The Kommandant glanced towards me, surprised by my tone: a young woman walking through the arched entrance to the farmyard, a thumb-sucking child at her skirts, another swaddled and clutched to her chest. My night bonnet sat slightly askew, my white cotton nightgown so worn now that it barely registered as fabric against my skin. I prayed that he could not hear the almost audible thumping of my heart.
I addressed him directly: ‘And for what supposed misdemeanour have your men come to punish us now?’
I guessed he had not heard a woman speak to him in this way since his last leave home. The silence that fell upon the courtyard was steeped in shock. My brother and sister, on the ground, twisted round, the better to see me, only too aware of where such insubordination might leave us all.
I could see he was checking for the presence of my wedding ring. He needn’t have bothered: like most women in our area, I had long since sold it for food.
‘Madame. We have information that you are harbouring illegal livestock.’ His French was passable, suggesting previous postings in the occupied territory, his voice calm. This was not a man who felt threatened by the unexpected.
‘A reliable source tells us that you are keeping a pig on the premises. You will be aware that, under the directive, the penalty for withholding livestock from the administration is imprisonment.’
I held his gaze. ‘And I know exactly who would inform you of such a thing. It’s Monsieur Suel, non?’ My cheeks were flushed with colour; my hair, twisted into a long plait that hung over my shoulder, felt electrified. It prickled at the nape of my neck.
The Kommandant turned to one of his minions. The man’s glance sideways told him this was true.
‘Monsieur Suel, Herr Kommandant, comes here at least twice a month attempting to persuade us that in the absence of our husbands we are in need of his particular brand of comfort. Because we have chosen not to avail ourselves of his supposed kindness, he repays us with rumours and a threat to our lives.’
‘The authorities would not act unless the source were credible.’
‘I would argue, Herr Kommandant, that this visit suggests otherwise.’
The look he gave me was impenetrable. He turned on his heel and walked towards the house door. I followed him, half tripping over my skirts in my attempt to keep up. I knew the mere act of speaking so boldly to him might be considered a crime. And yet, at that moment, I was no longer afraid.
‘Look at us, Kommandant. Do we look as though we are feasting on beef, on roast lamb, on fillet of pork?’ He turned, his eyes flicking towards my bony wrists, just visible at the sleeves of my gown. I had lost two inches from my waist in the last year alone. ‘Are we grotesquely plump with the bounty of our hotel? We have three hens left of two dozen. Three hens that we have the pleasure of keeping and feeding so that your men might take the eggs. We, meanwhile, live on what the German authorities deem to be a diet – decreasing rations of meat and flour, and bread made from grit and bran so poor we would not use it to feed livestock.’
He was in the back hallway, his heels echoing on the flagstones. He hesitated, then walked through to the bar and barked an order. A soldier appeared from nowhere and handed him a lamp.
‘We have no milk to feed our babies, our children weep with hunger, we become ill from lack of nutrition. And still you come here in the middle of the night to terrify two women and brutalize an innocent boy, to beat us and threaten us, because you heard a rumour from an immoral man that we were feasting?’
My hands were shaking. He saw the baby squirm, and I realized I was so tense that I was holding it too tightly. I stepped back, adjusted the shawl, crooned to it. Then I lifted my head. I could not hide the bitterness and anger in my voice.
‘Search our home, then, Kommandant. Turn it upside down and destroy what little has not already been destroyed. Search all the outbuildings too, those that your men have not already stripped for their own wants. When you find this mythical pig, I hope your men dine well on it.’
I held his gaze for just a moment longer than he might have expected. Through the window I could make out my sister wiping Aurélien’s wounds with her skirts, trying to stem the blood. Three German soldiers stood over them.
My eyes were used to the dark now, and I saw that the Kommandant was wrong-footed. His men, their eyes uncertain, were waiting for him to give the orders. He could instruct them to strip our house to the beams and arrest us all to pay for my extraordinary outburst. But I knew he was thinking of Suel, whether he might have been misled. He did not look the kind of man to relish the possibility of being seen to be wrong.
When Édouard and I used to play poker, he had laughed and said I was an impossible opponent as my face never revealed my true feelings. I told myself to remember those words now: this was the most important game I would ever play. We stared at each other, the Kommandant and I. I felt, briefly, the whole world still around us: I could hear the distant rumble of the guns at the Front, my sister’s coughing, the scrabbling of our poor, scrawny hens disturbed in their coop. It faded until just he and I faced one another, each gambling on the truth. I swear I could hear my very heart beating.
‘What is this?’
He held up the lamp, and it was dimly illuminated in pale gold light: the portrait Édouard had painted of me when we were first married. There I was, in that first year, my hair thick and lustrous around my shoulders, my skin clear and blooming, gazing out with the self-possession of the adored. I had brought it down from its hiding place several weeks before, telling my sister I was damned if the Germans would decide what I should look at in my own home.
He lifted the lamp a little higher so that he could see it more clearly. Do not put it there, Sophie, Hélène had warned. It will invite trouble.
When he finally turned to me, it was as if he had had to tear his eyes from it. He looked at my face, then back at the painting. ‘My husband painted it.’ I don’t know why I felt the need to tell him that.
Perhaps it was the certainty of my righteous indignation. Perhaps it was the obvious difference between the girl in the picture and the girl who stood before him. Perhaps it was the weeping blonde child who stood at my feet. It is possible that even Kommandants, two years into this occupation, have become weary of harassing us for petty misdemeanours.
He looked at the painting a moment longer, then at his feet.
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