To read the novel in start-to-finish order, click the Volume Two link and consult the Table of Contents links at the bottom of the page.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Chapter 7-3

 Wrapping up Chapter 7 with this installment.  The next chapter will focus on Jozef.  

I did a bit more looking at dress designs from 1910-1915 as I was thinking about what the present Natalie receives in this installment might look like.  I think it looks a lot like this 1912 vintage mourning dress, but it's a deep red color rather than black.  (source)


Terespol. Aug 2nd, 1915. Before the war, Russian Poland had stretched out as a peninsula, the westernmost part of the Russian Empire, surrounded by Germany to the north and west, and Austria-Hungary to the south. Through the summer offensives of 1915, that peninsula was being gradually eaten away. Not only was Warsaw now at the extreme western end of this peninsula, but it was under assault from both the north and south.

Much closer to where the field hospital and Third Army were in the fortress of Terespol, at the end of July, a mixed force of German and Austro-Hungarian forces commanded by Generalfeldmarschall August von Mackensen successfully captured the main southern railroad line which connected Brest-Litovsk and the rest of Russian Poland with Kiev.

Warsaw had not yet fallen, and in Brest it was yet another heavy summer day with the enemy still in the distance, but the men who moved pieces on maps at the Russian central command consulted their rail maps and their unit strengths and determined that it was necessary to begin moving resources out of Poland lest they be cut off and lost to the enemy.

These map men wrote up a strategic note. That note was turned into a set of army group orders. The army group orders were turned into orders for divisions, regiments, and battalions and support formations, and on Monday afternoon Doctor Kalyagin called the field hospital’s key staff together and announced, “We have orders to leave the city.”

This led, naturally, to an explosion of questions. Where were they going? Would they take the patients with them, send them back to the nearest base hospital, or leave them behind? How soon would they leave? Why were they leaving when things seemed relatively peaceful?

To most of these Doctor Kalyagin had no answer, so he answered those he did: They were to board a train for Bialystok, well to the north, within 48 hours. They would indeed take their patients and their supplies with them. The process of packing and moving must be as orderly as possible. This was no panicked move. Nothing should be abandoned which could be used. But with the Germans advancing and Warsaw about to fall, the front would be split and the field hospital would be serving the northern half of the Russian forces as they fell back. No one was to see this as a defeat or as hopeless in any way. They were falling back in an organized fashion. Surely the generals and the Tsar knew what they were doing. Anyone who had read of 1812 knew that Russia knew how to defend through the depths of her territory. Soon the Germans would be as confounded as Napoleon had been in his time.

Many of the orderlies and sisters were still asking questions about why they were leaving and the military situation. Natalie’s mind was already on what needed to be done in the next two days in order to move the field hospital. The patients were to come with them, but even so it would be as well to assess all of them and send any who would eventually need to go to the base hospitals off now. Were there medical stores in Brest which they could take with them in order to avoid shortages later? Could they replace some of the cots which they had lost in their sudden retreat earlier in the year?

She recognized a similarly thoughtful look on Sister Travkin’s face, and together the two of them stepped aside from the press of staff and began making plans, speaking in the half completed phrases and cryptic nicknames which are the language of people who have long worked together.

As with so many aspects of her hospital service, it caused a moment’s shock to think that this familiarity with packing up the hospital and getting it onto the road was the product of only three months’ experience, since the hammer blows of the May offensive had started Third Army’s long retreat from southern Galicia to this point. Three months and two hundred and fifty miles, which had left them feeling like seasoned veterans of maintaining a hospital on the road. Just as the time before the war seemed a lifetime away, it now seemed that the hospital had always been on the move. And Doctor Kalyagin had only been with them on the last, though admittedly longest, of these moves. Here was an area where they were expert while he was still comparatively new.

The doctor finished speaking to the staff and approached the two of them, with Sister Gorka following in his wake. “I’ve already told the regimental transport unit that we require wagons or trucks to move the patients to the rail depot. It’s difficult because we don’t yet have our train schedule assigned. But I’ve made it clear that we must have the absolute highest priority. We must make sure that we have a clear plan for what goes in each load, what goes first, and who is to oversee both here and at the rail depot.”

Natalie could see Sister Travkin’s mouth tightening into a thin line and resolved to deflect the doctor before an argument broke out. “We were just saying, Doctor, that this journey by train offers us an opportunity which our previous movements have not. If you could review all the patients and determine which ones could be returned to duty with another week or two of care, and thus should remain with us, and which should be sent back to a permanent hospital for longer term care, we could arrange for the long term cases to be transported immediately and we would have fewer patients to care for on the journey to Bialystok. After all, there’s no sense in carrying a patient all the way north only to send him off on a hospital train a day or two later.”

Doctor Kalyagin hesitated. Natalie hoped she had been sufficiently diplomatic in directing him. Assessing the patients and determining their course treatment was rightfully a task for a doctor, and in this sense he should not wish anyone else to do the work. But it was also quite clearly his work. It would keep him occupied while the nurses and the housekeeping sisters organized their own domains without his interference.

“Of course,” the doctor said at last. “The patients must be assessed. That first of all. I will prepare the list of which cases should be transported. Send an orderly or a runner to regimental transport and ask when they can provide a couple of cars on a train for Minsk or Vilnius so we can dispatch the patients who won’t be staying with us.” With this resolved, he strode away with purpose, his footsteps echoing on the floorboards.

Sister Travkin sighed. “You managed him. I wasn’t sure he could be managed.”

“Well, for now, at any rate,” Natalie replied. “Let’s make the most of it.”

A housekeeping sister approached the three of them. “Excuse me. Sister Nowakówna? There’s a woman here to see you. I think she’s a Jew. Should I send her away?”

It was not the moment Natalie would have chosen to accept a visit from anyone outside the hospital, but the tone with which the sister said, “She’s a Jew,” did not sit well with her.

“Yes, of course I’ll see her. Where is she?”

The visitor, when Natalie was led to her in the nurses’ sitting room, was Anna Isaakova from the clothing and notions shop. With a slight bob of a curtsey she handed Natalie a package done up in brown paper and string.

“Your petticoats, Madam. I’m sorry they took a little longer than I expected.”

“Of course. I’m so glad that you came today. And the bill?”

Anna handed her the piece of paper and Natalie counted out the banknotes and coins.

“I can never thank you enough for saving my grandfather from those Cossacks,” said Anna.

“There’s no need--” Natalie began.

“But I did want to do something for you, to express my gratitude. All of our gratitude. Our whole family.” When handing over the parcel and the bill, she had kept her eyes down, but now she was looking straight at Natalie with an emotion that was almost painful. “I know it is no small thing to stand up against the authorities, especially on behalf of … a Jew.” With the last word she looked away again for a moment, but then forced herself to meet Natalie’s gaze again. “Thank you!”

She thrust a second package into Natalie’s hands. Like the first package it was soft, and it seemed to be of similar weight. Another three petticoats?

“Thank you,” said Natalie. She could see Anna’s eyes lingering on the parcel. “Should I open it?”

“If you like, Madam. It’s a token of our thanks. I hope you will like it.”

Setting the parcel of petticoats aside, Natalie undid the string and paper on the second package. As she pulled back the wrapping she saw a beautiful, soft, fabric -- such a deep red that it was almost purple. Silk? It was wonderful to the touch, but she hesitated to run her fingers over it too much as her hand -- so often washed in harsh antiseptic solution -- felt as if it would snag against the surface. Carefully she lifted it up and saw an elegant dress, simple in its decoration, though trimmed at the neck and wrists with intricate white lace. It seemed starkly out of place in the nurses’ sitting room of the makeshift hospital. This belonged to the world of her dresses and skirts, carefully packed in paper at the bottom of her trunk, from her one Paris shopping trip before the convent sent her East to meet her father for the first time. Those dresses were more elaborately trimmed, but there was a beauty to the lines of this as she held it up that suggested it might wear more elegantly even than those.

“You made this?” Natalie asked, and immediately wished she had found some more articulate compliment, but from Anna’s smile she could tell that the tone had said what the words had not.

“Well… Yes.” Anna spread her hands. “I’m afraid it’s not all new. There wasn’t time. It’s an example I was making from a Paris fashion print, to display in the shop. But when I tried to think of something I could do for you I realized the measurements were very close to yours that I took down for your petticoats, so I made it over for you. I hope it will fit well. I wish I could have done something new and with more detail work, but I didn’t want to keep you waiting longer for your order.”

“It’s beautiful. I can’t possibly take this. It’s not fair. It was just a few words I spoke.” Natalie found the words tumbling out in no clear order.

“Surely it’s hard to say what anyone deserves, but I wanted to give you this. Our whole family did. I can’t think when you’d use it now, but perhaps some day… And at any rate, it allowed me to use my skill to thank you.”

For a moment the two stood looking at one another. Natalie was so overwhelmed by the gift, so transported into a place other than the soon-to-be-abandoned hospital, it was hard to know how to return to the moment.

“May I fold it properly and wrap it back up for you?” Anna asked.

“Yes. Yes, of course. Thank you so much.” For a moment Natalie let words of thanks tumble forth, while Anna smoothed the fabric out on the table and folded it so as to avoid creasing as much as possible. Then it occurred to Natalie that there was indeed something she could do in return for this beautiful gift. “Perhaps I can help you again,” Natalie said. “You can see that everything is in tumult here. We’ve just received news that the field hospital is leaving the city. They say that Warsaw will be captured at any moment, and the rail lines with Kiev will soon be cut. The army will be pulling back soon as well. When they do, they’ll try to take or destroy anything that would be of value to the enemy. I’ve seen it happen in towns and villages. I can't imagine the chaos of a whole city. You and your family must pack up and leave now, while it’s still possible to get a wagon or space on a train.”

Anna had stopped half way through the process of wrapping the parcel, her expression alarmed. “But surely… Is it necessary to leave now? Warsaw is hundreds of versts away. And everything seems so calm. If we close the shops--” She left the horror of closing down their livelihood hanging in the air.

“But that is why it is important to leave now. Right now I’m sure you could still buy a cart or get space on a train. You could take the merchandise from your shops with you. But when it comes down to the last, when soldiers start ordering people to leave their homes and setting fire to the supplies that can’t be transported in time, then people will be pushing wheelbarrows and baby carriages full of whatever they can carry. Then your grandfather will be walking or trying to ride on a pushcart. It’s terrible. Inhuman. The army requisitions the houses along the way for necessities and the refugees have to sleep in the open. I’m sure the time to leave is while things still seem normal.”

Now Anna was nodding, and her fingers were typing up the parcel with practiced motions. “I will tell my father and grandfather everything you said.”

“Please. Perhaps it will sound mad to them at first, but you must tell them. Our hospital has come all the way from Tarnow since the spring, much of it on foot, and we’ve seen the crowds of people driven from their homes again and again. I wouldn’t want that for you.”

After this their goodbyes were quick. Anna thanked her again -- for deliverance from the Cossacks and for the warning -- and Natalie thanked her for the dress. For a moment she took Anna’s hands in her own, and wildly thought of hugging her. The dress was so beautiful and the giving of it more so. And this moment of generosity seemed infinitely precious against the backdrop of the chaos and suffering so soon to be unleashed. But there was a barrier of class and religion and convention between them, and Natalie was not a person accustomed to the giving or receiving of physical gestures of friendship. She led Anna out of the hospital and thanked her one last time before watching her disappear into the bustling crowd in the street. Then Natalie went to stow both parcels carefully in her trunk before returning to the hurried preparations for the hospital’s evacuation.

On returning to the ward she heard voices raised between Doctor Kalyagin and Sister Travkin. She found them standing outside the dispensary closet, where Sister Travkin had been directing a pair of orderlies in packing the medicines.

“What is the difficulty?” Natalie asked.

“These are essential and highly addictive analgesics,” Doctor Kalyagin said, his voice still loud, as he indicated the crate the orderlies had been packing. “I have asked these men to show me the state of the bottles and account for how much is being packed. It is in a chaotic moment like this that supplies are lost or stolen, and I do not want our patients to suffer from its loss, nor,” he looked significantly, “do I want our carelessness to result in some poor sufferer getting hold of drugs which could very well cause his death.”

Sister Travkin held up the ledger book. “I have checked each bottle against the ledger and have clearly recorded how many doses are packed and how many are being kept out to continue treating patients. There is no need for an inspection unless the doctor is accusing me of personally stealing morphine,” she said, refusing to look at Doctor Kalyagin as she spoke.

Natalie took the ledger from Sister Travkin and looked over the columns of figures. Everything was being recorded precisely according to the system which Natalie had laid out. Doctor Kalyagin had been very complimentary of her drug tracking ledgers when he had first inspected them. The two-entry system -- totalling amounts dispensed and dosage given to patients separately, and then totallying the two to assure they matched -- both did a great deal to prevent theft and also was the sort of big-city-hospital system which appealed to him. Yet the doctor seemed to be someone who, when under stress, felt suddenly that he needed to have a hand in everything. Perhaps, however, it was still possible to appeal to that calmer, more systematically-minded version of the man.

“Doctor, she is following the ledger system precisely as it has been laid down. We will be able to see the amounts of medicine dispensed and administered, and check those two totals against the inventory.”

She could see him hesitating. The doctor’s power within the hospital, especially at a time like this when they had only one, was absolute. In that sense, she was even less within her authority than when she had faced down the Cossacks. But perhaps if she remained calm as she had then, and pointed the way towards the path he knew they ought to follow even if his restless energy drove him differently, perhaps he would follow her direction.

“There are so many things within the hospital that require a surgeon’s direction. I hope that with these more routine matters, we can create systems which can assure you they will run properly even without your supervision. There is a bit of extra time now, before we get the order to start loading the train, and we could indulge in putting everything on your shoulders, but soon enough we’ll be stretched to the breaking point with getting the patients onto the train and providing care during transportation. We mustn’t let ourselves break the routines that we’ll need then.”

She could see in his expression the argument warring against Doctor Kalyagin’s own instincts, but when he spoke it was the argument that won out. “Of course. We just use our energies as efficiently as we may. Thank you for dealing with the dispensary so efficiently.”

He walked away, leaving Natalie and Sister Travkin to exchange silent looks of relief.

Whether it was her speech that turned the doctor’s heart, or he took his time away from inspecting other people’s work to gather his own thoughts more calmly, that was the end of the frantic element of the hospital’s preparation. By the time that their transport order arrived the next afternoon, they were well ready for it. Wagons carried the patients and hospital equipment to the rail depot in good order.

The platform was curiously calm as orderlies and porters hurred everything abort. Six cars had been given over to the field hospital. The rest of the train was taken up with soldiers of various descriptions, including livestock and freight cars loaded with horses and fodder. Natalie sat next to the window in the compartment she shared with the other nurses and several of the housekeeping sisters. As the train at last pulled away from the platform and gathered speed -- passing through Brest and then north of the city -- Natalie could see the light of the city, still seemingly peaceful. No people or carts were on the road that ran next to the railroad embankment at this late hour. How soon would the sky over the city be lit with the artillery flashes of the approaching enemy? How soon would the road be choked with those desperately using the last house to attempt an escape from the invasion? But right now all was quiet.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Chapter 7-2

2020 has been a rough year, but I'm not going to end it (or at least, not end my Christmas to New Years time off work) without completing Chapter 7 and starting some good habits for the new year.  





Terespol. July 16th, 1915. “Would you like a chance to get away from it all for a time?” Sister Gorka asked.

It had been a sorely trying day in the wards. Natalie had hoped that Doctor Kalyagin’s determination to put her under extra scrutiny would fall away after a few days. Despite their clash of wills over Lieutenant Ovechkin’s last days, she was not normally lax in her adherence to procedures. Surely after a few days he would tire of this extra oversight and things would return to normal.

But she had not accounted for the conjunction of the new doctor’s pride and his passion for his work. If anything, his determination not to trust her, and to make this lack of trust obvious to all, had grown over the following days, and as they had received a gradually increasing number of patients over the last few days this had resulted in Kalyagin demanding that she take him through the wards and show him the initials on every treatment protocol. He had even questioned the orderlies and the housekeeping sisters, demanding to know if they had seen anyone (here he looked significantly at Natalie) providing treatment that was contrary to the protocol.

It was with relief that Natalie and Sister Gorka had finished their twelve hour shift, leaving Sister Travkin to oversee the wards until morning.

“What did you have in mind?” Natalie asked, in response to Sister Gorka’s question.

“I’ve secured a motorcar in order to go into Brest-Litovsk and do a bit of shopping,” Sister Gorka explained. “But it’s a strange city. I’d like to have someone to come with me, aside from the driver. Would you come?”

“Shopping?” The word was from another time. Natalie had not had the opportunity to enter a shop since joining the field hospital back during the winter. And yet just across the river in Brest-Litovsk there was a bustling city with shops and tea houses and people out of uniform. Until this moment it had not occurred to her to visit, and yet now the idea became suddenly and desperately attractive to her.

“Lieutenant Serafin told me where there is a shop with photographic supplies,” Sister Gorka explained, in an apologetic tone as Natalie’s private thoughts raced. “I wanted to replenish my supply of chemicals. Who knows when I shall have another chance? And I’m sure there must be other good shops as well. I thought it might be a nice change. Please come.”

“Yes! Yes, I’d love to,” Natalie replied. “Of course I’ll come.”

The motorcar was one of two assigned to the regimental staff, a twenty-five horsepower Crossley touring machine, all gleaming brass and black enamel. The vehicle had begun its life in Britain, been imported to the Russian Empire by a Warsaw business magnate with a fancy for the newest products of industrial ingenuity, and then requisitioned by the army and sent to the regiment as the Germans approached Warsaw. Russia itself had produced, in total, less than a thousand cars before the war’s outbreak, and with the German navy slowing imports to a trickle it was essential that no precious imported technology be lost. But right now, while the regiment was settled into the fortifications around Terespol and Brest-Litovsk, the regimental vehicles could be lent out at times for the use of officers or those they chose to grant favors to. As the nurses settled onto the heavily padded leather back seat, Natalie wondered if the car, like the recommendation of the photography shop, was courtesy of Lieutenant Serafin. Was it, perhaps, a sign of admiration for Sister Gorka, or just a favor done by one hobbyist to another?

The driver wove between pedestrians and carts, working his horn frequently, over the mile of cobbled road and then the old bridge over the Bug River which led into the city gates of Brest and the old fort. While Terespol was a product of the age of artillery, a fort of embankments and trenches, designed to be as impregnable to explosions as the earth itself, the old fort and city wall were products of an earlier age: towers and crenelations of red brick. These would do little to stop modern high explosive shells, and the old fort was now merely a marker at the entrance to the city. Beyond it, they reached the close-packed buildings and milling crowds of the old city.

They pulled up in front of a two-story building in the shopping district with the name MAGID painted in large letters over the shop windows on the lower floor. Although the shops, or at least the building, were all apparently under the ownership of Magid, the windows each displayed different merchandise. The first shop contained stationary and books, the second cameras, telescopes, and binoculars, the third women’s clothing and other necessities. Sister Gorka immediately led the way into the shop with cameras, and after gazing longingly for a moment at a gleaming wood and brass plate camera displayed on a tripod, she answered the question of the elderly man behind the counter by listing off the chemicals she required. These apparently were not simple choices, and as Sister Gorka and the shopman settled into discussing powdered developing solutions and stop baths.

The shop was small, and the floorspace was much taken up with tripods which Natalie did not want to accidentally jostle by wandering about too much. Against one wall there was a shelf holding cameras of various sizes. The larger ones had bodies made of wood and large glassy eyes that looked back at her, offering distorted reflections of her face in their rounded front lenses. The smallest could have fit into a coat pocket -- flat metal cases which opened to extend neatly folded bellows coated in black cloth, and a glinting lens smaller than a fingernail. Against the other wall was a space evidently used as a portrait studio, with a chair sitting on a patterned carpet and a large tripod standing ready. On the screen sectioning off this area hung portrait prints, many of them of soldiers in uniform, singly or in small groups, young men with the solemn expression of the self conscious portrait subject, standing straight in their uniform jackets and resting their hands on sword hilts or rifles.

Moving to the shop window, she looked at the brass telescope which stood on a wooden tripod. As she leaned forward to look through eyepiece, it offered her a highly magnified but upside down view of the shop sign across the street for Kalmanovich’s Grocery. She looked back to the counter, but Sister Gorka was still deep in consultation over chemicals and exposures.

“Do you mind if I step next door?” Natalie asked. Sister Gorka nodded and waved without interrupting the shopman, and Natalie stepped out into the street.

She peered in the window of the stationary shop: little boxes of paper and notebooks bound in cardstock or cloth or soft-looking leather. Just the sight of them made her want to write. But she had never had any ability as a diary or letter writer in her schoolgirl days, and it was hard to imagine keeping one of those beautiful books pristine in the chaotic world of the traveling field hospital. Nor would she have any desire to write down the experiences of each day. Those precious evening hours around the samovar with the other nurses and the housekeeping sisters were better spent forgetting the wards and the operating room than dwelling on them.

Turning away she walked past the photography shop again and stood looking into the window displaying clothing, gloves, handkerchiefs, and stockings. These too seemed like items from another world. How long had it been since she had worn clothes other than her nursing uniform? But these seemed like a train ticket to another world. Perhaps a pair of machine knitted stockings or a soft cotton petticoat to wear under her wool nursing uniform would elevate her world into something like normality. Or having a nice handkerchief in her apron pocket would be a talisman against daily the smells and sights of the hospital. The idea that there was some beautiful thing which she could buy that would make life better seemed powerful.

Down the street there was a rumble which gradually grew to a deafening clash as a cavalry regiment moved down the boulevard, with hundreds of iron-shod horses clattering over the cobblestones followed by the rumble of hay wagons. To escape the noise, and to better contemplate the escape promised by the products on display, Natalie went into the shop.

In glass display cases there were handkerchiefs, knitted stockings, hairpins, combs, and all manner of beautiful little accessories, while against one wall was a shelf holding bolts of cloth and a little platform where the customer could stand while being measured.

“Can I help you, madame?” asked the young woman behind the counter, dropping a curtsey.

It was a sort of formality which was almost as unfamiliar as the merchandise. The soldiers and officers were almost always respectful, but they tended to use the diminutive ‘sestritsa’. The woman behind the counter was probably her own age, though with the curly dark hair and features which marked her as clearly Jewish. Did that account for her deference?

Natalie was on the point of saying that she was only looking to pass the time, but then… Why not? It had been so long since she had occasion to spend money on a few simple pleasures, and how long might it be again?

“Yes. I want to get some summer things. Mine are all wool.”

“Of course! We have machine knitted cotton stockings, real imports from Britain. Also pre-made cotton petticoats. Or if you have time to be fitted, we can make petticoats, blouses, or skirts.”

Natalie ran her hands over the sturdy gray wool of her uniform skirt. Cotton would never stand up to what her skirts had been through over the last nine months, either in the wards or at the hands of the laundry unit and their boiling kettles. But to have cotton next to her skin… That would certainly be more pleasant on the long summer days in the wards.

“I’ll take three pairs of white cotton stockings. And for petticoats… If you take my measurements how long will it take to make three up?”

“A few days. No more. Are you stationed here in the city? We could deliver them to you when they’re done. If you could just step over here, I can take your measurements.”

The shopgirl guided her gently over to the little platform and conversation flowed smoothly as she took Natalie’s measurements down with a cloth tape. So enjoyable was the process that Natalie did not notice the growing commotion outside until the shopgirl stopped, listened for a moment, and then apologized, “I’m sorry, Madame. May I just check?”

She went to the shop door and peered through the glass. Natalie followed her. There was a small knot of soldiers standing in the street outside, four men in long Cossack coats, one of them an officer with his traditional whip in his hand, and they were shouting and waving at the old man from the photography shop while Sister Gorka stood by looking uncertain. The shopgirl turned nervously to Natalie.

“I’m sorry, that is my grandfather. I must see what is wrong.” She pushed the door open and Natalie followed her into the street.

The officer was shouting at the old shopkeeper. “I don’t want to hear any more of your lies, Jew. Take the shovel and clear the street or I can put a jump into your step.” He hefted the knout which all Cossack officers carried.

“Sirs, if you will just let me fetch my son,” said the shopkeeper. “My back was injured this spring. I am no use to you for shoveling.”

“No excuses. I didn’t ask for your son. I asked for this street to be shoveled now,” ordered the officer, giving the old man a shove with his whip.

The Cossacks were among the many peoples with their own status within the Russian empire. Hundreds of years ago they had been their own sovereign nation, and fought wars against the Tsars for control of the steppes north of the Black Sea. But for the last hundred years and more they had been a part of the Russian empire, a people with special exemptions from the Tsar’s taxes and their own military units commanded by their own officers. Cossack cavalry had formed a fearsome core of the Russian Imperial cavalry since the invasion of Napoleon, and Natalie had seen many of their soldiers in the hospital. But other Cossack units served a paramilitary function, enforcing order behind the lines in the way that only men who saw themselves as truly different from those they were acting against could. Such units had been deployed against rioters in the 1905 Revolution. And during the long retreat, they had been the most ruthless in making peasants leave their homes and burn supplies before the advancing German armies. Those whips were not just for show. Natalie had seen them snake out to cut across a peasant man or woman’s back.

“Officers, please,” called out the shopgirl who had led Natalie into the street. “Let me fetch my father. My grandfather is not a well man.”

The soldiers turned to face her, one of them giving a low whistle. “Maybe we should make this little piece do a bit of work for us!”

Natalie had been trying to understand what the source of the trouble was, but as two of the soldiers approached her shopgirl it seemed that time was up.

“What is happening here?” Natalie demanded, stepping in front of the girl and using the voice that she used when casualties were pouring in and she had to direct orderlies hither and yon over the tumult.

The soldiers stopped and looked back towards their officer. He stepped forward. “This Jew,” the Cossack officer explained, “is not following orders. He knows very well that all the city Jews owe street cleaning duty at need. The cavalry has just been through and, begging your pardon, Sestritsa, fouled the street. So I’ve ordered him to shovel it and he’s given me nothing but disrespect. It’s about time the old man had a lesson.”

For an instant Natalie hesitated. So far, they were respectful, and yet, unlike a surgeon, she did not hold a rank. If the respect for ‘sestritsa’ cracked, she had nothing. And yet, she could not leave these soldiers to terrify this family simply because they had been born Jews. The way the soldiers had approached her shopgirl was too clear a reminder of the dangers she herself faced as a woman surrounded by an army of men, should respect for her station ever break down.

“I do not have time for this foolishness,” Natalie announced, drawing herself up and determined to show no hesitation. “We must finish our errands and take the motorcar back to the regiment. And you are pulling aside these Jews while they are busy serving us. You must either wait until a suitable worker can be found or else go and find someone else.”

She and the officer looked into each other’s eyes, and Natalie was determined that despite the fact he was six inches taller than she, his uniform coat was festooned with the cartridge belts which Cossacks favored, and he carried a ceremonial whip, she would not be the one who broke.

“Are my orders clear?” she asked, after a moment, realizing as she said the words that she had no plan for what she would do if he defied her.

The Cossack officer shifted his feet. “Yes, Sestritsa. I’m sorry that these men took up your time. We’ll find someone else to clean the street.” He shifted the whip in his hands. “Come on, men. You’ve grabbed the wrong Jew. Let’s find someone loitering uselessly to clean this filth up.”

He turned away, and the soldiers followed him. Natalie’s legs felt as limp as string as she stepped back and leaned against the motorcar, where their driver had watched all these goings on impassively.

“Are you nearly done, Sister Gorka?” Natalie asked.

“Yes. He was just wrapping up my parcel when those soldiers barged in.”

The shopman bowed and thanked Natalie and hurried into the photography shop, promising that he would have the parcel out to them in a moment.

Natalie turned to the shopgirl from the ladies’ store. “What’s your name?”

“Anna Isaakova.” The look she was giving Natalie bordered on worshipful, and Natalie found it embarrassing to receive.

“Well, Anna, I hope that those soldiers will leave your family alone. Do you have all the measurements you require?”

“Yes, Madam.”

“Then let me give you my address for the petticoats, and perhaps you can package up the stockings for me now?”

Anna nodded mutely. Natalie wrote down the regiment and the field hospital number in Anna’s little notebook and paid her for the stockings, although the grateful shopgirl had tried to offer them for free. “No, you don’t need to give me the stockings, nor the petticoat neither. Send a bill for them when they arrive as is proper and I’ll pay. I don’t think it’s right for the army to abuse its power over civilians like that. And there will be plenty of hard times coming if the retreat begins again.”

Soon they were packed up in the motorcar, the driver brought the engine roaring life, and Anna and her grandfather were waving from the sidewalk as they pulled away.

“You were very impressive,” Sister Gorka said, in awe. “I do not think I could ever have done it.”

Natalie shrugged. “The way they were treating that old man made me angry. But I didn’t know what I would do if those Cossacks didn’t listen to me.”

“And yet you did it anyway.”

Monday, February 24, 2020

Chapter 6-3

This installment concludes Chapter 6. Next week we'll return to Natalie with Chapter 7.

Village of Chateau Ducloux, France. August 7th, 1915. “Dearest Henri,” the orphan words looked up at Philomene from the page. In her days in the lycee they had completed composition exercises by rote. “Write a letter to your aunt thanking her for the gift that she sent you. The letter must be at least three paragraphs, and the gift may not be mentioned until the second paragraph.” “Write a letter to your grandfather telling him about a recent occurrence in your family.” Never, however, had she seen a model composition for, “Inform your husband serving in the army that during his year-long absence you have decided to adopt another child.”

Nor had the occasional separations of courtship and married life, with their letters filled with equal parts small household news and expressions of longing, provided training for this need. Even the other letters that she had managed to send to him since the war began had carried as their implicit message: here we wait, staying as much the same as we are able, until your return.

She put the cap back onto her drying pen and looked at little Marianne, lying in the small cradle which had held each of her children in turn, and once upon a time had held her as a baby. The baby’s face was pink against the white sheets and her expression was all quiet repose. Even without the natural lassitude that came from having nursed the baby herself there was something in those tiny features. The pointed chin, the softly closed eyelids with their little wisps of eyelash, the tiny white pores against the reddish skin of the nose -- every detail was something that could be contemplated without end. Not only were they small and peaceful, but each feature held the promise of many years unfolding before it. This small bundle of potential which as yet did nothing on her own had bursting forth within her so many possible futures, if only she could be given the time and peace to realize them.

And that was what it was so hard to find the words to tell Henri. Each of their children till now they had made between them, formed within, the product of their love. That she had chosen to add this child, whom he had never seen, to their family without being able to consult him seemed an admission that the family was growing and changing without him. There was no doubt in her mind that Henri would have supported her choice had he been there. It was the necessity of changing the family without his knowledge which made all the more clear that he was gone and that when he returned -- she would not allow the word ‘if’ -- it would be to a different family. And yet that was precisely why it seemed like a betrayal to end this day without writing to him, however long the letter might take to actually reach his hands.

She uncapped her pen again and hesitated with the nib just above the paper. Perhaps in the end the best way was the least artful. She would simply narrate from the beginning.

“This morning I was in the kitchen when there was a knock at the door….”

The letter ran to three sheets, written closely on both sides, as Philomene described not only what had happened, but why she had felt it her duty to make this little girl a member of the family, and also the infant beauty which made her happy to perform that duty. And then in closing, she returned to her love for Henri, to how much she and all the children missed him, to the glimpses of Henri she saw in his son who was becoming a man so quickly. She hoped that soon they would all see him again, that soon the war would be over and they could all live together in peace.

And with such wishes -- and a dash of her favorite perfume, which she hoped might cling to the paper over the weeks it would take to each Henri and give him a waft of memory that would remind him of the times they had spent in close embrace -- she sealed the letter and addressed the envelope to Henri.

This envelope, in turn, she placed in a larger envelope, and this she addressed to the convent in Munich which was of the same order as their convent in Chateau Ducloux. From there it could be forwarded to another convent in Switzerland, and from there to one in Paris, and from there to Henri. It was a slow process that took nearly a month to complete, but it made it possible to exchange letters with Henri even across the battle lines. Already, by this means, they had managed to exchange several letters.

But it was not a sure means. It depended on the tolerance or ignorance of the warring powers, both of whom officially disallowed communication with enemy territory. And in this case, at last, luck ran out. The convent’s packet was opened by an overly diligent German postal official. Among the letters that he found inside was one addressed to “Captain Henri Fournier, 304th Reserve Infantry Regiment”. That, to him, was clear enough proof of the duplicity of these Rome-ish nuns. He threw the small, scented envelope into the fire and for good measure followed it with the rest of the convent’s packet.

Henri, thus, never received the letter. And the disappearance of the packet alarmed the sisters, who held back some months before attempting again to send messages from the Munich convent to France via Switzerland. And this, in turn, would have results for Henri and Philomene that neither the postal official nor the sisters could have imagined.

***

Pere Lebas answered the door of the rectory himself. Here too, as in so many ordinary homes, the war had brought changes. Young Pere Benoit had been called up for service along with the other men in the village who were under thirty, leaving the pastor to carry the full work of the parish of Saint Thibault, with what little help the retired pastor, Pere Durot, could provide. And now, even their housekeeper had left to help her daughter who was struggling with three young children and a husband off with the army -- and truth be told to make a much better wage taking in washing from the German officers than the church had ever been able to give her.

“Why Madame Fournier! It’s good to see you. Come in. To what do I owe this visit?”

Philomene hefted the basket in which Marianne was once again nestled and stepped inside. It was a convenient enough way to carry a baby, and far less conspicuous than the perambulator in which she had taken her own babies for strolls.

“I’ve come for a baptism, Father.”

“A baptism,” the priest repeated back, surprised.

Philomene drew back the blanket which covered the basket, and its occupant obligingly gave a little murmur in her sleep.

“Yes, Father. I’ve brought you my baby daughter to be baptized.”

Pere Lebas had led the way to his little parlor. Now he sat down heavily in one of the stiff wingback chairs and repeated back, “Your daughter?”

Philomene nodded. She sat down in the other wingback chair and set the basket carefully in front of her, but she did not elaborate.

“But how can she be your daughter?”

“Why Father, surely you aren’t tempting me to sin against modesty? I’m certain you know how daughters come about.”

“But-- But, Henri… It’s more than a year that he’s been gone, and you’ve given no sign of being…”

He did not complete the sentence, and when Philomene’s raised eyebrows challenged him to do so, he merely blushed.

“It is important, Father, that we all be able to speak truthfully,” explained Philomene. “If someone asks you about this child, you must be able to say that I came to you and said that she was my daughter and I had bought her to you in order to have her baptized. You could then say, quite truthfully, that you expressed surprise and pointed out that my husband has been gone for over a year. And you may then say that I asked you to hear my confession. Will you hear my confession, Father?”

“Of course.”

Philomene listed her sins of the last few weeks, and then launched into an explanation of Marianne’s origins. “So I came to you with two purposes, Father. One was holy. She is to be my daughter and I want her received into the graces of the Church immediately. But the other was expedient. In order to be sure that she isn’t taken from me and sent off to an orphanage or even on the train to France through Switzerland with the other people they are calling ‘useless mouths’, I have to make sure she is legally my daughter. Then my ability to work, and my father’s, and my son’s will make her as safe a member of the village as any. So as soon as I am done having her baptized, I will go to the city hall and ask for a birth certificate showing that she is my daughter. And I will tell them, if they doubt me, they can come to you and ask about our visit. And what you must be able to tell them is that I came to you saying that she was my daughter, and then I asked you to hear my confession and you of course cannot reveal what I told you in confession.” She paused, watching for the priest’s reaction. “Is that wrong, Father? Have I used you and the sacrament to deceive?”

There was a long pause, and Philomene, at first confident of his answer, began to fear she had misjudged.

“It is certainly true that your motivations are mixed,” the priest said at last. “Still, I must warn you. You have thought out a good plan, but one which uses others and even the sacrament of baptism to your own ends. I know that in this case you want baptism for its own sake, and we are not required to have perfect intentions when we do what is right. But you must be cautious and not allow yourself to fall into using others. And of course, you must not allow yourself to lie no matter what the reason.”

“Yes, Father.” It was true. Once she had set her mind to it there had been a relish in thinking through how she could construct a situation which would deceive the village officials and their German masters without actually having to lie to them. She had enjoyed it.

“Then for your penance, pray the first Joyful Mystery for the intention of this little girl’s mother,” said Pere Lebas. “Now an act of contrition and I will give you absolution.”

The familiar Latin words of absolution were comforting after the self-accusation that had come before.

“What name will you give the child?” Pere Lebas asked her, when he had made the final sign of the cross over her.

It was with that question that the priest’s warning about using the sacrament for other end fully came home to her. She had not considered what name to give the baby, other than Marianne. Surely she must have some saint’s name. With each of her earlier children she had given much thought to the names of favorite saints and relatives. And yet this time she had given it no thought at all.

In that moment an idea came, and she hoped that its occurrence was a sign of providence rather than desperation.

“She is not yet a saint, but I would like to name her Marianne Thérèse, in honor of Sr. Thérèse of the Child Jesus.”

“Of course! She will be a wonderful patron for your little Marianne.”

***

In the frantic last days before the Germans arrived the previous summer, Mayor Binet had determined that his duty to the town and to the Republic was to take the civic records and remove them to a place of safety using his automobile. This duty had no doubt been more pleasant for him because he chose to fulfill it in the company not of Madame Binet, a woman of formidable opinions and girth, but rather his dutiful city secretary, with whom, for some years, he had enjoyed a discreet relationship. Thus it was that after Justin Perreau was appointed mayor by the occupation authorities, he had to find a new city secretary as well.

Whatever objections townsfolk might have to Mayor Perreau and the manner of his selection, Germaine Diot was precisely the sort of person that one would wish a city secretary to be. She had, ten years before, been one of the top students in the lycee, but she had neither left Chateau Ducloux to study further nor settled down to marriage. She had, rather, supported herself through a series of exemplary though unremarkable jobs and lived in quiet harmony with her elderly maiden great aunt. There was no whisper of impropriety when Mayor Perreau selected her as city secretary, and her perfect, swooping pen strokes were a credit to city documents. And yet, she was a person who expected, as the saying went, two and two to make four, and so when Philomene arrived in front of her desk with Marianne in her basket and asked that her daughter’s birth be recorded, Mademoiselle Diot questioned what seemed to her a clear untruth -- and things that were not true were not to be entered on the neat lines of town registries.

“You say that this is your daughter, Madame Fournier?” Germaine repeated.

“Yes,” replied Philomene, whose trim figure and easy movement both belied the idea that she had delivered a child a few days before.

“And who then is her father?”

“My husband, of course. Henri Fournier.”

“Your husband who has been gone with the army for more than a year?”

“Who else but my husband would be my daughter’s father?”

“That’s hardly for me to say.”

“Indeed it is not.”

“And yet, Madame Fournier, we both know that the length of a pregnancy is nine months.” It was Germain’s particular gift that she was able to state this in a tone that somehow was neither insulting nor aggressive. Together we must resolve this difficulty, her look and voice suggested.

Philomene hardened herself. Surely if she insisted, Germaine would eventually have to record the birth in the city register.

“Henri is my husband. Surely he must be considered the father of my child.”

“But Madam Fournier, to falsify the city records is wrong. It would be a crime.”

“I’m not asking you to falsify records. This is my daughter, and so of course, Henri is her father.”

The two women exchanged a look that was very close to a glare, but Germaine almost instantly thought better of the reaction and instead looked demurely down at the birth register that was open before her. This somehow caused Philomene to feel as if she had been rude, and so she tried to move into her planned last resort.

“If you don’t believe me, consult with Pere Lebas. He can tell you that I came to him today to have Marianne baptized and to have him hear my confession.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Germaine replied. “But you know I cannot accept a baptismal record as a legal document. The birth register is a civil record, recording who is born a citizen of the Republic. Surely you can see that I must record the actual parents of a child, because it may affect the child’s citizenship.”

This hinted at the very worst things that Philomene had imagined. Could the child be ruled a German because of her likely paternity? Would she be sent away to Germany to be raised by foreigners? Even after one day and night of feeding and nestling the child, it seemed cruel to be forced to give her up. Perhaps that was strange. But then, she had felt with each of her children a deep attachment from the moment of first laying eyes upon them. Why should this be different? And even the child’s mother, that poor, wretched woman who had been able to do no more for her daughter than to leave her where she might easily be found by loving hands, surely she deserved that her child at least be brought up in France, no matter who the baby’s father was.

“Let me speak with Mayor Perreau,” Philomene said.

“Come, Madame Fournier. It is not the mayor’s duty to fill out the birth register, and he will tell you the same as I.”

“Let me speak with him,” Philomene insisted.

“Very well. I will ask him.” Germaine rose. “I’m sorry, Madame. I wish that you would believe that I am not trying to be difficult. But we have a duty to France, even now.” She did not wait for a reply but left Philomene sitting before the records desk and went in search of the mayor.

Philomene sat and contemplated her situation. It was not as if she had some great store of goodwill built up with the Perreaus. But Justin Perreau was a decent man, if weak. Perhaps he would feel it his duty as a gentleman to listen to her.

Time passed, and Marianne began to fuss in her basket. Philomene took her out and held her. She tried all an experienced mother’s store of tricks: gently rocking her, draping her over one shoulder and patting her back, giving her a knuckle to suck on. All these could at best reduce the child from a full wait to occasional little squacks of frustration, because the one thing which Philomene could not do was feed the child without the milk and rag and funnel that she had rigged together the day before. If only she could complete all this quickly and get home in order to feed the baby.

Mayor Perreau thus found both mother and child on edge when he came into the city office and sat down at Germaine’s desk across from Philomene. He made a sympathetic clucking sound to the baby in the manner of an practiced parent, but Marianne was not to be mollified and gave him a little shriek with so much effort that her face briefly turned red.

“I’m sorry, Monsieur Mayor,” said Philomene. “The child is hungry.”

“Of course,” said the Mayor. “If you would like me to step away for a short time so that you can feed her in private…?”

He left the question hanging in the air, and Philomene took the question in precisely the way he meant it. He knew that the child was not hers, and thus that she could not nurse it.

“No need,” she replied. “Let us get the necessary formalities done and I will take my daughter home and feed her in peace. That is what she needs.”

“Yes, well…” Mayor Perreau steepled his fingers and pursed his lips. “The city secretary told me that you wish to have this child’s birth recorded in the city register.”

“Exactly.”

“Well, if I’m to do that, I must record the child’s mother and father in the register. The German administration is particularly strict about this for what they consider important health reasons relating to their troops.” He added this last with a knowing look. “So if you could just tell me the child’s mother and father, I will record it properly and we shall all be done with it.”

“Monsieur, my answer is not going to change with repeated requests. This is my daughter. Thus, her father is my husband. If you will put this down in the register now, you will save both of us time.”

Mayor Perreau studied her for several moments. “I’ve warned you that if I do as you ask the Germans may draw their own conclusions and act accordingly. Are you certain that you want me to do this?”

Philomene looked to Marianne’s face for courage and found it in the small features and unfocused eyes. And what could the Germans do? Surely nothing worse than if she allowed Marianne to be identified as an abandoned child and perhaps shipped away to an orphanage somewhere. “Yes. Please do.”

“Very well.” The mayor took up a pen and entered the birth record in the register in his own, less decorative handwriting.

Feeling victorious, Philomene hefted Marianne’s basket and carried the village’s newest citizen home. For his own part, Justin Perreau had sufficient decency that he had no desire to expose a respectable woman to the scrutiny of the German occupation authorities, so he made no mention of the child to the commandant and it was some time before her existence came to their attention.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Chapter 6-2

Sorry to miss posting last weekend. Travels continue. I post this section from California, where I'm out helping my mom for a couple days. We're all looking forward to things calming down in March after this eventful February.

But here's the next installment, back with Philomene in occupied France.


Village of Chateau Ducloux, France. August 7th, 1915. The next morning was calmer for Philomene. She gave the girls breakfast and turned them out into the garden to play. Pascal slept late, and when at last he came down he was more her quiet son of a year ago than the sullen young man who had returned to her from harvest duty the day before.

She cut him a large piece of bread and spread it generously with butter.

“Would you like coffee?”

Even with Grandpere’s black market activities, coffee was far more a luxury now than it had been before the war. The beans had to come from Africa, South America, or from the Pacific. All those sea lanes were firmly under the control of the British Navy, and it was their policy that no cargo ships, even under the flags of neutral nations, could sail to Germany and its occupied territories. Thus even in the Fournier family coffee remained a treat reserved for the most important occasions and even then only for adults. But Pascal was only just back from nearly two weeks with the labor detail. Surely that was a special occasion.

“They made us pots of ersatz coffee each morning during the harvest,” Pascal explained, after swallowing down the over-large mouthful of bread and butter that had blocked his speech. “The older boys said it was made from scorched grain. It was hot, so we drank it, but it was so bitter.”

“This is real coffee your grandfather bought. I can put cream in it for you if it’s still too bitter.”

“Yes please.”

Pascal sat taking large bites of his bread and watched her fill the coffee pot. He was all hers and all little boy. And then a knock sounded at the door.

For a moment neither moved. A knock no longer had the harmless function that it had before, or rather, the function was the same, but the range of reasons a visitor might come to the door had expanded to include many that were as uncomfortable to think on as they were impossible to ignore. Nor could they simply wait for the maid to answer it.

Philomene went to the door and opened it.

Relief. There was no stranger in a uniform outside. It was Andre the postmaster, Henri’s old friend and now Grandpere’s unlikely co-conspirator in the black market. He had a basket over one arm, its contents covered with a blanket, while his other hand gripped his cane.

“Andre, welcome! My father went out for a few moments, but if you want to come in and wait for him?”

The postmaster looked up and down the street, as if in fear of being seen, and then stepped in. “Actually, I came to see you, Madame Fournier.”

The words and behavior seemed strange, but the training of the last year taught that the less usual an occurrence, the more urgent it should be out of general sight.

“Of course,” she said, closing the door behind him. “Come into the kitchen. I was making some coffee. May I offer you a cup?”

“Coffee? My goodness! Yes, that would be very fine. Thank you.” Andre was carrying the basket held well out from his body so that he would not bump it as he walked with his cane. The effect was awkward, especially as the basket appeared to be heavy. A secret that was both heavy and delicate. Surely he and her father weren’t involved with something as mad as explosives?

In the kitchen he settled the basket carefully on the table. “There. Not disturbed, I think.”

The coffee pot was beginning to bubble and sputter on the stove. Pascal stepped quickly to turn off the burner before Philomene could get around Andre. He took two coffee cups from the shelf and poured them, setting one before the visitor, then the other in front of his mother.

Such a responsible boy. He hovered quietly in the background, out of Andre’s line of sight, and Philomene did not have the heart to send him away. Let him listen quietly. He had given up his promised coffee to the visitor without a murmur, and there should be rewards for such maturity.

The blanket which covered the basket moved slightly.

“When I came to the post office this morning,” Andre said, “I found this basket in front of the door.”

He twitched back the blanket to reveal a baby, tightly wrapped in an old sheet, with only its head exposed. Sensing the light, or the loss of the blanket’s warmth, the baby stretched, reaching upwards with its chin and exposing the pink folds of a small neck.

“I found this letter with it.” Andre held it out. A few lines written in neat block letters, perhaps to avoid the handwriting being recognized.

TAKE CARE OF THIS POOR MARIANNE, THE PRODUCT OF A WOMAN OCCUPIED LIKE HER NATIVE LAND

“She was left at the post office? What are you going to do?” Philomene asked.

“Precisely my question,” replied Andre. “I’ve no idea what to do with a baby. Why was she left for me?”

Marianne, the symbol of the Revolution. “I suppose her mother wanted to leave her to the Republic and not the Church. Otherwise she would have left her at the convent or the church. And the city building is hardly our own anymore, so the post office probably seemed the most obvious place.”

“No doubt But I’ve no experience with children.”

“No. You can’t keep her.”

As if on queue, the baby’s face crumpled and darkened. She pulled up her legs, gathering her infant strength like a tensing spring, and delivered herself of a hoarse little wail.

Philomene was not a woman who could leave a squalling infant alone in its basket. Immediately she was on her feet, taking up the baby and holding her close, swaying and making little noises of comfort to her. Slowly the baby’s features reordered themselves. The child gave out a long triple snuff and shook her whole tiny frame as she settled back into sleep in the warmth of Philomene’s arms.

“See? This is why I came to see you,” said Andre. “I knew you’d have the womanly instincts to know what to do.”

“To hold her, yes. But what are we to do with her? Who is to take care of her?”

Andre spread his hands. “I could ask the mayor, but that’s no different from asking the Germans. Perhaps by rights it’s their problem, as it was doubtless a German soldier who fathered her.”

“But what would the Germans do with her?”

“I don’t imagine they would see it as their problem. The nearest state orphanage is in Reims, but that’s across the lines. There’s one in Sedan. But who knows if they’re taking babies fathered by German soldiers. What would the Church do with a case like this?”

There had been women in trouble before, of course. A good family would simply make sure a marriage took place, or if that was impossible, send the girl off on an extended visit to family in some other town and see that the child was settled with an appropriate relative. Down in the workers’ shanties by the mine and the cement factory, there were women enough who simply raised children on their own. At times the sisters sent a troubled girl off to stay at a house for single mothers until she delivered her child, and then… Well, a place was found for the child. It had not come to Philomene’s attention before how those situations were resolved, but they were, and often with the help of institutions in larger towns. She could not recall that the sisters had ever had to deal with a baby abandoned in a basket. And yet now, the Germans had been here for more than a year. Perhaps the surprise was that it had not happened before. She must find an answer, for this would surely not be the last time such a thing would happen.

The baby shook itself in her arms, stretched its chin out again and drew up its legs, then gave a long sigh and settled herself down into Philomene’s arms with a gentle shake of its head. The child was so tiny, surely not more than a week or two old. How cruel the world had become to cast such a small baby out on its own.

“I’ll ask the sisters what can be done. And in the meantime, I’ll take care of her.”

“Thank you!” Andre pushed himself up from his chair with the vigor of gratitude. “If there’s anything I can do to help?” He left the question hanging in the air as he moved towards the door.

“There is.” Philomene caught him before he could escape, and he halted. So long as he was not asked to take the baby into his bachelor existence, he was ready enough to perform any other service. “I shall need to feed the baby. That will mean fresh milk, and something to feed the baby with. I’ve heard in the cities they have for sale glass bottles fitted with a rubber nipple that the baby can drink from. Can you see if such a thing can be found?”

Andre had cringed slightly at the word ‘nipple’. The mechanics of feeding babies was clearly not something that he had confronted before, nor did he wish to. But if this absolved him of responsibility for the child, he would attempt it. “I will see what can be done,” he promised, and with that commitment, gained his exit.

Pascal saw him out, then returned to look over his mother’s shoulder.

The baby had opened her eyes. Dark blue pupils regarded the world with the slightly cross-eyed gaze of a newborn. Philomene was feeling a familiar delight at just how small the warm bundle was. With her head nestled in Philomene’s elbow, the end of the swaddled bundle rested comfortably in her hand, a perfect, wriggling. hold-able package.

“Why did the baby’s mother leave it outside the post office?” asked Pascal.

Philomene was on the point of brushing the question away with the sort of vague answer with which children are told nothing of what adults find too difficult to put before them. She stopped herself. Having a child on the borders of maturity would require new habits.

“I’m sure it was some unfortunate woman who was not married. And the child’s father wouldn’t marry her. Probably a German soldier. She was afraid she wouldn’t be able to take care of the baby, or she didn’t want people to know that she’d had one. So she left her where people would find her and take care of her.”

Pascal took a step back. “So it’s a Boche baby? A bastard?”

The words were harsh coming from a twelve-year-old’s lips. Pascal himself felt anger rising and his fists clenching just by saying such words in front of his mother. But in his mind loomed the image of one of those big, uniformed threats, with his grey uniform and hobnailed boots and a rifle slung over his shoulder -- a man like those who had stood guard over the boys on labor detail as they worked in the fields. One of those men had taken a village girl and done things to her, the things that grownups wouldn’t talk about, but which the bigger boys said were like how stray dogs mounted each other in the street. Had she liked it? Had she kissed him? Or had he forced her? The questions and the images they inspired were fascinating and revolting at the same time, and somehow this baby was the product of it all. Surely it was not right that his mother should be cradling a baby that had come from such filthy and traitorous acts.

Philomene was feeling the tenderness which a baby could inspire in a mother. Not only did this baby have the tiny pointed chin, the toothless mouth, the delicate ears, all the features which made it possible to sit staring in wonder at a baby for an hour at a time, but she could hold this baby close and think about caring for it without the bloating, the tearing, the misery of carrying and then birthing a baby. Pascal’s words disrupted the peace she felt holding the child close.

“She is a baby. And every child is made by God in His image,” she said, trying to let the words do their work and keep any hint of anger from her voice. “However weak or even wicked her father and mother may have been, God wants every child to be happy with him one day in heaven. She needs our love and care, since she was abandoned by her own family.”

Pascal seemed no more than half convinced, and held back, eyeing the baby with suspicion. At that moment, however, the baby shifted between its two appetites. With her desire for sleep satisfied for the moment, she required food, and although the world had provided a set of arms that held her close to a warm body, the world was providing no food. Her face crumpled and turned red as she gave out hoarse little screams that made her tiny body shake.

Philomene rocked the baby, put her on her shoulder, and gently patted her, but it was plain enough what the baby wanted, and that created a problem. Although the illustrated papers before the war had offered full page advertisements touting the sanitary and figure preserving virtues of the modern glass baby bottles with their india rubber nipples, Chateau Ducloux was an old fashioned town and from the moment when Philomene had taken the infant Pascal in her arms twelve years before, it had seemed the most natural thing in the world to nurse her babies herself. Yet that meant that now, faced with this unexpected guest, she did not have suitable equipment with which to offer the baby the refreshment which she desired.

With the baby cradled in one arm, she poured a little milk into a saucepan and put it on the stove to warm, then began to look through the cupboards and drawers for something that might serve to feed a baby. At last she selected a small funnel. The mouth was small enough, but the milk would flow through it much too fast. She cut a piece of cloth from the rag bag and pulled it through the funnel until it made a tongue hanging out of the funnel’s mouth. Testing it with water this proved to let through a steady drip which seemed right for baby.

Taking all these back to a chair by the table, she found that two hands was one too few for this jury-rigged solution. The baby was still screaming, her face now dark red, as Philomene tried to juggle baby, funnel, and saucepan of warmed milk. Pascal was still standing around, shifting from one foot to the other as he watched her. She summoned him.

“Pour a little of the milk into the funnel when I tell you.”

He hovered over her as she settled the baby into the crook of her left arm. She dipped the funnel in the warmed milk so the baby would taste it immediately, and then settled the dampened cloth into the baby’s angry, gaping mouth. The little lips closed on the cloth and she could see the cheeks work, sucking at it.

“Now pour a bit of milk.”

Pascal poured. The baby sucked greedily for a moment, then choked and spat milk. She screamed for a moment, then Philomene was able to settle the cloth back into her mouth, and the baby again began to suck.

Milk glistened on the baby’s chin, and some was spattered on Philomene’s blouse as well. This would never have the same close, comforting feeling to holding a child to her own breast. But the baby was eating, and as she watched the little cheeks work the idea of sending this child off to be raised in an orphanage was already being replaced with thoughts of the tiny girl lying warm against her in bed at night.

They fed the baby in this fashion until she drifted into sleep, letting the milky cloth fall from her mouth and send drops of milk into her ear. Philomene set the funnel into the saucepan and dabbed at the baby and herself with a kitchen towel. Caring for this child would make a good deal of awkward work of this kind. And laundry. Philomene had begun to do a little light washing herself in the kitchen sink, something she would never have contemplated before the war, but washing diapers was not something she desired to do herself. The town’s washer women were now much taken up with seeing to the needs of German officers, and as a result getting laundry done for the villagers required more money -- or the offer of black market luxuries such as white sugar and coffee. Well, if that was what it took, she was in a better position than most people to acquire the needed items. That night she would have to discuss the matter with her father. Surely he would understand.

“What do we call the baby?” asked Pascal. “Does it have a name?”

She had not, till that moment, thought about the question, but when asked the answer seemed obvious. “I think we should call her Marianne.”

***

It was not till afternoon that Louis Martens returned home. Charlotte and Lucie Marie bounced around him shouting. “Grandpere! Grandpere! Have you heard? Have you heard?”

Pascal hushed the girls angrily. The situation was one which should be discussed seriously by adults -- and surely he was nearly an adult himself, Grandpere always spoke to him as if he were more than a child. The shouting of the little girls, who could not possibly understand it all, spoiled the importance of the day’s events.

Grandpere, however, had come with his own news, in the form of a proclamation which had been posted all over town.

“There’s to be a train, going home to France through Switzerland.”

He handed the printed announcement to Philomene.

Home to France. Paris. Henri. All day one set of plans had built themselves in her imagination, plans centered on the baby. Now a wholly different vision built itself in her mind. Together they would take the train through Switzerland, and from Switzerland across the border into France. Free France. They would make their way to Paris. She would send word through the regiment, and Henri would be given leave to come to them. The war might go on, but they would be together. For them it would be over.

“Can we go?” she asked, her voice studiously casual.

“You could go. And the girls. Pascal and I would have to stay. Only women and children too young to work are permitted to leave.”

The vision shattered as if an artillery shell had hit it. It was all too easy to envision the fate to which she would be leaving Pascal. Pressed into labor details. Running wild with the teenage boys in the town. Living under the threat of the occupiers and their guns. Her little boy would become coarse and hard, embittered by the work he was forced to do for his enemies, led into every kind of vice by the older boys. Her father would still be there at home, but what influence could a grandfather have compared to a boy’s own mother. Surely the knowledge that his mother and sisters were at home, expecting the best from him, would restrain him from following the rough boys from down in the workers’ shanties into whatever forms of perdition the frustrations and opportunities of the war would present.

Oblivious to the images going through his daughter’s mind, Grandpere was still talking. “I’ve made some inquiries. The train will take people only. One small suitcase for each family, and it is to contain no valuables or currency. I expect the Germans think they can requisition all the possessions of those who go. Still, if you went and took the girls you could be well away from all this, and Pascal and I could look after the house and the store.”

“I can’t go.” Philomene’s words cut him off. “How many years might the war go on? I can’t leave Pascal alone all that time. He’s still just a boy.”

Now Pascal spoke up. “I’m old enough to take care of myself. If you have the chance to take the little girls to safety and to be with father, you don’t have to stay on my account. We men will be all right.” He planted his feet and folded his arms across his chest, trying to reflect the stolid sentiments of his words.

“No,” said Philomene. “The family must stay together. That’s what your father would want. I was weak for a moment, thinking of the chance to get away and see him again. But that’s not the right thing. We must stay here together and be strong for him.”

This was a formulation which Pascal was able to accept. In truth, the idea of his mother and sisters leaving him behind had terrified him nearly as much as it had Philomene. But the fact that it scared him had simply increased his determination. He must not let his fear keep the women from going to safety. He would have to be like the men he had read about in the illustrated papers before the war, who when that ocean liner was sinking had stood quietly back and let the women and children take the boats. It was the duty of men to sacrifice themselves, whether on the battlefield or in life’s other dangers. But even as he had thrilled to the accounts of those brave men, he had suffered a terrifying dream in which he had stood with his father and Grandpere on a ship’s deck, watching mother and the girls board a boat, and knowing that very soon the icy water would take him to his death. He had so wanted to be brave, and yet he’d jerked out of that sleep in sweating terror and been unable to sleep the rest of the night for fear of dreaming about going down into the depths, never to return. But if Mother didn’t want to go… It was like a sudden stay of execution. He felt exultation coursing through him. The relief stayed with him even as Philomene asked that he take his younger sisters into the garden to play and watch them so that she could talk privately with Grandpere about other things. Normally this request would have drawn at least a few complaints from him, but at this moment all was right with the world, and so he herded the little girls outside and indulged them in a game of hide-and-seek which at other times he might have considered beneath the dignity of his years.

“Andre came to see me this morning,” Philomene said, once she was alone with her father.

“Yes. He told me about it.”

It took an effort for her to speak the next words. This difficulty was something she had not expected. Louis had always been such a close and gentle father, and after her mother’s death they had leaned upon each other. The only time she had felt this difficulty before had been telling him that she would marry Henri despite his objections. Then the reason for her trepidation had been clear to her. Now, she could not say why she felt her throat tightening as she tried to form her words. “I intend to keep the child myself.”

Her father nodded slowly, not so much agreement as acknowledgement of what she said. “Why?”

She had been prepared for practical objections, or some more mature version of Pascal’s objection to the child’s parentage, but this was a question on which she had not thought. Why? Somehow the need to find an answer made the words flow now as they had not before. “When Andre was here we talked about the sisters or a state orphanage. But then the child cried, and I held her close just like each of my own children. I looked into her eyes. And I felt her tiny fingers wrapping around my own. I learned how to feed her. And now I find it seems impossible to send her off to live with strangers, especially in an orphanage with no mother to keep her close.”

“I understand the feelings of holding a baby who needs everything, especially for a mother like you. But is it right to decide so quickly to make this child a part of our family? We know nothing of her parents, except that her mother could not or would not keep her.”

“Perhaps it is strange to make such a decision so quickly, but is any other child so different? I can’t say that any of my own children were the result of long thought and consideration. The decision of a moment, sometimes hardly a decision at all, can result in the bonds that tie us together for a lifetime.”

“But those are your own children, flesh and blood. You had already put your consideration into choosing the husband with whom you had them. Surely taking on another person’s child is something that requires thought. There are so many in need. You cannot help every one.”

“No. But every child in need does not come into my house and into my arms. This one did. Surely that makes her claim the most powerful one.”

“Perhaps you are right. After all, what was it that set the Samaritan apart from all the other passersby on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho? He saw that it was the man in need lying before him which mattered more than any other set of principles.” He took Philomene by the shoulders and kissed her forehead. “You are a good woman, like your mother was. At the wedding feast, even our Lord had to be told by Our Lady what needed to be done. You’d better bring me the baby so that I can get to know my newest granddaughter.”

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Chapter 6-1

I'm traveling off and on this month (editing this section for posting from the Chicago airport before flying to Dubai) so it's possible that at some point during February I'll miss a post, but here's the opening of Chapter 6, where we're back with Philomene and life under German occupation.

Chapter 6

1. Village of Chateau Ducloux, France. July 19th, 1915.
Since the boys in the town had been drafted into work parties during the spring planting, it came as no great surprise when the notices were posted stating that all boys aged 10 to 16 were liable for fall service: in late July for the wheat harvest, and again in September for the sugar beet and apple harvests.

Pascal refused to let Philomene see him down to the town hall. She stood at the door and watched him walk down the street, his bag slung over a shoulder, newly broad, and a pair of Grandpere’s old workboots on his feet. This boy, so nearly a man, who did not look back at her as he walked down the street, was a different person from the one who had seen his father off at the train station a year before. He had passed Philomene in height, and though she still had to fulfill a mother’s office in reminding him to wash himself with the new regularity his age required, there was a newly muscular quality to his back and shoulders that was more of Henri than of the boy she had nursed and cradled and held close all these years.

Henri. It had been nearly a year since that sunny day on the train platform, that last kiss through the door of the passenger car, as the wind carried away steam from the locomotive. A year, an age, a lifetime. Now here was Pascal with his voice showing the first signs of deepening, and a worrying silence creeping over the boy who had told her of all his thoughts and hopes. And little Lucie-Marie, now full to bursting with all the words her five-year-old mind could string together. It would not be a quieter house during these ten days with Pascal gone. But there was, gnawing at the back of Philomene’s mind, like termites in the structure of her stability, the feeling that one by one her men were being taken from her. First Henri to serve in the army. And now Pascal, by the labor detail, but also by that angry gaze he turned upon the world. And even her own father, now pulled deep into the world of buying and selling necessities hidden from the occupying Germans. How long until that took him away from them? Right now his activities gave them luxuries such as meat and coffee and sugar. But at any moment the consequences of this double life could snatch him away and leave her alone.

It was no great comfort when the ten days were past and Pascal returned. He came back tired, tanned, lean, and silent. He slept in his room for hours on end, trying to make up for the days in the fields and the nights spent on hay piled in the barns. When at last he came down he went out into the garden. Philomene was glad to see it. The girls were running and playing in the sun. He could provide a set of watchful eyes, and it was good to see him rejoining the family. She went happily about her work, and it was some time later that she went outside to see how Pascal was getting on with the girls.

The girls were building themselves a lean-to with old garden stakes. Pascal was not immediately visible to the eye, and Philomene asked after him.

“He’s behind the cucumber frames,” said Lucie-Marie. “He’s boring.”

Philomene found him sitting against the wall, behind the cucumber frames as his sister had described. She saw him wave a hand before his face while putting the other behind his back, and only after a moment realized that he was stubbing out a cigarette with one hand while waving wisps of smoke away with the other.

“Where did you get that?”

Pascal responded with a shrug.

“Where?”

He might be taller than she was, and harbor the anger of a boy who felt he should be a man fighting the occupiers of his home, but the edge which had entered Philomene’s voice still demanded obedience from him.

“Denis gave me some.”

“Where did he get them?”

“He stole them from the Boche.”

“Stealing is very wrong. Even from the Germans.”

“How is it stealing to take from them when they take everything from us? Why were we even out there working in the vineyards and orchards? Because they were stealing our time so that later they could then steal our crops. Everything they have should be ours.”

“That may be true, but isn’t it still just as bad for you? I agree they have no right to the things they take, but I don’t want my son to accustom himself to taking from others.”

Pascal looked away. How could she make any impression on him? What kind of bitter, thieving man might her son grow into under this wicked occupation?

Then she saw that his shoulders were shaking. His face was turned away from her so that she could not see his tears.

Philomene knelt down next to him and put a hand on his shoulder. Immediately he turned and flung his arms around her neck. The smell of tobacco which still hung on him was like that of her father or of Henri, but Pascal was still as much boy as man, and it was a boy’s tears that soaked into the shoulder of her dress. A boy who had spent nights of tension and fear, hiding with his friend to enjoy the forbidden calm of smoke, a calm both from the tobacco itself and from participating in the act both boys had seen their now absent fathers perform so many times in peace.

The tempest past, mother and son walked inside together. Philomene kept these things in her heart and contemplated them, not in conscious imitation of the mother of all about whom she had heard those words so often but because with the separations of war she had no one with whom to share her thoughts.

***

She was not the only one contemplating the situation of children under occupation that day. Major Spellmeyer had summoned Mayor Perreau to his office.

“I am concerned, Monsieur Mayor, about the state of preparedness for winter.”

“But sir, the harvest is very nearly complete. The work parties have performed well. The registration of crops and animals have reigned in the black market.”

The major waved these objections away like so much smoke. “Yes, yes. And the American aid has been quite helpful. I do not bring this up to attack your efficiency. You have done everything within your power. But the fact remains that this British blockade is intent upon starving us into submission, and your own country as much as ours relied upon wheat and coal and any number of necessities from abroad. No, the problem is not your efficiency, it is the number of people we must provide for — many of them unproductive people too young or too old to work towards their own support.”

The mayor spread his hands. “What can we do? With so many of the men gone, either with the French army or dead or in prisoner of war camps, there are fewer men of prime working age. Perhaps if we could get back some of the men who were captured…?”

“No. However much work they might accomplish, bringing unreliable men of military age this close to the lines would be a security risk of the highest order.”

“Then there’s nothing.”

“Use your imagination. We may not be able to increase the number of workers or the imports, but we could reduce the number of mouths to feed.”

“I don’t see how.”

“Perhaps a humanitarian move. In Lille, I hear, the military governor has organized a program for sending women and children back to France through Switzerland — a mercy to people separated from their families, and a convenient way to export people who would take up food and coal while providing very little to the war effort. I would like to do the same.”

Mayor Perreau spoke slowly now, conscious of how the program the Major suggested would be perceived by the people who he had lived with long before the Germans came, and might well have to live with long after the Germans left. “We are a small and rural town. Few of our people have any family in the south to take them in.”

Major Spellmeyer shrugged. “They’re French. In the end, their maintenance is the responsibility of the government in Paris.”

“We could ask for volunteers. At least a few would step forward.”

“You can ask for volunteers first. But while you wait for them, write a list and bring it for my review. I want families without working members. Women whose only children are under ten. Old people. If we’re to send a train, I want it to be full. If enough people don’t volunteer, you’ll do it for them.”

The mayor gave a nod that was very nearly a bow and backed out of the room. It was a pity he couldn’t put himself on the list. When he had first been appointed mayor, it had seemed that his role would be to represent the interests of the town during what surely must be a speedy resolution to the war. Now, after more than a year of occupation, the Germans seemed more and more to use him as a tool to execute their will, and in his darker moments he began to wonder whether he would ever see Paris again. Even if the Germans at last won the war, as their official news reports claimed was every day more likely, they would some day go home, just as they had in 1871. And then, unless he followed them back to Germany, he would be left with those who had seen him working for them. And yet what else could he do? He went back to his office to compile a list, trying to think of those whose families would be least able to exact revenge at some future date.

***

Elsewhere in Chateau Ducloux, another person was thinking about children and the occupation.

The deep blue eyes that looked up into her own brown ones were a reproach. They were the most perfect thing she had ever seen. They were a source of shame and horror. His eyes had been blue. He had looked at her with those eyes and said that he would be back, that he would take care of her, that he would bring her to the next town in which his regiment was stationed. And she had waited for his word. She had few enough friends left here now that she had been seen consorting with one of them. She would leave and follow him where he went. But those words had been less a promise to him than they were to her, and no summons had come. Three long weeks of gnawing silence. And then one night there had been a knock at the door. Heart skipping she had opened the door, but found two soldiers she had not seen before.

“We had a few days leave. Franz said to come see you. He said you were a woman who knew how to take care of a fellow in return for a few choice treats. See? We brought bread and sausages and wine.” “And schnaps and sugar,” added the other, holding up a bottle and a sack.

She had wanted to slam the door, to demand to know what kind of woman they thought she was. But they knew exactly what kind of woman she was. So the darkness that seemed to crowd her vision and wrap itself coldly around her chest told her. They knew better than she did, because all those nights when Franz had come over with his boyish smile and springing step, bringing a pound of coffee or a few bottles of wine for her pantry, she had thought they were forming a lasting connection. She had left her teaching job at the school and the hostile stares of the children who so quickly learned her secret, and she had thought she was leaving to pursue a life with him. But he had already known what she was. And now he had sent two men to see her. Two men. There could be no more final statement. And so with the feeling that she was watching her actions rather than choosing them, she had invited them to sit down by the fire, and she had closed the door against the crisp autumn air.

And now, after them and others like them had helped to feed her and provide her with fuel through the winter, she had this blue-eyed creature looking back at her.

She told herself that this was an enemy, a thing which had been forced upon her, an invader. But this invader was also a part of her, and it looked up at her and gurgled a vague and toothless smile. The invader had smooth and perfect skin and little hands that gripped at her fingers or her dress. The invader cried and reached out its little arms, and the occupied mother felt her own body betraying her as the milk came down to nourish it. She drew the invader close and suckled it and loved it and hated it.

Of course she couldn’t keep it. How could she care for a child? And did any child, even a child like this, deserve to live the life that she had somehow given herself to?

Throughout the winter and spring months after she had realized what had taken hold within her, she had given it every opportunity to suffer some accidental fate. But the interloper was determined not to be shaken loose or succumb to the numbing effects of the alcohol which came into her hands from her irregular visitors, and although she knew that there were more scientific ways to free herself, some combination of shame and fear of going to either the local doctor or army surgeon and explaining her predicament held her back.

The best she could do was to give this small creature a chance to find her own small way in the world. If the world made that chance fatal, it would be the world’s responsibility and not hers. So while the invader slept, a serene and beautiful disgrace wrapped in a fraying old blanket, she found a basket and a piece of paper.