A Casualty of Innocence - A Short Story
June 1944 - 14 km South of Bourges, Central France
As the sun crept up higher over the horizon, and shone its rays across the French countryside, it dispelled the fog that had been previously lying across the lands like a blanket. The gloomy weather moved aside, making way for the beginnings of a humid summer day to bloom.
For Aurélie Fournier, it was a start of a beautiful day. A day that would allow for her to be able to get her mind off the war, off the planes that would occasionally soar overhead.
She most commonly enjoyed leisurely activities, whether it be just lying in the grass reading a novel, or sitting by the pond, dipping her toes in the cool water and watching the little fish come and nibble at them shyly, always quick to shoot away at the slightest movement.
Sometimes she would be pestered to participate in more physical activities, for her younger sister, Jeanette, at the playful age of nine, saw no interest in sitting by the pond or reading in the cool grass. The fish would never come near her toes, because her ability to sit still was childishly amateur. She would always try and swipe at them, not realizing that catching one would be never possible, for they were too fast.
Jeanette’s main interest was spending the majority of her time outside. She would run through the fields and travel the little paths through the woods and spend her time with her own thoughts and overactive imagination, an expansive collection of imaginary friends and fairy-tale perspectives.
Jeanette often expected Aurélie to join her, although her nineteen-year-old sister didn’t quite live up to her expectations. No longer did she see any joy in playing little games, running the forests, or losing herself in playful imagination.
When Jeanette managed to get her sister to play with her, she would often complain that Aurélie didn’t run fast enough, didn’t laugh enough, or didn’t take her characters or games to heart and play them with as much intensity.
Aurélie knew her little sister’s frustrations and pitied her. Jeanette’s two friends of the same age that lived in Bourges, had moved away without much notice to avoid the Germans. It wasn’t their decision, but their parents, who just wanted their family to not be killed. Their children’s friendships were the least of their concerns, for like a lot of French families, this idea was firm: You could always find new friends, but your family is irreplaceable.
The Fournier family was one of the families that didn’t leave their homes. They were nestled in the countryside not too far from Bourges, and were able to sustain themselves. There were a couple other houses in the general vicinity, so the families agreed due to the war to share rations and help each other get along with their lives as close to normal as possible.
It was a share and share alike environment, and something everyone was happy to do. No one liked going to Bourges if they didn’t necessarily have to. The town was crawling with German troops that were permanently stationed there, and while most of them paid no attention to the average citizens, their presence alone made the entire town on edge.
Aurélie missed the old Bourges, the wonderful atmosphere that it upheld. How everyone was friendly, people who were out on the balconies waved at you as you walked down the cobblestone streets. The smell of the bakery, the fresh beignets, French bread and other sweet treats wafting out as you strolled along, tempting you to go in and purchase just a little something.
Now, Bourges was an entirely different place. While some tried to keep alive what had once been the old town, it was lying lifeless in their arms, having withered away piece by piece in the last four years. The atmosphere wasn’t as friendly; many people had moved; you would see German soldiers in their dark green uniforms, standing on almost every street in groups of usually three to four, with their rifles slung over their back, smoking casually. You would see them in the cafés, in the bakery. Perhaps you might see what was once an unthinkable sight, a German soldier walking beside a young French girl, her arm possibly linked with his in a lightly intimate gesture.
There were supporters amongst the crowds, those who had given up sulking about France falling to Germany and instead decided to put it into their lifestyle, accepting that it was simply how it was going to be. They associated themselves with the Germans, listened to their bad French, smoked with them, shared a drink or two with them, or perhaps even went as far as sitting down in a café with one of them.
Aurélie knew this scenario all too well, having seen it herself. Although her parents had tried their best to avoid Bourges as much as possible since its German occupation, it wasn’t possible to never go there. If you needed things, that’s where you would go to get the rations. They had made it a family outing for a while until last year they had run out of the last of the petrol for the car. Then, wearily, they sent Aurélie the fourteen miles to Bourges on the bicycle to get what was needed.
She used this opportunity to visit with her friend, Françoise Dupont, who was the same age as she. They had been friends since childhood, but what differentiated the two of them at the beginning of the war was Françoise’s decision to remain living in Bourges, even when the Fournier’s had offered her lodging at their own home.
Françoise was wildly independent, having grown up with only one parent and no brothers and sisters. She had lived with her father up until she was seventeen, then she used her money from working at the local cafe to rent out a flat not far from where she worked.
She was a striking girl, taller than Aurélie, with blond hair and big green eyes. Françoise adored red lipstick, wearing it whether she was out in public or not and also had a love for fashion, and most recently, German men.
Françoise had first told Aurélie about her little attraction when she had come to Bourges four weeks ago. Aurélie had come into the cafe to say hello, when instead, Françoise excitedly ushered her to a back table and sat down to tell her the news.
“Now tell me,” she had said, her red lips curled up in a little smile, “What do you think about these German soldiers?”
It progressed from there; Francoise informed her that they were all kind to her, and very handsome, strong and tall. She went on for a while about how most of them had the most dashing blue eyes, and how she found their bad French adorable.
It wasn’t until on one of her visits that Aurélie had discovered what had influenced her friend to stay in Bourges. She had developed a relationship with a wealthy German officer. How her friend thought this relationship with a German was going to bring her any benefit, Aurélie had no idea. In fact, she couldn’t understand how it would bring her anything but trouble, and during these times it was the last thing the French people wanted.
Sometimes, Aurélie wondered if Françoise even remembered there was a war going on, and, more importantly, whose side she was on.
Aurélie was torn from her thoughts when she heard her little sister’s voice calling for her. She turned her head, and saw Jeanette running on her short little legs through the grass towards her, her blond curls bouncing. The waist ribbon of her dress was undone and was fluttering in the breeze behind her.
As Jeanette came closer, Aurélie also noticed that her sister was running bare foot.
“Where are your shoes?” she asked her, as Jeanette came to a stop by her.
The little girl looked down to her bare feet, rocking sheepishly from her heels to her toes and folding her arms behind her back.
“I left them by the woods,” she answered matter-of-factly.
“Go get them, put them on,” Aurélie ordered, running her finger along the spine of her novel that as lying in the grass beside her.
“But it’s too hot for shoes!” Jeanette was quick to protest.
“I don’t want to hear your complaints when you hurt your feet running through the woods,” Aurélie looked up to her, raising her eyebrows, “I’m not removing any splinters or cleaning any scratches, you can do it yourself.” she looked down to her book and back up to her sister, and in that time saw how the little girl’s face transformed. Her mouth had formed a little o shape and her brows furrowed.
“Fine,” she said, turning away, heading to get her shoes. In a last defiant attempt, she looked at Aurélie over her shoulder and said, “You used to run in bare feet.”
“Not in the woods,” Aurélie replied calmly, and heard her sister let out a sigh of defeat, and the soft padding sounds of her feet on the grass as she trotted off. Finally, she got back to look at her book, which she still hadn’t opened to read. She flipped it to the first page, and barely made it down half of it.
“Aurélie...” Jeanette’s voice came floating back into her ears, and she turned her head to see her sister come trudging back in her direction, shoes in hand, “Are you really going to make me wear these?” she tossed the shoes disdainfully onto the grass, with her socks tucked inside.
“If your plans involve going back into the woods, yes.”
Jeanette dropped into the grass beside Aurélie, hugging her knees to her chest and resting her chin contemplatively on the groove between her knees. Looking at her sister out of the corner of her eye, she said,
“You know, if you played with me more often, I wouldn’t have to go into the woods.”
Aurélie heaved a big sigh, looking down at her little sister.
“What were you up to?” she asked earnestly.
“I was just walking,” Jeanette shrugged, “Through the paths.”
“Walking? Is that all?” Aurélie reached around Jeanette, grabbing the untied ribbon on her dress and retied it into a pretty bow at the back, “Did you see any animals today?”
“I heard the birds singing, which are nice,” replied Jeanette, “Better than hearing the bombs... but they’re a lot like the birds now. That you hear them a lot, I mean. The planes too, that sound, you know it, of them flying above us.”
Aurélie nodded solemnly, putting her arm around her sister.
“They’ll stop, eventually, Jeanette.”
“When?” Jeanette cocked her head to look up at her sister.
“I can’t answer that,” she chewed on her lip in thought, “I wish I knew.”
“I miss my friends,” Jeanette confessed, “This war ruins everything. I just wish everyone would stop fighting, so things can go back to normal. I don’t know what there is to fight about, anyway.”
“I know,” Aurélie sighed.
“Come with me for a walk?”
“Later. I promise.”
“Fine... but I’m only agreeing because I know you keep your promises,” Jeanette said as she put on her shoes. Once the task was complete, she jumped to her feet and was off again before Aurélie could reply. She looked back over her shoulder, watching as her little sister took off through the field, heading for the path leading into the forest, her dress and hair flying out behind her.
Aurélie shook her head, turning her attention back to her book. She opened it again and found her spot and began reading, allowing herself to lazily pick over each word and digest it with interest.
Jeanette picked her way along the little path, the tall grass and lower branches of foliage brushing her bare legs as she went.
It was a beautiful day, more so here in the calm of the woods. The trees towered overhead, only slightly shading her from the bright, warm sun. Birds could be heard singing, and only a slight breeze rustled the trees. The path, worn down to dirt by so much travel by two Fournier children, was only slightly wet from the rain yesterday, which wouldn’t have been bothersome to bare feet.
Jeanette thought of Aurélie’s promise to play with her later. Whether they liked it or not, the two sisters had something in common: their friends weren’t nearby. So Jeanette found herself relying on Aurélie to be, besides her sister, a playmate and a friend, something that because of their age differences wouldn’t normally be so.
Jeanette continued on her way along the path as it wound its way through the trees, a path that she had walked so many times this summer. She could almost be sure she could walk it with her eyes closed and not lose her way. Over her childhood, she had become familiar with the forest in its entirety, she knew especially of the old tree, close to the rusty car.
She could faintly see that old tree now through the leaves, its bark darker than that of the other trees. Beyond the tree, she knew, was the rusted out frame of the old car, which meant she would have to turn back soon. Her mother had told her many times not to go past the car, for this marked the end of their land and what happened beyond their land they had no control of. For a while, Jeanette had been afraid to venture past this car, due to Aurélie telling her that there was an old wolf that would eat her if she so much as put a toe past the boundary. However, as Jeanette got older, she realized that there wasn’t a wolf waiting to eat her, and she had gone several footsteps past the car just to be brave, and to assure that her sibling’s story wasn’t true.
Besides the rusty car and the large old tree, there wasn’t anything else to tell someone where the Fournier land stopped and started. In fact, the forest continued on just as normally, boundary or no boundary, and if Jeanette looked carefully, she could even see the beginning of a clearing. No one owned the land nearest to them, their nearest neighbours were a good mile away, and although there would be no harm in exploring this land, Jeanette obeyed her mother’s wishes and never ventured any further than a few steps past the rusty car.
It was there she stood now, ever so rebelliously, just a few steps past the car. Jeanette looked around calmly, at the old tree behind her as it stood rooted strongly, its branches almost challenging her to try and climb it, but she wouldn’t – she didn’t like heights.
Suddenly, something caught her eye. Rising above the trees, was billowing grey smoke. Jeanette’s first instinct was to think forest fire, but that was when she realized for the first time, that there was a strange smell in the air.
Her childish curiosity instantly took over, and she got to her feet, starting off towards the smoke. She took about four steps, when she stopped, realizing that she would be going beyond her family’s land, some place forbidden.
Jeanette’s blue eyes went again to the smoke. Where was the smoke coming from? What was the strange smell in the air? She had to find out. Taking a furtive glance over her shoulder, at the rusty car and the old tree, she then took off into the unfamiliar territory.
As she made her way through the forest, where there were no beaten paths and branches snagged at her clothes, Jeanette was aware of the strange smell growing stronger.
Her childish mind thought of many possibilities and causes of the smoke, but they couldn’t prepare her for what she was about to find.
The flames were the first thing she saw. At the sight of them, Jeanette slowed her pace, and she crept forwards, and more of the scene came into view. More little patches of flames, a bent piece of metal. However, she had been so focused on what was ahead, she didn’t realize how close she was getting, and suddenly, she found herself standing in a clearing with the whole picture in front of her.
The little girl’s eyes widened, and for a while, all she could do was stare.
In front of her, was the body of a crashed airplane. Its nose was dug into the dirt, the propellers bent. The wings, or what was left of them, were smashed. Pieces of metal were strewn on the forest floor around it, and some of these pieces were on fire or were smouldering. The cockpit windows were smashed. Black smoke was billowing from the body of the plane itself, fire flickering around the propeller.
Jeanette, for the longest time, didn’t know what to do. She just stood unmoving, her eyes darting everywhere, trying to take in the entire scene and understand the most of it that she could. Had this plane been shot down? Where was the pilot?
She took a few steps forward, timid for a moment, until her curiosity once again took over. She walked towards the plane, reached out and touched one of the bent propeller blades. It was cold. Avoiding a piece of metal that looked to be jagged, she awkwardly climbed up onto the remainder of one of the wings. Almost slipping once, Jeanette held her breath as she got to her feet, peering into the cockpit. There wasn’t anyone inside, and upon seeing this, she felt a shiver run down her spine. There was blood on the broken glass and on the seat inside. She wondered, had the pilot jumped before the plane crashed, or was he still alive, wandering these same woods?
That’s when she heard the snapping of a branch. Her heart jumped into her throat, and Jeanette had to hold back a scream, whipping around, trying to not lose her balance on the slippery metal of the wing.
Her eyes searched the forest around her, holding her breath. Slowly, she crouched down, and slid off the wing onto the ground, her feet making a louder thump than she would have hoped.
Then she saw him.
The pilot, lying not twenty feet away, was propped up against a piece of the wing from the plane. He was half lying, half sitting, in a rather uncomfortable looking position, his feet stretched out in front of him, one hand clutching his chest, the other lying limply beside him. Even from here, Jeanette could see blood. He was injured.
Was it too late to just turn and run? Jeanette’s pounding heart quickened. She could run, should she run? Maybe Aurélie was expecting her back now? Yes, Aurélie had promised her she would play with her, and she wouldn’t want to keep her older sister waiting...
Was he dying? Was he the enemy? Was he a pilot of one of the planes that bombed the countryside?
Jeanette slowly approached the pilot, taking him in as she did. He had knee-high brown boots, clearly leather, light brown pants, and a dark brown coat with sheep’s wool around the neck. The traditional pilot’s cap was on his head, but beneath it, she could see mussed blond hair, and a trickle of bright red blood. His face was pale, almost sickly, but Jeanette took immediate attention to his features, a strong, square jaw, a straight nose, prominent cheekbones, lips that weren’t thin, but weren’t full, either. His eyes, which met hers, were a bright blue. She looked down to his body again, noticing the blood on his chest, and the way his leg seemed to be twisted unnaturally. She met his eyes again, and saw he was taking her in as much as she was him.
“Can I help you, monsieur?” she questioned, her voice coming out small. She watched his face, for a moment, he almost seemed thoughtful. The pilot stared at the little French girl before him. She mustn’t be any older than ten, he realized, but her concern for him made him feel at ease. Although he was technically her enemy, he sensed that she would be compelled to help him.
“Yes, if you would be so kind,” he said finally in French, stating the obvious, “My plane crashed.”
Saying this seemed to take effort, for his breathing was labored.
Jeanette took a step backwards, looking him over again. The pilot was delirious, she realized. Of course she knew the plane had crashed, it was lying strewn everywhere. He wasn’t dying, was he? She took note of his French, heavily accented to the point where it sounded strange. It wasn’t his first language. Was he English? Or was he German?
“Wait here,” she told him, “I’ll go get help.”
As Aurélie followed Jeanette and her parents along the path through the woods, her heart was in her throat. Just the idea of it, the fact that all of a sudden, this occurrence, this incident of a crashed plane and an injured man was upon her and her family, frightened her.
She wondered what the scene would look like, how injured this pilot would be. Would he be lying there, perhaps without a limb or with a gaping hole in his abdomen? Perhaps that was the reason why Jeanette had appeared so shocked when she had come running into the house.
Aurélie was also aware of the hunting rifle that her father had in his hand.
The pilot had spoken French, Jeanette had said, but it sounded “sort of funny”. This had been the deciding moment for Etienne to grab the hunting rifle off the mantle. Although Jeanette had been too impatient to catch the conversation between her mother and father, Aurélie had.
If this man was German, Aurélie’s father didn’t want to help him. Etienne had fought in the Great War, and the experience had made him hardened. His hatred for the Germans doubled when WWII broke out and France was invaded once more. Marie, the voice of reason, had attempted to calm him down, to no avail. Although Aurélie knew that Etienne was bringing the rifle for their protection, but just the sight it made her uneasy. It was a weapon. Weapons meant violence. She didn’t like it.
Jeanette ran ahead of her parents and Aurélie, urging them to move quickly. She felt frustrated with them, for they didn’t seem to understand the seriousness of the situation, and the fact that she had told the pilot that she’d help him, there was no turning back. She didn’t understand why Papa was bringing the rifle.
She didn’t care as she led her family past the boundary with the rusty old car – her parents nor her sister said a word, much to her surprise. The first words were spoken when they broke into the clearing where the plane had crashed.
“My God!” Marie exclaimed, taking in the scene. Aurélie paused, not too far from her mother, to observe the wreck. Her heart was in her throat, upset that poor Jeanette had come across this.
“Where’s the pilot, Jeanette?” Etienne took a step forward, rifle in hand, Marie not too far behind him. She seemed ready to reach out and snatch the rifle from her husband’s hand. Aurélie hesitated, but followed.
“Over here!” Jeanette led them the last few feet.
The pilot, although clearly delirious, seemed overwhelmed with seeing the crowd that Jeanette had brought. Jeanette, oblivious to her parents’ sudden realization that this man was German, rushed toward him.
“See, monsieur! I brought help! That is my Mama, and that is my Papa, and behind them is my sister Aurélie. My name is Jeanette.”
“Jeanette,” the pilot breathed, forcing a smile to come onto his pained face, “Your sister Aurélie is beautiful.”
Despite his accent, Aurélie understood the pilot, and was taken aback, lost for words. He was a fairly handsome young man, with a head of tousled blond hair and blue eyes, his face had a certain childish appearance to it. He couldn’t be any older than she.
Then there were his wounds. The blood was discomforting, and she knew based on his comments that he was delirious. Would he live?
But he was German, she reminded herself. He was the enemy.
She glanced to her father, who hadn’t spoken a word this entire time. He was just watching the pilot with a sort of malice in his eyes that she hadn’t seen before. Aurélie watched as her mother kneeled down beside the pilot, almost hesitantly to examine his wounds. The chest wound was bleeding profusely, and the leg was mangled. He seemed to be fading in and out of consciousness. Aurélie couldn’t take her eyes off of the scene, her mother looked at the wounds with the same gentleness that she had when Jeanette had scraped her knee just the other day.
“I’m sure you will be fine,” Jeanette said to the pilot, “What is your name, monsieur?”
“Heinrich,” the pilot answered, “Heinrich Kaufmann.”
If Jeanette realized then that he was German, her attitude towards him didn’t change. She smiled.
“We will take care of you, Heinrich.”
“Mama,” Aurélie spoke, “Will he…” she trailed off, meeting her father’s eyes. His mouth was a tight line, looking grim. Whipping around to face her mother, she saw her shake her head. She leaned back on her haunches and stood, abandoning any idea of helping him.
“Mama?” Jeanette questioned, watching as her mother stepped back.
Aurélie’s heart started pounding in her chest, watching her parent’s exchange a simple gaze. Etienne’s won over Marie’s, and she dropped her eyes to the ground, nodding in understanding. A lump was forming in Aurélie’s throat, beginning to realize what was happening – and too suddenly.
She looked to her father’s rifle.
“Aurélie, take your sister,” Marie commanded, looking pale.
“Mama, surely…” Aurélie started.
“Aurélie!” It was Etienne, his tone firm.
She stared into her father’s eyes, reading his expression, knowing better than to question him. Feeling sick to her stomach, she turned, and took a couple of strides toward her sister, trying to avoid looking at the pilot as she did. Almost robotically, Aurélie took Jeanette by the hand and pulled her to her feet. The silence was deafening. Holding her little sister close, she drew her away from the dying German pilot.
“Come Jeanette,” she whispered.
“Aurélie?” Jeanette looked questioningly up at her sister, then back to her parents, and then the pilot, confused. What was going on? Did her mother not want her seeing the pilot’s wounds?
“Come Jeanette,” Aurélie repeated, holding her sister tighter against her as they started walking away. Her heart was pounding. She glanced back over her shoulder to see Etienne approaching the German pilot with his hunting rifle. Her stomach flipped, and tears sprung to her eyes.
“We can’t leave him, Aurélie,” Jeanette looked up at her sister, “Why are we leaving him?”
“Mama and Papa are going to help him,” Aurélie said, trying to keep her voice from trembling. She ruffled her sister’s blond curls, “Don’t you worry.” She glanced back over her shoulder again – they were out of sight of her parents and the pilot. Forcing a smile on her face, she said, “Jeanette! I promised I’d play with you! Let’s race! First one back to the house wins!”
“Okay!” Jeanette was instantly all smiles – and ducked out from under her arms, breaking into a run along the path. Aurélie jogged after her, barely aware of her surroundings. Tears were blurring her vision.
“I’ll beat you!” Jeanette giggled, already far ahead.
Aurélie quickened her pace – each step she was further away from her parents, further away from that German pilot who had called her beautiful. An injured man, no older than she was. He was fluent in French, and seemed, even in his deteriorating state, so grateful for their help, so friendly towards Jeanette…
Mid-stride, she heard it. The loud crack of her father’s hunting rifle. Immediately, she stopped, the sound seeming to tear through her. Jeanette didn’t hear it. She watched her sister continue to rush away towards their house.
Aurélie couldn’t find her breath, she felt ill. Why? Because he was the enemy? He had been German, but he was human, just a young man. He hadn’t tried to hurt her or her family. Why? How would she explain this to Jeanette? How would her parents explain this to her? How could her father do such a thing?
War, this was what war did to people, she realized. War did this – and ultimately, it was people like her sister who ended up suffering, those too young to understand why men were killing each other, just because they were “the enemy”. She thought of Jeanette’s childish innocence, how she hadn’t cared that the pilot was German. To her, he had been a wounded man who needed help. Nothing more, nothing less.
In overwhelming grief, Aurélie dropped to her knees on the forest floor and began to sob.