This took a little longer than I'd hoped. I guess I'm still getting into the swing on turning out wordcount. I am, however, pretty pleased with the results.
Incidentally, the events in this chapter are drawn very closely from an incident in the WW1 diary which future priest Yves Congar wrote as a young French boy living under occupation in Sedan.
This concludes Chapter 1. Chapter 2 will focus on Henri.
Village of Chateau Ducloux, France. May 13th, 1915. Pascal returned home on a Saturday afternoon. Even before his call of, “I’m home!” brought his sisters thundering and squealing down the stairs, he received his first greeting from Yves. The dog had been lying on the entrance rug wondering when someone would think to take him out for a walk. When the young master opened the door, Yves was instantly upon his feet, barking excitedly, and then clambering up to rest his paws on Pascal’s shoulders while showering his face with doggy affection.
It was a sight which caused Philomene a pang when she arrived a moment later to greet her son with her own maternal hugs and kisses. “Not tonight,” she told Grandpere, as Pascal went up to his room to change from his dirty work clothes. “There will be time to tell him tomorrow.”
Louis shrugged. “No longer, then. We’ll have to get it over with.”
It had only been two weeks, and Pascal seemed already to have changed. Could he have become taller? He was certainly browner. And yet there was still so much of the boy about him. He played with his sisters, leading them in the backyard adventures which had been listless without him. And he romped with Yves so happily that Philomene felt it weighing upon her heart.
The dog, only two years younger than Pascal himself, and thus in the children’s mind as established a member of the family as any of them, had become the most difficult resident of the household to maintain. Before the war, the pork butcher, Monsieur Jobart, had often thrown in a pound of scraps for Yves without charge when filling the family’s order for meat. Now meat of any kind was becoming scarce, and there were people who were eager to pay good prices for the scraps which before had gone to Yves and others of his kind. The family had made attempts to adapt him to a diet of beans and potatoes such as they themselves increasingly lived on, but while he happily ate whatever was put before him, such meals seemed always to make an untimely and catastrophic re-appearance from one end of the dog or the other. And so Yves continued to eat meat, even as the family got less and less. Philomene shuddered at the expense, and felt pangs of guilt when she thought of that some people went hungry in the village even as she fed a dog, but when she saw how tenderly the little girls and Pascal clung to the animal who was a constant from the happy and peaceful days before, she had always relented. Now, however, it was out of her hands.
“There was another requisition announced by the Germans while you were gone,” she told Pascal Sunday evening, after the little girls had gone up to their bed.
“Another labor requisition? When will I have to go?”
“No. Not another labor requisition.” She hesitated. The news would hurt him. And yet, she could see the alarm building in him as she paused. What terrible thing must he be imagining, and what possible good did she do by drawing out the revelation? It would have to happen. Refusing to say the words did not avoid the end. “This is a requisition of dogs. All dogs larger than ten kilograms to be requisitioned for army use. They will take those they want for the army and have the rest destroyed so that they don’t consume excess food. The only exception to the requisition is if we purchase a special license for three hundred francs.”
“We can’t let them take Yves! He’s not a fighting dog. He’s our dog. And he’s French. He doesn’t like Germans.”
“No! This has to stop. We have to--“ He had raised his arms, as if to strike someone, but he turned abruptly away and stalked to the other side of the sitting room, his hands working as if crushing something.
Perhaps two weeks of work in the fields had put new muscles on his boyish frame, or perhaps the absence had allowed her to see changes which had been developing for some time, but as she saw his arms and shoulders working in anger it was clear in a way it had never been before: he was stronger than she. Not yet twelve, still a child in so many ways, but if he were to lose control of himself he was no longer the little boy who in his childish tantrums she had carried kicking and screaming to his room not so many years ago.
“We can hide him,” said Pascal, turning back to her with the light of hope in his face. “I could make a dog house for him out in the woods, and go visit him every day. We could say he ran away.”
“We can’t let the take him, Mere. We can’t.”
She could see the tears glistening in his eyes even as he blinked them back, and he was her little boy again. But before she could pull him close and comfort him, she had to tell the worst.
“We would never let them take Yves. He’s not the kind of dog they would keep anyway. They would only put him down. But we also can’t pay the Germans three hundred francs, which would only go to help their war effort. It would be like buying them bullets to shoot at Father. Even if it weren’t for that, meat is harder to come by every week, and he’s an old dog who can’t get used to eating other things.”
He was shaking his head. He seemed to know what was coming, and the tears in his eyes accused her.
“Grandpere and I talked about this a great deal, and we agree that there is only one choice. We must have Doctor Durand put him down. It will be painless. He will be here with us. He has had a long life. It is the kindest thing we can do.”
Pascal was snuffling unashamedly, and smeared the back of his hand across his nose. “But we’d be killing him. We can’t kill Yves. You wouldn’t have the doctor kill me to keep me from working for the Germans.”
“Come here.” She tried to pull him close, but he shook himself away. “We love him very much, Pascal, but he is a dog, not a person. If we have to choose between meat for him and meat for people, if we have to choose between having him die peacefully with us or letting him die scared and alone with the Germans, we have a duty to give him a quiet, happy end. He can’t understand suffering. God has given us the duty to decide for him.”
She tried again to take her son in her arms and comfort him, but he turned away. Instead he sat on the floor and cried muffled sobs into the well-worn cushion of Grandpere’s chair.
“It’s not fair. It’s not right. We’ll be murdering him.”
She sat down next to him and ran her hand over his hair. “I’m sorry. I know. I love him too. He’s a good dog.”
Pascal’s head came up from the cushion suddenly and he turned red rimmed eyes on her. “I hate you. You’re killing my dog, and I hate you.”
Before she could reply he ran from the room. She heard his feet pounding up the stairs and then the slam of his door. She thought of going up to try again to talk to him, but perhaps what he needed more than anything was time.
She put the house in order and went upstairs. Standing, for a moment, outside of Pascal’s little room, she could hear muffled sobs from within.
Back in her own room, settled in her own bed, the candle out and the darkness drawing round, the cold cruelty of it all seemed to crawl in next to her filling with its malign presence the place where Henri should have been, the source of strength and warmth that belonged next to her.
How could this be happening? After so many people had died, after her own husband had been taken she knew not where, why was she crying over a dog? And yet she did. Death and separation had come before, but always from outside. Now she was forced to take an active hand in ending a life. And however well she had braced herself against the quiet, loyal place that Yves had filled in their family for nearly ten years, the look of sadness, anger, and betrayal which her son had turned on her was not one which could be easily dismissed.
The day came all too soon. Pascal had slept only fitfully. As soon as the window was brightening with daylight he got up and dressed. He found Yves sleeping in his usual place, on an old blanket by the kitchen door. The dog looked up and focused large brown eyes on him, but did not rise.
Pascal crouched down and stroked the dog’s soft ears, one brown, one white.
“Shall we take a walk, while it’s still early?”
The returning gaze was soft, but without comprehension. Part of the cruelty was that the dog could not know why this morning was important, could not treasure this last walk together. Or perhaps that was a kindness. In school they had read about Iphigeneia, the Greek princess sacrificed to the gods by her father, King Agamemnon, so that the Greeks could have a favorable wind to sail and attack Troy. Surely she must have looked at her father on the last day with fear and hatred, but with Yves there was only trust.
“Come on.” He pulled gently at the dog’s collar, and after a moment’s confused resistance Yves got to his feet and shook himself.
It was not usual for the boy to want to go out so early. Many days, when the boy was home from school and crouched next to Grandpere’s chair in the sitting room reading one of the books from the shelf, Yves had to nuzzle and prod him repeatedly before he could persuade the boy to take him outside. But if today the boy wanted to go out early, Yves would shake the growing stiffness from his limbs and go out to see what sights and smells awaited.
The streets were mostly empty in the peaceful morning light. Yves nosed and looked about just as always, but Pascal turned back often to look at his companion, trying to imprint on his mind each moment so that he could recall it later: Yves sniffing at a beetle that walked along the paving stones, Yves pausing to scratch an ear, Yvet watching wrapt as a squirrel jumped from one tree to another.
A pair of German soldiers, out walking early, saw the two of them. One of them waved while the other called to the dog and tried to make enticing clicking noises at him. Pascal remained outwardly calm, even returned the wave, but seethed with anger. How dare they call to Yves when it was because of them he must die?
He turned aside into the Mourat Orchard, where he and Baptiste had so often played before the war. On a hot August day last year, he had taken his lead soldiers here and played out the triumphs and tragedies of a great battlefield struggle, even as miles to the north the real French army was facing the invading Germans. How long ago all that was now.
Yves was nosing at something, and Pascal approached to find a cache of items left by someone else seeking privacy in the garden: two empty wine bottles, a few cigarette butts, and a hair ribbon.
It had been by no means unusual to find such signs of assignation in the orchard before the war, but the knowledge that this was almost certainly from a German turned it from tawdry to disgusting and spoiled the orchard as a place of privacy.
On the way home, they stopped by Monsieur Jobart’s butcher shop, and Pascal purchased a packet of scraps for the last time. Yves watched, quiet and well-behaved, his frantically wagging tail the only sign that betrayed his excitement as Madame Jobart wrapped the scraps in paper and tied the package with a string. Once home, Pascal spilled the scraps onto a dish and watched as Yves eagerly wolfed them down.
Doctor Durand arrived in the mid-morning. He was a small man with thick white hair, and a voice barely above a whisper. Yves at first glared at him and whined, recalling earlier and unhappy times spent with him, but with soft words and gentle hands the veterinarian soon reassured his patient.
“You don’t have to watch if you don’t want to,” his mother told him. The little girls were both hiding in the nursery. Pascal, however, knew his duty was here, even as his throat felt so choked with held-back tears that breathing was difficult.
“You’re a very brave boy,” said Doctor Durand. “And I can see he trusts you. Here, will you hold his head in your lap and talk to him while I give him the shot? Really, this will not hurt him at all. For you and me, very bad perhaps. But for him, it will only feel like going to sleep.”
For Yves’s sake, Pascal remained stoic until the veterinarian told him that it was all over. Only then did he lay his face against the dog’s still warm flank and cry.
“We have to hold a funeral for Yves,” said Charlotte. Funerals had been the tender-hearted seven year old’s passion for nearly a year. Whenever she found some small creature suitable for her tragic instincts -- a mouse some cat had finished with, a fallen nestling, sometimes merely a large beetle -- she insisted on holding a ceremony, digging a small hole, then placing flowers on the mound and providing speeches and prayers of her own imagining.
“This isn’t one of your games,” Pascal told her.
“But Yves is a hero of France. He died because of the Germans. He has to have a funeral.”
There was a justice to this. In the numbness that had filled the day, he had not thought about what was to be done with the body that was lying under a blanket in Grandpere’s stock room. Surely Yves deserved some final recognition for having given all rather than help the Germans.
Pascal found Grandpere sitting behind the counter in the shop. “What are you going to do with Yves’s body?”
“Well.” Grandpere scratched at his chin, patted down his pockets, pulled out his pipe, then put it away again. “He’s not a small dog, Pascal. Durand said I should take him down to Monsieur Oudin.”
“To be carted away like bones from the butcher shops and made into glue?”
“I don’t say I like it, but what can we do?”
“We should give him a proper burial.”
Grandpere spread his hands. “I’m sorry, but he’s a good sized dog. We’d need to dig quite a deep hole, and we couldn’t do it in the garden for fear of attracting animals.”
“I’ll do it.” Pascal drew himself up in ready to defy any gainsaying. “I’m not afraid of work. I did plenty of digging for the Germans on labor requisition. I can dig for Yves.”
“There’s still the matter of attracting animals.”
“We’ll go somewhere else. We won’t bury him in the garden.”
“All right.” Grandpere shrugged. Perhaps this final service was what the boy needed to reach some peace with the painful necessity. “You can take my big shovel and the wheelbarrow.”
The funeral procession set off down the Rue des Remparts a little while later. Pascal pushed the wheelbarrow. In it, Yves was draped in his blanket, across which the little girls had scattered flowers. Charlotte carried Grandpere’s garden shovel, taller than she was, over her shoulder. Lucie Marie brought up the rear, carrying a discarded glass jar filled with water and more flowers.
The first place that Pascal had thought of was the belt of trees to the north of town where Baptiste had been accidentally shot and killed by German soldiers. It seemed appropriate that Yves stand eternal guard over the place his friend had been slain. But when he recalled the rifle shots ringing out across the fields, it became clear that he should not take his little sisters there. Where was a safe place within the town boundaries?
He had settled on the abandoned Mourat Orchard where he and Yves had rambled that same morning. There was a clearing on the east side where he could dig without running into tree roots, and the grey stone wall could serve as a headstone.
As Grandpere had predicted the digging took a long time, but it was work that Pascal was hardened to after the last few weeks. The girls wandered among the trees and collected more flowers.
At last all was ready, and they gathered solemnly to give Yves his last respects. It seemed wrong to shovel dirt directly on him, so Pascal lowered the dog into the hole still wrapped in the old blanked which had for many years served as his bed. It was so faded and redolent of doggy smells that perhaps Mother would not object to its being used as a shroud.
For a moment, as the body settled on the uneven bottom of the grave, one back leg with its glossy brown fur came uncovered and lay against the bare earth. No wonder people were buried in coffins. There was something so desperately sad about seeing a once living limb against the dirt. Pascal reached down and tucked the blanket snuggly around the body. His throat was suddenly tight and he didn’t trust his voice. Instead he nodded to Charlotte who, accustomed to improvised prayers for animals, assured God that Yves had always been a good dog and would always do what he was told if he were allowed into heaven. Pascal could not afterwards remember the words, so much as the conversational tone of the small voice saying them. What he did remember long after, with perfect clarity, was how after a moment’s silence, she became to sing in pure high tones.
“Allons enfants de la Patrie, Le jour de gloire est arrivé!”
The Marseillaise, along with the Tricolor, had been banned since the occupation. And yet what better tribute could there be to a dog who had died loyal to France. Grandpere had always said it was a filthy song of revolutionaries and atheists, but Pascal had seen him take off his hat and join in when the children’s choir had sung it at the fete, that warm summer night when the announcement of mobilization had arrived.
After the first lines Charlotte began to stumble, clearly not knowing the words as well, but Pascal joined her and together they finished strong, a fitting tribute to the hero dog.
“What’s all this? That song if forbidden.”
Caught up in their farewell to Yves, they had not seen the three soldiers, one with a gefreiter’s red and gold tabs on his tunic, approaching through the trees.
“Well, boy?” the NCO asked, pointing at Pascal. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
Pascal swallowed, trying to fight down panic. He mustn’t let any harm come to the girls. If someone had to be punished, it should be him.
“It’s my fault, sir. I’m sure they don’t even know all the words.”
“But what are you doing?” the German persisted.
“We’re burying our dog, sir. He had to be put down because of the requisition.” Was it wrong to admit this? The tragedy of losing Yves had weighed so heavily it had not occurred to him until this moment to wonder whether having their dog put down to avoid the requisition was itself a crime.
“Because of the requisition, eh?” The officer seemed to be contemplating the same question.
“We were singing the song because Yves died a hero of France,” announced Charlotte, in a surprisingly carrying voice. “He died like a soldier, so we had to give him a soldier’s funeral.”
Pascal would have stopped her if he could have, but the words poured out as he listened helpless. He had just a moment to imagine the soldiers marching all three of them off to jail, and to wonder how he could ever explain to Mother that he had allowed this to happen to his sisters, when the gefreiter burst into laugher. The two soldiers looked between their officer and the children for a moment, until he recovered enough to explain to them in German, “She says their dog is a French soldier, so they had to give him a soldier’s funeral!”
The other two howled with laughter in their turn. “We’re fighting an army of dogs, lads. That explains everything!”
Slapping each other on the back and still laughing, the three soldiers ambled away into the trees.
For a long moment the children stood looking after them. Then Pascal began silently to shovel the dirt back into the hole.
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