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A Very Long Engagement

by Sebastien Japrisot and Linda Coverdale

Paperback, 327 pages, St Martins Pr, List Price: $15 |


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A Very Long Engagement
Sebastien Japrisot and Linda Coverdale

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Book Summary

In 1919, Mathilde Donnay, a young wheelchair-bound woman in France, begins a quest to find out if her fiancé, supposedly killed in the line of duty two years earlier, might still be alive. Reprint. 50,000 first printing. (A Warner Bros. Independent Pictures film, releasing Fall 2004, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, starring Audrey Tautou & Jodie Foster) (Historical Fiction)

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: A Very Long Engagement


Once upon a time, there were five French soldiers who had gone off to war, because that's the way of the world.
The first soldier, who in his youth had been a cheerful, adventurous lad, wore around his neck an identification tag marked 2124, the number assigned to him at a recruiting office in the department of Seine. On his feet were boots taken from a dead German, boots that sank into the mud of trench after trench as he plodded through the godforsaken maze leading to the front lines.
All five of the soldiers were bound for the front. They went single file, laboring at each step, their arms tied behind their backs. The German army boots made loud sucking noises as men with guns led the prisoners from trench to trench, toward the dying light of the cold evening sky glimmering faintly beyond the dead horse and the lost cases of supplies and everything else that lay buried beneath the snow.
There was a great deal of snow. It was early January, and the year was 1917.
Number 2124 staggered along the narrow trenches, hauling himself through the mud, helped now and then by one of the guards, who would shift his gun to the other shoulder without a word and grab the prisoner's coat sleeve, tugging at the stiff cloth, helping him wrench one leg after the other from the mud.
And then the faces.
Dozens and dozens of faces, all lined up along the same side of the cramped passageways, and the eyes in these muddy faces watched as the five exhausted soldiers made their way ever closer to the front, straining forward, their bodies bent almost double with the effort. Beneath the helmets, in the evening light filtering through the mutilated trees, along the sinister earthen walls, mud-ringing eyes stared silently for a moment, all down the line, at the five passing soldiers whose arms were bound with rope.
Number 2124--nicknamed the Eskimo, also known as Bastoche--had been a carpenter, in the good old days. He dressed boards, he planed them, and in between kitchen cabinets he wet 0 his whistle at Little Louis's bar on the rue Amelot in Paris. Each morning he wrapped a long strip of flannel about his waist, for support. Around and around and around. His window opened onto slate roofs and flights of pigeons. There was a woman with black hair in his room, in his bed, who said...What did she say?
Watch out for the wire.
They advanced, bareheaded, toward the front-line trenches, these five French soldiers who had gone off to war, their arms tied with rope as sodden and stiff as their overcoats, and every once in a while, as they passed by, a voice was heard, a different one each time, a toneless, impassive voice telling them to watch out for the wire.
He was a carpenter, court-martialed for self-mutilation because they'd found powder burns on his wounded left hand. They'd condemned him to death for something he hadn't done. He's been trying to pull a white hair from his head. The gun, which wasn't even his, had gone off all by itself, because for a long time now, from the sea in the north to the mountains in the east, these man-made labyrinths had been the playground of the devil. He never did manage to pull out the white hair.
In 1915, he's been awarded some money and mentioned in dispatches for taking a few prisoners. Three. In the Champagne region. The first one had raised his empty hands overhead, he had a lock of blond hair falling over one eye, he was twenty years old and spoke French. He said...What did he say?
Watch out for the wire.
The other two had stayed with a dying comrade just breathing his last, his belly ripped open by who knows what. Flashes of artillery fire, flashes of sunlight, flashes. Beneath a half-burned cart, crawling along on their elbows, still wearing their gray forage caps edged with red, a sunny day, a good day to surrender. Where was that? Somewhere or other, at the tail end of the summer of '15. One time he'd gotten off a train in a village and there'd been a dog barking on the platform, barking at the soldiers.
Number 2124 was hale, robust, with the strong shoulders of an active man who'd gaily set off in his youth for adventure in America. The shoulders of a logger, a carter, a prospector, shoulders so broad they made the rest of him seem smaller. He was now thirty-seven years old, almost to the day. He believed everything they'd told him to justify his madness, all those reasons lying shrouded in the snow. He'd taken the boots from an enemy soldier who no longer needed them, he'd taken them to wear on those cold nights on sentry duty, to replace his old shoes stuffed with straw or newspaper. They'd tried him in a schoolhouse, convicted him of self-mutilation, and he'd been in trouble once before, unfortunately, because he'd been drinking and had done something stupid with a few pals, but that business about the mutilation, it wasn't true. He'd received a commendation, he'd been doing his best like everyone else, he simply couldn't figure out what was happening to him anymore. Since he was the oldest, he was the first prisoner in line, slogging through the flooded trenches, his broad shoulders bent forward, watched by those mud-ringed eyes.
The second man's number was 4077, issued at a different recruiting office in the department of the Seine. He still wore the tag bearing his number beneath his shirt, but everything else, all badges and insignia, even the pockets of his jacket and overcoat, had been torn off, as they had been from his companions' clothing. He had slipped while entering the trenches and been soaked through, chilled to the bone, but perhaps this was a blessing in disguise, for the cold had numbed the pain in his left arm, pain that had kept him from sleeping for several days. The cold had also dulled his mind, which had grown sluggish with fear; he could not even imagine what their destination might be, and longed only for an end to his bad dream.
Before the nightmare he'd been a corporal, because they'd needed one and the fellows in his platoon had chosen him, but he hated military ranks. He was certain that one day all men, including welders, would be free and equal among themselves. He was a welder in Bagneux, near Paris, with a wife, two daughters, and marvelous phrases in his head, phrases learned by heart, that spoke of the workingman throughout the world, that said...For more than thirty years he'd known perfectly well what they said, and his father, who'd so often told him about the Paris Commune, had know this, too.
It was in their blood. His father had had it from his father, and had passed it on to his son, who had always known that the poor manufacture the engines of their own destruction, but it's the rich who sell them. He'd tried to talk about this in the billets, in the barns, in the village cafés, when the proprietress lights the kerosene lamps and the policeman pleads with you to go home, you're all good folks, so let's be reasonable now, it's time to go home. He wasn't a good speaker, he didn't explain things well. And they lived in such destitution, these poor people, and the light in their eyes was so dimmed by alcohol, the boon companion of poverty, that he'd felt even more helpless to reach them.
A few days before Christmas, as he was going up the line, he'd heard a rumor about what some soldiers had done. So he'd loaded his gun and shot himself in the left hand, quickly, without looking, without giving himself time to think about it, simply to be with them. In that classroom where they'd sentenced him, there had been twenty-eight men who'd all done the same thing. He was glad, yes, glad and almost proud that there had been twenty-eight of them. Even if he would never live to see it, since the sun was setting for the last time, he knew that a day would come when the French, the Germans, the Russians--"and even the clergy"--would refuse to fight, ever again, for anything. Well, that's what he believed. He had those very pale blue eyes flecked with tiny red dots that welders sometimes have.
The third man was from the Dordogne and his number was 1818. When they'd assigned it to him, he'd nodded slowly while a strange feeling had come over him, because he'd been a ward of the Child Warfare Bureau, and in every center to which he'd been sent as a boy, his cubbyhole in the refectory or dormitory had always been number 18. Ever since he had learned how to walk, he had done so with a heavy step, now made even heavier by the mud of the war. Everything about him was heavy and patient and obstinate. He'd done it, too; he'd loaded his gun and shot himself in the hand--the right one, as he was left-handed--but without closing his eyes. On the contrary, his outlook on the whole affair had been circumspect, withdrawn, unfathomable, for his vantage point was that of solitude, and number 1818 had been waging his own war for a long time now, all alone.
Watch out for the wire.
Number 1818 was without a doubt the bravest and most dangerous of the five soldiers. During his thirty months in the army, he'd given no one cause to speak of him, he'd told no one anything at all about himself. They had come out to his farm to get him one August morning, they had put him on a train, and as far as he knew, it was up to him to stay alive if he ever wanted to go home again. Once, he'd strangled an officer in his company. It was by the Woëvre, during an offensive. No one had seen him. He'd pinned the man down with a knee to the chest and strangled him. He'd grabbed his gun and run off, bent low beneath the fireworks overhead, and that had been the end of it.
His wife had been a foundling, too, and now that he was far from her side, he remembered the softness of her skin. It was like a tear in the fabric of his sleep. And he often recalled the perspiration pearling on her skin, after she had worked all day long with him, and her poor 0hands. His wife's hands were cracked and hard as those of any man. They'd hired up to three day laborers at the same time, and there was more than enough work for the lot of them on the farm, but all the men, everywhere, had been sent away to the war, and his wife had been left to carry on alone. She was twenty-one, nine years younger than he was.
He also had a little boy, who'd been conceived during his first visit home on leave, and then he'd gotten his second leave because of the baby, who was already walking from one chair to another, a strong little fellow like his father, with his mother's soft skin. They'd named him Baptistin. In thirty months, he'd been home twice on leave, and once he'd simply taken off on his own, without getting any farther than the gare de l'Est in Paris, because it just hadn't been in the cards, but even though she was a thousand kilometers away from him and could barely read or write, his wife had understood what to do, and for the first time in his life, he had wept. Ever since his earliest memory--of a plane tree, its scent, its peeling bark--he could not recall ever shedding a single tear, and with any luck, he would never cry again.
The third soldier was the only one of the five condemned men who still believed there was a chance they would not end up before a firing squad. He reasoned that the army would hardly be going to the trouble of dragging them all the way to the front of the lines in a different combat zone simply to shoot them. The prisoners had been tried in a village in the Somme. There had been no attenuating circumstances for the fifteen men who had set out on this journey. Twice they had halted, so that a few of their party could be taken off God knows where, reducing their number to ten, then five. They had traveled all night in one train, all day in a second one, been loaded onto first one truck, then another. They'd headed south, then toward the sunset, then to the north. The last five had walked along a road (escorted by some dragoons who were not at all pleased to be there), they'd been given some dry bread and water, and had the dressings on their wounds changed in a village in ruins. Number 1818 no longer had the faintest idea where he was.
The sky was white, blank, empty; the artillery had fallen silent. It was very cold, and except for the miry road, deeply rutted by the war, that ran through this nameless village, everything was covered with snow, as in the Vosges. But there were no mountains, as there were in the Vosges. No gullies, no ridges to wear out poor soldiers, as there were in the Argonne. And the dirt this farmer had crumbled in his fingers wasn't the soil of Champagne or the Meuse. It was something else, something that seemed to fly in the face of all common sense, and it was only after the man now following him through the narrow trenches had kicked over to him an old button from a uniform that he'd been convinced of the truth: they had returned to their original point of departure somewhere in the Artois and Picardy, an area that had become a slaughterhouse for soldiers from Newfoundland. During those seventy-two hours when they'd been carted all over Creation, snow had fallen, heavy, silent, and patient, like himself, and this snowfall had blanketed everything--the savagely wounded fields, the burned-out farms, the trunks of the dead apple trees, the lost cases of supplies and ammunition.
Watch out for the wire.
The man behind him in line--the fourth of the five soldiers who had been stripped of their helmets, regimental badges, insignia, jacket and overcoat pockets, who carried not a single family photo, Christian cross, Star of David, crescent of Islam, or anything that would amount to damn-all--had been born in Marseille, in a neighborhood of Italian immigrants called Belle de Mai. He had been assigned number 7328 at a recruiting office in Bouches-du-Rhône. His name was Angel. In the opinion of all those who had known him, at one point or another during the twenty-six years he'd spent on this earth, never had a man been more ill named.
He was almost as beautiful as an angel, however, and attractive to women, even virtuous ones. He was slender, sinewy, with eyes darker and more mysterious than the night, two dimples flanking his smile and another gracing his chin, a nose just Neapolitan enough to earn him the proud distinction of a barracks tag ("Big conk, big cock"), thick hair, a princely mustache, an accent softer than a song, and, above all, the general air of someone to whom love is due as a matter of course. But whosoever had fallen victim to his honeyed glances only to be chilled by his stony egotism could vouch for the fact that he was sly, deceitful, quarrelsome, thieving, back-stabbing, stingy beyond believe, willing to swear to the most outrageous lie on the grave of his sainted mother, prone to hysterics at the slightest little explosion, raring to go whenever a neighboring regiment was sent up the line, adept at trafficking in tobacco and the addresses of pen pals, a snitch afraid of his own shadow, by trade a good-for-nothing, and by his own admission the most pathetic example of all the Poor Bastards at the Front. Except that he hadn't had time to meet all that many of them, so he wasn't one hundred percent sure about that last item.
All in all, number 7328 had been at the front for three months, the last three of the year just ended. Before that he'd been in a training camp in Joigny. He'd learned to recognize a few good burgundies, at least by their labels, and to shift the ill humor of the noncoms onto the next fellow. And before that, he'd been in Saint-Pierre Prison, in Marseille, where ever since July 31, 1914, when everyone had gone crazy, he'd been serving a five-year sentence for what he always referred to as "an affair of honor," or "an affair of the heart," depending on whether his listener was a man or a woman, when in fact it had been an argument between two neighborhood pimps that had ended badly.
That summer, his third one behind bars, they'd been scrounging around even for old-timers and common criminals to beef up the depleted regiments, so they'd let him choose. He had chosen to wager, along with some other imbeciles, that the war would be over in a matter of weeks, that either the French or the Germans would inevitably give way somewhere along the line, and that he'd be out before Christmas. As a result, after spending two weeks in the Aisne diving into foxholes dodging heavy shells, he'd suffered through fifty days worse than five thousand years in prison, at Fleury, Chauffour Wood, Pepper Hill; fifty eternities of terror, second by second, horror by horror, to retake that rattrap stinking of the piss, shit, and death of all those on both sides who'd jerked one another around without quite managing to finish it off, Douaumont before Verdun.
Thanks be to Our Lady (who also looks after the criminal element): he hadn't been among the first batch tossed into that meat grinder, thereby risking evisceration at the hands of a previous occupant, and he'd come out of it with a least this consolation--that nothing else, in either this world or the next, could ever be worse. But he had to have fallen fairly low indeed to imagine that there was a limit to human wickedness, which on the contrary delights in proving endlessly inventive.
In December, after six short days of what was laughingly referred to as rest, when he'd been unable to hear a fork drop without cracking his skull on the ceiling, days devoted to bucking up the troops' morale by pestering them relentlessly with petty rules and regulations, they'd sent him, Angel, with all his kit and a regiment reduced to recruiting kids still wet behind the ears, to the banks of the Somme, to a sector where there was a temporary lull in the carnage but where everyone was talking, between shellings of monstrous caliber, about an imminent do-or-die offensive, an all-out definitive assault at any cost. The cannon fodder had learned of this madness from a field-kitchen cook rumored to be in the know, who'd gotten it from a fellow completely on the up-and-up, the messenger of an aide-de-camp not given to idle talk, who'd heard it firsthand from his colonel, who'd been invited to the ball given by the general and his wife to celebrate their anniversary.
He, Angel, the poor pimp from Marseille, the street urchin of the run of Loubon, even though he might be the most miserable flea on the mangiest of dogs, had plainly seen that the only thing an offensive could possibly mean was a counter-offensive, just to stick it to everyone involved, and he'd finally had to admit, like everyone else and his brother, that this war would never end, simply because no one was capable of winning anymore, unless they dumped all their guns and ammunition on the nearest rubbish heap and settled the whole thing with toothpicks. Or better yet, by tossing a coin. One of the unfortunate souls walking ahead of him, the second in that sad line, a corporal called Six-Sous, had spoken awfully well, at their lost cause of a trial, about the uselessness of offensives and counter-offensives and the distressing proliferation of cemeteries, and he'd even pointed out to the presiding officers that during the more than two years that the armies of both sides had been burying each other all along the battlefront, if everyone had gone quietly home, leaving the trenches empty, it wouldn't have made any difference--"You hear me, no difference at all!"--and they'd still be in exactly the same position as they were in now, after wholesale slaughter on every ordnance survey map. Perhaps he wasn't as smart as he looked, this Corporal Six-Sous, since he was headed for the firing squad, but what could you say in reply to him? In Angel's opinion, nothing.
After petitioning his major in vain for permission to return to his dear old cell in Saint-Pierre, and after sending the same request, including the same spelling mistakes, to his deputy in the Bouches-du-Rhône district (writing both letters in indelible pencil moistened in a mug of dirty water, since he hated staining his lips violet and had run out of tears a long time ago), he'd begun considering all sorts of ingenious and cruel schemes in the one hope of going on the sick list, growing even paler than he'd already become over the last few months, livid, ashen, cadaverous.
Ten days before Christmas he had thought to celebrate in freedom, in the disquieting hour of dusk, after a great deal of wine and considerable shilly-shallying, he'd convinced an even greater idiot than himself--a notary's clerk from Anjou who only wanted to return home so that he might surprise his wife in flagrante delicto--that they should shoot each other in the hand, to cap it all off, in the right hand, since they both agreed that the incredible would be the more believable. And so, in a stable where the horses could smell trouble ahead and had already worked themselves into a lather, several kilometers from a front as quiet as the grave, the two of them had done it, awkwardly, hesitantly, swearing blood brotherhood the way children in the dark seek to reassure themselves while taking fright at their own cries. At the last moment, because his entire being felt revulsion at the prospect of keeping his word, Angel had snatched his hand away from the mouth of the other man's gun and had closed his eyes. He'd pulled the trigger on his own gun, however. Now he was missing two joints from the ring finger and the tip of the middle finger, but the cootie-counting days of the other poor clod were over for good, as he'd taken Angel's blast full in the face, and the horses, desperate to escape this mess of human lunacy, had trampled the rest of his to a pulp.
Yes, he was slogging through the mud because that was his place, fourth in the line of five condemned men dragged there, through that labyrinth in the snow, to stare misfortune straight in the eye, but he had walked too far, he was too tired to defend himself anymore, he longed only to sleep. He was sure he'd nod off as soon as they tied him to the stake and blindfolded him, he would never know what had happened at the very end of his life: unsteady, maim, fire--fire, air, water, earth, mud, trenches of mud, through which he tramped, head down, lurching from side to side, laboring toward the reflections in the evening sky, tired to death.
Watch out for the wire.
The fifth and last of those soldiers with their arms tied behind their backs was a "Cornflower," the nickname of the military class of 1917, and though he was five months shy of the official conscription age of twenty, he'd already spent more time at the front than the pitiful buffoon staggering along ahead of him, and, given his fevered imagination, he was even more tortured by fear than his companion.
He was afraid of the war and of death, like almost everyone, but he was also afraid of the wind, that harbinger of gas attacks, afraid of a flare tearing through the night, afraid of himself, for he never knew what he might do when he was afraid, afraid of his own side's artillery, afraid of his own gun, afraid of the whine of aerial torpedoes, afraid of mines that explode and engulf a whole section of infantry, afraid of the flooding that drowns you in the dugout, afraid of the earth that buries you alive, afraid of the stray blackbird that casts a sudden shadow before your eyes, afraid of the nightmares in which you always wind up gutted at the bottom of a shell hole, afraid of the sergeant who dreams of blowing your brains out because he's fed up with carping at you, afraid of the rats that come for a little foretaste, sniffing you as you sleep, afraid of the lice and the crotch-crabs and the memories that suck your blood, afraid of everything.
Before all the butchery began, he hadn't been like that at all, he'd been precisely the opposite, climbing trees, clambering up the church steeple, braving the ocean on his father's boat, fighting forest fires, brining sailboats scattered in a storm safely into port, so intrepid, so generous with his youth that his friends and family all thought him a daredevil. Even at the front, in the beginning, he'd behaved fearlessly. And then there had been an aerial torpedo, one too many, on a summer morning in front of Buscourt, only a few short kilometers from the trench where he was now plodding through the mire. The explosion hadn't touched him, merely blown him off his feet, but when he'd gotten up again, he'd been drenched in another man's blood, completely covered in gore and unrecognizable bits of flesh, he'd even had some in his mouth, he'd spat out the horror and shrieked his head off. Yes, he had stood there screaming on the battlefield before Buscourt, in Picardy, weeping and tearing off his clothes. They had brought him in naked. The next day, he had seemed his old self again. Every once in a while he would shake uncontrollably, but that was all.
His first name was Jean, although his mother and everyone else back home always called him Manech. In the army he was known simply as Cornflower. The number he wore on the bracelet around his good wrist was 9692, from a recruiting office in the Landes. He was born in Capbreton, within sight of Biarritz, but since geography wasn't the strong point of the Army of the Republic, the men in his section thought he was from Brittany. He'd given up trying to set them straight from day one. He wasn't a nuisance, he avoided useless arguments, and he knew how to get along, in the end: whenever he was in a muddle with his kit or the disassembled pieces of his gun, there was always some Good Samaritan around to help him out, and in the trenches, except for that one sergeant who'd taken to dislike him, all anyone asked of him was that he keep his head down and watch out for the wire.
But then there was the fear that had taken complete possession of him, the presentiment that he would never go home again, and a leave of absence he's been promised but no longer expected to receive. And there was Mathilde.
In September, to see Mathilde once more, he'd taken the advice of a "Marie-Louise" (the nickname of the class of 1916) almost a year older than he was: he'd swallowed a pellet of meat soaked in picric acid. He'd become so sick he'd almost turned himself inside out with vomiting, but by that time any medico could spot a phony case of jaundice without even half trying, so he'd wound up facing his first court-martial, within his battalion. They'd taken his age into consideration and given him a suspended sentence of two months, but he'd had to kiss any leave of absence goodbye, unless he could think of a way to take Fritz prisoner all by himself.
Then in November, outside Péronne, after ten days of relentless insults from that damned sergeant, and the rain, the rain, the rain, he'd cracked, he'd listened to another Marie-Louise even more hare-brained than the first.
One stormy night, when he was on lookout in the trench, with only the gunfire way off in the distance, this boy who didn't smoke had lit an English cigarette, because they didn't go out as quickly as the cheaper kind, and he'd held his right hand up over the parapet, protecting the little red glow with his fingers, and he'd waited a long time like that, his arm up in the air, his face against the sodden earth, praying God, if He still existed, to invalid him home. The downpour had snuffed out the tiny red gleam and he'd light another cigarette and still another, until the Kraut across the way, peering through his binoculars, had finally figured out what was expected of him. The Jerry had been a good shot, or else the Germans--who were just as understanding as the French in these cases--had gone off to find one, because it had taken only one bullet, which had torn away half his hand, and then the surgeon had lopped off the rest.
To crown everything, when the shot came, without disturbing those on fatigue duty or waking the others, the sergeant hadn't been asleep. The sergeant never slept. In the pre-dawn drizzle, all the soldiers, all of them, even the corporals, even the stretcher-bearers who'd come running for nothing since the wounded man could still walk, everyone had begged the sergeant to look the other way, but he'd turned a deaf ear.
"Shut up!" he'd shouted, with that stubborn Aveyron accent and tears of rage in his eyes. "Damn it, just shut up! What does that make me if I let things like this get by? Who'll be left to defend our position if everyone starts acting like this little sonofabitch? Who'll defend our position?"
As for Cornflower (up before the corps this time, at his second court-martial), they'd defended him as best they could. He was even lucky, they kept telling him, that they hadn't
af0 shot him then and there. To defend him and three others his age, the presiding officer had appointed an artillery captain, a lawyer from Levallois, a fine man who had already lost a son at Eparges and was outspoken in his belief that that was enough. They'd heard him out for three, but now four. Not for a repeat offender, a hardened coward, an example so rotten he might contaminate every young recruit in a division. Not one of the judges had been willing to sign the petition for reprieve.
When suffering becomes simply too great to bear, it sometimes precedes its victims to the grave. After the staggering blow of his conviction, something inside Cornflower had quietly broken, like a monstrous abscess, as he lay in the darkness of the cattle truck bearing him and fourteen others to their unknown destination. From that moment on he was unconscious, save for brief spells of bewilderment, of what he had just lived through, the war, his missing hand, the silence of the mudmen lined up as he passed by and who averted their gaze from his, for the look in his eyes was docile, trusting, unbearable, and his fixed smile was the grimace of a demented child.
He walked along smiling so strangely, the last of these five soldiers who had to be punished; he had blue eyes and black hair, his cheeks were dirty but almost beardless, and now at last his youth gave him an advantage, for he had an easier time of it than his companions in the flooded trenches. In fact, he felt an animal sense of well-being at plowing through the mud, with the cold wind in his face, listening to the shouts and laughter of the evenings gone by: he was coming home from school, along the path through the dunes, between the ocean and the lake, and it was that curious winter when there was snow everywhere, he knew his dog Kiki was coming to meet him in the gleaming sunset, he was hungry, he longed for some bread and honey and a big cup of hot chocolate.
Someone, somewhere, said to watch out for the wire.
Mathilde doesn't know if Manech heard this, through all the commotion of his childhood memories, through the crash of the great waves that broke over them as she clung to him at the age of twelve, fifteen...She was sixteen when they first made love, one April afternoon, and swore to marry as soon as he came back from the war. She was seventeen when they told her he was lost. She cried a great deal, because women take such things hard, but she did not overdo it, because women don't give up easily, either.
There was still that wire, mended whenever it broke with whatever came to hand, a wire that snaked its way through all the trenches, through all the winters, now up at the top, now down at the bottom, across all the lines, until it reached the obscure bunker of an obscure captain to deliver criminal orders. Mathilde has seized hold of it. She holds it still. It guides her into the labyrinth from which Manech has not returned. When it breaks, she ties the frayed ends together. She never loses heart. The more time passes, the greater her confidence grows, and her determination as well.
And Mathilde has a cheerful disposition, too. She tells herself that if this wire doesn't lead her back to her lover, that's all right, she can always use it to hang herself.