Twice-a-day Antoinette, the hen
There wasn’t a house without chickens during my mid-teens, outside the towns that is, in the Vosges mountains, the mirror image of the Black Forest on the French side of the Rhine. Between the two mountain ranges the Alsace lies trapped on a narrow strip, for centuries overrun by opposing armies. In the mustard light against a dark slate blue sky, a precursor to violent summer storms, I had a glorious view from the meadow next to our house standing in the shadow of two identical dark mountains; I could look down on the Ballon d’Alsace, a huge and glowing lump of a mountain some one hundred kilometres away. The only road through its dense forests became totally impassable in the winter because of meters of snow, effectively cutting the Alsace off from France for a couple of months, unless one wanted to take a detour via Switzerland and Germany or the Belgian border to the North. I imagined the other side of that monster of a mountain, the Alsace, land of plenty, the mellow light turning the lush vineyards to gold. Beyond them flowed the Rhine, already wide as it passed Strasbourg, and beyond that the dark, dark Black Forest stretching into Switzerland where people spoke my father’s language. That’s what the map of France showed anyway. I had, of course, never been there; our money situation did not allow holidays. So I was forever here, or so it seemed, at the edge of the dense forest with our rabbits, geese and chickens. From my problematic older sister and two much younger siblings not much conversation was to be had, my mother was struggling with the house and garden, none of which she, coming from a family with servants and in-house tutors, would ever master. So I wandered around, alone with my thoughts and racing imagination, in my pocket my pictures of the idyllic Southern French villages that I had painted in bright colours onto the virgin inside lid of empty Camembert cheese boxes. It was the only wooden surface available; at least it was a step in the right direction until my dream of painting on canvas could come true.
That last year, having passed my exams, as soon as school was out for summer I roamed the forest picking early blueberries and delivered my harvest to a market seller. By the second week of August I had amassed what seemed like a lot of money (around £10). I wanted to learn English – properly – and I knew that in London one could do so by being employed as au pair as my older sister had done. My father gave me the remaining £2 to buy my train ticket to England. As if on cue, as I stood in our living room with my cardboard suit case containing almost no clothes but two cheap volumes of Paul Eluard’s poems and an old box of pencils and paint, the radio started playing Elvis Presley’s It’s now or never. With my exam papers in my pocket I had no second thoughts about leaving the isolation of the harsh life in that mountain village or my family; neither offered me a future and even less hope. I jumped on a train for London, aged seventeen and ten days. Soon after my parents moved house, my mother must have thrown away all my painted cheese-lid masterpieces – I did not expect her to keep them. Under my empty bed she must have found a good dozen or more of my notebooks filled with my scribblings. Those too probably went onto the fire.
I had always written furiously. No subject was too small or too insignificant and so I carried a cheap notebook made of ugly news print with me wherever I went, sometimes getting off my bike to sit on the grassy verge by the side of the road to write down a small story or idea for one. I could speak to no one about our dire family situation, not even to my only school friend. My writing was a way of having all the conversations I longed for and later I realised that no one around me at the time knew me at all. I didn’t learn of the disposal of my artistic and intellectual endeavours, such as they were, until I visited my parents two years later in a clean, first floor suburban apartment and not one chicken in sight.
But prior to leaving home the collection of small animals anchored me in reality more than people did – it was possible to give them love, they had to be fed, let out in the morning, locked in at night, eventually killed in gory team work by my mother and myself. Our skills were basic – chopping the heads off chickens was not so hard. Geese were muscular and heavy, they put up a fight and then suddenly, they laid their heads and their long white neck on the block, totally still, waiting for me to bring the axe down. Holding them between my knees I plucked the birds’ feathers and disembowelled them, my mother roasted them. Their innards were good for soups or made into a spreadable paté, the carcasses boiled endlessly to make stock. It was the natural order of things.
One spring night around 11pm, when I was still hunched over history home work on the kitchen table, a desperate screeching came from the chicken house. On opening the front door our dog shot out past me and pursued a shadow all the way through the village. It was a fox which, in a short couple of hours, had killed and carried away our chickens. We had forgotten to close the chicken house hatch and it wasn’t until the fox was confronted by our exceptionally ferocious cockerel that we were alerted. The next day we found most of the dead birds in a long line stretching to the forest’s edge. I don’t recall whether we attempted to eat any of them as there was always the fear of rabies with foxes. My parents were devastated – no eggs, no roasts for a good while to come. That Easter a man from the village came to take a rabbit. When I came home from school to put away my bike it hung, stripped naked, dripping blood onto the floor. It made a beautiful Sunday meal.
When the Easter school holidays started my mother dispatched me to the weekly market in town. With a flat cardboard box strapped to the rear of my bike I set off to pedal the 15kms, up and down three high, densely wooded mountains to buy some new chicklets. The trip took over an hour. I was used to it. Most years for the whole of June I would do the three hour round trip on my bike to my lycée in town to save the money usually spent on the monthly rail card so I could buy books. At times even in late autumn or even winter, when I missed the train which left from the next village five kilometres down from our mountain, I had no choice but to cycle to school along the main road in the dark and then home again, rain or shine, now and then briefly illuminated by a rare car or a truck thundering past as I struggled up the steep roads.
In the twice weekly market one could find anything and everything, from corsets and suspender belts to farm machinery and livestock, kittens, puppies, even the occasional lamb or kid goat. My mission was to acquire new born chicks to repopulate our chicken house. To buy fully grown chickens was beyond our means.
The broad woman, dressed in the usual black of old widows and farmers’ wives, after they reached the age of forty or so, dropped the yellow fluffy creatures into my box without much tenderness. Behind her stood a crate covered in chicken wire filled with the chattering pink-beaked goslings, hair sticking out as with new born babies. The woman followed my gaze. I opened my hand. There were just a few franks left. It was either the goslings or a new note book. She pointed at my money. ‘That’ll get you two goslings.’ Without waiting for my answer she reached into the crate, pulled out two of the tiny birds, dropped them on the top of the chicks and took all the money from my hand. I must have looked so dismayed to be left penniless that she turned and from the chicklets crate she picked another and dropped that into my box too. ‘There, you can have that one for free,’ and as I pushed my bike through the crowd, she called after me, ‘make sure you always give them plenty of water.’
The new addition was much smaller than all the rest. It later occurred to me that the wily farmer’s wife had perhaps not expected it to last the morning. To have dead merchandise was bad for business.
Before setting off for my long treck home my mothering instinct told me to remove the tiny creature to prevent it getting trampled by the goslings. I wrapped the warm, soft thing in my scarf and placed it in my shoulder bag and rehoused the goslings in the basket at the front of my bike. I set off for home to the soft chirping back and front of my new baby birds, up and down the mountains and that day the road didn’t seem so steep nor the ride so long. At the last bend before our house I covered the goslings in the front basket with my cardigan. It would be hard to explain to my parents that for the price of the goslings I could perhaps have bought another five or six chicks.
My mother took the chicks into our car-less garage where we kept our bikes, firewood and the hay for the rabbits. They would not be let out unless supervised. Buzzards could spy the tiniest birds from the top of the nearby mountain and frequently swooped down to cruise over our chicken compound. We had stretched chicken wire over the whole area to avoid the loss of our birds. Shortly before the fox raid a buzzard had landed on the wire and it collapsed under its weight, so we had to be vigilant.
I said nothing about the goslings; I’d have the whole afternoon to think about how I could justify my folly. Rolled in my cardigan, which had now had an acrid smell, I rushed to the bathroom, let a little water into the tub and set them into it. They dipped their pink beaks into the water, obviously thirsty after the long bike ride. They flapped and splashed with such joy that it brought tears to my eyes.
I went downstairs. My mother made me a glass of grenadine with lemon and a salami sandwich. As I sat at the kitchen table, recounting what I had seen in the market a small peeping sound came from my bag on the floor next to my chair. I had forgotten about the tiny chick. My mother looked at me. ‘What else did you buy?’
I opened the bag and brought out the tiny creature, not much larger than a walnut. My mother tut-tutted. ‘That one will not live, that’s why she gave it to you.’
‘I’ll just have to look after it then. But we’ll have to keep it away from the others or they’ll kill it.’
I sensed the moment for my confession had come. I knew that in the early evening when my father came home from work he liked to have a bath before dinner.
‘I have bought something else,’ I began. ‘Come, I’ll show you, but please don’t be angry.’ I expect my mother thought I might have bought something for myself. The reason my older sister was never sent on such errands was because she could never resist a new pair of stockings or stopping off for a drink in one of the town’s cafés, fishing for boyfriends, and on her return she would claim that she couldn’t find whatever she was meant to buy, but every time she came home with less money than she had gone out with.
On entering the bathroom my mother stood aghast at the two goslings standing happily in the bath tub among their floating poo.
None of our animals, with the exception of dogs and cats, were given names. We always knew what our rabbits, ducks, chickens and now geese were there for. Once an animal had a name it became impossible to eat it. When a bird reached its chicken menopause and stopped laying eggs, when a drake became too quarrelsome or a gander was too aggressive when competing with a dominant male they would land on Sunday’s dinner table as my parents’ budget did not stretch to the buying of meat from the butcher. But in the case of this tiny chicken – my mother promised to keep it a secret from my younger siblings – I made an exception: it was to be called Antoinette.
I kept Antoinette in a large crate in the garage, hunted for worms and grubs in our vegetable garden, orchard and potato field and fed her at every opportunity. She was still a lot smaller than the others when I first let it out into the chicken pen under my supervision. When all the other chicks had grown into glossy white adults my chicken’s plumage was a yellowish white and looked unkempt. She had the air of a worn-out housewife from the dirt-poor end of town with a tobacco habit.
Antoinette was promoted to the chicken house. But ‘she’, as I now called her, held her own in chicken society. Her stronger ‘siblings’ had begun to lay eggs, and so did she. When the hatch was opened at daylight Antoinette was the first to charge out. She would run to the gate of the compound, head down as if in a hundred meter sprint and perform an impatient dance. At first no one knew its meaning, except that the dance would suddenly stop and she laid a huge egg on the ground. Last thing in the evening, when all the other chickens were already settling on their perches in the dark interior of the chicken house she would run to the gate, do her dance and again lay a huge egg before finally running up the ladder and allowing us to close the hatch for the night. After seeing her performance for a few days I suddenly realised what she wanted – I had kept her so long in her separate crate in the garage smelling of wood resin and hay that this was her home. So I obliged. I let her out of the compound, she charged to the garage, trampled and kneaded the ground until I open the door. Then she rushed into the hay and laid her huge egg in seconds. A satisfied clucking followed, a bit of scratching and she ambled past me, with deliberation and pride, back through the open compound gate and up the ladder for the night, only to repeat her performance first thing in the morning before any other chicken had had a chance to open an eye.
She laid two, not one egg like all other chickens I’ve ever known. They were twice the size. Our neighbour Georgette, the farmer’s wife , could not believe those eggs came from a chicken, until I called her to watch Antoinette’s performance.
As for the geese, one a male the other female, both grew enormous. I dug a lake for them with my brother which the ducks and geese fought over. The goose too was laying eggs, huge ones – a single egg made an omelette for four people. Then she stopped laying and we thought she’d be next in line for the Christmas roast. One morning, after we had not seen her for days and believing her to be sick I crawled into her shack. In her nest in the far corner she had hidden twenty one eggs – she was broody. Seeing her size, we added chicken eggs and duck eggs and when they all hatched ducklings, goslings and chicklets all took the huge goose for their mother. And the next time the fox dug under the fence and got into the chicken compound and was about to take our chickens the gander fought it off long enough for us to rush out to the rescue.
And Antoinette? I thought about her when, as au pair, I nightly changed the drenched sheets of a three year-old bedwetting boy, when, until 4am, I served trays full of drinks to rock stars and the showbiz glitterati in a London nightclub to pay for four years of my art school, I remembered her fondly when I had reached the dizzy heights of Art Director to one of London’s most important magazine, I thought about her when art directing photoshoots for a French advertising agency, when I worked for publishers in Paris, when I sat in the sun of our Languedoc terrace after I had told a village woman about my bedraggled little hen.
I expect that after I had left for London she continued her frantic dance, morning and night. I doubt whether my younger sister or brother paid much attention to her. They had no idea that this little insignificant bird had a name. And I expect that before my parents moved from the remote French country side that time seemed to have forgotten to a centrally heated first floor apartment in the suburbs of a town, perhaps this unassuming bird was given or sold to the farmer next door, along with the rest of our animals. Or, perhaps, my family simply ate Antoinette for dinner.
Extract from LUNCH WITH NAT
It was a childish desire to communicate with the object of his desire. These little dreamy pauses he allowed himself didn’t last. Before long he began to feel silly, like a boy caught stealing the last strawberries from the bowl at the dead of night. But the following day again, in an almost unconscious act, his burly shape sat at the window, engrossed in this most delicate exercise of love’s expression.
His love and longing for her grew by the day; his first imaginary messages to her now became real. Almost absent-mindedly he scribbled them on scraps of paper, folded them with care. His house sat on a bridge over the canal which ran directly below his window. He waited until a soft whooshing announced an approaching open boat filled with sightseers. Leaning out of the window he let go of a handful of the tiny pieces of white paper which gently fluttered down onto unsuspecting passengers. One landed in the lap of a plump and perspiring American woman who picked it up and read: ‘You are beauty’. Another cut a white shape in a black hat wedged between the knees of a frail old man who read, perplexed: ‘With you on earth, who needs dreams?’ And every day Nat left his chair by the desk when he knew that the boat trips were about to begin. Perhaps one day, by some miracle, his message would land in her lap.
MAKING FOR PARADISE
© A.N. Burchardt
The train screeches to a halt a hundred yards before the frontier. In the compartment the air is still with fear. The refugees sit tightly packed, with not an inch to spare between them. All except Maria and the two nuns are wrapped in thick coats. It is summer but no matter how high the temperature soars, a coat is the most precious possession, a reliable fortress against the winter cold just a few weeks away. Baskets and bundles squat on laps. If exhaustion brings a moment’s sleep, an opportunist thief will strike. The hands grip too tightly, white knuckles showing, but all of them sit as if traveling to the weekly market. Each one knows that the other is on the run, but self respect demands restraint, or at least the pretense of it. The hope of crossing the border in one piece with a few meagre possessions recedes with each minute the train stands motionless. The two nuns clutch their wicker baskets. In their milky white faces bloodless lips quiver in prayer.
They sit there, Maria thinks, like chickens on their perch, knowing that any minute the fox will make his entrance. Britta stands, peering out of the window; her small hands are pressing hard onto the window pane. Anna lies sprawled across Maria’s lap, asleep. She has grown so long, so thin. Maria pulls her coat over the tiny girl, only her dark locks can be seen. The soldiers running wild over the border areas have never been known to harm a mother with a small child – not yet.
A bony silhouette blocks out the light from the door. Maria looks up. The fox is here.
A tall soldier in a loosely fitting uniform tears the door open. His peak cap is pulled low over a pair of squinting eyes. They dart from one huddled passenger to another, up to the bulging luggage rack, back down again.
‘Fra’, his gravel voice cuts into the oppressive silence. ‘Fra’.
He points at her, then to the luggage above her seat.
‘Uri! Uri!’ he grunts and she understands he is on the hunt for watches.
A second soldier pushes into the compartment and orders the two nuns out.
The squinting soldier stares at Maria, grabs her by the sleeve, forcing her to stand up. She can feel his bony hand gripping her arm as he drags her into the corridor. Anna clings to her dress under the coat. Behind her Britta is hammering on the window.
‘Mama, Mama, look.’ The girl turns but her mother is gone.
The soldiers are shoving the two nuns along the railway bank. A thick set soldier with bowed legs pushes the middle-aged nun. She falls to her knees. He holds the barrel of his machine gun under her chin, makes her get up again. On the train faces press against the windows to watch the spectacle. Some look away, afraid of the searching eyes of the uniformed men. Others strain, furtively. It could be their turn next.
Maria stands on the coarse gravel by the rail track, her light summer coat billows in the breeze. ‘The fox has picked me’, she whispers.
She tries to step backwards, to make herself small. Her scarf is pulled low, half hiding her face behind the tiny child she holds up in front of her. The soldiers’ boots crunch nearer on the rough stones. They draw level with Maria. The taller soldier approaches; his squinting eyes scrutinize Maria. He lifts her scarf. The sleeve of his jacket rides up. On his arm a row of wrist watches glint in the sunlight. The nuns stand like birds on the uneven ground, bony feet in thin canvas shoes and brown stockings. They tremble, huddling close, frozen by fear.
A rusted bed stands on a patch of grass by the wheat field that stretches along the railway line. The stocky soldier waves his machine gun towards the bed. Sweat beads run down his face; he catches them with his thick and pallid tongue. Maria casts her eyes to the ground to escape the squinting gaze, lifting the little girl even higher in front of her face. The cross-eyed soldier turns his back to her. His body is well shaped and strong. He looks as though he has been hungry for a long time. His spine is visible under his uniform jacket; vertebrae form a reptilian line. The signs of a long war are showing, not only on the conquered, but also on the conquerors.
He stands with his feet apart; Maria can see a pistol stuffed into his dust-covered boot. He watches as his comrade orders the nuns onto the bed. Its dirty mattress must have been blue as the sky once. As the young nun climbs onto it he turns to Maria again; with his eyes fixed on her, he butts the nun between the shoulder blades with his gun.
Both nuns now stand on the sprung bed, wobbling, trying to keep their balance. The stocky soldier licks his lips. His watery blue eyes are bulging with sly mischief.
Maria gazes at the bed, puzzled. How did it come to stand by the railway track? Apart from a small wooden shack here are no buildings; as far as the eye can see nothing but undulating fields. The bed stands there, a purposeful presence, now witnessing the sordid scene. A resourceful refugee must have dragged it to the railway line, stretched out on it during the short summer nights, waiting for a train to pass, slow enough to jump on unseen.
The squinter continues to stare in Maria’s direction. His cap shields his eyes and she can’t see what he is looking at. The other soldier lifts the old nun’s habit with the end of the gun barrel, speaking in lurid tones to his comrade. The guttural sounds of a language Maria cannot distinguish ring out in laughter as the old nun’s baggy cotton drawers emerge. Her loose brown stockings are held up by a pair of jam-jar rings which glow in bright orange. The stocky soldier roars something to his comrade who in turn begins to lift the young nun’s robe with the end of his gun. She offers no resistance as a pair of thick woollen socks and trembling white legs are exposed.
Maria stands stock still. Britta and her luggage have remained on the train. If the train leaves without her, many swift hands will dispose of her possessions within minutes. Britta will be handed to the next station master, one of many children tossed around a country consumed by war.
In the draught of the railway bank Anna begins to whimper.
‘Shush,’ whispers Maria and bends over her daughter to escape the soldiers eyes. And still, the squinter does not let Maria out of his sight. His rough hand caresses the quivering thighs of the young nun and he orders her to bounce up and down on the bed. Maria lowers her head. The creaking rhythm of the bed springs reminds her of a couple in the throes of love making. When she looks up, the young soldier smiles at her. The fox knows, she thinks.
The train driver leans out of his window, throwing up his hands. The stocky soldier waves his machine gun and fires into the air, ordering him to leave. Slowly the train begins to move, setting the edge of the wheat field in motion.
A compartment window opens. Two bundles and a basket are thrown onto the stony bank next to Maria, spilling water bottles, bread and apples onto the ground. Maria sees two thin legs emerge from the window. A busty woman with a straw hat and an elderly man are dangling Maria’s daughter Britta from the train window.
‘Catch her, quick, catch her.’ Their calls are breathless from the strain. The squinter looks up and sprints alongside the moving train. Britta is hanging by one coat sleeve from the window. She drops into his arms, brings the soldier down with her, falls on top of him and struggles free. She stands over him and pounds the man’s face with tiny fists, kicking her red shoes into his side. He sits up, taking the blows, staring, as she reaches out and punches him in the face. Blood splatters onto his jacket and still he does nothing to quash the child’s furious assault. She stops at the sight of the blood, stands face to face with the sitting soldier, then turns, runs to Maria and disappears in the folds of her mother’s coat. The dazed soldier tugs at his uniform jacket. With his dirty sleeve he wipes the blood from his face and gets to his feet. He picks up his rifle and without a look at Maria, returns to the entertainment in progress.
Anna watches the nuns with an angry frown as they bounce in front of the two laughing soldier. Then she lets out an ear-shattering cry. Maria takes a few strides forward, plants herself in front of the squinting soldier, hoists Anna up and holds the child’s crying face close to his. And the man lowers his gaze. At that moment Anna knows that as long as tears roll, they will be safe.
The stocky soldier roughly pushes the nuns off the bed. He barks something at the squinter, makes a resigned gesture with his machine gun. Game over.
The young nun looks at Maria and smiles, a pure, forgiving smile. She follows the older nun as they stumble ahead of the soldiers to the wooden shack where a jeep is parked. The squinter turns and walks backwards, pointing his gun at the young woman and child. Under Maria’s coat Britta stirs like a frightened bird. Anna continues her piercing screams.
The nuns have reached the shack and disappear behind it, followed by the soldiers. Anna stops crying abruptly. Her tear-glazed eyes do not blink as she waits.
In the distance the train whistles, triumphant from the other side of the border. The song of a lark rises and still Maria dares not raise her head. The wheat field rustles in the breeze.
In the silence gun shots crack the air.
By the shack Maria sees the soldiers bend down. The stocky one fumbles with the flies of his trousers, steps to the edge of the field and relieves himself in full view of Maria, then climbs into the driver’s seat. As his comrade turns the jeep, the young soldier gives a small, melancholy wave with his gun. He leaps onto the passenger seat and they speed past Maria and disappear in a cloud of dust.
Anna is breathing like a hunted animal. Maria walks along the dry path to the shack. Britta trails behind, picking poppies on the edge of the path.
Behind the shack two black forms lie spread on the ground, flightless crows fallen to earth. It smells of grass and blood and flowers, but mostly of warm blood.
Maria begins a slow walk back to the bed. There is no hurry now. She sets Anna down. By the rail track red apples lie among the grey stones. Together they pick up the nuns’ baskets, the food, the water and neatly lay the precious booty out on the bed. On the dirty mattress Maria beds Anna down on her coat. She will make use of the bed tonight. Perhaps a freight train will slow down, allow her to jump on board to cross the border unseen.
Britta sits, legs dangling from the edge of the grubby mattress, counting her poppies. She sighs and puts down the scarlet flowers, made limp by her hot fist.
‘Look, Mama.’ Her fingers begin to undo the white buttons of her blue cardigan. She pulls out what looks like a crumpled brown woollen sock, lays it out on her lap, folds out two arms, two legs, a pointed face with two black buttons for eyes.
Her bottom lip curls and she presses the brown bundle to her chest.
‘I’ve saved my teddy.’