Spring in the Fall

By Chantal Creusot

Translated by Maria Sisi Betances

 

CHAPTER 1

            In the early fifties, on the coast of Normandy’s Cotentin peninsula, a woman and her child lived on the edge of the woods, in a dark dilapidated house. No one ever visited them. The mother, young and already withered, would wander, going about her tasks slowly and, whatever she was doing, she seemed to always roam, her steps never indicating any particular purpose. Her thick neglected hair, which in the past gave a sparkle to a face that was so delicate it appeared ordinary, now only highlighted her emaciated features. She was never seen worrying about anyone or lingering on a conversation, and this detachment, added to her neglected appearance, had for a long time provoked the suspicion of the villagers.

            The only child of old and morose parents, she had never left the home she was born in, and yet her childhood was distant like those nocturnal dreams that our consciousness hesitates to claim.  Time stretched out, motionless, around her and nothing ever affected her. School left her indifferent, and she didn’t know it was a place where one could be filled with pride or shame. Did the absence of brothers and sisters make her lack of emulation more pronounced? The fact is, she never built one single friendship and never competed with anyone about her place in someone’s heart.

            When she was fourteen, Marie had been hired to work at a farm close to her village. The woman she worked for never complained about her services for, despite Marie’s distractions, she executed her tasks, household work for the most part, with a robot-like efficiency. They wouldn’t call for her on the field unless there was a lot of work to be done, but she was also responsible for feeding the animals. Refusing to sleep at the farm, she returned each night to her house, a sign of preference that was astonishing coming from a young girl who otherwise didn’t show any desire, except to go wandering, without warning, for an hour or two. 

            Some years went by. She was becoming beautiful, but her persistent silences and her hazy look drove boys away.

At the end of the summer of 1939, the war came and men left. When they came back little by little, German soldiers were occupying the region. These didn’t associate with the villagers who were trying, above all, to preserve their life from before.

            One of these foreigners in uniform, a young man, sometimes ventured to the countryside. One day he noticed a lonely wanderer, and addressed her in French. Marie tentatively answered. They were walking side-by-side, facing each other. Her fears dissipated, she told him that her mother had just died. As for her father, she had lost him when she was a little girl. 

            --- The farmer says I’m too old for the orphanage.

            She fell silent and contemplated the horizon. The soldier didn’t know what to say anymore.

              The foreigner met her almost every day at the edge of a small wood. She did not seem surprised by their encounters; nevertheless, when he risked questioning her, she stared at him, perplexingly. He desired her, but hesitated on how to proceed.

            One day on a walking path, he picked a flower and offered it to her. With a tone of uncertainty she thanked him and clumsily smelled the flower. Then, obliviously, she slowly and carefully slid the flower down her cheek. He became gloomy. Was she mocking him? But no, lost in her daydream, she was ignoring him. The sun had risen after a rainy morning and shed an iridescent light on the greenery. The soldier took the young girl by the hand and led her towards the woods, where the foliage dripped with a delicate murmur. Marie did not stop him. If he’d been a vain man, he would have been disappointed to win her without awakening the slightest echo in her; but the circumstances were not for vanity. He did not see her again, the experience leaving him with a confused sense of shame. 

 

            The events no longer allowed spare time: the Allies had landed. Before, the villagers had to vie with the enemy for their goods. They did it, incidentally, with an unrelenting craft that could pass for heroism. Now, they had to confront the shootings, the artillery shells, the bombs, or hide themselves somewhere safe.

            One night, an explosion destroyed part of a pregnant woman’s house. Her nightgown torn off by the explosion, she fled naked through the fields. A frenzied race led her to the young girl’s home. She asked for refuge. Marie listened to her in silence, then brought her into a kitchen lit by the glow of a dying candle. The woman, panicking, was looking around, unconcerned with her nakedness. Worried, she touched her belly. She felt the child move, calmed herself, and glanced at her hostess. Without saying a word, Marie brought two chairs close to the unlit fireplace, and pulled a worn out, black cotton smock with white dots off a hanger, and offered it to her visitor. 

            The presence of an undressed woman emerging from the tumult and weighted by pregnancy reminded her of school kids’ comments about how babies are made, and the memory of the soldier troubled her. The woman put on the smock and they sat down side by side, their feet on the edge of the fireplace. Now, the noise was receding. Even though the mild night didn’t need it, flames of dry wood in the fireplace would comfort them. Marie stood up, took a box from a shelf, got a match, and scrapped it on the pile of twigs. She added a log and contemplated the fire’s sharp, serpentine shapes.

            The night visitor had recovered her spirits. Barely an hour ago she was expecting death: a bomb was exploding on her house, then she had fled obsessed with the single thought of saving her child. She turned towards her hostess, who seemed not to notice her. Disconcerted by the unusual welcome, she started speaking, urging herself on, calling upon destiny, and declaring finally that, on Solange’s honor, the rescued child would be born under a good star.

            Leaning slightly, Marie was letting herself get absorbed by the fire. When the flames started to decline, she lifted a drained face touched by the dim light towards the woman who called herself Solange.

            --- Are you thirsty? Would you like a cup of tea? Then we’ll go to bed. They expect me early tomorrow at the farm.

            --- No thank you, I don’t need anything… I should go home, the neighbors must’ve noticed that the house was hit. They’ll be worried. And what will my husband think if he comes back?

            Suddenly, seized by the grimness of the last few days, Solange felt the need to confide:

            --- My in-laws lent us the house. They wanted us to live in the country. Now I’m going to talk Simon into living in the city. I don’t like being around farmers when he’s not here…

            Solange stopped talking suddenly, fearing she might have offended her hostess, but Marie had not blinked and was stirring the embers with the same slowness that marked each of her gestures. So then, Solange brought up the Occupation, the landing, the uncertainty of the future. She tried to imagine the places she loved in ruins. What would be left of the old days?

            Solange startled, taken aback. With a somber glare, the young girl was humming an old tune. Marie’s indifference intrigued her. A neighbor had pointed out her peculiarity at the grocery store, but nothing had piqued her curiosity. She now began to regret not paying more attention to gossip.

            While Marie was serving the tea, Solange examined the place: a house like all of the shacks in the region, cemented to the ground and poorly lit. Marie picked up an oil lamp. Followed by the visitor, she directed herself towards the dark stairs that led to a hallway in the attic that had two rooms, hers and that of her parents’. She invited the pregnant woman into the vacant room and with a movement of the chin, showed her the bed, covered with a heavy quilt and a frayed chintz fabric. Then, she laid the flickering lamp on the bedside table.

            When she was about to leave her guest, Marie froze. She’d never had a single guest and did not remember this new comer’s name. Her gaze was lingering, and she timidly asked:

            --- What’s your name?

            --- Solange Lamaury… I mean: Laribière! It’s funny, sometimes you forget you’re married. And yours?

            The young girl quivered. She reluctantly gave her name. 

            --- Marie… Marie Granville. Well, good night, I’ll wake you up tomorrow at dawn.

            --- Good night and thank you. You are very kind… If only everyone could be as calm as you…

            Solange felt embarrassed by her inappropriateness and started to ramble. The young girl hesitated at the doorway and finally walked out, nodding her head.

            When Solange Laribière found herself alone again, anxiety tightened her chest. Her life had changed too much and to sleep, abandoned, in this foreign house, heightened the feeling of exile that had dwelt in her since the first moments of her marriage. She opened the window in order to get rid of the moldy smell, and her gaze sank a moment into the darkness covering the small woods. She pulled down the quilt, removed only her shoes and lay down letting out a sigh of relief. With her eyes wide open, she became aware that the uproar had ceased and listened to the whispers of the night. With one hand on her belly, she then fell into the thousand aborted memories of a dream.

            Marie had reached her room by the light of the moon. The presence of a stranger under her roof seemed like a bad omen and prevented her from sleeping for a while. Nonetheless, the first gleams of dawn woke her up. She felt her way toward a little table, lifted the pitcher of water and poured its contents in the bowl. After carefully washing herself, she put on the clothes that were laid on the chair next to her bed.

            She paused before knocking on the door.

            --- It’s time to wake up, madame.

            Solange answered her, with a sleepy voice, through the wall.

            The young girl went down to the kitchen, lit up the fireplace again, took out two cups and cut some slices of bread. With a reluctant greeting, she invited the pregnant woman who had just come in to share her breakfast. Solange had never been able to get used to fresh dairy products, the taste of which she associated with the smell of barns. She accepted her hostess’s offer nevertheless.

            --- You can’t hear anything anymore…they went to fight somewhere else.

            Marie seemed to have spoken for herself.

            Not without trouble, Solange managed to swallow one last mouthful of the buttered bread. She felt it appropriate to say that the occupying forces were defeated, that the country would soon be liberated, but, not getting any answer, she decided to take off.

In the morning, the young girl’s face was more expressive, and Solange searched for something cordial to say:

            --- I’ll never forget your warm welcome. I’ll have to return your smock, I believe you are here every night.

            --- You don’t have to bother, I have other ones. Now I have to leave you, goodbye madame

            At the gate, they briefly studied each other; then, one turned around and the other briefly contemplated the fragile figure, the uncertain gait of that very strange farm girl.

            From then on, they would run into each other from time to time, here and there, but would ignore each other, as if that night had never existed.

            Solange, without haste, walked the distance that separated her from her house. She was observing the deserted fields. They had such an air of abandonment. The early morning emphasized the pale craters that dented the land. She felt tired, miserable, and was shocked that she was the same person who had run the day before across the fields, carried by the feeling of her invulnerability.