Through The Embers

Through The Embers

1920 1281 Linda Cruise

Along the southern horizon, Normandy’s coastal ridge and cliffs suddenly appeared out of the mist, under a ghostly canopy of sky. Perhaps under less trying circumstances US Army Chaplain Father Cliff Gabriel would have stopped to admire God’s handiwork. However, the task at hand required him and his platoon of three dozen troops to climb over the side of a formidable transport vessel, down cargo netting while burdened with heavy gear, into the cramped hold of an amphibious boat—a small LCVP, commonly known as an “Elsie.”

As the Allied armada of over five thousand ships breached the shoreline’s waters, the naval bombardment commenced against the ridgeline’s camouflaged German defensive batteries. Father Cliff’s senses were barraged with smoke and bomb blasts despite his Elsie being a good quarter-mile behind the front line of ships. On board, the stench of vomit permeated each drawn breath. The engines’ drone suppressed the soldiers into silence—some smoking cigarettes to calm their nerves, others just staring off with a lost transparency overshadowing their eyes. After having practiced so many drills and mock-landings, it was hard to fathom that D-Day—the long-awaited Allied Invasion of Europe—was actually underway. Suddenly, it had become “show-time.”

The boat swayed over an enlarged sea swell, its subsequent dip serving as reminder of the need for preparedness. While pressing down his helmet with one hand, Cliff observed the countless planes overhead. He aligned his vision along the horizon and was almost mesmerized by the surrealistic effect created by the multitude of ships stretched across the Channel, from east to west.

Within the enveloping dimness, he scanned his watch and took note of the fact that the invasion was coinciding with the sixthhour, of the sixth day, of the sixth month. As a Catholic priest, he could hardly ignore the biblical significance of that sequence of numbers. In his mind, it confirmed that this was no ordinary war, that it wasn’t just a war about some arbitrary lines being drawn on a map. Instead, it pitted good against evil not seen this side of heaven. This war spoke to the very heart of humankind, revealing what people were capable of inflicting upon others—the violence, the oppression, the hatred, and the ignorance. It exposed humanity’s propensity for inhumanity, in all its bitter ignobleness.

At least that was the argument he had given Sister Bernadette de la Sacré Coeur, his favorite nun at the orphanage where he had been reared since infancy, just prior to his departure for the European campaign. Together, they had sat one last time in the Mother House’s parlor; and he had let her fuss over him, serving him homemade chocolate truffles and Irish coffee, which included her secret stash of whiskey, topped with fresh whipped cream.

She had balked at his eagerness to become an Army chaplain—for having wanted to get caught up in global affairs. “What does a boy from Eden, Vermont, know about such worldly conflicts?” she asked, almost toying with him, while offering him sugar.

Cliff wasn’t quite sure how to respond, and so he said nothing.

“Oh, I’ll grant you,” she went on, “you know much about tapping trees or fixing a tractor’s carburetor. You’re even adept at chopping wood and fly-fishing—which are all fine, since our Creator gave us dominion over all earthly things.” She took back the sugar bowl from him and placed it on the low table beside their shared sofa. “But, my dear Cliff, your calling is to preach the Good News of the Gospel—to promote the teachings of the Bible—and to pray.”

“You don’t have to worry about me. I know enough,” said Cliff, before picking up his cup and saucer.

“Hah! You?” Sister Bernadette huffed, revealing a shrewd grin. “I’m afraid your life experience hardly qualifies you even as a bumpkin.”

His eyes widened. “Why, Sister!”

“No offense, dear,” she offered, squeezing his hand, affectionately. “It’s just that you’ve spent your entire life either in this backwoods orphanage or shut up at seminary. Hardly the feeding grounds of a warrior.”

True, the Sisters of Divine Grace’s orphanage was in Vermont’s remotest region, known as the Northeast Kingdom, just outside the aptly-named village of Eden, on the shores of Lake Madawilha. Nevertheless, Cliff clung to the cornerstone of his faith—that in the end, the righteous would prevail. “Well,” he said, “I can respect your differing opinion. But I’m a grown man, now—28 years old, in fact. I’m no longer a mere child in need of your protection.”

“So you are.” She nodded as if in agreement, but he could tell by her curled lips that she was only humoring him.

He waited for the nun to sip her own coffee before saying, “Perhaps I feel it more necessary than you to put my complete faith in our Almighty Father—that His resolve is greater than Hitler’s and that, ultimately, nothing will stand in the way of God’s divine plan.”

“Oh, I have no doubt God will be the victor,” countered Sister Bernadette, “but at what price when men break His commandment, in order to intervene?”

“Sister, your pacifism is noble, rest assured, but I’m called to be shepherd,” replied Cliff, “and these men you speak of are part of God’s flock as well.”

She nodded, encouraging him to expound.

Frowning, Cliff clanked his cup against its saucer before placing them down on the table. “I’m sorry, Sister, that you don’t approve of my actions. Surely, you know my heart by now. Foremost is my duty to God—but through service to mankind.”

Indeed, that sentiment was what first compelled Cliff to take up his vocation as chaplain—a role requiring much steadfastness in matters of faith and soldiering, matters that presented both spiritual and physical challenges. War or no war, Cliff still regarded himself as a man of peace. After all, according to Cliff, with his saving God being capable of all things, it was entirely conceivable to consider the act of war, itself, as a conduit for peace.

That Cliff’s isolated upbringing compounded his naiveté—to the point of idealism—only fed his abhorrence for the senseless savagery enveloping the world. By the time he shipped out for England, his mission had become resolute: he would provide whatever ministry his fellow soldiers needed to keep their faith alive in the throes of war. He would save their souls if necessary—perhaps, ultimately, even their lives—and all with the willingness of self-sacrifice. Did not Jesus instruct his disciples to do as much: to lay down one’s life for another?

The Elsie moaned as it cut across the rolling swells. Staring down at his waterlogged boots, Cliff dared not reveal a trace of his innermost terror; yet, as chaplain, he couldn’t help wonder if his comrades felt the same. A good number were still kids, barely eighteen years old. They hadn’t even been given a solid crack at life, let alone face the ominous prospect of dying.

Cliff lowered himself down against the bulwark, partially shielding his eyes from the madness at hand. Wrestling against his fear, he forced his mind to relinquish more soothing images from his youthful days spent with Sister Bernadette—those carefree days long before the morality of the war divided them. Still, more and more, especially of late during the tedium spent in anticipation of the Invasion, Cliff had found that the simple act of rereading her letters gave him much needed solace, the kind only a mother provides. He couldn’t bring himself to hold against her the virtuous belief that all war was sinful and, therefore, morally opposed to God’s will; so, instead, he lived with the guilt in knowing how much he had let her down. Sister Bernadette’s purity of heart and generous spirit inspired him to believe in the possibility of his natural mother having been so sweet. Lacking first-hand knowledge of a biological mother’s love should have made it difficult to judge, but Cliff never doubted for an instant that he had experienced the next best thing: the unconditional love of a faithful soul, in that of Sister Bernadette.

Like the other Sisters of Divine Grace, Sister Bernadette originated from Québec City and shared not only their reverence for life, but their love of nature, as well as its various afforded forms of recreation. Often, in contrast to Eden’s winter harshness, she escorted the children down to the frozen margin of Lake Madawilha and, with strapped-on skates, whiled away the afternoons tracing figures into the icy surface, forming long, whip-like chains of skaters, and even indulging the children with a game or two of hockey—her habit’s mantel as effective as any goaltender’s shin pads. No matter that she was approaching fifty years upon this troubled earth at the time of Cliff’s shipping out for England; to him, Sister Bernadette remained ageless, with an infectious smile and unexpected, wry wit.

The chaplain felt his elbow nudged by the firm arm of his commanding officer, First Lieutenant Archie Carlisle. “Padre, can you see to it that my wife and mother get these in the event—?” He let his sentence trail off into the salty breeze.

Nodding, Cliff took the letters, clutched them for a moment, praying there would never be a need for him to send such heartbreaking news, before putting them in his waterproof pouch.

Through many an Army meal, Cliff had been regaled with stories from Archie’s pre-war life. Archie, the youngest of an Irish-Catholic litter of seven, was an affable Brooklynite, who refused to concede life was worth living beyond New York’s five boroughs. The son of a proud city cop, he had been a local legend of sorts in the days he played baseball for P.S. 9, having made the All-City Team twice. With an athletic scholarship in hand, he was the first of the Carlisles to attend college.

Regrettably, things hadn’t gone as planned. When Archie’s good looks collided head-on with black-eyed-beauty Clara Rosalina, she was pregnant before Mrs. Carlisle could bless herself and mutter, “Saints preserve us!” Mistake or not, Archie acted honorably and proposed marriage. By the time the newly-weds settled down into their new Flatbush apartment, he had needed to drop out of school to support the family. Only thing, Clara ended up losing the baby, prematurely. Archie had gotten a fast education in life, but he never let any of it stop him. Shortly thereafter, the warring world had presented him with the opportunity of having a brilliant military career—and so, he never looked back. In one regard, having been confined to only New York City experiences made him very naïve about certain workings of the world-at-large; but conversely, it also meant he had acquired a lot of street-smarts along the way, which translated into the occasional cocky attitude—an attitude which only made others believe in him that much more. Of course, it didn’t hurt any that he had the physique to back it up. Needless to say, Cliff valued Archie’s leadership and for providing the reassurance necessary as combat inched ever closer for the men.

Across from Cliff and Archie, leaning against the opposite bulwark, was John Hawkins, a high-school Latin teacher from Canton, in the midst of bumming a cigarette from Mitch Wendelson, who hailed from Sarasota. Somewhat mechanically, Wendelson obliged his buddy, all the while keeping his tiger-like gaze transfixed on the looming horizon. Toward the stern sat infantry recruit Ben Stokel, from Tulsa, hunched over his lap, re-reading his fiancée’s threadbare letter.

Behind him, Lenny “Boom” Schmidt showed off a photo of the six-month-old daughter he had never met to Medic Paul Jameson, of Baton Rouge. Boom had been drafted by the Army shortly after marrying his high-school sweetheart. He was rugged and simple—a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy. At twenty years of age, Boom already had a promising future with the railroad, just west of Denver. Rigging dynamite was his specialty, hence the nickname; but as it happened, shooting a rifle turned out to be his true gift. While back in basic training, it became common knowledge among the men that Boom could shoot the head off a pigeon sitting on a wire at a hundred paces. When the Army learned of his unexploited talent as a marksman, it declared him a rifleman overnight.

Even so, Cliff was convinced that God had blessed their platoon twice—once in Boom, and yet again in Eddie Cairns, the only son of a Red-Cross worker and traveling salesman, from Buffalo. Straight out of carpentry trade-school, Cairns had signed on with the Army. He was a hot-headed Scotsman—born and bred in America, but Scotch, through and through. With a laugh as warm as whisky’s burn, his clean looks fitted the bill as well.

Cliff remembered once pitying a new recruit, who, while at a bar during a weekend furlough, had made the costly mistake of telling Cairns he looked more English than Scottish. Cairns rectified the insult by breaking the recruit’s arm and jaw, but afterward found himself on KP duty for two weeks. Later, when Cliff had asked Cairns if he regretted his actions at all, the brazen, young man ran a hand over his high, freckled forehead, which was capped in a cowlick of wispy, ginger hair, and replied, “Would it be entirely sinful, Father, if my only regret was I didn’t break his other arm, too?” With a swimmer’s body, he was strong and lean—could outrun the entire company if need be. But the truly amazing thing about Eddie Cairns was that he was an even better sharpshooter than Boom. The rumor circulating was that when Boom shot the head off his pigeon on that wire, Cairns hit the same bird square in the chest as it fell to the ground.

And lastly, in the middle of the boat, sat Joel Kaczynski—the shy, nineteen-year-old private, who was buried as usual between the covers of a trendy, pulp magazine that promised to yield the Topeka native some halfway-decent thrills at the expense of some detective-dodging villains. About the only time anyone could find Kaczynski stepping out from behind his shyness was when he was afforded the chance at conning a few of the squad’s enlisted men out of their monthly earnings during a few rounds of blackjack. Occasionally, a soldier would get sore about it and accuse Kaczynski of stacking the deck, but mostly the men were too busy either being shamed or awed into silence by the kid’s “knack” for always producing an ace at the most opportune time.

These were the men of Cliff’s squad. As far as the US Military was concerned, they were no different from any of the other men who had come together, so far from home to serve so valiantly. Cliff respected each of them for what they risked losing; and he couldn’t help viewing himself as the most fortunate of the lot, in that surely it was easier for him—an orphaned celibate—to offer up his life as sacrifice.

Feeling somewhat vulnerable under the circumstances, armed with only a set of wooden rosary beads he had strung together back in the seventh grade, the chaplain began to recite its accompanying prayer—very quietly at first; but soon he realized other men were saying it with him. The murmur melded, lingering, just before it dissipated in the ocean spray above their heads. Yet, before the men could finish reciting the prayer’s second decade, a lieutenant colonel ordered the Elsie’s coxswain to secure the anchor and guideline for the troops to follow. Cliff gazed upward a moment while silently praying for God to see them all through to the other side of battle—to the other side of death if necessary. Then, after wedging his helmet down as far as it would go, he debarked behind the bulk of his squad.

Down the bow’s ramp, the chaplain sunk into the waist-high, blood-mixed breakwaters off Utah Beach. He waded through the cold water as shells exploded all around. To his left, not fifty yards away, another Elsie triggered a mine and disintegrated into flames and fragments. No one on board survived. Through gritted teeth, Cliff sucked at the blackened air with a virgin sense of desperation. He tried maintaining his focus on the distant ridge, situated above the white dunes. Before ever reaching a single step onshore, hordes of dead Allied soldiers, torn apart or drowned, clogged the water around him. These men, once fused with flesh and spirit—no different than his own—had crossed an ocean to taste victory but instead would fill coffins, left to marinate in the overburdened, French soil.

Nauseated, soaked, and chilled, Cliff pushed onward. Inexplicably, he found encouragement in the frantic, heroic gesturing of their division commander, Brigadier General Ted Roosevelt, Jr., who paced up and down Utah Beach amid enemy gunfire, waving his cane in the air and yelling at the soldiers to keep moving forward. The division had missed their targeted landing area—off by a mile to the right—but still the troops forged ahead. Inch by inch of bloodied sand, they crawled across that rippled, wet plane, over mutilated bodies, past the stalled-out, burning tanks, past the Nazis’ welcome mat of mines, barbed wire, and iron-pronged obstacles, to a single gap in the dunes, just to the right of the ridge’s Atlantic Wall, which housed huge, concrete pillboxes and emplacements, armed with the lethal firing power of the dreaded 88-millimeter artillery guns.

Under heavy fire, the Allies somehow gained ground and finally reached the only road through the dune’s opening. By mid-day, the division had left the beachhead along the Cotentin Peninsula and embarked inland through the typical Norman landscape, known as bocage, a relatively open setting of mixed meadows and marshes cut through by thick hedgerows, high embankments, and canals. What made it so difficult to cross was the fact that the Germans had intentionally flooded the patchwork of fields, hoping to deter Allied glider landings. In flotation gear, the troops took three hours to cross a few miles of the low-lying marshland, wading in freshwater, neck-high in parts, pulling each other along with toggle ropes wrapped around a pair of buddies’ waists, always searching for footing upon a patch of high ground. The afternoon sun, having broken free from the morning’s fog and gloom, bore down on the men as they sought dry terrain.

By late-afternoon, the platoon had trekked as far as Sainte-Marie-de-la-Manche, a village overwhelmed by the previous night’s airstrike and ensuing ground-skirmishes. Many of the stone buildings and row houses, which lined the narrow streets, had sustained heavy damage. Mounds of loose stones, split timber, and broken glass blotted the landscape. Roofs were missing, walls had caved in, and windows had either been shot at or blown out entirely by artillery shells and rockets. For the most part, the large, rectangular chimneys stood, exalted above the damage, like giant dominoes aligned between the cushioning debris.

Located at the village center was a large plaza, designated as the Place de l’Église, according to Kaczynski’s silk map. There, the Allied soldiers found a newly-hung US flag waving above the smoldering wreckage of a C-53. Scattered around were the grisly remains of Wehrmacht soldiers, a few clustered beside a destroyed truck, others felled against the buildings that hemmed in the town square.

Most haunting for Cliff, though, was the gruesome discovery of dead American paratroopers, suspended in mid-air—some only a foot or two above the ground—but all either shot or with throats slashed, their chutes snagged by limbs from the surrounding trees. His breath escaped him, his gut involuntarily contracting as if he had been slugged with a two-by-four, up under his ribs. He staggered a couple of steps toward the nearest wall and vomited several times before he was able to suck in any new air.

“Easy there, Padre,” offered Hawkins, turning away as if to give Cliff privacy.

But the chaplain was hardly the only one affected. Some soldiers found it necessary to suppress their anguish with the crook of their elbows laid flush against their mouths, but several others gagged and heaved as well.

“Take a minute,” added Archie. “We’ve got your back.”

“I’ll be all right,” panted the priest. Cliff had anticipated carnage on the beach despite High Command’s rosy scenario for the mission. Was not death the inevitable consequence of mortal beings finding themselves at the tail-end of metal and explosive trajectories? He understood that and accepted it. He may have been chaplain, but he was a soldier, nevertheless, equally. Through his training, he had mentally—and spiritually—prepared for the sight of violent death, but not like this. There were rules to follow; the Geneva Convention had mandated as much.

Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, he slowly stood back up. “This is murder,” groaned Cliff, angered by the Germans’ disregard for combat parameters. “These men didn’t have a chance. It’s unconscionable.”

“Don’t you worry none, Chap,” said Boom, stepping up behind him. “There’ll be hell to pay for this. As God is our witness, there’ll be hell.”

Almost intuitively, Cliff grasped that they were indeed witnessing firsthand the foretaste of that lone place in all of Creation made void of God’s loving presence and saving grace. Strangely, he felt as if some part of hell had transgressed the unseen gulf—that precarious boundary held captive between eternal damnation and salvation; and never had he felt so far away from his idyllic home of Eden.

Aside from all the outward signs of death, the village lay deserted. The civilians had long evacuated once the onslaught had begun, leaving the plaza gritty with blood and mud while the vestiges of day-old rain pooled in the uneven contours of the surface stones.

In a voice laced with bitterness and pity, Archie ordered the men to cut loose the dead paratroopers from the trees and to lay them along the base of a nearby, protective wall. Turning toward the chaplain, the lieutenant grimaced. “If there’s anything you can do for them—”

Cliff fought the sting in his eyes. “God is merciful.”

“That’s reassuring to hear, Padre.” Archie nodded while squinting a solemn gaze around the plaza’s perimeter. “Too bad His children ain’t.”

While the Allied platoon cut down its dead, the chaplain was drawn toward one of the lifeless Germans, who lay crumpled against an empty storefront’s blood-splattered wall and foreground, a Luger pistol still half-clenched in a mud-smeared hand. What struck Cliff was the expression on the corpse’s face—the slate-blue eyes fixed open, eerily unflinching—staring out as if looking upon something intently, but seeing nothing. Cliff shuddered. The soldier couldn’t have been older than seventeen. The still-fastened helmet, forced up and back, exposed matted curls—the chinstrap, slicing deep into the youth’s pimply flesh.

Kneeling down beside the soldier, Cliff removed the helmet and strained to reposition the body flat against the stone. He gently swiped the eyelids closed and for a moment took in the corpse’s peacefulness. The boy could have been asleep, if not for the gaping bullet wound to the chest. Still, for Cliff, even more significant than the disfigurement was his inability to deny any longer the enemy’s humanity; and that disturbed him deeply. How much easier had it been just the day before, when the enemy existed in mere military statistics and maps or as the automaton brutes of black-and-white propaganda films? Before, his personal morality had only to struggle against hating those enemies who adhered to abstract political ideas, such as despotism and militarism; but at no time had it demanded he endow the enemy with such tangible, youthful flesh—even dead flesh—as right then, before the dead boy.

In that one pivotal moment, the Catholic priest, who Cliff claimed himself to be, realized just how wrong he had been in defending the killing in war to Sister Bernadette—how that it made no difference if a soldier was German or American or English or Canadian or Polish…because he was human, period. Suddenly, he imagined the slain youth’s excruciating last few moments on this earth to be on par with those of the dead Americans, hanging in the trees; and he concluded that this lifeless body represented a soul in need of saving, just the same.

Thus, compelled, Cliff removed the stole from his web pouch, kissed it, and placed it around his neck, just as Archie came up behind him and asked, “What the hell do you think you’re doing, Padre?”

While still looking down at the boy, Cliff replied, “I’m giving him last rites.”

“I can see that,” snapped Archie. “But why?”

Cliff stood up, turning to face his commander. “For heaven-sake, Arch, he’s entitled to at least that.”

Archie’s eyes widened as he shook his head. “You’ve gotta be kidding me. Entitled?

“Look at his face,” implored Cliff. “He’s just a kid.”

Narrowing his eyebrows, Archie kept his gaze fixed on the priest’s face. “Hell, we’ve got ’em young on our side, too. Now, do us all a favor and attend to our dead—and leave their dead to them.”

Cliff opened his mouth to speak, but before he could utter a sound, Archie had cut him off with a thrust-out palm, barely an inch away from the chaplain’s face. “Consider it protocol, Captain.” Archie swung around and walked back toward the area where the American casualties were being laid in a horizontal rank.

Cliff resisted the temptation to equate his compliance with cowardice; under the circumstances, though, he had no intention of challenging his commanding officer’s authority. By the time Cliff had finished administering last rites to the dead paratroopers, word had come down from regimental command that the majority of German forces were in the midst of pulling back, mostly to positions south of the village, presumably, in hopes of mounting a counterattack, aimed at regaining control over bridges and causeways, lost to the Allies during the previous eighteen hours.

Archie received company orders to aid in securing the town, along with the rest of the division. Cliff’s squad skittered diagonally across the square, to its western edge, where they began their advance down the first of two side streets. Only a few pockets of German Wehrmacht troops and S.S. snipers bothered to defend Sainte-Marie-de-la-Manche, seemingly with limited firing power and anti-artillery capability. Sporadically, they fired upon the Allies, either through bombed-out windows or from behind stone walls. Even one daring sniper had taken cover inside the church’s belfry tower, until Cairns’s marksmanship eliminated the threat with a single shot.

A hundred meters in, from off the Place de l’Église, Archie signaled the troops to find cover. Alongside Cairns and Wendelson, Cliff hunkered inside the doorway of the village bakery—its bullet-riddled, wooden sign, bearing “Boulangerie,” dangling lopsided overhead due to a broken hook. Across the street from them, Archie crouched in a café doorway with squad members, Boom and Medic Jameson. Stokel, Kaczynski, and Hawkins found shelter behind the blackened heap of an abandoned German Tiger. Archie gave them the hand signal to sit tight.

Cairns sat down against the bakery’s door and pushed back his helmet as far as the chinstrap would allow. After wiping the sweat from his brow, he reached for his canteen, which hung from his web belt. “Lieutenant wants us to hole up here, for awhile—probably till our tanks come through.” He took a long sip of water, then dried his mouth along his jacket sleeve before adding, “Not like we can’t use the break.” The blue sparkle of his eyes and the whiteness of his smile gleamed brighter than usual against the backdrop of dirty skin.

Fighting fatigue and dehydration, Cliff repositioned his gear pack, its bulkiness cutting into his shoulders with having only grown heavier from all the wetness they had encountered along the way. Still, as much as he felt the need to rest, he felt unease with the idea of relaxing in such a carefree manner. He surveyed the street scene, then asked, “Do you think that was the worst we’ll encounter?”

Cairns winked at Wendelson while stifling a snicker. “Father, I’m afraid things are only cookin’ up.”

Discouraged, the chaplain reasoned, “But it’s practically a ghost town.”

“Looks can be deceiving,” replied Cairns. “I can guarantee you them Krauts didn’t go through all this trouble just to high-tail it, back to the Fatherland, now.”

“He’s right, you know,” chimed in Wendelson. “This is bound to get a whole lot uglier.”

Cliff readjusted his helmet after absorbing his forehead’s sweat on his jacket’s damp sleeve. He unhooked his gear pack, slumped down, and leaned against the limestone wall of the entranceway. He closed his eyes. Exhausted well beyond the point of sleepiness, he tried offering up a simple prayer to God—for the sake of his men, mostly—but it was in vain; his spirit lay wilting inside him, far too emptied to pray.

He resisted his first inclination to think about the ordeal so many French families must have endured on account of the Nazis’ ruthless Occupation. Instead, he combated his weariness by conjuring up the likeness of the Blessed Virgin, from his favorite prayer card—the one Sister Bernadette had given him upon their farewell—with its sunburst of rays, emanating from behind the saintly figure, whose lips were but a splash of blood-red in a sea of alabaster skin.

For the time being, this mental distraction helped to veil civilization’s unraveling from his mind’s eye, allowing for the memory of him at six years old to blossom, under the guise of nostalgia’s sepia-like tone. Cliff had been summoned to the office of Monsignor DuMont, the priest confessor for all the Sisters of Divine Grace, to learn for the first time the fate of his deceased parents. By whatever means memory’s mystery transpired, the image of Cliff’s spindly, boyhood-self, dressed in the familiar clothes of his youth—the drab, wool knickers with high, ribbed stockings, the lumbering shoes and hand-knitted sweater, stretched badly out of shape—began to overtake his mind with distinct clarity.

He recalled skipping along with oversized steps, clinging all the while to Sister Bernadette’s hand as she had led him around the stone perimeter of the cloistered courtyard. Then, like any latent Vermont springtime, the mental shadows from his youth seemingly burst with vivid color, just as the convent’s courtyard had long ago. Scarlet cardinals and olive-gold cedar waxwings competed with each other, chirping whimsically in the afternoon’s sunny warmth. And, as if not to be outdone, the bright-orange plumage of several male orioles shone again, over memory’s transept, like beacons among the powdery-white apple blossoms. Around the edges of the courtyard’s stone patio grew islands of crocus, daffodil, and tulip, all graciously lending their soothing hues to the mind’s scene, as well. Even the varying shades of green leaves added richness to the overall texture that had never failed to awaken Cliff’s soul.

From there, Sister Bernadette had led her cherished orphan through the Mother House’s austere hallways until they reached their destination’s doorway. Squatting down in front of him, she had taken his little hands in hers, just prior to his entering the monsignor’s office alone for the first time. Despite encroachment of the hellish war, memory’s imperceptible clutch was strong enough to afford Cliff another chance at soaking up the good nun’s sweetness and the tenderness of her touch once more upon his youthful skin. He beheld her loving gaze, just as he did so many years before, when she had spoken to him, softly, with the lilt of her French-Canadian accent, “It’ll be all right, my petite—I promise. Just remember, you are never truly alone. God is with you always.” Then, after bestowing a gentle kiss on the back of each hand, she had assured him of her loyalty—that she’d be waiting for him right there, afterward—and he had never doubted it since.

For Cliff, that day had been forever marred by learning the tragic fate of his parents—how they had both perished in an apartment building’s fire, while he had been miraculously saved by an altruist’s act of heroism. Yet, even decades later, while he crouched at the threshold of another door—this one, desecrated by war—the sensation of Sister Bernadette’s love was just as tangible. The years and miles posed no barrier, enabling him to carry her love with him, still—for it remained as inseparable and natural as his faith in God.

Suddenly, a shadow cut across Cliff’s face, prompting him to open his eyes. Looking up, he was astonished to find a dark-haired, adolescent boy straddling a bicycle near the street’s crumbled curb. Realizing just how tired and numb he was at the time, at first, the chaplain doubted his own senses and wondered if by any chance the child could be part of a dream or hallucination—perhaps the shadowy reckoning of a beloved peer, from his orphanage days.

Cliff elbowed Wendelson and asked, “Mitch, do you see a boy?” But he already knew the answer, judging from the curious expression on Wendelson’s face. Evidently so taken by the boy’s presence, the infantryman was unable to respond to the chaplain’s question.

Cliff turned back to observe the boy. He kept thinking, I’ve got to get him out of here. It’s not safe. Yet, despite the compelling urgency of that desire, the priest stayed pinned against the wall, as if his own free-will had been, in effect, paralyzed.

The youth locked gazes with him before unleashing a remarkably serene smile. Cliff began to feel glorious warmth enter his body, quite unlike anything he had ever experienced before. The extraordinary heat penetrated deep inside his chest and radiated through his torso and limbs while mysteriously replenishing his depleted body for so long as the boy kept his smile transfixed upon him.

However, the moment the boy’s gaze fell away, the feeling of warmth ceased. With a slight nod toward Cliff, the adolescent started riding his bicycle down the crooked, cobbled street before disappearing around the nearest corner. Enthralled, Cliff leaped upward with what seemed like superhuman strength. Intuitively, he understood he must pursue the child; but when he reached the corner and looked, neither the youngster, nor his bicycle, could be found.

Cliff realized he had been too late. He called out for the missing boy several times in vain. Nothing could be heard, except for the faint, hollow echoing of the chaplain’s voice as it reverberated off several broken walls.

Trepidation stirred within Cliff. There was something inexplicably and utterly beguiling about the boy.

Then, without warning, as the chaplain turned to go back to the others, Nazi machinegun fire erupted, followed by a deafening artillery explosion. The ground shook violently beneath him. Clutching his helmet, Cliff struggled to maintain his balance in a desperate attempt to return to his squad. When he finally stood opposite the boulangerie’s storefront, he froze in his tracks. Gunfire whizzed past him, ricocheting off the buildings. His knees buckled, and he collapsed upon them in the street.

Suddenly, he felt two, strong hands grab the back of his jacket collar, yanking him to the near side of the street.

“C’mon Padre!” shouted Archie. “You’re a sitting duck out ’ere!”

The men fell into the café entryway on top of Boom, across from where Cairns and Wendelson had sought protection alongside the chaplain, just moments before. Cliff’s eyes glazed over. All that remained of the bakery’s front entrance was burning rubble, blackened by ash and smoke. Cairns and Wendelson were no more—just like that. Cliff’s mind choked on how they could both be so alive one moment and then blasted into oblivion the next. How did his God allow for such a thing?

Meanwhile, Archie still clung to Cliff’s jacket as Jameson gave Cliff a quick medical check but seemed satisfied when the chaplain shooed him off. Jameson pointed out in his lazy, southern drawl, “Father, I don’t know if you know it, but that boy? He just gone and saved your life.”

Cliff wanted to scream out to heaven and demand an answer—but he was left speechless, with only tears to carve streak-marks down his grimy cheeks. Again, he recalled the day, decades earlier, when he had met with Monsignor DuMont, while Sister Bernadette waited in the hallway; and he realized that this wasn’t the first time someone—a complete stranger, in fact—had done such a heroic act on his behalf. As a boy, he had asked, “Why, sir, do you suppose I didn’t die with my mother and father?”

“Well, son,” began the priest, “none of us can rightly know the exact rationale for when we’re called home, to be with our Heavenly Father. Quite possibly, you are meant to achieve great things—after all, God did go to great length to ensure your survival.”

Monsignor DuMont’s words had a haunting effect—mostly from the ad hoc memories since forged in a mind too young to remember, first-hand—of how eyewitnesses had observed an unidentified man break a second-story window with a chair before tossing the infant Cliff through the same opening, to a bystander below, just as the fire trucks were arriving. The crowd on the street had even urged the man to jump, but wanting also to save the baby’s parents, he had refused. Unfortunately, by the time rescuers were able to reach the second floor, the entire apartment had been engulfed by flames. There were no survivors, other than Cliff.

Nearly three decades later, with a grown man’s intellect, Cliff understood that his infant self must have observed, similarly, the flames that consumed his parents—but would his heart have ached less? For all he knew, the anguish experienced upon the death of a loved-one—as he felt just then, for Cairns and Wendelson—was all a human soul was meant to bear. The fact that he was so well-versed in theological explanations of pain and suffering hardly seemed to matter.

How, exactly, had Monsignor DuMont equated perishing in an earthly fire with the amount of suffering due a soul, along eternity’s mysterious path? Yes, just how had the monsignor phrased Catholic dogma, so that a six-year-old might understand the ways of a benevolent, merciful deity? How could any compassionate man have dismissed, so matter-of-factly, the untold suffering brought about by the fires of purgatory, simply because they were far less painful than those of hell? Was it truly enough to cling to the hopeful notion that, in fact, everlasting peace and joy were the great consolation of purgatory’s residing souls, merely because those souls understood that, one day—no matter how long it took—they would indeed be with God, in heaven? Likewise, surely, to never experience such consolation is what doomed all the souls in hell.

Right or wrong, Cliff had safely harbored those beliefs over the years for whenever the need arose, for when he felt most empty inside—lonely and alienated from humanity, an orphan unto the world—just like then, during the war, when the mortal world seemed horribly out of sync with God’s vision. Trusting in what awaited him beyond this life—to be in God’s presence—helped Cliff grasp just how transitory life on earth was and how truly all souls were meant to walk through a valley of tearsbefore attaining promised salvation.

The boulangerie’s flames gasped for breath, forcing billows of soot downward, before fanning outwardly, across the street to where the soldiers holed-up at the café’s entrance. Archie offered Cliff his canteen and said, “At least somebody’s angel earned his keep, today.”

Cliff nodded his gratitude, still too shaken to rely on words, before swallowing a few gulps of water. Resting his back against the stone wall, he longed for the comfort of a down-feathered mattress but would have settled for the stiff canvas of an Army cot. Yet, he thought, perhaps the stone was more fitting a penance for his past arrogance. After all, had he not come to France, armed with the notion he would save souls, even lives, while never once suspecting it would be himself in need of saving? It humbled him to know his personal saving came by means of a lowly, destitute-looking boy—not so unlike the way in which humanity’s savior had come into this world, a helpless infant, swaddled in meagerness and humility, nearly two millennia ago.

Finally, the sun broke free from the clutches of the smoke, and Cliff could see a patch of blue sky, overhead. He gazed upward, basking in the sun’s warmth for several minutes until Boom turned to him and said, “Makes you believe all over again, doesn’t it, Chap?”

“What do you mean?” asked Cliff.

“Well, I figure, it’s like what Mama used to tell me—faith is believing in what the eye can’t always see and what the mind can’t always prove.”

The chaplain grunted in agreement.

Boom slapped at the dust and mud that had caked along his pant leg. “It’s kind of ironic, if you think about it.”

“How so?” wondered Cliff.

Boom searched the area with his eyes, seemingly stumped, but then he looked heavenward. “See the sun up there, Chap?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, it’s our only proof that stars exist during the day.”

Cliff grinned. Maybe it was a convoluted way of saying it, but he understood the rifleman’s intent. To be able to conceive of a reality so alien as to what one was experiencing at the present moment—and then to be able to believe in it—that was what it meant to have faith.

The chaplain needed to trust that, someday—somehow—the world would right itself again, from this awful wrong which was being committed against humanity. They all needed that—or there’d be no point in carrying on with their mission.

Shortly thereafter, the men discerned a low, rumbling noise approaching them from just off the Place de l’Église. Archie clutched Cliff’s forearm. “Hey, it’s our Shermies!” He let out a tense laugh. “We’re gonna make it the hell out of here yet!”

Just then, five American tanks rolled through that street, eliminating all enemy targets and thereby liberating one of the first French towns since the Nazi Occupation began, back in June of 1940, four long years before. Though, at what great price had it come?

So many lives—destroyed on that single day. So many blameless lives—lost to the world forever. Thousands of lives, including those of Cairns and Wendelson—ransomed. At least, in Cliff’s mind, that’s how it always should have been.

Linda Cruise

My published work includes fiction, creative non-fiction, literary criticism, journalism, poetry, biography, and photography, having appeared in the Burlington Free Press, Public Republic, Tecumseh Herald, The Times Ink!, The Hinesburg Record, Vermont Catholic Tribune, and League Lines.

All posts by Linda Cruise

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