Growing tensions and fear of future conflict meant the number of American troops stationed across Europe tripled between 1950 and 1953, despite locals making it clear their presence was not welcome. In this short story, we see through the eyes of three young American children living in the south of France during the summer of 1954. We learn the differences between the French villagers who work the vineyards, the German tourists who “carried their heads higher than any other visitors, in order not to hang them low in shame”, the Englishmen who have “the Union Jack spread like a declaration of their neutrality across the knapsacks on their backs” and the Americans who are “not afraid of what may happen the way… others are afraid”. When a fire breaks out and it is blamed on a drunk American soldier travelling through the region, he becomes “endowed now with political distinction”.
The house in which the mother and the children had come to live was big enough to bear the name of chateau, and it stood on sloping ground among the vineyards of southern France, two miles or more out of the fishing town. It was an Englishman’s house, a place on which wine was grown, and bottled, and sold to restaurants, or else for export, or to individuals who came in their own cars for it, knowing the value of its name. But now the Englishman was dead, and his wife had gone to Cornwall, to visit her people for the summer, leaving the house to the mother and children until the vintage time would come. So it was theirs, but it was no more than a fragment of possession, the mother knew, this temporary title they had been given. They were allowed access to the chateau’s material residue, to the garden hedged by tapering cypress trees, to the somnolent lily ponds, and the crumbling walls on which scaled salamanders moved quicker than light. For a brief time they were permitted to lay claim to the beds they slept in, the chairs on which they sat, the ancient stove, the polished copper vessels, and the earthenware.
But the gist that kept the place from dereliction was not theirs – the beat of the peasants’ hearts and the movement of their life in the cellar chambers, and the sound of their voices through the heat as they worked among the vines. Men and women labouring together, they tended the vineyards and the orchards, picked their grapes and pressed them when the right season came, filled the vast, ancient kegs, bottled, corked and labelled the wine, and pruned the vine in late December. In August, they gathered the green almonds and dried them for winter eating, and later plucked the olives from among the silvery leaves, and crushed them under the horse-drawn, granite cylinder to oil that ran, slower than honey, into the great stone jars.
All summer, under an unremitting sun, the peasants would be at their work of washing the wine bottles clean, and filling the bottles from the giant casks that stood in the dark cellars at the back of the house, following the ritual of the seasons as the retired English Army officer had taught them to do. Whenever the mother and children passed the open door, they would look up and say bonjour to her. “It’s good for the vine, the drought!” the peasants would say, their voices as loud as if they called across a long distance to the mother, for theirs was the vocabulary of the vine, and, because she was American, hers might be of rearmament and the atom bomb and they were not sure that they could make her hear. “You’re American, but you’ve been to England? You know the English?” they might say on another day to her. “If you talk to the English, they’ll tell you they’ve had enough, the way we French have had enough,” they would say in the shadows of the cellar rooms, not naming it, but adding: “You are American. You live so far away that you are not afraid the way we French and the English are afraid.”
At that time of the year there were the customary number of English travellers, red-kneed, big-wristed, young Englishmen in khaki shorts and dusty boots, with the Union Jack spread like a declaration of their neutrality across the knapsacks on their backs. In hobnailed boots, they tramped the southern roads between the vineyards and the olive groves, their backs bent under the weight of their stoves and their utensils, under their books and their shabby clothes, because of their poverty and their determination, already aged, dogged men. Or there were the English who rode, two by two, erect on motorcycles, with their tin pots and pans strapped to the canvas rolls behind them; or the English families who travelled in cars of such dilapidated distinction that there was no need for the “GB” above the numbers of the licence plates to indicate from where they came.
They had a look of earnest shabbiness about them, these English, thought the mother, as she walked with her three children along the port of the fishing village, with the Mediterranean lapping at the stones. They had none of the assurance of the German tourists, for now the Germans, with so much to answer for in every European country, carried their heads higher than any other visitors, in order not to hang them low in shame. The English looked as poor as beggars as they passed the Germans sitting in the cafes, and their motorcycles were enough to make you split your sides with laughter as they stood parked along the waterfront beside the shining American cars. “You are American,” the fishermen would say to her as she and the children bought the fresh sardines from the baskets lined with seaweed laid on the harbour stones. “You are American,” they would say, the rejection so impersonal that there was no venom left in it. And their silence added: You are not afraid of what may happen the way we others are afraid.
“I can tell the difference between the English and the French,” said Fife, who was eight that summer. The mother and the children walked up through the parched fields, carrying the fish, and the lengths of bread, and fresh fruit in their rucksacks, and the children would look at the words lettered in black on the garden walls, “US Go Home,” or “Les Américains en Amérique,” and then they would look away. “The English get the reddest on the beach,” he said. He wore blue jeans, and American sneakers, and his voice sounded high and clear above the rasping of the cicadas in the almond and the olive trees.
“I can tell French women because their hair is rusty,” said Candy, who was ten. “I can’t tell the difference between the men yet. They all turn around and stare at me,” she said.
“Frenchmen’s hips are higher up, nearer their armpits,” said the girl named Claude, “Englishmen have theirs nearer their knees.” She was slender, and tanned, with the small, grave face that had been hers at three years old no different now that she was 12, except it was borne higher on her lengthening bones. “There are several other differences,” she said, with dignity.
“French women kiss louder than other women do,” Candy went on with it, and her wheat-coloured braids swung forward in the sunlight as she made the explosive sound of their embrace on the back of her own brown hand. “Americans kiss very, very silently,” said Fife. “In the movies I’ve seen of Americans kissing, they never make a sound,” his voice quiet and proud.
“Oh, it’s hot, it’s much too hot! ” Candy cried out in sudden impatience. “I’m too tired to go any further, and there’s a cicada caught in my hair!”
And then one day, as the mistral blew, the forest fire began to burn. It was just past noon, at the hour when all of life and all activity attenuated toward food and sleep, when the siren wailed its prolonged warning from the fishing town below. The peasants stood in their doorways, shading their eyes against the wind and light, and the American children stood up by the lily ponds, where they had set their boats afloat, their hearts chilled by the sustained, unearthly cry.
“It could be a drowning or it could be a fire,” the younger peasant said, and the older one stood near him, his grim face shaded by his hand.
“It could be for 12 o’clock. It’s only a quarter past now, and sometimes they’ve blown their whistle a half-hour off,” the older peasant said.
It may have been that they were all blinded by the mere presence of the meridional noon, for it was a minute, perhaps longer, before they saw the smoke through the branches of the olive trees, and they moved out on to the wagon-road to watch it billowing in creamy fury across the wooded hill. It took them that long to see that a wheat field had gone first, and then an orchard, and that the fire had charred fig, and olive, and cypress trees across the shallow valley, and was climbing fast to higher land.
“This isn’t the time of day for a forest fire,” said the older peasant as the vertical note of the siren began its wailing fall. “The pompiers are fathers of families like anybody else. They’ve got the right to eat their lunch in peace,” he said.
“Even if Monsieur Mistral laid down now,” said the younger peasant, and he spoke of the wind as if it were a man, “you’d still have the birds and the rabbits carrying the fire on them. A wild pig will carry fire 20 to 30 kilometres a day, the sparks caught in his fur as he runs before it. If there’s no more than just one cicada flying with his wings lit, you can’t say the forest fire’s out.”
Again the cry of the siren rose, and in the blinding dazzlement of noonday, the deeper, hotter texture of the flames sprang up in dark-plumed triumph above the land. And now a rust-coloured jeep, its warning signal gasping in puny alarm, could be seen moving up the valley road, with a hook-and-ladder truck following behind.
“That’s the fire-chief,” said the older peasant, his face turned toward the wind. “He’s known Monsieur Mistral 30 years,” the younger peasant said.
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From where the mother and the children and the peasants stood, neither jeep nor hook-and-ladder truck seemed larger or better equipped for action than a child’s mechanical toys. The two minutely labouring vehicles proceeded up the bleached, walled road, passed the charred area the fire had left behind it, bypassed the fire itself, as if their destination lay beyond, and, at a break in the slumbering wall, turned off the road and into the tilted fields. There they rocked ludicrously upward, not toward the fire, but beyond it, and when they halted, the firemen in their light blue shirts scattered like confetti across the faded pigment of the grass. But they were men, with the ruse of men in their heads and in the white rope of the hose, and so they outwitted the mindless torrent of liquid flame that gushed across the thirsting hill.
Within 20 minutes the strong, flapping flames fell, tattered, from the black masts of the trees, and the smoke thinned out to mist which the mistral bore away. Then there was only the smell of fire left in the nostrils, and the eye saw the dark scar left on the wooded hill, like the shadow of a cloud cast on sunny water, or on a field of grain. But that was not the end of it, for the story of how the fire had begun was still to be recounted, and whether it was truth or rumour, or who had told it first, nobody knew. But it was told in every shop and cafe of the fishing village, and repeated even by the fishermen as they mended their nets along the harbour, and by the peasants as they washed the bottles in the cellars on the north side of the house.
It was this: that an American soldier, on furlough from Paris or Orleans, had driven that morning into the village in his fine, big car and parked it under the sign that said no parking was allowed. The soldier had drunk three pastis on a café terrace in the sun, the story went, or drunk half a bottle of cognac, and refused to pay; and when the cafe proprietor said he must have his money or he would call the police, the soldier had said: “France never did nothing but sit on a corner holding a tin cup out, and we’re sick of dropping the dollars in”; or said: “France died a couple of centuries ago”; or said: “There’s 18 cafes in this town, and there’s one church: That’s all any Christian needs to know.”
The soldier had walked unsteadily across the cobbles of the port, and raced his car through the narrow streets of the fishing village, and out the pastoral, valley road, mistaking it for the coastal road, because by that time he couldn’t read the signposts any more. And, driving crazily between the long, low orchard walls, he must have flung his cigarette away, and the paper-dry field of wheat went first, and then the orchard, and it was even said that two milk-giving goats had phished. A farmer coming home had heard them blearing in the flames.
It was no longer said that there had been a forest fire near the fishing town, and that the pompiers had extinguished it, for now another element had come alive in it. Whether or not there was a soldier who had drunk too many pastis in the sun no longer mattered, and the name of the café where he had sat was of no consequence, nor the colour of the uniform he wore. Whoever he was, he had been endowed now with political distinction, and as he reeled across the stones he became the figurehead for whom the slogans were written out in letters taller than the orchard trees. Fife stood in his black rodeo shirt, and his black rodeo trousers, on the quayside, his hands thrust in his jewel-studded pockets, his eyes fixed on nothing, perhaps seeking to see the soldier, with the cigarette on his lip, making his way like a blind man to his car.
“I don’t believe it was an American that did it,” Fife said then.
Claude had carried the fishnet that afternoon, and there was a hermit-crab caught in the meshes of it, and she watched with gravity his small, evil, almost human face, his outsized thumbs, his irritation. Her feet were bare, and there were viscous ribbons of seaweed between her toes, and the muscles tightened in her long, brown, slender legs as she crouched down.
“Sometimes soldiers in foreign countries get lonely,” she said, watching the crab, “and then they take too much to drink. Does every hermit crab,” she asked, her face as quiet as a statue’s face, “have his anemone?”
“But even if a soldier was lonely,” Fife said, and he looked out over the moored boats riding quietly, “and even in a foreign country, I bet he wouldn’t forget the things he learned about fires when he was a scout.”
“Oh, Fife,” said Claude, “when you grow up, you smoke, and you drink, and your memory fails you!”
Candy was there, but lost to them in other conjecturing, her head turned from them, her hair hanging in a curtain of yellow silk, as she rocked on her naked heels upon the harbour stones. There were two lovers sitting on the moss- and mollusc-grown landing-steps beyond, the water rising and falling in slow, unceasing motion just below their entwined feet. Their clothes were poor, their flesh was smooth and dark, and bronzed still darker on their throats and forearms, and they shared one cigarette between them, the girl taking it in her narrow fingers from her own mouth once she had drawn a deep breath in, and placing it against the boy’s pale, handsome mouth. When the cigarette was done, she put her hand on the back of the boy’s sun-blackened neck, and drew his face to her face, and kissed him long and sweetly in the early evening light. These were the two that Candy watched, her thin, brown arms around her drawn up knees, her nose a little wrinkled; and when she had watched them from this side for a space of time, she moved in her faded shorts to the other side, and squatted down again, her eyes quizzical, her toes spread on the stones, and she watched the sight of love a little while from there.
“Americans, they’ve got a country all to themselves as big as Europe,” the fisherman was saying to the mother. He stood barefooted, broad-shouldered, in his singlet, with his blue cotton trousers rolled below his knees. In one hand he held the soft lifeless body of an octopus, its long, soiled legs, which could no longer reach and writhe, hanging like the delicate roots of some strange plant he had taken from the sea. “They’ve got so much territory, the Americans,” he said, “that one side of a hill burning, it isn’t the same to them as it is to a Frenchman or an Englishman. In America, you’ve got so much of everything, you can afford to blow some of it up in those atom bomb experiments, so what’s a hill burning, or an acre of forest-land wiped out?”
“I don’t believe the story about the American. I don’t believe he was ever here,” Fife said, and he looked out past the semaphore at the harbour entrance to the cliffs that built up from the sea.
“Is a sea anemone a parasite, or is it a flower the crab wears like an ornament?” said Claude, holding the hermit crab on the palm of her open band. And Candy pushed the silken curtain of her hair aside to watch the lovers kiss each other’s mouths.
A few days after that, the summer was suddenly done, and the stony hills, the long-eroded cliffs, the sapless vegetation, took on another, more heterogeneous look. There were shadows cast, and the wine cellars, with their ancient barrels taller than a man, loomed strangely in the evening. The chateau tower, its windows thickly webbed by spiders and sibilant with the stirring of many dying insects’ wings, was a place to turn from when the night had come. Once the peasants had closed the heavy cellar doors, and left for their houses down the cart-road where the vineyards sloped away, the mother would make the shutters of the windows fast, moving from one hushed room to another while the children slept. Downstairs, there were branched candelabra on the walls the length of the quiet salon, with crystal lozenges, blackened by time, hanging like trembling tears beneath the pear-shaped bulbs. By their uncertain light, the mother saw her own figure, slender and tall in the long, blue dress, cross quickly toward the tall mirror in its massive gilded frame, and there she halted, and looked around her, as if in fear, and then she faced her own eyes in the glass.
“I am not French, and I am not English,” she whispered to the mirror, and it seemed to her then that the shadows behind her had come alive with the movement of many people, and that their hands were raised in menace, and their mouths stretched open in malediction for what she was.
“I am American,” she said to that unseen presence of people in the silent room, “and the voices have spoken out for me, and spoken loudly and I too, I too, am terribly afraid.”
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