Erich tried to free the motorboat from its mooring along the riverbank, but his feet slipped in the mud. He clutched the hull, rotted wood compressing like an overripe apple, and recalled how old fisherman Heindorf had grinned as he stuffed Erich’s hard-earned marks in his pocket—payment for the supposedly worthy craft. Not that Erich could complain about deception; his mother believed him with his classmates at a Hitler Youth meeting.
He pulled again, wood slivers flaking, and the boat came free from the tall reeds, drifting into the current. He jumped in, scanning the waterway. Cold wan daylight shone through clouds, illumining two large steamers upriver. He primed the engine, jammed a rusty button along the boat’s housing. Then he pulled the starter cord, once, again, the machinery sputtering like a methuselah on his last breaths. Finally, the engine kicked in. The boat meandered into green waters. Erich dropped onto the bench.
Crack—a sound like snapping matchsticks. The bench sagged, and a trickle of water seeped in below. Erich cupped his hands, bailing, but then he remembered his kerchief and wadded it into the leak.
Suddenly, deafening noise engulfed him. A gargantuan barge loomed overhead, poised to shatter his vessel against its prow. Erich screamed, the noise drowned in the ship’s blasting horn. He jerked the rudder, swinging clear by inches. But the barge’s wake grabbed him, tossed him like debris. His boat’s stern rose, then slapped down on the river, a piece of hull breaking off in his palm as he was hurled to the deck. He curled up, shivering, awaiting the next assault. The boat jumped, dropped again, and spiraled at last into calmer currents.
Shaking, Erich peered over the rim, his clothes and white-blond hair wet with river spray. The barge had gained distance. Fifty meters to the south lay the dock. He headed in, imagining how that ship or surging tide might have cracked his bones, pummeled him under the waves, a corpse at thirteen. He pressed a hand to his chest, heartbeat fluttering like sparrow wings.
On reaching shore, he leaned over and grabbed a wooden dock post thick with algae, hauling his vessel onto the sandy bank. He clambered out, dragged the boat fully to land, and then flipped it to drain the water. The crack in the floorboard had grown no bigger.
He climbed a dirt path up a grassy embankment. At the top, he turned, shielding his eyes against the sun’s dull glare. Across the glittering Rhine lay home, Germany. Though this bank looked much the same, somehow the river made it all different.
He headed west along a wooded path, surrounded by birdsong, his footsteps echoing. He came to a heavy steel railing swathed in barbed wire, running both ways along the river’s curve. His cousin had shown him a spot where the wire twisted open along the bottom, still unrepaired. Erich crawled through, walked another mile, his feet squelching in his short leather boots.
Then, a clearing with several half-timbered houses came into view, two boys out front waving: Pierre, sandy-haired and tall; and his friend Maurice—whip-thin with wavy dark locks. “Cousin Erich,” Pierre shouted. “Told you he’d come,” he added to Maurice.
“He’s late,” Maurice replied.
“I’ve got to be home by dinner,” Erich said, joining them, all three chattering in German and French. “Or my mother will find out.”
Maurice led them to his house, its walls carved with grape vines. Two bicycles lay by the front walk. Pierre retrieved his own bicycle from next door, and the three rode off. Soon tree-lined country roads gave way to the outlying neighborhoods of Strasbourg, its paved streets dense with foot traffic. They pedaled across a stone footbridge over one of the medieval city’s many canals. They bounced along the wooden planks of another bridge, leading to the city center encircled by two branches of the Ill River. Ancient streets, close and congested, took them to the Rue Mercière. Stone chimneys atop gabled roofs jutted upward, as if gesturing toward the tower of the gothic Strasbourg Cathedral.
The boys chained their bicycles near the cathedral’s western façade, the crowds of summertime tourists obscuring the view. They wound closer on foot to the arched entryways, surrounded by statuaries depicting the life of Christ, from childhood, to Passion, to Last Judgment. Other sightseers protested as they snuck into line and tried to ascend the tower’s spiral stairs. A stocky man barred their way, but the boys squeezed by, nearly bowling him over.
At the top, hundreds of steps high, a sun-drenched panorama spilled before them, towns and roads stretching across the landscape as far as the Vosges mountains: Alsace, crossroads of a region in dispute for millennia. Neither truly French or German, Alsatians were unique. Pierre’s father was one, and he and Erich’s mothers were half-Alsatian as well. This far up, even those divisions seemed absurd.
Later, hungry, the boys descended the tower. Pierre and Maurice pooled their few sous to buy cakes from a nearby bakery. They sat on the curb outside the cathedral and ate.
“Father says there’s going to be another war,” murmured Pierre, between bites.
“My father says Hitler is a hero or a madman,” Erich said. “He hasn’t decided which.”
Maurice murmured, “My papa’s scared.”
“Maurice, tell Erich about your father’s secret chamber,” Pierre said.
“Pierre,” Maurice said, “you promised!”
“Please,” Pierre said. “I want my cousin to see.”
“On your mother’s life, you swore it.” Maurice quivered, pastry crumbling in his fingers.
“Just once,” Pierre begged.
“I’ve seen secret rooms before,” Erich cut in. “I’m sure it’s nothing special.”
Maurice flushed. “But it is,” he said. “Special.”
“I’ve seen better,” Erich insisted.
Maurice considered. Finally he said, “All right, just once, I’ll show it to you. But you’re sworn to secrecy. You too, Pierre. You can’t tell anyone else after this!”
The boys retrieved their bikes and retraced their route to the outskirts, past farms and orchards, raising clouds of dust as they pedaled, Maurice lagging behind. At his house, they left their bicycles by the front door. Before entering, Erich noticed an odd ornament—a scroll in a gilded metal holder posted to the front door jamb. Similar items occupied interior doorways. Erich saw Hebrew lettering.
He hesitated, wondering what his mother might say, setting foot in a Jewish home. But he followed Maurice and Pierre inside, through the parlor, up a creaking staircase, down a hall with old maroon wallpaper printed with flowers in gold foil. They stopped at a closet at the far end, stepping back as Maurice furtively opened the door. Inside, surrounded by dresses and coats and dust, he removed a pocketbook hanging from a nail in the corner molding. He lifted the nail, and the molding slid with it. He pushed and the wall swung out, revealing a dark space beyond.
The three went through. Maurice struck a match, a sudden flare. He lit a candle, casting a dim glow across the unfinished space, all wood panels and beams. Jewelry and gold candlesticks sat on a shelf. A large oval mirror with an ornate silver frame leaned in a corner.
However, Erich’s eye went to the far wall, upon which hung four paintings, exquisitely rendered, almost identical. They depicted a lovely young woman, honey-haired and winsome, eyes green like forests, pulling Erich in. She was surrounded by brilliant autumn colors, bursts of auburn and bronze gilding the trees behind her. In her lap rested a violin, her delicate fingers splayed teasingly across its neck. Erich leaned closer, hands stretching toward canvas.
“Don’t touch,” Maurice warned. Erich froze. The Jewish boy stepped up beside him, looking as well. “Renoir, Sisley, Bazille, Monet,” Maurice recited. “Papa said that a long time ago, these were displayed in our music store in Marseilles. But great-grandpapa took them out.”
Erich continued to study them, to study the girl. “Thank you, for showing me,” he said.
“Just this once,” Pierre said, wagging his finger. “Right, Maurice?”
Maurice didn’t reply, instead saying to Erich, “I never tire of looking at them.” Then, he added, “Let’s go back down. Papa will be home soon.”
As Maurice ushered them out, Erich noticed another Jewish ornament on this doorframe, safeguarding the secret room. He touched it as he passed. “I should be going,” he said.
The other two offered to accompany Erich to the river. Outside the front door, Erich plucked a geranium from a flowerbox under the parlor window—a gift for his mother. He wished he could bring her one of those paintings. And take one for himself, as well.
Maurice and Pierre doubled-up on one bike, Erich on the other, and they cycled toward the river, the wooded roads cool with twilight. They left the bikes at the great Maginot Line, passed through the tiny barbed-wire chink in France’s armor. Too soon they were down to the riverbank, across the dock, righting the boat, pulling it into the water, saying goodbye. Pierre and Maurice waved from the levee.
As Erich climbed in, revved the engine, drifting into the water, their faint “auf Wiedersehen”s followed him. He sat, carefully placing his mother’s flower beside him.
“Adieu,” he whispered, picturing the girl with the violin, as he sailed east across the Rhine, towards his village on the outskirts of Kehl.