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The International Writers Magazine:Memories

Greetings from Caen
Gordon Bourgon

France, July, 1944, near Caen
Hello my little snowflake. Do you remember when I first called you that? My little snowflake. That terrible winter when we were twelve, the snowdrifts over our heads, our breath freezing as soon as it left our mouths, and you laughing and singing because you loved winter, you loved the cold. I called you little snowflake because you spun around and danced like you were floating on air.

I must stop this. A good memory like that does not belong in this place where I am writing this letter to you. No, this is hell; the place of that memory is somewhere close to heaven.

We are waiting. My C Company, my 1st battalion. We just took back the town of Caen and are waiting for orders to cross the Orne River. On the other side the Germans are holding two smaller towns – Colombelles and Vaucelles. You would be proud of us, my little snowflake (oh, can I ever hope to stop bringing your nickname from my thoughts to the lead in my pencil?). The S. D. and G. fought like devils. We showed the world how ferocious and courageous us Canadians are. We lost a lot of good men, some you know, friends, acquaintances, familiar names in Cornwall. How is home, anyway? I miss it. I miss the smell of the St. Lawrence River, its movement.

I am beginning to think the purpose of this letter is to revisit certain memories, make certain I’ve remembered them exactly. I can assign them proper locations in my past, so that the truth will surface and I can tell you what I have to tell you. At the least, I owe you the truth. And for me, it is more than necessary to tell you; I cannot die over here without doing so.

Remember . . .
The three of us were on a picnic along the river, near Lancaster. We found a sunny patch of grass hidden by a stand of pines, facing a shallow of reeds where barbots and carp churned up the water. You, Mademoiselle Malroux, were like a splash of sunshine, you were so happy, at peace, despite the frightening thoughts of war on everyone’s mind at the time. Andre looked splendid, too. His summer tan looked like walnut against his starched white shirt. His hair kept falling over his eyes, and I remember him laughing at that while you scolded him to get it cut. I laughed, too; but my laughter was in effect my heart exploding with joy. I was spending an afternoon with the two people I loved most in this world. You scolded me. You said, "Don’t you laugh, Daniel St. Croix. I’m this close to taking the shears to your beautiful locks!" You always said you liked my red hair. Said it defined who I was.

You two, Andre and you, looked wonderful together. My heart went out, went in, turned to water, ignited and burned; but I felt wonderful. I watched you two hold hands, caress fingertips, nibble ear lobes, whisper sweet nothings, and I was surprised I did not feel miserable, the third wheel. Our friendships were strong. Our world was like a precious orchid inside a shatterproof glass dome.

Damn! I am writing this letter in the bottom of a soggy, sloppily built trench, and there was a waft of an all too familiar stink just come my way. Someone shit himself, or someone vomited, or someone died – these smells, eventually, because you smell them all the time, end up being the same, meaning the same thing. I propped myself on a hard, fairly dry mound of mud so I wouldn’t have to sit in a puddle. In trenches, one does not trust puddles: too many rats, dead, alive, it’s all the same.

It is night. There is a full moon, so I can see what I am writing. All of us, to a man, are so very battle weary and exhausted; we slept straight through the day. The sun was warm and dried the mud on our uniforms into a thick and heavy second coat. Shall I ever want to come back to France when this is all over? I keep asking myself. Yes, if only to bask in the sun without a stitch of clothes on.

We advanced on Caen on the 9th of July, yesterday, at 09:45 hours, after clearing, with relative ease, the village of Franqueville. Snipers fired at us from both sides, and land mines along the road were more than a nuisance. After we passed a prison, still under sniper fire, we approached the Caen-Bayeaux roads at the entrance to the city. It was a little past noon, I believe. Entering Caen we saw German machine guns all down the main street. Then, it began. After all was said and done (such a delicate phrase, don’t you think, in light of what actually took place?) over fifty men were killed and almost one hundred wounded.

We received word a Special Order of the Day was coming through. I’ll repeat it here, word for word; to show you how stoic the military can be when offering laudations. "To all officers, warrant officers and men . . . . Congratulations to you one and all. You have been in a very hard fight and have come through with flying colours."
Brings a tear to your eye, eh?
Despite the congratulation, I could not help but think about Wilfred Owen’s words: ‘What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?’ And often I hear whispered in my mind like a Magi’s mantra, those of T.S. Eliot’s: ‘We are the hollow men. We are the stuffed men.’ This is what war is doing to me. This is what the killing, the exhaustion, and then more killing is reducing me to: cattle, a hollowed carcass. With each bullet I fire, I lose a scrap of my humanity. Or is it, my dear, sweet Yvette, each bullet draws me closer to the essence of humanity?

It was Andre – do you remember? – who loved the poets. Eliot being his favourite. I can always hear his voice in my head, him reading out loud passages to us from Barret-Browning, Keats and Byron. I don’t know about you, but I was enraptured; more by his voice, I think, than the words he was reading. He had such a lovely voice. You remember.
I suppose, about now, in this letter of mine, you are wondering about its maudlin tone, especially when I talk about Andre. There is a reason for this. I will explain in two, simple stories. Simple they may be, but their very contents will change our lives – yours and mine – forever.

Okay. Now. The first story. This one brings us back to that picnic by the river I talked about earlier. A lovely time, wasn’t it? You were so pretty, and happy; you were positively glowing. My dear, sweet, Yvette. Andre had stolen a bottle of choke cherry wine from his uncle Moise, and all three of us were feeling the effects of it. I never did like the feeling of being drunk, so I was trying to stave off the effects of the wine by eating a lot of that bread you brought. I brought some cold tortierre, some fruit, and my grandmother’s butter tarts. A feast fit for kings, and queens. I felt, that day, special, royal. So, back on track to my story.

You left us for a few minutes, to do your business behind the trees. And that is when it happened. Andre, after looking over his shoulder to see if you were out of sight, I suppose, walked right up to me and kissed me on the mouth. Breaking the kiss, he ran his tongue over my lips. Dear Yvette, I will tell you now, I loved that kiss, was, in fact, dreaming about it. I was in love with Andre. There you have it my little snowflake: I am attracted to men, and I wanted more than anything to ravish Andre, every inch of him. But what complicates matters, and what sends the plot of this little story into chaos, was what Andre said to me, just before you returned from the trees. He said, "I, too, have been waiting for that kiss. I want to possess you, body and soul."

Well, you can imagine how I felt. You can understand the chaos raging through me, and the pain I feared this sudden turn of events would cause you. You loved Andre. You gave yourself to him completely. This underlying truth about him would have, I was certain, broken your heart into a million pieces, pushed your mind to the edge of sanity. I could not bear to see you hurt. Andre and I became lovers, and we vowed never to say a word of it to you, and never show even the remotest signs of our deception. I cannot apologize for what happened between Andre and I – God’s plans for us are never very clear, in my opinion. I apologize if this is hurting you now, as you read this letter.

And now, the second story. I do not know how to tell it, so I will just rush right in. I caught Andre kissing and touching a beautiful young soldier two days ago, and in a wild, excruciating rage, I killed the two of them by putting bullets in their heads. It was during the heat of battle. I simply turned in their direction, and fired off two rounds from my Bren. After the mortar smoke cleared, and the death-infused dust settled, all of us men who made it through battle gathered our wits and gave passing thoughts to our fallen comrades. I wept. But all I could think about was you, how crushed you will be to hear of Andre’s death. I wanted for you to believe Andre died a hero. But then truth burned in my skull like red hot needles; I had to tell you everything.

I will not ask you for forgiveness, my little snowflake. I am going to hell, if I’m not already there. I will not return from this war. One way or another, a bullet will put an end to my life. Please remember the day of our picnic. Let those moments the three of us shared as friends be the strongest, purest, brightest light of goodness in your memories.
Yours, forever and always,

Margot Daniels was gathering up her dead mother’s things she found in an old trunk, when she came across a bunch of old letters. They were addressed to Yvette Malroux, her mother before she married. The paper was tanned and brittle; ink faded. Sitting in front of a sunny window with a cup of tea, she read through them all, and trembled at one that was headed: Greetings, from Caen. It was written by a Daniel St. Croix. Margot’s mother had never mentioned him before, or the other man in the letter, Andre. After reading the letter’s contents, she understood why.

Margot sat back with the letter on her lap, and looked around her mother’s bedroom. The walls were stripped bare of its pictures and straw hats and small baskets of potpourri. The cross that was on the wall behind the head of the bed left a pale outline of its shape after it was removed. All these items, now packed away, were supposed to have defined her mother, Yvette Daniels, nee Malroux. But they fell short, Margot thought; the letters, from people dead and gone from her past, were surely part of what made her mother who she was. This Daniel St. Croix, for instance, and what he allegedly said he did in his letter, must have changed Yvette, in some or many ways made her look at life and death and the world in a new, if not tarnished, light.

The funeral was this morning. Old friends and acquaintances of Yvette’s were in attendance. Margot knew who they were. She was going to have to settle with just them, her own memories of them, to define her mother for her. Margot knew God’s plans were never very clear.

© Gordon Bourgon May 2008
Ontario, Canada

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