Poppies were springing up in the fields beyond Castelnau like bright-red drops of blood staining the countryside. Seeing the flowers, Gabriella Madison took a deep breath. Lifeblood and hope eternal.
She closed her eyes and felt a stinging sensation inside her chest. Poppies reminded her of David. And poppies reminded David of her. But now he was in Algeria, perhaps already in the company of Ophélie’s mother, Anne-Marie. How Gabriella wished he were standing here beside her instead.
Ophélie’s voice interrupted her thoughts. “Bribri, do you think it will be today that Papa and Mama get back?”
Gabriella shook her head, her red hair glistening like sun on the river. “Not today, Ophélie. But very soon.”
Were they even now laughing together, reliving old times, catching up on seven lost years? Was David explaining what had been happening here in lazy Castelnau? Had he even mentioned her name to Anne-Marie?
They had been walking, Gabriella and a whole troop of children, toward the edge of Castelnau, where the village fanned out into farmland and vineyards. The children trailed behind their young maîtresse in pairs, holding hands and chattering excitedly. Gabriella glanced back to see Sister Rosaline, red-faced and out of breath, waving from the end of the line.
“All here,” the nun called out happily in her singsong French. “All forty-three.”
Gabriella waved back, smiling at the children. “Do you want to go a little farther? We’re almost to the park.”
A chorus of Oui, Maîtresse sang back to her, so they proceeded down a narrow dirt road into a grassy sanctuary enclosed by tall cypress trees. At the far end of the field were several seesaws, a monkey bar, and an old swing set.
This walk outside the orphanage had become a daily ritual after lunch, weather permitting. Mother Griolet had hesitated at first. What if people began to question? After all, the population of the orphanage had doubled in a few short months. But Gabriella and Sister Rosaline had insisted. The new arrivals were loud, afraid, and restless. Together the children acted like pent-up animals, and they needed to be uncaged in a space larger than the courtyard inside St. Joseph.
In truth, Gabriella worried for Mother Griolet. With David away and all the new children here, the old nun’s predictable schedule had come tumbling down.
“It’s always this way at first,” she had reassured Gabriella. “During the Second World War we scrambled for a while, but we eventually settled into a routine.”
But Gabriella was not convinced. Over fifteen years had passed since that war, and Mother Griolet was no longer young. Still spry, yes, but she was suddenly looking quite old beneath her habit. Her face looked more wrinkled, and her green eyes had lost some of their sparkle.
Forty-three orphans and forty-two American college women would be plenty for an energetic young woman to handle. Perhaps too much for a woman of seventy-two.
Presently Ophélie left her friends to join Gabriella.
“Bribri,” the child began, fiddling with Gabriella’s long red curls, “what will it be like when Mama, Papa, and you are all here together?” She scrunched up her nose, her brown eyes shining and sincere.
Gabriella cleared her throat and stroked Ophélie’s hair. “It will be a wonderful reunion, Ophélie. An answer to prayer.”
“And who do you think Papa will choose? You or Mama? And who will I live with?”
Gabriella bent down beside the little girl. She hoped her voice sounded light and carefree. “Dear Ophélie. Your papa will not choose your mama or me. He will choose you! He will pick you up and swing you around, and the whole orphanage will ring with your laughter. Don’t you worry now. Don’t worry.”
Take your own advice, Gabriella thought as she sent Ophélie off with a soft pat on the back. Two days ago David Hoffmann had kissed her—really kissed her—and then he had left on a humanitarian mission to a country gone mad. She did not want to dwell on it, for the possibilities were too frightening. Better to think of the children.
A fight broke out between two boys, and Gabriella dashed over, yelling, “Eh! Ça suffit!” She pulled the children apart, scolded them playfully, and began chasing several of the smallest boys, tagging them and calling, “You’re it!” A few minutes into the game she stumbled, out of breath, to the side of the field, crushing a red poppy beneath her feet.
David Hoffmann stood at the Bassin de Joliette in Marseille. Amid the huge ferries, paquebots, and steamships, he spied a comparatively small black-and-white sailboat. The Capitaine was empty now, except for a grisly old Frenchman at the helm.
The wharf was awash in families debarking with trunks and suitcases. Adults and children alike looked confused, sad, hopeless. David shook his head. One little orphanage in the south of France sheltering a handful of pied-noir and harki children was a drop in the bucket. These people were French citizens, but where would they go? Did France want them? David knew it did not.
He slipped onto the Capitaine and greeted the rough sailor with a handshake.
“Bonjour,” Jacques replied. “You sure you want to go back there now? It’s a bad situation and is only going to get worse.”
“Yes, I’m sure. I have to go.”
Jacques looked at the ground. “I can’t go back, M. Hoffmann. There’s nowhere for me to dock. The ferries are taking up all the room. Thousands of pied-noirs are running away faster than the mistral gusts down the Rhône. If you’re sure you have to go back, I advise you to take a ferry. It’ll be a lot safer, and I guarantee you there’ll be room—nobody’s going back to Algeria.”
David frowned, contemplating the sailor’s words, then he shrugged. “I understand, Jacques. Thank you for all your help. There are many children in Castelnau who are grateful to you.”
The two men shook hands.
“Bonne chance, M. Hoffmann. You be careful now. Raving crazy, that country is. Raving crazy.”
David stood on the deck of a huge, empty ferry, his tall frame silhouetted against the night sky. The wind whipped across the sea. His hair blew back, his eyes squinted against the wind, and his jacket billowed and filled with air. He gripped the railing with his good hand, his other shoulder and arm bandaged and tucked inside his leather jacket.
The whitecaps rose up to touch the sky, and a thousand stars blinked back, as if flirting with the water. The sea air smelled fresh and strong. He wished briefly that Gabriella were snuggled beside him, then pushed the thought away.
He had twenty-four hours alone before he would step into a world of chaos, and he wanted to spend this one night well. The scene before him reminded him of a night on the beach one month ago. The night of his surrender, he called it in his mind. His surrender to the God of Gabriella.
There was no doubt that something inside of him had changed. In that moment he had actually felt forgiven, and too many coincidences had happened lately to deny intellectually that God seemed to be up to something in his life. He was twenty-five years old; yet he was somehow new. A new man. A new conscience. A Presence was with him. He had a suspicious feeling he would never be able to get rid of this God now even if he wanted to.
It was midafternoon at the Place du Gouvernement in downtown Algiers. The great Cathedral of Saint Philippe formed an imposing barrier between the steep, narrow roads of the Casbah and this tree-filled square that teemed with people shopping, sipping mint tea at a café, and milling about in carefree jubilation. There was a feeling of peace and security among the population of Algiers. The cease-fire to end Algeria’s seven-year war for independence from France had gone into effect two days before.
The noise from the square was merry, loud, jovial. This was the Algiers Hussein remembered and loved. Seven years of war had stolen his boyhood away. At fourteen, he had seen more violence than many a soldier. He secretly longed for peace. Beyond the war, beyond the hatred.
Now was the time to breathe openly, to relax, to hope. No pied-noirs had ventured out into the sunshine today, Hussein mused with grim satisfaction. Ali had predicted they would leave en masse before official independence was declared on July 2. Algeria would be rid of the filthy French and their colonial ways.
Yet Hussein still wished he could find the woman, Anne-Marie, to placate Ali’s fury. Ali Boudani was a man obsessed with revenge. He was at one moment delirious with joy, the next moment brooding with contempt. Algeria was independent, but Ali’s personal mission was not over.
Hussein glanced up at the sky, hearing a noise that sounded like a plane overhead, or maybe a missile being launched. Then his body tensed. He stood transfixed in the shadow of a building as, above him, one, then two bright flashes exploded with a terrible boom in the center of the Place du Gouvernement. Debris from the street, chairs from cafés, and bodies seemed to dance on the tips of the bright flames before his eyes. For a brief moment the deafening roar of the explosions silenced the screams coming from everywhere in the square.
Clutching one another, panic on their faces, people clambered toward the shadows of the buildings, some fleeing in the direction of the cathedral. Dead and maimed lay in the center of the square; a shrill cry of agony pierced through the din of confused voices. Everyone stopped; no one dared move. Would more bombs follow?
Then almost at once, the masses surged forward to help the wounded. Arab FLN terrorists worked alongside the French police for perhaps the first time in Algiers’ bloody history. Hussein watched it all. An old woman, bloodied and disfigured, collapsed against the stones of a building. Three men lay dead. The peaceful, leafy square of five minutes earlier resembled a battleground. Hussein turned on his heels and fled.
It was a lie! There was no peace for Algeria! Up the layers of tangled, dilapidated buildings of the Casbah Hussein ran, until he stumbled into the one-room office where Ali sat.
Already the Casbah was ringing with cries of indignation and fury.
“Ali! The Place du Gouvernement! Explosion!” Hussein choked on his words and took in gulps of air, his lungs burning.
Ali rose and stepped into the street as young men poured forth from their whitewashed stalls.
Other members of the FLN were already holding men back, some of them forcefully.
“Not yet! Don’t run to your deaths. This is what the OAS is waiting for. Hold your ground. It’s their last effort to win back Algeria.”
Ali grabbed Hussein by the shoulders. “It’s not over yet. You aren’t afraid of bloodshed, my boy?”
Hussein gazed at him and shook his head, knowing all the while that the fear in his eyes betrayed him.
“Go then, and tell me what you see. Go to Bab el-Oued and wait. Take it all in. We must be ready.”
Hussein turned and escaped through a narrow alleyway. Tears ran down his cheeks. Oh, for peace. For even a moment of peace. Then he could play as he had when he was seven and war had only been a handful of toy soldiers on the floor of his room.
A ricochet of bullets sounded in the street below the building where Anne-Marie Duchemin was staying with fellow pied-noir, Marcus Cirou. She watched Moustafa hurry a young man into their building, and she quickly limped to the mirror that hung on the flaking wall. She felt a pang of despair as her reflection stared back at her. Her black hair drooped loosely upon her shoulders. She cringed at the way her protruding cheekbones accentuated her deep-set and dull eyes. Her skin looked pale and almost yellowish. She turned away.
A thick gray sweater hung impossibly over her thin frame, but she felt completely naked. David Hoffmann was about to walk back into her life, and she was not ready. Her heart belonged to Moustafa. With him, she was not afraid to be sick and disheveled. She read devotion in his eyes. But David! Her lover when they were but adolescents. She had not seen him in so long.
Suddenly she felt afraid. He was risking his life and wasting his time to help her. Why? Would he be angry to see what she had become? A pitiful, withered flower …
The door swung wide, and David stood in the opening and paused. Anne-Marie swallowed hard and met his eyes. His six-foot-one-inch frame had filled out so that he looked every bit the grown man he was. His black eyes were softer than she remembered, and the tenderness she saw in them scared her even more. His coarse black hair was swept back away from his face, but one wisp hung forward, tickling his forehead. A black leather jacket hung loosely over his shoulders. As he leaned down to set a suitcase on the floor, she noticed his bandaged arm. He straightened up, not moving forward, as if waiting for her invitation.
His mouth whispered Anne-Marie without making a sound.
Oh, you are a beautiful man, she thought, fighting to stand her ground, willing herself against running into his arms, forcing herself to forget that last embrace seven years ago when he had kissed her good-bye even as the tiny seed of Ophélie was forming in her womb.
David cleared his throat. “Anne-Marie.” He said it almost reverently, and then he moved toward her, slowly, taking long strides. He reached out and touched her frail hand, then brushed her face. “My dear Anne-Marie.”
She heard the sorrow, the groan of pain in his voice, the hurt for her suffering. She bit her lip and closed her eyes, but she could not keep the tears from flowing. She rested her head against his chest and let his strong arm enclose her as she sobbed like a terrified child who had been rescued at last.
Somewhere inside she watched the years of horror and death, killing and running for life, the years that had followed her happiest moments with David. If only … if only … The questions of a lifetime swam before her in liquid reality until they ran down her cheeks. Her feeble energy was spent. And though she had not uttered a word, she had the feeling that David Hoffmann understood perfectly everything she felt.
David was not prepared for the emotions that surfaced in him as he held Anne-Marie in his arms. He had been playing happily in his little university world while this woman lived in hell. He hadn’t known. He had cared, and yet … Even the smuggling operation in France, with all its dangers, could not compare with what he saw in Anne-Marie: true human suffering. The weight of guilt pulled on his shoulders and bound him more tightly than the sling in which his arm rested. A sick, painful anger welled up in his soul as he held her, this woman who was no more than a dried twig fallen from a branch.
God, forgive me, he prayed as she sobbed into his shirt. I had no idea. She looked more like an aging grandmother or a malnourished child than a twenty-four-year-old woman. She didn’t want pity, David was sure, but pity overwhelmed him anyway. A fleeting thought crossed his mind. If only … if only she had left with him for America. Ophélie would have been born there. They would have made it, somehow. If only …
And then the angry why? Why? Why did life twist and turn and torture?
He stepped back from Anne-Marie and let his good arm fall to his side. A searing pain shot through his shoulder, and he grimaced.
“What happened?” Anne-Marie whispered. She touched his bandaged arm.
Silence engulfed them.
Anne-Marie wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her sweater. “I’m sorry.”
“Perhaps we could sit down for a minute?”
“Yes, of course.” Anne-Marie shot him a weak smile. “I’m sorry. I’m afraid I … I’m so glad to see you, David. Thank you for coming. It’s the worst time.”
He gently took her arm and led her out of the room. “Moustafa is waiting for us in the kitchen.”
“Yes, yes. You must be tired after your trip. Let me fix you some mint tea.”
The small kitchen was dark. Moustafa Dramchini stood with his back toward them, already preparing the tea. He turned and greeted them with sullen eyes. David helped Anne-Marie to her seat as Moustafa set a tray on the table. He rested his hand on Anne-Marie’s back and eyed David suspiciously.
“When do you plan to leave?”
“It’s your call, Moustafa. As soon as you can arrange it.”
Anne-Marie looked up. “Tell me of Ophélie. How is she?”
David relaxed and smiled. “She’s fine. She’s a beautiful, happy child who misses her mother very much.” He reached into his pocket. “She sent this for you.” He held out a drawing of a rainbow with the words I love you, Mama written in the cursive of a six-year-old.
Anne-Marie’s eyes filled with tears. She ran her fingers lovingly over the picture and then pressed it to her breast. She closed her eyes and let the tears trickle down her cheeks. “Ophélie.”
The men watched her in silence. Finally she spoke, her voice catching. “I’ve clung to the hope for all these months. I’ve forced myself to believe, to be strong. But to know for sure that she is safe. To dream of holding her in my arms again soon. Now I can cry, and I don’t know if it’s joy or fear or sorrow. Now I can believe that we’re going to be okay.”
David put his hand inside his leather coat and felt for a gold chain, which he handed to Anne-Marie. “Ophélie sent this as well. She wanted me to have it, to keep me safe. She said it has kept her safe, and now it will bring you back safely to her also.”
Anne-Marie held the chain with the small Huguenot cross on it as if it were a priceless jewel. “My father’s cross. I’d forgotten how beautiful it was. Thank you.” She traced its outline with her finger and then slipped it around her neck. “Ophélie never realized the real significance of it?”
David smiled. “I don’t know if I would say that. She has learned an awful lot about the cross and what it stands for in the time she has been at the orphanage. But she never understood why it was so important for us.” He closed his eyes, picturing his daughter. “She’s a secretive child. Do you know she kept your letter hidden and learned to read so she could know what you were telling her?”
Anne-Marie shook her head. “How did you find it?”
“I didn’t. It was Mother Griolet, the nun in charge of the orphanage. I had no idea.”
He explained how he had found Ophélie, a terrified and wounded child, in Paris and of his decision to bring her to the orphanage. “I had no idea what to do with a small child. But I knew Gabby would.”
David’s face reddened against his will. “Gabriella Madison. She’s a young woman on the exchange program who helps out with the orphanage.”
“The woman with the red hair,” Moustafa volunteered.
“That’s the one,” David answered. He didn’t want to talk about Gabriella now. There would be time later to tell Anne-Marie and time to understand what he was reading in the angry eyes of Moustafa.
Darkness blanketed the streets of Algiers as Moustafa slipped outside. “I’ll be back shortly.” His soft brown eyes, filled with distrust, met David’s.
“Good.” David nodded. “Then we’ll discuss the plans for leaving.”
David watched him go into the street. He was eager to get Anne-Marie to the port and out of the war-ridden city. They would cross the Mediterranean, and then life would resume. Anne-Marie would be with Ophélie. Her health would improve. And he would be back with Gabriella.…
The sound of a chair being dragged across the floor startled him, and he turned from the window. Anne-Marie stood by the kitchen table, a thick robe now pulled around her thin frame.
“I didn’t mean to surprise you. Would you like some more tea?”
He pulled out a chair, and they both sat down. “No, I’m fine.”
The silence was heavy. A hundred questions raced through his mind. Where to begin …
Anne-Marie played with the ties on her robe, twisting them in her hands. Her head was bent, and for a brief moment he remembered her as a radiant, rebellious adolescent. His heart ached.
“Are you feeling strong enough to leave?” he asked, breaking the quiet.
She did not look up but still wrapped the ties around her hands. “I’m sorry I never answered your letters,” she said. “How could I answer? How could I write you and keep silent about what was happening to me?”
David reached over and took her hand. “What did your parents say when they found out you were pregnant?”
Anne-Marie looked up. “They did all the right things. They got angry. Papa ranted for a while. Then they apologized. They listened. We talked. We cried a lot. They asked me to let you know, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t put that on you.” Her eyes wore the saddest of expressions. “I knew you would come back—just to hurt your father. You’d come back for all the wrong reasons.”
David stiffened and set his jaw. She was right. Perhaps he would have come back to Algeria out of rebellion and not love. Intellectually he had loved her. Physically he had loved her. But emotionally? He could not say.
“I cared deeply about you, Anne-Marie.”
“I know that.”
He winced inwardly at the stabbing guilt he felt.
“Mama was a saint about it. I broke their hearts, and they forgave me. And oh, how they loved Ophélie. Captain Duchemin, the staunch, strong military man! I wish you could have seen him cooing at his granddaughter.” She smiled at the memory. “He rocked her to bed every night and sang her the most beautiful songs. We were a happy, odd family for a while. Until Ali Boudani ripped everything apart.” She stared at him, and her face grew hard and determined. “You know the rest.”
“Perhaps not everything,” he whispered. “Tell me about Moustafa.”
Anne-Marie looked angry, then she smiled. “Dear Moustafa. My childhood friend, the one who helped me escape to France, then betrayed me to Ali.” Her voice was barely audible. “The one who loves me.”
“And do you love him?”
She closed her eyes and withdrew her hand from his. He was sorry that he had asked her so soon.
Softly she answered, “I love him, David. I love him, and every time he leaves this filthy apartment, I’m terrified I’ll lose him. I am so afraid that he will be found in some back alley with his throat slit, like the other harkis. Like his father. These Arabs have remained loyal to France and fought alongside the French soldiers. But they aren’t French, and they’re seen as traitors by their own people. What hope is there for the harki families?”
She stood and held onto the back of the chair. “I love him, and I wish I didn’t. What future is there for us? An ostracized Arab and a pied-noir. And he’ll stay for his people. He won’t come to France, I know. I’m so afraid that in a few days he will walk out of my life forever. And it hurts so much. It hurts like … it hurts the way …”
She stopped, but David knew the end of the sentence. It hurts the way it hurt when you walked out of my life seven years ago.
~from Two Testaments, by Elizabeth Musser, c1997, c2012, published by David C Cook. Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.