In the Presence of Our Enemies
Barbara Presnell

In the Presence of Our Enemies

We walk behind the cathedral, where a small quadrangle nestles away from the busyness of the streets. A group of young men is lounging in the grass. Other people stroll along the sidewalk. A couple holds hands while a cluster of children play nearby.

Philippe walks to the far end of the quadrangle to a concrete wall of names. These are the hundreds of civilians killed in that two-day period. He points to the top where we see “Edgard, 5.” He reaches up and runs his finger along the letters. I get the feeling that he has done this many, many times.


Gabi has requested that Edwin and Ellen sign her Book of Guests, and she takes their picture. She presents Ellen with a bag of Flips. We are filled up on food, mellow with Konig Pilsner. The sun has set on the backyard patio.

Steffi calls me into the kitchen so we can talk privately.

“Why are you doing this, this journey?” she asks. “I’ve been following you on the Internet, and I don’t understand. What are you doing?”

So I explain: Our father was in the war. He fought all the way from the coast of France to the Elbe River in Germany. We didn’t know him well, since he died so young, so we wanted to follow his journey, to see what he saw, feel what he felt.

“I get it,” Steffi says. She adds, “That is fantastic. The three of you.”

She tells the others, in German, what I’ve told her. Their expressions convey that Steffi is answering the question they’ve pondered together, trying to understand.

“Tomorrow when I come for breakfast,” I tell Gabi, “I will bring you his picture.”

The next morning, I present Steffi with a photograph of my father standing on the bank of the Elbe River with two Russian soldiers. She hugs me and takes it to show Gabi, who responds by opening her Book of Guests and placing his picture on a new page, his own page.

That night, back at our hotel, Ellen says she had a great evening. Edwin, too, has loved his time with my friends. Awkwardness of language and lifestyle aside, we have shared a sort of communion, if you will, at that table.

Driving away the next morning, in front of Gabi’s house, we pass two blond-haired boys, one slightly taller than the other, so similar they could be brothers. They bounce a ball back and forth until it tips the edge of the taller boy’s shoe, and the smaller boy chases after it.

I think about Philippe, his pain so raw, his wound so open. I think about grief and regret, blame and forgiveness, about years that pass by quick as dusk and slow as slugs and hurt so deep it feels as though life can’t go on.

Then I think about going on.

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Barbara Presnell

is the author of Piece Work, winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center's First Book Prize, and Blue Star (Press 53), which traces her family's involvement in war from the Civil War to the present. She teaches writing at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and lives in Lexington, North Carolina.