the writing disorder


shannon mcmahon

New Fiction


by Shannon McMahon

      Putains! Traitresses!
Four women prodded by shoves, arm-length pieces of sheared off buildings, and swatted with belts were wrangled to the threshold of the square Place Saint Marc where the roads branched off to the Seine in Rouen, France. The crowd closed in on the four women in the center and Claudine Cagnion watched as they were swallowed up from her view.
      Claudine waded nervously at the edge of the crowd, carrying a small crate full of left over cheese and milk from the close of the first market day since the American liberation. Place Saint Marc, once the center of commerce, was now framed by bombed out half-timbered buildings leaning drunkenly against one another. The crowd rolled with predatory swiftness and over ran the market. The people in the crowd were familiar to her in the ways war makes people familiar. They had the broken down, boarded up look of refugees who were fighting for sanity and safety in a world that no longer made sense. And, something here had broken loose.
      A small gap opened up when a man plucked a child in front of her and placed him on his shoulders. Despite the sharp jab of her good sense, Claudine stowed her crate on an abandoned table at the back of the crowd then pushed through. She made it nearly to the front of the crowd who, it seemed, could be barely contained from rushing at the four women she saw standing in the middle.
      The woman with the fuzzy chestnut braid was late into a pregnancy. Her stomach strained nearly to bursting the front of her dingy, over-washed grey dress. One of the two blondes wore a red-checked apron with flour still dusting her hands clasped tightly in front of her. She appeared to be praying, Claudine thought with a shudder. The other blonde with the long curly hair visibly shook in her rubber boots of the style many farmwomen wore to milk cows. Claudine blanched. She had a pair just like those herself. The fourth woman was in a defiant posture. Her chin was raised, and her thick black hair was twinned into a twist at the back of her head. Some wisps blew around her face in the breeze giving her a majestic look. Claudine couldn’t take her eyes off of her. She was immaculately dressed in a gabardine blue suit and black pumps. She was Madame Suleyman, the proprietor of the dress shop in the merchant district. She was the best tailor in town and widely respected. A shiver of confusion swept over Claudine as she watched Madame Suleyman stare down the crowd.
      The crowd continued to shout at the women, thrusting their fists, pounding the air. Whores! Traitors!
      Claudine turned to the man beside her wearing a sweat stained shirt and red suspenders. He was the cobbler in town and clouds of spittle sprayed from his mouth every time he yelled.
      “What did these ladies do?” Claudine asked loudly. “What’s happened?”
      The man turned to her with those soft eyes that now were suddenly flinty and hard. “They’re not ladies,” he said with venom. “They are the putains who spread their legs for the occupiers.”
      Claudine felt the blood drain from her face. For the past several weeks she had been hiding a young German officer in the haymow of the barn. She was indebted to him for saving her from a group of young German soldiers who had cornered her in a small alley near the market place just weeks before. He had stepped in, grabbed her gently by the arm, something that surprised her in the midst of the aggressive young storm troopers, and led her away from them, barking orders. Yet, with her his voice was soft, almost childlike but with the bravery of a man of many years older.
      “Je m’appelle Heinrich,” he had said pleasantly and led her to a safe place in the market. “You’ll have to excuse my comrades. They’re not much more than wild dogs sometimes,” he paused and took her hand. He was handsome. She remembered his face in that moment — flushed under wheat colored hair and large, expressive blue eyes. He wanted to ask her something, a favor, Claudine could sense it. She looked around at the market place. The wolfish young men had dispersed. The fear that flashed throughout her body had dissipated.
      After a week of secret meetings, he expressed to her that he wanted to leave the German army. With little hesitation she agreed to hide him in the barn until the time came when he could escape out of the country. In the last few days her father had become wary of her activity in there. Claudine had actually thought about telling her father about Heinrich, but now in the midst of this hostile crowd she knew that she couldn’t take the chance. Recently, he had been pressing her to run away with him before the Americans came. On the evening he had proposed this plan to her, she was clearing away the food she pilfered from the pantry when he touched her arm. It was late at night.
      “Nous serions libres,” he said with his awkward French. “We will be free from the war. No one has to know.”
      “Mais mon pere,” she said softly. “He’s old. I can’t leave him.”
      “In time he will understand,” Heinrich said. Then he pulled a small bundle wrapped in a handkerchief from his knapsack. When he opened it, she saw it was a locket. A delicate etching that looked like ivy was on the clasp. He opened it. Inside was a picture of him taken just before he entered the German army. “I meant it for my mother, but I want you to have it,” he said. “To promise you happier times.” Claudine held the locket in her hand. It was warm and small like a bird’s egg. She looked up at him and he pulled her close. Claudine felt her body cave into his. But that was two nights ago. Things were not so clear now. The locket felt heavy against her throat.
      The crowd churned violently behind her when she saw a woman with upholstery shears place a fruit crate behind the woman with the braid.
      “Oui! Oui!” cried the crowd. “Do it! Do it!”
      The pregnant woman shook visibly and she cried out when with a quick chop her braid fell behind her like a dead animal. The crowd roared. The small woman with the scissors moved to the woman in the apron. She grabbed huge hunks of hair and hacked them off so that they fell in uneven strands like tossed hay at her feet. The woman in rubber boots looked down at her feet, but the small woman yanked her head back and chopped savagely at her curly hair leaving bloody scrapes in her scalp. The shorn pregnant woman held her belly protectively as sobs heaved her body into various postures of despair. The woman in the red checked apron had placed her floury hands over her face, but Claudine could see the blotchy skin on her neck that showed bright flowers of blood. The woman in the boots bent down to pick up her hair, but the little woman kicked her hand away and she stood up, her hands rubbing her arms rapidly as though the weather had turned suddenly cold. Claudine touched her own long blonde hair absently with shaky fingers. All three had crumbled looks of the damned on their faces.
      The little woman moved to Madame Suleyman. Even standing on the fruit crate the woman was only barely tall enough to reach her shoulders. So, Madame Suleyman knelt down and unwrapped her hair. She tossed her head a little to loosen it. Claudine felt her stomach churn watery and sick. The small woman’s mouth dropped open in surprise. The crowd chanted at the women crumpling before them, but aimed fresh aggression at Madame Suleyman whose face was as still as a statue. Her dark hair fell in great waves on the back of her stockinged legs and on her shoulders where they slid down her front and caught in the buttons of her suit.
Madame Suleyman picked at the hair as though it were so many threads she pulled.
      Claudine felt the hot breath of the satiated crowd lift and slowly, still punching the air at these four women, the people dispersed. The four women were lead away by the one who cut their hair. A small boy in knee pants and a rough cotton shirt swept up the hair with a stiff bristled broom. Claudine suddenly remembered her father and ran to the dairy stand where he sat on milk crates, his head in his hands. His soft, snowy hair was wet and sweat slicked his face, which made it hard for Claudine to see that he had been crying.
      “Papa,” she said and touched his arm. The image of the three women was still fresh in her mind, but the vision of Madame Suleyman unnerved her. Her defiance and the residuals from the fresh, hot vitriol from the crowd had her body in the grip of a strong convulsion that made her teeth chatter. She wanted to sooth her father, but was afraid to ask him why he was upset.
      “Ma fille,” he said hoarsely. “Les autres, les autres. Never you my dear,” he wept.


      The Americans liberated Rouen in the first few days of September 1944 and some army personnel had stationed themselves in the city at the hospital. The city had been heavily bombed, nearly half had been destroyed, leaving gutted, craggy building remnants like broken teeth. Bombings evicerated much of the city, but after a few weeks Place Saint Marc held regular open-air market on Tuesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Claudine accompanied her father on these days, bringing eggs, cheese, and butter to sell to the increasing number of G.I.s. She succeeded in hiding Heinrich during the invasion, but he was now in greater peril, as was she, when the thought of the shorn women nagged at the edge of her mind. It was then an American, who was slightly wounded in the left leg and using an elegant cane, the type Claudine had only seen in the finest haberdashery in Rouen, began frequenting the dairy stand.
      Colonel Jim Smith came to their stand at precisely 7 a.m. each market day to buy provisions for his men who were in the hospital or staying in a farmhouse near the abbey on the outskirts of town. He was smartly dressed, neat, well-fitted uniform and piercing green eyes. His French was impeccable and her father was impressed with his farming acumen. He handled the eggs deliberately and carefully and addressed all of the dialogue to her father. Her father, a man desirous of male company, introduced his daughter to him the day he induced her to wear her best blue dress to the market. Colonel Jim Smith approached the stand and her father pushed her around so that she was facing the colonel and he extended his hand. At the not so subtle urging of her father, she took it and felt the warm, firm hand grasp her own. He took off his cap and looked her straight in the eyes. His hair was dark, peppered with grey at the sides, and his eyes crinkled gently in the corners with the jovial smile he offered that brought to mind the word mechant, little devil.
      “Enchante,” he said with a perfect accent.
      Her father was clearly taken with the Colonel and at every opportunity offered up Claudine’s services to help him deliver the food to the troops.
      It had been several weeks now that she had been hiding Heinrich and the pressure of it was keeping her head throbbing well into the night. She fingered the locket at her throat. The Colonel noticed the slight movement, but instead mentioned, politely, that she looked fatigue.
      “Oui, oui,” her father said brightly. “She’s a hard worker. Would work herself to death in that barn if I didn’t keep an eye on her.”
      Claudine felt her insides turn over. The Colonel eyed her directly, examining the finer features of her face as though divining her secret. But his look was not unpleasant. She looked down and smoothed the front of the blue dress her father kept insisting she wear.
      “Dites on,” her father said. “Would you like to come to dinner tonight? We have fresh lamb marinating and all of the fixings. It’s more than enough for just the two of us. We’d be honored if you joined us.”
      “Why yes,” the Colonel said when he shifted his gaze to her father who was smiling ridiculously up at him. “I’d like that.”
      Her father nodded and then elbowed Claudine. “He’s tres sympathique,” he said. “You’ll see.”
      That night Claudine tried to convince Heinrich that he had to leave, that she couldn’t guarantee his safety any more. But he was insistent. They must leave together and tonight. She was scared out of her wits. Sitting in that haymow every sinew of her body screamed for her to take up the traveling case she had hidden in the corner and just leave, but her calmer self told her that rash actions would be reckless. They must wait.
      The Colonel arrived with a sergeant who hovered behind him. When the Colonel walked into their parlor, he switched the cane from his right to his left hand and swept his stiff cap from his head and nodded. For some reason her father giggled, delightedly she noted, while her stomach churned painfully. When the Colonel moved to approach Claudine, the sergeant slipped silently across the threshold and stood slightly a part by the bowed window. Her father had that giddy grin on his face again as he poured aperitifs all around. Claudine greeted them, warmly she thought, but in a way that caused the Colonel’s right eyebrow to arch. Her father waved her into the sitting room, stationing her at the Colonel’s side.
      “Take his hat,” her father said. “Go on, chat. Heloise and I will set the table.”
      Claudine wasn’t totally useless in the kitchen, but her father wanted something special for the Colonel. So, he brought in the woman from the farm down the road who was arguably the best cook in the countryside and known particularly for her marinated lamb.
      The Colonel set his hand on the sideboard near the fireplace. He introduced the sergeant to her, then the sergeant quickly returned to his position at the window, gazing intently in the gloaming for what reason, Claudine didn’t know, but it made her chest clench uncomfortably.
      The Colonel turned to her and asked her pleasantly about her schooling. Claudine explained to him that it was interrupted because of the occupation, but that after the war she hoped to take up her studies again.
      “What would you like to do with your studies?” the Colonel asked. He raised the aperitif to his mouth and sipped at the amber liquid with that devilish look that made Claudine think he was ready to hear a joke.
      She could smell him, clean, starched. A luxury during war times. “I thought maybe I could be a teacher,” she said. She hoped that that was an acceptable answer even though the truth was that her plans were to take her some place else entirely. During the moment when she was talking to the Colonel, her eyes darted to the window where the sergeant had disappeared. The Colonel followed her gaze coolly and finished off his aperitif.
      When her father ushered them to the dining table, the candlelight cast a buttery gleam in the room that would have been romantic if it hadn’t been for the last time the room had been used was for her mother’s funeral. The solemnity of the room was entirely lost on her father when he motioned for the Colonel to sit at the head. The Colonel declined and pulled out a chair for Claudine instead. Her father was thrilled and his pale wrinkled face flushed with color.
      Heloise served the dinner expertly. The sergeant did not join them at the table and Claudine was increasingly disturbed by his disappearance. But, she pushed it from her mind because her father was clearly so happy about the Colonel’s visit. During the tarte tatin and coffee, the Colonel explained that his troops would be leaving soon and that he regretted he didn’t have more time to spend with Claudine and her father.
      Claudine’s father petted his close-cropped white beard and cleared his throat. He had a glint in his eye that she remembered from Christmases past when he always had a big surprise for her and her mother.
      “I am an old man,” he began. “And, my time is short here. But my daughter has many good years ahead of her. I do not want her to live in this wasteland of war and turmoil.”
      Eloquence was not her father’s strong suit, but the words that were spilling from his mouth were clearly measured and practiced. For whose benefit, hers or the Colonel’s she wasn’t sure, but when he asked the Colonel to take Claudine with him back to America, her breath caught and crashed in her chest. She coughed and sputtered, spraying tarte tatin crust. The Colonel drank his coffee slowly, watching Claudine nearly retch into her napkin.
      “But, papa,” she said, trying desperately to keep the alarm from punctuating her voice. “I can’t leave. What will become of you?” After a moment, she swallowed hard. Then barely above a whisper, “Papa, what is there for me in America? It’s so far away.”
      “Life, ma fille!” he said. “There is room to grow, a nice city to go to that doesn’t know the devastation of war. He will take care of you,” he said and nodded to the Colonel. Claudine looked at the Colonel askance, fearing direct eye contact would further show her confusion and terror. She thought of Heinrich waiting for her in the haymow, offering much the same thing: a new life.
      Claudine didn’t want to be impudent in front of the Colonel who was now placing an empty coffee cup on her mother’s best china saucer. She felt trapped.
      “Think about it, ma fille,” her father said. “We’ll talk in the morning.”
      The Colonel rose from the table and shook her father’s knarly arthritic hand. “She’ll come around,” her father said. “You’ll see. Get his hat, ma cherie.”
      Claudine went to the parlor to get his hat. When she passed in front of the bay window, she saw the sergeant sitting in the jeep parked by the oak tree near the barn. He sat perfectly still and looked straight ahead into the high beams of the jeep. Smoke from a cigarette coiled into the air from his hand on the steering wheel.
      “Thank you for the evening,” the Colonel said and bowed slightly. Then he addressed Claudine who was hovering nervously behind her father. “Your father wants the best for you,” he said. “And, so do I.”
      She and her father stood in the doorway until long after the jeep had left.
      “Papa,” Claudine said with tears streaming in ribbons down her face. “Why would you do this to me? Force me to leave you.” She slapped at her wet cheeks.
      “Cherie, you must be brave. There is no good for you here,” he said and kissed her gently on the top of her head. Heloise emerged from the kitchen to clear away the dishes and Claudine moved to help her.
      “No,” her father said. “Rest. Think about what I’ve told you.”
      Claudine felt weighted with worry climbing the stairs to her tiny room. From her window she could see into the haymow where Heinrich was waiting for her to come to him. She was too tired to sneak out across the yard at that moment and decided instead to lay down on top of her perfectly made bed in the dress Madame Suleyman made for her sixteenth birthday until her father went to bed. The locket was warm in the hollow of her throat. She didn’t have to open it to recall Heinrich’s boyish face creased into the grimace of a young boy wanting to be much older. It usually made her smile, but at that moment sadness spread over her, making her heavy. She would lay down for a little while, then go to him.
      She woke the next morning with strong beams of a late summer morning on her face. She looked at the clock. It was almost noon. Her father had left without her for the Sunday market. She jolted out of bed, ran down the stairs, and out the door barefoot to the barn. She climbed the ladder to the haymow, heedless of the splinters needling her feet, and called to him. Whispering at first, then more shrilly when she realized that he was not responding. She looked all over the haymow, throwing first handfuls then armfuls of hay around the loft searching for him. Her suitcase was still in the far corner, but his knapsack full of old clothes was gone. So was he. There was no trace of him anywhere.
      Claudine sat cross-legged in the center of the haymow and cried into her hands, gulping the thick dusty air, which made her cough violently in between sobs. She wracked her brain. Why would he leave without her? She felt as though all control over her life had fled her somehow and in its wake was a wave of uncertainty that spread dread like a thick skin over her body. Her fate had been decided without her.
      Maybe her father was right. A new start was what she needed to leave this life behind. The fact that she barely knew the Colonel was a barrier that she needed to reconcile. She could only imagine him in his uniform, clacking along with his ebony headed cane watching her with those eyes that didn’t seem, in her latest reckoning, to be unkind. But what he was supposed to do with her was still unclear.
      Her father drove up in the apee around 3 p.m. and parked it in the shade of the old oak tree. Claudine had just enough time to splash cold water from the pump on her face. She walked to him from behind the barn and collapsed into his frail, but wiry arms.
      “Ma fille, ma fille,” he crooned into her hair. “It is for the best. My life is over here and yours must begin.” Then when the sobs wracked her body again he said, “The Colonel is a good man. He will take care of you in ways that I no longer can. You are a young woman now. This war is no place for you to grow.”
      Colonel Jim Smith wanted to be married in two weeks and leave there after for America. She was unsure about the marriage aspect, but the Colonel had mentioned that it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to bring a woman who was not his wife under his charge according to army regulations about war brides. After crying herself to sleep for a week, a resolve crept into her. She needed a traveling costume and she wanted Madame Suleyman to make it. The last time she saw Madame Suleyman was in the square, kneeling defiantly while her hair was shorn. She waited until after the market closed at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon before she went to the little dress shop in the merchant district of the town.
      The formerly red door was painted with a thick black paint and Claudine could still see the outline of the word, putain written in large, awkward letters across the door. The dress in the window was a modest two-piece charcoal wool suit with large upholstered buttons and a yellow scarf. A tinny doorbell chimed when she walked into the shop. Madame Suleyman emerged from the back room with a piece of dark thread and three pins in her mouth. She took the pins out one by one, pushed them into a tomato red pincushion on the counter, and smiled at Claudine.
      “You remind me of happier times,” she said and took Claudine’s hands in her own which were hard at the fingertips and firm of grip.
      The room was spare. The dress form in the window was the only one of the three forms to be dressed. The other two stood in the corner by the counter like truncated, naked women with their backs to Claudine and Madame Suleyman. The rack along the wall was nearly empty, only a couple of garment bags with small tags waited to be picked up.
      “What can I help you with today,” she said and adjusted the scarf on her head. It was a silk scarf with a large fleur de lis pattern in gold against a cobalt background. A few ragged strands of raven colored hair strayed at her neck. She wore a simple short-sleeved red frock. It was an impeccably tailored dress with a slim waist and short cap sleeves. Her mouth was shiny with red lipstick and when she ran her tongue over her mouth, it gleamed brightly in the dim shop. Claudine was heartened until she noticed how her skin looked withered and grey and how, coupled with the few dresses on the rack, she looked tired and pained.
      “I need a good dress for traveling,” Claudine said. “I’m leaving for America in a week.”
      Madame Suleyman’s eyes dimmed, but creased at the corners when she smiled gingerly. It was as a result of the Americans liberating Rouen that she had been singled out for having a German lover during the occupation. But she was canny and asked in a gently prying way, “Are you going alone?”
      “No,” Claudine said and rubbed the goosebumps that erupted on her skin when Madame Suleyman scratched at the scarf wrapped around her head. “I’m getting married.”
      “Really!” Madame Suleyman said suspiciously. “Such a big step for a young girl.” In the days before the war, she was the center of the town’s gossip, but since the liberation her shop had been severely boycotted. “To whom?”
      Claudine felt blood rush to her face when she said, “An American.”
      Madame Suleyman’s face darkened a little. “A soldier?”
      “Yes,” Claudine said, almost disbelieving it herself. “A colonel.”
      Madame Suleyman stiffened perceptibly and slipped around the counter and moved a stack of catalogues toward Claudine.
      “Well, then,” she said. “We need something special.” She opened the top one and pointed to a green suit with a calf-length skirt and a wide-collared white shirt and smart jacket. Claudine’s glance traveled up Madame Suleyman’s arms. Her skin seemed withered, lashed to her thin limbs. She flipped through the catalogue quickly and pointed out a two-piece suit much like the one in the window.
      “I saw you in the square,” Claudine said not looking up. Madame Suleyman stopped flipping the pages and licked the tip of her right index finger. “I don’t agree with what they did.”
      Madame Suleyman turned the next page slowly and smoothed it by pressing it flat with her hands.
      “That was a dark day,” she said finally. “And, it was a mistake.”
      “You mean it wasn’t true?” asked Claudine. Madame Suleyman straightened her arms and lowered her gaze.
      “He wasn’t a soldier,” she said and moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue. “He was a businessman, a client from before the war.”
      “But were you,” Claudine began.
      “No, not at first,” Madame Suleyman said and turned over the catalogue. “But it was brief, just a few weeks. Then the Americans came and it was impossible for him to leave so I hid him here in my shop. It was only supposed to be temporary. Until things quieted down at least.”
      “But how did you get caught?”
      “One of my clients grew suspicious when she heard me talking to someone with a foreign accent in the backroom. By then most of the other women had been rounded up and it was only a matter of time before the mob came for me.”
      “What happened to him?” Claudine asked. She was choked with fear about what possibly happened to Heinrich.
      “He was arrested by the Americans. After that I don’t know.”
      “Did you love him?” Claudine asked, the word carrying more certainty than she meant it to.
      “We were friends, mostly,” Madame Suleyman said. “Then the war made us into lovers. But we knew it couldn’t last so about the time they found him, we had decided that it was best to part ways. It’s just we hadn’t figured out how to get him safely out of Rouen.”
      Claudine felt a nearly uncontrollable urge to unburden herself of her own secret, but instead she reopened the catalogue and began running her fingers over the pages.
      “Do you regret it?” she asked.
      Madame Suleyman unwrapped the scarf around her head and Claudine looked at her. She touched Claudine on the arm, which caused her pale blond hair to stand on end.
      Claudine saw her hair was chopped to the roots and the jagged marks all around where the upholstery shears had bitten into her scalp. She blanched and felt her legs soften. She caught herself on the counter. Madame Suleyman came around and helped her to sit down on the tufted chair next to the counter.
      “He was a good man,” she told Claudine who was trying to catch her breath. “Now,” she said and took the catalogue from the counter. “Let’s find you a traveling costume.”


      After a long flight from England to various bases in the U.S. before landing on the air strip at the Glenn L. Martin Bomber Plant in Center City, her husband, Colonel Jim Smith, installed her in a dark-wooded, bow-windowed Victorian house on Elm Street.
       When the Colonel first ushered her into the house, she carried her only suitcase with both hands. Her eyes contracted to adjust to the darkness and her body felt crushed by the heavy red brocaded curtains and the wainscoting.
      “My grandfather built this house,” the Colonel said and took her suitcase from her hands. Immediately her hands clutched at her green gabardine skirt, bereft of purpose.
      “It’s been in the family for 60 years and the land 50 years before that.” Her skin was used to the warm buttery sunlight that flooded the rooms of her father’s farmhouse, the one that had also been in her family for over 60 years.
       The Colonel guided her through the different sitting rooms with the large-knobbed furniture and somberly upholstered chaise lounges. The fireplaces in these rooms were nearly as tall as a man and made of finely veined pink marble. He took her to the library on the first floor and waved proudly at the books on shelves behind small glass panes that opened with a twist of a latch. There must have been hundreds of books, from floor to ceiling, and not a speck of dust thanks to his sister who maintained the house while he was gone. There was a large, elaborately wrought oak desk with stout legs and a blue velvet cushioned chair carefully pushed up to the edge of it. Near the fireplace, the third she counted, was a row of books that the Colonel showed her. He lifted the latch, opened the case, and ran his finger along the perfect leather spines. Claudine knew the colonel was an educated man, and felt deeply inadequate because her own education effectively stopped once the Germans invaded Rouen. The Colonel spoke excellent French and even took marriage vows in the language, but once on American soil, he switched exclusively to English and expected Claudine to do the same.
       “Sister and I would like it if you spent some time in here,” he said and walked her around the perimeter. There was tendril of cigar smoke that lingered not unpleasantly in the room.
       When the Colonel showed her upstairs to the nursery, he walked around the pale yellow room, opening large ornate wood toy boxes full of stuffed animals of every species, including exotic ones like zebras and giraffes. There were pink-fleshed baby dolls with curly blonde and brown hair, the things, she noted, that he tossed aside rather roughly by their heads. He drew her to one wooden box in particular. He motioned for her to come and she walked gingerly as though trying not to disturb the spirits of all of the Smith children who had played there. He reached inside and grabbed a leather, webbed bag. He untied it and out tumbled green army men molded in all postures of warfare: holding a machine gun, crawling on the stomach, launching a grenade, and hollering a salute. He righted all of these little men quickly into a platoon on the floor.
      “Here’s where it all began for me,” he said with a gleam in his eye.
      Questions streaked through her mind, but she was too tired to acknowledge them.
      “It all comes down to strategy,” he said and moved several of the standing army men shoulder to shoulder. “Your German friend knew a lot about strategy, didn’t he?”
      He looked at her with his right eyebrow arched to see if she was following along. Claudine looked wide-eyed back at him, trying to suss out the gist of what he was saying, but she knew enough to understand that the tiny men were in attack formation.
      “Your German friend,” he said again, careful this time to enunciate. Then when she still didn’t understand, he relented. “Votre ami Allemand” he said in a tone that wasn’t meant to show parental exasperation.
      Claudine swallowed a hard knot in her throat. “C’etait…il est?,” she began, but her voice was squeezed to a hissing sound. He stood up and her gaze followed him confusedly across the room where he turned to face her at the window. She thought of Madame Suleyman in that instant, kneeling in the middle of Place Saint Marc with that look of defiance that sent the crowd into a frenzy. Claudine was not born with that stripe of bravery. When she looked at the Colonel and watched his mouth move the words, she felt the atmosphere of the room collapse on her. Strange words hung loosely in the air between them. She didn’t understand all of the words, but one word in particular hung there, deadly, accusing.
      She could feel him watching her closely, waiting it seemed, but she couldn’t look back at him, at any part of him. Other words were strung along between them. The ones she understood were “father” and “money.” So, he had paid her father for her and for Heinrich. The thought so stupefied her that she thought halfway about running up to him and slapping him across the face. But the intensity of his feral gaze told her that it would be pointless and ill advised.
      The Colonel walked to where she sat on the tiny chair and unfolded her hands from across her chest. He held them a part in a way that suggested that she was to lift herself up, which she did, shakily.
      “We aren’t so different you and I,” he said and dropped her arms gently to her sides. With both hands he smoothed her creased sleeves in a gesture that would have calmed her with Heinrich but that instead reminded her of how small she felt in that room with the Colonel. “You’ll see how quickly we get along here.” Then he put his hand in the small of her back and steered her out of the room.
      “I expect you’ll spend quite a lot of time up here when the children come,” he said as they left the room. Claudine shuddered at the word “children” and everything it implied. All of these things and the house converged on her at that moment and she felt deeply that all of this had been a grave mistake. A sick feeling spread over her and she moved to sit down on one of the white-painted rush-bottomed children’s chairs again.
       “You’re tired,” the Colonel said kindly, but firmly, like a diagnosis. Claudine nodded. “Oui, yes, I am fatigued.” Those were the first words she uttered in English and they felt strange, prickly on her tongue.
      The Colonel directed her by the elbow downstairs to the largest bedroom and let her sit down on the edge of the bed with the embroidered duvet cover for a moment.
      “It will pass,” he said and that kindness again ebbed into his voice. “Why don’t you rest for awhile and then Sister will make us something to eat.“
      The relief she felt leading into the bedroom, knowing that she would be left alone eventually, fled at the mention of food. She wasn’t particularly good at it, though her elderly father had never complained.
      The Colonel stood in front of her as though inspecting every twitch in her face and told her Anna, whom he called Sister, would be here to help her in the house.
      “Just until we get settled in and you get used to the place,” he said and brushed his already slicked back hair with his right hand.
      The wind picked up outside and she heard the house creak loudly. It chilled her, causing her flesh to tingle. She rubbed her arms and then slipped her hands in prayer formation between her knees. The Colonel loosened his tie. She could hear the rough material slide through the knot and didn’t have to look up to know that he was unbuttoning his shirt. She felt her stomach turn watery as though whatever was inside it was about to flood out of her. Her legs shuddered and her knees bounced off of her hands that were now kneading against themselves and knuckled white. The sound of the belt whipping through the loops in his pants made her cringe and she turned her face away. When he touched her hair he pulled her face closer. She could smell him. It was a thick, heady scent, the smell of wet bark. He tilted her chin up and showed himself to her. Her eyes widened with fright. It looked like a baby’s arm, full and hard with a purple fist at the tip. He took himself in his hands and began to shuttle his hand back and forth rapidly. Claudine turned her head away and felt alarm flash through her body. He took her by the chin and forced her to watch him. Her cheeks were slick with tears. After a long, hard shudder, he finished and Claudine closed her eyes. She was so distraught that she hadn’t noticed the cloudy liquid splattered on the front of her good suit. After a moment, he handed her a neatly folded handkerchief for her to wipe her suit jacket, which she did absently, her lips quivering like tugged strings. Tears streamed down her face and she tried to swallow them away. Without looking, she knew that he was fixing up his pants and he stepped away from her.
      “Sister will be over shortly to show you the ins and outs of the kitchen. You’d best rest up before she comes,” he said and tapped his cane on the floor.
      In a deep recess in her mind, she was thankful he had not yet pressed her about other thing because he would know that it would not have been her first time. That she had been spared for the moment.
      Claudine removed her suit, carefully hanging it in the huge armoire, and laid down on the bed with her stockinged feet crossed at the ankles to try to stem the shaking of her body. The locket was heavy at her throat and she thought about opening it, but when a fresh round of sobs cracked through the resolve she had failed to cultivate, she knew she couldn’t look at that gentle face in the picture.
      After what seemed a minor eternity, the house echoed the old oak door opening on the first floor and the Colonel’s “Hello, Sister,” punctuated his uneven stride in the hallway. So this woman had a key, Claudine thought. She went quickly to the sideboard where there was a pitcher and a glass for water. She wasn’t surprised when the water was chilled. She took small draughts directly from the pitcher then moistened the tissue to dab at the collar of the suit jacket hanging in the armoire.
      Claudine was in her slip when the Colonel opened the door to the bedroom. She instinctively crossed her arms over her body when she felt the air from the hallway burst through the door. The Colonel looked her up and down.
      “Pick something comfortable,” he said not unkindly. “Sister’s waiting for you downstairs.”

Shannon McMahon grew up in a small farming community in Nebraska. She received a B.A. in French and an M.A. in Creative Writing at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska where She taught in the English department for eight years as an adjunct. In 2011 she received a PhD in American Literature from the University of Nebraska Lincoln. Shannon is currently a full-time faculty member of the English Department of the College of Saint Mary in Omaha, Nebraska.

COMMENT        HOME       BLOG

New Fiction

by Radha Bharadwaj

Barrie Walsh

Emil DeAndreis

by Shannon McMahon

by Brett Burba

by David Atkinson

by Maui Holcomb

by Frances O’Brien

by Shae Krispinsky

by Steven Miller



By accessing this site, you accept these Terms and Conditions.
Copyright © 2010-2012 ™ — All rights reserved