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Thomas Railles, in their bedroom, sorted through the items on her dresser one by one. They were everyday familiar, but he had rarely noticed them: photographs of her mother and Tante Christine and the postmaster, husband number one, looking official in a blue hat. He had been dead some years and she seldom spoke of him except to remark on his loyalty to the post office, one of the sublime achievements of French civilization, established by Louis XI and nationalized by the immortal Bonaparte himself. There were two photographs of her and Thomas in the mountains, snow-covered peaks in the distance. Florette wore a black beret and they both carried walking sticks; same beret, same walking sticks in both pictures. He leafed through a stack of postcards, then straightened them as you would straighten a deck of cards. He paused to look left at the Matisse sketch over the bed, the head of a young woman so ardent you felt she might fly off the paper and become flesh in front of your eyes. He had bought it for Florette on their first wedding anniversary and he had never seen her so pleased. The price would have appalled her but she never asked. With difficulty Thomas turned back to the task at hand, his inventory. There was a sewing kit and a crucifix on a silver chain with strands of her hair and next to the crucifix an alligator jewel box he had bought in Rome years before. A company of elephants ranged in a semicircle around the photographs: marble elephants from Thailand, stone elephants from South Africa, ebony elephants from Kenya, and a silver elephant from India. The Indian elephant came with a howdah and a miniature maharajah wearing a pointed turban. All of them were gifts from Bernhard Sindelar and Russ Conlon. Wherever they went in the world they bought elephants for Florette. Elephants were good luck. Also, they had excellent memories and were faithful to one another. Thomas touched each elephant in turn, then reached into his pocket and put the gold cigarette lighter next to the jewel box. She had left the lighter on the dining room table the afternoon she went for her walk in the mountains. He looked again at the photographs of himself and Florette, and the one of the postmaster.
When he asked her about him, she waved the question away.
What attracted you to him?
The usual things, she said.
Really, he’d insisted. I’m serious.
He never asked questions, she said. That was what attracted me to him. Then, softening some, she laughed dryly. I can’t remember, she said. It was so long ago. He wasn’t a brute, I can tell you that. And, my God, he did love his post office.
From the bedroom window Thomas could see the driveway, cars parked haphazardly along it. He watched the mayor and his wife and daughter walk to their Citroën, get in, and drive away. He knew people wouldn’t leave until he put in an appearance, accepted their condolences, thanked them for coming. Thomas did not move when he heard a knock on the door, and whoever it was went away. He wanted them all to go away but did not know how to go about telling them. Grief could not be shared or even communicated except in slovenly ways. Bernhard and Russ promised to take care of everyone but they hadn’t succeeded. One voice rose above the others but Thomas could not identify it. Ghislaine, perhaps, or the doctor who lived in the village. Florette and Dr. Picot had been childhood friends and she was good enough to supervise the autopsy herself, and that morning at the service she offered toexplain anything he wanted explained.
I can’t tell you much that you don’t already know or suspect, Dr. Picot said.
Thomas was standing next to his car, the urn containing Florette’s ashes in his arms. The burial was private.
She said, Florette was in good health, strong as an ox despite her filthy cigarette habit. Her ankle fracture was very serious and naturally there was hypothermia due to the cold. The cut at her throat was not deep and there was very little bleeding because her body was so cold. Her blood was beginning to congeal. Strong as she was, all this was too much for her. When she was cut her heart stopped. I am certain she was unconscious so at the end the cold would not have mattered to her. I’m bound to say that one hour would have made the difference but I’m sure you and your friends did the best you could under the circumstances. She had a bad time of it, I’m afraid.
It’s a blessing that at the end she was surely unconscious. The cold, her injuries. She had tremendous faith, as you know, and her faith would have helped her through her ordeal. Still, the experience would have been very lonely for her and frightening. Is it true there were four men? Whoever they were, thhey deserve to rot in hell.
I’m sure they will.
Poor Florette. It’s not the first time something of this sort has happened, men from ouuuuutside the region, poaching, smuggling, running guns or drugs or just running away.
These mountainsthe doctor began but did not finish her thought. Instead, she shrugged and walked away.
He wondered what Dr. Picot wanted to tell him about the mountains. Probably she had an urge to explain the local superstitions but thought better of it. So he was left with Florette’s urn in his arms, imagining her blood going cold as her heart failed. The other details he put at the back of his mind.
Thomas watched the doctor make her way to her car, head down, moving slowly. When she turned suddenly to look up at the bedroom window, he gave a little wave of his hand and knocked wood. She blew a kiss and continued on her way. The doctor was not an agreeable woman but she was a good friend to Florette; and he did not believe that one hour would have made any difference. He watched Dr. Picot’s car move off, the sunlight so bright it hurt his eyes. He did not know what he would do for the remainder of the afternoon. He had thirty people in his house. They were good to come but he didn’t want them there. Thomas moved the silver elephant so that it stood beside the photograph of him and Florette having their picnic in the mountains. The time was spring. She had bought cold chicken and a block of pâté and a bottle of the local rosé. She told risqué stories of village life when she was a girl, hilarious stories with the flavor of Rabelais. They were nothing like the stories of LaBarre when he was a boy. Thomas stared at the photograph and tried to remember the exact spot on the mountain where they had had their picnic but he could not; it was so long ago and all mountains looked the same when you were on them.
Thomas pressed the heels of his hands on the dresser top and leaned until his forehead touched the windowpane, warm from the autumn sun. The noise downstairs continued. He did not want to face them but knew that he must for Florette’s sake. He took a sip of wine from the glass on the dresser. He had forgotten it was there but almost at once he felt better, moving into some variety of equilibrium. The person he wanted with him was St. John Granger, dead now nearly one week. Granger knew how to get rid of people. He had been successfully getting rid of people for decades. Granger, master of the silent stare, connoisseur of the oblique and puzzling remark; and all the time he was laughing inside, as he said, “where it counted.” Also, he knew what to do with himself of an afternoon. A single glass of wine at lunch, a book, a nap, tea at four o’clock, a stroll before dinner. Granger swung on a tight compass, having seen as much of the world as he cared to see. He was not tempted by pyramids or South Sea islands. He believed the world was overrated. All a man needed was his health, a comfortable house, his books, and a billiards table on which the varieties of experience were near infinite. He laced his talk with billiards expressions, angle shots, balance points, bad hits, corner hooks, feather shots, force-follows, time shots, table runs. He believed restlessness was the enemy of achievementnot that he valued achievement. Granger called himself a species of ghost and that was surely true. He cast no shadow on the earth, and an evening’s conversation over the billiards table, broken as it was by interminable silences, seemed to halt time itself. Granger had had one profound experience as a young man and spent the rest of his life feeding off it, existing in a realm where experience was irrelevant. His life was a kind of force-follow, extreme overspin with a hesitation when it encountered resistance. Thomas laughed suddenly, looking at the elephants and thinking about Granger.
Do you know, Granger said one night, that no American has won the world three-cushion billiards championship since 1936?
No, I didn’t know that.
Belgians have won it twelve times. Not one American. Or Englishman either. One German.
Why do you suppose that is, Granger?
Granger, sighting an angle shot over his left knuckle, waited a moment before replying. Too much war experience, Thomas. Too little patience.
Captain St. John Granger had been with Allenby’s Third Army at La Boisselle, July 1, 1916, the worst day of the war, a German-expressionist horror from sunup to dusk. Along the salient that day there were 58,000 casualties including 20,000 dead, the numbers rounded off because no one had a precise count. Bodies disappeared, blown to pieces or lost in the mud. On July 2, Captain Granger crawled out of a hole and began walking. The battlefield was shrouded in early morning mist the color and density of pearls. The air smelled of fish. Granger glided over the scarred and barren terrain of no man’s land, stepping carefully to avoid the corpses and pieces of corpses. He was bound for the British lines. No one noticed him and in his shock and confusion Granger believed he had become invisible. He had become one with the thick and swirling mist and so he continued unchallenged through the lines and the headquarters behind the lines. Aid stations gave way to hospitals that gave way to makeshift morgues. The fish smell grew stronger with each step he took. Granger walked across the hills until, that evening, he found himself in Albert, clad now in the blue work clothes of a French peasant. The day after that he was in Amiens, and that night in Paris, well turned out in a light-colored suit and a straw boater. He dined at Fouquet’s and went home with a girl. The next week he was in Geneva, arranging a transfer of funds, a more complicated business than it might seem because by then he was reported missing in action and presumed dead. His brother, Adrian, worked for a bank in the City of London and so the transfer was made, but made most reluctantly because his banker brother did not believe in desertion in time of war, a scandalous affair, the coward’s way out, letting down the side. Thank God our father and mother are gone, they could not have borne your disgrace. What will you do now? St. John said nothing, listening to his brother’s voice as if it were a stranger’s overheard in a railway car or on the street. He was neither insulted nor angry. He was certainly not chastened. He was indifferent to his brother’s opinions because they were unearned. His brother had never seen a trench, an aid station, a morgue, or an armed enemy. He knew that in the end Adrian would comply, and in the end Adrian did. When St. John was told the details of the money transfer, the account numbers, and the verification procedures, he said a curt goodbye and hung up. They never spoke again.
Granger liked the Swiss, who kept to themselves, and liked Geneva, which was orderly and quiet. But he hated the weather so by the end of 1916 he was in Barcelona, and the following year in Málaga, fetching up finally in the pretty Andalusian village of Arcos de la Frontera, where he rented rooms to wait out the war. He was eighteen years old but had already acquired the reclusive habits that would remain with him his entire life. He discarded his memories of the war, which were elusive and fragmentary, as if they did not belong to him but to someone else. He knew that the Somme had taken something vital from him but he did not know what it was, and when someone suggested that it was his youth, he scoffed. Youth held no interest for him and he had no wish to prolong it. Later, Granger decided that the experience had not taken something from him but had given something to himbut he didn’t know what that was, either. He wondered if it was anonymity. He had no specific recollection of July 2, 1916, crawling out of a hole into a pearly landscape to begin his walk from no man’s land to the British lines and beyond, the unobserved movements of a sleepwalker, and it seemed that was what he remainedunconcerned with his surroundings, one step removed, becalmed, friendless. Perhaps what he had been given was the dance, not the dancer. Ghost dance, he thought. And if he awakened suddenly? Granger knew in his heart that he would live a very long time and he had to acquire the circumspection to build a life abroad in the world. He had no desire to return to England. England was foreclosed in any case, because in England he was a dead man. His only relative was the appalling Adrian, and then, one month before the war ended, he learned that Adrian had been killed in a road accident. He saw a newspaper obituary by chance in the reading room of the British consulate at Málaga, and from it he discovered that his brother had a wife and young daughter, the wife an American from Pennsylvania. The obituary was brief but it contained this sentence: “Adrian Granger’s younger brother, St. John, posthumously received the Military Cross for heroic actions on the Somme salient, July 1, 1916.” Can you believe it? Granger said. Don’t you think it’s droll?
The Military Cross! And I don’t remember a thing. The day’s a blank, except for the weather and the fish smell and the sense of inevitability. It’s as if July 1 were a dream.
What do you suppose I did to deserve the MC? Or didn’t do.
I suppose it’s not wise to inquire too closely. Butwhat do you suppose happened to the medal?
He said, I imagine it’s buried with Adrian. Brother Adrian was a history buff with a particular interest in the Irish question. To which, I may add, he had no answer. I fancy the Military Cross redeemed me in Adrian’s eyes. Do you suppose he was just the slightest bit tempted to tell them I was alive after all and on the run in Europe and then deciding finally, no, what was the point? Raking old leaves.
Officially alone now in the world, Granger was free to chart his own course. He made his way north to San Sebastian, stayed awhile, then pressed west through the French hill towns until he found himself in St. Michel du Valcabrcre. He put up at the auberge, struck at once by the lovely valley that ran into the high Pyrenees, disappearing into the Spanish summits. There was one road into the village. The inhabitants kept to themselves and were not inquisitive. There seemed to him no good reason to move on, and so in October 1920 he bought the farmhouse and settled in for what turned out to be a very long furlough.
When Thomas came downstairs at last, most of the guests were leaving or had gone. Bernhard and Russ were cleaning up in the kitchen. He said a few words to each of the friends who remained. They were ill at ease, at a loss what to say, their expressions genuinely aggrieved. Thomas’s haggard appearance was not encouraging. No one stayed more than a few minutes and finally only Ghislaine, severe in a black dress and one of Florette’s cardigan sweaters, was left.
I’m so sorry, Ghislaine said.
I know, Thomas said. Me too.
Monsieur Granger and now Madame. Both in one week. It’s a horror.
Yes, Thomas said. It is that.
She had so many friends. All of them came to pay respects. I will come tomorrow to clean. And each week thereafter if you would like me to.
Yes, that would be fine.
I know how Madame likes things done.
I know you do.
Madame was meticulous.
Thomas suppressed a smile because Florette hated housework and meticulous would not be the word when she got around to it. Yes, of course, Thomas said.
I will charge you the usual rate.
Fine, Thomas said.
Au revoir, Monsieur.
Tomorrow, then, Thomas said and closed the door. He stood with his hand on the knob, realizing that he had come within a heartbeat of raising his voice, calling to Florette, Do you want Ghislaine to come and clean tomorrow, chérie? And waiting patiently for her answer, which likely would have been no. She thought Ghislaine was a snoop. Probably that would be the way of things for a while, speaking aloud to empty rooms, brewing tisane for two, buying dinner for two, buying women’s shampoo in the pharmacy and Paris-Match at the newsstand. When he realized at last that she was no longer with him and that this was for keeps, the knowledge would come as no comfort at all. That would mean she was absent from the background as well as the foreground. Of their intimate life together Thomas refused to undress himself. Aphrodite herself could not lure him. He was, for the time being, endimanché, the lovely French word that meant buttoned up in your Sunday best.
Meanwhile, there were the elephants to consider, the family photographs, the mementos, her cosmetics in the bathroom, the six varieties of shampoo, and the soap in various pastel shades. In time he would become accustomed to living alone, buying for one, and that would hurt just as much, more really, because there would be nothing to wait for except a miracle, and miracles were not in his repertoire. The mountain would always be in his vision when he was working unless he chose to turn his easel to the wall, and still he would be unable to forget, and he was a man who forgot things all the time. He was a champion forgetter. The mountain would be a predictable presence, benign, enduring, lush in the summer and barren in the winter, impassable in all seasons. The villagers called it Big Papa, a kindly massif when treated with respect. Watch the weather forecast, never trek after dark, avoid the higher elevations, beware the sullen mountain gods. Thomas was standing with his hands pressed against the door as if the mountain somehow sought admittance. It was inside his house anyhow.
How had this come to pass?
He and Bernhard and Russ hadn’t seen one another for nearly a year. They were telling stories, laughing so hard they didn’t hear Florette when she called to tell them she was going for a walk. He knew she’d called. She always had before. She would never leave the house without telling him where she was going and when she would return but Russ was in the middle of one of his Washington stories, a respected senator fallen on hard times, the usual mischief and bad timing; so they had not heard Florette. I’m going for a walk, back in an hour. Stupid of him, unimaginably careless. But when Russ finished his senator story, Bernhard had one about an ambassador and an astrologer, the ambassador grown slack and torpid in the heat of Southwest Asia, losing his bearings, searching for consolation in the astrological houses, his cables to the State Department ever more obtuse and bad-tempered, and then he disappeared into the northern mountains, apparently kidnapped, held for ransom. Special Operations wanted to dispatch a team but the secretary of state counseled caution, thinking something along the lines of “The Ransom of Red Chief.” Soon enough the ambassador would wear them out and the kidnappers would capitulateWhen Thomas wandered into the kitchen to look for Florette he surmised she had gone for a walk and would return soon, for the sun was low in the sky and the air smelled of snow. She had stacked the dishes and pulled another bottle of Corbicres from the cave. He stepped into the yard to wait for her, noting at once the evening chill. When the sun disappeared, all warmth disappeared with it and he stood worrying in the cold with his empty wineglass, staring hard at the road and the path that led away from it, knowingnot all at once but gradually as the light failedthat something was wrong because she was not in sight. He scanned Big Papa from base to summit, left and right, looking for any movement or flash of color, but the distance was great and the mountain vast. She could be anywhere. Even so, the massif looked as empty and useless as the glass in his hand. He shivered in the cold and took a step forward, calling her name. The sound of his voice echoed in the valley, rising and repeating, expiring at last as darkness continued to gather. Then he had the idea she had gone into the village on an errand but when he looked into the garage their car was still there, so he called again and again with no result. He was furious with her, behaving so recklessly. She thought of the mountain as her private reserve, having lived in its shadow since she was a child. Then he remembered her telling him about malevolent mountain gods punishing trespassers, superstitious nonsense. He remembered looking up and seeing headlights on the road but the headlights disappeared. Night fell like a curtain and he realized he was sweating.
Copyright © 2006 by Ward Just. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.