Page 44 of 45
* * * * *
I cannot describe the terrors that followed that night. We finished our meal but only to avoid wasting the precious food. Valentine cried. Claudette's face was stricken. Mélodie kept her eyes closed the whole time, her lids clamped shut so she couldn't see the horror around us.
We did not sleep. The girls feigned it, but my only thought was for Henri. I snuck up the stairs as the moon set, hoping to find him asleep. He was, but his sleep was that of the possessed. My boy writhed like some snake, and his hands clawed the air; his face was a mask of terror, and soft cries of pain or dread escaped his lips from time to time; it was horrifying. I thought of waking him, but I couldn't bring my hands to obey. Feeling a cloud descend upon my soul, I quietly retreated to the hall. I leaned against the frame, unable to tear myself away from the boy.
I stayed there, never sleeping, until dawn.
But even the morning couldn't bring relief from this dreamed reality. Chores done, we again sat around the table, pretending to eat breakfast, but in actuality, waiting for Henri to awaken. Finally I could endure no more. I stood. At that moment, however, we heard clanking steps on the stairs.
The specter, the soldier, my son descended. I fixed my gaze upon his face and a horrified gasp was drawn, unwillingly, from my soul. His face was so shallow, his eyes vapid and devoid of energy. Seeing him in the full light was terrifying. For her part, Claudette dropped the tea kettle in shock. Liquid splattered the table, and a massive clanging resounded as the kettle rolled from the table to the floor.
Instantly, I was knocked from my feet as a blur of motion struck me. Recovering amid the dust of the kitchen floorboards, I looked over to find Henri's eyes level with mine. He shrank under the table, hiding. From what, I could not fathom. His jaw began opening and closing incessantly, much like a fabled ghoul. Perhaps my son had become a ghoul; I could not understand this change, this demonic possession. I crawled over to him and gently placed a trembling hand over his quivering arm. The stench of gun-smoke, the acrid cling of sweat coated him. I could hear his jaws clattering, his mouth scraping against itself again and again.
He snapped at me. Not with words but with his teeth, like an animal. Instinctively, I drew my hand back, afraid. He curled into himself, much like a beast at bay. I stood up, at a loss for what to do, drowning in a sea of despair. Claudette rushed towards me, and ever the leader, she grabbed me and pulled me out of the house. Dashing back inside, she snatched up Valentine and Mélodie, gathering us in front of the cottage.
"What's wrong, mother?" moaned Mélodie, for once afraid. I could not answer; silence fell like a curtain around my frame. Then, shockingly, Henri himself emerged into the morning sunlight; yet, his expression was different. Although he looked ashamed, to our surprise he appeared normal again. More normal than the previous evening, more normal than the day of his conscription. My little Henri was his smiling, boyish self again.
He approached us, and despite his haunted eyes, he was still smiling. The girls drew back, afraid. Seeing this, his grin faltered, and an infinite sadness replaced it. He drowned in that sorrow. But I walked forward. I embraced my son. There was nothing else to be done.
His frame shook as he wept; dew-like drops fell from my eyes as well. Napoleon's army had done something to the son I had once known. He was changed, and the war was somehow to blame.
We held each other for that silent moment. I never heard the birds. I couldn't feel the stares of my daughters. All of time, all of France froze in that instant. No one existed besides my son. No one else mattered in those seconds.
I led him away through the fields as Claudette and the others disappeared inside. We wandered the grounds. At last, I gathered my courage. I asked. "What was it Henri? Tell me what you saw there."
He couldn't answer. He could only hold my hand. All he could manage was to grip, to grasp it tighter than ever before.
I didn't speak again. I just let the wind twirl my tresses as we stared across the patchwork of fields.
That night we sat together again at long last. Henri smiled, and I tried not to notice his aversion to loud laughs and the clinking of the tableware upon the plates. He studied his knife, staring at the honed edge, touching it from time to time. When he cut, he slashed through the potato. I ignored this too.
Finally exhausted, we all settled into our respective beds and descended into that veil of night. But a scream woke me. Rushing upstairs, I heard the piercing, heart-wrenching cry again. Henri thrashed amid his sheets, terror etched like tragic art across his weeping face. The screams continued as I shook him. Finally he woke.
Sighing, we held each other until dawn. I treasured those moments; truly, it seemed he had only just come into the world. We were returned to that intimate infancy in those brief, quiet hours. I clutched him to my breast, vowing I'd never let him go, struggling to think of a way to keep him from the army. The hours slipped by unnoticed. Dawn crested the horizon, spreading her rosy fingers towards the fields. Finally, I left him, swaddled and asleep.
I escaped into the dawn's air, wrapping the cloak tighter around my shoulders. I paused in the doorway, taking in the morning sun, troubled, but thankful for his homecoming. I picked up my skirts and strode towards the barn — chores to be done.
I never reached the stables. A clattering of hooves echoed through the otherwise silent morning. Wheeling around at the sound, I glimpsed four horsemen, soldiers in uniform, gallop into the yard. Without pause, their apparent leader leapt to the ground and marched towards me, a hand gripping his sheathed saber.
Without pleasantries or introduction, he shouted "Show me the bastard!" Taken aback by his tone and foul language, I simply stood, dumbfounded. A searing pain enveloped my cheek as the mustached officer struck a hand across my face. "Show me him!" he screamed, his cheeks flushed and heated.
"Who?" I stammered dumbly, cowering now. He raised his hand to strike again, but the girls, overhearing the commotion, raced out of the house and waited uneasily on the stoop. Seeing witnesses, the man dropped his hand. Turning to face them, he spoke again, bile dripping from his voice. "Henri Bonnet lives within this house. We traced him here — a fool running to his own mother. Reveal him! Bring me the coward!" He spit on the ground. Claudette drew herself up to defend her brother, but hearing noise behind her, stopped. She moved to block the door instead.
The enraged lieutenant, seeing the gesture, stiffened. Drawing his sword, he joined his party, who had since dismounted. The four soldiers walked forward, wary and en masse. The officer grabbed Claudette's arm, flinging her aside. They charged into our home. Sounds of curses, blows, and a scuffle emerged.
Mélodie had shut her eyes again. Valentine was weeping openly. Only pure shock kept me from mirroring her wet eyes. Finally, the rough men dragged Henri, bleeding in several places, from the home. They threw him down, and in our sight, kicked and spat upon him.
"Why?" I screamed, unable to contain my horror any longer. "Why? Stop! Why?" I cried. Glancing up, the lieutenant simply glared back at me balefully.
"Woman," he snapped. "Your son deserted in the face of battle; he stole a horse and escaped into the night. If I could legally kill him right now, I would gut the coward where he lies." For emphasis, the cruel man lashed a kick into Henri's bruised and bleeding face. I heard a sick, wet sound as cartilage and bone gave way. Launching myself forward, I tried to pull them off my son. Laughing wildly, the men threw me down. Then, picking up the broken husk of Henri, they lashed him to a spare mount, retrieved the boy's stolen horse from our stable, and abruptly prepared to leave.
"Have pity!" I cried to them. "He's my only son, my only boy." Tears now coursed down my cheeks.
One trooper turned back. Smirking wickedly, he replied, "Pity is a woman's word."
Without another word, they left us, riding into the hateful, rising sun. Yet in truth, they never did; I still see them.
In all my sleepless nights, in all my troubled, helpless dreams, I can still
see his haunted, empty eyes; I still glimpse my Henri's grieving eyes.
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori?
Perhaps the old phrase remains true, but I am sure I cannot say. When I too die, I will ask my son. For on some solitary morning, or so a cold Ministry of War missive explained, a drum spoke into the dawn, the soldiers shot, and my Henri found that honorable sweetness.
# # #
If you enjoyed this piece, find more of my Napoleonic short fiction in the Men of Eagles series.
Back to The Faith: Book I of the Uprising Trilogy book
Terms of Services
- Deborah Smith
- T. R. A. Lynch, Sr
- Steven Sills
- Clare Nonhebel
- J Rocci
- MontUHURU Mimia
- Miriam Mhlanga
- Flora Annie Webster Steel
- Mobashar Qureshi
- Megan Abbott
- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
- Charles Major
- Paulo Coelho
- Salman Rushdie
- Michael Brent Jones
Terms of Services