Authors: Sarita Mandanna
They still talkin’ as they head around to the back of the garden.
The stone rim ’bout the old fountain a sun-warmed yellow. I set myself down for a bit, below the winged angel baby carryin’ a flame torch in his fat little hand. Water still tricklin’ from the tip of the torch, a gentle, peace-filled sound.
Gaston come trottin’ past, nose pressed to the ground. ‘
.’ He leave off the scent and come on over, tail waggin’. He offer a paw and I shake it. I run my fingers through the thick, white coat, scratchin’ his back. He flop down by my feet with a sigh.
A slow peace come stealin’ over me. I sit there by the fountain, lettin’ the warmth of the day into my bones, and slow, real slow, I start to hear it once more. The music of the stones. A sound I ain’t heard for way too long, a song gone quiet in the war, turned silent by too many deaths, by a wounded man who stare straight in my eyes as he whisper for mercy, by the callin’, mockin’ shadows of the night. Now, at last, on this sunny afternoon, the music, it come tricklin’ into my heart again.
Here, the melody, the faint plink-plink of strings, growin’ stronger as I listen, the music part mine, part from these drowsin’, ’memberin’ stones. I see the chords, teasin’ from behind my eyes. They start to dance, they spin. I tap my feet, hesitatin’ like, drum my fingers against that sun-warm rim of the fountain, Gaston beatin’ his tail against my legs as I start to hum the tune out loud.
The sound of voices; my eyes open, the tune flowin’ away, but it leave behind the markings of its passin’. They round the corner, James and the kid. Henri gone back to doin’ most of the talkin’, I see, amused, and James, to gruntin’ in reply.
I see also how the kid, he gone and tucked a hand into James’, and the Yankee, he ain’t makin’ no move to shake it free.
‘You going to keep sunning yourself like a jackass, or would you care to join us?’ James say it light and don’t-care as can be, but I know the Yankee long enough to hear the small pause in between the words, as if he not sure how this olive branch he holdin’ out gonna be taken.
I nod in reply and follow them inside.
It cool and dim inside, the sudden drop in temperature sendin’ a shiver through my bones. I got to blink a few times for my eyes to adjust, after the brightness of the garden. That mournin’ net, it just as I ’member it, yards of it, like the web of some powerful-big spider. Gaston, he come hoppin’ in just then, and seein’ him, that tail held so high and jaunty without a care in the world, settle me some.
You a ninny, Obadaiah Nelson
, I silently scold myself.
Ain’t nothin’ to be ’fraid of here but spider webs and bird shit
James and Henri, they already halfway down to the cellar, the kid’s voice floatin’ up the stairs. Do they have cellars in America? Do they keep coal there? Apples?! What sort of apples?
Gaston stop at the head of the stairs, unsure of his leg. He take a half-step, stop again. ‘
!’ Henri call, and he whine.
‘Come on, boy,’ I say. ‘Come on, together.’
I slip a hand through that
collar, guidin’ him down. He climb down one step, real slow, one more, then findin’ his leg holdin’ up just fine, let out an excited bark. He give me a quick lick on the wrist as he pull free from my grip and go racin’ down the stairs.
James tap the walls of the cellar. ‘At least a couple of feet thick,’ he guess. ‘We’d have to clear out all the junk, but this one’s the best so far, I think.’
‘Plenty room for at least fifty men,’ I nod. ‘Don’t see much damage being done to this place even with a couple of Jack Johnsons hittin’ directly above.’
‘Jacque Johnson?’ Henri ask at once. ‘Who’s that?’
I look at him, not knowin’ what to say. After that win at the Vel d’Hiver in Paris, there was another fight for the championship in April this year, in Cuba. This time, though, Jack lost. He was beaten bad by Jess Willard, beaten fair and square. His picture in all the papers afterwards: Jack, my champ,
lyin’ flat on his back in the ring, a hand coverin’ his eyes.
I kept that picture a long time. Taken it out again and again from my sack, tryin’ to figure out what he was thinkin’ as he lay there, tryin’ to read them hidden eyes. A hurt in my gut as I looked at it, as if I gone and lost somethin’ real important too.
‘He a boxer,’ I begin. ‘He . . . Jack, he . . .’
‘Jack Johnson is the best, the strongest, a champion among cham pions,’ James say quietly. He start to tell Henri ’bout that glory-filled, long ago fight in Reno. I listen, drinkin’ in every word as if hearin’ the story for the very first time, as we head on back upstairs.
That mirror, it sit on the wall where we left it, black and still. This time though, ain’t nothin’ I see but my own mug, starin’ back at me. I realise I been holdin’ my breath; I let it out and it form a small patch of film on the glass.
‘Say, kid,’ James ask, ‘did you know a girl called Mathilde, here in the village? Seemed to have a collection of postcards, over in that brown-and-white house?’
I guess he ain’t the only one to ’member that postcard collection we seen, scattered by the door.
,’ the kid nod, of course he know her, she in his school.
I’m just ’bout turnin’ away from the mirror when James look my way and I catch his eye in the glass. A thing of only a moment, but somethin’ ’bout his reflection make me pause. It as if that black mirror, it gone and stripped away the top coverin’ of ourselves, this outer coatin’ that we present to the world. What reflected in the glass is all them hidden, secret things, the truth that lie beneath. Shoots growin’ under the earth, a cotton field in the moonlight, raven wings, beatin’ against the wind. I see empty spaces and things unspoken, a lonesomeness that lie thinly between evenin’ and night. All the broke and shifted parts rattlin’ ’bout inside me, I see in James’ reflection too; I stare at my friend, at this livin’ ghost so brimful with guilt and sadness, and I guess he seen the same in me too.
I hear as if from a distance, Gaston’s tail goin’ thump, thump as it knock against a table. Henri still talkin’ ’bout Mathilde. ‘Such an annoying girl,’ he gripe. ‘Always at the top of our class, going on and on about books and stuff. Why,’ he exclaim in disgust, ‘she’s even scared of Gaston! Gaston!’
So riled up the kid look at the notion that anyone could be scared of the cayoodle, that it lift the melancholy from us.
A joke, I need a joke. ‘Who dat?’ I ask, noddin’ at James’ reflection. It’s ’bout all I can think to say.
James don’t miss a beat as he add the question to mine. ‘Who dat who say who dat?’
I chuckle. James, he starts to grin too.
The kid slip his hand into James’ as we walk out into the sun. ‘The old lady of the chateau,’ the kid say real matter-of-fact, ‘she thought she could see her sons in the mirror. After word came of their deaths, she’d sit starin’ into it for hours. She was a kind woman, but
un peu folle
’ he say, shakin’ his head.
‘Enough of all that.’ James firmly change the subject. ‘Obadaiah here has a poem to teach you, all the way from Louisiana.’
We teach him the words, and he find them awful funny. He yell them out aloud, all three of us do, all the way back to the billets:
‘Oo dat oo say oo dat?’
‘Who dat who say who dat when ah say who dat?’
The fire burn beside the wall, hidden from enemy eyes by a bunch of trees. The evenin’ so calm, so peace-filled and drowsy-makin’ that we billetin’ out in the open tonight. There a small chill to the air, an itty bit of mist that trail under the stars, like to remind us that soon the season gonna change. The outer corner of the sky light up dim now and then, from some faraway shell. I lie on my back, watchin’ the slow-movin’ moon, the fire warm against my side.
‘So how would we get him across anyway?’
Startled, I raise up on an elbow to look at James, ain’t sure I heard quite right.
He nod at the kid who fallen asleep curled up against him. ‘Henri,’ he say gruff like. ‘How would we do it?’
‘Across where? To America?’
‘Yes. Home.’ He glance at me, like he ain’t sure of my reaction. I suppose I’m still lookin’ thrown, and his next words, they come out in a rush. ‘I’ve been thinking. The kid’s got no more family around, at least that’s what he says. Maybe he could come back with me. After all of this is done. Come live on the farm.’
After the war. A strange notion, to think of this war as ever havin’ an end. What was it we used to say, back when we were
at the trainin’ camp in Toulouse? Six months we given it, six months at the most, for the war to be done.
The fire flare in a sudden draught, sparks shootin’ orange and red against the wall.
James, he waitin’ for a reply. ‘Sure,’ I shrug. ‘He’d be happy there, I reckon.’
The small loosenin’ of his shoulders. ‘He would. My own boy’s only a few years younger, they could grow up together.’
‘Well, you better take Gaston too, or the kid, he goin’ to go jumpin’ off the ship soon as he can and swimmin’ right back to shore.’
We fall quiet, lookin’ into the fire as it burn down.
‘In the hospital – when I was there – the pneumonia—’ he gesture with a hand. It the first we’ve talked of the previous months. ‘There was this Tommy they brought in. Lost a foot, and with a bad case of shell shock too. He’d convinced himself that this was just a motion picture we were in. A really terrible one that did not make much sense at all, but a movie, that’s all it was, the war. When the nurses came in each morning, he’d bark at them, demanding to see the director, demanding changes to the script
It make me laugh, the story.
‘I made it to the
six times while you been gone,’ I share.
We fall silent for a while again.
‘How long since we signed up? Toulouse . . . it been what – two years now?’
He nod again. ‘August 1914.’ He reach forward to stoke the fire, careful not to wake the kid. ‘You going back down South once we’re done?’
There he go again. How you so sure, I want to ask, even as I shrug my shoulders in response, that we ever goin’ to be done with this? That there ever goin’ to be an end? Ain’t no reason for it, but I’m angry, sudden like, as I search the sky for more shell burst.
The kid stir in his sleep. James lift his head gently from his arm, shiftin’ him on to the blanket.
He smilin’ as he look at me. ‘Maybe we could do that trip we talked about. Cross country, in a covered wagon, like they did in olden times, you, me and both the boys.’
After the war
I search, but the night sky is undisturbed, the moon sailin’ real calm through the mist. My eyes move lower, past the tree line, past the shadows on the wall and the low-burnin’ fire, comin’ to rest on the face of the kid. Asleep, with sass and spunk at rest, he look even more of a child. Young, so open, full of trustin’ and innocence. As I watch him sleep, that sudden anger, it start to uncoil, pullin’ away. I let it go, feelin’ the weight of it leave my chest.
After the war.
I take a deep breath. The night air feel cool in my lungs. I nod. ‘From Montana,’ I agree, ‘all the way down to New Mexico.’
hen we spot the plane, it still only a twinkle of silver. Away to the west, so far that at first we ain’t even sure if it a plane or just a trick of the light. I shade my eyes and look harder. That twinkle, it movin’ across the horizon towards us.
Someone grab a pair of field glasses. ‘Boche!!’ The
sound through the streets. Men race for cover, runnin’ into cellars, huggin’ the long grass in the park and jumpin’ into the trenches we been diggin’ around the village. The small clink-clink of metal as bayonets sheathed in a hurry, so their shine won’t give us away. The telephone operator start tryin’ to get headquarters on the line.
That twinkle grow closer, larger. ‘Where the hell are our guns?’ James mutter. We hunkered down in a section of the trench that lie a short distance away from the chateau, the kid and Gaston too. ‘Come on, come on . . .’