Geneviève Gueron was as French as one could be. And while her peers were riding up and down the waves of hormonal instability, lamenting one second, rejoicing the next, she was simply and unequivocally in love with her life on the French Riviera. It had taken her some time to get used to the fierceness of the sunrays of the South, as the lack of obscuring buildings or tufts of sky made them bounce right off her white skin which would respond instantly with sizzling red spots. And with each day that passed, the deep yearning for her favourite dusty bookstores in Paris gave way to the undisputable dogmatic truth proclaimed by her parents, who had convinced themselves their new hometown would be kinder to them.
Life on the Côte d’Azur was indeed kinder, softer, and Geneviève had an easy time making friends. And finally, one indistinct, timid morning during that summer of her 14th birthday, she was certain that she had found her ultimate bliss on a bench overlooking the Baie des Anglais. She had dedicated the first days of the summer break to wandering around the streets, armed only with her thoughts and a book, to discover parts of her adopted hometown that she didn’t usually cross on the path between school and the Gambetta district. And there it was, the ideal spot that would become her haven for the summers to come, a simple yellow bench, partially shaded from a renegade tree that had pushed its way through the pavement, claiming its new home rather illegally as it seemed, and leaving a spider web of broken cement at its stem. Geneviève was never sure what position her natural shade provider held in the hierarchy of trees, apart that it was different from the palm trees that were expected to grow on the Promenade.
This is paradise, she thought. Someone had lighted a bonfire at the beach and the smell of scorched sausage penetrated her long nostrils and made her mouth water. She sank down on the wooden planks, closed her eyes, and imagined herself, an old woman, 50 or 60 years from that precise moment, sitting on that same yellow bench, with grandchildren playing and giggling in the distance in the sand and a poetry book in her lap. Children and poetry, that was all she would ever need. The warmth of the French sun. And at that instant, she knew that whatever happened, her life would be good as long as she had that spot and could surrender to the sound of waves licking and caressing the stones at the shore.
Her parents never needed worry about her, and let her freely wander around all that summer. She was a solid student, a dependable daughter, and would rarely be seen with her nose peering over the edge of a Paul Valéry or Apollinaire, the lovers of her teenage years. She was the dreamer of the family, after all, and everyone knew she would never do any harm or succumb to a bad decision, even on a temper. They knew it, and never bothered her.
Until one day, they did. One day, there was no more walking around leisurely, especially not on her own, and specifically not either with her friends from school. It was a chilly day, just a few weeks before school was supposed to start again, then unexpectantly, wouldn’t – for her. The sun had metamorphosed, slowly, inaudibly, as if during the two summer months it had put up a charade to deceive and lure Geneviève into security, only to then go down forever and hand over the empty spot to its cruel twin brother. First, it quit being quite as delightful as it had been when she’d moved closer to it, no more exhaling the comforting heat on her skin while she was sitting idly on her bench, the esplanade in her back, gazing at the sea and the heads bobbing up and down in the waves, laughter resonating, echoing with every wave, bringing it to her, and sliding softly over her black hair to disappear in the labyrinth of streets.
The sun wasn’t the same when you couldn’t sit under it, peacefully. She could then still look at it, from the inside, first from the small patch of garden behind their house, where she would huddle on a forgotten, weathered chair at the furthest edge of the yard, next to the boulder stone wall separating it from the Russian Orthodox Church. She would rock it backwards until only two feet of the chair were pinned into the ground, grinding holes she would later patch up with moss, leaning back against the cold stone, opening her ears up to the outside world. The world the Guerons didn’t belong to anymore, that she didn’t belong to anymore. She wasn’t even Geneviève anymore, but Geneviève Sarah, no explanations given.
Her friends stopped by at her house, at first, and they would chat with huffed voices under the cherry tree. They would break the news to her that her secret sweetheart, whom she had planned to make her boyfriend that summer at some point when she would finally manage to break through her timid skin, had chosen someone else. A sweet blonde girl from the other side of town. The “more French” part of town, if that was possible. French was French, wasn’t it? How more French could she become? She spoke French, thought in French, dreamt in French, and when falling asleep while reading Verlaine verses, dreamt in French poetic verses.
But it wasn’t about French, she soon realized. Her friends stopped coming by, not even making excuses for not showing up for their Friday book club, meekly nourished by repetitions of volumes read the summer before. Even the few remaining books started to disappear, in their library. It was only then, staring at the gaps in the wall, that Geneviève noticed the other gaps. The chandelier that grandmother had left them as a housewarming present when they moved South. The drawers with silver cutlery were empty. One after the other, anything that had been part of their history, of their imprint on the earth, vanished, just like they would all vanish, into dark haze, one after the other, in the years to come. The sun was a stranger, by then, a mirage observed through darkened windows. One after the other, evaporated, departed, right until her own baby child, growing miraculously in her by then battered stomach, all layers of primness disrupted, then vanishing into smoke and ashes, fertilizer for the fields. Her belly never welcomed another baby, her body never allowed another touch after writhing out of those ghastly hands.
Geneviève can’t stop staring at the child screaming on the floor through her trembling, wrinkled hands. It hiccups, rings for air, suffocating under the pain of being ripped away from its mother or whoever trailed it behind on this doomed trip through the Mexican desert. Geneviève has no clue where the mother is, nobody in that fenced room knows. Maybe some guard, stone-faced, well-fed, knows. But they won’t tell. For a moment, she wonders if those guards are genetically linked throughout the eras of wars and crusades, across continents. A bloodline of bodies without minds and hearts, flesh and skin covered robots, who don’t see and feel hurt. Looking into their eyes she stares into the same blank minds that had surveyed her every move with disdain, over 70 years ago. The world hadn’t changed. The nauseating beliefs in superiority of race had always lain slumbering beneath the surface, crawling out of its hiding whenever and wherever the soil was fertile for infection of the greater, most loud-voiced, faceless masses. History would repeat itself, she knew now just as she knew when she crossed the Atlantic Ocean to build a new existence on kinder grounds. An existence dedicated to tireless, infinite defence of the defenceless, as a voice for the voiceless, as long as her own shrivelled and grey version of herself could hold it.
The child has given up crying and is now huddled in a corner, glassy eyed, next to some other, just as young stranger, who gave up some minutes earlier. She wants to pick it up, to pick all of them up, and to find words to comfort them in their cold solitude. But she knows she can’t, that she’s too weak today. She never meant to live this long. She never even meant to wake up from her nightmares, but her heart was too strong, even though there were only bruised and burned pieces left. It simply refused to let go.
Geneviève’s view blurs. She closes her eyes, and the naked body of her baby bursts through, screaming its lungs out, screaming in harmony with the mother, herself, screaming and ringing for air, until the flames eat her up alive. She opens her eyes again. There are no flames today. The screams are different today. Yet. They will survive. Somehow. Maybe it is better not to have lived at all, not to have glimpsed the beauty of sunset in Cannes, not to remember the splashing of waves against laughing children, beaming and calling back to their parents sunbathing on the hot sand, no other worries on their minds but reddened skin.
The sun is burning, outside the Arizona detention facility. Another child is weeping, almost inaudibly at her feet. The heat is making breathing difficult. The sun glares down at them, and Geneviève wonders whether it is smiling. Smiling crudely, the wry smile of the bully, up there, where it can never be touched, in that wire-fenced ebony tower together with all the others, that this time around, again, aren’t touched. Smiling down crudely like it did that 26th August 1944 on the horrified faces of her father and mother as they were escorted to the wagon waiting with other condemned souls. Leaving her behind with no words to be said. Just like it burnt her skin with its grinning rays after she had watched her girl’s skin blacken in the furnace’s blazing fangs. The sun had never been the same, and never would be again.
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