One Hundred Twenty-One Days
by Michèle Audin
Translated by Christiana Hills
I start to write:
Once upon a time, in a remote region of a faraway land, there lived a little boy. And this little boy was filled with an insatiable curiosity and was always asking lots of questions. The faraway land where he lived was in Africa, in the area surrounding a big river called the river Saloum, and the little boy filled the area around this river with his questions.
He asked his father why the Blacks on the plantation were hit with rods and his father beat him with his leather belt; he asked his mother why she didn’t read her Bible by herself and his mother beat him with her two white hands; he asked the village priest why he drank the communion wine during catechism and the priest beat him with his stick; he asked the schoolteacher why the same number, π, was used to measure every circle, big ones and little ones, and the schoolteacher didn’t beat him.
I must tell you, dear one, that some good fairies were watching over this little boy’s cradle. If there were a few evil fairies as well, no one noticed. So there will be no discussion of evil fairies at this point in the tale.
A fairytale is a way of telling a history. The river Saloum, its village, its plantation, its pirogues, and its Flamboyant trees form the setting for this one. The little boy’s parents, his little brother, the fairies, the priest, the schoolteacher, a dog, and a few of the villagers are the characters. The little boy, who lived in this exotic setting at the center of this little world, was named Christian. The good fairies, along with the schoolteacher who didn’t beat anyone who asked him questions, were responsible for the fact that he really loved going to school, where he learned to read books, to write fast and well, to count fast and high, and to ask questions. As for his parents, they thought the time he spent at school was much too long. Because, you see, though his mother liked that he could read the Gospels aloud to her, his parents wondered why it was necessary for him to learn any more. One day when his father was beating him with his leather belt, he said: “Well, you’re not going to become a writer!” Because, dear one, at this time, on the banks of the river Saloum, there were public writers, who wrote letters for people to send and read them the letters they received. And, you see, the little boy’s father was working hard to make the Negroes sweat on the peanut plantation, and in his opinion, the writer, who spent all his days sitting in the shade of a cheese merchant’s in the very middle of the village, was a lazy man.
One fine morning, at the beginning of summer, the schoolteacher came to the plantation and explained to the little boy’s parents that, not only could their son read and write fast and well, but he also knew how to do sums using very big numbers, and it would be good to send him to secondary school in the big city so that he might learn all that can be done with all these big numbers and all that writing. But oh, dear one, at this time and on the banks of the river Saloum, no boy had ever gone to secondary school before. His parents listened politely and said they were going to think about it. And, you see, as soon as the schoolteacher left, they fought, his mother took a punch, his father got kicked, then both of them started beating the little boy without losing any more time. They even called the priest over for help. The little brother was also beat for good measure. A little later, when that was over, the little boy came across a yellow dog belonging to his friends and said to him:
“My father beat me and my mother beat me and the priest beat me. But I still want to go to secondary school in the big city to learn how to do calculations with even bigger numbers and learn more about the number π.”
And the little yellow dog affectionately licked the little boy’s face as he scratched the dog behind the ears.
Naturally, a few days later, the schoolteacher came back to the plantation, then the mayor, then the schoolteacher once again. Each time, they negotiated, but with no success. Until the day when the schoolteacher came back saying he had found a scholarship and the parents agreed to let the little boy leave. They beat him in unison one more time to bring him luck. Then he left, a little swollen. It was a beautiful morning, at the time of the autumn equinox. The little boy rode down the river Saloum with his little suitcase. On the pirogue, the chickens had been pushed out of the way to clear a comfortable place for him. It was the beginning of his new life.
After the pirogue, the little boy took a steamboat that eventually brought him to the big city. The world around him had expanded. At school, he went straight into seventh grade. He was a very good student, quick and hard-working. He was eager to learn how to find answers to the questions that stirred his insatiable curiosity. He even caught up with what he missed in German. Because at that time, dear one, they learned German at secondary schools in the big cities of faraway lands. It was useful to learn German. The little boy memorized some poems written by a German poet named Heine. He really liked the story of the Two Grenadiers, from which he would recite a verse to himself:
Der eine sprach: “Wie weh wird mir,”
which translates as “The one said: ‘How I suffer’” and which could in fact be useful. In this way, he found answers to some of the questions he had about the war. He also took Latin and Greek. He really liked poetry and would often recite another poem to himself, which said:
You’ll be a Man, my son!
You see, he thought this poem was speaking to him, because it said “you,” just like this story is speaking to you, dear one.
At school, no one beat him. The teachers loved him and pampered him, especially the German teacher. So he was happy. However, you should know that even though he really liked German, his favorite was mathematics lessons. That was also where he did best. In mathematics, you were allowed to ask lots of questions. And even to come up with new ones as soon as you found the answers to the old ones. And he loved numbers, logical thinking, and even the most complicated shapes in geometry.
And then he was fifteen. His professors came up with the idea of having him prepare for the exam to get into the École Polytechnique, which was, they said, the greatest school in Paris and the world. You couldn’t do this at the secondary school in the big city in the faraway land. The teachers wanted him to go to Paris, which was the largest and most beautiful city in France, as you know.
So, the teachers wrote to the schoolteacher at the edge of the river Saloum; the schoolteacher went to see the boy’s parents on the peanut plantation; the boy, who had taken the steamboat and the pirogue to spend the summer with his father, his mother, his brother, and his yellow dog, was beaten all over his body; his little brother was also beaten for good measure; the yellow dog affectionately licked his face; his teachers found a scholarship; the father put his belt back on; and in the end, everyone left in single file towards the banks of the river Saloum. There, the boy, slightly swollen, climbed into the pirogue, and the chickens were pushed out of the way to clear a comfortable place for him.
They couldn’t get to Paris just by going down the river Saloum. After the pirogues and the steamboat, the boy still had to get on an ocean liner, then a train. But here’s where perhaps an evil fairy shows up and where Christian fell gravely ill. It was an illness with fever and delirium, and so he had to be taken to the big hospital in the big city. He stayed there for several weeks, during which time the boats he didn’t get on left for France. It looked like he was going to die, but, as you know, children don’t die in fairytales. While he was sick, there were times when he had nightmares that stirred up demons, like the ones the village priest at the edge of the river Saloum used to describe in catechism. And there were also more peaceful times when he thought about geometry problems and also a little about his nurse. In the hospitals in big cities in faraway lands, the nurses were nuns. The one who was taking care of the boy wore a cornet on her head, a wooden cross, and all those other things nuns wear. She had to be called “sister,” but that didn’t prevent Christian from seeing she was a young girl, and he liked her very much. At that time, boys and girls didn’t go to the same schools. And so this boy had never met any girls. White girls, of course. There were black girls on the plantation, at the edge of the river Saloum, but at that time, Blacks didn’t count.
And here’s where the setting expands even more: other characters come join in the history, which is going to become so complex that the fairytale, with its good and evil fairies, will not be enough to tell it. The story will have to find other forms, other methods. But know this: little Christian’s life is far from over—it will last more than 100 years. Around him, others lived and died, which we must also take into account. For the rest of the novel, when he will have become a man, Christian needs a last name—first names on their own only work for children. So it’s time to choose one for him, Mortsauf, maybe, or Mortfaus or Morfaust…
The story isn’t over but as for the fairytale, that ends here, at the moment when young Christian, fully healed, climbed bravely up the gangway of the ocean liner while thinking of his yellow dog. And the liner, which was named Afrique, took him over the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, past the Canary Islands, Morocco, and Spain, to the railroad at Marseille. Then it was the Gare de Lyon and the greatest city in the world, with its coachmen, its Champs-Elysées, its Eiffel Towers, its numbers, its écoles polytechniques, its theorems, and all of its pretty girls who reminded him of the pretty nun who had taken care of him at the hospital.
Diary of Marguerite Janvier
February 2, 1916
At the hospital again today, my sad contribution to the war effort. A nurse… what else can we do, we women, while all our valiant men are at the front? To give myself courage, when I wake up and cross Paris on foot, in the frosty night, towards the Val-de-Grâce hospital, I can only imagine their sacrifices. What suffering!
Today, a young man came to us, almost a child, who left the hospital three weeks ago. This was already his second injury; they gave him a few days of convalescent leave, then he left again for the Chemin des Dames and was injured once more, shrapnel this time, they had to amputate his right leg when he was still in the ambulance. And here, we trepanned him. As stoic as I must appear, my heart tightens when I think of him. At least they won’t send him back to the front this time. I pray that God grants courage to his poor mama, because what a state she’s going to find him in! And how will he, with only one leg, be able to attend to the work in the fields?
February 10, 1916
The Germans are barbarians. There is no other word to describe these bombardments, these injuries, these mutilations! Barbaric! All this suffering in order to satisfy the monstrous pan-German ambition! The most unbelievable thing is that these monsters call themselves Christians. They worship a God of terror, to whom they dedicate these sacrifices. Fortunately, we too have powerful weapons, thanks to which God will help us in conquering them and defending civilization and Christian values.
I spoke about this with a history student who left the service. He was trepanned, his head injury was cared for, but he left with an empty shirt sleeve. He was crying as he told me about his best friend, who jumped on a mound and was killed, at age nineteen, when he was going to become the greatest poet of the century. With the Krauts, he said to conclude, you have to give them an eye for an eye.
The house is freezing. Mama is trying in vain to get the stove repaired.
February 29, 1916
Lots of snow these past few days.
This year has one more day than usual. For me, it’s one more day of war. They’ve been bringing injured men from the eastern front, and the battle rages in Verdun.
Concerning February 29th, one of the wounded servicemen was telling everyone about it today. It’s a leap year, 1916; according to him, there are magic numbers in it. He’s a Jew, but also a former polytechnician who is very well raised and likeable. He has only been here a few days and he’s probably not going to stay for very long, because his injury is pretty minor—a shell blew up near him and he hit his head violently on a large stone. The problem is that all of his comrades were killed, which is also terrible for him, the sole survivor. I know this because the major told me, but he himself doesn’t talk about it. It’s true that the men here hardly speak about what they’ve gone through at the front. Usually, he stays quietly in his corner, studying. He cries from time to time while writing mathematical formulas, but today he seemed rather excited and was looking at me in a strange way. Oh, that his God would give him the strength to bear his sadness!
Tuesday, March 7
Lots of snow fell again during the night. I had a really hard time getting to the hospital. How can one not picture the shroud that must be covering the battlefields? But can the snow’s whiteness mask such horrors?
Wednesday, March 15
La Martinière’s father told me that I should pray for a Jew’s soul, and so I now include Robert (that is, Robert the polytechnician) in my evening prayers. He’s going to be leaving the hospital soon and so I’m spending as much time as I can with him. How wonderful it would be to win over this soul to the true religion!
“Mademoiselle Marguerite, give me a number please!” he shouts out as soon as he sees me enter the room. I give a random answer, but he claims I always give him the same one. “No, not 11, you already gave me that one yesterday,” he tells me, so I say another number, 6. “Thank you,” he responds and starts calculating again. “It’s just that I’m solving equations, mademoiselle Marguerite,” he says.
This morning, I asked him if he believed in heaven, and, his eyes shining their brightest, he looked at me and said:
Then hell was silent.
Three injured servicemen died today, almost at the same time.
October 4, 1916
When I was leaving the hospital this evening to go home, Major de Brisson held me back and asked if I would agree to change units; he said they need me in facial surgery. The major was a friend of Papa’s at boarding school, and he still comes to the house often, so I couldn’t refuse. He wants me to start tomorrow.
Maybe in this unit I’ll no longer have time to think about Robert. That’s my hope as I start to write in this notebook again today. It will be no more time than that I spent telling Mama about it, no more than I spent telling Father about it, because there was nothing to confess, it seemed: I couldn’t write in here about what happened the day he left. Only the thought of Mama kept me from asking to go to a hospital at the front.
Sunday the 8th
Since last Thursday, I haven’t been able to write. In leaving mass this morning, I decided to force myself to. How can I confide on paper what I do, what we do in this unit? Cutting skin open, trepanning under chloroform, you have to approach it like it’s nothing. Nothing compared to changing the dressings, discovering the bruised flesh, the empty eye sockets, the… I can’t even finish the sentence I’ve started. They have sustained such terrible injuries, and now they’re disfigured young men. That’s what I said to Mama and Thérèse. I know Thérèse tries to imagine what is under the bandages, but I’m sure she can’t. You have to see it to believe it.
The hardest thing in this unit is when you have to tell them they are out of danger. Not getting flustered when I say phrases like “You’re saved” or “You’ve made it through.” Afterwards, they ask me what’s under the bandages, what they look like, if they’re very disfigured. Tomorrow morning, there are two men whose faces I promised to show them by letting them borrow the mirror from my handbag. There is a third, who has healed disfigured, but blind—at least he won’t see his “ugly mug.” It’s late, I have to stop writing and seek a little strength in prayer.
Hail Mary, full of grace.
October 16, 1916
I am the bearer of bad news. I force myself to smile. They look at themselves in the mirror and they cry. One tried not to cry and started gallantly singing the “Song of Craonne”:
Farewell to life, farewell to love,
Farewell to all the girls,
but he burst into tears. I know the song, it continues with:
‘Cause we’re the ones who are condemned,
We are the sacrifice.
How can you accept not being able to recognize your own face? The worst thing is that most of them refuse the comfort of religion. They prefer to spend their time hiding away with bottles of alcohol that came in from who knows where.
And they continue to suffer. By the time they arrive here from the front, their jawbones have started to grow back together, but so poorly that many have difficulty eating. For some, it even hurts to speak.
October 23, 1916
Mama and Thérèse left last Friday to spend a few days at our house in Normandy; they brought enough material to knit blankets for our poor heroes who are starting to get cold again, especially in the mud. It’s the start of the third winter of war.
As I’m alone at home, I worked Saturday and Sunday (I even heard mass with the men), and I’m getting home later in the evenings.
Today, while bringing medicine to one of our patients, I heard the young man in the next bed over breathing strangely. This boy’s face was damaged so badly that he can only breathe through his mouth. I quickly understood then that he could no longer breathe at all. The cause was a hemorrhage that was filling his throat with blood. I lifted up his head and used a needle to draw out the blood as much as I could.
Then I ran to find Doctor Debalme, who arrived a few minutes later. He wasn’t happy that I hadn’t called him first; he told me rather firmly that I was only a nurse and it wasn’t up to me to decide if blood needs to be drawn out since it’s a medical procedure.
October 24, 1916
Major de Brisson called for me this morning and congratulated me on saving the life of the young man with the hemorrhage. He said, “Marguerite, you saved him and you did well. Doctor Debalme would have arrived too late.”
The patient is an artillery lieutenant. He was really unlucky—it’s rare for an artilleryman to be wounded in the face. The majority of those whom we care for here served in the infantry, they’re the ones who charge out of the trenches and are hit the most.
Tuesday the 31st
This morning, I again had to show a truly disfigured young man his new face. He’s the one who had the hemorrhage last week. He still has his left eye, his left check, and a bit—a tiny bit—of his left jaw, his forehead, and his chin. A big lock of hair on his right temple is growing back red, like an extra scar in his brown hair. A single bullet managed to do all this damage. It must be said that it was shot point blank.
He’s the first of my patients who didn’t cry in seeing his destroyed fact. However, he is very young, still a student.
I don’t dare write anything about him, because he is a polytechnician like Robert. There has already been another mathematician in the department. That one left blind a week ago; he told me he was going to do a thesis in geometry. I thought of Robert. I wonder what he’s doing now, maybe he’s still in the infernal trenches. I continue mentioning him in my evening prayers.
We have taken back Douaumont.
My cousin Jacques was killed in Verdun.
We have never done so many operations in the unit as we did today.