He did not see her. How could it be any difference, the setting September sun shone fiercely in his eyes, the same light must have deprived her of her sight as well. His hands gripped the balustrade even tighter. He stared down at the water of the Meuse. Every so often, his eyes would drift to the right, to the quay where she stood. Where she was once the frail lady on his arm whom he was proud to show the world, now he could only look at her and guess. Guess who she was, what she was thinking. And why she was standing by the banks of the Meuse today.
With all his might, he tried not to close his eyes for more than a minute. Then they would return, the images, the sounds. He would feel the blood rush to his head as it already burned with fever. He would hear “Courage! On les aura” echoing in his ears once more.
He was drawn to the water but he didn’t want to let go of the railing, not now.
It was hard for her to stand here. She didn’t have to try hard to smell death. A scent that she would forever associate with Verdun. He thought she didn’t see him. How he stood there with his gaze fixed on the horizon while his hands clutched the balustrade. The September sun lit up his face as the flames once did. Of course she saw him. Just as she saw him at night when he screamed awake from yet another nightmare. She saw him as he put off going to sleep in his chair by the window, she saw him as he hunched under the shower hoping the world would forget him. She saw him every time he thought she didn’t see him.
Her gaze slid to the city gate, bringing her back to the early years of their relationship. She could still feel her dress flowing around her ankles as she walked beside him through the streets of Paris. Was it not yesterday that they experienced the most exciting evenings together? That he took her to the premiere of a ballet, Le Sacre du printemps in the most modern theater she had ever seen? What a tumultuous evening that was. She tried to enjoy the ballet and the music, but the disturbances in the audience made her anxious. He had looked at her with the calm, confident expression she knew from him, and that had given her the confidence that she was safe. With the determination that was so characteristic of him, he took her to the same ballet a few days later. Now that there were no disturbances, she could enjoy the excitement which the stampeding Russian farmers conveyed to her. What a wonderful time it was!
Her musings gave her the courage to look again at the bridge where he gazed unrelentingly at the circles in the water. She knew that thoughts of his deceased comrades had faded memories of the past, that her work in the soup kitchens was but a fleeting dance compared to the horrors he faced at the command of General Petain. His pain cut through her soul, carved a strip out of her soul every day, forming letters, forming words. Every day it hurt more to see him like this, and every day, at the last letter, the thought dawned on her whether what was carved here would ever be seen. Whether he would ever look her deep enough into her eyes again that he could see her soul.
His breath stoked and for a brief moment he was back in time, as if no years had passed and it was still 1916. He heard them again, smelled the explosions again, Felt the way they did then. As if he was tied to a stake. There was no place he could go, there was no way out. And at that moment, a man came at him with a hammer to hack away at a centimeter beside his head. That’s how he remembered the war. Each blow next to his head took his breath away, from the intensity of the blow and from the notion that he was still breathing. He experienced again how he could not help but want to surrender, how he wished he had the strength to pray to his god.
He could only hope that he could remain at the edge of this hell of memories. It had already taken everything he had in him to get here. How was he supposed to keep himself standing? Only the railing of this bridge gave him support. Only the reflection of the sun in the water gave him a light.
This story was an entry for the contest ‘Heel Twente Schrijft’. The sentence “and every day, at the last letter, the thought dawned on her whether what was carved here would ever be seen.” had to be included. This story was originaly published in Dutch and had been translated.