THE TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

The cherry blossoms floated gently down, landing on their blanket. They had just started eating when a pigeon landed by their basket. They both stared wide-eyed as the bird walked closer, unafraid. That’s when they noticed a tiny scroll of paper attached to its right leg…

(Stories need only touch on this topic in some way to qualify.)


Ah, a picnic! Even in wartime, people have picnics. You picnic to eat, of course, to get outdoors, to have a merciful change of pace. But it’s also a form of defiance. A pretense that all is normal. Life needs to go on in all the little ways possible, oui?

So, a picnic, war or no war. Oh, there’s far less food and necessary emphasis on scruffy potatoes and humble greens and the last coarse slices of Amelie, our unfortunate pig. But, by God, you’ll do it: somehow you’ll picnic.

Yes, you might have to dash for cover if you hear the snarling of airplanes flying low overhead. Might need to scurry away, crouching, if you hear there’s a malevolent sniper passing through the neighborhood.

You want to have a good sense of where the front lines are and who’s advancing where. An army of ants parading across your tattered oilcloth and over the last crumbs of the stale bread is one thing. But a squad of Nazi soldiers rounding the corner of what’s left of the farmhouse is quite another.

Today, Marie and I have promised ourselves a picnic. The hollow boom of the guns seems a bit further off. The rains have let up, the muck is hardening, the gaunt apple trees have a few new blossoms to bless us with. Tiny flowers fall like manna. The air smells fresh, not of death.

We choose the field east of our shattered village, the one field where no bodies are buried. I limp along, dragging our wobbly wheelbarrow with my misshapen hand, a charming souvenir de guerre.

In the wheelbarrow: a rumpled ground sheet, a jug of candle-boiled water, a small parcel of foodstuffs and a carafe of our remaining Bourdeaux, past its prime but still a treasure.

Marie has found some cheese, a few miracle pears, dried apricots and four of the hardtack biscuits the English dropped for us in April. We will feast.

We settle round the stump of the horse-chestnut. The unlucky tree endured last autumn’s shelling, but later we had to cut it down for firewood.

Marie has brought a surprise. A glass jar holding a pretty little paper flower she has fashioned from red crepe. She places this on the sheet in front of us. A centerpiece. A salute. An altar.

We pour the wine. We toast our parents, dead since ’42. My brother, not heard from in many months. Marie’s uncle, believed to be a prisoner in Alsace. Our former neighbors, betrayed and shot. Then a toast to our still being alive.

So far we are lucky. But we do not overly rejoice. Humbleness and solemnity must prevail until that day the Allies reach our shores and end all this. Soon, with luck. Soon, we pray.

As we’re talking quietly about life’s small blessings, there is a sudden fluttering, a quick blur of color and feathers. We flinch, fearing the worst. But it’s no grenade, no lunging Nazi.

A grey-white pigeon has alighted on the stump. It affixes us with its yellowish eyes. As we gape at it, something catches our attention.

“Look!” Marie says. “On its right leg.”

Banded to the bird’s leg is a small piece of paper. We realize we’re looking at a messenger pigeon, often used in the Great War, but even in these modern times still a quick and clever way to communicate.

“Who would want to write to us?” Marie laughs.

“Not to us,” I say. “But to some intelligence unit. Maybe the Allies’, maybe the enemy’s. Here, I’m far too clumsy. You try to remove it.”

Marie gently reaches for the pigeon. Well-trained, it allows her to loosen and slide the paper from its foot.

Marie unscrolls the message and looks at it. She grimaces. “Mon dieu! Les Boches!

Ah, poor messenger pigeon, shell-shocked we supposed, else it would still be on the wing to its real destination, not down in a field sharing German secrets with French farm folk.

Still shaking, Marie hands me the note. Between the wars, foolish me, I’d studied German. I could read it quite well. It holds few words. They chill me to the bone.

I tell Marie what it says: “‘Most Urgent! Normandy! Landing Normandy! 6 June. Overlord.'”

“Is that significant?”

My words tumble out. “I think it means where the Allies plan to land. Everyone’s been guessing, not just the generals.”

“But why send such an important message by pigeon?”

“Far less chance of interception and as backup. It’s smart.”

We sit back and give the pigeon the evil eye. Twitching its head, it regards us in turn. Does this bland bird know anything about human cruelty? Is it simply awaiting orders?

“Sacre bleu!”┬áMarie suddenly says. “Pigeon pie tonight!” She tenses, clearly ready to strangle the creature.

“Wait! I have a better idea! Please bring me pen and paper!”

Marie fetches the writing implements. And something else. She puts some of our precious chicken feed on the stump. The bird pecks away as I write, in my best German, ‘Calais! Der kommen Calais! 6 Juni.’

I’m glad my writing hand was unwounded. I show Maria what I’ve written. “Misdirection,” I mutter grimly.

Carefully, Marie holds the pigeon and fastens the new note on its foot.

“Let’s send the Germans a message,” I say. “The wrong one!”

Marie raises her arms and flings the pigeon into the air. It opens its wings, rises, turns and flies off toward the gathering clouds.

“Away you go!” Maria exclaims. “Bon voyage, bird!”