The night shivered as the last mortars crashed in disemboweled fields. Strands of stray barbed wire tangled his feet, ripped through his boots, two sizes too large that he had pulled from a dying German soldier.
He walked only in the dark, fearing the French and Americans as much as the Germans; deserters were not treated kindly by either side. During the day, he hid himself as best he could in half-collapsed trenches, in the broad branches of elm trees to which he tied himself, beneath piles of leaves and in holes he bore in the sides of snow banks.
He could feel the moment he crossed into Lorraine, that contested territory, which the Germans and French traded back and forth since before Napoleon the First. He knew he had arrived, not from a sudden sense of belonging, but his feeling of alienation in this part of the world that belonged nowhere and to no one, not even to itself. His father, a colonel in the first World War, had signed the declaration of independence for the Nation of Lorraine, quickly nullified at the behest of the French government with the sallow soldiers it sent running in only hours after the ink had dried.
Oh, well, he thought, staring at his house beside the Seille, running quiet and straight through its treeless and marshy banks.
Although the fighting had bypassed their town, the Germans had no doubt knocked on his door. His wife spoke German as well as she did French, and kept a picture of her first cousin from Alsace, who wore a swastika and a brown shirt in a frame in a drawer to be taken out, as they had planned four years ago for this inevitable occasion. The quartered moon ran in the river, barely rippling in its muddy bed. He left his gun on the hilltop, burying it beneath a pile of leaves at the foot of a chestnut, to be retrieved later.
The door to his son’s bedroom creaked as it opened. A dog Paul had never seen raised its head, but remained silent. His son did not stir as Paul went to his bedside. The dog moved with a whine, curling up beneath the window.
“Geoffrey,” he whispered, and the boy smacked his lips. “Geoffrey,” he whispered again.
“Hello, Papa,” he said, still dreaming, and Paul ran his fingers through the boy’s blond hair.
In the kitchen there was nothing to eat or drink, save the last dregs of a bottle of wine that Paul poured into a jar left by the sink. He had not noticed before, but the reprieve from walking and the slowing of his blood made him feel the cold within the house. Opening the stove, he found no embers and no wood beside it. It was then that the house seemed as ravaged as the front lines where he had fought for half a decade, from which he had escaped, intact, unscarred, as if some angel had spread his wings around him, while others fell before they could even announce their death with a scream.
He looked at the stairs. They would make noise as he walked and his wife might wake and shoot before determining who it was that drew near to her.
Accustomed to staying up nights by now, he ventured out again to see if Lenore had hidden any food in the barn’s loft. Groping through the darkness, he found a box of matches and struck one, but did not risk lighting the lantern. The carcasses of their milking cows hung from the beams, dried and stripped almost entirely of meat. The remnants swayed in the wind coming through the holes where Lenore had removed planks for fire wood. He pulled a bit from the sternum and gnawed, thinking of all the mornings he had milked her and sold milk to his neighbor who made cheese. Their fathers and grandfathers had plied the same trade.
“We’ll get more,” he sighed.
The night edged towards dawn. Paul walked to the back of the barn to watch the moon sink into the horizon. In the half light, he saw his pétanque boules lying in the dust, scattered by his son. The metal was colder than the night in his hand. He sat with them for awhile, turning them in the frozen ground, tossed them into the air, catching some, letting others fall with a soft thud and the faint sound of cracking frost. The moon sank lower. The first rays of sun crept onto the fallow fields.
He could wait no longer and crawled up the stairs on all fours, anticipating the click of the revolver. But she was still sleeping, curled up in her white nightgown and her coat and turned toward the window.
“Lenore,” he whispered, and he could tell her eyes were open though she did not move. “Lenore,” he said again and slipped into their bed.
She felt the same, but looked different. He closed his eyes. She spread her palms across his skin and he imagined her as she was, before the war, and then in the barn with their young skin still impervious to the pricks of hay beneath them.
“Have they let you go?” she asked when they had finished.
“No,” he said, retrieving a cigarette from the bedside table.
“That’s my last one,” she said pulling it from his hand for a drag before returning it. “Then how are you here?” she asked, exhaling a thin cloud of smoke.
Paul shrugged. “I left.”
“Are you going back?”
He did not answer, instead burying his nose in her hair. “How is Geoffrey?” he asked.
“Hungry,” she said. “Tired of salted meat.”
“Mama,” Geoffrey called from the foot of the stairs.
“Coming,” she said, again stealing the cigarette from Paul’s hand, then crushing it in a tin ashtray.
“Don’t tell him.”
“Why not?” Lenore asked, adjusting her nightgown and rebuttoning her coat.
Paul shrugged, pulling on his trousers. “I am leaving again.”
She stepped back. Her eyes until now dry and sanguine, filled with hatred. She flew towards him, striking him on the chest, flung herself on his lap, beat on his arms.
“Bastard!” she screamed.
He took her by the shoulders. They were thinner, weaker than before, and he moved her gently off of his lap and onto the bed. The linens were gray with dirt and soot.
“It’s almost over,” he said. “The Germans are retreating. France will be ours again.”
“France!” she screamed and Paul placed his hand over her mouth. She tore it away. “What do I care about France,” she rasped. “We aren’t French. We are from Lorraine.”
“We’re not from Germany,” was all he answered.
“Who are you talking to, Mama?” Geoffrey said, walking up the stairs.
Paul slid into the closet, almost emptied of clothes.
“No one,” Lenore said, turning her boy around and patting him on the backside. “I’ll be right down.”
“Where are the chairs?” he asked when she closed the door.
“Where do you think?” she said, pointing at the fireplace.
A dingy silence covered the room. Lenore walked to the frost-covered window.
“When are you leaving?”
“What! Why? They’ve left France?”
“Then don’t come back,” she said, straightening her clothes, running her hands over the permanent creases in her coat. “If you would leave, me, him, for what is not even your fight, I don’t want you back.”
He slapped her. “It is our fight,” he mumbled and sat on the bed.
She walked to the door.
“Sleep,” she said, unshaken. “You must be tired.”
“I’ll leave some soup for you. There won’t be much.”
Paul fell into a dreamless sleep filled by an interruptive silence. Night came. The moon showed only a sliver. Lenore did not return to bed. He opened the door to his son’s room. She stared at him with indifference.
He ate the half-bowl of marrow soup she had left him, ice almost forming on its surface. More of the barn was missing when he went back once more to look at his son’s pétanque court. He had been shooting, Paul could see, by the divots in the frost-hardened ground. He picked up the boules, arranged them in a triangle, and scuffed out the imprint of his boots before leaving. The road east stretched before him like a hallway into the night.
Lenore gave birth to her second son on October 15, 1946. He did not scream when he came into the world and did not thereafter, only whimpering when he cried and stretching his lips into a slight, crooked smile when he was happy. She named him Pierre and taught him German while his school taught him French. He was an average student and never remembered anything past his exams. Occasionally, he left school with a sore hand from the slap of a ruler for daydreaming in class. After one such day filled with imaginary pirates and numerous reprimands from his teacher, he returned home to find his mother occupied and his brother gone.
Outside, their yard brimmed with dandelion moons. Pierre ran through them, arms out, scattering their feathery brushes as he went. He followed their path to the door of the barn, cracked enough for him to squeeze through. It smelled of dirt and heat and cow dung. Pierre pinched his nose and looked up at the haystack, towering to the ceiling. He made sure his mother was still pinning the sheets between two elms, then climbed to the top, despite her warnings of snakes and heights. From there, he surveyed his kingdom below. Their young cow chewed her cud in the pen, swatting black flies with her tail. A large beetle shimmied through the dirt. He watched these everyday events with pleasure from his new vantage point, picking straws of hay from their bales and watching them flutter down like tiny golden spears. He did not notice how much time had passed until the cow belted out a hungry note, tired of chewing and rechewing her lunch and waiting for dinner.
But before he began to climb down, he noticed, with the new hay his brother brought in that morning, the loft had become just a short jump away. Having often wondered what his mother stored there—treasure, dead bodies, photographs—but never the opportunity to see it, Pierre inched toward the edge of his tower. He saw only a dark recess filled with indistinguishable shapes drenched in shadow. He inched closer, his soft soles clinging to the edge. Knowing only irritating scratches and uncomfortable bug bites, he had remained thus far in his life, unfamiliar with true pain, and the thought of broken bones did not cross his new mind. So, with a breath, he heaved himself across and into the loft, landing squarely on his feet amongst disused horse bridals, bits, and blankets. He kicked them aside with his feet and plugged his nose from the musky smell of horse sweat as pungent as the afternoon they were last used.
A spider’s web caught on his nose and he pulled the sticky silk from his face, pausing to crush its maker beneath his heel and examine the mutilated body with its eight legs still intact, before moving on to the other things stacked in the corners and against the wall. A coil of frayed rope caught his eye and having a fondness for tying useless but perfect sailor’s knots, he moved toward it, ducking without needing to.
But the interest he had in the rope vanished when he saw the six shiny steel boules lying in the center. Never having seen them before, he bestowed them with near infinite possibilities. Small cannon balls from the first war. Tools for smashing rocks. For rolling into ant nests, beehives, mole tunnels. For throwing at birds, or just to look at. He found them heavy in his hands and carried them two at a time, lining them up against the edge of the loft, then nudging them off one by one with the toe of his boot, watching their quick descent and the plume of dust when they hit the ground.
When there were none left to push, Pierre jumped back to the hay, climbed down, and kicked the boules out of the barn with his arms folded behind his back. Outside, the sun rested halfway between its apex and horizon, shimmering orange in the undisturbed blue. Pierre threw his new toys in its direction, half certain they would not reach their target. Once launched, he ran to find them hidden in the tall grass. His small arms could not throw the heavy boules very far and he found them quickly. On the third of these semi- contrived hunts, he saw Geoffrey walking back from soccer practice.
Pierre looked at his brother as he always did, with a sense of awe. A boy of sixteen, Geoffrey was one of the strongest men in the town. He spent his weekends fixing widows’ roofs and shoeing horses for old men. He never asked for pay, but his customers always gave him what they could, and Geoffrey would force the few coins in his mother’s hand.
“You should save,” she told him every time.
“For what?” he would ask and curl her fingers back for her.
He treated his younger brother like a son, scolded him for bad exams, indulged him with sweets on his birthday, slapped him when he misbehaved, but never beat him like the other older brothers whose siblings came to school with bloodied noses and bruised limbs. But as Geoffrey drew near, Pierre saw his face as he had never seen it.
“What are you doing?” Geoffrey asked.
“Nichts,” Pierre said.
Geoffrey boxed his ear. “In French,” he said.
“Nothing,” Pierre said.
“Then what is that?” Geoffrey demanded, pointing at the shiny object weighing on a clump of grass. Pierre retrieved it, and, forgetting his brother’s mood, smiled as he presented Geoffrey with his new treasure. He laid sprawled on the grass before he knew his brother had raised his hand.
“Where are the rest?”
“Where are the rest?” Geoffrey screamed. Pierre ran. Geoffrey overtook him, scooping him into his arms, carrying him back to the spot where he had first fallen. He stood Pierre up, slapped him and grabbed his shirt as he began to fall.
“Get them,” said Geoffrey, and Pierre brought the boules to his brother one by one. Geoffrey took them back to the barn. Pierre waited, frozen where he stood, though his senses begged him to hide.
But all seemed forgotten when Geoffrey reemerged from the barn, gently taking Pierre’s hand as they walked towards the house. The air smelled of sweet pork and chimney smoke drifting into the evening.
Lenore looked up from her book as Pierre shuffled into the kitchen the next morning, fingering the bruise beneath his right eye.
“Don’t touch it,” she said, cracking two eggs against the counter’s edge. “You’ll make it worse.”
“Where did Geoffrey go?” Pierre asked, fingering through his mother’s book, looking for pictures. Finding none, he put it down.
“To your grandmother’s, to help her with the garden. And I have to go to town today,” she said. “Will you be good and stay here?”
Pierre nodded and ate his eggs. He watched his mother fly down the road on Geoffrey’s bicycle with her skirts rippling behind her.
Pierre began walking towards Mr. Garmont’s house as soon as she disappeared from sight. Pierre had never seen Mr. Garmont outside of his house, but always behind the front window, smoking cigarettes, and staring out the at the street as if expecting someone to come. His mother sometimes brought him food, staying for a while to talk, and the tax collector never bothered him for money. He had lost all of his children in the war, his three sons and his one daughter, who had been an army nurse. Pierre knew none of this. Nor did he know Mr. Garmont’s wife had died of what the doctor could only diagnose as grief soon after a uniformed serviceman delivered the fourth letter. He knew only that behind Mr. Garmont’s house was a shady pool where the fish would eat breadcrumbs from his hand.
Pierre did not even look to see if Mr. Garmont was at his window. His vacant gaze scared him, made him feel as if he were not there, as if he were a ghost. So when he heard his name called by the old and worn voice on the porch, he froze mid-step.
“Pierre,” the voice called again.
Pierre turned. Mr. Garmont leaned heavily on his cane, his beard overgrown, almost touching his clavicle, his clothes heavy with dust and old sweat.
“Come here,” Mr. Garmont said.
Pierre walked toward him, clutching the bread he had brought for the fish.
“I saw you,” Mr. Garmont said.
“Yes, Mr. Garmont,” Pierre said. “I’m sorry…I just wanted to see the fishes.”
“No! Yesterday. You had your father’s pétanque boules. Did Geoffrey teach you to play? I thought he stopped. Looks like you have a good arm on you,” Mr. Garmont said, feeling the boy’s tender muscle. “So, did he teach you?”
Pierre shook his head. “He took them away from me.”
Mr. Garmont tilted Pierre’s face up with two knotted fingers.
“Ah, yes,” he said, noticing the bruise. “Well it is hard to lose a father. Not as hard as losing a child.”
Not knowing what Mr. Garmont meant, Pierre only nodded.
“Well then. I will teach you,” he said and gestured towards a leather bag. “Bring that.”
Pierre dragged the bag behind Mr. Garmont as he hobbled down the stairs and around the house.
“Now, give me the cochonnet.”
Pierre gave him a blank stare.
“The little red one,” Mr. Garmont said. “So. The object of the game is to get your boules closest to the cochonnet. Simple, no?”
“All right. Here are yours, and here are mine,” he said dividing the boules into two sets of three. “Would you like to throw?” he asked, and handed Pierre the cochonnet.
Pierre heaved it as far as he could.
“Too far!” Mr. Garmont laughed. “I am old. What are you trying to do to me? It must be within six and ten meters. Now run and get it,” he said, and called, “there is good,” when Pierre was within range. “Allez, now, throw one out there, underhand, like this,” he said, and took the boule in the palm of his hand. “Yes?”
Pierre nodded and took the boule. It landed a full meter from the cochonnet. “I’m no good,” he said.
“No, that is very good,” Mr. Garmont said. “You always want to be in front on the first throw. Very good. Now, let us see if I remember…” He eyed the course, felt the weight of the boule in his hand, then threw. It landed halfway to the cochonnet, rolled, and stopped right on the mark. He tapped his cane against the ground twice. “That is how you point. Now, you again.”
Pierre threw, and it rolled past his first.
“Good,” Mr. Garmont cried. “A natural, just like your father!”
Pierre smiled and carelessly threw his last boule. It rolled past the cochonnet.
“Concentrate!” Mr. Garmont cried. “Even a smart man needs to work hard. Now try again.”
Imitating Mr. Garmont, Pierre squinted at the course and, thinking he noticed a slight slope, tossed the boule to the right of the mark. It rolled into the cochonnet, pushing Mr. Garmont’s boule off. Pierre jumped. “Allez!” he yelled.
“Very good,” Mr. Garmont said. “Now, since you’re closer, it’s my turn.”
Pierre watched him stiffen his wrist and lift his arm higher than before. Leaning into his cane, he exhaled a rush of air, and sent the ball flying fast and straight, hitting Pierre’s boule.
“A carreau!” he cried, then looked down at Pierre, who had almost began to cry at the sight of his lost point. “Don’t worry,” he said. “You’ll be able to shoot soon enough. Should we play again?”
Pierre looked at the road. Geoffrey was halfway back from their grandmother’s house.
“I have to go,” he said.
“Tomorrow?” Mr. Garmont said.
“Tomorrow is Sunday.”
“And God plays pétanque. Come after church.”
Geoffrey stopped Pierre when he reached the house. “Where were you running back from?” Geoffrey asked when he reached the house.
“Nowhere,” Pierre said.
Geoffrey tilted his head. “I saw you.”
“I was looking at the fishes behind Mr. Garmont’s house.”
“Oh,” said Geoffrey. “I hope you didn’t disturb him.”
Pierre shook his head. “He doesn’t mind.”
“How do you know?”
“Because he doesn’t,” Pierre retorted and sulked off to his collection of picture books.
He woke early the next morning, snuck into the kitchen and peered out the window at Mr. Garmont’s house. He was not in the window, not rocking absentmindedly in his rocking chair. No cigarette smoke clouded his house. Pierre half wondered if he was dead.
“You’re up early,” his mother said, dressed already and wearing the sweet perfume she wore only on Sundays.
“Why does Mr. Garmont always sit by the window?” Pierre asked.
Lenore lifted him off the counter. “Well, he isn’t there now,” she said.
“But all the other times.”
“Because he is sad. You’re too young to know why.”
“No I’m not.”
“I wonder where he is….” Lenore mused. “I’m going to check on him. Make sure your brother is awake.”
Geoffrey snored. Pierre climbed in bed beside him. “Mama says it’s time to get up,” Pierre whispered, but he continued to snore, and Pierre pressed an ear against Geoffrey’s chest to listen to his breathing. The room warmed. Pierre slipped his hand beneath his brother’s hair, tried to intuit his dreams.
“Boys!” Lenore yelled and clapped her hands twice. “We will be late!”
Geoffrey groaned. Pierre pretended to yawn.
“All right, all right,” Geoffrey mumbled.
“Help your brother dress, Geoffrey. I have some things to do before we go.”
“Where was Mr. Garmont?” Pierre called after her.
“The garden!” Lenore laughed. “If you can call it that. Now get dressed.”
“But what was he doing in the garden?” Pierre whined, pulling at his stiff collar as they walked to church.
“And what makes you so interested in Mr. Garmont?” Geoffrey asked taking his hand.
Pierre looked back at the old man’s house. He wanted to tell his mother. But the beating he received from his brother, who had always taken care of him, who he knew, even at such a young age, fed all three of them and bought him new clothes when he needed them, made him believe there was something evil about the game.
“Can I go to the confessor?” Pierre asked.
“To confession,” Geoffrey corrected, looking at him quizzically. “What do you want to confess?”
“Isn’t that what the priest is for?” Pierre asked, kicking a rock.
Geoffrey said nothing. Pierre felt small. “I stole a rock,” he said at last, almost believing it to be true.
“Oh,” said Geoffrey, smiling at his mother. “Why did you steal it?”
Pierre shrugged. “I liked it.”
“You should return it when we get home,” Lenore said.
“Can I go to the, I mean go to confession now?”
Lenore nodded. “After church,” she said.
Pierre could hardly sit still through the reading of Deuteronomy and its long list of things he could and could not eat, and tried to concentrate by imagining eating all the animals listed among the latter, like ravens and owls and oxen. The reading from Paul was almost torture, though usually he liked to watch his mother sit up and nod in agreement when the pastor said things like: “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair.” But today, not even the reading from Matthew with his stories of earthquakes and angels could hold Pierre’s attention.
At last, the final amen was pronounced.
“Can I go to confession now?” Pierre asked after the usher had ushered them out.
“Do you remember what to say?” asked Lenore.
Pierre nodded. “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been…how long has it been?”
“You have never confessed,” Geoffrey said.
“Can I say that?”
“Yes, you can say that.”
Pierre reached up to the confession box’s ornamented door knob and stepped inside.
“Sit down, my son,” said the priest.
“Have you come to confess?”
“Uh-huh,” Pierre said, his heart racing in the dark.
“Yes?” said the priest.
“I forgot,” Pierre said and fled the tiny chamber.
Outside, he ran into his mother’s legs, gripping them tightly and pressing his cheek against the soft fold of her skirt.
“Did you confess?” she asked.
Pierre shook his head.
“Next time,” Lenore said.
Steel blue clouds hung over the green fields of young wheat. They rolled over each other, mounting with rain, releasing short tumults. Waves of thunder shuddered through the air.
Pierre pointed at the clouds. Geoffrey scooped him onto his shoulders and took his mother’s bag. The three loped toward home, not speaking and adoring the imagined danger of summer rain. The view from his brother’s shoulders was not at all like his own. The world seemed larger, more dangerous, full of possibility and chance. He could see the beginning and end of the storm, could see their house, their barn with the loft, and their cow huddling below the tin roof. He could see past those things too, almost, he believed, to the end of the road, where nothing existed but what he imagined.
They came to their porch. Geoffrey lifted him over his head and placed him on the stairs before opening the door for their mother. Pierre looked again at the world and saw only Mr. Garmont’s house.
His mother closed the door. The rain swept across the fields like a broom, and reaching their roof, pounded on the thinned shingles. Pierre climbed onto the kitchen counter and saw Mr. Garmont smoking and rocking himself in his rocking chair.
Lorissa Rinehart is a freelance writer in New York City where she is currently working on her second novel, The Diary of a Young American Girl, and can be seen on occasion playing pétanque in Bryant Park.
© 2008 prickofthespindle.com