Handkerchiefs and Holy Medals

by Marie Gethins

Crash. After her breathing slowed, Seraphine strained to hear battle sounds, but the May night was still. She clutched the Jeanne d’Arc medal around her neck and whispered a blessing. Stepping out of bed, planks cooled her bare feet. She bit her lip and opened the window, folding back the wooden shutters. Since the start of the Great War, government orders dictated all doors and shutters should remain closed from dusk till dawn, but she craved fresh air.

Four years ago on a spring night like this Gilles had tossed pebbles against her shutters, enticing her out for a midnight stroll. Now moonlight illuminated Breuvannes-en-Bassigny’s cobblestone main street, empty except for a rangy dog. It nosed an ash can, the lid settling with a bang. She swallowed the night air, holding it deep in her lungs. Her throat tightened, she pulled the shutters closed.

Seraphine dressed in the dark, fingers winding her hair into a tight chignon. On the landing she paused. Her mother’s snores ebbed through the oak door. Carrying her boots, she tip-toed down the stairs. In the kitchen, a match hiss seemed louder than her mother. An oil lamp sputtered and then filled the room with its glow. Placing their Bible on the table, she opened it, lifted a stiff photograph hidden within the pages. Gilles stared out at her from his tintype: elegant in his new army uniform, face serious, but eyes smiling. “Mon Cher, why haven’t you written to me?” She pressed the photo to her chest.

When her mother came into the kitchen hours later, Seraphine had returned the Bible to the shelf and laid the table for their breakfast.

“I smelled coffee; did you make it full strength?” Her mother settled into a chair.

“Yes, I need it strong today, but it’s almost gone.” Seraphine placed a delicate cup and saucer in front of her mother, a miniature jug of warm milk along side.

“Buy more then. I’ve given up meat, but I cannot live without coffee.”

Maman, even if I could find someone to sell it, we don’t have the money.”

Her mother ran a finger along the china cup’s rim. “The soldiers, they must have coffee. Perhaps you could ask?”

Maman, no.”

“Hungry for a pretty girl’s smile, I only suggest…”

“No.”

Her mother shook her head. “I’m so tired of this, Poupée, so tired. How much longer can it go on?”

Seraphine gave her mother’s shoulders a squeeze. She went to the front of the house where their tailor shop faced the street. Walking behind the counter, she opened the storeroom, pushing bolts of wool and cotton to one side. At the back, she found it. Even in the dim light, the white Duchesse satin glowed. Seraphine sighed. She remembered showing it to Gilles. He had wrapped her in it like a mummy, stealing a kiss. They’d lost their balance, laughing and falling to the floor together, bolts tumbling on top of them.

When Seraphine walked into the kitchen lugging the Duchesse satin, her mother smiled.

“Yes, a good distraction. We will sew your wedding gown.”

“No, Maman. No more dreams. We’ll make souvenirs to sell to the soldiers.”

“Not with this fabric.” Her mother frowned.

“They must be beautiful or they won’t buy them. So yes, we’ll use this fabric and the wedding lace too.”

Seraphine began to sketch a design while he mother tidied the kitchen. After an hour, she showed her mother a bouquet of seven flags with a single line of script along the bottom: Souvenir de France.

“Handkerchiefs with this design and trimmed with lace.”

Her mother pointed to each flag. “Portugal, Romania, Italy, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium and the United States. We have all the colours? Enough thread?”

“Yes.”

Her mother stroked the fabric. “Are you certain?”

Seraphine nodded.

“Then we must begin.”

Her mother grunted as she lifted the satin onto the table and began to measure out squares. By the end of the day they had a stack ready to be hemmed and trimmed with wide, heavy lace. When they had embroidered a good number, Seraphine began selling the handkerchiefs to the soldiers as they passed through the village on their way to Verdun and the Western Front.

She arranged a table outside their shop. At first she sat silent, displaying a handkerchief at arm’s length. Tired and dirty, most of the men kept their eyes forward, continuing their steady pace. A few tipped their caps, but didn’t stop.

The second week, Seraphine began to call out, “Souvenir de France, Souvenir de France for your loved ones.” When regiments camped outside the village, soldiers began to return to her table in the evening to purchase the handkerchiefs. In the past Seraphine had watched the parade of blue, grey, olive and brown pass by, searching faces in blue French uniforms. She no longer asked, “Gilles Lecrubier?” afraid what an unfamiliar voice might answer. At her table she sold to nameless men who touched her hand or smiled. A few asked her to kiss the memento before tucking it inside their woollen jackets.

Courtesy of Marie GethinsSeraphine returned to the handkerchief table day-after-day. She began to believe that with each sale a fragment of her floated away, ash carried on the wind. As she placed the embroidered square into a soldier’s hand, she thought, “Gilles, I am waiting.” At night she imagined two men in a trench, sharing a cigarette; one showing the other her handiwork. Gilles would smile, recognising her initials in the corner, the satin he wrapped her in.

The summer brought a good harvest, wheat waves swaying in fields outside Breuvannes-en-Bassigny. Villagers worked in home-carved wooden shoes cutting, stacking. At the start, distant gunfire and explosions froze them into positions like children’s toys, but soon they ignored the sounds. In early August, Seraphine saw American planes for the first time, dog fighting with the familiar German air force. Later, American doughboys entered the village.

Brash and jovial, the Americans seemed eager to reach the Front. The village joined in their excitement. Her mother waved and called to them through the window when they stopped at the table. None of them spoke more than two or three words of French. However, they had plenty of francs.

On the Sunday after the Americans arrived, the two women walked to early Mass. The twisted church spire remained a beacon for them. Seraphine no longer dreamed of her wedding day during the old priest’s sermons: images of Gilles in a fine suit watching her approach in Duchesse satin and lace. Now she prayed the Americans would bring his return.

As they left the church, her mother stumbled on the stone steps. A doughboy reached out and helped her down the rest of the way. Rattling away in French, the middle-aged lady kissed both his cheeks. Seraphine studied him. Light brown hair cut close to his head, straight nose, blue eyes set in a tanned, unlined face. A mischievous smile formed while he listened to her mother babble. When a draught of his scent – strong tobacco and stale sweat – made her cough, she patted her mother’s arm.

Maman, I’m sure this gentleman has much to do.” Leaning towards the doughboy, she tested two English words, “thank you.” He bowed and gave them a wink.

Chérie, such a nice young man – handsome, courteous and these Americans have money. Perhaps he may return to Breuvannes-en-Bassigny, eh?”

“You think I’ve forgotten Gilles?”

“No, but you cannot wait forever.”

Seraphine stiffened, touching Jeanne d’Arc’s profile through her blouse.

The following Thursday morning, she brought field flowers for the church altar. A neighbour sat in a back pew, rosary beads jangling, whispered prayers mixing with the tap of Seraphine’s boots. An American soldier knelt at the top of the church, in front of the Blessed Virgin. Coming closer, she recognised the doughboy. Head bowed, votive candle flames flickered with his rushed breath.

As Seraphine arranged the flowers, she darted glances at him. Before they left for battle, Breuvannes-en-Bassigny soldiers prayed to Saint Martin de Tours on the far side of the church. She had never seen a man pray to the Blessed Virgin. The doughboy remained in the same position: eyes closed, fingers woven together. Every muscle in his body looked taut. She wondered who he prayed for with such intensity. He made the sign of the cross and stood up. Noticing her at the altar, he inclined his head. She flushed and hurried out of the church.separatorThey had exchanged their final good-byes on the church steps. Gilles, smart in his fresh blue uniform, had pressed the Jeanne d’Arc medal into her palm.

Père André blessed it. Promise me you’ll wear it while I am away to keep you safe,” he said.

Seraphine turned as he fastened the clasp around her neck. A final kiss and he joined the other troops, marching out of the village to shouts and applause. When she no longer could distinguish his back, she went into the church and prayed to the Blessed Virgin for his protection.

separatorThe Saturday after Seraphine saw the doughboy in the church, the Americans began to pack their tents. Before the women had their coffee, a group of soldiers had gathered in front of the shop. Seraphine hurried outside with her table and handkerchiefs. The young men, bright and full of laughter bought her satin squares to take to the Front. Customer after customer came to the table. Seraphine didn’t register their faces, counting change, spouting thanks. When a soldier reached out and took her hand, she looked up. The doughboy smiled.

His voice sounded as she had expected: soft and low. The indecipherable words delivered at a measured pace. He lifted a handkerchief off the stack, rubbed a finger along the satin. The doughboy pointed to the embroidery.

“Beautiful…ah…belle?”

Merci, thank you.”

He mimed stitching and pointed to her, eyebrows raised. Seraphine nodded.

Belle!” He smiled and began to speak faster, indicating the American flag on the handkerchief, miming distance. In the midst of his chatter a word caught her ear.

“Fiancé?”

He grinned. “Fiancée, Anna.” He opened his wallet and took out a small photo, offering it to her. “Anna.”

A girl with earnest eyes and a shy smile stared out at Seraphine. She imagined this girl safe in a far away church, no battle sounds to disturb her prayers. She wondered if this Anna fingered a holy medal around her neck, dreamed of a white satin dress, waited for his letters.

The doughboy took back the photo and pulled out five francs. She shook her head, holding up two fingers. He dug out two francs, handing it to her. She stared at the silver coin glinting in the sunlight. The figure of Marianne seemed to move: sowing seeds, her flowing hair protected by the Liberty Phrygian cap.

Seraphine thought of Jeanne d’Arc leading her soldiers into battle, Gilles in a trench full of muck and blood while she embroidered satin squares behind battle lines. The medal hung heavy around her neck.

The doughboy folded the handkerchief into four on top of the table. As he lifted it, Seraphine grabbed his wrist. She held up one hand, palm forward. He nodded, waiting. She unclasped her Jeanne d’Arc medal and slipped it inside the folded satin square. He frowned.

Pour vous, pour Anna.” Seraphine closed his fingers around the handkerchief and medal, pressing her fingers against his.

He looked down, their palms joined around the bundle. She tightened her grip.

Pour vous, pour Anna.”

He met her stare. Finger-by-finger, he pried her hand open. “Merci,” he said. The doughboy turned her hand over, raised it to his lips. The imprint of his kiss lingered for a moment on her skin. He slipped her gift into an inside jacket pocket.

She watched his brown uniform disappear into the dusty horizon.

separatorMarie Geth­ins’ cre­ative writ­ing has fea­tured in Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, 2014 National Flash Fiction Day anthology, Litro, NANO, The Incubator, Vin­tage Script, Control Literary Magazine and Word Bohemia. She won or placed in Tethered by Letters flash, Drom­i­neer Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val, The New Writer Microfiction, Prick of the Spindle and 99fiction.net. Other pieces have been listed in the Fish Short Story/Flash/Memoir, James Plunkett Award, Listowel Writers Week Originals, Words with JAM, Flash500, Inktears, RTE/Penguin, Lightship, Doris Gooderson, and WOW! Award com­pe­ti­tions. Marie is a Pushcart and Best Short Fictions Nominee. She lives in Cork, Ireland, working on her Master of Studies in Creative Writing at the University of Oxford.

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