The diary arrived on a Monday. It was old, the pages worn, and the words faded. Even with her strongest reading glasses, Marcelle couldn’t pick out more than a phrase or two. English was a language she rarely read, though it was one of many she spoke.
The package had come from America, bound in a roll of tape that had barely managed to hold it together as it had traveled across the ocean to reach her. The author, a man Marcelle hadn’t seen in over seventy years, was dead, and while she had often thought they would meet again one day, life had other plans for them both.
There were other treasures in the box: newspaper clippings, photos, letters. If she’d been ten years younger, Marcelle would have already pored over them, but ninety-four years had taken a toll on her eyes, and, like everything else in her life, reading was something she couldn’t do for herself. Instead, she waited patiently for five days, for Friday, for the day her daughter would arrive from Paris.
Liliane had offered to read the diary to her, but this was not something Marcelle wanted to share with her caregiver. Not an hour of Marcelle’s day passed without company. Daytime caregivers. Nighttime nurses. Doctors. Therapists. Dietitians. Gabriel had secured only the best for his mother, the guilt he felt over his absence in her life softened only by the level of care he could provide for her.
Juliette, on the other hand, didn’t have the financial means to help with caregivers and specialists. When she had finally given up trying to move Marcelle in with her, she had insisted they at least spend the weekends together. Marcelle’s only daughter divided her time between a Paris apartment during the week, where her days were spent with her daughter and her grandchildren, and Soissons during the weekends with her mother. It wasn’t an easy commute, especially for a woman nearing seventy, the ninety-minute drive taking her over roads that were starting to resemble the speedways they had heard about in Germany. But Marcelle had refused to abandon her home in Soissons. She wouldn’t do that until it was time to join her husband and her sister and her parents in the cemetery behind the cathedral square.
“Bonjour, Maman.” Juliette leaned in and planted a kiss on Marcelle’s cheek before she sank down onto the sofa beside her. She was right on time, as usual. “What are you doing inside? It is such a lovely day; I expected to find you in the garden.”
Marcelle nodded toward the box on the table before them. “I got a package on Monday. I thought you could help me with it. My eyes, you know.”
“A package?” Juliette pulled the box on the table closer, her eyes scanning over the shipping label. “America? Who do you know in America?”
“An old friend,” Marcelle replied, not sure how to explain to her daughter who George had been to her, not even sure how to explain it to herself. She had met him on only two occasions, but what he had done for her, and what she had felt for him, was nothing she could put into words.
“A man friend?” Juliette pulled an aged photograph from inside the box before turning it over to read the inscription on the back. “George Mountcastle,” she said. “He was a very handsome soldier. I did not know you had an American boyfriend before Papa.”
The tremor in Marcelle’s hands worsened as she took the photo from her daughter and squinted at the image. It was no use. The face staring back at her was as blurred as the one that had lived inside her memory for over seven decades. “He was not a boyfriend.”
Juliette rifled through the box, past the newspaper clippings, and the letters, and the keepsakes. “This one looks like a movie star,” she said, pulling out another photograph and reading from the back of it. “Philip Foster. Was he a boyfriend, too?”
“My goodness, Juliette.” Marcelle shook her head and sighed. “There were no boyfriends. And I do not remember any Philip.”
Juliette laughed as she tucked the photo back into the box before pulling out a yellowed newspaper clipping. “How about this one?” she asked, scanning over the article. “Max Neumann. He was a German. Do you remember him?”
“No … I do not think so … but maybe…” Marcelle shook her head again, frustrated. Her memory had started failing her years ago. Names she couldn’t put with faces. Places that seemed both familiar and foreign at once. The term “Alzheimer’s” had been tossed around lately, but Marcelle refused to listen. She would not allow her mind to be taken by a disease that had been named after a German. She was simply old; her mind was tired.
“It was a long time ago, Maman.” Juliette refolded the article and placed it back into the box before closing the top. She was a perceptive woman, always in tune with the people around her and sensitive to their emotions. Nothing like her brother. “How about a cup of tea in the garden?”
Marcelle’s rose garden was almost as famous as her mother’s had once been. Her mother had lost interest in gardening after the first war with the Germans, upon returning home to Soissons from Paris and finding nothing but rubble and weeds. Marcelle had planted a new garden to go with the home they had rebuilt when the Germans had surrendered, a place where her mother could spend the rest of her days surrounded by a symphony of colors and the budding of new life. It was a mercy that her mother had passed before the Second World War, before the color had been drained from their lives once more. It would have destroyed her.
Marcelle’s teacup rattled against the saucer as she tried to place it onto the table beside her wheelchair. The garden was in full bloom, and as she watched a plump bumblebee bounce from bud to bud, she found herself defenseless against the memories that washed over her.
“It was the summer of 1918,” she said, as Juliette took the cup from her hands. “That was when I met him.”
“Maman, you don’t have to do this.” Juliette waved away her mother’s words. “There is no reason for you to go back there.”
Marcelle’s daughter was no stranger to war, or to German occupation. They rarely spoke of the war they had lived through together, and Marcelle had never shared her experiences of the first war with her daughter. The Forgotten War. It was hard to believe a war that had toppled four imperial dynasties could be forgotten.
“You should know what happened,” Marcelle replied. “Once I am gone, there will be no one left to tell it.”
Juliette pulled the diary from beneath her chair and held it up in front of her mother. “It is all in here,” she said. “I took a glance through this while I was preparing the tea, and it looks like this man, George, has already told your story.”
“What could he know about my story?” Marcelle huffed. “He barely knew me.”
“Shall we find out?” Juliette opened the journal and held it up so Marcelle could see that one lone sentence was scrawled across the middle of the front page. She squinted out of habit, but the ink ran together. “It reads, the real story of The Great War.”
Juliette turned the page, and Marcelle listened as her daughter brought life to the words and awakened memories that had long ago been put to sleep. The night the Germans had bombed Soissons at the start of the war in 1914. The cellar beneath her father’s store where they’d taken shelter. The train station in Montmirail where she and her sister had volunteered as nurses.
“How is this possible?” Marcelle whispered, interrupting her daughter’s reading. “How could this man know all these things about me? I never told him any of this.”
“Do you want me to stop, Maman?”
Marcelle didn’t have an answer for her. There were moments in the story of her life that she had fought to erase from her mind, but there were also moments of joy that had escaped her memory unknowingly, gifts that were being given back to her through her daughter’s words.
“Maman!” Juliette gasped as her eyes bounced over the pages before her. “Were you a spy?”
It was a secret she had kept for seventy years, her husband guarding it well for her. He’d understood why they couldn’t share it with her sister or her parents after the war. She smiled at her daughter and nodded in response.
“Did Papa know?” Juliette asked, and again, Marcelle nodded. “Why wouldn’t you tell us this, Maman? This is remarkable.”
“It was a long time ago, Juliette. And it was not as glamorous as it sounds.”
As her daughter flipped through the diary, the fog began to lift from Marcelle’s clouded memories. She could see George, the man who’d written the words on those pages; she could feel the sun warming her skin on the day they’d first met; she could hear his voice as he’d delivered the message that would save her life. Perhaps it was a mistake giving that journal to her daughter. Perhaps those memories should have been buried with the people who’d made them.
“Maman.” Tears glistened in Juliette’s eyes when she looked up at Marcelle after skimming through a few more pages, an equal amount of sorrow and disbelief battling through her features. “How could you keep all of this from us?”
“All of what?”
“That you were a prisoner in a German war camp.”
“I was never…” Marcelle tripped over her thoughts, trying to find a sliver of truth in her daughter’s words. “That is not right,” she finally managed. “I was never a prisoner in a war camp.”
“But it says right here.” Juliette pointed at the page, at a cluster of indecipherable words. “You were captured and taken to a prison in Jaulgonne.”
“No, that did not … it almost happened … but…” Marcelle had imagined that scenario so many times in her life, what might have happened if George hadn’t stopped her, that it often felt like a real memory. But it wasn’t real. Was it?
“It says right here,” Juliette continued. “After the Germans won the battle at the Marne River … in July 1918…” Juliette skimmed through the pages, reciting disjointed pieces of a story that felt strangely familiar, but one that Marcelle knew was false. “… they marched into Paris…”
“No. That is not true, Juliette. I was there. It was July of 1918. We had been at war for four years, and the Americans had just joined the fight. We held the Germans back at the Marne River. They never got to Paris. Our troops pushed them back until they surrendered a few months later. I was there.” Marcelle pointed to the journal in her daughter’s hands, remembering the celebrations in the streets when the Germans had surrendered. The music. The laughter. The dancing. The day George had come back. “It did not happen this way,” she whispered, unable to still the worsening tremor in her hands. “The Germans did not take Paris.”
“I’m sorry, Maman.” Juliette closed the book and returned it to the spot beneath her chair before reaching out to her mother. “Maybe this was not a good idea,” she said, pressing her hand into Marcelle’s. “I did not realize it was a made-up story.”
Was it a made-up story? Was it fabricated by a man who had known things about Marcelle that were impossible for him to know? It didn’t happen that way, did it? But if it was made up, why did it feel so true?
“Could you start from the beginning again?” Marcelle asked, before clearing her throat and forcing a calm into her voice. “I would like to hear the entire story.”
The winds shifted outside the window as the light faded, the burdens of the world clawing at Marcelle’s beautiful life and trying to rip it to shreds. She was dutiful in her indifference to it, ignoring the empty house around her with a steadfast determination.
She dreamed, instead, of Pierre. She occupied her thoughts with stolen kisses, secret engagements, and romantic wars. Not the kind of war that took place on battlefields and in trenches, not the kind that men wrote of. She dreamed of the war she had envisioned when the Germans had first announced their intentions to invade France: the soldiers in their crisp uniforms; the troops in their perfect formations; the lovers in their final embraces. She would be a soldier’s wife soon, and what could be more romantic than that?
Pierre had left for the front just two days earlier, along with Marcelle’s brothers, and, while the proposal hadn’t yet been announced, she was certain that when they all returned for Christmas in a few short months, it would become official. She would be eighteen next year, old enough to be a bride.
Copyright © 2022 by Sarah Adlakha