Open An Owl's Whisper and enter Eva’s world—one of truth and lies, refuge and peril, loyalty and betrayal, innocence, guilt, redemption.
Eva Messiaen is a young woman in 1940s Belgium when Hitler’s invasion and occupation eclipses continental Europe in a shadow. In those black times she is a beacon of light to her friends, but they don’t know her dark secret. Though she wants only a normal life, her controlling Uncle Henri demands she dedicate herself to his cause—remaking the world. Initially, Eva accepts losing her youth to responsibility and the savagery of war, but an atrocity changes everything. It exposes the hollowness of Henri’s vision and spurs her to strike at the Nazis. She has the moxie to set their web of evil ablaze, but does she have the wits to escape its flames unscorched?
An Owl’s Whisper, built on themes of guilt and redemption, tells Eva’s powerful story.
Walking from the car, fourteen-year-old Eva Messiaen struggled to keep up with the man clutching her wrist, the man she called Uncle Henri. She looked at Caspar, the small gray dog pattering at her side, and smiled at his floppy right ear, smirking there next to its soldier-straight mate on the left. Henri’s tug pitched her gaze back to his hand and doused the sparkle in her eyes. She peeked at her dog. We’re both on a leash, aren’t we, Caspie? Then she winked. But not for long. She wasn’t surprised when the dog glanced back as if he’d been thinking the same thing.
Eva followed Henri through the green wooden gate of a crumbling wall, to the pathway that led to the Convent School of St. Sébastien. Treading the path’s moss-ringed flagstones, Eva counted them off, alternating French and German in a quiet singsong.
“Une. Zwei. Trois. Vier. Cinq. Sechs. Sept—”
Henri jerked her to a halt. “I warned you!”
Tears welled in Eva’s eyes. “But uncle, I was only playing a game with the numbers.”
“Games are for children. As are tears.” Henri touched his swagger stick to her cheek. “Don’t ever forget why you’re here.” As his eyes darted to the convent’s dark windows, he froze. Lips pinched, he slowly lowered the rod. “Oh Eva, don’t cower. Would I strike you over a little slip of the tongue?” He slapped the stick on his leg.
Eva knew better than to answer his question. “It was careless of me.”
Henri tucked the rod under his arm and glanced at the convent. “Just remember—they can’t always be watching.” He smiled like a gambler laying down his winning hand. “You won’t test my patience again, will you?”
She bit her lip. “No, uncle.”
They covered the remaining flagstones briskly and climbed the three slate steps to the convent’s massive, tin-inlaid door. Henri set down Eva’s valise. He put on his pince-nez and glanced at his pocket watch, then he pulled the doorbell cord. When Caspar scratched behind his ear, Henri jerked the thin leather leash from Eva’s hand and tied it to the handrail.
Eva caught her reflection in the long window next to the door. She glanced down to the embroidered bottom of her cream-colored dress, showing beneath the hem of her gray wool coat. And up to her slender face, framed by oak-blond tresses that spilled from of her maroon beret and tumbled over the black velvet of her collar.
When Caspar whimpered, Eva stooped to pet him and saw Henri tapping his toe as he did so often. Nothing was ever quick enough for him. Or good enough. The tapping was a physical echo of the impatience she’d seen early that morning as they sat waiting in the car as Pruvot, his driver, changed a flat tire. To fill the time—every minute must be full, according to Uncle—he had quizzed her on minutia of the history and geography that gave their destination, the village of Lefebvre, its centuries-old status as a carrefour, its strategic importance. Eva too had been impatient, but just to get a first glimpse of her town.
Even with the delay, they had arrived while the village was still sleeping. With Henri as guide, she spent the morning studying Lefebvre’s every nook, even pacing off distances. She sketched it all in her notebook. Henri made a special point of the grand stone bridge, the Pont de Pierre, spanning the River Meuse. He repeated what he’d been telling her all along. “Like the Rhine, the Meuse is a wall dividing, dominating the land of northern Europe. The Pont de Pierre and the bridges in Liege and Namur are gates in the wall. Who controls these gates, controls Europe.” Before they left Lefebvre, he tested her to be sure she’d committed every detail of the town’s layout to memory.
After finishing in the village, they’d made a stop on the drive to St. Sébastien so Henri could show her a hillside path overlooking the military post and materiel warehouse at a road-rail intersection just outside Lefebvre. They counted the men of the Belgian army garrison lounging there in the yard, smoking and playing cards. Then, as they approached St. Sébastien, Henri gripped her arm and said, “The army post, the bridge, the transport lines. That’s why Lefebvre matters so. We’ve shown much trust, placing you here, Eva. Be worthy of it.”
The sound of the convent door groaning open snapped Eva’s attention back to the moment. A tiny, young nun, panting for breath, stood in the doorway. Sister Mouse. Her size, her face, her scuttling way made clear to Eva she could have no other name.
Sister Mouse wiped her hands with a small towel and nodded repeatedly. “Oh, Monsieur Messiaen, forgive my tardiness. I was pulling bread from the oven. What a pleasure to see you on such a lovely autumn afternoon. Won’t you come in?”
“Thank you, Sister Martine.” Henri removed his gray bowler and eased Eva into the dark corridor before him.
Eva closed her eyes and silently mouthed Martine, not Mouse.
After smiling at Eva and glancing at the valise, Sister Martine’s gaze stuck on Monsieur Messiaen. She looked honored to have shown him in. Eva had seen it before. They all fall for him. She thought about
what it was that snared them. Not physical stature—he was slight. Eva glanced at his round face, sandwiched between a shiny, bald pate and a red bowtie and starched collar. Glanced at the carefully-trimmed moustache riding over a mouth tight and gray as a pencil line. At the small ears that looked pinned to the side of his head, and the eyes sparkling like quicksilver behind his pince-nez. The gold watch chain decorating the vest of his blue flannel suit, and the red rosebud boutonniere on his lapel. She put it all together—he had the look and bearing of a prime minister.
Henri cleared his throat.
The nun’s eyes fluttered. “Oh, excuse me, Monsieur. You’re here to see Mother Catherine?”
“If that’s possible.”
“But of course, Monsieur. For you.” The nun opened the door to a small room off the corridor, and her tiny hand, extending from the broad sleeve of her habit, arced an invitation. “If you and Mademoiselle would please make yourselves comfortable in the reception parlor…” She scurried off into the darkness.
They sat on a maroon-striped sofa. Eva stared at the swagger stick in her uncle’s hand. She wanted to memorize its physical details. So that the next time she caught herself admiring his cleverness or his dedication to the cause, she could picture it and recall what he really was.
A glare from Henri brought her back to the moment. Careful not to turn her head, she let her gaze wander the dark paneled walls and ceiling: The walnut desk and chair across the room. The old wall clock with its carved frame and cream-colored face and plodding tock, tock, tock. The doe eyes of the sad lady in blue and gold in the age-cracked painting that hung above the desk. The cross over the door.
Eva was reflecting on the face of the crucifix’s Christ-figure, so fatigued, so forlorn, when a stately nun—the antithesis of Sister Mouse—swept into the room. She offered Henri her hand, nodding a genteel bow. “Ah, Monsieur, how nice to see you again.” The gesture was more storybook chateau than rustic convent school. Eva imagined a newsboy, hawking papers on a busy corner the day this nun took her vows: Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Princess Trades Crown for Veil. Is Banished to Belgian Backwoods. Extra! Extra! Eva coughed to suppress a smile.
“Mother Catherine, allow me to introduce my niece, Eva, unfortunately just last month orphaned in her hometown of Reims.”
Eva curtsied. She kept her gaze down as Henri had directed. Until Mother raised her chin with a fingertip.
“Mother,” Henri said, drawing the nun’s focus back, “I require your help.”
“Monsieur Messiaen, you’ve been so generous to us this past year, you’ve only to ask.” Mother’s fingertips migrated to Eva’s cheek as she turned back to her. “You have our sympathy, my dear.”
Eva chanced a smiled Thank-you.
“You see, Mother,” Henri said, “I promised my dear brother that I would attend to Eva if ever the need arose, and alas, so it has. If you were to take her, she’d be properly schooled and I could visit often. I’d insist on making another contribution to fund your important work. Shall we say six thousand francs?” He took out his checkbook and a thick ivory fountain pen.
The nun’s lips moved silently. “Oh, Monsieur, it would be a pleasure to have dear Eva here at St. Sébastien. And such a generous donation would mean so much.”
Henri raised a hand, silencing Mother Catherine. “There is one thing. I hope it shan’t be a problem. Eva loves to walk in the countryside. For her to have these little walks, perhaps before classes in the morning—that wouldn’t be a problem, would it?”
“But of course it wouldn’t. I encourage a healthy regime for every girl.”
Henri bent to write the check. When Eva tugged at his sleeve, he scowled. “Oh yes, there’s Caspar, Eva’s mutt. It’s just outside. Might you keep the dog, too? Apparently it’s quite dear to her. Maybe it could stay in the old stables and be fed with table leavings?”
“Caspar? We’ve never had a male resident at St. Sébastien. But what rule has no exception? Certainly we welcome Monsieur Caspar, too, if he matters so to Eva.”
Caspar staying, Henri leaving! Eva felt like singing it.
“It’s settled then,” Henri said as he handed Mother the check. He turned to Eva. “Now, my little sweet, come walk your uncle back to the motorcar and see me off.”
Stepping from the convent door into the autumn air, Eva and Henri heard the squeals of the dozen girls playing soccer in the grassy area near the stables. Weaving through the mob with the ball was the small nun, Sister Mouse, a whirlwind despite her heavy habit.
Eva paused to watch.
Henri put his hand on her shoulder. “You’d like to join the game, wouldn’t you?”
“Oh uncle, could I? It would be the perfect chance to meet some of…” Eva felt her uncle’s grip tighten. She turned slowly to face him.
“Christ, Eva, here just forty minutes and already you forget everything.” Henri leaned close to her. “You are not to be social. Not to join in. You must be invisible—so dull no one cares to notice you. Can I make it any clearer? Be plain wallpaper, damn it.”
Eva jerked her shoulder from his grasp. “Half the time you tell me I’m special. Selected from hundreds, you say. The other half, it’s „Eva play the dolt.’”
“You are special,” Henri growled. “You and my other girls. How many times must I explain? Special enough to seem dull as dishwater—” He grinned. “—while secretly seeing and hearing everything. You’re so much more than those you deceive. Why can’t that be enough?”
Eva glanced back at the girls. “Should I be proud that I deceive them, uncle?”
He squared his shoulders. “What’s the difference between a lie and the truth? Tell me! They’re the same. Both just…sounds. Mere vibrations in the air. What matters is the outcome. Remember this, young lady—deceit in the cause of progress is good. Be proud of what you’re doing.”
“Yes, uncle.” Eva closed her eyes. “But playing…is it a sin?” She shrugged. “Look at them. It’s natural.”
Henri looked incredulous. “Playing…natural? It’s childish! A luxury.” He turned to the side and spat. “A weakness. You don’t need it. Not with so much to do.”
“Perhaps I don’t need it—” Eva looked down, then back at Henri. “—but I want it.”
Henri’s face turned scarlet. “You should be ashamed! Selfish worm. You speak of the importance of our cause, then you put your own little wants first.” He dabbed his forehead with a silk handkerchief and suddenly looked tender. He gently brushed her cheek. “Eva, commitment is hard, but you’re strong. You can do it.” He wiped her tear with his thumb. “I can depend on you, can’t I?”
Eva opened her mouth to speak but stopped. She swallowed and bowed her head. “I’ll do whatever the cause requires.” She looked squarely at Henri. “Depend on me, uncle.”
Henri nodded sharply. “Good.” He glanced at the soccer players. “We’ll leave playing to our enemies.”