when you were a little girl - sincere, boundless, clutching your mother’s skirts and weeping at skinned knees - your father used to tell stories about your church, your town, the only place you have ever known.
he would talk about the stained glass windows, how their gleaming light was colored by god himself, blue like the robes of the madonna and red like the blood of christ, deep purple like communion wine and gold like the gifts of the wisemen.
he would talk about mr. laurent, who ran the fabrics shop, how the elderly man had fantastical powers, trusted with keeping everyone in écoust warm through the harshest of winters. mr. laurent was a protector, your father would say.
(he used to say that about everyone: your school teacher, and the chocolatier, and the prime minister of england. it was because your father’s heart was large and bleeding, and he cared for the world fiercely, in a way you always envied. when your baby sister was born, you earned the status as well - vivienne, the older sister, the protector.)
then, when you became restless of the determined raconteur, crawling from one of his knees to the other, tugging at his coarse beard, he’d pick you up with calloused hands and swing your slight body around until peals of laughter escaped from you, pacifying in their nature. you’d still be giggling by the time he tucked you in, pressing chapped lips to your forehead with a reminder about saying your prayers and remembering that you are loved.
and for several years, that was your life. mass and warm sugar water and caring for rosie. sometimes, the four of you would cross the bridge and venture out onto the open fields, petting the cows and running through the mullins’ cherry orchard.
of course, things get harder as you get older.
rosie gets sick, and your mother has to take her far away, for special treatment. you and your father make do in their absence, but you miss the togetherness of your family as though something has been tangibly stolen from you.
of course, things get harder as you get older. you were told that they might.
you are fifteen when the dreams start in earnest.
at first, they are abstractions, slivers of light and sound: a distinctively feminine moan, soft and surrounding; the subtle pressure of supple curves against your own body. you wake up in the dark privacy of your attic room, sweating and sated, and you bury your burning face into quilted blankets until the blushing stops.
by day break, you are able to cleanse the thoughts from your mind. it isn’t difficult, not at the very start, not when you can still pretend that everything can be blamed upon stealing racy books from the library or eavesdropping on the older kids as they filed out of the chapel after morning prayers.
the dreams develop, inevitably - nothing can be evaded forever.
you meet colette, a year older than you with golden hair and ocean eyes. when she talks, she grins as if she has a secret and her voice drips with honey. once, she jokingly catches your hand and kisses it as though she is a gentleman, laughing all the while.
that night, in the sweltering heat of your stuffy bedroom, your unconscious mind, a sinful traitor, paints a detailed scene: colette, sitting astride your lap, curls free from her pins and spilling out onto her bare chest. rouged cheeks and swollen lips, her sugar-sweet voice saying your name over and over: vivienne, vivienne, vivienne.
and that is when the shattering starts. you begin to feel various parts of yourself split. there is the girl who wholeheartedly confesses her sins, who kneels at the altar and bows her head for the lord, studious and responsible; then there is the girl who wakes up damp and gasping at the thought of other women, who blushes when the shopkeeper’s assistant compliments her new hairstyle, who picks flowers for the shopkeeper’s assistant and presses them into journals.
the only way in which you keep yourself sane is through allowing the disparity. being a singular, whole human being never really suited you, anyways. there is a troubling dichotomy between your fingers and your wrists, your heart and the cage of bones it beats within.
your father notices that something is wrong, of course, but he thinks that you are making yourself sick over a boy. he tells you that you shouldn’t worry, the right man will come by eventually. you nod wordlessly and excuse yourself from the table.
you do stop worrying about it, in the end, because you are sixteen when the war starts.
when the war starts, it brings with it a dark, ferocious cloud that casts a violent shadow on all other aspects of life.
you are seventeen when your father leaves.
he says he can’t just sit around, mending shoes and twiddling his thumbs as younger men are being forced to die for their country. he says he needs to see if there is anything to do, anyway he can help, and then he leaves you.
you don’t blame him. there are very few left in écoust. it doesn’t take a war genius to know that the germans are getting closer with each day that passes, and that it won’t be very pretty when they do.
you stay. you can’t imagine doing anything else. écoust-saint-mein is all you know. it would be impossible to fathom an existence outside its’ cobbled roads and stoney buildings. and maybe it’s stupid, maybe it’s sentimental, but it’s your home.
you are nineteen when the germans burn your church to the ground.
you watch from the cold ruins of your old house, hidden away and soundless, as they set fire to your place of worship. it takes your breath away, almost, the beauty of something so horrific. you were baptized in that church. your parents were married in that church.
and you cry. you’re not even certain, truly, if you believe in god anymore, but you still weep as though you are watching jeanne d’arc on the pyre.
(it’s times like these, you know, where you should lean on the lord more than ever, but there is a dam of corpses polluting the river water, and you are having difficulty finding any sort of god in that.)
that night, an english soldier runs through your town. he’s alone and unarmed, by the end of it, and the last you see of him is a silhouette jumping blindly into raging waters.
strangely, you find that you almost envy him. he passes through écoust as though it is nothing more than an obstacle in some broader, more important task. he stops to gaze with terror and fascination at what is left, the ghosts of your former life, and then he marches on, likely in search of a medal - a bit of tin and some ribbon.
or maybe he’s a deserter. it’s not honorable, not in the least, but it’s understandable. you’ve seen what this war has done to people, what this war has asked boys to do to each other. the whole thing is heartless. godless.
eventually, a storm sweeps through and leaves everything gray, covered in ash and mud. it is the dead of night, just after the archaic clock chimes, and you are soaked through your skin. you used to allow yourself periods of rest, but now you know that any night where you are not scavenging is a day where the rats beat you to your meal.
there are moments of eerie quiet, suffocating silence that permeates through the streets, and you shuffle through the shadows with bated breath.
it makes your skin crawl, and you wish there was another clap of thunder. you wish the rain would pick up.
and then, you hear a baby cry.
at first, you think that your mind is playing tricks. when you’ve been alone for so long, it tends to do that.
but then there is the hushed voice of a woman, trying to console the crying child. you follow the sound of comfort like a moth to a flame.
you don’t even think twice, slipping through a kicked-in shutter and stumbling through a dark hallway. you see fire, and for a moment, you’re taken back to the night of the church burning, and terror runs through your veins as strong as any liquor. but it’s just a fireplace, and there’s a woman sat in front of it, singing a lullaby to an infant.
“hello?” you feel as though you haven’t spoken in years. surrounded by german and english, volatile and foreign, your own french feels like an old friend.
the woman looks up. her face is framed by loose ringlets of tangled hair, and the orange light plays harshly off her features.
she doesn’t respond, not right away. instead, she sets the baby down onto the dirty mattress, and turns to you with an unreadable expression. and then she is putting her arms around you, enveloping you into a fierce hug.
“i thought i was the only one left.” she’s saying, “i thought i was the only one.” it’s desperate, exhausted.
and she reeks of kerosene and sweat, but she’s soft and warm and you sink into her embrace like you’ve known her all your life.
“me too. me too.” your voice, muffled by her shoulder, is shaking.
soon enough she pulls away, embarrassed by the scene she’s made.
“i’m lauri.” she mutters, pushing her hair away from her face and moving to hold the baby again, rocking the bundle back and forth with such tenderness that you feel as though you want to cry.
“vivienne.” you respond, and she smiles, and you smile back.
the baby isn’t hers. when she tells you, she says it as though it is a secret. the little one has been abandoned.
(that is what she calls the baby: ma petite.)
abandoned, with no mother to give it milk and no cradle for it to sleep in. lauri has fashioned one out of a rickety old cabinet, and you can’t help but admire her ingenuity. you can’t help but admire her rushed words, wrought with anxiety, when she tells you that the child is weak, the child is hungry. the little one is not hers, but she loves it nonetheless.
“how old is she?” you ask, though you are certain of the answer: i don’t know. “we can feed her bread.”
lauri shakes her head. “she’s too young.”
“if we crush it up, i think, and put it in water. it’s better than nothing.”
“she will eat it?”
and she looks so hopeful, so ecstatic at the idea of keeping her child alive, that all you can do is nod.
you spend the night in lauri’s firelit room, singing hymns to the little one. lauri’s voice is soft when she speaks, when she asks about your family, when she asks if you can stay. of course, you answer, of course.
the two of you fall asleep on the makeshift bed, with the little one tucked safely in her cabinet. by the morning, lauri’s thin arms are wrapped around you. it’s warm and comforting and it brings tears to your eyes.
a wild part of you, isolated and manic, wants to spend the rest of your life in lauri’s arms. the bones of her elbow dig into your side, and everything smells like perspiration and dirt, and you are ready to die right then and there.
nevertheless, you sit up. the little one needs food, and so do you and lauri. with a gentle shake to her shoulder, you wait for lauri to stir.
“i’ll be back,” you whisper into the early morning air. “i promise.”
you return with as much of your supplies as you can carry, making several trips through the darkened tunnels which connect the buildings of écoust. the threat of a german soldier lingers around every corner, and sometimes you find yourself taken by terror at a bird flying off, or wind rushing through the trees. but then you think of the little one, and you think of the candy floss softness of lauri’s voice, and you keep going.
as a gift, you haul two buckets of the freshest water you can find across town. you heat them up on the fire, set one aside for the baby, and pour one into a basin.
finally, lauri wakes. when she spots the bath you’ve prepared for her, her face cracks into a grin so bright it nearly blinds you. you feel your treacherous heart pound, waking from its dormant slumber within your chest.
she undresses, and sinks into the warm water slowly. pure pleasure spreads through her features and you force yourself to look away.
in the midst of the war, in the midst of the ruins and the ash, you fall into a routine with a beautiful girl.
some nights, you stay behind with the little one. lauri has a talent for botany, and she comes home with handfuls of vegetables and berries, which you’ll cook into a watery stew. other times, you are the one to leave the warm basement rooms, pressing a kiss to lauri’s forehead and always, always promising that you will return. you discover that just across the destroyed bridge, there is an open field with a living cow, and you sprint home with a jug full of milk and a smile so wide it hurts.
but you always spend the mornings together, and you sleep through the day. in the late afternoon, the two of you bathe, and you allow lauri to work a comb through your gnarled hair. your name sounds sweet and safe when it tumbles from her lips. it’s simple, and it’s strange, and sometimes you lie awake, aching with want and guilt. lauri replaces the long-forgotten colette in the theatre stage of your dreaming, and sometimes her very presence makes your stomach turn.
the very first time in which lauri kisses you, she presses her lips to your wrist. you are lying on the mattress, limbs intertwined, when she catches your arm and softly kisses your pulse point. you gasp - you can’t help it. her lips are cracked, but you can feel the warm heat of her breath on the sensitive skin of your forearm. lauri smiles at the noise, and moves to mouth at the inside of your elbow, and then your shoulder. it’s embarrassing, how the gentle press of her lips makes you writhe.
there is something, something unexplainable, that stops you and her from properly kissing. it seems too pure for such a depraved time. sacrilegious, almost. but you find solace in the sweat-soaked skin of her neck, and she giggles while she bites at your jaw.
one day, she is pressing open-mouthed kisses to your collarbone as you run your fingers through her hair. when she shifts, dipping down, her lips graze your breasts through the thin cotton of your borrowed nightgown. you let out a whine so desperate you blush a dark red, bucking your hips against the leg she has slotted between your thighs.
she catches your eye, and arousal pulses through you like it is intertwined with your very heartbeat. you nod, though you do not know what exactly the acquiescence relates to. it doesn’t matter.
she keeps shifting lower, lips trailing down, down, down. by the time her head is between your thighs, you are moaning so wantonly that you must bite down into your hand to keep from waking everyone on the european front. when you look down, she is looking up at you, pupils blown black. she’s an angel. heavenly.
when lauri settles down beside you to sleep, she holds you - always. she holds you so tightly, it’s as though the shattered pieces of your personhood are put back together in her arms. you remember the sugared sweets of your childhood. you remember who you are - a protector.
the little one continues to grow, getting stronger everyday. she chews on cloth and mumbles nonsense, and nothing makes you happier.
once, you are trying to sleep on a sunny afternoon, surrounded by birdsong and crumbling architecture, with lauri curled next to you, her head resting against your chest. mindlessly, you whisper comforts to her as her eyelids begin to flutter shut with sleep.
“we’ll take care of our little one,” you say, “and watch her grow. we’ll survive the war, and we’ll take care of our little one.”
and then suddenly, lauri is wide awake, propping herself up on her elbows, and surging forward to meet your mouth with hers.