My dream is a hall of grey and green, where they drink and laugh, crimped hair, slicked-back hair catching the golden light. Music blooms from pianos and trumpets, twirling and creeping around the drum’s beat. In their glasses, drinks gleam like garnets, like emeralds. Women’s dresses are dewed with sequins. They tap their feet to foreign music, short hair tossing, short dresses swirling.
In my dream they have flowers and vines sprouting from their hands and their mouths and their ears, and sometimes their laughter is silent, and there are tears flowing from their eyes even as they dance, and embrace, and rejoice.
My bedroom is small, with curtains of colourful printed cloth, red tiles on the floor, and two cots. One of them is rumpled, with a doll’s head emerging from the covers. There, I’m tucked safely away from the cold, until my mother’s voice cracks the silence. Slowly, I untangle myself from the blossoms and twisted vines of my sleep.
I splash water on my face and make my bed, though it’s never as neat as the other one, the bed that’s never been slept in. I get dressed and walk down the stairs for my morning bowl of soup before I go to the chicken coop.
I scatter a bucket of kitchen refuse, stare down the rooster, gather a couple of eggs, pluck the lovely purple flowers that have grown back during the night and now threaten to crowd the hens out of their shelter. They smell of honey and green melon. Back in the kitchen I shove them in the vase. Mother glances over her shoulder and frowns.
“Don’t bring those in. Next thing we know, they might grow roots in the table.”
“But they smell so nice!”
Mother sighs. She doesn’t start a discussion. Between scrubbing, cooking and walking to the market to sell her eggs and the odd chicken, she doesn’t even have time to talk on most days. She, too, sleeps next to an empty bed. My father, forever sleepless, watches over her from a black picture frame on the wall.
My one bright memory of my father is as silent as a dream. I am sitting in my mother’s lap, in the colourful folds of her Indian cotton skirt, trying to keep still. My father stands behind us in his blue uniform, his dark moustache drooping over unsmiling lips, tall and proud as he was before the trenches in the North swallowed him for good.
Sometimes I wonder if I remember at all, or if it’s only the photograph on the mantelpiece that woke up to life in my head. But the next moment I keep the memory like a treasure, never mentioning it in case words snuff it out. That’s the moment when my father’s face blossomed into a smile as he met my mother’s happy gaze, and she touched her stomach, lightly, before brushing a stray lock from my face.
Large brown mushrooms overflow from the sink. Mother sighs, shakes her head, then starts chopping.
“Jeanne? Take one of these to the doctor, will you? We might as well know if they’re edible.”
She wraps the mushroom in a towel and tosses it on the table.
Amédée props himself on tiptoe. “Smells nice,” he says in his high little voice.
“Yes, but don’t touch it before we’ve asked about it,” I say.
Mother glances at me.
“What was that?”
“Nothing,” I say, and put the mushroom in my basket.
“Good. Hurry up or you’ll be late for school. Oh, and grab a couple of eggs for the doctor. I hear his wife is pregnant again.”
“Yes, Mother. Come on, Amédée.”
I grab my little brother’s hand and saunter out of the house.
This morning when I woke up, a little boy was asleep in the bed next to mine, thumb stuck in his mouth, brown wispy hair falling over his eyes. His presence seemed so natural that I just shook him awake and helped him into his clothes. He still fumbles with his buttons, my little brother, and we don’t want to be late for school.
“Why do we have to see the doctor?” Amédée asks as we climb up towards the village.
“Because he knows all these new plants that keep growing all over the place. He will know if these are poisonous mushrooms. It’s very dangerous to eat mushrooms you don’t know,” I add for his edification. That’s what big sisters are for.
Amédée gazes at me with big, awestruck eyes.
“But why do we have mushrooms growing in our sink?”
“Same reason we have purple flowers in the chicken coop,” I say, loftily, and pick up the pace so I won’t have to tell him I don’t know.
The doctor’s house is right at the edge of the village. I’ve never met him before. Mother is shy around people who don’t speak Provençal. I stand very straight in front of the door—neat brown in a garland of yellow blooms—and knock.
It’s a woman who answers. Her face is pale, hair cut elegantly short. She has deep blue circles under her green eyes. The baby she holds whimpers against her chest, above the swell of her belly.
“Good morning, Madam,” I say in my most precise French. “Is the doctor home? I need help with a mushroom my mother found.” Amédée nudges me. I remember the basket. “Oh, and she sends these,” I add. “Fresh from this morning. For the new baby.”
She smiles and says something I don’t understand, then in flawless, needle-sharp French— “Aren’t you sweet. I’ll call him.”
Amédée stares at the baby. Such a tiny thing, cradled against her mother’s breast.
“What’s her name?” he asks. She doesn’t hear. So I repeat, louder, and this draws a bright, sun-warm smile.
“Ghenrieta Lievovna,” she says. I gape and she laughs. “Little Henriette. Wait here. I will call my husband. Léon!”
She retreats back into the house. Then the doctor comes out and my mouth falls open again.
The few times I saw the doctor from afar, he was wearing a dark suit and hat, as serious and proper as any gentleman visiting from the town. Now, he is wearing a long, loose robe that covers his feet, and an oblong cap of curly black wool over his dark hair. People said he has come all the way from Tunisia when fantastical weeds started blossoming uninvited around the village. Now I can believe it.
“Yes?” he says, without smiling. He is very young, for a doctor.
“Good…good morning,” I answer. “Mother asks if you can please tell us if we can eat these.”
He turns the mushroom around in his hand for a moment, then puts it back into the basket. “Where does that come from?” he says.
“Our kitchen sink.”
“Kitchen sink. Good.” He frowns and peers at me. I try not to retreat. “And on you? Anything growing?”
“Are you certain? Let me have a look.”
He lifts my hair, makes an impatient noise when I start backward. He looks inside my ears, my hands, my mouth. Eventually, he nods and stands straight.
“Good,” he says. “If you feel a tingle somewhere, or something scratchy at the back of your throat, come at once, will you?”
I nod, vigorously. “I was very ill, once,” I say.
“Yes. So was Mother. And the neighbour. She died, you know.”
The doctor makes a sound, as if he’s just understood.
“That flu won’t come back, hopefully,” he says. “Run along, now, or school will start without you.”
“And the mushroom?”
“Ah, yes. Suillus collinitus. You can eat it if you want. Don’t expect it to taste very good.”
I thank him and walk away, hastily, holding Amédée by the hand. Around the doctor’s house, dry heat already rises from the ground. I steer my brother in the direction of the school when he tugs on my hand.
“Don’t we say hello to Father first?”
I stop, look into his large, thoughtful dark eyes. And we turn right instead of left.
The cemetery gates are always open now. A shrub has grown overnight, pushing the stone post aside. Round fruits hang from its branches, with thick skin the colour of ochre. Right behind, the monument looms, with its solemn angel gazing upwards.
Father is not here, of course. He has stayed north, buried in a land they say will never bear fruit again, not with all the bombs and the poison gases they poured over it. But the angel bears his name all the same, with all those others who never came back, and no epitaph.
1892-1918. It’s 1922 now, I’m eight and the angel and I stare at each other in silence, while my little brother tries not to fidget.
After a while, it just seems right to leave. I run to the school gates, leaving Amédée at the door.
“Wait for me here, all right?”
He nods, and I get a last glimpse of his lonely form gazing at me, as the door closes and he remains still in the silent playground.
In a hall where vines twist and music clangs, someone pours their drink on the floor. A strip of orange peel falls like a feather into carnelian-red liquid.
A soldier shambles through and his footprints bleed for a while before vanishing. The woman only stares at the mess. Wide purple flowers grow out of her eyes, new leaves sprouting with every tear.
I’ve just helped Amédée button up his shirt when I hear the voices, and Mother calls me, with a hint of panic.
When I tumble down the stairs, I come face to face with two smiling gentlemen, who hold their hats in front of their bodies, faintly embarrassed. Mother takes my hand and smiles.
“Our new neighbours, Jeanne,” she says in Provençal. Then lower, still smiling, “I have no idea what language they’re speaking. Please manage them, will you?”
I come forward with my hands clasped. Amédée’s face peeks out from the bottom of the stairs, but nobody pays him any mind.
“Good morning,” I say in French.
One of them says something. I gape. He coughs a little and repeats, slower— “Good morning, Jeanne. I’m Édouard. This here is Guillaume.”
It’s French they’re speaking indeed. But it has nothing to do with our schoolmaster’s French, or the sharp, high-born accent of the doctor’s wife. In fact, I’ve never heard anyone speak like that.
The newcomer kneels down in front of me. He’s young, and he looks very kind. “We were friends of your father’s, Jeanne,” Édouard says. “Could you tell that to your mother?”
“My father,” I repeat, not knowing what else to say. Then I repeat again, in Provençal, for Mother.
She makes a little noise and covers her mouth with her hands.
Édouard speaks again, then Guillaume, finishing his sentences. At some point Mother remembers to offer coffee, and her hand circles the grinder, again and again, while I keep translating. They talk about Father, about befriending him in the trenches, somewhere up north where Canadian troops had joined the French regiments. I can’t show my excitement at the mention of Canada, not just yet. I’ll ask them about it later.
“It took us months to find out where he had come from,” Guillaume eventually says. “We would have been sorry not to meet you. César Lesnel was a great man. I mean it.”
Mother swallows, and pours the coffee.
“It’s…kind of them,” she says, looking at me. Then she changes her mind and says, in slow French, “It is kind of you. Will you stay here? You don’t have a wife home?”
They exchange a glance and a brief smile.
“Nothing better in Canada than what we have here,” Édouard says.
They’re silent for a while. Guillaume glances at a stalk of clematis hanging from the rafter. “César loved plants so much more than he loved wars,” he says.
I translate. Mother pinches her lips.
Guillaume goes on— “Whenever he found something growing near the trenches, he wouldn’t stop until he’d learned its name. He got so excited. That’s how he met that German sergeant, by the way. Did he write about it?”
“The one he befriended, yes.” Guillaume shrugs. “I suppose they intercepted his letters. They did that. Anyway, that German was a botanist. They became friends. One thing led to another and they got us a truce that lasted almost a week. Good folks, those Germans. A whole week without a single bomb.”
Both their faces light up at the same time.
“César would never have done such a thing,” Mother gasps. “He loved his country.”
“Oh yes, he did. He was the greatest man we met on the front. If they hadn’t disbanded the regiment, when they found out about the truce…” Guillaume swallows. Édouard touches his arm, lightly. “If we’d stayed together, we wouldn’t have let him fall.”
Something tugs my sleeve.
“What is Canada?” Amédée says.
“It’s a place where people wear fur hats and it snows all the time. Hush now.”
Édouard grins. “Not all the time,” he says. “Come visit us one of these days. We’ll tell you about Canada. There may even be hot chocolate.”
“Hot chocolate!” I squeal, before Mother silences me.
When they take their leave, parting the curtain of vines hanging from the door, I’ve already forgotten about the war and only think of a vast, white country, sparkling under the winter sun.
Mother tastes the stew she’s just made for the doctor’s wife. Two babies within a year—the lady needs strength. The smell of wine, bay leaves and orange peel permeates the kitchen. My mouth waters, but I know better than to ask Mother for a taste when she’s in that brisk mood.
Helpful as the doctor has been, excising flowers from wailing children and scraping seeds from their parents’ mouths, only reluctant help comes that couple’s way. They haven’t gone to church yet, not even to baptize the new girl.
“Jews don’t baptize their children,” Mother says, when I ask her about it.
I ponder that for a while.
“Are we Jews?” I ask.
Unexpectedly, it makes her smile. “No, we’re not. But Jew or Christian, we’re all honest workers greasing the wheels of capitalism with our blood, and God’s never done a thing about it,” she replies.
“That’s what Father always says,” Amédée whispers beside me.
I wonder how he knows this. But before I can ask, Mother has wrapped the pot in a big towel and thrust it, still steaming, in my hands.
“Tell her to come for help whenever she needs,” she says.
I’ve been to the doctor’s house several times now, giving a hand with the cleaning, tearing the weeds from their window-sills. His wife is just back from the hospital in the city. When I step in, the doctor nods, and I hear her voice blooming in the back, to a child’s soft whimper.
“Spi, mladiéniéts moi priékrasny, baiouchki, baiou…”
“Mother made this,” I say. “Because the lady needs to get stronger.”
“So kind of her. Come. You haven’t met Élisabeth.”
I step in, gingerly. Little Henriette is sitting on the floor, tugging her mother’s skirt. Even exhausted, the doctor’s wife is so elegant. She motions me to the armchair next to her. I squeeze my body to one side so that Amédée can sit next to me.
“And here she is,” she says. “Elizavieta Lievovna.” The way the syllables fall from her mouth is mesmerizing. There are whispers, in the village, asking how on Earth a Russian princess ended up marrying a Jewish doctor from Africa, but all I think about when I hear her voice is a dizzying expanse of white forests, as mysterious as the Canadian wilderness.
She motions towards the box of sweets. “Help yourself. Will you bring some to your mother? I can’t thank her enough.”
“You don’t have to. We all grease capitalism with our blood and we just have to help each other,” I say, as solemnly as I can.
She opens her eyes wide and stiffens, as if in sudden pain. From the door, the doctor sighs.
“Don’t speak nonsense,” he tells me.
He stops me before I go, for the customary examination.
“Healthy as a horse,” he pronounces. “The weeds must love you. Thank your mother kindly.”
He lets us go without looking at Amédée. I seem to have reassured him about the health of the entire family.
A woman dances with a tree, its bark broken, shards of copper jutting from the wood, a blue uniform hanging from its branches. They leap to the frantic music and step around a bed.
An empty bed.
I jerk awake with a cry. Then I hear soft breathing coming from Amédée’s still form in the moonlight. I sigh and go back to sleep.
On the way back from school, we stop to see Guillaume and Édouard.
“Our company!” Édouard exclaims. “Come on in, clever girl. What did you learn today?”
Two bowls are already laid on the table. Amédée is too shy to ask for hot chocolate, but after I once asked Édouard for another bowl, he never forgot again. His hot chocolate tastes like heaven.
“We learned about rivers today,” I say. And I proceed to enumerate the rivers of France, with every tributary I know of. Édouard and Guillaume exchange a look when I mention the Somme.
This is a little ritual they enjoy, asking me about school before I get to ask them for stories. They have a lot of them. They tell me about the war, sometimes, about the trenches, Verdun and Ypres and a place called Vimy Ridge, about friendship and bravery. But the stories I most love are the ones from before, back when they were two farm boys in a remote corner of Canada, and the only thing they knew of France was its language.
Today they tell me about encountering a bear on a fishing trip. I gape and clutch the bowl of hot chocolate; Amédée listens with big grave eyes, his own bowl lying untouched, forgotten. I already know how the story ends. They became such good friends afterward that when Édouard was drafted, Guillaume faked his age to enlist at once.
Amédée turns towards me. “If they ask you to go to war, I’ll enlist too,” he says.
I ruffle his hair. “There won’t be any more wars now, silly,” I say. “The government promised.”
“If all men had been like your father, there wouldn’t have been a war in the first place,” Guillaume says, brushing a bright orange flower from the back of his chair.
I nod. I still don’t know what to make of that story. Father gave his life to save us from the Germans, or so the teacher says whenever he congratulates me for remembering my lessons. It used to make me proud, before I knew he had made friends with them. Édouard and Guillaume showed me a drawing he made, once. It was a shrub with big rounded fruit, like those that grow at the cemetery gates. A Punica granatum, the writing said—a pomegranate tree. It was so beautiful that I spent the rest of the day trying to picture my father, with his blue uniform and neatly trimmed moustache, carefully drawing seeds and leaves while crouching at the bottom of his trench.
We all sit silently, me with my bowl of chocolate cooling in my hands, Édouard and Guillaume looking at me gravely.
“There were many officers in that war, who never set foot on the battlefield,” Édouard says. “And then there were men like your father, who were told to kill other poor sods but made friends with them instead. We’re supposed to honour the officers, because it’s a stupid world we live in. But let me tell you, Jeanne. In a hundred years, people will thank men like your father. I’m proud to live near his wife and daughter.”
Something grips my throat then, and I grab Amédée’s hand. “And his son!” I say.
Amédée bites his lips. His hand squeezes mine, trembling.
“And his son, of course,” Édouard says, smiling at the chair where my brother sits. “Little Amédée.”
But his gaze is trained above Amédée’s face, as if there was someone taller there, and Amédée’s mouth trembles more and more violently.
“It’s all right,” I say, gathering him into my arms, though I don’t know what it is that’s choking me, too, and I bite my lips and hug him as hard as I can.
“I want Daddy,” Amédée whimpers.
And then he slithers out of my arms and hops off the chair and runs out.
I cry out his name, but he’s already gone. Guillaume calls my name in turn, but I run out of the house, run after my brother who’s nowhere to be seen.
I pause, looking around. I’m alone. I want Daddy.
I start running again, towards the cemetery.
The Angel of Victory stands there, alone in its tangle of vines. I call my brother’s name. I try to run through the gate, but my jacket snags on a twig from the shrub. It’s much taller than I am, its fruit so ripe they’re bursting open, bright red, sweet, jewel-like.
I stare at the lovely fruit from my father’s drawing, and instead of seeds I see a weapon, ready to burst the battlefield open, I see the exposed brains of a fallen soldier, and that’s when I burst into tears and run away across the village.
I don’t know why the place I run to is the doctor’s house. I bang on the door, sobbing. He opens at last, with a look of alarm.
“Well now, Jeanne! What’s the matter with you?”
I open my mouth but no word comes out. Frowning, the doctor bends, a hand on my chin, peering inside my mouth in a gesture I’ve come to know well.
“You’re perfectly fine. What’s going on?”
The question that comes is not the one I thought I’d ask. “Is it because of my dad? The weeds everywhere? Is it his fault?”
For a long while, the doctor says nothing. Then he ushers me in. “Let’s get you something warm,” he says.
His wife comes out, makes a little sound of pity when she sees me, and walks into the kitchen. The doctor sits at the table in front of me.
“Not your father’s fault, no,” he says at last. “Who can say? There has never been anything like this war. Isn’t that what happens, when you destroy everything? On fallow land, anything can sprout. Cripples. Immigrants. Communists. Ghosts.”
He shakes his head and smiles, very slightly. “These weeds are not a bad thing. They’re just confused. How could they not be, after everything?”
He pats my hand. There seems to be such wisdom to his words that I don’t mind if I only half-understand what he’s trying to say.
Years later, however, my most vivid memory of that moment was of how young he looked, and lost, just as lost as I was—tossed in that brand-new world that already was half a ruin.
When I finally arrive home, Mother cries out, anger mingling with relief.
“Where have you been? I’ve been asking all around!”
“It’s Amédée,” I say. “He…”
Mother puts a hand to her mouth and I can’t go on. I don’t want to face her incredulity, or be chided for being foolish. I run up the stairs and crumple on my bed, and cry until there’s nothing but darkness.
It’s very dark when I drift awake, disoriented, somehow tucked under the covers in my nightgown, with my doll beside my face. Moonlight floats around the other bed. I think I glimpse convoluted leaves resting on it, but it is only the prone form of my little brother, sleeping tight with his thumb in his mouth…and someone else.
The shock is such that I stop breathing. Mother sits next to Amédée, smoothing out his hair, looking at him with a sad, loving smile. Then she kisses his head, very, very gently, and I screw my eyes shut.
I don’t make a move, but I feel her sit on my bed, afterwards.
“Jeanne?” she whispers.
I pretend to keep sleeping and she sighs, a hand on my back.
“I’ve never told you about the baby,” she says. I don’t move. If I do, the world will crumble. “That last time your father came home, I got pregnant. We were so happy, both of us. We bought a little bed, swore we would be the happiest family, once he came back for good. Then he left again, and…” She squeezes my arm, gently. “That was when the flu came. You were so ill, my darling. So was I. I lost the baby.”
She pauses. Colours pulse before my eyes, so tightly I keep them shut.
“I lost everything. The man I loved, the son I thought I’d have. My perfect family.” Her voice becomes soft, like the blossoms of almond trees in winter. “But not you. I still have you, my darling Jeanne.”
And now she kisses me, and I want to cry and hug her, but exhaustion carries me back and when my eyes open again, she’s not here anymore.
I sit up. Flowers hang overhead. There is music playing, a foreign beat, lively and panicked and blasting with trumpets, and people dancing, drinks sparkling, dresses rustling. And in the middle, there’s a little bed, with a little boy sitting, eyes wide open, two tears staining his cheeks.
I walk towards him, and a few eyes turn when I sit down and take him in my arms. “It’s all right,” I whisper. “Don’t be afraid. Everything will be fine.”
I don’t know that. But it has to be, and so I make myself believe, because my voice is the only thing keeping the fear away from him.
“Where are we?” he says. “What’s going on?”
So many answers. Desperate joy, never-ending frenzy, the dead, the forgotten and the ones the war erased even before they existed, bouncing in their whirlwind of leaves. Through curtains of flowers, I see the world the war left in its wake—life exploding after death, pain and joy and grief mingled too tightly to tease apart. Life sprouting in the tiniest cracks, on fallow, battle-scarred earth. And the drifting soul of a scared little boy.
I squeeze Amédée’s hand. “Listen,” I say.
And then the music pauses.
I take a long, deep breath. The dancers have stopped, and they’re looking at us, stranded on a bed in an ocean of green.
“A few years from now…” I begin. I want to tell him how I’ll never forget him. How I’ll give his name to my son, so he’ll be remembered forever. But I can’t do that. I can’t talk about my own children, not just now.
“The doctor, and the Russian princess,” I say. And I know it is right this time, because my voice is steady, and words come to life like flowers. “They will go back to Tunisia, soon. But their two little girls will grow up, and one day they will come back here. They will find husbands. They will marry…” No. If I am to tell a story, let it be the best one I can tell. “One of them will marry a doctor. The other will become one.” I hear sounds of awe around me, and I know I told it right. Amédée’s eyes are rapt and he doesn’t let go of my hand.
“There won’t be another war, will there?” he says.
I let out a breath. No, I want to say. But it cannot be true, and this is not a time for lies.
“Yes,” I say. “There will be. But nothing will happen to them. They will spend all their lives near one another, love each other until the end. They will have children, one day. And grandchildren. And a hundred years from now…” I look around. The dancers have gathered around us. A young woman sits on the floor, her arms wrapped around her knees, flowers tangling in her fingers. Another stretches out her hand towards Amédée, without daring to touch him. “A hundred years from now,” I go on, “one of her granddaughters will write our story. She will write about here, about us. We will never be forgotten.”
And this time I swallow hard, because I’ve told a lie after all. I’ll be forgotten, and no one will remember Amédée, my little brother who was never born. But I keep speaking, because my story is the one thing that can make it true, the only thing that can save us.
“She will write. And she will travel. She will have her own children…”
“Will she go to Canada?” Amédée asks, in a wispy little voice.
“Yes. And it will be every bit as beautiful as we’ve imagined.”
All is silent around us. The musicians sit on the floor, listening, instruments forgotten. A girl smiles through her tears and the vines in her eyes. I hold Amédée in my arms and rock him gently, and I begin to sing half-remembered syllables, the beauty of a world I know so little of.
“Spi, mladiéniéts moi priékrasny, baiouchki, baiou…”
Amédée holds me and his slowing breath seeps through me, like sap rising in spring. I sing on and on until the brightness fades, and the moonlit walls grow real again as I wake up, silent, alone, grieving, loved, with the taste of words on my tongue, lost and confused on the eve of a world blossoming from ashes.
In loving memory of Henriette Cristofari and Élisabeth Meyer, nées Debbasch.
Story copyright © 2021 by Cécile Cristofari
Artwork copyright © 2021 by Hannah Seakins
After living in Canada for some time, Cécile Cristofari settled again in her native South of France, where she teaches literature for a living and writes stories when her children are asleep. Her fiction has appeared in Interzone, Daily Science Fiction, and Reckoning, among others, and has been featured on the BSFA Award longlist.
Hannah Seakins specializes in narrative illustration. She spent several years living and studying by the picturesque Cornish coastline at Falmouth University, attaining a BA Hons in Illustration. Now based in London, she loves to use a combination of traditional and digital painting techniques in her artworks to bring her characters to life.