Sunday 14 January 2024

Sunday Serial : The Story Weaver and Other Tales by Sally Zigmond, rough white wine: BETWEEN THE FIRST AND SECOND STRIKE


The village of Cailloux-Sainte-Cecile pants like an old dog in the heat. The church clock strikes one. The cracked note hovers above the rooftops then dissolves. Thérèse appears at her door, as she does every day at this hour.

            She lives alone at the very top of the village. From her house, a narrow street hobbles down past the village graveyard that jealously guards its dead and along the grey flanks of the church that again strikes the hour. It then turns left, squeezes between dusty shuttered cottages still bearing their bullet grazes. At the bottom of the hill it sinks into a rectangle of beaten earth. Later, here in the evening shade, old men will play petanque and talk of old times.  

            Beyond, a field of maize rustles under a jet of water that wafts to and fro in lazy swathes. The maize is ripe. An army of starlings gorges on its plump kernels. Monsieur Tapis, who rents the fields from Monsieur le Maire, oils his gun and grunts into his moustache.

            High above him Thérèse shakes crumbs from her tablecloth. Three hens scuttle out from the shade of an upturned wheelbarrow. She kicks them away, takes the cloth back in the kitchen and returns with a bentwood chair.           

            In an ivy-clad mansion at the foot of the hill lives old Natalie Bouchier. She lives alone, too, but today her great-grand-daughter, Brigitte has come to visit. They have been playing a long and laborious game of bezique. The old woman's head droops over her cards.

            Brigitte is bored. She looks through the wide open doors of the drawing-room with its jumble of china figurines and photographs, through the high iron gates and the tumble of hot, scarlet geraniums in their baked-earth pots along the wall. The paint-box blue sky beckons. She shuffles. "It isn't what you think," the old widow murmurs before sinking into a deeper sleep.

     Brigitte creeps through the doors, skittering the gravel on the terrace, and slips through the gates and into the street. Once away from the shadows of the black cypresses the heat is fierce. Like the street she meanders uphill to no obvious purpose.

            Thérèse, too, has fallen asleep on her bentwood chair. She hears them coming. Tramp. Tramp. Tramp. Up the hill.

            But the boots belong to a troop of Dutch back-packers. They consult their guide book which says there is a fine monument to the Maquis in the cemetery. They reach the gates. They rattle the catch. The keys are in Thérèse`s pocket. But she sleeps on. The back-packers march back down the street and the air congeals behind them into hot stillness.

            Thérèse saw them first. She could climb higher than any of the village boys and that day she was swinging her legs in an elbow of the oldest apple tree in the orchard. Her beloved brother, Thierry, ran the farm now her parents were dead. He was in the fields cutting maize. He was too frightened to tell her he was in love with Natalie. She and her widowed mother ran the café. She was the prettiest girl in the village and Thérèse thought the family beneath her and Natalie a fool.

            The village was as still as stone. Nothing moved. Unseen, Thierry and his friends crept from the village and into the surrounding hills, leaving the women and the old men to face the enemy.

             The occupiers were more an irritation than a threat. They were there. That was all. Most of them were billetted with Natalie and her mother. Was it only Thérèse who watched them bloom and fatten while the rest of the village grew lean?

             Her contempt festered into an irrational hatred as she shouldered the burden of the farm. She wore her brother's clothes and stomped about in his boots with a defiance that suppressed ridicule. No-one, not even her neighbours, suspected it was she who passed news and supplies to her male contemporaries camped under the stars or how she yearned to join them and not have to stagnate with the likes of Natalie.

            No-one could say that the farm flourished under the occupation, but no-one starved. Natalie came up the hill once to ask for food, but Thérèse sent her packing, the little slut. The Germans took all her produce anyway. She always spat in the cans before she handed the milk over; made sure the rats had got to the grain. Her muscles hardened, her breasts shrank to nothing, her hair was short, her face bronzed and lined. She chopped wood. She mended the roof when a hailstorm shattered some tiles. She harvested what little maize was left after the German soldiers had used the field for target practice. Sweat soaked her back but she was proud.

            And even as she dreams, the starlings stab the plump kernels with their thieving beaks. But it is no longer her concern. Stiff joints and dwindling funds forced her to sell her land to the Mayor twenty years ago. Now he rents it out to old Monsieur Tapis, who is waiting for the harvester to come and curses the starlings.


Brigitte finds a stone as white and smooth as a sugared almond. She kicks it up the steep hill, past the church and cemetery. Then she kicks it too fiercely and loses it in a ditch. She searches for a while before losing interest. It is only a stone and Cailloux-Sainte Cecile is full of stones.

            When she looks up she sees a wrinkled old woman folded in sleep on a bentwood chair. Her hands flutter in agitation, although her eyes are firmly shut. She must be dreaming, thinks Brigitte. She can't imagine what an ugly old woman with wrinkles as deep as plough furrows has to dream about.

            She has reached the top of the village. The road ends at the gates of the walled graveyard. Brigitte isn't interested in graveyards. In a field beside the old woman's house is a gnarled apple tree, propped up by a metal rod. She picks an apple, but it is small and sour. She tosses it to some scratching hens.

            The church clock strikes. One. Two. Brigitte rubs her hands against the bark of the apple tree. It is old and gnarled. Everything in this village is old.

            The church clock strikes again. One. Two. Why does it strike twice, she wonders. Which one is the right time, the first or the second strike? They can't both be right. Does time stand still between the two strikes? Such things worry her.


            Yes, the old woman dreams, she ran that farm well. She could still have it now had that cow not gone into labour when it did. She had struggled with it for hour upon hour as day darkened to night. The beast was already exhausted by the time she found the birthing ropes.

            To her annoyance and shame, she did not have the strength to use them. She ran down the hill and banged on doors but no-one wanted to help proud Thérèse. In the end she was forced to try the café.

            Natalie opened the door. From behind her steamed a rich, fatty mixture of garlic and red meat, along with the sound of music and drunken German voices. Natalie looked flushed. They could have been friends had Therese known Natalie's love for Thierry and her contempt for the Germans: had she known that she cried herself to sleep every night ashamed of the way her mother indulged her visitors. But Therese only saw a pretty girl in the house of the enemy.

            "One of my cows is in trouble. I need help."

            "What do you want me to do?" said Natalie, glancing behind her. "I know nothing about animals."

            "Do you think I don't know that? Find someone who does, idiot."

            "Who?" Laughter breaks out behind her. "I must go."

            Thérèse thrusts a boot into the closing door. "If that cow dies, so do you, Slut."

            Tears trembled on Natalie's eyelashes. "I'll try."

            Thérèse grabbed her hair that slipped like silk in her fingers. "You'd better. Slut."

            "It's not what you think."

            "How dare you presume to know what I think?"

            Thérèse stomped back to the barn. From time to time the cow moaned. In the corner of the barn rats scuttled under the straw. Thérèse cursed Natalie and cursed herself for having to ask her.

            It was almost dawn when she heard the barn door creak open. "Where the hell have you been?" But it wasn't Natalie.

            "I saw the light," the soldier said in good French. "Is there a problem?"

She hadn't seen him before. He was very young. His ears stuck out at right-angles from cruelly cropped hair.

            "The calf's stuck. I think it's dead." Thérèse cocked her head towards the cow, now lying on its side, breathing in shallow gasps.

            "I can help, please?"

            Thérèse snorted.

            "I am a farmer's son. My name is Helmut."

            Thérèse couldn't imagine any farms in Germany. That country was one big factory with belching chimneys and red furnaces forging bullets to shoot Frenchmen. But she needed help. "Help yourself," she shrugged.

            Helmut placed his gun carefully across a hay-bale. Thérèse saw how he had held it as if it was something he had found in his hands without knowing who had put it there or why. He removed his shirt and went over to the cow. His pale chest gleamed in the dim light. He murmured something in the cow's ear; something Thérèse couldn't understand so it sounded like a magic spell to her. The cow staggered to its feet.

            "Bring the lamp closer," he said. He examined the cow, all the time whispering in its ear, blowing in its nostrils. `There are two calves and their limbs are tangled." He thrust his arm into the birth canal and pushed and twisted inside. Thérèse stood by, feeling as soft and useless as Natalie, who had let her down.

            It took an hour to coax the first calf out. Finally, it lay panting on the damp straw, weak, but alive. Helmut pushed it closer to its mother who began to lick its wet face. "The other's not ready yet. We wait."

            "So, you live on a farm?" Thérèse asked awkwardly.

            Helmut looked away. `Yes. It was a good farm, once. The soil is dark and rich, not stony like here. The cow stirred and his mood suddenly changed. "Quick. Quick. Put your arms round my waist. Yes, that's it. Now. Together. Pull!"

            Thérèse wrapped her arms about his naked chest. She could smell his body, a rich mixture of sweat and good, rich earth. She watched as the snout of the calf emerged. She gripped Helmut more tightly in her excitement. But he had relaxed his hold on the rope as the calf slipped out with ease, still enveloped in its soft wet membrane. Down they both went, the bloody straw greasing their feet. They still clung together, rolling about, trying to regain their balance and dignity. As the soldier struggled to right himself, he almost flattened the flailing new-born.

            Thérèse cried out a warning "No! No! Get off! Get off!"

            There was a flash and a sharp explosion that shook the rafters. Something whistled past her ear and the boy slumped in her arms. Thérèse pulled herself up and stared at the man who had fired the shot. It was Thierry. Natalie was clinging to his shirt, screaming. Behind them an angry dawn slashed a blooded blade between the sky and the land.

            "You fool!" Thérèse snarled at Natalie. "You stupid, little fool." She cradled Helmut's head in her arm. He stared back at her, a look of astonishment across his kind, dead eyes. Still Natalie screamed.

            "Shut up or we're all dead."

            Too late. The doors swung wide open. A pack of Germans rushed in. Saw Helmut's mangled corpse and Thierry with his gun. Thérèse grabbed Natalie and pulled her down. Thierry was too slow. After he fell, the soldiers went on a rampage around the village. Anyone who was unfortunate enough to step out of their doors was shot. Bullets flew from building to building pock-marking the stone.


Old Monsieur Tapis pulls on his boots, picks up his gun from the table and strides out into the sunshine. He points his rifle up and through the dry stems. Once, Twice. Again. Again. A volley of shots rises higher than the tower of the church.

            With them rise a cloud of starlings. Never had he seen so many together, Monsieur Tapis later tells anyone who will listen. A hundred, maybe two hundred erupt like a black volcano, darkening the sky into night before wheeling off in the wake of the gunshots.

            They settle on the village roofs, on the telegraph wires, the walls, gravestones and washing lines. They jostle on their makeshift roosts, lifting and flapping their black wings, circling the sky, landing, taking off, uncertain, bewildered.

            Thérèse wakes with a jolt. The sound of gunfire, the smell of blood and fear and hatred pounding through her old bones. She stands up unfolding like a rusty umbrella. Sees armed soldiers circling her, black as death. Sees Natalie awash with tears clinging to her dead love. "He was helping me, you fool. He was a fine young man and you killed him. Slut! You killed my brother. You shamed us all." She lifts her apron to her face and sobs.

            Brigitte watches the starlings as they whirl about the old woman. She is not afraid of them, but the old woman is terrified. She is raving like a mad-woman.

            She runs to her, places her small hand on her shoulder. "See, Madame. They are only birds. They will not hurt you. Leave them and they will return to the fields." And sure enough as Brigitte leads her back to her chair, the birds rise one by one and flap back to the maize. Soon they are filling their beaks once more.      The church clock strikes. One. Two.

            The village waits trembling between the past and the present.

            The church clocks strikes again. One. Two.

            Thérèse grunts. Afraid? Who says she's afraid? She begins to speak, but the child interrupts.

            "Why does the church clock always strike twice?"

            "It doesn't. Go away child and leave me in peace."


"Well, well," smiles Natalie, fluffing up her hair, as Brigitte later tells her about the birds and the old woman. `So you met the old witch of Cailloux-Sainte-Cecile."

            "She looked so sad, Grandmaman."

            "I tried to tell her. But she would never listen."


            "Yes, ma petite?"

            "Why does the church clock always strike twice?"

            "It leaves time for wrongs to be righted and mistakes forgiven."

            But Thérèse only ever hears the clock strike once. She picks up her chair and goes back inside her house, locking the door behind her.

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