Excerpt: Christmas Hope

Harry woke with a stab of fear. He reared up, groping for his rifle, afraid he had fallen asleep on duty.

He sank back into the bed as awareness flooded in. No enemy lurked. He reposed in soft covers in an unfamiliar room, his clothes had gone missing, and he wasn’t alone. A small boy watched him steadily from the doorway. Memory flooded back—fleeing from Lens, frantic to get to Rosemarie. He hadn’t deserted; he’d gotten leave or rather had it thrust on him with orders from Captain Mitchell to come back whole. He remembered a frantic journey, reaching her cottage, falling against the door, and not much else.

“You are dirty,” the boy said, approaching the bed. Harry ran a hand across the stubble on his face. It came away filthy.

“Apparently so. And you are tall, much too tall to be Marcel.”

The boy stiffened in offense. “I am Marcel. I am three.” He held up three fingers.

Before Harry could think what to say next the boy ran to the stairs shouting, “Maman, ‘arry is awake!”

His soldier’s instinct took stock of his surroundings. The room spread out under peaked roof beams. He doubted he could stand upright anywhere but the center of the room; it had only one way out, the direction Marcel had taken. He had slept in an actual bed. Rosemarie’s bed, it has to be. Did we share it? He thought not. If we had, I would certainly remember.

The blankets he lay in were worn and mended, but warm enough and clean—at least they had been until he lay in them. Since whoever took his clothing left his drawers and nothing else, he thought it best to stay nested where he lay. A tiny window at the peak of the roof let in a beam of light. It appeared to be slanted low in the sky. Does that window face east or west? Did I awake at dawn or sleep round the clock?

He could hear the boy talking with his mother and the sounds of pots and pans. Sharp awareness told him one more thing. Somewhere in this haven, fresh bread baked, sweet dough, he thought. His mouth began to water. With that, came the realization of gnawing hunger.

He debated what to do, undressed and feeble as he was. He envisioned Rosemarie fussing over her baking, and an even greater hunger overcame him, one he might do well to tame before he got out from the covers.

Her appearance in the doorway, his own vision of heaven itself, carrying a basin of steaming water, saved him the decision.

She put it on the little three-drawer chest against the opposite wall, along with the towel and rag she had over her arm.

“You’ll want to wash up,” she said. “I’m sorry we have no bathing tub. I found Raoul’s robe in storage,” she added, pointing to a purple robe draped over a trunk. The trunk, Marcel’s pallet at the foot of the bed, and a chest of drawers furnished the tiny room. She looked oddly shy, as if having him tucked in her bed with her late husband’s things nearby made her awkward.

Raoul. He had forgotten the husband, long dead now. The acid of pointless jealousy ate at him, and he could think of nothing to say. He sat up, letting the blanket fall to his lap, and her eyes dropped to the floor, but not before he caught the heat when she spied his naked chest. The jealousy fell away.

Van Gogh, Bedroom in Arles