Chapter 1. Annelle LeMaire

France: May 1940

Outside the convent kitchen, a truck rumbled past. “Sister,” Annelle said. “That’s the fifth to go by.”

“Yes,” Sister Marie Michel said not bothering to look up. “Now try to be still.”

Arms out at her sides, Annelle balanced on a rickety wooden stool, worn and curved at the center from so many feet before hers. Sister Marie Michel’s skirt rustled as she crouched low on the rough stone floor stitching the hem of the gown Annelle was to wear down the aisle. It was a simple white sheath with sleeves to her wrists and a high collar. It made her skin itch and her face flush. She wanted to loosen the seams, stretch the tight weave of the cloth. Instead, she swallowed hard.

“These trucks,” Annelle said. “They sound like army trucks.”

“The vows bring such marvelous enrichment,” the nun said as if she hadn’t heard. “The ultimate act of giving oneself, to give your whole being in sacrifice to another…”

Annelle shifted her weight. The stool wobbled. She felt a sharp, quick pain at her ankle.

“Mother Mary, I stuck you,” Sister Marie Michel said. “Are you all right?” She looked up at Annelle with kind blue eyes, eyes that had soothed skinned knees and night terrors. Twenty years had passed since the accident when Annelle, two years old, and her brothers, seven and eight, were orphaned and brought to the convent to live. Sister Marie Michel, like all of the sisters, had cherished and loved them as if they were the nuns’ own flesh, maybe more so because the nuns didn’t have that option. And now the day was coming. The day the sisters had kept tucked in their hearts since Annelle had arrived. The day they’d give her away.

“It’s fine,” Annelle said. The stinging at her ankle felt strangely good, something to think about besides army trucks and wedding dresses.

Sister Marie Michel continued stitching.  “…a love that is gentle and kind…the most holy union…a ceremony sanctified and sacred…”

Annelle closed her eyes. In one week, she would be the bride of Christ. One last week, before she gave herself over to vows of enclosure, chastity, poverty, obedience.  But her brothers, gone ten months, would not be there to give her away.

“…truly bound to Christ in the most marvelous way… this most holy Groom will never fail or leave you…”    

Outside, another truck passed. Annelle opened her eyes. “Something’s happened,” she said. “Something with the war.”

Sister Marie Michel pulled a rosary from the cincture around her waist and handed it to Annelle. She rubbed the beads between her fingers, breathing in Sister Marie Michel’s familiar scent, the earthy mix of her body’s oils and wool habit. The nuns believed it was a sin to look at their own bodies unclothed. On the rare occasions they washed, they walked into the river fully dressed, black skirts billowing out around them. From the kitchen window, they look like giant mushrooms, black truffles sprung up from the river bed.

“Soon,” Sister Marie Michel said, rethreading the needle, “you’ll be one of us. That’s all that truly matters.”

The rosary dangled to the floor. Annelle pictured herself standing at the foot of the aisle in the white gown and veil. Ahead of her, below the altar, the sisters would gather. Sister Marie Helene with the scissors. Sister Marie Mathilde with the brown robe. Sister Marie David with the crown of thorns and Sister Marie Clare with the plain wooden cross. They’d cut Annelle’s hair, replace the white dress with a brown robe, place the crown of thorns over a new black veil and the cross in her hands. She’d watched the ceremony with her own eyes, how many times? A little girl, curious, hidden behind the smooth wooden back of a pew. She’d be given a new name, Sister Marie Clotilde, that was the name they’d chosen for her.

Outside, another truck, moving fast. She tried to focus on the beads between her fingers. Instead, she thought of war.

The headlines last September were bold and black. C’est La Guerre, they’d blared from the newspaper sellers’ kiosks. Annelle had stopped on her way to market to read what she could, crowds gathered around, people whispering, crying, cursing. Hitler had invaded Poland. France and England declared war. Les Boches, the old French men around town called the Germans, fists shaking in the air. Bad feelings toward Germany ran deep in this part of France. The town was near the French border with Belgium. On this soil, La Grande Guerre was fought, the Battle of Arras, Ypres and Vimy Ridge, the Somme, Verdun, all of it here or close to here. The fields stretching out around the convent were forever pocked with the remains of trenches marking the front lines, though they were now almost twenty-five years old. Grass and crops grew over them, but there were patches where nothing would grow, the earth poisoned by the remains of war in its folds. Her brothers, the two boys turned into farm hands, plowed up bones, skulls, and metal helmets every spring.

Now, another war with Germany. But this time, Annelle reminded herself, it was different. This time, France had the Maginot Line, La Ligne Maginot, a barrier of concrete fortifications built along the border with Germany after La Grande Guerre to keep the Germans out for good. After war was declared last September, French soldiers had been sent to fortify it and to guard the border with Belgium where La Ligne was not built as strong because here, the Ardennes forest was impossibly dense, a natural fortification. German tanks, it was certain, could never get through.

That didn’t mean they wouldn’t try. Around town, army camps dotted open fields as far as Annelle could see. British soldiers came too, the two countries united once again to face their German foe. But from September to May, the soldiers played cards. They drilled. They carried on flirtations with the girls in town. There was nothing else to do. Even though war was declared there were no battles or confrontations. It was called a Drole de Guerre, a joke of a war. La Ligne Maginot was working. 

Still, in town, windows were blacked-out. Sand bags appeared overnight, piled up outside buildings. There were new signs posted for cellars turned into shelters. Periodically, practice air raid signals blared. Near the tabac, a line wound round a corner of old women gripping shopping baskets and school children clutching the hands of mothers with tight smiles. What are you doing, Annelle asked one of the women. Getting fitted for a gas mask, she answered. Better to be safe than sorry, yes?

Back at the convent there were no blacked-out windows, no sandbags, no shelters. The sisters were not interested in gas masks. God would protect them, if that was His will, and they went about their days as if nothing at all was happening.

Annelle glanced down at Sister Marie Michel. The outside world didn’t exist for her. She didn’t know that just two days ago, the Germans had invaded Belgium, the newspaper sellers’ headlines bold and black once again, taking up nearly half the page. Had the nuns noticed that the French and British troops camped near the convent had packed their tents and left for the Belgian front to stop the Germans? Their trucks, the tents, all gone, just trampled, empty fields left, clouds of dust stirred up in the breeze.

Outside, another truck barreled passed, then another. Plates and pots rattled on their racks.  “Almost done,” Sister Marie Michel said. Annelle pressed harder on the beads. The soldiers were gone. They were in Belgium, keeping the Germans out of France. There should not be trucks. Sister Marie Michel stitched. Annelle shifted her weight from foot to foot. A bead of sweat trickled down her back. The nuns heard choirs of angels. She heard trucks.

The tower bells rang the hour, as oblivious as the nuns. Sister Marie Michel stood, a satisfied smile on her face. “We’ll finish after Rosary. Hurry now. Change out of that dress or you’ll be late for prayer.”

***

Sister Marie Michel headed for the chapel. Annelle waited until she was out of sight and rushed through the door, lifting the dress above her ankles so she wouldn’t trip. Holding the white postulant’s veil to her head to keep it from flying off, she ran down the hill toward the road until what she saw stopped her short.

British army trucks, overflowing with soldiers, sped down the road, away from Belgium and the German front. Where were they going? Bandages circled the soldier’s heads and arms. They were bloodied, dirty, shaken, coughing from dirt the trucks kicked up.

“What’s happening?” she shouted in English, Sister Marie Michel’s native tongue.

“The Germans are coming,” a soldier yelled back.

A tightness gripped her. She ran closer. “But…but how could that be?”

“They’ve broken through the Ardennes forest,” he called out. “The Maginot Line. They’ve gone around it!”

“Run sister. Run fast!” another soldier shouted, his eyes wild. “Pray for us all.”

Their voices trailed into the distance, drowned out by the rumbling of the trucks, the grinding of engines. She stood, frozen. The British were fleeing. The French army too, their trucks mixed in with the British. These soldiers were the defenders. If they were retreating, what did that mean for everyone else?

La Ligne Maginot. She’d seen diagrams of the fortifications in the newspapers, reminding her of pats of butter on a baguette, now turning out to be no better than that.

More trucks passed, and after them cars black and speeding, suitcases strapped to their roofs, the faster ones honking at the slower ones in their way. And bicycles, an old man pedaling by, a harvest basket strapped to his back, clothes he’d stuffed inside flying out piece by piece leaving a trail behind him. Two young women dressed in suits cycled past, their backs straight, their expressions purposeful, clerks, probably, in some nearby town. Soon it was all a jumble, dust flying, cars honking, passengers shouting out the windows to get through, bicyclists whizzing past, a man and a girl on a horse. Dogs barked and chased. An old woman in black crepe, her long silver hair hanging to her waist from the remnants of a bun, pushed a cart weighed down with an antique clock and a silver tea set. A mother pulled a wagon filled with iron skillets and copper pans, children at her heels trying to keep up. More cars and horse-drawn wagons, wheel barrows and donkey carts, children crammed in amidst brooms, glass bottles, bed linens, and sacks of flour and potatoes.

It seemed as if all of France had taken to the road.

Annelle looked behind her at the convent. She couldn’t see them, but she knew the sisters were in the chapel saying rosary, their eyes raised to heaven in quiet exuberance, their fingers blindly working their beads.

Run sister.

***

At the chapel, Annelle pushed open the heavy wooden door. Inside, flames flickered. Incense drifted, sweet and powdery. Low voices chanted. Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum... But she’d pushed open the door too hard and as it swung around it crashed against the inside wall with a loud bang, metal hardware clanging. The nuns, kneeling and bent over their rosaries, looked up all at once, their prayers halted mid-verse, their faces round and glowing in the candlelight.

“They’re coming!” Annelle said, her voice too loud for this sacred space. “The Germans! They’re coming!”

But the sisters were silent, staring up at her or down at their rosaries. The muffled sounds of car horns, shouts, the great movement of people, wove in through the open door. At last the Mother Abbess spoke, her voice calm, her face placid. “Yes, dear. We know. Come now. Kneel. It’s time for prayer.”

"Alors, we have to go! It’s not safe!” Annelle said. “We must leave now!”

A few of the sisters exchanged glances, but otherwise no one moved. Annelle met Sister Marie Michel’s gaze, Annelle’s eyes pleading, the nun’s somewhere else. At last, the Mother Abbess bowed her head. She renewed her chant. Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus… The others joined in, a chorus of whispers.

She felt like a fool. What did she expect? Behind the invisible lines of their world, the sisters didn’t panic. They prayed. She should join them, she knew. Instead, still facing them, she took a few steps backward, stumbling over the chapel’s uneven threshold. Outside, the noise from the road had grown louder, filling her head. She turned on her heels, rushed back to the kitchen and stopped at the crucifix on the wall trying to decide what to do.

The crucifix had always been a comfort to her, especially last August when her brothers, Philippe and Francois, were sent away to North Africa, to the training camp of the French Foreign Legion. There had been an incident in town, an argument with the mayor’s son who had called Philippe a Communist because he’d gone off for a year to fight for the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. Philippe had punched him. Francois entered the fray. The mayor’s son pressed charges. Prison or the Legion, that was the choice they were given, standard procedure in cases like theirs. They were put on a train for Marseille with no chance to come home or say goodbye and now they were soldiers, Legionnaires, in Algérie.

In the kitchen, memories bore down on her. Here by the fire, she and her brothers had slept as children. Here at the old wooden table, they’d eaten every meal. Here at the cutting block, she’d worked while they read the newspapers or argued about when to plow and when to plant, about war, about girls in town. Here at the window, she’d gazed out at the convent grounds, at the river, its metallic presence, its steady flow, the beet fields beyond where her brothers worked, the scene almost like a painting with its subtle hues that changed with the seasons and the time of day.

Memories of the day they were first brought to the convent came back in flashes: an ambulance in a field, a policeman’s blue cap, her bare legs bouncing on the seat of a car as it rumbled over the bridge to the convent, the nuns coming out the door toward Annelle and her brothers like a swarm of black bees from a hive. Later, Sister Marie Michel had held her close when she told Annelle that her parents, out together for a walk on a sunny day, had stepped on a stray, live German shell from La Grande Guerre, buried beneath a layer of meadow. There were deaths like this every year. It wasn’t uncommon.

No relatives had been willing or able to take them in. They’d slept on cots in the convent kitchen until the day, years later, the Bishop from Amiens decreed the boys, thirteen and fourteen, too old to sleep on convent grounds. Her brothers carried their few belongings out of the kitchen to an old, unused cottage on Monsieur Pannier’s farm across the river.

She looked back out toward the road. The soldiers had thought she was a nun. Run sister, they’d said. But she wasn’t a nun yet nor even a true postulant. She’d worn the postulant’s jumper and veil since her confirmation at thirteen to please the nuns and her brothers. She’d been referred to as a postulant since then, it was assumed, never questioned. Her brothers had her future mapped out, as inviolate as the convent walls, as unchangeable as the seasons. They were men. They knew what men could be like, and they would have none of that for Annelle. She would take the cloth. She would be pure and protected, forever safe, forever unspoiled, watched over by the nuns who loved her.

But growing up at the convent, she’d been indulged, expected to take the vows but allowed more freedom than others, including the freedom of time. I’m not ready, she would say whenever the investiture was brought up. Francois indulged her most of all, pleading her case to Philippe. It was Philippe who had insisted that she take her vows, who had seen their parents killed and the devastation of war in Spain and who wanted his sister safe behind the sanctuary of convent walls.

But Philippe was gone. Francois was gone. Les Boches were coming. The convent grounds were no longer a haven, the distant fields gray and menacing, the river harsh and cold. She wasn’t sure anymore where she belonged. She was twenty-one years old, straddling two worlds, one foot on the ground with Philippe and Francois, the other in the clouds with the nuns. In town on errands for the sisters, she would sneak into the cinema. She rose before dawn for morning prayers but kept tucked in a pocket of her postulant’s apron a round compact of rouge she’d found on the ground outside the Hotel de Ville. She took the Body and Blood of Christ every day, her lips pressed tight against the chalice, the same lips that would secretly finish the cigarettes her brothers tossed away.

And there was more.

Joaquin Cruz, a soldier from the Civil War in Spain who’d escaped to France, worked in a local farmer’s fields, his hair black, his skin brown from the sun, a version of Hollywood’s Ramon Navarro, dark-eyed and mysterious. She brought him baskets of tarts, apple one day, fromage another. She felt easy around him, used to being around men and farmers because of her brothers.

But something that was not at all like her brothers was the desire to reach out and run her hand along his forearm, of wanting his arms wrapped tightly around her. One afternoon, the clouds burst, the rain cool on her skin. Joaquin wiped away a rain drop running down her cheek. That was how it started, a touch, then a kiss, a clap of thunder, and a long, mad run to the cover of the barn where Joaquin was suddenly uncertain, but she was not. She removed her postulant’s veil. It fluttered down behind her. I’m not a nun, she told him, I’ve made no vows. She moved closer to him, he embraced her. She told herself she could stop this at any time, though in the end she didn’t. She didn’t want to. Temptation, then mortal sin, carnal union, an offense against chastity. The postulant’s veil lay crumpled and discarded on a hay-strewn floor.

Now, standing in the kitchen, she could still feel his skin on hers, his breath fast, his voice low and urging, whispering words she didn’t understand in Spanish, his lips on her ears, her neck, her shoulders. She had no right to wear a white gown. She had no right to take vows. She was of the world, like her brothers, her blood.

Run sister.

A heavy pressure expanded and rose inside her, clogging the base of her throat. She glanced over at the chapel. How much more time before Rosary was over? Her breath came in short gasps because she couldn’t believe what she was thinking.

She could go south to Marseille. From there, she could take a boat to Algérie as her brothers had, then find a way to the Legion training camp in Sidi-bel-Abbès. Maybe she could cook for the Legion as she did for the sisters and had done for her brothers. A crazy idea, but the Germans were coming. The world was on foot, moving in front of her, trying to get out of the path of something terrible, and she couldn’t believe she was having these thoughts. She looked back at the crucifix. Tell me, she whispered, tell me. What is it I should do?