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War Stories

“A soldier found her, pulled her deeper into the grass.”

Published onFeb 19, 2020
War Stories

“Casualties,” photography by Fabrice Poussin

My mother and I sit at her kitchen table. Our coffee cups glow in late afternoon light. My father, sweaty from yard work, snores in his living room chair. Perhaps it is the smell of cut grass filling the house. She tells me how French Moroccan soldiers marched through her village after Germany surrendered. They were given one day to do whatever they wished with the German women and girls. Her father hid her and her sister behind the dovecote above the attic eaves. As she speaks, straw scrapes my skin, dust of droppings catch in my throat. I listen for my daughter napping in the next room.

Memorial Day. Small flags line the walk. Inside, lingering over schnapps and apfelkuchen, my father and his friend swap war stories. How Hiroshima saved my father from the march on Tokyo and certain slaughter. The horrors of the Battle of the Bulge. In the kitchen, my sisters and I scrape plates, load the dishwasher, gossip. My mother makes another pot of coffee, scoops whipped cream into a clean dish, begins a story about playing truant in a neighbor’s field. A soldier found her, pulled her deeper into the grass. My sisters and I stop laughing. Her hair hung to her hips in straw-colored braids. She was fourteen, not yet menstruating. An officer suddenly appeared, took my mother’s hand, brought her home to her father. I look up. My daughter stands in the doorway. Pony-tailed, narrow-hipped, fourteen.

My father has been dead nearly five years. My mother has grown old. She no longer drives. She worries someone peers in her windows at night. Her refrigerator contains only milk, butter, a few eggs, some apples, mustard. The house, where my parents raised six children, where they baked together for forty-five years, where they laughed and squabbled over countless meals and games of Scrabble, is up for sale. She will move to a one-bedroom apartment that is easier to manage. There is so much to go through. So much to divide among family, give away, throw out. We take a break to run errands. It is a beautiful May afternoon. We visit the cemetery, plant snapdragons and pansies where my father’s family lies. It is something they did together. Afterwards, we drive to Walmart to buy plastic storage bins. Suddenly, in the parking lot, she returns to that day in Germany. This time, she says she was only nine or ten. From the dovecote, she and her sisters watched gaunt Moroccan soldiers tear her mother’s few remaining chickens apart and eat the bloody flesh. The Walmart cart my mother pushes toward the entrance steadies her. Now, in her story, she is older, thirteen or fourteen, cleaning her aunt’s house. She steps outside to hang wash rags to dry. There is no soldier in a field—there are many. A ring of them. They take her to the barn. An officer appears. The officer says he will spare my mother if her older cousin, a girl of almost twenty, takes her place. The shopping cart bumps across the broken macadam. The night before, we sat in the kitchen, sorting a shoebox of old German photos. In the soft gold light, she stared at a black and white picture of a stout, middle-aged woman with wavy hair. A cousin. She spoke a name she’d never mentioned before. She sat quietly. Then she picked up another photo, the blur of a child moving.

Mary Rohrer-Dann is a writer, painter, and teacher living in central Pennsylvania. Her stories and poems have recently appeared in Literary Yard, The Drabble, Vita Brevis, Flashes of Brilliance, Literary Heist, Streetlight Press and Biscuit Root Drive (forthcoming). Two narrative poem projects, La Scaffetta and Accidents of Being, were adapted to stage by Tempest Productions, Inc. and produced in NYC; State College, Penn; and Philadelphia.

Fabrice Poussin’s poetry and photography have appeared in Kestrel, Symposium, The Chimes, The Front Porch Review, the San Pedro River Review and many other publications.

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