Constance Leisure


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Amour Provence

Excerpt


All of them knew that when a German truck had been blown up in a neighboring village, three innocent villagers were hung in reprisal, their bodies left at the end of the ropes for days until the priest, whose brother was among the dead, arranged to cut them down. Euphemie hoped nothing like that would ever happen in Serret. As mayor, her father might easily be made to suffer the consequences for the smallest infraction. Having Nazis occupying their home was like having a poisonous viper loose in the house—a constant anxiety that sapped the pleasure from everything.

The girl clenched her hands. She’d seen people murdered and knew how someone looked when they’d suffered a violent death. She shook her head aware that anger and desire for revenge could engender savagery itself. Instead, she called up thoughts of the still place by the stream that she hadn’t been able to visit in weeks and she went outside carefully peering around in the clear light of morning to be sure there was no one. She skirted the stone barn. A bit further on was the ravine. Several immense cypresses towered at the edge. She knew the main source of the water that ran there, a place in the mountains called La Fontaine des Fées, where a spring gushed from a rocky outcropping. From there the waters descended through underground channels filling cisterns and basins used for livestock, eventually tumbling from a precipice and forming the deep ravine behind their château. Euphemie placed her feet carefully on the ancient steps that jutted like an old man’s displaced teeth, remnants of a stairway constructed by peasants in medieval times.

It was a warm provençal morning with the sun already casting its splendid rays. She knew that a marten lived in the cypress tree just above her, but she hadn’t seen him in a long while as he only ventured out at dusk and she no longer dared visit the stream then. Blue and yellow wildflowers listed softly back and forth at the water’s edge. Euphemie bent to follow a tunneled path of tangled undergrowth that led to a mossy area obscured from view by low hanging branches. The silvery water gave off a smell of iced apples. Above her the dappled tops of trees shuddered in the breeze as the sun crested the rocky crags of the mountain. She sat down beside the undulating bank of moss that thrust up a host of starlike flowers on hard little stalks, flattening her hand to let the spiky buds run across her palm. Warm air coursed over her throat and the swift-flowing stream sounded the same as the wind passing through the trees. When she eased herself down everything felt perfect, the warmth of the air, the occasional silky scrape of bird wing, the aroma of the fresh grass beneath her head. But she knew better than to hope it would last. A regret at what the war had done burned within her. It had taken her mother first and then made them all prisoners, definitively ending Euphemie’s free wanderings up into mountains where dark woods harbored deer and wild boar that had once ventured forth from their secret hollows showing no fear.

A movement in the leaves across the way abruptly broke her reverie. She had a good eye, easily spotting birds and other animals even at considerable distance. There had been barely a flicker, but she knew for certain something was there.

A sort of white heat coursed through her that made it difficult to breathe, but at the same time filled her with energy. She remained perfectly still, reminding herself that the only person she’d ever seen across the ravine was the boy Lapin. They had been in école primaire together at the one room schoolhouse located in the lower village that still served a dozen or so children each year. Lapin, a farmer’s son, had been a talkative and intelligent child. When he clattered on his wooden clogs into the schoolyard in the morning, he always slicked back his long blond hair with a comb made of horn that he wetted in the basin at the entrance. This hairstyle would last until the end of the first period when it would again flop forward, a glasslike curtain hiding his eyes. In those days Lapin would frequently accompany Euphemie home for lunch having been invited by her father. Because he was mayor, Augustin d’Éstang knew everyone in the village and had immediately taken a shine to the young Charles-Henri Le Lièvre whose gaiety illuminated his round child’s face.

“Why do you find that strange little boy so interesting?” Euphemie’s mother Huguette had asked her husband. After all, Lapin was nothing more than a paysan despite his noble name.

“He’s not strange, in fact, he’s the most interesting boy in the class,” her father replied. “Besides, Euphemie could use a friend.”

Huguette had spoiled both children with small cakes and the local sweet, paté de coing, a delicacy that she made in huge batches in late autumn when the quinces were harvested. She insisted on calling Lapin by his given name, Charles-Henri, even though everyone else called him Lapin because of his prominent slightly crossed front teeth, and because his family name, Le Lièvre, meant hare.

“Come boy,” her father said to Lapin when he was eight, “It’s time you perused things other than those lugubrious school books.” And Augustin had taken him and Euphemie into his library and chosen a volume for each of them, old favorites that had pleased him as a child. Euphemie liked to read, but she didn’t devour books the way Lapin did. He finished each one within days and returned what he’d been lent for something new, always chosen by her father.

“He’s precocious, your friend Lapin,” Augustin said to her one evening when she and her father were lounging together on the Récamier sofa he kept in his study. “If he can manage to stay in school and get an education he’ll do well. But his father’s an odd sort. I don’t know what he expects for the boy, if anything.”

And then, at the end of summer vacation, just as Euphemie’s class was about to enter the larger middle school in the neighboring town, Lapin had an accident. No one was sure what happened, but he wound up in the hospital with a cast up to his waist. Euphemie and her father visited him several times in his hospital room where for months he lay in his girdle of plaster of paris. Augustin tried to arrange to have Lapin transported to their home, but a misunderstanding ensued between him and Lapin’s father, so the transfer was never achieved.

When school began, Lapin did not appear in Euphemie’s class. She thought he might simply have needed more time to recuperate and would rejoin them later in the year, but he did not and without proximity their friendship fell away as easily as the autumn leaf.
It had to be Lapin there across the stream. He’d once come sliding down the ravine right in front of her. Even so, they hadn’t said a word to each other. The war didn’t facilitate communication between villagers. In fact, distrust had arisen between formerly friendly neighbors when denunciations were made over petty things like an extra scrap of meat here or a bicycle tire there. People had become fearful under the occupiers since anyone could be accused of the smallest infraction and shipped off to a labor camp or simply executed. Besides, Lapin had changed. Like so many isolated farm people, his grinding life had obliterated the garrulous, clever boy she’d once known. He saw no one except his father who made a tenuous living keeping a few pigs and growing a crop of potatoes that Lapin would bring to the tiny Thursday market in the neighboring town of Beaucastel.

When the foliage stirred slightly, Euphemie scrambled to her feet. “Lapin?” she peeped, but there was no answer. A kind of sickness came over her when she made out the silhouette of a uniformed man squatting in the deep undergrowth. For a long, groaning moment she believed that it must be the young Nazi who had confronted her that morning. But almost immediately she realized that the color of the cloth was different. It couldn’t be a German. And then the person stood, raising a hand in greeting and she saw him clearly. His jacket was stained a dangerously fresh red at the shoulder and he’d rigged some sort of tourniquet. A belt kept his arm suspended across his chest. Perhaps he was one of the Americans that Agnes had said were on their way! Euphemie knew that she couldn’t possibly respond or help him. Instead, she bent low and scampered though the undergrowth to the stairs not wanting to bring further trouble to her household. But as she dashed up the steps, the soldier bolted across the water and grabbed hold of her ankle. His was a gentle grip and she knew she could easily break away. She halted and gazed down at him.

“Je suis un ami!” He had a soft voice and, as he explained that he was a pilot who had been shot down only an hour or so ago, he used an old-fashioned French vocabulary that reminded her of the novels of Balzac or Zola. His face looked as if it had been carefully sculpted by someone aiming for a masculine ideal, fine cheekbones in a thin face, a strong but not too prominent chin, and a clean beardless jaw. He must be very young. His brown eyes seemed to be carefully taking her and everything around her in. Finally he said, “Je m’appelle Harry.” When he slumped down on the lowest of the steps, Euphemie felt a painful clench in her chest as if her heart was being squeezed by an alien hand. She was well aware that a person who looked like he’d been superficially wounded could actually be at death’s door. Perhaps he’d already lost too much blood, or had sustained other injuries that weren’t visible.

“I can’t hide you,” she told him in a firm voice. “Our house is full of German soldiers. They’re everywhere!”

He nodded and leaned his head against his good arm as if he might go instantly to sleep. For a long time Euphemie had convinced herself that she was a girl who was incapable of doing anything against the great force of the enemy. But as she stood over the wounded aviator she felt for the first time something within her of which she’d heretofore been unaware. She reached down and touched him on the head to make sure he was awake and could hear her. He lifted his face, eyes perfectly alert. Perhaps it was his training that made him seem in control and in command even though he very likely wasn’t.

“I’ll think of something,” she told him. “Go! Hide yourself there.” She pointed into the grassy tunnel from whence she’d come. “Je reviendrai! I’ll come back when I can!” The soldier nodded and then disappeared into the green maze of reeds and twisting vines.

Euphemie flew across the field, knees high, and then slowed, knowing that if one of the Germans saw her in an all-out sprint she risked being shot. Yet there was still a blessed silence uninterrupted by motor sounds or the shouting of rough voices. On the way across the field, as she crossed behind the barn, an idea came to her of where she might hide the young aviator, Harry.

Selected Works

Fiction
Amour Provence is an intimate yet dramatic look at contemporary life in two small wine towns in Southern France.

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