days, or just to spite her, he’ll fire Jorgen. But she knows Edmond would love to see Pierre. He asked about him today.
I haven’t decided if I’m going to keep him, says Pierre. I tell you, though, he’s an odd one. He hardly speaks. Seems almost comatose at times. Maybe he’s sipping away at absinthe, who knows? I’m usually a good judge of people, but he doesn’t reveal much. He works and works, barely says a damn thing.
He sounds like an ideal worker. How fortunate for you.
Why are you so happy? he asks, his permanently dissatisfied mouth tightening. You look like something marvelous has happened. Did you save someone’s life today? Did you finally become a saint?
I’m just happy. Every day is a blessing.
He waves his hand in front of him. Please. No sermons. When I have a thousand francs in my sweaty hands from this vase, I will be very happy, and not before then.
She shakes her head and walks down the hallway, then stops. Before I forget, she says, I must ask for some extra blankets.
Pierre is about to protest.
Not for me. For Edmond.
He sighs heavily and tells her there is a stack in the back office. He relents further and tells her to take as many as Edmond needs. And for her, too. But don’t bother my new employee. I want every last franc out of him, which is my God-given right as his employer, so don’t tell me otherwise.
She’s almost to the inventory room, when she stops again. You know, Edmond would love to see you. Why does she insist? she wonders. Pierre will never go again. Too busy, too self-absorbed, selfish, really. After he went his one and only time, he said the stench was overwhelming, the misery too great. How stupid this war. Any war. Such a pathetic waste of lives, he said, and she held her tongue, almost lashing back, Your pathetic life, Pierre.
Pierre looks at her squarely with flat eyes and strides away.
She’s about to say more, but turns and walks to Jorgen’s office.
Hello, she says. Oh, don’t get up. No, please.
Hello, says Jorgen.
She asks how he is doing.
He gestures weakly toward the tall stack of books; the pencil in his hand is perfectly still.
Oh, look at those terrible books. My brother must have had the work pile up before you arrived. And now he has you. What a blessing.
He perches above his carefully written numbers, each neatly situated in its column. He looks horrible, she thinks. A trace of a man. Almost as ill as the men in the hospital, and she wonders if his leg might be infected and whendid he last eat? His face has become more gaunt; his sallow skin presses against his high cheekbones and his eyes appear feverish and sunken.
She wasn’t planning to tell anyone what she has done. Not even Edmond, who would most likely try to stop her. Her secret, this new deed, but she feels she must do something; why, look at the way his head droops, as if struck by an insoluble, deathly question.
You mustn’t tell anyone. Please, swear that you won’t. She comes and stands by his desk.
He sets down his pencil.
She leans over. There’s a group of women. We’re training to be soldiers, and we’re going to fight for France.
He shifts in his chair and strains to understand what she just said.
She leans closer and says in a hushed tone, Yesterday, two soldiers met with us and they’re teaching us how to shoot. If I learn quickly, I may get to join the fighting in a week or two. She doesn’t tell him how a group of National Guardsmen stood by mocking them, pretending to be hit by a stray bullet.
Her eyes are watery bright, and she tells him when she fired the gun it threw her back three feet, nearly knocking her against a stone wall, and though it was terrifying, she felt a tremendous surge of energy rip through her body. The air smelled of smoke and bitterness. Her hands, blackened from the powder.
Look, she says, extending her hands. Some of the black marks still smudge her cuticles.
He looks from her hands to her blue