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Tangled Ashes


Marie stood in the shadow of the grand staircase and held her breath. The lights were out—they had been all evening—but the ochre glow from the flames on the patio illuminated the polished wood and chiseled stone that loomed around her with threatening austerity. Beyond the window, two columns of wide-spaced guards funneled a stream of nurses and maids from the castle’s rear entrance to the fire that burned like a funeral pyre, exploding tiny, arcing embers into the warm night sky. Each woman carried a box of papers past guards who were alternately turned inward and outward. Those facing the coming and going kept their eyes on the documents the women dumped into the flames, sometimes ordering one of them to retrieve a sheaf that had fallen too far to burn. Those guards who faced outward kept their eyes on the woods at the outskirts of the castle grounds, their bodies rigid, as if the senses they trained on their surroundings were fueled by the tension in their muscles and nerves. They held their MP 40s in front of them, fingers near the triggers, and peered into the thick, black tree line with eyes and ears and minds.

A sound near the castle’s front door snapped Marie’s head around. She pressed harder against the cool stone at her back and scanned the entryway for movement. Two rats scurried across the floor and disappeared into the circular sitting room in the east tower, twittering like bickering lovers. Marie expelled her breath and turned to glance again at the procession outside the windows. The nurses’ white wimples glowed orange in the night, lit by the flames that rose several feet into the sky. No one saw her. All eyes were on the urgent task before them and the unseen threat from the nearby woods.

When Marie stepped away from the wall, her shoe squeaked on the smooth granite floor. She reached down and removed the brown leather slip-ons she’d been given with her uniform eighteen months before. Glancing around the entry hall one more time, she moved out of the shadows, climbing the marble steps that led her to the landing from which the elegant stairway swooped around in two graceful arches that met again at the landing above. Across from the stairway was the castle’s main entrance with its large double doors flanked by tall windows. The moon glanced off dozens of trucks and town cars parked outside, poised for the next day’s evacuation.

In the stream just beyond the front doors, a duck rose from the water, clapping its wings and quacking loudly enough that the guards must have heard it. Marie froze. Though the ducks were a common element of the castle’s soundscape, any noise on this night would be enough to arouse suspicion and reveal her presence. She stood conspicuously on the landing, visible from the front doors but still mostly hidden from the windows behind her and the glow of the fire. Blood pumped so loudly in her ears that she had to quell the impulse to cover them with her hands.

When a minute had passed, then another, Marie allowed herself to relax a little. She peered around the edge of the staircase’s railing. The fire seemed to be smaller now; the procession of nurses was slowing too. She had to act quickly. Without another look out the window, she moved on stockinged feet toward the nursery. There was no time for fear. The brass knob on the nursery door was cold to her touch. When she entered, the large, ornate room was quiet but for the sound of small lungs breathing and infants’ mouths suckling thumbs. This was a ballroom designed for luxurious events, not for eerily quiet children—Nazis in training. The silence in the nursery had always astounded Marie. Even in the daytime, in those hungry minutes before feedings, the babies had seldom cried. It was as if they knew their crying would serve no purpose in this place where their lives merely served to advance political agendas.

Marie moved swiftly past the night nurse’s empty bed and the cribs of the children, each draped with a navy-blue blanket adorned with an eagle holding a wreath of oak leaves that framed a swastika. She knew the sleeping forms by name. Petra. Inge. Karl. Ulli. Marie longed to reach out and stroke each blond head and hold each slumbering child now that no nurses or officers were there to stop her. But she couldn’t. Not with tomorrow dawning in just a handful of hours.

Squaring her shoulders, Marie quickly moved past the remaining cribs, each holding a child whose sleep was as deep as it was despondent. The small wooden beds were arranged in two neat rows with a wide aisle down the center that ended at a fireplace as tall as Marie. There were eight cribs in all, far fewer than at the height of the program’s glory. These infants were the prized products of the castle. The perfect ones. The promise of the Aryan people.

A dog barked in the courtyard. Marie heard the Generalmajor’s voice ordering two guards to investigate the ruckus. There was the sound of running feet, shouts directed into the woods, then the dog’s whimper as a rifle’s butt connected with its flank. The tenuous, tense calm that had held the castle in a vise since noon was broken by the disruption. The procession that had been conducted in silence until then ended in shouted orders and a flurry of movement around the remains of the fire. Generalmajor Müller’s voice rang out again, ordering the women to their quarters and sending the soldiers to join the others who had been stationed around the perimeter of the castle for the better part of the afternoon and night.

Marie panicked. There was no time. Once the additional guards sealed the gaps in the ranks around the château, her escape route would be closed. She hurried to the last crib on the right and pulled back the fabric shielding the baby from view. The three-days-old infant lay utterly still, its tiny white fist curled next to its cheek, its rosy lips parted and slightly curved upward. A smile in this context was an astonishing sight.

Marie took the blue blanket from the crib and ran to lay it open on the night nurse’s bed. Then she hurried back and lifted out the sleeping infant. It stirred and whimpered but didn’t wake. Returning to the bed on unsteady legs, she placed the child in the blanket and swaddled it tightly, grateful that the dark fabric would further mask their escape. Then she stripped the sheet from the nurse’s mattress and folded each corner over the baby.

With the château’s front door patrolled by guards and the back door too visible, the only exit was through the window to the left of the fireplace. There was no need for silence anymore. The grounds were alive with the sounds of moving soldiers. Marie slipped her shoes back on, opened the window, and leaned out, looking left, then right. There was a six-foot drop to the path beneath. The fire was close by, barely hidden by the curving end of the building. Without taking the time to second-guess her plan, Marie sat on the edge of the window and swung her legs around. She reached back and gathered the four corners of the sheet, forming a sort of sling in which the baby lay. She lifted it out the window and held it down as far as she could, but it still didn’t reach the ground.

Marie slowly lowered her body out the window, twisting as she did, so that she hung by the shoulder that straddled the windowsill. She knew she’d have to straighten her arm to lower the baby to the ground without jarring and waking it. Her muscles rebelled and shook as she grabbed the window ledge with her hand and gradually began to straighten her arm until it was fully extended. The fingers holding the ledge began to bleed as the rough wood cut into her skin. She gritted her teeth and strained farther, trying to lengthen her body without losing her grip. Her eyes stung with the pain and effort.

Just when she thought she’d have to drop the baby and deal with the consequences, Marie felt its weight lessen. The improvised sling had found the ground. Marie dropped the rest of the sheet, then let go of the windowsill, pushing herself off the wall as she fell, conscious that the baby lay beneath her. She crouched on the ground for a moment, catching her breath, blotting her bleeding palm and fingers with the sheet, and trying to calm her nerves.

When she opened the bundle and took the baby into her lap, open and alert eyes met hers.

“Shhh,” she soothed softly, scanning her surroundings. She could see three soldiers heading away from her across the clearing on the other side of the river. Marie realized that they’d be looking for intruders coming into the property, not exiting. That would surely play in her favor. Just around the corner from where she stood, the officers stamping out the fire set off toward the woods to join their comrades in wait for the inevitable. Both clearings were too exposed. There was nowhere Marie could go but into the river at her feet. Though the locals called it a rivière, it was really more of a wide, slow-moving stream whose depth and width varied as it snaked through the property and around small islands.

Marie bundled up the white sheet and jammed it under a bush, then made her way down the river’s steep bank, holding the baby close. She slid and had to catch the root of a willow tree with one hand to steady herself. The baby whimpered, frowning, its eyes mere slits. “Shhh,” Marie soothed again, steadying her footing on the riverbank. “It’s okay. I’m right here.” The frown dissolved. The baby stared. Marie let go of the tree root and touched the infant’s chin with her finger, bringing her face closer and lowering her voice to a calming pitch. “I’m going to get you out of here, okay? But you have to help me. You have to be quiet.” The unblinking stare lengthened. Marie looked at the black water beneath her and shook her head at the folly of her plan. “I’m going to try really hard to keep you dry,” she promised the child. Then she looked up at the stars and pleaded for help.

Her feet slipped on the mud as she descended the remainder of the slope, but she regained her footing and waded quietly into the water. The thick layer of silt on the bottom made Marie lose her balance and sucked the shoes off her feet before she’d taken three steps. She walked out until she was hip deep in the murky darkness, her bundle held tight and high above the river. She moved at a slow and deliberate pace, testing her next step before she trusted it, and progressed steadily out of the castle’s night shadow and into the deeper woods. Every time the baby whimpered, she hushed it with a soothing sound and kept moving.

As Marie reached the outer perimeter of the property, she heard whispers in the darkness and paused to catch her breath under a wooden bridge. The voices came from both sides of the river, soldiers predicting what the new day would bring, their eyes trained on the walled boundary she had to reach. Marie knew they would see her if she emerged from her hiding place. The moon was too bright. The woods were too calm and motionless.

The baby gurgled again, and Marie clamped a hand over its mouth. “Shhh,” she murmured as the baby started to protest. It tried to twist its head away from her hand and arched its back when it didn’t succeed. “Please,” she whispered, staring frantically into the baby’s eyes. “Please.” The baby twisted again, a strangled sound escaping from under Marie’s hand. She pressed harder against its mouth. “Please . . .”

On the bridge above her, a branch snapped under a soldier’s boot.

Tangled Ashes
by by Michèle Phoenix