Battlefront: part seven
“Murderous attacks, we cannot tolerate.” The officer spoke to Honoré. “We must, of necessity, offer no compromise. We cannot deal differently with this house or that house. Tell this girl, we can show no mercy, if she cannot persuade them to surrender.”
Clotilde had heard these words, of course, as the officer had spoken them. No, and no again. This needed no translation. Charged with an unwanted task, pushed forward by a hand on his shoulder, Honoré glowered at her.
“It may be…”
He relaxed his stance, tentative. This his guard appeared to tolerate. Honoré touched her face…and gently, despite his anger. She might have wept all the while she’d waited. Her eyes were raw.
“…that your mother will understand. Your father”―he considered his words―“will follow his plan. But speak to your mother.”
Two strangers, to his surprise, were first to emerge. An old woman, leaning on her stick, eased herself over the threshold, and only once did she falter, to pause, lift her head, sweep scorn across the ranks of her enemies…then, bending again, she turned to a young woman who had waited just inside the door, hand hovering near her elbow, should assistance be needed. A Paquette daughter now followed her grandmother, keeping close to the old woman’s side. She was bareheaded, and like Clotilde’s, her hair was a drab blond…she was married, possibly, and did not live with the others. Honoré supposed the old woman to be the paternal matriarch, for she shared―or, properly speaking, had spawned―Paquette’s square forehead and long jaw.
They were a pair of confederates, these two; the elder daughter, as it seemed, the grandmother’s favorite. They whispered apart from the others. The young woman started at the sound of gunfire. The old one gave no sign.
Madame Paquette, if she sought God’s presence on this day, sought Him inwardly―her gaze was abstracted, and in silence she walked, carrying her smallest child. Thérèse, cradling the cat, mirrored her mother. And Sophie, wagging her tail, all her wisdom derived from the touch of her nose to a human hand, circled and would not leave Clotilde, the last of her human charges, who came last from the cottage. In an agony of hesitation, Clotilde dragged her eyes from the abandoned parlor. She saw Honoré. She moved as though she meant to return to him. Or he, not knowing it, had taken a step towards Clotilde. The soldier guarding Honoré raised his carbine, and made a barrier between them.
Up the street now, drawn by a team of horses, came a limber bearing in tow a captured mitrailleuse, its escort forcing way on either side.
“Reculez! Allez! Vite!”
Prisoners were filing in under guard. They clustered into every open space; they moved, like the blown ash, in nervous routs, while the same wind that stirred the fires drove heat and smoke in their faces. As the gun passed, men and women of the town turned their backs, their parti-colored band of clothing making, from Honoré’s vantage, a boundary between the uniformed soldiers, and those standing houses that remained.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)