I was dreaming of food. Crisp baguettes, the flesh of the bread a virginal white, still steaming from the oven, and ripe cheese, its borders creeping toward the edge of the plate. Grapes and plums, stacked high in bowls, dusky and fragrant, their scent filling the air. I was about to reach out and take one, when my sister stopped me. “Get off,” I murmured. “I’m hungry.”
“Sophie. Wake up.”
I could taste that cheese. I was going to have a mouthful of Reblochon, smear it on a hunk of that warm bread, then pop a grape into my mouth. I could already taste the intense sweetness, smell the rich aroma.
But there it was, my sister’s hand on my wrist, stopping me. The plates were disappearing, the scents fading. I reached out to them but they began to pop, like soap bubbles.
“They have Aurélien!”
I turned onto my side and blinked. My sister was wearing a cotton bonnet, as I was, to keep warm. Her face, even in the feeble light of her candle, was leached of color, her eyes wide with shock. “They have Aurélien. Downstairs.”
My mind began to clear. From below us came the sound of men shouting, their voices bouncing off the stone courtyard, the hens squawking in their coop. In the thick dark, the air vibrated with some terrible purpose. I sat upright in bed, dragging my gown around me, struggling to light the candle on my bedside table.
I stumbled past her to the window and stared down into the courtyard at the soldiers, illuminated by the headlights of their vehicle, and my younger brother, his arms around his head, trying to avoid the rifle butts that landed blows on him.
“They know about the pig.”
“Monsieur Suel must have informed on us. I heard them shouting from my room. They say they’ll take Aurélien if he doesn’t tell them where it is.”
“He will say nothing,” I said.
We flinched as we heard our brother cry out. I hardly recognized my sister then: She looked twenty years older than her twenty-four years. I knew her fear was mirrored in my own face. This was what we had dreaded.
“They have a Kommandant with them. If they find it,” Hélène whispered, her voice cracking with panic, “they’ll arrest us all. You know what took place in Arras. They’ll make an example of us. What will happen to the children?”
My mind raced, fear that my brother might speak out making me stupid. I wrapped a shawl around my shoulders and tiptoed to the window, peering out at the courtyard. The presence of a Kommandant suggested these were not just drunken soldiers looking to take out their frustrations with a few threats and knocks: We were in trouble.
“They will find it, Sophie. It will take them minutes. And then . . .” Hélène’s voice rose, lifted by panic.
My thoughts turned black. I closed my eyes. And then I opened them. “Go downstairs,” I said. “Plead ignorance. Ask him what Aurélien has done wrong. Talk to him, distract him. Just give me some time before they come into the house.”
“What are you going to do?”
I gripped my sister’s arm. “Go. But tell them nothing, you understand? Deny everything.”
My sister hesitated, then ran toward the corridor, her nightgown billowing behind her. I’m not sure I had ever felt as alone as I did in those few seconds, fear gripping my throat and the weight of my family’s fate upon me. I ran into Father’s study and scrabbled in the drawers of the great desk, hurling its contents—old pens, scraps of paper, pieces from broken clocks, and ancient bills—onto the floor, thanking God when I finally found what I was searching for. Then I ran downstairs, opened the cellar door, and skipped down the cold stone stairs, so surefooted now in the dark that I barely needed the fluttering glow of the candle. I lifted the heavy latch to the back cellar, which had once been stacked to the roof with beer kegs and good wine, slid one of the empty barrels aside, and opened the door of the old cast-iron bread oven.
The piglet, still only half grown, blinked sleepily. It lifted itself to its feet, peered out at me from its bed of straw, and grunted. Surely I’ve told you about the pig? We liberated it during the requisition of Monsieur Girard’s farm. Like a gift from God, it had strayed into the chaos, meandering away from the piglets being loaded into the back of a German truck, and was swiftly swallowed by the bulky skirts of Grandma Poilâne. We’ve been fattening it on acorns and scraps for weeks, in the hope of raising it to a size great enough for us all to have some meat. The thought of that crisp skin, that moist pork, has kept the inhabitants of Le Coq Rouge going for the past month.
Outside I heard my brother yelp again, then my sister’s voice, rapid and urgent, cut short by the harsh tones of a German officer. The pig looked at me with intelligent, understanding eyes, as if it already knew its fate.
“I’m so sorry, mon petit,” I whispered, “but this really is the only way.” And I brought down my hand.
I was outside in a matter of moments. I had woken Mimi, telling her only that she must come but to stay silent—the child has seen so much these last months that she obeys without question. She glanced up at me holding her baby brother, slid out of bed, and placed a hand in mine.
The air was crisp with the approach of winter, the smell of woodsmoke lingering in the air from our brief fire earlier in the evening. I saw the Kommandant through the stone archway of the back door and hesitated. It was not Herr Becker, whom we knew and despised. This was a slimmer man, clean-shaven, impassive, watchful. Even in the dark I thought I could detect intelligence, rather than brutish ignorance, in his manner, which made me afraid.
This new Kommandant was gazing speculatively up at our windows, perhaps considering whether this building might provide a more suitable billet than the Fourrier farm, where the senior German officers slept. I suspect he knew that our elevated aspect would give him a vantage point across the town. There were stables for horses and ten bedrooms, from the days when our home was the town’s thriving hotel.
Hélène was on the cobbles, shielding Aurélien with her arms.
One of his men had raised his rifle, but the Kommandant lifted his hand. “Stand up,” he ordered them. Hélène scrambled backward, away from him. I glimpsed her face, taut with fear.
I felt Mimi’s hand tighten round mine as she saw her mother, and I gave hers a squeeze, even though my heart was in my mouth. And I strode out. “What in God’s name is going on?” My voice rang out in the yard.
The Kommandant glanced toward me, surprised by my tone: a young woman walking through the arched entrance to the farmyard, a thumb-sucking child at her skirts, another swaddled and clutched to her chest. My night bonnet sat slightly askew, my white cotton nightgown so worn now that it barely registered as fabric against my skin. I prayed that he could not hear the almost audible thumping of my heart.
I addressed him directly: “And for what supposed misdemeanor have your men come to punish us now?”
I guessed he had not heard a woman speak to him in this way since his last leave home. The silence that fell upon the courtyard was steeped in shock. My brother and sister, on the ground, twisted round, the better to see me, only too aware of where such insubordination might leave us all.
“You are . . . ?”
I could see he was checking for the presence of my wedding ring. He needn’t have bothered: Like most women in our area, I had long since sold it for food.
“Madame. We have information that you are harboring illegal livestock.” His French was passable, suggesting previous postings in the occupied territory, his voice calm. This was not a man who felt threatened by the unexpected.
“A reliable source tells us that you are keeping a pig on the premises. You will be aware that, under the directive, the penalty for withholding livestock from the administration is imprisonment.”
I held his gaze. “And I know exactly who would inform you of such a thing. It’s Monsieur Suel, non?” My cheeks were flushed with color; my hair, twisted into a long plait that hung over my shoulder, felt electrified. It prickled at the nape of my neck.
The Kommandant turned to one of his minions. The man’s glance sideways told him this was true.
“Monsieur Suel, Herr Kommandant, comes here at least twice a month attempting to persuade us that in the absence of our husbands we are in need of his particular brand of comfort. Because we have chosen not to avail ourselves of his supposed kindness, he repays us with rumors and a threat to our lives.”
“The authorities would not act unless the source was credible.”
“I would argue, Herr Kommandant, that this visit suggests otherwise.”
The look he gave me was impenetrable. He turned on his heel and walked toward the house door. I followed him, half tripping over my skirts in my attempt to keep up. I knew the mere act of speaking so boldly to him might be considered a crime. And yet, at that moment, I was no longer afraid.
“Look at us, Kommandant. Do we look as though we are feasting on beef, on roast lamb, on filet of pork?” He turned, his eyes flicking toward my bony wrists, just visible at the sleeves of my gown. I had lost two inches from my waist in the last year alone. “Are we grotesquely plump with the bounty of our hotel? We have three hens left of two dozen. Three hens that we have the pleasure of keeping and feeding so that your men might take the eggs. We, meanwhile, live on what the German authorities deem to be a diet—decreasing rations of meat and flour, and bread made from grit and bran so poor we would not use it to feed livestock.”
He was in the back hallway, his heels echoing on the flagstones. He hesitated, then walked through to the bar and barked an order. A soldier appeared from nowhere and handed him a lamp.
“We have no milk to feed our babies, our children weep with hunger, we become ill from lack of nutrition. And still you come here in the middle of the night to terrify two women and brutalize an innocent boy, to beat us and threaten us, because you heard a rumor from an immoral man that we were feasting?”
My hands were shaking. He saw the baby squirm, and I realized I was so tense that I was holding it too tightly. I stepped back, adjusted the shawl, crooned to it. Then I lifted my head. I could not hide the bitterness and anger in my voice.
“Search our home, then, Kommandant. Turn it upside down and destroy what little has not already been destroyed. Search all the outbuildings, too, those that your men have not already stripped for their own wants. When you find this mythical pig, I hope your men dine well on it.”
I held his gaze for just a moment longer than he might have expected. Through the window I could make out my sister wiping Aurélien’s wounds with her skirts, trying to stem the blood. Three German soldiers stood over them.
My eyes were used to the dark now, and I saw that the Kommandant was wrong-footed. His men, their eyes uncertain, were waiting for him to give the orders. He could instruct them to strip our house to the beams and arrest us all to pay for my extraordinary outburst. But I knew he was thinking of Suel, whether he might have been misled. He did not look the kind of man to relish the possibility of being seen to be wrong.
When Édouard and I used to play poker, he had laughed and said I was an impossible opponent, as my face never revealed my true feelings. I told myself to remember those words now: This was the most important game I would ever play. We stared at each other, the Kommandant and I. I felt, briefly, the whole world still around us: I could hear the distant rumble of the guns at the front, my sister’s coughing, the scrabbling of our poor, scrawny hens disturbed in their coop. It faded until just he and I faced each other, each gambling on the truth. I swear I could hear my very heart beating.
“What is this?”
He held up the lamp, and it was dimly illuminated in pale gold light: the portrait Édouard had painted of me when we were first married. There I was, in that first year, my hair thick and lustrous around my shoulders, my skin clear and blooming, gazing out with the self-possession of the adored. I had brought it down from its hiding place several weeks before, telling my sister I was damned if the Germans would decide what I should look at in my own home.
He lifted the lamp a little higher so that he could see it more clearly. Do not put it there, Sophie, Hélène had warned. It will invite trouble.
When he finally turned to me, it was as if he had had to tear his eyes from it. He looked at my face, then back at the painting. “My husband painted it.” I don’t know why I felt the need to tell him that.
Perhaps it was the certainty of my righteous indignation. Perhaps it was the obvious difference between the girl in the picture and the girl who stood before him. Perhaps it was the weeping blond child who stood at my feet. It is possible that even Kommandants, two years into this occupation, have become weary of harassing us for petty misdemeanors.
He looked at the painting a moment longer, then at his feet.
“I think we have made ourselves clear, madame. Our conversation is not finished. But I will not disturb you further tonight.”
He caught the flash of surprise on my face, barely suppressed, and I saw that it satisfied something in him. It was perhaps enough for him to know I had believed myself doomed. He was smart, this man, and subtle. I would have to be wary.
His soldiers turned, blindly obedient as ever, and walked out toward their vehicle, their uniforms silhouetted against the headlights. I followed him and stood just outside the door. The last I heard of his voice was the order to the driver to make for the town.
We waited as the military vehicle traveled back down the road, its headlights feeling their way along the pitted surface. Hélène had begun to shake. Aurélien stood awkwardly beside me, holding Mimi’s hand, embarrassed by his childish tears. I waited for the last sounds of the engine to die away. “Are you hurt, Aurélien?” I touched his head. Flesh wounds. And bruises. What kind of men attacked an un-armed boy?
He flinched. “It didn’t hurt,” he said. “They didn’t frighten me.”
“I thought he would arrest you,” my sister said. “I thought he would arrest us all.” I was afraid when she looked like that, as if she were teetering on the edge of some vast abyss. She wiped her eyes and forced a smile as she crouched to hug her daughter. “Silly Germans. They gave us all a fright, didn’t they? Silly Maman for being frightened.”
The child watched her mother, silent and solemn. Sometimes I wondered if I would ever see Mimi laugh again.
“I’m sorry. I’m all right now,” she went on. “Let’s all go inside. Mimi, we have a little milk I will warm for you.” She wiped her hands on her bloodied gown and held her hands toward me for the baby. “You want me to take Jean?”
I had started to tremble convulsively, as if I had only just realized how afraid I should have been. My legs felt watery, their strength seeping into the cobblestones. I felt a desperate urge to sit down. “Yes,” I said. “I suppose you should.”
My sister reached out, then gave a small cry. Nestling in the blankets, swaddled neatly so that it was barely exposed to the night air, was the pink, hairy snout of the piglet.
“Jean is asleep upstairs,” I said. I thrust a hand at the wall to keep myself upright.
Aurélien looked over her shoulder. They all stared at it.
“Is it dead?”
“Chloroformed. I remembered Papa had a bottle in his study, from his butterfly-collecting days. I think it will wake up. But we’re going to have to find somewhere else to keep it, for when they return. And you know they will return.”
Aurélien smiled then, a rare, slow smile of delight. Hélène stooped to show Mimi the comatose little pig, and they grinned. Hélène kept touching its snout, clamping a hand over her face, as if she couldn’t believe what she was holding.
“You held the pig before them? They came here and you held it out in front of their noses? And then you told them off for coming here?” Her voice was incredulous.
“In front of their snouts,” said Aurélien, who seemed suddenly to have recovered some of his swagger. “Hah! You held it in front of their snouts!”
I sat down on the cobbles and began to laugh. I laughed until my skin grew chilled, and I didn’t know whether I was laughing or weeping. My brother, perhaps afraid I was becoming hysterical, took my hand and rested against me. He was fourteen, sometimes bristling like a man, sometimes childlike in his need for reassurance.
Hélène was still deep in thought. “If I had known . . . ,” she said. “How did you become so brave, Sophie? My little sister! Who made you like this? You were a mouse when we were children. A mouse!”
I wasn’t sure I knew the answer.
And then, as we finally walked back into the house, as Hélène busied herself with the milk pan and Aurélien began to wash his poor, battered face, I stood before the portrait.
That girl, the girl Édouard married, looked back with an expression I no longer recognized. He had seen it in me long before anyone else did: It speaks of knowledge, that smile—of satisfaction gained and given. It speaks of pride. When his Parisian friends had found his love of me—a shopgirl—inexplicable, he had just smiled, because he could already see this in me.
I never knew if he understood that I found it only because of him.
I stood and gazed at her, and, for a few seconds, I remembered how it had felt to be that girl, free of hunger, of fear, consumed only by idle thoughts of what private moments I might spend with Édouard. She reminded me that the world is capable of beauty, and that there were once things—art, joy, love—that filled my world, instead of fear and nettle soup and curfews. I saw him in my expression. And then I realized what I had just done. He had reminded me of my own strength, of how much I had left in me with which to fight.
When you return, Édouard, I swear I will once again be the girl you painted.
The Girl You Left Behind
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 464 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Books
- ISBN-10: 014312577X
- ISBN-13: 9780143125778