I looked up at her, my sister, and I knew then that she had been right all along. I knew that what I had done had put our entire family at risk. I wanted to tell her I was sorry. I wanted to tell her I understood the depth of my mistake, and that my love for Édouard, my desperation for our life together to continue, had made me blind to everything else. But I couldn’t speak. I just stood in the doorway, mute.
Her eyes widened as she took in my bare shoulders, my naked feet. She reached out a hand and pulled me in, closing the door behind her. She placed her shawl around my shoulders, smoothed my hair back from my face. Wordlessly, she led me to the kitchen, closed the door and lit the range. She heated a cup of milk, and as I held it (I couldn’t drink it), she unhooked our tin bath from its place on the wall and put it on the floor, in front of the range. She filled copper pot after copper pot with water, which she boiled, wrenched from the stove and poured into the bath. When it was full enough, she walked around me and carefully removed the shawl. She unlaced my blouse, then lifted my chemise over my head, as she might with a child. She unbuttoned my skirts at the back, loosened my corset, then unhooked my petticoats, laying them all on the kitchen table until I was naked. As I began to shake, she took my hand and helped me step into the bath.
The water was scalding, but I barely felt it. I lowered myself so that most of me, except my knees and shoulders, was under the water, ignoring the stinging of the cuts on my feet. And then my sister rolled up her sleeves, took a washcloth, and began to soap me, from my hair to my shoulders, from my back to my feet. She bathed me in silence, her hands tender as she worked, lifting each limb, gently wiping between each finger, carefully ensuring that there was no part of me not cleansed. She bathed the soles of my feet, delicately removing the small pieces of stone that had embedded themselves in the cuts. She washed my hair, rinsing it with a bowl until the water ran clear, then combed it out, strand by strand. She took the washcloth, and wiped at the tears that rolled silently down my cheeks. All the while she said nothing. Finally, as the water began to cool and I started to shake again, from cold or exhaustion or something else entirely, she took a large towel and wrapped me in it. Then she held me, put me into a nightgown and led me upstairs to my bed.
‘Oh, Sophie,’ I heard her murmur, as I drifted into sleep. And I think I knew even then what I had brought down upon us all.
‘What have you done?’
Days passed. Hélène and I went about our daily business like two actors. From afar perhaps we looked as we always had, but each of us floundered in a growing unease. Neither of us talked about what had happened. I slept little, sometimes only two hours a night. I struggled to eat. My stomach coiled itself tightly around my fear even as the rest of me threatened to unravel.
I returned compulsively to the events of that fateful evening, berating myself for my naïvety, my stupidity, my pride. For it must have been pride that had brought me to this. If I had pretended to enjoy the Kommandant’s attentions, if I had imitated my own portrait, I might have won his admiration. I might have saved my husband. Would that have been such a terrible thing to do? Instead I had held on to this ridiculous notion that by allowing myself to become a thing, a vessel, I was somehow lessening my infidelity. I was somehow being true to us. As if that could make any difference to Édouard.
Each day I waited, heart in mouth, and watched silently as the officers filed in and the Kommandant wasn’t with them. I was afraid to see him, but I was more afraid of his absence and what it might mean. One night, Hélène plucked up the courage to ask the officer with the salt-and-pepper moustache where he was, but he just waved a hand and said he was ‘too busy’. My sister’s eyes met mine and I knew that was no comfort to either of us.
I watched Hélène and felt cowed by the weight of my guilt. Every time she glanced at the children I knew she was wondering what would become of them. Once, I saw her talking quietly to the mayor, and I thought I heard her asking him to take them, if anything happened to her. I say this because he looked appalled, as if he were astonished that she should even think such a thing. I saw the new lines of strain as they threaded their way around her eyes and jaw, and knew that they were my doing.
The smaller children seemed oblivious to our private fears. Jean and Mimi played as they always had, whining and complaining of cold or each other’s minor transgressions. Hunger made them fractious. I dared not take the smallest scrap from the German supplies now, but it was hard telling them no. Aurélien was again locked in his own unhappiness. He ate silently, and spoke to neither of us. I wondered if he had been fighting again at school, but I was too preoccupied to give it further thought. Édith knew, though. She had the sensitivity of a divining rod. She stuck to my side at all times. At night she slept with my nightgown clenched in her right hand, and when I woke her big dark eyes would be fixed on my face. When I caught sight of my reflection, my face was haggard, unrecognizable even to myself.
News filtered through of two more towns taken by the Germans to the north-east. Our rations grew smaller. Each day seemed longer than the last. I served and cleaned and cooked but my thoughts were chaotic with exhaustion. Perhaps the Kommandant simply wouldn’t appear. Perhaps his shame at what had happened between us meant he couldn’t face seeing me. Perhaps he, too, felt guilt. Perhaps he was dead. Perhaps Édouard would walk through the door. Perhaps the war would end tomorrow. At this point I would usually have to sit down and take a breath.
‘Go upstairs and get some sleep,’ Hélène would murmur. I wondered if she hated me. I would have found it hard not to, if I were her.
Twice I returned to my hidden letters, from the months before we had become a German territory. I read Édouard’s words, about the friends he had made, their paltry rations, their good spirits, and it was like listening to a ghost. I read his words of tenderness to me, his promise that he would be with me soon, that I occupied his every waking thought.
I do this for France but, more selfishly, I do it for us, so that I may travel back across a Free France to my wife. The comforts of home; our studio, coffee in the Bar du Lyons, our afternoons curled up in bed, you passing me pieces of peeled orange … Things that were domestic mundanity have now taken on the glowing hues of treasure. Do you know how much I long to bring you coffee? To watch you brush your hair? Do you know how I long to watch you laughing on the other side of the table, and know that I am the cause of your happiness? I bring out these memories to console myself, to remind me why I am here. Stay safe for me. Know that I remain
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