I am watching the evening news, alone in my house, hungry and tired from the day's work, eating a piece of leftover pizza and wishing it were blanquette de veau. The story comes near the end of the NBC program.
Jessica Savitch is standing in a town square, talking excitedly over the commotion around her. "It appears that the infamous Butcher of Lyon, Klaus Barbie, has been located here in La Paz, Bolivia. Living under the assumed name of Klaus Altman, the former Nazi official who was responsible for thousands of assassinations and deportations during the Second World War has at last been located, after having disappeared nearly forty years ago...."
I try to concentrate on what she is saying, but my breathing is coming hard. I scoot close to the screen, catch a glimpse of the monster, and shudder. Maybe now it can be over. Finally, it can be over. For so many of them. For us. For me.
I dial the phone number in Atlanta automatically. "Mama, turn on the news! Hurry!"
"We're watching, Emile," she whispers.
"Maybe finally we'll get more answers."
"Maybe, son. Time will tell."
I want to remind her that time does not tell. At least in this matter, time keeps secrets, many secrets. Twenty years of secrets.
Then it is Grandma Bridgeman's voice I hear in my mind, the voice of twenty years ago. "Emile, you know there is more to life than looking for answers. Some answers you will never find—some you will. As long as the most important question is answered, the 'not knowing' of the others doesn't seem so unbearable."
Of course I am thinking about him, but at the same time, I am thinking of her, wondering if she is down in Bolivia, if she helped them locate the Butcher. "You may never see me again, Emile, but I will do this one thing for you. I promise."
I cannot eat stale pizza or grade finals or anything else. I sit as if in a trance while the TV screen switches to a commercial.
I did what you said, Grandma. I gave it up. Left it for years. But it is back. I cannot ignore this.
I get off the couch, grab my raincoat, and head for the door as if I can just simply drive to the airport and catch a plane from Nashville to Bolivia.
What am I thinking? But I have to do something.
I go to the bedroom and take out a thin, hardback comic book, the size of a three-ring binder. Tintin, my boyhood hero. I let the book fall open to the middle, stare at the mutilated pages, cut in the shape of a knife, squeeze my eyes shut, and, as if in prayer, I say out loud, "Let it be over. Please let it be over."
* * *
But it is not over. The next night Klaus Barbie's atrocities fill the TV news: "When somebody bombed Barbie's favorite restaurant, he had five prisoners machine-gunned and left their corpses on grisly display as a warning. When German airmen were shot nearby, Barbie opened an entire cell block as if to permit an escape. As the prisoners ran, all twenty-four were gunned down...."
Somehow, having this man's heinous crimes displayed on national TV seems wrong—as if the pain that ripped my family apart is only an image on a screen, flickering and flat. No news report can measure the depth of the wound.
"As the war progressed toward Germany's defeat, Barbie lashed out at entire villages. Among his prime targets were Lyon's Jews, many of whom had fled to the region for sanctuary after the fall of Paris. Barbie's secretaries confiscated jewels and other valuables from people brought in for questioning. Many Jews never lived to see the Auschwitz train platform because Barbie packed them into cattle cars with no food or water. Since the trip took weeks, everyone died. The Germans had to wear gas masks to get rid of the bodies."
I do not want to hear any more. I turn off the TV and find the Tintin book—my escape mechanism. Perhaps I am wishing for another of my father's spy stories. How many times over the past years have I imagined him coming into my room with the comic book in hand, the switchblade concealed inside? But there will not be another story, of that I am sure.
Unless perhaps I tell it.
I sit down at my desk, open the book, and once again trace the outline of the cut pages with my fingers. I put a piece of typing paper in my old Smith Corona, advance the roller until the pure white paper appears.
I know how to begin the story, even though I have no idea how it will end. I begin to type. Smack, smack, smack, the keys hit the paper, staining it black with these words: Searching for Eternity.
"You will love America, son," my mother had always predicted. "Someday we'll go there, and you'll love it."
My French grandmother, I called her Mamie Madeleine, was less enthusiastic. "It's a land without history, proud and young with much to learn. Beware of America, Emile." Still, the day before I left my native France, she held her head high, the proud, harsh regard so familiar to me, and whispered through a tightening in her throat, "It will be all right, Emile. Be brave." She had kissed me twice, once on each cheek, and refused to shed one tear.
The next day my mother, Janie Bridgeman de Bonnery, and I boarded the Delta plane at the Orly airport with no one there to see us off. For the entire eight-hour flight, I did not utter one word to her, did not try to calm the fury pulsing in my temples, did not once think about how she might be feeling.
My mother was relieved, I was sure; she was escaping France, escaping an existence that had suffocated her for fifteen long years. I felt no pity for her. I felt only a gradual boiling anger that would have exploded if I had dared to open my mouth.
The way the plane landed at the Atlanta airport that late September day foreshadowed perfectly the next nine months of my life: bumpy—so bumpy, in fact, that I reached for the pocket in front of me, grabbed the paper bag, and puked right in it.
"Emile, you're green!" my mother announced to the whole cabin of passengers.
"Gross!" offered the kid across the aisle.
I glared at my mother, no longer trying to disguise the fury I felt inside, and seethed to her in French, "It's all your fault! Everything is your fault!"
She knew I was referring to a lot more than my throwing up on a plane, but she said nothing in her defense. She just continued to turn a white handkerchief over and over in her lap, as if she could wring out the pent-up tension from the past few days.
I wish a voice had floated out of heaven as we were wildly vibrating up there in the plane and whispered, "Everything will be different now, Emile. Everything in your whole life is going to change."
I was two months shy of fourteen when I moved from France to America with my mother. I'd been waiting for change, hoping for it for the past year—to grow taller, to develop muscles, to find hair forming under my arms and above my upper lip. But on that particular day, as we stood in the Atlanta airport surrounded by mounds of luggage, I didn't want change. I wanted to run back to what I had always known, what was familiar and safe.
Searching for Eternity by Elizabeth Musser
Copyright © 2007; ISBN 9780764203725
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.