I had never seen my sister so angry. ‘I have to go and speak with him. There is no other way.’
‘If this gets out, Édouard won’t want you.’
We stared at each other.
‘You think you can keep it from him? You can’t. You are too honest. And even if you tried, do you think this town wouldn’t let him know?’
She was right.
She looked down at her hands. Then she got up and poured herself a glass of water. She drank it slowly, glancing up at me twice, and as the silence lengthened, I began to feel her disapproval, the veiled question within it, and it made me angry. ‘You think I would do this lightly?’
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I don’t know you at all these days.’
It was like a slap. My sister and I glared at each other and I felt as though I were teetering on the edge of something. Nobody fights you like your own sister; nobody else knows the most vulnerable parts of you and will aim for them without mercy. The spectre of my dance with the Kommandant edged around us, and I had a sudden feeling that we were without boundaries.
‘All right,’ I said. ‘Answer me this, Hélène. If it were your only chance to save Jean-Michel, what would you do?’
At last I saw her waver.
‘Life or death. What would you do to save him? I know there are no limits to what you feel for him.’
She bit her lip and turned to the black window. ‘This could all go so wrong.’
‘You may well believe that. But you are impulsive by nature. And it is not only your future in the balance.’
I stood then. I wanted to walk round the table to my sister. I wanted to crouch at her side and hold her and be told that it would all be all right, that we would all be safe. But her expression told me there was nothing more to say, so I brushed down my skirts and, broom in hand, walked towards the kitchen door.
I slept fitfully that night. I dreamed of Édouard, of his face contorted with disgust. I dreamed of us arguing, of myself trying again and again to convince him that I had only done what was right, while he turned away. In one dream, he pushed the chair back from the table at which we sat arguing, and when I looked he had no lower body: his legs and half of his torso were missing. There, he said to me. Are you satisfied now?
I woke sobbing, to find Édith gazing down at me, her eyes black, unfathomable. She reached out a hand and gently touched my wet cheek, as if in sympathy. I reached out and held her to me and we lay there in silence, wrapped around each other as the dawn broke.
I went through the day as if in a dream. I prepared breakfast for the children while Hélène went to the market, and watched as Aurélien, who was in one of his moods, took Édith to school. I opened the doors at ten o’clock and served the few people who came in at that time. Old René was laughing about some German military vehicle that had gone into a ditch down by the barracks, and could not be pulled out. This mishap caused merriment in the bar for a while. I smiled vaguely, and nodded that, yes, indeed, that would show them, yes, that was indeed fine German steering. I saw and heard it all as if from the inside of a bubble.
At lunchtime Aurélien and Édith came in for a piece of bread and a small knob of cheese, and while they sat in the kitchen we received a notice from the mayor, requesting blankets and several sets of cutlery to go to a new billet a mile down the road. There was much grumbling as our customers observed the piece of paper and recalled that they, too, would return home to similar notices. Some small part of me was glad to be seen as part of the requisitioning.
At three o’clock we paused to watch a German medical convoy pass, the line of vehicles and horses making our road vibrate. The bar was silent for some minutes afterwards. At four o’clock the mayor’s wife came in and thanked everyone for their kind letters and thoughts, and we asked her to stay for a cup of coffee but she refused. She was not good company, she said apologetically. She made her way unsteadily back across the square, her husband supporting her by the elbow.
At half past four the last customers left for the day, and I knew, with dusk falling, that there would be no more, even though we were open for another half-hour. I walked along the dining-room windows, pulling down each blind so that our interior was again obscured. In the kitchen Hélène was checking spellings with Édith, and occasionally breaking off to sing songs with Mimi and Jean. Édith had taken a fancy to little Jean, and Hélène had remarked several times what a help the little girl was, playing with him so much. Hélène had never once questioned my decision to bring her into our home; it would not have occurred to her to turn a child away, even though it meant less food for each of us.
When I went upstairs, I pulled down my journal from the rafters. I made as if to write, then realized I had nothing to say. Nothing that would not incriminate me. I tucked the journal back into its hiding place, and wondered whether I would ever have anything to say to my husband again.
The Germans came, without the Kommandant, and we fed them. They were subdued; I found myself hoping, as I often did, that this meant some terrible news on their side. Hélène kept glancing at me as we worked; I could see her trying to decide what I was going to do. I served, poured wine, washed up, and accepted with a curt nod the thanks of those men who congratulated us on the meal. Then, as the last of them left, I scooped up Édith, who was asleep on the stairs again, and took her to my room. I laid her in the bed, pulling the covers up to her chin. I gazed at her for a moment, gently moving a strand of hair away from her cheek. She stirred, her face troubled even in sleep.
I watched to make sure she wouldn’t wake. Then I brushed my hair and pinned it, my movements slow and considered. As I stared at my reflection in the candlelight, something caught my eye. I turned and picked up a note that had been pushed under the door. I stared at the words, at Hélène’s handwriting.
Once it is done, it cannot be undone.
And then I thought of the dead boy prisoner in his oversized shoes, the raggle-taggle men who had made their way up the road even that afternoon. And it was suddenly very simple: there was no choice.
I placed the note in my hiding place, then made my way silently down the stairs. At the bottom, I gazed at the portrait on the wall, then lifted it carefully from its hook and wrapped it in a shawl, so that none of it was exposed. I covered myself with another two shawls and stepped out into the dark. As I closed the door behind me, I heard my sister whisper from upstairs, her voice a warning bell.
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