On the Fin of the Fish

Author: Jill Barth

A young girl encounters a graceful and unexpected messenger near her home in Belgium during World War II.

Amandine’s pere hid American soldiers in the cellar. The little girl had seen her father lead wounded, bleeding pilots through the wooden doors during the night. She watched covertly from the flawed glass window as her father pulled the wooden cellar hatch shut. After the men had retreated under the heavy doors nothing but bitter, dancing leaves moved around the entrance; no one but she would know what was taking place under the ground. Amandine comprehended nothing about the makings of the inside of the cellar. When she asked her mother what was there, her mere only said “le vin”. Amandine knew this to be a lie; the family never had wine on their table. Amandine knew.

When Amandine went to school or the market, adults clicked their tongues in her direction. Mothers sheltered their children under their shawls. Amandine did not know why, but she suspected the chilling behavior to be related to the secret in the cellar. Only the old men and haggard women who smoked homemade cigarettes near the back of the abbey smiled at her. These were the same villagers she had seen spat the ground when the German soldiers marched through town. One bleak and rainy evening, as she passed the conspirators, Mme. Denis” extended a gloved hand and passed Amandine a bold, yellow lemon. Unsure of the value, Amandine thanked the old woman and put the lemon in her apron. Until the time it withered and rotted, Amandine kept the lemon on her windowsill, from where she could watch the cellar doors.

During the course of the autumn season, three Americans had very stealthily come and gone from the cellar. A fourth, a handsome-looking bomber whose red, white and blue emblem burned against the dead landscape, arrived just as winter took hold. When the first snow of the winter eventually fell, Amandine remained sure he was still hiding under the house. Her parents had taken a very hushed and fretful tone. In the evenings, after Amandine had been tucked under her red quilt, she could sense their conversation around the fireplace until she could no longer stay awake. In the darkened mornings she would smile at them through her sleepy eyes, and they would offer her a small wink or perhaps a grin. But Amandine knew they had been up all night, they wore the clothing of the previous day. The fire had burned all night and no breakfast had been prepared. The room was cold and lifeless.

Amandine’s parents encouraged her to continue attending school, despite the cold and sometimes dangerous weather. In the gloomy mornings, they helped her on with her gray manteau et chapeau, lined with rough, insulating wool. Her mother would wave at her from within the front door, closing it as soon as Amandine reached the end of their path. Her journey to school took her across an arched stone bridge under which la Rivi�re d’Ambl�ve ran, cold and dark, muddled on the edges with shards of ice. The sight of river was her favorite part of the trip to school. Amandine knew that when she arrived in town, there would be many closed doors, no children would be playing or singing, as they had done before the war. The shops would be closed tightly, opening only to a familiar knock, an expected call at the latch. Amandine would go to l’�cole, pay attention to her instructor, be polite to her classmates. But after the long school day, Amandine welcomed the sight of the stone bridge and the curve of the river that led her home.

One afternoon the journey home was uncharacteristically clear and bright. Although the beeches and elms were bare and frosty, sunlight danced along the river and melted some of the slick ice on the bridge. Amandine stopped in the middle of the bridge, at its highest point. She leaned over, standing on the tips of her worn brown shoes. She let her arms dangle towards the water, as it rushed and churned with the force of its flow. Broken sticks, bundles of discolored dead leaves, and other woodland debris floated under the bridge. Amandine imagined she could reach out for them; allow them to pull her along the tow of the river to a new peaceful country, free of the soldiers, free of the war. As she stretched herself towards the water, Amandine noticed something catch a bit of sunlight just under the surface. It was a fish. The small brown fish leapt out of the murky water, right up to Amandine’s face. It flipped its tail fin so close to her nose, that a few droplets of chilled water hit her face. There, on the tailfin was something unbelievable, but unmistakable. A message on the fin read


Amandine remained bent over the bridge long after the fish had retreated under the surface, escaping along the murk and leaves. She knew what she had to do; she had to obey the message from that fish. The creature was the first of any kind to communicate with her in so long; the one simple word was a complete world of dialogue.

When she entered the house, her parents were at the table, no dinner was prepared and the fire was dying. Amandine thought of the little fish and went to work. With her coat still on her back, she returned outside and gathered wood from the dwindling pile stacked along the side of the house. After bringing in a heavy armload, she worked with chilled hands until the fire burned bright, flames lapping the sides of the stone hearth. She went to the kitchen and boiled some potatoes and cut some stale bread for their dinner. Her parents simply watched, her father rubbing his beard, her mother rubbing her eyes. Amandine had the message from the fish; she planned to endure the winter with care and faith. She told herself not to consider the American in the basement; thoughts of the bleeding man would not empower her. She accidentally wondered if he would die.

Each morning for a week, Amandine rose for school and prepared a small breakfast meal for her parents. She ate a small portion herself, although she was feeling less and less hungry as the tension bloated and suffocated the air in their home. Amandine worked hard at school, reminding herself not to think about soldiers, or cellars, or parents. She focused on her studies, or politely chatted with classmates. However, during her daily walk home, Amandine dawdled at the river, leaning boldly over the edge of the bridge in search of a ripple in the water that told her that the fish was still there.

One afternoon, instead of bending over the bridge, Amandine carefully crept away from the path and walked right down to the icy river. She squatted down and put her hands between her knees and felt the cold chill of the river. It must have been her touch that brought the fish; she noticed it swimming towards her outstretched hands. It circled slightly against the current and then it jumped up towards Amandine’s pale face. Frantic, Amandine squinted at the message


One simple vault and the fish was gone. Amandine considered this word – learn. Amandine knew she was a good student, trusted her schoolwork. She understood that was not enough, she realized she must become aware, pay attention.

The next day after classes ended, Amandine did not leave the school building. Instead she hid among the brooms and coats that were in the teachers’ room closet. She needed to listen to adults, to make sure she was revealed for herself all of the things her parents were not telling her. The instructors, although there were few, met after classes in this room, she had seen them when she stayed late to help with a project early in the year. From the closet, she could hear what they were saying. Amandine was appalled at their comments! Bits of graphic and brutal conversation haunted her ears. They talked of people dying, not only here in Belgium but in France and Holland. The Germans, she understood, were in many towns just like hers. She listened until the only sounds she heard were their footsteps trailing down the wooden hallway. Then she ran. She ran towards home, not wanting to stop at the bridge, angry at the fish for influencing her to hear such horror stories. She didn’t want to think of bodies hanging from lampposts, or children separated from their parents. And she certainly didn’t want to think about the secret, hidden, American soldier in their cellar.

Each day after that was a challenge for Amandine. She wanted to be strong, to endure, but she needed to cry and show fear and hide in her mother’s arms. But her mother encouraged classes, almost relentlessly. Amandine continued to attend school, her mother enticing her with the promise of the upcoming Christmas holiday. Only two more weeks she said, until Christmas Eve. Amandine knew there would be few treats, if any. But her m�re promised her a celebration.

“Amandine,” she said lovingly, bent down nose to nose with her daughter “By the time Christmas gets here we will have cause to celebrate.” Amandine thought she saw her mother’s eyes dart, ever so slightly in the direction of the cellar door. Amandine understood: the American would be gone, moved to some other family’s safe place.

Christmas was just over a week away when the school children attended their last day of scheduled classes. Attendance had been so poor that only six of Amandine’s classmates were there to take part in the meager school celebration. Amandine raised her voice as the instructor led them to sing “Nuit Silencieuse”. Amandine felt excited and elated with the anticipation that her parents were going to be relieved of the burden of the man they were sheltering in the cellar. On her way home from school she crossed the stone bridge, avoiding glances at the water. However, something on the surface of the water caught her attention: a bit of red and white fabric torn from a larger piece of material. Amandine recognized the pattern from something she had seen before: the flag emblem on the American. As she stared at the fabric, contrasting with the darkened water as it glided in the current, something unexpected happened. The now familiar brown fish jumped from the river, in front of Amandine’s face. It quickly descended and with a splash, it was gone. She leaned over the edge of bridge in disbelief, the bit of American fabric almost gone from sight. Again, the fish leapt from the water, only inches from Amandine. The fish was near enough to pass its message


When Amandine awoke the next morning, she heard noises coming from the direction town, loud scary noises. She rushed from her bed, her quilt falling to the chilled wooden floor. Her mother was huddled at the window, and she quickly pulled the faded curtains shut, holding them tight with one hand behind her back as she faced Amandine. “Get your coat, Amandine, my dear.”

Amandine obeyed, pulling her coat over her soft cotton nightgown. She pushed her bare feet in her shoes and went to her mother. Her m�re reached into her own pocket and pulled out a purple silk scarf. Amandine recognized this vivid color from somewhere deep in her memory. Amandine’s mother gently took the silky material and tied it around Amandine’s face, covering her eyes. Amandine was so unsure of what was happening; she kept her brown eyes wide open searching for answers in the folds of dark fabric. Amandine could feel her mother’s hands on her shoulders as she was led outside into the blustery wind. She could hear the sounds of her shoes, crushing the packed snow as her mother gently pushed her off of the path and around the house.

Amandine could feel her mother’s breath against her ear as she told her to run to the woods behind their home.

“Cours � la for�t, Amandine. Ne regardez pas.” Do not look back.

Amandine did as she was told. She ran to where she had memorized the tree line behind their small home. She knew the forest well, having played there during the summer afternoons. She was aware that the trees were now laden with thick snow and ice, that she was surrounded by unfriendly, frozen territory. She could hear the crackle of ice as the wind blew into the tall elms. She could hear other sounds, the sounds of battle and pain, coming from town. She could not hear her mother, coming for her. Amandine, blindfolded in her coat and pajamas, waited by the trees for as long as she could bear, her small arms hanging at her sides. She began to pull at the silk scarf, hopeful that her mother or father would be running towards her. As the deep purple melted from her ashen face, she caught sight of the back of their home. The cellar door was gaping open, snow blowing into the doorway and down the stone stairs. Amandine quickly scanned the area around their house.

There were her parents, flanked by two armed Germans, being led down the end of the path from their house, towards town. Behind them another set of guards dragged another man. He was slumped between their grips, bare feet dragging backwards behind him. His dark hair hung over his face, as his head dangled at his chest. She didn’t know the man, but she recognized the American flag emblem on his arm. The American was finally out of the cellar.

Amandine knew not to follow her parents; she knew what was happening. She would wait here until she was safe, then she would hide in the cellar herself. Thoughts of the overheard conversations at school fired through her mind, shot in the head, even children, hiding Americans, dead in the street…

Amandine hunched down into the snow, hidden now by a frozen bush. Behind her, she heard the sound of a crow, circling on the other side of the woods. She could hear the sounds of town, the tanks and the guns, the firing and the screams. Faintly, she could make out the sound of the Ambl�ve, its flow a once friendly sound. The fish! She thought. Its message now clear and strong, presenting something she could not avoid.


What you have just read is a work of fiction. Following are facts relating to the time period:

In December 1944, German forces invaded the Belgian Ardennes. Hostile forces entered the small town of Stavelot in a series of invasions in the region. During their attempt to take over the village, over 120 citizens were executed by an SS unit, charged with sheltering American soldiers.

Ultimately, Allied forces were the victors in Stavelot, after destroying the only bridge allowing traffic to cross the Ambl�ve. Ultimately this proved to be an integral victory in the series of events comprising the Ardennes Offensive, more commonly referred to in American publications as The Battle of the Bulge.