In the Book

PROLOGUE

Near Flamanville, France, 1944

His right arm hung useless at his side. Rivulets of blood had dried on the back of his hand and along his fingers, but he had lost no strength in his other limb. With his good hand, he pulled the gag from the boy’s mouth, then slipped the blindfold from his eyes.

“Vos mains,” he said. And the boy turned so the man could untie his hands.

“Venez avec moi,” the man commanded, and the boy followed him up the short flight of stairs and into the room. Then the man gripped his shoulder tightly and guided him toward the closed door. The boy’s heart was pounding like a boxer’s jab, threatening at any moment to punch its way through his sunken chest.

“Ouvrez-le,” the man said. So the boy reached up slowly, grasped the knob, turned it, and pushed the door open.

The squeak of the hinge momentarily diverted his attention but did not hold it. The boy’s eyes cut immediately to the bed where the blankets had been pulled all the way up, covering some sort of lump beneath it. Still with his hand on the boy’s shoulder, the man walked him to the edge of the bed. There, he removed his hand and pulled the blankets away.

The boy gasped. And the man grabbed him again, holding him firm and making him stare at the nude woman on the bed. The blue scarf that had choked the life from her was still wrapped tightly around her throat.

The boy had never seen his mother naked. He tried to gaze on the parts that had always been hidden to him, rather than focusing on her white lips, bloodstained nose, and still-open eyes. But the man was intent upon the boy seeing her face frozen in its death mask. He walked the boy closer, pointed to her throat, drew his finger across his own, and said, “Américains … Américains.”

The boy nodded his head as if he understood.

When the man had gone, the boy went back in the bedroom. He opened the top drawer of the dresser, reached in as far as he could, and pulled out a framed photograph. It was a picture of his mother and father in Paris. She often showed it to him and told him it was taken the afternoon before the evening he was conceived. He wasn’t sure what conceived meant precisely. But he knew it always made his mother smile, each time she shared the picture and the story with him.

Then he went and sat beside his mother on the bed. He sat there for hours. Sat there staring as her head and neck turned turquoise. Sat there as blisters began to form and fluids began to leak. Sat there as her body began to bloat and swell. Sat there as the pungent odor of rotting meat began to fill the tiny room. And all the while he sat, he would look back and forth from the decaying corpse to the photograph in his hands and marvel at how one could become the other.

He was still sitting there when the men found him. Men in uniforms who let him keep his photograph but took him from his house. Men who spoke words he could not understand. Men whom the man with one good arm had branded as his mother’s murderers. Les Américains.