Web Conjunction: Pithiviers, by Sheila Kohler
CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
That was a summer of unusual drought in the Loiret, of hot wind and heat and heavy Bordeaux, the blood-red wine the de C’s kept in the small dark cellar opening off the caretaker’s cottage. The dry wind blew hard on the flat wheat fields and turned the white sky a dangerous gray. Above the golden sea of wheat, clouds whipped across the vast sky, casting strange shadows. Thunder and false lightning at night brought no rain.
Now it was late afternoon. The twilight lingered. What I missed was the fast blaze of sunset, the sound of familiar trees.
The tips of Madame’s fingers on my temples trembled slightly, and she sighed profoundly, and I felt that unpleasant feverish sensation, the pressure on the temples, the heaviness of the eyelids. I could smell the half-stagnant water, and I thought of leaving as I had done repeatedly.
We were by the river on a blue ground-sheet. Dolores, the cook, maintained that wet ground would give you rheumatism. Drafts would give you a cold or a stiff neck. If you ate a certain type of wild berry which grew on the hedges around there, your stomach would swell up and burst.
That morning, like most, I had tramped fluid and automatic across those wheat fields. Leaning into the wind, I dawdled in the shade of the hawthorne hedges, flecked with white flowers, and let the dog follow some scent, his dark head and flapping ears appearing from time to time above the wheat. I had wandered up the road to the farm house passing the logs piled high for winter fires, to buy the milk and eggs and cheese. I had sauntered past the small chateau, lingering at the iron gate, watching the two black swans glide, elegant and sinister, across the dark water under the chestnut trees. I had stopped to listen to the high frail tune the shepherd played to his flock on a reed pipe, and the sweet sound of the music had made me think of what I had lost, as it often did, and I had remembered the sound of a baby crying down the hall at the clinic, the thin cedar trees that grew along the wall at the doctor’s house.
My head had begun to throb. I had cooled my feet in the fast evaporating water of the river and hunted for tiny shellfish in the slippery river bed. The mud banks were gray and cracked, and I had found dead fish there.
What I remember more vividly than anything else is the river, its sound blending with the books I read, or with Madame’s voice, the soft touch of her fingers, the air redolent with the slightly stagnant smell of its slow-seeping water. Even before I could see it, I could smell and hear the river on my return from these daily walks. I would slip into the shallow water, sink down into the depths and lie at the bottom in the silence, letting the current flow around me, hiding me like a liquid cloak.
As I walked on, alone and lonely, I often had the impression of someone watching me. Some imaginary dark figure, rather like the witch I had feared hovering behind my left shoulder as a small child, seemed to be lurking behind the trees. I imagined I heard a voice in the song of the wind. In my young and over-heated imagination, and with nothing better to occupy my mind, I thought I saw Richard or Luis or Monsieur, or even some mysterious stranger spying on me. I half expected Monsieur to crash through the trees in riding boots or to burst forth like Rodolphe on his horse and surprise me, his Emma, a blue veil over my face. I felt sure someone was peering through the branches at me, someone who would discover me, would discover my changing body: the tanning arms and lengthening legs in my short shorts, the thick, reddening hair that I tied in a high pony tail, the swelling breasts which seemed to be floating up visibly beneath my tight, cotton shirt. Even the odors of my body had altered, I imagined, the dark, secret places more pungent, inviting.
I had the impression of becoming someone else, altered by this strange place which I both wished to leave, and to remain in forever. I felt, speaking the new French words I had learned from Madame and from the books I read, not only as if I were transformed, but as if I were seeing the world anew, softened, made more sensuous, through the prism of this seductive, illusive language.
Sometimes, I paddled an old leaky canoe I had found in the garage down the river. Once, as I was portaging it along the banks around some small rapids, someone did discover me. An elderly woman in black with a scarf around her head came striding angrily through the trees toward me and shouted at me to get off her land. She screamed that she would call the gendarmes. Had I no sense in my head? What was I thinking, a child of my age, taking a canoe down the river? Did I not know that some children had once drowned here?
I idled along the dust paths and found the railway tracks in the long grass, tracks which stopped dead, going nowhere. I walked up the hill to the village of Estouy, going past the shack where the poor children lived. The children rushed out wildly when they heard me approach, and I gave them apples I had picked or carambars, the hard thin toffees I bought in the general store, and their mother stood grinning in the road, showing her missing teeth, holding the switch behind her back. As soon as I had passed she screamed at them and beat their little sturdy legs with the switch.
Now Madame stopped massaging my temples and drew back to look me over. She complimented my figure: “How nicely you are filling out, child,” she said.
The boulanger came every midday, honking the horn of his gray deux chevaux in the driveway until Dolores ran out to greet him, grasping the two long loaves still warm from the oven to her considerable bosom, putting her head in the window, and chatting with him. The butcher sold us meat twice a week from his truck, folding down the side and sticking his red face out like Punch with a great grin. Luis watered the vegetable garden daily, and the sweet wild raspberries and juicy gooseberries ripened quickly in the sun. We picked apples which Dolores stuffed with raisins and nuts and honey and baked or stewed with cinnamon or made into compote.
In the afternoons Dolores would spread the sweet-cakes and scones and the strawberry jam and a pot of strong tea on the blue ground-sheet on the lawn. Madame would motion for me to sit down beside her, and offered me cake. “Eat, child, go on, it will look better on you than on me. We need to fatten you up a little bit,” Madame would say and feel my arm, or pat my leg, like the witch, I thought, in Hansel and Gretel. For whose supper? I wondered.
Now she resumed her description of her life. She often spoke of herself with unusual and fascinating frankness, commenting on how unexpected her life had been, how unprepared she had been for it all, how no one! no one! had warned her what was up ahead. She said she felt young in some ways and also unspeakably old, ancient. Sometimes she felt so tired, so tired, unable to drag herself through the day and yet never tired enough to sleep! She had so little appetite, had to force herself to eat. She had so little desire to do anything at all. How hard it was to wake in the mornings and find all of herself there once again: the arms, the legs, the head, all of the body to be dragged forth through the long day.
She had been married off to her husband at such a young age, hardly out of the convent. He had been sent to the Jesuits, and she to the Sacré Coeur where the nuns had taught her nothing! nothing! my dear, but how to embroider beautifully and how to read romances secretly and how to sing the Magnificat with her eyes turned back in a sort of ecstasy with the scent of incense and flowers in the air.
Madame’s life fascinated me, and particularly, I have to admit, the details of her distress. I loved to hear her confidences, though I was aware, even then, that there was something very strange about a woman of her age and distinction confiding such things to a young foreigner. I knew there was something wrong about her choosing me as her confidante, but her words both titillated and embarrassed me, and though I would try to guide her thoughts into more conventional paths, I could not resist for long. I was quite happy to listen, flattered and surprised as well as shocked that she would confide her most intimate secrets, or what seemed to be her most intimate secrets in me.
My own mother did not go in for such confidences. Her life was hidden behind the thick walls and the shadows of her room, in the hours she spent sleeping, in her long silences, or inconsequential talk of diets and clothes and relatives. My own mother’s mind had always seemed out of reach, closed, full of secrets, but this woman, a stranger, after all, was willing to talk with unheard of frankness about things no one else—not even my school friends or my sister, had ever done with me before. When I thought of my mother I could hear the curtain rings drawn across the rod; I could smell the indoor plants and talcum powder and sweat. I could smell the odor of alcohol on her breath.
Each day, from my window, after breakfast, I watched Luis, the chauffeur, dance gravely across the courtyard to the car. On his return I would run to ask him if there were a letter for me from Mother. I continued to expect some response to my long letter sent on the first day in that house. He would shake his head apologetically and cluck his tongue with sympathy saying, “Maybe tomorrow,” as though it were his fault.
Luis appeared to me more dignified, perhaps better-educated than his wife. He spoke better French, and he wore his tight black clothes even when he worked in the garden. He had a peculiar walk, stepping softly and delicately with a slight limp, as though he were not simply walking but learning some complicated step. He moved quietly about the house, appearing on occasion out of nowhere, as though he had been listening behind a door. In stiff silence, Luis would drive me into Pithiviers to borrow books from the library.
When I was not walking the dog, or listening to Madame, I was reading. I lay on the lawn after lunch by the river and bolted French books day after day, reading indiscriminately, voraciously, with an appetite close to anguish. Books became my way out, the open door from my own unhappiness onto another life. My own life that summer sometimes seemed extraneous to me. I read Stendhal, Flaubert, even Bouvard and Pecuchet and much of Balzac, so that even today as I sit looking across the park at the skyline from this quiet high-rise tower, and take up a French book, even a dry, hot book like Camus’s Stranger, I seem to hear the cooling sound of the river running through the pages as I could hear it from every room in that place.
“What a little bookworm you are! We will have to show you something more of life,” Madame would say. Now she said, going on about her own life, by the river in the gloaming, “The irony is,” her voice low with a little catch in the words, “that I was not really in love with my husband. He called me ‘heartless,’ because I couldn’t bring myself to say I loved him. I had been taught not to lie,” she added. “But I wasn’t in love with anyone except perhaps Sister Marie Thérèse, the young nun in the convent.” Yet, she had wanted so to please him—that had always been a fault of hers, this trying to please. She had so wanted his good opinion. He was hurt, of course, but he never complained.
She said they had been such good friends, such copains. They never fought, would talk and talk, play childish games—invent operas, singing different parts. “Oh, we were such children! In those days young people were much more innocent than now, and they had so much more fun—I don’t think people have much fun anymore,” she said and looked down at me rather sadly.
“I’m sure you are right,” I said, and felt my temples ache again in a way that distorted the sounds of the evening: the leaves whispering, the water running, the crickets sawing monotonously. I wondered why there was so little fun in my life. I was not good at having fun, and when I had tried, it had brought me pain and banishment. What was wrong with me, then? And if I couldn’t enjoy myself at seventeen, what was to become of me?
They liked the same activities, she and Guy: to ride, dance, listen to old opera records, take long walks in the forest. He loved this countryside as much as she did. “We have always known this place: the fields of wheat, the hawthorne hedges, the lilac spotted with fat, furry bees. It all belonged to our families. We were what was called the landed poor; it was understood that we were not to mix with the local children; all we had was one another, our ancient names, our pride, a few doddery retainers, and nature.” She fluttered her little ringed hand in the darkening air, a rainbow flash—gesturing toward the river, the sky, the trees.
She went on while I listened in a sort of troubled dream.
“I know that Guy will come to like you. You mustn’t mind him if he seemed cross,” she told me, stroking my cheek, with the backs of her fingers. I lay very still recalling how his light blue gaze had flowed through my eyes and into my veins like water. I wondered where he was now, and why he had never returned since my first evening, to visit Madame.
She told me he worked in real estate. I never found out much about his work, what he actually did, or whether it was only his own real estate, field after field, that he was obliged to sell.
She had had the oddest sense that she could feel what he felt, she confided. Sometimes, imagine! she told me, they dreamed the same dreams. She remembered one about a snake coming out of a brioche, and she crooked her finger and straightened it to show me how the snake had come up through the little hat of the brioche.
“Such a French dream!” I exclaimed, sitting up, feeling rather giddy looking at her bright face.
She replied, “Oh, yes, yes, indeed, we are both very French, through and through.” Once, she was walking in the fields and she had heard his voice in the wind, like the bells calling her to mass, like Jeanne d’Arc listening to her voices. She had rushed home to find he had cut himself badly falling off a wall, blood all over his leg.
Guy had been mad about her. He was so passionate, so possessive, always questioning where she had been. Oh, he wouldn’t let her out of his sight, though they had not been able to conceive a child for years and years.
She confided to me in a trembling voice that her husband had not been able to make love to her at first, though he was ever so desperately in love with her. Oh, he had tried and tried, grinding at her miserably with his narrow hips, both of them sweating, their skins sticking together—ah! the awful sound of flesh slapping and sucking like that! with the blinds drawn in the hot summer afternoons on their honeymoon in the south of France. She had wandered barefoot through the lavender fields, glad to be alone for a moment.
My head throbbed increasingly and distorted her words strangely. Why was the woman telling me all of this?
She had always felt it was her fault: she was missing something essential, some sort of warmth that would have drawn him out, made him able to … She shook her head. She was unable to love him the way she should.
And yet, all that time he had been so faithful, she told me. He had never looked at another woman. She had not been able to respond to his passion then, though she could conceive passion dimly, but not for him. She had been raised by her old maiden aunts in their flowered hats and gloves and later all those prayers in that dimly lit chapel. All that had nothing to do with life. What she had needed from a man was a touch of cruelty, not all that passionate insistence which just made her feel guilty. Had he been more indifferent, she would have been less so. Ah, she had got what she had wanted in the end, she added bitterly.
Then she straightened her back, moved away from me slightly, smoothed the folds of her full cream skirt. Everything had changed during the last war, she said. The war had been a difficult time for everyone. France’s position was ambiguous. There was so little food, even in the countryside, but that would have been nothing. She had been all right until something terrible had happened. He had become very different, distant.
She had watched couples kissing in the street or on the screen and felt as if she had been cast out, left out of all the joy in life. She had grown desperate, wanting what she had never wanted before, dispossessed of what she had never possessed. It was as if she had fallen in love with Guy just when she had lost him.
My cheeks felt hot, my body heavy. I sat closer to Madame, putting my arms around my knees, clutching them to me and smiling at her. Her breast went on rising and falling in the twilight, her hands fluttering nervously. I thought of Dolores’s words, the gossip she continued to feed me every morning with the tartine beurré and the big bowl of café au lait. I had wanted to tell her that I had no desire to know what had gone on here so many years ago.
“The papers called it ‘Israel in the Loiret’!” Dolores had muttered, shaking her head, her fat cheeks filling with air like a balloon about to explode. “Mind you, I’m no racist, you know, but somehow it is true they always end up taking the best houses in town, amassing huge fortunes, collecting jewelry, you know what I mean?”
I stared at her blankly. I was not interested in politics. I had grown up in a house without newspapers or with newspapers that gave only the most insignificant of news: “Monkey snatches baby out of cradle,” was enough excitement for my mother. I had gone to a school where our history lessons had stopped before the First World War.
“What they had to do to get them to give up their belongings! They hid everything they could in eiderdowns, pillows, sewed money into the seams of coats," she said lowering her voice further and adding "even in the most private places. Foreigners!”
At first I was not certain what her words recalled. Certain images floated through my mind, a sensation of déjà vu. Had something like this happened to me, had I read it somewhere, or had I dreamed it? At the time, only some of the words came back to me vaguely. Later, in the quiet of the afternoon when Madame was taking her nap or had gone into Pithiviers, I was to climb the stairs back into the attic and page through La Semaine de Suzette. I read the words again their meaning coming to me vaguely through my faulty French, the faint pencil marks and time.
Remember the Polish woman screaming on her stomach while they looked up her bum for diamonds.
And the ugly, fat one who hid the anemone brooch in her corset?
She was disgusting, with her fat bosoms spilling out all over the place.
Poor thing, lying on the floor, with the gendarme beating her.
I lay my aching head down in Madame’s lap again and listened to her voice going on in the dark, mingling with the melancholy purl of the river which came to me persistently like the hope for happiness.
I saw a woman rip a pair of earrings from another woman’s ears.
We should have tried to fish some of that stuff out of the latrine. We could have got them to sell it.
Ugh! Disgusting! With those big fat white worms crawling around
All those rings and necklaces and bracelets floating around in the shit. All those feathers and dust and the little children screaming.
The poor mothers left their eiderdowns behind so that their children would not be cold, and now they have nothing. They even took away their pots and pans.
They won’t need pots and pans.
Madame went on, “You will see. We get everything we want in life, but when we no longer want it.”