Inkslinger Award Winner
Erica X Eisen
Issue No. 9 – September 2015
After the Germans were driven out, the men of Charreau wasted no time in rounding up all the women suspected of harboring treasonous hearts.
Jeanne they came for first, the woman who’d taken over the town bakery after M. Steinberg was deported and who was rumored to have made special night deliveries to the Nazi barracks.
And Yvette as well, whose blonde curls and quick laugh had caught the fancy of a certain sentimental private, his features birdlike and his fingers long and soft like a girl’s. He had taken to drawing Yvette, posing her in a hackneyed fashion — flower-bedecked hair, dress with a vaguely Grecian drape about it — that he found suggestive of high romance. This he had done until the first bursts of American shells were heard in the distance, after which he’d deserted at the earliest opportunity. The next day he was found and executed under the gaze of the entire town, his erstwhile Aphrodite included.
Françoise too they took, whose belly was swollen with the four-month weight of her sin. And Sylvie, with eyes like those of a spooked horse, and Desirée, who never left the house without wearing her silver crucifix, and Germaine, whose son had died trying to hold the Maginot Line back in July of 1940. These all they rounded up — some cursing, some weeping — and took to the central square.
And then they took me.
In many ways the men allowed me to finally answer the question that had been torturing me since the German retreat, which was whether or not I had really loved Mathias. Permanently exiled from the gaze of my lover, it was a question I was bound to ask — had my feelings been sincere, or was I, at bottom, just another piece of war trash, a profiteeress ready to perform for a few more grams of sugar added to the month’s ration? But when my father called me to the door that day, I didn’t resist. I submitted myself to the townsmen and to whatever punishment would come next, and I said to myself, “If this is what it takes to prove my love, I’ll do it.” The sun that day was as bright as a scoured brass pan; I squinted, but I did not waver. My heart and my head were clear.
My mother buried her shame-hot face in a handkerchief and wept with ugly, gulping sobs. My father followed along, hanging back with the other men and saying not a word as we advanced towards the center of town, regarding me with the same dispassion with which he would observe a swineherd driving sows to the marketplace.
Pierrot, the miller’s son, frogmarched me a couple of blocks, but I was compliant, and so he loosened his grip and let me walk on my own. I think he was embarrassed — once, on a spring day under the shade of a linden tree, we had exchanged shy kisses before being caught by the headmistress and beaten for our wayward affections. Now, though he made as though he didn’t know me — this boy who I’d taught to whistle and skip stones — he must have understood the ludicrousness of the situation, and so he let up playing prison warden. Or perhaps he thought that I was filthy for what I had done and did not want to touch my skin.
In many ways my fate was the cruelest out of all the girls assembled, for only my soldier had lived. The others had all died, either under the gun of the executioner or at the hands of the Americans. For the ones whose breath rattled on after the fighting had moved away, their girls were each left with a blood-flecked kiss, a tearful exchange of promises. And for those whom death deprived of a reunion, at least their paramours could console themselves with the warmth of certain memories: their last embrace, a summertime promenade in the dappled light of the apple orchards. This the girls could cherish, like a thumb-worn photograph you keep in your pocket, and this would protect them through whatever else they might endure. I did not have this. My last memory of Mathias was of the back of his head, as he and the rest of his squadron retreated east over the river. I watched their backs get smaller and smaller, their forms receding into the distance, and I waited for Mathias to turn back. He never did.
They gathered us all in the center of the square, and there they made us stand and sing “Deutschland über alles” while they burned any Nazi regalia they could find. People were assembled all around, almost all of them men. They spat on us and drowned us out with “La Marseillaise.” “Louder, louder!” our captors shouted, brandishing sticks though they didn’t use them. Louder, louder we sang, until our throats were raw, until we could push ourselves no further, but it was no use. Seven girls could never drown out the combined power of the entire town, their voices buoyed by the knowledge that already they had won. Though barely past noon, some of the men were already visibly drunk; our humiliation had been a planned event, a spectacle for all to watch. Except for us.
They marched Yvette away from us, over to the corner of the square: it was the spot, I realized, where her soldier had been executed. The body was gone, but a stain remained. For days the wolf-eyed German captain had let the deserter’s blood and brains soak into the cobblestones, refusing to have the body removed. It was meant to serve as a reminder to the rest of the battalion, though the message would lose its meaning a few days later, when the entire town was engulfed in fighting and one dead body was as good as another. Several days after that the entire battalion would flee, retracing the path of Yvette’s lover over the bridge and into the hilly distance. My Mathias included.
Then the barber came. They made us get down on our knees in the center of the square. Jeanne bucked and fought like a steer against the branding iron, but all she got for her trouble was a bloody nose. Pierrot held up my chin so I wouldn’t duck the razor, but I didn’t look at him. Instead, I fixed my gaze straight in front of me: my father was standing there, his mouth curled in disgust as though I were not the daughter he had raised for twenty years but some anonymous, fatherless, traitorous whore. I could see him putting it together now: all those evenings when I had offered to run the café in his stead, when I had told him to head home early, not to worry, I would lock up, I was an adult now, I could manage things myself.
The barber nicked my ear. I felt the mingled sensation of warm blood and cold blade. I said nothing. Pierrot pushed my head up towards the sky. I said nothing. People spat on me, glowered at me. I said nothing. I did not weep. I did not repent. My hair fell to the ground; blood dribbled down my neck. I said nothing. I did nothing. I had done nothing. I stared ahead, meeting my father’s eyes measure for measure until he dropped his gaze and retreated back into the crowd.
Pierrot’s fingers ran rough against my chin. I remembered the feeling of his hands, smaller then, softer then, that day under the linden tree. And I remembered the feeling of the headmistress’s martinet as I bent over a desk with my skirt raised up and my knickers pulled down and she beat the love out of me, a lash for every kiss.
They drew swastikas on our heads the way you would mark a sheep to identify its owner. They took special delight in Françoise, covering her bristly scalp with the insignia her dead lover had borne across his armband. The men seemed to hate her above all the rest of us, and yet her sin was not more dreadful — just more apparent. Inevitably, I thought of Mathias. I thought of the pensive look that came upon his face when he smoked. I thought of the way he spoke French — not badly, but very slowly, very carefully, as though words were rationed and he couldn’t afford to waste them. I thought of the first time I had seen him in my father’s café, of the quiet smile he had given as the other soldiers gave leers, of the look of interest I had returned without embarrassment. Had I known then what it would come to, or had I thought things might turn out differently? I didn’t know. The marker against my forehead was cold and wet. I didn’t know.
When they had finished marking us they pulled us upright and paraded us through the streets, the crowd jostling close behind. Behind me, Françoise was stumbling; several times she called for rest, clutching her belly, but the men pushed her on. They marched us past M. Steinberg’s old bakery, past the bullet-pocked façade of my father’s café, past the lamppost where the Germans had strung up two resistance fighters, past the Church of the Magdalen. Its bells were ringing, but no one was in — the people had their Sunday entertainment. From above, the women leaned out of windows and stared down at us; from our sides, the men jeered; from behind, the children threw stones.
Yvette began to snivel, and I noticed that she still clutched a fistful of the golden curls that had won the attentions of her weak-hearted lover. She couldn’t have been more than seventeen, I thought. Of all of us, she had been the least careful in concealing her affair. She would link arms with her soldier as they walked down the main street, flaunt his little gifts to her, call to the German HQ in the middle of the afternoon. The rest of us had been more discreet: assignations under the cover of darkness, silent sex in a farmer’s hayloft, our bodies wrapped together in animal heat. She had conducted a peacetime love affair; we had known to fit our passions to the circumstances. At the time we had thought her a fool. But we all ended up just the same.
When we got to the river just outside of town, our captors seemed not to know quite what to do with us. Their imaginations were exhausted, but not their anger. The crowd, once raucous and full, had dwindled significantly to maybe fifteen, my father still among them. They halted us, huddling together and speaking amongst themselves in hushed tones. The treads of the retreating Germans were still visible where we stood. Françoise sat down gratefully, unmindful of the muddy ground. The other girls milled around, nervously running their hands over their newly shorn scalps. Looking out across the river, I fitted my boots inside a pair of footprints and waited for the men’s verdict.
Then someone shouted, “Strip!” Some laughter, but the call went up again. “Strip!” More voices, more shouts, until the will of one became the will of all. And they had sticks, and one had a rifle, and so I unbuttoned my cardigan and pulled my dress over my head, my arms crabbed, my body turned away from them. And of course I thought of Mathias then, of how at times like this his meticulous French would yield to a heady silence, to the wordless language of sighs. I thought of how one day, about a month before the town was liberated, he had taken me to a secluded spot by the river and told me, eyes bright, that he loved me and that after the war we would buy a farmhouse and live out the rest of our days together. And my only response had been to bury my head in his shoulder and cry, for I knew that the Americans were coming and I felt acutely in that moment that Mathias was slipping away from me, that even though I was holding onto him with all my strength, he was slipping further and further out of my grasp. I thought of all of this as I stood there in nothing more than my slip, arms crossed over my chest to guard against the cold and the leers. I looked at Pierrot; his eyes were burrowing into his boots.
All of us, after varying degrees of hesitation, stripped down to our chemises. All except the pregnant Françoise, still clutching her belly, still whimpering softly, who looked down at the ground and shook her head. The men jeered, but they could not budge her.
Then suddenly several of them were upon her, beating her with their sticks and their fists and telling her to strip, to strip for them, to offer up to the men of France what she had offered up so freely to the occupiers. And who knows how long it before she cried out, before she screamed so sharply that the men sprang away from her? Who knows how long it took before they saw the blood running down her thighs, before they saw that her misbegotten child had dislodged itself from her womb? But when the men saw her miscarriage they dropped their weapons; they huddled up and looked on silently as we whores ministered to our wounded. This was not how they’d wanted it to end, but it’s how it ended, and it had ended. It was over. Their control over us had vanished and they could do no more. Françoise wept; I wrapped my arm around her. I watched my father as he and the other men retreated back to town: I watched his back get smaller and smaller, his form receding into the distance, and I waited for him to turn back. He never did.
Erica X Eisen is currently an undergraduate at Harvard University, where she studies art history. In 2015 she received the Cyrilly Abels Short Story Prize for the best story by a female undergraduate. Her work is due to be published in Little Star Journal and the upcoming Fabula Press anthology.