For half a century the housewives of Pont-l’Eveque had envied Madame Aubain her servant Felicite.
For a hundred francs a year, she cooked and did the housework, washed, ironed, mended, harnessed the horse, fattened the poultry, made the butter and remained faithful to her mistress – although the latter was by no means an agreeable person.
Madame Aubain had married a comely youth without any money, who died in the beginning of 1809, leaving her with two young children and a number of debts. She sold all her property excepting the farm of Toucques and the farm of Geffosses, the income of which barely amounted to 5,000 francs; then she left her house in Saint-Melaine, and moved into a less pretentious one which had belonged to her ancestors and stood back of the market-place. This house, with its slate-covered roof, was built between a passage-way and a narrow street that led to the river. The interior was so unevenly graded that it caused people to stumble. A narrow hall separated the kitchen from the parlour, where Madame Aubain sat all day in a straw armchair near the window. Eight mahogany chairs stood in a row against the white wainscoting. An old piano, standing beneath a barometer, was covered with a pyramid of old books and boxes. On either side of the yellow marble mantelpiece, in Louis XV. style, stood a tapestry armchair. The clock represented a temple of Vesta; and the whole room smelled musty, as it was on a lower level than the garden.
On the first floor was Madame’s bed-chamber, a large room papered in a flowered design and containing the portrait of Monsieur dressed in the costume of a dandy. It communicated with a smaller room, in which there were two little cribs, without any mattresses. Next, came the parlour (always closed), filled with furniture covered with sheets. Then a hall, which led to the study, where books and papers were piled on the shelves of a book-case that enclosed three quarters of the big black desk. Two panels were entirely hidden under pen-and-ink sketches, Gouache landscapes and Audran engravings, relics of better times and vanished luxury. On the second floor, a garret-window lighted Felicite’s room, which looked out upon the meadows.
She arose at daybreak, in order to attend mass, and she worked without interruption until night; then, when dinner was over, the dishes cleared away and the door securely locked, she would bury the log under the ashes and fall asleep in front of the hearth with a rosary in her hand. Nobody could bargain with greater obstinacy, and as for cleanliness, the lustre on her brass sauce-pans was the envy and despair of other servants. She was most economical, and when she ate she would gather up crumbs with the tip of her finger, so that nothing should be wasted of the loaf of bread weighing twelve pounds which was baked especially for her and lasted three weeks.
Summer and winter she wore a dimity kerchief fastened in the back with a pin, a cap which concealed her hair, a red skirt, grey stockings, and an apron with a bib like those worn by hospital nurses.
Her face was thin and her voice shrill. When she was twenty-five, she looked forty. After she had passed fifty, nobody could tell her age; erect and silent always, she resembled a wooden figure working automatically.
Like every other woman, she had had an affair of the heart. Her father, who was a mason, was killed by falling from a scaffolding. Then her mother died and her sisters went their different ways; a farmer took her in, and while she was quite small, let her keep cows in the fields. She was clad in miserable rags, beaten for the slightest offence and finally dismissed for a theft of thirty sous which she did not commit. She took service on another farm where she tended the poultry; and as she was well thought of by her master, her fellow-workers soon grew jealous.
One evening in August (she was then eighteen years old), they persuaded her to accompany them to the fair at Colleville. She was immediately dazzled by the noise, the lights in the trees, the brightness of the dresses, the laces and gold crosses, and the crowd of people all hopping at the same time. She was standing modestly at a distance, when presently a young man of well-to-do appearance, who had been leaning on the pole of a wagon and smoking his pipe, approached her, and asked her for a dance. He treated her to cider and cake, bought her a silk shawl, and then, thinking she had guessed his purpose, offered to see her home. When they came to the end of a field he threw her down brutally. But she grew frightened and screamed, and he walked off.
One evening, on the road leading to Beaumont, she came upon a wagon loaded with hay, and when she overtook it, she recognised Theodore. He greeted her calmly, and asked her to forget what had happened between them, as it “was all the fault of the drink.”
She did not know what to reply and wished to run away.
Presently he began to speak of the harvest and of the notables of the village; his father had left Colleville and bought the farm of Les Ecots, so that now they would be neighbours. “Ah!” she exclaimed. He then added that his parents were looking around for a wife for him, but that he, himself, was not so anxious and preferred to wait for a girl who suited him. She hung her head. He then asked her whether she had ever thought of marrying. She replied, smilingly, that it was wrong of him to make fun of her. “Oh! no, I am in earnest,” he said, and put his left arm around her waist while they sauntered along. The air was soft, the stars were bright, and the huge load of hay oscillated in front of them, drawn by four horses whose ponderous hoofs raised clouds of dust. Without a word from their driver they turned to the right. He kissed her again and she went home. The following week, Theodore obtained meetings.
They met in yards, behind walls or under isolated trees. She was not ignorant, as girls of well-to-do families are – for the animals had instructed her; – but her reason and her instinct of honour kept her from falling. Her resistance exasperated Theodore’s love and so in order to satisfy it (or perchance ingenuously), he offered to marry her. She would not believe him at first, so he made solemn promises. But, in a short time he mentioned a difficulty; the previous year, his parents had purchased a substitute for him; but any day he might be drafted and the prospect of serving in the army alarmed him greatly. To Felicite his cowardice appeared a proof of his love for her, and her devotion to him grew stronger. When she met him, he would torture her with his fears and his entreaties. At last, he announced that he was going to the prefect himself for information, and would let her know everything on the following Sunday, between eleven o’clock and midnight.
When the time grew near, she ran to meet her lover.
But instead of Theodore, one of his friends was at the meeting-place.
He informed her that she would never see her sweetheart again; for, in order to escape the conscription, he had married a rich old woman, Madame Lehoussais, of Toucques.
The poor girl’s sorrow was frightful. She threw herself on the ground, she cried and called on the Lord, and wandered around desolately until sunrise. Then she went back to the farm, declared her intention of leaving, and at the end of the month, after she had received her wages, she packed all her belongings in a handkerchief and started for Pont-l’Eveque.
In front of the inn, she met a woman wearing widow’s weeds, and upon questioning her, learned that she was looking for a cook. The girl did not know very much, but appeared so willing and so modest in her requirements, that Madame Aubain finally said:
“Very well, I will give you a trial.”
And half an hour later Felicite was installed in her house.
At first she lived in a constant anxiety that was caused by “the style of the household” and the memory of “Monsieur,” that hovered over everything. Paul and Virginia, the one aged seven, and the other barely four, seemed made of some precious material; she carried them pig-a-back, and was greatly mortified when Madame Aubain forbade her to kiss them every other minute.
But in spite of all this, she was happy. The comfort of her new surroundings had obliterated her sadness.
Every Thursday, friends of Madame Aubain dropped in for a game of cards, and it was Felicite’s duty to prepare the table and heat the foot-warmers. They arrived at exactly eight o’clock and departed before eleven.
Every Monday morning, the dealer in second-hand goods, who lived under the alley-way, spread out his wares on the sidewalk. Then the city would be filled with a buzzing of voices in which the neighing of horses, the bleating of lambs, the grunting of pigs, could be distinguished, mingled with the sharp sound of wheels on the cobble-stones. About twelve o’clock, when the market was in full swing, there appeared at the front door a tall, middle-aged peasant, with a hooked nose and a cap on the back of his head; it was Robelin, the farmer of Geffosses. Shortly afterwards came Liebard, the farmer of Toucques, short, rotund and ruddy, wearing a grey jacket and spurred boots.
Both men brought their landlady either chickens or cheese. Felicite would invariably thwart their ruses and they held her in great respect.
At various times, Madame Aubain received a visit from the Marquis de Gremanville, one of her uncles, who was ruined and lived at Falaise on the remainder of his estates. He always came at dinner-time and brought an ugly poodle with him, whose paws soiled their furniture. In spite of his efforts to appear a man of breeding (he even went so far as to raise his hat every time he said “My deceased father”), his habits got the better of him, and he would fill his glass a little too often and relate broad stories. Felicite would show him out very politely and say: “You have had enough for this time, Monsieur de Gremanville! Hoping to see you again!” and would close the door.
She opened it gladly for Monsieur Bourais, a retired lawyer. His bald head and white cravat, the ruffling of his shirt, his flowing brown coat, the manner in which he took snuff, his whole person, in fact, produced in her the kind of awe which we feel when we see extraordinary persons. As he managed Madame’s estates, he spent hours with her in Monsieur’s study; he was in constant fear of being compromised, had a great regard for the magistracy and some pretensions to learning.
In order to facilitate the children’s studies, he presented them with an engraved geography which represented various scenes of the world; cannibals with feather head-dresses, a gorilla kidnapping a young girl, Arabs in the desert, a whale being harpooned, etc.
Paul explained the pictures to Felicite. And, in fact, this was her only literary education.
The children’s studies were under the direction of a poor devil employed at the town-hall, who sharpened his pocket-knife on his boots and was famous for his penmanship.
When the weather was fine, they went to Geffosses. The house was built in the centre of the sloping yard; and the sea looked like a grey spot in the distance. Felicite would take slices of cold meat from the lunch basket and they would sit down and eat in a room next to the dairy. This room was all that remained of a cottage that had been torn down. The dilapidated wall-paper trembled in the drafts. Madame Aubain, overwhelmed by recollections, would hang her head, while the children were afraid to open their mouths. Then, “Why don’t you go and play?” their mother would say; and they would scamper off.
Paul would go to the old barn, catch birds, throw stones into the pond, or pound the trunks of the trees with a stick till they resounded like drums. Virginia would feed the rabbits and run to pick the wild flowers in the fields, and her flying legs would disclose her little embroidered pantalettes. One autumn evening, they struck out for home through the meadows. The new moon illumined part of the sky and a mist hovered like a veil over the sinuosities of the river. Oxen, lying in the pastures, gazed mildly at the passing persons. In the third field, however, several of them got up and surrounded them. “Don’t be afraid,” cried Felicite; and murmuring a sort of lament she passed her hand over the back of the nearest ox; he turned away and the others followed. But when they came to the next pasture, they heard frightful bellowing.
It was a bull which was hidden from them by the fog. He advanced towards the two women, and Madame Aubain prepared to flee for her life. “No, no! not so fast,” warned Felicite. Still they hurried on, for they could hear the noisy breathing of the bull behind them. His hoofs pounded the grass like hammers, and presently he began to gallop! Felicite turned around and threw patches of grass in his eyes. He hung his head, shook his horns and bellowed with fury. Madame Aubain and the children, huddled at the end of the field, were trying to jump over the ditch. Felicite continued to back before the bull, blinding him with dirt, while she shouted to them to make haste.
Madame Aubain finally slid into the ditch, after shoving first Virginia and then Paul into it, and though she stumbled several times she managed, by dint of courage, to climb the other side of it.
The bull had driven Felicite up against a fence; the foam from his muzzle flew in her face and in another minute he would have disembowelled her. She had just time to slip between two bars and the huge animal, thwarted, paused.
For years, this occurrence was a topic of conversation in Pont-l’Eveque. But Felicite took no credit to herself, and probably never knew that she had been heroic.
Virginia occupied her thoughts solely, for the shock she had sustained gave her a nervous affection, and the physician, M. Poupart, prescribed the salt-water bathing at Trouville. In those days, Trouville was not greatly patronised. Madame Aubain gathered information, consulted Bourais, and made preparations as if they were going on an extended trip.
The baggage was sent the day before on Liebard’s cart. On the following morning, he brought around two horses, one of which had a woman’s saddle with a velveteen back to it, while on the crupper of the other was a rolled shawl that was to be used for a seat. Madame Aubain mounted the second horse, behind Liebard. Felicite took charge of the little girl, and Paul rode M. Lechaptois’ donkey, which had been lent for the occasion on the condition that they should be careful of it.
The road was so bad that it took two hours to cover the eight miles. The two horses sank knee-deep into the mud and stumbled into ditches; sometimes they had to jump over them. In certain places, Liebard’s mare stopped abruptly. He waited patiently till she started again, and talked of the people whose estates bordered the road, adding his own moral reflections to the outline of their histories. Thus, when they were passing through Toucques, and came to some windows draped with nasturtiums, he shrugged his shoulders and said: “There’s a woman, Madame Lehoussais, who, instead of taking a young man –” Felicite could not catch what followed; the horses began to trot, the donkey to gallop, and they turned into a lane; then a gate swung open, two farm-hands appeared and they all dismounted at the very threshold of the farm-house.
Mother Liebard, when she caught sight of her mistress, was lavish with joyful demonstrations. She got up a lunch which comprised a leg of mutton, tripe, sausages, a chicken fricassee, sweet cider, a fruit tart and some preserved prunes; then to all this the good woman added polite remarks about Madame, who appeared to be in better health, Mademoiselle, who had grown to be “superb,” and Paul, who had become singularly sturdy; she spoke also of their deceased grandparents, whom the Liebards had known, for they had been in the service of the family for several generations.
Like its owners, the farm had an ancient appearance. The beams of the ceiling were mouldy, the walls black with smoke and the windows grey with dust. The oak sideboard was filled with all sorts of utensils, plates, pitchers, tin bowls, wolf-traps. The children laughed when they saw a huge syringe. There was not a tree in the yard that did not have mushrooms growing around its foot, or a bunch of mistletoe hanging in its branches. Several of the trees had been blown down, but they had started to grow in the middle and all were laden with quantities of apples. The thatched roofs, which were of unequal thickness, looked like brown velvet and could resist the fiercest gales. But the wagon-shed was fast crumbling to ruins. Madame Aubain said that she would attend to it, and then gave orders to have the horses saddled.
It took another thirty minutes to reach Trouville. The little caravan dismounted in order to pass Les Ecores, a cliff that overhangs the bay, and a few minutes later, at the end of the dock, they entered the yard of the Golden Lamb, an inn kept by Mother David.
During the first few days, Virginia felt stronger, owing to the change of air and the action of the sea-baths. She took them in her little chemise, as she had no bathing suit, and afterwards her nurse dressed her in the cabin of a customs officer, which was used for that purpose by other bathers.
In the afternoon, they would take the donkey and go to the Roches-Noires, near Hennequeville. The path led at first through undulating grounds, and thence to a plateau, where pastures and tilled fields alternated. At the edge of the road, mingling with the brambles, grew holly bushes, and here and there stood large dead trees whose branches traced zigzags upon the blue sky.
Ordinarily, they rested in a field facing the ocean, with Deauville on their left, and Havre on their right. The sea glittered brightly in the sun and was as smooth as a mirror, and so calm that they could scarcely distinguish its murmur; sparrows chirped joyfully and the immense canopy of heaven spread over it all. Madame Aubain brought out her sewing, and Virginia amused herself by braiding reeds; Felicite wove lavender blossoms, while Paul was bored and wished to go home.
Sometimes they crossed the Toucques in a boat, and started to hunt for sea-shells. The outgoing tide exposed star-fish and sea-urchins, and the children tried to catch the flakes of foam which the wind blew away. The sleepy waves lapping the sand unfurled themselves along the shore that extended as far as the eye could see, but where land began, it was limited by the downs which separated it from the “Swamp,” a large meadow shaped like a hippodrome. When they went home that way, Trouville, on the slope of a hill below, grew larger and larger as they advanced, and, with all its houses of unequal height, seemed to spread out before them in a sort of giddy confusion.
When the heat was too oppressive, they remained in their rooms. The dazzling sunlight cast bars of light between the shutters. Not a sound in the village, not a soul on the sidewalk. This silence intensified the tranquility of everything. In the distance, the hammers of some calkers pounded the hull of a ship, and the sultry breeze brought them an odour of tar.
The principal diversion consisted in watching the return of the fishing-smacks. As soon as they passed the beacons, they began to ply to windward. The sails were lowered to one third of the masts, and with their fore-sails swelled up like balloons they glided over the waves and anchored in the middle of the harbour. Then they crept up alongside of the dock and the sailors threw the quivering fish over the side of the boat; a line of carts was waiting for them, and women with white caps sprang forward to receive the baskets and embrace their men-folk.
One day, one of them spoke to Felicite, who, after a little while, returned to the house gleefully. She had found one of her sisters, and presently Nastasie Barette, wife of Leroux, made her appearance, holding an infant in her arms, another child by the hand, while on her left was a little cabin-boy with his hands in his pockets and his cap on his ear.
At the end of fifteen minutes, Madame Aubain bade her go.
They always hung around the kitchen, or approached Felicite when she and the children were out walking. The husband, however, did not show himself.
Felicite developed a great fondness for them; she bought them a stove, some shirts and a blanket; it was evident that they exploited her. Her foolishness annoyed Madame Aubain, who, moreover did not like the nephew’s familiarity, for he called her son “thou”; – and, as Virginia began to cough and the season was over, she decided to return to Pont-l’Eveque.
Monsieur Bourais assisted her in the choice of a college. The one at Caen was considered the best. So Paul was sent away and bravely said good-bye to them all, for he was glad to go to live in a house where he would have boy companions.
Madame Aubain resigned herself to the separation from her son because it was unavoidable. Virginia brooded less and less over it. Felicite regretted the noise he made, but soon a new occupation diverted her mind; beginning from Christmas, she accompanied the little girl to her catechism lesson every day.
After she had made a curtsey at the threshold, she would walk up the aisle between the double lines of chairs, open Madame Aubain’s pew, sit down and look around.
Girls and boys, the former on the right, the latter on the left-hand side of the church, filled the stalls of the choir; the priest stood beside the reading-desk; on one stained window of the side-aisle the Holy Ghost hovered over the Virgin; on another one, Mary knelt before the Child Jesus, and behind the altar, a wooden group represented Saint Michael felling the dragon.
The priest first read a condensed lesson of sacred history. Felicite evoked Paradise, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, the blazing cities, the dying nations, the shattered idols; and out of this she developed a great respect for the Almighty and a great fear of His wrath. Then, when she had listened to the Passion, she wept. Why had they crucified Him who loved little children, nourished the people, made the blind see, and who, out of humility, had wished to be born among the poor, in a stable? The sowings, the harvests, the wine-presses, all those familiar things which the Scriptures mention, formed a part of her life; the word of God sanctified them; and she loved the lambs with increased tenderness for the sake of the Lamb, and the doves because of the Holy Ghost.
She found it hard, however, to think of the latter as a person, for was it not a bird, a flame, and sometimes only a breath? Perhaps it is its light that at night hovers over swamps, its breath that propels the clouds, its voice that renders church-bells harmonious. And Felicite worshipped devoutly, while enjoying the coolness and the stillness of the church.
As for the dogma, she could not understand it and did not even try. The priest discoursed, the children recited, and she went to sleep, only to awaken with a start when they were leaving the church and their wooden shoes clattered on the stone pavement.
In this way, she learned her catechism, her religious education having been neglected in her youth; and thenceforth she imitated all Virginia’s religious practices, fasted when she did, and went to confession with her. At the Corpus-Christi Day they both decorated an altar.
She worried in advance over Virginia’s first communion. She fussed about the shoes, the rosary, the book and the gloves. With what nervousness she helped the mother dress the child!
During the entire ceremony, she felt anguished. Monsieur Bourais hid part of the choir from view, but directly in front of her, the flock of maidens, wearing white wreaths over their lowered veils, formed a snow-white field, and she recognised her darling by the slenderness of her neck and her devout attitude. The bell tinkled. All the heads bent and there was a silence. Then, at the peals of the organ the singers and the worshippers struck up the Agnes Dei; the boys’ procession began; behind them came the girls. With clasped hands, they advanced step by step to the lighted altar, knelt at the first step, received one by one the Host, and returned to their seats in the same order. When Virginia’s turn came, Felicite leaned forward to watch her, and through that imagination which springs from true affection, she at once became the child, whose face and dress became hers, whose heart beat in her bosom, and when Virginia opened her mouth and closed her lids, she did likewise and came very near fainting.
The following day, she presented herself early at the church so as to receive communion from the cure. She took it with the proper feeling, but did not experience the same delight as on the previous day.
Madame Aubain wished to make an accomplished girl of her daughter; and as Guyot could not teach English or music, she decided to send her to the Ursulines at Honfleur.
The child made no objection, but Felicite sighed and thought Madame was heartless. Then, she thought that perhaps her mistress was right, as these things were beyond her sphere. Finally, one day, an old fiacre stopped in front of the door and a nun stepped out. Felicite put Virginia’s luggage on top of the carriage, gave the coachman some instructions, and smuggled six jars of jam, a dozen pears and a bunch of violets under the seat.
At the last minute, Virginia had a fit of sobbing; she embraced her mother again and again, while the latter kissed her on the forehead, and said: “Now, be brave, be brave!” The step was pulled up and the fiacre rumbled off.
Then Madame Aubain had a fainting spell, and that evening all her friends, including the two Lormeaus, Madame Lechaptois, the ladies Rochefeuille, Messieurs de Houppeville and Bourais, called on her and tendered their sympathy.
At first the separation proved very painful to her. But her daughter wrote her three times a week and the other days she, herself, wrote to Virginia. Then she walked in the garden, read a little, and in this way managed to fill out the emptiness of the hours.
Each morning, out of habit, Felicite entered Virginia’s room and gazed at the walls. She missed combing her hair, lacing her shoes, tucking her in her bed, and the bright face and little hand when they used to go out for a walk. In order to occupy herself she tried to make lace. But her clumsy fingers broke the threads; she had no heart for anything, lost her sleep and “wasted away,” as she put it.
In order to have some distraction, she asked leave to receive the visits of her nephew Victor.
He would come on Sunday, after church, with ruddy cheeks and bared chest, bringing with him the scent of the country. She would set the table and they would sit down opposite each other, and eat their dinner; she ate as little as possible, herself, to avoid any extra expense, but would stuff him so with food that he would finally go to sleep. At the first stroke of vespers, she would wake him up, brush his trousers, tie his cravat and walk to church with him, leaning on his arm with maternal pride.
His parents always told him to get something out of her, either a package of brown sugar, or soap, or brandy, and sometimes even money. He brought her his clothes to mend, and she accepted the task gladly, because it meant another visit from him.
In August, his father took him on a coasting-vessel.
It was vacation time and the arrival of the children consoled Felicite. But Paul was capricious, and Virginia was growing too old to be thee-and-thou’d, a fact which seemed to produce a sort of embarrassment in their relations.
Victor went successively to Morlaix, to Dunkirk, and to Brighton; whenever he returned from a trip he would bring her a present. The first time it was a box of shells; the second, a coffee-cup; the third, a big doll of ginger-bread. He was growing handsome, had a good figure, a tiny moustache, kind eyes, and a little leather cap that sat jauntily on the back of his head. He amused his aunt by telling her stories mingled with nautical expressions.
One Monday, the 14th of July, 1819 (she never forgot the date), Victor announced that he had been engaged on a merchant-vessel and that in two days he would take the steamer at Honfleur and join his sailer, which was going to start from Havre very soon. Perhaps he might be away two years.
The prospect of his departure filled Felicite with despair, and in order to bid him farewell, on Wednesday night, after Madame’s dinner, she put on her pattens and trudged the four miles that separated Pont-l’Eveque from Honfleur.
When she reached the Calvary, instead of turning to the right, she turned to the left and lost herself in coal-yards; she had to retrace her steps; some people she spoke to advised her to hasten. She walked helplessly around the harbour filled with vessels, and knocked against hawsers. Presently the ground sloped abruptly, lights flitted to and fro, and she thought all at once that she had gone mad when she saw some horses in the sky.
Others, on the edge of the dock, neighed at the sight of the ocean. A derrick pulled them up in the air, and dumped them into a boat, where passengers were bustling about among barrels of cider, baskets of cheese and bags of meal; chickens cackled, the captain swore and a cabin-boy rested on the railing, apparently indifferent to his surroundings. Felicite, who did not recognise him, kept shouting: “Victor!” He suddenly raised his eyes, but while she was preparing to rush up to him, they withdrew the gangplank.
The packet, towed by singing women, glided out of the harbour. Her hull squeaked and the heavy waves beat up against her sides. The sail had turned and nobody was visible; – and on the ocean, silvered by the light of the moon, the vessel formed a black spot that grew dimmer and dimmer, and finally disappeared.
When Felicite passed the Calvary again, she felt as if she must entrust that which was dearest to her to the Lord; and for a long while she prayed, with uplifted eyes and a face wet with tears. The city was sleeping; some customs officials were taking the air; and the water kept pouring through the holes of the dam with a deafening roar. The town clock struck two.
The parlour of the convent would not open until morning, and surely a delay would annoy Madame, so, in spite of her desire to see the other child, she went home. The maids of the inn were just arising when she reached Pont-l’Eveque.
So the poor boy would be on the ocean for months! His previous trips had not alarmed her. One can come back from England and Brittany; but America, the colonies, the islands, were all lost in an uncertain region at the very end of the world.
From that time on, Felicite thought solely of her nephew. On warm days she feared he would suffer from thirst, and when it stormed, she was afraid he would be struck by lightning. When she harkened to the wind that rattled in the chimney and dislodged the tiles on the roof, she imagined that he was being buffeted by the same storm, perched on top of a shattered mast, with his whole body bend backward and covered with sea-foam; or, – these were recollections of the engraved geography – he was being devoured by savages, or captured in a forest by apes, or dying on some lonely coast. She never mentioned her anxieties, however.
Madame Aubain worried about her daughter.
The sisters thought that Virginia was affectionate but delicate. The slightest emotion enervated her. She had to give up her piano lessons. Her mother insisted upon regular letters from the convent. One morning, when the postman failed to come, she grew impatient and began to pace to and fro, from her chair to the window. It was really extraordinary! No news since four days!
In order to console her mistress by her own example, Felicite said:
“Why, Madame, I haven’t had any news since six months! –”
“From whom? –”
The servant replied gently:
“Why – from my nephew.”
“Oh, yes, your nephew!” And shrugging her shoulders, Madame Aubain continued to pace the floor as if to say: “I did not think of it. – Besides, I do not care, a cabin-boy, a pauper! – but my daughter – what a difference! just think of it! –”
Felicite, although she had been reared roughly, was very indignant. Then she forgot about it.
It appeared quite natural to her that one should lose one’s head about Virginia.
The two children were of equal importance; they were united in her heart and their fate was to be the same.
The chemist informed her that Victor’s vessel had reached Havana. He had read the information in a newspaper.
Felicite imagined that Havana was a place where people did nothing but smoke, and that Victor walked around among negroes in a cloud of tobacco. Could a person, in case of need, return by land? How far was it from Pont-l’Eveque? In order to learn these things, she questioned Monsieur Bourais. He reached for his map and began some explanations concerning longitudes, and smiled with superiority at Felicite’s bewilderment. At last, he took a pencil and pointed out an imperceptible black point in the scallops of an oval blotch, adding: “There it is.” She bent over the map; the maze of coloured lines hurt her eyes without enlightening her; and when Bourais asked her what puzzled her, she requested him to show her the house Victor lived in. Bourais threw up his hands, sneezed, and then laughed uproariously; such ignorance delighted his soul; but Felicite failed to understand the cause of his mirth, she whose intelligence was so limited that she perhaps expected to see even the picture of her nephew!
It was two weeks later that Liebard came into the kitchen at market-time, and handed her a letter from her brother-in-law. As neither of them could read, she called upon her mistress.
Madame Aubain, who was counting the stitches of her knitting, laid her work down beside her, opened the letter, started, and in a low tone and with a searching look said: “They tell you of a – misfortune. Your nephew –”
He had died. The letter told nothing more.
Felicite dropped on a chair, leaned her head against the back, and closed her lids; presently they grew pink. Then, with drooping head, inert hands and staring eyes she repeated at intervals:
“Poor little chap! poor little chap!”
Liebard watched her and sighed. Madame Aubain was trembling.
She proposed to the girl to go to see her sister in Trouville.
With a single motion, Felicite replied that it was not necessary.
There was a silence. Old Liebard thought it about time for him to take leave.
Then Felicite uttered:
“They have no sympathy, they do not care!”
Her head fell forward again, and from time to time, mechanically, she toyed with the long knitting-needles on the work-table.
Some women passed through the yard with a basket of wet clothes.
When she saw them through the window, she suddenly remembered her own wash; as she had soaked it the day before, she must go and rinse it now. So she arose and left the room.
Her tub and her board were on the bank of the Toucques. She threw a heap of clothes on the ground, rolled up her sleeves and grasped her bat; and her loud pounding could be heard in the neighbouring gardens. The meadows were empty, the breeze wrinkled the stream, at the bottom of which were long grasses that looked like the hair of corpses floating in the water. She restrained her sorrow and was very brave until night; but, when she had gone to her own room, she gave way to it, burying her face in the pillow and pressing her two fists against her temples.
A long while afterward, she learned through Victor’s captain, the circumstances which surrounded his death. At the hospital they had bled him too much, treating him for yellow fever. Four doctors held him at one time. He died almost instantly, and the chief surgeon had said:
“Here goes another one!”
His parents had always treated him barbarously; she preferred not to see them again, and they made no advances, either from forgetfulness or out of innate hardness.
Virginia was growing weaker.
A cough, continual fever, oppressive breathing and spots on her cheeks indicated some serious trouble. Monsieur Popart had advised a sojourn in Provence. Madame Aubain decided that they would go, and she would have had her daughter come home at once, had it not been for the climate of Pont-l’Eveque.
She made an arrangement with a livery-stable man who drove her over to the convent every Tuesday. In the garden there was a terrace, from which the view extends to the Seine. Virginia walked in it, leaning on her mother’s arm and treading the dead vine leaves. Sometimes the sun, shining through the clouds, made her blink her lids, when she gazed at the sails in the distance, and let her eyes roam over the horizon from the chateau of Tancarville to the lighthouses of Havre. Then they rested on the arbour. Her mother had bought a little cask of fine Malaga wine, and Virginia, laughing at the idea of becoming intoxicated, would drink a few drops of it, but never more.
Her strength returned. Autumn passed. Felicite began to reassure Madame Aubain. But, one evening, when she returned home after an errand, she met M. Boupart’s coach in front of the door; M. Boupart himself was standing in the vestibule and Madame Aubain was tying the strings of her bonnet. “Give me my foot-warmer, my purse and my gloves; and be quick about it,” she said.
Virginia had congestion of the lungs; perhaps it was desperate.
“Not yet,” said the physician, and both got into the carriage, while the snow fell in thick flakes. It was almost night and very cold.
Felicite rushed to the church to light a candle. Then she ran after the coach which she overtook after an hour’s chase, sprang up behind and held on to the straps. But suddenly a thought crossed her mind: “The yard had been left open; supposing that burglars got in!” And down she jumped.
The next morning, at daybreak, she called at the doctor’s. He had been home, but had left again. Then she waited at the inn, thinking that strangers might bring her a letter. At last, at daylight she took the diligence for Lisieux.
The convent was at the end of a steep and narrow street. When she arrived about at the middle of it, she heard strange noises, a funeral knell. “It must be for some one else,” thought she; and she pulled the knocker violently.
After several minutes had elapsed, she heard footsteps, the door was half opened and a nun appeared. The good sister, with an air of compunction, told her that “she had just passed away.” And at the same time the tolling of Saint-Leonard’s increased.
Felicite reached the second floor. Already at the threshold, she caught sight of Virginia lying on her back, with clasped hands, her mouth open and her head thrown back, beneath a black crucifix inclined toward her, and stiff curtains which were less white than her face. Madame Aubain lay at the foot of the couch, clasping it with her arms and uttering groans of agony. The Mother Superior was standing on the right side of the bed. The three candles on the bureau made red blurs, and the windows were dimmed by the fog outside. The nuns carried Madame Aubain from the room.
For two nights, Felicite never left the corpse. She would repeat the same prayers, sprinkle holy water over the sheets, get up, come back to the bed and contemplate the body. At the end of the first vigil, she noticed that the face had taken on a yellow tinge, the lips grew blue, the nose grew pinched, the eyes were sunken. She kissed them several times and would not have been greatly astonished had Virginia opened them; to souls like this the supernatural is always quite simple. She washed her, wrapped her in a shroud, put her into the casket, laid a wreath of flowers on her head and arranged her curls. They were blond and of an extraordinary length for her age. Felicite cut off a big lock and put half of it into her bosom, resolving never to part with it.
The body was taken to Pont-l’Eveque, according to Madame Aubain’s wishes; she followed the hearse in a closed carriage.
After the ceremony it took three quarters of an hour to reach the cemetery. Paul, sobbing, headed the procession; Monsieur Bourais followed, and then came the principal inhabitants of the town, the women covered with black capes, and Felicite. The memory of her nephew, and the thought that she had not been able to render him these honours, made her doubly unhappy, and she felt as if he were being buried with Virginia.
Madame Aubain’s grief was uncontrollable. At first she rebelled against God, thinking that he was unjust to have taken away her child – she who had never done anything wrong, and whose conscience was so pure! But no! she ought to have taken her South. Other doctors would have saved her. She accused herself, prayed to be able to join her child, and cried in the midst of her dreams. Of the latter, one more especially haunted her. Her husband, dressed like a sailor, had come back from a long voyage, and with tears in his eyes told her that he had received the order to take Virginia away. Then they both consulted about a hiding-place.
Once she came in from the garden, all upset. A moment before (and she showed the place), the father and daughter had appeared to her, one after the other; they did nothing but look at her.
During several months she remained inert in her room. Felicite scolded her gently; she must keep up for her son and also for the other one, for “her memory.”
“Her memory!” replied Madame Aubain, as if she were just awakening, “Oh! yes, yes, you do not forget her!” This was an allusion to the cemetery where she had been expressly forbidden to go.
But Felicite went there every day. At four o’clock exactly, she would go through the town, climb the hill, open the gate and arrive at Virginia’s tomb. It was a small column of pink marble with a flat stone at its base, and it was surrounded by a little plot enclosed by chains. The flower-beds were bright with blossoms. Felicite watered their leaves, renewed the gravel, and knelt on the ground in order to till the earth properly. When Madame Aubain was able to visit the cemetery she felt very much relieved and consoled.
Years passed, all alike and marked by no other events than the return of the great church holidays: Easter, Assumption, All Saints’ Day. Household happenings constituted the only data to which in later years they often referred. Thus, in 1825, workmen painted the vestibule; in 1827, a portion of the roof almost killed a man by falling into the yard. In the summer of 1828, it was Madame’s turn to offer the hallowed bread; at that time, Bourais disappeared mysteriously; and the old acquaintances, Guyot, Liebard, Madame Lechaptois, Robelin, old Gremanville, paralysed since a long time, passed away one by one. One night, the driver of the mail in Pont-l’Eveque announced the Revolution of July. A few days afterward a new sub-prefect was nominated, the Baron de Larsonniere, ex-consul in America, who, besides his wife, had his sister-in-law and her three grown daughters with him. They were often seen on their lawn, dressed in loose blouses, and they had a parrot and a negro servant. Madame Aubain received a call, which she returned promptly. As soon as she caught sight of them, Felicite would run and notify her mistress. But only one thing was capable of arousing her: a letter from her son.
He could not follow any profession as he was absorbed in drinking. His mother paid his debts and he made fresh ones; and the sighs that she heaved while she knitted at the window reached the ears of Felicite who was spinning in the kitchen.
They walked in the garden together, always speaking of Virginia, and asking each other if such and such a thing would have pleased her, and what she would probably have said on this or that occasion.
All her little belongings were put away in a closet of the room which held the two little beds. But Madame Aubain looked them over as little as possible. One summer day, however, she resigned herself to the task and when she opened the closet the moths flew out.
Virginia’s frocks were hung under a shelf where there were three dolls, some hoops, a doll-house, and a basic which she had used. Felicite and Madame Aubain also took out the skirts, the handkerchiefs, and the stockings and spread them on the beds, before putting them away again. The sun fell on the piteous things, disclosing their spots and the creases formed by the motions of the body. The atmosphere was warm and blue, and a blackbird trilled in the garden; everything seemed to live in happiness. They found a little hat of soft brown plush, but it was entirely moth-eaten. Felicite asked for it. Their eyes met and filled with tears; at last the mistress opened her arms and the servant threw herself against her breast and they hugged each other and giving vent to their grief in a kiss which equalised them for a moment.
It was the first time that this had ever happened, for Madame Aubain was not of an expansive nature. Felicite was as grateful for it as if it had been some favour, and thenceforth loved her with animal-like devotion and a religious veneration.
Her kind-heartedness developed. When she heard the drums of a marching regiment passing through the street, she would stand in the doorway with a jug of cider and give the soldiers a drink. She nursed cholera victims. She protected Polish refugees, and one of them even declared that he wished to marry her. But they quarrelled, for one morning when she returned from the Angelus she found him in the kitchen coolly eating a dish which he had prepared for himself during her absence.
After the Polish refugees, came Colmiche, an old man who was credited with having committed frightful misdeeds in ‘93. He lived near the river in the ruins of a pig-sty. The urchins peeped at him through the cracks in the walls and threw stones that fell on his miserable bed, where he lay gasping with catarrh, with long hair, inflamed eyelids, and a tumour as big as his head on one arm.
She got him some linen, tried to clean his hovel and dreamed of installing him in the bake-house without his being in Madame’s way. When the cancer broke, she dressed it every day; sometimes she brought him some cake and placed him in the sun on a bundle of hay; and the poor old creature, trembling and drooling, would thank her in his broken voice, and put out his hands whenever she left him. Finally he died; and she had a mass said for the repose of his soul.
That day a great joy came to her: at dinner-time, Madame de Larsonniere’s servant called with the parrot, the cage, and the perch and chain and lock. A note from the baroness told Madame Aubain that as her husband had been promoted to a prefecture, they were leaving that night, and she begged her to accept the bird as a remembrance and a token of her esteem.
Since a long time the parrot had been on Felicite’s mind, because he came from America, which reminded her of Victor, and she had approached the negro on the subject.
Once even, she had said:
“How glad Madame would be to have him!”
The man had repeated this remark to his mistress who, not being able to keep the bird, took this means of getting rid of it.
He was called Loulou. His body was green, his head blue, the tips of his wings were pink and his breast was golden.
But he had the tiresome tricks of biting his perch, pulling his feathers out, scattering refuse and spilling the water of his bath. Madame Aubain grew tired of him and gave him to Felicite for good.
She undertook his education, and soon he was able to repeat: “Pretty boy! Your servant, sir! I salute you, Marie!” His perch was placed near the door and several persons were astonished that he did not answer to the name of “Jacquot,” for every parrot is called Jacquot. They called him a goose and a log, and these taunts were like so many dagger thrusts to Felicite. Strange stubbornness of the bird which would not talk when people watched him!
Nevertheless, he sought society; for on Sunday, when the ladies Rochefeuille, Monsieur de Houppeville and the new habitues, Onfroy, the chemist, Monsieur Varin and Captain Mathieu, dropped in for their game of cards, he struck the window-panes with his wings and made such a racket that it was impossible to talk.
Bourais’ face must have appeared very funny to Loulou. As soon as he saw him he would begin to roar. His voice re-echoed in the yard, and the neighbours would come to the windows and begin to laugh, too; and in order that the parrot might not see him, Monsieur Bourais edged along the wall, pushed his hat over his eyes to hide his profile, and entered by the garden door, and the looks he gave the bird lacked affection. Loulou, having thrust his head into the butcher-boy’s basket, received a slap, and from that time he always tried to nip his enemy. Fabu threatened to ring his neck, although he was not cruelly inclined, notwithstanding his big whiskers and tattooings. On the contrary, he rather liked the bird, and, out of devilry, tried to teach him oaths. Felicite, whom his manner alarmed, put Loulou in the kitchen, took off his chain and let him walk all over the house.
When he went downstairs, he rested his beak on the steps, lifted his right foot and then his left one; but his mistress feared that such feats would give him vertigo. He became ill and was unable to eat. There was a small growth under his tongue like those chickens are sometimes afflicted with. Felicite pulled it off with her nails and cured him. One day, Paul was imprudent enough to blow the smoke of his cigar in his face; another time, Madame Lormeau was teasing him with the tip of her umbrella and he swallowed the tip. Finally he got lost.
She had put him on the grass to cool him and went away only for a second; when she returned, she found no parrot! She hunted among the bushes, on the bank of the river, and on the roofs, without paying any attention to Madame Aubain who screamed at her: “Take care! you must be insane!” Then she searched every garden in Pont-l’Eveque and stopped the passers-by to inquire of them: “Haven’t you perhaps seen my parrot?” To those who had never seen the parrot, she described him minutely. Suddenly she thought she saw something green fluttering behind the mills at the foot of the hill. But when she was at the top of the hill she could not see it. A hod-carrier told her that he had just seen the bird in Saint-Melaine, in Mother Simon’s store. She rushed to the place. The people did not know what she was talking about. At last she came home, exhausted, with her slippers worn to shreds, and despair in her heart. She sat down on the bench near Madame and was telling of her search when presently a light weight dropped on her shoulder – Loulou! What the deuce had he been doing? Perhaps he had just taken a little walk around the town!
She did not easily forget her scare; in fact, she never got over it. In consequence of a cold, she caught a sore throat; and some time later she had an earache. Three years later she was stone deaf, and spoke in a very loud voice even in church. Although her sins might have been proclaimed throughout the diocese without any shame to herself, or ill effects to the community, the cure thought it advisable to receive her confession in the vestry-room.
Imaginary buzzings also added to her bewilderment. Her mistress often said to her: “My goodness, how stupid you are!” and she would answer: “Yes, Madame,” and look for something.
The narrow circle of her ideas grew more restricted than it already was; the bellowing of the oxen, the chime of the bells no longer reached her intelligence. All things moved silently, like ghosts. Only one noise penetrated her ears; the parrot’s voice.
As if to divert her mind, he reproduced for her the tick-tack of the spit in the kitchen, the shrill cry of the fish-vendors, the saw of the carpenter who had a shop opposite, and when the door-bell rang, he would imitate Madame Aubain: “Felicite! go to the front door.”
They held conversations together, Loulou repeating the three phrases of his repertory over and over, Felicite replying by words that had no greater meaning, but in which she poured out her feelings. In her isolation, the parrot was almost a son, a love. He climbed upon her fingers, pecked at her lips, clung to her shawl, and when she rocked her head to and fro like a nurse, the big wings of her cap and the wings of the bird flapped in unison. When clouds gathered on the horizon and the thunder rumbled, Loulou would scream, perhaps because he remembered the storms in his native forests. The dripping of the rain would excite him to frenzy; he flapped around, struck the ceiling with his wings, upset everything, and would finally fly into the garden to play. Then he would come back into the room, light on one of the andirons, and hop around in order to get dry.
One morning during the terrible winter of 1837, when she had put him in front of the fire-place on account of the cold, she found him dead in his cage, hanging to the wire bars with his head down. He had probably died of congestion. But she believed that he had been poisoned, and although she had no proofs whatever, her suspicion rested on Fabu.
She wept so sorely that her mistress said: “Why don’t you have him stuffed?”
She asked the advice of the chemist, who had always been kind to the bird.
He wrote to Havre for her. A certain man named Fellacher consented to do the work. But, as the diligence driver often lost parcels entrusted to him, Felicite resolved to take her pet to Honfleur herself.
Leafless apple-trees lined the edges of the road. The ditches were covered with ice. The dogs on the neighbouring farms barked; and Felicite, with her hands beneath her cape, her little black sabots and her basket, trotted along nimbly in the middle of the sidewalk. She crossed the forest, passed by the Haut-Chene, and reached Saint-Gatien.
Behind her, in a cloud of dust and impelled by the steep incline, a mail-coach drawn by galloping horses advanced like a whirlwind. When he saw a woman in the middle of the road, who did not get out of the way, the driver stood up in his seat and shouted to her and so did the postilion, while the four horses, which he could not hold back, accelerated their pace; the two leaders were almost upon her; with a jerk of the reins he threw them to one side, but, furious at the incident, he lifted his big whip and lashed her from her head to her feet with such violence that she fell to the ground unconscious.
Her first thought, when she recovered her senses, was to open the basket. Loulou was unharmed. She felt a sting on her right cheek; when she took her hand away it was red, for the blood was flowing.
She sat down on a pile of stones, and sopped her cheek with her handkerchief; then she ate a crust of bread she had put in her basket, and consoled herself by looking at the bird.
Arriving at the top of Ecquemanville, she saw the lights of Honfleur shining in the distance like so many stars; further on, the ocean spread out in a confused mass. Then a weakness came over her; the misery of her childhood, the disappointment of her first love, the departure of her nephew, the death of Virginia; all these things came back to her at once, and, rising like a swelling tide in her throat, almost choked her.
Then she wished to speak to the captain of the vessel, and without stating what she was sending, she gave him some instructions.
Fellacher kept the parrot a long time. He always promised that it would be ready for the following week; after six months he announced the shipment of a case, and that was the end of it. Really, it seemed as if Loulou would never come back to his home. “They have stolen him,” thought Felicite.
Finally he arrived, sitting bold upright on a branch which could be screwed into a mahogany pedestal, with his foot in the air, his head on one side, and in his beak a nut which the naturalist, from love of the sumptuous, had gilded. She put him in her room.
This place, to which only a chosen few were admitted, looked like a chapel and a second-hand shop, so filled was it with devotional and heterogeneous things. The door could not be opened easily on account of the presence of a large wardrobe. Opposite the window that looked out into the garden, a bull’s-eye opened on the yard; a table was placed by the cot and held a wash-basin, two combs, and a piece of blue soap in a broken saucer. On the walls were rosaries, medals, a number of Holy Virgins, and a holy-water basin made out of a cocoanut; on the bureau, which was covered with a napkin like an altar, stood the box of shells that Victor had given her; also a watering-can and a balloon, writing-books, the engraved geography and a pair of shoes; on the nail which held the mirror, hung Virginia’s little plush hat! Felicite carried this sort of respect so far that she even kept one of Monsieur’s old coats. All the things which Madame Aubain discarded, Felicite begged for her own room. Thus, she had artificial flowers on the edge of the bureau, and the picture of the Comte d’Artois in the recess of the window. By means of a board, Loulou was set on a portion of the chimney which advanced into the room. Every morning when she awoke, she saw him in the dim light of dawn and recalled bygone days and the smallest details of insignificant actions, without any sense of bitterness or grief.
As she was unable to communicate with people, she lived in a sort of somnambulistic torpor. The processions of Corpus-Christi Day seemed to wake her up. She visited the neighbours to beg for candlesticks and mats so as to adorn the temporary altars in the street.
In church, she always gazed at the Holy Ghost, and noticed that there was something about it that resembled a parrot. The likenesses appeared even more striking on a coloured picture by Espinal, representing the baptism of our Saviour. With his scarlet wings and emerald body, it was really the image of Loulou. Having bought the picture, she hung it near the one of the Comte d’Artois so that she could take them in at one glance.
They associated in her mind, the parrot becoming sanctified through the neighbourhood of the Holy Ghost, and the latter becoming more lifelike in her eyes, and more comprehensible. In all probability the Father had never chosen as messenger a dove, as the latter has no voice, but rather one of Loulou’s ancestors. And Felicite said her prayers in front of the coloured picture, though from time to time she turned slightly towards the bird.
She desired very much to enter in the ranks of the “Daughters of the Virgin.” But Madame Aubain dissuaded her from it.
A most important event occurred: Paul’s marriage.
After being first a notary’s clerk, then in business, then in the customs, and a tax collector, and having even applied for a position in the administration of woods and forests, he had at last, when he was thirty-six years old, by a divine inspiration, found his vocation: registrature! and he displayed such a high ability that an inspector had offered him his daughter and his influence.
Paul, who had become quite settled, brought his bride to visit his mother.
But she looked down upon the customs of Pont-l’Eveque, put on airs, and hurt Felicite’s feelings. Madame Aubain felt relieved when she left.
The following week they learned of Monsieur Bourais’ death in an inn. There were rumours of suicide, which were confirmed; doubts concerning his integrity arose. Madame Aubain looked over her accounts and soon discovered his numerous embezzlements; sales of wood which had been concealed from her, false receipts, etc. Furthermore, he had an illegitimate child, and entertained a friendship for “a person in Dozule.”
These base actions affected her very much. In March, 1853, she developed a pain in her chest; her tongue looked as if it were coated with smoke, and the leeches they applied did not relieve her oppression; and on the ninth evening she died, being just seventy-two years old.
People thought that she was younger, because her hair, which she wore in bands framing her pale face, was brown. Few friends regretted her loss, for her manner was so haughty that she did not attract them. Felicite mourned for her as servants seldom mourn for their masters. The fact that Madame should die before herself perplexed her mind and seemed contrary to the order of things, and absolutely monstrous and inadmissible. Ten days later (the time to journey from Besancon), the heirs arrived. Her daughter-in-law ransacked the drawers, kept some of the furniture, and sold the rest; then they went back to their own home.
Madame’s armchair, foot-warmer, work-table, the eight chairs, everything was gone! The places occupied by the pictures formed yellow squares on the walls. They had taken the two little beds, and the wardrobe had been emptied of Virginia’s belongings! Felicite went upstairs, overcome with grief.
The following day a sign was posted on the door; the chemist screamed in her ear that the house was for sale.
For a moment she tottered, and had to sit down.
What hurt her most was to give up her room, – so nice for poor Loulou! She looked at him in despair and implored the Holy Ghost, and it was this way that she contracted the idolatrous habit of saying her prayers kneeling in front of the bird. Sometimes the sun fell through the window on his glass eye, and lighted a spark in it which sent Felicite into ecstasy.
Her mistress had left her an income of three hundred and eighty francs. The garden supplied her with vegetables. As for clothes, she had enough to last her till the end of her days, and she economised on the light by going to bed at dusk.
She rarely went out, in order to avoid passing in front of the second-hand dealer’s shop where there was some of the old furniture. Since her fainting spell, she dragged her leg, and as her strength was failing rapidly, old Mother Simon, who had lost her money in the grocery business, came very morning to chop the wood and pump the water.
Her eyesight grew dim. She did not open the shutters after that. Many years passed. But the house did not sell or rent. Fearing that she would be put out, Felicite did not ask for repairs. The laths of the roof were rotting away, and during one whole winter her bolster was wet. After Easter she spit blood.
Then Mother Simon went for a doctor. Felicite wished to know what her complaint was. But, being too deaf to hear, she caught only one word: “Pneumonia.” She was familiar with it and gently answered: –”Ah! like Madame,” thinking it quite natural that she should follow her mistress.
The time for the altars in the street drew near.
The first one was always erected at the foot of the hill, the second in front of the post-office, and the third in the middle of the street. This position occasioned some rivalry among the women and they finally decided upon Madame Aubain’s yard.
Felicite’s fever grew worse. She was sorry that she could not do anything for the altar. If she could, at least, have contributed something towards it! Then she thought of the parrot. Her neighbours objected that it would not be proper. But the cure gave his consent and she was so grateful for it that she begged him to accept after her death, her only treasure, Loulou. From Tuesday until Saturday, the day before the event, she coughed more frequently. In the evening her face was contracted, her lips stuck to her gums and she began to vomit; and on the following day, she felt so low that she called for a priest.
Three neighbours surrounded her when the dominie administered the Extreme Unction. Afterwards she said that she wished to speak to Fabu.
He arrived in his Sunday clothes, very ill at ease among the funereal surroundings.
“Forgive me,” she said, making an effort to extend her arm, “I believed it was you who killed him!”
What did such accusations mean? Suspect a man like him of murder! And Fabu became excited and was about to make trouble.
“Don’t you see she is not in her right mind?”
From time to time Felicite spoke to shadows. The women left her and Mother Simon sat down to breakfast.
A little later, she took Loulou and holding him up to Felicite:
“Say good-bye to him, now!” she commanded.
Although he was not a corpse, he was eaten up by worms; one of his wings was broken and the wadding was coming out of his body. But Felicite was blind now, and she took him and laid him against her cheek. Then Mother Simon removed him in order to set him on the altar.
The grass exhaled an odour of summer; flies buzzed in the air, the sun shone on the river and warmed the slated roof. Old Mother Simon had returned to Felicite and was peacefully falling asleep.
The ringing of bells woke her; the people were coming out of church. Felicite’s delirium subsided. By thinking of the procession, she was able to see it as if she had taken part in it. All the school-children, the singers and the firemen walked on the sidewalks, while in the middle of the street came first the custodian of the church with his halberd, then the beadle with a large cross, the teacher in charge of the boys and a sister escorting the little girls; three of the smallest ones, with curly heads, threw rose leaves into the air; the deacon with outstretched arms conducted the music; and two incense-bearers turned with each step they took toward the Holy Sacrament, which was carried by M. le Cure, attired in his handsome chasuble and walking under a canopy of red velvet supported by four men. A crowd of people followed, jammed between the walls of the houses hung with white sheets; at last the procession arrived at the foot of the hill.
A cold sweat broke out on Felicite’s forehead. Mother Simon wiped it away with a cloth, saying inwardly that some day she would have to go through the same thing herself.
The murmur of the crowd grew louder, was very distinct for a moment and then died away. A volley of musketry shook the window-panes. It was the postilions saluting the Sacrament. Felicite rolled her eyes, and said as loudly as she could:
“Is he all right?” meaning the parrot.
Her death agony began. A rattle that grew more and more rapid shook her body. Froth appeared at the corners of her mouth, and her whole frame trembled. In a little while could be heard the music of the bass horns, the clear voices of the children and the men’s deeper notes. At intervals all was still, and their shoes sounded like a herd of cattle passing over the grass.
The clergy appeared in the yard. Mother Simon climbed on a chair to reach the bull’s-eye, and in this manner could see the altar. It was covered with a lace cloth and draped with green wreaths. In the middle stood a little frame containing relics; at the corners were two little orange-trees, and all along the edge were silver candlesticks, porcelain vases containing sun-flowers, lilies, peonies, and tufts of hydrangeas. This mount of bright colours descended diagonally from the first floor to the carpet that covered the sidewalk. Rare objects arrested one’s eye. A golden sugar-bowl was crowned with violets, earrings set with Alencon stones were displayed on green moss, and two Chinese screens with their bright landscapes were near by. Loulou, hidden beneath roses, showed nothing but his blue head which looked like a piece of lapis-lazuli.
The singers, the canopy-bearers and the children lined up against the sides of the yard. Slowly the priest ascended the steps and placed his shining sun on the lace cloth. Everybody knelt. There was deep silence; and the censers slipping on their chains were swung high in the air. A blue vapour rose in Felicite’s room. She opened her nostrils and inhaled with a mystic sensuousness; then she closed her lids. Her lips smiled. The beats of her heart grew fainter and fainter, and vaguer, like a fountain giving out, like an echo dying away; – and when she exhaled her last breath, she thought she saw in the half-opened heavens a gigantic parrot hovering above her head.
You never saw such surprise as that of the people of Ros Dha Loch when they heard that Nora, daughter of Marcus Beag, was to go to England. A sister of hers was already over there, working, but Nora was needed at home. There would be nobody left after her except the old couple. The two brothers she had never did any good – for themselves or for anyone belonging to them. Martin, the eldest one, was sent to Galway to be a shop-boy, (old Marcus always had notions), but he wasn’t long there when he lost his job because of the drink and after that he joined the British Army. As for Stephen, the second one, there was no stopping the old fellow from thinking that he would make a “gentleman” of him, but when the headstrong lad didn’t get his own way from the father he stole off with the price of two bullocks sold at Uachtarard fair in his pocket.
“He’s no better here than out of here,” the old man said on hearing that he was gone. But he was only pretending that the story didn’t hurt him. Often at night he was unable to sleep a wink thinking about the two sons who had left him and gone astray. With any one of the neighbours who would try to brighten the dark old man then, as to sympathise with him over the misfortune of his sons, he would say nothing except – “What’s the good in talking? Very little thanks I got for trying to keep them in the old nest. The two of them took flight and left me by myself. They’ll give me little cause for worry from now on.”
But they did. And up until Nora said that she had decided not to stay at home any longer nothing troubled him but the way the two sons had left him. He had been shamed by them. People were making fun of him. He was the laughing stock of the village – himself and his family. And the way that he’d thought that he’d give them a decent livelihood. The way he worked himself to the bone, labouring morning to dusk in all weathers to keep them at school until they might be as erudite as the master himself, indeed!
But it would be a different story with Nora, according to himself. He would keep her at home. He would find a match for her. He would leave the small-holding to herself and her husband after death. When she told him that she would leave he thought that she was just joking. But it was soon clear to him that she wasn’t. Then he did his level best to keep her at home. It was useless. It was no use his wife talking to her either. For a month there was great antagonism between them: the old man threatening every evil on her head if she left, herself trying to better him. But her mind was set on going, and across she’d go no matter what was said.
“You had two sons,” she said to him one night, “and they left you. The two of them showed you. You don’t know that I would do the same, if you don’t leave me go willingly.”
“She’s the last of them, Marcus,” said the wife, “and by God I hate to part with her at the end of my life, but,” she continued and she nearly weeping, “maybe ’tis for her own good.”
The father didn’t think so. He was adamant. He was certain that it was far far better for her to stay where she was and make a match there. Her husband would have forty acres of land when her old father died. She was a pleasant and affectionate girl. There wasn’t a farmer or a shop-keeper in the seven parishes which were nearest to them who wouldn’t be very happy to marry her.
“And why wouldn’t they be,” he said, “such a lovely girl and with forty acres of land.”
But he had to give in in the end.
It’s then they saw the work! The great vexation and anxiety that had come over Nora for a while was all gone, apparently. There wasn’t a trace to be seen. She was as light and festive as the best days of her life, or so it seemed. They had so many things to do. Hats and dresses to make and decorate. Cloth and ribbons of every kind to be bought and dyed. She hadn’t one break in the weeks before she went. Visiting here today and elsewhere tomorrow.
She didn’t shed one tear until the two big travelling boxes that she had bought in Galway were put on the cart that was to take them to the railway station at Ballinahinch. Then she wept profusely. When they were east at the crossroads the showers of tears were on the cheeks.
“May God have mercy on them,” said one of the boys who was thrown on a ditch that was on a smooth mossy patch by the roadside.
“Amen,” said another one of them, “and everyone like them.”
“But do you know what’s the matter with her that she’s going away?”
“It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if she could do well at home.”
“Three fellows came asking for her last year – the three of them well known for their money.”
“It’s said that she had great time for the son of Sean Matthew, the shop-keeper,” said the old man in their midst.
“The one who was at the big college in Galway?”
“The very one.”
“I don’t believe it. He was a bad lad.”
“You don’t say.”
The cart was moving northwards through the great flat bogland between Ross and Ballinahinch. Nora could still see her own house below in the glen. It wasn’t about that she was thinking, but on the misfortunate day that the son of Sean Matthew met her at the Ros Dha Loch crossroads, and he spending his holidays at his uncle’s house in the village eastwards. She didn’t stop thinking about that until she reached Ballinahinch. The train let off a sharp impatient whistle as if it was telling people to hurry up and not delay something so huge and lively and powerful. Nora went in. The train gave a little jolt. It started to move slowly. Marcus Beag walked by its side. He took leave of his daughter and returned home sad and sorrowful.
It was true for the wise old man who was thrown on the mossy green looking at life and letting it go by that she once gave her heart to the son of Sean Matthew at one point in her life. But that time was gone. And it wouldn’t be a lie to say that it was an angry and intense hatred that she had for the fine young man who was over in Glasgow in a college studying to be a doctor. Because of that love that she had had for him she now had to leave Ros Dha Loch and her closest friends and bring the burden of the world on herself. He had been her most beloved once, that bright young man who spent his holidays in Ros Dha Loch, more so than any other person she’d ever met. And weren’t those wonderful stories that he told her about the life they’d have in the great towns out foreign! And how his tales pleased her! And when he said to the foolish naïve girl that he’d never met anyone he loved more than her, how pleased and heart-warmed she’d been! And the wonderful house that they’d have when he’d be a doctor!
And she believed everything that the young fellow told her. He believed it himself – while he was saying it. Indeed, such foolish talk didn’t worry him too much when he went away. But it was different with Nora. It would be a long time before he’d come back again. Summertime was a long way away! ‘Twould be a long time before it would be summer always.
She had had great trust but she was deceived. The letters she sent him were returned to her. He was in another place. Nobody had any information on him. Her life was confused. Her mind was in a turmoil when she understood the story correctly. She was thinking about him and turning it all over in her mind by day and by night. She could do nothing but leave the place entirely. She, herself, and everyone associated with her were ashamed in front of people. A young girl who used to be a servant in Ros Dha Loch was working over in London. She would head for that city. She would make for that city now and not for the big town where her sister was.
Sitting in the train she was filled with wonder at the way rivers and harbours, lake, mountain and plain flew past while she herself did nothing. Why were they all moving away from her? What kind of life would be there for her in the foreign faraway land where this wonderful vehicle would leave her? Dread and trembling came over her. Darkness was falling on the flatland and the mountains. A halt was put to her thoughts but it was clear to her that she was borne away on some strange animal; until she felt her heart starting and jumping with the force of anger; until she was a fire-dragon, and flames leaping from her eyes; that she was being taken to some terrible wasteland – a place where there was neither sunshine nor rainfall; that she had to go there against her will; that she was being banished to this wasteland because of one sin.
The train reached Dublin. She felt that the whole place was disturbed by a great single drone of sound. Men screaming and shouting. Trains coming and going and blowing whistles. The noise of men, of trains, of carriages. Everything she saw filled her with wonder. The boats and shipping on the Liffey. The bridges, the streets that were lit up at midnight. The people, the city itself that was so beautiful, so full of life, so bright in those dead hours of the night. For a little while she nearly forgot the misfortune that drove her from her own hometown.
But when she was on the train over, the reverse was true. The terrible dark thoughts pressed down on her again. There was no stopping them. Why did she leave her home anyway? Wouldn’t it have been better to stay, no matter what happened to her? What would she do now? What was going to happen to her in the place where she was going?
Things like that. If there were people long ago who spent a hundred years to discover that life was but a day, as the old storytellers tell us, she herself did something more marvellous. She made a hundred years out of one single day. She became old and withered in just one day. Every sorrow and heartbreak, and every great trouble of the mind that comes upon a person over a lifetime came to her in one single day from the time she left Ros Dha Loch to the moment she was at the centre of London, England – the moment she saw Kate Ryan, the servant girl they had had at home, waiting for her at the side of the train to give welcome. She never understood life until that very day.
The two young women were living in a miserable ugly back street on the southside of the city. In a large sprawling house where the people were on top of each other in one great heap was where they lived at the time. You never saw the likes of Nora’s amazement when she saw the number of them that were there. She could have sworn that there was at least one hundred people, between men, women and children. She used to be left alone there for the whole day, because Kate had to go out to work from morning until dusk. She would sit at the window looking at all the people going by, wondering where they could all be going. She wasn’t long like that until she began to wonder if she’s made a mistake in coming at all. She wondered why she had left the lonely village in the west among the hills on the edge of the great ocean. What would her father say if he knew why? He’d be furious of course.
“Why had I the misfortune more than anyone else?” she would say. But that was too insoluble a question, and when she couldn’t find an answer she’d go out onto the street; but she wouldn’t go far for fear of getting lost. But the same thoughts pressed down on her in the street among people, just like in the house.
One night, when Kate came home from work, Nora was sitting by the fire crying.
“Now, now, Nora love,” she said, “dry your eyes and drink a cup of tea with me. I was told to tell you that a girl is needed by relatives of my mistress, and if you would go there….”
“I’ll go there,” Nora said, rising quickly.
On the following morning she journeyed to the house of the lady. She started work there. She had so much to do there, so many new thoughts entered her mind, that she couldn’t think of anything else for a little while. In the letters she sent home she included a little money even though she knew that they didn’t lack much because they were already well set up. And the letters her father sent to her, she used to read and reread every night before going to bed. They used to have news of the village. That Tomas Pats Mor had bought a new boat. That Nell Griffin had emigrated to America.
A few months went like that but in the end the lady told her that she wasn’t satisfied with her and that she’d have to leave. She had to do that. She left what she had behind her and went. She had no shelter or protection that night but the rain falling on her and the hard streets under her feet.
Is it necessary to talk about everything that happened to her after that? About the “young nobleman” who gave her food and drink and money and she at the end of her tether with want and need. About the way that she started on the drink. About the way she tried to deceive herself, and daze and blind her mind. About the different people who met her in houses of drink and otherwise. About their talk and their conversation. About the way her self-esteem was narrowed until after a while she didn’t care what might become of her. About the way she was going to the bad day by day, until in the end she had no care or honour, but walked the streets.
Nine years she had like that. Drinking and carousing at night. Dressing up and getting herself ready during the day for the next night. Any thought that used to come into her head about the life she lived now and the one she lived at home she banished as quickly as she could. It was thoughts like that that caused her most unease. And – even if it’s true that a person would have no interest whatsoever in living unless he thought that somehow he was doing more good than bad – she couldn’t do any differently. But those thoughts came mercilessly against her will in their hundreds and hundreds during the day – especially after she had just sent a letter home, a thing she often did. And when they came upon her thickly like that she would go out drinking.
She was out one night walking the streets after she had just sent a letter home that contained some money. It was eleven o’clock. The people were coming out of the theatres in their thousands and thousands and she looking at them. There were some among them who stared at her and at women of her kind. The kind of looks that shows the desire and greed which brings destruction on people, that drives countries against each other and which gave material to poets and storytellers of the world from the time of Troy to the present day.
She wasn’t long like that when she saw a man in front of her, his woman by his side. They started at each other, without knowing why. They recognised each other. It was the son of Sean Matthew who was a doctor in London. She turned on her heels quickly. She heard him say it to his wife on going into a restaurant that was near them, and that he would join her shortly. Nora moved off on hearing that. He was after her. She quickened her walk. He did the same. She was trotting, he trotting after her. She had a head start on him. She ran up one street and down another. She feeling that he was at her heels. She worried to death that he might catch her. That everyone would find out about her predicament at home. That everyone would know.
A chapel was just in front of her – a small chapel that stayed open all night because of some feast day. She needed the shelter there from the man who was after her – that man to whom she gave the love in her heart and who’d deceived her. She had no recollection of getting inside, but in she went. What she saw made her feel strange, it had been so long since she was inside a church. Her youth came back to her. She was in Ros Dha Loch Church again. A statue of the Blessed Virgin was in a corner and a red light in front of it. She made for that corner. She threw her hands around it. She was shaking and rocking back and forth with heaviness of mind. Her bright peaked hat almost falling off her head. Her bright red ribbons drenched and soiled by the mud of the street. She was praying to God and the Virgin out loud, prayer after prayer, until she exclaimed in a strong fervent voice: “Holy Mary – Mother of God – pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death – Amen!”
An old priest behind her heard her pray. He spoke to her in a kind gentle manner. He calmed her. He took her with him. He questioned her. She told him her story without holding anything back. She showed him the letters she had received from her father.
He put further questions to her.
Yes – she was satisfied going home. ‘Twas she who sent the money home with which the old man bought the fishing boat. She was certain that they didn’t – they didn’t know anything about the life she led in London.
“And did your father ask you why you didn’t go to your sister in the first place?”
“He did. But I told him that the work was better in London.”
They spent a good while like that – himself questioning and she giving the answers. He found decent lodging for her for the night. He told her to send a letter home to say that she was thinking of returning, and that he would visit her the following day and that she would be able to make a confession. That night before he went to sleep he wrote a long letter to the Parish Priest of Ros Dha Loch telling him the story and asking him to keep an eye on the young woman when she arrived home.
They were expecting her at home. Everybody was saying that no person ever left Ros Dha Loch who did as well as her. There was no one among them who had sent that kind of money home.
“It must give you great satisfaction, Marcus,” Sean the Blacksmith was saying and he putting a shoe on Marcus’ horse down in the forge on the day she was coming home, “that in the end she’s coming home, because you haven’t got anybody to leave the land to.”
“Well you may say it,” he replied, “and I’m a fair old age an’ all.”
The horse and cart was fitted out for his journey to the railway station for her.
“They used to say,” he said boastfully and he fixing the horse to the cart, “that the other two did nothing, which was true I suppose, but you wouldn’t believe the help she gave me. Look at the big fishing boat that’ll be chasing mackerel tonight – I couldn’t have bought it but for her.”
“You’re saying nothing but the truth now, Marcus,” said the old man who was giving him a hand, “but tell me this,” he said nervously: “Did she ever tell you that my Seamus met her in some place?”
“I did ask her that, but she never saw him.”
“Well, look at that now…. And I haven’t had a letter from him in six months.”
Marcus left. He hadn’t been so light-hearted for many a long day as he went off to the railway station. If his sons had gone to the bad his daughter had surpassed all. She was an example for the whole parish. Now they wouldn’t be able to say that he’d have to sell the land in the end. He would keep Nora at home. He would make a match for her. He would find her a solid, prudent man….
These thoughts hadn’t ended when the train came in majestically. Nora came off it. And he had some welcome for her! And even greater than his, if that was possible, was the welcome that her mother gave her at home.
But didn’t she look spent and tired! What did they do to her at all? Was it the way she’d been doing too much work? But she wouldn’t be at home long before she would have a good appearance again. The wan cheeks would be gone; if she stayed at home and took their advice.
“And the first bit of advice I’ll give you is to have this lovely bit of meat and cabbage, because I suppose you never had time to have a bit to eat in that city,” said the old woman and she laughing.
But Nora couldn’t eat. She wasn’t a bit hungry. She was too upset from the long journey, she said. She would go straight to the room and undress. She would rest there. And after a while maybe she’d be able to eat something.
“Or maybe you’d like a cup of tea to begin with,” her mother said when she was back in the room.
“I’d prefer that,” she said, “maybe it would do me some good.”
That night when the people of the town came in to welcome her they couldn’t see her. They were told that she was so exhausted from the journey that she had to go asleep, but that they would see her tomorrow. Nora heard their talk and conversation as she was across in her room praying to God and The Virgin to put her on the right road from now on and to give her the power to stay that way forever.
It was amazing the way Nora worked after her homecoming. Within the person who was called Nora Marcus Beag in Ros Dha Loch there were two actual women: the young gentle one who had spent some time in England earning money and another woman who remained unknown to the people of the village, but who had suffered the hardships of life in a foreign city. And just as there were two persons, you might say, there were two minds and two modes of thought there as well. She had the outlook of the woman who had been led astray in London as well as the viewpoint she had before she ever left her native place at all.
And she bore the constant conflict between them. The woman who had once led a wild life fighting with the other woman who never left and who wanted nothing except to stay at home, settled and secure. It was a hard struggle. Sometimes the evil was stronger, she’d think, and then she could be seen making for the Chapel. And all the people saying that they’d never seen a young woman so devout and pious and polite as herself.
During this time the village nearest to them had a pattern-day. A large number of people from Ros went there. Some of them walking, some riding, and some others across the harbour in their boats. Some of them went there to sell stock. Yet others had no particular business there.
Nora was one of this crowd. She was walking around the fair looking at the cattle that were being sold. Getting to know people here and enquiring after some person who had left the district since she first left for London. She was cheery, all dressed-up and upright. A dress of the best white cotton, the most expensive, was what she wore. A dress that she’d brought back from London. Fine satin ribbons trailing after her. Peacock feathers standing up in her hat. She hadn’t been so breezy and happy for a long time. It was a terribly hot day. The sun was glaring down ferociously. If it wasn’t for the little breeze that came in off the harbour now and again, one couldn’t take the heat. Nora was exhausted by the day. She heard violin music close by. Soft, sweet, pleasant music. The fiddler was sitting by the door of the cabin. His head swaying back and forth. Such a satisfied and contented expression on his face and in his manner that you’d think he’d never had any worry or trouble in his life before and never would.
Nora went in. she sat on a stool by the door to listen to the music. She was exhausted. If she could only have a drink! That’s what she thought. That conflict was started again. She was just about to leave when a young man from Ros came over to her to ask if she’d have a glass with him.
“The day itself is so hot that it wouldn’t do a bit of harm to you. Have anything you like.”
She took a glass from him.
Any person who’s been fond of the drink at a point in their life and who’s stayed off it for a while, and who again touches a drop, ’tis certain that he’ll drink a second glass, and a third one, and maybe a ninth one, because the old desire is reawakened.
That was the way it was with Nora. She drank the second one. And the third one. It soon went to her head. She began to make a show. She went out and danced. But she had to give up before long. Dizziness was in her head. Her legs had gone from under her. She was barely able to go out but she hadn’t got far when she fell on a bank by the side of the road.
A few hours of night had gone by when her father found her like that.
He lifted her into the cart and drove her home.
The following morning the same cart was being prepared outside the door.
“If those are the kind of tricks you learned in England,” he said and bitterness in his voice, “it’s there you can be practising them.”
The two off them went to the railway station.
The very night that Nora left you could see an old man inside a fishing boat if you were by Ros Dha Loch shore. A container was drawn up by his side and he trying to obliterate the name that was written on the boat. Even if he did, he didn’t succeed in rubbing the name from his heart. ‘Twas the name of his daughter that was on the boat.
*This story is taken from: Padraic O Conaire – M’Asal Beag Dubh and 14 more of his greatest stories, Poolberg Press Ltd., 1982.
North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free. An uninhabited house of two storeys stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbours in a square ground. The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.
The former tenant of our house, a priest, had died in the back drawing-room. Air, musty from having been long enclosed, hung in all the rooms, and the waste room behind the kitchen was littered with old useless papers. Among these I found a few paper-covered books, the pages of which were curled and damp: The Abbot, by Walter Scott, The Devout Communicant and The Memoirs of Vidocq. I liked the last best because its leaves were yellow. The wild garden behind the house contained a central apple-tree and a few straggling bushes under one of which I found the late tenant’s rusty bicycle-pump. He had been a very charitable priest; in his will he had left all his money to institutions and the furniture of his house to his sister.
When the short days of winter came dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners. When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent street. The career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odours arose from the ashpits, to the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness. When we returned to the street light from the kitchen windows had filled the areas. If my uncle was seen turning the corner we hid in the shadow until we had seen him safely housed. Or if Mangan’s sister came out on the doorstep to call her brother in to his tea we watched her from our shadow peer up and down the street. We waited to see whether she would remain or go in and, if she remained, we left our shadow and walked up to Mangan’s steps resignedly. She was waiting for us, her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door. Her brother always teased her before he obeyed and I stood by the railings looking at her. Her dress swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.
Every morning I lay on the floor in the front parlour watching her door. The blind was pulled down to within an inch of the sash so that I could not be seen. When she came out on the doorstep my heart leaped. I ran to the hall, seized my books and followed her. I kept her brown figure always in my eye and, when we came near the point at which our ways diverged, I quickened my pace and passed her. This happened morning after morning. I had never spoken to her, except for a few casual words, and yet her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.
Her image accompanied me even in places the most hostile to romance. On Saturday evenings when my aunt went marketing I had to go to carry some of the parcels. We walked through the flaring streets, jostled by drunken men and bargaining women, amid the curses of labourers, the shrill litanies of shop-boys who stood on guard by the barrels of pigs’ cheeks, the nasal chanting of street-singers, who sang a come-all-you about O’Donovan Rossa, or a ballad about the troubles in our native land. These noises converged in a single sensation of life for me: I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes. Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand. My eyes were often full of tears (I could not tell why) and at times a flood from my heart seemed to pour itself out into my bosom. I thought little of the future. I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.
One evening I went into the back drawing-room in which the priest had died. It was a dark rainy evening and there was no sound in the house. Through one of the broken panes I heard the rain impinge upon the earth, the fine incessant needles of water playing in the sodden beds. Some distant lamp or lighted window gleamed below me. I was thankful that I could see so little. All my senses seemed to desire to veil themselves and, feeling that I was about to slip from them, I pressed the palms of my hands together until they trembled, murmuring: “O love! O love!” many times.
At last she spoke to me. When she addressed the first words to me I was so confused that I did not know what to answer. She asked me was I going to Araby. I forgot whether I answered yes or no. It would be a splendid bazaar, she said; she would love to go.
“And why can’t you?” I asked.
While she spoke she turned a silver bracelet round and round her wrist. She could not go, she said, because there would be a retreat that week in her convent. Her brother and two other boys were fighting for their caps and I was alone at the railings. She held one of the spikes, bowing her head towards me. The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing. It fell over one side of her dress and caught the white border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease.
“It’s well for you,” she said.
“If I go,” I said, “I will bring you something.”
What innumerable follies laid waste my waking and sleeping thoughts after that evening! I wished to annihilate the tedious intervening days. I chafed against the work of school. At night in my bedroom and by day in the classroom her image came between me and the page I strove to read. The syllables of the word Araby were called to me through the silence in which my soul luxuriated and cast an Eastern enchantment over me. I asked for leave to go to the bazaar on Saturday night. My aunt was surprised and hoped it was not some Freemason affair. I answered few questions in class. I watched my master’s face pass from amiability to sternness; he hoped I was not beginning to idle. I could not call my wandering thoughts together. I had hardly any patience with the serious work of life which, now that it stood between me and my desire, seemed to me child’s play, ugly monotonous child’s play.
On Saturday morning I reminded my uncle that I wished to go to the bazaar in the evening. He was fussing at the hallstand, looking for the hat-brush, and answered me curtly:
“Yes, boy, I know.”
As he was in the hall I could not go into the front parlour and lie at the window. I left the house in bad humour and walked slowly towards the school. The air was pitilessly raw and already my heart misgave me.
When I came home to dinner my uncle had not yet been home. Still it was early. I sat staring at the clock for some time and, when its ticking began to irritate me, I left the room. I mounted the staircase and gained the upper part of the house. The high cold empty gloomy rooms liberated me and I went from room to room singing. From the front window I saw my companions playing below in the street. Their cries reached me weakened and indistinct and, leaning my forehead against the cool glass, I looked over at the dark house where she lived. I may have stood there for an hour, seeing nothing but the brown-clad figure cast by my imagination, touched discreetly by the lamplight at the curved neck, at the hand upon the railings and at the border below the dress.
When I came downstairs again I found Mrs Mercer sitting at the fire. She was an old garrulous woman, a pawnbroker’s widow, who collected used stamps for some pious purpose. I had to endure the gossip of the tea-table. The meal was prolonged beyond an hour and still my uncle did not come. Mrs Mercer stood up to go: she was sorry she couldn’t wait any longer, but it was after eight o’clock and she did not like to be out late as the night air was bad for her. When she had gone I began to walk up and down the room, clenching my fists. My aunt said:
“I’m afraid you may put off your bazaar for this night of Our Lord.”
At nine o’clock I heard my uncle’s latchkey in the halldoor. I heard him talking to himself and heard the hallstand rocking when it had received the weight of his overcoat. I could interpret these signs. When he was midway through his dinner I asked him to give me the money to go to the bazaar. He had forgotten.
“The people are in bed and after their first sleep now,” he said.
I did not smile. My aunt said to him energetically:
“Can’t you give him the money and let him go? You’ve kept him late enough as it is.”
My uncle said he was very sorry he had forgotten. He said he believed in the old saying: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” He asked me where I was going and, when I had told him a second time he asked me did I know The Arab’s Farewell to his Steed. When I left the kitchen he was about to recite the opening lines of the piece to my aunt.
I held a florin tightly in my hand as I strode down Buckingham Street towards the station. The sight of the streets thronged with buyers and glaring with gas recalled to me the purpose of my journey. I took my seat in a third-class carriage of a deserted train. After an intolerable delay the train moved out of the station slowly. It crept onward among ruinous houses and over the twinkling river. At Westland Row Station a crowd of people pressed to the carriage doors; but the porters moved them back, saying that it was a special train for the bazaar. I remained alone in the bare carriage. In a few minutes the train drew up beside an improvised wooden platform. I passed out on to the road and saw by the lighted dial of a clock that it was ten minutes to ten. In front of me was a large building which displayed the magical name.
I could not find any sixpenny entrance and, fearing that the bazaar would be closed, I passed in quickly through a turnstile, handing a shilling to a weary-looking man. I found myself in a big hall girdled at half its height by a gallery. Nearly all the stalls were closed and the greater part of the hall was in darkness. I recognised a silence like that which pervades a church after a service. I walked into the centre of the bazaar timidly. A few people were gathered about the stalls which were still open. Before a curtain, over which the words Café Chantant were written in coloured lamps, two men were counting money on a salver. I listened to the fall of the coins.
Remembering with difficulty why I had come I went over to one of the stalls and examined porcelain vases and flowered tea-sets. At the door of the stall a young lady was talking and laughing with two young gentlemen. I remarked their English accents and listened vaguely to their conversation.
“O, I never said such a thing!”
“O, but you did!”
“O, but I didn’t!”
“Didn’t she say that?”
“Yes. I heard her.”
“O, there’s a … fib!”
Observing me the young lady came over and asked me did I wish to buy anything. The tone of her voice was not encouraging; she seemed to have spoken to me out of a sense of duty. I looked humbly at the great jars that stood like eastern guards at either side of the dark entrance to the stall and murmured:
“No, thank you.”
The young lady changed the position of one of the vases and went back to the two young men. They began to talk of the same subject. Once or twice the young lady glanced at me over her shoulder.
I lingered before her stall, though I knew my stay was useless, to make my interest in her wares seem the more real. Then I turned away slowly and walked down the middle of the bazaar. I allowed the two pennies to fall against the sixpence in my pocket. I heard a voice call from one end of the gallery that the light was out. The upper part of the hall was now completely dark.
Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.
Why can’t we try Mike or Robert or Knosi? Because the guys say that Mike and Robert and Knosi are busy today and that we’ve no other choice, so up we go again, back up to Watan’s dump on the tenth floor, where it smells of dog though there is no dog, and where the shutters are always down. It’s grim. He sits at the table, weighing the weed with his weird handheld scales, and then he adds a bit and weighs it once more, and you’re just praying he doesn’t start reciting Persian poems again, but then what difference would it make really? He’s going to talk and talk one way or another. And we know exactly what’s coming, too: that stuff about wood splinters being driven down beneath his uncle’s fingernails, and the other stuff about a hot egg being shoved up his uncle’s backside. And then he nods suddenly as if he’s about to tell us a joke, but instead he just says that his father was a very courageous man, just like he, Watan, is a very courageous man, and he keeps weighing and weighing as he tells us about the pamphlets he had to hand out at school, a story he’s told us a thousand times before. He’s drawn us the symbol with the barbed wire and the carnation a thousand times, too, yet now he asks whether we’d like him to draw us the Communist Party symbol. We ask whether he remembers drawing it for us yesterday, but he’s not listening. He describes the film he was watching when his father was shot, but we already know every last detail: we know about the sudden uneasiness that made him leave the cinema, we know that his father bled to death, and we know that he was a courageous man, as Watan last reminded us barely two minutes ago. We say: We’re on our way to a party, Watan, we don’t have much time.
He asks if we want tea.
And he starts making tea and talking about women, and it would be tempting to think: OK, this is a bit better, except we know exactly where he’s leading us: to his aunts by the Caspian Sea, where he and his dead father lay low for a while, and we know that these women were proper women, these ten fat aunts, all of them beating their heads in grief.
And Watan laughs.
Watan laughs away to himself as he brings the tea, describing yet again how his father, washed and made up, was laid out in the cellar and then buried in the garden. We could write a book about it. We say: Watan, you buried your father, and then you hung around the Caspian Sea, where the women go into the water with their veils on, and then you met little Asfael, who stood out from all the others with her short hair. You followed her through the fields, past the pomegranate trees and dumped fridges, and she was almost like a boy, and she used to sit up on the walls, and her kisses were bites. But do you really think we want to hear it all again, Watan? Do you really think we want to hear about how she vanished, and about how the police came and kicked you in the stomach because they had seen the two of you together? And about how you thought they were going to hang you from a crane in the scrapyard, and about how in the end the police left without hanging you from the crane, and about how Asfael climbed out of a refrigerator and laughed as if she hadn’t been the slightest bit scared? No, Watan, we’d rather not hear it all again, not for the thousandth time, and why are you bringing us stuffed vine leaves now, cracking the same old joke, calling them Eva’s knickers? Just weigh the weed, Watan, weigh the weed.
And Watan silently weighs the weed and says: The war, and we say: No, Watan, less war and more weed, because by now we know everything there is to know about the war, don’t we? We know that you were conscripted and that you ran away and that you were holed up in a cave for three days waiting for the smugglers, don’t we? And we know that Asfael came with you and wanted to get away too, don’t we, and that the smugglers didn’t want to take her, but that they changed their mind when she took the money out of her bag? And that the smugglers all called themselves “Ali”, we know that too, don’t we? We know that you travelled across the mountains on horseback and that there was so much snow you couldn’t see a thing, don’t we? We say: Yes, Watan, we know all about it, we’ve ridden across those mountains with you a thousand times, and we too have wondered a thousand times whether the horse is going backwards or forwards or whether we’re dead already. We’ve seen the bluish snow and the cranes and the barbed wire, none of which was real, and we know that the strongest Ali hit you, Watan, because you were so feeble. We’ve seen the helicopters above the mountain villages and the two of you hiding among the goats and you touching the post on the Turkish border three times to assure yourself you weren’t just imagining it. We could tell the story in our sleep, Watan: There were twenty of you in the lorry, all Iranians, hidden away behind rugs, and your girl’s thumbs started bleeding and you had to kiss them, and all she wanted to hear was how much you loved her, but by then you had no strength left for her. And someone knocked over the canister you’d all pissed into, and it turned out it was the weightlifter from Zahedan, the one you really couldn’t stand because he was always showing off the newspaper article with his photo and loudly going on about all the prizes he’d won, even when you were stopped at service stations, which is the one place it’s important to keep quiet, did you know that? Believe us, Watan, we know it only too well. Asfael held on to you so tightly you could hardly breathe, and then you noticed a hole in the tarpaulin, and you saw houses again for the first time. We can see them before us now, Watan.
I see, says Watan, I see, but how would you like a hot egg? How would you like a hot egg shoved up your backside like they did to my uncle? And he stands up as if he’s about to boil an egg, but then he raises an eyebrow, and he’s obviously trying to be funny, and we all smile. Yes, we all smile, sort of, but we’re not really smiling at all, and we say: Watan, please just weigh the weed. And he weighs the weed, but the words keep pouring out of him; they pour out from his lower lip. Because there’s one thing he’s never told us about, he says: how he got the rash that made him scratch his chest with a fork until it bled. By then they had got to Istanbul, he and Asfael, and they had spent the whole winter in a tiny room there, waiting for passports. And he had to grow a beard, and the plan was to shave off the beard on the day his photo was taken, because then the skin underneath would be pale and smooth and he would look younger, but the rash was in his beard too, and he was itching all over. And then, to make matters worse, Asfael used the wardrobe as firewood even though one of the Alis had warned them not to use the wardrobe as firewood. And they had had a fight, and he wanted to sleep with her, but she would only sleep with him if he loved her, and he wasn’t able to tell her that he loved her. And how, he asks us, is it possible to love someone when the shutters are always down and Ali only occasionally brings bread for you to eat, and when your sole distraction is Turkish TV, which only broadcasts between six and nine, and then it’s only love stories you don’t understand a word of, just rababababab, which probably means I love you. How is it possible to love someone in a place like that, can someone please tell him? When the boss Ali shows up with a photographer and two women, and struts around in his fur coat like a king, when he gropes Asfael’s breasts, even though she hardly has any, and when Asfael keeps smiling politely because she wants fuel for the stove? And when the boss Ali says they don’t use enough lighter fluid, these Iranians don’t know how to get a fire going, and when he then wants to demonstrate how to use the stove. And this is a funny story, isn’t it, asks Watan, funny, right? The way the boss Ali squirted lighter fluid into the stove and threw in a match so there was a bang and a huge cloud of soot turned the whole room black. Though it wasn’t so hilarious when, as punishment for his own stupidity, the boss Ali disappeared again, only returning with the passports six weeks later, but he won’t tell us about that now, he doesn’t want to bore us. Nor will he tell us about how the boss Ali continued to humiliate him, telling him that when he got to the airport, he should say he was brain damaged and travelling to Germany for an operation. Or about how that’s what he actually did say when he got to the airport and flew to Germany as a Turk called Amir Huschang Rahbarsare, though that story really is funny. But he won’t go into that now, nor will he tell us about how the man behind the counter rubbed his fingers over Asfael’s photo and saw that it had been swapped, and that he, Watan, could do nothing to help her and instead just stared at the man’s thumbs and tried to say something about the weather, but by then she had made a run for it and was gone for good. And he won’t tell us about how he suddenly did love her then, not unless we want to hear about it, that is.
And we say: to be honest, not really, Watan, we’ve heard that one a thousand times before too; now weigh the damn weed! And he weighs the weed and says: These scales are acting up, go ahead and take the weed. Hallelujah, we think, and thank him. We get up, but of course just as we’re about to leave, Watan asks if he can come too. And we say: No, Watan, it’s just a small get-together, sorry. And he says it’s okay, but then he comes with us anyway because he needs to go to the corner shop, which is in the same direction, but after we say goodbye to him outside the shop, we notice that he keeps following us. Every time we turn around, he’s lurking in the shadows, and by the time we finally get to the party we’re feeling on edge. The girls we promised we’d bring the weed for are waiting outside the front door, and they throw us a quick glance but don’t pay us much attention; instead, they crane their necks and ask: What’s that behind you?
And we say: That’s Watan. We buy our weed off him.
*© Andreas Stichmann, 2013.
She has long legs like a pair of rivers coming together at the source, a deep lagoon: dark, wet and mysterious. But she also has a pair of repeating words, a tattoo on her back and hands that knead you like you were dough.
She says that she killed her uncle. She walks barefoot because she feels the earth growing inside her: she says that the earth slips up through her heels and grows along her veins like power lines, or roads, grew up next to the railway.
The earth makes her strong, she says, it’s how she can stand the way people stare at her. If it weren’t for the earth, by now she’d be cracked like an ombú: crazy, she says.
And she says that she left a newborn baby in a field in Benítez, about five years ago. Time has clearly left its mark. So has the cumbia music she whistles as she walks down Avenida Güemes, just where Avenida Güemes starts to go downhill so sharply that it seems as though it’s burrowed underground. It doesn’t just lose its asphalt coating, it acquires a carpet of shards of brick that were supposedly meant to fill in the potholes around the ceramics factory.
So now you tell me a story, she says when she’s finished her own. She always tells me her story. And then she chews on a blade of grass sitting by the side of the stream that bears away the waste from the pigsties and the ceramics factory behind us. On this hot evening the factory looks like a crumbling empire. I make up a story for her. She likes adventures involving warriors and princesses. She likes castles and witches. She likes landscapes that take her far away from these ruins. She likes tigers.
She’s not from around here, say the taxi drivers lined up along the curve. She came with the guys who built the Federation and stayed. She lives behind the ceramics factory in an abandoned house choked with weeds. You see her with the dogs (she talks to the dogs) and hanging around with the kids from the country. They’re much younger than her, they say. She can’t have kids yet but the way she’s going, it’s only a matter of time, someone will take her, the taxi drivers say from their wicker chairs on the pavement. They don’t know the girl’s real story. They’d never be able to imagine the scene inside the corrugated iron shack, on a farm in Castilla, her uncle pulling her hair, tearing off her clothes, entering her with dark pleasure in his eyes and a continuous whisper on his lips. Neither are they capable of imagining her six months pregnant, on a rainy night when her uncle came back and she firmly plunged a knife into his torso, coolly, no different from slicing a loaf of bread. And they can’t imagine the girl’s face, the image that pursues her every time she closes her eyes lying on an old mattress in the abandoned house, of when she left her son behind – because he didn’t feel like hers, he’d been born dirty – amid the bales of hay in a field in Benítez. She’s unimaginable to them even though they make up stories about her, even though they’re watching her now as she disappears down Avenida Güemes, swaying atop her long legs like a pair of rivers coming together at the source.
From my patio, I can see George at the edge of his pool, thirty yards down the hillside. A thicket separates us, which covers an incline of red, cracked earth, bordered on both sides by walls of dry stone. George is in his swimsuit and sandals, and is wearing sunglasses from the 70s which, I know because we bought them together, cover the upper halves of his cheeks, like two fat drops of water just about to fall, and which don’t suit him. George’s pool has a kind of bean shape that recalls the shape of his sunglasses and even though every morning he comes out to analyze the pH balance and slowly drag a net across the surface to collect debris, he never swims there, neither he nor anyone else for that matter, except the wasps. The wasps, who make George nervous, and against whom he has set every kind of trap, clump along the edge of his pool. I see him sometimes crush one under his foot, then rub the sole of his shoe against the sparse grass in his yard. No longer does he raise his head in the direction of my patio, so I can watch him as long as I want while he is maintaining his pool – every morning the same ritual. Quite often I fall asleep beneath my sun umbrella, until Louis brings me lunch, with the mail and two newspapers. Then I make a few quick, impersonal phone calls. George, at this hour, has abandoned his pool and I suppose gone back into his house, of which I can only make out the tip of the roof. On that side, fairly tall and dense trees block the view I might have of George’s patio, a hideous slab of flambé flagstone, overhung by a striped orange awning trimmed with grayish fringe, underneath which I imagine him seated, like me, motionless. He might have put on a shirt and served himself a glass of something – I don’t know whether or not he has completely given up drinking. Our two houses are the lowest and the most modest in the development, both dating from the 50s, both fairly ugly, although George’s is particularly so – all his attempts at improvement only made things worse, and it is not rare for people who are lost to come ringing his doorbell, convinced they are ringing at the caretaker’s house.
Underneath the noonday sun, George’s pool forms a gleaming spot that doesn’t turn blue again until later in the day. Also gleaming is the enormous red sign of the Champion supermarket, whose customers now include the most influential hillside residents, the very same ones who had initially worked so determinedly to ensure its immediate demolition. From what I hear, Champion meat, especially Champion veal, is remarkable, and the Champion butcher can size up, in a single glance, who he’s dealing with. Wherever you are invited to dinner around here, you are now served Champion veal, prepared in every kind of sauce and reputed to be so tender that no one is offended anymore by the sign which, lit up day and night, can be seen from every patio, including the Klausens’ patio, highest of them all, and where, defeated by Susi Klausen’s insistence and her endless telephone calls since June, I finally had dinner last night. Last night, after having resisted their solicitations for over a month, I subjected myself to the Klausens’ house, the Klausens’ champagne, the Klausens’ conversation, and while Louis was taking me to their house, I thought about what awaited me there, Rolf Klausen in his yachtsman’s outfit, leaning against his balustrade as if against the railing of a ship, Susi Klausen appearing, like a bolt of lightning, out of nowhere, to dismiss Louis with a sweep of her hand, seize the handles of my wheelchair, and, with the dexterity of the nurse she had been before getting Rolf Klausen in her clutches, whip it suddenly in the direction of the rectangle of lawn dedicated to aperitifs. There, lit by tiny spotlights, were a mix of botanical species, sculptures, and guests, bearing testimony to the use Susi Klausen makes of Rolf Klausen’s millions, the latter who, invariably affable, displayed, as he did at every party, a studied bonhomie, awaiting the moment when he could go off to bed. And last night I found myself shaking Rolf Klausen’s hand as if I were shaking the hand of the good and amiable man he appeared to be, all the while perfectly aware that I was shaking the hand of a crook, and as I was shaking Rolf Klausen’s hand and then those of the guests, I could still hear George’s voice, the voice I miss, declaring that the entire hillside is nothing but a pile of crooked businessmen. In each of the houses on this hillside, George would say, when we were still friends, there is a con man who has lived his murderous existence in perfect legality, completely devoted to speculation. And the money he has made, he recycles into art foundations and art galleries and museums worldwide, wherever there is art, George would say, there is a crook who, along with art, buys himself an artistic conscience, even though he understands nothing about art, even though art bores the shit out of him, he has, nevertheless, perfectly understood and evaluated all the profit, with regards to respectability, he can extract from art. George, back when the Klausens first moved to the hillside, was an art critic and it was as an art critic that he was invited to dinner at the Klausens, only once, after which the Klausens did not want to hear anymore about George, either because he had subjected the paintings with which the Klausens covered the walls of their new home to his criticisms, or else because he had contented himself to walk past them without uttering a single word, or had lifted Susi Klausen’s skirt at the moment when she was offering him a plate of hors d’oeuvres, one way or another George managed to avoid ever getting invited again.
And while Susi Klausen, who had positioned my wheelchair with its back to a shallow pool whose moisture spread diffusely across the small of my back, recounted the burglary of which they had been victims that very afternoon – a small Renaissance-era bronze that was still in the living room when she had come down from the second floor at five-thirty on the dot to go to the kitchen, was no longer there when she came back out some ten minutes later – I was thinking that I myself was not so lucky, as to be done with the Klausens’ invitations. It would have been, Susi Klausen was saying, just as easy to take this or that painting down from the living room walls, because naturally the alarm system to which each painting was connected was not activated during the day. But, overlooking the paintings, they had only taken the little Renaissance bronze, as well as a table lighter next to it, so that the policemen were leaning towards the theory of an amateur burglary, the first of the season, according to them. At that moment, each of the guests, pretending to be interested in the Klausens’ burglary, must have actually been worrying about his own house and the doors and windows that he had perhaps neglected to lock, I hope that you have all taken precautions, went on Susi Klausen, come on, said Rolf Klausen calmly, after all, we’re pretty well protected here, proof positive, countered Susi Klausen with bitterness. Believe it or not, she added, it’s my table lighter that I most regret, we’d been using that lighter for years, and everyone knows a table lighter that works after the first twenty-four hours is priceless. The woman seated to my right turned towards me, looked at me with her head slightly cocked, and I had yet again to acknowledge the strange attraction that it has on certain people, this wheelchair, without which I cannot go anywhere since a year ago now, when I was ejected from George’s car. The woman had placed her hand on the wheel of the chair that she was stroking slowly with her index finger. Her husband, or at least the man I finally understood to be her husband, was extremely old. He must have been the famous Genevan philosopher whose presence Susi Klausen had mentioned to me. His wife, roughly thirty years his junior, had vaguely red, frothy hair, a dress with a loose neckline, and was speaking quickly, with the false gaiety of a melancholic, they had rented one of the houses on the hillside for the summer, probably the only house on the hillside without a pool, she announced, smiling, and I did not disabuse her of the idea, although I myself have never had a pool, except George’s, George’s pool was always enough for me, but what were we waiting for to be seated at table?
Silently, I observed the Klausens’ guests who – we were fourteen – formed an indeterminate cluster in the night, illuminated here and there by the garden spotlights and from which Rolf and Susi Klausen appeared more clearly distinct, as did the old philosopher and his now clearly too-young wife, two couples whose intimacies I imagined at the end of dinner, the mute ceremony of their going to bed in the silence of their rooms, the swallowed sleeping pills, the bitterness of Susi Klausen stuffing ear plugs into her ears, the impotent advances of the old philosopher, the lights turned out without the faintest attempt to move closer to one another, now that they had passed from indifference to disgust, disillusionment to loathing. My neighbor, though still leaning towards me, had fallen silent, she had not asked me anything about my wheelchair, informed, no doubt by Susi Klausen, on the subject of the horrible accident, and no doubt quite familiar with the manner in which, a year ago, George, completely drunk, managed to ram his car into the guardrail of the highway that overlooks the sea here, and how he walked away without a scratch, while I, thrown through the windshield, went gliding over the guardrail. It’s Susi Klausen who, whenever she mentions the accident, uses the term gliding, an acrobatic movement I personally have no memory of making, that no witness confirmed, and that, the way she describes it, has for me, every time, the rather burlesque effect of a scene of a movie perpetually rewound and replayed in fast forward. I know that no one thought much of my chances of survival when they picked me up from the other side of the guardrail, lying between two rows of vines, but things being what they are, I am still here, behaving like a reasonable invalid, in possession of excellent faculties and a sufficient amount of fatalism. Nevertheless, George is nothing less than my murderer, in the eyes of Susi Klausen, who, I must acknowledge, came daily to see me in the hospital, instantly rediscovering her nurse’s reflexes, so well that it was she who was entrusted with the task of breaking the news to me about which of my body parts I could still count on. But as precious as Susi Klausen probably was to me in the context of the hospital, Susi Klausen is equally as intolerable outside of that context, on the one hand an excellent ex-nurse, on the other a fatuous acquaintance whom I have been doing my utmost, since coming home, to keep at a distance. My ingratitude towards Susi Klausen is equaled only by the rudeness with which I send her packing each time she calls, that is to say at least twice a week, when it’s not Louis who I put in charge of dismissing her. Louis was supplied to me by Susi Klausen as soon as I left the hospital, the day I arrived home Louis was waiting for me at the door, a tall, thin man with a lugubrious look, impassive, whom nothing could disturb. In the eyes of Susi Klausen, George is not only my murderer but also his wife’s. George’s wife died at the end of last summer, in George’s pool, a few weeks after my return from the hospital, without anyone being able to determine whether she had meant to swim or to drown herself. No one here really knew her – she was Italian, their wedding had taken place six months earlier in Italy – but Susi Klausen, as she let it be widely known, has every reason to think that George, in one way or another, is responsible for the death of his wife who, it has been established, never swam in their pool, but always in the sea. An excellent swimmer, emphasizes Susi Klausen. Married, to her downfall, to this destructive being who could do nothing, she insists, but push her to the limit, destroy her, as he destroys everything. I let her go on, even though I know how much they loved each other and how inconsolable George is now, whom I watch every morning executing the same vain gestures around his pool. They took away his driver’s license (George is prohibited from driving for life, just as I am prohibited, for life, from walking), so that it is very difficult for him to visit the grave of his wife, who is buried in the Italian family crypt. I momentarily thought that George was going to leave and settle down there, near his wife’s grave, but no, he stays here, near the pool in which he found her and from which he himself pulled her out, and that, day after day, he cleans under my watch, with a terrifying fastidiousness, manifestly aware, although he never looks in my direction, that I am watching him from my patio. That man is nothing but a criminal, repeats Susi Klausen and, by the sweep of her arm which accompanies this remark, it does not escape me that she includes not only my wheelchair and George’s pool, at the bottom of which his wife was found, but also the paintings and the sculptures with which she filled her house, the Klausens’ notorious collection, that George, the only time he was invited over, probably only glanced at distractedly, if not, that is, passing them by altogether without noticing them. The worst of George’s crimes is to have neglected, as Susi Klausen expected, to admire and thus legitimize the Klausens’ reputedly audacious collection, an assortment of trifles, as he later restricted himself to commenting. Only a very small canvas, stuck in a hidden corner at the foot of the staircase, vaguely aroused his interest, precisely a painting Susi Klausen told him she had acquired in a moment of confusion and which she urged him to overlook. As for the rest of it, it is obvious, to hear it from George, that the Klausens, incapable of even the remotest artistic feeling, were scammed by every art dealer on the planet. That they lacked artistic culture is of little importance to George, but such a dearth of artistic sensibility, is. They bought what is currently most insignificant, most vulgar, and most expensive, George told me of the Klausens. I have pity for artists, he further told me, no matter how mediocre, who have to traffic with these individuals, the Klausens that we know and all other Klausens, incapable of behaving in the presence of artists in a way that is not insulting, because when presented with their work, they think nothing and feel nothing that is not dictated by vanity and insensitivity. People, and not only idiots, come every summer to admire the Klausens’ collection and the latest acquisitions of the Klausens, when in reality what fascinates them is the fortune of the Klausens, of whom it is known that their other house, where they retire as soon as autumn ends and stay, as Susi Klausen reports, all winter like hermits, contains not a single piece of art of the kind they display here. The Klausens spend the winter in a house that is several centuries old, in the middle of the trusted values of antiquity; they spend it, as George heard Susi Klausen declare, surrounded by their palliating antiques.
And how’s your friend George? asked Rolf Klausen in a loud voice, who, having crossed the lawn with a bottle in hand, had come up to me, a little too close, so that the buttons of his jacket that gleamed like eyes bulging out of their sockets were level with my eyes. It seemed to me that he was wobbling slightly. A pretty funny guy, if I remember correctly, he added. I saw Susi Klausen coming straight at me in her multicolored tunic to dismiss her husband with a brusque gesture and, bracelets jangling, retake control of my wheelchair, at which point the guests rose and we were all directed towards the patio where the dinner table had been set, the seats set slightly further apart around the one assigned to me, between the old philosopher’s wife and Susi Klausen’s sister, Laure, as she introduced herself to me, very simply, unfolding her napkin with her frail hands. I had not noticed her until that moment, and I immediately wondered how she could possibly be the sister of Susi Klausen, while noting that the old philosopher’s wife, to my left – and next to her Rolf Klausen – was wearing a offensively insidious perfume that, each time she manipulated her fork or seized her glass, wafted in my direction, depriving me of any possibility of eating. Susi Klausen’s sister did not seem very hungry either, and when I pointed this out to her she smiled and said no, no actually, perhaps because she herself had prepared this course, so that I made an effort to swallow the contents of my plate. Laure’s hair was extremely smooth and silky, and swept across her face in a disarming way without seeming to bother her, as opposed to the old philosopher’s wife who ruffled and shook out her hair constantly, and to whom I completely turned my back, turning towards Laure in a deliberate move that seemed to disconcert her slightly. Across from her, crammed into his chair, the old philosopher, with his prominent eyes and his short, frizzy beard creeping up his cheeks, stared without expression at a spot on the tablecloth, as if dozing. Other dishes were brought out, and Laure asked me politely if I lived here year-round. I answered yes with the same politeness, adding that it had been a while since I had settled here, long before all these houses were built. A dreadful place, thundered the old philosopher, suddenly roused from his torpor. And, fork in fist, he banged on the table. Someone laughed briefly and conversations resumed. I didn’t know Susi had a sister, I said to Laure. We don’t see each other often, she said, I live abroad in Bombay, well for now, in Bombay. In Bombay, I said. Yes, she said. Far away, I thought. Are you familiar with India? asked Laure. No, I said, suddenly imagining myself roaming the streets of Bombay, full of invalids, I’ve always been quite sedentary. I smiled. You have had a difficult year, said Laure. I’m getting used to it, I said, which was almost true, as the months went by I ended up thinking that the accident had not actually changed much in my life, I had never seen much of life anyway, I said to Laure, I’ve always liked solitude, a certain silence around me, and when I’d had enough of being alone, I had George, I told her, I only had to walk a few yards and I was at George’s, I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. Get rid of everything, bellowed the old philosopher suddenly, fixing his round eyes on Laure. George? resumed Laure. The one who was driving, I told her. Laure nodded her head slowly and I told myself that perhaps she thought George was dead, as I myself immediately had thought upon waking up in the hospital, until he entered the room, with his wife, and they stood there at the side of my bed, hand in hand. For weeks, I could have told Laure, I saw George and his wife enter my room and hold hands at my bedside and then, when I was able to approach the window, George’s arm around his wife’s shoulders while they walked together to their car in the hospital parking lot. Once, I could have told Laure, George’s wife came alone. I was not having a very good day, and I was afraid that she had come with the intention of talking to me about the accident, which would have been completely pointless, but she had only come, she said, to sit near me for a moment, because I was constantly on her mind, of course, and, she added, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, she had felt the sudden need to come, it was for her own sake that she had come. I told her ok, and then, a little bit later, that I really liked her smile, and I thought that if there were, in the future, other moments like these perhaps in the end it would be all right. And there were several of them, even if never exactly the same as that one, then George’s wife drowned, one morning while I was on my patio, and Louis somewhere behind me, busy clipping a hedge and all I would have had to do was to call out when I saw her, all of a sudden, just after waving to me, wobbling on the edge of the pool that she was hosing down, probably to chase away the wasps, and, as if surprised, letting go of the hose and slowly toppling over into the water, with her sunglasses on. Motionless in my wheelchair, I watched George’s wife sink, to the sound of Louis’ clippers, and when this sound was interrupted and Louis dropped his clippers and started running, alerted by George’s shouting, I could see nothing more, having stared too long at the gleaming surface of the pool. I remember the body laid out on the edge of the pool, I could have also told Laure, the stupefied face that George, kneeling, raised in my direction, the extraordinary silence of that moment. You had fallen asleep, Louis told me later, in a tone of voice that would accept no alternative. And as desserts were being placed on the Klausens’ table, I mused that Louis would soon be here, who would take me back home and help me to bed, then I heard myself asking Laure, although I didn’t listen to her answer, how much longer she intended to stay.
* This story is taken from: Gardeners By Véronique Bizot, Translated by Youna Kwak, Diálogos Books: June 2017. dialogosbooks.com
“Squad, stand easy… and fall out!” crowed Corporal Billygoat, in a voice that betrayed it had only broken lately.
And at once, off duty now, he slapped Dragon on the back and said: “Hey, brother, go find out what’s for dinner.”
Dragon eagerly set off for the nearby farm buildings where we were having our break that day. The thick blue smoke rising from the chimney of the cottage where our commanding officer was billeted was giving us the hope that today’s dinner would make up for the last few days’ lack of food.
Meanwhile, idly swaying from side to side (he always had his legs bent at the knees, which made him look as if the chair had just been removed from under him), Corporal Billygoat went over to a pile of crumpled straw and, with a low grunt, sat down. Then he cheerfully surveyed the squad surrounding him. The lads idolised him ‒ or so at least it was said.
“Why are you all standing there as if you’re at a wedding? Onyourarses-sit! Aren’t your legs aching? Maybe you want some more drill?”
Corporal Billygoat was a fine fellow. Maybe just a bit too sharp. Though that probably came with obeying the rules ‒ he was a great stickler for the rules. Even after the longest march no one could lie down without roll-call and prayers. An hour before going into action he was quite capable of putting the platoon through his favourite drill. Truly, that drill was enough to put the keenest men off walking a step further. In any case, none of us had much faith in it ‒ why did anyone need to know how to march in swarm formation if the first random ricochet could finish him off? Whereas Corporal Billygoat felt wonderful during drill. He would choose a hilly site for our exercises. He would take up position on a natural rise and strike his crop against his boot tops as he shouted the commands in a shrill voice:
“Fan out, men!”
“Take your positions!”
“One by one at a jump forward march!”
Here, regrettably, I must add that Corporal Billygoat’s one weakness was that wretched shrill voice of his, totally at odds with the gravitas of the rank he held (leader of the first squad, sometimes deputising for the commanding officer). Apart from that, Corporal Billygoat was, to make no bones about it, the typical, all too familiar martinet of an NCO. Perhaps only slightly odder, because he was very young, and operating within the particular conditions of a partisan army. Several times since, from the distance of many years, which has galvanised me to take a more critical view of Corporal Billygoat, I have often wondered whether his entire attitude was actually a pose, adopted from something he happened to have read. But these thoughts may also have been prompted by the events I’m going to describe.
The sun was already brushing the threadbare tops of the pine trees, and there was a stink of sweat-soaked footwraps on the air. We were sprawled about on the grass beside the corporal’s pile of straw, none of us in the mood for talking, because it was quite stuffy, and a man becomes terribly idle in such a sultry atmosphere. Corporal Billygoat slowly pulled off his boots, then unwound his footwraps, sniffed them in disgust and spread them out on the grass. As the footwraps lay steaming, suddenly the corporal said: “Well, boys, what if the war were to end right now?”
We made cheerful but non-committal noises. For what could we say? It was often mentioned, but if it were to happen, we wouldn’t actually have known the whole thing had started ‒ “the whole thing” meaning civilian life, as lived at peace. Damn it all, we had grown up during the war and we’d got used to it.
Corporal Billygoat’s question was awkward. And yet I ventured to take up the debate.
“To tell the truth, sir, I’ve had enough of the war by now,” I said.
Billygoat gave me an indulgent look. I passed in the unit as a duffer – the intellectual sort who can’t even carry out a food patrol properly, “because it’s a pity to take the last hen,” as I had excused myself once to the corporal.
Billygoat disdainfully scratched his chin, on which the first few hairs had managed to push through, resembling gingery down.
“Bonehead” – such was the pseudonym they had given me, despite my desperate protests – “you’re an arse. Cos you’re afraid of everything. Can’t do this cos it’s a pity, can’t do that cos you’ll go to hell…”
I kept silent, in keeping with military form, while Billygoat turned his drying footwraps over. There was no sound, just a crane calling from somewhere in the marshes.
“You don’t win war by being kind-hearted, brother. If you don’t blast the bastard first, he’ll finish you. That’s the basic principle of war. We don’t take any prisoners here.”
His final words stirred the interest of the squad. I had already withdrawn from the debate, for in this situation what could a man say who until recently had recoiled at the sight of blood?
“So what if we were to take prisoners, sir? What would we do with them?” asked Mollusc timidly.
Corporal Billygoat didn’t lose his temper. He didn’t even show ironical surprise, but raised his right hand and motioned with his index finger, as if pulling the trigger of a rifle.
“We’d rub them out.”
“Shoot the bastards,” retorted Wiktor, famous among us for his courage.
“Sir, let’s have Chaffinch or Bonehead blow away the first Kraut we capture,” cried Blackbird, and the squad roared with laughter, making some anxious dogs respond with barking from the farm buildings.
Corporal Billygoat stretched his legs out and began keenly examining his dirty fingernails. We all knew he was on the verge of telling a story. I moved up, and lounged on the corporal’s straw, perhaps overstepping the mark, but he didn’t notice that, and after a glance at the yellow sky, he began his tale.
“Last summer, when I was still in Thunderbolt’s unit, three of us went to the highway. We were bloody short of guns in the company and there were nothing to eat. I was itching to get my hands on a Luger. So off we go, I’m leading the way. It’s quite hot, so we stop at this village for buttermilk.” (Corporal Billygoat always told his stories in great detail.) “Then we follow the borders of the fields to reach the highway. The corn ain’t been harvested yet, so we get up really close. We lie down in these bloody prickly juniper bushes. There was a ditch full of water by the highway. We were thirsty. So Pinetree – he was a brave lad – he crawls into it and drinks the rainwater. We lie there for an hour or so. Until we hear an engine…”
The corporal broke off his narrative and started fumbling in his pockets. He took out an old pipe tobacco tin and began to roll a cigarette. Some cows were lowing on their way back from pasture.
Snorting smoke, Billygoat continued his story.
“So we look, and there from around the bend comes a truck, mottled all over. Meaning an army truck. I lob a grenade onto the highway, my mates blast a few shots at the engine, and we jump out into the road. The cab doors slowly open and, brother, two arms slide out. I look and there’s this dream watch. So then we drag out two krauts. Nothing special in the vehicle, just a bit of fuel. They got tins of food in the cab, a rifle and a sub-machine gun, the ones I’ve got now. We stripped the krauts right away – those bastards were quaking with fear something dreadful. Pinetree says: ‘Slug ‘em, sir?’ I just wink, and he drags one of them by the shirt and off into the bushes. The German starts moaning, but Pinetree says: ‘Zum Komandant’. I grab the other one and off we go the same way too. Just one blast from the gun – it was primed. We set the lorry on fire. Pinetree lugged the tins back with us. We counted – there’s seventeen of ‘em. It was just a shame about the truck. Great vehicle, but not much use if the cylinders are shot through…”
Corporal Billygoat was done, and looked around at the lads, who were silent. After a pause Chaffinch asked: “Sir, what about the watch?”
Billygoat stretched out a skinny arm, and there on his wrist we saw a bright nickel watch on a metal band, the first time we’d noticed it.
I don’t know why – somehow I always blurted things out at the wrong moment – but I said: “When is it so… like, er… killing prisoners…”
The lads exchanged glances and snorted with laughter. Corporal Billygoat laughed the longest. And then he grew serious and said: “Yes, brother, you don’t fight a war with books.”
I wanted to speak up again, but the corporal fell back supine and suddenly sighed: “Huh, I could do with a nice piece of arse…”
The conversation moved on to girls, and being no expert on this topic, I limited myself to listening. In any case I felt quite intimidated, and had no desire to take further risks.
But Corporal Billygoat was feeling pleased with himself, laughing in a rather squeaky tone that startled the swallows trying to get under the thatch of the barn outside which we were lying.
Our unit commander was a lieutenant not much older than we were. In fact, he was just a boy. He did look quite impressive – he was very tall, with huge black eyebrows, a massive hooked nose and rather bovine eyes. He was very concerned about the unit’s moral standards (not even Corporal Billygoat dared to curse or start up an indecent conversation in his presence), and generally he ran the unit in keeping with the rather literary rules of the gentleman commanding officer. He was also very strict. I don’t know if I can repeat this, but according to Wiktor, who had been in another unit with him somewhere else, our commander had quite a tragic past. At the end of his cadet training the top brass organised a combat mission for some of the novice cadets, including our commander, as one of the most promising officers. The aim chosen for the mission was to destroy a German Stützpunkt – a fortified strongpoint, which was held by the Lithuanians. The Stützpunkt was situated in one of the many manor houses in the area. That night the small unit, on their first mission, crept up to the estate’s outbuildings. The first men to go inside the manor house were to be our commander and a close friend of his. Their task would be to terrorise the Lithuanians, who would be taken by surprise. The rest of the unit were to provide back-up, and to occupy the remaining estate buildings. True to plan, our commander and his friend went up onto the porch of the house and stood outside an open door, through which light was falling. They were close enough to hear the Lithuanians’ voices. As it was their first mission, they were all extremely excited, which is quite enough to explain what happened next. Our commander’s friend was the first to race through the open door, shouting: “Hӓnde hoch!” There was a burst of gunfire, and minutes later when our commander’s friend came out again, in the total chaos our commander mistook him for a Lithuanian (they were wearing German helmets). A short volley of shots rattled from his Soviet PPD (a fine automatic, the commander’s pride and joy) and then he heard his friend groan: “They fucking got me,” before slumping into the darkness. The mission was a success. But one more birch cross was put up in the Gojcieniszki village graveyard. He was the only man killed during the mission. Apparently our commander had lost his mind for several months after that, but somehow his madness had abated and he had started to lead his own unit. He had been unlucky. The story wasn’t at all original, and Wiktor may very well have made it up, and yet the young commander’s permanent sadness and strictness lent some credence to the story. I was personally connected with the commander by some ties that were hard to define. At the start we had had a number of conversations. But in time this had come to an end, because the commander never allowed himself to distinguish me for that reason. Instead he was more demanding, and often punished me for various offences, which he called “Bonehead’s oafishness”. Whereas I did not want to create the appearance of imposing myself, and began to keep away from him.
So next morning my surprise was all the greater when, shortly before dawn, while I was on watch by a broken fence, staring at the rose-pink sky, the commander came out of the cottage, relieved himself under a lilac bush and slowly walked up to me.
“Well then, Bonehead, all quiet?” he asked, buttoning up his flies.
“All quiet, sir,” I said, straightening my hunched shoulders in military style.
“It seems we haven’t had the chance to talk lately, Bonehead. The way it goes I’m permanently exhausted and can’t pull myself together.”
I looked closer, and sure enough, I could see a fog of weariness in his eyes.
“I’m not doing too well, sir, I’m afraid I’m a bit of an oaf,” I started clumsily justifying both him and myself. “I’m no good at the requisition patrols. It’s like… bloody hell, like waging war on women. Because if there’s action, at least everyone’s shooting, so then I shoot too. And, apparently, I’m a coward,” I added after a brief hesitation.
I was expecting a protest, a denial on the part of the commander. But he gave me an almost hostile look, very harsh, and said: “Don’t you forget that I demand more of you than the others. You’ve got to overcome your intellectual complex. The fact that you don’t want to take anyone’s boots away isn’t an ethically justified gesture of honesty. Don’t forget this is war, and this is your unit. Any moment of weakness ricochets back on all of us.”
By now the sun had cut its way out of the purple strip of forest and was shuddering in the red mist. The day promised to be blazing hot.
“Yes sir,” I agreed in soldierly manner.
The commandant fixed his bovine eyes on me and stared for a while. Then he pulled his belt up and began to chew his nails. He knew he’d never be able to convince me. In any case, the point of our dispute was something we couldn’t easily define.
Now in an official, if not a hostile tone (or maybe it just seemed that way to me) the commander asked: “Who’s on watch after you?”
“Chaffinch, sir!” I said, clicking my heels.
The rifle was weighing me down, so I shifted it to my left shoulder.
The commander slowly walked back to the cottage, and I felt as if I’d broken an expensive watch.
Then roosters began to crow somewhere nearby, the cattle mooed as they were herded out of the barns, and a dishevelled girl carrying a bucket walked past the fence, heading downhill to a small well. Her shirt was open, making it easy to see her wobbling breasts. She laughed at me stupidly and lustfully. “What a bitch,” I thought, and angrily turned to face the cottage, where I could hear the rap of wood being chopped to light the stove. Then Chaffinch dragged himself outside, sleepy, sour, and shivering with cold.
“Screw the bloody watch,” he muttered. “Just make sure they replace me on time,” he muttered as I got myself ready to leave.
For an hour I dozed at the table, still conscious, but then I crashed on the straw and fell asleep.
When I awoke, the sun was high in the sky. The merciless heat had wrung large beads of sweat out of me. I raised my head. Beyond a rainbow of dust my comrades were sitting at the table, eating. The stink of small wooden tubs full of pigswill hung in the air. The dirty, sweaty housewife was clanking cooking pots on a large stove. Flies buzzed.
“On your feet, men!” joked Corporal Billygoat as I sat up, yawning, on the straw.
“Come and get your blinis,” Chaffinch invited me.
The squad was busily slurping away. Billygoat amicably drew up a bowl of blinis for me. I was hungry, so I set about eating.
“Tuck in, lads,” said the corporal, wiping his greasy chin. “We deserve a good rest. Looks like it’s quiet round here. We can sit in peace. This evening when it cools down we’ll do some exercises,” he added.
“Corporal,” argued Wiktor, “couldn’t we call it a day now? It’s so bloody hot it’s probably going to rain.”
“It won’t do you lot any harm to get some air in your pants. Are you an army or a bunch of civilians?” raged the corporal at such overfamiliarity. Then he rolled a cigarette and went to get a light.
After breakfast we went out into the yard. The sun was blazing down so hard that we even took off our shirts. At once there was a delectable sound of lice being squashed.
“Fuck this bloody war,” said Wiktor. “The lice bite worse than the Germans. And whose fault is all this? Those bastard krauts. Shoot the whole bloody lot of them and there’d be peace.” Furiously he hurled a stone against the side of a kennel, in which a moth-eaten mongrel was dozing.
But the Germans were far away, the district was quiet, and soon we were sprawling on the grass, adroitly avoiding the chicken shit thickly strewn about the green yard.
For a while I stared into the heated sky, then lazily shifted my gaze to the ripening fields. Blackbird was on watch by the fence, wiping the stream of sweat that was pouring from under his helmet (on the commander’s orders we had to wear helmets; Corporal Billygoat made sure the order was obeyed). Past the fence, another guard was standing outside a second cottage, the one where the commander was billeted. Sometimes a breeze would briefly arise that did little to cool our burning bodies.
Corporal Billygoat appeared in the doorway of the cottage with a girl, the one I’d seen that morning.
Then I must have dozed off a while.
I was woken more by instinct than by any particular noise. I looked up and saw Blackbird come running from the fence. His helmet was bouncing comically on his sweaty head. I felt a wave of anxiety. The other lads began to look up nervously as well. I noticed Billygoat in the doorway, on his own now, after getting up in a hurry.
“Germans,” was all Blackbird could gasp breathlessly…
We were dumbstruck.
For some seconds there was such total silence that Blackbird’s panting brought the danger closer. We hastily jumped to our feet. I suddenly felt sick and almost keeled over. But the lads had already raced indoors. As I was running into the cottage Corporal Billygoat appeared in the doorway again, hurriedly loading his sub-machine gun. Inside the boys were silently turning the straw over to fish out the guns they had tossed there carelessly.
After some feverish clattering we ran outside again. As usual, I was the last. It seemed I was never quick off the mark.
Blackbird was already kneeling by the fence with his rifle to his eye. Slightly to one side of him, Corporal Billygoat was crouching under a lilac bush. We stealthily ran up to the bushes dividing the yard from the country road. I remembered my rifle. The butt was already slippery with sweat from my hands. I loaded it. The clank of the bolt was so loud that I thought it had caused an echo.
“Quiet, you bastard,” whispered Billygoat angrily and leaned forwards.
I heard a German voice.
A split second later, through a gap in the undergrowth I noticed a head in a grey forage cap about ten metres in front of me.
After that I couldn’t keep track of the rapid sequence of events.
It seems Billygoat leaped out from under the bushes screaming: “Hӓnde hoch!”
Several other voices instantly repeated this order in various tones. Before the astonished Germans – only two of them – had had time to make a move, the lads had torn their weapons from their hands. As I crawled out of the bushes (last again), Wiktor was patting down the Germans’ pockets. They stood with their arms raised, as if trying to check which way the wind was blowing. Their eyes expressed utter amazement and terror. Corporal Billygoat stood with his braces down in the middle of the road, brandishing his sub-machine gun. The rest of the lads, a dozen half-naked ragamuffins, surrounded the captives. My hands were shaking. I wanted to say something.
“Where are their weapons?” I asked.
There was no answer. Just heavy, rapid breathing. Then I noticed the two Mausers in Chaffinch and Blackbird’s hands.
From the Germans’ pockets Wiktor proceeded to remove some packets of cigarettes, boxes of matches, a wad of letters, wallets with documents, folding knives and some smaller items that I couldn’t see. Then he undid their cartridge belts.
“That’s all they’ve got, sir,” he reported.
Corporal Billygoat straightened his braces and thought for a while. Then in a voice that was almost calm he said: “Escort them to the cottages.”
Wiktor pointed the barrel of his Mauser towards the cottages and ordered: “Quick march!”
Not understanding, the prisoners turned on the spot and began to walk backwards in the direction indicated. They were still holding their hands hesitantly overhead. Wiktor prodded the one on the left with the barrel of his gun.
It was almost pitch dark in the cottage after coming in from the sunny yard. The prisoners sat down on the straw in a corner. Slowly they lowered their hands and gazed anxiously at the circle of men surrounding them. Through the window I saw Billygoat running to the commander’s billet. It was still unbearably quiet.
“Blackbird, why have you left your post?” I asked, to break the silence, and my own voice gave me a shock.
The prisoners glanced at me in terror. I felt sorry for them. Blackbird went back on watch. The housewife and her children were trembling by the stove.
By the time the commander arrived with Corporal Billygoat we had almost entirely calmed down. Wiktor had even tried to make a joke, saying: “Chaffinch, I can tell you got scared,” and then sniffing the air. But nobody laughed.
The commander took a look at the prisoners and told them to hand over their documents. I went closer, ready to help, though I didn’t know a word of German.
The commander turned in his hand a little green booklet, on which it said “Soldbuch” in Gothic script. Then he opened it and read out: “Erich Knothke.”
The straw rustled. It was one of the prisoners moving about. With some difficulty the commander translated the data from the army booklet. Obergefreiter – or Lance Corporal, born in 1925, conservatory student. The other NCO was a tailor by profession. The booklets smelled of sweat and army cloth. Flies buzzed against the window panes. The prisoners sighed in the corner.
Gradually we returned to our normal occupations. Wiktor and Chaffinch went outside, while Signal stood by the prisoners. He would keep watch on them. Corporal Billygoat even put his sub-machine gun down on a bench.
On his way out the commander said: “Keep a close eye on them.”
And that was all.
Corporal Billygoat gazed at the prisoners for a long time. Finally he stood up and approached them. He made signs to tell them to get undressed. They blinked, failing to understand. “Schnell,” Billygoat urged them. Suddenly the younger one began to sob. They held out their hands, begging for something. They thought there was going to be an execution. Corporal Billygoat started explaining, half in German, half in Polish and partly in sign language that he only wanted them to swap clothes because his soldiers were in rags. They understood, and quickly began to strip off their uniforms, while feverishly trying to explain something. They were clearly expressing their readiness to hand it all over in exchange for their lives.
Later, when we assembled in the yard, while the prisoners went on sitting in the cottage in torn rags under guard, Billygoat appeared, in spite of the heat, in a German NCO’s jacket. He seemed quite proud.
In fact all of us were feeling a certain joy. And a little anxiety. After all, they were our first prisoners. We were pleased. But as ever, I stupidly blurted: “Sir, what are we going to do with them? We’ll let them go this evening, won’t we?”
Corporal Billygoat laughed out loud. Several others joined in. For a while he examined the flashes on the epaulettes of his new, ex-German uniform and then suddenly, as if wearily, he said: “What? You know that ‒ they get rubbed out.”
I realised my arm had gone numb. I turned onto my other side. Somewhere crickets were chirping. I felt sorry for the prisoners. I always had been sentimental.
“Bang, and the head explodes,” said Wiktor, snapping his fingers, and laughed unpleasantly. I was afraid of him. A red-legged rooster strode across the yard. Dinner time was approaching.
We ate our dinner out of doors. I was pleased about that. I couldn’t bear the sight of the prisoners hunched in the corner. By a lucky turn of events I wasn’t tasked with guarding them either. The sun continued to blaze down on us. Still in the uniform, Corporal Billygoat smeared the bulging beads of sweat across his brow. The dog lay lifelessly by its kennel. “When will they do them in?” I wondered, as I gazed at the black hole of the window. The first small clouds were starting to appear on the horizon. The soup was impossibly hot. The conversation dragged along idly. Then we lay on the grass.
After recent events the exercises Billygoat had announced probably wouldn’t happen. The hens were moving their heads in a comical angular way. I was feeling anxious about the evening ahead.
Corporal Billygoat turned lazily from side to side, and then calmly, as if spontaneously, as if he’d only just remembered, said: “Hey, Bonehead, go and give the prisoners something to eat.”
I moved slowly on purpose, to avoid showing too much eagerness, in the hope that the corporal might yet rescind the order. In no hurry, I walked over to the dog and scratched him on his bony side. Panting fast, he glanced up at me from a festering eye. As I entered the cottage I felt the gaze of the lads on me. I tried to listen, in case they said something. But they remained silent.
Inside it was almost chilly. The prisoners were sitting still in their places. The guard was playing with the safety catch on his automatic. I didn’t look in their direction. I fetched two plates of soup from the housewife and put them down in front of the prisoners. Then I went back for some bread. The prisoners livened up. The younger one, from the conservatory, began to whine about something. His eyes were damp, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. I guessed he was afraid. I looked out of the window. The curtains were rippling in a light breeze.
“Nicht Tod,” I lied. “Essen, then nach Hause,” I said, pointing at the bright rectangle of the door.
They looked at me mistrustfully. I smiled again.
They believed me. The younger one said something else, but in a calmer tone this time. Then he reached his bony white hands out for the plate. They ate in silence. The younger one just slurped away, while the Unteroffizier occasionally smacked his lips.
Noiselessly, to avoid attracting the prisoners’ attention and to escape their eyes, I slipped outside. It was quiet. A shadow of cloud slithered across the ripe corn and brushed soundlessly against a linden tree.
I lay down on the grass beside my comrades, and there we remained for ages, measuring the time by the narrow shadows of the clouds.
The day was still extremely hot, but luckily it was drawing to an end. A flock of crows gathered above the woods, debating loudly, and then flew off into the colourless sky. Then they reassembled, and the noise of their cawing muffled our heavy breathing.
Corporal Billygoat was sitting on the threshold, his right hand shamelessly fiddling with the girl’s breasts. Occasionally he laughed and cast a glance at the squad flopping on the grass, to see if anyone had noticed his love-making. But the lads were dozing. Somehow I felt anxious. I was afraid of the evening.
Wiktor was on guard by the fence.
At some point I heard footsteps. I raised my head. The commander was coming over to us from his billet. He had a jacket thrown over his sloping shoulders.
Quickly I got to my feet. Roused from their slumber, the lads looked up. The girl disappeared into the darkness of the cottage, and Corporal Billygoat came the other way.
“So what about the prisoners?” asked the commander.
“They’re sitting quietly, sir,” replied Billygoat. “They’ve been given dinner.”
The commander stood lost in thought. As we stood around them in a circle, my hands began to shake. The commander smoothed his hair.
“Billygoat, your squad will shoot the prisoners this evening,” he said firmly but quietly. I felt myself flush. Corporal Billygoat shifted from foot to foot and noisily swallowed his saliva.
“Yes sir,” he said softly and neutrally.
“You’ll draw lots. The two who draw the marked lots will shoot the Germans this evening when we’re on the march.”
We said nothing.
The crows cawed alarmingly in the yellowing sky.
“All right, Billygoat, get on with drawing the lots!” snapped the commander.
Billygoat stirred, then straightened up and said: “Yes, sir!”
Then he slowly walked towards the cottage. We followed him. The commander stood up straight in the middle of the yard. There was a moist breeze from the meadows. I shuddered.
We stopped outside the cottage. The corporal went inside. We could hear his footsteps and the rustle of straw. Soon he came back out with a page torn from an exercise book. Somewhere nearby cows were lowing.
The corporal addressed the commander, asking: “Do I have to prepare a lot for myself too?”
Billygoat slowly tore the sheet of paper into eleven strips. I leaned against the door frame. Then he licked the stub of a copy pencil, and on two of the strips he drew a crooked cross. There was total silence.
The commander was standing still with his eyes closed.
The corporal rolled up the strips of paper and tipped them into his greasy four-cornered cap. Then he stirred them with a finger. We all went up to the commander.
The first to draw was Chaffinch. As he unrolled the scrap of paper and glanced at it, his eyes hardened. We didn’t ask him the result. Then other hands plunged into the cap in turn and drew out more scraps of white ruled paper.
I stepped back to the outside of the circle, counting on someone else drawing the fatal lot before me. But I couldn’t keep still. I could feel a tight knot in the pit of my stomach, a familiar sensation from school. The lots were drawn in turn by Wiktor, Blackbird, Ploughshare, Button, Mollusc, Antek and Signal. Then Dusky went up. I held my breath. But he too tossed a blank scrap of paper to the ground. I turned round to face the fence. My hands were shaking. Now it should be Corporal Billygoat’s turn to draw, and to take out the slip of paper with the clumsy cross.
But I heard him saying irritably: “Who hasn’t bloody well drawn yet?”
I realised that mine was a lost cause. He was counting on the same thing as I was.
I went up to the circle. My comrades stepped aside in silence. The commander watched calmly and malevolently. As I reached into the cap, I noticed that Corporal Billygoat’s lips were quivering. Or maybe I just imagined it?
The ticking of Billygoat’s watch was loud, very loud in that silence.
I unrolled the slip of paper. A wave of heat flooded over me. The paper was marked with a cross. I made an effort to smile.
Billygoat asked calmly: “Well, so there’s no need for me to draw?”
The commander nodded.
“Ts-ts-ts-ts-ts,” cried the housewife, calling in the piglets. The dog began to bark by its kennel.
Without looking at us, the commander said: “So Chaffinch and Bonehead will carry out the execution. Chaffinch can use the corporal’s sub-machine gun and Bonehead can have my Luger. Once we’re on the march the corporal will explain the rest.”
And he slowly walked off to his billet. We saluted.
Then gradually normal conversation took off again, perhaps more animated than usual. Everyone, except for me and Chaffinch, was overjoyed. The corporal sat down on the threshold again.
I couldn’t gather my thoughts. I lay down on the grass, and listened to the blood pulsing in my temples. That brought me relief. I also avoided looking in the direction of the cottage. I felt stifled, even though the sun was sinking on us.
I lay there for ages, trying my best the whole time not to think about anything. I kept shifting my gaze to a different spot. I tried focusing on trivial things that would keep me from looking at the dark rectangle of the window that linked us with the prisoners. And yet time dragged very slowly. The yellow sun was bursting and turning red, getting ready to leap into the blackening horizon. I thought about other metaphors to describe the sunset. But my gaze kept creeping like a thief towards the cottage. I was sweating. I don’t know if I was feeling for the prisoners. I was just afraid to put an end to life. We had always valued life.
Then the cows came home. Earlier than usual, because the unit was to have a drink of milk before leaving. The piebald cows with drooping udders mockingly gazed at me with the eyes of the commander. The air was muggy.
Totally at their ease, my comrades were listening to Wiktor’s jokes. They had shifted the whole business of the prisoners onto me and Chaffinch. I suddenly felt thirsty. I walked around the house in search of a bucket, but didn’t go inside. Something rustled in the raspberry bushes, and I could hear squealing. It was Corporal Billygoat lustfully violating the girl. I walked downhill to the well. A crane let out an alarming screech. I leaned over the side of the well and saw an almost childlike face, which the wrinkles of water were twisting into a grimace of laughter. Quickly I turned away, and without drinking any water, went back to the yard. The sun was now touching the line of the forest. The cry of the crane rang out from the marshes again.
An hour after sunset the liaison officer came from the commander. We’d be marching out in fifteen minutes. We gathered up our kit. I hung an ammunition belt over my shoulder and put on a knapsack filled with bullet pans for the Degtyaryov machine gun. My rifle felt strangely heavy. We led out the prisoners. They scanned the sky, bright amid the falling darkness, and they were uneasy. Blackbird and I guarded them. They made signs to ask if they could go now. I shook my head. They were starting to guess what was up. The younger one burst into bitter tears. The Unteroffizier was silent. The younger one tried to ask if he could go to one side. I shook my head. I showed him he had to relieve himself on the spot. At gunpoint he lowered his trousers and began to do his business. I turned away from the stink. He hadn’t even the right to shame.
Then we went to the commander’s billet. The two other squads were already standing there in readiness. They stared in curiosity at the ragged prisoners with bare heads. Corporal Billygoat kept order in the uniform from which the Unteroffizier’s insignia had been freshly unpicked. It was getting cold.
I kept far away from the prisoners. The commander came out of his billet and disappeared at the head of the column. We got moving. We were seen off by prolonged barking from the dogs, answered by others yelping in the distance. The sky was going dark and the first stars were twinkling. Then Orion floated up, to be our guide that night. The Great Bear, our compass yesterday, remained to one side, behind us. We came onto a sandy road that was at once surrounded by forest. In my knapsack the ammunition in the machine-gun pans sang monotonously.
Once swarms of stars were crowding the sky, indicating a time of roughly an hour before midnight, the order went to the front: “Head of column, halt!” The column halted. My heart missed a beat. I knew this was it. But I didn’t move from the spot, as if hoping they’d overlook my presence and manage without me. But I could already hear Corporal Billygoat’s hushed voice: “Where’s Bonehead? Bonehead! Bonehead!”
I stirred myself.
“Here,” I whispered, using a hand to quieten the ammunition rattling in my knapsack. I walked up to the corporal. He sought my hand and stuck the Luger in it. By the faint light of the stars I noticed that the hairs on his juvenile chin were trembling. I was shocked by the gravity of the moment.
“There you are,” he whispered hesitantly.
He walked off, but immediately returned. He said nothing, but as he turned around, he waved a hand and muttered: “It’s loaded.”
I drew level with the column. At once against the background of the sky I recognised the bare heads of the prisoners. Chaffinch was already there too.
“I’ll take the musician,” I told him.
He didn’t reply.
Somewhere nearby Corporal Billygoat’s watch was ticking insistently.
I tugged the younger prisoner by the sleeve. He understood. He tried to kneel down, weeping and grabbing me by the hands. I pushed him away.
“Zum Kommandant,” I explained.
He didn’t believe me.
“Zum Kommandant,” I repeated, and dragged him along. I hid the Luger behind my back and noiselessly released the safety catch.
I told him to walk ahead, and we went in among the trees. He was snivelling the whole time. I was afraid of him, even though he had no weapon and very soon he was going to die. I couldn’t stand it any longer. I raised the Luger. At that moment the prisoner turned around and looked down the barrel of the pistol. He stepped back and shrieked – “Aaaaa…” – and without aiming, I pulled the trigger. A streak of flame touched his forehead. In the final split second his white sneering teeth shone in the dark. Then the top of his head disappeared, his body began to sway, and like a balloon deprived of air he wilted to the ground. On my way back I felt springy moss beneath my feet. A short volley clattered from the sub-machine gun. That was Chaffinch. As I was nearing the column, a startled tawny owl cackled. I squatted down in shock, and then quickly retook my place in the column. I tossed the rifle onto my back. Nobody came to get the Luger. I handed it forward to the front.
Then came the question: “All in order?”
We were silent.
Then someone said in an angry tone: “In order.”
We set off. I felt total emptiness inside, like the corpses that had remained there in the moss. I began to laugh nervously. Somebody took the rifle from me. A voice said: “Fucking hell.”
To one side I noticed that someone was hurriedly tearing off his jacket. German metal buttons flashed and a uniform floated down onto the road behind us. A shadow in a white shirt joined our column. At the rear behind us a shapeless patch remained on the road: the discarded Unteroffizier’s uniform.
Poetic Orion tirelessly guided us onwards amid the clamour of vigilant grasshoppers.
*From the Polish “Kapral Koziołek i ja” © Maria Konwicka, published by kind permission of the copyright holder.
There’s a handsaw hanging on the wall of my living room, a house key from a giant’s pocket. It’s been there a long time. “What’s your saw for?” people ask, and I say, “It’s not my saw. I never owned a saw.”
“But what’s it for?”
“Hanging,” I answer.
By now if you took it down you’d see the ghost of the saw behind. Or—no, not the ghost, because the blue wallpaper would be dark where the saw had protected it from the sun. Ghosts are pale. So the room is the ghost. The saw is the only thing that’s real.
These days, though it grieves me to say it, that sounds about right.
Here’s how I became a singer. Forty years ago I walked past the Washington Monument in Baltimore and thought, I’ll climb that. It was first thing in the morning. They’d just opened up. As I climbed I sang with my eyes closed—“Summertime,” I think it was. Yes, of course it was. “Summertime.” I kept my hand on the iron banister. My feet found the stairs. In my head I saw myself at a party, leaning on a piano, singing in front of a small audience. I climbed, I sang. I never could remember the words, largely because of a spoonerized version my friend Fred liked to sing—Tummersime, and the iving is leazy / jif are fumping, and the hiver is rye…
Then a man’s voice said, “Wow.”
In my memory, he leans against the wall two steps from the top, shouldering a saw like a rifle. But of course he wouldn’t have brought his saw to the Washington Monument. He was a big-boned, raw-faced blond man with a smashed Parker House roll of a nose, a puny felt hat hanging on the back of his head. His slacks were dark synthetic, snagged. His orange cardigan looked like rusted Brillo. He was so big you wondered how he could have got up there—had the tower been built around him? Had he arrived in pieces and been assembled on the spot? “Wow,” he said again, and clasped his hands in front of himself, bouncing on his knees with the syncopated jollification of a love-struck 1930s cartoon character. I expected to see querulous lines of excitement coming off his head, punctuated by exclamation marks. He plucked off his hat. His hair looked like it had been combed with a piece of buttered toast.
“That was you?” he asked.
I nodded. Maybe he was some municipal employee, charged with keeping the noise down.
“You sound like a saw,” he said. His voice was soft. I thought he might be from the South, like me, though later I found out he just had one of those voices that picked up accents through static electricity. Really he was from Paterson, New Jersey.
“A saw?” I asked.
I put my fingers to my throat. “I don’t know what that means.”
He held up his big hands, one still palming his hat. “Beautiful,” he said. “Not of this earth. Come with me, I’ll show you. Boy, you sure taught George Gershwin a lesson. Where do you sing?”
“Nowhere,” I said.
I couldn’t sing, according to my friends. The only person who’d ever said anything nice about my voice was my friend Fred Tibbets, who claimed that when I was drunk, sometimes I managed to carry a tune. But we drank a lot in those days, and when I was drunk Fred was drunk, too, and sentimental. Still, I secretly believed I could sing. My only evidence was the pleasure singing brought me. Most common mistake in the world, believing that physical pleasure and virtue are in any way related, directly or indirectly.
The man shook his head. “No good,” he said very seriously. “That’s rotten. We’ll change that.” He went to take my hand and instead hung his hat upon it. Then I felt his own hand squeeze mine through the felt. “You’ll sing for me, OK? Would you sing for me? You’ll sing for me.”
He led me back down the monument, the hat on my hand, his hand behind it. My wrist began to sweat but I didn’t mind. “Of course you’ll sing,” he said. He went ahead of me but kept stopping, so I’d half tumble onto the point of his elbow. “I know people. I’m from Philadelphia. Well, I live there. I came to Bawlmore because a buddy of mine, part of a trio, he broke his arm and needed a guitar player so there you go. There are two hundred and twenty-eight steps on this thing. I read it on the plaque. Also I counted. God, you’re a skinny girl, you’re like nothing, you’re so lovely, no, you are, don’t disagree, I know what I’m talking about. Well, not all the time, but right now I do. I’ll play you my saw. Not everyone appreciates it but you will. What’s your name? Once more? Oof. We’ll change that, have to, you need something short and to the point. Take me, I used to be Gabriel McClonnahashem, there’s a moniker, huh? Now I’m Gabe Macon. For you, I don’t know, let me think: Miss Porth. Because you’re a chanteuse, that’s why the Miss. And Porthkiss, I don’t know. And Miss Kiss is just silly. Look at you blush! The human musical saw. There are all sorts of places you can sing, you don’t know your own worth, that’s your problem. I’ve known singers and I’ve known singers. I heard you and I thought, There’s a voice I could listen to for the rest of my life. I’m not kidding. I don’t kid about things like that. I don’t kid about music. I was frozen to the spot. Look, still: goose bumps. You rescued me from the tower, Rapunzel: I climbed down on your voice. I’ll talk to my friend Jake. I’ll talk to this other guy I know. I have a feeling about you. I have a feeling about you. Are you getting as dizzy as me? Maybe it’s not the stairs. Do you believe in love at first sight? That’s not a line, it’s a question. I do, of course I do, would I ask if I didn’t? Because I believe in luck, that’s why. We’re nearly at the bottom. Poor kid, you never even got to the top. Come on. For ten cents it’s strictly an all-you-can-climb monument. We’ll go back up. Come on. Come on.”
“I can sing?” I asked him.
He looked at me. His eyes were green, with gears of darker green around the pupils.
“Trust me,” he said.
I wasn’t the sort of girl who’d climb a monument with a strange man. Or go back to his hotel room with him. Or agree to move to Philadelphia the next day.
But I did.
His room was on the top floor of the Elite Hotel, the kind of place you might check in to to commit suicide: toilet down the hall, a sink in the corner of the room, a view of another building with windows exactly across from the Elite’s windows.
“Musical saw,” said Gabe Macon. He opened a cardboard suitcase that sat at the end of the single bed. First he took out a long item wrapped in a sheet. A violin bow. Then a piece of rosin.
“You hit it with that?” I asked.
“Hit it? What hit?” Gabe said.
“Look,” he said. The saw he’d hung in the closet with his suits. I’d thought a musical saw would be a percussion instrument. A xylophone, maybe. A marimba. He rosined the bow and sat on a chair on the corner. The saw was just a regular wood saw. He clamped his feet on the end of it and then pulled the bow across the dull side of the blade. You could hardly see the saw, the handle clamped between his feet, the end of the metal snagged in his hand: he was a pile of man with a blade at the heart, a man doing violence to something with an unlikely weapon.
It was the voice of a beautiful toothache. It was the sound of every enchanted harp, flute, princess turned into a tree in every fairy tale ever written.
“I sound like that?” I said.
He nodded, kept playing.
I sound like that. It was humiliating, alarming, ugly, exciting. It was like looking at a flattering picture of yourself doing something you wished you hadn’t been photographed doing. That’s me. He was playing “Fly Me to the Moon.”
He finished and looked at me with those Rube-Goldberg eyes. “That’s you,” he said. He flexed the saw back and forth then dropped it to the ground.
I picked it up and tried to see my reflection in the metal. “You don’t take the teeth off?”
“Nope,” he said. “This is my second saw. Here. Give me.” I lifted it by the blade and he caught it through the tawny handle. “First one I bought was too good. Short, expensive. Wouldn’t bend. You need something cheap and with a good length to it. Eight points to an inch, this one. Teeth, I mean.” He flexed it. The metal made that backstage thunder noise I’d imagined when he’d first said I sounded like a saw. “This one, though. It’s right.” He flipped it around and caught it again between his brown shoes and drew the bow against it. He’d turned on just one light by the hotel bed when we’d come into the room. Now it was dark out. I listened to the saw and looked at the sink in the corner. A spider crawled out of it, tapping one leg in front musingly like a blind man with a cane before clambering over the embankment. The saw sighed. Me, too. Then Gabe reached over with the bow and touched my shoulder. I flinched, as though the horsehair had caught a case of sharp off the saw.
“That’s you,” he said again.
Maybe I loved Gabe already. What’s love at first sight but a bucket thrown over you that smoothes out all your previous self-loathing, so that you can see yourself slick and matted down and audacious? At least, I believed for the first time that I was capable of being loved.
Or maybe I just loved the saw.
We left for Philly the next day. The story of our success, and it wasn’t much success, is pretty boring, as all such stories are. A lot of waiting by the phone. A lot of bad talent nights. One great talent night in which I won a box of dishes. The walk home from that night, Gabe carrying the dishes and smashing them into the gutter one by one. Don’t do it, I said, those are mine—
He held one dish to my forehead, then lifted it up, then touched it down again, the way you do with a hammer to a nail before you drive it in.
Then he stroked my forehead with the plate edge.
“Don’t tell me what to do,” he said.
He wrote songs. Before I met him I had no idea of how anyone wrote a song. His apartment on Sansom Street smelled of burnt tomato sauce and had in the kitchen, in place of a stove, a piano that looked as though it had been through a house fire. Sometimes he played it. Sometimes he sat at it with his hands twitching over the keys like leashed dogs. “The Land Beyond the Land We Know.” “A Pocket Full of Pennies.” “Your Second Biggest Regret.” “Keep Your Eyes Out for Me.” He was such a sly mimic, such a sneaky thief, that people thought these were obscure standards, if such a thing exists, songs they’d heard many times long ago and were only now remembering. He wrote a song every day. He got mad that sometimes I couldn’t keep them straight or remember them all. “That’s a Hanging Offense.” “Don’t You Care at All.” “Till the End of Us.”
We performed them together. He bought me a green Grecian-draped dress that itched, and matching opera gloves that were too long and cut into my armpits, and lipstick, and false eyelashes—all haunted, especially the eyelashes.
History is full of the sad stories of foolish women. What’s terrible is that I was not foolish. Ask anyone. Ask Fred Tibbets, who lied and said I could carry a tune.
We cut a record called Miss Porth Sings! For a long time you could still find it in bins in record shops under Vocals or Other or Novelty. Me on the sleeve, my head tipped back. I wore red lipstick that made my complexion orange, and tiny saw-shaped earrings. My hair was cashew-colored. That was a fault of the printing. In real life, in those days, my hair was the color of sandpaper: diamond, garnet, ruby.
I was on the radio. I was on the Gypsy Rose Lee Show. Miss Porth, the Human Musical Saw! But the whole point was that Gabe’s saw sounded human. Why be a human who only sounds like an inanimate object that sounds human?
This is not a story about success. In the world we were what we’d always been. The love story: the saw and the sawish voice. We were two cripplingly shy, witheringly judgmental people who fell in love in private, away from the conversation and caution of other people, and then we left town before anyone could warn us.
In Philadelphia he began to throw things at me—silly, embarrassing, lighter-than-air things: a bowl full of egg whites I was about to whip for a soufflé, my brother’s birthday card, the entire contents of a newly opened box of powdered sugar. For days I left white fingerprints behind. He said it was an accident, he hadn’t meant to throw it at all. He was only gesturing.
And then he began to threaten me with the saw.
I don’t think he could have explained it himself. He didn’t drink, but he would seem drunk. The drunkenness, or whatever it was, moved his limbs. Picked up the saw. Brought it to my throat, and just held it there. He never moved the blade, and spoke of the terrible things he would do to himself.
“I’m going to commit suicide,” he said. “I will. Don’t leave me. Tell me you won’t.”
I couldn’t shake my head or speak, and so I tried to look at him with love. I couldn’t stand the way he hated himself. I wanted to kill the person who made him feel this way. Our apartment was bright at the front, by the windows, and black and airless at the back, where the bed was. Where we were now, lying on a quilt that looked like a classroom map, orange, blue, green, yellow.
“My life is over,” said Gabe. He had the burnt-tomato smell of the whole apartment. “I’m old. I’m old. I’m talentless. I can see it, but you know, at the same time, I listen to the radio all day and I don’t understand. Why will you break everyone’s hearts the way you do? Why do you do it? You’re crazy. Probably you’re not capable of love. You need help. I will kill myself. I’ve thought about it ever since I was a little kid.”
The saw blade took a bite of me, eight tooth marks per inch. Cheap steel, the kind that bent easily. I had my hands at the dull side of the saw. How did we get here, I wondered, but I’d had the same disoriented thought when I believed I’d fallen in love with him at first sight, lying in the same bed: How did this happen?
“I could jump,” he said. “What do you think I was doing up that tower when you found me? Windows were too small, I didn’t realize. I’d gotten my nerve up. But then there you were, and you were so little. And your voice. And I guess I changed my mind. Will you say something, Marya? You’ve broken my heart. One of these days I’ll kill myself.”
I knew everything about him. He weighed exactly twice what I did, to the pound. He was ambitious and doubtful: he wanted to be famous, and he wanted no one to look at him, ever, which is probably the human condition—in him it was merely amplified. That was nearly all I knew about him. Sometimes we still told the story of our life together to each other: Why had I climbed the tower that day? Why had he? He had almost stayed in Philadelphia. I’d almost gone back home for the weekend but then my great-aunt Florence died and my folks went to her funeral. If he’d been five minutes slower he wouldn’t have caught me singing. If I’d been ten minutes later, I would have smiled at him as he left.
We were lucky, we told each other, blind pure luck.
One night we were at our standing gig, at a cabaret called Maxie’s. It hurt to sing, with the pearls sticking to the saw cuts. The owner was named Marco Bell. He loved me. Marco’s face was so wrinkled that when he smoked you could see every line in his face tense and slacken.
There’s a land beyond the land we know,
Where time is green and men are slow.
Follow me and soon you’ll know,
My green dress was too big and I kept having to hitch it up. It wasn’t too big a month ago. At the break, I sat down next to Marco. “How are you?” I asked.
“Full of sorrow,” he answered. He leaned into the hand holding the cigarette. I thought he might light his pomaded hair on fire.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“You do it, Miss Porth. With your—” He waved at the spot where I’d been standing.
I laughed. “They’re not all sad songs.”
“Yes,” he said. There was not a joke in a five-mile radius of the man. He had a great Russian head with bullying eyebrows. Three years earlier his wife had had a stroke, and sometimes she came into the club in a chevron-patterned dress, sitting in her wheelchair and patting the tabletop, either in time to the music or looking for something she’d put down there. “You’re wrong. They are.”
I said, “Sometimes I don’t think I’m doing anyone any favors.”
Then Gabe was behind me. He touched my shoulder lovingly. Listen: don’t tell me otherwise. It was not nice love, it was not good love, but you cannot tell me that it wasn’t love. Love is not oxygen, though many songwriters will tell you that it is; it is not a chemical substance that is either definitively present or absent; it cannot be reduced to its parts. It is not like a flower, or an animal, or anything that you will ever be able to recognize when you see it. Love is food. That’s all. Neither better nor worse. Sometimes very good. Sometimes terrible. But to say—as people will—that wasn’t love. As though that makes you feel better! Well, it might not have been nourishing, but it sustained me for a while. Once I’d left I’d be as bad as any reformed sinner, amazed at my old self, but even with the blade against my neck, I loved him, his worries about the future, his reliable black moods, his reliable affection—that was still there, too, though sullied by remorse.
I stayed for the saw, too. Not the threat of it. I stayed because of those minutes on stage when I could understand it. Gabe bent it back and it called out, Oh, no, honey, help. It wanted comfort. It wanted to comfort me. We were in trouble together, the two of us: the honey-throated saw, the saw-voiced girl. Help, help, we’re still alive, the saw sang, though mostly its songs were just pronouns all stuck together: I, we, mine, you, you, we, mine.
Yes, that’s right. I was going to tell you about the saw.
Gabe touched my shoulder and said, “Marya, let’s go.”
Marco said, “In a minute. Miss Porth, let’s have a drink.”
“Marya,” said Gabe.
“I’d love one,” I said.
Maxie’s was a popular place—no sign on the front door, a private joke. There was a crowd. Gabe punched me. He punched me in the breast. The right breast. A very strange place to take a punch. Not the worst place. I thought that as it happened: not the worst place to take a punch. The chairs at Maxie’s had backs carved like bamboo. He punched me. I’d never been punched before. He said, “See how it feels, when someone breaks your heart?” and I thought, Yes, as it happens, I think I do.
I was on my back. Marco had his arms around Gabe’s arms and was whispering things in his ear. A crowd had formed. People were touching me. I wished they wouldn’t.
Here is what I want to tell you: I knew something was ending, and I was grateful, and I missed it.
About five years ago in a restaurant near my apartment someone recognized me. “You’re—are you Miss Porth?” he said. “You’re Miss Porth.” Man about my own age, tweed blazer, bald with a crinkly snub-nosed puppyish face, the kind that always looks like it’s about to sneeze. “I used to see you at Maxie’s,” he said. “All the time. Well, lots. I was in grad school at Penn. Miss Porth! Good God! I always wondered what happened to you!”
I was sitting at the bar, waiting for a friend, and I wanted to end the conversation before the friend arrived. The man took a bar stool next to me. We talked for a while about Philadelphia. He still lived there, he was just in town for a conference. He shook the ice from his emptied drink into his mouth, and I knew he was back there—not listening to me, exactly, just remembering who was at his elbow, and did she want another drink, and did he have enough money for another drink for both of them. All the good things he believed about himself then: by now he’d know whether he’d been right, and right or wrong, knowing was dull. I didn’t like being his occasion for nostalgia.
“I have your album,” he said. “I’m a fan. Seriously. It’s my field, music. I— Some guy hit you,” he said suddenly. His puppy face looked over-sneezeish. “I can’t remember. Was he a drunk? Some guy in love with you? That’s right. A crazy.”
“Random thing,” I said. “What were you studying?”
“Folklore,” he said absentmindedly. “I always wondered something about you. Can I ask? Do you mind?”
Oh, I thought, slide down that rabbit hole if you have to, just let go of my hem, don’t take me with you.
“I loved to hear you,” he said. Puppy tilt to his head, too. “You were like nothing else. But I always wondered—I mean, you seem like an intelligent woman. I never spoke to you back then.” One piece of ice clung to the bottom of his glass and he fished it out with his fingers. “Did you realize that people were laughing at you?”
Then he said, “Oh, my God.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Not me,” he said. “I swear, you were wonderful.”
I turned to him. “Of course I knew,” I said. “How could I miss it?”
The line between pride and a lack of it is thin and brittle and thrilling as new ice. Only when you’re young are you able to skate out onto it, to not care which side you end up on. That was me. I was innocent. Later, when you’re old, when you know things, well, it takes all sorts of effort, and ropes, and pulleys, and all kinds of tricks, to keep you from crashing through, if you’re even willing to risk it.
Though maybe I did know back then that some people didn’t take me seriously. But still: the first time they came to laugh. Not the second. I could hear the audience. I could hear how still they were when I sang with my eyes closed. Sure, some of them had thought, Who does she think she’s fooling? Who does she think she is, with that old green gown, with those made-up songs? But then they’d listen. It was those people, I think, the ones who thought at first they were above me, who got the wind knocked out of them. Who brought their friends the next week. Who bought my record. Who thought: Me. No more, no less, she’s fooling me.
Later I got a letter asking for the right to put two songs from Miss Porth Sings! on a record called Songs from Mars: Eccentrics and their Music. The note said, Do you know what happened to G. Macon? I need his permission, too, of course.
The night of the punch, I went home with Gabe for the last time. Of course, don’t call the police, I told Marco. He was exhausted, repentant. I led him to the bed, to the faded quilt, and he fell asleep. From the kitchen phone I called his sister in Paterson, whom I’d never met, and I told her Gabe Macon was in trouble and alone and needed help. Then I climbed into bed next to him. Gabe had an archipelago of moles on his neck I’d never noticed, and a few faint acne scars on his nose. His eyebrows were knit in dreamy thought. I loved that nose. He hated it. “Do I really look like that?” he’d ask, seeing a picture of himself. He’d cover his nose with his hand.
I didn’t know what would become of him. I had to quit caring. It wasn’t love and it wasn’t the saw and it wasn’t a fear of being alone that kept me there: it was wanting to know the end of the story, and wanting the end to be happy.
At five a.m. I left with a bag, the saw, bamboo-patterned bruises on my back, and a fist-shaped bruise on my right breast. Soon enough I was amazed at how little I cared for him. Maybe that was worse than anything.
Still, no matter what, I can’t shake my first impression. Even now, miles and years away, the saw in my living room to remind me, when I think of Gabe, I see a 1930s animated character: the black pie-cut eyes, white gloved hands held flat against the background, dark long limbs without elbows and knees that do not bend but undulate. The cheap jazzy glorious music that, despite your better self, puts you in a good mood. Fills you with cheap jazzy hope. And it seems you’re making big strides across the country on your spring-operated limbs, in your spring-loaded open car, in your jazzy pneumatic existence. You don’t even notice that behind you, over and over in the same order, is the same tree, shack, street corner, mouse hole, table set for dinner, blown-back curtains.
*This story is taken from: Thunderstruck and Other Stories © 2014 by Elizabeth McCracken, The Dial Press, New York.
Turiddu Macca, the son of mistress Nunzia, when he came home from being a soldier, every afternoon strutted about the piazza with his bersagliere uniform and his red cap, that looked like a fortune-teller’s when he sets up his bench with the cage of canaries. The girls looked longingly at him as they went to mass with their roses in their mantles, and the urchins buzzed about him like flies. He had brought with him a pipe with the king on horseback on it, like life, and he lighted matches on the seat of his trousers, raising one leg as if to give a kick. But with all that Massaro Angelo’s Lola had not shown herself either at mass or on the balcony, for she had betrothed herself to a man from Licodia who was a carter and had four mules from Sortino in his barn. At first when Turiddu learned it, holy great devil! he would cut out the heart of that man from Licodia, he would! However he 2 did nothing of the kind, and vented his anger by going to sing all the songs of disdain which he knew, under the window of the beauty.
“Hasn’t mistress Nunzia’s Turiddu anything to do?” said the neighbors, “that he passes the nights singing like a solitary sparrow?”
Finally he came upon Lola who was returning from a visit to the Madonna of Peril, and at seeing him she turned neither white nor red, as if it was no matter of hers.
“Blessed is he who sees you!” he said to her.
“Oh, Compare Turiddu, they told me that you came back the first of the month.”
“To me they told other things yet!” he answered. “It is true that you marry Compare Alfio the carter?”
“If it is the will of God!” replied Lola, drawing the two ends of her kerchief over her chin.
“The will of God, you do it fast and loose, as it suits you! And the will of God was that I must come back from so far away to find these fine tidings, mistress Lola!”
The poor fellow tried to appear brave, but his voice had turned hoarse; and he went behind the girl, with a swinging walk, while the tassel of his cap danced here and there on his shoulders. She, in her conscience, was grieved to see him with such a long face. However, she had not the heart to flatter him with fine words.
“Listen, Compare Turiddu,” she said to him at last, “let me rejoin my companions. What would they say if they saw me with you?–”
“That is right,” replied Turiddu. “Now that you are to marry Compare Alfio, who has four mules in the stall, people must not be set talking. My mother instead, poor woman, had to sell our bay mule and that little piece of vineyard on the highway, in the time that I was a soldier. The times are past when Bertha span, and you think no more of the time when we talked to each other at the window upon the courtyard and you presented me that handkerchief, before I went away, and heaven knows how 3 many tears I have wept in it, going away so far that even the name of our town was lost. Now farewell, mistress Lola; let us consider it a good riddance and our friendship ended.”
Mistress Lola married the carter; and Sunday she placed herself on the balcony with her hands before her to show all the heavy gold rings that her husband had presented to her. Turiddu continued to pass and repass through the narrow street, with his pipe in his mouth and his hands in his pockets, with an air of indifference, and eying the girls; but within, it gnawed him to think that the husband of Lola should have all that gold, and that she should feign not to see him when he passed.
“I will play her a trick under her very eyes, that jade!” he muttered.
Opposite to Compare Alfio lived Massaro Cola, the vine-dresser, who was rich as a hog, they said, and had a daughter at home. Turiddu said and did so much that he was taken into employment by Massaro Cola, and began to frequent the house and to say sweet little words to the girl.
“Why don’t you go to say to mistress Lola these fine things?” answered Santa.
“Mistress Lola is a great lady! Mistress Lola has married a crowned king, now!”
“I don’t merit crowned kings.”
“You are worth a hundred Lolas; and I know a man who wouldn’t look at mistress Lola, nor her saint, when you are there, for mistress Lola is not worthy to bring your shoes, she is not worthy!”
“The fox when he could reach the grape–”
“Said: how beautiful you are, my little bunch of grapes!”
“Oh! Those hands, Compare Turiddu.”
“Are you afraid that I shall eat you?”
“I am not afraid of you nor of your saint.”
“Eh, your mother was from Licodia, we know! You have quarrelsome blood! I could eat you with my eyes!”
“Eat me with your eyes, for we shall make no crumbs; but meanwhile draw up this fagot for me.”
“For you I would draw up the whole house, I would!”
She, in order not to blush, threw him a log that she had under her hand, and it did not hit him by a miracle.
“Let us make haste, for talk does not bind twigs.”
“If I were rich, I would seek a wife like you, mistress Santa.”
“I shall not marry a crowned king like mistress Lola, but I have my dowry, too, when the Lord shall send me someone.”
“We know that you are rich, we know it!”
“If you know it, then make haste, for papa is coming and I would not like to be found in the courtyard.”
The father began to make a wry face, but the daughter feigned not to observe it, for the tassel of the cap of the bersagliere had made a tickling within her heart, and danced always before her eyes. When the father put Turiddu out of the door, the daughter opened the window and stayed talking with him the whole evening, so that all the neighborhood talked of nothing else.
“For you I am going mad,” said Turiddu, “and I lose sleep and appetite.”
“I would like to be the son of the king to marry you!”
“By the Madonna, I could eat you like bread!”
“Ah! On my honor!”
“Ah; mamma mia!”
Lola, who listened every evening, hidden behind a pot of basil, and turned pale and red, one day called Turiddu.
“And so, Compare Turiddu, old friends never salute each other any more?”
“But!” sighed the young man, “Blessed is he who can salute you!”
“If you have the intention to salute me, you know where I live!” replied Lola.
Turiddu returned so often to salute her that Santa noticed it, and slammed the window in his face. The neighbors pointed him out to each other with a smile or a motion of the head, when the bersagliere passed. The husband of Lola was away at the fairs with his mules.
“Sunday I will go to confession, for last night I dreamed of black grapes,” said Lola.
“Let it be! Let it be,” begged Turiddu.
“No, now that Easter is approaching, my husband would want to know why I did not go to confession.”
“Ah,” murmured Massaro Cola’s Santa, waiting upon her knees for her turn before the confessional where Lola was doing the wash of her sins. “On my soul I will not send you to Rome for a penance!”
Compare Alfio returned with his mules, loaded with pence, and brought as a present to his wife a beautiful new gown for the festival.
“You are right to bring her presents,” neighbor Santa told him, “because while you are away your wife dishonors your house.”
Compare Alfio was one of those carters who wear their cap over their ears, and to hear speech like that about his wife he changed color as if he had been stabbed. “Holy great devil!” he exclaimed, “if you have not seen right, I will not leave you eyes to weep! You and all your kinsfolk!”
“I am not accustomed to weep!” replied Santa. “I did not weep even when I have seen with these eyes mistress Nunzia’s Turiddu entering your wife’s house at night.”
“It’s well,” answered Compare Alfio. “Many thanks.”
Turiddu, now that the cat had returned, did not frequent any more by day the little street, and dissolved his gloom at the inn with his friends; and on Easter eve they had on the table a plate of sausages. When Compare Alfio entered, only by the way in which he set his eyes upon him, Turiddu understood that he was come about that affair, and laid down his fork upon his plate.
“Have you commands to give me, Compare Alfio?” he said.
“No favor to ask Compare Turiddu. It was some time that I had not seen you, and I wished to speak of that thing which you know.”
Turiddu at first offered him a glass, but Compare Alfio put it aside with his hand.
The Turiddu arose and said to him:
“I am here, Compare Alfio.”
The carter threw his arms around the neck of Turiddu. “If tomorrow you will come among the Indian fig trees of the Canziria, we can speak about that affair, neighbor.”
“Wait for me on the highway at sunrise, and we will go together.”
With these words they exchanged the kiss of challenge. Turiddu pressed between his teeth the ear of the carter, and so made him a solemn promise not to fail.
The friends had silently quitted the sausage, and they accompanied Turiddu home. Mistress Nunzia, poor woman, waited until late every evening for him.
“Mamma,” said Turiddu to her, “do you remember, when I went for a soldier, that you believed I should never come back? Give me as fine a kiss as then, because tomorrow morning I shall go far away.”
Before daybreak he took his clasp-knife, which he had hidden under the hay when he went as a conscript, and set forth for the Indian fig trees of Canziria.
“O Gesù Maria! Where are you going in such haste?” whimpered Lola, frightened, as her husband was about to leave the house.
“I am going near here,” replied Compare Alfio; “but for you it would be better that I should never return.”
Lola, in her shift, prayed at the foot of the bed and pressed to her lips the rosary that Fra Bernardino had brought her from the Holy Places, and recited all the Ave Marias it would hold.
“Compare Alfio,” began Turiddu, after he had gone some way into the wood beside his companion, who was 7 silent, with his cap over his eyes, “as true as the Lord, I know that I am in the wrong, and I would let myself be killed. But before coming here, I have seen my old mother who had gotten up in order to see me go away – with pretext of looking after the hen-house — as if her heart spoke to her; and as true as the Lord I would kill you, so as not to make my little old woman weep.”
“That is well,” replied Compare Alfio, taking off his jacket. “We will hit hard, both of us.”
Both were brave hitters; Turiddu got the first blow, and was in time to take it on the arm; and when he returned it, he gave a good one, and struck at the body.
“Ah! Compare Turiddu, you really have the intention to kill me!”
“Yes, I told you so; now that I have seen my old woman in the hen-house, I seem to have her always before my eyes.”
“Open your eyes well!” Compare Alfio cried to him, “for I am about to give you back good measure.”
As he stood on guard, drawn together to keep his left hand upon the hurt which pained him, and almost touched his elbow to the ground, he caught up quickly a handful of dust and threw it in his adversary’s eyes.
“Ah!” howled Turiddu, blinded, “I’m dead.”
He tried to save himself by making desperate leaps backward; but Compare Alfio reached him with another blow in the stomach, and a third in the throat.
“And there! That is for the house that you have dishonored. Now your mother will let the hens alone.”
Turiddu groped with his hands in the air for a while, here and there among the Indian fig trees, and then fell like a stone. The blood gurgled foaming in his throat, and he could not even utter: “Ah, mamma mia!”
Besieged Paris was in the throes of famine. Even the sparrows on the roofs and the rats in the sewers were growing scarce. People were eating anything they could get.
As Monsieur Morissot, watchmaker by profession and idler for the nonce, was strolling along the boulevard one bright January morning, his hands in his trousers pockets and stomach empty, he suddenly came face to face with an acquaintance – Monsieur Sauvage, a fishing chum.
Before the war broke out Morissot had been in the habit, every Sunday morning, of setting forth with a bamboo rod in his hand and a tin box on his back. He took the Argenteuil train, got out at Colombes, and walked thence to the Ile Marante. The moment he arrived at this place of his dreams he began fishing, and fished till nightfall.
Every Sunday he met in this very spot Monsieur Sauvage, a stout, jolly, little man, a draper in the Rue Notre Dame de Lorette, and also an ardent fisherman. They often spent half the day side by side, rod in hand and feet dangling over the water, and a warm friendship had sprung up between the two.
Some days they did not speak; at other times they chatted; but they understood each other perfectly without the aid of words, having similar tastes and feelings.
In the spring, about ten o’clock in the morning, when the early sun caused a light mist to float on the water and gently warmed the backs of the two enthusiastic anglers, Morissot would occasionally remark to his neighbor:
“My, but it’s pleasant here.”
To which the other would reply:
“I can’t imagine anything better!”
And these few words sufficed to make them understand and appreciate each other.
In the autumn, toward the close of day, when the setting sun shed a blood-red glow over the western sky, and the reflection of the crimson clouds tinged the whole river with red, brought a glow to the faces of the two friends, and gilded the trees, whose leaves were already turning at the first chill touch of winter, Monsieur Sauvage would sometimes smile at Morissot, and say:
“What a glorious spectacle!”
And Morissot would answer, without taking his eyes from his float:
“This is much better than the boulevard, isn’t it?”
As soon as they recognized each other they shook hands cordially, affected at the thought of meeting under such changed circumstances.
Monsieur Sauvage, with a sigh, murmured:
“These are sad times!”
Morissot shook his head mournfully.
“And such weather! This is the first fine day of the year.”
The sky was, in fact, of a bright, cloudless blue.
They walked along, side by side, reflective and sad.
“And to think of the fishing!” said Morissot. “What good times we used to have!”
“When shall we be able to fish again?” asked Monsieur Sauvage.
They entered a small cafe and took an absinthe together, then resumed their walk along the pavement.
Morissot stopped suddenly.
“Shall we have another absinthe?” he said.
“If you like,” agreed Monsieur Sauvage.
And they entered another wine shop.
They were quite unsteady when they came out, owing to the effect of the alcohol on their empty stomachs. It was a fine, mild day, and a gentle breeze fanned their faces.
The fresh air completed the effect of the alcohol on Monsieur Sauvage. He stopped suddenly, saying:
“Suppose we go there?”
“Why, to the old place. The French outposts are close to Colombes. I know Colonel Dumoulin, and we shall easily get leave to pass.”
Morissot trembled with desire.
“Very well. I agree.”
And they separated, to fetch their rods and lines.
An hour later they were walking side by side on the-highroad. Presently they reached the villa occupied by the colonel. He smiled at their request, and granted it. They resumed their walk, furnished with a password.
Soon they left the outposts behind them, made their way through deserted Colombes, and found themselves on the outskirts of the small vineyards which border the Seine. It was about eleven o’clock.
Before them lay the village of Argenteuil, apparently lifeless. The heights of Orgement and Sannois dominated the landscape. The great plain, extending as far as Nanterre, was empty, quite empty-a waste of dun-colored soil and bare cherry trees.
Monsieur Sauvage, pointing to the heights, murmured:
“The Prussians are up yonder!”
And the sight of the deserted country filled the two friends with vague misgivings.
The Prussians! They had never seen them as yet, but they had felt their presence in the neighborhood of Paris for months past – ruining France, pillaging, massacring, starving them. And a kind of superstitious terror mingled with the hatred they already felt toward this unknown, victorious nation.
“Suppose we were to meet any of them?” said Morissot.
“We’d offer them some fish,” replied Monsieur Sauvage, with that Parisian light-heartedness which nothing can wholly quench.
Still, they hesitated to show themselves in the open country, overawed by the utter silence which reigned around them.
At last Monsieur Sauvage said boldly:
“Come, we’ll make a start; only let us be careful!”
And they made their way through one of the vineyards, bent double, creeping along beneath the cover afforded by the vines, with eye and ear alert.
A strip of bare ground remained to be crossed before they could gain the river bank. They ran across this, and, as soon as they were at the water’s edge, concealed themselves among the dry reeds.
Morissot placed his ear to the ground, to ascertain, if possible, whether footsteps were coming their way. He heard nothing. They seemed to be utterly alone.
Their confidence was restored, and they began to fish.
Before them the deserted Ile Marante hid them from the farther shore. The little restaurant was closed, and looked as if it had been deserted for years.
Monsieur Sauvage caught the first gudgeon, Monsieur Morissot the second, and almost every moment one or other raised his line with a little, glittering, silvery fish wriggling at the end; they were having excellent sport.
They slipped their catch gently into a close-meshed bag lying at their feet; they were filled with joy—the joy of once more indulging in a pastime of which they had long been deprived.
The sun poured its rays on their backs; they no longer heard anything or thought of anything. They ignored the rest of the world; they were fishing.
But suddenly a rumbling sound, which seemed to come from the bowels of the earth, shook the ground beneath them: the cannon were resuming their thunder.
Morissot turned his head and could see toward the left, beyond the banks of the river, the formidable outline of Mont-Valerien, from whose summit arose a white puff of smoke.
The next instant a second puff followed the first, and in a few moments a fresh detonation made the earth tremble.
Others followed, and minute by minute the mountain gave forth its deadly breath and a white puff of smoke, which rose slowly into the peaceful heaven and floated above the summit of the cliff.
Monsieur Sauvage shrugged his shoulders.
“They are at it again!” he said.
Morissot, who was anxiously watching his float bobbing up and down, was suddenly seized with the angry impatience of a peaceful man toward the madmen who were firing thus, and remarked indignantly:
“What fools they are to kill one another like that!”
“They’re worse than animals,” replied Monsieur Sauvage.
And Morissot, who had just caught a bleak, declared:
“And to think that it will be just the same so long as there are governments!”
“The Republic would not have declared war,” interposed Monsieur Sauvage.
Morissot interrupted him:
“Under a king we have foreign wars; under a republic we have civil war.”
And the two began placidly discussing political problems with the sound common sense of peaceful, matter-of-fact citizens – agreeing on one point: that they would never be free. And Mont-Valerien thundered ceaselessly, demolishing the houses of the French with its cannon balls, grinding lives of men to powder, destroying many a dream, many a cherished hope, many a prospective happiness; ruthlessly causing endless woe and suffering in the hearts of wives, of daughters, of mothers, in other lands.
“Such is life!” declared Monsieur Sauvage.
“Say, rather, such is death!” replied Morissot, laughing.
But they suddenly trembled with alarm at the sound of footsteps behind them, and, turning round, they perceived close at hand four tall, bearded men, dressed after the manner of livery servants and wearing flat caps on their heads. They were covering the two anglers with their rifles.
The rods slipped from their owners’ grasp and floated away down the river.
In the space of a few seconds they were seized, bound, thrown into a boat, and taken across to the Ile Marante.
And behind the house they had thought deserted were about a score of German soldiers.
A shaggy-looking giant, who was bestriding a chair and smoking a long clay pipe, addressed them in excellent French with the words:
“Well, gentlemen, have you had good luck with your fishing?”
Then a soldier deposited at the officer’s feet the bag full of fish, which he had taken care to bring away. The Prussian smiled.
“Not bad, I see. But we have something else to talk about. Listen to me, and don’t be alarmed:
“You must know that, in my eyes, you are two spies sent to reconnoitre me and my movements. Naturally, I capture you and I shoot you. You pretended to be fishing, the better to disguise your real errand. You have fallen into my hands, and must take the consequences. Such is war.
“But as you came here through the outposts you must have a password for your return. Tell me that password and I will let you go.”
The two friends, pale as death, stood silently side by side, a slight fluttering of the hands alone betraying their emotion.
“No one will ever know,” continued the officer. “You will return peacefully to your homes, and the secret will disappear with you. If you refuse, it means death-instant death. Choose!”
They stood motionless, and did not open their lips.
The Prussian, perfectly calm, went on, with hand outstretched toward the river:
“Just think that in five minutes you will be at the bottom of that water. In five minutes! You have relations, I presume?”
Mont-Valerien still thundered.
The two fishermen remained silent. The German turned and gave an order in his own language. Then he moved his chair a little way off, that he might not be so near the prisoners, and a dozen men stepped forward, rifle in hand, and took up a position, twenty paces off.
“I give you one minute,” said the officer; “not a second longer.”
Then he rose quickly, went over to the two Frenchmen, took Morissot by the arm, led him a short distance off, and said in a low voice:
“Quick! the password! Your friend will know nothing. I will pretend to relent.”
Morissot answered not a word.
Then the Prussian took Monsieur Sauvage aside in like manner, and made him the same proposal.
Monsieur Sauvage made no reply.
Again they stood side by side.
The officer issued his orders; the soldiers raised their rifles.
Then by chance Morissot’s eyes fell on the bag full of gudgeon lying in the grass a few feet from him.
A ray of sunlight made the still quivering fish glisten like silver. And Morissot’s heart sank. Despite his efforts at self-control his eyes filled with tears.
“Good-by, Monsieur Sauvage,” he faltered.
“Good-by, Monsieur Morissot,” replied Sauvage.
They shook hands, trembling from head to foot with a dread beyond their mastery.
The officer cried:
The twelve shots were as one.
Monsieur Sauvage fell forward instantaneously. Morissot, being the taller, swayed slightly and fell across his friend with face turned skyward and blood oozing from a rent in the breast of his coat.
The German issued fresh orders.
His men dispersed, and presently returned with ropes and large stones, which they attached to the feet of the two friends; then they carried them to the river bank.
Mont-Valerien, its summit now enshrouded in smoke, still continued to thunder.
Two soldiers took Morissot by the head and the feet; two others did the same with Sauvage. The bodies, swung lustily by strong hands, were cast to a distance, and, describing a curve, fell feet foremost into the stream.
The water splashed high, foamed, eddied, then grew calm; tiny waves lapped the shore.
A few streaks of blood flecked the surface of the river.
The officer, calm throughout, remarked, with grim humor:
“It’s the fishes’ turn now!”
Then he retraced his way to the house.
Suddenly he caught sight of the net full of gudgeons, lying forgotten in the grass. He picked it up, examined it, smiled, and called:
A white-aproned soldier responded to the summons, and the Prussian, tossing him the catch of the two murdered men, said:
“Have these fish fried for me at once, while they are still alive; they’ll make a tasty dish.”
Then he resumed his pipe.
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