1939. The girl wore her hair pulled away from her forehead, so tightly that the old man thought it must have hurt. The braid was sometimes coiled at the back, and some days hung like a rope. But the still unmarked brow was always bared with the severity of the unsmiling lips and the steady eyes that, watchful though they were, never met another’s—not even the hotelier’s when he summoned her with a sharp “Estel!”
Today when she came down from doing his room—the only one occupied in the bar-hotel—the old man saw that it was the rope. Passing his table she said, without looking, “Madame is sleeping.” Madame meant his mother; old as he was, he had not outlived her. In fact, there were men of his age hefting rifles, if not in uniform, to defend the Republic. On the retreat, out the car window he’d seen many with grayer hair than his take the miles afoot, laden with blanket-wrapped bundles. But he had been old for years, the sort of man whom others patted on the shoulder in conversation, or freely brushed a bit of ash from his rumpled jacket.
“She had two spoons of soup,” Estel added, turning back for a moment. She spoke French to him as all the hotel family did, although Jordi, the one-armed bartender, sometimes tried his Spanish, from politeness.
There had been no choice for the old man but to bring his mother on the journey out of Spain. No more than bones and breath, she was no burden on his lap in the packed automobile, then on the train. Now that his brother had gone on to the consulate in Paris, in the hope of funds, she was left to his sole care—though really there was little to do. She had slept nearly all the time. What needs she had, Estel saw to.
The rain had been softer today, and just as Estel spoke there was a wash of light from the window. The old man stood up from his soup and took a step, not toward the stairs and the bedchamber with its smells, but toward the door. He had not been outside since his arrival.
He was surprised to find himself tottering as he made his way. But that was not what stopped him. It was the hotelier, presiding at the caisse.
“Monsieur!” he called out. “Is there anything you need?”
“I thought I would walk a little,” the old man replied.
“You wouldn’t leave us to tell your brother,” the hotelier said, “if you caught a cold in this damned weather?” His smile was of the sort with which he had greeted them, when he learned that in his absence the refugees had been given a room by the woman who sometimes manned the caisse—presumably the hotelier’s wife. “You’re from abroad?” he had said. ” No doubt you came on this beautiful day for the view of our sea.” Then he had gestured to the window, glazed with cold rain, that gave onto the empty street, the shed of a rail station, and the scrubby hills behind it.
“And, bad luck,” he continued now, “we’re just about to close for the afternoon, and there will be no one about to let you back inside. Désolé. Jordi, the door,” he said, nodding to the bartender.
At his words, Estel let out a sound. Jordi looked at the hotelier, then crossed the room and set the lock.
Now Estel spoke, in the language, neither quite Spanish nor French, that the family used among themselves, of which the old man knew little. But a rebuke it clearly was. Jordi said nothing, but the hotelier replied for him, in words shorter and harder.
The old man stood still a moment, but just then the rain started up again, and he turned away. As he climbed the stairs he heard one more exchange before the girl walked out the door behind the bar. Her voice was not shrill, was more deliberate than not, but the tone could not be mistaken. It reminded him of how, in his last year teaching school, Anita would try to quiet her babbling classmates, scolding them for their treatment of their master, as she called him—what she believed him to be, in her determination that the life before her should make the sense she sought. So, on the recent journey, the other travelers resisted when he sought to relinquish his seat or accepted with shame when he offered his cigarettes. For them, it wasn’t just his age, but that he had a kind of name, a position. It was a burden that he could not doff, heavier than his mother’s wasted form. The local comrades who came to pay him court yesterday afternoon had been unwavering in their deference even as they described the beach camps at Port des Anges where those who walked instead of rode had found their meager shelter.
Back in his room, he had no letters left to write. He sat on his clean-sheeted bed and watched the night fall, listening to his mother’s snore. From habit, he held on his lap one of the pieces of paper that Estel had brought, but got no further than the word “I.”
The next morning, the promise of the dwindling rain had been kept. Outside the old man’s window the February sun lit up the houses with their tile roofs and blank faces, shutters still closed. They might have been Spanish. Seated at the table downstairs, he saw Estel come in with the morning mail. Her cheeks were flushed with cold, but today she did not have to stand in the doorway flinging the wet from her with disgust. When Jordi brought the breakfast—bread and coffee delivered in a single trip, deposited on the table without a spill—he bid the old man good morning, then lingered for a moment.
“Perhaps,” Jordi said, “Señor would like to see the town.”
The old man glanced at the caisse. Not the hotelier but the woman was sitting on the high stool.
“Monsieur is away this morning,” Jordi said. Before the old man could look over to the stairs, Jordi added, “Estel can see to Maman. We’ll leave in a moment.”
Without waiting for an answer, Jordi left to make, with practiced motions, the coffee for another customer. When Estel returned from the back room without her coat, Jordi announced the plan to her. She shrugged, sat at a table, and opened a book. The old man wondered what it was. She reminded him of a painting he had seen in Paris years before.
Ordinarily Jordi offered a second cup. But this morning, as soon as the old man had drained his first, Jordi appeared and said, “We can go now if it’s convenient.” He nodded to the woman at the caisse, who nodded back. It seemed to be an agreement, perhaps a conspiracy, although with kind intent. The old man could have gone by himself, and was besides a little worried; but he did not hesitate, in his desire to feel under his feet the cobbles he looked out on every day.
Outside the door they paused a moment, taking the sun. Then Jordi said, “What would you like to see?”
The old man had not known it until then. “The sea,” he said.
So they proceeded down the cobbles. The old man noted the hitch in Jordi’s walk, what he had earlier thought to be an occasional stumble. There was a fine seam down one side of his face as well. He was of the right age—the wrong age—to have been in the last war.
Jordi was first to break the silence.
“I am sorry about Monsieur,” he said. “He has his ideas. I don’t know if he feared that you would run away, and that your brother would not return to pay the rest of the bill, or that you’d—do some harm.” He paused, and the old man thought of how the hotelier had eyed his table when the comrades visited, as if recording each of their faces for the police. The guards at the border had been gruff, and the comrades had reported that in this very town the old fort had become a prison for those judged too dangerous for the camps. It was no longer the France the old man’s father had taught him of, the France of Hugo and his dream of universal justice, universal peace.
“Forgive us, Señor,” Jordi said, shaking his head.
“I could not have been better treated,” the old man said, and it seemed true. However mean the hotelier, perhaps a villain, the wife seemed pleasant enough, the unsightly bartender was thoughtful, and Estel, if proud as a duchess, had as much of noblesse oblige. She showed all possible patience with the old lady. Estel asked each day if he had letters for the post. The paper she had brought, after she caught him scribbling lines on the back of a page salvaged and uncrumpled from the basket, smelled of her scent. Sometimes they exchanged a word or two. On days when she served him his soup, she took no notice of his increasingly grimy shirt, and not once had she mentioned the accolade to his fame that his brother had offered in halting French on their arrival.
As the buildings grew more tightly packed, people appeared on the street, men making deliveries in carts, women shrouded in black hurrying along.
“Monsieur has been with us less than a year,” Jordi said. He was rubbing his thumb across his fingers as if to warm them. “My sister was a widow for a long time.”
The old man nodded, recognizing that this was offered in further apology. Estel had already informed the old man that the hotelier was not her father.
“Your niece,” the old man said, “is wise beyond her years.”
They were rounding a curve, and the old man thought that he could smell the sea.
“She always, from a child, insisted on being clean,” Jordi said as if cleanliness were wisdom. “She was so small that you could carry her in one hand.” He held out his cupped palm. He sometimes used what was left of the other arm, in its pinned sleeve, to help him lift a pot or shoulder a door open.
“She has finished school?” the old man asked—the inveterate teacher, he supposed, though it had been decades since that nightmare time. He had noticed that Estel did not wait for the bus with the others he saw flirting and tussling outside the station each morning. She hardly left the bar at all, except to bring mail to the box across the road or to accompany her mother on the market day. Twice he had seen her chatting with a girl of her own age—briefly, in the doorway of the hotel, neither stepping out nor inviting the friend inside.
“She isn’t done,” Jordi replied, stuffing his hand into his pocket. “Monsieur has stopped it.”
The old man’s breath caught in his throat, making him cough and then take in more of the cold air than he wanted.
“Her teachers thought her the best. This way,” Jordi said, taking a turn off the cobbles.
The old man could well imagine her uniqueness among a pack of girls—possibly rough boys as well here in France, although what he was thinking of was how, those years ago, Anita’s gravity had made her stand out among her silly classmates even when she was silent. At home, too, in the house where he had boarded, Anita had carried herself with a singular purpose that put her parents in awe.
“You know how it is with the young,” Jordi said. “She doesn’t understand that the more she defies him, the worse she makes it for herself.”
From the unpaved road, an alley between backs of houses, they turned to a dirt path that led them uphill through a grove of twisted olive trees. Jordi’s hitching walk seemed unsteadier, so that when he said softly, “I have hope,” he might have been referring to his ability to make the climb. The old man himself felt suddenly exhausted, and he had lost the whiff of the sea. He began to worry that they were lost, two of the wounded left behind by their fellows in battle.
At last Jordi stopped and made a sweeping gesture with his arm.
Far below, the water splashed a rocky shore. There was a glimpse of the harbor, the boats drawn up on the sand, others bobbing, sails furled, tied to a paved spit. This was the sea that Jordi had brought him to, too far away for sound or scent—no different, though not quite so gray, its distances less blotted out with fog, from what he had seen from the car window, from the roadside when that car stopped, exhausted, and another was found—perhaps the time when the luggage was lost.
Too far away. As a boy, taken to the beach on summer days, he would protest when held back from the water until someone was free to accompany him to its edge, so eager was he to feel its tireless urging—the pull of something larger to which he somehow might belong, something beyond the rules of politeness, aunts’ scaly kisses, stiff collars (worn even as a child, even by the sea, under the canopy the servants had planted). He had often spoken of it to Anita. They walked home together, and sometimes after dinner she would knock on his door. Knowing the sea only as the blue part of the map, she loved to hear these memories.
As Jordi led them back down the hill, he was saying that he knew the girl could do better than to spend her life with mop and broom, or packing sardines. In Port des Anges there were women who wore nice clothes, he said, and worked in shops, or handled money in the banks. Half-listening, the old man wondered where he would go next—most likely back to Paris, unseen for all these years. His nieces had been sent to friends in Moscow, but for himself he could not imagine such a voyage.
“I have hope,” Jordi said again when, turning a corner, the old man smelled the sea. The cold was scarifying his lungs, his legs were tired, and he was eager for home. Still, he stopped, looked down the sloping cobbles that could only have one end, and said, “I wonder—”
Jordi stopped, too, and looked back at him.
“The harbor is that way?” the old man asked, pointing. Jordi nodded, but said nothing. “Is it very far?” the old man asked.
Jordi was silent, as if he needed to think about it. The old man waved a hand, to erase the suggestion he had made. Nevertheless, though still without a word, Jordi turned about and took up his lopsided walk, this time down the road that must lead to the harbor. Beside him, the old man took in deep breaths, not for the air but for the sense of the sea.
They had not gone far when Jordi stopped again. A bell had pealed, presumably from the church the old man had seen from the hill.
Jordi apologized and said he had forgotten something. His sister would need his help, he said. He turned back toward the station and began to move at quicker pace. The old man followed, his heart beating against his chest. As they neared the hotel, the rumble of a train at the station grew louder, and the old man could hear Jordi’s breaths as well as his own. Inside the bar, the hotelier stood with his coat still on. No words were exchanged as the old man climbed the stairs. But once his door was shut, the clamor, though indistinct, was loud enough to hear.
He was sorry to have made the poor man suffer for his own whim. After all, whatever it was in one’s blood that responded to the pulse of the waves, the old man had experienced it in his time. It was Anita, and not he, whose longing had gone unfulfilled. In what he always thought of as their forty days in Paris, though it had been closer to six months, they had had no chance for the trip to the Normandy coast that he had promised her. Returning on the train, once they drew nearer to Spain and the sea came into view, Anita kept her gaze on the window. At last—perhaps when they were passing by this very town—she said what she must have been thinking for miles: could they stop? She wanted to be nearer to it—to stroke the heaving beast, to feel it rise and fall. But there was no time, or so it had seemed to him in his fear. And wasn’t it true that he had scarcely delivered her back to her parents’ arms before she took to her bed once and for all?
The clamor in the bar had died down long before the old man went down for his quick lunch. When he returned, Estel was in the room, finishing up. He sat on his bed and watched as she tucked in his mother’s sheet. She lay on her side, her breathing slow. When the girl was done, she gave the old lady’s shoulder a couple of strokes.
“Thank you,” the old man said.
Estel got her cleaning tools together, and placed them by the door. Then, instead of leaving, she leaned against the wall and put a hand on the top of the dresser where his writing things lay.
“Do you have enough paper?” she asked.
“Yes, thank you,” he said. Since she seemed to be taking the chance to rest, he asked her what book she had been reading.
“Maupassant,” she said. She surprised him by looking down at him as she added, “The one about the fat woman.”
He nodded in his turn, as if two countrymen acknowledged each other in a strange land.
She straightened the papers atop the dresser, then said, “It’s for school.”
“I’ve heard,” the old man said, “that you do—you have done—very well in school.” Flushing at his awkwardness, he quickly added, “Your uncle is very proud of you.”
“Yes,” she said, “he thinks I should work in a shop in Port des Anges. That’s the best place to him. I don’t know why he doesn’t go there himself,” she said. She made a movement as if to leave, then leaned back against the wall.
“Perhaps,” the old man said, “he is attached to what he has here.”
Estel shook her head. “”He thinks this is the only job for him,” she said. “He’d rather stay here to be whipped and insulted than go out on his own. My mother said that, after the war, it was a year before he’d leave his room.” She squared the corners of the small pile of papers again, then asked if he had anything for the post.
“No, thank you,” he said.
That evening, it was the woman who served him. Jordi, behind the bar, did not look up at him. Estel was not to be seen. The old man recognized the girl’s friend when she came to the door. Seeing her, the hotelier called Jordi’s name. The bartender put down the cloth that he was holding, rested his hand upon it for a moment, then walked over to the door and said a word. The visitor looked over his shoulder, but Jordi did not move, barring the doorway until she left. So they were all prisoners together, as much as the men in the fort.
When the old man came down the stairs the next morning, Estel was heading to the front door, the hotelier calling after her. She turned back and showed him what seemed an envelope in her hand. She gestured with it toward the ceiling, said something that included the word “Señor”—and only then noticed the old man looking down at her. Then she rushed out to mail a letter that he had not written.
Again that afternoon he found her lingering in the room when he returned from his lunch. Madame had taken some water, she said. The old lady, facing the wall, made a soft murmur, dreaming or half-awake. He sat heavily, tired out from the stairs. Estel crossed the room to look out the window at the empty station. The braid was tightly balled today above the band of her apron.
He could sense her shame, not just for having been caught in a lie, but for the lie itself. To ease things, he asked how she had liked the story.
She turned back to the room and said it wasn’t bad.
“It’s good to read,” he said. “It makes another world.”
She looked away from his words—from their emptiness, he was certain. She was truer than he, who wrote to his nieces as if he would see them again.
“I have one friend, Cécile,” she said, looking down at the floor. “Since yesterday, I cannot see her any more. She told me the lessons from school so that I could keep up. I have not been allowed to go because one day I did not come home in the bus. I stayed sometimes to help the slower ones, and it left without me. Monsieur saw me come home in a man’s car. It was the father of another girl, who brought me so I wouldn’t have to walk. The lycée is in Port des Anges, and it rained. The wind here can knock you into the sea. After that, Monsieur says no school. Since Jordi took you for a walk, no Cécile either. Monsieur sees enemies everywhere. I am the worst. That’s how it is, this life.”
She looked straight at him, as she had done that morning. He had no words to speak as true as hers. The girl took a long breath, then slowly gathered up her things. At the door she looked back and said, “On Friday, they go to the notary in Port des Anges for their marriage. Then he will own us all.”
Each of the next two days, the old man saw Estel step out to post another envelope. The second time, the hotelier walked in as she opened the door. When he called her name, she made a gesture toward the old man. He glanced in turn at the hotelier and nodded as if in greeting. The hotelier offered no answering sign except to purse his lips, perhaps at the bitter taste of the fact that there was no law to keep his guest from sending a letter.
The taste must have lingered, for when the girl sat down again with her book, the hotelier demanded to see it. The bar was empty of customers, so he made no effort to feign a genial tone. When the girl did not answer, the hotelier looked over to Jordi. Before he could say a word, however, the old man himself spoke up.
“Might I see it?” he asked Estel.
After a moment’s pause, she walked over to him and put the book down on his table.
He opened it as if to read. A glance told that it was the sort of book he had used in teaching French to Spanish girls, except that it was illustrated with photographs, as if the tales were newspaper reports. In his day, the pictures had been drawings, leaving more room for dream.
“I’ll take it, if I may,” he said to Estel.
“Certainly,” she said. “I’ve finished it,” she said, understanding that the words of both were meant really for the patron. The old man brought it back upstairs with him.
Anita had been as skilled in keeping her own counsel, though she had to do it for the two of them, so caught up was he in his own dreams. After a while, in their private conversations in his room, she had begun to reveal things that no one could have guessed: her loneliness, her sense of difference, her only happiness—though her eyes grew shiny as she spoke of it—in his good fortune. For in this last of his years of nomad teaching, moving from town to dusty town, his first collection had appeared, followed by his name in journals, a prize, new correspondents, the offer of a job in Paris. Then one night the prospect of his departure made her tears fall, and she took his hand and kissed it. After that the private hours changed even more, as if he too had not been meant to be lonely. He had no idea what would happen next. But her parents were so simple that once they found out, they were happy to have a wedding in the church, hasty though the preparations were. All of them had been alike simple, failing to anticipate the turned backs of the neighbors as the party walked back from the church, having brought into the fold the outlander, the seducer of the young. More than once on that trek, stones fell like hail about their feet.
These had only been the first omen of the fiasco. In Paris, the job translating was not what he had expected. The books he worked on were all of one sort, as were the activities of the people in them, requiring only an array of synonyms for clefts and billows, fountains and spears. The poets that he met proved to be charlatans of all the nations, and this only when they kept their rendezvous. Anita stayed at home; he could not take her with him, even on occasions where the mistresses were present, meeting the others drink for drink. Their Spanish concierge showed her the shop where she found her favorite sweet and the church where she could make her confession in her own tongue. It was the concierge who insisted that he call the doctor for the girl’s fevers. They left for home as if still pursued by stones, never having made it to the seaside. Their first night in Paris, coming home from a walk along the Seine, she had told the story of a girl she knew who thought that the city was on the sea. When he asked, she blushed and asserted that the girl was not herself. But he had lied, too, pretending that he was not, for all his years, as much a child as she.
Although he knew better than to doubt Estel’s words, as Friday approached the old man saw no signs of a wedding in the offing. No friend or customer offered congratulations, no gifts arrived; there was no sewing or making of cakes. Even in the short time before his and Anita’s departure for Paris, an aunt had come with pastries, another with a baptismal gown. At the bar-hotel, the only allusion to the event was a sort of joke the hotelier made when the old man came down one morning. He was to be left in Jordi’s hands on Friday, the hotelier said, and it was to be hoped that Jordi looked to himself on his Thursday afternoon off, apparently always spent in Port des Anges.
“It’s not so much what he does with the ladies there,” the hotelier said, while Jordi at the bar kept his back to the room. “It’s what he has to drink to give himself the courage to do it. Those young men!” he exclaimed with an explosive laugh, as if he and Jordi weren’t of one age—as if the bartender’s very body were not testimony to his courage. Still Jordi, though his hand was idle, kept his face to the shelf of bottles, hiding his shame.
For his part, the old man had never taken so much as a slap, or the thrust of a rifle’s butt hurrying him along his path, though in the last years he had come to sit as an equal among men—and some women, too—whose scars showed the punishments they had not been spared. He shared their wine in darkened rooms where the windows rattled at explosions not far enough away. It was only thanks to his brother, braver than he, that he had found himself in such circles. He had done what he could, written screeds instead of poems, had even had an office once, before the months of living from a suitcase as the government moved from town to town.
It was the day the hotelier mocked Jordi, the day the old man had spared the girl her schoolbook, that the letter arrived from Paris. Perhaps that accounted for the hotelier’s joking mood: handing over the letter, he expressed the smiling hope that the brother’s news was good. The old man had been steeling himself for the return to Paris; but the news was worse than that. There had been an offer from England, a post at a university. Not really to teach—he would be spared that calamity—but to be a figure, a billowing fountain, spouting wisdom. In Paris he might have been invisible, an old man without attachments, except perhaps to some graveyard where his mother would lie; an old man, sitting alone in the shadowy corner of a café. Better that than a crowned skeleton upon a throne.
He saw the skeleton before him until that Thursday evening, when a knock came to his door. It was Estel, asking to come inside. It was he, not she, who looked to the ends of the empty hallway before letting her in. She took her stand beside the dresser. There were cigarettes in a package there now; back from his afternoon off, Jordi had laid them beside the old man’s dinner.
“Tomorrow, in the morning,” Estel said, “we can go for a walk.”
The invitation was at the least surprising; the confidence that she had shared had seemed to make them less intimate rather than more. Next to the cigarettes atop the dresser was the book, which she had no more taken back than she would have stolen change had he had any to leave there. Even as she proffered the invitation, she looked, not at him, but at the shuttered window as if she saw through it to a day of freedom, her guardians away.
“You could see the church,” she added after a pause.
He was about to demur, to spare further trouble for the poor bartender. If there were a price to be incurred by her appetite for risk, Jordi would surely not escape. But Estel spoke up again before the old man could.
“You can see the hotel you should have stayed in,” she said—a sort of joke, as if he had been a tourist; as if the prospect of even an hour out of doors had lightened her heart.
“Well, we’ll see,” he said, unable to keep himself from smiling. But the girl remained stony, and she had more to say.
“I’ve written my explication de texte,” she said. “Cécile told me she would give it to our teacher if I got it to her. It is due on Monday. This is the only way. We’ll go for a walk ,and I will bring it to her.”
He took a breath, then said, “Your uncle can help you. I am sure of it. You can trust him. Your uncle—”
She made a face more frightening than he had yet seen.
“He will forbid it,” she said. “He is their slave. You may not believe it, but it’s the fact. If you tell him, he will tell them, and all will be over—all,” she said, turning to go.
“It’s hard,” he began, c’est dur. He wanted to say, purposeless though it would be, that it was hard to be young. But nothing could be harder than her face, young as it was.
“It has to be tomorrow,” she said before she walked out.
When he went down to breakfast, he did not know what would happen. In the night he had been awakened by a moan, which might have been his mother’s or his own. He lay listening for the sound of her breathing. Finally, foolishly, he had to step into the cold to lay a hand on her chest. It took long to determine if the fluttering he felt was that of his palsied hand or her beating heart.
In the bar, the hotelier and the woman—not wife, but wife-to-be—were gone. Two men, one in the rail company’s uniform, were drinking coffee. As Jordi brought the old man his breakfast, he thought he would wait until they left before explaining it all to the bartender. But the two men were still sitting, one with his journal, the other alone with his thoughts, when Estel came in from the back, dressed in her coat.
“Señor wants to go out,” she said to Jordi, behind the bar. “I’ll take him.”
Jordi looked alarmed, but just then the reading man looked up and raised a finger. Jordi began to make a coffee. Over his shoulder he said, “If Señor might wait until later—”
“It’s best if he goes now,” Estel said.
“If Señor can wait,” said Jordi, nodding towards the other customers, “I will be happy—”
By now Estel stood beside the old man’s table. He could smell the wool of her coat. He felt her eyes on him, saw her grip the satchel under her arm as Jordi served the coffee.
“We won’t be long,” the old man said. “My brother returns this weekend. It will be my farewell. Mademoiselle has been so good to me—so good. We’ll take good care of each other.”
Jordi stood still, looking from one of them to the other, his shoulders rising and falling with his breath. Then he nodded.
“We’ll go now,” Estel said, putting her hand on the back of the old man’s chair.
Outside it was chilly—he did not have his coat, only his jacket—but the sun warmed his flesh. It seemed to give him energy as well, to keep up with the girl’s pace.
Now and again she commented on the passing scene—the graveyard behind its walls, the war monument, the market square—a perfunctory tour guide whose satchel might have contained a list of official points of interest. But she did ask once if he was cold, though hardly listening to his answer, so wedded was she to her purpose.
But at the moment that he first smelled the sea again, she said, in a different tone, “We will meet her by the harbor. There is a bench there for you to sit.”
So she had thought of him after all; they were still friends She even knew, without his having spoken, that all he wished for was to sit beside the water, to watch the waves that had never died from the beginning of the world.
As they grew near, he recognized the rhythmic swell and hush he must have been taking in unawares. He saw the tops of the masts first, sails not yet furled; then, around the corner, the basin itself, gently ruffled. On the beach opposite, small knots of women moved through a paving of fish, choosing their purchases. The road by which the old man and Estel had come ended at a sort of platform, where the bench awaited them.
“Here,” Estel said, her gesture indicating that he was to sit. She remained standing, looking back up the road for Cécile. Occasionally a wave broke high enough to send a volley above the platform’s edge. To touch the water, one would have to kneel—and then find one’s way back to one’s feet, a young person’s sport. The old must satisfy themselves with looking.
Anita might have done it. She wanted to know the water’s taste, which he could not describe to her. She had stared transfixed at the window on the trip from Paris, as the train passed by salt flats, harbors, unpeopled beaches. At last she asked if they could stop. After the previous station, the train had entered a tunnel; when it emerged again, the sea had disappeared. Her face had fallen, but the truth was that he had been relieved. They must be getting closer to home now. He pictured her parents stepping from their door with open arms. But then a shining line rose above the treetops.
They could get off at the next stop, she said. She was strong enough. Why couldn’t they spend a night? Or if not that, the afternoon, an hour?
It might have been her fever speaking. She had not looked away from the window; she even raised her hand to the glass. For answer, he said only that they would be home soon, and he placed his hand on hers to console her. At that touch she turned to look at him as if he were a stranger—one who had been sent, no telling why, to thwart her. He had tried to speak but could not. In later years perhaps all his poems, whatever they seemed, had been about her. But this moment had never been set down on the page.
“She should have been here by now,” Estel said after a while, still at her post behind the bench. “I’ll have to go to her house. You can stay here,” she said, her eyes on the road. Then she walked back along it.
She passed one cross road, then another, looking up each one. At the third corner, she stopped. She took the satchel from her shoulder and held it before her, as if to open it to take out her explication de texte. But her reason became clearer in the next moment. With the bag held before her, it was easier to open the door of the low car that emerged from the side road, and to climb inside it. The driver—all the old man could make out was a mustache and beard—reached over her to secure the door, then raced the motor to build momentum for the incline. Then they were gone.
He kept his eyes on the road that, followed far enough, led to the station, where he would soon take up his journey again. She had never sat beside him on the bench. He had thought that she might have the memory—that perhaps, in a world where all times meet, he would have it, too.
Kenny Marotta is the author of A Piece of Earth (William Morrow) and A House on the Piazza (Guernica Editions). His stories have appeared in various quarterlies, including Virginia Quarterly Review, The Gettysburg Review, Western Humanities Review, and The Southern Review. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.