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The silence of eternal rest filled the green fields not far from the beaches where—some fifty years before—the sand and cliffs had been shaped by Allied invasion into a 20th Century version of hell: troops wading ashore from ungainly landing craft and the Wehrmacht, dug in deep, desperately trying to push them back.

On the very pleasant train ride out of Paris Richard Simmons had guessed that finding Henry Simmons—or at least the marker with his name—would be the work of at least a couple of hours. But now, wandering through this verdant landscape of death, he gave up after a time: noticing that his companion had started to cry, and using that as an excuse to take her into his arms.

He was free of tears, himself, but the emotional resonance was the same. A casualty number had been just a number until he had seen all the markers—each one standing out starkly against the emerald turf. Each one a life. And dreams. And loved ones back home.

What a waste, he thought. What an epic waste. So strange that—after all this time—we still can’t arrive at any other way to settle disagreements.

It was clear that Dumas would have liked to have found Henry. Once they gave up the task as impractical, she just wanted to know more.

‘What do you know of his death?’ she asked. ‘Your great-uncle?’

‘We heard from people later, and—if they had it right—he didn’t even make it off the beach. A direct hit from a shell. Probably didn’t even hear it coming. So, then they swept up the pieces and put him here somewhere. Along with all the rest.’

‘Did he leave anyone behind?’

‘His family back on the farm.  But he was just nineteen. Not married. A North Dakota guy they drafted, gave a gun, and told him to hit the beach.’

‘He died for France,’ Dumas declared. ‘We understand that. It was more than many Frenchmen did.’

Simmons ended up shaking his head.

‘He would’ve been happy to know that guys like him finally pushed the Nazis out. But, like most soldiers, I think he really just wanted the respect of the guys around him. And would have liked to see what Paris was about. And probably lose his virginity as soon as possible.’

‘Instead,’ Simmons added, ‘it’s me who ends up in Paris—without a scratch.’

By the time they reached the historic sands of Omaha Beach the wind from the ocean had picked up, and there was considerable distraction: tour groups knotted here and there, and wandering families—a couple of small groups being led by men old enough to have survived D-Day—with the stories they were willing to tell, and the stories they would probably never share with anyone who hadn’t clung to the beach with them in June of ’44.

Simmons watched the old guys walking around with a sense of wonder. Their memories had changed everything. Now they seemed a little unsure: Could this be the same place? Those cliffs? These waves? Those rocks?

Of course it wasn’t the same place. And they were far from being the people they had been then.

In the middle of his reverie Simmons looked up at the heights, which—under fire—he only could have reached by surrendering his soul to the decisions of Providence and working his way methodically toward the enemy dug in above. His blood ran cold at the thought. Even after admitting to himself that his imagination wasn’t up to the job.

Once again, Dumas seemed to be reading his thoughts: ‘What it must have been like. I cannot even imagine.’

‘We’re missing the sound,’ Simmons said, mostly to himself. ‘Death whizzing past. Shell bursts. Machine guns.’ He looked back at the incoming waves. ‘The LSTs would have come up on the sand, the ramps would have dropped, and all we could have done was run—or get down. Nowhere to hide. No way to turn back. Just pure terror.’ After a time he turned to the lawyer. ‘I honestly don’t see any way I could have done it.’

‘No one knows what they are capable of until the moment,’ she assured him.

‘I agree—in a way. But I think it’s impossible for us to understand, now that we’ve come all this way. Maybe it’s a wasted trip—’

‘I certainly do not think so—’

‘We’re out here to try to know. And there’s just no way of knowing.’

‘We are here,’ she gestured toward all the others, ‘and they are here to acknowledge this kind of courage. And of course I do not understand how they felt. I do not understand how they did it. But there were women of my age who fought their own secret battles. Were tortured and killed—and faced their ends bravely. There is not just one kind of courage. This was the kind of courage that perhaps we will never understand. But I think we try to honor it by seeing where it happened.’

‘I see you as a heroine of the Resistance,’ Simmons said, to lighten the mood a little.

‘Blowing up trains might have its more enjoyable side. Almost everyone enjoys fireworks. A jaunty little beret—and a trench coat. That would be a good look for me.’

‘And a small pistol.’

‘Very small. Because the Gestapo would want to search me.’

‘Cyanide is a hollow tooth would help with that.’

‘And thus I become a true heroine of France. And now we are back to just sadness,’ she sighed. ‘There is no escape from it here. The sand is filled with the blood of the brave. Heroes—all of them. Heroes for just being willing to help. And I certainly hope my country will never forget.’

~~~

The effect of the battlefield took some time to wear off, but—as Dumas explained at dinner—Omaha Beach wasn’t the main reason they were there. The restaurant she chose was a little corner in a little village set back from the ocean. Simmons noticed, however, that the parking lot had been enlarged a couple of times, so the place wasn’t really a secret.

‘Everything they serve comes from very close,’ Dumas explained. ‘True French country cooking. I would wish them for customers if I was a farmer here.’

‘It’s all very good. I doubt very much that it’s heart healthy.’

‘Yet we only live once.’ The lawyer hesitated—then decided on a confession. ‘All my great loves have begun here. By candlelight. And the satisfactions of an exceptional meal. Exceptional beginnings, which did not always arrive at exceptional ends. All the same, we live for romance as we live for food.’

Simmons found himself less interested in the philosophical part of the speech—and more interested in the first part.

‘All your ‘great loves’? Have there been a lot?’

‘Look how frightened!’ She took his hand in hers. ‘There have been very few. I am not the kind of girl to ‘sleep around’. Is that the phrase? Sleep around? And none since the beginning of law school—since I knew that I would struggle and could have no distractions from my studies.’

‘It’s quite a bit of pressure, being a ‘great love’, isn’t it?’

‘You will have to inform me. I am not sure I have been anyone’s great love: since they all moved on, in time, and all married someone else.’

‘Their loss, to be sure—’

‘Alternate realities, and I do not know anything of them. But I do have one great friend. Not a lover, since he is not of that age.’

‘By way of introducing the person you want me to talk to?’

‘Correct. He is resident in my building. In the floor above. That is how we became friends.’

‘And what’s the big surprise you have for me?’

Dumas shook her head firmly. ‘I will not be teased into telling you. But what he has to say will be in the nature of a decision. Once in a lifetime, perhaps—’

‘Jesus! Serious stuff!’

‘You may wish to consider all of his requests. Or only a few. Or you may decide that the whole matter is not worth your time. But I would consider it a great favor if you would hear him out.’

‘Well—you’ve certainly done plenty of favors for me.’

‘And I intend to do a few more when we have some private time in this place I love so much. Where I feel so at home.’

‘I hope this cottage of yours will be warm enough for that kind of thing. Bare stone walls, you know. Not much insulation.’

‘Let us have some coffee and imagine what we can do to stay warm.’


Submitted: May 06, 2022

© Copyright 2022 NateBriggs. All rights reserved.

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