She sat chewing her fingernails by the window, 6:30 in the morning, lost in the feathered edges of a frosted glass pane. The Sanatorium street was desolate: not that it was a lively hour anyway, but neither the newsboy’s bike nor the coal boys, who run about knocking doors on their morning shift, were anywhere to be seen. A heavy silence prevailed through the hour, save a few footsteps and muffled chattering out in the yard below her window sill. Perhaps they were deciding on who should break the news to her. If they only knew.
They were waiting for the sun to come up, huddled in their jackets and overcoats: a bunch of straight faces sipping sugary breakfast tea – their lips a warm, human pink right under their waxy noses. It was a sweet spot for her grave: under a sprawling chestnut that grew wild and untamed. A couple of prickly fruits lay scattered on the ground whilst their shovels yearned to break the earth under the charcoal skies.
She pressed her forehead against the window till her skin went numb and red. It made her smile. It always made her smile, like the pop of one of those chestnuts on the stove.
“They’re waiting for the frost to break. Then they’ll bury her.”
The voice came from her nightstand drawer, and she pulled out the little rag doll with black button eyes and yellow yarn hair. She was smiling at her wide and warm through her sewn lips.
“You were up all night, weren’t you? I could hear you through the wood.”
The girl nodded.
“Try singing the song?”
She brought the doll close to her heart and ran her fingers through the yellow yarn.
“Les Allemands étaient chez moi
Ils me dirent, “Résigne toi”
Mais je n’ai pas peur.
J’ai repris mon âme
J’ai changé cent foi de nom
J’ai perdu femme et enfants,
Mais j’ai tant d’amis
J’ai la France entière.
Un vieil homme dans un grenier
Pour la nuit nous a caché
Pour la nuit nous a caché…” 1
The words were getting heavier. Soon they’d call her to see her for the last time. If only she could sleep for a while before dawn. Her hands were warm from clutching the doll, and she brought her stocking-clad knees to her chest. Just an inch away, sleep was just an inch away.
One warm June evening, they were fleshing apricots for the marmalade. She was still out of breath from chasing the butterflies. Her mother was smiling at her, singing, the creases along the corners of her eyes deepening. Now and then she’d lift her little face and smile back at her while the fruit bubbled into a sweet-smelling mush. It was all she could remember about her. Her memories struggled to breathe in her dreams, choked by the infinite voices of her brittle reality.
The evening came riding upon a frigid breeze, and it trickled down her nape while she sat on the cast iron bench by the fresh earth.
“Don’t worry. She’s not alive in there”, the little doll said, reading her mind.
She had to hope. Her hope was not a shining gem that sparkled bright atop a spire. It wasn’t something to be owned, but a bittersweet ache that she had to endure each passing day, like the scent of those apricots, or the French song. And for better or for worse, she hummed along her demons. It was all that was left of her, but it was enough to pull her through.
1. From Leonard Cohen’s song, ‘The Partisan’.
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