The Ransom Ring

Abigail DeWitt

     
   

        Tante Chouchotte said America was too far to see: what Pauline was staring at so hard that she was going to ruin her eyes was not land. That strip of blue at the edge of the long grey ocean was only more water.
         Tante Chouchotte didn’t like Americans. Pauline’s mother had married one—a cellist of all things!—and left the family forever. Pauline’s mother came back for the summers, but she spent the whole time in Paris with her friends, scattering her children around with the aunts in the countryside: the older ones, Yvonne and Louise and Pete Jr., to Tante Alice’s in the Pyrenées, Pauline to the beach with the little cousins.
         Pauline was a pill—une pilule—gloomy and solemn and given to crying over nothing at all. Her siblings had gone to the aunts for the summer as soon as they could speak—Tante Chouchotte herself had taken care of them when they were babies—and their French was perfect, but Pauline was five, and this was her first summer with Chouchotte. Last summer she had still gone everywhere with her mother. Imagine! A four-year-old traipsing around to the kinds of cafés and bars Geneviève was known to frequent. Geneviève knew nothing of the work of disciplining children. She’d had a charmed life, Tante Chouchotte said. That was the trouble with her.
         And Pauline had nothing to be sad about: the beach was lovely. If Pauline had lived through the war, she wouldn’t keep asking to speak to her mother, as if Geneviève were in the next room. As if you could just use the telephone whenever you felt like it, for no particular reason. If Pauline had known the war, she would hush.

         Pauline had drunk the war in with her mother’s milk; she loved stories about the Germans.   At home, in North Carolina, her mother had a box of shadowy, scalloped-edged photographs. The pictures were taken in a garden, and the people in the photographs sat at a round table beneath a pear tree, their faces tilted towards the shade. Pauline’s mother would pull the photographs out one by one and hold them in her palm. This is your Tante Françoise, and this is your grandmother; this is your grandfather and this is your Tante Yvonne. It is not real coffee they drink—we have no coffee, only Caffix—and there is no sugar to make a canard. The people in the photographs had been bombed a little later in the summer, buried beneath the rubble of the house, but you couldn’t see the house in any of the photographs, and when Pauline was older—seven, eight—she wondered why the family hadn’t stayed safely in the garden. But at five, she questioned nothing except the horizon.
         The box of photographs was kept in a trunk, and next to the box, nestled in bits of old flannel, was a thin, rusted helmet with a ragged hole in its side. No one know I have Louis’ helmet, Pauline’s mother said one day, sitting on the floor of her bedroom, her back against the trunk. She was holding Pauline in the v of her legs. You don’t tell. Here, she said. You may hold the helmet. Not the photographs, only the helmet. The helmet is strong. She pulled Pauline up onto her lap and laughed the way she did when she was sad. Not enough strong, but even so, strong. Louis had been her brother. She put her hand on Pauline’s forehead and stroked Pauline’s hair;  then she ran her fingernails lightly along the inside of Pauline’s arm until Pauline shivered and laughed and buried her face in her mother’s long, smooth neck.
         She was not like other French mothers. She told Pauline secrets, let her do whatever she wanted.

         Pauline stood at the edge of the ocean, her toes in the water. Yellow foam swirled up around her ankles and the cold sand pulled out from beneath her feet. Before her, small waves broke against the shore, turning white and frothy for a moment before collapsing; the sky, empty except for the glide and call of the seagulls, was like white glass. Her mother would have let her stay there forever if Pauline wanted, listening to the birds and staring out over the glare of the ocean at what was so clearly land, home. It was night in America—Pauline believed that, though the horizon was clear and light—and she thought of the windows open and the sound of the whippoorwills.
         Further up the beach, beyond the seaweed and the driftwood, near the barnacle-covered rocks where families lounged with umbrellas and towels and straw baskets, the other cousins were filling pails with sand, collecting shells, submitting willingly to an endless loop of scolding. There were six cousins altogether and, except for Pauline, their names all went round and round: Jean, Jean-Marie, Marie-Jeanne, Jacques and Jacqueline. All of them had dark, curly hair and deep suntans, and they sang songs that Pauline didn’t know; even the twins, Jacques and Jacqueline, who were four, knew the songs, and only cried if they fell down. Their mother was Tante Françoise, who stayed with Tante Chouchotte during the summer to help with the children, but the others—the Jean Maries—spent all their holidays, even Christmas and Easter, away from their mother, with Tante Chouchotte. The Jean Maries adored Tante Chouchotte, and the lemon and orange taffy she kept in her pocket, which she doled out grudgingly, as if the children would not stop pestering her for it, though they never had.
         Pauline kept her gaze fixed on the horizon. If she looked at the others, and they looked back at her, she might burst into tears, and Tante Chouchotte or Tante Françoise would be mad. Pauline would not be able to see America, how it shimmered in the distance.

         “Bonjour Pauline! Êtes-vous Americaine?” her friends would howl, later, when, as a teenager, she told them how much she’d hated her summers on the coast of Brittany—the sagging woolen bathing suits and the squat toilets, the casual swatting of thighs and bottoms, the snake-bite precision of a face-slap—how she had missed America, with its broad, white, gleaming sidewalks where a child could play whatever she wanted till the sun went down. She’d loved America when she was little, in the 1960’s, with everything so new and shiny, all the pretty shopping centers and swimming pools and televisions.
         A lifetime later, her friends, stoned out of their minds in the weedy, abandoned parking lot of one of those early shopping centers, could not stop laughing: “Parlez-vous Français? Mais oui! Où est la Tour Eiffel? They cried. “Ici!”
         She rolled her eyes, but if a handsome boy was in the group, or a popular girl, she’d explain that she was a French citizen. She was known for her skill in lying to adults, so that handsome or popular newcomer might think she was making it up—she’d sat in the back all through French I and French II, never once raising her hand—but her other friends, the ones who knew her, vouched for her: she knows all that conjugation shit backwards and forwards.  
         In fact, she was a dual citizen, which did not suggest quite the same level of chic—of fashion sense and sexual capability—that being purely French would have, but it wasn’t a lie, either: she was French, and it pleased her to be two things at once, to contain two worlds, which she could move between freely, secretly; it was a kind of currency, earned all those long, sad summers with Tante Chouchotte.

         Now, she stood perfectly still and quiet, but it was not enough to stay still and quiet. She must play with the other children. Viens jouer avec les autres! Come! A pail was thrust into her hand and a wave of pure grief rose in her chest—she thought of the silky hair at the base of her mother’s neck, how her mother would let Pauline twirl it around her finger—but she kept her eyes open, unblinking.
         The grownups sighed when she mentioned her mother, they made low, guttural sounds of disapproval, they raised their voices, but they did not slap her as quickly as they would have slapped one of the others; she hadn’t come to them young enough. Nine months a year in the States, an American father, a careless mother: Pauline had no table manners, she couldn’t pronounce her R’s, she said le maison and la chat.
         Qu’est-ce-que t’as enfin ?
         What’s wrong with you?
         Pauline was silent. There was no answer that could satisfy. She tried to think of one, but her throat was too full, the sky too bright and empty.
         Pourquoi t’es toujours si triste? Why, Pauline? Why are you always sad?
         She thought of the war and imagined a chair beneath a bare bulb, the adults all leaning in over her:  Pourquoi? Mais pourquoi?
         Is that possible? At five? To imagine herself being interrogated that way? They were better than Mother Goose, all those old, romantic stories. Adventures of bombs and rubble and danger. The prisoner tied to his chair. If you had known the war, you would hush! Oh, if you had known. If only you had known!
         She wanted to know.
         Why, Pauline?
         She knelt down where she was, and began scooping the hard, foamy sand into her pail.
         Not here, Pauline! Come join the others! What’s wrong with you?
         As if a person could ever answer that question. To answer incorrectly is as dangerous as not answering, unless you can come up with a diversion. Her mother had explained it all to her: how bravely people lied when the Nazis were at the door, when they themselves faced torture. Torture, Pauline. The Germans put the gun to their face but they never tell what they know. If the Nazis ask where is somebody, they invent a story. They make a diversion. Pauline’s mother spoke English, because Pauline’s father didn’t like listening to French. But he didn’t mind when she took the children to France for the summer. He couldn’t practice with the kids making a racket all the time. His practice room was in a separate little house in the back yard, but still the children’s noises made him want to buy a firearm. Oh Peter, Pauline’s mother would laugh. Do not say so.
         Tante Chouchotte grabbed Pauline’s wrist and Pauline followed Tante Chouchotte’s heavy, varicose-veined legs up the beach. She liked varicose veins, blue as robin’s eggs—her mother had them, too. Pauline’s mother was a butterfly, Pauline’s father said, laughing. She couldn’t settle on anything, could she? The violin, tennis—what was it now? Papier maché birds? Pauline’s father laughed. I can’t keep track of you, Jenny. Her mother blushed. Her blonde hair was piled on top of her head and she wore a tiny gold cross on a gold chain. On her hand was a large diamond ring. But she did not like crying either. When the Germans come, no one cry, nobody make a fuss. You will have a nice time at the beach with Chouchotte.
         Tante Chouchotte’s fingers dug in Pauline’s arm, but if she could make a diversion, Tante Chouchotte would let go. If she could make a story to distract Tante Chouchotte from the question of why she was sad when there was nothing to be sad about. That was how it was done: they tied you to a chair and asked you questions; they might ask where your mother was—imagine, Pauline, asking children to tale-tattle their parents!—but if you were very clever, you could get rid of them. You could send the Nazis on a wild chase goose. Pauline’s mother loved American turns of phrases; whenever she used one, Pauline’s father laughed and pulled her onto his lap; he smelled her neck and hummed.

         Monsieur Vernier liked her mother’s neck, too. He was her mother’s friend in Paris. When they visited him, he offered Pauline a bowl of dragées. They were baptism candies and Pauline’s mother thought it was funny that Monsieur Vernier liked them. Ces bonbons de baptême! Ça te fait plutôt prêtre, Patrice. It makes you seem like a priest. When she laughed, she touched his cheek; then she turned to Pauline: “Monsieur Vernier and I, we have important business that is not for the children. The dragées, they are for you, but when you are big, there is always some important business. It is very boring, so you eat the candies and when I have finish we go to the Luxembourg.”
         In French, Monsieur Vernier said her English was atrocious.
         Les affaires m’ennuient déjà, Pauline’s mother murmured, but she was laughing, so Pauline knew that she wasn’t actually bored already.
         Pauline did not like the dragées. She didn’t like the hard shells or the almonds inside, but they were very beautiful—pink and blue and cream-colored ovals—and she lined them along the arms and back of the leather sofa in Monsieur Vernier’s living room, so that it looked as if it were studded with jewels. Then she explored Monsieur Vernier’s apartment. There was a balcony off the living room where she could stand and watch the cars and people in the street below; she stuck her feet through the railing and leaned out into the breeze, lifting her arms, and then she went in the kitchen, where Monsieur Vernier had a fridge. It wasn’t as big as the one at home, but it was a real refrigerator, with a freezer and boxes of frozen food and Pauline stood for a long time, gazing at the cold steam coming off all the neat, square packages. It was the only refrigerator she had ever seen in France, and it made her happy, as if Monsieur Vernier owned a small piece of America. In the bathroom, even lovelier than the refrigerator, was a roll of soft, pink toilet paper and an actual toilet with a handle instead of a chain. She pressed her fingertips into the paper and sat up on the toilet, but she didn't have to pee, so she went back to the living room and admired the dragées on the sofa. She did not go in the room where her mother and Monsieur Vernier were; it sounded as if they kept trying to lift to something very heavy, and then, after a long time, her mother sighed, as if at last they’d set it down.
         When they came back, her mother and Monsieur Vernier were both smiling; they said the candy arrangement was exquisite.  Monsieur Vernier claimed he would leave it the way it was forever, but Pauline said that was impossible: as soon as he sat, he would ruin it. “I will never sit,” Monsieur Vernier said, in English. “I do not want to change anything.” Then he touched the diamond on Pauline’s mother’s hand, murmuring that the ring had grown loose—wasn’t she eating?—he must take it and have it fixed; but her mother said she would take care of it herself, and then, suddenly, she looked like she was going to cry. Pauline held her breath, but her mother didn’t, she didn’t cry, she just kissed Monsieur Vernier’s mouth. He stared right down at Pauline without smiling, as if he were mad, but then he closed his eyes. He kissed Pauline’s mother’s throat and put his hand on the back of her neck.
         Afterwards, Pauline and her mother did not go straight to the Luxembourg. There was a café at the end of Monsieur Vernier’s street, and Pauline’s mother held her on her lap and ordered a Grenadine with ice, which she held against her face. “Do you know what we do, Monsieur Vernier and I? When you are big, there are hairs on your leg and you must take them off. Monsieur Vernier, he puts a wax on my leg to take the hairs away. It is painful, but very necessary. It is a soin de beauté. A beauty care. Can you say this? Un soin de beauté?”
         Even in France, Pauline’s mother spoke to her in English, so that they would understand each other perfectly.

         No one—neither Tante Chouchotte nor Tante Françoise, nor anyone else—ever asked Pauline where her mother was, but if they did, she wouldn’t tell them about the soin de beauté, because you must invent something clever, so that the interrogators who have tied you to a chair, who want you to betray the ones you love, race off in the wrong direction. If someone is at the South Pole, you tell he is at Alaska. The story has to be the same in one way—very cold—but the contrary. Then you are believe. If Pauline was clever enough, the interrogators would leave her alone for hours, days, maybe. She would be able to wiggle her way free—to loosen the ropes, slip out, run away. She would hide in the woods until the war was over.
         For years—long after Tante Chouchotte was dead, long after Pauline was past the age of homesickness—that was her fantasy: how, if she’d been born earlier, she would have escaped the Nazis. She pictured her own brilliant survival on roots and berries and then the heartbreaking, stunning reunion when she wandered at last out of the forest. She slipped from tree to tree, making sure it was safe, and it was, she was—and, oh, then, the joyful, tearful reunion: Pauline, you’re alive! The weeping and offering of treats (a slice of cake, a bowl of chocolate.) How did you do it? How? Oh, Pauline, our darling, our beloved, welcome back!

         That’s enough sulking. Ça suffit. You have a jolly pail, now make something nice like the other children. Jean, who was seven, looked at Pauline briefly before flipping over his pail of sand: he had made a perfect tower. He was the oldest and Pauline liked him the best of all the cousins. Jean-Marie, who was six, was chubby and quiet and Pauline neither liked nor disliked him, but she despised Marie-Jeanne. Marie-Jeanne was a month younger than Pauline and she would only speak to Jean, as if they were the two grownups and no one else counted. Sometimes she carried Jacqueline around for awhile and talked baby talk; then she’d put Jacqueline back down and talk to Jean in her regular voice. She whispered to him, took his hand and pulled him away from the others, laughing.
         Pauline knelt in the sand, scooping it into her bucket. It was hotter up here, away from the water, and her shoulders stung pleasantly. The Jean Maries were teaching a rhyming game to the twins, who squealed whenever they got it wrong. Sometimes, when they played a game, Marie-Jeanne said Pauline should be on a team with the twins, as if she were a baby, too. Pauline wished she could tell Marie-Jeanne that she was the baby; she wanted Marie-Jeanne to know that at home Pauline could do anything she wanted, and her mother told her secrets, but she wasn’t sure how to say all of that in French. If she said something wrong, she would just sound stupid.
         Tante Chouchotte and Tante Françoise lay a little bit away from the children, on their beach chairs, gossiping. Tante Chouchotte was really her mother’s aunt—she was old and fat and she wore a black dress, even at the beach—but Tante Françoise was Pauline’s mother’s baby sister, though she didn’t look it: she had dark hair and big, floppy breasts, and she did not like children, she said. Babies were one thing, but children were impossible.
         Tante Françoise was in the garden when the house was bombed. Pauline’s mother had been in Paris that day, but Tante Françoise saw everything: she stepped out of the toolshed onto the garden path, and the house exploded in front of her. Pauline must never talk about that in front of Tante Françoise.  Tante Françoise didn’t like stories about the war.

         Pauline did not mind filling her pail over and over again: she could do it quietly, glancing every now and then at the horizon. She wasn't upset when her towers crumbled because she could keep making them, and the time would pass, the towers adding up like minutes. Then the morning would be over. In twenty mornings, she would see her mother.
         But the grownups said the towers were silly, they ought to make a castle. What’s the point of all these towers lining the beach? You can do better than that. Make something beautiful.
         Une jolie pelle. Not a jolly pail, a pretty shovel.
         The day would never end.

        You must come up with just the right answer for the interrogators, the one to throw them off the scent, because if you say the wrong thing they’ll know you are lying and then the punishment is too awful to imagine. If, instead of saying Alaska when your mother is at the South Pole, you say Mississippi, for example, they might know that’s wrong. If they already know she’s somewhere cold, then you are in more danger than before.
         Pauline could spell Mississippi and she knew where all the states were on the map. She knew the states and the North Carolina tree and the North Carolina bird. She could count to one thousand. But in French the numbers confused her, and she could not spell at all; she didn’t know if any bird was more important than another.
         So many stories of bombs and rubble and escape and prisons and torture; in all of them, salvation depended on the right answer. The neighbor who said the little Jewish boy was her nephew, not her son. If she’d claimed he was her son, the police might have known she was lying. They might have known who her children were, and what ages. Then everyone would have been shot. No one can know when you say a lie, this is very important.

         The others set about making a castle, but Pauline froze. Her mother did not believe in telling children how to play or what to make. Interrupting somebody’s belief-make—make belief?—it is a crime! She was a musician, not like Pauline’s father, because she didn’t practice when she didn’t feel like it, but sometimes she played small chamber concerts—Pauline always pictured a chamber pot—and when Pauline and her mother wanted to be alone, her mother would tell everyone that she was preparing for an audition and not to be disturbed. She and Pauline would curl up together on the big bed, preparing love auditions, her mother said, laughing.      
         If anyone telephones, Nettie, say to them I prepare a big performance.
         What if it’s someone you do perform with, Ma’am? Won’t they know?
         I am permitted to play with more than one orchestra, am I not? She laughed. Say to them I make birds then. Or perhaps I cut my fingernails—or I am dead! She laughed again.  Say I am dead.
         But still they spoke of love auditions, and Pauline lay in her mother’s arms while her mother dozed. Pete Jr. and Yvonne and Louise teased Pauline for napping with their mother, for always having to be the last one to kiss her goodbye, the last to say I love you. Pauline’s mother said not to worry about what the big children said, but Pauline never did: she could watch the sun fall across her mother’s body, lighting the hairs on her mother’s arms. A dogwood rasped against the sliding glass door at the foot of her mother’s bed, and it thrilled Pauline that her family owned one of the state trees, and that sometimes a cardinal tapped on the glass.

         Jean was calling out instructions about the castle, how to build it so it would last. Pauline did exactly what he said, thinking they might be friends—you had to dig deep for the wet sand, and pack it hard—but he kept whispering with Marie-Jeanne, and suddenly, when Pauline didn’t expect it at all, tears were streaming down her face, slick and oily on her salt-dried skin. She made no sound, but Tante Françoise caught her anyway: What is it? What are you crying about? And Tante Chouchotte said that’s enough now. Do you want me to slap you? Which was another impossible question to answer.
         Pauline thought frantically of auditions.  If there was an audition she could say she needed to go to—anything she had to do so that they would leave her alone—but there was nothing. Even when she went to the bathroom, Tante Françoise or Tante Chouchotte accompanied her. She was too little to go into the ocean by herself, so if it was just pee, one of them would carry her in and hold her legs open in the water. Otherwise, they would take her by the wrist and walk with her up the beach to a little cabin with a hole in the floor and a few squares of wax paper. Tante Françoise stood in the doorway, staring out to sea, but Tante Chouchotte gazed down at her to make sure she was wiping properly.
         Pauline said nothing. She scooped sand from the moat but ended up putting it in the wrong place, and Jean-Marie pushed her out of the way. Tante Chouchotte yanked him up by his fat, sandy wrist. Couldn’t he see that Pauline was sad? Why did he have to be a bully? Jean-Maries’s eyes turned red as if he might cry, too, and Pauline’s throat burned; but when Tante Chouchotte walloped him, his eyes stayed perfectly dry, he did not even flinch.

         Then it was time for a snack. Un petit goûter. An interlude, their father called it, when they had goûter in North Carolina. No one was mad while they ate; Pauline chewed the white soft bread and sucked on the square of chocolate and no one scolded her.  Tante Chouchotte and Tante Françoise discussed the afternoon’s plans between bites.
         There were many things to do, because the day was eternal: the cemetery, lunch, nap, the market, and still the sun would be high in the sky—but Pauline loved the cemetery. They went straight from the beach, carrying their pails and shovels, and holding hands so no one would get hurt. In the cemetery, everyone was quiet and everything was laid out in neat rows like in America. Long straight paths and between them, the square cement slabs.  Even in the older part of the cemetery, where the pocked and blackened slabs were different sizes and often tilted, the paths were straight, and everyone was quiet. There was a nice smell in the cemetery, something dusty and fresh, like seagulls.
         The family stone was high and wide, like a big bed, with many names. Tante Françoise and Tante Chouchotte stopped talking. All the children had to do was look at the stone and not make any noise. It was an easy thing to do and even the twins knew enough to stand still.
         Pauline could read her own name on the stone—that was her grandmother, Grandmère Pauline—and beneath Pauline: Yvonne, her mother’s sister, who died when she was sixteen. Yvonne was Pauline’s sister’s name, too. Her mother had named all the girls after people who died in the war.
         In the photographs in the box at home, in North Carolina, Grandmère Pauline and Tante Yvonne leaned into the shade, their faces speckled with light, like veils. You couldn’t see Tante Françoise’s face, because she was leaning against Grandmère Pauline, her head on Grandmère Pauline’s shoulder, her face turned away.

         When I am young, I am a serious musician—it is difficult to believe, but I am! That is why I survive the war. We are living in Normandy, but I go to Paris for an audition. The audition, it is schedule for the six of June—yes, I am not saying a lie!—but I go on the two of June because they are always bombing the train. You must have more time. I am not home on D-day, I am in Paris playing Mozart violin concerto five. I am too fortunate! This is why I survive. My family, they are everyone bombarded except my little sister, Françoise.  

         It was Pauline’s favorite story. Her mother told it over and over, holding Pauline on her lap and reciting it whenever they had guests—other musicians, artists, her mother’s papier maché teacher. It was the only story that never changed. Other stories had different endings, depending on who was listening, but this one was always the same, so that Pauline knew every breath, every pause, by heart.The guests gave low whistles, or said goddamn. Afterwards, there was always a long silence during which Pauline’s mother held her close and she could smell her mother’s warmth, the Nina Ricci she put on for company. She could feel her mother’s pulse in her throat, and below that, hard and steady against her ribs, her mother’s heart.
         Pauline would rub her thumb over the polish on her mother’s fingernails and play with her diamond ring. The stone was big, and the band was platinum, but if you covered up the diamond, it looked as simple and plain as a metal washer. Pauline pulled it off and tried it on her own fingers. Once, when no one was looking, she put it in her mouth. She kept very still, so that she would not swallow the ring, feeling the weight of the diamond on her tongue. Then she let it slip forward, and she curled her tongue through it. The band clicked against her teeth, and the taste of the metal made them ache. She was afraid it would slide off her tongue and back down her throat, but she could not let the ring go, holding it in her mouth as if it were a living thing.
         It was very expensive, her mother said, but it wasn’t an engagement ring. It was a ransom ring. She had bought it for herself after the war so that, if she was ever captured, she might exchange the ring for her freedom. That doesn’t make sense, the older children said, every time. What if the interrogators kill you? Her mother shrugged, but Pauline was certain the ring would work.  The beauty, it is a diversion. You offer your beauty, and you are free.
         She held out her hand and Pauline slipped the damp ring back onto her finger.

         Françoise, she dig under the rocks for the body: my mother, my grandmother, my sister Yvonne. She has not found Yvonne, only her arm. 
         If there was no company, the children could draw the story out: Tell us again where Tante Françoise was standing, why she wasn’t crushed. How did she know it was Yvonne’s arm?

         Pauline wanted to lie down on the tombstone, that wide, flat, sun-warmed rock; she liked seeing her own name and Yvonne’s, and she felt as if the stone belonged to her, as if this were her home and Tante Françoise  and Tante Chouchotte were merely guests.
         She thought of Tante Yvonne’s arm and pictured her sister’s, tan and muscular because Yvonne played tennis, with the ring Yvonne had gotten from the gum ball machine at Rigsbee’s Grocery Store, and which she had promised to Pauline if she could ever get another one to drop down. Pauline imagined a hinged box, a velvet lined case, like the one in which her mother kept her violin. In it, the arm lay whole and smooth and smelling of Johnson’s Baby Oil.
         But it was time to go. Tante Chouchotte blew her nose, but Tante Françoise glared at the children as if she meant to spank each and every one of them.                       
                                                                                  
         After the cemetery, after lunch, Tante Chouchotte herded them upstairs for a nap, swatting them and lifting herself painfully from step to step because her legs were swollen; she closed the shutters in the long room with all the beds and told them to shut their eyes.
         As soon as she was gone, the Jean-Maries began whispering. Pauline lay on her back, staring up into the shadows, breathing in the damp, salty air. She wouldn’t have minded lying quietly; she could have closed her eyes, pretended her mother was right beside her—but Jean and Jean-Marie and Marie-Jeanne and even the twins’ high, whispery voices tightened around her ribs and throat, so that it was hard to breathe, and then there was a square of light in the room: Marie-Jeanne was calling down to the grownups, telling them that Pauline was sad again.

         When she awoke, she was alone. The shutters had all been thrown open and she could hear the others in the yard below, playing the rhyming game. They were laughing, their voices ringing out into the afternoon light, and she realized all at once that she understood the game, as if, while she slept, she had crossed over, become fully French. She lay with her hands on her chest, breathing fast—it was like being home, to understand so perfectly—and she did not want to be left out anymore; only she didn’t want them to turn and look at her when she came down: she wanted it to be as if she had always been one of them.
         She made her way down the long staircase, trembling with the strange, new sense of her own Frenchness. At the bottom of the staircase, the tiles were old and uneven and Pauline was careful not to step on the cracks; but she hurried through the deep gloom of the kitchen—the soot-stained ceiling so low she’d be able to touch it in a few years—half-running as she wove between the stove and the garde manger and the pail of scraps she could smell more than see. You weren’t allowed to run inside, but she had missed so much already, and she threw open the back door into the brilliant, afternoon sun: the flagstones burned her feet, and she squinted, opening her mouth to join in the game—and stopped.
         They had disappeared, vanishing at the sound of her, it seemed, and though she’d only loved them for a few minutes, she cried out, alarmed—even though she knew better, knew it was only a trick of light, and she could hear their voices—and then they came into focus, appearing in the sunshine as swarms of dots until they solidified, became colorful, animate—
         Mais enfin! Tante Chouchotte said, furiously. Why are you yelping? Did you step on something? A little rock? You should have put your shoes on. Go get them and you can play with the other children.
         Tante Françoise stood up, the flat of her palm in the air. That’s enough, ça suffit. You wear me out.
         The others paused, waiting to see if Tante Françoise would spank her.
         But then it came to Pauline, the answer, the thing she could say that would throw them off her scent just long enough to allow her to escape into the woods: “My mother called me.” Ma mère appelle moi. She could feel that there was something wrong with the way she’d said it, but they understood her.
         “What?” Tante Françoise’s hand was still in the air. “Qu’est-ce-que c’est que cette histoire?” What kind of story is this?
        "'She misses me." Elle manque moi. 
         “What do you mean?” Tante Chouchotte asked. “What do you mean, she called you?”
         “She called me on the telephone.” The sun warmed the top of her head, and she had stopped trembling.
         “The telephone?” Tante Françoise’s hand floated down, as if something about the telephone itself upset her, as if she wanted a phone call, too.
        “She’s very sad.”
        “The telephone rang,” Tante Françoise said, “and you answered it?”
        “I’m very worried about her.” Pauline knew exactly how to say that people were sad or worried in French. Je suis très inquiète.
         “But why didn’t you tell us the phone was ringing? Why didn’t you say anything?” Tante Françoise was still standing, but her arms hung at her sides, and her voice was strangely high-pitched.
         “I picked it up.”
         “You answered the phone,” Tante Chouchotte said sharply, as if Pauline had done something dangerous, like turning on the stove, but still no one corrected the way Pauline spoke. “Why didn’t you tell us?”
         “I knew it was her, I knew she’d be in a hurry.”
         Tante Chouchotte waved her hand as if she were shooing a fly. “Qu’est-ce-que c’est que cette histoire?” What kind of story is this?
         “She told me she would call, so I knew.” She wasn’t cold, but her teeth had begun to chatter, and she dug her fingernails into her palms to stop them.
         “The telephone rang,” Tante Chouchotte said, “and you answered it.”
         “I knew. She told me she would call.” Elle dit à moi elle téléphone.
         Tante Françoise sat down heavily. “Elle m’a dit qu’elle allait me téléphoner,” she murmured, offering a correction at last. “What did she say?”
         “She said she was very sad.”
         “What is this nonsense?” Tante Chouchotte kept shooing the air.
         “She said she was sad because she misses me very much.”
         “Your mother called you on the telephone to tell you she was sad?” Tante Chouchotte shook her head as if there were a plague of flies.
         “Yes.”
         “You answered the telephone?” Tante Françoise sighed.
         “I knew it was her.”
         “Do you think—?” Tante Françoise turned towards Tante Chouchotte: “Would Geneviève telephone from Paris?”
         Tante Chouchotte’s head shook more and more slowly until, finally, it stopped altogether. “It’s possible,” she said after awhile. “Who knows what she would do?”
         The others had started rhyming again, but now they added in new twists, the way people do with rhyming games, and Pauline had to strain to make sense of it. Tante Françoise and Tante Chouchotte weren’t looking at Pauline anymore, so she sat on the ground at their feet: when they talked about her mother, it was as if her mother was there.
         C’est quand même interessant, said Tante Chouchotte : it was interesting.
         Crois-tu que Geneviève est triste ? Peut-être ce Vernier—? Tante Chouchotte and Tante Françoise leaned in close to each other, the way Pauline and her mother did when they had love auditions. Was Geneviève really sad? Had Vernier—? Tante Françoise reached down to hand Pauline a sugar cube dipped in coffee, a canard. What could Geneviève have to be sad about?

         Years later, smoking with her friends beneath the broken awning of the old shopping center, Pauline remembered that afternoon in the yard in Brittany as the occasion of her first lie, when she’d discovered how simple it was to fool everyone. She laughed out loud then, a wave of near-hysteria rising inside her:  I’ve been lying my whole fucking life—my mother tongue is deception! But even stoned, she knew that wasn’t right: her mother tongue was an accent.  A confusion of vocabularies and place: this is not where I should be, this world, this part of the country, this side of the garden. What she had known from the beginning was the language of dislocation, its meanings bent and scattered, like light, into a kind of iridescence.

         She sucked slowly on the sugar cube, feeling it dissolve in her mouth, and she was suddenly sleepy, though she had napped a long time; but the dappled sun made her drowsy, the sun, and the rhyming voices she could no longer keep up with, and the faint hum of knowledge that her life had begun: she was learning to invent stories, as elaborate as her mother’s, and as radiant as any jewel.

 

     
 
   
     
        return to fiction
 

Abigail DeWitt is the author of two novels, Lili and Dogs.  She is currently working on a collection of stories, The Sex Appeal of the French. Abigail grew up half in France & half in the U.S. during the 1960's and 70's; The Sex Appeal of the French explores the tension between French and American attitudes towards war, loss and sex. Abigail studied at Harvard University and the Iowa Writers Workshop.  She teaches Creative Writing and French at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.