Before the war, I often perched on the fence of the cow pasture to watch the trains go by. That was well before I was unable to stand the sound of trains. I had nothing else to do besides throwing rocks in the muddled Risle and memorizing geometry and morality lessons until everything mingled irremediably in my head. My only friend was Adam, though sometimes his cousin Anne, who was a year younger than we were—but just as sharp if not more—would tag along with us when we went down by the outskirts of town to smoke cigarettes and kick a ball back and forth.
It was a life lived a little bit at a time but that passed by as steadily as the trains that took other people to Argentan or Lisieux, to Caen or Paris. I remember my father coming back from a day in the city, cold air clinging to his cheeks. In the dead of winter, he brought me oranges for Christmas. He was brusque as he shoved them into my hands, but I didn’t mind. These must have been the fruits that Hercules stole the garden of the Hesperides, I thought, as I tore open the rind and it released puffs of oil that smelled of a place where the sun shone down on meadows full of brightly colored flowers.
One May, my father came back off the train from farther away than I could imagine—all the way from Lorraine, bringing back, instead of oranges, gangrene in his left hand and shards of metal deep in his legs. But as our neighbor Durand kept telling him, it was a good thing it was just a bit of trouble with his legs and a clean amputation. Even though he had trouble walking now, he could keep working as a real estate agent. It was a good thing he’d come back at all.
“I couldn’t be happier,” my father usually said.
“Ever the wit,” Durand fell into the habit of replying.
When the Germans moved into town it didn’t change much of anything, though. I kept going to school, taking Latin lessons I didn’t like but didn’t hate either. My father could no longer travel because he didn’t have a permit, so he did business around town.
Now that he was in Laigle all the time, Adam and I grew afraid of running into him when we walked around smoking after school. And besides, there were always Germans around on the street, so we started to hang around on the edges of the park that were obscured by trees. Anne had to sneak out, of course, because her parents didn’t want her smoking and loitering with two boys, even if one of them was her cousin. We had to be especially careful when Adam had to go to see the doctor because then it was just the two of us walking around alone.
In that dull and sad time, it was thrilling to have a secret friendship with the town’s brightest and most bright-eyed girl. She was the first and only person I told about the things my father had said one Sunday when my aunt Renée had lunch with us after Mass. To change the subject of conversation after several lulls, and having exhausted the subjects of the weather, the food, the real estate business, and rationing, Renée turned to me and asked me what I was learning in school.
“Commentaries on the Gallic Wars,” I said. They’d also been teaching us German, but I always skipped those classes. I didn’t want to be a collaborator.
“What a scholar we’ve got here! Go on then, recite some Julius Caesar for us,” she said with a forced smile, and like a fool, I started reciting from the last volume:
“Gaul being entirely overcome, when Caesar, having waged war incessantly over the last summer…”
“What is this idiocy?” my father cut in. “Is this what they teach you? The Roman invasions and German? What do you think you’re doing?” I bowed my head and looked down at the boiled turnips on my plate with intense hatred, wishing they would turn into oranges and my father back into my father.
“Come, Daniel, it’s not Jules’ fault what they teach him in school,” said Renée.
She looked like all she wanted to do was, like me, to get on the quickest train away from there.
“You’re perfectly right, Renée. It’s our fault because we lost the war.”
“Surely you couldn’t have done anything differently.”
“I could have—we could have. What’s the use of the supposed glory of France if they can roll in like they did into everywhere else? I was crippled for nothing. For the glory of France, so, for nothing.”
At this point in my story I stopped, because I didn’t think I should let Anne know about the broken plates and all the rest; it wasn’t the sort of thing one talked about.
“Well… Everything’s going wrong for everyone,” she said. “Especially for your father. Of course he hates them.”
“Sometimes it seems to me that he hates me. I just want to tell him that I don’t want to give the Nazi salute to every chleu I pass in the street either. But he’s changed so much I don’t dare talk. I just shut it until it’s all over.”
“Don’t worry, he knows for sure. You’re his son. He knows you’re a good person and not rotten like Durand. Believe me, he’s proud of you.”
It might not have been true, but it was soothing. Knowing that someone cared enough about me to comfort me with such soft words filled me with a joy so strong it even pierced the pall of the gray and dull world, and blurrily, confusedly, I kissed her. It was my first time kissing a girl as well as a first time I’d never anticipated, the pleased surprise that a girl was kissing me too. Anne’s mouth did not feel as I had idly wondered it would without really thinking I’d ever find out, but somehow it was better—it felt simply like the warm mouth of someone who thought kindly enough of me to kiss me and like my nervous excitement and maybe, possibly, her nervous excitement too. We parted and I walked home in an irrepressible good mood that subsided only for a moment when I found my father sitting in the living room smoking cigarette upon cigarette as he read the evening edition of Je suis partout with a look of disgust.
“That bastard Brasillach,” he muttered into the paper, seemingly just to himself, but he projected his voice towards me as if it were important to him that I know the editor of Je suis partout was a traitor of the worst kind. I did know that. I thought perhaps I should tell him I knew.
My father made a frustrated noise in the back of his throat and flung the paper down. “I give up.”
“Hello, father,” I said hesitantly.
“Hello there, Jacques,” he said, putting on a smile as if I hadn’t been there a moment before to see him in anger. “Have you got anything for me to read? I’m tired of the news, it’s never good. Don’t you have lessons to learn?”
“Geography, for tomorrow.”
“Wonderful. Give me your book, I’ll have you recite.”
I took Modern Geography of the World out of my bag, and handed it to him.
With only one hand it was a clumsy business for him to flip through the pages, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it for him. Finally, he got to the right page and balanced the open book flat on his palm.
“Go on then.”
“Our beautiful country—” I began.
“Is that what they teach you to say, like a good little soldier? What a beautiful country indeed. Next thing you know they’re going to teach you how to goose-step. Don’t you know your new national anthem to the glory of Marshal Pétain?
“No, I don’t, I’ll never—”
“Just start from after the introduction.”
“France is a sovereign nation of 675,417 square kilometers. Its capital is Paris. Its inhabitants are the French, its languages French, but also Breton in Brittany; Occitan in Provence; and a dialect of German in Alsace-Lorraine. The ten largest towns in order of population are Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Lille, Bordeaux… Nantes… no, that’s not right.”
“It certainly isn’t.”
His hand clamped down on the book’s spine, slamming it shut.
“Forgive me. I’ll read over it tonight. I promise I’ll learn it by heart,” I said. As I made a motion to take back the book, he raised it and slapped my outstretched hand with it and said harshly, “No son of mine is going to recite this like a sheep.”
My hand stung, though I’d had professors hit my fingers with rulers before, much harder, and I had shrugged the sting off and borne the punishment with pride back then.
My father was a lenient man and I only remembered him hitting me once in my life, a “once” from when I was six that had left me reluctant to sit down for a day or two, but I’d deserved it because it was for stealing, piecemeal, out of my father’s wallet and the church collection basket to save up for a train ticket to Marseille. I was six, too young to know that the twenty francs I had squirreled away in tiny change would not get me anywhere, but stealing was stealing, my father had said as he’d grabbed me by the back of my shirt.
A blow was a blow, I thought to myself, maybe to justify that my hand was shaking. He didn’t look at me as he tried for an instant to rip the book apart one-handed and then turned toward the fireplace and threw it vengefully in. As the pages shriveled, the world went up in smoke.
The next day I didn’t know my lesson in class, so predictably I was called on to go first. I had an excuse for not knowing it that wasn’t really an excuse, because I couldn’t exactly tell my teacher that my father had burned Modern Geography of the World.
I took my time shuffling from my seat at the front of the class to the blackboard, as if that would give me more time to remember something I’d never known in the first place. Finally I found myself facing the class, my back pressed against the unyielding blackboard, with no idea how to begin.
“Our beautiful country…” Professor Guillen started me off, hoping to prod me out of what he thought was a momentary muteness. And in fact I had many words on the tip of my tongue, I knew almost everything, I just couldn’t speak. There was too much weighing down on the six hundred seventy-five thousand four hundred and seventeen square kilometers of this non-sovereign nation where the Marseillaise was now banned and there was no longer even leaving to look forward to. I knew I was too young to realize a lot of things and I probably didn’t even know the worst of it all but I knew war had taken my father from me, made him more present but more absent, and just turned everything so completely wrong I didn’t know if I would ever be able to understand anything ever again.
I couldn’t say any of this but something had to come out of me. My hands started shaking and it was almost without realizing it that I started to cry. I expected my classmates to start laughing or maybe fling ink at me, or Guillen to yell at me to pull myself together, but everyone was dead silent, defeated.