01. December 2020 · Comments Off on Another Snippet from the Current W-I-P… · Categories: Uncategorized

(Which at this rate will be out in the new year. Real life has intervened. My daughter is pregnant, and it’s one of those high-risk things.)

Vennie Stoneman is on leave in Paris, late 1944, and is about to meet the love of her life…

On her second day in Paris – the City of Light! – Vennie conceded glumly that perhaps late November was not seeing Paris at it’s very best. The trees in the Bois de Boulogne, the smaller city parks, the Champ de Mars, the gardens at Versailles and all along the city avenues were bare, the famous Louvre Museum was empty of all the splendid paintings and relics that had once been there, the sky was mostly grey and dripped rain on a regular basis. Four hard years of German occupation had emptied shops, markets, cafes and ateliers of most of the goods and edibles which had made Paris the cynosure of the world when it came to fashion, food and general culture. But still – Paris!

Vennie had read about all those famous places since she was able to read words of more than a single syllable. If the trees were bare, and the shops, museums and ateliers all but empty, the monuments and buildings were still there and every bit as awe-inspiring as they had been in her imagination, even if the paintings in the Louvre were still hidden away safe in the countryside.

“Oh, Christ – another grey stone monument!” Ginger Floyd groaned. Their jeep was halted in a broad plaza in front of the magnificent – if slightly time-mutilated twin towers and façade of Note Dame de Paris, the grand and ancient cathedral of Paris. “Don’t you ever get tired of moldy old buildings, Vennie?”

“Not this one,” Vennie replied. “It’s Notre Dame the most famous church in all of Paris – and I want to see the inside, even if they haven’t put back the rose windows. They’re famous in themselves, you know.”

“Another church,” Bill Allison remarked, with a particularly dour expression. “After Sacred Heart…”

“Sacre-Coeur,” Major Ledet corrected, almost automatically.

“We’ve also been to St. Denis,” Bill Allison continued, “Where the kings of France are planted for all time until Judgement Day. And St. Chapelle, Napoleon’s Tomb, and all those blasted museums with nothing in them because they were taken away to hide from the Nazis. Just agree with me; admire the outside for five minutes, and then lets move on to another objective. I’m a Presbyterian – all this Catholic idolatry gives me hives.”

“I want to see the inside,” Vennie repeated stubbornly. “This might be the only chance in my life that I will have to see Paris and I want to make the most of it, even if there is nothing much inside.”

“Oh, very well,” Major Ledet agreed, and set the jeep in gear. “We’ll come back for you at four o-clock, right at this place. Will that suit you, Lieutenant?”

“Perfectly,” Vennie replied, and let Bill Allison hand her down from the jeep, as she and Ginger wore their formal skirt uniforms, and it was so awkward, having to be so lady-like in the middle of a war zone, scrambling up and down from jeeps and trucks and airplanes in a narrow skirt and stockings that must be kept from being snagged and laddered. Or at least doing that scrambling in what had been a war zone, not too many weeks previously.

Vennie settled the strap of her handbag on her shoulder, straightened the cap on her head at the proper angle – and yes, she knew the crude name for that narrow and easily-folded flight cap. There was but a small scattering of people in the wide paved square before the storied towers and intaglio-carved façade of Notre Dame on this drear and grey afternoon. She marched into that chill and stone-damp smelling space … and then halted, marveling at the solid weight of the stone, the regular pillars along a triple gallery which went marching along the vista of a magnificent nave, the airy vaults overhead … she went to the font just inside the entryway, and dipped her fingers into it and made the gesture of crossing herself for courtesy. This was the custom, as she knew very well. So many of the ranch workers were devout and Catholic – a good few nurses she had trained with as well – and Padre Paul was a good and responsible shepherd. There was a rack of candles nearby, most of them flaring smokily in the intermittent icy draft from the doors. She fished a few francs out of her purse, put them in the donation box and lit a fresh candle from the jar of wooden spills next to it, silently saying a brief prayer before she walked farther into the soaring interior.

And it was every bit as glorious as she had imagined – monumental pillars and galleries, pale daylight sifting in between them, as if they were stone trees in a mighty and regularly coppiced forest. Vennie breathed in the scent of ancient incense, of age and history and stone. Padre Paul had visited St. Pauls’ in Rome, shortly after the day of liberation, and spoke most movingly of how the immense space dwarfed mere humans in the presence of the ineffable divine – this was how he must have felt, dwarfed by the power of belief in the savior of all mankind, a divine first made flesh and blood in Palestine two millennia ago … and then that belief memorialized by those passionate believers, making their faith manifest in stone, glass and paint.

Halfway up that grand nave, Vennie stepped into one of the ranks of pews – which were relatively scratch things, to her way of thinking. Bare, flimsy, relatively insubstantial, in comparison to the mighty forest of stone, rising all about her. There was an American soldier sitting in one of them, in the rank ahead of where she chose to sit and contemplate the divine, and appreciate the artistic labor which had built this place, centuries before. Vennie sat, moving quietly as she had learned as a nurse. This was a private moment – for her, as it was for that lone soldier. A sacred place, and a private place, all in one. She quietly drank in the peace and history; there was nothing like this in Deming, where the church of her childhood was a simple frame building – like a child building with sticks, a private den in the weeds, next to this.

She sat and thought about all of that; of her time in Madame Marsala’s house in Albania, and of Johnny the Englishman, who was really Tony the actor. Of the soldiers that she tended in those interminable flights – and of how many more there would be, once the war in Europe was done. The focus of the war would move against Japan, once Nazi Germany was ground into dust – and into dust they would be. Vennie was already certain of that. But, oh – the human cost of that, paid in the blood of soldiers, blood that puddled on the floor of hospitals like that one in Arzew, on the night that she and her handful of fellow nurses came forward to serve.

Vennie didn’t want to think of that – how much more in blood, how many more dying soldiers? She wrenched her mind from that, and standing up, looked over the shoulder of the American in the pew-row ahead. Now she noted, in mild surprise, that he had a notebook in hand propped on his knee. And he was making a sketch in charcoal pencil – a view of the apse and high altar, with the watery sunshine sifting in.

“I like that,” she said, unprompted. It was a bit presumptive of her, because he was enlisted, with a zebra-array of stripes on his sleeve and she – according to Army regs – was officer-class. But the soldier looked over his shoulder and smiled, without any constraint. He had a very nice smile, Vennie thought – straight white teeth and narrow, sensitive lips. A burly man with dark hair slightly too long for Army regs, about thirty years in age, and wearing heavy-rimmed glasses which lent him a somewhat professorial air.

“Thanks … I’m a shit artist, in comparison to the greats. But I get by. Master Sergeant Burt Vexler – and y0u, Ell- Tee?”

“Venetia Stoneman – but my friends all call me Vennie. I’m on leave with some friends from my unit. Are you also on leave, Sergeant Vexler?”

“Burt – just call me Burt,” he replied. “I’m on the job, actually. A research job. It’s one of those odd sorts of Army specialties…”

“In Notre Dame?” Vennie raised a slightly skeptical eyebrow. “Oh, don’t tell me you work for our version of the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.”

He chuckled, richly amused. “No, not one of those sneaky intelligence types. I was recruited to a special unit … we track down looted art, stolen by the Nazis, secure it safely and ensure that those items are returned to the proper owners. Those buggers had the stickiest fingers you can imagine. Nothing too hot or too heavy, as one of our English pals puts it. They boosted truckloads of art – paintings, sculpture, historic relics – anything you can imagine, and shipped it off to the Reich. They say that Hitler was a frustrated artist … you know, everyone might have been better off if he had been accepted at art school. But that’s by-the-by. Were you a nurse before the war, Vennie?”

“Yes, I was,” she came around the end of the pews and sat next to him. It was easier talking that way. “I liked it, very much. I was a private duty nurse for a very nice invalid lady. A friend of mine from nursing school joined the Army Nurse Corps, and she told me several times that a war was coming, and I ought to join as well. When my invalid lady died, I thought that my friend might be right, and I might as well. I could read the newspapers, you know. How did you come to be in the Army – the draft, I suppose.”

“Not quite,” Burt grinned. He set aside his glasses, folding them carefully and fitting them into his uniform tunic pocket. Now Vennie saw that his eyes were a light blue; oddly enough, of that shade that the old folks in Deming always said denoted a stone-cold killer. “I also was talked into it by a friend – my old college advisor. I was teaching art history at this terribly refined old ivy-covered college. My eyesight is bad enough that I was rated mostly unfit for the draft … and I’d be the most ham-fisted and near-sighted infantryman that any army in history has ever seen. But my advisor was terribly persuasive, and I wanted to contribute. So here I am … enjoying yet another visit to fabled Paris, the city of light. This time at Army expense, instead of the trust fund.”

“Were you here before?” Vennie asked, frankly envious. Only the very wealthiest of the Richter and Becker cousins had traveled much beyond their home ranches, much less repeatedly to Europe. “Even before the war?”

“A good few times,” Burt coughed, almost apologetically. “Although the very first time, I was only six. My mother’s honeymoon with her fourth and final husband. She insisted on bringing me. My stepfather was a peach – he’s the one that she stuck with, finally.”

“Your holiday suppers with all the family must have been interesting,” Vennie remarked, without any malice. She was fascinated, almost in spite of herself, and Burt grinned again.

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