The 28th Infantry Division was among the units overrun when the Germans attacked through the Ardennes. Among their numbers retreating westward, Will and Joey are separated and lost.
They found overnight shelter in a rural church.
With the Ardennes still socked in by fog, a diluted light marks the dawn and filters into an ancient stone chapel. Bone weary, Will and Joey are sound asleep against the waist-high wall fronting the pew at the foot of an altar. Will stirs and snorts a prodigious, guttural snore, startling the sleeping giant beside him.
“Wha... who’s there?”
Will returns to the depths of slumber, leaving the chapel as still as a crypt. Joey’s eyelids flutter and drop like a curtain but are soon cinched up again as he hears a whispering voice. He slowly begins to focus on his surroundings. Looking up and to the right of a wall-mounted crucifix, Joey discovers an angel that seems to float in the air. An electric pulse raises the hairs on the back of Joey’s neck when the angel makes eye contact and deigns to speak to him.
Again, the whisper!
“Are they Boche?”
The angel is answered by another just like it that hovers on the other side of the cross. She
also makes eye contact with Joey.
Joey shakes off his confusion and, to his astonishment, looks up into the searching eyes of two women. One is middle-aged and the other is quite elderly. While they peer down at him, the older woman’s wiry, gnarled fingers grip the wall that separates them from the two soldiers.
“Will. Hey, Will!”
Will stirs, catches sight of the women, and sits up abruptly. He scrambles to make sense of the situation. A place of worship. The crack of dawn. Two ladies in their church-going finery. Clearly, they have come for morning prayers and were surprised by what they found at the foot of the altar. He also reads apprehension. The younger of the two grasps her friend’s hands to offer comfort, and to receive it as well. Will doffs his woolen cap and puts them at ease.
“Good morning, ladies. We’re Americans.”
He indicates the flag on his sleeve, bringing nods of approval from the ladies.
“Ah, les Amis.”
Just then Joey’s stomach rumbles, and he shrugs apologetically. The elder of the two women searches in her bag, unwraps a biscuit, divides it, and hands the pieces to the soldiers. The morsels are dry as a bone, and Will and Joey labor to chew and swallow them. The younger woman points to Will’s canteen with a questioning look. He shakes the empty container. She steps out from the pew, takes Will’s canteen in hand, and softly pads to the base of the altar. She crosses herself and steps behind the lectern and returns with the vessel full of holy water.
Her old friend is alarmed.
“Oh, Marie. What is the harm?”
Madeleine has always had a measure of mischief in her, yet she crosses herself several times as if to make amends. She repeats the exercise with Joey’s canteen. As the two soldiers drink their fill, Madeleine’s transgression is quickly forgotten by Marie, who seems to be studying Will very closely, as if, even with her failing vision in the dim light, he seems familiar to her. Madeleine is puzzled.
“What is it, Marie?”
“It’s just that he favors Antonin.”
As Marie wanders silently down a path of remembrance, Madeleine offers an explanation to Will.
“Antonin is her grandson. He is missing in the war. She prays for him every morning.”
When heavy explosions thud in the distance, a hint of dismay on Will’s face brings a tear to Marie’s eye. Madeleine also turns from the angry sounds to the vulnerable young men. Will reads their thoughts and tries on a cloak of bravado.
“Ah, it ain’t nuthin.”
Convincing no one, he looks from Madeleine to Marie, and then looks away. He cannot bear to look into the old woman’s watering eyes, the same eyes that must search the street outside her window, day after day, hoping to see Antonin come marching home. While Joey stands to take a closer look at the wooden angels by the cross that so captivated him before, Will endures several moments of awkward silence. He casts about for something to say and finally holds up his canteen in gratitude toward Madeleine.
“Thank you, Madame. So... where are we?”
“Here? It is Saint Nicholas.”
“No, I mean... ”
Will spreads his arms around indicating the wider location, beyond the church. “Ah! This is Hamiville. Where do you go?”
Joey jumps in. Since he repeated the town’s name a couple dozen times as they hiked, he can’t possibly get it wrong. He does anyway.
“That’s Bastogne, ya lug wrench!”
The town is known to Madeleine.
“Ah, Bastogne. It is far from here.”
This is not the best of news at the start of another day in full retreat, but Will and Joey suck it up and pull their gear together. They stand and face the ladies. Marie searches for words to say. Seeing young men off to war is a painful experience. How will she remember them?
“What are your names?”
“I’m Will and this here’s Joey. And your names?”
“She is Madeleine, and I am Marie.”
Will reflexively takes Marie’s hand and, to everyone’s surprise, including his own, bows to kiss it. Marie lights up with the spark of a coquette, in spite of carrying the weight of more than eighty years of life and loss. This morning has brought a roller coaster of emotions for her!
Will is so delighted by Marie’s affectionate response that he reaches for Madeleine’s hand. She shakes Will’s hand very formally and quickly snatches hers back. With this, Will turns back to Marie who is all aglow, spreading a blanket of warmth and caring over him. In the giving, she becomes neither old nor young, but timeless. Madeleine studies her old friend as if with new eyes.
Joey is simply flabbergasted by the whole scene. After farewells are exchanged, the two men step out into the cold. When the door latches into place behind them, Marie makes her way to the window to watch through irregular panes of glass as the two young men tramp across the yard. Madeleine comes to her side, ready to
“Marie! At your age!”
“I know, I know. But sometimes, even now when I look in the mirror, into my eyes... ”
For the briefest of moments, with the distortion of her reflection in the windowpane and the
random surfacing of a distant memory, Marie sees something in the glass that creases her thin,
dry lips with a smile.
“... I see the young woman I once was.”
Madeleine is taken aback, but then her curiosity overcomes her, and she looks into a windowpane and
sees only her own skeptical face staring back. She steps over to Marie’s pane and watches Will and Joey
disappear into the fog.