I imagine Pétain's hands shake when he eats. But I forget, we're not to use his name anymore. We're to call him the condemned man in the citadel. I am the woman who makes his soup. I like to use tomatoes and other things that stain. Of course only his wife sees him anyway when she comes for her daily visit, or his nurse, or the physicians. In the end, it doesn't matter much.
At age 89 they sentenced him to death. He had collaborated with the Germans. But his sentence was changed at once. Imprisonment instead. Now at 92 he is alive, and I slice meat for his soup and boil bones. If I leave in pieces of gristle instead of feeding them to the cat, or pieces are left half-raw, he doesn't even notice. At least I haven't heard.
I hope he is bored in his two rooms of confinement, with a view on the changeless sea and sand and stone, after being a military man in command for fifty, sixty, seventy years. And I, who am free to come and go, I also go nowhere, and I have only one room to share with the cat. As a girl I knew a story of lovers waiting for each other by the sea. This sea is nothing like that.
De Gaulle changed the death sentence. I wonder why. Maybe because the old man would die soon anyway. Or to let the good God take him when the good God willed. Or perhaps the old man got credit for serving his country so well one war earlier, this hero of Verdun in World War I. Sometimes when I lie awake at night, I wonder, to the ceaseless droning of the sea, how they would have executed him. Would they have shot him? Used gas? Later they symbolically executed a tree in his stead, which makes me angry when I think about it. It feels like mockery. I can't even imagine how one executes a tree. Would that be different from felling it just for furniture or wood for the stove? Sometimes I think we are all crazy.
Of one thing I am sure: dying doesn't hurt much, or at least not for long. It is living that hurts. Living with wounds, with injustice, with loss. It's raw, always raw, like the meat I slice for his soup. When I brush my hair in the morning, I brush the hair of a mask, a mannequin, something that moves and functions without will. I look into the mirror and I can't understand what I see. I'm not who I expected to be. I merely lug around the flesh and bones of someone I should have been.
I've never met the old man face to face.
Perhaps he doesn't care. Good for him, no? Some say he never cared for anything or anyone, that he was utterly unmoved by any suffering he saw. Ice-cold, they say. Some say it's a crime all the same to keep a man his age in prison. As for me, I never say a word to anyone.
I wonder if he has bedsores, what he remembers from his life, and if he has regret.
Moths knock on my window at night. Those that find their way inside fold their wings into the shape of a heart before they die. What do moths die from? Maybe old age or lack of fresh air. I hope they knock on his windows, too, to keep him awake on endless nights.
So I keep making his soup, day after day. It's always women making the soup, except in the middle of the war out at the front, or in fancy hotels, when there's a reputation to be got. Then men might cook.
Why didn't I refuse to cook for him? Because I, too, have to eat. I have to live. I have no children. My love was killed too early. I don't know what else to do. I would have begged for Lucien's life on my knees, but I didn't get a chance. I didn't even know until it was already over.
So I make soup. That's who I am. I cut meat. The tendons, too. I make sure they go in the old man's broth. As though it mattered. Gristle and tendons, my puny offerings of hatred.
I once was in love. Now I merely have my life and the cat. The soup. The hatred. The endless consciousness.
Perhaps I like to be near the old man because he reminds me of Lucien. But that's nonsense. I need no reminders. Each day of my life I have thought of Lucien. As for the rest, I'm just there. Alive. Conscious. That's all.
My name is Natalie. Only one person has ever called me Tati, my precious Lucien with his black lock of hair falling down onto his forehead. He was a charmer, popular with all the girls. Still, he never made me feel insecure. Of course he never got much of a chance to prove himself faithful.
He didn't even go to military school or anything like that. One day he was just called up. And so he had to go.
Lucien Leblanc. Lucien and Natalie Leblanc. We weren't officially promised yet. All the same, we knew we would marry one day. He was twenty when he died. So was I. I'm fifty-three now.
I'm heavy with dull hatred. Hatred isn't even bitter. It's tasteless. It fills me, but it doesn't satisfy. My hatred is bland, and with it I cook an old man's soup. All the same, the hatred eats me, not him.
Why don't I poison him? I could easily do it so no one would know. But I want him to keep suffering from life, which is itself a sort of poison. Some say it's inhuman the way he is treated. He's probably the oldest prisoner on earth. But he lives. Lucien does not.
Even wishing suffering on him does me no good. My loathing is like a tired bag of bones. I am unmoved, cold, and mechanical.
And why don't I poison myself? I've thought of that, too. But I don't want to die, despite being useless to myself. Sometimes I feel uneasy when I watch myself just yearning for the morsels of bread, and the milk and the water, or even just the sight of green grass, or sparrows pecking between stones, or the feel of the cat at my feet.
I've never told a soul that I'm cooking for the one. They'd accuse me of being a patsy. Could be. I do want to live, for the taste of the bread, for the hopping of the sparrows on the courtyard stones. That makes me the same as every woman on earth who cooks soup for others who live.
The crazy part is, he, Pétain, they claim, didn't fight against his death sentence. Only his advocates did. How would he have died? Would he have been afraid? Would there have been an audience? It would have happened in a clean and humane way, somehow, and he couldn't have cared less.
Lucien cared, and he was put to death for it. It won't do, in this world, to want to -- to be sane enough to want to -- live.
I remember Lucien coming through the trees to me to our hidden meeting place in the forest. The trees seemed taller than any trees I know of. Perhaps because he, my Lucien, seemed so small in front of them. He was laughing against the backdrop of all that green. He was almost always laughing.
"There you are."
He picked me up and swung me in a circle. My feet whipped against shrubs, and I squealed with joy, and then we sat next to each other and kissed.
We didn't do anything else. We were waiting until we were married.
Lucien was always so happy, always in a good mood, even about their plans.
"War doesn't make sense for the likes of us," he said. He and twenty-four others had a plan to get them back to their fields, to their lives. He said he couldn't tell me what it was. "But it will work. You'll see."
"You have to tell me," I said. "Now you've made me worry."
"I can't tell you. It's a sort of a secret between the others and myself."
"What on earth is 'a sort of a secret'?" I asked. "It's either a secret or not. Did you swear not to tell?"
"That means you can tell me. Besides, you can trust me. I won't repeat it."
He blushed as he told me. They were going to shoot their own hands, all twenty-five of them. They'd then have to be dismissed as unfit for military service.
"But it will hurt," I said.
Not as much as other things would hurt, he said, and then he blushed even deeper. "Also, I don't want to kill anybody."
Over the years, I'm never sure I remember the conversation correctly. I've tried to. Maybe I added some words or left some out.
"Can't they send you somewhere else?" I asked him. "Where you could still serve, without shooting yourself?"
"No, Tati," he said. "I can't even read and write properly. Certainly not enough to be of any use to anyone in an office."
I shook my head. "But you're good with animals," I said.
I suddenly wanted to make love with him. I offered myself.
"No," he said, clutching my hand. "We'll wait. It's important to wait and do it right." To him it was a sacred thing.
"It would still be sacred," I insisted. "I swear."
He picked up three sprigs of heather and handed them to me. "You don't know how hard it is not to," he said.
I didn't understand, except that he somehow wanted me to be strong. Anyway, he kissed me gently, and a few times not so gently, and we rubbed against each other a bit, and it felt wonderful, and I thought it couldn't get much better anyway, so this seemed like a sensible compromise at getting what I wanted.
The best part of their plan was that there were so many of them. You couldn't punish that many infantry all at once, especially when they were wounded. The loss would be too great. Or so they thought. The worst, Lucien feared, was that they might be called cowards afterwards. If they did, he wanted to know, would I be able to live with that?
"I know you're not a coward, Lucien," I said. Some of the others might well have been cowards, but not Lucien. I didn't want to think of any others at all.
I didn't see Lucien again. One moment he stood at one of the trees with a twinkle in his eyes, his head slightly cocked to the left. "À bientôt," he said. See you soon. Then the branches closed between us.
Things happened quickly after that.
His parents were notified. They didn't say a word to anyone. It took a while for one of my brothers to ferret it out. As planned, the twenty-five men had shot themselves into their own hand or arm to avoid being sent to the front. So Pétain had all twenty-five of them bound and driven toward the enemy trenches. He might as well have shot them himself. Not one of them survived. Served them right was the consensus of shaky whispers. But behind that judgment, I'm sure, many a survivor crossed himself, and blessed his fate for being too old, too weak, too useless to have to make that kind of choice himself.
Sometimes I imagine the old man -- he was only 59 then -- livid with rage at the riffraff, these boys under his command who dared to try to live in spite of what he asked of them. He treated them like bugs you step on, young men who would rather cheat than die. He later executed others, too. But him they allow to live. If he had been in charge of his own punishment, he would have made short shrift.
For a while I was obsessed with wanting to know who had driven them to the trenches. As though it mattered. In my mind I would plead with them in retrospect. Don't drive them there. Don't drive them to their certain death. They aren't even the enemy. They are your own people.
In the village, there was outrage. People should have known better, I thought. His own parents were tight-lipped with embarrassment. They should have been loyal to Lucien. They turned their backs on me, too, when I tried to go to them for comfort.
So many aching dreams, so many hindsight fantasies. I miss Lucien. He has been gone for over thirty years.
Eventually I couldn't bear the village anymore. I left. Things were hard then anyway. Food was scarce. As young men went missing left and right, nobody missed one young woman more or less.
Lucien was right about one thing. What little I could read and write was of no great use to me, and I knew far more than Lucien ever did. I earned my keep as a cleaning woman for many years, and sometimes as a cook. Once, in Nantes, I had a job as a flower shop girl for a very short time. But they told me if I didn't make an effort to flirt with the young men a bit, they'd have to let me go. So they let me go. It made no sense. Weren't these guys there to buy flowers for their sweethearts? Then why did I need to flirt with them, too? But apparently that's how it was done.
And here I am. Safely and bitterly stranded, alive on this god-forsaken island, cooking for a prisoner.
"Je t'aime." That was always my line with Lucien. I love you.
"Moi aussi," he said once more from the edge of the forest. That was always his line. Me too.
And so, even when it doesn't feel right, I cook for the survivor in exchange for my own morsels of life. Nothing has ever felt right since Lucien died.
Sometimes I think of the cost of food, the cost of living. How strange that often, when people grow old, we throw them away, like stuff that's been used up. But not this one. Every time I turn around, there's somebody else pleading for mercy, for better treatment for the old man, as he drags his awkward body through a partisan world with lawyers and spokesmen. Perhaps God has condemned him to live the years he has stolen from others.
I look at my hands. The cat presses against my legs for her share. Smells good, doesn't it? There's a moth on the floor, kitty. There, just in front of your nose. Not good enough, eh? Well, here's a piece of meat then. Go away now. Go on.
Article © Beate Sigriddaughter. All rights reserved.
Published on 2018-02-12
Image(s) are public domain.