Mademoiselle Legrand called me heartless this afternoon.
After saying it, she waited for me to respond, but I said nothing. I do not want to argue with Mlle. Legrand. After all, she has taken me in and is protecting me from the Germans at some risk to herself, and I must be grateful for that. And then, Maman said, in the last message she sent me, that I should not talk back to grownups, and I am trying to do what she asked.
But it isn't easy. Mlle. Legrand is like a child, like I was in regard to Monsieur Bonnet. Expecting grief to be shown in such a way that those who are not feeling it will be able to recognize it. "Ah, look at poor Nicole! See how thin she is! How sad she looks! How she never laughs or plays with anyone! Poor thing! She is grieving for her family who were taken by the Germans."
I, too, back when I was still with my family, and did not understand, I thought M. Bonnet was heartless. Hadn't his wife died? Wasn't he separated from his children? How could he laugh?
Now I know that grief is not something you wear upon your face. It is inside you at night when you lie there in bed, listening to the country girls talking about their families. They know where their mothers and fathers are, and you do not. It is seeing the packages that come with a little piece of cheese or sausage or a warm scarf --and there are no packages for you. It is when the mothers and fathers come to take their children home for the holidays or for Sunday, and their faces wrinkle up in smiles when they see their children. And there are no mother and father faces for you.
I miss them when I'm cold in bed at night under the thin, worn blanket, and when I'm hungry because there has not been enough to eat--and there is never enough to eat now. Most of all, I miss them when someone has attacked me, like Mlle. Legrand did this afternoon, and I have nobody to tell it to. Those times are the worst.
Huguette, in the bed next to me, reaches over, and pokes my arm. "Are you asleep, Nicole?"
"I have some licorice. Here, hold out your hand." I hold out my hand, and she puts the licorice into it. It is only two small pieces, but I chew them slowly, moving them around in my mouth with my tongue before I swallow. Tonight I am so hungry, I almost believe I could eat tripe.
"I almost believe I could eat tripe," I say to Huguette. "I am so hungry."
"Not me," she says. Huguette's family lives on a farm out in the country near Culoz. Her cheeks are no longer as round and pink as they used to be but she is still the heaviest of all the girls in the dormitory.
"That is because you get more to eat than the rest of us," says Georgette, on the other side of Huguette. "But I don't think I will ever be able to eat tripe, no matter how hungry I am."
"Perhaps," I say, "it is because none of us is really starving."'
"I am starving," Helene moans from across the room, "All I ever think about is food."
"Yes," I say, "but we are not really starving because if we were, we would eat the tripe. When you are really starving you eat anything--worms, grass, shoes, people ..."
"Ugh," Georgette says, "I would rather eat worms than tripe."
"Would you rather eat people than tripe?" asks Helene.
"Certainly," Georgette says, "and when the time comes, I will start with Huguette. The rest of you are too bony."
"Oh, shut up," Huguette says, and all of us laugh. A little later when the others are sleeping, she reaches over, pokes my arm again and puts another piece of licorice into my hand.
She is more generous than the other girls in sharing her food. Perhaps because she gets more than anybody else. But after she has had all she wants, I am usually the first she will give extras to. It may be because I help her with her schoolwork, or it may be because she is sorry for me, Or feeling guilty. Like tonight.
But she was not to blame. It was the tripe. We had it for dinner today. We have it for dinner every Monday, and every Monday I am prepared. I carried a paper bag back with me from our classes to the dining room. Today was the dreariest of dreary days in a dreary month. Nothing but rain and sleet for days and days and days. The cold reached up under our skirts and down below our collars. It was in our nostrils, our ears, and behind our eyelids.
The dining room was so cold we had to keep our coats and hats on. We sat down at our places at the table, recited the grace and waited while the girls on kitchen duty that day began serving. You could smell it even before the large bowls were brought to each table.
Tripe smells like tripe. Once you have smelled it you can never mistake it for anything else.
I opened my paper bag and held it between my legs under the table.
The plate of tripe was before me. For a while the sight of it and the smell of it was enough to make me forget how hungry I was. I picked up a piece of it on my fork, and looked at the head of the table where Madame Chardin was seated. She was still busy dishing out the tripe. I moved my fork underneath the table, and quickly dropped the piece of tripe into the bag. Across the table from me, Helene smiled and fluttered her eyelashes. There were at least three of us at the table holding paper bags between our legs.
Little Jeanne-Marie at the next table was crying as she did every Monday. Her teacher, Mme. Reynaud, was explaining how nourishing tripe was, and that Jeanne-Marie must eat it. All of it! And be grateful she wasn't one of the starving children in France who had nothing at all to eat. Poor Jeanne-Marie! If she were older, we could tell her about the bag trick, but she was too young, and we could not run the risk of exposure. There was no way of saving her.
My plate was empty. Mme. Chardin, looking around the table, nodded approvingly at me. Slowly I ate my piece of bread, and slowly I drank the bitter coffee.
Everything felt wet and damp that day. It seemed impossible to dry off. After classes, in the study hall, nobody could concentrate on homework. There was no heat. Our clothes were cold and clammy. You sat in your chair over the table, and felt the shivers radiating out in all directions from the back of your neck. And you were hungry.
"Listen to my teeth chattering," I said to Helene.
"Mine are chattering louder," she said.
"No, mine are--and faster, too. Listen!"
Helene and I had a teeth chattering contest. Marie was the judge. I won.
"I am so cold," moaned Huguette, "my fingers are numb even under my gloves, and my feet--I can hardly feel my feet."
"I know how to get warm," I said, shutting my book. "Everybody up--up--up!"
"What are we going to do ?" asked Huguette. "It's colder standing up than sitting down."
"We're going to dance," I said. "Like the Americans. We are going to jitterbug. I can still remember the movies where they did it--like this--and this ..."
I snapped my fingers and began jumping around, first on one foot and then on the other. I grabbed Marie around the waist, and we both jumped around together and went under each other's arms.
Helene started to sing, and soon most of the other girls were dancing too. We turned and twisted and jiggled our hips. Huguette began laughing and her face turned red and her nose ran and she couldn't catch her breath but she kept on laughing.
"Here, look at me, look at me!" Marie said. She kicked her left foot way up above her head.
"Look at me, look at me!" Georgette yelled. She stood on her head, balanced herself, and began walking upside down on her hands. Her skirt flopped down around her ears, and her underpants were full of holes.
I was dancing by myself now, around and around, twisting and twirling and stamping and warm, beautifully warm, and with my throat full of laughter.
I could hear the clapping and the singing, and I threw my head back and laughed.
I don't know when the clapping and singing ended. Because it was in the midst of one glorious twirl that I became aware of the other girls motionless, and in the midst of another one of Mlle. Legrand standing in the doorway.
"I cannot understand this display of levity," she said when I had become as motionless as the others. "Unless it means that you girls do not have enough homework to do. I will discuss this with your teachers, you may be sure of that. In the meantime, perhaps one of you will be good enough to explain your disgusting behavior."
"Marie! You are the oldest, and I have always considered you dependable. Can you explain what happened here?"
"Mlle. Legrand, it was so cold. We were all cold and hungry ... and we couldn't sit still without our teeth chattering and ..."
"I see," said Mlle. Legrand. "You decided that you were too cold and hungry to do your work so you would just make a lot of noise, and disturb anyone else who was trying to work."
"Oh, no, Mademoiselle. We weren't planning to disturb anyone," said Huguette. "We just thought we would dance to keep warm, and Nicole ..."
Huguette turned toward me helplessly. Her face was remorseful.
I finished the sentence for her. "I offered to teach them how to jitterbug, Mademoiselle."
"Jitterbug?" Mlle. Legrand said, her eyebrows raised. "What is that?"
"Jitterbug is the fast dancing the young people do in the United States."
Mlle. Legrand said, "Nicole, the last person in the world who should be dancing is you. What kind of feelings do you have for your parents? For your sister? I am sure that wherever they are, uncertain of your safety, and enduring Heaven only knows what kind of suffering, I am sure that they would never choose to dance. I believe you must be heartless."
That was why Huguette was feeding me licorice tonight.
Soon she was asleep too. I have one small piece of licorice left, and I put it under my pillow to save for tomorrow.
My mother comes to me first tonight. She sits on the edge of my bed, and smiles at me, and strokes my hair. "Why don't you eat your licorice?" she says.
"I am saving it for tomorrow," I tell her.
"Aren't you hungry now?"
"Yes, I am."
"Well then, eat it now."
I bite a piece out of my licorice, and my mother sits there, watching me.
"Maman," I tell her, "today Mlle. Legrand called me heartless, and she was wrong, but I didn't tell her so."
"I'm very proud of you," she says. "You are really growing up."
"I'm nearly fourteen, Maman,"
"Yes, and when we are together again we will have to celebrate."
"What is it like where you are? Do you have enough to eat? Are you warm enough? Are they mean to you?"
"We will manage," Maman says, "and so must you, and as soon as we can, we will all be together again."
"I know that, Maman, but sometimes I am very lonely, like now, because I know you're not here, and tomorrow I know you won't be here either."
"Think about when we will be together," Maman says. "Always think of that. That is what I am doing."
"And what I am doing too," says Papa. He is standing there next to Maman, smiling at me.
"And me too," says Jacqueline, and she climbs into bed with me. She is shivering so I hold her in my arms and kiss her and comfort her, just like I used to do when she was scared of something. After a while she stops shivering, and she curls up in my arms and says, "Go ahead now, Nicole, and tell me one." Just like she used to do.
"Oh no, Jacqueline," I say, "not tonight. Why don't we just go to sleep."
"No!" She pushes me with her elbow, and says, "No! I want you to tell about me and Atlantis."
So I make up a story about her, how she was a princess in Atlantis. I have been telling her these stories for years, even before we lived with our parents. She loves to hear them but I always have to make sure that she is the princess and always wears a different color dress.
"Say what I wore."
"You wore a blue dress with a belt made of little silver bells."
"And on my head ?"
"A crown made of silver with a ruby rose on each tip."
"And in my hand?"
"You held a golden scepter."
"Last time I had a bouquet of flowers."
"A scepter is very nice. It means you are the ruler, and nobody can do anything you don't like."
"I'd like a magic wand better."
"All right, then you can have a magic wand."
Before, I used to think Jacqueline was a nuisance when she woke me up, and I used to tell her so, too. But now when I feel her beginning to slip away, I beg her to stay. I promise to tell her lots of stories--as many as she wants. But she goes, and I am there alone, shivering in the darkness. So I eat my last piece of licorice, and go to sleep.