Sunday, July 12, 2015

Shadows in a Timeless Myth Presents True Tales From An American Woman During WWI

 "A Little Journal of Small Things"

Told by Helen Mackay, an American Author


The dépot d'éclopés is just beyond the town, on the Roman road. The building was once the Convent of the Poor Claires. When the Sisters were sent away it was used as Communal Schools. There is a great plane tree outside the door in the yellow wall, and a bench in the shade. There is room for seven éclopés to sit crowded together on the bench. They bring out some chairs also.

All day long, and every day, as many of the éclopés as can get about, and do not mind that the road see them, and can find space in the shade of the plane tree, sit there, and look up and down the sunshine and the dust.

Some of them have one leg, and some of them have one arm. There is one of them who is packed into a short box on wheels. He sits up straight in the box, and he can run it about with his hands on the wheels. There is another in such a little cart, but that one has to lie on his back, and cannot manage the wheels himself. There is one who lies on a long stretcher, that they fix on two hurdles. There are two who are blind. The two blind men sit, and stare and stare....

I often go and stay with the éclopés at the gate, they like to have anybody come. It was a long time before I dared go in at the gate.

Inside the gate there is a courtyard that was once the nuns' garden, with their well in the middle of it and their fruit trees trained along the walls. And there, there move about all day, or keep to the shadow, of first the east wall, then the west, those of the éclopés whom the road must not see.
Some of them look up at you when you come in. But most of them turn away from you.

The two blind men at the gate who stare and stare, they cannot see the golden town or the golden mountains. They cannot see the compassion and the kindness that there is for them in the faces of all those who look upon them.

But these men in the courtyard, however will they learn to bear, down all their lives, the looks that there will be for them in the most kind, compassionate faces?

There are not ever enough chairs under the plane tree. There are more éclopés than there are chairs. How they laugh! They think it very droll to see a man who has only his left leg and a man who has only his right leg sharing a chair.

The men who have no legs say that that is not nearly so bad as having no arms. They say that the men with no arms are ashamed to be seen, like the men wounded in the face. They say that the men with no arms will never come out even to the gate.

They never will let you stand. It is a dreadful thing to do, to take one of their chairs. But they like to talk to a stranger.

All of them, except the man whose spine has been hurt, love to talk.

The man whose spine has been hurt lies all day, the days he can be brought out, on a stretcher, never stirring. He never speaks except to say one thing. He is very young. He looks as if he were made of wax.

He keeps saying, "How long the days are at this season!"

He will ask, over and over again, "What time is it?" and say, "Only eleven o'clock?" Or, "Only three o'clock?"

And then always, "How long the days are at this season!"

They are taking out for a walk those of the éclopés who are fit for it. There must be nearly a hundred of them. In every possible sort of patched, discolored uniform, here they come hopping and hobbling along. They have more crutches and canes than feet among the lot of them.

One of the men who has no legs goes so fast on his wooden stump and his crutches that everybody stops to look, and all the éclopés laugh, and the people stopping to look, laugh, and he laughs more than any of them.

If things are tragic enough, they are funny. I have come to know that, with the éclopés at the gate. And inside the gate, with those of the éclopés who keep back against the walls, I have come to know that the only safety of life is death.


The vine was red on the white old soft wall. It was very beautiful. There were masses of purple asters under the red vine, against the wall. There was a bowl of purple asters on the table between the carafes of red and white wine.

We had an omelet and bread and butter and raspberries, and water, very beautiful in the thick greenish glasses.

Under the yellow boughs of the lime tree we could see the misty valley and the mountains.
The table had a red-and-white cloth.

The little old thin brown woman who served us wanted to talk all the time with us. She wanted to talk about the omelet; she had made it and was very proud of it. She wanted to talk about the war and to talk about her son.

She said that there had been some horrible, strange mistake and that people thought that he was dead. She had had a paper from the Ministry of War telling her he was dead. It was very strange. She had had a letter also from the Aumonier, telling her he was dead. But, of course, she knew.
She said he would come home, and be so sorry she had had such dreadful news, and so glad that she had not believed it.

They would laugh together. He had beautiful white teeth, she said, and his eyes screwed tight up when he laughed.

She told us how she and he would laugh together.


They telephoned from the cantine that the baby of the girl Alice was dead at the hospital, and that the funeral was to be from there that afternoon at three o'clock, and that Alice wanted me to come.
Mademoiselle Renée, the économe, who telephoned, said it was the apache girl with the ear-rings.
I don't know why she wanted me to come to the funeral of her baby. Of the nearly three hundred women who came twice every day to the cantine, she had never been especially my friend. Her baby had been a sick little thing, and I had been touched by her wild love of it. It had no father, she told me. We never ask questions at the cantine, but she had been pleased to tell me that. She had said she was glad, because, so, it was all her own. She had rocked it as she held it wrapped in the folds of her red shawl, and shaken her long bright ear-rings, laughing down at it, over her bowl of soup. And now it is dead.

Claire came to me. We had just time, if we took a taxi, to get to the hospital, stopping on the way for some flowers. It was raining more or less, and very dark.

At the hospital they sent us round to the back, to a sort of shed opening on a street that was being built up, or had been torn down, I don't know which, desolate in the rain.

In the room of the shed there were two families in black, two mothers with dingy crape veils, and two dead babies in unpainted pine boxes that were open.

The baby in the box on the right was quite big, the size of the most expensive doll one could get for a rich little girl at Christmas. There was a quite fine white tin wreath on the floor, tilted up against the pine box. The family of the bigger baby was quite numerous, half a dozen women, an old man, and several children. They all had shoes, and several of the women had umbrellas, and one of them had a hat.

In the smaller box was the baby of Alice, very, very small and pinched and blue, even more small and pinched and blue than when she used to bring it to the cantine. The family of Alice consisted of a small boy with bare feet and no hat, a small girl with a queer colored skirt and felt slippers and a bit of black crape over her red hair, and a boy of perhaps seventeen, also in felt slippers, with his coat collar turned up and a muffler round his chin and his cap dragged down over his eyes. Alice had a hat and a crape veil and a black coat and skirt, and down-trodden, shapeless shoes much too big for her.
There was a small bunch of violets in the pine box with the baby.

We put our roses down on the floor at the foot of the box.

Both babies had on the little white slips that the hospital gives.

The family of the bigger baby, and the brother and sister of Alice, stared at us.

The mother of the bigger baby stood leaning against the wall, her head against the whitewash, her two hands over her eyes. She was making a queer little noise through her teeth. She kept it up all the time we were in the shed, a sort of hissing. She never once uncovered her eyes.

Alice was standing close, close beside her baby in the pine box, just looking down at it. She never took her eyes from it. She is a tall, straight girl, but she was bent over, as if she were feeble and old. Her veil was pushed back from her face. It had been wet, and the black had run over her face. But it must have been the rain, for she was not crying at all. All the time in the shed she never moved or cried at all.

Her little brother and sister stood back as if they were afraid of her.

Claire and I waited near the door of the shed.

For a long time we waited like that.

Then two croquemorts came, in their shining black clothes. One of them had a sort of hammer in his hand.

They went to the box of the bigger baby, and one of them picked up the cover of the box and put it on, and the other began to drive the nails in.

When he drove the first nail in, the woman with her eyes covered so she could not see him, heard, and knew what it was, and began to shriek. With her hands over her eyes she stood against the wall and shrieked.

The croquemort drove in all the nails, and the woman kept on shrieking.

Then the other croquemort put the tin wreath on the lid of the box, and then both of them came over to our baby.

Alice had been just looking and looking at her baby. When the men came, and one of them took up the lid of the box from the floor, and the other stood with his hammer, she gathered herself up as if she would spring upon the men who would take her little dead thing from her and put it away for ever. I thought she would fight over it, quite mad. The little brother and sister stood away from her, shivering.

But what she did was to stoop and take up our roses from where they lay on the floor, and put them into the pine box with the baby. She put them all in about the baby, covering it with them. She hid it away under roses and then stood close, close to it, while the croquemort drove the nails in, all the nails, one by one.

Then one of the croquemorts took up the box of the bigger baby and carried it out of the shed and put it, with the tin wreath on the top of it, into a hearse that there was waiting on the left of the door. And the other croquemort took up the box of Alice's baby and carried it out, and put it into a hearse that was waiting on the right of the door.

The family of the bigger baby followed away, after the hearse and one of the croquemorts, toward the depths of the city, two of the women leading the baby's mother, who still kept her hands over her eyes, but was not shrieking any more, only sobbing. I know no more of them after that.


Alice went out of the door alone, and turned to the right, after the hearse in which was her dead child.
Our croquemort would have gone ahead of her, but she would not let him pass. She would not have him between her and her baby. She kept close, close to the hearse, almost touching it, all the way.
The croquemort walked behind her, and the brothers and sister walked behind him, and Claire and I at the end of it.

We went through a tangle of poor streets, narrow and crowded. People drew back out of our way; some of them crossed themselves, and all of them were silent for an instant as the apache baby passed.

We went through wide, forlorn streets of coal yards and warehouses and factories. The carters and laborers in those streets stopped to look at us and made the sign of the Cross, for the baby passing.
We went over the canal bridge and the railroad bridges, and along desolate streets of the outskirts, all in the rain.

We went by barracks, where many blue coats, going about their duties, or standing idly about, drew up to salute the baby in its poor little unpainted rough box.

At the fortifications many blue coats were digging trenches, and they all looked up and stopped their work to salute the baby.

Twice we met groups of the blue coats marching along the muddy empty roads, and both times the officer halted his men to salute the apache baby going by.

The bigger brother walked like a true apache, slouching and slinking along, shoulders hunched up, head sunk down, face hidden between his muffler and the peak of his cap. The smaller brother and the sister slouched too. But Alice walked quite straight, her head up, close, close to her child.
So we came to the cemetery, in at the gates, and along a street of little marble houses, to a field where there were only wooden and black iron crosses, and to a hole that was dug in the red, wet earth.
There was a man waiting for us by the hole. He helped the croquemort to take the box out of the hearse and put it in the hole.

Alice stood close, close to the edge, looking down into the grave.

The rest of us stood together behind her.

The croquemort gave her a little spade, and told her what to do with it.

Then she stooped down and dug up a spadeful of earth and threw it into the hole where they had put the box.

Each of us went in turn to give earth to earth. And then it was over.

Alice stood close, close to the edge of the hole, and looked and looked down into it.

The croquemort said something to Alice, but she did not move. He then spoke to the bigger brother, who shuffled up to Alice and tugged at her sleeve.

But still she did not move.

The smaller brother began to cry.

Then the sister went to Alice and pulled at her other sleeve.

"Take her away," the croquemort said to me.

I said, "Dear, we must go."

Without looking at me, she said, "I—I stay here." She stood close, close to the hole and looked at the little pine box, and said again, quite quietly, "I stay here."

I said, "You cannot stay," stupidly, as if we were discussing any ordinary coming or going.
Her little sister, pulling at her skirt, said, "Say then, ask thou the lady to let thee go to supper at the cantine."

"The cantine is for those who have babies," Alice answered. Then she looked at me for the first time, her great wild eyes, in her face that was stained and streaked where the black from the wet crape had run.

 Compiled From Sources In The Public Domain.

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It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915

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