In the Mountains
Since I last wrote to you I have been immersed in research. So often I get carried away by the appearance of another story. Sure, it is relevant, but not just now. Yet, I can’t help reading. It could be material for another novel.
The setting I chose for Pilot Error is a region of the Alps called Savoie. The village of Chamoz is fictitious but it could be any Savoyard village of the time, for its houses – chalets – and its people. Behind the village is the massif of Les Bauges with its plateaux and steep rock cliffs butting against the higher Alps. Little has changed since the war. It is an area I know well for having spent many holidays there.
Even in wartime, cattle, goats and sheep were led up to the high pastures for the summer and brought down again in the fall. The return from the heights was, and still is, an occasion for celebration. The cows are adorned with flowery headdresses attached to their horns. The bells they wear are all tuned differently and as they lumber down the slopes they create a unique symphony. In a cleverly design frame, the shepherds carry the huge wheels of cheese they made while in the alpage. A mule follows, pulling a cart loaded with all the tools needed for cheese making.
The animals appear to be happy to get back to their barn for the winter and munch contentedly on hay while being milked, by hand in the old days, today by milking machine.
A history tidbit: The Italian Army occupied the Savoie and Haute-Savoie and after November 1942, when the German army occupied the whole of France, the Italian army also occupied the lower regions including Grenoble. After September 1943, when Italy signed an armistice with the Allies, the German Army occupied the entire territory.
A short excerpt for your enjoyment.
The boys clambered over the outcrop and settled in the rocky hollow – their natural fort. They were out of breath and laughing after the snowball fight between the boys on one side and the girls on the other. Odette and Suzanne joined them.
“Girls, since you won, you can watch the road,” Francis said.
Still giggling, the two girls hoisted themselves over the rounded rock and lay flat on their stomachs, resting their chins in their cupped hands. Below the boulder, a couple of short, straggly pines clung to cracks in the gneiss rock, forming a perfect shield. This massive, round rock was a favorite lookout place. It offered a clear view of the steep hairpin bends of the road from Aix across the huge fissured ravine.
“Nobody will drive up with this first snow,” Gilbert said.
“If they do, the snow’s so wet they might end up in the ravine,” Francis said.
A guffaw greeted his words.
“Italians coming,” Odette announced with a calm voice.
“They’ve got a death wish,” Joseph said.
“Let’s run down and warn people. Gilbert, you go to the café. Odette to Monsieur Germain. Suzanne to Mr. Fournier. Joseph to Mademoiselle Martin. I’m going to Mademoiselle Lebourg.”
“Haha, so you can see Marie!”
They laughed and scrambled out of the fort.
“Watch out for The Snitch,” Gilbert yelled.
They didn’t need a reminder. Although the traction avant would take a while before it wound its way up to the village, they ran at full speed.
Francis reached the Thread and Stitch store and burst in without stopping for breath. “Italian patrol coming up, mademoiselle. Marie must hide.”
“Oh, mon Dieu! Francis, please take her to the safe place. Marie is in the kitchen.”
By now, he had recovered his breath and bounded up the stairs to the apartment. He didn’t knock. Marie was kneading dough. His heart beat faster but he quelled the emotions that were surging.
“Patrol coming up. Let’s go.”
She hesitated and looked at the dough. Francis grabbed the dough and dropped it in the basket to rise. Marie reacted, wet cloth in hand, she swept the flour off the board, which Francis seized and stood inside the cabinet. She draped the cloth over the bread proofing basket and let herself be dragged toward the stairs. Francis checked that the back alley was empty and they set off at a trot. They had just turned a corner when Cigar put a hand up to stop them.
“Bonjour, monsieur Raymond,” Francis said. “Excuse us, we are in hurry today.” The children were in awe if not in some fear of the old man.
“I know.” The man grinned, showing a couple of empty spaces where teeth had been at one time. “But Fernand is by the spring. Come with me.”
Francis clenched his fist. Just the mention of the boy they called Fernand the Snitch made his blood boil.