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.

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.


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.

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