight the enemy will know the cost of blood and tears!
Rachel hated this place. She hated it with a passion. The walls were a pale green and the floor covered in linoleum, the color of which reminded her of rancid butter. All in all, the colors seemed to have been chosen by the same guy who'd decorated the hospital, the clinic, and quite unexpectedly, the dance studio she used to train in. As for the smell? The hallways all reeked with the smell of almond-scented detergent and decaying flesh, and she often wondered if it triggered the same overpowering sensations in her grandfather. It takes her back to an awful week – she must have been seven then – when she had suffered from a bad gastroenteritis and Ma had spent the whole week following her with a real armada of mops and cleaning products. She could swear she felt the fever back in her system each time she entered a room that had just been disinfected.
The noise was equally awful. Walking in such an institution was like... Going down for a ride through the purgatory. No kidding. No matter the hour of the day or night, one could hear the cries and shouts of the dying or only demented residents. And when they weren't due to pain, the shouts came from heated arguments over such matters as who had rigged the dice for craps or who had lost the deck of cards, or worse – cheated to win the belote annual tournament. That grandpa hadn't escaped yet was either a sign that security was at its best, or an ill-omen regarding his physical strength. Rachel had a small idea of which was the truest, but she was still not ready to voice her thoughts.
She knew it was the very best nursing home her family could afford – Dad had made sure of that – but she wasn't surprised that grandpa's nightmares had gotten worse since he had been taken in there.
“We moved your father to a single room this morning. Given his state of unrest at night, it was the only solution we had to ensure his and the other residents' well-being. As I'm sure you understand. However, I want to be sure it won't be an issue for you to pay a little extra.”
Please shut up. Rachel thought, following her father and the nurse with her arms crossed on her chest, shivering with a mix of anger and shame at not being able to take grandpa in with her.
Her family had tried though. It had been a month before any of them had had the courage to admit it couldn't go on. As much as they all loved Grandpa Alfred, he needed more care than they could provide. He had more and more frequent seizures of synesthesia now, which worried Ma and Dad sick as they had never seen him have one before Grandma's death, more than two decades ago, when Rachel was about five years old.
The television screen, computers, and even the phone's ring-tone seemed to trigger a crisis, so that he would often stand frozen in the middle of the living room, shivering like a madman. His dementia was not helping either. Dinah, Rachel's younger sister, had found him crouching in a shrub once at the back of the house, upon coming back from a party in the middle of the night. She had had to call Rachel to the rescue as the ninety year old-man had defended himself, punching the air to stop her from coming closer. Ma had cried a lot that night, admitting her defeat after hiding her exhaustion behind extra niceness and broad smiles for weeks. She was too old herself to play nurse at all hours of the day and night, even though she was fond of her father-in-law, and even as Harry and the girls were around a lot to help despite their own lives going on.
Neither their house nor their family was fit to receive Alfred permanently.
“What was he yelling?” Rachel suddenly asked, interrupting the conversation between Dad and the nurse about the cost of moving grandpa to a single room. “I mean, you mentioned earlier that he woke up yelling. What did he say? Did you hear?”
The two men stopped and turned to her. The nurse had an apologetic smile on his face.
“I'm afraid he was not being very coherent. He called for Mrs. Graves again and again, which is not uncommon amongst residents who've lost their life-long partners. And then he said something about her not being... What was the name? Ugh... Helena? Helena something. Bower, maybe.” He said, shrugging.
Rachel and Harry exchanged a puzzled look. Grandpa was loosing it, that was a given. But never had he ever invented any fictional character. Where was that Helena coming from? That was a question Rachel was burning to put to him.
“Now, before we get to his room, I should warn you: Mr. Graves has been quite agitated since this morning. He might not be in his right mind.” The nurse added, turning left and stopping in front of a plain blue door.
Blue, like home. Rachel thought bitterly.
“That's alright. Thank you. For everything.” Harry said with a smile, extending his hand for the nurse to shake.
“You're welcome. Make sure to come by the director's office before you leave.” The young man answered, shaking Dad's hand.
Bored with all the talking, Rachel lightly tapped on the door, using that secret code Alfred had taught her when she was still a little girl, and let herself in.
Grandpa Alfred was sitting in the farthest corner of the room, in a comfy-looking armchair by the window, a book forgotten in his lap while he was gazing out the window in the distance. He looked very peaceful, just as she remembered him being when he used to watch her sleep when she was still young enough to take naps. She remembered that as clearly as if it had only been yesterday... Grandpa reading to her, or simply seating in his chair next to the bed, listening to Grandma as she sang French lullabies for her. Her voice tasted of fresh strawberries to her little self back then...
“Hey” she sighed so as not to scare him out of his reverie.
She saw a large smile lighten his face up first, and then his eyes twinkle with love when he turned his head towards her, and she was dumbfounded. His eyes filled up with tears and he choked, and emitted a sound that was close to a muffled chuckle before he offered her his hand.
“You've come for me at last... I've missed you so much.” He said, tears of joy rolling down his wrinkled cheeks.
Something was clearly off. Rachel had visited him not even a week before. They were very close, but spending a week apart had always been fine for both of them. She couldn't explain this sudden burst of emotions – at least, not until she saw her reflection in the window : She looked uncannily like her late grandmother, Aurora. She was born a brunette while Alfred's wife had been a blonde, and her hair was shorter and curlier than she remembered Aurora harboring on any one of the pictures she had seen of her. And obviously, Dinah had inherited her sense of fashion and elegance, while Rachel had always gone for practical clothes – She was wearing a black tank top and bluejeans with boots and had not even tried to comb her crazy hair that day. But other than what was only a question of tastes, and could be dyed or changed, she looked like someone had copied and pasted Aurora Graves' face on hers, had modified a few minor details so that he couldn't be charged with plagiarism, and that was it. Genetics worked in weird ways.
She didn't know what to say. Although Grandpa had often told her she looked like his beloved late wife, he had never yet mistaken Rachel for Aurora. How could he, with his astounding memory?
So Rachel didn't know what to do. She froze in the middle of the room, afraid she would have to remind her own grand-father that his wife had been dead for a long time, afraid she would have to break his heart again and he might not survive it this umpteenth time.
Luckily, the moment passed, as Rachel saw disappointment cloud Alfred's face for a few seconds as he scrutinized her face, checking the color of her eyes and the missing beauty mark just under her lower lip and probably a hundred more signs that the woman standing in front of him was not his sweet, blue wife. He shook his head and smiled softly. Of course he was disappointed and sad to remember Grandma was dead, but Rachel was relieved that he obviously was happy to see his grandchild and “partner in crime”.
“Rachel... Sorry, I don't usually mistake you for her. You must think I was hallucinating.” He apologized, taking her small hand in his weak one and petting it as if it was the most precious thing.
“Were you?” She asked, looking down on their joined hands and noticing for the first time how his skin looked more and more like that of a spoiled apple.
He smiled up at her, a gleam of mischief in his eyes. As if... He knew things she didn't.
“No. I'm going soon, sweetie. I can feel it. And I'm ready for it.” Rachel felt tears prickling at the corner of her eyes, but before she could open her mouth to plead him to stop speaking nonsense, he went on:
“It's okay. I'm not afraid. On her deathbed, your grandmother, who was always the one to go first and check that the coast was clear, promised me she'd be the one to come for me when my time would come, admitting there was something after death. So I'm waiting for her report. Any moment now.” He declared, as seriously as she had ever seen him, obviously resolved to leave this world behind very soon.
Rachel bit her lip.
“You know she'd always finish writing only a couple hours before printing began? So not until tomorrow at dawn.” She finally said with a sad smile, sitting down in the chair facing him.
She was not ready to talk about his death seriously. He was the only one on Earth to understand her and knew how synesthesia could alter one's life, and he had always believed in her, pushed her to become whoever she wanted to. He was a pillar in her life.
Her remark made him smile, and he looked down on the book in his lap, sighing.
“There are lots of things you don't know about Grandma. The first one being she hasn't always been a journalist.”
Rachel was not especially surprised by this sudden revelation. There had always been a cloud of mystery around Aurora, a thicker one than that already surrounding Alfred. She knew it had been hard for her father, growing up with parents that seemed to close in on themselves whenever he would ask questions about their youth. It had always seemed to Harry as if his parents were playing parts, and at some point, he had simply stopped trying to understand his mother's sudden outbursts or heavy silences, or his father's awkward stares into nothingness, at this invisible something that lived with them, always.
“I wish you'd tell me everything about her... Dad would be grateful too.” She confessed.
He patted her arm and caught her elbow, his face now serious.
“I can't. I've been sworn to secrecy.” He said without blinking.
He sounded awfully serious, more than she had ever seen him, and Rachel frowned.
One corner of his mouth twitched in amusement, and he snorted.
“No. Of course not.” He paused, and Rachel wondered if he was still with her, until his grip on her arm tightened. “Do you know how your grand-mother and I met?” He asked her.
She wasn't sure where he wanted to take her, but thinking he might want her to set the starting point for his story, she complied.
“Yeah. That was in 1948. You were making a living by using your gift as a showman. One day, grandma heard about your show and decided to come and see a representation. You saw her face several nights in a row among the crowd, and one night, she came to you. She was fascinated by your abilities and she wanted to know everything about you. She helped you to get to be the master of your synesthesia and she boosted your confidence.” She recalled.
“There's some truth in that. But that's only a cover story.” He corrected.
By then, Rachel was angrily chewing on her lip, frowning. She couldn't decide whether Alfred was out of his mind, or actually breaking down the wall she had always felt was there, protecting his past. But why would he and Aurora have had the need for a cover story about how they'd met? It made no sense.
Alfred sighed. It was an exhausted but relieved sigh, as if he was about to free himself from a burden he had been carrying for way too long.
“Your grandmother and I met in 1942. My life was miserable then. I tried to enlist to become a private and fight the Germans, but my – our condition, it made me unfit for duty. But my memory and the way I could learn languages faster than anyone made me an asset. I was sent to a camp in Ontario that trained spies and sent them to France to organize the Résistance. Your grand-mother was my commanding officer. Sergeant Aurora Luft.”
Rachel squinted. She couldn't reasonably believe he was in earnest. Yet, deep down inside of her, a knot unclenched. A knot that had always been there, waiting.
“You're messing with me.” She said mechanically.
It all unfolded in front of her. Grandpa's nightmares, grandma's unexplainable tears and anguish some days, all the secrecy...
One of Rachel's earliest memories was the permeating grief emanating from Grandma Aurora's face while the old woman lighted the nine candles of the Hanukkiah with a long match before blowing it, closing her eyes and taking a long, shaky breath. It suddenly made sense then, in the light of Grandpa's revelation.
“It's all true. There is an old box at home. It's in the closet, hidden behind your grand-mother's dresses. Inside, you'll find everything you have to know. It was therapeutic at first. Aurora suffered terribly during and after the war. The things she had to do, the personae she had to pretend to be... They tore her down until the pain was unspeakable, and the fight never stopped inside of her. So she wrote. Sometimes to no one in particular, sometimes to me when she couldn't get the things she wanted to share out. You'll find pictures and letters. Scraps and pieces of our former lives. And my own account of everything.” He explained.
Rachel's eyes opened wide. It sounded like a treasure chest, keeping all of her family's secrets... Secrets she had been denied access to even though it was all about who she was, what her blood contained. However, Alfred's last sentence made her raise an eyebrow. Why would someone sworn to secrecy write everything down?
That's exactly the question that crossed her lips, and her grand-father had a sad smile.
“My sweet cherry-pie.” He whispered softly, taking her hand in his again. “You understand me better than anyone else. Can you imagine what my memory contains?”
It dawned on Rachel that Grandpa was cursed. He had lived up to ninety-one, with perfect memories of all the faces of the people that he had seen dying, their voices still clear now and ringing in his dreams, the smell of gunpowder still fresh on his hands. From what she could see, he still lived with the weight of Aurora's crumbling body, with her fingers gripping his shirt, trying to anchor herself in the midst of the horror they had faced together.
“You had to do it. If only for sanity's sake.” She stated.
“No. I owed it to my friends, to the people I've fought alongside with, to the people I've killed too. Or to those who died because of me. And mostly because I wanted your father to understand his own mother. To get a sense of what a brave and fierce woman she was. She did her best trying to be a good mother, and she always resented herself for what she thought of as a lost battle. I thought that maybe I could correct that feeling for your dad before I completely lost my mind.”
Alfred's thumb came to dry a tear that Rachel had not felt rolling down her cheek.
“Do you want me to bring the box here? So that you can guide me through it?” She all but pleaded, already guessing what the most probable answer would be.
He shook his head.
“Promise me you won't open that box until I'm gone and buried next to grandma.”
His eyes bore into hers, and she sighed. He knew her well enough to know she'd go to the family house as soon as visit hours were over and retrieve the box from its hiding place. He also knew her well enough to know she would never break a pinky promise.
With a resigned pout, Rachel linked their pinky fingers.
Montez de la mine, descendez des collines, camarades!
Come up from the mine, come down from the hills, comrades!
Sortez de la paille les fusils, la mitraille, les grenades.
Get out of the straw guns, bullets, grenades ...
“Hey kiddo, what's going on?”
“You should turn the TV on. You know that song grandma used to hum a lot when she was busy?”
“Your grandma sang a lot, sweetie.”
“No, the one she never sang. She hummed it. Please Dad, turn the TV on. It's on.”
“Grandma's song. It was the hymn of the Résistance.”
Ohé, les tueurs à la balle ou au couteau, tuez vite!
Oi there! the killers, with your bullet or your knife, kill quick!
Ohé, saboteur, attention à ton fardeau : dynamite...
Oi there! Saboteur watch out for your load: Dynamite...
The doors of the century-old closet opened and the dresses, once worn by Aurora Graves, were pushed aside by a small hand. The dust settled as light fell on a rather large box, pushed against the back of the closet, behind old pairs of kitten heel shoes. There was a lull, time enough for Rachel to decide whether she would have to empty the closet of its content so that no hanger would fall on her head while retrieving the box. She decided on taking everything out, tossing her grand-mother's whole wardrobe on the bed. She had to make sure to call Dinah. The girl would certainly love to have a look at all the clothes and pick whatever caught her fancy. Most of the clothes were way too feminine for Rachel. Not feminine in the sensual way though, but in a delicate, flowery way she was not at ease with. Emptying the closet was a carnival of geometric patterns, Peter Pan collars, bright colors, stripes, French sleeves, dots, tie necks, bows and low bows that triggered a majestic symphony of more or less harmonic sounds in Rachel's brain.
She was almost done emptying the closet when the tip of her fingers touched a soft fabric that tasted of home and home-baked sponge cake. She took the hanger out and looked emotionally at the shirt dress in front of her. It was a brown short-sleeved, button-up dress. A white 'belt' separated the shirt from the lighter brown skirt, making the dress look both classic and original, still very modern to Rachel's young eyes. She knew this dress. It was grandma's dress. The one Rachel had come to associate her with. She closed her eyes. The smell of cake invaded her, as well as the sound of the oven humming while grandma was kneading the dough for a cherry-pie, happily singing Le Temps des Cerises with Rachel on her toes against her leg, her flour covered fingers digging in the soft fabric of her dress.
C'est nous qui brisons les barreaux des prisons pour nos frères.
It is we who break the prison bars for our brothers,
La haine à nos trousses et la faim qui nous pousse, la misère.
The hatred on our heels and the hunger that drives us, misery.
“Do you know where the wrench is?” Grandpa asks, storming in the kitchen.
Grandma doesn't stop kneading, doesn't even turn her head.
“I repaired the sink yesterday. I left it in the left drawer. You're not climbing up the ladder, are you?” She answers.
One of Grandpa's hands lands softly on Rachel's tiny shoulder while his free arm circles Aurora's waist.
“I love this dress.” He comments, eluding the question and kissing the back of his wife's neck just under her ear.
A contented smile graces her lips, and she turns her head to him.
“I'm serious Alfred. Let Harry do the climbing.”
Grandpa steals a kiss and bows his head so their foreheads touch.
“You look like a fine piece of art out of a museum in this dress, you know.”
Aurora is defeated. Blushing, she shoulders Alfred away, chuckling.
“Okay. Just go. You're distracting the bakers. And I sure don't need to be distracted to get the recipe all wrong.” She chides.
Alfred kisses the top of Rachel's head.
“Keep an eye on grandma, will you? And add garlic to the filling. I swear it tastes better with garlic.” He whispers to her, earning an exasperated glare from Aurora.
Il y a des pays où les gens au creux des lits font des rêves
There are countries where people lie in their beds having dreams;
Ici, nous, vois-tu, nous on marche et nous on tue, nous on crève...
Here, you see, we walk, and we kill, and we die...
Rachel held the dress against her and glanced at her reflection in the full-length mirror standing next to the window. She would look less like a savage girl and more like a respectable young woman wearing this... Or would she? Evil could also wear this kind of clothes. After all, Aurora Graves had not been the housewife she dressed like.
She would keep this dress, if nothing else, she decided.
She carefully placed it on the dresser next to her leather satchel – or what Dinah called 'useless holdall', not entirely without reason – to take home with her, and turned back to sink in the closet.
It was a living thing, she felt. The closest her fingers got from the wooden box, the tenser she felt, as if the air around it was thicker, and she ended up crouching in front of the closet, elbows on thighs, squinting at the beast as if challenging it.
She sighed. Once opened, Pandora's box' content would change her family's life forever. Or at least, it would change Rachel's vision of her grand-parents, would change the composition of her own DNA. There would be no going back. And yet, could she really turn back then? Leave the box to rot where it was, hide it back behind Aurora's wardrobe and walk away?
Biting the inside of her cheek, she took the box by the iron handles on its sides and took it out of its hiding place.
“Rae, you should come. He's looking really bad today. You were right. I – I think he's dying.” Dinah's voice chokes at the back of her throat at the end of the line and Rachel can taste her tears from miles away.
“I'm getting my ass in the car. I'll be there as soon as I can.”
She grimaced. It was heavier than it looked, and she almost crushed her toes when she let it fall to the ground.
Taking a step back, she fell to her knees in silent reverence on the carpet.
“I'm tired girls.”
“Can we – Can we stay? Until you fall asleep?”
Her hands shook as her fingertips grazed the age stricken wood of the chest. Only two people had ever touched this box. Two people whose intimacy she was about to break. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
Grandpa takes both Dinah's and her hands, squeezing them with as much force as he has left in him, and his eyes flutter shut as he smiles.
“Of course, my two, wonderful E flat majors.”
Her digits lingered on the lid, taking in every bumps and crevices. She committed this moment to memory. Not that she needed a special ritual to carve a memory – no, sometimes, she felt it was a curse to remember everything – but she felt it was a turning point in her life.
Adjusting her position on the bed next to Grandpa, she hears herself begin to sing the soft words she has heard so many times, words by Charles Aznavour, Barbara, Henri Salvador, and some others whose names she has long forgotten. Words she knows by heart, words that flow in her veins, that are woven in the fabric of her being. And as Dinah tries to sing along with her – out of tune as she knows only the radio tracks and not Aurora's covers – Rachel buries her fingers in Grandpa's hair, scratching his scalp soothingly.
She opened her eyes. She had no idea when the change had occurred, but it was night outside, and she shivered. She glanced at the window, and decided to close the curtains. Which she did, never tearing her gaze from the mystery box. As if it would suddenly disappear. As if Aurora and Alfred were doomed to be gone and to dim out of everyone's memory. She turned the bedside lamp on and crouched back next to the box.
When the first lines of Le Chant des Partisant cross her lips, Grandpa's clench on her hand tightens, and his smile broadens. Dinah glances at her, worried, and they don't need to speak to understand each other.
Aurora is coming for him. His fight is over.
Ici chacun sait ce qu'il veut, ce qu'il fait quand il passe.
Here each one of us knows what he wants, what he does when he passes by ...
Ami, si tu tombes un ami sort de l'ombre à ta place.
My friend, if you fall a friend will come out of the shadows to take your place.
Demain du sang noir sèchera au grand soleil sur les routes.
Tomorrow, black blood will dry under the sun on the roads.
Chantez, compagnons, dans la nuit la Liberté nous écoute...
Whistle, companions, for at night Liberty listens to us...
The hinges were rusty, and they scrapped the soft wood on the inside of the lid when Rachel forced to push it open.
When the smell of old paper reached her nostrils, something cracked inside of her.
And she breathed just a little bit better.
Ami, entends-tu ?
Friend, do you hear?